Saturday, June 4, 2011

Choices versus Statistics

Which would you rather do, be a pregnant unwed teenager mother, or a member of the Navy's elite Judge Advocate General's Corps?  My friend chose the latter.  Chose - not predestined!

I took a well-deserved dump on those Freakonomics guys the other day.  They make a big deal about statistics, as if statistics preordained how your life would turn out.

They posit that the biggest indicator of your success or failure in life is what socioeconomic class you come from.  And statistically, this is true.  But it confuses causation with correlation, which is a sin they accuse others of.

When I was in Law School, I was in a tax law study group with a number of people.  One was a young woman from South Philadelphia, who worked in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, and was working on her Law Masters.

We talked about our backgrounds and she mentioned that she came from a very rough neighborhood in South Philly.  She told me than nearly every girl in her Senior class (and less than half made it that far - most dropped out) was pregnant by the time of graduation - some on their second child.

As she put it, she looked around and realized that this was not what she wanted from life.  So at age 18, she joined the Navy, worked her way up through the ranks, went to law school, and joined JAG.

She made a hard choice, but she bucked the statistics.

And statically, she is an anomaly.  But not an impossibility.  Yes, it was a hard choice for her to make.  Her friends all mocked her for studying hard, and there was a lot of peer pressure to quit school, to goof off, to take drugs, to have unprotected sex and get pregnant.

And yes, it took a lot of fortitude and self-determination for a young woman in those conditions to say, "Gee, what everyone else wants out of life isn't all that great.  Everyone thinks I am wrong in my choices, but I think I am right, and I am going to stick to my guns."

Yes, in the situation I grew up in, getting ahead was easier.  There were kids I knew who could wrangle an appointment to West Point, if their parents knew a Congressman.  But on the other hand, even in suburban America, if you studied hard and tried to get ahead, you would be mocked and ostracized by the "cool kids", who, thanks to Facebook, you find out 30 years later really were losers.

And yes, I know kids from wealthy families, who had "everything going for them" in life - a new car at 16, college paid-for by Mom and Dad, the whole bit.  And yet, they did the opposite of what my friend from South Philadelphia did - they took drugs, dropped out, got a girl pregnant at 18, and basically pissed their life away.

Again, they were perhaps statistical anomalies, but their outcome was not predicated by statistics, but by choices.

Many folks in America want to make the statistics seem like the big deal - as if a kid from the ghetto is preordained to fail and a kid from the suburbs is predestined to succeed.  But I think this approach neglects the action of choice in the matter.

And by harping on statistics, we trivialize choice.  We denigrate the difficult efforts made by my JAG friend, while glossing over the poor choices made by rich kids who "go wrong".

The world will never be a fair place - but we should fight to make it fairer, no doubt about that.  But many folks, when confronted with unfairness, simply give up - a form of learned helplessness, perhaps.

You have choices, no matter if the system is stacked against you.  And for everyone in every socioeconomic class, there are "unfairness's" both great and small.  Life is full of adversity.  How you deal with it - in an optimistic manner - is what makes all the difference in the world.

It is all in your choices.