Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Why Idealism is Dangerous and Realism is not.

Idealists would destroy a village, to save a village.

One problem with being young, is that you are trained in school with all sorts of poor normative cues.   You are told a history of the United States that is idealized.   Heroic "founding fathers" saved us from British tyranny in the name of "freedom" and we owe them everything!

Of course, the reality is, they owned slaves and were more interested in economic issues.  It is about as exciting as the Star Wars prequels - wars about trade tariffs.  Yawn.

But many youngsters leave school with this idea that freedom is absolute, and that we live in a "free country" and anytime someone tells them "NO" that it is an outrage against the Constitution.

So they sacrifice what great freedoms they do have because nothing is "perfect enough" in their minds.

Let me give you an example using a real-world person.

Robert Kearns claimed he invented the intermittent windshield wiper - and for all we know, he may very well have.   But the Patent world is never as black and white as all that.  When you file for a Patent, your scope of protection may be limited by how you claimed it.  And someone may "design around" your Patent by finding a different way of accomplishing the same thing - the system actually encourages this as it motivates people to invent.

So, he went to Ford Motor Company and said, "I want to sell you windshield wipers" and they said, "Well, we'll pay you a royalty, we already have a factory that makes windshield wipers."

And the amount they offered to pay him was in the millions - back in the 1970's when that was more money than you could reasonably spend in one lifetime.

Now here is where idealism ruins everything.   According to the law, in theory, you can stop others from "making using or selling" your invention, if you want to.   You can just make them stop.

According to the law.

According to the law, drugs are illegal and if you murder someone you go to jail or are executed.

According to reality, I could, without too much difficulty, probably find drugs in our nearby town (which is notorious for them) in under an hour.   And according to reality, 1/3 of all murders go unsolved and unpunished.

There is reality, and then there is idealism.  And idealists - particularly the raging kind - end up in trouble when they refuse to accept reality for what it is, particularly when reality is pretty darn good.

Kearns could have taken the money, and then using this license agreement, leveraged other car makers to get them to pay as well.  He could have ended up with tens of millions of dollars.   As it was, well, legal fees ate up what little he won, and other companies fought him in court - and won.   You have to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, and no Patent is perfect in this world, and it pays to take a lucrative deal rather than risk it all at trial.

Kearns said he was fighting for "the little guy" - but of course "the little guy" never asked him to fight on his behalf.  And sadly, most companies today are gun-shy of solo inventors because of the antics of folks like Kearns - who are unreasonable and unrealisitic.

Yes, in theory, Kearns could have stopped everyone from making intermittent windshield wipers, and then set up a factory, made them himself, and then forced everyone to buy his, if they wanted this feature.   But realistically, running a factory is not a very profitable enterprise, and for someone with no experience running a factory, well, it could have been a disaster.

So why did he do this?  Why do people insist on these weird theoretical outcomes when they could have a lot of dough or some other desirable outcome instead?

Part of it is control.   People want to keep their hand in and control the process.  Part of it is being enamored of the process.  Maybe part of it is ego.  I guess he saw himself as the Steve Jobs of windshield wipers and this Patent would launch his corporation and he would come up with one innovation after another and make Billions.   It really isn't a very realistic view of the world, though.

And you run into this all the time, with people - usually depressed people.  They turn away from the reality of the world as it is - and it is a pretty nice world, too - because it isn't the "perfect world" they envision.   Until everything is just as they think it should be they will pout and protest.

This is, of course, a pretty childish and immature view of the world.   Our world is not perfect.  Human endeavors are prone to failure.  Why do you think we have insurance?  Because we know failure is the norm, not an exception.

A young law student read my Inheritance Scenarios posting and cried, "This is unrealistic!  What these people did was against the law!  This could never happen in real life!"

I don't know what scared me more, a young man with such little exposure to the real world, or a young would-be lawyer amazed that laws get broken.   Hey, if they didn't, what would lawyers do for a living?  Or the Police for that matter?

Reality is messy.  Reality is not optimal.  I always say, human beings operate at a level of efficiency of maybe 1-2% on a good day.  We are not efficient animals.

But the reality we have - here in the United States and much of the Western world - is pretty damn good, if you stop to think about it.

And that is why it irks me when I hear people whine about how "unfair" things are, and how "rotten" life is in the United States.   These folks don't have a computer or a television and see what goes on in other parts of the world?  Or do they just view wars and genocides as some sort of television show - it really isn't real to them?  I dunno.

No, idealistic or ideal outcomes are rarely, if ever, likely to occur.   But more often than not, things do have a way of working out - in a way which isn't so bad, if you are willing to understand the difference between what is achievable versus what is ideal.

Mr. Kearns wanted a "perfect" outcome.  "The law says I can exclude others from making, using, or selling my invention!" and he is right.  The law says a lot of things.   But one thing we learn in law school, is that no case is perfect, and compromise and settlement are often the best solution, as compared to "Heads I win, tails you lose!"

The reality he could have had - over ten million dollars - would have been pretty swell.   And most folks really don't "feel sorry" for someone who leaves that kind of money on the table.

They made a movie about him, starring Greg Kinnear, and it was pretty well done.   If you read between the lines, you can see what actually is going on.   All his talk of "fighting for the little guy" really came to nothing.  No "little guy" was saved, and his actions didn't end up creating any case precedent that has been cited or any procedural changes at large corporations - other than to slam the door in the face of small inventors.

In a way, he was like Don Quixote.   Quixote is really misunderstood by most modern readers.  Few have actually read the book (and there are dozens of translations, most of them inaccurate).  To many Americans, Quixote represents the idealistic man, fighting for a cause, even a lost cause, because of his moral values as to what is right and what is wrong.   Cervantes, of course, had different ideas.  He was parodying the romantic chivalrous novels of his era - and the central character Quixote, goes mad after reading so many of such books, and sets out on his futile quest.

And maybe we misread Quixote because there is something in the American spirit - the idea of that something is "right" and other ideas are "wrong" and that there is an idealized justice in the world we should all strive for.   And maybe that is a good thing.

But on a personal level, you can make yourself miserable by tilting at windmills, or by decrying the world as "unfair" - to the detriment of your personal financial health or mental health.