The Power and Weakness of the Invisible Hand

In his song ‘Turning 30’ Bo Burnham laments:

              When he was 27, my granddad fought in Vietnam
              When I was 27, I built a birdhouse with my mum
              Oh, fuck (oh), how am I thirty? (oh)

I have had this fear a lot: am I on track? I find it hard to believe Bo has this fear given a film he wrote and directed at 27, Eighth Grade, has a Wikipedia page solely dedicated to the accolades it received. Plus, any time spent with your mum is worthwhile. But apparently even he does.

So far it has felt like a lot of the time there has been an invisible hand guiding me on the track. At school, few lines of work outside the corporate world were even mentioned, nevermind encouraged. Social work was my number one recommended occupation from career testing in year 10. No one even explained to me what it was, so I disregarded it very quickly because others seemed to be placed in higher esteem, such as law, economics, and medicine.

The way people look at their lives is almost always through a narrative. This narrative becomes a form of identity, the story of how you became you, and of who you’re going to be. There are certain manuscripts that people follow, such as the standard “graduate high school in year 12, get a degree at uni in something that will make you employable, get a grad job, get married, stay in your career chosen in your 20s, have kids”. These can be helpful to provide an initial outline, but they stigmatise those who don’t follow them and put unrealistic expectations for both achievement and happiness for those who try and follow them exactly.

I remember the acute disappointment I had when I started my grad job and the focus of orientation was your ‘personal brand’. This made me feel like I had to turn into someone else in the office, and at one point I was even told to be more like one of the other grads. This environment was meant to be my life for the next forty years?

These scripts have evolved over time as culture has changed. The narrative for women is still evolving. My granny was the first woman from Broken Hill to go to university, so this was not part of the standard narrative over fifty years ago as it is now.

The invisible hand of the status quo narrative is like that of the free market economy, pervasive but imperfect. This hand, in the form of self-interest, guides markets to the perfect of equilibrium, where society is supposed to be optimally placed. Firms, for example, in the pursuit of profits, are led to do what is best for society. If we think of the humble pencil, markets bring together the wood, the graphite, the rubber, and the little piece of metal holding the rubber in place in a manner that one person could not dream to achieve by themselves. Markets, however, often fail in their lofty ambitions of doing what is best for society.

Let’s look at the market failure of negative externalities. Markets, by themselves, produce too much pollution. Pollution is a type of negative externality, an indirect cost to individuals outside of the market. The ultimate pollutant is greenhouse gases. They are embedded in market functions as an input into the production of countless goods and services, are costless to the polluter to produce (in Australia at least) and cause massive damage to the natural systems in which humans live.

The problem is so bad, and greenhouse gases so entrenched in economic activity, that much of the focus is now on adapting to climate change, rather than mitigating it. Adaptation would still come at a massive cost to society, which isn’t priced by the market. This shows that the single most important proposition in economic theory, that competitive markets do a good job of allocating resources, is deeply flawed.

In my 20s I let the invisible hand, the worry of being on track and fitting the narrative guide me too much; get a grad job straight away, save money for a house, be the perfect partner, talk about footy instead of my feelings. Like the market, these things have done a decent job, life is pretty good.

I had a moment though a few months before I turned 30 where I took stock of my life and realised that I was in a place I didn’t expect to be at this age. Single, living alone, and unsure of where to go in my career. I was failing the standard narrative and it was failing me. This made me realise the deficiencies of trying so hard to be on track, and that it’s possible to have more than pretty good if I create on my own track.

Choosing jobs that provide me with fulfilment and achievement rather than based on salary, progression, or safety. Wearing the clothes that I like (and figuring out what clothes I like) instead of fitting the dress code. Getting back into piano and looking for ways to share that with others.  Putting more love into my friendships rather than a singular focus on romantic love.

This is why I am excited for my 30s.

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