Dismal Science

There's something that feels viscerally distasteful and fundamentally morally dubious about looking for a job or a significant other. Search and comparison are for crass, commonplace, material things: we might say that this brand of soap smells nice, but is expensive, or that this car gets poor mileage, but is cheap, and while we may err in our judgment of any particular product, the general procedure must be regarded as legitimate: there's nothing problematic about going out to shop for some soap or a car and purchasing the best that happens to be available on one's budget, even if there's no sense of destiny and perfection about the match. Rather, we want to be clean, and we want to go places, and we took action to make these things come to pass.

But some things, like the person you're going to spend the rest of your life with, or the work you'll spend it doing, don't seem like this. We want to believe in having a calling and a soulmate. Or some of us, too prideful in our rationality to put faith in such opaque concepts, prefer to replace them with no concepts: say that we happened to find work and find love—or (perhaps more likely) not—but don't dare call it the result of efforts that could or could not have been spent more or less wisely!

Only—in the absence of a literal Creator fashioning pairs of soulmates with a work they were meant to do, it's not really clear what the alternative is supposed to be. For evolved life in an unplanned universe determined by simple underlying physical laws, there's no particular reason for the types and quantities of labor needed to produce the goods and services people can demand, to equal the the types and quantities of labor that would be optimally fulfilling and life-affirming for workers to supply, nor for the characteristics someone would want in a significant other to match up perfectly with the characteristics the pool of existing satisfactory potential others would want in their others. Nor—crucially—is there any particular reason for people to automatically know where or how to find their ideal matches in work or love, even supposing that they happen to exist.

So it is here, in the gap between what we think we want and what we think we can get, that the phenomenon occurs. It goes by many names. Some call it the evil. Others call facets of it marketing, sales, recruitment, courtship. There are those who call it life (although that's a bit of tasteless obscurantism in the opinion of the present author). Whatever one calls it, it would be advisable to think at least twice before concluding that one is better off ignoring it, the whole impetuous fearful flurry of flowing down gradients: to wonder, to inquire, to guess, to experiment, to tell and to listen. Never to plead—or at least, never to be perceived as pleading. To build spectacles and print pamphlets, to judge pamphlets on both reasoning and paper quality. To offer, and reject, and reject, and reject; to seek, and be rejected, and rejected, and rejected.

In the end, if the dour philosopher-prophets spoke true that utopia is not an option, who among us can be said to have lived the most plausible facsimile of the chimerical "good life"? The one who always held true to their dreams—just the dreams, not the pursuing of them—no matter the opportunity cost, and who, paying that cost, to this day haunts the streets still dreaming, for lack of anything else to do or anyone else to do it with? Or those proud professionals who, if asked "Is this really what you want to be doing with your life?" would passionately answer "Yes!", and who, if asked as a followup, "Would you say the same if it paid sixty percent less?" would answer "No!" with the same passion? Or lovers cradling one another on the beach, murmuring the three words that are the highest expression of what they mean to each other: "Markets in everything."

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