Marty Kaplan: Is luck dead?

The trouble with kids these days is that they think luck counts more than they should.  That’s the diagnosis of America’s young people offered by a New York Times opinion piece this past weekend.  Generation Y has moved back home and given up on gung-ho because in these recessionary times, they’re putting too little weight on the importance of effort and too much weight on the riskiness of risk.

This indictment of “” target=”_hplink”>Thinking, Fast and Slow, the one most startling to me is the power he attributes to luck.  This isn’t a philosophical or theoretical point that he’s making; it’s an empirical observation, based on data.

Stock traders, financial analysts, economic forecasters and CEOs may believe that their results are based on research, experience and skill.  On the contrary, says Kahneman, the overwhelming evidence – and he provides plenty of it – is that monkeys throwing darts would be just as good (that is, as bad) at doing their jobs.  Small businesses fail: that’s the rule.  To believe you’re going to be the exception requires not just confidence, it takes a resolute denial of reality.  (Intuition, by the way, is also wildly overrated.)  Every startup inevitably, and usually fatally, overestimates the brilliance of its own vision and underestimates the genius of its competitors.  Entrepreneurs maintain that success derives from sweat and indefatigability, but in fact it nearly always hinges on random, unpredictable events.

Look at the case histories of the wizards of the digital age, says Kahneman, and virtually all of them are testimony to luck.  Pundits and political scientists who get it right are shockingly rare, and when they do, the reason is luck.  The track record of clinicians and therapists depends more on fortune than is humanly bearable to acknowledge.  How an athlete performs on a given day always involves a roll of the dice.  All of history is driven by chance.  Choose any historic figure you like; the sperm and egg that produced them were brought together by blind odds, not by destiny, design or divinity.

This weekend also brought word of the death at age 87 of ” target=”_hplink”>Chance and Necessity, the book by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Jacques Monod published a few years later, that opened my eyes to the disturbing notion that chance, not a Book of Life written in the clouds, was the name of life’s game.

Back then, when I first entered college, an ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the

McCormick stopping spice sales to Iran

Spice giant McCormick has agreed to stop selling its spices to Iran, following the efforts of a Baltimore Jewish activist.

Jay Bernstein, an attorney and community activist, read in The New York Times article last December that despite sanctions against Iran, the U.S. Treasury was still allocating licenses to American companies to conduct business with the Islamic Republic. One of those companies, he learned, was the Baltimore-based McCormick & Co., founded in 1889 by a Jewish immigrant.

“It seemed that what we could do is draw attention to McCormick and get them to reconsider,” Bernstein said.

In January, Bernstein wrote to Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a McCormick board member, asking that he “exert” his influence on McCormick to “do the right thing and end all business dealings with and in Iran.”

Shortly after, he received word that McCormick would “cease such sales as long as Iran is subject to the comprehensive sanctions programs imposed by the U.S. government.”

Jim Lynn, McCormick’s director of corporate communications, told the Baltimore Jewish Times that McCormick distributes its spices to some 100 countries. But he said the company could not get assurances by certain parties that the products would not be sold by companies connected in some ways to companies that had been blacklisted, so McCormick decided not to sell in Iran.

“Is it going to bring down a regime? No,” Bernstein said. “But McCormick showed a great example of corporate responsibility. And if more companies did what they are doing, the regime in Iran would feel more pressure. It’s gratifying that they were responsive.”

The Price of Freedom

To facilitate pidyon shvuyim (redeeming captive Jews from secular prisons) we are commanded to go so far as to sell a community’s Torah scroll. Yet it is hard to rejoice that Bill Clinton pardoned four chassidim from the village of New Square, N.Y., along with an alleged tax evader who donated megabucks to Israel. In contrast to the complex moral and ethical questions that grated pro-and-con during discussions over the possible pardons of Michael Milken and Jonathan Jay Pollard, there is something unequivocally outrageous in Clinton’s decisions to pardon the four Squarer chassidim and the international oil merchant whose dealings prompted the Justice Department to allege, among other things, tax evasion and trading illegally with Iran.

I come from humble roots. My Dad sold toys and stationery goods as a wholesaler in New York City’s Lower East Side, working six days a week for his brother. My parents did not go to college. We were not well-connected. We were not connected. When I wanted to go to Columbia for college, I had to figure out how to get accepted on my own, and I had to figure out how to pay my way through the Ivy League. No one helped.

Later, when it came time for Yeshiva University (YU) to place me after I had studied for smicha (ordination), I had no well-connected relatives, no big donors, no name rabbis in my family. So YU’s rabbinical placement office tried to farm me off to a synagogue in Christchurch, New Zealand. I could have been the grand rabbi of Christchurch. When I refused, they tried to sell me on Cape Town, South Africa. And then one last option: Wichita, Kan. They would not give me a shot at anything near a significant Jewish community, choice ground reserved for the chosen and the connected. So I had to find a big-city congregation on my own. And to me, that is the American dream: making it on one’s own.

Clinton came in as the “man from a place called Hope,” the ’60s idealist who could feel the pain of the little guy. Clinton’s dad had left his mom, and his mom had left him to be reared by a grandmother or an aunt while she worked long hours. When his stepfather threatened to punch out his mom, Clinton stood up to the bully. From such beginnings, he made it to Yale and then became a Rhodes scholar. It was a great story, much true and admirable. But over eight years, he closed the book on his own story.

Soon, he was renting out the Lincoln Bedroom as if it were his personal Motel 6 for rich donors. He abused his position of power, and now he has bequeathed a legacy stained by granting pardons to four crooks whose village grand rabbi effectively has been deemed to have delivered 340 votes for each pardon.

Similarly, Clinton has pardoned an alleged tax-evader who chose two decades of European exile to the alternative of arguing his innocence in an American court of law — and whose ex-wife helped raise some million dollars to Democratic Party candidates and causes, then beseeched Clinton for a pardon. Those four Chassidim defiled everything that is remotely holy in Judaism as they cheated society out of approximately $40 million dollars, creating a bogus yeshiva built on lies. But the grand rabbi had delivered a bloc of more than 1,300 votes to Hillary. And, as Hillary has written, “It Takes a Village.”

So Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy to America was the Square Deal. Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was the New Deal. And, for all their posturing through the 1990s as populists for the little guy in the Roosevelt traditions, the Clintons’ legacy to America is the “New Square Deal.”

There should be a problem with the calculus that if I steal $10 million dollars and keep $9 million of the loot for myself but disperse the remaining $1 million to charitable causes, then I deserve to be guest of honor at an institution’s annual dinner dance. There seems something far more noble in the person who never gets honored but who awakes at 5:30 in the morning, lays tefillin, prays to G-d, goes to work, works hard and accounts for every penny, davens again, feeds a family honestly though humbly, comes home late at night, perhaps after finishing a second job because it takes two jobs to break even, then davens a third time and drops into bed from exhaustion after spending a few moments with the children to teach them values like love, honor, respect, honesty, loyalty, trust, devotion.

It really is horrible, just plain awful, when people who proudly boast that they do not read newspapers and who think that all non-Jews are reincarnated Chmielnitzki Cossacks and Russian pogromists, decide that it is OK to cheat and steal in the name of our Torah. The United States is a warm, kind, and generous country. There is no anti-Jewish head-tax here. And the only ghettoes in which Jews reside in America are those that Jews voluntarily create for themselves, while the only walls within which Jews are enclosed are those at the exclusive “gated communities” for which residents pay a premium.

This mess has become the first Great American Scandal of 2001, occupying the center of the nation’s news and gossip for two weeks. When one considers the extraordinary efforts expended by many American Jews to win mercy for Jonathan Pollard, as well as the efforts to gain forgiveness for Michael Milken after the setbacks in his personal life and all he has done for children and their teachers since paying his debt to society, it is humiliating and downright degrading that the outgoing President of the United States has saddled our community with this legacy of shame for the American history books.

We always speak of the “price of freedom.” Now we know that price in two forms of currency: cash and ballots.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Relations Committee and national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, practices complex civil litigation and First Amendment law at the Los Angeles offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.