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WHY Preview "Luck"; Democrats Hold Primary; Isern: "Chinese Laundries"

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Show Summary

WHY Show Preview
In a preview of the upcoming episode of WHY, Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life, Jack Russell Weinstein dives into the intriguing interplay of luck, randomness, and chance with guest Dr. Mark Robert Rank. They explore how these forces shape our lives, often in unseen ways, challenging listeners to consider the extent to which luck influences our paths. Through this conversation, Weinstein seeks to uncover the philosophical and sociological dimensions of luck, questioning how awareness of its role might affect our understanding of free will, success, and societal structures.

Democrats - Adam Goldwyn
Adam Goldwyn of Fargo is the State Party Chair of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL. Goldwyn currently serves as the Democratic-NPL District 11 Chair, DNC Committeeman for North Dakota and is a professor at NDSU where he is a Professor of English & Director of Graduate Studies. Their Presidential preference primary is underway.

Tom Isern - "Chinese Laundries"
Tom Isern's "Plains Folk Essay" discusses the significance of Chinese laundries in Dakota Territory and the broader American West, initiated by the gold rush. Chinese entrepreneurs, facing discrimination and recognizing a lucrative market niche amidst a male-dominated society with a scarcity of women, entered the laundry business, countering the myth that this work required little skill or choice. Despite facing legal and social challenges, these laundries became a dependable part of many communities until their decline with the advent of automation after 1930, leaving behind a largely forgotten legacy except for a few notable individuals.

Electoral College
In recent years, the electoral college has come under a lot of scrutiny. Some have pushed to change the system or even do away with it. A couple states are already approaching the electoral college differently: For decades, Nebraska and Maine have split their electoral votes based on which candidate won the popular vote in each congressional district. In those states it's been touted as a fairer system. Harvest Public Media reports.

WHY Preview Interview Highlights

  1. The Role of Luck in Life: Dr. Weinstein and Dr. Rank delve into how luck, randomness, and chance profoundly shape our lives, challenging the common belief that individuals are solely responsible for their own destinies.
  2. Interdisciplinary Approach to Luck: The discussion highlights an interesting interdisciplinary approach, bridging philosophy and sociology to explore luck's impact, demonstrating how these perspectives can complement each other in understanding complex concepts.
  3. The Human Experience of Luck: The conversation underscores the nuanced meanings of luck, randomness, and chance, emphasizing luck's unique human dimension, which adds value and narrative to our experiences, beyond mere chance occurrences.
  4. Societal and Policy Implications: The interview touches on how acknowledging the role of luck can influence societal attitudes and public policy, advocating for policies that recognize the unequal distribution of luck and aim for equity and opportunity for all.

WHY Preview Transcript

Main Street

This is Main Street on Prairie Public, I'm Craig Blumenshine. Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein is my guest. He is the Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota, a job he landed perhaps because of many reasons including maybe a bit of randomness or luck.

Jack, as we preview your upcoming why philosophical discussions about everyday life show that will air this coming Sunday, March 10th on Prairie Public, I want to welcome you back to Main Street.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

It's great to hear your voice again, Craig. I feel like you and I haven't spoken in a while and I've missed it.

Main Street

It's wonderful always to visit with you, Jack. The title of your next episode is just interesting to me. How does luck determine our lives?

And it will again air this Sunday on Prairie Public. And your guest will be Dr. Mark Robert Rank. He is a Herbert S.

Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis and is the author of the soon-to-be-released The Random Factor, how chance and luck profoundly shape our lives and the world around us. Come on, Jack. We're all responsible for our own lives, aren't we?

Randomness, luck.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

Come on. A therapist once told me we are 100% responsible for our actions, 50% responsible for our emotions, and 0% responsible for our thoughts. And I think that that is a really interesting way of moving into it because how we react to luck is what we can control.

The luck itself, that's just the universe acting upon us in ways that we can't control.

Main Street

Why did you select Dr. Mark Robert Rank to be your guest on this upcoming episode?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

Well, I think it was luck, to be honest. Of course. I had a guest who canceled last minute and I get solicitations from PR people.

And this came across my desk and it looked really interesting. And I asked them if they could do it on short notice. I had enough time to read the book, which was good.

And I think it was a gift from the gods or, again, whoever, because it was a super interesting topic that allowed us to examine an aspect of life that we don't really pay that much attention to. I think we talk about luck all the time. I think we even give credit to luck all the time.

But I don't know that we spend a lot of time thinking about what luck means and thinking about why we are where we are. The author, Mark, says both in his book and at various times during the interview, There by the grace of God goes I. And that's, I think, one of the classic formulations of the way that we acknowledge the luck in our lives and why something terrible happened to someone else, but not me, but it was close.

It could have been that at any time. So we tend to have religious conversations or spiritual discussions about luck. But I don't know that we ever really meditate on the impact of luck in our lives in any sustained way.

Main Street

I have gotten a chance to listen to the show, and I wonder if some of us don't want to admit maybe that luck has influenced our lives, that, no, no, no, it's all due to my hard work. I've made the right choices, etc.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

I think that's right. I think that as Americans, most of us anyway, as individualists, we like to take credit for what happened to us. And, of course, we can because we are agents in the process.

We have to be good enough to take care of that opportunity. That's what a philosopher would call a necessary condition, right? If someone offers you a job, it's necessary that you are qualified for that job.

But it's not sufficient. It's not enough. You have to be at the right place at the right time.

You have to have the right kind of experience that they're looking for. You have to be in the neighborhood that they want you to be. And so I think as individualists, we like to take credit for the whole thing when we are just one ingredient in the recipe.

And what Mark wants us to do is take a look at the whole recipe and say, look, it's really only a third you. Two thirds are coincidence, luck, serendipity and often bad luck, right? Luck isn't always good, right?

If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all, as the blues singers like to say. So, yeah, I think the idea is on some larger level, having a sense of perspective of our place in the whole universe and how small we are and how much accident controls everything else.

Main Street

You're a philosopher, Jack. He is a sociologist. And you talk about the differences of approaching this concept of luck in your interview.

What did you hope to find out through this intersection?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

Well, I think that one of the things that philosophers really like to do is pull so hard on a thread that they tend to get stuck in a very, very niche discussion and a very, very specific terminological debate or metaphysical question or something like that. Sociologists, they move faster on the surface. And I don't mean that critically.

I just mean that they have a goal that allows them to get some sort of empirical data, some sort of answers about behavior. But I do think that it's some level of just practical results, for lack of a better term. I thought that the intersection between philosophy and sociology would be a really nice pairing because it allows us to ask some deep questions but still move forward in the conversation.

Main Street

You mentioned different words relative to this topic in the interview, or at least they come up. You talk about luck. You talked about randomness.

You talk about chance. Do those words mean the same thing? Are they synonyms?

Or is there some difference there we need to talk about?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

I think they can be synonyms on a superficial level. We use them every day as if they are. But when you look at them a little deeper, they do have different levels of meaning in our life.

Randomness simply means the system has no rules. It's arbitrary. It just happens.

And there's no real reason for it. I don't know that you can identify the causation. Chance is more about odds and probability.

When you roll a dice, there's a chance that you will get a six or a four. Or if you're playing blackjack, you know the odds of chance. Luck is something that we put meaning on, something that we apply a value to, either good luck or bad luck.

And luck, more than random and chance, are from the human perspective. I don't think a rock feels luck, even if there's levels of chance. One of the things I mentioned early on in the discussion is the Colorado River forming the Grand Canyon.

I don't think that the Grand Canyon feels lucky, because if there is some consciousness to the Grand Canyon, it is larger and greater than anything we can commune with. But a human being feels luck because they have a story that they're telling. And there's something about luck that allows them to move in one direction or the other.

Again, sometimes it's bad luck. Sometimes it's atrocious luck. Sometimes it's nightmarish.

But that that word luck makes the experience a human experience rather than, let's say, nature or something that has no perspective.

Main Street

I thought about this old saying is that you make your own luck. As I was listening to your conversation, what do you think about that?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

Mark mentions that in the book, and I think it's a really important way of describing the kind of control that we have in our lives. But making our luck doesn't mean that we can make something happen. What making our luck means is that we are prepared to take advantage of opportunities.

We can exploit the option in front of us. So when I got my first job, I couldn't create the job advertisement. I couldn't create the situation.

I couldn't make the luck of them looking at me. But once they looked at me, I could be prepared to do it well. I could be rehearsed in my interview answers.

I could do the research in order to look at the at the University of North Dakota to know the kind of things that they need and for me to respond. So I think when people say making their own luck, what they really mean is being prepared for the opportunities that luck puts forth in front of them.

Main Street

I'm not going to play spoiler here and ruin the great story you tell about how you came upon the job at the University of North Dakota. But I do want to ask you, what do you hope the takeaways are from this for people like me on how randomness influences me or luck influences me?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

I think that that's a complicated question, because there's the jack who does why radio and whose philosophy. And then there's the jack who did this particular episode. Right.

My goal for why is just to give people a space to think about things. And if people can reflect on luck and allow them to slow down and meditate on the way the universe operates, then I think it's a success. I think that the episode is a success because it allowed people to be philosophers for this period of time.

I think as someone who is focused very much on this one episode at this time, I do believe that it is important for us to recognize that our lack of control over things means that we need to have a little bit of humility. We need to recognize that sometimes people are where they are because of bad luck. People aren't necessarily poor because they made the wrong decision and people aren't rich because they're the smartest person in the room.

It has to do with where you were born. It happens to do with whether or not you happen to be around that job when it was offered. It happened, you know, in the 1970s, there was a famous toy called the Pet Rock, and it was all remember the rage.

Yeah, right. It was it was it was about a fist size rock in a box. That had holes in it, pretending that the rocket could live and breathe.

And and everyone had one. The inventor of the Pet Rock made millions and millions and millions of dollars for this stupid, useless toy. I do not believe that if the if someone invented the Pet Rock for the first time now in 2024, that they would succeed.

We want different toys. We have different ways of looking at life. We have a different collective sense of humor.

So even though the person who who invented the Pet Rock had a million dollar idea, the circumstance and the context in which he released the idea was out of his control. And that's luck. So you can say to someone, you deserve the millions of dollars because you had a creative idea.

But if the creator says, well, yes, that's true. But I was also super lucky. That's a kind of humility.

That's a kind of recognition that sometimes things happen to us more than they happen to them. And we shouldn't worship the successful and condemn the failures, because, again, they're by the grace of God. The number of things that I do in my life that fail are sometimes overwhelming.

But the people at Prairie Public Radio are hearing the successful Jack who managed to get on the radio, who managed to get time with Craig, who managed to be on Main Street. And so they're not seeing the other stuff and they're not seeing all of the factors that go in to letting me be my best in a narrow slice of time.

Main Street

Your conversation, I think, in a very good way, bent towards acknowledging luck and randomness in societal and policymaking contexts. Give us a teaser about what more was talked about.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

Sure. So so there is a problem. And let's let's take the simplest of examples.

If you are born in a heavily urban, poor area, you are going to have a different experience than you are born in rural North Dakota. Both have their problems. Both have their excellent aspects.

But you are going to build your life based on those things. And the skills that you develop are going to accumulate to let you do one thing over another. Maybe the person who's born in the urban area is exposed to four or five different languages or knows how to manage busy, crowded streets or is very good at competing with with strangers for limited resources.

The person in rural North Dakota, maybe they know how to work with their hands. Maybe they understand how the seasons affect things. Maybe they understand, even if they are not a farmer or rancher, how to interact with agriculture.

And those things build so that when you get to be an adult, the skills that you have limit what you can do, limit what jobs you have, limit what options you have. Let's take a very precise example of that. If you grew up in a city, you can choose to go to three or five different high schools.

If you grew up in rural North Dakota, you're lucky if there's an active high school in the county. And so what we want are policies that provide equity for all of those people. We want the schools to be as good in one place and another as much access to the Internet as one place or another, as much security in one place or another.

And so what social policy allows us to do is take a big picture of of the different experiences that people have and the different factors that influence people's lives and say, OK, everyone deserves a robust library in their high school. And so we're going to do what it takes to have a robust library in this very crowded urban building. But we're also going to do what it takes to have a robust library in this building that has a lot of space to grow.

We want Internet access and computers. So we're going to do what we can to have Internet access in an urban situation, which does not take a lot of effort and a lot of money. But we're also going to build the infrastructure to give significant access to folks in rural North Dakota that requires laying miles and miles and miles of cables under the ground.

That's more expensive. But equity demands that we that we provide that equality of opportunity to both. And so what social policy allows us to do is set a standard for our lives and make sure that each person, wherever they are, has the opportunity to meet that standard.

Main Street

You spend a significant amount of time talking about poverty. And it was surprising to me the cost of poverty. One trillion dollars, I think your guest threw out there.

But it's in the context of your discussion about randomness and luck. Give us a little tease about that segment.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

I mentioned before that there are some folks who look at being poor and think that you are poor entirely because you made a mistake. But that's not how poverty works. Take a simple example of having an accident in the United States and having an accident in, say, Italy.

In the United States, if you have an accident and you break your leg, it could cost you twenty, thirty thousand dollars. In Italy, if you break your leg, your health care is free. And so no one is going to become bankrupt or miss a job opportunity or lose their house in Italy because they broke a leg.

But we all know versions of a story where someone had a medical issue that stopped them from investing in a job or being able to work for six weeks. And therefore, their income didn't come in and they couldn't pay the rent or something along those lines. The person who broke their leg, it's not their fault that they necessarily that they broke their leg.

And it's not their fault that they didn't have enough money to deal with the problem. Sometimes you're poor because life happens to you. And by focusing on the aspect of randomness, of luck, we are able to walk past the level of blame.

We're able to walk past the level of accusation and ask and say not you deserve to be punished for what happened and poverty is your punishment. It's to say you as a human being deserve help and you as a human being deserve protection and you as a human being deserve the opportunity to flourish. And we're going to provide that for you, even if it means cost to the taxpayer or rules from the Senate or something like that.

That's what public policy is supposed to do. What public policy is supposed to do is provide an opportunity for people to be free and protected, to have opportunities and flourish. And if you're constantly blaming an individual for every negative thing that happens to them, public policy becomes irrelevant.

And poverty is the term we use for the people who just don't have enough money to get by. What do we do with them? Well, if we're blaming them for their poverty, we're going to treat them differently than if we recognize that accident, that chance, that randomness plays a significant factor in their lives.

Main Street

Jack, as we wind down our discussion here in preparing for the interview with Dr. Rank, that folks are going to be able to hear this coming Sunday on Prairie Public. Was there any aspect of his work that you really found compelling or thought provoking in the context of your philosophical discussions about everyday life?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

This is going to sound a bit surprising to longtime listeners. But the thing that I found the most interesting was his discussion of the role of luck in sports, because I had never thought about it before. And one of the things he he points out is that luck plays a much more significant role in hockey than it does in basketball.

That was surprising to me, too. Yeah, it was it was I was I was fascinated by that discussion. And the first thing that he points out is that since hockey is such a low scoring sport and basketball is a high scoring sport, the effect of luck is much more significant.

Because if you get one goal in hockey, that may mean a game. But if you have one basket in basketball, it's one of 20 or 30. Right.

Second, ice is much more unpredictable than a wooden floor. And if you're playing soccer, for example, the sunlight will affect you in a way that it won't inside a basketball stadium or something like that. So the thing that really helped me understand the subtlety and the pervasiveness of chance was his discussion of sports and the way that all of these different factors influence the outcome of a game that I had never given any thought to before.

Main Street

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein's show is why philosophical discussions about everyday life and the show will air this coming Sunday, March 10th on Prairie Public. And his guest is Dr. Mark Robert Rank, who is the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. Jack, where can we learn more about your work?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

The best place to go is to why radio show dot org. That's why radio show dot org. Everything is free, including all 16 years of why radio and all of the episodes that you can get online either from the website or a podcast are longer than the ones that are broadcast on Prairie Public.

So if you really like the episode, there's an extra 30 minutes online again at why radio show dot org. Why radio show dot org.

Main Street

Can you tease any future subjects that may be coming down the pike, Jack?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

That's a great question, Craig. The next episode, we're going to be talking about the ethics of lying in policing, which I think is going to be super interesting. After that, we're talking with Emily McTiernan on whether you have a right not to be offended, which, of course, is a huge discussion now.

And then a conversation that I'm looking really looking forward to, because I've never heard any conversation about it before, is in June. We're asking Cecile Fobb, can you be an ethical spy? So we're going to look at the morality of James Bond and of of of the CIA and real life discussion of whether or not spies can do anything or whether there are limitations to what they can do morally.

And I'm really excited about that.

Main Street

Almost reminds me of our discussion about luck. There are good spies and bad spies, but it really is a matter of perspective, right? We have good luck and bad luck.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, UND

Absolutely. We have good luck and bad luck every day, everywhere we go. And all we can do is react to it as best as we can.

Main Street

Jack, as always, great to visit with you. Thanks so much for joining us on Main Street. My pleasure, as always.

NOTE: This transcript was generated using AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.