On how there isn’t enough lyrical writing about insurance … and taxation in The Pale King.

insuranceThere’s a little bit about insurance in my novel.  Not much.  Just enough to get people excited.  But there used to be more.

Honestly, I think it’s a shame there’s so little lyrical writing about insurance out there in popular literature.  Insurance is fascinating.  A good insurance product is a beautiful thing. Which, right.  Let me be honest here: there used to be more than a little about insurance in my book.  The original draft was probably 10% character, 5% plot, 85% insurance.

K was displeased.  She said the insurance passages ran long. I was aghast.  “But that’s the best part!” I sputtered. She was adamant: she claimed I had to choose between keeping all the insurance, or having a chance that maybe, maybe someone would read the entire book. I couldn’t bear to watch the screen as I clicked “delete.”  If there’s to be a worthy paean to insurance, it will not be my current book.

Luckily, K agreed that it’d be fine for me to pick one — just one! — paragraph I wrote about insurance to slap up on the website.  I picked this one because it came close to including the term “marginal horror per mortem,” which I feel like more actuaries should be required to calculate before issuing policies.  Isn’t horror more fun to think about than mere monetary cost?

CMS_Higgs-event“And even the accidental release of infectious research agents seems trivial compared to the scale of disaster that might be caused by physics experiments using the accelerator.  Things like the risk of colliding particles squooshing too close together and nucleating a black hole, propagating to engulf the entire planet.  Many professors who conduct atom-smashing experiments have co-signed a letter describing this scenario as “totally unrealistic.”  But still, the actuaries assigned it a probability.  Just a guess, obviously, but they marked down a non-zero number.  And then coverage was required, because the catastrophe obviously has an associated cost: it was tallied at thirty-two quadrillion dollars.  Which might sound low, that cost, but their reasoning was based on diminishing levies per mortem as the disaster scales.  The excess horror of terminating another couple billion lives doesn’t seem as high after the first five billion have been consumed.  Also, everyone agrees that in an annihilative event as rapidly propagating as that would be, it’s unlikely blame could ever be definitively assigned to the university.”

Which, right, if you’re also the sort of person who has fun thinking about unmitigated disaster, you should check out Richard Posner’s book “Catastrophe: Risk and Response.”  In addition to black holes you’ll get global warming, self-replicating micro-machines, planet-destroying asteroids… it’s a blast!

CaptureAnd I suppose I shouldn’t end this essay without mentioning “The Pale King,” which was David Foster Wallace writing lyrically about taxation.  Now, taxes don’t interest me as much as insurance (except insofar as taxation attempts to impose a monetary cost equal to the negative — or positive, in the case of rebates — externalities of one’s actions.  That’s the only part of tax law that excites me, and it’s sadly under-used in this country), but there was still some beautiful writing in the final book his survivors compiled.

There is one scene, in particular, that despite a heavy dose of bombast made me all teary-eyed while reading it in the library: a university student accidentally stumbled into a lecture hall being used for last-minute review before the CPA (certified public accountant) exam and felt so inspired that he later joined the IRS.  And, yeah, the metaphor is super-blatant, but that’s why the passage is so sad; Wallace knew, but he didn’t make it.  Rest in peace, and thanks for all you were able to get done before it got you.

‘By which,’ he said, ‘I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood.  You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it.  The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor.  It was theater.  The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience.  An audience.’  He made a gesture I can’t describe: ‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire.  No one to see you.  Do you understand?  Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.  No one queues up to see it.  No one is interested.’ He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking.  ‘True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space.  True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care–with no one there to see or cheer.  This is the world.  Just you and the job, at your desk.  You and the return, you and the cash-flow data, you and the inventory protocol, you and the depreciation schedules, you and the numbers.’