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Root Causes: Role Playing Game

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
                                             E.A. Robinson

Imagine that 13 of us are in a training session on philanthropic and social systems. Roles assigned as follows:

  1. Jack owns a factory that discharges waste into the water supply of a small town. He provides low wages and no benefits, since, as he says, the alternative would be to shut the factory and move it to China, where wages are lower and environmental standards are low. He is one of the richest men in America and a major investor through philanthropy in political return on investment.
  2. Linda is an eight year old child whose parents work in the factory. She is dying of cancer caused by the discharge from Jack's factory. 
  3. Susan runs a hospice for dying children. She needs grant money to find a bed for Linda.
  4. Alan is Jack's corporate attorney. His assignment is to prove that no proof positive exists that a) the factory does pollute or b) that the pollutants are carcinogenic or c) that if carcinogenic they are the only or sufficient cause of a rash of cancer cases around the outlet from the factory discharge pipe.
  5. Esperanza works for a public interest law firm and has sued Jack for endangering so many lives. The litigation has dragged on, and she is about out of money.
  6. Toby works for the EPA taking water samples and running tests that seem to indicate that the factory is a hazard.
  7. Tara is a political appointee high in the chain above Toby.
  8. Horace is a politician who appointed Tara. His biggest campaign contributor is Jack.
  9. Melisa is a judge appointed by Horace in the circuit deciding Jack's liability case. Her predecessor who had been unsympathetic to Jack had been summarily dismissed by Horace's Attorney General for reasons having to do with tardiness.
  10. Billy runs the local paper owned by Jack.
  11. Tom runs a small independent press that is covering the story about Jack. He has been sued for libel by Alan at Jack's behest. The litigation costs are about to bankrupt him.
  12. Samantha is a grant-maker in Jack's town. Where should she invest her scarce dollars to help her community thrive?
  13. Bill is a Think Tank Philanthropy Expert who works for The American Freedom Foundation, funded by Jack as his charity of choice. The Tank fights campaign finance reform, environmental protection, raising minimum wages, restrictions on free trade, campaigns against activist judges, and works to refute studies showing a link between pollutants and cancer.  The Tank argues that taxes on wealthy owners of factories and or other properties should be lowered and that estate taxes should be eliminated.  The Tank also argues that poor people bring it on themselves by being lazy or shiftless. Giving them government assistance makes them dependent and drives up taxes. Moral Clarity demands tough love. Bill has recently written a paper suggesting that liberal foundations are silly in attacking root causes. They should concentrate instead on ameliorating the final sad days of poor suffering children like Linda. Bill has a photo of Linda that he carries around with him. "How can you not do something for this lovely child?," he asks with tears streaming down his leathery cheeks. "There are so many like her. Please give generously."

The game is one in which we all take turns trading roles. We all do what we would do given the incentives under which we operate in that role. The gist of the game playing is that we all come to understand that nothing much will change until a good many things change. That is what some of us mean by working on Root CausesBill.  But I think you know that. For you to say what you know, and for you to be free to say and do what you know to be right,  the incentives have to change, for many people, including you.  You too are victim more than perp, though talking points can be lethal to those who are most vulnerable.  When change does happen you will be free to be a better person in a better world, as will I, Jack's  Moral Tutor and his Family Financial Advisor, hard at work on a Dynasty Trust to  preserve Jack's wealth and his family's power for 100 years or more. We are all in need of a change.  Jack too, who told me just the other night that seeing what has come of his own daughter, who has cancer, has gotten him so depressed that death seems an easy out.  I didn't try to talk him out of it. That is not my job.