The Child in Our Basement


Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is one of the most haunting and thought provoking short story I have ever read. If you have fifteen minutes to spare and you fancy a brain f$%k, do read it in its entirety.

The story began innocently enough. In the city of Omelas, nestled against the sea cradled by the snowcapped mountains in the distance, the Festival of Summer is just about underway. Gaiety is in full swing.

In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and over the singing.

The citizens of Omelas were a fortunate bunch. They were ‘matured, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives are not wretched’. Imagine a perfect city, with perfect weather and perfect people leading perfectly healthy, wealthy and happy lives. That is Omelas for you.


The Child in the Basement

There is one more thing Le Guin would have us know. In the city itself, in the basement of one of the buildings, there lives a child. He (or she) is ten, but looks like six. Locked up in a windowless room ‘three paces long and two wide’, it sits hunched in the corner.

It is so thin that there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on half a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits on its own excrement continually.

The child has no understanding of time or interval. The only intrusion into its life happens when the chains are rattled and the doors are swung open. Food and water is hastily dispersed.

The child has not always lived there. It remembers its mother’s voice and it remembers sunlight. It speaks sometimes, asking to be let out, promising to be good. Initially at night it used to scream for help, but after being ignored into submission, it now only makes a whining ‘ee-haa ee-haa’ sound.

Occasionally a person, the author never states who, would release the chains to the doors. He (or she) would come in and kick the child to make it stand up while other pairs of disgusted and frightened eyes look on. Others stand by the door, never coming close, and the door will be slammed shut soon after.

The citizens of Omelas knows about the existence of the child. Every single one of them. At some point in their happy lives, just as they are entering adolescence, they would be bought to the basement. Some of them are disgusted. Others weep or fall into a rage.

They would like to do something for the child, but there is nothing they can do. If the child were bought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.

The social compact is such that the continual prosperity of the city of Omelas lies in the child being locked up. It is a deal with the devil that the citizens signed. For happiness to prevail, the child has to suffer.

The Ones Who Walk Away

At times though, one of the teens who were bought to see the child does not go home in tears. Neither do they fall into a rage. In fact, they do not return home at all but continue walking through the town streets and into the fields beyond the city.

Occasionally an adult would fall silent for a day or two, and then they too would begin their walk away from Omelas.

Each and every one who walk away does it alone. As night falls and the city lights up, they step away out into the darkness of the fields and into the unknown.

Yet, the unknown never seemed to bother them.

Three Interpretations

In an opinion piece from the New York Times in January 2015, author David Brooks provided three interpretations of the short story.

On first reading he says, it is a parable about exploitation. Many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement. The designer sneakers we proudly own is but the output of a lowly paid worker in a developing country with a name we might not even recognise.

In another interpretation, Omelas is a reflection of the Utilitarian society we know so well. Life is all about trade-offs, Brooks claims. The suffering of a few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number. Some must fail for others to succeed; people must die for others to live.

And finally, as Brooks suggested, the story of Omelas is an avid description of one person’s outlook towards life. Our idealism points us towards one direction, yet the practical realities of life does not allow us to pursue fluffy ideals most of the time.

Shall we do as the citizens of Omelas do and lock up our moral compasses in the basement, pretending that all is well despite what we know? Or do we give up the trappings of wealth, and of joy, and of happiness, all that we know so well and are so accustomed to, and walk into the unknown, just like ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’?

How Many Policies Does One Need?

Today’s article came about after a discussion with Louis. His role as a financial advisor sees him reviewing clients’ investment and insurance portfolios. Subsequently he will provide advice on how to optimise clients protection levels based on their needs.

Couple of weeks ago, he came across an client with the following existing insurance policies. #truestory

The said client is a salaried worker drawing a regular monthly income and the policies were purchased over the years. Many of them are savings plans. The exact circumstances under which she purchases these policies is unknown, but the amount spent on the premiums monthly is at an unacceptable level for her income. The client is dipping into her savings to either finance her policies or provide her daily expenses.

I can sense Louis’s frustration. On one hand he is genuinely trying to help provide sound financial planning advice for his clients. He does so at the expense of forgoing lucrative commissions from the peddling of certain products that do more to enrich the advisors than the clients.

On the other hand, his profession is riddled with agents who will not hesitate to make a quick buck. Every sale, whether or not the client really needs the policy, whether or not the policy is suitable at all, or even whether or not the client can actually afford the policy, is a step closer to the million dollar round table.

The client will be saddled with policies big and small indefinitely. The true extent of the agents’ actions will not be known until many years later.

Like the people of Omelas, Louis has a choice to turn back and enjoy the festivities or he could continue walking further and further away into the unknown. The decision is a heart wrenching one.

The Way Forward

Before readers label me an incorrigible idealist with no sense of reality, I want to clarify the point. The way forward is not in me writing articles about a short story and expecting errant financial advisors to repent and rescind their actions overnight. It will take a lot more, I know.

For real and sustainable change to occur, two things must take place.

First of all, the way advisors are being compensated will have to change. There must be a move from sales driven compensation to either a time and/or performance based system. Structure will drive behaviour, and the only way to modify behaviour is to modify the structure supporting it.

A word of caution though, structural changes should not have to stem from regulations. On the contrary, I am a big fan of market solutions.

The market must find its own way to overcome this structural deficiency, one that is toxic and cancerous. Think fee based advisors such as our friends from Providend and their insurance solution for the mass market in DIY Insurance. As more and more consumers become aware, there will be no stopping the momentum.

The next thing that must happen is an increase in the financial literacy of our population. We have written about it herehere, and here. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I shall repeat it one more time. In our capitalistic society, one cannot afford to be ignorant about money. If you do not care for your money, someone else will.

Change will not come in a year or two. It may not even come in the life time of the child locked up in the basement in Omelas. But as long as people continue to find courage to walk away from Omelas and into the unknown, change in inevitable.

If you love reading the above article, feel free to read about Investing for my kids – A Parent’s Story.