Goose Eggs

The Golden Goose Awards recognize “scientists and engineers whose federally funded research has had significant human and economic benefits.” Recipients include the microbiologists whose study of bacteria of hot springs in Yellowstone National Park laid the groundwork for the DNA-copying polymerase chain reaction that is now ubiquitous in genetic testing and research.

The name is a play on the Golden Fleece Awards the late Senator Proxmire gave to projects he considered to be wasting federal funds. The point of the Golden Goose Awards is to celebrate federal support for basic research by emphasizing its long-term benefits.

I respect the reasoning behind the name; it’s a clever pun. But this invocation of the Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs (the goose itself is not actually golden and is not to be confused with the Golden Goose), like many other contemporary uses of the fable, obscures its moral. Here is the Project Gutenberg version:

A Man and his Wife had the good fortune to possess a Goose which laid a Golden Egg every day. Lucky though they were, they soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough, and, imagining the bird must be made of gold inside, they decided to kill it in order to secure the whole store of precious metal at once. But when they cut it open they found it was just like any other goose. Thus, they neither got rich all at once, as they had hoped, nor enjoyed any longer the daily addition to their wealth.

Much wants more and loses all.

This is not primarily a story of short-sightedness; this is a story of greed. The farmer and his wife do not kill the goose to eat it, or neglect the goose, or sell it for a pile of beans. They kill the goose because they want more golden eggs, and they want them now.

This is what I think of whenever I read about a new round of venture capital funding. In today’s overheated technology “economy,” venture capitalists are itinerant axemen, always on the prowl for geese to chop open. That’s how they work. They find a product, a service, a community that has about it something magical, and they shove money down its throat. But because they expect to be repaid, either the goose accelerates its egg-laying exponentially or out comes the axe. The goose only rarely survives; the magic never does.

Keep this in mind when you hear of investments in anything with the prefix “community,” “social,” “sharing,” or “crowd”: the warmth of real human connection is hard to get right. Keep it in mind when you ponder the uneasy coexistence of Kickstarter’s haves and have-nots. And especially keep it in mind when you think about the massive influx of money into online education. What made the early MOOCs so thrilling was precisely the absence of all of the impediments to knowledge ordinarily imposed to keep the customers paying. Remember that the problem with music extends well beyond music. And if someone starts telling you about golden eggs, be sure to look for the goose.

Poem: “The Goose” by Muriel Spark, from All the Poems of Muriel Spark. © New Directions. Reprinted with permission.

The Goose

Do you want to know why I am alive today?
I will tell you.
Early on, during the food-shortage,
Some of us were miraculously presented
Each with a goose that laid a golden egg.
Myself, I killed the cackling thing and I ate it.
Alas, many and many of the other recipients
Died of gold-dust poisoning.