I remember learning about money and velocity. Apparently money doesn’t do society much good sitting in a pillow. Rather, it should be circulating – invested – enabling the endeavors of man.
For the last decade a mantra has been buzzing in the business background: we're doing it for the shareholders. The buzz, though, is coming from a few well-connected and (now) wealthy top executives, not from the bulk of individual shareholders, whose interests have been poorly represented.
In today's Sunday New York Times Jonathan Haidt has a piece titled Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness. He writes in the context of the 2012 US presidential election, but his insight deserves wider application. He speaks of tribal and group behaviour, and observes that “the great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred”. We have done that with The Market.
The PBS Newshour of March 15 contains not one but two segments of importance both to the financial world and to the rest of us. The first is a reaction to Greg Smith's Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs, wherein he speaks of the firm's lack of integrity and disregard – even scorn – for its customers. The second (21:20 to 29:46 in the March 15 Newshour) is an interview with Robert Harris, whose new novel, The Fear Index, came true even as he was writing it. It seems that certain hedge funds have mopped up the scientists who were to work on the Texas Supercollider (before it was cancelled) and got them instead to develop software which scans the news (a digital feed from Bloomberg first and foremost) for anything that could spook the market. The software then makes the appropriate trades. At one such fund author Robert Harris (in real life, in real time) watched a software algorithm make 1.5 million dollars in twenty minutes.
But the most significant and disturbing moment, for me, comes at 25:22 in the March 15 Newshour. It seems that although high-frequency trading firms make up only 2% of the 20,000 trading firms operating today, they make 75% of all trades. And – and here I nearly fell off the couch – the average time a stock investment is held these days is twenty-two seconds.
Remember how money with velocity is good? By that measure we should be doing very well indeed. What happened?
We could ask ourselves Who is this shareholder to whom executives pay lip-service? And Who or what is The Market that we seem to revere and to which politicians kowtow? Is it a Wizard of Oz? Or, as Robert Harris says, is it more like a Frankenstein run amok?
Right there in the Business Section, the Dismal Science speaks to the great unwashed, enlightening us about the important stuff. You see, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes had it wrong. Markets don't just control trade and commerce. They control everything!
Forget free will. Forget intelligence and reason. Forget philosophy, art and literature, morality, religion and emotion. Forget even reason, once it has inevitably taken us under the sway of the Almighty Market. For (especially if we are special) The Market will tell us how to spend our gifts for the benefit of humanity.
If, for example, an immigrant can be persuaded to rake our leaves for a modest stipend, why not hire him? If his wife will clean the house and do the laundry, better yet. It leaves us more time to do what we do best: working out how The Market actually applies to everything, even to life! L'chaim!
But what about 2 1/2 year-old Matilda?
The Market says that an unemployed twenty-something teacher can be had for $50K/year. Hire her, schedule her M-F 8AM to 7PM. The problem of Matilda's upbringing is solved. And of course, by executive decree, Matilda eats no meat or sugar and attends art classes. Like all children, she is above average.
What, though, about Mom and Dad when they are my age? For at their age I too was doing what I thought was important: putting bread on the table and keeping a roof over our heads. Now, a generation later, my perspective has shifted. Sure, the basics have to be there. The roof, the bread. The luckiest among us will also the able earn that roof and bread doing something we love. But in retrospect and approaching the end of life nothing even comes close in importance to what we do for those we love, our children first and foremost.
It's winter. The heady autumn of Occupy Everywhere is now last year's news. Mitt Romney says corporations are people. Newt says government doesn't make jobs, private enterprise makes jobs. All politicians are promising jobs. None of that helps if you don't have a job.
A young man interviewed on NPR has a job. He says his company doesn't represent him politically. He says his company doesn't have the right to use the profits it makes on HIS WORK to vote against him.
Perhaps you gave gone into debt (like the country) to get an education and you still can't find a job. You are bummed, and rightly.
This is all pretty discouraging stuff. But wait. Start from another perspective.
The government doesn't need you. No corporation or small business needs you. The jobs they may or may not offer can be filled by you or by someone else, interchangeably.
But the world needs you. There is no one else in the world who has exactly what you have to give.
In my post of December 11, 2011, Advent and Jobs, I asked, “Who decides what my work will be?” If you're young and you don't yet have dependents, you have a chance to give the finger to The Market and decide for yourself.
This is not easy, and I have no illusions that it will be possible for everyone. But I write this in hope and in the belief that looking clearly at the problem is a good start. So before you take that job as a “greeter” or as an “associate”, think about the work you want to do. All work – however strange and useless it may appear to The Market, is worthy of your human dignity if it comes from the heart. So try to make time – quiet time – to listen to that voice inside – and it will come, but it is a soft voice – that will tell you about the work that you are meant to do, the work that will be your vocation. Then fight for it with all your might.
I don't know how you're going to do it. I would tell you, but I know the solution is unique to you and I am not privy to it. What I do know is you might have to ask for help. It could be as little as asking a parent, sibling, or friend with a credit card to pay $2.95 to iPage or $3.15 to FatCow every month so you can have your own website. Set it up with WordPress and you can work on it anytime you have access to a computer and WIFI. It may take a year or two to learn the ropes and find out how to attract people to your site and figure out what you are selling or giving away. At the end of the second year you owe your parent, sibling, or friend $72.
Then who knows? When Mitt or Newt or even Barack gets around to offering you a job, you might just say no.
Listening to NPR New Years morning I heard repeated references to health care as a product. Accordingly, the mandate has become a requirement to buy a product. Obviously a non-starter, right? No one can tell me to buy a Prius or a Big Mac.
No. I'm free to chose. There's a market out there and if there's a good product at a good price then I'll consider it. If not – well, forget it.
The logic is irrefutable.
But then, in the same NPR segment, a conundrum appeared. It seems that insurance works by calculating actuarial risk on a pool of customers – on their cars, their houses, or themselves. Risky pools mean higher prices. Fair enough. And yet, as the interviewee in the segment pointed out, in health insurance the market creates an incentive for healthy people to opt out and buy only on the way to the hospital. Does this all sound suspiciously like Credit Default Swaps?
What has happened to our reasoning?
I am beginning to suspect that we, in our free-market economy, have accepted a paradigm so completely that it is leading us astray.
Paradigm: pattern, model, example. The pattern of discriminating among ads and logos on the mall has become strong in our heads. Intoxicated by our freedom to choose, we weigh McDonald's against White Castle and perhaps wind up at In and Out Burger.
In an attempt to escape from this “logic”, let's try an old technique – the reductio ad absurdum.
If health care is a product, what about education? It is being sold that way, these days. What we know is that it is essential and expensive. We are also learning that it does not guarantee a job, and that going into debt on its behalf has become less attractive. How about child care? Working families increasingly depend on it, so it too has entered the marketplace as a product. What about marriage? Isn't it about love, procreation, and raising children and grandchildren? Well, sometimes it can be about snagging a trophy wife or a divorce-able cash-cow husband, about figuring out what is the best buy for me.
Do we approve? Of course not. Somewhere here we draw the line. But where?
Perhaps, rather than thinking about product, we should instead think about work. Instead of thinking about what we need, about what is best for me, we should instead think of what we can give, of what work we can do.
If we look at health care, we can see plenty of beautiful, real work going on. People get into that line of work because they want to help others, to care for them. The same is true in education, where devoted people spend their working lives trying to connect to another human being, one at a time, because that is the only way it works – really works. And what is the family values debate all about? Really, what we all want is a family that works, where both parents are devoted to the cause of rearing their children; where one working outside the home is sufficient to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, and where the other can stay home doing the huge job of rearing the young.
The real bottom line is that all work that is worth anything is caring for others or making things that do. Love is not a commodity. We owe it to each other.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
Kris Kristofferson gets it. Janice Joplin got it. Freedom is not shirking responsibility, be it for family, community, country, or humanity. Freedom, in other words, is not freedom from bringing up your child or from paying taxes.
What did the founders have to say about it?
John Locke noted that there cannot be freedom where there is no law. A society, therefore, must act together to form a government of laws. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to divide the work of government among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to perform. John Adams spoke admiringly of pre-constitutional America that the education of all ranks of people was made the care and expense of the public.
At Oxford, studying under a Rhodes Scholarship, Kris Kristofferson was influenced by the poet William Blake, who proclaimed that if one has a God-given creative talent then one should use it, or else reap sorrow and despair.
So is freedom for losers? Or is it my right to do as I please?
Neither, of course. Freedom is an idea that is worthy of a lifetime of study and contemplation. There is no simplicity or certainty about it. The same is true of religion, and several founders wrote of the need for a free people to base their conduct on a moral or religious framework. So there is a discipline implied here. There is work to be done. I cannot simply declare myself to be Catholic or Born Again or Converted to Islam and be done with it. I cannot abdicate my lifelong responsibility to be the best I can be.
A good place to begin that work is to meditate on the Blake quote. Each of us is blessed with God-given gifts. Let us each, in this New Year, think about our own: what they are and how they can be “paid forward” – given back to our family, our community, our country. How they can be given back to humanity.
This is my first novel. It takes place in a parallel universe where the country north of the Great Lakes is known as Arcadia. The main character is the airline herself. She views the other characters in the story as her people.
To connect the vastness of Arcadia an airline was brought forth by the government and her name was also Arcadia.
She loved her father, Arcadia's first Minister of Movement. Through her youth and young adulthood she struggled to live up to her father's vision and to his example of service to country.
After his death her ambition and her desire for independence led her to participate as an equal in the modern world of business. In this she was assisted by many fine men and women who devoted their careers to her cause.
Most of these were ordinary people doing their best work for Arcadia and loving her as they loved their families. But there were a few who made their mark. They left their imprint on Arcadia and changed her course.
One day in Arcadia's prime it came about that Miles, who had her best interests at heart but who also had a strong sense of his own destiny, singlehandedly wrote a script that played on Arcadia's stage for a decade before it devolved into a war with the Ministry of Movement. Unaffected by the war, management were taken unawares when it lead to a strike.
The strike ended the war but was instrumental in promoting two people before their time: Enrico to Captain and Boy Wonder to CEO.
Both rose to the challenges before them.
Enrico had to fight fiercely to win and hold his captaincy. Boy Wonder was tested almost immediately by a takeover bid and prevailed with Snake's help. However, Snake tempted him and Boy made a Faustian bargain with Arcadia's soul which led to merger and eventually to bankruptcy.
In the end, all were diminished. Enrico wound up on permanent sick leave. Boy Wonder traded youthful promise for a guaranteed retirement offshore. Arcadia, in her dotage, feels she is the only coherent voice in the asylum.
The third draft is in edit as of October 2011. My intention is to publicize the book by flying much of Arcadia's route structure in a Beechcraft Bonanza.
Who decides what my work will be?
Unless you are one of the advantaged kids from a two-parent family with seriousness of purpose and discretionary income, ambulance the decision most likely will be up to somebody else – not you, thumb not your family, maybe not even a person. Rather, The Market will decide what work to offer you, what its value will be, and what will be the terms and conditions of employment. In other words, The Market will determine who you are.
Who decides what the goals of our civilization should be? Politics, of course. We are a democracy, are we not? We have a vote, so we collectively determine public policy. Right?
Well, almost. But we are a nation-state in a global world. And global corporations are increasingly independent of the nation-states, wielding their putative personhood to control public policy in the various nation-states where they do business. The political horizon is the next election; the business horizon is the end of this quarter. So the answer to this question as well is The Market. The Market will decide our goals.
Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes would be horrified. Their child has become a monster, their financial system has morphed from a well-oiled machine into a shell game of risk management. Surely, somewhere, there is some leadership?
Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place. Where, after all, have our achievements always begun?
With birth, I would say. Consider how the prophesy is phrased: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. We are given a gift: the most precious of gifts. The we is everyone. We are persons, citizens of the world, civilization. The gift too is everyone – the miracle of new life. And the government shall be on his shoulder.Perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place.
Certainly each child needs to be nurtured and educated and guided. Certainly she needs to find her place in our society. But her gift – her work, her goals, her contribution to our survival – must be honoured if it is to be realized. There is only one key that will unlock this gift, and it is only revealed one-on-one, one human being to another. You could call it parenting. You could call it teaching. You could call it love.
I wrote The Decline and Fall of Air Arcadia because I was falling off a cliff. One day I was Captain and Training Captain on the A320. The next day I was a former captain, my skills and experience worth nothing, my work gone because I was sixty years old. I needed new work.
Also, to be honest, I needed some reflection and cleansing. The world changes during a forty-year career and the worker falls behind, storing seeds of bitterness. It would not do to let those seeds grow and take me to my grave. So I wrote, exhuming and examining the seeds, remembering and discovering.
It was a long process. For a start, I had to learn a new trade. Learning to write is every bit as difficult and complex and involving as learning to fly. Like flying, writing is a learn by doing trade. There is no substitute for experience. It is also, like flying, an apprenticeship trade – except that the apprenticeship is reading others, finding writing that speaks to you and asking why. Then you return to what you have written and are – well, disappointed. So the cycle begins again.
Discouraging, yes. But the effort and the pattern of my learning began to recall the intensity of flying the DC-9 as a young man. The intensity and the joy of it. And gradually what started as a rant became a love story, an eulogy.
The main character of The Decline and Fall of Air Arcadia is the airline herself. This is an excerpt from the Prologue, a brief first-person section where I speak of her:
I owed her my work and I gave her that and she took care of me and my family but there is more: there is a balance due. She and her people taught me my trade. She trusted me with a small piece of her operation and with passing on what she gave me to the next generation. And I know now, today, this afternoon, dead tired from working again, that this is a love story. She was kin. She was my work family. I took from her and in a small way I gave back. I belonged.
She is old now, as am I. I hope that she will live to see me out. It's just that there is the matter of her eulogy. I know when the moment comes the media will dig into their records and produce a sturdy and factual obituary. I know there will have been many other writings about her. But I love her and I love my work and I know that it will never be again. Not quite like this. I'd like you to know something about it. I owe her that.
The book is a novel, a fictional memoir, a fanciful snippet of Canadian history, and a love story about work. It is also perhaps a roman-à-clef – but not just about an airline. If there are keys here they fit many locks.
There has been a satisfying circularity to the book's gestation. A few years back I had the idea that if I could finish the book and get it into a state fit for publication, I could promote it by flying much of Arcadia's route structure in a light aircraft, albeit a sturdy one equipped for flying under Instrument Flight Rules in our demanding Canadian airspace. In my dream I chose the Beechcraft Bonanza, one of my old flames from forty years ago. She would be named Soul of Arcadia and she would fly, phoenix-like, over the routes I remember so well, defying the Faustian bargains forced upon her namesake in the twenty-first century.
Except that six years and counting from my last flight, my ratings had all expired. So I began studying again for aviation exams, starting with the Student Pilot Written Test, known as the PSTAR. Next was the Instrument Rating Written Test, the INRAT. By a stroke of fortune executives at Pepsi had invented the RedBird simulator and Transport Canada had approved its use for Instrument Rating renewals. Finally, a year or so ago, my Airline Transport Pilot License was current.
Then to my surprise I was working again. I had been offered the chance to teach instrument flying part-time. As I recount in the Prologue, I knew driving home one day that the circle had closed, that it all made sense.
Yesterday a friend I have known all my life (we met in kindergarten) brought me a book to read: George Lothian's Flight Deck: Memoirs of an Airline Pilot. (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd. 1979). George retired from the airline while I was flying a Bonanza more than forty years ago. He was writing his book while I was a young man in my apprenticeship. He lived the era I only heard stories about. He writes of the making of this trade I am still so passionate about. Our books are different but our stories are complementary.
The Decline and Fall of Air Arcadia picks up the baton from Flight Deck. It is 1973 and instrument flying and airline Standard Operating Procedures have matured. The big jets have just arrived, bringing with them an upheaval in aerodynamics and pilots' assumptions. Arcadia is an adult.
It ends in the aughts, after 9/11, when the pilots who joined when I did were reaching sixty. Arcadia is an old lady. She is suffering as the old suffer when their dignity is stripped away.
With luck I will yet fly that coast-to-coast trip in Soul of Arcadia, celebrating her, singing of her exploits to our vast, proud country.
I have spent the last twenty-four hours in the company of my opposites, troche reading about good people whose point of view is at odds with my own. It has been enlightening and sometimes frightening to find that there are areas where we agree.
Peter Thiel (No Death, No Taxes) is rich, libertarian, Christian, and gay. While each of these epithets suggest ideology, the combination does not. Who is he?
Kate Bolick (Single for Life?) is nearly forty and unmarried. She thinks she might stay that way, whether or not she has children. Why?
Elizabeth Badinter (Against Nature) is rich, privileged, intellectual, and French. She thinks motherhood is overrated, but she is a doting grandmother.
I think Ayn Rand is selfish, elitist, and flat-out wrong. (Even boring). I am a doting father and grandfather still married to my first wife and grateful to be a member of a surviving family. Nevertheless I am aware that more women are postponing kids until they are beyond childbearing age, and that disproportionally men are dropping out of education, losing their jobs, and generally disengaging themselves from the system.
Where is the meaning here?
Buddhist philosophy speaks of the journey. Perhaps the takeaway here is that the meaning is in the tension, the taut string that keeps motherhood and womanhood from flying apart.
Perhaps, too, men are disengaging because we are adventurers, and humanity is on the threshold of a new age of discovery. In our case the taut string prevents individual invention and leadership from being submerged in practicality and the essential collective interest.
Taut strings make music. Whether we serve as tuning pegs, nuts, or bridges, we are all essential if the songs are to reach the sounding board.
They're not stupid. They know it will be a slow process that proceeds by increments. But make no mistake: ideas are coming. If the 99% are not wanted by this economy, they will make their own economy.
Start with Generation Do moving their money out of banks and into credit unions and new local co-ops. Add Bitcoin, a new and apparently viable global internet currency. Restore barter. If you have a roof over your head and enough to eat, consider working for nothing. Leave the consumer economy behind – it is doomed anyway. Let those who own that mountain of debt take a haircut.
Thank you, Ohio! You have spoken up for the dignity of teachers, firemen, police officers, and countless others on whose work our society depends. You have spoken clearly and no, Governor Kasich, your law was not too much, too soon – it was not the right path. A race to the bottom, sidelining the very people who make this country work, will not fix what ails us.
Retired state employee and union worker Monty Blanton was quoted in today's New York Times saying, “What we were actually fighting for was our livelihood.” Amen, brother. A society cannot survive unless it values the honest work of its citizens.
Could this vote mean that even frustrated Tea-Party-leaning voters are asking themselves who really speaks for them? Are they wondering if they have perhaps unwittingly become mouthpieces for the Koch brothers, Art Pope, and the other bankrollers of the far-right agenda?
The city is Athens, not Lexington or Sarajevo. But this shot, too, will be heard around the world. Prime Minister Papandreou has called for a referendum on the bailout.
It is too bad – but the bailout is too little, too late. When lenders get greedy and make dubious loans because they pay 8% or 11% there is an obvious risk, and the risk is the lender's. Germany, France, and the European banks have been slow to recognize this.
The 50% haircut in this deal is a good start. But the deal burdens the Greeks with further austerity measures. Papandreou has seen what Merkel and Sarkozy have not: that an economy is not about money – rather it uses money as a means of exchange. Instead it is about the shared destiny of its people, and citizens have a say in the political process.
True, the Greek economy was and is corrupt. True, a large portion of it was under the table. The Greeks will have to work all that out.
But the world is going to be working out something else: that making high-risk loans can result in a 100% haircut. That privatizing profits and socializing risks is a shell game that can't last. That fancy financial products like Credit Default Swaps are dishonourable and lead to ruin.
Look out, world. We have been living in a fool's paradise. Reality is about to hit the fan.