Words That Matter

Vera, your mom challenged me to come up with a list of books that influenced me. I’ve been thinking about it. Without success.

There are a few reasons. First, I’m not comfortable with lists. They exclude too much. Second, it’s hard to find a complete work that is exceptional, especially in contemporary literature. Too many potentially great essays become mediocre books. Third, writings that may have influenced me at an earlier stage of my life don’t mean as much to me today, and vice versa. Context matters. Fourth, many of the words that influenced me the most came in the form of letters and speeches, not books.

Yet I do want to share with you, Vera, some of the words that matter to me. And so I begin, in no particular order, with more to come in the months ahead. Continue reading

Everyone Is Stupid, Everyone Is Smart

I abhor the categorization of people as either stupid or smart. One thing I’ve learned in life, Vera, is that we’re both.

Everyone is smart in certain ways. And we’re all stupid at times. Of course, ratios may vary from person to person.

I realize society likes to put people into buckets. Our educational system promotes the idea that people who get good grades, or who attend college, are smart. And everyone else is not-so-smart (or, worse yet, dumb)._dsc0436

That’s ridiculous. I’ve known many people with B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s who didn’t seem very smart, and many people without any formal education who were incredibly savvy and smart.

A schoolmate who rode the same bus that picked me up in the morning and took us to our high school was in “special ed.” What that meant, of course, is that her cognitive abilities were well below average. But she wasn’t stupid. She navigated life with what she was given. She was on that bus every morning. She put forth the effort. She was all that she could be.

We have no say in what we’re given. We do have say in how we use it.

Sometimes we confuse smarts with luck. Truly smart people know the difference.

For me, stupid and smart aren’t traits. They’re actions. Ways of acting. Decisions.

For me, stupid is when we act as though we know more than we do, or when we make decisions that aren’t in our best interest. Smart is when we know what we know, know what we don’t know, and act accordingly, in our best interest.

Stupid is when we’re being played and don’t know it. Smart is when the person playing us is doing exactly what we set them up to do. (I have to confess that I take delight in seeing people think they’re sticking it to me when they’re actually playing their part in the outcome I planned.)

Stupid is assuming. Smart is discovering and discerning.

Stupid is when we think we control more than we do, or when we fail to control that which we can. Smart is realizing how little is within our control but making the most of it.

Stupid is believing you’re right about everything. Smart is hoping your wrong about certain things.

Stupid is thinking we’re the center of the universe (a god, of sorts). Smart is realizing we don’t even know the extent of the universe.

Stupid is mindlessness. Smart is mindfulness.

I consider all of my students to be smart, regardless of their “book smarts” or IQ (which, in my opinion, is a very misleading measurement). It’s up to them to act in smart or stupid ways. Every semester, I see it play out both ways, and I don’t mean grade distribution. If I do my job well, they’ll be smarter when they leave my course than when they arrived. Sometimes it feels like I did my job well; other times it feels like I’ve been a total failure. But then I remind myself that stupid is not a condition, and that some or all of these students may end up making really smart choices before it’s all over.

There have been times I’ve acted very smartly, and other times I’ve been dumb beyond belief. And there have been other times when I have no idea whether my decisions were smart or stupid.

I don’t know what your IQ is or will be, Vera, and, quite frankly, I don’t care. It has absolutely nothing to do with your worth or the contribution you might end up making to your family, community or world. Or whether you’ll be happy.

But I do care that you don’t fall into the habit of being stupid. That wouldn’t be the smart thing to do.

Calling Out The Charlatan (Installment 1 in the Saga of the Trump Administration)

img_3210I took this photo recently when visiting family in Las Vegas. The building carries the name of the man some (albeit a minority) of my fellow citizens chose to be our new president.

Saturday, in a style reminiscent of communist regimes and the propaganda tactics they so effectively employed, he and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, blatantly lied to America.

Misinformation is a game they play well. Continue reading

Investing and Financial Planning in an Era of Uncertainty, Risk and Illusion

For anyone who’s managing their own investments, or who’s planning for eventual retirement, Robert Shiller made some important points in an article published last Thursday:

The closest we can come to Trump among former US presidents might be Calvin Coolidge, an extremely pro-business tax cutter. “The chief business of the American people is business,” Coolidge famously declared, while his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon – one of America’s wealthiest men – advocated tax cuts for the rich, which would “trickle down” in benefits to the less fortunate.

The US economy during the Coolidge administration was very successful, but the boom ended badly in 1929, just after Coolidge stepped down, with the stock-market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, the 1920s were looked upon wistfully, but also as a time of fakery and cheating.

Of course, history is never destiny, and Coolidge is only one observation – hardly a solid basis for a forecast. Moreover, unlike Trump, both Coolidge and Mellon were levelheaded and temperate in their manner.

But add to the Trump effect all the attention paid to Dow 20,000, and we have the makings of a powerful illusion.

Not a day goes by that I don’t ponder what’s around the next corner (economically and financially). Or how investments and assets should be deployed and managed.

It seems a few things are indisputable:

  1. There is above-average uncertainty today.
  2. Risk is greater than acknowledged or priced into the market.
  3. Illusions are dangerous underpinnings for decision-making.
  4. Assets can lose value (for a long time or permanently).
  5. Our bias is optimism.

That’s life, Vera. Uncertainty. Risk. Illusions. Unknowns. Biases.

Plan accordingly. And choose wisely.

The Risk of War Is Growing

Nationalism and protectionism lead to war. Always have, always will.

If war is what it takes, then war is what we’ll have. That’s the view of some.

All I ask is, if you embrace war, then please have the courage to be on the front line. Or to send your children or grandchildren to the front line.

If you don’t, then you’re what some call a chicken hawk.

That’s a nice term for coward.

I Feel Like Suing Someone

I’ve never sued anyone, personally, that is. I have been involved in lawsuits as legal counsel for clients. But that’s an entirely different matter. It’s not me. It’s not personal. It wasn’t my decision.

I’d be very reluctant to sue anyone, mainly because, as a lawyer, I have an appreciation for what’s involved — the expense, the emotional toll, the bitterness, the destructive aspect of the litigation process, the failures of our judicial system. So my default position, for both myself and any client, is don’t. Try to find another way of resolving the dispute — of finding justice.

That said, I feel like suing someone. Continue reading

Making America Great

There’s been a lot of talk the past year about making America great again, Vera. It was the campaign slogan for Donald Trump, who, later this week, will be sworn in as our next president. Mr. Trump isn’t a great man by any stretch of the imagination (at least not mine). But let me tell you about an American who was. Continue reading

The Price To Pay For Spending Tomorrow’s Income Today

When you borrow, you’ll pulling spending forward, that is, you’re spending tomorrow’s income today. Sometimes that’s smart; sometimes it isn’t. In fact, debt can be a killer.

It can kill your retirement. Your security and well-being. Your marriage. Your job. Your dreams. Even your life (suicide rates rise during recessions and periods of high unemployment).

Yet America is in love with debt. But perhaps it’s a toxic love affair. Perhaps, Vera, you’d do well not to fall in love with debt as so many of your fellow Americans have done.

Not all debt is bad though. Continue reading