What About the Seventh Generation?

“If we choose to live beyond our means, our children will have to live below theirs.” – David Kelly, JPMorgan, November 27, 2017 weekly podcast

I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone put it any better than Dr. Kelly in this week’s podcast.

The U.S., like much of the developed world, is in fact choosing to live beyond its means. And the tax cuts currently being bantered about in Congress would only exacerbate the situation, with the high levels of deficit spending being used to fund them.

I am reminded of this particular provision of the Constitution of the great Iroquois nation:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the past and present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.

“Have always in view … the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.”

One of their chiefs added:

We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. … What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?

As a grandfather, I am particularly attuned to the interests of our future generations. I am concerned about your generation, Vera, and those of your children and grandchildren.

It pains me to see my generation act so selfishly — so callously towards future generations. We take from your and your parents’ generations so we can live above our means today. We dig our financial hole deeper every day and remain willfully blind and ignorant to the implications of our decisions on future generations. And we continue to elect members of Congress and presidents who cater to our selfish desires. We are a nation with leaders who know not what leadership truly means but, instead, patronize and act only out of self interest.

Europeans thought native Americans were savages. Yet some of them — people who inhabited this land of ours long before the ships from Europe arrived — were concerned with the seventh generation.

Perhaps we need to reconsider what it means to be civilized.

Who’s the Lucky One?

During the past couple of months I’ve heard it often. The first time was in the ambulance. From the paramedic.

I didn’t have to be told, of course. I instinctively knew it from the first moment I regained consciousness and realized the severity of the collision. I knew I was lucky to be alive.

But I don’t necessarily feel lucky. I have no way of knowing whether survival was a good or bad thing. What will the future hold? I don’t know. What pain and suffering may have been averted if I had never regained consciousness? I have no way of knowing. I do know that I may rue the day I woke up. I hope not. But I can’t dismiss the possibility.

Life is random that way. There is so much out of our control. “Shit happens,” they say. And often there is nothing we can do about it.

When people tell me that I’m lucky, I often think, and sometimes say, “We’re all lucky.” Anything could happen to any of us at any time, without warning. It’s just that, without a life-threatening event or condition, we tend not to focus on our good fortune. But when disaster fails to materialize or is averted quietly, we are just as lucky as when we survive an actual event. The only difference is, we don’t experience it the same way. We don’t feel lucky.

There is something else I think when people tell me how lucky I was, and it has nothing to do with the auto accident. Rather, it involves my inheritance, something over which I had no say whatsoever.

I was lucky to:

  • be born a white male in America (not that it’s better, but it’s that it conferred privileges in the 20th century that made it easier to succeed)
  • have two parents who cared for me and provided for my needs
  • have loving extended families
  • be able to attend school and get an education
  • meet a wonderful girl who would become my wife
  • have two healthy sons
  • have a healthy granddaughter
  • not inherit any generic disease or disability
  • be born with cognitive abilities that enabled me to succeed professionally

I suppose there are other things that don’t come to mind. But suffice it to say that the list that does occur to me is overwhelming.

I had nothing to do with any of it. I didn’t earn it; I didn’t deserve it; I’m not entitled to it. Rather, it was luck. Pure luck.

Not everyone is so lucky. And it’s not their fault.

I had no control over whether I’d live or die in that car that day. I could have died. But I didn’t. I didn’t deserve to die. Or live. I hadn’t earned the right to survive. I was lucky. Maybe.

For the reasons I explained at the outset, I can’t be sure I was lucky to survive that day. But what I do know is that I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of luck in my life. Sometimes I forget. But I try to remember. Remembering makes me a better person. Or at least a less bad one.

I’ve been so very, very lucky. It’s just not for the reasons most people think.

Turning Black Friday White

Many people are shopping today. Data show that some of them haven’t yet paid off the bills from last year’s shopping binges. But it won’t stop them from shopping more.

In the short-term, this is good for the economy and, by extension, for the rest of us. The long-term is a different story. But, as Americans are prone to do, we’ll deal with that if and when it becomes a problem.

I don’t need anything and I don’t know anyone who does, so I won’t be shopping today. It occurred to me, however, that that’s a problem. Why don’t I know anyone who needs anything?

Perhaps I know too few people. Or perhaps my sphere of personal interactions is too small.

I don’t feel the need to shop, but I do feel like I should have to shop. I feel like I should know someone who needs something.

In general, I think we’re either givers or takers. Most of us aren’t one or the other entirely; we’re a mixture of both. I have seen, however, people who seem to be 100 percent takers. I don’t find them to be attractive and have no desire to emulate them. But perhaps I’m more like them than I care to admit.

What I’ve learned over the course of my life is giving matters. It helps keep us grounded. It helps us maintain proper perspective. It nourishes our souls and makes us better people.

I used to think staying away from the stores was a good thing. That not spending was meritorious. But I’m no longer so sure.

Turkeys Remind Us

Turkeys sacrifice. Themselves. That’s what they do. For us. Just look around the table today if you don’t believe me.

But it’s not only turkeys. There’s a lot of sacrifice out there. It’s just that most of it goes unnoticed.

You might wonder why people sacrifice. After all, we’re not turkeys. They don’t have a choice. Usually, we do.

I suppose there are several reasons people sacrifice.

Sometimes, it’s for a belief. Some people believe it’s important to live an ethical life. To have integrity. To not do something they believe is wrong. Yet they can’t control what comes their way. And sometimes what comes their way is a demand by more powerful people to do something that conflicts with their beliefs. And sometimes the demand is paired with a threat. Go along or suffer the consequences. Some people decide to stand firm on their principles and not to compromise. Sometimes, this means they have to sacrifice. Sometimes, it even means their death.

Sacrifice also can be rooted in love. Most of us parents would do anything for our spouse, children and grandchildren. We’d even sacrifice our lives if necessary. Parental love is that way. It knows no bounds.

Kids (myself included) tend to overlook or minimize this sacrifice. We tend to focus on what our parents did wrong. Or how they messed us up. Or their flaws. We fail to see the sacrifice. Or we don’t think it makes up for the wrong. Perhaps it doesn’t. But it’s still part of the equation. It can’t be written out of the book of history. Sometimes we acknowledge the sacrifice at their funeral. Sometimes we never do.

Today is a day we set aside to give thanks. To express gratitude. To count our blessings.

For starters, I’d like to thank the turkey. The ultimate sacrifice is unlike any other. It’s a big deal, even if you don’t have a say in the matter.

If you do have a choice, it’s an even bigger deal.

To my parents and grandparents (most of whom are gone), thank you. I get it. I’m a parent, too. I know what you’ve given. And what you were willing to give. Wow. Just wow.

To my wife and best friend (they’re the same person), gratitude doesn’t begin to capture what I feel. If you needed a heart, I’d give you mine. And be glad I could.

To my sons and you, Vera, my only grandchild, and your mother, the wife of our son, each of you is a blessing beyond measure. I’ve made mistakes. And probably will make more. But never doubt I would be willing to be the turkey if necessary.

To all our ancestors and contemporaries who worked so hard and gave of so much to make the world a better place, thank you. Your sacrifices may have gone unnoticed, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest.

If there is a spirit out there who cares, and loves us, thank you to you as well. Thank you for allowing us to experience the joy and blessing of sacrifice.

To care enough to find joy and blessing in sacrifice is indeed a gift. The source of this gift is a mystery. Yet it’s existence isn’t. It’s real. And precious.

The turkey will never experience it. But we can.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Does Character Matter?

Does character matter? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I think it does. But not all people do. As I said, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

This past week Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama said she thought the Republican candidate for the U.S. senate sexually molested young girls. But she’s going to vote for him anyway. To the governor, character doesn’t matter.

The governor of Alabama is a woman. Women have been abused, molested, assaulted and victimized by men of poor character throughout history. And still are. You’d think that would bother all women. But apparently it doesn’t. Or if it does, apparently there are greater concerns — something more important than character. And subjugation.

I suppose each of us must decide whether we want to be like the governor or not. We don’t have to be. We can be better. You can be better, Vera. You have a choice.

It comes up a lot in life. I guarantee you it will come up in the workplace. You will have to decide if character matters. If you’re going to live a virtuous life.

You have great role models: your parents. But that doesn’t guarantee anything. It just changes the odds. In the final analysis, it will be your choice. Will you be someone like Governor Ivey or Roy Moore, or will you be better than that?

Will you cheat, lie or steal? Or will your word be your bond? Will integrity matter to you?

Will you be willing to be fired or decide to leave a job at great disruption to your life, or will you go along and acquiesce to low moral and ethical standards?

Life is full of such choices. And decisions have consequences. There are always consequences, even when you think you’re remaining aloof or standing on the sidelines.

I have just one tip that will change the odds in your favor should you decide that character matters: Associate with great people.

When I haven’t, I’ve come to regret it. When I have, I’ve benefited immensely.

Great people — people of character, integrity and virtue, who care and do their best — will bring out the best in you. They will inspire you. Challenge you. Support you. Around them, being like Governor Ivey seems like an intolerable idea. Around them, you’ll have a much better chance of being a great person yourself.

The world is full of people like Governor Ivey. But it doesn’t mean you have to be that way. You can be so much more.

Choose wisely.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Trauma’s a bitch. It’s painful, and nothing good comes from it. Or so I thought. We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental disorder that can develop after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event, such as an assault, war, traffic collision or other threat on a person’s life. Trauma can do that to you. It can upend your life.

I hadn’t focused on the fact that an opposite phenomenon exists, that is, until last week when I was re-reading Nassim Taleb’s superb book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (which I highly recommend!). Taleb recalled a conversation he had with David Halpern, a U.K. government advisor and policy maker. They were discussing the idea of antifragility. It was during that conversation that Halpern mentioned “post-traumatic growth, the opposite of PTSD, by which people harmed by past events surpass themselves.”

Why I chose to re-read Taleb’s book, I don’t know. But the timing couldn’t have been better.

Of course, it had never occurred to me that I’d ever experience any major physical trauma in my life. Like most people, we expect such things happen only to other people. Until it happens to us.

It’s been nearly two months since the ambulance passed by two or three other hospitals on its way to one that had a Level 1 trauma center. That was my first inkling things possibly were more serious than I had thought. Fortunately, though, my initial self-assessment was correct: I hadn’t sustained any life-threatening injuries. But it also was incorrect: I had sustained far more trauma than I imagined.

After a grade 3 concussion and considerable period of unconsciousness, amnesia, ER sutures, three surgeries, bacterial pneumonia, partially collapsed lung, leg injury that, for weeks, made walking extremely difficult and painful, dental repair work (in progress) and some days of intense torso and extremities pain unlike anything I had ever experienced, I came to realize that my body — indeed, I — had experienced severe trauma. I also came to believe my life would never be the same.

In what way, I didn’t know. Yet I had a feeling that something was different. But I had never heard of post-traumatic growth.

Despite my internal protestations, my mind still takes me back to that moment when I regained consciousness, alone, trapped in that crushed car, having no idea where I was or what had happened. And to the moment when I was transferred from the ambulance stretcher to the ER table as a well-orchestrated bevy of doctors and nurses descended on me. And to the moment, lying stripped and dazed on the ER table, when the clergyman appeared by my side, causing me to wonder (and question) whether the situation was worse than I realized.

But I’m fortunate — incredibly so. The memories aren’t debilitating. It’s true, they can be unsettling and, sometimes, even elicit tears. But most of all, they are a marker.

I sense there will always be a before and after in my life, with the moment of demarcation being the only thing I can remember about the crash: the deafening, surreal sound of the collision.

More importantly, I sense the trauma from that extreme autumn day may be the trigger for new growth. It may be that, because of the trauma, I will surpass that which was previously possible.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” I’m not sure it’s necessarily so, but I do think it can be so.

It’s not yet clear to me how this growth will manifest itself. Or where it will lead. But the sense of peace and grace that enveloped me that day seems to be saying, “Be patient. Give it time.”

I feel stronger by the day. And I sense that soon I will be stronger than I was before that day — the day that separates the before from the after.

For a short while, I was trapped in a car. Yet for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, I now feel less trapped in life. And, in the parlance of Taleb, I feel more antifragile. Indeed, I feel like I have “more soul in the game.” (Taleb)

Our Concern for the Rich Is Heartwarming

Our president came out today for even larger tax cuts for the wealthy (himself included, of course). He’s urging Congress to cut healthcare spending to fund part of these cuts. And, of course, we’ll borrow the rest. Why not give more money to rich people today that our kids and grandchildren can pay back later, with interest of course? That’s so generous and selfless of us.

None of this comes as a surprise. Plain folk seem to have a deep and abiding concern for rich folk in our country. Even many of our evangelists promote such policies. Apparently, it’s what Jesus would do.

I assume there’s a sense in the countryside that our wealthy citizens have been treated unfairly. So all the country needs to make it great again are millionaires and billionaires who can hoard even more money for their children and grandchildren. And buy more houses. And bigger planes.

Just think how great we’ll become.

P.S. 11/14/17: It was announced today that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population now owns more than half of the world’s wealth. But I suppose they can always use more.

Mustering Courage

You’re shy, Vera. You often stand back, observing, thinking, uncertain when or how to engage. That’s O.K. That’s how you were created, and don’t let anyone tell you there is anything wrong with it. They will try. Some extroverts and those who charge in think their approach is the right one. But it’s not a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of individuality and differences. And accepting who you are. And being yourself.

This weekend you’ve been staying with us while your parents are out of town. We took you to Chick-fil-A® for lunch yesterday. I thought you would like it. Little did I know we’d end up spending nearly an hour and a half there.

It was packed of course. But we lucked out and got a table. We were surrounded by chaos. Lots of families and energetic kids. It was noisy. But you seemed O.K. You watched. Observed.

I thought you’d like their chicken nuggets, but it was the fruit in the kids’ meal that was devoured first. You checked out the game that came with your meal, but it was intended for older kids so it didn’t have much appeal.

It took a long time to eat because you were observing so much. And were distracted. It wasn’t only the kids and activity in the dining room. From our table you also could see the children’s play area behind the glass. You could see some kids climbing. And sliding down a tube sliding board.

You observed: Not with any apparent anxiety or fear; rather, with curiosity. I wondered what you were thinking.

When it came time to leave, I headed for the door. But you and your grandmother weren’t following. I soon learned that you were insisting that we check out the play area. So, naturally, being grandparents (i.e., persons who are loath to say no), we did.

It was a scary place. That was my assessment, not yours. You didn’t seem scared. It was loud — louder than the dining room. And more chaotic, made all the worse by four young boys who clearly had an over supply of energy.

To our right was a structure one was to climb up. From there kids could access the tube sliding board. You stood by the bottom of the entry point — where the kids were climbing up. To the side, of course. You watched.

And watched. And watched. You and your grandmother checked out a few other things, but you soon returned to your watch point where the kids were heading up to the sliding board.

You wanted to stay. Yet you simply couldn’t muster the courage to join the fray and climb up. Minutes passed by. Lots of them. I think we must have waited 20 minutes or more. But that was O.K. You wanted to be there. You wanted to wait. It was too good to leave.

Finally, the rambunctious boys left and the activity area had only a few other kids. I could see it in your eyes. This was your opportunity!

I suggested to you that it may not get any better than this. Didn’t you want to go up?

And then it happened. You started up to the top of the structure. But you soon encountered a problem: a young girl was blocking your way. You could have gone around, but you froze. There was movement. You progressed. You were in a tube section out of sight from us. But it wasn’t entirely opaque. I could see you once again encountered resistance: a kid who, for inexplicable reasons, had stopped. You retreated.

Your retreat didn’t last long though. You once again headed for the tube. You were out of sight for a while. We waited. And then you appeared. Down the slide. Grinning from ear to ear and laughing. “More?” you asked. “Sure,” I said.

You bolted to the entry point. Only this time was different. There was purpose to your stride. You seemed oblivious to the other kids. You even passed one. In no time, you were down the slide again, laughing harder than the time before.

You went again, with even more purpose. For the next while, you routinely bypassed other kids on your way to the slide. You weren’t observing. You were engaging. You weren’t anxious about the other kids. You were just one of the crowd, enjoying life to the fullest.

One of the reasons I wanted to take you to the restaurant is to help you get comfortable with strange situations. And to learn, in your own way and in your own time, that most of the fears and threats we feel aren’t real.

But I don’t want to push you. And I certainly don’t want to try to change you. I just want to help you release your inner courage — to nudge you gently when the rewards are probable. And not to miss out on a lot of the fun stuff in life.

I remember when I was in college, I dreaded the prospect of having to speak in class. Once a took a seminar with 12 other students. We had to speak. I hated it.

I also hated my speech class. Having to stand up in front of the class and give a speech was about the worst thing I could imagine.

Years later I gave many speeches to large crowds. And testified in the state legislature before Senate and House Committees. And gave TV interviews. Not only didn’t I mind it, I often enjoyed it.

But the path from college to standing in front of people wasn’t always an easy or pleasant one. I’m sure I didn’t always do a good job. And, in the early years, I would get really nervous. But I learned an important lesson along the way: fear comes from within. The outside world is not as threatening as it may seem.

It was fun watching you engage the outside world yesterday, albeit in a small, relatively insignificant way. On the way home, you fell asleep. Later, after we had returned home, you took me into the house in the basement that you and your grandmother had made out of chairs and blankets. Piggy and Bear live there. We visited them. You made us cake (your idea). And served me coffee.

It was a closed, protective environment. It was nothing like the restaurant. Our food and drink were imaginary. Tranquility prevailed. It was just you, me, Piggy and Bear.

Life is lived in both places, of course: in the public arena and in our private, protective enclaves. Chaos and tranquility. We need both. That’s the way we were made. That’s the way the world was made.

It takes courage to experience fully both places.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Real median earnings for men have gone nowhere now for over 40 years. Over the same span of time real corporate earnings have risen roughly five-fold. – Jesse Felder in “Is This How The Winner-Take-All Era Comes To An End?”

Since the early 1960s, the share of our GDP going to labor (not unions, but labor, which means anyone who works for a living and earns a wage or salary) has been declining. Indeed, it’s plummeted since the turn of the century. Labor has been the loser; corporations and their owners (i.e., capital) have been the winners. If you doubt that, consider the fact the stock market is at an all-time high and is trading at multiples not seen since the days leading up to the Crash of 1929. And consider how little of GDP growth is going to labor versus capital. (The data are easy to find if you’re interested.)

As a result of these dynamics and public policies skewed in favor of the rich and capital, economic inequality in our country has reached levels not seen since the depth of the Great Depression. The top 20 percent is leaving the bottom 80 percent in their dust. And the top 1 percent, and even more so the top 0.1 percent — well, they’ve been reaping nearly all the economic rewards our economy has been generating in recent years.

Not long ago, corporate CEOs earned about 40 times what their workers earned. Today, they earn 350 times what the workers earn. According to noted money manager Jeremy Grantham:

The system has gone to hell. Keynes, Schumpeter–and Marx, not to mention–thought, by their nature, corporations and capitalism would overreach simply because they could. Corporations would use their advantages to get more power and more money. Their share of the pie would increase, and cause society to push back. Sooner or later there will be pushback.

Yet the president and Republican-controlled Congress are now proposing a massive tax cut for corporations and, by extension, their owners (which includes, of course, many foreigners, such as the Swiss National Bank, the owner of $88 billion of U.S. stocks and, therefore, one of the prime beneficiaries of the new tax bill). Indeed, many foreigners stand to benefit greatly from this tax bill.

Congress and the president intend to pay for this tax cut in several ways:

  • by eliminating or curtailing many deductions and credits (for instance, by eliminating or drastically reducing deductions for medical expenses, home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, student-loan interest, employer-paid tuition assistance, child adoption credit, and a myriad of other deductions and credits), which will have the effect of increasing taxes on certain individuals and institutions (~ 12 percent of taxpayers) and making education, health care, child care and home ownership more expensive for some;
  • by imposing new taxes (for instance, a new tax on certain private nonprofit colleges);
  • by cutting back on health care expenditures (e.g., not appropriating funds for children who need health care but whose parents cannot afford it); and
  • by running an even larger deficit (“deficit spending”), which will be funded by more borrowing on the part of the federal government (in other words, by making our children, grandchildren and their children pay for the tax cut for corporations and the wealthy). The nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio already sits at a post-WW II high. This bill will take it higher (est. $1.75 trillion more over 10 years).

Oh, by the way, the tax bill preserves the outrageous hedge-fund tax loophole candidate Trump vowed to kill. I’m shocked. Another win for the wealthy; another successful head-fake on the part of the president.

On its face, the bill is ridiculous. Yet it’s being treated as a serious proposal. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it (or something very close to it) becomes law. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the electorate support it. Of course, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it dies in the Senate (as it should).

A democratic society that tolerates a handful of very big winners while the vast majority of everyone else is denied their share of the wealth the economy generates is not sustainable. It will end badly. Civil strife. Social tensions unlike anything we’ve seen in at least 50 years. Violence. War. Radical populism (not the fake billionaire-led variety we’re presently experiencing). Or the whole kit and caboodle simply may unravel.

Mr. Trump and his lackeys on the Hill, as well as their corporate benefactors, may be feeling their oats these days. But they might be whistling past the graveyard. And by the time many of their supporters realize what’s happening, it may be too late.

P.S. Although the overall thrust of the tax bill is highly objectionable to me, there are some changes that I like. Such as limiting the home mortgage deduction. Stopping the practice of using tax-free municipal bonds (private purpose bonds) to build sports stadiums for billionaires. There are others. What I dislike the most is the unconscionable increase in our national debt that will result from these cuts, the huge benefits being conferred on foreign investors, the likely negative impact on individuals (higher interest rates, including mortgage rates) and the continuation of public policy favoring capital over labor (one of the sources of the gross economic inequity that grips the nation today). In short, it’s likely to make economic inequality worse, not better. Instead of addressing the deepening problem of the working class falling further and further behind, Congress and the president want to confer huge benefits on the wealthy. The wealthy are doing just fine. We need elected representatives who care about the working class. Despite their rhetoric, these jokers do not. 

Another Slaughter

We had another mass murder event in America today. Twenty-six people or so in a church in Texas. It’s disconcerting how these events no longer shock us. They’re expected. Indeed, we know there will be another. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps next week. We don’t know when. But we do know it won’t be long.

I have no interest in debating gun control or chastising those who don’t believe we should have any restrictions on gun ownership. It wouldn’t do any good.

History tells us that the U.S. is a violent nation. Always has been. I don’t expect that to change.

We’re also told we’re a Christian nation. What a joke.

When these slaughters happen, I do wonder whether anything could change the political equation — whether we’d ever get to the point of saying enough is enough. Perhaps we will, but I’m not so sure. America is comfortable with violence. With killing.

We’re the only nation in the world with violence like this. That makes us exceptional I suppose. But is American exceptionalism always a good thing? Perhaps not.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m going to mention it again because it revealed to me just how messed up our cultural values are. A couple of years ago I went into a Starbucks in Cheyenne, Wyoming for a cup of coffee. Standing by the door was a big guy with an assault weapon slung over his shoulder. I couldn’t help think, what is wrong with us? How can any culture think this is O.K.?

Yet we do. Not all of us. But enough of us to allow nut jobs like this to do as they please.

Some call it freedom. To me, it’s just plain lunacy. Who in their right mind would think it’s necessary to carry an assault weapon into a Starbucks in Cheyenne? No one.

I’ll never understand why so many of the rest of us are content to live in such a society.

How many innocent people need to die before we come to our senses?

Apparently, a lot.