How ‘Bout We Stop Using This Word

For a myriad of reasons, I hate the word “success.” The main reason, I suppose, is because the way we associate it with wealth. I guess I’m too old to fall for that line; I know better. Which is why this perverted use of the word is so annoying. Because it perpetuates a fraud. And misleads our youth. And takes people’s eye off the ball — the one that truly matters.

Donald McCullogh, in Waking From The American Dream, makes the point in stark terms as he described the fortunes of seven well-known successful men:

“In 1923, seven men who had made it to the top of the financial success pyramid met together at the Edgewater Hotel in Chicago. Collectively, they controlled more wealth than the entire United States Treasury, and for years the media had held them up as examples of success.

Who were they? Charles M. Schwab, president of the world’s largest steel company; Arthur Cutten, the greatest wheat speculator of his day; Richard Whitney, president of the New York Stock Exchange; Albert Fall, a member of the President’s Cabinet; Jesse Livermore, the greatest bear on Wall Street; Leon Fraser, president of the International Bank of Settlement; and Ivar Kreuger, the head of the world’s largest monopoly.

What happened to them? Schwab and Cutten both died broke; Whitney spent years of his life in Sing Sing penitentiary; Fall also spent years in prison, but was released so he could die at home; and the others? Livermore, Fraser, and Kreuger, committed suicide.”

I think the world would be better off if we simply stopped using the word. I’m pretty sure our kids would be better off.

“Let’s Be Careful Out There”

How about this for good news?

As someone who survived a serious auto accident, I’m probably focused on traffic safety more than the average Joe. And it’s also the reason I take such delight in stories like the one in today’s New York Times. A 100-year low! So many deaths and injuries avoided; so much pain and suffering averted.

It’s also one of the reasons I get frustrated by the lack of traffic safety in places like Carmel, Indiana, where I live. Carmel isn’t a particularly safe place for pedestrians. An unusually high percentage of drivers here don’t seem to see pedestrians. Or if they do see us, then they don’t seem to care much about our safety. Suffice it to say you have to be a very defensive walker in Carmel. But perhaps Carmel isn’t unusual in this regard. Perhaps what I observe is a reflection of a broader trend. I don’t know.

What I can be sure of, however, is we (the U.S.) could do better. Fewer people would die and be injured if we set our mind to it. The success that some other countries have had in reducing dramatically auto accident rates points the way. But, of course, we could do worse. And we have done worse.

Indeed, but for improved safety features in today’s automobiles (compared to those of my youth), it’s likely I wouldn’t be alive to write this. I probably would have died on September 22, 2017. So I’m grateful. Very grateful. For the advancements. And for the hard work and commitment of everyone who helped make the world a safer place.

So today I celebrate NYC’s success. And remember the famous line from Hill Street Blues:

“Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

For ourselves.

And each other.

The World Has Both Bulls and Bears. Always Has. Always Will.

It looks like one of the longest bull markets in U.S. history has come to an end. A bull market is when stock prices are rising. Obviously, people love bull markets. It makes them richer. What could be better?

But it looks like we’ve entered a bear market. People hate bear markets. They lose money. Lots of money. At least on paper. A bear market is generally defined as one that experiences at least a 20 percent decline in stock prices. Some see larger losses — even up to 80 percent of the market’s value, which can be devastating to both individual and institutional investors alike.

There is no way of knowing how bad this bear market might turn out to be — until it’s over; until we can see it in the rearview mirror. Which makes investing hard.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see a bear coming. They’re preceded by abnormally high stock values. Often, they’re preceded by bubbles. That’s what happened with this last bull market. Valuations got ridiculous.

So why didn’t people sell? Why did they hold on to their stocks until the bear arrived and took his bite out of their portfolios? I’ll come back to that in a minute. Continue reading

But At Least the Trump Family Is Getting Rich

Surely the president must be spazzing out over this, given how fond he is of telling everyone how much better he is than any of our prior presidents.

P.S. Normally, I don’t think a president has much of an impact on the stock market, given that no president controls economic forces or cycles. But this one most surely has had an impact, including a contribution to the current decline.

Watching Bad People Hang Themselves with Their Own Words Is Oddly Satisfying

In case you haven’t been paying attention:

  • small cap stocks are now lower than they were when Trump got elected; and
  • the Dow Jones Industrial Average is where it was in September 2017 (and if you bought its stocks at the peak, you would have lost lots of $$$).

According to my calculations, Messrs. Mnuchin and Trump, your grade is a D at best.

Lesson in all of this, Vera: be careful what you say. As Mr. Mnuchin and his boss have proved (time and time again), even smart people say some pretty dumb things. You can do better.

America Tilts South and West

Population growth in the U.S. is at 80 year lows due to record low birth rates and a decline in longevity (Americans are dying earlier, on average, thanks to its decaying culture and failures of capitalism). Without immigration (which accounts for nearly half of our growth), the economic impact would be more dramatic.

The most recent population figures released by the Census Bureau show the shift from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West continues unabated.

Nine states have actually shrunk in population since 2010: New York (high taxes and high property values in NYC), Illinois (major fiscal problems), West Virginia (shrinking coal industry), Louisiana (Katrina), Hawaii (high cost of living), Mississippi (Katrina and lack of industry), Alaska (lower oil prices), Connecticut (high taxes), and Wyoming (lower oil prices).

The states with the highest rate of population growth are Nevada (flight from costly California), Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Florida. Climate seems to play a major role here.

All of this is relevant, particularly to a young person, because it points to where growth and job opportunities are likely to be robust and, conversely, to the places where opportunities may be more limited.

It also highlights shifting political sands. For instance, my native state of Pennsylvania will continue to lose political muscle as its share of the U.S. population shrinks while the political muscle of the last state in which I lived, Colorado, builds. Western Pennsylvania is not done transitioning from a steel and coal economy, a transition that decimated many communities.

If the reapportionment of U.S. House seats was done using this year’s data, Texas would gain two seats, while Arizona, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Oregon would each gain one. (See this cool graphic.)

Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia would each lose a seat, with Rhode Island falling to a single representative.

All and all, more bad news for colleges in the Northeast and Midwest, where quite a few more will end up closing over the next 10 to 20 years.

And more bad news for taxpayers in those shrinking or stagnant states, who will have to bear the cost of decades of bad political decisions that have resulted in major public pension deficits and crumbling infrastructure.

In sum, there continues to be a strong case to be made to move to Idaho, Utah, Colorado, or Texas. I’m still waiting for Albuquerque to spring to life. It’s the most underperforming high potential city in America.

Some Big Questions with Small Answers

From time to time I take stock by asking myself some big questions. In case you’re interested, Vera, here are my answers as of today (in other words, either the questions or answers, or both, could change):

What’s the purpose of life?

Perhaps there is none. My focus is on experiencing life fully.

What stands in the way of contentment and happiness?

Three things come to mind: 1) desire, 2) the need to make a difference and 3) the idea that I and the world should be something we’re not.

Is there a creator-being (God)?

No one knows. Moreover, it’s a question that need not be answered.

What is the prime age?

Physically, our 20s and even into our 30s. Cognitively, our mid-20s to mid-40s. Emotionally and psychologically, we can improve with age; there is no reason to believe we ever have to peak (subject to disease).

What’s the most important factor to consider in deciding where to work?

The attributes of the people who work there: their purpose, expertise, standards (both performance and ethical), and values.

What deserves more attention than it gets?

The inner life. The external receives nearly all our attention.

What are the most precious things in life?

Authentic, caring relationships. And experiences that excite us.

Is money the root of all evil?

No, although it’s the root of much evil. But ego plays a major role, too.

If there is no god, is there even such a thing as evil or sin?

Depends on what you mean by it. Clearly, there are things that harm oneself, others, or the earth. Call it what you want.

What would I do different if I had the opportunity to start over?

Not spend so much time looking for answers that don’t exist. Seek deeper understanding and become more aware of the knowable. Recognize the dangers of the ego and desire. Waste less time in meetings and watching TV and sporting events. Accept reality, expect nothing from others or fate, and be less judgmental. Eat less sugar and sugar-containing products. Be a better listener. Start my own business or firm. Be less attached to, dependent upon, and concerned with others and the ego. Value relationships more. Work less and play more. Live more in the moment.

What’s the best movie I’ve watched, the best book I’ve read, the best president we’ve had, the best college, etc.?

I’m tapped out with our obsession with rankings and hierarchies. They’re a distraction and waste of time.

What constitutes a good book?

One that’s worth reading more than once. If you want to know what authors and books I value, come and look at my bookcase (and the floor surrounding it).

What would I do different in rearing my children?

Be less concerned with imparting values and what I thought was knowledge, and regulating conduct, and more focused on helping them discover things and gain a deeper understanding of people and themselves. Ask the question “why?” more often.

What do you think of organized religion?

It demands I embrace too many ideas I no longer believe are true or necessary or even beneficial. And I’ve grown weary of the way the institution manipulates people through guilt, embraces obvious charlatans, and condones — indeed, helps perpetuate — ideologies and power structures that subjugate and pacify people. So organized religion no longer has a place in my life. Even more personally, it filled my psyche with the seeds of self-doubt and self-loathing, which nearly killed me. All and all, the dangers of organized religion are under-appreciated. That said, its rituals and ethical foundations can play an important and beneficial role in the world. And some of the most admirable, authentic people I’ve known I’ve met through the church (although, admittedly, some of the most deceitful, fraudulent, and despicable people I’ve met have been regular church-goers).

What’s unexplainable in life?

Most things. Of the many, two stand out in my life: 1) a vision in my 40s (very different from a dream) and 2) a born-again experience in my early 50s (bearing absolutely no resemblance to what evangelical Christians think of as being “born again”).

What do I hope to understand better?

My own mind.

What do I hope to control better?

My own thoughts.

What is the most destructive force on earth?

Fear.

What do I fear?

Too numerous to list. Someday I hope to fear nothing. My fears today are fewer and less powerful than they used to be. But I still am fearful of too many things. Courage is harder to muster than one would think.

What are the two most important words ever spoken?

“Fear not.” – Jesus

What are the three most important words ever spoken?

“Love one another.” – Jesus

Am I optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Neither. Moreover, my views of the future are of no import, either to me or to anyone else. I have no idea what the future holds, nor do I need to. My focus is on today. I looked forward to getting up this morning. And I expect to have the same excitement tomorrow morning.

Whom do I admire?

People who risk or sacrifice something to help others. And people who are authentic and don’t pretend to be somebody they aren’t. People who do their best. People who are honest (with others and themselves).

What traits serve people well?

Curiosity, open-mindedness, and courage.

What’s most important in life?

Inner peace.

What do I want to be remembered for?

I’ll be dead. Such questions don’t interest me. They seem silly and narcissistic.