Soul in the Game

I was surprised recently to read these words written by scholar and author Nassim Taleb (and former equities trader). Nassim is not fond of liberals. He’s not in the conservatives’ camp either. He’s probably more libertarian than conservative. But he’s less harsh on conservatives. He holds a special disdain for liberals, especially if they’re academics or economists. Or do-gooders who want to tell everyone else how to live. So you can image my surprise when I read his assessment of Ralph Nadar, a liberal by anyone’s standards. Nassim wrote:

I developed a friendship over the past few years with the activist Ralph Nadar … . Aside from an astonishing amount of personal courage and total indifference toward smear campaigns, he exhibited absolutely no divorce between what he preaches and his lifestyle, none. Just like saints who have soul in their game. The man is a secular saint.

Earlier in his writing, Taleb had commented about courage, sacrifice and heroism. He referred to a “new form of courage, that of the Socratic Plato.” He noted the privilege of “standing up for one’s values, … the highest form of honor.” He added:

No one has had more prestige in history than two thinkers who overtly and defiantly sacrificed their lives for their ideas–two Eastern Mediterraneans; one Greek and one Semite.

People who had soul in the game. People who exhibited “absolutely no divorce” between what they preached and how they lived.

Perhaps most of us don’t have it in us to be heroes. Or to be people who exhibit no divorce between what we preach and our lifestyle. I know I don’t. But it’s nice there have been — there are — such people. They inspire the rest of us. They give us hope. They confirm that words matter. That actions matter. That lives matter. That we matter.

America Needs to Rethink Its Views about Government and Corporations

Yesterday I read in the newspaper about a former executive of Volkswagen who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in his company’s notorious scheme to defraud the U.S. by rigging the emissions tests of VW autos. I also read about the CEO of a company who resigned in the face of allegations of serious misrepresentations of financial information (another Enron although of much smaller scale).

Once again I am left to wonder, How did we get it into our heads in this country that government is inherently bad and corporations are inherently good? My reaction is always the same: people who think that way have never worked for a corporation (or at least never held an executive position in one).

That’s not to say corporations are evil and that everyone who works for one is bad. Hardly. And it’s not to say that everyone who works for government is good or conscientious, either. Hardly.

It is to say, however, that government has a proper role to play. Government is not inherently bad. It’s necessary. And, through government, a lot of good has been accomplished in the world. We should stop trying to tear it down and put a little more effort into making it as good as it can be. But that doesn’t seem to be our goal these days. Instead, we seem to be ceding control to our corporations, because, as we’re led to believe: government is bad, business is good. You’d think the flaw in this position would be obvious, but you’d be wrong. Many smart people now believe it to be true.

Most of us who’ve spent a career in business — and particularly those of us in the legal field — know that claim is a bunch of bull. Indeed, there is a helluva lot of criminal, fraudulent and unethical activity going on within our corporations. We should stop pretending there isn’t. Just read the frinkin’ papers. We also should stop pretending that corporations are so incredibly efficient. Most aren’t.

Some of the most conscientious, ethical people whom I’ve had the privilege of dealing with work for government. And for business. And some of the slimiest people whom I’ve observed in action have worked for corporations. And for the government. You even elected some of them.

It’s indisputable that there are good and bad actors in both government and industry. That’s the point. Both ethical and unethical behaviors can be found in both. And both corporations and government can be inefficient and wasteful.

I don’t understand what’s behind this extreme deference we’re showing to business these days, other than to conclude it’s just one more example of the power of propaganda. Republicans have been trying to tear down government for the past 40 years or more, and they’ve largely succeeded, principally through the tool of relentless propaganda. As a result, the corporations’ lobbyists are now writing our tax code, corporations (e.g., Facebook) are allowing themselves to be used by foreign agents to influence our elections, corporations are polluting our environment in violation of laws, corporations are shipping jobs overseas and still other corporations are acquiring monopoly power, unchecked by our neutered government antitrust enforcers. Indeed, we seem to be on the verge of handing corporate America the keys to the car.

We’re paying a steep price. And we’ll pay an even higher price in the future if we take these misguided ideas to their illogical extremes. But at least the corporations will be happy. And why shouldn’t they be?

I’m Declaring War on Sugar

In the mid-19th century, diabetes and obesity were not problems in America. Today, they represent an epidemic, not only in America but also in other countries that have adopted a Western diet and lifestyle. One in 11 Americans has diabetes. Most of us Americans are overweight (including me). Many are obese.

The situation is not benign. Far from it. People are dying prematurely. People are getting joint replacements at record rates. Most men age 60 and above suffer from heart disease. The percentage of people with high blood pressure is high. A substantial number of people are taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Medical costs in the U.S. are the highest in the world on a per capita basis. We’re spending huge amounts of money (an estimated $1 billion a day in the U.S.) to deal with obesity and diabetes. It’s a big problem.

If you’re interested in learning more, there are ample resources and evidence available: books, news articles, magazine stories, research studies, etc. If you want to explore the topic briefly, I recommend this podcast of Gary Taubes.

There’s also ample evidence from observation. You’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on: what we’re eating, what we weigh, what it’s costing us (in both quality of life and money).

Given the size of the problem, I’m surprised we’re not doing more about it. Then again, I’m not surprised. I’m guilty. I love many of the food products that are bad for us.

Periodically, I try to clean up my diet. But I always backslide. So I carry more weight than I should, even though I know better. I hate it when my willpower comes up short. It makes me feel weak. And not in control. I hate it.

I like how I feel when I weigh less. And common sense tells me my joints appreciate it, too. And my heart. And especially my liver and pancreas. Perhaps even my brain.

It’s true I exercise more than most. But being in shape doesn’t compensate for being overweight. Or being addicted to sugar.

Perhaps you’ll have more willpower than me, Vera. Perhaps this won’t be a problem for you. But just in case, I’ve decided to be a better role model.

I have to keep it simple though. If the plan is too complicated, it’s more likely to fail. So here’s my plan: to declare war on sugar.

Clearly, sugar is the main culprit. If I conquer it, victory will be at hand. That’s a simple enough plan for me.

But it’s also hard. It won’t be easy. Sugar is a psycho-active substance. It’s addictive. It’s powerful. It will resist. It will fight back. The question is, Who is stronger? Who has the most willpower?

No one likes to lose a war. So in framing it as a war, I’m hoping to muster a psychological advantage.

I’m also using you, Vera, in my psychological warfare. You will help me with accountability. You don’t know it; you’re too young. But you have a role to play. When I think of you, or see you, you’ll be a strong reminder of what’s at stake.

I want to be able to do things with you. To play. Run. Ride bikes. Hike. Climb. Whatever. And I want to be around to see you grow up. And I don’t want to spend my time in doctor’s offices or hospitals. I don’t want to have surgeries. Or pay a lot of money buying meds. And, most importantly, I want feel good.

Feeling good is important. I think we underestimate its importance.

I feel better light.

So I’m waging a war. Sugar is my enemy. Prepare to die, sugar!

Is Medicine As Bad As My Surgeon Says It Is?

During my last appointment with one of the surgeons who operated on me following my auto accident, after discussing my latest injury and path forward, she changed the subject and threw me a curve ball: She turned the subject to my emergency care in the hours following my accident and offered her opinion that the hospital to which I was taken by ambulance had committed malpractice.

Now, malpractice isn’t a work doctors use lightly. In my experience as a lawyer, I find that most doctors are protective of their medical colleagues and their profession. Many dislike lawyers because they second-guess doctors’ decisions. And seek monetary damages for their clients. Frankly, I never thought I’d hear a doctor go out of her way to offer an unsolicited opinion that her distant colleagues screwed up.

I wasn’t surprised by the opinion, however. Indeed, I had reached the same conclusion on my own, although I hadn’t intended to do anything about it other than to call the hospital and share my concerns. I certainly had no intention of suing, and I still don’t have any such intention.

My doctor didn’t stop there. She began talking about the state of hospitals in general. She criticized what had become of most of the teaching hospitals, including some well-known ones. She opined that, outside of a few institutions like the Cleveland Clinic and MD Anderson, most have seen their quality erode. Finally, she said she would avoid most hospitals, including a well known one right here in Indy.

She offered quite a few specifics to back up her claim, but I’m not going to get into it here. Nor am I going to explain the basis for her and my opinion that the hospital to which I was taken had committed malpractice. I’m not going to get into it because, by and large, most of us have no choice in the matter. Or very little choice.

We will go to the nearest hospital to which the ambulance takes us or our GP or specialist sends us. Moreover, we lack the time and sophistication to research the quality issues adequately. Or at least we lack the commitment to take the time. That said, there is more we can do.

I have a friend who thinks you always need an advocate to help look after your interests if you find yourself hospitalized. I have another former friend who can recite the times her presence at the hospital (one of the top-ranked hospitals in the country) helped save her husband’s life. I have another friend who took her mother from Pittsburgh to Texas for an operation because that’s where the best care could be secured. In other words, there is something we can do; we’re not as helpless as we often act.

When I look back to my relatively brief hospital stay, I can see where an advocate would have helped. I had suffered a concussion that had rendered me unconscious for a considerable period of time — an injury to the brain. I was hardly in position to make important decisions or to question decisions being made by doctors.

I was fortunate though; the negative consequences of their mistakes may have been relatively minor. But others haven’t been so fortunate. Some mistakes have been costly. Some have been deadly.

There always will be mistakes, of course. We’re human. We’re imperfect. Mistakes are part of our makeup. But there are mistakes, and there are mistakes.

I’d argue that many of the mistakes today are the foreseeable product of a corrupt incentive system. My surgeon would argue — and I tend to agree — that most hospitals are being run by the finance department these days, which is a fancy way of saying that money rules. It’s not surprising. We see it everywhere, not only in medicine.

We see it in the fields of research (pharmaceutical and others), government (corporate special interests calling the shots), education (the atrocious quality of the student educational experience at most of our colleges and the abysmal results achieved by many K-12 schools), religion (despite Jesus overturning the tables, it appears the money changers won), and elsewhere.

But medicine is arguably different. Lives are at stake. But is it different? Why would we think it would be?

I’m grateful for the skill and expertise of some of the doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who worked on me and my case in the aftermath of the accident. But I’m also disappointed in the performance of some of the doctors and others.

I’m not going to forget what my surgeon told me. The next time (if there is a next time), I’ll be less deferential and more skeptical, especially concerning the judgment calls the doctors make. And I will ask for help from someone who isn’t in the middle of the crisis.

I know that money corrupts. History teaches few lessons that are as clear as that one. Is money corrupting our health care system? Or perhaps the better way of asking it is, Is medicine immune from the corrupting influences of money?

How could it be?

The Fear of Missing Out

Social media and internet usage are driven, in part, by the fear of missing out. In my case, despite knowing better, I check news sites, Twitter and Facebook far too often. I want to be sure I don’t miss something important. Unfortunately, the internet does a poor job of separating the important from the trivial, which means I spend too much time and focus on the unimportant.

The problem is, all of this is time consuming and distracting. It interferes with other things, namely, things that have the potential of being far more meaningful and valuable to myself and others.

The other aspect of the problem is the lack of discipline being exhibited. A well-disciplined person would not succumb to the temptations of immediacy that the internet provides. The person would be in control.

Finally, there are the detriments of information overload. Simply put, I know too much. And a lot of what I know is utterly useless — sheer clutter and noise. It doesn’t make me a better person or better informed, and it certainly isn’t useful in making better decisions. It’s just information overload, plain and simple.

That’s the problem as I see it. So what’s the fix? Here’s the plan I’ve been implementing.

The first step is to be clear about what I need to know. I have a national newspaper delivered daily so there’s no danger of missing something of national or international importance. Hence, I’ve been reducing dramatically my checks of internet news sites.

But it’s not that simple. There is some news that is critical to what I do, namely, investing and trading financial assets (stocks and bonds primarily). So I do need to keep in touch with developments that could impact significantly the value of those assets and the markets generally.

Which brings me to Twitter. It’s a great resource; however, like other sites, it can get out of control. So I’ve been culling the list of people and organizations I follow to focus on those who are more regularly adding new insights or material information that is more likely to have a bearing on investment decisions.

I’ve also stopped reading most of the president’s tweets. At first, they were entertaining and insightful, providing a window to a deranged mind. But, frankly, by this point he’s become a bore. A potentially dangerous one, but a bore nonetheless. I don’t need daily reminders of just how crazy it is that an individual like him occupies the White House.

Finally, on the email front, I’ve been unsubscribing from all but what are essential sites for purposes of investment decisions. And have been converting daily Google Alerts to weekly ones and dropping ones that have only marginal value.

I often say that fear is the most insidious and injurious force in the universe. I believe that. But fear takes many forms. It’s taken me far too long to appreciate the grip that the fear of missing out has on my life. Finally, I’ve reached the point where denial is no longer an option. It’s time to take control.

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.

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)