The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Friday, December 30, 2005
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I’ve been writing a lot here lately. Perhaps it’s time for a picture . . . a little montage of celebrational artifacts from the Christian / Polish-American suburban culture. I.e., Christmas trees over the years from the house where I grew up.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, December 26, 2005
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About ten years ago, I tried to find myself a spiritual director. Like a lot of educated baby boomers, I reached the stage where the old tyme religion just wasn’t good enough anymore. The problems of life were getting nastier, the threat of meaninglessness was growing stronger, and so I wanted something deeper. The great spiritualists from the past recommend the institution of spiritual direction, whereby a person with a deep and mature faith helps another to find his or her own pathway to that state. So I decided to seek out a director.

Unfortunately, I never found one (and have pretty much given up looking). But I did make the effort and tried out a couple of middle aged priests. One was Episcopalian, one was Roman Catholic, and one was Presbyterian. I met once a month with each of them; each lasted about four to six months. It wasn’t bad; they each had some interesting things to say. But I guess that I was expecting something more. There was a psychological distance in each case, an air of “professionalism” perhaps. I read somewhere that a spiritual director is supposed to act as a friend who walks the journey of life with you. Personally, I never felt that friendship. What I did feel, at least in one instance, was a hand in my pocket. Not literally; I believe that Bob was a frustrated homosexual, but he wasn’t attracted to me (thank goodness).

However, I think that Bob was attracted to the idea of fiscal remuneration. I received a letter one day after seeing Bob for about 5 or 6 months, in which he tried to grasp the issue of money. In other words, Bob wasn’t in the spiritual direction business as a hobby; he needed cash! (And he probably did; at the time he was the pastor of some shrinking congregation that was obviously going broke and couldn’t afford to pay him much). Bob’s letter didn’t come right out and say “you owe me for the past 6 months”, but it did make some comparisons with the rates that shrinks charge per hour — as if to imply that an hour with him was as good as an hour with the average psychoanalyst (and maybe it was; I was never in therapy, but I’ve heard that there are a lot of lousy therapists out there). Well, I sent him a check for about $150, on the rationale that he might have been worth $25 an hour. However, at our next meeting I said that I hoped that it wasn’t all about money (and that I didn’t have to bring a checkbook with me every month).

Next month when I rang on his bell, no one answered the door. About a week later he mailed me a note apologizing for forgetting our appointment, and asked me to call him to reschedule. I called a couple of times and got his voicemail, so I left messages asking if a certain date was OK. I never got any response. Guess he didn’t forget that appointment (or that disappointing check) after all.

The Presbyterian guy never asked me for money, but he eventually shook me off similar to how Bob did. The Catholic guy, Fr. Albert, wasn’t bad. If I had kept on following up with him, he probably would have continued. It was me who lost interest in the arrangement. Even though he was in a monastic order and had written books on spirituality, Fr. Albert just didn’t seem to offer me anything more interesting that the basic Catholicism that I grew up with. I was looking for something a little bigger, a little more universal (more catholic than catholic!). But his books are still pretty good; they’re not very deep, but they do have breadth (as the good father is a world traveler). Fr. Albert never implied that I owed him money for our chats; in fact, he gave me a free copy of one of his books! The least I can do is give him a little plug here.

I guess that my spirit is just not directable (at least not for what I’m willing to pay). Perhaps the Buddha was right; ultimately, you have to go it alone.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:47 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 24, 2005
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I believe it was St. Francis de Sales who said that the worst thing about being poor is that you feel poor. In other words, if there are not-so-poor people around you, they have a way of making you feel like a loser. Not being sure where your next meal or your next rent payment is coming from is bad; but being made to feel like a loser is worse.

There was an article in the Economist recently that inadvertently made this point. The article intended to point out what a liberal fallacy the idea of “relative poverty” is, by comparing the lives and circumstances of a disabled man in a poor coal town in the mountains of Kentucky, versus a surgeon in the Congo. The man in the Congo was quite rich relative to his neighbors in the Congo, and yet his circumstances were much worse than the poor man in Kentucky. This supposedly proves that the notion of “relative poverty”, which is a popular measure of deprivation and qualification for government assistance in Europe, is a crock. Except that that article admits that because the Congo is so poor, most people there aren’t looked down upon by anyone else. They can maintain their sense of dignity. Whereas the man in Kentucky was well aware of his living in a trailer, and knew that American society looked down on people like him — i.e., “trailer trash”.

So, maybe relative poverty is important after all. America is a very materialistic society, and Americans are largely judged by their economic achievement. If you are rich, you are assumed to be good. If you are poor, you are poor in every which way. That’s the working assumption. Perhaps that helps to explain why there is so much crime and drug abuse in our “relatively poor” communities (both black and white, rural and urban; if you need stereotypes, think black / urban housing project / crack and Colt 45, versus white / rural trailer park / meth and Mountain Dew). Social assumptions have a way of being self-fulfilling. If you call some one “no good”, they’re probably going to act that way.

So, if we all started giving the poor more respect and stopped worshipping the rich, would crime rates suddenly drop and drug abuse disappear? No, of course not. It would take time, and it would have to be real, from the heart. But eventually, I think it would help to improve things, if it were sincere.

And then, there’s the problem of being rich; wealth doesn’t necessarily correlate with happiness. The rich spend barrels of money fighting off depression, and rich towns have the highest suicide rates. I live in a relatively wealthy section of town, and I can testify that there are psychoanalysts everywhere you look.

The Economist article says ends by saying that if Americans weren’t always striving so hard to have more and more, “their great country would not be half as dynamic as it is”. Admittedly, stagnation is not good, but dynamic is definitely overrated. Whatever happened to “a balanced approach”? Personally, I’d be willing to trade half of our “dynamic” nature for less crime, less drug abuse and less depression.

Oh, OK, here’s the article LINK.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, December 19, 2005
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I recently experienced a bit of a hair disorder. It just started falling out, leaving bald spots. I found out what it’s called: alopecia areata. Other than get a crew cut (or shave it all off), I wondered what could be done about it. Well, turns out that there are some options. You can go to the doctor and get some high-tech medicine or get steroid shots. Or you can do the rogaine thing. Or, you can go natural with essential oil therapy. There was actually a medical study in 1998 that showed that essential oils worked about as well as anything else. So, I’m going the natural route.

It’s still too early to tell if it’s going to work. Nonetheless, this got me interested in the overall topic of aromatherapy. I decided to buy about 9 or 10 different oils to mix and sniff. Some of them supposedly have beneficial medicinal or psychological effects (although they can also have negative effects if used wrongly). So I did some Internet research.

As with all of the “alternate therapies”, there’s a lot of info out there on aromatherapy and essential oils, and not all of it is informative. There are too many people who believe in herbs and oils, like they were some kind of religion. Thus, the info that you get regarding a particular remedy for a particular condition is not always trustworthy. Case in point: I was looking up the use of various essential oils for a particular condition that I occasionally suffer from, a rather eschatological condition. Some of the herbal books and web sites strongly recommend the use of myrtle oil for it. But then, other sites say that myrtle oil can be irritating to that part of the body. One or two sites say both things! Same wackiness for supplements; I read how zinc does wonders for everything, including the prostate. And then I read that zinc increases the chance of prostate cancer.

So, is herbal / alternative healing just a bunch of bunk? I don’t think so. I believe that there are some home remedies that can do you some good. But you need to do your research. One really good starting point is the federal National Institute of Health’s web site on alternate remedies. It lists a bunch of herbs and supplements and then rates them for a variety of conditions that they allegedly help heal. Most of the ratings given by the government are “unknown, no good studies confirming this”. There are a few clear cases like saw palmeto and prostate enlargement, where the remedy can be helpful (but you still need to see your doctor about serious stuff like this). And there are some cases where the remedy is found to be harmful! But mostly it’s “no real harm, but no real help either”. However, many times that just means that the medical establishment hasn’t gotten around to studying the issue yet. They definitely need to be less pig-headed about stuff like this (and likewise, the herbal freaks need to come out of the clouds and stop trying to “heal by faith”).

Two more good web sites on alternative medicine:

Womens and Infants Hospital, Rhode Island

University of Maryland Medical School

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 17, 2005
History ... Philosophy ...

So, you might ask, what has Mr. Eternal Student been studying and learning about lately? (You probably wouldn’t ask, but there’s a slight chance that you would.) Well, I’ve been studying and learning about Plotinus and Neoplatonism lately. No, I’m not reading the Enneads book by book or plowing my way through some huge tome on the philosophers of Roman antiquity. I simply dug out a CD with a 30 minute lecture about Plotinus on it that came with the Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition course from The Teaching Company, which I went through last year. Plotinus, who lived in the Roman Empire during the Third Century, basically took Plato’s thoughts and mixed in some Aristotle, Pythagorous, Stoicism, and other Greek stuff to cook up a coherent spiritual / metaphysical system, a religion of sorts. It never really evolved into a religion, with ceremonies and songs and church buildings and strict moral codes. You would search in vain for a Neoplatonic Temple, at least here in the modern world. But it did have, at its very center, an appealing idea for all eternal students: the idea that thinking is a sacred experience, the best way to “the eternal mind” which is God.

Actually, the true spirituality revolves not around thinking but understanding; that heady feeling when you say “I get it!”, when all the mental cogitation falls away because your mind is now at one with some great concept. That, according to Plotinus, is a taste of heaven (a temporary re-unification with Plato’s “forms”). All the other wonderful experiences in this world, like the beauty of nature (mountains, rivers, stars, trees, etc.), or fine wine, or good food, or sex, are OK with Plotinus; but they depend upon the body and the senses, which weaken with age and eventually die completely. They are tied-in with matter, which slowly but relentlessly decays. But according to Plotinus, the great experience of learning and comprehension belongs to the soul, which is eternal. Yes, we are talking here about the classic mind-body dualism, shamelessly. In modern times, dualism has gotten a bad rap (although it may be making a comeback in the field of consciousness research, given that neuroscientists and experimental psychologists don’t seem to be making much headway in devising a satisfying reductionist explanation of the phenomenon of human consciousness).

I rather wish that there was a church of Neoplatonism (don’t tell me about the Unitarians; they make a spirituality of not believing in anything. Ditto for the Ethical Culture crowd, but minus the spirituality). Most mainstream religions give the act of thinking and intelligence short shrift. “Don’t think too much”, they tell you; we know what the thoughts of God are and you don’t, so don’t go wandering off on some crazy intellectual path. The Bible warns you about this early on; the world is a mess today because the first humans wanted to know and understand (i.e., Adam and Eve and the apple and the snake). If people would just shut their minds down and accept what’s been “revealed” to them without any follow-up questions, everything would be Paradise. Stupidity is bliss.

But what about ethics, you might ask. Does Neoplatonism have a version of the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments? Negatory on that, good buddy. Plotnius does talk about virtue in the Enneads, as any good citizen of the Roman Empire would. At one point he says that if a person learns the “eternal virtue” through contemplative experience of “The One” (God), he or she will by default also learn the day-to-day virtues of civic life. So, he doesn’t say much about how to live a virtuous life. And if his idea of virtue was the same as the Roman Empire’s idea of virtue, then it leaves a lot to be desired (given that the Romans were a nasty, aggressive, imperialistic band of people, even after they became Christians). Plotinus and his teachings ultimately imply a mystical withdrawal from the world. In a way, he was very Buddhist (although ironically, the Buddhists don’t have much regard for intelligence as a pathway to the sacred). But even the Buddhists have the concept of the “bodhisattva”, the soul who achieves perfection as a Buddha and is entirely ready to attain nirvana-bliss, but chooses to stay in the earthly realm of corruption so as to help those imperfect beings who suffer there.

In a way, George Bernard Shaw anticipated a “best of both worlds” mix of Neoplatonic intellectual/spiritual enlightenment and bodhisattva-like service to the world in his “Don Juan In Hell” play-within-a-play. Shaw’s “Hell” turns out to be a lovely place, where all of the good things of the earth are enjoyed and none of the bad things exist. There is music, art, fine wine, and every woman is young and beautiful again. Sounds like Don Juan’s kind of place, where he could spend an eternity just fine. But no — the Don still has a mind of his own, and after a few eons he starts to see that there’s something better after all. He becomes enlightened and walks away from it all, as to find a place where eternal contemplation and oneness with “The Good” is combined with service to “the life force” as it struggles in the imperfect places (like our own universe). In other words, Don Juan becomes kind of a guardian angel, working secretly to alleviate suffering and promote enlightenment in a world of pain.

I can imagine that when Plotinus died, good Roman citizen that he was, he went to the place of eternal banquets and orgies like Don Juan did. Plato and Aristotle probably also did their time there too, perverted ancient Greeks that they probably were (inviting all the little boys to join their academy). But I have to believe that they all eventually had the great insight, the big “AH-HAH!” moment, that led them to a bland but infinitely meaningful life in Heaven (with on-going work assignments here in the world of decay).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, December 11, 2005
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SINFUL GREED / SINFUL STUPIDITY: I accidentally stumbled across an interesting article by a Mr. Charles L. Norton, which appeared recently on RealMoney.com and TheStreet.com. It was entitled “Socially Responsible Investing: It’s a Sin”. Since I have all of my personal retirement money invested in socially responsible mutual funds, the article caught my eye. Just what sort of “sin” does Mr. Norton think that I’m involved in? Just what does Mr. Norton mean by “sin” anyway?

Quick answer: Sin, to Mr. Norton, is to consider anything other than monetary return in your investment decisions. Background: there is currently about $2 trillion of funds invested through social responsibility funds, mutual funds which promise their investors not to place their money with corporations that are doing nasty, socially short-sighted things like polluting, exploiting employees, pushing harmful products on the public through bombardment advertising, etc. Mr. Norton doesn’t deny that this sort of thing goes on, although he does argue at one point that it’s a complicated world and even the bad guys sometimes do good things. His example is Budweiser (Anheuser Busch). Most social responsibility funds stay out of the alcohol sector. Let’s face it, the big beer producers spend billions to convince America that drinking their products is cool. But a lot of people drink too much of their product and kill people on the roadways. Is that their fault? In my opinion, yes. You don’t saturate the airwaves and cablewaves with attractive, psychologically crafted beer ads and think that people ain’t gonna do stupid things in response (especially young men, who most of those ads are targeted at). I myself don’t want to support that, so I don’t want my money with Bud or Coors. But, Mr. Norton points out, Bud is one of the biggest recyclers of aluminum containers. My response: tell that to MADD, face to face.

However, recycling is just a side-point for Mr. Norton. His main point is that by staying out of certain “non-responsible” sectors of the economy, we social investors are leaving money on the table. That’s our sin. We’re paying a price to have an effect on the economy and thus the real world. Or so it seems.

Mr. Norton presents a fascinating analysis to prove his point. He tracks the prices and returns of a major social investment fund (which I have some money in) and the Standard and Poors 500 index from 1998 to 2005. The prices and returns on both are pretty closely correlated. In other words, by investing in a typical social investment fund, you get about what the overall stock market gets in return. But if you were to have invested in a “basket” of tobacco, alcohol, defense and gambling company stocks, you would now have 3 and a half times as much money as if you invested in the social investment fund (or the S&P; 500). Mr. Norton suggests that if you have a conscience, why not invest in nasty companies and give the excess profits to charity?

Sorry, Mr. Norton. What we social investors are interested in is more than CHARITY. We want CHANGE. And if that means leaving some dirty money on the table, then condemn us of what you call sin. In our view, you obviously just don’t get it. Perhaps it scares you that $2 trillion of investment money is out there seeking social change (especially since your company isn’t involved in social investing, see postscript below).

I would invite Mr. Norton to consider the implications of his mindset and his definition of “sin”. Consider a young man growing up in an urban ghetto. He can invest his human and financial capital into a career in the legitimate world, or in the “underworld” of selling drugs, pimping, running a gang, organized theft, etc. It sure seems to him as though the returns on investment from the latter path are greater, given the barriers to legitimate economic opportunity that children from the inner city face. So Mr. Norton would agree that our young Bigger Thomas (recall Richard Wright’s novel Native Son) should join a gang and sell heroin or crack, right? Or would he say wait, I’m not saying that; even on a rationalist basis, you have to consider risk (ah, so Mr. Norton and his like do consider something other than strict financial returns). Sure, the young man could make big money for a few months, maybe even a few years, but sooner or later either the police are probably going to get him or a rival gang will shoot him. The returns don’t justify the risk.

OK, Mr. Norton; let’s stay on your rationalist wavelength and forget about the social undesirability of drug gangs who accidentally shoot innocent children and senior citizens during their turf battles. What about the comparable risk level of the alcohol, tobacco, gambling and defense industries? They’ve had a good run since ’98, but what about the future? How do I know that a “nasty company fund” that I invest in would make the right stock picks? I understand these industries to be very volatile; for example, what ever happened to McDonnell Douglas and Ballantine Beer? Are the tobacco companies going to escape bankruptcy after all the lawsuits? And would the casino industry survive even one terrorist suicide-bombing incident? Perhaps social investing keeps me out of a volatile, risky investment sector, just as you would urge the young Bigger Thomas to stay out of the volatile drug and gang sector of the ghetto economy. Perhaps social investing isn’t such a sin against rationality after all. Bottom line: if you’re gonna write an article as a ruthless rationalist, at least be an intelligent one.

P.S. Mr. Norton is a principal of GNI Capital, Inc., an investment advisor that provides investment management expertise for separately-managed equity, fixed income and ETF portfolios and a hedge fund. He also authors a twice-monthly newsletter, Supernova Stocks, which focuses on investments in market-leading stocks with unique and extraordinary growth potential. It’s amazing who people will listen to regarding their $$$.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:12 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, December 9, 2005
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Right after the new year, a Federal court in Harrisburg, PA will rule on whether the Dover, PA School District violated the Constitutional doctrine of seperation of church and state by requiring high school students to hear a statement about “intelligent design” as an alternative explanation for life on earth as we know it (as compared to evolution).

The intelligent design movement is an interesting thing. Instead of attacking evolution head-on like the old firebrands did, i.e. by condemning it as contrary to the Bible and the Will of God, intelligent design tries to attack it the way that a virus attacks a cell – by invading it and transforming it to its own purposes. The intelligent design folk think that they can cleverly co-opt the world of science so as to create a vacuum that logically needs to be filled by God. However, the scientific folk are banding together behind their contention that intelligent design ain’t science. Maybe it qualifies as philosophy, but it doesn’t qualify as science. One of their key objections is that a science needs to set out clear, well-stated theories that can be empirically tested and then either affirmed, disaffirmed, or shown to possibly be true with further modifications. Intelligent design would thus need to clearly define the concept of “intelligence”. Now I ask you: is there enough intelligence on this planet to clearly define just what the heck intelligence is, so that an experimenter could say “yes, this is intelligence” or “nope, this ain’t it?” I sure don’t think so! Just read the news headlines from Washington DC, London, Moscow, Paris, Bagdad, or any political capital any day of the week and ask, are there any signs of intelligent life to be found here?

What is interesting to me is that intelligent design has gotten most of its support in the southern and south-western states, i.e. in the good old “Bible Belt”. The Dover case appears to me (though I’m not an expert here) to be the northernmost geographic expression of intelligent design to date. It thus reminds me of the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, the South’s farthest penetration into the Union. If the intel-design folk lose the case, it will be the place where another southern cause was turned back. Ironically, Dover is only about 25 miles from Gettysburg!

I myself believe in evolution and science, but I also believe in God. And I know what the intelligent design folk are trying to do: convince people who aren’t as sure about God as they are to take up the old-time religion like them. People like this — and there are millions of them throughout the nation — say that they have an unshakable belief in God and the Bible, but they really get upset by the fact that other people disagree with them. They’d really feel a lot better about their faith in God if everyone agreed with them. That would be so much easier, so much nicer.

Well, I’ve got a hot bulletin for people like this: faith in God ain’t supposed to be easy. If they get so upset about other people having beliefs unlike their own, or no beliefs at all, what does that say about the strength of their own belief? They might reply to my logic that they are concerned because anyone who doesn’t share their kind of faith will spend eternity in Hell; thus they’re just trying to help those people to avoid that. But once again, it’s their own faith that is shown to be weak: if they truly had faith in the wisdom and love of God, they might be content to leave it in God’s hands as to how those people will be saved from the eternal grave. They might take to heart one of their own mottos, i.e. that with God, all is possible.

Bottom Line: I think that the “intelligent design” supporters should stick to keeping Christ in Christmas, and let the scientists keep science in the science class. I hope that someday they decide to put up a museum in Dover dedicated to the intelligent design cause. Tourists to Gettysburg could make it an easy side-trip, as to see another place where a bad idea was (hopefully) turned back.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, December 4, 2005
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There was a bit of a ruckus at work this past week because of the Internet and the First Amendment. Yes, the power of free speech was at work (or, at work at work). Someone from the office decided to write a missive to one of the local issues forums (www.newarkspeaks.com) to complain about how messed up we are. If we were selling copying paper as on the NBC TV show (The Office), it would simply be funny (as The Office usually is; I’m looking forward to the Christmas Party episode this Tuesday). But given that we are the lead law enforcement agency in an urban county with a high murder rate and lots of narcotics and street gang violence, it can be rather alarming.

You can check out this thread at the following LINK. As you will see, our employee (Mr. “G2”) is trying to be fair to our boss, Prosecutor Paula Dow, who has been in the hot seat for about two years now. But he’s also trying to warn her that there’s still a lot she needs to set straight. It’s too bad that an honestly concerned and idealistic employee like Mr. G2 can’t just say what’s on his mind, right to her face. But I can understand why he chose to post anonymously on a public Internet forum; if he did try to speak with the boss, he’d get in a lot of trouble with the layers of command between him and her. They’d make sure that he got the worst assignments, minimum pay raises, and no consideration for promotion.

As to all the discussion that follows Mr. G’s comments, it goes downhill pretty fast. You see the usual “fight racism with racism” rhetoric, and a bunch of other garden-variety negativism. It’s plenty easy to stroke your own ego by going on one of these sites and complaining about things; it’s much harder to make some positive suggestions on what to do, other than “overthrow the establishment”. Our current Prosecutor is trying to overcome many years of decline and decay in our Office and in the communities that we try to protect. The rabble think that she should get tossed because after two years, we still have a lot of murders and gang violence that goes unpunished. I say — and I think that Mr. G2 would agree — that Ms. Dow is to be commended for keeping things from getting any worse over the past two years. First you stop the bleeding. You don’t dismiss the doctor treating a shooting victim after a half-hour because the patient isn’t up and ready to go dancing yet.

This week, the local yellow rag (the Star-Ledger) will publish a big article talking about the same trends that Mr. G2 was discussing (he is obviously aware of the upcoming article, as are most of us in the office). Unfortunately, the Ledger too often plays to the cheap seats, i.e. to the same mentality that you see displayed on the newarkspeaks site. I respect the press and the First Amendment, but I’m not convinced that the press always lives up to the public interest that the Constitution allegedly invests in it. Being on the inside just a bit, I’ve seen too many stories distorted by reporters in order to grab the reader’s attention. The conservatives gripe about liberal bias in the press, but a semi-liberal like me can see the semi-conservative bias that truly underlies day-to-day news reporting: the capitalist bias, the need to make money. The Internet is also mostly about money these days, but there are still places where truth can gain a foothold (e.g., blogs, hopefully including my own).

I’d suggest that Mr. G2 start a blog! Hopefully he will leave the URL on the newarkspeaks site, so that we can gain the benefit of his thoughts and observations without all the static.

UPDATE: The article series in the Star Ledger on the sins of ECPO has been delayed until late January. Nonetheless, expect cheap shots and shocking headlines, followed by small-print rational explanations at the end, which hardly anyone reads.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, December 1, 2005
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I read an article the other day about a major investment bank that sent an advisory letter to its clients about how to be happy in life. The letter was from investment strategist James Montier in the London office of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, a German financing institution. A lot of people found this to be quite interesting as investment banks usually provide their clients with money and business advice, but not philosophy. Mr. Montier is rather well known in the big money circuit, having authored a book entitled “Behavioural Finance: Insights into Irrational Minds and Markets”. I guess that Mr. Montier, having mastered the irrational side of the mind, decided to take on the rational; i.e., what is life and happiness really all about? Plato, Aristotle and their followers have written huge volumes on that question. Mr. Montier got it down to ten bullet points.

The “first commandment”, according to Mr. Montier, is that life is not solely about money. He advises his readers not to equate happiness with money. (I guess that this would be news to the rich people that Mr. Montier is addressing). “People adapt to income shifts relatively quickly, the long lasting benefits are essentially zero.” However, Montier later told an interviewer “I still need a little bit of money just to keep me happy.” One has to wonder just what “a little bit” is to Mr. Montier; $200,000 a year? $500,000? Or does a million not go as far as it used to?

This is obviously the advice of the rich to the rich. Mr. Montier does make a good point, in that when you’re making $500,000 a year and it suddenly goes up to $1,000,000, you get used to it pretty quickly and you don’t really feel that much better off. Your tastes and standards and expectations adjust, and you start wishing you had $5 million. What a bummer.

What Mr. Montier misses entirely in his proffered wisdom is the experience of people getting by on $7 or $10 per hour (i.e., $15,000 to $20,000 per year). At that level, there is something more at stake than adaptation to extra luxury. At that level, it’s a question of power, or lack thereof. People living in that income range can have their lives crushed so very quickly; a bad accident, a divorce, a layoff, sickness, a natural disaster (think of all the folk in Louisiana and Mississippi), etc. The feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability is not a good feeling. It’s hard to be happy when your family’s plans and dreams can be swept away in a moment (and you see or hear about it happening all the time). For those people, an extra $20,000 a year and a $50,000 bank account would certainly buy some happiness; or at least allow “the pursuit of happiness”, as the Founding Fathers said.

I’ll now list the balance of Mr. Montier’s bullet points on “the good life”.

MONTIER: Exercise regularly. Taking regular exercise generates further energy, and stimulates the mind and the body.

COMMENT: OK, that is good advice for the rich and poor.

MONTIER: Have sex (preferably with someone you love). Sex is consistently rated as amongst the highest generators of happiness. So what are you waiting for?

COMMENT: If sex is the highest generator of happiness in this world, then there ain’t gonna be all that much happiness to be had (which may be the hard-edged truth about life, after all). Sex and love definitely are a good combination, but there’s so much bad love and bad sex out there, and a whole lot of sex happening without love whatsoever. If sex does give occasional happiness, it’s usually quite fleeting; it’s quite uncertain when that happiness can be repeated, or whether it can happen again at all. If sex is the key source of happiness, then how can you be happy in your old age? (Oh, wait — maybe Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein has a lot of money tied up in the companies that make Levitra, Viagra, etc.).

MONTIER: Devote time and effort to close relationships. Close relationships require work and effort, but pay vast rewards in terms of happiness.

COMMENT: OK, this is true; it’s a good point to remember. But as to whether the main reward of a close relationship can be called “happiness”, i.e. a joyful or content feeling or state of mind, I have some doubts about that.

MONTIER: Pause for reflection, meditate on the good things in life. Simple reflection on the good aspects of life helps prevent hedonic adaptation.

COMMENT: I agree that meditation is a good thing. Mr. Montier’s meditation is a bit simpler that what I had in mind, but it serves a good purpose, i.e. not taking things for granted.

MONTIER: Seek work that engages your skills, look to enjoy your job. It makes sense to do something you enjoy. This in turn is likely to allow you to flourish at your job, creating a pleasant feedback loop.

COMMENT: This is a nice idea, but for a whole lot of people this is meaningless. You work primarily to pay your bills. Finding the work that you enjoy is a luxury for all but a few on this planet. I’m glad (maybe even “happy”) if Mr. Montier is one of those few, but I’ve found that the job market is a rough place for most of us. You don’t get a lot of choice. Unless you are quite lucky or have a huge savings account to live off of, searching for a job that will make you happy is out of the question. For the majority, a job is not going to be a big source of happiness (even when the pay is good).

MONTIER: Give your body the sleep it needs.

COMMENT: Good advice – try to get a straight eight. But even if you book the time, the question is, will you get that sleep? If your life is in balance and you are “happy”, you probably will. But if you’re not happy, you’re probably not going to sleep well even if you stay in bed for eight hours each night. (But again, maybe Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein has money in the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture sleeping pills.) If you’ve got a million or two invested with Dresdner, you’ll probably sleep pretty well. If you’re struggling to make the next mortgage payment and electric bill, maybe you won’t.

MONTIER: Don’t pursue happiness for its own sake, enjoy the moment. Faulty perceptions of what makes you happy may lead to the wrong pursuits. Additionally, activities may become a means to an end, rather than something to be enjoyed, defeating the purpose in the first place.

COMMENT: Did he just say something? Something about smelling the flowers?

MONTIER: Take control of your life, set yourself achievable goals.

COMMENT: For crack addicts, an “achievable goal” might be to sell the furniture to get their next fix. That might be all the control possible in such lives.

MONTIER: Remember to follow all the rules.

COMMENT: Do rules necessarily lead to happiness? What about enjoying the moment?

Well, again, this document was meant to help Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein endear itself to its clients and hopefully gain new ones, and not as universal advice for the good of all humankind. Still, I thought it was rather interesting to see what the rich are thinking about these days. They really have no clue as to how most people live.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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