In a New York Minute

On Saturday I went to a terrific concert at Petco Park here in San Diego. It featured a 90 minute set from the latest iteration of the Doobie Brothers (who played their many hits), a 90 minute set from the Zan Brown Band (who, to my surprise, played a fair number of songs I recognized), and two and a half hours of the Eagles, invigorated by the inclusion of Deacon Frye and the amazing Vince Gill after the death of Deacon’s father, Glenn. From the Seven Bridges Road opening to the Desperado final encore, they were interested, the music was sharp and the harmonies were tight.

My only disappointment was that this time they didn’t play Don Henley’s wonderful New York Minute.

In a New York minute
Everything can change
In a New York minute
Things can get pretty strange
In a New York minute
Everything can change
In a New York minute

“Everything can change in a New York minute” no matter how good things are right now. And, today, the overall economic picture for the U.S. seems very bright indeed, at least generally (and despite our fractured politics).

Both stocks and underlying economic fundamentals are looking pretty good. Multiple stock indexes are at or near record highs. The total net worth of U.S. households have risen farther into record territory, propelled by climbing home values and stock prices. New claims for jobless benefits hit a fresh half-century low. Most see this week’s (expected) increase in interest rates from the Federal Reserve as a testament to the strength of the economy. Accelerating economic growth has been a key factor in helping investors look past the trade sparring between the U.S., China and others. Most expect the stock-market rally to keep going. Unemployment remains under four percent while minority employment is at all-time highs. Inflation is modest.

Things are doing pretty well in the financial world, at least in the aggregate.

More broadly (as Steven Pinker, among others, persuasively argues), in most ways the current world is a huge improvement over what came before. Statistically speaking, tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide were even in the 20th century, despite its concentration camps, gulags and killing fields. The murder rate of medieval Europe was more than 30 times what it is today. Slavery, excessive and sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, but are quickly disappearing today (if not nearly quickly enough).

Wars between developed countries have all but vanished, and even in the developing world, warfare kills at a fraction of the rate it did just a few decades ago. Rape, assault, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse and more are all substantially less common than they once were. Hunger has been halved in the developing world since 1990. Disease is waning dramatically, allowing most of us to live longer. Things are a long ways from perfect and plenty of problems exist, but the overall picture isn’t half-bad. Not many of us – and almost no women and minorities – would jump at the chance to switch places with those who lived during other eras.

All of which brings me to my point.

I got home from the East Coast one Saturday evening not so long ago after a wonderful holiday with my family. The family — our three children, spouses and grandchildren — was all together for a time of fun and general frivolity. The day we got home was my wife’s birthday, so we went out for brunch with the local family members (who had also come home Saturday) the next morning after church and walked at the beach afterwards to extend the vacation a little. It was a great day.

Later on, while getting some coffee for my bride, we ran into a woman with a sign announcing that she was a homeless single mother looking for help. She looked desperate, sad, and embarrassed by her situation. It’s possible that she was looking to scam us, but I doubt it. The look on her face seemed too vulnerable, too visceral, too real. Frankly, I don’t think she was that great an actress.

Just before the police forced her to move on we were able to give her some money. Her eyes filled as she grasped my wife’s hand and kissed it while offering urgent and heartfelt thanks. We cried too and recognized that we almost surely got more benefit from our alleged generosity than she did. Still, it was something.

For most of us here in the U.S., our lives are pretty good. By world standards they are pretty great. By historical standards they are downright spectacular. And for most of us who work in the financial services business, life is especially good. We make up a highly disproportionate segment of those who make the most money too. For lots of practical purposes, we are the one percent, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

I’m not here to make a political point (an approach I try to eschew here) or even a Piketty point, except to emphasize that there remain far too many people for whom the American Dream is not remotely plausible. I don’t mean those who are vaguely or not so vaguely dissatisfied with how their lives have evolved or who haven’t accomplished what they set out to. I’m not talking about American exceptionalism or the lack thereof. I’m not thinking in terms of Thoreau’s quiet desperation or of those who think that they have done everything “right” but that life has somehow welched on its end of the bargain, or even of those who “went to emergency” at the hands of Wall Street’s rapacious hellions even if and as none of the scalawags went to jail (with apologies to Mr. Henley).

I’m simply thinking about people like that poor mother, wondering how she might provide for her kids and hoping against hope that things might get just a little bit better. Nearly all of us in this business have been blessed beyond reasonable expectation and almost surely beyond our talent and effort (raises hand). We need to do more, be more and give back more. It’s simply the right and obvious thing to do.

If you’re like I am, it’s far easier to lose empathy for those who are less fortunate than we’d like to think. We all like to believe that our achievements are our own and that our failures are someone else’s fault. But we are almost surely far less skilled than we assume and, even if not, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle can get the better of us when we least expect it. Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Everything can change in a New York minute.

So please, let’s all resolve to pay a bit more attention to those who could use a little or maybe a lot of help. Do it in a manner that is consistent with your conscience and your convictions. But please don’t delay. A better life hangs in the balance.

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9 thoughts on “In a New York Minute

  1. Pingback: In a New York Minute | Me Stock Broker

  2. Pingback: Tim's Top Links - 9/26/18 | Mullooly Asset Management

  3. Please reconsider your advice. Cash gifts yield better results when distributed to public, non-profit and/or voluntary agencies. Thanks, a retired community services director

  4. I don’t give to people that I don’t know. I let our deacons deal with that. Poor people need relationships more than money. They need order and structure in their lives; money is good with good habits; with bad habits money only enables their failings. I encourage them to come visit our church, and if they hang around with us for a while, they will get holistic help.

    • “Do it in a manner that is consistent with your conscience and your convictions.”

      Twice I have deviated from your approach, which I generally agree with, David. One, obviously, is chronicled here. For decades I followed your prescription carefully, but finally decided it allowed me to harden my heart, to choke off love and empathy. At the risk of being too mystical (I resist saying things like, “I was led to…), this time seemed different. Of course, I may have been wrong.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Pingback: Personal finance links: wise spending - 可以下分的棋牌

  6. When I give money to street people, friends calking with me invariably say ” How do you know if they are even deserving?” To which I reply, “Would you be out here begging if you didn’t really need help?” You are right. We get more than we give.

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