“I’m Joining a Cult!” (said nobody, ever)

Tribalism 01

George Orwell famously defined the tribal mindset as extreme identification with one’s tribe, “placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” In today’s world, that sounds like what passes for normal. As George Johnson wrote in The New York Times: “Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the ‘dominant paradigm’ — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version” – what Robin Ince calls a “reality tunnel.”1 As Andrew Sullivan has reminded us, tribalism is not just “one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience.”

The Berlin stationmaster and spy, Alec Leamas (played by the great Richard Burton in the movie, excerpted below), is asked about his beliefs within the context of the Cold War – that great tribal conflict – in John le Carré’s classic novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. His reply is both sarcastic and poignant: “I reserve the right to be ignorant. That’s the Western way of life.”

Examples of tribalism run amok are ubiquitous throughout history and especially so today. War. The president versus the press. The Two Cultures. ISIS. Active versus passive investing. Tastes great/less filling. Syria. Republicans and Democrats. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. The American Civil War. Catholics and Protestants. Facebook groups. Nazism. Bridgewater Associates. Twitter wars. Communism versus capitalism. PC versus Mac. Racism. Factor investing. Yankees and Red Sox. “Alternative facts.”  Abortion. Duke-Carolina. Red state/blue state. Urban versus rural. Segregation. Fox News versus MSNBC.2 Sharks and Jets. Fake news. Believers and atheists. Nationalism. The Montagues and the Capulets.

Tribalism is everywhere and permeates everything. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” declares Breitbart News Washington editor Matt Boyle. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.” In a recent column, former Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold made clear what is usually only implied; he thinks Republicans are Nazis. To oppose his political agenda is an act of bigotry and hate. Eric Trump says his father’s critics are “not even people.” Hollywood heavily criticized Donald Trump over the Access Hollywood scandal but was largely silent about decades of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, one of its own, while those who defended (or failed to criticize) the now-President over his own abuses couldn’t wait to attack Weinstein.

Brendan Eich was hounded out of Mozilla, a major company he founded, simply because he once opposed marriage equality. A CBS executive in the wake of the recent Las Vegas massacre that killed nearly 60 and wounded 500 said that she had no sympathy for the victims, since the shooting took place at a country music concert and the dead and wounded were most likely Republican Trump voters. Tribalism is turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. These tribal identities, terrifying though their outputs may be, offer us a powerful sense of belonging.3

“There’s a southern accent where I come from,” sang the newly and dearly departed Tom Petty, perhaps the best writer of opening lines in rock ‘n roll history. “The young ‘uns call it country; the Yankees call it dumb.”

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Navigating Uncertain Rewards and Certain Risks

Great White Swami'sPhoto source: Gary Elliot, San Diego Union Tribune

My latest Research magazine column is now available online. Here’s a taste.

September 1, 2011, was a beautiful day. Photographer Gary Elliot was taking pictures at Swami’s, a popular surfing beach in Encinitas, California. The surf was high that day, but nothing else seemed out of the ordinary.

When reviewing his photographs later, Elliot noticed a large shark fin in a cresting wave near several surfers. There had been no reports of sharks. As confirmed later by experts, the size and shape of the fin indicated a great white shark, about 12 feet long and weighing roughly 1,000 pounds.

This remarkable happenstance is a powerful metaphor for investing in stocks. Equity investing offers uncertain rewards but certain risks, no matter how beautiful the weather or how calm the seas. These risks are often opaque to us. There is no way to know if and when those risks will bite and what the extent of the damage will be.

I hope you will read the column (and the issue) in full.

Navigating Uncertain Rewards and Certain Risks


The Relentless Now

PresentismIn philosophy, presentism is the idea only the present exists. More loosely, it refers to a narrow focus on the conditions of the moment. Philosophy aside, anyone with even a bit of experience in the financial world will recognize presentism as an apt description of an affliction with which most humans suffer. We do not learn adequately from our past mistakes. We do not plan sufficiently for the future. Instead, we remain excessively fixated on the present and its incessant demands and distractions. Our focus, dangerous though it is, is understandable because, as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has explained, “the long-term is not where life is lived.”

Because of a vicious circle involving tribalismherdingexcessive certainty, overconfidenceself-serving bias, our ideological nature, our propensity for confirming what we already believe as well as our general inability to see that which disconfirms it, and social proof, exacerbated by incessant noise (literal and figurative), this presentism is exceedingly hard to escape. In our lives and world, the relentless now may not be all that matters, but it matters far more than it should.

As Keri Russell’s character, Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings, in television’s best show, The Americans, told her teenaged daughter in the season three finale, after admitting that she had lied to her for her entire life, “Everybody lies, Paige — it’s a part of life. But we’re telling each other the truth now. That’s what’s important.” Elizabeth cannot dwell on her blood-soaked past or focus on the doomsday clock that counts down toward her future. She merely wants, as best she can, to get through today. Carpe diem indeed.

Everybody Lies

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Horrid Facts, Stubborn Facts

September 11.

Two words. Sixteen years. Powerful emotions. Searing memories. Evocative stories.

Sixteen years ago, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was sitting in front of a Bloomberg terminal when the first, cryptic hints about trouble at the World Trade Center crawled across the bottom of my screens (I think). I had been scheduled to fly to New York the day before and had reservations at the Marriott World Trade Center (3 WTC), which would be destroyed when the Twin Towers collapsed. Instead, I decided to stay home and go to a “Back to School Night” presentation at my kids’ school. As the day’s events unfolded, I recalled having been on the Merrill Lynch fixed income trading floor at the World Financial Center doing a STRIPS trade when I heard and felt the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I was really glad I didn’t get on that plane to New York.

My little, not so evocative story is insignificant within the context of the tragic losses, horrible evil and incredible heroism of the “American epic” to which that day bore inexorable witness. But it is what happened to me. It provides context and a framing device to help me remember and think about what transpired and what it means. It is emotional to think about still. But many other stories are far more important.

The image reproduced below is central to several other converging stories from that dreadful day.


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“Hooray for Our Side”

HoorayLast night I went to a concert by Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, one-time lovers and long-time friends, but never before collaborators (except for Stills’ uncredited guitar backing Collins’ sixth album). They have a new recording coming out this month, supported by a tour of which last night’s event is a part. Stills was romantically involved with Collins when Crosby, Stills, and Nash began in 1968, but they split before the recording of CSN’s 1969 debut album. That record’s opening song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the final encore last night, was Stills’ bittersweet look back at the relationship. The fledgling group’s performance of it is a highlight of the iconic Woodstock documentary and lives on as an evergreen classic-rock radio regular.

That they perform together now is remarkable. They cannot sing like they once did (and Stills cannot really sing at all anymore even though he can still shred on guitar), but it was still(s) great to see these old masters continue to work their magic after all these years. For me, the highlight of the evening was the iconic Stills protest song, For What It’s Worth (yes, that’s Stills, Jim Messina, David Crosby and Neil Young – The Buffalo Springfield – introduced in 1967 by Peter Tork of The Monkees in the video below).1

Stills and Collins both spoke last evening about certain songs regularly resurfacing due to societal need and argued that this song is one of them. Last night’s rendition was much less haunting and much more aggressive than the original, like the Stills solo version below.

The focus of the song is on the “battle lines being drawn … young people speaking their minds getting so much resistance from behind” while presumably speaking truth to power. That is a crucial part of the standard 60s narrative (along with peace, protest, love, and rock ‘n’ roll), even though it was also the most prolific period of domestic terrorism in our history. We have pretty much erased that from our collective memory. Continue reading

The Missing Ingredients

Within the art of storytelling, how important characters meet is often significant and portentous, laying the groundwork for and foreshadowing what is to come. For example, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza in Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez: “…that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended a half a century later.” A corollary to this general trope is the “meet cute” construct in various sorts of movies, most typically with love stories. For example, in Silver Linings Playbook, Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital and is invited by a friend for dinner. Joining them will be Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman with issues of her own. The host tells Pat not to ask Tiffany about her dead husband, Tommy. Yet almost immediately after she walks in the door, Pat says, “How did Tommy die?”

One of literature’s iconic first meetings takes place in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, wherein Sherlock Holmes and his soon-to-be partner, Dr. John Watson, meet cute (in an intellectual way) at the chemical laboratory of a hospital where Holmes was conducting experiments. They are brought together by a mutual acquaintance because they both are looking for affordable accommodations, which turn out to be the famous apartment on Baker Street. Holmes proceeds to astonish Watson with his observational and critical thinking skills by ascertaining much about the good doctor’s life and experience from seemingly scant evidence. Below is that famous scene in the BBC’s modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as his stalwart sidekick, wherein this first Holmes story is re-imagined as A Study in Pink.

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“It’s not you. It’s me.”

It is a classic break-up excuse – “It’s not you, it’s me.” These five small words reek of phony compassion and are usually used to draw attention away from the real reason the relationship is being ended, often because the true reason is emotionally painful. The real message is typically much closer to “I don’t find you sufficiently attractive, but I can’t say that because then I’ll feel guilty. Oh, and by the way, I don’t really still want to be friends, either, so good riddance. I’m off to find someone as perfect as I am.” This excuse has become such a cliché that almost nobody buys it anymore. Why should they? We’ve all heard perpetrators of INYIM turn right around and tell anyone who will listen what the ex’s faults and failings were as soon as he or she is out of earshot.

But George has a point when he says, “Nobody tells me it’s them not me, if it’s anybody it’s me.” The sad truth is that a shocking amount of the time the crux of the problem – any problem – is us and not them.  Continue reading

Always Invert

Invert 1

Larry Walters always wanted to fly. When he was old enough, he joined the Air Force, but he could not see well enough to become a pilot. After he was discharged from the military, he would often sit in his backyard watching jets fly overhead, dreaming about flying and scheming about how to get into the sky. On July 2, 1982, the San Pedro, California trucker finally set out to accomplish his dream. Because the story has been told in a variety of ways over a variety of media outlets, it is impossible to know precisely what happened but, as a police officer commented later, “It wasn’t a highly scientific expedition.”

Larry conceived his “act of American ingenuity” while sitting outside in his “extremely comfortable” Sears lawn chair. He purchased weather balloons from an Army-Navy surplus store, tied them to his tethered Sears chair and filled the four-foot diameter balloons with helium. Then, after packing sandwiches, Miller Lite, a CB radio, a camera, a pellet gun, and 30 one-pound jugs of water for ballast – but without a seatbelt – he climbed into his makeshift craft, dubbed “Inspiration I.” His plan, such as it was, called for him to float lazily above the rooftops at about 30 feet for a while, pounding beers, and then to use the pellet gun to explode the balloons one-by-one so he could float to the ground.

But when the last cord that tethered the craft to his Jeep snapped, Walters and his lawn chair did not rise lazily into the sky. Larry shot up to an altitude of about three miles (higher than a Cessna can go), yanked by the lift of 45 helium balloons holding 33 cubic feet of helium each. He did not dare shoot any of the balloons because he feared that he might unbalance the load and fall. So he slowly drifted along, cold and frightened, in his lawn chair, with his beer and sandwiches, for more than 14 hours. He eventually crossed the primary approach corridor of LAX. A flustered TWA pilot spotted Larry and radioed the tower that he was passing a guy in a lawn chair with a gun at 16,000 feet.

Eventually Larry conjured up the nerve to shoot several balloons before accidentally dropping his pellet gun overboard. The shooting did the trick and Larry descended toward Long Beach, until the dangling tethers got caught in a power line, causing an electrical blackout in the neighborhood below. Fortunately, Walters was able to climb to the ground safely from there.

The Long Beach Police Department and federal authorities were waiting. Regional safety inspector Neal Savoy said, “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed. If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.” As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter asked Larry why he had undertaken his mission. The answer was simple and poignant. “A man can’t just sit around,” he said.

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