NVR AGN

Outside of an eye doctor’s office what do those letters say, if anything worth remembering?

They sound like “never again”.

But what is supposed to be never again?

The answer is a lot of things and as one thinks about it, there are long lists in life of things that qualify for that admonition.

In Japan they say that a person who climbs Mt Fuji once is a hero, twice is a fool.

One jump from a plane or paraglider is more than enough for most peoples’ lives.

Once down a ski jump is surely enough for most people.

Playing one on one basketball with Barack Obama is surely a solo event.

Taking on Seinfeld in a funny contest for most folks is a onetime loser’s moment of infamy.

Telling ‘the wife’ to do what she is told and surviving to do it again is quite unlikely.

Suggesting to the daughter in law that you really want a grandchild is not likely to happen again.

Crashing a White House sit down dinner is not likely to be repeatable.

Fudging a bio on a job application, if discovered, is something one would never repeat.

Losing 50 pounds on a major diet one never wants to have to repeat.

And, I am sure you can add quite few more very good and relevant examples.

Those letters -NVR AGN–were the only numbers or letters on a New York State license plate on a Volvo in New York City.

I was consumed by curiosity of what was to be never again.

I got along side of that driver and asked: “What is to be never again?” –thinking it might be that he had a lemon Volvo.

The answer was: “The Holocaust.”

Makes all the other ‘never agains’ seem pretty small potatoes

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THE LAWS OF NUMBERS

There are quite a few immutable laws of numbers that have a significant impact on human existence.

Some are good, for example, compound interest. Some are truly scary, for example, accelerating absolute unit growth of population even when y/y percentage growth shrinks or remains constant.

“Hold on” you are now thinking, you just described the same law in two opposite ways, one great, the other horrible. How is that possible?

That is right – it is not the law that is the problem; it is the effect of the law on the subject in question. A growing supply of money, via compound interest, obviously can be a high grade problem. On the other hand, a steadily growing supply of humans could in due course lead to oblivion.

Another dimension of this same phenomenon is the effect of the laws of numbers on costs. More inflation begets more inflation. Just ask some 100 year old Germans how many wheel barrows full of Reichsmarks it took to pay for a loaf of bread in a store in Berlin in the early 1920s.

As a matter of good public policy most nations try to curb monetary inflation because the German example still scares a lot of people. On the other hand hardly anyone thinks that corporate profits can become too large or interest rates too low. But, they may be wrong because too much money chasing too few bonds can lead to very low interest rates and in due course monetary inflation.

There is another bothersome law– the Law of Large Numbers.

Typically if a lot of data is collected on any particular topic, it will turn out that the data, when graphed, will look like a bell curve, with the outer edges containing a relatively few examples on opposite ends of the spectrum. The center and top of the curve contains the bulk of the data.

Imagine what it would look like if the focus of the data were human noses -ranging from no nose to giant noses with all other noses in between. Would all that strange information tell the world anything it needs to know? The short answer is NO. A more nuanced answer is that most people have noses BUT they rarely look exactly alike, which is at the heart of the mystery of nature that made so many similar creatures alike while at the same time making them different enough to be recognizable.

Noses are often called noisome particularly when they are poked into other people’s business.

Before we had computers to scan and sort large numbers, we had to rely on simple observations to come up with generalities. Today, now that we can manipulate large numbers quite easily and efficiently, we do that but it can lead into dangerous territory.

For example, the trade offs between privacy and security, which are two of humans’ greatest needs and concerns.

Privacy is bottomed on absence of information about a person. Security is bottomed on knowing all the possible risks based on as much information as possible about everything lurking out there.

There really is no easily imagined balancing mechanism to strike a suitable balance that would be satisfactory to most people.

Perhaps we need a newer Law of Large Numbers that could provide a scale to balance people’s range of views on how to deal with their concerns about safety AND privacy.

NSA does have a picky nose.

Perhaps they are unintentionally cutting off their nose in a well-intended effort to save everyone’s face and body?

Or perhaps they should instead develop a sense of smell instead of reading too much mail?

Beware What You Get for Free — It Has Value!

There is a strange phenomenon in our country that needs to be addressed as we reconsider our budget priorities and try to improve our overall social contract and keep peace among all our citizens.

Let’s start with what we pay for. We actually pay for clothing, travel, food, shelter, parking tickets etc. and most of us are painfully aware of costs and rising costs. And many of us spend time in an effort to make our money go further.

What we, in the main, do not pay for directly is: health care provided by employers, many tax breaks such as deductibility of mortgage interest on a primary home, public school education and even Medicare and social security payments, as well as free care in hospital emergency rooms.

Put very bluntly and simply what many [most?] people get for free [or invisibly] they tend to take for granted and therefore do not value it in the same way as what they pay for with their hard earned dollars. Until and unless we can find a way to make vividly clear to most people what they are getting for free and what the money value of those things are, we cannot hope to get realistically balanced thinking into the overall national dialog about government’s budget priorities.

An example which dramatizes this point is a little story. A very bright capable young man employed in a very responsible position in a small privately owned financial company, when confronted with the fact that the medical benefits provided by his employer were to require a 10% employee contribution, simply dropped out of the plan. When asked why, the answer was that his wife’s employer all along had a better plan with no contribution required. As to why he had not dropped out earlier [the annual cost to his employer for him was about $8,000] the answer was it was free and until he had to pony up $800, he figured it could not hurt him to double up. It had cost HIM nothing. His poor judgment caught up with him and he did not remain much longer with that company.

A broad variety of versions of that story occur every day across the whole country. It is not only wasteful; it creates seriously distorted thinking which has far reaching consequences.

It is possible to create algorithms which can estimate the value of the various free benefits many taxpayers receive. Perhaps one way to clarify and illuminate those items and values would be to require taxpayers to calculate -with help from the IRS–what the items are and are worth AND then those taxpayers would be required to pay a small tax on those values to raise some revenue as well as to drive home what their true incomes really are.

Another dimension to this set of issues is education. Many young people who are lucky enough to have family support, particularly for advanced education, are at the same time unlucky enough to not fully appreciate what they are getting and thus sometimes take it for granted to the point that they do not to take full advantage of their opportunity.

There is a simple solution to that problem which would be to require them to also invest, at least in part, in repaying in due course some student loans and/or working at the same time to partially contribute to the costs. There is nothing like parting with money to concentrate the mind to give a person a somewhat different and better sense of ownership in what is being acquired.

The bottom line is simply that what one gets in life for free tends not to be valued. Therein lies the essence of the so-called “entitlements mentality”. We need to surface more of the truth and proceed to make the entitlements more visible and thus more valued.

EVOLUTION IS CHANGING

Yes, it is changing for good and obvious reasons. No, it is not changing, but it is occurring quite differently.

How do we know?

We are living through epidemics of bionic part replacements of the human skeleton. The reason for that in large part must be because a lot of us are living A LOT longer than Mr. Darwin and Mother Nature ever contemplated. Living longer obviously involves making our bodies move our limbs many more times than when normal people lived only 30 or 40 years. That, of course, leads to parts wearing out.

But, whoever said evolution had to be confined to what Mother Nature could or would do by herself? Given another 1,000 or so years nature itself might make our bodies adapt to longer life.

In the meanwhile we are entering a new era in which human evolution is being artificially assisted by science and medicine.

The next question is where that can and will take us. The answer is a long ways, both in life times and distances traveled.

A new technology is also now emerging called 3D Printing–in which all sorts of human body parts – including internal organs made out of real human tissues–are being recreated exactly to suit replacement needs.

The idea of infinite life is illustrated by a small wooden sail boat which was rebuilt over several years during which every stick of original wood was replaced and the boat ended up better than new because it was faster and just as pretty as before!

As we humans face new challenges, like exploring space for hundreds of years at a time, we surely will figure out how to accommodate those needs by “extending” or “continuing” human life as required.

Imagine what it might be like if a Greek explorer from 231 BC were just now returning to earth. His Toga would surely look a bit strange on TV and his great, great, great, great grandchildren would not know him or what to call him. Could evolution help that problem too?

If we think about these questions as more of us become bionic, it should give us something to take our minds off the stresses and strains of adapting to the realization that what we are experiencing is simply part of the great human evolutionary experiment.

Yes, you guessed right.

I just had a hip replaced.

It was not too big a deal and it beats being gimpy with pain for more years.

If you remotely think you need a new hip, go for it, it is worth it!!

What Bugs You About Your Money?

If you are one of the many millions of people who have enough wealth outside of your home to worry about how to invest it, your foremost questions are probably what you should be worrying about most and what should you do about it.

Whether you are 30 years old or 80, you should review the past half-century of investing to see what is relevant to you among the many changes that have occurred during that period.

The three most basic changes have been:

  • In 1950, most investable wealth was handled by its owners. Today, almost all such wealth is handled by agents of one sort or another.
    • The arrival of computers (both large and small) since 1950 has made possible almost costless trading as well as the creation of complex derivative type investments with endless permutations and combinations that befuddle most civilian investors.
    • The Internet, with amazing abilities to search vast repositories of information, can put instantaneous and ubiquitous information at the fingertips of any interested person.

If one of your concerns is that you have not been able to consistently outperform the averages that relate to your goals, you are in a very large group of investors who share that same experience and disappointment. You will also be interested to know that the appreciation of the value of most publicly-owned investment management businesses has exceeded the appreciation of the assets managed by those firms.

There are several reasons why that happened:

  • The agents working for you have had an edge on you (as in ‘the house always wins’ truth about professional gambling, horse racing etc.) and were busy making themselves rich at your expense by amassing more and more assets which benefitted them regardless of result: giant mutual funds and complexes of funds; hedge funds with 2/20 compensation schemes-which never made sense for the investors despite giving agents a giant incentive; high speed arbitrage trading; ETFs and even good old simple index funds which guarantee mediocrity with self-fulfilling, inexorable reversion to the mean, but are a reasonable option for people who fear navigating the crowded waters around Wall Street.
  • A consistent misalignment of incentives, coupled with massive advertising aimed at creating broad public trust in all sorts of investing agents which at best is mostly misleading and at worst truly to be pilloried.
  • Complexity and confusion also enabled expert “agents” to utilize their edge over even quite sophisticated civilian owners of wealth who struggle to make sense in today’s maze of possibilities and vogues. That complexity has moved financial markets further away from telling the story of the realities in the business world to begin instead more to reflect simply a collective judgment of ricocheting interactions of random computer bets on numbers that only tangentially relate to reality.

What can you – struggling with this so called ‘high-grade’ problem because you are privileged to have it – do to improve your own performance? And, what can society at large do to help get a better balance in the asset allocation process called Wall Street?

You can try harder to find agents whose interests are better aligned with yours. Look for what and how they deal with their own wealth. If that resembles closely what they propose to do for you, it is a promising indicator. If they are required to share the pain of poor performance in a meaningful way, that too is a good indicator.

As far as dealing with the systemic problems that surround the whole financial system, you can root harder against the lobbying, for example which is trying to kill the Volcker Rule, and for ever greater sunlight into the misalignment between you, the owners of the wealth, and the often sanctimonious preaching by people who are seeking to “gather” your assets to do what is allegedly good for you and make themselves ever richer.

Above all, never become complacent, particularly after as good a year for wealth as 2013, and remain demanding and skeptical of all siren stories.

‘THE HONORABLE ………’

A bunch of years ago I visited a small island in Maine with only one house that was built in the early 1800s by a farmer named John Ledbetter, hence it became Ledbetter Island.

A family, I will call Black, had owned the island since the early 20th Century. Next to the entrance door in the house was a stereotype or photo of a gentleman named in the frame as “The Honorable John Ledbetter”.

I asked Mrs. Black what Ledbetter had done to acquire that honorific generally given only to Presidential appointees and Judges.

The answer was ‘nothing” but at a town meeting in his later years the town voted him the title because he was so widely and unanimously loved and known as the as the most honest man in town.

I was startled, and struck in the moment with a wisp of an idea that came back to me recently.

True, undiluted, honesty determined by a group of people who have good reason to know the person well, up close and over an extended time, is far too rare a thing in today’s world to brush off lightly.

There are several thousand ‘town meetings’ a year across America where a very few hundreds of people meet–often for as long as a day–to agree on town officers and budgets, sometimes down to the detail of a new shovel.

Perhaps the idea of naming one town citizen a year from a nomination at [but not before] the meeting, to avoid any campaigns, to be ‘The Honorable…” could help elevate the significance, in society at large, of honor and respect of valuable fellow citizens. No town should ever feel compelled to name someone, if there is not enough widespread support for worthy candidates.

The idea could quite easily work at the town level. Above that level it gets quite a bit more complicated because relatively fewer people can know enough people well enough in much larger communities. But, it might be possible over time for larger communities–counties and states even–to consider candidates arising from the towns.

In this new world of social networking one would think more people would know more about more people. But, in fact, almost the reverse is happening where ‘friends’ are often virtual people only known reciprocally via the internet.

We need to try to rebuild the kind of respect and trust that only can grow out of truly knowing real people up close in all kinds of situations over an adequate period of time to become truly revealed.

More folks like John Ledbetter would make America a better place to live!

UNDER PROMISE, OVER PERFORM

The title to this piece is perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom that can be imparted to young people as they begin to make their way through the complicated modern world.

More often than one might expect, though, young people resist understanding either the meaning or importance of putting the maxim into practice. Both are perhaps better grasped with a few examples of the power and utility of that wisdom.

Consider the child whose parents urge him to do better in school. He promises to try harder and get mostly A’s from now on. If he ends the term with A’s in five of his six classes, his parents are impressed. But if instead he gets all B’s he is likely to be criticized. The difference is simply where the bar of expectations is set. It is smart to set the bar low enough to be readily achievable (almost a sure thing, if possible), but high enough to warrant true appreciation for the achievement.

Doctors face these questions daily. How long am I going to have to stay home? When will I be back on my feet? How long do I have to live? Good judgment suggests that doctors be less than perfectly frank, both to keep their patients looking forward and to keep them pleased with the doctor’s advice and performance.

Lawyers face a lot of the same kinds of questions as their doctor friends. What are my chances of being sued? Winning? Will I get into trouble with the IRS? Again, calibrating where to place the bar is the trick. Like doctors, a lawyer’s reputation and success turn as much on how they are perceived as advisers as it does their skills in their respective fields.

Politicians face the problem almost daily. They need to be aggressively optimistic but not to the point of being Pollyanna. If they are not positive on a topic, they cannot lead either citizens or colleagues in crafting political solutions. On the other hand, they must be shrewd vote-counters so that they develop a reputation for being a reliable predictor of outcomes. It is much safer to always exceed the expectations one creates. Again how do they figure out where to put the bar?

In business and finance, this wisdom comes into play all the time. How many widgets can we sell next year? How much money can I count on from your investments in my account? What earnings do you expect in the next quarter? In cases like these the bar is frequently set in purely quantitative terms so that ones’ promises come home to roost in a painfully clear way. If the bar is too low, the predictor is judged to be not ambitious enough. If the bar is too high, the predictor risks falling short.

The sooner young people learn about the need to calibrate the bars that set the standards by which they will be measured, the sooner they will acquire good instinctive skills to navigate between too low and too high.

Where, you might ask, is the advice about how to compute high and low? There can be none, because the variables are far too many. That leaves the answers to the individual actors who must develop and learn through their own life experiences.

The starting point is to know and learn the maxim.