Monday, January 04, 2010

Forecasts and False Prophets

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.
Martin Luther King Jr.

US black civil rights leader & clergyman (1929 - 1968)
Tis the season for making predictions for the upcoming year(s). Mine is below, a personalized interpretation of King's quote. He must have had in mind Ghandi or Thoreau. I've made it my New Year's resolution to read Walden, which I started yesterday. Taking the bits from it I've already garnered, I will stake out a position that I've not really seen articulated by the "punditry" and I've been reading a fair amount by them over the holiday, the usual NY Times Op-Ed pieces, and the "assigned readings" from David Brooks' Sidney Award (see the first line here for the links). The essence of the prediction is simple enough to articulate. All the punditry talk about problems from without or problems that we as a society must face. They treat those problems like a problem from applied physics that is amenable to design, so one can speak of optimal solutions. Punditry is about generating such solutions for problems in the social context. I do a fair amount of that sort of thing myself. Mostly the populace as a whole sees outcomes that emerge fall short of the optimum, because the situations are invariably more complex than the analysis is willing to consider and what emerges then is apt to disappoint, witness this News Hour interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin and John Cassidy, a looking back at the financial crisis. The two-fold conclusion, certainly disheartening, is that behavior among Wall Street types seems to have returned to business as usual in spite of what appears obvious - substantial reform is needed - and perhaps more troubling is the finding that normal prudent and sensible behavior - stay out of high risk assets that have a substantial likelihood of default - was trumped by a need to produce higher yields, since the prudent behavior appears to under perform the market, at least till that world starts to implode.

My prediction is that the big changes we'll see in the coming year are about problems from within, individual issues that each of us must face on our own. That is where we'll see the bigger shift in opinion and behavior. It is a necessary first step before any solutions from without that have some bite can be implemented.

I'm certainly no ace prognosticator. Indeed my profession prides itself on its lack of ability to predict, the emblem being the Efficient Market Hypothesis - all the current information is incorporated already into stock prices. Future stock prices are then driven by further news, information that can't be known now. So the path of future stock prices can't readily be forecasted. To this there are two critiques I am aware of. One is by the Behavioralists, who say in fact that we're not quite the rational decision makers that economists like to model, so our "humanness" introduces some degree of predictability of the future. The other is The Black Swan - on the predictability front things are even worse than you think because there can be sudden regime change after which things look entirely different. Both of the critiques make sense to me yet for the purposes of prediction I tend to discount the behavioralists so in the main I adhere to the view that we can't predict. Smart as we think we are, we're really quite ignorant about many important things.

Nonetheless, I've had my moments, via what I'd call low-to-the-ground predictions. I can see the need based on my own experience and make a prediction that something will come along to fill it. My first recollection of doing this was in the early 1970s when I was in High School. At the time there were still greasy spoons around that were not part of national chains, but McDonalds was emerging as the premier brand. I was a fan. My prediction, no great shakes (pardon the pun, though it was intended) yet in this case on the mark, was that McDonalds needed a quarter pounder; the regular hamburger was rather wimpy. Lo and behold....

Fast forward two decades. The 1990s were a good decade for me in many respects, prediction-wise included. It started off with a bang. I got married in June 1990. My bachelor party, pretty tame by most standards, featured a poker game. I hadn't played poker since I was a college freshman at MIT. During the orientation week, where you choose your courses, meet your adviser, make a housing selection, plus a zillion other getting familiar with the place sort of things, my real education came during the evening playing seven card stud high-low poker with some other freshmen and upperclassmen. I recall winning a big hand when my four eights (I had a pair showing and two more in the hole) beat somebody else's boat. After that they threw me into the shower, a tradition I hadn't previously encountered, one that cooled me on playing poker thereafter. So I was somewhat reluctant to play during my bachelors party and had to be talked into it. As it turned out, I won pretty big that night and wondered if they fixed the cards to achieve the outcome. (They claimed they didn't.) For my part, I took it as a sign that boys night out once a month or so should be part of the deal - my wife was ok with that. We had a fairly regular poker game with fellow economists and graduate students. In the main, I won in those sessions. I understood the ground rules and the psychology.

There was some carry over with that later in the decade, investing the kids' college fund. Pretty early on after I switched my career to learning technology, I put about two thirds of the portfolio into tech stocks - Apple and Adobe. That was a no-brainer. The market was going crazy then. My insight, or luck, or whatever you want to call it, was to get out pretty close to the peak. I felt the chill and got cold feet. You've got to know when to fold them.

The decade that immediately followed, the one that just concluded, was a different matter. The group I used to play poker with broke up for a variety of reasons, people moved on to do other things. So eventually I found a different game - first with information technology professionals whom I knew on campus, then with their friends, and eventually with friends of friends. The rules were different and the stakes lower. I could never figure out where the other players were coming from mentally. And it seemed mostly that I got crummy cards. In the 1990s, my cards were better. When you win its skill; when you lose its the cards. Eventually, I lost interest entirely and stopped playing. The same thing was true for investing in the stock market. Once Bush became President I had no feel for what was happening - so I just put the kids' college money into mutual funds. Although there was another run up of the market, fueled by the housing market bubble, we hardly benefited from it; then we lost our shirts like everyone else when the market tumbled. There has been a modest recovery since. But I really don't track that stuff like I should. It's not that interesting to me any more.

This brings us back to Thoreau. He asks - what is really important for us? Do we spend our time doing that? Or do we get wrapped up in nonsense that ends up of little consequence and is not fulfilling in the process? If the latter, why are we trapped in a life so below our potential? And what can we do to remedy things, to become more one with ourselves? I'm not talking about living like a hermit out in the woods. I don't literally want to imitate Thoreau's experience. But I do want to embrace his fundamental questions, about bringing simplicity and importance into our lives.

I'm living both sides of this. I'm best suited at this point in my life to do informal but thoughtful analysis, a working through of a variety of ideas, investigating before the fact and then communicating what I've come up with more or less by the same methods - chatting over coffee or writing as in a blog post like this one. When I'm doing those sort of things, I'm being true to my nature and letting the best of me come forward. This is most easily done when the ideas themselves are of consequence to me, but the implementation of those ideas is not. As an administrator, however, that is no always the case. The implementation sometimes blows up in your face. Other times it is simply less exciting or less well done than was previously conceptualized. More than once I've been talked into making an idea mine that I didn't generate and found that I've had to bear responsibility for the outcome, not a good one you can be sure, without having the fire in the belly to push hard to see it through. I'm sure everyone who has been in IT administration has had that happen from time to time. So we look for alternatives, either for diversion or for comfort. Healthful activities themselves promote our own well being - exercise, reading a good book, getting the kids to develop their (off beat) sense of humor, having friends over for a meal, anything that creates joie de vivre. If only it were that simple.

Alas, I have the genetic disposition to overindulge, with food and drink. As a kid my mother would call me and my sister fressers, from the Yiddish or German verb fressen. It takes one to know one. If eating is good, then eating more is better. We know where that logic leads. I had trouble with my weight as a teen. My mother said it was also because my dad was a diabetic and children of diabetics are prone to be large. I have no clue whether that is science or an old wives tale. In any event, I developed several bad eating habits, some of which are still with me. I went through a regime change between college and graduate school - the one time in my life where I can say via the force of my own will I persisted at something that was very hard for me, dropping about 60 pounds over the summer through a one-meal-a-day regime. For the next 20 years or so I mostly was in check. Jogging was my salvation. But then my knees got shot and I didn't figure out a good alternative form of low impact exercise soon enough. So I exercised less, indulged more, and the weight drifted upward. It was kind of a like a thread unraveling on one of your socks. At first you just tear off the lose end and keep wearing the pair. It's no big deal. But the thread keeps unraveling and eventually there's not enough sock left to wear. When its your body rather than your sock, the unraveling can create desperation.

I thought I had that in check and figured out a way to keep my weight in stasis, albeit at a level way too high to be healthy, via doing the stationary bike every morning for about 45 minutes, lifting some very light weights at the same time. Then, about six weeks ago, I started to feel excruciating pain in my right leg. It started in the hip area and then migrated to the thigh. I thought it was sciatica. I've since learned that the probable cause is arthritis - in both hips and the lower back too. Pain killers help. Ironically, sometimes pain helps too. I learned a rather important lesson during the first couple of weeks of this episode. I could think and focus on my work, but it was harder and the joy from doing it didn't last as long. I am no hero. I can't be the good part of me if I'm in chronic pain. Perhaps episodically I can overcome the pain. Realistically, however, if the pain persists I'll cave and then look to numb myself with mindless distractions. The sensible solution is to minimize the pain. Any Web site on the subject of arthritis of the hip will mention weight loss as one of the more conservative treatments. It is evident to me that I must make a personal regime change that aims not at weight stasis but at weight loss, either less indulgence or more exercise or a mixture of both. Before my vices were a release from the stress of ordinary life. Now they seem an imprisonment to keep me from doing what I'm meant to do, ergo the unraveling metaphor I chose. This is why reading Thoreau seems so crucial. Breaking bad habits will be hard. Doing so demands an examination of what's really important.

It's now time to invoke the Charles Barkley line; I am not a role model. But I was right in my prediction about the McDonalds quarter pounder and feel confident that when something "makes sense" to me I've identified a real need. For that reason I believe in the low to the ground sort of predictions. And in this case I believe my situation is far from unique, especially once the unraveling metaphor has been extended beyond obesity, obviously a substantial problem in America today but more a symptom than the underlying cause. Virtually everyone I know appears to me under so much stress, work related or otherwise, with the feeling that there is no end to the tunnel in sight and that there is a huge weight on the shoulders producing a need for incessant labor while yielding litle to no satisfaction from the efforts.

The economy is driving much of this, but it is not simply a larger than usual recession that is the root cause. It is the bubble like nature of the institutions we work in. The Health Care industry is a bubble sector, witness all the concern about containing costs, and likewise for Higher Education. The bubble seems to be bursting here but nobody knows what to do about it really. The higher ups in the administration will react to bring spending in line with available funding, but there is no vision of what that will look like.

Fearful that they might lose their jobs the natural reaction is to avoid the problem and continue on as best they can. Yet ongoing undue stress can lessen personal well being. How far down the path does somebody have to go before they wake up to the fact that the life they are living is causing themselves harm? I don't know. I do know that when they do wake up, they'll find Thoreau offers a compelling vision.

He cautions that consumption beyond the basic necessities of life is a more than a distraction; it's the road to perdition. So recognizing the need for simplicity in our lives and being true to ourselves, we abandon this unnecessary consumption. Imagine telling your employer - "Look, I'm wearing out in the work. There is too much of it. A big part of it is a drudge. And I have essentially no say in what the work is about. I need a change. So I propose the following. I'll take a voluntary pay cut beyond the furloughs you are already planning. In exchange for that I get to shape a good part of the work on my own and say no to folks who want my services when I deem their requests to be out of bounds. I can't continue as I'm going now. My way I'll endure and because I am a talented employee you'll be better off that way too."

All the pundits - left, right, or center - talk about the need for economic growth. It is the magic elixir to one and all. Or is it? We as individuals need simplicity and to be true to our own natures. In creating an environment that produces that we grow as individuals. But measured by normal economic means, the result will be shrinkage. Better a work environment that is rational and real than a bubble environment that promises growth.

I wonder if we can get past our fear of falling behind the rising Asian countries and come to this realization. Judging by my reading over the holiday there will have to be a lot of change in the thinking of the punditry to get to this point. This is why change from within needs to be the driver.

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