Rainn Wilson, the comedic actor best know as “Dwight” from The Office, delivered a brilliant commencement speech to the graduating class at USC a couple of months ago. For those who aren’t aware, Wilson is one of the world’s best-known Baha’is, and has never been shy about broaching the topic of spirituality, especially with young people. Here he was at his best.

The topic of the speech was, more or less, how simply “pursuing happiness” can leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied, and how an attitude of selflessness can bring us a deeper feeling of fulfillment. Here’s an excerpt (a long one, but worth reading in its entirety):

Happiness is so fleeting. It’s like an amusement park ride. It’s like cotton candy. I mean, it looks so amazing: It’s delightful and fluffy and pink and you joyously eat it and then almost immediately regret your decision. Your fingers are sticky the rest of the day, and you’re undergoing an almost immediate insulin crash from the half pound of sugar that you just sucked down. You’re hungry again almost immediately and you begin the chase again for ingestible happiness right away. Happiness in our contemporary culture is something to be chased, something that’s just around the corner, something outside of ourselves. There’s a kind of a “if then” proposition about happiness. For instance: “If I get a job at a top law firm then I will be happy.” “If I get married to the perfect man or woman then I will be happy.” “If I can become more popular then I will he happy…” etc. It’s the whole point of commercialism, too, and materialism. If you buy this car, eat this cheeseburger, wear these jeans, use these headphones, then you will be happy. And you know what? Buy the jeans, eat the cheeseburger, the result is never happiness. Joy or contentment. It’s always the same. We’re never satisfied. It never meets our needs fulfills our standards. We’re left empty, wanting something more. It’s cotton candy. Fleeting, sticky, unsatisfying….

Volunteering, helping, showing kindness, sacrificing your time and energy, giving selflessly, these are the things that will give you the greatest human flourishing. And what a strange dichotomy in this “me me me” culture we live in. Focus on yourself: you’ll find only misery, grasping, depression, emptiness, dissatisfaction. Focus on helping others: joy, contentment, gratitude, happiness… So go forth young men and women spiritual beings all, with your pieces of paper, your souls and your hearts, go forth and undertake our new national motto, “life liberty and the pursuit of service”, and your lives will be the richer for it.

This is potentially tricky territory — I mean, the speaker is basically telling young people at one of the happiest moments of their lives not to strive to be happy — and I truly admire his courage. But the main message here should not be controversial. That’s because, as pointed out in the speech, science actually confirms that acts of selflessness tend to lead to greater happiness. (Nevermind that it represents a core teaching of nearly every religion.) And yet, from my perspective the fact that selflessness, rather than selfishness, is more likely to lead to fulfillment and life satisfaction gets a shamelessly low level of attention in the modern discourse. Instead, we are hit with a steady stream of messages preaching the opposite, including the semi-sarcastic-yet-inescapably-depressing image below, which I captured at our local mall food court:

Spiritual enlightenment was never so easy nor delicious

In the same tradition as the religious faiths founded before it, the Baha’i Faith in countless passages warns us not to rely on the material world for fulfillment. One of my favorite passages written by Baha’u’llah is this one (which I’ve shared before), which compares the world itself to a desert mirage:

The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality… Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.

For us to look to something bigger than the world around us is not an unnatural act or suppressing our natural selves. The human being’s true nature, Baha’u’llah teaches, is more noble than that. In the same passage as the one above, He compares the childish obsession with our material lives with a fallen bird:

Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.

Why is this so difficult for us to learn? How come we feel compelled to chase after things that are so ineffective in delivering real happiness? It’s universally acknowledged that true happiness can’t easily be achieved with material things. And yet, we still keep reaching for the cotton candy.

I’m about halfway through through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which is more or less about how the human brain tends to think sometimes in quick, reactive ways, and other times in deliberate, calculated ways. Kahneman basically summarizes decades of research into how the human mind makes decisions, much of which he himself had a hand in.

One of the more interesting passages from the book is about how the human brain handles fear and risk. The thoughtful, rational aspect of our thinking — what the author abbreviates as “Type II” — can, actuary-style, do all the calculations necessary to estimate the true level of danger that something presents, as well as comparing the probability and severity of different possibilities side-by-side. But when confronted by real-life dangers, we humans don’t commonly tend to think like this. In reality, risks are assessed and our fears governed by our reactive, intuitive “Type I” brain, which tends to overweight the danger from things that are “available”, or in other words visible, easily conceptualized, and at the forefront of our attention.

This makes a lot of sense, given the inordinate amount of attention that we tend to pay on smaller risks that connect more easily to our emotions. I suppose the textbook example would be how we tend to fear plane crashes much more than car crashes, even though the former are much rarer and much less likely to kill us. But we could come up with countless other examples, I’m sure.

The fact that human beings are irrationally fearful of certain relatively benign things over much more dangerous ones is bad enough. Think, for instance, of our society’s obsession with the risk of terrorism, which has killed roughly 3,000 Americans this century, in comparison to our comparatively lukewarm reaction to drunk driving, which kills about 10,000 every year.

But this particular glitch in the way we think becomes much worse when it’s mixed with human selfishness and opportunism. One of the most memorable and funniest recent examples of this was a commercial for a home security system that aired a few years ago. In it, a single woman meets a seemingly nice man at a party, only for that man to break down her door minutes later in an apparent attempt to assault her. Her alarm system blares, and the would be assailant is scared away (phew!). I’m not sure which is funnier: the Saturday Night Live spoof, or the real thing.

Sometimes, the urge to profit from natural human fears is even more nefarious. The existence of fear in whatever form can mean an opportunity for political influence, simply by cultivating and directing these fears towards an intended goal. Again, I could probably list tons of examples here, but I prefer to leave it to the reader’s own imagination (as well as the comments section).

As is the case for so many other things, here I wonder if this problem has always been with us, and I just tend to notice more as I get older. Maybe, but that shouldn’t be cause for us to accept the status quo. Let’s put it this way: When voters feel the urgency to ban shariah law in their state in fear of an Islamic caliphate taking over Oklahoma, something has gone horribly wrong. (And I’m sure both of Oklahoma’s Muslims would agree.)

The power of the media to skew our sense of risk — whether motivated simply by the profit motive or by some deeper political goal — is described by Kahneman in the framework of the “availability cascade”. He writes:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,”, individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fears and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up”. The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

How far the current state of affairs seems to be from Shoghi Effendi’s vision of a free but morally responsible press that will “cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples.” It’s not just human irrationality that is at issue here. The problem is also, in Kahneman’s words, the “availability entrepreneurs”, those who’ve discovered all the right buttons to push to translate fear into power, and seem to have no qualms about pushing them.

 

There hasn’t been much blogging these days, for which I felt it necessary to issue an apology. The excuse I’ll use (for everything, really) is that my wife and I had our second child recently, and life has predictably been turned upside down. Things will normalize as far as this blog goes in due time, I promise.

Having baby #2 has brought the expected burst of joy, with an entirely new set of challenges. The biggest is the predictable jealousy of our two-and-a-half year-old son for his new baby sister. We’re not too concerned, as everyone tells us this is normal. We actually see it as an opportunity for him to experience some healthy heartbreak and learn that he’s not the center of the universe. Nonetheless, for the time being he’s been an absolute menace, with lots of tantrums (the sight of mom nursing another baby is a usual source of emotional devastation).

A lifesaver for our older one has been books, especially at night time. My wife is constantly on the prowl for good children’s books, and it’s a credit to her that our son is so fond of reading at such a young age. Consequently, I’ve become something of an expert on children’s literature, like most parents I suppose. Honestly, most of the genre is just crap, in my experience, though I understand that I’m not exactly the target audience. (After re-reading those “Mister” books for the first time in nearly three decades, for instance, I now fully believe them to have been written and illustrated by a 3rd grader during recess.) However, there are a couple of books in particular that are just superb at explaining complex social concepts to kids, including some economic themes that we adults routinely gloss over or fail to address entirely. It might seem corny to look to children’s books for economic wisdom, but “corny” has never stopped me on this blog before, so bear with me.

The first I’ll mention is Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle. It tells the story of a little blue truck who ventures into the tall, fast city, only to find that all the other vehicles are in a terrible, aggressive rush. Everyone is so stressed and hurried that the city streets eventually grind to a halt, and no one can get anywhere. Finally, all the vehicles recognize the wisdom of the Little Blue Truck, who teaches everyone to wait patiently and form an orderly line, allowing others to go first.

little_blue_truck

The beauty of this book is not just that it teaches kids to respect order and not barge ahead of others. It’s that it acknowledges the limits to the importance of economic efficiency. The problem with the big city, it seems, is not just that it’s chaotic, but that it’s miserable. All of the vehicles, in their scramble to get ahead, are stressed, angry, and frustrated. (Sounds like my morning commute into Manhattan.) When everyone slows down a bit, the city is able to relax and breathe, adding value to its residents’ lives in ways that can’t easily be measured. This is an important point that is lost on a lot of us adults; in our quest for efficiency and productivity, we sometimes unwittingly sacrifice subtle things that are vital for our own welfare. This is a point I’ve been thinking of writing about on this blog for a while now, but like a lot of things, it’s probably best left to art.

The second book is Just So Thankful, by Mercer Mayer (from that “Critter” series that a lot of us became acquainted with as kids). It follows a kid who’s bummed out that his parents won’t buy him a particular toy, and who grows jealous of the new kid in school, “H.H.”, who’s super rich and seems to have every toy (as well as servants, a mansion, and a swimming pool). When H.H. comes over to Critter’s modest house to play one day, the rich kid ends up having a blast enjoying the little things — helping out with dinner, playing with he family puppy, getting his shoes eaten up by the dog — and shows Critter how good he truly has it, despite the fact that his family isn’t rich.

just_so_thankful

There is no shortage of art seeking to explain that material possessions aren’t what make us happy, that “the best things in life are free”. But this book does more than that, which is to emphasize that people of all economic backgrounds — rich, poor, whatever — derive happiness from the same things in life. H.H. arrives at Critter’s house with excitement about seemingly mundane but valuable things, like having a family cookout. Far from snobby about his wealth, we find when H.H. is stripped of his butler and cell phone and Super Streak Scooter, he’s just another normal kid who enjoys the same thing as everyone else.

Anyway, those are my children’s book recommendations. If you’re a parent, you should get them for your kids. If not, you might still get them and read them on your own. Just think twice before doing so in public, because that might seem creepy. About as creepy as a grown man writing emotionally about children’s literature on an economics blog.

 

Godzilla vs Mr. Bill

I recently finished reading Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats, which is about the world’s rising elite class and the enormous buildup of wealth at the top of the spectrum. Easily the most satisfying part of the book is towards the end, when she discusses the potential impact of this phenomenon for our economy and our democracy. Here she shares a brilliant quote from Luigi Zingales, an economics professor at UChicago’s Booth School of Business, which I felt compelled to share:

True capitalism lacks a strong lobby. That assertion might appear strange in light of the billions of dollars firms spend lobbying Congress in America, but that is exactly the point. Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field in one direction or another, not to level it. Most lobbying is pro-business, in the sense that it promotes the interests of existing businesses, not pro-market in the sense of fostering truly free and open competition. Open competition forces established firms to prove their competence again and again; strong successful market players therefore often use their muscle to restrict such competition, and to strengthen their positions. As a result, serious tensions emerge between a pro-market agenda and a pro-business one.

Industry has been throwing its weight around to the detriment or the larger marketplace — and to society in general — for decades, if not longer. As Zingales describes, this includes purposefully stifling open competition, and in doing so hurting other companies operating in the marketplace, as well as the consumers who would otherwise benefit from the better quality and prices that a competitive market would bring. To take one recent example we’ve already covered here on this blog, the lines separating media companies, political lobbyists/fundraisers, and government policymaking have been blurred, possibly paving the way for regulators to sign off on ever-growing oligopolies, and thus crowding out efficient competition from smaller firms. In other words… cable is too frigging expensive!

But beyond just stifling competition, there are innumerable ways that businesses and industry groups distort the free market with their political power. More than fifty years ago, Eisenhower prophetically warned of the “military industrial complex”, where an industry that stood to profit from war would skew the nation towards unnecessary debts and perpetual conflict. There are countless corollaries today in other industries. Big banks lobby against financial regulation, strengthening their bottom lines while potentially increasing the likelihood of another devastating financial crisis. Producers of fossil fuels quietly spend huge sums trying to confuse the scientific debate on climate change, holding the price of carbon emissions inefficiently low while the earth gradually warms. The farm lobby assiduously maintains the political backing for agricultural subsidies year after year, paid out of the pocket of the US Treasury.  Each case is an example of “extracting rents”, in economics speak. That is, a small and powerful minority with political power extracting value from the broader society and keeping it for itself, all the while compromising the efficiency of the free market.

This is not capitalism, or certainly not “true capitalism”, as Zingales puts it. True capitalism can be, and should be, ethical and egalitarian in its principles. And with the right rules and regulations, it can lead to generally fair and stable outcomes for society (see America for about thirty years following WWII). But not many people can spot the difference between “true capitalism” and what I’d call “rigged capitalism”, and most people nowadays appear hopelessly resigned to the latter.

Federal Troops Occupy Mare Favela Ahead of World CupBloomberg recently published an interesting article about Dembore Silva, a young Brazilian slum-dweller, and his uniquely entrepreneurial plans for the upcoming World Cup:

The 26-year-old is renting his studio apartment in Brazil’s biggest slum for the month-long duration of the soccer World Cup that ends July 13. He’s expecting to collect 4,000 reais ($1,719)… He plans to use the cash to buy a motorbike to supplement his income of 1,500 reais a month by ferrying people up to Rocinha, a hillside district of 70,000 that overlooks some of Rio’s beaches. “I could make an extra 1,000 reais if I had a bike.”

Silva’s plan isn’t just a cute World Cup story. It captures an important truth about development, which is that for many of the world’s poor, the path towards a more dignified quality of life is often paved with messy, uncomfortable choices.

This truth often gives us in the developed world a feeling of shock and guilt. It should: Basically, this young man plans to vacate his own home so that a rich tourist from abroad can drink, party and watch soccer, probably spending way more in a few weeks than what Silva makes in an entire year. Of course, by developing country standards Silva’s story is pretty tame; for many others, the choices are much more heartbreaking.

Like I touched upon in a blog post last year, the uncomfortable truth is that this is how economic progress happens. Specifically, people in poor countries seek to invest in themselves or in their children towards reaching a better life, even if the path between point A and point B is less than ideal. In this case, 1) a young man thinks about ways to raise his income; 2) he concludes that he needs a motorbike to boost his tourism business; 3) he decides that in order to fund this investment he’ll need cash (he can’t just walk into a bank, silly); and 4) World Cup!

I bring this up because I’ve encountered dozens of well-meaning, morally conscious individuals — many of them Baha’is — who seem to think it’s best to block these types of choices from happening, I guess because they find those choices repugnant. It’s highly commendable to desire to live in a world in which this doesn’t happen, but to respond to such a desire by actually taking away choices isn’t productive. Along the way towards declaring “No more sweatshops!”, we tend to ignore an obvious fact: Some poor lady in the developing world has it so bad in life, her alternatives so dismal, that she actually chooses to spend 12 hours a day in a poorly-ventilated room sowing buttons onto dress shirts.

Our goal as a human race should be to expand and improve the choices available to the world’s poor, not to limit them. For instance, had Silva lived in a place with properly functioning financial markets, he could have simply borrowed the 4,000 reais and paid off the loan with his increased income, with the bank taking on the risk that the borrower can’t pay back the loan. This is a basic economic tool that’s regrettably out of reach for many in the developing world, and there are numerous efforts — most notably the microfinance movement — underway to try and solve the problem.

But for a young man living in the slums, there’s no bank around the corner standing ready to make everything that easy. There are lots of people in the development field working on this, but right now the reality is that we’re just not there yet. Meanwhile, the World Cup comes around only once in a lifetime, and so does the opportunity to cash in on a tourist desperate for a place to stay. It’s all well and good to lament the existence of slums in the first place, and even better to try and do something about it. But for now, the slum dweller eager to sacrifice, work, and invest his way to a better life deserves our admiration, as well as a simple promise to stay out of his way.

Fox's "Cosmos" has been refreshingly profound

Fox’s “Cosmos” and the deeper conversation about science and faith

My wife and I have been getting into the new Fox show “Cosmos”, a reboot of the old Carl Sagan show which (I’m told) raised the country’s awareness of science and inspired countless young people. I truly hope it’s a success and stays on the air, though I’m not so sure the appetite will be there in the end. We’ll see. So far, at least, the reviews appear to be good and the show is great in terms of combining scientific content and entertainment/style.

One thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the show’s willingness to tackle the dichotomy of science and religion. This is especially refreshing to a Baha’i who was taught from childhood that the two branches of human knowledge are complements rather than adversaries. Abdu’l-Baha once said:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

In the very first episode of “Cosmos”, we’re introduced to a historical figure named Giordano Bruno (whom I had never heard of previously) who was viciously persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Catholic authorities in the 16th century. His crime, apparently, was to insist that the Earth was not in fact the center of God’s creation, and that a limitless Creator must necessarily imply a limitless creation.* Bruno was not a rigorous scientist (Galileo, the show tells us, later proved with a telescope some of Bruno’s hunches), yet he was an astounding spiritual visionary.

After watching this I was compelled to think: Every person of faith should be a Bruno. For Bruno’s epiphany, as I understand it, was not that he had stumbled upon a new truth. It was quite the opposite: it was that he understood that the human being is but a speck of dust in God’s infinitely mysterious creation, and that God’s universe must range well beyond the outer limits of the solar system. Other words, to encapsulate God within the confines of human experience is to violate all of our previously held assumptions about the His nature.

For a religious person to claim he understands God is about as senseless as a physicist to claim he understands the origins of the Big Bang. After all, how can we understand something that originates outside of our physical universe (that is, what caused the Big Bang, or whether or not anything “caused” it in the first place)? As we are constrained by the boundaries of our own physical reality, we can begin to understand something so profound only by observing its imprints on the universe around us. Coincidentally, astrophysicists recently took a big step forward in proving the Big Bang recently, by finally detecting long-theorized gravitational waves.**

The Baha’i Writings tell us repeatedly that God is an “Unknowable Essence”, too large and overwhelming to be comprehended by His creation. It is not the first nor the last religion to preach this message. The ancient Baghavad Gita, for instance, recounts the story of Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna, the Incarnation of God in human form. In it, Arjuna begs Lord Krishna to reveal his true form. At last Lord Krishna accedes to this request, but for just a moment. The result is for Arjuna to beg Krishna to once again cover up this overwhelming vision:

O all-pervading Visnu, seeing You with Your many radiant colors touching the sky, Your gaping mouths, and Your great glowing eyes, my mind is perturbed by fear. I can no longer maintain my steadiness or equilibrium of mind. / O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.

Like I’ve written before when discussing addiction, humility is part of being a faithful person. But humility is about more than just admitting to ourselves that our powers and capabilities are limited (a powerful tool in defeating alcoholism and other vices). It is also about admitting the same about our capacity for knowledge. It’s about admitting that our puny minds can not comprehend something as vast as the universe in its entirety, let alone the Creator who dwells beyond the cosmic curtain.

As we were watching that “Cosmos” episode tell the story of Bruno’s rejection and eventual execution, my wife aptly remarked, “No wonder so many scientists don’t believe in God.” It’s true. To any scientific thinker, the idea of God as a white-bearded grandfather or a man with an elephant head is about as believable as a giant Flying Spaghetti Monster (which is a real thing, by the way). I hope more and more scientists come to realize that there are other ways to have faith, and that some of us approach the concept of belief with the same humility and wonderment with which they themselves approach science.

—————

*I’m hardly an expert on this, but I realize the show may not have given the whole story on Bruno and why he was so heavily persecuted. For some discussion on this, see here.

**Science-y person reading this… please explain this in dummy’s terms for us.

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to economic competition?

Sometimes small gestures can prove profoundly spiritually powerful. Spirituality, after all, isn’t just meditating on the top of a mountain or praying by a candlelit bedside. It’s found in real, human gestures that happen around us everyday.

One remarkable illustration of this — and which recently gained national recognition here in the US — happened at a high school wrestling match in St. Paul, Minnesota last month between St. Michael Albertville High School sophomore Mitchell McKee and Blaine High School sophomore Malik Stewart. Other than the stakes, namely the state championship for the 120 lb weight class, this wasn’t an extraordinary match. Except that the following happened: After Stewart was beaten, he immediately walked over and embraced the father of the opposing wrestler, who is terminally ill with cancer. You can read the whole story here (and I strongly recommend you do.)

What was it about this story that made it so emotionally powerful, and vaulted it into the national spotlight a few days later? I think it’s because sports — and particularly youth sports — can occasionally remind us that even in an ultra-competitive atmosphere, the most beautiful human virtues can rise to the surface. Anyone who’s watched high school wrestling in particular recognizes that the sport uniquely balances strategy and discipline with primal aggression and raw effort. That a spontaneous act of humanity can emerge from such gritty violence is testament to the delicate balance between competition and cooperation. At one moment, two athletes struggle to physically dominate each other as if their lives depended on it. At the very next, those two athletes, as well as a tiny community of spectators, are somehow tearfully united by a simple but powerful gesture.

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Today marks exactly the middle of the Baha’i Fast, which runs from March 2nd through 20th each year. Without boring you with useless details about what I’ve been eating for breakfast, here are some slightly random thoughts on this special time of year, in no particular order:

- It took me a while to figure out that the fast was a largely symbolic, spiritual gesture, and not an exercise in not eating. When I was a teenager, I would either 1) eat obscene amounts of food in the morning and evening in hope of staving off hunger as long as I could, or 2) sleep through as much of the day as possible. As I got older, I kinda realized that there’s nothing virtuous about, for instance, rushing to eat an entire box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in one’s pajamas as the sun comes up.

- One of the most beautiful and telling passages from the Baha’i Writings about the Fast is this one below, from ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

The material fasting is abstaining from food or drink, that is, from the appetites of the body. But spiritual, ideal fasting is this, that man abstain from selfish passions, from negligence and from satanic animal traits. Therefore, material fasting is a token of the spiritual fasting. That is: `O God! As I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions… Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention.’ (Star of the West, v.3, p. 305)

- In my slightly-less-naive current state, I think I’m getting the hang of the spiritual part. Prayer helps, in the morning when the sun comes up and in the afternoon when it sets. This year my wife, even though she’s pregnant and thus not fasting, has helped me a lot simply by settling down the house, corralling our two year old, and sitting down everyone around the dinner table to say a short prayer before sunset. That’s made a big difference in the feel and mood of the whole period. And it’s not an easy task to get everything still even for that brief moment, mostly because our toddler has the energy and table manners of a rabid chimpanzee.

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NYSE American flagWhen my dad asks me what he should invest in, I answer as I would for any man in his early 70s: Anyone of retirement age (in my dad’s case, gradually easing into a kind of semi-retirement) should take very little risk. If you’ve worked your whole life to build enough money for your golden years, the last thing you want to do is risk it all. So safe things like short-term Treasury bills make a lot more sense than going all in on stocks.

I learned this basic truth when I was a twenty-year-old one summer working for a retail brokerage office. I also learned that if a financial advisor failed to recognize his client’s proper risk profile and was too reckless with his recommendations, that financial advisor and his firm could be sued for damages. This point was further pounded into my brain several years later as I earned my regulatory certifications to work in the financial industry, and went through tireless bank compliance modules. You get the point: It’s kind of a big deal not to take risks with the money of a person who doesn’t fit the risky profile.

For that reason, when I overheard the following conversation on a financial news show one morning, blaring in the background from one of the trading floor TV monitors as I settled in to work, something didn’t feel quite right. The conversation was between one of the show’s regular anchors and its guest for the day, a former top executive of a major American auto manufacturer who was preaching optimism over the US stock market.

Host: How old are you?

Guest: 82.

Host: You’re 82 and you’re investing in equities! Every financial advisor in the world, right, says that you’ve gotta buy bonds when your sixty-plus because, God forbid, you lose your capital. Eighty-two years old and you’re confident enough to invest in the stock market.

Guest: I’ve got a very good investment advisor, my father lived well into his mid-90s, I’m healthier at this point than my dad was…

Host: You’re not afraid of the capital risk?

Guest: No, hell no. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have a fairly expensive lifestyle. I’ve own airplanes and a lot of cars, stuff like that, so I’ve gotta keep the money flowing.

Host: I’m gonna rip my shirt off and paint an American flag on my chest right now. That’s great.

The most remarkable thing about this conversation is not that a man in his early 80s with, I assume, hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth, feels he has to stay invested in risky assets to fund his “fairly expensive lifestyle”. No, the most remarkable thing is the host’s “American flag on my chest” response. What, exactly, does an old man taking on an unusual amount of financial risk have to do with America?

I suppose there is a spirit of risk-taking and pushing the envelope that’s part of our historical narrative as a country — from Colombus, to the Puritans, to the Western settlers, to Neil Armstrong, to Steve Jobs. But at what point does good-old-fashioned American risk-taking become good-old-fashioned American financial recklessness?

I’ve never been particularly fond of my cable company, wherever I’ve moved to. Like many, I’m sure, I’ve wondered why cable has gotten so expensive ($80/month or more for TV alone now seems routine) while the service often seems so unaccommodating (the infamous “4-hour window” for appointments is now a punchline). I’ve also wondered why, in almost every place I’ve lived, there are only one or two cable companies offering service, rather than multiple providers competing with one another on the basis of price or quality. Are there massive “economies of scale” in the cable service provider industry, like there are for energy companies or jumbo jet manufacturers, such that it would make sense to have just a handful of really big players in the market? Is cable a “natural” monopoly, the rare case in which a single company dominating an industry actually makes economic sense? I really don’t know.

The good news is that it’s not my job to figure out if there’s too little competition in cable. (That’s good, because I’m pretty busy these days.) In fact, we have multiple federal government offices for this, all charged with the responsibility of blocking inefficient monopolies and protecting the consumer from a lack of competition.

The bad news is that there is no way to know if those offices are in fact acting in the public interest, or if they’ve been influenced by political forces. That’s why I almost lost my egg sandwich last Thursday morning reading this article from the Washington Post, about media giant Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. On the subject of whether or not the merger would be approved by regulators, it reads (emphasis added):

[Comcast's] executives are veteran negotiators with federal regulators, having won approval of the NBC Universal deal even when it was protested by many lawmakers and consumer interest groups. Its executive vice president… is a longtime Democratic insider who has hosted fundraisers for Obama and the Democratic National Committee. Earlier this week, he was invited with his wife to the White House state dinner for the president of France.

The point of this post is not to heap shame on Comcast’s leadership, the President, or his political party. Regular readers of this blog know that I have never sought to point a finger at specific individuals or political groups. This site is about identifying the moral disease and discussing its cure, not bickering over who’s more deeply infected.

I don’t know whether or not this merger should be approved. But that’s the point: I shouldn’t have to figure it out. I should have the trust in our democratic system that the right people will, in fact, make this judgement on the basis of the welfare of nation, not political backscratching.

This is a widespread problem, bigger than one company, bigger than one industry, bigger than one person, bigger than one party. When political self interest gets in the way of government making and enforcing policies for the common good, we should call it what it is: immoral and corrupt. That this is such a common reality that we barely bat an eyelash when it happens is especially sad.

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