HAMILTON, BERMUDA – Stocks rattled around on Monday; investors didn’t know where they wanted to go… so they went mostly nowhere.
We turn to the newspapers…
Invitation to Claptrap
Opening a newspaper is always an invitation to claptrap. The New York Times is probably no worse than any other. But it is the only one we had on our long trip from Berlin to Bermuda.
What gives over at the Times? Do the editors have tails and gills?
Hardly a single page manages to climb out of the primordial swamp of shallow, insipid thinking. Most of the “think pieces” show no signs of thinking at all; it is just desire.
David Brooks wants more community do-goodism.
Jo Piazza wants men to be more like women.
Reshma Saujani wants women to run the world.
Nicholas Kristof wants to do something about global warming.
Here, in the spirit of helpful mischief, we provide a little cynicism, a few question marks, and a path onto dry land.
At least David Brooks is right about one thing. Writing on education reform in South Carolina in the Friday international edition, the columnist noticed:
Our actual lives are influenced by millions of events that interact in mysterious ways.
That observation should make us pause. For every snake we see in the grass, there are dozens more in the bush, waiting to bite us on the derrière.
And it should open the door to a genuinely interesting discussion. If human society is shaped by things we don’t understand, can we really improve it by conscious (usually armed) intervention?
Train Your Husband
We’ll come back to Mr. Brooks in a minute…
Instead, let’s move on to Jo Piazza. “How I Trained My Husband to Be a Dad,” is the headline. That alone calls forth a nest of viperous questions.
Is this a joke? How would she know (better than he) how to be a dad? She is, after all, a mom.
What is wrong with her husband? Wasn’t his role shaped by millions of years of trial and error? Isn’t that training now embedded in his genes, instincts, and traditions?
Will the Times run a follow-up from him?: “How I Beat My Wife Into Being a Decent Mother”…
Ms. Piazza insisted that they share the burden of baby care equally. Is that a good idea?
In our experience, babies want their mommas, perhaps for purely anatomical reasons. But what do we know?
Ms. Piazza doesn’t know, either… and has no interest in finding out. Instead, she left her three-month-old with her husband so she could work on her novel!
And now, her tone of self-satisfied triumphalism suggests that she believes she has just crawled out of the muck and learned to walk on two legs.
But what kind of progress is this? The earliest and most basic form of the division of labor is the cooperation between men and women. One hunts. The other gathers. One is a mother. The other is a father. One remembers the children’s birthdays. The other remembers Boog Powell’s batting average.
By specializing, rather than by both doing the same thing, nature made it possible for them to do something neither could do on his own – have children.
Further specialization and cooperation led to the advances we take for granted as “civilization.”
And today, cooperation – between specialist metallurgists, financiers, salesmen, engineers, assemblers, machinists, chemists, and so forth – produces top-of-the-line Mercedes autos, for example… which wouldn’t be possible in a less-differentiated, hunter-gatherer society.
Maybe nature knows something Mr. and Ms. Piazza don’t… like the theory of competitive advantage! When a man (or woman) turns his attention to gathering up dirty diapers, he has less time to hunt for deals in the outside world.
Not that he can’t still earn a living… But he will be at a competitive disadvantage to guys whose wives take care of the baby, leaving them to work 12 hours a day in the outside world.
He will be less specialized… and less productive. The world will be less rich. And with fewer resources to work with, people will have fewer choices.
Is that good or bad? It’s none of our business how couples organize themselves. And there are surely lots of different ways to do it.
But if The New York Times is going to put it in the public record, you’d think it would at least mention the trade-offs.
Also worthy of mention is research that suggests that couples that share household chores equally – rather than specializing – are more likely to get divorced.
Why? We don’t know. That’s why we have question marks.
Meanwhile, over on page 10 is another exercise in antediluvian trivia, in which Reshma Saujani suggests that “Maybe Girls Will Save Us.”
“From what?” is the first question. But she doesn’t bother with that. All over the country, she says, girls are getting turned on to politics. The author is, of course, an activist herself.
She is trying to get more girls to “code” – that is, to enter the world of computer technology. Why is it such a good idea for girls to code? We never had any interest in coding. It seems like dreary work; why try to get girls to do it?
And since we found the question mark key on our computer, we’ll hammer on it a bit more…
Ms. Saujani says girls have “eclipsed boys in political participation and shown incredible moral clarity.” And, oh yes, they have an “instinct for inclusiveness.”
We recall our daughter coming home from school in tears because a clique of girls did not include her. That never happened to our boys. In our experience, girls can be as mean as boys and just as selfish… though perhaps cleverer about it.
And moral clarity? Smithsonian provides an illustration:
In January of 1692 [in Salem, Massachusetts], Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits.” They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds, and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes. On February 29, under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.
The result: 19 people were hung for witchcraft. And a 71-year-old man was “pressed to death” by heavy rocks placed upon him.
Girls will be girls, and boys will be boys, bless their hearts. But moral clarity is a fraud.
Over on page 12, the drivel goes on. There, Nicholas Kristof tells us that “denying climate change doesn’t stop its devastating effects.”
Of course, he’s right. Nature doesn’t care what we think. Kristof prompts a couple of lame climatologists to tell us that there might be a link between your driving to work in the morning and the hurricane that just washed over the Bible Belt.
Yes, there might be. Or there might not be. And maybe someday, scientists will have a better understanding of it.
But today, we don’t know what’s going on with the world’s weather. We don’t know whether it’s good or bad. We don’t know if we could do something to change it. And we don’t know if the costs would be greater than the rewards.
But Kristof can’t wait. He wants “us” to do something now. And as soon as you hear someone say, “We need to…,” you can stop listening. What follows is invariably idiotic, because it always ignores those millions of inscrutable influences. The activist is always a scalawag. And the activist with moral clarity is dangerous.
And now, let’s go back to David Brooks. Having set forth an observation worthy of Shakespeare – that there’s more going on to influence our lives than we find in our philosophy – Brooks proceeds to treat it like a smelly panhandler, doing his best to stay out of reach.
He tells us that he went to Spartanburg, South Carolina and saw the do-gooders working together to improve the world. But do they do any real good?
Does the investment pay off? What happens to the things that can’t be done because the time and money have gone into these worthy projects? No one knows.
“Building working relationships across a community is an intrinsically good thing,” he writes.
Is it? We don’t know that, either.
But here’s another question: Has a community ever actually been improved by busybodies who say they’re working for the good of others?
Or, as Adam Smith suggested, are communities really improved as a byproduct of people looking out for themselves… making millions and millions of win-win deals, compromises, gifts, and bargains… trading, working, marrying one another, exchanging small talk and smiles in the course of business… giving and getting with no intention of forcing their moral clarity on others?
Our guess: Human life is far too subtle and too complicated… and subject to far too many baroque, mysterious influences. It can’t be straightened out on an anvil by simple-minded jackasses with ball-peen hammers.
But what an inspiration it must have been… So many activists, community organizers, world-improvers, and politicians working together.
If they were all laid end to end… wouldn’t that be beautiful?!
Category: Financial Glossary