"The things we do to women.”
This was a refrain written for Martin Sheen’s POTUS on an episode of the West Wing wherein his wife, played by the distinctive Stockard Channing, took a fall for her squeamishly pious president-husband. Props to Aaron Sorkin.
Yes, the things we do to women. Since when they were girls.
In our school, they dressed for business and walked down dated halls past grey-brown lockers with expensive heels gently tapping sacred rhythms. They were fully sensual—sight, sound, scented with pheromone—every molecule set delicately, pulsing with dangerous attraction, teenaged girls moving in dark social circles where everyone passed for 25. They were women well before their time, far too soon for a world fast evolving new-scale hedonism.
The 20th century variant of freedom v. morality left in its wake a swath of social carnage. Puritans and porn fought on a hill in the middle of everything. The former, riding the crest of a centuries-long logical mutation, were alienating. The latter, run by disfigured men posing as freedom fighters, built an army of accidental predators.
It’s no controversy. A boy’s malleable, porn-infused brain is good for only one thing: self-interest, with its full range of possibility. Mash that with a predictable surge of moral relativism and you got yourself a baseline for a wide-ranging scale of injury; or brutality. For one, because humans are dangerous without the right sort of input and regulation.
A young girl’s impressionable mind is a whole other thing.
Those girls got their start at home, innocently enough. When you come out or grow beautiful, it becomes the unconsciously beating drum of your self-perception and worth. And it radiates in unintended ways: like with vulnerable allure or daunting reticence.
Of course, the enticement is natural. We are fundamentally struck by the soulful ratio of beautiful things. The things that resonate viscerally, reverberate bones and activate sensation. But this naturally human attraction to the wonders of beauty can, with the right triggers, mutate into warped, synthetic impulses.
There’s a hunger for beautiful girls. And since its crude beginnings, visual media has exploited it without conscience or reserve. I submit for the record Ginger’s occasional full-bodied, albeit self-serving, seduction of the insensible Gilligan. That stuff jumpstarted my pre-teen sex battery. Yes, the 1960s were darkly foundational.
The ensuing tide of explicit music, hyper-graphic journals and generally pervasive sexual obsession rose as a new foray into the realm of animals: goaded by instinct to eat, drink and copulate. Our epigenome was being activated, scripting us to live and breathe our days for an instant of untamed pleasure like never before.
Who better to run that script with than one of the beautiful girls? Hef, Flint and Guccione—notorious pushers—were rapaciously uncaging new addictions, breeding insatiate hybrids and turning women into modern objects of violence and loveless desire.
Those girls were hiding in plain sight from a lifetime of unsolicited attention and the toxic shame it coded them for.
Some of us were misinformed haters, others yearned from a distance, most objectified—never mind what men close to them were doing. To the school crowd, they were easy, untouchable targets of jealousy, lust and resentment. And they dwelled in rarefied isolation.
A group of us stumbled into that isolation one night while searching for a second location. The first grad party we attended was doomed by a misguided layout and basic shortages. One of our friends suggested we check out another spot, where the beautiful girls were. Now, we were friendly with some of those girls individually but rarely edged near the cohort. Still, we mustered boldness and went to them. Primarily for food, shelter and alcohol—entertaining no fantasies.
Upon arriving, it was to what appeared to be a quiet soirée with few attending. It was a little disorienting. My gut reaction was empathy, but it was oddly logical. A glimpse of the orbit they occupied, in between everyone else, within a protected circle of what felt lonely and melancholic. They were surprisingly happy to see us, which made us a little dopey. Host-mom was in stride, and soon we were foraging on a beautiful spread of more food and drink than we could want, select beneficiaries of so much hard work and planning. I fast took to the guacamole, then got to the business of coaxing mom to buy into my anxious hilarity.
The cliché is the nerd party where no one shows but a few neighbors and prudish aunt Gertrude. Yet, these were the beautiful girls: with the awesome clothes, the walking, and the look and feel of adult women. Popular, adult women. The girls. But that’s just it: they were girls. Thrust into life with a wildly attractive array of a trillion cells. They had the ratio, the elegant pattern of aesthetic wonder. But still, just girls. Girls that felt the implicit pressure to be perfect long before they discerned the force of their own gravity. The net effect felt, from the outside, like they lived within a paradox where powerful attraction repels genuine intimacy.
What is it like to be the youthful object of so much misguided attention, adult desire, thoughtless scrutiny, and superficial intent? I defer to the words of a 15-year-old Billie Eilish* who put it to music:
If teardrops could be bottled
there’d be swimming pools filled by models […]
Tell the mirror what you know she’s heard before
I don’t want to be you anymore.
After that night, I didn’t want to be me anymore. Partway in, I felt the blur of fast drink and left the grounds to wander, woozy, into a neighbor’s garden alcove to refund that delicious guacamole, then pass out. Ugh. My sense of lost opportunity and shame is no less acute today.
Back to the party: turned out we were simply peers, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other. Ours was an unusual band of modestly attractive, clique-resistant funny boys looking for a place to hang. That night we defied instinct and broke through what were our own inhibitions, finally seeing that we were just a pack of wild boys and beautiful girls, fighting for survival in a world contrived by lunatics. And defined by irony. Like where hooker swag is a symbol of emancipation.
Those girls would pay for the imposition of their DNA in subtle and complex ways or with straight blunt force. Either way, in the end, age would have its say. Because the things we love most about the beautiful girls unfairly lose their charm over time.
Indeed, the things we do to women. Since when they were girls.
* Released 2017. idontwannabeyouanymore, by Billie Eilish, on Don’t Smile at Me. © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Universal Music Publishing Group.
Each time I hear the familiar refrain of "I Write the Songs," which made No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart and won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1976, I rewind to my all-too-self-centered past. Et tu, Carly Simon, for plumbing the depths of my truth two years earlier with "You're So Vain" (nominated for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for 1974's Grammys). That pop magic was reverberating my fragile, nascent ego.
We might think about Manilow and wonder if he was speaking in the first person and, if so—talk about vain. But a closer look reveals that Barry was just the messenger, whereas The Beach Boys' Bruce Johnston turned the phrase, in the third person, with a spiritual twist. But who knew? I just thought that skinny lady everyone called Barry was a little high on herself. That was before learning she was, in fact, the 'he' all the middle-aged neighbor ladies were swooning over. Regardless, the mid-'70s proved to be a catalyst for a lifetime of anxious introspect. And the start of a battle with my deeply held vain orientation.
Let's face it, both of these timeless hits are hard to shake once they're in your head. Johnston wasn't kidding—that's one song that does make the whole world sing, notwithstanding Barry's miserly gamut. And Carly, your cynicism was justified: I did think that song was about me. Mystified, I wondered, "how could she know?"
It took many years of eliciting my knack for inference but eventually, it became clear: I was way more selfish than once believed. Thank you, pop icons, for this dreadful insight. Over time, it intensified: I was, in effect, coded for vanity by birth, experience, and importantly, behavior; the latter embedding it deep into my psyche. How I longed for the green, idyllic pastures of the early 1970s, ‘Nam' and hippies notwithstanding.
Prior to '74, we led a simple suburban life using what remained of razed wooded meadows and stopped brooks to the full. Our first strip mall dumped onto fields of wildflower was where we got going rogue, stealing cigarettes from the A&P (age 9). Later we would stuff the inside of my brother's army jacket with 45s, compliments of the new Zayre department store. And though Simon and Manilow never made it into the folds of that hallowed chamber, they forced their way into our heads via FM overplay. Our already tattered fringe-boomer, post-war-parented little heads.
Of course I thought that song was about me! That's what home-front chaos does to you. How can your parents' interpersonal rancor not be about you? It's a breeding ground for the kind of self-loathing more typically found in second-generation hookers. Yes, life in the then-coveted sub[-]urban landscape was, too, unprotected from the brutal societal imposition of the big wars (aftershocks included). Parents had to do the best with what was left of their profoundly altered psychosocial acumen. Some did better than others, while the apples fell all over the place.
Still, it's all we knew. We were spellbound by naïveté. And selfish, to survive. That is, till Simon forced me to see, to wonder, to dig in the dirt of my abiding vanity. By that time, Barry lost his hold—from Mandy to Copacabana—too confusing. No, it was Carly and me, bound to each other inside a soft-rock cage fight. And deep down, I dug that woman and her insistence on truth: "Don't you? Don't you?" It broke me.
Memo from your cognitive-behavioral therapist: You risk burying yourself in narcissism. Or, as my grandma once said: "Dig deep junior, I’ll be waiting for you in hell." What's that now, grams? She continued, dolefully, "Trust me, you'll be worse for wear and twice the egocentric; then dead." That's when gramps smacked me on the head and added, "Dig unrestrained, boy, and you'll blight the rootball. Either way, vain if you do, vain if you don't." Grandpa was only partially lucid, but that part was a straight neural path cut by wisdom; well fatted, unfading.
Years later, a tireless refrain wears me down. A thousand times, "you're so vain." A thousand more, its peal decompressing like the howl of a passing car's radio, haunting the still night's playing children.
One of those kids and his brother will later make off with peaches from a distant neighbor's only tree. One will, in time, hate himself for it all. So goes the slow, steady breakdown. The deconstruction of innocence. The birth of unforgiving introspect. And the selfish pursuit of genuine crappiness.
Nixon, Crypto and the Goblins of Newness
The arc of Halloween, for many of us, went from fun, polyester costumes and a plastic pumpkin carryall to the teen-approved pillow sack, both full of the strangest confections a child could hope to choke down in one sitting. Beneath the gasping could be heard the faint cries of a languishing pancreas and the early makings of adult-onset type 1 diabetes.
Halloween day in 2008 was a balmy 68° in Cleveland Ohio as the city's youth pawed the ground, eager to breach the gate and hit their very own sugar-lined Midwestern streets. They were gleefully unaware of the evil, one Satoshi Nakamoto was about to drop by means of a fiendish white paper titled "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System."
Fast forward almost 14 years and the world is still trying to wrap its brain around what Nakamoto, the presumed pseudonymous person(s) who developed Bitcoin, proposed: a digital currency designed to work as a medium of exchange through a computer network operating free of any central authority. Alas, the code writing was on the wall.
In practice, does Bitcoin portend economic freedom or anarchy? Is it a viable currency? And what is its present investment potential? To be frank, we're not going to touch that first question. But we'll take a stab at the latter two. To begin though, let's talk about currency itself.
The most common form of currency in use today is called fiat currency—that is, money that is made legal tender by government decree (or "fiat"), as opposed to currency backed by some commodity. So rather than deriving its value from some corresponding amount of gold or silver, fiat money depends on the stability of the issuing government, as well as its supply vs. demand dynamic. It was August 1971 when Nixon made the move that spelled the end of the last vestiges of the gold standard. Today, virtually every country in the world uses fiat currency.
Given that fiat currency lacks an intrinsic value outside that which is socially agreed upon, perhaps Bitcoin has a little more in common with our USD than it seemed at first glance. And like the dollar, the number of Bitcoins in circulation is finite: although some have yet to be "mined," they'll ultimately cap out at 21 million. Plus, although anti-counterfeiting measures in US currency have become more complex since the ‘90s, Bitcoin's very nature makes counterfeiting it infeasible. However, unlike the USD, Bitcoin has no government backing it, no intermediary banks to propagate its use and importantly, no fiat authority to manually counter a financial crisis—as the Federal Reserve did in 2008.
For currency in general, economic science determines six basic properties: durability, portability, divisibility, uniformity, limited supply, and acceptability. Any proposed tender that doesn't check all six boxes simply won't prove useful and can be expected to fall into the dustbin of history in relatively short order. So how does Bitcoin measure up?
Fairly well, actually. We've touched on Bitcoin's scarcity and uniformity, which both give the U.S. dollar a run for its money (pun intended). It's also more divisible than other currencies, in that it can be divided to the eighth decimal place. And because it's designed to be decentralized, it's virtually impossible for the shared ledger (i.e., the "blockchain") to be destroyed—so it's assuredly durable. However, at least for now, its portability and acceptability render it impractical. Storage of your "digital wallet" is still fairly cumbersome, and while there are exceptions, most merchants have yet to jump through the hoops necessary to accept Bitcoin.
As a currency, Bitcoin ticks a few important boxes but still has some work to do. This brings us to our final and more practical question: should I think seriously about investing in Bitcoin (or other cryptocurrencies)? Ultimately that's for each investor to decide. But here are some useful points to ponder.
First, what is it about traditional investment vehicles that give them their value? Bonds are simple: they represent the value of a debt you'll be repaid upon maturity. The monetary value of stocks can fluctuate, but that value exists because they represent part ownership of a company. And investing in a commodity relies on that commodity's intrinsic value, which, in the case of gold, for example, has proven its lasting value over time.
In contrast, it can be hard to pinpoint the value of a decentralized digital currency with such a short history. To date, the primary driver of Bitcoin value has been speculative interest. Its market price has been highly volatile, varying widely from its "fair" or "intrinsic" value (quotes ours, because what even is its fair value?). Moreover, Bitcoin has thus far exhibited the characteristics of a bubble with its radical price run-ups and formulaic pundit mania.
It's a tough call when a proposed innovation is trying to find its legs, and it's fairly impossible to know if it can or will. Regardless, when it comes to our labors to acquire and maintain wealth, shrewdness is key. While the future might bring revolution, and hindsight its clarity, those in the present need to work their moment objectively.
In time we come to warn our children: Beware the secret dangers of a candied linen sack, where Chuckles and chocolates lie in wait for untrained youthful palates. For those in costume as investors, time will tell if crypto is proven trick or treat. Till then, we do well to be cautious of darkened doorsteps, and the dealer down the street who cuts his rock with a promise.
Is It a Wonderful Life?
Christmas Eve 1945, Bedford Falls, New York: The otherwise selfless George Bailey is having suicidal thoughts. Life’s bearing down hard on a good man in ways that take a Dickensian supernatural intersect to remind him that his life was, in fact, mostly wonderful. Thank you, “Mr.” Odbody, for the save. And by the way, Clarence, gimme some of that.
One option for a 2022 year-end holiday greeting card for our intrepid clients and readers: Glittery front cover reads “Happy Holidays!”; message inside is simple but candid: “George Bailey got nothing on you.” No glitter here. Just the facts. Some of us have had a rough year.
Instead of a card, we send an 885-word (less-than-angelic) note of encouragement. Take heart: you’re already at 124.
As George Bailey learned, maintaining perspective is tough when life hits you with a daily poop emoji. But as we learn in time with texting, context needs inferring, and so much depends on measured replies. Moreover, in this case, it’s important not to miss that that poop graphic is smiling. :)
Beyond that, we submit three topics that, with a bit of consideration, can help us turn our internal frown upside-down when our investor life is raining scat: Trust, relativity, and tolerance. In brief.
Or, as Merriam-Webster (MW) explains, the “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”
Our story begins at Ohio’s world-famous Cedar Point, offering an astounding array of notorious coasters. Braving one requires several degrees of trust. As we’re crawling our way along the 120-minute wait for a 180-second dose of fear-induced pleasure, our brain quietly reinforces our trust circuits, reassuring us that we have reason to trust the engineers, builders and operators of the rocket train we’re about to mount and ride into the clouds—with our hands in the air and without a helmet, no less. Now that is trust.
The market is its own brand of coaster. And hopping on that crazy train requires trust. Sometimes it’s more like that old-school wood-frame coaster. You know, the one that dispenses with the comforts of these modern wimped-out tubular deals and tries the tensile fortitude of your connective tissue.
For this ride, we need to trust the very nature of the market itself, its historical data, and (drum roll) our advisor. Looking back at MW’s definition, we can understand why that’s important. And why it’s vital to an investor’s composure. Much like the Point’s wood-frame Mean Streak (1991-2016), a rough market can expose the true grit of our trust. One's sinew hurts just writing about it.
The purely hypothetical-and-bearing-no-resemblance-to-anyone-we-know Greta checks her portfolio and sees that in the last week, she’s lost over $70k. Her thought-emotion-response signals occur in milliseconds and go something like this: Thought: “what the—?”. Emotion: fear. Physical response: sinus tachycardia (i.e., palpitations, chest pain, fainting, lightheadedness, rapid pulse rate, shortness of breath). Proposed remedy? Our financial theory of relativity.
She may have lost 70k in a week, which is a blow and terrible news. But if she looks closer at her portfolio’s performance over the past few years after a whiff or two of smelling salts, she’ll be reminded that the 70k was a loss on a 150k gain. Her initial spend of 300k has earned her 80k to date. Not too shab. So it’s a relative matter; in percentages, she’s still performing well at just under +27%.
Now while any similarity between Greta and an actual human is simply coincidental, she’s a helpful archetype. And her example dovetails with our last area of concern.
This one can be tricky. It helps if we can face down three known versions of our personal reality: The person we believe we are, the person we present to others, and the person we really are. As an investor, it comes down to the reality of our risk tolerance. This, in turn, bears on how we react to a struggling market and our ability to accept the highs and lows of how it is known to perform.
For example, some of us have a fiscal thorn in our bottom from past mistakes and are essentially risk averse. If we own that, we tend to swim in modest depths and may find it easier to mitigate the emotional side of loss.
Regardless of circumstance, we must be skilled at managing both loss and gain. We can’t be expert investors and novice losers at the same time. Therefore, we admonish, “investor, know thyself.” Please.
We’re willing to concede that high on the list of folks who get a pass on cockeyed optimism are the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. And we can pardon the extra hurt of the 2007 New England Patriots Super Bowl loss. No theory of anything could work on that hit, ever. To be honest, we’re not sure if George Bailey could have survived it. Indeed, Clarence Odbody would have been caught in a chain reaction of unimaginable regret and joined George in his desperate plunge. Tragic, for sure. Of course, now we have to imagine Jimmy Stewart in the role of pro quarterback. It’s too much to ask.
Thankfully, we’re no doubt neither Fin nor Pat in the world of investing. So, no excuses. ;) If we can enhance our trust, embrace the relativity of loss, and discover our true risk tolerance, we might find that with all its highs and lows, we truly have what is, in fact, a wonderful life.
For some, the stereotype is that well-to-do is synonymous with some level of indifference toward others. Think, uh, Downton Abbey. Or the entire course of history. Yet, is this just a recurring symptom of envy? Or is there something to it? And could we unconsciously be lending credence to that generalization?
A slew of recent studies points to a troubling conclusion: that the size of our bank accounts can, perhaps surprisingly, have a bearing on our ability to empathize. So how can such a vital, innate quality be diminished by a means of exchange? A familiar (often misquoted) adage proposes that the love of money is a force both misunderstood and underestimated.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Tian Dayton, acquiring money can become what's referred to as a process addiction: the compulsion to repeatedly engage in a specific behavior regardless of negative consequences. What's eerie about process addictions is that a person's brain chemistry changes in much the same way as it would with alcohol or drug use. Dr. Dayton explains that someone with a process addiction "has learned, albeit unconsciously, to manipulate his own brain chemistry."
The parallels don't end there. Just as a drug addict develops a tolerance for his drug of choice through use, the money addict will need to invest more time in his behaviors to achieve the same "high." And like any addiction, the need for it will lead to uncharacteristic risk-taking behavior, even sacrificing relationships or morals. Dr. Dayton writes that "eventually, the money addict can't really distinguish real love from the love he is able to purchase."
Even if money doesn't exert that authority in our lives, it can still influence how we view others. For example, research published in Psychological Science showed through three different experiments that lower-class participants consistently showed greater empathic accuracy—a metric used in psychology to measure how accurately a person can infer the thoughts and feelings of another. And an earlier study by the same researchers showed lower-class individuals to be more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. The abstract explains that their data "showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion."
But why would that be the case? Another expert suggests that money can corrupt our thinking. In a study by Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, participants played a game of Monopoly where one player started with twice as much money as his opponent, got twice as much each time he passed Go, and rolled two dice as opposed to just one for his opponent. Throughout the game, wealthier players tended to become louder and take up more space, even eating more pretzels from the bowls staged as part of the experiment. Interestingly, those players were almost twice as likely as poor players to suggest that strategy had had an impact on the game's outcome—that they had earned their win.
Of course, life is far more complex than a board game. Do these implications play out in real life? Well, yes, according to a handful of related but separate studies performed by researchers at UC Berkeley. These studies focused on individuals' behavior in a variety of settings, from negotiations in the workplace to driving in rush hour traffic. They found that upper-class drivers were four times more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting to enter a crosswalk. Another experiment involved playing a computerized dice game in which the player with the highest score would receive a cash prize. Participants were unaware that the researchers rigged the game, preventing players from achieving anything above a specific score. Upper-class participants were more likely to claim a higher score than was possible, implying cheating. In every case, the data pointed to the same conclusion: unethical tendencies seemed to increase with a person's net worth.
So what gives? Kristin Smith-Crowe, one of the co-authors of a study demonstrating that the mere thought of money can distort a person's moral values, explains it this way: "Even if we are well intentioned, even if we think we know right from wrong, there may be factors influencing our decisions and behaviors that we're not aware of."
Maybe it's one of those unintended consequences—part of the trappings of capitalism. And perhaps that adage was on point: we seem to find the love of money at the heart of so many harmful and senseless things.
But the relationship between the amount of money a person has and their ability to show empathy isn't deterministic. Paul Piff, a social psychologist at Berkeley, explains that while more money can make someone more likely to be self-serving, "having money doesn't necessarily make anybody anything." We as humans are susceptible to money's corrupting influence, but its effects are not inevitable.
We can take this apparent correlation between increased wealth and diminished empathy as a cautionary datum. No one wants to be compassionless, but we're vulnerable to corruption in barely discernible ways. Acknowledging our natural human infirmities is a vital first step; identifying our personal threat vectors is perhaps more critical. Knowledge, as they say, is power.
Armed with such knowledge, we might choose never to allow our pursuit of wealth to degrade our compassion. If we catch ourselves on that path, let's employ the insight to recalibrate and continue living empathic lives. For us, a few things are inevitable: death, taxes and maybe an occasional binge affair with Downton Abbey. How about we keep it that way?