Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The nature of money and evil

Years ago people often said that ‘money (or the pursuit of it) is the root of all evil’. You don’t hear that so much these days. Some would argue its because we are more materialistic, or is it because we are just more enlightened? I think its just a practical way of living, but to give it some ethical justification its worth considering ‘what is the root of money?’
Money is a means of exchange that facilitates trade. Before we had money people had to barter for the things they wanted – causing a mismatch of wants. The divisibility, the portability and universally acceptance of money overcomes this constraint. Some would argue that had driven us to want to much, and in the race to achieve, we have lost sight of the ultimate value. So should we blame the bank or the manager of the money?
Money is a value traded for other value. Trade is inherently selfish since your prime concern is the satisfaction of personal wants – you offer a ‘value for value’. Of course you don’t mind if others benefit from trade, and trade would not proceed if they didn’t, but that does not change the fact that the trade is motivated by self-interest. This was Adam Smith’s conception of the ‘invisible hand’
Money is an inanimate object so it carries no moral significance – just as other inanimate objects like guns are not evil – they are merely tools that can be used by good or bad people.
I am currently reading a very good book – ‘Master Your Money Type’ by Jordan E. Goodman which highlights the psychology underpinning our attitudes to money. And the anti-materialism of religion and socialists grumbling about the ‘evils of money’ is highlighted as a reason for people developing destructive spending patterns. Consider the entrenched Catholicism of the Philippines where financial literacy is at a low point. People are generally self-indulgent and make little provision for the future. Its no surprise that they are poor. Might those attitudes towards money arise from the Catholic sentiments towards money – as the only Catholic countries that seem to buck the trend are Ireland and Chile. Well I would argue that attitudes to money are just one manifestation of it. But you cant argue people are all Catholic….everyone is a compromise because religion is such an anti-life set of values. Basically its about living a set of values divorced from your nature.
We all get it eventually – just some are more cynical about it – which is a matter of personal integrity. It is only in recent years that some Catholic countries have become more practical? Even the Philippines is changing. Reading from the Philippines’ Business Week Sept 7-8th 2007, Reverend Antonio Cecilio Pascual saids ‘Money per se is not evil’…that it ‘is actually our attitude with regard to money and the accumulation of material things that makes money evil’. Well I am not a religious man, but I can agree with that. Your attitude to anything (including money) is a moral judgement. All human action is based on a moral premise. The implication of this statement is that our motives are more critical than the goal.
The problem with religion is that it broadly offers no such guidance. Religion would have us believe selfishness and judging others is evil, and faith offers no value since it is merely acceptance without evidence, confidence or any sense of reality. If there were any sense of reality, you would be less virtuous. But neither am I in favour of a self-indulgent or fear-motivated attitude to money that places subjective values above the reality of human nature.
Rev Pascual perhaps lacks an understanding of philosophy because he makes no case for what types of motives are morally wrong and which are right, but that’s ok, the book above might fill in the gaps. He saids: “Education and knowledge nowadays are sought to outsmart, outpace, ‘out-knowledge’ one another so that one can be ‘successful’ as soon as possible and become rich as soon as possible” – the implication is of course that competition drives people to sin, so people loose a sense of prospective. I would argue that it’s a lack of their ability to think which develops as a response to collectivist philosophies like religion that call on humans to sacrifice their minds and values to the service of others and God. Why else would people try to impress others but because of a value system that places above self. That’s why they loose their sense of reality. Critical thinking is the gatekeeping mechanism that prevents contradictions from entering your mind. That is the basis of egoism and sound thinking, but that’s what religion poses is a threat. But really a true egoist does not define their value in terms of others standards – the superficial values of ‘non-self’ that the Reverend is concerned about.
He also says “How many parents actually try to seek good education for their children will actually become social workers and help a lot of poor people? To actually raise our kids so that they can help those in need?”. I did not think it was the parents role to decide what career a child should pursue, but you might ask why a great many clergy see imposing values on others as moral. Well since ‘fear’ is offered as a value in religion, so manipulation is a practical consequence. The sordid sex crimes in western orphanages being a case in point. But according to religion, these clergy are ‘only human’.
Next point: “Money is sinful….when it becomes an end in itself, when it is no longer just a means”. I would suggest that there is an always an end, and just the Reverend has failed to identify it. Any action is motivated by some thinking. In this instance I would suggest money serves the ‘means’ of impressing others, looking ‘successful’ in other people’s eyes. The paradox is of course is that religious undermines people’s mental efficacy, and thus makes them more beholden to what others think, and thus less likely to manage monetary matters effectively. It doesn’t help that ‘money is evil’.
Next point: “A lot of people become rich because they do not care about other people”…they ‘resort to sins to further accumulate money & power”. I don’t think money does isolate people – in fact successful people are usually very attentive to client/customer needs. Sometimes its superficial, and perceptions have primacy over real service, but surely religion which subjugates facts will only elevate this thinking. Look at the Philippines. Walk into any store and you get the empty expressions of respect like ‘Good morning Sir” that is intended to make you feel like a king, but ask them a question and you will have to repeat yourself 3 times…its not a dialect problem – they don’t listen to other Filipinos either. They treat the office or store as a playroom. It’s a testimony to their sense of reality – which is overwhelming social and not purposeful.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The philosophy of ketchism

I have a confession to make...I am sooo tight with money. I would rather wait 1 day in a queue or transferring planes rather than spend $200 on myself....but in defence when it comes to girlfriends...I'm just slightly better. I'm tempted to call this philosophy 'ketchism' after my ex-Japanese girlfriend called me 'ketchi' = Japanese for 'tight'. I was tempted to make this my philosophy, but really, on reflection, it has deeper roots than that. It has more to do with my sense of life, or sense of struggle. Afterall life was meant to be easy right? Well it hasn't been. Why else would a mining analyst, who should be earning $150K a year and living in Sydney, end up living in the Philippines on his savings. Well ok those career doors are closing to me, but the good news is that other doors are opening...yeh ok, there isn't much money in it, but the savings are great.
You might wonder where this sense of struggle comes from. Well I think its been entrenched in me for a long time. For a starters its well-known in the Philippines that Australians are tight with money. I can understand that...the origins of Australia were based on struggle, there was endless droughts so colonial Australia had alot of difficulty establishing an independent food supply. We had to depend on stockpiles or Mother England. And for a century more we very much looked to the English Empire...we looked to England to protect us, and then the USA. It took several decades before we became financially independent, not until we discovered gold and nothing else mattered :). But exploration is a risky business too, so little surprise that most of the money to finance activity had to come from England. Even today Australian mining companies are listing in England because Australians have an aversion to risk - now they have a problem investing in foreign lands. The English have no such aversion. So even today the sense of scarcity, tragedy and self-doubt persists in the Australian psyche. The anti-intellectualism of the nation is an extension of that on an epistemological level (PS: I dare say you wont hear that word from another Australian).

Contrast Australia with the USA where crops readily grew since water was plentiful. Americans are big on 'the grand symbolic' gesture. Whereas an Australian would be saying 'Whats the bloody big deal' or 'Why all the fuss?'. The other big element was my aspirational family upbringing which placed am emphasis on savings & I was always living for the future....and investing the proceeds. As a result since leaving school I have worked about 8 years (as an employee) and done little else productive for the balance of 8 years. I've spent most of that time investing and trading with my savings...was doing ok until my current GF dragged my attention off the markets. Written alot, not never put my mind to publishing. Its not that I dont like some sense I'm always working...I could even show you a picture of me working, but in ernest I just couldn't stand working for 'dicks in finance'. So what was a critical analyst to do...but as he is trained to I analysed and came to the conclusion that these 'dicks in finance' were not going to let me get ahead because I was good at what I do...and made them feel inadequate. Of course I'd prefer to invest millions and get fat commissions where I deserve them, but I'm tired of looking for it. When you meet more than a dozen 'dicks in finance' you start to see the pattern.
Now when I watch people and I observe how they think, I recognise that they approach life with a sense of 'tightness' or 'generosity', and I mean this not just with respect for money, but with respect to their broader value judgements as well. Well having grown up in Australia you might not be surprised to find out that no one ever showed any appreciation or recognition for what I did. Now I read the 'self improvement' books and they say you should praise 5x more than you criticise. I frankly reject this approach. I think this is what creates 'finance and other dicks' because they are unable to accept criticism. Thats one aspect...the other is a deluded (subjective) sense of reality. Thats what creates economic bubbles, and yes you can attribute those to financiers as well. These people actually think they are good because they appear successful to others, they work with Merril Lynch or something. They inflate market outlooks because thats what they profit from. They dont get generous bonuses unless the market little wonder the market is geared to expansion. If you are critical of the market outlook, you are a pariah, and quickly marginalised. But the other aspect is just how easy it is to make money when everything just keeps going up. You no longer have to be analytical, you just have to be a salesman. You have to sell it. That was another issue...I'd have thought people want to know the arguments for and against an investment. But thats not how 'dicks in finance' work. They write to convince irrespective of the merits because they get paid for raising money...and few people make money in falling markets as falling markets undermines confidence. Well this builds all manner of false economies which is beyond the scope of this post.

So I am a great believer in a balance of criticism and praise when and if they are deserved. But I've come to realise that few people truly have a sense of objective reality. They only hear criticism. There have been times I have made a statement 8-10x and its not been heard, but they will readily hear the bad news. I suspect when 'markets are climbing the wall of worry' breaking out of a downtrend, its the same thing.
Now the amazing thing about the Philippines is that people here are very generally very good at praising others, but they have their fair share of criticism as well. Now you might think that these people are surely great listeners, but paradoxically they are the worst. I used to think it was because they didn't get my accent, but thats not it. When I observe Filipinos talking to other Filipinos, they dont listen at all. So this drew my attention to flaws in the Filipino culture too. People here lack a sense of purpose, lack a sense of organised structure or discipline, they blow as the breeze takes them. Those that are more aspirational go overseas, and Christian guilt if not close family compell them to send half their savings home.
So that still leaves me still trying to find out where I belong...but I do love that I can buy an apartment here sooo cheap. Living here is not as cheap, but its not bad. Yep...I'm that tight.
PS: Refer to 'Tools for Life' for how to apply the Principles of Ketchism to your life.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Understanding the Japanese

Well what does it mean to be Japanese? Well you can always argue that they are all individuals, but I am speaking of the attributes that define them collective noun...generally speaking. I find them the most fascinating people because their behaviour is so unexpected some times, and thats what makes them interesting to me. My observations come from about 18 visits to Japan over the last 15 years, from 2 long relationships and a few less serious ones, teaching about 1500 Japanese students at Nova English School and also some business interaction. My perspective comes from abstract intgration more than purely empirical correct me if I'm over-generalising.
The attributes that stand out to me are:
1. Social identity: I doubt there is any othr culture as collectivist as the Japanese. They place a great deal of importance on being accepted in the group. Its not so much that they hate being alone, but being an outsider. The reason I believe is that values are social as well, so if you dont stand with others, you have no significance and others will frown upon you. Thats why they dont go out with prior plans to meet others, why they are so inclusive of others.
2. Generosity: The Japanese are amongst the most generous people I know, though I think its not the same reason as say Americans. I think Americans are generous because they have positive, bountiful lives, and share or give from a sense of goodwill, sometimes with a desire to be morally superior, or even for the sake of social networking. The Japanese do it out of a sense of obligation to their collective identity. If you are a stranger, they are not so generous, unless they are accustomed to, and welcome contact with foreigners, having had positive travel experiences.
3. Social values: The Japanese have very subjective values, the implication of which their thinking is 'each to his own', except to the extent that others values impinge on the happiness of others, and on that point they are very sensitive, but very tolerant. They would be insensed by a foreigner having a cellphone conversation on a phone or making any type of scene that breaks with the social harmony.
4. Shy: Japanese people are genrally very shy and exhibit alot of self-doubt. They are very sensitive to taking risks, to being shamed or humiliated. You will find them reluctant to speak English despite having good conversation skills, and reluctant to engage in any unfamilar interaction or activity, though keen to do something new involving social interaction.
4. Positive anxiety: Japanese people often exhibit what I would call a 'positive anxiety' in the sense that they feel compelled to do something, but often lack an outlet. They are amongst the least ambitious people I have meet. Even career-orientated men dont exhibit the personal sense of purpose or motivation that western people do. It seems more about success through others eyes, like a it was always a slap in the face to a father who expected nothing from them. Women are raised to be carers, with no career expectations, and considerable barriers to success, and all but the most competent women are likely to fail.
5. Spiritual: Japanese people are scared of ghosts in the Shinto tradition. They believe their ancestors remain in this life as spirits. They will leave salt crystals at the entry points of the house to ward off bad spirits. I've found all ASian cultures to be this way.
6. Self deprecating: The Japanese do not display alot of ego. They take criticism very politely and thoughtfully, though I think they are inclined to undermine the source unless there is a hint of personal redemption in the relationship. Listening thoughtfully is part of their virtue of tolerance.
7. Tolerant: The renouncement of personal value or standing is in fact how the Japanese feel valued. They find pride or virtue in pursuit of noble ideal.
8. Thoughtful: I found the Japanese to be very curious people, though without any great sense of personal purpose, it really seemed to lack personal momentum or depth...just polite conversation, and not something that they readily integrate into their life. They just respect that that is your space.
9. Organised: With the exception of the Koreans (who copied them), I think the Japanese are the most organised or institutionalised people on the planet. I think the virtues of good organisation were recognised by the Meiji Emperor, but I'm speculating. Regardless, Japanese governments, corporations and other organisations offer a range of activities to keep people busy, and alot of these carry with them a sense of social obligation, even compulsion, so attendance is high. Evading participation was particularly difficult when the Japanese were village based. It must be remembered that the 'social identity' stems from their village tradition and its only been in the last 50 years that Japan has opted for the more impersonal city life. But the corporation is really a modern substitute carrying many of the same traditions. And even in the cities there are still alot of people who respond to the traditions of the village, and even outsiders who want to join it.
10. Social status: The Japanese place alot of importance on status, as became apparent when I saw alot of teenage Japanese girls gawking at a rugby union team at the airport. Their first instinct is to ask for autographs to show their friends. Its a basis on which to elevate your standing with others. The importance of standing and harmony are related to this, and the desire to be well-regarded by others, to avoid conflict, it results in the tendency of the Japanese to be 'excessively nice'.

I'm sure I will find more attributes after reviewing my years of notes, but these are the core attributes that come from memory. Understand that there are a great many subtle expressions of these values which are defined by the context. I found there to be a strong difference between gender identities - and I say identities because I find that there are a great many feminine men in Asia. Men strike me as more arrogant, proud, dogmatic, whereas women are more conciliatory, appeasing, self-deprecating and easily contented. Men more self-indulgent and outrageous.

These are by necessity generalisations. I have meet young Japanese people who are more American than Americans. They will aggressively assert that Japan suxs and they want to live in America. I would suggest that such people have reflected negatively on their culture, sometimes only after having drawing something positive from other (usually western) societies.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Impact of commercialism of sport – and the internet on writing

I was watching a movie last night ‘Any Given Sunday’, the story about American football. In one of the scenes they were lamenting the commercialisation of sport and how that had impacted on football. The poignant line was “In the old days it was our concentration that mattered, now it’s them [the audiences].
This is a very apt description since it highlights the importance of ‘making exciting football’ to boost stadium attendance and TV ratings. That demands wins and compelling game play to excite the audience. Yes, its true, in the days of old, there was more soul in professional football. But we need only look at junior or amateur football to see that pride and personal efficacy are still the underlying basis for the game, as much as ‘the money’ might be pulling professional players and administrators in directions that they would not otherwise go, whether its:

  1. The use of drugs to enhance performance
  2. The misbehaviour of sporting stars off the field
  3. The lack of consideration of the broader interests of players for the sake of earnings

In short, yes, the industry does place a heightened importance on money at the top of the league, but then their concern for money is likely to erode once they have enough, and then does it not become ‘just about football’ for everyone but the large stakeholders – the shareholders and executives with stock options.
At the junior level, the tendency of some parents to place undue pressure on their children to perform is not a new phenomena, and in fact has probably declined in recent years as parents become more aware through education. But some parents persist as they attend to live their own lives gregariously through the opportunities presented to their children. Why? They feel inhibited to perform in their own lives, that they feel compelled to shift their expectations to their children.
Is there any cultural malaise in sport. On the contrary, achievement in the field is still praised. Players have unions and managers to look after their interests, allowing them to focus on what they are good at.
Some argue that there is an excessive focus on sports in society, that other fields of professionalism like art, literature and scientific endeavours are not afforded the same level of interest given to sports. Well that’s certainly true if we look at the money involved, but then there are several important differences:
The art and literature world is not as professional as the sports sector, in the sense that the art world is still relatively self-indulgent until one reaches a high level of capability
The art and literature world embodies a smaller fraction of society. Growing up, probably 70% of people enjoy watching sport, and half of us play it. But perhaps only 10-15% of us read serious literature and 1-2% write it, and fewer still seek a career as a writer.

The interesting question is – Is the internet, with the advent of blogging, developing a greater level of interest in writing as a career choice? Well that remains to be seen, though its clear that many more people are writing because they feel they have a chance to expose their ideas to the broader world in a non-confronting way. Certainly the quality of many blogs and the commitment of many bloggers is surely not there, but t minimum the process is exposing them to a great many other writers, so we can see that this might be the basis for a growing industry – if not support for writing then surely support for reading. OK the seeds of professionalism are not there yet, as the quality and commitment to many blogs will attest, and its a steep learning curve for those that want greater exposure for their ideas. Already we see the impact of writers who capture the interests of readers. Look at the worldwide impact of H.K. Rowlings with ‘Harry Potter’ series. Clearly there is a market for literature for those that recognise the market, but I would suggest that a great many professional writers and artists are rather self-indulgent. The reason might be that no objective value is placed on such self-mastery, in the sense that there is a popular belief that any art is good art. Perhaps artists are missing the deeper expression of values. And I say that in the content of what is currently considered ‘art’ in the art world. What is the deeper sense of values invoked? What are we getting from a Monet that we aren’t getting from aboriginal rock art? Are they of the same calibre? As far as I can see there are 3 factors that underpin artistic value – whether we are talking sport, literature or art:

  1. An expression of values – the more profound, the more valued; the more concrete, the less valued
  2. Technical skill
  3. Relevance to the lives of the audience

By that criteria, aboriginal art falls short of the Monet.
The last pertinent question to ask is why aren’t people inspired to write books like ‘Harry Potter’ or produce artwork like Monet. The reality is that some are – and the success of those examples is testimony to that. The problem however is that there is not enough of it. Few parents are preparing their kids for success. Parenting is another one of those areas where its supposed to come naturally, or might others rationalise, ‘if you’re old enough to have kids, then you’re old enough to look after them’. Personally I don’t think I was ready for kids until I was 35yo, though its hard to say given the less onerous provisioning for ‘baby’ parenting as opposed to ‘teenage’ parenting. So perhaps I could have had a child at 32yo and performed well. The reality is that little regard is given to parenting. Most parents teach the way that they were taught. Fortunately some parents are reading and learning how to be better parents, and increasingly the importance of parenting is being communicated through the media, eg. Dr Phil, Oprah and self improvement books. The lesson being missed fundamentally is structure and purpose. Parents are not giving adequate attention to the development of a child’s sense of purpose, and nor are they helping them to pursue that purpose by giving them a framework for growth. Its not about living your life through your child, or overtaking theirs, or pushing them into something they don’t want to do. Its about inspiring them to act in a certain way by demonstrating the value of a structured or systematic approach as opposed to a random, self-indulgent or haphazard approach. If that lesson is learned in childhood, and its value explicitly stated, then the value is retained, and achievement becomes a breeze. If its not fostered or its value not highlighted, then its easily lost when they leave the highly structured school environment, and they are vulnerable to failure. The later those lessons are taught, the harder they are to learn as we have become creates of bad habits.