Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Good signs in labor market

The woman at the sandwich place where I go for lunch -- one of two primary sandwich makers on their line -- recently left because she found a role as an admin assistant. Yesterday a new hire, an African-American woman with a bunch of tattoos, made my sandwich. She had never used a pepper mill before, but the other guy showed it to her and it barely slowed things down at all. You could tell she was a little nervous as the line of balding guys in blue shirts got longer as noon approached, but she was gonna do fine.

Over the weekend a friend of mine complained about the level of service in a restaurant owned by another friend.

This is all good. It shows that people are being drawn into the labor force. Food service and hospitality are not the greatest jobs, but they are jobs, and people learn valuable skills and habits in them. I know I did. People are coming back into the workforce.

Much of this is due to tailwinds from the Obama years, but it is not being hurt by a revival of animal spirits and expectation of a more favorable regulatory climate under Trump.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

game of throwns

Up at the lake this weekend with some fellas, While many of us engaged in our statutory one game of basketball a year, a certain R------ C-----ll chose not to play, because he was too concerned about getting injured. Sadly, our friend's delicate ego proved equally susceptible to injury to some light ribbing from your present correspondent. To exact his revenge, this friend proceeded to booby trap the Grouse's bed with some items of clothing in pillow cases and under sheets, and to loosen the bulbs in my reading lamps. But, utilizing my estimable powers of observation and deduction, I discovered these subterfuges (OK, not the socks added in pillowcases) and got a fine night of sleep.

However, this morning, my back was killing me from jumping up and down on the concrete basketball court, suggesting that there was indeed wisdom in refraining. Wisdom shmisdom though, ballers gonna ball.

Postscript: against all commonsense, my back got better on the ride home, and now my attention will be focused on facing down Z on the tennis court come Wednesday. And then soccer season.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Opioid penetration

Saw this story on Facebook last night. We have all heard about the opioid epidemic, but I was shocked to see that, in a range of places, many of them in NC, the incidence of opioid dependency exceeds 8% of the population, going as high as 11.6%. That is insane.

I have separately seen stories about how counties that went for Trump showed higher incidence of opioid overdose deaths.  Here's one.  This really points up the depth of despair which has collectively driven a group of people to vote for someone so manifestly unqualified for his job, such a willingness to flirt with fascism. People in these places perceive themselves to be under mortal threat, and then look across the interstate at blue states and counties where people are sipping lattes and driving Lexi, Prii, and Audis and are pissed beyond measure.

OK, the work day is underway. Gotta hop.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Soap slivers

In the shower just now I was using the last slivers of a bar of soap (itself part of a great war chest of hotel size bars that I built up over years of staying in hotels and bringing the soap home. Don't remember the last time I/we bought soap).  I was reminded of Ballard, my dad's brother, who showed us with pride when we visited him a few years ago how he saved up all the little slivers of soap, dissolved them in water together, and then redesiccated them to make a new bar of soap. That, my friends, is good old Scots-Irish frugality.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Presence on court

Went out and played tennis this morning at the Farm.  Mostly doubles. I kind of prefer singles, but doubles is often what is available in a free-form, pickup format, so doubles it often is.

Tennis is perhaps the most perfect demonstration of both mean reversion and the role that the psyche can play in it. Which is to say, it is all too easy to hit a few winners or win a few points or games, get on a roll, get excited, and start screwing up. Conversely, it is all too difficult at times to play one point at a time, forgetting the prior point or points or games, to remember that each point is a new game which is only impacted by the prior ones if you allow it to be.

The ante is upped considerably in doubles, where you and your teammate are interdependent.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sam Stone


One day in college, I was sitting on the couch of Wayne, the a non-Yale student stoner who hung out and played a lot of hackeysack and to a lesser extent frisbee. He had some good weed, I'm sure, and we were smoking it while listening to some music. I didn't know what it was, but then I heard the chorus:  "There's a hole in daddy's arm, where all the money goes" -- and in an instant I was transported back to childhood. This was John Prine, "Sam Stone," and it was a record my dad had played a lot, in some ways his answer to mom's Carol King Tapestry, a record that I associate strongly with him.

At the time I was, of course, not paying attention to the lyrics, I had no idea what it was about.  I was a kid. When I listened to it again as an adult, I got it. Vietnam vet, heroin addict, overdose. Done. But the chorus reaches back to childhood to say: this is in fact the story any kid, and the transition from innocent child to dead addict is seemless and invisible and is in fact not the insertion of one thing in place of another, but different stages of the same thing, or, rather, the commingling of two seemingly mutually exclusive things.

Last week I went to an AA meeting and a woman shared about her son, who had been off at a rehab, then spent time in a halfway house. On his first night home, he overdosed and died. She went out and got drunk. When she told the story, all the oxygen went out of the room, but then the next person raised his or her hand and shared another experience because that is what we do.

It is hard for those of us who live relatively stable lives to grasp the seriousness of the opioid epidemic now. I won't trot out statistics, but it is very real and present. I buried a friend last Friday who had many years of sobriety after some years of serious drug addiction, but we don't know what killed him in the end. In some sense, it doesn't matter, in other senses, it does.

In the years following the end of the Soviet Union, as the metanarrative of a great and successful Communist society -- which had seemed plausible following WWII and the end of Stalin's years for a couple of decades but then eroded through the 70s until it collapsed under Gorbachev -- Russia began to experience very negative demographic trends. Under Yeltsin, Russia basically smoked and drank itself to death. People had fewer babies. Putin came along and changed the game. He is evil and a kleptocrat, but he gave and gives Russians something to be proud of and hang their hat on.

The West has seen some of the same things happen. Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton have shown that, for the first time in history, mortality for white American males is going backwards: white men are dying younger, and substance abuse and mental health are the big drivers. Branko Milanovic of CUNY has provided a broader framework for causality around this:  median incomes for the middle classes in the developed world have stagnated over the last few decades while the middle classes in emerging markets have made progress, and the rich have gotten richer.  Small wonder that kleptocrat populists are able to gain power while blaming immigrants.

I may have made some of these points before, and I don't have time to tie it all together because, as is the case every Saturday, it is time to take Graham to martial arts. And then it is time to get outside and enjoy the day.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Differentiation and being onesself

One of the received doxas of management theory of the last quarter century or whatever is that providers of goods and services should always be seeking to differentiate themselves from their competition, to demonstrate how they are different. This is reminiscent, on the one hand, of young people trying to mark themselves off as distinct by how they dress, piercings, tattoos, the music they listen to, etc. Amongst individuals, this quest to differentiate onesself has pushed itself forward as the Boomers have aged and Madison Avenue has gotten smarter, to where people at ever higher ages are still trying to be cool. By the time they are at death's door most but not all people are over it.

People often ask me, how do you differentiate yourself from other advisors? And it is a tiresome question, because what they are really asking is "how are you better?" and the subtext is "how are you going to beat the market?"  Given that beating the market consistently is more or less statistically impossible, what they are really asking is "how can you lie to me to give me the impression that you, and by extension I as your client, are privy to a special sauce which is available only to the select wealthy few?" Which is silly, but it is what some people want, and those people are looking for someone other than me to take care of them.

I am focused increasingly, in all domains of life, to trying to stop demonstrating that I am different than other people and just being myself. It is, in fact, a good deal easier to do that.

I recently bought some new jeans and also black jeans.  I have been wearing them more and more during work hours, and enjoying it. Wearing jeans is more who I am. Tomorrow I am going to Duke Law School to meet a prospect, a referral, and since people in universities have gotten oddly more formal in their dress even as universities have drifted ever leftward in their curricula, I am going to make and exception and wear some khakis. Black ones. Such is life.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Undoing Project

I just finished Michael Lewis's new book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.  As with many Michael Lewis books, it was a little uneven;  I feel like Lewis has license to write basically whatever he wants because he is Michael Lewis, after all, and he writes so well and has been so successful and has such incredible access.  In a sense, this is evidence of the sort of mean reversion that is observable in all human endeavors:  you can't be great in everything you do.

And part of my reaction to Lewis is, as I think I've shared before, jealousy and envy because I feel like I should be Michael Lewis, out writing about whatever the hell I want to and getting paid for it, as opposed to writing about whatever the hell I want to and not getting paid for it.

And so, the book. It is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their groundbreaking work in psychology that has impacted so many domains. Funny, I had always thought of them as psychologists whose main impact has been in economics, under the banner of behavioral economics, but it turns out that's just one epiphenomenon of their work, the one I've run into.

I have read other books about behavioral economics, usually I don't finish them. This one I finished, because, in the end, it was the story of the remarkable friendship between these two guys and its growing pains, how the one who appeared to be transcendentally brilliant (Tversky) got all the prizes as the two of them got traction, how his brilliance made him a difficult person which spoiled their theretofore incredibly tight friendship and partnership, then how they stuck together to the end nonetheless when Tversky got cancer that killed him fast and young. In the end, Kahneman got the Nobel, and has become more famous.

I cried at the end, and it made me appreciate my excellent friends. I called one today, whose dad is dying of cancer and is in the country for a few weeks. I had been too busy to do it of late, and couldn't make it to New York to see him. But it's OK.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Here I am

It's a typical Sunday morning.  We made pancakes, and were reading the paper.  After looking at the sports page, the one time a week I look at one these days (I get soccer news on weekend nights online), I started in on the Sunday Review section. Very quickly I could see myself getting sucked into the mire of the Trumpmania from which we all suffer now.

I had to pull back and come upstairs to try to lengthen my perspective here on the blog, to try to remember that the world is happening in cycles other than  those dictated to us by our lunatic Tweeter-in-Chief, the oracle of logorrheic bile pent-up within so many. See, there I go. It's hard to escape it even for a few minutes,so thoroughly does it permeate our every pore.

And indeed, there's really not much else of note going on in the world, though I should pause to note that Natalie and her team won their first mock trial competition yesterday, that Graham and I are making headway on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and that, though the show does not compare with Next Generation, I am glad that we have something decent to watch while sharing a blanket in the rec room and that, in particular, I am delighted to have side-stepped a need to watch season three of Avengers Assemble, which would surely have been more of Hulk, Thor and the gang smashing and crashing against an ever-wider array of new and rehashed supercriminals hell bent on destroying the universe as we know it.  I should also say that I went out and played basketball with a couple of guys including Skeet Baldwin yesterday, and that I pretty much shot him out. Today, both of my wrists are sore and one quad where this guy kneed me, but that's the game.