Friday, June 23, 2017

Income Investing: Only for Goldilocks

Yep, I'm pretty prolific right now.  I just realized I'll write 200% more entries this afternoon than I did all of last year.  Full context -- I'm proctoring a final exam, so I:

a) am stuck in place; and
b) have some time to write.

Something I've mentioned here and there on this blog is income investing.  Each time, I probably included some sort of disclaimer that I wouldn't turn this blog into some stock-hawking site (and trust me, I won't).

However, I will say a little bit here about income investing, and why it suits certain investors' temperaments.

First, income investing is about buying and holding securities that generate cash flows to the investor. Those could be REITs, BDCs, closed-end bond funds, or just good old-fashioned companies that pay dividends back to shareholders each quarter.  It doesn't require any special sort of talent or skill, and it's certainly not very time-intensive.  However, it does require a lot of patience.  Anyone can model returns on a spreadsheet and show you how well someone would've done over the past 20 years buying, holding, reinvesting, and periodically adding to a position of a JNJ or an MMM.  However, people are often their own worst enemy -- they want some fast action, so they sell their shares when the value moves up a bit to realize a profit, or they panic and cut bait after a drop in value.

I'm not going to say that either of those approaches is necessarily "wrong" by the way -- just that it's not my style.

Just as Goldilocks rejected one type of porridge for being too hot, and another for being too cold, before settling on the 'just right' bowl, I see a parallel with income investing.

  • Investors are who 'too smart' will always reject it.  They are into something way better.  Sometimes they'll even insult income investing (must be pretty miserable for some dinosaur company that can't do anything better with its cash than give it away to shareholders, eh?), and sometimes they'll just dismiss it without being insulting. They have some hot tip about an IPO, or they have some "can't fail" strategy that involves shorting or day-trading some triple-leverage crude oil fund, or S&P futures.  If that's you? Power to ya.  I personally couldn't care less.  Go for it.  You do you.  But I also know I've never met a single person who lives off of their "short the VIX here" and "buy the out-of-the-money crude futures there" strategy, or some crazy options thing that's "just common sense, really" and involves the names of exotic birds.  NOT A SINGLE ONE.  But if you listen to someone tells you how obvious it is that anyone can just print money by executing some quick trading strategy, you should then ask that person why he's still working.  Instant buzzkill, guaranteed. 
  • People who are too skeptical will always reject it.  You could show someone that aforementioned JNJ/MMM data, or similar data about other "Dividend Aristocrat" stocks, and you might be met with "yeah, but isn't the stock market rigged so a bunch of white guys in the Hamptons can buy boats?"  My answer to that would be something like this: "I have no idea, but even if it were, how would that invalidate the data that's right in front of your nose?"  Answer: it wouldn't. Many others think that work is only 'work' when it involves grunting and sweating, and that any money earned otherwise is somehow stolen or just plain illegitimate.  If that's how someone thinks, I won't make it my job to convince them otherwise.  
Other types of people are 'just right' for income investing -- people who don't mind a little boredom, people with some patience, and people who don't think they can out-time or outsmart the market.

Every now and then, you might catch those news stories about a retired custodian or librarian somewhere who managed to squirrel away an $8 million nest egg, often without even telling anyone (it's the family that discovers it after the person dies, or it's the building or charity in some small town that unexpectedly gets a massive donation).  When you dig past the headline to see what that person did, I can guarantee you that it wasn't some "short the VIX" crock of horseshit -- it was buying and holding Dividend Aristocrats.  

Unlike the Gordon Gekko fast-talkers who ooze condescension when they think they've lost you in their complicated options strategy, lots of income investors walk the walk.  

The Gig is Up! At Least for Now...

"There's numerous ways you can choose to earn funds."  -- Prodigy, Mobb Deep

So for the past few years I've had a bit of an unconventional work situation.

I didn't plan it this way.

As you might know if you read this blog, or know me from Real Life, I started a business during business school.  It went sideways (no shame in my game, I learned from it!), but along the way I picked up a few side jobs that I knew I'd need to support myself & family with cash flow while trying to launch the business.

So even after the business went tapioca, I found myself still doing some things that I loved (Adjunct teaching at three different schools, plus Army Reserve), and something that I sometimes loved but sometimes didn't love (tutoring).  If you added up all the money I made annually, it basically worked out to what you'd expect from a Sloan MBA a couple years out.  So it wasn't all bad, for sure.

But the Gig Economy ain't all about glamour and freedom!

When you sort of "string it together" with a part-time job medley, you do have some nice upsides:

  • You're not going to the same office everyday, in the same way, with the same people 
  • You've got a lot of so-called "anti-fragility" built in to your employment situation; that is to say, one particular job could ebb, or flow, and the system is robust enough to handle that (this is important, underrated, and not something that people with 'just one' job might realize)
  • Your income isn't really 'capped' in the way a salaried income is...I guess that cuts both ways, but I'll just say that some months (October and April, usually) can be really, really lucrative, with the work (and the dollars!) flowing handsomely.  
  • In theory at least, you could carve out time in your day for creative pursuits, like writing.  At a more traditional job, I feel like that'd be harder to pull off, as you're on someone else's clock.
However, in come the downsides:
  • No benefits.  If you're lucky enough that one of your 'gigs' covers health insurance for you and your dependents, then that's a big win.  But things like paid leave, 401(k) matching, etc.?  Don't expect it...but I guess if you really made it big, money-wise, you could sort of build a DIY bennie package...
  • You're sort of 'always working.'  THIS is the part that's hardest to explain/convey to someone who does the regular 'punch-in/punch-out' sort of thing.  Let's say you're teaching a class in Boston at 9:30 a.m., tutoring a kid in Harvard Square at 2, and then teaching near Kenmore from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.  That day starts with a train leaving Lowell before 8, and it ends with a train getting BACK into Lowell at 10:30-ish.  Admittedly, there are gaps in that schedule.  It's not fair or accurate to call that day "15 hours of work."  But here's the rub -- that's not entirely inaccurate, either.  Teaching and tutoring both involve preparation beforehand, not to mention travel time.  On top of that, there's the 'buffer time' -- if I'm meeting you at Starbucks or ABP at 2:00 p.m., that doesn't say "show up at 2 p.m." to me -- it says get there beforehand, settle in, etc.  
  • There can be a not-so-nice degree of uncertainty.  Around the holidays, or in early June? Tutoring can slow to a halt.  During peak?  It could break $2k/wk, multiple weeks in a row.  
  • Taxes can be nasty when you're earning those big bucks on 1099-MISC.  
All that laid out there, no one who voluntarily casts their lot into Gig-Town should deserve your sympathy.  

Someone who complains all day about Adjunct teaching pay & predictability but "just loves to teach?"  Tell them there are openings in the public schools, and watch how quickly they change the subject.  

I've wondered on many occasions whether I should 'give it up' and start shaving, wearing a suit, and knocking on some doors in vicinity of Atlantic, State, and Devonshire with some resumes in hand. 

Thankfully, I didn't have to -- a full-time opportunity to do some uniformed work out of Devens, (with some occasional travel to Dix and Totten), stumbled upon me, and I'm going to do it, effective the first of July.  

So for a while, anyway, I'll get to feel normal.  I've got some evening teaching commitments through mid-August, but once those are done, I'll drive to work in the morning at a normal time, like a normal person...and then do the same thing in reverse at the end of the day.    

The only downside?  The duration is unknown.  It might be three months, or it might be three years. 

And whenever that train runs out of steam, it's either back to the gigs, or it's the shave-and-a-suit option, which the would-be entrepreneur in me always seems to want to resist.    

Either way, I'll be grateful.  

Before this new thing and its start date became official, I felt quite a bit of stress -- and this stress was far different, and far worse than anything I ever felt during some never-ending workday with a FILO (first-in, last-out) train schedule.  This was the stress of uncertainty, and even feeling it for that brief period of time was a great reminder that while we can argue all day about whether it's better to have 5 jobs or 1 job, one thing should be ironclad -- either number is far, far better than zero.   

Voices and the Voiceless: It's Complicated

In all the hoopla and hubbub that has resulted from the Downtown v. Cawley debate across the city lately -- in social media, in the Council chambers, and in those wonderful but ephemeral real conversations that still do sometimes take place -- I've noticed an interesting dynamic enter into the discussion more than once:

Someone claims to speak for the voiceless.  

Someone else, who belongs to one of the presumably "voiceless" groups mentioned by the first person, challenges the right (or, at least the appropriateness) of that first person to speak on his/her behalf.  

Interesting, eh?  

I would certainly say so.  And I would certainly also say that the whole issue is fraught with complication.  

First, I'll acknowledge that there really ARE people who can't speak up for themselves, in all kinds of circumstances and for all kinds of reasons.  So, someone who reflexively says that people "just shouldn't do that" is on one end of an extreme, and just as thoughtless as some self-appointed Savior of Others who never stops to question his/her own purpose.  

Perhaps most obvious, there are people with legitimate communication barriers.  They might be physically incapable of speaking up, or of speaking at all, so they actually depend upon others to help them in certain circumstances. 

Then there could be people who can speak, but don't feel comfortable doing so, for any of a myriad of reasons -- language difficulties, shyness, and fear of reprisal are all likely factors here.   

If we're talking about speaking in a particular setting, there are others still who won't be able to do so because of other, more pressing duties.  The parents of young children, or those who work second or third shifts, might have a hard time getting downtown on a Tuesday night to speak at a Council meeting, for instance.  I've had more than my share of downtime in the last month or so, but at nearly any other point in the year, I would certainly fall into that group.  

So I get it.  Voicelessness really *is* a thing, and there is nuance here.  

With that on the table, though, I think it's imperative that any person who claims to speak for others at least be self-aware enough to see why that could be problematic.  

In the last month or so, I have heard things from well-intentioned, liberal white people such as:
  • "If the high school is at [site], I just worry that poor students of color might sleep in through their alarms and then just not go to school at all that day."  
  • Poor people in this city will have to choose between groceries and the higher taxes that would come from the additional costs of [insert name of option]
  • If the school is [insert option], then there will not be equal access for [insert group]. 
I also heard quite a few bold pronouncements about how LPS students do -- and don't -- get to school, which more than a few times ran counter to statements on said subject from people much closer to the issue (e.g. actual students, staff, parents, and alums).  

In some cases, the people speaking about the impact of one site or another on some particular group were members of that group, or were close enough to the issue to deeply understand it (such as the parent of a special needs child, or someone who spoke about her own experience as a K-12 student in LPS and as the child of refugees).  

In other cases, though, I felt like I was hearing people cross the line from honest empathy and concern for others to a position in which they were some sort of self-appointed savior for people who didn't ask for saving.  

I'm not saying I know where that line falls, exactly, and I'm not sure that anyone does -- of course, it's a subjective thing.  But I just think that a bit of honest-to-goodness self-consciousness is required on the part of whoever decides that they need to be the voice for someone else.  

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Digital Native = Tech Literacy? Oh, Puh-Leeez, Says this Old Codger...

Suppose you have two friends.  One of them spends an hour, (1:30 in traffic!) in his car each way on his commute to work.  The other walks to the train station, then takes the commuter rail to North Station, and walks from there to his office.  Once in a while, he drives if he has errands to run on the way home, and he also drives occasionally on the weekends, though not always.

That first friend must be "better with cars" right?  He can probably change his own oil, check other fluids, get the tires to the right level of air pressure, right?  If not, he's at least better than the other friend at that stuff?  "No, of course not," I would expect you to say. That's preposterous, right?

Let's imagine two other friends.  One is in sales, and she spends anywhere from 4 to 8 hours each day on the phone.  Your other friend, by contrast, rarely uses her phone.  (she is a site surveyor for an alternative energy company, and she rarely needs to use the phone during the workday).  Maybe, once in a while, she needs to call someone on a site before she arrives, and sometimes while on site she needs to call back to the main office to coordinate something, but even then the chats are pretty much short, sweet, and to the point.

That first friend must be "better with phones," right?  She must know all about RF waves, about the relative merits of 3G and 4G (LTE), and about pulse modulation?  Or, failing that, she must at least be a better user, right?  She must have a little more savoir-faire about how to answer, how to advance a conversation, and when to wrap things up and get off the line?   "No, of course not," I would expect you to say. That's preposterous, right?

Yet, we do this all the time with technology.  The conventional wisdom on this is so dominant that the prevailing theme (that age is inversely proportional with tech know-how, simply because younger people have grown up around technology and use it more) goes more or less unchallenged in most uses/instances.  Yet, this is so very utterly wrong.  Here are some ways in which this Big Myth is often manifested:

(1):  Wow, these kids today are incredible!  My two year-old nephew Timmy just picked up an iPad and started using it out of the blue.  Amazing!  Timmy is the next Bill Gates, I'm sure.  Our Grandpa hasn't even heard of an iPad and when we asked Grandma about whether she'd like an iPad for Christmas she just said, "no thanks, I haven't needed one of those in years!" and we just left that right there.  Yuck!

Well, the speaker might not have stopped to notice this, but the iPad comes without an instruction manual.  That's right.  It's literally so intuitive that there is no need for that extra paper insert that either a) goes straight to the trash anyway or b) goes straight to the 'screwdrivers, rulers, pens, old Chinese food menus, and things that I'll never look at but am not quite ready to throw away yet drawer.'  Monkeys (yes, monkeys!) have been given iPads and have actually manipulated them successively.  iPads have been taken to remote villages in Peru that are completely free of modern technology and -- wait for it...okay, you already guessed it, people are almost instantly able to use them.

If Little Timmy is running pre-school or daycare workshops about iOS app development, then that's really pretty Gatesian or Zuckerbergian, or whatever you want to call it.  But if Little Timmy is swiping around and opening and closing things left and right on an iPad, well, that's pretty much par for the course.  Show me a two year-old *not* able to do that, and *that's* when I'll do a double-take.

(2):  Teenagers are AMAZING with technology.  I mean, they're always on their phones.  How can we ever keep up?  I mean, they're sending 1000s of text messages and tweets a day, and my mom is so out of it, she thinks that Tumblr is spelled with an 'e.'  As IF!  They laugh at us for still using e-mail...and it's so true...we're just dinosaurs!!

I pretty much covered the way I'd respond to this w/my intro portion -- since when does using something a lot imply some sort of mastery?  It shouldn't.

Furthermore, how often do you see teenagers getting into trouble -- sometimes severely so -- for things that they write or post to social media sites?  If they're somehow so much "better" or "savvier" than the 35-and-up crowd, how could that be the case?

I've had a great vantage point to see this, by the way.  I've now taught dozens of Computer Science and/or CS "related" courses over the past four years that have ranged from basic computer applications for undergrads up to graduate-level Java Programming.  I've done this with wildly varying 'types' of students, too, in the sense of age, backgrounds, abilities, etc.  Many of these so-called digital natives are completely baffled by something like "just save that to your desktop," (and no, hahaha, this isn't about the efficiency of doing so, the showstopper was the actual act of doing so). Most use the Web every day of their lives but are completely baffled by even a few lines of HTML (not that that's a bad thing!!  I use the, uhh..facilities every day and know virtually nothing about plumbing) -- the only point I'm making here is that the conventional narrative is just bass ackwards.

The list goes on from there, but suffice to say, there is enough smoke there for me to say there's fire.

Okay, so why do I care so much about this?  Why even bother to point this out?  

Is this all just a bunch of reflexive millennial-bashing?  Maybe.

But maybe I also think there's something very dangerous about this.  The more adults feed into it, and the more it pumps young people up, the more of a head of steam this myth takes on.  And if your little Aidan, Jayden, Brayden, or Madison thinks that it's somehow "amazing" or "brilliant" that he or she set up a Twitter account, or posted a video to Snapchat, or figured out how to prevent Dad from being able to see his Facebook posts, and if you feed into that, then you're not ultimately doing that child any favors.

Look at what today's job market requires.  Look at the jobs that go unfilled.  Look at Silicon Valley's pleas for more H-1B visas.

Go there.   Run towards that need!

Become awesome at database management.  Start with some SQL, and then branch out.  Think it's amazing that your kid uses Dropbox?  Have Aidan get an Amazon Web  Server credential.  Did Jayden help Aunt Brenda get on to your home Wi-Fi network?  Okay, great, now let's get that guy a Cisco cert and a job.  Madison can reset the cookies and then get you 10 more free articles from some news site?  That's a nice start, but that's not *technically* harder than any other question that might involve a Google search and then following steps 1 through 3.  Maybe when she masters HTML5 she'll be able to help some company put together animations for its website.

At the end of the day (how's that for a cliche?), there are admittedly many ways to define tech literacy, none necessarily right or wrong.  But pumping kids up with lots of hot air with a label that they don't necessarily deserve isn't merely wrong, it's's a path towards overconfidence and an even worse mismatch with respect to the job market that they will someday have to enter.  

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Difficult vs. Complicated: Don't Get it Twisted!

So I'm in a real, honest-to-goodness work lull right now.  I've got exactly 1 class that I'm teaching at the moment, and exactly one student that I'm tutoring.  Yes, this feels weird.

For the last few years, I've been doing that whole Gig Economy thing.  I've been tutoring, adjunct teaching, doing my Reserve drills, and then slowly but surely building a dividend income stream alongside those other incomes.  This whole state of being sort of came about accidentally/incidentally, as the 'side gigs' were originally intended to support a main effort involving a business that I started in b-school.  (Looking back, it's easy to see that I was "all thrust and no vector" but hey, sometimes lessons need to be learned the hard way).  If you add up all my income sources, it basically comes out to be pretty much what you'd expect from someone a couple years out of an MBA program.  On the bright side, it's been more independent...on the not-so-bright side, it's led to the state of 'perma-work' that I've described in some of the sporadic blog posts from that period.  If you currently hold a full-time, salaried, steady job with benefits and vacation time, then becoming a Gig Economy perma-worker is just about the LAST thing I would ever wish upon you. As my friend Rick would say, it's "no way to run a railroad."

I don't want to jinx anything but it looks like I *might* be starting something more traditionally full-time (and salaried!) in the near future, final details pending.  That means I'll put those reindeer games behind me...I'll miss some parts of that at times, but I'll also enjoy not taking the 9:45 p.m. train from North Station each night (really? Yes, really), and it'll be better on the family front, too.

Now that I've caught you up on all that, I want to share just one observation (more will be forthcoming) that I learned over the past 4+ years as a GMAT tutor:  Many answers in life are difficult, but not complicated.  But many people don't *want* difficulty, so they fall back on 'complicated' as a crutch.  

Let me explain:  I can tell you exactly what you need to do in order to get a great GMAT score. Believe me, believe me, believe me, believe me -- this, I know.   Of course, there's a bit more to it, but in a nutshell, there's a huge body of material that you need to work your way through, and you need to closely examine every single error you make.  You can't just casually brush mistakes off under the guise of 'yeah, yeah, yeah, that's what I meant to say' after seeing the right answer, and you can't just dismiss all your mistakes as 'careless.' You need to painstakingly do this, and your process needs to be repetitive to the point that it almost physically hurts.  You need to determine what it was that you missed in the statement, what math rule you didn't know, or what strategy you didn't employ in order to tighten the wiring between here and there.  And then you need to make that flashcard, and review it so many times that you curse it, and that you curse my name for making you do it.

Simple enough, right?  No.

Here's the rub:  That process absolutely sucks.  It's a huge pain.  EVERYONE nods along during our first session together and earnestly tells me they're quaffing my Kool-Aid, but NOT everyone really does.  Those who embrace it?  770s, 740s, 750s, name it, my students have scored it.  My proudest 'jump' ever came from an international student who started sub-500 but wound up with a 660 through a combination of equal parts brainpower and willpower.  Not every story, however, ended with the Rocky theme music playing, along with text messages that had twenty exclamation points following each short sentence.

So when it went wrong, what went wrong?  Most people don't want to do things that completely suck. As Kevin Hart would say, "Everybody wants to be famous...nobody wants to do the work."  

Maybe that's obvious, though -- what male ever made it through adolescence without a behind-the-woodshed talk about work ethic from Dad?  Maybe saying that people avoid hard things is like saying water is wet.  A slightly more interesting spin on it, methinks, is this:  Sometimes, as a way of shirking away from the World of Difficult, people seek solace in ComplicatedLand.  In other words, to specifically avoid doing something difficult, we convince ourselves that some clever way forward -- if only revealed to us -- would get us to the desired pot of gold, sans the sturm und drang along the way.

"But isn't there something you can do...with data?  I mean, can't you analyze one of my practice tests and then just tell me what I need to do, and then I can just ace this thing?"

"No, actually.  All I can analyze from your test is what you did well, and what you missed.  As for the things you missed, I can show you the very best ways to turn those 0s to 1s, so to speak.  And I can't predict exactly what you'll see on GameDay -- no one can.  So you need to cover ALL of the Official Guide material -- I can't just cherry pick 30 out of the 300 problems and tell you, in good faith, to *just* study those. I'll help you unpack each miss, and as we systematically do that -- rinse, repeat -- you'll continually get better."

"Yeah, yeah, right...I can just look the answers up myself...but back to my question -- can't you just tell me exactly what I need to study in order to go north of 700?   What you're describing doesn't sound very efficient, or personalized to me."

"Well, yes, and no.  You need to know this huge body of material..." And so it begins anew.

I imagine this to be no different from a patient, thirty pounds overweight, who goes to see his doctor.

"Hey Doc...whaddaya got?  I'm trying to lose a few.  What can I do?"

"Well, have you considered exercising more?  Taking the stairs instead of the elevator?  Walking to your office from a different T station?  What about just going from two donuts to one in the morning, or starting your day by eating a banana instead?"

"Whoa,, no, that's not what I meant.  I mean, all those years of medical school, all those years in practice, and all you've got is 'diet and exercise.'  That's what got you all that sheepskin on your wall, doc?  C'mon...can't you figure out what's up with my glands, and just prescribe something for it?  Can't you just give me something topical to apply to my stomach that will give me washboard abs after a few weeks?"

Here, the doctor's initial Rx -- more exercise, healthier diet -- is not only time-honored, but it's essentially 'free' and it's more effective than literally any medication under the Sun.  But it's difficult. It requires sacrifice...and lifestyle changes.  Someone not ready to do either of those things can either: a) come to grips with that and try to find a way past it [by the way, the answer is incrementalism!! And I could, and probably will, write entire post(s) on that topic later on] or b) spurn it entirely, opting instead to believe in something much more complicated but far less difficult (some sort of advanced scientific solution that delivers the same solution, minus the burden on the patient).

I would suspect that much of this applies to nearly any common life goal.  Look at, for instance, people's New Year's Resolutions -- learning a new language, reading the Great Works canon, writing a novel, losing weight, learning how to play a new instrument, gaining new tech skills, improving their Army Physical Fitness Test two-mile run time, staying in touch with relatives, etc.  All of those goals are only met with a considerable level of difficulty, but are any of them really that complicated? 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What I Said Last April...Just More of It

Cliff Krieger has teased me a few times about going "RF cold" over here in Bloggistan.  It has, indeed, been a while.

The funny thing is, not much as changed.  In fact, I'm able to write today because of a cancellation (but it's a late cancellation, and yes, I'm getting paid for that time as I write this...but I still have to go Boston in a little while for another).

I figured I would write today about why I think adjuncting is actually great, despite some of the popular portrayals and the misleading, clickbaity headlines about "Professors in Poverty" and the like.

But I actually stopped to look at my own site and saw that I'd more or less written this back in April of 15.

It's still true today, though -- once you really get your calculator out and figure out the math, adjuncting is a more than okay way to make a living.  Especially if you love to teach.  Living in Boston certainly doesn't hurt (I realize geography helps make the adjunct hustle more doable here...though I suppose the Internet sort of wipes away some of that distinction).  I supposedly make a lot per hour tutoring but my effective wage, coupled with some of the qualitative factors, reveals to me that adjuncting will be in the cards for me for many years to come, whereas tutoring will not (but, to badly paraphrase that line from Brokeback Mountain, "I just can't quit you.")

I still play in the NFL...that is, the No Fun League.  But it's a situation that I've carved out, and as I tell my wife sometimes, it would be just as hard or probably an even harder route if I had done something more traditional post-MBA.  As I like to say, people who spend their time vilifying the 1% need to spend more time around the 1%.  Then, make fun of them all you want (of course it's your right!) but you might change the way you view their work ethic.

I started a business, and it basically went sideways.  I emerged, relatively unscathed, but with some lost time to make up for on a couple fronts.  Got my entrepreneur Campaign Ribbon but (thankfully!) no Entrepreneur Purple Heart.  To borrow from Gen. MacArthur, "I shall return."  But smarter next time.

I have a neat project on the side, and it's income investing.  No magic tricks here -- there are companies and funds who will pay you a residual income for buying and holding their shares. Companies with long track records of dividend increases tend to work particularly well here, as they create a sort of 'double compounding' effect when these divs are reinvested.  This is all about temperament, and has nothing to with IQ -- if you're someone who gets excited by the idea of a drop becoming a trickle becoming a creek becoming a stream becoming a river becoming an ocean making tidal waves, then it might be up your alley, too.

Oh, and one thing about recent events before I retreat back into my lair -- if you like to opine about the strange habits of other people who supposedly can't help themselves from "voting against their own interests" then I would just wonder how you'd feel about someone saying the same about you.

They wouldn't, though, would they?  You're probably too enlightened.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Privileged? Oh, Let Me Count the Ways!

I am a straight, white, Protestant male.

I didn't choose any of that -- except, sort of, the next-to-last one -- but I benefit from unearned privilege in an immeasurable number of ways, large and small.  I could write a lot more about these ways, but here are two specifics for you, for the sake of brevity and for the sake of the students whose exams I need to grade en masse, pronto:

(1) I often walk home late at night from Gallagher terminal to Canal Place.  It's a pretty easy jaunt and there's a pretty direct way to do it.  Sometimes I'm not the only one taking that walk.  Whenever the temperature finds its way above the freezing mark, I wear flip-flops.  These flip-flops make a distinct 'clackety-clack' sound as I traipse uphill on Thorndike...err, Dutton...or whatever you call the uphill portion of the sidewalk I'd be on if the South Common were to my immediate right. Sometimes there is someone walking in front of me -- and bear in mind it's VERY late at night and there are very few people out.  Sometimes the person hearing that 'clackety-clack' getting closer turns around, sees me, and expresses relief.  Why?  What is about me that caused that?  How might they react to a 'me' that wasn't quite so pale?  

(2) Three of my jobs involve some sort of transfer or explanation of technical or mathematical knowledge that I might be qualified to actually present.  That's not some awkwardly insincere self-effacement, that's just the truth.  With each semester, I get better at CS101.  With each seminar on Big Data, Online Tracking, or Trends in Tech, I get stronger on the material.  But getting to this point has certainly had a significant 'fake-it-til-you-make-it' component.  You think my gender and race helped me do that?  I do.  I think that when people close their eyes and imagine who might be teaching them GRE combinatorics problems, or who might be teaching them about binary number systems, or demystifying PageRank, they picture someone like me.  So how does this help me?  It means I start with the benefit of the doubt.  If I confuse 'bit' with 'byte', I won't be treated like the female sideline reporter who asked Jerry Rice about his many interceptions and never lived it down...instead, people would just think, "He must be mixed up right now."  

And believe me, from where I started to where I am now, I've gotten plenty of benefit of the doubt.  

When I see the way people react to the Baltimore riots, I am reminded of two much more important ways that I benefit from unearned privilege:

(1) No one is ever going to pity me or excuse my behavior.  Every time I see a well-meaning left-winger write something on Facebook about it being 'understandable' or 'natural' for certain people to throw bricks through windows, or to stomp on windshields, or steal toiletries from CVS, I cringe. And I cringe because I know that MOST people in West Baltimore don't, and won't, do any of those things.  A tiny subset of a tiny subset (mostly young males) might commit heinous acts like that, though.  And I also cringe because I know the people writing that would NEVER make such apologies for me.  If I were to go out and commit seriously antisocial acts of aggression, people would rationalize it in ways that were individualized to me, and to me alone.  "He must have gone crazy," or "What a privileged ass-hat."  What they're really saying is that I'm accountable for my actions, but some poor kid from West Baltimore is not. And what does that tell me?  It tells me that the power structure that currently works in my favor -- and very much AGAINST that kid whose image is on the news -- will remain just as it currently is.  

(2) I'm never going to see myself as a victim.  Even the one protected class to which I do belong (veterans) is not really something *bad* societally.  Yes, there might be isolated instances of anti-veteran statements, like when that CNN reporter implied veterans might be starting violence in cities, but that gets shouted down pretty quickly.  But the flip side of the above paragraph is that I believe I'm fully in control of my destiny.  That doesn't mean it's all easy street -- just ask my wife, the only other person who really knows about my schedule.  But it does mean that I honestly believe tomorrow will be better than today, and the day after will be better than tomorrow, and so on. Why do I think this way?  Some of it may just be natural disposition, but my life experiences tell me that hard work is rewarded and that a seed planted today will be worth more in the future.  Not everyone who is born and raised in West Baltimore is shaped by similar experiences, to put it mildly.  If it means that I don't make excuses, then even my legendarily endless days are just a reflection of that shaping...kinda like the way a privileged kid from San Mateo outworks everyone else in his field, year after year, and still shows up first to camp after ring #4.  

But anyway, back to Baltimore for a second.  Watching the way various people have reacted just reminds me that anyone who thinks one side of the political spectrum is "Correct" when it comes to issues of racial injustice and poverty, while another side is "Incorrect" needs to look at things a bit more closely.  

Even putting aside the issues of the Freddy Gray case, I think all sides can admit that the issues that lead to intergenerational poverty are complex. 

The solutions aren't simple either.  Just look at how many billions (trillions?) of dollars have been funneled through the Great Society programs intended to 'fix' places like West Baltimore, or East St. Louis, or the South Side of Chicago.  

I'm not saying I have the answers, but I do have a strong hunch that any 'solution' that doesn't come with buy-in from the community in question itself is just going to lead to more status quo.  If it's simply "give them more stuff" or "we should stop using words that offended a Baltimore City Councilman" or "we should pay urban school administrators more," the problem is that none of those assume efficacy or agency on the part of the people being 'helped.'  

The more the solutions can come from within that community, and the more that people can benefit from the privilege that come with high expectations (of oneself and for oneself), the faster we'll be able to fix the structural problems that are on display right now in one of our major East Coast cities. 

But the more the American political intelligentsia, or the elite 'leaders' in Baltimore, want to have discussions that de-emphasize the power and responsibility of the people in the community -- who, by the way, can make the choice NOT to throw bricks through windows, or to take Oreos and Pampers from CVS -- the more we'll ensure that people who look like me continue to enjoy their unearned privilege, and that most of the people in West Baltimore will not.