Wednesday, June 28, 2017

...And Wisdom, Always, To Tell the Difference

There are three instances of what I'll call "useless zero sum-ism" that I observe on a daily or near-daily basis:

(1) Market Basket parking lot.  People will fight tooth and claw for parking spots, at risk of fender-benders, road rage (lot rage?), and irascible temper provocation over the prime parking spots when there several, sometimes dozens, of completed uncontested spots ten or so yards away.  I will never never never be able to understand this. Nor will I ever try.  I will simply take one of those spots "in Guam," walk the length of a a first down, and avoid the sturm und drang.

(2) Boarding the commuter rail at North Station.  When the train is announced, that merely kicks off a ten-minute warning to departure.  During those ten minutes, everyone at the station has to walk maybe 50 yards or so, on average, in order to board.  Yet, some people will jump into super-aggressive mode to be sure to get on the train...first?  Some sort of primal, irrational instinct kicks in (maybe the same one that leads kindergartners to squabble over 'line leader' status?) and the rational part of the brain, which knows that the only way to get home sooner would be to move from Lowell to West Medford, or from Woburn to Winchester, gets shunted aside in favor of the reptilian brain, which commands a person to knock down old ladies like so many bowling balls in order to grab a seat before they do.

(3) The Staircase of Doom.  Literally, every single day I see physical aggression on the Staircase of Doom at Gallagher Terminal.  In nearly all cases, it doesn't boil over into actual fisticuffs, but it's completely unnecessary.  Here's what happens -- a train pulls into Lowell.  People arriving in Lowell need to get off said train, and move their way up a 'fairly' narrow staircase in order to exit the train station.  However, people preparing to board that very same train -- soon to be bound for Boston -- must descend those same stairs.

This does not, however, need to happen at the same time.

In perfectly rational land, the Boston-bound people would be able to say "'s now 2:52 p.m., and this train won't leave Lowell until 3:15 p.m.  Rather than push my way through the tide of people coming up these stairs, perhaps I will wait until this clears out a bit, and then amble my way downward."

People don't think like that, though.  Even if we "know" we have 23 comfortable minutes to move a very short distance to board said train, we're more likely to think "There. Train. Me. Need. On."  The same instincts that lead people to continuously change lanes during stop-and-go traffic nightmares on the highway, as if somehow that extra 20 feet of daylight will get you home faster, kick into gear.   Rather than wait at the top of the stairs and be a sucker who might miss the train for his politeness, we barrel down through the crowd, with *maybe* the courtesy of a couple "excuse me" or "coming through" utterances.

But wait!  You might wonder -- what if people just walked along the right side of the staircase in each direction. It's wide enough to accommodate bi-directional movement.

Well, yes and no.  That *would* make sense if everyone followed that norm, but inevitably, someone decides that the flow of upwards movement isn't fast enough for his or her liking, and does a little bypass maneuver on the stairs.  Now the left side is in play, and other pedestrians follow suit.  Believe me, I've seen it play out a million times.

But here's what I really think, and here's why I titled this piece the way I did:  These sorts of situations are absolutely unfixable.  I mean, you can make your own fix when you can control it -- for instance, you can always decide to park in Guam when you go to Market Basket, and avoid the reindeer games being played by someone who insists on taking 10 minutes to park because hey-man it's-just-way-cooler-to-back-in, right?  You can let the madness subside when your train boards and THEN get on the gigantic people tube.

As for the train station thing, though?  I would say there's only one fix, and I hope it's coming with the ongoing round of station improvements and the neat stuff that seems to be happening to the Thorndike Building -- we need an over-the-tracks pedestrian footbridge in addition to the staircase we have.  It just needs to be really wide (like, four person-lengths wide).  That would create enough elbow room to make the daily game of Human Accordion that occurs along that other antiquated staircase go away.

The alternative might be a public awareness campaign to encourage Boston-bound people atop the stairs to simply take a breath and WAIT for a train that will not -- ever -- leave before its scheduled departure time.

And if you think that such a campaign is enough to override scores of millennia worth of wiring that overpowers all that fancy cerebral stuff that came along later, then we need to talk -- I've got this amazing piece of real estate to talk to you about.  It's a bridge, and it connects two of NYC's boroughs...and it's much potential. Call me.  

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.