Market Downturn

I’m enjoying blogging. My readership is small (about 360 hits so far), but ticking upwards. It looks like I have a core of readers made up of family, friends, and students. My hope is if people enjoy it they’ll send the link to a friend or two.

A writer friend once told me that if your first thought when you wake up isn’t your current project, you’re subconscious isn’t working hard enough. With my self-imposed deadline, I find myself thinking about writing more than normal. As a result, I have lots of ideas for future posts.

So far I’m struck by how much thinking I’ve done over the years about parenting and family life and how much I enjoy communicating about those topics. I’ve never committed to writing a book. My doctoral dissertation, the story of an international studies magnet high school in SoCal, was well received and would have made a decent book, but in hindsight, I needed a mentor to help find a publisher. Since finishing my dissertation, I’ve never felt like I’ve needed more than 30 pages to communicate what I’ve most wanted to. I’ll know more in a year, but as a result of this process, I think a book may bubble up. If I do commit to writing a book and it starts taking the form of an insipid, run-of-the-mill self help manual, please organize an intervention and steal my laptop.

You may be relieved to learn I don’t feel a need to communicate all of my thoughts on parenting and family life in the first month or two of this year-long experiment. I should probably turn to a more masculine topic like finance. Nothing girlie about bears and bulls.

After reading my initial post, one of my sibs asked, “If you’re writing about wellness shouldn’t faith play an important part?” I was remiss in leaving spirituality out of the mix. What does spirituality have to do with finance? Far more, I believe, than is normally acknowledged.

So many people are stuck seeking fulfillment through store purchase after store purchase that materialism is our secular religion. Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses, consumerism is.

Financial planners assume that the key to financial success is understanding the technical aspects of investing—indexing, asset allocation, minimizing investment costs, dollar cost averaging, etc. But personal finance study after personal finance study demonstrates that even knowledgeable investors buy too high, sell too low, and trade too often.

In sports, athletes that melt under pressure and underachieve talk about “getting in their own way.” Golfers are a good case in point. When a golfer breaks through and wins their first tournament they often say, “I finally got out of my own way.” It’s counter-intuitive, but by relaxing and not trying as hard, we sometimes experience more success. Investors who are most materialistic are most prone to anxiety in times like this because their ability to consume is eroding. They listen intently to the financial pundits, fret over their portfolios, and tend to “get in their own way.”

In contrast, people whose fulfillment comes more from intangible things like meaningful work, intimate relationships, and service, are less likely to sell low, buy high, and trade unnecessarily. Also, these spiritually grounded investors have a tremendous advantage over the less spiritually grounded in that they can delay purchases almost indefinitely. As a result, they can time the selling of their assets only after they’ve greatly appreciated. As their portfolios dip, there’s a longer-term perspective and a calmness that enables them to either tune out the hyperbolic analysts or put their hysterics in historical perspective.

As an investor, I’ve made more good decisions than bad. I tend to “stay out of my way” but there are bogeys mixed in with the birdies. I admit to watching my portfolio more closely since New Years so the last few paragraphs are reminders to myself.

Our mutual fund company provides an unusually helpful service that helps me keep historical perspective. When I log on to its website there’s a “Portfolio Watch” that shows our asset allocation. Currently, it’s short-term reserves, 3.5%; bonds, 38%; stocks, 58.5%. Then there’s a link to “Historic Risk/Return, 1926-2006.” Average return, 8.8%. Best year, 35.7% (1933). Worst year, -25.9 (1931). And here’s the key stat for getting a hold of today’s market. Years with a loss, 19/81, 23.5%.

This won’t sell many papers or fill much time on cable television, but after an unusually strong six year run, the market is returning to the mean.

Average return, 8.8%. After adjusting for investment costs, taxes on earnings, and inflation, what, 4-5%? So the critical questions are 1) how much is invested and 2) how patient is the investor?

Shifting gears, my youngest daughter, J, learned about the stimulus bill in one of her classes recently (props to that teacher) and she was more than intrigued. “What are you going to do with your $1,200?” she wanted to know. “Save it, invest it.” She couldn’t have been more disappointed.

I haven’t given the tax rebate a lot of thought, but increasingly, money’s most important value to me is time. In all of the “What would you do with $600?” discussions going on, I haven’t heard anyone say, I’ll use it to slow down a bit, rest, reconnect with friends, think, nap, exercise, start a garden, read.

At work recently, I encouraged a close friend known as “Ichiro” to apply for an administrative position in part because I knew he’d be good at it and in part because I told him he could nearly double his salary. His response? “The more I’d make, the more we’d spend.”

Psychologists who study happiness refer to our tendency to adapt to what we have and perpetually seek more as the “hedonic treadmill.” Ichiro’s self-understanding is unique. Most of us don’t know we’re on the treadmill.

How much is enough? When does time for one’s self and one’s closest friends become valuable enough that we “buy” time? What about saving not to spend, but to slow down? What would being more spiritually grounded look and feel like?

The Bush and Obama administrations better hope my thinking doesn’t spread, because if it does, a recession is all but guaranteed.

Social Transformation

An observation, question, and prediction.

The observation. Women with children do a better job than men of reflecting on and talking with one another about the art of parenting. My male friends and I don’t talk about parenting too often, and when we do, the conversations tend to be brief and fairly superficial.

The question. Why is there a gender gap when it comes to reflecting on and exchanging thoughts and ideas on parenting? If women spend more time with their children than men, and also spend more time with one another, I suppose the gap makes sense.

It may not be that simple though because my male friends and I are way more involved in our children’s daily activities than most of our fathers were. Our children also see us help around the house a whole lot more than we saw most of our dads. Sometimes when L complains that I’m not doing my fair share around the house, I remind her how abysmal my dad’s modeling was and how helpful I am by comparison. I admit, pathetic, blaming my dad when he can’t defend himself.

The prediction. Over the next few decades, “the stay-at-home dad” ranks are going to swell. If I were an entrepreneur I would be strategizing on how to capitalize on this impending social transformation. Like you probably, I know a handful of stay-at-home dads, but they’re still a distinct minority. I predict this will change because my female students are running circles around my male ones. My experience jives with what others are documenting in other parts of the country. Not only are there more female college students than male, they also tend to be more purposeful in their studies, they’re studying abroad at greater rates, and they’re enrolling in graduate schools in greater numbers.

In some of my classes, the gap is glaring. I might have 30 students, 17 or 18 female and 12 or 13 male. Typically, six of the top eight students who are most engaged, most hard working, and most successful, are female. Class after class, semester after semester. There are purposeful, hard working, outstanding male students; they’re just outnumbered by their female counterparts. To create better gender balance, some universities are relaxing admission criteria for men.

Apart from the fact that young men spend a lot more time playing video games than young women, I don’t have many sociological insights into the reasons for this gender gap in academic achievement, but I believe it is going to have profound implications for all us, especially my daughters and their girlfriends. Specifically, will my daughters and all of their girlfriends find partners with similar levels of education, ambition, and gumption?

Related to this, I predict more women will graduate college, more women will enroll in graduate programs, and more women will enter the professions, and in the not so distant future, women will out earn men. Given that likelihood, more couples will decide that the lower-earning male should take the lead in child rearing. This has started to happen already, but it will accelerate.

In twenty years, I expect more men to have even more child rearing responsibilities. They’ll probably form playgroups and bump into one another at their children’s schools, and seek out one another for adult conversation. They’ll spend more time together than my male friends and I do. And when they’re sitting at the park pushing their kids on the swings, I won’t be surprised if they begin reflecting on and swapping ideas about the art of parenting.

Of Politics and Parenting

Sometimes when I’m watching sports on television one of my daughters will plop down beside me and ask, “Who are you rootin’ for?” I tell them the “blue team” and return serve asking, “How bout’ you?” Without fail it’s, “I want the blue team too.”Recently, standing in our kitchen, I asked J, “Who are you voting for?” even though she’s a senate term too young to cast an official ballot. While seeing exactly how much ice cream she could pack into her bowl, she replied, “Barack Obama I think.”

That makes two of us.

Obama’s Iowa victory speech was the most moving and inspiring I’ve heard in a long, long time. Among other parts, I liked his “there are no red states, blue states, only the United States” idealism and his admonition that 9/11 shouldn’t be used to “scare up votes.” Instead he talked about terrorism as one of several important 21st century challenges including global warming, poverty, oil dependence, and nuclear proliferation.

I was less impressed with his simplistic criticism of outsourcing and economic globalization, which I assume was a nod towards Midwest manufacturers. Go ahead and join the drumbeat against outsourcing, but first convince the American consumer to pay quite a bit more for consumer goods. People want Wal-Mart prices and protectionist trade policies, but seem unwilling to connect the dots.

I wondered how can someone be so incredibly comfortable on the national stage when he hasn’t been on it all that long?

I’m admittedly conflicted about J’s voting intentions. On the one hand, I’m glad she didn’t say “I’m really upset that Tom Tancredo withdrew because like him I dream of living in a country surrounded by an insurmountable wall.” But on the other hand, I want her to become a self-confident, creative thinker willing to take positions different than my own. On one level it’s flattering that she wants the blue team and Barack Obama, but I’d rather she become an independent thinker rather than a carbon copy of me.

I want to guide her development while simultaneously remembering she’s an autonomous, unique person whose life will take unknown twists and turns.

It’s an interesting dance, hoping she adopts the values I’m attempting to model while simultaneously encouraging independent thinking.

It may be like promoting democracy in the Middle East and then saying “Oh shit, look who they voted into office.” In cultivating an independent thinker, how much control am I prepared to give up? What if she applies to USC, votes for a Tom Tancredo, and drives a Hummer?

Cultivating independent thinking is messier, takes more time, and is less efficient than more traditional and authoritarian models of parenting. Sometimes the dishwasher needs emptying, the lawn needs mowing, and bills need to be paid. To develop self-confident, independent young adults we have to guard against saying “because I said so” too often. We need to respect their ability to reason.

Also, children need to see the adults in their lives respectfully disagree and constructively resolve conflicts. And as children age, we need to draw them into more and more substantive conversations consisting of topics upon which reasonable people disagree.*

Ideally, teachers will help model these skills and sensibilities and provide our children with opportunities to practice and develop them. Unfortunately though, the educational pendulum has swung so far towards easy to test content (mostly of the math and science variety) that in-depth, critical classroom conversations are far and few between.

How do you test respect for contending viewpoints, tact and diplomacy, an appreciation for ambiguity, active listening skills, and the boldness and creativity of someone’s thinking? It’s tough to assess those skills and sensibilities, but it’s difficult to understate the importance of them in our homes, communities, and world.

* Postscript: I wrote this post a week ago. Last night, L and I attended a great dinner party. Without prompting, one couple explained how they do exactly what I’m proposing here. On the way home, L was deep in thought about their example, and said, “Our dinner conversations are more John Belushi Animal House than anything else.” At which point J and her both blamed me. I admit, there are times at dinner that I don’t act very professorial and my table manners could use some work. At the same time, they say they don’t laugh nearly as much when I’m not there, so there are trade-offs. My point in sharing this to admit to a gap between theory and current practice.

Grand Experiment

The world does not need another blog. Time will tell, but I think I can create one others may want to read. I will post on Mondays throughout 2008 and then decide whether to continue. If I’m successful in building a readership and if this activity contributes positively to my off-line writing, I’ll change the name of my blog in January 2009 and continue.

My writing process has three parts. The first part is the nearly non-stop reflecting on all aspects of daily life. This is the Woody Allen internal dialogue that I suspect everyone experiences to greater or lesser degrees. At times, I wish I wasn’t as introspective as I am, but I guess it’s better than the alternative. I think the second part involves my subconscious filtering the steady stream of reflections into more coherent patterns and themes. This is a form of pre-writing. Finally, there’s the formal writing up of the filtered stream of reflections. When I get to that point, I think in terms of paragraphs and make a list of bulleted points, each one representing one paragraph.

I anticipate my posts falling much more along the lines of semi-filtered streams of reflection than carefully crafted off-line essays I’d submit for publication.

In print media, editors play an important role and I’m sympathetic to the argument made by Andrew Keen in “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture.” Instead of democratizing knowledge and jump starting civic and political life, Keen argues that without gatekeepers, the internet has led to a profusion of inane content on the internet and a general dumbing down of public life. But one upside of near-complete editorial freedom is the tone of my posts will be more casual, informal, and playful than what most editors of mainstream publications would accept.

I like Slate magazine a lot because of its contrarian bent, its edginess, and occasional humor. Like Slate journalists, I will question conventional wisdom, but you’ll have to decide just how edgy and humorous I am. I don’t anticipate my blog being as much of a personal diary as most I skim. Instead of describing the mix of cereals I combine in my bowl on any given morning (Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes, Cheerios, Wheat Chex, my wife’s amazing granola, topped with dried blueberries), I want to analyze aspects of contemporary life and float ideas that I hope will prompt conversation among diverse groups of people.

Admittedly, the best bloggers post several times a week, but my writing process is slow. I want to allow for that slowness and set what I think is an achievable goal.

What will I write about? Again, the best blogs have a clear focus. I suspect the creators of those blogs can talk specifically about their audience. I have to confess I don’t have a clear sense of my intended audience except to say I hope it’s a cross-section of society. I’m an academic that has tired of writing for academic journals that are read by a handful of other academics. My desire is to engage a wide range of people that might be reading my posts on their wireless laptops at their local coffee shop. In the end, I want readers to describe my writing as authentic. This feels a bit like starting a business without a business-model.

I anticipate philosophizing about many things including: education, writing, parenting, personal finance, fitness, politics, popular culture, and globalization. Maybe, in a nutshell, wellness writ large. In fact, that might be a decent title for this blog a year from now if all goes well.