What’s Wrong with the Stock Market



47-Success-GraphIf you arrived here because you were looking for financial advice, forget it. I learned long ago that playing the stock market is no different from shooting craps or playing roulette in Vegas.

Experts will tell you otherwise, but an expert is nothing more than a flawed human being with a good publicity agent. The stock market is driven by fear and greed, nothing more, and investment advice is simply a collection of clichés that have gained the status of truth in the collective consciousness of the investing class.

Every week I update my Quicken accounts and watch my retirement accounts rise and fall based the whims of faceless investors and fund managers. This week I noticed a big chunk of money had vanished from those accounts, so I temporarily suspended my boycott of the daily news to find out what was going on. As usual, the explanation for my declining fortunes had to do with events completely out of my control, and said more about the current state of the U. S. A. than it did about my piss-poor investment strategy.

Yes, indeed, there’s something wrong with the stock market, but what’s wrong has nothing to do with financial values. The recent stock market mini-panic illustrates a serious disconnection with human values:

  • Oil prices plummeted, a blessing for millions of middle and lower class people who live paycheck to paycheck. The Dow plummeted as well.
  • The Russian economy tanked, a direct result of the economic sanctions imposed by The West on a corrupt, narcissistic, warmongering, macho jerk. The Dow tanked along with Putin.
  • The Dow finally rose on the news that The Fed wasn’t going to raise interest rates, ensuring that those with savings and interest earning checking accounts will continue to earn pennies a year in interest while paying exorbitant rates for the credit cards they need to make ends meet.

I first noticed this disconnection years ago when I learned that in the weird world of the stock market, firing lots of people was a good thing. Companies that announced major layoffs nearly always saw their stock value soar.

Until the recent fall, stocks were at all-time highs. I don’t think American society is anywhere close to an all-time high. Teachers are still horribly underpaid; kids badly mis-educated. A majority of Americans now believe that protecting gun rights is more important than gun control, ensuring that the massacre-a-day phenomenon will continue to run for the foreseeable future. The political system has collapsed; voting is rigged through reapportionment so that those in power stay in power.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is a sick measure of a sick society, just as test scores are an absurd measure of learning. Both reflect a society that cherishes greed and competition while demeaning and diminishing the value of human life.

Substitute “The Dow” for “gross national product,” and Robert Kennedy’s quote becomes a painfully contemporary critique.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play . . . It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning . . . it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”


Meaningful Work


The Adobe Image Library ©1998 Adobe Systems Incorporated Boy and girl hugging

A month ago, I received a nudging tweet from The Alt Rock Chick saying something like, “If you would get your head out of your MEANINGFUL WORK for a while . . . ”

I have been pretty busy for the last few months trying to transform an organization: improving leadership, cleaning up bureaucracy, resolving conflict and serving as a pseudo-therapist for employees who needed catharsis so they could move forward into the future.

I’ve done similar work with dozens of other organizations, but what makes this work so meaningful is that the organization is a nonprofit in the social services field.

The organization helps those who have been left behind or traumatized by life experience: the homeless, homeless children, domestic violence victims, dysfunctional families, laid-off workers. We serve primarily low-income families and a highly diverse population with a healthy number of recent immigrants. The mission is inspiring and the work the caregivers engage in is vital and intensely meaningful. My job is to help the helpers: the front-line people who work directly with our clients and their challenges.

What makes it especially meaningful to me is that absence of the profit motive makes my work so much more satisfying. The pursuit of profit is not only a relatively pedestrian activity, but it often contaminates communication within the organization and creates a constant conflict between the need to make money and the need to do the right thing for people.

Companies in the U. S. have pretty much forgotten about the need to do the right thing, as demonstrated by how easily they resort to cutting staff when they fall short of profit goals. Layoffs used to be a last resort; now they’re often the first resort. Impact of layoffs on the community—to say nothing of the impact on the employees and their families—is a consideration to be managed through spin and messaging. The “giving back to the community” programs in for-profit businesses are largely public-relations-oriented window-dressing activities.

Where I’m working now, doing the right thing for people is the first consideration. Due to the oscillations in funding, we have had to eliminate a few positions. Not one person has lost a job because leaders and HR get together and figure out where else a person’s talents can be utilized. We are cautious in adding staff, primarily because of the general dread of having to let them go: we only add when we’re sure the position will likely be there in a few years.

I have worked in many businesses and I can’t think of one where I haven’t experience some kind of value conflict because of the profit motive, the greed, the competitive internal politics or the power plays. Now I leave work at the end of the day in peace . . . and I sleep much better at night.

p. s. In case you haven’t heard, The Alt Rock Chick has ended her career as a music critic—very sad news indeed. However, she has agreed to do another interview with me when she comes to Seattle in January, which will appear on this blog in mid-January.

Altrockchick Review of Max Gowan’s Restless Heaven


a2197006622_101from altrockchick.com 

Max Gowan is one guy with an acoustic guitar who released a 6-track EP of original compositions called Restless Heaven. The first thing I noticed is how exceptionally well Max keeps the rhythm going, a talent I usually hear only in the old Delta blues singers. Most singer-songwriters have a band to drive the tempo, but Max just has Max—his acoustic guitar and his voice.

Going completely solo is a pretty gutsy thing to do, because there you are, just you and your guitar, and there are no other sounds to distract the listener from your songs. That means your songs had better be damned good.

And these songs are damned good—exceptionally good. Max held my attention completely through three spins and I can’t wait to hear it again. Restless Heaven is a great EP by a young songwriter with unusual self-awareness and a complete lack of pretense. The songs are honest without being obvious, poetic without being artsy and absolutely captivating without any gimmickry.

A perfectly delightful guitar pattern with exceptionally clean and expressive picking opens the song “Half Soul.” Max shifts to a strum for the vocal, and oh my, what a pleasing voice! He’s definitely not an American Idol type or one of those drippy folksingers who have to imbue every syllable with emotion, but a singer with a warm timbre and clear articulation. The melody flows very nicely, with good spread across the staff that encourages you to hum along. And in keeping with the lovely music, Max proves to be a talented lyricist as well. The second verse in particular is remarkable for its insight into how the game is supposed to be played and how we as human beings hide our flaws and mistakes in a charade that helps no one and only extends the game-playing:

I got a breath of fresh ambition, it poured into my lungs
Now I’m stuck with tunnel vision, I’m just like everyone
If you pretend you’re doing better we all stay the same
I’ve never been afraid of confidence but at least I’m not insane, I’m just confused

I work with many people who still have that fresh ambition and the tunnel vision that goes along with it, and I suffer through their pretentiousness every day. What drives that pretense are the twin adult beliefs in the importance of convincing others that you know what life is all about, and that one should never reveal knowledge gaps or vulnerabilities. What Max asks us to accept is that we are all confused, and admitting it would be a big step towards clarifying our confusion. With its pretty music and thought-provoking lyrics, “Half Soul” is the perfect opening track.

“Lookout” opens with high fretboard picking and strumming, settling into a I-IV major/major seventh pattern as the baseline; as the song progresses, Max throws some interesting chord variations thrown into the mix. This song is an ode to his North Carolina home and the power of its natural landscape to bring clarity to the confused soul, and Max sings this with genuine feeling without going overboard à la John Denver. “Lookout” is a song that is very pleasing to the ear, and I would suggest that Tarheels everywhere embrace it and turn it into a hit single to offset the impression that the state legislature has turned North Carolina into something like the dystopian world described in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The title track has a very cool rhythm that Max plays with graceful ease. I’ll talk more about his guitar playing in a minute, but first I want to focus on the lyrics, which deal with the tug of opposites—in this case, the desire to explore the world and the pull to stay with the familiar and comfortable. His ambiguity is reminiscent of Memphis Minnie’s in “Nothing in Rambling,” and I get the impression that he’s as comfortable with that ambiguity as anyone can be. People have this silly idea that you have to choose one path or another: you don’t. It’s okay to feel restless, because when you stop feeling restless, you’re dead! Max makes his case less bluntly and more effectively than I just did:

I’m gonna step into the outside, I’m gonna see what’s real
I kind of like it on the inside, cause I don’t want to feel
It’s just a silhouette the kind I don’t forget
The hanging around outside my head
It’s just a silhouette

Back to Max’s guitar playing. I am always harping about how little touches make all the difference in music, and when he switches to high-fretboard picking on the word “silhouette,” I get goose bumps.

“Tide” has a loping, swaying rhythm accentuated by the picking style and the 3/4 time signature. This is a more reflective song, describing the discovery of one’s self-limitations and the need to allow others inside to help us through the rough patches when those limitations seem terribly confining. Sometimes a song will connect with you in a way that has nothing to do with the songwriter’s intention—a lyrical fragment just hits you at the right time and helps you express the thing that’s been making you feel a bit off-kilter. The couplet in “Tide” that hit me was “I’m living through other perspectives/’Cause right from the start I got tired of mine,” because with all the writing I’ve been doing the last few years and the lack of feedback in comparison to my output, I’m really getting tired of the “sound” of my own voice. Because I’m in a new city where I know very few people, I’m often stuck with my own perspective, which gets very tiring. I need to hear voices and views other than my own, and that’s really been an issue for me with the blog and the move to Europe.

Thanks, for clearing that up for me, Max!

“Bricks and Cobblestones” starts with a snappy little rhythm, again played extraordinarily well. The song is about the conflict between appearance and reality, and how our obsession with appearance makes it easy to avoid dealing with the things inside that really need fixing. Max’s insight into this age-old problem is to remind us that a flaw is not the end of the world and taking the time for a little bit of self-reflection goes a long way towards curing our need for magic tricks to distract others from our imperfections:

Bricks and cobblestones, your eyes are open and there’s no one home
Looks inviting on the surface but it’s fallin’ down
But I’m alive and well
As far as I can tell
And it’s paradise and hell
That we create for ourselves
I found a crack inside of my foundation but I’ll fix it soon
Work in progress it’s this constant process and it’s never through
You survive somehow
The light that won’t burn out.

The light-hearted rhythm reinforces the sentiment that we are not going to solve our problems by worrying ourselves to the point where adrenaline is squirting from our ears. Take your time, says Max. The light won’t burn out.

“Whistle in the Dark” seems to describe the looming going-away-to-college experience (or for those less fortunate, the going-away-to-boot-camp experience) that breaks up a lifetime of patterns and assumptions. While the song definitely has a sorrowful air, the lyrics remain firmly rooted in Max’s ambiguity and unusual ability to see both sides of the question. The final couplet is a perfect ending to a song about transitions, and a great motto for anyone wondering what life is all about:

There’s no promise, nothing’s promised, there’s no guarantee
That’s what makes it worth the time to me

This song has more musical variation than the others, suggesting that Max has a world of possibilities to choose from as he continues to develop.

I have to say I am thoroughly amazed by Restless Heaven . . . and very relieved. Max is one of many who have approached me on Twitter and requested a review, requests that always lead to a certain discomfort. I love exploring new music, but the truth is that because of the proliferation of recording software and the consequent increase in independent records, the quality of the music produced today has become iffy at best—and that applies to both the indies and the slaves of the record companies. While I support the democratization of music production, it has made things a bit awkward for the independent music critic who cannot hide behind the shield of the corporate façade. I’ve had to decline several requests based on incompatibility with my general tastes, and have had to refuse to consider several others because the music just wasn’t that good. I hate telling new artists that are just breaking in that their music didn’t grab me, and after agreeing to Max’s request, I had that uh-oh feeling that this could turn out to be yet another awkward moment in the life of a music blogger.

So, it is with great joy and palpable relief that I can say, “Hey, Max! You don’t suck!” To my readers, I will say that Max Gowan is an amazing talent, and if he chooses music as one of what will likely be many creative paths he chooses to follow in life, I want to hear what he comes up with every step of the way.

You can purchase this must-have collection on Bandcamp.


Childhood Lessons



My wife and I have great conversations after sex. The intimacy of sex makes one feel less vulnerable and more in touch with the core personality.

I also can’t think of a more exciting and satisfying way to spend my time, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but I flashed back to my early childhood. My childhood was divided into two distinct eras. The years up to age eight were good years when I felt secure and had few obstacles in the way of my development. The years from eight to early teens were very bad years of domestic violence, financial insecurity and continuous embarrassment.

I’ll go to the dark place someday, but in talking to my wife about early childhood, I discovered that the things I learned in those years gave me the strength and wisdom to survive the bad years.

When I was about four or five years old, I had two best friends and a crush on a little girl. My two best friends were twins named Peter and Paul. They were alike in every way except for one important difference. Paul was born blind.

I remember my mother explaining to me that Paul couldn’t see things and I would have to help him when we played together. I don’t know if I was capable of empathy, but what my mother said made perfect sense to me. If someone has a problem, you help them out.

I helped Paul by pulling him around in my wagon, letting him spend more time feeling the toys before we started playing with them and holding his hand when playing games that required running. I never thought of him as a person with a disability, just as a kid who needed a little help.

A year later I entered kindergarten. I know I made friends there, but the only person who mattered to me was Sandy.

Sandy was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, with beautiful blonde curls, a peachy complexion and sparkling blue eyes. She had a wonderful smile and liked to laugh a lot.

Sandy was also confined to a wheelchair.

I spent all my play time with Sandy. I don’t remember what we played, but we were inseparable, and for some reason I developed an intense pride for her. I had probably seen enough TV to know about relationships between the sexes and how important it was to men that they had a beautiful wife. There I was, only five years old, and I had already found my dream girl. I had ended one of life’s early quests at an extremely young age.

The school had a Christmas party where all the parents and children came together for an evening to celebrate the season. I looked forward to that night with great anticipation because I wanted my parents to see my beautiful girlfriend. Sandy did not disappoint, as she wore a little red velvet dress with a bright red bow in her curls that made her more beautiful than ever. I beamed with pride as the two sets of parents watched us together and smiled with what I took to be tentative consent for us to marry someday.

We moved to a different town later that year and I never saw Sandy again. We stayed in touch with Peter and Paul for a little while, but my father was entering his period of instability and there was some kind of falling out between the adults.

My friendships with Paul and Sandy shaped my personality in ways I did not understand at the time. To say that they helped me develop compassion and empathy is not accurate, because I didn’t see them as people in need of compassion and empathy. Paul was a guy who needed some help with a few things. Sandy was simply a beautiful girl who couldn’t walk. I never attached a stigma to either disability, so it never occurred to me to feel sorry for them because they couldn’t do certain things I could do. I helped them, sure, but they helped me by being my friends.

How those relationships helped me survive the bad times is more important. In early childhood, you are intensely curious about how the world works. Once you think you understand it, that understanding becomes a core part of your belief system as to how the world should work.

So, because I believed that the world was a place where people help each other out, I was able to interpret the act of people hurting each other as a temporary aberration, a deviation from the norm. I didn’t need any religious training to tell me that hurting people was wrong, for if helping people was the way of the world, hurting people had to be wrong. The person doing the hurting needed help so they wouldn’t hurt people any more.

Readers may consider that a naive and unrealistic belief in a world full of violence, but I don’t want to change it. I like a world where helping people is simply what we do.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons