Society | Bottom Line Ethics

Today is the first day of the most unique fall semester of my career as a professor. I will be back in a physical classroom for the first time in months, masked and ready to go. In one of my classes, over 90 percent of students have decided to attend in person. This speaks to me of the longing for human contact, and the fundamentally different experience of even the most humdrum college classroom when compared to a technology link.

Dr. Mike Shaub, in a Baltimore Orioles maskSocial media is atwitter with stories of reckless college students gathering in droves, and the anticipation is that it is only a matter of time before universities go online. Some prominent universities already have. But there is a certain recklessness, at least a modest amount of risk-seeking behavior, in all of us who are not hypochondriacs. Certain needs will prompt us to assume risk because of what we get in return. We may try to tightly control the extent of that risk. But five months into this COVID adventure, we all have a much better read on our propensity to assume risk.

And, to be honest, it is a lot higher across the spectrum than I would have guessed, and not just for college students. My desire for normalcy in the classroom and in my workplace drive me to assume risk. I feel pressure from peers in my church community to regather, even though it still seems like a bad idea to me. Most people who know me would see me as risk averse; I am, after all, an accountant. And yet later on today I will be face-to-face with new MS Accounting students in a professional seminar in a classroom down the hall.

Many who see college students as selfish would characterize professors going into the classroom as heroic. I think that is a bit of a caricature. Of course, there are a number of college students engaging in purely self-interested behavior because they believe the downside risk is minimal. This is nothing new, and it is the reason we have organizations like CARPOOL at Texas A&M to minimize the consequences of this type of behavior by offering rides home from bars to those who need them.

But professors have needs, too. And when I look in the mirror, I have to ask myself—why have I chosen face-to-face instruction rather than teaching online? Part of it is that I taught online in the spring and summer. To be honest, it would be a lot easier than the hybrid version I will start with this fall, where I try to attend to the needs of students in the classroom and those Zooming in. But I give up a lot sitting in front of a screen, physically detached from my students. My career has been about life-on-life investment, and as hard as I try to make the online experience seamless for my students, it is not the same. Am I being selfless, or is it just evident to me that the experience of being a professor without human contact is, for me, a lifeless one, and less worth doing?

I have often told my students, “If you can’t self-regulate, you WILL be regulated.” I certainly know people who will wear a mask only under force of rule, and complaining all the while. But it is pretty clear at this point that the only thing that can make this fall semester happen the way we want it to is for students and faculty to self-regulate at uncomfortable levels. Around here, we call that selfless service.

Can we do it? Who knows? I know that I will be washing my hands every time I walk by a bathroom, and soaking my paper cuts in hand sanitizer constantly. (Again, I’m an accountant.) I have the equivalent of a “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign on my office door. I have an assortment of masks for every occasion, from N-95 on down to casual dinner wear. The last thing I want to do is bring this scourge home to the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, and not just because I will be relegated to a distant room (or a tent outside) for two weeks. Protecting her is all that really matters.

It is hard to know how much I will resemble last year’s Dr. Shaub as I go back in the classroom. I feel like a bit of an imposter. But if it protects her, I am okay with that. Whoever I am, I am hopeful, and strangely happy, about this opportunity. I want to do the things I can to prolong it, and I want my students to have fun learning along the way.

But who am I to criticize them for being risk-seeking? My presence with them says that they are not alone. Here’s hoping we are all able to self-regulate sufficiently to prolong the joy that comes from the beauty that is the university classroom.


Explore my recent post “100” and the news story it prompted on KBTX.com.

 

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Politics, Society, Texas A&M

In the midst of a pandemic that has made me more risk averse than I have ever been, I am witness to a standard of longevity that stands as a monument to tenacity and grace. This week, my Dad, who survived Iwo Jima among a series of Pacific battles that engaged the 4th Marine Division, will turn 100.

When I was growing up, my chain-smoking Dad was the last person I would have thought would live to a ripe old age. I am pretty confident that I never saw my Dad participate in athletic activity when I lived at home, unless you count yelling at Little League umpires. He never worked out between the ages of 30 and 70. He was not careful about what he ate or drank. He was just my Dad, and not anyone you would think of as an icon.

Today, he is one of the most popular people on the third floor of the Isle at Watercrest, still getting around with his walker and, whenever possible, refusing help. But for the last four months, this has been invisible to us, and we have relied on others to provide all of his care and comfort. We are the outsiders, banned from visiting because of the COVID threat to residents.

I would give anything to sit across the room from him in the reading chair that I bought when he moved here a year and a half ago. We would have a meandering conversation about life in Pennsylvania shooting rabbits with his father, or coming of age in Baltimore, or the war. None of the discussion would involve politics or the Astros, as it might have a decade or less ago.

We would look at pictures of Mom on the wall, gone three decades now, but very much alive in his heart still. Next year Linda and I will pass the number of years given to my parents together, but I can guarantee you that the fire still burns bright for my Dad, and it gives me hope that we can continue to kindle something that our kids and grandkids will use in the years ahead to warm their lives.

The pictures in his room also include frozen moments in time of my parents just after the war, and then with one, two, and three children. The last of these is my first birthday, on the porch in Baltimore in my Mom’s arms with me wearing a classic birthday hat, with my two older brothers looking mildly disinterested. I have not seen these pictures for four months because of COVID. But I see them clearly in my mind, and they connect me to my Dad in ways that are hard to describe.

One day, I suppose, similar pictures will hang above my recliner in a similar place, telling a story of days already long ago in which my life was formed and shaped. And my children and grandchildren will, I hope, visit long enough to have that unique mixture of sadness and sweetness that goes with encountering life at the stage where the battery is flashing.

But amidst the long, slow decline, we have this amazing moment. 100. How could it be that he could have gotten to this point, and that he still acts as if the road goes on forever? This man who has witnessed over 40 percent of the history of our nation, who was born just after World War I and the flu pandemic and while Woodrow Wilson was still president, soldiers on in the summer of COVID. And he does it without a single visitor, though we are chomping at the bit to be with him.

All the cultural battles being fought today are the culmination of history he has witnessed. When I was young, it felt like I could never make him happy. Now, he never complains, unless you try to help him. When I talk to him, one of his most common phrases is, “So be it.” It is a mix of resignation and contentment. After Mom died, he spent almost thirty years alone in the home I grew up in. I suppose he is as prepared as anyone I know to be alone in this pandemic, and I am pretty certain that he is content with the periodic visits throughout the day from his caregivers.

But, if I am being honest, I am not. I want to see my Dad, and hug his neck, and let him know face-to-face how much I love him. I almost never talk to him without him telling me how proud he is of me. How many men my age are hearing that? How many men of any age are hearing that?

I have the voice of my father telling me I am worthwhile for one more day. I do not take this day for granted.

I love you, Dad. Here’s to you. 100.

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Religion, Society, Texas A&M

On this August day, the University of Nebraska at Omaha flags fly at half-mast for a man whose heart was as beautiful as his mind. David Swanson could have done any number of things with that extraordinary intellect. What he chose to do was to quietly make life better for thousands of Nebraskans by investing himself in a critical role that impacted its university system. It is not the kind of thing that engenders a hero’s respect in most people’s eyes. But then Dave is not most people.

David SwansonI met David when I was a young professor at Nebraska, about the time he married Ronda. He was a bike-riding graduate student who thought on a different plane. As they grew into their marriage and encountered parenthood, our friendship blossomed. Linda and I were hopelessly overwhelmed with three, and then four, children, so we welcomed their curiosity and their practical help.

He loved the Twins. The first two times I typed that, it came out “loves” as if my fingers couldn’t type the past tense. He loved them stupidly, like a child, against all evidence, the way I love the Orioles. I still remember a camping trip our families took together, our boys tossing the baseball back and forth as proxies for us. My last memory of Lincoln before leaving for good is a whiffle ball game at his son’s first birthday party.

He loved the Huskers, too, even through a long period of gradual decline after three national championships. But even in frustrating times, he could always laugh at the irony of decisions that were being made. He had a lightness to his heart that did not, with rare exception, allow the blows of life to drive him to despair.

And so he served as a sort of flotation device for many, including me, a combination of humor and relentless rationality that kept us from sinking too deep. He was not just rational about science and math, but he understood the rational implications of the faith in Christ he so boldly proclaimed for all the years I knew him.

Right now I am emotional and dazed at this tragic and seemingly pointless loss. And then I start thinking of him talking to me in that uniquely nasal tone I could immediately identify if I heard it in a crowded room. He is finishing every other sentence with a rat-a-tat laugh that says, “What did you expect?” It is not a cynical question.

So much of our lives as believers is ironic. What would make Dave and me friends? How would we both marry above ourselves to women who, though born a decade apart, cannot seem to get enough of being together? Dave and I would have been stuck with each other even if we had not found so much to like in each other. But I cannot remember spending five minutes in David Swanson’s presence without laughing, even in the bad times.

You don’t lower a flag to half-mast for Ph.D. types who are computer gurus, but on the day I write this, they are lowering it for Dave. He would be laughing and saying, “Are you kidding me?” No, dear friend, we’re not. You have lived a life worthy of that. You have made a meaningful impact on so many, one life at a time, not just one professional accomplishment at a time. What you could do with your mind gave you access to our hearts. And your unselfish devotion to each of us, to your family, and to your Lord is the reason we feel not just regret, but pain, in losing you.

I know you are hearing even better commendations now. But I wanted you to hear it from me, too. Well done, beloved friend.

Related: Two funds set up to support Swanson family

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Religion, Society, Texas A&M

My wife and I were walking up from the beach together, past a house that had a pickup truck whose bass speakers were sufficient to physically rattle the windows of our house across the street. I looked over at the truck, and an older man (and, by that, I mean younger than me) shouted at his daughter to turn the music down out of consideration for us. Her immediate reply to him before complying was, “They were young once!”

Indeed they were. Once they held hands and talked of a future together. He whispered in her ear and she giggled and pulled away, only to have him gently grab her arm and pull her back to him. He looked in those clear blue eyes and felt his heart fly away to places he never knew existed. He wooed her as a college student and married her right after. They spent restless nights sleeping in an unairconditioned house with a box fan whirring in a window and a baby in the next room. They spent a dozen years living in more than that many homes, stopping and starting a career in fits and spurts until a Ph.D. program spat out a professor equipped with an inquisitive mind, two more kids and that same blue-eyed girl. Those three kids grew to five, and the seasons flew by, hardly noticed. Life for them was a continuum, pulsing from one stage to another until all those kids were gone and the grandkids had long since begun arriving.

Only then did it begin to occur to them that they might be growing old. That they—that he—might be on the backside of his usefulness. He noticed that more of his questions were “why” and fewer of them were “how.” It was not that he just didn’t remember as much; he didn’t understand as much. Because as you get older, while still in the continuing desperate pursuit of those things you never comprehended, you realize that you are quickly being caught from behind by those things that you never knew to ask about, as well as those things you no longer understand. Those deep consternations reflect themselves not just in your specific discipline or expertise, but in music and art and culture and religion. They are accelerated by changes in technology, but they are not a result of it. All generations have faced this inevitable passage in their own ways.

I sit on the cusp of freedom and despair. My life today is the opportunity to finish strong, to fulfill many of my hopes and to see so many good things happen in the lives of those I love. It is the chance to pass the baton on to the next generation, which has already begun accelerating in the exchange lane. In fact, they are quite quickly matching my speed, which is necessary for a successful handoff.

But it is also a recognition that my contribution, my leg of the race, is reaching its end. I am still running hard, and I have to in order to keep up with them. But not for long.

There is a reason I am not running the anchor leg, and that is because I am not the fastest runner. But I have done my best on my leg. I am free to enjoy, in the not too distant future, the rest of the race from the infield. The despair comes in knowing that soon, all that will be left for me to do is cheer.

My Dad turns 99 this month. In his room hangs the picture of a confident 26-year-old, with his civilian arms wrapped around my Mom’s waist after having survived both the worst of the Pacific War and two years apart from her. The whole world lies before them—like us, a return to school, five kids, and a career of the mind. They were young once. Today, he wonders where she has gone.

The pickup truck just pulled back into the neighbor’s driveway, the speakers booming life, the future, possibilities. The guy on the porch across the street from that pickup truck watches, reflecting on what it is to have meaning and confidence without youth. He knows deep in his heart that he is one of the lucky ones, still stimulated by a meaningful job that includes the opportunity to teach, and to be influenced by, a remarkable group of college students who continue to make him feel young. And to still be carried away by those gorgeous blue eyes not just to unseen places, but to memories built together, full of whimsy and wonder.

They were young once. And, to be honest, perhaps more often than you think, they still are. The immeasurable gift of a lifetime together is hard to top, even by the highest highs of youth.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to go back and try.

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Society, Texas A&M

Barry Minkow is a classic rags-to-riches American story. Or maybe it’s more like a rags to riches to orange jumpsuit to crime fighter to clerical collar to fraudulent short-seller to multimillion dollar church embezzlement story. He is currently serving a sentence for insider trading related to false accusations against homebuilder Lennar Corp. that drove its stock down while he shorted it. But he also pled guilty last week to embezzling $3,000,000 from the church he pastored, San Diego Community Bible Church. Even now, after all I have known about Minkow through the years, his chutzpah floors me. He was able to convince the court that he committed the Lennar fraud to fund his addiction to Oxycontin, potentially shortening his sentence because of his participation in a drug treatment program. If I was a guard, I would be checking his cell every thirty minutes.

About the time Minkow was pulling off his first major scam by taking the company he started as a teenager, ZZZZBest, public, I was busy in a Ph.D. program learning the ins and outs of accounting ethics and fraud. His very public fall, and the subsequent video interview he gave in prison to Joe Wells, helped to jump start Wells’s Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the CFE designation. His folksy discussion of how easy it was to fool people, particularly auditors, brought home the need for serious attention to forensic accounting. He was the face of fraud for CPAs, giving a dry science a red-blooded American mythical character. And he was able to build on that reputation after he was released from prison by helping search out numerous frauds and founding the Fraud Discovery Institute. He also rebuilt his personal reputation by serving first as a pastor of evangelism in one church, and then as the senior pastor in the San Diego church.

And he wrote books. Oh, did he write books. Ever the self-promoter, Minkow was involved in numerous book projects that all told essentially the same story of his rise and fall. I found a number of copies of one of his books in a second-hand bookstore and gave several away to my graduate students to read. Of course, he was always the hero in the books, whether he was the bad guy pointing out how incompetent financial professionals were, or the repentant criminal mending his ways. Throw a little gospel in there and you broaden your audience. In fact, before the Lennar conviction, Minkow was the star in a motion picture about his own life that was about to be released. The movie co-starred James Caan, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), and Talia Shire (Rocky Balboa’s wife). It is quite possible that he used church funds to support the Fraud Discovery Institute and church members to fund the movie.

I have to admit, even though I teach professional skepticism, I fell for some of his shtick after he got out of prison the first time. He spoke broadly, but I never invited him to class, in part because of the cost, and in part because of a nagging feeling about him. There are reasons for people to tell their failure stories, and I have found that my students are able to identify with what many of them have gone through. One speaker I had last spring gave what was clearly the most influential talk of the semester by sharing her story and accepting responsibility for her choices. But Minkow has always had a different feel to him; none of the others I have come across has been as obviously self-interested as he is.

Yet even now, after he has done untold damage to the two groups I most closely identify with, CPAs and Christians, I find it hard to be angry with him. I am not sure why that is true, because it seems like I ought to be very resentful. He has besmirched the names of many trusting people. He also loves to talk about himself, which must be extraordinarily irritating to those who have known him well.

But his career has paralleled mine, and it is like having the thread of a single life that is hopelessly intertwined with my own story. I was warned in graduate school about pursuing accounting ethics as my research emphasis because it would marginalize me in my field of accounting. But when I looked around at the choices I had for investing my intellect and my research skills, the only one that I could see holding my attention for decades was accounting ethics.

And that, indeed, has held true for me. I have dabbled in several other areas of research, even overinvesting myself in one or two of them in the hopes of being seen as more mainstream. But only accounting ethics has consistently awakened my passion for research, and it does so because of the complexity of the stories involved. Accounting ethics is at the nexus of rational markets and human failure, and studying it has invariably led to rich stories that are easy to make into parables. I suppose that I have a liberal arts flavor to what I teach that is largely unavailable to many of my business school colleagues.

Sometimes these stories play out as Greek tragedy and sometimes as farce, but the truth is that my life would be incomplete without the Barry Minkows of the world. While my faith always makes me hope for redemption in people’s lives, Minkow has already lived the cat’s proverbial nine lives. I have not seen the movie, but I am guessing it is both interesting and a lie. Its investors were only one more group of suckers Barry Minkow left in his wake. They should have known that it was a film that would never be completed. Because with a Barry Minkow movie, you can never really write an ending.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Society

A former student recently asked me to write about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Today’s paper reported our own OWS march in College Station though, admittedly, it consisted of only about 60 people. I read an interesting article the other day in The Wall Street Journal that focused on the legitimacy of concerns that college is overpriced, one of the causes of debt that has led OWS supporters to argue that the American system is unjust. The link between quality and price in American universities is worth a column, but I will save that for another day.

What I would like to focus on instead is a common thread in many problems today—our addiction to debt. There is a proverb that says, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” In my view, this has always been true. I find it humorous that people protest “greedy bankers.” It is like protesting hot summers in Texas. Bankers are greedy because they make money off their money. Ethics and banking are the lubricants of the capital markets, as we teach in Mays Business School. Only one is free and the other is a $500 oil change. Bankers do not produce anything; they enable others to produce things. And their goal is to make as much money off their money as possible.

All the big banks recently decided to raise debit card fees. Since it included bailed out banks, many people objected strenuously. The main problem I had with the policy change is that banks have spent the past ten years offering incentives to addict people to their debit cards, and then they turned around and charged for the behavior they incentivized. But how is that different from almost all marketing ploys, like satellite TV services offering me a twelve-month entry price and then continually increasing my bill once I am addicted to ESPN? Airlines have used checked bag fees to become profitable. But the master of this technique is the federal government. Just read your cell phone bill for all the fees they have dreamed up to charge you.

We still have control of the situation. Debit cards are broadly available from other financial institutions, and for most people a credit union will do everything a bank can do. And my biggest problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it implies that we have no choice in matters that lead to bankers being the master and borrowers being mistreated. Most debt is volitional, whether we admit it or not. Even where it is necessary, the amount of debt is volitional. If you speculatively borrow to buy a bigger house than you can afford because you think its value will increase, or because you want to live a certain way, you expose yourself to risk. I know, because I once bought a house that I could not afford. When I finally sold it, I walked away with $400 of my equity and the charred smell of the flame that almost consumed me financially. But it was my choice to do it.

In contrast, my son, who has had a good job for five years and is wealthier than I am, lives in a 500-square-foot apartment. And that is a step up. He used to live in somebody’s basement. If you use your student loan to fund a Starbucks lifestyle or an apartment in one of the high end complexes with all the amenities, you are presuming your ability to repay. And you have put yourself in a position that you may seriously regret one day.

There was a time when people saved to go to college. People argue all the time that the cost of college has escalated so fast that there is no way for most people to do that anymore. I empathize, as my fourth child is in college, and my fifth is a year and a half away. But my father fought a world war, and worked, and saved, and scraped to get his bachelor’s degree at age 31. He did not feel he had the inherent right at age 22 to become the research physicist he eventually became. He was convinced he had other duties, and he fulfilled them. He was a mechanic, and a bus driver, and a Marine before he was a white-collar worker. And while he was in college, he lived with my Mom and my brother in a small trailer that they pulled behind the car.

The debt that homeowners and college students burden themselves with is no different than Greece borrowing itself into oblivion to finance a welfare state. People riot rather than give up their benefits and say that their treatment is unjust. But Greece is a slave to their lenders, whether they are French, German, British, or American. And if they will not adjust their behavior, their economy will collapse completely. Even now, consideration is being given to their ejection from the European Union.

We are well on our way in the U.S. to doing the same thing. We are continuing to run obscene deficits that are unnecessary because we are addicted to our lifestyle. Serious discussions of how to cut are dismissed, and state-level cuts are objected to as cruel and unjust. We can yell all we want, but this will not go on forever. There is a day when you have to pay. And our “bankers” are not letting us borrow with our best interests in mind. They are doing it to make a buck. And when they can’t, they will call that loan.

So occupy Wall Street if you must, but you can’t change the proverb. The borrower is slave to the lender. What I plan to do is figure out how to eliminate my remaining debt and determine how much extra work my kids and I need to do to pay for their college.

And when it’s all paid off, I’ll get my lawn chair and come out to watch the protests.

Categories: Business, Society

We were driving to a former student’s wedding in west Texas this weekend, and our trip provided an up close and personal look at the damage that has been done by the wild fires raging across Texas this summer. Virtually every mile of the landscape was bone dry, but parts had been ravaged. We had to detour around Bastrop, which would have been our normal route, because the largest wild fire in Texas history had wiped out hundreds of homes and much of the state park. It likely will never be the same in my lifetime.

West of Austin, near Spicewood, the ground was charred on both sides of the road. The Pedernales River had no water in it where we crossed. Once we passed Brady, we were moving into what is traditionally west Texas, where the ground is always dry in the summer. It looked more natural there.

The winery where the wedding was held, near Christoval, could not have provided a starker contrast. Massive oak trees shaded the folding chairs from the evening sun, offering a majestic backdrop for those watching the ceremony. On either side were the rows of grapevines, lush and full, with a slow drip of water falling to the ground below them every few feet. The grass under the chairs was a luxuriant green. Everything about the setting, including the ceremony, spoke of tender care and careful attention.

Two west Texas families, one dressed mostly in cowboy formal, embraced the couple and one another in genuine joy. My wife and I were invited to join a table reserved for wedding party members that included two other former students. My primary observation sitting there was that I could not remember seeing more couples who were genuinely enjoying dancing together, not just dancing. I kept sensing that there was nowhere those couples would rather be than in each other’s arms. Daddies danced with daughters while Moms took pictures. The pastor danced with every woman who wasn’t chained down. There was the deep and unmistakable smell of life in the place. I was reluctant to leave, even though virtually everyone there was a stranger to me.

There is a tendency to take for granted the reliability of the seasons, of rain, of the essentials being provided when we need them, of life. This summer has made me less complacent, and more conscious of preserving the things that sustain life. We are living on the edge. A friend recently had to call 911 because someone’s cigarette butt had started a grass fire in her neighborhood. One moment she was trying to beat it out with a blanket, the next it was a 20 by 40 foot fire ready to take off down the street. Only a quickly arriving pumper truck prevented a serious problem.

I have noticed that, for many people, relationships are a tinder box as well, ready to catch fire and run out of control. And what catches them on fire are careless words. Speaking without thinking, angry words stretch and break relationships that have held together for years. Economic pressures make people self-interested and magnify others’ offenses.

We have even seen it in the process of Texas A&M detaching from the Big 12, and not just in blog posts. People are ready to set on fire longstanding relationships, and they make comments designed not to persuade, but to anger and to cut.

It may be time to leave, but bridges burned are not easily rebuilt. I know that many Aggies are tired of one school being condescending and another clinging on for dear life. But there are also legitimate concerns when we walk away from commitments, whether or not there are official contracts. We ought to patiently listen, even if it can be tiring and unnecessarily contentious. We could have left last year when it would have been easier. But we didn’t. We cannot control what others say about the situation, but we can make the choice to say less ourselves.

The ground is really dry out there. What we need is the drip, drip, drip of wisdom to bring back some life to the soil, and to the vines. It is a lot easier to toss the cigarette butt out the window and see what happens than it is to stop the vehicle and stomp it out on the pavement. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the pumper truck doesn’t get there in time to prevent some unintended consequences.

Categories: Friends, Society

I read a very interesting article in The Wall Street Journal about who young people turn to for advice. In short, the answer is that they largely turn to their peers, for a number of reasons. Being old, I have the sense that this is a really bad idea. But reading the article opened my eyes to a few things.

In general, I think people are well served by listening to older and more experienced people. Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” Nowadays, it seems that the sense that parents are out of touch extends well into adulthood.

Historically, people have thought wisdom was linked to age. I am not sure the research bears this out, though it is inherent and explicit in most authoritative religious literature. Perhaps the research results vary from the assumptions because it is so difficult to live wisely for a long period of time. Longevity and consistency in relationships is all too rare, and we are regularly greeted by examples of middle- or older-aged moral collapse.

As I have written, wisdom seems to include dialogical and dialectical thinking at a minimum, the ability to consider others’ perspectives and to think long-term. Reading the Wall Street Journal article made me consider that perhaps people of my generation have different strengths and vulnerabilities than those of the generation of students I teach. Each has the potential for great wisdom, and also the opportunity to make crash-and-burn decisions.

I think what I have noticed is that my students, and my children, are far more dialogical than I am. They are incessantly communicating with one another and sharing their perspectives. They are getting input from all over—from best friends, from strangers, from Facebook, from authority figures, from the media. Though, to older people, they sometimes seem to have trouble distinguishing the relative reliability of the sources, they are listening.

That is the weakness of people like me. I become entrenched in my position, and I often fail to listen respectfully the way I should. In closing myself to those sources I consider to be of questionable reliability, I find that I have often failed to listen to unique viewpoints that may help me get closer to truth. More painfully, this can be true of me as a father. I want my children to see me as the expert, and I don’t always enter the conversation listening. Or worse, I wait for the weakness in their arguments to emerge, and I pounce. They rightly cut me off as a source of advice. Even when I am right, I am not to be trusted.

But my young friends have a weakness too, and that comes in the difficulty they have thinking dialectically. There is no way they can be expected to have a long-term perspective, when they have not had a life experience of major failings and mistakes, or of fruitful choices that paid off. Of course they underestimate long-term negative consequences of their decisions. Why wouldn’t they, unless they have experienced those consequences directly in the form of fallout from their parents’ lack of wisdom?

Where is wisdom to be found? I think it is in recognizing our vulnerability to these tendencies, and in engaging each other in conversations respectfully. For my part, I am working on becoming a better listener and not trying to solve problems before I even hear them. If that meets up with young people who really want to develop a long-term perspective, there is potential for real conversation. Even more, it may lead a few steps down the road to wisdom.

They say a father is someone who carries pictures in his wallet where his money used to be. That money is spent in hopes that his children will make wise decisions that lead to a good life. For me, it always seemed that financial investment, and my commitment to my kids, earned me the right to be heard, and listened to.

But I think, instead, it is an investment that must be combined with the kind of character in my own life that allows me to listen, even when it is hard to sit still. If I want to be wise, and to help my children grow in wisdom, I will need to engage them humbly and learn from them as well. And that is what I intend to do.

So, reader, to whom do you turn for wisdom? And why is it that you see that person as wise?

Categories: Society

I am not the only one to notice that we seem as a nation, and as a world, to be reeling from one catastrophe to another. I have seldom seen a period of pessimism like the one that envelops us right now. The last time I can remember this type of feeling in the U. S. was in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I am generally an optimist about our nation, because we have always been a country whose people learned from its mistakes and made better decisions when encountering similar circumstances. We have made gradual progress over the last 234 years with respect to issues of racial equality, and caring for the poor, and providing justice. It comes in fits and starts, but it comes. We have had a history of growing wiser, and learning from our mistakes.

But I cannot remember a time when we have been more shortsighted. People like to blame the media because of the short news cycle and the immediacy that comes with internet coverage of every minor glitch, along with the need to endlessly feed news consumers. Long-term thinking is boring. But, as Tufts University’s Robert Sternberg would say, wisdom requires both dialogical and dialectical thinking. Dialogical thinking involves interacting with others and actively considering their perspectives. Dialectical thinking requires a focus on the long-term, rather than just considering short-term outcomes. These two seem to go hand-in-hand; rarely do you see one without the other.

I see evidences of these failures in thinking in all the major issues in the headlines, and perhaps worse on the horizon. We are not just drilling in depths we have never drilled before. One of the reasons that energy prices remain stable is the vast expansion of natural gas reserves, mostly in shale formations. Exploration and production companies are producing this natural gas in close proximity to homes and schools in bedroom communities around Dallas/Ft. Worth. Many homeowners have suddenly become royalty owners. But there have also been interesting impacts on neighborhoods, and no one really knows what the seismic effects will be long-term. They have stopped drilling in Flower Mound because of concerns. Earthquakes anyone?

Our country, like others, is taking on precipitous debt, playing fast and loose with our credit standing. There has been no serious discussion about whether it is worthwhile as a strategy. There is a dearth of long-term thinking, and people mostly shout past each other. The borrowers are in the majority, so we dig the national debt to depths no one could have imagined twenty years ago. Those financial tremors you feel in Greece and Spain are real.

But one good thing that failure brings is the opportunity to change, to acknowledge our failures in thinking. Sternberg says that the five fallacies of thinking are egocentrism, omnipotence, omniscience, invulnerability, and unrealistic optimism. Disasters that are in your face every day tend to mute these fallacies. Not too many people at BP believe they are all powerful to stop disasters, or know everything about how to make a well a mile deep in the Gulf stop spewing out oil, or that they are invulnerable to the anger and financial consequences that will wash over them as surely as the crude washes up on the shores of the Gulf Coast. An unrealistic optimist now hopes the damage is contained to this summer, and that ecosystems largely recover in a decade or two.

We are creative and intelligent. We know how to drill deep into formations we could never reach, to produce gas in places we never thought we would, to temporarily wash away crises with floods of money. But we are not wise. We think about now, and we refuse to seriously engage one another about the future. We are neither dialogical nor dialectical.

We have a chance, if we grab it, to throw aside the fallacies of thinking and admit that there are real risks that accompany what we are trying to do, and that some of them are not worth taking. It will take humility and teachability. But the best time for something like that to happen is when we get it really wrong.

Now is that time.

Categories: Society

I have been reading a very interesting book by philosopher Daryl Koehn on thinking and acting ethically in a world of unintended consequences. She refers to unintended consequences as a “live dragon” based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s warning, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

And yet unintended consequences are left out of our moral calculations all the time. As an auditor, I find it humorous to watch the Congressional Budget Office trying to predict the impact of Congressional bills, most recently the health care bill. Since the CBO is constrained to use a certain set of assumptions, and since those assumptions are largely known to Congressional staff, key provisions of bills are structured so that they will pass muster under CBO provisions. But these estimates almost never represent reality, largely because they do not take into account the changes in behavior that will rationally take place once a law is implemented.

Koehn divides unintended consequences into those that are foreseeable and those that are unforeseeable. Many states that are going bankrupt are magically discovering that public employee pensions are having a huge impact on their deficits. It is not just that these pensions are generous, but that the provisions are set up so that the annuity received in retirement is based on the last few years’ average salary. Predictably, public servants are working almost impossibly high levels of overtime in their last few years, pumping their retirement payments sometimes above what their actual annual salaries were. This is a perfectly predictable unintended consequence of structuring pension plans this way.

Other consequences are not so easy to predict. Koehn gives the example of mosquito nets that were donated to Zambia to reduce the spread of malaria. Instead, villagers sowed the nets together to make large fishing nets, resulting in overfishing that will likely lead to longer-term hunger for Zambians.

When we make ethical decisions, it is tempting to think short-term, and to constrain our minds in terms of potential unintended consequences. There are several reasons for this. First, short-term consequences are the most available to us mentally; they are the easiest to picture. Second, we may actually be able to picture some short-term unintended consequences that we could include in our calculation; this is less likely to be true for long-term unintended consequences. Third, short-term calculations are the easiest to do, and they are the most likely part of the total calculation to be accurate.

I have experienced unintended consequences of my own decisions. I have sometimes made decisions for noble reasons and had a string of bad outcomes as a result. Of course, I can learn and benefit from these outcomes, but it does not necessarily follow that a well intended decision will result in good outcomes. And, in my life, that has led to disappointment.

Someone I know recently decided to leave his wife and change the course of his life dramatically. Besides the expected outcomes of a decision like that, that family’s life is raining unintended consequences, and likely will for many years to come.

I would be interested to know what you think on this issue. Have you experienced unintended consequences that have dramatically impacted your life? Is my friend responsible for all the unintended consequences resulting from his decision?

Categories: Politics, Society

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