Sunday, February 10, 2013

Skin in Which Game?

So, does it really help you to know who I am? Do you think knowing that will change what I say and do?
A thing I never know, when I’m starting out to tell a story about a chap I’ve told a story about before, is how much explanation to bung in at the outset. It’s a problem you’ve got to look at from every angle. I mean to say, in the present case, if I take it for granted that my public knows all about Gussie Fink-Nottle and just breeze ahead, those publicans who weren’t hanging on my lips the first time are apt to be fogged. Whereas, if before kicking off I give about eight volumes of the man’s life and history, other bimbos, who were so hanging, will stifle yawns and murmur “Old stuff. Get on with it.”

I suppose the only thing to do is to put the salient facts as briefly as possible in the possession of the first gang, waving an apologetic hand at the second gang the while, to indicate that they had better let their attention wander for a minute or two and that I will be with them shortly.

— P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

So, this happened a couple days ago:

I’m not quite sure why Mr. Taleb, with whom I have had only rare and intermittent interaction over the years, chose to throw down the gauntlet in such a fashion. Perhaps he did it in a fit of pique at a less-than-rapturous assessment of his latter work I offered in a recent interview. Perhaps he tried to embroil me in a twitter duel to attract attention and bolster sales of his book currently in publication. (I hear tell publishers encourage their authors to use social media in whatever way possible to promote sales.) Or perhaps Mr. Taleb, a famously combative personality, simply chose to pick a fight with an obscure financial commentator because he didn’t like the cut of my jib.

But no matter how titillating or intriguing one might find speculation about the personal motives or hidden agenda behind Mr. Taleb’s public utterance, or dislike the combative and insulting tone which a more sensitive soul might read into it, a mature and intelligent reader would put such distractions aside and attempt to address the question he poses.1 For it is a valid question.

Let me answer it, then.

* * *

First, I think it important to note that, when all is said and done over the past six years, I have actually concealed very little of what is essential about my identity. In addition to clues large and small, direct and indirect, which I have scattered throughout these pages and elsewhere over the years, I have offered up rather lengthy essays on my origins, personality, and biases as well as a number of interviews conducted with people such as an advisor on trust-based selling, the members of a corporate law class, and a reporter for an online literary magazine. There also was, if memory serves, an interview conducted in connection with a minor article on the sources of the financial crisis published in The New Yorker.

The essential outlines of my personal and professional life are all here for the attentive reader to note: I am a middle-aged, Ivy League educated, male investment banker of 20 or more years experience who focuses on M&A and corporate finance, has worked at firms large and small, and lives and works in Manhattan, New York City in the company of a wife, children, and two dogs. I’m not quite sure what more you need to know about me. My name? My address? My employer? My social security number? What—pardon me for asking—the fuck for?

I assure you I am a real person, with all of those things, but none of that is important for what I share with you, here. This place, these words are all you need to know about me. My personal details are unremarkable, unilluminating, boring. If you found out my true identity tomorrow I guarantee you your reaction would be, “Who? Really? Huh.” Trust me: you’re not missing anything.

Of course the worry shared by many,2 perhaps including Mr. Taleb, is that my persona and all the details I have shared with you here are some sort of elaborate scam or lie. There is of course no guarantee that this suspicion is not correct. (On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.) But if it is a lie, constructed out of whole cloth, I would ask you to consider what for, to whose benefit? If I really am a 7-11 owner in Boise, Idaho or a junior accountant at a sponge factory, for what earthly purpose would or could I be constructing this elaborate fantasy? (And how the hell could I pull it off for six years, fooling almost everybody through the sheer force of words and invented experience that I’m someone I’m not?) If, on the other hand, it is a scam, designed to con people into doing or believing some things they would not otherwise do or believe if they knew who I am and what firm I work for, what exactly are those things? Given the variety, prolixity, and overwhelming volume of words I have spewed forth at this opinion emporium over the past six years, I dare you to find an agenda that could be cast in a suspicious or underhanded light. I double dog dare you.

Good friggin’ luck.

* * *

Pace the details of my real or assumed identity, the essentials of my worldview, morals, and intellectual perspectives are completely transparent. They form the very essence of this blog. And as I explained two years ago, concealing my identity interposes no barrier between my words and a reader’s thoughts, offers no bar to her ability to weigh, judge, and draw her own conclusions:

CHG: Let’s deal with one sideways issue, the question of anonymity. Some commenters on this blog have been critical of anonymous bloggers. I think anonymity can play some interesting roles, and in some ways can be critical. You’re an anonymous blogger; your view on the subject?

TED: Anonymity can indeed foster all sorts of bad, irresponsible behavior, and I am not in favor of it in general. But blogging (or even commenting on another blog) under a pseudonym, as I do, is very different. Anonymity means no identity; pseudonymity means a false or assumed identity.

For one thing, operating under a pseudonym allows one to build up a corpus of opinion that can be judged in toto. Third parties can develop an opinion of your credibility and the value of your opinions for the very reason that you present a consistent identity, that you do in fact have a name. That this name is false, and a mask, is more a matter of convenience and perhaps professional necessity than it is of deception.

If people judge my words and opinions interesting, provocative, and worthy, it does not really matter whether they know me as TED or Joe Smith. One can always worry that a pseudonymous commenter or blogger has an ulterior agenda, but I suspect that is both hard to conceal over a long period of time (I have been blogging for over four years) and, frankly, beside the point. I challenge you to find anyone commenting in public who does not have at least one unstated agenda. And yet we should be able to judge and evaluate each other’s contributions nonetheless.

I claim to be an investment banker with over 20 years experience in the business. I claim many other things besides. Neither you nor anyone else really knows this to be true or not, and yet I hope my words and opinions themselves have earned me a measure of trust in this respect that a resume or a photograph would not add to. Perhaps I am naïve, but I believe that, given enough time, trust can be built upon words alone. My entire career testifies to that belief.

So why do I conceal my identity? It’s very simple: I want to keep my job.

* * *

Unlike certain public intellectuals who may have accumulated enough wealth through investing and writing bestselling books to enjoy the freedom of reading in bed for two years and stomping belligerently about the landscape lifting heavy stones, I have not. I continue to work as a trusted advisor to corporations and financial sponsors so I can support my family, my childrens’ schools, and the innumerable other wine merchants, bartenders, and cigar vendors who have attached themselves to me over the years. Unfortunately, this noble objective seems to be incompatible with ridiculing the follies and foibles of public figures within and without my industry, not to mention attacking the seemingly endless supply of dull, stupid, and irretrievably wrong commentators and journalists poisoning the well of public thought, while wearing my own name. Add to this the institutional paranoia of compliance and regulatory officials within employers like my firm, who suffer myocardial infarctions at the very thought of an investment banker like me communicating with the public in a non-approved, unsurveilled fashion, and you perhaps begin to see why my diffidence is less absence of courage than simple discretion.

For you see, Mr. Taleb, you are mistaken about the game in which I have put my skin at risk. My game is not to be a public intellectual. My game is to be an investment banker. In that game, believe me, I am all in. That being said, I have a brain, and judgment, and a clever pen, and I am not afraid to use them to advance arguments in the intellectual realm which I believe deserve to be heard. Just because I am not a combatant in the public arena under my own name, that does not mean I cannot fight there. If others are afraid to confront me because I wear a mask, I count that against their own courage, not mine.3

I have no hidden weapons or traps to spring on you or anyone else. My knife is right here, in my hand, in front of your face. En garde.

Related reading:
The Investment Banker in Winter (April 7, 2009)
Biting the Hand that Feeds Me (November 22, 2010)
Do You Trust Me? (February 23, 2011)
Sympathy for the Devil (February 27, 2011)
Wherein Your Droll, Semi-Victorian Bloggist Jumps the Shark (January 8, 2013)

1 See what I did there? No? Well, keep reading then.
2 There was a journalist, a few years back, who decided it was her mission to expose all those who commented on matters financial and public under pseudonyms, for the alleged reason that they were violating their employers’ regulations about communicating with the public. While this was strictly true, it was a very flimsy rationale, and the real reason for her zeal seemed to be some sort of unresolved personal spite. The matter passed, as matters do, and the only lasting casualty was the journalist’s own reputation. Nevertheless, I am sure you can appreciate how such emotional outbursts tend to discourage full disclosure among the pseudonymous commentariat, regardless of motivation.
3 There is another, less savory reason one can attribute to those who wish to unmask pseudonymous commentators: the desire to dismiss or denigrate hostile opinions expressed because the one offering them is not “qualified” by academic or intellectual pedigree to offer them. This is a particularly low and cowardly version of the argument from authority. Good ideas and strong reasoning are good and strong per se, whether or not they are offered by a 7-11 clerk or a middle-aged investment banker.

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