Saturday, February 23, 2013

Of Unexpected Death

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558
Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way?

— Michel de Montaigne, “That to study philosophy is to learn to die,” Essais

Many years ago, perhaps before I first had children or certainly not much later, I often had occasion to walk across the pedestrian bridge which connected the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in Battery Park City with the World Trade Center complex. The Winter Garden, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a large, glass-enclosed atrium which overlooks both the site of the former World Trade towers on the east and the Hudson River and Battery Park City boat marina on the west. It is a curious, echoing space, formed from the gap between two of the office towers which make up the World Financial Center, windowed over with arching glass and metal, and rather incongruously punctuated with sixteen large palm trees planted inside in four rows along its long axis. When I frequented it, Battery Park City was still only half-developed, and the portion of the artificial landfill lying north of Vesey Street on which it sat was indifferently and incompletely developed. Now, of course, the northern part of the area is fully built out, with office buildings, schools, residential towers, and the gleaming new world headquarters of the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

The Winter Garden remains, but the glassed-in pedestrian bridge which connected it across West Street to the World Trade Center complex beyond—leading one down stairs or escalators into the bowels of the underground Concourse which covered the Trade Towers’ footprint in a maze of shops, restaurants, and even deeper escalators into the PATH train station to New Jersey—is gone, partially destroyed in the collapse of 9/11 and fully removed thereafter. The Winter Garden entryway which led to it is now closed, taken up instead with informative displays and tourists overlooking the reconstruction site of the new Freedom Tower and memorial gardens for the towers. It is a rather forlorn place architecturally now, a formerly busy entrance and exit which has been reduced to a window box on past horror and future resolve.

The bridge is gone now, as I said, but it was fully open and functional one rather unremarkable day many years ago when I crossed from the Winter Garden on my way east, on an errand or errands unremembered. About a quarter of the way across, as I walked 20 or 30 feet above the busy highway that was and is West Street, I noticed something which made me stop and stare. Stopped in the left lane almost underneath the bridge was an empty gray or green cargo van. In its front hood was a deep, v-shaped dent, and ten or so feet in front of it, on the ground, lay a motionless form underneath a light-colored tarp. A police car parked perpendicular to traffic with its lights flashing and long, s-shaped skid marks on the asphalt told the basic story: a pedestrian crossing the road had been hit by a speeding van, and the momentum of the car had carried it and its victim a good 150 feet before it skidded to a stop. You could fill in the rest, if you wanted to. The corner of West and Vesey was a bad one, with many blind spots—the plot where Goldman Sachs now stands was an empty lot. It would be easy to speculate the pedestrian had started across a green light in front of a stopped car, and the van, which sped up to catch the light, barreled through the red light and hit the unseen person just as he stepped in front of it. Or perhaps the pedestrian, as so many of us New Yorkers are wont to do, decided to jump the red light and cross against it, judging he had time to beat the speeding van or simply never seeing it in the first place. In any event, the outcome was clear. The only comfort one could take, if comfort it was, was the likelihood that the victim died instantly. You could guess this from the fact that two empty men’s shoes still lay in the crosswalk, 150 feet from where his body eventually ended up.

* * *

Now this incident from 15 to 20 years ago made a deep impression on me, as you can clearly tell. I have told it over and over to my children growing up, as a cautionary reminder that more pedestrians are killed in New York by cars than any other cause, and I have tried to remember its teachings myself as I negotiate the crowded streets of Manhattan in a state of constant hurry and distraction. But I mention it here now for two specific reasons. The first was the incident, reported on Twitter and the news earlier this morning, that Cambridge police had been alerted to a possible shooter carrying a gun and wearing body armor on the campus of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A good high school friend of my daughter goes there, so my wife and I spent an anxious half hour texting and calling her parents to warn them and offer help. Fortunately, the report turned out to be unfounded, and her parents had been fully informed throughout, but the incident reminded me of the helpless, anxious panic a parent can feel when their child is in deadly danger far away.

The second incident was when we found out later this morning that an acquaintance we know socially was recently killed by a runaway truck. A woman younger than me, with a husband and two children, struck down in an accident as horrifying as it is common. Two other deaths among people we know, within the past six months, have made this, in my son’s phrasing, a really terrible year. Yet they died from common (though unnatural) causes, too: nothing exotic, nothing unusual, just a fast, irrevocable snuffing out of lives which left little but sadness and horror in their wake.

* * *

Educated people are supposed to know that car accidents, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and bad eating habits are much more common killers than the rare and exotic deaths which terrify us. Your chances of dying in a mass school shooting, an airplane crash, or a shark attack are infinitesimal compared to the quotidian killers which stalk our daily lives. And yet people have been shown to massively overestimate the danger from rare threats and massively underestimate that from common. The people who point this out usually decry it as irrational, stupidity that causes us to make bad decisions which are suboptimal for our survival. Perhaps they are right.

Yet in two real senses this skewed perception of our own deaths is completely sensible, if not completely rational. The first is that the most common sources of unnatural death—like automobiles and fatty foods—are almost ineluctable elements of our daily lives. They are embedded in the woof and warp of society in such a way that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove them from your life entirely. So we soldier on, pretending not to notice they exist, pooh-poohing the likelihood of their occurrence with the common dodge that such things happen to other people, not to us. Until they do happen to us, or to people we know. When that happens, it is no comfort to realize that such things happen all the time, that the death of your friend or loved one—or your own impending demise—is just not that unusual, just not that special.

The second sense why we miscalculate the likely source of our own death is simply the undeniable fact that, as each of us experience it, our own death is unique. It is unitary and indivisible. It is the only one we have to offer. Statisticians can blather on all they like how an individual’s chance of dying ex ante from Source X is only 1 in 37 million. That does not mean that 1/37,000,000th of your, my, or anyone’s death is going to come from Source X. If Source X kills you, your ex post chance of dying from it is 1 in 1, or 100%. Saying that only 1 in 37 million dies from something does you absolutely no good when you are that one.

I think most people understand this, deep down, if only subconsciously. We all realize, with Falstaff, that we owe God a death. That our death, however inconceivable and unpleasant to contemplate, will happen. But I think most of us would prefer an easy, quick death. Perhaps even one unseen and unexpected, from a common cause just lying in wait right around the next corner. Not from some awful, exotic, harrowing oddity that will both terrify and mark us with strangeness as it kills us. I think I speak for most of us when I say we’d prefer a nice, quiet, homey death. One we are not unfamiliar with.

One we can greet, at the end of the day, almost as an old friend.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Table of Contents

Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950
Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950
And so to my third contention: we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing. I feel this market failure keenly each day when I recommend a fine piece of writing that deserves to be read for years to come and yet will have at most two days in the sun.

You never hear anybody say, “I’m not going to listen to that record because it was released last year,” or, “I’m not going to watch that film because it came out last month.” Why are we so much less interested in journalism that’s a month or a year old?


Online, that distinction disappears – or it should. You can call up a year-old piece as easily as you can call up a day-old piece. And yet we hardly ever do so, because we are so hardly ever prompted to do so. Which condemns tens if not hundreds of thousands of perfectly serviceable articles to sleep in writers’ and publishers’ archives, written off, never to be seen again.

— Robert Cottrell, Net wisdom

The art and practice of blogging lives in the moment. It is ephemeral, reactive, both responsive and contributory to what Frank Herbert, the author of that wise sociology and psychology manual Dune called the “ghafla distraction.”

It should be easy to mine the corpus of a blogger’s work for buried treasure. The tools are all here: hyperlinks, index labels,1 search boxes. Anything you want should be a mere mouse click or three away. Time, location, and dry rot play no role in the storage and retrieval of digital works archived in gleaming photons and electrons. But I know from personal experience that we do not do that. We view blogs as resolutely and ineluctably topical things, articles and ideas of the moment. They daily float down the river of information, entertainment, and distraction that races past our doorstep. We pick them up sometimes as they pass and turn them over in our hands, perhaps adding our own thoughts and reactions to the stream, but ultimately we toss them back in, almost never to revisit them again. I know: I have saved hundreds of articles and blog posts to read again in my browser’s favorites folder, but I almost never go back into that disorganized, daunting mess to pull up the one I dimly remember.

So I have decided to experiment here, creating a topical index or table of contents for posts which I feel are worth saving and rereading. It will be composed of posts that I think are worthwhile, not necessarily ones which have generated the most page views or reader reaction. And I will organize them by topic so a reader looking for posts on private equity, Goldman Sachs, or humor can find what I consider to be the most worthy neatly arranged in one clean, well-lighted place. I expect I will revise this post intermittently, and I will link to it from the home page from the masthead “About This Site.”

I encourage interested readers who wish to nominate posts or topics for inclusion here to email me their suggestions at epicureandealmaker [at] hushmail [dot] com. Visit early and often, and enjoy.

And if any of you benighted creatures ever doubted that I have a tendency toward prolixity, let this modest catalogue persuade you otherwise. Cheerio.

* * *

[Last revised, amended, or added to: September 30, 2014]

A. The History and Nature of the Industry

  1. Woe Is Me (March 1, 2007) – Why there is no such thing as “relationship banking” anymore
  2. Go West, Young Sheik (September 12, 2007) – Investment banks as networks
  3. The K-T Boundary (September 16, 2008) – Ancient and recent history
  4. It’s Not the Meat, It’s the Motion (July 15, 2009) – Boutique-land
  5. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Part I (September 24, 2009) – My magnum opus
  6. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Part II (September 25, 2009) – Opus, part 2
  7. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Part III (September 28, 2009) – Opus, part 3
  8. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Part IV (September 29, 2009) – Opus, conclusion
  9. A Client Is Not a Counterparty (November 27, 2010) – Market-making vs proprietary trading
  10. Pay Close Attention, Ladies and Gentlemen... (February 5, 2011) – Structured products as soda pop
  11. Twilight of the Übermenschen (May 1, 2011) – Investment banks as networks, redux
  12. Investment Banks of the Plain (August 14, 2011) – Why hedge fund managers make lousy owners of investment banks
  13. A Victim of Soycumstance (September 24, 2011) – The fundamental tension at the heart of investment banking
  14. Three’s a Crowd (March 19, 2012) – The problem with shareholders
B. The Vexed and Contentious Issue of Investment Banker Pay
  1. Eat the Bankers (January 9, 2008)
  2. Armageddon Rag (January 15, 2008)
  3. Armageddon Outta Here (January 16, 2008)
  4. The Pressure Room (January 16, 2008)
  5. Just When I Thought I Was Out (January 21, 2008)
  6. Penny for the Guy (February 26, 2008)
  7. Ring, Ring! It’s the Cluephone, for You (October 30, 2008)
  8. Five Pound Box of Money (February 9, 2009)
  9. Never Say Never (September 9, 2009)
  10. The Root of Some Evil (January 8, 2012)
  11. Defending the Indefensible (September 22, 2012)
C. Initial Public Offerings and Other Arcana
  1. Mine’s Bigger than Yours (April 14, 2007) – Why league tables matter
  2. Recipe for Success (October 19, 2007) – M&A is like book publishing
  3. True Story (December 7, 2007) – Are fairness opinions really necessary?
  4. Killing People Is a Bad Habit (August 28, 2009) – Engagement letters
  5. Come Fly With Me (February 12, 2011) – Business travel
  6. Eight Reasons Not to Hire an M&A Advisor. And One Reason to Do So (May 14, 2011)
  7. Jane, You Ignorant Slut (May 21, 2011)– IPOs
  8. Dan, You Pompous Ass (May 22, 2011) – More on IPOs
  9. Size Matters (March 21, 2012) – IPOs, redux
  10. As Long as the Right People Get Shot (May 30, 2012) – Even more—heaven help us—on IPOs
  11. Go Ask Alice (September 14, 2013) – You guessed it: IPOs. This time, Twitter’s
D. Career Management
  1. Life During Wartime (March 18, 2007) – Being a junior banker can suck
  2. Wherein I Go Mosquito Hunting with a Howitzer (October 12, 2009) – What makes investment banking so appealing?
  3. If the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know It’s Me (October 1, 2011) – Career advice
  4. In the Nation’s Service (December 29, 2011) – Banking ain’t so bad
  5. Can’t Buy Me Love (April 29, 2012) – Don’t get trapped by the money
  6. The Rules (November 29, 2012) – Live by these
  7. Curriculum Vitae (March 10, 2013) – What does an M&A or corporate finance banker’s career really look like?
  8. Go Ahead, Live a Little (May 12, 2013) – Are sabbaticals a good idea for investment bankers? (No)
  9. To Whom It May Concern (August 13, 2013) – Don’t underestimate the effect of luck on your career
  10. The Invention of Leisure (November 12, 2013) – Junior banker hours
  11. A Fine Disregard for the Rules (January 14, 2014) – More junior banker hours
  12. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (February 2, 2014) – Women and banker hours
  1. Fingernails that Shine Like Justice (May 21, 2007) – Where are all the women in finance?
  2. Thank You for Smoking (August 6, 2010) – What is it with men, anyway?
  3. She’s Got Legs (June 11, 2011) – Fashion advice
  4. Too Funky for Me (August 31, 2011) – The market for erotic capital
  5. Miss Lonely Hearts (November 26, 2011) – Office romance
  6. She’s Trading Her MG for a White Chrysler LeBaron (March 2, 2013) – Women continue to not make progress in banking
  7. I, Fembot (September 8, 2013) – Don’t be one
  8. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (February 2, 2014) – Women hate banker hours, too
  1. Cognitive Dissonance (January 25, 2007)
  2. The Beginning of the War Will be Secret (April 30, 2007)
  3. Tax Breaks for Everyone! (June 14, 2007) – Carried interest
  4. J’accuse (June 15, 2007)
  5. J’accuse, Part Deux (June 27, 2007)
  6. The Taxman Cometh (July 11, 2007)
  7. B(ogus Ta)X (July 13, 2007)
  8. You All Know Brutus and Cassius Are Honorable Men (June 4, 2011)
  9. All’s Fair... (January 15, 2012)
  10. The Rape of Persephone (January 29, 2012)
  11. Too Much Is Never Enough (October 2, 2012)
  12. It’s a Helluva Town (October 20, 2012)
  1. Not Far Now (May 11, 2007)
  2. Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition (May 24, 2007)
  3. Marks in the Sand (June 28, 2007) – Mark to market
  4. The Great Chain of Being (August 2, 2007) – Leverage and market contagion
  5. Grains of Sand (August 10, 2007) – Contagion, redux
  6. Why So Serious? (December 10, 2008) – Math blindness
  7. Fooled by Arrogance (February 26, 2009) – Just exactly how do you control trading risk in a bank?
  8. You Realithe, Of Courth, Thith Meanth War (May 3, 2009) – The Chrysler kerfuffle
  9. More of a Kickin’ Sitcheyation (May 11, 2009) – Chrysler, redux
  10. Shock and Awe (October 30, 2009) – An imagined conversation surrounding the AIG counterparty bailout
  11. Conventional Wisdom (January 20, 2010) – Keynes and the problem with liquidity
  12. All Together Now (January 22, 2012) – Information asymmetry and opaque finance
  13. A Good Offense (April 22, 2012) – Sometimes a hedge is just a hedge
  14. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (June 10, 2012) – Risk doctors, not risk managers
  15. A Photograph, Not a Circuit Diagram (January 6, 2013) – Banks accounting is helpfully opaque
A. Goldman Sachs
  1. Overheard at 85 Broad Street (June 18, 2008) – Reputation
  2. The Dirt Bag Chronicles (January 22, 2009) – Reputation, redux
  3. The Fish Stinks from the Head (June 30, 2009) – Culture
  4. The Mouth of Sauron (February 17, 2010) – Public relations
  5. Hypocrisy as a Business Model (March 15, 2012) – Culture, redux
B. Steve Schwarzman
  1. L’État, c’est moi (February 12, 2007) – The Party
  2. The Self-Made Man Club (March 19, 2007) – The Party, redux
  3. The $7 Billion Mouse ... er ... Man (June 13, 2007)
  4. Penny Wise (August 2, 2007)
  5. Does This Profile Make Me Look Fat? (February 7, 2008)
C. Others, Not Elsewhere Classified
  1. Taxonomy (January 14, 2007) – Carl Icahn
  2. Oxymoron (October 13, 2007) – Investment banking “management”
  3. To Catch a Thief (February 13, 2009) – Psychopaths
  4. Primus inter Pares (October 16, 2009) – RIP Bruce Wasserstein, the “Father of M&A”
  5. A Good Start (January 19, 2011) – Lawyers
  6. J.P. Morgan and the Marlboro Man (May 20, 2012) – Jamie Dimon
  7. Mr. Indispensable (May 16, 2013) – Fire Jamie Dimon
A. Aesthetics
  1. L.H.O.O.Q. (July 29, 2007)
  2. Bubble Land (May 13, 2008) – A semiotic analysis of Blackstone Group’s annual report
  3. We Get Mail! (December 18, 2010) – Reading advice
  4. Pixels Don’t Breathe (May 17, 2011) – Looking advice
  5. Kindle This (February 20, 2012) – Books and ereaders
  6. Breakfast in Fur (June 24, 2012)
  7. A Painting Is Not a Refrigerator (October 6, 2012)
  8. Venn Diagram (February 21, 2014) – Art and beauty as moral therapy?
B. Skepticism and Epistemology
  1. Sovereign Triviality (November 19, 2011)
  2. Chesterton’s Fence (March 5, 2012) – A useful intellectual talisman
  3. How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance? (March 30, 2013) – The limits of science
  4. Our Glassy Essence (October 17, 2013) – No, science has not killed philosophy
  5. A Foolish Consistency (February 5, 2014) – No, science cannot answer every important question
C. The Nature and Ethics of Chance
  1. Survey Course (February 23, 2008)
  2. Tumbling Dice (June 4, 2012) – The luck of author Michael Lewis
  3. To Whom It May Concern (August 13, 2013) – Don’t underestimate the effect of luck on your career
  4. Punished by Fate (October 5, 2013) – Ordinary intuition
A. Its Noble Purpose
  1. First, Let’s Shoot All the Philosophers (April 22, 2011)
  2. Sovereign Triviality (November 19, 2011)
  3. In the Nation’s Service (December 29, 2011)
  4. The Standard Model (February 18, 2012)
  5. No Country for Young Children (October 21, 2012)
B. Its Sordid Financing
  1. Et in Arcadia Ego (November 11, 2008)
  2. VA • NI • TAS (July 21, 2009)
  3. H is for Hedge Fund (July 22, 2009)
  1. A Modest Proposal (February 3, 2007) – A Swiftian take on CEOs
  2. T-Bone the Metaphor (September 10, 2008)
  3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Hubris (April 15, 2009) – Book proposals
  4. Cogito, Ergo Whom? (February 25, 2012) – Private equity gets philosophical
  1. Dance, Monkeys, Dance (March 24, 2007) – Blogging and the internet
  2. Not Safe for Work (April 25, 2008) – Cusswords
  3. Molon Labe (September 1, 2008) – Investment bankers as Spartans
  4. Poachers Turned Gamekeepers (March 16, 2010) – My solution to the regulatory crisis
  5. American Baby (May 1, 2010) – A little hopeful flag-waving
  6. It’s All How You Look at It (July 18, 2010) – The sources and uses of wisdom
  7. Occupy Galt’s Gulch (May 8, 2012) – Contra Ayn Rand and her acolytes
  8. Skin in Which Game? (February 10, 2013) – On pseudonymity
  9. In Praise of Jargon (April 28, 2013) – “Management speak” isn’t so bad
  10. Mirror, Mirror (September 26, 2013) – Twitter as rage machine
  11. Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall… (January 25, 2014) – Identity on the internet
  12. Mirror, Mirror Redux (January 26, 2014) – Pseudonymity and identity on the internet
  1. The Investment Banker in Winter (April 7, 2009)
  2. Fragments (February 26, 2010) – My writing habits
  3. Another Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (August 14, 2010) – Who I write like, supposedly
  4. Biting the Hand that Feeds Me (November 22, 2010)
  5. Do You Trust Me? (February 23, 2011)
  6. Sympathy for the Devil (February 27, 2011)
  7. Wherein Your Droll, Semi-Victorian Bloggist Jumps the Shark (January 8, 2013)

1 Yes, yes, I know. I have made it a point here to index most of my work with evocative rather than descriptive (or even helpful) labels for perverse reasons of my own. But I ask you: is it any easier or more conducive to search these pages or anywhere else with the term “investment banking” rather than “The Life”? Do you actually do so? I didn’t think so.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

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.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

What’s Next?

Sometimes the most interesting perspectives come from unexpected juxtapositions
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.

— Frank Herbert, Dune

I began this blog slightly more than six years ago, O Dearly Beloved, for a vague and inchoate set of reasons I have outlined elsewhere and will not trouble you again with here. Over that span I have published 428 posts, excluding this one, and penned but binned or shelved almost a hundred more. Altogether I have sacrificed tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of innocent words to the monstrous appetite of my towering need to be heard. The range of material I have addressed here has been broad, too. So broad, one might legitimately question whether there is indeed either rhyme or reason to my writings. I have written lengthy treatises on the history and evolution of my industry, impassioned defenses of investment banker pay, excoriating jeremiads against villians great and small, diffident explorations of the roots of the financial crisis, self-indulgent ruminations on education, art, and philosophy, and ephemera and trifles too numerous and gossamer to mention. I have even written a movie review.

In almost all of these instances, my writing has been in reaction to current events, the behavior of financial actors, or the punditry and journalism produced by myriad others covering finance and various cognate and non-cognate fields. More often than not I write to correct, adjust, or amplify the words of others. A few of these efforts have evolved into online conversations, but most of them remain simply my own commentary and opinions. This is consistent with my original intent to model these pages as my very own Letters to the Editor section, wherein I could publish my opinions on current affairs without the tiresome blockage or interference of editors and other less-than-sympathetic characters.

But while I have achieved some small measure of success in this way, I would be dishonest if I did not reveal that I have become increasingly disenchanted with this situation. Part of this may be due to the siphoning off of my day-to-day outrage and commentary into my Twitter stream, which I find more than adequate to puncture or correct most of the petty inaccuracies and foibles I encounter. Part of this, for sure, is due to fatigue. After six years and hundreds of thousands of words on various topics, I find it hard to say anything new and tiresome to beat back a bad argument or sloppy facts with the same reasoning I have elaborated many times before. While it is certain I have changed my mind on many topics and my opinions in many areas have evolved, when it comes to the bulk of what I have written, I remain satisfied that I have written—if not the last word—at least very close to my last word on the topic. But as I am sure you can imagine, simply linking to prior published posts in reaction to new events and new opinions would be both bad blogging practice and stultifyingly boring.

So I am considering what, if anything, to do next. I modestly think there is a lot of good, interesting, and informative material hidden in the bowels of these pages, much of which I wrote before more than 13 people and their dogs became regular readers. I flatter myself that this material, properly edited, might actually generate some interest among a broader audience. But the blog format is a lousy method to present it, especially to a novice reader, since blogsites create online files which look more like unordered lecture notes than coherent arguments. Should I try to compile some edited subset of these writings into a book? The idea is intriguing, but I am conscious of both the extensive effort that would require on my part—who, sadly, still needs to satisfy the demands of my day job—and the ever-dimming prospects of book reading and book publishing in general.

I have come to no conclusions yet, and this navel gazing of mine may come to a screeching halt with the first outrageous idiocy I encounter on the internet which absolutely demands a double-barreled TED takedown. But I thought it only fair to let you, Dear Readers, many of whom have followed me for years with little to show for your patience, know what I am thinking.

Blogs, like many things, have a natural lifespan. I am trying to determine whether the next stage for this one is the morgue or a chrysalis.

I will keep you informed.

Possibly related reading:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Hubris (April 15, 2009)

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.