Monday, November 30, 2009

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

To most of us, honesty often means cruelty. But actually honesty and compassion are the ones in sync. - A.J. Jacobs

The cut-to-the-chase way to live

Not long ago I was sitting in my car listening to casette tapes. No, not of music, of a high level meeting. After about an hour the cabin light of the vehicle flickered and I thought, Uh-oh, battery is going flat. Sure enough, when I tried to start the car it wouldn't start.

I phoned a friend to bring along his vehicle so we could connect the batteries with my jumper leads and have his car charge mine. He arrived after 9pm, a long work day for him. Here's the funny thing. When he arrived in quite a slick sportscar he didn't know how to open the engine compartment. He'd never done it before. We spent 5 minutes looking in the car, then resorted to reading a booklet to find out where it was. We did find it, the trick was that the door had to be open in order to release it. But the point of this anecdote is to demonstrate how chronically out of touch we are, and how dependent we are in our ignorance of machines that run on fossil fuels for almost everything we do. And the irony is this friend of mine and I often have debates about the impact of energy on the economy. But he doesn't even know how to open the hood of his car? Yes, we can comfortably intellectualise about this sort of thing - but reality is what it is whether you can find the handle or not.

Radical Honesty

As such some people have come up with an antidote to fooling ourselves [aka lying to ourselves]. It's called Radical Honesty:

I will say this: One of the best parts of Radical Honesty is that I'm saving a whole lot of time. It's a cut-to-the-chase way to live. At work, I've been waiting for my boss to reply to a memo for ten days. So I write him: "I'm annoyed that you didn't respond to our memo earlier. But at the same time, I'm relieved, because then if we don't nail one of the things you want, we can blame any delays on your lack of response."

Pressing send makes me nervous -- but the e-mail works. My boss responds: "I will endeavor to respond by tomorrow. Been gone from N.Y. for two weeks." It is borderline apologetic. I can push my power with my boss further than I thought.

Later, a friend of a friend wants to meet for a meal. I tell him I don't like leaving my house. "I agree to meet some people for lunch because I fear hurting their feelings if I don't. And in this terrifying age where everyone has a blog, I don't want to offend people, because then they'd write on their blogs what an asshole I am, and it would turn up in every Google search for the rest of my life."

He writes back: "Normally, I don't really like meeting editors anyway. Makes me ill to think about it, because I'm afraid of coming off like the idiot that, deep down, I suspect I am."

That's one thing I've noticed: When I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves. I feel my resentment fade away. I like this guy. We have a good meeting.

In fact, all my relationships can take a whole lot more truth than I expected. Consider this one: For years, I've had a chronic problem where I refer to my wife, Julie, by my sister's name, Beryl. I always catch myself midway through and pretend it didn't happen. I've never confessed to Julie. Why should I? It either means that I'm sexually attracted to my sister, which is not good. Or that I think of my wife as my sister, also not good.

But today, in the kitchen, when I have my standard mental sister-wife mix-up, I decide to tell Julie about it.

"That's strange," she says.

We talk about it. I feel unburdened, closer to my wife now that we share this quirky, slightly disturbing knowledge. I realize that by keeping it secret, I had given it way too much weight. I hope she feels the same way.

I call up Blanton one last time, to get his honest opinion about how I've done.

"I'm finishing my experiment," I say.

"You going to start lying again?" he asks.

"Hell yeah."

"Oh, shit. It didn't work."

"But I'm going to lie less than I did before."

I tell him about my confession to Julie that I sometimes want to call her Beryl. "No big deal," says Blanton. "People in other cultures have sex with their sisters all the time."

I bring up the episode about telling the editor from Rachael Ray's magazine that I tried to look down her shirt, but he sounds disappointed. "Did you tell your wife?" he asks. "That's the good part."

Finally, I describe to him how I told Julie that I didn't care to hear the end of her story about fixing her computer. Blanton asks how she responded.

"She said, 'Fuck you.' "

"That's good!" Blanton says. "I like that. That's communicating."

Read more:

Every nibble now feels like a chunk of flesh ripped out

But are the financial markets communicating? Are they representing reality?

Recently there's been the default from Dubai to the tune of $80 billion. Lloyds bank crashed over 30% on the news. The NYSE invoked Rule 48 to prevent the markets from shedding too much. So what happened? Stocks were skewered [as much as Rule 48 would permit] and then as holiday fever took hold, recovered. You may think that $100 billion isn't a lot of money, but after the fat has been trimmed off banks, these billion dollar cuts cut deep, to the bone. I believe we will still see the markets run out of hot air on this news. Monday. Oil prices have already sunk $2-3 on this news.

Why should markets be effected? Because tens of billions of dollars is no longer a drop in the financial ocean any more. With credit markets wiped out, every nibble now feels like a chunk of flesh ripped out of what remains of the world's financial spine, its central nervous system. As far as I know RBS had huge exposure to Dubai. Great news is RBS is owned by the UK taxpayer. Problem solved!

Look, each time you get $20 billion owing here and there it starts to cut to the bone, because a lot, almost all the fat has been wiped off the system.

I do understand markets. And I was broadly correct - the markets dropped then 'recovered' on the news that things weren't so bad. Abu Dabi is supposed to come to the party and bail out Dubai. That's what's rescuing the market right now. Well, the idea of it being possible.

My prediction

Don't know if you remember but I once referenced an article by Mark Mobius who was crooning over the developments in Dubai. Mobius said then that the developing world and emerging markets would 'save' the world economy. I said that building skyscrapers in the desert, Las Vegas style, is the most wasteful investment imaginable. By the way the biggest defaults in the USA are in Nevada - in the deserts states, places like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Ever ask why? Because it's really expensive. Because now those energy costs really matter.
Anyway - the US wasn't down much because everyone was on holiday, you know, like a long weekend. Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holiday weekends in the USA.

I'm going to say the same thing to you as I said to you when subprime emerged. It's going to have a serious impact. It will have an impact on commercial real estate everywhere else. Dubai may not seem like a big deal but it will be. Maybe they've understated their debts. Maybe they'll only be out of pocket for $40 or $50 billion. Imagine if the oil price falls further and their Arab brothers say, Sorry, we can't help you, then oil prices fall further, then they are even more out of pocket. Because that region needed high oil prices to finance some of those expansions. Either way shit happens. If oil prices increase inflation around the world increases and consumers foreclose go bankrupt etc. If it drops, supply decreases even more, and you have these 'emerging' projects going down.

Hidden Resentments

Why is all of this happening? Because there are hidden resentments in the world economy that we'd rather not deal with. Radical Honesty again:

In his book, Radical Honesty, Blanton advises us to start sentences with the words "I resent you for" or "I appreciate you for." So I write him back.

"I resent you for being so different in these e-mails than you were when we met. You were friendly and engaging and encouraging when we met. Now you seem to have turned judgmental and tough. I resent you for giving me the advice to break that old man's heart by telling him that his poems suck."

Blanton responds quickly. First, he doesn't like that I expressed my resentment by e-mail. I should have come to see him. "What you don't seem to get yet, A.J., is that the reason for expressing resentment directly and in person is so that you can experience in your body the sensations that occur when you express the resentment, while at the same time being in the presence of the person you resent, and so you can stay with them until the sensations arise and recede and then get back to neutral -- which is what forgiveness is."

Second, he tells me that telling the old man the truth would be compassionate, showing the "authentic caring underneath your usual intellectual bullshit and overvaluing of your critical judgment. Your lie is not useful to him. In fact, it is simply avoiding your responsibility as one human being to another. That's okay. It happens all the time. It is not a mortal sin. But don't bullshit yourself about it being kind."

He ends with this: "I don't want to spend a lot of time explaining things to you for your cute little project of playing with telling the truth if you don't have the balls to try it."

The solution is urban arrangements that are the exact opposite to skyscrapers in a desert

The problem is that there have been no new investments that make sense. China is doing a few good things with electric cars etc, but they're also building more coal powered plants. The net effect isn't positive. The answer, is fewer cars, more walkable communities, urban arrangements that are the exact opposite to skyscrapers in a desert. Rail and farming. No one is doing that on a scale that matters. No bailout money went into that. Nothing has changed fundamentally.

Falling energy prices spells bad news for Iran, which needs oil to be above $90 to break even on its investments. Iran is hurting.

Energy - being less abundant and more expensive - is and always will be the root cause why we can't move forward the way we're used to moving forward. Less energy = less money. For everyone.

But here's a tip. If you find that nothing is moving forward, you still can. Physically. Move your body, exercise. It is the least you can do. It is the most you can do. We need each and every healthy and sane human being right now.

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