Archive for the the virtues of silence Category

Dealing with an aging parent has no end of frustrations.  Yet with those frustrations come some unexpected positive consequences.

For me, many of these unexpected benefits have been “lessons about time management” and “lessons about learning how to say no.”  Even though those lessons do not always help with the “dealing with Mom” part of life, they have and will be valuable in the other parts of my life.  I.e., “work.”

Here’s an example that fits both categories.  My mother has always been a bit of a nag.  With her decline in memory, however, she has become the epitome of the impossible-to-satisfy micromanager.  Not only does she nag, but she constantly interrupts.  There are many days that, once she rises, I can count on not having an uninterrupted 15 minutes until she goes to bed.

But the purpose of today’s post is not to whine about my frustrations.  I do that too much as it is, and the reality of her aging is that no amount of ranting or whining or yelling about unfairness is going to change things. That’s what the first part of the Serenity Prayer is all about.

No, this post is about a positive that has come out of that frustration.  I’ve learned, in a deep way that I probably should have realized long ago, something about why deadlines work.   I’ve learned that a major component of my deciding to take a project on is whether the client or “boss” imposes a deadline.

I’ve realized that I can handle deadlines.  Even ones that are somewhat earlier than I’d prefer.  But what I can’t handle is the combination of “when you can” and “now”.

Give me your deadline.  If I think it impossible, if I can’t make it, I’ll tell you.  If ex ante I underestimate the effort a project will take, I’ll burn as much of my midnight oil as I can to get it done anyway.  And the necessities of trying to balance care-giving with all the other stuff have actually made me much better at that ex ante estimation, and much better at saying no when that estimate says the deadline is impossible to meet.

You’re much more likely to be screwed, though, if you don’t give me a deadline.  Because I’ve got too much going on — and, knowing me, I’m always going to have too much going on — that your wants are going to get shunted aside.  Over and over.

And that’s going to happen no matter how much you nag me.   All the nagging does is get everyone’s blood pressure up.  Yours goes up, because I’m not helping you.  And mine goes up, because-I’m-really-busy-and-everything-takes-four-times-as-long-when-I’m-constantly-being-interrupted.

Yes, I know.  What took me so long to figure this out?  Well, when you find as many things interesting as I do, it’s really, really hard to say no.    I’ve always been juggling a lot of balls.  If truth be told, I *like*juggling — in a way that’s what interdisciplinarity, true interdisciplinarity of the sort of been working at for my entire adult life, is about.  Juggling.

And, unlike most people my age, I’ve never had the kind of 24-7 relationship with a dependent before.  I’ve never come close to the parenting thing.

But now the juggling is constrained.  Now asking me to do something interesting isn’t enough to get my effort.  No matter how good my intentions are.

So now, when a client or colleague comes to me with a new project, no matter how exciting that project sounds, I ask another question:  When do you need it by?

And I insist on a mutually satisfactory answer, one that does two things:

1.  It’s a deadline I’m sure I can meet.

And:

2.  It says you’re not going to bug me unless and until that deadline is about to pass with the project unfinished.

Otherwise, my answer to the project will be no.

Give me a deadline.  Then stand aside.  Or expect disappointment

I can’t tell my mother to go away.  But, and this is another lesson I’ve learned in these months of increasing interruptions, you’d be surprised how many non-Moms can be told to go away.

Give me a deadline.  Then stand aside.

Or go away.

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Every adult should be able to set their own breakfast routine.

It’s often said that the most important meal of the day is breakfast.  That among the things screwed up with American’s approach to health is their approach to breakfast — hurried, a cup of coffee and toast on the go, or skipped altogether.

But the real problem with many people’s breakfast has little to do with their food choice.  It’s the lack of control over the routine itself.

Part of the routine is what you eat.  Of course.   And so it’s relevant.  But equally, or more important, is the approach to the time itself.  Is it leisurely, or hurried.  A time of quiet contemplation, or filled with chatter and household problems being brought up?  Is it used for “breakfast meetings” over croissants in the conference room?   With cheap coffee with the guys at a diner?  Reading the newspaper or watching the morning show on the little kitchen television?  A stop at the McDonald’s drive at the beginning of a commute?

The importance of breakfast routine — and what happens when that routine is out of an individual’s control — has been driven home to me, since I went on leave from the day job and as I’ve been learning to cope with the mental effects of my mother’s aging.  A leave is often considered to be a time of rest and relaxation, of recharging batteries, an extended respite from the demands of the work day.  And don’t get me wrong, I’ve found time for some of that in the 20 months since I left the day job.  But in one respect, my quality of life has seriously worsened.

You see, my mother is, how do I put this nicely, a chatterer.  From the time she wakes in the morning, to the time she goes to bed at night, she never meets a silence she doesn’t think needs filling.  She likes gossip.  She likes small talk.  And as her short-term memory has declined, she  is always asking questions about where something is, about what I want to eat, about whether I want this, that, or the other thing.  She’s never been much for listening, but even when she does listen to the reply, she won’t remember it 24 or 12 hours later, and so I get the same questions every day.

This makes for no little frustration, but I’ve gradually come to terms with it and have developed  ways of constructively tuning out some of the chatter.  Ways of dealing with the small talk.  Ways of ignoring, without seeming to be ignoring, the gossip.

With one exception:  the breakfast table.  Because my mother’s morning chatter is exactly the opposite of my ideal breakfast routine.  My ideal breakfast is one of slowing turning the mental engine on, thinking about the day ahead over the same food every day (currently: one egg, two pieces of bacon, cottage cheese with lots of black pepper, and ice water), and eventually wandering off to start work.  Chatter is a serious interruption, and constant repetition of having to answer the same questions every day (“Do you want toast?” (no), “How many eggs?” (one), “Have a cookie” (no thanks), and so on.)

The point is not that my mother is crazy.  She isn’t.  Nor is it that my routine is the sanest one.  By no means am I saying that “slow mental preparation for the day” is the approach others should take.

The point is that my preferred breakfast routine and my mother’s preferred breakfast routine are unavoidably in conflict.  Short of rising at 4:30 and doing my own breakfast before she rises (and I’m not *that* much of a morning person), I’m stuck with the conflict.  Because its not something I’m going to get her to change.   And while my ideal breakfast routine isn’t set in stone (two of the most productive periods in my life saw me going out for a sit-down breakfast every day), I’m pretty darn sure I’m never going to be particularly interested in small talk and answering the same inane questions every day.

Alas, things getting better will have to wait for my return to full-time teaching in August, when I can plead the exigencies of the job for not lingering at the breakfast table (and perhaps try that eating breakfast out option again).   C’est la vie.  As Master Ju my tae kwon do teacher, used to say (among the biggest costs of my going away to graduate school was that I quit tae kwon do and lost contact with a very wise man), “What cannot be cured, must be endured.”  (Actually he apparently still says it, just not to me; for among the biggest costs of my going away to graduate school was that I quit tae kwon do and lost contact with this very wise man.)

But my person bitching aside, it raises an important point for anyone who is tempted to control another’s breakfast routine.

Don’t.

Parents will, of course, continue to decide the routine for children in most households, and that is fine.  But, for adults, this is one place where the individual must be left to find his or her own way.

Because few things can have as big negative effects as interference with the breakfast routine.  Effects on the mental health of the individual concerned:  Even though I am a morning person, it generally takes me close to an hour after breakfast to get myself mentally settled.  And social effects through declining productivity and civility:  lacking that equanimity, it may be an hour before I’m concentrating, focusing, and getting anything done.  And it may be even longer before I’m going to be particularly pleasant to be around.

So if you’re tempted to interrupt your spouse’s, your friend’s, your employee’s, your co-worker’s breakfast routine, whether that interruption is for a trivial matter or for one of over-whelming importance to the future of world civilization, my advice is simple.

Don’t.

And if you are tempted to change a person by changing how they do breakfast, be warned.  It isn’t likely to make things better, for them, or for you.  And so my advice is the same.

Don’t.

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Warning #1:  This blog entry is likely to be quite long.  Decent stories about the economy are rarely short, and the same is true of explanations of economic method.  And this entry strives to be both.

Warning #2:  In my last blog entry, I promised a way to test my claims about the silliness of attempted business cycle forecasting.  But before I get to that main point, let me first respond to David’s two requests for empirical evidence.

1.  Evidence that Mellon/Hoover/FDR had anything to do with the contractionary monetary policy that caused the Great Depression.  I’ll defer to David’s greater knowledge of the subject, and if you say Mellon/Hoover/FDR weren’t involved in the monetary policy decisions of the 20s and 30s I’ll go along with that.  I’m not an expert on the Depression.

But I am convinced the Depression was the result of contraction of the money supply, and that the “guvmint” was involved in the policy choices that exacerbated that contraction.  My point after all was not to decide which policymakers/intervenors (President, Congress, Cabinet, Fed, whoever) deserve particular blame.  My point was to point out that policymakers/intervenors invariably can’t do what they promise to be able to do.

And, secondarily, that if you want to look at the quintessential threat to the long-term growth trend (i.e., the Great Depression), then you see the quintessential period of (misplaced) public conviction in the value of intervention, and the quintessential period of policy makers making things worse.

2. Evidence of recent growth rates of real per capita US income.  Below are two graphs which with a little careful elaboration, I think provide at least hints of the “steepening”.

(The first was made using the data of Angus Maddison and the OECD (Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992, 2005. The second used data on USA GDP from the the Bureau of Economic Analysis website  (http://bea.gov).)

I think part of the problem here is that I tend to have a very long term view of things, and for me “recent” means different things than it means for others.  If I want to look at the health of the US economy, I look at 100 years or 200 years.  Hence the first graph, where the change in trend after World War II looks pretty clear.  The USA, along with Canada and Australia, provide the data for the purple “Western Offshoots” curve, which shows a fairly big steepening of the curve.   (The Maddison book is buried in my garage somewhere with all the other books I had to move out of my office when I went on leave, so I can’t give separate numbers for the USA in this one).

Maddison (2005) data on world GDP
Of course, when one looks at that trend, there is no change visible in that slope (hence the black trend line that fits the entire curve well).    However, if one looks closer at what is being plotted, it is not “real GDP per capita” but merely “real GDP”.  In short, it doesn’t account for the fall in population growth over the same period.

gdp1945-2007

Little bit of math trivia here:  The “rate of GDP growth per capita” is equal to the “rate of GDP growth” less the “rate of population growth”.

And so, since the graph shows GDP growing at a relatively constant rate and the rate of population growth is falling, this means that the rate of GDP growth per capita is actually bigger now than it used to be.

Now, my guess is that David or someone else will point out here just how fragile my quantitative analysis is here.  And they’d be right.  I can think of half a dozen points I would make myself, were I so inclined.

But, it seems to me, that just makes my main point from “Why I hate business cycle talk, part one” all the stronger.  Because empirical evidence about business cycles, and how we go about  predicting their future, is even worse.  The stories I want to tell about the long term trend is like my predicting I’m going to be cussing about my snow shovelling more than once between now and next April.  The stories people tell about business cycles are the equivalent of predicting that I’m going to be cussing on January 14th.  At 8:43 a.m.   Because the snow plow went by at 8:25.  And dumped the residue of a 5.8″ snowfall between 9:02 on the 13th and 2:48 on the 14th.

Which brings me to my promised “test”.  Well, here it is, a fairly easy test to illustrate the empirical difficulties that those who would predict and manipulate business cycles are up against:

[Warning  #3:  What follows is an Economics 101-level "simulation." It is, I think, straightforward, but unlike listening to the pontifications a TV news wonk, it isn't quick.  It will take you a bit of time to work your way through the details. Economics is like that.]

Step AStart by choosing a 6-18 month period from some time in the past.  Either near past or distant past, though the farther back you go the more difficulty you will have finding data.  I would recommend staying sometime in the last 25 years or so.

Step BFigure out what your favorite news source or politician was saying about the economy during that period.   Not what they are saying now about back then, but what they actually said back then. (This is another reason to stay reasonably close to the present day; by Googling your expert and a bit of judicious link-following, the archives of the web are a lot quicker to access than wandering library shelves and staring into a microfilm reader.)

What you need to do is find and distinguish are two kinds of claims:

(i) Claims about how the economy is doing at the time the claim is made.  Statements that the economy is in recession or on a downturn or inflating or whatever.  The key here is that the claim is about the claimant’s present.  It isn’t a claim about what happened three months before, or a claim about what will happen in the future.

(ii) Claims about how the economy will do.  These are claims about the unemployment or inflation or recession that are going to happen.  These claims are sometimes unconditional: e.g., “It’s inevitable.  We’re headed straight for another Depression.”  More often they are contingent upon a particular policy choice being made or not made:  “If we don’t do X, we’re going to see massive layoffs across the economy.”

For purposes of this test, we’re only concerned with type (i) and unconditional type (ii) claims.  The kinds of claims that cannot be washed away with a “well I would have been correct if you had just followed my advice.”

You also want claims that concern the path of measurable economic variables.  For example, a claim about “unemployment” might be thought of as “measured” by the unemployment rate or by total plant closings in the the nation.  Inflation might be measured by the Consumer Price Index.  Income might be measured by gross domestic product (GDP), national income, personal income.  And so on.

Step CFind some data on a “national aggregate”.  Something that people cite as evidence of how an economy is doing.  One of the variables listed in the last paragraph, for example.  You want something for which you can find at least quarterly data.  Monthly is better, and weekly better still, but progressively more difficult to find.  A good place to start is where I started when I started thinking about an answer to David’s question — the Bureau of Economic Analysis website at http://bea.gov.

Step DPut the data into your favorite spreadsheet.   Generate an X-Y line graph with dates on the horizontal axis and the aggregate on the vertical.  Make sure the dots are connected so you can see when the upturns and downturns occur.

(Aside:  You can get by with linear scaling (any spreadsheet’s default) as long as the claims you are looking at are ones about the direction of movement (“upturn”, “downturn”).  However, if they’re about the speed of change (“slowing”; “accelerating”), and more often than not they are, then you need to check the chart/graph options and choose log scaling or you’ll run into the same kind of problem I ran into with graph 1 above.)

Step ENow see how accurate your prognosticator got it.

How close were they in their estimates of what was happening (type (i) claims)?  Did they have their current numbers right, or were they wrong about where the economy was at the time they were talking?  Were they off by 1 percent or 10 percent or 50 percent?

How good were they at predicting the future (type (ii) claims)?  Did they get the direction of change right?  The magnitudes?  The speed and timing of change?   How much were they off?

I think you’ll be depressed about the results.  Because even if prognosticators are close with regard to magnitude, they’ll be off in the timing or direction.  Or both.  Or all three.

And if you do the exercise more than once, you’ll find that they aren’t even consistent in their errors.  One time they’ll be close on the magnitude, but be months or years off in the timing.  The next, they’ll have the timing better, but they’ll be way off on the size of the change.

There’s a reason Warren Buffett very rarely gets trapped into thinking about the short run.  That his investment advice — and his own investment practices — have focused on the long term.  He knows his limitations.

And compared to predicting short run fluctuations in the macroeconomy, predicting short run fluctuation of individual investments is a piece of cake.

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Back in law school we discussed when silence might be interpreted under the law as agreement.   I don’t remember much about the details. I can’t even remember if it was in contracts class or evidence class, to tell the truth.

And I don’t remember the specific rule(s).  It’s been well over two decades now since I’ve had an active license to practice law, and the world has been a far better place for it.  I only remember that there are situations where the law will make an inference from silence.

But many things, while they may be necessary, even a good idea, as a matter of law, are not wise as a matter of daily personal judgment.

I was reminded of this when I was reading a bit from Brennan Manning‘s The Importance of Being Foolish earlier this morning.  Manning, a recovering alcoholic and former Catholic priest who too many people have never heard of, may be the most important Christian writer alive today.  To my mind, his Ragamuffin Gospel, and its “A Word Before” preface, should be required reading for all, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Anyway, I was reading Importance of Being Foolish.  Manning was reminding me, again, of how God’s gifts are pure generosity, not a gift to those who are most worthy but to those who are presumptively unworthy.  He was quoting Jesus’s response to those who were criticizing Him for eating with tax collectors and other unworthies:  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

And for some reason, it got me thinking of silence and how we interpret it:

“Well, if he didn’t agree, he would have said something.”

“No one ought to remain silent on an issue such as this.”

“Her silence convicts her.”

“Those who remain silent deserve what they get.”

And so on.  Any silence needs to be filled, and often what it gets filled with is our judgment.  Like the Pharisees at Levi’s house, we feel compelled to judge and interpret the meaning of each other’s silence.  Filled with our own sense of righteousness, we forget that the particulars of silence can be rather complicated indeed.

That his silence may not evidence agreement so much as reflect his belief that you are so profoundly wrong in so many ways that he simply doesn’t have the time to go into all the details.  That I may be silent on an issue because it is so important that expressing a half-thought-out opinion (like yours, perhaps) is even worse than remaining silent.  That she is silent because, unlike you, she knows we are all convictable.  That those who are silent recognize, unlike we who whose judgmentalism takes more talkative forms, that none of us truly deserve a lot of grace.

That we are all, to use Manning’s term, ragamuffins.

Silence may be evidence of a contract.  It may even be criminal, worthy of utter condemnation.  (The silence of many during the Holocaust comes to mind, in this regard.)

Yet silence may be many, many other things as well.

Things which deserve neither our judgment, nor even our opinion.

Things which demand of us less judgment.

And more silence.

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