Global Thoughts — 11 December 2013 (Including Musings about Passion and Success)

IMG_5735I wish the worst for whomever had the great idea of importing rainbow looms to America. I find myself picking up about 100 tiny rubber bands every evening after my kids have dropped them all over the apartment. I’m sure that housekeepers and parents everywhere wish to thank this person with all their hearts.

Jeremy was at the kids club at a resort playing Monopoly for the first time. He won the tournament; he had a house on his property and was taking rent. When they came around with ice cream and treats, he waved them by because he was so engrossed in the game and collecting his rents. We have a budding capitalist coming down the pike!

We bought Jeremy this 3D Lego architectural set that was 77 pieces that lets you build a model of the Empire State Building. I wasn’t excited about the prospect about having to put it together for him, and neither was Karen, and we were put off by the packaging that said it was for ages 10 and up (Jeremy is 6). But when I got home later that day Karen told me that Jeremy looked at the instructions and built it all by himself.

America’s deal with Iran reflects the reality that America is not going to war against Iran no matter what Iran does. A Reuters poll out last week says that Americans back Obama’s deal with Iran by a margin of 2:1 and that they oppose military action against Iran even if they don’t keep the deal — only 20% are in favor of using force. They are not naive — 63% polled said they believed Iran is trying to build the bomb. They just don’t want to be involved. The Israelis, the Saudis and Emiris will have to deal with Iran by themselves, push come to shove.

IMG_5650Here’s the deal with Obama’s health care plan. It is going to collapse for 2 reasons: 1. Only people who are really sick are going to go through the trouble of signing up for it. The healthy ones have only to pay a 1% penalty against their income if they don’t sign up for it. That’s so cheap that it is easy to avoid having to buy the insurance. They made these policies too full of things the average person doesn’t need so the prices for these policies are too expensive. 2. Insurers are not getting information about the people signing up for these programs. Insurers need data in order to set premiums. Without data they are going to raise premiums sky-high to make up for the information deficit. Go back to #1 and it is clear the whole thing will collapse in the marketplace. What I’m hearing from the inside is the same as we are reading in the papers — the White House was utterly incompetent — they were micromanaging the top level items and kept changing their minds, and at the same time they were totally ignorant of the details and in the end everything was just executed poorly.

A few random thoughts: I find it interesting that Tunisia Islamists voluntarily agreed to go into coalition government with technocrats to spare them the fate of Egypt’s public….Economist says there are only 60,000 Palestinians still alive from 1948 that would be eligible to go back to a house in Israel if there were right of return….

Now I’m reading that Israel will be self-sufficient in water for 20 years and is the world’s leader in recycling water. I just wonder if Israel is actually that good or if the editors of these magazines coming out of Israel have decided that all this good news about Israel is a good way to sell magazines to pro-Israel readers. It is certainly a different Israel than the one that was always under threat. Maybe people don’t want to read about that Israel nowadays…

I just watched the movie “The Gatekeepers” with first-ever on-screen interviews with the former heads of the Israeli domestic security service, the Shin Beth. It is essential viewing for understanding the history of the country and its intelligence services. It is a bit depressing because it is not hopeful about the future, but the takeaway message from all these former heads of intelligence seems to be that the Israelis need to try and arrange peace with the Palestinians instead of hoping to occupy them forever. It will be very hard to do so, but they must try, they say. It is not a matter of winning or losing; it is a matter of how do you want to live your life?

Jordan’s Abdullah has played it well. Figured Assad would last and wouldn’t open his borders. The Gulf states wanted more from him and is being tight with money but he wouldn’t sell out. The Syrians have planted all sorts of potential troublemakers in Jordan and it would just take one bomb in a big square to rattle the country. Lots of Sisi-lovers in Egypt nowadays worries my friend who saw what he thought were sophisticated lawyers at an international bar conference extolling his virtues as if he were a god.

His opinion about Dubai: Dubai has a 5-7% income tax on its expatriates through stealth — utility bills and inflated fees for everything. Poor health and hospitals in the emirates — doctors beyond the general practitioner level aren’t paid enough to leave their practices behind and work there.  Meanwhile, Dubai doesn’t have to offer top notch medical services. They are still the #1 game in the region; the other countries haven’t been able to match the excitement of the emirate, not even Abu Dhabi, Qatar or certainly Bahrain these days. Used to be maybe 20 nationalities in Dubai, now there are 200. When you see a flight attendant working for Qatar, you just know they’d rather be working for Emirates.

I read “No god but God”, a book about Islam by Reza Aslan that one of my friends recommended. One interesting thing that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common is how much the clerics of later centuries mutated the religion from the basic principles espoused by the founders. It seems that the clerics created tons of rules and principles in God’s name mainly to ensconce their power over society and to further their ideological convictions. I don’t know that Jesus would approve of the Church, that Mohammad would approve of a lot of what passes for Islam today, or that Moses would recognize the Talmud which contains over 60 volumes and later commentaries that have interpreted as the “Oral Law”, the roughly 6,000 sentences that comprise the Five Books of Moses.

On zip line in Puerto Rico

On zip line in Puerto Rico

I read another book this month (been reading a lot this month!) called Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. My wife bought it for me as a present and I recommend it to you. The book tries to figure out why the most successful people got that way. The book says it was no accident and it would be too pat to say this was because they were the brightest people around who worked very hard. There are reasons why more Korean pilots crash airplanes, why professional hockey players tend to have birthdays in early months of the year, why the founders of the most successful tech companies all were born within the same few years of each other and why so many of the world’s richest people were all born in roughly the same generation. You might decide that shortening summer vacations is the shortest route to raising academic performance in the US. And that Nobel prize winners don’t come disproportionately from Ivy League schools. And that practicing anything 10,000 hours is a greater predicate of success than anything else — you might find someone who spent 10,000 hours doing something and didn’t succeed, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who succeeded who didn’t first spend 10,000 hours practicing, such as the Beatles, Bill Gates, or Mozart. And you’d find that people such as Bill Gates had exceptional privileges and luck that other people didn’t, which helped explain why they had a chance to become so successful.

On the matter of Success — I’ve been thinking for years about a question — what role does Passion play in Success? If you don’t like doing something, you tend not to be good at it, so people probably shouldn’t try to take on professions doing things they don’t like doing. On the other hand, people would tell you that investing money in other people’s passions usually makes for a bad investment. It’s the boring people who plod along and work hard who tend to do well and who bankers know from experience are good investment targets. Recently I read an article by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, in the Wall Street Journal discussing this very point, and he opines that passion is overrated as a prerequisite to success. His experience is that when you see that you can do well at something, you develop a passion for doing it even better. One person I spoke to said she felt in her gut growing up that she had a knack for doing something (touching, healing and using nature to maintain health) and it led her to her profession which was an extension of that something (acupuncture and massage).  But there is a missing element to this train of logic. I think that based on my experience it really matters if you have a good mentor. If somebody trains you well, they can excite you about something you are doing and help you realize that you could invest your psychic energy into developing a passion around that activity. Nobody ever develops a passion for doing something they don’t do well, but there are just certain things where having a good trainer makes a difference. As a young lawyer, I felt that I had poor mentors and I wound up not staying in the profession. I’ve tried to learn how to do various things that don’t come naturally to me and I can tell you that it makes all the difference in the world when someone who teaches it well is teaching you and when there is a good match of student to teacher. A good teacher can give you the confidence that you can do it well; a poor teacher will just wind up being frustrated after going over something with you over and over again and you just never seem to get the hang of it. But once you see some measure of success, then you are encouraged to keep moving forward with it. So I think that “finding your passion” requires two things: (1) you have to find something that you think you can learn to do well; and (2) unless you have a “knack” for something that tells you to go in a certain direction, you have to be prepared to try different things with different mentors and see if something sticks.  You might very well spend a long time finding the right match of student to mentor until you get it right. There is a saying in the Jewish mishnaic texts known as “Ethics of the Fathers”: “Get Yourself a Teacher / Rabbi”. Beyond the ethnical connotation, it just might be very good life advice.

A thought about the nation’s gridlock in Washington. One area of the country that has had real breakthroughs is California. A number of years ago they made some real reforms. Instead of gerrymandering districts as they do in Washington, they have a bipartisan commission draw up the districts from which legislators are elected. This has had the effect of getting more moderate people elected, instead of candidates from the most extreme wings of the political parties.  Another reform is that instead of winner taking all, there is some degree of proportional representation based on the percentage of the vote. In Washington, it would probably help if they had electoral reform in this country. California went from being a completely deadlocked state that was virtually bankrupt to the closest things we have in the US to a model legislature and now runs a budget surplus. In addition, California is dealing with issues that the national legislature fails to deal with so that people in that state can achieve solutions to real problems. The recent step in the Senate for minimizing the role that fillibusters and naysaying individuals play in holding up legislation or political appointments is a good step in the right direction.

Two interesting statistics I came across in the World in 2014 published by the Economist. The top 50 wealthiest people in China’s legislature are worth $95 billion. The wealth of the top 50 wealthy people in the US Congress equals $1.6 billion. Talk about corruption — wow. The other statistic is that the average US citizen has saved up for retirement a grand total of $12,000 and only 40% of Americans have any kind of retirement plan.

We went to Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving weekend and found out that it very much matters where you stay. Our resort was on the edge of a tropical rain forest and it kept on raining all weekend, even when the sun was out. The beach had red flags out for 3 weeks straight (meaning you’re not supposed to swim there). So we just went about in the pouring rain in the ocean, the pool and the jacuzzi and the best I can say is that in Puerto Rico you can be drenched without a T-shirt and still not get cold. We went zip-lining in the rainforest with the kids. They have a course you can go on with kids as young as 6; my kids are fearless and I went with them. We had a great time zipping around from 3 story high towers, being attached to them with cables. Karen was the photographer, in case you wondered.

We’re off to Florida next week for Miami and Orlando over Christmas and New Years. Hope you have a nice winter holiday. 2013 was a great year for me; hope it was for you and that 2014 is even better!

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