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Sunday, June 28, 2020

My Non-Racist Friend

You guys should really meet my friend Bob.  I've changed his name for this piece, along with the names of all the other specifics, but Bob is a real person.  I've known Bob for quite a while and lots of people, especially his liberal, college-educated friends, really like Bob. 

Bob is a white man.  He grew up in a white neighborhood and went to all white schools.  Not only did Bob attend a prestigious, mostly white university, he also graduated near or at the top of his prestigious, mostly white law school class, so he knows better than anyone about social justice and discrimination. 

Bob prides himself on being as liberal, as non-racist, as a white man could be. Bob can't understand why more white people aren't as tolerant as he is.  Bob wishes more people could be like Bob.  In fact, Bob wishes everyone could be Bob.

Bob always lets us know how non-racist he is.  You can tell by the way he greets every black security guard in any given office building by asking the guard about the chances of  the Chicago Bulls "going all the way" this year.  Somehow, Bob just knows that every black man is born knowing everything there is to know about the National Basketball Association.  Bob knows this, because Bob is a true friend of black people.  Bob knows how to talk to black people and is quick to point this out to anyone who will listen.  He's much better at this sort of thing than you are, because, well, you're not Bob.

Bob will tell you all about his friendship with black people.  He practically has them all catalogued by age, gender and socio-economic status, just in case anyone challenges his acceptance of black people into his life.  One merely has to ask him, and Bob proudly reads off his roster of non-white pals, displaying them like merit badges at a Boy Scout convention.

Bob takes special pride in explaining that "DWB" stands for "driving while black," probably because he's the only white man to whom black people have entrusted this closely guarded secret.

Yes, Bob is that special.

Bob is friends with all his neighbors, none of whom happen to be black. That's not Bob's fault, though.  That's due to America's centuries of systemic racism.  Oddly, Bob never thought about moving into a black neighborhood, which is too bad, because, you know, everyone there can tell you about "the chances of the Chicago Bulls going all the way."

Bob is also a friend to the Native Americans, although there really aren't any living nearby.  He did, however, see Dancing With Wolves a few times, enough to convince him of the injustices suffered by wise chiefs and pretty Hollywood squaws.  I'm fairly sure he isn't too familiar with the torture practices the Apaches used to terrorize and murder people of any color, the ferocity of which kept the Arizona territory untamed until its statehood in 1912, when it became the last of the lower 48 admitted to the union.

Bob feels sorry for me, as I am so unenlightened.  He wants to use his collegiate superiority to educate troglodytes such as myself about things we couldn't possibly understand, like white privilege and wealth.  These are matters best left to people like Bob, most of whose law school friends became filthy rich multi-millionaires while he didn't.


Of course, for a guy who preaches racial tolerance, Bob himself isn't the most tolerant person in the world. Once, when he was pontificating over coffee, he challenged my social conscience by asking, "How many black friends do you have?" To which I could only reply, "Um, how many am I supposed to have?"  It didn't seem to matter.  I didn't vote for Hillary in 2016, so my fate had been sealed long ago. 

For the record, Bob's tolerance doesn't extend to asian women, because "they're all nuts."  I still can't figure that one out. 

Maybe he should ask more of them about the NBA.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Getting Back in the Game

Rumors come and panics go.  Black swans occasionally swim by, but they inevitably swim away.  I'm always the optimist, investing on the theory that if the USA goes down, there's no point in even worrying about life beyond hunting and gathering. 

At this writing, the Center for Disease Control has continued to lower COVID-19 death rates down to incredibly low levels (way less than 0.001% and dropping so far), which means it may be time to regain sanity and look at opportunities for investment.  So for what it's worth, if you're like me, jumping back in to old Uncle Sam's economy for fun and profit, there are some things you may want to consider:

1.  Up until about 20 years ago, interest rates and stock prices levered off each other: High interest rates tended to lower stock prices and vice versa.  That hasn't been true for a while, because of the Fed's basement level interest rates. As long as stock dividends remain high -- substantially higher than Fed rates -- their prices are going to continue to rise.  They'll keep rising until those dividend yields fall below 3%, where the risk doesn't pay as much.  For now, though, there are quality issues paying 5%, 8%, 11% and more.

2.  Importantly, these days, Federal interest rates have nothing to do with stock prices, because the Fed rates are all about stimulating the market, not providing a safe haven for investors. The two are completely unrelated, except that if businesses borrow at low rates, they'll grow their businesses -- which is great for stocks and dividends.

3.  If you didn't buy into the recent crash prices of stocks, you're not alone.  Sure, lots of hindsight people will claim to have bought into the crash prices, but almost none of them are telling the truth.  And if they are, they're big risk takers: At the time of those basement prices, the market and the state of the union was far too erratic to risk any kind of purchase.  Even now, governors' and mayors' heads have swollen with power, and their policies are political, not economic, which means there are still wild cards out there that could influence markets for no true business reasons. Waiting for a little more stability still affords market watchers plenty of room to recapture their investments and maybe pick up a few bargains, including some that are ripe for the picking right now.

4.  A recovering market is, in my opinion, no time to buy into corporate bonds. Too many companies fell for the propaganda and made rushed decisions that made no sense. Having advised corporate directors most of my career, I learned quickly that the people sitting around the conference table aren't always the brightest bulbs on the tree, and in the last decade, the situation has only gotten worse: Lots of knee jerk reaction, no considered initiative.  You don't want to lend money to those kinds of people, especially when they're not personally or morally responsible for paying you back. Most of them are simply Caretaker Managers whose loyalties are to their employment contracts, not the companies in their charge.

5.  Knowing where to invest is always an issue, but it's never been truer that glamor and high profile companies are usually not the place to be, mainly because they're the most heavily influenced by the media.  My preference runs to dividend stocks and American mainstays, like energy and REITs.  I personally avoid transportation, pharmaceuticals, technology, entertainment and a few other categories that are prone to sudden erraticisms.

You know, like, say, manufactured virus hysteria.

Good luck.  Be careful out there.  And while you're at it, see how much you can sell a box of unused masks for.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Lessons Learned

At the time of this writing, most of the United States is still on lockdown from various state and local policies stemming from public health concerns.  Like you, I'm somewhat affected by this action, but not nearly as much as most people. After all, my life as an independent brand strategist has allowed me to work from home for decades. Apparently, all those years of not going to the office has paid off. Most people aren't so lucky. They not only have no commute, they also no longer have a place to commute to.

I'm not here to argue the politics of a virus.  I'm not even here to sway your views on how anyone, anywhere, should react to the situation.  All I've ever done is simply observe and report, because if there's one thing I know, it's human behavior.  It is the rock solid foundation of all brand strategy, so I've gotten really good at observing the things that are critical, yet overlooked by most folks, to wit:

As I've written here previously, I've watched as the rise of big data has surreptitiously allowed the concept of accountability to slowly slip over the side of the ship and sink to the bottom of the sea. Years ago, rational judgement determined more business decisions than data analysis.  But when more data became available, it was far easier for bad decisions to be blamed on the data, rather than the person who made the call.

There's a lot of benefit and comfort to be had with reams of data -- along with a few important caveats:

1.  The data you collect has to be reliable.
2.  The data has to be collected in a reliable fashion.
3.  The data has to be analyzed in a reliable fashion.

Back in the early computer days, the common aphorism was "Garbage in, garbage out," but you get the idea. You'd be amazed at how many -- if not most -- of my clients would throw down a 300 page document brimming with data that was almost as useless as it was expensive.  And when I say expensive, I'm not just talking about what the research costs, but what its faulty findings cost those clients' businesses.

Bad decisions from bad data happens everywhere. So before you believe anything from anyone, look at the Big Three up there. Chances are you'll find the same things I have: Most "data studies" are nothing more than opinions expressed numerically, usually because the source presenting those numbers knows you'll never question the data.  Nobody ever does.

Well, almost nobody.

I do.  I always do. "Consider the source" is one of my favorite smirks. So here are a few data points you may want to keep in mind about this virus situation as you muse which mask goes best with the shoes you're wearing today:

1.  You know those stats on virus death rates? Pretty scary, eh? Well, kind of. But not really, especially when you understand how the Center for Disease Control (CDC) collects data on Corona Virus death:  As it happens, the CDC has mandated that all admissions to hospitals be classified as Covid-19, regardless of test results or symptoms. Even hospice patients dying of a previous, completely unassociated disease are being tagged as Covid-19 because doing so guarantees 100% payment of those cases, even though it falsely inflates the actual mortality rate.  Skeptical?  Good.  Read their mandate here, at their site.  Clearly, this is the "garbage in" part of the equation, inflating the mortality rate to the point where the "garbage out" inflates the true mortality rates far beyond any sense of reliability.

2.  For the first month of the lockdown, ancillary data about automobile traffic was copiously collected and reported by media through photographs and videos of ghost towns and abandoned highways. Weeks later, as an increasingly angry public begins to reject the restrictions imposed on them, those same abandoned highways are at roughly 70% of pre-panic levels -- but none of that data is being collected or reported.  Just because data isn't collected doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Which means this one is a double threat: badly collected and badly analyzed.

3.  At this writing, 36% of all Corona virus cases are centered in New York, and not even the entire state. The vast majority of those cases are in Queens.  One borough of New York City. In fact, 25% of the counties across the nation have 0% presence of any form of the virus.  Which means America, basing its decisions on bad data, is applying a national solution to what is primarily a local problem.

I could go on and on about this, but you get the idea.  I'm not here to sermonize, but I am here to point out how bad data leads to biased reporting which forms the basis for bad policy decisions with no accountability, which in turn leads to social panic and unnecessary economic hardship.

It also causes a real loss of your Constitutional liberties, and believe me, that's a whole lot more lethal than anything coming out of a sneeze.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A Nation of Children

After a few decades in the brand strategy business, I don't take clients as often I once did.  In fact, I don't even reach out to prospective clients any more. I decided to semi-retire (I still do a fair amount of expert witness work) for a couple of reasons:

1.  I no longer have to consult for a living, which is a good thing, financially speaking.
2.  During the tenure of my career, there was a sharp, pervasive decline in the quality of CEOs, who simply were too ignorant and unconcerned and unaccountable to their businesses.  They literally weren't capable of basic business principles, like say, restoring profitability.

If you follow my blog, you can read back some ten years or more, in which I expressed real concerns about dangers of the country -- and most of the civilized world -- becoming a Nation of Children.  An entire generation, completely devoid of any kind of critical thinking or accountability.  Reactionary rather than assertive; quicker to blame that to solve problems.  When this generation takes action, if it ever does, it's usually in the form of whining while running and hiding.

In twenty years, my typical CEO client devolved from a forward-looking captain of his ship to a whimpering, uneducated young ninny who shrinks from any kind of accountability. Having termed out, the old guard has been replaced by twits lacking of any type of business knowledge, strategy or accountability.

At the time of this writing, the Nation of Children has seriously selected candidates to lead them based on promises of free goods and services, without demanding any kind of rational explanations as to how to pay for them. It's deja vu as I recall my fifth grade elections, where candidates for class presidents expected to prevail with promises of an end to homework and ice cream for lunch.

Sadly, it seems as if nobody questions anything any more.  Nobody demands rationale, proof or clear, proven results. Everyone, it turns out, is either too lazy, too ignorant or too intimidated to sit back, think, and push back for answers from a pervasive media that delights in promoting fictions as freely as truth.

Okay, so that's nothing you haven't heard before.  But here's something you may not have thought about:

The primary danger with a Nation of Children is in its lack of accountability.  I don't care if you're conservative or liberal, but adults don't simply believe everything they're told.  Adults realize there are consequences to their actions and beliefs.  Simpletons, on the other hand, just wait and endure and panic with no sense of direction.

You want to believe that a Corona virus is everything the doom prophets would have you believe?  Fine.  Ignore the real data. Question nothing. Trust in the manipulated "research" and skewed "studies" that are offered up as proof of badly-structured research when it's mixed with media ratings. I've lived through a lot, including Corona virus and worse. None of it is true -- or as bad -- as the media and your lazy, lemming friends would have you believe.

Of course, this is merely my viewpoint, based on my experience. You can choose not to buy into any of it.  But like I said, I'm semi-retired.  I'm out.

It's your problem now.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Bitch Seat

A wise old man -- or possibly anyone who thinks he's a wise old man -- once said, "Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one."  And while that is most certainly true, it does raise the issue of when and if taking others' advice is a smart thing to do.

Being the contrarian I am, I have a tendency to reject almost any advice people offer, especially that of the unsolicited variety. Believe me, if I want someone's opinion, I'll be sure to ask him for it. Until then, I seem to be doing just fine on my own and find myself unwilling to endure some random lecture that's almost guaranteed to be off-topic and ill-conceived.

This is not entirely a personality defect of mine, although that probably plays into it. Not as much, however, as decades of experience which has scientifically confirmed my thesis that the best advice is no advice at all.  At this point, you may be wondering what constitutes my science -- and well you should, considering that what I'm writing here could conceivably resemble the very type of advice I so heartily eschew. So here goes:

Back in the day when I as in advertising, marketing and strategic brand consulting, clients who were too fearful about making decisions would convene expensive, time-consuming research groups in order to move forward with decisions that afforded executives just enough plausible denial. The thinking was that if the research affirmed a decision but resulted in total failure, the executives could always blame the research while keeping their own jobs.

Most of those focus groups and discussion panels were ridiculously predictable, to the point where we could predict everything about the respondents before they even walked in the room, down to what they would say and where they would sit. It was especially easy to tell when the conference table was oblong, because there were only two end chairs: one for the moderator and one we called the Bitch Seat, which was always occupied by the loudest, bossiest respondent who would drone on disproportionately to the others around the table.

Not only was the person in the Bitch Seat the loudest and most domineering, he was also the most typical of the worst at providing responses, mainly because he was less concerned about offering constructive observations than he was about proving his own value.  And that's the problem I have with people offering advice: Too often they care less about helping you out than they do about proving themselves better, smarter or more knowledgeable than you. So they offer you horrible, misguided advice.

Think about it. When was the last time someone advised you about how good your decision was? I guarantee you it doesn't even begin to compare to the number of times you've gotten reasons "why it won't work," or "what you've overlooked," or even "I tried that and the odds are against you."  For some reason (usually ignorance and insecurity), people have a really tough time admitting they don't know enough to advise you, fearing that to be a sign of their own weakness.  Even worse, they try to pump themselves up by finding fault in your proposals, taking great pride in having "saved you from a real disaster."

I can't tell you the number of times I watched incredibly powerful ideas and proposals get blown apart from the Bitch Seat, where just one misfired remark initiated an avalanche of endorsements from the Sheep Seats (those sitting alongside the table, basically wanting to go along with the rest of the group).  All it took was one insecure loudmouth to start the ball rolling and within minutes, the room turned into a creative Jonestown.

Hey, you want to move ahead in this world? Do your own research. Find your own facts. Make your own decisions. You want to be guided by good data, not people's insecurities. 

Of course, you can take my advice.  Or not.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Myth of Fitness

In case you haven't noticed, there's an insidious epidemic sweeping the country that's affecting every person's mental and physical health, including yours. It may be the worst assault on your wellbeing you ever encounter, and yet you and a hundreds of million other unsuspecting victims may never realize it, as it feeds on your very physical, emotional and financial existence.

It stared out as the fitness craze, which now has become an ever better fitting moniker, mainly because so many people are frenzied in their attempts to achieve an imaginary level of "fitness" for absolutely no real purpose, other than perpetuating their own self-loathing for not living up to someone else's ideals.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of obesity or the sedentary lifestyle. I'm the first one to jump up from my desk for a brisk walk around the block or a few sets of resistance work. I'm right there with you when it comes to doing a little cardio to work off last night's pasta overload. But you won't see me in the gym, sweating it out for hours, several times a week, in pursuit of a goal that's never really been defined.

Everywhere I look, I'm forced to gaze upon sweaty bodies on expensive machines glorifying the notion of "physical fitness" when in fact those images present nothing more of value than what you might see in a Calvin Klein ad. I mean, how fit does someone really have to be?  It reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Kenny tells Jerry, "You should work out," and Jerry replies, "Why?"

People keep falling for a never-ending torrent of expensive supplements and foods whose recommendations and benefits are disproven on a weekly basis, as more and more faux science promises results that nobody can really define.  Yes, you're aging. No, this supplement won't make you young again. Wise up. Even Elon Musk can't bluff investors into developing a time machine, and he's as good as hackery gets.

As if fitness mania's corporal assault weren't damaging enough, your wallet is taking a pretty healthy beating of its own. Home exercise machines have become a 21st century status symbol, promising body contouring while delivering nothing more than an increase in isolation from what little social contact is left. For thousands of dollars, you can now steam up your attic while avoiding other humans completely.

How can that be healthy?

The fact is that if you really want to understand your optimal physical fitness, you need look no further than your family tree, because like it or not, your physicality is far more dependent on your genes than your credit card.  The fact is that nobody has the time, money or actual reason to dive into the expensive, vague notion of ultimate fitness. Nobody needs the machines, the wardrobe, the supplements or special menus.

What they do need is a healthy dose of self-reliance and a realization that like everything else, when you take care of yourself -- physically, financially and emotionally -- you're as fit as you're ever going to want to be.

Now, who's up for a pizza?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Yacht Rock Saves Humanity

Ever since ancient Greece, it seems as if every generation has bemoaned the inadequacies of its successors. The youth are ignorant, disrespectful, wildly oversexed and just about everything else that older people miss about being young.  I can handle that. What I have more trouble with is the stovepiping and social isolation of kids who have grown up with the internet, because that's something that really is different from anything before.

There are two really strange and frightening effects that have somewhat crippled the point-and-click generation. One is an unrealistic lack of patience for anyone and anything. That's understandable: when you've grown up clicking a screen one day and having merchnadise delivered the next, it's bound to prod an impressionable, naive mind to ask, why can't everything and everyone cater to me like that?

The other problem is (and this is no newsflash), their absolute ignorance regarding socialization. Tucked neatly into their silos, the point-and-click generation has been lured by self-interest into the dungeons of Silicon Valley, where everyone is made to appear as if everything really is about them. Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Apple and every other digital player has based an entire industry on its customer not having to put up with anyone else for any reason, making life a succession of self-involved, self-important stories that exclude the rest of the known universe.

As such, an entire generation has grown up having no idea how to make friends, hit on chicks, appreciate labor or plan for their futures.  After all, why plan a future when anything that needs to happen is just a click away? Why not just click on a pretty girl's face to see if she's interested in having pointless sex with me? Isn't that how life's supposed to work?

Ah, the pleasures of instant gratification. Whoever imagined it would turn an entire generation into an army of emotional cripples?

Well, it has.  Sort of.

It's no coincidence that as the ranks of the emotionally retarded has swelled, so has the incidence of gender confusion and faux "tolerance" of attention-starved freaks demanding new laws and media time. Now more than ever, the media trumpets the "rights" of the sexually deranged (whose numbers aren't nearly what that media would represent), and dares to question the existence of basic human instincts.

The fact is that lots of point-and-clickers are perfectly normal -- they just don't know what to do with themselves, for fear of being castigated as "intolerant" or "racist" by their peers, all of whom are just as confused as they are.

Having been emotionally isolated and suppressed, one would think there'd be no hope for this lost generation.  But I submit to you that while the flame of humanity may be flickering, it is not completely extinguished.  In fact, I submit to you here and now that the embers are being fanned by a most unlikely savior:

Yacht Rock.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Yacht Rock is the relatively recent appellation attached to music of the 1970s and 1980s with which most boomers had a love-hate relationship. Songs about moping, love-denied males which were sung mostly by moping, love-denied males were huge hits at that time -- and are making a comeback now.  Who could ever forget Rupert Holmes' cringeworthy Him or Me or his Escape (Piña Colada Song)? Or Player's equally pathetic Baby Come Back? Or Robbie Duprée's pre-Michael McDonald arrangement of Steal AwayWell, while boomers may try to banish these bombs from their minds, it seems that Yacht Rock has captured the imagination of the point-and-click generation for a very good reason.

At first, it may seem that Yacht Rock is just one more culturally-appropriated curiosity to be written off like any other national tradition. But on closer inspection, a more telling scenario emerges: these kids are identifying with traditional feelings they've been too intimidated to express.

How weird is that? After being told their entire lives that their emotional needs and drives are merely "social constructs," an entire generation is beginning to discover its just as emotionally needy as their progenitors ever were and that maybe, things aren't so different after all.  Turns out that Yacht Rock is letting them know that maybe there really is something to that good old-fashioned boy-meets-girl thing and that the whole #MeToo thing is just as relevant as that stuff piling up behind the elephant at the zoo.

Perhaps, as obnoxious as it was to boomers, Yacht Rock will replace the preposterous transgender and feminist confusion before too many of these kids waste their lives conforming to some twisted agenda of artificial social constructs.  Maybe, if they play enough tunes, they'll rediscover what it's like to be swept off their feet, grabbed in someone's arms and, in the immortal words of Rhett Butler, "kissed and kissed well."

I get squishy just thinking about it.