Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Limits of Material Welfare

The Spear remembers that in his final year of primary school a group of three bullies implied that he came from a rich family.  The taunts went something along the lines of “Yeah he probably gets his butler to …,” and impersonating his father who they assumed had a posh British accent.  He is not entirely sure why the assumption of riches was made, but he can only guess it was because The Spear performed well academically, and generally followed the rules (neither of which they could or would choose to claim).

The reality was that The Spear came from a middle (possibly lower-middle) socio-economic household.  He remembers more than one fellow student who once visited his family’s house (a semi-derelict structure located on a flood plain, hard-up against a railway line and within the ‘smell-zone’ of an abattoir in a ‘lower class’ neighbourhood) remarking on how small it was, and the peculiar odour of dog it harboured.  The Spear didn’t really mind any of these things however, and didn’t even think of their possible implications as to his family’s perceived ‘status’ until he was a teenager.

While it is likely that the bullies came from poorer households, their comparative material poverty couldn’t have been too far removed from The Spear’s own, given their attendance at the same lower-tier private school.  What is far more likely is that they came from households impoverished in the arena of education – with neither of their parents likely to have attended university (whereas in the case of The Spear he was 1 from 2).  And dare he say it; there may have also been some significant differentiating genetic predispositions between households of bully and bullee.

Two out of three of those bullies died in their early twenties in deathly drug spirals, and The Spear doesn’t know what happened to the third.  The question on The Spear’s mind currently, is: would equalisation of the material wealth of the bullies’ households to that of The Spear (or better yet, any amount of material welfare) have made any difference at all regarding the life choices of the bullies and their eventual destination?
Of course it is impossible to know for sure, but The Spear, looking to his own empirical evidence, thinks that material welfare can only go so far to delivering outcomes - and at a certain point may even do more damage than good.

Case 1 – The Neighbours from Hell

The Spear’s parents still inhabit the same house described earlier.  The house next door is owned by what they call the ‘Housing Commission’.  If you’ve never heard of that term before, consider yourself very lucky indeed.

The house itself is solid, double-storey brick construction, and is regularly maintained by the Council.  It has a decent backyard, a brand new fence, is not hard-up to the railway track and has freshly clipped lawn.  Throughout The Spear’s childhood years the tenants came and went – single mothers with a handful of kids from a handful of fathers and a pot-smoking boyfriend being the typical family unit. 

For the last few years, however, the tenants have been particularly troublesome; a couple of unemployed, raving ice-addicts with a son in tow.  With their basic needs taken care of by the state, they have ample time on their hands to get up to no good, and regularly fight in the streets, light fires, drive dangerously, graffiti public property and intimidate their neighbours.  They appear stuck in a cycle of self-destruction that no amount of material possessions seems likely to conquer.  

Case 2 – Celebrity Self-Destruction

From lotto winners who have blown it all, to actors who hit the big time and end up as drug addicts (here's a list of celebrity drug overdoses if you really want), it seems that an abundance of material wealth may do nothing to inhibit an addictive personality, and may instead finance an unhealthy lifestyle.

Case 3 – Chekhov, The Three Sisters / The Cherry Orchard

Ok – so maybe not exactly a real example, but nevertheless timeless classics of the stage. 

I these plays set in early 20th century Russia, Chekhov has a way of highlighting the peculiar suffering that ennui can inflict upon individuals. Indeed, you get the sense that many of his melancholic characters are mere steps away from drug abuse or worse.  The plays suggest that man must live a productive life if he is to attribute meaning to his existence, even if it is only in the most general sense of creating an indistinct ‘better’ future [this was in the lead up to the Russian Revolution, so perhaps there is some communist theology buried within it all].


While some level of welfare is obviously a good thing if we are to maintain a base standard of living, it is clear that material welfare alone has its limits, and may even be harmful to some. 

If the incentive to work and improve one’s lot is reduced to the point where receiving material welfare becomes preferable - or even comparable - it is debatable that more harm may be being done than good.  It encourages the development of a class, not too dissimilar in terms of material wealth from the working poor, but one that is disengaged from society and without a sense of meaning or purpose.  And idle hands are wont to do the devil’s work.

Non-devil work, rather than welfare, seems preferable if at all possible.  In order to re-establish the incentive to work, there are only two real options: decrease benefits for those relying on welfare or lift the burden on the working poor in some way (for instance most taxi-drivers are working for about $5-10/hr once welfare deductions and tax are accounted for).
As the last budget disaster has clearly shown, the latter of these two options is more politically palatable.  One hopes that ‘the powers that be’ can find the courage to propose some genuine reforms aimed at reducing tax breaks (superannuation salary sacrificing, family trusts for example) and other concessions that only the truly wealthy are in a position to take advantage of, in order to lift that burden in some way.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Left v Right (Tabulated)

In an effort to clarify a jumble of thoughts, The Spear has tabulated what he considers to be the underlying 'mindset' of the political Left and Right in Australia.  That is, the subconscious mindset, of which members themselves may not be aware.

Of course what follows is a gross generalisation created by a naturally biased human being, and yes, there will be a million and one instances where parties have crossed the divide or backflipped on their values.  So please, will it really be necessary to point them all out, back and forth, in the endless pursuit of a final definitive instance?

The Spear encourages you to comment with your own examples however!  Let's try keep this civil - but hey - this is the internet.  Who are we kidding?

Rules of the Game
Everybody Place Nice
Survival of the Fittest
Idealism / Wishful Thinking
Pragmatism / Realism
Something for Nothing
Something for Something
In the Workplace
Get paid for showing up
Job Security
Screw the Employee
Free Trade
The Environment
Save the World
Change the World
Look-After Ourselves First
Adapt to the World
Moral Support.
It’s the thought that counts
Actions speak louder than words
On Money
Take / Tax
Earn / Produce
Redistribution of Wealth
Free Services
Equalisation of Opportunity
Affordable Services
Criticisms by 
the other half
Bleeding Hearts
Pork Barreling
Pork Barreling
‘Admirable’ Attributes
Good with Money
Common Ground
Not pious Wowsers (with the exception of Far Left and Far Right).
Not overly corrupt
Not inherently ‘Evil’
Not overly repressive
Not Extreme

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Intern Experience

So The Spear has spent the better part of the last three months working as an intern for one of the well-known bulge-bracket names in finance.  As he knows there are many students out there who would be eager to follow in his footsteps, he thinks it is only fair to shed a little light on his experience.

1.       Recruitment – this particular bank’s process was much ‘easier’ for The Spear than some of its competitors.  Not that it was easy to obtain a place, as there is always plenty of competition for limited spots (think <2% acceptance rate from applications), but it seemed that the people running the process really knew what they were doing and didn’t fall into the trap of over-assessing secondary characteristics.  They knew what TYPE of people they were after, and were willing to consider people from diverse backgrounds.  This is actually more of a rarity in the industry than one would think, given all of the modernist diversity talk out there.

2.       The People – You think that when you go to a good school or a good university or a good company that most people there will be really smart.  Often, you are disappointed with the reality.  The Spear can’t say that about his latest posting.  His fellow employees often exceeded his expectations, and it was clear just by talking to people that they were very switched on and really knew what they were talking about.  They were also very helpful and social.  ‘A-type’ personalities all round, with the more charismatic personalities filling the top ranks.

3.       The Work – It is clear that at a junior level, even with a relevant university education, you have much to learn.  Much, much, much, much to learn.  Even if you think you know basic things like power point and excel well, you probably don’t compared to these guys, who are keyboard shortcut kings. You like using the mouse?  Enjoy spending an extra few hours in the office each day if you do.  Add in a lot of custom plug-in software which you’ve never used before, and your first week will be simply trying to get your head around these basics once more (feeling like an idiot) – that and coping a with 3 times as many emails than you’ve got time to read (bring some Panadol for that first day).  You’ll be doing a lot of grunt work like databases and powerpoint slides (but hey, that’s how you learn), and if you’re lucky you’ll do some more interesting stuff like market updates, basic modelling, valuation and pricing.  In any case, in 10-12 weeks you’ll probably learn more useful information than 3-5 years at university (even if it’s just the financial lingo, which there is a lot of).

4.       The Lifestyle – So you’ve seen Wolf of Wall Street.  It’s all Models and Bottles, right?  Well, Yes and No - but mainly No.  Monday to Thursday you’ll pretty much be in work-eat-sleep mode, with little time for much else.  It is not uncommon to see emails from people in the early hours of the morning.  Most employees seem to learn to fit more into their days by increasingly moving activities into their workplace, for instance by doing laundry and exercise in the vicinity of the office.  You’ll come to know your barista on a first-name basis, and learn the menu at most places within walking distance.  Friday should generally end with the junior ranks hitting the town, but don’t be surprised if you need to come in on the weekend in order to accommodate your social cravings.  You’ll certainly learn to manage your time more effectively and fit more into every day than you previously thought possible.


Monday, 29 December 2014

The Bible Explained

As a person who has ostensibly completed twelve years of education in the Christian realm, completing all of his assigned ‘religious education’ classes, The Spear feels he should probably be somewhat concerned about his complete lack of knowledge of The Bible.  In those twelve years, he opened it up at the request of teachers perhaps once or twice, and apart from a brief glance at the start of Genesis some 15 years ago, he has never really taken the time to read it.  That is, until a couple of days ago. 

The Spear has certainly heard many readings from the ‘good book’ over the years, and has listened to hundreds of homilies (commentaries by priests on scripture).  However, somehow, through all of that education and lecturing, The Spear never really got a good idea of what the hell the Bible really was.  To him, it seemed like a really old, mostly irrelevant book about God and Jesus and all that good stuff.  For while the education system and church were good at reading its passages to him, they were woeful at providing him with any context.

For a first glaring example of The Spear’s contextual ignorance, he never even knew that the titles of the books contained within the Bible had any real significance: whenever a passage was cited, it all just seemed random to him.  It was never pointed out to him that ‘Genesis’ or ‘Exodus’ could actually mean anything, say like describing stories about a ‘beginning’ or ‘exit’.  They really just sounded like fancy old names to The Spear.  He had no awareness of an overarching story or theme.  THAT is the level of ignorance we are talking about here.  Near-total ignorance.

The Spear also only learnt later in life the very, very close historical relationship and indeed overlap between Judaism and Christianity, which one would have thought was quite essential knowledge to have any contextual understanding of say the first two-thirds (the old testament) of the Bible, and which is spelled out clearly by introductory paragraphs within it.  This was certainly taken as assumed knowledge, as the emergence of Christianity from Judaism was never made explicit to him.  Basic, fundamental things here.

Just by taking an hour to read some of the introductory paragraphs to the books contained in the Bible, The Spear feels that he has learned more about the religion than in twelve years of indoctrination.  Rather than seeing the Bible as some random holy book, he can now see it for what it is: a complex collection of history, customs, poetry, songs, aphorisms, stories, letters, guidance, laws and prophecy, written by scribes over thousands of years, and open to limitless interpretation.  In modern times, it could best be seen as a kind of a reference book for life that some people may find useful.  That is all.

Why can’t anybody in the system just say that and avert years of ignorance and confusion for so many?  Or is The Spear just really stupid and everyone else already knew that?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Einstein Clones

“Ladies and gentlemen, we can argue all day as to why and remain none the wiser.  What we do know for sure is that the program isn’t working,” the Chairman of the Board made sure to gesture with his hands as he spoke to the assembled stakeholders.  He had heard that the majority of communication was non-verbal, and effective body language at a crisis point like this could make or break his proposition.

“But if we can just understand why, we may be able to salvage the project at minimal cost,” interjected the project’s lead scientist.  “Just think of the possible return on investment you could achieve with another six months of research!”

“If I recall correctly, that’s what you said six months ago, and a year before that,” the Chairman responded, making sure his cufflinks were clearly visible to the drably-clad professor.  “The creditors are past impatient, even for such a long-term project.”

“But what about the latest submissions?  Surely you must admit that the clones are closer to a breakthrough now than ever before?” said the Doctor.

“Please, Doctor, if you can tell me what commercial merit a truckload of fifth-grade modern art and passé sci-fi stories have, I would be delighted to hear them.”

The doctor remained silent.

“The truth is, ladies and gentlemen, that we’re bleeding cash.  This was understandable during the creation and education phases, but now, after eight years in the production phase with nothing to show for it, it’s time we started implementing contingency plans to avoid insolvency.”

“And exactly what is it you would have our one-thousand geniuses do?  Teach tenth grade?” the doctor scoffed sarcastically.

“No,” said the chairman, shifting upright in his chair to give himself every inch of authority.  “In this labour market, I am obliged to propose to the Board that they drive taxis.”