The Stock Market and Matters of State

When the Dow put its toe over the (arbitrary) 12,000 line I was reminded of how much I valued the wisdom I found some thirty-odd years ago in Mamis and Mamis’s When to Sell. Their subtitle is Inside Strategies for Stock Market Profits, but I thought then, and see even more clearly now, that what they had to say should be proclaimed no less on Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue than on Wall Street.

The authors’ main point is that amateur investors are most comfortable sitting with losses because they cling to the hope that the stock they bought would go up rather than see its decline for what it is, evidence that the stock is not doing what they supposed it would do. Hope is not a strategy. “By not selling,” they write, “by tightly holding on to his stocks, the investor never has to face reality.”NYSE's bull from behind

This is not to say that the wise investor must realize every small loss that comes his way, or that he should cash in every small gain—only that he must acknowledge that the changes are real. The price of my stock or my soybeans may go up this afternoon, or it may go down, but right now it is what it is, and that’s all I can get for it, and it might be better to take that than to lose more. The past is gone and the future doesn’t exist. You have to decide without being certain, and sometimes you will be wrong.

I read When to Sell for the first time during an unhappy year toward the end of a marriage. Waist-deep in unhappiness, shame and lawyers, my commitment to the idea of (permanent) marriage remained deeper and wider than the commitment anyone would make to a stock, which should be no more than the money one paid for it. But wishing and hoping had not made things better, so I moved on.

Beyond the personal, the authors recognize the application of their idea to the political. With regard to Viet Nam, they quote Peter Bourne to the effect that

“The overwhelming desire for the success of policies to which a strong emotional attachment has been made also leads to an attempt to alter those facts over which one has control, making them consistent with the outcome that is desired. It is as though there is an expectation at a magical level that events over which one has no control will then also fall into the desired pattern.”

More precisely, it is not the facts, but the selection and report of the facts that a public figure may control. George W. Bush and Hamid KarzaiWhen the audience is the nation, when the motive to control morphs from a hapless hope for magic through passivity before the momentum of past decisions to a wicked wish to impose a personal goal on everyone else, decisions get made that don’t serve the people who pay and bleed for them.

Even though a member of the body politic may not be privy to all the intelligence the president has about bank regulation or Afghanistan or global warming, she has the right, even a certain obligation, to consider what she does know and form an opinion. The real control the small investor has over his stocks is not over what the price is, which is the fact of the situation, but over whether or not he sells. In regard to matters not of stocks but of state, the citizen who thinks it’s time to sell or prefers we go the distance need not wait for a phone call from a pollster to express that opinion. She has a vote, but need not wait for an election. Anyone with a pen or a phone can let elected representatives and editors of newspapers and their friends and their networks know what they think.

Image courtesy of hmerinomx via Flickr.

Of Posts, Pests and Pasts

Looking out at snowIt’s snowing again, daylight pale, hues muted. I have set myself the morning task of writing another post, yet I find myself immobile, gazing out at individual snowflakes swirling through the spaces between the branches of trees, telephone poles, mounds of snow on cars; studying shapes, contours, textures. All that detail delights me.

Some years back, as part of an effort to see the world as it is, I set out to teach myself to draw. I bought a sketch pad, pencils and an eraser, and made all-but-daily efforts to render what I saw: strangers in public places, buildings and statues, landscapes, flowers, objects on tables. It was hard to do, and absorbing; it made the rest of the world fade out in a way that pleased me. Trying to render what I saw made me look harder, and as I did so, and moved the pencil on the paper, what I drew became my own. Ruskin was right: drawing also changed the way I visit art museums. Once I stopped comparing my results with, say, Ingres’s, I could enjoy trying to figure out how the master did what he did—but I also enjoyed envisioning what he must have seen, in order to draw it that way.

I think the trick isn’t in the doing, it’s in the seeing. For me, the hard part of learning to do surgery was not manipulating the tools, but seeing, and understanding, the structures that needed to be fixed. Once you get a good look at the problem (and that requires making the incision in the right place), you ought to be able to do something about it. After that some surgeons make it look hard, others make it look easy, and there will be differences in how things come out, just as two students copying from the blackboard will do so with different handwriting.

In any case, I took yesterday’s bright sunshine and uncommitted morning to make my first visit to the MFA’s new Arts of the Americas wing. Another time I may write more about visiting museums and about that museum. For now, let me say that during the hour before the school groups and their vocal docents arrived, when I had the nineteenth-century floor almost to myself, the richness of the collection overwhelmed me. When the alarm on my phone reminded me that I had to go home to meet the Orkin man, it was hard to tear myself away.

A truck like the Orkin man'sHe parked nearby and rang the doorbell. He had negotiated pest control services with my wife a year ago, while I was away. After six pest-free years we had canceled periodic carpenter ant treatments only to find a thousand of them in a porch under repair two years later. When he came to control them, he found termites in the wood pile, though not in the house.

We exchanged pleasantries and started our tour in the basement. The treatment of pests in old houses was likely to be chronic, he remarked. I understood: it was something like periodontia. He chuckled. We swapped periodontist stories. Complete cures were an ideal, I said, and since I had been an orthopaedic surgeon, I knew whereof I spoke.

He fixed me with an odd squint. Oh, where did you work? I told him. You fixed my ruptured Achilles, he proclaimed. He told me his name. I studied his face. He showed me his (gratifyingly fine) scar. Ruptured achilles tendonHe had done so well that he had returned to playing over-40 league soccer until he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in another game, and after he recovered from that, he gave up soccer.

That he had done so well made me feel good. The moment was a welcome change from my habit of mind which remembers patients who did not do well more easily than the ones who did. It’s a habit I don’t like, but I haven’t been able to break it. The transaction with a patient has always felt more ‘over’ when he feels ‘completely cured’ than when he is left with symptoms, or can’t return to his previous level of function. Of course, who of a certain age can function the way he once did?

So maybe this bad habit of mind which has plagued me over the years is just another failure to see and accept the world as it is. I can’t help how I see things, but I am beginning to get the idea that the way I see them may not be the way they look to someone else.