Thursday, December 20, 2007

Based on Trust

Many people have disputed my analysis in the previous post where I assert that trust is the key underlying factor for many frum people's belief in the truth of frumkeit. Here's another way of making my point:

Consider two scenarios: First one, you go over to a frum woman and tell her that her son, who she has raised all her life, is not her son. How would she react? "You're crazy! Of course he's my son."

"Well," you reply, "what about if all the roshei yeshiva and gedolim came over to you and told you that he wasn't your son. Would that change your mind at all?"

"Of course not!" she'd laugh. "I know my son is my son, and no one can change my mind about that!"

Now consider the second scenario:

Go over to a frum person and tell them that frumkeit is not true. The reaction? "You're nuts! Of course it's true!"

Now follow up with the same remark: "Well, what about if all the roshei yeshiva and gedolim came over to you and told you that it's not. That actually they don't believe in it themselves. Would that change your mind?"

The parent doesn't doubt what they know about their child, because it's solidly based on their own firm belief, and no one else's uncertainty about that idea has any bearing on that conviction.

Does anyone honestly think that a frum person would remain convinced of their belief if faced with the same challenge?

My point here is not to say that frumkeit is true or false, but rather to point out that most people's belief in its truth is based more on a trust of others than a solid recognition of its own inherent trueness.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My Investment - A Short Story

When I was around 14 years old, I came into a fairly large sum of money. I wasn't actually given access to it, but I was able to decide what should be done with it. So I figured I had to find some sort of worthy investment opportunity for my newfound riches.

I knew that the smart thing to do would be to take some time and properly research the different opportunities presented to me; to carefully examine what my financial goals were and what ventures would best meet those goals. I did briefly look into the Wall Street Journal, and picked up an Investing For Dummies book, but being the lazy kind of person I am, I ended up opting for a much simpler route. I was aware of a certain wealthy individual in the community who was known as having the keenest financial acumen ever, a fellow by the name of Dan Thompson. Everyone I knew swore that this guy was more brilliant than Warren Buffet. All my family members claimed that he was unbeatable. When I asked around a bit, there seemed to be unanimous agreement that this guy was unparalleled in the field. He had a perfect track record. He would make me rich! I couldn't go wrong! It was a sure thing!

So I figured, hey, this seems like a smart move. He's obviously trustworthy. I should look into it. But there was an aspect of this endeavor that bothered me just a bit. Strangely enough, this particular investor demanded that all the parties that were involved with him follow an unusual set of guidelines in their personal lives. He emphatically insisted that these rules enhanced and improved the viability and success of each person's investment profile. They weren't terribly difficult things to do, and the potential reward far outweighed any slight inconvenience that they might have caused, but some of them were a bit odd. For instance, he demanded that all bathmats in an investor's home be green; when an investor was dressing oneself, and putting his belt on, he had to skip over the second and fourth belt loop of his pants; all dishes that were eaten off of were required to have some green in their design. Either a stripe, or a pattern, etc. (entirely green dishes were preferred). These were all trivial things that no one seemed to mind much, but there were a few injunctions that were a bit more onerous, like the requirement that every home have the complete collection of his books (24 volumes in all!), and that investors were expected to review them regularly. Additionally, any time one traveled, he was required to bring along a copy of the complete collection. Needless to say, most of his people didn't get around much! Curiously, he also only allowed men to participate; women were not welcome in his inner circle.

But all these demands seemed rather insignificant compared to the potential return on the investment that was promised by his firm. I figured I should look into it. So I went to talk to him.

It was impressive. No doubt about it, the guy clearly was respected in his field. He had people buzzing around him, asking him advice, handing him papers, and eagerly looking for an opportunity to ask him for a quick tip. His offices were astounding, and I was thoroughly bowled over by the regal quality of his surroundings. Luckily for me, I had been granted a few moments of his precious time, and when he saw me enter, he warmly welcomed me into his office. Certificates of commendation and other honors covered his walls. Framed photos of his illustrious father and grandfather, well respected figures in the financial world, were scattered around the room. I knew his time was valuable, and so I jumped right ahead to the reason why I came:

"Mr. Thompson, I'm looking to invest in XYZ Properties, and I'd like you to clarify to me how their company works, and how my money would be invested," I explained to him.

"My dear friend," he said to me. "We could do that if you'd like. Not a problem. We can spend hours delving into the technical details of their corporate structure, going over their financial reports, and examining their stock history. But let me ask you this: Look around this room - do I look like I know what I'm doing? Do you think you can understand the system like I can? I'm sure you know that you don't have the knowledge or experience to grasp all the subtle intricacies of this issue. And you also know that this is a venture that has proven itself over time. Wouldn't it be smarter to just trust me that this is the intelligent thing to do, and let me handle things from there on out?"

Of course it was. He was absolutely right. But I was still a bit unsure about all the preconditions that came along with the deal. I asked him to explain why it was all necessary. He explained to me that it was all a very intricate and elaborate system that had been followed over the years, established by investors far wiser than he, and that by following them meticulously he had been blessed with unprecedented success. And besides, he reminded me, with the prosperity I was about to experience, did it really matter if I adjusted a few of my daily habits?

He was correct of course. This was a no-brainer. What was there to even think about? Our brief conversation was sufficient to convince me of what I needed to know. He was trustworthy. It was worthwhile. I was going to go for it. When I told him of my decision, he pulled out a stack of papers for me to sign and we sealed the deal with a handshake.

True to the assurances of all my friends, the investment was a wise one. Over time I began to see a gradual increase in my value. As my bank balance increased ever more, my reputation grew, and my popularity soared correspondingly. Life was good, and I was pleased that I had made the right decision. It was clear that going with this investment was the right one. And the little rituals that I thought would be a burden actually proved to be the opposite, as I gradually became used to them and found them to be a unique way of declaring my distinctive status as one of Thompsons' chosen associates. People even started coming to me for financial advice, and I unhesitatingly told them of this winning investment. "It's rock-solid," I explained. "XYZ Properties is the way to go. Tried and true. You can't go wrong."

At times, there did seem to be slight hiccups along the way. On rare occasions, I would see a strange discrepancy in the numbers, and I would contact Dan to ask about it. Invariably, he would allay my fears, assuring me that all was well and I should just trust that he knew what was best. He would start explaining to me about market forces, inflation rates, P/E ratios, and other incomprehensible financial concepts until I just admitted to myself that he knew what he was doing and I should just stop worrying about it all.

He truly was a great financial manager. There were times when the rules he demanded seemed to be just too much to deal with, but he would patiently explain to me how important it was to follow them all, and how they actually affected my portfolio; for instance, how the increased green in my life enhanced the flow of money in the universe to my investments. I didn't really understand it all, but he clearly knew what he was talking about, and it did seem to make sense when he explained it.

I trusted him implicitly. Even when there were a few periods where I saw my valuation drop precipitously low, I knew that it had to be some minor glitch. Sure enough, things got back to normal eventually. Those few times did make me very uncomfortable, but I was confident I was placing my trust in the right hands. Dan was taking good care of me.

Due to my newfound involvement in the financial arena, I began to read up a bit more on the topic, learning about some of the prominent figures in the industry, the insider gossip, and some of the history of the companies. It was all quite fascinating to me, and I lapped up this new fount of knowledge eagerly. And then one day I found a disturbing news item. In a deeply buried story, someone mentioned that a Dan Thompson had once been indicted for fraud. I couldn't believe it! That was impossible. The Dan Thompson I knew had impeccable credentials. I brushed it off as the angry rantings of some disgruntled foe, and promptly forgot about it.

A few months after that, I was attending a conference out of town, and struck up a conversation with a few friendly fellows sitting nearby. The conversation turned to how our fortunes had been made, and I proudly told them of my close relationship with Dan Thompson. Much to my surprise, they reacted with barely concealed shock. When I asked them to explain themselves, they told me that Dan Thompson had an infamous reputation in the investing community, and everyone knew that it was wise to stay away from him.

"But he's making me a fortune!" I exclaimed. "He's a great investor. Why should anyone stay away from him?! He's the best thing that anyone could ask for!"

"Haven't you read anything about him?" they asked me. "Haven't you heard the rumors?"

"Sure, all the time," I replied, slowly recalling that lone article I had stumbled upon. "But everything I've seen, and everyone I spoke to, seems to consider him an unqualified expert!"

"What?!" they responded in amazement. "What sort of stuff are you reading?! Who have you been talking to?"

I told them of the books and periodicals that I regularly reviewed; of the complete collection of his works that I frequently perused. And of the countless people who encouraged me to invest with him. They laughed uproariously. "Of course those people are supporting him. Don't you know that he employs a significant contingent of that community? They're either all his employees or they're just repeating the stuff everyone there says about him! And the books? They're written by his company! They'll never say anything bad about him! You're getting a totally skewed picture of reality by reading that stuff!"

"But this can't be!" I stammered. "How can everything that everyone told me about him be wrong?"

Unimpressed by my impassioned defense, they sat me down at a computer and typed in an address of a site I had never seen before. Upon entering his name in the search engine, I was returned with a long list of articles and reports. Much to my surprise, the articles seemed to be corroborating their accusations. I took a closer look. No! This couldn't be true, I thought to myself. I turned to my companions in amazement, "How can this be? Is this for real? How come I never knew about any of this? How could it be that no one ever told me about it? Is this trustworthy?!"

They looked at me with a combination of pity and sadness. "Of course you don't know about it. You're living in a different world from reality. But the rest of us are well aware of these things. And have been for ages. Look around for yourself if you don't believe us."

"But the investments - they've been successful! If all this were true, how could everything be going so well? I'm very happy with what he's done for me!"

"I find that hard to believe," said one of them. "Haven't there been some points where things didn't seem quite right to you?"

I thought back to those occasional upsets I had noticed. Yes, they had happened, but Dan had explained to me that they were nothing to be worried about.

I didn't know what to think. This was too much for me. As I returned home to the safe environs of my family and community, I tried to put these disturbing ideas out of my mind. But I couldn't forget what they had shown me. What if these allegations were true? I returned to the web site they had shown me. Page after page showed incontrovertible proof that Dan Thompson could not be trusted. I was torn. After all, he still seemed to be successfully making me money. I decided to discuss my dilemma with some fellow investors. When I revealed to them what I had discovered, they totally disregarded it.

"You can't believe what they write there!" my friends explained. "They don't know what they're talking about! They never do. They just make things up to make themselves look good, and to make people like us look bad."

"But they have proof, records, witnesses," I insisted. "How can all this be made up?"

Yet they remained unconvinced. To them it was clear that none of these accusations had a shred of credibility. How I wished I had their certainty. But unlike them, I just wasn't able to dismiss what I had stumbled upon.

Although I wasn't as confident about Dan like I used to be, I still trusted him. He had, after all, earned my loyalty, and justifiably so. Why didn't I just ask him? I knew he was an honest and straightforward person. Like in the past, when I was unsure about things, he would probably just simply explain to me why it was all nothing to worry about. So I did that. I approached him one day and mentioned one of the incidents I read about it. In his typically good natured way, he told me how it was just a misunderstanding that had eventually been straightened out. However, due to my extensive reading, I knew that wasn't quite the case, and I pointed it out to him. His manner turned colder and he started talking angrily, muttering about rivals, and enemies, and lies that people were saying about him. I turned to him calmly and explained that I trusted him and just wanted to hear the truth, as I was confident that he had a good explanation for it all. But he responded that he didn't want to talk about it, and ushered me out of the room, saying that he had an important meeting that he was late for. Needless to say, it wasn't very reassuring.

True, things didn't seem as rosy as when I had started out, but Dan was still making me money hand over fist. He was still one of the most respected individuals in the community. And as long as I was in his good graces, I still retained a distinctive cachet among my peers. Unfortunately, word had gotten out that I was looking into things I wasn't supposed to be, and I had fallen a few notches from my previous position of distinction. Additionally, I had not been attending to all the rituals like I was expected to, and people were starting to notice. They often approached me, asking why I was neglecting these important responsibilities, and I tried explaining that I just didn't seem to be enjoying them anymore. The novelty was starting to rub off and they were seeming more and more burdensome, but everyone just encouraged me to keep it up, and that I'd eventually come to appreciate their value.

On occasion, I would call Dan and mention the troublesome issues further. There were additional reports surfacing every few weeks, of newly questionable activities. Each time he'd give a brief explanation that hardly satisfied me, and when pressed further would get upset at me for pursuing the matter.

"What's wrong with you?" he'd shout at me. "Isn't it good enough what I'm doing for you? Haven't I proven my reliability to you? Do you really think you can do this job better than I?" Our relationship began to sour. I realized that I was getting nowhere and stopped asking for explanations. We eventually avoided conversation altogether. I began to skip more and more of the rituals. Word got out of our split. Unsurprisingly, in short order I found myself marginalized in the community.

And then it happened. One morning, as I was reading the financial reports, I saw that once again, my valuation had dropped to practically nothing. I was virtually broke. Almost instinctively I told myself not to worry, that this had happened before and with time the ship would right itself. But then I realized that I couldn't do that again. I didn't believe it anymore. This was the last straw. I picked up the phone and called Dan.

"Dan, please sell everything I have. I want out."

"What!?" he exclaimed in surprise. "You can't do that! You know this is just a setback. It's happened before. You've seen it yourself! C'mon, just give it some time and everything will be fine."

"No. I'm not taking any more chances with you. I don't trust you. I want out."

"How can you not trust me?! I've made more money than anyone. I've given you more than you ever dreamed of! You're making a terrible mistake! You can't do this! It's wrong!"

We went back and forth. Over and over, he insisted that this was a terrible decision. I kept explaining that it was my decision and I felt it to be the right one. I tried to spell it out for him as best I could.

"Dan, I just don't trust you anymore. Don't you understand that? There's just too many unexplained discrepancies. Too many unanswered questions. Too much questionable behavior. I just don't trust you like I used to."

"Fine, maybe I'm not trustworthy," he finally conceded, much to my surprise. "But what does that matter? The investment is a sound one. XYZ Properties is a proven winner. What difference does it make if I'm a crook or not. It's the investment that matters. Why pull out of a proven thing?!"

He made a good point. I thought about it for a while. And then the answer struck me; it was crystal clear.

"I don't know that XYZ Properties is a good thing," I explained. "In fact, I never did. I never knew more than the bare details of that company. I never invested in it because I knew it's a winner. I invested in it because I trusted you. Because I trusted that you knew what you were doing and that you were reliable. You told me it's a winner. I didn't really know that myself. It was entirely based on your word. And I trusted everyone who backed you up. They told me you were the best there was. But none of your opinions matter anymore to me. You've all proven yourselves to be dishonest, self-serving crooks. I have no reason to believe any of you when you tell me anything! You have no credibility whatsoever in my eyes."

"But XYZ is still the right choice!" Dan persisted. "Can't you see that? Can't you see how it's proven to be the truest path to success for everyone?!"

"No! I can't!" I insisted. "Why would I conclude that? Based on your say-so? I never knew it to be proven. I never really knew anything about it. Every time I wanted to know something about it, you just confused me with incomprehensible explanations and reminded me that I should just trust you!"

"But what about all those years that you believed in it as the right choice?! All those people who you encouraged to follow after you! You can't just change your mind!"

"You're not hearing me Dan. I never really deeply believed in XYZ myself, or knew much about XYZ, and truthfully, I never really cared to. I just believed in it as the right choice because it was working for me and because I trusted you. Those were the two reasons I was in it. Not because of my belief in it, but because of my trust in you and because it was benefiting me. But both those reasons are gone, Dan. I don't trust you and I don't feel it's providing me what I need. In fact, all your rules are just making my life miserable."

"But didn't you see how all the rules helped your success?! You saw it all yourself, the countless ways in which it improved your portfolio!"

"No Dan. I didn't see that. I saw you explaining things how you wanted to see them. Those rules might have helped me in some minor ways, but I don't feel that they are crucial to the portfolio in any significant way.

We kept at this for hours. He just didn't get it. He kept telling me that XYZ was right and true, and no one who invested in it would go wrong. That it would prove itself over time. That it had proven itself over history. That the rules were guaranteed to help me succeed. I kept telling him that he didn't understand how I saw the situation. Finally, when I could go on no more, I demanded the conversation be over. With a heavy heart, he agreed to return my remaining funds, and we hung up.

But it didn't end there. The next day, Dan called me up, and then the day after, and the one after that, insisting that I had made a mistake and that I should reinvest my money. We rehashed the same conversation, again and again, getting nowhere repeatedly. At one point I yelled out, "Dan, I don't care whether you say it's true or not. You're not trustworthy to me! Don't you get it!?"

"Well then, you should learn about it yourself!" he exclaimed. "You should investigate it and find out how worthwhile of an investment it is. You owe it to yourself. This company has a proven track record longer than any other. Maybe you're right not to trust what I say, but just because I'm flawed, doesn't mean the company is bad. You should only decide against them if your own investigation proves to you that they're a bad choice."

I had to concede that he had a point there. Maybe he was right. Just because he was untrustworthy didn't mean that the investment he was backing was also. Maybe I should take a closer look before I made a final decision to stay away forever. But then I realized something. He was right, XYZ might actually be a sound investment, but why should I choose it over the myriad other opportunities presented to me? From where I was standing now, XYZ Properties was as viable an investment as any of those other ventures. But it also had some major strikes against it. For one, it was closely associated with a group of people that were clearly of questionable character. But more significantly, there was a big price to pay for that investment. I had to turn my life upside down to get in on that opportunity. All those requirements ended up driving me nuts, getting in the way of my life, causing endless hassles, preventing me from pursuing other investment opportunities and overall, providing very little tangible benefit to me. And moreover, there were policies in his organization that I found fundamentally objectionable. For example, I strongly disagreed with his views on how and when I was allowed to trade with outside investors. For someone who was willing to take all that on, XYZ might indeed be a worthwhile path to pursue, but I truly did not feel I was that person.

"No," I said to Dan, finally. "You had your chance. I'm done."

"You're making a terrible mistake. You know that you'll never succeed like you can here!"

"I know you feel that way, Dan. I'm sorry."

"It's just wrong to leave," he pleaded earnestly. "No one else has the true way like we do. You have to realize that! You've got to!"

"Well, you might be right about that, but I just don't see it that way now. I'm sorry."

Suddenly his tone turned darker. "Well then, if that's how you feel, leave already. We don't need you! Take your money and invest it elsewhere. I always knew you were a bad seed, you know. Always asking questions, challenging the truth, even the first day I met you! Don't think I wasn't aware how you would skip the rules. That's what messed you up! If you had been following them properly, nothing like this would have ever happened!"

I decided I had had enough. "Dan, I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm going to go now."

He kept on going, as if he hadn't heard me. "You see, you can't deal with hearing the truth...just avoiding the issues..."

I hung up the phone slowly, hearing the last words of his diatribe abruptly silenced with the satisfying thunk of the phone returning to its cradle.

Goodbye Dan, and good luck.