What We Don’t Know About Life and Why We Don’t Know It

What is the purpose of our life here on Earth?  As we reflect on our circumstances here, we come to  recognize that the authentic answer to this question must be to utilize our resources for the pursuit  of truth so as to achieve an understanding of the reality in which we find ourselves.  This task requires us to evaluate what we observe, to distinguish between those elements which move us closer to this goal by containing aspects of truth, which we accordingly decide to accept, and those which move us further away,  leading us  to decide they are false and to reject them.  Moreover, recognizing the absolute nature of truth, it is also possible to achieve an understanding of the other 3 absolutes that are manifestations of truth, namely truth and justice, which concerns individuals’ relationship to society’s legal system;  truth and beauty, which sheds light on the degree of purity in appearances;  and truth and love, which evaluates the extent of selflessness in our emotional responses to particular stimuli.

Despite the universal  tendency toward  this motivation of striving for truth, though, we still observe a great deal of deviation from it  in individual behavior.   The most likely explanation for these departures is that people can be distracted by other priorities such as the desire for material comforts or physical pleasures and wind up devoting their lives to the pursuit of these other,  inauthentic agendas.  In contrast, the pursuit of truth proceeds through the application of what has come to be known as the Scientific Method.  This methodology proceeds to draw inferences about the truth or falseness of phenomena through the application of a 5-step procedure:

  1. Observe the phenomenon
  2. Derive an explanatory theory consistent with the observations
  3. Construct a testable hypothesis to evaluate the theory
  4. Collect the relevant data
  5. Perform empirical tests of the hypothesis, chiefly through statistical analysis of the data.

Although the scientific method is designed to facilitate the determination of the truth of observed phenomena, it is still vulnerable  to 2 types of errors:  it can accept a hypothesis as  true when it is in fact false, or it can reject a hypothesis as false when it is really true.  As a result, it is possible for people to live their lives striving for truth but still not achieve such an understanding, either because of a misapplication of the scientific method  itself (e.g., by conducting a fishing expedition for empirical results without an adequate theoretical foundation) or committing  one or both of these types of errors.

Because of these methodological vulnerabilities, despite all the effort expended on these issues over the course of human history, it remains nonetheless the case that progress on expanding our understanding of reality remains uncomfortably slow, and the number of important questions resolved by human endeavor is still small relative to the number about which we remain in ignorance.   Our rudimentary  understanding of the  nature of life rests on the  contrast we observe between inanimate objects that are immobile and unresponsive to external stimuli and the beings that comprise the hierarchy of life:

Plants are alive because they ingest nutrients and produce waste material, but they lack mobility and cognition.  Animals are higher beings than plants because they possess mobility and a consciousness of their environment that permits them to respond to external stimuli; Humans are more advanced still because of their ability to reason, to communicate to others through the use of language, and potentially to possess an inner  knowledge or consciousness of themselves and  their place in the world.

But it is worthwhile to weigh the adequacy of this perfectly plausible conceptual framework against the important questions that it doesn’t address.   These fall into the following 5 categories:  the inner life of others, the extent of life elsewhere, the extent of life later, the source of exceptional life, and the source of memorable life.

1. During the course of their interactions with other human beings, it is natural for individuals to perceive their own utterances subjectively as they make the most persuasive arguments they can think of to advance their point of view.  Accordingly, the understanding of their effectiveness must be based on their own interpretation of the other’s response. But from the perspective of the other person,  this individual is the other person and they are undoubtedly approaching the interaction in the same way.  This pattern, in which each person understands his or her own position clearly but must infer the other’s reaction from the available evidence is the source of all misunderstanding.

The implication for the ensuing state of communication is not hopeful.  Each person possesses the potential to misread the other’s signals even when each is responding honestly to the other.  And when the possibility that one or both may deliberately misrepresent his or her position intentionally to influence the result, the resulting outcome requires a game theoretic  analysis to evaluate all the possibilities.

The underlying problem endemic to all communication is the uncertainty associated with the asymmetric advantage of the other in being able to keep secret  his or her true inner thoughts.  And since all parties to communication find themselves in this role of the other, this conundrum remains a problem without a solution.

2. Another question about which there is much interest but no resolution is whether the human beings that populate the Earth are the only living creatures in the Universe, or could there be other forms of life elsewhere, possibly in our own solar system, and if so, how similar are they to human beings and would their environment be hospitable to human beings from Earth?

Our interest in this matter may  have begun as simple curiosity  but the recent evidence of the growing threat of  climate change on Earth  may now be lending it more urgency, as the possibility of the future uninhabitability of the Earth  would leave the colonization of other locations in space necessary  for the continuation of the species.

The earliest efforts to shed light on the question of the potential for life outside the Earth came from astronomers, who have catalogued other  celestial bodies using high-powered telescopes with the goal of trying to determine if there are any other places which might appear to possess the necessary ingredients to support life (e.g., the presence of water and moderate temperatures), but so far they have discovered no possible candidates.

The first step in this direction would be the development of the capability for travel to distant locations, but the first efforts toward this goal were not taken until the 20thcentury with the early invention of the airplane and followed by transatlantic flight and the space program, culminating with the landing of a man on the moon at the end of the 1960’s.

When we consider the massive financial cost of these efforts as well as the dedication of resources in the scientific community to produce the  necessary technology and train the individuals to acquire the specialized expertise to carry out this work, there is no other conclusion other than that we began to address the problem too  late  and the ensuing progress has been too slow  and ensures that the prospect of ever achieving this goal is all but impossible. Compared to the concentration of effort and the progress made in other endeavors (e.g., entertainment), it is clear that the fault lies not so much in this slowness per se. but in the lack of priority the society assigns to it.

3. One of the regularities of life is that it is limited by time;  we are born at a particular point in time not of our own choosing, we come to adulthood developing the particular personality or spirit that others recognize as us (being aware that that personality is fluid, so that what others recognize  as our spirit at one point in time can be different at another point due to our maturation with the passage of time)  and spend our time pursuing some set of goals.  Over that span of time, our physical bodies undergo a certain amount of wear and tear, and at some later point in time, from any one of a variety of causes, the spark of life that sustained our physical bodies departs, and we are declared dead.

But what about that spirit by which others knew us, does it die with the physical body, or does it have a life of its own?  This question is perhaps the central subject of every  religion, with each one expressing its own theory on this matter. The philosopher Marcel Proust hypothesized  that there are 3 stages of existence:  First we each have a pre-birth existence before we are born into our physical bodies, where we learn ethical principles to live by;   After this training period, we are born and are free to make our own decisions during the time of our lives on Earth;  Finally, we experience a post-death existence where our consciousness is made to try to reconcile what was learned in the pre-birth stage with how post-birth stage was actually lived.

This  important question of whether the spirit that characterizes each individual’s unique personality is separable from the physical body, permitting people to experience life after death, is, not surprisingly, impossible to verify, since there are very few examples  of people claiming to have personally experienced this phenomenon, and these accounts are never verified by an independent, third party,  leaving open the distinct possibility that the person making the claim  may well be lying.   With no reliable first-hand witnesses, the issue  becomes a matter of faith:  people either believe that their spirit has a life apart from their physical body or they don’t.

4. Whether they like it or not and regardless of how actively they choose to participate, people are born into a competitive world, with worldly success and rewards unevenly divided between a  few successful individuals and a mass of billions of average people who are undistinguished.  Ironically, in their own immediate circle of friends and family, it can easily be the case that those who the larger society views as average can be enjoying fulfilling lives, and some of those few success cases may be personally unhappy, but this observation does not change the reality of this one-sided competition.

What causes this small group of distinguished people to stand out from the crowd?   Certainly, part of the answer must lie in the advantage of birth.  A white person born in the United States possesses a greater chance of success than a poor person from India.  But there are examples of Black people born in the United States or people who became rich in India that suggest that the accident of someone’s circumstances at birth cannot be the whole story.

The role of individual effort lies at the heart of the issue.  The fact that there are a very large number or circumstances in which someone can make a mark in society certainly facilitates the opportunity for an individual to succeed at one of those endeavors,  Many of these people are inventors, geniuses whose imaginations lead them to see existing product functions  from  a new perspective and dream up an efficient means of fulfilling those functions. Examples are the inventor of  the I-phone, which replaced wall telephones and information storage facilities, with portable devices that perform those functions, and the developer of the market  for financial interest rate swap contracts, which offered investors the capability to hedge or speculate on market interest rate movements with instruments that are more flexible than futures contacts.

But the underlying source of the genius’s imagination is a subject of dispute:  some observers attribute it to hard work applied to intellectual superiority, while others cite luck in developing the invention at the right time and place in  history,  when the world happened to be ready to recognize its value.   Framed in these terms, the issue does not seem to lend itself to resolution, in that there is no logical or empirical method to advance the problem beyond the realm of personal opinion.

5. Closely related to the question of why so few people develop into geniuses is the question of how  the lives of a small number of individuals  become significant,  in the sense that their names are recognized for their achievements long after their physical deaths  by large numbers of people who did not know them personally.  The reason for the overlap is that, if we don’t count the nefarious political leaders of  their countries that are remembered only for their notoriety, it is the geniuses  that society chooses to remember in history as significant.

So, who are these memorable individuals?  They seem to fall into 2 distinct categories:  Discoverers of Truth and Creators of Beauty.  Discoverers of Truth, as the name implies, are those individuals who  observe reality as it presents itself but who possess the rare insight  to  apply the scientific method in a novel manner and reveal a previously unimagined way of understanding a less visible reality.  They are mostly scientists skilled in the use of research methods, with the most prominent example being the physicist Albert Einstein.

Creators of Beauty possess insight that enables them to imagine a previously invisible reality that they then endeavor to bring forth and express in  aesthetic form.  They consist principally of artists of all milieus –  painters, sculptors, musicians  and poets – of which there are a number of notable examples from the painter Vincent Van Gogh to the composer Giacamo Puccini.

An important difference between these 2 types of memorable geniuses lies in the extent to which their significance is dependent on  the internal feelings their work arouses in their audience.  The output of discoverers of truth can be evaluated objectively  and unemotionally on the basis of the persuasiveness with which they can convince others of the validity of their work.

The efforts of creators of  beauty, on the other hand, affect each member of their audience subjectively.  As a consequence, everyone capable of understanding the effort of a discoverer of truth can reach only one conclusion:  it is either correct or it isn’t.  In contrast, creators of beauty are judgable on a more flexible standard:  the same work can be found moving and inspiring to some, but boring to others. In many ways, and unlike what discoverers of truth produce, audience members’ reactions to artistic stimuli are a function of their own personal experience and history.

It should be pointed out that there exists a school of critical thought that argues for the existence of absolute standards in aesthetics,  based on a rigid set of rules that stress traditional conceptions for the use of shape and color  By these standards,  which would misguidedly attempt to judge creators of beauty by the same criteria as discoverers of truth, many of the most innovative artistic contributions ever made would be condemned as unworthy of anyone’s attention.

More importantly perhaps, such an approach would deny the absolute character of truth, transforming its absolute nature in justice, beauty, and love into a series of relative judgments:  justice would no longer need to be the result of the guilty being punished for their misdeeds  and the innocent acquitted, but would be influenced and rationalized by the influence of wealth and privilege;  beauty would no longer reflect the purity of a person’s or painting’s appearance but the ugliness of worldly corruption;  and love would no longer reflect the selflessness of the relevant parties, but the dishonest display of passion disguised by tender endearments.

In short, our search for truth reveals our ignorance and the unlikelihood of overcoming it.

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When Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?

The  weakening of a strong bond between human beings purely as a function of the passage of time seems to be a universally-observed phenomenon. The well-known phrase “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” was actually first coined by Chaucer and has subsequently become a staple of the English language.  Although we may accept it as one of the regularities of life, it is, at the same time, counterintuitive since its existence represents a violation of the normal laws of physics where the principle  of causality implies a certain degree of stability between actions taken and outcomes observed.

But what accounts for the inverse relationship  in the affinity between human beings and the passage of time? 1. The most apparent hypothesis we might consider to account for the wearing out of affection  rests on the assumption that since intense relationships are rare, they are only entered into in circumstances of an extremely strong mutual attraction between the two parties.  As a result, an extremely close relationship, by definition, lacks the potential to get stronger, but can only become less intense as it achieves greater familiarity.  We shall refer to this idea as the “nowhere else to go” explanation.

2. The chief reason for the uniqueness of intense relationships is that the commitment to enter into them leaves the parties emotionally exposed and vulnerable – a state to which most people have an aversion in everyday life. One of the behavioral habits people tend to adopt to justify this voluntary  exposure is a sometimes-exaggerated glorification of the other person.  And herein lies a second possible explanation for why familiarity breeds contempt. Although the moments of intimacy may be the most memorable aspects of relationships, the rest of their interactions are usually taken up with the more mundane aspects of living.  And as the  number of ecstatic experiences begins to represent an increasingly smaller proportion of interactions that constitute the total amount of time devoted to the relationship between the parties, a sense of boredom may set in, and we shall accordingly refer to this explanation as the “boredom explanation”.

3. A corollary to the tendency toward glorification of the beloved and perceiving him or her through “rose colored glasses” is that such a perspective places insufficient emphasis on the imperfect nature of the human beings. As more time passes and the parties attain more experience in the relationship, cracks may begin to appear in the perfect image each has constructed of the other, and it becomes apparent that they may possess feet of clay.This sense of disillusionment arises not so much from an awareness of any serious flaws in the other person – after all, the presence of major shortcomings would have precluded the original attachment from forming – but rather a disappointment relative to expectations. This explanation for the phenomenon is the “feet of clay” problem.

4. In a majority of cases, fascination with the other tends not to be uniformly distributed, so that one party is usually more invested in pursuing the matter than the other.   A problem with this uneven division is that even with the best intentions,  pursuers could wake up one day to discover that they no longer feel the same way. This   possibility is actually a special case of a more general phenomenon known as a moving target, where a cause-and-effect relationship that has always been reliable in the past suddenly stops working.  More common examples are bodily metabolic patterns such as reactions to regimens of medications that unaccountably cease to deliver beneficial results, or a dislocation in working conditions following a corporate reorganization.  We will refer to this possibility as the “moving target” explanation.

5. In the early stages, both parties tend to get absorbed in the intricacies of the new experience to the exclusion of the everyday life going on around them. With the passage of time and the erosion of the novelty of the situation, though, the re-imposition of the worldly environment gradually draws attention away from the exclusivity of the relationship with the recognition that life goes on. But with this re-introduction of the outside world, the parties’ adaptation to the change contains within it the potential for abusiveness and even the possibility of incorporating newer, outside interests.  We define this circumstance as the “intrusion of the outside world” contribution to explaining the phenomenon.

6. Interestingly, despite the presence these justifications for the ephemeral nature of relationships, in each instance the parties enter into these attachments with the conviction that theirs will last forever.  The effect of this denial in the face of the evidence is to persevere in each new encounter, which is what makes this perspective  important.  We shall label this factor the “denial” explanation.

We will now consider the role that each of these 6 factors plays in accounting for why familiarity breeds contempt.   The explanations  that apply in all cases are the first, that a relationship in the early stages of enthrallment, by definition, can only weaken  with time, and the sixth, that at the outset the parties are imbued with a blind optimism that their experience will be different from that of everyone else.

The other explanations have more limited application.  The second, a growing sense of boredom after the first flush of enrapture, is probably the most common of these.  If the partners are married, for instance, they often justify continuing to remain together in a loveless marriage for the sake of the children.  And just generally, many people, even when relatively young, opt to live in circumstances for which there is no upside potential, even though only a relatively short time earlier they had found themselves in a situation for which there was no downside potential.

The recognition that one or both of the partners may possess feet of clay  probably accounts for a majority of the decline in in the vitality of relationships for which there remains a commitment to maintain them.

The other two cases admit the possibility that the reduction in interest could be extreme enough for the partners to consider the possibility of cutting their losses and pursuing other options,  since the moving target problem involves the pursuing party’s  loss  of determination to continue in the relationship.  This event constitutes a necessary condition for the dissolution of a once-solid partnership.  But the intrusion of the outside world is the sufficient condition for  this theoretical deterioration of commitment to find outlets for their realization.

Despite the substance of this essay being the enumeration of the explanations for the phenomenon of familiarity breeding contempt, it is not entitled why, meaning  for what reasons, but rather when, meaning under what conditions.  The implication is that if the reasons were identified and understood, we would possess the capability to redirect our thoughts and behaviors toward the end of undoing what we normally observe and establishing a positive relationship between emotional closeness and the passage of time in own lives.

As with so many other issues, most of the problems associated with the usually-experienced pattern are avoidable by pausing to reflect on a particular stimulus before responding automatically.  In the first moment of mutual attraction, if one of the parties takes steps consciously to slow the pace of the interaction, this effort can have the effect of reducing the impetus for impetuous abandonment to unbridled passion, with the long-term benefit that foregoing a short-term pleasure will increase the likelihood that interest in the ensuing relationship will be more stable and long-lasting.  And if the other party is so disappointed that he or she decides not to pursue the matter further, then the first party at least  has the compensation of knowing that the right choices were made.

Even adopting this sensible approach, though, cannot guarantee that the pitfalls identified earlier will never occur.  To ensure that the vitality of a relationship is not undermined by boredom, for instance, both parties need to commit themselves to behaving in ways interesting to their partners.  Similarly, the parties should probably avoid exaggerating the admirable qualities of their partners in order to limit any disappointment stemming from the discovery that they have feet of clay.

There is no real defense against one of the parties losing interest by falling prey to a moving target, although this probability can be minimized if they agree that neither of them should uniformly play the role of the pursuer.  Similarly, no-one can prevent the intrusion of the outside world, but open communication between the parties can reduce the potential that such an intrusion can seriously damage the relationship.

Finally, at the outset, both parties need to dampen their expectations about the invincibility of their connection.  The irony is that if they remain in denial about it, they are more likely to be disappointed, whereas the adoption of a more sanguine expectation will serve to increase the likelihood of a long-lived relationship.

In summary, while we began by enumerating the reasons why familiarity breeds contempt, we concluded by suggesting how those same reasons could be used to construct strategies that improve the chances that familiarity will breed fulfilling, stable relationships.

Reflections of Two Old Dead White Guys on Life, Love and Success

The New York Times was kind enough to run my obituary on August 27, 2003.  It read as follows:  Frederick L. Dimwelt, an Undersecretary of the Treasury in the Johnson administration and a former president of the Federal Reserve bank of Minneapolis, died Thursday of a heart attack in Fort Myers, Fla.  He was 90.

It went on to say that Mr. Dimwelt, who had been a banker in the Federal Reserve system, was appointed Undersecretary of the Treasury for Monetary affairs in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.   Mr. Dimwelt would hold this position until 1969, when he left to become a partner at Lazard Freres & Company.

By way of background, the Times elaborated that Mr. Dimwelt joined the Treasury at a time when the traditional role of the United States as the linchpin of the global economy was beginning to change in line with the postwar maturation of the economies of Western Europe and Japan.

As the administration’s point man on matters of international finance, Mr. Dimwelt played a leading role in developing the special drawing right, better known as the S.D.R., as an alternative to the dollar or  to gold as an international currency to finance global trade.  The concept of the unit was introduced in 1967 as the centerpiece of a broad monetary accord  that Mr. Dimwelt helped formulate between the United States and the developed nations of the time.   Henry H. Fowler, the Treasury Secretary at the time, called the signed agreement “one of the greatest days in the history  of financial cooperation”.

Born In Des Moines in 1910, and working most of his life in St. Louis and Minneapolis, Mr. Dimwelt retained a loyalty to the Midwest despite his years as a globe-trotting technocrat in Washington and a banker in New York.

“If only New York wasn’t  such a terrible place to live,” Mr. Dimwelt once told the New York Times as an explanation for leaving Lazard Freres in 1971 for  a senior banking position in Minneapolis. “I’d have enjoyed it more”.

Mr. Dimwelt, who spent 8 years serving on the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee, prided himself on being someone who allowed his employees creative leeway.   In  a recollection from 1992, Mr. Dimwelt remembered his first experiences with  Paul A. Volcker, who was his deputy at the Treasury,  who later went on to become the chairman of the Federal Reserve,  and whose innovative policy approach is credited with breaking the back of the economy’s double-digit inflation in the 1980’s. He remembered Volcker telling him that Mr. Dimwelt was completely different from his predecessor  in that he let his employees do what they thought ought to be done.  Mr. Dimwelt  recalls telling Volcker that that was true as long as they did it right.

As further background, Mr. Dimwelt started his career as a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 1941, from 1957 to 1965, he was President of the Federal Reserve bank in Minneapolis, and in 1972 he ran a bank holding company there.  He earned bachelor and master degrees in history and a Ph.D. in economics from Washington University in St. Louis. He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Inez Wilson Dimwelt of Sanibel, Florida, and 2 sons, Richard L. of Sanibel, and Fredrick W. of Summit, New Jersey.

Introducing A Second Obituary

About 10 years later, on August 5, 2013,  The Columbia Business School issued a press release entitled School Remembers Professor Emeritus F. Michael Relda, who passed away after a long illness on July  29, 2013.  He was 76.

The obituary went on to say that in his more than 40 years on the faculty,  Mr. Relda was an influential member of the Columbia community.  Among. his  many contributions, he was instrumental in developing the M.B.A. class on international corporate finance, and he served as chair of the Finance Division.  He later joined the University Senate in 2002, where he helped bring R.O.T.C. back to campus.

Born in Prague in 1937, Mr. Relda was sent to live in Scotland at a young age (just before the German occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia). A minister’s family raised him in Edinburgh until 1948, when he reunited with his parents in Israel. There, he spent 2 years working on a Kibbutz.  Mr. Relda later joined the Israeli army, serving in the elite paratroop battalion in the 1956 Sinai campaign.

Intent on industrializing the kibbutz economy, Mr. Relda attended Carnegie Mellon University, earning a B.S. degree in Industrial Engineering in 1962 and an M.S. in 1963, before enrolling in Harvard Business School, where he completed his D.B.A. degree in 1968.  Entering the academic job market, Mr. Relda was hired as an assistant professor in Columbia Business School’s Finance and Economics Division.  He taught courses in international finance, corporate finance, and emerging markets.  His philosophy of teaching was that a professor cannot hold the students’ attention very long if he is not  producing cutting edge research himself, rather than simply rehashing other people’s findings.  His teaching therefore closely mirrored his research interests.

In particular, although the field of corporate finance is well-developed on the domestic side (with a number of those researchers receiving Nobel prizes), Mr. Relda saw that the comparable effort on the international side, although equally important, had been neglected.  He began to produce a number of papers and submitting them to the main journal of the American Finance Association. The Journal of Finance, the publication source of a number of significant papers, including Harry Markowitz’s 1952 tome on portfolio selection. Bill Sharpe’s 1964 piece on capital asset prices, and Gene Fama’s 1970 article on market efficiency.

Mr. Relda became successful in his publications quest,  some as the sole author, and others with a junior coauthor. Three of them especially  stand out in making an impact on the field:  “The Cost Of Capital And Valuation of a Two-Country Firm”  Journal of Finance March 1974);  “Optimal International Acquisitions” Journal of Finance(March 1975);  and “International Portfolio Choice and Corporation Finance: A Synthesis”  Journal of Finance(June 1983).  As the result of these successes, Mr. Relda was promoted, first to associate professor, then to full professor.

In addition, Mr. Relda became so well-respected in the field that he was appointed as an associate editor to a number of editorial boards, including The Journal of Finance.  Moreover, he was a visiting professor at a number of prestigious universities around the world; he also he served as a consultant to a number of multinational corporations, as well as the U.S. Treasury, the U.S. State Department, and the Federal Reserve.  Finally, Mr. Relda was reportedly on the shortlist for the Nobel in Economics at the time of his demise.

The Dead Guys Meet to Compare Notes and Dish the Dirt

 Mr. Redla:  Fred, you old rascal, I haven’t seen you since Shep was a pup.  What kind of mischief have you been causing up here?

Mr. Dimwelt:  Mike, you old son-of-a-gun, I swear on my mother’s grave, I’m innocent;  I found the place like this.

Mr. Relda:  Well, you know, I’m the new kid on the block; so I’m hoping you’ll show me the ropes.

Mr. Dimwelt:  Not a problem, my man;  I’d be pleased to give you the guided tour; there will be a small service charge, of course, to permit me to recoup my out-of-pocket expenses, but two gentlemen of good will  can agree on a suitable sum.  Shall we say something in the low seven figures?

Mr. Relda:  That’s not a problem;  you may anticipate your immanent receipt of my check in the mail.

Mr. Dimwelt:  It’s good two old pals, like ourselves, can settle these unpleasantries amicably based on our mutual trust.

Relda: You bet! Now, the first question I wanted to ask was if you were surprised at the time of your heart attack that the death of your physical body would not necessarily bring about the end of your conscious being. In other words, did you anticipate there would be life after death?

Mr. Dimwelt:  Well, permit me to answer a question with another question —are you familiar with the excellent collection of essays and short stories called Batlinblog?

Mr. Relda:  I sure am! I eagerly await each insightful new posting.

Mr. Dimwelt:  Well, I direct your attention to the outstanding essay from a few months ago entitled The Origin of Ideas.  In it, the author makes a persuasive case for the immortality of the soul, as well as for solutions  to other enigmas popularly believed to defy analysis.

Mr. Relda:  Thanks for the tip;  I will go back and re-read it.

Mr. Dimwelt:  But how about you, Mike?  Were you satisfied with the way your life unfolded?

Mr. Relda:   Well, I had nothing to complain about!  My male colleagues were always green with envy when they saw the long lines of beautiful women waiting to keep company with me.  For their part, the women in the school viewed me as a welcome alternative to the blockheads they met in their classes, and they interpreted my elegance,  my appreciation of great art and music, and my admiration for their beauty as very attractive assets. Unfortunately, as I was coasting along in this garden paradise, one day I learned that a longtime close, personal friend of mine had become H.I.V. positive.

Mr. Dimwelt:  That must have been devastating.  How did you cope?

Mr. Relda:  Well, I became an A.I.D.S. activist.  I was the chairman of the National A.I.D.S. Trust to solicit corporate donations to raise public awareness and fund research in search of a cure. Unfortunately,  I wound up having a very public shouting match over a disagreement that was probably more a matter of style than substance with  the person whose name was synonymous with  raising A.I.D.S. awareness, namely Lady Diana.

Mostly, though, my friend’s plight reminded me of Guy de Maupassant, who discovered at a relatively young age that, through his self-indulgence, he had exposed himself to syphilis and stupidly cut short his promising career.

I myself began experiencing mysterious symptoms of a disorder no medical specialist was able to identify.  As I began to confront my own mortality, I soon grew despondent, fearing I would never win my coveted Nobel Prize, and that within a generation my work would be forgotten.

In fact, in the ensuing years, the journals, including The Journal of Finance, have  witnessed such an erosion of their standards that not only has every arrogant mediocrity published there, but the arrogant mediocrities’ students routinely get their papers published there.

Mr. Dimwelt:  Now don’t go being so hard on yourself.  But tell me a little more about your success as a Lothario.

Mr. Relda:  Well, as I say, these beautiful young women, destined soon to join the corporate workforce as successful executives, for the most part, considered it a confidence-booster to be included in the elite club of “Relda’s  girls”.  There were exceptions, of course.   I remember this one beautiful creature named Miriam, an administrative assistant in the Ph.D. office whom I seduced one evening, but who then betrayed her lack of self-confidence  the following morning by interrogating me about whether I intended to marry her.

Later, this same Miriam became involved with one of the finance Ph.D. students named Paul who, as a result of this business, refused to have me chair his dissertation committee, instead throwing  his lot in with a manipulative associate professor named Jim Free.  Free attempted to put forth Paul’s dissertation  as a means of  furthering his agenda to glorify a paper of his while denigrating the dissertation of one of my special graduate students.  Anyway, the whole distasteful business turned out to be a “tempest in a teapot,” since the discipline of Finance collectively relegated the entire issue to the “dustbin of history”.  In the meanwhile, I used my position as associate editor of The Journal of Finance to make sure any paper he submitted would never see the light of day, thereby dooming his tenure at The University of Michigan, where he was employed.

Mr. Dimwelt:  I appreciate your candor, Mike, but I’m curious, you didn’t find the logistics of maintaining your persona as a Casanova  challenging sometimes?

Mr. Relda:  Well, of course, when you’re alone in close proximity with a girl, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what each expects from the other.  If I wait for her approval for each step in advance, she’ll see me as analytical and unromantic;  on the other hand, proceeding too far without  guidance  has the potential to stray into the rape realm.  It can all be very confusing.   I tend to err on the side of caution, myself.

Mr. Dimwelt:  Very interesting.  I myself have a little experience as an observer of some of these matters.

Mr. Relda:  Tell me about it.

Mr. Dimwelt:  Well, it was at the tail end of my career, with certainly all my best accomplishments long behind me. To continue to keep earning a paycheck, though,  I had entered into a series of employment arrangements more appropriate for someone with credentials much less impressive than mine.

I had finally fallen far enough to accept the job of chief economist at a third-rate commercial bank.  We had 4 divisions—the domestic financial sector, the domestic economic sector, the international sector. and a group dedicated to organizing the department’s many publications.   All the divisions devoted their efforts to the fruitless job of forecasting – interest rates, economic activity, and foreign exchange rates.  This work was not only impossible to do with any accuracy, but there was another part of the bank charged with the same tasks, and so eventually my economic research  group was disbanded.

Anyway, one day the head of the domestic economic  activity sector decided to hire a young, pretty college graduate as a research assistant , and immediately she was the talk of the whole department, especially among the young men.  Eventually, the winner of the lottery was the head of the domestic financial sector, a fellow also named Paul. I suppose I shouldn’t have let it bother me, but Paul seemed completely ignorant of who I was, apparently believing that he was working for some mediocrity.

In any event, Paul and the young girl  became something of an item.  The “fly in the ointment” was that he was 15 years her senior, so the arrangement was completely inappropriate from the beginning, which all his friends and colleagues told him, but he continued to persevere, right up to the time she dumped him, shortly after the department went out of business.  His situation always reminded me of the song composed and performed by Bobby Short entitled Say It Isn’t So.  These are the lyrics:

Say it isn’t so

Say it isn’t so

Everyone is saying you don’t love me.

Say it isn’t so.

 

Everywhere I go

Everyone I know

Whispers that you’re growing tired of me.

Say it isn’t so.

 

People say that you

Found somebody new.

And it won’t be long before you leave me.

Say it isn’t true.

 

Say that everything is still okay,

That’s all I want to know.

And what they’re saying,

Say it isn’t so.

 

People passing by

Say he’s younger than I

And it won’t be long before you leave me

Tell me it’s a lie

 

Say that everything is still okay

That’s all I want to know

And what they’re saying

Say it isn’t so.

Mr. Relda:  That’s fascinating Fred.  Say, you don’t think it’s possible for these 2 men named Paul to be the same person at different stages of his life, do you?

Mr. Dimwelt:  I suppose it’s possible, but they really seemed to have very different personalities. The  Paul you knew seemed to have very strong principles, even when it was not in his own self-interest, whereas the one I knew seemed more willing to throw caution to the wind.

Mr. Relda:  I wanted to get your take on something else, Fred. Have you been keeping up with events that have happened in the world since the time we left?

Mr. Dimwelt:  I have, although it seems there were more notable developments recently after your time than occurred after mine, earlier in the new century.

Mr. Relda:  I agree. For instance, It seems women will no longer as tolerate my type of attention as they seemed to do in my time. Today I’d be reviled as a practitioner of sexual harassment.

Mr. Dimwelt:  Undoubtedly! But let’s not overlook the overall change in the attitudes of both women and men toward the nature of their interaction.

Mr. Relda:  It all seems to be part of the general increase of hostility in the culture.  It seems so different from our day.

Mr. Dimwelt:  You can say that again!  From the inability of people to breathe the air or withstand the increased frequency and ferocity of hurricanes and fires, to the waves of migrants risking their lives fleeing persecution, and from the  increased animus among different ethnic groups to the non-zero probability for the first time of nuclear confrontation between nations, the outlook appears bleaker than ever.

Mr. Relda:  Fortunately, you and I now have the best vantage point from which  to observe the developments that now appear most likely to happen.

 

 

The Truth About Lying

Unless someone lives on a desert island or doesn’t own a cell phone, he or she is  constantly bombarded by a stream of information from a variety of sources, and because there is no obvious means by which these communications can be verified, this receipt of information must also be accompanied with the need to evaluate its truth or falseness.   Even in personal conversations with strangers, work colleagues or family members, receivers of information cannot always take it at face value.   Specifically, individuals need to develop methods to enable them to determine when their sources of information or people with whom they are interacting  are telling them the truth or lying to them.

To better appreciate this dilemma,  we propose to introduce a set of 4  categories of  lying, each of which offers a choice of 2 outcomes,  the resolution of which, taken together, will produce a complete analytical framework for determining whether any particular information source is lying. The first of these is definitional —  what type of lie is being told?  The second category is the degree of awareness on the part of a liar that he or she is indeed lying;   The third  concerns the purpose of the lie being told;  And the fourth category defines the effectiveness of the lie.

In terms of the first category, most examples of lying normally take the form of someone attempting to deceive, or  deliberately misrepresent the truth about something, in order to convince someone else that the falsehood is true.  Such lies, where a conscious effort is made to convince a target audience that something which is in fact false is really true, is known as a lie of co-mission.   But equally significant is the opposite case, in which the liar fails to disabuse the target audience of its false beliefs by not articulating the truth.  Such efforts, which are characterized as lies of omission,  can be just as misleading as lies of co-mission, even if they are not generally recognized as such due to the ease with which a liar can convincingly claim ignorance.  Another symptom of this bias occurs when someone caught in a lie of co-mission   attempts to justify the dishonesty by acknowledging it but then claiming it was really a  justifiable lie of omission.  Nevertheless, for someone not to be guilty of lying, that person must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The second measure useful in advancing our understanding of lying has to do with the state of mind of the liar:  to what extent is he or she aware that the claims made in fact represent deviations from the truth?  An intentional liar is someone who is conscious of the difference between the truth and a lie and recognizes that he or she is making a deliberate choice to deceive the target audience by telling a lie.   In contrast, it is possible for someone to be delusional, or so detached from the truth, that he or she is  unaware that what is being articulated is actually a lie, and we characterize such a person as a pathological liar.  One of the problems in sorting out this particular issue is that it requires inferring  something essentially invisible, the liar’s degree of self-awareness, from the available observable evidence, a challenge fraught with the potential for error.

The third issue, the liar’s motive,  introduces us to one of the great paradoxes about lying, namely that its existence does not depend on the distinction between truth and falsehood, but rather on the relationship  between the liar’s intention and the target audience’s belief.  There are many examples illustrating this observation, but perhaps the most obvious one is the presence of mistakes.   When someone conveys information about some matter to another person, he or she may do so with the best of intentions, but may simply be in error, and, as a result,  inadvertently delivers false information to the target audience.  Another example is the ethical lie, where someone intentionally delivers false information to a nefarious audience to prevent a miscarriage of justice.  And still another instance when it is reasonable to consciously misrepresent truth is a white lie, in which the consequences are harmless (as in unjustifiably  complimenting someone’s appearance), or is meant as an act of kindness (e.g., assuring a dying patient that “it will be all right”).

The fourth category focuses on the liar’s target audience and concerns its gullibility:  does the person or persons the liar addresses necessarily believe him or her?  Note that this question is  the opposite side of the coin from  the second category of whether the liar believes his or her own lies, but in contrast to the extent to which  a liar is pathological, the evidence on whether the target audience is gullible is more visible and therefore easier to determine.   The most important evidence about a liar’s credibility is his or her own track record. If someone displays a consistent history of lying, the target audience will be more likely to extrapolate this pattern into the future, to discount the liar’s communications, and be more willing to accept the risk that the liar might one day inadvertently divulge some true information.  If the liar happens to be a public figure, this situation raises the question of whether that person’s behavior can bring about dysfunctional conditions in the larger society.

We now possess the necessary building blocks that enable us to recognize the phenomenon of lying when we encounter it and are thus in a position to evaluate  it and enact an appropriate response, as a function of  the particular form it takes.  The most frequently encountered combination of characteristics involving lying is the intentional lie of co-mission, told for non-altruistic (i.e., selfish) reasons.  The explanation for its frequency is that the need to dissemble, or disguise the truth, finds its origin in the insecurity of the liar, who has inspected the universe of other people’s abilities and achievements, found himself  or herself lacking, and rebels against the inescapable conclusion by lying.  It should be recognized that insecurity can take two forms, justified and unjustified, and most liars fall into the former category.

An important distinction among liars who traffic in intentional lies of co-mission is the extent to which they rely on their imaginations in crafting their untruths. Creative liars possess the capacity to perceive surprising connections between disparate issues or individuals and are able to weave interesting stories that deviate from factual reality out of them.  As a result, it is often  the case that the efforts of these “storytellers” more properly fall into the realm of white lies.

In contrast, many liars who display limited imaginations tend to deal in clichés, relying on exaggeration and hyperbole.  These liars never stray from the motive of selfish lies and often ply their craft in a particularly crude and mean-spirited manner. In fact, some of them are downright hostile, displaying aggressive defensiveness raising their voices, and angrily  repeating the same lies continually whenever their veracity  is questioned.  To place it in an  historical context, this style of oratory was preferred by Adolf Hitler and became known as the “Big Lie” technique.

As mentioned earlier, lies of omission have a tendency to “fly under the radar” and therefore don’t receive the same degree of attention that lies of co-mission do.  To fully anticipate them, the target audience must not only possess a better grasp of the relevant issues than the liar, but must also be so well-versed in the matters under discussion as to be able to anticipate them in all their complexity.     Similar to a trial lawyer who knows never to ask a question he or she  doesn’t  already know the answer to, educated members of the target audience must carefully listen to a liar’s communications not so much for purposes of discovering something they don’t already know, but to listen for things they know that are not being mentioned.

Finally, we return to the subject of pathological liars, hints of how to recognize them, and potential damage they can inflict on members of the target audience.  Some of the indicators of a liar who is oblivious to the fact that he or she is lying may be inferred from their behavioral quirks:  1)the simultaneous articulation of conflicting positions; 2) a short attention span (the inability to stay “on message;”)   3) unpredictable changes in stated positions within a brief time frame;  and 4) irrational outbursts of uncontrolled rage.

The reaction of most people who find themselves in the presence of someone they suspect of being a pathological liar is likely to be one of bewilderment and uneasiness.   As mentioned before, though,  the extent of the liar’s state of self-awareness is literally unobservable, so even in the face of these tell-tale symptoms, there is no definitive diagnosis that a particular liar is of the pathological stripe.

It was mentioned earlier that, hypothetically, if a pathological liar happened to be a public figure, the result could potentially create  dysfunctional conditions in the larger society.  Now, imagine that the public figure happened to be the American President that was elected in 2016.  The new administration can be characterized by three properties:  its mean-spiritedness, its ineptitude, and its penchant for lying,  A case can be made that the first two features are only symptoms of the third, since a presidency founded on a false understanding of reality will attempt to compensate for its  own feelings of inadequacy by proposing polices damaging to large segments of the society, and as many historical figures have learned, reality conforms to truth, not to some petty tyrant’s will.   Furthermore, any attempt to override reality and somehow force lies to become true will be doomed to failure.

The remaining question is whether the President’s lies are pathological in nature, and no one can know that for certain.  What we do know is that the President’s lies display all the symptoms of a pathological liar and, if so, the consequences for the country are dire.  Defensive, chaotic behavior combined with incivility, paranoia, tribalism,  the inarticulateness demonstrated by an exclusive reliance on superlatives, and the real possibility of triggering a nuclear war have now become the order of the day.

The  fourth category in our classification scheme revolved around the target audience’s reaction to a liar.  In the case of the President, his constant lying has served to render all his edicts devoid of reliability and therefore lacking in any informational value.  Oddly enough, his target audience, “the American people,” on whose behalf every politician feels emboldened to speak, appears to be divided between a large segment of citizens weary of the President’s corruption, as exemplified by the use of his office to enhance his business opportunities and to finance  his extramarital romantic attachments, and a distinct minority that choose to ignore these failings with the rationalization that the strong economy and record-setting stock market make up for them.  Moreover, as revelations of new transgressions continue to occur on a daily basis , these two camps of public opinion seem to become more and more deeply entrenched.

With news of each additional piece of evidence about the President’s unfitness for office, commentators on his behavior continue to speculate about what the turning point will be that finally convinces his supporters to come to their senses and abandon him.  Since the time early in his term when the President rashly fired the head of the FBI, a special counsel that was then appointed has been scrupulously investigating all these matters, bringing indictments against a number of the President’s employees and associates, and thus raising the specter  that the President could not only be removed from office, but  tried in a criminal court, convicted,  and sentenced to prison.  Meanwhile, the President’s reaction to these developments has been to discount their seriousness, disparage the efforts of the special counsel, and actually make threatening comments toward him, showing apparently no awareness of the danger facing him.

These are the actions of a pathological liar, not just denying the truth, but taking his denial to the extreme of leaving himself vulnerable to humiliating destruction when the consequences of the overwhelming evidence against him come to pass.  When the inevitable findings of the special counsel are finally made public, not only will a stop be put to the havoc the President has been wreaking, but it will be the wake-up call to his diehard supporters to finally open their eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don Larsen Talks Baseball

I don’t think it’s an accident that baseball is widely regarded as “America’s favorite pastime,” or the country’s most loved spectator sport. While all professional team sports feature a competition between two teams utilizing their skills within the rules of the game to outscore their opponent, the main appeal of football and ice hockey (like the individual sport of boxing) rests on the application of brutality to inflict pain and injury on the members of the opposing team, and the action in basketball is so frenetic, with the members of both teams running up and down the court, that the line between offensive and defensive maneuvers tends to get blurred.

The civilized, measured pace of baseball, on the other hand, involves the two teams taking turns, with the offensive team at bat attempting to score runs and the defensive team in the field endeavoring to prevent it.  As a result, baseball players seem more dignified than the participants in other sports, as if their play is solely a manifestation of their desire to achieve perfection.

As you probably know, I myself was a pitcher,  the position that is the first line of defense in preventing the other team from scoring runs.  I was born in Indiana in August of 1929, a couple of months before the stock market crash which initiated the Great Depression.  I became interested in baseball as a pitcher in high school, and I was recruited by a scout for the old St. Louis Browns in 1953, but I was traded to the New York Yankees in 1955, where I was a pitcher for 5 years.  All told, I played Major League baseball for 14 seasons until I retired in 1967.

In characterizing the battle between pitchers and hitters, we can observe a fundamental asymmetry in these two types of skill.   The categories that measure success in hitting the baseball, such as batting averages or the numbers and types of hits, especially home runs, is essentially open-ended – the higher the better.  In contrast, pitchers face a structural limit of zero in their measures of performance, such as  a pitcher’s earned run average, the number of runs allowed, or  the number of hits allowed.  For pitchers, there is a natural pyramid of success in confining the efforts of batters.

A pitcher who allows no runs in a game, for instance, is said to pitch a shutout;  more restrictive  than a shutout, though, is a no-hitter, where a pitcher doesn’t permit  the opposing team a single hit, so that only through a walk, being hit by a pitch, or through a fielding error can any hitter reach base.  Finally, a special case of a no- hitter is a perfect game, where no member of the opposing team can reach base for any reason, so that in the standard 9-inning game, the 27 players who  come to the plate are all retired in order.

To date, there have only been 21 perfect games in the modern era (after 1900 when all the regulations  that comprise  the game as we know it today became official), so you can see that such an achievement is very rare.   But on October 8, 1956, I became only the fourth pitcher in history to accomplish this feat and the first in 34 years. Moreover, I pitched my perfect game in the world series (against the National League  champion Brooklyn Dodgers in the fifth game of the Series), something no one else has ever done before or since, so you might say I occupy a unique place in the annals of baseball history.

On the other hand, over the course of my career, I was only an average pitcher (notice, I don’t use the adjective “mediocre’” to characterize my overall performance, since, in that one moment in 1956, I possessed the rare combination of skill and luck to achieve something that no one else has ever been able to duplicate.)   But, as evidence of my ordinary credentials, I compiled an Earned Run Average or the number of runs allowed not due to fielding errors per 9-inning game( ERA), of only 3.78; I was the winning pitcher in 81 games, but I was the losing pitcher in 91, so my winning percentage was below .500; and on the other statistic used to quantify a pitcher’s effectiveness,  the number of strikeouts recorded, I registered 849 – a little more than 65 per season.

Sometime after the start of what was to become the Great Depression, the Chairman of the National Baseball Commission dreamed up an idea to sustain interest in the sport in the face of the difficult economic conditions Americans were experiencing.  He proposed the creation of a National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the legendary town where Abner Doubleday first conceived the rules for the game of baseball.  The plan was that every  year those players whose extraordinary achievements on the field were deemed worthy of recognition would be inducted into this elite  group.

In its first year of operation, 1936,  the Commission voted to admit  5 players– 3 hitters and 2 pitchers – to this coveted honor.  The 3 batters were Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees, the holder of the Home Run records for a single season (60 in 1927) and career(714); Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers, who compiled a lifetime batting average of .366, and who registered averages over .400 in 3 separate  years (1911, 1912, and 1921);  and Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who played all 8 fielding positions and set records for the number of lifetime hits (3420) and Runs Batted In  (1732 RBIs).

The two pitchers inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936 were Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators,  who achieved  a spectacular lifetime ERA of 2.17, but was most admired for his record-setting 3509 strikeouts;  and Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, who was the winning pitcher in  373 games during his career, while suffering only 30 losses.

The following year, 1937, there were a number of significant inductees, but 2 in particular stand out:  Tris Speaker, the centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox and later the Cleveland Indians and a contemporary of Ty Cobb, was known for his instinctive fielding prowess and setting the record for runs scored (1882); and Cy Young, a pitcher with the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, who set the record for the number of career victories (511), in one of which, he pitched a perfect game (in 1904.)

In later years, there were also important Hall of Fame inductions: in 1939,  an inductee was Lou Gehrig, the stalwart first baseman for the New York Yankees, who followed Babe Ruth in the Yankees batting order and who had many batting achievements, but was best known for playing in 2130 consecutive games, a record which ended because of the progress of his ALS, now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”    In 1955, Joe DiMaggio, also of the New York Yankees, with many batting and fielding accomplishments, set the record for longest consecutive hitting streak (56 games in 1941.)

Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who was inducted in 1966, was the last .400 hitter (.406 in 1941) and had 2654 career hits despite not playing for 5 years while serving as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War.  And Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, inducted in 1969,  produced 3630 hits, including 475 home runs.

I only mention these examples of the  level of players that have qualified for induction into the Hall of Fame because I am occasionally asked why, as the only player to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series, I have not been admitted to this august group. Well, as I have suggested, my career, apart from that  single shining achievement, was pretty unexceptional.   But it does pose the question of what is the necessary level of greatness to gain admittance, or, put another way, can one exceptional glimmer of greatness ever be sufficient to offset an otherwise-ordinary career?

After all, other players who came after me and  who pitched perfect games are included in the Hall of Fame:  Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies accomplished the feat in 1964 and was inducted in 1996;  Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers executed his perfect game in 1965 and was admitted in 1972;  and Catfish Hunter of the Oakland Athletics pitched a perfect game in 1968 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.     Even the catcher  who caught for me in my perfect game, Yogi Berra, was inducted in 1972.  When he considers these facts, a guy could get a real persecution complex!

I also wanted to add that questionable decisions that serve to exclude singular achievements from the Hall of Fame also extend to hitters.  In my career with the Yankees, I happened to overlap with Roger Maris, who played 12 seasons from 1957 to 1968, including 5 with the Yankees  from 1960 to 1966.  In 1961, he was bearing down on Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60, and managed to hit his 61st on the last day of the season.

Nevertheless, purists pointed out that Ruth hit his 60 during the 154 game season that existed at the time, while when Roger hit 61, a season’s length had been increased to 162 games, and so Roger’s name appears in the record book with an asterisk.   But asterisk or not, his 61 home runs remains the single season record.  Others who subsequently hit more were exposed for achieving their home runs fraudulently through the use of performance-enhancing drugs and were consequently not recognized.   Like me, though, Roger’s  one achievement of greatness was hidden in an otherwise unexceptional career, with a .260 lifetime batting average and a career total of only 275 home runs.

But is it reasonable that his teammate Micky Mantle, who was also chasing Ruth’s record in that 1961 season but came up short with only 54 home runs,  Juan Marichal, off of  whom Roger hit a home run in the 1961 World Series, and Hank Aaron, who  finally broke Ruth’s other  longstanding record of 714 career home runs are included?

It might appear counterintuitive coming from someone who has been hinting  that baseball’s current standards for defining greatness might be too strict, but I would like to suggest that some of the requirements codified in certain definitions serve to make success attainable too easily.  Two examples are relevant to us pitchers:

One that affects the definition of the Earned Run Average measure is the observation that a low ERA does not discriminate whether it is achieved against a first place team or a last place team.  Such a flaw ignores the reality that achieving a low ERA against good hitters is much more difficult than it is against poor ones, just a as pitching a no-hitter is a much more meaningful accomplishment  against a successful team than against a team accustomed to losing.   It could also affect those no-hitters that are perfect games, possibly disqualifying some that were pitched against weak opponents.  Of course, in my case, since I was pitching against the National League Champion team, the status of my perfect game would be unaffected by such a change.

Accordingly, I would propose the adoption of a modified calculation to measure a pitcher’s success in limiting earned runs – the Opponent Strength-Adjusted Earned Run Average, OSAERA.  For each pitcher’s appearance, his ERA would be adjusted up or down as a function of the opposing team’s standing, reflected in its Won-Lost record This modification would provide a much more accurate measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness.

Another proposal that is close to my heart is just in the definition of what constitutes a perfect game.  The existing definition makes only a minor distinction between a no-hitter and a perfect game, as if to say, “a perfect game is a no-hitter not pitched by a buffoon.”  But  if the true meaning of a perfect    game is to connote a pitching performance which is truly exceptional, it should not rest on such technical differences. I suggest a definition that makes a qualitative leap from a no-hitter to a perfect game, such as a perfect game is a no-hitter in which all the opposing players are retired by strikeouts.  Such an enhancement would not only improve the stature of perfect games, but it would also clarify the underlying significance of no-hitters and emphasize the degree to which they are important achievements in their own right.

Batters have only a fraction of a second to decide whether they intend to swing at the ball being thrown to them at over 100 mph.  Pitchers, on the other hand, usually have the luxury of communicating with their catchers through the interplay of finger signals and head nods to plan the appropriate type of pitch for each batter.   They  basically have two  choices: pitches of speed, as represented by the fast ball and pitches of deception, best delivered through the curve ball.

The usual assumption is that a good pitcher will utilize the element of surprise by making his choices unpredictable, but the achievement of perfection shouldn’t depend on such a strategy. Now, the day I pitched my perfect game, I relied almost exclusively on my fastball, and I observed that nothing can be more  intimidating  for a batter than to be forced to absorb this message:  “Even  though you know in advance what pitch to expect from me, it will be so fast that, no matter what you do, you still won’t be able to hit it.”

 

Publish and Perish

The name on my office door tells you who I am:  James H. Free Jr. Until today, I thought I had a pretty good life, currently working as the Senior Managing Director of the GM Asset Management Group, the automobile insurance subsidiary of a large corporation.  I am entrusted with the task  of profitably investing the proceeds of the premiums the company receives, and  I am well compensated  for my decisions in my salary and bonuses.

But that isn’t how I define myself or what I am known for.  I spent my most productive years performing theoretical academic  research in the area of Finance.  While I was a research fellow at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, I met and married my wife Cathy  We lived in Milwaukee,  and we eventually had two children.  Later, I moved to Stanford University, where I took a job in the Finance Department as an Assistant Professor.  Since I am originally from Texas, I developed an easy-going, down-home teaching style but, cognizant of the relatively short tenure cycle of universities and the relatively lengthy review process at academic journals, I devoted most of my time to my research efforts.

The field of Finance, encapsulating the Corporate Finance decisions of  a firm’s capital structure and dividend policy choices and the Capital Markets decisions of investors’ security portfolio choices, has always suffered from an inferiority complex relative to other scholarly disciplines, because financial practitioners tend to use ad hoc, arbitrary rules of thumb to make these decisions.  As a result, until relatively recently,  academicians in Finance didn’t engage in particularly rigorous research practices and instead chose to view themselves as being more practical than their academic colleagues in other fields.

Four research efforts began the process of changing this unscientific  approach and bringing it more in line with rigorous research standards adhered to elsewhere, and these papers formed the basis for the case that the field of Finance was really a branch of Economics, and its research findings should be judged by the same strict standards. Ironically, of course, the most important implication of this adoption of rigorous research methods in Financial Economics was the revelation that most of the common sense, “practical” rules of thumb for making financial decisions turn out to be erroneous.

The first, which concerned Corporate Finance, was the irrelevance theorems of Franco Modigliani of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Merton Miller of the University of Chicago.  Their 1958 paper in The American Economic Review showed that, despite the fact that the yield on bonds is lower than the expected rate of return on stock,    in frictionless capital markets, the firm’s goal of maximizing the market value of its securities (and especially  its stockholders’ equity) was not affected by its capital structure  decision (its choice between debt and equity financing), since investors (whose portfolio investment decisions determine the market value of the firm’s securities) can buy or sell the company’s bonds or stock in their own portfolios to adjust the firm’s choice to obtain their desired debt\equity ratio, undoing any illusory benefits from leveraging the firm’s  balance sheet with  a judicious amount of the cheaper debt financing (especially when the risk of bankruptcy, as reflected in its credit rating, is low) to reduce the firm’s weighted-average cost of capital.

And by similar logic they showed in a 1961 Journal of Business paper that the firm’s value was not affected by its choice to pay high dividends at the expense of lower stock price growth or  to adopt the opposite dividend policy, since the investors who own their securities can adjust their own portfolios by buying or selling  the stock of other firms to get the dividend policy they desire.  Of course, the Modigliani-Miller theorems depend on the assumptions that the firm undertakes optimal investment policies, not accepting unprofitable projects or rejecting profitable ones; and that the capital markets  are free of transaction costs that can cause investors’ gains or losses from portfolio adjustments to deviate from those of the firm.  These costs could be the result of brokerage fees, taxes, or legal expenses incurred in the event of the firm’s bankruptcy.

The other three seminal research breakthroughs more properly belong to the Capital Markets literature.  The first concerned the problem of the optimal strategy by which investors  evaluate security acquisitions, for which there were two important contributions.  One was Harry Markowitz’s 1952 Journal of Finance paper on portfolio selection, in which he stressed the importance of diversification, that securities can be characterized by the expected value and variance of their returns, and that optimal portfolio choices fall along an efficient frontier of risk (measured by variance) and expected returns.  William F. Sharpe at Stanford University then extended this idea in his 1964 Journal of Finance paper on the pricing of capital assets, where he showed that the expected rate of return on any individual security or portfolio will be the sum of a risk-free rate of interest and the product of the extra rate of return on a stock market index  and its exposure to movements in that market index, as measured by its degree of systematic risk.

The second important research in this area was summarized by the University of Chicago’s Eugene Fama in his 1970 Journal of Finance paper on market efficiency, in which he reported empirical findings demonstrating that stock price movements were unpredictable and followed a random walk, so that traditional efforts to use fundamental or technical analysis to find undervalued securities are doomed to failure.

The final important Capital Market research contribution was the path-breaking paper by MIT’s Fischer Black and  the University of Chicago’s Myron Scholes, which appeared in 1973 in the Journal of Political Economy and which utilized the obscure tool of Ito’s Lemma from the arcane  mathematical field of Stochastic Calculus to obtain a closed-form solution for  the pricing of options (contracts that give the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy (in the case of call options) or sell (in the case of put options) an underlying security at a fixed strike price within a fixed time to expiration.

For the record, Modigliani, Miller, Markowitz, Sharpe, Fama, and Scholes all received the Nobel prize for significant contributions in Economic Science.  Only Fischer Black, who had died after leaving his university post in the 1990’s to work at an investment bank failed to receive his well-deserved prize.

When I was doing my Ph.D.at Carnegie Mellon University, Merton Miller was my advisor (he was employed there when it was still called the Carnegie Institute of Technology, before he moved to the University of Chicago), and he encouraged me to investigate how the Modigliani- Miller theorem on Capital Structure would be affected by the introduction of bankruptcy costs.  He further assured me that he knew an editor at the Bell Journal of Economics who would be quite interested in the results if I could produce them relatively quickly.  So, I proceeded to examine the problem for my dissertation, and I could see right away that this market imperfection would invalidate the Irrelevance proposition and produce an optimal capital structure. I formalized this conclusion with some elementary mathematics and presented the  results to my dissertation committee, who, with Miller’s urging, approved it and awarded me my doctoral degree.

I had already started working at Stanford, where I set about turning my dissertation result into a publishable journal article.  After completing a first draft, I submitted it to the Bell Journal, but the referee wrote that the paper needed major revisions, so  I proceeded to get to work on rewriting it.  In the meantime, the Dean at the Stanford Business School informed me that after three years, with no publications, I would not be receiving tenure and would need to and look for another job elsewhere.  I felt that with Miller’s recommendation, I could get an academic job at another good university, and when I learned at the annual American Finance Association meeting that Columbia was hiring, I applied.

When I was interviewed by the Finance Department’s chairman, an Israeli with several publications in the neglected area of International Finance, he seemed quite interested in my research and told me that if I could get my paper accepted soon Columbia would hire me as a tenured Associate Professor.  I accepted Columbia’s offer, and upon learning that Fred Brunswick, one of my Stanford graduate students,  had just been denied tenure at MIT, I arranged an Assistant Professor position for him at the same time.

After I began at Columbia in the Fall of 1975, the reason for the chairman’s interest in my work soon became clear to me.  It turned out that one of his graduate students, another Israeli, was doing his dissertation on the same topic as my Bell Journal article, which was finally published early the following year.  A graduate student named Paul, who had also started at Columbia in 1975, told me that he was taking the advanced level Finance course being taught by this Israeli graduate student, and that he had said some very disparaging things about my article. When I quizzed him about it, Paul told me that this person seemed very insecure and had denied him an “A” in the course despite his excellent performance on the course’s exams and  work requirements.  And when I finally met this person, he addressed me contemptuously.

In general, though, I found my Finance Department colleagues very stimulating.  We held regular seminars open to all professors and graduate students, where someone (often a job candidate) would present a paper and lead a discussion about it.  One that particularly impressed me was Larry Golden from the University of Pennsylvania. His professors had published in and served on the editorial boards of prestigious  journals like Econometrica; Larry’s work reflected a self-confidence and inventiveness that set him apart from other candidates.  When we offered  him an Assistant Professor position, I was pleased that he accepted it, and he became a great colleague.

Paul became very successful in the Ph.D. program, getting to the ABD (all but dissertation) stage in record time, so I was pleased to become his dissertation advisor, and I also asked Fred Brunswick to serve on the committee.  For some reason, though, Paul took a leave of absence for the summer after passing his Prelim, or major field exam,  and when he returned, he explained that he had been working at the library at a university in Washington D.C. to develop a dissertation topic about interest rate futures contracts.  In it he  envisioned a market whose contracts  were modified to permit flexible start dates and end dates.  His analysis would then derive the optimal pricing and hedging properties for the new, flexible contracts.

In the meantime, the Israeli graduate student had continued to make wild claims that my Bell Journal article was seriously flawed, that I hadn’t thought through all the complexities of the problem, and that his dissertation provided the correct analysis of the impact of bankruptcy costs on capital structure, even though his dissertation was unpublished and my paper had appeared in a respectable journal.  At the same time, in listening to Paul describe his ideas, I realized that they could potentially have a huge impact on the field but they might be considered controversial, while the Israeli graduate student’s criticism could potentially damage my reputation in the eyes of people like Larry Golden.  Accordingly, I told Paul that although his research proposal had great potential, it also contained a significant degree of risk,  it might be regarded as controversial, and his dissertation defense might not go very smoothly.  Why not just adopt a safe approach, I suggested, and do a minor extension of my paper?  I could tell he was disappointed but, not unaware that he needed the approval of people like me and Fred Brunswick to get his degree, he reluctantly agreed.

Paul met with me regularly while he made trivial adjustments to my paper.  Once, I noticed something that I didn’t recognize and when I asked him about it, he told me it was something from the Israeli graduate student’s dissertation  that he felt represented improvement on my paper. Later, when we were discussing the matter, he asked my honest opinion about the relative validity of the two models. I maintained that it depended on one’s assumptions, suggesting there were no right or wrong answers.  In any event, I told him that citing unpublished work like the Israeli student’s dissertation in his bibliography would weaken his own dissertation’s credibility.

In anticipation of finishing his degree, Paul attended the industry’s annual meeting to interview for academic jobs.  He received a positive response from representatives of the University of Michigan, visited the Ann Arbor campus for more interviews, and received the offer of an Assistant Professorship there.

When the day of Paul’s dissertation defense arrived, unbeknownst to me, in addition to the members of his committee, the Israeli graduate student and the Department Chairman showed up to criticize Paul’s work, so what I had expected to be a preemptory meeting did not proceed  very smoothly at all. In his defense, I argued that Paul was an asset to the Columbia program and already had accepted a job at Michigan, but, nonetheless, the committee voted to require major revisions to his dissertation, consisting mainly of adding relevant references to the Israeli graduate student’s unpublished dissertation, which Paul completed in a couple of days to get his degree.

Paul went on to submit  12 papers to the Journal of Finance which were all rejected.  But after being denied tenure at Michigan, he joined the trading  division of a commercial bank as the head of its quantitative research group,  doing new product development and risk management for interest swap and  derivative contracts, which is the realization of  the product that he had originally proposed as the subject for his dissertation.

Larry Golden became a Full Professor at Columbia and later founded his own financial consulting company. Fred Brunswick never got a single paper accepted at a journal, but after being denied tenure at Columbia, he joined an investment banking firm and eventually became a billionaire as the developer of the market for index funds, based on the idea that in efficient markets, it is fruitless to try to invest in individual stocks to try to outperform the market.

The Israeli graduate student was denied a tenured position at Columbia and later got a job at someplace called the New York Institute of Technology, which, unlike its Massachusetts namesake, has no accomplished names on its faculty and is not known for being a challenging environment for its students.  He never got any papers published from his dissertation, and he never got a real Finance job.  The closest he ever got to the financial markets was to teach courses in Finance.

The Bell Journal article proved to be my only publication, so  despite our fixation with it, the issue of how bankruptcy costs affect the capital structure decision was not considered all that important after all.  Since I never advanced beyond the rank of Associate Professor at Columbia, eventually, I opted to leave the dead-end job.  Still, I was regarded  as a friendly face and was trusted and well-liked by the faculty and staff. Because of my pleasant style, no one ever suspected me of being defensive about the Israeli graduate student or dishonest and manipulative toward Paul.

But today there has been another development (new information, as we like to say in Finance.) I had been having terrible stomach aches the past few weeks, so I recently consulted a doctor about it to do some diagnostic tests, and I have just learned that I have cancer.  I am told that I have no more than two years to live.

On the one hand, I can accept it – as I say, I have had a good life, enjoying the three score and ten years that the Bible promises, but on the other hand, I am having trouble coming to terms with my own mortality, that my being will soon become irrelevant (just like the economic logic of capital structure and dividend policy,) and I will continue to exist only in the memories of the people who knew me:  my wife and children, my colleagues and students.  I can only hope they will remember me kindly, that despite my advantages, I didn’t attain the successes that others did, and that the image of me that most people have is fundamentally false.

But let me not dwell on the negative.  People respect my performance in my current job and  the position is very lucrative, so with my accumulated earnings, my wife and children will be well provided for.  I still feel a little guilty for my sins, but they are unknown to most people, so, in a relatively short amount of time, it won’t matter anyway.

The Characteristics of Mediocrity

The origin of the term “mediocrity” can be found in the two Latin words, “medi,” meaning “halfway’ and “ocrity,” meaning “mountain.”  The concept is that of  someone or something that is average or unexceptional in a hierarchical environment and therefore preoccupied with trivial matters. Mediocrities do not rise to the level of excellence, but neither do they fall into the category of failure. Their modus operandi is to oversimplify complex problems, only able to gain a superficial understanding of them,  and to demonstrate a startling lack of imagination when encountering unfamiliar  circumstances.  The other element of the term implied in this definition is the behavioral property that mediocrities possess as a group: their decisions and actions tend to be restricted not  by internal judgment, but by  the least common denominator of social convention.

Putting these two ideas  together, we can infer that a mediocrity is an individual who is so indistinguishable from others as to render him or her a nonentity, but at the same time, whose behavior does not conform to generally accepted  conventions of decency.  In fact, in many sets of circumstances, it describes  someone so  devoid of ethical standards as to place their actions or words significantly  below normal standards of appropriateness.

In this essay, I intend to support my conclusions with with a number of examples of mediocrities.  One that has received much attention stems from the 2016 election cycle, where the Republican party found itself in a dominant position, winning the presidency and majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, to say nothing of governorships and state houses. But, despite this overwhelming vote of confidence bestowed upon these chosen officials by the American electorate, with only one exception, the new government has been unable to enact any  laws embodying its populist promise to ‘’’make America great again.”

The one piece of legislation  proposed by the President and passed by both legislative bodies was the so-called tax-reform bill, which was advertised to the public as a middle class tax cut but which turned out to be a massive boon to corporations and the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution at the expense of everyone else.  The bill was passed in record time with no legislative hearings and no transparency as to its content.  Moreover, the resulting ballooning of the country’s budget deficit has jeopardized funding for the long-standing middle class entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare.

The relevance of these developments is that they have been engineered by mediocrities, individuals  simultaneously lacking any personal mark of distinction themselves as individuals, and yet  capable as a group  of producing destructive outcomes for the very voters that elected them.

One may ask on what basis are we able to so characterize these people?  And, while formulating a response,  the first thing we notice is that the term actually describes  two separate and distinct collections of features,  both of which have a well-developed set of principles that guides their beliefs and behavior.  The active role in this case is played by   the President, an instigator of populist incivility and his inner circle, while the congressional Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives have traditionally advocated conservative values that call for limiting the role of Government in the society.

The problem Congressional Republicans now face is that the President is the leader of their party, but his policies, his personal style, and  his behavior directly conflict with their long-held conservative principles.  And while Congressional Republicans may play a passive role in the legislative process, reacting to the President’s actions, they face an ethical dilemma that does not ensnare Congressional Democrats for whom there is no conflict between their voting decisions and their consciences.

is also true that the new government does not have a monopoly on mediocrity, and that there are plentiful examples of both types in everyday experience, although active mediocrity is more readily observable than passive mediocrity, which involves more of an internal struggle.

So, what are these characteristics that are endemic to active mediocrity?  I believe there are four:  first,  A PROCLIVITY FOR BULLYING;  in the President’s case, this aggressiveness and dearth of empathy has manifested itself against anyone he perceives to be weaker than he is, including his 2016 Democratic opponent, the Intelligence Community, the Justice Department, and selected members of his own party and cabinet. In addition, his communication style rests exclusively on ludicrously extreme claims:  every one he supports is the most accomplished person in his or her fields, and all his actions and ideas are the most important in  the history of the country. More generally, all bullies typically employ these tactics and display hostility as a defense mechanism toward  individuals they perceive as more capable and more articulate or more successful than they are.

Second, DEPENDENCE ON A “BLAME THE VICTIM”  STRATEGY; when the President is exposed in one of the many scandals that has marked his time in office, his response has been to lash out at the deliverer of  the information, typically at members of the news media.  And in general, a mediocrity confronted  for bullying activities, will attack the exposer offensively rather than acknowledge any wrongdoing.  The President himself makes his failure to ever issue an apology to anyone a point of personal pride.

Third, DEFENSIVENESS; the President is very sensitive to any criticism and interprets it as an indicator of disloyalty.  And mediocrities generally are unable to acknowledge their condition or address it honestly. The root cause is a lack of self-esteem, and this deficiency then prevents them from seeking out trustworthy confidants, which itself leaves them vulnerable to the commission of avoidable mistakes.

And fourth, RELIANCE ON THE APPROVAL OF A RESPECTABLE ENABLER;  For the President, his appearance of legitimacy hinges on someone close to him to play the role of “the adult in the room.”  The problem is that most of the individuals who have performed this function have been revealed to have their own “feet of clay.”  The President’s claim for respectability currently rests with that of his Secretary of Defense.

Moreover, within the group dynamics of any social setting inhabited by a mediocrity, there is always one other individual, who has acquired the respect of the larger group,  that  makes it a priority to overlook the mediocrity’s shortcomings and defend that person against all criticism,  in the same way that the President’s base of supporters remain staunchly loyal to him and deaf to the outrageousness of his statements and actions.

The characteristics of passive mediocrity may, in some cases, overlap with those of active mediocrity, but there are two features whose description applies uniquely to the passive variety, as best illustrated by the legislative members in the Republican majority.  I believe there are two of these features:

First, OBSEQIOUSNESS, the particular form of dishonesty practiced by passive mediocrities as  a reflection of disrespect for an authority figure;  It usually takes the form of a not-very-credible show of support for a particular idea expressed by an active mediocrity, motivated by a hope of personal gain for themselves.  The most subtle application of obsequiousness occurs when the dishonest show of support lacks sincerity in a fairly transparent manner, permitting the passive mediocrity some small degree of dignity, especially when the expected gain turns out to be illusory.

Republican Senators and Congressmen practice obsequiousness when they praise the President’s leadership role in crafting his meanspirited agenda, and they barely acknowledge that in spite of their numerical advantage, most of it has not become law.  More generally, passive mediocrities utilize obsequiousness to disguise an absence of self-confidence during interactions with an authority figure.

And, second, AN EXCESSIVE CAPACITY FOR COMPROMISE:  As mentioned earlier, Republicans possess a well-developed ideology as to the proper way to conduct themselves in life.  Both liberals and conservatives adhere to the conviction that the democratic form of government is the most effective way to organize the lives of its citizens.  In fact, the United States has fought and won wars against authoritarian regimes whose leadership believed that the personal freedom of its citizens should be limited. The subtle philosophical difference between Democrats and Republicans revolves around the role of government in furthering the cause of democracy, with Republicans favoring less interference with market forces, and Democrats believing government should play a more proactive economic role.

Given this background, every citizen of the United States, and most especially those who have been elected to serve in higher office, should, regardless of their views on this philosophical issue, be united about the appropriate response to to the behavior of this President, who embodies the very spirit of authoritarianism (to say nothing of incompetence.)  But, while 100% of the Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives have done so in both their voting records and in their spoken words, the number of Republican office-holders with the integrity to express their disapproval of this state of affairs has been very small, and, until recently, could be counted on the fingers of one hand.  The question posed by this expression of passive mediocrity is “Why?”

All adult human beings are confronted at least once in their lives, regardless  of their race, their religion, their sex, or any other defining property, with a conflict between the set of underlying beliefs that define who they are,  and the immediate circumstances in which they find themselves.  The resulting ethical dilemma, in which they feel themselves torn in opposite directions by these two overwhelming forces is considered by many to represent the defining moment of their lives.

In the case of Congressional Republicans, there would normally be no conflict, as supporting a Republican President and adhering to conservative principles would amount to the same thing.  But this President was elected by the minority of voters who had become disillusioned with established politicians and responded positively to his political inexperience and his populist style  under the Republican banner.  So, what, then, does it mean to be a Republican?  Is it this President’s party, or does it still represent the traditional conservative values (the ones the voting public rejected?)

Congressional  Republicans have found different ways to answer this question.  Some have explicitly compromised their principles and reluctantly supported the President, unable  to withstand the assault of his bullying tactics, while others have succumbed to the Stockholm syndrome and embraced him enthusiastically. Still others think they have found a way to  retain their integrity by speaking out against the President, but then simultaneously announcing their intention not to seek reelection in the coming term.  This latter tactic may be safe, but it is also cowardly and costly.  Nevertheless, it has become the method of choice for Congressional Republicans to resolve their conundrum. When the Republican Speaker of the House recently followed this path, he was the 40thRepublican office-holder to do so.

An example that illustrates an instance of passive mediocrity beyond that of current political personalities is the case of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea during  the reign of the Emperor Tiberius in the 1st century.  In his capacity as chief magistrate, it was Pilate’s responsibility to determine the innocence or guilt of Jesus of Nazareth on the charge of treason to the Roman Empire.

Pilate had a conflict of interest between his loyalty to Rome and his need to mollify the Sanhedrin Jewish Council, an important interest group in his jurisdiction.  Based on his examination of the evidence and his questioning of the defendant, he found no credible evidence to support the charge, but the Sanhedrin  leaders, fearful of Jesus’s challenge to their authority, called for his conviction and execution.  Then, because of a tradition of freeing one convict on a feast day, Pilate washed his hands of the matter and offered to follow the wish of the large Jewish crowd that had gathered.  Unfortunately, the crowd  chose to commute the sentence of a thief and  murderer rather than to show mercy to Jesus, and so, in spite of the unfavorable optics, Pilate ordered him to be crucified.

In the Broadway musical production Jesus Christ Superstar, composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber, the character of Pilate reviews his conflicted thoughts about these matters in a dream he recounts.  Here are those lyrics:

“I dreamed I met a Galilean,
A most amazing man.
He had that look you very rarely find:
The haunting, hunted kind.

I asked him to say what had happened,
How it all began.
I asked again, he never said a word,
As if he hadn’t heard.

And next, the room was filled with wild and angry men.
They seemed to hate this man.
They fell on him, and then
Disappeared again.

Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man.
And then I heard them mentioning my name,
And leaving me the blame.”

Pilate’s dream explains why this man, with the appearance of an important Roman Governor, was really just a passive mediocrity.  He admits to being impressed with the manner and demeanor of Jesus and recognizes the disfavor Jesus has earned with the established Jewish authorities and the cost he has already paid for retaining his integrity.

From his own examination of the evidence, he knows Jesus is innocent of the trumped-up charges against him, but he is willing to put that belief aside to placate the desires of a powerful interest group.  He hopes to satisfy them without disturbing his conscience by obsequiously  taking advantage of the feast day exception, but the plan backfires when the crowd makes the wrong choice, and he must then execute an innocent man.

In the final verse of his dream, Pilate looks out into the future and sees that this person over whom he has made his failed compromise will one day be the originator of a whole new religion with billions of followers, inspired not by a rigid set of rules, but by the faith that God can see into each person’s heart  and ascertain their actions’ degree of justice, so that no transgression would ever again be judged unconditionally  unforgivable. And as an afterthought, Pilot also sees that he himself will be remembered, if at all, as the mediocrity that gave the order to crucify that remarkable person.