Brooks and Nocera

Bobo’s gone off into pop-psych land again.  In “The Big Decisions” he gurgles that the  most important decisions in life should be based not on what we think we want, but on what or whom we admire.  In the comments “J Murphy” from Chicago had this to say:  “David Brooks speculates about having the chance to become a vampire. Immediately I think, what a strange wish. Considering myself a progressive, a liberal, it has never occurred to me that I might want to be a vampire. A vampire only takes, never gives. Vampires look for victims, not partners. Vampires want to live forever, since they don’t know how to enjoy the moment, the art, the sport, the love, the humanity. Vampirism is about control and fear and manipulation. Vampires operate in the dark, fear the light of day, and never reveal themselves for who or what they really are.  To paraphrase Bill Maher, not all Republicans are vampires, but if you’re a vampire looking for a party….”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Man Who Got China Right:”  How did a famed short-seller see troubles in China’s markets that no one else did?  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?

In her book “Transformative Experience,” L. A. Paul, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says life is filled with decisions that are a bit like this. Life is filled with forks in the road in which you end up changing who you are and what you want.

People who have a child suddenly become different. Joining the military is another transformational experience. So are marrying, changing careers, immigrating, switching religions.

In each of these cases the current you is trying to make an important decision, without having the chance to know what it will feel like to be the future you.

Paul’s point is that we’re fundamentally ignorant about many of the biggest choices of our lives and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”

The decision to have a child is the purest version of this choice. On average, people who have a child suffer a loss of reported well-being. They’re more exhausted and report lower life satisfaction. And yet few parents can imagine going back and being their old pre-parental selves. Parents are like self-fulfilled vampires. Their rich new lives would have seemed incomprehensible to their old childless selves.

So how do you make transformational decisions? You have to ask the right questions, Paul argues. Don’t ask, Will I like parenting? You can’t know. Instead, acknowledge that you, like all people, are born with an intense desire to know. Ask, Do I have a profound desire to discover what it would be like to be this new me, to experience this new mode of living?

As she puts it, “The best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.”

Live life as a series of revelations.

Personally, I think Paul’s description of the problem is ingenious but her solution is incomplete. Would you really trust yourself to raise and nurture a child simply on the basis of self-revelation? Curiosity is too thin, relativistic and ephemeral.

I’d say to really make these decisions well you need to step outside the modern conception of ourselves as cognitive creatures who are most sophisticated when we rely on rationality.

The most reliable decision-making guides are more “primitive.” We’re historical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, and there’s often a lot of wisdom in following those life scripts. We’re social creatures. Often we undertake big transformational challenges not because it fulfills our desires, but because it is good for our kind.

We’re mystical creatures. Often when people make a transformational choice they feel it less as a choice and more as a calling. They feel there was something that destined them to be with this spouse or in that vocation.

Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?

Our moral intuitions are more durable than our desires, based on a universal standard of right and wrong. The person who shoots for virtue will more reliably be happy with her new self, and will at least have a nice quality to help her cope with whatever comes.

Which brings us to the core social point. These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”

Now that we’ve survived that, here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the fall of 2009, Jim Chanos began to ask questions about the Chinese economy. What sparked his curiosity was the realization that commodity producers had been largely unaffected by the financial crisis; indeed, they had recorded big profits even as other sectors found themselves reeling in the aftermath of the crisis.

When he looked into why, he discovered that the critical factor was China’s voracious appetite for commodities: The Chinese, who had largely sidestepped the financial crisis themselves, were buying 40 percent of all copper exports; 50 percent of the available iron ore; and eye-popping quantities of just about everything else. That insight soon led Chanos to make an audacious call: China was in the midst of an unsustainable credit bubble.

Perhaps you remember Jim Chanos. The founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund that specializes in short-selling, Chanos was the first person to figure out, some 15 years ago, that Enron was a house of cards.

He shorted Enron stock — meaning that he would profit if the stock fell, rather than rose — and shared his suspicions with others, including my friend Bethany McLean, who wrote a story for Fortune that marked the beginning of the end for Enron. That call not only made Chanos a small fortune; it also made him famous.

Chanos and his crew at Kynikos don’t make big “macro” bets on economies; their style is more “micro”: looking at the fundamentals of individual companies or sectors. And so it was with China. “I’ll never forget the day in 2009 when my real estate guy was giving me a presentation and he said that China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, half residential and half commercial,” Chanos told me the other day.

“I said, ‘You must mean 5.6 billion square feet.’ ”

The man replied that he hadn’t misspoken; it really was 5.6 billion square meters, which amounted to over 60 billion square feet.

For Chanos, that is when the light bulb went on. The fast-growing Chinese economy was being sustained not just by its export prowess, but by a property bubble propelled by mountains of debt, and encouraged by the government as part of an infrastructure spending strategy designed to keep the economy humming. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China’s debt load today is an unfathomable $28 trillion.)

Chanos soon went public with his thesis, giving interviews to CNBC andCharlie Rose, and making a speech at Oxford University. He told Rose that property speculation in China was rampant, and that because so much of the economy depended on construction — in most cases building properties that had no chance of generating enough income to pay down the debt — China was on “the treadmill to hell.”

He also pointed out that much of the construction was for high-end condos that cost over $100,000, yet the average Chinese household made less than $10,000 a year.

Can you guess how the financial establishment, convinced that the Chinese juggernaut was unstoppable, reacted to Chanos’s contrarian thesis? It scoffed.

“I find it interesting that people who couldn’t spell China 10 years ago are now experts on China,” the well-known investor Jim Rogers told The New York Times. He added, “China is not in a bubble.”

The conventional view was that the Chinese economy would continue to grow at a rapid pace, and that Chinese officials, unencumbered by the messiness of democracy, could make quick adjustments if the economy started to slip.

Chanos was undeterred. “It reminded me of 1989, when everybody said that we should emulate the Japanese model,” he told me. “They used to say, ‘They can get stuff done and we can’t’ ” — just as the supposed experts were now saying about China.

As it turns out, China’s economy began to slow right around the time Chanos first made his call. No matter: Most China experts remained bullish. Chanos, meanwhile, was shorting the stocks of a number of companies that depended on the Chinese market. And he was regularly sending out emails when he came upon articles that seemed to confirm his thesis: stories about newly constructed ghost cities and troubled banks and debt-laden state-owned enterprises.

These days, with the markets in free-fall, it certainly looks like Chanos has been vindicated. China’s not the only reason the stock market has been so volatile, but it’s the most important one. China’s economy is faltering, its stock market is collapsing, and the ham-handed efforts by government officials to prop up both have mainly had the effect of disabusing anyone who still thinks the government can revive the economy with the snap of its fingers. This loss of confidence in China and its leaders has spooked stock markets around the world.

The moral of today’s story is a simple one. Listen to the skeptics and the contrarians. You dismiss them at your peril.

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One Response to “Brooks and Nocera”

  1. Johan the Greater Says:

    First of all short selling is another world the average investor need not look towards for too long or the light will blind them. Secondly it is too silly for words to say no one else saw a prob with China. It’s laughable. And thirdly the notion that the market is in a world of worry is more laughable. Think of the types who run the houses. Think of them calling their marketing director and then u have the scenario. Wall Street craves attention. When mansions, and billions are common they have to make up a bigger lie to satisfy their ego. They’re just playing everyone for suckers.

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