What does a guarantor have to guarantee?

I will not reveal any names, but in the past 24 hours I have repeatedly asked myself this question: what is a guarantor, in a case of a rental lease agreement, supposed to guarantee? And I would be interested in hearing from those of you who either have been guarantor in the past of have had to present one upon signing a lease… Why am I asking?

A good and indeed very much trusted friend of mine asked me to be a guarantor for him to be able to sign a lease for a shared-with-a-friend apartment in Manhattan, which naturally is somewhat pricey and given the rule of thumb that one needs to make at least 40 times the monthly rent in annual gross income, he needed someone to underwrite as guarantor. Now, while it certainly might already seem risky enough to vouch for that amount of money, I was willing to do so, but was then faced with legal language on a form–clearly not written by my friend–that simply seemed to ask for just too much. Here is an online form with almost identical language to the one I was given, and, after trying to give my opinion on what I was thinking a guarantor’s role is, I will try to point out what made me feel most uncomfortable about the language in this particular form.

So, what is the role of a guarantor? Well, in principle I would assume that it works a bit like an insurance. The landlord has invested some money into a property that he or she is renting out. As part of the renting agreement a regular, usually monthly payment is made, the rent, which can be considered as the return dividend or interest on the investment. Naturally, just as with every investment, there is an associated risk, and the landlord wants to minimize the risk by ensuring that the tenant is likely to be able to pay the rent, all of it, and on time. He thus places certain rules upon the tenant, such as that the gross annual income exceeds 40 times the monthly rent. And that’s where the insurance comes in, at least in my understanding of how it’s supposed to work. Should the tenant become insolvent, the landlord wants someone to be held liable to pay the remaining rent, right? In that case the insurance should, at most, be reasonably limited to the amount the landlord would obtain if the insurance were not being used. But what does the agreement form I received say…

First of all, from the language in the first clause it would seem that the owner or landlord does not see the sole risk of insolvency of the tenant in not being able to collect the rent, for otherwise the part “without being limited to the payment of rent” seems odd. Unfortunately, the language does not give any clear indication as to what other claims the landlord might have or come up with. And while it might seem standard legalese, I find it always very dangerous to agree to paying for something if I don’t even know what that something is or how much it might cost.

Next, clauses six and seven (6, 7) seems to suggest that the landlord might, without “making demand”–which could mean giving notice although I’m not sure, I didn’t find a definition of this term–decide to send further requests for payment to the guarantor. At least the part “without first making demand against Tenant and without first bringing any action or proceeding against Tenant” seems to suggest to me that once I were to sign this agreement, the landlord can simply choose who to “make demands against”. And the guarantor, that is I, would have to agree to not requiring any proof to be presented by the landlord that payments were, indeed, not made.

And finally, clauses eleven and twelve (11, 12) read like an invitation for the landlord to try and conjure up some interesting “expenses” which the guarantor would have to cover without been given the opportunity of a trial–instead I assume simply a summary judgment would be made–while all legal fees, if the case were won by the landlord, would have to be paid by the guarantor on top of losing. Well, naturally the landlord would find a suitable attorney for such a venture!

In short, while this instrument of a guarantor agreement is certainly a wise precaution on the side of the landlord against tenants who, despite their best efforts, might simply be unable to (fully) pay the rent for the agreed term of the lease, this language seems to remove any risk, at least in terms of financial risks associated with not being paid in form of rent, from the landlord while at the same time adding substantial risk to the guarantor, namely that of scrupulous landlords trying to pull a fast one in reverse.

And as any good insurance agreement most certainly has a clause limiting the overall amount of liability, I find it only fair that if a natural person plays the role of guarantor, there equally should be measures in place to prevent fraudulent action on the part of the landlord. Which brought me to a final, interesting idea:

Wouldn’t it be an extremely interesting business model to actually offer professional guarantor services? Just like a regular insurance company, you would perform a background check and then ask your clients, i.e. wanna-be tenants, to pay a premium, say somewhere between 2 and 5 per cent of the monthly rent depending on the result of the background check, and in return underwrite and ensure that should the client become insolvent you, the insurer, will continue any outstanding rent payments as specified by the lease. Naturally, the liability would then, indeed, be limited to the rent and for any other eventuality, such as damage to the property based on negligence or criminal intent, the landlord would not be able to make any claims, but my assumption is still that the true intent of a guarantor agreement is to ensure the rent, not any much less likely cases, especially since a typical background check by a landlord can hardly reveal potential for future cases of negligence or accidents.

Additionally, such a business, the professional guarantor, could offer subsidized legal advice for its clients, the tenants, in case landlords were to be slow to react to reasonable demands or create otherwise unacceptable conditions… And I am sure that there are quite a few tenants out there who wouldn’t mind having a company having their back when it comes to landlords and building managers who aren’t always “up to speed” with fixing reported problems or ensuring their tenants well-being.

For my friend, I truly hope he and his friend find a new apartment; it turns out the broker seemingly didn’t like all the fuss I made about this form and the apartment went to someone else…

Oh, and by the way, there are guarantor agreement forms out there with much less legalese!

Is Obama good for the American Economy?

So far I have avoided blogging about a topic in the overlap region between politics and and economics. But after watching a couple of YouTube videos I found on the website of Prof. Franz Hörmann, I have repeatedly asked myself the following question: if I were an American Citizen already and had the option to participate in the Presidential Elections come November, would I vote for Barack Obama? Do I truly believe that Obama is good for the American Economy? And if not, would Mitt Romney be better?

Well, I honestly cannot answer the question about who I’d vote for with certainty. I mean, really, who knows with absolute certainty who they will vote for anyway, if there are still weeks ahead with the potential to reveal important information pertaining both candidates… Yet, I have at least found my disappointment with the current President grow into a sense of disillusionment over the past few months. Here are my thoughts on why I would at least feel much less inclined to be voting for Obama, and why I think that, ultimately, Obama isn’t the President to spearhead the changes necessary to find a way to make a free-market economy work for the benefit of all Americans. What America needs is a President who is not afraid to stand up to the forces that have invaded, pervaded, and perverted the political process, transforming it into something similar to a anchor-hosted regular television show where two supposedly opposing teams vie for “who’s the fairest of them all”.

As far as I can see, the problem is systemic in nature. And my guess is that many people “in power”, both in politics as well as in financial institutions, are at least subconsciously aware of the fact that there is a problem waiting to blow up. Maybe some even have a good idea what the problem is, but it seems that, so far, playing by the established rules seems the preferable choice, and I can see several very good reasons why it seems that way… So, what is the problem?

In short: We, The People, have over time gotten accustomed to how the monetary system is organized to a degree that even just thinking about possible alternatives comes across as “communist”–which is maybe just a different way of saying something like “crazy”, “impossible”, or “un-American”. Furthermore, some of the collectively held beliefs about money are simply false but, given that they support the current system to a degree that were they to be questioned the economy might collapse, no-one dares to bring this up. Let’s start maybe with some of the reasons why we (think we) need money:

Exchanging goods in a free-market economy is simply impractical without a form of currency, some representational good that can be converted into any other good or service we require. In addition, based on the fact that the “good or service” we contribute to society, usually in form of performing well at a job, leads to the acquisition of only relatively small amounts of currency units at a time, an economy with a monetary exchange function gives the opportunity to “save” some units of currency for future transactions, in other words to delay consumption in favor of “investment”. Naturally, for this to work reasonably well, people must have faith and be willing to trust that the value of their savings will not decline too much, and this trust has to be earned, to some degree, by the experience of stable prices.

If those were the only functions of money, we probably wouldn’t be anywhere near this economic mess we are faced with at the moment though. So, what are the problems in the current system? Well, I can see a few of them, and some are probably mixed up, but I will try to single out the root as far as I understand the matter:

But first it is important to know that the control over the monetary system does not lie directly with the people or their representatives, but instead, at least in the U.S. economy, with the Federal Reserve, a public entity which all the same states on its website that, quote, “its monetary policy decisions do not have to be approved by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branches of government”. While that in itself may not necessarily be a problem, so long as this entity is given a clear set of instructions and its performance is more or less closely monitored by the sovereign’s representatives, it means that the control over monetary policy is, for some reason, not considered something worth putting into the hand of the elected representatives. One of the typical arguments given is that if the government were allowed to print money, it could increase spending without limits. The misconception in this statement lies in the understanding of where inflation, the loss of value per unit of currency, comes from.

The real problem, I think, lies with the fact that while the central bank, the Federal Reserve, provides the economy with “physical” currency, every regular bank and every mortgage lender creates money out of nothing every time a loan is made. You don’t believe it? Well, here is how it works: if I go to my bank tomorrow and request a loan over $100,000 and the loan is granted, all the bank needs to do is add $100,000 to the number on file in a computer, my account, and that’s it. Well, not quite. In return for this generous act of creating $100,000, I must promise to pay back the money, which the bank generated out of nothing, and pay it back with interest. This promise is a debt the bank puts into their books as well. But from the day the number is added to my account, I have to pay interest, whether or not I convert this number into physical currency or not. And the true problem with this system lies in the fact that to pay back the money with interest, the total amount of money has to increase. And the amount by which it has to increase in any given amount of time, the interest rate, is not controlled by anyone, not even the central bank! It is “set” by the “market”, but in a free-market economy you have supply and demand, but since the money I took out on the loan didn’t even exist before I took it, the supply is endless, and the price should be much lower.

Also, the total amount of money in all regular banks must grow, regardless of whether and how it is spent, simply by the fact that it exists (in the banks’ computers). And given that banks have very little motivation in having people pay back their loans early, as that would lower their profits, both the interest rate as well as the suggested payments are in favor of prolonging the loan term and bank profits.

Now, it is often argued that the interest rate is the price for the risk of the bank, but what exactly is that risk? Given that the money was generated out of thin air only at the time the loan was made, the risk only materializes in the case of a default of the lender, in which case the promise the bank has put into their books has to be written off. But the people running the bank are unlikely to be personally liable should the case occur that a huge number of people default all at once. This has led, in the past, to the incentive of giving out more and more loans even to people who the banks sort of had to know would not be able to keep their promise of paying back the loan, because the risk is deferred to the future, and only threatens the bank, but not the people making the bad decisions. And to top it all off, those “bad loans” were then bundled together into “good packages” and re-sold to investors who wanted to put their profits, in part coming from interest payments of people already in debt of course, to “good use”.

Given that it is not the interest rate the Federal Reserve charges for central bank money but rather the average interest rate of lenders that determines the amount of additional money required in the system, any inflation that occurs–that is to say the ratio between money in existence and all available goods produced by an economy in a given time–remains largely invisible to the people, until the point comes when those who have profited from the system were to try and “cash out”. And until that point comes, those who “have” will always become those who “have more” and vice versa… In other words, while the current system lasts, all but those “invested” in financial market products will become disenfranchised over time. Even big industry players are suffering from this, which might be one of the reasons for the Koch brothers to support the Tea Party rather than the GOP establishment.

Finally, the belief that our economy is a free market driven by supply and demand is incorrect in at least two regards: First, money cannot be scarce, given that it is created by banks whenever a loan is taken out. And to pretend otherwise so as to keep people in the mood of paying a high price for it is, in my eyes, simply unethical. Second, if people truly had a choice about what “work” they could “offer” on the market, my guess is that certain jobs would pay much better than they do. And the reason that they don’t pay better doesn’t lie in the supply of those services or, put more accurately, in the willingness to do so, but rather in the fact that they seemingly do not require highly specialized training.

Given that our current economy requires people to sell their “workforce” to either acquire currency (cash) or the “right” to obtain money from a bank by having someone “deposit” money into their account, this in the end leads to the potential for a modern-day slavery system, where those people without preexisting means, such as owning monetary wealth or other ways to generate income, or specialized knowledge are essentially forced to sell their workforce at “market value”, which in a industrialized economy drops to ever lower amounts if those who can offer unprivileged services increase in number.

But contrary to talent-searching shows on TV, people who really matter in our daily lives, such as policemen, teachers, security guards, or simply the person who always holds the door open when someone doesn’t have a free hand to do it themselves, will never appear during prime-time, and yet it is those people who truly make our lives better. If our economy were to go through another recession, which it very well might if the burden of debt isn’t brought down to bearable levels, who is going to have a greater impact on my life with their talents? Some “talented” rich kid with the added bonus of being able to impeccably smile in front of the cameras, or yet the hard-working, honest average American who does not expect the system to provide luxury but a simply a decent way of living? I put my bet on the latter “talent” any old time!

And as long as the political debate solely focuses on how to improve the economy for those who are already in power and well off, the general population will hardly ever see any real improvement. So, who would I vote for? At the moment I would say: I wouldn’t vote at all. Maybe if enough people send the message that neither candidate is worthy to lead America out of this mess, the required momentum to rebuild the political process and debate from the bottom up will finally come together. But it seems that we rather prefer to support a broken system based on partially false beliefs, because that way we can at least dream of being rich, instead of being free and happy. What did the Declaration of Independence say again…? I think I have to do some reading!

Sad, not sorry

I don’t think I’ve ever given this an awful lot of thought until today, but it’s a strange thing that when you talk to people about something sad that has happened in your life one of the most common reactions seems to be that they say, “I’m so sorry.” And while I am still not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean, other than hopefully showing their sympathy with my sadness, somehow I usually feel that people want to say something like, “that’s too bad, I wish this thing didn’t happen in your life.”

So, today is one of those days where I am sad. My dad called me just a short while ago, telling me that my grandmother, who celebrated her 95th birthday in February this year, died earlier today. Once the words were out, I could hear and sense my dad’s sadness, just as I could feel tears welling up in my own eyes, and we shared a long silent moment on the phone together. There clearly is a feeling of loss, and knowing that I will never be able to spend time with her, listen to her words of wisdom and her humor makes me sad. But am I sorry? Am I suffering from the loss? Well, what I can say with certainty is that I don’t feel any regret, and neither I think does my dad, nor did my grandmother until the end.

My dad told me that he and his wife were sitting with my grandmother until she was gone, and that even shortly before she went, she expressed how satisfied and contented she was with everything, with her life, with the way things have turned out, with the fact that she has raised a wonderful son, who in turn founded his own family and gave her three grandsons she always felt she could be proud of.

The predominant feeling I have, next to the sadness over the loss, is that of gratitude. My grandmother has always been a source of inspiration when it comes to a wonderful attitude towards life: you always do your best, but whatever comes out of it is in God’s hand. While I do not think of the world as being “controlled” or “constantly ordered” by God, I truly believe that one of the main reasons why my grandmother was able to weather the tremendous storms that rattled her life was that she was willing and able to “give in to reality” and not despair, but rather grow with the challenges as they presented themselves.

I want to take this moment to celebrate my grandmother for the woman she was and remember her for the best of what she instilled in me!

Even before my dad was born, she received word that her husband, my grandfather, had been killed in a railroad accident in Russia. It was the summer of 1942, in the middle of World War II, and I cannot even imagine the agony and pain this must have caused her. One of the things my grandmother would, particularly later in life, repeat often whenever we spoke was that her family had warned her, “don’t you dare having a child so soon.” Well, obviously she did have a child, my dad, and has always been thankful for not heeding the advice she was given. And I do hope that, next to some traits I inherited from my mom’s side, my grandmother’s defiance and determination to stand against all odds and do what she felt she had to do will always be with me.

A few years later she was faced with a most terrifying health crisis. She developed an infection, which eventually led to an almost complete loss of hearing on one side. And after attempting pretty much everything that classic medicine could offer at the time, the doctors told her she had mere months to live. But she wouldn’t give in, and she surprised not only the doctors… Her son needed her, and she fought a long uphill battle. She began reading up on less traditional medicine, she became learned in herbs and their properties, and despite this severe incident she managed to outlive all of her siblings.

Another of her most endearing qualities was her humor. She would always joke and laugh with my brothers and me about the things she knew were declining during her final years. For instance she would suggest to us that we should take her to a dance, fully aware of course that her mobility and health would never permit it. But she wasn’t bitter about the loss of mobility, the loss of hearing, or the loss of memory. She just took whatever came and made the best of it anyway, simply by being who she was, by doing what she felt was right, and then allowing God to fill in the blanks. She often said that all she wished for was for God to take her home, so she could see her husband again, who would be waiting for her. But she didn’t wait anxiously but rather calmly.

In short, despite the many and heavy personal blows that fate dealt her, she kept going and always did so high-spiritedly. While I have not made up my mind about whether or not I believe in an after-life, I must say that I do hope that she is now reunited with my grandfather. She has been longing to see him for quite many years, and finally the waiting, at least, is over.

For as long as I live, I now want to do my best to follow in her footsteps and keep her legacy alive in me: Do what you feel is right, and then be content with what comes of it. And in those moments where I might feel frustration over something I didn’t manage to achieve, or angry about someone who I believe has wronged me, then I want to remember her… Don’t be angry, just be yourself and then everything will turn out alright.

Thank you, grandma, for everything!

Is romantic love worth the risk?

Today it happened for the second time within a week that a good friend of mine told me about how the person he felt very smitten, for not say in love with simply turned their back on him and how his feelings seem to have led him into a situation where, after opening up, he is faced with having to close a chapter in his life which just seemed to have started. How could this have happened? And given the potential for incurring such a high emotional cost, is falling in love really “worth the risk”?

Well, something similar happened to me before, and not just once. I guess most people can probably relate to this situation: there is someone who makes you feel special, who seems to be perfect, who you would do anything for, but as much as it might seem so at first, in the end the feelings are not reciprocated… I do not wish to speak to the exact details of my friends’ recent experiences. Instead I am again thinking about, and to some degree trying to decide, how much those emotions can be trusted.

Emotions in general seem helpful in “making up our minds”. Several researchers have looked at the quality of decisions that are either based on “our gut feeling” or on careful deliberative processed. And overall, it seems that our instinct and intuition are fairly useful and indeed goal oriented when it comes to making decisions. But particularly when it comes to this both extremely wonderful but also potentially hurtful thing we call love, they equally often seem to fail us…

A few weeks back I had a long conversation with another very good friend, and we were debating about what exactly makes up the feeling of “romantic love”. And although we didn’t really get anywhere definitive, I remember two of the key elements that emerged from our train of thought:

For one, falling in love seems to require a person to allow him or herself to become vulnerable. As long as you “play it safe” you might feel attracted to someone, you might very well desire to spend lots of time with that person and flirt, but there seems to be no “sparkle”. When it comes to making a definite move, you need something else. The willingness to make a fool of oneself, or more generally speaking to give oneself up, even as far as being willing to die should the significant other person’s life be at stake, has also caught the attention of Helen Fisher, who studies love scientifically.

For another, falling or being in love also seems to focus our attention solely on positive aspects we experience in a relationship. So, whatever negative, or at least possibly conflicting or usually discouraging information we might normally pick up on when it comes our way, we seemingly are just not receptive for that. Whether the person we have a crush on shows no real interest, or they even show signs of disrespect and hostility, as long as we are “in love” those aspects are invisible.

Both these elements clearly go against what a deliberative process would dictate: only exposing oneself as much as is necessary and certainly keeping an eye out for trouble. So,  if romantic love makes us vulnerable, and at the same time seems to prevent us from even noticing that we are indeed being hurt, wouldn’t it be better to just forget about the whole thing?

Well, naturally this is something I can only answer for me, personally. Here is my reasoning, both emotionally and cognitively, why I would not want to live in a world without this particular kind of love:

Despite the risk, mostly that of falling in love with the wrong person of course, romantic love allows us to explore parts of our innermost self which are normally kept too well guarded to become visible. During the times I was “madly in love” I realized many of the qualities that I have come to cherish about myself. At one time, I for instance created a piece of music for a guy I had a crush on, although we had never talked to one another. For those of you who know the story: silence is golden, OK? But, honestly… That was stupid, huh? Well, maybe so, but I also realized how good I can be at composing music. The effort I put into this piece didn’t have any precedent. In other words, being in love made me see my, and maybe can make us all see our full potential. Why? I would argue that, besides the thrill of romantic love, there are only a few other situations I can think of that could motivate me to “shine” and bring out the best in me just as much. And some of these are probably even riskier…

Naturally, the feeling of one’s heart being broken, which undoubtedly occurs in anyone’s life if falling in love is part of it, is nothing to be “desired”, but given the choice between having the opportunity of extending my limits at the possible cost of feeling that pain and a life without love as well as pain, yes, I choose a life that allows me to explore those limits. Does that make me a hopelessly romantic guy? If so, I can live with that!

Now, are there any precautions one could possibly take to lessen the risk? Maybe, but my intuition tells me that any attempt at doing so, at least when it occurs prior to falling in love, simply means that my love would never be as genuine, as pure as it has to be for me to truly explore my limits. But I do believe I can ensure that, should disaster strike, I will at least be “OK” in time to come:

Having friends who know me, as good as can be, who know what I feel for that special person, who have shown their support in the past seems like a good start. And as much as it saddened me to hear what those two friends of mine are currently going through, I am at least glad that they felt close enough to talk about it. I sincerely hope that I can “return the favor” and be there as a supportive friend. In my life I have quite a few good friends who have listened to and supported me in my romantic endeavors. If you are one of them and I never said it as clearly as in this blog post, please accept my deepest thanks for being there for me, it would have been much harder without you!

Why I love to live in the U.S.A.

Good morning 🙂 In the last three entries of my blog, I have more or less tried to tackle a singular issue, with a few sidelines here and there maybe. But, at the moment, my brain doesn’t seem to be willing or able to focus on just one topic, and so I figured I might just mention a few of the thoughts I’ve been having over the past few days about why I wanted to leave Germany for the longest time and am now tremendously glad I have found a new home. For those of you who don’t know: I started submitting my name to the Green Card lottery when I was 22, and it took almost ten years to be “drawn” and have this dream come true…

Looking back on and thinking about this past week, I was reminded again on how fortunate my life turned out: during a longer conversation with a friend, I once again conjured up the emotional situation I had created for myself while I was still living in Germany. And probably it has become even clearer to me now, compared to how I assessed my life back then. I had a job, not entirely unlike the one I’m having right now, and I was surrounded by friends. But I also had a secret. Something I felt I couldn’t really talk about at work or with friends…

Back then, my homosexuality meant for me that I needed to censor myself, my thoughts, my feelings. In many situations, although there are only a few that I recall most clearly, I had the wish and desire to tell people about “it”, but at the same time I also felt that by doing so I might jeopardize my very existence. What if I were to lose my job over this? Or some of my best friends? Luckily, I had at least my immediate family, with whom I felt I could share this part of me–I had come out to my parents and brothers at the age of 23, so around the same time I began to get a Green Card through the lottery.

Why was this so bothersome? I mean, Germany is, when it comes to how people think and feel about sexuality, as measured in the general population, a fairly liberal country: same-sex marriage probably is even more approved of, at least by law, than here in the United States. But…

The one big difference I have always perceived in the two cultural spheres is that the United States of America is, in general, much more diverse and that this diversity is not only present but truly welcomed. I would even go as far that it is essential for the American Dream: people having the opportunity to express themselves without immediate fear for being written off as “outliers”, who, if they had the decency, would better remain silent.

From my early childhood days on, I felt that I was different. My mom has eight siblings, and it became somewhat of a standing joke at family gatherings that my brothers and myself weren’t as well-mannered as should be, which is pretty much the kindest way I can think of to describe their sentiments. Suffice it to say that my dad, in particular, had this funny idea of being anti-authoritarian, of allowing his kids to make up their own minds and decide what’s best for them.

During my school years, beginning with some serious arguments with my music teacher in elementary school, leading up to me not going to school for a period of almost 4 months in 6th grade because I just didn’t feel like going, I often felt some inner urge, a calling, to antagonize the system. The fact that during my time in the classroom someone who wasn’t even family had the mandate to make me do things, even if I wanted to do something else instead, was a provocation and contradiction to how things were done at home. And before I forget it: I sincerely thank my parents for allowing me to “make up my own mind”. In the end, I was so bored that I decided that accepting school for what it is and spending the time being exposed to new knowledge and interesting things is preferable, even if someone pretends to be in control of the whole thing. I think my interest in Buddhism has become clear already, so I might add that I believe that the idea of ever being “in control” of something is an illusion…

The one crucial difference I believe exists between German and U.S. American culture for me can best be summarized by the fact that in Germany it is much more important to “fall in line” with the mainstream. Naturally, in the commercial sphere, people in both cultures are subjected to considerable pressure to align their taste with mainstream fashion. But when it comes to ideas and thoughts, the American culture has, from its early days on, been able to bridge a gap as far as viewpoints from the far right and the far left, by allowing people to express their views and not give them a sense of “not belonging” to the nation.

This last thought brings me to one of my few worries: the rise of electronically distributed media, such as television in the second half of the 20th century as well as the advent and success of the internet in the past two decades has come at a fairly high price, in my opinion: given that it is the advertisements and not the information being disseminated being the “real product” that is sold to the public, those channels with the most aggressive positions and opinions are the most successful ones, because who wants to hear news if they’re not sensational. And while I do not believe that those involved in politics or the media had any higher or better opinions of their opponents on the other side of the spectrum 50 years ago, this divide and its over-representation by the media seems to have created a far more radicalized population in the process. Even I have, occasionally, caught myself thinking things such as, “those people on the other side are plain stupid or crazy.” But I think it is important not to let that thought grow and take over.

Only as long as we are willing and able to accept, or at least tolerate the diversity that exists in the minds and hearts of the people in our nation, can we truly be free. As soon as we mark a position as “crazy”, or in other words indefensible by someone sane, we have given up on arguing about it, we have sentenced our opponents to insanity, and we simply want to set our beliefs and ideas as the standard for everyone. My hope is that America will remain the country and nation of the free spirit, where ideas can be expressed without fear of being marginalized simply for expressing them. If someone disagrees, we should always welcome the debate… Well, at least that is my vision of it all 🙂

The relationship between money and entitlement

Personal friends of mine may very well groan… (this topic? again?) — yes, I feel I have to… In fact, I woke up a couple minutes ago and somehow feel that without getting a few words out now, going back to sleep will be difficult…

To begin with, I have a very strong feeling (and could probably find some scientific evidence, although I am happy to leave that for a later discussion) that most people (maybe even all people) have a strong desire (need) for safety and assurance that “things will be alright” in the future. Naturally, no-one can ever truly guarantee that the future will be “good”, but having someone say so (and trusting that it will), gives a sense of safety (assurance).

As a consequence, people are often willing to give up on other needs and desires (including but not limited to the need of acting morally, the desire to be happy in the moment, the overall need of satisfaction and fulfillment) in exchange for that assurance. For instance, if someone were to offer me the assurance that, for the rest of my life, I would not go hungry, that I would not go without medical assistance (should I require it), and that at least all physical requirements my body might have would be taken care of, I think there is a strong “temptation” to accept a relatively high price-tag in the moment for that guarantee. I might even compromise on some very important values that I hold…

And in a society where all of these things (food, health care as well as general provision for bodily needs) can be bought with money, one way of guaranteeing that those needs will be met is by offering me (a lot of!) money

That is, in short, I believe the reason why even relatively wealthy people still have a strong desire to increase their wealth; although it would, in the here and now, seem to be relatively unimportant: all their current needs are already taken care of, and any additional wealth is unlikely to have an impact on their current situation other than adding a number to their sense of virtual safety.

I’ve used the term virtual on purpose. Why? Well, here is where the relationship between money and entitlement comes into play. Money, in large quantities, represents the idea that, in some future economy, I will be able (allowed) to participate (consume) goods and services (which in my mind truly equated to the sense of entitlement). Don’t get me wrong: for many examples (such as my ability to save money for a while to then buy something I couldn’t afford with a single pay check, such as a car or even a house) this actually seems like (and probably is) a wonderful concept. However, when money is used (or abused?) to generate this “all-purpose” feeling of owning a card blanche (entitlement!) that, in the future, I will be able to simply “use up” goods and services (which still need to be produced for me or be made available to me by someone!), I think that this no longer represents an aspect that was originally meant to be linked to currency (an all-purpose means of exchanging goods and services in the present). And a strong inequality in the distribution of wealth might even be considered a form of slavery (those with little to no money would be forced to produce goods and services for those with more of it, simply to partake in the economy at all, even if they cannot even meet their basic needs with the outcome!).

The major reason for this discrepancy is that, through the market (where goods are priced based on supply and demand as well as the overall amount of wealth and debt in existence, which truly are two sides of one and the same coin), the amount of money required to buy any given good changes over time, and thus the amount of goods and services I am able to obtain with whatever wealth I have accumulated is not fixed (which, if that were true, would then indeed represent some entitlement!) but variable. So, as much as having (a lot of) money might seem like giving a wealthy person a sense of safety, this sense will only be experienced for as long as money doesn’t lose (much of) its value.

Two major problems now combine into a mix which, unless either problem is at least lessened in its impact, I would argue make it almost inevitable that any economy based on a free market and a monetary system where making money available (central bank lending) comes at a cost (interest), will eventually experience a near-fatal episode:

First, those people who “collect” money as a means of safety will never feel they have enough (and rightly so! once the money starts losing its value, all the entitlement they have collected thus far begins to melt for not to say evaporate). And while, deep down, most people probably sense that to be true, they will still deny that truth and attempt to increase their wealth (perceived safety) through collecting more (and more, and more).

The second problem is that once enough wealth has been accumulated (in few enough hands), the “real economy” (that is to say the part of the economy where money is used to actually buy means of production, such as labor and resources) is satisfied when it comes to liquidity, and the surplus of money (in the hands of the wealthy) requires (and irresistibly generates) new forms of “investment opportunities” (to increase the numeric value via interest rates).

From the outside (such as from the perspective of an alien, maybe — told you this is a crazy blog), it might possibly be even quite amusing to see what kind of “products” the engineers (economists) of the financial markets come up with to allow people who “own” large amounts of money (who have earned or received this entitlement in the past) to increase its (numeric, not actual, future-related) value by “investing” it in various way: my favorite so far is still the ability to buy credit default swaps (that is a bit like an insurance, in case some other, actually tangible good loses part or all of its value) without either having to own the actual good (compare it to being able to insure a house that you don’t own, but still having to option to cash in on should it get damaged or destroyed) or some system of transparency (such as a register to at least have a sense of how many of these insurances have been sold, by whom, and to whom).

The real problem is that for every unit of currency that is owned by someone (and considered wealth, let’s say a thousand dollars I have in my bank account), someone else must be owing the same amount of debt (each and every monetary system controlled by a central bank works that way, or otherwise: what good is wealth and entitlement if no-one owes me anything). And given that the amount of overall money seems to be increasing faster and faster (usually leading to price inflation), because the only true gain in wealth is of course growth above the nominal inflation rate, any such system must, in the end, collapse. I would almost go as far as to say that any currency system that does not “reign in” excessive interest rates as well as the ability to accumulate wealth without a specific purpose is to some degree, by virtue of how money works, destined to be unsustainable; unfortunately, in the end, no-one “wins” (not even the rich folks!)…

Do solutions exist? I think so! But the one crucial component to each and every solution I can think of is that people (which means everyone!) must be willing to give up on their sense of safety and entitlement (assurance). This can be done by accepting (much) higher taxation (but also giving up on the idea of a guaranteed retirement payment!) followed by truly reducing wealth and debt, or by hyper-inflation, or by some other means of neutralizing both wealth and debt (haircut on debts by disowning creditors). Why? It’s simply unrealistic to believe that by whatever means in the present anyone could ever guarantee that the wealth I own (effort that was put into the economy by me or in my name in the past without taking it out again immediately or shortly thereafter) will be able to buy me anything in the future (in essence: just as fiscally conservatives are talking about cutting back the social welfare state to end entitlement on the side of the relatively poor, they should also accept that “storing” wealth for a rainy day by the relatively rich is nothing but the same idea, only in form of currency instead of a provision in some law). This is, I think, exactly why an economic contraction (recession) is such a potentially disastrous event: people all over suddenly realize that their future is, inevitably, unsafe, and instead of keeping up the expenditure, they stop using currency in the market place. The reality simply is that no-one knows the exact state of the economy in the future. So it is simply a (partially false) promise if someone says: your needs will be met! (and that is, of course, also true for any other form of entitlement, including social security or Medicare/Medicaid…)

Only if people are willing to ease up on their (need for a) sense of entitlement can an economy run smoothly. What do I think is the best way to achieve this? By having faith in the future, by believing that, as long as humans with a sense of morality and fairness are “in charge”, I will not be “forgotten”. Then I am willing to accept that as good and useful money is for the purpose of exchanging goods and services in the here and now (and near future), I am much better off putting my faith and trust in the people of the future than the money (numeric wealth) I may or may not own by then.

The case of abortion after rape…

OK, this is a tough one, but, hey, aren’t philosophers (even spare time ones) supposed to tackle tough questions every once in a while…? At least the issue is still on my mind after several days have passed since Todd Akin, a U.S. Representative for the state of Missouri made some truly “outlier comments” on August 19 (quote):

“Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

To begin with, let me begin with that I believe that rape is one of the most violent and possibly destructive experiences anyone can go through. I count myself fortunate as not having such a memory to look back on.

Also, while I am as little or much of a medical expert as I am a professional philosopher (not at all!), I would simply argue there is little hard (or hard enough) evidence to support the conclusion that a woman’s body would have the ability to “shut that whole thing down.” (here is an article at least looking at some of the evidence, but it seems obvious that this is a topic that could never be studied under controlled conditions so long as ethical review boards do their job, so maybe the best we can say is that we better don’t assume anything…)

Now, if I start with those two base assumptions:

  • Women who are raped go through a most terrible experience and it is a natural reaction to try to remove any evidence associated with it.
  • Pregnancies following rape cannot be construed as some way of saying, “this wasn’t rape” (because otherwise the pregnancy would not have occurred).

where does this lead? I would hope that even the most “pro-life” arguing person would agree that there is a potential value in allowing the mother to terminate the pregnancy (hoping that the process of healing and recovery will not be aggravated by the constant reminder of the experience itself, which seems inevitable during the pregnancy).

Do I believe that this automatically means a woman “should” choose an abortion or that no-one shall raise an objection? No, I don’t. Here’s why:

Regardless of how a child is conceived, a “life-in-the-making” is created. One of the real issues with this question might be seen as whether or not an embryo in its early developmental stages can or even must be considered “human life” (with all rights and privileges usually given to it). And as much as I am willing to tackle that question, I want to concentrate, at the moment, on why this debate hasn’t left my thoughts.

Most importantly, I agree with and emotionally relate to the “pro-life” sentiment that, regardless of whether the embryo can be considered human life at the time when a mother is (or isn’t) given the choice to terminate the pregnancy, this “life-to-be” is worth protecting. For one, it cannot protect itself (if no-one is speaking on its behalf, whatever good and valuable exists might be overlooked and irrevocably destroyed). For another, as much as this life was conceived in an act of violence, I do not think that the “human it could become” should be held accountable or responsible (which, naturally, is not at all what a “pro-choice” position postulates!).

In short: women who are pregnant after having been raped are faced with a tough decision (so long as they have it, that is) between their own emotional healing and well-being on the one side and allowing a new life to be created by their bodies on the other. Given that the life-in-the-making doesn’t yet have a voice to speak for itself, other people feel the need to do so. I think the dilemma arises when those people speaking for the unborn (and unfinished) life want to take “matters into their hands”. How could anyone ever say they “know” what is best for the mother? Or what is best for the unborn child? Or which of the two is more valuable? What those people are trying to do is to protect the value of an unborn child (and I believe that is a good thing!), but the way they choose to do so seems to forget about the value of the life of the mother.

Do I have a solution? Well, I would like to propose a position that is both, pro-life (acknowledging that the embryo, regardless of whether or not it can “already” be considered human life, is worth protecting) and pro-choice (the life of the mother is, in its entirety, worth protecting as well). This may sound like not a solution at all (anything that is even a little pro-choice is, in the end, pro-choice!), but I think that what pro-life proponents are most infuriated about is the seemingly callous way in which people on the pro-choice side of the argument say that abortion is “OK”.

In an “ideal world” (well, as long as rape happens, clearly not ideal, maybe call it crazy if you want), I would hope that good people would talk to those women who, after being raped and finding out they are pregnant, are put in a position where just after having to deal with an extremely traumatic experience they must make a most difficult decision (possibly leading to yet another traumatic experience either way). If those women could experience the support and care, both for their emotional needs as well as for the unborn and yet to be created life, maybe their decision would become at least a little less difficult. Is it possible, maybe even likely that, in any given case, a woman chooses to terminate the pregnancy? Absolutely yes. But should someone else be able to force her to carry to term (and in a way rape her again, by taking away her choice)? Personally, I don’t think so. By taking the decision out of her hands and forcing something upon her which she has no control over (the core elements of any rape), I think it is likely that whatever emotional healing has to occur cannot occur.

Comments welcome!

The difference between anticipation and expectation (if it exists?)

Obviously many people have already said something along the lines that attachment can lead to unhappiness (for instance, an interpretation of the second of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism suggests that attachment to external reality, either by seeking pleasure or avoiding negative outcomes can lead to suffering). While talking to some colleagues (and, at the same time, friends) of mine a couple days ago, I found myself asking:

“As a native English speaker, how would you explain the difference between anticipation and expectation?”

And to be precise, both terms are also used in specific contexts where they are not interchangeable, such as that using the term “anticipation” in a context that implies being accompanied by a sensation of excitement can somewhat less likely be replaced by “expectation”. So, I was mostly referring to instances where the terms can indeed be used interchangeably.

The answers were diverse, but one common theme seemed to surface: expectation usually refers to a situation where the person having the expectation (or doing the expecting) is fairly certain of some specific outcome, such as that I am expecting my next paycheck to be deposited in my account in time (so far it always did, at least). On the other hand, anticipation is a somewhat softer term invoking the same concept: for instance, someone might very well pack sun screen, anticipating the need to use it (it might very well be a sunny day, although it is far from certain).

Additionally, in cases of positive outcomes, another difference seemed to come from the fact that if I indeed expect an outcome to occur (that is, before it occurred I was fairly certain that it would), there is little to no reason to be “surprised” (which in parts of the learning literature is sometimes called “prediction error”, in case of the check I find it simply normal to be deposited in time), but if the outcome was only anticipated (in other words, there was still a good chance for it not to occur), the person is pleasantly surprised (rewarding feeling, happiness, like I am still glad the sun actually came out) that something “good happened”. And, maybe even worse, for every expectation (borderline-certainty) of a positive outcome that does not occur (my deposit didn’t make it in time, for whatsoever reason) a person might then actually experience a negative prediction error (why did it not happen?), followed by being upset or angry…

What I am now wondering about, at the core, is: am I able to “rephrase” (or re-appraise) my expectations in a way that I see them rather as “anticipations”, which would allow me to remain “positively surprised” when the outcome occurs and prevent a flush of anger in cases where anticipated (rather than expected) outcomes do not materialize?

Other than in Buddhism that (as far as I understand it at least) teaches that the source of suffering (unhappiness = anger = negative prediction error?) is wanting, I am thinking maybe it is more that whatever the mismatch between wanting (expectation) and reality (outcome) is leads to a prediction error, which subsequently triggers negative emotion?

This would then suggest that not the wanting is the source of suffering but the expectation of the outcome is (and naturally, if and only if the expectation is not met; otherwise, I will neither be happy or unhappy, as there was no prediction error)…

And as a side note: as far as the use of prediction error in learning is concerned, it seems that people are in general more inclined to “learn” from positive prediction errors (reality is better than expected) than negative ones, an effect described in the literature as “optimism bias”.

A new blog is born…

Obviously, every blog must have its first post, so here goes… Over the past few months, I’ve been giving quite some thought to themes such as where my personal satisfaction and dissatisfaction with my life comes from (hint: it’s pretty much from within), as well as where our current global economic situation is headed.

Given that I lack (complete and/or certified) academic, scientific training, I would never consider myself a “professional philosopher”, but rather someone who spends a considerable amount of time being “in awe” about the quirky little ways in which life seems to work when it comes to outcomes (either foreseen or unforeseen).

And maybe there are others out there who enjoy doing the same thing, in which case I would be thrilled to “meet” you! This is my way of “getting in touch” by putting some of my thoughts out, and whoever wishes to reply, please do so 🙂

Hope to hear from you…