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The Challenge of Charity: My Failure to Help Marcus and Gabriela

First I felt ashamed. Then I was hopeful. Then I was disappointed. Now I’m resigned.

Marcus and Gabriela came to work for us in 1999 after we built a second home in Nicaragua.

Marcus tended the landscaping. Gabriela kept the house. Antonio, my Nicaraguan partner, had recommended them to us. Their parents and siblings had worked for him.

They were very young at the time – in their late teens or early twenties. But they were already burdened with the responsibility of being parents. Gabriela’s husband worked in construction. Marcus’s wife worked part-time cleaning at a local restaurant.

Neither spoke a word of English, so we had to communicate in the very rudimentary Spanish I had at the time. They showed up every morning at 7:30 and worked, not energetically but dutifully, until 3:30. Then they were gone. In those early days, they left without saying goodbye.

They were shy and I did my best to relax them in that American sort of egalitarian way. But Nicaragua, like all countries, lives with its history. And the vestiges of Spanish colonialism still existed. Most upscale households in Nicaragua employ domestic workers, who are, I gathered from observation over the years, treated with respectful condescension.

I asked Antonio what I should pay them. He told me $150 a month.

“A month?”

“That’s the going wage,” Antonio assured me. ”If you pay them much more, it will cause problems in the community – for them now, and for you later on.”

I knew that he was right, but I wasn’t going to accept it…

I sat down with Gabriela and Marcus and told them that if they wanted to earn more money, I could give them jobs that fell outside of their normal duties. Marcus could give a room a new coat of paint. Gabriela could plant flowers along the side of the garden. That sort of thing.

And they could do these extra chores during their regular hours, I told them. (Which would work out just fine for me, because I didn’t really have eight full hours of work a day for them.)

I thought they would be delighted with the opportunity, but they were not. Nestor, a local friend and colleague, explained their lack of enthusiasm.

“They probably think you are trying to take advantage of them by asking them to do extra work,” he explained. “Even for extra money.”

“Huh?”

It was another vestige of the country’s history – in this case, the years it had existed as a Communist state.

But although they were reluctant to do “extra” work, they were not averse to asking for financial “help” with family problems – a sick parent, a leak in the roof, etc. I was more than happy to give them what they needed, but I insisted that they work the “extra” hours for the extra money.

For a few years, it seemed to be working well. They used the extra money they earned to buy themselves bicycles, cell phones, and clothing.

But when I had the opportunity to visit their homes, it was clear that the extra money had bought them all sorts of things that put them in the upper economic ranks of Limon, the hamlet they lived in. Still, like everyone else in the area, they were living in simple mud and wood shacks.

Despite free-market views to the contrary, this huge gap between their homes and mine bothered me. I had to find a way to increase their income yet again so they could at least have proper windows, doors, and floors.

So I came up with a solution that was popular among charity advocates at the time: I’d give them micro-loans to start their own side businesses. My idea was that they would follow the strategy I’ve recommended for years to other would-be entrepreneurs: Start small. Test the product and the pricing and the pitch as quickly and efficiently as possible. And then, if the business starts to take off, expand.

Considering their earlier reluctance to do extra work for pay, they were surprisingly open to the idea of having side businesses, businesses that could be run by an unemployed sibling or relative while they were at their regular jobs.

I told them, stupidly in retrospect, to choose the businesses they wanted to have. (I thought that this would provide them with the extra motivation they might need to succeed.)

Gabriela decided on a children’s clothing store. Marcus decided to open up a pulperia, a rustic version of a mini 7-Eleven, in front of his house.

Two very bad ideas! READ MORE

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the week in review

May 25-May 29, 2020 

 

a look back at this week’s essays… 

Art Collecting: Learn While You Earn* 

5 Reasons to Invest in Art: Investing in museum-quality art will make you richer financially… owning it will give you a richer life.

Click here to read more.

 

 

What We (Should) Want for Our Children 

When my children were infants, I wanted only one thing for them….

Click here to read more.

 

 

How to Get Better at What You Do Best 

The greatest challenges we face in life are obstacles that reside inside of us. When it comes to mastering a skill, the greatest challenge is not the work and time involved in acquiring it but the desire to be a master before you become one.

Click here to read more.

 

 

 

quick quiz 

 

  1. How much do you remember about this week’s “Words to the Wise”? Use each of these words in a sentence: 

*  fractious (5/25/20)

*  serendipitous (5/27/20)

*  reproach (5/29/20)

 

  1. Fill in the blanks in this week’s quotations: 

* “The only time life allows for _____is the present. Right now. In this very moment.” – Michael Masterson (5/25/20)

* “Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than _____?” – Marcus Tulius Cicero (5/27/20)

* “If you accept your _____ you go beyond them.” – Brendan Behan (5/29/20)

 

  1. Are these statements True or False? 

* The X in X-rays stands for electromagnetic. (5/25/20)

* Camp David was built as a retreat for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (5/27/20)

* Every year, the Washington Post holds a contest in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words. (5/29/20)

 

 

recommended links from this week’s blog

 

* “Freedom Isn’t Free” – a powerful speech by President Ronald Reagan. I don’t know enough about Reagan’s career to have a strong opinion about it, but I can think of only two other presidents in my lifetime that were as good as he was at speechifying: Kennedy and Clinton. To watch the speech – which includes Reagan’s dramatic reading of “A Soldier’s Pledge” – click here.

 

* “New Tennis Rules” Here

 

* “More Than Money: The Good Life Parable” – In this short film about a well-known fable, a fisherman teaches a young businessman about life after the young man uses his MBA knowledge to explain how the fisherman could be more successful. Here

 

* A TED Talk by George Monbiot – lots of interesting facts about how nature works. Here

 

* This is wrestling…Here

 

 

Q&A 

Your Question: 

I liked your essays on the Corona Economy, as you called it, especially your explanation of how the Treasury and the Federal Reserve work. For years, I’ve heard the term “printing money” and always assumed that the Treasury really printed new dollars. Now I understand how it works – how both the Treasury and also the Fed can create fake dollars out of thin air and still manage to balance their books.

One thing I didn’t understand: You mentioned that there was a difference between what the Fed did to bail out the economy after the real estate crash of 2008 and what it is doing now. What is that difference?

 

My Answer: 

I put the same question to Tom Dyson when I was researching those essays. Here’s what he said:

“The difference between original QE and ‘monetizing the debt’  is in the intention behind it… its intended purpose. Mechanically, they’re identical.

“The QE they did 2008-2014 was to goose the stock market and give a tail wind to the banks. They did it voluntarily. It was somewhat of an experimental new idea put forth by Ben Bernanke.

“The QE they are doing now is out of necessity. They must do it because if they don’t the government won’t be able to finance itself and it will go broke.

“It’s a subtle distinction and one that I’m sure would be lost on most mainstream economists. Most mainstream economists probably wouldn’t even entertain the idea that the US government is insolvent if not for the Fed’s money printing.”

Tom said it is a subtle distinction, but he was being polite. It is a very important distinction and one that, after you “get it,” explains a lot.

One of the arguments against the 2008-2014 QE bailout was that it was going to be inflationary. (Increasing the money supply by a trillion dollars should, in theory, make prices rise because you have more dollars competing for the same number of goods and services.) That didn’t happen. I wondered why. Now I understand.

The larger economy didn’t inflate because almost all of those extra dollars went to the financial sector, as Tom pointed out. The financial sector did inflate. Hugely. Stock prices shot up and made Wall Street (its brokers, bankers, insurance agents, their lawyers, accountants, and shrinks, etc.) very rich. And that tidal wave of newly “printed” dollars flowed into the businesses that catered to Wall Street: luxury cars, fine art, expensive real estate, etc. But the rest of the country? Main Street? They got poorer.

Now that I understand it, it’s difficult to see it as some sort of brave fiscal “experiment.” It’s hard for me to believe that the effect of it would not have been apparent to everyone behind it (all those Wall Street insiders) that so nobly volunteered their time to conjure up and direct the bailout.

But the current QE is different. It is different not only because it’s necessary rather than optional, but also because the lion’s share of it went to the American public through stimulus checks and the PPP program. So will the next $3 trillion.

That probably will cause inflation in the general economy because most of those dollars won’t be spent on stocks and bonds but on food and clothing and other basic commodities. Those are the things that will become more expensive, which means that the productive classes – the people that pay taxes – will be paying off the government’s crazy borrowing by paying more for just about everything they buy.

 

Have a question for me? Submit it on our Contact Us page. 

 

 

For a look back at the stock market, click here

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We are in a taxi in Paris – the four of us. PB gets a call. She gives us the sorry look and looks at the phone. She smiles.

“It’s L,” she says.

L is her daughter, her bright, beautiful daughter. We’ve known L since she was born.

“What’s up?” PB says to L.

For a full minute, she listens intently, the smile gone from her face. We wait anxiously, wondering how bad the news is.

”Okay,” PB says. “Now calm down. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go to the nearest Four Seasons. Speak to the concierge. He’ll be able to help you.”

Pause.

“Love you too!”

PB and her daughter are very close. And that’s a wonderful thing. Here’s the problem. L is a full-grown woman – a married, professional woman.

What We (Should) Want for Our Children 

“Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children?” – Marcus Tulius Cicero

When my children were infants, I wanted only one thing for them: good health. 

I’m sure every parent feels this way. The wish for a child’s health is deep and strong. It’s as deep as DNA and as strong as the survival instinct. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the survival instinct. In wanting our infant children to be healthy, we are, at bottom, wanting the deepest part of our selves – our DNA – to survive.

When my children were young, I would have stepped in front of a train to save them. I still would.

I’ll bet you would, too.

Putting our children’s survival above our own is a good thing. But it’s not a virtuous thing. It’s an animal instinct motivated by biology.  So there you go.

Actually, I lied. There was another thing I wanted for my children when they were infants. I wanted them to be good looking. 

I know how that sounds. And I’m quite sure most parents would deny they wanted their kids to be good looking. But I did.

And why not?

If I had any other wishes for my infant children, I can’t remember them. So let’s move on.

When they were toddlers and continuing through their early childhoods, I wanted my kids to be good at just about everything they did. 

I wanted them to be quick learners, agile athletes, and accomplished at any extracurricular activity they joined.

Wanting these things for them felt as natural to me as my earlier wishes for their health and good looks. But it wasn’t nearly as strong. I definitely wanted them to quickly learn and shine in all of their growing challenges, but I wouldn’t step in front of that train to satisfy that want.

I’ve noticed that some parents seem to spend most of their time ferrying their kids to activities, cheering them on, and hiring tutors and coaches to develop their skills. Other parents never show up. Some of them probably have no time. Some just don’t care that much. The intensity of my desire for my kids to be good at everything fell somewhere in the middle. I signed them up for activities and showed up now and then. But I never coached them. Or paid someone to do it.

I remember going to one of my eldest son’s soccer games when he was only four. At the time, he had only a passing interest in the sport. I mean that literally. He spent most of his time standing in the grass looking down at the flowers. Every once in a while, the ball would land in his vicinity, at which point he would casually kick it away, as often as not to a team mate. “Good pass!” someone would shout. It usually turned out to be the parent of the child to whom my son had unwittingly passed the ball.

I never considered myself a fanatical parent. (Although my kids tell me that when it came to writing, I was like “Bull” Meecham, the character in Pat Conroy’s book The Great Santini that bounced a basketball off his son’s head.) But I do believe that the desire to see one’s young child excel  springs from the same DNA that makes us want them to be healthy and good looking. In other words, it is a desire that is natural and good, so long as it is reasonably restrained.

I also wanted my young children to be well mannered. 

When they were very young, my kids’ bad behavior often amused me. Their temper tantrums seemed oddly cute. (I have never felt that way about other people’s children.) And truth be told, I feel the same way about my grandchildren’s bad behavior today.

But by the time my kids were four or five, I was rarely entertained by their bad behavior.

K felt the same way. She believed that one of our parental duties was to help our children function successfully and appropriately in the world they were born into, which was our world, the adult world. We wanted them to be happy, but not at the expense of making people around them – children or adults – miserable.

For many parents, disciplining toddlers and young children is a harrowing experience. It wasn’t that way for us. Teaching our kids good manners was relatively easy, thanks to K, who understood the importance of setting clear boundaries.

K was a genius at this partly because she believed in self-discipline and partly because she herself was self-disciplined. No excuse for breaking a rule, no matter how ingenious, was accepted. Penalties – mostly time-outs – were enforced with unwavering consistency. (I was virtually no help in this regard.) K ruled the roost, and our boys were generally obedient and cooperative without losing their boyishness and their native instincts to cause a fair degree of chaos wherever they went.

When the boys grew larger and realized their mother could not physically enforce the punishments she gave them, they became emboldened and would occasionally defy her. This is when I became useful and when they began hearing the universal maternal refrain: “Wait till your father gets home!”

K did not believe in spanking, so I didn’t spank them. But I did employ the power of my deeper and louder voice to get their attention. And if they refused to go to their bedrooms for a time-out, I would escort them there. That was largely successful.

As they moved into their mid-teens, I wanted my children to be emotionally resilient and mentally strong. That wasn’t a decision I made formally. It happened serendipitously. 

Once, when my eldest son was about 15, we got into a play-wrestling match. It began as fun but quickly turned into the test that most fathers have with their teenage sons – the chance for the son to show his father that he is equal to him in strength and courage.

I felt my son’s strength the moment we began grappling. I didn’t initiate the higher level of play. He did. Had I not been wrestling competitively for years, he would have whooped me.  But since I did have the skills, I “upped my game.” I was on the verge of winning the battle when I had a flash thought: “If you do this, you are sending him a bad signal.”

So I let him win – and it saved us both. I feel sure that by winning that match, I would have damaged his self-confidence deeply and permanently. And that would have damaged my sense of being a good father even more.

The experience, short as it was, helped me realize that what I wanted most of all for him at that point of his life was that he would mature into a person that was mentally and emotionally stronger than me.

That’s what every healthy minded parent wants. Don’t you agree?

When my kids were in their early 20s, I wanted them to become financially independent.

I’m not sure how I arrived at this one. It may have been in response to talking to the boys about college. It may have been because I realized that they would soon be living away from us and would have to fend for themselves.

By that time, our financial situation had moved well beyond the meager straits we were in when the kids were small. We had the resources to support them financially for the rest of their lives, but we knew that would be a terrible thing to do. They had become hardworking, responsible, and self-sufficient human beings. We didn’t want to ruin that by laying a path ahead of them paved with easy access to money.

So we didn’t. We told them repeatedly that they would inherit nothing from us – that if they wanted the luxuries that money can provide, they would have to earn it themselves. They wore clothes bought at discount clothing stores. They were not permitted to have their own TVs or cellphones. They did not get an allowance, but they could work for spending money. And when they were 16, we didn’t buy them a car, like some of their friends’ parents did.

We deprived them of all these things because we wanted them to learn how to earn on their own and, even more important, understand that they were not entitled to our or anyone else’s wealth.

And it worked. During their college years and in all the years since, none of them has ever asked us for a nickel. I am immensely proud of that.

Of course, when they became adults and had their own children, we wanted to help them out in every way we could. But they were adamant about wanting to be financially independent. And though we keep trying to help out with this and that, I’m secretly pleased that they don’t want – or need – our help.

Now that our children are in their 30s and even approaching their 40s, I have discovered yet another wish I have for them. I want them to be and remain independent thinkers.

There is so much groupthink in the world today. When my kids were in college, they were exposed to all the politically correct ideas and ideologies that are still popular among academics. Sometimes I worried that they would emerge with heads full of conventional thinking. What was the point of going to a university for that?

One of my sons, fresh out of college, told me that he thought the Antifas were correct in sucker-punching people whose opinions they disagreed with. This irked the hell out of me. We debated the issue. But I couldn’t convince him of the absurdity of his position. It wasn’t his position that bothered me. It was the fact that he was making an argument that he had been taught by some jackass professor.

These days, I no longer worry about that. None of my sons sees eye-to-eye with me on anything. They have their own views and, like their father, they like to argue about them.

But the thinking behind their arguments is braver and more nuanced than it was when they were younger. Each in his way is skeptical of trendy ideas and opinions, analytical, and willing to state his mind. That makes me feel like, “Yes, son. You are a man now. You  can march forward into the miasma of bad thinking that awaits you and survive!”

And although they all express themselves differently in terms of style and temperament, they all make their arguments with less irritation and more kindness than I did at their age. That makes me proud.

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In Part 1 of “Free Is a Bad Idea,” I wrote about how “free” is generally bad in business – in particular, how free offers tend to work poorly as marketing campaigns and can actually weaken the long-term profitability of a business. Today, I’d like to talk about another area where “free” is generally a bad idea: how well-intentioned charitable projects can be damaged and even doomed by giving away things for free.

 

Free Is a Bad Idea, Part 2: Free Offers in Charity 

 “Too many have dispensed with generosity in order to practice charity.” – Albert Camus

I know more about making money than I do about giving it away. But I’ve been inclined toward charitable giving all my life, and have been actively involved in running a charitable foundation for the last 20 years. So while I don’t pretend to be an authority on the subject, I’ve come to several conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.

Among them is this: In charity, as in business, “free” is generally a bad idea.

I am writing a book about the 20 years I’ve spent running and funding a charitable foundation, in which I recount dozens of stories about charitable impulses gone awry. (You may remember reading one of them, here on the blog, about my attempt to help Marcus and Gabriela.)

These stories all have the same plot: I decide to “help” someone by giving them something – usually money – only to find, in the end, that the transaction was good only for me. It made me feel magnanimous. But it hurt the person I intended to help in some substantial way. Not only were the objectives of the giving not met, but the giving usually gave rise to unexpected and disappointing consequences.

For example: I once gifted money to someone I cared about to start a business – no strings attached. Over a period of about two years, I increased the funding until I had put in nearly a quarter-million dollars. When it became apparent that the business model was not working, I discontinued funding it, which meant the business had to be closed. The response from the beneficiary of my generosity was a mix of anger and resentment.

We eventually got past that because we each valued our relationship more than our mutual disappointments. But I was vexed with the memory of it until I woke up one day and realized that I had to accept responsibility for the failure. My mistake, I decided, was that I gave the money with “no strings attached.”

Some time later, in 1998, I set up the foundation I mentioned above to manage my charitable activities. Its primary program was FunLimon – a community center in Nicaragua. It was initially intended to provide the local people with literacy and English classes, but soon grew into a large athletic and educational facility.

This was a significant commitment to charitable giving, and it gave me an opportunity to learn that there was still a great deal that I didn’t know about how to help people in a meaningful way.

Soon after we opened FunLimon, for example, I “sponsored” a local baseball team in the town. We bought them uniforms, shoes, and gloves, and paid the fee the team had been paying to participate in the league. The next year, they surprised me by asking for an entirely new set of uniforms, shoes, and gloves. When I suggested that they could use the old ones, they went on strike. (I’m not kidding.)

Another example: At the beginning of the school year, we gave all the school children in the local area a backpack filled with school supplies and a new pair of shoes. Many of them, too, asked for new backpacks and supplies the following year. When we asked why they couldn’t use the old ones, they told us that they wanted new ones.

Yet another example: For several years, we supplied the local schools with meat products to enrich the lunches they provided (which were basically rice and beans). Since we could not imagine any negative consequences to this particular program, we meant to continue it indefinitely. But then we discovered that several of the schools weren’t using the money we gave them to buy meat. They used it instead, they told us, to give the kids graduation parties.

I have better stories than that, but I’m saving them for the book.

Ultimately, I came to understand that giving away money is as challenging as getting it. To avoid the inherent negative consequences, I have to treat my charitable activities with the same seriousness as my business endeavors. That means, besides putting in the time required, taking responsibility for the negative consequences of anything our foundation does, even when those results are contrary to our good intentions.

Doing less damage than good… 

Our motto – “Do Less Harm Than Good” – reflects that principle. And from that, we have developed a mission statement, policy documents, and guidelines that help us evaluate and execute our programs.

One of those guidelines, one of the most important, is to be wary of giving away anything for free.

Our recreational facilities, for example, used to be free to anyone that wanted to use them. Now we charge a small membership fee – a dollar or two a month. Likewise, our educational programs – from English to Spanish literacy to martial arts and our trade school programs – used to be free. But now, they, too, have a small tuition fee.

At first, there was a bit of grumbling about these new fees. A few people even accused us of trying to profit from our non-profit! (Had they bothered to check the public records, they would have seen that the revenue we get from any and all fees and tuitions represents in total less than 20% of our expenses. Another 5% of our revenues come from private donations. And the rest of the annual budget – more than $200,000 a year – is funded by yours truly and family.)

When these objections were first voiced, I was surprised and disappointed. How could anyone complain about paying a dollar or two a month to have a membership in a first-class recreation center? And why would someone that was paying $50 a month for English lessons, given an hour away in the city of Rivas, feel that paying the foundation $5 for native instruction was a rip-off?

The answer is human nature.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing in the human mind that is more universal than the capacity for entitlement. (But that is a subject for another essay.)

Because of the initial objections, early enrollments in our programs went down marginally after we started imposing fees and tuitions. But within six months, those same programs were back to being fully booked and overbooked.

Perhaps more importantly, class attendance improved. In some cases, dramatically! The demand for English classes, for example, almost doubled (now that they had a chance to realize what a great value they were at $5 a month, compared to $50).

In addition, we noticed that the frequency of tardiness and truancy that we had taken as a norm during the “free” years diminished by about 20%. And the number of students that graduated from the trade school programs increased by more than 30%, from 60% to 90%.

And though we have no numbers to prove this, our instructors and staff personnel believe that all those that take advantage of our programs enjoy themselves more, appreciate what they are being given more, and complain much less. (Complaints are virtually zero.)

We still provide school books and other school materials to local students. But nowadays, they are required to pay for them – usually at a discount of 75% to 90% of what they would cost in a store. And if anyone can’t afford the small amount we charge, we offer no-cash alternatives that cost them their time and labor. In the case of school supplies, for example, they can pay for their yearly requirements (about $50) by spending several hours cleaning or painting the school.

So that is the short story of what I have learned about giving away charity for “free.” It is generally a bad idea. There are exceptions to this rule. I sometimes, for example, will pay for emergency medical expenses, and we have funded an area program for improving wells that was provided freely. But even those, I’m thinking, might be better used and more appreciated if we found a way to “charge” for them.

I expect that you don’t run your own charitable foundation. That your method of supporting charity is to give your money to a public charity whose mission you support. You may do your due diligence by consulting with one of the services that rates public charities based on factors such as what percentage of funds received go directly to the beneficiaries. I would recommend taking one more step and finding out if those charities give away their help for free. Most do. And that has almost certainly created negative consequences that won’t be in those reports.

Think about it.

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The Coronavirus and Making Friends With Your Devil 

A friend of mine, an economist and investment analyst, sent me a note saying that he is “expecting” the coronavirus pandemic to lead to absolute disaster, both in terms of public health and the economy. He may be right. He may be wrong. So I didn’t think it would help him if I countered his expectations with evidence to the contrary. What good would that do? It wouldn’t change his mind about his expectations. It would only change his view about my perspicacity.

So I sent him an abbreviated version of the following – an essay I’ve written a dozen times in response to a dozen different scenarios in the past 20 years. 

The Prologue 

Whenever I realize that I’m worried about something that might happen in the future,  I use a 4-step technique that I call “Making Friends With Your Devil.” I started working on it about 30 years ago, and have refined it and strengthened it along the way.

Before I explain how I use it now, I’ll give you an idea of how I developed it.

Sometimes K and I would plan something – something as simple as going to the zoo on the weekend or as complicated as taking a European vacation. When we were young and single, such plans were rarely thwarted. But when we had kids, thwarting was less the exception than the rule.

When it happened, I would get angry. I would feel miserable. I was not pleasant to be around. K was almost never like that. She seemed to take disappointment with a grain of salt. She would shrug it off and move on. I was jealous of that and determined to learn how to do it.

For insight into why I was getting so upset and a clue about how I could deal with these inevitable letdowns with more equanimity, I looked into two schools of philosophy: Stoicism (not Zeno or Epictetus but Marcus Aurelius and Seneca) and Zen (secondary sources).

I won’t quote any of that stuff here. You know it as well as I. But I will say that I found it helpful.

I was getting upset, I decided, because I had a strong habit of attaching myself emotionally to every decision I made about what I was going to do. And the solution was to detach myself from that emotional attachment the minute I made any decision about the future.

If, for example, K and I made plans to go to the beach on Sunday, I would – the moment we agreed that we would do it –  imagine waking up on Sunday to find that it was rainy and cold. I would imagine myself saying, “Okay, let’s go to a movie instead.” And then I would allow myself to be a little bit attached to that secondary plan. I would imagine myself enjoying a movie.

It worked. It virtually eliminated all emotional disappointment when things didn’t happen as I had planned. Sometimes, in fact, I was almost happy about it, because I had already imagined enjoying Plan B.

This little trick served me well over the years when dealing with minor disappointments. And eventually, I was able to springboard from it to dealing with larger issues – preparing myself for the worst sorts of disappointments in every area of my life.

Now, for example, whenever I make a major business or financial investment, I do all the normal calculations of possible outcomes, from best to worst. But I resist the urge to dwell on the best, which, I have learned, almost never materializes. Instead, I focus on the worst-case scenario.

When it comes to investing, the worst-case scenario will usually be losing every penny. So I imagine myself losing my entire investment. And I either get comfortable with that, or I hold onto my money.

The Four Easy-to-Hard Steps 

Okay, that was the history of the technique. Now, here’s how to do it…

 Step One: Imagine all the possibilities – from best to worst. Once you’ve identified a worst-case scenario, imagine the details, the specific problems you could be facing. In the case of the current pandemic, the problems might range from running out of toilet paper (minor problem) to running short of food (big problem) to defending your property (bigger problem) to (worst possible problem) someone you love contracting the virus and dying from it.

Step Two: Imagine the actions you would take. Decide how you would deal with each one of these potential problems. (Don’t spend a moment thinking about what you might have done leading up to where you are now. Focus on the future.) Imagine the specific decisions you would make and the specific actions you would take.

Step Three: Imagine how you would feel. For the less-severe problems, it should be easy to imagine yourself acting calmly but with purpose, intelligently but with compassion. But with the serious problems, this will be more difficult. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, the hardest thing to imagine would be how you would feel if a loved one contracted the virus and died from it.

Step Four: Make friends with your devil. This is the most difficult step (until you get used to doing it). It’s part Stoicism, part exposure therapy. Allow yourself to experience the worst-case scenario by imagining that it has already happened. It will provoke angst, anger, and great sadness. But imagine yourself getting through it. Imagine yourself accepting this outcome and accepting it. Acceptance lessens the anger and the grief. Imagine those bad feelings diminishing. You are searching for a sense of peace – and that is what you will find.

If this sounds preachy, please forgive me. Preaching is what I do.

And before you accuse me of hypocrisy, I will say what I always say when so accused: Were it not for hypocrisy, I’d have no good advice to give at all.

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The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living  by Ryan Holiday

This is a bathroom book that will inform and inspire pragmatic readers. The bulk of the quotations in the book come from the three major Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca.

From the book: “Stoic writing is much closer to a yoga session or a pre-game warm up than to a book of philosophy a university professor might write. It’s preparation for the philosophic life where the right state of mind is the most critical part.”

About the author: Ryan Holiday, now a successful author, is the former marketing director for American Apparel. He wrote the bestseller, Trust Me, I’m Lying, and The Obstacle Is the Way.

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Learning, Practicing, and Understanding

Thursday, December 20, 2018

 Delray Beach, FL.- What’s going to be on your list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2019? Do you want to become a masterful writer? Marketer? CEO?

Whatever your goal is, know this: There are four stages in mastering a complex skill: learning, practicing, and understanding.

The first two are intertwined. The last is an achievement.

You cannot practice without some little bit of learning. And you cannot learn without a lot of practice. But the understanding… oh, that’s the wonder!

Let me explain.

For some time now, I’ve been mentoring three young people in the financially valuable skill of writing advertising copy.

Each week, they bring in some piece of copy for me to critique. These are not long pieces. Nor are they complete. They are early drafts of what we call “leads” – headlines and the first 300 to 700 words of copy.

When mentoring copywriters, I like working with leads because they are short and yet they provoke the most important questions about advertising:

For example:

* Does the headline work? Does it hook my attention? Does it make me want to read on with positive expectations?

* Does the rest of the lead introduce an emotionally compelling promise or idea? Does that promise or idea meet the prospect where he is at the moment of reading? Does it build from there? Does it leave the prospect desperate for more?

* What type of lead is being used? A story lead? A secret lead? A promise? An offer? If it is a secret lead, is it followed by a story? If a story leads, is a secret introduced?

The other advantage of using leads for teaching copy is that if their leads are flawed (as they often are), the flaws will typically be the most common mistakes junior copywriters make.

For example:

* Mistaking topics for ideas

* Breaking “the rule of one” – i.e., presenting  multiple ideas or making multiple promises

* Making claims without proof

* Writing copy that is generalized and/or vague

I’ve been using this teaching format for decades, and it’s usually good and useful. Smart, hardworking students generally make fast progress. I’m sure there are other ways to teach and learn that are as good or better for individuals. But for me, this is a protocol that has proven to be effective for most people most of the time.

One thing that has surprised me is that there is little to no relationship between a person’s ability to understand a writing principle and his/her ability to put that principle to work.

In fact, I’ve been confounded by how often, after, for example, explaining how a particular headline isn’t working, I will get the same mistake the very next day. And the day after that. And so on.

When I first noticed this many years ago, I assumed the fault was mine. That I had not explained the principle clearly. But repeated and even variant explanations of the same principle did no good.

So was it the student? Was it his fault?

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One Thing & Another

Delray Beach, FL

Notes From My Journal: Women, Work, and Babies

According to the NYT, American companies have spent years “rolling out programs aimed at retaining mothers, but many large corporations still systematically sideline women who are pregnant.”

The proof?

They cite a study which found that each child cuts 4% off a woman’s hourly wages. Men’s earnings, they say, after controlling for other factors, increase by 6% when they become fathers.

I don’t buy it. What I’d bet they’d find out if they really studied those “controls” is that these discrepancies are the result of decisions mothers make. Decisions about opting for less-demanding jobs that allow them to do what’s more important to them: taking care of their kids.

 

Today’s Word: cleave (verb)

Cleave (KLEEV) is the only word with two synonyms that are antonyms of each other: 1. adhere, and 2. separate.

Examples:

  1. “Search men’s governing principles, and consider the wise, what they shun and what they cleave to.” (Marcus Aurelius)
  2. “In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak.” (Thomas Kyd)

 

Fun Fact

The body uses 300 muscles to balance itself while standing still.

 

From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

 “What’s Your Business Management Philosophy?”, Part 2

 As I said on Monday, https://www.markford.net/one-thing-another-55, there are four broadly different management styles: bullying, babying, being charismatic, and disappearing.

Let’s take a look at them now…

 The Authoritarian

The authoritarian is the manager that knows just what should be done at every moment and who should be doing what. Some achieve their authority through diplomacy. Some through bureaucratic micro-managing, and some by acting the bully.

Sometimes the bullying is direct and obvious. The manager might actually say, “You’ll do this because I tell you to or you’ll be fired.”

I recently spoke to an executive who told me that before hiring a candidate, he tells them, “When you work for me, you work for no one else. If I call you on a Sunday and you are having a birthday party for your kid, I expect you to drop that and come to work.”

This guy’s approach is militant and the atmosphere in his office is like a bootcamp. You’d think such a management style would eventually blow up. But he has been successfully building his business, increasing profits fivefold in less than seven years. And his employees are extremely loyal.

Other times, the bullying is more passive.

Another executive I know, for example, is meticulous and polite in her conversations with employees. She never says anything that on paper would seem untoward. And yet she manages, by innuendo and non-verbal means, to let her employees know that they have two choices: her way or the highway.

And she, too, has been extremely successfully, growing her business from next to nothing to more than $100 million during the time I worked with her.

Bullying – whether active or passive – is the primary management strategy for training and developing soldiers. It’s also the primary strategy for just about every business on Wall Street.

So… though it is indubitably noxious, it is frequently successful. How can that be?

I would say this: Successful bullying requires offsetting abilities and tactics.

One of them is the ability to inspire underlings to believe that they are part of a cause that is greater than their bully bosses. Soldiers, for example, are willing to put up with bootcamp abuse they wouldn’t tolerate elsewhere because they feel that they and their sergeants are serving a higher purpose. They submit to the humiliation to serve that higher cause.

Another is the creation of a sort of fraternity house atmosphere. New recruits understand that the bullying is just part of a process of bringing them inward and upward in the organization. And that later it will be their turn to bully others.

Perhaps the most common way to make bullying work is to pay employees considerably more than they could get in a similar job. If you are making 20% to 50% more than you could make working for a gentler and kinder competitor, you might very well think, “Nah. I can take the bullying. I like the money here.”

The downside of bullying, though, is significant. Although the bully can get a great deal of good work from his employees, he is working with people who fundamentally don’t trust and don’t like him. If an equally well-paid (or better) job opportunity comes along, they will leave without a moment’s regret.

That said, if you want to adopt this style of management there are some guidelines to follow:

* You can’t be an effective bully manager unless you have employees that are comfortable with being bullied now and then. So you have to be frank with them in the beginning. You have to make it clear during the interview process that your business culture is demanding and sometimes humiliating. If the candidate can’t tolerate that, he should withdraw his application.

* Make the pay scale attractive. If you are going to regularly push people beyond their natural limits, you must be willing to pay them more. How much more? That depends on your industry. But I would say that the average compensation should be at least 10% and more likely 20% higher than industry standards, with unlimited potential for some positions.

* Identify the mission. Explain how and why it is extremely important.

* Never forget that even if you’ve established a larger-than-thou goal for the business and you are overpaying your workers, they will eventually come to resent your bullying. And that although you may have captured their best and most productive hours, you will have lost the loyalty in their hearts.

 The Babysitter

 The babysitter is the manager that believes it is his job to entertain and sometimes pacify his employees. He believes that happy employees make for happy customers, and happy customers make for business growth. There are many dot.com-era CEOs who attribute their financial success to this management philosophy of putting employees first.

The babysitter manager spends most of his time interacting with employees, asking them how he can make their working lives happier. What this invariably results in are changes that reduce work hours and job demands and increase not just compensation but dozens of other employee benefits. Benefits such as childcare and resting (as opposed to rest) rooms and open spaces that serve as playgrounds for infantilized adults.

I believe in treating employees well and respectfully. It is an absolute moral mandate as far as I’m concerned.

But the fundamental problem with the babysitter style of management is the core psychological philosophy behind it: that we can become happier by paying more attention to our wants and needs.

The primary relationship in a business is NOT between the employer and the employee. It is between the customer (who is doling out the cash) and the company (that is providing the product or service).

So although I’m all in favor of treating employees well (especially your superstars), this sort of approach to leadership must be in conjunction with high expectations.

If you are inclined to employ this style of management, here are the guidelines:

* Let new employees know that although you will be doing everything you can to make their job enjoyable, your primary obligation is to the customer. And so is theirs.

* Discuss and agree on what sort of and how much work is required of them. Don’t sugarcoat this conversation. They must understand from the get-go that you expect a great deal.

* Convey to them the general mission of the business – your idea of the value you are providing to your customers and the world.

* Create and communicate a clear chart of responsibilities from top to bottom and insist that it be respected. If you don’t, some employees might get the idea that it’s okay for them to seeking comfort/validation from executives they don’t work for – including you.

 

The Charismatic

The charismatic business manager is a rara avis. A very unusual person with the ability to inspire and even charm his employees to work harder for him than they ever imagined they could work for anyone.

Like bullies and babysitters, charismatic managers come in many flavors. Some are very generous to their employees and some are sort of stingy. Some are great speakers and some are nearly mute. Some are “big idea” people and some prefer to fiddle with the dials.

But they all somehow have the ability to instill in their employees a passion for and a trust in their vision… and a desire to please them, however much work and effort that requires.

If you are lucky enough to be a charismatic person, there are some traps that you must avoid falling into. For example, you need to understand that although half of your ideas may be wrong, your ability to sell them to your employees is so strong that they may “yes” you when they should be saying “maybe not.”

There are several ways to do that successfully and one way to fail. That way is to tell them that they should feel free to contradict you. They will certainly agree to do so. But they won’t. Why won’t they? Because you are charismatic!

Better ways to put a leash on your charisma:

* When you have a new idea or want to embark on a new project, send out a rough plan to any and all employees that will be affected by it. Ask for anonymous feedback. Then review the feedback with two or three senior people whose opinions you trust.

* Empower key employees (particularly those in charge of profit centers) to prioritize the ideas you give them in order of some agreed-upon criteria you’ve established. Let them know that though it’s your nature to sell every idea you come up with equally hard, you know that only some of them will work. So you will count on them to decide which ones takes precedence.

* Make it a habit to wait before selling a new idea to your people. Wait a day or wait a week or better yet a month. The ideas that are likely to make the biggest difference don’t need to be implemented right away. They are usually fundamental and, therefore, will take time to put into action. So write them down. Put them away for a while. Then look at them again and see how good they really are.

You can’t learn to be charismatic. It’s an innate quality. You have it or you don’t.

If you don’t have it, don’t despair. Lesser skills – like how to establish goals and incentivize employees – can be learned. And if you apply those skills to other skills (including, on rare occasions, a little bit of bullying), you can become a very effective manager.

I’d much rather be a charismatic manager than a bully. But since I don’t have the innate talent of charisma, I’ve had to rely on a bit of bullying here and there. Though I wish I hadn’t hurt tender feelings, I don’t regret it because I got the job done.

 

The Invisible Manager

There is a management style that is rarely talked about in books or (I’d bet) taught in classrooms. I describe as “invisible.”

Invisible managers – as you might have guessed from the nomenclature – are executives that manage to motivate their employees and grow their businesses without being especially charming or aggressive.

They do not rally the troops or make visionary speeches. Nor do they bribe and beat their employees into submission.

They simply work with each of their direct reports, quietly and individually. They keep the business moving at a good pace, without drama, ego clashes, rebellions, or disgruntlement.

It’s not easy to become an invisible manager. You have to understand your business from the inside out and understand each of your key employees in terms of what they want out of their careers.

Invisible managers employ some of the characteristics of charismatic managers. But they add to that a great deal of specific knowledge and expertise that they use when having quiet little conversations with their employees about what the next best thing for the business might be.

 

Which leader is the best?

Like I said, no one leadership type is always best for all people.

Being the bully can work very well under certain circumstances. Especially when the structure of the business tends to be centralized and the flow of information and decision-making is top-down.

Babysitting can work, too. But you have to have the guts to fire people when it is clear that they are taking advantage of rather than being motivated by the babysitting services you are offering.

Charismatic leadership is very effective… so long as you either know exactly what needs to be done or are capable of hiring people that will soon know more than you do.

Invisible leadership works best if you have the discipline to learn your business extremely well and are able to communicate your ideas in a non-threatening but crystal-clear manner.

The management style I prefer has a little bit of everything:

* a willingness to give employees a good deal of responsibility and flexibility

* the understanding that the business needs to provide some amount of education and orientation for its employees but not dictate what everyone should be doing at all times

* the ability to establish a strong corporate spinal column consisting of centralized accounting, budgeting, marketing analysis, and information processing

* the willingness to establish decentralized profit centers working from yearly budgets that are regularly reviewed by upper management

* the inclination to allow as much freedom as possible when it comes to how profit-center managers achieve their goals, but making sure they are monitored and regulated by trusted, experienced supervisors

* an overriding belief that what is good for every individual employee is equally good for the business

* the desire to teach employees that profits are critical but that the most important job of the business is to provide continued value to its customers

 

Watch This…

https://biggeekdad.com/2013/06/ten-pound-note/

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One Thing & Another

Delray Beach, FL

Notes From My Journal: Women, Work, and Babies

According to the NYT, American companies have spent years “rolling out programs aimed at retaining mothers, but many large corporations still systematically sideline women who are pregnant.”

The proof?

They cite a study which found that each child cuts 4% off a woman’s hourly wages. Men’s earnings, they say, after controlling for other factors, increase by 6% when they become fathers.

I don’t buy it. What I’d bet they’d find out if they really studied those “controls” is that these discrepancies are the result of decisions mothers make. Decisions about opting for less-demanding jobs that allow them to do what’s more important to them: taking care of their kids.

 

Today’s Word: cleave (verb)

Cleave (KLEEV) is the only word with two synonyms that are antonyms of each other: 1. adhere, and 2. separate.

Examples:

  1. “Search men’s governing principles, and consider the wise, what they shun and what they cleave to.” (Marcus Aurelius)
  2. “In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak.” (Thomas Kyd)

 

Fun Fact

The body uses 300 muscles to balance itself while standing still.

 

From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

“What’s Your Business Management Philosophy?”, Part 2

 As I said on Monday, [LINK TO JULY 16 ESSAY], there are four broadly different management styles: bullying, babying, being charismatic, and disappearing.

Let’s take a look at them now…

 The Authoritarian

The authoritarian is the manager that knows just what should be done at every moment and who should be doing what. Some achieve their authority through diplomacy. Some through bureaucratic micro-managing, and some by acting the bully.

Sometimes the bullying is direct and obvious. The manager might actually say, “You’ll do this because I tell you to or you’ll be fired.”

I recently spoke to an executive who told me that before hiring a candidate, he tells them, “When you work for me, you work for no one else. If I call you on a Sunday and you are having a birthday party for your kid, I expect you to drop that and come to work.”

This guy’s approach is militant and the atmosphere in his office is like a bootcamp. You’d think such a management style would eventually blow up. But he has been successfully building his business, increasing profits fivefold in less than seven years. And his employees are extremely loyal.

Other times, the bullying is more passive.

Another executive I know, for example, is meticulous and polite in her conversations with employees. She never says anything that on paper would seem untoward. And yet she manages, by innuendo and non-verbal means, to let her employees know that they have two choices: her way or the highway.

And she, too, has been extremely successfully, growing her business from next to nothing to more than $100 million during the time I worked with her.

Bullying – whether active or passive – is the primary management strategy for training and developing soldiers. It’s also the primary strategy for just about every business on Wall Street.

So… though it is indubitably noxious, it is frequently successful. How can that be?

I would say this: Successful bullying requires offsetting abilities and tactics.

One of them is the ability to inspire underlings to believe that they are part of a cause that is greater than their bully bosses. Soldiers, for example, are willing to put up with bootcamp abuse they wouldn’t tolerate elsewhere because they feel that they and their sergeants are serving a higher purpose. They submit to the humiliation to serve that higher cause.

Another is the creation of a sort of fraternity house atmosphere. New recruits understand that the bullying is just part of a process of bringing them inward and upward in the organization. And that later it will be their turn to bully others.

Perhaps the most common way to make bullying work is to pay employees considerably more than they could get in a similar job. If you are making 20% to 50% more than you could make working for a gentler and kinder competitor, you might very well think, “Nah. I can take the bullying. I like the money here.”

The downside of bullying, though, is significant. Although the bully can get a great deal of good work from his employees, he is working with people who fundamentally don’t trust and don’t like him. If an equally well-paid (or better) job opportunity comes along, they will leave without a moment’s regret.

That said, if you want to adopt this style of management there are some guidelines to follow:

* You can’t be an effective bully manager unless you have employees that are comfortable with being bullied now and then. So you have to be frank with them in the beginning. You have to make it clear during the interview process that your business culture is demanding and sometimes humiliating. If the candidate can’t tolerate that, he should withdraw his application.

* Make the pay scale attractive. If you are going to regularly push people beyond their natural limits, you must be willing to pay them more. How much more? That depends on your industry. But I would say that the average compensation should be at least 10% and more likely 20% higher than industry standards, with unlimited potential for some positions.

* Identify the mission. Explain how and why it is extremely important.

* Never forget that even if you’ve established a larger-than-thou goal for the business and you are overpaying your workers, they will eventually come to resent your bullying. And that although you may have captured their best and most productive hours, you will have lost the loyalty in their hearts.

 

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One Thing & Another

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua

Notes From My Journal: The situation here is bad… and it’s likely to get worse

I’ve been at Rancho Santana for several days, hoping the political turmoil would settle. It hasn’t. (And there’s been scant coverage about it in the US press.)

Here’s the history in a nutshell…

Daniel Ortega, the revolutionary leader that toppled the US-backed dictatorship of Somoza back in 1978-9, was elected president in 2007, bringing his Sandinista party into power. It was by all accounts a fair election. He won because he had a message that appealed to the poor, of which there are many, and because the opposition splintered.

I was worried at the time that he would wreck the economy, as he and his party members had done in the 1960s. But he had a different agenda. He allowed business to continue, more or less as usual, and implemented some social programs that were successful and others that were not. A secondary agenda seems to have been to put his family and friends in high places.

When he became president, he was a man of modest means. Today, some say he’s among the country’s richest.

Whatever Ortega was or wasn’t doing, the economy has been gradually improving for the 20 years I’ve been coming here. And its continued improvement during his regime boosted his popularity. That popularity, along with some hotly disputed elections, allowed him to put his wife in the vice-presidency seat and elevate his own power to what he once enjoyed as a revolutionary dictator.

All that changed about six weeks ago when his administration put into effect several seemingly sensible changes in an effort to balance the budget. (Nicaragua can’t print money the way the US can.) This led to a strike by pensioneers, which was responded to by violence. Twenty were killed and hundreds injured. Since then, the protests have gotten larger and there are roadblocks up and down the Pacific Highway. This has caused all sorts of problems, including a fuel shortage. Everyone is scared. The fact that paramilitary gangs continue to kill and kidnap protestors hasn’t helped.

Were it not for social media, we’d know nothing about all of this at Rancho Santana. There is no highway that runs through here, no protests or roadblocks, and no thugs with guns intimidating the local population. Business is way down. But those that are here can still enjoy all the comforts of a five-star hotel, so long as they don’t worry about the rest of the country.

Directly or indirectly, Rancho Santana employs more than a thousand locals. Another 50 or so work at FunLimon, my family’s community center across the street. Though supplies from Managua cannot reach us because of the roadblocks, we intend to keep these people employed as long as possible. But other, smaller resorts on either side of us have shut their doors and put hundreds out of work.

I’ve been talking to everyone I can – gringos and locals – about this situation. The consensus opinion is that things will get worse before they get better. I’m hoping that’s not true. This is such a beautiful area. And there are so many people here that are dependent on tourism.

 

Today’s Word: traduce (verb)

To traduce (truh-DOOS) is to blame or shame by lying. As used by Shakespeare in Othello: “In Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and turban’d Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus.”

 

Fun Fact

 40% of the US population has never visited a dentist.

 

 From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

The Bipolarity of Self-Improvement Literature*

Although it’s fashionable today to discredit self-improvement literature, the genre has a long and dignified history.

A fair number of the most ancient texts, in fact, were treatises on how to accomplish objectives, avoid problems, and live well and/or prosperously.

The Maxims of Ptah-Hotepdates back to Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty. (2414-2375 BC)

From China, we have Confucius’s Great Learning. (c. 500 BC)

Ancient Greece produced some of the greatest “self-improvement” tracts of all time, including Hesiod’s Works and Days(c. 700 BC), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics(c. 350 BC), and Ovid’sArt of Love and Remedy of Love(2 AD).

The Romans gave us Cicero’s On Friendshipand On Duties (c. 44 BC) and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations(170-180 AD), which is still widely read today. (In fact, it’s been in renaissance along with other “stoic” philosophy for several years.)

And let’s not forget the Bible, parts of which (scholars tell us) were written as early as 1445 BC.

The subject matter maintained a modest position in literature through the middle ages, continued through the Renaissance, strengthened during The Enlightenment, and grew stronger in the 19thand 20thcenturies. In this century, it’s bigger and more popular than ever. Much (actually, the great majority) of it is now written for the masses, which accounts for its degraded status among educated people.

The genre has a wide scope:

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