Reflection leads to revelation: When something favorable occurs – a published essay, a share price maintaining a northeasterly trajectory, a belt buckling at the next inward notch – I strive to understand how and why my actions contributed to my success. As for the other side of the realm – the antonyms to the aforementioned - I learn from the folly to preempt an encore.
An ounce of prevention over a pound of cure? I suppose alertness is equivalent to the ounce of prevention. A simple exercise in deductive reasoning illustrates the point: An action that could lead to an impressionable outcome should be heeded. Because all actions can lead to impressionable outcomes, all actions should be heeded. Heep before you leap.
Alertness is the first step to heeding. Alertness to potential consequences goes a long way to tamping down the enervating claim of victimhood. If for no other reason, you reduce the odds of being a victim.
Let’s consider the apotheosis of victimhood: the battered woman. Her position universally raises ire and captures empathy, and for good reason. The encounter could hardly be less equitable. It is the apex of bullying. Forget David v. Goliath; it’s Goliath v. Bathsheba, sans the sling and rock. Outside the extremely rare, if not nonexistent, episode of a woman threatening a man with violence, a man should never strike a woman. No man of a civilized society should think otherwise.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the obvious, we have to ask: Does the woman play a role in the abuse? A shove, a slap, a punch is rarely the response to the first disagreement. Behavior is most accommodating in the first days of the courtship. But not so much later. The willingness to accommodate degrades as familiarity gives way, not to contempt, to presumption.
Cracks appear soon enough in the portico erected to disguise a hovel. The physical abuse of tomorrow is foreshadowed in the subtle abuses of today. Perhaps it's the recurring correcting of speech or behavior. Perhaps it’s an insult veiled by a dismissive laugh: “How could you be so stupid?” he says through a Cheshire-cat grin. Perhaps it is a furrowed-brow glare, a gritting of the teeth. It could be a jarring physical response under the guise of affection: a hard squeeze of the hand, a jerking pull of the arm, an imposing cornering against a wall. These subtle forms of intimidation are initially rationalized as harmless by the hopeful mind.
Women are most vulnerable to physical abuse in a relationship. The sexes are equally vulnerable in matters of disease. Are afflicted mostly victims of randomness? An alert mind will see the behaviors and habits that are contributing factors: poor diet; lack of exercise, fresh air, and natural sunlight; sedentary lifestyle, low sociability, apathy, smoking, drinking, belligerence, laziness, ennui are all precursors to poor health and disease. All of which are under our purview. To be sure, heredity can get the better of us despite our best intentions. But even when a disease is codified in our DNA to harm us, our alertness and action, can forestall the inevitable, if not mitigate its damage.
We are all destined to die. There is no getting around this hard fact. but most of us contribute to our early demise. We frequently play a role in our demise by failing to heed reality and truth. You protest? Take a look in the fridge, the pantry, and the mirror before you judge.
We are complicit in torpedoing our physical health. We are equally complicit in torpedoing our financial health. We are, again, less of a victim than we think. If we think some more, we discover we are not victims at all. Autogenerated ignorance and greed are lead contributors to our financial demise. The perpetrator of financial scams plays on both to his advantage.
How often have we read pathos-inducing accounts of the octogenarian couple – wizened, conjoined for decades, now chastened and despondent – scammed of their life savings? Sometimes they are scammed by the ridiculous, for which you roll your eyes and shake your head. The puerile Nigerian lottery scam is a ready example. More often, it involves the guise of plausibility because plausibility appears through the lens of ignorance and greed.
One such iteration of the implausible plausible materializes within the mysterious “black box” – the execution of a recondite financial transaction, such an arbitrage play involving obscure financial securities (a scheme favored by Charles Ponzi), that can deliver a 50% return in a month, if not less. The scammer need only lay hands on the requisite capital to execute this trade. The “victim,” though intractably baffled by the bullshit, acquiesces, nonetheless. He hands over his capital, the baffling having been outflanked by the mesmerizing prospect of instant riches.
Our scammer informs the dupe that he has successfully executed the trade, voila! instant riches, at least on paper for a couple of months. You want to monetize your investment, the business-class airline ticket and the garret apartment in Monaco having been book, and voila! again. The scammer either song-and-dances his way out of disbursing the funds, or he simply goes silent and absconds.
A familiar Wall Street axiom warns that more money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun. Scams need not be so audacious as the 50% monthly return to separate the greedy ignoramus from his capital. Bernie Madoff made off with $50 billion by promising the seemingly plausible: a 10% annual rate of return through thick or thin. He did so with his own iteration of the black-box strategy, one centered on recondite trades involving blue-chip stocks and options.
Tom Petters’ scheme, deceptively simple and understandable to all, was still beyond the pale. Petters gathered billions of dollars selling notes promising to pay 15% to 20% annual interest to investors. The proceeds were to earmarked to buy merchandise that Petters would sell to retailers at a profit after all costs. Petters would be the rare exception: the middleman who operates with high margins, except he wasn’t the exception. No merchandise was bought, except that Petters bought to further embellish a lavish lifestyle.
A guaranteed 10% to 20% annual return appears plausible to the ignorant, greed-addled mind, and to the intelligent, greed-addled mind. A Boulder, Colo. financial advisor called Agile Group created a fund labeled “Agile Safety Variable Fund.” The fund was fully invested with Madoff and Petters. The fund’s net asset value fully dropped to zero once the respective scams were publicized.
Madoff’s and Petters’ investment propositions appealed to greed, and to some extent, exclusivity. Their investments were peddled through fraternal organizations and through exclusive contacts. You needed to know someone who knew someone who know Madoff and Petters. “You’re getting only 5% annually on your five-year CD? Sucker. I’m getting 10%-to-20%. Look at me behind the velvet rope,” so the dupes thought.
I suppose you could defend the elderly person with claims of high-pressure-sales tactics, but a weak backbone and an eagerness to please are weak excuses. If you’re spineless and prone to acquiescence, whether old or young, own the shortcoming and avoid the situations where you could be exploited. When you are honest with yourself, you lower the risk of obliteration. At the same time, you raise the possibility of jettisoning the defective character trait.
With that, I offer a fast and tidy exercise to raise financial alertness: Whenever you are approached with the opportunity to invest in an unfamiliar, promising pie-in-the-sky investment, ask yourself what Don Corleone do? Perhaps you remember the scene: Corleone asked Sollozzo “Why do you come to me? Why do I deserve this generosity?” when Sollozzo presents him with the opportunity to receive a 400% annual return turn on a million-dollar investment. Did Corleone invest? Those familiar with the movie know, and for those unfamiliar with the movie, I’m sure you can infer Corleone’s decision from the tenor of this missive.
We are imperfect. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and we will make more. Eternal vigilance is impossible, as is the ability to perfectly foretell the future. Events happen that we could neither foresee nor deflect: A mass shooting at an amusement park, the dropping from the sky of a 737 owned by a reputable airline, a rational investment rendered worthless by corporate malfeasance undetectable in the financial statement. But these events are outliers.
We will contribute to our demise at times, but we will do so with diminishing regularity when we remain alert and retrospective. The person who houses an alert, retrospective mind will concede that he was more accomplice than victim more often than not, and he will become a victim less often than not.