STUMP » Articles » On the Danger of Misreading Motives and the Public Pensions Crusade » 21 December 2014, 14:57

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On the Danger of Misreading Motives and the Public Pensions Crusade  


21 December 2014, 14:57

I read this post by William Hoge this morning relating to an ongoing lawsuit where he is one of the named defendants:

Kimberlin’s projection of his motivations and methods on to others has made it impossible for him to see what his opponents are really doing. While I’m pleased that Hogewash! now generates enough cash flow to pay its own way, its pre-tax profit is probably less than 5 % of my adjusted gross income. TDPK misunderstands what motivates people like me, and that’s one of the reasons why he is doomed to lose at lawfare.

That does assume that what Kimberlin is attempting via lawfare is to get people to back down without a fight, and to remove reportage on Kimberlin’s criminal past and questionable present.

If that’s the case, it has worked in two ignominious cases at least — when it comes to non-profit orgs with liability insurance coverage and a lawyer on staff or retainer, lawfare may very well work.

But targeting individuals? You’d have to be a nut to target Robert Stacy McCain with lawfare and assume he’d back down.

Oh wait.

This puts me in mind of the 48 Laws of Power (a book I highly recommend) — the author Robert Greene uses all sorts of great historical anecdotes, usually involving well-known historical figures like Napoleon and Metternich, Louis XIV and Fouquet… but the stories I remember best were those of the con men.

In particular, I remember a story from Law 19: Know Who You’re Dealing with – Do Not Offend the Wrong Person. I do not have me copy of the book in front of me, but I recall the story involving a con that hit on a very poor target.

The thing with many successful cons is that they play on people’s bad qualities, most especially greed. The Nigerian email scam has played on this, and Madoff actually played on this as well. One thing to do is to get the mark to do something that seems slightly illegal (or is actually illegal), so that when the mark realizes they’ve been conned, they won’t go to the police.

Or it can be the person feels so foolish that they won’t report the con. “It was such an obvious scam! How did you fall for that?!” Agatha Christie uses this sort of con in her books often – the smooth ladies man who seduces married women, steals their stuff, and assumes the woman will not go to the police as he has incriminating letters.

A successful con doesn’t mean the mark won’t realize they’ve been conned — it’s that the mark won’t be able to stop the con from continuing (with new marks). It’s that the mark will just roll over and take it.

But not all marks are like that. Some people take being fooled very, very poorly. And it’s not always the person you think who will strike back — some of the meekest-seeming people will turn into the second coming of the Furies when they feel they’ve been wronged.

A quote from the book:

“Never assume that the person you are dealing with is weaker or less important than you are. Some people are slow to take offense, which may make you misjudge the thickness of their skin, and fail to worry about insulting them. But should you offend their honor and their pride, they will overwhelm you with a violence that seems sudden and extreme given their slowness to anger. If you want to turn people down, it is best to do so politely and respectfully, even if you feel their request is impudent or their offer ridiculous.”

There were other stories there – each “law” has multiple stories to back it, in addition to a more full explanation. But the story I recall was a man being fooled by a con that had worked several times before, and the marks generally were bashful when they realized they’d been had.

Not this mark.

He was so pissed off, he made it his personal crusade to track down the con men and destroy them. And he did destroy said con men (and himself).

This reminds me of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend— Rogue Riderhood thought he found the perfect blackmail victim. What he found was a man willing to murder both himself and Riderhood:

Without taking the least notice, Bradley leaned his body against a post, in a resting attitude, and there rested with his eyes cast down. ‘Being brought here,’ said Riderhood, gruffly, ‘I’ll turn it to some use by changing my gates.’ With a rattle and a rush of water, he then swung-to the lock gates that were standing open, before opening the others. So, both sets of gates were, for the moment, closed.

‘You’d better by far be reasonable, Bradley Headstone, Master,’ said Riderhood, passing him, ‘or I’ll drain you all the dryer for it, when we do settle.—Ah! Would you!’

Bradley had caught him round the body. He seemed to be girdled with an iron ring. They were on the brink of the Lock, about midway between the two sets of gates.

‘Let go!’ said Riderhood, ‘or I’ll get my knife out and slash you wherever I can cut you. Let go!’

Bradley was drawing to the Lock-edge. Riderhood was drawing away from it. It was a strong grapple, and a fierce struggle, arm and leg. Bradley got him round, with his back to the Lock, and still worked him backward.

‘Let go!’ said Riderhood. ‘Stop! What are you trying at? You can’t drown Me. Ain’t I told you that the man as has come through drowning can never be drowned? I can’t be drowned.’

‘I can be!’ returned Bradley, in a desperate, clenched voice. ‘I am resolved to be. I’ll hold you living, and I’ll hold you dead. Come down!’

Riderhood went over into the smooth pit, backward, and Bradley Headstone upon him. When the two were found, lying under the ooze and scum behind one of the rotting gates, Riderhood’s hold had relaxed, probably in falling, and his eyes were staring upward. But, he was girdled still with Bradley’s iron ring, and the rivets of the iron ring held tight.

Riderhood chose a poor target indeed.

This law is about offense, but the point is to be very careful of whom you make an enemy. Yes, you need to pick friends carefully, but you must pick enemies extremely carefully.

You bomb Pearl Harbor, thinking that America has gone soft…. yeah. That worked out well for them, eh?

You pick on a Hollywood studio to get them to withdraw a film? Eh, they’ve shown their colors before.

You’re a NYC mayor bad-mouthing cops? I’m sure that will end well for you.

Use your millions to attack the NRA? I’m sure it will work this time.

In my case, my particular crusade has to do with public pensions, and I do have some enemies in this. I know I have a message that some people do not want to see, and it’s not that I want public pensions to be destroyed. It’s that they will be destroyed if certain practices are not cleaned up.

I started out on this particular crusade in about 2008, when I got in an argument with pension actuaries (I worked in annuities). I had started learning the distinctions between how annuities were valued and how pensions were valued, and I thought there were some very bad incentives embedded in how public pensions were valued.

The primary argument as to why it was okay to do what I considered undervaluing pensions: government doesn’t go out of business.

Oh really?

I have many motives. One motive is finding out what’s really going on — when I get interested in a topic, I start digging into it, trying to figure out how we got where we are. Digging into the various actions going on helps me learn more about the dynamics. The public pensions problem involves multiple interacting dimensions, and I’m still learning about these.

One motive is to make people quit saying stupid things. I am, at heart, a teacher, and I can’t abide flat untruths to be spread willy-nilly. Others go after the you only use 10% of your brain myth – I go after 80% funded is good enough myth.

One huge motive, though, is I don’t want public pensions to fail.

I have lots of public school teachers in my extended family, and I would rather pension promises made be fulfilled. Thing is, because everyone assumes “government doesn’t go out of business,” serious problems with pension funding and design are not addressed or addressed in ways that make the pensions even more likely to fail.

I am not happy about the impending disaster. No, not all public pensions are going under. But many are not in as good a state as official numbers show. Many people will not get their full promised pensions. They won’t get nothing, but they will get less than they had planned on, just like with Detroit retirees and employees.

And the issue is that all these public pensions disasters are years in the making — these disasters do not come from nowhere, without warning.

The problem is that once the disaster comes, you have people like retirees getting hit. If they had been warned years ahead of time, they could have been prepared.

Now, I’m just small fry, but there are people with bigger platforms who have been hit with accusations that they’re just right-wing meanies who hate public employees and want to privatize everything.

Well, sure, some are. But that’s definitely not everybody who is yelling about the trouble public pensions are in. David Sirota might be a meanie, but he’s definitely not right-wing. Leo Kolivakis doesn’t want public pensions destroyed. Ted Siedle has done work for public employee unions – I rather doubt he’s trying to kill public pensions.

Those three focus on the asset-side of the public pensions problem more than the liability side, but still, I listen to them even if my politics differ greatly from them (though in the case of politicians being buddy-buddy with hedge fund managers… my politics are exactly the same).

Because they are trying to get at facts of the matter, their specific motives are not of a huge concern to me. I will think about it, but my main thought when reading their pieces: is what they say true?

Their motives may color how I read their pieces, but I am not going to paper over actual facts just because they’re unpleasant for my political party. Danger lies in such a selective view, because one will get blindsided when the reality gets so large it can’t be ignored.

So just a little advice to people: yes, think about other people’s motives in what they say and do, and most especially in how they’re likely to respond to attacks.

But truth is also important, and truth will not always conform to how you’d like the world to be.

Reality always wins in the long run, no matter one’s motives.

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