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Monday, November 30, 2015

Envy As The Enemy of Conservativism

This article explores the meaning of the adjective "conservative" as it is used to describe people.

While "conservative" is most often used as an adjective to modify a noun in a political / partisan context, it is more appropriately used as a philosophical modifier to describe one's larger values and perspective on life. 

Those values, it seems, are so much more than a mere reduction into narrow, partisan political categories.

It seems that one prime characteristic of the conservative is the principle of respect. By this, I mean a respect, in many regards, and for many other people, principles and beliefs. 

That respect often has a common denominator far from the least. It is a respect for the effort of others -- and the character which that effort demonstrates.

Effort is independent from the concepts of achievement, success or sacrifice, even though effort is often found in the same mix as these other concepts to produce ultimate achievement. One can achieve without being successful; think of the marathon runner who achieves a particular goal (a targeted time or pace) without winning. One may be successful without sacrifice, such as through the receipt of luck like the game-show contestant or lottery ticket winner. Yet it is exceedingly rare to achieve success without either sacrifice or effort, and it is even rarer still for sacrifice not to involve a degree of considerable effort (such as the effort to exercise the discipline to withstand and overcome privation or deprivation).  Hence, effort should be held preeminent as a value. 

Now, effort is no guarantee of success. It is not even predictive of success. Yet the absence of effort is largely predictive, if not of failure, then of one's failure to fulfill one's potential -- what might be called one's potential to achieve. 

Ability is a strong driver towards achievement. Yet many disciplines are full of people with ability. But who are the ones to "make it"? Thus, while ability is most often found prior to achievement, and ability may be an almost-necessary precursor to achievement, it is just not a sufficient precursor; something else is needed. That difference-making element is effort.

I contend that when we write that we respect achievement and success, it is more accurate to write that we respect the effort that led to that achievement. After all, we do not respect one's achievement -- fortune, really -- of holding the winning lottery ticket, an event for which luck is virtually the sole contributor (save for stubborn foolishness deemed as perseverance). 

And while ability and skill contribute to the achievement, those qualities do not illustrate one's personality, one's character traits, in the manner of effort. One may be slothful yet still possess great skill (and the luck and occasional flash of discipline to use it), such that the skill does not speak to character. Yet the reverse is quite different. Mediocre skill combined with great effort can result in great achievement, so much so that one's mediocrity is often (and incorrectly) used as evidence of one's grand character, as if mediocrity itself were a credential and not a mere circumstance or relative handicap.

As such, effort illustrates the character of respecting the traits so often found to produce and foster achievement: discipline, perseverance, dedication, and so on. Therefore, we find ourselves respecting achievement because it serves as the proxy for those traits. 

It follows that conservatives admire and exalt not individual achievement, but rather the traits whose presence so often is necessary to foster the achievement. 

But what of the inverse, the opposite of those traits? How does one view the envy, jealousy and schadenfraude towards those who achieve?

The reasoning outlined here hints at a basic incompatibility. If conservatism at its personal, psychological core exalts the traits that induce and inspire effort, then conservatism must also scorn, dissuade and punish the traits which punish effort. It follows that the emotions of envy and jealousy must be targeted, because those emotions reward non-effort and those who seek to benefit from the effort expended by others. As such, envy induces the redistribution of the fruits of positive behavior away from its possessors (the good actors) and towards its detractors (the bad actors), while localizing, concentrating and restricting the costs of effort to its expenders.

But what is envy -- at its root, at its core, what is it? It is just desiring what another had -- I wish I had that too -- or must it involve the demand to take from another -- I don't only wish I had that, but I must deprive that other person of his achievement, his effort, and keep it away from him?

If envy is really the latter, it supports the inference (really, it requires it) that what another has, his property, his achievements (financial, relationships, etc.), perhaps something totally intangible like self-esteem or confidence, is really rightfully owned by another? And by so doing, envy becomes the antithesis of property rights. It becomes the emotional manifestation of the belief that one person can never claim unfettered, unquestioned possession of his work, his sacrifices or their products, that in fact everything he has is subject to the constant threat of confiscation or destruction, at the hands of another who asserts either greater power (e.g., might makes right) or a moral superiority ad infinitum over the former, lesser person.

Envy rewards those who avoid effort. On that basic level and for that basic reason, envy would appear to be the polar opposite, the mortal enemy, of the effort so often responsible for achievement and the conditions necessary for success. It follows that envy and its associated emotions are incompatible with, and inhospitable to, the positive emotions necessary for effort and therefore for success and achievement in any arena.

Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer, strategist and business advisor. 



Friday, November 27, 2015

Starting Up A Startup

Get real...or get lost. That's what investors and venture capitalists say.

I've consulted with various startups in various industries over the years. Most prospective founders -- who never end up as my clients either for legal services or management services -- are daydreamers. 

They make the mistake of thinking that others will invest their own money, and assume the risk, that the founder himself will not do.

That is the height of stupidity, of arrogance, and of disrespect.

You should have at least $10,000-$25,000 of your own money to invest in your own venture. This is a modest amount and most people can get this amount from credit card balance transfers. This amount is needed to set up the legal structure for a business entity with a separate legal existence, open up a real bank account and have some funds to start development and so on. (This is also why I ask startups for a retainer, because the "real ones" actually come to the meeting with a real check, and leave having written and endorsed a real check.)

Everyone else is either full of nonsense, has no money, or is trying to get advice for free. Someone who claims he or she cannot raise and document having it and contributing it into the business (that is, into a segregated business account) is either a fool or a faker. The investor need not decide which is which; he will simply shake your hand politely, walk away, and toss whatever materials you've given him into the nearest waste basket.

If you cannot obtain and document that you've spent this on your own startup, it is reasonable for a prospective investor, lender or landlord to assume you have no friends who think your venture has potential, you have no money of your own -- which supports the inference that you are an absolute failure, loser or fraud  -- or you're simply too smug to spend your own money first. 

My advice to you is that if you don't have this minimum capital on hand, you (a) have no business starting a business, much less (b) asking for investments from anyone else. In fact, asking others to invest in you, when you are unwilling to invest in yourself, is a sign of disrespect and insults the intelligence of your targets. 

And when you insult the intelligence or integrity of others, you burn credibility and assume a risk of being remembered in the future for all the wrong reasons.

Eric Dixon is a New York-based lawyer and startup manager who has advised numerous young businesses on various matters.


Monday, November 23, 2015

So Lawyers Are The Most Messed-Up?

And in other breaking news, humans breathe a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. Story at eleven.

There is a somewhat serious report out about the relatively higher prevalence of mental illness, anxiety-related disorders and the like afflicting the legal profession.  As someone with a combined quarter century of experience within the profession, let me decode for you what that means.

First, I write "somewhat serious" because although the issue is serious, the overall message for the general public -- ergo, the customers, that being, many of you as readers -- is what is really important. And that angle is totally ignored!

Second, let's understand something. Customers and clients are looking for solutions. Most often, people want a particular result. Who are we kidding? People want a certain outcome, and the smarter customers realize that they are going through a process involving an opponent, and are trying to achieve the best possible outcome in light of that opposition. It's because of those characteristics that the legal profession can be stressful. 

You see, the legal profession is all about managing an adversarial, contentious process whereby people are trying to assert, or defend, their rights, whether those rights are their civil rights, constitutional rights, privacy rights or property rights. (Most disputes involve those four. You undoubtedly will name others.)

The nature of the business of lawyers, the settlement of disputes, is not pleasant. Most people hate, and in fact cannot, handle their disputes. That's why lawyers are hired. Lawyers are the unarmored gladiators, the mercenaries for hire. 

In short, lawyers get paid to do what most people cannot or will not do for themselves. It can be unpleasant work,  grueling, tiring and exhausting -- and that's when you win. 

As for reputation and status, that is the thinking of the 1980s. It is questionable whether lawyers (or accountants) have the same professional patina they may have enjoyed a generation or two ago. There are undoubtedly those who are in the industry because of its perceived (or so they think) status, and likewise, countless others who despise lawyers for that status. All of that thinking is at least 20-30 years behind the times.

There are some red flags identified in the report. It identifies the prevalence of workplace bullies, the hegemony of white men in the "big firm" ownership structure, and so on. The bully problem is endemic in Western post-industrial society, as bad characters find increasingly fewer outlets for socially-acceptable aggression (or other traits) and therefore resort to exercising these emotions in arenas where there is less resistance.

Are there bullies and bad bosses? Absolutely. Are they more prevalent in the legal profession that in the general population? Not sure. 

Should customers care? No.  Not at all. Unless the bad behavior affects the work product and/or inflates the inefficiencies that get reflected in a higher bill -- which goes to the issue of whether a big organization, a big law firm, is the right solution provider for the customer.

Customers look for solutions, not for some sort of social reordering. Bad bosses are not the customer's problem, they are the employee's problem. But today's employee may be tomorrow's entrepreneur. 

And for every bad boss, for every bad co-worker, there is a corresponding business opportunity for a classy, competent and professional lawyer to capture business or capture that cubicle or windowed office. 

Competence and class still matter. 

What do you think? 


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

When Free Speech, Isn't Free: How Forced Political Speech Subverts Freedom

You have the right to speech and expression.  Free speech and expression.

You also have the right not to speak -- sometimes a much more powerful statement is made with silence.

But what happens when your money is used, without your consent, to fund political campaigns?

And isn't your voice -- including your expression through deliberate non-participation -- diluted or silenced when you are compelled to speak (with your money) even when you don't want to?

There's a new Seattle, WA plan to give each voter $100 in vouchers (four vouchers in $25 denominations) which can be given out to select qualifying candidates for city offices, who can then redeem the vouchers for real cash for their campaigns. The money for these vouchers comes from tax receipts. 

New York City has had a similar plan for years, whereby it gives candidates for city office up to six times the amount of qualifying contributions. The difference in New York City is that the "matching funds" go straight to the candidate. 

This raises the question of whether the public is being forced to engage in political speech, because it is forced to fund it. And a system which issues vouchers is designed to encourage people to "spend" the vouchers, meaning to underwrite candidates to whom they would very likely not give a dollar of their own money.

The movement towards compelled political speech is in line with the cries, from self-styled good-government groups over the years, to address declining voter participation rates. Those rates have declined, largely because the denominator -- the number of people registered -- has increased as it has become increasingly easy to register. (Some would argue that it is way too easy, that it is an invitation to fraud, etc.)  Yet the constant is the numerator, the top number, representing people actually interested in civic affairs and motivated to vote pretty much on their own.

Some good-government groups are run by people who make a decent living creating and then publicizing the problem of "low voter participation" as a way to raise funds for their pet non-profits. (Hey! Who said there wasn't money in politics?!) But that should not be confused with the existence of a real problem, or the absence of one.

Some candidates will complain. But these will be the voices of unearned and frustrated ambition, complaining because government won't clear the path for them to realize -- with as little opposition as possible -- the outcome (i.e., winning) to which they believe they are entitled.

To them, I argue: You have the right to run for office, but not the right to take our money to do so, nor do you have the right to rig the system so you can do the second in order to achieve the first.

And the gentle inducements, meant to play on the guilt which is becoming so common in Western society today, and its associated, manufactured need to receive the approval of others (in turn inducing a mania of efforts to seek and "earn" it), all point to forced speech, forced expression, amounting to squeezing money out of us like toothpaste from the tube, to further the desired outcomes for a few self-promoters. 

When you are compelled to speak because you are paying for it, and the government is trying to induce you (the gentle form, feeling like persuasion when it is really a gentle-feeling form of coercion) to participate by making you feel that your own tax dollars will be wasted - because waste is a bad thing, didn't you know -- if you don't "speak" and use those special-purpose vouchers, is that free speech?

If you're a Seattle taxpayer, aren't you being forced to speak? Aren't you being forced -- er, persuaded -- to give money to some candidate? And worse, it's probably a candidate who cannot or will not work hard enough to raise funds on his own -- that is, the candidate is probably someone with little to no support from neighbors, friends, and thus really has no business running for an elected public office?

And a graver question is this: Isn't your voice diluted when we increase the number of participating voters, and candidates, through this soft form of compulsion?

It's bad enough to drown out the voices and votes of the concerned, self-motivated voters with the voices of the unconcerned, the irresponsible and, in some cases, the outright corrupt who will buy and sell their vouchers. 

That's voter dilution. And that is the antithesis of the First Amendment protections against government encroachment on what the Supreme Court itself has often called a "core constitutional right."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Injustice: When Sleeping Jurors Cost You Your Liberty

Trials are always a risk. Somewhat with a judge without a jury, in what is called a "bench trial." But much more with our "peers" -- that is, juries.

Juries make decisions as to guilt or innocence, and in some civil trials they determine not only whether someone is liable for a damage, but also the amount of liability and the defendant's share of liability (what in negligence cases is called "contributory negligence.")

There is, however, little to no quality control on jurors.

There is the jury selection process and a certain number of challenges you can use to strike (remove) potential jurors in the jury pool.  

But once selected, you're at the mercy of the selected jurors and you can only hope that juror misconduct is noticed, brought before the judge's attention and acted upon by that judge. 

This high-profile New York City corruption case has drawn reporters who are noticing some jurors sleeping and doodling.

Now, many of these cases are in fact boring from minute to minute. I sat in on part of one riveting criminal case for a time, and while there were brief and very interesting revelations, there were other parts that were excruciatingly boring.  Judges who are bright recognize this, and rarely hold a jury in the courtroom for longer than an hour at a time. (Another reason: bathroom breaks.)

I remember that particular trial, because there were enough interesting exchanges that the attentive reporter sitting next to me and I conferred and said to each other, essentially, "there's no way this guy gets convicted."  (Postscript: You know where this is going. The defendants got convicted and sentenced to eleven and five years, respectively. The reporter friend and I still wonder, years later, what trial the jury was watching.)

Now, there is one "check" on juror misconduct. A judge can always nullify (or put aside) a jury verdict of guilty (but note, not the reverse; if twelve Sleeping Beauties find you not guilty, then you're not guilty, no matter if you have two blood-stained hands, a smoking gun and a videotaped confession). 

As for the Sheldon Silver trial, once you put aside the salacious corruption details and the class envy which is being exploited, there are many other factors that would worry someone who is in fact innocent, or his lawyer. (Author's note: The Silver trial involves very serious allegations and what seems to be very formidable evidence. Nothing here should be read or implied to be defending Silver or criticizing the decision to prosecute him, and is based merely on press reports.)

The nature of any defendant today -- you're a business owner, you're a rich guy, you're a lawyer or, never mind the trial, just throw away the key, you're an elected public official -- means jurors who survive the voir dire (juror weeding out selection process) are often quite judgmental starting the trial, or fairly ignorant and ill-informed people. 

And those judgments can often mean an entirely innocent person enters the courtroom guilty on arrival.

The best advice? Stay out of trouble. Anything else becomes a crapshoot with increasingly difficult odds, and the odds are against you.

Eric Dixon is a New York investigative lawyer.