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Encounter, Time and Place. Neighbors become friends.

Posted by Simon on November 2, 2012

Our neighbors are leaving.

A~ and K~, and their children, T~ and L~, are moving to North Africa.

We love them and we’re desperately sad they’re going.

Movie nights; pasta-making nights; sharing tools; shopping favors; book-lending; baby-sitting swaps; recipe-swaps; music-swaps; car-lending; taking both sets of children to the playground; doing multi-family yard sales together; kids’ sleep-overs; kids trashing each other’s places; sharing stresses of work or lack of work; easter egg hunts from the age the kids could only just walk; singing Happy Birthday in English, French and Spanish; A~ jabbing our daughter with an epipen to save her from an anaphylactic reaction to nuts; meals on their back deck; bbqs in our back yard; chats on their stoop; chats on our stoop; chats while snow-shoveling; chat’s beside storm-blown trees; chats beside fire/police/ambulance visits; chats about God, science, history, the future, family life, everything; sharing in grief of losing my dad; K~ sharing story of losing his dad; welcoming each other’s visiting parents, relatives and friends; keeping M~ partying to 4am on New Year’s Day; learning California Stars on the guitar. And so much more.

That’s the both the substance and the fruit of the friendship that’s grown over the years. Friendships are emergent. You can’t decide ahead of time who is going to be your close buddy. You’ll totally freak people out if you do. And not every person needs to become a ‘friend’. There is plenty satisfaction and reward in a simple, cordial relationship. But we’ve had the enormous pleasure of real friendship grow over the years.

It’s not that complicated. Friendship or just good relationship can emerge from simply being around – a combination of encounter (face to face meeting), time (frequency and continuity) and place (meeting in different contexts). That’s all we had really, none of us set out to make friends of each other. But encounter, time and place were the foundation upon which reciprocity, a bit of risk taking, reasonable boundaries, shared and divergent interests bore fruit in a deep affection for one another.

Along with our other amazing neighbors, they’ve given us such a sense of belonging to somewhere, of mattering to someone. It’s been so rich, and so unspeakably fulfilling, to live life on this street with A~, K~, T~ and L~.

God bless you, friends.

Posted in Continuity, Directness, Multiplexity, RelationalProximity, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Want to change the world? Start right where you are.

Posted by Simon on January 6, 2012

In 1990, at the age of 23, I set out on a trip around the world. I was planning on a leisurely ‘sight-seeing’ journey. But God rudely interrupted my life, and as my heart started to change my hike along the Inca trail in Peru was replaced by an uncomfortable two months in a children’s home in El Salvador. The civil war was still raging. Some time later I found myself working with Burmese students and guerrillas in Bangkok, Thailand and at Manerplaw on the Thai/Burma border.

My cosy upbringing and my rose-tinted view of the world (and of myself) was shattered by that year. For the next two or three years, back in the UK at college (I was what is hilariously known as a ‘mature’ student), I wrestled with what to do about it. I didn’t have the benefit of ignorance, and the reality, extent and complexity of the vast problems in the world were too big for me, emotionally and practically. I’d lived with abandoned, abused children. I’d seen people moments after they’d been shot dead. I’d talked to people who’d witnessed or experienced horrendous injustices.  I’d corrected the English of Burmese students writing stories of how “the villager’s legs was were  blown off”. I’d met the Prime Minister-in-exile of Burma, seeing him try to establish a government  in the malaria-ridden jungle on the Thai/Burma border while most of his NLD party members were in prison near Rangoon, Burma. What was I, this one little person, supposed to do with that knowledge?

By the grace of God (for my sanity, and for doable next steps) I came to the conclusion that the minimum I must do is act justly, and seek justice, where I am, in my immediate sphere of influence. If I’m not treating people around me with justice, then what kind of hypocrisy is it to campaign for justice elsewhere? And by people I mean family, friends, business owners, musicians, artists; everyone.

This is isn’t a matter of order – it’s not to say one must fix ones own back yard first – but a matter of integrity.

The closer we get to people, the harder it is to act unjustly, or the more the injustice is exposed for what it is. But if we want to change the world, we have to start where we are. I hope, I pray, that at the very least that’s what I’m doing.

For a story of how a mega-church did that in a declining neighborhood of Indianapolis, read “Before ‘Transforming’ Your Neighborhood, Talk to your neighbors“.

Posted in Directness, RelationalProximity | 3 Comments »

Relational Architecture?

Posted by Simon on June 6, 2010

What do you think this is?

It’s an apartment building. Those are steps to people’s front doors.

The architect’s vision for it was “industrial chic”. He wanted this place “to have the elegance of intelligence. And the beauty of the happiness of the people who will live in this place.” He wants to help residence become a piece of art. And as apartment complexes go, it is very, very cool. I loved this converted shipyard building, with a white, bright open atria and big everyday objects placed around the public place (that orb-looking thing on the left is a lightbulb). And actually I loved clean minimalism.

I’m an architectural ignoramus, so I refrain from judgment on the architect (Philippe Starck) or the character or wellbeing of people who choose to live in such a place. And if you are an architect, or know about living spaces, I genuinely invite you to educate me.

My first reaction was, “Wow!, this is cool!”. My second was, “this is an apartment building?”. Then I started wondering how architecture and the design of living space helps or hinders relationships? A swimming pool, business center, and community room all provide common space for people to meet. But overall it seemed built for individuals, or individual families, not communities. … Now having read that last sentence I think of suburban areas where there is no common space you could walk to, or even drive to. And even many urban areas don’t seem designed for people to meet. So this place, Parris Landing, seems to have many advantages.

I’d love to know how architecture influences relationships. Or whether it’s simply a matter of who the people are who live there; maybe no matter what the design is, if the right people are there, community and social life can blossom?

Posted in Architecture, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

rLiving Day 30: Non-Memorial Day (Continuity, Commonality/Identity)

Posted by Simon on May 30, 2010

Memorial Day in the US is the last Monday in May. It’s equivalent to UK Remembrance Sunday which is second Sunday in November. And the message from both seems straightforward: don’t take your freedoms for granted since it was secured by the sacrifice of others, so remember them, and be thankful. Even today there are those dying so that others might be free, so remember them too.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity: A relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. It includes a sense of shared history, and an anticipation of the future.

Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity.

“A nation is a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life. – Ernest Renan”

The above quote was seen previously in this post, and originally by my friend Dana in the comments on this post . It sums up very well what Memorial Day, and Fourth of July, does functionally for people who call the United States of America their nation. Without conscious remembrance of the sacrifices of the past, a people may well forget who they are or why they are. You can’t build a national identity on a shared history if you don’t continually think about or remember that history. And you can’t build a common identity if you don’t ‘share’ – agree with – the reason for the sacrifices in the first place or if you don’t know or agree on what your ‘common life’ is for which you’d be prepared to sacrifice your life.

The combination of the lack of conscious remembrance and a vehement disagreement over the purpose of recent sacrifices seems to be one reason for a loss of national identity within western nations. I don’t know if you feel it, but I feel it.

But it’s an odd, and slightly uncomfortable, thing to build an identity on a common suffering and death even though that’s the normal context for reference to a nation’s character (i.e. who they are); 9/11 being the most recent example. I say ‘build’ as though it’s a conscious act, but of course identity and commonality is something inexplicable and unique that emerges from that cauldron of suffering. Those who have been through it, like soldiers in war, just know … they just KNOW … what binds them together. And when they forget what it was that bound them, then bound they are no more.

One wonders why then do we want to keep remembering the pain, the suffering, the injustice, the cruelty? Why not forget? Why not instead focus on the future, build something new? Or find something else, something stronger, more positive from the past. Or find something transcendent, something not contingent on circumstance. In fact there’s a paradox in that justice and truth screams at us to keep remembering, to never forget! But the goal of remembering, the goal of all proper attention to evil and injustice, is redemption, restoration, justice and peace. The hopeful future together presupposes the redeemed past together.

This paradox is embedded in the title of the book, “The End of Memory: Remembering rightly in a violent world” (which I haven’t read yet so what follows is pieced together from reviews). In it, the author Miroslav Volf – himself trying to ‘forget’ his experience of interrogation in former Yugoslavia – proposes the need and importance of ‘non-remembering’: “To be fully overcome, evildoing must be consigned to its proper place – nothingness”. But he’s not simply saying, “forgive and forget”. He’s talking about a right kind of remembering, the kind that has an aim to know the truth of what really happened in all its ugliness. The kind that for the sake of justice, Will Not Forget! That’s the “end’, the goal, of memory: to expose and reveal the truth. But ultimately, one wants to really ‘end’ remembering suffering and death. One wants just to not have to remember any more.

Like I say, I haven’t read the book, so I hope I’ve correctly got to the essence of it. But regardless, it does seem there’s a paradox here with memory and memorializing.

It’s likely this weekend is just a long holiday weekend for a lot of people. Time to really gear up for summer. Unless, that is, you happen upon a parade (as we had in Somerville today; that’s my daughter M~ above), or have lost someone in the theatre of war so cannot help remembering. And even if for those watching the parades, and participating. I do wonder how much we’re really remembering as we should, so that we can stop remembering as we should.

Paying proper close attention to – really remembering – the fact and reason for the sacrifice may yet restore a sense of commonality and pride in one’s national identity. The people of the United States have made many, many sacrifices for others. Perhaps with some courageous remembering, the right kind of remembering – even of recent wards – there’s a chance the people of this nation could really feel “a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.”

As an Englishman, whose father served in Normandy in WWII and died last Remembrance Sunday, Nov 8 2009, I remember and thank you, people of the United States, and your sons & daughters who have given so much for us.

Posted in Continuity, first-follower, Purpose, RelationalProximity, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

rLiving Day 29: Blogging, Tweeting and Paranoia (Directness, Commonality)

Posted by Simon on May 30, 2010

It had to happen, and frankly I’m amazed it took until day 29 to get there. But tonight, and in fact throughout the day, I’ve found myself totally uninspired on what to write about and desperately wishing this 30-day project was over. I’m also unbelievably tired – I’ve had some of the most intense weeks at work just when I’m spending a couple of hours a night trying for the first to work out and write out things I’ve pondered for years. Maybe it takes 30 days to break/form a habit, not 21? It seems to be when you’re near completion of a stretch goal that your metal is tested.

Then as I sat at my laptop this evening I started doubting why I was doing this. And I started getting a little paranoid. I knew people were reading the blog, but who?! And why did the page views go from 80+ yesterday to 15 today?!! Numbers are a pathetic and pointless thing to start worrying about when you’re blogging, or tweeting – unless you’re trying to make money out of ad clicks. Coincidentally this past couple of weeks I also started wondering why other twitter people I’m following tweeted and re-tweeted each other but not me!

This is an embarrassing paranoia. But it does make me think about ‘relationships’ with people in these two social media. I know personally all the people who have commented on this blog series, or commented on my facebook status blog update. And that’s 7 people in total. Two people who I don’t know personally have kindly referred to this blog series; one on twitter (@marciamarcia) and one on his own popular blog (@scotmcnight). But I’ve only had one direct back-and-forth conversation, and that on an administrative matter, with only one of them. The link from Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog generated an all-time peak of page-views (near 180) last weekend. Now I’m delighted and encourage by the interest from Scot and his readers, but I still only know and have interacted with those seven people. So as far as I’m concerned it only feels like I have a ‘relationship’ with those seven.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully and know each other better.

An awareness of ‘Directness’ makes me think of mutuality in social media. So knowing there are other people reading my blog but that I’m not being able to communicate with them makes me feel … well, paranoid! Literally, it’s like knowing people are watching me, but I don’t know who they are or what they’re thinking. So who wouldn’t be paranoid!!? I’d rather not think about them too much.

Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

And yet, I have a specific shared ‘Commonality’ around the topic of relationships with the daily 50-90+ ‘readers’ (unless the page-views are all from bots) that I don’t have with others. This has been one of the only public means by which I’ve shared my own attempts to work out how Relational Proximity might apply to life. So I have what almost feels like an intimacy with these people, like they might understand me, that I don’t with others. Of course I need to make a number of assumptions about the page-views; for instance, that they are interested, and that if several different posts are clicked on then there’s even more interest. On one post I used the term ‘dear readers’ so clearly I feel like I have a relationship with them/you. I feel like I have an actual ‘community’ of sorts, bound by commonality even if not by directness.

And I’ve spent the whole time on this post talking about ‘them’, when them is ‘you’! So if ‘you’ are ‘them’ then I’m sorry for my rudeness and though I’m paranoid about you I’m glad that you share my interest in relational thinking!

So now I have no idea what to think. But at least I got a blog post from thinking about it!

Posted in Directness, Purpose, RelationalProximity | 2 Comments »

rLiving Day 28: Forgiveness (Power)

Posted by Simon on May 29, 2010

Ill-health and even violence in a relationship between individuals, groups, tribes and nations is likely most often due to an asymmetry in power. More likely it’s due to an abuse, real or perceived, of that asymmetry by the powerful over the powerless. And even more likely it’s due to an acute sense of injustice over past abuses and an unwillingness or inability to forgive.

When you’ve been the victim of what you perceive to be an injustice you feel like someone owes you something. There’s a debt outstanding. And until that debt is paid, until “justice is done”, you cannot rest easy and certainly your relationship with that person or tribe or institution will not be happy or healthy. The deep tragedy of those unwilling to forgive, however, is that non-forgiveness represents a holding on, almost a dependency, almost a sense of powerlessness. It’s as though the offender dominates you, controls and manipulates you, keeps you from sleeping, keeps you from enjoying yourself, keeps you from “moving on” to form new and better relationships. And all this while they, usually, walk around blissfully unaware they’ve done anything wrong!

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

That all sounds like a major power asymmetry to me. But in this case the exercise of that power, in what almost feels like even further abuse, is entirely self-inflicted. Yes, of course, if the offender somehow repays something then in a sense justice is done. But their attempts at righting the wrong mean nothing if you don’t forgive them.

From these posts here and here, it seems that one of the major reasons for relational problems caused by power asymmetry is that we equate power with value. The second major reason is that we ascribe or devolve power to another simply by not forgiving them. These two things we can evidently do something about. Can you imagine the mental and relational liberation it would be if we saw people as equally valuable (no matter how powerful they were) and if we forgave them (even if they didn’t seek forgiveness)? These things are within our responsibility and ability to do.

[Update: It occurred to me as I woke up that the Power problem of forgiveness also works the other way, maybe more so. It’s less about you having a sense of powerlessness because you can’t let go of the offense of the other person. Rather, YOU hold the power over the offender because you refuse to forgive. This is where the language of ‘debt’ is helpful. Who holds the power, the lender or the person with the debt? When we say the Lord’s prayer at our church we say, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. If you know what it feels not to be forgiven when you’re desperately sorry, you know how much power the offended person has.
In any case, whether you’re the offendor or the offended, whether you feel powerless or powerful, an awareness of this dynamic can help explain why the relationship feels as it does. It also points to the need for candid and courageous conversation where confession and forgiveness can happen.]
__________

Theological/spiritual note:
Being a Christian and all it strikes me that the age-old gospel speaks to this problem in profound and important ways. Value is personal (vs material) and the word means what it says; the value can be ‘high’ or ‘low’. But high or low to whom? “Valuing myself” is pointless because it’s just a number without reference. Heaven forbid (literally) that I rely on other people’s value of me – choosing to accept the valuation of other people who like us (or hate us) is the same as self-assessing. So to me, it seems we long to be (and fear to be) valued by a person who really knows our worth and can demonstrate it. That person would only be God. And since God has first made us in his image, then declared us “very good” (an assessment of our value and worth in his eyes unchanged by our sin) and then demonstrated his value of us and love for us by dying for us in Jesus Christ: we should confidently accept and believe that assessment. Everyone else’s and my own opinion be damned!!

Secondly, we struggle to forgive because our desire for justice is stronger than our desire for peace. In fact, our peace is dependent upon justice. We ‘hold on’ to the offender, perhaps, because we’re still fighting for what’s right. In some sense our unwillingness to forgive, no matter how much mental anguish and misery it causes us, is a wonderful sign of our deep need and longing for justice. And forgiveness feels like injustice, it’s letting someone off the hook. And in so many aspects of life there is nothing, nothing that can be done to right the wrong. Nothing can bring back the lost child, the ruined reputation, the lost innocence. So what is the offender to do? And who of us seriously reckons ourselves innocent anyway? (and isn’t our self-assessment as pointless and inaccurate as our self-evaluation?).

This is why the ancient Christian testimony about Jesus of Nazareth is so breathtakingly amazing: it says that he was the revelation of God himself, that his death was actually a cosmic act of furious judgment on every wrong, every abuse, every deep heart-breaking tragedy that has ever befallen someone, it was a forsakenness that pays in full the penalty of the offense. That is why Jesus is central to being able to forgive; because his nailed hands and feet speak the words “it is finished, justice has been done”, and he teaches us and enables us to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. For the offender who doesn’t want forgiveness? God will respect that decision (even while he and his people on earth will/should rage against the injustice to the end of our days). But for those who do seek to be forgiven? And for those who want finally to be freed from the power the offender had over them, who want to forgive and at the same time justice? God in Christ makes that possible. And so, peace.

Posted in Power, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

rLiving Day 27: Learning with my CEO (Power)

Posted by Simon on May 28, 2010

“Connections” is an internal collaboration we have at the Forum Corporation to create and sustain ongoing learning and a sense of, well, connection. Every three months a different volunteer runs it, starting with a promotional launch inviting us to request a connection. You just say, “I want to learn about … research/IT/project management/finance/etc.” and they match you with someone. Hopefully you’ll be matched with someone who wants to learn from you also. Then you decide between you how often and for how long to meet over three months. We’re in round 5 right now and I’ve participated in four of them. One of them is still going after almost two years.

I’m in two connections right now and one of them is with my CEO, ‘Ethan’.

The usefulness of the Relational Proximity model, I’ve come to realize, is not so much about measurement; “where is the relationship on the scale?” of directness, purpose, multiplexity etc. Rather, its usefulness is that simply being aware of those dimensions of a relationship helps me understand my relational/social life, online and offline, better.

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

Parity is probably the one dimension if not understood, or more likely, if misunderstood, that can cause the most dysfunction in a relationship. So an awareness of a power asymmetry can be very helpful for explaining why a relationship feels the way it does (whether good or bad). And given further thought it can help redress the imbalance.

But ‘redressing the imbalance’ doesn’t mean making everybody equal. That’s just empirically not true, is a utopian pipe-dream, and represents a total disregard and disrespect for difference. We are equal in VALUE, however. [I realize that ‘value’ could mean ‘value to the company’s objectives’, which may be different for each person, but I’m not using value in that sense.] I’ll say again, power does not equal value. Value is not contingent upon any person or any thing or even on the self, but on God alone (who values each one of us he has made higher than one can possibly imagine, enough to die for. For most of us who struggle to shed a sense of low self-worth, this is very good news!).

Understanding that power differentials exist, and that they don’t mean difference in value, is one thing. One must also understand that power is (should be?) limited to the specific task or goal. I may be stronger than you, but you may know more than me. You may be my boss, but you ain’t my mom! You’re a Police Officer, but I decide what I eat for breakfast.

And so it also goes with knowledge and learning. A difference in knowledge/skill doesn’t mean difference in value. And knowledge/skill is limited, it is not absolute and complete.

In my industry (performance improvement / workplace learning) there’s an incredibly persistent and annoying mindset that if a skill or knowledge needs to be learned, “trainers” or “Learning and Development departments” are the ones to provide it. I guess it’s inevitable in a society that has abdicated all “learning” to educational institutions, teachers, professors, trainers. But it results in learners thinking they can’t learn without teachers/trainers, and in teachers/trainers/L&D depts thinking no-one can learn without them. A good response to that is not – as I seem to see a lot – to take an absurd, almost marxist, suspicion of anyone who purports to “have some expertise worth teaching in some kind of ordered way” as though they’re some kind of fascist, party-pooping, oppressor.

No, a good response is to think: [As a learner] hmmm, how do I do this? maybe I can teach myself? who or what can help me? are there others who are learning the same thing? I don’t know/need what I don’t know, who can help me know what I need(to know)?! [As a ‘person who knows’] hmmm, who might benefit from this? how can I make my expertise/knowledge as easily accessible to others so they don’t have spend 20 yrs learning it? what could be captured and made available using media? what would be best done personally?

And, finally to my point, the ‘learner’ and the ‘person who knows’ may be the same person, depending on the context or topic, and may switch roles even in the middle of a conversation. A student may have knowledge and insight that a professor could learn, but the student ought to listen to what the professor has to say! My technology and workplace learning research may be useful to me CEO. So I’ll want (in fact I do) want to share it with him. Even as I do that, I want to learn from his 20+ years in the performance industry. I also, mainly, want to learn how he runs the business, so I ask. As he teaches me about his stakeholders, what he thinks about, what he worries about, how he makes decisions in his role, he’s interested in my questions and my thoughts. I share some of the research I’ve found that might help him manage some of his dilemmas and challenges.

In these conversations, he is still the CEO with enormous power in his specific role. But we’re of equal value. He also has an expertise and experience vastly greater than mine. But he doesn’t know everything. Because I know these things, because I’m aware of them, I am bold to approach him. Because he knows these things, he is happy to be approached. And so for the last three months we’ve met for half an hour each week, taking turns to share with each other our area of expertise and experience, but both learning.

This isn’t a suck up to the CEO. It’s also not a very sophisticated or radical idea, for us anyway. And it’s also not very complicated. Someone in our company has spear-headed it from the beginning, and she’s found volunteers all along. The sponsorship of Connections by our CEO gave explicit permission for people to spend their time on it. And a naturally curious workforce simply took up the offer of a chance to learn and connect. But I’m REALLY glad I work here!

End note:
Formal schmormal? This whole experience has been designed, you know, formally. Who knows, maybe Ethan will decide there are certain things we discussed he can put on the Knowledge Management system (which he does). Maybe he’ll decide to create a short “CEO for the day” designed classroom experience for more people. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s formal or social learning. Each has it’s place, and each of have roles to play as teachers and learners as we strive to master our arts.

Posted in first-follower, Power, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

rLiving Day 26: Sales Performance (Directness, Continuity, Commonality)

Posted by Simon on May 26, 2010

But, so what?

So what if they lost all those things? The business question is: did sales go down, or go up, because of the decision to stop meeting? Were clients retained? Did those clients spend more? Were negotiations enable bigger margins? Were new prospects found and turned into clients?

If I hadn’t fried my brain last night spending three hours thinking about derivatives, I’d look this up, but I know there’s strong evidence to link employee engagement positively with performance (on a number of metrics). But what I don’t know, and would like to find out, is to what degree and why regularly meeting face to face specifically contributes to engagement and so to performance. The research evidence about global teams seems to indicate that regular face to face meetings is an important part, but only a part, of a team’s overall effectiveness. But I’m keen to know the degree to which face to face meetings actually make all the mediated interactions more effective.

If you have any data to share, I’d welcome it!

Posted in Continuity, Directness, first-follower, Purpose, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

rLiving Day 25: Derivatives! (Directness, Power, Purpose)

Posted by Simon on May 26, 2010

[This is a fairly long post attempting to examine derivatives from a relational perspective. Fun, huh! It’s becoming evident, three hours into it, that I ain’t an economist! And that there’s more to say.]

Why weren’t derivatives regulated?
In the comments of Saturday’s post Nick told me about Brooksley Born, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Back in 1998, having become increasingly concerned with the lack of transparency of over-the-counter derivatives, and in particular ‘swaps’, the Commission issued a “Request for Comments” report. The report is a first step towards new regulations. One day later, strong objections to the report were made by the chairman of the Federal Reserve (Alan Greenspan), the Treasury Secretary (Robert Rubin) and the SEC Chairman (Arthur Levitt) strongly objected to the release of the report.

So the three most powerful people in US finance opposed a preliminary investigation into the derivatives market. Born, apparently, wasn’t even permitted to take a closer look, let alone issue new regulation.

Why regulation should be a tool of last resort
[UPDATE: the original heading was “Why regulation sucks”, a hastily invented and unfortunate choice given the reaction “regulation” talk causes.”]
Now, I don’t honestly know what “Regulation” means when someone says the word. But it seems like people want it used like a very blunt and unimaginative hammer for constraining any excessive human nail. And even if it’s successful at that, it is ill-designed to foster virtuous innovation, creativity and trusting relationships. “Law” does have a place in fostering trust, I guess, by letting everyone know where the boundaries are. But by placing the locus of moral restraint on the law rather than in the human heart and in human relationships, one underestimates what the human heart is capable of and opens up a Pandora’s box of deceitful ingenuity that requires more law.

Regulation and a lack of transcendent moral authority
I’m so sorely tempted here to make an argument for God, or rather an argument for the inevitable trajectory of a society that rejects God or a transcendent moral authority. [And please, if you’re atheist, don’t get bent out of shape about that proposal. I would guess and expect, if you’re reading this, that you’re a person of high moral sensitivity and fortitude (not to mention a person with exceptional taste in blogs!).] But I speak about those for whom the absence of a transcendent moral authority is license to … well, create fraudulent, exploitative, derivatives. I mean if the accepted norm in a society is that morality is self-determined, that’s fine if what you self-determine is righteous and good (namely, you, dear reader!), but for everyone else? What then? More laws, more regulations (that affect everybody, even the righteous) ironically taking us back to something akin to the religious legalism from which we thought we’d liberated ourselves. Most claims for human enlightened progress assume a level of goodness and righteousness that empirically does not exist even in the best of us, and even if it does, it’s only in those who make the claim. [Oh man, looks like I did make an argument. I think I’ll be in for some fire for this paragraph.]

Regulation as “oversight”: observation of actions
The key word for the role of the CFTC, and for regulation in general, is ‘oversight‘. Over. Sight. Looking over … someone is watching! Regulation does provide specific permissions and prohibitions (the creative spirit killer), yes. But the main thing seems to be about disclosure, as with Sarbanes-Oxley for example. That’s what screams “you can’t be trusted with each other!”. No gentleman’s handshake for you two! The authority needs to know, for the sake of everyone else.

Relational analysis of derivatives.
So the big question I want to ask is: how do we create a different form of oversight that is built right into the financial relationships embedded in entrepeneurial activity and human exchanges of labor, material and time? First we have to examine the system relationally.

From Wall St to Farmer Bob. Or, Financial Risk Management made easy (for me to understand)
Farmer Bob wants to harvest a field, but he can’t afford a tractor. A friend has some money to lend him, but with a few other friends they pool it together to help the farmer. Suddenly the farmer’s productivity sky-rockets, he’s even employing more people, developing better farming techniques, trying out organic methods. Only he doesn’t, the tractor blows up. All his friends lose their money. Except they don’t. They get together with yet more friends so that some of the bigger pool of money goes to this farmer, some goes to a milliner, some goes to a guy who’s invented something called a yPed. Two out of three succeed so the larger group still receive a return on their investment. Except they don’t. A tornado rips the local economy to shreds so they lose everything. Except they don’t. They get together with another group of folks out west and pool money to share in even more diverse enterprises: the confidence that a failure at one farm or one town won’t make them bankrupt encourages more people to invest their money in helping more people farm and make hats and yPeds.

And so it goes, the world of financial risk management and economic expansion. Through the eyes of a non-economist.

Financial risk and relational proximity.
In this whole scenario, you can see the possibility of accountability between the people with money and the people who use money to do something creative, productive. There’s a relational proximity between them, though growing more mediated and distant the bigger the pool becomes. There’s no ‘derivative’ pool of money that’s speculating against potential future scenarios. There IS financial speculation, but it’s “invested”, it has a stake in the end product.

Directness. It seems the greater the distance between the lender and Farmer Bob, the greater the chance that the lender will forget there’s a human being trying to make something good at the other end, and will instead only think, “how am I going to make money?”. Equally, there’s a greater the chance Farmer Bob won’t remember there’s a human being who’s risked their money with them. Purpose/Commonality. In other words, there is no longer a shared understanding of the source and purpose of the money. So relational distance (what I’ve called elsewhere, mediated relationships) contributes to a lack of mutual, intrinsic moral accountability – so now you need ‘oversight’, the law, from someone who’s not invested in either party or the relationship. There’s even greater relational distance now because the people ‘with the money’ (e.g. Wall St traders) are not even using their own money, they’re using money invested by millions of people. The traders stand in between million’s of other people and Farmer Bob.

Power. That shift in moral accountability and sense of relational investment is made more problematic by this big pool of money now being concentrated in fewer hands (e.g. Wall St traders). There’s now an enormous power asymmetry. The people with the money, who now have a lesser sense of moral accountability to Farmer Bob, can now dictate terms. The distance means their only purpose is “make more money”. The fact that Farmer Bob needs a tractor is irrelevant to them now (especially because there’s just no way ALL tractors would fail at once, or that ALL resale prices of tractors would drop at once, that would NEVER happen!). The only way to redress the power imbalance in this case is for all the farmers, and everyone else who needs money to buy houses or tractors, to get together as a community (consumer action? social media?). Or else there’s regulation.

So relational distance (directness) causes a loss of shared purpose (purpose!) and a greater possibility of power imbalance (parity).

And I think I’m done.

Except I’m not.

Interest.
None of this horrid scenario would have been possible if there was no interest charged on loans. An interest charge essentially enables the lender to make money out of money. They’re being paid to lend money. So interest creates a loss of shared purpose right at the get go. If, however, the lender received money from the success of the business, THEN, lender and Farmer Bob have shared interest. Bob gets his tractor, lender gets his money because Bob is successful. Yes, pool money with others, pool with even more others, spread the risk. But keep the source of investment income in the form of business productivity, dividends. Not interest.

Now I’m done. For now.

Posted in Directness, Power, Purpose, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

rLiving Day 24: A Life (Relationships)

Posted by Simon on May 25, 2010

My dad, Peter George Fowler, died last November 8th, age 85. Three of my sisters were with him in the hospital room in Tewkesbury (England); two holding a hand each, another massaging his feet. I called from Boston and asked to speak to him, so my sister held the cell phone to his ear. He wasn’t able to speak by now, and I don’t know if he could hear me. But I could hear him breathing. For what seemed like the first time in my life, I said out straight, “I love you.” Then, “I’ll see you tomorrow” (having already booked a flight). I hung up, and was called back seconds later to be told he’d just passed away.

For the next hour I sat and cried, along with my sisters on the other end of the phone. But we were mostly silent. My mom arrived with another sister, and we all sat some more. Thankfully we all know how to break a sombre silence with a wise-crack, a bit of pragmatism (who should we call first?) or an exquisitely timed fart. Although I was 3,000 miles away I felt right there with them. It was the most deep, sad, but profoundly wonderful hour I can remember. The next two weeks of crying and remembering and crying just deepened that feeling.

My dad’s death brought me then, and ever since, to a depth of gratitude and love for him that is profound. I never experienced anything like it during his life. And I don’t say that with regret. Our relationship was what it was, and despite good will there was little ability on either of our parts to make it ‘better’. I wished and tried to be more grateful, more loving, when he was alive. And maybe I made progress. But now it’s a different thing altogether, though it’s a mystery why death would make it so. Now, looking back from this side, his whole life and our whole relationship with me and him and my mom and six sisters … no matter what it was actually like … now there’s just abundant gladness and gratitude and love.

It feels like redemption.

The really profound lesson of his death to me, however, was in the letters, cards and personal messages from friends, family and local villagers. They simply told of the significance my dad had in their lives; their appreciation for him, for his unique character, his presence, his generosity. Relationships, simple as that. People knowing and other people over the course of a life. No ‘money’, no ‘achievements’, no ‘oooh, look at the nice house he left behind’. Just people with people.

Truly, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions [or in the ecstasy of his personal experiences]” (Luke 12v15), but in the depth and love of his relationships.

Posted in first-follower, Good News, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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