Supporting Causes With Integrity

Introduction

I am a skeptic when it comes to charity– I believe most charity efforts are inefficient ways to make the desired impact, misunderstand the nature of the problem they seek to address and are doomed to treat symptoms rather than causes or, at worst, create more problems than they solve. I believe that this is partly due to the incentivizes and mechanisms of philanthropic activities versus monetary/commercial exchange activities, and partly (mostly) due to the fact that most people interested in charity do not spend much time thinking philosophically about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.

As I do intend to contribute to (or even create) some philanthropic entities over the course of my life and I do not wish to be a hypocrite, I have attempted to identify and outline some important tradeoffs which must be considered before engaging in charitable activities.

Spectra of tradeoffs

Short-term vision vs. Long-term vision

This tradeoff involves the consideration of looking at problems which are immediate, present or developed in nature versus looking at problems which are distant, in the future and developing or potentially could develop based on a particular trend playing out. This tradeoff also has implications for questions of fund-raising and financing methodology and the construction of a strategy to meet the problem (ie, building a strategy which is active in the coming year versus a strategy which may only become active many years from now). This tradeoff has a generational component– looking at one’s own generation or the immediately following generation, the generation of one’s grandchildren or even more distant successors, or looking at the general inheritance of mankind for all time.

Physical issues vs. World of ideas

This tradeoff involves considering problems related to things that affect the material well-being versus predominant ideas, values, culture, etc. An example would be providing books to schools, versus influencing what is in the books in schools.

Treat symptoms vs. Prevent problems

This tradeoff is one of both urgency and quantity. It implies a certain metaphysical reality for the tradeoff to exist, that is, that a smaller good can be had now at the expense of a larger good later. The tradeoff demands that we consider which is more important: ending present suffering or ending the the cause of suffering. An example is providing malaria medication, versus providing mosquito nets.

Act locally vs. Act globally

This tradeoff involves the radius of impact and the desire to improve one’s own community versus the potential to affect a more desperate community further afield. An example would be trying to end homelessness in your own city, versus trying to provide clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.

General application vs. Specific application

This tradeoff is similar to the impact radius consideration but the question asked is more precise: “Given that resources are limited, do you seek to relieve the problem as it affects one specific group, or as it affects all groups?” A person may choose a specific group far away or a specific group they know familiarly, that is why this is not a question of acting locally or globally. An example might be seeking cures for childhood cancer, versus seeking cures for all cancers.

Verifiable impact vs. Difficult to measure

This tradeoff involves considerations of the empirical measurement of philanthropic influence. You may decide only to support a cause which has a clear and objective metric to indicate the influence your contribution is making, or you may decide to support a cause where the impact is subjective, mixed up with other independent variables or is simply on too vast of a scale to easily measure. An example is delivering computers to third world classrooms, versus improving the happiness of a community.

DIY vs. Pay to fund others

This tradeoff is a question of agency and considers whether one will serve as the agent of change himself, or whether he will hire others to do the work for him. It is not just a question of leveraging the efforts of others through the division of labor– it is about whether it is personally desirable to be involved as an agent oneself or whether it is preferable to provide things like ideas, organization and money while leaving others to actually execute on the plan. An example is going on a mission trip and building houses for the poor, versus making a donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Change the system vs. Work within it

This tradeoff involves an analysis of the contribution the social system (rules, laws, cultural customs, traditions, economy, etc.) makes to the existence of the problem in question. You might see the problem as a necessary outcome of the system itself, necessitating a “revolution” to resolve it, or you might see the system as largely disinterested in or detached from the problem meaning it’s possible to use the system, or channel its energy differently, to resolve the problem. An example is abolishing the tax code, versus seeking a privileged status within it such as 501(c)3 designation.

For-profit vs. Non-profit (Self-sustaining vs. Dependency)

This tradeoff examines the proper method of financing a charitable activity. It signifies an awareness of the way that the existence of a charitable resource might influence the supply or stickiness of a social problem. It also provides consideration for the likelihood of strategically resolving a social problem with a potentially uncertain, inconsistent or mismatched method of finance. It understands that the design of economic systems and the consideration of incentives is often background for the existence of certain social problems. An example is a business that purposefully hires various “at risk” demographics to keep them out of trouble, versus a charity which spends significant time and energy ensuring its continued financing by others; a corrolary example is a charity with a substantial endowment which is intelligently invested over a long-period of time allowing it to grow, versus a charity which comes hat in hand every year asking for new donations to continue its operations.

Individuals vs. Families/communities

This tradeoff involves the philosophy of “If you can change the life of just one person, you’ve made a difference” as opposed to “It takes a village” or “Only together may we truly prosper.” It asks one to focus their consideration on whether the problem is truly being solved if only some are relieved or whether a wholesale solution must be put into affect to feel a sense of accomplishment. An example is a scholarship for a talented student, versus constructing a school for an “underserved” community.

One causes vs. Many causes

This tradeoff considers whether one can do the most good by having many plates spinning and doing a little good in a lot of places, or if it’s better to dig deeply and do a lot of good on just one issue. An example is putting all your effort and resources into diabetes research, versus supporting the local children’s hospital, a charity sports league, providing scholarships to handicapped students and funding a legal defense fund.

One project vs. Many projects

This tradeoff is similar to the one immediately preceding it. The difference is simply that one could have one project at each of many causes, or many projects at one and only one cause, or some other combination of the two. It is partly a question of finishing what you started before going on to something else. An example is just feeding the poor, versus feeding the poor, providing job training for the poor and organizing community awareness seminars about the challenges of the poor.

Mankind vs. Other Organisms

This tradeoff is self-explanatory– do you seek to resolve human issues, or ecological issues (including issues related to the state of the environment, the welfare of non-human animals, the prevalence of plant species, etc.) An example is building a church, versus saving a species of river smelt from extinction.

Conclusion

When it comes to philanthropy, I believe the most important epistemic principle is that you should have a rational, deeply contemplated answer to the question, “How do you know you aren’t making it worse?”

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Ron Paul’s Ten Principles Of A Free Society

I thought this deserved a separate post from my recent review of Ron Paul’s Liberty Defined.

At the end of the book, Ron Paul listed “ten principles of a free society” and I have slightly edited them below:

  1. Rights belong to individuals, not groups; they’re derived from nature, not political agreements
  2. Consent is the basis of social order; any arrangements built on voluntary consent are permissible
  3. Private property is owned by individuals and their voluntary organizations; it is not rented or permitted by political organizations
  4. Government is not a tool for redistributing wealth or granting special social privileges to certain individuals or groups
  5. Individuals are responsible for their own actions and can not be protected from their consequences without shifting the cost to others
  6. Money should be determined by the market and not monopolized and counterfeited by government fiat
  7. Aggressive and preventive wars are incompatible with the voluntary social order of the free society; embargoes are a form of warfare
  8. Juries may nullify (judge the laws, not just the facts) at will
  9. Involuntary servitude is not permissible, this includes: slavery, conscription, forced association, and forced welfare distribution (ie, taxation and “deputizing” private businesses and their resources to perform regulatory functions such as tax collection, immigration enforcement, etc.)
  10. Government agents must obey the same laws and moral codes as private citizens

I think this is a pretty good list. It definitely could get a conversation going. However, I wonder about some of the items on this list being redundant. I think the list might be able to be further circumscribed. I also think that the list goes back and forth between prohibitions, and declarations of principles or conditions or reality (thankfully, it doesn’t contain any positive obligations!) While the list seems fairly complete, I wonder if it captures all essential issues of a free society.

Just How Crooked Is Hillary Clinton?

According to Kristi Culpepper, pretty darn crooked:

If you take the time to dig into primary sources and court proceedings, you learn many things about Clinton, her inner circle, and how the State Department operates that would make most Americans seethe.

First, it is quite clear that Clinton & Co. have been actively misrepresenting their motives in maintaining a private server for correspondence. Second, the State Department’s failure to supply relevant information as required by law raises questions about whether officials there are playing a role in concealing wrongdoing. The State Department has become so systematic in denying journalists’ requests for information about Clinton’s tenure there that the public should be demanding to know if government officials are working in coordination with Clinton’s campaign.

I have struggled with how to organize my thoughts on this topic. Usually I provide a long chronological explanation of events. There is so much bad behavior in this instance, however, that I am going to list red flags that suggest criminal activity was taking place.

It is beginning to look like support for Hillary Clinton can serve as an effective litmus test for whether or not a person cares more about power or principle (such as the principle of nobody being above the law.) I detest all politicians equally.

The Long War: Changing Ownership, Management Incentives & Reporting Practices

Ian Cassel, founder of MicroCapClub.com, made a comment on Twitter today which grabbed my attention:

If a company is over $25m market cap they should have to have earnings conference calls w/ Q/A. Coalition Against Private Public Companies.

Shortly thereafter, he was asked by Jeff Moore of the Ragnar Is A Pirate blog:

How about if they have more than 100 shareholders?

To which Ian replied:

yes another good idea

At this point, I asked:

so you guys are for imprisoning and fining people because they won’t give you info you want?

Ian considered it and responded:

do I think every public company should, Yes. Force probably not, but cld be part of a tiered listing standard

I think this whole idea is worth a comment so I’m now going to give it one.

The first angle with which to approach Ian’s compulsory conference call proposal is the moral one and concerns the question, “Should managers of public companies, whatever their size, be compelled by force of law (ie, threat of fines or imprisonment for non-compliance) to provide the investing public conference calls regarding their earnings releases?”

The answer to such a question would hinge on whether or not, by refusing to hold such calls, these managers were committing an act of violent aggression against the investing public, such as theft, assault or fraud. If refusing to hold an earnings call is an act of theft, assault or fraud, clearly there is justification for compelling such behavior in order to remedy this affront to the rights of the individual members of the public and the answer would be “Yes”; similarly, if refusing to hold an earnings call does not represent the initiation of the use of force against members of the public, the answer to this question is clearly “No”.

I don’t want to waste anyone’s time going into a lengthy exploration of the facts on hand. I think it’s obvious that refusing to hold an earnings call is not an act of aggressive force and I don’t think Ian provided or attempted to provide any evidence that it was. In fact, he suggested this was not an issue to be handled by the law at all. I elaborated as much as I did, anyway, because there may be people reading this who did not understand the issue in this way and may have been confused prior to reading it. For their benefit, I state plainly now, the answer to the question is “NO”.

The second angle of approach is institutional. As Ian suggested in his final comment, the solution to this perceived problem could be handled at an institutional level (in this case, the voluntarily adopted rules and internal regulations of the listing exchanges) by adopting Ian’s preference for mandatory earnings calls at a certain market cap threshold as an observed “best practice” or condition of doing business on the exchange. If a company doesn’t want to follow it, they have the option of not being listed on the exchange observing such a rule. From a moral standpoint, there is no issue as there is no coercion, and compared to the alternative of creating a top-down, one-size-fits-all-companies-and-exchanges external regulation backed by force of law by government, this solution is indeed preferable because it at least allows for the possibility that some companies would not follow this practice and would find other avenues for listing their shares and allowing for equity exchange.

This leads to the third angle which, for lack of a better term, I’ll simply refer to as the “practical” considerations, of which there are several. For starters, I wonder if this is really an issue? In Ian Cassel’s (and Jeff Moore’s, perhaps?) world, it certainly seems to be. Ian Cassel’s world would be a happier place if all the public companies whose market caps were $25M or greater provided the public (of which he is a member and would stand to benefit) an earnings call upon release of each earnings statement. But embedded in such a proposal seems to be the belief that the world should reflect Ian Cassel’s preferences, and everyone else should bear the cost and expense of preparing and providing this information to Ian Cassel (and others of like mind).

Is this reasonable? If having better earnings communications from small companies is important to Ian, and if dialoging with management is a valuable commodity, Ian already has a course of action available to him to pursue such goals: he can make his own independent effort to email, write, call or visit in person the management of these companies and create a relationship whereby they would provide him answers to some of the questions he has in mind; or, he could acquire a sufficient number of shares of the company such that he is the owner of the company and the management is now fully responsible to him and he can have any and all information about the company that he pleases.

Neither of these actions require anyone being compelled to change their current practices. Both require nothing more than the expenditure of Ian’s own effort, time and wealth. If certain companies prefer not to establish such relationships or provide such information to people like Ian, Ian always has the option of walking away from them. And if he doesn’t have the financial resources to acquire such an ownership stake so as to make them more responsive to his inquiries, that would be a problem for him to solve by finding ways to produce more wealth for himself he could exchange with others for the privilege – it is not the responsibility of the company, its shareholders or anyone else.

Another practical consideration is the arbitrariness of the threshold for compliance. There’s nothing magic about a $25M market cap (nor a 100+ member shareholder base). The first number seems to be an attempt at defining “resourcefulness”, implying that a company with a certain sized market cap “should be able to afford” such accommodations. But market caps are not determined by managements and company resources, they are determined by the passions and dispositions of the investing public. It’s entirely conceivable that a company of truly inadequate resources (say, a book value of $50,000, just to harshly illustrate the point) could be bid up to a market cap of $25M in some bizarre turn of events. The fact that it has been so valued doesn’t make it more able to provide additional clarity about its business– and even if it did, it still doesn’t have an obligation to provide anyone anything like this. The shareholder base threshold is simple populism and the democratic principle– 99 of the shareholders could own one share at a penny a piece, with the remaining shareholder holding substantial control of the rest of the shares, making them truly insignificant in the ownership structure. But by creating arbitrary rules like this these individuals would create for the company sudden obligations simply by their existence.

Another practical concern is why a person, operating in the microcap space where an edge is often gained specifically because of the lack of consistent, clear information about these companies, would want to see measures taken which would serve to increase the “efficiency” of the market and thereby eliminate a lot of these mispricings and the opportunity to cheaply invest along with them. Sure, once you’ve put your money in you might have a self-interested reason to see everyone else suddenly figure out what a great company you’ve invested in because they have these wonderfully translucent earnings calls, but before that point you’d want to see opacity. Such a rule (compulsory earnings calls) would work to eliminate those opportunities before one could make their initial investment, not just after. As microcap investors, what we’re getting “paid to do”, essentially, is to find these opaque opportunities, get in there, agitate for change company-by-company and work to clear the dirt and smudges off the glass, so to speak. We want that to happen AFTER we get involved and BECAUSE we got involved, not before and regardless.

My final issue is with the cutely-named imaginary organization “Coalition Against Private Public Companies”. The implication is that public companies run like private companies constitute some kind of social ill. But if we look at the facts, it is often the owner-operator/private companies of the world which are most efficiently managed and whose business is best looked after compared to the alternative of entrenched, professional managers and disconnected, alienated and disinterested public shareholders (see this outstanding research piece by Murray Stahl [PDF] for a convincing argument, for instance). Indeed, it is often the public companies which are most dysfunctional– how is it preferable to have a management team obsessed with short-term earnings results, attempts to influence and gain the approval of Wall Street analysts, etc.? It’s perhaps syntactically confusing but what is really worth rebelling against is public private companies, not private public companies.

A public private is a company that SHOULD be private, but is in fact publicly traded and as a result the minority partners in the business, that is, the various outsider shareholders from the investing public, are treated like nuisances or smurfs whose capital is to be dissipated at the insider owners’ discretion. Such managers have no incentive to responsibly steward the outside shareholders’ capital because it doesn’t belong to the insiders and the outsiders are, in most cases, afforded an ambiguous and difficult, if not impossible, legal process to attempt to assert their equal status as capital owners. The most benefit they can receive from the capital is to issue some of it to themselves as generous salary or bonus payments, to use it as a tool for conducting ego-gratifying acquisition strategies or by sitting on it as a kind of future retirement/pension package to ensure they can care for themselves even in old age by remitting it to themselves as needed.

A private public company, on the other hand, is a company whose capital ownership is diversified and constituted by numerous members of the investing public, but which is managed and operated with the efficiency, passion, dedication and noble conservatism such as one would expect from a competent family dynasty or other limited, owner-operator control group or person. This is a company that treats capital as a precious commodity and always seeks to maximize the returns on its use which all members of the investing public so involved stand to benefit because they are treated as equals even though they have minority status. The fact that this company is publicly traded does not influence the decisions of the management and serves only to benefit all shareholders in the instances in which the management can buy back undervalued shares or issue significantly overvalued shares to raise cheap capital.

Truly, there are very few enterprises on all of planet earth that really provide their owners (shareholders) with outstanding additional benefits by virtue of their being publicly owned and exchanged. The more I think about the issue, the more I wonder why most public companies are public in the first place. Almost every IPO seems to represent an opportunity to cash in on delusional hopes and ignorant dreams rather than a genuine opportunity to “share the wealth” in exchange for some long-term capital necessary to fund profitable growth.

If I were to join a group agitating for change, I’d like to imagine it’d be called the “Coalition To Privatize Public Companies.” But honestly, I have no use for imagination, nor for agitation. I don’t seek to have others bear my cross, even as a joke or a day-dream. No, this is in fact a principle (one of several) of my efforts as a private, individual investor in the public market place and I intend to pursue it throughout my career.

It’s part of my long war.

Video – Seth Klarman On Leadership

The Harvard Business School presents Seth Klarman, founder and president of the Baupost Group

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • I don’t think a lot about being a leader; our goal is to be “excellent” and to be proud of what we do
  • Main principle for leadership or management-style: “Do unto others…”
  • Big believer in leading by example; you can’t expect other people to do things you’re incapable of or unwilling to do yourself
  • Sometimes organizations are stuck, people want to do more but they haven’t been asked the right way; don’t overlook the power of re-anchoring via leading by example
  • Leadership stems from credibility — credibility stems from being “right” over time and from having knowledge — and from moral values
  • Two important moral values for leaders:
    • Football field test; play the game from the center of the field, not near the sidelines, where it is easy to go out of bounds without intending to do so
    • WSJ test; live your life in a way that you would not be embarrassed to have it reported on the front page of the WSJ
  • Every quarter, I sit down with the non-investment team members of the firm and explain the current investment strategy; the idea is to help the rest of the firm understand why the firm is doing well or poorly; this creates a culture where everyone is on the same page
  • You want to create a culture where everyone is willing to stay late to finish a job if they have to, where people will spend time double-checking for mistakes; people paying attention to detail at every level of the firm is important
  • Leaders don’t take credit, they give credit; be quick to give everyone around you credit, it is empowering to those people
  • Turnover is a hidden cost of business; it can take so long to get someone up to speed, train them properly, get them to the point that they can contribute; treating employees properly and caring for them is a smart business decision
  • If you have someone who is not getting the job done, other people are probably carrying their weight and working extra hard for them, and this isn’t fair; good leaders need to be fair
  • Get a good mentor; find a place to work where they care about you, that will nurture you and be interested in your development; if you can find one it sets you on the road to success
  • An experience SK feels good about as a leader: the time the leaders of the firm decided to buy the entire firm playoff tickets for the Red Sox game that ended up being a historic game– an order of magnitude different from handing over a $1000 bonus
  • A mistake SK made as a leader: tolerating a “difficult person” for far too long, because they were a talented individual; it poisoned the well, tarnished the moral character of the firm, led to some financial losses; focused too much on the short-term pain rather than the long-term benefit of that decision
  • A leader is not afraid to fail, is not afraid to be wrong or to lose money in the short-term; a leader always adheres to their principles and standards
  • JP Morgan: “I can do the work of a year in 9 months, but not in 12”; it’s important to set time aside to refresh, relax, reflect
  • Marathon, not a sprint; don’t focus on the short-term because it causes anxiety and makes you hyperactive in an effort to compensate for short-term poor performance
  • You can’t be a leader if you burn out; find balance, seek a variety of interests
  • Working a couple years at an intense pace (80hrs+/week) is okay if it’s for a specific purpose; ideally, if you are going to work that hard, do something entrepreneurial, then you’re doing it for yourself and the benefits, if any, accrue to you
  • Understand that if you plan to compete by being willing to work 100 hours a week, you’ll be beat by people willing to work 110 hours