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Learning To Fly

February 1, 2015

Academia

Ivory Tower

I wrote this brief piece in my early twenties. It was not meant for public consumption and in retrospect it reads like the typical ramblings of a self-absorbed youth. However, it does concisely convey an intellectual journey and as such has some wider relevance. As a youngster and well into manhood, I lived almost exclusively in my head, encouraged by the ivory tower existence I led for many years. Intellectuals who have few contacts with the outside world where ordinary people live and work are dangerous. They tend to be arrogant, deficient in empathy and detached from everyday realities. Moreover, especially if they are in an ivy league environment, they often have undue influence as a result of their contacts with the political and corporate elite. The personal journey described below was from a pretentious intellectualism which deified theory over practice, to a humbler one which recognized the primacy of practice over theory.

 ___________________

Learning to fly was easy. Soaring almost vertically and drawn to the heavens by a powerful attraction, I toured the lonely skies intoxicated by the sights below. Day after day I saw the entanglements of men and laughed and cried because they could not see themselves from my dizzying heights. If they could, they would see why the markets would not clear, why the crops failed, why the child died of hunger and why half the world was still in chains.

Every day I flew higher and faster wanting to cover the world with my wings so that I could say that I had reached into its every corner. Occasionally I would see a kindred spirit so intent on his studies that he passed me by as if in a dream. Day and night I was caught up in the frenzy of discovery, new thoughts, new sights, new fights. Year after year I flew in ever widening circles until…one day I returned home, to an empty nest.

There was no indication of what had happened or where they had gone. No sign of struggle, no explanation, just emptiness. I lived in that emptiness for many years, wondering, as one does, why, when and how. I fell deeper into a despair born of the craving to understand that which must first be lived.

The search for daily bread brought me into contact with souls who felt no need to soar into the infinite blue. What, I wondered, was the source of their spirit, their enthusiasm, their life force? When eventually, I too felt the spark light within me, I knew that I had begun to understand.

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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42 Comments on “Learning To Fly”

  1. insanitybytes22 Says:

    “Intellectuals who have few contacts with the outside world where ordinary people live and work are dangerous.”

    LOL! Thank you, I so needed to hear this today.

    Reply

  2. Mikels Skele Says:

    Such contempt for intellectuals! Self- loathing?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Well, I’m not so sure about that. Some of my best friends are academics 🙂 Also, I no longer consider myself an intellectual, maybe an intellectual gadfly. Seriously, I see so much dross in academia, so much politics, so much intellectual corruption from chasing funding, so much bad teaching as a result of tenure, so much bureaucracy. However, I didn’t mention any of this, I just criticized one type of intellectual, so cut me some slack, as you Americans say 🙂

      Reply

      • Mikels Skele Says:

        There is all that you say, but, to be fair, it is the common lot of human kind to wear blinders. Just as many plumbers, carpenters, and retail clerks live in the narrow confines of their own experience, convinced their little world is reality. The common notion that academe is somehow less real than other worlds is itself hide bound and short sighted.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Yes, but the difference is that the harm that can be done by a plumber or a carpenter is much more contained than the harm that can be done by an academic, whose ill-conceived theories, endorsed by self-interested political and corporate elites, can affect large numbers of people for a very long time.

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          Are you saying that no good theories ever come out of academe? I would say that the ratio of good to bad is about as can be expected, given human nature. And I also suspect that you and I would draw up very different lists of which theories were harmful, and which were beneficial. Do you trust either of us to keep our self-interest out of such an endeavor? I doubt if even we would be aware of it. I also beg to differ on the amount of harm a plumber might cause. I’m thinking specifically of Joe The Plumber. Of course, he isn’t really a plumber, and isn’t even a Joe, but there it is. He and his cohort have caused immeasurable harm, in my estimation, in spite of the intellectual-free purity of their “theories.”

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Of course I’m not saying that no good theories ever come out of academia. My point is that ideas are important, as Keynes recognized in his famous quotation: “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist.” Combine an ivory tower intellectual who thinks his or her education merits far more respect and consideration than he or she receives, with the corrupting influence of corporate and government funding, and you have a toxic combination with the ability to do far more damage than Joe the Plumber. The best we can do is work to remove government funding from the academy and leave it up to competition to minimize corporate influence.

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          That’s where we disagree. I think corporate influence is as corrupting or worse. Consider, for example, drug companies funding studies, and all the issues that has brought about. Government is at least theoretically subject to our approval in a democracy. I trust government more than corporations, whose stated goal is to maximize profits above all else.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Yes, that is where we disagree although hopefully we might find some common ground. The wealth and power of the drug companies is dependent on their patents which slows medical innovation and restricts availability. Patents are simply government grants of monopolies which have the same effect as any other monopoly, raising prices, inhibiting innovation and robbing consumers while rewarding special interests. Remove this monopoly and most of the pharmaceutical company power will disappear. The FDA, like most government regulatory agencies is failing to regulate and harming consumers, because there is a revolving door between personnel in the drug companies and the FDA. Drugs companies rely on politicians and regulators to feather their mutual nest. Get rid of the FDA and let the market figure out the best way of regulating these companies.

          There are two problems with your view that government is at least “theoretically” subject to our approval. If it’s true then most people’s misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases will direct the actions of government which will lead to bad policies. Lastly, an entire branch of economics called Public Choice Theory is dedicated to discovering why governments act the way they do. One of the principal conclusions is that there is a lack of incentives for voters to monitor government effectively. Even though the result of an election may be very important, an individual’s vote rarely decides an election. Thus, the direct impact of casting a well-informed vote is almost nil and the voter has virtually no chance to determine the outcome of an election. As a result, spending time following the issues is not personally worthwhile for the voter. Evidence for this claim is found in the fact that public opinion polls consistently find that less than half of all voting-age Americans can name their own congressional representative.

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          Well, I’m delighted that you agree that government should regulate the drug companies! 😉 As for public choice theory, isn’t that one of those ivory tower things you despise so much? 😉

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “you agree that government should regulate the drug companies!”

          Not quite sure where you got that from. What I actually said was:

          “Get rid of the FDA and let the market figure out the best way of regulating these companies.”

          As to Public Choice Theory, it is part of the grand edifice of economics, a deductive science which has evolved over the last two hundred years, and is one of the crowning achievements of mankind. My gripe was, I thought, clearly stated: “Intellectuals who have few contacts with the outside world where ordinary people live and work are dangerous.”

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          Well, you complained that the FDA was in the pockets of the drug companies instead of regulating them properly – to which I wholeheartedly agree. The markets figure out regulation? That’s actually hilarious. Cable companies are laughing themselves silly over the idea. And don’t forget our wonderful banks, although you will probably say the wicked government made them do it. That experiment has been tried – and failed miserably. It was the excesses of the gilded age that brought about all the regulation. As for that grand edifice, economics, it’s as full of holes as a swiss cheese, and still a product of the despicable ivory tower, deny it as you will.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Mikels, individuals and companies are much better at finding ways to solve their problems than are large bureaucratic and monopolistic entities like government. My own profession decided that to gain credibility with consumers a regulatory board would have to be set up that was not controlled by financial planners and yet would have power to discipline financial planners. This is done all the time in the professions. In an earlier reply to you I pointed to my own post on regulation showing how consumers are using online media to effectively discipline corporations. When investment banks were partnerships there were no problems. It was only when they incorporated and came under the sphere of government regulators that problems emerged because the regulators could easily be captured and used to protect companies from competition. Although the credit rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and the Fitch Group were ostensibly private the government got involved by only designating these three companies as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations, which permitted them to issue credit ratings accepted by the SEC. This limited competition and gave these three firms a virtual monopoly which they then proceeded to abuse. You seem to think that governments are good and corporations are bad. The truth is that without competition both governments and corporations have an incentive to act in ways which harm the interests of consumers. As far as economics goes, thank goodness there is debate about issues, just as there is in every field of inquiry, including the sciences. This does not make those disciplines any less valuable.

  3. Dalo 2013 Says:

    I had to laugh at this “Intellectuals who have few contacts with the outside world where ordinary people live and work are dangerous” as my best friend in college is one of the leading theorists in probability theory…and I often tell him so 🙂

    That is some impressive writing from a young Malcolm, and it is a trip that I would wish many of today’s politicians and leader take…and discover where the real spark is life lies. I like the idea you present where the humble man recognizes the “primacy of practice over theory”. Very well stated.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks Dalo. Those risk managers using probability theory didn’t do too well in the last financial crisis did they? The problem was that they looked back over history and assumed that the worse case scenario was equivalent to the worst financial event that had occurred in the past. However, they overlooked the simple fact that in every financial crisis the worst event was worse than the prior worst event. Instead of looking to the past as a guideline to the future they should have been designing models based on the worst situation they could ever imagine happening.

      Reply

  4. nicciattfield Says:

    I remember falling in love with theory too, and getting so lost in it that, in the end, nobody could really understand what I was saying. It was only when I left and found that listening made more of an impact that I really started to learn something newer and more workable.

    I think the balance between an understanding of what we do, and the practical implication helps a lot. It’s quite a difficult balance though.

    I was really glad to see this post today.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nicci, thank you. I wanted to add that my argument against theory and in favor of practice, which is really an argument against what I call naive rationalism, is more than establishing a balance between understanding what we do and the practical implications thereof. It is also a recognition that while technical knowledge can be taught and learned, practical knowledge can only be imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master. The knowledge of a great chef cannot be replicated simply by following his or her recipes.

      Reply

  5. aFrankAngle Says:

    The “Intellectuals who have few contacts with the outside world” also got me … then again, I’m one who says some people are just our there in the world at a different level. Meanwhile, glad to see you’ve always been a philosopher.

    Reply

  6. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    I think this is a powerful description of the journey from that unwittingly arrogant idealism of youth to something more realistic, Malcolm.

    Reply

  7. Michael Acree Says:

    Great start, Malcolm! But you stop just where it starts to get really interesting. I’d love to read Chapter 2 about the transition.

    Reply

  8. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    “I fell deeper into a despair born of the craving to understand that which must first be lived.”

    Beautiful post, MG. Mr. Greenhill embarrassed? Quite a glimpse into the young man who scoured the skies so hungry for knowledge – until he fell and discovered wisdom hid in the crags of the wilderness. As a semihumorous aside, I can’t help but think that if my alternate universe had played out to find me teaching in the hallowed halls of learning, you would not have followed my blog. *side grin*

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks HW, but be careful with your personal remarks or I’ll have to spread the word about all that ‘hot’ poetry stuff going on over at your blog. I would always follow you, how can you think otherwise?

      Reply

  9. Middlemay Farm Says:

    The best thing to teach a young intellectual is humility. Here’s where I think studying the Bible is very useful. If we understand that humans are basically prideful fools then we allow ourselves to be more open to others. We realize we don’t have all the answers and we’re not better than “Joe” the fake plumber or “Jane” the misguided Yale graduate.

    Even if you don’t believe in God, it’s hard to deny that humanity is pretty hopeless on it’s own.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      An interesting comment. I am supportive of anything that teaches humility with respect to man’s knowledge, although whether it is best taught through a study of the bible, history or philosophy is open to discussion. Yes, it’s hard to deny that humanity is pretty hopeless on its own, but what if that’s all there is? That was the issue discussed in an earlier post on The Horror of H.P. Lovecraft

      Reply

      • Middlemay Farm Says:

        Even if one doesn’t believe in God it’s hard not to come away from the Bible without a pretty strong sense of human frailty. Government and education work best when they make laws and programs of study with a grounded understanding that no amount of human intellect or heart can resolve the many problems facing the world.

        I admit that for me there is no point to anything without God. No reason to even discuss policy. Who cares and why should I follow it? Not point in learning anything seeing how short and useless life is. But to each his own 🙂

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “Government and education work best when they make laws and programs of study with a grounded understanding that no amount of human intellect or heart can resolve the many problems facing the world.”

          I’m with you on this one, although maybe for different reasons. I think my next post will be on why many of the world’s problems cannot and will not be solved by reason alone.

        • Middlemay Farm Says:

          Sounds interesting. I look forward to it.

        • Kate Loveton Says:

          Interesting discussion between you and Adrienne. Reason without heart is dangerous, I think. It allows man to walk down too many horrific avenues. History has demonstrated that. I’m certain that people who believed (believe?) in eugenics can make a case for it based on ‘reason.’ That is where the heart must enter in, and regulate Cold Reason.

          Malcolm, interesting post from you – followed by thoughtful comments.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Kate, thank you. Finding a way to reconcile what are often irreconcilable qualities, such as reason and heart, and justice and mercy, is a large part of what makes us human.

  10. Tahira Says:

    Well. That is some very impressive Young Malcolm writing. I loved the progression in the writing to what interested me the most, the spark lighting within that you speak of in the very last paragraph. I’ve had a tiny glimpse into the world of academia and it was enough of a glimpse for me to know I could never be part of that world. My point being we all come to that “understanding” on our own. Our paths may vary (greatly) but what we have in common is the very human experience of finding that spark. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Malcolm.

    Reply

  11. Aquileana Says:

    An excellent post… Even though the moral is quite skeptical… I think that we can all get over certain social obstacles and fly… At least from time to time (and figuratively speaking of course).
    Great writing… Very touching! Best wishes. Aquileana 😀

    Reply

  12. Daniela Says:

    I cannot help but notice the strong resemblance to ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ by Richard Bach.

    Reply

  13. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you for pointing that out Daniela. That was (is) a wonderful book and it could well have been inspirational for these meandering thoughts.

    Reply

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