{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Held to account

Imagine being held to account for decisions. Forced to follow through. Deeds matching words.

This was what happened in the surprising outcome of the legal bid by climate change activists to halt the proposed expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport.

The court ruled that the decision to approve the airport expansion had been illegal because it was inconsistent with pre-existing law. The government had already signed the “Paris Agreement” and committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Increasing the volume of flights and passengers travelling through Heathrow would generate more rather than less carbon emissions. Therefore the expansion was at odds with that prior commitment.

If the ruling survives appeal, it will have potentially established a fascinating legal precedent: that future actions must be consistent with legislated intent.

Could that bring to an end to the cognitive dissonance of inconsistent or mutually exclusive policies?

For example, expressing a desire to remove tax arbitrage opportunities. Yet operating a taxation regime that offers tax-free investment accounts, tax-free lump sum pension withdrawals, tax-free capital gains on owner-occupied property, and tax-free gambling winnings.

How about eliminating political theatre, where the government wishes to be seen to be doing something about an issue that it really has no intention of addressing.

Airport security. Competition investigations. Prison inmate rehabilitation. Whistleblower protection.

Consultation.

Government inquiries.

Referring things to a committee.

I harbour few illusions that things will really change, we live in the post-truth” world after all.

It is the government who decides policy and enacts laws. This potentially renders the court ruling a mere inconvenience, before the government simply changes the rules of the game. That is hardly without precedent, as European nationals, freelancers, Gurkhas, private landlords, and the Windrush generation have all learned the hard way in recent years.

Regardless of your views about the economic merits of expanding airport capacity versus the environmental merits of not doing it, take a moment to explore the novel idea of being held to account by a notionally independent third party, as the government has been this week.

Hypocrisy busters

For many folks, the calendar year commences in an inebriated fog of holiday cheer. Vacation-induced optimism. Surrounded by loved ones rather than clients, colleagues, and customers. Many will have donned their rose coloured glasses and made New Year resolutions about changes they would make in the year ahead to improve their health, happiness, and bank balance.

Get fit.

Eat better.

Drink less.

Exercise more.

Lose weight.

Spend less.

Save more.

Experiences, not things.

Invest time more effectively.

Strike a balance between work and home life. Be “present” in the moment.

At the time of writing, we are 1/6th the way through the year.

How are those resolutions working out for you?

Most will have proven to be heavy on t-shirt slogans and sound bites, but disappointingly light on strategy and execution.

Dry January has ended. Resolvers have completed their annual migration from the gym back to their more natural habitat of bars and pubs.

All those Fitbit and Garmin stocking fillers sit unloved and unoccupied in junk drawers, after providing a brief but constant reminder of a failure to exercise.

The only way technology can solve a people or process problem is when the people are entirely removed from the equation!

Workplace fridges are no longer overflowing with Tupperware containers filled with leftovers or healthy nutritious lunches. Coincidentally, salad bar and sandwich shop queues have returned to normal. Correlation or causation? You be the judge.

Parks and playgrounds are full of weekend parents staring distractedly at smartphones while their progeny play. How many times have you checked your work email this weekend? Physically present perhaps, but where is your mind focussed?

An uncomfortable truth is that most resolutions are doomed to failure.

When people are ready to make changes they simply do.

Pledging to do something is just words.

Talking about doing something doesn’t get it done.

Planning to do something is just wishful thinking in the absence of tangible progress.

Nike’s “Just do it” marketing slogan has the right intent.

The famous last words upon which it is based had more follow-through, Gary Gilmore barking instructions to his death row firing squad: “Let’s do it”.

Clear intent.

Inevitable outcome.

Less talk. More action.

The consulting, gambling, and pharmaceutical industries all learned long ago that there is more money to be made from prolonging problems than fixing them.

The economics of the diet, entertainment, fashion, financial planning, fitness, retail, and wealth management industries rely upon the fundamental understanding that people are infinitely distractible. Easily influenced. Impatient. Short of attention span.  Unable to stick with anything for long.

The quaint custom of accountability

Once upon a time, we were held accountable by our tribe. Our local community was predefined and for the most part inescapable. Judgements harsh. Memories long. Reputations hard-won and easily lost. Networks were vital. Public perceptions became self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

There were no do-overs. A bad reputation was forever, like a criminal record or a tattoo.

Our behaviours were defined by those boundaries. Anyone venturing beyond what was considered “normal” was swiftly and brutally slapped down by their community. The Australian’s describe this as “tall poppy syndrome”, where any poppy that grows taller or faster than its peers is quickly cut down to size.

Today we have more mobility options and can choose our tribes.

Cities are transient.

Suburbs are anonymous.

We know few of our neighbours and spare little thought for what they may think.

Many of our tribes today are online cliques, comprised of imaginary friends on the internet.

Easy to join.

Easier to leave.

When our interests or priorities change we simply shed our skin and move on.

The exception to this is the cult of the “strong personal brand”, where perception trumps reality.

For those playing this game, it can create whole worlds of opportunity.

A carefully crafted public persona. Playing an avatar who happens to share their real name.

Forever skating on the thin ice of public approval. Ever vulnerable to changing public attitudes. The foreverness of the internet. Of being exposed as a charlatan, fraud, or hypocrite.

Every old tweet, sarcastic retort, or ill-considered joke a potential cause of a future fall from grace. Revisionist history loves nothing more than reinterpreting past events through a modern lens, one that seldom paints the subject in a favourable light.

Whether we like it or not, we all play this game professionally. Our resume akin to their social media persona. Our network of contacts a vital ingredient in our ability to succeed. Their network a measure of their power as an influencer.

Different approach. Similar outcome.

In both cases a notable failure or visible scandal can be career ending. Livelihood truncated. Opportunities vanishing.

However, as populist politicians and golden parachute equipped executives the world over have discovered, the world has an increasingly short attention span and an even shorter memory. Short term bad behaviour is rewarded, with little long term downside.

By the time the gig is up, someone else will be sitting in the hot seat.

For every Bernie Madoff style permanent pariah, there are hundreds of redemption stories.

Bill Gates was once an infamous tyrant technologist. Today he is history’s most generous philanthropist.

For more than a decade Robert Downey Jr has been the foundation of the seemingly unstoppable multi-billion dollar Marvel gravy train. Not so long ago he was an uninsurable bad risk with a penchant for needles.

Al Gore was once “the next president of the United States”. After he left public office he went on to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and the Nobel peace prize for his efforts to inform the world about the environmental dangers of what we today call climate change. The very issue those anti-expansion activists at Heathrow had taken the government to court over.

Judgement day

Now let’s imagine there was a court of accountability keeping a watchful eye over each of us.

Saving us from inconsistency.

Holding us true to our stated goals.

Monitoring for situations where our behaviours are inconsistent with our values.

Calling out those actions that would conflict with our previously expressed intent.

Perhaps it is our inner saboteur laughing at our innate hypocrisy: “do as I say, not as I do”.

FIRE bloggers who espouse the virtues of the 4% “safe” withdrawal rate would have to survive on what they preach. Sustainably living on an inflation-adjusted 4% of the value of the net worth at the point they exited the workforce. Any additional income they happened to generate from affiliate commissions, book royalties, course fees, or residential retreats could be added to the investment pot but not used to top up their cashflows.

Folks boasting of high savings rates would have to live according to their claims. Savings deducted from income by their desired percentage, then forced to live on the remainder. Savings invested, not used as budgeted deferred spending. Capital growth not counting towards their target saving rate.

Weight conscious diners with a target weight or calorie count or fad diet preference would be held to their goals. No cheating.

Fitness fanatics who desire six-pack abs, a daily step count, or a target marathon time would be prevented from behaviours inconsistent with their goals. No couch time or watching television until they had completed their training regime for the day.

People who express a desire to be “present in the moment” would have to put down their smartphones and pay attention to their immediate surroundings. Listening, not tuning out. Interacting rather than distractedly sitting nearby.

Financial Planners and Wealth Managers made to follow their own advice. Putting their own money where they advise their clients to invest. Losses from a market drop are unfortunate and unlucky. Losses incurred because of high fees, high churn, or bad advice should be made good by the adviser who should have known better.

Held to account

Do I really think some authoritative overlord should watch over us “big brother” style and force us to do things? No. No, I don’t.

However, I do think that we should possess a sufficient level of self-awareness to recognise most of our resolutions and goal setting for what it really is: wishful thinking.

If we’re not serious about achieving a goal, why waste the time and effort articulating it? That is just setting us up for future disappointment when we inevitably fail to attain the prize.

One of my pet peeves is hypocrisy. This week social media has been lit up with ghoulish personal finance bloggers celebrating the recent falls in the stock market. Their boastful display showing the same kind of poor taste as an inheritance beneficiary performing a victory dance at a funeral.

I wonder if they will be crowing quite so loudly should they ever graduate out of the acquisition phase and into the preservation or decumulation phases of their own financial journey?

Probably not.

These are the same folks who claim credit when their portfolio value grows. Any increase was the result of their own actions. Their hustle. Their foresight. Their wisdom.

However, when their portfolio value falls, it is somebody else’s fault. The government. The markets. The economy. Algorithmic traders. Central banks. Short sellers.

Just like those philandering politicians whom we elect to represent us in government, only without the courts to hold them to account over the disconnect between their words and their actions.


References

  • Bengen, W. P. (1994), ‘Determining withdrawal rates using historical data’, Journal of Financial Planning
  • Espiner, T. (2020), ‘Climate campaigners win Heathrow expansion case’, BBC News
  • Lindblom, Singh, and Haddon-Cave (2020), ‘R (Friends of the Earth) v Secretary of State for Transport and others’, Court of Appeal
  • Peters, J. W. (2009), ‘The Birth of ‘Just Do It’ and Other Magic Words’, New York Times
  • Tesich, S. (1992), ‘A Government of Lies’, The Nation
  • United Nations (2015), ‘What is the Paris Agreement?’, United Nations Climate Change

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4 Comments

  1. weenie 1 March 2020

    I wished for a stock market collapse but can’t say that I’m really celebrating, cos it’s bloody scary – both the implications of the virus and my plummeting investments. The headlines are starting to remind me of 2008 and that brings back bad memories for me work-wise as I was in the finance industry at the time. However, all I can do right now is stick to my plan for my own sanity and hope for the best.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 1 March 2020 — Post author

      Thanks weenie. I think sticking with your plan is a wise course of action.

      I’m all for taking advantage of opportunity when it presents itself, in this case a market dip. However, for every “bargain” there is someone else on the other side of the trade subsidising that opportunity. I don’t have any qualms when that is a mega-corp investment bank. However, having spent a few hours this week talking elderly pensioners down from wanting panic sell their portfolios because the news media said the sky was falling, I think it is poor form to mock or boast about their poor judgement.

      The hypocrisy bit that grated on me was many bloggers doing the boasting were either bullshitting about their purchases, or had been sitting on piles of cash waiting for a market correction… which is just attempting to time the market, something those same bloggers preach against.

      Either way, in many cases there was a disconnect between word and deed, as unfortunately is so often the case in personal finance writing.

  2. David Andrews 2 March 2020

    I’ve tried really hard not to look at my plummeting stock valuations but it’s been difficult. Luckily I’m pretty diversified and I’m one of the very lucky ones with a deferred DB scheme making up about a third of my net worth. However, will that deferred DB scheme survive the current market upheaval or should I get another CETV quote … who knows. Sadly the week I was considering handing my notice in was when it all hit the fan. Luckily I remain employed and I’ll continue to contribute to my SIPP and ISA investments in the hope it’s a buying opportunity. In the absence of any decent returns elsewhere there’s little else to be done. As for those being gleeful about a stock market crash – I wonder if they realise what the impact is on their own retirement funds.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 2 March 2020 — Post author

      Thanks David.

      Market movements one day to the next don’t matter all that much. After all, we aren’t withdrawing and spending all our money on a single day, so the remaining balance of our portfolios will ebb and flow with the market.

      A big decision like retiring or leaving a job shouldn’t be made or deferred because of a mere couple of tough days in the markets. You were planning to leave for a reason, that is likely to just as valid today as it was last week or last month. The markets shouldn’t really come into it.

What say you?

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