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The Public Side of Self


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
June 12, 2006

The inspiration for this commentary came from an occasional visitor to my website. This visitor was absolutely appalled that I told the world that Michael Porter was prone to sweating while lecturing in the days before he got tenure at Harvard Business School and became king of the management gurus.

My observations about Professor Porter were discovered when the visitor in question Googled for Professor Porter in conjunction with one or two other common search terms. Perhaps I should be more careful of what I write about people, especially those more powerful than I. No way. What fun would that be?

In the last commentary, I gave a lot of thought to my characterization of Ben Bernanke as an undertaker before I posted it. If Ben were anyone else, it is an observation that I would have kept out of "print;" however, given Ben's importance to the world economy, it was too important an insight to keep to myself, especially when few of my readers are likely to get close to Ben any time soon. I certainly did not intend it to be insulting; Chairman Bernanke simply comes off as deadly serious in a very officious way. The mainstream media characterizations of him as "gentle" or as a mere academic are both misguided and misleading.

I sometimes state, for comic effect, that my mother told me that if you cannot say something good about someone that you should say nothing at all; however, she never once said any such thing. Indeed, she had a long history of writing inflammatory letters to the editor to her hometown newspaper, so I am free to say/write anything that I want about anyone (including her) with her implicit blessings. Of course, not only will all the less-than-flattering characterizations that I write eventually come back to haunt me, pretty much everything that I write will. In light of the difficulty that most people have understanding even the most basic piece of oral or written communication, I have come to accept that my words will be twisted into meanings that I never intended. (Actually, given my "dyslexia," I have been known to write sentences that, if read exactly as they were written, are themselves completely devoid of meaning.)

Being careful about what one says or writes in public can be pretty pointless when people believe what they want to anyway. Talk freely to a reporter about an issue and then see what makes it into print if you do not believe me. We live in a sound bite world, so I long ago figured out that whenever I am being interviewed, all the reporter is listening for are one or two quotable sentences to shoehorn into a story that jelled long before I entered the picture. Everyone is happy if we can get to those sentences as quickly as possible and I can feel comfortable that once the world gets to see them that I feel it necessary to hop the next plane to Paraguay.

I must admit that—libel, slander, and defamation of character aside—I have the sense to hold back any number of goodies from my writings. I know that I am adequate at self-censorship because work of mine that goes through an official vetting process—by editors, lawyers, or a combination of the two—rarely gets bounced back to me. On the few occasions alterations have been indicated, it has usually been to take some of my weasel wording and make it weasellier.

Even when one considers my fictionalized versions of myself, very little of my "private life" makes it out into the Internet. I make it a policy to keep my family, friends, colleagues, and (except when financial calculators are involved) my students out of my writing.

In my experience, most of my fellow baby boomers are intensely private individuals. In perverse moments of ennui, I will Google for evidence of friends and classmates from times past. A good chunk of them, including many with distinctive names, have vanished without a cybertrace. The ones who do turn up do so for a variety of trivial reasons—participating in a civic organization or crossing the finish line in a local 5K road race.

One thing that the Web makes clear is that the current crop of young people, including my students, are a lot more public about things than my generation is. Youngsters that grew up on the Web and are used to networking on LiveJournal, Facebook, MySpace, and similar sites, are much more "out there." For example, there are only a handful of pictures (most taken by professional photographers) of me among all the images of the various Ross Millers on the Internet. I do not doubt that there are many teenagers who have literally hundreds of pictures of themselves scattered across the Web. I am glad that I graduated from dating decades ago, because I get the feeling that today if your date goes badly, the whole world could know about it before you do.

Over time, as people before increasingly public about their lives, the world will change in hitherto unimaginable ways. (For one thing, people are likely to stop using the word "hitherto" and so I thought I would sneak in it while there is still time.) Shy people have had a difficult enough time in the past; in the future, shyness might go beyond being criminally vulgar to outright criminal. Exhibitionists of the world, unite and take over.

Next time, my Financial Engineering News piece on the Fed and hedge funds will appear—it is important enough not to wait until its usual slot on the second Monday of July. Then, to kick off the self-indulgent summer, I will write about three dead white-male "oral philosophers" (Jean Shepherd, Alan Watts, and Spalding Gray) in successive commentaries. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to