Wednesday, December 27th, 2017
across the great divides

Earlier this year, Robert Pirsig died at the age of 88.New York Times | Here’s his obituary from the Times, which includes a photo of him taking a wrench to his motorcycle.  He was the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (hereafter ZMM), a landmark book of the 1970s.  By chance, I had picked it up once again a few weeks before his death.

I feel like I know ZMM pretty well, having read it several times (not counting the early futile attempts, which seemed to end after about seventy pages) and it’s one of the few audiobooks I’ve ever purchased.  But new layers were discovered this time, as there always are.  The books we go back to give us something different each time as our lives and times change.

In response, I felt compelled to write a series of postings, starting with this one, about connections that were revealed to the art and craft of investing — and the people who pursue it — as well as a little of that “life” stuff too.

The opening of ZMM always pulls me in.  A man and his son, on a motorcycle (with a couple of friends riding up ahead), are “heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas.”  I live just west of Minneapolis and have always loved the landscape of the Dakotas; when I start the book, I can see the places and smell the smells as I read.

(In an odd coincidence, I realized that on a solo drive through the prairie two years ago I had stopped at the very park in a tiny town where the cyclists had been decades before.  Then, the narrator realized “a change has taken place.”  On my journey, I received news of a tragedy close to my home while sitting there.)

On the first page of the book, Pirsig wrote about “the old concrete two-laner” that they took into “a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and [having] an appeal just because of that.  Tensions disappear along old roads like this.”  Yes they do.  I’ve tried to describe that feeling before; words (at least mine) seem to fall short.

Out in the country, “The whole pace of life and personality of the people are different.”  It is the first dichotomy explored in a book that’s full of them.  Pirsig returned to the theme at the end of the book, as the travelers reentered “primary America,” leaving those wide open spaces — and “secondary America” — behind.  He honed in on a paradox:  where people are most closely crowded, loneliness is more of a problem.  “Psychic distance” and physical distance are inversely related, something that seems odd except to those who have experienced the landscapes and people of both Americas.

In light of this political moment in the United States, it’s impossible to avoid drawing lines from the book to the divide between urban and rural voters (broadly speaking) on any number of issues.  One wonders if the gap will keep growing and what effects that would have on our economy, markets, culture, and democracy.

Another concern of ZMM — really, its central theme — involves the divergent views of technology and its impact.  Pirsig used the frame of motorcycle maintenance to draw the contrast between his own deep understanding of the components of the machines and his friend’s lack of interest in their workings (and outright fear of “technology” itself), representations of two dramatically different points of view.

In his musings about technology and our reactions to it, Pirsig wrote about concerns that have only intensified of late.  He said that “loneliness is associated with the newer technological devices — TV, jets, freeways, and so on — but I hope it’s been made plain that the real evil isn’t the objects of technology but the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity.”  He was optimistic that the right philosophical attitude could make that better.  In 2017, we have new technologies that have only increased the isolation and loneliness, and there’s a growing backlash against the companies that control the tools that cause it.

Significant chunks of the book detail classic versus romantic ways of thinking, as typified by “Aristotle’s endless specificity of detail” and “Plato’s soaring generalities.”  Perhaps you’ve seen both of those in evidence at a recent investment committee meeting.  Just trying to get people to talk on the same plane is an age-old challenge.

How about absolute truth versus relative truth?  That slice of the analytical knife reminds me of an investor deciding whether to focus on absolute versus relative return, or absolute versus relative valuation, or . . .  What standards should we apply?  (It’s pretty obvious that relativity has, in practice, won the day; with a few exceptions, people have decided to do what they need to do to stay in the game.)

Pirsig contrasted General Motors (then still the king of the hill) and its “rational system of order” in production with the restless experimentation of Picasso.  Could one way of thinking or doing be viewed as “right” or “best”?  Is there beauty in the structure of things or in the finished product?

Consider the burgeoning camp of quantitative investment management (and the forecast of machine dominance of the business in the future) versus the art, or at least craftiness, of those people who use an ill-defined mix of qualitative and quantitative inputs (and human emotion) to construct a portfolio.  Is one approach superior to the other?  Could they come together somehow to produce even better results?

We are eager to create battle lines between us and them, and to defend our own turf at all costs.  But what lies behind our fervent beliefs?  Pirsig:  “When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas and goals are in doubt.”

When I read that, I thought of “Passive v. Active,” the great war now ongoing over ideas and assets.the research puzzle | My last essay concerned the need to improve active management.  There are fanatics at each end of the spectrum.  In their telling, the answers are always clear, even though we live in a world of — and markets of — uncertainty.  Surely there is room for a little doubt along the way.

I could keep going with the divides exposed in ZMM — for example, specialists versus generalists — but the core questions are the same in each case:  Can we see those divides for what they actually are?  Can we bridge them in a constructive manner?  Can we build resiliency and better decision making by acknowledging the benefits of the other point of view (and the costs of our own)?

The ZMM series continues with a search for “quality.”the research puzzle | Pirsig’s great quest is for Quality (with a capital Q).