Broker Check

The Wooden Nickel: What Have We Learned?

April 27, 2020

“Mann Tract, Un Gott Lacht” - an old Yiddish adage meaning “Man Plans, and God Laughs.”

I was at a conference in early February about how to create a well-run financial practice.  One session was a keynote by a well-known economist from a large financial company, and he answered several questions that were variations of “what’s 2020 going to look like?”  Nothing, he said, was particularly alarming, and the data that he was seeing was pretty “normal.”  2020 should be a decent year, he said. 

Well, how has that gone?

He did not predict a global pandemic.  How could he have?  Sure, we knew there were some issues in Wuhan, China, but we had heard about diseases before:  MERS, SARS, SARS2, Ebola, Zika, West Nile.  There have been other frightening illnesses/viruses/diseases that had the risk of going global but eventually did not, and we kept on as if nothing really happened.  We trusted that prior government preparations were working on Covid to make sure it went the same way the others; ultimately, no big deal to us in the West.

I don’t need to repeat to you what has happened since.  You know the story.  Nor do I need to tell you how our leaders have performed.  I’m sure you have your opinions of how prepared our government was, how seriously it took this threat, and how hard it did or did not work to protect and serve the public.  This won’t be a political rant.

I think it’s a much more interesting thought experiment to imagine the big picture and how our world will look in the long term.  For instance, after the attacks of 9/11, a lot of things changed.  Travel is different:  TSA, full-body scanners, no-fly lists, identification checks.  Privacy changed as well: we now willingly gave up a lot of our personal freedoms in a trade-off for safer buildings, neighborhoods, stadiums, etc.  Our notion of what “acceptable wars” changed:  we allowed our leaders to convince us that to make us safer we should attack our enemies before they attacked us.  We gained some things (less susceptibility to attack, peace of mind) in exchange for losses in other ways (government intrusion, sense of paranoia, endless conflict).  9/11 was a big pivot in the history of our nation.

What happens after the Pandemic? 

Does the notion of “government protection” change?  Maybe, as is happening in China right now, we will be issued “Virus-free” codes that prove our immunity.  Perhaps in the future we will expect to have our health literally “checked at the door”.  Signs might say “you must be shown to be virus-free before entering this restaurant or stadium.”  Will we even have restaurants as we knew them, or will all of them become take-out places? Will the tables be cordoned off from each other by plexiglass? 

People might start wearing masks all the time.  I think masks might become fashion accessories like purses or shoes- necessary items but also conveying social status. 

The new default for doctor/nurse interaction might be that we are required to log on to our doctor site, enter a list of symptoms, have their computer check our vitals, and wait to see if we get to see a doctor (on-screen) who then diagnoses us remotely.  If that happens, maybe we will decide that we don’t need a doctor in our town, city, state or even country.  Telemedicine might even make the cost of health care go down.

In the future it may be totally normal for everybody in certain industries to work from home.  After all, we’re getting quite adept at it.  Why would I require my clients to schlep over to my office when it’s just as easy to meet via our devices?  Saves time and effort for the client, and maybe I can manage more business that way.  I do miss the personal interaction, though.

Education will certainly change.  High school from home, college from apartments, law school from anywhere.  Why not?  Do students need to be in the room with the teacher, or has technology made it less important?  We are literally conducting a real-time experiment in the future of education.  Quality might suffer as students find new ways to be distracted.  But perhaps a college education will now not come with a monstrous price tag or crushing debt.     

Will automation invade once-unthinkable industries/activities? Hair salons, farms, dental appointments, senior care, massage therapists and a million other activities have been impossible without person-to-person contact, but perhaps in the future we will find ways around this contact (Flowbee, anyone?).  

Sports might change, too.  Major league baseball toyed with the idea of playing all its games in Arizona in empty statdiums; we’d all watch on TV.  Hockey is thinking about it, too.  They didn’t do it (yet), but some form of this might be the long-term future of sports.  I don’t know if it’s a great idea, but one happy thought I get from this is that Stan Kronke’s new $6 billion stadium in LA might become completely obsolete before it opens.  (picture of Jim smiling at this thought...)

I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen to these and a hundred other things that the future will hold, but things will change. 

We live our lives every day based on our previous experiences.  The sun rose in the East and will set in the West.  We are creatures of habit.  Yes, things are changing all the time (Phones:  rotary to push button to car cell to flip to Blackberry to iPhone to…), but the changes usually take place over long time periods and we get used to them. 

Except when they happen rapidly.  Sometimes, the world experiences massive change overnight.  It freaks us out.  It should!  We are evolutionarily programmed to discern patterns so we know how to react, and right now we are like deer in the headlights, befuddled by this new reality.  We want to plan.  We need to plan.  But how do we plan when we don’t even know when we can shake somebody’s hand again?

This may be a pivot point for us.  We may not run across another one for a long time.  These points come along from time to time: 

  • The 1929 Stock Market Crash resulted in a “New Deal” with a Federal government involved in many more aspects of our lives than ever imagined before then
  • Pearl Harbor shattered the notion that the US was isolated from problems around the world but also created the notion that we were the leader of the free world
  • The Kennedy assassination changed the image of a country being led from the top and unleashed a wave of activisim by the people
  • The Nixon resignation shattered our faith in our leaders in a way that made them seem more like adversaries than a part of the people
  • 9/11 changed our idea of what we would do and how much we would give up to remain safe from fear

These were big pivot points.  We survived, but our society was forever changed.


If we are again at one of those points, then I hope we will learn a few things:

I hope we learn that we are all responsible-for and dependent-on each other. 

I hope we learn that our collective health is important for our individual health.  If some of us are very sick, we are all in peril. 

I hope we realize that having clowns as leaders may be tolerable when everything is going well, but turns tragic in a crisis.  We need leaders who are straight with us. 

I hope we realize that we have far more to gain from working with the rest of the world than working against it. 

Finally, I hope that that planning (while perhaps humorous to God) helps us to ensure that we aren’t overwhelmed for the next pivot point.  For surely another one will come again.