Jul 25, 2006

Warranted Pessimism
(wherein I prove right, as usual)

People think optimists are happy and pessimists are pissed off and bitter. I'm here to tell you the opposite.

I'm a pessimist. That means I assume most people (with key exceptions from among my near and dear) will disappoint me. It doesn't mean I think the world is going to end or that we're all doomed to pointless, empty lives. It just means that I assume most people will screw things up, I assume most people have bad taste, I assume the person on the street is not that clever and maybe a little bit capricious, I assume someone is going to mug me, and et cetera. I don't think everyone's out to actively screw me, I just most people are going to screw up and it's going result me having to fix it and waste a bunch of time.

TJ, on the other hand, is an optimist. He assumes people will carry through and do things right. He assumes that his financial advisor has his best interest at heart (not that he doesn't, but...) He assumes we won't get arrested if we go to France, even though hasn't cleared up his delinquent tax confusion from when he lived in Paris. He also assumes the dog will not pee on the new rug, will not chew the new valuable item if we leave it out, and will not get caught by the dog catcher van if we let her run around in an leashes-only area of the park.

I learned my behavior from both my parents in different ways. My mom is just a catastrophist, and assumes there will be an earthquake and a power failure and a flood all on the same day just because something important is happening, so maybe we should just plan for all three. My dad is different - his mentality is more about assuming the IRS will make a mistake and audit him for no reason, so he makes sure to keep devastatingly good records and mails everything certified and registered in triplicate. I am not as fastidious as my dad is, but I inherited the sentiment.

Sometimes I feel guilty for being such a misanthrope, and I worry that TJ will think I'm a total downer about these types of things. But fortunately for me, I am ALWAYS VINDICATED.

Vindication Episode #37: TJ had this MBNA credit card that charges, like, 80% interest. I was freaked out that he used to carry a balance on it, and tried to make him pay it off. The card didn't even get him frequent flier miles! For the love! Anyway, he ultimately conceded to getting a United Airlines card so that we'd both be collecting miles on the same airline, so I asked him to cancel the MBNA one. One day he said he had done it, and more or less forgot about it. I asked him, a month later, why there was an autopay charge from MBNA on our checking account statement. He said it was probably the final payment but that he was absolutely sure he canceled it. The next day, the MBNA card bill comes in the mail. It is not canceled. There is only one observation I now make about this: TJ was really shocked that they failed to cancel the card, per his explicitly stated wishes. I was not surprised in the slightest.

Vindication Episode #38: We had a temporary parking permit for the zone 1 area that we live in (if you don't have a permit, you can only park 2 hours - if you do, you can park forever). Getting the permanent permit is another funny story, involving some shenanigans on our part, but I'll save that one for later. So we had a two-week temporary one, and on the final day it was valid, we got a ticket! When it was still valid! (Feeling of self-righteousness at that point was great, since we actually had done nothing wrong, which is not usually the case when one gets a parking ticket.) T.J. was on his way to the Parking Authority anyway in order to get the permanent permit, so he showed them the incorrectly-issued ticket, which they agreed was issued in error. They took the ticket from him, gave him a copy of it for some reason, and "wrote it down on a list somewhere." When TJ got home, he told me that story.

Me: Did you get a receipt?
TJ: For what?
Me: For getting the ticket dismissed.
TJ: No, but they dismissed it.
Me: How do we prove it?
TJ: Why will we need to prove it?
Me: Because in twenty years you'll be applying for a job with the federal government and we'll both be immediately arrested when they do a background check on you and find out that in addition to the French Taxes Issue, you have $90,000 in late fees on a ticket issued in 2006 that you never paid.
TJ: You're being silly.

Three weeks later, the Notice of Violation with associated late fee comes in the mail. TJ is shocked and frustrated. I am smug and self-righteous. I proceed to draft a formal letter complete with photocopies of the ticket, the temporary parking permit in question, affidavit stating the obvious, and any additional information I feel they possibly could need. Then I photocopy the whole thing and send it registered mail to the Idiot Parking Authority. I waste approximately five minutes being self-righteous and inadvertently making TJ feel bad, and 25 minutes composing said letter. And it's probably not over and done with even now, but it's par for the course and I more or less expected as much.**

The moral of this story is: Optimists are usually disappointed, where as pessimists are occasionally pleasantly surprised!

Alternate moral: It's not easy being right all the time. No, wait. I mean the moral is that you can always be right, but you can never be sorry. No. That's not it. What's that idiom about being right but at what cost? Like, I'm taking pleasure about being right, but it's a bitter pill to swallow? Ok, that's a different idiom. I can't have my cake and eat it, too, because my smugness probably is not in my best interest. How can I be happy that I'm right about my general lack of faith in humanity? It sucks, that I'm right. I should be upset when I'm right and happy when I'm wrong about such things! Isn't there an idiom to that effect? As you can tell, I may not be sure what the moral of this story is after all. Maybe someone can tell me.

** Editor's Note: Here I am 4 days later and I have to say, even I didn't expect to receive ANOTHER ticket yesterday for parking without a valid permit. ESPECIALLY BECAUSE WE HAVE A VALID PERMIT.


Blogger Macneil opined...

Optimists are terrible for customer service. A typical visit to the bookstore:

Me: [having special ordered something] Hi, has my book come in yet?

Optimist: Did we call you?

Me: No.

Optimist: Then it's probably not here yet!

Me: Why don't you check?

Optimist: Because we always call as soon as we get it in.

Me: But I don't even have an answering machine, so you could have just missed me. Also, I was in the area and it's amazingly possible that I would have come in at a time before I could have even checked the message. Moreover, I once ordered something and a month went by without a call, and it turns out it had been sitting behind your counter for three weeks, and the call just fell through the cracks.

What's the real moral? People hide behind the facade of "optimism" when they really are just being lazy. No offense to people who use financial advisors, but that's certainly an example of where being lazy about informing yourself can mean tens of thousands of dollars worth of an opportunity cost.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Dubin opined...

Well, TJ doesn't really have a financial advisor per se... it's kinda complicated. How do you deal with your finances? Do you understand all the investments in your 401k? I admit, I don't want to be lazy about it, but the investments one is hard. As for the theory in general, I guess I agree with you. Although I consider myself somewhat lazy, so I get irritated when I'm rousted from my stupor by a pressing need to fix things that are messed up by customer service.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Macneil opined...

I invest mostly in index funds. I don't bother with individual securities anymore. Part of this was reading the rather good book _The Index Fund Solution_, by Richard Evans.

I'm gathering more international funds lately. I have a couple of sector-specific funds, like Vanguard's REIT and Energy funds. I also have around 10% of my holdings in bonds.

Whenever a fund does really well I transfer the gains to the funds that didn't do so well. Part of it is about keeping the balance I originally planned. The nice part is that you get to sell when a fund is high and buy the other funds when they are low.

My only complaint with some financial managers is that they charge high fees, all the while they are either giving you closet index funds, or they aren't doing well. Beating the market even by 1% is hard. Paying someone that same 1% means they'll have to beat it by more than 1% to make it worthwhile.

BTW, I usually spell out 'et cetera' myself. It's a cool style that also serves to remind everyone that it's not "ect".

11:54 PM  
Blogger Megan opined...


Your Mom and my Dad. I swear, he carries TWO spare tires, in case two tires pop. I thought freaked-out preparedness was my only choice until I was in my mid-twenties. Then I changed to "prepare for the worst, expect the best", which keeps me a lot happier.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Dubin opined...

Nope, it's "Prepare for the worst, expect the worst, but don't rule out the best."

You will never be disappointed. :)

8:20 AM  

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