The harder you work, the luckier you get!

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Today marks the drop of Joe Ricketts’ memoir, The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get, a book to which I contributed and within which I am portrayed.

Joe Ricketts is the founder of Ameritrade, and he was my boss. I was initially hired to run marketing but was quickly moved to the more historically interesting job of leading the company to the Internet (with a capital I, because back then it was spelled that way). During the creation of this book, I was interviewed several times and it’s hard to remember everything I said, but I do think the following story will be new.

In the fall of 1995, we launched the world’s first internet trading site under the brand, Aufhauser. Aufhauser was a scrappy New York based brokerage which we had recently purchased – I think largely to provide us some NY street cred which as Omaha “bumpkins”, we were in desperate need. Aufhauser had been uniquely using the internet as a platform for messaging between clients and brokers.

Understand that at this time, no one had ever traded stocks on the internet. In fact, No one had ever paid a bill on the internet, transferred money on the internet, or even viewed a statement on the internet. We were the absolute first financial services company to have a functioning website! We may have been the first to have any website, but I am not certain of that.

From a technical perspective, it wasn’t that difficult. We already had a call-and-response system (an API) created for our touch-tone phone application so we could get the information to the client’s web page. The real challenge was navigating the unexpected objections of just about everyone!

One of my favorite brouhahas from the period involved the exchanges (The New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ), the regulators, and our compliance team. They all hated me, and I like to think Arthur Levitt, Chairman of the SEC at the time, may have even known my name (but he probably did not). The issue, which has been thoroughly eliminated since, was real-time verses delayed stock quotes.

Randolph and Mortimer Duke. Old-timey Brokers.

You see, the exchanges did not want regular-guy investors to have access to real-time stock quotes. Old-timey stockbrokers (think: Randolph and Mortimer Duke, left) were big clients of the exchanges and access to real-time quotes was one of the reasons people had brokers. Every time that phone rang, the broker had a chance to push another transaction and trade commissions were hundreds or even thousands of dollars per trade. As a result, financial service companies who wanted to share stock prices electronically did so by delaying the quotes by 20 minutes.

But the regulators – the people from the executive branch of the government who enforce laws – required that every trade be preceded by the presentation of a real-time quote. Even if an investor wanted to buy a stock and hold it for 20 years, he had to see the actual price at the time of purchase.

Previous electronic systems such as Ameritrade’s touch-tone trading and clunky Accutrade for Windows had located a compromise wherein real-time prices would be delivered at trade-time and delayed prices would be used everywhere else. This was the model we were following when we launched. Business was slow at first, but within a few months people started to take notice, and I got a call from compliance.

Um, yeah…

I don’t remember who worked in compliance or who called me, but over the years I have inserted Bill Lumbergh into my recounting of the story. “Um, yeah”, drawing out that second word as long as possible, “we are going to need you to stop using real-time quotes on the internet.”

Compliance was the organization in our company – any company – that ensures that laws are being followed down to the letter but also that contracts are being adhered to. They watched our every move and scrutinized every application we built. The internet was untested territory and, although I am speculating, our recent success had been noted by brokers who were pressuring the exchanges to keep professional tools out of the hands of retail investors. The exchanges were very clear that this violation put our service with them in jeopardy. In no uncertain terms: to continue would risk our access to real-time quotes altogether and threatened our ability to stay in business.

Adhering to their request required choosing between two untenable options. We could provide delayed quotes at trade time – and be in violation of the law, or we could stop allowing trades over the internet all together. I thought hard about this before going to Joe Ricketts with my thoughts. Joe and I had a great relationship at the time. I had shown him I was capable, I had made a positive impact, and he gave me more than enough rope to hang myself and the whole company.

I returned to my team with the news. “Fuck it, we are moving forward as is.” I expect that, at the same time, Joe was on the phone warning compliance to buckle up because the next week was a bull ride worthy of a rodeo. Compliance was fighting with exchanges, exchanges were fighting with regulators, and regulators were trying to figure out how they had gotten stuck in the middle of this. I took calls from all sides, received an earful, and was called an upstart (maybe more than once). But at my core I knew that efficiency always prevails over the objections of those profiting from that efficiency. Our business depended on exactly one outcome, and I was confident it would come.

And it did. The law won out, and the exchanges agreed to allow real-time quotes in certain situations and in return for a hefty sum every time one was presented.

I remember a year following this event, Amazon announced that for the first time, they had surpassed $1 million dollars in a single day. No one called us for that story, but we had been doing 100 times that for months. According to a recent story on NBC, TD Ameritrade now processes nearly 1 million trades (and an estimated total value of $1 billion) per day.

This story started off as a classical example of the exchanges’ channel conflict – one company profiting from two clients who had competing business models. In retrospect, the resolution was the moment when the new disrupted the old, the tipping point was reached, and the paradigm shifted. When that happened, every obstacle to internet trading had been eliminated, the industry was allowed to rush forward, and it did. I am proud to have been there.

Yup, I’m entitled.

I am a white male who was raised in a middle-class subdivision and a nice house. We had a sledding hill in our front yard with a wide oak tree at the bottom that – as legend has it – was standing there when Ulysses S. Grant traveled the Stagecoach Trail on his way to Galena in the 1860s. The town was Rockford Illinois, a place where no one visits, and no one leaves. We had a train station there once, but it closed. Then we lost our bus station too. Rockford in the seventies was a town where residents grew up thinking that the big city – even one as close as Chicago – wasn’t for us. Where people thought airplanes were for fancier types, and international travel was, well, not even invited into our imagination.

I was entitled to be raised by a single mother. My father had never been one long for employment, and so when he left, my mother was left with no prospects, no alimony, and no child support. Still, she was entitled to the “American Dream” and she vowed to keep that house. It was the foundation of what was left of our small family. Towards that goal she worked multiple jobs while going to school in pursuit of a teaching certificate.

My mother and I. The early days.

I was entitled to have a mother who turned out to be a great public-school teacher. She was loved by her students and her parents. Yet, every fall she suffered through strikes or pink slips. Once at the end of a RPS strike, she inadvertently crossed a picket line to get her classroom ready for her returning students. That afternoon she found her tires slashed in the school parking-lot. The cruelties and challenges she suffered on my behalf are almost too much to consider.

In junior high school I was entitled to receive free lunches from taxpayers. Free-lunch kids had a special line that snaked through the lunchroom at the busiest time of the day. Those better off heckled from their seats and threw uneaten food at us – alms that not even the poor wanted. Cheers went up for face shots and extra points were given for making one of us cry. I stopped eating lunches and was entitled to have a school library where I could pass that 45 minutes for the next two years.

When I was in high school, I was entitled to become a hoodlum like my peers or get a job. My mother helped me with that decision. Now, this was Rockford Illinois, the most depressed city in the country. Minimum wage was $3.35 but with unemployment over 20%, minimum wage was a king’s salary. I took a job washing dishes for $2 an hour working weekend nights from 8:00pm until 4:00am. I was 14. I would go home at the end of the shift with $16-cash in my pocket. On school nights I could go home at midnight.

I am grateful to have been entitled to leave Rockford – alive. My first friend to die was my childhood best friend, Paul Ogilvy, who died of cancer at age 21. Jim Roberts who lived across the street from him followed soon after with a shotgun in his mouth.  My dear friend Debby Warden was a drunk driving casualty as was Renee Ring and Glen Nichols.  There were a couple others too. Oh, and we should not forget poor Tammy Tracy, sister to my first-grade bestie, Darren. Her teenage body was found in a cornfield. All this before I was 21.

I was accepted to the University of Chicago where I was entitled to get my ass kicked and make the best friends a fella can make. My mother couldn’t pay for it, so I got through by “beg, borrow, or steal” – which really means borrowing and working hard. School was difficult, and I joked, I was fired from more restaurants than my classmates had eaten in. It took me an extra year, but I made it through.

After college. I was entitled to find a job, quit, and find a better one. Then I was fired from that job and found a better one anyways. But then, I quit that one and finally found an opportunity in which I believed. I was offered the opportunity to invest, and I was entitled to risk everything I had (and everything I could borrow). I took a speculator leap knowing that if it failed, that burden was no one’s but mine.

But it didn’t fail. And with financial success came a generous life with my wife, my family, and my community. I was entitled to enter semi-retirement, get involved with charities, help in a meaningful way, and make gifts larger than I ever would have thought possible. I take great pride in knowing that I have made a positive difference in the people’s lives.

As my children aged and needed me less, I found myself desiring to return to the corporate world. I missed the camaraderie and shared goals of working as part of a team. But finding a job did not come easily, and I readily saw how dispassionate hiring managers can be. As a male in my late 40s who had not worked in more than a decade, I suffered intentional bias, unintentional bias, ageism, and sexism – all the while reminding myself that every obstacle was surmountable. After many years of learning how to get around those people, I finally landed a great job where I am using all my entitlement to make a positive impact on culture, efficiency, and revenue. It is from there that I write this post today.

Like many who succeed, I have been entitled my whole life. I have been entitled keep a positive attitude. I have been entitled to show compassion learned from hardship. And most importantly I have been entitled to believe we are entitled to something better than the lot we were given.

So yup, I’m entitled. And even if I’m not, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Truman’s Cleans windows and Reduces Environmental Guilt (but not much else yet)

Also: The Simpsons!

I really love this concept but question its potential without some toothy legislation to support it. Truman’s sends cleaning supplies via Fedex or UPS in a cardboard box which you refill with concentrates that they also send you – via similar albeit smaller chipping containers. I heard the product described as “only slightly more expensive than the better cleaning products you get in the store.” I will add that they are also significantly less convenient.

If the question is feeling good about our personal footprint, these green (ish) but inconvenient products may allow us, affluent societally-conscious city-dwellers, to do something and send the right message to our children, but most Americans cannot afford to pay many times more than dollar-store prices, and jump through a bunch of hoops, to attain one-percenter benefits.

On the other hand, if the question is reducing the amount of waste society creates, the right answer is to support reusability with meaningful garbage collection fees calculated by usage – in other words, charge people for what they throw away. This would require an entirely new model for waste management. Garbage cans or trucks might need scales and geometric volume scanners for calculating each house’s waste. If you throw away a lot of stuff, you are going to pay a lot of money. If you reuse and repurpose everything (don’t get me started on recycling), you could pay close to nothing. Sounds like a fun home-ec game to play with the family, and it offers real cash prizes!

Of course there are the political obstacles. The exact same politicians who would hop all over the green elements of this concept would oppose its regressive taxation appearance. Regressive taxation is one that hurts poor people and is insignificant to rich people. But that too is manageable if collection rates vary by neighborhoods with lower rates in poor neighborhoods and exorbitant rates in rich neighborhoods (similar to property taxes). The program only works if everyone feels it when they don’t comply, so it would need to feel relatively expensive to everyone across the spectrum.

I am a firm believer that government should stay out of the way of self-interest. But where government is effective and needed is in preventing people from pursuing self-interest that harms others (that’s why we have police and courts for example). I think garbage creation – as necessary as it is – can fit this category. And who knew there were so many great Simpson’s GIFs about garbage!

Government Dysfunction: The Profitable Goal of One Candidate in Cook County

A stumper just came to my door from an organization called Working America. He informed me that Working America is funded by the AFL-CIO and does not support any candidates. In spite of this, it became apparent that he was here to offer reasons to vote for Bridget Degnen over John Fritchey in the race for Commissioner of Cook County. I asked him, why his organization would prefer one over another – especially given that they do not “support candidates”.

Bridget Degnen has some very creative ideas for raising revenue, he explained. She wants to create a new revenue generating office for expediting city services for a fee. Businesses regularly seek licenses and other government assistance and often find themselves waiting for weeks or even months for their requests to be fulfilled.

My friendly stumper told me that Miss Degnen’s new office would charge businesses, say, $300 to get those services and licenses in a couple days. That revenue could then go toward additional government services, higher government wages, or pensions. You know how you can get a passport in eight weeks or pay 500 bucks and get it tomorrow? Yeah, like that! Good idea?

In fact, it’s a terrible idea and suggests that Ms. Degnen is seeking to be the problem. It is well understood that Government in Cook County is inefficient and common sense suggests that the goal of local politicians is to improve it. Yet, Ms. Degnen doesn’t want to eliminate the problem, she wants to exploit it! By favoring those willing to pay more for efficiency, and building a costly infrastructure to support them, her plan introduces additional friction – and costs – into government, while her promise of future revenue insures that those not able to cough-up the additional dough will continue to wait longer and longer.

The right objective of the Commissioner is to reduce the friction between businesses and the County. Improved efficiency lowers the cost of government. Saved funds can be directed at pensions or reducing our already ridiculously high taxes. But more importantly, when government makes it easier for companies to do business they also make it easier for businesses to create jobs.

Ms. Degnen’s plan increases the cost of government, decreases the incentive to improve, and increases the cost of doing business with the county, hurts job creation, and is just another tax on already overly taxed constituents. She fails to understand that the job of Commissioner is to improve operations, not blackmail the people and companies in Cook County who are all equally entitled to its services.

I explained this to the friendly fellow standing at my door who listened intently as I had to him. “Well,” he said, “you seem to know more about this than I do. Can I have your email address for our mailing list?” I declined and wished him a good day.

#JohnFritchey #BridgetDegnen #CommonsenseGovernment #acommonsenseconservative #cookcounty

Transgenders, the military, and the folly of the liberal intellectuals

Much has been said today about President Trump’s ban on transgenders in the military. I have been listening to NPR and it seems to be the only story worthy of coverage.  I want to call in and suggest that, in their own best interest, they just stop.

In the six months leading up to the last election, it seemed that the top story that liberal politicians or the left-leaning media wanted to cover was which bathroom transgenders can use. While the Republicans were acknowledging the loss of opportunity, shrinking family buying power, and fears of national security, the Democrats were myopically focused on bathrooms for less than 0.3% of the population.

Before I continue let me say that I believe that transgenders deserve the exact same rights as all Americans, and if they are competent and wish to serve their country, they should be allowed to do so. But my point isn’t one of rights, but rather how political parties accomplish their objectives.

The simple fact is that issues around transgenders hurt Democrats. The press has been quick to point out that the amount the military spends on healthcare for transgenders – Trump’s reason for banning them – is really small. Yet they fail to acknowledge that part of the reason it is small is that there just aren’t many of them in the military. In fact, there aren’t many of them anywhere. This group isn’t getting anyone elected. Meanwhile, the really really big group that the Democratic party counts upon, middle-America union workers, lower-middle-class families, and veterans, simply isn’t supportive of this issue.

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Dr. Jennifer Conti, a surgeon and expert on transgender issues discussed the ban on NPR’s The Takeaway today.

But the intellectual liberal protectors of the Democrat party see this as an attack on their interpretation of the Democrat ideal. Equal rights are not negotiable, and when given the opportunity to stand self-righteous, they will rise to the call even if it puts them at odds with the majority of their party.

Trump didn’t put a ban on transgenders in the military because he thinks it makes the military better. He did it because he knows that it further fractures the Democrat party and distracts American voters away from the things they care about – like the President’s own failed promises on health care and immigration.

It’s bait, people. Don’t be stupid.

Is the NEA really necessary?

The National Endowment for the Arts works for a few institutions and artists, but the amount of ill-will it creates offsets the good. The art world – and country – would be better off without it.

The NEA has lost its relevance. There was a time when the art world revolved around Europe. The creators of The NEA sought to ensure that the post-war America was as competitive in the arts as we had proven to be in manufacturing and commerce. Within a generation, they had accomplished their mission. By the mid-1980s, New York had overtaken Paris as the center of the art world. Today, the US has more galleries, art professionals, and museums than any other nation. We also have the most artists. In fact, there are too many artists and too much art being made.

Yikes, what? The art world hates to see this written but knows it to be true. Regularly, conversations between members of the community often try to quantify the problem. It seems that for every institutionally recognized artist, there are ten unheralded artists making a living through gallery sales. For every shown artist, there are another ten selling out of their garage. And for every one of those, there are another ten that will never sell any work at all. That is a lot – and an almost uncalculatable number – of artists working in the US.

 

The NEA isn’t needed. The private sector is very good – even better than the public sector – at supporting the arts. Every city has their benefactors and it is because of them (not the government) that we have public art and museums. In most cities, every new building must allocate a percentage of building costs to public art. And many organizations (US Artists, Bemis, Artadia to name a few) have demonstrated that they are better at giving out NEA styled grants than the government was. Of course, the community wants government money and more of it, but what community doesn’t want more free stuff? The arts in the US are thriving and would continue to do well without the coins tossed at it by the NEA.

Cloud_Gate_(The_Bean)_from_east'.jpg
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate known unofficially as the Bean. A $23 million dollar sculpture funded completely through private donations.

Accessible – easy to grasp and like – art doesn’t need the NEA to fund it. There are lots of ways to get this made and displayed. Benefactors put it up in parks, buildings hang it in their lobbies, and decorative galleries and design shops sell it out of their storefronts.

Really good art is inaccessible to a vast majority of the population and shouldn’t be paid for with tax dollars. It is often head-scratching and not pretty to look at. People may not care, or don’t want to invest the time and understanding. In some cases, they may even find it offensive. These folks would rather see that money go to something they care about – even if it’s only enough to fix a few potholes. Some argue, that this is precisely the reason the government should fund the arts, but again, there are plenty of better sources of financing available and far too much art already.

Too much of what passes for good art today will not be remembered by history. Popular artists often make art that appeals to their contemporaries but lacks political balance. Most work in a political echo chamber where their fellow artists, curators, gallerists, and collectors all have very similar views. As a result, preaching to the choir – and doing so with hyperbole! – tends to get an artist noticed and may be required for public grants.

Yet, as I have argued for years, this does not make for good art! Good art – like good thought – recognizes that solutions are hard, people’s opinions are diverse (even those of educated ones), and that gray is more interesting than black or white.

The NEA provides little benefit relative to the other sources of financing available to the art community. Meanwhile, it creates significantly more negative controversy than other possible uses for the same funds. To repeat my favorite Penn Jillette quote,

You get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in [being forced to do it].

I put my money where my mouth is. I care about art and I support it. I buy it, I view it, and I give money to organizations that allow good artists to make more of it. I do not feel I have a right to force regular taxpayers to share in my passion.

 

[Featured Image. Honey Grid #2 by Karen Finley, an American artist who notoriously directed her 1980s NEA grant toward a shocking performance piece. This author was fortunate to see her at Metro (then Cabaret Metro) in 1991.]

And you are blaming whom?

An unbiased reading of the issue makes it clear that it isn’t the Governor who is at fault

Are you one of those people who thinks that the budget stalemate is all Governor Rauners’s fault?  If so, ask yourself this question.  Are you receiving your information from union sources and Michael Madigan’s political machine?  Are you subscribing to sites and publications that have union leanings or an interest in keeping Democrats in office?  If so, you must recognize that the demonization of the Governor is in the best interests of both the unions and Michael Madigan and the information they distribute will be biased.

Illinois Pensions
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks to lawmakers during a Pension Committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

If you want to truly understand what is going on in the state of Illinois, you must look to sources that have no dog in the fight except the betterment of all the people who live here. The best source of this information is the better newspapers in the state, in particular, The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. Now I recognize that journalistically, each has had their problems, but in general, their editorial departments are reasoned, logical people without a particular agenda. To that end, I suggest that you read today’s editorial in the Tribune, The governor who won’t back down: A focused Rauner says he’s running in 2018. If you enjoy your slanted sites – as is completely reasonable –  recognize that they are preaching to the choir and balance out that information with slanted sites from the other side as well. Learn both sides of the argument to make yourself smarter.  You might also want to consider Politico.com, a very good source for political news of all sorts.

Back to the issue at hand, the Tribune does a very good of pointing out that Governor Rauner, who takes no salary and has spent millions of his own money trying to right the wrongs of his predecessors, has prepared a very reasonable budget deal which Madigan has simply ignored. And while Bruce Rauner is traveling the state working tirelessly trying to sell it, the Speaker is, well, on vacation.

Forrauner years, the Democrat machine has purchased votes with money that the taxpayers would pay down the road. As the end of that road approaches, we are in a position of not being able to meet those obligations without hurting the taxpayers of today – regular Illinois people – you! The governor acknowledges that this is an inevitability, he simply asks, requests, maybe demands, that in return the Machine stop engaging in the practices that got us into this mess.

Meanwhile, the Speaker realizes that the loss of those “tools” will make it more difficult to keep Democrats in power. Without the ability to promise teachers, first responders, and government workers more pensions, higher wages, more job security, and reduced workload, Democrat candidates will have to run on their own merit. The playing field will be level as it is in most other states.

Political bickering aside, the Governor’s requests are not just reasonable but they are requirements of a properly functioning democratic state (democratic with a small “d”). We should all see this issue for what it is, an old man trying to hold and increase the power of him and his friends at all costs vs a reformer whose sole objective is to prevent that from taking the State down.