Clever and Cunning People

Over the years, I’ve interacted with many people who I believe thought of themselves as clever. Clever is an adjective with positive attributes. Merriam-Webster (MW) defines clever as: mentally quick and resourceful. Sounds like a good thing to me; we should all want to be clever. Unfortunately, I observe that some clever people are also cunning. While cunning is a synonym of clever, consider this simple definition of cunning from MW: getting what is wanted in a clever and often deceptive way. Deceptive adds an altogether different, negative connotation. For example, the noun deception has synonyms that include fraud, subterfuge, and trickery.

Perhaps a good general example of cunning is when one person exploits the trusting nature of another to gain an advantage. By gain an advantage, I mean to stage a perception that aids the exploiter, or by making the trusting soul feel and/or look like a fool.

When I was a teenager, I belonged to a youth organization that helped teenage boys develop into responsible, law-abiding young men. A few adults ran the local organization and guided us teenagers in both civic and personal development activities. Some of the adults who helped out were parents of some of the boys. As boys worked their way up in the organization during their teen years, they could (if desired) run for the several elected offices of the group.

I left the organization before my high school graduation. Decades later I was going through a box of mementos when I came across an old newspaper clipping from my hometown newspaper. My mother had cut it out and saved it for me. It included a photo of me and another boy in the organization. It showed us working together on a civic project for an upcoming holiday. As soon as I came across the clipping, I remembered having seen it many years ago. This time, however, I quickly saw something about the photo that had totally escaped me in my youth.

When the photo was taken, I was maybe 16 or 17 years-old. The boy I was working with (I’ll call him Roy) had just joined the organization, so that would have made him around 13. He was a pleasant fellow even though I didn’t know him very well. I recall his father was also at the photo shoot, along with a photographer from the newspaper. In fact, it was the father who told us how to pose for the picture. Roy was posed standing on the third step of a step ladder so he could reach the work area. I was posed standing at ground level, reaching up with my right hand to give Roy a staple gun. The angle was such that Roy’s face was oriented more towards the camera while my face was at best a side profile.

Looking at the clipping now, it was clear to me that I had been set up. I now realize that Roy’s father knew exactly what he was doing when he set up the pose. He was showing his son in his best symbolic light – moving up the ladder, face towards the camera for good recognition – while I, a more senior member of the group, was shown merely as his helper. I now realize that Roy’s father, who otherwise seemed like a typical parent, was actually a very cunning man.

Naturally, I was a naïve young man back then. My mother, being the sweet lady that she was, never saw the symbolism and kept the clipping for me as a memento. My dad never paid any attention to such things, which helps explain why I was in the organization to begin with.

I can’t say that this event had any significant effect on my life back then – it’s hard to say for sure. As for now, it’s an open question. Why? Well, for starters I learned that tragedy had struck Roy some years after this seemingly harmless photo shoot. Sadly, he died of illness in his mid-twenties, and his father was understandably devastated.

It sounds both ridiculous and baseless of me to suggest that the actions of Roy’s father long ago had anything to do with his son’s tragic demise. And yet, as I look across other events of my life, and other people whose paths have intersected with mine, it all gives me pause. In future posts, I’ll say more about these other events and why they give me pause for thought. For now, let me simply say that I believe that all the cunning in the world couldn’t have averted Roy’s tragic ending.


The Modern Interest-Free Loan

On three recent occasions, I’ve been offered interest-free loans. The first was when I had my house furnace and air conditioning system replaced. The cost was significant and the company doing the work offered to give me an interest-free loan if I wanted it. However, when I compared the total costs of the two options (paying in cash vs. signing up for the loan) I saw that the interest-free loan option costs $428 more. When I asked about the added cost, the salesman told me it was the fee for the loan. Even though he was straight-up with me about this, I thought it was deceptive that the loan option costs so much more than the cash option. Technically, it is indeed an interest-free loan. However, the fee more than makes up for the free interest.

The two other occasions were those extra checks banks send you if you have credit cards through them and have good credit. The checks offer “no interest” on the amounts they are made out for, and for a specific duration – say 14 months. Each check/transaction, however, cost a fee of 3% of the amount of the check. So, if I wrote a check for $1000, I would pay $30 for the use of the money for 14 months.

If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, these “deals” are nothing other than taking what used to be called the interest charge and instead calling it a loan fee. Worse, it ‘s collected upfront. So why would any seller or retailer what to play this fee-vs-interest name game? I think the answer is they want to advertise an interest-free loan. That way people who aren’t paying close attention can tell friends and spouses how savvy they are by getting an interest-free loan.

A reason I’m writing this essay is because it illustrates the power of words. It also illustrates how easy it is to latch onto a catch-phrase and jump to conclusions. In my decades of experience, most banks have always charged fees for loans; it is a standard business practice. The thing is, back in the day, those fees were modest relative to the size of the loan and the interest charged (house mortgage loans being an exception). I’m talking maybe $5 or $10; that was like 0.25% or so of the loan amount.

I think years from now companies will be advertising no-fee loans because that will be the catch-phrase then. Somehow, if they do I suspect there will be interest charges buried in there somewhere – maybe in the fine print.





Words and Meanings – Freedom

I’m posting this essay today – December 7, 2016 – because it is the 75th anniversary of the Empire of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. America’s entry into WWII is a fitting reminder that freedom comes with a price; we do indeed have to fight for it. There is, however, more I want to say about freedom. Those familiar with my “Words and Meanings” posts know that I seek to uncover the true meaning of words as we understand them today.

The challenges in describing or defining what freedom is center on the fact that freedom is what I call a high-concept word. This means that human emotions are entwined in its meaning. This is implied when we recognize that talking about freedom outside of the context of human affairs has little meaning. Does this mean that human emotions are the realm wherein freedom resides? Possibly. Let’s take a look at a few practical matters in hopes they will shine light on this apparent entrainment.

Those of us who live in a mostly free society know that freedom comes with two things: rights and responsibilities. One must have rights, such as free speech, to establish a lower boundary of one’s freedom. Responsibilities, on the other hand, are not what we immediately think of when we think of freedom. Responsibilities require something of us; they entail obligations and/or commitments. Aren’t we less free with them? Well, it would seem so, but we do have the responsibility to observe the rights of others i.e. those boundaries just mentioned. And don’t we have the responsibility to fight for freedom? So, responsibilities appear to establish an upper boundary on freedom. We are responsible for our own behavior. Indeed, we have the responsibility to own our own behavior.

Of course, people who live in less free societies are also responsible for their behavior. So, what is the difference? It appears to me that the difference is whether all peoples in a society are held to the same standards of rights and responsibility. The reality of our imperfect world is that some people in society must exercise more rights than others, and have more responsibilities than others, if we are to govern ourselves. As long as these people are assigned these additional rights/responsibilities through the accords of a free society, freedom is preserved. When these governing rights/responsibilities are usurped from people then freedom is diminished.

So where do emotions fit into all of this? As I see it, you have to want freedom badly enough to overpower your strongest instinct – survival – to get it. Even if you yourself don’t have to pay this price, you understand that others have, and you also understand that you don’t really achieve freedom until you feel free.