J.P. Morgan Chase, Jeremiah 17:9, and Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman: Physicist, yes, but also economist and Bible scholar? Well, sort of… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wish I had noticed this article when it first came out in the Wall Street Journal a week ago: “Polishing the Dimon Principle” by Jason Zweig (the online article doesn’t seem to require a subscription and also includes a video, which I have not seen).

In the article, Mr. Zweig notes his opinion that the investment problems roiling J.P. Morgan Chase are rooted in ignoring the advice/warning of famed physicist Richard Feynman: “You must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Reading this, I could not help but think of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (The answer, by the way, is given in v.10, and how thankful we should be that there is an answer!)  I frequently refer to the principle there and what I call our natural “Jeremiah 17:9 heart” in my sermons and such, because the truth of this verse has so impressed me over time. Our capacity for self-deception is seemingly boundless, and I see it so frequently in play that it makes me wary of it in myself, noting that I’m just as human as the next fellow.

But the correspondence to biblical principles in the article didn’t end there. Later, Mr. Zweig — who writes a regular WSJ feature “The Intelligent Investor” — also quotes (or paraphrases) economist Peter Bernstein as saying “[T]he riskiest moment is when you are right.”

What Scripture does this remind you of? Possibly the same as what it reminded me of: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). I could see some others in there, but this one seemed the most natural to me.

As Mr. Bernstein noted, the moment when you are right–or, actually, when you believe you are right, since, in your mind, there is no difference–is a time fraught with peril… Because, unless you are God, you actually might be wrong, and your conviction that you are right is one of the insurmountable obstacles to learning that you are not.

This thought frequently crosses my mind when I read 1 Corinthians 10:12, and it strikes me that Paul’s words there are an interesting warning: They are meant to warn those who feel they are in no need of warning. In fact, they are a warning to those who are, perhaps, among the least likely to listen to it and heed it.

On this thought further, Mr. Zweig points out that studies have shown those who actually make a bet on, say, the outcome of a horse race become up to three times more confident that it will actually turn out the way they gambled than they would have believed if they had not bet on it at all. The choice to take the stand, in and of itself, affects the belief that the stand is correct. (We could push our theme in the post and mention Christ’s teaching that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, I suppose.)

On one hand, some of this we all recognize as true.  We see it in action in others, and we know the human capacity for such self-deception.

But rarely do we apply the knowledge to ourselves. Like the hypothetical individual of James 1:23-24, we see the capacity of self-deception in humanity, recognize that we are human, and then fail to make the connection — at least to the point that it impacts action. It should provide us with a healthy self-doubt — not so much self-doubt that we take no action at all, but enough self-doubt that we are open to hearing (truly hearing) the opinions of others who disagree with us and evaluating them on the merits.

Anyway, I have other things to do, but I thought it was nice to see these biblical principles in play in Mr. Zweig’s article. And it’s a reminder to me of something I know to be true but which is still neat to see: The Bible really does offer insight on a surprising range of topics. However, that advice isn’t always in the most obvious places — after all, a concordance search on “economics” isn’t going to yield Jeremiah 17:9. Yet, as J.P. Morgan Chase sure could have used that advice…

6 thoughts on “J.P. Morgan Chase, Jeremiah 17:9, and Richard Feynman

  1. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    And now you know why I don’t trust my own reasoning (in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny about Pete Puma) “any farther than I could throw the Big Mo.” (That’s the U.S.S. MISSOURI.) I have to use it but I’m always cross-checking it – because the more ideas you come up with (and I come up with a LOT of ideas), the more REALLY BAD ideas you’ll come up with! 😛

  2. Interesting line here in the article: “The literal meaning of the word ‘invest’—from the Latin vestire, to clothe or dress—is to wrap oneself up in something.” This brought to my mind the scripture I Peter 5:5, “…and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” Interesting concept, to invest in humility. Perhaps the reason why God resists such self-assured people is because he can’t change such an individual’s mind due to their free moral agency.

  3. Yeah, you start thinking, “why can’t that guy see that about himself?” Thing is, other people are thinking exactly the same thing about you. After all, everybody wants to clean up the other guy’s act.

    A lot of the famous captains and political leaders in history crashed and burned because they surrounded themselves with “yes men.” Yet us mundane types can do the same thing – surround ourselves with sycophants and the obsequious, who only blow sunshine at us,

    Following the “iron sharpens iron” principle, maybe the acceptance of criticism might be a little good? If you keep hearing the same criticism(s) from different people over the years, might that not be a clue?

  4. And another quote from the article I like: “Monitor yourself for vehemence. If you find yourself tempted to ridicule anyone who tells you are wrong, you probably are wrong. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wisely warned that the less evidence someone has that his ideas are right, ‘the more vehemently he asserts that there is no doubt whatsoever that he is exactly right.'”

    This reminds me of one definition I read for arrogance, having “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions” (Webster’s). Believing you are bigger, better, smarter or more talented than you actually are is essentially lying to yourself much like the leavening in bread making a loaf appear to have volume than it actually does. Resting a heavy weight on it will show its true size and composition: flat and full of hot air.

    Being genuine seems to be a healthier state to be in that what you represent yourself to be to yourself and others is what you really are. As you mention, Mr. Smith, to get there, being easily entreated, or meek, is a good place to start. Mr. Pomicter had this definition when he gave a sermon on the Beatitudes, specifically Matt. 5:5: “One who is easy to be entreated is a person who will readily yield to the superior judgments and stronger reasonings of others. These judgments and reasonings are based on truth rather than on the other person’s force of personality. The meek person is far from being arrogant, obstinate and overbearing.”

  5. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Mr. Smith: Your call as to whether you want to put this up. It’s a summary of a lot of work I’ve been doing over a long period of time.

    Mike: Your two comments on “humility” and “meekness” are worthy of another look. Jesus was quoting Psalms 37:11. The RSV has it better than the NKJV in its real implications.

    (Psalms 37:11 RSV) But the meek shall possess the land [“earth”, as in the NKJV, is nevertheless better, and Jesus so cites it], and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

    Even Hebrew scholars admittedly have had trouble discerning “humble” from “meek”; in Hebrew there is but one letter’s difference, otherwise the spelling is the same. But there is a pattern behind the Beatitudes: first the acknowledgement of our need for God and His Holy Spirit, and then our natural thought processes under the Holy Spirit’s guidance as given in related pairs. When that is understood (and to start to do so it helps to back-translate the Greek into Hebrew as in the Franz Delitzsch Hebrew New Testament; Jesus was quoting Hebrew Scripture and/or its concepts throughout, one way or another), the difference between “humble” and “meek” becomes clear and a great deal about what the Bible says of both concepts becomes clear.

    To be “humble” is to be “poor in spirit”. The Hebrew word for “humble” and “poor (that is, a beggar)” is the very same word. It’s something that relates to the spirit in man, which is where our “ego point of view” centers, and its relationship to God’s Spirit. What Mr. Pomicter described so aptly is really humility, not meekness. It is the submission of one spirit to another, recognizing the force of truth coming from God or another person when one sees it. Being easily entreated is one aspect of this submission. There are others, as James describes in the same context. They all flow from our need to ask for God’s Spirit, God’s guidance, God’s presence in our lives.

    But to be “meek” in Hebrew means to be “afflicted”. It means something different from, yet dependent on being “humble” (which is one reason why the two get confused). It means the ability to bear abuse via the senses in the here and the now and the physical world. It takes in what David endured physically under persecution and of course Moses’ outstanding capacity to “put up with stuff” like that coming from Miriam and Aaron. It has to to with a specific human thought process embedded in our physical brains, but which (like all the others) gets recorded on our spirits for posterity. And learning that virtue via that thought process makes one teachable with regard to God’s way of life, as Psalms 25 tells us.

    A meek person – properly speaking, one who is physically afflicted in this life in the right way for the right reasons and bears that burden patiently (the Greek word was used of horses broken to the bit) – doesn’t exalt himself through focus on the sensual pleasures of this world. And he is recorded accordingly, often in this life, certainly in the next, with “abundant prosperity”, the very thing that the natural thought process involved longs to enjoy.

    We can exalt ourselves purely through our spiritual egos, or through any and all of the natural thought processes in our brains, or both. “Blessed are the poor in spirit (the humble)”, and then the Beatitudes that follow, are meant to be preventative medicine to that kind of self-exaltation. The ensemble is a recipe for mental health, if you will. Without that foundation of personal balance, how can one take the next step and understand the spiritual intent of God’s spiritual law as Jesus goes on to describe it?

  6. Thank you very much, Mr. Wheeler, for helping to fine tune my understanding. I will now try to group “meekness” with “longsuffering” and “perseverance” as somewhat similar concepts. When I think of meekness in relation to Moses’ actions, and comparing that Christ’s meekness described in Matt. 11:28-30, I think it points to the idea that God Himself wouldn’t change His actions or thoughts based on an emotional response to how He was treated by others. He’s rock-solid in thought, saying and deed. He’s ETERNAL and in the long run, doesn’t need to worry so much about singular events as He does long-term effects and outcomes. Similarly, we may have an emotional response to someone’s actions towards us, but will we retaliate in a vengeful or hateful manner? Sure, a drastic action by someone else may require a different reaction on our part, but is it still in line with God’s righteous and manifold wisdom? It can’t be based on revenge or fear.

    As a side note to give Mr. Pomicter some context, he was describing what he called “The Pillars of Wisdom” used in James 3:17 and comparing those against seven of the “active” Beatitudes (vv3-9). He then finished up by using Proverbs 6:16-19 to show the seven abominations to the LORD as threats to these pillars. In order to properly draw some lines between the first two scriptures, he used “meek” to mean willing to yield or easily entreated, and “the poor in spirit” to mean “without hypocrisy”, sincere, without pretense or guile. It may not be 100% accurate, but it drove a powerful point home in how he defined each one and described them in real-life settings.

    Either way, I enjoy receiving a more sure understanding of God’s word in both cases!

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