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Your Life Portfolio—and Ours
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Your Life Portfolio—and Ours

Diversify, buy-and-hold, and other secrets to the good life.

Picture via Getty Images.

Hey,

One of our frustrations on the business side of The Dispatch is we don’t have as good a picture of our readership as we would like. (We’re endeavoring to remedy that, so if you get a reader survey from us, please fill it out!) Still, I’m sure that a sizable portion of our readers are around my age or older. So, I’m going to start by depressing a good number of you before I get into something much more serious. Feel free to skip the beginning if you want, because this is going long.

A friend—okay, John Podhoretz—sent me this Instagram post that depressed the hell out of me, titled “TV Stars Who Seemed Old But Are Close to Our Age.” Hoping it wasn’t true, I went down a rabbit hole trying to prove it was wrong—and failed—and kept digging deeper. To wit:

  • Redd Foxx, the cantankerous old man from Sanford & Son, was 49 years old when the sitcom premiered.
  • Conrad Bain, the avuncular dad on Diff’rent Strokes, was 51.
  • His grandmotherly housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Ray), was 52
  • Sorrell Booke, aka Boss Hogg, was 49.
  • Carroll O’Connor was 47 when he debuted as Archie Bunker. Archie’s wife, Edith, was played by a 48-year-old Jean Stapleton.
  • Jim Backus was 51 when he started playing Thurston Howell III.
  • Marlon Brando was 47 when he acted in The Godfather.
  • Alan Hale, the world-traveled skipper of the S.S. Minnow, was 43.

And my perennial favorite example of professionally old actors, Max von Sydow, was a spry 44 years of age when he played the wizened priest in The Exorcist

I don’t think many young’ns can fully appreciate how weird this is for people of my age bracket. Yeah, yeah, we all have the tendency to think people older than us are old and people younger than us are young. When you’re in 10th grade you think seniors are, like, really old and eighth graders are whippersnappers, but looking out from the window of my house, you’re all kids who need to get off my lawn. It’s sort of like when you’re getting off a plane. The people in front of you are ridiculously slow in getting their stuff and disembarking and the people behind you are indefensibly impatient. 

I thought I had mostly made peace with passing the Wilfred Brimley Cocoon line, but I guess I was wrong. I mean, Mr. Drummond was old. He wore cardigans! 

One last point before I drop this. I don’t think it’s just me, but it sure seems like we live in a neanimorphic age. Brad Pitt is 16 years older than the Skipper was when he went off on that three-hour tour. Dolly Parton is 29 years older than Edith Bunker. Samuel L. Jackson is 25 years older than Fred Sanford. Yeah, I’m cherry picking. But it sure seems that the decline in daily day drinking and cigarette smoking—not to mention advances in plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry—have contributed mightily to American (elite) pulchritude. 

Anyway, I feel like I should do something productive with this sudden onset of senescence, so I’m going to offer a bit of life advice, heavily layered with philosophical conservatism. 

I don’t want to sound like the dude in The Graduate who tells Dustin Hoffman, “I have one word for you: plastics.” So I’ll offer two words: portfolio management. 

There’s something tacky about using sound financial planning as a metaphor for the path to happiness, but I’m at a loss for a better term, and I lack the aesthetics required of vulgar Marxism. 

There’s something even tackier about pretending you have the secret to happiness all figured out. So please understand that I don’t remotely think I’ve figured it all out. I don’t spend my days whistling “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” out of my posterior. Still, I think I’m more right than wrong.

So the essence of good portfolio management, as far as I understand it, is diversification. You want a mix of different kinds of equities and/or other assets. The reason for this is if you put everything in, say, a single company, then you’ve made yourself a hostage to the fortune of that one investment. Yes, yes, I know, that can sometimes pay off (Berkshire Hathaway + time machine and all that). But this is a frickin’ metaphor, so don’t nitpick. 

About identity.

I’m going to use the word “identity” here a lot, but not solely in the way most people use it today. When we talk about “identity politics” we mean reducing people to one race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual preference. That’s one form of identity. But I’ve never met a gay dude or a black gal who didn’t also have a job, a family, a hobby, or an interest, never mind a nationality or some kind of religious—or anti-religious—affinity. 

Personally, I think it’s a form of bigotry to reduce people down to any single trait or form of identity. Every black, Asian, or white person I know is a lot of things other than just black or Asian or white. Reducing individuals down to a unitary form of identity—occupation, marital status, whatever—erases important aspects of who they actually are, often the most important aspects. I mean, if I ask you, “Who was Albert Einstein?” and your answer is, “A famous Jew,” you’re telling on yourself. 

Some people have jobs so that they can be the person they “really” are when they’re away from work. They make money so they can pay for their real passions—sky diving, rock climbing, traveling, painting, religion, charity, whatever. Einstein, after all, was a patent clerk with a physics hobby for a while. For other people, work is their real passion and the thing they draw the most satisfaction from. But even this is really reductionist. It just speaks to how some individuals see work—is it an end or a means to an end? But even many—not all—workaholics I know still value their family life more than either their jobs or their hobbies. The most committed Jews and Christians I know don’t see any significant trade-off with being dads or moms. It’s complementary, not zero-sum. And this leaves out the role of friends.

The friend portfolio.

Friends are a funny thing. I’m a different person, somewhat at least, with different groups of friends. With some friends, the bawdy side of me comes out more and the egghead side of me gets suppressed. With other friends, it’s the reverse. And with others, it’s a mix. 

My high school friends have little to no interest in some of my more intellectual passions, and some of my more intellectual friends have little to no interest in hearing me reminisce about high school exploits or my nostalgia for TV shows from the 1980s. If you have a relatively diverse—i.e. normal—portfolio of friends, I’m sure you’ve had that weird anxiety that comes when friends from different aspects of your life meet. Usually it works out okay, but sometimes it’s dismaying to see how dear friends from different parts of your life cannot for the life of them understand why you’re friends with others and vice versa. I never served in the military, but I have no doubt that many vets with old war buddies sometimes stress out over introducing them to friends or family in civilian life. 

And don’t even get me started on what my wife thinks of some of my friends. I’ll hand that off to George Costanza.

It’s portfolio management. The great value of having different sets of friends is that you get to be different versions of yourself and there’s great joy and life satisfaction in that. And part of that satisfaction stems from getting better insight into your whole self. 

Now, I intended this argument to build a little like Daniel LaRusso’s karate skills. A bunch of prosaic wax on, wax off observations that, with a little direction at the end, suddenly come together as a larger coherent political worldview. I’m not sure I’m gonna pull that off. But I’ll try anyway.

Ecosystems of identity.

This same principle operates at scale. We have different sets of friends and associations because of the different institutions in our lives. And those institutions give us different identities. It’s not that we’re being inauthentic or dishonest in the different spheres of our lives, it’s that we emphasize different aspects of ourselves. We’re each little cultures unto ourselves, and when you put us all together we become a larger civilizational whole. 

There’s a strange contradiction at the heart of the conception of identity. I don’t quote Leon Wieseltier very often, never mind his more abstruse passages. But I think this is an important insight (and worth reading carefully):

The idea of identity originates, of course, in logic. A = A. This is an assertion of sameness and an assertion of difference. An object is the same as all the objects that are like itself, and it is different from all the objects that are not like itself. Now consider an analogy between the logical relation and the social relation. A = A. The question, What is your identity?, is really the question, Who are you like? Identity, in other words, is a euphemism for conformity. It announces a desire to be subsumed, an eagerness to be known primarily by a common characteristic. I say primarily, since identity need not be perfect to be strong. Logicians talk of “identity in difference.” Objects that are the same with respect to one criterion of identity may be different with respect to another criterion of identity. And it is never the case, even with simple objects, that there is a single criterion of identity. The ascription of identity, then, is the consequence of a choice among the criteria of identity. We have many likenesses, but we do not reward them all with significance.

People often talk about their identity as a statement of individuality, but the concept of identity is actually a negation of individuality at the point of highest relevance. It is a way of asserting allegiance—conforming—to a group of other people who share a few traits, experiences, desires, or goals with you. Conformity isn’t necessarily a pejorative term, even though people often use it as one. It all depends what you’re conforming to and why. If you don’t meaningfully conform to the rules of your church or synagogue, you might be expelled or even excommunicated. If you’re part of a softball league and you don’t conform to the rules and the needs of the team, you’ll be kicked out.

Also, one of the great benefits of belonging to different institutions or milieus is that it fuels your capacity for sympathetic and empathetic imagination. You can be a master of the universe at work but the worst player on your softball team. That’s good for your character and your soul. Conversely, you can be a lowly cog at the office but the best player on the team, and that gives you a sense of earned success and self-worth. The richest person in your congregation might be the most in need of spiritual guidance—and that’s something the poorest person might be able to provide. That’s a win-win for everyone. 

Now, I’m not saying that softball is the same as religion. A healthy portfolio—for individuals and societies—weights some investments differently than others. I value my family a lot more than my friends at the cigar shop, and I invest a lot more in my family, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value my friends at the cigar shop. Diversification is both vertical and horizontal. 

I write in Suicide of the West:

As Alexis de Tocqueville most famously argued, our liberal order depends upon mediating institutions, or what he called “associations,” that create and enrich the space between the individual and the state. These institutions—families, churches, businesses, schools, sports teams, charities, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, etc.—are the microcosms that provide meaning for individuals in the larger macrocosm of the nation. By their nature, they must be culturally distinct in some meaningful way if they are to be “sticky.” It is the cultural distinctiveness—the quirks of theology, custom, and mission—that appeal to some people and leave other people cold that provide members a sense of community, belonging, and meaning.

The “pursuit of happiness” is an individual right, but it is not an argument for hyper-individualism. It is the right to join—to conform—to the institutions that give you personal satisfaction, meaning, and happiness. And while some people can get that stuff from a single institution, it’s my passionate belief that for most of us it comes from a diverse portfolio of commitments and loyalties which, hopefully, complement rather than contradict each other. “Balance,” Mr. Miyagi explains, “is for whole life.” I don’t care if it’s religion or politics or Call of Duty; if you put all the eggs of your identity in one basket, odds are you’ll be miserable.

There’s another concept from finance that’s of use here: buy and hold. Again, it’s just a metaphor. But old institutions and relationships are usually more valuable than new ones. That’s because as institutions age, they sink roots. They become habitats. They store knowledge and memory and provide continuity and context. They shape identities intergenerationally. Just as old friendships ground us individually, old institutions give us our bearings and connect us to enduring values and customs collectively. They also elicit greater commitments from leaders and members alike because their age creates a sense of gratitude and obligation to pass on to the next generation. No leader wants to be the one to close the doors on an old institution, they want to be remembered as a vital steward who left the institution stronger than they found it. 

I know I’m going long, so let me try to land this very strange “news”letter. As Yuval Levin argues here, a healthy society is a vast and complex ecosystem, or really an ecosystem of ecosystems. A pond in a forest is an ecosystem unto itself, but it’s also a vital part of the larger ecosystem around it. 

So much of our culture today militates toward monoculturalism. Academics from different fields are expected to bend their disciplines to a unitary ideological prism. They’re even asked to sign DEI statements vowing that their exploration into medieval history or honey bee behavior somehow conforms to one narrow vision of life. Businesses are hectored to join a political team. Political activists whip people who stray from the herd. “Everywhere you look,” Yuval writes, “people seem to be dragging culture-war differences into spaces where they don’t belong, and in ways that make it awfully hard for us to trust each other, to live together, and to do our common work.” Bringing the culture war into your softball team—never mind your church or family—can be ruinous. 

I’ve been writing for almost three decades now that one of the main reasons I’m a big fan of federalism or localism or subsidiarity—choose your terms—is that I want to live in an America where different places are different from other places. 

If you can pull out your intellectual lens far enough, you can see that monoculturalism is historically the ambition of authoritarians and totalitarians of every stripe. It reduces everyone’s role to a singular priority or set of priorities. It plugs up the little burrows and drains the ponds of the civilizational ecosystem that provide harbors of meaning, satisfaction, and happiness. It says to people that the only meaning that matters is your place in the nation or the Cause. 

I can’t stand it when politicians exhort people to be part of a “cause larger than yourself.” Not because I’m against being part of causes larger than yourself—I think that’s the key to a good life—but because they define “cause larger than yourself” as adherence to their statist or nationalist cause. That cause may be righteous, but the implication that the other causes in our lives—family, faith, friends, work, etc.—don’t count is pernicious. 

The opposite of monoculturalism is, of course, multiculturalism, but that word has been hijacked by people who think multiculturalism implies that every institution should be “diverse” according to shallow concepts of identity, but utterly conformist in worldview. A multicultural institution in today’s usage is one in which everyone looks different but thinks the same way. 

This is not to say that all “cultures” are equal or equally valid. Individually, we have multiple cultures of friendship and association, but there are certain qualities of character, decency, and morality that should hold constant. My definition of multiculturalism doesn’t extend to, say, Jim Crow or any other system that is an affront to human dignity. But short of that, let people pursue their happiness as they see fit. 

I’m in favor of real multiculturalism, side-to-side and up-and-down. I want it for my daughter in her life and I want it for my country. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.