Michael D Sykes

Three essays by Michael Sykes

"There's no such thing as a free lunch."

"When have you been blindsided in life, and why did it happen?"

"Can people ever be purely altruistic? Why or why not?
—Let not mine will be done, but thine."

Michael Sykes #339743;
PO Box 3310
Oshkosh, WI 54901

NAME: Michael Sykes, D.
ID NUMBER: # 339743
SEX: Male
DOB: 4/17/79
RACE: Black/Africa American
CONVICTED OF: Intent to sell cocaine

Michael D. Sykes
The Prison Scholar Fund
March 25, 2010
"There's no such thing as a free lunch."
For some strange reason, I just love cliches. Simply hearing a phrase like, "cool as a cucumber" or "nutty as a fruit cake," can send me into a giggling frenzy. So I could not pass up an opportunity to write an essay with Milton Friedman's expression. "There's no such thing as a free lunch", as its topic. Contrary to Friedman, I believe there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Where 1 come from, when people make illegal money hand over fist, we call it "eatin'." I dealt drugs from ages 12 to 26, so I know a free-luncher when I see one. And, boy, are the Wall Street Banking Executives eatin' a free lunch. In fact. Wall Street Bankers and drug dealers share many similarities. Both trade in derivatives (future commitments to buy and trade at specific prices), and regulate their markets through middleman mathematics. For example, they corral buyers and sellers, report trade prices that will ensure the most profitable deal for themselves, then risk the investor's money using little or none of their own to cover any possible losses.

Through immoral trading and risk-taking practices these analogous dealers eat free. In contrast, drug dealers may be killed or sent to prison for making unscrupulous deals, while the banking officer collects $200 and Passes GO. These wily, hubris-filled officers confidently sit in a legal position to perform immoral transactions, without fear of punishment or negative consequences. Why? Because their knowledge of the banking system and its loopholes combined with the fact that their deals may be unprincipled, but legal, allows them to elude any form of punishment. The recent market crash of 2008, which was an estimated 15 trillion dollar global loss, is believed to be largely attributed to the morally-depraved investing practices of the Wall Street bankers. Yet, no legal action has been sought against them. Instead, they seemed to be almost instantaneously rewarded with significant bonus pay after the market crash.

So how do men and women who cost the world 15 trillion dollars escape unscathed while hoisting hefty bonus packages over their shoulders? They did it by making themselves unexpendable: Too Big To Fail. Using complex risk charts, bundles of debt securities, derivatives trading, and paying the raters charged with grading their performance, these bankers created a broken system only they possess the knowledge and skill to repair. Sort of like the Pied Piper and his rats. And though some of them may have been thrown out of their offices onto the pavement of Wall Street, they were quickly sought after and placed on the payrolls of banks in crisis that needed to repair their troubled firms. Firms troubled by cryptic puzzles that no one but only the authors can decipher. If that ain't a free lunch, then what do you call it?

And then there is Wal-Mart, dubbed as a deflationary force in the economy by Alan Greenspan. Primarily viewed as a business that forces other companies to lower prices or to go out of business, it is also a monopsony whose latest cost-cutting policy will force its vendors to place unique scanning tags on all merchandise packing and skids in order to save Wal-Mart money: its newest technological form of enjoying a free lunch.

This special label, called a Radio Frequency Identification tag (RFID), is modeled from the FedEx shipping company. Wal-Mart wants to uses this tag to track the movement and locations of all merchandise in its stock, worldwide. The RFID tag will provide faster invoice counts, and an instant checkout system for Wal-Mart's customers. This entire system will be fully paid for through Wal-Mart lowering the percentage it pays to its vendors for products. If the vendors fail to comply, Wal-Mart will simply discontinue selling its products. As though Wal-Mart is not already getting a free lunch through buying cheap products from China; by its ability to control the percentage it will pay vendors for products; and by hiring droves of temp help that don't qualify for benefits. The company has now devised an ingenious technical way of eating take-out for free.

In retrospect, perhaps Mr. Friedman was correct and there are no free meals in life. It certainly seems that everything in life does required payment, in some form or fashion. If someone is eating a free lunch someone else has to pay for that meal. The question is who picks up the check. When the Wall Street Executive is able to make enormous sums of money immediately after nearly bankrupting the entire world, the taxpayers and investors receive the check. By Wal-Mart's incessant mission to cost-cut, its part-time employees suffer and companies that can not compete may be forced out of business. These are their bill payers. Of course, someone had to pay for the 30% discount on the consumers' Nike running shoe. Similarly, someone sat through long lectures and had to study for hours to eventually become a Wall Street Risk Management Officer. And who really knows what Wal-Mart's founder had to endure in order to make the company the success it is today? No, there may not be such a thing as a free lunch; however, there definitely are situations where it appears that someone is freely feasting like a king.

Michael D. Sykes
The Prison Scholar Fund
March 25, 2010

When have you been blindsided in life, and why did it happen?
I recently read a century-old book that left me feeling both idiotic and guilty about my lifestyle choice. In Carter G. Woodson's The Miseducation of the Negro, he lambasted the "Negro" for ethnic negligence, failing to pursue realistic educational goals, and displaying a sluggish, lethargic attitude towards acquiring financial literacy and economic responsibility. He also warned of the state African Americans would place themselves in if no changes were made in their attitudes and behaviors. Woodson could easily have been directing his rebuke specifically at me, furthermore his warning proved to be an accurate prediction describing the condition of my generation. Suddenly, I realized that I had been blindsided by the reckless and unproductive lifestyle I had chosen.
It is one thing to have family and friends confront me and point out my self-destructive characteristics and actions, but it is frightening and discomforting to be accurately described by the hundred-year-old words of a ghost. So much so that I nearly covered my mirrors and avoided direct eye contact with everyone for a week. Where incarceration could not trigger feelings of remorse and shame, Mr. Woodson's message did. This instantly slammed open the shutters of my consciousness allowing me to view my skewed values with clarity. Then, the question how and when have I been ethnically negligent materialized in my mind.
I initially dismissed the question as outdated and antagonistic but began recalling specific instances where I readily extended trust to members of other races over my own. For example, where I'd ordinarily be critical of a black woman's motives, I would not question my Laotian girlfriend. Black author's opinions or works were not reliable. Black businesses could not produce quality services or products. Black neighborhoods were the target of my drug sales. Rather than encourage African American youth to enlist in the armed services or enroll in school, I influenced them to sell drugs. This is pretty strong evidence to support a case of ethnic negligence.
I have never been fond of school to begin with which made it easy to avoid discussing the subject with ' others. School offered class-enriching opportunities, yet I got little out of attending and gave back even less. The relationship was not reciprocal. My academic resume: never graduated—from any grade level; did not participate in classes when I was present; 10th grade defector; HSED, in lieu of a diploma; a first-year community college dropout. Not an unusual academic life-cycle within my community. My generation may very well be far worse off than Woodson predicted: a young, black culture teeming with individuals possessing no educational aspirations whatsoever. No desires to be become judges, surgeons, astronauts, CEOs, the president, or any of the "unrealistic goals." No ambitions whatsoever. Personally, I had no educational or career ambitions then, and I am still stranded on an island surrounded by murky waters today. The realization of being a member of an academically impotent culture dropped on me fast and hard, like a physician announcing his discovery of my sterility.
After about a month of listening to Dave Ramsey give financial advice to his talk radio listeners, it became embarrassingly apparent that I was a monetary illiterate. His callers would report such things as having saved 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars after being in debt by as much, or paying off hundred thousand dollar mortgages. These achievements were reached in a matter of months or years by simply working jobs. With my mother as an illustration of proof, I had always been told by neighborhood peers that you could not escape the ghetto by merely working a job. Next, I was introduced to dealing crack. Consequently, I made my first deal at age twelve. In exchange for a small bag of crack. I got six crumpled, sweaty dollar bills and a handful of change. There was nothing appealing about those damp bills except how quickly they were made. Any thoughts I had of obtaining a job died there. Dave Ramsey advises his listeners on debt reduction, budgeting, and personal investments. The extent of financial advice I had received from my peers was to set aside enough money for lawyer fees and bail, a down payment on down-trodden foreclosed properties, and establishing some low-volume candy or clothing store— to deal drugs from. Over the years, I made hundreds of thousands from my illegal lifestyle. But at thirty years of age, I'm sitting in prison with nothing to show for it, while Dave Ramsey's listeners are enjoying the fullness of life.
Years ago, I broke a woman's heart pretty badly, and she did not waste a second expressing how she felt. She told me she could not believe she had invested so much time in us for nothing. At the time, I did not understand what she meant, and flippantly waved her off as some crazy girl. After reading Woodson's book, her comment resurfaced in my mind. I realized what she was feeling then; she was devastated at being blindsided by someone she loved. Blindsiding does not always happen suddenly, it usually does not announce its arrival. In my life it happened insidiously, like the roots of a poisonous tree imbedding itself into all aspects of my life. This realization did not come easy and my battle with this foe has only just begun.

Michael D. Sykes
The Prison Scholar Fund
March 25, 2010
Can people ever be purely altruistic? Why or why not?
—Let not mine will be done, but thine.
, -
The hit 90's sitcom, Seinfeld, ended when the four main characters were sentenced to jail-time for laughing at, and video taping, the mugging of an overweight man. That episode is a clear illustration of art imitating life and is indicative of the decline in people's altruistic nature. Comedians refer to comedy as a means of finding laughter in life's sadness. But when the reality that comedy seeks to emulate is of a culture that fails to assist someone in danger we must ask what has happened to our humanity, or whether or not people can ever be purely altruistic?
When I considered whether or not people can be purely altruistic, real societal images came to mind: images of a poor family's food stamps being stolen out of their mailbox, religion and race motivated violence, Abramoff and Madoff schemes. This collage of elements helped form my belief that people can not be purely altruistic. Altruism is defined as "unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness" (The Webster's New World Dictionary, 4th Ed., 2005). My definition of altruism is constantly placing the needs of others before our own. Personally, I do not believe that people can be purely autistic, because our individual needs and objectives must be placed before those of others. However, to avoid staining the matter with personal bias, I interviewed three people within my prison community in hopes of gaining a broader perspective on the subject.
My first interviewee equates altruism with empathy and believes most humans possess a benevolent-nature causing gene. His views are that psychopaths are prime examples of humans lacking this gene, while only babies and toddlers display the purest form of altruism. He thinks that people enter life with no understanding of self, and in turn, give freely and without thought, but, in time, peers; society; and personal experiences desensitize us. We integrate ourselves into the conventional societal structures, and begin to display concern primarily to the people we interact with on a daily basis.
A minute of deep contemplation preceded a reply from my second interviewee. He began with his interpretation of altruism's definition: engaging in action, without expectation of personal gain. To do this one would have to completely disengage "self from the equation, thus acting in a state of regressive unawareness or
transcending enlightenment: two poles between which people continually waiver, he said. And, save for the rare realized humans in history (Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha), most mortals are not usually capable of transcending the realms of ego. According to him, we act charitably because we expect some sort of reward(s) in return, which can range from monetary gain to subtle emotional satisfaction.
I exited my final interview with a perspective as equally interesting as the previous two. This person referenced Darwin, maintaining that it was against the laws of human survival to place entirely the needs of others before our own. Basically, some degree of selfishness must exist within humans for the adaptive, flexible species we've become to continue evolving.
Though I may not totally agree or disagree with the philosophies of my interviewees, I do understand each of their beliefs. Nonetheless, their combined perspectives have only helped bolster my stance on the matter: that save the assistance of some greater-force, adult human beings are incapable of purely altruistic behavior. Yes, there exist rare instances where someone jumps in front of an oncoming car, or the barrel of a gun to save absolute strangers from being harmed. These are purely altruistic acts but are not conducive to survival. We live in a world where if you are Muslim or Buddhist and I am Christian or Jewish, it is totally acceptable for us to feel an emotional coolness concerning the bombing of other nations. The dilapidated educational institutions and starving people of other nations will not faze us. Millionaire North Carolinian Dies, Leaves Entire Fortune To Dog. Man Swaps Bag Of Crack For Christmas Presents Of Neighbor's Kids. Anti-Abortionist Guns Down Pro-Life Activist. These are the headlines of our world.
I believe that, among other key factors, culture, religion, personal needs, and environment all determine who we help and to what extent. Find a way to subtract these factors from everyday life, and we have the perfect species. On the other hand, you can hardly expect people to starve to death while helping their neighbors beat the specter of hunger. People would just as soon convert to cannibalism. And in either instance, I'd prefer our Seinfeld-like selfishness to an altruism-created extinction any day. In which case, I simply say, "Bring on the comedy."

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