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We Get Letters

By Steve Sullivan

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I know. The title dates me. And for those old enough to remember, I can only say that my parents were the Perry Como fans, not I, though I can still remember the song almost word for word. And for those too young to get the reference, never mind. (Apparently David Letterman uses the same song, composed by Ray Charles, no less.) But we really do get letters.

Not too long ago we got one that was more than 2,000 words long and was signed by 26 people, all actuaries and members of the Academy. It was in response to the article by Lauren Bloom and Michael Lamonica in the March/ April issue called “In the Eye of the Beholder: Why ‘Best Practice’ Standards of Practice May Not Be Best.”

It turned out to be a controversial topic. For actuaries. And there’s the rub. Because even though Contingencies is a magazine for and about actuaries, it’s also aimed at an outside audience, one with only a rudimentary idea of what actuaries do and who they are. The original idea behind the magazine, I believe, was to help rectify that by showing actuaries in thought and at work, particularly in the realm of public policy.

Accordingly, I’ve sometimes been taken to task for publishing too many articles that were “inside baseball” and therefore not of interest to our non-actuarial readers. I generally have no trouble avoiding that problem, since I’m not an actuary myself, and only the Workshop and Tradecraft columns are inside baseball by design.

Even so, I do believe it’s helpful for nonactuarial readers to see the professional issues actuaries struggle with, and to see that actuaries aren’t afraid to be seen struggling with them. Even if non-actuaries aren’t interested in the details, they may be interested in the larger issues shared by many other professions.

That’s why, when I got the 2,000-plus-word letter to the editor, I made a suggestion to the author: Work with me to cut it to the length of a Commentary and we’ll run it in the next issue. He agreed, and you can read the results on Page 14. Gone are most of the cites of specific standards that a non-actuary wouldn’t get anyway. What remains is a spirited expression of how a profession ought to be practiced, in opposition to another expression in a previous issue.

Is this the best way to handle it? Not according to Mr. Jan Harrington of New York City, who objects that the current letters policy is unfair. If an article elicits a letter, particularly a critical one, I always let the original author respond. This clearly favors the original author, who always gets the last word. It’s an arbitrary decision, designed to prevent the letters pages from becoming an endless argument.

Mr. Harrington also suggests that the magazine incorporate a “Fifth Column,” written by an Academy member “who holds coherent and contrary views on a topic to those held by the Academy powers that be. It would give those silenced actuaries who are loyal to the actuarial ideals, but opposed to the current Academy, ABCD, and ASB powers that be, the opportunity for a voice.”

I respectfully submit to Mr. Harrington that we don’t need a “Fifth Column,” that the pages of Contingencies are open to anybody with “coherent and contrary views,” expressed civilly and with a view toward furthering the profession rather than undermining it. Mr. Harrington is a fine writer. I’d welcome the chance to share his views with Contingencies readers, actuaries and non-actuaries alike, any time. It’s an invitation open to all and always open.

However, if in my earlier remarks I offended any Perry Como fans out there, or if now you can’t get that letters song out of your head, I’m truly sorry. But please, no letters.



Contingencies (ISSN 1048-9851) is published by the American Academy of Actuaries, 1100 17th St. NW, 7th floor, Washington, DC 20036. The basic annual subscription rate is included in Academy dues. The nonmember rate is $24. Periodicals postage paid at Washington, DC, and at additional mailing offices. BPA circulation audited.

This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission of the publisher. Opinions expressed in signed articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official policy of the American Academy of Actuaries.

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