Thursday, November 7, 2013

(No.250) The magnificent Joseph Belth

"The magnificent Joseph Belth: 
a model for insurance critics"

by Alastair Rickard

I had given some thought to the subject I might choose for this the 250th column I have posted to A decision made by a friend, American writer and critic Joseph Belth, provided me with my topic.

In the Nov. 2013 issue of his monthly newsletter the INSURANCE FORUM (Vol.40, No.11) Joe announced that next month's December issue would be the last after 40 years.

He will continue sharing his insights and comments on his new blog: and, as I write this, has already posted a number of items.

While putting out the FORUM Joe also had a distinguished teaching career and is professor of insurance (emer.) in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. In the penultimate issue of his INSURANCE FORUM he wrote abut the reasons he started his monthly newsletter "for the unfettered exchange of ideas about insurance", what he tried to accomplish and why he is ending its publication.

Followers of will be aware of the high regard I have long had for Joe Belth as a man of principle, a writer of talent and the person I have long regarded as the best and most knowledgeable critic of the modern American life insurance business.

I began following Joe's views in the INSURANCE FORUM years ago and he became a model for me of informed and thoughtful commentary on the life insurance business and a major influence on my thinking in starting the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance. It was for me a spare time activity from my job as an insurance company junior executive and my attempt to contribute to the Canadian life insurance industry's mental health.

I first met Joe when I introduced myself ca 1981 when he came to Toronto as an invited witness before the Ontario Legislature's Select Committee on Company Law which was looking into the life insurance business. We have stayed in touch ever since.

I have been pleased to receive invitations to write something for the INSURANCE FORUM and I was honoured to have my name included by Joe on the list of "significant contributors" in his November 2013 issue.

When I learned of the coming end of the INSURANCE FORUM I sent Joe the following email:

"I just received your latest issue and read -- with mixed feelings -- of your intention to wind up the INSURANCE FORUM.

"I say mixed feelings because, as one who tried his hand for some years putting out as a spare time avocation a 'special interest' periodical -- especially one, like the FORUM, accepting no advertising -- I have some notion of the time and effort you have put into the INSURANCE FORUM for the past 40 years.

"For those decades you have produced a truly impressive editorial product, one providing important context for those interested in critical thought and genuine substance. As I have said to you previously, you have been an inspiration and a model for me through the years and for many others with a thoughtful interest in the life insurance business.

"I cannot find the words to express adequately how magnificent your achievement and contributions have been during the past four decades. You have every reason to be proud of your record.

"I think you will discover, as I have during the past few years, that a blog is a good way to go these days. Congratulations and best regards."

In writing and publishing the INSURANCE FORUM Joe Belth set a high bar for knowledge and thoughtfulness in offering comments and criticisms of the life insurance business in its various aspects, a standard too rarely approached over the years in Canada as well as the U.S. by various self-styled consumer critics of and 'experts' on the life insurance business in and out of the financial media.

Joe gave speeches and wrote widely apart from the INSURANCE FORUM. With his book "Life Insurance: a consumer's handbook" (1985 -- and still available via Amazon) he established the gold standard for accuracy and usefulness in consumer guides to life insurance. It remains so today in my opinion. Beside it many of the so-called consumer guides to life insurance are shallow, unrealistic, frequently inaccurate, of limited practical value to the consumer and too often dangerously misleading.

I will close with just a few excerpts from Joe Belth's Nov. 2013 piece on "why I started the Inurance Forum and why I am ending it":

" My sole objective [in founding the Forum] was to create a vehicle allowing me to communicate with individuals and organizations in the insurance business without censorship."

"Although I never built a large circulation, there is no doubt that many readers were important decision makers ...."

"I am 84 years old. Aside from some minor medical problems, I am fortunate to have been blessed with good health. Yet in recent years I have noticed some loss of the stamina needed to keep up with the demanding requirements of a monthly newsletter."

"A major factor in my decision to end publication is my desire to write a memoir about The Insurance Forum. ... By ending the newsletter I hope to complete the book soon."

"Another major factor in my decision is my strong reluctance to turn the newsletter over to someone else. I have seen periodicals become unrecognizable after they are taken over by new management. I want The Insurance Forum to be remembered in its original form as my personal 40-year project."

It will be. Well done Joe.


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