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"More Fully" Week 4
Warning: half-baked, explicitly leaning into hot takes.
In this issue:
Time Frames Are Arbitrary
Source of Accomplishments
Speaking of Questionable Sources of Truth
Optimizing Global GDP Is Too Simple
Why We Fight With Loved Ones
A Global President Question
Against Malaria Nets
Why Do We Live?
The Game Is Getting More Complex
When You Don’t Understand Something
A Winner-Take-All Effect
Breath vs Depth
Flipping Venture Capital
The Humor Economy
Is Work “Good”?
So Cal Newport has some great framings about how we should treat our brain like we treat our bodies. Where we take care of our bodies by sleeping enough, eating healthy, and exercising, we should take care of our mind by letting it rest, consuming quality information (as opposed to junk food), and meditating (stretching our ability to focus.
He also has some great stuff about Digital Minimalism. Aka starting with your goals, asking "how can technology BEST help me achieve this goal, per minute?" (time is precious! see: Naval), and not settling for second-best tech solutions. For example, if my goal is socialize, or more specifically deepen close friendships (that exist in the real world), my largest ROI-per-minute is FaceTime (for me, personally). If my goal is to learn, my largest ROI-per-minute is the accessibility shortcut that lets me consume any epub (book) at 3.4x speed (total time to finish a book ranges from 1 to 3 hours). Books tend to 'more fully' explore ideas because when thinkers get their ideas on paper, they are forced to wrestle with contradictions, edge cases (aka "the weeds") where conventional thinking is stretched/expanded. (That's my initial conclusion at least. The best counterargument is that high barriers to entry massively distort the "great ideas-->book" pipeline).
The bottom line is I've restricted my information diet to books (no podcasts, no articles, no YouTube videos, etc). And by sticking to this cold turkey (see: discipline is freedom?), I was able to knock out a book a day throughout the summer and fall semester.
The Diff (an in-depth newsletter with an absurdly high ROI-per-minute) has forced me to reconsider this strict philosophy. Some articles, undoubtably, have a higher-ROI-per-minute than some book chapters. But the AVERAGE article doesn't meet this bar (for me, personally). So the question on the table is, how does one explicitly curate high-quality articles at a low-cost?
Another way of thinking about this is algorithms -- what algorithm will pick and choose the best articles (that all some book chapters by a wide margin). Naturally, there are huge gains to coming up with the best algorithm (see: all of big tech, arguably. Though my closest friends beat Facebook's algorithm all the time).
My friend Matthew mentioned that if 9 out of 10 YouTube videos suck, and 1 is "holy shit! mind blown" --- better than a third of a book -- the value from the time it took to watch 10 videos exceeds the value from a third of a book. It's hard to argue with that logic , but I just can't bring myself to sit through 9 shitty YouTube videos. When faced with a high-volatility distribution (with higher peaks?), I prefer the low-volatility distribution. Maybe this is a path-dependent / inefficient habit (?). Another post could segment the population by their volatility preferences and come to conclusions about why we consume what we do (??).
With a physical diet, it's good to have consistency (??), you don't want to usually be eating junk food and, once a week, have a super nutritious meal. Extending the analogy, there are real benefits to restricting one's information diet (SEPARATE FROM THE ACTUAL LEARNING / quality of argument -- specifically, cultivating a peaceful, well-fed healthy mind over the course of a week (??). There is a real MR and LR effect to eating ice cream regularly (for example); the actual eating experience should not be the only consideration (??).
Is the mind really like the body? Where and when does the analogy break down? Let me know.
Time Frames Are Arbitrary
The single greatest mistake economists (and policymakers) is restricting their analysis to the domestic (U.S.) economy -- because they miss out on all the (investment/capital) flows in and out of the country (where ALL the biggest changes happen). Domestic analysis is usually misleading, so it's best to expand to an analysis of the GLOBAL economy (to predict future investment/labor flows/displacements/geopolitical risk shifts/etc). There are whole businesses to be spun out of people NOT looking at the tension/friction/hard-to-measure gray areas between countries (there's often less standardized/clean data <--> more speculation, but the insights are often 2x or 3x in magnitude). Taleb goes so far as to argue, the LESS information you have, the GREATER the magnitude of the shift you're estimating (in many cases, see: The Black Swan).
Another way of saying this is, if you draw an arbitrary line around some part of the world (e.g. the U.S. border) and restrict your analysis to that sub-world, you're not seeing the bigger picture. The biggest waves can only be seen if you look at the global economy. To flesh that out, if you just analyze the local economy of the city of Dubuque, IA, you are going to miss all of the crucial waves -- namely, investment flowing out to bigger (not small-town) banks, brain drain to Chicago, etc.
Arbitrary lines around geographies function similarly to arbitrary lines around time -- aka time frames (!!!!!!!!). Time is increasingly malleable (!!!). All investors should probably re-define the standard month/quarter/year analysis (!?).
For example, take the claim "most VC funds fail / don't beat the market." Well, they don't beat the market over the course of A YEAR, but that's an extremely arbitrary time frame. Pick a different time frame, and you might be able to claim "most VC funds beat the market".
Similarly, "manufacturing jobs are declining" (in the U.S. !!!) (globally, they are growing!). The frame you use gives you very different results, and almost all frames are misleading, in that conclusions are hard to replicate over space and time. This is what some people mean when they say "macroeconomics is fake." Many conclusions hold for small geographies, but break down when the scope is expanded to the world (??). Help me out here, my EconPhD friends! The bargaining power/growing pains-->regulation function/cost of living/etc must be sooo different at the macro level?
So previously, economists could say "for this type of thing, in the U.S., this is what we usually see." But now, those conclusions are sensitive to not only U.S. factors, but, increasingly global factors!! In other words, they are harder and harder to predict (??). The limited U.S. or state-by-state analysis is increasingly irrelevant/incorrect, as more and more factors are (a) outside of the state or national government's control (see: the declining importance of government, outlined in The Tyranny of Experts), and/or (b) hard to measure. You could probably try to replicate tons of econ papers and they would fail in the "globalized" economy of today (??).
There are implications here for time frame analysis, but I'm not quite smart enough to think through it rigorously (someone else, please do!).
Source of Accomplishments
Cal Newport has this whole thing about how and why people are bad at giving advice. Most people do not instinctively divide a situation into a number of distinct variables and appropriately assign weight to each one. Rather, they overweight certain variables when explaining their success ("I was strict about waking up at 6am every day" or "I used a color-coded notebook to track progress"). The most visible variables predictably receive more weight when people try to explain things (in general).
There is also the whole self-flattering stories/myths thing to consider. We tend to overweight prosocial variables ("I was really passionate about improving education") and underweight anti-social variables ("I was motivated to increase what my share of the company was worth"). In particular, we under-weight variables that everyone agrees "shouldn't" play a huge role in success ("My parents had connections in finance that helped me raise my Series A") or ("It was more important that it looked pretty than it actually working"). See: Secrets by Peter Thiel for the theory and Elephant in the Brain for the empirics on this general concept.
Protagonists tend to be more objective in retrospect, increasingly with the time between the event and the explanation, because we tend to get self-validation/esteem from RECENT accomplishments. Personally, for example, I'm much more likely to tell you "oh that high school thing? ya it was literally a joke -- this is how I hacked it / made it seem really legit." People only tell you the real anti-social/sneaky casual explanations when they no longer get social validation from telling the impressive/pro-social story (Elephant). See: this unicorn-founder telling you straight up "the only reason I won those hackathons was because my screens looked pretty. I never coded or really built a viable product -- other products probably worked better, but mine were prettier, and that's what the judges worked on."
This is, perhaps, why so much "conventional wisdom" is wrong. The loudest voices are the ones with the most to gain from telling the impressive/cool story, where the truth about "how x causes y" is often less flattering. The most honest people(?) / best sources of truth (?) are probably those with nothing to gain from the argument. WHICH seems to contradict Taleb's whole "skin in the game" argument in some ways (??) -- especially in business, where telling a compelling story often beats strictly statistical casual inference. If I have something to gain (at any cost), I might tell a compelling story to get my share of a sub-maximal pie (at the expense of truth). There are probably applications here to management theory -- aka making incentives more aligned or lessening the weight of those with unaligned incentives (?).
My good friend Matt makes the point that there is some cost to asking people far removed from their successes for advice. They are less able to put themselves in the shoes of a beginner -- they've internalized non-obvious-to-the-beginner things (and therefore, don't think to include them in their explanations). We all have truths about "how to win at college," for example, that were revolutionary sophomore year, but so repeated/known by senior year, that we (as seniors) don't think to mention them. This probably applies to general life advice (we get from parents/grandparents) (??).
Normally, economists would want to look at revealed preferences (what do people actually DO vs surveys), but I'd argue the most important things (best practices) in life require strict discipline, and are therefore not practiced by most people. There is no "wisdom of crowds" econ paper we could write about the best way to spend one's time. Surveying exceptional friends/human beings (NOTE: not "the most SUCCESSFUL people") would probably be more fruitful.
Speaking of Questionable Sources of Truth
We all know academia has bad incentives! But my friend Matt has a good take on why. In environments with scarce resources (and little upside from good analysis), thinkers will be motivated more by signaling/status/politics than good analysis <-> discovering "truth." Inputs don't correlate with outputs.
In business, the output from one's analysis is more $. The closer the analysis is to what's "true," the more that individual/company makes money. In academia, the output one optimizes for is status (not more $). So analysis becomes uncorrelated with truth -- the question goes from "how precise/true is this analysis?" to "how much status will this input generate?" For more on this, read Taleb's "Skin in the Game," Elephant, and Preference Falsification all at the same time (it'll blow your mind!).
The "holy shit!" insight here: most information-gathering/analyzing/presenting happens in environments closer to the academia environment than the business environment. See: most organizations (news/religion/politics) to name a few, optimizing their analysis with status, rather than "truth." This has massive implications on how much we should trust our leaders, organizations, and norms (the informal/formal rules that organizations demand). We think they are correlated approximately with truth (because it's socially convenient/costly to be questioning everything all the time), but so did all people in the 1500s. And we know just how more they had yet to understand about the world (particularly, casual explanations). See: Sapiens to be convinced of the arbitrariness of our norms.
An anecdote to really flesh this point out -- even in the most rigorous academic fields that are precise about their assumptions (E.g. philosophy; you can't say anything without clearly defining what you are and what you are not talking about), my Mathematical Logic professor questioned the true alignment with "truth." He complained about how everything was under-specified and "intellectually dishonest," and switched to pure math. If there's a spectrum from pure math to the worst pockets of academia, where are we? Where were we 50 years ago? I'd argue people understood the root of multiple perspectives (E.g. political disagreements) significantly more when we had to disagree in person, to people we respected for other reasons than their political signaling, but that's a rant for another day.
Optimizing Global GDP Is Too Simple
My political economy professor makes a brilliant point that there is no "one size fits all" style of aid to developing countries. It's a matching problem.
Some countries have decent/good institutions, and are teetering on the edge of industrialization. For these countries, an infrastructure "development" project/contract (from China, most likely) might make all the difference between a good path (rough proxy; economic growth) and a bad path (declining foreign investment/increasingly unstable currency/etc). Note to self: determine if a stable currency is a strict prerequisite to a stable democracy. That answer would drastically simplify the matching problem.
For other countries that are miles away from good institutions or connectedness to the global economy, direct aid (E.g. malaria nets or GiveDirectly) might be best for people on the ground, but that solution isn't really sustainable/scalable. The people, to make MR/LR investments, need stable property rights <-> access to good institutions. The quickest / most direct route to these institutions is for good-institution countries to open up their borders and encourage immigration culturally/logistically. I am convinced this is how we would "save the world" if that's what we really wanted to do (Elephant -- it turns out what we ACTUALLY want to do is signal that we are the type of person that wants to save the world). More labor mobility  will put pressure on corrupt governments/leaders to improve the quality of their institutions/governance. Or, outside actors could come in and establish the better institutions (which would lead to higher standards of living for people on the ground, but massive global "thought leader" criticism) (in practice, this is a huge L, because outside actors are (a) extremely over-confident/unaware and (b) extractive -- everything is oriented around that, leading to a fucked up, fake-intentioned, unsustainable situation.
Take the U.S. and the Middle East, for example. The U.S. tried to DIRECTLY set up ITS version of "good institutions" <-> stable property rights to encourage international trade/ spur investment. This required a huge upfront cost (of war).
(We have to be careful here because "good" is subjective. In the U.S., "good" might mean stable property rights (the government can't just take your house, which kind of has to involve an independent judicial system / democracy at some level (?) -- not in theory, but in practice), freedom of religion, etc. Where in the Middle East, "good" might mean a deeply religious society committed to shared values. Personally, I see massive benefits from the later definition of good (but there's tradeoffs with everything). )
Arguably a less costly way to encourage better governance/stable property rights would have been to INDIRECTLY pressure by opening up competition between governments (aka Tiebout competition or "foot voting") -- aka opening up borders and explicitly encouraging immigration from particularly corrupt regimes. This seem like an obvious cost-saving, but it would never happen because it's not politically-palatable (see: local governments fucking up would a global government would do). Another case of political constraints driving up "altruistic" (signaling! Elephant) spending/costs because more efficient solutions (a) don't seem "objective" because they explicitly pick losers and winners (note to self: write a take against blind criminal justice) or (b) do not seem "planned" enough -- see: EITC, also every population ever being like "the poor can't be trusted!" Also, again, the evidence suggests we care more about looking good than doing good; building a school for disadvantaged kids is a much better cocktail party social flex that straight up giving poor people money (EITC or GiveDirectly). (There's also SOME cases where it's higher ROI, so maybe I shouldn't be so judgmental (?) but also a few peaks in the distribution shouldn't make us prefer that distribution (?) -- definitely concentrated benefits to subsets of the population (see: all government spending).
A hidden cost to the "encourage immigration out of corrupt countries" strategy is the people who do not immigrate will likely face a more loyal population <-> more moral hazard for leaders to do whatever they want without fear of protests or social unrest. The most corrupt dictators may even encourage the potential protestors to leave their countries (fueling the dictatorship in the SR, and if religion beats declining consumption/production (and directly encourages "lives of modesty" (see: many global religions telling the masses to embrace being poor), the corruption increases (potentially, this plan could completely backfire if corrupt leaders do not care about tax revenue (see: roving bandits). For more on Tiboue competition, see: all of Europe democratizing after America (the world's first large-group truly stable property rights!) became a thing.
Why We Fight With Loved Ones
On your first day of work, your new boss gives you an assignment, and you ask a bunch of questions (to make sure you understand the expectations fully -- you want to start off "on the right foot.")
There's a whole spectrum from "new boss" to "close friend," and, as one gets closer to the later end of the spectrum, they SPECIFY EXPECTATIONS less and less.
Why do we specify expectations less and less (when the stakes are so much higher)??? A few reasons:
(1) As you get closer and closer with someone, you get better at predicting their thoughts and actions. In MOST situations, you need less and less information to make a similarly accurate prediction (over time). As a result, in ALL situations, we assume more and more. "I know this person super well, I know what's going on, how they're feeling, etc."
(2) The expected cost from messing up the prediction goes down. If you flunk on your first assignment at your new job, you might fear getting fired. Over time, in a closer friendship, however, both parties realize that when the other person messes up, it doesn't jeopardize the relationship. Both parties "trust" that "it's not that deep," and it's USUALLY not.
What's interesting here is that, MOST of the time, (1) (2) end up generating fine output -- less anxiety, less time wasted specifying unimportant things. We can just kick back and chill with our close friend (and be our WHOLE self, saying silly things, etc without fear of losing them) in a way that we can't with our new boss. We assume things are okay, and MOST of the time, they are.
The problem is because the stakes are so high (we trust the most important people in our lives with our most important things/experiences), when we're wrong, the cost is super high! Ahhh, we might say, we should have communicated expectations more clearly! There's probably a sweet spot on the spectrum somewhere.
A Global President Question
If China can credibly commit to 2x the GDP (standards of living) of Africa through infrastructure development, but continues to commit state violence against its citizens because of their religious affiliation, would the welfare-maximizing global president approve the move? Do the costs outweigh the benefits?
This question illustrates an obvious flaw with utilitarian thinking. Pure utilitarians are committed to saying, if we could somehow give everyone in the world enough healthcare/food/water/shelter by torturing 100 randomly selected individuals, we should (no matter how gruesome the torture). Now, none of us ever think WE'D be one of the 100 randomly selected, but if we WERE, we'd be like "nah, fuck this system, let's go back to the whiteboard." For some reason, if it was just one person, I'd volunteer (because of the social benefits / special feeling I'd get inside from sacrificing myself for the greater good? Elephant!).
But at some point, every president has a price they'd pay for certain benefits. This is the nature of policy. For example, imagine you're the president of the country. There's arbitrary, meaningless violence everyday in your capital city. You're told that if just 5 people die, you get out of your recession and standards of living skyrocket for everyone but those 5 people. You take the deal. You rationalize that with more prosperity, the violence in your capital city will decline, saving much more than 5 lives. Net result: more lives saved. (The only reason you wouldn't is if other people found out about it and judged).
Every leader has a price they'd pay for this deal. It's the nature of doing what's best for your community at-large. See: Naval not trusting groups/organizations in general because they prioritize the well-being of the group more consistently than the well-being of Naval.
This doesn't just apply to these extreme examples!! It applies to all government decision-making! Policies ALWAYS make some people better off and some people worse off (at some time! back to the arbitrariness of the time/geography we include/exclude). E.g. The worse-off people might not live in your country, but across the world (should their well-being matter less?? Why?). This is the nature of government. Time is an underrated concept!! As my professor's dad says, "You can please some of the people some of the time, you can maybe please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people ALL of the time."
Sometimes I'll make assumptions while writing. Usually, because I'm not an expert in any thing, I'll say something like "I'm not an expert, but I think this is how something works..." I think even if I'm wrong about certain assumptions, it's still a useful exercise to imagine the output IF THESE INPUTS were true. There is a crucial difference between INvalidated assumptions (that waste time??) and UNvalidated assumptions (which could be true). The second is more useful. Imagining the Black Swan (least likely) assumptions/inputs is especially useful because they have the most extreme magnitudes (if ever realized) (taking Taleb's word for it here, I'm sure there are edge cases).
This something I need to remember more when other people make UNvalidated assumptions in their reasoning! I think my frustrations stem from people saying things are "true" when they rely on very shaky assumptions that are probably wrong. But if I recognize them for what they are -- useful "what-if" scenarios / sensitivity analysis -- I'll be more patient with these arguments. Sorry y'all, this one was really just a note to self.
An increasing share of my close friends is thinking of homeschooling their kids (I'm not quite there). My future pure math professor friend, Elliott, for example, thinks he can explain concepts better than public/private school teachers. This is undoubtably true for SOME individuals outside the traditional education system (see South Korea celebrity millionaire math video tutors). In fact, I'd go so far as to argue MOST of the best (top 1-3%) explainers are not teachers (they, on average, opt for higher-earning fields).
So the ideal global education system is probably something similar to YouTube?? (with more "did you actually understand this ?" checks). It seems like this is a no-brainer (with sufficient barriers to entry / exclusion of purely entertaining videos #edutainment) ONCE a student is sufficiently motivated to learn. This "love or motivation for learning" bit is an important prerequisite.
To recap, there are two goals of the education system (1) ingrain a "love/motivation of learning," and (2) explain/teach things about the world that are relevant to one's life or career. The life part of the second goal is crucial -- it's ridiculous how much of education is geared towards how to spend working hours, and so little is spent on how to spend one's non-working hours! The second is so much more high-volatility because it's so unstructured!!! E.g. Most accountants read more books about "how to be a good accountant" than books on "how to be a good parent." There's definitely a "I am better than my parents and the parents around me" effect going on here. Small sample selection --> increased self-esteem for "eh" parenting. This probably applies to most non-working hour tasks (??), but that's a separate discussion.
Naturally, different organizations will be best at goals (1) and (2). Let's say, for the sake of argument, that (2) is best accomplished by some sort of awesome YouTube system. How do we accomplish (1)? Let me know. I'm really not sure, but I think we should be extremely intentional about separating the two goals.
Professor Elliott says we should bribe major news networks to push different role models on kids (If kids are looking up to intellectual achievers, instead of sports stars or actors, growing up, they'll shift their energy allocation to learning (from the time and energy they were previously committing to sports/acting/art/etc). I don't this is sustainable, but maybe it's directionally correct (??). Maybe we are just 10 Queen Gambit-esque glorifications of geniuses away from a society that "values education" (??). I'm pretty pessimistic that we'll get there without state-sponsored propaganda because (a) the perceived (and actual?) probability of hard work actually paying off is ridiculously low and (b) society is funneling all of its investment money into increasingly addictive SR-gratification devices that, on average, out-compete the (skeptical to most) LR benefits of "dedicating oneself to learning." Add in the declining influence of parents and "delay gratification" institutions (E.g. religion) and we have a future where "education gets better" (in quality AND access) but the BENEFITS of this improved education are only realized by some -- specifically the old-fashioned families who put restrictions on technology use.
ALSO, the increasing trend towards "individual learning at one's own pace" will lead to efficiency gains for the student population at-large (Elliott's brilliant math whiz kids can move on to concept 47 IMMEDIATELY after they understand 46), but increasing inequality BETWEEN student performance.
Decision-making is (a) the most difficult thing to reduce -- because we have hidden AND public motives for everything (Elephant) -- and (b) the most commonly reduced thing. Anecdotally, people often say "oh Bob did this for that reason." We think we know why people do things, but usually we're satisfied with understanding ONE of their motives -- which is like seeing the 10% of the iceberg that's visible .
Why do we work? Ask people and their friends and they'll tell you "because Sally is passionate about x" or "because they really love this type of thinking." These prosocial motives may be true, but there are additional (hidden) motives as well. Whether we like it or not, a major benefit we get from our job is positive social validation / status / confirmation that we are smart, well-liked, and/or someone that other people want to be around. This caused my friend Elliott to quip "Most jobs are social more than anything...think of all the networking/business/negotiation...it's all status-seeking."
The wild thing is, even if we intentionally avoid status-seeking / snakey networking, THAT (act of avoiding) gives us status, too! This is true of most social norms. We can pretend we don't care about them -- but our "not caring" IS public and OFTEN gives us status. The only way to truly "not care about what other people" is to PRIVATELY reject social norms (??). Or is it just not possible (??). Should we accept that we need to get feelings of status/prestige/dominance occasionally, and just select healthy ways of getting that validation (??). Maybe we should aim to distinguish ourselves / get that positive feedback from our non-working hours? (E.g. How we treat the people closest to us?). Pretty old-fashioned, and definitely at odds with the whole utilitarian "measure your life based on how many lives you save with malaria nets" vibe. I really don't know. It seems selfish to prioritize my close American friends (with lesser needs) over strangers in developing countries (with greater needs) JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE STRANGERS. Maybe there's a sweet spot? Let me know.
Against Malaria Nets
Someone dying at 20 years old MEANS something different in a developing vs America. Some cultures even celebrate early deaths. The value of longevity is arguably a Western concept we shouldn't impose on other cultures (??).
What if someone lives a more rich/meaningful life in 20 years than some people live in 80? This goes to why we value life. Fuck, are we just trying to save lives because we are afraid of death as a concept? Are other cultures right and ours arbitrary and wrong? Should we accept and embrace that everything is temporary? Buddha would say "ya prolly, suffering does not equal bad." I think we can look at someone torturing a child and say "THAT suffering is bad." Is suffering only bad if it's INFLICTED on someone else? If yes, then maybe pre-heating living conditions aren't necessarily bad ? (The vast majority of humans throughout history have lived without history). Damn it's kind of hard to put a value judgement on this or that standard living. Maybe we should just be trying to minimizing INFLICTED suffering??
Here's where I can't ignore the drowning child though. Fuck. If we have a choice between button A and button B. And if we click button A, the child drowns. And if we click button B, the child lives. Don't we have a moral obligation to click button B?????????? Aren't we, in a sense, inflicting the suffering/death, if we click button A. Is there a difference between NOT clicking any buttons and clicking button A???? Let me know. Fuck it -- you can philosophy your way out of any thing (if there's enough $$$ to be gained from winning the argument), but I'm still going to donate. Because other people need it more.
Well, there's always going to be someone that needs money more. Do I have a moral obligation to support the least well-off resident of Beverly Hills? No! But is there SOME level of health/food/water we SHOULD help people out with getting to? Probably, right? Like we "should." Maybe "should" is different than "must" (??). Let me know.
Sorry, one last point. It just seems impossible to look at a person about to die from starvation and NOT give them food, right? Arguably, we all have this human instinct (FOR PEOPLE OF OUR TRIBE). Maybe all institutions/organizations/governments have just tried to get us to think of other tribes as not like us (not human)? So we dress up and go to war (for this cause or that, neglecting human suffering and pain). See: The military episode of Black Mirror for more on this.
Last last point, I understand the good arguments in utilitarianism (above). Maybe most people don't give that much weight to economic analysis (E.g. maximizing global GDP) because they are just not THAT utilitarian. I.e. They think there are good reasons for prioritizing one's community (this probably explains most variation in moral worldviews). I've been there / lived that upbringing. There's probably good arguments on both sides. It's just hard to look at the pain/suffering and vote for homelessness <-> zoning laws, you know. I don't care if I/my community get slightly richer, that vote DOES make the difference between the marginal person being homeless or not. To the extent that we have similar goals (?????), we should use economics to hit those goals. Fuck the "maximize the U.S. population's well-being, at any cost" goal though. Okay that's all.
Why Do We Live?
"Desire is just a contract with yourself to be unhappy until you get the thing (then be temporarily happy). Every action is rooted in some desire." -Naval, also probably Buddha
So is the conclusion we should (a) minimize desire or (b) not see "being unhappy" as a bad thing?
(a) at the extreme leads to a life of inaction. If I were to optimize for that, I'd probably get my memory wiped (they can do that now!), and go meditate in a Buddhist temple all day every day for my whole life. That can't be the move (thought if anyone wants to try it for a summer, hit me up).
(b) is more promising. Though, at the extreme "don't resist being unhappy" leads to minimal action -- but inner peace? Or is it MORE action? #embracethegrind?
I really don't know what the move is. Knowing myself, I'm still going to strive to feel the emotions I've felt in movies -- do the whole marriage, kids thing probably. Regardless of how foolproof the philosophy is.
If you make >$11K per year, you're in the top 15% of the world (according to income). The income spectrum is important (especially when we want to focus on those with the greatest needs), BUT there are WAY more important spectrums (that we can't see because we can't measure). Some example, imagine all the people in the world on a spectrum of kindness. Or a spectrum of "the best parents." Fuck this is where I realize all these values are pretty arbitrary. I guess we can't really say anything about what # to increase (because it's all subjective?), but we CAN say "if x is the output we want to increase, these are (a) the inputs into that function, and (b) these people have the incentives to change these inputs for these reasons. Now, we're almost too meta/abstract to say anything concrete ("how the turn tables"). Note to self: learn away from fields you know and into fields/truths about the world you're less familiar with.
The Game Is Getting More Complex
The entire plot of Pride and Prejudice (the movie) is everyone giving very subtle/complex social cues and figuring out who likes whom. This is shocking, because there wasn't 5 different ways of "liking" someone (like there is today). At least in the upper class portrayed, there was ONE appropriate way of liking someone (intent to marry). So one would think that game would be very simple. And it was (relative to today), but the main difference was (back then) they had ONE communication method -- in-person communication -- because that form of communication is scary (and the stakes were so high), people were cautious -- aka subtle/complex social cues that need 2hr15min to decipher.
Nowadays, the game is more complex. There are 5 different ways of "liking" someone, the stakes are lower, there are many forms of less-scary communication (E.g. texting, snapchatting), and intentionally lying or misleading is significantly more acceptable (and considered part of the game). No wonder young people (in the U.S.) are more anxious/depressed than ever (3x) -- they're playing a very complicated game where the outcomes are tied to their self-esteem. The game also starts earlier (middle school), so young people don't have the chance to develop a strong sense of self-esteem outside of the game.
If you think about social status (a rough approximation/signal/reflection of social skills) as THEE driving variable (2nd to physical attractiveness) with the most (perceived) malleability, this explains why young people "live for the gram." The hours per day invested in cultivating social status online (Facebook/IG/Snapchat/TikTok profiles) make sense when you know there's a complicated/self-esteem-defining game coming up (in high school) and you need to be at least somewhat cool when that game starts.
This intense (a) media consumption, (b) social media consumption, and (c) social media production consume much of young people's days. Whereas, in the Pride and Prejudice era, they were developing self-esteem outside the game (usually with same-gender friends or siblings) by painting, cooking, reading, putting on plays, writing, and hunting. These leisure activities are, nowadays, being replaced by MUCH more pressing matters with shorter-run gratification. We might look up to these Pride and Prejudice characters, but if they had a magical device where they could cultivate and display social status, they would use it. If they didn't lose it, they would feel left behind. There would also be significantly less people around to paint/cook/read/put on plays with. See: my middle-school sisters' friends just wanting to make TikToks (even on their "playdates").
(a), (b), and (c) also shape one's mind. Growing up using Snapchat stories, I was implicitly trained as a content-creator (probably way better than pre-2000 content-creators because I had skin in the game). I was acutely aware, at all times, what would be "good content" and what wouldn't meet that bar. This affects how we think and experience the world (!!!!!!!). It's almost like a sixth sense, and it doesn't go away until ~3 weeks after you delete IG/Snapchat (from experience). This is poisonous, I think, for society/culture/everything. See: the social media episode of Black Mirror for this poison portrayed at its extreme. It's almost like a witch put a spell on one Pride and Prejudice character -- to always be concerned with and aware of the social status others (not just the in-person audience, but THEE Audience) are ascribing to their behavior. That's crushing. And if we saw a side-by-side character comparison, we'd realize it (help me out here, film major friends!).
Somehow, (a), (b), and (c) have also crafted a generation significantly more aware of subtle/complex social cues (because (c) involves always consuming and evaluating a variety of social-status signals). The secondary effect is the social cues become EVEN MORE complex (to not be obvious) -- to the point where people are intentionally LYING or misleading (and it's normalized!). Over time, we'll have less and less honest people. Add in a variety of new things that one can (and should) hide from their parents, and this weird social norm around not being "soft" --> we've just killed emotionally vulnerability in general for the population (if you can't be honest with your parents, who can you be honest with?).
The OTHER thing killing honesty is less in-person conversation in general (displaced by (a), (b), and (c)). Friends are spending less and less time with each other in-person, and therefore NOT getting to that deeper level where they can be honest/vulnerable (about the sides of themselves NOT rewarded on social media). There are entire friend groups (at Brown!) who never talk about anything real. Over four years, friends (who spend ALL of their social time together!) do not get to know the sides of each other that are NOT rewarded on social media. WE OURSELVES BECOME UNAWARE OF THESE SIDES (we become actors / expert people-pleasers who forget our "true/authentic" selves because we are always performing / racking up social-validation points).
The OTHER fucked up thing here is that the sides of people that get rewarded on social media ARE THE SAME SIDES rewarded/shown in video games/TV/movies. That's another factor contributing to the normalization of dishonesty and shallow conversation. See: kids getting more and more manipulative every year (someone write the psych paper!).
This is the future, and it's only going to get worse when VR becomes mainstream! Tik Tok/IG/Facebook are currently the most engaging (disruptive) thing the world has ever seen. And -- think about this -- in 50 years, we're going to look back and be like "I can't BELIEVE people were so engaged in THIS. Three hours a day? This is boring (compared to VR)."
It's all fucked -- get out of the (social media) game at least -- and make friends who do the same -- while you still can.
When You Don't Understand Something
Some people are like "okay, who cares." Other people are like "damn, this irks me, I need to chip away at it until I understand." The second group of people is also most likely to get distracted or lack prioritization. Also, when you're not comfortable NOT understanding something, eh-explanations become more appealing. So my conclusion here is that we should be aim more comfortable with uncertainty (??).
Also, we should realize how many (second-group) geniuses are out there but not in leadership positions because they lacked prioritization and/or "focus." These geniuses are probably overrepresented in creative fields (where people are not told to "focus" as often). "Focus" is lowkey a bad concept (???), or at least one with pros and cons. See: Cal Newport and How To Do Nothing for the amazing things the brain can do when it's un-tasked.
A Winner-Take-All Effect
Attractiveness effects how we perceive EVERYTHING, but especially emotional communication! When most people off the street are dramatic or "acting," we don't love it -- millions of years of norm evolution has made us skeptical of dishonest people (they don't make great allies) (Elephant). But for some reason, we don't mind if we are attracted to the person. When our extremely-attractive favorite actors and actresses are being dramatic, we love it. If they express their negative emotions/frustrations INDIRECTLY, we think they are FUNNY. If they express their frustrations DIRECTLY, we think they are CONFIDENT.
We interpret emotional communication more harshly when we are NOT attracted to the person. If they are indirect with their negative emotions/frustrations, we think they are SASSY. If they are direct, we think they are BITCH-Y.
The bottom line is one's attractiveness has HUGE effects on how they are perceived in every-day life. And then we all get married, and the discriminate perception dies down? No! It persists (I think?) (until we're 40 or something?) (and then everyone shifts their attention to young people?). Let me know.
There are some edge cases where the person is too attractive (when we think of someone as wayyyyy "out of our league" / like not in the realm of possibility -- we evaluate more their potential as an ally (vs a hook up) -- and don't love the drama (??).
When evaluating how much state governments care about x (E.g. POC), we tend to evaluate the delta between the last reference point in our heads and the current moment. E.g. On a one-hundred point scale, 0 --> 20 is a dramatic shift that makes us think "damn this politician really cares about this." The more liberal/progressive the state government though, the harder it is to signal that they care about x. E.g. a 70 --> 90 shift just doesn't seem like much change (and there's a real sense in which it's not). As you get closer to the right end of the scale (100), the same magnitude shift is less and less AS A % CHANGE.
This is all a complicated way of saying we evaluate the impact of politicians not in ABSOLUTE terms, but in RELATIVE terms, which is not that inspiring. It gets especially interesting/fuzzy when results are less measurable (E.g. how much did the racial prejudice of this police squad really go down?). Politics is all about signaling (Elephant), but there has to be some issues for which the signals are more (or less) correlated with real-world, measurable impact (as opposed to rhetoric) (??). I'm also not sure what the game-theory implications are for the degree of competition in different areas (issue salience being one input in the degree of competition function). Let me know.
Breath vs Depth
The traditional model for app development is to first, determine the goal and second, build the minimum viable product (MVP). For most apps this makes sense. But there are some spaces (such as healthcare), where you'd arguably be better off having the users decide what the goal of the app is. Visualize something that makes it quick and easy to do 60 different healthcare tasks (between parts of the system) (E.g. China’s #1 payments app below), and then see what tasks users use the most.
In this way, the app functions as a survey, but a survey much more sensitive to UI/UX (E.g. bad UI/UX distorts user behavior). There's also a "real people, solving their real problems" effect that makes the data more accurate than paid surveys / user testing programs (see: revealed preference). For a small minority of apps/spaces, the benefits will exceed the high upfront fixed costs. For most, MVP is still the way to go.
Flipping Venture Capital
The conventional wisdom is that more people should try to start companies instead of taking fancy corporate jobs (see: Andrew Yang, The Thiel Fellowship). This is probably true -- everyone in tech/finance/consulting has a few decent app ideas, for example. The vast majority of these ideas never get tested because there's a decent startup cost (it costs between 1-3K to pay coders in the Phillipines to code the app), and most people are not willing to spot 1-3K for a very low expected benefit. Also, most people don't think about the insane upside from Black Swans slivers of the pie (see: Taleb).
Solution 1: five to seven corporates pitch in 1-2K/per/year to a makeshift "venture fund" / pool of money. Throughout the year, if someone want to beta-test an app idea, they dip into the fund, and if it takes off, all fund-builders have equity. Awesome. Everyone keeps their jobs, but gets to "play startup" (routinely test out MVPs) in their free time. It doesn't take 100% of one's time to test out an app idea -- it can be done for something like 3 hours/a week. That time commitment makes "playing startup" a hobby (like tennis, or golf).
Solution 2: someone starts a real, legitimate venture fund that explicitly targets / provides free money to geniuses at Jane Street/Sequoia/other ridiculously selective employers that are bound to have a few app ideas worth trying out. The fund might even take care of the annoying startup tasks for them (E.g. building a website, getting networking intros, etc) to make "starting a company" as fun and low-time-commitment as possible.
The goal here is to unlock the "startup" potential in the vast majority of smart people seduced by the training/optionality/salary tech/consulting/finance offers. You can't realistically expect them to quit their jobs, but you can make it easier to make "starting a company" fun, low-risk, and free. I'm willing to be I could give free money to Jane Street-types and make a huge ROI on my portfolio. It would be modeled off of Dorm Room Fund -- but no expectation to pay back the money, only an equity stake if the idea becomes a sustainable business.
The Humor Economy
One of my best friends, (Professor) Nelson He had a great framing for thinking about the post-scarcity world -- the classic philosophical thought-experiment, "if everyone has food/water/housing/material cool stuff #toys," what will people do and care about? Nelson says the only number that will matter for life satisfaction is the frequency at which you make other people laugh. (Note: not fake/polite laughs, but real laughs).
This is hundreds of years from now, and hard to benchmark because no society is close to having all the toys they could want. Even in the most elite circles (E.g. NYC trust fund babies, see: Gossip Girl), people still care about intelligence ("whose kid got into Harvard?") and altruism ("he started a school for disadvantaged students, isn't that great?"). It's hard to imagine what life would look like with no disadvantaged students to brag about helping, and no real cap on the highest quality of education. Maybe we'll always find games to play to distinguish ourselves? Maybe we'll compete to be the funniest ("The Humor Economy," coined by Nelson) or the most creative (everyone plays music and paints all day?). Let me know.
If laughs become the currency, it'll likely be a Winner-Take-All economy (??). The game will also get significantly complex. We know longer live in farming communities where (a) everyone has relatively similar senses of humor and (b) the subject matter is relatively constant (there's only so many things that can happen in an isolated, farming community). As discussed earlier , humor is a function of social norms.
And social norms are getting more complex!!
Previously, in America, for example/the sake of simplification, let's say there were 30 sets of norms. Over time, immigration + the decline of religion + media + social media + other effects have made the number closer to 3000 sets of norms (I think). Lots of this is great; there are entire categories of spaces that were not "socially-acceptable" to our ancestors (E.g. drag queen spaces), but are accepted today. There is not only increasing specialization of labor, but also increasing specialization of culture/norms (???). We are all, in a real sense, more "individuals" than in the past(??).
At the same time, people increasingly belong to different spaces with different social norms SIMULTANEOUSLY (E.g. a businessperson might also be a painter and a rock climber).
Both effects make audiences less consistent (especially in mixed groups in cities). Because there are SO many people with SO many senses of humor, there are SO many things one must understand to make EVERYONE laugh. This makes group interaction increasingly difficult (??), so we'll see more 1-on-1 ??? Probably not actually, given how scary that can be for some individuals (see: specious alternatives ). We'll probably just become increasingly anxious because non-polite laughs/positive feedback will be more and more infrequent (???). Let me know.
Is Work “Good”?
If someone from the late Muromachi period of Japan was transported to the modern-day United States, they might be shocked at the massive unequal distribution of food and medical care. They might look at white-collar and blue-collar workers and say "it seems pretty arbitrary...to have different people doing different amounts of physical labor...to all eat similar quantities of food." Some of labor is necessary, they might say, to eat, but in the Muromachi period, the physical labor that had to be done was distributed rather evenly. "There must be a COMPELLING reason to have different people doing different jobs?"
There is not just one compelling reason, but a few. Evidence has disproved most widely-believed HISTORICAL justifications for the unequal distribution of necessary physical labor. For example, we know that the distribution is not purely based on one's intelligence, IQ, or genes. We also do not have evidence that a divine being "blessed" a few, lucky people will good fortune ("grace"). While we can set aside these historical reasons, a few compelling reasons remain.
First, there are massive benefits to society at-large for what economists term the "specialization of labor." (Granted, these benefits are very unequally and arbitrarily distributed.) While a wide variation in the jobs people are doing within a society IS correlated with that society's production and consumption, it tells us nothing about the morality or "justice" of that society. Is this variation MORALLY "good" for society at-large? That's a question for a future post.
THIS post will focus on the compelling reasons (and conditions for which) work is "good" for the individual. To begin, it be useful to have a rough definition for what we mean when we say "work." In this POST, "work" will refer to SOMEONE ELSE telling the worker to do something, and the worker doing it. The presence of "someone else" is important to distinguish what we mean by "work" from the worker INDEPENDENTLY deciding to create a gift for a friend or family member.
If a father tells his son to take out the garbage, is that "work"? By this definition, yes! The father ("someone else") is telling the son ("the worker") to do something, and the son is doing that thing. All work, in this sense, contributes to an organization, whether that organization is a family, a government, or a company.
All organizations have membership conditions. To continue being part of an organization, members must DO things and/or REFRAIN from doing things. Is being part of an organization "good" for the individual? Well, it depends on the organization, the individual, and the individual's alternatives. There is no "one size fits all." The benefits of taking an Amazon warehouse job ("membership" within the Amazon organization) might outweigh the costs of doing so for barely-educated Bob, but not for PhD Phil. The benefits of regularly taking out the garbage ("membership" within a family) might outweigh the costs for Peter Deegan, but not for Peter's friend Hannah who has physically- and emotionally-abusive parents.
So, we cannot make a blanket statement about "work" (in every situation) being good for the individual. We can, however, describe a few factors that CAN make work "good" for the individual. (Obviously, there are always edge cases.) We can say, in the MAJORITY of cases, "work" will be good for the individual INSOFAR AS it regularly offers the following:
(1) An opportunity to make a plan and get some satisfaction from carrying it out. (And the tendency to develop a habit of doing so in other areas of life).
This is a real benefit of work that most readers take for granted. While most people regularly make plans and execute them, there are edge cases. For example, my grandma's friend's daughter is a 600lb adult who spends most of her waking hours consuming television and being fed/bathed by her family. There is a whole spectrum of people from this adult to the most confident, life-loving world conqueror. Naturally, most people want to be closer to the later end of the spectrum. Work is something that can make someone more confident (and successful) at making plans and carrying them out.
Just because some jobs CAN do this does not mean most DO. There is a whole spectrum from mind-numbing factory work to a full-time party planning. While the former may not realize this "plan/execution" benefit in the work itself, simply the act of showing up to work for 30 consecutive days can be an "accomplishment" (to edge-case individuals from the most broken homes, who struggle with self-control and substance abuse). I am referring to real people I have gotten to know in my warehouse jobs.
(2) An opportunity to contribute to one's community/loved ones. (And the tendency to develop a habit of doing so in other areas of life).
In the late Muromachi period of Japan, iron-mining towns distributed the necessary physical labor (and the resulting food from trade) relatively equally. Workers could frame their physical labor as part of a larger effort and take pride in their contribution to their community.
This framing has been possible for the vast majority of human history. In farming communities, one's physical labor is associated with a real, physical contribution to one's family or community. Because most people contributed to farming communities, most people could see the fruits of their labor.
Industrialization and globalization have combined to minimize this "contributing fruit" benefit over time. Toy factory workers, for example, rarely see the fruits of their labor -- a kid in another country playing with a new toy. They may not even ever see the finished product (the toy!) if they are not at the very end of the assembly line.
Contrast a country of factory-workers with a country of farming communities. A worker in the factory-worker country will rarely see the fruits of their labor. They will be less likely to take pride in their work. They will be more likely to focus on the work's benefit to themselves (their wage) and the bread they bring home to their families. Over time, they may focus exclusively on maximizing their wage. The people who live around the worker (in their apartment complex, for example) will be increasingly irrelevant to the bottom line. Community-oriented behavior will decline (see: Bowling Alone).
A worker in the farming-community country, however, will be more likely to take pride in the fruits of their labor and their contribution to their community. They have no wage to think about. All they have is their work (farming) and the fruits of that labor (the food) that they share with their community. If their farm hits a temporary famine or natural disaster, the know they can rely on their community. They are more dependent on the people around them, but the people around them are also dependent on them.
This sense of "dependence" -- the give and take between people who care about each other -- is what many people find beautiful about life. It is significantly more common -- both at the individual and societal level -- in the farming-community country than the factory-worker country.
It follows that certain types of "work" are MORE corrupting (to the individual and society) than other types of work. Imagine, for example, an extremely rich country full of rich individuals primarily concerned with working to make themselves richer. Other concerns (about contributing to OTHER people) get de-prioritized. It is in this sense that many people would call this country "corrupt."
This is consistent with the initial thesis, that work is "good" for the individual insofar as it regularly offers an opportunity to (1) make a plan, and get some satisfaction from carrying it out, and/or (2) contribute to one's community/loved ones.