Monthly Archives: December 2009

Links From Around the Web

Assorted links:

1. The greatest strength of America is the people who want to live there — its diversity and immigration.

2. 25 minute video presentation from Michael Clemens on why we should support immigration of all forms, and debunking the myths around illegal immigration.

3. Best photos of 2009 from the LA Times.

4. How to prevent a sneeze if you feel one coming on.

5. A restaurant that splits the bill to show what each person ordered. Brilliant.

6. The right minimum wage question.

7. A matrix breaking down leaders by four dimensions: highly educated, not highly educated, central planning, and decentralized.

8. Kurt Vonnegut's writing advice.

9. One way to debunk a thinker or writer: the stuff that's good isn't new, and the stuff that's new isn't good.

Brad Feld and Paul Kedrosky: “This Shit Is Really Messy”

That's Brad Feld in a video dialog on bloggingheads.tv with Paul Kedrosky, in the short clip excerpted below, referring to entrepreneurship. (Speaking of messiness, it's also the image — a mess — that Tyler Cowen thinks best describes most people's lives.) Brad and Paul have a 40 minute conversation about the macro dynamics of the venture capital industry, the IPO market in 2010, immigration reform, and why VCs and entrepreneurs sometimes talk past each other.

I'm helping Robert Wright expand bloggingheads, a reliable source of stimulating video content, to include business folks, so let me know what you think of this conversation.

Merry Christmas

Xmas_09

Loyalty: An Overrated and Dangerous Virtue

The term "loyalty" often carries with it the connotation that it is unconditional. For this reason, loyalty is an overrated and sometimes dangerous virtue.

Loyalty is better viewed as a phenomenon of other traits and virtues: trustworthiness, empathy for fellow humans, investing in a relationship in good times and bad, variations of the golden rule, etc. These are constitutive virtues of loyalty. For example, fidelity is its own virtue. You should be faithful in a relationship. To describe this concept, I say use the word "fidelity" and not "loyalty."

The Bush Administration was criticized for prizing loyalty over competence. You had a place at the table so long as you were strongly loyal to the President. Ron Suskind wrote a book about Paul O'Neill and the Bush administration titled The Price of Loyalty which documented the uncurious and unquestioning habits of a loyal cabinet.

Nor should loyalty trump independent moral judgment. I do not believe in unconditional love or sticking with someone through thick and thin to an indefinite point. If my brother started raping and murdering people, I would call the police.

Bottom Line: Better to employ more precise words to describe the positive virtues in a person than the broad and potentially dangerous "loyal."

(thanks Dave Jilk, Ben Abram, and Cal Newport for their feedback on this idea.)

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I first started thinking about "overrated virtues" when I read Alec Baldwin tell Vanity Fair that the most overrated virtue is patience.

Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Murakami

Given that Japan is among my top three favorite countries in the world — I hope to live in Tokyo someday — it seemed important that I get cracking on the country’s most famous living novelist: Haruki Murakami.

I started with Norwegian Wood. It’s his widely-acclaimed and most-read work. I enjoyed it very much. It is about loneliness, love, and 1960s Japanese youth, and Murakami writes about all three themes masterfully and in a voice that’s absolutely unique. For the most part I was engaged and entertained all the way through, and started re-reading when I reached the end.

I will not try to add to the large body of critical analysis; I will simply post below some of my favorite grafs and sentences. Emphases mine.

The paragraph that resonated most for me due to my glaring lack of experience dealing with death:

By living our lives, we nurture death…What I learned from Naoko’s death was this: no truth can cure the sadness we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness, can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see that sadness through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sadness that comes to us without warning.

I enjoyed this description of New Mexico, which furthers my unexplainable love affair with a state I’ve spent almost no time in:

I had gone to Santa Fe to interview a painter and was sitting in a local pizza parlor, drinking beer and eating pizza and watching a miraculously beautiful sunset. Everything was soaked in brilliant red — my hand, the plate, the table, the world — as if some special kind of fruit juice had splashed down on everything.

What the protagonist wanted to tell his crush when they had sex, but couldn’t:

I am having sex with you now. I am inside you. But really this is nothing. It doesn’t matter. It is nothing but the joining of two bodies. All we are doing is telling each other things that can only be told by the rubbing together of two imperfect lumps of flesh. By doing this, we are sharing our imperfection.

Lovely sentences:

“Sleep came and carried me into a mass of warm mud.”
“I felt exhausted, desperate for sleep, but it simply refused to cooperate.”
“I realize all I can put in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts.”
“Midori responded with a long, long silence — the silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on all the now-mown lawns of the world.”

What You’re Really Trying to Say…

I once heard a story about Larry Summers’ management style when he was president at Harvard. In faculty meetings Summers would frequently cut off whoever was speaking to say, "So what you're really trying to say is…" Being told "what you’re really saying" can be annoying. Um, no, actually that’s NOT what I’m trying to say.

The challenge with Summers, the story goes, was that most of the time he really did re-phrase their point in clearer and more succinct terms. It really was what they were trying to say. Hence his reputation as a brilliant man but indelicate manager.

I want to stress, per Paul Graham, this story is not just about articulateness. Clear communicating is clear thinking. To be able to describe an idea more clearly than someone else means the idea itself exists more clearly in that person's mind.

Finding a Person’s Idiosyncrasies Charming

A friend, in an email about idiosyncrasies, writes to me:

You get stressed out about not sleeping enough and give me secondhand anxiety. You always try to fit in just one more email before leaving for a meeting. You get hungry at the oddest times and must eat immediately. But I also weirdly like these things about you.

Amy Batchelor once told me something very wise about relationships: the key to liking someone over the long run is loving and appreciating their quirks. What someone else may find annoying, you must find endearing.

A good litmus test for when a relationship is coming un-done is when you start to be annoyed by the other person’s long-running idiosyncrasies.

When Day Becomes Dusk

An ice cream cone sounded like the perfect way to end a hot, hot day in Santiago.

I bought a double cone: mint chip and chocolate. I took it to Plaza de Armas.

I sat on the bench and ate it while people watching.

The sun was setting and the temperature was perfect. I almost made it without a drop of ice cream on my shorts.

Then I went and stood around a couple chess boards in the square.

When Chileans play chess, I can understand everything they say.

A perfect evening.

Inequality and Perceived Social Mobility

The leading presidential candidate in Chile, Sebastian Piñera, has proposed increasing the money the government gives to poor families to pay for school tuition. Like school vouchers in the U.S.

When this issue came up in a recent lecture I attended on Chilean politics, there was audible disapproval from people in the room. A French woman said that such policies create inequality in the education market and lead to greater income inequality in society at large. A Swiss and German nodded vigorously as the French woman spoke.

Europeans tend to focus on inequality. Latin Americans, too. Inequality is one of the top issues being debated right now in the Chilean election season.

Americans, on the other hand, by and large are not very concerned with inequality. Sure, it comes up and people talk about narrowing the gap. But deep down I don't think most policy makers and pundits think it's a core problem in a society. We continue to glorify the rich to a remarkable extent.

Why the contrasting views? It comes down to differing perceptions of how possible it is to go from poor to rich. If you believe there's a high level of social mobility in a society, you're not as bothered by a gap. If you think moving up the ladder is nigh impossible, it is a very big problem indeed, because it means the poor are stuck at the bottom, oftentimes due to rotten luck at birth.

Historically, Latin America has been a place where your last name weighs heavily on your success. "Meritocracy" is not the first word that leaps to mind when thinking about the rich and successful in the region. Europe, too, has a legacy of aristocracy and old money.

The American idea however is about the self-made man; the man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and in a lifetime goes from very poor to very rich thanks to his own industriousness and imagination. There is a belief held by natives and immigrants alike in Horartio Alger stories. Social mobility in the States is not as great as people think, research suggests, but perception trumps all, right? A national narrative embedded in a culture commands a magnetic pull over everyone.

Bottom Line: How worried you are about inequality is driven in part by how much social mobility you think there is in society. Europeans and Chileans (and probably other Latin Americans) generally worry more than Americans about inequality because they do not perceive their societies as being as meritocratic and as amendable to upward social mobility.

(thanks to Pablo Gonzalez for helping brainstorm this post)

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The inequality in Chile is inter-generational. 30-40 year olds are rich, 50-60 year olds are comparatively poor. This is an important distinction. See this paper (in Spanish) by economist Claudio Sapelli for more.

Also, check out Will Wilkinson's self-recommending paper titled Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality. In the summary he says, "There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich."

Peter Thiel on Baby Boomers and Bailouts

Peter Thiel did a 25 minute video interview on Big Think, a wonderful site if you're looking for video brain food. He answered questions from Scott Summers, Will Wilkinson, Arnold Kling, and others. Embedded below. Full text transcript is available on the page. Some excerpts:

On a decreasing appetite for bailouts:

With respect to Dubai, the basic mistake people made was they assumed that it was all part of the United Arab Emirates. Everybody was in the same boat, Abu Dhabi had lots of money, and they would help Dubai out. In reality, Abu Dhabi was probably quite resentful of the shiny and glittering and fake city known as Dubai and when push came to shove didn't really want to give them more money. And I think that kind of emotional or political or social phenomenon is going to be much more widespread and the question that will come to the fore in the next few years is will Germany bail out Greece or Spain, or Italy, or Eastern Europe? Will the responsible people bailout those they deem to be less responsible? If General Motors goes bankrupt again, will it get a second bailout? Will there be a second bailout for the banks? Will there be a second stimulus bill? I think the answer to all of these things is, no.

On thinking about what the world will look like in 20 years rather than six months:

There have been many people ask many questions about whether the recession will end with the 'U' or 'L' or a 'V' shaped recovery and sort of a lot about the tactical questions, you know, how high is the employment rate going to go, is it ticking down, is things turning a corner. I tend to think the really important questions are not about the next six months, but are about the next 20 years. The next six months is driven by the financial system liquidity, what central banks do, what they don't do. The next 20 years are driven by science, technology, a set of questions that are very different from the ones people are focused on.

On his least favorite economist:

My villain in economics is clearer. I believe the villain is Keynes and there was a Keynes line that in the long run we are all dead. Whether or not that is true, I believe that in the long run Keynesianism will be dead and that the problem with never thinking about the long run is that in the long run, the short run becomes the long run. And I wonder whether the crisis of 2008-2009 was not just a crisis about finance or about technology, but also a crisis about short run thinking and it was a point in time where short run thinking had run out and there was no more time to think about the short term and that actually a lot of long term problems we have been putting off and deferring had finally come home to roost.

On his favorite thinker overall:

My favorite thinker remains a French philosopher named Rene Girard. He developed an account of human nature in which one thinks very hard about the question of imitation and the role it plays in the ways in which culture and societies form.

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Here are my past posts on Thiel. Here's my post of icons / heroes.