Stop Renting. Start Living: Rejecting the Second-Hander

It’s what I couldn’t understand about people for a long time. They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand.

– Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead”

What is the most expensive rent you pay?

Ask yourself this question. I reckon most of you would answer one of the following:

  1. Rent for space (e.g., paying a landlord), or
  2. Rent for time (e.g., paying an employee), or
  3. Rent for ideas (e.g., paying a consultant).

Now, what if I tell you the most expensive thing we could rent is our Self? That the most costly is not second-hand clothes, second-hand cars, second-hand flats, but second-hand selves?

What does it mean to live a second-hand life?

What is it like to be a second-hander of life?

One example is Peter Keating – fictional character from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Keating is an architect that is successful by conventional standards. Yet, he is described as a second-hander, in the words of the protagonist Howard Roark:

He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.”

Through the mouth of Roark, Ayn Rand defines the second-hander as a person whose wishes, efforts, dreams, ambitions “are motivated by other men”, who is “not really struggling even for mateiral wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion: prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own.”

They (Second-handers) don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?”

Ayn Rand

What if we are all second-handers?

In a way, yes – we are all second-handers. As a baby, we receive almost everything “second-hand”: food is handed to us, stories are told to us, and even thoughts are passed down to us. We are told by our parents and other “grown-ups” on what is right vs. wrong, what to think vs. not to think, what to desire vs. avoid.

On a related note, even our emotions could be “second-hand”. In How Emotions Are Made, professor of psychology Barrett argues that “emotions are not biologically hardwired into our brains but constructed by our minds. In other words, we don’t merely feel emotions — we actively create them.” Emotions could be passed down second-hand – e.g., it is possible to develop feelings of shame at something if we were taught that it is a shameful act. I recommend checking out the podcast episode “We don’t just feel emotions. We make them.” on the Erza Klein Show.

What should we do if it is not possible to avoid second-handism?

Just because it is a fact that we all acquire (at least some) thoughts & behaviors second-hand (i.e., learn from or imitate others), it does not mean we refuse to acknowledge the fact.

Rejecting the second-hander does not mean rejecting everything we learnt second-hand – that would be going from one extreme to another. It means rejecting things that come to us second-hand without examination. This is analogous to rejecting alcoholism does not mean abandoning alcohol altogether – it means drinking in moderation, knowing our limits and making a conscious effort to honor them.

Howard Roark in the movie “The Fountainhead” (1949)

At the end of the day, what we want to avoid is becoming the ultimate second-hander:

He (The second-hander) can’t say about a single thing: “This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.” Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.

Ayn Rand

What is the opposite of a second-hander?

An individualist. Defined in the words of Ayn Rand, an individualist is the slave of no one and wants to enslave no one:

The best defense against the second-hander is an independent man:

Notice how they’ll (second-handers) accept anything except a man who stands alone. They recognize him at once. […] The independent man kills them (second-handers) – because they don’t exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know.”

The man who stands alone is not the same as the man who does everything on his own. The man who is independent is not the same as the man who does not acknowledge dependence on others. He is the man who stands for himself, who says: “This is what I want, this is who I am.”

Does meritocracy lack merit? A critique from “The Meritocracy Trap”

Context: The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite is a book by Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School, “attacking the false promise of meritocracy”. An insightful read – packed with elaborate arguments backed up by research & case studies. For those who are short on time, you could get the big ideas from Daniel’s sharing on the Erza Klein Show podcast, or from this article in The Atlantic.

The bold claim: merit is a counterfeit value

Merit itself has become a counterfeit value, a false idol…what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division. A new aristocracy, even.

Daniel Markovits

The meritocratic ideal, i.e., “social and economic rewards should track achievement rather than breeding,” is a mainstream ideal that is often taken for granted and rarely even questioned. In his book, Daniel not only questions meritocracy, but goes one step further to challenge and critique it.

Image result for the meritocracy trap

His central, unconventional claim is meritocracy is a form of aristocracy in disguise – just like the aristocratic system it aims to replace, “merit is not a natural or universal value, but rather the upshot of prior inequalities“.

The setup: meritocracy constructs the “elite class” via meritocratic competition

Daniel argues that meritocracy constructs what is commonly referred to as “the elite class” via two ways:

“First, meritocracy transforms education into a rigorous and intense contest to join the elite.
* * *
Second, meritocracy transforms work to create the immensely demanding and enormously lucrative jobs that sustain the elite.”

(1) The education race: the meritocratic inheritance

“Although meritocracy once opened up the elite to outsiders, the meritocratic inheritance now drives a wedge between meritocracy and opportunity.

Inheritance under the old aristocratic system is largely viewed as “unjust” – the (relatively cost-free) inheritance of capital, such as passing down money or real estate, is widely viewed as unfair birth lottery. In layman terms, it is unfair that some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

Proponents of meritocracy believe that “merit” is the right answer to encouraging social mobility – build an education system that selects based on merits of the students, they say, and let the truly talented make their way up the ladder.

Daniel argues the reverse:

“Education assumes the role in meritocracy that breeding played in the aristocratic regime.”

Today, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford & Yale accept more students from households in the top 1% of the income bucket than from households in the bottom 60% combined. Students with parents whose annual income exceed $200K score ~250 points higher on the SAT compared with students whose parents make $40K-$60K.

The statistics on social mobility do not show a more optimistic picture. As The Atlantic reports:

“Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor.”

In the meritocracy system, parents in the elite class pass on “inheritance” in forms other than direct capital transfer – these parents invest capital heavily into the education of their kids, at orders of magnitude that middle-class parents cannot expect to match.

When we hear educators advertise “equal opportunities to education” for children, we should pause and ask ourselves: what does the word “equal” mean here? It is not sufficient to apply the same (equal) screening criteria to applicants. The pre-requisite to equal opportunities comes from equal access to opportunities. This means the resources that a child has access to should not be constrained by the wealth of the family he or she is born into.

(2) The jobs race: “compulsive overwork” of the elites vs. “enforced idleness” of the middle class

The meritocratic competition “pervades elite life” and extends far beyond school into the professional lives of those who want to sustain their position at the top:

“Evaluations that were once quarantined to exceptional moments like college admissions season or promotion to partner or managing director now infect every step of a meritocrat’s career. Every year, from preschool through retirement, includes some contest or assessment that filters, tracks, or otherwise influences his opportunities.”

Daniel points out an interesting shift in the work paterns of the elites: the “once-leisured rich” work harder than ever before today. Along with a change in work behavior comes a change in values:

“Elite values and customs have adapted to suit these new facts (of compulsive overwork). High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks ‘How are you?’ the correct answer is ‘So busy.’
* * *
Meritocracy makes effortful and industrious work – busyness – into a sign of being valued and needed, the badge of honor.

Daniel shares a “standard disciplinary joke” amongst investment bankers that “they will be lucky to get any day off besides their wedding day. Nor do the hours necessarily improve with seniority.” In a similar humorous fashion, the Wall Street Journal puts up an advertisement that reads, “People who don’t have time make time to read the Wall Street Journal.”

On the flip side, just as much as the elite class today take pride in being busy, they also look down on idleness & leisure. Daniel notes bankers often compain about the “outside (non-elite) world,” where “people leave work at five, six p.m.” and “take one hour lunch breaks”. These people are perceived as “just are not motivated in the same way” as they are.

The compulsive overwork of elites is “the same alienation that Karl Marx diagnosed in exploited proletarian labor” with “an added twist”, in the words of Daniel: “The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.” Daniel believes the “busy” elite who takes pride in never creating time for one’s true self “places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others – he uses himself up”.

An analogy is made with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard:

“The ancient orchard that gives the play its name yields its greatest rents by being cut down to make way for holiday villas – which is to say through its own absolute destruction and the destruction of the way of life that it once sustained.”

It is hard for elites to break out of this cycle of overwork, as long hours often is one of the reasons used to justify the (extremely) high pay of those at the top:

“As a dean of Stanford Law School recently observed in a letter to graduates, elite lawyers are caught in an intensifying ratchet: higher salaries require more billable hours to support them, longer hours require higher yet salaries to justify them, and each increase generates another in a seemingly endless cycle. Whose interests does this serve? He lamented. Does anyone actually want it?”

Goldman Sachs has renamed its personnal department “Human Capital Management” – the irony is not lost that the human labor itself today is one of the most exploited forms of capital:

“Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income – at least using current technologies – only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”

While elites are stuck in compulsive overwork, the middle class are idled. Note that the middle class are not idle by active choice, as in “reluctant to work”. Rather, they are idled as a passive outcome, as in “denied opportunities to work.” Daniel attributes this to “technological transformation” that “shift(s) the center of production away from mid-skilled and toward super-skilled labor”.

As an example, Daniel says the middle-tier manager has gradually faded out from the labor market, replaced by a much smaller number of top executives (the overworked elite class with higher pay) and a large number of lower-end workers (the squeezed middle class with lower pay):

“The managerial control stripped away from production workers and middle managers has been concentrated in a narrow cadre of elite executives, who are separated from production workers by differences of kind rather than degree. The technologies that underwrite such concentrated managerial power – not just the information systems that monitor organizations and gather & manipulate data, but also the ideas and analytic frameworks employed to make sense of the data – are enormously complex. Only intensively trained managers can possibly acquire the sophistication needed.”

The result is the labor market is divided into “glossy jobs” of the elites vs. “gloomy jobs” of the middle class. Glossy refers to jobs whose ” outer shine masks inner distress”, whereas gloomy refers to jobs that “offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion.”

The product of meritocracy: Nativism & Populism in the middle class

Daniel argues meritocracy is the culprit behind nativism. Take white privilege as an example, he thinks the mere idea of white privilege itself irritates whites out of the elite class, because “they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.”

“The meritocratic suggestion that a white man who cannot get ahead must be in some way deficient (i.e., lack of merit) stokes this anger…and the meritocratic fixation on diversity and inclusion channels the anger into nativist, sexist identity politics.”

Nativism allows the “native” group to blame all their problems on the “foreign” group. This finger-pointing on “aliens” is a mask for the insecurity of “natives” – sense of guilt even – that they themselves are the reason to blame: they are not good enough, they do not have enough merits, and hence they are behind where they would like to be in this (supposedly) “meritocratic” system. The “natives” seem to be on guard against the “aliens”, but what they are really pushing back against is their own sense of inferiority.

Daniel goes on to argue meritocracy is also at the root of populism: “a deep and pervasive mistrust of expertise and institutions.”

“Class resentments in America aim at the professional classes rather than at the entrepreneurial or even hereditary super-rich: not at oligarchs but rather at the doctors, bankers, lawyers, and scientists that working and middle-class Americans feel…’are more educated’ and ‘are often looking down on them.'”

Daniel makes the interesting comparison of Obama vs. Trump: Obama (and also Hillary Clinton) as “a superordinate product of elite production”, i.e., someone who rose and triumphed in meritocracy, and Trump as “a ‘blue-collar billionaire'” who rejects the meritocratic elites – the group that Obama & Clinton are both members of.

Trumpism – and Trump’s own rise – exposes the incumbent elite’s meritocratic contempt for ordinary citizens and its own disenchanted weakness…When Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a ‘basket of deplorables,’ she said aloud what the broad elite, regardless of party, had long thought in private. Indeed, Trump’s rise not only reconfirmed but redoubled the condescension that elites feel toward the Americans whom meritocracy excludes.

The philosopher’s angle: Meritocracy and individual rights

According to philosopher Ayn Rand, the fundamental right of the individual, which is the pre-requisite & root of all other rights, is one’s right to his own life:

“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life…which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Rand’s definition, in the meritocratic system we live in today, neither the middle class nor the elite class have fully realized the fundamental right to one’s own life – neither is free to pursue their happiness. The curse of the meritocratic competition – starting from education all the way throughout one’s professional life – enslaves the poor & the rich alike: the former locked in their class with little hope of upward social mobility, the latter willingly enslaving themselves in work with brutal hours that they derive little pleasure from.

“A worker can quit his job. A slave cannot.” This is the curse fallen on the elites, who deceive themselves into believing they owe it to their expensive education to hold high-paying jobs with long hours, even those that they have little interest in.

“Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men.” This is the curse fallen on the middle class, who see themselves as producing for the consumption of the elites, whereas not moving up the social ladder themselves.

The collective illusion: Why it’s hard to critique meritocracy

Although the middle class and the elite class alike are harmed by meritocracy, both groups blame each other rather than critiquing the meritocratic system itself:

Fragile elites disdain middle-class habits and values as a defense mechanism to ward off self-doubt. Meritocrats lionize achievement, or even just distinction, and disparage ordinariness as a bulwark against rising insecurity. They cling to any attitudes and practices – ranging from the absurd (food snobbery) to the callous (corporate rightsizing) – that might confirm their merit and validate their advantage, to others and, above all, to themselves.”

It leads one to wonder: why have we heard so little critique of the meritocratic system itself? Here is Daniel’s explanation:

“Mankiw sums this up when he observes, ‘When people can see with their own eyes that a talented person made a great fortune fair and square, they tend not to resent it.‘”
* * *
“The meritocratic transformation entails, bluntly put, that equality’s champions must justify redistribution that takes from a more industrious elite in order to give to a less industrious middle class. This makes meritocratic inequality difficult to resist.”

The success of a few in the meritocratic system has been used as the poster child to justify the merit of the system itself. The real danger of meritocracy lies not in it being unequal, but in it being justly unequal. It is white-washed to such an extent that those enslaved by meritocracy believe the way out is via the meritocratic system itself – the middle class believe in realizing the “American dream” via “meritocratic education” despite not even competing in the same arena as the elites; the elites cling to their high-paying jobs attained via “meritocratic job selection” despite physical fatigue and emotional voidness for work they feel little attachment to.

We are blindfolded, and yet we believe the way to see is to put more blinds over our eyes. Such is the irony. Such is the power of the meritocratic illusion – it not only makes us not see, it makes us refuse to see. This has to be the most ingenious form of slavery.

The way out: How should we fix the problems?

Daniel suggests we should go back to tackle meritocracy at its two major forms of manifestation, i.e., education & jobs.

For education, he suggests: ” Private schools and universities should lose their tax-exempt status unless at least half of their students come from families in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. And public subsidies should encourage schools to meet this requirement by expanding enrollment.”

For the job market, he suggests: “favoring goods and services produced by workers who do not have elaborate training or fancy degrees. For example, the health-care system should emphasize public health, preventive care, and other measures that can be overseen primarily by nurse practitioners, rather than high-tech treatments that require specialist doctors.”

As Daniel admits, change will not come easy: “Any victory will be long-fought and hard-won.” The key first step is acknowledging the problems of meritocracy, and the need of a united force to tackle them. I leave you with the last sentence from the book:

To update an old slogan: the workers of the world—now both middle-class and superordinate—should unite. They have nothing to lose but their chains, and a whole world to win.

Daniel Markovits

[Big Ideas – Special] Understanding Markets via “Narrative Economics”

The secret of effective market game-playing is to recognize that the market game hinges on the Narrative, on the strength of the public statements that create Common Knowledge.

Epsilon Theory Manifesto

Nobel-winning economist Robert Shiller recently published Narrative Economics, a book on “How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events“. Shiller gave a talk at LSE on the big ideas (video, audio, related 2017 paper).

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This article is a special in the series, because unlike other articles that are synthesized from Discover magazine expert interviews, this piece is largely inspired by a public lecture.

What is a Narrative?

Let’s start with definitions. According to Shiller:

  • Narrative = a telling of a story that attaches significance, meaning or emotions to it;
  • Story = a chronology of events.

What is Narrative Economics?

Shiller makes a key distinction between narrative economics as defined in the dictionary vs. defined by himself. The textbook definition of narrative economics is “economics research that takes the form of telling a narrative about economic events”.

For Shiller, narrative economics should have a narrower focus, i.e., only investigating popular economics narratives that “went viral”, “changed things” and “became contagious”.

Shiller thinks economics narratives are powerful in affecting (& shaping) economic decisions. He identifies 9 perennial economics narratives:

  1. Panic vs. confidence narratives – e.g., the Big Depression is a panic narrative;
  2. Frugality vs. conspicuous consumption – e.g., Trump’s book “Think Like a Billionaire”;
  3. Monetary standards – e.g., the Gold Standard vs. Bimetallism debate;
  4. Technical unemployment, i.e., labor-saving machines replace many jobs;
  5. Automation & AI replace most jobs;
  6. Real estate booms & busts;
  7. Stock market bubbles;
  8. Boycotts, profiteers & evil business;
  9. The wage-price spiral & evil labor unions.

Broadly speaking, the 9 narratives above focus on the macro economics momentum / “culture” (1-3), employment (4-5), investment (6-7) or actors in power (8-9).

Shiller argues that data sources are at the root of economics evolutions. He believes the recent “digitization of search” is and will bring shifts to narratives. Moreover, Shiller claims that big events occur often not because of a single narrative, but because of a “confluence of narratives“, i.e., as a result of the chemical reaction of multiple narratives.

With an interesting twist, the word “narrative” appears less frequently academic articles in economics & finance compared with other subjects – see this analysis of JSTOR articles below:

Studying Narrative Economics via the Virality Model of Epidemics

If we think of a narrative as a disease, then we could study its spread by borrowing patterns from research on epidemics. In other words, we could leverage research on how viruses “go viral”, and try to figure out how narratives get popular.

The Kermack-McKendrick (1927) mathematical theory of disease epidemics is a breakthrough in medicine, because it “gave a realistic framework for understanding the all-important dynamics of infectious diseases” in the words of Shiller.

The Kermack-McKendrick model divides the population into three groups: susceptibles, infectives, and recovered. Importantly, the model suggests the curve of the number of infectives to take a “humpback” shape, i.e., rising sharply before declining at a similarly fast speed:

We could see similar “humpback” shaped curves in data that could serve as proxy measurements for how popular an economics narrative is.

Here’s an example on how frequent the phrase “stock market crash” appears in news & newspapers:

Here’s another example on how frequent the phrase “Great Depression” appears in news & newspapers:

The Future of Narrative Economics

Shiller is hopeful that ” the advent of big data and of better algorithms of semantic search might bring more credibility to the field”.

Meanwhile, narrative economics faces challenges, including:

  • On data collection, we need to move beyond “passive collection of others’ words, towards experiments that reveal meaning and psychological significance”, e.g., via focus groups or social media – though the proper design & implementation of such experiments is not easy;
  • Dealing with the overlap & “chemical reactions” of multiple overlapping narratives is difficult;
  • Causality is tricky. As Shiller says, one challenge is in “distinguishing between narratives that are associated with economic behavior just because they are reporting on the behavior, and narratives that create changes in economic behavior.”

Nevertheless, the challenges make the field more interesting. I am particularly interested in predicting which narratives will gain momentum. Perhaps the narrative machine will serve, to some extend, as a crystal ball that offers a narrow glimpse into the future.

Witch Hunt 2019 Version: On What Grounds Do You Stand?

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution?”

Find this question provoking?

Check out the eye-opening answer of Professor Timur Kuran in an interview with Eric Weinstein on “The Portal” podcast. I don’t think the show notes are exaggerating too much by saying “(t)his could well be the most important economist you’ve never heard of.” This episode is especially relevant given the current political discourse & climate.

Note: For podcast lovers, I highly recommend The Portal – I have found each and every episode thus far to be of consistently high quality. The podcast is thoughtfully named “The Portal”, to refer to different portals (ways) of looking at the world.

The 1st guest on the show was Peter Thiel, who spoke highly of the Mimetic Theory proposed by French philosopher R. Girard. I have written about it in Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game.

Fake Your Ground via “Preference Falsification”

Question: You go to your friend Emma’s birthday party. She greets you at the door with a hug, takes a step back and spins in her green dress with gigantic, yellow polka dots. Emma smiles up at you and asks: “My brother bought this new dress for my birthday! What do you think?” Honestly, you find the dress to be shockingly hideous (or hideously shocking). How do you react?

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Honesty Brutality is the best policy. Say it to Emma’s face that you find this dress to be an utter disgrace, and she should dump it in the bin right now and change before more guests arrive at the party – so as not to embarrass herself.

(B) Be the best lying friend you think you should be. Say it with a forced big smile that you find the dress to be gorgeous.

(C) Bring out your dark human side. You remember Emma told you last Christmas that pair of purple socks with snowman icons were adorable. You wore that to your first date with your crush, and she found it absolutely incredible laughable. It is time for revenge. You tell Emma with the most sincere smile and starry eyes you could put on, and encourage her to wear the dress all the time.

I would wager most people would go for option (B), i.e., what you say is different from what you really prefer. This is what Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, i.e., “misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures“.

Fake Ground Protects You in the Modern “Witch Hunt”

Question: You live in a neighborhood where durian is treated as a sacred food that everyone should love. Durian is everywhere, e.g., durian flavor is the only flavor of ice-cream allowed. However, you secretly find its smell vomiting. One day, a tourist new to town stops you on the street and asks you about what this “durian” thing is, as she has never heard about it before.

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Tell her (in secret) that while everyone else says durian is awesome, you find it disgusting, and she should run away from it.

(B) Exclaim with enthusiasm that durian is the best food out there – just like what all of your community members would say – and recommend her to check out the durian ice-cream shop around the corner.

Before you decide, you weigh your options carefully. If you go with option (A), you are aware of the risks that words get out – if any of your friends know that you whispered slander against durian, they would immediately cut all ties with you. They would unlike all your Instagram pictures, and unfollow all your social media feeds. You risk your date dumping you. You risk your parents signing you up for “durian acceptance” workshops. You risk opening up your mailbox and discovering 10 books on durians, sent from “Durian Anonymous” group.

As Professor Kuran illustrated, a common type of social pressure that leads to “preference falsification” is the presumption of one & only one orthodox preference – and the rejection of the rest as heresy.

Durian is tasty and everyone loves durian. Case closed. You are simply not allowed to have a different preference. By claiming yourself openly as a “hater of durian”, you immediately declare yourself as the “enemy of the people”.

The minute you voice a different preference, you subject yourself to a modern version of the Witch Hunt – and be prepared for “reputational violence” as punishment, if not something more severe. Just like those labelled witches in the Middle Ages, expect yourself to be the outcast in your circle and consider a cold shoulder as the mildest form of sanction you would get.

Preference falsification – applauding the orthodox view in public while rejecting it in private – is a tactic to stay safe in the modern version of witch hunt. A milder tactic is to remain silent – and saves you the pain of the schizophrenic pressure to balance between a fake voice vs. your true self.

Note: There are two concepts related to preference falsification – chilling effect (i.e., self-censoring for fear of backlash) and strategic silence (i.e., purposefully silencing others or information, usually with the intent to control the narrative). I’ve written about these concepts in What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence. In this case, the chilling effect is in sharp contrast to preference falsification – the former keeps silent, the latter shouts out loud though in a “fake” voice.

And speaking of being open-minded to different opinions, I took a stab at what the word “open-mind” means in this article (that features delicious pictures of ice-cream & durian): “Are you open to durian ice-cream” & an Open-Minded look at Open-Mindedness.

The Witch Hunt in the Middle Ages scarred communities – people lived in fear and dialogues were stifled. Likewise, the modern version of Witch Hunt has its negative consequences. When a large percentage of society practices preference falsification, our political system could produce an outcome that “very few people actually want”:

You open up the possibility that because people are not openly expressing what’s on their mind, the system of knowledge production & knowledge development…(the system) of solving problems…that gets corrupted.

Eric Weinstein

When preference falsification is prevalent, you end up with the weird scenario where everyone in the room wears a pink shirt, although the majority actually prefers the blue one. The irony here is everyone thinks they are wearing pink because everyone around them prefers pink. Hence you are stuck in this weird lose-lose “equilibrium” where as if the collective solved for the wrong problem (or opted for the wrong solution) of how to “minimize utility”. We end up with a schizophrenic world where everyone struggles with the conflicts between their private preferences vs. public preferences.

Middle Ground = Underground?

The two extremes, both are playing this game of “you are with us or against us”, reinforcing each other. They are completely agreed on that.
* * *
There is no middle position. And having a middle position, having the media pay attention to people in the middle, would hurt them (the extremes) both.

Timur Kuran

In this “Economy of Deception” littered by falsified preferences, the middle ground – a nuanced and open-minded stance – has to seek shelter underground. As Professor Kuran points out above, the extreme ends on either side of the spectrum do not want to entertain the possibility of a 3rd option, i.e., seeking compromise and resolution.

Eric Weinstein calls this a “black market (in the marketplace) of ideas“, i.e., underground concepts, ideas, fears that “can’t be discussed in a curated market managed by institutions“. Going back to the durian-lover-community example, think of this as forming a secret club that meets discreetly underground every month to discuss your shared detest for durian.

Occasionally, you have seen brave friends who declare their distaste for durian in the open and advocate for plurality-of-fruit-choices. You admire their bravery, and you relate deeply to this quote:

“We are dependent on people of integrity who risked everything, when it was least popular to do it. We could hold these people in reserve, so that when the madness becomes too great, we could turn to them.”

Eric Weinstein

Where We Go From Here

I leave you with this excerpt from the preface in Professor Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference:

(D)espotic government is not the only source of fear the only obstacle to overt and candid discourse. A more basic factor is public opinion. For one thing, despotism is unsustainable without at least the tacit consent of public opinion. For another, public opinion is itself a determinant of people’s willingness to reveal their innermost selves.

To be sure, time and again the courts have ruled that unpopular views, no matter how outrageous, are protected by the law. Yet a person may be free under the law to enunciate despised views without enjoying the same esteem, in the eyes of others, as people with widely accepted views. However strictly enforced, freedom of speech does not insulate people’s reputations from their expressed opinions.

My preoccupation with the darker side of human nature was not without reward. I became more sensitized to the independent streak in the human character, to the spirit that gives on the courage to say ‘no’ when the pressures of the moment demand a ‘yes.’ With a heightened appreciation for the complexity of the human personality, for the tensions we all endure in trying to mediate between our needs for social approval and those for self-assertion, I gained more respect for the nonconformist, the pioneer, the innovator, the dissident, even the misfit. It is my hope that the reader will come to share in this appreciation.

It is also my hope that the reader – you – will come to share in this appreciation. The consistency in aligning one’s public preferences with one’s private ones. The audacity in listening to one’s innermost self and reach peace with the outer world.

May we all have a mindful journey.

What are some good materials you’ve come across on public discourse? I’d love to hear from you – please reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

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BEST Article I’ve Read in 2019: Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking by Peter Kaufman

Hands-down this is THE BEST article I’ve read in 2019: Peter Kaufman on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. I would recommend spending 20~30 minutes reading the entire article slowly, word by word.

In the meantime, here is my takeaway on the key ideas and comments. At the end, I share my plan for putting what I learnt into action:

Understand => Know What to Do

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “To understand is to know what to do.” This is the central premise on which Kaufman basis his talk – to truly understand is what prevents us from making mistakes (vice versa: mistakes are caused by a lack of understanding, i.e., not knowing what to do).

Read => Master Big Ideas From Multiple Disciplines

So how can we better understand?

The answer, for Kaufman, is to start by mastering what Charlie Munger calls “the big ideas” from multiple disciplines. He discovered that each issue of the Discover Magazine features an interview with an expert on his domain of expertise – explained in simple layman terms. Kaufman printed out 144 of these interviews, and read every single one of them.

[F]or the next six months I went to the coffee shop for an hour or two every morning and I read these. And I read them index fund style, which means I read them all. I didn’t pick and choose.

This is the universe and I’m going to own the whole universe. I read every single one…Guess what I had at the end of six months? I had inside my head every single big idea from every single domain of science.

Peter Kaufman

Model => Develop Multidisciplinary Thinking That Works Across “3 Buckets”

Before we develop a model, we need to have a way to test whether the model is sound. For Kaufman, a sound multidisciplinary model would be applicable to what he calls “the 3 buckets”:

  • 13.7 billion years – since the origin of the Universe
  • 3.5 billion years – since the birth of biology on Earth
  • 20,000 years – since the record of human history

Kaufman believes the following rules are applicable in all 3 buckets:

(A) Everything in the Universe works according to mirrored reciprocation. Everything. Every thing.

In bucket #1, Newton’s Third Law of Motion is universally applicable, i.e., for each action, there is a counter and equal reaction => mirrored reciprocation.

In bucket #2, animals react agreeably to those who treat them well and attack those who treat them badly => mirrored reciprocation.

In bucket #3, “every interaction you have with another human being” is nothing more than mirrored reciprocation.

Kaufman’s model overlaps with the Mimetic Theory of the philosopher Rene Girard. I’ve previously written about it in “Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game”.

(B) The most powerful force across all 3 buckets is “dogged incremental constant progress over a long time frame”, a.k.a. compound interest.

Albert Einstein said “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.”

Yet, being consistent is what we do not like to do. As Kaufman says, this is called variance drain in geometric terms: “Whenever you interrupt the constant increase above a certain level of threshold you lose compounding, you’re no longer on the log curve. You fall back onto a linear curve or God forbid a step curve down. You have to be constant.”

(C) Make “Go Positive, Go First” your life motto.

To understand means knowing what to do. Now we heard about mirrored reciprocation and compound interest, what should we do? Kaufman says: “You have to go first. And you’re going to get back whatever you put out there.”

This is similar to what Rhonda Byrne writes about in her bestseller “The Secret” – she argues a fundamental law of the Universe is we attract what we are and what we think we will get.

However, human’s loss aversion means that a 2% probability of failure is enough to deter us from acting at all in the first place. Kaufman challenges us to up the game: “If you’re getting beat(en) in life, chances are it’s because you’re afraid of appearing foolish. So what do I do with my life? I risk the two percent (chance of being foolish or fail).”

Begin the Doing => Join Me For The “Discovery Challenge”

To move beyond preaching to truly “understanding” (knowing what to do), I have launched the “Discovery Challenge“:

Pledge: I have started reading the interviews in Discovery Magazine to get a grasp of the big ideas across disciplines. I am referencing this PDF resource here (special thanks to the author for compiling).

Join Me: I will be summarizing the Big Ideas in future issues of my email newsletter, delivered every 1-2 weeks, with the motto of “Brainy is the New Trendy. Funny is the New Sexy.Subscribe here to receive the newsletter and curated ideas for free.

Reach Out: If you have other suggestions on how to develop multidisciplinary thinking, feel free to email me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or reach me on LinkedIn – I’d love to hear from you!

No road is long with good company.

Turkish proverb

Life Is The Ultimate Imitation Game (René Girard reading notes 1)

Man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation.

Aristotle, Poetics, 4

This article is inspired by “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” by René Girard – Book I: Fundamental Anthropology, Chapter 1: The Victimage Mechanism as the Basis of Religion. All Girard quotes below are from this chapter unless otherwise specified.

Imitation is A (The) Portal Onto the Past, Present & Future

Mind-blowing.

If I could only describe René Girard’s model of the world in one word, “mind-blowing” is my pick, and even that may be an understatement.

I first heard about Girard in an interview with Peter Thiel, where he spoke highly of Girard’s Mimetic Theory on the role of imitation:

It’s a portal onto the past, onto human origins, our history.

It’s a portal onto the present and the interpersonal dynamics of psychology.

It’s a portal onto the future in terms of whether or not we’re going to let these mimetic desires run amok and lead us to apocalyptic violence.

Peter Thiel commenting on Girard’s Mimetic Theory, The Portal podcast

Understanding imitation is a portal – perhaps THE portal – to understanding the one big question in the “science of man”:

[T]he precise domain in which the question of man will be asked…is that of the origin and genesis of signifying systems…it is the problem of what is called the process of hominization.

René Girard

Let us dissect the question of hominization from multiple angles below:

The Evolutionary Biologist: Survival is the “Who-Creates-More-Imitations” Game

Let us go back in time and look at the rules of the game that govern the evolution of species.

In a highly entertaining book on evolutionary biology, “The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve” (with its entertaining feature evident from the entertaining title), Prof. Steve gives a concise summary of key ideas behind gene selection:

Genes are selected to the extent that they propagate themselves in the gene pool. Often, they do this by helping their owners to survive and reproduce, or by helping their owners’ kin to survive and reproduce.

…adaptations are designed to pass on the genes giving rise to them. And human beings, along with all other organisms, are gene machines.

Steve Stewart Williams, “The Ape that Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

The highest & sole purpose of existence of a gene is to propagate copies of itself – to create imitations. Interestingly, in the case of humans (& many other species that mate to reproduce), the reproductive process creates genes (children) that are close imitations of either parent, instead of exact replicas. It is an imitation, not a 100% copy, in the truest sense of the word.

More interestingly, at the start of time, cells reproduced without mating and simply replicated an exact copy of itself – 100% original, 0% room for experimentation. However, this copy-and-paste approach – while efficient (saves time of finding a mate) – is detrimental to the propagation of the original gene in the long run. In other words, 100% cloning limits the ability to create more imitations (replicas) as time goes on:

…while clonal reproduction helped bacteria pass on beneficial mutations, it also left some entire colonies at risk when dangers such as bacteria-infecting viruses arose, because the cloned bacteria possessed too many of the same inadequacies in their defense mechanisms. Sexual reproduction changed that in a big way.

…Organisms that reproduced sexually had more genetic losers that their clonal forebears, but they also had a far greater possibility of evolving genetic winners.

Jamie Metzl, “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity

Being too predictable in the Survival Game (reproducing via clones that are 100% replicas) makes a species hack-able – what kills one in your species could, in theory, wipe out the entire species. Predictability kills at times. The hack to that is to create imitations – close enough but not entirely the same. The cost of hack is the reproductive process is more time-consuming. Nature is fair with trade-offs.

The Philosopher: Identity is the “Who-Should-I-Imitate” Game

“What is my identity” is a trendy way of phrasing the questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Who do I want to be?
  • Who do I see myself becoming?

Identity is not just a static question of who I am at present – identity creates the drive to change, to move dynamically towards an ideal persona we see ourselves becoming. The process of finding our “identity” is the process of finding what type of person we want to imitate. The act of staying true to our identity is the act of not deviation from the imitation game we are playing to mimic the perfect, model persona in our minds.

When we say we “identify with” someone or something, we mean we see the similarities – we see the other side as imitations of ourselves, and we want to imitate them in return.

Identity politics is the product of us carving out individuals or groups that we see more closely resembles ourselves. And on that note, let’s turn to the politician’s point of view.

The Politician: Campaigning is the “Freedom-To-Imitate” Game

When a gay couple fight for their right to marriage, they are effectively saying is: I don’t want to be forced to imitate the conventional marriage structure of others.

When some people oppose gay marriage, they are effectively saying is: You should imitate us – our way of living, our understanding of marriage.

When politicians promise on a campaign to protect the rights of homosexuals, what they are effectively saying is: I will let you freely choose who or what behavior you want to imitate.

Almost all political campaign messages boil down to this promise: I will give you what you want. Let’s translate that into: I will let you choose who or what you want to imitate, or you let others imitate. Or perhaps we can call this type of freedom of choice: “freedom to imitate”.

The Economist: Decision-Making is the “Mind Imitation” Game

Speaking of choice, the economists will definitely not miss out on the chance to have a say on decision-making.

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the two equilibrium outcomes have one thing in common: both prisoners imitate each other, i.e., they arrive at the same decision to either remain silent or frame the other person. This symmetry is a delicate balance.

In Game Theory and decision-making in daily life, we frequently decide based on what we think other people are thinking. We can think of it as a “mind imitation” game – trying to mimic the thought process of the other party. Thinking out of the box is when your mind is hard for others to imitate – hence you surprise them. The “box” is the set containing all the copies of your mind the other imitators have drawn up.

This quote aptly describes the “mind imitation” game:

I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am.

I am what I think you think I am.

Charles Horton Cooley

The Engineer: AI is the “Create-The-Best-Imitation” Game

Since we started with a look at the evolutionary history of species, let us conclude with a look at an exciting topic that could shape the future of mankind: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The very definition of the phrase AI already reveals that imitation sits at its core:

Definition of artificial intelligence

1. a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers

2. the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When literature & media discuss (or predict) potential dangers of AI, they most often point to the possibility of AI breaking free of the imitation game it is wired to play – instead of imitating human beings, AI achieves a level of transcendental intelligence that we human beings are incapable of imitating (or controlling) in return.

This paragraph below captures the fear of this type of danger:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever…and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

I. J. Good, “Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-intelligent Machine

Life is The Ultimate Imitation Game

We are all “game theorists” – playing the Ultimate Imitation Game of Life. To borrow (& tweak) the words of Shakespeare: to imitate or not to imitate, that is the question. Every decision we make in everything we do is boiled down to whether we imitate, who we imitate, and what we want others to imitate about us.

If life were a grand game of chess, then we are all studying & imitating the moves of other players, while being imitated in return. Each “genius” move is born to be unique, unparalleled & unprecedented, while at the same time born out of imitation.

The winner emerges out of imitating the winning; the loser falls out of being out-imitated. Contrary to conventional belief, victory belongs to the best imitator, not the best creator – as there is no such thing as creation without imitation.

So imitate wisely and take on the game of life victoriously. But when you win, know that the victory is yours but not yours alone – it belongs to the collection of countless imitations that have happened before your time, happening at your time, and will continue to happen in the time to come.

“It will be waiting and it is yours”: The Atlantis in Your Eyes

It’s Real. It’s Possible. It’s Yours.

Picture someone with whom you feel understood and connected.
Picture that someone standing behind you, hands on your eyes, saying in “a voice with no sign of emotion except in the spacing of the words”:

Go out to continue your struggle…But in your worst and darkest moments, remember that you have seen another kind of world. Remember that you can reach it wherever you choose to see.

Remember that it will be waiting and that it’s real, it’s possible – it’s YOURS.

– John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

It is real, it is possible, it is yours. This other kind of world. IT is your Atlantis, your Garden of Eden, your mind palace – shaped by and shaping your world view at the same time. It is a sanctuary of your moral code, a witness of what you hold dear, a blueprint of what your future holds.

It is what the world looks like if you were to establish every rule, uphold every principle, enjoy every encounter.

It is who you are, who you want to be, and who you want to be with.

What is a World View?

Dear reader, what is IT for you? What is the world view that propels you through moments of highs and lows?

But before we go there, you must be challenging me: “what does IT even mean, to have a world view?” (Or to put it more bluntly in the words of Rusty Guinn: “In the face of overwhelming complexity and the constant exogenous shock of human stupidity, what does it mean, then, to have a World View?”)

Having a World View means having a center – a core set of philosophies about how the world works, what is objectively true & false, and what actually matters.

More importantly, it means internalizing these philosophies so that they are second nature – and so that they become a natural lens through which we judge the world, and which we can describe succinctly to those who ask.

– Rusty Guinn, “A Man Must Have A Code

But of course!

We have all been there – we view the world through the lens of our moral code, and are let down at times by what we see, and its gap with what we expect.

Meanwhile, we have all been there – encountering a phrase, a scene, a tune, a dialogue, a person…something that reflects and completes us, something that makes us scream in ecstasy: “That is what I have been looking for!” And that alone is enough for us to keep believing in the Atlantis in our eyes.

This blissful feeling was beautifully described in the words of Dagny Taggart:

When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man’s face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world as she had expected to see it at sixteen – and now she had reached it – and it seemed so simple, so unastonishing, that the thing she felt was like a blessing pronounced upon the universe by means of three words: BUT OF COURSE.

…This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence – and all the rest of it, all the years of ugliness and struggle were only someone’s senseless joke.

– Description of Dagny Taggart in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

But of course IT is real – close your eyes and you will see it, search your mind and you will locate it.

But of course IT is waiting – a gift waiting for you to discover, to unwrap, to hold.

But of course IT is yours, yours fully and yours alone.

The Atlantis in your eyes.

You have seen the Atlantis they were seeking, it is here, it exists – but one must enter it naked and alone, with no rags from the falsehoods of centuries, with the purest clarity of mind – not an innocent heart, but that which is much rarer: an intransigent mind – as one’s only possession and key.

You will not enter it until you learn that you do not need to convince or to conquer the world. When you learn it, you will see that through all the years of your struggle, nothing had barred you from Atlantis and there were no chains to hold you, except the chains you were willing to wear.

– John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence

The Post-Snowden Chilling Effect

Did you know that after the Edward Snowden incident, Google searches on terrorism-related topics went down?

“Oh really?”
After the initial surprise, you say: “Huh…I guess that makes sense. People are afraid that Big Bro will be watching over them if their search results have something to do with security – at least that what Snowden tells us.”

Fair explanation. You smile as your surprise at the fact turns into joy of understanding. But hold on – would you be surprised to learn that Google searches on health-related topics also went down?

That’s right. The Snowden incident made people concerned about privacy at large, and thus they refrain from searching about one of the most private topics – personal health. This is an example of the Chilling Effect:

[A] chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction.

Wikipedia

P.S. No pun intended, I find it amusing and easy to remember the Chilling Effect by thinking: post SNOW-den => chilling effect. Of course you feel the chilling effect post Snow-den, n’est-ce pas? 🙂

Silence As A Strategic Choice

Related to the Chilling Effect is the concept of Strategic Silence:

Strategic silence is when you punish perspectives that you don’t like by not reporting them.

– Eric Weinstein, Thiel Capital, on The James Altucher Show podcast episode #472: “How to Question the World Around You and Find Your Core Theories (2)”

The difference between the Chilling Effect vs. Strategic Silence is on why it is being used – the Chilling Effect is motivated by self-protection, to reduce influence of the outside world; whereas strategic silence is motivated by a drive to maximize control on group-think. Chilling Effect silences the individual and distances self from group; Strategic Silence attempts to silence the group and insulate themselves from (what is perceived to be) opposing tribes.

Straegic silence, deployed at scale, erects ideological siloes and discourages clash of ideas. Eric Weinstein thinks the US society is going through “an epidemic of badly-determined strategic silence”:

We are strategically silent on all sorts of things that the country cares about and doesn’t hold crazy positions on…somehow a group of people want to say that if you even mention restricting immigration in the US, I want to be able to infer that the only reason that is true is because you’ve got a black heart.

– Eric Weinstein, Thiel Capital, on The James Altucher Show podcast episode #472: “How to Question the World Around You and Find Your Core Theories (2)”

Private vs. Public Discourse

Amy thinks of something to say. She decides where & how to say it – keep it to herself? Text a friend? Post a YouTube video?

Every day, each of us makes seemingly “simple” decisions as Amy: I think of something, how publicly should I express it? And these individual decisions compound into a sizeable impact – how lively is the public discourse? How tolerant is society of diverse or “unconventional” opinions?

On one hand, we see privacy-focused products surfacing, e.g., DuckDuckGo browser, Signal messaging app. On the other hand, we don’t want people to run to these products as sanctuaries, as a result of the Chilling Effect; we don’t want the majority to abuse strategic silence and society is left with one and only one “politically-correct” narrative.

The pendulum continues to swing between private vs. public discourse. Let us hope it strikes the appropriate balance.