The last horse crosses the finish line.

I heard this term today for the first time: “Ethical Fading”. Sexy, no?

I googled it.

Google brought back all of these trendy business articles, it seems like it was the buzz word/phrase for some brief moment in 2011. I missed it.

I had less important concerns at the time. <—some people might say: “I had better things to do with my time”, but in all honesty, this is simply not accurate for me. Maybe I should say, At the time I was distracted with something trivial, and it probably wasn’t important, especially because, if I think about it now, I can’t remember.

Regardless. Ethical Fading. It’s this thing where people get bogged down with bullshit, and lose sight of avoiding bad things (this sentence is probably the TL;DR).

I heard the word listening to EconTalk. The context was the military. Officers have so much reporting that they make stuff up. This is dishonest. The military is all about integrity. Clear case of a bad thing that happens.

As someone who works in a large bureaucratic institution, this “Ethical Fading” idea made my brain tingle a little. Now I have a name for it. Why people with good intentions fail to be good. How top-down directives don’t correct issues. How I get stuck in meetings that are really formal to say something that could be said really easy: “Hey dipshit you filed this wrong”. But no…20 minutes later, everybody wins somehow, and I get a participation ribbon.

Before I get too far. Read some Hayek. If not…bummer, it’s a good essay. He gets into stuff about the “man-on-the-spot”. From that there is this whole idea of where localized knowledge is important, and where direction from the top is important, but the top is limited in it’s ability to do anything.

The idea of “Ethical Fading” tho, could also be applied to us. Erryday. I was at an oil industry conference recently, and we all got so caught up in the idea of solving market access, that people didn’t think about the environment. Likewise, at environmental activist organisations I have been involved with, they get so caught up in the idea of saving the environment that they forget about the economic impacts on certain people of certain policies. It’s horse-blinders. I don’t think either of these groups of people are actually opposed to each other, but they become rivals.

Why be a political moderate? It’s like trying to not take a strong stance because you see the issues with everything. No horse-blinders.

But Is taking the average a better approach? I saw a nice little thing the other day: “The average person has one ovary and one testicle” tee hee.

Are we doomed? Maybe.

Could we at least be doomed with less paperwork? definitely.

“Ethical Fading”. If your in charge of anything…keep it simple and make sure you can trust people. Don’t give too many rules. Simple rules work better. There are going to be blind-spots in the rules. More rules, more blind spots, more loopholes. Why did the war on drugs fail? What about zero tolerance anything?

Like think about the difference here:

Is it accurate?

Is it 99% accurate?

Is it 99.9999% accurate?

What do all the extra 9s mean?

How many more rules do you need to get more 9s? How much effort? Is there a practical difference in the 9s?

Is it the Best vs. Good Enough?

Stuff like that.


More Status Seeking…and more confirmation bias

Please read Robin Hanson’s blog post here:

My comments today will be brief. I have been playing with the idea of status and looking for status. The TL;DR of Hanson’s post is that the growth in financial intermediaries as a service doesn’t add up with the value these people provide…unless you tie that value to social status.

It’s really not about money. If it were, rational people would play indexes, it’s common sense these days. The common person out there doesn’t know shit about money, nor cares. The common person needs only to know that more money is better, and it is cool to have a wealth manager. You can chat with your friends of the same status about your associative prestige via successes of the money manager you picked.

In a sense, we are looking to one up one another, but in the same way we cheer for sports teams. Aren’t there NBA+NHL play-offs right now? Are we somehow better for cheering on a winning team?

Also, the more I cherry pick these stories, the worse my open-minded-ness quotient must be. That’s bias, right? O well. I will always prefer my status in the Fuck-you: what I do is smarter than the average bear variety. What kind of mental.moral weakness is that?

Play the man and not the puck. Be a fan, cuz you yourself suck.

You are the problem. So are you, and you, and you, and it’s not your fault necessarily, but it still kind of is.

I happened to come across this NYTimes article by a Harvard Economist.

First, it’s a Harvard economist, okay, so a high status individual. His opinions matter, and that’s why they are in the New York Times. Feel free to interpret the previous sentences as sarcastic, you might even want to roll your eyes right…about…now. GO!

Ok, now that we have satisfied our coy and self-serving cynicism, or at least now that I have my narcissist projections on you out of the way. Let’s get idealistic and moralizing.

I recently attended an event honouring Romeo Dallaire. For the Americans who read this, Dallaire was a lieutenant-general (pronounced leff-tenant general) in the Canadian military. He is most well known for his role with the U.N. during the Rwandan genocide in which I am not well versed, but I understand he was handicapped by inadequate will on the part of the U.N. to effectively prevent genocide. I am not one to assign the designation of hero very lightly, but I feel as public figures go, there are few people who I hold in as high esteem as Dallaire.

The event itself was a shock to me. I am more than accustomed to any public speaking event to be largely empty rhetoric. However, this particular event was an incredibly emotional experience. Dallaire himself appeared to be on the verge of tears at many points, as he led the crowd through issues of mental health; women’s rights; the use of child soldiers; and the lack of leadership in contemporary politics.

On that note, young people really don’t want to be politicians.

What struck me the whole time was that this man is incredibly idealistic, and to his credit, he has managed to make some progress, as he has dedicated his life to fighting the phenomenon of children in warfare. This post is not about child soldiers, but I will add this: it’s modern slavery, “there is no ‘volunteer’ child soldiers,” to paraphrase Dallaire.

Other memorable quotes from the evening:

We don’t tolerate nuclear proliferation, we don’t tolerate the use of chemical weapons systems, but we are allowing the use of child weapon systems


We cannot consider ourselves a civilized society while we sit by and do nothing to prevent this [recruitment of child soldier]

and when asked about how he finds strength

I have attempted suicide four times, and I take nine pills a day to function with the injury I sustained over there

All quotes are paraphrased, I don’t know the exact wording.

I did a quick head count estimation, there were maybe a hundred or so people at the event. Meanwhile millions in the city were watching a bunch of guys with sticks give it 110% on the ice…

In conversations with people who were not aware of the event, the reactions were mixed. Some people were highly interested in what Dallaire had to say, others were happy to change the subject away from the troubles of the world as soon as possible.

Another paraphrased quote from Dallaire

There is no better time to serve in uniform than right now, there is important work to be done

This is true if you are in Canada, maybe, our country is not a super-power, and the role of our military is vastly different than that of the US military in global affairs. We don’t do heavy lifting in global security, but we have tactical purpose and flexibility to serve more humanitarian missions, a role that Canada has largely neglected, to my understanding.

I opened with a piece on rent seekers. And my last couple posts have been about engagement and people seeking status. All of this is connected.

I finished the book The Meaning of Human Existence in which some points can be summarized here:

Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.


We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

I couldn’t find the exact quote for my last take-away in that reading, but it is alluded to in the second quote here. Humans have the programming to be both selfish and altruistic, and both functions are of use. Take one away, and you no longer have human beings.

The problem I have been thinking about is how our culture champions one trait: self-interest.

Here is what I just think, without any science. Human biology has not kept up, emotionally, with societies the size of those we have today. I consider theories like the Dubar’s rule , which states we can have about 150 personal relationships before our brains fart too much. We are good at tribes. We are not good at nations.

It’s believable that a set of laws that gets the human individualism aspect of our nature mostly right (think human rights) is useful for our societies to scale up.

What we don’t have figured out is how to use our emotional brains to give a shit about people that we do not know. Especially when we have information overload, and especially when we have to be wary of people abusing our emotional ties to things in order to advance further.

Which brings us finally to rent-seeking. Call it status seeking. It’s the same thing, just change the way you measure the currency from money to status. Status markets are unobservable, that is all, but who knows, that’s changing. What is a facebook like, really

The article at the beginning basically asks: what happens to society when all of our brightest minds enter rent-seeking careers? The author points out that it is hard to know/judge externally what jobs are purely rent seeking, as it gets obfuscated by the fact that division of labour allows us to serve others best by doing what we do best, thus creating more value in society.

Mullianathan makes some good points about certain finance roles…people get massively wealthy by just having computers access information milliseconds faster than other computers…there is no value-added to society in these trades, they serve just to transfer wealth to people who invest in faster computers. They are probably rent-seeking.

Now I take all of this in. For Mr.Dallaire I hold great respect, but I just don’t have the hope in people that he has. I don’t know how to get people to even consider their role, or their responsibility in society. The vast majority of people I know may care about the problems of the world, but they don’t care enough to lose status points, or more appropriately put, they wont forego status points to advance a society as a whole.

Because it was entirely rational for status-seeking people to watch a hockey game rather than go to listen to somebody talk about how much we fail as a society. There is an emotional cost to learning about tragedy. There is an emotional benefit to being entertained by the hockey players. There is status to be gained in this city by supporting a hockey team. To go around telling people that they are part of a large system that has the power to prevent slavery, but is too preoccupied with feeling good about a sporting event is not a way to achieve anything but making people feel bad.

There used to be public figures…there even used to be Calvin and Hobbes comics, in which there were father figures telling us to do stuff we do not like to do because it builds character: Kennedy said we do not do bla bla because it is easy, but because it is hard. I feel, and the second paragraph I have is about us rolling our eyes at these grandiose sentiments. Many of those old examples of father figures were creepy, Orwellian politicians…old Ronald Reagan speeches are a good example. So now we garbage anyones’ attempts along these lines.

Which again, is why Dallaire is so compelling. There is nothing to be cynical about with the man. He lives his message. Now, it’s a no brainer that we should be against slavery. What about rent-seeking? You are guilty of this, so is everyone else, not myself of course, but you are. It’s not at all clear.

What can you do about it? I don’t know, maybe go make yourself uncomfortable trying to figure that out. I’ll tell you this much, every time you opt to not think about this stuff, and to ‘escape’, you are failing to do anything meaningful with your life. Not as a condemnation, but more as a fact. The good thing is that nobody will hold you accountable.

Which brings us back to the rule of 150, or Dunbar’s number. The reason nobody holds anyone accountable is that we don’t have that part of society figured out. We don’t have good institutions. The government has been broken by rent-seeking behaviour, our social prowess is dominated by status-seeking, within-group competition, which is likely just human nature. Our brightest minds are given the highest status when they use their talent to skim the wealth off of the top for themselves. The most popular stories we tell each-other are all about super powered individuals solving the problems for us. So hey, someone needs to be incredibly powerful to do anything, I can’t do anything.

So can we advance beyond our own nature? Probably only if somebody figures out how to make Mr.Dallaire as popular as Kanye West. And status-seeking or rent-seeking is steered towards public good creation…because otherwise too few people will see that they are guilty, that they are responsible, for allowing something as easy to intuit as slavery to exist today.

I choose to use shame. I know that it is out of favour, and I know you catch more flies with honey. Fuck it, this one is a big failure, we need to feel shitty sometimes, and right now, you should feel really shitty. Life isn’t about avoiding this stuff.

(you have to scroll down a bit to read the article because some shit a CBS doesn’t think a link to this story should be without the current trending news at the top…some shit about tornadoes)

You have google, maybe look up how to give money or something.

This Idea of happiness keeps popping up

Peter Thiel had an interesting response to the question:

“How happy are the super rich?”


Peter Thiel was Elon Musk’s business partner in PayPal — so super rich.

He basically dodged the question, and said it was a silly metric to put value in, re: subjectivity. It’s deeply personal.

I pair this with the idea that the good life is a happy life, and I think of past conflict I have had with people. Others have often tried to convince me that things that are popular are fun. That fun things make you happy. That the reason I might be unhappy is that I fight the popular things. To some degree, I learned this is true. If you are closed off to other people, and judgmental, you are going to be unhappy.

More importantly is how I was right. The popular things weren’t fun, and that people were simply convincing themselves of the contrary to gain status. I’m sure this is a common enough experience. People lack the self-honesty to realize what they do for themselves vs. what they do for their appearance. I do stuff that I think I will enjoy, but find out it sucks…all the time.

But back to the happyness-as-metric. We have the modernist critique on seeking money. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Happiness is the goal. Yet, happiness is allusive.  It is not a really consistent feeling. The feeling of cumming is vastly different than that of tasting chocolate ice cream, but both are forms of delight…but happiness?

Before this devolves into a word game, consider the person who has to complete a task. That person is not worried about happiness. That person is concerned with completing work. Once work complete, satisfaction with job well done.

People have complex feelings, and engagement is one of the most important. If you can lose yourself in the moment, you are engaged. If you lose track of time because of focus, you are engaged. So that is my working definition. Flow state.

Is engagement happiness? Say you could choose cumming or engagement. What would you choose? Both means you have a good sex life. Ultimately cumming is empty and potentially depressing if it lacks engagement–shared or not.

I feel this is a mistake I see people making all the time. People sacrifice engagement for what they believe will make them happy. Why is it that thinking about buying luxury goods feels better than buying luxury goods?

Why is it that people who are successful say shit like: follow your passion the money will come later? <<<—-this is because we never ask people whose passion may be something mundane, and low status. It’s also because a lot of successful people didn’t care about money as much as engagement. It’s because engagement leads to fulfillment.

Then what is happiness? Freedom from strife/conflict? It doesn’t exist. It’s a status word. If you want to justify your life, you say you are happy. If you want to make sense of dealing with horrific things, you make that part of your identity, and you claim that makes you happy? How else would an ego deal with debasement but to turn debasement into challenge, and overcoming that challenge a noble character trait?


Otherwise it would be as simple as taking drugs.

Shiny new things

Inequality is all over the news, the blogoshpere, academic literature. There are a string of books like “Capital in the 21st Century”, “Our Kids”, stuff written by Joe Stiglitz. And there is that Occupy movement that sort of fizzled out from the media. I probably do not have to try too hard to sell the inequality zeitgeist, it’s out there. I can’t really tell if it has always been out there, I’m not old enough to evaluate that, and I’m too lazy to investigate. It’s possible that this is a perennial issue, but I get the impression that it’s at a high water mark, nonetheless.

Why? Part of it is that the wage growth of the middle class has stagnated since the ’70s or so, here is a website that charts it. There is the whole riddle of progressive taxation, and Warren Buffet writing letters. There is also the pesky nepotism in top political offices (another Bush or another Clinton is going to be president of the USA?).

I don’t want to actually write this from a macroeconomic point. But if the only tool you have is a hammer, you could get a lot more accomplished than if your only tool was macroeconomics, but you would get paid way less, and that’s the point.

Ok, not really, I’m being facetious.

To the point. I want to talk about getting rich. How?

You can’t.

Capital markets are your best bet, just invest and watch it grow…but there is a chicken and egg problem there.

Getting rich from wage income requires a lot of specialized skill, greasy hair, and nice suits. You have to get everyone to like you, and you have to be a leader, be a white male, and Steve Jobs, MBAs, rah rah rah. All that…all day. You also have to be extremely lucky, like Steve Jabs or Warren Buffet. You could be a pro athlete? You gotta be in the right place, at the right time, and you have to have just the right amount of preparation when that time comes. How much of that is in your control? Not much. The preparation part, sort of, not really, those choices are largely made by your parents. We make the mistake in thinking that these rich people are super exceptional, they are just exceptional, and they have this superstar effect working in their favour.

You could also be born into it. And actually being born rich has more to do with upping the odds on that preparation part (re: better education), and in that right place/right time part (re: rich guy networks…it’s  who you know).

You could also be born into a society that has crazy resource endowments, and mistakes ingenuity for living off of those tasty natural endowment rents.

The unaddressed assumption is that rich is a dollar amount, and once you pass that, you are in. And if you take that standard, if you are reading this, aren’t you already rich? You live in the developed world (no readers outside North America yet…). So in terms of where you sit in word wealth…you are probably in the top 1%.

Ok, and what do you want with being the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1%? It’s 1%’er-ception. Just want to be King of the Hill.

Ok. So we have all of this obsession with wealth. To do what? I was sitting here thinking about sailing into Syndey Harbour, because it came up on this podcast I was listening to. It struck me, I’m never going to get to do that. That sounds really expensive. I might own a boat at some point, but any boat I own will make not make trans-pacific voyages, nor will I have the time off work to do that. I suppose if I made that, sailing into Sydney Harbour, my one mission in life, it might be possible.

That is not my mission in life. That seems like a lot to sacrifice for something that I just happened to muse about one Sunday afternoon.

I was watching a travel show on Netflix. These Canadian guys went to some temples/palaces in Cambodia. The Canadian guys were traveling with Cambodian guys, and these Cambodians had lifelong desires to visit the temples. The Canadian tourists waltzed in, because it was a neat thing to see, the 40 year old men that lived at most 100-300 kms away their whole life had never before had the opportunity to go. The Canadians paying the cost for some portion of the way made it feasible. The Cambodian guys were in tears.

I will probably write, sometime, a whole blog post about the arrogance of traveling, but I’ll save that for later. I’ll tell you this though, I probably wouldn’t break down in tears if I sailed into Sydney Harbour.

What would make me cry? A good punch in the nose. Everyone cries when punched in the nose. Also, a particularly tragic movie or story. That gets me going. I can’t see being so emotional about making a purchase one day…as if to say: finally I have what I want.

I worry about money, because having all of my money taken away would make me cry. I would cry if I had no stability in my life, and was faced with homelessness, and a sense of worthlessness. There is a campaign underway in Canada to make people realize this.

Ultimately, materialism is a mistake. We know, pretty much, that we need to spend money on doing stuff, rather than buying things…Lot’s of people are lazy and equate this with going to a full moon party. Will that bring you to tears? Maybe. If you take drugs. Or contract a life-altering sexual infection. But probably, you are just participating in conspicuous consumption, which is just buying things to one-up other people.

I found this NYTimes article that covers a bunch of the stuff in psychology research between happiness and consumption.

But the stuff that makes us unhappy about money is just as interesting, and maybe more interesting. Which brings us back to inequality. I quit facebook. It is probably making us sad. The big problem is not being able to always win. The factoid that conspicuous consumption exists at all implies that people absorb all sorts of costs to appear happy. Or probably more correct, to appear happier than you and everyone else out there. And since envy makes us sad, inequality paired with social broadcasting means we are getting a lot sadder. The rat race is old as rats and races, whichever came first. Now rats can make sure you know you are losing.

There is a George Saunders quoute:

Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised

In the story Rogan was a criminal, and I feel his tattoo was basically an allusion to the vicuous cycles of criminality / bullies are really people being bullied somewhere else in life // shit rolls downhill. But it could also serve the allegorical let-he-who-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone sort of deal.

The thing that really strikes me about inequality debates is the moral judgement the people mad at 1%’ers wield against the rich. Mitt Romney said corporations are people and everyone laughed at him, said he was out of touch. He was right about that, and the ‘people’ are wrong. People are hocking all of this righteousness at the symbols of the elite without realizing that these people are just bigger rats, and that we are all rats, and you should probably stop stabbing the littler rats if you are going to be mad at the bigger rats for stabbing you, and the rats of your relative size. Of course, then we wouldn’t have anything to talk about on facebook, and what would we feed that monster, then?

What I find most ironic about facebook, is that they called user posts “status updates” way back when. It’s beautifully horrible.