Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
Slave ownership by companies has traditionally taken very curious forms. The best slave is someone you overpay and who knows it, terrified of losing his status. Multinational companies created the expat category, a sort of diplomat with a higher standard of living who represents the firm far away and runs its business there. All large corporations had (and some still have) employees with expat status and, in spite of its costs, it is an extremely effective strategy. Why? Because the further from headquarters an employee is located, the more autonomous his unit, the more you want him to be a slave so he does nothing strange on his own.
- A bank in New York sends a married employee with his family to a foreign location, say, a tropical country with cheap labor, with perks and privileges such as country club membership, a driver, a nice company villa with a gardener, a yearly trip back home with the family in first class, and keeps him there for a few years, enough to be addicted. He earns much more than the “locals,” in a hierarchy reminiscent of colonial days. He builds a social life with other expats. He progressively wants to stay in the location longer, but he is far from headquarters and has no idea of his minute-to-minute standing in the firm except through signals. Eventually, like a diplomat, he begs for another location when time comes for a reshuffle. Returning to the home office means loss of perks, having to revert to his base salary—a return to lower-middle-class life in the suburbs of New York City, taking the commuter train, perhaps, or, God forbid, a bus, and eating a sandwich for lunch! The person is terrified when the big boss snubs him. Ninety-five percent of the employee’s mind will be on company politics…which is exactly what the company wants. The big boss in the board room will have a supporter in the event of some intrigue.
When results come from dealing directly with reality rather than through the agency of commentators, image matters less, even if it correlates to skills. But image matters quite a bit when there is hierarchy and standardized “job evaluation.” Consider the chief executive officers of corporations: they don’t just look the part, they even look the same. And, worse, when you listen to them talk, they sound the same, down to the same vocabulary and metaphors. But that’s their job: as I will keep reminding the reader, counter to the common belief, executives are different from entrepreneurs and are supposed to look like actors.
- Did you ever wonder why a bishop is dressed for Halloween? Mediterranean societies are traditionally ones in which the highest-ranking person is the one with the most skin in the game. And if anything characterizes today’s America, it is economic risk taking, thanks to a happy transfer of martial values to business and commerce in Anglo-Saxon society—remarkably, traditional Arabic culture also puts the same emphasis on the honor of economic risk-taking. But history shows that there were—and still are—societies in which the intellectual was at the top. The Hindus held the Brahman to be first in the hierarchy, the Celts had the druids (so do their Druze possible-cousins), the Egyptians had their scribes, and the Chinese had for a relatively brief time the scholar. Let me add postwar France. You can notice a remarkable similarity to the way these intellectuals held power and separated themselves from the rest: through complex, extremely elaborate rituals, mysteries that stay within the caste, and an overriding focus on the cosmetic. Even within the “normal” warrior-run or doer-run societies, the class of intellectuals is all about rituals: without pomp and ceremony, the intellectual is just a talker, that is, pretty much nothing. Consider the bishop in my parts, the Greek-Orthodox church: it’s a show of dignity. A bishop on rollerblades would no longer be a bishop. There is nothing wrong with the decorative if it remains what it is, decorative, as remains true today. However, science and business must not be decorative.
Never pay for complexity of presentation when all you need is results.
People who have always operated without skin in the game (or without their skin in the right game) seek the complicated and centralized, and avoid the simple like the plague. Practitioners, on the other hand, have opposite instincts, looking for the simplest heuristics. Some rules: People who are bred, selected, and compensated to find complicated solutions do not have an incentive to implement simplified ones. And it gets more complicated as the remedy has itself a skin-in-the-game problem. This is particularly acute in the meta-problem, when the solution is about solving this very problem. In other words, many problems in society come from the interventions of people who sell complicated solutions because that’s what their position and training invite them to do. There is absolutely no gain for someone in such a position to propose something simple: you are rewarded for perception, not results. Meanwhile, they pay no price for the side effects that grow nonlinearly with such complications.
In other words, many problems in society come from the interventions of people who sell complicated solutions because that’s what their position and training invite them to do. There is absolutely no gain for someone in such a position to propose something simple: you are rewarded for perception, not results. Meanwhile, they pay no price for the side effects that grow nonlinearly with such complications.
- The heuristic here would be to use education in reverse: hire, conditional on an equal set of skills, the person with the least label-oriented education. It means that the person had to succeed in spite of the credentialization of his competitors and overcome more serious hurdles. In addition, people who didn’t go to Harvard are easier to deal with in real life. You can tell if a discipline is BS if the degree depends severely on the prestige of the school granting it. I remember when I applied to MBA programs being told that anything outside the top ten or twenty would be a waste of time. On the other hand a degree in mathematics is much less dependent on the school (conditional on being above a certain level, so the heuristic would apply to the difference between top ten and top two thousand schools). The same applies to research papers. In math and physics, a result posted on the repository site arXiv (with a minimum hurdle) is fine. In low-quality fields like academic finance (where papers are usually some form of complicated storytelling), the “prestige” of the journal is the sole criterion.