Life and Death: The Difference Between Groups and Individuals

Should people die for the sake of equity? This week, the hot-button news item was that the CDC included race-based criteria for adjudicating who would get the first wave of vaccinations for COVID-19 (Ref. slides 6, 9, 31, 32, 33, and especially 34). The controversy, in short, was that minorities were overrepresented in the young essential worker population and underrepresented in the elderly at-risk populations. Therefore, they conclude, a racial equity-based distribution plan would prioritize essential workers over the elderly.

The implication? Some young mid-twenties non-healthcare workers (firefighters, teachers, utilitymen) would be getting the vaccine in Phase 1b before the high-risk elderly in Phase 1c. This caused quite a stir in both moderate and conservative circles. People recognized that this meant that old people would die for the purpose of racial equity. To understand the scale of the problem, by the study’s numbers, someone in the 65-79 age group is nearly 50 times more likely to die than someone in the 25-34 age group.

COVID 19 Mortality Rates, CDC

Unless I’m mistakenly torturing statistics here, that means every vaccine given to a 30-year old schoolteacher instead of a 65-year old senior is about 50 times more likely to result in death. Put another way, under the CDC suggestions, thousands of people will die for the cause of racial equity. The failure here, and in most of critical race theory politics, exhibits the fallacy of composition. They apply what may be true for an individual mistakenly to a group of individuals.

When determining how to triage individuals, you might determine that Jill is more at risk than Jack. With the goal of saving lives, she should get the vaccine. This does make sense.

When determining how to triage groups, you might determine that minorities are more at risk than majorities. With the goal of saving lives, they should get the vaccine. This does not make sense.

Why? What’s the difference? Well, administering vaccines is not a group-level action. It happens one-at-a-time, to individuals. Every time a needle is stuck into an arm, one person is being protected at expense of another. Group-level effects do not belong dictating individual actions.

Doesn’t this reasoning also invalidate the counter-narrative? The narrative that suggests the groups of the elderly age should be treated before the groups of essential workers? Kind of. It does insofar as that, were we to evaluate individual-to-individual, you might find an essential worker more at risk than seniors. A twenty-year old grocery clerk with extreme auto-immune disorders and a history of lung disease may be more at risk than a particularly sprightly 65-year old. In this case, with the goal of saving lives, the at-risk grocery-clerk should be triaged first.

What’s the difference then? Well, so far as we can tell, the difference is that age is way, WAY more correlated with death than race. But more than just correlation, the mechanisms of disease play differently in the case of age than in the case of race. Senescence in the immune and respiratory systems is what’s going to kill you, not melanin content in one’s skin. While the best triage would work individual-by-individual, the age-based approach undoubtedly saves thousands more lives than a race-based one. By the study’s own science.

The best real argument for triaging essential workers over the elderly is that even though elderly populations are more likely to die if they catch COVID-19, they are more likely to catch it if exposed to essential workers who could act as super-spreaders. Therefore, one might save lives by prioritizing the people who scan our food, deliver our mail, and teach our kids. This could make sense, but I don’t see this argument being put forth. Furthermore, it is unrelated to the critique at play: that race does not belong in the life-and-death calculation of vaccine triage.

The calculus changes if saving lives is no longer the goal. If letting elderly people die specifically in the name of racial equity is the goal, then I probably have no audience with you. Still, this too is fraught, as more minority elderly will die than minority youth will be saved. In absolute numbers, this “race-based essential worker” approach is a lose-lose.

Group inequities can’t be solved by individual actions. Doubly so when the individuals at play may not embody the group-level attribute, such as young minorities not embodying a greater overall mortality rate when compared to the aged. If you find this convincing, consider that the scale of life-and-death stakes are not the only level at which this critique applies. Affirmative action in schools is the same—every rich, educated, and privileged minority student who is let into college on the basis of affirmative action means one less poor, struggling (and otherwise underprivileged) white student given the chance to escape poverty on their merits. The fallacy of composition is in play whenever attributing to the sum of parts that which may only be true of a single constituent.

Groups and individuals are different, and they ought to be treated as such.

EDIT: food for thought below.

The Almanack of Naval Ravikant

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Naval is one of those internet voices who I’ve come across intermittently on a podcast, on Twitter, and by third-party reference. He was not someone I was supremely familiar with, but who, every time I heard him speak, said something of interest. I picked this book up to see if the goods were really there.

The “Navalmanack” was easy to read and concise, which is as fine a compliment as can be bestowed to a book of this sort. Rather than my highlights being burdensome paragraphs, they turned out to almost all be nuggets of wisdom contained in a sentence or two.

I’ve compiled my notes below, most of which are direct quotes or paraphrases of the text. My personal notes are italicized.

Personal Takeaways:

On Personal Wealth and Investing

  • Seek wealth, not money or status. Wealth is having assets that earn while you sleep. Money is how we transfer time and wealth. Status is your place in the social hierarchy.
    • Wealth creation is an evolutionarily recent positive-sum game. Status is an old zero-sum game. Those attacking wealth creation are often just seeking status. Status is a very old game. We’ve been playing it since monkey tribes. It’s hierarchical. Who’s number one? Who’s number two? For number three to move to number two, number two has to move out of that slot. So, status is a zero-sum game.
    • Ethical wealth creation is possible. If you secretly despise wealth, it will elude you.
    • I thought this was a fairly unique and counterintuitive thought. Normally, people praise foregoing wealth in place of going into public service, or some other such “status” game. Naval proposes just the opposite, and I agree with him. Edison, Ford, Gates, Musk—these people are creating more value in wealth creation than most public servants have done their entire lives. – Jasper
  • Getting rich is about knowing what to do, who to do it with, and when to do it.
    • What to do:
      • If you don’t know yet what you should work on, the most important thing is to figure it out. You should not grind at a lot of hard work until you figure out what you should be working on.
      • You’re not going to get rich renting out your time. You must own equity—a piece of a business—to gain your financial freedom.
      • Play iterated games. All the returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge, come from compound interest.
    • Who to do it with:
      • Pick an industry where you can play long-term games with long-term people.
      • Compound interest also happens in your reputation. If you have a sterling reputation and you keep building it for decades upon decades, people will notice. Your reputation will literally end up being thousands or tens of thousands of times more valuable than somebody else who was very talented but is not keeping the compound interest in reputation going.
      • To me, the principal-agent problem is the single most fundamental problem in microeconomics. If you do not understand the principal-agent problem, you will not know how to navigate your way through the world.
    • When to do it:
      • You will get rich by giving society what it wants but does not yet know how to get. At scale.
  • The more you know, the less you diversify.
  • Value your time at an hourly rate, and ruthlessly spend to save time at that rate. You will never be worth more than you think you’re worth.
    • Back when you could have hired me, my hourly rate, I used to say to myself over and over, is $5,000 an hour. Today when I look back, really it was about $1,000 an hour. Of course, I still ended up doing stupid things like arguing with the electrician or returning the broken speaker, but I shouldn’t have, and I did a lot less than any of my friends would.
    • I thought this was a useful heuristic for deciding when and how to spend your time. My only hesitation with valuing my time that high, is that it only applies when I’m spending it being productive. Deciding against returning a speaker for example, and saving an hour but losing $500, would only worth it if I spent that hour working rather than, say, mindlessly browsing the internet.
  • Leverage
    • I think people have a hard time understanding a fundamental fact of leverage. If I manage $1 billion and I’m right 10 percent more often than somebody else, my decision-making creates $100 million worth of value on a judgment call. With modern technology and large workforces and capital, our decisions are leveraged more and more.
    • One form of leverage is labor—other humans working for you. It is the oldest form of leverage, and actually not a great one in the modern world.
      • I would argue this is the worst form of leverage that you could possibly use. Managing other people is incredibly messy. It requires tremendous leadership skills. You’re one short hop from a mutiny or getting eaten or torn apart by the mob.
    • Money is good as a form of leverage. It means every time you make a decision, you multiply it with money. Capital is a trickier form of leverage to use. It’s more modern. It’s the one that people have used to get fabulously wealthy in the last century. It’s probably been the dominant form of leverage in the last century.
    • The final form of leverage is brand new—the most democratic form. It is: “products with no marginal cost of replication.” This includes books, media, movies, and code. Code is probably the most powerful form of permissionless leverage. All you need is a computer—you don’t need anyone’s permission.
      • Probably the most interesting thing to keep in mind about new forms of leverage is they are permissionless. They don’t require somebody else’s permission for you to use them or succeed. For labor leverage, somebody has to decide to follow you. For capital leverage, somebody has to give you money to invest or to turn into a product. Coding, writing books, recording podcasts, tweeting, YouTubing—these kinds of things are permissionless.
  • How do you get to retirement?
    • Well, one way is to have so much money saved that your passive income (without you lifting a finger) covers your burn rate.
    • A second is you just drive your burn rate down to zero—you become a monk.
    • A third is you’re doing something you love. You enjoy it so much, it’s not about the money. So there are multiple ways to retirement.

On Economics

  • I think macroeconomics, because it doesn’t make falsifiable predictions (which is the hallmark of science), has become corrupted. You never have a counterexample when studying the economy. You can never take the US economy and run two different experiments at the same time. 

On Expertise

  • Specific knowledge is knowledge you cannot be trained for. If society can train you, it can train someone else and replace you. Specific knowledge is found by pursuing your genuine curiosity and passion rather than whatever is hot right now.
  • When specific knowledge is taught, it’s through apprenticeships, not schools. Specific knowledge is often highly technical or creative. It cannot be outsourced or automated.
  • If you can’t code, write books and blogs, record videos and podcasts.
  • Technology democratizes consumption but consolidates production. The best person in the world at anything gets to do it for everyone.
    • To include products. Billionaires and people like you or me have the same phones, the same cars (generally), the same quality news networks, etc.
  • Society, business, & money are downstream of technology, which is itself downstream of science. Science applied is the engine of humanity. Corollary: Applied Scientists are the most powerful people in the world. This will be more obvious in the coming years.
  • It’s much more important today to be able to become an expert in a brand-new field in nine to twelve months than to have studied the “right” thing a long time ago.
  • Embrace accountability and take business risks under your own name. Society will reward you with responsibility, equity, and leverage.
    • My website used to be operated under a pseudonym. The reason I now operate under my own name is after comments like this from people I respect. When you have your own name on the line, you have skin in the game. If you say something brilliant you can reap the rewards and if you say something heinous you may pay the price.
  • We waste our time with short-term thinking and busywork. Warren Buffett spends a year deciding and a day acting. That act lasts decades.

On Luck

  • Ways to get lucky:
    • Hope luck finds you: The first kind of luck is blind luck where one just gets lucky because something completely out of their control happened. This includes fortune, fate, etc.
    • Hustle until you stumble into it: There’s luck through persistence, hard work, hustle, and motion. This is when you’re running around creating opportunities. You’re generating a lot of energy, you’re doing a lot to stir things up. It’s almost like mixing a petri dish or mixing a bunch of reagents and seeing what combines. You’re just generating enough force, hustle, and energy for luck to find you.
    • Prepare the mind and sensitive to chances others miss: A third way is you become very good at spotting luck. If you are very skilled in a field, you will notice when a lucky break happens in your field, and other people who aren’t attuned to it won’t notice. So, you become sensitive to luck.
    • Become the best at what you do. Refine what you do until this is true. Opportunity will seek you out. Luck becomes your destiny: The last kind of luck is the weirdest, hardest kind, where you build a unique character, a unique brand, a unique mindset, which causes luck to find you.

On Life

  • What is the most important thing to do for younger people starting out? Spend more time making the big decisions. There are basically three really big decisions you make in your early life: where you live, who you’re with, and what you do.
    • If you’re going to live in a city for ten years, if you’re going to be in a job for five years, if you’re in a relationship for a decade, you should be spending one to two years deciding these things. These are highly dominating decisions. Those three decisions really matter.
  • When you’re young, you have time. You have health, but you have no money. When you’re middle-aged, you have money and you have health, but you have no time. When you’re old, you have money and you have time, but you have no health. So the trifecta is trying to get all three at once.
  • A contrarian isn’t one who always objects—that’s a conformist of a different sort. A contrarian reasons independently from the ground up and resists pressure to conform.
  • Any belief you took in a package (ex. Democrat, Catholic, American) is suspect and should be re-evaluated from base principles.
    • To be honest, speak without identity. I used to identify as libertarian, but then I would find myself defending positions I hadn’t really thought through because they’re a part of the libertarian canon. If all your beliefs line up into neat little bundles, you should be highly suspicious.
  • Charisma is the ability to project confidence and love at the same time. It’s almost always possible to be honest and positive.
  • If I’m faced with a difficult choice, such as: Should I marry this person? Should I take this job? Should I buy this house? Should I move to this city? Should I go into business with this person? If you cannot decide, the answer is no.
  • My notetaking is Twitter. I read and read and read. If I have some fundamental “ah-ha” insight or concept, Twitter forces me to distill it into a few characters. Then I try and put it out there as an aphorism.
  • Commit externally to enough people. For example, if you want to quit smoking, all you have to do is go to everybody you know and say, “I quit smoking. I did it. I give you my word.”
  • I don’t believe in specific goals. Scott Adams famously said, “Set up systems, not goals.”
  • I think almost everything that people read these days is designed for social approval. I know people who have read one hundred regurgitated books on evolution and they’ve never read Darwin. Think of the number of macroeconomists out there. I think most of them have read tons of treatises in economics but haven’t read any Adam Smith.
  • I only want to be around people I know I’m going to be around for the rest of my life. I only want to work on things I know have long-term payout.
  • If wisdom could be imparted through words alone, we’d all be done here.

Casabianca

I’m not sure where I first saw this poem; it just resurfaced as I was digging through the files of my computer. I remembered it on sight for how powerfully I was originally struck by the power, dignity, and integrity of the little boy.

The boy, Giocante, was charged to stand a post by his father, the captain, during the 1798 Battle of the Nile. His father died when the ship’s magazine exploded. As the ship is aflame and sinking, the boy refuses to leave his post without word from his father.

While we’d all imagine that it would have been better for him to save himself, there is something so noble and beautiful about standing on principle no matter the cost.

Continue reading “Casabianca”

Skin in the Game

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nassim Taleb has rapidly become one of my favorite authors, with each of his books being a reservoir of interesting and useful ways of thinking. He is a maverick and a dissident and I feel with each chapter I read, I become better at navigating in a complex and random world. I have compiled below my favorite highlights from the book. You may assume that most every word is a direct quote or light rephrasing of text from the book—there is very little personal commentary from me. Rather, this post is to stand as a quick point of reference for me to re-learn the most important highlights of this book.

On Epistemology, Certainty, and Bullsh*t Detection

  • In academia there is no difference between academia and the real world; in the real world, there is. A certain class of theoretical people can despise the details of reality. If you manage to convince yourself that you are right in theory, you don’t really care how your ideas affect others. Your ideas give you a virtuous status that makes you impervious to how they affect others.
    • The knowledge we get by tinkering, via trial and error, experience, and contact with the earth is vastly superior to that obtained through reasoning, something self-serving institutions have been very busy hiding from us.
    • We are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing.
    • By definition, what works cannot be irrational; about every single person I know who has chronically failed in business shares that mental block, the failure to realize that if something stupid works (and makes money), it cannot be stupid.
  • Using mathematics when it’s not needed is not science but scientism. Scientism is the belief that science looks…like science, with too much emphasis on the cosmetic aspects, rather than its skeptical machinery. True intellect should not appear to be intellectual. People who are bred, selected, and compensated to find complicated solutions do not have an incentive to implement simplified ones.
  • Learning is rooted in repetition and convexity, meaning that the reading of a single text twice is more profitable than reading two different things once, provided of course that said text has some depth of content.
  • Via negativa is the principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.
    • The Golden Rule wants you to treat others the way you would like them to treat you. The more robust Silver Rule says do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you. Why is the Silver Rule more robust? We know with much more clarity what is bad than what is good.
    • The very idea behind the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is to establish a silver rule–style symmetry: you can practice your freedom of religion so long as you allow me to practice mine; you have the right to contradict me so long as I have the right to contradict you.
    • Karl Popper’s idea of science is an enterprise that produces claims that can be contradicted by eventual observations, not a series of verifiable ones: science is fundamentally disconfirmatory, not confirmatory. 
  • The Intellectual Yet Idiot (IYI) has been proliferating since at least the mid-twentieth century, to reach a local supremum today, to the point that we have experienced a takeover by people without skin in the game. They are what Nietzsche called Bildungsphilisters—educated philistines. Beware the slightly erudite who thinks he is an erudite. The IYI subscribes to The New Yorker, a journal designed so philistines can learn to fake a conversation about evolution, neurosomething, cognitive biases, and quantum mechanics. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality,” but never goes out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game, as, I will repeat until I am hoarse, the concept is fundamentally foreign to the IYI).
    • Typically, the IYI get first-order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects, making him totally incompetent in complex domains. 
    • What we generally call participation in the political process, can be called by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when plebeians dare to vote in a way that contradicts IYI preferences.
  • The most convincing statements are those in which one stands to lose, ones in which one has maximal skin in the game; the most unconvincing ones are those in which one patently (but unknowingly) tries to enhance one’s status without making a tangible contribution (like, as we saw, in the great majority of academic papers that say nothing and take no risks). One should give more weight to research that, while being rigorous, contradicts other peers, particularly if it entails costs and reputational harm for its author.
  • The conclusions of IYI theorizing often is less practical than the worldly advice of your grandmother. With psychology studies replicating less than 40 percent of the time, dietary advice reversing after thirty years of dietary fat phobia, macroeconomics and financial economics scientifically worse than astrology, the reappointment of Bernanke (in 2010) who was less than clueless about financial risk as the Federal Reserve boss, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only a third of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instincts and to listen to their grandmothers (or to Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge), who have a better track record than these policymaking goons.
  • The detractors of Donald Trump, when he was still a candidate, not only misunderstood the value of scars as risk signaling, but they also failed to realize that, by advertising his episode of bankruptcy and his personal losses of close to a billion dollars, he removed the resentment (the second type of inequality) people may have had toward him. There is something respectable in losing a billion dollars, provided it is your own money.
  • People mistake empiricism for a flood of data. Just a little bit of significant data is needed when one is right, particularly when it is disconfirmatory empiricism, or counterexamples: only one data point (a single extreme deviation) is sufficient to show that Black Swans exist. Traders, when they make profits, have short communications; when they lose they drown you in details, theories, and charts.
    • If you want to show that a person has more than, say $10 million, all you need is to show the $50 million in his brokerage account, not, in addition, list every piece of furniture in his house, including the $500 painting in his study and the silver spoons in the pantry. So I’ve discovered, with experience, that when you buy a thick book with tons of graphs and tables used to prove a point, you should be suspicious. It means something didn’t distill right!
  • Actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. That which is “Lindy” is what ages in reverse, i.e., its life expectancy lengthens with time, conditional on survival. Only the nonperishable can be Lindy. A physical copy of War and Peace can age; the book itself as an idea doesn’t.

Symmetry, Justice, Fairness, Responsibility, and Reciprocity

  • The principle of intervention, like that of healers, is first do no harm. Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.
  • The Bob Rubin Trade is payoff in a skewed domain where the benefits are visible (and rewarded with some compensation) and the detriment is rare (and unpunished owing to absence of skin in the game). Former Secretary of the Treasury Bob Rubin collected more than $120 million in compensation from Citibank in the decade preceding the banking crash of 2008. When the bank, literally insolvent, was rescued by the taxpayer, he didn’t write any check—he invoked uncertainty as an excuse. Heads he wins, tails he shouts “Black Swan.”
    • The hidden risk transfer is not limited to bankers and corporations. Some segments of the population play it quite effectively. For instance, people who live in those coastal areas that are prone to hurricanes and floods are effectively subsidized by the state—hence taxpayers. Although they play victims on television after an event happens, they and the real estate developers are getting the benefits others pay for.
  • People who are not morally independent tend to fit ethics to their profession (with a minimum of spinning), rather than find a profession that fits their ethics.
  • One is financially free and secure not by their means but by their lack of wants. Ironically, beggars have the equivalent of f*** you money, which we can more easily get by being at the lowest rung than by joining the income-dependent classes. Sometimes, means in wealth or status can be detrimental to freedom. You would think that the head of the CIA would be the most powerful person in America, but it turned out that the venerated David Petraeus was more vulnerable than a truck driver. The fellow couldn’t even have an extramarital relationship.
  • People who collect honorary doctorates are typically hierarchy-conscious, and I abide by Cato’s injunction: he preferred to be asked why he didn’t have a statue rather than why he had one.
  • Static inequality is a snapshot view of inequality; it does not reflect what will happen to you in the course of your life. Consider that about 10 percent of Americans will spend at least a year in the top 1 percent, and more than half of all Americans will spend a year in the top 10 percent. This is visibly not the same for the more static—but nominally more equal—Europe. Dynamic (ergodic) inequality takes into account the entire future and past life. Dynamic equality is what restores ergodicity, making time and ensemble probabilities substitutable.
  • Let us call the collection of people gambling at one time ensemble probability, and call the single person gambling over time time probability. Your cousin goes to the casino a hundred days in a row, starting with a set amount. On day 28 your cousin busts. Will there be day 29? No. He has hit an uncle point; there is no game no more . No matter how good or alert your cousin is, you can safely calculate that he has a 100 percent probability of eventually going bust. Now, when you read material by finance professors, finance gurus, or your local bank making investment recommendations based on the long-term returns of the market, beware. Even if their forecasts were true (they aren’t), no individual can get the same returns as the market unless he has infinite pockets and no uncle points. Probability is non-ergodic if past probabilities do not apply to future processes.
  • Ergodicity holds when a collection of players have the same statistical properties (particularly expectation) as a single player over time. Ensemble probabilities are similar to time probabilities. Absence of ergodicity makes the risk properties not directly transferable from observed probability to the payoff of a strategy subjected to ruin (or any absorbing barrier or “uncle point”)—in other words, not probabilistically sustainable.
  • The intuition for ergodicity is as follows: take a cross-sectional picture of the U.S. population. Perfect ergodicity means that each one of us, should he live forever, would spend a proportion of time in the economic conditions of the entire cross-section: out of, say, a century, an average of sixty years in the lower middle class, ten years in the upper middle class, twenty years in the blue-collar class, and perhaps one single year in the one percent. The exact opposite of perfect ergodicity is an absorbing state. A person gets rich by some process, then, having arrived, he stays rich. Or gets poor, and then stays poor. Clearly, when you say that inequality changes from year one to year two, you need to show that those who are at the top are the same people (something Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, doesn’t do).

Signaling

  • Products or companies that bear the owner’s name convey very valuable messages. They are shouting that they have something to lose. Eponymy indicates both a commitment to the company and a confidence in the product.
  • Those who use foul language on social networks (such as Twitter) are sending an expensive signal that they are free—and, ironically, competent. You don’t signal competence if you don’t take risks for it—there are few such low-risk strategies. So cursing today is a status symbol, just as oligarchs in Moscow wear blue jeans at special events to signal their power.
  • Sticking up for truth when it is unpopular is far more of a virtue, because it costs you something—your reputation. If you are a journalist and act in a way that risks ostracism, you are virtuous. Some people only express their opinions as part of mob shaming, when it is safe to do so, and, in the bargain, think that they are displaying virtue.
    • My note: Thus is why journalists keep patting people on the back for “brave” opinions even when they have been popularized, are politically correct, and are not that brave at all. They have to call it brave to fake having skin in the game.

Rationality in Complex Systems

  • We will see in depth throughout the book the defects of mental reasoning by educated (or, rather, semi-educated) fools. Their three flaws: 1) they think in statics not dynamics, 2) they think in low, not high, dimensions, 3) they think in terms of actions, never interactions.
    • The first flaw is that they are incapable of thinking in second steps and unaware of the need for them—and about every peasant in Mongolia, every waiter in Madrid, and every car-service operator in San Francisco knows that real life happens to have second, third, fourth, nth steps.
    • The second flaw is that they are also incapable of distinguishing between multidimensional problems and their single-dimensional representations—like multidimensional health and its stripped, cholesterol-reading reduction. They can’t get the idea that, empirically, complex systems do not have obvious one-dimensional cause-and-effect mechanisms, and that under opacity, you do not mess with such a system.
    • The third flaw is based upon the idea that in complex systems the ensemble behaves in ways not predicted by its components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters are the interactions between such parts. And interactions can obey very simple rules.
    • The rule we discuss in this chapter is the minority rule, the mother of all asymmetries. It suffices for an intransigent minority—a certain type of intransigent minority—with significant skin in the game (or, better, soul in the game) to reach a minutely small level, say 3 or 4 percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences.
      • Examples
        • The kosher population represents less than three tenths of a percent of the residents of the United States. Yet, it appears that almost all drinks are kosher. Why? Simply because going full kosher allows the producers, grocers, and restaurants to not have to distinguish between kosher and nonkosher for liquids, with special markers, separate aisles, separate inventories, different stocking sub-facilities. And the simple rule that changes the total is as follows: A kosher (or halal) eater will never eat nonkosher (or nonhalal) food, but a nonkosher eater isn’t banned from eating kosher.
        • Or, rephrased in another domain: A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom, but a nondisabled person will use the bathroom for disabled people.
        • Another example: do not think that the spread of automatic shifting cars is necessarily due to a majority preference; it could just be because those who can drive manual shifts can always drive automatic, but the reverse is not true.
        • Rory wrote to me about the beer-wine asymmetry and the choices made for parties: “Once you have 10 percent or more women at a party, you cannot serve only beer. But most men will drink wine. So you only need one set of glasses if you serve only wine—the universal donor, to use the language of blood groups.”
        • Genes follow majority rule; languages minority rule. Languages travel; genes less so.
        • Smokers can be in smoke-free areas but nonsmokers cannot be in smoking ones, so nonsmokers will prevail, not because they are initially a majority, but because they are asymmetric. 
        • This idea of one-sidedness can help us debunk a few more misconceptions. How do books get banned? Certainly not because they offend the average person—most persons are passive and don’t really care, or don’t care enough to request the banning. From past episodes, it looks like all it takes is a few (motivated) activists for the banning of some books, or the blacklisting of some people.
      • Let us conjecture that the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus. No, it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtue on others precisely because of that intolerance. The same can apply to civil rights. when asked, “Why didn’t the Poles in Warsaw help their Jewish neighbors more?,” responded that they generally did. But it took seven or eight Poles to help one Jew. It took only one Pole, acting as an informer, to turn in a dozen Jews. Even if such select anti-Semitism is contestable, we can easily imagine bad outcomes stemming from a minority of bad agents.
    • Outcomes are paradoxically more stable under the minority rule—the variance of the results is lower and the rule is more likely to emerge independently across separate populations. What emerges from the minority rule is more likely to be black-and-white, binary rules. An example. Consider that an evil person, say an economics professor, decides to poison the collective by putting some product into soda cans. He has two options. The first is cyanide, which obeys a minority rule: a drop of poison (higher than a small threshold) makes the entire liquid poisonous. The second is a “majority-style” poison; it requires more than half the ingested liquid to be poisonous in order to kill. Now look at the inverse problem, a collection of dead people after a dinner party. The local Sherlock Holmes would assert that, conditional on the outcome that all people drinking the soda having been killed, the evil man opted for the first, not the second option. Simply, the majority rule leads to fluctuations around the average, with a high rate of survival. Not the minority rule. The minority rule produces low-variance in outcomes.
    • This large payoff from stubborn courage is not limited to the military. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” wrote Margaret Mead. Revolutions are unarguably driven by an obsessive minority. And the entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people.
  • My note: All this discussion of the minority rule is to exemplify the concept that complex systems are not just the sum of their parts. Democracies can be undemocratic when minority rule picks the candidates and majority doesn’t get the options they’d prefer.

Miscellenia

  • Nietzsche: “Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, it is the rule.”
  • I discovered the magic of the camera in reestablishing civil/ethical behavior as follows. A man in upstate New York got into my parking spot as I was backing into it. I told him it was against etiquette, he acted as an a**hole. I silently photographed him and his license plate. He rapidly drove away and liberated the parking spot.
  • Kids with rich parents talk about “class privilege” at privileged colleges such as Amherst—but in one instance, one of them could not answer Dinesh D’Souza’s simple and logical suggestion: Why don’t you go to the registrar’s office and give your privileged spot to the minority student next in line? Clearly the defense given by people under such a situation is that they want others to do so as well—they require a systemic solution to every local perceived problem of injustice. I find that immoral. I know of no ethical system that allows you to let someone drown without helping him because other people are not helping, no system that says, “I will save people from drowning only if others too save other people from drowning.”
  • Is the Pope atheist? At no point during the emergency period did the drivers of the ambulance consider taking John Paul the Second to a chapel for a prayer, or some equivalent form of intercession with the Lord, to give the sacred first right of refusal for the treatment. And not one of his successors seemed to have considered giving precedence to dealing with the Lord with the hope of some miraculous intervention in place of the trappings of modern medicine. This is not to say that the bishops, cardinals, priests, and mere laypeople didn’t pray and ask the Lord for help, nor that they believed that prayers weren’t subsequently answered, given the remarkable recovery of the saintly man. But it remains that nobody in the Vatican seems to ever take chances by going first to the Lord, subsequently to the doctor, and, what is even more surprising, nobody seems to see a conflict with such inversion of the logical sequence. In fact the opposite course of action would have been considered madness. It would be in opposition to the tenets of the Catholic church, as it would be considered voluntary death, which is banned.
    • So we define atheism or secularism in deeds, by the distance between one’s actions and those of a nonatheistic person for an equivalent situation, not his beliefs and other decorative and symbolic matters—which, we will show in the next chapter, do not count.
    • The axiom of revelation of preferences (originating with Paul Samuelson, or possibly the Semitic gods), as you recall, states the following: you will not have an idea about what people really think, what predicts people’s actions, merely by asking them—they themselves don’t necessarily know.