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Subtlety - The Unknown Virtue

In a comment thread on an article about anti-consumerism on Hacker News, I got into an exchange about subtlety.


reminds me of a Carl Sagan monologue from Cosmos:

"Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet."

so intelligent, inspirational and full of hope, but listening to it 30 years later I can't help feeling bummed out, as it seems as though our civilization has chosen its path. also, Idiocracy.


That's an inspiring quote. But it is flawed. It is designed to instill passion and motivation in the listener's heart. But it is missing a virtue which is a strictly necessary ingredient for making an actual positive impact on the world: subtlety.

If you are motivated by addressing humanity's long-term challenges, please do not attempt to bludgeon others into being more thoughtful or compassionate. Instead, learn first how human society works. Learn how to motivate social change in the least destructive way (all change is costly to someone). Learn why people oppose you, and what their interests are, and try to come to a common ground. Don't go off half-cocked. Learn subtlety.

Nobody talks about subtlety. It is an under-appreciated virtue, and one of the most important.

Subtlety is scarce among revolutionaries of all stripes, libertarians included. One reason why I am such a big fan of Meg Mcardle is that she gets subtlety.

The Truth About Money and Politics

Top US political donors from the 20 years

How many people would guess this breakdown of donors and recipients? It is certainly not popular knowledge among my own peer group.

Look on the bottom of the box

Went into the kitchen department of a big box store with the wife and looked on the bottom of the products from OLD American companies. Two were made in the US, Anchor and Corelle. The manufacture of these products are highly automated and requires little labor.

Two were from Vietnam. All the rest were made in China.

Say the Republicans got their way and all business taxes were eliminated. Which manufacturing jobs paying over $15/hour might return to the US?Over $10?

How likely is it that a person earning $10 or $15/hour could pay for food, shelter, and housing AND pay for his medical service plan and save for his retirement if the Republicans get their way?

How likely is it that a person graduating from college this year will find a job that pays over $15/hour? Considering college loans and 4 years of lost wages from going to school full time, will he ever break even?

2 and counting

Moamar Gaddafi must really be getting desperate:

Overnight, Libyan television aired what it said was another speech by Mr Gaddafi made by telephone, where he blamed the unrest on young Libyans who have been brainwashed by drugs or Al Qaeda.

"It is obvious that this is run by Al Qaeda, " he said. "You in Zawiyah turn to bin Laden. They give you drugs.

"Those armed youngsters, our children, are incited by people who are wanted by America and the Western world.

"People were getting all their daily needs ... why did you have to get involved with the bin Laden ideology?

"They have been brainwashing the kids in this area and tell them to misbehave... the ones who are under bin Laden's influence and authority, under the influence of drugs."

It looks like it's only a matter of time for another Arab dictator. This is exciting.

The most counter-intuitive idea in economics

Many things about economics are counter-intuitive. People see industries break down in their own country only to sprout up overseas, leaving native workers unemployed. It's very counter-intuitive for anyone to believe "supporting" these industries harms the country.

Another counter-intuitive idea in economics is that failure is essential to a prosperous economy. When an enterprise fails, there is pain, uncertainty, and dislocation. Sometimes failure happens in bunches, magnifying the downside.

So we have the entire economics establishment trying to avoid failure at all cost.

  • "If the big banks hadn't been bailed out, we'd have had 30% unemployment. Those bailouts and quantitative easing and ZIRP saved us from a depression."
  • "A gold standard would nullify monetary policy, thereby allowing no tools to aid employment."
  • "The gold standard resulted in frequent recessions."

All of these arguments imply failure is almost always something to avoid. I'm not sure economics has ever shown that the alternatives to these examples of failure are preferable over the long term.

Iraq Counterfactual

With popular uprisings sweeping dictators out of power across the Arab world, I wonder what Iraq would be like today if the US government hadn't invaded. It would certainly be a richer place without its infrastructure, businesses, and homes bombed into powder. It would have a stronger civil society. And we just might see a movement of Iraqis working on their own freedom as citizens of other Arab states demand release from their brutal political masters.

Free Banking on CNBC

Ron Paul on CNBC:

What I find amazing about the clip is that Ron Paul briefly discusses what is essentially a free banking monetary system, and he is taken seriously--this on the leading financial news network in the world. Even as recently has two years ago, the idea that this could happen was a pipe dream.

On Irrational Retirement Strategies

“Most people are systematically irrational when it comes to retirement planning. They overlook the magic of compound interest and dollar cost averaging, waiting for their first gray hairs to start seriously saving for retirement. And so the government needs to make people start saving, starting young…”

That’s the story we hear from the smaller government conservatives. The liberals go further, assuming that the peons are too stupid to make any retirement choices, so we need Social Security – as if Congress was a better portfolio manager.

Is this story right? Are people irrational? It is certainly true that many people wait too long to start saving for retirement; that is, if they are going to use stocks as their main investment vehicle. I am rather guilty myself, and many of my libertarian friends are much worse. It does appear that if we want to replace Social Security with private retirement accounts as generally conceived, then we need to either force them Chilean style, or deal with destitute old people.

As I contemplate this dilemma, another asserts itself: stocks are a safe retirement option only for those who invest over decades. Over shorter spans the volatility is unacceptable save for those who like to gamble. Even if stock market investing is the ideal long term retirement option, how do we make the transition from Social Security to private accounts for those over 40? How about those over 30 even? The liberals have a point when they scream about Wall St. ripping off retirees and undue risk, especially for those trying to catch up late in their careers.

Then again, maybe typical human investment behavior isn’t irrational under a more free market system! When you are young, should you invest in your education or stocks? Later, should you put your savings in a retirement account or in your own business? And how about your house: if it weren’t for the tax deductibility of mortgage interest, paying off your mortgage early is a very conservative and predictable investment. And what about rearing children: should both parents work in order to have money to put away for retirement, or is it better for one to stay home to raise the children? Now consider the years after the children have grown and finished college: these are excellent years for both parents to work and maybe save a large fraction of their combined income.

This conservative, non-Wall St. retirement strategy could work, if we got rid of laws which encourage financial recklessness. Get rid of the mortgage deduction and paying down the mortgage makes sense. Allow unused IRA deductions to carry over to later years. Outlaw aggressive maturity transformation on the part of banks and go to a gold standard, and plain old bank certificates of deposit could provide a decent predictable return on investment for both existing retirees and for people who opt to go on a savings spree during the height of their careers.

Maybe default human behavior is rational after all, in an environment of rational economic policy. It thus follows that we need the rational economic policy before we eliminate Social Security. Order of operations is important.

Education Shmeducation

The Shadow Scholar:

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I've written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won't find my name on a single paper.

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

What does it say about graduate work when someone with no background in the field can write a thesis?

Facebook vs Google

I recently realized something I'm sure you all already know.

The goal of both Google and Facebook is to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of the internet. Google does this algorithmically. They get their engineers to model the signal and write code to filter out the noise. Facebook, instead, uses the evolved human social instinct to achieve something similar.