Tag: Economics

Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Ahh leisure or as some call it, the art and science of doing nothing. It’s something we all want and yet rarely have.

Our modern workplace culture prides itself on filling every one of our minutes, even if it’s all for show.

What we forget is that leisure is necessary for insight. Far from being the result of productive labor, for the knowledge worker, leisure is a necessary part of the labor. While it may seem non-productive, that is only looking at it from one angle.

In this excerpt, from The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen defines leisure as the “nonproductive consumption of time.”

The term leisure, as I use it, does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is nonproductive consumption of time. Time is consumed nonproductively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness. But the whole of the life of the gentleman of leisure is not spent before the eyes of the spectators who are to be impressed with that spectacle of honorific leisure which in the ideal scheme makes up his life. For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of the spectators. This can be done only indirectly, through the exhibition of some tangible, lasting results of the leisure so spent—in a manner analogous to the familiar exhibition of tangible, lasting products of the labor performed for the gentleman of leisure by handicraftsmen and servants in his employ.

The lasting evidence of productive labor is its material product—commonly some article of consumption. In the case of exploit it is similarly possible and usual to procure some tangible result that may serve for exhibition in the way of trophy or booty. At a later phase of the development it is customary to assume some badge or insignia of honor that will serve as a conventionally accepted mark of exploit, and which at the same time indicates the quantity or degree of exploit of which it is the symbol. As the population increases in density and as human relations grow more complex and numerous, all the details of life undergo a process of elaboration and selection; and in this process of elaboration the use of trophies develops into a system of rank, titles, degrees, and insignia, typical examples of which are heraldic devices, medals, and honorary decorations.

As seen from the economic point of view, leisure, considered as an employment, is closely allied in kind with the life of exploit, and the achievements which characterize a life of leisure, and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much in common with the trophies of exploit. But leisure in the narrower sense, as distinct from exploit and from any ostensibly productive employment of effort on objects which are of no intrinsic use, does not commonly leave a material product. The criteria of a past performance of leisure therefore commonly take the form of “immaterial” goods. Such immaterial evidences of past leisure are quasi-scholarly or quasi-artistic accomplishments and a knowledge of processes and incidents which do not conduce directly to the furtherance of human life. So, for instance, in our time there is the knowledge of the dead languages and the occult sciences, of correct spelling, of syntax and prosody, of the various forms of domestic music and other household arts, of the latest proprieties of dress, furniture, and equipage, of games, sports, and fancy bred animals such as dogs and racehorses. In all these branches of knowledge the initial motive from which their acquisition proceeded at the outset, and through which they first came into vogue, may have been something quite different from the wish to show that one’s time had not been spent in industrial employment, but unless these accomplishments had approved themselves as serviceable evidence of an un productive expenditure of time, they would not have survived and held their place as conventional accomplishments of the leisure class.

Charlie Munger: Academic Economics — Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs

one-leg-man

This is the full text of Charlie Munger’s Herb Kay Memorial Lecture, ‘Academic Economics: Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs,’ at the University of California at Santa Barbara, 2003.

Normally I distill things for you but with this, I think you should read every word. Or, as an experiment, listen to me read it to you.

***

I’ve outlined some remarks in a rough way, and after I’m finished talking from that outline, I’ll take questions as long as anybody can endure listening, until they drag me away to wherever else I’m supposed to go.

As you might guess, I agreed to do this because the subject of getting the soft sciences so they talked better to each other has been one that has interested me for decades. And, of course, economics is in many respects the queen of the soft sciences. It’s expected to be better than the rest. It’s my view that economics is better at the multi-disciplinary stuff than the rest of the soft science. And it’s also my view that it’s still lousy, and I’d like to discuss this failure in this talk. As I talk about strengths and weaknesses in academic economics, one interesting fact you are entitled to know is that I never took a course in economics. And with this striking lack of credentials, you may wonder why I have the chutzpah to be up here giving this talk. The answer is I have a black belt in chutzpah. I was born with it. Some people, like some of the women I know, have a black belt in spending. They were born with that. But what they gave me was a black belt in chutzpah.

But I come from two peculiar strands of experience that may have given me some useful economic insights. One is Berkshire Hathaway and the other is my personal educational history.

Berkshire, of course, has finally gotten interesting. When Warren took over Berkshire, the market capitalization was about ten million dollars. And forty something years later, there are not many more shares outstanding now than there were then, and the market capitalization is about a hundred billion dollars, ten thousand for one. And since that has happened, year after year, in kind of a grind-ahead fashion, with very few failures, it eventually drew some attention, indicating that maybe Warren and I knew something useful in microeconomics.

Non-use of Efficient Market Theory at Berkshire

For a long time there was a Nobel Prize-winning economist who explained Berkshire Hathaway’s success as follows:

First, he said Berkshire beat the market in common stock investing through one sigma of luck, because nobody could beat the market except by luck. This hard-form version of efficient market theory was taught in most schools of economics at the time. People were taught that nobody could beat the market. Next the professor went to two sigmas, and three sigmas, and four sigmas, and when he finally got to six sigmas of luck, people were laughing so hard he stopped doing it.

Then he reversed the explanation 180 degrees. He said, “No, it was still six sigmas, but is was six sigmas of skill.” Well this very sad history demonstrates the truth of Benjamin Franklin’s observation in Poor Richard’s Almanac. If you would persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason. The man changed his view when his incentives made him change it, and not before.

I watched the same thing happen at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. I asked at one point, why are you treating cataracts only with a totally obsolete cataract operation? And the man said to me, “Charlie, it’s such a wonderful operation to teach.” (Laughter). When he stopped using that operation, it was because almost all the patients had voted with their feet. Again, appeal to interest and not to reason if you want to change conclusions.

Well, Berkshire’s whole record has been achieved without paying one ounce of attention to the efficient market theory in its hard form. And not one ounce of attention to the descendants of that idea, which came out of academic economics and went into corporate finance and morphed into such obscenities as the capital asset pricing model, which we also paid no attention to. I think you’d have to believe in the tooth fairy to believe that you could easily outperform the market by seven-percentage points per annum just by investing in high volatility stocks.

Yet, believe it or not, like the Jules Stein doctor, people once believed this stuff. And the belief was rewarded. And it spread. And many people still believe it. But Berkshire never paid any attention to it. And now I think the world is coming our way and the idea of perfection in all market outcomes is going the way of the DoDo.

It was always clear to me that the stock market couldn’t be perfectly efficient, because as a teenager, I’d been to the racetrack in Omaha where they had the parimutuel system. And it was quite obvious to me that if the house’s take, the croupier’s take, was 17%, some people consistently lost a lot less than 17% of all their bets, and other people consistently lost more than 17% of all their bets. So the parimutuel system in Omaha had no perfect efficiency. And so I didn’t accept the argument that the stock market was always perfectly efficient in creating rational prices.

Indeed, there’s been some documented cases since, of people getting so good at understanding horses and odds, that they actually are able to beat the house in off-track betting. There aren’t many people who can do that, but there are a few people in America who can.

Personal Multidisciplinary Education

Next, my personal education history is interesting because its deficiencies and my peculiarities eventually created advantages. For some odd reason, I had an early and extreme multidisciplinary cast of mind. I couldn’t stand reaching for a small idea in my own discipline when there was a big idea right over the fence in somebody else’s discipline. So I just grabbed in all directions for the big ideas that would really work. Nobody taught me to do that; I was just born with that yen. I also was born with a huge craving for synthesis. And when it didn’t come easily, which was often, I would rag the problem, and then when I failed I would put it aside and I’d come back to it and rag it again. It took me 20 years to figure out how and why the Reverend Moon’s conversion methods worked. But the psychology departments haven’t figured it out yet, so I’m ahead of them.

But anyway, I have this tendency to want to rag the problems. Because WW II caught me. I drifted into some physics, and the Air Corps sent me to Caltech where I did a little more physics as part of being made into a meteorologist. And there, at a very young age, I absorbed what I call the fundamental full attribution ethos of hard science. And that was enormously useful to me. Let me explain that ethos.

Under this ethos, you’ve got to know all the big ideas in all the disciplines less fundamental than your own. You can never make any explanation, which can be made in a more fundamental way, in any other way than the most fundamental way. And you always take with full attribution to the most fundamental ideas that you are required to use. When you’re using physics, you say you’re using physics. When you’re using biology, you say you’re using biology. And so on and so on. I could early on see that that ethos would act as a fine organizing system for my thoughts. And I strongly suspected that it would work really well in the soft sciences as well as the hard sciences, so I just grabbed it and used it all through my life in soft science as well as hard science. That was a very lucky idea for me.

Let me explain how extreme that ethos is in hard science. There is a constant, one of the fundamental constants in physics, known as Boltzmann’s constant. You probably all know it very well. And the interesting thing about Boltzmann’s constant is that Boltzmann didn’t discover it. So why is Boltzmann’s constant now named for Boltzmann? Well, the answer was that Boltzmann derived that constant from basic physics in a more fundamental way than the poor forgotten fellow who found the constant in the first place in some less fundamental way. The ethos of hard science is so strong in favor of reductionism to the more fundamental body of knowledge that you can wash the discoverer right out of history when somebody else handles his discovery in a more fundamental way. I think that is correct. I think Boltzmann’s constant should be named for Boltzmann.

At any rate, in my history and Berkshire’s history Berkshire went on and on into considerable economic success, while ignoring the hard form efficient markets doctrine once very popular in academic economics and ignoring the descendants of that doctrine in corporate finance, where the results became even sillier than they were in the economics. This naturally encouraged me.

Finally, with my peculiar history, I’m also bold enough to be here today, because at least when I was young I wasn’t a total klutz. For one year at the Harvard Law School, I was ranked second in my group of about a thousand, and I always figured that, while there were always a lot of people much smarter than I was, I didn’t have to hang back totally in the thinking game.

The Obvious Strengths of Academic Economics

Let me begin by discussing the obvious strengths of academic economics. The first obvious strength, and this is true of a lot of places that get repute, is that it was in the right place at the right time. Two hundred years ago, aided by the growth of technology and the growth of other developments in the civilization, the real output per capita of the civilized world started going up at about 2% per annum, compounded. And before that, for the previous thousands of years, it had gone up at a rate that hovered just a hair’s breadth above zero. And, of course, economics grew up amid this huge success. Partly it helped the success, and partly it explained it. So, naturally, academic economics grew. And lately with the collapse of all the communist economies, as the free market economies or partially free market economies flourished, that added to the reputation of economics. Economics has been a very favorable place to be if you’re in academia.

Economics was always more multidisciplinary than the rest of soft science. It just reached out and grabbed things as it needed to. And that tendency to just grab whatever you need from the rest of knowledge if you’re an economist has reached a fairly high point in Mankiw’s new textbook (Principles of Economics). I checked out that textbook. I must have been one of the few businessmen in America that bought it immediately when it came out because it had gotten such a big advance. I wanted to figure out what the guy was doing where he could get an advance that great. So this is how I happened to riffle through Mankiw’s freshman textbook. And there I found laid out as principles of economics: opportunity cost is a superpower, to be used by all people who have any hope of getting the right answer. Also, incentives are superpowers.

And lastly, the tragedy of the commons model, popularized by UCSB’s Garrett Hardin. Hardin caused the delightful introduction into economics – alongside Smith’s beneficent invisible hand – of Hardin’s wicked evildoing invisible foot. Well, I thought that the Hardin model made economics more complete, and I knew when Hardin introduced me to his model, the Tragedy of the Commons, that it would be in the economics textbooks eventually. And, low and behold, it finally made it about 20 years later. And it’s right for Mankiw to reach out into other disciplines and grab Hardin’s model and anything else that works well.

Another thing that helped economics is that from the beginning it attracted the best brains in soft science. Its denizens also interacted more with the practical world than was at all common in soft science and the rest of academia, and that resulted in very creditable outcomes like the three cabinet appointments of economics PhD George Schultz and the cabinet appointment of Larry Summers. So this has been a very favored part of academia.

Also, economics early on attracted some of the best writers of language in the history of the earth. You start out with Adam Smith. Adam Smith was so good a thinker, and so good a writer, that in his own time, Emmanuel Kant, then the greatest intellectual in Germany, simply announced that there was nobody in Germany to equal Adam Smith. Well Voltaire, being an even more pithy speaker than Kant, which wouldn’t be that hard, immediately said, “Oh well, France doesn’t have anybody who can even be compared to Adam Smith.” So economics started with some very great men and great writers.

And then there have been later great writers like John Maynard Keynes, whom I quote all the time, and who has added a great amount of illumination to my life. And finally, even in the present era, if you take Paul Krugman and read his essays, you will be impressed by his fluency. I can’t stand his politics; I’m on the other side. But I love this man’s essays. I think Paul Krugman is one of the best essayists alive. And so economics has constantly attracted these fabulous writers. And they are so good that they have this enormous influence far outside their economic discipline, and that’s very uncommon in other academic departments.

Okay, now it’s time to extend criticism, instead of praise. We’ve recognized that economics is better than other soft-science academic departments in many ways. And one of the glories of civilization. Now it’s only fair that we outline a few things that are wrong with academic economics.

What’s Wrong with Economics

1) Fatal Unconnectedness, Leading To “Man With A Hammer Syndrome,” Often Causing Overweighing What Can Be Counted

I think I’ve got eight, no nine objections, some being logical subdivisions of a big general objection. The big general objection to economics was the one early described by Alfred North Whitehead when he spoke of the fatal unconnectedness of academic disciplines, wherein each professor didn’t even know the models of the other disciplines, much less try to synthesize those disciplines with his own.

I think there’s a modern name for this approach that Whitehead didn’t like, and that name is bonkers. This is a perfectly crazy way to behave. Yet economics, like much else in academia, is too insular.

The nature of this failure is that it creates what I always call, “man with a hammer syndrome.” And that’s taken from the folk saying: To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail. And that works marvellously to gum up all professions, and all departments of academia, and indeed most practical life. The only antidote for being an absolute klutz due to the presence of a man with a hammer syndrome is to have a full kit of tools. You don’t have just a hammer. You’ve got all the tools. And you’ve got to have one more trick.

You’ve got to use those tools checklist-style, because you’ll miss a lot if you just hope that the right tool is going to pop up unaided whenever you need it. But if you’ve got a full list of tools, and go through them in your mind, checklist-style, you will find a lot of answers that you won’t find any other way. So limiting this big general objection that so disturbed Alfred North Whitehead is very important, and there are mental tricks that help do the job.

Overweighing what can be counted

A special version of this “man with a hammer syndrome” is terrible, not only in economics but practically everywhere else, including business. It’s really terrible in business. You’ve got a complex system and it spews out a lot of wonderful numbers that enable you to measure some factors. But there are other factors that are terribly important, [yet] there’s no precise numbering you can put to these factors. You know they’re important, but you don’t have the numbers. Well practically everybody (1) overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they’re taught in academia, and (2) doesn’t mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important. That is a mistake I’ve tried all my life to avoid, and I have no regrets for having done that.

The late, great, Thomas Hunt Morgan, who was one of greatest biologists who ever lived, when he got to Caltech, had a very interesting, extreme way of avoiding some mistakes from overcounting what could be measured, and undercounting what couldn’t. At that time there were no computers and the computer substitute then available to science and engineering was the Frieden calculator, and Caltech was full of Frieden calculators. And Thomas Hunt Morgan banned the Frieden calculator from the biology department. And when they said, “What the hell are you doing, Mr. Morgan?,” He said, “Well, I am like a guy who is prospecting for gold along the banks of the Sacramento River in 1849. With a little intelligence, I can reach down and pick up big nuggets of gold. And as long as I can do that, I’m not going to let any people in my department waste scarce resources in placer mining.” And that’s the way Thomas Hunt Morgan got through life.

I’ve adopted the same technique, and here I am in my 80th year. I haven’t had to do any placer mining yet. And it begins to look like I’m going to get all the way through, as I’d always hoped, without doing any of that damned placer mining. Of course if I were a physician, particularly an academic physician, I’d have to do the statistics, do the placer mining. But it’s amazing what you can do in life without the placer mining if you’ve got a few good mental tricks and just keep ragging the problems the way Thomas Hunt Morgan did.

2) Failure To Follow The Fundamental Full Attribution Ethos of Hard Science

What’s wrong with the way Mankiw does economics is that he grabs from other disciplines without attribution. He doesn’t label the grabbed items as physics or biology or psychology, or game theory, or whatever they really are, fully attributing the concept to the basic knowledge from which it came. If you don’t do that, it’s like running a business with a sloppy filing system. It reduces your power to be as good as you can be. Now Mankiw is so smart he does pretty well even when his technique is imperfect. He got the largest advance any textbook writer ever got.

But, nonetheless he’d be better if he had absorbed this hard science ethos that I say has been so helpful to me.

I have names for Mankiw’s approach, grabbing whatever you need without attribution. Sometimes I call it “take what you wish,” and sometimes I call it “Kipplingism.” And when I call it Kipplingism, I’m reminding you of Kippling’s stanza of poetry, which went something like this: “When Homer smote his blooming lyre, he’d heard men sing by land and sea, and what he thought he might require, he went and took, the same as me.” Well that’s the way Mankiw does it. He just grabs. This is much better than not grabbing. But it is much worse than grabbing with full attribution and full discipline, using all knowledge plus extreme reductionism where feasible.

3) Physics Envy

The third weakness that I find in economics is what I call physics envy. And of course, that term has been borrowed from penis envy as described by one of the world’s great idiots, Sigmund Freud. But he was very popular in his time, and the concept got a wide vogue.

Washington Post case study

One of the worst examples of what physics envy did to economics was cause adaptation and hard-form efficient market theory. And then when you logically derived consequences from this wrong theory, you would get conclusions such as: it can never be correct for any corporation to buy its own stock. Because the price by definition is totally efficient, there could never be any advantage. And they taught this theory to some partner at McKinsey when he was at some school of business that had adopted this crazy line of reasoning from economics, and the partner became a paid consultant for the Washington Post. And Washington Post stock was selling at a fifth of what an orangutan could figure was the plain value per share by just counting up the values and dividing. But he so believed what he’d been taught in graduate school that he told the Washington Post they shouldn’t buy their own stock. Well, fortunately, they put Warren Buffett on the Board, and he convinced them to buy back more than half of the outstanding stock, which enriched the remaining shareholders by much more than a billion dollars. So, there was at least one instance of a place that quickly killed a wrong academic theory.

It’s my view that economics could avoid a lot of this trouble that comes from physics envy. I want economics to pick up the basic ethos of hard science, the full attribution habit, but not the craving for an unattainable precision that comes from physics envy. The sort of precise reliable formula that includes Boltzmann’s constant is not going to happen, by and large, in economics. Economics involves too complex a system. And the craving for that physics-style precision does little but get you in terrible trouble, like the poor fool from McKinsey.

Einstein and Sharon Stone

I think that economists would be way better off if they paid more attention to Einstein and Sharon Stone. Well, Einstein is easy because Einstein is famous for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no more simple.” Now, the saying is a tautology, but it’s very useful, and some economist – it may have been Herb Stein – had a similar tautological saying that I dearly love: “If a thing can’t go on forever, it will eventually stop.”

Sharon Stone contributed to the subject because someone once asked her if she was bothered by penis envy. And she said, “absolutely not, I have more trouble than I can handle with what I’ve got.” (Laughter).

When I talk about this false precision, this great hope for reliable, precise formulas, I am reminded of Arthur Laffer, who’s in my political party, and who is one of the all-time horses’ asses when it comes to doing economics. His trouble is his craving for false precision, which is not an adult way of dealing with his subject matter.

The situation of people like Laffer reminds me of a rustic legislator – and this really happened in America. I don’t invent these stories. Reality is always more ridiculous than what I’m going to tell you. At any rate, this rustic legislator proposed a new law in his state. He wanted to pass a law rounding Pi to an even 3.2 so it would be easier for the school children to make the computations. Well, you can say that this is too ridiculous, and it can’t be fair to liken economics professors like Laffer to a rustic legislator like this. I say I’m under-criticizing the professors. At least when this rustic legislature rounded Pi to an even number, the error was relatively small. But once you try to put a lot of false precision into a complex system like economics, the errors can compound to the point where they’re worse than those of the McKinsey partner when he was incompetently advising the Washington Post. So, economics should emulate physics’ basic ethos, but its search for precision in physics–like formulas is almost always wrong in economics.

4) Too Much Emphasis on Macroeconomics

My fourth criticism is that there’s too much emphasis on macroeconomics and not enough on microeconomics. I think this is wrong. It’s like trying to master medicine without knowing anatomy and chemistry. Also, the discipline of microeconomics is a lot of fun. It helps you correctly understand macroeconomics. And it’s a perfect circus to do. In contrast, I don’t think macroeconomics people have all that much fun. For one thing they are often wrong because of extreme complexity in the system they wish to understand.

Case study: Nebraska Furniture Mart’s new store in Kansas City

Let me demonstrate the power of microeconomics by solving two microeconomic problems. One simple and one a little harder. The first problem is this: Berkshire Hathaway just opened a furniture and appliance store in Kansas City. At the time Berkshire opened it, the largest selling furniture and appliance store in the world was another Berkshire Hathaway store, selling $350 million worth of goods per year. The new store in a strange city opened up selling at the rate of more than $500 million a year. From the day it opened, the 3,200 spaces in the parking lot were full. The women had to wait outside the ladies restroom because the architects didn’t understand biology. (Laughter). It’s hugely successful.

Well, I’ve given you the problem. Now, tell me what explains the runaway success of this new furniture and appliance store, which is outselling everything else in the world? (Pause). Well, let me do it for you. Is this a low-priced store or a high-priced store? (Laughter). It’s not going to have a runaway success in a strange city as a high-priced store. That would take time. Number two, if it’s moving $500 million worth of furniture through it, it’s one hell of a big store, furniture being as bulky as it is. And what does a big store do? It provides a big selection. So what could this possibly be except a low-priced store with a big selection?

But, you may wonder, why wasn’t it done before, preventing its being done first now? Again, the answer just pops into your head: it costs a fortune to open a store this big. So, nobody’s done it before. So, you quickly know the answer. With a few basic concepts, these microeconomic problems that seem hard can be solved much as you put a hot knife through butter. I like such easy ways of thought that are very remunerative. And I suggest that you people should also learn to do microeconomics better

Case study: Les Schwab Tires

Now I’ll give you a harder problem. There’s a tire store chain in the Northwest, which has slowly succeeded over 50 years, the Les Schwab tire store chain. It just ground ahead. It started competing with the stores that were owned by the big tire companies that made all the tires, the Goodyears and so forth. And, of course, the manufacturers favored their own stores. Their “tied stores” had a big cost advantage. Later, Les Schwab rose in competition with the huge price discounters like Costco and Sam’s Club and before that Sears Roebuck and so forth. And yet here is Schwab now, with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. And here’s Les Schwab in his 80s, with no education, having done the whole thing. How did he do it? (Pause). I don’t see a whole lot of people looking like a light bulb has come on. Well, let’s think about it with some microeconomic fluency.

Is there some wave that Schwab could have caught? The minute you ask the question, the answer pops in. The Japanese had a zero position in tires and they got big. So this guy must have ridden that wave some in the early times. Then the slow following success has to have some other causes. And what probably happened here, obviously, is this guy did one hell of a lot of things right. And among the things that he must have done right is he must have harnessed what Mankiw calls the superpower of incentives. He must have a very clever incentive structure driving his people. And a clever personnel selection system, etc. And he must be pretty good at advertising. Which he is. He’s an artist. So, he had to get a wave in Japanese tire invasion, the Japanese being as successful as they were. And then a talented fanatic had to get a hell of a lot of things right, and keep them right with clever systems. Again, not that hard of an answer. But what else would be a likely cause of the peculiar success?

We hire business school graduates and they’re no better at these problems than you were. Maybe that’s the reason we hire so few of them.

Causes of problem-solving success

Well, how did I solve those problems? Obviously I was using a simple search engine in my mind to go through checklist-style, and I was using some rough algorithms that work pretty well in a great many complex systems, and those algorithms run something like this: Extreme success is likely to be caused by some combination of the following factors:

A) Extreme maximization or minimization of one or two variables. Example, Costco or our furniture and appliance store.

B) Adding success factors so that a bigger combination drives success, often in non-linear fashion, as one is reminded by the concept of breakpoint and the concept of critical mass in physics. Often results are not linear. You get a little bit more mass, and you get a lollapalooza result. And of course I’ve been searching for lollapalooza results all my life, so I’m very interested in models that explain their occurrence.

C) An extreme of good performance over many factors. Example, Toyota or Les Schwab.

D) Catching and riding some sort of big wave. Example, Oracle. By the way, I put down Oracle before I knew that the Oracle CFO was a big part of the proceedings here today.

Generally I recommend and use in problem solving cut-to-the quick algorithms, and I find you have to use them both forward and backward. Let me give you an example. I irritate my family by giving them little puzzles, and one of the puzzles that I gave my family not very long ago was when I said, “There’s an activity in America, with one-on-one contests, and a national championship. The same person won the championship on two occasions about 65 years apart.” “Now,” I said, “name the activity,” (Pause). Again, I don’t see a lot of light bulbs going on. And in my family not a lot of light bulbs were flashing. But I have a physicist son who has been trained more in the type of thinking I like. And he immediately got the right answer, and here’s the way he reasoned:

It can’t be anything requiring a lot of hand-eye coordination. Nobody 85 years of age is going to win a national billiards tournament, much less a national tennis tournament. It just can’t be. Then he figured it couldn’t be chess, which this physicist plays very well, because it’s too hard. The complexity of the system, the stamina required are too great. But that led into checkers. And he thought, “Ah ha! There’s a game where vast experience might guide you to be the best even though you’re 85 years of age.”

And sure enough that was the right answer.

Anyway, I recommend that sort of mental trickery to all of you, flipping one’s thinking both backward and forward. And I recommend that academic economics get better at very small scale microeconomics as demonstrated here.

5) Too Little Synthesis in Economics

My fifth criticism is there is too little synthesis in economics. Not only with matters outside traditional economics, but also within economics. I have posed at two different business schools the following problem. I say, “You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Is that right? That’s what you’ve learned?” They all nod yes. And I say, “Now tell me several instances when, if you want the physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?” And there’s this long and ghastly pause. And finally, in each of the two business schools in which I’ve tried this, maybe one person in fifty could name one instance. They come up with the idea that occasionally a higher price acts as a rough indicator of quality and thereby increases sales volumes.

This happened in the case of my friend Bill Ballhaus. When he was head of Beckman Instruments it produced some complicated product where if it failed it caused enormous damage to the purchaser. It wasn’t a pump at the bottom of an oil well, but that’s a good mental example. And he realized that the reason this thing was selling so poorly, even though it was better than anybody else’s product, was because it was priced lower. It made people think it was a low quality gizmo. So he raised the price by 20% or so and the volume went way up. But only one in fifty can come up with this sole instance in a modern business school – one of the business schools being Stanford, which is hard to get into. And nobody has yet come up with the main answer that I like. Suppose you raise that price, and use the extra money to bribe the other guy’s purchasing agent? (Laughter). Is that going to work? And are there functional equivalents in economics – microeconomics – of raising the price and using the extra sales proceeds to drive sales higher? And of course there are a zillion, once you’ve made that mental jump. It’s so simple.

One of the most extreme examples is in the investment management field. Suppose you’re the manager of a mutual fund, and you want to sell more. People commonly come to the following answer: You raise the commissions, which of course reduces the number of units of real investments delivered to the ultimate buyer, so you’re increasing the price per unit of real investment that you’re selling the ultimate customer. And you’re using that extra commission to bribe the customer’s purchasing agent. You’re bribing the broker to betray his client and put the client’s money into the high-commission product. This has worked to produce at least a trillion dollars of mutual fund sales.

This tactic is not an attractive part of human nature, and I want to tell you that I pretty completely avoided it in my life. I don’t think it’s necessary to spend your life selling what you would never buy. Even though it’s legal, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But you shouldn’t accept all my notions because you’ll risk becoming unemployable. You shouldn’t take my notions unless you’re willing to risk being unemployable by all but a few.

I think my experience with my simple question is an example of how little synthesis people get, even in advanced academic settings, considering economic questions. Obvious questions, with such obvious answers. Yet people take four courses in economics, go to business school, have all these IQ points and write all these essays, but they can’t synthesize worth a damn. This failure is not because the professors know all this stuff and they’re deliberately withholding it from the students. This failure happens because the professors aren’t all that good at this kind of synthesis. They were trained in a different way. I can’t remember if it was Keynes or Galbraith who said that economics professors are most economical with ideas. They make a few they learned in graduate school last a lifetime. (Laughter).

The second problem with synthesis

The second interesting problem with synthesis involves two of the most famous examples in the economics. Number one is Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage in trade, and the other is Adam Smith’s pin factory. And both of these, of course, work to vastly increase economic output per person, and they’re similar in that each somehow directs functions into the hands of people who are very good at doing the functions. Yet they’re radically different examples in that one of them is the ultimate example of central planning, the pin factory, where the whole system was planned by somebody, while the other example, Ricardo’s, happens automatically as a natural consequence of trade.

And, of course, once you get into the joys of synthesis, you immediately think. “Do these things interact?” Of course they interact. Beautifully. And that’s one of the causes of the power of a modern economic system. I saw an example of that kind of interaction years ago. Berkshire had this former savings and loan company, and it had made this loan on a hotel right opposite the Hollywood Park Racetrack. In due time the neighborhood changed and it was full of gangs, pimps, and dope dealers. They tore copper pipe out of the wall for dope fixes, and there were people hanging around the hotel with guns, and nobody would come. We foreclosed on it two or three times, and the loan value went down to nothing. We seemed to have an insolvable economic problem — a microeconomic problem.

Now we could have gone to McKinsey, or maybe a bunch of professors from Harvard, and we would have gotten a report about 10 inches thick about the ways we could approach this failing hotel in this terrible neighborhood. But instead, we put a sign on the property that said: “For sale or rent.” And in came, in response to that sign, a man who said, “I’ll spend $200,000 fixing up your hotel, and buy it at a high price on credit, if you can get zoning so I can turn the parking lot into a putting green.” “You’ve got to have a parking lot in a hotel,” we said. “What do you have in mind?” He said. “No, my business is flying seniors in from Florida, putting them near the airport, and then letting them go out to Disneyland and various places by bus and coming back. And I don’t care how bad the neighborhood is going to be because my people are selfcontained behind walls. All they have to do is get on the bus in the morning and come home in the evening, and they don’t need a parking lot; they need a putting green.” So we made the deal with the guy. The whole thing worked beautifully, and the loan got paid off, and it all worked out.

Obviously that’s an interaction of Ricardo and the pin factory examples. The odd system that this guy had designed to amuse seniors was pure pin factory, and finding the guy with this system was pure Ricardo. So these things are interacting.

Well, I’ve taken you part way through the synthesis. It gets harder when you want to figure out how much activity should be within private firms, and how much should be within the government, and what are the factors that determine which functions are where, and why do the failures occur, and so on and so on.

It’s my opinion that anybody with a high IQ who graduated in economics ought to be able to sit down and write a ten-page synthesis of all these ideas that’s quite persuasive. And I would bet a lot of money that I could give this test in practically every economics department in the country, and get a perfectly lousy bunch of synthesis. They’d give me Ronald Coase. They’d talk about transaction costs. They’d click off a little something that their professors gave them and spit it back. But in terms of really understanding how it all fits together, I would confidently predict that most people couldn’t do it very well.

By the way, if any of you want to try and do this, go ahead. I think you’ll find it hard. In this connection, one of the interesting things that I want to mention is that Max Planck, the great Nobel laureate who found Planck’s Constant, tried once to do economics. He gave it up. Now why did Max Planck, one of the smartest people who ever lived, give up economics? The answer is, he said, “It’s too hard. The best solution you can get is messy and uncertain.” It didn’t satisfy Planck’s craving for order, and so he gave it up. And if Max Planck early on realized he was never going to get perfect order, I will confidently predict that all of the rest of you are going to have exactly the same result.

By the way there’s a famous story about Max Planck which is apocryphal: After he won his prize, he was invited to lecture everywhere, and he had this chauffeur that drove him around to give public lectures all through Germany. And the chauffeur memorized the lecture, and so one day he said, “Gee Professor Planck, why don’t you let me try it as we switch places?” And so he got up and gave the lecture. At the end of it some physicist stood up and posed a question of extreme difficulty. But the chauffeur was up to it. “Well,” he said, “I’m surprised that a citizen of an advanced city like Munich is asking so elementary a question, so I’m going to ask my chauffeur to respond.” (Laughter).

6) Extreme and Counterproductive Psychological Ignorance

All right, I’m down to the sixth main defect, and this is a subdivision of the lack of adequate multidisciplinarity: Extreme and counterproductive psychological ignorance in economics. Here I want to give you a very simple problem. I specialize in simple problems. You own a small casino in Las Vegas. It has fifty standard slot machines. Identical in appearance, they’re identical in function. They have exactly the same payout ratios. The things that cause the payouts are exactly the same. They occur in the same percentages. But there’s one machine in this group of slot machines that, no matter where you put it among the fifty, in fairly short order, when you go to the machines at the end of the day, there will be 25% more winnings from this one machine than from any other machine. Now surely I’m not going to have a failure here. What is different about that heavy winning machine? (Silence) Can anybody do it?

Male: More people play it.

Charles Munger: No, no, I want to know why more people play it. What’s different about that machine is people have used modern electronics to give a higher ratio of near misses. That machine is going bar, bar, lemon. Bar, bar, grapefruit, way more often than normal machines, and that will cause heavier play. How do you get an answer like that? Easy. Obviously, there’s a psychological cause: That machine is doing something to trigger some basic psychological response.

If you know the psychological factors, if you’ve got them on a checklist in your head, you just run down the factors, and, boom!, you get to one that must explain this occurrence. There isn’t any other way to do it effectively. These answers are not going to come to people who don’t learn these mental tricks. If you want to go through life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, why be my guest. But if you want to succeed, like a strong man with two legs, you have to pick up these tricks, including doing economics while knowing psychology.

In this vein, I next want to mention a strange Latin American case of a dysfunctional economy that got fixed. In this little subdivision of Latin America, a culture had arisen wherein everybody stole everything. They embezzled from the company, they stole everything that was loose in the community. And of course, the economy came practically to a halt. And this thing got fixed. Now where did I read about this case? I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t in the annals of economics. I found this case in the annals of psychology. Clever people went down and used a bunch of psychological tricks. And they fixed it.

Well, I think there’s no excuse if you’re an economist, when there are wonderful cases like that of the dysfunctional economy becoming fixed, and these simple tricks that solve so many problems, and you don’t know how to do the fixes and understand the problems. Why be so ignorant about psychology that you don’t even know psychology’s tricks that will fix your own dysfunctional economic systems?

Here I want to give you an extreme injunction. This is even tougher than the fundamental organizing ethos of hard science. This has been attributed to Samuel Johnson. He said in substance that if an academic maintains in place an ignorance that can be easily removed with a little work, the conduct of the academic amounts to treachery. That was his word, “treachery.” You can see why I love this stuff. He says you have a duty if you’re an academic to be as little of a klutz as you can possibly be, and therefore you have got to keep grinding out of your system as much removable ignorance as you can remove.

7) Too Little Attention to Second and Higher Order Effects

On to the next one the seventh defect: Too little attention in economics to second order and even higher order effects. This defect is quite understandable, because the consequences have consequences, and the consequences of the consequences have consequences, and so on. It gets very complicated. When I was a meteorologist I found this stuff very irritating. And economics makes meteorology look like a tea party.

Mispredicting Medicare costs

Extreme economic ignorance was displayed when various experts, including Ph D. economists, forecast the cost of the original Medicare law. They did simple extrapolations of past costs. Well the cost forecast was off by a factor of more than 1000%. The cost they projected was less than 10% of the cost that happened. Once they put in place all these new incentives, the behavior changed in response to the incentives, and the numbers became quite different from their projection. And medicine invented new and expensive remedies, as it was sure to do. How could a great group of experts make such a silly forecast? Answer: They over simplified to get easy figures, like the rube rounding Pi to 3.2! They chose not to consider effects of effects on effects, and so on.

Investing in textile looms

One good thing about this common form of misthinking from the viewpoint of academia, is that business people are even more foolish about microeconomics. The business version of the Medicare-type insanity is when you own a textile plant and a guy comes in and says, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful? They invented a new loom. It’ll pay for itself in three years at current prices because it adds so much efficiency to the production of textiles.” And you keep buying these looms for 20 years, and their equivalent, and you keep making 4% on capital, you never go anywhere. And the answer is, it wasn’t that technology didn’t work, it’s that the laws of economics caused the benefit from the new looms to go to the people that bought the textiles, not the guy that owned the textile plant. How could anybody not know that if he’d taken freshmen economics or been through business school? I think the schools are doing a lousy job. Otherwise such insanities wouldn’t happen so often.

Usually, I don’t use formal projections. I don’t let people do them for me because I don’t like throwing up on the desk (laughter), but I see them made in a very foolish way all the time, and many people believe in them, no matter how foolish they are. It’s an effective sales technique in America to put a foolish projection on a desk.

And if you’re an investment banker, it’s an art form. I don’t read their projections either. Once Warren and I bought a company and the seller had a big study done by an investment banker, it was about this thick. We just turned it over as if it were a diseased carcass. He said, “We paid $2 million for that.” I said, “We don’t use them. Never look at them.”

Workman’s comp madness

Anyway, as the Medicare example showed, all human systems are gamed, for reasons rooted deeply in psychology, and great skill is displayed in the gaming because game theory has so much potential. That’s what’s wrong with the workman’s comp system in California. Gaming has been raised to an art form. In the course of gaming the system, people learn to be crooked. Is this good for civilization? Is it good for economic performance? Hell no. The people who design easily–gameable systems belong in the lowest circle of hell.

I’ve got a friend whose family controls about 8% of the truck trailer market. He just closed his last factory in California and he had one in Texas that was even worse. The workman’s comp cost in his Texas plant got to be about 30% of payroll. Well, there’s no such profit in making truck trailers. He closed his plant and moved it to Ogden, Utah, where a bunch of believing Mormons are raising big families and don’t game the workman’s comp system. The workman’s comp expense is 2% of payroll.

Are the Latinos who were peopling his plant in Texas intrinsically dishonest or bad compared to the Mormons? No. It’s just the incentive structure that so rewards all this fraud is put in place by these ignorant legislatures, many members of which have been to law school, and they just don’t think about what terrible things they’re doing to the civilization because they don’t take into account the second order effects and the third order effects in lying and cheating. So, this happens everywhere, and when economics is full of it, it is just like the rest of life.

Niederhoffering the curriculum

There was a wonderful example of gaming a human system in the career of Victor Niederhoffer in the Economics Department of Harvard. Victor Niederhoffer was the son of a police lieutenant, and he needed to get A’s at Harvard. But he didn’t want to do any serious work at Harvard, because what he really liked doing was, one, playing world-class checkers; two, gambling in high-stakes card games, at which he was very good, all hours of the day and night; three, being the squash champion of the United States, which he was for years; and, four, being about as good a tennis player as a part-time tennis player could be.

This did not leave much time for getting A’s at Harvard so he went into the Economics Department. You’d think he would have chosen French poetry. But remember, this was a guy who could play championship checkers. He thought he was up to outsmarting the Harvard Economics Department. And he was. He noticed that the graduate students did most of the boring work that would otherwise go to the professors, and he noticed that because it was so hard to get to be a graduate student at Harvard, they were all very brilliant and organized and hard working, as well as much needed by grateful professors.

And therefore, by custom, and as would be predicted from the psychological force called reciprocity tendency, in a really advanced graduate course, the professors always gave an A. So Victor Niederhoffer signed up for nothing but the most advanced graduate courses in the Harvard Economics Department, and of course, he got A, after A, after A, after A, and was hardly ever near a class. And for a while, some people at Harvard may have thought it had a new prodigy on its hands. That’s a ridiculous story, but the scheme will work still. And Niederhoffer is famous: they call his style “Niederhoffering the curriculum.” (Laughter).

This shows how all-human systems are gamed. Another example of not thinking through the consequences of the consequences is the standard reaction in economics to Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage giving benefit on both sides of trade. Ricardo came up with a wonderful, non-obvious explanation that was so powerful that people were charmed with it, and they still are, because it’s a very useful idea. Everybody in economics understands that comparative advantage is a big deal, when one considers first order advantages in trade from the Ricardo effect. But suppose you’ve got a very talented ethnic group, like the Chinese, and they’re very poor and backward, and you’re an advanced nation, and you create free trade with China, and it goes on for a long time.

Now let’s follow with second and third order consequences: You are more prosperous than you would have been if you hadn’t traded with China in terms of average well-being in the United States, right? Ricardo proved it. But which nation is going to be growing faster in economic terms? It’s obviously China. They’re absorbing all the modern technology of the world through this great facilitator in free trade, and, like the Asian Tigers have proved, they will get ahead fast. Look at Hong Kong. Look at Taiwan. Look at early Japan. So, you start in a place where you’ve got a weak nation of backward peasants, a billion and a quarter of them, and in the end they’re going to be a much bigger, stronger nation than you are, maybe even having more and better atomic bombs. Well, Ricardo did not prove that that’s a wonderful outcome for the former leading nation. He didn’t try to determine second order and higher order effects.

If you try and talk like this to an economics professor, and I’ve done this three times, they shrink in horror and offense because they don’t like this kind of talk. It really gums up this nice discipline of theirs, which is so much simpler when you ignore second and third order consequences.

The best answer I ever got on that subject – in three tries – was from George Schultz. He said, “Charlie, the way I figure it is if we stop trading with China, the other advanced nations will do it anyway, and we wouldn’t stop the ascent of China compared to us, and we’d lose the Ricardodiagnosed advantages of trade.” Which is obviously correct. And I said, “Well George, you’ve just invented a new form of the tragedy of the commons. You’re locked in this system and you can’t fix it. You’re going to go to a tragic hell in a handbasket, if going to hell involves being once the great leader of the world and finally going to the shallows in terms of leadership.” And he said, “Charlie, I do not want to think about this.” I think he’s wise. He’s even older than I am, and maybe I should learn from him.

8) Not Enough Attention to the Concept of Febezzlement

Okay, I’m now down to my eighth objection: Too little attention within economics to the simplest and most fundamental principle of algebra. Now this sounds outrageous, that economics doesn’t do algebra, right? Well, I want to try an example – I may be wrong on this. I’m old and I’m iconoclastic – but I throw it out anyway. I say that economics doesn’t pay enough attention to the concept of febezzlement. And that I derive from Galbraith’s idea. Galbraith’s idea was that, if you have an undisclosed embezzlement, it has a wonderful Keynesian stimulating effect on the economy because the guy who’s been embezzled thinks he is as rich as he always was and spends accordingly, and the guy that had stolen the money gets all this new purchasing power. I think that’s correct analysis on Galbraith’s part. The trouble with his notion is that he’s described a minor phenomenon. Because when the embezzlement is discovered, as it almost surely will be, the effect will quickly reverse. So the effect quickly cancels out.

But suppose you paid a lot of attention to algebra, which I guess Galbraith didn’t, and you think, “Well, the fundamental principle of algebra is, ‘If A is equal to B and B is equal to C, then A is equal to C.’” You’ve then got a fundamental principle that demands that you look for functional equivalents, all you can find. So suppose you ask the question, “Is there such a thing in economics as a febezzlement?” By the way, Galbraith invented the word “bezzle” to describe the amount of undisclosed embezzlement, so I invented the word “febezzlement”: the functional equivalent of embezzlement.

This happened after I asked the question “Is there a functional equivalent of embezzlement?” I came up with a lot of wonderful affirmative answers. Some were in investment management. After all I’m near investment management. I considered the billions of dollars totally wasted in the course of investing common stock portfolios for American owners. As long as the market keeps going up, the guy who’s wasting all this money doesn’t feel it, because he’s looking at these steadily rising values. And to the guy who is getting the money for investment advice, the money looks like well earned income, when he’s really selling detriment for money, surely the functional equivalent of undisclosed embezzlement. You can see why I don’t get invited to many lectures.

So I say, if you look in the economy for febezzlement, the functional equivalent of embezzlement, you’ll find some enormously powerful factors. They create some “wealth effect” that is on steroids, compared to the old “wealth effect.” But practically nobody thinks as I do, and I quitclaim my idea to any hungry graduate student who has independent means, which he will need before his thesis topic is approved.

9) Not Enough Attention to Virtue and Vice Effects

Okay, my ninth objection: Not enough attention to virtue and vice effects in economics. It has been plain to me since early life that there are enormous virtue effects in economics, and also enormous vice effects. But economists get very uncomfortable when you talk about virtue and vice. It doesn’t lend itself to a lot of columns of numbers. But I would argue that there are big virtue effects in economics. I would say that the spreading of double-entry bookkeeping by the Monk, Fra Luca de Pacioli, was a big virtue effect in economics. It made business more controllable, and it made it more honest. Then the cash register. The cash register did more for human morality than the congregational church. It was a really powerful phenomenon to make an economic system work better, just as, in reverse, a system that can be easily defrauded ruins a civilization. A system that’s very hard to defraud, like a cash register, helps the economic performance of a civilization by reducing vice, but very few people within economics talk about it in those terms.

Religion

I’ll go further: I say economic systems work better when there’s an extreme reliability ethos. And the traditional way to get a reliability ethos, at least in past generations in America, was through religion. The religions instilled guilt. We have a charming Irish Catholic priest in our neighborhood and he loves to say, “Those old Jews may have invented guilt, but we perfected it.” (Laughter). And this guilt, derived from religion, has been a huge driver of a reliability ethos, which has been very helpful to economic outcomes for man.

Pay for directors and judges

Many bad effects from vice are clear. You’ve got the crazy booms and crooked promotions – all you have to do is read the paper over the last six months. There’s enough vice to make us all choke. And, by the way, everybody’s angry about unfair compensation at the top of American corporations, and people should be. We now face various crazy nostrums invented by lawyers which won’t give us a fix for unfair compensation, yet a good partial solution is obvious: If directors were significant shareholders who got a pay of zero, you’d be amazed what would happen to unfair compensation of corporate executives as we dampened effects from reciprocity tendency.

A roughly similar equivalent of this no-pay system has been tried in a strange place. In England the lower criminal courts which can send you to prison for a year or fine you substantially, are staffed by lay magistrates. You’ve got three judges sitting up there, and they all get a pay of zero. Their expenses are reimbursed, but not too liberally. And they work about 40 half-days a year, as volunteers. It’s worked beautifully for about 700 years. Able and honest people compete to become magistrates, to perform the duty and get the significance, but no pay.

This is the system Benjamin Franklin, near the end of his life, wanted for U.S. government. He didn’t want the high executives of government to be paid, but to be like himself or the entirely unpaid, well-off ministers and rulers of the Mormon Church. And when I see what’s happened in California, I’m not sure he wasn’t right. At any rate, no one now drifts in Franklin’s direction. For one thing, professors – and most of them need money – get appointed directors.

Not a vice that some systems are deliberately made unfair. It is not always recognized that, to function best, morality should sometimes appear unfair, like most worldly outcomes. The craving for perfect fairness causes a lot of terrible problems in system function. Some systems should be made deliberately unfair to individuals because they’ll be fairer on average for all of us. I frequently cite the example of having your career over, in the Navy, if your ship goes aground, even if it wasn’t your fault. I say the lack of justice for the one guy that wasn’t at fault is way more than made up by a greater justice for everybody when every captain of a ship always sweats blood to make sure the ship doesn’t go aground. Tolerating a little unfairness to some to get a greater fairness for all is a model I recommend to all of you. But again, I wouldn’t put it in your assigned college work if you want to be graded well, particularly in a modern law school wherein there is usually an over-love of fairness-seeking process.

Contributions of vice to bubbles

There are, of course, enormous vice effects in economics. You have these bubbles with so much fraud and folly. The aftermath is frequently very unpleasant, and we’ve had some of that lately. One of the first big bubbles, of course, was the huge and horrible South Sea bubble in England.

And the aftermath was interesting. Many of you probably don’t remember what happened after the South Sea Bubble, which caused an enormous financial contraction, and a lot of pain. They banned publicly traded stock in England for decades. Parliament passed a law that said you can have a partnership with a few partners, but you can’t have publicly traded stock. And, by the way, England continued to grow without publicly traded stock. The people who are in the business of prospering because there’s a lot of stock being traded in casino-like frenzy wouldn’t like this example if they studied it enough. It didn’t ruin England to have a long period when they didn’t have publicly traded shares.

Just as in real estate. We had all the shopping centers and auto dealerships, and so on, we needed for years when we didn’t have publicly traded real estate shares. It’s a myth that once you’ve got some capital market, economic considerations demand that it has to be as fast and efficient as a casino. It doesn’t.

Paradoxical good contributions from vice; the irremovability of paradox

Another interesting problem is raised by vice effects involving envy. Envy wisely got a very strong condemnation in the laws of Moses. You remember how they laid it on with a trowel: You couldn’t covet thy neighbor’s ass, you couldn’t covet thy neighbor’s servant girl, you couldn’t covet…–Those old Jews knew how envious people are and how much trouble it caused. They really laid it on hard, and they were right. But Mandeville, remember his fable of bees? He demonstrated convincingly – to me, anyway – that envy was a great driver of proclivity to spend.

And so here’s this terrible vice, which is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, and here it’s driving all these favorable results in economics. There’s some paradox in economics that nobody’s going to get out.

When I was young, everybody was excited by Godel who came up with proof that you couldn’t have a mathematical system without a lot of irritating incompleteness in it. Well, since then my betters tell me that they’ve come up with more irremovable defects in mathematics and have decided that you’re never going to get mathematics without some paradox in it. No matter how hard you work, you’re going to have to live with some paradox if you’re a mathematician.

Well, if the mathematicians can’t get the paradox out of their system when they’re creating it themselves, the poor economists are never going to get rid of paradoxes, nor are any of the rest of us. It doesn’t matter. Life is interesting with some paradox. When I run into a paradox I think either I’m a total horse’s ass to have gotten to this point, or I’m fruitfully near the edge of my discipline. It adds excitement to life to wonder which it is.

Conclusion

Clinging to failed ideas – a horror story

As I conclude, I want to tell one more story demonstrating how awful it is to get a wrong idea from a limited repertoire and just stick to it. And this is the story of Hyman Liebowitz who came to America from the old country. In the new country, as in the old, he tried to make his way in the family trade, which was manufacturing nails. And he struggled and he struggled, and finally his little nail business got to vast prosperity, and his wife said to him, “You are old, Hyman, it’s time to go to Florida and turn the business over to our son.”

So down he went to Florida, turning his business over to the son, but he got weekly financial reports. And he hadn’t been in Florida very long before they turned sharply negative. In fact, they were terrible. So he got on an airplane and he went back to New Jersey, where the factory was. As he left the airport on the way to the factory he saw this enormous outdoor advertising sign lighted up. And there was Jesus, spread out on the cross. And under it was a big legend, “They Used Liebowitz’s Nails.” So he stormed into the factory and said, “You dumb son! What do you think you’re doing? It took me 50 years to create this business!” “Papa,” he said, “trust me. I will fix it.”

So back he went to Florida, and while he was in Florida he got more reports, and the results kept getting worse. So he got on the airplane again. Left the airport, drove by the sign, looked up at this big lighted sign, and now there’s a vacant cross. And, low and behold, Jesus is crumpled on the ground under the cross, and the sign said, “They Didn’t Use Liebowitz’s Nails.” (Laughter). Well, you can laugh at that. It is ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than the way a lot of people cling to failed ideas. Keynes said “It’s not bringing in the new ideas that’s so hard. It’s getting rid of the old ones.” And Einstein said it better, attributing his mental success to “curiosity, concentration, perseverance and self-criticism.” By self-criticism he meant becoming good at destroying your own best-loved and hardest-won ideas. If you can get really good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift.

Repeating the big lesson

Well, it’s time to repeat the big lesson in this little talk. What I’ve urged is the use of a bigger multidisciplinary bag of tricks, mastered to fluency, to help economics and everything else. And I also urged that people not be discouraged by irremovable complexity and paradox. It just adds more fun to the problems. My inspiration again is Keynes: Better roughly right than precisely wrong.

And so I end by repeating what I said once before on a similar occasion. If you skillfully follow the multidisciplinary path, you will never wish to come back. It would be like cutting off your hands.

Well, that’s the end. I’ll take questions as long as people can endure me.

The Darwin Economy – Why Smith’s Invisible Hand Breaks Down

In The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and The Common Good Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, takes on the debate of who was a better economist—Adam Smith or Charles Darwin. Frank, surprisingly, sides with Darwin, arguing that within the next century Darwin will unseat Smith as the intellectual founder of economics.

Why does the invisible hand, “which says that competition challenges self-interest for the common good” break down?

Without question, Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a genuinely ground breaking insight. Producers rush to introduce improved product designs and cost-saving innovations for the sole purpose of capturing market share and profits from their rivals. In the short run, these steps work just as the producers had hoped. But rival firms are quick to mimic the innovations, and the resulting competition quickly causes prices to fall in line with the new, lower costs. In the end, Smith argued, consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries of all this churning.

But many of Smith’s modern disciples believe he made the much bolder claim that markets always harness individual self-interest to produce the greatest good for society as a whole. Smith’s own account, however, was far more circumspect. He wrote, for example, that the profit-seeking business owner “intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it [emphasis added].”

Smith never believed that the invisible hand guaranteed good outcomes in all circumstances. His skepticism was on full display, for example, when he wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” To him, what was remarkable was that self-interested actions often led to socially benign outcomes.

Like Smith, modern progressive critics of the market system tend to attribute its failings to conspiracies to restrain competition. But competition was much more easily restrained in Smith’s day than it is now. The real challenge to the invisible hand is rooted in the very logic of the competitive process itself.

Charles Darwin was one of the first to perceive the underlying problem clearly. One of his central insights was that natural selection favors traits and behaviors primarily according to their effect on individual organisms, not larger groups. Sometimes individual and group interests coincide, he recognized, and in such cases we often get invisible hand-like results. A mutation that codes for keener eyesight in one particular hawk, for example, serves the interests of that individual, but its inevitable spread also makes hawks as a species more successful.

In other cases, however, mutations that help the individual prove quite harmful to the larger group. This is in fact the expected result for mutations that confer advantage in head-to-head competition among members of the same species. Male body mass is a case in point. Most vertebrate species are polygynous, meaning that males take more than one mate if they can. The qualifier is important, because when some take multiple mates, others get none. The latter don’t pass their genes along, making them the ultimate losers in Darwinian terms. So it’s no surprise that males often battle furiously for access to mates. Size matters in those battles, and hence the evolutionary arms races that produce larger males.

Elephant seals are an extreme but instructive example.10 Bulls of the species often weigh almost six thousand pounds, more than five times as much as females and almost as much as a Lincoln Navigator SUV. During the mating season, pairs of mature bulls battle one another ferociously for hours on end, until one finally trudges off in defeat, bloodied and exhausted. The victor claims near-exclusive sexual access to a harem that may number as many as a hundred cows. But while being larger than his rival makes an individual bull more likely to prevail in such battles, prodigious size is a clear handicap for bulls as a group, making them far more vulnerable to sharks and other predators.

Given an opportunity to vote on a proposal to reduce every animal’s weight by half, bulls would have every reason to favor it. Since it’s relative size, not absolute size, that matters in battle, the change would not affect the outcome of any given head-to-head contest, but it would reduce each animal’s risk of being eaten by sharks. There’s no practical way, of course, that elephant seals could implement such a proposal. Nor could any bull solve this problem unilaterally, since a bull that weighed much less than others would never win a mate.

Similar conflicts pervade human interactions when individual rewards depend on relative performance. Their essence is nicely captured in a celebrated example by the economist Thomas Schelling. Schelling noted that hockey players who are free to choose for themselves invariably skate without helmets, yet when they’re permitted to vote on the matter, they support rules that require them. If helmets are so great, he wondered, why don’t players just wear them? Why do they need a rule?

His answer began with the observation that skating without a helmet confers a small competitive edge—perhaps by enabling players to see or hear a little better, or perhaps by enabling them to intimidate their opponents. The immediate lure of gaining a competitive edge trumps more abstract concerns about the possibility of injury, so players eagerly embrace the additional risk. The rub, of course, is that when every player skates without a helmet, no one gains a competitive advantage—hence the attraction of the rule.

As Schelling’s diagnosis makes clear, the problem confronting hockey players has nothing to do with imperfect information, lack of self-control, or poor cognitive skills—shortcomings that are often cited as grounds for government intervention. And it clearly does not stem from exploitation or any insufficiency of competition. Rather, it’s a garden-variety collective action problem. Players favor helmet rules because that’s the only way they’re able to play under reasonably safe conditions. A simple nudge—say, a sign in the locker room reminding players that helmets reduce the risk of serious injury—just won’t solve their problem. They need a mandate.

What about the libertarians’ complaint that helmet rules deprive individuals of the right to choose? This objection is akin to objecting that a military arms control agreement robs the signatories of their right to choose for themselves how much to spend on bombs. Of course, but that’s the whole point of such agreements! Parties who confront a collective action problem often realize that the only way to get what they want is to constrain their own ability to do as they please.

As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, it’s permissible to constrain an individual’s freedom of action only when there’s no less intrusive way to prevent undue harm to others. The hockey helmet rule appears to meet this test. By skating without a helmet, a player imposes harm on rival players by making them less likely to win the game, an outcome that really matters to them. If the helmet rule itself somehow imposed even greater harm, it wouldn’t be justified. But that’s a simple practical question, not a matter of deep philosophical principle.

Rewards that depend on relative performance spawn collective action problems that can cause markets to fail. For instance, the same wedge that separates individual and group interests in Darwinian arms races also helps explain why the invisible hand might not automatically lead to the best possible levels of safety in the workplace. The traditional invisible-hand account begins with the observation that, all other factors the same, riskier jobs tend to pay more, for two reasons. Because of the money employers save by not installing additional safety equipment, they can pay more; and because workers like safety, they will choose safer jobs unless riskier jobs do, in fact, pay more. According to the standard invisible-hand narrative, the fact that a worker is willing to accept lower safety for higher wages implies that the extra income was sufficient compensation for the decrement in safety. But that account rests on the assumption that extra income is valued only for the additional absolute consumption it makes possible. When a worker gets a higher wage, however, there is also a second important benefit. He is able to consume more in absolute terms, yes—but he is also able to consume more relative to others.

Most parents, for example, want to send their children to the best possible schools. Some workers might thus decide to accept a riskier job at a higher wage because that would enable them to meet the monthly payments on a house in a better school district. But other workers are in the same boat, and school quality is an inherently relative concept. So if other workers also traded safety for higher wages, the ultimate outcome would be merely to bid up the prices of houses in better school districts. Everyone would end up with less safety, yet no one would achieve the goal that made that trade seem acceptable in the first place. As in a military arms race, when all parties build more arms, none is any more secure than before.

Workers confronting these incentives might well prefer an alternative state of the world in which all enjoyed greater safety, even at the expense of all having lower wages. But workers can control only their own job choices, not the choices of others. If any individual worker accepted a safer job while others didn’t, that worker would be forced to send her children to inferior schools. To get the outcome they desire, workers must act in unison. Again, a mere nudge won’t do. Merely knowing that individual actions are self- canceling doesn’t eliminate the incentive to take those actions.

The Darwin Economy goes on to explore the consequences and implications of Darwin’s theory being a better model for economics than Smith’s invisible hand.

A Discussion on the Work of Daniel Kahneman

Edge.org asked the likes of Christopher Chabris, Nicholas Epley, Jason Zweig, William Poundstone, Cass Sunstein, Phil Rosenzweig, Richard Thaler & Sendhil Mullainathan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Steven Pinker, and Rory Sutherland among others: “How has Kahneman’s work influenced your own? What step did it make possible?”

Kahneman’s work is summarized in the international best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Here are some select excerpts that I found interesting.

Christopher Chabris (author of The Invisible Gorilla)

There’s an overarching lesson I have learned from the work of Danny Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and their colleagues who collectively pioneered the modern study of judgment and decision-making: Don’t trust your intuition.

Jennifer Jacquet

After what I see as years of hard work, experiments of admirable design, lucid writing, and quiet leadership, Kahneman, a man who spent the majority of his career in departments of psychology, earned the highest prize in economics. This was a reminder that some of the best insights into economic behavior could be (and had been) gleaned outside of the discipline

Jason Zweig (author of Your Money and Your Brain)

… nothing amazed me more about Danny than his ability to detonate what we had just done.

Anyone who has ever collaborated with him tells a version of this story: You go to sleep feeling that Danny and you had done important and incontestably good work that day. You wake up at a normal human hour, grab breakfast, and open your email. To your consternation, you see a string of emails from Danny, beginning around 2:30 a.m. The subject lines commence in worry, turn darker, and end around 5 a.m. expressing complete doubt about the previous day’s work.

You send an email asking when he can talk; you assume Danny must be asleep after staying up all night trashing the chapter. Your cellphone rings a few seconds later. “I think I figured out the problem,” says Danny, sounding remarkably chipper. “What do you think of this approach instead?”

The next thing you know, he sends a version so utterly transformed that it is unrecognizable: It begins differently, it ends differently, it incorporates anecdotes and evidence you never would have thought of, it draws on research that you’ve never heard of. If the earlier version was close to gold, this one is hewn out of something like diamond: The raw materials have all changed, but the same ideas are somehow illuminated with a sharper shift of brilliance.

The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck. How did he do that? How could anybody do that? When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

William Poundstone (author of Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google?)

As a writer of nonfiction I’m often in the position of trying to connect the dots—to draw grand conclusions from small samples. Do three events make a trend? Do three quoted sources justify a conclusion? Both are maxims of journalism. I try to keep in mind Kahneman and Tversky’s Law of Small Numbers. It warns that small samples aren’t nearly so informative, in our uncertain world, as intuition counsels.

Cass R. Sunstein (Author, Why Nudge?)

These ideas are hardly Kahneman’s most well-known, but they are full of implications, and we have only started to understand them.

1. The outrage heuristic. People’s judgments about punishment are a product of outrage, which operates as a shorthand for more complex inquiries that judges and lawyers often think relevant. When people decide about appropriate punishment, they tend to ask a simple question: How outrageous was the underlying conduct? It follows that people are intuitive retributivists, and also that utilitarian thinking will often seem uncongenial and even outrageous.

2. Scaling without a modulus. Remarkably, it turns out that people often agree on how outrageous certain misconduct is (on a scale of 1 to 8), but also remarkably, their monetary judgments are all over the map. The reason is that people do not have a good sense of how to translate their judgments of outrage onto the monetary scale. As Kahneman shows, some work in psychophysics explains the problem: People are asked to “scale without a modulus,” and that is an exceedingly challenging task. The result is uncertainty and unpredictability. These claims have implications for numerous questions in law and policy, including the award of damages for pain and suffering, administrative penalties, and criminal sentences.

3. Rhetorical asymmetry. In our work on jury awards, we found that deliberating juries typically produce monetary awards against corporate defendants that are higher, and indeed much higher, than the median award of the individual jurors before deliberation began. Kahneman’s hypothesis is that in at least a certain category of cases, those who argue for higher awards have a rhetoric advantage over those who argue for lower awards, leading to a rhetorical asymmetry. The basic idea is that in light of social norms, one side, in certain debates, has an inherent advantage – and group judgments will shift accordingly. A similar rhetorical asymmetry can be found in groups of many kinds, in both private and public sectors, and it helps to explain why groups move.

4. Predictably incoherent judgments. We found that when people make moral or legal judgments in isolation, they produce a pattern of outcomes that they would themselves reject, if only they could see that pattern as a whole. A major reason is that human thinking is category-bound. When people see a case in isolation, they spontaneously compare it to other cases that are mainly drawn from the same category of harms. When people are required to compare cases that involve different kinds of harms, judgments that appear sensible when the problems are considered separately often appear incoherent and arbitrary in the broader context. In my view, Kahneman’s idea of predictable coherence has yet to be adequately appreciated; it bears on both fiscal policy and on regulation.

Phil Rosenzweig

For years, there were (as the old saying has it) two kinds of people: those relatively few of us who were aware of the work of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and the much more numerous who were not. Happily, the balance is now shifting, and more of the general public has been able to hear directly a voice that is in equal measures wise and modest.

Sendhil Mullainathan (Author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much)

… Kahneman and Tversky’s early work opened this door exactly because it was not what most people think it was. Many think of this work as an attack on rationality (often defined in some narrow technical sense). That misconception still exists among many, and it misses the entire point of their exercise. Attacks on rationality had been around well before Kahneman and Tversky—many people recognized that the simplifying assumptions of economics were grossly over-simplifying. Of course humans do not have infinite cognitive abilities. We are also not as strong as gorillas, as fast as cheetahs, and cannot swim like sea lions. But we do not therefore say that there is something wrong with humans. That we have limited cognitive abilities is both true and no more helpful to doing good social science that to acknowledge our weakness as swimmers. Pointing it out did it open any new doors.

Kahneman and Tversky’s work did not just attack rationality, it offered a constructive alternative: a better description of how humans think. People, they argued, often use simple rules of thumb to make judgments, which incidentally is a pretty smart thing to do. But this is not the insight that left us one step from doing behavioral economics. The breakthrough idea was that these rules of thumb could be catalogued. And once understood they can be used to predict where people will make systematic errors. Those two words are what made behavioral economics possible.

Nassim Taleb (Author of Antifragile)

Here is an insight Danny K. triggered and changed the course of my work. I figured out a nontrivial problem in randomness and its underestimation a decade ago while reading the following sentence in a paper by Kahneman and Miller of 1986:

A spectator at a weight lifting event, for example, will find it easier to imagine the same athlete lifting a different weight than to keep the achievement constant and vary the athlete’s physique.

This idea of varying one side, not the other also applies to mental simulations of future (random) events, when people engage in projections of different counterfactuals. Authors and managers have a tendency to take one variable for fixed, sort-of a numeraire, and perturbate the other, as a default in mental simulations. One side is going to be random, not the other.

It hit me that the mathematical consequence is vastly more severe than it appears. Kahneman and colleagues focused on the bias that variable of choice is not random. But the paper set off in my mind the following realization: now what if we were to go one step beyond and perturbate both? The response would be nonlinear. I had never considered the effect of such nonlinearity earlier nor seen it explicitly made in the literature on risk and counterfactuals. And you never encounter one single random variable in real life; there are many things moving together.

Increasing the number of random variables compounds the number of counterfactuals and causes more extremes—particularly in fat-tailed environments (i.e., Extremistan): imagine perturbating by producing a lot of scenarios and, in one of the scenarios, increasing the weights of the barbell and decreasing the bodyweight of the weightlifter. This compounding would produce an extreme event of sorts. Extreme, or tail events (Black Swans) are therefore more likely to be produced when both variables are random, that is real life. Simple.

Now, in the real world we never face one variable without something else with it. In academic experiments, we do. This sets the serious difference between laboratory (or the casino’s “ludic” setup), and the difference between academia and real life. And such difference is, sort of, tractable.

… Say you are the manager of a fertilizer plant. You try to issue various projections of the sales of your product—like the weights in the weightlifter’s story. But you also need to keep in mind that there is a second variable to perturbate: what happens to the competition—you do not want them to be lucky, invent better products, or cheaper technologies. So not only you need to predict your fate (with errors) but also that of the competition (also with errors). And the variance from these errors add arithmetically when one focuses on differences.

Rory Sutherland

When I met Danny in London in 2009 he diffidently said that the only hope he had for his work was that “it might lead to a better kind of gossip”—where people discuss each other’s motivations and behaviour in slightly more intelligent terms. To someone from an industry where a new flavour-variant of toothpaste is presented as being an earth-changing event, this seemed an incredibly modest aspiration for such important work.

However, if this was his aim, he has surely succeeded. When I meet people, I now use what I call “the Kahneman heuristic”. You simply ask people “Have you read Danny Kahneman’s book?” If the answer is yes, you know (p>0.95) that the conversation will be more interesting, wide-ranging and open-minded than otherwise.

And it then occurred to me that his aim—for better conversations—was perhaps not modest at all. Multiplied a millionfold it may very important indeed. In the social sciences, I think it is fair to say, the good ideas are not always influential and the influential ideas are not always good. Kahneman’s work is now both good and influential.

Average Is Over: Why The Skills Required For Great Jobs Are Changing

“Knowing one’s limits is more important than it used to be.”

“Welcome to the Hyper-Meritocracy,” Cowen writes in his latest book Average Is Over.

This is an important book. Cowen is his typical thought-provoking self, showing us a possible (and probable, in my opinion) future where the skills needed to succeed will differ from those today.

Welcome to a world of extremes. On one hand, many people are “seeing the erosion of their economic futures.” On the other hand, “the very top earners, who often have advanced postsecondary degrees, are earning much more.”

This is how the book got its title: Average is Over.

This maxim will apply to the quality of your job, to your earnings, to where you live, to your education and to the education of your children, and maybe even to your most intimate relationships. Marriages, families, businesses, countries, cities, and regions all will see a greater split in material outcomes; namely, they will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results.

Cowen believes that workers will increasingly fall into two categories.

The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

If you and your skills are a complement to the computer , your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery . If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other.

Welcome to the age of machine intelligence.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that mechanized intelligence can solve a rapidly expanding repertoire of problems. Solutions began appearing on the margins of the world’s interests . Deep Blue, an IBM computer, defeated the then– world champion Garry Kasparov in a chess match in 1997. Watson, a computer program, beat Ken Jennings— the human champion— on Jeopardy! in 2010, surpassing most expectations as to how quickly this would happen.

We’re close to the point where the available knowledge at the hands of the individual, for questions that can be posed clearly and articulately, is not so far from the knowledge of the entire world. Whether it is through Siri, Google, or Wikipedia, there is now almost always a way to ask and— more importantly— a way to receive the answer in relatively digestible form.

It must be emphasized that every time you use Google you are relying on machine intelligence. Every time Facebook recommends a new friend for you or sends an ad your way. Every time you use GPS to find your way to a party.

Date-matching algorithms are steering our love lives and replacing the matchmaker. Match.com recently improved its services, and as of summer 2011 more than half of the emails sent on the service originate from recommended matches, rather than from unaided individual choices. Better algorithms often are seen as the future of the sector, whether or not they really find the best person for us. Arguably the machine recommendations are a way of tricking the user into making a plausible date choice rather than cruising more profiles and postponing a decision; that possibility illustrates our willingness to defer to the machines, even when they aren’t necessarily better at the task at hand.

Think we’re ages away from machines doing amazing things? Do you remember the New York Times Story that illustrated how Target, through algorithms, knew a teenage girl was pregnant before her father.

In an age of machine intelligence, where will most of the benefits go?

To put the question in the bluntest possible way, let’s say that machine intelligence helps us make a lot more things more cheaply, as indeed it is doing. Where will most of the benefits go? In accord with economic reasoning, they will go to that which is scarce.

In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:

1. Quality land and natural resources
2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.
3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)

As machines become more powerful, the people who benefit will be the people who are “adept at working with computers and with related devices for communications and information processing.” The way to earn well will be to augment the value of tech, even if only by a small bit.

That means humans with strong math and analytic skills, humans who are comfortable working with computers because they understand their operation, and humans who intuitively grasp how computers can be used for marketing and for other non-techie tasks. It’s not just about programming skills; it is also often about developing the hardware connected with software, understanding what kind of internet ads connect with their human viewers, or understanding what shape and color makes an iPhone attractive in a given market. Computer nerds will indeed do well, but not everyone will have to become a computer nerd.

The key to the future is the ability to “mix technical knowledge with solving real world problems.”

There is a chapter in Cowen’s book called “The Freestyle future.” Rather than type out lengthy excerpts from the book, Cowen explains the concept briefly in this interview:

Russ: So let’s talk about what you’ve learned as a chess fan. And you write at some length. At first I was rather taken aback by this, but I grew to find it quite fascinating. You write at some length about the role of machines in chess tournaments, and particularly in freestyle. Talk about that and why it’s a nice potential template for future human interaction.

Cowen: Freestyle is a form of chess where a human teams up with a computer. So, if you play human-and-computer against computer, for the most part human-and-computer, if it’s a practiced human, will beat the computer. Even though computers per se are much stronger than humans at chess, it’s the team that’s stronger than either one. And I think this is a good metaphor for a lot of what our job market future will look like. So there’s a big chunk of the book that looks rather closely at freestyle chess and tries to see what we can learn from it.

Russ: The thing I found most provocative about that is that the best freestyle teams do not necessarily have the best human players. In fact that could be something of a handicap.

Cowen: That’s right. The really good human players are too tempted to override the computer and substitute in their own judgment. The best freestyle teams, they are quite epistemically modest, the human or humans involved. And what they are really good at is asking questions. So they’ll run two or three different computer programs and then just check on where do those programs disagree. And then they’ll probe more on those points. And that’s what the humans do well that the computers, at least not yet, aren’t able to copy. So it’s knowing what questions to ask that has become the important human skill in this freestyle endeavor.

Russ: So, applying that to the medical diagnosis example you gave earlier, it suggests I don’t want the guy or the woman who had the best grades in medical school or the most arrogant–which is often in today’s world, can be, the best doctor. I might want the most modest doctor, or not the most modest, but someone who is willing to let the diagnosis provided by the machine be the “right” one.

Cowen: That’s right. So, wisdom and modesty will become much greater epistemic virtues in the future scheme. I think that’s overall a good thing. We should revere those qualities more. And we will have to, looking forward.

We have to ask questions. And we have to be “meta-rational,” to borrow a term from decision theory. “That is,” Cowen writes, “I must realize that in most situations the judgment of (Shredder, the computer chess program) is simply better than my own, and defer accordingly. I am most likely to succeed in overriding the judgement of Shredder in complex strategic positions, in some endgames, when the program is fooling around with questionable opening choices, and when the program is getting greedy for material. … I can’t out-calculate the machine unless it boils down to the machine’s shorter time horizon, and I don’t always know if the length of the time horizon is the key issue.”

Most of us don’t want to listen to the machines. We think we’re smarter and we don’t know enough to know where we are smarter and where we’re not. Without knowing we operate outside of our circle of competence. So as much as anything the future will mean knowing our limits and wanting/being willing to listen to machines. This goes against the entire “go with your gut” industry.

In another interview, Cowen says:

So I think as humans we’re somewhat programmed to be a bit rebellious and to not want to be controlled, which is perfectly understandable given that others are trying to control us as often as they are. But that’s going to mean in those new settings, which we’ve never biologically evolved to handle, we’re going to screw up an awful lot.

What are the broader lessons we can take away?

1. Human-computer teams are the best teams.
2. The person working the smart machine doesn’t have to be an expert in the task at hand.
3. Below some critical level of skill, adding a man to the machine will make the team less effective than the machine working alone.
4. Knowing one’s limits is more important than it used to be.

If we merge Cowen’s thoughts in Average is Over with How Children Succeed and the concept of Grit, we come to the conclusion that in a world of information, what will be scarce is the ability to sit down in a quiet room and apply yourself. “Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it,” Cowen argues. But maybe we’re getting lazy.

So if you’re an individual, say from China or India, and you’re really smart and motivated, you’re going to do much better in this new world than say 10 or 20 years ago.

But there are a lot of people in the wealthier countries, I wouldn’t describe them as lazy, but they’re not super motivated. They think they can more or less get by. I think in relative terms those people are already starting to see lower wages because they’re just not quite the prize commodities they think they are. They’ll do okay. They’ll be able to get jobs, but they’re not really individuals who are going to see a lot of income growth, and I think this could be a rude awakening to a lot of people.

Echoing some of the advice of Genevieve Bell and Christian Madsbjerg Cowen supports humanities.

I think there will be a lot of so-called soft humanities roots that could have potentially big payoffs for hard, smart workers. It’s not all about how we all become programmers, and a lot of that kind of work can be outsourced or given to smart machines anyway.

So I would just stress to people that the value of really beginning to understand how other people think, to the extent you can acquire that in education, if that’s what you love, if that’s what you’re good at, that’s great. Not everyone has to jump on the computer science bandwagon. Though, of course, many people should.

Average is Over will help you navigate the future of work and position yourself accordingly.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

“The biggest mistake we make about scarcity is we view it as a physical phenomenon. It’s not.”

We’re busier than ever. The typical inbox is perpetually swelling with messages awaiting attention. Meetings need to be rescheduled because something came up. Our relationships suffer. We don’t spend as much time as we should with those who mean something to us. We have little time for new people; potential friends eventually get the hint and stop proposing ideas for things to do together. Falling behind, turns into a vicious cycle.

Does this sound anything like your life?

You have something in common with people who fall behind on their bills, argue Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. The resemblance, they write, is clear.

Missed deadlines are a lot like over-due bills. Double-booked meetings (committing time you do not have) are a lot like bounced checks (spending money you do not have). The busier you are, the greater the need to say no. The more indebted you are, the greater the need to not buy. Plans to escape sound reasonable but prove hard to implement. They require constant vigilance—about what to buy or what to agree to do. When vigilance flags—the slightest temptation in time or in money—you sink deeper.

Some people end up sinking further into debt. Others with more commitments. The resemblance is striking.

We normally think of time management and money management as distinct problems. The consequences of failing are different: bad time management leads to embarrassment or poor job performance; bad money management leads to fees or eviction. The cultural contexts are different: falling behind and missing a deadline means one thing to a busy professional; falling behind and missing a debt payment means something else to an urban low-wage worker.

What’s common between these situations? Scarcity. “By scarcity,” they write, “we mean having less than you feel you need.”

And what happens when we feel a sense of scarcity? To show us Mullainathan and Shafir bring us back to the past. Near the end of World War II, the Allies realized they would need to feed a lot of Europeans on the edge of starvation. The question wasn’t where to get the food but, rather, something more technical. What is the best way to start feeding them? Should you begin with normal meals or small quantities that gradually increase? Researchers at the University of Minnesota undertook an experiment with healthy male volunteers in a controlled environment “where their calories were reduced until they were subsisting on just enough food so as not to permanently harm themselves.” The most surprising findings were psychological. The men became completely focused on food in unexpected ways:

Obsessions developed around cookbooks and menus from local restaurants. Some men could spend hours comparing the prices of fruits and vegetables from one newspaper to the next. Some planned now to go into agriculture. They dreamed of new careers as restaurant owners…. When they went to the movies, only the scenes with food held their interest.

“Scarcity captures the mind,” Mullainathan and Shafir write. Starving people have food on their mind to the point of irrationality. But we all act this way when we experience scarcity. “The mind,” they write, “orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs.”

Scarcity is like oxygen. When you don’t need it, you don’t notice it. When you do need it, however, it’s all you notice.

For the hungry, that need is food. For the busy it might be a project that needs to be finished. For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent payment; for the lonely, a lack of companionship. Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.

And when scarcity is taking up your mental cycles and putting your attention on what you lack, you can’t attend to other things. How, for instance, can you learn?

(There was) a school in New Haven that was located next to a noisy railroad line. To measure the impact of this noise on academic performance, two researchers noted that only one side of the school faced the tracks, so the students in classrooms on that side were particularly exposed to the noise but were otherwise similar to their fellow students. They found a striking difference between the two sides of the school. Sixth graders on the train side were a full year behind their counterparts on the quieter side. Further evidence came when the city, prompted by this study, installed noise pads. The researchers found this erased the difference: now students on both sides of the building performed at the same level.

Cognitive load matters. Mullainathan and Shafir believe that scarcity imposes a similar mental tax, impairing our ability to perform well, and exercise self-control.

We are all susceptible to “the planning fallacy,” which means that we’re too optimistic about how long it will take to complete a project. Busy people, however, are more vulnerable to this fallacy. Because they are focused on everything they must currently do, they are “more distracted and overwhelmed—a surefire way to misplan.” “The underlying problem,” writes Cass Sunstein in his review for the New York Review of Books, “is that when people tunnel, they focus on their immediate problem; ‘knowing you will be hungry next month does not capture your attention the same way that being hungry today does.’ A behavioral consequence of scarcity is “juggling,” which prevents long-term planning.”

When we have abundance, we don’t have as much depletion. Wealthy people can weather a shock without turning their lives upside-down. The mental energy needed to prevail may be substantial, but it will not create a feeling of scarcity.

Imagine a day at work where your calendar is sprinkled with a few meetings and your to-do list is manageable. You spend the unscheduled time by lingering at lunch or at a meeting or calling a colleague to catch up. Now, imagine another day at work where your calendar is chock-full of meetings. What little free time you have must be sunk into a project that is overdue. In both cases time was physically scarce. You had the same number of hours at work and you had more than enough activities to fill them. Yet in one case you were acutely aware of scarcity, of the finiteness of time; in the other it was a distant reality, if you felt it at all. The feeling of scarcity is distinct from its physical reality.

Mullainathan and Shafir sum up their argument:

In a way, our argument in this book is quite simple. Scarcity captures our attention, and this provides a narrow benefit: we do a better job of managing pressing needs. But more broadly, it costs us: we neglect other concerns, and we become less effective in the rest of life. This argument not only helps explain how scarcity shapes our behaviors; it also produces some surprising results and sheds new light on how we might go about managing our scarcity.

In a way, this explains why diets never work.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much goes on to discuss some of the possible ways to mitigate scarcity using defaults and reminders.