Anatomy of Missing the Point

The entire election and what appears to be at least the next four years have/will be dominated by the same two halves of the country talking past each other in a way that neither of them quite understand.

Let’s use a hypothetical to illustrate the point.

Let’s say the POTUS, a Democrat, were to make a statement comparing the United States to a steaming pile of shit, and assume for the sake of argument, we all agree that’s pejorative.

Now, that President’s detractors, Republicans, are going to say, “whoa whoa whoa, that is simply un-American, and perhaps not true”. Democrats support their leader and point out that while it might be hyperbole, there are certainly things that could be better.

Now the next POTUS, a Republican, makes a statement comparing the United States to Russia, and assume for the sake of argument, we all agree that’s pejorative.

It might not seem like it, but the conditions are in place for a total meltdown of the brains of both sides.

Now the Democrats say, “whoa whoa whoa, you told us that was un-American! Also, that’s un-American!”. The Republicans respond, “It wasn’t so un-American last time, it was an accurate representation of the facts, you have changed your mind to suit the narrative”.

Both sides have now made both arguments, but more importantly, they’re now making the argument that the other side has played both sides of the coin and is either a) now wrong or b) inconsistent and therefore idiotic/puppets of their party. Neither side considers door c) which is of course that the other party is now correct and was incorrect before (and that their idiocy isn’t an unforgivable sin which makes them wrong even when they are right).

We are now stuck in a loop. Welcome to the next four years.

Trump on Immigration

With Trump signing an executive order to halt immigration from 7 countries, there is a resounding reaction (at least in my bubble):

Most people are deeply offended by what is pretty obviously a disgusting policy, and yet here we are.

So what is a bad-case here? That the current bans become permanent, that they are expanded, that the federal government grabs more power, that this erodes America’s inherent love of opportunity.

So why does nobody seem to be speaking up? For democrats, it’s easy, they have nothing to gain, they were even laughed at for taking Trump literally before the election.

But what about republicans? There are two possible ‘good’ outcomes here for republicans. #1 is that somehow whatever Trump ends up doing doesn’t cause much damage or backlash or change and this ends up being forgotten. #2 is that after the 90 days are up, there is a relatively thoughtful new framework to put into place so that Trump can claim to continue to be tough on Islam, or whatever he thinks he’s doing, but nothing will change or maybe we’ll even stop a terrorist or two from entering the country. I’m skeptical, but it’s a possibility.

It has been remarkable how weak the response from both sides of the aisle has been on this executive order. I have to think they are either praying to Allah that this will go away by itself, or that they think Trump is digging himself into a hole out of which he cannot climb. The third alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

My Favorite Interview Question

I have had the (often) enlightening experience of being one of the primary interviewers at a growing firm, and have had the chance to interview dozens of (often) interesting, bright people.

The question I’m probably most known for is a variation on the classic ‘walk me through your thought process for estimating a very large number’ genre of interview question. I won’t go into the details, but as a brief aside, it is shocking to me how many people are complete unaware that this is a genre of question. If your follow-up question is asking me about why I would ever ask such a question, you clearly didn’t do much research on interview questions.

Anyway — most people, in the course of answering my thought process question, start with the population of the world. It would shock you how many people have no idea how many zeroes worth of other people share the planet with them. Over time, I figured out that I think knowing how many other souls are on this little rock we call home is a better indicator to me of the general intelligence (or whatever it is I’m looking for) than even my beloved question.

I’m not sure why that’s the case, it’s a fairly trivial fact that everybody learns at some point in their life, and can probably be searched by speaking at your watch, but somehow it is deeply important. If you don’t know how many people are on the Earth, how can you discuss ‘the bottom billion’? How can you put anything in context? I think this is just one of those facts that people who are great co-workers walk around with.

Frankly, as long as someone knows it’s between 1-10 billion, I’m not sweating it. They are nervous, it’s been a long day, whatever. But when someone can get within a billion or so of the actual population, it stands out to me more than I ever thought it would.

The Internet is a City

Cities are hubs of progress — before cities, when everyone was a hunter of a gatherer, information was shared slowly. Most people did most things. As people moved into bigger and bigger cities, they could specialize. No cities considerably bigger than Santa Barbara (which is very small, and hardly has a cobbler to its name) existed until sometime around 1000 BCE.

Cities connect people and let them share ideas, but more than that, they allow people the luxury of not being a jack of all trades. I can specialize in accounting and you can specialize in law and he can specialize in growing food and she can specialize in making armor.

When you’re all on your own, little house on the prairie style, you have to take care of everything you need. When you’re in a small village, you can trade, but only to the extent what they’ve got matches what you want and vice versa. When you’re in a city, if a few dozen or a few thousand (depending on transaction size) want what you’ve got, you can make a living.

The internet has effectively turned most of the world into a giant city. Amazon is the only bookstore the world needs (at least for buying books).

If you live in a place connected to the internet, and can produce something that thousands of people who are also connected to the internet want to consume, you can probably make a living. That sounds daunting, except that there are 3 billion+ people on the internet, so 10,000 of them is 0.0003%.

We’re entering a very interesting age, where we only need one bookstore, but if I can write a book that just 0.03% of people read, I’ve had an enormous impact in terms of how many lives I’ve touched. The first Harry Potter book, by the way, sold enough copies for about 3% of the internet connected world to have read it.

Sport vs. Game

Some of the most fun things in the world are those that can be debated. Is Nascar a sport? If not, what defines a sport?

My preferred definition of a sport is when a game is played and the sides interact with each other. By my definition, golf is more of a ‘game’ and less of a ‘sport’. As a test, if it is something you could learn to do in isolation, and then compete at the highest level, it’s probably a game.

My definitions get into some tricky spots, like gymnastics, where the other team’s score may determine the difficulty of a performance, but where theoretically the opponent might not matter.

There is a second differentiator. Since my sports require an opponent who interacts, (i.e., basketball, not really darts), sports typically have a current metagame. Like basketball, where the best teams vacillate from being full of “bigs” who dominate the rim, to playing small ball. In fact, an NBA team’s success depends largely on whether they are built to compete with the rest of the league at that moment as opposed to how objectively well they play basketball (whatever they means) as a gymnast may be judged, or a sprinter timed.

A sprinter and a weightlifter are both competing to achieve an end, the way they get there doesn’t matter much. Some of the most beloved figures in ‘sports’ are people who transcend that boundary. Tiger Woods made golf feel like a sport when his opponents melted away on Sunday week after week as he demolished his opposition.

Like most things, it’s a continuum, very little is perfectly a game or perfectly sport.

We Already Have UBI

Edit: This podcast from Econtalk on the same subject came out a day after this post (coincidence? I think not) and was a worthy listen.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a concept that has gained significant momentum over the past few years, and is ubiquitous enough that most people are now at least passingly familiar with the concept.

I’m here to break the news that we already have it. Social Security is effectively a UBI that is limited to the elderly (perhaps that means the “U” in UBI needs an asterisk).

According to the SSA, nine out of ten individuals over 65 receive benefits, and I’d wager a few more tenths are waiting to claim either at their FRA or at age 70. Most of the others who don’t qualify probably receive another pension.

Most UBIs have a flat payout, not a formulaic one, but if I were a gambling man, and I am, I’d bet we see flattening payouts as part of the solution to the demographic problems the Social Security system is on track to have. Benefits for high earners are already significantly lower relative to amounts paid into the system thanks to the “bend points“. It would be a natural extension to have earners over a certain amount pay in but not increase their benefit, or to change the current bend points, or both.

This would exacerbate the “problem” of social security alone not covering pre-retirement cost of living, but would allow using social security as a ‘floor’ for the standard of living that we want to allow people to live at.

And, a natural extension of not wanting Grandma living under a bridge eating mustard sandwiches is that we don’t want anyone under a bridge eating mustard sandwiches. There are a lot of subtleties in moving from Grandma to everyone — e.g., if Grandma is eating mustard sandwiches she might not have any viable way to earn an income, while someone younger might, and maybe there are a few 20 year olds who would not work if you guaranteed they did not have to live under a bridge. This is the danger of making UBI equal to the cost of rent + food + netflix. This is called retirement, and most people find it perfectly acceptable from age 65+.

So the question, then, is: Do we wish to allow everybody, if they wanted to, to retire and watch netflix all day? It would certainly make some people better off, but the costs would have to be absorbed by others.

If the answer is yes, we have a fairly easy framework to implement with, simply allowing earlier and earlier (perhaps at more and more reduced amounts) filing for social security.