Quotulatiousness

July 7, 2015

QotD: Laws as blunt instruments

Filed under: Business,Law,Liberty,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On June 25th, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation seized the venerable San Francisco escort website, MyRedbook, under the usual vague and evidence-free charges the US government always uses when it wants to destroy peaceful businesses who have hurt no one. This time […] the pretenses are “money laundering” and “racketeering”, but others cases include “conspiracy”, “mail fraud” and “tax evasion”. You may believe that these are actual crimes, but the truth is they aren’t (except on paper); they’re simply blunt instruments defined so vaguely that any competent prosecutor can jam nearly any business into one or more of them. Here’s how it works: “racketeering” can mean criminals operating a legitimate business, like when a mobster owns a restaurant. So a “racketeering” charge usually means “we think you committed crimes but can’t prove them, so we’re just going to assume you’re a criminal and prosecute you for owning a regular business.” Any money you’ve deposited is then called “money laundering” on the grounds that you deposited “criminal proceeds” from your imaginary crimes into your legitimate account; “tax evasion” is based on the pretense that you have failed to pay taxes on imaginary income they can’t prove you actually made; “conspiracy” means merely talking about committing the imaginary crimes, and so on. And if you believe that the targeted business is protected by the presumption of innocence, think again.

Maggie McNeill, “Bread and Circuses”, The Honest Courtesan, 2014-07-11.

June 30, 2015

Elon Musk – high tech messiah or grasping crony capitalist?

Sean Noble says that the subsidies Elon Musk’s high-tech Tesla and Solar City firms are much higher than he implies:

Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City head Elon Musk lashed out at the Los Angeles Times following an article that totaled up all the government support that his three-headed corporate-welfare monster receives. The number the Times reported was nearly $5 billion in combined support for his companies, including subsidies for those who purchase Musk’s products, such as the high-priced solar panels of Solar City and the supercars of Tesla.

Musk responded by arguing, “If I cared about subsidies, I would have entered the oil and gas industry.” He further asserted that his competitors in the oil-and-gas industry haul in 1,000 times more in subsidies in a single year than his companies have received in total. Such statements reveal that Musk seems to care as little for facts as he purports to care about the taxpayer dollars propping up his various businesses.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released the most recent data available regarding energy subsidies provided by the federal government. The data, covering the year 2013, broke down total taxpayer subsidies across the different sectors of the energy industry. While fossil fuels did enjoy some government support through various direct expenditures, tax credits, and R&D programs, the data stands in sharp contrast to Musk’s claims.

Data from the EIA report, combined with numbers from an anti-oil advocacy group regarding state-level government support, reveals that total state and federal support for the oil-and-gas industry is no more than $5.5 billion each year. As stated, Musk’s companies combine for $5 billion in subsidies, a number that he has yet to dispute. Clearly, the difference is much smaller than Musk’s outlandish 1,000-to-one claim.

June 29, 2015

More on the “self-driving truck” issue

Filed under: Business,Economics,Railways,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the comments to this post, Tom Kelley provided a worthwhile digression on the topic that I felt deserved a wider audience, so with his permission, here’s Tom’s response:

Given that the trucking industry has been my sandbox for quite some time, I can safely extend Megan’s prognosis to also include the low long-term risk of job losses due to self-driving vehicles.

Frankly, I have to be wary of any “expert” who can’t even get the name of his source (the American Trucking Associations — yes, plural — not the American Trucker Association) transcribed correctly.

Apart from the myriad technical issues standing in the way of driverless trucks, the insurmountable barrier is anti-competitive trucking regulations passed on behalf of the government’s favorite white elephant, the rail industry. Invariably, these regulations are tarted up under some guise of safety (Let’s see, was it a truck or a train that blew the town of Lac-Mégantic off the map??? Hmm).

The bottom line is that any change that would have the slightest possibility of making trucking more productive is quickly met with massive dis-information campaigns, and even more massive lobbying from the rail industry. Even the most minor dimensional changes designed to reflect the current realities of truck freight transportation stand little if any chance of making it past regulators with a permanent disdain for free enterprise.

We can’t have electronically actuated brakes on trucks because the regulators have no grasp of brakes or electronics, and somebody wants to replace the driver with electronics? Seriously? Of course these same folks seen to have no problem flying cross-country at 500 MPH in a commercial jetliner that is literally flown by wire.

And even if the government types were perfect actors in this little tale, then you have the American tort law system, run/regulated by, for, and about the trial lawyers. Even with professional truck drivers who can deftly avoid putting incompetent car drivers on their way to a Darwin award, hundreds of four-wheeler drivers still manage to commit suicide-by-truck every year, followed quickly by their otherwise destitute estates suing innocent trucking companies for millions.

Can’t you just hear the jury summation now: “The eeevvilll trucking company wanted to save a few pennies by outsourcing the driver’s job to a microchip! The must be punished! My client, a fourth cousin of the homeless man who jumped off a bridge in front of a truck MUST be awarded $10 million for the pain and suffering from losing a relative he never met. No justice, no peace!”

No insurance company in their right mind would insure a driverless truck for real-world operation.

There’s no question that the technology is available to make the concept work, I was on-board numerous autonomous vehicles of all sizes back in 1997.

It will take several major societal shifts before any serious degree of autonomy makes it into real world trucking operations.

June 27, 2015

QotD: The corporate tax game

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Business,Law,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

You can think of corporate taxation as a sort of long chess match: The government makes a move. Corporations move in response — sometimes literally, to another country where the tax burden is less onerous. This upsets the government greatly, and the Barack Obama administration in particular. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has written a letter to Congress, urging it to make it stop by passing rules that make it harder to execute these “inversions.”

I’ve got a better idea: What if we made our tax system so attractive to corporations that they would have no interest in moving themselves abroad?

The problem with this extended chess game is that every move is very costly. First, it adds to the complexity of the tax code. With every new rule — no matter how earnestly said rule attempts to close a “loophole” — it becomes harder to know whether you are in compliance with the law. This is true on both sides; corporate tax law has now passed well beyond the point where it is possible for a single expert to be familiar with its ins and outs. This makes it harder to plan business expansions, harder to forecast government revenue, and it requires both sides to hire more experts in order to determine whether corporations are compliant. It also means more lawsuits, and longer ones, as both sides wrangle over how this morass of laws should be applied to real-world situations.

You can think of it this way: Every new law has possible intersections with every other tax law in existence. As the number of laws grows, the number of possible intersections grows even faster. And each of those intersections represents both a possible way to avoid taxes and a potential for unintended consequences that inadvertently outlaw something Congress never intended to touch. This growing complexity makes it more and more difficult for either companies or lawmakers to forecast the ultimate effects of new tax laws.

Megan McArdle, “We Don’t Need a Corporate Income Tax”, Bloomberg View, 2014-07-16.

June 26, 2015

The self-driving truck won’t displace many human truck drivers for years to come

Filed under: Business,Economics,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I’m far from being a Luddite, but I find Megan McArdle‘s analysis of the low short-to-medium term risk of job losses due to self-driving vehicles to be pretty convincing:

… my objections are actually to the understanding of the trucking industry works and of self-driving vehicles. Fully automated trucks, with no drivers at all, are probably going to arrive later than Santens thinks, take longer to roll out than he projects, and displace fewer workers than he thinks they will. I’m not saying it will never happen. I’m just skeptical that this is going to be a major policy problem in the next two decades.

Why?

Start with what truckers do, and how many of them there are. Santens quotes the American Trucker Association to get 3.5 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts that figure a bit lower, around 2.8 million. More importantly, only 1.6 million of those are long-haul truckers. The rest are “driver/sales” employees or “Light truck or delivery services drivers.” Those are short-haul services that will not quickly be replaced by automated cars, both because chaotic urban roads are harder for autonomous vehicles to handle and because part of the job is loading and unloading the truck (something that long haul drivers may also do).

Also: Why would we assume that the advent of driverless trucks would be bad for trucking support jobs? Those folks are doing stuff like maintenance or loading that still has to be done. Moreover, other jobs will be created, in designing and maintaining the new systems. Someone has to map all those roads.

But I think it will be a while before we get to a fully autonomous vehicle with no people in it. The “driverless truck” that Santens links is not actually driverless; it’s partially autonomous. If it foresees something it can’t deal with, such as heavy snow, it signals to the driver to take over; if the driver doesn’t respond, it slows to a stop. That’s an improvement in the lives of truck drivers, not a job killer.

June 24, 2015

The precarious economics of recycling today

Filed under: Business,Economics,Environment,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

The recycling industry is having economic problems, which means many municipalities are being forced to share those problems:

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.

[…]

The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

QotD: Surge pricing

Filed under: Business,Economics,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

New York just killed every economist’s favorite thing about Uber: surge pricing. Sure, many economists also love convenient car service at the touch of a button. But black-car services have been around for a long time. Explicit surge pricing — which both creates new supply and rations demand — has not, but it’s long been a core feature of Uber Technologies Inc.’s business model. While it can be annoying at times (during a recent rainstorm, I noticed a sudden epidemic of drivers canceling rides, which I suspect was due to the rapidly rising surge price), it also allows you to be sure that you will be able to get a taxi on New Year’s Eve or during a rainstorm as long as you’re willing to pay extra.

Sadly, no one else loves surge pricing as much as economists do. Instead of getting all excited about the subtle, elegant machinery of price discovery, people get all outraged about “price gouging.” No matter how earnestly economists and their fellow travelers explain that this is irrational madness — that price gouging actually makes everyone better off by ensuring greater supply and allocating the supply to (approximately) those with the greatest demand — the rest of the country continues to view marking up generators after a hurricane, or similar maneuvers, as a pretty serious moral crime.

Megan McArdle, “Uber Makes Economists Sad”, Bloomberg View, 2014-07-09.

June 22, 2015

Are software APIs covered by copyright?

Filed under: Business,Law,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick looks at a recent Supreme Court case that asks that very question:

The Obama administration made a really dangerous and ignorant argument to the Supreme Court yesterday, which could have an insanely damaging impact on innovation — and it appears to be because Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (yes, the MPAA’s old top lawyer) is absolutely clueless about some rather basic concepts concerning programming. That the government would file such an ignorant brief with the Supreme Court is profoundly embarrassing. It makes such basic technological and legal errors that it may be the epitome of government malfeasance in a legal issue.

We’ve written a few times about the important copyright question at the heart of the Oracle v. Google case (which started as a side show to the rest of the case): are software APIs covered by copyright. What’s kind of amazing is that the way you think about this issue seems to turn on a simple question: do you actually understand how programming and software work or not? If you don’t understand, then you think it’s obvious that APIs are covered by copyright. If you do understand, you recognize that APIs are more or less a recipe — instructions on how to connect — and thus you recognize how incredibly stupid it would be to claim that’s covered by copyright. Just as stupid as claiming that the layout of a program’s pulldown menus can be covered by copyright.

The judge in the district court, William Alsup, actually learned to code Java to help him better understand the issues. And then wrote such a detailed ruling on the issue that it seemed obvious that he was writing it for the judges who’d be handling the appeal, rather than for the parties in the case.

June 19, 2015

Even the Fed pays attention to the rise of craft brewing

Filed under: Business,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond had an interesting article on the rise of craft beer by Jamie Feik and Joseph Mengedoth:

In many places across the country, it’s hard not to notice the shift in product offerings at local bars and restaurants and in the beer aisle of the grocery store. The colorful, ornate tap handles of craft brewers have joined the classic blue, red, and silver posts of the traditional powerhouses, and bartenders play the role of consultant purveying the selections. Shoppers who once stood in the beer aisle trying to decide how many cans of beer to buy now stand in front of coolers filled with different brands and styles of beer available in single bottles, packs of four, six, or 12, and even on tap in a growing number of stores. Many of them have been made at a brewery down the street; according to the Brewer’s Association (BA), the trade association that represents the craft beer industry, approximately 75 percent of the drinking-age population in the United States lives within 10 miles of a brewery.

In 2014, there were 615 new craft breweries that opened, pushing the number in the United States to 3,418, more than twice the number that existed just five years earlier. The BA defines a craft brewery as one that produces fewer than 6 million barrels a year, is less than 25 percent controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer, and produces a beverage “whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.” The ownership restriction excludes the craft-style subsidiaries — such as Shock Top, Goose Island, Leinenkugel, and Blue Moon — of large brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors (the two largest brewers in the United States).

Although craft beer remains a relatively small segment of the market, accounting for only 11 percent of the beer produced in the United States in 2014, the segment is growing rapidly. Craft beer’s share of production has more than doubled since 2010, when it was just 5 percent. In 2014, craft beer sales volume increased nearly 18 percent, according to the BA, versus just 0.5 percent for the overall beer industry. The retail dollar value of craft beer grew 22 percent in 2014, while the total U.S. beer market increased only 1.5 percent in value.

The growth of small breweries runs counter to the trend of consolidation in the beverage industry that persisted through much of the 20th century. Why are craft brewers thriving?

June 18, 2015

John Kay’s Other People’s Money

Filed under: Business,Economics,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

John Kay posts the introduction to his new book Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People? to be published in September:

The assets of British banks are around £7 trillion – four times the aggregate of the yearly income of everyone in the country. The liabilities of these banks are a similar amount. The assets of British banks are five times the liabilities of the British government. But the assets of these banks mostly consist of claims on other banks. Their liabilities are mainly obligations to other financial institutions. Lending to firms and individuals engaged in the production of goods and services – which most people would imagine was the principal business of a bank – amounts to about 3 per cent of that total (see Chapter 6).

Modern banks – and most other financial institutions – trade in securities, and the growth of such trade is the main explanation of the growth of the finance sector. The finance sector establishes claims against assets – the operating assets and future profits of a company, or the physical property and prospective earnings of an individual – and almost any such claim can be turned into a tradable security. ‘High-frequency trading’ is undertaken by computers which are constantly offering to buy and sell securities. The interval for which these securities are held by their owner may – literally – be shorter than the blink of an eye. Spread Networks, a telecoms provider, has recently built a link through the Appalachian Mountains to reduce the time taken to transmit data between New York and Chicago by a little less than one millisecond.

World trade has grown rapidly, but trading in foreign exchange has grown much faster. The value of daily foreign exchange transactions is almost a hundred times the value of daily international trade in goods and services. The annual volume of payments processed in Britain is £75 trillion: about forty times Britain’s national income. Trade in securities has grown rapidly, but the explosion in the volume of financial activity is largely attributable to the development of markets in derivatives, so called because their value is derived from the value of other securities. If securities are claims on assets, derivative securities are claims on other securities, and their value depends on the price, and ultimately on the value, of these underlying securities. Once you have created derivative securities, you can create further layers of derivative securities whose values are dependent on the values of other derivative securities – and so on.The value of the assets underlying such derivative contracts is three times the value of all the physical assets in the world.

What is it all for? What is the purpose of this activity? And why is it so profitable? Common sense suggests that if a closed circle of people continuously exchange bits of paper with each other, the total value of these bits of paper will not change much, if at all. If some members of that closed circle make extraordinary profits, these profits can only be made at the expense of other members of the same circle. Common sense suggests that this activity leaves the value of the traded assets little changed, and cannot, taken as a whole, make money. What, exactly, is wrong with this commonsense perspective?

Not much, I will conclude. But to justify that conclusion, it will be necessary to examine the activities of the finance sector and the ways in which it does, or might, make our lives better and our businesses more efficient. Assessing the economic contribution of the industry is complex, because there are many difficulties in interpreting reported information about the output and profitability of financial sector activities. But I will show that its profitability is overstated, that the value of its output is poorly reported in economic statistics, and that much of what it does contributes little, if anything, to the betterment of lives and the efficiency of business. And yet many things that finance could do to advance these social and economic goals are not done well – or in some cases at all.

June 3, 2015

The great Los Angeles minimum wage experiment

Filed under: Business,Economics,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I missed this post a few weeks back from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, pointing out that we won’t really know the full impact of the Los Angeles experiment with significantly higher minimum wages:

So my near neighbor of Los Angeles is poised to raise the minimum wage to $15. How should we think of that?

Personally, I’m thrilled. Not because I think it’s a slam-dunk good idea, but because along with Seattle and San Francisco it will give us a great set of natural experiments to figure out what happens when you raise the minimum wage a lot. We can argue all we want; we can extrapolate from other countries; and we can create complex Greek-letter models to predict the effects — but we can’t know until someone actually does it.

So what do I think will happen? Several things:

In the tradeable sector, such as clothing piece work and agriculture, the results are very likely to be devastating. Luckily, LA doesn’t have much agriculture left, but it does have a lot of apparel manufacture. That could evaporate completely (worst case) or perhaps migrate just across the borders into Ventura, San Bernardino, and other nearby counties. Heavier manufacturing will likely be unaffected since most workers already make more than $15.

In the food sector, people still need to eat, and they need to eat in Los Angeles. So there will probably be little damage there from outside competition. However, the higher minimum wage will almost certainly increase the incentive for fast food places to try to automate further and cut back on jobs. How many jobs this will affect is entirely speculative at this point.

Other service industries, including everything from nail salons to education to health care will probably not be affected much. They pretty much have to stay in place in order to serve their local clientele, so they’ll just raise wages and pass the higher prices on to customers.

Likewise, retail, real estate, the arts, and professional services probably won’t be affected too much. Retail has no place to go (though they might be able to automate some jobs away) while the others mostly pay more than $15 already. The hotel industry, by contrast, could easily become less competitive for convention business and end up shedding jobs.

While I’m certainly in favour of people being able to afford to live on their base income, I’m afraid that this experiment is going to hurt a lot of already at-risk poor people who will have few other options if their jobs go away. I’m especially amused that LA-area union reps are now reported to be pushing to exempt the businesses where their members work (so that unions will have an effective monopoly on low-wage jobs because non-unionized companies would have to pay a higher wage). That, after putting all their organizational muscle behind getting the minimum wage raised in the first place. That’s a high grade of cynicism.

June 2, 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold’s early writing career

Filed under: Business,Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Kirkus, Andrew Liptak talks about the early publishing experiences of Lois McMaster Bujold:

In the 1970s, science fiction began to fragment into smaller subsets: the New Wave fizzled out, leaving its own imprint on the genre, while new subgenres grew in the aftermath. One author of the time looked back to her roots for inspiration for her stories, developing her own brand of science fiction that at once revered the classics of the genre while using the same building blocks to subvert them.

Lois McMaster Bujold was born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 2, 1949. Her father, Robert Charles McMaster, an engineering professor, was an avid reader of science-fiction magazines and stories and passed them along to his daughter. Throughout Bujold’s youth, she devoured every science-fiction novel she could get her hands on. In high school, she began writing along with a friend of hers, Lillian Stewart, and when she entered college in 1968, she began studying English. Her passion for the academic subject waned, but her “heart was in the creative, not the critical end of things.” According to Bujold’s official website, she noted that the New Wave “left me cold; I found it, much like the ‘alternative comics’ I encountered in my college years, to seem dreary, ugly, and angry.” From college, she went on to work as a pharmacy technician at the Ohio State University Hospital. She left to get married and had two children: good for reading, not for writing. Throughout this time, she read voraciously.

When her friend Lillian Stewart Carl published her first short story in 1982, Bujold found a renewed commitment to writing. In 1983, she completed her first novel, Shards of Honor, and an additional two in as many years: Warrior’s Apprentice and Ethan of Athos. Initially, major publishers rejected her unagented manuscripts. In an interview for the Baen Books website, Bujold said that “[Warrior’s Apprentice] had been rejected by Tor and Ace; on the advice of the Ace editor, who said it was a YA (Young Adult, what used to be called “Juvenile Fiction” back in my day — think early Heinlein), probably because the protagonist was 17, I sent it to YA publisher Atheneum, who plainly disagreed; the manuscript came back in about eight weeks.” Dejected, she spoke with friends about what her next step should be. Carl recommended that she send it to a recently founded publisher, Baen Books. Bujold followed her advice, and shortly thereafter, “in late October of 1985, was Jim Baen calling me on the phone, there in my kitchen in Marion, Ohio, and offering to buy all three volumes. I was completely flummoxed by the acceptance being a phone call; I would at the time have assumed any word would travel by mail.”

May 29, 2015

“Lean in” may not be the best advice for women to follow

Filed under: Business,Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Observer, Amy Alkon suggests that following the “lean in” advice may lead to unanticipated problems for a lot of women:

Remember junior high? Well, the reality is, if you’re a woman, you never really get to leave.

This rather depressing truth about adult mean girls isn’t one you’ll read in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In.

Unfortunately, according to a near mountain of research on sex differences, the “You go, career girl!” advice Ms. Sandberg does give is unrealistic and may even backfire on women who take it.

The problem starts with her book’s title, unreservedly advising women to “lean in” — to boldly assert themselves at the office — without detailing the science that lays out the problems inherent in that.

Ms. Sandberg goes clueless on science throughout her book; for example, never delving into what anthropological research suggests about why women are not more supportive of one another and why it may not be reasonable for a woman to expect other women in her workplace to be supportive of her in the way men are of other men and even women.

Joyce Benenson, a psychologist at Emmanuel College in Boston, doesn’t have Sandberg’s high profile, but she’s done the homework (and research) that’s missing from Sandberg’s book, laying it out in a fascinating science-based book on sex differences, Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes.

QotD: Buying modern indulgences for Silicon Valley billionaires

Filed under: Business,Politics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Silicon Valley is an American success story. At a time of supposed American decline, a gifted group of young entrepreneurs invented, merchandized, and institutionalized everything from smartphones and eBay to Google and Facebook. The collective genius within a small corridor from San Francisco to Stanford University somehow put hand-held electronics into over a billion households worldwide — and hundreds of billions of dollars in profits rolled into Northern California, and America at large.

Stranger yet, Silicon Valley excelled at 1950s-style profit-driven capitalism while projecting the image of hip and cool. The result is a bizarre 21st-century 1-percenter culture of $1,000-a-square-foot homes, $100,000 BMWs, and $500 loafers coexisting with left-wing politics and trendy pop culture. Silicon Valley valiantly tries to square the circle of driving a Mercedes or flying in a Gulfstream while lambasting those who produce its fuel.

But the paradox finally has reached its logically absurd end. In medieval times, rich sinners sought to save their souls by buying indulgences to wash away their sins. In the updated version, Silicon Valley crony capitalists and wheeler-dealers buy exemption for their conspicuous consumption with loud manifestations of cool left-wing politics.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Valley of the Shadow: How mansion-dwelling, carbon-spewing cutthroat capitalists can still be politically correct”, National Review, 2014-07-22.

May 26, 2015

Nice guys really do finish last

Filed under: Business,Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At least, that’s what this article in The Atlantic by Jerry Useem says:

At the University of Amsterdam, researchers have found that semi-obnoxious behavior not only can make a person seem more powerful, but can make them more powerful, period. The same goes for overconfidence. Act like you’re the smartest person in the room, a series of striking studies demonstrates, and you’ll up your chances of running the show. People will even pay to be treated shabbily: snobbish, condescending salespeople at luxury retailers extract more money from shoppers than their more agreeable counterparts do. And “agreeableness,” other research shows, is a trait that tends to make you poorer. “We believe we want people who are modest, authentic, and all the things we rate positively” to be our leaders, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford. “But we find it’s all the things we rate negatively”—like immodesty—“that are the best predictors of higher salaries or getting chosen for a leadership position.”

Pfeffer is concerned for his M.B.A. students: “Most of my students have a problem because they’re way too nice.”

He tells a story about a former student who visited his office. The young man had been kicked out of his start-up by — Pfeffer speaks the words incredulously — the Stanford alumni mentor he himself had invited into his company. Had there been warning signs?, Pfeffer asked. Yes, said the student. He hadn’t heeded them, because he’d figured the mentor was too big of a deal in Silicon Valley to bother meddling in his little affairs.

“What happens if you put a python and a chicken in a cage together?,” Pfeffer asked him. The former student looked lost. “Does the python ask what kind of chicken it is? No. The python eats the chicken. And that’s what she” — the alumni mentor — “does. She eats people like you for breakfast.”

In Grant’s framework, the mentor in this story would be classified as a “taker,” which brings us to a major complexity in his findings. Givers dominate not only the top of the success ladder but the bottom, too, precisely because they risk exploitation by takers. It’s a nuance that’s often lost in the book’s popular rendering. “I’ve become the nice-guys-finish-first guy,” he told me.

Give and Take seeks to pinpoint what, exactly, separates successful givers from “doormat” givers (the subtleties of which we will return to). But it does not consider what separates successful jerks, like Steve Jobs, from failed ones like … well, Steve Jobs, who was pushed out of his start-up by the mentor he’d recruited, in 1985.

The fact is, me-first behavior is highly adaptive in certain professional situations, just like selflessness is in others. The question is, why — and, for those inclined to the instrumental, how can you distinguish between the two?

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