#134: Cargo Cults & Nomad Spirits
Greetings from Taiwan! I’m getting back from a trip traveling around Bali and Taiwan with my family. A view from one of the spots we visited (Jiufen) in Taiwan
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#1 How Politics Became A Business | New Yorker
I sent this to a friend who was wondering how employer-based healthcare came to be in the US. This fun read details the early history of lobbying and public influence campaigns as well as how the American Medical Association was founded around stopping federally-run healthcare.
When Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, Truman’s proposed federal health-insurance program, which, like Warren’s, was funded by a payroll tax, stalled. In his State of the Union address in 1948, an election year, Truman urged passage of his plan, which enjoyed widespread popular support. In November, Truman won the election. Days afterward, the American Medical Association called up the San Francisco offices of Campaigns, Inc. The A.M.A. retained Whitaker and Baxter at a fee of a hundred thousand dollars a year, and with an annual budget of more than a million dollars, to thwart Truman’s plan. The A.M.A. raised the money by assessing twenty-five dollars a year from every one of its members.
It’s a fun “what if?” to ponder - what if the US had not gone in the direction it did with its healthcare, what would the system look like now?
#2 Cargo Cults | Meaningness.com
Everyone remembers the first time they learn about cargo cults:
During World War II, many Pacific islands that previously had little or no contact with the modern world were used as air bases by the Americans or Japanese. Suddenly, enormous quantities of food, clothes, tools, and equipment, such as the islanders had never seen, appeared out of the sky in magic flying boats. Some of this “cargo” trickled down to the natives, and it was fabulous. Then the war ended, the planes vanished, and—no more cargo!
How to make the cargo flow again? The islanders had observed that, just before cargo arrived, the foreigners performed elaborate rituals involving inscrutable religious paraphernalia. Clearly, these summoned the sky spirits that brought cargo.
This may seem crazy until you realize this behavior is core to who we are in all parts of the world.
#3 What is happening in companies? | Aeon
Almost two thirds of employees work at large or medium size businesses and probably have to implement some of these initiatives (link):
Another big driver of stupidity in many firms is the desire to imitate other organisations. As Jan Wallander, the ex-chairman of Sweden’s Handelsbanken, said: ‘Business leaders are just as fashion-conscious as teenage girls choosing jeans.’ Many companies adopt the latest management fads, no matter how unsuitable they are. If Google is doing it, then it’s good enough reason to introduce nearly any practice, from mindfulness to big-data analytics.
If you don’t have OKR’s are you a real business? My favorite term for this is “modishness” - doing what is in favor.
While this article definitely has a dramatic flair, I think it nails some of the perverse incentives that exist in organizations:
We saw firms going out of their way to block employees from reflecting on their assumptions, to discourage them for thinking about their substantive goals, and to impede them from giving or asking for justifications for their decisions and actions. By doing this, organisations often create functional outcomes both for individuals (such as career progression) and the whole organisation (such as the ability to avoid conflict and focus on common goals). While these favourable outcomes dominate in the short term, collective stupidity can create disfunction in the longer term, including a lack of learning and an imperviousness to mistakes.
#4 Illegible Persons | Ribbonfarm
As I try to convince people I actually enjoy living nomadically, I found this distinction between nomads and non-nomads useful:
Rooted people often decide to relocate somewhere based on a general sense of opportunities and lifestyle possibilities, and then figure out how they’ll live their lives there. Smart rooted people usually target regions first, jobs, activities and relationships second. Nomads pick a pattern of movement first, and then figure out the possibilities of that pattern later.
If I have romanticized nomadism it is because nomadism is a fundamentally romantic state of being. If you can sustain it, it is somehow fulfilling without any further need for achievement or accomplishment. The pursuit of success is, for the rooted, the price they must pay for immobilizing themselves geographically. The reward is something equivalent to the state of stable movement that is, for the nomad, a natural state of affairs.
I’ve definitely found a nomadic state almost impossible to explain to people, but this article does a good job of capturing the spirit of the modern digital nomad.
#5 Moloch | Slate Star Codex
Meditations on how we end up in what the writer calls “multipolar traps”
And as well understood as the capitalist example is, I think it is less well appreciated that democracy has the same problems. Yes, in theory it’s optimizing for voter happiness which correlates with good policymaking. But as soon as there’s the slightest disconnect between good policymaking and electability, good policymaking has to get thrown under the bus.
For example, ever-increasing prison terms are unfair to inmates and unfair to the society that has to pay for them. Politicans are unwilling to do anything about them because they don’t want to look “soft on crime”, and if a single inmate whom they helped release ever does anything bad (and statistically one of them will have to) it will be all over the airwaves as “Convict released by Congressman’s policies kills family of five, how can the Congressman even sleep at night let alone claim he deserves reelection?”. So even if decreasing prison populations would be good policy – and it is – it will be very difficult to implement.
with some fun anecdotes as well about the Quiverfull movement:
…it might be worth going back to Bostrom’s paragraph about the Quiverfull movement. These are some really religious Christians who think that God wants them to have as many kids as possible, and who can end up with families of ten or more. Their articles explictly calculate that if they start at two percent of the population, but have on average eight children per generation when everyone else on average only has two, within three generations they’ll make up half the population.
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