The source of emergent order

Robert Solow from this EconTalk podcast on Growth and the State of Economics:

We all know that a lot of the innovation occurs as a business process. I keep telling myself we also all know that a lot of innovation comes as a matter of dumb luck. You set out to solve problem A, and you fail totally to solve problem A, but you solve problem B that wasn’t in your head at all.

I’m not sure we ALL know that.

But, I do think that growth, innovation, improvement in the standard of living — whatever you call it — depends on how good we are at recognizing that we solved problem B.

I’ve been a part of many organizations that end up solving problem B, but ignore it because they are fixated on solving problem A.

I think this happens with R&D efforts in government and other bureaucratic organizations. They get so hung up on their preferred solution (e.g. solar power or wind power) that they ignore discoveries that don’t fall into their pre-selected, politically-correct categories.

How well a system allows the solution to problem B to propagate, I believe, is related to that system’s long-term viability.

Signals v Causes: Poverty

From the Introduction of the William Easterly’s book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor:
:

The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to the technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.

Think of technical problems as problems like not having medicine, food or the internet and technical solutions as providing medicine, food and the internet.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I heard about it from this EconTalk episode with William Easterly and that discussion is worth a listen.

Feedback Matters in Customer Service

This EconTalk podcast features a panel discussion on the future of work, featuring Andrew McAfee, Megan McArdle and Lee Ohanian.

Host, Russ Roberts, makes a good point about 29 minutes into the podcast. They are discussing how people differ from artificial intelligence. McArdle points out that there is value in charm. McAfee isn’t so sure. He says:

But think of your last 10 service interactions with another human being. How many of them left you with that warm, chamomile tea feeling?

McArdle say most of them. McAfee responds:

Oh, come on, did you walk through a sea of pleasant experiences in the airports on your way here? If so, I want to travel with you. [Or] When you call up Comcast, when you go–

Roberts points out that these are outliers:

You’ve picked the example of the places in America where there is very little competition due to regulation and government monopoly.

Good point. Not all customer service experiences are great, but certainly the ones from the companies that compete for your business are better than those that don’t. Everybody dreads going to the DMV. Most people are okay with heading to McDonald’s.

Failing sucks, get over it

The Wall Street Journal published an adaptation of Admiral William McRaven’s commencement address to the University of Texas about life lessons learned at Navy SEAL Training that is worth a read.

Here are a couple prescient lessons.

Get over failing:

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges.

But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle, it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.

For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed, into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy.

There were many students who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated.

Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.

Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.

If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

More on failing, don’t afraid of “the circus”, in fact it’s how you respond to failure that may build your success in the future:

Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events. Long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics—something designed to test your mettle.

Every event had standards, times that you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards, your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.”

A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit. No one wanted a circus. A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue, and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult—and more circuses were likely.

But at some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list. Yet an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students, who did two hours of extra calisthenics, got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength—built physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.

But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

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Don’t get caught in the justice trap

I enjoyed this post from David Henderson on EconLog about why businesses hire employees and that it is worthwhile to avoid the justice trap.

Henderson quotes good advice from Jeffrey Tucker:

Sincere apologies and genuine admissions of error and wrongdoing are the rarest things in this world. There is no point at all in demanding apologies or in becoming resentful when they fail to appear. Just move on. Neither should you expect to always be rewarded for being right. On the contrary, people will often resent you and try to take you down.

How do you deal with this problem? Don’t get frustrated. Don’t seek justice. Accept the reality for what it is. If a job isn’t working out, move on. If you get fired, don’t seek vengeance. Anger and resentment accomplish absolutely nothing. Keep your eye on the goal of personal and professional advancement, and think of anything that interrupts your path as a diversion and a distraction.

And perhaps a bit more powerful from Walter Oi regarding Japanese internment camps in World War II:

…the Japanese-Americans were treated unjustly, but that the best thing to do for them was to move on and not create a new government program.

I agree. It is very easy to get caught in the justice trap and dwell on how you have been wronged, but that isn’t the least bit productive. Get over it.

Megan McArdle on Failure

I agree with most of what Megan McArdle has to say about failure in this EconTalk podcast.

Why is failure valuable?

…because that’s how we get information.

What about the typical success story?

…when you see the cover of a business magazine, it’s always this genius with his folded arms staring at you and the piece goes through all these brilliant ideas. But in fact when you talk to entrepreneurs, that isn’t how they experienced it. Usually how they experienced it was: We had this great idea and then it turned out that didn’t work, so we did something else. Or it turned out: It didn’t work and we went out of business.

Where do we learn to start avoiding failure?

…having failed is an important skill that kids need to learn. And the right time for them to learn it is when they are kids. And when the consequences for that are actually pretty low.

One of the book talks that I gave, a 10th grade girl came up to me afterwards and she said, You know, I would really love to try to fail, but I’m in an AP (Advanced Placement) program; only 5% of the people who are in the program are going to get a 4.0; and I just can’t afford to take a class that I wouldn’t get an A in.

And I just thought: America, you are doing it wrong. It’s not that kids shouldn’t work hard in school. That’s not what I’m saying. But the idea that at the age of 15 you have to be so self-protective that you can’t take any risks at all is insane. Because when is going to be a better time? When she is looking for an assisted living facility?

I might rephrase that first part, though. Having failed isn’t the important skill. Learning to deal with failure is and learning to overcome the fear of failure is another important skill.

It seems like soon after we get past the trials and errors of learning to walk, run, talk and ride bikes, we forget that trial and error is how we learn and we tighten our tolerance for error.

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Who deserves some help?

I’m looking forward to reading Bryan Caplan’s follow-up to his post, Poverty: The Stages of Blame. In the follow-up, he plans to explore what that implies about government and personal behavior.

This topic baffles me. When kept in the abstract, people seem to default to an attitude that ‘something must be done to help’ because people are poor ‘through no fault of their own.’

But, when you start talking about specific people, Caplan’s logic tends to override that abstract reasoning.

But, few people backtrack and wonder how many people really fall into that abstract “through no fault of their own.”

Update: Here’s Bryan’s follow-up post, Poverty: The Stages of Blame Applied. He makes good points.