Against Equality

From “Remarks on the Stoics” by Allen Thornton (link):

Suppose that you were the only person in the universe. You could exist in the most perfect paradise without reflecting on your good fortune. You could suffer hunger, thirst, and pain and not complain about the “unfairness” of existence. Notions of good and evil, just and unjust, cannot exist unless there are other people and other lives. When we judge these matters, we usually look no further than our neighbors. Americans call people poor whose standard of living would be considered quite high in China. They take for granted luxuries that were unimaginable 200 years ago. A time may come when our descendants will consider our lives horribly brutal and short, but we do not complain so long as we live about as well as those we see frequently or know about.

It would be simple to understand the Stoics’ view of reality if we didn’t have to deal with other people. But people can steal from us, make demands on us, depend on us, and interact with us in thousands of ways. The question of our relations with other people is the most complicated one in any religion or philosophy. Epictetus explains how a Stoic can maintain his serenity in the face of obviously predatory people. He cites the case of a thief who steals your clothes. “Do not admire your clothes and then you will not be angry with the thief. Do not admire the beauty of your wife, and you will not be angry with the adulterer.” He reasons that the thief “does not know wherein man’s good consists, but he thinks that it consists in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think.” The Stoic knows that a man’s good is in his will and character and not in anything external to him.

His logic is an example of a greater truth: Inequality leads to harmony; equality leads to conflict. We are constantly told that the opposite is true, but we should consider the relations between people. Trade and commerce depend on the fact that individuals place a different value on money. If the grocer didn’t value the bag of flour less than the customer, he wouldn’t sell it. Suppose the bag were worth a dollar to the grocer and a dollar to the customer; then the grocer would have no incentive to sell it. But the grocer values the bag at less than a dollar and so both the grocer and the customer can increase their wealth by the trade of one dollar for one bag of flour. Or suppose a rich man wants to hire a person for a job and two qualified applicants apply. The applicants are not in conflict with the rich man but with each other. Or suppose a man is in love with a beautiful woman. He is in harmony with other women and with homosexuals because they do not value the woman the way he does. Their feelings toward her are completely different from his. He feels the most hatred and ill-will toward another man who also loves the woman. Conflict is in direct proportion to equality. Of course, politics turns everything on its head. Groups of similar people with similar values combine to exert pressure to achieve political ends. But even in this case, the group is simply trying to obtain something from the government at the expense of other groups who want the same thing.

Video – Seth Klarman On Leadership

The Harvard Business School presents Seth Klarman, founder and president of the Baupost Group

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • I don’t think a lot about being a leader; our goal is to be “excellent” and to be proud of what we do
  • Main principle for leadership or management-style: “Do unto others…”
  • Big believer in leading by example; you can’t expect other people to do things you’re incapable of or unwilling to do yourself
  • Sometimes organizations are stuck, people want to do more but they haven’t been asked the right way; don’t overlook the power of re-anchoring via leading by example
  • Leadership stems from credibility — credibility stems from being “right” over time and from having knowledge — and from moral values
  • Two important moral values for leaders:
    • Football field test; play the game from the center of the field, not near the sidelines, where it is easy to go out of bounds without intending to do so
    • WSJ test; live your life in a way that you would not be embarrassed to have it reported on the front page of the WSJ
  • Every quarter, I sit down with the non-investment team members of the firm and explain the current investment strategy; the idea is to help the rest of the firm understand why the firm is doing well or poorly; this creates a culture where everyone is on the same page
  • You want to create a culture where everyone is willing to stay late to finish a job if they have to, where people will spend time double-checking for mistakes; people paying attention to detail at every level of the firm is important
  • Leaders don’t take credit, they give credit; be quick to give everyone around you credit, it is empowering to those people
  • Turnover is a hidden cost of business; it can take so long to get someone up to speed, train them properly, get them to the point that they can contribute; treating employees properly and caring for them is a smart business decision
  • If you have someone who is not getting the job done, other people are probably carrying their weight and working extra hard for them, and this isn’t fair; good leaders need to be fair
  • Get a good mentor; find a place to work where they care about you, that will nurture you and be interested in your development; if you can find one it sets you on the road to success
  • An experience SK feels good about as a leader: the time the leaders of the firm decided to buy the entire firm playoff tickets for the Red Sox game that ended up being a historic game– an order of magnitude different from handing over a $1000 bonus
  • A mistake SK made as a leader: tolerating a “difficult person” for far too long, because they were a talented individual; it poisoned the well, tarnished the moral character of the firm, led to some financial losses; focused too much on the short-term pain rather than the long-term benefit of that decision
  • A leader is not afraid to fail, is not afraid to be wrong or to lose money in the short-term; a leader always adheres to their principles and standards
  • JP Morgan: “I can do the work of a year in 9 months, but not in 12”; it’s important to set time aside to refresh, relax, reflect
  • Marathon, not a sprint; don’t focus on the short-term because it causes anxiety and makes you hyperactive in an effort to compensate for short-term poor performance
  • You can’t be a leader if you burn out; find balance, seek a variety of interests
  • Working a couple years at an intense pace (80hrs+/week) is okay if it’s for a specific purpose; ideally, if you are going to work that hard, do something entrepreneurial, then you’re doing it for yourself and the benefits, if any, accrue to you
  • Understand that if you plan to compete by being willing to work 100 hours a week, you’ll be beat by people willing to work 110 hours