The slow start

As I grow older I begin to appreciate the value of a slow start. I’ve written about my bad memory contributing to my better learning. And more importantly perhaps, the people who actually keep reaching only for low hanging fruits fail to develop the skills and expertise needed to reach for the higher ones.

Ultimately, there is some degree of trade off between getting results fast and actually taking the time and effort to get genuinely better at something for the longer term. It’s almost the different between cramming for an examination as opposed to learning for mastery. Examinations were never to encourage or cultivate mastery – it’s just an industrialised version of education, of applying the principles of manufacturing line quality check on people instead.

The problem solvers we need in the future are not the ones who would invest into deeper learning and desire to gain mastery over merely getting good grades. And we need to start building systems and hiring habits that ultimately reflects that.

Volatility of incentives

I believe that incentives drives behaviours. That is why big bureacracies are bound to retain mediocre individuals and repel talents. It is why high-paying jobs attract more people even if they are soul-sucking. It is also why high-impact but mediocre-paying jobs like teaching and nursing have people leaving in droves.

But incentives can also be volatile because market signals in the short term may not be a good reflection of fundamentals. That’s why people end up behaving in sub-optimal ways in pursuit of short-term gains. This could involve forging qualifications, attempting to get an increment from attending some third rate data analytics course, etc.

Can we trust incentives alone to govern our societies? Probably not. Because our purpose is greater than just responding to sticks and carrots. So more important to identify what purpose we want to fulfill and allow that to drive us forward. Blind pursuit of incentives bring us nowhere.

Progress or regress?

Man to Ape
Getting Smarter...

An article from The Economist‘s Christmas special edition examines the idea of progress of humanity, especially in the past century and this. I had problems reading this initially as it feels rather heavy on philosophy, but in essence I gather that in terms of health and economic growth we have made tremendous progress, but in terms of our humanity our progress is questionable.

It even raises the possibility that the concept of progress could be misguided or abused. Take, as mentioned in the article, how Hitler used ‘progress’ and subsumed it into ‘the shared destiny of a (German) nation’. All the more reason to question what progress is. So what exactly constitutes progress?

It seems like to be able to determine whether we have really ‘progressed’, we need to examine different parameters, such as in terms of science, in terms of material wealth… I never found progress this difficult to define until I encountered this article. I examine and read this from a very layman and not from a philosophical point of view, so pardon me if I appear naive or ill-informed.

Another sort of Criticism

Dropping more coins...
Dropping more coins...

After penning the entry on Yuan’s appreciation, I come to observe another sort of criticism that is used on China that does contribute to the global imbalance and probably needs more attention than the currency but is an issue the Chinese government have way less control. That is the lack of spending by the Chinese, which is something repeated time and again. The Economist’s Banyan column recently compared India to China:

Levels of capital and infrastructure investment [of India] compare favourably with China’s. And, much more than in China, the hot story in India is domestic demand. India is no mercantilist adding to global imbalances. It imports more than it exports, creating much needed global demand.

Although the article goes on to discuss the flaws of the Indian economy, especially its lack of participation in the supply chains that link up much of the emerging economies of Asia as a result of their focus on exporting services rather than industrial goods. Industrial production in India remains largely in the hands of a huge number of medium-sized enterprises.

Anyways, back to the fact that China is under-consuming; James Surowiecki explains on The New Yorker why the Chinese don’t spend. He briefly ponders over culture, but goes on to focus on the nature of their economy, and the structures that are reducing access to credit and thus raising the need to save, which means perenially low consumption.

In a sense, the culture revolves around the idea of investment for the future, saving first so that one would be able to spend them. The long history of struggles and uncertainty means the Chinese are probably more risk adverse than their Western counterparts and reluctant to take on debts. In a period of growing wealth, the Chinese naturally hopes to put aside money for the future (be it studies, starting a business, a family or just for rainy days).

As the economy develops, it’ll mature and eventually shift towards higher credit and lower savings. The large investment that the government is pumping into the economy will have to induce greater efficiency in use of capital to help speed up the maturity. Till then, Americans will still get the chance to complain about Chinese inability to spend in the consumer sense.

Mail in the Mailbox

More Mails!
More Mails!

This week’s package has arrived! It’s pretty heavy so I’m cutting down on the quantity of reads. As always, we begin with a talk from the wonderful conference, TED; by Physicist David Deutsch that attempts to explain the sudden explosive development in our ability to explain the world. Deutsch speaks slowly and refers to his notes frequently but his explanations and knowledge of reality is brilliant. The anecdotes and examples he gave are both apt and interesting enough to compensate for his lack of speaking prowess. In the lecture, Deutsch introduced the Royal Society‘s motto, “Nullius in Verba” (Latin for “take nobody’s word for it”) which I found immensely intriguing.

For those interested to know about economics in the world today can listen to the interview with 2005 Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. It’s a pity there’s no subtitles available for the interview as well as the lecture linked above.

Finally, plunge into the long read by Peter York from moreIntelligentLife, How Marketing has got under our skin explores the history, trends and current state of the issue of self-branding or personal branding.