A Living Wage

A couple of unrelated trends clicked together in my brain this afternoon in an unexpected way and I thought I’d share. In case it needs to be said, this is interesting but wild speculation and not meant to be taken very seriously.

One trend is the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family over the last several decades. Another is the more recent economic anxiety in the era of Brexit and Trump. And finally, we have a push from liberals in the last twenty years to raise the minimum wage to what is known as the “living wage“.

As a single adult with no dependants who keeps a comprehensive budget of my finances, I know both what I spend each month, and roughly what it would be possible to live on if times suddenly became tight for me. Interestingly, a full-time job at the minimum wage where I live would be more than enough for a pretty decent single life, since until recently I was living below that line more-or-less by accident. However, it’s also clearly not enough for a family, nor even necessarily enough for a family with two income-earners at that level given the costs of transportation and child-care.

My core speculation is as follows: what if the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family has increased the “supply” of single workers and decreased the “supply” of workers with families, thus driving down the market price for labour and making it even more difficult to have a family. This would be a very unfortunate negative feedback loop, if true.

Maybe somebody with more economic/demographic expertise can dig into this more or tell me where I’m making an obvious error?

3(ish) Rules for Life

I realize I’m quite late to the party with this one, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. My initial verdict is that it’s neither quite as insightful nor as ethically terrible as the controversy around it had let me to believe. Peterson has a very flowery writing style, with extended metaphors and a lot of repetition. I’m sure the joke’s been made somewhere already, but this really could have been just a list of the twelve rules, with maybe a paragraph of explanation each and a few footnotes to the relevant studies.

All that said, insight is somewhat a matter of perspective. I’ve dug enough into philosophy and psychology already that some of his points which I took as given are probably surprising to a good chunk of the population. And per the title of this post, I did take away three ideas that genuinely changed how I think in minor ways. Not that two of them were actually from the titular rules, but still.

Rule #1: Risk violence to assert your preferences.

This is not one of Peterson’s twelve, and the wording is distinctly counter-intuitive, but it captures two related ideas that Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on throughout his book (largely in rules #1, #8, and #10). First, it captures the idea that all conflict is founded on the threat of violence. Without that threat looming in the distance, there is never any incentive to back down, and no way to escalate. No conflict would ever resolve.

Second, it captures the idea that people need to assert their preferences to be happy, and thus occasionally cause conflict. This is, I think, fairly trivially true, though of course Peterson goes into some depth on the psychological problems that occur when somebody never asserts their preferences and becomes a complete and total pushover. It was still interesting to me, because despite being fairly obvious-sounding, a lot of the examples and verbiage he used to back up his point didn’t harmonize with how I view myself. So this one triggered an examination of how often I stand up for myself and assert my preferences, which has been interesting.

Rule #2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

This is straight from Peterson (and in fact it is conveniently his rule #2 as well). This is the only one of the titular twelve that directly made me sit up and metaphorically smack myself on the forehead in dramatic fashion. For those of a slightly more analytical bent, he also rephrases this as the idea that the so-called golden rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) in fact works in both directions. This one is straight from the text, so I won’t elaborate here.

Rule #3: Be prepared to change your goals.

This isn’t straight from the titular twelve, and it isn’t really a theme throughout either, it’s just a throwaway mention in the middle of Peterson’s rule #8. He’s talking about lies, and the concept of a “life lie”, and writes that “a naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie”. This is just mumbo-jumbo for the idea that the goals you set yourself today might not actually be goals you still want to accomplish in five years, and that clinging to those goals eventually results in simple unhappiness as you push yourself to do things you don’t really want to do.

Again, it sounds fairly obvious but the extended examination of it in the book made me re-examine a few of my own life goals in a slightly different light.

Bonus

I’ll leave you with a bonus extract which isn’t really a rule so much as a pithy paraphrase of an observation that Peterson makes off-hand in the midst of rule #10: a happy couple is two people animated by a shared adventure.

There’s a lot more that I could write about this book, but this post will have to do for now.

The Efficient Meeting Hypothesis

This is a minor departure from my typical topics, but was something I wrote for work and wanted to share more widely.

Meeting efficiency drops off sharply as the number of people in attendance climbs. A meeting with two or three people is almost always a good use of everyone’s time. If it’s not, the people involved simply stop meeting. Meetings with 4-6 people are worse, but are still generally OK. Meetings with more than 6 people in attendance (counting the organizer) are almost universally awful.

Why are meetings inefficient?

People do not exchange opinions the way machines exchange information. As the number of people grows, so does the number of different opinions, the number of social status games being played (consciously or not), the number of potential side conversations, etc. Achieving consensus gets harder.

In my experience, six people is the limit for anything resembling a useful caucus-style meeting. Above six people, it’s less likely that a given topic (at a given level of abstraction) is of sufficient interest to everyone present. Tangential topics drift so far that by the time everyone has had their say it’s hard to get back on track. Side-conversations start to occur regularly. People who naturally think and speak slowly simply won’t get to speak at all since there will always be somebody else who speaks first.

Why don’t people exit useless meetings?

People mainly stay in useless meetings for two reasons:

  • a variation of the bystander effect where everyone assumes that somebody else must be getting value from the meeting, and nobody wants to be the first to break rank
  • a fear of missing out, because the topics discussed at useless meetings are often so variable (due to tangents and side conversations) it’s hard to know if maybe this will be the moment where something relevant is discussed

How to run an efficient meeting

Keep it as small as possible, and always under 6 people.

How to run an efficient meeting with more than 6 people

You can’t. But if you really think you *have* to…

Give your meeting a rigid structure. Note that this does not just mean “have an agenda document that people can add to ahead of time”. At the minimum you need:

  • A moderator whose only job in the meeting is to moderate (either the meeting organizer or somebody explicitly appointed by them).
  • A talking stick or some digital equivalent. Basically: an explicit process for deciding who gets to speak, and when. A good moderator can manage this entirely verbally for medium-sized groups, but it’s hard. Something explicit is much better.
  • A formal meeting structure and topic, set in advance.

Again, a structure does not just mean “an agenda” or “a slide deck” but some common conversational rules. Here is a list (definitely not exhaustive) of common or useful meeting structures:

  • Stand-Up: each person in turn gets a fixed amount of time (enforced by the moderator) to present to the group.
  • Presentation: one person presents for the majority of the meeting, and then (optionally) holds a question/answer session afterwards.
  • Ask-Me-Anything: the moderator works through a list asking pre-curated questions to specific people.
  • Parliamentary Procedure: this would typically be Robert’s Rules of Order.

Some common pitfalls:

  • Never try to make consensus-based decisions in a meeting with more than 6 people. If a decision has to be made then you must either:
    • Have a smaller meeting. OR
    • Appoint one person the decision-maker in advance, in which case the meeting is actually about presenting and arguing to that person, not the actual making of the decision. OR
    • Use a majority-rules process (typically a vote), in combination with a more parliamentary structure (Robert’s Rules of Order or others).
  • The moderator absolutely cannot talk about anything other than the meta-level (moderating) unless they also hold the talking stick. Ideally the moderator has no stake in the actual topic of the meeting to begin with.
  • The moderator cannot be “nice”. Shut down tangents and off-topics aggressively.
  • Avoid automatically-recurring large meetings like the plague. They shouldn’t be frequent enough to bother auto-booking them to begin with, and the manual process will make it much easier to stop holding them when they are no longer useful.

Optimizing for the Apocalypse

If you’ve read many of my past posts, you’ll know that I have sometimes struggled with an internal conflict between what I would basically characterize as conservative or right-wing intuitions, and a fairly liberal or left-wing set of concrete beliefs. It’s also one of the things that I mentioned in my initial brain-dump of a post after reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I guess this is technically a continuation of the posts spawned by that book, but it pulls in enough other things that I’m not going to number it anymore.

Haidt’s book doesn’t really address my internal conflict directly; what it does do is talk about liberal and conservative moral intuitions in a way that I found really clarified for me what the conflict was about. Conveniently, in the way that the universe sometimes works, shortly after thinking about that topic a bunch I then read A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. This post by Scott Alexander has nothing to do with Haidt, except that it ends up doing for the “why” of the question what Haidt did for the “what”. And so I now have a pretty nicely packaged understanding of what’s going on in that section of my brain.

Moral Foundations Theory

Let’s start with Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt there are six “moral foundations”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Each of us has moral intuitions on roughly these six axes, and the amount of weight we put on each axis can vary between people, cultures, etc. Conveniently according to Haidt, the amount of weight we put on each axis tracks really nicely as part of the right/left political divide present in the Western world. Libertarians (sometimes called “classical liberals”) strongly value liberty; liberals (the left) put much more emphasis on harm and fairness while mostly ignoring the others; conservatives (the right) value all of them roughly equally, thus leaving them as the effective champions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This is already a very helpful labelling system for me, since it lets me be clearer when I talk about my conflicts. I tend to believe in a lot political ideas that are associated with the left, like a robust social safety net. But, I believe that loyalty, authority, and sanctity have real moral value, and are generally undervalued by the modern left. This isn’t a direct logical conflict (there’s nothing about loyalty that is fundamentally incompatible with a robust social safety net) but it does put me in a sometimes awkward spot between the two “tribes”, especially as the left and right become increasingly polarized in modern politics.

Thriving and Surviving

So Haidt’s system has already been pretty helpful in giving me a better understanding of what exactly the conflict is. But it doesn’t really explain why the conflict is: why I came to hold liberal views despite conservative intuitions. I imagine most people with my intuitions naturally grow up to hold fairly conservative political views as well; it’s the path of least internal resistance. This is where thrive/survive theory comes in. Alexander summarizes it like this:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

This is conveniently similar to behaviour observed in the wild among, for example, slime molds:

When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows. 

This combined slime mold expends a great deal of energy, and ends up sacrificing itself in order to spore and give the mold a chance to start a new life somewhere else. It’s the slime mold equivalent of Gandalf facing the Balrog, spending his own life to ensure the survival of his friends.

And, it also conveniently aligns with Haidt’s moral foundations: of the six foundations, there are three that are fundamentally important for the survival of the group in an unsafe environment: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The other three (care, fairness, and liberty) are important, but are much more likely to be sacrificed for “the greater good” in extreme situations.

This all ties together really nicely. I grew up in a stable, prosperous family in a stable, prosperous country that is still, despite some recent wobbles, doing really really well on most measures. The fact is that my environment is extremely safe, and I’m a sucker for facts combined with rational argument. But twin studies have generally shown that while political specifics are mostly social and not genetic (nurture, not nature), there is a pretty strong genetic component to ideology and related personality traits which, I would hypothesize, boil down in one aspect to Haidt’s moral foundations.

In summary then, the explanation is that I inherited a fairly “conservative” set of intuitions optimized for surviving in an unsafe environment. But, since my actual environment is eminently safe, my rational mind has dragged my actual specific views towards the more practically correct solutions. I wonder if this makes me a genetic dead end?

In other words: I want to optimize for the apocalypse, but fortunately the apocalypse seems very far away.