Efficiency: Too Much of a Good Thing?

One of my firm beliefs is that the truth or the optimal level of something lies somewhere in the middle of a continuum. It’s amusing but also incredibly frustrating when people take hardline stances — this is especially true for politics and economics, and we see the worst of this in the United States, a country that seems to be on the extreme side of everything. “Government is the problem” (translation: government is always bad). “We must never ever raise taxes” (taxes are bad). In the New York Times there is a terrific article about efficiency, how it has been elevated to an intrinsic good. But is it?

The author makes some great observations. It is good that money was invented to replace the inefficient bartering system. It is good that people can access credit so that they can start a business or buy a house. However, the relentless pursuit of efficiency has consequences. For example, in financial markets leading up to 2008, it was more efficient to package junk mortgages and sell them off rather than to conduct due diligence and assess their creditworthiness. Oops.

In our capitalist society, of course companies are competing with each other and they need to improve their efficiency to remain competitive. Efficiency improves the companies’ (and their stockholders’) bottom line. Sometimes this means job cutting, and the consequences when this happens (workers lose their jobs, families fall behind, the wider community is adversely affected, etc) are an externality — a cost borne by the society, not by the company who can merrily declare the wonderful profits it’s making.

So here’s the problem. For people fixated on the financial bottom line, efficiency is not just a good thing but it is a good in and of itself. It is good just like how free markets are good. However, for us realists (idealists?) who believe there is more to life than the financial bottom line, we recognise that there can come a point when too much efficiency is not a good thing, in the same way that unfettered free markets with no regulatory oversight is definitely not a good thing.

Of course if any politician said such a thing in the US they’d be demonised and branded a socialist/communist/fascist/freedom hater by a sizable proportion of the population. Le sigh.

Winter Magic in Amsterdam

So Europe is going through a pretty bad cold snap right now. One bright thing to come out of this is that the canals in Amsterdam have frozen over for the first time in over a decade. The result is truly amazing. Check it out:

In December last year I was staying at the Toren Hotel which is along Keizersgracht, the second of the three main canals ringing the city. Amsterdam is a fantastic place. I was unprepared for the quaint beauty of the city, its canals, its cobblestoned roads, the gorgeous waterfront architecture. And to see people now making their way across the ice. Mind ‘spolsion! Damn I really want to go back…

Jumping on the Bandwagon

For me this has probably less to do with sport and more to do with sociology. Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American basketballer from Palo Alto is sending the NBA world into a frenzy with his recent efforts for the New York Knicks. I love a good underdog story. I love it even more when the protagonist is Asian.

Maybe this resonates with me a lot because I have also experienced the life of an Asian growing up in a Western country, as someone who didn’t just want to be book-smart but to pursue sport and other extracurricular activities. I’m not egotistical enough to claim that I was able to rise to the challenge and succeed spectacularly against the odds like Jeremy has, but I will certainly be following his story with great interest. I might even learn something about basketball along the way!

From what little I do know of the sport, it seems to me that Lin is a team player. He is unselfish, always looking for the best time to dish the ball out and, when the opportunity presents itself, to go it alone. The Knicks’ offence is running much smoother with him in the line-up (we’ll see what happens when Carmelo Anthony comes back to the team). Kinda reminds me of an article I read way back in the NYTimes about the “No-Stats All-Star”, the kind of player who doesn’t do any one thing special but has this intangible, immeasurable quality that lifts the play of the entire team. Check it out, it’s a fascinating read. I think Jeremy Lin is that kind of guy, and I wish all the best to him as he breaks down the entrenched attitudes and misconceptions of Asian sportspeople.

Quote of the Day I

There is nothing noble about being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self

Hindu Proverb

I have a nifty little app for the iPhone, Motivator, which is a collection of quotes under different feeling headings, eg, apathetic, creative, grateful, lonely, etc. This particular quote comes from the heading ‘conceited’. It captures really well the idea that it is useless and futile to compare yourself to others.

I think our society places a lot of stress on achievement these days. That can be good or bad, depending on your motive for doing so. If your goal is to be wealthy — that is, money and material possession are the ends — I think you are deluded (offence intended). The problem with the pursuit of such things is that your will never be satisfied (I promise I’ll come back to this topic).

This is exacerbated by comparing yourself to other people. There will always be someone who’s smarter, richer, better-looking and happier than you. Many (most?) people in our society are locked in the rat race, keeping up with the Joneses, [insert cliche here]. We’re looking for that prestigious university degree, that coveted internship, that next promotion, that better-paying job. Locked in a path that is shaped primarily by what society — parents (in particular Asian), school, colleagues, politicians, the media deems as the good life, the worthwhile life.

It’s a seemingly never-ending grind, until of course it ends. And as those people lie on their death beds they articulate their regrets: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” If there’s one thing humans (especially successful ones) are good at, it’s learning from mistakes. So let their regrets be a lesson for all of us.

You’re more than just the cog in a machine.

The proverb states that true nobility is being superior to your previous self. I don’t think this is intended to be egocentric or self-focused (“It’s all about me, me, me”). Rather, I think that being others-focused is a natural outflow of improving yourself as a human being. By that I mean not looking at others as competitors/yardsticks/enemies but as fellow humans. To be continued.

Song On My Mind III

I’m gonna out my friend and housemate Carlos on this blog. He is a music snob. The other night he had a couple of friends over and we were having some drinks and getting into a good mood. I put on We Found Love by Rihanna. Carlos gave me that look. And that “really??”. It was a very appropriate song for the moment dude, just hack it.  /end flame.

Anyway, having a music snob around does have its upsides. I get exposed to a lot of great stuff. That’s the way I roll — cherry picking the best from any and every category of music. This is a mash up of M83 (“Midnight City”) and Kanye West (“Good Life”). It is fantastic. Put the headphones on, pump the volume up and walk down the street, like a boss.