Make Time For Hope

Pandora hastened to replace the lid! but, alas! the whole contents of the jar had escaped, one thing only excepted, which lay at the bottom, and that was HOPE. So we see at this day, whatever evils are abroad, hope never entirely leaves us; and while we have THAT, no amount of other ills can make us completely wretched.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks, and it seems likely to continue to be so for quite some time. There are many real and terrible consequences of the mistake that America made in November, and ignoring them will not make them go away. We’ll all need to find a way to do our part.

It’s not just you — it’s legit hard to focus on work right now. This is especially true if, as many people in my community are, you are trying to motivate yourself to work on extracurricular, after-work projects that you used to find exciting, and instead find it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

I have no particular position of authority to advise you what to do about this situation, but I need to give a little pep talk to myself to get out of bed in the morning these days, so I figure I’d share my strategy with you. This is as much in the hope that I’ll follow it more closely myself as it is that it will be of use to you.

With that, here are some ideas.

It’s not over.

The feeling that nothing else is important any more, that everything must now be a life-or-death political struggle, is exhausting. Again, I don’t want to minimize the very real problems that are coming or the need to do something about them, but, life will go on. Remind yourself of that. If you were doing something important before, it’s still important. The rest of the world isn’t going away.

Make as much time for self-care as you need.

You’re not going to be of much use to anyone if you’re just a sobbing wreck all the time. Do whatever you can do to take care of yourself and don’t feel guilty about it. We’ll all do what we can, when we can.1

You need to put on your own oxygen mask first.

Make time, every day, for hope.

“You can stand anything for 10 seconds. Then you just start on a new 10 seconds.”

Every day, set aside some time — maybe 10 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe half the day, however much you can manage — where you’re going to just pretend everything is going to be OK.2

Once you’ve managed to securely fasten this self-deception in place, take the time to do the things you think are important. Of course, for my audience, “work on your cool open source code” is a safe bet for something you might want to do, but don’t make the mistake of always grimly setting your jaw and nose to the extracurricular grindstone; that would just be trading one set of world-weariness for another.

After convincing yourself that everything’s fine, spend time with your friends and family, make art, or heck, just enjoy a good movie. Don’t let the flavor of life turn to ash on your tongue.

Good night and good luck.

Thanks for reading. It’s going to be a long four years3; I wish you the best of luck living your life in the meanwhile.

  1. I should note that self-care includes just doing your work to financially support yourself. If you have a job that you don’t feel is meaningful but you need the wages to survive, that’s meaningful. It’s OK. Let yourself do it. Do a good job. Don’t get fired. 

  2. I know that there are people who are in desperate situations who can’t do this; if you’re an immigrant in illegal ICE or CBP detention, I’m (hopefully obviously) not talking to you. But, luckily, this is not yet the majority of the population. Most of us can, at least some of the time, afford to ignore the ongoing disaster. 

  3. Realistically, probably more like 20 months, once the Rs in congress realize that he’s completely destroyed their party’s credibility and get around to impeaching him for one of his numerous crimes. 

What are we afraid of?

People are good, I hope.

I’m crying as I write this, and I want you to understand why.

Politics is the mind-killer. I hate talking about it; I hate driving a wedge between myself and someone I might be able to participate in a coalition with, however narrow. But, when you ignore politics for long enough, it doesn't just kill the mind; it goes on to kill the rest of the body, as well as anyone standing nearby. So, sometimes one is really obligated to talk about it.

Today, I am in despair. Donald Trump is an unprecedented catastrophe for American politics, in many ways. I find it likely that I will get into some nasty political arguments with his supporters in the years to come. But hopefully, this post is not one of those arguments. This post is for you, hypothetical Trump supporter. I want you to understand why we1 are not just sad, that we are not just defeated, but that we are in more emotional distress than any election has ever provoked for us. I want you to understand that we are afraid for our safety, and for good reason.

I do not believe I can change your views; don’t @ me to argue, because you certainly can’t change mine. My hope is simply that you can read this and at least understand why a higher level level of care and compassion in political discourse than you are used to may now be required. At least soften your tone, and blunt your rhetoric. You already won, and if you rub it in too much, you may be driving people to literally kill themselves.

First let me list the arguments that I’m not making, so you can’t write off my concerns as a repeat of some rhetoric you’ve heard before.

I won’t tell you about how Trump has the support of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan; I know that you’ll tell me that he “can’t control who supports him”, and that he denounced2 their support. I won’t tell you about the very real campaign of violence that has been carried out by his supporters in the mere days since his victory; a campaign that has even affected the behavior of children. I know you don’t believe there’s a connection there.

I think these are very real points to be made. But even if I agreed with you completely, that none of this was his fault, that none of this could have been prevented by his campaign, and that in his heart he’s not a hateful racist, I would still be just as scared.

Bear Sterns estimates that there are approximately 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Donald Trump’s official position on how to handle this population is mass deportation. He has promised that this will be done “warmly and humanely”, which betrays his total ignorance of how mass resettlements have happened in the past.

By contrast, the total combined number of active and reserve personnel in the United States Armed Forces is a little over 2 million people.

What do you imagine happens when a person is deported? A person who, as an illegal immigrant, very likely gave up everything they have in their home country, and wants to be where they are so badly that they risk arrest every day, just by living where they live? How do you think that millions of them returning to countries where they have no home, no food, and quite likely no money or access to the resources or support that they had while in the United States?

They die. They die of exposure because they are in poverty and all their possessions were just stripped away and they can no longer feed themselves, or because they were already refugees from political violence in their home country, or because their home country kills them at the border because it is a hostile action to suddenly burden an economy with the shock of millions of displaced (and therefore suddenly poor and unemployed, whether they were before or not) people.

A conflict between 20 million people on one side and 2 million (heavily armed) people on the other is not a “police action”. It cannot be done “warmly and humanely”. At best, such an action could be called a massacre. At worst (and more likely) it would be called a civil war. Individual deportees can be sent home without incident, and many have been, but the victims of a mass deportation will know what is waiting for them on the other side of that train ride. At least some of them won’t go quietly.

It doesn’t matter if this is technically enforcing “existing laws”. It doesn’t matter whether you think these people deserve to be in the country or not. This is just a reality of very, very large numbers.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that of the population of immigrants has assimilated so poorly that each one knows only one citizen who will stand up to defend them, once it’s obvious that they will be sent to their deaths. That’s a hypothetical resistance army of 40 million people. Let’s say they are so thoroughly overpowered by the military and police that there are zero casualties on the other side of this. Generously, let’s say that the police and military are incredibly restrained, and do not use unnecessary overwhelming force, and the casualty rate is just 20%; 4 out of 5 people are captured without lethal force, and miraculously nobody else dies in the remaining 16 million who are sent back to their home countries.

That’s 8 million casualties.

6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.

This is why we are afraid. Forget all the troubling things about Trump’s character. Forget the coded racist language, the support of hate groups, and every detail and gaffe that we could quibble over as the usual chum of left/right political struggle in the USA. Forget his deeply concerning relationship with African-Americans, even.

We are afraid because of things that others have said about him, yes. But mainly, we are afraid because, in his own campaign, Trump promised to be 33% worse than Hitler.

I know that there are mechanisms in our democracy to prevent such an atrocity from occurring. But there are also mechanisms to prevent the kind of madman who would propose such a policy from becoming the President, and thus far they’ve all failed.

I’m not all that afraid for myself. I’m not a Muslim. I am a Jew, but despite all the swastikas painted on walls next to Trump’s name and slogans, I don’t think he’s particularly anti-Semitic. Perhaps he will even make a show of punishing anti-Semites, since he has some Jews in his family3.

I don’t even think he’s trying to engineer a massacre; I just know that what he wants to do will cause one. Perhaps, when he sees what is happening as a result of his orders, he will stop. But his character has been so erratic, I honestly have no idea.

I’m not an immigrant, but many in my family are. One of those immigrants is intimately familiar with the use of the word “deportation” as an euphemism for extermination; there’s even a museum about it where she comes from.

Her mother’s name is written in a book there.

In closing, I’d like to share a quote.

The last thing that my great-grandmother said to my grandmother, before she was dragged off to be killed by the Nazis, was this:

Pleure pas, les gens sont bons.

or, in English:

Don’t cry, people are good.

As it turns out, she was right, in a sense; thanks in large part to the help of anonymous strangers, my grandmother managed to escape, and, here I am.

My greatest hope for this upcoming regime change is that I am dramatically catastrophizing; that none of these plans will come to fruition, that the strange story4 I have been told by Trump supporters is in fact true.

But if my fears, if our fears, should come to pass – and the violence already in the streets already is showing that at least some of those fears will – you, my dear conservative, may find yourself at a crossroads. You may see something happening in your state, or your city, or even in your own home. Your children might use a racial slur, or even just tell a joke that you find troubling. You may see someone, even a policeman, beating a Muslim to death. In that moment, you will have a choice: to say something, or not. To be one of the good people, or not.

Please, be one of the good ones.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to try to take great-grandma’s advice.

  1. When I say “we”, I mean, the people that you would call “liberals”, although our politics are often much more complicated than that; the people from “blue states” even though most states are closer to purple than pure blue or pure red; people of color, and immigrants, and yes, Jews. 

  2. Eventually. 

  3. While tacitly allowing continued violence against Muslims, of course. 

  4. “His campaign is really about campaign finance”, “he just said that stuff to get votes, of course he won’t do it”, “they’ll be better off in their home countries”, and a million other justifications. 

Stop Working So Hard

In response to a thoughtful reply from John Carmack, I share some thoughts on why we all need to stop working so damn hard.

Recently, I saw this tweet where John Carmack posted to a thread on Hacker News about working hours. As this post propagated a good many bad ideas about working hours, particularly in the software industry, I of course had to reply. After some further back-and-forth on Twitter, Carmack followed up.

First off, thanks to Mr. Carmack for writing such a thorough reply in good faith. I suppose internet arguments have made me a bit cynical in that I didn’t expect that. I still definitely don’t agree, but I think there’s a legitimate analysis of the available evidence there now, at least.

When trying to post this reply to HN, I was told that the comment was too long, and I suppose it is a bit long for a comment. So, without further ado, here are my further thoughts on working hours.

... if only the workers in Greece would ease up a bit, they would get the productivity of Germany. Would you make that statement?

Not as such, no. This is a hugely complex situation mixing together finance, culture, management, international politics, monetary policy, and a bunch of other things. That study, and most of the others I linked to, is interesting in that it confirms the general model of ability-to-work (i.e. “concentration” or “willpower”) as a finite resource that you exhaust throughout the day; not in that “reduction in working hours” is a panacea solution. Average productivity-per-hour-worked would definitely go up.

However, I do believe (and now we are firmly off into interpretation-of-results territory, I have nothing empirical to offer you here) that if the average Greek worker were less stressed to the degree of the average German one, combining issues like both overwork and the presence of a constant catastrophic financial crisis in the news, yes; they’d achieve equivalent productivity.

Total net productivity per worker, discounting for any increases in errors and negative side effects, continues increasing well past 40 hours per week. ... Only when you are so broken down that even when you come back the following day your productivity per hour is significantly impaired, do you open up the possibility of actually reducing your net output.

The trouble here is that you really cannot discount for errors and negative side effects, especially in the long term.

First of all, the effects of overwork (and attendant problems, like sleep deprivation) are cumulative. While productivity on a given day increases past 40 hours per week, if you continue to work more, you productivity will continue to degrade. So, the case where “you come back the following day ... impaired” is pretty common... eventually.

Since none of this epidemiological work tracks individual performance longitudinally there are few conclusive demonstrations of this fact, but lots of compelling indications; in the past, I’ve collected quantitative data on myself (and my reports, back when I used to be a manager) that strongly corroborates this hypothesis. So encouraging someone to work one sixty-hour week might be a completely reasonable trade-off to address a deadline; but building a culture where asking someone to work nights and weekends as a matter of course is inherently destructive. Once you get into the area where people are losing sleep (and for people with other responsibilities, it’s not hard to get to that point) overwork starts impacting stuff like the ability to form long-term memories, which means that not only do you do less work, you also consistently improve less.

Furthermore, errors and negative side effects can have a disproportionate impact.

Let me narrow the field here to two professions I know a bit about and are germane to this discussion; one, health care, which the original article here starts off by referencing, and two, software development, with which we are both familiar (since you already raised the Mythical Man Month).

In medicine, you can do a lot of valuable life-saving work in a continuous 100-hour shift. And in fact residents are often required to do so as a sort of professional hazing ritual. However, you can also make catastrophic mistakes that would cost a person their life; this happens routinely. Study after study confirms this, and minor reforms happen, but residents are still routinely abused and made to work in inhumane conditions that have catastrophic outcomes for their patients.

In software, defects can be extremely expensive to fix. Not only are they hard to fix, they can also be hard to detect. The phenomenon of the Net Negative Producing Programmer also indicates that not only can productivity drop to zero, it can drop below zero. On the anecdotal side, anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of cleaning up after a burnt-out co-worker can attest to this.

There are a great many tasks where inefficiency grows significantly with additional workers involved; the Mythical Man Month problem is real. In cases like these, you are better off with a smaller team of harder working people, even if their productivity-per-hour is somewhat lower.

The specific observation from the Mythical Man Month was that the number of communication links on a fully connected graph of employees increases geometrically whereas additional productivity (in the form of additional workers) increases linearly. If you have a well-designed organization, you can add people without requiring that your communication graph be fully connected.

But of course, you can’t always do that. And specifically you can’t do that when a project is already late: you already figured out how the work is going to be divided. Brooks’ Law is formulated as: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” This is indubitable. But one of the other famous quotes from this book is “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.”

The bearing of a child also takes nine months no matter how many hours a day the woman is assigned to work on it. So “in cases like these” my contention is that you are not “better off with ... harder working people”: you’re just screwed. Some projects are impossible and you are better off acknowledging the fact that you made unrealistic estimates and you are going to fail.

You called my post “so wrong, and so potentially destructive”, which leads me to believe that you hold an ideological position that the world would be better if people didn’t work as long. I don’t actually have a particularly strong position there; my point is purely about the effective output of an individual.

I do, in fact, hold such an ideological position, but I’d like to think that said position is strongly justified by the data available to me.

But, I suppose calling it “so potentially destructive” might have seemed glib, if you are really just looking at the microcosm of what one individual might do on one given week at work, and not at the broader cultural implications of this commentary. After all, as this discussion shows, if you are really restricting your commentary to a single person on a single work-week, the case is substantially more ambiguous. So let me explain why I believe it’s harmful, as opposed to merely being incorrect.

First of all, the problem is that you can’t actually ignore the broader cultural implications. This is Hacker News, and you are John Carmack; you are practically a cultural institution yourself, and by using this site you are posting directly into the broader cultural implications of the software industry.

Software development culture, especially in the USA, suffers from a long-standing culture of chronic overwork. Startup developers in their metaphorical (and sometimes literal) garages are lionized and then eventually mythologized for spending so many hours on their programs. Anywhere that it is celebrated, this mythology rapidly metastasizes into a severe problem; the Death March

Note that although the term “death march” is technically general to any project management, it applies “originally and especially in software development”, because this problem is worse in the software industry (although it has been improving in recent years) than almost anywhere else.

So when John Carmack says on Hacker News that “the effective output of an individual” will tend to increase with hours worked, that sends a message to many young and impressionable software developers. This is the exact same phenomenon that makes pop-sci writing terrible: your statement may be, in some limited context, and under some tight constraints, empirically correct, but it doesn’t matter because when you expand the parameters to the full spectrum of these people’s careers, it’s both totally false and also a reinforcement of an existing cognitive bias and cultural trope.

I can’t remember the name of this cognitive bias (and my Google-fu is failing me), but I know it exists. Let me call it the “I’m fine” bias. I know it exists because I have a friend who had the opportunity to go on a flight with NASA (on the Vomit Comet), and one of the more memorable parts of this experience that he related to me was the hypoxia test. The test involved basic math and spatial reasoning skills, but that test wasn’t the point: the real test was that they had to notice and indicate when the oxygen levels were dropping and indicate that to the proctor. Concentrating on the test, many people failed the first few times, because the “I’m fine” bias makes it very hard to notice that you are impaired.

This is true of people who are drunk, or people who are sleep deprived, too. Their abilities are quantifiably impaired, but they have to reach a pretty severe level of impairment before they notice.

So people who are overworked might feel generally bad but they don’t notice their productivity dropping until they’re way over the red line.

Combine this with the fact that most people, especially those already employed as developers, are actually quite hard-working and earnest (laziness is much more common as a rhetorical device than as an actual personality flaw) and you end up in a scenario where a good software development manager is responsible much more for telling people to slow down, to take breaks, and to be more realistic in their estimates, than to speed up, work harder, and put in more hours.

The trouble is this goes against the manager’s instincts as well. When you’re a manager you tend to think of things in terms of resources: hours worked, money to hire people, and so on. So there’s a constant nagging sensation for a manager to encourage people to work more hours in a day, so you can get more output (hours worked) out of your input (hiring budget). The problem here is that while all hours are equal, some hours are more equal than others. Managers have to fight against their own sense that a few more worked hours will be fine, and their employees’ tendency to overwork because they’re not noticing their own burnout, and upper management’s tendency to demand more.

It is into this roiling stew of the relentless impulse to “work, work, work” that we are throwing our commentary about whether it’s a good idea or not to work more hours in the week. The scales are weighted very heavily on one side already - which happens to be the wrong side in the first place - and while we’ve come back from the unethical and illegal brink we were at as an industry in the days of ea_spouse, software developers still generally work far too much.

If we were fighting an existential threat, say an asteroid that would hit the earth in a year, would you really tell everyone involved in the project that they should go home after 35 hours a week, because they are harming the project if they work longer?

Going back to my earlier explanation in this post about the cumulative impact of stress and sleep deprivation - if we were really fighting an existential threat, the equation changes somewhat. Specifically, the part of the equation where people can have meaningful downtime.

In such a situation, I would still want to make sure that people are as well-rested and as reasonably able to focus as they possibly can be. As you’ve already acknowledged, there are “increases in errors” when people are working too much, and we REALLY don’t want the asteroid-targeting program that is going to blow apart the asteroid that will wipe out all life on earth to have “increased errors”.

But there’s also the problem that, faced with such an existential crisis, nobody is really going to be able to go home and enjoy a fine craft beer and spend some time playing with their kids and come back refreshed at 100% the next morning. They’re going to be freaking out constantly about the comet, they’re going to be losing sleep over that whether they’re working or not. So, in such a situation, people should have the option to go home and relax if they’re psychologically capable of doing so, but if the option for spending their time that makes them feel the most sane is working constantly and sleeping under their desk, well, that’s the best one can do in that situation.

This metaphor is itself also misleading and out of place, though. There is also a strong cultural trend in software, especially in the startup ecosystem, to over-inflate the importance of what the company is doing - it is not “changing the world” to create a website for people to order room-service for their dogs - and thereby to catastrophize any threat to that goal. The vast majority of the time, it is inappropriate to either to sacrifice -- or to ask someone else to sacrifice -- health and well-being for short-term gains. Remember, given the cumulative effects of overwork, that’s all you even can get: short-term gains. This sacrifice often has a huge opportunity cost in other areas, as you can’t focus on more important things that might come along later.

In other words, while the overtime situation is complex and delicate in the case of an impending asteroid impact, there’s also the question of whether, at the beginning of Project Blow Up The Asteroid, I want everyone to be burnt out and overworked from their pet-hotel startup website. And in that case, I can say, unequivocally, no. I want them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for what is sure to be a grueling project, no matter what the overtime policy is, that absolutely needs to happen. I want to make sure they didn’t waste their youth and health on somebody else’s stock valuation.

Taking Issue With Paul Graham’s Premises

Income inequality is a complex issue that “essays” are not well-positioned to address.

Paul Graham has recently penned an essay on income inequality. Holly Wood wrote a pretty good critique of this piece, but it is addressing a huge amount of pre-existing context, as well as ignoring large chunks of the essay that nominally agree.

Eevee has already addressed how the “simplified version” didn’t substantively change anything that the longer one was saying, so I’m not going to touch on that much. However, it’s worth noting that the reason Paul Graham says he wrote that is that he thinks that “adventurous interpretations” are to blame for criticism of his “controversial” writing; in other words, that people are misinterpreting his argument because the conclusion is politically unacceptable.

Personally, I am deeply ambivalent about the political implications of his writing. I believe, strongly, in the power of markets to solve social problems that planning cannot. I don’t think “capitalist” is a slur. But, neither do I believe that markets are inherently good; capitalist economic theory assumes an environment of equal initial opportunity which demonstrably does not exist. I am, personally, very open to ideas like the counter-intuitive suggestion that economic inequality might not be such a bad thing, if the case were well-made. I say this because I want to be clear that what bothers me about Paul Graham’s writing is not its “controversial” content.

What bothers me about Paul Graham’s writing is that the reasoning is desperately sloppy. I sometimes mentor students on their writing, and if this mess were handed to me by one of my mentees, I would tell them to rewrite it from scratch. Although the “thanks” section at the end of each post on his blog implies that he gets editing feedback, it must be so uncritical of his assumptions as to be useless.

Initially, my entirely subjective impression is that Paul Graham is not a credible authority on the topic of income inequality. He doesn’t demonstrate any grasp of its causes, or indeed the substance of any proposed remedy. I would say that he is attacking a straw-man, but he doesn’t even bother to assemble the straw-man first, saying only:

... the thing that strikes me most about the conversations I overhear ...

What are these “conversations” he “overhears”? What remedies are they proposing which would target income inequality by eliminating any possible reward for entrepreneurship? Nothing he’s arguing against sounds like anything I’ve ever heard someone propose, and I spend a lot of time in the sort of conversation that he imagines overhearing.

His claim to credentials in this area doesn’t logically follow, either:

I’ve become an expert on how to increase economic inequality, and I’ve spent the past decade working hard to do it. ... In the real world you can create wealth as well as taking it from others.

This whole passage is intended to read logically as: “I increase economic inequality, which you might assume is bad, but it’s not so bad, because it creates wealth in the process!”.

Hopefully what PG has actually been trying to become an expert in is creating wealth (a net positive), not in increasing economic inequality (a negative, or, at best, neutral by-product of that process). If he is focused on creating wealth, as so much of the essay purports he is, then it does not necessarily follow that the startup founders will be getting richer than their customers.

Of course, many goods and services provide purely subjective utility to their consumers. But in a properly functioning market, the whole point of of engaging in transactions is to improve efficiency.

To borrow from PG’s woodworker metaphor:

A woodworker creates wealth. He makes a chair, and you willingly give him money in return for it.

I might be buying that chair to simply appreciate its chair-ness and bask in the sublime beauty of its potential for being sat-in. But equally likely, I’m buying that chair for my office, where I will sit in it, and produce some value of my own while thusly seated. If the woodworker hadn’t created that chair for me, I’d have to do it myself, and it (presumably) would have been more expensive in terms of time and resources. Therefore, by producing the chair more efficiently, the woodworker would have increased my wealth as well as his own, by increasing the delta between my expenses (which include the chair) and my revenue (generated by tripping the light pythonic or whatever).

Note that “more efficient” doesn’t necessarily mean “lower cost”. Sitting in a chair is a substantial portion of my professional activity. A higher-quality chair that costs the same amount might improve the quality of my sitting experience, which might improve my own productivity at writing code, allowing me to make more income myself.

Even if the value of the chair is purely subjective, it is still an expense, and making it more efficient to make chairs would still increase my net worth.

Therefore, if startups really generated wealth so reliably, rather than simply providing a vehicle for transferring it, we would expect to see decreases in economic inequality, as everyone was able to make the most efficient use of their own time and resources, and was able to make commensurately more money.

... variation in productivity is accelerating ...

Counterpoint: no it isn’t. It’s not even clear that it’s increasing, let alone that its derivative is increasing. This doesn’t appear to be something that much data is collected on, and in the absence of any citation, I have to assume that it is a restatement of the not only false, but harmful, frequently debunked 10x programmer myth.

Most people who get rich tend to be fairly driven.

This sounds obvious: of course, if you “get” rich, you have to be doing something to “get” that way. First of all, this ignores many people who simply are rich, who get their wealth from inheritance or rent-seeking, which I think is discounting a pretty substantial number of rich people.

But it is implicitly making a bolder claim: that people who get rich are more driven than other people; i.e. those who don’t get rich.

In my personal experience, the opposite is true. People who get rich do work hard, and are determined, but really poor people work a lot harder and are a lot more determined. A startup founder who is eating rice and beans to try to keep their burn rate low and their runway long may indeed be making sacrifices and working hard. They may be experiencing emotional turmoil. But implicitly, such a person always has the safety net of high-value skills they can use to go find another job if their attempt doesn’t work out.

But don’t take my word for it; think about it for yourself. Consider a single mother working three minimum-wage jobs and eating rice and beans because that’s the only way she can feed her children. Would you imagine she is less determined and will work less hard to keep her children alive than our earlier hypothetical startup founder would work to keep their valuation high?

One of the most important principles in Silicon Valley is that “you make what you measure.” It means that if you pick some number to focus on, it will tend to improve, but that you have to choose the right number, because only the one you choose will improve

A closely-related principle from outside of Silicon Valley is Goodhart’s Law. It states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. If you pick some number to focus on, the number as measured will improve, but since it’s often cheaper to subvert the mechanisms for measuring than to actually make progress, the improvement will often be meaningless. It is a dire mistake to assume that as long as you select the right metric in a political process that you can really improve it.

The Silicon Valley version - assuming the number will genuinely increase, and all you have to do is choose the right one - really only works when the things producing the numbers are computers, and the people collecting them have clearly circumscribed reasons not to want to cheat. This is why people tend to select numbers like income inequality to optimize: it gives people a reason to want to avoid cheating.

It’s still possible to get rich by buying politicians (though even that is harder than it was in 1880)

The sunlight foundation published a report in 2014, indicating that the return on investment of political spending is approximately 76,000%. While the sunlight foundation didn't exist in 1880, a similar report in 2009 suggested this number was 22,000% a few years ago, suggesting this number is going up, not down; i.e. over time, it is getting easier, not harder, to get rich by buying politicians.

Meanwhile, the ROI of venture capital, while highly variable, is, on average, at least two orders of magnitude lower than that. While outright “buying” a politican is a silly straw-man, manipulating goverment remains a far more reliable and lucrative source of income than doing anything productive, with technology or otherwise.

The rate at which individuals can create wealth depends on the technology available to them, and that grows exponentially.

In what sense does technology grow “exponentially”? Let’s look at a concrete example of increasing economic output that’s easy to quantify: wheat yield per acre. What does the report have to say about it?

Winter wheat yields have trended higher since 1960. We find that a linear trend is the best fit to actual average yields over that period and that yields have increased at a rate of 0.4 bushel per acre per year...

(emphasis mine)

In other words, when I go looking for actual, quantifiable evidence of the benefit of improving technology, it is solidly linear, not exponential.

What have we learned?

Paul Graham frequently writes essays in which he makes quantifiable, falsifiable claims (technology growth is “exponential”, an “an exponential curve that has been operating for thousands of years”, “there are also a significant number who get rich by creating wealth”) but rarely, if ever, provides any data to back up those claims. When I look for specific examples to test his claims, as with the crop yield examples above, it often seems to me that his claims are exaggerated, entirely imagined, or, worse yet, completely backwards from the truth of the matter.

Graham frequently uses the language of rationality, data, science, empiricism, and mathematics. This is a bad habit shared by many others immersed in Silicon Valley culture. However, simply adopting an unemotional tone and co-opting words like “exponential” and “factor”, or almost-quantifiable weasel words like “most” and “significant”, is no substitute for actually doing the research, assembling the numbers, fitting the curves, and trying to understand if the claims are valid.

This continues to strike me as a real shame, because PG’s CV clearly shows he is an intelligent and determined fellow, and he certainly has a fair amount of money, status, and power at this point. More importantly, his other writings clearly indicate he cares a lot about things like “niceness” and fairness. If he took the trouble to more humbly approach socioeconomic problems like income inequality and poverty, really familiarize himself with existing work in the field, he could put his mind to a solution. He might be able to make some real change. Instead, he continues to use misleading language and rhetorical flourishes to justify decisions he’s already made. In doing so, he remains, regrettably, a blowhard.