The case against good people

The Herr Kommandant come out the front door and down the steps by the patio, right there below us, and there on the steps, he drew his gun. He shot a woman who was passing by. A woman carrying a bundle. Through the throat. Just, just a woman on her way somewhere, you know? She was no fatter, or thinner, or slower, or faster than anyone else, and I couldn't guess what had she done. The more you see of the Herr Kommandant, the more you see, there is no set of rules that you can live by. You can't say to yourself, "If I follow these rules, I will be safe".

He won't shoot you because he enjoys you too much. He enjoys you so much he won't even let you wear the Star. He doesn't want anyone else to know it's a Jew he's enjoying. He shot the woman from the steps because she meant nothing to him. She was one of a series, neither offending nor pleasing him.

Scene between Helen Hirsch and Oskar Schindler, in Schindler's List

I've been following the trials of Paul Manafont that have been taking place down the road from where I live, and with both federal trials having come to a conclusion, I can safely say I am rather concerned.

Not because Paul Manafort was the campaign manager of our dearly beloved 45th POTUS, or because in his previous work as advisor for the Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych, he may have advised the violent putdown of Euromaidan protests resulting in about 130 identified deaths, or because he made a plea deal with the Special Counsel and then subsequently broke it, or because after all that he was sentenced to 47 months in prison in his first trial, less than the 19-24 years requested by the prosecution.

No. I'm not concerned because of all that. I'm concerned because in spite of all that, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Mr. Manafort to 3.5 years in prison out of a possible 10.

Why did she grant such a lenient sentence? As it turns out, due of "guidelines intended to limit punishment in overlapping cases", her sentencing is limited by the prior judge's ruling. The prior judge, who in my humble opinion is rather biased. So biased, in fact, he reminded me of another rather biased judge. Maybe she was worried that her sentence may be overturned on appeal. However, given the specter of state charges, the clear 40-year long progression of the politicization of the judicial system, and the fact that the prior judge had issued a sentence lower than that requested by the defense counsel, she might have risked a re-trial or a Presidential pardon and followed the maximum sentencing guidelines with little worry that any legal precedents were broken on her end. Instead, she chose to follow the rules to the letter.

So today, I wanted to make a case against "good people". As you might be able to tell from all the Nazi and Holocaust references, this isn't exactly a happy post, and it's not one I'm happy writing. In fact I think I tried to make the exact opposite argument a while earlier; in that, I don't know if I was able to convince even myself. But I do think the time has come for good people to understand why sometimes, soley "being good" isn't the answer to a long-standing problem. And although the likelihood for advice being followed is bleak, I do think there's a way for "good people" to come out on top, after all of this.

So what makes a "good person"? Here's three characteristics:

  • They're fundamentally disinterested in power: This is all forms of power. Both soft power, and the "if you can shoot the rich guy at any time and take his money, you're as rich as him" kind of power.

  • They trust in the system: Following from the first point, they readily accept the limitations of the society they exist in, and hence do not pay enough attention to what is (publicly declared information), what might be (undeclared information or information that may not exist), and what isn't (information that has changed since they last checked and isn't true anymore).

  • They're very rules-based: If something exceeds their boundaries, you can count on them to step back. They not only find some things far enough outside their code of ethics to be reprehensible, they sometimes have a hard time imagining somebody optimizing for such an outcome, and hence believe it cannot happen.

These are the kinds of people your mother and father likely would have taught you to become. The kind of people who come out on top in a Disney movie, the secondary or tertiary protagonists living in a hut somewhere baking pies and washing dishes. The kind who just want to raise good children and good grandchildren, who are accepting of their limitations, and who fear God.

In our world, all too often, they're the people who lose.

So why would I say they lose? Why is it so dangerous to be a "good person"?

To do this, I thought this would be a good time to share a parable, of an American investment banker and a Mexican fisherman. The version I copied this from, and the credit goes to, Financial Mentor:

An American investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. The boat had several large, fresh fish in it.

The investment banker was impressed by the quality of the fish and asked the Mexican how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican fisherman replied he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos: I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The investment banker scoffed, “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats until eventually you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to the middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You could control the product, processing and distribution.”

Then he added, “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City where you would run your growing enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You could make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?”

To which the investment banker replied, “Then you would retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

This parable commonly communicates the importance of building alignment between your actions and your end goals (why go to all the effort to do the same thing you are doing right now?), and render visible the opportunity cost of any action you take (e.g. you'd lose 15-20 years of your life -- the best years, no less -- to this effort). But I think the American investment banker had some good points that weren't mentioned by this parable. Take the following situations; what would you do if:

  • The President of Mexico launches an attack against a drug cartel in his home province to curry favor with his voter base, splintering and dispersing the cartels and beginning the Mexican Drug War: While you remain vulnerable if you are rich or powerful as you present a more visible target, our Mexican fisherman -- who is fundamentally interested in power -- is completely at the mercy of both sides, the drug cartels looking for protection money, and the corrupted, underpaid police officers who want bribes. The wealthy and powerful can pay off ransoms until they secure exit visas for their families, effectively parrying off attacks by ablating their wealth instead of their health or physical safety.

  • Your child is diagnosed with leukemia, requiring treatment in Mexico City: From some cursory searches, it looks like Mexico provides universal healthcare to its citizens at both a federal and state level. However, if you have a larger family and no other source of income besides fishing, you may need to continue supporting your family over seeing your child. If you had an independent source of income, you could afford to take months or years off to support your child. And of course, depending on whether budget cuts are on the horizon, and who the government hires for public policy consultations, the very notion of having free or subsidized healthcare available for granted may come into question. This demonstrates a heavy reliance on the system.

  • A corrupt judge sentences you, an innocent person, to a harsh sentence for profit: Would you respect a ruling if it seemed harsh? If you don't respect it in a respectful way, such as appeal, you may be bled dry financially and emotionally, while still remaining at somebody else's mercy (or lack thereof). To not respect it in a disrespectful way is to break the rules -- and obviously, you can't have that.

Of course, parables are made to be broken, and there remain counterpoints to these points. However, they would still require knowledge of "how to play the game", which fits into my point. Sometimes, it's not enough to be good, or right. There's enough problems in the world that don't respect goodness or rightness, and those problems can only be addressed by the logic of power. Possessing power gives you choices.

And to those who may scoff that these are edge cases, I would say these are simply the edge cases that we know about. If you have no power, you remain vulnerable in an infinite number of ways, with a number of those plausible and executable.

Hence, some of the bitter lessons that too few people learn in time come into view:

  • There are no absolutes: When it comes to any science, particlarly the social sciences, hypotheses are never perfectly true. In fact, it only takes one case disproving it to collapse the whole model. And even if they are partially true, that truth may change over time. If you have healthcare, you might not be covered for a given condition due to a clause you passed over. And if you have healthcare passed in law, that doesn't mean the government will execute well in providing it, maliciously or otherwise. You can't build certainties on uncertainties. Oftentimes, "good people" do just this.

  • What is given, can be taken away: If your safety, health, or wealth exists at the mercy of somebody else, and they decide that the status quo no longer benefits them, you're not safe, healthy, or wealthy anymore. "Good people" will assume that because they had the power to demand and receive such services before, they will continue to receive such services ad infinitum without further demanding it.

In short, "good people" build very low congruency between "their problems" and "their fault". It results in mindsets of helplessness, resentment, and suffering. Life in such a world is no fun. It's toxic, embarrassing, and unproductive.

So, as long as the wolves live amongst us, what are some things you can do?

  • Consistently pay for high-quality information: You can only really trust what you pay, and information is the most easily corruptible resource, since your judgments may vary widely on how much of the full truth it contains. If you pay your sources, they're incentivized to not lose out on your business/income in the future, and (ideally) provide competitive services, meaning at least against smaller-sized players, any dearth of information will impact everybody and not just you. What you do not know about, you cannot protect against.

  • Accept liberally and emit conservatively: Be able to accept a wide breadth of opinions and actions without resorting to breaking the rules. Do not give people a reason to single you out and target you, unless you desire to die on a particular hill (which may be important).

  • Practice proportional response to threats: Power cannot exist where it is not practiced or demonstrated, and will disappear if it is not exercised; this is the same principle of "if you can and you don't, can you really can?". Yet power also disappears if it is used too often or too harshly; since most sources of power are derived, they require replenishment from other centers of power, which is often slow and not guaranteed. In this situation, harbor your resources, pay attention to and evaluate threats on a continual basis, and be wary of dying on any particular hill. Proportional response is one of the strategems used to execute this plan; prevent threat escalation and multiplication, divert and dissuade potential threats away from attacking you, and grant you time to formulate your next play vs. acting on a series of knee-jerk reactions that may cost you greatly.

I know off the bat that most people won't see this post, or hear any of this kind of advice from anybody. And you know what? That's ok. In fact, maybe better than okay; a world where everybody lives in their own castle is not too much fun either, and accepting this bleak reality as the only possible due to the limits of each person are fallacial, as a better world from all our efforts is indeed possible. In addition, sometimes you can't defend against a larger, persistent opponent with significant resource asymmetries. You have to resort to other solutions sometimes.

For example, dying on a hill of trying to make the world a kinder, more empathetic place (e.g. donating a large fortune to whack malaria, or volunteering for Médecins Sans Frontières with the risk of being attacked), is something I think is highly admirable. Creating these kinds of social surpluses, especially faster than what a handful of bad actors can take, is what makes our lives worth living as we find purpose in each other, and encourages the belief we will bequeath a better world for our children.

Some things are more important than power, or the truth. Things like hope. Trying to find that balance in our world of organized chaos is hard enough when you're trying. So don't be a "good person" and go into this blind. Understand, appraise, and execute with knowledge. Through this, you may find your peace no matter what the world may throw at you.