ET Note: The Grand Inquisition

Below is the teaser for my latest Epsilon Theory note. The piece is a meditation on freedom, through the lens of Dostoyevsky’s parable, “The Grand Inquisitor”:

The Nudging State and Nudging Oligarchy believe they are giving us a gift: Freedom from Choice.

Except that it is neither a gift nor freedom in any sense. Rejecting it isn’t always easy and it isn’t always costless. But it’s the only choice for anyone who would be free.

Click through to Epsilon Theory to read the whole thing.

There’s an idea embedded in this note, related to the specific mechanism through which the Nudging State engages in social engineering, which is worth making more explicit. I’ve written around the edges of it before on this blog, in The Tyranny of Optimization, when I wrote:

Here you’re not staring down the barrel of a gun but rather at a smartphone screen. Here, the trick is not only convincing people to buy into your optimization, but that buying in was their idea in the first place. This is tyranny updated for the 21st century. Much cleaner than putting people up against a wall.

What I’m describing here is what my friends at Epsilon Theory call “fiat thought.” These are thoughts and behaviors you believe are your own, though in reality they’ve been engineered by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy to promote some policy or behavior.

How do you test for fiat thought?

Ask why.

“Why do I believe [whatever]?”

For fiat thought, the answer is always some permutation of “because someone told me so.” Maybe that’s a politician. Maybe it’s a business leader. Maybe it’s a public intellectual or “thought leader.” Maybe it’s a go-to media outlet (or several). Bottom line is you won’t have a principles-based reason for believing whatever is at issue.

Having your thoughts replaced with fiat thought is perhaps the purest form of slavery I can imagine. It’s like being transformed into a pod person, except you don’t even realize the transformation is taking place. In fact, to the extent you notice the transformation at all, you’ll believe it was your own idea. This is the nature of “choice architecture.” It’s a kind of rigged game–a simulation of free will.

In reading some of the responses to my note, there are a couple common threads:

  1. Aren’t constraints on our behavior necessary to some extent to have a functional society?
  2. Most of the folks who serve the State do not have malicious intentions and are sincerely doing the best they can to balance tradeoffs when making policy.

These are both excellent points. I totally agree with both of them.

Constraints on our behavior and incentive systems are terms we negotiate as part of the social contract. The negotiation process is ongoing and dynamic. It never ends. An important aspect of freedom is the ability to participate in the negotiation process as a principal. “Nudgers” do not treat us as principals. Nudgers treat us as biological systems to be engineered.

ET Note: The Alchemy of Narrative

I revisited some of George Soros’s writing on reflexivity over the weekend (thanks Ben Hunt!). In doing so, I realized my initial reading, years ago, had been extremely superficial. Back then, I focused on feedback loops as amplifying the usual cognitive and emotional biases we point to in investment writing. Things like confirmation bias and loss aversion and overconfidence. This reading of Soros wasn’t necessarily wrong. But it was narrow and incomplete.

When Soros writes about reflexivity, he isn’t just arguing cognitive errors made by market participants cause prices to diverge from the objective reality of the fundamentals in self-reinforcing feedback loops. He’s arguing the fundamentals are often, if not always, themselves subjective realities.

Click through to Epsilon Theory to read the whole thing.

But since you got here through the blog, you also get some bonus content. Note that if you continue reading, things will get conceptual, abstract, philosophical, and maybe a little weird. Consider yourself warned. If you’re not interested in that kind of thing you can safely skip the rest of this post.

My ET note is about subjective reality in the context of financial markets. At the very end, it alludes to the fact that reflexivity and subjective realities influence all social systems. Politics. Geopolitics. Economics. It’s all reflexive. The Big Idea is this: reflexivity is what drives the cyclicality we observe throughout history. Reflexivity is why we appear to learn from history and yet are doomed to repeat it.

Back in 2013, Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm wrote what turns out to be a pretty compelling explanation of how Missionaries come to an intuitive understanding of both reflexivity and subjective reality, in the context of the TV show, The Office. Rao uses “Sociopath” in place of “Missionary” in his piece, but for our purposes here the terms are interchangeable.

It’s important to understand that when Rao writes about Sociopaths, he’s not writing narrowly about serial killer wannabes. He’s writing about people who want to know The Truth. Specifically, Sociopaths want unmediated access to the Truth, because they (rightly) suspect other people have a vested interested in obscuring or distorting it for their own ends. The Beginner Sociopath is vaguely aware of Narrative. In pursuit of Truth she begins unmasking reality–ripping away Narrative abstractions.

Over to Rao:

As the journey proceeds, Sociopaths progressively rip away layer after layer of social reality. The Sociopath’s journey can be understood as progressive unmasking of a sequence of increasingly ancient and fearsome gods, each reigning over a harsher social order, governing fewer humans. If morality falls by the wayside when the first layer is ripped away, other reassuring certainties, such as the idea of a benevolent universe, and predictable relationships between efforts and rewards, fall away in deeper layers.

With each new layer decoded, Sociopaths find transient meaning, but not enduring satisfaction.

Much to their surprise, however, they find that in the unsatisfying meanings they uncover, lie the keys to power over others. In seeking to penetrate mediated experiences of reality, they unexpectedly find themselves mediating those very realities for others. They acquire agency in the broadest sense of the word. Losers and the Clueless delegate to them not mere specialist matters like heart surgery or car repair, but control over the meanings of their very lives.

So in seeking to unmask the gods, they find themselves turning into the gods.

When they speak, they find that their words become imbued with divine authority. When they are spoken to, they hear prayerful tones of awe. The Clueless want to be them, Losers want to defer to them.

[…]

Once the Sociopath overcomes reality shock and frames his life condition as one defined by an absence of ultimate parental authority, and the fictitious nature of all social realities, he experiences a great sense of unlimited possibilities and power.

Daddy and Mommy are not hereAnything is possible, and I can get away with anything. I can make up any sort of bullshit and my younger siblings will buy it. 

The sense of freedom is one I like to describe as free as in speech, and as in lunch

Free as in speech describes the Sociopath’s complete creative freedom in scripting social realities for others.  Cherished human values are merely his crayon box.

Free as in lunch describes the Sociopath’s complete freedom from accountability, in his exercise of the agency ceded to him by the Losers and Clueless, via their belief in the reality of social orders.

Non-Sociopaths dimly recognize the nature of the free Sociopath world through their own categories: “moral hazard” and “principal-agent problem.”  They vaguely sense that the realities being presented to them are bullshit: things said by people who are not lying so much as indifferent to whether or not they are telling the truth. Sociopath freedom of speech is the freedom to bullshit: they are bullshit artists in the truest sense of the phrase.

What non-Sociopaths don’t recognize is that these aren’t just strange and unusual environmental conditions that can be found in small pockets at the tops of pyramids of power, such as Lance Armstrong’s racing team, within a social order that otherwise makes some sort of sense.

It is the default condition of the universe. The universe is a morally hazardous place. The small pockets of unusual environmental conditions are in fact the fictional realities non-Sociopaths inhabit. This figure-ground inversion of non-Sociopath world-views gives us the default perspective of the Sociopath.

Non-Sociopaths, as Jack Nicholson correctly argued, really cannot handle the truth. The truth of an absent god. The truth of social realities as canvases for fiction for those who choose to create them. The truth of values as crayons in the pockets of unsupervised Sociopaths. The truth of the non-centrality of humans in the larger scheme of things.

When these truths are recognized, internalized and turned into default ways of seeing the world, creative-destruction becomes merely the act of living free, not a divinely ordained imperative or a primal urge. Creative destruction is not a script, but the absence of scripts. The freedom of Sociopaths is the same as the freedom of non-human animals. Those who view it as base merely provide yet another opportunity for Sociopaths to create non-base fictions for them to inhabit.

Regardless of how I qualify it in advance, the word Sociopath carries with it decidedly negative connotations. But again, Sociopaths as described here are not inherently evil. Rao only tangentially touches on the difference between Good Sociopaths and Evil Sociopaths. Here it is: Good Sociopaths choose to adhere to some kind of moral code. Evil Sociopaths choose to live in a state of amorality.*

I’ll expand on this slightly.

The Evil Sociopath embraces nihilism as a license to treat others as playthings. Most often Evil Sociopaths do this through legal means, for example under the cover of business and financial dealings. Others do it through criminal activity, or by playing manipulative games within their personal relationships. And yes, a very small minority of Evil Sociopaths go the serial killer route.

The Good Sociopath, on the other hand, rejects nihilism as a license to treat others as playthings. Critically, this is not because there is some fundamental, verifiable Truth out there affirming an underlying moral order. Instead it’s because, for whatever reason, Good Sociopaths find the thought of embracing nihilism repulsive. The Good Sociopath chooses to believe other people are worthy of some level of dignity.

I have been annoyingly consistent in highlighting the word choose here just to emphasize that we’re dealing with subjective reality. Social systems are reflexive. Facts and small-t truth do exist, but to Sociopaths they’re negotiable.

In the immortal words of Don Draper: “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

And the Sociopath/Missionary is free to do so.

Free as in speech.

Free as in lunch.

 

* For another pop culture reference that may make this more concrete, the first season of HBO’s True Detective is pretty explicitly about Rust Cohle’s Sociopath journey, and how he and various and sundry other Sociopaths cope with “reality shock.”

Storytime

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, Al Pacino, Jonathan Pryce, 1992, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

Ricky Roma: I’m going to tell you something. Your life is your own. You have a contract with your wife? You have certain things you do jointly? Bond there. And there are other things, and those things are yours. And you needn’t feel ashamed, you needn’t feel that you’re being untrue. Or that *she* would abandon you if she knew. This is *your* life.

Glengarry Glen Ross

Ricky Roma is the best salesman in the office. He’s at the top of the Cadillac board. And that’s no accident. Ricky Roma is a masterful storyteller. He knows all about needful things.

Ricky Roma’s stories appeal to us on an emotional level. But there are other, equally effective storytellers out there appealing to us on an intellectual level.

Much of what we think of as “financial analysis” is this second type of storytelling. Finance people tend to look down on writers and artists, but I can assure you there’s no less creativity involved in financial analysis. If you’ve ever built a discounted cash flow model, or an LBO model, you’re well aware of the enormous number of assumptions embedded in the things. Choosing a discount rate isn’t so different from a painter mixing colors on her palette.

Granted, that’s a fairly subtle example. Storytelling masquerading as analysis is much more obvious (not to mention silly) in the context of “portfolio update” and “strategy” meetings.

These are the meetings where a PM or strategist sits down with a slide deck and tells you about the state of a portfolio or the world. Make no mistake. There’s nothing analytical or scientific about this process. It’s theatre. The slide deck and the charts are just props to be used in the performance.

If the PM or strategist is a value guy, the story will be about mean reversion.

If the PM or strategist is a trend guy, the story will be about momentum.

The odds you’ll derive any decision-useful information from a performance like this are slim. To the extent there’s decision-useful information embedded in the performance, it’s in the metatext—the story of the story.

For example, there isn’t decision-useful insight embedded in a CE webinar about how floating rate securities have performed historically in rising rate environments. This is what I’d call a bagholder webinar. Same with sell-side research.

You don’t derive decision-useful insight from naively sitting through bagholder webinars and naively reading bagholder-oriented research. Do you honestly believe these firms produce research out of a deep, unwavering commitment to the Search For Truth?

No. Research groups are cost centers. They produce reports and exhibits in support of their salespeople. So always ask yourself: “why am I seeing this NOW?”

The first-order answer is usually that someone’s trying to sell you something. That firm hosting the CE webinar knows you know we’re in a rising rate environment. They know you’re worried about what it means for fixed income portfolios. Oh, look, they just happen to run a floating rate fund.

This may be a useful insight. But it’s also a trivial insight. Just because someone’s selling you something doesn’t mean it’s a bad deal.

More valuable insight comes from understanding the issuers of floating rate paper (via the sell-side) also know the firm running the floating rate strategy knows you’re worried about what rising rates mean for fixed income portfolios.

Put another way, what you need to address in your analysis isn’t how the asset class has performed historically. You need to address how the asset class might perform based on how deals are priced, structured and sold today.

Deal pricing is predominantly influenced by buy-side appetite for various types of securities. From there, it’s a matter of supply and demand.

The stories told by PMs and strategists and the sell-side and everyone else in the market ecosystem are told to influence our appetites for different cash flow profiles.

It’s storytelling that drives demand.

It’s storytelling that closes deals.

Remember this next time you’re parsing pro forma financial statements; or some chart illustrating the value/growth performance divergence; or a scatter plot showing how some asset class (*ahem* private equity) dominates everything else on a risk-adjusted basis.

It’s storytime.