One of my most shared Tweets ever said:
I have no idea how to test this but I suspect that there is a strong correlation between the number of history books someone has read and how moderate their opinions are.
History is a list of simplistic ideologies failing to work as promised over and over again.
That’s a big claim to pack into a tweet, but it’s one version of an evolving line of thought that I have been going over for the past few years: that messy compromises are actually optimal solutions for most complex real world problems.
As one does with all new lines of inquiry, I have decided to turn it into a religion: Two-thirds-ism (AKA 2/3rd-ism – based on the naming, I do not expect it to be a popular religion but then again Scientology is pretty big so who knows. If it takes off, I suppose I will have to develop some expensive initiation procedure and try and get Tom Cruise involved.)
The origin of 2/3rd-ism is from the garden of my podcast app. I was listening to a podcast where economist Tyler Cowen referred to himself as “2/3rds Utilitarian.” Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that argues that actions are right if they are most useful for the benefit of a majority.
On the surface, this is a fairly reasonable stance, but you get into some weird edge cases. If someone is dying and needs a kidney transplant, is it ethical to forcibly remove a kidney from someone that has two functioning kidneys? That seems kind of problematic. What if the person with two kidneys really, really sucks. Let’s just say Hitler had great kidneys, is it ok then?
I’m not going to win any moral philosophy debates here, but I think there is a more general and interesting point: it’s really, really hard (read: effectively impossible) to have general truths that work in all situations.
Once you get past math and physics, truth tends to be context-dependent. There is no objectively “correct” way to run a business or raise a kid or manage an economy.
I like the idea of 2/3rd-ism because it acknowledges that we all have lenses through which we tend to view the world, a bias we use to filter the overwhelmingly large amount of raw data coming at us every minute of every day. Yet, it also acknowledges that reality has a surprising amount of detail and no single simplistic ideology is as an all-encompassing panacea.
2/3rd-ism means you are always open to new ideas because there is a third of how you view the world that is kind of open to whatever makes sense.
But it also gives you a default space to start from. I’m probably a 2/3rds free marketer. My starting point tends to be that markets are better than central planners at allocating resources because they can better incorporate local knowledge, but I’m pretty open to the idea there are some edge cases where that’s not the case and I like to think that I’m pretty open to those.
You end up with systems that are really hard to explain to an outside observer when you adhere to 2/3rd-ism. The think about Messy compromises being optimal solutions to complex problems is that they tend to look really messy.
If you look at a map of Brooklyn, New York (which evolved organically over hundreds of years) vs. a map of Brasilia (which was designed from the ground up), Brooklyn looks like a complete and total mess with no clear zoning whereas Brasilia is very easy to understand.
The issue is that most people would much rather live in Brooklyn than Brasilia. Though it looks messy, it’s a much more livable city and it’s 2/3rds organized enough to learn how to get around.
The optimal portfolio probably is not one that uses some historical backtest to come up with the perfect weighting (that’s data mining and non-ergodic), but some messy compromise that takes into account past performance, fundamental reasoning about the asset classes, and a view towards how the future may be different.
Similarly, the ideal project management solution for a company is not forcing everyone into some top-down dictated system that doesn’t work for them, nor is it letting everyone do whatever they want. Optimal is usually some messy solution where you have some general system that works at a high level and then everyone has some discretion to make it work for their work style.
I would like to think that 2/3rd-ist tend to be more open-minded and accepting of new ideas. After all, they always have a third of their world view open to interpretation. By contrast, any community which relies heavily on purity tests is eventually cannibalized as a minority is forced to radicalize over time. Someone is always the least-pure-adherent and the more-pure-adherents must smote them (literally or metaphorically) to signal their purity to the rest of the in-group.
2/3rd-ism isn’t a popular doctrine because it’s messy and hard to explain, but I notice that most people tend to be 2/3rd-ist in their areas of expertise.
The best marketers, investors, and entrepreneurs don’t rely entirely on whatever the data says nor just what their intuition says. They end up with some messy compromise where they do a bit of both in a way that’s kind of hard to explain. When pressed, real experts can explain it, but it’s more of a two hour lunch explanation than a tweet-sized one.
In what areas of your life are you already a 2/3rd-ist? In what areas might it make sense to convert?
Last Updated on October 3, 2020 by Taylor Pearson