I want to share two stories. The first comes from Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game. The second from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. Enter Taleb:
“The minute one has evaluation forms, distortions occur. Recall that in The Black Swan I had to fill my evaluation form asking for the percentage of profitable days, encouraging traders to make steady money at the expense of hidden risks of Black Swans, consequential losses. Russian roulette allows you to make money five times out of six. This has bankrupted banks, as banks lose less than one in one hundred quarters, but then they lose more than they ever made. My declared approach was to try to make money infrequently. I tore the evaluation form in front of the big boss and they left me alone.”
And the story from Ordinary Men, a book about the Nazi police battalions sent into Eastern Europe to kill Jews en masse:
“Departing from Bilgoraj around 2:00 a.m., the truck convoy arrived in Jozefow just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Trapp assembled the men in a half-circle and addressed them. After explaining the battalion’s murderous assignment, he made his extraordinary offer: any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments one man from Third Company, Otto-Julius Schimke, stepped forward … [Captain] Hoffman began to berate Schimke, but Trapp cut him off. After he had taken Schimke under his protection, some ten or twelve other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major.”
Keep in mind that Trapp addressed five hundred men that morning and not even twenty opted out of mass murder. What was it that made those few able to do that? What was it that enabled Taleb to disrespect his superior and rip up an evaluation form in his face? The answer is given a few chapters later in Ordinary Men:
“The two men who explained their refusal to take part in the greatest detail both emphasised the fact that they were freer to act as they did because they had no careerist ambitions. One policeman accepted the possible disadvantages of his course of action “because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one, but rather an independent skilled craftsman and I had my business back home. . . . thus, it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.”
Lieutenant Buchmann had cited an ethical stance for his refusal; as a reserve officer and Hamburg businessman, he could not shoot defenseless women and children. But he too stressed the importance of economic independence when explaining why his situation was not analogous to that of his fellow officers. “I was somewhat older than then and moreover a reserve officer, so it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance, because I had my prosperous business back home. The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.”
Taleb was a derivatives trader at the time of the above episode; the men who opted out of mass murder had economic independence because of prosperous businesses back home. Material wealth was the foundation of both of the above moral stances. Or, phrased more informally, they had “fuck you money”.
THE FIRST FOUNDATION
“Fuck you money” is a phrase coined, as far as I know, by Taleb. It means possessing enough cash to be able to walk away from employment, to dispense with civility in communication with unpleasant people, to call people on their bullshit and not be afraid of the consequences. An example from “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund” by Paulette Perhach:
“Your boss tells you that you look nice in that dress, asks you to do a spin. Just to get the moment over with, you do.
Your boyfriend asks you how much you paid for it, says it makes you look chubby. You lock yourself in the bathroom until he bangs on the door so hard you think he must have hurt himself. After he falls asleep, you search Craigslist for places, and can’t believe how expensive rent’s gotten around town. You erase your Internet history and go to sleep.
A few weeks later, your boss calls a one-on-one in his office, walks up behind you, and stands too close. His breath fogs your neck. His hand crawls up your new dress. You squirm away. He says, “Sorry, I thought…”
You know what to do. You’re just shocked to find you’re not doing it. You are not telling him to fuck off. You are not storming out. All you’re doing is math. You have $159 in the bank and your car payment and your maxed out credit cards and you’ll die before you ask your dad for a loan again and it all equals one thought: I need this job.
“It’s ok,” you hear your voice saying. “Just forget it.” You scurry out of the room, survey the office half full of women, and wonder how many of them have secrets like the one you’re about to keep.”
That’s the lower end of the scale. Three or four zeroes in the bank makes it possible to move out of an apartment or endure two months unemployed while you apply to other jobs. The upper end of the scale is illustrated by John Goodman in a scene from The Gambler:
Own your home and have liquid assets: that is the position which allows you to play defense and offense. As Peter Thiel points out in Zero to One, cash is “pure optionality”. It allows you to pursue opportunities almost as quickly as they arise. But more importantly, cash is pure redundancy. It’s a backup for when the critical components of your life—work, relationships, reputation—fail. (Of course, there are limits to the virtue of cash—an apocryphal saying in finance is “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” This is also tied up with the idea of HODLing cryptocurrencies—holding on for dear life, having enough assets to outlast the volatilities of the cryptocurrency market. It takes a lot of cash to win a game of Chicken with Time.)
THE SECOND FOUNDATION
Wealth is one enabler of moral behaviour. Taleb ripping up an evaluation form seems minor, but it is still a refusal to compromise in the face of a usually persuasive authority—a boss. In contrast, opting out of a situation in which enormous social pressures are at play—alienation from comrades, potentially evoking the displeasure of the totalitarian Nazi state, amongst others— definitely requires moral courage. But is there not something else that enables morally courageous behaviour besides wealth?
Corporate whistleblowers go up against tremendous adversity. They lose their jobs; they are blacklisted in their industry; smear campaigns are unleashed upon them; their families and friends are threatened, either indirectly by association with a supposed pariah or directly by warnings concerning the stability of their own employment; legal proceedings are opened up which offer bankruptcy and imprisonment as prophecies of their future. And all this persists for years, not weeks or months. Some, in the face of such opposition, back down. Others acknowledge this and proceed anyway. Why? Because alongside wealth as a foundation of morally courageous behaviour stands dignity.
In 1986, Richard Feynman was asked to participate in an investigation of the Challenger disaster. He went about it with his usual rigour and tenacity, despite being ill with cancer, and found the cause: little rubber “O-rings” that degraded at ice-cold temperatures. The commission attempted to hide his findings, which Feynman sourced from discussions with engineers and technicians instead of high-level executives, but Feynman fought back: his findings were published, albeit as Appendix F of the report. What compelled him to persist? Feynman was dying, and he was a successful physicist, anyway. He didn’t need the validation or the exposure or the credit. Simply put, Feynman believed in telling the truth, no matter how unpalatable the consequences for those associated with it.
DIGNITY AND/OR WEALTH
Wealth and dignity are the foundations upon which morally courageous behaviour is built (“dignity” here is a catch-all for integrity, principles, ideals etc.). Possessing both makes morally courageous behaviour a near-certainty. But what about other mixes? I refer to a 2×2:
Someone like Taleb, at this point in time, has both wealth and dignity. Thus, he can engage in Twitter brawls and speak out against corporations without fear of retribution. Someone with only wealth could engage in morally courageous behaviour—they are in a position to challenge and endure the assaults of otherwise unchallengeable authority, should they see fit. And someone without wealth but possessing dignity could also act with moral courage. Recall that of the millions who entered the concentration camps only a select few resisted, amongst them the Sonderkommandos—the inmates assigned to clear the corpses of the gassed. This is not a criticism of those who did not resist. Far from it. It was just that the Nazis were masters of human degradation and presented themselves as implacable forces of power and destruction. What person, when sleep deprived, starved, worked within an inch of death, suffering from disease and stripped of all humanity and identity, would resist the Nazi state and the SS officers who carried out its will? I wouldn’t have. But the Sonderkommandos were pushed to the furthest limit. Their very humanity, the essence of their dignity, was threatened—so they revolted.
But with no wealth and no dignity, with no resources and no higher ideals or moral scruples? Courage is an improbability.
TOWARDS A COURAGEOUS SOCIETY
I’m assuming that we would like our society to act courageously—to stand up to corruption, to fight exploitation and inequality, to promote universal human rights, to opt out of destructive practices, to put an end to violence, to be compassionate towards one another. But how do we go about getting that to happen? One way is to focus on dignity, to raise the baseline of education and ensure that the generations growing up now are exposed to multiple cultures and imbued with an understanding of the importance of basic human values like freedom and security. The other way is to focus on wealth.
Campaigners for basic income and the provision of fundamental amenities (like healthcare, water, electricity, shelter) across the spectrum of society cite many benefits to such a policy. Increased happiness, better working conditions, increased productivity, a reduction of inequality, empowerment of minorities and the disenfranchised, and so on. But one thing I never see advocated is the idea that basic income would enable a society to be more courageous. Imagine that, because of a universal basic income, no one has to worry about paying rent or feeding their family. Do abusive bosses last that long in such an environment? Can corporations take advantage of employees or citizens? Will ordinary people debase themselves and squander their dignity just to keep their job or preserve the reputation that their employment depends upon? I don’t think so.
No. If we want to become more courageous as a society, focusing on education and enlightenment is not a bad choice. But a better choice, at this point in time, would be to focus on wealth. The former takes decades, centuries even. The latter can happen a lot faster. And it’s not that we don’t have the resources or the technology. All we lack is the unified will.