All posts by themetaphysician

No, Lincoln Did Not Say That

While the social media I use for business are thankfully free of duck-face selfies and zoomemes, they have become increasingly polluted by an even more abhorrent phenomenon: the false quote.

These false quotes are often ensconced in a graphic format, as if the right combination of font and color might lend them the authority of statuary inscription. And they seem intended for virality—since it would be unthinkably selfish to deny one’s social network the benefit of such a great person’s insight.

Lately, I’ve found myself politely informing posters about the fakeness of their quotes. In fact, I’ve become something of a “quote nazi.” So I am making this post not to defend my own indefensible behavior, but to make a case against a phenomenon that I believe may be more pernicious than its practitioners realize.

Intellectual integrity is non-trivial

I appreciate that posters of false quotes are trying to share something good. But I’d suggest that there is a good which takes particular precedence. This is the good of truth.

Unfortunately, posters almost invariably defend their false quotes by claiming that they got them “somewhere else.” To this I am obliged to reply that “somewhere else” is not a reliable source. That is why we have primary sources, as well as secondary sources that cite primary sources.

Truth matters. When we abdicate responsibility for our own intellectual integrity, we feed the economy of falsehood—by which we have all be burned and, if we are insufficiently cautious, will soon be burned again.

Gandhi vs. Drucker

Another problem is that false quotes often invoke authority inappropriately. Does anyone really think Gandhi was especially knowledgeable about customer service? Did Einstein possess special insight into human psychology?

And, anyway, argument from authority (argumentum ab auctoritate for you rhetoric geeks) is actually a logical fallacy.  Things aren’t true just because someone says they are true—even if that person is Ken Jennings.  They are true because they stand up to the clear light of reason.  Aphorisms may point us in the direction of the truth—but unless they have a powerful internal logic, they only tell us about what one person thought.

Motivation for what?

Finally, there is the troubling predilection posters of false quotes seem to have for wanting me to be all I can be and to have my best life now.  It is as though Al and Mo got together at Esalen and then moved to Sunnyvale to launch a Quantified Self startup.

Somehow, I doubt that the problem those of us fortunate enough to be on LinkedIn and Twitter have is insufficient careerism or self-concern. I have a feeling Al and Mo might share that doubt.

So, please, stop claiming that Mark Twain said “The key to getting ahead is getting started.” What he really said was “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” Now those are words to live by.

Capital Allocation: Optimized for Whom?

A commonplace in popular debates about economic policy is that so-called “free markets” are ideal because they “optimize allocation of capital.” This rhetoric is used to support the assertion that government “interference” inherently “distorts” markets—which would otherwise be “free”—making allocation of capital somehow less than “optimal.” This supposedly sub-optimal allocation is then purported to have some dire consequences such as a lower standard of living for all and, potentially, the end of civilization as know it.

Intellectual rigor, however, demands that we ask what “optimal” means in this context. Is optimal allocation that which yields the greatest gain in equity over a three-year investment? Or that which returns the most cash by the end of a trading session? And to what extent should risk be calculated into our definition of what “optimal” allocation is?

Anyone who makes assertions about “optimized” allocation of capital must define it—and be prepared to defend that definition. But few, if any, can do so.

In fact, self-styled defenders of “free markets” rarely give much thought to what they actually mean by “optimal.” Rarer still are those who understand the inherent problem with any appeal to consequentialist arguments in support of their position. Thus their rhetoric fails to stand up well to the clear light of reason.

Still another question we may ask purveyors of optimization rhetoric is “Optimized for whom?” Capital is owned by individuals or institutions. Is optimized allocation that which allows these individuals and institutions to out-perform their peers? If so, should we understand growing disparity in capital formation to be the desired and inevitable outcome of any “optimal” economic system? If not, can we craft a definition of “optimized allocation” that has as its natural and empirically verifiable consequence better outcomes for parties other than the one allocating the capital?

Of course, some will respond to these questions by simply asserting that a rising tide lifts all boats—ignoring the fact that this principle only applies to boats docked in the same place at the same time.

Others will resort to the “Look at Roosia” argument. The economic history of the last century, however, merely indicates that regulated markets of liberal democracies out-perform the fully state-run economies of countries with limited access to warm-water ports. It does not offer evidence that the elimination of environmental regulations will improve anyone’s standard of living—except perhaps that of those who create wealth in the short term by implementing high-margin manufacturing processes that non-coincidentally pump toxins into regional watersheds.

The case of “optimized allocation” is just one of many that underscores the need for coherent metaphysics as the underpinning for any assertion of truth in any field—be it economics, science or religion. If we don’t understand what underlies the assertions we make, we cannot adequately test their validity. And if we don’t adequately test their validity, then we subject ourselves to something other than reason.


That, most certainly, is not optimal.