Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Famous People Alive at the Same Time — Visualized!

One of the things that I’m passionate about when I compose new posts on here is offering some sort of new perspective or a fresh perspective. Naturally, these are my two most often used tags (perspective = 66, fresh perspective = 71). This means that, of the nearly 600 posts I’ve written, in 66 of them, one of the most apt words for describing the post is perspective. Similarly, for 71 of the posts, fresh perspective is one of the most apt phrases. Also:

The primary focus of this site is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a ‘tusk’ or a ‘leg.’ Some of the topics include: psychology, business, technology, education, politics, philosophy, and even history.

In today’s post, let’s focus on that last word — history.

Within the last 6 months, I came across a post that made me think, “Yes — thank you for doing this!” The post is found on a website that is absolutely brilliant in its aim — Wait But Why. The title of the post — Horizontal History. A short excerpt:

Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers—but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.

And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about. 

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s—it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

What an innovative way to look at history, right? If you take the time to head over to the post, you’ll see that the author has a number of helpful graphics. I’m hesitant to include any in this post because I want to make sure you take the time to patronize that website. Just to take a moment to describe some of the more important ones: on the left side, you’ll find the year and then to the right, the author has charted the births/deaths of plenty of famous people throughout history. In this way, you’re able to see when certain famous people were alive at the same time.

After the author has done that, they’ve pulled out a number of “smaller” versions of these bigger graphics to talk a bit about some examples. For instance, there’s here’s a quick example:

Every time I look at the lifespan diagram, a new interesting horizontal pops out to me. Here’s one more: People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869). These guys were all in their primes at the same time. So was Lincoln. . .

I’ve spent at least a couple of different occasions looking through this graphic trying to place who was alive together. One of the interesting things I found was that much of Johann Sebastian Bach (certainly one of my favourite composers) and Benjamin Franklin’s lifespan overlapped and that Adam Smith’s (economics) lifespan is almost wholly contained within Benjamin Franklin’s (save for two months at the end of Smith’s life). In the philosophy world at this time, John Locke died when Bach was a teenager, Voltaire’s life mostly overlaps with Bach’s, and Kant was in his 20’s when Bach died. Oh, let’s not forget that Isaac Newton was in his 40’s when Bach was born and lived for about another 40 more years. And since I’ve started with Bach, I might as well tell you that Pachelbel was born about 30 years before Bach and Vivaldi was born before Bach by about 20 years.

Labor is the Superior of Capital, and Deserves Much the Higher Consideration

Do you recognize those words? Scholars (and/or) American history buffs just might. They were spoken by one Abraham Lincoln on December 3rd, 1861, as part of his first State of the Union address. The quote comes from very near to the end of the speech; the beginning of the third last paragraph. The sentence on its own is worth pondering, but let’s put it in context:

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them.

As is clear, Lincoln is referring to what was a major problem at the time — slavery. While those words were initially spoken with regard to slavery, I think that they have a broader application. That is, labor really is the superior of capital and not just in the context of slavery. Without labor, there’d be no capital. Labor is the backbone of any economy — local or global. As a result, it’s frustrating to see how poorly mismanaged the workforce can be.

From a business standpoint, I can understand why managers would want to crimp on labor, both in the number of employees and their However, I see this as extremely short-sighted. Whatever short-term gains are made from this strategy, they’re lost in the longer term when one has to replace the employee because they’ve either quit or because they’re overworked (and needed time off because of stress and/or fatigue).

I wonder if treating labor as if it’s another “expense” or “liability” is endemic to the culture of work in America. If we revisit the chart about vacation from this past summer, we see that just about every country on that list is in Europe and from what we know about the culture of many European countries, there’s an air of slowness that you just don’t find in America. Maybe it’s that European businesses have already learned this lesson of treating the workforce like an expense and realizing that it’s just easier to pay up front. How different would business look like in the US if the workweek went from 40 to 30 and the number of mandatory paid vacation days went from 0 to 20? Even if the US workweek went from 40 to 37.5 as is the case in Canada, how different would things be, then?

This focus on the short-term seems to be in more places than one. It’s even present in the way public companies are structured — they have to report their earnings every quarter. That is, every 90 days — 90! — a company gives a report to their shareholders (and the public) about their earnings. Predominantly, people are looking to see whether a company “beat” estimates. If (when?) a company doesn’t meet estimates, the stock price usually takes a tumble. But what if this incessant push to meet estimates and focus on these 90-day windows doesn’t allow for an appropriate longer term strategy? What if this 90-day crunch is preventing a company from pursuing a strategy that would make it far more sustainable in the long run and if they attempted to pursue that strategy, their stock price would plummet?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I believe the beginning of the answer starts with labor. Companies that honor and respect their workforce tend to perform better.

Could Markets Have Predicted the Civil Rights Movement?

Author’s note: It’s been quite some time since my last post. In fact, it’s the last day of November and this will be my last post this month. It’s been a bit hectic getting settled in Ottawa, in addition to some other things that have been going on, but I do hope to get back into a regular habit of writing posts again.

I came across an article recently that espoused the value of the efficient-market hypothesis through the success of InTrade — when it was still functioning. In case you’re not familiar, InTrade is a betting site that would post contracts, for instance — “Mitt Romney will be the Republican Presidential nominee” — and then people could ‘buy’ that contract if they thought Romney would be the nominee or (sell) that contract if they thought he wouldn’t. There’d be all kinds of questions, not just political. There are questions about world events (the US will find Saddam Hussein) and questions about awards shows (Avatar will win Best Picture).

In the article, there was a small blurb about futarchy:

The potential of prediction markets to aggregate and reveal information is so great that some have surmised they might remake whole political systems. Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, has endorsed what he calls “futarchy,” a form of government that would use prediction markets extensively as a policymaking tool. If the aggregated predictions of the market are better than the individual predictions of a few appointed experts, why not let citizens bet on, rather than submit to professional opinion on, for example, which tax policy is more likely to bring prosperity?

For the most part, there certainly seems to be something to the argument in favour of the wisdom of the crowds, but as I’ve written before, the wisdom of the crowds can’t always be trusted. When thinking about the wisdom of the crowds in the context of policymaking, I wonder about the crowd’s ability to divine the need for civil rights. That is, I wonder if, during the time leading up to the civil rights movement, the crowd would have accurately predicted it was beyond time to implement a new level of equality in the United States. Or, what about in the time of Lincoln? Would the wisdom of the crowds have decided that black people deserved freedom?

Can You Succeed in Politics if You Aren’t Selfish?

From time to time, I like to highlight what I think are important passages in books (Stockdale Paradox, The Art of War, etc.). As I begin my journey through some of the classics, there’ll probably be more and more posts where I’m sharing passages from books. While the passage I’m going to share in this post isn’t from a “classic,” it is highly lauded. Not only has it garnered 116 five-star reviews (out of a possible 161), it’s received glowing endorsements from the likes of: Daniel Pink, Susan Cain, Robert Cialdini, Gretchen Rubin, Daniel Gilbert, Dan Ariely, Martin Seligman, Chip Conley, and many more!

The book I’m talking about: Give and Take, by Adam Grant. In today’s post, I’d like to share with you a few pages from near the beginning of the book. In these few pages, Grant uses a story to support the case that givers can succeed in even the most cutthroat of professions — politics. It is a book that is absolutely worth reading, so I hope that this excerpt compels you to give it a look.

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[Excerpt Begins]

In some arenas, it seems that the costs of giving clearly outweigh the benefits. In politics, for example, Mark Twain’s opening quote suggests that diplomacy involves taking ten times as much as giving. “Politics,” writes former president Bill Clinton, “is a ‘getting’ business. You have to get support, contributions, and votes, over and over again.” Takers should have an edge in lobbying and outmaneuvering their opponents in competitive elections, and matchers may be well suited to the constant trading of favors that politics demands. What happens to givers in the world of politics?

Consider the political struggles of  a hick who  went  by the  name Sampson. He said his goal was to be the “Clinton of Illinois,” and he set his sights on winning a seat in the Senate. Sampson was an unlikely candidate for political office, having spent his early years working on a farm. But Sampson had great ambition; he made his first run for a seat in the state legislature when he was just 23 years old. There were 13 candidates, and only the top four won seats. Sampson made a lackluster showing, finishing eighth.

After losing that race, Sampson turned his eye to business, taking out a loan to start a small shop with a friend. The business failed, and Sampson was unable to repay the loan, so his possessions were seized by local authorities. Shortly thereafter, his business partner died without assets, and Sampson took on the debt. Sampson jokingly called his liability “the national debt”: he owed 15 times his annual income. It would take him years, but he eventually paid back every cent. After his business failed, Sampson made a second run for the state legislature. Although he was only 25 old, he finished second, landing a seat. For his first legislative session, he had to borrow the money to buy his first suit. For the next eight years, Sampson served in the state legislature, earning a law degree along the way. Eventually, at age 45, he was ready to pursue influence on the national stage. He made a bid for the Senate.

Sampson knew he was fighting an uphill battle. He had two primary opponents: James Shields and Lyman Trumbull. Both had been state Supreme Court justices, coming from backgrounds far more privileged than Sampson’s. Shields, the incumbent running for reelection, was the nephew of a congressman. Trumbull was the grandson of an eminent Yale-educated historian. By comparison,  Sampson had little experience or political clout. In the first poll, Sampson was a surprise front-runner, with 44 percent support. Shields was close behind at 41 percent, and Trumbull was a distant third at 5 percent. In the next poll, Sampson gained ground, climbing to 47 percent support. But the tide began to turn when a new candidate entered the race: the state’s current governor, Joel Matteson. Matteson was popular, and he had the potential to draw votes from both Sampson and Trumbull.

When Shields withdrew from the race, Matteson quickly took the lead. Matteson had 44 percent, Sampson was down to 38 percent, and Trumbull was at just 9 percent. But hours later, Trumbull won the election with 51 percent, narrowly edging out Matteson’s 47 percent.

Why did Sampson plummet, and how did Trumbull rise so quickly? The sudden reversal of their positions was due to a choice made by Sampson, who seemed plagued by pathological giving. When Matteson entered the race, Sampson began to doubt his own ability to garner enough support to win. He knew that Trumbull had a small but loyal following who would not give up on him. Most people in Sampson’s shoes would have lobbied Trumbull’s followers to jump ship. After all, with just 9 percent support, Trumbull was a long shot.

But Sampson’s primary concern wasn’t getting elected. It was to prevent Matteson from winning. Sampson believed that Matteson was engaging in questionable practices. Some onlookers had accused Matteson of trying to bribe influential voters. At minimum, Sampson had reliable information that some of his own key supporters had been approached by Matteson. If it appeared that Sampson would not stand a chance, Matteson argued, the voters should shift their loyalties and support him. Sampson’s concerns about Matteson’s methods and motives proved prescient. A year later, when Matteson was finishing his term as governor, he redeemed old government checks that were outdated or had been previously redeemed, but were never canceled. Matteson took home several hundred thousand dollars and was indicted for fraud.

In addition to harboring suspicions about Matteson, Sampson believed in Trumbull, as they had something in common when it came to the issues. For several years, Sampson had campaigned passionately for a major shift in social and economic policy. He believed it was vital to the future of his state, and in this he and Trumbull were united. So instead of trying to convert Trumbull’s loyal followers, Sampson decided to fall on his own sword. He told his floor manager, Stephen Logan, that he would withdraw from the race and ask his supporters to vote for Trumbull. Logan was incredulous: why should the man with a larger following hand over the election to an adversary with a smaller following? Logan broke down into tears, but Sampson would not yield. He withdrew and asked his supporters to vote for Trumbull. It was enough to propel Trumbull to victory, at Sampson’s expense.

That was not the first time Sampson put the interests of others ahead of his own. Before he helped Trumbull win the Senate race, despite earning acclaim for his work as a lawyer, Sampson’s  success was stifled by a crushing liability. He could not bring himself to defend clients if he felt they were guilty. According to a colleague, Sampson’s clients knew “they would win their case—if it was fair; if not, that it was a waste of time to take it to him.” In one case, a client was accused of theft, and Sampson ap- proached the judge. “If you can say anything for the man, do it—I can’t. If I attempt it, the jury will see I think he is guilty, and convict him.” In another case, during a criminal trial, Sampson leaned over and said to an associate, “This man is guilty; you defend him, I can’t.” Sampson handed the case over to the associate, walking away from a sizable fee. These decisions earned him respect, but they raised questions about whether he was tenacious enough to make tough political decisions.

Sampson “comes very near being a perfect man,” said one of his political rivals. “He lacks but one thing.” The rival explained that Sampson was unfit to be trusted with power, because his judgment was too easily clouded by concern for others. In politics, operating like a giver put Sampson at a disadvantage. His reluctance to put himself first cost him the Senate election, and left onlookers wondering whether he was strong enough for the unforgiving world of politics. Trumbull was a fierce debater; Sampson was a pushover. “I regret my defeat,” Sampson admitted, but he maintained that Trumbull’s election would help to advance the causes they shared. After the election, a local reporter wrote that in comparison with Sampson, Trumbull was “a man of more real talent and power.” But Sampson wasn’t ready to step aside forever. Four years after helping Lyman Trumbull win the seat, Sampson ran for the Senate again. He lost again. But in the weeks leading up to the vote, one of the most outspoken supporters of Sampson’s was none other than Lyman Trumbull. Sampson’s sacrifice had earned goodwill, and Trumbull was not the only adversary who became an advocate in response to Sampson’s giving. In the first Senate race, when Sampson had 47 percent of the vote and seemed to be on the brink of victory, a Chicago lawyer and politician named Norman Judd led a strong 5 percent who would not waver in their loyalty to Trumbull. During Sampson’s second Senate bid, Judd became a strong supporter.

Two years later, after two failed Senate races, Sampson finally won his first election at the national level. According to one commentator, Judd never forgot Sampson’s “generous behavior” and did “more than anyone else” to secure Sampson’s nomination.

In 1999, C-SPAN, the cable TV network that covers politics, polled more than a thousand knowledgeable viewers. They rated the effectiveness of Sampson and three dozen other politicians who vied for similar offices. Sampson came out at the very top of the poll, receiving the highest evaluations. Despite his losses, he was more popular than any other politician on the list. You see, Sampson’s Ghost was a pen name that the hick used in letters.

His real name was Abraham Lincoln.

[Excerpt Ends]
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Did that story knock you off your feet? It certainly did for me the first time I read it. This story is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s contained in Grant’s book. Seriously, go read it!

If You Want to Succeed, You Must Heed

I’ve been thinking about Malcolm Gladwell and the 10,000-hour rule. This is a concept that comes from one of his books, Outliers. Recently, this idea came under fire after an article in Time earlier this year in May. After some time, Gladwell wrote a response (a few days ago) that seems to adequately account for the critiques in the Time article. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about the idea of 10,000 hours and what it represents.

In case you’re not familiar, the 10,000-hour rule is the idea that in order to be “great” at something, one has to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. After the 10,000 hours (approximately), one will likely be at the pinnacle or very near to, of the field. Ten thousand hours.

That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.

You have to really like something — a lot — or really want to do well at something, in order to remain committed to the goal of becoming an expert. Twenty hours a week. Ten years. Nowadays, people might not even spend that much time at the same job (if we compress it to 40 hours a week and 5 years)!

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Then I got to thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis. Certainly one of the premier actors of our time. Since 1989, Day-Lewis has appeared in 11 movies. Of those 11 movies, he’s won the Academy Award for Best Actorthree times — making him the only male actor to win the award three times. He was also nominated for Best Actor two other times. So, of the 11 movies he’s been in during the last 20+ years, he’s been up for the award for Best Actor five times. From what I understand, most people are pretty happy to simply have been nominated once, much less 5 times — and then win three times!

Daniel Day-Lewis is certainly someone who is at the top of his field. He has put in the hours and done the work to become one of the best actors.

And then there’s Meryl Streep. She’s received more nominations for Academy Awards (17) and more nominations for Golden Globes (27) than anyone in the history. She’s also won 3 Academy Awards and 8 Golden Globes. Clearly, someone else who is at the top of their field.

But why have I highlighted both performers?

They continue to win awards. Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award for Best Actor back in 1989. And then again in 2007. Do you think he ‘rested on his laurels?’ No, how else would he have been able to pull off such a convincing Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s flick last year. And Meryl Streep won her first Academy Award in 1979. Again, in 1982. She wouldn’t win again until 2011 for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Between 1982 and 2011, she was nominated 12 other times. 12!

Both of these performers are stunning examples of the idea that even though you’ve won, even though you’ve made it to the top of your field, that doesn’t mean you can’t still keep working. That doesn’t mean you can’t still keep getting better. Practicing. Perfecting.

If you want to be good at something, really good at something, you’ve got to put in the work even if you think you’ve already made it. If Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep don’t rest on their laurels, what makes you think you can?

The Evolution of Energy Sources for Humans Is Shorter Than You Think

I’m a big proponent of clean, renewable, and sustainable energy. Our species will not survive if we continue to use energy in the same way that we do at the same pace at that we do. That’s simply a fact. However, in my thinking about this issue, it never really occurred to me just how “new” energy is to humans. That is, it never really occurred to me just how new our energy sources were.

Take this chart of energy consumption in the United States, for instance.

History of Energy Consumption in the United States

Americans only started using petroleum as an energy source around the time that Abraham Lincoln was president. That’s almost 150 years ago. Americans have “only” been using petroleum as a source of energy for the last 150 years. That means, potentially, your great-great-grandfather may have lived in a world where using petroleum as an energy source was a “new” thing.

Looking a little further along the chart and we can see that 50 years after petroleum became an energy source that Americans used (albeit scarcely), coal was far and away surpassing our usage of petroleum. About 100 years ago, coal was 12, 13, or 14 times as popular as petroleum as a source of energy. It looks as if even wood was more popular as an energy source.

Now let’s look at the last 50 years. Between the early 1900s and the 1950s, the use petroleum as an energy source skyrocketed! As did the use of natural gas as an energy source. Coal seemed to be on the decline, but still in heavy use. Fast-forwarding a little bit more and we see that petroleum is trending down (in terms of its use) as is coal, but not before coal had a big uptick between the 1950s and the early 2000s. In that timespan, nuclear power also took off as an energy source, but it appears to have leveled off in the 2000s and may even be headed for a downward spike since the 2010s.

More notably is the green line for other renewables. We don’t see its existence until the 1950s and its growth is rather slow and steady. However, in what looks like the early 2000s, it begins to trend up. Who knows — maybe we’re on the cusp of what could be an energy revolution. Maybe “other renewables” will grow in popularity and use as coal or petroleum. Maybe its a bit naive or foolhardy to expect great energy transformation from non-renewables to renewables. Evolution does take time.

My point in sharing this today is to add some perspective on just how far humanity has come in terms of its use of energy. Really, only in the last 50 to 100 years has energy consumption skyrocketed in the way that we know and understand today. Who knows what energy consumption will look like in the years to come.

 

Visiting Mount Vernon: George Washington’s Lesson in Incrementalism

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon — otherwise known as George Washington’s home. It was quite lovely. The grounds are beautiful — so many wide open spaces, lots of greenery, and access to a waterway. Just what you’d want in an estate, I suppose. It was a bit goosebump-inducing to be able to walk through (and be near) the room where Washington and some of the other Founding Fathers plotted.

After walking through the museums on the estate, I was a bit surprised. I didn’t grow up with American history (having spent my youth in Canada), so I didn’t know much of the story of how the United States came to be of the United States. As a result, I was surprised to read about just how tenuous the beginning actually was. Of course, I’m aware that some of it may have been a bit dramatized, but Washington did a remarkable thing (depending on your perspective).

The surprising part, though, comes when I reflect on the discussions of the “greatest” President in the history of the United States. Whenever I read articles about this superfluous ranking, invariable, Lincoln tops the list. Part of this could be because some of the articles I’d been reading about the greatest US Presidents were written right around the time that the Lincoln movie was coming out. I’m also not trying to minimize what Lincoln did for the US — it is certainly important. Although, without Washington, would there even have been an Abraham Lincoln (in the way that we know of him)?

One other thing that was interesting to read about when walking through the museum was the idea that Washington also believed that the slaves should be free. Some attribute this belief to the fact that he freed his slaves when he died. Part of the reason (it’s theorized) that he didn’t free all the slaves was because of the shaky grounds that the US was still on when he was alive. Had he tried to make such a bold movie, the US might not have survived. In all fairness, some could make the argument that the US is still struggling with Lincoln’s decision to do just that (and that was a generation after Washington apparently considered the act).

In seeing that Washington was considering freeing the slaves, it made me think about incrementalism. When I used to watch politicians debate seemingly “small” measures to big problems, I would always grow frustrated. I would think to myself, why can’t they just make the big solution? I’m reminded of the phrase, “all in good time.” Sometimes, it’s not feasible to make big changes all at once. Even the small changes take time adjusting to (in politics). Making a big change could be untenable to some groups of people.

I look at the Affordable Care Act that President Obama pushed so hard for a couple of years ago. Many Democrats and liberals were upset that there wasn’t a push for a single-payer system. One would assume that President Obama opted not to push for that because he didn’t think that it could have passed. Healthcare, in and of itself, was hard enough to pass, so trying to pass something like a single-payer system would have been that much harder.

Circling back to Washington… I wonder what he would/could have accomplished for the country had he stayed on for a third term as President. I know that he died two years after stepping aside, but if he had continued as President, would we have gotten the 22nd Amendment sooner? Would Presidents like Jefferson or Madison stayed on for more than two terms?