Rethinking Hanlon's Razor
Hanlon and my mother taught me to believe in people's best intentions, Trump and the first half of 2020 has me questioning it all
The Belt & Road Today
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Hanlon’s Razor is an aphorism, per Wikipedia:
"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity", known in several other forms. It is a philosophical razor which suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior.
The phrase ‘Hanlon’s razor’ was likely coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been referred to by many people throughout history, as far back as 1774. Some of the more famous utterings are:
Napoleon Bonaparte’s take on Hanlon’s Razor:
‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’
Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent. - The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774
German general Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord waxed about Hanlon’s Razor when describing his officers:
I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.
So seriously, is Donald Trump as Hammerstein-Equord described the worst type of officer, both stupid and diligent? What exactly was that “cognitive test” he says he “aced.”? Is he as dumb as Robert Reich says he is? If so, that would make the application of Hanlon’s Razor correct in this instance. I shudder to think otherwise, yet I wonder.
According to Bloomberg News, seven of the world's 10 richest people derive the bulk of their fortune from tech holdings, with a combined net worth of $666 billion, up $147 billion this year. Since the COVID 19 Pandemic collective wealth of tech titans in Bloomberg's Billionaires Index has almost doubled, to $1.4 trillion from $751 billion in 2016. That's faster than in every other sector.
This week my former boss and employer, Bill Gates (and the 2nd wealthiest person in the world right now) made the news again by announcing that the announced The Gates Foundation-backed SK Bioscience will likely have may be capable of producing 200 million coronavirus vaccine kits by next June.
This made me think of the Rockefeller Foundation and some similarities between Bill Gates and John D. Rockefeller. Both men enjoyed business as an intellectual game that was to be played to win. Both men were so successful they invited interference from the U.S. government under the anti-trust laws. Both never really enjoyed spending money and in particular, Rockefeller felt compelled from the first dollar he ever earned to give a significant portion of it away to needy charities and other philanthropic causes. The amazing thing is that even though he has been dead for over 80 years the Foundation that bears his name is still extremely active and innovative in “the business of giving.”
During his first year on the job, the young clerk donated about 6 percent of his wages to charity, some weeks much more. “I have my earliest ledger and when I was only making a dollar a day I was giving five, ten, or twenty-five cents to all these objects,” he observed. He gave to the Five Points Mission in a notorious lower Manhattan slum, as well as to “a poor man in church” and “a poor woman in church.” By 1859, when he was twenty, his charitable giving surpassed the 10 percent mark. - Chernow, Ron. Titan (p. 50). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
But what about the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos? How much has he given to charity? The Amazon CEO is the only American among the world's five richest people who has not signed the Giving Pledge, in which participants promise to give away more than half of their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. His ex-wife (albeit recently so) Mackenzie Bezos has signed the pledge.
While Bezos has started giving to some “here and now” needs, most importantly with a Covid-19 inspired food bank donation of $100 million, he still doesn’t rate a score on the Forbes “Impact 50” Philanthropy List. I find it hard to believe he’s still waiting for ideas. Honestly, having that much money and not having a large chunk of it dedicated to improving humankind reeks of hubris.
And what about that “minor” Billionaire who is currently the president of the United States of America? I use the word minor because, despite his self-proclaimed deal-making prowess, he is somewhere in the mid 700s of the Forbes richest list, nowhere even in the vicinity of those listed in the graphic above.
By his own account, in 1976, when Trump was starting his career, he was worth about $200 million, much of it from his father. Today he says he’s worth some $8 billion [according to Forbes he is worth around $3 billion]. If he’d just put the original $200 million into an index fund and reinvested the dividends, he’d be worth $12 billion today. - Robert Reich
Not only is he bad at investing, the Donald is no philanthropist. You would have a hard time finding any noteworthy and otherwise impactful charitable donations no matter how hard you looked. While he often says he gives “millions” to charity, there is no evidence to back it up.
Like the rest of us mere mortals, billionaires come in all shapes and sizes. And not as many are dedicated to active philanthropy as you might think.
For more about how America was built before Silicon Valley, when the U.S.A. was really in its ascendency, have a read of “Titan” by Ron Chernow, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and a book I have read twice. The fact is there is a lot you don’t know about this American business icon. It is a well-written biography that anyone interested in American history or business should read.
From the acclaimed, award-winning author of Alexander Hamilton: here is the essential, endlessly engrossing biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—the Jekyll-and-Hyde of American capitalism. In the course of his nearly 98 years, Rockefeller was known as both a rapacious robber baron, whose Standard Oil Company rode roughshod over an industry and a philanthropist who donated money lavishly to universities and medical centers. He was the terror of his competitors, the bogeyman of reformers, the delight of caricaturists—and an utter enigma. - Amazon.com
Thanks for reading,