Wolves and Weirdos, or Skin in the Game for Bureaucrats

One of the books I downloaded during my recent convalescence was Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’ve been a fan of his work since I first encountered The Black Swan in my local library back in 2008. His books show up variously under “business,” “finance,” “systems,” and “self-help” in bookstores, but basically he’s a philosopher, complete with his own collection of aphorisms. His prose puts me in mind of Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae days, only he’s writing/lucidly ranting about financial markets, probability, ethics, and the many wrongs of academia instead of writing/lucidly ranting about literature, aesthetics, sexuality, and the many wrongs of academia. (Paglia and Taleb are also loosely connected in my mind by their their pugnacity and their Mediterranean cultural frames of reference – his Lebanon/Phoenecia, hers the Italy of her grandparents and Greco-Roman antiquity. Also, I find myself alternately relishing their wisdom and wanting to argue with the conclusions they draw from it. But arguing with famous people on the internet when one is not famous has always struck me as a pointless activity.)

Skin in the Game (SITG) is heady stuff. Taleb’s invective is learned, literate, and fun to read. His descriptions of meals make me hungry. His excoriation of the ways that conventional wisdom fails in recognizing and responding to extremes and rare occurrences is downright invigorating.  Then it occurs to me that I’ve long since forgotten how to read the equations in his books and that I bear more than a superficial resemblance to one of his Intellectual Yet Idiot foils. I deflate.

Still and dialogue from Beavis and Butthead

Indeed, what skin in the game can a Salary Mom (or Taleb’s latter-day Salary Man, the “Company Person”) actually have? That was the main problem that preoccupied me after I finished reading SITG. I understand the Maestro to be saying that, in purely economic terms, we People of the Paycheck are somewhere between debt peons in the counting houses of antiquity and landless vassals who give fealty to a particular House (or Constitution or a corporate mission statement) and do homage to the Sovereign or CEO in hopes that we will be rewarded with modest lands and sufficient means to educate our children for their own eventual service at Court.

Juxtaposed info about medieval fealty oath with ad for federal employee training

So let us say I take my oath seriously* and try to make myself a better vassal by improving my understanding of Real World Risk. I read Taleb’s books and adjust my physical fitness regimen.** To my horror, I come to the conclusion that I am adding to the ultimate fragility of the U.S. Government just by showing up for work. If I consciously try to simplify processes, by David Graeber’s Iron Law of Liberalism (not in SITG, merely a connection in my brain), I will ultimately wind up creating more bureaucracy and hence more fragility. In the event that I achieve anything significant, it will likely lead to counter-productive consequences. On the other hand, if I go Bartleby and refrain from further work, I could lose my livelihood. Quit smirking, this does actually happen sometimes in federal government.

(A couple of years ago I asked Taleb on Twitter what a self-identified IYI should do to avoid causing harm. He suggested taking a relaxing job with lots of free time. That sounds like more fun than taking extended periods of sick leave every couple of years to birth children or remove/repair body parts! but I think the net impact winds up being similar.)

In SITG Taleb speaks of wolves among the dogs***, Company Persons who signal their independence from organizational mind-lock with unorthodox behavior or dress at risk of their “corridor reputations.” His examples of this tendency include temperamental geniuses whose contribution to a corporate bottom line makes them irreplaceable, people who curse a lot, and – in a separate discussion – people who do not look the part of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing (surgeons who do not look like surgeons).  The idea is that these Company Werepersons put their skin in the game by inviting scrutiny or blame for their actions, having made themselves too unpleasant or just plain weird to blend in with the rest of the dogs and debt peons. In this, at least, I can see where my skin in the game is beyond just earning my keep. I am good at “plain weird.” But to what purpose if everything I touch supports an inherently counter-productive enterprise?

My father is a long-retired Salary Man who spent his career working for utility and transportation companies and trying unsuccessfully to make engineers out of his children. Early on in my professional life, he told me two things about working in a bureaucracy: first, that middle managers exist for the purpose of absorbing the resentment and fear of their subordinates and their bosses, and second, that the purpose of a bureaucracy is to prevent stupid things from making their way out of an organization and into the world. I guess that this via negativa winds up being the name of the game for the Company Person and his or her skin. So the true end of all worthwhile bureaucromancy is apophatocracy, or the attempt through selective application of institutional rules to prevent the institution from loosing bullsh*t upon the world as it performs its stated purpose. I wonder what Taleb would think.


* Have some disclaimers with that.

** Taleb’s thoughts on physical fitness (spelled out in Antifragile) are persuasive. That being said, after birthing three human kettleballs and failing to maintain core strength for years thereafter, I have no intention of deadlifting anything any time soon. Using my son’s barbels did make my time on crutches much easier, though, so I’m sticking with getting better at that.

*** I see where the wolf metaphor applies in terms of differentiating between the run of Company Persons and the rarer individuals who can hunt their own game in the wild even after years of organizational captivity. But what dog doesn’t see himself as a wolf? Howling, scowling, and marking the carpet tile are empty signals in an organization without a mandate to turn profits or a real likelihood of failure. Real wolves do not lurk the halls of such institutions, by and large. You want something done in a dog-ocracy? Find a vulture or a raccoon.


Economies of Scale

Alexandria City Public Library Central Branch, June 12, 2016. Line for Passport Acceptance services. Taken from the “three-hour wait to see Passport Agent” position in line, about 20 minutes before opening. Posted hours for Passport Acceptance on Sundays are 1-3 PM.

Mouse is going to summer camp in Canada during the first week of July. Since she has never traveled overseas before, she does not have a passport. As a minor child, she has to appear in person at a Passport Agency or a Passport Acceptance Facility along with one or both parents to be issued a passport. Alexandria City schools being in session until the end of next week (a week before her camp starts), I wanted to take her to one of the Passport Acceptance Facilities in our area to apply outside of school hours. These are post offices and libraries which see applicants in person, collect the necessary forms and fees, and forward them to the State Department for adjudication and issuance of passports.

Not complaining! I have nothing but love for passports, libraries, post offices, or the good people who sign my pay checks. Everyone is doing the best they can to meet increased demand for passports with limited resources. Everyone I have encountered so far in the effort to get my child a passport has been polite and given me accurate information. Unfortunately, it’s been hard to do so far. It’s summer, so more people are trying to travel abroad, and I didn’t plan ahead. I’ve gone to the library three times for Passport Acceptance hours; twice we came midway through the posted hours and were told the all the times for passport service that day were already full; Sunday we got there 20 minutes before opening and, after waiting in the line pictured above, learned that we could be seen three hours later if we stayed in line. When I called one of the local post offices that make appointments for passport services, I was offered an appointment in the third week of July. The others operated in a walk-in basis similar to the library. If I call the National Passport Information Center on Friday, I’ll be allowed to make an appointment at the Washington Passport Agency; that’s contingent on showing proof that our travel is scheduled to occur within the next two weeks (or four weeks if you also have to get a foreign visa).

Not complaining! But it occurred to me that maybe Social Security field offices should become Passport Acceptance Facilities. They’re set up to offer a mix of walk-in and scheduled appointments, much like Passport Agencies and U.S. consular sections overseas, and they have waiting areas and ticketing systems. Plus they are already set up to handle people’s original documents (birth certificates, marriage certificates, and so on). Just a thought. Maybe this can be my capstone project for an Executive Potential Program, should I ever rally to apply for one. I’ll put that on my to-do list, right after getting our passports.

In Which I Am Not Commenting On Matters Of Official Concern

Twitter is my main source of short news updates. It’s good for breaking news and for connecting me to more in-depth coverage and analysis of interesting things. I try not to follow publications or people I find annoying unless they have something exceptional to offer. Among these I follow John Schindler, a former intelligence type who blogs and tweets about foreign affairs and national security. I generally hold foreign policy pundits in low esteem (more on that below), but I often find his observations about world politics worthy of attention. His commentary on domestic politics is of more uneven quality. Sure, his cat might make a viable Presidential candidate, but his observations about “SJWs” and “virtue signalling” make me queasy. Worse, they make me want to argue with him.

(You see the problem, right? I want to discuss foreign affairs and domestic politics AND I want to argue with someone more famous than me on the Internet. Not only does this go against my inclinations as an apparatchik, it offends my sense of good taste. Sigh.)

So Schindler wrote this thing about the Cold War and the New Left, and it made me mad. I will refrain from summarizing the bits about European politics lest I be accused of Commenting On Matters Of Official Concern, but the upshot seemed to be that leftism is back and it won the Cold War by giving up on economics in favor of consumer choice and sexual liberalism, biding its time until it could rise again in the form of identity politics. Instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, his new left seeks the dictatorship of a different “fantasy class” defined by its outsider status relative to traditional elites.

I have a couple of problems with this.

First of all, US national elections have been a choice between liberal or conservative centrist options since the end of WWII. The American Left devoured itself infighting over whether to focus on domestic issues or “international solidarity” until it was effectively criminalized in the early years of the Cold War, while the Right went underground to escape the taint of fascism. The Right started to rally first, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan. The Left stirred at the end of the 1990’s (which ironically may have been a factor in the 2000 defeat of Al Gore; the small but critical mass of left-leaning voters who gave their votes to third party candidates helped throw the election to George W. Bush by not supporting the mainstream liberal centrist candidate). They fell in line behind the liberal centrist candidate in 2008 and 2012, but they have by no means been content with the candidate they helped elect.

Schindler gets that the 2016 Presidential hopefuls reflect the divide between the mainstream conservative center (“corporate conservatives”) and the Right. Sometimes he seems to recognize a similar divide emerging between liberal centrists and the Left. He also seems to recognize the extent to which elites at the liberal center have abandoned the economic aims of the Left. But he does not credit the rising level of frustration in the liberal center’s “99%” with declining standards of living. He also forgets that the last time the Left privileged international solidarity over national questions of “identity politics,” insisting that the class struggle had to take priority over bourgeois self-expression among its minority domestic constituencies, the Left got wiped off the US political map for 60+ years.

The other thing is that I studied International Relations in the waning years of the Cold War. They taught us that the US-Soviet conflict (and by historical extension, Great Power conflict) was the only valid lens through which to consider world affairs. In my second year, a visiting instructor from NATO boldly prognosticated that East and West Germany would unite in the next 20 years. The Berlin Wall fell two weeks later. That was almost 24 years ago. In recognition of the persistence of bourgeois national self-expression, my alma mater has since created a comparative international cultural studies track in my old degree program. It’s not that the Cold War didn’t matter or that Great Powers don’t exert a certain gravitational pull – it’s just that people have a strange obsession with being accepted for who they present themselves to be. Most people lack a certain degree of self-awareness, but they still don’t present themselves as Napoleon or the Virgin Mary. Call it identity politics, or nationalism, or individualism, or geopolitical entropy. Recognizing it as a fact of life and creating space for it in public discourse doesn’t mean being blind to its dangers.

I have a hard time believing that Schindler really thinks the goal of the New Left is to install PC Principal from “South Park” as a dictator and draw obscene cartoons on the faces of the oppressor class in Sharpie. I think he knows damn well that Cartman won the Cold War. Now that I’ve gotten this out of my system, hopefully I’ll stop wanting to engage with him about it and get back to the usual program of irregular posting and failing to build a Personal Brand.

Games People Play

I attended a Virtual Human Resources Training Conference last week that was offered by the Office of Personnel Management. I don’t currently work as an HR specialist, but I am trying to stay as looped in as possible so that I can eventually find my way back into the HR fold. This was a good investment of $95 In Ur Takses in so far as it provided me with at least two nuggets of information that I can use/share with colleagues – even non-HR ones – and one or two ideas I might be able to use later. The format was novel, at least for me as someone who rarely participates in web chats, and the networking was more robust than I expected for a virtual event. Thank you, OPM.

The last session I “attended” was one on gamification, featuring a case study from FEMA. I don’t know from Game Theory, but I have watched my kids play a lot of Fallout 3 and Assassin’s Creed, and I once played a couple of hours of Cards Against Humanity. I have also taken a lot of online training for my contracting warrant (two more in-person classes to go and I’ll finally be eligible!) and things HR. Friends, online training for office work can be deadly dull. Given the potential for procurement and HR matters to go horribly, horribly wrong, it seems like some game-based training for these disciplines could be reasonably entertaining as well as memorable and effective.

“Bureaucracies create games – they are just games that are in no sense fun.” (Andre Spicer paraphase of David Graeber)

If any attempt to dismantle bureaucracy creates more bureaucracy (Graeber again), and if big fixes create bigger unintended consequences and more fragility (as I understand my other brain hero Nicholas Nassim Taleb to be saying), then maybe the simple introduction of more play into the seriousness of bureaucratic games is the best chance we bureaucrats have of disrupting the system in a positive sense (making the rules of the game more transparent, helping our taxpaying customers “win”) short of simply throwing down our rule books and going off into the woods to live deliberately or whatever.

Who Owes Who What Now?

There are people who believe that the world owes them fairness, however one defines “fair.” Then there are people who feel sort of queasy and/or irritated at the notion that the world owes one anything. (Then there’s the reality of the people, most of us really, who fall between those extremes. But I digress.)

I’m one of the queasy types. Chalk it up as you will to nihilism, a conviction that true fairness is determined by an ineffable justice which surpasses my understanding, or resentment toward the self-actualization of others. All of these things may be true. Whatever the reason, I find it easier to tally up what I owe to others than to articulate what others owe to me. I also find it easier to be lenient with others than to be lenient with myself. In practice, this doesn’t so much govern my actual behavior as it governs what I feel guilty about.

My psychologist recently challenged me to define what I am owed. I spluttered indignantly about the world not owing anyone anything, then defaulted to access to food/clothing/shelter, then just sat there opening and closing my mouth. I owe it to myself to – to what?

I put the question out on social media, where I learned that I am owed a pedicure, wine, oxygen (please put on your own mask first before assisting others), a chance at happiness, and fresh blood (like the human heart, which must be fed in order to feed the rest of the organism). None of this is wrong (especially if I define the pedicure and vino/blood more broadly as self-nurture) and all of it is agreeable. What it doesn’t tell me is whether I am owed intellectual stimulation or adult companionship on a regular basis more than I karmically owe my physical presence and attention to family members. How much does a debt to myself weigh relative to a debt to my children or my husband? And what is a reasonable debt to oneself?

Let’s say that the purpose of human life is to glorify the Lord and celebrate His works. My faith life ranges between nihilism, a conviction that the mysteries of faith are ineffable and surpass my understanding, and uneasy fear that if I don’t just do what’s in my catechism, I’ll screw everything up for myself and everyone else in my attempts to freestyle. In practice, this doesn’t so much govern my actual behavior as it governs what I feel guilty about. Sound familiar? Well, what would He have me do once the boxes are all checked? He would have me forgive others; would He have me forgive myself when, go as I might though the motions of loving my neighbor as myself or not coveting her ass, I decide to quietly disengage from my neighbor* because she wants to take her side in a community association dispute where she’s wrong and the stress is making me pull my own hair out in my sleep? What about when I mute her on Facebook so as not to see more pictures of her ass patiently giving donkey rides to disadvantaged children while mine is kicking down the fence again?

*Not using this neighbor to represent any actual person, honestly. Really, I swear. If you own a donkey, I am totally happy for you, especially if it is good-natured enough to handle attention from kids. Sure, I would love to own livestock and land, but that is not the point. There is no neighbor. There is no ass. There is no community association.

Help me, imaginary friends on the internet.

I feel good about taking my biology class because I feel like it has practical value above and beyond my own pleasure in learning and because I feel like it does not unreasonably deprive my people of attention. I can’t find it in me to feel good about doing things that I know would significantly help my physical and emotional health without providing any tangible benefits to my helmets at home. How much personal growth and satisfaction do they owe me? It’s hardly as if they try to stop me from seeking it out, it’s just that they don’t actively want them on my behalf. (“And why should they?” chides a voice in my head.) In the case of the biology class, it took me telling Dino Spouse that I needed him to want it for me before I finally got off my duff and registered for the class. I’ve been wanting to take it for six or seven years now. Why did I need him to intervene before I could give myself permission to do it?


I once worked for a Senior Leader who believed that addressing people’s fears out loud would legitimize the objects of their fear. This was an otherwise skilled political appointee whose good opinion I coveted but failed to secure. She appeared to think that if we addressed employee concerns about a building system malfunction or an impending government shutdown, we would be somehow endorsing those things as acceptable outcomes. I couldn’t get my brain around the idea that sharing information about something we didn’t control might constitute acceptance or that recognizing an unpleasant reality might constitute endorsement thereof. (Since I am still bitter, let me add that I’m glad no one put this person in charge of responding to actual environmental or public health problems. Radiation? What radiation?)

Reality is not waiting for our participation. The building ventilation system will continue to function (or not) whether I talk about it. Congress will do what it does without my endorsement. The lab will continue to send me bills whether I open them or not. Employees are still subject to office policies whether they acknowledge them or not. The government will validate the results of the elections regardless of the opposition party boycott. Unless you’re living as a revolutionary – or a hermit in a remote freehold, healing your own ailments with roots and berries – there isn’t a valid “opt-out” option for most institutionalized life processes.

When I’m in a funk, I feel like withholding or withdrawing my consent from the early 21st century suburban wage slave wife-and-mom terms of service. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In either event, I often confuse consent with participation. I stop opening envelopes and don’t clean up the pile of crap that’s accumulated near my basement desk because I just don’t want to participate anymore. I don’t want to be responsible for these people. I don’t want to make the effort. In those moments, I fantasize about opting out in terms that range from impractical to immoral to downright irreversible.

(Sooner or later something wakes me up and reminds me that it would be smarter to participate in such a way that I can find my way to some version of the aforementioned freehold (or at least a comfortable approximation thereof) without bringing shame upon myself or surplus sorrow upon my family. I’m rooting for that something to kick in soon, because damn. Dino Spouse and Mouse both look worried, and the basement is a mess.)

I wonder how many bosses refrain from talking about problems in the office because deep down they’re annoyed at people for getting distracted by unpleasant realities (like malfunctioning building systems or looming shutdowns) and demanding reassurance.