The Intellectual Prisoner

From the Washington Post’s “Join Wall Street, Save the World” –

The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.

Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

The synopsis of the article: Go work with the morally fucked, and, as long as you give plenty away to charity, you’re a great human being . That model is worth emulating, it says, turning to us expectantly, shamingly, “Isn’t it amazing that quant donates 50% of his salary?”

We’re expected to fawn over these people. “Oh look, this giving dude and his wife moved back in with his parents so they could give away that much more.”

“That’s so admirable,” we’re supposed to say.

But it’s not admirable.

In fact, it’s pathetic. It’s the sign of a prisoner. An intellectual prisoner. The kind of person who is pretty smart – in the sense they can do stupid shit for Wall Street money – but can’t conceive of applying their ‘smarts’ towards changing the world.

They’d rather buy several hundred (or thousand, whatever) mosquito nets than find a way to fund millions of kids to knit their own. Or build an HFT driven fund that donates all profits to social enterprises. Or any number of things that actually matter.

Applying that intellect to… y’know, solving big problems isn’t what these ‘heroes’ do.

Building something new involves too much personal risk. That would actually involve putting something on the line. And they just can’t do that.

This is the kind of superhero who refuses to put on his spandex, but does diligently pay his taxes after quitting the Daily Planet to work for Murdoch. All the while,  Lex Luthor gleefully poisons continents.

Look, you can choose to be the kind of person who waves the flat of self-financial-flagellation while getting felt up by the Washington Post and enjoying your tax write-offs.

Or you can apply your brain power to doing something.

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  • Christian Kleineidam
    Jun 1, 2013

    The question is whether surely saving a bunch of lives is better or worse than having a relatively low change to make a big impact on changing the world.

    I don’t think the people from http://80000hours.org/ are bad or in some way not into “doing something”.

    • Shlok Vaidya
      Jun 3, 2013

      I don’t think they’re bad either. I think they’re just not worthy of placing on this mantle.

      The question isn’t to go work for a charity or corporation, that’s an old construct that these ‘smart’ people can’t see past.

      You can have a high-impact, high-compensation career that helps people. You just have to create it.

      If that’s too risky for you, great, go forth, donate, and be a decent person, but I’m not going to glorify that approach.

  • Grant Henninger
    Jun 2, 2013

    In the All Things D interview with Elon Musk, they asked him if he thought that most of Silicon Valley was big minds working on small problems. That question, which I’ve now seen expressed in a couple of forms over the past week, shares a similar sentiment to what you’re saying here. And it seems to be resonating.

    • Shlok Vaidya
      Jun 3, 2013

      Yeah… and Musk is probably better than the rest of that circle, but at best, he’s going back in history, making old things and processes better (cars and space ships are industrial problems).

      Sure, great, Apple-fy everything, but that’s not what the Valley (was/theoretically is) or innovation is really about.

  • Zenpundit
    Jun 2, 2013

    It is just the tyranny of linear thinking rather than stupidity or malice. High level quant abilities are just an amplification, like going from a laser pointer to a high energy particle beam at Argonne, it is still a straight line, narrowly bounded, despite having tremendous power.

    Getting these dudes to incorporate a searchlight in their cognitive toolkit would make a significant difference – these are not lazy folk- but all of their incentives reinforce only what they do well now

  • The Intellectual Prisoner http://t.co/3YTu6J0HEE&&

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