In Search of Meaning: The Finite Game of Life

Is life really a finite game?

Think about it. You work hard in high school to go to a premier college. If you’re lucky and end up at Stanford, so far you’re doing well since you’ve landed yourself at the best university in the world. Now you’ve got to work hard and try to get the best job, or get into the best graduate program. And from there on you’ll have to work even harder to have the best career, most expensive car, mansions etc.

Is it all a game, where the objective is to have the most “successful” life?

And who are your competitors? Your peers, the ones who go to high school with you, your college friends, your co-workers.

What may be the saddest part is that we know we can’t win such a game. It’s very unlikely that one of us will be the next Bill Gates or King of Saudi Arabia or whoever else you think has won it. Instead we are competing to have the highest rank compared to our competitors. So when you’re 50 and you meet someone who went to college with you, in the back of your mind you’re likely to be calculating who’s more “successful” so far.

That is the sadness of such a finite game. And anyone who tells you they aren’t after the money is still just as bad. Groups of people (that compete with each other) set their own rules and objectives on how to measure success. If you work in the non-profit world this may be who has the highest rank within a certain organization, or the amount of money you’ve spent on programs or the number of lives you’ve “changed.”

What about a religious perspective? Doesn’t religion define life as a ‘test’? And at the end the number of good deeds less the bad deeds in your life will be tallied up and that will decide whether you ‘win’ the game and go to heaven or ‘lose’ the game and go to hell.

If only life were an infinite game. And not in the economic sense, not to try to win at each stage in the game (because then life is a somewhat infinite game with each stage such as going to college, getting a job etc are all finite games within the infinite game). No, instead if only life were an infinite game with a horizon over the history of the universe. So your actions in this lifetime will have reverberating effects for those that come after you, and after them until our species evolves and the sun explodes. And even after that. So that there was no ‘judgment day’ and that whatever you do in this lifetime is somewhat meaningless in a finite game, but has significant implications for an infinite game.

Such a paradigm is more relaxing, because it changes our objectives from trying to just win the game to a higher order of living. The positive energy and impact in our lives is our contribution to the universe. And the optimum solution then becomes to produce as much of this ‘positive energy’ or whatever else will remain after us whether that be knowledge, art, experience for others. Such a life sounds more noble than the former.

Jeffrey Sachs talk at Stanford – on Sustainable Development

Fortunately for me I’ve had the opportunity to hear my two favorite Harvard-educated famous white males this year. One being Bill Gates and the other being Jeffrey Sachs. I used to worship Jeffrey Sachs back in high-school when I first read “The End of Poverty” (not so much now) but I was still elated to hear him at Stanford and luckily enough my roommate and I were able to find front row seats at his talk. I took some vigorous notes about his talk and which I’ve copied below, hope you enjoy!

Picture from the front row, unfortunately my iPhone isnt the greatest for pictures.

Designing a Path to Sustainable Development – by Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent development economist, came to speak at Stanford last Thursday (a long time ago). His talk centered around the path to sustainable development, which he described as “the most complicated problem on the planet” and “the defining challenge of our time”. He defined sustainable development as the process through which we continue material progress (especially for the poorest of the poor) without hindering our world’s healthy ecosystem functions.

Sustainable development, he said, is a very complicated problem. It is often the root of many other global issues such as terrorism and it cannot simply be solved by market forces. To better understand sustainable development, Sachs listed 6 key features of the problem:

  1. It is a global issue: climate change is one of the many global problems, and that it doesn’t matter where the emissions come from because it impacts all of us. Sachs also commented on how our national institutions aren’t adequately prepared to address such global issues.
  2. It is an inter-temporal problem: we see the effects of sustainable development over a long period of time. Often it is due to a stock effect and not due to a flow effect, for example the accumulated stock of carbon emissions matters, not the amount that is emitted in a given year.  The problem with stock effects is that we may be crossing certain thresholds or tipping points in our environment and these problems may be irreversible.
  3. The involvement of ecosystems: many of our natural ecosystems are under stress right now because one action has several indirect effects on other parts of the ecosystem. Our markets don’t the hold the interests of our ecosystems at heart and hence allow us to get  away with many environmental crimes.
  4. There is profound uncertainty: There are a lot of things we don’t know about our ecosystems and how we interact with our environment. For example, it was out of pure luck that humans were able to detect the hole in the o-zone layer when we did. Right now we may be on the brink of several environmental catastrophes without even knowing it.
  5. There are several ramifications of population growth: Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich was very right when he said our world cant sustain as large a population as we have. Sachs said that all the problems we are going to face would be infinitely easier if we have a much small population.
  6. The solutions to these problems involved large scale technological transformation: markets aren’t all they are cut out to be and we will require technological transformation that goes beyond what markets may provide us with.

Sachs argued that right now we are far from the path of sustainable development. He talked about a 10,000 mile stretch of drylands from Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia that was degrading rapidly from our current practices. This area of environmental degradation is also an area that houses much political and civil instability. Sachs claimed that we have misdiagnosed the problems of these areas to be rooted religious ideologies while they are at root problems of water scarcity and hunger. This misdiagnosis is a common hindrance to sustainable development.

Sachs plead for action and described 2 risks for our inaction:

  1. Depletion of vital resources
  2. Pervasive environmental degradation

He stated that the path towards sustainable development doesn’t involve just maintaining our fossil fuels or minerals, but rather maintaining the capacity of our global ecosystem to keep us alive.

Sachs believes that the problems that we face are solvable at a modest cost. The real problem lies in the coordination of these solutions through institutions at the national and global level.

Interestingly enough, Sachs remarked on how Malthus was right all those years ago. Our population has grown above capacity and hence billions of people around the world are not meeting their basic food needs. He quoted that 1 billion people are starting, 1.5 billion more have micronutrient deficiency and that another 1 billion people are malnourished.

With reference to global warming, Sachs declared agriculture as the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Following agriculture, energy and then industrial toxics were the next biggest contributors. The problems we face are bounded and do have definable solutions, for example we can shift to a sustainable food and energy based economy. But there are certain steps we need to take in order to make this shift.

One of the steps is to stabilize population growth. If we assumed that all families would return to a replacement level of 2 children per family, then the disproportionate number of young people would cause the population to further grow to 8 billion people. The largest population growth is within the poorest populations and that we need to help these populations stabilize their growth by providing them with family planning and education. If Africa continues to grow its population at its current rate, then its population will increase by 1 billion people by 2050. The per capita income cannot grow if the population is growing that fast. Other steps towards a path of sustainable development include moving towards sustainable agriculture, behavior change towards better practices and switching towards cleaner energy.

Dr. Sachs made a very compelling argument for the feasibility of these solutions. He stated hat a comprehensive list of changes to get us on the path towards sustainable development would cost us almost 1% of the US GNP. Weighted against the long-term health of the planet, this is a very small cost to pay. He compared this to the amount of military spending in the US, where each soldier abroad costs the US $1 Million.

The Copenhagen summit was also highly criticized. He mocked the fact that after two years, only 4 pages were written on how to bring our world on a path of sustainable development. But this underlined the institutional problems that our world faces. As part of this discussion, Sachs also criticized President Obama for not campaigning for certain environmental policies.

One way in which Sachs believes that we can begin global dialogue on these matters is by identifying common human values. To create change at a global level we need to combine the environment, economics and ethics. Sachs emphasize that the capacity of our institutions to implement such change is limited and made a request to the university to see itself as a global problem solver. Universities worldwide need to take the initiative to implement such change. As his lecture came to a close, Sachs did assign the audience with a peace of homework, and that was to read or listen to John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at the American University – I have read it and I encourage you all to do so.

“Hello world!”…. and welcome to ‘The Uchumist’ blog!

Hello World,

I’m Al-Karim Lalani and this is my economic diary as I make my way through college life at Stanford. Now you may be wondering several things, for example: What do I mean by economic diary? What the hell does Uchumist mean? And why am I being a noob and starting the title of this post with ‘hello world?’ Well not to worry, I will answer all such ponderings.

Now let me deconstruct the phrase economic diary. By ‘diary’, I mean that I plan to talk about things that I see in everyday life, such as the antics of the kids that live on my hall, the injustices of college life or even how Costa Rican taxi drivers are smarter than other taxi drivers. By ‘economic’ I mean that I plan to explain all the interesting phenomenon that I observe through the framework of economics.

The inspiration for this blog came when I first saw one of my friends’ blog called “The Invisible Hand in Your Pants“. My sister is good friends with Phil, one of the authors of the blog, and I got to meet him this summer when he came to visit us at our home in Tanzania. Phil is a bad-ass and is even more humorous in person than he may appear to be on his blog. The idea is very similar, Phil writes about interesting things in his life and discusses it through an economic paradigm.

Now you may be wondering why I’ve called this blog “The Uchumist”, well before I tell you exactly what it means, let me describe the birth of the blog’s name. I really wanted to capture the essence of my blog in its title, and lets be honest, “The Invisible Hand in Your Pants” is an awesome name. How would I compete with that? (FYI: ‘The Invisible Hand” is an economic reference, Adam Smith coined the term)

Well I had a massive brainstorming session and these are some of the ideas I came up with:

I first thought an economic reference that was crude would be a good fit, so I came up with:

  • The invisible hand in your blouse – nah, too unoriginal
  • Animal spirits in the bedroom – no, too obscene
  • Animal spirits in the bathroom? – ok this is just disgusting

Then I decided on a name that was more fitting to describe my interests and still had some sort of economic reference:

  • The tea-time economist – I love chai! But this isn’t very inspiring
  • How I met your trader – I am a huge HIMYM fan, but still not fitting
  • the eCON-artist – I thought this was rather clever, but no!
  • Chickenomics – three of my friends suggested this (by simultaneously screaming it in the hallway)
  • Snickeromics – my sister suggested this, as you can see the quality of names was getting worse…

So at this point I decided to hold off on the name and let it marinate in my head. In the time that passed, I asked a few people for ideas when I finally heard a good one. My econ TA actually pointed out that I could relate it to Uchumi – which is economics in Kiswahili (which is Swahili for non-Kiswahili speakers). Its pronounced ‘oo0-chumi’, now say it faster, ‘oo-chumi’, yes thats right. For lack of a better name, I thought I might as well call my blog the uchumist blog – which is a hybrid word that I have coined and I intend for it to mean “the economist”. I think it is fitting to call this blog-diary of a Tanzanian pseudo-economist, “The Uchumist”.

So there you have it, I hope this answers all important questions. For more questions, leave a comment. And keep checking back to this blog, more is yet to come!