Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals — John Lefevre

Masters of one medium, like Twitter, aren’t necessarily masters of another medium, like the 80,000-word memoir. They can be but don’t have to be. Lefevre mastered Twitter, but his long-form game is not as strong. That being said I did laugh when reading Straight To Hell; I feel like I couldn’t drink anywhere near the amount Lefevre does, or take anywhere near the amount of drugs. I don’t imagine I’d want to be friends with him. As he puts his life philosophy, “As we see it, if you’re dumb enough to get caught cheating, you probably don’t belong on Wall Street.”* That sounds like a sentence from a Bernie Sanders rally. It isn’t.

Straight_To_HellLeFevre writes, “From my experience, the rich and unscrupulous tend to make for entertaining company.” Speaking of political connections, he could be talking about Donald Trump, which is part of the reason he makes a popular, evil presidential candidates (and I don’t use the word “evil” lightly, but he is evil: the evil of pure id, untempered by knowledge or self-awareness). Straight to Hell has more political resonances than it should, and that may help explain its popularity, as it works on readers’ subconscious.

Still, LeFevre’s company is often entertaining, and the best one can say about his scruples is that he makes public what many would like to be private. The speaker of unpleasant truths has a kind of honor. The book is his unpleasant truths, though it is often about the unpleasant truths he dodged (“Now I know for sure, this deal is never going to work. But I still don’t want to be the one who gets blamed for killing it.”) Machiavelli has a vital role in history for a reason.

Even for people like me, who don’t see money as evil, LeFevre will make them want to see money as evil. (Consider how Sylvia Nasar puts it in Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius: “Historically, money had been seen as powerful, desirable, very likely evil, and mysterious, like natural calamities or epidemics.”) Money can be earned in ways that tend to benefit humanity or, in LeFevre’s world, in ways that tend to be about rent seeking and stealing pieces of the pie, rather than earning them, or expanding the size of the pie. Finance here looks like the latter part. That being said one doesn’t and maybe can’t know whether LeFevre’s book is representative, any more than a movie like Bad Teacher is representative of the teaching industry.

Straight To Hell is a memoir about signaling. The finance world presented in it has descended to an almost-pure signaling hell, in which there is no content, only surface. Hence the ceaseless references to luxury brands and luxury-brand schools. The two have become synonymous, however much humanities-department Marxists may want to deny it. There is a weird kinship between high school memoirs or novels and Straight To Hell. American high schools are painful because there is no content to shape form. Lefevre’s finance world is similar. In it, seniority beats skill (count the number of times the word “senior” appears). Many American high schools are so bad because there is no financially viable way to start an alternative high school that can siphon off smarter students and parents. Banks, in Straight To Hell, operate the same way. If contemporary investment banks operate anything like the way Lefevre depicts them operating, then “fin tech” (or “financial technology companies and products,” to use a phrase du jour) should be a ripe opportunity for startups, because the banks, and their personnel and culture, are so internally fucked up that smart startups ought to be able to eat them.

Unless, of course, regulatory and other barriers kill startups before the startups can really succeed. Still, anyone investing in financial companies should read Straight to Hell. It ought to give them courage, if it’s accurate. I can’t really judge whether it is. I’m too far from the industry. It seems unlikely, but unlikely things turn out to be true all the time. It seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would massively spy on virtually all of its citizens, but Snowden showed that it does. It seemed unlikely that an electric car startup could succeed, but Tesla showed that it can. I won’t discount Straight to Hell without trying to triangulate its portrayals. Still, if it is to be believed then many bankers are redistributing money to escorts and drug dealers. Not that I’m opposed, necessarily, to either group, but it is interesting given recent noise about financial inequality to see money flow from the rich to middle-skill service providers (though the book is not conceptualized or framed in that way; still, often the most interesting parts of a book are those that are unintended).

One could write an interesting piece comparing temperaments in Houellebecq and LeFevre. One could also write an interesting piece comparing Thiel in Zero to One and LeFevre. As Thiel notes, in a discussion about why startups (and other companies) must incentivize their employees with stock and other methods that align incentives:

Cash is attractive. It offers pure optionality: once you get your paycheck, you can do anything you want with it. [. . .] A cash bonus is slightly better than a cash salary—at least it’s contingent on a job well done. But even so-called incentive pay encourages short-term thinking and value grabbing. Any kind of cash is more about the present than the future.

zero to oneStraight to Hell can be seen as a document about “value grabbing” and about living in the hedonistic present. The value grabbing is not purely financial, either: It’s also sexual. The team lives or dies by the current roadshow. Slickness rules. One could also compare Straight to Hell and Zero to One in terms of humor versus earnestness. Zero to One has its moments of humor (think of the brief section comparing hipsters to the Unabomber, or the part about Richard Branson and the naked windsurfing model) but the preponderance of the book is about how to make serious, real improvements in the quality of life for all humans. Straight to Hell is about getting a bonus and getting your dick wet (concern over women’s pleasure is mostly absent, or I’d add something appropriate for women as well). There is nothing intrinsically wrong about either and indeed both have concerned me greatly at various points, but there is something distinctly sublunar about the relentlessness of those concerns, and the way one never looks up from the bonus or the girl or the meal.

Is it a satire? Is the joke on me because I don’t get it? There is much like, “There’s no justice in this world—a valuable lesson to learn at a young age, especially if you want to end up on Wall Street.” Is it bravado, trolling, or truth? After many words I still don’t know.

* If they’ll cheat someone else, they’ll cheat you when they get a chance.

Novelty, art, business

“[T]he most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals,” as Thiel says in Zero to One, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this post and go read it instead. Read properly it’s about art as much as business. The most important task in art may also explain why art schools bother us (sample: “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.?“): they take what might be successful master-apprentice relationships and make them professional—that is, more like consultants than like artists. Maybe the best consultants are artists.

There’s more evidence for this: Genre writers often bother literary writers, perhaps because genre writers tend to execute a formula rather than innovate (the word “tend” is key here). If genre writers do come up with a new formula, they tend to iterate on that formula rather than seeking to discover a whole new one; while this might be admired in science and to some extent business it rarely is by artists, who often value noble, large-scale failure over commercial success. It’s easier to scorn what people want than it is to give them what they want, or make what they want.

Many writers of literary fiction are attempting to be novel, though I would argue that most attempts, even those that are highly praised, are actually bad. They may be bad in a way likely to provide tenure for future English professors, but the badness remains, and it isn’t clear that MFA and related programs help inculcate the idea that the most important task is the creation of new value, which by definition can’t be foreseen ahead of time. If someone foresaw it, they would execute, and the value would be there. Unpredictability may also be why so many artistic careers are difficult: you don’t know if you’re really creating value until it’s too late. Efforts at standardization are futile. Value may not even be recognized in your lifetime. You really are Sisyphus. When I first read the core part of The Myth of Sisphyus, in high school, I thought it stupid, yet it remains with me because it touches something at the core of not just art but life.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote, “although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process.” That mystery exists across fields.

Why corporations?

Arnold Kling asks: “Why Large Corporations?” I left a comment citing Peter Thiel’s answer:

Companies exist because they optimally address internal and external coordination costs. In general, as an entity grows, so do its internal coordination costs. But its external coordination costs fall. Totalitarian government is entity writ large; external coordination is easy, since those costs are zero. But internal coordination, as Hayek and the Austrians showed, is hard and costly; central planning doesn’t work.

The flipside is that internal coordination costs for independent contractors are zero, but external coordination costs (uniquely contracting with absolutely everybody one deals with) are very high, possibly paralyzingly so. Optimality—firm size—is a matter of finding the right combination.

This applies to corporations more generally, but large corporations presumably persist because they continue to solve this class of problem. Corporations also solve or ameliorate succession and other problems; one way of re-stating Thiel’s point is that corporations help align the interests of a lot of people in approximately the same direction. This mechanism obviously isn’t perfect, but it’s better than alternatives.

IMG_0298Skepticism of corporations is useful, but only when skeptics understand the problems corporations solve. I took a grad seminar on the Modernism / Postmodernism divide and was assigned the movie The Corporation, which is heavy on innuendo and rhetorical slight-of-hand and light on intellectual acuity. When the seminar discussed the movie, my classmates were happy to assume that corporations are evil—but they couldn’t identify why they exist, let alone offer coherent alternatives that don’t have obvious drawbacks. I’m not in love with the corporate legal form as some kind of ideal, but without a plausible alternative, feeling-based criticism isn’t terribly helpful. It’s like people who criticize coal power plants. . . and nuclear. . . and other viable, large-scale options.

In the seminar’s discussion, other students and the professor conflated publicly-traded corporations with privately traded ones and LLCs with C Corps, etc. (Incidentally, if you want to listen to something hilarious yet depressing, get a bunch of English grad students and professors together and tell them to talk about business). They also thought that all corporations exist solely to make money. That’s not true: Corporations do what their shareholders tell them to do. As far as I know, courts have decided that publicly traded companies need to maximize shareholder value, but single-owner corporations can do whatever the single owner or small group of owners wants them to.

Thiel says this about the advantages of starting a new corporation to accomplish some task:

The easiest answer to “why startups?” is negative: because you can’t develop new technology in existing entities. There’s something wrong with big companies, governments, and non-profits. Perhaps they can’t recognize financial needs; the federal government, hamstrung by its own bureaucracy, obviously overcompensates some while grossly undercompensating others in its employ. Or maybe these entities can’t handle personal needs; you can’t always get recognition, respect, or fame from a huge bureaucracy. Anyone on a mission tends to want to go from 0 to 1. You can only do that if you’re surrounded by others to want to go from 0 to 1. That happens in startups, not huge companies or government.

Usually, developing “new technology” dovetails with making money, but it doesn’t necessarily have to: you could in principle start a nonprofit technology company to conduct research or develop a product (in some businesses, competition between for- and non-profits is common: think of healthcare, or gyms). That no one or almost no one goes this route means that it could be an under-explored avenue for creative and technological success. Or it could be a deadend, and no one goes down it because doing so would be stupid.

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