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Empire-Building (1/7): Bootstrapping

This is part 1 of 7 from How To Create An Empire series. Originally written in November 2017.

I find that common conversations regarding post-university life are pretty boring. It is very rare, if ever, to encounter kids my age that have a truly exciting life goal (that includes me. I am not exciting). It’s even more true for older demographics. Reality hits even harder when we got older, discouraging dreams beyond simple subsistence in our modern urban life. Changing the world? Screw that, we have bills to pay and (in the near future) families to take care of!

That is why early adulthood already seems like a graveyard filled with the premature deaths of dreams.

But why do we often give up on dreams? Is it because it’s impossible or involve hard sacrifice that is not feasible with our actual situation now (as opposed to our situation when we initially set our dream) ? If yes, do we know in what specific way it is hard or impossible? Have we done our research to verify whether our assumption about its difficulty or impossibility actually holds true? Have we tried certain interventions that can possibly eliminate, reduce, or even just circumvent the obstacles? If we still haven’t explored the answers for these troubleshooting inquiries, then it is still to early to call it quits! We just have not researched enough to derive any valid conclusion whether our dream is possible or not. One useful corollary of that line of logic: the only real constraints that we can’t change is the immutable fundamental laws of nature (e.g. laws of physics, evolutionary mechanism, randomness, etc). So, what is the craziest dream possible that’s still within the limits of the fundamental laws of nature? Well, let’s just go all the way and attempt to create a freaking intergalactic empire.

Gedankenerfahrung, or thought experiment are used to consider some hypothesis, principle, or theory for the purpose of thinking through its feasibility and consequences. We are basically simulating our goal and the steps toward it inside our mind. In that way, we can anticipate and plan ahead for our goal with precision without doing the actual thing, thus minimizing the cost of failure (time, energy, money, etc) by refining our method while it is still in conceptual form. Therefore, we will have higher success rate at the actual execution. However, our mind is a world of its own. There are no constraints that limit what kind of world we conjure inside our mind. Thus, done improperly, thought experiment can be way off from reality, rendering it useless. We can mitigate this by tuning the parameters of our simulations. By having more and better access to knowledge, and by having better way to process the knowledge, we can replicate the actual world better inside our mind and will have more accurate simulations. That is exactly the reason why I read so many books, read (and shared) so many stuffs on my Facebook, scored as many diverse experience as possible (internships, organizations, etc), and appear to be in a state of constant thinking. I am obtaining information, processing information, and use it to run simulations inside my mind.

I will attempt to run thought experiment on the steps required to create an empire, starting from my personal initial condition. I know, aspiring to create an intergalactic empire seems so distant from the pressing problems plaguing our world here and now. We still have poverty, refugee crisis, war, terrorism, climate change, Indonesia is still underdeveloped, etc. But creating such an empire would mean that we also have to solve any issues that we stumbled along the way, including, but not limited to, the world’s most pressing problems. In that way, aiming for an intergalactic empire would result in byproducts which are the solutions to our problems. That is a very convenient way to change the world.

What if I fail? Of course for such a ridiculous goals, failure is a very possible outcome. But success/failure rate of a series of independent events can be roughly modeled as a binomial distribution of finitely many unbiased coin tosses. Total success is as unlikely as total failure. The most probable outcome is a range of partial successes (or partial failures, which is just the same thing because X successes means 1-X failures). That is better than not tossing the coin at all. (Some caveats: in reality some events are dependent on one another, probabilities would resemble more to that of biased coins, instead of the assumed 50:50 success ratio, and also the distribution might be more sophisticated than simple binomial like this)

In terms of cost-benefit analysis, it is actually rational to have a ridiculously big dream for our own self-interest. Let’s model it to a three case scenario. The first case is the status quo. The boring and unexciting middle class life. Let’s make that our datum (assign arbitrary utility points here, let’s say, 1000). The second case is the pursue-your-ambition model, where an individual have a chance (let’s say: 10%) to raise his/her utility points by 1,000,000 and 90% change of failure (which yields zero utility points, the same as doing nothing). By all means, even if s/he fail 9 out 10 times, pursuing the ambition would give the risk-adjusted utility points of 101,000 (the initial 1000 + 0.1*1,000,000). That’s great. But some failures can ruin you. In the model, this is interpreted with the types of failures that can get you below the datum of 1000 utility points of the status quo. For a rational agent, this can deter the willingness to pursue goals which yields very high reward but very high risk than can ruin him/her. Which brings us to the third case: pursue-your-ambitions with complementary safety nets. The idea is to design the plan in such a way that we never get below the 1000 points threshold. This encourages chasing a diversified portfolio of many goals, with successes in some area could serve as an insurance to offset failure that lead to ruin other areas. Therefore, anything that we do will only make our lives (and other’s) better.

At this point, an observant reader might ask: “should everybody have a big dream then?” Well, typical self-help books would answer: “Yes, dream big, failure is just another step closer to success”,  blablabla and so on and so forth. Controversially, I beg to differ. No, not everybody should dream big and pursue them. Because that would lead to elite overproduction. There’s only so many positions of power, market size, voters, etc. Let’s call these resources needed to support the elites. As the resource supply is constant, the power game is a zero-sum game where the more player there are, the lesser the success chance for each player. Hence, society will always divide between those who can truly be the elites who control the world and those sentenced to a perpetual life of being ruled (with some small vertical mobility between the two). For the elites (who are unreasonable minorities), here’s some nice quotes:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. (George Bernard Shaw)

Minorities, not majorities, run the world. The world is not run by consensus but by stubborn minorities asymmetrically imposing their tastes and ethics on others. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

Seems we have some potential cool captions to put on Instagram here. But deeper interpretation of the true value of those sentences will relate to game theory payoff matrix. Let’s say the world consist of two types of people: the tolerant majority and the stubborn minority. Further, let’s say the way they derive utility from the state of the world differs. Suppose there are two possible state of the world, A and B. The minorities prefer A while the majority prefer B. The stubborn minorities earn maximum utility (+10) if the world is exactly the way they want it, and earn a little or none (+0) if the world does not suit their desire. Because they cannot tolerate the world that does not suit them, they are labelled as “stubborn” or intolerant. Meanwhile, the tolerant majority earn a big utility if the world suit their desire (+8) and earn less than that if the world does not (+5). In other words, they are more tolerant to the world that does not suit their desire. Assuming they are rational actors, they have the incentive to maximize their own utility. But, the stubborn minorities gain so much more if they impose their will compared to the tolerant majority. The reverse is also true where the stubborn minorities lose so much more to the tolerant majority. While the effort of these two groups to maximize their utility are at odds with each other, collectively they will be better off if the world is run by stubborn minorities (+15 total utility) compared if run by tolerant majority (+8 total utility). They payoff is asymmetrical, and this will incentivize the stubborn minority to rule the world. (Caveat: this simplistic model might change as I grow more mature and have more information about how the world really works (e.g. by having ability in ABM/Agent-based modeling)).
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The grand plan will consist of seven phases. Each subsequent phase will have a success rate that is exponentially lower that the phase preceding it. Each phase is also a prerequisite for the next phases. The phases sequences are also designed to be a cascading safety nets; phase N-1 would be the safety net if I fail in phase N. Also, as we get further to the later phases, it will be only relevant to an ever increasingly smaller subset of readers; most people would think phase 1 as relevant to their life, less so with phase 2, and so on until phase 7. So these are the phases:

Phase 1: Bootstrapping. This is about bootstrapping myself, basically optimizing my chances, given my conditions and constraints. It’s just like a typical post-university survival guide.

Phase 2: The Three Pillars. The second phase concerns about rapidly upgrading my personal capabilities from intellectual, capital, and political aspects.

Phase 3: Oligarchy. The third phase is about becoming an oligarch where I can exercise power relatively unconstrained.

Phase 4: Seizing Indonesia. The fourth phase is grabbing power in Indonesia, not in the traditional sense of merely campaigning and winning elections, but making a permanent demographic constraints that will dictate generations to come.

Phase 5: The Ascendant Nation. The fifth phase is ramping up the country’s diplomatic, economic, and military power to prepare Indonesia ascendancy.

Phase 6: Global Dominance. The sixth phase is about competitions with other major powers to win the global hegemony.

Phase 7: Intergalactic Empire. Finally, when everything is ready, the seventh phase will be the actual creation of the empire.

Phase 1: Bootstrapping

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Bootstrapping here simply means: get your shit together. In other words, get a stable life out of uni first. My condition right now is that of a puny typical fresh graduate: full of insecurities, anxieties, and confusions. But in the long run, those do not matter. Good brain, cold calculations, and meticulous planning are all I need.
There are several important issues that need to be anticipated right away:

  • I need to construct a robust value system/moral compass to guide my thinking and actions. Too rigid and I will be a foolish and frustrated idealist. Too loose and I will become a heartless Machiavellian.
  • I need to have access to knowledge, both by being knowledgeable myself and having access to the best advisors available, given the intelligence limitations of a single individual (i.e. I can’t learn all the required knowledge all by myself)
  • I need to have access to sufficient resources, both by being resourceful/powerful myself and having access to suitable allies with relevant resources, given the limitations of a single individual to accumulate power and resource all by myself.
  • I have to construct a sustainable incentive structure to keep me going
  • I have to cheat death.

Value system is important as it will dictate what’s right and what’s wrong. It will be a significant help in deciding actions on complex issues. I need to choose a source where I will draw my values from. I will choose Islam. However, that choice will require me to really research about its contents from personal affairs to building a state. This needs to be beyond the mainstream rhetorics, religious buzzwords and jargons. I need technical details. I once attended crash course in ushul fiqih and ushul tafsir, and quickly realize that the extend of Islamic knowledge is just purely massive. Indeed, in the infinite sea of knowledge, as our island of knowledge grows, so does our shores of ignorance.

Nonetheless, I still need to sail in that sea. I will need tools to properly comprehend Islam and construct my value system. Mastery of Arabic language is imperative and indispensable because we cannot gain first-hand exposure to the religious scriptures without understanding them. Then came the tools of analysis such ushul fiqih, qowaid fiqih, ushul tafsir, among many others. Memorizations of the Quran, Hadits, and various kitabs will be tremendously helpful, as the raw materials and useful references already within the range of instant recall in our minds. The earlier I can acquire these knowledge, the greater the cumulative benefit throughout my entire lifespan. Knowledge is just like money, it accumulates like compound interest.

Why should I burden myself with learning that intensively? Won’t I met ustadz/’ulama/scholars along the way that can just advise me on various matters? Yes, that is exactly my plan. However, the more robust my baseline knowledge, the smaller the relative gap of knowledge between me and them, and thus the more benefit I can gain from their advice.

Similar to value system, I also have to take initiative to ensure my lifetime capability to indefinitely amass knowledge and resources. Contrary to popular belief, sheer willpower and hard work will not be enough to achieve one’s goal. The highest priority right now is how to avoid being structurally disadvantaged. In social science, structure is the recurrent patterned arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Structure is why some kids in US can launch billion dollar companies from their dorm/garage while equally capable kids in here cannot. The availability of capital, critical mass of early adopters, adequate infrastructure, willingness of customer to pay, the abundance of technical talents, geographically concentrated tacit knowledge, and many other factors make all the difference. The US kids just need to free ride the existing structural advantages while kids here need to really start from scratch. In most cases, agency cannot overpower structure. Hence, what we can do? We have to position ourselves to benefit the most by exploiting the existing structure.

So what’s the examples of things needed to secure a structural advantage? The list is not exhaustive, but can surely provide a rough illustration. The easiest and most common example is GPA. Anything below 3.5 is dangerous, 3.5-3.8 is mediocre, and beyond 3.8 starts to be safe. Of course it is not a measure of intelligence per se, but it is certainly an indicator of conscientiousness (or, if I may, “ambis”). Graduating from top universities is also helpful, as it will make it easier to secure allies later in life. An excellent command of English is necessary, otherwise we can be denied access to many prestigious opportunities. Early career choice matters as well. Consulting, investment banks, law firms, private equity, venture capital, quantitative hedge funds, and tech companies can provide a solid launchpad. Of course this list is not exhaustive, and even the relative merit of each mentioned industry can be arguable. Nonetheless, this is a good start to secure a head start in the big game.

There’s actually another set of parameters that will provide structural advantage, but their nature are given, they cannot be changed. Those includes racial identity, gender, IQ or “g”, parental advantage (born in rich household, member of political dynasty, etc) and many others. The existence (or the lack thereof) of the said factors significantly tilt the equation, for better or for worse. They will give you a leg up earlier in life, or thwart you further from your goal. But those are assigned just like lottery at birth. We are kinda stuck with it, so there’s no point in trying to change it. Just make sure that if we happen to be structurally disadvantaged by one or more of these, it has to be compensated by structural advantages in other areas that are still under our control. Therefore, our job is to accurately map how exactly these preexisting structure promotes or hinders our effort to allow us to navigate optimally.
Next issue is incentive. Incentive is a thing that motivates or encourages people to do something. For some people, college years are the times of inflated expectations. We expected to do great things after we graduate. But reality strikes really hard and, in no time, we found ourselves being the boring adults that we detested. How can this happen? My hypothesis: misaligned incentives.

Incentives are an evolutionary legacy. Our greed and fear are beneficial in a way that it promotes our survival. The fundamental ones are food, sex, and death. Food are essential for our biological survival; we will starve to death without it. Sex is essential for our genetic survival; our lineage or even species will cease to exist without it. Avoiding death is also paramount; food and sex is pointless if we die first. Our actions can be traced back to these primal elements. Job seeking? Need money to buy food. Fall in love or want to marry? Self-explanatory. Some actions can be indirect extensions of these urges. Adoring babies, either our own or someone else’s babies? An extension of our drive to preserve our genetic lineage. Afraid of public speaking? We can be afraid that bad performance might make us a social outcast in our circle, which, in prehistoric times, exclusion from our tribe can really lower our survival chance in the wild, which means, well, death.

Of course incentive to pay our bills or to take care of our families override our other, fancier goals because they are more primal and make more sense for our survival. Why save the world when we are not so sure of our own survival? The logic is sound. However, the world would be very boring if everybody is only taking care of themselves. It is not only boring; it is selfish!

I have identified a few ways we can solve the incentive problem:

  • Social mutants. Some people can just sidestep their biological impulses. Therefore, they have the luxury of chasing their fancy goals with little regard to primal drives that constraints most people. My conjecture: this is a condition that has existed from birth and/or by environmental factors that leave permanent alteration in one’s brain micro-structures. One would need to find out whether one falls within this category of special people. If not, one need to investigate if some method exist to alter one’s brain psychology to be able to exert the same performance as the natural social mutants.
  • Restructuring incentives. The idea is to align the incentives/metrics of our goal with the incentives/metric of our basic needs. Let’s say, for example, in a particular company, the CEO earns a fraction of profit as his additional take-home pay. Because profit is simply revenue minus cost, he can increase his own pay by simple cost cutting that hurts the quality of the product while keeping the revenue so he can have an increased profit. This will hurt the long term growth of the company. To solve this, the additional take-home pay for the CEO can be tied to the company’s share price instead of profit in such a way to encourage long term growth and innovation. In this way, the incentives are aligned. While this is a common practice for financial incentive alignment in corporate setting, exporting the concept to other kind of incentive in other kind of setting would require a decent level of system engineering skills.
  • The Diver’s Method. This is the less extreme version of the former two. The idea is to alternate between fulfilling needs and fulfilling dreams. This is similar to a diver taking a breath before submerging. The diver can only remain underwater for as long as his breath allows him before he needs to return to the surface. Then he can take another breath and resume diving, and the process can be repeated indefinitely. Substitute “underwater” with dreams and “surface” with needs, and basically we have a simple method that allows us to juggle between the two. This method does not require winning the genetic lottery like the first method or mad skills in system engineering like the second method.

Finally, the entire project certainly require longer time than my lifespan. I need to cheat death. However, I’m not Gilgamesh. Biological immortality is impossible, so I would have to immortalize my will in some other ways. A plethora of methods are available.

  • Ideology books: This is the typical ideas-are-bulletproof schemes. You basically laid out the entire plan in a book and if you ran out of time to execute it yourself, hopefully someone else would pick up the idea and finish the deed. One famous example is Marx and Lenin.
    • Pros: Can clearly articulate ideas in its entirety in a comfortable way.
    • Cons: Need traction across time and place to be effective. A long way to concrete implementations. Some risk of misinterpreting the predecessor’s original idea by the successor.
  • Constitutional rulings/legal verdicts: The idea of modern nation-states and law is a very convenient one. Law is an imagined reality and humans ardently follow it, rewarding the obedient and punishing the violators. Thus, with merely several lines of writing (as long as it’s backed up by any kind of legitimacy), one can set what is right and wrong, what can and can’t be done for the entire nation. This is basically large scale human programming. Substitute the coding part with constitution-writing.
    • Pros: Very hard to reverse. Consequence can be far-reaching. Binds future actors to certain constraints (tyranny by past legal precedents)
    • Cons: Need widespread support in populace and/or key institutions to actually push through the bills
  • Institutional reforms: Being a reformer in a particular bureaucratic institution, companies, or any organization in general. This will require a significant amount of domain expertise. Suitable for people with contribution mentality (“I want to apply my knowledge in my field”, “Everybody has their own roles to play in society”), instead of those with ruling mentality (the greedy, generalist, power-hungry types)
    • Pros: Focused, targeted, and specific legacy in key institutions
    • Cons: Limited in impact. Only valid in a certain sector and hard to propagate to other sectors. Domain expertise are not transferable to other domains.
  • Demographic alteration: Top power holders are beholden to their supporters. This is universally true in any kind of government flavor, from tyrannical autocracy to liberal democracy. While any type of government would rely on support from factional elites (e.g. military generals, oligarchs, etc), support from the masses is still fundamental. Failure to secure support from them can lead to unfortunate events ranging from popular revolts (in autocracies) to being voted out of office (in democracies). Thus, engineering the demographics is vital and detailed methods should be studied extensively, such as how to empower/suppress certain groups, increasing/decreasing the number of people in certain groups, to large-scale, long-term permanent behavioral alteration to the existing groups by any imaginable methods.
    • Pros: Actively modify the will of the people to suit our needs without them even realizing. Might need multi-generations worth of effort but the result can be reaped for even more generations to come. Very hard to reverse except by future leaders who have the skills of at least equal magnitudes.
    • Cons: Altering people’s long term voting and consuming behavior as well as their general way of life would need sophisticated methods, demanding logistics, and tends to be cost-intensive. Its resource demands might compete with more urgent, short-term agendas.
  • Dynasty creation: Because family is the second-smallest unit that comprised society (after individuals), my will can be delegated to my descendants. Exploiting the virtue of families ties (a beneficial feature resulting from evolution), the probability of the offsprings carrying my will is higher compared to the case if I delegate my will to any strangers, however close their relationship.
    • Pros: Create an army of “mini me” that can be deployed across strategic sectors, equivalent with extending my lifetime.
    • Cons: Those mini mes have their own free will that might not necessarily align with my own. Tends to vary in personal qualities too. Collaboration between them should also be planned carefully to avoid any allegation of nepotism.

My recommendation would be a mix of all of these methods. To this date, there have yet to be any research of value that can give me the quantitative measure on the extent of each individual method’s effectiveness. Therefore, diversification in strategy would be the best policy.

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