The Principal-Agent Problem

Every ambitious person I know has a dream about making a bunch of money and then putting it into something that essentially makes money on its own.

Sure, this can sort of happen, but generally speaking it’s never totally achievable.

The reason is no one else will ever care about your money or life more than you. You can make your life easier in some ways, but you’ll never automate away having to actually care about it specifically.

Cambo Estate

While reading about the Cambo Estate yesterday for this post on land use, I came across a wild footnote in the estate’s history:

His descendants continued the improvement of the estate through the 19th century, laying out ornamental gardens, with a series of early cast iron bridges.

The old house comprised a tower house with numerous additions, including a first-floor conservatory. It was destroyed by fire in 1878, after a staff party when the Erskine family was away.

The bitter irony here is it’s a challenge in itself to train your descendants to care as much as you do. The Erskines seemed to have done that—but their staff could never care to the same degree. Having a party probably wasn’t the problem, but once or twice a staff member said “it’s probably fine” to something risky when a family member would’ve said “no, let’s not do that.”

The irony of it is the staff likely ended up jobless after the fire. Self-interest did not preserve them because they hadn’t considered the risks and consequences of their action, even if it made “logical” sense to do so. The incentive to be careful was there, but it wasn’t prescient enough because at the end of the day they were agents, not principals.

Keep that in mind when you hire and trust someone. Make them family, or never give them enough power to ruin you. Even your lawyer, while way more likely to work in your interest, is not guaranteed. Understand basic incentives before you trust.

Show me the incentive, I’ll show you the outcome.

Charlie Munger

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