The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and here is the opening bit of the summary:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

Due out January 1, 2018, of course this is essential reading.

Monday assorted links

by on February 20, 2017 at 12:47 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is an example of price discrimination from the National Museum of India in Delhi, India. Motivating question for discussion. Is this fair or ethical? Would it be legal in the United States?


…only a tiny fraction of all living Americans ever convicted of a felony is actually incarcerated at this very moment. Quite the contrary: Maybe 90 percent of all sentenced felons today are out of confinement and living more or less among us. The reason: the basic arithmetic of sentencing and incarceration in America today. Correctional release and sentenced community supervision (probation and parole) guarantee a steady annual “flow” of convicted felons back into society to augment the very considerable “stock” of felons and ex-felons already there. And this “stock” is by now truly enormous.

…Very rough calculations might therefore suggest that at this writing, America’s population of non-institutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past has almost certainly broken the 20 million mark by the end of 2016. A little more rough arithmetic suggests that about 17 million men in our general population have a felony conviction somewhere in their CV. That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.

That is by Nicholas N. Eberstadt, via Arnold Kling.  The broader piece is a useful litany of everything that has gone wrong since 1999 in this country.

The obvious equilibrium is that more researchers can download papers from the internet, and thus we expect more papers to be read by a greater number of people.  If lay people enter the calculus, this is almost certainly true.  But what about researchers?  I am not convinced that more reading (of each paper) goes on, or that it should go on.

Most people, including researchers, cannot easily figure out if the main result of a research paper is correct.  That is true all the more as time passes, because the mistakes become less and less transparent.  But they can figure out who can figure out if the paper is right, and sample that opinion.  The internet aids this process greatly.  For instance, it is easier for me to find out what Bob Hall (one of the great paper analysts/commentators of all time) thought of a macro paper, if only by using email.  If I can find out whether or not the paper is true, often I don’t have to read that paper, though I may go through some parts of it.  The internet also gives me access to better summaries of the paper, if only in parts of other papers.

In this sense, researchers may rely on a fairly thin substructure of evaluation, though one of increasing accuracy.  As science progresses, perhaps scientists do/should spend more time honing their research specializations, and less time reading papers they are not expert evaluators for.  They do/should spend more time reading the papers where they are the expert evaluators, but that may mean reading fewer papers overall.

Viewed as a productivity problem, perhaps your read is competing against “further spread of the read and evaluation from the best expert” and is losing.  Efficient criticism is also sometimes winner take all.

I am indebted to Patrick Collison for a conversation on this topic, though of course he is not liable for any of this.  Neither he nor I have read a paper on such matters, however.  Thank goodness.

Here is one bit from an excellent longer piece by Michael Kofman:

Russia’s gradual approach is inherently vulnerable, since it is based around fielding the bare minimum amount number of troops in the battlespace to achieve desired political ends.  In order to deter and dissuade peer adversaries Russia  will often introduce high-end conventional capabilities, such as long range air defense, anti-ship missiles, and conventional ballistic missile systems.  These weapons are not meant for the actual fight. Instead, they are intended to make an impression on the United States. The first goal of the Russian leadership is to make the combat zone its own sandbox, sharply reducing the options for peer adversaries to intervene via direct means.  America does this in its campaigns by attaining air superiority. Russia’s method is cheaper: area denial from the ground.

…Beyond its political objectives, Russia places strong emphasis on having an exit strategy.  In fact, a viable exit strategy seems just as important than whatever they are trying to achieve.  It is perhaps one key point where Russia’s leaders would agree with Weinberger and Colin Powell. But unlike the United States, they actually practice it.

The pointer is from the always-astonishing The Browser.

Sunday assorted links

by on February 19, 2017 at 11:19 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The economics and behavioral economics of pimping and recruiting prostitutes.

2. “This glass fits around your nose so you can smell wine as you drink it.”  NB: the link serves up some noise to you.

3. “The state’s manual for execution procedures, which was revised last month, says attorneys of death row inmates, or others acting on their behalf, can obtain pentobarbital or sodium Pentothal and give them to the state to ensure a smooth execution.”  Link here, that is Arizona.

4. Here is my old interview with Atlantic on my news diet.  A few of you requested an update.  These days it is more Twitter, fewer blogs, more Bloomberg View, and less reliance on news magazines (though some remain excellent).  Inexplicably, on the first go-round I forgot to mention TLS and London Review of Books, I get Book Forum too  Most of all, I rely more on what people email me and tell me about.  Very recently, Twitter is more dramatic and sometimes more entertaining but also less useful for anything practical; my time allocation methods have yet to adjust but they will.

5. “It is possible to travel coast to coast—from, say, Coos Bay, Oregon, to Wilmington, North Carolina—without passing through a single county that Hillary Clinton won. Indeed there are several such routes.”  That is from Christopher Caldwell.  And new and long profile of Peter Navarro.

6. Workman’s cafe in France accidentally awarded a Michelin star.  And Hong Kong food trucks show that economy really isn’t as free as you might think (NYT).

What I’ve been reading

by on February 19, 2017 at 12:35 am in Books | Permalink

1. Jean-Yves Camus and Nicholas Lebourg, Far-Right Politics in Europe.  A very good and extremely current introduction to exactly what the title promises, with plenty on earlier historical roots.

2. Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.  More or less a travelogue, but also one of the best introductions for thinking about Nigeria, and it does stress the different regions of the country.  Both informative and entertaining.

3. The Maisky Diaries: The Wartime Revelations of Stalin’s Ambassador in London, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky.  Paul Kennedy called it the greatest political diary of the twentieth century.  One of the best windows on the coming and arrival of the Second World War, and I don’t usually like reading the diary form.  It’s also a very good look into how such an impressive person could be Stalin’s ambassador.  By the way, why is the hardcover about a quarter of the price of the paperback?

4. Peter Leary, Unapproved Routes, Histories of the Irish Border, 1922-1972.  Soon there may be one again, so I decided to read up on the background, a tale of Derry being severed from Donegal.  This informative, easily grasped book also has a chapter on the fisheries border, a sign of the imaginativeness of the author.

5. Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.  Ellis is consistently excellent as an author, and this book is best on tying the intellectual evolution of the Founding Fathers to the troubles of the Articles of Confederation period.

There is also a new Deirdre McCloksey festschrift, Humanism Challenges Materialism in Economics and Economic History, edited by Roderick Floyd, Santhi Hejeebu, and David Mitch.  It appears to be a very fine tribute.

Stephen D. King has a new book coming out on the reversal of globalization, namely Grave New World: The End of Globalisation, The Return of History.

It is very much a twist on Adam Smith’s argument about the division of labor:

One further remark however, which I cannot omit, is that the people in America are necessitated, by their local situation, to be more sensible and discerning, than nations which are limited in territory and confined to the arts of manufacture. In a populous country, where arts are carried to great perfection, the mechanics are, obliged to labour constantly upon a single article. Every art has its several branches, one of which employs a man all his life. A man who makes heads of pins or springs of watches, spends his days in that manufacture and never looks beyond it. This manner of fabricating things for the use and convenience of life is the means of perfecting the arts; but it cramps the human mind, by confining all its faculties to a point. In countries thinly inhabited, or where people live principally by agriculture, as in America, every man is in some measure an artist— he makes a variety of utensiles, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes— he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter— he travels about the country— he convenes with a variety of professions— he reads public papers— he has access to a parish library and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics, and every man in New England is a theologian. This will always be the case in America, so long as their is a vast tract of fertile land to be cultivated, which will occasion emigration from the states already settled. Knowledge is diffused and genius routed by the very situation of America.

That is from his Sketches of American Policy, #29.

Saturday assorted links

by on February 18, 2017 at 1:07 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

USA NBA fact of the day

by on February 18, 2017 at 2:15 am in Data Source, Sports | Permalink

Overall, I estimate that the average white player in the N.B.A. has a fan base that is 56.7 percent white and 22.7 percent black. The average black player has a fan base that is 46.7 percent white and 32 percent black, a significant difference…

If a white and a black player are similar on paper, it is the black player who will have more fans.

Among black Americans, black players are roughly twice as popular as comparable white players. But black players get a slight boost from fans of every racial group. Compared with white players who are similar to them in all ways I could think to measure, black players have more fans among white Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian-Americans.

Honestly, I was blown away by the overall size of this advantage. Roughly speaking, I estimate that a white player would have to score 10 more points per game to have as big a fan base on Facebook as he would have if he were black.

That is from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz at the NYT, there is much more discussion at the link, though no mention of The Incandescent Rex.  In other words, if the styles of the black players are in some way more dynamic and thus more popular (Rex being an exception, Pete Maravich another), and if we could adjust for that variable, how much of the race effect would go away?

From a loyal MR reader:

I’m very curious about the macroeconomics of the sheepskin effects. Traditional productivity forecast research tends to assume the wage premium is entirely human capital. Eg, Bosler/Daly/Fernald/Hobijn use a mincer equation with five education dummies   Jorgensen’s approach dividing workers into types also assumes this is not an issue.

If sheepskin effects are purely relative status effects, then the impact on total output and income should be zero, right? This implies increasing educational attainment will have a much smaller impact on productivity and output than typical productivity forecasts imply.

But it seems to me like showing you are “high ability”, if that’s all it does, makes you able to be slotted into higher ability jobs, and that this won’t simply give you a leg up on other workers but increase the number of higher ability jobs filled.

Anyway, I’m sort of thinking out loud but would be curious to read a blog of your thoughts on this, so consider this a bleg!

In the simplest Spence signaling model, the output goes to workers, and if one more worker sends the signal and boosts his or her wage, the non-signaling workers will receive an equal amount less.  That is an equilibrium condition, but it makes less sense as an account of dynamics.  As a practical matter, it’s not clear why the employers should revise their opinion downwards for the marginal products of these less educated workers.  You could say that competition makes them do it, but it’s tough to have good intuitions about an equilibrium that is hovering between/shifting across a varying degree of pooling and separating.

As a more general extension of Spence, a richer model will have market power and payments to capital and labor.  If one more worker finishes school, that worker is paid more and the higher wage serves as a tax on production.  Yet it is a tax the boss does not perceive directly.  The boss thinks he is getting a better worker for the higher wage, but in the counterfactual with more weight on the pooling solution, the boss would have hired that same person, with the same marginal product, at a lower wage.  The “whole act of production” will be and will feel more costly, including at the margin, but the boss won’t know how to allocate those costs to specific factors.  By construction of the example, the boss however will think that the newly educated laborer is the one factor not to be blamed.  So he’ll cut back on some of the other factors, such as labor and land.  Labor in the company will be relatively more plentiful, and the marginal product of labor in that company will fall.  So the incidence of a boost in the sheepskin effect falls on the land and capital that have to move elsewhere, plus to some extent the declining marginal products and thus wages for the remaining workers in the firm under consideration.  Note that outside firms are receiving some influx of capital and land, and so in those firms the marginal product of labor and thus its wage will go up somewhat.

Or so it seems to me.  The trick is to find some assumptions where the hovering between/moving across a varying degree of pooling vs. separation is not too confusing.

Friday assorted links

by on February 17, 2017 at 1:42 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

The Indonesian woman arrested for suspected involvement in the killing of the North Korean leader’s half brother in Malaysia was duped into thinking she was part of a comedy show prank, Indonesia’s national police chief said Friday, citing information received from Malaysian authorities.

Tito Karnavian told reporters in Indonesia’s Aceh province that Siti Aisyah, 25, was paid to be involved in “Just For Laughs” style pranks, a reference to a popular hidden camera show.

He said she and another woman performed stunts which involved convincing men to close their eyes and then spraying them with water.

Here is the story, via Ray Lopez.

That is in the FT, here is the closing paragraph:

In most other ways, Cowen’s thesis is deeply troubling. Democracy requires growth to survive. It must also give space to society’s eccentrics and misfits. When Alexis de Tocqueville warned about the tyranny of the majority, it was not kingly despotism that he feared but conformism. America would turn into a place where people “wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity”, the Frenchman predicted. This modern tyranny would “degrade men rather than torment them”. Cowen does a marvellous job of turning his Tocquevillian eye to today’s America. His book is captivating precisely because it roves beyond the confines of his discipline. In Cowen’s world, the future is not what it used to be. Let us hope he is wrong. The less complacent we are, the likelier we are to disprove him.

The review very well captures the spirit and content of the book.  Here is Barnes&Noble, here is Amazon.  Here are signed first editions, here is Apple.