Tyler Cowen

There is audio, video, and transcript at the link.  I introduced Cass like this:

The Force is strong with this one. Cass is by far the most widely cited legal scholar of his generation. His older book, Nudge, and his new book on Star Wars are both best sellers, and he was head of OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] under President Obama from 2009 to 2013. Powerful, you have become.

So tonight I’d like to start with a survey of Cass’s thought. We’re going to look at legal theory and then go to Nudge and then consider Star Wars, how it all ties together, and then we’re going to talk about everything.

On every point Cass responded clearly and without evasion.  We talked about judicial minimalism, Bob Dylan’s best album, the metaphysics of nudging, Possession, the ideal size of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of Yoda, Hayek, why people should choose their own path, the merits of a banned products store, James Joyce, why the prequels are underrated, and which of the first six movies is the worst of the lot.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let’s take a concrete example from real life: Jedi mind tricks. Obi-Wan comes along and says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And what does the stormtroooper do? He goes away. Now, is that a nudge?

SUNSTEIN: No, it’s a form of manipulation. So — .


COWEN: OK, but how do you draw the metaphysical categories? It seems like a nudge that just happens to work all the time.

SUNSTEIN: OK. I’ll give you a quick and dirty way of getting at that…

Here is another:

COWEN: If you were to pick one character from Star Wars who would nudge you — you get to elect them; you’re the only vote. Even Samantha doesn’t get a vote, just Cass — not your children — which character would you pick? Whom would you trust with that nudge? It’s a universe full of Jedi here, right?


COWEN: Yoda?

SUNSTEIN: I trust that guy.

COWEN: But I worry about Yoda.

SUNSTEIN: I trust him.


SUNSTEIN: Thank God for libertarian paternalism, that Luke has a choice. The Sith, by the way, like the Jedi, respect freedom of choice. In the crucial scene in Episode III where the question is whether Anakin is going to save the person who would be emperor, he says, “You must choose.” And so there’s full respect for freedom of choice. Nudgers have that. Good for them.

COWEN: Bad guys always tell you the deal, and then they say, “Choose evil.” It seems the good guys always mislead you.

There’s this funny tension. Star Wars makes me more nervous about nudge. I’m not like this huge anti-nudge guy, but when I look at Obi-Wan and Yoda lying to Luke — “Ben, Ben, Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” How many times have I heard that in these movies?

SUNSTEIN: It’s fair to ask whether Obi-Wan and Yoda had it right.

There is much, more more…self-recommending!

View story at Medium.com

The old take:

Book superstores such as Barnes & Noble cause risk-averse publishers to double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.

The new take:

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.

The first of the two is my memory, the latter of the two is a quotation.  I found this claim, by author Alex Shephard, interesting:

Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

Could it be that without book superstores fewer books will be sold, but a higher percentage of those sold will be read?

Wednesday assorted links

by on June 22, 2016 at 1:23 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Todd, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

My kids are 11, 8, and 5. They go to the great [redacted] School. So far, they’ve been exposed to zero economic ideas. None. Why is this? Why do they learn about Beowulf, the Underground Railroad, and Spanish, but no basic economics? In fact, looking back at my own primary education, I had no exposure either. What explains the absence of basic economics education in primary education? Wouldn’t giving every kid an intuitive grasp of econ 101 at a very early age work a profound improvement on the state of private and public decision making in this country? Are we just a really good textbook (aimed at maybe 4th – 6th graders) away from big social gains?

I have heard related tales from others, so what are the possible explanations?

1. K-12 teachers do not themselves understand economics.

2. It is much easier to teach and test historical facts and Spanish grammar than economic concepts.  Note that many high school economics classes seem to devote a lot of attention to business taxonomy rather than actually thinking like an economist.

3. K-12 administrators may be hostile to economic reasoning, since said reasoning may paint some of them in a less than flattering light.

Anything else?  That all said, AP economics seems to be growing at a decent clip over the last twenty years, and in some states such as Texas senior-level economics is now required.  But at lower levels?  The progress is much less evident.

Here are some not always so useful discussion threads on this query.

It can be incredibly frustrating when a virtual assistant repeatedly misunderstands what you’re saying. Soon, though, some of them might at least be able to hear the irritation in your voice, and offer an apology.

Amazon is working on significant updates to Alexa, the virtual helper that lives inside the company’s voice-controlled home appliance, called Amazon Echo. These will include better language skills and perhaps the ability to recognize the emotional tenor of your voice.

Researchers have long predicted that emotional cues could make machine interfaces much smarter, but so far such technology has not been incorporated into any consumer technology.

Rosalind Picard, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, says adding emotion sensing to personal electronics could improve them: “Yes, definitely, this is spot on.” In a 1997 book, Affective Computing, Picard first mentioned the idea of changing the voice of a virtual helper in response to a user’s emotional state. She notes that research has shown how matching a computer’s voice to that of a person can make communication more efficient and effective. “There are lots of ways it could help,” she says.

The software needed to detect the emotional state in a person’s voice exists already. For some time, telephone support companies have used such technology to detect when a customer is becoming irritated while dealing with an automated system. In recent years, new machine-learning techniques have improved the state of the art, making it possible to detect more emotional states with greater accuracy, although the approach is far from perfect.

Here is the full story.  Here is my recent New Yorker piece on how talking bots will affect us.

Rates of marijuana use among Colorado’s teenagers are essentially unchanged in the years since the state’s voters legalized marijuana in 2012, new survey data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows.

In 2015, 21 percent of Colorado youths had used marijuana in the past 30 days. That rate is slightly lower than the national average and down slightly from the 25 percent who used marijuana in 2009, before legalization. The survey was based on a random sample of 17,000 middle and high school students in Colorado.

That is from Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog.  Those are surveys, yes, but even the continuing feeling that one needs to lie and say no should count for something.

From a new Economic Journal article by Kim Oosterlinck:

During World War II, artworks significantly outperformed all alternative investments in Occupied France. With the surge in demand for portable and easy-to-hide (discreet) assets such as artworks and collectible stamps, prices boomed. This suggests that discreet assets may be viewed as crypto-currencies, demand for which varies depending on the environment and the need to hide value. Regarding art market valuation, this paper argues that while some economic actors derive significant utility from conspicuous consumption, others value the discretion offered by artworks. Motives for purchasing art may thus vary over time.

The pointer is from Kevin Lewis.  And via Samir Varma, here is a new piece on how the returns to fine art have been overestimated.

Tuesday assorted links

by on June 21, 2016 at 12:12 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Interfluidity on the blockchain: “Nothing that has already been perfected is very interesting.

2. What Chinese women think of Hillary Clinton:One adjective: Endurance, cleaning up the mess of her husband.”

3. Why do islands induce dwarfism?

4. Physical principles for scalable neural recording.

5. Archaeologists uncover the massive naval bases of the ancient Athenians.

6. India to liberalize foreign investment (NYT).  Since Modi took office, the reforms have not been so significant; in my view it is a mistake to think that the departure of Rajan indicates matters will get worse.  He probably did all he could and in part the regime can allow him to leave for this reason.  For further progress it may be necessary to install someone more “flexible.”

7. Lebron’s block: the stats and physics (HT: Alex T.).

Critics attribute such medical experimentation in China to national ambition, generous state funding, a utilitarian worldview that prioritizes results, and a lack of transparency and accountability to the outside world.

If that is the critics, I wonder what the defenders say!  That concerns transplanting one person’s head onto the body of another.  From that NYT article, the procedure still seems impossible.  Nonetheless I am not sure the NYT’s articulation of the critical charges sounds as damning as many biomedical ethicists might wish to think…

What I’ve been reading

by on June 21, 2016 at 1:03 am in Books | Permalink

1. Andrej Svorencik and Harro Maas, editors, The Making of Experimental Economics: Witness Seminar on the Emergence of a Field.  Transcribed dialogue on the origins and history of a field, including many of the key players including Vernon Smith and Charles Plott, among others.  There should be a book like this — or better yet a web site — for every movement, major debate, new method, and school of thought.

2. Adam Kucharski, The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling.  The subtitle is an exaggeration, nonetheless this is an interesting topic and book.  There is invariably a frustrating element to such an investigation, because the best schemes are hard to uncover or verify.  Nonetheless have you not thought — as I have — that a determined, Big Data-crunching, super smart entity could in fact beat the basketball odds just ever so slightly?

3. Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.  A good book, and a good introduction to her writing.  I have to say though, I did not find this incredibly profound or original.  Chernobyl is deeper and more philosophical.

4. Srinath Raghavan, India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia.  Consistently well-written and interesting, the title says it all.

Three useful country/topics books on Latin America are:

Lee J. Alston, Marcus Andre Melo, Bernardo Mueller, and Carlos Pereira, Brazil in Transition: Beliefs, Leadership, and Institutional Change.

Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.

Dickie Davis, David Kilcullen, Greg Mills, and David Spencer, A Great Perhaps?: Colombia: Conflict and Convergence.  After Uruguay, is Colombia not the longest standing democracy in South America?

Monday assorted links

by on June 20, 2016 at 12:51 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The economics of Broadway.

2. Them vs. us, but in Brexit demands, who exactly is the “us”?

3. Patrick Blanchfield, The Gun Control We Deserve.  Recommended.  And here is an alternative perspective on why so many people own AR-15s.  Also recommended.

4. “In Guadalajara, Mexico, streets are named after artists, constellations, Aztec history and mythology, rivers, writers and botany. Imagination costs little, yet it remains rare.”  Archaeology of street names.

5. “A political philosophy devoted to the pursuit of what we now consider ideal justice, and which seeks a “well-ordered society” based on this shared ideal, almost certainly will condemn us to a society based on an inferior view of justice. Political philosophy, I argue, has too long labored under the sway of theorists’ pictures of an ideally just society; we ought instead to investigate the characteristics of societies that encourage increasingly just arrangements.” That is from philosopher Gerald Gaus.

6. An explainer on the DAO attack.  And a Reddit explainer.

7. Henry on The Age of Em.  Robin responds, and more from Robin here.

The robot administers a small pin prick at random to certain people of its choosing.

The tiny injury pierces the flesh and draws blood.

Mr Reben has nicknamed it ‘The First Law’ after a set of rules devised by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.

He created it to generate discussion around our fear of man made machines. He says his latest device shows we need to prepare for the worst

‘Obviously, a needle is a minimum amount of injury, however – now that this class of robot exists, it will have to be confronted,’ Mr Reben said on his website.

Here is more, with pictures of (slightly) injured humans, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

William W. Olney has a newly published paper on that topic, and it seems it helps a good deal:

This article investigates whether the global spread of the English language provides an inherent advantage to native English speakers. This question is studied within the context of the economics profession, where the impact of being a native English speaker on future publishing success is examined. English speakers may have an advantage because they are writing in their native language, the quality of writing is a crucial determinant of publishing success, and all the top economics journals are published in English. Using a ranking of the world’s top 2.5% of economists, this article confirms that native English speakers are ranked 100 spots higher (better) than similar non-native English speakers. A variety of extensions examine and dispel many other potential explanations.

“Similar” is a tricky word!  How similar can a Frenchman be?  I am not sure, but it does seem that growing up in the Anglo-American world may — language aside — be more conducive to patterns of thought which predict success in…the Anglo-American world.  Nonetheless this is an interesting investigation, even if I am not entirely convinced.  Note also that economics blogging is predominantly an Anglo-American enterprise, but I view that too as more about “mentality” than language per se.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.


I am here to give a talk on randomized control trials, a public choice perspective.  Angus Deaton and Josh Angrist are among the other speakers, along with many people in the medical field.  The first question, not quite resulting from a controlled experiment, is whether this setting, on Lake Geneva, improves or worsens my mood…

Geneva notes

by on June 19, 2016 at 4:18 pm in Food and Drink, Law, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

This is still the land of the $76 veal chop, and that is not at Michelin-starred restaurants.  You will do better by seeking out ethnic food on and around Rue de Monthoux, which is in center city and concludes right by the lake.  At an Indian-Iranian restaurant just off this street, Royal India, I had perhaps the best fesenjan in memory.

Due to lost bank secrecy, international banks are leaving Geneva, and Swiss watch exports are falling.  The view of the lake is still beautiful, and some of the lake shore real estate now seems to be empty.  The swans are still all white, however.

Barbier-Mueller is piece for piece one of the higher quality museums in the world, mostly African and Oceanic items, and currently they have a good show on media of exchange with artistic qualities.

Center city now seems to be at least fifty percent immigrants, and I am not referring to the numerous French and Germans who settle in Switzerland.  This was not what I was expecting the first time I saw Geneva in 1985.  It is a livelier city, but it still radiates that old, vague sense of dullness.