Philosophy

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

More generally, the U.S. is an environment where new products — and here I mean of the non-political sort — get started relatively easily. People are willing to take more chances with their consumption, and so this is a fertile environment for startups, which then spread to the broader world.

As for Britain, the traditional aristocracy is remarkably weakened, voting along class lines has disappeared and, most observers agree, if it were really up to the House of Lords, Brexit wouldn’t be happening.

On top of these factors is English, by far the world’s leading language for scientific and philosophic and political discourse, for blogs, for Twitter, and for many other kinds of dialogue. We shouldn’t be surprised if new ideas are more likely to surface and take hold in the English-speaking world.

Here is another bit:

To be sure, some evidence suggests the influence of President Trump is actually causing Western Europe to become more liberal. But don’t confuse style and substance. Another five to 10 years of deindustrialization, terrorist attacks and migrant crises might lead to a “home brew” version of Trumpian ideas in continental Europe, albeit cloaked in a more intellectual and more aristocratic garb. There is a running joke going around along the lines of “If fascist ideas come to [Country X], they will come in the form of anti-fascism.” Once the properly European version of the product comes to the fore, it might do very well indeed.

There is much more at the link.

I was sent an email asking what I myself thought of the recent Jeff Bezos charity query, and that email contained a number of questions.  I’m not at liberty to reproduce it, but with some minor edits I think you will be able to make sense of my responses, as given here:

  1. Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many “good enough” charitable ventures.
  2. The rate of abandonment is high for charitable support.
  3. Often the key is for a super-productive person, with lots of stimulating opportunities at his or her disposal (if only running the status quo businesses, or say meeting other famous people), is to find something charitable that will hold his or her interest.  But how can it possibly be as fun as the earlier successes and extending them?
  4. I disagree with your descriptions of the philanthropic strategies offered in your email.  I suspect that most or all are attempted examples of my #3, namely what is actually short-run thinking.
  5. They are all super short-term strategies, once the attention constraint is measured.
  6. In this regard, there is nothing strange about Bezos’s plea and expressed desire to do some good in the short term, except its transparency.
  7. Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward. That made it easier for them to keep up enthusiasm for truly long-term projects.
  8. I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.
  9. Cultivating one’s own weirdness, or having a lot of it in the first place, is one way to ease the congruence I mention in #8.
  10. Even truly smart and wise people often “give to people” rather than to projects.  This is for one thing a strategy for keeping one’s own interest up.

So to tie this all back in to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know what he should do.  I don’t know him personally, nor do I even have an especially strong knowledge of the second-hand sources about him.

But I think he is exactly on the right track to be thinking about what motivates him personally, and what is likely to hold his attention.  And I don’t think his approach is any more “short term” than most of the other philanthropy of the super-rich.

Here is the tweet link, here is the text:

This tweet is a request for ideas.  I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working for the long term.  For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now.  As one example, I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle.  I like long-term — it’s a huge lever: Blue Origin, Amazon, Washington Post — all of these are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways.  But I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short-term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.  If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet with the idea (and if you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that too).

Thanks!

Jeff

After I see what you all come up with, and after I edit out the most brilliant ideas, I’ll tweet back your responses to him.  I’ll come up with something of my own as well.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

I mean for the West, not for emerging economies.  Obviously we need to know future trajectories, and that is hard to do.  But try this simple question: since 2000 or so, have the predictions of the optimists or the pessimists come closer to being correct and insightful?

At a dinner party two nights ago, the unanimous opinion, even from the optimists, was that the pessimists had been doing better in the predicting game.  Of course, that does not mean the pessimists will be correct going forward.  The optimists might try these counters:

1. There isn’t much of a true structure period, so a bunch of correct pessimist predictions doesn’t mean much.

2. The optimists had the better predictions for the 1980s and 1990s.  Perhaps the sides simply alternate being correct every now and then.

3. The recent correct predictions of the pessimists are mostly noise.  Soon, optimistic predictions are likely to start being correct again.

4. Since 2000, the pessimists didn’t actually predict as well as you might think.  They failed to see how quickly the internet would spread, the power and reach of smart phones, and furthermore peace has continued, at least among the advanced economies.  GDP still grew.

I don’t see #1 as giving a huge boost to a structurally-rooted optimism.  Note that for #2, it is usually cheaper to destroy than to build.  They are not the bleakest scenarios either, but still a big comedown for the optimists, I would think.

#3 cannot be ruled out, but it’s not a huge amount of evidence for optimism either.  It does allow the optimists, however, to keep their structural models intact.

#4 runs the risk of “if this is what optimism looks like…”

I believe many optimists wish to invoke an inconsistent mix of #1 and #3.

I thank Veronique de Rugy for pushing me on this point in the conversation.

How much should the predictive ability of a group matter anyway?  People who are good at predicting may or may not be good at understanding.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

When we make personal decisions, we usually compare a choice to the best possible alternative, not the worst. Imagine if you suggested to your spouse that you go out to the movies, and your spouse asked why that might be a good idea. It wouldn’t be much of an answer to say that the movie is better than the very worst show on television at home. Rather you should focus on comparing the movie to the next best thing you might do, like watching your favorite TV show or going to a new restaurant you want to try.

The upshot is that we should compare anti-poverty programs to other anti-poverty programs, and favor only the prioritized ones. But just how much of a priority does a program need to be?

One way to proceed is to ask: If we expand some programs, what is the most likely political response? It could be either lower spending in some other program or, in fact, raising taxes on the wealthy. But the evidence on the “fiscal gap” — the space between what the government owes and what it collects — suggests that the opportunity cost of expanding one transfer program is likely some government spending elsewhere, rather than expensive handbags for the wealthy.

Do read the whole thing.

Ray Lopez told me “Blog on it!”  So I posed that query on Twitter, here is the background, here are some of the answers, check my mentions for more and for credits:

Great filter perhaps more likely to be behind us, if it took us 295,000 years to start having anything like civilization?

We’re slower learners

Civilization is precarious and the great filter from apes to higher intelligence is worse than we thought.

Initially & erroneously, I read ‘president’ instead of ‘present’.

Great question. Certainly the concept of civilization is an incredibly late concept, and not necessary for human flourishing.

Based on a single data point, the advanced from anatomical modernity to civilization is 50% harder than previously thought.

The moral arc of history is…even longer and bends even more gradually

That current rates of productivity growth are somehow abnormal

That there’s a bigger delta between our current environment and the one we evolved in.

We don’t have _nearly_ the cultural bandwidth to transmit all the wonderful wisdom developed over _300k years_. Much has been lost.

Our first revision might be that we have good certainty on the age of mankind. Perhaps it’s 500,000 years? What other fossils might we find?

interbreeding with Neanderthals was even freakier than we thought?

That rather than being rare – ‘the end of the world’ is a horrifyingly repetitive phenomenon for human civs.

Lower probability that other intelligent species lived long enough to develop interstellar travel or communication

That 140 characters, instead of flying cars, is an even bigger disappointment. I mean, seriously, after 300,000 years?

The longer we have been evolving with our unique set of Sapiens traits the more time evolution has had to make them elaborate and distinct.

That it took twice as long to start the process of civilization than previously thought. Let’s not blow it.

That we really should know better.

Apologies if I missed yours!

I’ll be interviewing Ed on June 13, 6-8 p.m., GMU Arlington campus, including about his new and very interesting book The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  Ed is also “chief American commentator” for The Financial Times, and author of one of the best general introductions to India, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India.  Here is Ed’s Wikipedia page.  Here are event details.

It is here, excerpt:

I wrote this book so that you don’t read it…

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

Here is the full article.

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

That is from Richard W. Hamming, invaluable throughout.  Hat tip is from Patrick Collison.  Here is the book by Hamming.

Travel sentences to ponder

by on May 31, 2017 at 11:00 am in Philosophy, Travel | Permalink

“My favorite is when the ship docks somewhere I’ve already visited,” she said. “One time, we were on a ship that docked in Rome. I’ve been there a million times. So everyone else gets out, and it’s just me and my husband on the ship. It’s the perfect antidote to New York life.”

The article is about couples who would rather live on cruise ships.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

Here is the link.

R., a Catholic and loyal MR reader, emails me:

I would be interested in a post explaining why you *don’t* believe in (some form of) God.

Not long ago I outlined what I considered to be the best argument for God, and how origin accounts inevitably seem strange to us; I also argued against some of the presumptive force behind scientific atheism.  Yet still I do not believe, so why not?  I have a few reasons:

1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories.  Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions.  I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information (just look at how worked up they get over social media), so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options.  I don’t see those as ruling out theism, but at the end of the day it is more descriptively apt to say I do not believe, rather than asserting belief.

2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings.  That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief.  I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.”  It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs.  I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated.  Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

3. Religious belief has a significant heritable aspect, as does atheism.  That should make us all more skeptical about what we think we know about religious truth (the same is true for politics, by the way).  I am not sure this perspective favors “atheist” over “theist,” but I do think it favors “I don’t believe” over “I believe.”  At the very least, it whittles down the specificity of what I might say I believe in.

4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification.  (If you meet a Wiccan, don’t you jump to the conclusion that they are strange?  Or how about a person who believes in an older religion that doesn’t have any modern cult presence at all?  How many such people are there?)

This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent.  Again, I am not sure this helps “atheism” either (contemporary atheists also slot into some pretty standard categories, and are not generally “free thinkers”), but it is yet another net nudge away from “I believe” and toward “I do not believe.”  I’m just not that swayed by a phenomenon based on social conformity so strongly.

That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance.  That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from.  I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

5. I am frustrated by the lack of Bayesianism in most of the religious belief I observe.  I’ve never met a believer who asserted: “I’m really not sure here.  But I think Lutheranism is true with p = .018, and the next strongest contender comes in only at .014, so call me Lutheran.”  The religious people I’ve known rebel against that manner of framing, even though during times of conversion they may act on such a basis.

I don’t expect all or even most religious believers to present their views this way, but hardly any of them do.  That in turn inclines me to think they are using belief for psychological, self-support, and social functions.  Nothing wrong with that, says the strong Straussian!  But again, it won’t get me to belief.

6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period.  But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong.  Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

7. I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!”  We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims.  In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that.

Add all that up and I just don’t believe.  Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe.  It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life.  That I strongly suspect is for genetic reasons, not because of some intellectual argument I or others have come up with.  But there you go, the deconstruction of my own belief actually pushes me somewhat further into it.

To sum it all up, agnosticism is pretty easy to argue for, and it gets you a lot closer to “not believing” than “believing.”

I’ve been guilty of this too, and I apologize.  It strikes me that it has become politically acceptable among some of the high status people in my Twitter feed to make fun — if only implicitly — of the ugly, idiosyncratic, puzzled, sweaty, or otherwise mockable images sometimes presented by members of the Trump administration.

I’ve also seen a tendency to use images to play on some of the ruling Saudis as fitting stereotypes of sinister or perhaps comical, or some combination of the two.  At the very least, “orientalism” is making a comeback, and with some of the people who have been objecting to Trump’s own stereotypes.

I do not see these as positive developments.  It is inevitable that, to some extent, we judge people by their looks, and in some instances it may be practical and indeed necessary as well.  That said, I doubt if it is a good idea to publicly mock the ugly and the mockable for being ugly and mockable.  Even if they are evil, or doing the world harm.

Many people (rightly) criticized Trump’s campaign imitation and mockery of what seemed to be a spastic individual.  Let’s say Trump had done the same imitation of a spastic who had been convinced of robbery and murder.  Would that have been better?  Well, maybe better but still not good.  Don’t mock the looks, even of wrongdoers, even if those are looks of stupidity or boorishness, and of course members of the Trump administration have not been so convicted.

What if there are some people born looking sinister (by our standards), but are perfectly nice and friendly?  Or say there were witches, and witches were bad, and most witches had long, crooked noses, but some other people did too.  Should we caricature/criticize witches for this appearance?

Furthermore, the standards for ugly and mockable are in fact not always so clear, and trying to cement them in with our mockery is problematic.

This also should be a lesson as to how easily people can slip into enjoying racist, sexist, and otherwise objectionable memes.  Returning to the Saudis, it is especially easy to use this particular photo because stereotypes of Arabs still are permissible in some parts of American discourse:

Would that photo have been retweeted so many times if it simply had looked like a normal Western bureaucratic meeting?  And yes, you can use this photo to show Trump is a hypocrite, relative to his earlier pronouncements about the Saudis, but of course the picture communicates much more, namely that the Saudis have a very different and sometimes strange-looking (to us) culture.

We should not hesitate to criticize what we think is wrong.  But criticizing the appearance of various wrongs, as embodied in the looks of various people, is going a step further.  Don’t let the wrongdoers distract you from the reality that your use of images may be promoting an unjust generalization, or in fact mocking people for non-objectionable cultural elements.  In other words, the use of images may be promoting “lookism.”

This is one of the most serious problems with photos on Twitter, namely that we are not good enough to use them carefully.  Right now, the unjust philosophy of lookism is on a rampage, bigly.