Philosophy

President-elect Donald Trump criticized a cornerstone of House Republicans’ corporate-tax plan, which they had pitched as an alternative to his proposed import tariffs, creating another point of contention between the incoming president and congressional allies.

The measure, known as border adjustment, would tax imports and exempt exports as part of a broader plan to encourage companies to locate jobs and production in the U.S. But Mr. Trump, in his first comments on the subject, called it “too complicated.”

“Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don’t love it,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Friday. “Because usually it means we’re going to get adjusted into a bad deal. That’s what happens.”

Here is the WSJ piece.  I am not suggesting, however, that I favor his preferred alternative or for that matter most of his other policy ideas.  By the way, here is Trump on heroes.  A willingness to think things through from scratch is in some ways admirable, but dangerous in matters of foreign policy and nuclear weapons, where predictability is at a premium.

And see some related remarks from Conor Sen.

In my latest Bloomberg column I consider William F. Buckley’s old conundrum:

William F. Buckley famously said he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.

Here is part of my take:

For better or worse, direct rule by Buckley’s 2,000 American citizens probably would mean a slower pace of immigration, less emphasis on free trade, more law and order politics, and a blunter form of nationalism in foreign policy.

Those don’t match my policy preferences (I am more of a globalist, and also a professional academic), but I fear what the Harvard faculty could bring. I can imagine an America closer to Bernie Sanders’s vision, with single-payer health insurance, levels of taxation exceeding 50 percent of GDP, levels of immigration unsustainable with a large welfare state, too many aggressive attempts to legislate equal treatment for various groups, excessive fondness for a universal basic income, and too many humanitarian interventions abroad.

Don’t forget:

It’s a good rule of governance that policy cannot race too far ahead of the citizenry, and I don’t view faculty as a class of people well-suited for that kind of humility.

But for the Fed and the EPA, among other areas, I very much want Harvard.  My conclusion is this:

The real issue here isn’t intellectuals versus populism writ large. There is a time and place for populist sentiment, but an excess can be counterproductive on its own terms. As expertise is pushed out the door, the citizenry itself gets a bad name, precisely when we most need it to step up to the plate and demand some excellence.

Do read the whole thing.

I should note that on this topic I have been very much influenced by my colleague David Levy and also his work with Sandra J. Peart, see for instance their newly arrived book Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy.

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

Several loyal MR readers requested I cover this topic.  My views are pretty simple, namely that I am a fan of the movement.  Police in this country kill, beat, arrest, fine, and confiscate the property of black people at unfair and disproportionate rates.  The movement directs people’s attention to this fact, and the now-common use of cell phone video and recordings have driven the point home.

I don’t doubt that many policemen perceive they are at higher risk when dealing with young black males, and that is part of why they may act more brutally or be quicker to shoot or otherwise misbehave.  I would respond that statistical discrimination, even if it is rational, does not excuse what are often crimes against innocent people.  For instance, a man is far more likely to kill you than is a woman, but that fact does not excuse the shooting of an innocent man.

I also don’t see that citing “Black Lives Matter” has to denigrate the value of the life of anyone else.  Rather, the use of the slogan reflects the fact that many white people have been unaware of the extra burdens that many innocent black people must carry due to their treatment at the hands of the police.  The slogan is a way of informing others of this reality.

“Black Lives Matter” is a large movement, if that is the proper word for it, and you can find many objectionable statements, alliances, and political views within it.  I don’t mean to endorse those, but at its essence I see this as a libertarian idea to be admired and promoted.

Derek Parfit has passed away

by on January 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

Here is the account from Daily Nous.  Here is Parfit on why there is a universe.  Here is the famed New Yorker profile of Parfit, amazing if you have not already read it.  Here is Parfit on death, a major preoccupation in his writings, even if it did not always come through.  And more on death here.  Of all the people I have met, no one comes closer to embodying the ideal of a questioning philosopher than did Derek Parfit.  He was relentless in the best sense of the word, and unforgettable.  And Reasons and Persons is one of the books that has influenced me most.

Those are the topics of my latest Bloomberg column, with side remarks on sex tourism, the Pulaski Skyway, and the Ruhr-Gebiet as well.

“The convulsions of a civilized state usually compose the most instructive and most interesting part of its history”

That is from Hume’s History of England, via Dan Klein and also Andrew Sabl.

That is the title and topic of my latest Bloomberg column.

Maybe understanding that opposition from the other tribe was not the reason for failure can help overcome polarization?

  • Your counterculture did not fail because the other counterculture opposed it. (They did, but that’s not why.)
  • Your counterculture failed because the majority did not agree with it.
  • The majority rejected your counterculture because it was plainly wrong about many things.
  • It would help if you understood how younger generations relate to meaningness; they are right that some of your main issues are illusory.
  • You need to let go of the sacred myths of your tribe. Decades ago they inspired genuinely positive social change, but now they produce only frustration and hatred and stalemate. Everyone born after 1970 thinks they are idiotic. You are stuck pretending to believe, but even you secretly know they aren’t true.
  • Your counterculture and the other one also agree about many things!
  • Some of what you agree about is wrong; you should admit that and drop it.
  • Some of what you agree about is right; you should work together to support it.
  • Much of what you imagine you fight about is symbolic, not substantive. Your advocacy of these issues is mostly a statement of tribal identity, and claims for high status within your tribe.
  • When your symbolic issues blow up into actual political conflicts, often you are fighting to establish tribal dominance, not to accomplish pragmatic improvements in society.
  • If you understand what you really disagree about, and why, you may be able to find pragmatic compromises, instead of both sides demanding total victory.

While the piece (who wrote it?) is uneven in parts, it is both interesting and important.  Here is the whole on-line manuscript.  Here is the critique of Bayesianism as Eternalism.  For the pointer I thank Jake Seliger.

There were a number of deadly attacks yesterday (Berlin, Cairo, Jordan, Turkey (multiple)), while the Aleppo tragedy is continuing and a significant part of the world is mired in disaster every day.  I sometimes feel bad that I do not post more about such topics, but often I do not have a fresh perspective to offer, nor do I find it cathartic to consume my own self-righteousness, quite the contrary.  I also find it problematic to elevate the commonly-shared “tragedy of the day” above the less immediately publicized tragedies.  UNICEF for instance claims that three million children die each year for reasons that can be traced back to malnutrition.  WHO claims that seven million deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution.  Maybe those are not the correct numbers, but you cannot talk them down to anywhere near zero.

Sometimes I feel there is a kind of impossibility theorem, suggesting there is no morally appropriate response to changes in the scope of widespread tragedies.  It seems wrong to be happy that “fewer people than usual suffered and died today,” also wrong to let particular upward blips in death and suffering so fully capture one’s attention because of social framing, and all the more wrong to think changes in the numbers do not matter at all.  And why is hardly anyone upset about Irkutsk?

This post is not the best I can do, but it is what I have done.  The image is a depiction of a long-since-gone 16th century Aleppo, by Nasuh Al-Matrakî, via Rabih Alameddine.

aleppo

I will be chatting with him for the next Conversation with Tyler, January 26.  Here is an excerpt from his bio:

Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post…In addition to serving as the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in LA, Rabbi Wolpe has written eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe also writes a weekly column for Time.com. His writing has been included in The LA Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and the New York Jewish Week. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the American Jewish University, Hunter College, and UCLA.

Here is his Wikipedia page, and his most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.

This event will be held at the Sixth and I St. Synagogue in Washington, D.C., 7 p.m.; please note they charge admission but that is for them not for me!  This will not be a regular feature of the series moving forward, but they do need to cover their costs and we really wanted to use that venue.

So what should I ask David Wolpe?

Here you will find the transcript, podcast, and video of the chat, Joe of course was in top form.  In addition to a wide-ranging conversation on cultural and social evolution, we touched on topics such as Star Trek, Hayek’s atavism theory, what he learned from the Mapuche, the pleasures of cooking in coconut milk, why WEIRD matters, whether Neanderthals were smarter than humans, and whether Joe is a conservative after all.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: The Flynn effect in the short run puzzles me more than in the long run. If I compare today to the 18th century, I can see where the difference might be. But in many countries, it seems the Flynn effect hasn’t stopped. Nutritional gains probably are over.

The environment — smartphones are newer than the Flynn effect, but it doesn’t seem to be changing now compared to a generation ago. They both seem quite complex. We’ve had TV for a while. People have books, market society. What exactly is the difference over the last generation in the short run?

HENRICH: It’s a cultural-evolutionary treadmill. One place where you see this is the complexity of television shows. Now, you have an ensemble cast and 20 different plots going on. You’ve got to track all these different plots. That wasn’t the television of the 1950s. It was one plot, one thing after another. Simple. The whole world is getting more complex, at least in terms of your need for analytic thinking.

COWEN: Some of that in your view is the supply-side effect. It’s not that we got smarter and they made TV better, it’s also they made TV better and that made some of us smarter.

HENRICH: Coevolutionary.

COWEN: Coevolutionary. This is going to make you out to be quite an optimist, then, because TV is going to get better and better. We’re just going to keep on getting smarter.

HENRICH: Yeah, of course.

And:

COWEN: You’re an anthropologist. You’ve spent a lot of time with economists — coauthored, worked with Paul Romer, Colin Camerer, others. As an anthropologist, what do you find strange about the tribe known as econ? [laughs]

HENRICH: I had a real opportunity. I was very fortunate in my career to be a professor of psychology and a professor of economics at the same time but to be neither in some deep sense. I would get to go back and forth from seminars in economics and psychology.

In economics, there’s this really competitive culture. The way I like to describe it: If you’re giving a seminar in economics, the crowd — everybody’s trying to show who’s the smartest guy in the room. Just on your first slide, someone will raise their hand. (I’m like, I haven’t said anything yet!) Then they’ll try to ask the killer question which undercuts your whole talk so that they can get you right at the beginning.

[laughter]

HENRICH: Whereas psychologists, they’ll sit quietly. They watch your talk. You go through your whole PowerPoint. You probably touched a lot of different research projects.

Then there’ll be question time; at first no hands will go up. Then someone will be like, “I got a question.” Then they say, “I just have one small question. I mean, it was a great talk and this is just a very minor thing.”

Then it could be a killer question at that point when they’ve done the preface. It’s a very strong cultural difference between the econ tribe and the psychology tribe.

I’ve always wanted to write an ethnography: My Life among Two Strange Tribes: The Psychologists and the Economists.

Do read, hear, or watch the whole thing.

Here you can order Joe’s book The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

Here is my 2005 tribute post, Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate.  Here are all the other MR posts about Schelling.  A great loss of course and for me he was a true role model and important advisor throughout my career.  Here is the University of Maryland notice.

Ever since busloads of Chinese tourists began arriving in this sleepy, nondescript English village this summer, the 13,723 residents of Kidlington, about five miles north of Oxford, have been variously baffled, annoyed and delighted.

The sudden influx of Chinese has also grabbed headlines and spawned a national mystery.

Why, for example, do the Chinese tourists ignore the village’s handsome 13th-century church and its thatched-roof cottages, preferring instead to peer through windows, film parked cars and traipse on the lawns of Benmead Road, a humdrum and modern residential street? One tourist asked a stunned resident if he could help mow her lawn. (She politely declined.) Another jumped joyously on a child’s trampoline in the front yard.

No one seems to know why, read more by Dan Bilefsky at the NYT.

Addendum: See this possible “limits to arbitrage” explanation.

Here I am referring to your personal plans, not to climate change.  The weather can make your current circumstances seem more difficult or less pleasant.  But extreme weather also tends to make your memories of journeys stronger and more lasting (“…remember that time in Goa when the monsoon came earlier than anyone thought…”).  Since we overemphasize the maximization of current utility, and under-invest in the creation of significant memories, we worry too much about the weather.

rain