Philosophy

I will be having a Conversation with him December 4th, by the way, you can register here.  His forthcoming book is spectacular, but we will talk about everything under (and above) the sun, what should I ask him?

Writing for the The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Contemporary Political Theory, political philosophers John Thrasher and Gerald Gaus review Buchanan and Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent:

Calculus advances new methods in an attempt to solve an old problem: the problem of
democratic justification. While democracy claims to be the “rule of the people” in any
actual democratic system we actually find the rule of some people over others. More
formally, the winning coalition in any election is able to impose its authority on the losers.
This is true however large the majority happens to be, and however small the minority is,
unless the vote is unanimous; and even then, there may be an excluded minority of those
who did not or could not vote. Yet at the heart of the democratic ideal is the principle that
all are inherently free and equal, with no natural authority to rule over one another. How
odd then to start from freedom and equality and end with majority coalitions imposing
their policies on minorities merely because they have the numbers to do so. Once we see
this oddity we are confronted with the question: how could the authority of democratic
assemblies over free and equal persons be justified? This is the problem of democratic
justification, a problem that animates Calculus.

…A feature of Calculus typically missed is its optimism. Public choice theory is commonly
characterized as anti-democratic, or as undermining faith in the democratic process
(Barry 1989; Christiano 1996, 2004). Rightly understood though, Calculus is an almost
giddy endorsement of democracy (of a specific form) in the face of what looked like dire
prospects for democratic theory.

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.

[laughter]

GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?

GIDLA: No.

GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

Due to popular demand, we are releasing a transcript of the Conversation with Lindsey and Teles.

We talk about liberaltarianism, how bad is crony capitalism really, whether government affects the distribution of wealth much, universities as part of the problem, whether IP law is too lax or too tough, why Steve didn’t do better in high school, the British system of government, Charles Murray, the Federalist Society, Karl Marx, Thailand, the Coase Theorem, and Star Trek, among other topics.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: What’s the most important idea in the book that you understand better than he [Brink Lindsey] does?

TELES: Well, so there is a division of labor here. Brink did a lot more work on the cases than I did, although we talked about them all and I did a lot more work on the political analysis. We draw a lot on great, really seminal article by Rick Hall at University of Michigan called “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” And I think that idea is dramatically under appreciated. The idea that what lobbyists are essentially doing is providing information, that information is scarce, it is a source of power. And one thing that we add is, if the state isn’t providing information itself, it essentially has to get it from outside. And when they get it from outside, it imports the overall inequality and information gathering and processing that’s in civil society. And that can be a very strong source of inequality in policy outcomes. I think Brink understands that, but this is my wheelhouse so I think probably if you were gonna push me, I’d say I understood it better that he did.

And this:

LINDSEY: One can see the whole sort of second wave feminist movement since the 60s as an anti rent-seeking movement, that white men were accumulating a lot of rents because of the way society was structured, that they were the breadwinner and there was a sexual division of labor, and they received higher pay than they would have otherwise because they were assumed to be the breadwinner, and women were just sort of kept out of the workforce in direct competition with men in many roles. The last half century has been an ongoing anti rent-seeking campaign and the dissipation of those rents especially by less skilled white men has been a cause of a great deal of angst and frustration and political acting out in recent years.

Here is a link to the podcast version of the chat, plus further explanation of my interview method for the two.  Better yet, you can order their new book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.

This is an out-of-synch bonus episode, rushed out because I think their new, just-out book — The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Slow Down Growth, Enrich Themselves, and Increase Inequality — is so important.  You will find the podcast here, lots of rapid fire back and forth.

Everyone wanted me to interview them together, but I said no, I would instead interview them separately and ask about 2/3 the same questions to see how their answers might hang together, or not.  That is how co-authors should be treated!  I also asked each what the other has for breakfast, and by the end each had confessed to several crimes, to avoid a longer sentence of course.

Here is the smallest of bits:

COWEN: Are higher levels of executive compensation part of the problem?

TELES: There you probably would get a different answer between me and Lindsey.

COWEN: That’s why I asked

Recommended, again here is the podcast (no transcript, we wanted to get this out right away).

I will be having a Conversations with Tyler with Andy Weir, author of The Martian and assorted on-line works (many of which appear to be off-line at the moment).  He has a new book coming out, Artemis.  Here is Andy’s Wikipedia page.

I thank you all in advance for your ideas and assistance.

There is a new edition out, edited and translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.  This eighteenth century bestseller could hardly be more relevant today.  Is it possible to lead a philosophic life?  How do political leadership and wisdom intersect?  How do Christianity and Islam differ politically?  How does politics reflect gender relations in a society?  Is there a case for optimism in modernity?  I still am not sure we have improved on Montesquieu’s investigations, although I cannot claim he gives us final answers.  This is a volume of polyphony, with travel as a source of learning and liberation as a major theme throughout.

Harems play a role too, here are the final paragraphs from Roxane to her sultan master Usbek:

You were astonished not to find in me the ecstasies of love.  If you had known me well, you would have found in me all the violence of hatred.

But you have had for a long time the advantage of believing that a heart such as mine was submissive to you.  We were both happy you believed me deceived, and I was deceiving you.

This language, without doubt, appears new to you.  Could it be possible that after having overwhelmed you with grief, I could still force you to admire my courage?  But it is done: poison consumes me; my strength abandons me; the pen falls from my hand; I feel even my hatred weaken; I am dying.

The introduction and notes are outstanding, and also of interest for those of you who are piqued by Straussianism.  You will note that the book was first published anonymously.

“Jokes in a serious work are acceptable on the condition that they hide a profound sense beneath a trivial form. It is in this way that Montesquieu, in his novel, Persian Letters, has written one of the most philosophical books of the eighteenth century.” – Alexis de Tocqueville [link]

I am pleased, by the way, to have once had the chance to spend two days with co-editor Stuart Warner discussing Persian Letters and nothing but (thank you again Liberty Fund!).  I cannot think of any person more qualified to have undertaken this endeavor.

You can order the volume here.

There is a new paper on that topic by Bert Van Landeghem at Sheffield, here are the main results:

A large number of empirical studies have investigated the link between social status and happiness, yet in observational data identification challenges remain severe. This study exploits the fact that in India people are assigned a caste from birth. Two identical surveys of household heads (each with N=1000) in rural Punjab and Andhra Pradesh show an increasing pattern in economic welfare across the hierarchy of castes. This illustrates that at least in rural regions, one’s caste is still an important determinant for opportunities in life. Subsequently, we find that the castes at the top are clearly more satisfied than the lower and middle castes. This result, which is in line with predictions of all major social comparison theories, is robust across the two case studies. The pattern across low and middle castes, however, is less clear, reflecting the complex theoretical relationship between being of middle rank on the one hand, and behaviour, aspirations and well-being on the other hand. In the Punjab sample, we even find a significant U-shape, the middle castes being the least happy. Interestingly, these patterns resemble those found for Olympic Medalists (first documented by Medvec et al. 1995).

I am looking forward to my conversation with Sujatha Gidla.

Here is the transcript and podcast, here is the summary introduction:

She joins Tyler for a conversation covering the full range of her curiosity, including fear, acclimating to grossness, chatting with the dead, freezing one’s head, why bedpans can kill you, sex robots, Freud, thinking like an astronaut, the proper way to eat a fry, and why there’s a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.

Here are a few excerpts:

ROACH: It is never uncomfortable. People sometimes say, “The questions that you ask people, is it an awkward interview? When you went to Avenal State Prison for the rectum chapter of Gulp, and you, talking to this convicted murderer about using his rectum to smuggle cellphones and other things, was that not a very awkward conversation to have?”

A little bit, but then you have to keep in mind, this is somebody for whom hooping, as it’s called, is . . . everybody does it. It’s just something that you do; it’s everyday to him. Like for a sex researcher, talking about orgasm is like talking about tire rotation for a car mechanic.

And:

COWEN: To do a whirlwind tour of some of your books, you have a book on corpses. If you could chat with the dead, what would you ask them?

ROACH: Oh, if I could chat with the dead. Are we assuming the personality or the body?

COWEN: Well, both.

ROACH: The corpse?

COWEN: The corpse.

ROACH: Oh, is this a research corpse or . . .

COWEN: It’s a research corpse.

ROACH: …So what I’d say to the cadaver is, “Is this embarrassing for you? Are you OK with this? Are they treating you respectfully? Do you wish you had some clothes on?”

And:

COWEN: Why do only 18 percent of people who are in the position to have a life-after-death experience actually have one? What’s your view on that?

ROACH: The trouble seems to be remembering the near-death experience.

And:

COWEN: Why are bedpans dangerous?

There is much, much more at the link.  Jonathan Swift, Elvis, Adam Smith, and Jeff Sachs all make appearances, in addition to Catholicism, bee larvae, Mozambique, whether people know what they really want in sex, and whether it should be legal to harvest fresh road kill in Oregon.

She is the author of the new and superb Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.  I will be interviewing her later in the month, with a podcast and transcript forthcoming, no public event.  Here is her Macmillan bio:

Sujatha Gidla was born an untouchable in Andhra Pradesh, India. She studied physics at the Regional Engineering College, Warangal. The author of Ants Among the Elephants, her writing has appeared in The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing. She lives in New York and works as a conductor on the subway.

Here is BBC coverage of her work.  Here is the NYT review of her book.  Here are further links about herThe Economist wrote: “Ants Among Elephants is an arresting, affecting and ultimately enlightening memoir. It is quite possibly the most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and heralds the arrival of a formidable new writer.”

So what should I ask her?

Hoping for a peaceful democratic process in Catalonia tomorrow. When democracy fails there’s only repression. Thinking of my Catalan friends

That is a tweet from Pete Wishart, Scottish MP; I ‘ve seen dozens more like it.  But is it the democratic process behind the Catalonian referendum?  Or is it rather a form of electoral terrorism?  Here are a few points:

1. Most countries we consider to be democracies have rather stringent restrictions on when referenda may be held and what they may be used to decide.

2. According to extant reports, only 40 percent or so of the people in Catalonia favor independence.  It’s not like Kurdistan where independence won almost 100 percent of the vote and not only because of selective participation.

3. Aren’t non-official referendum results always going to be slanted in favor of intense minority opinion?  That hardly seems democratic.  See #2.  Arguably the same is true for official referenda as well, though then at least turnout is more representative.  Nonetheless referenda on such big questions may under-represent the interests of the young or the interests of business (and in turn real wages), or they may favor expressive voting too much.

4. Isn’t the truly democratic procedure to let all of Spain vote on Catalonian independence?  Maybe you don’t think so, but that begs the question.

5. Is it a fundamental democratic principle that any geographic region can demand a binding separatist referendum?  Well, maybe, but it sounds closer to John C. Calhoun than the notions of democracy I am familiar with or would favor.

Overall, I don’t see any positive news in how this is developing.  Arguably the situation remains in flux, but still the word is that a unilateral declaration of independence will be forthcoming.

https://econjwatch.org/issues/volume-14-issue-3-september-2017

Volume 14, Issue 3, September 2017 

Twitter Mood Predicts the Stock Market? Johan Bollen, Huina Mao, and Xiaojun Zeng claimed the affirmative in a conspicuous 2011 article. Michael Lachanski and Steven Pav conclude otherwise after looking from many angles, replicating as best they can, and applying robustness tests. 

Who Knows What Willingness to Pay Lurks in the Hearts of Men? John Whitehead argues that certain authors claim to know, based on their survey data, more than they do about people’s willingness to pay for a wetlands project. The article continues an exchange from the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 

Fire and Ice: Hannes Gissurarson, who published an article on Iceland in our last issue, picks up the story in 1991, now turning critic of certain narratives about the last quarter-century. A principal opponent, Stefán Ólafsson, provides a reply that criticizes Gissurarson’s interpretations and his characterization of liberalism. 

What Adam Smith Told His Teenagers About Domestic Policy: Adam Smith’s jurisprudence course included a section on “police,” or domestic policy, captured in student lecture notes. The notes from 1763­­–1764 enrich our conversation today about Smith’s sensibilities, as they provide a candid window on his classroom edification. 

Glimpses of David Hume: “You hope I shall be damned for want of faith, and I fear you will have the same fate for want of charity.” Anecdotes and miscellanea about David Hume, most drawn from James Fieser’s 10-volume compilation Early Responses to Hume. 

An Economic Dream—of Erik Gustaf Geijer, historic Swede, and historian, published in 1847. “It is a dream of national economy…”

EJW Audio

Evan Osborne on Liberalism in China

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel on Kenneth Rogoff’s The Curse of Cash

That is the new, excellent, and detailed book by Eric Schliesser, a political scientist at Amsterdam.  I would say that Schliesser is a very learned “left Smithian,” and that you should take the subtitle very very seriously.  Here is one excerpt:

1. I argue that while Smith certainly took experience and empirical science seriously, he should not be understood as a empiricist in epistemology and his moral epistemology; he relies crucially on innate ideas and innate mental structure.

2. This book gives the first extensive (albeit not exhaustive) study and taxonomy of Smith’s theory of the passions, which I treat as elements of his system (cf. Hume’s treatise 1.1.4.7).  In fact, I argue that the content of a social passion is inherently normative in Smith’s approach.

3. I argue that Smith is decidedly reserved about deploying mathematics within his political economy.

4. I argue that Smith’s account of liberty should not be identified with the so-called liberty of the moderns, or freedom of contract.  While Smith certainly was a defender of freedom of contract, his account of liberty is more expansive (and more attractive).

Sometimes I draw a distinction between “branching” books, whose arguments spread out in many different directions and draw many distinctions, and “channeling” books, which try to put the material into a narrower, common framework.  (Reading each requires quite distinct sets of skills!)  This is a branching book.  You can order it here.

I thank my colleague David Levy for the pointer to this work.

My philosophy of interviewing

by on September 28, 2017 at 12:12 am in Education, Philosophy, Web/Tech | Permalink

After I do Conversations with Tyler interviews, I receive emails telling me I should have “stuck it to person X,” rather than “letting them off the hook,” etc.  “How could you not refute them on that topic!”  And so on.  Just to be clear, here is my underlying attitude behind the series:

1. Appreciation is an underappreciated art and skill.  These interviews are most of all about appreciation.

2. I hope to teach people how to learn from other people.

2a. For one thing, you can learn from what the interviewed person says, whether or not you agree with it.  In fact, you do better if you don’t focus on whether or not you agree with it.

2b. You also can learn something through a better understanding of how the person built his or her career into a success, and usually I ask something explicitly along these lines.  The broader conversation is implicitly all about this, of course.

2c. You also can learn something about how I try to learn from these people.  And that is the part of the conversation I have the most control over.  I am trying to teach the art of learning, and that art involves less rather than more contradicting and gainsaying.

3. Follow-up questions are overrated.

4. You want the interviewed person to be maximally open and relaxed, to bring out a steady stream of their best content.

5. If I leave a topic hanging, perhaps it is because I want you, the listener, to think more about it.

6. The best follow-up questions don’t sound like follow-up questions at all.

As I said to Ed Luce before my conversation with him: “You know, most famous people are used to someone trying to make them look bad.  They actually should be more nervous about someone trying to make them look really good.”