There is an ongoing controversy at Princeton over whether it should still be called the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy.  Wilson was a notorious racist and segregationist, bad even by the standards of his time, plus he was a terrible President to boot.  At Yale there are murmurings about a house named after John Calhoun.

Of course there is a slippery slope.  There are plenty of American institutions named after slaveholders, and for that matter was Amerigo Vespucci such a great guy?  For one thing, he helped Columbus commit genocide by provisioning one of his voyages.

Should George Washington stay on the dollar bill?  If you’ve decided that no university or other positive-sum institution should be named “School of Simon LeGree Satan,” it seems hard to draw a line in a meaningful, non-arbitrary manner.  Most famous people, especially in politics, have some pretty significant blemishes.  Yet we cannot open every can of worms in this regard, or so it seems.

No one seems to mind that the Nazi Party is called…the Nazi Party.  No one says “we can’t call the party that, those Nazis were the people who killed the Jews.  Can’t name anything after them.  Not even their own party.”  In fact calling them Nazis is designed to remind people of what they did, appropriately I would add.

I don’t mind if an institution names itself after a person of mixed moral quality, or allows such a name to persist, provided the institution, in both its framing of the name and its pursuit of its broader mission, is self-conscious about that person’s drawbacks and invests resources toward that self-consciousness beyond the usual rhetorical statements.  That said, others may mind more than I do, so it would be nice if we had a graceful way out of a slightly complicated situation.

I also would not be disturbed if they had kept the city names at Leningrad and Stalingrad.  Lenin and Stalin were evil guys, but it seems appropriate to remind people what a big role they played in the histories of those cities.  (At least for another hundred years, probably not forever.)  Of course if the citizens of the cities don’t want those names, I would not force the matter.

Perhaps in the longer run everything, including the Woodrow Wilson School, will be named after donors.

Why do we name things after people at all?

When I look at countries which are periodically renaming buildings, cities, and institutions, I get a little uncomfortable.  The renaming probably isn’t causing their bad or unstable qualities, but pushing for a world of constant renaming does not strike me as a useful goal.  It is not governed by a desirable feedback process, too much voice and not enough exit and competitive constraints.

There should be some kind of intermediate process where institutions can indicate that they take very seriously the moral failings of their namesakes, and publicize that message.  And then over time they can try to raise enough money so as to have a convenient excuse to rename the Wilson School after a wealthy donor, taking constructive action but not ending up in an endless game of renaming.

A simple concrete step would be to cut the price of the naming rights on the Wilson School by fifty percent.

That also could prove an efficient form of price discrimination, by selling the naming rights to one school for less, yet with a special circumstance so donors do not feel that every naming right now should sell for less.

This sounds like a combination of a David Brooks column and a Robin Hanson blog post, and what could be better than that?:

Surprisingly, the most effective leaders did not have the highest level of self-awareness. Indeed, the more they underrated themselves, the more highly they were perceived as leaders. We assume this is caused by a combination of humility, high personal standards, and a continual striving to be better.

That is from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Here is the full transcript, video, and podcast of the chat.  Cliff was great from beginning to end.  The first thirty minutes or so were an overview of “momentum” and “value” trading strategies, and to what extent they violate an efficient markets hypothesis.  Much of the rest covered:

…disagreeing with Eugene Fama, Marvel vs. DC, the inscrutability of risk, high frequency trading, the economics of Ayn Rand, bubble logic, and why never to share a gym with Cirque du Soleil.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I think of you as doing a kind of metaphysics of human nature. On one side, there’s behavioral economics. They put people in the lab, one-off situations, untrained people. But here it’s repeated data, it’s over long periods of time, it’s out of sample. There’s real money on the line, and this still seems to work.

When you back out, what’s the actual vision of human nature? What’s the underlying human imperfection that allows it to be the case, that trading on momentum across say a 3 to 12 month time window, sorry, investing on momentum, will work? What’s with us as people? What’s the core human imperfection?

ASNESS: This is going to be embarrassing because we don’t have a problem of no explanation. We have a problem with too many explanations. Of course, we can observe the data. The explanations you have to fight over and argue over. I will give you the two most prominent explanations for the efficacy of momentum.

The first is called underreaction. Simple idea that comes from behavioral psychology, the phenomenon there called anchoring and adjustment. News comes out. Price moves but not all the way. People update their priors but not fully efficiently. Therefore, just observing the price move is not going to move the same amount again but there’s some statistical tendency to continue.

Take a wild guess what our second best, in my opinion, explanation for momentum’s efficacy is? It’s called overreaction. When your two best explanations are over- and underreaction, you have somewhat of an issue, I admit. Overreaction is much more of a positive feedback. It works over time because people in fact do chase prices. So if you do it somewhat systematically and before them you make some money.

One of the hard things you find out in many fields but I found out in empirical finance is those might be the right explanations but they’re not mutually exclusive.

And here is from the overrated/underrated part of the chat:

COWEN: …In science fiction, the author Robert Heinlein.

ASNESS: Early stuff, underrated. Later stuff, overrated.

COWEN: What’s your favorite?

ASNESS: That is a really — Methuselah’s Children.

COWEN: Ah, good pick.

ASNESS: I could have gone with the obvious. I’m a bit of a libertarian. I could have gone with, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It’s his most famously libertarian book.

COWEN: But it doesn’t age so well.

ASNESS: No, no. I like Methuselah’s Children.

This was the funniest segment:

ASNESS: I live in Greenwich, Connecticut. In some parts of the world, if you said, “my daddy runs a hedge fund,” I’d say, “what’s a hedge fund?” In Greenwich, Connecticut, the kids say, “what kind of hedge fund is your daddy running? Is he event arbitrage? Trend following? What does dad do?”

Interesting throughout, as they are known to say…

The paper is by David Hugh-Jones, and this is from the research summary:

The study examined whether people from different countries were more or less honest and how this related to a country’s economic development. More than 1500 participants from 15 countries took part in an online survey involving two incentivised experiments, designed to measure honest behaviour.

Firstly, they were asked to flip a coin and state whether it landed on ‘heads’ or ‘tails’. They knew if they reported that it landed on heads, they would be rewarded with $3 or $5. If the proportion reporting heads was more than 50 per cent in a given country, this indicated that people were being dishonest…

The countries studied – Brazil, China, Greece, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States, Argentina, Denmark, the United Kingdom, India, Portugal, South Africa, and South Korea – were chosen to provide a mix of regions, levels of development and levels of social trust.

The study’s author Dr David Hugh-Jones, of UEA’s School of Economics, found evidence for dishonesty in all the countries, but that levels varied significantly across them. For example, estimated dishonesty in the coin flip ranged from 3.4 per cent in the UK to 70 per cent in China. In the quiz, respondents in Japan were the most honest, followed by the UK, while those in Turkey were the least truthful. Participants were also asked to predict the average honesty of those from other countries by guessing how many respondents out of 100 from a particular country would report heads in the coin flip test. However, participants’ beliefs about other countries’ honesty did not reflect reality.

This is interesting:

“Differences in honesty were found between countries, but this did not necessarily correspond to what people expected,” he said. “Beliefs about honesty seem to be driven by psychological features, such as self-projection. Surprisingly, people were more pessimistic about the honesty of people in their own country than of people in other countries.

And consider this from Hugh Jones:

“I suggest that the relationship between honesty and economic growth has been weaker over the past 60 years and there is little evidence for a link between current growth and honesty,” said Dr Hugh-Jones. “One explanation is that when institutions and technology are underdeveloped, honesty is important as a substitute for formal contract enforcement. Countries that develop cultures putting a high value on honesty are able to reap economic gains. Later, this economic growth itself improves institutions and technology, making contracts easier to monitor and enforce, so that a culture of honesty is no longer necessary for further growth.”

The research paper is here, and for the pointers I thank Charles Klingman and Samir Varma.

Jones, by the way, makes it clear there are a variety of kinds of honesty, and inferences from any single test should be limited.  For Japan in particular the measured level of honesty depends critically on which test is applied.  The real lesson of the study may simply be that most groups are dishonest, and people are not even honest with themselves about their views of the dishonesty of others.  Honesty depends a good deal on context too.  On some of these questions, see some skeptical comments from Kevin Drum.

If you are looking for simple correlations: “…at individual level, there is no evidence that religious adherence is associated with honesty.”  How about having a Ph.d.?

I am afraid I rather severely failed this test, as proposed by the British magazine Country Life.  I cannot “train a rose,” nor did I even know what that meant.  I also don’t own a tweed suit, nor do I tip my “gamekeeper in the shooting field.”  “Sings lustily in church” is yet another fail, though I am punctual and do not own a chihuahua, nor would I, as is stipulated.

I was puzzled by a response to this quiz in a recent David Tang FT column.  He answered:

32. Would not go to Puerto Rico

Been there once already — ghastly.

I am pleased to have gone twice, from which I can only conclude that at least one of us does not know what a gentleman is.  I might have defined the concept as someone who is kind, tolerant, strong as required, and respectful of social mores when appropriate.

This topic feels over-covered by other sources, but still I would like to see these points receive more attention:

1. I don’t trust early media reports on such matters, and so I am reluctant to offer judgment on a variety of the specifics.  That includes Yale, Mizzou, and other places.  For most or maybe even close to all readers, the proper context probably is missing and perhaps some of the facts are being garbled.

2. Universities have the right to regulate speech and also behavior on their premises, just as a corporation does or a hotel might do.  There is no infringement of freedom of speech when a university acts in this manner.  Public funding does introduce some complications, but even there residual regulatory rights exist.

3. Subtle linguistic cues, social barriers, bigotries of expectations, and segregations can in fact harm students and shape their future life prospects.  That said, I am mostly skeptical about the ability of universities to undo these social mechanisms by conscious social engineering of the immediate environment.  Some gain can be achieved, and some of the worst harms can and should be avoided, but it is a mistake to expect too much from universities in this regard.

4. My personal preference is to see controversial ideas discussed and debated openly on campuses,more so than is currently the case.  Those ideas are going to be out there anyway, so let’s have universities contribute to shaping the broader social discourse.  For instance imagine that more advanced forms of genetic engineering someday become possible, and parents can selectively abort an embryo with a higher chance of being gay.  Do we really want to be in a position where universities have shied away from discussing this issue for decades?  I say no, realizing that in the meantime some peoples’ feelings will indeed have ended up being hurt.  If you are gay, and sitting in a classroom discussion of this topic, or maybe you just have a gay friend — whatever — I doubt if there is a fully comfortable way for this discussion to proceed.  Yet the rest of the world is going to be talking about this, the internet above all, and making the university a “safe space” won’t make the broader world one, if anything the contrary.

5. The natural tendency for administrators is to want to minimize internal disruption, even if that is sometimes at the expense of having a broader world impact.  I thus believe many administrators overinvest in political correctness, at least from a Benthamite, utilitarian point of view.  See #4.

6. The upshot of this all is that lower tier administrators will be sending fewer all-student emails in the future.  And some presidents may be less interested in improving the quality of their football teams, or starting such teams in the first place.  I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

7. Most of the world knows very, very little about the details of these events.  They see there is a mess, and they think something is wrong with universities, students, parents, administrators — everyone.  No matter what happens from this point, universities have messed up and lost this round rather badly.

For this post I am indebted to a discussion with Stephen Macedo and two of his students, but of course they are not to be implicated in my opinions one way or the other.

Here is the Stanford report of his passing, well done, and here are previous MR mentions of Girard.  He was one of the world’s great thinkers.

I think that recent developments in the Middle East, starting with the behavior of Hamas during the Gaza war and continuing with the behavior of ISIS, have struck a nerve among those inclined toward the civilization vs. barbarism axis.

Even if you do not believe that conservatives are right, you have to acknowledge that the news cycle suggests that we are in a civilization vs. barbarism wave. In my opinion, that is why Rand Paul is doing so poorly in the polls. You can criticize him as a candidate, but it is hard to argue that the other candidates are so stellar that they outshine him. I just think that the public is more receptive to the conservative axis than to the libertarian axis. This may always be true, but it is particularly true now.

Here is the full post.

On a summer visit to the grave of Karl Marx, Ben Gliniecki found that he would have to pay £4, or about $6, to pay respects to the man who sounded the death knell for private property.

Mr. Gliniecki, a Marxist, said no.

“Personally, I think it is disgusting,” the 24-year-old political activist said. “There are no depths of irony, or bad taste, to which capitalists won’t sink if they think they can make money out of it.”

The charity that looks after this cemetery has long taken swipe at a different irony: Karl Marx’s decision to buy a burial plot in a private London graveyard over the then state-provided alternatives. They say their cover fee subsidizes the upkeep of a cemetery where 170,000 other people rest.

And note this:

The German philosopher…once predicted the “hot tears of noble people” would be shed over his ashes…

The WSJ article is here, via Vic Sarjoo.

The culture that is French

by on October 25, 2015 at 2:53 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

The innovation-friendly Green party mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, has ordered eight vending machines to be placed in the heart of the city that will dispense literary short stories to pedestrians for free at the push of a button.

The big orange terminals have three options – stories of 1, 3 or 5 minutes – that are printed out on thin recycled paper reminiscent of a lengthy shopping bill and can be tucked into a wallet.

“The idea came to us in front of a vending machine containing chocolate bars and drinks. We said to ourselves that we could do the same thing with good quality popular literature to occupy these little unproductive moments,” Christophe Sibieude, a digital publisher who pitched the idea to the city council, told AFP.

There is more here, via Ted Gioia.

Here are two sentences about Raj Chetty:

“The unintended consequence of Chetty’s work is a tremendous demoralization of teachers,” said New York University educational historian Diane Ravitch.

It’s funny how you don’t need to know more there.  And this one:

He says he won’t register to vote because he thinks that could bias his “laboratory science” approach to economic research.

Both are from this WSJ Bob Davis profile of Chetty, or Google to the ungated link if you wish.

The neuroscience of corporations

by on October 19, 2015 at 12:18 am in Economics, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

In research published last year in the journal Social Neuroscience, Mark Plitt at Baylor College of Medicine and colleagues presented some of their 40 subjects with vignettes of actions taken by humans or corporations that were either prosocial (e.g., donating money), neutral (e.g., buying a printer) or antisocial (e.g., breaking the law). As a control, the other subjects got Wikipedia descriptions of randomly chosen nouns. What were people’s responses to human and corporate actions?

There was a small negative skew about corporations—their prosocial acts elicited less positive emotions, and their neutral or antisocial acts elicited more negative emotions than did the equivalents by humans.

There is more from the WSJ here, via Samir Varma.  By the way, file under “speculative.”

American University professor Thomas Merrill writes:

Hume’s message to the “honest gentlemen” is therefore something like this: “you may not understand this curious character the philosopher; you may think him flaky and unhinged; but if you care about establishing a regime dedicated to individual liberty, you need him around. You need not model your life on his; in fact it is better if you do not. But you need to tolerate him and even be open to being guided by him. Especially do you need to heed his negative message of calling into question the political claims advanced by the various forms of superstition on the basis of alleged insights into the ‘original and ultimate principle.’ Think of the philosopher as you might a garbage man: you might not want to do the job yourself, but it is very useful to society that someone does it.”

That is from Merrill’s Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment, and the passage was sent to me by Daniel Klein, who describes the book as “new and highly recommended.”

1.       A sense of virtue/justice/right that is large and challenging.

2.       An appreciation of wisdom as something different than progressive research programs/specialized academic fields and disciplines.

3.       An understanding of the sociology of judgment, in particular the role of great humans.

4.       An epic narrative, from Thucydides to today.

5.       Rediscovery, analysis, elaboration, and instruction of esotericism.

6.       Close readings and interpretations of great works.

7.       Inspiring, cultivating serious students and followers.

I should add that Dan also is developing a counterpart list, of weaknesses in Strauss’s outlook and approach.

Should there not be more research on this apparently simple yet elusive question?  Here is a new paper by Acezel, Palfi, and Kekecs:

This paper argues that studying why and when people call certain actions stupid should be the interest of psychological investigations not just because it is a frequent everyday behavior, but also because it is a robust behavioral reflection of the rationalistic expectations to which people adjust their own behavior and expect others to. The relationship of intelligence and intelligent behavior has been the topic of recent debates, yet understanding why we call certain actions stupid irrespective of their cognitive abilities requires the understanding of what people mean when they call an action stupid. To study these questions empirically, we analyzed real-life examples where people called an action stupid. A collection of such stories was categorized by raters along a list of psychological concepts to explore what the causes are that people attribute to the stupid actions observed. We found that people use the label stupid for three separate types of situation: (1) violations of maintaining a balance between confidence and abilities; (2) failures of attention; and (3) lack of control. The level of observed stupidity was always amplified by higher responsibility being attributed to the actor and by the severity of the consequences of the action. These results bring us closer to understanding people’s conception of unintelligent behavior while emphasizing the broader psychological perspectives of studying the attribute of stupid in everyday life.

What do you think people, a smart paper or a stupid paper?

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.