Philosophy

That is a question from a very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much (I don’t know how much).

So which book should I recommend?

Conditional on the person knowing me, the idea of simply introducing economics is not going to win, even if that would be the correct recommendation for many others.  And “Collected Works” are not allowed.

How about a broadly philosophical novel, such as Don Quixote or Homer’s Odyssey or In Search of Lost TimeMoby-Dick?  A play of Shakespeare?  A current favorite, such as Ferrante or Knausgaard?

How about a perfectly constructed travel book, touting the virtues of a new and magical place?  But most travel books I find dull, unsatisfying, and too scattered with wasteful, overly subjective sentences about sunsets and train trips.

A didactic, moralizing book, perhaps on charity or Effective Altruism?

For many people music may be more powerful than the written word, so perhaps the recent Jan Swafford biography of Beethoven, or John Eliot Gardiner’s book on Bach, or any number of good books on Mozart.  A critical guidebook to some of the best movies available?  Almost everyone can glean new ideas for their Netflix queue, even if they already have seen lots of films.

I don’t know of a biography which is inspirational for everyone or even most people, and I figure an intelligent person older than thirty already has been exposed to the world’s major religions.

How about a book which is a compendium for a hobby, such as a bird watcher’s guide, a Sotheby’s auction catalog, or a Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook?

I keep finding myself drawn to recommend a book which leads the advice recipient away from books, rather than toward them.  Is that a strength or weakness of the book medium?

We propose the savanna theory of happiness, which suggests that it is not only the current consequences of a given situation but also its ancestral consequences that affect individuals’ life satisfaction and explains why such influences of ancestral consequences might interact with intelligence. We choose two varied factors that characterize basic differences between ancestral and modern life – population density and frequency of socialization with friends – as empirical test cases. As predicted by the theory, population density is negatively, and frequency of socialization with friends is positively, associated with life satisfaction. More importantly, the main associations of life satisfaction with population density and socialization with friends significantly interact with intelligence, and, in the latter case, the main association is reversed among the extremely intelligent. More intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends. This study highlights the utility of incorporating evolutionary perspectives in the study of subjective well-being.

That is from Li and Kanazawa, via Neuroskeptic, file under speculative.

McMindfulness is the commodified, marketised and reductionist version of mindfulness practice which consists in the construction of courses, “apps”, books, and other items for sale to the public.

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Dennis Shiraev emails me:

You are an investor with $10 million planning to cash out in 20 years. A genie appears and offers to send you the price of one but only one asset 20 years from now to inform your investment decisions (a stock, currency pair, commodity, equity index, etc.). What do you want to know? The genie also gives you 20 year cumulative inflation (or exchange rate change for non USD assets) so you won’t need to worry about price/value disentangling.

I said the price of Bitcoin but also considered the IBOVESPA or Shanghai composite index prices.

This isn’t as simple as it might seem at first.  You might look for the most volatile price among the liquid assets whose trading you can access.  But knowing the price only twenty years out then tells you little about what is happening in the meantime.  Which price twenty years out gives you the most information about the global path of prices along the way?  That may suggest looking for a price with some persistence, and which contains lots of information about other prices too.

For purposes of tractability, let’s assume that prices are not rescaled in the meantime, through say major changes in currency names or index definitions, and that knowing the future price of a variable is in some way commensurable with the current understanding of that same variable.

Then I would opt for the Shanghai composite.  I don’t see Bitcoin prices as correlated with enough other facts about the future state of the world.  Plus, if it turned out that price would fall to zero or undefined, you might find it hard to short significant quantities of Bitcoin in the meantime.

That is from Venkatesh Rao, retweeted by Ben Southwood, a version of “Questions that are rarely asked.”

I suppose if you haven’t read the Bible or Quran those are easy answers, but let’s say you have.

I’ve only read snippets of Mein Kampf, so that has to stand as a contender.  But has the book really influenced and shaped my life?  Maybe you can attribute the relevant marginal product to the life of Hitler, with the book being intermediated by Hitler himself.  Therefore I am not sure that answer is true to the spirit of the question.

How about a training manual of some kind, which perhaps my early teachers read but I have never seen or even heard of?  Might my mother have read Dr. Spock or other parenting books?  That would be my best guess.

Here is the video, the podcast, and the transcript.  Kareem really opened up.  Here is the summary:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on segregation, Islam, Harlem vs. LA, Earl Manigault, jazz, fighting Bruce Lee, Kareem’s conservatism, dancing with Thelonious Monk, and why no one today can shoot a skyhook.

Maybe you think of Kareem as a basketball player, but here is my introduction:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of America’s leading public intellectuals. I would describe him as an offshoot of the Harlem Renaissance, and what he and I share in common is a fascination with the character of Mycroft Holmes, the subject of Kareem’s latest book — and that of course, is Sherlock Holmes’s brother.

Here is Kareem:

I did know Amiri [Baraka]. I think the difference is I believe in what happened in Europe during what they call the Enlightenment. That needs to happen to black Americans, absolutely a type of enlightenment where they get a grasp of what is afflicting them and what the cures are.

I think that the American model is the best in the world but in order to get everybody involved in it we have to have it open to everyone. That hasn’t always been the case.

The most under-appreciated Miles Davis album?

For me [Kareem], the most under-appreciated one is Seven Steps to Heaven. And that shows, I think, Miles’ best group. There’s a big argument, what was Miles’ best group, the one that had Cannonball Adderley, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland or Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter?…number two is Porgy and Bess.

He cites Chester Himes as the underappreciated figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  And Kareem thinks like an economist:

It [my instruction] was going well with Andrew Bynum, but Andrew finally got to sign his contract for $50 million, and then at that point Andrew thought that I didn’t know anything and that he didn’t have to listen to me, and we don’t know where Andrew is right now.

Read or hear also his very interesting remarks on Islam, and where its next Enlightenment is likely to come from, not to mention Kareem on the resource curse and of course his new book (and my Straussian read of it).  And Kareem on his favorite movies, starting with The Maltese Falcon.  Self-recommending!

Kareem

That is a new paper by Ali Faraji-Rad and Michel Tuan Pham, here is the abstract:

Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of human life. How do states of uncertainty influence the way people make decisions? We advance the proposition that states of uncertainty increase the reliance on affective inputs in judgments and decisions. In accord with this proposition, results from six studies show that the priming of uncertainty (vs. certainty) consistently increases the effects of a variety of affective inputs on consumers’ judgments and decisions. Primed uncertainty is shown to amplify the effects of the pleasantness of a musical soundtrack (study 1), the attractiveness of a picture (study 2), the appeal of affective attributes (studies 3 and 4), incidental mood states (study 6), and even incidental states of disgust (study 5). Moreover, both negative and positive uncertainty increase the influence of affect in decisions (study 4). The results additionally show that the increased reliance on affective inputs under uncertainty does not necessarily come at the expense of a reliance on descriptive attribute information (studies 2 and 5), and that the increased reliance on affect under uncertainty is distinct from a general reliance on heuristic or peripheral cues (study 6).

The pointer is from Cass Sunstein on Twitter.  File under “The culture that is Iowa”?

*The Moral Economy*

by on January 29, 2016 at 1:57 pm in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

The author is Sam Bowles and the subtitle is Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens.

Bowles

Due out in May.

The link is here, the contents include:

A Unit Root in Postwar U.S. Real GDP Still Cannot Be Rejected, and Yes, It Matters: David Cushman examines whether shocks are transitory, permanent, or some of each.

The political ideology of Industrial Relations: Using three metrics, Mitchell Langbert shows the left orientation of the field.

Eli Heckscher’s Ideological Migration Toward Market Liberalism: Benny Carlson explores the intellectual evolution of a great Swedish economist.

Glimpses of Adam Smith: Excerpts from the biography by Ian Simpson Ross.

Symposium:

Classical Liberalism in Econ, by Country: Authors from around the world tell us about their country’s culture of political economy, in particular the vitality of liberalism in the original political sense, historically and currently, with special attention to professional economics as practiced in academia, think tanks, and intellectual networks.

New contributions:

Young Back Choi and Yong Yoon:
Liberalism in Korea

Pavel Kuchař:
Liberalism in Mexican Economic Thought, Past and Present

(All of the papers from this symposium, which has carried across multiple issues of EJW, are collected at this page.)

EJW Audio

David Cushman on Transitory and Permanent Shocks to GDP

Hugo Faria on Venezuela and Liberalism

The subtitle of Thomas Leonard’s new and excellent book is the apt Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.

I take it you all know by now this is quite an ugly story, namely that both early progressives and late 19th century American economists were often quite appalling racists and eugenicists, and that such racism was built into the professional structure of economics in a fairly fundamental way, including but not restricted to the American Economics Association.

Kevin Drum had an interesting point in response (and do read his full post, there is more to it than this quick excerpt):

Early 20th century progressives supported eugenics out of a belief that it would improve society. Contemporary liberals support abortion rights and right-to-die laws out of a belief in individual rights that flowered in the 60s.

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today.

I view it this way.  Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century.  Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened.  For instance if you look at the British Parliamentary debates of 1912 over the Mental Deficiency Bill, the anti-eugenics forces drew heavily upon Mill for their inspiration.  This was standard stuff, but the Progressives of the time didn’t see much of a pro-liberty reason for being pushed into a Millian position, quite the contrary.

The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty.  Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that.  They probably admire Mill’s more practical reform progressivism quite strongly, or would if they gave it more thought, but they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others.  That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point.  This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.

I don’t mean to pick on Kevin, who is one of my favorite bloggers, but I disagree (and find indicative) another one of his claims, namely:

…eugenics died an unmourned death nearly a century ago.

To give one (not the only) example to the contrary, Swedish “progressive” sterilization persisted through the 1970s, as was true for Canada as well.  Eugenicist views toward autistic people, among others, remain common across the political spectrum (no special brickbat for Progressives here, but they are guilty too), and with CRISPR a lot of eugenicist debates are already making a comeback.

Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition?  I think Mill himself would say no.

mill

That is the title of the new and forthcoming Robin Hanson book, due out in May.  I was asked to supply a blurb, and offered two possibilities.  One was:

“Robin Hanson is one of our most original and important thinkers.  This is his book.”

The ostensible premise of the book is that people have become computer uploads, and we have an entirely new society to think about: how it works, what problems it has, and how it evolves.  One key point about this new world is individuals can be copied.  But this is more than just a nerdy tech book, it is also:

  1. Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in.  We are already something-or-other, uploaded into humans,and very often Robin is describing our world in cloaked fashion, albeit with some slight tweaks to parameters for the purpose of moral illumination.
  2. A reminder of how strange everything is, and how we use self-deception to come to terms with that strangeness.  It’s a mock of all those who believe in individual free will.
  3. An attempt to construct a fully rational theology, proving by various deductions that God is not fully benevolent in the traditional sense.
  4. An extended essay on the impossibility of avoiding theology, given the imposition of competitive constraints on a world where production and copying are possible.  And ultimately it is a theodicy, though it will not feel that way to Westerners, Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  It hearkens back to medieval theology, Descartes, and the idea of living in God’s possibly terrifying simulation.
  5. A satire on the rest of social science, and how we try to explain and predict the future.
  6. A meta-level growth model in which energy alone matters and the “fixed factor” assumptions of other models are relativized.  Copying is taken seriously, besides how special are you anyway?  In the meantime, we learn just how much of the world we know depends upon the presence of various fixed factors.  But surely that is temporary!
  7. A challenge to our notions of wherein the true value of a life resides.

I hope enough readers pick up on some of this.  And yes, there is a chapter on sex, love, and affairs.

It is hard to excerpt from this book, but here is one short bit:

Compared with humans, ems fear much less the death of the particular copy that they now are.  Ems instead fear “mind theft,” that is, the theft of a copy of their mental state. Such a theft is both a threat to the economic order, and a plausible route to personal destitution or torture.  While a few ems offer themselves as open source and free to copy, most ems work hard to prevent mind theft.  Most long-distance physical travel is “beam me up” electronic travel, but done carefully to prevent mind theft.

I am wildly enthusiastic about everything the Robin upload does, and some of his copies are better yet.  Here is the book’s home page.

Em

Addendum: Here is Robin Hanson’s response.

Robert Parrish could not much push him away from his preferred spots on the floor, but due to snow we are altering the venue:

New venue:

Westin Arlington Gateway, F. Scott Fitzgerald Ballroom (2nd floor), 801 North Glebe Road Arlington, VA

Tuesday, January 26, 2016, 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

At the event, you can participate in the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments using the hashtag #CowenKareem.

You can watch the event online at mercatus.org/live

A question about deep reading

by on January 23, 2016 at 12:38 am in Books, Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Brad asks:

Prof. Cowen – I’m a longtime MR reader, but just came across an old post on your prolific reading. In the post, you mention:

“But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand.  I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.”

I am intrigued by this process of deep reading the canonical classics – have you detailed your method/routine for this anytime on MR?

Thanks!

Here is my preferred method:

1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back.  Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

1b. Mark up the book with bars and questions marks, but don’t bother writing out your still-crummy thoughts.  That will slow you down.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature, keeping in mind that you now are looking for answers to some particular questions.  That will structure and improve your investigation.  But do not read the secondary literature first.  You won’t know what questions will be guiding you, plus it may spoil or bias your impressions of the classic, which is likely richer and deeper than the commentaries on it.

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need.  If you don’t finish this part of the program, at least you have read the book once and grappled with some of its problems, and taken in some of its commentators.  If you can get through the reread, you’ll then have achieved something.

4. I am an advocate of the “close in time” reread, not the “several years later” reread.  The several years later reread works best when it has been preceded by a close in time reread, otherwise you tend to forget lots, or never to have learned it to begin with, and the later reread may be more akin to starting a new book altogether.

5. If you want to find new things in books you already know and love, opt for new editions, new translations, and new typesettings where you will encounter it as a very different visual and conceptual field.

From Ryan Avent:

Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, and Jonathan Haidt of New York University recently asked a group of academic economists both moral questions (is it fairer to divide resources equally, or according to effort?) and questions about economics. They found a high correlation between the economists’ views on ethics and on economics. The correlation was not limited to matters of debate—how much governments should intervene to reduce inequality, say—but also encompassed more empirical questions, such as how fiscal austerity affects economies on the ropes. Another study found that, in supposedly empirical research, right-leaning economists discerned more economically damaging effects from increases in taxes than left-leaning ones.

There is considerably more at the link.  The Randazzo and Haidt study is from Econ Journal Watch.

This is probably one of the most useful things you will learn from MR all year.  It is from Maria Konnikova’s new book The Confidence Game:

In 2010, Nicholas Epley and Tal Eyal of Ben-Gurion University published the results of a series of experiments aimed at improving our person and mind perception skills.  The title of their paper: “How to Seem Telepathic.”  Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others.  When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail.  When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level.  For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues.  For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion.  For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist.  So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.

If, however, we can adjust our level of analysis, we suddenly appear much more intuitive and accurate.  In one study, people became more accurate at discerning how others see them when they thought their photograph was going to be evaluated a few months later, as opposed to the same day, while in another, the same accuracy shift happened if they thought a recording they’d made describing themselves would be heard a few months later [TC: recall Robin Hanson’s near vs. far mode].  Suddenly, they were using the same abstract lens that others are likely to use naturally…

Upon reading this passage I realized I have been thinking in these terms for years, without quite realizing it so explicitly.

One implication: if you feel bad one morning, don’t let it get you down and lower your confidence.  Other people probably won’t notice your problems.

Another implication: you’ll understand yourself better if, in a given moment, you can pretend to distance yourself from some of your immediate impressions of your day, and treat yourself like a piece of your writing which you set aside for a week so you could look at it fresh.

A third implication is this: you can read other people’s moods better by ignoring some of your overall impressions of them, and by focusing on what they might perceive to be small changes in their situation, appearance, or stress levels.

The original research is here, worth a read (pdf).  And here are various reviews of the Konnikova book.

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