Ayn Rand and The Martian

by on October 5, 2015 at 7:25 am in Books, Film, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

The Martian is the most Randian movie in years, perhaps in decades. Ayn Rand is best known for her defense of capitalism but her defense of reason was even more fundamental to her thought. The Martian has no bearing on politics but it reminded me of Rand’s essay on Apollo 11 and the moon landing, the launch of which she witnessed Apollo 11 - 2from Kennedy Space Center.

Rand wrote that the Apollo 11 mission “conveyed the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art – a play dramatizing a single theme: the efficacy of man’s mind.” The  efficacy of man’s mind and the power of reason is exactly the theme of The Martian.

As Rand continued:

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt…And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being–an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

The difference is that Apollo 11 gave the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art but it was real. While the Martian gives the sense that we are watching something real but it is a magnificent work of art. Have we not been diminished? Nevertheless, the sense of life of the event and the movie are the same and the movie is gripping, thrilling and uplifting, a triumph for Ridley Scott and the author, Andy Weir.

Addendum: See Tyler’s review as well.

Nathan Robinson of Harvard has an opinion:

In this paper, I take the position that a large portion of contemporary academic work is an appalling waste of human intelligence that cannot be justified under any mainstream normative ethics. Part I builds a four-step argument for why this is the case, while Part II responds to arguments for the contrary position offered in Cass Sunstein’s “In Defense of Law Reviews.” First, in Part I(A), I make the case that there is a large crisis of suffering in the world today. (Part I does not take me very long.). In Part I(B), I assess various theories of “the role of the intellectual,” concluding that the only role for the intellectual is for the intellectual to cease to exist. In Part I(C), I assess the contemporary state of the academy, showing that, contrary to the theory advanced in Part I(B), many intellectuals insist on continuing to exist. In Part I(D), I propose a new path forward, whereby present-day intellectuals take on a useful social function by spreading truths that help to alleviate the crisis of suffering outlined in Part I(A).

At least it’s his only paper.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Here you will find the transcript, video, and podcast.  The summary is this:

Tyler and Harvard economist Dani Rodrik discuss premature deindustrialization, the world’s trilemmas, the political economy of John le Carré, what’s so special about manufacturing, Orhan Pamuk, RCTs, and why the world is second best at best.

Here is one excerpt from Rodrik, on why Turkey and some comparable countries did not fully modernize:

my general sort of question would be 50 percent structure, 50 percent agency, which is to say you start with a lot of initial conditions that aren’t very favorable. Going back to the 19th century, you start on the wrong end of the global division of labor. Everybody else is industrialized and you’re not, plus, then, the British come and they open up your trade regime and all the craft industries you have in the 18th century are just decimated because of imports from Britain and other Western Europeans.

Then you get defeated in a world war. You start in very inauspicious circumstances.

Then agency. What happened, for example, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was the leader who made Turkey, who took Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, erected the Turkish republic on top of that. He did a lot of very good things and a lot of very silly things, and we’re still living with the consequences of many of those things, including the good things.

I asked him this:

You were born in Turkey, you grew up in Turkey. I have so many questions about Turkey to ask you, but let me just try two or three. Let’s take the Turkish city of Konya. I’ve been to Konya. Outsiders sometimes call Konya the bible belt of Turkey. I’m not sure that’s a good comparison, but it’s a more religious city than Istanbul. It’s a kind of heartland city in Turkey.

Just a little simple question. I would put it this way. Do you trust the median voter in Konya?

And a short one from Rodrik again:

Culture is back in economics. I still have to be convinced that it’s actually adding a significant amount to what we learn.

In terms of economic prospects, he picks Brazil as the most underrated country and India as the most overrated.  And you can see what he thinks of the idea of an independent Catalonia…

You should all buy and read Dani’s new book, Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, which I can recommend wholeheartedly and which I wrote a blurb for.

A loyal MR reader writes to me:

If you taught the principles of effective altruism to a rich person in (say) 1400, what would they have thought was the most effective thing to do with their money?  What was in fact the most effective thing they could have done?

I say send some money to Henry IV.  On the year 1400 Wikipedia notes:

January – Henry IV of England quells the Epiphany Rising and executes the Earls of Kent, Huntingdon and Salisbury and the Baron le Despencer for their attempt to have Richard II restored as king.

England and the Industrial Revolution seemed to have worked out OK, and besides the Henriad provides some of Shakespeare’s most profound work, Orson Welles too.

I think you can see the problem.

But what would a rational Effective Altruist have thought at the time?  How about revising those early versions of the Poor Laws?

Alternatively, 1400 also was the year Chaucer died, and he was a pretty smart guy.  Since he worked for Henry’s father and was close to him, he might have given good advice, if only for self-interested reasons.  But who in 1400 was the best or most logical representative of Effective Altruism?  The theologian Alan of Lynn?  He might have told you to invest the money in making indexes of books, which seemed to be his main interestJean Gerson, if one looks to France for a thought leader, focused his energies to reconciling the Great Schism in the papacy.  Good idea or bad?  As Zhou Enlai said

I’ve found Geoffrey Miller’s earlier books quite interesting, even if I didn’t always agree with them.  A few years ago, however, he had a um…Twitter mishap…and since then I’ve been wondering what would emerge from that process.

His new book is…different.  Think of it as a guide to dating and mating for males, but unlike the pick-up artists he (with Max) focuses on the separating rather than the pooling equilibrium.  That is, he advises men to actually be better men, and not just to send clever signals, and so the subtitle is Become the Man Women Want.  Hard to argue with that, right?

The advice covers such recommendations as “Focus on the women who seem interested in you.” (p.257) and “Hang out with Intelligent People” (p.127), among other maxims.  Didn’t Nietzsche come up with a few of those?  Or was it Norman Vincent Peale?

Be aware that “She’s been dealing with creepy douchebags for a long time”; that’s a subheader (p.35).

Is it true that “Most guys have sexually repulsive feet, and women notice.”? (p.206)  MR readers are not always the ones to ask.

At first I thought I’ve never seen a market product so cleverly designed to segregate the actual buyers from those who will find it of value, but it has lots of five-star reviews on Amazon.  Sadly enough, maybe America really needs this book.

Addendum: Here is Robin Hanson’s review.

Robin Hanson’s new book

by on September 27, 2015 at 9:51 pm in Books, Economics, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth

Pre-order your copy now.  The book’s home page is here.

I very much enjoyed the new LRB piece by Amia Srinivasan.  Here is a good “standing on one foot” statement of what effective altruism recommends:

The results of all this number-crunching are sometimes satisfyingly counterintuitive. Deworming has better educational outcomes among Kenyan schoolchildren than increasing the numbers of textbooks or teachers. If you want to improve animal welfare, it’s better to stop eating eggs than beef, since caged layer hens live worse lives than farmed cows, and because eating eggs consumes more animals than eating beef: the average American consumes 0.8 layer hens but only 0.1 beef cows per year. Buying Fairtrade goods can be worse than buying regular goods, since the extra cost goes mostly to middlemen rather than farmers, and when it doesn’t, it benefits farmers in relatively rich countries: because Fairtrade standards are hard to meet, most Fairtrade coffee production comes from Mexico and Costa Rica rather than, say, Ethiopia, where the marginal pound would go much further. The green value of buying locally grown food is overblown, too, since transport accounts for only 10 per cent of the carbon footprint of food, while 80 per cent of it is generated in production; tomatoes grown in the UK can have five times the carbon footprint of tomatoes shipped from Spain because of the energy required to hothouse them. If you’re really committed to minimising your carbon footprint, MacAskill recommends donating to the carbon offsetting charity Cool Earth; he estimates that the average American could offset all his carbon emissions by donating $105 a year. There isn’t much point in unplugging your electricals, either: leaving your mobile phone charger plugged in for a whole year contributes less to your carbon footprint than one hot bath.

And here is part of the critique:

MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man. He repeatedly talks about philanthropy as a deal too good to pass up: ‘It’s like a 99 per cent off sale, or buy one, get 99 free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.’ There is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That he speaks in the proprietary language of the illness – global inequality – whose symptoms he proposes to mop up is an irony on which he doesn’t comment. Perhaps he senses that his potential followers – privileged, ambitious millennials – don’t want to hear about the iniquities of the system that has shaped their worldview. Or perhaps he thinks there’s no irony here at all: capitalism, as always, produces the means of its own correction, and effective altruism is just the latest instance.

Not my view, but well written as a piece and definitely recommended.  Here is comment from Scott Alexander.

I have a few points:

1. There is decent evidence that many other car companies have done something similar.  Read this too.  Besides, Volkswagen committed a related crime in 1973.  When I was a teenager (maybe still?), it was commonly known that New Jersey service stations would help your car pass the emissions test if you slipped them a small amount of money.  So we shouldn’t be shocked by the new story.  The incentive of the agencies is to get the regulations out the door and to avoid subsequent bad publicity, not to actually solve the problem.  So yes, there is a “regulation ought to be tougher” framing, but there is also a “we’ve been overestimating the benefits of regulation” framing too.  Don’t let your moral outrage, which leads you to the former lesson, distract you from absorbing some of the latter lesson too.

2. We are more outraged by deliberate attempts to break the law, compared to stochastic sloppiness leading to mistakes and accidents.  But it is far from obvious that the egregious violations should be punished more severely in a Beckerian framework.  In fact, if they are harder to pull off, compared to sheer neglect, perhaps they should be punished less severely, at least from a utilitarian point of view.  I am not saying we should discard our intuitions about relative outrage, but we ought to look at them more closely rather than just riding them to a quick conclusion.  I’ve seen it noted rather frequently that the head of the supervisory committee at Volkswagen is named Olaf Lies.

3. Don’t think this is just market failure, it springs from a rather large government subsidy program.  Clive Crook makes a good point:

Remember that “clean diesel” was a government-led initiative, brought to you courtesy of Europe’s taxpayers. And, by the way, the policy had proved a massively expensive failure on its own terms even before the VW scandal broke.

…At best, the clean-diesel strategy lowered carbon emissions much less than hoped, and at ridiculous cost; at worst, as one study concludes, the policy added to global warming.

4. One back of the envelope estimate is that the added pollution killed 5 to 23 Americans each year.  Now I don’t myself think we should always or even mostly use economic methods to value human lives.  But if you wish to play that cost-benefit game, maybe here we have $25 million to $100 million in economic value a year destroyed.  It’s not uncommon to spend $100 million marketing a bad Hollywood movie.  So in economic terms (an important caveat), this is a small event.  Most of the car pollution problem comes from older vehicles with poor maintenance, not fraud on the newer tests.  It also seems (same link) that diesel engines are 95% cleaner since the 1980s.

5. The German automobile sector exported about $225 billion in 2014.  That’s almost as big as Greek gdp.

6. Manipulated data will be one of the big, big stories of the next twenty years, or longer.

7. It is worth citing Glazer’s Law, which is designed to classify explanations for microeconomic puzzles: “It’s either taxes or fraud”

This one isn’t taxes.

No, not Dani Rodrik, the guest for tomorrow’s Conversations with Tyler chat, rather Elias Canetti.  As prep for Dani at 3:30 tomorrow (live stream), I thought I should read some more Canetti.  Here are a few maxims from his The Secret Heart of the Clock:

At the edge of the abyss he clings to pencils

Curiosity diminishing, he could now start thinking

He reads only for appearances now, but what he writes is real

Newspapers, to help you forget the previous day

His disintegrating knowledge holds him together

I found this a fascinating book, in spite of some over-generalizations.  We all know that something is wrong with Europe, and with France in particular, but what?  The argument starts with this:

We need to take religion seriously, especially when it starts to disappear.

It continues:

…we gave the name ‘zombie Catholicism’ to the anthropological and social force that emerged from the final disintegration of the Church in its traditional bastions…This cultural survival is probably the most important social phenomenon of the years from 1965 to 2015.  It eventually led France into a multifaceted ideological venture, including the rise of a new kind of socialism, decentralization, a surge of pro-European feeling, a masochistic monetary policy, a deformation of the nature of the Republic, and, as we shall later see, a particularly shifty form of Islamophobia and, probably, of anti-Semitism.

It’s hard to unpack this following sentence in a blog post, but it gives you an indication of where the book is heading:

The demonization of Islam is a response to the intrinsic need of a completely de-Christianized society.

Todd notes that the vote share of the National Front is higher in “egalitarian territory” than in inegalitarian territory (pp.125-126).  And yet there is more:

We have been obliged to admit that there is a zombie Catholicism, and a zombie Protestantism too.  We should not shy away from postulating that there is a zombie Islam.

Ross Douthat, telephone!

I ordered my copy from  Here is a useful article on the French controversies surrounding this book.  It’s making my list for one of the most interesting of the year.

Yes, the set up is important, but let’s cut to the chase:

The experimental behaviors of these three subject classes—once again, making real allocations with real money—revealed stark differences between attitudes toward economic justice among ordinary Americans and among the elite. To begin with, the Berkeley and Yale subjects were twice as likely to be selfish as their compatriots in general. In this respect, intermediate and extreme elites stand together with each other, and stand apart from the rest of the country.

What’s more, elite Americans show a far greater commitment to efficiency over equality than ordinary Americans. And this time, the bias toward efficiency increases with each increment of eliteness. The ALP subjects split roughly evenly between focusing on efficiency and focusing on equality; the Berkeley students favored efficiency over equality by a factor of roughly 3-to-2; and the Yale Law students favored efficiency by a factor of 4-to-1.

Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans—and thus sided with the party that claims to represent economic equality in partisan politics—by a factor of more than 10-to-1. An elite constituted by highly partisan Democrats thus showed an immensely greater commitment to efficiency over equality than the bipartisan population at large.

That is from Ray Fisman and Daniel Markowits, do read the whole thing.  I say that is mostly good news, and I disagree with the claim of the authors that a new class war is on its way.

The next Conversations with Tyler comes next Thursday, six days from now, and it is with Dani Rodrik.  Of course you should show up, or watch the LiveStream (see the link).  But in the meantime, what should I ask him?

Again, here is the previous session with Luigi Zingales.

The transcript is here, with a podcast version, and there is also a YouTube version at the link, with cleaned-up audio compared to any earlier link you may have come across.  Luigi was wonderful, and also fantastically witty.  The topics included Italy, Donald Trump, Antonio Gramsci, Google and conglomeration, Luchino Visconti, Starbucks, and the surprisingly high productivity of Italian cafés.

Here is one excerpt:

I don’t understand why in the United States the only thing that is really noncompetitive is sports. In Europe, the only thing that is really competitive is sports.

And another:

COWEN: …Angela Merkel, overrated or underrated?

ZINGALES: I think she’s probably underrated. I’m impressed by her ability to, number one, run Europe for the interest of Germans in a very effective way.

The longest bit from me is where I compare and contrast Luigi with Gramsci, another theorist of hegemony, and try to sum up Luigi’s work; you can find that on the video or in the transcript.

And again from Luigi there is this:

…when I arrived in this country 27 years ago, you were not really drinking coffee. You were drinking a dark thing that tastes like I don’t say what because we’re online. The culture of coffee did not exist here.

The culture of coffee and a café where you seat and drink, et cetera, what Starbucks is, is an Italian or at most French culture. Why were you unable to export this? This is my little explanation. By the way, the only country in the world where Starbucks has not arrived is Italy.

Luigi then considers when Italian coffee is better tasting and better run at the artisan level, yet without the same possibilities for corporate expansion.  I liked this sentence from Luigi:

The extreme agency problems of Italy make it difficult to scale firms.

And finally:

One thing I can predict fairly confidently is that we are not going to pay the debt.

This is also a worthwhile observation:

When you’re down to one or two kids, the chance that one is an idiot is pretty large.

His favorite film is Visconti’s The Leopard, a good pick.  And he was the public choice scholar who forecast the rise of Donald Trump, as we discuss in the chat.  Self-recommending.

*Good Profit* by Charles G.Koch

by on September 12, 2015 at 12:31 am in Books, Economics, History, Philosophy | Permalink

I am pleased to have received an advance review copy.  The subtitle is How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies, and here are three excerpts:

One of the many schools I attended was a Catholic school, to which I was sent at age five for a couple of years.  But I was a skeptic even at that young age.  I rejected the nuns’ claim — which I took literally — that Jesus was behind the altar.  They offered graham crackers and milk as reward for good behavior, but the incentive wasn’t strong enough for me.


…Barbara Walters included David [Koch] on her television special The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014.

His selection highlights the difference in our lifestyles.  His is interesting; mine is not.  When I am not in the office, I’m either studying praxeology, working out in our basement gym, analyzing the twenty-four components of the golf swing, enjoying one of Liz’s “heart-healthy” meals in our kitchen, or trying to understand what my toddler grandsons are saying when we FaceTime.


…Koch [Industries] has enjoyed better results hiring from Wichita State or Kansas State than from Harvard.  (The four employees who have succeeded me as president of Koch Industries hailed from the Murray State University School of Agriculture, Texas A&M, the University of Tulsa, and Emporia State University.)

This is no dull, ghost-written tome, rather it is interesting throughout.  You can pre-order the book here.

How to be a good professor

by on September 10, 2015 at 1:31 am in Education, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Robert J. Bloomfield has a new paper with that title, the abstract is this:

A good Professor achieves a three part mission of research, teaching and service. After elaborating on this mission, I provide some broad strategies for accomplishing it: know when to say no; don’t try to win the measurement game; don’t be a jerk (in the technical sense); “think otherwise”, but judiciously; and be your own adversary. I then spell out specific learning objectives, explain why they matter, and provide advice on how to achieve them. Stated in the language of instructional design, a good Professor will be able to: communicate effectively; craft constructive reviews and effective response memos; put philosophical insights to practical use; motivate students; share in the governance of your institution; and blend work and life so that each enriches the other.

For the pointer I thank…a good professor.