Philosophy

The subtitle is The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, and it is Tim’s best and deepest book.  You’ll be hearing more about it in due time, the publication date is October 4, you can pre-order it here.

Here is the summary:

The stereotypical obituary is a formulaic recitation of facts — dry, boring, and without craft. But Margalit Fox has shown the genre can produce some of the most memorable and moving stories in journalism. Exploiting its “pure narrative arc,” Fox has penned over 1,200 obituaries, covering well-known and obscure subjects with equal aplomb.

In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, Fox reveals not only the process for writing an obituary, but her thoughts on life, death, storytelling, puzzle-solving, her favorite cellist, and how it came to be that an economist sang opera 86 times at the Met.

Here are the transcript, video, and podcast versions of the dialogue.  Here is one excerpt:

FOX: …Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.

That said, the vast majority of what my colleagues and I down in the trenches do, probably 90 percent of our working life, are daily obits that are found out about, reported, written, edited, copyedited, put in the paper all in the space of a single day, just like any other article in the paper.

And this:

COWEN: Are there obituaries of economists that stand out in your mind? Or maybe some you’ve written?

FOX: Well, interestingly, there is one. As I said, my original training was in classical music, so my editors almost jumped out of their skins with excitement when they discovered they could assign me the obituary of a Harvard economist named Richard T. Gill.

Now, why did they give that to me? Because as we say in the lede of the obit, “Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, died,” etc., etc.

COWEN: Yes, I remember reading that one. That was before I knew that you were you.

FOX: I was me then. You just didn’t know it.

COWEN: Correct.

Do read the whole thing.  I asked her about privacy concerns, how well a famous person is really known by his or her family and friends, whether there should be affirmative action in the obituaries section, who is chosen for this exclusive club and why, what one learns reading obituaries (“death sucks”), what is underrated in life (“silence”), why British obituaries are different, and about her very good books on linguistic code cracking from antiquity and Bedouin sign language.  And more.

Here is the Conversations with Tyler series.  Here is basic information on Margalit Fox.  Here is Margalit Fox on Twitter.

No, this is not a repeat of the post from yesterday, there is another twist:

Doctors in Belgium have rejected an imprisoned murderer and rapist’s request for medically assisted suicide, the Justice Ministry said on Tuesday, less than a week before he was due to receive a lethal injection.

…Van Den Bleeken, 51, and in prison for nearly 30 years, had complained of a lack of therapy provided for his condition in Belgium. He argued he had no prospect of release since he could not overcome his violent sexual impulses, and wanted to die in order to end his mental anguish.

Belgium has pioneered the legalization of euthanasia beyond terminal illness to include those suffering unbearable mental pain.

But others have received euthanasia:

Cases which attracted international attention included the euthanasia of two deaf twins who were in the process of losing their sight, and of a transgender person left in torment by an unsuccessful sex change operation.

In February, Belgium became the first country to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children at any age, a move which drew criticism from religious groups both at home and abroad, though application for minors is limited to those about to die.

It is perhaps the wrong mood affiliation to apply the euthanasia process to an actual criminal:

Belgium, like the rest of the European Union, does not have the death penalty.

Here is the full article, and for the pointer I thank A. Le Roy.

Do you ever read someone and find you are too addled to tell when the author is being funny or not, and then perhaps some of you have the temerity to suggest your confusion is the fault of the author?

Well, imagine a whole novel like that, and about the hot-button topics of sex and above all power and power in the workplace and yes race too.  Helen DeWitt can in fact get away with writing sentences such as:

One man said he was not exactly disputing the points made but he did not think he could reward his top earners with titless sex.

So yes, buy this book but do not read it, for the temerity will rise in your soul.

Helen DeWitt is a national treasure, yet collectively we have driven her to Berlin.  We do not deserve whatever she plans on serving up next.

Here is my previous post on Helen DeWitt.

From the comments

by on August 15, 2016 at 2:50 pm in Economics, History, Philosophy | Permalink

The authors of an article entitled “Mysticism in Literature” (by H.C. Gardiner and E. Larkin) were surprisingly dismissive of Blake, an “I-It” enthusiast (like Wordsworth and fantasy novel world-builders); apparently the real success in the “Mysticism in Literature” world is in the “I-Thou” (Carmelite poets, very generous people, that sort of thing) area. I have long thought that JM Keynes – whose General Theory is in places as well written as Finnegans Wake, as I once read somewhere on this blog – was to his brother Geoffrey (the Blake specialist) what the fictional Sherlock was to Mycroft; a very bright sibling but clearly the exponentially less capable of the two. Economics, though, is often just common sense reiterated and refined with the mistakes thrown out; it seems almost comical to associate something that takes such a long time with young students. I read my first economics book, with a banana-yellow cover, in high school (bought at a Waldenbooks at a Bay Area shopping mall, long vanished; at the same mall, I was in line behind a young woman, now in her 70s, who bought a cassette recording of Rachmaninoff’s 24 variations on a theme of some long-forgotten fiddler. I still remember the shy happy smile on her face – the money she spent must have meant something to her – and how well she was dressed, as if she believed one had to dress elegantly to buy a Rachmaninoff cassette. Writing a comment on this almost (or completely) male-only comment thread, all I can say is she was as likely to be right about the necessity of elegance as me, if not more so. If she is reading this, I don’t remember the town, but it was somewhere just north of Pleasanton).

It doesn’t matter what the post was, that is from another vote another time zone, if only E. Harding were so eloquent…

That is what the new Steve Levitt paper looks at and it does seem people stick with their current circumstances too much:

Little is known about whether people make good choices when facing important decisions. This paper reports on a large-scale randomized field experiment in which research subjects having difficulty making a decision flipped a coin to help determine their choice. For important decisions (e.g. quitting a job or ending a relationship), those who make a change (regardless of the outcome of the coin toss) report being substantially happier two months and six months later. This correlation, however, need not reflect a causal impact. To assess causality, I use the outcome of a coin toss. Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo. The results of this paper suggest that people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices.

Of course not all coin flips turn out the right way.  And furthermore we all know that the control premium is one of the most underrated ideas in economics…

There are two new and interesting books with that same title.  The first is by William I. Brustein and Louisa Roberts, and it has the subtitle Leftist Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism.  Think of it as a short overview of what the subtitle promises, with chapters on the Enlightenment, France, Germany, and Great Britain.  The second, by Michele Battini, has the subtitle Capitalism and Modern Anti-Semitism, and is longer and perhaps more exotic.  Here is one summary sentence: “My hypothesis is that this anti-Semitic anticapitalist literature arose in the context of the intransigent Catholic reaction against the revolution in political rights, the free market, and secularization.  Both are of interest.  Both main titles of course come from the classic quotation by August Bebel: “Antisemitism is the socialism of fools.”

How should one approach an overwhelming bookstore, namely the famous Strand in New York City?  Where to start, which books should you discard, and how do you make those final choices?  What if you could pick only three books to take home?

Michael Orthofer and I spent an hour together in the store, and our interaction was distilled into this 7:59 video.  Self-recommending!  And kudos to Jeff Holmes for doing the real work.

Here is my Conversations with Tyler dialogue with Michael Orthofer, the man who wants to read everything.

Statement: I think it is more than appropriate and indeed imperative to raise and indeed investigate questions about the suspicious ties between the Trump candidacy and Putin’s Russia.

Question: Given what is now an extensive and proven history of Communist spies in the United States government from 1933 to 1945, was it also appropriate for Joseph McCarthy to raise such questions about (lower-level) political officers in his day?  If you insinuate or make the charge outright that Trump and/or staff might be Russian agents on the basis of incomplete evidence, not yet demonstrated in a court of law, shall we downgrade you or upgrade McCarthy?  Or both?

Statement: I think it is more than appropriate to raise questions about whether Trump’s rather cavalier attitude toward the U.S. Constitution disqualifies him from the Presidency on those grounds alone.  I consider myself a fairly strict Constitutionalist, most of all for the Bill of Rights.

Question: Do you feel the same way about FDR’s court-packing scheme and internment of Japanese-Americans?  Were the Democratic Congressmen — wasn’t that just about all of them? — who stood with FDR on the latter issue better or worse than Paul Ryan for standing with Trump today?  If FDR had offsetting virtues as President, because he did in fact “get a lot done,” and you in general support him for that, are Trump supporters allowed to have a similar belief today about their candidate, viewing him in the lineage of FDR?  On the basis of this one FDR data point, is it possible that presidential achievement is positively correlated with presidential oppression?  Or is that sheer coincidence and all Trump supporters ought to believe as such?

Question: To paraphrase Bill Easterly, if you agree that defeating Trump is a national emergency, do you also think the Democrats should be compromising more on actual policies?  Raise your left hand if you have come out and said this.  See in addition Ross Douthat’s column.

Statement: During the 1930s, a large number of New Deal Democrats admired the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy, and less commonly but still sometimes Hitler’s Germany in its earlier years.

Question: Does this history cause you to have a more positive view of Trump and his supporters?  Or do you instead significantly downgrade your sympathy for the Democrats of the New Deal era, now that you have lived through the Trump phenomenon?  Does the Trump phenomenon now seem to you more in accord with traditional and historic American values?  (I haven’t even mentioned slavery or race until now, nor Nagasaki nor Native Americans.  And oh — did I mention that the New Deal coalition signed off on a lot of bigotry and segregation to keep the party together and get the core agenda through?  Or how about the forcible repatriation of perhaps up to 2 million Mexicans, without due process of law, and many being American citizens, during the 1930s?)

Final question(s): Would American history have taken a better or worse course if none of our Presidents had had significant authoritarian tendencies?  Or do you insist that is the wrong question to ask, instead preferring to stress the issue of “our authoritarians” vs. “their authoritarians” and stressing the relative virtues of the former and the evils of the latter?  And if that is indeed the case, do you now understand why Trump has come as far as he has?

File under: Nothing New Under the Sun, That was Then This is Now, Authoritarianism for Me but Not For Thee, Why We Can’t Have The Good Things in Life, Asking for a Friend, other.

That is the latest entry in the Conversations with Tyler series, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is the overview:

Michael Orthofer, one of the world’s most prolific book reviewers, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on — what else? — books. Read to discover why Michael believes everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s another life hack which I totally reject, but it may just be because I’m an addict of sorts. You tell me why, for you, it’s wrong.

A lot of people say to me, “Well, I love fiction, but I’m never going to read new works because I can’t tell what’s really good. I’ll just wait 20 years and then look back on what was truly excellent from 20 years ago and read that 20 years later. In the meantime, now I’ll just read classics or things in other areas which are verified as being truly excellent.” Does that make sense?

ORTHOFER: I worry very much about people who rely on what gets that stamp of approval. Just because it has a cover review in the New York Times Book Review does not mean that that book really is, if we look at it from five or ten years down the road — that that book will still be a significant work. I find so much which is highly praised at any one point long‑term won’t be. Again, however — .

Another question:

COWEN: If we take American citizens, who are not necessarily the people who read you, but at the margin, we could give them more nonfiction, we could give them more travel, we could give them more fiction, or we could actually give them more of some really good TV, which of those things are we rooting for them to do more of, at the margin?

And this exchange:

COWEN: Bottom’s Dream. Most people have never heard of Arno Schmidt.

ORTHOFER: Regrettably, no.

COWEN: We have a chance now to read his masterwork. Some of his others are in English already. Tell us why we should care.

COWEN: But you giggled when you read Bottom’s Dream, right?

ORTHOFER: Yes.

COWEN: You giggled a lot.

ORTHOFER: The English edition, I think, is just under 1,500 pages.

COWEN: A mere pittance compared to Dream of the Red Chamber, right?

Do read the whole thing.

Here is my short review of Michael’s big book on world literature: “If you measure book quality by the actual marginal product of the text, this is one of the best books written, ever.  Reading the manuscript in draft form induced me to a) write an enthusiastic blurb, and b) order about forty items through Amazon, mostly used of course.  The book is basically a comprehensive guide to what is valuable and interesting in recently translated world literature, a meta-book so to speak, with extensive coverage of most of the countries you might want.”  And here is Michael’s blog.  You can order Michael’s book here.

Thank you all for making the first day of The Complacent Class such a success; pre-orders were strong and according to one standard metric it was the #1 best-selling book for Monday.

I am working to get you information on Kindle pre-order, as of now the pre-order extra book offer still stands.  I also am told that on UK Amazon you have to search for title, not by my name, for whatever reason.

That is my next book, now finished, due out February 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.  You can pre-order it from Amazon or Barnes&Noble.  Recommended!

Very little of the content of this book has appeared on Marginal Revolution.  It contains my thoughts on the death of American restlessness, what is happening with segregation by race and income, how we have become a nation of “matchers,” why crime rates will move up, the ultimate sociological roots of the economic great stagnation, why Steven Pinker is probably wrong about world peace, what we can learn from the riots and violence of the 1960s, why the bureaucratization of protest matters, marijuana vs. cocaine vs. heroin, in which significant way gdp statistics really do under-measure productivity, the importance of cyclical theories of history, and what Tocqueville got right and wrong about America.

And much more!  Most of all it is about why the future will be a scary place.

I also am making a special offer for those who pre-order the work.  Just send me an email to tcowen@gmu.edu (or my gmail), and tell me you have pre-ordered The Complacent Class, and I’ll send you a free copy of another work by me — about 45,000 words — on the foundations of a free society.

I have been revising this second one for over fifteen years, and it is called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  It is finally ready.

You will receive links to an on-line version with images, a pdf with images, and a plain vanilla pdf for Kindle.

In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”

These are my final thoughts on those topics.  And to be fair, this is likely to come out someday as a more traditional book, but that will not happen soon as I have not shopped it around to any publisher.  So if you pre-order The Complacent Class, you’ll get what is an advance and also free copy of Stubborn Attachments.

Are you feeling down because of the political conventions?  Or maybe you’re feeling down because of me?  This is exactly the bracing and optimistic tonic you need.  These two works, taken as a whole, cover where we are at and also where we need to go.

Addendum: If you are a member of the media and would like to receive a review copy of THE COMPLACENT CLASS (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: February 28, 2017), please contact Gabrielle Gantz: gabrielle.gantz@stmartins.com; or 646-307-5698.

It seems Millennarian cults really mean it, at least in the experimental context:

We model religious faith as a “demand for beliefs,” following the logic of the Pascalian wager. We show how standard experimental interventions linking financial consequences to falsifiable religious statements can elicit and characterize beliefs. We implemented this approach with members of a group that expected the “End of the World” to occur on May 21, 2011 by varying monetary prizes payable before and after May 21st. To our knowledge, this is the first incentivized elicitation of religious beliefs ever conducted. The results suggest that the members held extreme, sincere beliefs that were unresponsive to experimental manipulations in price.

That is from Ned Augenblick, et.al., forthcoming in the Journal of Public Economics.  Here are ungated copies.

The original pointer was from Robin Hanson.

From Sunita Sah (NYT):

Disclosure can also cause perverse effects even when biases are unavoidable. For example, surgeons are more likely to recommend surgery than non-surgeons. Radiation-oncologists recommend radiation more than other physicians. This is known as specialty bias. Perhaps in an attempt to be transparent, some doctors spontaneously disclose their specialty bias. That is, surgeons may inform their patients that as surgeons, they are biased toward recommending surgery.

My latest research, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that patients with localized prostate cancer (a condition that has multiple effective treatment options) who heard their surgeon disclose his or her specialty bias were nearly three times more likely to have surgery than those patients who did not hear their surgeon reveal such a bias. Rather than discounting the surgeon’s recommendation, patients reported increased trust in physicians who disclosed their specialty bias.

Remarkably, I found that surgeons who disclosed their bias also behaved differently. They were more biased, not less. These surgeons gave stronger recommendations to have surgery, perhaps in an attempt to overcome any potential discounting they feared their patient would make on the recommendation as a result of the disclosure.

Surgeons also gave stronger recommendations to have surgery if they discussed the opportunity for the patient to meet with a radiation oncologist. This aligns with my previous research from randomized experiments, which showed that primary advisers gave more biased advice and felt it was more ethical to do so when they knew that their advisee might seek a second opinion.

The piece is…self-recommending!