Philosophy

The only version of the new Houllebecq novel I can read now is the one in German, Entwerfung., as the English edition does not come out until September.   I am about halfway through and can report it is excellent and a fun read as well, most of all when it makes fun of the vulnerabilities and vacillations of the West.

Here is an Anthony Daniels review, with lots of plot summary (and spoilers), part of the last paragraph shows he understands the work:

This novel is far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic, however, as many might have supposed it to be from its pre-publication publicity (Houellebecq has expressed himself very unfavorably on Islam elsewhere). It is rather a meditation, admittedly using all the author’s habitual tropes which fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, are susceptible to an infinite number of bitterly amusing variations, on the state of Western civilization and what makes that civilization vulnerable to attack…In other words, it is an implicit invitation to us to look inwards, to think of what is wrong with us rather than with them. Whether we or they will read it like this, I rather doubt…

This is one of the novels of the year.  Here is a good Adam Gopnik piece on Houllebecq and the book.

*The Age of the Crisis of Man*

by on March 1, 2015 at 3:01 am in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new book by Mark Greif, and the subtitle is Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973.  I very much enjoyed grappling with this one.  One of my more recent views is that the thinkers of the mid-twentieth century are in fact, as a whole, extremely underrated.  They are not old enough to be classic and not new enough to be trendy or on the frontier.  Their world faced problems which seemed totally strange to us in the 1990s, but which are starting to sound scarily relevant and contemporary.  Yet our world is largely ignorant of their wisdom and creativity, in part because they often sounded dumb or schlocky or maybe they even were in some ways.

This book is sprawling, and while clearly written at the sentence-to-sentence level, it assumes some fair degree of background knowledge.  Nonetheless for an intellectually-minded reader it is an excellent way to jump into the world inhabited by Karl Jaspers, Ortega y Gasset, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon.

Leon Wieseltier has some interesting remarks on the book.  Here is another interesting (if overlong) review, by Richard Marshall.  Here is an excellent Adam Kirsch review, the best review as review.

Over at Vox, Mr. Money Moustache notes:

The first trick is to remind yourself that buying something — pretty much anything — is very unlikely to improve your long-term happiness. Science figured this out for us long ago, but not many people got the memo. Go to your junk electronics drawer and look at your old flip phones or your dusty iPad 1. Look at the clothes you’ve recently pruned from your closet that are now headed to the Goodwill. You traded a lot of good dollars for those, not very long ago at all. Are they still making you happy today?

And:

…I try to get people to think of things in 10-year chunks at a minimum and then move on to a lifetime perspective. For example, spending $100 per week on restaurants equates to a $75,000 hit to your wealth every ten years, compared to keeping that money and just investing it in a conservative way.

If I understand him correctly, he recommends a very high savings rate and very early retirement.

From an individual point of view, my worry is that happiness may not go up much in this early retirement and in fact it may go down; people seem to enjoy working, which is good for their health and their social involvement.  Perhaps Mr. Money Moustache derives a sense of purpose from spreading this gospel, but most people would end up bored and indeed frustrated if they retired at age thirty as he has (apparently) done.

From a social point of view, if everyone did this, productivity would collapse.  Workers over the age of thirty make the world go round, and teach and pass down skills to others.  When you retire involves an external cost or benefit, and retirement can come either too early or too late.

I’ll note in passing that my “dusty iPad 1″ gave me an enormous amount of pleasure, as does my later iPad.  And I wish my old flip phone still worked!  Sadly, it is no longer still making me happy today.

Addendum: Ryan Decker comments.

That is the newly published volume 16 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by Sandra J. Peart.  Of course this is splendid from beginning to end, including Peart’s introduction, the letters, Hayek’s commentary, and assorted documents, and the book even contains three very nice poems written by Harriet Taylor.

Is Hayek here blaming Taylor for moving Mill in a collectivist direction?  Is that the Straussian reading of this book and the reason why Hayek did it?

If there were a phrase for “one step above and beyond self-recommending,” this volume would get it.

That is the title of a short essay by Gary Davis, here is the essay in toto:

Teaching is commonly associated with instruction, yet in evolution, immunology, and neuroscience, instructional theories are largely defunct.

We propose a co-immunity theory of teaching, where attempts by a teacher to alter student neuronal structure to accommodate cultural ideas and practices is sort of a reverse to the function of the immune system, which exists to preserve the physical self, while teaching episodes are designed to alter the mental self.

This is a theory of teaching that is based on the inter-subjective relationship between teacher and learner. This theory posits that teaching does not, as is commonly assumed, take place via instruction from teacher to students, but rather through a process of selection in the learner’s brain, stimulated by materials and activities utilized by the teacher. In this theory, the mechanism that drives the selection process in learners’ brains is co-regulated emotional signaling between teacher and learner. From this perspective, the power of formative assessment is that it intrinsically carries with it emotional aspects for both learner and teacher, in that it provides a feedback relationship between them both, and so, according to the Greenspan & Shanker theory of cognitive symbolic development, promotes cognitive development.

That is from the Journal of Brief Ideas, a new and worthy web site, and for the pointer to the site I thank Michelle Dawson.

Those questions are considered by Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica in their new JPE paper “Suspense and Surprise.”  Here is one to the point excerpt:

In the context of a mystery novel, these dynamics imply the following familiar plot structure.  At each point in the book, the readers thinks that the weight of evidence suggests that the protagonist accused of murder is either guilty or innocent.  But in any given chapter, there is a chance of a plot twist that reverses the reader’s beliefs.  As the book continues along, plot twists become less likely but more dramatic.

In the context of sports, our results imply that most existing rules cannot be suspense-optimal.  In soccer, for example, the probability that the leading team will win depends not only on the period of the game but also on whether it is a tight game or a blowout…

Optimal dynamics could be induced by the following set of rules.  We declare the winner to be the last team to score.  Moreover, scoring becomes more difficult as the game progresses (e.g., the goal shrinks over time).  The former ensures that uncertainty declines over time while the latter generates a decreasing arrival rate of plot twists.  (In this context, plot twists are lead changes.)

There are ungated versions of the paper here.  Note that at the very end of the paper…well, I’ll just let you read it for yourselves.

On February 14th, Kakumei-teki himote doumei (革命的非モテ同盟) — literally, “Revolutionary Alliance of Men That Woman Are Not Attracted To”– will gather in Shibuya, an area of Tokyo popular with young couples, to protest Valentine’s Day and its roots in what they call “romantic capitalist oppression.”

The group, known as Kakuhidou for short, was started in 2006, when its founder, Katsuhiro Furusawa, returned home one day after being dumped by his girlfriend and began reading the Communist Manifesto. He quickly came to the realization that being unpopular with girls is a class issue.

Since then, the group has held several demonstrations each year, all coinciding with holidays that are associated with romantic love in Japanese culture, such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and White Day .

Kakuhidou’s slogans combine Japanese internet culture with classical Marxism, and its origins in cyberspace can be charted through its choice of language. For example, one frequent target of the group’s admonitions are the so-called “riyajuu” (リア充), a neologism frequently used in online communities such as 2chan to refer to those who experience fulfillment in their offline lives (riyajuu is a portmanteau that combines “real” with “jyuujitsu”, the Japanese word for fulfillment).

The release posted on Kakuhidou’s website for this year’s anti-Valentines parade says “the blood-soaked conspiracy of Valentine’s Day, driven by the oppressive chocolate capitalists, has arrived once again. In order to create a brighter future, we call for solidarity among our unloved comrades, so that we may demonstrate in resolute opposition to Valentine’s Day and the romantic industrial complex.”

At previous events, leaders of the group have yelled slogans such as “I hope all riyajuus explode! But we’re still a little jealous!” while wearing shirts that say, roughly, “sex is useless.”

There is more here.  By the way, the group’s official vehicle is a Mercedes-Benz.

For the pointer I thank Andrea Castillo.

Last I looked, Elon Musk was a clear winner of the MR readers’s poll for “most admired.”

Personally, I admire successful creators, scientists, and entrepreneurs a great deal, and Musk fits into those directions very well.  Still, the very top of my personal list would be shaped more by how much individuals had sacrificed.  Let me throw out a few options:

1. The members of the Mexican judiciary who have stood up to the drug gangs, often at the expense of their lives.  They believed in a better future for Mexico and I think eventually they will triumph.

2. Public health professionals who work under great hardship in difficult places, for years, to limit malaria or the spread of Ebola.  In addition to questionable living conditions, they often face high health risks themselves.

3. How about Aun San Suu Kyi, who endured about fifteen years of prison to help bring greater liberty to Myanmar?

4. At a smaller scale, how about individuals who volunteer to work in the burn unit at the hospital?  That has to be fairly icky labor, yet as medical care it can be effective.

You can do variants on my 1-4, but I would start with examples such as those.  Not at the very top of my list, but I also would think about good parents who work as primary caregivers.

If we are restricted to political/public figures, I would opt for Ben Bernanke.

Overall I was surprised how few of you approached the question the way I have, rather as a group you picked too many nerdy white guys.  Now I don’t like to play “the PC card,” and if a process generates a lot of nerdy white guys, I don’t then assume that process is necessarily biased or requiring correction.  Still, the fact that my list creates so much room for women (and non-whites) suggests it reflects the universality of human experience more than what most of you came up with.

It is also notable how few of you picked entertainers or sports figures, as such individuals have figured prominently on such lists in the past (see my What Price Fame?).  In 1971 a lot of people would have said “John Lennon,” and in his day Ted Williams placed high in such surveys.  These days, for better or worse, the tech world and politics seem to exercise a stronger hold on our imaginations, all the more among MR readers I suspect.

Addendum: Here is Noah Smith’s list.

Yesterday a few of you asked me to run this poll.  Please leave your answers in the comments, I will report back.  I thank you all in advance for the wisdom of your responses.  And please restrict your answers to living people, or say anyone who has passed away in the last five years, so this should be about contemporaries, not Joan of Arc or Einstein.

That is the new and notable book by Jacob T. Levy.  Here is one overview bit:

…the book is not a defense of pluralist liberalism, except as against the pretensions of some rationalist liberals that it should be ignored altogether.  It is rather, ultimately, an argument for that claim of irresolvability.  A full understanding of liberal freedom would draw on truths from both the rationalist and pluralist traditions; it would recognize that states and intermediate groups alike can oppress.  And yet we cannot compromise between or combine the two accounts in a wholly satisfactory manner.

In this “contrast between pluralism and rationalism, Montesquieu is the crucial figure,” to quote Jacob.

Overall I am myself inclined to side with rationalism over pluralism.  We can use rationalism to judge a rationalism-pluralism blend to be acceptable, but pluralism cannot play a comparable role.  Mostly we like pluralism because we have a good empirical sense of which plural entities will survive and flourish in a modern capitalist democracy; hardly anyone likes a pluralism where their favored groups would absolutely lose out in terms of influence and status.  In this sense the debate is rarely about pluralism per se.  Jacob is I think skeptical that we can have a good answer as to how much plural groups (e.g., churches, mosques, Boy Scouts) should be regulated by the state.  I nonetheless think that a) public choice theory suggests over-regulation is far more likely than under-regulation of such groups, and b) rationalism can broadly identify some political and economic conditions which will tend to lower the costs of exit from such groups, and perhaps that is enough to make a case for those conditions.  In these ways I end up as more of a classic Nozickian — on “utopia” — than Jacob does.

In any case, as might be expected, this book cements Jacob’s place as one of the leading thinkers in today’s liberal tradition.

In order:

1. Barack Obama

2. Pope Francis

3. Bill Clinton

4. Rev. Billy Graham

5. George W. Bush

6. Ben Carson

7. Stephen Hawking

8. Bill Gates

9. Bill O’Reilly

10. Benjamin Netanyahu

11. Vladimir Putin

The source is here.  If I understand the ranking system properly, #6-11 are basically tied.

Given who is on the list, what should we infer about America as a nation?  About human nature?

Symposium co-sponsored by the Mercatus Center:

Economists on the Welfare State and the Regulatory State: Why Don’t Any Argue in Favor of One and Against the Other?

The symposium Prologue suggests that among economists in the United States, on matters of the welfare state and the regulatory state, virtually none favors one while opposing the other. Such pattern is a common and intuitive impression, and is supported by scatterplots of survey data. But what explains the pattern? Why don’t some economists favor one and oppose the other?

Contributors address those questions:

Dean Baker:
Do Welfare State Liberals Also Love Regulation?

Andreas Bergh:
Yes, There Are Hayekian Welfare States (At Least in Theory)

Marjorie Griffin Cohen:
The Strange Career of Regulation in the Welfare State

Robert Higgs:
Two Ideological Ships Passing in the Night

Arnold Kling:
Differences in Opinion Among Economists About Government and Market Efficiency

Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt:
The Moral Narratives of Economists

Scott Sumner:
Moral Differences in Economics: Why Is the Left-Right Divide Widening?

Cass Sunstein:
Unhelpful Abstractions and the Standard View

The home page for the issue is here.

I wrote a short piece on this for Vox, here is one excerpt:

Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last 20 years?

This designation should go to someone who actually has helped change the world, rather than just changing lots of minds. It also should go to someone who has embodied key trends of the time, noting that for both standards I am focusing on the United States.

Based on those standards, I am inclined to pick Andrew Sullivan, who is most recently in the news for his announcement that he is quitting after fifteen years of blogging.

Any discussion of Sullivan’s influence must begin with gay marriage. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia already have legalized gay marriage, representing a majority of the American population, with possibly Alabama and others to follow. A broader Supreme Court decision for nationwide legalization may be on the way. More generally, gay rights have taken a major leap forward.

…I thought long and hard before selecting Andrew for the designation of most influential public intellectual. Perhaps Paul Krugman has changed more minds, but his agenda hasn’t much changed the world; we haven’t, for instance, gone back to do a bigger fiscal stimulus. Peter Singer led large numbers of people into vegetarianism and veganism and gave those practices philosophic respectability; he is second on my list. A generation ago, I would have picked Milton Friedman, for intellectual leadership in the direction of capitalist and pro-market reforms. But that is now long ago, and the Right has produced no natural successor.

Self-recommending!  And again, please note, you should not confuse the designation “most influential” with “the person who, I, the reader, would most like to see elevated in status.”  That would be a fallacy of mood affiliation.

American Sniper is one of the best anti-war movies I have seen, ever.  But it shows the sniper-assassin, and his killing, to be sexy, and to be regarded as sexy by women, while the rest of war is dull and stupid.  (Even the two enemy snipers are quite attractive and fantastic figures, and there is a deliberate parallel between the family life of the Syrian sniper and the American protagonist.  The klutziness of the non-assassin soldiers limited how many African-Americans and Hispanics they were willing to cast in those roles, as it is easiest to make white guys look crass in this way without causing offense.)  By making the attractions of war palpable, this film disturbs and confuses people and also occasions some of the worst critical reviews I have read.  It also, by understanding and then dissecting the attractions of blood lust, becomes a quite convincing anti-war movie, if you doubt this spend a few months studying The Iliad.  (By the way, Clint Eastwood, the director and producer, describes the movie as anti-war.)  The murder scenes create an almost unbearable tension, the sandstorm is a metaphor for our collective fog, and they had the stones to opt for the emotional overkill of four rather than just three tours of duty.  Iraq is presented as a hopeless wasteland with nothing of value or relevance to the United States, and at the end of the story America proves its own worst enemy.  It is not clear who ever gets over having killed and fought in a war (can anything else be so gripping?…neither family life nor sex…), even when appearances suggest a kind of normality has returned.  The generational cycle is in any case replenished.  I say A or A+, both as a movie and as a Rorschach test.

Two Days, One Night has some of the worst economics I have seen in a movie, ever.  It would be brilliant as a kind of Randian (or for that matter Keynesian) meta-critique of the screwed up nature of Belgian labor markets and social norms, and most of all a critique of the inability of the Belgian intelligentsia to understand this, except it is not.  It is meant as a straight-up plea for sympathy for the victim and as such it fails miserably, even though as a movie it embodies reasonably good production values.  Everything in the workplace of this solar power company is zero-sum across the workers and we never see why.  The protagonist campaigns to get her job back, but never asks or even considers how she might improve her productivity or attitude, asking only on the basis of need.  (And she is turned down only on the basis of need.)  At one point her employer states the zero marginal product hypothesis quite precisely, something like “when you took time off, we saw that sixteen people could do the work of seventeen.”  She never asks if there might be some other way she could contribute — but she does need the money — nor does the notion of a better job match somewhere else rear its head.  The depictions of financial hardship confuse wealth and income, basic survival and discretionary spending.  The rave reviews this movie has received represent yet another Rorschach test and one which virtually every commentator seems to have failed.

Mostly, yes, although with some caveats (the headline of the piece doesn’t exactly capture this).  That is the topic of my latest column for The Upshot.  Here is one excerpt:

Niclas Berggren…and Therese Nilsson…have produced a fascinating series of papers on these questions, sometimes writing singly, sometimes together or with the collaboration of a variety of co-authors. Their most notable study is perhaps a paper they wrote together, “Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance?

…One of their most striking findings is that societies characterized by greater economic freedom and greater wealth do indeed exhibit greater tolerance toward gay people, a tendency suggesting that gay rights, including gay marriage, will spread globally as national economies liberalize and develop.

Some metrics of economic freedom count more than others:

This greater tolerance is strongly associated only with certain features of what has often been defined as economic freedom. For example, a smaller government, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is often included in so-called economic freedom indexes as an objective measure of freedom. But the data show that smaller government has a slight negative correlation with tolerance of gay people by heterosexuals. One implication is that many conservatives may be overly preoccupied with the size of government as a measure of how free societies actually are.

On the other hand, the data shows that when a society has impressive scores on property rights security and low inflation — two other components of economic freedom indexes — these characteristics are strongly and positively correlated with tolerance of gays. It’s possible that low inflation, and the behavior of a central bank, are stand-ins for the general trustworthiness of a nation’s government and broader institutions, and such trustworthiness helps foster tolerance.

The results for race are not nearly as strong, namely both freedom and prosperity are less clearly associated with higher levels of racial tolerance, although the correlation is still a positive one.

And there is this:

We are often told that education is an important remedy, yet it does not register as a meaningful factor in the cross-country data in this paper. Higher levels of education simply have not correlated significantly with higher levels of tolerance across countries.

Do read the whole thing.