Philosophy

The specific thinkers cited for ‘cyclical models of history’ are Vico, Spengler, and Toynbee, in that order.

With that triple-burst trigger pull, the race to a second, Straussian reading begins.

Taking a cue from those statements, consider that the book itself might be a cycle. Read forwards, it is a series of slightly overcooked thinkpieces that ends on a surprisingly bold note. Read backwards, one finds it hides a thrilling call to arms.

This is a contrarian reading; one I make no claim should actually be attributed to Cowen himself. Nonetheless, the coherences pile up too neatly to simply be ignored once seen.

There is much more of substance at the link.  That is from Thomas Barghest, via Justin.  By the way, someone else did a long “Alt Right” take on the book and emailed it to me, and I meant to link to it, but I misplaced the email somehow.  If you email it to me, or leave it in the comments, I’ll put it into Links tomorrow.  And here is just a wee bit more:

Cowen shows us that if we had the courage of immigrants and foreigners to ignore contemporary mores and treat our strengths as something to take pride in rather than something to hide, we might restore our culture to a dynamic greatness. Such honest pride in ourselves and our abilities was ours only a half-century ago, before the 60’s, he implies. It is not so long gone.

However, a proper neoreactionary, he doesn’t pretend we can simply wish ourselves there. Americans’ current complacency is not pure timidity. The transcendent is not something we’ve simply lost. It was crushed, stolen, and turned against us.

Overall, you guys crack me up, and I do mean “guys.”

Recently I went to a (very good) conference.  As a number of us got off the train and waited near the platform for a ride, we immediately recognized each other as belonging to the same event, even though we had not met each other before.  We were short and tall, male and female, and of varying races, but still we all had “that look”; I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider what that means.

It occurred to me that many conferences could try to be more diverse.  No, I am not referring to gender or race or ethnicity, although that may be true as well.  I am referring to personality types and life experiences.  Perhaps each conference should have at least one or two people who are not driven to succeed, not the member of any elite group, and not assured of their standing in the world.

What then to select for?  I wondered whether each conference ought not to invite a hitchhiker or two.  Think about hitchhikers, at least as a group on average:

1. They are mobile and not so set in their ways.  They do not evaluate everything in terms of its efficacy and productivity.

2. They are adventurous and willing to engage with strangers.

3. They have not sunk their assets into expensive homes or fancy cars.

4. They wish to see the world and have a minimum amount of restlessness, maybe more.

5. Superficially it may seem that hitchhikers are “stupider than average,” but I suspect relative to their demographics they are smarter than average.

6. They do not schedule their lives so very tightly.

7. Since the late 1970s, fewer people engage in hitchhiking, and this raises their intrinsic interest.  They are trying to resurrect a dying form of social capital, still prevalent mainly in Cuba and Eastern Europe.

8. The groups skews male, but I wonder if any more so than conference attendees more generally.

Most of all, hitchhikers probably have some time to spare.  Send out a car, and offer them a ride and a conference.  Toss in $500 if need be.  They still will be cheaper than reimbursing the travel costs for most of your guests.  Furthermore, when it comes to “getting back,” they can, um…hitch a ride.

If you wish, give them the right to shout out “You must be on drugs!’ or “I wouldn’t give you a ride!” at least once each conference, without fear of being ejected or otherwise shamed.

Again, here is a video on hitchhikers.  They are perhaps the least likely guests to complain about the conference accommodations.

Who’s complacent?

by on March 19, 2017 at 12:28 pm in Education, History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Not Jordan Peterson:

Raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, Jordan Peterson has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt plane, piloted a mahogany racing sailboat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, built a Native American Long-House on the upper floor of his Toronto home, and been inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.

He’s been a dishwasher, gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker. He’s taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and businessmen, consulted for the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Sustainable Development, helped his clinical clients manage depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, served as an advisor to senior partners of major Canadian law firms, identified thousands of promising entrepreneurs on six different continents, and lectured extensively in North America and Europe.

With his students and colleagues, Dr Peterson has published more than a hundred scientific papers, transforming the modern understanding of personality, and revolutionized the psychology of religion with his now-classic book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. As a Harvard professor, he was nominated for the prestigious Levinson Teaching Prize, and is regarded by his current University of Toronto students as one of three truly life-changing teachers.

…Dr. Peterson’s online self-help program, The Self Authoring Suite, featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, CBC radio, and NPR’s national website, has helped tens of thousands of people resolve the problems of their past and radically improve their future.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Adam Kazan.

Philosophy of humor bleg

by on March 17, 2017 at 12:49 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

What makes something funny?  What should I read on this topic?  I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and guidance.  I can assure you I will put this material to use, though not as a producer of humor.

He was superb, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  We considered satire as a weapon, Harvard, long-distance running, Washington vs. NYC, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, Caribbean culture and intellectual history, and of course Malcolm’s mom, among other topics.  His answers are so fluid and narrative they are hard to excerpt, but here is one bit from him:

COWEN: Overrated or underrated, the idea of early childhood intervention to set societal ills right?

GLADWELL: Overrated because to my mind it’s just another form . . . it became politically impermissible to say that certain people in society would never make it because they were genetically inferior. So I feel like that group, it’s like, “All right, we can’t say that anymore. We’ll just move the goalpost up two years.” And we’ll say, “Well, if you don’t get . . .” Or three years — “If you don’t get the right kind of stimulation by the time you’re three, basically it’s curtains.”

Why is that argument, which we decided we didn’t like it when they set the goalpost at zero, and somehow it’s super-important and legitimate and chin-stroking-worthy when they moved the goalpost to three. Truth is, people, it’s not over at three any more than it was over at zero. There are certain things that it would be nice to get done by the age of three. But if they’re not, the idea that it’s curtains is preposterous. It’s the same kind of fatalism that I thought we had defeated in the . . .

If you want to say that the goalpost should be at 30, then I’m open to it.

I asked what changes he would make to higher education:

GLADWELL: OK. I would establish a set of baseline criteria for admissions, and then I would have a lottery after that. So if you’re in the top 2 percent of your high school class — 5 percent, whatever cutoff we want — following test scores at a certain point, whatever cutoff we want, some minimum number of other things you do — you just go into the pot and we’re pulling out names. I’d probably triple or quadruple the size in the next 10 years, open campuses — probably two other campuses in the United States, one overseas.

I had this idea, I’m not sure how you’d do it, where I think that it would be really, really useful to ban graduates of elite colleges from ever disclosing that they went to an elite college.

I thought the Steve Pearlstein material was perhaps Malcolm’s highlight, but you need to read it straight through.

Here is a very short bit from me:

Most of my questions will be quite short, but my first question will be really, really long. Since everyone knows you and your work so well, I asked myself, “Who is Malcolm Gladwell?” And I tried to come up with an answer. I’ll give you my answer, and then you can correct me or add to that, and this will take a little while.

Definitely recommended.

Here it is.  As for my score, well, as Number Two used to say, “That would be telling.”

Here is a Noah Smith post on those topics, and here is Adam Ozimek, both responding to Russ Roberts.  Rather than adjudicate the varying points of view here, I will stress some points of my own:

1. The political process does not select for humble versions of empiricism.  Those end up with virtually no political influence, whereas some of the more dogmatic form of empiricism may find some traction.

2. A lot of the bias in empirical methods comes simply from which questions are asked/answered.  Post Trump and De Vos, I see plenty of commentators and researchers reporting “vouchers don’t raise test scores” and virtually no “vouchers increase parental satisfaction.”  Is that empiricism?  In isolation, maybe.  In terms of reflecting the broader spirit of science, not so much.  It is also not humility.

3. I also see bias in terms of framing and contextualizing.  One empirical result is “over a short time horizon, a $15 minimum wage in Seattle hasn’t destroyed many jobs.”  Another empirical result is “rises in the prices of inputs virtually always lower input demand, with larger effects over longer time horizons.”  There is also “non-pecuniary factors of jobs adjust downward, in response to wage minimums, thereby removing the benefits for the workers from the wage hike.”  One side claims the mantle of empiricism with #1, the other side claims the mantle of empiricism with #2 and #3.  Overall the course of that debate does make me more skeptical about “empiricism as we find it,” though not about proper empiricism.  And note that the scholarly division of labor does in fact give any particular individual a sufficient excuse not to be doing the task of overall synthesis.

4. I find a very common pattern among both researchers and commentators.  They first form broadly empirical judgments about social systems, based on overall views of history, current politics (too much), and some of their relatively general empirical judgments, such as whether elasticities are large or small, or the relative crookedness of politicians vs. businesspeople, or the relative competence of voters, and so on.  Those are empirical judgments, though usually in non-formal, non-directly testable ways, and also inter-smushed with ethical judgments, for better or worse.

They then view very particular empirical debates through the broader lenses they have chosen.  For instance, views on politics used to correlate with views on the interest elasticity of money demand.  Today views on politics correlate with views on minimum wage elasticity, and so on.

It’s the kind of empiricism outlined in the first paragraph of #4 that has the greater predictive value for beliefs.  Furthermore it is sometimes (not always) the more important form of empiricism for settling many questions of policy.

5. I am sympathetic with the view that the broader empiricism outlined at the top of #4 is overused.  Yet many of the critics of that broad approach simply wish to protect the presuppositions of the academic status quo from being disrupted by the possibility of other broad paradigms.  In other words, I worry that criticizing “ideology” is too often a means of cementing in the dominant ideology in academia (and journalism), rather than an actual critique of ideology.

6. Most generally, humility is always scarcer than one might think.  Perhaps that should be one of Cowen’s Laws.

This article presents a national measure of Americans’ level of concern about economic inequality from 1966 to 2015, and analyzes the relationship between this construct and public support for government intervention in the economy. Current research argues that concerns about economic inequality are associated with a desire for increased government action, but this relationship has only been formally tested using cross-sectional analyses. I first use a form of dynamic factor analysis to develop a measure of national concern over time. Using an error correction model I then show that an increase in national concern about economic inequality does not lead to a subsequent increase in support for government intervention in the economy. Instead there is some evidence that, once confounding factors are accounted for, an increase in concern could lead to reduced support for government intervention.

That is from a new paper by Graham Wright, via the excellent Rolf Degen.  I think of one possible mechanism for this result in these terms.  As one group of commentators repeats the message: “Group X doesn’t have enough,” or “Group X is being ripped off,” in fact many voters process the message as “Group X is actually a low status group.”  And so they do not end up supporting more redistribution to Group X.

“Be careful how complain” is one of the overarching points here, and it is a point which is not heeded so very often.

Some old formats:

1. Chalk and talk.  Or with Powerpoint.

2. Play a video and comment on it.

3. Panel discussion.

4. Debate.

5. Manage an audience or classroom discussion.

6. One person interviews another or interviews a panel.  Or, one person interviews another and children burst into the room, only to be pulled back by their mother.  This latter option seems popular right now.

7. All Q&A, no talk (one of my favorites).

8. All questions, no answers allowed from the speaker (never seen this one, but it does produce audience participation).

9. Read aloud from one’s book (the worst).

10. Play or sing a song, or perform in some other manner, such as doing periodic magic tricks.  Chat or trash talk while attempting basketball free throws.

Are there new formats worth considering?  Has anyone tried “Holding a two-person or group conversation while pretending the audience isn’t there”?  What else?

Reddit AMA with me

by on March 7, 2017 at 2:36 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

Here is the link, all are welcome…

From Dan Wang:

Let me take this opportunity to register a complaint with the term “open-minded,” which is increasingly praised as an important virtue.

I’ve started to dislike the term. First of all, it’s unobjectionable—who would profess he is not open-minded? More importantly, it’s not always clear what the term refers to, and this is worth thinking through. It might indicate the state of being “soft-minded,” in which one would readily be swayed by better arguments. But often it tends to connote “empty-minded,” in which one accepts anything and retains little. Many people are indeed open to different cultures and ideas, but they’re not necessarily conceptualizing their experience, nor active in seeking new experiences out.

I would like for everyone to be “hungry-minded,” in which one realizes that there is so much to know.

Much (by no means all) of the post is a review of The Complacent Class.  Dan of course is an excellent reader:

By introducing little oddities in the text, Cowen makes room for claims that are too difficult to baldly state; in other cases, watch for occasions in which he’s offering commentary on something other than what he’s directly writing about.

I am envious that Dan is now in Kunming again…

Much of the immigration debate has focused on assimilation rates for second and third generation Latinos.  But put that aside and consider the rest of the arrivals.  It is striking to me how very rapidly they assimilate, and I don’t just mean the Canadians (on a given day, could you tell which of the writers of this blog is from north of the border?).  I mean the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Indians, and many others, including most of the Muslim immigrants.  They don’t become culturally identical to the native-born, but in terms of economic and social indicators, you couldn’t ask for a much better performance.

The assimilation problem in fact comes from the longstanding native-born Americans, often of more traditional stock.  The country around them has changed rapidly, and they do not assimilate so well to the new realities.  And since they are not self-selected migrants who know they will face hardship, they are not always so inclined to internalize a “suck it up” kind of attitude.  Many complain, others settle into niches of failure or mediocre careers.

In this regard, encouraging the actual arriving immigrants to assimilate better or faster can make the actual assimilation problem worse, because it will change the home culture more rapidly too.

Often, the real impact of immigration is not on wages or electoral outcomes, but it is the assimilation burdens placed on some of the longer-standing traditional natives of the home country.  And the more productive and successful the immigrants are, the more serious these problems may become.

I am grateful to the Cato liberaltarian group for a discussion of this issue; I have drawn on remarks from that dialogue, including from Will.

The basic post is too long, but some of it is interesting and here is the best part:

The pattern of Cost Disease seems to be related to things that inextricably require the unsubstitutable labour and attention not just of human beings but of human beings somehow comparable to the buyer. (Americans, for the US focus of most of this discussion.) Education not only requires teachers who are part of the same cultural milieu as their students, but it requires the attention of the students themselves, and attention is inherently expensive. As the only thing that can be expensive in the final Strong Heaven, attention predictably gets more expensive in a culture that moves more and more toward general post-scarcity. Health care similarly requires local human involvement.

That is from Ansuz, via Matthew Fairbank.  And here is Scott Alexander’s survey follow-up post.

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and here is the opening bit of the summary:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

Due out January 1, 2018, of course this is essential reading.