Philosophy

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!

That is in the FT, gated most likely, do subscribe!  In any case, here was to me the most interesting bit:

He [Tetlock] is trying to replace the public debates he describes as “Krugman-Ferguson pie fights” — a reference to the clashes over austerity between the economist and Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman and the economic historian, Niall Ferguson — with adversarial collaboration. “You give each side the opportunity to pose, say, 10 questions it thinks are probative and resolvable, and that it thinks it has a comparative advantage in answering” and then have the two sides give testable answers . . . Here is a very clear psychological prediction: people will come out of that tournament more open-minded than they otherwise would have been. You can take that one to the bank.”

More importantly, Tetlock ordered “…an apple fizz cocktail to go with haddock with a sauce of butter and musses.”

Here was the best single sentence from Tetlock, itself worth the price of an FT subscription:

“There is a price to be paid for feeling good about your beliefs.”

Robert Armstrong did an excellent job with the interview and piece.

A neural network can be designed to provide a measure of its own confidence in a categorization, but the complexity of the mathematical calculations involved means it’s not straightforward to take the network apart to understand how it makes its decisions. This can make unintended behavior hard to predict; and if failure does occur, it can be difficult to explain why. If a system misrecognizes an object in a photo, for instance, it may be hard (though not impossible) to know what feature of the image led to the error. Similar challenges exist with other machine learning techniques.

That is from Will Knight.  This reminds me of computer chess, especially in its earlier days but still today as well.  The evaluation functions are not transparent, to say the least, and they were not designed by the conscious planning of humans.  (In the case of chess, it was a common tactic to let varied program options play millions of games against each other and simply see which evaluation functions won the most.)  So when people debate “Will you buy the Peter Singer utilitarian driverless car?” or “Will you buy the Kant categorical imperative driverless car?”, and the like, they are not paying sufficient heed to this point.  A lot of the real “action” with driverless cars will be determined by the non-transparent features of their programs.

How will regulatory systems — which typically look for some measure of verifiable ex ante safety — handle this reality?  Or might this non-transparency be precisely what enables the vehicles to be put on the road, because it will be harder to object to them?  What will happen when there is a call to “fix the software so this doesn’t happen any more”?  To be sure, adjustments will be made.

More and more of our world is becoming this way, albeit slowly.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

North Brooklin, Maine

30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

(Signed, ‘E. B. White’)

Here is the link, via Jodi Ettenberg and Letters of Note.

Alternatively, you might try the thoughts of Langston Hughes.

…I work occasionally at the VA as a psychiatrist in both inpatient and outpatient settings. My impression is that the men going into the recent wars are far less psychologically healthy then the men who went to WWI, WWII, or Korea. The prior longitudinal studies of the wars of the first half of the 20th century, such as they are, do indeed suggest that most men exit war with similar psychological profiles as to when they entered. Could the recently documented ‘sense of loss’ so many returning veterans express reflect something similar to inner city youths and gangs, namely, that the camaraderie of combat and order of military life provided the paternal presence they lacked growing up? Military life and combat provided what communities and families had provided similar men when they returned from WWI and WWII. Take away the military life and combat, and they are left where they were prior to joining.

That is from a recent post on reading.

I will be holding a Conversations with Tyler chat with her soon, no public event, podcast only.

Most of you have read her, I suspect.

She is a lead obituary writer for The New York Times, here is her Wikipedia page.  Her background is in linguistics and classical music, but by now she has penned over 1,200 obituaries, with many links to those on the Wikipedia page.  You also can follow her obituaries and other tweets on Twitter.

Here is her Paris Review interview.  Read her also at Creative Non-Fiction.  Here is a $2.99 eBook of selected obituaries.  She is funny, that is funny ha-ha, the other funny I could not say.

She also has written two excellent books: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, and Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind.

So what should I ask Margalit Fox?

I very much liked yesterday’s Ross Douthat piece, and I agree with most of it, and I regard him as one of the truly great columnists writing today.  Still, there was one tiny part I disagreed with, and I see the point being repeated in varying forms elsewhere, so I thought I would pull it out and add a few comments, namely:

(There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)

That is Ross, do read the whole piece for context, but here are my worries.  They may be nitpicks, but actually I feel a fair amount is at stake here:

1. It seems unfair to compare Davos sessions to some rather robust, historically important, top-of-the-line explorers.  Virtually all sessions are boring, including or maybe even especially in the 19th or early 20th centuries.  How about comparing the elites of back then to the elites of today?  Then I think the Davos set would look quite good.  Or if you compare the explorers of more recent times — say Jan Morris or Louis Sarno — to the explorers of back then, still the present day looks good and possibly even considerably superior in terms of curiosity, tolerance, and a broad outlook.

Overall, I see a lot of evidence — both cross-sectional and time series — that those qualities are what economists call normal goods rather than inferior goods, or in other words those qualities rise with income.  And do we moderns not in some ways have an overall better and more accurate perspective?  Have we not read much more, learned better social science, and developed a greater facility for spotting prejudices and logical fallacies?

2. I suspect either the elites or the explorers of today are better when it comes to understanding differing perspectives of gender, neurology, sexuality, race, age (should you beat your kids?), and a variety of other dimensions.  Maybe none of these wisdoms fall exactly under the heading of the adjective “cosmopolitan,” but still they seem relevant for whether today’s elite is wiser and broader.  How many of the earlier elite were women, and embodied that set of diverse perspectives, to pose a simple comparative question?

3. I’ve never been to Davos, but I know some people who have.  They’re weird!  And I mean that in a (mostly) good way.  I am reluctant to overgeneralize about them, and I suspect they are more diverse than is often thought to be the case.  Almost by the virtue of having been invited, they are some pretty extreme outliers, consider for instance Bill Gates or Elon Musk.  I’d also like to see data on how many of them have spent serious time in say poor rural villages in less developed nations, or had other strange or diverse experiences.  The answers might surprise us.

Who amongst us knows this about CEO and billionaire Patrick Byrne of Overstock?:

“30 years ago in China I contracted Hep C.  I got a bad head wound and a ‘barefoot doctor’ they called him, sewed me up.  I’ll give you the facts, I went stage 4 last summer, seemed to have gotten through the treatment but it’s been quite harsh on me and it’s on top of a long, I’ve actually had 106 surgeries, 51 times they stopped my heart electrically, another 50 times chemically,”

Isn’t that a kind of cosmopolitanism?  And the medical treatments also have given him some pretty novel perspectives.  Patrick by the way is fluent in Mandarin and has spent years in strange and unusual parts of China, and during a time when it was far less safe and comfortable than today.

Or how about what Jeff Sachs does?  Whether or not you agree with all of his economics, it’s not easy, and I mean on both the mind and the body.  How about those Harvard MBAs who are Mormons and have done missions in exotic locales and gone door to door for two years?

Muhammad Yunus was born in a Chittagong Muslim village into a family of nine children, circa 1940.  Later “From 1969 to 1972, Yunus was assistant professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.”  Isn’t that a pretty incredible diversity of life experience?

Thomas Friedman, a classic exemplar of the globalist mindset and whipping boy for many, in fact spent serious time in Beirut covering the civil war, and doing original reporting in situations of very real danger, winning Pulitzers and a National Book Award for the quality of his work.  During one later four-year period, he traveled over 500,000 miles.  Nicholas Kristof is another good example of someone who really “gets out there,” in his case often in Africa but not only.

If you are curious, here’s a basic list of Davos attendees.   Note also that the very real increase in segregation by income in America — mostly a bad development and which Ross mentions — seems to be centered around the upper middle class, not the Davos set, as the very wealthy and the elites always have lived somewhat apart.

Overall I think Ross and many others are somewhat underrating Davos.  I do understand that Davos attendees may, as a whole, suffer from excess hubris, excess complacency, or be excessively fond of technocracy.  And the fact that many (by no means all) of them have not suffered very much does limit some of their perspectives.  But are they not in fact actually about as cosmopolitan as we might hope for?

Addendum: Rob Howse offers some useful remarks, and also notes the connection of the “genuine cosmopolitan” idea — a tricky concept — to Leo Strauss.  Here is his closing bit:

Is it so that the cosmopolitans Douthat despises merely retreat into comfortable and familiar neighborhoods in global cities?…[many are] working in a combat zone with Medicins sans frontiers; or persisting as a foreign correspondent in a country where journalists’ lives are threatened; or setting up a truth commission to heal wounds in a conflict-ridden nation; or soldiering as a social entrepreneur to empower women’s small business in an African village; or confronting traditional community leaders about female genital mutilation.  These are all quintessentially cosmopolitan roles, which involve real risks, real sacrifice, and often wrenching encounters with otherness.

I agree with Ross’s description that the Davos set is very often “liberal Christianity without Christ.”  But maybe that’s the most cosmopolitan philosophy going these days.  The bigger question of course is, given slow economic growth and institutional rigidification, how much that really helps us.

That question came up briefly in my chat with Cass Sunstein, though we didn’t get much of a chance to address it.  In the Star Trek world there is virtual reality, personal replicators, powerful weapons, and, it seems, a very high standard of living for most of humanity.  The early portrayals of the planet Vulcan seem rather Spartan, but at least they might pass a basic needs test of sorts, plus there is always catch-up growth to hope for.  The bad conditions seem largely reserved for those enslaved by the bad guys, originally the Klingons and Romulans, with those stories growing more complicated as the series proceeds.

In Star Wars, the early episodes show some very prosperous societies.  Still, droids are abused, there is widespread slavery, lots of people seem to live at subsistence, and eventually much of the galaxy falls under the Jedi Reign of Terror.

Why the difference?  Should we consult Acemoglu and Robinson?  Or is it about economic geography?  I can find think of a few factors differentiating the world of Star Wars from that of Star Trek:

1. The armed forces in Star Trek seem broadly representative of society.  Compare Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu to the Imperial Storm troopers.

2. Captains Kirk and Picard may be overly narcissistic, but they do not descend into true power madness, unlike various Sith leaders and corrupted Jedi Knights.

3. In Star Trek, any starship can lay waste to a planet, whereas in Star Wars there is a single, centralized Death Star and no way to oppose it, short of having the rebels try to blow it up.  That seems to imply stronger checks and balances in the world of Star Trek.  No single corrupt captain can easily take over the Federation, and so there are always opposing forces.

4. Star Trek embraces analytical egalitarianism, namely that all humans consider themselves part of the same broader species.  There is no special group comparable to the Jedi or the Sith, with special powers or with special whatevers in their blood.  There are various species of aliens, but they are identified as such, they are not in general going to win human elections, and furthermore humans are portrayed as a kind of galactic hegemon, a’ la the United States circa the postwar era.

5. The single individual is much more powerful in the world of Star Wars, due to Jedi and Sith powers, which seems to lower stability.  In the Star Trek world, some of the biggest trouble comes from super-human Khan and his clan, but fortunately they are put down.

6. Star Trek replicators are sufficiently powerful it seems slavery is highly inefficient in that world.  In Star Wars the underlying depreciation rate, as you would find it measured in a Solow model, seems to be higher.  More forced labor is drafted into use to repair all of that wasting capital.

What else?

Addendum: Here is Cass on Star Wars vs. Star Trek.