Sentences to ponder

by on August 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm in Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

“Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart.” This is the counsel Leo Strauss, among the most consequential teachers and scholars of political philosophy in the 20th century, offered an advanced graduate student who had asked for a general rule about teaching.

In a short essay published in the early 1960s, “Liberal Education and Responsibility” (based on a public lecture he gave), Strauss elaborated on his exquisite advice. “Do not have too high an opinion of your importance,” he said, “and have the highest opinion of your duty, your responsibility.”

There is more here, by Peter Berkowitz, via Andrea Castillo.

How to look smart?

by on August 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm in Games, Philosophy | Permalink

Perhaps these results are speculative all around, but I am happy to report them for your consideration:

Another strategy identified by the survey, wearing glasses, appears to be surprisingly effective. Figures released in 2011 by the College of Optometrists, in the U.K., show that 43 percent of the people it surveyed believe glasses make a person look more intelligent.

But you may not need glasses if you’re beautiful. A Czech study found that certain facial features—narrow faces, long noses, and thin chins—correlated with both perceived intelligence and attractiveness. Interestingly, men who were considered smart-looking actually tended to have higher IQs; the same was not true for women.

Other ways to signal intelligence without opening your mouth include walking at the same pace as those around you. Subjects in one study rated a person moving faster or slower than “normal human walking speed” as less competent and intelligent. Speaking of incompetence: don’t drink in public, at least not at work functions. The perceived association between alcohol and stupid behavior is so strong, according to a 2013 study, that merely holding a beer makes you appear dumber.

How you write matters, too—particularly how you write your name. Middle initials apparently lend a person a certain cachet. Participants in a study published this year rated writing samples more favorably when the author’s name included a middle initial; they also presumed people with middle initials to be of higher social status than their uninitialed peers. Typing your initial in the Comic Sans font, though, could ruin the whole thing: a Princeton researcher found that a hard-to-read font made an author seem dumber, while a clean, simple typeface (Times New Roman, in the study) made him or her seem more intelligent.

The same researcher also looked at how using big words (a classic strategy for impressing others) affects perceived intelligence. Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.

The full link is here, with footnotes and sourcing, hat tip goes to Catherine Rampell.

David H. writes:

Yes, this Forbes list is a miserable failure, but it got me thinking about how to quantify coolness. Good restaurants are valuable, but to be cool, restaurants also need to be affordable and a little off-putting. If I were doing this, I would generate a list of touring bands that rank highly in RYM, knock out the superstars, and then see what US cities they played in the last 4 years. Each band-visit would count as a portion of coolness for that city, and a partial portion for the immediate vicinity. Also, RYM records which cities the bands came from. That should count for a lot. Then I would look for cities with an outsized and lively gay scene. I’m not sure how the causation works – whether a gay scene adds substantial coolness or whether it follows coolness – but the correlation seems pretty clear to me.

Coolness is unstable partly because it’s much more difficult to achieve in expensive cities. San Francisco and Berkeley are sinking in coolness partly for this reason. A truly cool city needs a critical mass of underemployed creative types who will devote a great deal of time to “the scene”, and this is hard to do when you’re paying $6+ for each of your beers. So, the lower the urban rents and general cost of living, the cooler the city, other things being equal.

OK, Forbes was right that proportion of young people living in the city is important. I also think that trends are important, like: Which cities are gaining young people, and which are losing them?

What else?

The link to RYM was added by me.  I would think that a truly cool place cannot be rated as cool by too many other sources.  How about that retirement community in Florida, an incorporated city, ruled largely by contract, where only the elderly live and the visits of grown children are regulated and rationed?  How about the city in America which has the highest birth rate?  Isn’t that kind of cool?  Seriously.  That would put Memphis, Ogden, and Provo in the lead.  What’s so cool about tracking RYM?

It turns out we are getting our own branch of Momofuku.  And Forbes recently decided DC is the coolest city in the United States.  As an act of apparent satire, they followed up by naming Bethesda #19.  I say Bethesda is about the least cool town around, Annandale should have done better.

What do I think?  Well, Washington would be cooler if it were breeding its own Momofuku equivalents; northern Virginia did produce or at least refine or perhaps drive crazy the unreliable Peter Chang.  David Chang, the Momofuku guy, did grow up in northern Virginia and ate in the “American-Chinese” restaurants of Vienna, VA, before striking out on his own in New York City, rated by Forbes as the eleventh coolest city in America (doesn’t NYC have to be either #1 or “totally not cool at all”?  Can you really sandwich it between #10 Dallas and #12 Oakland?).

You know, I very much enjoy and admire quite a few Forbes writers, most of all Modeled Behavior.  So I don’t mean for what follows to cast any aspersions on Forbes, but…you know…Forbes itself isn’t actually all that cool, not in the world of media at least.

Can we agree that…Washington really does deserve to be Forbes’s idea of the coolest city in America?

(I thank J.O. for a useful conversation related to this blog post.)

He writes:

…the cost of bureaucracy is in general vastly overestimated. Compensation of workers accounts for only around 6 percent of non defense federal spending, and only a fraction of that compensation goes to people you could reasonably call bureaucrats.

And what Konczal says about welfare is also true, although harder to quantify, for regulation. For sure there are wasteful and unnecessary government regulations — but not nearly as many as libertarians want to believe. When, for example, meddling bureaucrats tell you what you can and can’t have in your dishwashing detergent, it turns out that there’s a very good reason. America in 2014 is not India under the License Raj.

In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.


And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don’t mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

You can read his further points here.  In fact I agree with many of Krugman’s observations in what I thought was overall a useful post.  It’s just that I think a lot of other viewpoints are living in a fantasy world too.

That said, Krugman grossly underestimates the costs of government regulation.  For one thing, government regulations are a major obstacle to the infrastructure improvements which Krugman is so keen on.  To use Krugman’s own pick of the cherry, he wrote another post defending the DMV for its on-line service and reasonable wait times.  It was not always so, but on top of that let’s not forget the Virginia DMV just tried to put Uber and other ride-sharing services out of business (Krugman himself wrote rapturously about Uber a few weeks ago and how it held out the promise of a society with diminished car ownership in some locales.  I say bring it on.)  Fortunately the regulators were temporarily overriden in this case, although they may reemerge as an obstacle in a subsequent bargain.  More generally, taxi license and medallion requirements are a disgrace in many places, and who is in charge of that?  Typically the DMV.

You might also ask whether DMVs underregulate where they ought to regulate more.  The number of road deaths in the United States each year is so high as to be scandalous.  I am not sure how much this problem can be pinned on the DMV (how easy is it to get very bad drivers off the road through legal/constitutional means?), but still it is hard to argue that in absolute terms these agencies are overseeing a successful regime of road safety.

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.

Which is to say that while Cowen’s point about the global picture is both interesting and correct, his political stance is backwards. It’s not fans of Capital in the 21st Century who are pushing nationalism as an alternative to plutocracy, but its detractors. And though the recent politics in the US Congress have been driven by the somewhat odd sequence of events around the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America, the underlying pattern runs much deeper than that.

I don’t have an “he says exactly that” quotation to pull from Matt’s piece, but I believe he is saying I (or someone?) should be a Progressive instead of a “conservative economist” as he calls me.  The article is interesting throughout.

My framing of course is different.  It is not about who are the best people, but rather which are the best set of positions.  Just to summarize, I generally favor much more immigration but not open borders, I am a liberal on most but not all social issues, and I am market-oriented on economic issues.  On most current foreign policy issues I am genuinely agnostic as to what exactly we should do but skeptical that we are doing the right thing at the moment.  I don’t like voting for either party or for third parties.

The author of this new and excellent book is my colleague Peter T. Leeson and the subtitle is Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think.  Here is one excerpt:

Twenty-two of thirty-seven street gangs Jankowski (1991: 78-82) studied have written constitutions.  Sicilian Mafiosi follow a largely unwritten code of rules, and recently police found a written set of “ten commandments” outlining the Mafia’s core laws…Kaminski (2004) identifies extensive (yet unwritten) rules dictating nearly every aspect of Polish prisoners’ lives, from what words are acceptable to use in greeting a stranger to how and when to use the bathroom.  And the National Gang Crime Research Center considers constitutions so central to criminal societies that the use of a constitution is one of the defining characteristics it uses when classifying gangs…

Peter of course does not favor criminal gangs, rather he seeks social principles for voluntarism and yes perhaps you could call these views a kind of anarchism.  My stance, however, differs from his.

I accept the reductionist argument that government too is a kind of anarchy, since it must rely on norms and internally polycentric and perhaps even ultimately intransitive mechanisms for maintaining order.  There is no “final court of authority” in the practical sense, but rather a series of overlapping constraints which give rise to a spontaneous order of rules and governance, for better or worse.  In this sense anarchy is not an absurd idea at all, and we can imagine many varieties of orderly anarchy, including those in a more libertarian direction.  That said, while I often favor smaller government, when it comes to political philosophy I do not seek to move toward “more anarchy.”  In fact I often admire the relatively centralized governmental structures of Great Britain and New Zealand, with their clean and sharp lines of accountability.

I think modern anarchy would indeed be “orderly,” but I also think that private protection agencies would end up colluding and re-evolving into a form of coercive government (pdf), furthermore in a form that libertarians would find objectionable.  I would much rather have the West’s current democratic governments, for all their imperfections, than a for-profit “shareholder state,” not to mention the transition costs and the uncertainties along the way.  The best thing you can say about a shareholder state is that it might have a better immigration policy.  In the meantime, we are seeking to rebuild the history we have.

The subtitle is An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, and the author is Russ Roberts.  The focus is on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and why that is an important book.  This is Russ’s best book in my opinion, so you should consider buying it here.  My favorite section is the discussion of the Chilean maid, definitely recommended.

Moral Effects of Socialism

by on July 19, 2014 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Dan Ariely and co-authors have an interesting new paper looking at moral behavior, specifially cheating, in people who grew up in either East or West Germany.

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We
exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts
individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans
who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to
capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of
plausible deniability.

…If socialism indeed promotes individual dishonesty, the specific features of this socio-political
system that lead to this outcome remain to be determined. The East German socialist regime
differed from the West German capitalist regime in several important ways. First, the system
did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass
anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to
demoralization (Ariely et al., 2008), and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of
honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed
to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most
straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official
laws and cheat to game the system. Over time, individuals may come to normalize these types
of behaviors. Given these distinct possible influences, further research will be needed to
understand which aspects of socialism have the strongest or most lasting impacts on morality.

It’s interesting that Ariely et al. try to explain cheating as a result of socialism. My own approach would look more to the virtue ethics of capitalism and Montesquieu who famously noted that

Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

See Al-Ubaydli et al. for a market priming experiment and especially McCloskey on The Bourgeoise Virtues for more work consistent with this theme.

*The Falling Sky*

by on July 15, 2014 at 2:06 am in Books, Education, Medicine, Philosophy | Permalink

The subtitle is Words of a Yanomami Shaman, and the shaman is Davi Kopenawa from the Amazon, with transcription and assistance from French anthropologist Bruce Albert.  Imagine 487 pp. of a highly intelligent, articulate shaman telling you what he thinks, and perhaps more importantly telling you what he thinks about.  Here is one bit:

As children, we gradually start to think straight.  We realize that the xapiri [spirits] really exist and that the elders’ words are true.  Little by little, we understand that the shamans do not behave as ghosts without a reason.  Our thought fixes itself on the spirits’ words, and then we really want to see them.  We take hold of the idea that later we will be able to ask the elders to blow the yakoana into our nostrils and give us the xapiri’s songs.  This is how it happened for me a long time ago.  The spirits often came to visit me in dreams.  This is how they started to know me well.

For those who are willing to swerve in the direction of the mystical, I recommend this strongly, read the Amazon reviews at the first link above.  Here is a brief excerpt from one: “This is an astonishing book, a gripping story, and a poetic revelation of an entirely different world view than our own. Every single page sparkles with provocative meditations on the impact that industrial societies have on the environment and the role of Yanomami shamans in protecting it for the sake of all humanity.”  You won’t find cost-benefit analysis here.  Here are some selections from the book.  Here is one blog review from LSE.  Google is not turning up too many other reviews, but this came out in late 2013 and it is a truly significant work deserving of further attention and it is rather dramatically under-reviewed.

1. From 1964: “Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is obnoxious. She dresses like a boy, throws temper tantrums, swears at her parents and thinks terribly unkind thoughts. She refuses to eat anything but tomato sandwiches for lunch. She even invents her own middle initial.”

2. She also keeps a notebook, spies on everyone, and writes down the truth about them.  Her notebook is made public and she is disgraced, until making a comeback as the elected editor of the school newspaper (though see below).  At the end she learns that some lying is necessary.

3. One message of this book is that writers, and journalists in particular, are neurotics.  And liars.  A more core message is that heroines are allowed to be nasty and tell the truth.  Harriet throws a pencil in the face of Beth Ellen.  Compare this with the goody two-shoes Nancy Drew.

3b. “Harriet…Are you still writing down mean things about people?” “No. I am writing my memoirs.”  When I first read this book at age ten or so, I didn’t get the jokes.  Note also the phallic wurst joke on p.105.  Food/sex references run throughout, and there is a running contrast between Harriet’s duty to be an onion (hard, gets cut down the middle) with her desire to instead do nothing but munch on tomato sandwiches.

4. The opening of the book makes Harriet sound like an macroeconomist: “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town.  “See, first you make up the name of the town.  Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it.  You can’t have too many or it gets too hard.””

5. Harriet the infovore announces her intention to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

6. On p.278 author Fitzhugh indicates to us that she is not herself telling us the entire truth about growing up.  It is yet more brutal than this book is allowed to let on.  After that page, everything which happens in the text is a lie, designed to make the casual reader feel better and to sell more copies.  Harriet is not in fact voted editor of the school newspaper and not allowed to publish her critical rants to general acclaim with only a few retractions.  This is a Straussian text and it makes fun of the reader’s willingness to believe in happy endings.  The opening “make believe” scene mirrors these later deceptions.

7. This short essay compares Harriet to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Other commentators stress that Louise Fitzhugh, the author, was a lesbian and perhaps Harriet is a budding lesbian too (she dresses like a boy and has a tomboyish haircut).  I view Sport’s father, who is obsessed with getting a $$ advance for his book, as the stand-in character for Fitzhugh (start at p.260 and see also p.52 on the obsession with writing and money).  Luxury is portrayed as corrupting and leading to indolence, so becoming a successful writer is a self-destructive process, noting that Fitzhugh herself stagnated after this hugely successful book.

8. In this book parents are typically indifferent, brutally indifferent I would say, toward their children.

9. In the movie version “…Harriet competes against Marion Hawthorne to see who has a better blog.”

10. This is a deep work, rich in jokes, and more than worthy of its iconic status.  I am very glad to have reread it.

Here is my previous post on Catcher in the Rye.

Arrived in my Twitter feed

by on July 9, 2014 at 12:25 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

Notice of:

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

By Russ Roberts, now available for pre-order.

That is a new website from Daniel Klein and the Adam Smith Institute, “A review of the changes 1880-1940 to the central semantics of liberal civilization.”

Ilan Mochari reports:

4. Depersonalize the key questions. Yeh suggests approaching your employees by saying something like this: “It’s my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplishing your mission, and how can I solve them?”

Phrasing the question this way enables you to emphasize the mission, rather than the employee himself. It allows the employee to describe what’s wrong with his job, without feeling like he’s critiquing his own performance or ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

Casnocha says he learned a great conversational tactic from Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The idea is another form of depersonalizing questions: Ask an employee what “most people” think of a certain situation. Usually, the employee will tell you what most people think. But in doing so, she will also provide a glimpse of her own personal feelings. Specifically, Casnocha suggests these conversational cues:

How is everyone feeling about what’s going on in the office?
What do you think people are frustrated about here at work?

These questions allow you, as a leader, to follow up on whatever topics arise. But you can do so delicately, without pouncing on the employee who–even in sharing what “most people” think–has just displayed a great deal of vulnerability.