I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

School shootings are actually down since the 1990s (with a lot of variability). Fewer students are carrying weapons to school and fewer students report having easy access to guns (data here).

It’s been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past. Does anyone not know about Parkland? Contrary to common wisdom, mass shootings also occur in European countries. I suspect, however, that the Finnish media don’t cover German shootings as frequently as shootings in Florida are covered in Nebraska–as a result the larger the media-market the greater the extent of availability bias. In other words, the larger the media market the greater the over-estimation of rare but vivid events. (Someone should test this theory.)

I worry about turning schools into prisons and what kinds of citizens this will create. My letter to my son’s high school principal was sent before the recent shootings but I stand by it now more than ever:

Dear Principal _____,

Thank you for requesting feedback about the installation of interior cameras at the high school. I am against the use of cameras. I visited the school recently to pick up my son and it was like visiting a prison. A police car often sits outside the school and upon entry a security guard directs visitors to the main office where the visitor’s drivers license is scanned and information including date of birth is collected (is this information checked against other records and kept in a database for future reference? It’s unclear). The visitor is then photographed and issued a photo pass. I found the experience oppressive. Adding cameras will only add to the prison-like atmosphere. The response, of course, will be that these measures are necessary for “safety.” As with security measures at the airports I doubt that these measures increase actual safety, instead they are security theater, a play that we put on that looks like security but really is not.

Moreover, the truth is that American children have never been safer than they are today. Overall youth mortality (ages 5-14) has fallen from 60 per 100,000 in 1950 to 13.1 per 100,000 today (CDC, Vital Statistics). Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before.

When we surround our students with security we are implicitly telling them that the world is dangerous; we are whispering in their ear, ‘be afraid, do not venture out, take no risks.’ When going to school requires police, security guards and cameras how can I encourage my child to travel to foreign countries, to seek new experiences, to meet people of different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds? When my child leaves school how will the atmosphere of fear that he has grown up in affect his view of the world and the choices he will make as a citizen in our democracy? School teaches more than words in books.

Yours sincerely,

Alex Tabarrok

California regulators have given the green light to truly driverless cars.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said Monday that it was eliminating a requirement for autonomous vehicles to have a person in the driver’s seat to take over in the event of an emergency. The new rule goes into effect on April 2.

California has given 50 companies a license to test self-driving vehicles in the state. The new rules also require companies to be able to operate the vehicle remotely — a bit like a flying military drone — and communicate with law enforcement and other drivers when something goes wrong.

That is from Daisuke Wakabayashi at the NYT, via Michelle Dawson.

Nudge Theory, popularised by Thaler & Sunstein, proposes that our decisions can be biased by relatively small changes in choice architecture. While we might be well intentioned, our human fallibility and modern environments sometimes require ‘choice architects’ to nudge us back on the path toward individual and collective wellbeing. Whether used for good or bad, Nudge Theory is most often applied downhill – the few (state or commercial players) nudge the many (citizens or consumers).

I would like to propose that Reverse Nudge Theory might be a good term for nudging uphill. For governments and corporations are also made up of individuals – and these individuals are equally prone to political, economic, and career forces which may get in the way of them making decisions that would be in our best interests.

Such reverse nudging is not a new endeavour of course. The formation of labour unions, the democratic process, and ‘voting with your wallet‘ are all good examples of this. So while well-intentioned choice architects nudge us, perhaps we need to be equally creative in nudging them back for their (and our) own good.

That is from Benjamin Vincent at Journal of Brief Ideas.

The decline of life insurance

by on February 27, 2018 at 2:43 pm in Economics | Permalink

Life insurance is losing its appeal in the U.S. In 1965, Americans purchased 27 million policies, individually or through employers. In 2016, a population that was more than 50 percent larger still bought only 27 million policies. The share of Americans with life insurance has fallen to less than 60 percent, from 77 percent in 1989. Why this is happening remains a puzzle.

That is from Peter Orszag at Bloomberg View.

Tuesday assorted links

by on February 27, 2018 at 12:17 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. “Dolce & Gabbana used drones to carry handbags down the runway instead of models.

2. The Uchida concert.  It was remarkable how many people I know I bumped into there.

3. Bryan Caplan responds on education.  I say businesses can simply use and encourage cheaper methods of signaling for potential employees.  You don’t need “new and weird” systems, rather there is already considerable diversity within higher education and quantities can shift in the interests of economization.  From another corner, Taleb reviews his reviewers.

4. What is mood?: a computational perspective.

5. How is the Sidewalk Labs Toronto waterfront project going?

6. “Is it possible to have too much focus on history?

An article in Wired has sparked controversy with its claim that Trump paid lower prices for its Facebook ads than Clinton:

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices.

The claim is plausible but although written by a Facebook expert it never really explains why Google and Facebook prices their ads in this way. The reason is what I call the “mesothelioma lawyer” problem. A click on an ad for a “mesothelioma lawyer” is extremely valuable because people who aren’t interested in hiring a mesothelioma lawyer are unlikely to click and those who do click are likely to become profitable clients. Thus, anyone searching for mesothelioma is likely to see an ad for a mesothelioma lawyer.

But suppose that Google or Facebook simply charge for ads by the click. Someone who searches for “funny hat video” isn’t likely to click on an ad for a mesothelioma lawyer but the people who do click are still likely to be very profitable to a mesothelioma lawyer. As a result, the mesothelioma lawyer can outbid the seller of funny hats for ads connected to “funny hat video” even though the search has nothing to do with mesothelioma.  If Google or Facebook only charged by the click it would be mesothelioma lawyer ads everywhere, all the time.

To avoid this problem, Google and Facebook calculate how many clicks or interactions your ad is likely to receive and they charge lower prices the greater the predicted number of clicks. As a result, sellers of funny hats get lower prices than mesothelioma lawyers for ads that pop up after the user watches a funny hat video and mesothelioma lawyers get lower prices than sellers of funny hats for ads that pop up after the user searches for information on mesothelioma. In the long run this system better targets ads to customers and thus maximizes the value of the platform to both advertisers and customers.

As the Wired piece eventually states this isn’t even new:

“I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Brad Parscale, the leader of the Trump data effort, told reporters in late 2016. “It’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names.”

He’s absolutely right. None of this is even novel: It’s merely best practice for any smart Facebook advertiser.

Addendum: See also Hal Varian’s discussion of the underlying issues in the Online Advertising section of this paper.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Children are effective messengers because they are difficult to convincingly attack. It’s easier to forgive their excesses and their mistakes, and they are not constrained by having full-time jobs. The very fact that children are doing something attracts news coverage. If even a child sees the need to speak out, we all should be listening; they of course have the greatest stake in America’s future.

Today, President Donald Trump dominates media cycles in an unprecedented manner. It’s thus not surprising that two of the social movements that seem to be breaking through — #NeverAgain and the immigration reform pleas from the Dreamers — have children in prominent roles. Young people, like our president, are somewhat fresh and unfiltered, albeit with different content. They are harder to mock than, say, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Emma González, an attack survivor, only joined Twitter this month (@Emma4Change), and she already has more followers than does the National Rifle Association.

Do read the whole thing.

A recent paper by Mr. Hertel-Fernandez and two colleagues may foretell what Democrats can expect if Mr. Uihlein and his fellow philanthropists succeed. It found that the Democratic share of the presidential vote dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points after the passage of so-called right-to-work laws allowing employees to avoid paying union fees. That is larger than Democrats’ margin of defeat in several states that could have reversed their last three presidential losses.

That is from Noam Scheiber and Kenneth P. Vogel at the NYT.  You may have read that “…the Supreme Court [Monday] hears a case that could cripple public-sector unions by allowing the workers they represent to avoid paying fees.”  Yet the Democratic Party seems increasingly dependent on such funds.  By the way, the cited research paper, by Feigenbaum, Hertel-Fernandez, and Williamson, also reports this:

The weakening of unions also has large downstream effects both on who runs for office and on state legislative policy. Fewer working class candidates serve in state legislatures and Congress, and state policy moves in a more conservative direction following the passage of right-to-work laws.

So the stakes here are probably high.

Black Panther is the hereditary leader of the African nation of Wakanda, a small, natural resource rich country, which lacks access to the sea. Historically the political leadership has tried to hide Wakanda‘s existence from other countries which has limited its economic integration with the rest of the world. In spite of its geographic endowments, notably the incredibly rare ore vibranium, Wakanda has attained unprecedented technological development. This chapter explores the political economy of Wakanda and its leader, Black Panther. After explaining the origins of Black Panther, the chapter turns to the economic puzzle of Wakanda by exploring the geographic and economic implications of isolation. This is followed by an investigation into the way Wakanda has avoided the resource curse that has plagued so many other countries. Next, a comparison is made between Wakanda and the nation of Botswana. While there are some telling similarities, the lack of democracy in Wakanda is a glaring difference. It will discuss how it has developed high levels of technology that help advance the Black Panther’s dictatorship. Finally, it will address the potential for democracy to emerge in Wakanda. Black Panther offers an opportunity to understand the role of political institutions in affecting the long-run economic, political, and technological development of a country.

That is a new paper from J. Robert Subrick.

Monday assorted links

by on February 26, 2018 at 11:55 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

To the extent many people think they have some chance of reaching the very top, political and party mechanisms may attract more first-rate talent.  Furthermore, information transmission decays when more and more of the rent-seeking is aimed at the very top person, and that person does not turn over with time.  Do not report the complete truth!  That rise in toadying further discourages top talent from entering into political competitions.

When this happens, it is also a sign that a political system has lost some of its ability to protect autocratic leaders after their terms are up, so this can be as much symptom as cause of bad events.

I enjoyed Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating–it was well written and filled with creative experiments like the ever filling soup bowl. In the ten years since that time Wansink became not just a media start but an academic star with an h-index of 75 and over 24 thousand citations. In recent years, however, he has had to retract papers in the light of inconsistencies and questions about his data and statistics.

A Buzzfeed article, based in part on emails, now reveals that Wansink was running a brazen p-hacking factory:

The correspondence shows, for example, how Wansink coached Siğirci to knead the pizza data.

First, he wrote, she should break up the diners into all kinds of groups: “males, females, lunch goers, dinner goers, people sitting alone, people eating with groups of 2, people eating in groups of 2+, people who order alcohol, people who order soft drinks, people who sit close to buffet, people who sit far away, and so on…”

Then she should dig for statistical relationships between those groups and the rest of the data: “# pieces of pizza, # trips, fill level of plate, did they get dessert, did they order a drink, and so on…”

…“Work hard, squeeze some blood out of this rock, and we’ll see you soon.”…All four of the pizza papers were eventually retracted or corrected.

In essence, Wansink all but published a study finding green jelly beans cause acne. All hail XKCD.

A while back, freethinker had a request: “name the most overrated and underrated libertarian thinkers”

Here are the most underrated:

1. Robert Nozick.  Super-duper smart, always open and probing, and incredibly well-read.  Somehow other libertarians seem to undervalue that he independently became one of the world’s greatest philosophers, perhaps because they have not done the same.

2. Herbert Spencer: In his day, he often was considered perhaps the greatest thinker of his time or even his century.  That wasn’t quite right, but he did build a comprehensive system for the social sciences, understood the primacy of sociology and anthropology, outlined some of the better arguments for liberty, developed an early version of complexity theory, and the “Social Darwinist” caricature of him was exactly that.  He even influenced literary theory and rhetoric.  On the more practical side, read Social Statics.

3. Gustav de Molinari.  He tried to think about governance more seriously than the other late 19th century, early 20th century Belgian libertarians.  He understood the primacy of war, focused on futurism, and flirted with both anarchist and multi-lateralist constraints on state power.  He hasn’t received much attention since Murray Rothbard promoted his ideas, though see these works by David Hart.

4. Whichever critic of slavery was libertarian enough to count as libertarian for your purposes.  Bartolomé de las CasasLysander Spooner?  William Lloyd Garrison?  Take your pick.

Ayn Rand and Ludwig Mises belong in a separate category, because they both have overzealous disciples who so overrate them.  That in turn makes them somewhat underrated almost everywhere else.  Rand’s cocktail party analysis of the sociology of capitalism-hatred remains one of the great contributions to political thought, plus she reaffirmed the necessary high status of the business producer.  Mises’s Liberalism and also Socialism were two of the best books of the first part of the 20th century.  So I am happy to call them both underrated, subject to the above not entirely insignificant caveat.

The most overrated libertarian qua libertarian might be Milton Friedman.  He is not overrated as an economist, if anything he is still considerably underrated.  But as a libertarian?  For a guy that smart, I’m not sure he added much to the corpus of libertarian ideas, and I recall one closing segment to a Free to Choose episode where he couldn’t out-argue Peter Jay on some basic issues of political philosophy.  And have the Friedmanite ideas of school vouchers and social security privatization really held up as so central?  Friedman and Rothbard really didn’t like each other, and each was right about what the other couldn’t do.

Blog posts I wish I had written

by on February 25, 2018 at 3:05 pm in Education | Permalink

From a reader email:

I can’t seem to find it on any of the sites you write at, but I do remember reading somewhere an article on the purpose of tenure that I want to find again.

The basic gist was that people were mad that tenured academics are cowards and won’t stand up to radical segments of campus, but the author posited that this wasn’t actually strange because the purpose of tenure isn’t really to instill courage but to function as a sort of intra-university governmental gateway: this person can be trusted so he gets tenure — or something roughly like that.

It sounds like it was something you’d written, but I can’t seem to find it in your writings.