Robert Wiblin’s Conversation with Tyler Cowen

This was two and a half hours (!), and it is a special bonus episode in Conversations in Tyler, here is the text and audio.  The starting base of the discussion was my new, just today published book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but of course we ranged far and wide.  Here are a few excerpts:

WIBLIN: Speaking of Tetlock, are there any really important questions in economics or social science that . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.

And this:

COWEN: I think most people are actually pretty good at knowing their weaknesses. They’re often not very good at knowing their talents and strengths. And I include highly successful people. You ask them to account for their success, and they’ll resort to a bunch of cliches, which are probably true, but not really getting at exactly what they are good at.

If I ask you, “Robert Wiblin, what exactly are you good at?” I suspect your answer isn’t good enough. So just figuring that out and investing more in friends, support network, peers who can help you realize that vision, people still don’t do enough of that.


COWEN: But you might be more robust. So the old story is two polarities of power versus many, and then the two looks pretty stable, right? Deterrents. USA, USSR.

But if it’s three compared to a world with many centers of power, I don’t know that three is very stable. Didn’t Sartre say, “Three people is hell”? Or seven — is seven a stable number? We don’t know very much. So it could just be once you get out of two-party stability, you want a certain flattening.

And maybe some parts of the world will have conflicts that are undesirable. But nonetheless, by having the major powers keep their distance, that’s better, maybe.




I also enjoyed it. The question about culture is very interesting and I really have no theory on how this works.

The question of what culture is misses the point. The question is: "How should we define culture so it is useful?". And of course that depends on who "we" is. Obviously (I think) culture is the behavior transmitted from previous generations, and I'd probably limit it to observed behavior (rather than described or allowed or encouraged). The questions of how effective transmission must be, or how pervasive, or how persistent the intergenerational transfer must be to rise to be part of a culture isn't obvious to me. Is a fad part of a culture? IDK.

I imagine that culture will define which fads arise. If a fad affects culture on an intergenerational basis, then it isn't really a fad, is it?

'WIBLIN: . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say.'

Except Wiblen didn't ask about a single question. And after a fairly long amount of time not actually answering his question, it ends with 'Those would be two examples of issues I think about.'

Somehow, one can reasonably assume he would not be asking for the third question.

And what Sartre wrote in No Exit was '“Hell is other people.”' One could expect that Wiblen might have some sympathy for that perspective, actually.

Sartre was talking about you.

Prior, Ray Lopez, and rayward, monologuing at each other in a small hotel room for all eternity. Tyler occasionally peeks his head in the door and nods to himself.

That doesn't seem fair to Ray. Ray Lopez is often quite funny with quite a lot of interesting input.

I picked him more for his distinctive personality. What would be the funniest replacement?

the mulp

I'll second this vote.

Dear Tyler:

just a note that the transcript has a link to the the wrong Robert Cottrell

Fixed, thanks!

"why do face-to-face interactions matter?"

Because they are unscripted, regardless of in-person-in-person or online, but then you're missing a lot of body language.

In person is a like a test. It's why interviews really do matter. You can't prepare your statement that fast in advance, or come up with some quippy comeback like Stormy Daniels after a few hours. It is a test of how fast your mind works, how prepared you are, your personality and your reaction to stress.

It's important. And I personally believe it is still going to be a long time before digital interaction can capture all the nuances.

I consider balance of power theory as being essentially an economic theory even if it's mostly associated with national security. When an economy is out of balance (e.g., supply and demand for labor), inefficiencies and disruptions and loss of output result. An economy can be out of balance in the event of excessive inequality, just as national security can be out of balance if one country is strong enough to dominate others. While markets are supposed to produce equilibrium (i.e., a balance of power), markets can fail (due to monopoly power or political power). Cowen's idea of "flattening" sounds like perfect competition in the economic context, with no one buyer or seller dominate. Unfortunately, we know from past experience that "flattening" of an economy is only a temporary phenomenon, just as "flattening" among nations is only temporary: the human condition is to dominate, whether economically or militarily. Thus, maintaining order and stability (i.e., a balance) requires constant vigilance.

Learning that Robert is an avid MR reader I cannot resist to confess:
Your blog post on Doing Good Better couple of years ago triggered a Russian (!) edition of this book.
Here is a short story: I read your blog post on the book, got interested, read the book, was impressed by the simplicity and power of the ideas (as well as general EA framework), contacted arguably best Russian nonfiction publisher and voila this summer a Russian edition of Doing Good Better went on sale.

Shouldn't that be "meatspace?"

I had the same question. I'd think that, yes, "meatspace" is the normal usage. But "meet space" isn't bat.

Tyler: twin studies generally don't involve separating them. Instead the study design exploits the fact that we know how much monozygotic twins differ from dizygotic twins genetically, and can use that to calculate the effects of their shared environment.

Excellent job fellas. Best Conversation with Tyler by far IMO.

Bizarre section on AI. How has Tyler convinced himself that the material used in a computer determines whether it is sentient or not? Who has he been discussing this subject matter with? AI is the biggest issue of our time and for someone who is interested in learning and sharing ideas, Tyler has an obligation to learn much more about this topic.

Given the opinions of people in the field with subject matter expertise, that human-level AI will be developed within decades and could easily explode to superhuman and even godlike intelligence in a very short period of time, that should very, very seriously affect your opinions about what is important for the long-term future of mankind. That doesn't seem like something you should dismiss without having a very good reason to and hand-waving about computer materials does not seem like a very good reason.

I could not believe what I was hearing...

1) Tyler thinks the Chinese were the leaders of civilization for thousands of years.

2) Tyler thinks humanity could be wiped out by an asteroid despite a zero probability..

3) Tyler thinks through a thought experiment that millions of humans a thousand years in the future could die from cancer for discovering nuclear waste.

This cements it. Tyler knows (almost) nothing about basic science.

Number of humanities = 1
Number of times it has been wiped out by an asteroid = 0
Therefore chance of humanity being wiped out by an asteroid = 0/1

Talk to an astronomer.

An astronomer, Ethan Siegel , wrote last year : "The idea that mass extinctions are periodic is an interesting and compelling one, but the evidence simply isn't there for it. The idea that the Sun's passage through the galactic plane causes periodic impacts tells a great story, too, but again, there's no evidence. In fact, we know that stars come within reach of the Oort cloud every half-million years or so, but we're certainly well-spaced between those events at present."

Can I talk to Shoemaker and Levy?

Then again, these beliefs are "stubborn attachments" that many people have.

I'd rephrase the question about f2f interaction just a bit. F2F requires synchronization of behavior at the 10 msec time scale. What is it that we can do together at the time scale that we can't do asynchronously? What neural processes are unlocked at that time scale?

Dear Tyler:

just a note that the transcript has a link to the the wrong Robert Cottrell

" if we treat the more distant future as just as valuable as the near future, what does that imply for our actual decisions?"

Since it disregards the time value of money/value, it would imply that our decisions are anti-science and irrational. Which is hardly a surprise in general, but it's surprising that Tyler would be the one to espouse that kind of irrationality.

Am I misinterpreting his comments?

"But if you’re asking a question for all of society and if you apply a discount rate of 5 percent, 7 percent, whatever it’s going to be, you can end up with the results that say, “Well, a nickel today is worth more than saving the existence of the entire world hundreds of years from now.”"

Say what? No, I don't think the math says that at all. In fact it says the opposite.

Consuming a nickel today (with no long term effects) is worse than using the same nickel on a productive (higher than the discount rate) investment. And the more you consume immediately, the lower that discount rate becomes.

Furthermore, individuals with lower discount rates are more prosperous than those with higher discount rates.

Tyler, did you go brain dead? Are you not bouncing any of your ideas off other people for critical feedback?

"So should we take less care to preserve the well-being and lives of those astronauts simply because we’re shipping them away at higher speeds?"

Yes, of course we should. But that's because you aren't considering the idea logically. Assume that you've doubled the life span of the astronauts and they will 'consume' two life spans compared to people who are still on the planet. Furthermore, assume that the astronauts are just on a leisure tour through space and there is 0 societal benefit to their journey.

Would you give equal resources to X astronauts as you would to 2X non-astronauts? Because if you give equal benefits over time, then are giving twice the per capita benefits to the astronauts.

"If, instead of a gun, which is awful, but it’s hard to kill 1,000 people just shooting a gun, right? If you have some kind of pack on your back with a battery and then an energy-creating weapon that you just walk around with, and you have crazy people doing this the way they do now with guns — that worries me"

Tyler, I think you are fuzzy on the facts. At our current rate of progress, we'll be lucky to have electrical batteries with the same density as gasoline this century. And yet the highways are full of drivers with a GED delivering loads of 8,000 gallons of gas across the nation.

This is not a significant problem.

Meh...except for "Tristan Da Cunha"

This is a very good conversation at least through the 100 minutes I've listened to... minus the problems.

One problem that was mentioned here before is that counties can not come close to making humans go extinct or even cause a "social extinction" with the current destructive power of nuclear weapons in today's arsenal or on reserve.

There are 4,000 cities with populations over 100,000 and those could be destroyed although many aren't being targeted in Africa, South America, etc. An all out nuclear war could maybe kill 2 to 3 billion people, leaving 4 to 5 billion and the latter would use technology again at the level before the war began. The wheel and the Commodore 64 don't have to be reinvented.

I have listened to nearly half of this podcast and I am really enjoying it. I also think I understand this blog more holistically than I did before listening--an argument for pods, perhaps. I don't know the extent to which this matters, but I feel the oldest posts of this blog that offer the highest value for me now are ones about reading. Maybe it's only because they're easy to find through the search engine.

Alas, Wiblin did not ask about Tyler’s production function

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