Willful Pencil Hurling

WSJ: The man who hurled pencils at 22-year-old Richard Robb went on to become a Nobel laureate.

It was 1982. Mr. Robb, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, was chalking out an idea on a blackboard. He was studying under the supervision of James Heckman, a pugnacious econometrician who won the Nobel Prize in economics 18 years later.

The two men had the room to themselves. As the chalk squeaked from Mr. Robb’s scratching, Mr. Heckman grew agitated. He thought Mr. Robb’s idea was wrong, that he was making grandiose claims. He threw a pencil—then a few more.

Ducking occasionally, Mr. Robb ignored the assault and continued writing on the blackboard. “I turned out to be right after all,” Mr. Robb, now 59, tells me, “even though my explanation was confusing. And we published it in a long paper titled ‘Alternative Methods for Evaluating the Impact of Interventions.’ ” He adds that pupil and maestro never discussed the incident again—until Mr. Robb emailed Mr. Heckman to ask if I could use the story in this article.

Mr. Robb is now CEO of a $5 billion hedge fund and a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia.

Oddly the article goes on to explain how throwing pencils wasn’t really rational or irrational but an example of something that we do, or perhaps just Heckman does, “for itself”—an act that resulted “from the exercise of will rather than the pursuit of preferences.” Doing something from will rather than from preference is the heart of the idea in Robb’s new book Willful: How We Choose What We Do. Not sure I get it either, but I haven’t read the book. Maybe I will.

Hat tip: Frank McCormick.


Dismal toxic masculinity that ends in a Nobel Prize (when prizes weren't politically motivated) and a 5 billion hedge fund

"(when prizes weren't politically motivated"

The Nazis are really desperate.

I'm confused: is Heckman accused of being a Nazi here?

No, you are a Nazi if you notice or worse actually say that the Nobel prizes are prizes for being politically correct.

Unfortunately, every economics prize ever is politically motivated. Econ is not a hard science. Sorry.


Who Knew Academia Was Such A Cesspit Of Violence?

Gun-Free Zones Save Lives.

Forget guns free school zones. Sounds like we need pencil free school zones.

Thank God there was no scissor present.

I’m not sure I get it either, but the notion of “preferences” that modern economic models are built on top of is incredibly childish and tautological, so he seems to be struggling to distinguish something real (his motivation for throwing pencils) from the imaginary construct of “preferences” he was trained on.

"Not sure I get it either, but I haven’t read the book."

Get Tyler to read it. He'll be done in 2 minutes flat.

Careful - even implied criticism of Tyler seems to be walking a thin line here these days.

Ok so what is the impact of Interventions?

Is this a book about free will (the ability to act at one's own discretion)? How to recognize it. How to maximize it. How to conform one's acts to it. In the Biblical sense, free will means the freedom to choose to be righteous, or not. It also means the freedom to change, which is hard, really hard. In that sense, we are a country that lacks free will since we keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. I suspect that Robb is using free will in the sense of being able to change. Of course, we expect tomorrow to be just like yesterday and we act accordingly, including in making investments. Robb likely attributes his success as CEO of a hedge fund to his free will - yesterday's successful investment strategy may not be a successful strategy tomorrow. Studying the data and applying reason more often than not produces a desirable result. One of my observations, stated often, is that economists find what they are looking for, which is not free will but a pursuit of preferences. Having access to the data alone won't produce a good result. Looking at the data as though with a blank slate is an act of free will. But that's hard, really hard. Our brains, like computers, have a memory, a memory that often fails us.

I recently read Homo Deus by Yuval Harari. Harari distinguishes between the "rational self" and the "experiential self".

Our rational self lives in the past: memories, knowledge, etc... It uses that information to make decisions: "My doctor says I need to lose weight or I'll die of a heart attack." However, our day to day actions aren't governed by our rational selves at all -- it lives in the past. Our daily actions are governed by the experiential self, who lives entirely in now. "I want that brownie!" I suspect that the difference between "free will choices" and "preference pursuit" may be another way of looking at this same idea.

The problem is ancient though, as you allude to, whether economists studying disparately ordered preferences, or Saint Paul asking "I do that which I know I ought not, and I do not do that which I know I should. Oh wretched man that I am, who shall save me from this body of death?"

If only he'd been around to throw pencils at LTCM's founders.

What is that comment supposed to mean? That LTCM was ultimately correct but deserved annoyance from Heckman? Or you misread the story and think LTCM was wrong? If you are going to comment on randomness and strategic effects, then get on with it. In that case, you might have some insight to add. Instead, you have this chirplet which just sounds petty, misinformed, and unrelated to the original post. I am sad that the internet gives people like you a place to utter ill-conceived and weakly-premised thoughtlets.

Now that is a Heckman correction!

Or an alternative to the Heckit Model: the Chuckit Model.

Cognition is just as much a function of volition as it is an expression of intellection, and it seems the case that cognition reliably expresses volition even when cognition less ably expresses intellection.

The extent to which affectivity contributes to expressions of cognition and intellection or expresses volition more plainly seems to vary considerably.

Counterfeit Nobel laureate.

I don't know why Robb is boasting that he didn't have the balls to tell Heckman to stop.

Think of the willful aspect along the lines of the mind being like Haidt's elephant, where 90% is subconscious. Humans have various motivations, not all of which are easily captured or modeled.

Yes this is absolutely correct. Willful is a misleading paradigm. Throwing chalk is just a built-in program that you don't have to think about, like walking, or like wincing when you are pinched. It bypasses consciousness altogether unless consciousness chooses to intervene. Not precise to see that I have a "will" to move my right leg after my left, or to scream when someone stabs me. It's just the elephant.

My high school math teacher threw chalk while students worked the chalkboard. Damn accurate, he could hit the equation right where the student got it wrong.

The only time I had chalk thrown at me was when my High School math teacher was discussing parallel lines (in a 2d plane). "Parallel lines never intersect." says he. I raised my hand: "Don't parallel lines meet at infinity? I've read that." The mark the chalk left on the wall behind me was at head height. It would have stung, if I hadn't ducked.

Laughed a full minute, thanks.

GMU econ students

Should throw





Students will have to check their pencils in at the door and will only be able to use computers in the classroom until further notice of the Dean.

I have plenty of shortcomings, some of which I know about and some of which are obscure to me. I discuss them openly in my book when it serves the narrative. But as you will see if you read it, those shortcomings do not include an absence of balls, as dearieme suggests. I have never known a more serious scholar than Jim Heckman.

Then why didn't you tell him to stop throwing pencils at you?

Amazingly similar to Thomas Kuhn throwing an ashtray at Errol Morris, who also left academia and went on to bigger and better things and wrote a book where the story takes a central role.

Good point! There's also Wittgenstein's poker.

Kuhn's ashtray. Heckman's chalk.

Also Pushkin's pistol and Galois' gun (the poet and the mathematician were both killed in duels). Or Proust's pistol (both sides missed in his duel).

Comments for this post are closed