Category: Books

My Conversation with Jamal Greene

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Jamal and Tyler discuss what he’d change about America’s legal education system, the utility of having non-judges or even non-lawyers on the Supreme Court, how America’s racial history influences our conception of rights, the potential unintended consequences of implementing his vision of rights for America, how the law should view economic liberty, the ideal moral framework for adjudicating conflicts, whether social media companies should consider interdependencies when moderating content on their platforms, how growing up in different parts of New York City shaped his views on pluralism, the qualities that make some law students stand out, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: There is a crude view in popular American society — even possibly correct — that, simply, American society is too legalistic. There’s that book, Three Felonies a Day. If you have expired prescription medicine in your cabinet, you’re committing a felony. People who are very smart will just tell me, “Never talk to a cop. Never talk to an FBI agent.” I’m an upper-class White guy who’s literally never smoked marijuana once, and they’re telling me, “Don’t ever speak with the law.”

Isn’t something wrong there? Is the common intuition that we’re too legalistic correct?

GREENE: I think that we are too apt to submit political disputes to legal resolution. I think that for sure. What your friends are telling you about police officers is slightly different, insofar as one can have a deeply non-legalistic culture in which the correct advice is to not talk to police officers if those people are corrupt, if those people are abusive.

When I hear that advice — and I might be differently situated than you — that’s what people are saying is, someone might be out to trick you. And that might be a mistrust of state power, as you mentioned before. Maybe it’s a rational mistrust of state power, but I don’t know that that’s about legalism, which again, is a separate potential problem.

We tend to formulate our problems in legal terms, as if the right way to solve them is to decide how they are to be resolved by a court, or how they are to be resolved by some adjudicative official, as opposed to thinking about our problems in terms of just inherent in, again, pluralism, which has to be solved through politics, has to be solved through conversation.

COWEN: But we still have whatever is upstream of the American law, the steep historical and cultural background, so anything we do is going to be flavored by that. We’re not ever going to get to a system where the policemen are like the policemen in Germany, for instance, or that the courts are like the courts in Germany.

Given that cultural upstream, again, isn’t the intuition basically correct? Just be suspicious of the law. We should have fewer laws, rely less on the legal process, in essence, deregulate as many different things as we can. Why isn’t that the correct conclusion, rather than building in more rights?

Interesting throughout.

What should I ask Will MacAskill?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  From Wikipedia:

William MacAskill is a Scottish philosopher, ethicist, and one of the originators of the effective altruism movement. He is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, a researcher at the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford,[ and Director of the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research.

MacAskill is also the co-founder and president of 80,000 Hours, the co-founder and vice-president of Giving What We Can, and the co-founder and president of the Centre for Effective Altruism.

Here is Will’s home page.  Will also has an exciting new book coming out, namely What We Owe the Future.  So what should I ask him?

What I’ve been reading

1. Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.  She covered 3000 miles in the 1960s, and as she notes in the introduction: “Epictetus put it in a nutshell when he said, “For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.”  Self-recommending.  But don’t be fooled by the title — hardly any of the narrative takes place in India.

2. David E. Bernstein, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America .  A scathing and unfortunately spot-on indictment of America’s schemes of racial classification.  So often those schemes turn out to be racist themselves.  The Hmong cannot count as an “underrepresented group” because they are Asian!?  Come on, people.  There is no good way to do this work, and I am pleased to see David pointing this out so effectively.

3. Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, Poems.  A lovely bilingual edition, covering her less-known post-Holocaust poetry.  The quality is still very high and the page display is excellent.

Serhi Plokhy, Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters is exactly what the subtitle promises.

Fernanda Melchor, Paradais is a new Mexican novel that has received a lot of attention.  I thought English was “not good enough for it,” though the slang and format would challenge my Spanish.  If you can read this properly in Spanish, I suspect it is excellent.

Daisy Hay, Dinner with Joseph Johnson is a good book about the Enlightenment publisher who interacted with Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Benjamin Franklin, Priestly, Fuseli, and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others.

Halik Kochanski, Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945.  So far I have had time only to browse it, but it appears to be both excellent and definitive.

The Parent Trap–Review of Hilger

Nate Hilger has written a brave book. Almost everyone will find something to hate about The Parent Trap. Indeed, I hated parts of it. Yet Hilger is willing to say truths that are often not said and for that I would rather applaud than cancel.

Hilger argues that the problems of poverty, pathology and inequality that bedevil the United States are not primarily due to poor schools, discrimination, or low incomes per se. The primary cause is parents: parents who are unable to teach their children the skills that are necessary to succeed in the modern world. Since parents can’t teach the necessary skills, Hilger calls for the state to take their place with a dramatic expansion of not just child care but collective parenting.

Let’s unpack some details. Begin with schooling. It’s very common to bemoan the state of schools in the “inner city” or to complain about “local financing” which supposedly guarantees that poor counties will have underfunded schools. All of this, however, is decades out-of-date.

A hundred years ago there really were massive public-school resource gaps by class and race. These days, however, state and federal spending play a larger role than local property tax revenue and distribute educational resources more progressively….In fact, when we include federal aid, 42 states spent more on poor school districts than on rich school districts in 2012. The same pattern holds between schools within districts

….The highest spending districts are large urban centers such as New York City, Boston and Baltimore. These cities spend large sums to educate rich and poor children alike. p. 10-11

Hilger is correct. No matter what you saw on The Wire, Baltimore spends more than sixteen thousand dollars per student, among the highest in the nation in large school districts and above average for the nation as a whole. Public schools are quite egalitarian in funding with any bias running towards more funding for poorer districts.

Schools, Hilger writes are “actually the smallest and most equalizing part of a much larger skill-building system.” The real problem, says Hilger, are parents.

But what about discrimination? When it comes to wage discrimination, Hilger is brutally honest:

If we compare individuals with similar cognitive test scores, Black college graduates earn higher wages than white college graduates. Studies that don’t control for test score differences but examine earnings gaps within specific professions—lawyers, physicians, nurses, engineers, scientists—tend to find Black workers earn zero to 10 percent less than white workers. These gaps could reflect discrimination, unmeasured skill differences, or other factors such as geography. In any case, such gaps are small compared to the 50 percent overall Black-white earnings gap and reinforce the idea that closing skills gaps would go a long way toward closing income gaps.

Hilger argues that racism does play an important role in explaining Black-white wage differentials but it’s the historical racism that made black parents less skilled and less able to pass on skills to their children. In the twentieth century, Asians, Hilger argues, were discriminated against in the United States at least much as Black Americans. But the Asians that came to the United States had high skills while the legacy of slavery meant that Black Americans began with low skills. Asians, therefore, were better able to overcome discrimination. The success of Nigerians and Jamaican immigrants in the United States also speaks to this point.  (Long time readers may recall that in 2016 I dubbed Hilger’s paper on Asian Americans and Black Americans the Politically Incorrect Paper of the Year .)

Parental investment is surely important but Hilger overstates his case. He writes as if poorer parents have neither the abilities nor the time to teach their children while richer, better educated parents simply invest lots of hours and money imbuing their children with skills:

…the enormous variation in parents’ own academic skills has big implications for kids because we also demand that parents try to be tutors. During normal times, parents in America spend an average of six hours per week helping—or trying to help—their kids with school work. Six hours per week is more than K12 math and English teachers get with children…good tutoring by parents for six hours a week, every week, year after year of childhood could raise children’s future earnings by as much as $300,000.

The data on the effectiveness of SAT test-prep suggests that these efforts are not nearly so effective as Hilger argues. The parental investment story also doesn’t fit my experience. I didn’t spend six hours a week helping my kids with their homework. I doubt most parents do. I simply assumed my kids would do their work. I do recall that we signed my kids up for tutoring at Kumon, the Japanese math education center. My kids would complain bitterly when we took them for drill on the weekend. It was mostly filling out rote forms and my kids would hide or bury their drill sheets so we were always behind. Driving my kids to the Kumon center, monitoring them. and forcing them to do the work when they rebelled like longshoreman on work-to-rule was time consuming and it was ruining our weekends. I felt guilty, but after a while, my wife and I gave up. Today one of my sons is a civil engineer and the other is a math and economics major at UVA.

Hilger has an answer to this line of objection, or at least he says he does, but to my mind it’s a very odd answer. He argues, relying heavily on Sacerdote, that adoption studies show that more skilled parents result in more skilled kids. I find that answer odd because my reading of Sacerdote is that the effect of parents are small after you control for genetics—this is, as Hilger acknowledges, the conventional wisdom among psychologists. (See Caplan for an excellent review of the literature). It is true that Sacerdote plays up the effect of parents, but it looks small to me. Here is the effect of the adopted mother’s maternal education on the child’s education.

As you can see there is an effect but it is almost all from the mother going from having less than a high school education to graduating high school (11 to 12 years). In contrast, the mother can move from graduating high school to having a PhD and there is very little change in the education level of an adoptee. Note, however, that the effect on non-adoptees, i.e. biological children, is much larger throughout the entire range which suggests the influence of nature not nurture.

I am not surprised that there is some effect of parental education on child’s education because going to college is in part a cultural issue. Parents can influence cultural aspects of their children’s identity such as whether a child grows up up nominally Catholic, Mormon, or Hindu but they have relatively little effect on child religiosity, let alone personality or IQ. I think that a large fraction of the college wage premium is signaling (50% is a moderate estimate, Caplan thinks 90% is closer to the truth), so I am also not overly excited about college attendance as a marker of success.

The effect of parental income on the income of child adoptees is even more dramatic than on education—which is to say negligible. The income of the adopted parents has zero effect (!) on child’s income even as parent’s income varies by a factor of 20! The only correlation is with non-adoptee income—which again suggests the influence of nature not nurture.

At this point in the book, it was almost inevitable that we were going to get yet another paean to the Perry Preschool Project and indeed Hilger waxes enthusiastically about Perry. Seriously? The Perry Preschool project started in the 1960s and had just 123 participants (58 in treatment and 65 in control!). There are more papers about the Perry Preschool project than there were participants. I am jaded.

Aside from the small sample size, the project had imperfect randomization and missing data and most importantly limited external validity. The Perry Preschool project treated a small group of disadvantaged African American children with low-IQs (IQs of 70-85 were part of the selection criteria). The treatment is usually described as “active learning pre-school” but it was more intrusive than that. Every week counselors would go to the homes of the kids to teach the parents (mostly mothers) how to raise their children. The training was important to the program. Indeed, Hilger notes, without sense of irony, that “facilitating greater skill growth in low-income children was so complicated that it required home visitors with advanced postsecondary degrees.” (p. 89). And what were the results?

The results were good! (Heckman et al. 2010, Belfield et al. 2006). But in the popular literature the impression one gets is that the program took a bunch of disadvantaged kids and helped them read and write, making them more middle-class and successful. Some of that happened but the big gains actually happened because the participants, especially the boys, were so socially dangerous and destructive that even a bit of normalization made life substantially better for everyone else. In particular 82% of the treated group of 33 males had been arrested by age 40, including for one murder, 4 rapes, 8 robberies, 11 assaults and 14 burglaries. The control group were worse. In the control group of 39 males there were 2 murders. Indeed the reduction of one murder in the treatment group accounts for a significant benefit of the entire Perry PreSchool project.

Hilger, to his credit, is reasonably clear that what is really needed is an intensive program for disadvantaged African Americans, especially males. In a stunning sentence he writes:

The more we rely on families rather than professionals to build skills in children, the tighter we link people’s current prospects to the prospects of their ancestors. p. 134

But he soon forgets or papers over the context of the Perry Preschool project and like everyone else in the literature uses this to support a national program for which there is no external validity. It’s hard to believe, given the lack of external validity, but Heckman et al. (2010) only exagerate mildly when they write:

The economic case for expanding preschool education for disadvantaged children is largely based on evidence from the HighScope Perry Preschool Program…

Hilger’s case for the difficulty of parenting is well taken—the FAFSA was a nightmare that taxed two PhDs in my family. But the bottom line is that most parents do just fine. Moreover, it’s shocking that in recounting the difficulties of parenting Hilger says hardly one word about an obvious factor which makes parenting more than twice as hard. Namely, single parenting. I was a single parent. Once for a whole week. Don’t do it. Get married, stay married. Perhaps Hilger didn’t want to appear to be too conservative.

Instead of recommending marriage and small targeted programs and more experiments, Hilger goes full Plato.

What would it look like if we [asked]…less not more of parents? It would look like professional experts managing more than the meagre 10 percent of children’s time currently managed by our public K12 system—much more. p. 184

And why should we do this? Because we are all part slaves and part slave-owners on a giant collective farm:

As fellow citizens who benefit from tax revenue, we all—even those of us without children—collectively own about 30 percent of any additional income other people’s children wind up earning. p. 197

Ugh. We own ourselves, not one another. Society isn’t about maximizing the collective it’s about free individuals coming together to produce rules so that we can enjoy the benefits of collective action while still living in a diverse society that respects individual rights, beliefs, and ways of living.

I told you I hated parts of The Parent Trap but Hilger has written an interesting and challenging book and he is mostly right that neither schooling nor labor market discrimination play a major role in the black-white wage gap. Hilger is probably also right that we spend too much on the elderly relative to the young. The idea of greater state involvement in the raising of children is on the table today in a way it hasn’t been for some time. See also Dana Susskind’s recent book Parent Nation. Changes on the margin may be warranted. Nevertheless, I stand with Aristotle and not Plato in thinking that raising children is better done by parents than by the state.

A Heideggerian review of *Talent*

Two questions that Cowen and Gross highlight strike me as deeply Heideggerian. “What tabs are open on your browser right now?” and “what is the equivalent of musical scales that you are practicing every day to get better at what you do?” Both are about surfacing a person’s care. Don’t tell me what you care about; rather, show me. Heidegger’s argument that truth is about “disclosure” and not just correctness is also evident in these questions.

So, in short, if Cowen and Gross are right about talent, and I think they are, up to a point—if hidden talent is underrated and under-appreciated owing to our biases—then it’s because the world is not sufficiently Heideggerian. We are too inauthentic, selecting for the wrong measures of success, promoting people who get good grades and the like, instead of celebrating those who are animated by an intensity of care. We celebrate those whose accomplishments reflect fear of death rather than “anxiety before the Nothing.” Perhaps the intensity of care metric is insufficient and unstable, even dangerous. But that is a second-order problem.

The sheer fact that Cowen and Gross have mainstreamed Heideggerian thought and operationalized it (and in a context so anathema to Heidegger the man) is worth applauding.

Here is more from Zohar Atkins.

*21st Century Monetary Policy*

I am pleased to have received an autographed copy of this very carefully done work.  I think it is (by far) the best treatment of what the Fed has been up to since the 1970s, at least on the monetary policy front.  There really isn’t anyone who would know better than Ben, keeping in mind he was not only Fed chair but also a top, possibly Nobel-quality monetary economist and also economic historian.  The clarity and writing quality are high.

In one way, however, this is an unusual book — there is remarkably little “of Ben” in the book.  To be clear, Ben already has published his personal memoir.  Still, if most of this book had been written by someone else, I would not have known.  Or maybe that is what it means to “put Ben in this book.”  Imagine Elon Musk writing a book on rocketry and focusing on the rockets.

In any case recommended.  Here is a good David Leonhardt NYT review.  It is striking to me how few reviews there are so far — why?  Therein lies a lesson too, though I have yet to figure out what it is.

Cryptoeconomics!

The crypto market is up! The crypto market is down! The roller coaster can be fearfully thrilling but as thoughtful academics and people interested in ideas let’s look away from the daily ups and downs and focus on the big picture. What is crypto? What is cryptoeconomics?

Tyler and I have written a new chapter for our textbook, Modern Principles. In Cryptoeconomics we explain just enough cryptography–namely cryptographic hash functions and public-private keys–to understand what new forms of communication and organization have been made possible by these breakthroughs. We then use these fundamentals to explain NFTs, blockchains, Bitcoin, smart contracts and decentralized finance–all in a crisp, compact format accessible to everyone.

Not everyone wants to teach crypteconomics, of course, or has the time (scarcity!) so this chapter will be available as an option to anyone using our book and the Achieve online course management system (in fact, it’s available now). Tyler and I have found, however, that our students, colleagues, even people at dinner parties ask us about crypto. Probably your students and friends will ask you as well. Plus our textbook is called Modern Principles so we thought we were obligated to teach these new ideas!

Cryptoeconomics is a good guide to some fundamentally new ways of trading, communicating, and cooperating.

Addendum: If you want to learn more about DeFi, my talk goes into greater depth.

My Conversation with the excellent Daniel Gross

This is Daniel Gross my co-author on Talent and the venture capitalist, to be clear.  And here is the audio and transcript.  Of course we focus on talent and also:

They also explore the question of why so many high achievers love Diet Coke, why you should ask candidates if they have any good conspiracy theories, how to spot effective dark horses early, the hiring strategy that set SpaceX apart, what to look for in a talent identifier, what you can learn from discussing drama, the underrated genius of game designers, why Tyler has begun to value parents more and IQ less, conscientiousness as a mixed blessing, the importance of value hierarchies, how to become more charismatic, the allure of endurance sports for highly successful people, what they disagree on most, and more.

Excerpt:

GROSS: Well, take a step back. Why are we even here? And why would I even have a shred of an interesting opinion on talent? To the extent that I do, I think it’s because in the venture business — much more so than, I think, almost any other business — you live in constant paranoia of missing out on great talent. You might say, “Well, that’s true in every company.” And it’s true at the Met when you’re looking for someone to play in the orchestra, too. But in the venture business, unlike others, great talent always looks very weird to whatever convention is.

Before Mark Zuckerberg came along, that phenotype of the hoodie sweatshirt and slightly aspie kid was not the common phenotype. Now, of course, there was a phase — 2013, 2014, 2015 — where everyone started looking for that. But then it hit you again with a very weird-looking person, where Vitalik [Buterin] is of a completely different ilk than Zuck. One very much is Julius Caesar, and I think another one — I don’t exactly know how you’d bucket Vitalik — maybe like an early pope.

COWEN: Like a Russian holy saint.

GROSS: Exactly. By the way, not just the person is weirder than whatever the conventional norm is, but the idea is weird, too.

Interesting throughout!

Russia fact of the day

A study of Russian publications in the 1990s found that some 39 percent of all nonfiction published in Russia in that decade had something to do with the occult.

That is from the really quite interesting The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, by George M. Young.  And for more on Russian Cosmism, you might try reading this collection.  It is interesting to get such a different perspective on the issues raised by Bostrom, Hanson, Balaji, Musk, and the longevity writers, among others.  I don’t believe any of those thinkers would be happy with these Russian discussions, but…I suppose that’s the point!

What I’ve been reading

1. Paul Strathern, The Florentines: From Dante to Galileo.  It is not just Dante and Galileo, there is also Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Fra Filippo Lippi, Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and many more, all from one small region of Italy.  This book doesn’t answer how that all happened, but it is perhaps the best survey of the magnitude and extent of what happened, recommended and readable throughout, good as both an introduction and for the veteran reader of books about Florence.  While we are at it, don’t forget Pacioli and the first treatise on double-entry bookkeeping.

2. Geoff Dyer, The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings.  A hard book to explain, mostly it is about how careers end or collapse or implode, only some of it is about Federer.  “De Chirico lived till he was ninety but produced little of value after about 1919.”  Calling a book a “tour de force” almost certainly means it isn’t, but this book…is a tour de force.

3. Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.  One or two-page sections on the work habits of famous artists, the selection of names is intelligent and this book is like potato chips in the good sense of the term.

4. Asa Hoffman with Virginia Hoffman, The Last Gamesman: My Sixty Years of Hustling Games in the Clubs, Parks and Streets of New York.  A fun look back at the NYC chess world of the 1970s and trying to make a living as a chess and Scrabble hustler.  I knew Hoffman a bit back then, and even as a kid I wondered “is this guy happy?”  In the book he says he has largely been happy!  I am still wondering.  Maybe the secret is to play a game many discrete times where your losses are temporary and swamped by rapidly forthcoming wins?  I am reminded of the words of the recently deceased grandmaster and centenarian Yuri Averbakh (NYT): “The main thing was that I never obtained great pleasure from winning,’’ he wrote. “Clearly, I did not have a champion’s character. On the other hand, I did not like to lose, and the bitterness of defeat was in no way compensated for by the pleasure of winning.”

5. Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy since 1796.  A good and very useful general introduction to the history of the latter part of the story of Italy.

How to make talent scouts work for you

With Daniel Gross, here is a (very much) shortened bit from Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World, published at a16z, excerpt from the chapter on when to use talent scouts:

It is worth thinking about why the scouting model works in this context [finding supermodels]. First, the relevant talent could come from many different parts of the world, and the number of people to be scouted is very large. It is hard to imagine a centralized process getting the job done. Second, many of the scouts plausibly have a decent sense of who might make a good model. Looks are hardly the only factor behind modeling success, but they are a kind of “first stop,” and expecting the scouts to judge looks well from first impressions is more plausible than expecting the scouts to use first impressions to judge talent well for skill in, say, quantum mechanics. Third, a follow-up investigation to judge the modeling talent of the chosen candidates is not extremely costly. You can have them in for a photo shoot and see how popular they prove in the market without having to invest millions of dollars right away…

Scouting is also becoming more important as the options for self-education are rising. With more people trying their hand at various avocations than ever before, that places more and more burden on talent search. We need to be more open to the accomplishments of self-taught individuals without traditional training, and that holds all the more true for the tech world, where many of the most important founders have eschewed the institutions of traditional education.

There is much more at the link, we also consider when scouting models fail relative to centralized evaluation, and which kinds of incentives should be given to scouts.

Some blurbs for *Talent*, with Daniel Gross

Talent” is what happens when two brilliant and profoundly iconoclastic minds apply their imagination to one of the hardest of all business problems: the search for good people. I loved it.”

–Malcolm Gladwell

“Talent is everything―whether in investing and building startups, or in other creative endeavors. Between product, market, and people, I’ve always bet on the last one as the biggest predictor of success. But while talent may be everywhere, it’s unevenly distributed, and hard to ‘find.’ So how do we better discover, filter, and match the best talent with the best opportunities? This book shares how, based on both scientific research and the authors’ own experiences. The future depends on this know-how.”

―Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz

“The most important job of any leader is to find individuals with a ‘creative spark,’ and the potential to discover, invent and build the future. If you want to learn the art and science of spotting and empowering exceptional people, Talent is brimming with fresh insights and actionable advice.”

―Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and former CEO of Google

“I do not know of any skills more worth developing than the ability to find exceptional undeveloped talent. I have spent many years trying to get good at that, and I was still astonished by how much I learned reading this book.”

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, formerly of YCombinator

“Two of the premier talent spotters working today, Cowen and Gross have written the definitive history of identifying talent. Anyone who is interested in innovation, entrepreneurship, or the roots of America’s start-up economy must read this book.”Christina Cacioppo is CEO and co-founder of Vanta

You can order here on Amazon or here on Barnes & Noble.

Recommended!

The Essential Women of Liberty

Here’s another excellent book in the Essential Scholars series. You can download the book for free, find additional resources, introductory videos and more at the Women of Liberty web page.

This series of essays, written by leading scholars in the United States, Canada and Europe, explores the lives and ideas of some of the most influential women over the past few centuries whose work contributed enormously to the democratic, prosperous and free societies that many people enjoy today. They are a remarkably diverse group of women. Their lives span the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries and their contributions are significant despite the barriers each faced. Some were educated at prestigious universities while others only had informal schooling. Some were academics, others writers and journalists, and still others activists. What they had in common was an understanding of the power of freedom and liberty, and their influential advocacy of such during their lives. These essays are a celebration and recognition of their lives and contributions.