Category: Books

Do pictures signal less power than words?

This research shows people are perceived as less powerful when they use pictures versus words. This effect was found across picture types (company logos, emojis, and photographs) and use contexts (clothing prints, written messages, and Zoom profiles). Mediation analysis and a mediation-by-moderation design show this happens because picture-use signals a greater desire for social proximity (versus distance) than word-use, and a desire for social proximity is associated with lower power. Finally, we find that people strategically use words (pictures) when aiming to signal more (less) power. We refute alternative explanations including differences in the content of pictures and words, the medium’s perceived appropriateness, the context’s formality, and the target’s age and gender. Our research shows pictures and words are not interchangeable means of representation. Rather, they signal distinct social values with reputational consequences.

That is from new research by Elinor Amit, Shai Danziger, and Pamela K. Smith.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighteenth cohort

Zvi Mowshowitz, TheZvi, New York City, to develop his career as idea generator and public intellectual.

Nadia Eghbal, Miami, to study and write on philanthropy for tech and crypto wealth.

Henry Oliver, London, to write a book on talent and late bloomers.  Substack here.

Geffen Avrahan, Bay Area, founder at Skyline Celestial, an earlier winner, omitted from an early list by mistake, apologies Geffen!

Subaita Rahman of Scarborough, Ontario, to enable a one-year visiting student appointment at Church Labs at Harvard University.

Gareth Black, Dublin, to start YIMBY Dublin.

Pradyumna Shyama Prasad, blog and podcast, Singapore.  Here is his substack newsletter, here is his podcast about both economics and history.

Ulkar Aghayeva, New York City, Azerbaijani music and bioscience.

Steven Lu, Seattle, to create GenesisFund, a new project for nurturing talent, and general career development.

Ashley Lin, University of Pennsylvania gap year, Center for Effective Altruism, for general career development and to learn talent search in China, India, Russia.

James Lin, McMaster University gap year, from Toronto area, general career development and to support his interests in effective altruism and also biosecurity.

Santiago Tobar Potes, Oxford, from Colombia and DACA in the United States, general career development, interest in public service, law, and foreign policy.

Martin Borch Jensen of Longevity Impetus Grants (a kind of Fast Grants for longevity research), Bay Area and from Denmark, for a new project Talent Bridge, to help talented foreigners reach the US and contribute to longevity R&D.

Jessica Watson Miller, from Sydney now in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit to improve the treatment of mental illness.

Congratulations to you all!  We are honored to have you as Emergent Ventures winners.

The cultural evolution of love in literary history

Since the late nineteenth century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred to as the emergence of ‘courtly love’). However, more recent works have shown a similar increase in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese cultures. Why such a convergent evolution in very different cultures? Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we leverage literary history and build a database of ancient literary fiction for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3,800 years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Modern period. We first confirm that romantic elements have increased in Eurasian literary fiction over the past millennium, and that similar increases also occurred earlier, in Ancient Greece, Rome and Classical India. We then explore the ecological determinants of this increase. Consistent with hypotheses from cultural history and behavioural ecology, we show that a higher level of economic development is strongly associated with a greater incidence of love in narrative fiction (our proxy for the importance of love in a culture). To further test the causal role of economic development, we used a difference-in-difference method that exploits exogenous regional variations in economic development resulting from the adoption of the heavy plough in medieval Europe. Finally, we used probabilistic generative models to reconstruct the latent evolution of love and to assess the respective role of cultural diffusion and economic development.

Speculative, that is a new paper by Nicholas Baumard, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, and Lou Safra.

(Small) markets in everything

Ralph Nader spent a career bashing corporate executives. Now he’s written a book praising some. It’s not going down too well.

Tentatively called “Twelve CEOs I Have Known and Admired,” the book is more than a little off-brand for the man who upended the world of auto safety with the blockbuster “Unsafe at Any Speed” and then attacked corporate behavior in a number of other industries.

Based on a string of rejection letters from publishers, Mr. Nader said he fears he’s been typecast, making any accolades he might have for corporate tycoons a hard sell. His literary agent, Ronald Goldfarb, advised him to change course and go negative, he says.

“He wanted chapters on bad CEOs,” Mr. Nader said of Mr. Goldfarb.

“I didn’t tell him what to write,” Mr. Goldfarb retorts. “I told him what I could sell.” The two parted ways after working on the manuscript for three months.

Mood affiliation strikes again.  Nader fans don’t want to positively affiliate with CEOs, and “love letter” types do not always wish to affiliate with Nader.  (By the way, here is my 2014 chat with Nader.)  Here is the rest of the Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg WSJ article.

*The Affirmative Action Empire*

The author is Terry Martin of Harvard, and the subtitle is Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939.  This is an excellent book for understanding how some of the current Russia vs. Ukraine issues are rooted in Bolshevik times.  Here is one excerpt:

This understanding of nationalism led Platakov to support the only apparently logical response: attack nationalism as a counterrevolutionary ideology and nationality itself as a reactionary remnant of the capitalist era.  Lenin and Stalin, however, drew the exact opposite conclusion.  They reason as follows.  By granting the forms of nationhood, the Soviet state could split the above-class national alliance for statehood.  Class divisions, then, would naturally emerge, which would allow the Soviet government to recruit proletarian and peasant support for their socialist agenda.  Lenin argued that Finnish independence had intensified, not reduced, class conflict.  National self-determination would have the same consequences within the Soviet Union.

And:

As a nationalized entity, the Soviet Union can best be described as an Affirmative Action Empire…The Soviet Union was the first country in world history to establish Affirmative Action programs for national minorities, and no country has yet approached the vast scale of Soviet Affirmative Action.

The goal of course was to limit the emergence of non-Russian nationalism, not to boost the fortunes of the ethnic and national minorities themselves.

*Oceans of Grain*

A good book, think of it as a more general (non-technical) economic history of wheat, authored by Scott Reynolds Nelson.  The sad thing is the book’s subtitle: “How American Wheat Made the World” — yes it covers America, but a lot of the book, and I would say its best parts, focus on Russia and Ukraine.

I guess the publisher figured American readers don’t care that much about Ukraine?  Here is one excerpt:

Before Odessa [which had just been described as a major grain port], the Russian Empire had expanded slowly and defensively, one line of forts at a time.  After Odessa, Russia — just like the United States — possessed foreign exchange and could expand dramatically.  Wheat exports allowed the Russian Empire to fund its foreign wars, and so it surged into Poland, across the Caspian Sea, and toward China.  Nothing seemed capable of stopping the yeasty, kvassy expansion of the Russian Empire.  In fact, the spread of a different invisible creature, an invisible water mold, would further entrench Odessa as Europe’s city of wheat.

And this:

Fish sandwiches emerged as a regular meal for workers in Britain around 1870 once American grain arrived; a decade later this became fish and chips.

A fun book for me.

My Conversation with Chuck Klosterman

Excellent stuff, we had so much fun we kept on going for an extra half hour, as he decided to ask me a bunch of questions about economics and personal finance.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

Chuck joined Tyler to discuss the challenges of writing about recent history, the “slow cancellation of the future” that began in the aughts, how the internet widened cultural knowledge but removed its depth, why the context of Seinfeld was in some ways more important than its content, what Jurassic Park illustrates about public feelings around scientific progress in the ’90s, why the ’90s was the last era of physical mass subcultures, why it’s uncommon to be shocked by modern music, how his limited access to art when growing up made him a better critic, why Spin Magazine became irrelevant with the advent of online streaming, what made Grantland so special, what he learned from teaching in East Germany, the impact of politics on the legacies of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, how sports often rewards obnoxious personalities, why Wilt Chamberlain is still underrated, how the self-awareness of the Portland Trail Blazers undermined them, how the design of the NFL makes sports rivalries nearly impossible, how pro-level compensation prevents sports gambling from corrupting players, why so many people are interested in e-sports, the unteachable element of writing, why he didn’t make a great editor on his school paper, what he’d say to a room filled with ex-lovers, the question he’d most like to ask his parents, his impressions of cryptocurrency, why he’s trying to focus on what he has in the current moment rather than think too much about future plans, the power of charisma, and more.

Whew!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I see the world as follows. Every decade, to me, is super weird, but the 1980s and ’90s pretended they weren’t weird. The ’80s pretended to be good versus evil. The ’90s pretended that good won. But when crypto comes and persists, you have to drop all pretense that the age you’re living in isn’t totally weird.

You have internet crypto, and everyone admits, right now, everything’s weird. And that, to me, is the fundamental break with the 1990s because everyone pretended most things were normal and that Seinfeld was your dose of weird, right? Jason Alexander — that’s a very manageable weird.

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, absolutely.

COWEN: Some guy in an apartment in New York City cracking sarcastic jokes — like, whoop-de-do.

And:

KLOSTERMAN: …this guy, Mark Fisher, who’s dead now, had this idea about the slow cancellation of the future. I feel like that’s one of the most profound ideas that I’ve come across in the last 10 years of my life, and it seems so palpable that this is occurring.

An example I will often use is, if you take, say, 10 minutes from an obscure film in 1965 with no major actors, and then you take 10 minutes from an obscure film from 1980 where nobody became famous, and you show anyone these 10-minute clips, they will have no problem whatsoever figuring out which one came first. Even a little kid can look at a movie from 1965 and a movie from 1980 and instantly understand that one predates the other.

But if you do that with a film from 2005 and a film from 2020 — again, an obscure film where you don’t recognize the actors — you’re just looking at it aesthetically and trying to deduce which one came first and which one came second. It’s almost impossible.

This phenomenon just seems to almost be infiltrating every aspect of the culture…

And:

KLOSTERMAN: Before I did this podcast, I listened to your podcast with Žižek.

COWEN: Oh yeah, that was hilarious.

KLOSTERMAN: Are you friends with him? It sure seemed like it. And if you are, what is it like to be with him when he is not in a performative scenario?

Recommended.  And again, here is Chuck’s new book The Nineties.

Tabarrok on the Ezra Klein Podcast

Late last year I responded to an excellent tweet storm from Ezra Klein by in effect saying he should read Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations. And you know what? He did! Ezra then kindly invited me on to his New York Times podcast to discuss public choice, liberalism, and the rise and decline of nations.

A few good quotes from me:

Japan has caught up to us in slowing down.

And

Let me put it in a way that progressives can understand, there is an inequality of voice and that inequality of voice also goes to the rich and the powerful and the people who can hire lawyers and the people who can use these so-called equitable institutions to their advantage—even the people in the marginalized communities have not benefited.

Ezra asked challenging questions and had lots of interesting things to say. I was especially struck by his argument that people want to tell heroic stories about themselves and so rent seeking comes to be redefined as something heroic. I think that’s an important insight which public choice scholars are likely to overlook–it becomes harder and harder to break out of a rent-seeking equilibrium not just because of transitional gains traps and the like but because the equilibrium comes to be seen as virtuous.

You also get to hear me rant about new hiring procedures at GMU and my HOA.

Ezra asks a good question about why developer interest groups don’t dominate the planning process.

We also talk about crypto and decentralized consensus as well as other topics.

Whether you call it state capacity libertarianism, creating the innovation nation, or supply side progressivism, I think this movement, which Ezra is leading from the left, is one of the most important movements today.

Podcast: Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript here.

*The Invention of Power*

The author is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and the subtitle is Popes, Kings, and the Birth of the West.  Here is the main thesis:

Why Europe became distinct after the year 1000 and not before can be reduced to this surprisingly simple reason: in Europe, the head of religion and the head(s) of state were different people who faced off against one another in long-standing, long-lasting, intense competition for political control.  Certainly, the rulers of China and Japan were thought to be gods.

I consider this broadly consistent with my own views, although I see many other significant factors in the broader history, including natural geography and political fragmentation.  Nor can you dismiss the role of imperialism entirely, plus that the growth of the West came “at the right time” (for the West at least).  I like this book, but I don’t think it quite has the knockdown proof of its thesis that it pretends to.  And the book is oddly silent about Christianity as a general phenomenon.  There is talk of popes and churches on almost every page, and yet Christianity as an intellectual innovation, helping to make liberalism more likely, does not play much of a role in the narrative.  And given how general and deeply rooted some of the mechanisms are, I don’t quite understand why so much stress is placed on the 1122 Concordat of Worms — surely that is endogenous too?  It is an odd philosophy of history in which so much hinges on a single event and then for almost a thousand years the rest that follows is locked in.

No one cared about Bryan’s spreadsheets

From Bryan:

The most painful part of writing The Case Against Education was calculating the return to education.  I spent fifteen months working on the spreadsheets.  I came up with the baseline case, did scores of “variations on a theme,”  noticed a small mistake or blind alley, then started over.  Several programmer friends advised me to learn a new programming language like Python to do everything automatically, but I’m 98% sure that would have taken even longer – and introduced numerous additional errors into the results.  I did plenty of programming in my youth, and I know my limitations.

I took quality control very seriously.  About half a dozen friends gave up whole days of their lives to sit next to me while I gave them a guided tour of the reasoning behind my number-crunching.  Four years before the book’s publication, I publicly released the spreadsheets, and asked the world to “embarrass me now” by finding errors in my work.  If memory serves, one EconLog reader did find a minor mistake.  When the book finally came out, I published final versions of all the spreadsheets underlying the book’s return to education calculations.  A one-to-one correspondence between what’s in the book and what I shared with the world.  Full transparency.

Now guess what?  Since the 2018 publication of The Case Against Education, precisely zero people have emailed me about those spreadsheets.  The book enjoyed massive media attention.  My results were ultra-contrarian: my preferred estimate of the Social Return to Education is negative for almost every demographic.  I loudly used these results to call for massive cuts in education spending.  Yet since the book’s publication, no one has bothered to challenge my math.  Not publicly.  Not privately.  No one cared about my spreadsheets.

Here is more from Bryan Caplan.  I would make a few points:

1. Work is hardly ever checked, unless a particular paper becomes politically focal in some kind of partisan dispute.  You can take this as a sign that Bryan has not dented the political consensus so much, a point I think he would agree with.

2. Researchers discuss and consider your work in a particular area far, far more if you are an insider in that area, making the seminar circuit at top schools.  To be clear, Bryan’s work is discussed far more by intelligent humans who are not education researchers, compared to what virtually all of the education researchers have produced.  Bryan writes in internet space, where the barriers to entry are much lower.  Good for him, I say (duh), but of course not everyone wishes to lower the entry barriers in this manner.  And internet writing does have entry barriers of its own.  For instance, Bryan has been blogging steadily for many years, which many researchers simply do not wish to do or maybe cannot do well at all.

3. Overall I think we are entering a world where “research” and “idea production” are increasingly separate endeavors.  And the latter is moving to the internet, even when it is supplemented by non-internet crystallizations such as books.  Bryan’s ideas, of course, have been germinating on EconLog for some time before his education book came out.  Do you like this new world?  What are its promises and dangers?

Bram Stoker, Dracula, and Progress Studies

The Dracula novel is of course very famous, but it is less well known that it was, among other things, a salvo in the direction of what we now call Progress Studies.  Here are a few points of relevance for understanding Bram Stoker and his writings and views:

1. Stoker was Anglo-Irish and favored the late 19th century industrialization of Belfast as a model for Ireland more generally.  He also was enamored with the course of progress in the United States, and he wrote a pamphlet about his visit.

2. From Wikipedia:

He was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and took a keen interest in Irish affairs. As a “philosophical home ruler”, he supported Home Rule for Ireland brought about by peaceful means. He remained an ardent monarchist who believed that Ireland should remain within the British Empire, an entity that he saw as a force for good. He was an admirer of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom he knew personally, and supported his plans for Ireland.Stoker believed in progress and took a keen interest in science and science-based medicine.

3. The novel Dracula contrasts the backward world of Transylvania with the advanced world of London, and it shows the vampire cannot survive in the latter.  The Count is beaten back by Dr. Van Helsing, who uses science to defeat him and who serves as a stand-in for Stoker and is the de facto hero of the story.

4. One core message of the novel is “Ireland had better develop economically, otherwise we will end up like a bunch of feudal peasants, holding up crosses to fend off evil, rapacious landowners.”  At the time, the prominent uses of crosses was associated with Irish Catholicism.  And is there a more Irish villain than the absentee landlord, namely Dracula?  Dracula is also the kind of warrior nobleman who, coming from England, took over Ireland.

5. In the novel, science and commerce have the potential to defeat underdevelopment.  Stoker’s portrait of Transylvania, most prominent in the opening sections of the novel, also suggests that “underdevelopment is a state of mind.”  And it is correlated with feuding sects and clans, again a reference to the Ireland of his time, at least as he understood Catholic Ireland.  Here is more on Stoker’s views on economic development and modernization for both Ireland and the Balkans.

6. Stoker was obsessed with “rationalizing” (in the Weberian sense) the employment relation and also the bureaucracy  His first non-fiction work was “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions.”  Progress was more generally a recurring theme in his non-fiction writings, for instance “The Necessity of Political Honesty.”  He called for an Ireland of commerce, education, and without “warring feuds.”

7. For Stoker, sexual repression is needed to further societal progress and economic development, and in this regard Stoker anticipates Freud.  Dracula abides by most laws and norms, except the sexual/cannibalistic ones.  Dracula and Lucy, who give in to their individual desires, end up as the big losers.  For the others, societal order is restored, and the lurid sexuality that pervades the book is dampened by the restoration of order.

8. Christ and Dracula are mirror opposites (the stake, the cross, resurrection at dawn rather than sunset, the role of blood drinking reversed, the preaching of immortality in opposite ways, the inversion of who sacrifices for whom, and more).  A proper societal outcome is obtained when these two opposites end up neutralizing each other.  Stoker’s vision of progress is fundamentally secular.  (See Clyde Leatherdale on all this.)

9. From Hollis Robbins: “Britain’s economic prosperity in the nineteenth century was largely dependent on the adoption of international standards such as Greenwich Mean Time and the universal day, which ensured smooth coordination for trade, legal transactions, railroad travel, and mail delivery. Dracula, whose powers are governed by the sun and the moon rather than clocks and calendars, works to destabilize social coordination. His objective is not only literally to “fatten on the blood of the living,”6 but also more broadly to suck the lifeblood of a thriving commercial economy at the dawn of a global age. Under Dracula’s spell, humans forget the time, becoming listless, unproductive, and indifferent to social convention. At heart, the fundamental battle in Stoker’s Dracula is a death struggle between standard time as an institutional basis for world markets and planetary time governing a primitive, superstitious existence.”

10. In an interview Stoker once said: “I suppose that every book of the kind must contain some lesson, but I prefer that readers should find it out for themselves.”  There are numerous ways to take that remark, not just what I am suggesting.

What should I ask Chris Blattman?

I will be having a Conversation with him, rooted in his forthcoming book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.  Though not only!

Chris is a political scientist at University of Chicago, but with training in other fields as well and indeed he is also an economist.  He has done extensive fieldwork in Colombia and East Africa, both on conflict and also on cash transfers.  He is active blogging and tweeting, and is a Canadian too.

Here is my previous Conversation with Chris.  So what should I ask him this time around?

My Conversation with the excellent Sebastian Mallaby

Venture capital most of all, hedge funds as well with the Fed tossed in.  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt from the Conversation:

COWEN: What do you think of the view that in recent years, there’s been a huge consumer retail tech boom? Basically FAANG stocks, right? And when that is over — it might be over now — the excess returns to VC will go away. If you look at venture capital for biotech, which has been hammered lately, as we’re speaking here, late January 2022 — and maybe venture capital is a limited model for one period of time, and otherwise, it just does okay. True or false?

MALLABY: False. I say that because, in a cyclical sense, you might be right, but I think there’s a deep structural shift, which is really important. That is that intangible capital has become more and more important in our economy. The nature of intangible capital is that it’s hard to measure it in financial reports.

To understand whether a particular software investment, for example, is worth a huge amount or, really, nothing, you need to understand what that software development within the company is doing. You need to be hands-on. You need to have the technical skills to evaluate that software project. The more that intangible capital rises as a share of new GDP creation, the more this venture-style hands-on expert investing is going to be valuable.

COWEN: Your explanation — if I understand it — to me seems to suggest that venture capital for biotech won’t work very well. You’re portraying it as something that’s very, very hard to do, a very limited skill, so you’re going to be wrong a lot of times. That means the times you’re right, the product has to be scalable very rapidly.

But in biotech, there are regulators. You often need a sales force. It’s not scalable in the way that, say, LinkedIn or Netflix are scalable. Doesn’t that mean VC will just stay limited to a very small area of those things that are super rapidly scalable? Or if you think it’s pretty easy to pick winners, then you have to think the rents get exhausted.

MALLABY: [laughs] Yeah, this is a version of, actually, a wider debate which goes beyond biotech, which is the claim that venture capital is really only good for software projects, that software can be scaled very, very fast; there are network effects once you get product-market fit, and you don’t need much capital.

And this:

COWEN: I have some questions about other topics. You have some highly regarded books about hedge funds and about the Fed. In the late ’90s, the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management — was that a kind of original sin that just set us on a path of bailing more things out at higher and higher price tags? Should we have just let LTCM fall?

MALLABY: No, I think the original sin was Continental Illinois, much earlier in 1986, I believe, when the Fed bailed out this bank which it thought was too big to fail. I’m not sure it really was too big to fail, but it was a moment when the Latin American debt crisis was still casting a shadow, when the banking system was perceived to be fragile, and the Fed just wasn’t willing to let it go. That was the original sin because taxpayer money was used to bail it out.

There is much more at the link, and I am very happy to recommend Sebastian’s new and very good book The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future.

Ireland fact of the day

…one statistic stands out from a census comparison from the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Just 2.1 percent of the population in Northern Ireland were born in the South, and just 1.3 percent living in the South were born in the North.

And that is with rights of free migration.  That is from Brendan O’Leary, A Treatise on Northern Ireland, volume 3, Consociation and Confederation, a very good series of books I might add.