Category: Education

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.

And:

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.

Recommended!

Why is the news cycle getting shorter and shorter?

Remember the anonymous Op-Ed from within the Trump administration?  We’re hardly talking about it any more, and indeed so many “major” stories from just a few weeks ago seem to be slipping from our grasp.  Why?

The naïve hypothesis is that we keep turning our attention to the very latest events because so much is happening so quickly. But there have been periods in the past when a lot was happening, such as the financial crisis of a decade ago, and the news cycle seemed “stickier” then. So this can’t be the entire story.

An alternate theory is that there are actually very few “true events” happening, but there is lots of froth on the surface. Maybe there is only one “big event” happening, one major transformation underway: a change in the willingness of American political leaders to break with previous norms. If the change is mostly in one direction, then maybe it’s enough to debate only the most recent news.

That may sound abstract, so here is a concrete analogy. Let’s say you are on a sinking ship. You might focus more on the current water level than on where it was in the recent past, except maybe to help you estimate the rate of flooding. In more technical terms, talking about the event of the day is a “sufficient statistic” for talking about the last two years.

The shorter news cycle also may result from greater political polarization. If people don’t frame events in a common way, then a discussion of those events might not last very long. Conversation will return very quickly to the underlying differences in worldviews, and discussion of any particular event will get trampled by a much larger philosophical debate. It does seem like we have been repeating the same general arguments about Trump, populism, gender and governing philosophy for some time now, and we are not about to stop.

Possibly the shorter news cycles are also a result of greater general disillusionment with politics and especially with elites, a theme outlined in Martin Gurri’s forthcoming book “The Revolt of the Public.” The really fun stuff might instead be watching mixed martial arts, debating social norms about gender and browsing the Instagram feeds of your friends.

Finally, maybe we’re all just better at digesting news events more quickly. Perhaps every possible observation, insight and argument gets put on Facebook and Twitter within a day or two, and much of this material is archived. What’s the point of repeating these debates every few months?

That is from my latest Bloomberg piece.  I am thankful to Anecdotal for a related point and insight.

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.

And:

COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…

What Do We Learn from Amazon and the Minimum Wage?

Amazon’s widely touted increase in its minimum wage was accompanied by an ending of their monthly bonus plan, which often added 8% to a worker’s salary (16% during holiday season), and its stock share program which recently gave workers shares worth $3,725 at two years of employment. I’m reasonably confident that most workers will still benefit on net, simply because the labor market is tight, but it’s clear that the increase in the minimum wage was not as generous as it first appeared.

What lessons does this episode hold for minimum wage research? Amazon increased its wages voluntarily but suppose that the minimum wage had been increased by law. What would have happened? Clearly, Amazon would have, at the very least, eliminated their bonus plan and their stock share plan! In this situation, researchers examining employment data would discover that the increase in the minimum wage did not much lower employment. Such researchers might conclude that minimum wages don’t reduce employment much because the demand for labor is inelastic. The conclusion is correct but the reasoning is false. The correct conclusion and reasoning would be that the minimum wage didn’t reduce employment much because the minimum wage didn’t increase net wages much.

Amazon is a big and newsworthy employer so its actions have been closely monitored but in most cases we never know the myriad ways in which firms respond to a law. Even using administrative data it would be difficult to pick up changes in a stock share plan or a pension plan, as this compensation doesn’t show up in earnings until years after the work is completed. Even a simple employment contract is a complicated bargain with many margins. During the holiday season, for example, Amazon hires a CamperForce of workers who live in RVs and it pays their campsite fees–no big deal, but that is a form of compensation that is hard to find on a W-2. More generally, firms can respond to a minimum wage by changing compensation on non-wage margins, adjusting working conditions, reducing benefits, changing wage growth patterns, and adjusting the type of workers they hire, to give just a few examples–and notice that all of these changes are difficult to measure and none of them have a first-order effect on employment.

The Sokal Squared hoax

Here is coverage from The Chronicle, the bottom line is that a number of humanities journals were trolled by phony submissions, and yes the journals accepted some absurd articles.

For varying perspectives, here is Henry, and here is Jonathan Rauch.  Here is Yascha Mounk.  Here is Bryan.

I would frame the matter somewhat differently, and perhaps more cynically.  Not every undergraduate major can have majors as smart and as rigorous as we find say in mathematics.  And yes I do mean some of the humanities majors.  In the resulting equilibrium, the rigor and smarts of associated faculty vary across fields as well.  The top people in quantum mechanics have passed through some pretty tough filters.  But again, we cannot usefully generalize those filters across all fields and majors to a country where such a high percentage of people attend college.  (Slow improvement can come from K-12 progress, of course, and we should fight for that.)  Some of the majors have to be easier than others, no names will be named.  By the way, don’t assume that basket-weaving is such an easy skill!

So simply calling for higher standards in the fields you object to begs the question.  Instead ask “what are those fields for?”  And “might I prefer a different kind of error process in those fields?”  And “Might I want those fields to be (partly) bad in a very different way?”  You probably have to compare bad against bad, not bad against “my personal sense of what clearly would be better.”

After such inquiries, you still will find that too much bogus work is being researched and published in journals.  The most rigorous fields in turn tend to have too much irrelevant or overspecialized work — is all of string theory or for that matter game theory so much to be envied?

Many of you will be inclined to call for fewer subsidies.  I won’t tackle that larger question right now, I’ll just note that any system-wide subsidies — especially egalitarian ones — also will boost the less rigorous fields and majors, and in some manner you need to be prepared to live with the not entirely rigorous consequences of that.

Overall I view bad pieces in the humanities as a potential profit opportunity, rather than something to just whine about.  You don’t like those troll-published pieces?  Get to work!

Addendum: You will note that the sociology journals were not fooled by the troll submissions.  By many outsiders sociology is a much-underrated field.

The Nobel Laureate who is not a full professor

Donna Strickland (at right) was on Tuesday named one of the three winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. Many have noted that she is the first woman in 55 years to win the prize. The BBC noted in a radio interview that Strickland is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and asked why she was not a full professor. She said she never applied. She laughed when asked if she would apply now.

Link here.

It’s a lot of work to apply for full professor, in terms of compiling one’s dossier, writing a research and teaching statement, cultivating letter writers, and so on.  At many schools you might get a raise of say $1500 for the promotion?  Apply Canadian tax rates to that.  That could be accompanied by more administrative responsibilities, such as pressure to become department chair at some point.

Hail Donna Strickland!

New issue of Econ Journal Watch

In this issue

And the IMF said: LET THERE BE DATA. And there was dataRyan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly unearth assumptions behind the International Monetary Fund’s numbers for private capital stocks by country.

Hayek’s Divorce and Move to ChicagoLanny Ebenstein draws together new information to reinterpret Hayek’s personal life and how it related to his move to the United States, especially from 1945 to 1955.

The Russian pupils of Adam SmithAn essay from 1937 tells of the two Glasgow students of the 1760s who returned home and launched a tradition of Smithian liberal thought in Russia.

Ideological Profiles of the Economics Laureates: We resume the project with two of the 2013 laureates—Eugene Fama, who responded to our questionnaire, and Lars Peter Hansen.

An Icelandic sagaHannes Gissurarson responds to his compatriot Stefán Ólafsson on the proper way to tell their country’s story since 1991.

Against the Incorporation of BarbersA remarkable, forgotten pamphlet of 1758 argues that the restriction, which today would be termed occupational licensing, left those in need of a haircut at the mercy of “a greasy Barber, covered all over with Suds, and the excrementitious Parts of the Beards of nasty Mechanicks.”

EJW Audio:

Lanny Ebenstein on Hayek’s Personal Affairs

Dwight Lee on Teaching Econ and the Two Moralities

Who is most likely to attribute an outcome to genetic factors?

Ahem:

Many scholars argue that people who attribute human characteristics to genetic causes also tend to hold politically and socially problematic attitudes. More specifically, public acceptance of genetic influences is believed to be associated with intolerance, prejudice, and the legitimation of social inequities and laissez-faire policies. We test these expectations with original data from two nationally representative samples that allow us to identify the American public’s attributional patterns across 18 diverse traits. Key findings are (1) genetic attributions are actually more likely to be made by liberals, not conservatives; (2) genetic attributions are associated with higher, not lower, levels of tolerance of vulnerable individuals; and (3) genetic attributions do not correlate with unseemly racial attitudes.

That is from , , and in the Journal of Politics.  For the pointer I thank K.

The excellent David C. Wright podcasts me on *Stubborn Attachments*, and on other things

It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.  (If you read the transcript, the sentence in the middle about my believing in God as a teenager is a transcription error, it will be corrected.)  David is one of the best, and best prepared, interviewers I have interacted with.  Here is the audio and transcript.

Here is one bit from the middle:

David: …should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.

[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.

[00:39:14] David: They do.

[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.

[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?

[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.

[00:39:20] David: Better at?

[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.

[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–

[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.

[00:39:43] David: Do you?

[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.

Definitely recommended.

Economists in the tech sector

…led by Pat Bajari, Amazon has hired more than 150 Ph.D. economists in the past five years, making them the largest employer of tech economists.  In fact, Amazon now has several times more full time economists than the largest academic economics department, and continues to grow at a rapid pace.

That is from the new Susan Athey and Michael Luca paper “Economists (and Economics) In Tech Companies.”

Appealing to your identity in making a point

In a post which is interesting more generally, Arnold Kling makes this point:

I think Tyler missed the important difference between taking identity into account and having someone appeal to their identity. I agree with Bryan that the latter is a negative signal. Opening with “Speaking as a ____” is a bullying tactic.

Many have had a similar response, but I figured I would save up that point for an independent blog post, rather than putting it in the original.  Here are a few relevant points:

1. If someone opens with “Speaking as a transgender latinx labor activist…”, or something similar, perhaps that is somewhat artless, but most likely it is relevant information to me, at least for most of the topics which correlate with that kind of introduction.  I am happy enough with direct communication of that information, and don’t quite get what a GMU blogger would object to in that regard.  Does the speaker have to wait until paragraph seven before obliquely hinting at being transgender?  Communicate the information in Straussian fashion?

2. Being relatively established, most of the pieces I write already give such an introduction to me, for instance a column by-line or a back cover photo and author description on a book.  Less established people face the burden of having to introduce themselves, and yes that is hard to do well, hard for any of us.  You might rationally infer that these people are indeed less established, and possibly also less accomplished, but the introduction itself should be seen in this light, not as an outright negative.  It is most of all a signal that the person is somewhat “at sea” in establishment institutions and their concomitant introductions, framings, and presentations.  Yes, that outsider status possibly can be a negative signal in some regards, but a GMU blogger or independent scholar (as Arnold is) should not regard that as a negative signal per se.  At the margin, I’d like to see people pay more attention to smart but non-mainstream sources.

3. For many audiences, I don’t need an introduction at all, nor would Bryan or Arnold.  That’s great of course for us.  But again we are being parasitic on other social forces having introduced us already.  Let’s not pretend we’re above this whole game, we are not, we just have it much easier.  EconLog itself has a click space for “Blogger Bios,” though right now it is empty, perhaps out of respect for Bryan’s views.  Or how about if you get someone to blurb your books for you?

4. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reasons, women in today’s world often feel less comfortable putting themselves forward in public spaces.  In most (not all) areas they blog at much lower rates, and they are also less willing to ask for a salary increase, among other manifestations of the phenomenon.  Often, in this kind of situation, you also will find group members who “overshoot” the target and pursue a strategy which is the opposite of excess reticence.  I won’t name names, but haven’t you heard something like “Speaking as a feminist, Dionysian, child of the 1960s, Freudian, Catholic, pro-sex, pagan, libertarian polymath…”?  Maybe that is a mistake of style and presentation and even reasoning, but the deeper understanding is to figure out better means of evaluating people who “transact” in the public sphere at higher cost, not simply to dismiss or downgrade them.

5. If someone like Bill Gates were testifying in front of Congress and claimed “Speaking as the former CEO of a major company, I can attest that immigration is very important to the American economy” we wouldn’t really object very much, would we?  Wouldn’t it seem entirely appropriate?  So why do we so often hold similar moves against those further away from the establishment?

How about “as a Mongolian sheep herder, let me tell you what kinds of grass they like to eat…”?

Then why not “As a transgender activist…”?  You don’t necessarily have to agree with what follows, just recognize they might know more than average about the topic.

To sum up, appealing to one’s identity possibly can be a negative signal.  But overall it should be viewed not as a reason to dismiss such speakers and writers, but rather a chance to obtain a deeper understanding.

Boring Speakers Drone On

It’s not just your imagination, boring speakers drone on. At least according to a small study reported in a letter to Nature:

I investigated this idea at a meeting where speakers were given 12-minute slots. I sat in on 50 talks for which I recorded the start and end time. I decided whether the talk was boring after 4 minutes, long before it became apparent whether the speaker would run overtime. The 34 interesting talks lasted, on average, a punctual 11 minutes and 42 seconds. The 16 boring ones dragged on for 13 minutes and 12 seconds (thereby wasting a statistically significant 1.5 min; t-test, t = 2.91, P = 0.007). For every 70 seconds that a speaker droned on, the odds that their talk had been boring doubled. For the audience, this is exciting news. Boring talks that seem interminable actually do go on for longer.

In my view, the fundamental explanation is that a boring speaker doesn’t think about their audience. A speaker who cares puts herself in the audience’s shoes, thinks in advance about what is important, how much an audience can absorb in one sitting, where a graphic would be helpful and so forth. A good speaker plans and practices and thus ends up being interesting and ending on time.

Which countries have the most human capital?

Here is a new Lancet paper by Stephen S. Lim, et.al., via the excellent Charles Klingman.  Finland is first, the United States is #27, and China and Russia are #44 and #49 respectively.  There is plenty of “rigor” in the paper, but I say this is a good example of what is wrong with the social sciences and more specifically the publication process.  The correct answer is a weighted average of the median, the average, the high peaks, and a country’s ability to innovate, part of which depends upon the market size a person has in his or her sights.  So in reality the United States is number one, and China and Russia should both rank much higher (Cuba and Brunei beat them out, for instance, Cuba at #41, Brunei at #29).  And does it really make sense to put North Korea (#113) between Ecuador and Egypt?  I’m fine with Finland being in the top fifteen, but I am not even sure it beats Sweden.  Overall the paper would do better by simply measuring non-natural resource-based per capita gdp, though of course that could be improved upon too.

Now, I did zero work on that one, and came up with a better result than the authors.  What does that tell you?

Addendum: You will note the first sentence of the paper’s background claims: human capital refers to “the level of education and health in a population”.  The first two sentences of the actual paper immediately contradict this: “Human capital refers to the attributes of a population that, along with physical capital such as buildings, equip­ment, and other tangible assets, contribute to economic productivity. Human capital is characterised as the aggregate levels of education, training, skills, and health in a population, affecting the rate at which technologies can be developed, adopted, and employed to increase productivity.”  The paper does an OK job of measuring the former, but absolutely fails on the latter.

How should we judge appeals to identity

Bryan Caplan wrote this in his description of GMU blogger culture:

Appealing to your identity is a reason to discount what you say, not a reason to pay extra attention.

Bryan explains more, not easy for me to summarize but do read his full account.  Let me instead try to state my own views:

1. If someone makes a claim new or foreign to you, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you probably should up the amount of attention you give that claim because the person is from a different background.  Your marginal need to learn from that person is probably above-average, noting of course this can be countermanded by other signals.  That said, I recognize that our ability to learn from “different others” may be below average, given the possible absence of a common conceptual framework.  Nonetheless, I say be ambitious in your learning!

2. If someone makes a claim you already disagree with, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you should try to figure out why that person might see the matter differently.  You should try harder, at the margin, precisely because the person is from a different background.  Again, this follows from a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning and ambition in learning.

3. When you hear a person from a different background, try not to get too caught up in the “identity politics” of it, either positively or negatively.  Try to steer your thoughts to: “People from this background in fact have a wide diversity of views on this topic.  Still, I will try to learn from this person’s different background.”  Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”

4. I’ve already noted that you often learn more efficiently from people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself.  Even putting language aside, I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder.  In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake.  To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.

But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much.  At the end of the day I am left with my intellectual ambition and I really do wish to go visit Mongolia, including for the sheep herders.  And to the extent I am informed in some ways that maybe not all of my peers are, the intellectual ambition I am presenting here is a big reason why.  I seek to encourage more such ambition, rather than to give people reasons for evading it.