Category: Education

In which ways are Democratic economists Democrats? (or not)

In a series of tweets (try this one), Matt Yglesias has been arguing that academic economists are far more Democratic than the U.S. population as a whole, though less left-wing than most other academics.  I agree with his claims, which are backed by plenty of data, but I wish to add some further thoughts.

Very often political views follow our socioeconomic class and the peer groups we are trying to impress or join.  Thus those claims from Matt are true for American policies only.  If you took a leftish (but not Marxist radical) Democratic U.S. economist, and asked that person what Mexico should do to improve, I think the answers would include the following:

1. Build state capacity to win the drug war, legalize or decriminalize some drugs too.

2. Make it easier for firms in the informal sector to enter the formal, taxed sector, and thus make it easier for them to grow.

3. Invest more in education for underprivileged Mexican youth.

4. End the state monopolies in industrial products.

5. Do something about corruption (but what?).

6. Diversify the economy away from Pemex and fossil fuels.

7. Maintain NAFTA and try to maintain and indeed rebuild the health of the earlier democratization.

Now, that is pretty much the same as my list!  To be sure, the rhetoric on some of these proposals, such as #2 and #3, would be different coming from this imaginary leftish Democratic economist.  (Lots more talk about “inequality” on #2 and more about the benefits of regulation on #3, for instance, whereas I would stress the benefits of firm growth.)  But I don’t think the substance of the proposals would be all that different.

Whether you wish to say the leftish economist has a right-wing perspective on Mexico, or vice versa, is a moot point.  Or are we all centrists on Mexico?  There is in any case a reasonable coincidence of policy recommendations once you remove people from their immediate socioeconomic environment.  And surely that makes the Democratic economists just a little suspicious to the non-economist intellectual Democrats, as you can see from the Twitter fury directed at Matt Y. for what were purely factual claims.

There is a reason why they call it “the Washington Consensus.”  I can assure you that the World Bank and IMF economists are not a bunch of Republican wanna-bees.  But the Washington Consensus works, at least on average.

If you asked a non-economist Democratic voter what Mexico should do, I am not sure what answers you would get.  But it is hardly obvious you would get the above list (I’d love to see this done as a study and compared to the Republican answers).  Maybe the non-economist would talk about foreign aid more?  Immigration more?  I really don’t know.  But they probably are not very aware of the dismal productivity performance of Mexican SMEs and what a problem that is, and probably not very aware of the various state monopolies.  They probably would mention corruption, however, and also public safety and winning the fight against the drug gangs.

When it comes to U.S. disputes, the Democratic economist probably would be more “off the rails” than the typical Democratic voter (sorry, you’ll have to find your own links here, there are plenty), if only because that person is more aware of the socioeconomic conflicts and more aware of what one is supposed to believe.  The more symbolic the dispute, the further from the median voter the Democratic economist is likely to be.  But that is the education doing the work, not the economics background.

If you want to get a Democratic economist making sense, just get that person talking about some other country, follow most of the policy advice, and remove the word “inequality” and a few other catch phrases.

Interestingly, there is a subset of Republican economists who don’t talk sense no matter what the country under consideration.  For instance, they might think that “income tax cuts for Mexico” would do a lot of good.  In this sense they are the more consistent “cosmopolitan ideologues,” taking that phrase as a truly joint concept.  Since most economists are Democrats, perhaps examining “the remnant Republicans” is selecting for excessively consistent ideology.  The remnant Republicans are less likely to insist that “every country is different,” a’ la Dani Rodrik.  If they were so flexible, they probably wouldn’t still be Republicans.

As a final note, I fear we are entering a world so “well-informed” about affective polarization, and with Woke concepts so globalized, that at some point the majority of the Democratic economists won’t talk sense on Mexico any more either.  But we are not yet there — maybe in five to ten years?  Maybe never?  And where will the Republican remnant end up?

The Public Choice Outreach Conference!

The Public Choice Outreach Conference, a compact lecture series designed as a “crash course” in Public Choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy, will be online this year–a week of noon to 1:15 (EST) Zooms, August 2-7.

Monday, August 2
An Introduction to Public Choice—Alex Tabarrok

Tuesday, August 3
Arrow’s Theorem and All That—Alex Tabarrok

Wednesday, August 4
Public Choice and Development Economics—Shruti Rajagopalan

Thursday, August 5
Evaluating Democratic Institutions—Garett Jones

Friday, August 6
Futarchy: An Alternative Decision-Making Procedure—Robin Hanson

Saturday, August 7
Hayek and Buchanan—Peter Boettke

You can find out more here and the application is here. The program is designed for students but going online will allow us to expand the attendees so do apply!

Abolishing tenure is the least of my proposals

In my latest Bloomberg column I attempt to design an ideal university from scratch.  The point is not that all schools should be this way, rather this is the experiment I would like to see at the margin:

I would start with what I expect students to know. They should be able to write very well, have  a basic understanding of economics and public policy, and a decent working knowledge of statistical reasoning. I would give a degree to students who demonstrated “B-grade” competence in all of these areas; what now goes for passing C-minus work wouldn’t cut it.

Most important, the people who write and grade the students’ tests would not be their instructors. So students would have to acquire a genuine general knowledge base, not just memorize what is supposed to be on the exam.

Next, each student would have the equivalent of a GitHub certification page. If you learned three programming languages, for example, or won a prize in a science fair, that would go on your page as a credential. But it would not count as a credit toward graduation. Some students could finish their degrees in a year or two even if their pages were not adorned with many accomplishments, while others might fill their pages but get no degree.

My imaginary school would not have many assistant deans, student affairs staff or sports teams. The focus would be on paying more money to the better instructors.

And:

Instructors would not have tenure, but would have to compete for students — by offering them classes and services that would help them graduate and improve the quality of their certification pages. Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract, in a manner suggested long ago by Adam Smith, who himself lived under such a system in 18th-century Scotland.

The very best instructors could earn $300,000 to $400,000 a year…

The school would hire online instructors too, many of them from poorer countries and working at lower wages. So you might take French from a tutor in Senegal, or have a high school teacher from Tamil Nadu read your essays and offer writing tips. I am a big believer in face-to-face instruction, but in my school it would have to compete with online instruction. For this reason, I think my school would have a much more diverse faculty and instructional base than any other institution of higher education. None of the instructors would be required to have any undergraduate or advanced degrees.

The goal is to introduce competition across as many different margins as possible.  There would be an “all on-line” option as well, offered to anyone in the world, though of course the on-line degree might be worth less as judged in the market place.

One issue I did not have time to get into is how the school would “shadow price” its different services to students.  Access to different services has to be priced somehow, so should the school hand out total vouchers to each student for use within the school?  Should the on-line and also face-to-face classes be priced at marginal cost (plus mark-up)?  Or do positive externalities from class cohesion mean that the face-to-face classes should be priced at some additional discount?  To what extent should factors other than this shadow price system be used to allocate access to classes?

A new study of crypto ownership

Employing representative data from the U.S. Survey of Consumer Payment Choice, we disprove the hypothesis that cryptocurrency investors are motivated by distrust in fiat currencies or regulated finance. Compared with the general population, investors show no differences in their level of security concerns with either cash or commercial banking services. We find that cryptocurrency investors tend to be educated, young and digital natives. In recent years, a gap in ownership of cryptocurrencies across genders has emerged. We examine how investor characteristics vary across cryptocurrencies and show that owners of cryptocurrencies increasingly tend to hold their investment for longer periods.

And:

Moving from a lower category of education to a higher one increases the probability, on average, of recognising at least one cryptocurrency by around 8.7 to 11.1 percentage points…Being a man in the US increases, on average, the probability of knowing
about at least one cryptocurrency by between 9.6 and 12.1 percentage points.

That is from a recent paper by Raphael Auer and David Tercero-Lucas, via Shaffin Shariff.  Data are from 2019.

Bullshit Ability as an Honest Signal of Intelligence

By Martin Harry Turpin, et.al.:

Navigating social systems efficiently is critical to our species. Humans appear endowed with a cognitive system that has formed to meet the unique challenges that emerge for highly social species. Bullshitting, communication characterised by an intent to be convincing or impressive without concern for truth, is ubiquitous within human societies. Across two studies (N = 1,017), we assess participants’ ability to produce satisfying and seemingly accurate bullshit as an honest signal of their intelligence. We find that bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent. We interpret these results as adding evidence for intelligence being geared towards the navigation of social systems. The ability to produce satisfying bullshit may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.

Here is the full article.  Am I allowed to call him the “straight-shooting Kevin Lewis“?

Let’s all have a revisionist Fourth of July

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Revisionist history serves many useful purposes, and for the most part it should be encouraged — even though many particular revisionist claims turn out to be wrong. The natural human state of affairs is a kind of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. If historians sometimes write a bit too sharply or speculatively to capture the audience’s attention, it is a price worth paying. At any rate, the audience tends not to take them literally or to pay close attention to their more detailed claims.

And:

The problem is that the revisionism isn’t diverse enough. A few issues — most of all those raised by Critical Race Theory — get caught up in the culture wars and are debated above all others. I agree that we should devote more time and attention to America’s disgraceful history of slavery and race relations, and I have incorporated that into my own teaching.

Still, other matters are being neglected. The longer trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is hardly debated, or what that history should mean for current decisions. There is plenty of carping about “the deep state,” but actual history has fallen down a memory hole, including the history of U.S. intelligence agencies.

It gets worse yet. According to one recent survey, 63% of the American public is not aware that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Ten percent had not heard of the Holocaust at all. Or consider the treatment of Native Americans, which was terrible and produced few heroes. Yet American soul-searching on this history seems to be minimal.

America needs revisionism, more of it please, and on timely and controversial topics. But it also needs less politicized and more intellectually diverse interpretations of its history. On this Fourth of July, what America needs is not the promotion of some particular claim of historical hypocrisy, but the elevation of the historical itself.

Recommended, and have a happy Fourth!

How do you ask good questions?

Ryan writes to me:

Consuming the different variety of media in which you publish ideas, I’ve noticed that you pose very high quality questions. For me, high quality questions have a Heideggerian quality insofar as they open a space for exploration, i.e. a concept, category, path of thought has specific affordances that were merely dormant up until the performative moment of that question being posed.
Do you have an instinctual knack for posing high-quality questions or is there a conscious method employed when you engage with ideas.
Are you aware of any interesting articles/books exploring the nature of questions and how to improve asking questions. Lots written about answering questions; very little, so far as I can tell, about asking questions.

I have a few tips for asking better questions:

1. Highly specific questions are better on average.

2. It is often better to preface a question with a confession of some sort, or with information from yourself. That sets a standard for the respondent. Set that standard high!

3. Demonstrate credibly that you are truly listening and that you care about the answer.

4. With any possible question, ask yourself in advance: can the person being asked the question respond too easily in a vague and not very useful way? “Why did you write a book about Napoleon? Well, let me tell you, French history always fascinated me.” etc. If that is the kind of slop you might get back in response, try making the question more pointed or more specific.

5. High status people get better answers than do low status people. So be high status. Or at least credibly pretend to be high status.

6. I have enjoyed Gregory Stock’s The Book of Questions.

7. You might say “listen to other interviewers.” Well, maybe, but perhaps not too much? They will encourage you, by default, to ask the same questions that everyone else does. And too many of the sources available to you are mega-famous people who are getting by using their fame to boost the significant of their questions. (Anything Oprah might ask me would be interesting per se.) So use this standard tip sparingly and with caution.

8. Any questions about all this?

The origins of Wokeism

My latest Bloomberg column considers one factor (of many), here is an excerpt:

The male-female imbalance in academic life should be treated as a kind of emergency. But the institutions that address it are slow and bureaucratic.

Now enter the philosophy of wokeism. One way to think of the woke is as a bunch of people who scream about various injustices. But sometimes they don’t have a good plan to address a particular imbalance — and along the way they can inflict a good deal of unjustified damage, for instance by canceling people who make the wrong remarks about gender imbalance or other issues.

These and other criticisms of the woke may well be correct. Still, at the end of the day it has to be recognized that an unresponsive society will generate a lot of unproductive (and unresponsive) screamers. So simply dissecting the weaknesses of woke tactics and arguments misses the point. When practical solutions do not seem to exist, many people will resort to screaming.

This leads to the conclusion that wokeness won’t be defeated as an ideology until there is a more convincing and practical vision of how to undo institutional sclerosis. When that vision comes, it may not be so closely allied with wokeness, which is not excessively concerned with effective administration and incentive compatibility.

And this:

Sometimes it even seems that woke forces are effective. Recently some major museums have announced that they are sending back their highly valuable West African bronze sculptures to their countries of origin. Many of those sculptures were stolen by British colonial occupiers, and their restoration would reunite those countries with a significant part of their cultural heritage. This justified change would probably not have occurred without pressure from wokeism.

One underlying theme of the column is that the defects of the Woke — such as excess rigidity — are closely allied to the defects of the society they are protesting against.

Ann Bernstein interview with Lant Pritchett

Ann Bernstein: From your knowledge of India and Indonesia, what are the core causes of their lack of educational
progress? These are places with highly qualified civil servants and, at least in India’s case, a democratic
government. How do you see this problem? How do we get out of this trap?

Lant Pritchett: I’m head of this very large research project called RISE and we’re spending millions of dollars to
find out the answer to that question. One of the countries where education improvements have been dramatic
is Vietnam. At a tiny fraction of the spending in most countries – including South Africa – Vietnam is achieving
OECD levels of learning. When we asked our Vietnam team why the country has produced this amazing success,
they told us: ‘because they wanted it’.

On one level, that seems silly; on another level, it is the key. Unless, as a society, you agree on a set of achievable
objectives and actually act in a way that reveals that you really want those objectives, you cannot achieve
anything.

Recommended throughout.

Why is it OK to be mean to the ugly?

That is the new NYT David Brooks column, here is one excerpt:

Not all the time, but often, the attractive get the first-class treatment. Research suggests they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired when interviewed and more likely to be promoted than less attractive individuals. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on those loans.

The discriminatory effects of lookism are pervasive. Attractive economists are more likely to study at high-ranked graduate programs and their papers are cited more often than papers from their less attractive peers. One study found that when unattractive criminals committed a moderate misdemeanor, their fines were about four times as large as those of attractive criminals.

Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is among the bottom one-seventh in looks earns about 10 to 15 percent less a year than one in the top third. An unattractive person misses out on nearly a quarter-million dollars in earnings over a lifetime.

The overall effect of these biases is vast. One 2004 study found that more people report being discriminated against because of their looks than because of their ethnicity.

In a study published in the current issue of the American Journal of Sociology, Ellis P. Monk Jr., Michael H. Esposito and Hedwig Lee report that the earnings gap between people perceived as attractive and unattractive rivals or exceeds the earnings gap between white and Black adults. They find the attractiveness curve is especially punishing for Black women. Those who meet the socially dominant criteria for beauty see an earnings boost; those who don’t earn on average just 63 cents to the dollar of those who do.

Recommended.

How and why is Conquest’s Second Law true?

“Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.”

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Additional forces strengthen Conquest’s Second Law. Educational polarization increasingly characterizes U.S. politics, with more educated Americans more likely to vote Democratic. Those same Americans are also likely to run nonprofits or major corporations, which would partially explain the ideological migration of those institutions.

There are, of course, numerous U.S. institutions that have maintained or even extended a largely right-wing slant, including many police forces, significant parts of the military, and many Protestant Evangelical churches. Those institutions tend to have lower educational requirements, and so they are not always so influential in the media, compared to many left-wing institutions.

Furthermore, the military and police are supposed to keep out of politics, and so their slant to the right is less noticeable, although no less real. The left is simply more prominent in mass media, so Conquest’s Second Law appears to be truer than it really is. (Note that by definition the law excludes explicitly right-wing media.)

And:

The common thread to these explanations is that left-wing views find it easier to win in spheres of reporting, talk and rhetoric — and that those tendencies strengthen over time.

It follows that, if Conquest’s Second Law is true, societies are more right-wing than they appear. Furthermore, it is the intelligentsia itself that is most likely to deluded about this, living as it does in the world of statements and proclamations. It is destined to be repeatedly surprised at how “barbarian” American society is.

There is also a significant strand of right-wing thought, most notably in opposition to Marxism, that stresses the immutable realities of human nature, and that people change only so much in response to their environments. So all that left-wing talk doesn’t have to result in an entirely left-wing society.

Conservatives thus should be able to take some comfort in Conquest’s Second Law. They may find the discourse suffocating at times. But there is more to life than just talk — and that, for liberals as well as conservatives, should be counted as one of life’s saving graces.

North vs. South India?

The data set used by Paul and Sridhar starts with the year 1960, when per capita income in Tamil Nadu was 51 per cent higher than UP’s. In the early 1980s, this difference had narrowed to 39 per cent. However, over the following decades the gap began to rapidly grow, and in 2005 an average resident of Tamil Nadu earned 128 per cent more than an average resident of Uttar Pradesh. (Statistics available online suggest that by 2021 the gap has increased to almost 300 per cent.)

Taking the South as a whole and the North as a whole, the book found that while the two regions differed only by 39 per cent in terms of per capita income in 1960-61, forty years later the gap had widened to 101 per cent. Now, in 2021, the gap has widened much further. Currently, the average annual per capita income of the four northern states profiled by Paul and Sridhar is about US $4,000, and of the four southern states, in excess of US $10,000, or roughly 250 per cent higher.

The data analysed by Paul and Sridhar show that there are two areas in which the South has done much better than the North. First, with regard to human development indicators such as female literacy rate, infant mortality and life expectancy. Second, in areas critical to economic development such as technical education, electricity generation, and quality and extent of roads. The first set of factors prepares healthier and better educated citizens to participate in the modern economy, while the second set enables much higher rates of productivity and efficiency in manufacturing and services.

Paul and Sridhar also found that the South fares substantially better than the North on governance indicators.

Here is the full piece by Ramachandra Guha, interesting throughout, with a pointer to Alice Evans, via Paul Novosad.

My Conversation with Elijah Millgram

Elijah is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Elijah joined Tyler to discuss Newcomb’s paradox, the reason he doesn’t have an opinion about everything, the philosophy of Dave Barry, style and simulation theory, why philosophers aren’t often consulted about current events, his best stories from TA-ing for Robert Nozick, the sociological correlates of knowing formal logic, the question of whether people are more interested in truth or being interesting, philosophical cycles, what makes Nietzsche important today, the role that meaning can play in a person’s personality and life, Mill on Bentham, the idea of true philosophy as dialogue, the extent to which modern philosophers are truly philosophical, why he views aesthetics as critical to philosophy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Newcomb’s paradox: Are you a one-boxer or two-boxer, and why?

MILLGRAM: I’ve never been able to take a stand on that, mostly because there’s this moment in Robert Nozick’s discussion of the Newcomb paradox. Should we pause to tell the audience . . .

COWEN: No, no. This is not for them; this is for us. They can Google —

MILLGRAM: Oh, this is for us? OK. Nozick said, “Look, here’s what happens when you get a class,” or not even a class. People talk about Newcomb’s paradox. Some people end up having one view and some people end up having the other view. Each side has the argument for their own view, but they don’t have the explanation of what’s wrong with the other argument. Then Nozick says — and I think this is absolutely on target — “It doesn’t help to just repeat your own argument more slowly and more loudly.”

Since I don’t know what’s wrong with the — whichever other argument it is, I don’t have a view.

COWEN: If you don’t have a view, doesn’t that by default put you close to the one-box position? It means you don’t consider the dominance principle self-evident because you’re not sure that in fact you’re getting more by opting for the two boxes. Quantum mechanics is weird; aliens may be weirder yet. You don’t know what to do. Why not just take the slightly smaller prize and opt for one box? Not with extreme conviction, but you would be a default, mildly agnostic one-boxer.

MILLGRAM: Who knows what I would do if somebody turned up and gave me the . . .

But let me say something a little bit to the meta level, and then I’ll speak to the view that I would be a one-boxer. I live in a world where I feel disqualified from a privilege that almost everybody around me has. People are supposed to have opinions about all kinds of things. They have opinions about politics, and they have opinions about sports teams, and they have opinions about who knows what.

I’m in the very peculiar position of being in a job where I’m paid to have opinions. I feel that I can’t have opinions unless I’ve worked for them and I can back them up, and that means that unless I’ve done my homework, unless I have an argument for the opinion, I don’t have it — so I don’t.

Now, going back from the meta level, kind of one level down: let’s stop and think about what’s built into the . . .

When you explain dominance to a classroom, you say, “Look, here are the different options you have,” and I guess the options are used to the column, “and here are the different states of the world, and you can see that for each state of the world this option does better than that option. So you should take . . .”

There’s a lot built into that already. For example, that the world is carved up into these different — the state space is carved up, and your option space is carved up, and you don’t get to rethink, recharacterize — the characterization of the things that you do is already given to you, and it’s fixed. It’s an idealization.

Until the situation arrived and I had a chance to face it and think about it, I wouldn’t know whether to accept that idealization. I know that sounds really coy, but the principled view is that since I don’t have an argument, I don’t have an opinion.

Recommended.  And here is Elijah’s home page and research.

Why are the less educated in democracies especially anti-science?

This is not exactly what I was hoping to hear, but at this point along the road you know none of the stories are going to be pretty:

…less educated citizens in democracies are considerably less trustful of science than their counterparts in non-democracies. Further analyses suggest that, instead of being the result of stronger religiosity or lower science literacy, the increase in skepticism in democracies is mainly driven by a shift in the mode of legitimation, which reduces states’ ability and willingness to act as key public advocates for science. These findings help shed light on the institutional sources of “science-bashing” behaviors in many long-standing democracies.

In particular:

…democracies are significantly less likely to make references to science in their constitutions, and award a smaller share of high state honors to scientists.

Lower democratic trust in government, as found in democracies, also translates into lower trust in science, at least among the less educated citizens.  An autocratic regime is more likely to invoke modernization and science as a form of attempted legitimization.

For poorly educated individuals, the countries where trust in science is highest are Kuwait, China, Kazakhstan, Spain, Tanzania, Gambia, Tajikistan, Myanmar, UAE, and Uzbekistan, three of those being former Soviet Union.  For college degree and above, the countries where trust in science is highest are Philippines, India, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Finland, Spain, Tajikistan, and Czech Republic.

Sad!

Here is the full paper by Jiang and Wan, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with the very very smart David Deutsch

I think this episode came off as “weird and testy,” as I described it to one friend, but I like weird and testy!  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How do you think the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics relates to the view that, just in terms of space, the size of our current universe is infinite, and therefore everything possible is happening in it?

DEUTSCH: It complicates the discussion of probability, but there’s no overlap between that notion of infinity and the Everettian notion of infinity, if we are infinite there, because the differentiation (as I prefer to call what used to be called splitting) — when I perform an experiment which can go one of two ways, the influence of that spreads out. First, I see it. I may write it down; I may write a scientific paper. When I write a paper about it and report the results, that will cause the journal to split or to differentiate into two journals, and so on. This influence cannot spread out faster than the speed of light.

So an Everett universe is really a misnomer because what we see in real life is an Everett bubble within the universe. Everything outside the bubble is as it was; it’s undifferentiated, or, to be exact, it’s exactly as differentiated as it was before. Then, as the bubble spreads out, the universe becomes or the multiverse becomes more differentiated, but the bubble is always finite.

COWEN: How do your views relate to the philosophical modal realism of David Lewis?

DEUTSCH: There are interesting parallels. As a physicist, I’m interested in what the laws of physics tell us is so, rather than in philosophical reasoning about things, unless they impinge on a problem that I have. So yes, I’m interested in, for example, the continuity of the self — whether, if there’s another version of me a very large number of light-years away in an infinite universe, and it’s identical, is that really me? Are there two of me, one of me? I don’t entirely know the answer to that. It’s why I don’t entirely know the answer to whether I would go in a Star Trek transporter.

The modal realism certainly involves a lot of things that I don’t think exist — at least, not physically. I’m open to the idea that nonphysical things do exist: like the natural numbers, I think, exist. There’s a difference between the second even prime, which doesn’t exist, and the infinite number of prime numbers, which I think do exist. I think that there is more than one mode of existence, but the theory that all modes of existence are equally real — I see no point in that. The overlap between Everett and David Lewis is, I think, more coincidental than illuminating.

COWEN: If the universe is infinite and if David Lewis is correct, should I feel closer to the David Lewis copies of me? The copies or near copies of me in this universe? Or the near copies of me in the multiverse? It seems very crowded all of a sudden. Something whose purpose was to be economical doesn’t feel that way to me by the end of the metaphysics.

DEUTSCH: It doesn’t feel like that to you. . . . Well, as Wittgenstein is supposed to have said (I don’t know whether he really did), if it were true, what would it feel like? It would feel just like this.

Much more at the link.  And:

COWEN: Are we living in a simulation?

DEUTSCH: No, because living in a simulation is precisely a case of there being a barrier beyond which we cannot understand. If we’re living in a simulation that’s running on some computer, we can’t tell whether that computer is made of silicon or iron, or whether it obeys the same laws of computation, like Turing computability and quantum computability and so on, as ours. We can’t know anything about the physics there.

Well, we can know that it is at least a superset of our physics, but that’s not saying very much; it’s not telling us very much. It’s a typical example of a theory that can be rejected out of hand for the same reason that the supernatural ones — if somebody says, “Zeus did it,” then I’m going to say, “How should I respond? If I take that on board, how should I respond to the next person that comes along and tells me that Odin did it?”

COWEN: But it seems you’re rejecting an empirical claim on methodological grounds, and I get very suspicious. Philosophers typically reject transcendental arguments like, “Oh, we must be able to perceive reality, because if we couldn’t, how could we know that we couldn’t perceive reality?” It doesn’t prove you can perceive reality, right?

And this:

COWEN: A few very practical questions to close. Given the way British elections seem to have been running, that the Tories win every time, does that mean the error-correction mechanism of the British system of government now is weaker?

DEUTSCH: No. Unfortunately, the — so, as you probably know, I favor the first-past-the-post system in the purest possible form, as it is implemented in Britain. I think that is the most error-correcting possible electoral system, although I must add that the electoral system is only a tiny facet of the institutions of criticism and consent. In general, it’s just a tiny thing, but it is the best one.

It’s not perfect. It has some of the defects of, for example, proportional representation. Proportional representation has the defect that it causes coalitions all the time. Coalitions are bad.

COWEN: You have a delegated monitor with the coalition, right? With a coalition, say in the Netherlands (which is richer than the United Kingdom), you typically have coalition governments. Some parties in the coalition are delegated monitors of the other parties. Parties are better informed than voters. Isn’t that a better Popperian mechanism for error correction?

I also tried to sum up what I think he is all about, and he reacted with scorn.  That was an excellent part of the conversation.  And here is a good Twitter thread from Michael Nielsen about the Conversation.