Category: Education

*The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard*

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.

Sentences about immigration and assimilation

Because of measurement issues and data limitations, Mexican Americans in particular and Hispanic Americans in general probably have experienced significantly more socioeconomic progress beyond the second generation than available data indicate. Even so, it may take longer for their descendants to integrate fully into the American mainstream than it did for the descendants of the European immigrants who arrived near the turn of the twentieth century.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Brian Duncan and Stephen J. Trejo.

Can Britain make itself less complacent?

Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.

Out went the plastic playhouses and in came the dicey stuff: stacks of two-by-fours, crates and loose bricks. The schoolyard got a mud pit, a tire swing, log stumps and workbenches with hammers and saws.

“We thought, how can we bring that element of risk into your everyday environment?” said Leah Morris, who manages the early-years program at the school in Shoeburyness in southeast Britain. “We were looking at, OK, so we’ve got a sand pit, what can we add to the sand pit to make it more risky?”

Now, Morris says, “we have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools,” all used under adult supervision. Indoors, scissors abound, and so do sharp-edged tape dispensers (“they normally only cut themselves once,” she says).

Limited risks are increasingly cast by experts as an experience essential to childhood development, useful in building resilience and grit.

I suppose I am skeptical of this approach, as it may lead to harm and furthermore the benefits of risk have to arise more organically.  It will in any case be interesting to see how the public digests these changes as they play out in the lives of children.

Here is the full story by Ellen Barry.  In any case, there is also a bingo revival in Britain, is that a sign of renewed passivity?

The stochastically best books to read on Europe?

What exactly does that title mean?  It means they are your suggestions, and I kind of/sort of trust some of you, and I didn’t want to throw in all of my opinions.  At the very least, I know a lot of these to be good, but I am reporting these recommendations from a distance.  These are pulled from the comments section on my earlier post on the best book to read about each country, with my recommendations.  So here are your contributions for Europe:

Roy Foster on Ireland.

James Hawes has just published what has been reviewed as an excellent short history of Germany. His previous book on Anglo-German relations before WW1 felt like a fresh and convincing re-interpretation of what is very well-trodden ground in political/diplomatic history.

Jonathan Steinberg’s “Why Switzerland”

For Poland, yes, Norman Davies’ God’s Playground is the best book in English.

Poland: A History by Zamoyski is concise, but probably too concise for someone not already somewhat familiar with Polish history.

For Scandinavia – The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth.

One of the best books for understanding any nation, ignoring much of the history and most of the politics, is ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox.

Is it possible the best book for “getting” France is the Larousse Gastronomique? Because I already have that one also.

Czech Republic – “Gottland” by Mariusz Szczygiel. A description of the Czechs by a Pole. Will give you a lot of insight into the Czech character. I suppose a lot of Czechs will tell you The Good Soldier Swejk is the best book about Czechs, but that is self-serving.

Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed by Mary Heimann is also very good.

On Bulgaria: “Border” by Kapka Kassabova

The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation” by Mark Kurlansky
Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain

On Romania: “Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania” by William Blacker or perhaps Robert D. Kaplan’s “In Europe’s Shadow”. I also liked Kaplan’s portrait of Oman in “Monsoon”.

My choice would be Iberia by Michener.

The Bible in Spain by George Borrow. Very old, very good.

Patrick Leigh Fermor on Greece, Crete – Mani…etc.

Netherlands: The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch by Han van der Horst (De lage hemel in the original)

Netherlands, fun read, although a bit dated now (written 20 years ago?): The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke

There are two good and readable historical books on Amsterdam (and, by extension, The Netherlands)—one by Russell Shorto and the other by Geert Mak. Both are available in English. A bit more highbrow than the other books mentioned.

On Spanish recent history I enjoyed Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Specifically on Barcelona I’d recommend Robert Hughes’ Barcelona. Inside into Catalan physcho.

On Scandinavia: The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth

On Eastern Europe – Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.

On the history of Russia you can’t beat ‘Internal Colonisation’ by Alexander Etkind.

And on English – wonderful AA Gill, RIP, ‘Angry Island: Hunting the English’

Spain – John Crow – Spain the Root and the Flower, Italy – Dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Not sure these are the best, but they give an interesting psychological insight for the occasional traveller

Russia – big country so 3 books, not histories – War and Peace (Tolstoy), Life and Fate (Vasily Grossman), Everything is possible (Pomerantsev)…

Enjoy!  Here are previous installments in the series.

What is the real value of academic conferences today?

RV puts in a query:

What do you see as the real value of academic conferences today, given that working papers and the internet have made it very easy to disseminate works in progress, get feedback, and collaborate? As a mid-career economist, certainly not a superstar by any metric, my impression is that conferences are largely social in nature, affording me the opportunity to spend time with my friends from grad school and from earlier stages of my career.

I would say there are a few kinds of conferences.  Let’s say you go to a top-level NBER event.  In part, you are going to receive some of the very best comments you ever might get – ever heard Bob Hall rip someone’s paper to bits?  Or maybe praise one or two parts of it? Alternatively, you might be there to signal that you are worthy of this circuit, which is of high value.

Or let’s say you are untenured junior faculty, presenting at the yearly AEA meetings.  You know you might meet some of the senior people in your field at your session, and you can get to know them a bit. You can show them you are not a jerk, and you can signal to them that you are willing to trade favors with them throughout your career.  That makes them more likely to write a positive tenure evaluation for you.

Yet another scenario is that you are a mid-career economist, say at a school ranked #60.  You’d like to move to another school ranked about #60, but maybe in a better area, or where you don’t hate your colleagues quite as much.  Someone has to end up having you in a mind for a slot, and this is more likely if they have met you at conferences and do not hate you.

So yes, many of the major purposes of conferences are “social.”  But the social functions are not so distinct from career-relevant functions either.

That all said, I believe these conferences could be improved significantly.  First, we could have fewer of them.  Second, we could ban long paper presentations, which bore everybody, and move to many more shorter presentations.  For many sessions, the commentator should have more time than the paper presenter, or perhaps equal time.  Third, we could have fewer of them.  Some of the currently existing big conferences are too unwieldy, but they could be rethought to give smaller in-groups more chances to interact with each other.

Did Facebook depolarize America?

Based on selective exposure and reinforcing spirals model perspectives, we examined the reciprocal relationship between Facebook news use and polarization using national 3-wave panel data collected during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Over the course of the campaign, we found media use and attitudes remained relatively stable. Our results also showed that Facebook news use was related to a modest over-time spiral of depolarization. Furthermore, we found that people who use Facebook for news were more likely to view both pro- and counter-attitudinal news in each wave. Our results indicated that counter-attitudinal news exposure increased over time, which resulted in depolarization. We found no evidence of a parallel model, where pro-attitudinal exposure stemming from Facebook news use resulted in greater affective polarization.

That is from Beam, Hutchens, and Hmielowski.  I thank an anonymous correspondent for the pointer.

One smart guy’s frank take on working in some of the major tech companies

This is from my email, I have done a bit of minor editing to remove identifiers.  It is long, so it goes under the screen break:


I joined Google [earlier]…as an Engineering Director. This was, as I understand it, soon after an event where Larry either suggested or tried to fire all of the managers, believing they didn’t do much that was productive. (I’d say it was apocryphal but it did get written up in a Doc that had a bunch of Google lore, so it got enough oversight that it was probably at least somewhat accurate.)

At that time people were hammering on the doors trying to get in and some reasonably large subset, carefully vetted with stringent “smart tests” were being let in. The official mantra was, “hire the smartest people and they’ll figure out the right thing to do.” People were generally allowed to sign up for any project that interested them (there was a database where engineers could literally add your name to a project that interested you) and there was quite a bit of encouragement for people to relocate to remote offices. Someone (not Eric, I think it probably was Sergey) proposed opening offices anyplace there were smart people so that we could vacuum them up. Almost anything would be considered as a new project unless it was considered to be “not ambitious enough.” The food was fabulous. Recruiters, reportedly, told people they could work on “anything they wanted to.” There were microkitchens stocked with fabulous treats every 500′ and the toilets were fancy Japanese…uh…auto cleaning and drying types.

And… infrastructure projects and unglamorous projects went wanting for people to work on them. They had a half day meeting to review file system projects because…it turns out that many, many top computer scientists evidently dream of writing their own file systems. The level of entitlement displayed around things like which treats were provided at the microkitchens was…intense. (Later, there was a tragicomic story of when they changed bus schedules so that people couldn’t exploit the kitchens by getting meals for themselves [and family…seen that with my own eyes!] “to go” and take them home with them on the Google Bus — someone actually complained in a company meeting that the new schedules…meant they couldn’t get their meals to go. And they changed the bus schedule back, even though their intent was to reduce the abuse of the free food.)

Now, most of all that came from two sources not exclusively related to the question at hand:

Google (largely Larry I think) was fearless about trying new things. There was a general notion that we were so smart we could figure out a new, better way to do anything. That was really awesome. I’d say, overall, that it mostly didn’t pan out…but it did once in a while and it may well be that just thinking that way made working there so much fun, that it did make an atmosphere where, overall, great things happened.

Google was awash in money and happy to spray it all over its employees. Also awesome, but not something you can generalize for all businesses. Amazon, of course, took a very different tack. (It’s pretty painful to hear the stories in The Everything Store or similar books about the relatively Spartan conditions Amazon maintained. I was the site lead for the Google [xxxx] office for a while and we hired a fair number of Amazon refugees. They were really happy to be in Google, generally…not necessarily to either of our benefit.)

I was there for over ten years. Over time, the general rule of “you get what you incent” made the whole machine move much less well and the burdens of maintaining growth for Wall Street have had some real negative impact (Larry and Sergey have been pushing valiantly for some other big hit of course).

So, onto the question at hand:

I know bits and pieces about Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. I’ve known some people who’ve worked at Netflix but generally know less about them. Google I know pretty well. I’ve worked at a bunch of startups and some bigger companies. I haven’t worked for a non-tech company (Ford) since I was 19 (when I was an undergrad I worked in the group that did the early engine control computers…a story in itself).

I think the primary contributions the tech companies make to organizational management are:
significantly decreasing the power that managers hold
treating organization problems as systems problems to be designed, measured, optimized, and debugged [as a manager, I, personally, treat human and emotional problems that way also]
high emphasis on employing top talent and very generous rewards distributed through the company*

*only possible in certain configurations of course.

What also went well at Google: Google avoided job categories that were, generally, likely to decrease accountability:

Google avoided the job class of architect — which was both high status and low accountability, making it an easy place for pricey senior people to park and not have much impact (Sun Microsystems was notorious for having lots and lots of architects)

Google avoided the category of project manager, which would have allowed engineering managers to avoid the grungy part of their job (and be out of touch with engineering realities). I don’t know the history of that particular orientation — we did have something called a TPM (“technical program manager”) who were intended to make deep technical contributions, not just keep track of projects.

Google exploited “level of indirection” to avoid giving managers power over their employees or the employees excess emotional bonds to their managers.

hiring committees who would remove the managers from the process of hiring and (mostly, especially in the early days) project assignment

promotion committees who would judge promotion cases, removing the power of promotion from the manager (didn’t scale well, as indicated by the link I sent you)

raises had a strong algorithmic component; promotions and bonuses were both linked to performance ratings in a way such that getting high scores (at the current level) led to big bonuses, so if an employee’s case wasn’t perfect for promotion they wouldn’t feel they were incurring a financial penalty. That gave promotion committees more liberty to say “no by default” and managers less incentive to fight like badgers to get their people promoted.

What didn’t go so well
The industry has its own weird relationship to business:

product managers can be valuable if they have either strong business skills or a deep instinct for something amazing that should be built to create a business. Google (and others) explicitly treated product managers as “mini-CEOs” so they attracted a lot of people who…wanted to be a mini-CEO…but weren’t necessarily cut out for a CEO role. (At this point I have a generally low opinion of product managers and people who aspire to product management, with notable exceptions of course.)

Google- and software industry-specific: lots of developers want to make free software, lots of developers only know how to make things for other developers, so trying to be in a business where there’s deep domain knowledge required, or lots of actual business competition (where marketing, awareness, and business strategy are key) mean that overfocus on really, really smart software engineers as the almost exclusive hiring target makes it difficult to succeed.

Selling ads…I’m not in favor of it as an engine of commerce. Amazon has profound and distinguished power accrued over time by ruthless exploitation of scale in low margin industries where everyone is “making it for a dollar, selling it for two…” which makes them very dangerous for every competitor.

You get what you incent
product managers were rewarded for launching, which means they’d tend to launch and ditch
it’s hard not to reward managers for group size; Google was no different — this was the place where it was hardest to avoid fiefdoms that come with centralization of power

What degraded over time at Google:

Some things having to do with too much money, not necessarily related to tech management in particular:

sense of company mission vs. sense of entitlement.

pursuing company mission vs. individual advancement.

influx of people responding primarily to financial rewards (related).

Some things related to scale that might work better in an organization based on tight, interpersonal relationships (the opposite of the decreased manager power referenced above):
some processes implicitly dependent on people largely knowing one another or being one degree of separation apart (e.g., promotion)
the ability to reward creative, risky work; the ability to reward engineering work that had little visible outcome.

Other companies in bits and pieces

As indicated I’m very admiring of Amazon’s strategic approach and its business-first focus. Google did a lot of awesome stuff, but it had incalculable waste and missed opportunities because of the level of pampering and scattershot approach. If you want a real tech company model, I’d pick Amazon (even though I’m not sure I’d ever work there).

Facebook is kind of nothing. It’s a product company and I (personally) don’t think the product is very compelling. I think they hit a moment and will see the fate of MySpace in time. I can’t pick out product innovations that were particularly awesome (other than incubating on college campuses and exploiting sex more or less tastefully). And, their infrastructure is pretty crude which means they’ll run into the problem, eventually, hiring the kind of people who can do the kind of scaling they’re going to need.

Apple — I don’t know a ton about them currently, but they’re old. Real old. I interviewed there some time ago and they told me they like to set arbitrary deadlines for their projects because once people are late they work harder. I didn’t pursue the job further, although I have no idea if that’s any sort of a broad practice or a current practice. What they *do* epitomize is the notion that new business models are more important than new technologies so things like flat rate data plans, $.99 songs, not licensing their OS, are real, interesting tech company contributions — I haven’t seen much of that sort of thing since Steve Jobs died, but I’m also not that close to them. That’s obviously not exclusive to tech companies, but something that may be more possible where you have new inventions.

Microsoft — the epitome of high pressure big software, abuse of market dominance, decline, and then pivot into new relevance. IBM II. I don’t know that there’s much about their culture or current business that’s particularly admirable. They’ve got this “partner” system that’s insane where they’ve set up a high stakes internal competition that just looks terrible for any kind of team cohesion or morale. I wouldn’t want to work there, either, although (like Amazon) I have a number of friends I really respect who work there. Generally, there are tradeoffs for having an environment with lots of competition for material rewards — I don’t personally like them so they won’t attract people like me… so I’d like to believe they’re terrible for business…although I’m not at all sure that’s true.

Netflix — little info, really. Competent and pivoting but I don’t know much good or bad.

Amazon — totally admirable, really scary, really effective, and very business-focused. Changing capex into opex via Cloud was one of those changes in business mode that I saw in Apple, along with “sell close to cost using Wall Street money so that no one can compete while you push down costs via scale so no one new can afford to enter the market.” They also are willing to ditch products that don’t work. It sounds like a hard place to work.


Challenges I see in other industries: low imagination, fiefdoms / politics, inefficiency, communication problems…all could benefit from tech company input. If you’re in a low margin, low revenue business…it’s just going to be hard without the ability to attract and retain top talent, which is usually going to have a money component. But, best practices certainly help along with awareness of the importance of things like business model, systems design within the business, communication and culture, relationships to power, politics, and incentives…

Remaining challenges in tech industry: scaling and incentives (and incentives at scale :). I also see a major extrovert bias, which might seem a little funny for tech. But, again, product managers (or, God forbid, Sales people) are all really subject to the “let’s just get some people in a room” style of planning and problem resolution. I firmly believe some massive amount of productivity is squandered from people choosing the wrong communication paradigm — I think it’s often chosen for the convenience or advantage of someone who is either in an extrovert role or who is just following extrovert tendencies. Massive problem at Google, which is ironic given their composition. Amazon had some obvious nods to avoiding these sorts of things (e.g., “reading time”) but I don’t know how pervasive they were or how effective people believed them to be.

I thank the author for taking the time to do this, of course I am presenting this content, not endorsing it.

Growth Mindset Replicates!

A lot of psychological research has failed to replicate, throwing cold water on the entire field. “Grit” and the “growth mindset”, the two taglines of superstar researchers Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck, checked all the boxes for predictive failure including the requisite TED talks (Duckworth, Dweck), best-selling popular books (Duckworth, Dweck) and genius awards and, to be sure, there has been lots of puffery about the “incredible potential” and “profound impact” of grit and the growth mindset. But, to their great credit, Duckworth and Dweck have taken the replication crisis to heart and have sought to address it. Working with a large team (PI David S Yeager), the authors have tested a growth mindset intervention in 65 randomly chosen schools with over 12,000 students representative of the United States grade 9 population.

Here is what is notable: The analyses were pre-registered, the data were collected by independent researchers and key parts of the model were analyzed by independent statisticians in a blinded dataset.

To achieve arms-length independence, a research firm not involved in designing the materials or study hypotheses drew the sample, recruited schools, facilitated treatment delivery, obtained administrative data, and cleaned and merged data. Data were processed blind to treatment status.

…A random sample of schools, rather than a convenience sample, meant that it represented the full array of the U.S. public educational contexts.

Data were analyzed following a pre-registered analysis plan (the so-called “preregistration challenge,” that was developed by an interdisciplinary team, including one external evaluator. All analyses were “intent to treat” (ITT); data were analyzed as long as students saw the first page of the randomized materials.

independent statisticians reproduced the key moderation findings by estimating a hierarchical, nonlinear Bayesian model using a blinded dataset that masked the identities of the variables, to further reduce the possibility of chance findings.

Ok, so what were the results?

Based on administrative records, 9th grade adolescents assigned to the growth mindset
intervention, as compared to the control activity, earned slightly higher GPAs in core classes at
the end of 9
th grade. On a 4-point grade metric (“A” = 4.0, “B” = 3.0, etc.), the average treatment
effect was 0.03 grade points,
SE = .01, N = 12,542 students, k = 65 schools, t = 3.09, P = .003.

In other words, a small, positive effect. But this small effect is coming from a small intervention, two online survey/interventions of 25 minutes each that could be easily scaled to the entire country or even worldwide. We have come a long way from the “mindset revolution” but who am I to discount a marginal revolution? Moreover, the average effect hides heterogeneity, the effect was bigger on the students who needed it most.

as expected, average effects were small because many students
are already doing well, do not have motivational issues, or are not in environments that
encourage or support growth-mindset behaviors. When we take account of such factors, more
noteworthy effects emerge. The improvements in the gateway outcome of 9
th grade GPA were
concentrated among adolescents who are at significant risk for compromised well-being and
economic welfare: those with lower levels of prior achievement attending relatively lower achieving schools. The finding that an intervention can redirect this adolescent outcome in this
sub-group, in under an hour, without training of teachers, and at scale (i.e. in a random sample
of nation’s schools), represents a significant advance.

Overall, this is a very impressive study and one that I suspect will be used to mark the beginning of the post-replication-crisis era.

The ending of the post-replication-crisis era also makes another trend clear–the future of social science will be even more hierarchical and unequal–future social science will be done by large, well-funded teams, run by superstar researchers at top universities. This study, for example, had 10 co-authors from multiple universities and probably cost well over a million dollars. The smaller the effect the bigger the team that will be needed to find it.

Addendum: A big meta-analysis out today also finds very small effects for growth mindset (correlation of growth mindset with achievement=.01) but the effects are probably real especially for academically high-risk students and low-SES students and perhaps they could be magnified by better interventions.

Hat tip: Stuart Richie.

How can families afford children?

Collin asks:

Answer me the riddle: The richer the society becomes the less families can afford children? (Note look at India being at replacement level fertility and it is the rich areas bringing the average down.)

I have three boys and wonder how they are ever going to be able to afford a family of more than 1 children in 2030.

“Afford” is a tricky word here.  If the goal is simply to avoid bankruptcy, at the expense of the life satisfaction of the main child rearer (usually the wife), that isn’t so difficult for most Americans and Europeans.  But of course people wish to maximize utility.  And so here are some trends operating against having large numbers of children:

1. Jobs for women are higher-paying and more satisfying than ever before, and that raises the opportunity cost of having large families.

2. Divorce is these days socially imaginable, and for many people desirable if feasible.  The larger the number of children, the harder it is to take advantage of the divorce option, and so that too encourages smaller families.

3. Living space has become especially costly in so many of the major Western cities and suburbs.

4. Given the connection between where you live and your public school system, the very best neighborhoods have become very costly positional goods, in part because of their school systems and the embedded social peers for your kids (even if they bus away to private schools.)

5. Child care is subject to some version of the cost disease, as is higher education.  Those services have risen in relative prices and some would say they also have decreased in reliability.

6. These days, there is much more you can do for your single kid (or two), including fancy SAT tutors and unending extracurricular activities.  You thus are less likely to arrive at the “I can’t do any more for this kid, let’s summon up another to keep me busy” point than formerly was the case.  In Beckerian language, you always have the option of a greater investment in quality, in lieu of boosting quantity.

7. Daughters are no longer less popular than sons and arguably they have become somewhat more popular (NYT).  So the notion that you must keep on having kids until a son arrives is weaker than it used to be.  The first child is already a “quality child,” no matter what the gender.

8. Most Westerners are on the whole less religious, and this too diminishes the motives for having a larger number of children, for whatever reasons.

9. The decline of the extended family, with babysitting grandparents, is hardly new news.  Still, I suspect both work and leisure opportunities for the elderly have improved, which lowers their desire to babysit.  Some prefer watching those same babies on Facebook.

That’s a lot of weight operating against multiple children — praise to those who manage nonetheless!

My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Reverse nudge theory — when the many nudge the few

Nudge Theory, popularised by Thaler & Sunstein, proposes that our decisions can be biased by relatively small changes in choice architecture. While we might be well intentioned, our human fallibility and modern environments sometimes require ‘choice architects’ to nudge us back on the path toward individual and collective wellbeing. Whether used for good or bad, Nudge Theory is most often applied downhill – the few (state or commercial players) nudge the many (citizens or consumers).

I would like to propose that Reverse Nudge Theory might be a good term for nudging uphill. For governments and corporations are also made up of individuals – and these individuals are equally prone to political, economic, and career forces which may get in the way of them making decisions that would be in our best interests.

Such reverse nudging is not a new endeavour of course. The formation of labour unions, the democratic process, and ‘voting with your wallet‘ are all good examples of this. So while well-intentioned choice architects nudge us, perhaps we need to be equally creative in nudging them back for their (and our) own good.

That is from Benjamin Vincent at Journal of Brief Ideas.

Who are the most underrated and overrated libertarian thinkers?

A while back, freethinker had a request: “name the most overrated and underrated libertarian thinkers”

Here are the most underrated:

1. Robert Nozick.  Super-duper smart, always open and probing, and incredibly well-read.  Somehow other libertarians seem to undervalue that he independently became one of the world’s greatest philosophers, perhaps because they have not done the same.

2. Herbert Spencer: In his day, he often was considered perhaps the greatest thinker of his time or even his century.  That wasn’t quite right, but he did build a comprehensive system for the social sciences, understood the primacy of sociology and anthropology, outlined some of the better arguments for liberty, developed an early version of complexity theory, and the “Social Darwinist” caricature of him was exactly that.  He even influenced literary theory and rhetoric.  On the more practical side, read Social Statics.

3. Gustav de Molinari.  He tried to think about governance more seriously than the other late 19th century, early 20th century Belgian libertarians.  He understood the primacy of war, focused on futurism, and flirted with both anarchist and multi-lateralist constraints on state power.  He hasn’t received much attention since Murray Rothbard promoted his ideas, though see these works by David Hart.

4. Whichever critic of slavery was libertarian enough to count as libertarian for your purposes.  Bartolomé de las CasasLysander Spooner?  William Lloyd Garrison?  Take your pick.

Ayn Rand and Ludwig Mises belong in a separate category, because they both have overzealous disciples who so overrate them.  That in turn makes them somewhat underrated almost everywhere else.  Rand’s cocktail party analysis of the sociology of capitalism-hatred remains one of the great contributions to political thought, plus she reaffirmed the necessary high status of the business producer.  Mises’s Liberalism and also Socialism were two of the best books of the first part of the 20th century.  So I am happy to call them both underrated, subject to the above not entirely insignificant caveat.

The most overrated libertarian qua libertarian might be Milton Friedman.  He is not overrated as an economist, if anything he is still considerably underrated.  But as a libertarian?  For a guy that smart, I’m not sure he added much to the corpus of libertarian ideas, and I recall one closing segment to a Free to Choose episode where he couldn’t out-argue Peter Jay on some basic issues of political philosophy.  And have the Friedmanite ideas of school vouchers and social security privatization really held up as so central?  Friedman and Rothbard really didn’t like each other, and each was right about what the other couldn’t do.

Blog posts I wish I had written

From a reader email:

I can’t seem to find it on any of the sites you write at, but I do remember reading somewhere an article on the purpose of tenure that I want to find again.

The basic gist was that people were mad that tenured academics are cowards and won’t stand up to radical segments of campus, but the author posited that this wasn’t actually strange because the purpose of tenure isn’t really to instill courage but to function as a sort of intra-university governmental gateway: this person can be trusted so he gets tenure — or something roughly like that.

It sounds like it was something you’d written, but I can’t seem to find it in your writings.

Policemen in schools: what do they accomplish?

A 2009 study by Matthew Theriot of the University of Tennessee compared student arrest and court records from one group of schools that had a school resource officer stationed on school grounds with those of schools that didn’t. Controlling for socioeconomic status, the researcher found that there wasn’t much difference in serious crime between the schools that had SROs and the schools that didn’t. Students at policed schools were much more likely to get arrested than students at unpoliced schools, but they weren’t any more likely to actually be charged in court for weapons, drugs, alcohol, or assault. (In other words, students at policed schools were much more likely to get arrested in cases where there wasn’t enough evidence to actually charge them with a crime.)

Students at policed schools were almost five times as likely to face criminal charges for “disorderly conduct” (which apparently didn’t rise to the level of an assault). In other words, when there was a police officer roaming the halls, students were much more likely to be arrested and brought into court for behavior that was disruptive, but not violent.

That is from Dara Lind, here is more from Eric Levitz.  Via David A. Graham.

Could the tech companies run *everything* better?

Under one view, the major tech companies lucked into some pieces of rapidly scalable software.  They are phenomenal at producing and distributing such software, but otherwise they put on their pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.  They are not especially productive at marginal activities beyond their core competencies.

Under the second view, the major tech companies have developed new managerial technologies for hiring, handling, and motivating super-smart employees.  That is the reason why the tech companies have become phenomenal at producing and distributing rapidly scalable software.  But if tech companies turn their attention to other productive activities, they would do very very well.  Alex for instance thinks that Apple ought to buy a university.  Or you might expect that Google’s “scallion fried fish” dish would be especially tasty.  After all, do not smarter people make for better cooks?

Yet a third view starts with the idea of labor scarcity, at least for the very talented folks.  Good, ambitious, non-risk-averse managerial talent is super, super-scarce.  The tech companies have a lot of it — good for them — and they pay for it by producing and distributing readily scalable software.  In that setting, there is usually some slack within the tech company, so if the tech company takes on a new activity, it will excel at it, at least provided it does not try to move beyond the margin allowed by its collected, on-call talent.  Yet if the tech company were to undertake a massive expansion into many non-tech fields, it would be just as talent-constrained as anyone else.

Which are these three views is correct?  What if you had to pick three percentages that sum to one?  How about 30-30-40?

Is there another contending view I am missing?

Addendum: A very important question is at what rate the existence of the tech companies boosts the incentive for individuals to become one of these very talented cogs in the machine of grand productivity.  Training and talent-spotting matters!  And just as tennis players keep on getting better, so can we expect the same from talented, high-cooperation workers, at least as long as the rewards are rising.

Is this actually the variable that determines how much good the big tech companies do for the world as a whole?