Category: History

The option value of civilization

Hi Tyler, I’m a longtime reader of MR and your more recent books.  I enjoyed Stubborn Attachments and was particularly interested in your discussion of the social discount rate.  Like you, I’m inclined to think that this rate should be very low, if not zero.  But more importantly, I think discounting is the wrong financial metaphor to use when discussing the moral worth of the present vs. the future.  Instead, we should look to option pricing theory.  As strange as it seems, option theory provides a neat way to unify many of the claims in Stubborn Attachments, and it gives us arguments for other important claims.  I’m a mortgage-backed securities trader, so embedded mispriced (or unpriced) optionality is always on my mind.

The key idea is that the total moral worth of the universe has some positively skewed distribution: there are more ways for things to be good than there are for it to be bad.  Let’s take this as a given for now; towards the end of this message I explore the consequences of relaxing this assumption.  If the moral worth of the universe has a distribution like this, we can draw an analogy to the payout profile of a call option.  We can imagine that we own an option on the underlying process that generates historical outcomes.

The first thing to recognize is that there’s a fundamental difference between the value of the option, and the value of the underlying.  Translated to moral terms, we should distinguish between the value of present, and the ultimate moral worth of the universe.  The former is just one input in calculating the latter, and the latter should be our primary concern.  We are only indirectly exposed to the value of the present.  We are also exposed to other factors, including the volatility of the historical process, and the social discount rate.

Let’s consider these in turn.  Options theory tells us that the value of an option increases in volatility — a trader would say that an option has positive “vega.”  Thus it makes perfect sense to see you arguing in Stubborn Attachments (and TGS and TCC) for increased social dynamism, risk taking, and openness to innovation.  If we can increase upside volatility, or reduce downside volatility, that’s even better than a symmetric increase in volatility.  My sense is that you view human rights as a way to mitigate downside risk.  This framework implies that some degree of downside mitigation can be traded for upside, a view which seems to be consistent with your view of human rights.

In the option-theoretical framework, the value of an option is decreasing in the discount rate.  But while the specific choice of discount rate changes the overall value of the option, it doesn’t change the sign of any of the sensitivities.  One advantage of this framework is that it can incorporate any particular social discount rate, without affecting the broader conclusions.

We can restate other common questions in this jargon.  Let’s start with the question of the value of the present vs. the value of the future.  In my view, that language is confused.  The value of the future is unknowable and can’t be affected directly.  We should stop talking as if we can.  We can only affect things like the value of the present and the volatility and overall trajectory of the historical process.  Rather than asking about the value of the present vs. the future, we should simply ask “how much should we care about the present, relative to the other things we can affect directly?”  In options jargon, the “delta” of an option is the derivative of the option’s value with respect to the value of the underlying process.  In moral terms, delta is interpreted as the derivative of the moral worth of the universe with respect to the value of the present.  “How much should we care about the present?” can be restated as “What is the delta the option?”

In standard theory, delta is positive (obviously) and increasing in the value of the underlying process.  That is, the second derivative of an option’s value with respect to the value of the underlying process is also positive.  Translated to moral terms: the more valuable the present, the more we should care about it.  This is intuitive, at least to me.  If you think the potential value of the future is vastly greater than the value of the present (i.e. if you think our option is only slightly in-the-money) you should care less about the value of the present.  But if the option is deep in-the-money — if civilization is secure and of great value — we should care more about increasing its value.

We can also think about partial sensitivities.  The most interesting is the sensitivity of delta with respect to volatility: as volatility increases, delta decreases.  In moral terms: the greater the range of historical outcomes, the less we should care about the precise moment we’re in now.  If we think history is highly dynamic, that the space of potential outcomes is very large, and that the far future can be vastly more valuable than the present, we should care less about the specific value of the present.  Similarly, if we think we’re close to the end of history, we should focus on incremental tweaks to improve the value of the present.  The arguments in Stubborn Attachments clearly tend toward the former view.

Finally, we can return to the original assumption, that the value of the future is biased to the upside.  I don’t think you argue for this explicitly, but it’s implied in your idea of Crusonia plants.  What would a negative or inverse Crusonia plant look like?  Could one even exist?  I think it’s vastly more likely for civilization and value to simply be wiped out, than it is for a monstrously evil future to occur.  But if you disagree, you can account for it in the option framework.  The more likely an evil future, the more symmetric (and less option-like) our payout profile.  You can think of humanity as owning some combination of a long call and a short put.  If our portfolio contains equal positions in each, our total delta is 1 — implying that the value of our options position is identical to the value of the underlying.  Translated into moral terms: the more symmetric we think future outcomes are, the more we should care about the present.

This is a new framework for me, but I think it is useful.  I’m sure there are other implications that haven’t yet occurred to me.  I can’t imagine I’m the first to come up with this framework: after all, Cowen’s Second Law states that there’s a literature on everything.  There’s perhaps some precedent in Nassim Taleb’s work and his popularization of options theory and its usefulness in non-financial contexts.  I’m sure someone in the Effective Altruism community has kicked these ideas around; I’m just not aware of it.  If you know of any related work, I’d love to be pointed in the right direction.

That is from MR reader CK.

The Economic Motives for Foot-Binding

From Lingwei Wu and Xinyu Fan at AEA:

What are the origins of gender-biased social norms? As a painful custom that persisted in historical China, foot-binding targeted girls whose feet were reshaped during early childhood. This paper presents a unified theory to explain the stylized facts of foot-binding, and investigates its historical dynamics driven by a gender-asymmetric mobility system in historical China (the Civil Examination System). The exam system marked the transition from hereditary aristocracy to meritocracy, generated a more heterogeneous composition of men compared to that of women, and triggered intensive competition among women in the marriage market. As a competition package carrying both aesthetic and moral values, foot-binding was gradually adopted by women as their social ladder, first in the upper class and later by the lower class. Since foot-binding impedes non-sedentary labor, but not sedentary labor, however, its adoption in the lower class exhibited distinctive regional variation: it was highly prevalent in regions where women specialized in household handicraft, and was less popular in regions where women specialized in intensive farming, e.g. rice cultivation. Empirically, we conduct analysis using county-level Republican archives on foot-binding to test the cross-sectional predictions of our theory, and major findings that are robust and consistent with key theoretical predictions.

There are other interesting papers at the link, relating to culture and women’s issues.

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?

COWEN: Yes.

KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit

I am tempted to call this long piece on a boring subject the best I have read in 2019, but you know I think that might remain true by the end of the year.  Here is an excerpt from the Belgium section:

I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.

Or Denmark:

The leftish Information provides the most useful articles. One has a headline in English, though anchored in the land of Elsinore: ‘To Be or Not to Be, That Is Not the Question’. The real ‘question’ doesn’t concern the merits of Leave or Remain, but the complexities of a twin crisis, in both the UK and the EU. Another piece, published shortly after the referendum, describes the division of a nation into Leavers and Remainers as afgrundsdyb. Meaning ‘abyssal’, the term, I am told, hints at the unfathomable as well as the unbridgeable, while evoking something that is certainly dangerous to approach.

I enjoyed this line:

Croatia has more experience than most of entering and exiting alliances.

From the Germany section:

‘Brexit shows that the Brussels bureaucracy, that alleged monster that employs no more civil servants than a central German city administration, has done a great job. The extent of interconnectedness at all levels has to be renegotiated: supply chains, industry standards, food and pharmaceutical standards, security architectures, rural and air transport structures, fishing rights, research collaborations, student exchanges, a vast frictionlessness system is now in jeopardy’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

This I had not known:

…in Norway the conservative right is overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU.

And finally:

Being a Brit in Sweden can be embarrassing just now. We’re one of the Swedes’ favourite peoples, admired for our history and culture, and loved for Engelskt humor. Shocked they may be; but a diet of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers means that Swedes are not altogether surprised.

The authors are numerous, the whole piece was published in The London Review of Books, definitely recommended.  I would note that “what group X really thinks of Y” remains an under-exploited genre in journalism, and elsewhere, and it is one of the best ways of learning about a topic.

That was then, this is now

[Andrew] Jackson imagined his role as that of a Roman tribune or dictator, summoned to executive power for a season for defend the plebeians against corrupt patricians.  That meant, among other things, slashing federal expenses and retiring the national debt.

Jackson in fact worked hard to strike down “internal improvements” in only a single state, as he was convinced that such legislation was unconstitutional, and that a corrupt Congress was working to enrich itself.

That is all from Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, p.60.

Sister Wendy has passed away

Here are some notices.  In addition to her duties for the Church, she was an art historian “for the people.”  I thought she had a remarkably good eye, and was especially strong in explaining the virtues of late medieval/early Renaissance art, most of all works “from a school” or attributed to a pseudonym.  She was “a thing” in the 90s, so if you don’t know her work I would recommend all of her books, they are full of life and love for art and yes love for the reader too.  Here is the NYT obituary.

The Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.

“I love bringing my kids here,” I heard from my Eritrean Uber driver, the first person I’ve met who admits to going.  The lavishly funded museum is indeed a world unto itself.  Here is what struck me on a recent visit:

1. The interior and the staff feel like nowhere else in D.C., like a cross between the Midwest and a Mormon temple perhaps.  There is much more wood paneling than one sees around town.

2. It is unabashedly the most universalistic and cosmopolitan interior in the area.  There is a large room with circular shelves, containing all the Bibles in different languages they could find.  Long columns list the languages of those Bibles, and a flashing sign indicates that 977,977 different Bible chapters would need to be translated before every chapter of the Bible is available in all of the world’s languages.

3. You can see plenty of old Bibles from the centuries, and while they are attractive, none are quite good enough for an art museum like say The Walters in Baltimore.

4. There is a station playing references to the Bible from popular music.  As I stopped by it was serving up “Four Horsemen” by The Clash, and then it segued into “Hard Headed Woman” by Elvis Presley.

5. Entrance costs $25.99, plus premia for special exhibits.

 

6. The museum bends over backwards to be non-denominational, that said the intended neutrality imposes biases of its own.  The big losers are the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, because this is indeed a museum about a book, not about a church community.  The connection between this book, and the communities it has spawned, is precisely the murky angle here and it seems almost deliberately obscured.  The Amish also are not prominent in the displays.  Imagine if people really just read and worshiped the book.  This truly is a museum about a book.

7. The museum tries not to refer to “the Christian Bible” or “the Hebrew Bible,” but that intended neutrality breaks down when you encounter the two sections for “the Old Testament” and “the New Testament.”  The Jews lose.

8. There is a section — entirely respectful — where a Jewish scribe writes out biblical text for viewers.  There is another exhibit of ancient Biblical life where you can walk among stone houses, read panels about biblical references to water, read about the Second Temple, and employees are paid to dress in (supposed) clothing from that period and say “Shalom” to you.

9. The museum is extraordinarily literal, and if you wanted to explain to space aliens what the Bible was, you could take them here.  That said, they would end up understanding the Bible far better than Christianity.

10. There is a very interesting section on bibles for slaves, and which sections of the original Bible they omitted.  On a wall display, visitors are asked to write out whether they consider these “slave bibles” to be proper Bibles or not.  Most say no.

11. There is a questionnaire, a bit like a Twitter quiz.  It first notes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton reinterpreted the Bible in the late 19th century, so as to make it more sympathetic to the rights of women.  It then asks the visitors whether reinterpretations of the Bible should be allowed today.  So far 61 percent have answered “no.”

12. The gift shop is lavish.  The museum restaurant Manna serves kosher food.  Here is the Wikipedia page for the museum.

13. The google headline for the museum has the subtitle “One of the Ten Best Museums in DC.”  It is odd they do not think it is the best.

Measures of cultural distance

A new paper with many authors — most prominently Joseph Henrich — tries to measure the cultural gaps between different countries.  I am reproducing a few of their results (see pp.36-37 for more), noting that higher numbers represent higher gaps:

Distance from the U.S.

Algeria: 0.15

Australia: 0.03

Brazil: 0.07

Canada: 0.02

China: 0.17

Ecuador: 0.12

Egypt: 0.24

Ethiopia: 0.14

Georgia [the country]: 0.15

Hong Kong: 0.09

Indonesia: 0.19

Japan: 0.11

Malaysia: 0.12

Nigeria: 0.15

Switzerland: 0.06

Egypt is the most distant, then Yemen, with Canada as the closest.

As for cultural distance from China, we have:

Great Britain: 0.20

Hong Kong: 0.09

Japan: 0.14

Russia: 0.09 (not *so* far away)

Taiwan: 0.10

Vietnam: 0.06

Overall the numbers show much greater cultural distance of other nations from China than from the United States, a significant and under-discussed problem for China.  For instance, the United States is about as culturally close to Hong Kong as China is.

The second cohort of Emergent Ventures winners

Here is the list of the second set of winners, in the order the grants were made, noting that the descriptions are mine not theirs:

Kelly Smith has a for-profit project to further extend a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” OER methods.

Andrew L. Roberts, Northwestern University, a small grant to further his work on how sports relates to politics.

Stefan de Villiers, high school student, to create podcasts on the decisions of other high school students and how/why they become successful.

Brian Burns is working (with Samo Burja) on the history of mathematics and career networks, with special attention to the blossoming of innovation in 18th century Göttingen: “The secret to producing flourishing mathematical and scientific traditions may lie in a careful study of institutions. I will undertake this investigation and in the process uncover lost mathematical knowledge.”  Gauss, Riemann, and Hilbert!

Can Olcer is one of the two entrepreneurs behind Kosmos School, a K-12 school that exists only in virtual reality, a for-profit enterprise with an emphasis on science education.

Anonymous, working on a board game for ten years, aimed at teaching basic economics, including supply and demand and the core ideas of Ronald Coase.  The grant is for marketing the game.

Sophie Sandor is a 23-year-old Scottish film-maker making films with “noticeable themes [of] rational optimism, ambition and a rejection of the victimhood notion that millennials are prone to.”  She is also interested in making documentaries in the education space.

Nicholas Dunk has a for-profit to bring voice recognition/machine transcription to the daily tasks of doctors.  The goal is to solve paperwork problems, free up doctor time, encourage better record-keeping, and improve accuracy, all toward the end of higher quality and less expensive health care.

Lama Al Rajih, a young Saudi CS student, building Therma, among other projects, she received a travel grant to visit potential mentors.

I am very excited by this new cohort.  Here is a list of the first round of winners, and here is the underlying rationale for Emergent Ventures.  You can apply here.

*A Life of Experimental Economics, volume I*, by Vernon Smith

I learned a great deal from this stimulating and highly unorthodox biography.  Here are a few points from the book:

1. It offers a brief but excellent early economic history of Wichita, where Vernon grew up.

2. Vernon, at the time, was very critical of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, which he considered to be a disproportionate use of force.

3. In the 1940s he became active in CORE and its fight against racial discrimination.

4. In 1948 Vernon was an antiwar pacifist and a supporter of Norman Thomas.

5. At MIT, Paul Samuelson was a show-off lecturer, according to Vernon.

6. The book has plenty of sentences like: “Grandpa Smith and Uncle Norman were always a delight to have around — lots of jokes, wisecracks, and laughs.”

7. pp.163-164: “The details, as we came to know them, were not the least bit complicated…It was at first thought that she had considered using the knife on herself, but apparently the knife was there because she considered cutting a length from a nearby piece of rope.  Instead, she used a chain.  It was so like my mother — a clean job with no mess.  Everyone who knew her knew that she would never have used the butcher knife.  Even the hanging could never have occurred in the house.  No fuss, no mess; a clean job, with no room for error.”

8. On attention-switching: “I have always had what my mind has gradually come to recognize — by comparative observation of others — as a brain task-switching problem.  When I am thinking, writing, or composing, I pass into another world of experience, a world that is isolated from my surroundings…I experience many chaotic but loosely connected thought.  One, then another, rises and there emerges a hint of how they are to come together.”  He notes that interruptions are very costly to him, and he much prefers one-to-one conversations rather than group dialogues.  Furthermore, he argues that his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130.

9. There are considerable and interesting discussions of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.

10. The book offers an excellent account of why Purdue was an important economics department in the 1950s and 1960s.

11. In 1957, Vernon considered going to work for a private railroad and leaving Purdue for St. Louis.  He didn’t.

You can buy the book here, vol.II is good too.

Does Macron have any new ideas to save the moment?

My opening line for Bloomberg:

The sorry truth is that both progressives and neoliberals still don’t get it, and that seems true in France most of all.

Part of the argument:

In response, people want something beyond more income redistribution (what the left is offering) or more globalization (what the pre-populist right used to offer). People want ideas and inspiration, and when no good new ideas are put forward, the current default seems to be nationalist ideas, including of the less tolerant variety.

Macron doesn’t have any new ideas or vision, however much you might like the old ideas he has embraced. And so, however promising it might have seemed at first, his tenure has accelerated the collapse of the traditional European liberal order. For some time, his approval ratings in France have been lower than those of U.S. President Donald Trump.

And here is the least central paragraph:

The one intellectual group that really gets what is going on right now are the much-maligned libertarians. For decades they have been told that they are too analytical, that they lack empathy, that they don’t have much to offer the public in the way of inspiration. For all the (mostly failed) attempts to pretend otherwise, that is mostly true — and libertarians have to hope that analytical perspectives become more ascendant.

Oh, and don’t forget this:

A quick comparison with 19th-century French culture, with its emphasis on progress, utopia and the rationalization of social systems, shows just how much the forward-looking perspective is lacking.

Recommended.

Cohort effects and life expectancy and many other facts about the history of American medicine

The cohort reaching age 55 around 1982 (born around 1927) has significantly higher mortality than the cohort 10 years younger. That higher mortality continues through the cohort passing through that age range in the mid-1990s, roughly, when the cohort born in 1933 reaches age 65. That same cohort also has higher mortality when they are 65-74 and 75-84. The story is not one of selection – a handful of less healthy people who die and leave behind healthier stock. Rather, it seems that an entire generation was rendered vulnerable by being born during and just before the Great Depression (Lleras-Muney and Moreau, 2018).

That is from a new NBER history of health care paper by Maryaline Catillon, David Cutler, and Thomas Getzen.  This piece is interesting on virtually every page.  For instance, on the rise of American science:

Of the 18 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine awarded 1901-1920, none went to US researchers. Over the next two decades, four out of twenty-four did, then for the rest of the century, more than half.

Then:

…our analysis of Massachusetts data does not support a large impact of medical care supply on mortality in the pre-antibiotic era.

Using the best data I’ve seen to date, apart from RCTs, the authors conclude from their statistical work:

…there is little evidence that access to medical care plays a role in mortality over the entire 1965-2015 period, but it appears to have had an effect during recent years.

That is from p.33

Death rates from influenza/pneumonia and cancer seem most responsive to access to medical care.  And I had not known this:

The period from 1935 to 1950 saw the most…decline in infant and child mortality of any time period since 1900.  It is unclear how much of this change would have happened without antibiotics, but blood banking and advances in surgical techniques were among the host of distinct and incremental improvements that added to life expectancy while the health share of GDP increased only slightly.

Recommended.

Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh.  I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals.  I was struck by the following:

1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate.  Might that be the central theme in his thought?

4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.”  He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.

5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher.  His audience seems to take this interest in stride.  This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.

6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original.  And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics.  I still enjoy hearing them as music.  And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?

7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”).  He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

It would be hard to pull this off today.  Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended.  Plus he is flat-out funny.  He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.

8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.

9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent.  He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.

10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements.  Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.

11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA.  He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.

 

*The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay*, by Christopher Clapham

A splendid book, why can’t the rest of you ****ers write books this good?  Here is one bit:

…the dynamics of clan works in a significantly different way in Somaliland from the way it does in south-central Somalia.  A single clan-family, the Isaaq, occupy the central areas of the territory, and account for by far the greater part of its population.  Though the Isaaq clans, inevitably, are divided both between and within themselves, they provide a reasonably solid ethnic core, that contrasts with the far more mixed and complex composition of southern Somalia, with its two major clan-families, Darood and Hawiye, and the further problems created by the presence of the Digil-Mirifle and other minority groups.  Somaliland is by no means entirely Isaaq…but its demographic structure means that other clans must either accept Isaaq hegemony and work within it, or else reject the Somaliland state altogether.  They cannot expect to control it.  At the same time, the fact that the Isaaq clans — characteristically of Somali clan politics — do not form a single united bloc provides other clans with the opportunity to build alliances with one or another group of the Isaaq.

Have you ever wanted to read about how ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti fit into this same broad picture?  Just exactly how Somalian and Ethiopian history intersect, from the 1970s onwards?  This here is your book.  I’m running to Amazon right now to buy more from this wonderful author.  You can buy it here.