Soon I will be having a conversation with Robin Hanson — the Robin Hanson. What should I ask him? The jumping-off point will be his new book with Kevin Simler, but of course we won’t stop there.
I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect. Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature. Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:
…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.
Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use. Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript. Here is one excerpt:
DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.
And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.
So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.
COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?
DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.
The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?
And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —
COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.
DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.
I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.
COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?
On another topic:
I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.
It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.
You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.
So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —
COWEN: So, narrative again.
DOUTHAT: Narrative again.
Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me. Do read or listen to the whole thing.
And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.
The authors are Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and now it is out!
On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 2 reviews have appeared on blogs.
I am pleased to be doing a Conversation with Robin about the book, and other matters too. But don’t forget — conversations aren’t about talking!
Charles Lloyd New Quartet, Passin’ Thru. If their last few albums were released during the golden age of jazz, they would be revered to this day.
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers. The new Ella Fitzgerald.
Alexandre Tharaud, Hommage a’ Barbara, classical pianist goes the route of French song, wonderful acoustics to these arrangements.
Django Bates, Saluting Sgt. Pepper. A German (!) big band redoes the whole album, with a semi-comic music hall feel, intricate horn arrangements, works surprisingly well.
Mulatu of Ethiopia, the title says it all.
Runners-up might be Steve Coleman, Nicole Mitchell, Matt Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn, Rez Abbasi, and Vijay Iyer, but I’m not sure I’ll go back to those in the longer run.
Danyèl Waro, Monmon. From the Reunion Islands, sample.
Residente, album is called Residente, Puerto Rican rap/reggaeton roots, but spreading out through diverse styles.
The Secret Ensemble, Call of the Birds, Turkish with classical roots, teaser here. Passionate stuff.
Minore Manes: Rebetika Songs, from Smyrna.
Sahra Halgan Trio, Faransiskiyo, Somaliland. Try this.
Duo Sabil, Zabad, oud and percussion. Here is one cut.
If you insist on something Brazilian, we can go back a year and pull out Sociedade Recreativa.
It’s wrong to call this “popular music,” because most of it isn’t that popular, but we certainly can’t call it rock and roll any more, can we?
First, here are the ones that everyone else recommends too:
Run the Jewels 3, not a let down.
Kendrick Lamar, Damn, a common pick for best of the year.
Tyler the Creator, the album has an obscene name, which I won’t reproduce, but I can list the name of the Creator.
King Krule, Ooz, “The world is a filthy, utterly debased place, his music suggests, but there are rewards of sorts for those determined to survive it. In this spirit, The OOZ drops at our feet like a piece of poisoned fruit, a masterpiece of jaundiced vision from one of the most compelling artists alive.”
Migos, Culture, rap from Atlanta.
Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory, but not theory as they do it as Northwestern.
Lorde, Melodrama, “the New Zealand century” is gaining on “the Norwegian century.”
Taylor Swift, Reputation. This one is kind of popular.
Perfume Genius, No Shape, “The body has become sturdier, less despotic.”
My summary remark is that I didn’t intend to listen to so much rap/hip-hop, but it remains the most vital genre.
Here are some more original selections:
Juana Molina, Halo. Argentina, avant-garde songstress, vivid vocal and instrumental textures, she has almost abolished lyrics.
The Secret Sisters, You Don’t Own Me Any More, folk for 2017, “They went from opening shows for Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to cleaning houses to make ends meet.”
Django Bates, Saluting Sgt. Pepper. A jazzy, big band, music hall take on the album, works surprisingly well, one of the freshest takes on the Beatles since Laibach.
Paul McCartney, Flowers in the Dirt, remastered, an underrated album to begin with, this release also includes the previously unavailable acoustic demo tapes with Elvis Costello.
Death Grips, Bottomless Pit. Has the information density and partial unpleasantness of the old Skinny Puppy recordings, “seesawing from grit to gloss to back again.”
Beach Boys, Wild Honey, titled 1967 — Sunshine Tomorrow. This remix brings out what was supposed to be just a “blues/soul/Brian cooling his heels” album as an acoustic masterpiece and proper successor to Pet Sounds and Smile.
Philip Glass, Piano Works, by Víkingur Ólafsson. One of the two or three best Glass recordings I know, here is an interview with the pianist.
Overall, if I had to push any of these on you it would be the last two. Soon I’ll cover jazz and world music.
Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much. Here is part of the opening summary:
Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.
Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.
Here is one sequence:
GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.
GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.
It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?
COWEN: Lee Iacocca?
COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?
GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.
COWEN: Management books.
GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.
COWEN: You don’t?
GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.
And this toward the end:
COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?
GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”
Strongly recommended. I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.
David Evans on the economics of attention:
In 2016, 437 billion hours, worth $7.1 trillion dollars, were exchanged in the
attention market in the US based on conservative estimates reported above. Attention
platforms paid for that time with content and then sold advertisers access to portions of that
time. As a result, advertisers were able to deliver messages to consumers that those
consumers would probably not have accepted in the absence of the barter of content for
their time. Consumers often don’t like getting these messages. But by agreeing to receive
them they make markets more competitive.
The economics of attention markets focuses on three features. First it focuses on
time as the key dimension of competition since it is what is being bought and sold. Second,
it focuses on content since it plays a central role in acquiring time, embedding advertising
messages, and operating efficient attention platforms. And third it focuses on the scarcity of
time and the implications of that for competition among attention platforms.
The $7.1 trillion estimate for the value of content seems too high. The high value comes from Evans assuming that the marginal wage is higher than the average so the average wage which he uses to calculate the value of time is, if anything, an underestimate while for most people I think the marginal wage is lower than the average (many people don’t even have jobs) so the average is an over-estimate. Brynjolfsson and Oh, however, using somewhat different methods estimate the consumer surplus from television as 10% of GDP and from the internet of 6% GDP or combined about $3 trillion at current levels. Either way the attention economy is very large and understudied relative to its importance.
I say no, in my latest Bloomberg column. Here is one bit:
We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.
Anthem practices shouldn’t be viewed as sacrosanct, and no one would think the absence of an anthem unpatriotic if expectations were set differently. Professional sports don’t start their competitions with the Pledge of Allegiance, and that is hardly considered an act of treason. Nor do we play the anthem before movies, as is mandatory in India. Furthermore, “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t sanctioned by Congress as our national anthem until 1931. Earlier in the history of baseball, the anthem was played during the seventh-inning stretch. It was only during World War II that the anthem was played regularly at the beginning of each game, rather than for special games alone, such as the World Series.
Might we consider moving back to some of these earlier practices? To play the anthem before the players are present or during a mid-game break, or perhaps to cease the practice altogether?
The awkward, hard-to-admit truth is that the American national anthem is a form of right-wing political correctness, designed to embarrass or intimidate those who do not see fit to sing along and pay the demanded respect.
Here is a piece by Cass Sunstein also on the theme of right-wing political correctness.
From my email:
Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…
Specifically: the Billboard music charts..
Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7948959/ed-sheeran-shape-of-you-record-most-weeks-top-ten
(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)
Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/record-labels/7942315/luis-fonsi-daddy-yankee-justin-biebers-despacito-ties-for
Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: http://www.billboard.com/files/pdfs/country_update_0905.pdf
This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_the_1980s
Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.
That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine. Jesse sends along more:
And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10:
They are expected to sell for between £2,000 and £4,000.
They will go under the hammer alongside the original handwritten score for the song, which is expected to fetch £20,000.
The jar by the door, however, is not up for sale. Via Ted Gioia.
Apple, LinkedIn, Spotify and Twitter have joined a growing chorus of technology companies to hit out at the far right and Donald Trump’s attempt to put white supremacists and leftwing counter-demonstrators at Saturday’s Charlottesville protest on the same moral plane.
Following the lead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google, Go Daddy and others, Apple CEO Tim Cook pledged $1m donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League and sent a strongly worded memo to staff, quoting Martin Luther King, about the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.
“We must not witness or permit such hate and bigotry in our country, and we must be unequivocal about it,” Cook wrote. “This is not about the left or the right, conservative or liberal. It is about human decency and morality.
Amid the ongoing fallout from the violence that saw a civil rights activist killed, music subscription service Spotify began removing so-called white power music, flagged by the SPLC as racist “hate bands”.
A Spotify spokesperson said: “Illegal content or material that favours hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality or the like is not tolerated by us. Spotify takes immediate action to remove any such material as soon as it has been brought to our attention.
“We are glad to have been alerted to this content – and have already removed many of the bands identified, while urgently reviewing the remainder.”
Addendum: Some of you have given me grief over my posting of yesterday defending PayPal’s decision to stop serving some political groups. I see it this way: giving PayPal its way passes a freedom of association test, and it also passes what I call a “first order Coasean test,” namely that Paypal and its affiliates wish to stop the relationship more than the cut off parties are willing to pay to maintain it. Of course this development might have troublesome secondary consequences, due to slippery slopes, and also due to the spread of the practice to more monopolized sectors of the American economy. Still, until major negative consequences emerge in verifiable and durable form…I am going to stick with the Coasean and freedom of association metrics for policy evaluation. Should I have to deal with “extremist” groups if I don’t wish to? No. Is there a prima facie case for extending this same freedom to PayPal? Yes. But absolutely, I am all for vigilance to keep an eye on whether things start to go wrong in a big way. And no, I don’t count all these “day after” reactions as nearly sufficient to establish that conclusion.
Here is the transcript and audio (no video).
We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?
BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.
On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore
COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.
Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?
BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.
It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.
COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.
BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.
COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.
Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career. Again, here is the link.