This was a really good one, here is the text and audio. The opening:
TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.
Here is one excerpt proper:
COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?
MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.
The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.
COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?
MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —
COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.
MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.
COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?
MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?
COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?
MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.
COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.
Try this part too:
COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?
MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —
COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?
MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.
COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?
MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.
First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.
But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.
And also, from me:
COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Whether we like it or not, as the list of wrongdoers grows, questions of forgiveness will begin to outnumber questions of punishment. The thing is, questions of forgiveness are never entirely easy.
Much Christian doctrine, and especially Catholicism, emphasizes the value of confession, forgiveness and redemption. Thus it is not hard to convince many Americans that sinners should be given a second chance. This impulse occasionally finds its way into policy; just last month, a prison-reform bill became law, reflecting notions that criminals can indeed be rehabilitated. In her book “The Up Side of Down,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle stresses how many features of American life, including bankruptcy law and startup culture, depend on second, third or even more chances…
The more delicate truth is that, in the context of the #MeToo movement, forgiveness carries great dangers. I am not referring to those asking for it; rather, I am talking about those in a position to offer it. The survivors of such abuse often feel shame, guilt and a loss of confidence and self-esteem. It is very costly, both psychologically and practically, for such individuals to step forward and levy charges. An emphasis on forgiveness could reinforce victims’ tendencies to bury the crimes and wrongdoings.
The result is a set of conflicting and probably irreconcilable values. America believes in equal treatment before the law. But America’s increasingly powerful system of social pressures and sanctions does not provide for equal treatment.
Do read the whole thing, which also considers both John Lennon and Picasso.
Here it is, here is one excerpt:
The classics of political philosophy deal with wealth and economic growth awkwardly at best. John Rawls, in his Theory of Justice and elsewhere, was suspicious of economic growth outright. Rawls feared that the savings rate of the first generation would lead to deprivation, and a diminishment of the well-being of the worst-off group (that first generation), and so he toyed with John Stuart Mill’s idea of the stationary state. Robert Nozick evinced a good understanding of markets in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but still he focused on individual libertarian rights as an underpinning for a free society. Like Nozick, I believe in individual rights, but I don’t think they settle most questions, and I don’t find modest levels of taxation under democratic conditions to be morally problematic.
In part I wrote Stubborn Attachments to respond to Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, first published in 1984. In that wonderful book, Parfit wondered whether consequentialist reasoning could in fact produce coherent recommendations, for either individuals or societies. Yet there is no talk in Reasons and Persons of economic growth, or how a much better future might help resolve aggregation problems. Nonetheless Parfit did produce an important appendix on why the social discount rate should be zero, and you can think of Stubborn Attachments as trying to think through the broader implications of that argument.
You should always ask what are the weakest points of any book, including this one. For me, it is the fear that progress has a mean-reverting character and that improvements end up as temporary rather than sustainable. In that case, the idea of enduring benefits would be an illusion, and even if pursuing such benefits were a good recommendation we might end up with the empty set in terms of policy recommendations. Historical pessimism would trump my recommendations, and we would be devoting our energies to the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Furthermore, Stubborn Attachments gives little guidance on how to offset the claims of humans versus the claims of nature. The benefits of economic growth are specified for human beings, and it is less clear that such economic growth is good for the animal kingdom as a whole, given the encroachments of humans and also the tortures of factory farming. If it is any consolation, however, I don’t think other philosophers have solved that problem either. Utilitarians, for instance, offer no plausible guidelines for weighting the well-being of non-human animals versus the well-being of humans, nor have they shown how it might be feasible to follow such guidelines.
Philosophical critiques will be forthcoming, so stay tuned!
I’ll be doing a Conversation with him, though with no associated public event. So what should I ask?
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.
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?
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.
I interview Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, not a Conversation but nonetheless a conversation, they were both in top form. Here is the link.
As for background context, I’ve for years wondered why people get so bugged by each other on Twitter. A second question is why political correctness — even if you think it is fully bad — occasions so much opposition compared to many other maladies.
Those paths of inquiry have led me to think more about socially neurotic people, and yes that is a pretty big percentage of humans. By that designation I mean people who likely would score high on neuroticism on a five-factor personality test. Here is one definition, useful but maybe not the most precise one:
Neuroticism can lead an individual to focus on, and to dwell on, the negative aspects of a situation, rather than the positives. They experience jealousy and become envious of other people when they feel that they are in an advantaged position over themselves. They may be prone to becoming frustrated, irate or angry as they struggle to cope with life stressors.
Is this kind of neuroticism even well-defined, or is it indirectly bundled with other positive traits, including positive affect toward some other set of external circumstances? Or, to be blunt, are we ever justified in thinking that neurotic people are — ceteris paribus — simply worse than others? Maybe neuroticism is a holdover from earlier times when life was more precarious and nowadays lingering neurotic traits are largely unjustified. Alternatively, is neuroticism simply “another way of being”, deserving of respect the way we might treat another culture, even in the presence of some negative externalities?
How much are five-factor personality traits context-dependent rather than absolute? Is anti-neuroticism neurotic, a kind of negative affect of its own? Or is it a way of standing up for truth, justice, and the American way?
Are there positive social externalities from neuroticism, such as indirectly subsidizing movements for social justice?
Overall, I am coming to the conclusion that, even (especially?) if we are personally annoyed by neuroticism, it is more useful to view it in a broader and less negative context.
Most concretely, when should you seek out or at least not mind neurotic trading partners? It’s that kind of question where the rubber hits the road.
These were perhaps my top questions for mental space, I may soon present you with some others.
Research in the Journal of Cognition and Development in 2011 shows that 83% of 5-year-olds think that Santa Claus is real, the study’s lead author, Jacqueline Woolley, wrote in The Conversation last year.
“We have found in more recent studies that that number of 85% sounds about right,” said Thalia Goldstein, assistant professor of applied developmental psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“Children’s belief in Santa starts when they’re between 3 and 4 years old. It’s very strong when they’re between about 4 and 8,” she said. “Then, at 8 years old is when we start to see the drop-off in belief, when children start to understand the reality of Santa Claus.”
What about across the pond? They seem to be asleep over there:
Of 161 parents in the United Kingdom, 92.5% thought Father Christmas was real for their children up to the age of 8, according to a research paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Early Childhood Education Research Association in Finland in 1999.
And here is a study vulnerable to the replication crisis:
The interviews revealed that 39.2% of the children believed that the man they visited was the same Santa who came down their chimneys…1.3% had a somewhat “adult belief,” Goldstein said, in which they said that the man was not Santa and did not live at the North Pole but could communicate with the real Santa.
That is a CNN article from last year. Why is the word “marginal” declining in popularity? How many seven year olds know what “marginal” means? How many know not to believe everything the President says? How many understand hedging?
Here is the transcript and audio, a rollicking time was had by all. We covered what you would expect us to have covered. Here is one bit:
COWEN: And that people want to maximize their overall sense of how their life has gone — do you think that is ultimately Darwinian roots? Why is that the equilibrium? Happiness feels good, right?
KAHNEMAN: Yeah, happiness feels good in the moment. But it’s in the moment. What you’re left with are your memories. And that’s a very striking thing — that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it’s with us. It stays with us. It’s the only thing we get to keep.
COWEN: If you think of your own life, have you maximized happiness or the overall sense of how your life has gone?
COWEN: Neither. Citations?
And on his new project:
KAHNEMAN: I’ll tell you where the experiment from which my current fascination with noise arose. I was working with an insurance company, and we did a very standard experiment. They constructed cases, very routine, standard cases. Expensive cases — we’re not talking of insuring cars. We’re talking of insuring financial firms for risk of fraud.
So you have people who are specialists in this. This is what they do. Cases were constructed completely realistically, the kind of thing that people encounter every day. You have 50 people reading a case and putting a dollar value on it.
I could ask you, and I asked the executives in the firm, and it’s a number that just about everybody agrees. Suppose you take two people at random, two underwriters at random. You average the premium they set, you take the difference between them, and you divide the difference by the average.
By what percentage do people differ? Well, would you expect people to differ? And there is a common answer that you find, when I just talk to people and ask them, or the executives had the same answer. It’s somewhere around 10 percent. That’s what people expect to see in a well-run firm.
Now, what we found was 50 percent, 5–0, which, by the way, means that those underwriters were absolutely wasting their time, in the sense of assessing risk. So that’s noise, and you find variability across individuals, which is not supposed to exist.
I enjoyed this particular exchange:
COWEN: Do you think of low intelligence as yet a third independent source of error? Or is that somehow subsumed in bias and noise?
KAHNEMAN: You mean plain stupidity?
COWEN: In some cases.
COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?
KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.
COWEN: I can’t imagine why. That’s my bias.
KAHNEMAN: It’s like thinking of sex all the time. I really don’t think of bias that much.
COWEN: Some questions about psychologists outside of what you’ve worked on, but maybe related — Freud. What do you think of Freud’s body of work? And has it influenced you at all?
Definitely recommended, and you will find cameo appearances by Michael Nielsen and Daniel Gross.
From my email, he said this was the entirety of his review:
A reflection on how to best worship humans or some form of enduring human community as a god or gods. From a religious perspective, such an approach may at first seem illusory, but an attentive reader will be left wondering how close that illusion is to the actual truth.
By Joshua Kim, here are a few excerpts:
An oddity of Stubborn Attachments is that Cowen is reluctant to apply his pro-economic growth philosophy to real-world political choices.
[TC: that is on purpose of course]
Stubborn Attachments would have been more persuasive if Cowen was more willing to explore the implications of his philosophy on the political and policy choices before us. The question is, are progressive values are at odds with the belief that long-term economic growth is the engine of progress?
Nor does Cowen answer the question of at what point a wealthy society should be able to provide a measure of economic security to all of its citizens? Does the guarantee that work should come with a living wage and that everyone deserves access to health care and education incompatible with a long-term focus on economic progress?
As is always the case with a Cowen book, his writing will make you think. Stubborn Attachments is too abstract for my tastes. But I’m happy to have spent 3.5 hours arguing with Cowen.
If he reads MR, he can always spend more.
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.
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.
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.