Category: Philosophy

My podcast with Shaka Senghor

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting.  Here is part of the summary introduction:

Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.

Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.

Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.

A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”

COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.

SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.

COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?

And:

COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?

SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.

And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.

My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:

COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?

His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.

Progress Studies tranche of Emergent Ventures

Due to a special grant, there has been a devoted tranche of Emergent Ventures to individuals, typically scholars and public intellectuals, studying the nature and causes of progress.

Here are the winners of those awards so far:

Pseudoerasmus, for general excellence and his on-line writings on progress and development. He has donated the funds to the Economic History Society.

Alice Evans, Professor, King’s College London, for her work on social change and despondency traps, and podcasting, and general excellence.

Jason Crawford, to boost his writings and career as public intellectual on topics of progress and the benefits of economic growth and industrialism.  Here is his blog The Roots of Progress.

Tanner Greer, to help him move from Taiwan to Virginia/GMU, and to write a book on the last twenty years of U.S. history and its significance.  Here is Tanner on Twitter.

Adam Green, budding public intellectual, to study the pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos.

Ville Vesterinen, Finland, to produce podcasts and YouTube videos on the nature of progress and economic growth.

Leopold Aschenbrenner, 17 year old economics prodigy, to spend the next summer in the Bay Area and for general career development.  Here is his paper on existential risk.

Byrne Hobart, to write a book on technological progress with Tobias Huber.

Saloni Dattani and ,Sam Bowman, to set up a website on progress and progress studies, possibly a progress-related podcast.

Here is further information on the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures.

I’ll be announcing more winners soon, from the regular rather than the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures (both remain open).

Narcissism and coldness

…narcissistic people anticipate that success and failure is generally less momentous and (a) assume others are less affected by most success and failure and (b) often feel less happy for successful others and less concerned for unsuccessful others. Findings across three studies were consistent with these propositions. Narcissistic people anticipated that both the self and others will be less reactive to successes and failures (Studies 1–3); moreover, although narcissistic people indicated less warmth toward successful and unsuccessful others, these relations were eliminated after controlling for narcissistic people’s assumptions that other people are less reactive to success and failure (Study 3). Hence, narcissistic coldness could, in part, have its origin in what we believe is reasonable disagreement about the momentous nature of events.

That is from Hart, Tortoriello, and Richardson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Model this dopamine fast

“We’re addicted to dopamine,” said James Sinka, who of the three fellows is the most exuberant about their new practice. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.”

There is a growing dopamine-avoidance community in town and the concept has quickly captivated the media.

Dr. Cameron Sepah is a start-up investor, professor at UCSF Medical School and dopamine faster. He uses the fasting as a technique in clinical practice with his clients, especially, he said, tech workers and venture capitalists.

The name — dopamine fasting — is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more of a stimulation fast. But the name works well enough, Dr. Sepah said.

The purpose is so that subsequent pleasures are all the more potent and meaningful.

“Any kind of fasting exists on a spectrum,” Mr. Sinka said as he slowly moved through sun salutations, careful not to get his heart racing too much, already worried he was talking too much that morning.

Here is more from Nellie Bowles at the NYT.

“OK Boomer”

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, how can I excerpt this one?:

On the negative side, I worry that those who deploy “OK Boomer” are putting themselves down and signaling their own impotence. I am not arguing for “[Expletive Deleted] Boomer,” even though it would have a vitality and rebellious spirit very much reminiscent of the 1960s or 1970s (which of course were quintessential boomer eras). But when I read or hear “OK Boomer,” I start to think there might be something special about baby boomers after all. We boomers may not be different in kind from other generations, but we do seem to inspire rhetorical creativity in our critics.

The closest earlier analog to “OK Boomer” is probably “OK, Chief,” a slightly sardonic response to a bossy or persistent request. So the phrase “OK Boomer” is itself an implicit and indeed somewhat passive admission as to who is really in charge. Members of Gen Z are subtly demonstrating that the clichés about them may have a grain of truth.

As I said I am a baby boomer, born in 1962, and I do a lot of public speaking about such topics as the absence of free lunches in this world. Yet I have never heard anyone say “OK Boomer” back to me. Instead I see the phrase on social media — another sign of the essentially passive nature of the response. (And wearing an “OK Boomer” hoodie or buying other such merchandise doesn’t seem like a major sign of rebellion, either.)

If there is any native medium for the “OK Boomer” meme, in fact, it is short TikTok videos, one of the more evanescent forms of social media. That the site seems plagued by Chinese censorship is just another state of affairs that boomers find more offensive than does Generation Z.

There is also this:

I am greatly pleased that the post-boomer generations are by all appearances less racist and sexist than their predecessors. Still, prejudices are part of human nature. There is always a danger that they will re-emerge, redirected at other targets — defined by their age, their political views, their wealth, the size of their carbon footprint, or some other salient variable. Prejudice doesn’t become acceptable simply because it is not directed at someone’s race, ethnicity or gender.

There is indeed much more at the link.  A better cause for young people would be to fight against the growing age segregation in American society.

My Conversation with Ted Gioia

Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History.  We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more.  Here are some excerpts:

GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.

Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.

That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.

The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.

And:

COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…

GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?

Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.

People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.

Economists and non-economists on elasticity

From a recent paper by Joanna Venator and Jason Fletcher:

In this paper, we estimate the impacts of abortion clinic closures on access to clinics in terms of distance and congestion, abortion rates, and birth rates. Legislation regulating abortion providers enacted in Wisconsin in 2011-2013 ultimately led to the closure of two of five abortion clinics in Wisconsin, increasing the average distance to the nearest clinic to 55 miles and distance to some counties to over 100 miles. We use a difference-in-differences design to estimate the effect of change in distance to the nearest clinic on birth and abortion rates, using within-county variation across time in distance to identify the effect. We find that a hundred-mile increase in distance to the nearest clinic is associated with 25 percent fewer abortions and 4 percent more births. We see no significant effect of increased congestion at remaining clinics on abortion rates. We find significant racial disparities in who is most affected by abortion clinic closures, with increases in distance increasing birth rates significantly more for Black, Asian, and Hispanic women. Our results suggest that even small numbers of clinic closures can result in significant restrictions to abortion access of similar magnitude to those seen in Texas when a greater number of clinics closed their doors.

There are (at least) two possible responses to such results, and that is without even getting into one’s underlying view of the ethics of abortion.  One is to say that a great deprivation has occurred because many fewer women end up having abortions.  Another response is to infer that the marginal value of the abortions could not have been so high to begin with, if the number drops off so readily.

The same issue comes up with Obamacare.  If the price of health insurance goes up, quite a large number of people decide to go without coverage.  Is the size of that number a measure of the human tragedy resulting from the price increase?  Or is it a measure of how little those people actually value health insurance?  Or somehow both?

I have yet to meet a person who can think through these issues rationally and absorb what is interesting and valid in each of those two perspectives.

Loren Fryxell of Northwestern is a creative thinker

Here is his home page, here is one abstract:

A Theory of Criminal Justice

Abstract: I propose a general framework with which to analyze the optimal response to crime. Each criminal act, detected with some probability, generates a random piece of evidence and a consequent probability of guilt for each citizen. I consider a utilitarian planner with no artificial moral constraints. In particular, I assume no upper bound on punishment—such a bound can only rise endogenously from the utilitarian objective. I consider three types of “pure” responses—deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation—along with general sentences combining any of the three. If citizens are expected utility maximizers, a repugnant conclusion is reached—it is optimal to punish only with the realization of the most incriminating evidence. Allowing for more general behavior yields a weaker but more satisfactory result—optimal punishment is always decreasing in the quality of evidence. (Rehabilitation, incapacitation, and general sentence results coming soon.)

Here is his job market paper:

A Theory of Experienced Utility and Utilitarianism

Abstract: I present a theory of measurement of preference intensity and use this measure as a foundation for utilitarianism. To do this, I suppose each alternative is experienced over time. An individual has preferences over such experiences. I present axioms under which preferences are represented by an experienced utility function equal to the integral of instantaneous preference intensity over time and unique up to a positive scalar. I propose an ethical postulate under which social preferences are utilitarian in experienced utilities.

Job candidates with ideas can be difficult to come by, so I wanted to highlight his work…

A theory of narrow thinking

I develop an approach, which I term narrow thinking, to break the decision-maker’s ability to perfectly coordinate her multiple decisions. For a narrow thinker, different decisions are based on different, non-nested, information. The narrow thinker then makes each decision with an imperfect understanding of the others. Formally, it is as if the decision-maker is a collection of multiple selves playing an incomplete-information game. The friction effectively attenuates the degree of interaction across decisions and can translate into either over- or under-reaction depending on the environment. Narrow thinking leads to a violation of the fungibility principle and a smooth model of mental accounting. Narrow thinking also reconciles other seemingly disparate phenomena in a unified framework, such as excess smoothness to taste shocks, the small wage elasticity of daily labor supply, and the label effect. Finally, I study an endogenous narrow thinking problem: the decision maker chooses optimally what information each decision is based upon, subject to a cognitive constraint.

That is the abstract of a new paper from Chen Lian, who is on the job market this year from MIT.  (That is not his job market paper but it does have a revise and resubmit from Review of Economic Studies.)

Simple truths about power

These are all people who are connected to the power of government.

Either physically, i.e. economically, or emotionally—power. The dream of sharing power. The gender studies professor not only gets her money eventually from government, but she dreams of being part of a world-transforming enterprise.

Here, I agree with you. There is a dream that unites progressives and bureaucrats and wealthy technologists. And where does that dream come from?

It’s a dream peculiar to this class. Other classes have been united by different dreams.

Is it a substitute for religion?

Yes.

Is that its primary emotional charge?

Well, I don’t know about primary. Look, the primary element is, as we Christians were taught, pride. That is the sin of sins. There is nothing that moves human beings quite so much as the desire to be on top of other human beings.

That is from an interview with Angelo Codevilla.

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!

What should I ask Shaka Senghor?

I will be having a Conversation with Shaka, no associated public event.  So what should I ask him?  Here is the main part of his Wikipedia page:

Shaka Senghor is director’s fellow of the MIT Media Lab, college lecturer, author, and was convicted of murder in American courts. As of October 2015, he also teaches a class as part of the Atonement Project, a partnership between him, the University of Michigan, and the MIT Media Lab. His memoir, Writing my Wrongs, was published in March 2016. Senghor was named to Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders in 2016.

And here is Shaka’s home page.  I thank you all in advance for your suggestions.

“Let’s Play Two!”

It is always difficult to figure out what influenced you as a child, but I commonly think back on this saying of baseball great Ernie Banks.  When a doubleheader was coming up, he said “It’s a great day for a ball game — let’s play two!”  This became a very well known phrase in baseball lingo.

It always seemed to me like a very good attitude.

If, ever in life, there was a chance to do more, or take on a new project, I would always think “Let’s Play Two!”

Here is an earlier Robin Hanson post on stamina.

Tyler Cowen on meritocracy

As economist (yes, Harvard-educated ) Tyler Cowen has quipped: “The best critiques of the meritocracy have come from those with extreme merit.”  I’ll come back to this puzzle later, for it’s one that Markovits’s book, like others in the genre, doesn’t fully explore.

That is from Kay S. Hymowitz, reviewing a new book critical of meritocracy.

The ebb and flow of political correctness doctrine

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

What caused the P.C. movement to stall after the ‘90s? One theory is that it was due to two particular events. First, a Democratic president was impeached for his sexual conduct with an intern. That made the left (at least temporarily) less interested in rooting out and punishing all abuses of power. Second, the attacks of Sept. 11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a new and different focal point for activist energy: first anti-terror, then anti-war.

The history of political correctness also shows that ideas can have a long genesis, as this essay by Musa al-Gharbi illustrates. The idea of sensitivity training, for instance, was created by Kurt Lewin in 1946-47, and later popularized by Carl Rogers in 1961. The notion of “safe spaces” started in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s. The term “microaggressions” comes from Chester Pierce in 1974. It is possible that the phrase “identity politics” comes from the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977.

The lesson here is clear: If you are dealing in the world of ideas, play the long game — don’t be too discouraged by momentary setbacks. For all the talk of America having a throwaway culture that moves rapidly from one idea to the next, the history of political correctness does not support that vision. It is possible for people to promote and sustain ideas to give them resonance and influence.

Please note I am trying to learn from the history of the movement, and it is not the point of this column to condemn it excesses (which are very real).