Category: Philosophy

*Stubborn Attachments* opening week

I thank all of you buyers and reviewers for making the opening week of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals such a success.

The book hit #1 in 4 Amazon browse subcategories over the last week:
– Macroeconomics
– Commerce
– Philosophy
– Theory of Economics, and also Comparative Economics

Robert Wiblin’s Conversation with Tyler Cowen

This was two and a half hours (!), and it is a special bonus episode in Conversations in Tyler, here is the text and audio.  The starting base of the discussion was my new, just today published book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but of course we ranged far and wide.  Here are a few excerpts:

WIBLIN: Speaking of Tetlock, are there any really important questions in economics or social science that . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.

And this:

COWEN: I think most people are actually pretty good at knowing their weaknesses. They’re often not very good at knowing their talents and strengths. And I include highly successful people. You ask them to account for their success, and they’ll resort to a bunch of cliches, which are probably true, but not really getting at exactly what they are good at.

If I ask you, “Robert Wiblin, what exactly are you good at?” I suspect your answer isn’t good enough. So just figuring that out and investing more in friends, support network, peers who can help you realize that vision, people still don’t do enough of that.

And:

COWEN: But you might be more robust. So the old story is two polarities of power versus many, and then the two looks pretty stable, right? Deterrents. USA, USSR.

But if it’s three compared to a world with many centers of power, I don’t know that three is very stable. Didn’t Sartre say, “Three people is hell”? Or seven — is seven a stable number? We don’t know very much. So it could just be once you get out of two-party stability, you want a certain flattening.

And maybe some parts of the world will have conflicts that are undesirable. But nonetheless, by having the major powers keep their distance, that’s better, maybe.

Recommended!

*Stubborn Attachments* blurbs

You can find them here, note you may need to click on the right to read the furthest right-hand side of the page.  Here are excerpts from those blurbs:

Tim Harford: “His best, most ambitious and most personal work.”

Cardiff Garcia: “I think you’ll find that following the logic in Stubborn Attachments is as fun as it is intellectually provocative.”

Mason Hartman: “The book invites you to fight it.”

Cass Sunstein: “It’s a book for right now, and a book for all times. A magnificent achievement.”

Tomorrow is publication date for the book, you can order here, and here is some background on Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Note I am donating all of the proceeds to a man in Ethiopia.

Who is a conservative?

From Maxim Gorky’s My Universities:

And I remembered Ibsen’s lines:

“Am I a conservative? Oh, no?

I am still the same as I have been all my life,

I don’t like moving the pieces from one square to another,

I would like to move the whole game.

I can remember only one revolution

It was more clever than those that came after

And it could have destroyed everything

— I mean, of course, the Flood”

Pareto Principles in Infinite Ethics

I’ve been reading the dissertation of that title by Amanda Askell, following her podcast with Robert Wiblin.  And there is also the work of Nick Bostrom on “infinite ethics.”

In the thesis, Amanda considers the possibility that world-states might simply be incomparable when there are an infinite number of relevant beings and infinite total utility in the universe, as seems to be implied by some cosmologies.

That in turn conflicts with the notion that agents are “locations of goodness.”  If you give me some chocolate ice cream, it seems I am better off, and that judgment ought to be allowed to proceed without undue attention being paid to the broader cosmos.  Yet that will imply pairwise comparisons are possible in an infinite universe, if only through the Pareto principle.  But when you compare two overall states of the (infinite) universe in pairwise fashion, it is hard to see what value the “new” ice cream cone brings, because both ex ante and ex post there is an infinite consumption of ice cream.

Maybe the view that agents are locations of goodness doesn’t make sense when paired with infinities.  Might the apparent increase in ice cream mean — whether in some causal sense or not — that still the total number of ice cream-eating beings in the universe has not increased, because if it had the infinity would not have held in the first place?  Metaphysically speaking, one ice cream might push out the other.  Sadly, my (finite) mind cannot readily deal with the intuitions, nor what happens if you try to imagine what kind of infinities we are dealing with, a’la Cantor.

Still, I will gladly accept the assumption of incomparability across different world-states in an infinite universe.  In fact I view incomparability in the infinite universe case as the friend of comparability in the world we live in.  It is by no means certain that the universe is infinite, but there is some chance it is infinite.

When doing expected value calculations, we need to take account of both possibilitites, namely that the universe may or may not be infinite.  But if the infinity scenarios all lead to incomparability across various options (if indeed they are “options” to begin with), you can argue that the calculations for the finite universe scenario dominate the final calculus that we face today, operating under agnosticism about the nature of the universe (infinite or not).  Which brings us back to finite universe ethics and persons being locations of value.  And chocolate ice cream.

Another way to put this is that worrying about infinities “too much” ends up meaning you don’t have to worry about them at all.

The funnel of human experience

So humanity in aggregate has spent about ten times as long worshiping the Greek gods as we’ve spent watching Netflix.

We’ve spent another ten times as long having sex as we’ve spent worshiping the Greek gods.

And we’ve spent ten times as long drinking coffee as we’ve spent having sex.

Furthermore:

It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.

This should cheer you all up, yes indeed there is no great stagnation no wonder the rate of productivity growth has been so high:

FHI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now.

That is from eukaryote at LessWrong.  Hat tip goes to the always-excellent The Browser.

The excellent David C. Wright podcasts me on *Stubborn Attachments*, and on other things

It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.  (If you read the transcript, the sentence in the middle about my believing in God as a teenager is a transcription error, it will be corrected.)  David is one of the best, and best prepared, interviewers I have interacted with.  Here is the audio and transcript.

Here is one bit from the middle:

David: …should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.

[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.

[00:39:14] David: They do.

[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.

[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?

[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.

[00:39:20] David: Better at?

[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.

[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–

[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.

[00:39:43] David: Do you?

[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.

Definitely recommended.

Appealing to your identity in making a point

In a post which is interesting more generally, Arnold Kling makes this point:

I think Tyler missed the important difference between taking identity into account and having someone appeal to their identity. I agree with Bryan that the latter is a negative signal. Opening with “Speaking as a ____” is a bullying tactic.

Many have had a similar response, but I figured I would save up that point for an independent blog post, rather than putting it in the original.  Here are a few relevant points:

1. If someone opens with “Speaking as a transgender latinx labor activist…”, or something similar, perhaps that is somewhat artless, but most likely it is relevant information to me, at least for most of the topics which correlate with that kind of introduction.  I am happy enough with direct communication of that information, and don’t quite get what a GMU blogger would object to in that regard.  Does the speaker have to wait until paragraph seven before obliquely hinting at being transgender?  Communicate the information in Straussian fashion?

2. Being relatively established, most of the pieces I write already give such an introduction to me, for instance a column by-line or a back cover photo and author description on a book.  Less established people face the burden of having to introduce themselves, and yes that is hard to do well, hard for any of us.  You might rationally infer that these people are indeed less established, and possibly also less accomplished, but the introduction itself should be seen in this light, not as an outright negative.  It is most of all a signal that the person is somewhat “at sea” in establishment institutions and their concomitant introductions, framings, and presentations.  Yes, that outsider status possibly can be a negative signal in some regards, but a GMU blogger or independent scholar (as Arnold is) should not regard that as a negative signal per se.  At the margin, I’d like to see people pay more attention to smart but non-mainstream sources.

3. For many audiences, I don’t need an introduction at all, nor would Bryan or Arnold.  That’s great of course for us.  But again we are being parasitic on other social forces having introduced us already.  Let’s not pretend we’re above this whole game, we are not, we just have it much easier.  EconLog itself has a click space for “Blogger Bios,” though right now it is empty, perhaps out of respect for Bryan’s views.  Or how about if you get someone to blurb your books for you?

4. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reasons, women in today’s world often feel less comfortable putting themselves forward in public spaces.  In most (not all) areas they blog at much lower rates, and they are also less willing to ask for a salary increase, among other manifestations of the phenomenon.  Often, in this kind of situation, you also will find group members who “overshoot” the target and pursue a strategy which is the opposite of excess reticence.  I won’t name names, but haven’t you heard something like “Speaking as a feminist, Dionysian, child of the 1960s, Freudian, Catholic, pro-sex, pagan, libertarian polymath…”?  Maybe that is a mistake of style and presentation and even reasoning, but the deeper understanding is to figure out better means of evaluating people who “transact” in the public sphere at higher cost, not simply to dismiss or downgrade them.

5. If someone like Bill Gates were testifying in front of Congress and claimed “Speaking as the former CEO of a major company, I can attest that immigration is very important to the American economy” we wouldn’t really object very much, would we?  Wouldn’t it seem entirely appropriate?  So why do we so often hold similar moves against those further away from the establishment?

How about “as a Mongolian sheep herder, let me tell you what kinds of grass they like to eat…”?

Then why not “As a transgender activist…”?  You don’t necessarily have to agree with what follows, just recognize they might know more than average about the topic.

To sum up, appealing to one’s identity possibly can be a negative signal.  But overall it should be viewed not as a reason to dismiss such speakers and writers, but rather a chance to obtain a deeper understanding.

Vitalik Buterin and Glen Weyl dialog

The following is a series emails Vitalik Buterin and I [Glen] exchanged over the last day about RadicalxChange ideas. We thought the discussion might be useful to some as a) it covers a number of issues not discussed elsewhere that we consider important, b) it represents some of our latest thinking about these issues and c) it shows a bit of “the sausage being made” that some may find interesting. However, be aware that this is an internal communication and thus is at a pretty high level of specialization; there will be many parts that those not already well steeped in some combination of RadicalxChange ideas, economics, sociology, intellectual history, philosophy and cryptography may find hard to follow.

Here is the link.  There are many excellent bits, here is one from Buterin:

Effect on centralization of physical power — one thing that scares me about more complex systems of property rights is that they would require more complex centralized infrastructure, including surveillance into people’s private activities, to be able to correctly enforce. Taxes already have this problem (you may recall Adam Smith believing that income taxes would be impossible because they would require an unacceptable level of intrusion into people’s private lives to enforce), and I wonder if the various proposals that we have for changing them would make things better or worse in this regard. I like Harberger taxes because they don’t require infrastructure to police whether or not undeclared transactions took place, though I worry in other cases, eg. your comment that your immigration proposal would require stronger enforcement of immigration rules, which realistically means stronger efforts to find and kick out people who overstay, which requires more surveillance of various kinds. All in all, I don’t think the radical markets ideas altogether fare that bad, but I guess my comment would be that non-panopticon-dependence should be an explicit desideratum to a greater degree than it is now.

Self-recommending…and which one of them do you think wrote this?:

The last couple of weeks talking to economists, sociologists and philosophers I have felt like they are hacking through a forest with pen knife and this perspective enables me to look from above (things still fuzzy) and have a crew of chainsaws at my command.

How should we judge appeals to identity

Bryan Caplan wrote this in his description of GMU blogger culture:

Appealing to your identity is a reason to discount what you say, not a reason to pay extra attention.

Bryan explains more, not easy for me to summarize but do read his full account.  Let me instead try to state my own views:

1. If someone makes a claim new or foreign to you, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you probably should up the amount of attention you give that claim because the person is from a different background.  Your marginal need to learn from that person is probably above-average, noting of course this can be countermanded by other signals.  That said, I recognize that our ability to learn from “different others” may be below average, given the possible absence of a common conceptual framework.  Nonetheless, I say be ambitious in your learning!

2. If someone makes a claim you already disagree with, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you should try to figure out why that person might see the matter differently.  You should try harder, at the margin, precisely because the person is from a different background.  Again, this follows from a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning and ambition in learning.

3. When you hear a person from a different background, try not to get too caught up in the “identity politics” of it, either positively or negatively.  Try to steer your thoughts to: “People from this background in fact have a wide diversity of views on this topic.  Still, I will try to learn from this person’s different background.”  Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”

4. I’ve already noted that you often learn more efficiently from people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself.  Even putting language aside, I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder.  In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake.  To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.

But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much.  At the end of the day I am left with my intellectual ambition and I really do wish to go visit Mongolia, including for the sheep herders.  And to the extent I am informed in some ways that maybe not all of my peers are, the intellectual ambition I am presenting here is a big reason why.  I seek to encourage more such ambition, rather than to give people reasons for evading it.

My Conversation with Bruno Maçães

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Here is one bit:

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

And:

COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

Original and highly recommended.  Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.

How to have a good conversation

Here is an excerpt from Tim Herrra in the NYT, under the title “Three [sic] Tips to Have Better Conversations“:

To be a true conversation superstar, try these tips:

  • Be attentive and give eye contact.

  • Make active and engaged expressions.

  • Repeat back what you’ve heard, and follow up with questions.

  • If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening.

  • For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.

And keep in mind that when you say something declarative, seek out the other person’s opinion as well.

Those seem mostly wrong to me, and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic.  I would suggest some slightly different tips, admittedly not for everyone in all situations:

1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.

2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour.  Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.

3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.

4. Be worthy of a good conversation.

Rinse and repeat.  I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.

What is conversation for anyway?  I don’t even recommend being charming, or trying to be charming, unless a work situation is forcing you to do so.  Let yourself be sullen when the mood beckons.  Feel free to let eye contact lapse.  Don’t repeat back what you’ve heard.  Say something surprising.  Be willing to go meta.  Most of all, try to establish a “we actually can have a more genuine conversation than we thought was going to be possible” level of understanding, taking whatever chances are needed to get to that higher level of discourse.

By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.

What should Robert Wiblin ask Tyler Cowen?

Robert will be interviewing me later this week, as an installment of Conversations with Tyler, just as Patrick Collison once interviewed me a while back.  At least part of the interview will focus on my forthcoming book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  (And we will do 2.5 hours, a Robert specialty!)  Here is part of Robert’s bio:

I studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduated top of my class and was named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

I worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies including the Treasury and Productivity Commission.

I then moved to Oxford in the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director and then Executive Director.

I then became Research Director for 80,000 Hours. In 2015 the project went through Y Combinator, and in 2016 we moved from Oxford to Berkeley, California in order to grow more quickly.

He is renowned for his thorough preparation and he runs a very good podcast of his own.  So what should he ask me?

Who has led the most interesting life?

In recent times, that is.  Devon Zuegel asks:

Who would you name as a contender for having led the most interesting life in the last 100 years?

Keynes pops to mind as one contender.  He was a top-tier intellect and economist, he was closely connected to the arts, had plenty of brilliant Bloomsbury people to chat with, married a ballerina, played a major role in politics several times, and he participated in several critical and indeed formative moments of history (Treaty of Versailles, fiscal policy, Bretton Woods).  He experienced both world wars (no one said “interesting” has to be good!).  Still, he didn’t travel enough to be a slam dunk (I can’t quite bring myself to write “nor did he have the internet.”)

How about Bill Clinton?  He was president twice, oversaw the 1990s, has indeed traveled the world, and known many of the most interesting people of his lifespan.  He also has had rather, um…diverse…experiences in one realm of life.  And he married Hillary.

Paul McCartney was a Beatle, wrote amazing songs and hung out with John Lennon, had domestic bliss with Linda for a few decades, raised lots of kids, was successful as a businessman, and also has a history of…um…diverse experiences.  But did he smoke too much pot?

This list of “best lives” includes Hugh Hefner, Tyra Banks, and Elon Musk.  Here is one Quora answer for “most interesting”:

Personally, I find the following people intriguing: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Marie Curie, Diego Maradona, Michael Jordan, Socrates/Aristotle/Plato, Samori Toure, Nelson Mandela, Michel de Nostredame. It’s a long list. There are even some historical figures that I do not admire, but would like to know more about – people such as Joseph Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Judas Isacriot, among so many others.

I hope you are not offended if I rule some of those lives out on grounds of insufficient length, or too much time spent in prison.  Here is a list of interesting writers’ lives, topped by Ernest Hemingway.

Contrarian but not crazy answers would cite the person who raised the greatest number of children, the person who lived the longest in decent health, “whoever you are,” and the person who has traveled the most, at least adjusting for the quality of the trips (working on an oil tanker may not count).

Is it possible for a very famous person to win this designation?  Their very fame limits the possible range of experiences they have, and perhaps at some margin the consumption of additional status and adulation, however fun (?) it may be, just isn’t all that interesting.  Can Paul McCartney or Bill Clinton go out in public much?  Is the real answer someone most people never have heard of?

Who is your nominee?