Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.

And:

COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

Stubborn predictions

Bayesian theories of perception have traditionally cast the brain as an idealised scientist, refining predictions about the outside world based on evidence sampled by the senses. However, recent predictive coding models include predictions that are resistant to change, and these stubborn predictions can be usefully incorporated into cognitive models.

That is the abstract to a new article by Yon, de Lange, and Press, via Michelle Dawson.

The sex recession

From Kate Julian at The Atlantic:

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.

Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.

I enjoyed this sentence:

In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high.

This is interesting too:

“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.”

The sex recession remains a puzzle.  Here is my much earlier blog post on why people don’t have more sex.

Words of wisdom from Vitalik Buterin

Both reasoning from behavioral-economic first principles, and my personal experience, people are at their most evil out of fear, not greed. Growth means there is less fear going around.

That is from Vitalik Buterin, reviewing Stubborn Attachments on TwitterAnd this:

I have a different take on “growth is good for harmony” (52-53). Arrow’s theorem doesn’t become more or less true if a conflict is between, say (+5, +1) vs (+1, +5) or (+2, -2) vs (-2, +2). Rather, the reason why the latter is more disharmonious is loss aversion.

And:

Redistributing money to the rich (p88) is risky because the rich are not necessarily aligned with general population. Caring for old people (p91) is valuable not just for the sake of present individuals, but also as a commitment to future old people who are present-day workers.

Here is my earlier Conversation with Vitalik Buterin.  And here is Garett Jones’s tweet storm on the book.

The philosophy and practicality of Emergent Ventures

Let’s start with some possible institutional failures in mainstream philanthropy.  Many foundations have large staffs, and so a proposal must go through several layers of approval before it can receive support or even reach the desk of the final decision-maker.  Too many vetoes are possible, which means relatively conservative, consensus-oriented proposals emerge at the end of the process.  Furthermore, each layer of approval is enmeshed in an agency game, further cementing the conservatism.  It is not usually career-enhancing to advance a risky or controversial proposal to one’s superiors.

There is yet another bias: the high fixed costs of processing any request discriminate against very small proposals, which either are not worthwhile to approve or they are never submitted in the first place.

Finally, foundations often become captured by their staffs.  The leaders become fond of their staffs, try to keep them in the jobs, regard the staff members as a big part of their audience, and adopt the perspectives of their staffs, more so as time passes.  That encourages conservatism all the more, because the foundation leaders do not want their staffs to go away, and so they act to preserve financial and reputational capital.

To restate those biases:

  1. Too much conservatism
  2. Too few very small grants
  3. Too much influence for staff

So how might those biases be remedied?

Why not experiment with only a single layer of no?

Have a single individual say yes or no on each proposal — final word, voila!  Of course that individual can use referees and conferees as he or she sees fit.

The single judge could be an expert in some of the relevant subject areas of the proposals (that is sometimes the case in foundations, but even then the expertise of the foundation evaluators can decay).

This arrangement also can promise donors 100% transmission of their money to recipients, or close to that.  If someone gives $1 million to the fund, the award winners receive the full $1 million.  This is rare in non-profits.  (In the case of Emergent Ventures there are unbudgeted time costs for me and my assistant, who prints out the proposals, and the paper costs of the printing get charged to general operating expenses at Mercatus.  Still, a $1 million grant at the margin leads to $1 million in actual awards.  I am not paid to do this.)

The solo evaluator — if he or she has the right skills of temperament and judgment — can take risks with the proposals, unencumbered by the need to cover fixed costs and keep “the foundation” up and running.  Think of it as a “pop-up foundation,” akin to a pop-up restaurant, and you know who is the chef in the kitchen.  It is analogous to a Singaporean food stall, namely with low fixed costs, small staff, and the chef’s ability to impose his or her own vision on the food.

Once a fixed sum of money is given away, and the mission of the project (beneficial social change) has been furthered, “the foundation” goes away.  No one is laid off.  Rather than crying over a vanquished institutional empire and laid off friends/co-workers, the solo evaluator in fact has a chance to get back to personally profitable work.  It was “lean and mean” all along, except it wasn’t mean.

The risk-taking in grant decisions is consistent with the incentives of the evaluator, consistent with the level of staffing (zero), and consistent with the means of the evaluator.  A solo evaluator, no matter how talented, does not have the resources to make and tie down multiple demands for complex deliverables.  Rather, a solo evaluator is likely to think (or not) — “hmm…there is some potential in this one.”  The wise solo evaluator is likely to look for projects that have real upside through realizing the autonomous visions of their self-starting creators, rather than projects that appear bureaucratically perfect.

And how about the incentives of the solo evaluator?  Well, a fixed amount of time is being given up, so what is the point in making safe, consensus selections with the awards?  The solo evaluator, in addition to pursuing the mission of the fund, will tend to seek out grants that will boost his or her reputation as a finder of talent.  You might worry that an evaluator, even if fully honest will self-deceive somewhat, and use some of these grants to promote his or her own interests.  I would say donate your money to an evaluator who you are happy to see rise in status.

In other words, the basic vision of Emergent Ventures, the incentives, and its means are all pretty consistent.

The solo evaluator also has the power to make very small grants, simply by issuing a decision in their favor at very low fixed cost.  Alchian and Allen theorem!  That helps remedy the bias against small grants in the broader foundation world.

The single evaluator of course is going to make some mistakes, but so do foundations.  And the costs of these evaluator mistakes have to be weighed against the other upsides of this method.

In my view, at least two percent of philanthropy should be run this way, and right now in the foundation world it is about zero percent.  So I am trying to change this at the margin.

How does this idea scale?  What if it worked really well?  How would we do more of it?

Well, it is not practical for this solo evaluator to handle a larger and larger portfolio of grant requests.  Even if he or she were so inclined, that would bring us back to the problems of institutionalized foundations.  The ideal scaling is that other, competing “chefs” set up their own pop-up foundations.  Imagine a philanthropic world where, next year, you could give a million dollars to the Steven Pinker pop-up, to the Jhumpa Lahiri pop-up, to the Jordan Peterson intellectual venture fund, and so on.  Three years later, you would have an entirely different choice, say intellectual venture funds from Ezra Klein, David Brooks, and Skip Gates, among others.  The evaluators either could donate some of their time, as I am doing, or charge a fee for performing this service.  You also could imagine a major foundation carving off a separate section of their activities, and running this experiment on their own, with an evaluator of their choosing.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss how this model relates to the classical age of patronage running through the Renaissance, into the 18th century, and often into the 20th century as well, often through the medium of individual giving.  I also will consider how this relates to classic venture capital and the relevant economics behind “deal flow.”

In the meantime, I am repeating the list of the first cohort of Emergent Ventures winners.  That link also directs you to relevant background if Emergent Ventures is new to you.

Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization

People often express political opinions in starkly dichotomous terms, such as “Trump will either trigger a ruinous trade war or save U.S. factory workers from disaster.” This mode of communication promotes polarization into ideological in-groups and out-groups. We explore the power of an emerging methodology, forecasting tournaments, to encourage clashing factions to do something odd: to translate their beliefs into nuanced probability judgments and track accuracy over time and questions. In theory, tournaments advance the goals of “deliberative democracy” by incentivizing people to be flexible belief updaters whose views converge in response to facts, thus depolarizing unnecessarily polarized debates. We examine the hypothesis that, in the process of thinking critically about their beliefs, tournament participants become more moderate in their own political attitudes and those they attribute to the other side. We view tournaments as belonging to a broader class of psychological inductions that increase epistemic humility and that include asking people to explore alternative perspectives, probing the depth of their cause-effect understanding and holding them accountable to audiences with difficult-to-guess views.

That is a new paper from Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, and Hal R. Arkes, via the excellent Kevin Lewis and Michelle Dawson.  One very general implication is that there are mental, writing, and practical exercises that really can improve your habits of thought.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

How much do the experts wish to discount the future by?

…we find that expert opinion is particularly varied on the rate of time preference.  The modal value is zero, in line with many prominent opinions.  But with a median (mean) of 0.5 percent (1.1 percent)…

And:

…while we find that experts recommend placing greater weight on normative than positive issues when determining the SDR, most believe that the SDR should be informed by both.

That is from the latest issue of American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, “Discounting Disentangled” by Drupp, Freeman, Groom, and Nesje.  You will of course find a lengthy discussion of these issues in my own Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Toward a theory of optimal personality?

If you are too conscientious, you might experience undue stress during a negative performance review.  Or being too agreeable is correlated with lower salary levels, especially for men.  And surely too much extroversion and too much openness are possible too?

Rolf Degen reproduces a few relevant paragraphs from a new paper.  The work is by Nathan T. Carter, Joshua D. Miller, and Thomas A. Widiger, here is one excerpt from their abstract:

…researchers have only recently begun to uncover evidence that extreme standing on “normal” or “desirable” personality traits might be maladaptive…many more people possess optimal personality-trait levels than previously thought…

I don’t quite agree with that, though I wouldn’t, would I?  I think they are overrating normality.  The notion that “weirdos are bad” seems to me longstanding, and one of the most durable human intuitions, not something that researchers have only started to realize.  In a world with growing division of labor, and greater accountability (in the private sector, at least), extreme traits would seem to be rising in social value.  And perhaps some of that return can be captured as private value too — Silicon Valley anybody?

Overall, I still think that “falling short” on say either conscientiousness or openness is undesirable for most though not all individuals.  How can conscientiousness ever be bad, you might be wondering?  Well, if the world is underproducing people with unusual interests and inclinations, more conscientiousness might make “more weirdos” a harder outcome to achieve.  For instance, conscientiousness, with respect to obligations toward broader society, might keep many people more conformist.  That said, there still are many people who would do better to get up in the morning and go to work, one manifestation of conscientiousness.

Agreeableness is the trait that remains a hard to define black box.  Cooperativeness is often good, though simple deference to the opinions of others, without critical examination, is often bad.  When I hear “agreeableness” discussed as a formal personality trait, the possible clash between those two (and other) underlying features of agreeableness seems to receive insufficient attention.

Here is a previous MR Post on related issues.

*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.