Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

Not your grandpa’s South Asia libertarianism

I did an Ask Me Anything for the South Asian chapter of Students for Liberty, based on their reading of my book Big Business: Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

By far the two most popular topics for questions were a) social media, and b) sexual harassment.  Understandable, given South Asian circumstances, but not necessarily what you would hear in the United States, especially from an SfL group.

I think most Western libertarians and classical liberals still do not understand how much South Asia is going to redefine their discourse.

*Tenet* — a review (no real spoilers)

Although liquid securities markets play no role in the plot, this is nonetheless a movie where the value of information is repeatedly very high.

You can think of the movie as constructing a world so that a high value for information is ruling all of the time.  And how strange such a world would have to look.

Most plots are about effort, character, moral fortitude, luck, or preexisting conditions (“are they really meant for each other?”).  It is about time we had a film about information, even though the final world that is built is stranger than you might have expected.

“We must go now.”

But in fact, in the real world, you hardly ever need to “go now.”  You can go just a little bit later, and it won’t matter much.

But this is not the speed premium, rather the game-theoretic concept is that of last mover advantage, the opposite of Schelling’s first mover advantage.  Few of us are intuitively ready to take that concept literally and to order our understanding of a movie around it.

If you have studied Steven Bram’s book Biblical Games (and his other writings), this film will flow naturally for you — otherwise not!

Unlike most slacker films, this movie takes a decided stance on Newcomb’s Paradox, though to reveal that would be a total spoiler.

The movie also has genuine innovations in its chase and fight scenes, a rarity and indeed near-impossibility these days.

The soundtrack is excellent, and might at least some of the music be palindromic?

As for inspirations, you might consider Raiders of the Lost Ark, most other Nolan movies, the Book of Exodus, the Sator Square, James Bond, Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and most of all Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.

To be clear, I don’t love most of Nolan’s films, and Inception bored me, so I wasn’t expecting much from Tenet.  I walked away happy.

Should I now be rooting for a sequel? Or would that be a prequel?

Kudos to Alex for renting out the theater, he is the real Protagonist is this one.

*The Stakes: American at the Point of No Return*

That is the new book by Michael Anton, the famed then pseudonymous author of the “Flight 93 piece.”

I consider this to be the very best book for understanding where the current Intellectual Right “is at.”  In that sense I recommend it highly.  The opening chapter is a polemical fear that all of American will go the route of California, and then Anton keeps on digging further in on what has gone wrong.

To be clear, my vision is not the same as Michael’s.  I would like to see more emphasis on economic growth, on individual liberty, to recognize the emancipatory strands within the Left, to move away from the current historical pessimism of the Right and of Anton in particular, to be more unabashedly cosmopolitan, think more about science, and to become more Bayesian.  Nor do I agree that “…there’s little wrong with President Trump that more Trump couldn’t solve.”

Nonetheless this book serves a very valuable purpose and many of you should read it.

Further results on the return to talk therapy

Here was my original post, here is an email response from a specialist in the area, channeled by a reader:

The issue is really, really complicated. I have a lot of data on it because I spent time with Mark Goldenson, interviewing a lot of folks segmented by those who chose to seek mental health assistance from a clinician, those who stayed with that treatment versus those who turned away relatively early, and those who experienced severe mental health conditions that make them think that they should have seen a therapist, but ultimately chose not to, for reasons other than economic ones.

And we also talked to clinicians on the other side of that equation.

So between that and knowing the literature reasonably well, I have a lot of perspective on this.

The first thing is that talk therapy is in general not effective for most people. And I know the paper under examination showed that it’s more effective than antidepressants, but in general, most people do not generally stick with talk therapy. They get a benefit at a reasonably low rate for a reasonably short period of time…

Moreover, there’s some pretty strong evidence that talk therapy or at least CBT is becoming less effective over time – the effect sizes in studies & meta-analyses are going down. And there could be reasons for that that aren’t an indictment of the therapeutic model.

So for example, the modern world could just be becoming more stressful and the therapy is less equipped for it… It could be that as the treatment becomes more popular, rather than the more advanced or cutting-edge therapists using it, it’s used by an increasingly broad set of therapists that include low-skilled or ineffective ones.

So there are a lot of reasons that may not have to do with the merits of CBT as an approach, but the data are reasonably convincing on that front.

I think a lot of people are making a reasonably rational choice that, especially if they’re not going to stick with it for a long period of time, even starting therapy is a low-value proposition.

George Ainslie (the psychologist) has this kind of notion of playing a prisoner’s dilemma with your [future] self… let’s just say I want to start an exercise habit… there are a lot of parallels with exercise and talk therapy.

If I knew for a fact that I was going to stop doing it after one month, it actually doesn’t make sense to start at all. Right, because the benefits of accrued will pretty rapidly deteriorate and it’ll be as if I never did it…

People are not just considering, “Should I try talk therapy?”, they’re considering, “Will I do this for a sufficiently long period of time, or especially can I afford it for a long period of time, to where I will get and maintain the benefits from doing it?”

And many people do in fact have misinformation about how quickly they can experience certain types of benefits, and how much work is involved – it’s clear that there’s a lot of work involved, and many people don’t want to do that work.

From an operant conditioning standpoint, the experience of a therapy session is frankly more punishing than it is rewarding (for many people, a lot of the time). Like any negative stimulus, they’re going to engage in behaviors that cause that stimulus to be experienced at a lower rate.

Sometimes the benefits don’t accrue during the session, they accrue afterwards. It takes a lot of work to experience them and [can] involve emotional trauma to even retrieve them.

It’s not consistent with people’s ROI calculation, or what they would like to see in their ROI calculation. Again, it’s really similar to physical exercise – we know physical exercise works. It works better than antidepressants. It accrues all the benefits that this paper Cowen cited discovered in terms of energy and mood and earnings and so on and so forth.

But people still don’t engage in exercise, and in fact I think the rate of physical activity is actually on the decline, in the industrialized world at least.So, it’s more complex than “Does the behavior accrue benefits if you do it consistently?” It’s also not entirely about access because many forms of physical activity are free, and as the paper examines the seeking of talk therapy is not super sensitive to [price].

So it goes beyond the mere cost of the service, although the cost of the services is definitely prohibitive for a large cross-section of people.

How does ketamine or any other substance relate to this?

I think it relates very favorably in that people may actually have the opposite misconception around psychedelic-assisted therapy. They might view regular talk therapy as something where they’re going to have to do this tedious hour a week for months before they get any benefits or they solve any problems in their lives.

[With ketamine] they probably think that they’re going to do one ketamine session, and all of their issues are going to be solved right their PTSD is cured and they no longer experience any symptoms of anxiety, depression, etc… It’s probably a little bit overhyped in the minds of people who have only casually exposed themselves – they’re seeing an article in The New Yorker, or they’re seeing it on a blog, or someone goes on a podcast and talks about an experience. They’re not looking at it with the measured view of someone from the Johns Hopkins team or whatever. So I think that it does work in your favor….

People may overestimate the level of benefit they’re likely to achieve and it seems like the medicine is doing the work, rather than them. Even though I know that that isn’t really the case….

By the way, fun stuff from that research sprint we did with Goldenson  – the average person in our cohort (who did ultimately get therapy), put it off for over two years.

It was a pretty wide range – some people sought help after, perhaps, six weeks I think was the shortest. Nobody has a bad day or think they’re experiencing depression or experiencing dysfunction in their work life or their romantic life or whatever it is and goes straight to a therapist…

They also tend to do a fair bit of research – they research different therapeutic methods and kind of choose one that fits their personality or their values, almost more so than efficacy.

And most of the people who ended up with a stable relationship with a provider trial between two and five different folks.

Those words are from Chris York, via MR reader Milan Griffes.

Don’t mention the fake news

Even exposure to the ill-defined term “fake news” and claims about its prevalence can be harmful. In an experimental study among respondents from Mechanical Turk, Van Duyn, and Collier (2019) find that when people are exposed to tweets containing the term “fake news,” they become less able to discern real from fraudulent news stories. Similarly, Clayton et al. (2019) find that participants from Mechanical Turk who are exposed to a general warning about the prevalence of misleading information on social media then tend to rate headlines from both legitimate and untrustworthy news sources as less accurate, suggesting that the warning causes an indiscriminate form of skepticism.

That is from Brendah Nyhan’s good new JEP survey article on how misperceptions come about and persist.

Some doubts about medical ethics, and maybe that Russian vaccine is underrated

Most major questions in ethics are unsettled, though of course I have my own views, as do many other people.  I take that unsettledness as a fairly fundamental truth, I have been studying these matters for decades, and I even have several published articles in the top-ranked journal Ethics.

Now, if you take a whole group of people, give them medical licenses, teach them all more or less the same thing in graduate school, but not much other philosophy, and call it “medical ethics“…you have not actually gone much further.  Arguably you have retrogressed.

So when I hear people appeal to “medical ethics,” my intellectual warning bells go off.  To be sure, often I agree with those people, if only because I think contemporary American institutions often are not very flexible or able to execute effectively on innovations.  For instance, I didn’t think America could make a go at Robin Hanson’s variolation proposal, and so I opposed it.  “Medical ethics” seems to give the same instruction, though with less of a concrete institutional argument.

Still, the Lieutenant Colombo in me is bothered.  What about other nations?  Should we ever wish that they serve themselves up as medical ethics-violating guinea pigs, for the greater global good?

Medical ethics usually says no, or tries to avoid grappling with that question too directly.  But I wonder.

How about that Russian vaccine they will be trying in October?

To be clear, I won’t personally try it, and I don’t want the FDA to approve it for use in the United States.  But am I rooting for the Russians to try it this fall?  You betcha.  (Am I sure that is the correct ethical view?  No!  But I know the critics should not be sure either.)  I am happy to revise my views as further information comes in, but I see a good chance that  the attempt improves expected global welfare, and I think that is very often (but not always) a standard with strong and indeed decisive relevance.  And all the new results on cross-immunities imply that some pretty simple vaccines can have at least partial effectiveness.

Why exactly is “medical ethics” so sure this Russian vaccine is wrong other than that it violates “medical ethics”?  All relevant scenarios involve risk to millions of innocents, and I have not heard that Russians will be forced to take the vaccine.  The global benefits could be considerable, and I do note that the Russian vaccine scenario is the one that potentially spends down the reputational capital of various medical establishments.

Trying a not yet fully tested vaccine still seems wrong to many medical ethicists, even if the volunteers are compensated so they are better off in ex ante terms, as in some versions of Human Challenge Trials, an idea that (seemingly) has been elevated from “violating medical ethics” to a mere “problematic.”  Medical ethics claims priority over the ex ante Pareto principle, but I say we are back to the unsettled ethics questions on that one, but if anything with the truth leaning against medical ethics.

I find it especially strange when “medical ethics” is cited — often without further argumentation or explanation — on Twitter and other forms of social media as a kind of moral authority.  It then seems especially glaringly obvious that the moral consensus was never there in the first place, and that there is a gross and indeed now embarrassing unawareness of that underlying social fact.  It feels like citing Kant to the raccoon trying to claw through your roof.

I think medical ethics would not like this critique of medical ethics.  Yet I will be watching the Russian vaccine experiment closely.

Addendum: There is also biomedical ethics, but that would require a blog post of its own.  It is much more closely integrated with standard ethical philosophy, though it does not resolve any of the fundamental philosophical uncertainties.

My podcast with David Perell on “the Tyler Cowen production function”

Here goes, it is not for me to judge the quality of the result, but I can say that David is a very good interviewer.  Here are his summary notes:

Tyler ends every episode of his podcast asking about other people’s production function. How do you get so much done? What’s the secret sauce of all that you’ve accomplished? This episode is entirely devoted to that question. But this time, I’m asking Tyler. We started by talking about why there aren’t more Tyler Cowens in the world. Then, we moved to Tyler’s process for writing, such as choosing article topics and editing his work. Later in the podcast, we discussed Tyler’s process for choosing friends, why he would travel across the world to visit a new country for just ten hours, and what he’s learned from high-powered people like Peter Thiel and Patrick Collison.

I also tried to give a few deliberately “low status boasting answers,” as I call them (rather than high status airy detachment — e.g., “it is not for me to judge the quality of the result”), label it countersignaling if you wish.

Here is David on Twitter, and you can take his on-line writing classes here.

What should I ask Matt Yglesias?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, based in part on his new forthcoming book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  While I have not yet read it, I strongly expect it will be excellent.

And to be clear, this will be the conversation with Matt I want to have, not the one that you might think you wish to hear.

So what should I ask?

Another attempt to address the Fermi paradox — aestivation

According to a research paper accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, extraterrestrials are sleeping while they wait. In the paper, authors from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, and Milan Cirkovic argue that the universe is too hot right now for advanced, digital civilizations to make the most efficient use of their resources. The solution: Sleep and wait for the universe to cool down, a process known as aestivating (like hibernation but sleeping until it’s colder).

And:

The universe appears to be cooling down on its own. Over the next trillions of years, as it continues to expand and the formation of new stars slows, the background radiation will reduce to practically zero. Under those conditions, Sandberg and Cirkovic explain, this kind of artificial life would get “tremendously more done.” Tremendous isn’t an understatement, either. The researchers calculate that by employing such a strategy, they could achieve up to 1030 times more than if done today. That’s a 1 with 30 zeroes after it.

Here is the full article, via the excellent Samir Varma.

What is the future of the intellectual right?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  I suggest it will take three major forms, namely anti-China, pro-internet as a communications medium (as an offset to left-wing media), and dislike of the Left, most of all the latter.  Note these are predictions rather than normative claims about what should happen.  Here is one excerpt:

Last and perhaps most significant, the intellectual right will dislike the left. It pretty much does already, but the antagonism will grow. Opposition to political correctness and cancel culture, at least in their left-wing versions, will become the most important defining view. As my colleague Bryan Caplan succinctly put it four years ago: “Leftists are anti-market. … Rightists are anti-leftist.”

The intensity of this dislike will mean that, within right-wing circles, free speech will prosper. As long as you take care to signal your dislike of the left, you will be allowed to hold many other heterodox views without being purged or penalized.

If you are on the Left, note that it does not suffice to dislike the Right, you have to dislike most parts of the Left as well (why is that? Can you model this?).

I also consider social conservatism, libertarianism, communitarianism, and Sam’s Club Republicanism as possible alternative directions for the intellectual Right.  The entire column repays careful study.

Philosopher J. emails me about free speech and Straussianism

I won’t add extra formatting, here goes (and here is my original post):

“Nice point about a Straussian reading of the free speech letter, and the general constraints of working in groups…But I have this worry about your post. I am not myself a Straussian, but I will express the point as a way of taking further the Straussianism already in your post. Maybe this is what you intend, so that a post making a Straussian point explicit should have a kind of meta-Straussian point. But, here goes: Taking your point about working in groups, I’m worried about you saying:

  • we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic

I would think the Straussian position (in the fuller sense, not just the sense of covert or hidden) would be that working in a group, in a city (or state, country, etc.), always requires constraints — some way of encoding and reproducing enough of a common morality to make living together and coordination possible. From the position of “the philosophers” (as Straussians would say, but in this case I’m thinking of you) these may always be humorless, obnoxious, and maybe neurotic too. So why not think that the old speech regulators were equally so, just enforcing different rules? Why not think we’ve moved from rules of propriety (e.g. more censorship of sexual content, for example), to rules forbidding racism, etc.? You might then think that recent changes have broadened the openness for some kinds of speech. People I know who are interested in police violence, and remedies, report experiencing such a broadening.

An optional addition to this thought would be the idea that different sets of codes, equally and unfortunately all-too humorless, can still do better and worse judged with respect to the good, as Platonist-Straussians would say. In that sense, I would think the new humorless codes an improvement.

Granted, there is a strong strand in Straussianism that would think it just most important that there is some way for “the philosophers” to be able to have some space free of such codes to do the actually important stuff (as they see it) in ways that are not humorless, etc. But even that strand in no way holds the standard is that “the philosophers” should be freely expressing their views *publicly*! I would think that this is a pretty essential part of the point of Straussianism in the first place.

thanks as always for your work and the inspiration to think less about raising and lowering statuses, less from the perspective of Platonic thumos, as the Straussians would put it…”

TC again: More anonymity!  Hmm…

Rereading Ayn Rand on the New Left

It used to be called The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, but the later title was Return of the Primitive.  It was published in 1971, but sometimes drawn from slightly earlier essays.  I wondered if a revisit might shed light on the current day, and here is what I learned:

1. “The New Left is the product of cultural disintegration; it is bred not in the slums, but in the universities; it is not the vanguard of the future, but the terminal stage of the past.”

2. The moderates who tolerate the New Left and its anti-reality bent can be worse than the New Left itself.

3. Ayn Rand wishes to cancel the New Left, albeit peacefully.

4. “Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned.”  Ouch, it would be good to resuscitate this entire essay (on racism).

5. She fears the collapse of Europe into tribalism, racism, and balkanization.  I am not sure if I should feel better or worse about the ongoing persistence of this trope.

6. It is easy to forget that English was not her first language: “Logical Positivism carried it further and, in the name of reason, elevated the immemorial psycho-epistemology of shyster lawyers to the status of a scientific epistemological system — by proclaiming that knowledge consists of linguistic manipulations.”

6b. Kant was the first hippie.

7. The majority of people do not hate the good, although they are disgusted by…all sorts of things.

8. Like many Russian women, she is skeptical of the American brand of feminism: “As a group, American women are the most privileged females on earth: they control the wealth of the United States — through inheritance from fathers and husbands who work themselves into an early grave, struggling to provide every comfort and luxury for the bridge-playing, cocktail-party-chasing cohorts, who give them very little in return.  Women’s Lib proclaims that they should give still less, and exhorts its members to refuse to cook their husbands’ meals — with its placards commanding “Starve a rat today!””  Feminism for me, but not for thee, you could call it.

Overall I would describe this as a bracing reread.  But what struck me most of all was how much the “Old New Left” — whatever you think of it — had more metaphysical and ethical and aesthetic imagination — than the New New Left variants running around today.  As Rand takes pains to point out (to her dismay), the Old New Left did indeed have Woodstock, which in reality was not as far from the Apollo achievement as she was suggesting at the time.