Category: Philosophy

My chat with Brendan Fitzgerald Wallace

He interviewed me, here is his description: “My conversation with economist, author & podcaster Tyler Cowen covering everything from: 1) Buying Land on Mars (for real) 2) Privatizing National Parks 3) Setting up aerial highways in the sky for drone delivery 4) Buying Greenland 5) London post Brexit 6) Universal Basic Income 7) Why Los Angeles is “probably the best city in North America” 8) How real estate can combat social isolation & loneliness 9) Cyber attacks on real estate assets and national security implications. 10) The impacts, positive and negative of Climate Change, on real estate in different geographies. 11) Other esoteric stuff…..”.

Here is the conversation, held in Marina del Rey at a Fifth Wall event.

Evidence for State Capacity Libertarianism

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Using SoG, the Cato measure of size of government, instead of SGOV, the IMF measure, does not help. The correlations turn out still to be negative and statistically significant, although slightly weaker.

Let’s turn now to the alternative hypothesis that quality of government, rather than size, is what counts for prosperity and freedom. Here are those scatterplots:

This time, both relationships are positive. High quality of government is strongly associated both with greater human prosperity and greater human freedom. Furthermore, the correlations are much stronger than those for the size of government.

That is all by Ed Dolan, recommended, and by the way smaller governments are not correlated with higher quality governments.

Is there a happiness cost to being too patient?

We find that excessive patience is costly for individual well-being. This result is consistent across nine different measures of subjective well-being. Our measure of patience varies from a minimum of -1.31 to a maximum of 2.76 (this measure has standardized mean of zero and standard deviation of 1). For one of the main well-being indices, the life evaluation index, the level of patience that maximizes happiness is equal to 1.56, a numerical value similar to the one obtained using other well-being indicators.

And:

…moving from a level of patience of 1.40 corresponding to the peak in the positive experience index to the 99thpercentile in patience reduces the positive experienced index by 1.07, equivalent to 26% of the difference in happiness between those who completed college (7.16) and those with a high school diploma (3.12).

Contrary to how the language of the authors might be interpreted, this is a correlation rather than an established relationship.

The 13 pp. paper by Paola Giuliano and Paola Sapienza is too short, but interesting nonetheless.  I also would like to see a study on how the patience of parents affects the happiness of their children and grandchildren.

Scott Alexander and others on mental illness

Here is Scott’s response to Bryan Caplan’s response to Scott’s critique of Bryan’s earlier Szaszian paper on mental illness.  I can’t bring myself to do any serious recap, so I hope you care (or do I hope you don’t care?), in any case Scott serves up the links:

In 2006, Bryan Caplan wrote a critique of psychiatry. In 2015, I responded. Now it’s 2020, and Bryan has a counterargument.

Bryan rejects the concept of mental illness, believing that such individuals can be described using concepts from rational choice theory, most of all preferences and meta-preferences:

…this article argues that most mental illnesses are best modeled as extreme preferences, not constraining diseases.

Most lately, here is a snippet from Scott’s latest post:

Or what about respiratory tract infections that cause coughing? My impression is that, put a gun to my head, and I could keep myself from coughing, even when I really really felt like it. Coughing is a preference, not a constraint, and Bryan, to be consistent, would have to think of respiratory infections as just a preference for coughing…

Bryan’s preference vs. constraint model doesn’t just invalidate mental illness. It invalidates many (maybe most) physical illnesses! Even the ones it doesn’t invalidate may only get saved by some triviality we don’t care about – like how maybe you can lift less weight when you have the flu – and not by the symptoms that actually bother us.

I am fully on Scott’s side here, but I think he is being too literal in responding to Bryan’s arguments, taking on too much of Bryan’s turf.

The biggest problem with Bryan’s argument is this: let’s say you could redescribe say schizophrenia in terms of an unusual preference and other concepts from rational choice theory.  It would not follow that is all schizophrenia is.  For instance, a quick perusal of the literature shows that schizophrenic individuals may suffer from local processing deficits (moving too rapidly and too indiscriminately to global processing), working memory defects, inability to maintain attention, disorganized behavior, hypo- and hyper-excitability, excessive speculative ideation, excess receptivity to information from the right hemisphere of the brain, and delusions.

Of course that account is contested at some margins, as is typically the case in a research literature, but you get the point.  Schizophrenia could be some combination of an extreme preference, whatever else Bryan wishes to toss in, and some version of that list from the paragraph directly above.  Bryan works very hard to “rule in” his redescription of various mental illnesses, but he doesn’t and indeed cannot do much to rule out what are in fact the relevant cognitive or sometimes personality traits of the phenomenon in question.

And if you ask “Ah, what about the ‘normal’ people who claim that God is talking to them?”, well most of them have only a limited number of the features on that above list.  Some of course may in fact be schizophrenic or fall into the broader schizotypic category.  Those supposed reductios about the supposedly wacky religious people just don’t much dent the category of schizophrenia.  There might even be a correlation in the data between religious behavior and schizotypy — why not? — but the two are by no means cognitively identical.

Ask Bryan a simple question: do the individuals diagnosed as schizophrenia in fact have some combination of those traits listed above to an unusual degree?  If he answers “yes,” he has in fact conceded the argument.  If he answers “no,” he needs to counter a huge and established literature with empirics of his own, which of course he has not done.  The broader point is you cannot usually vanquish empirical categories with philosophical and methodological arguments alone.

I do partially side with Bryan only in one regard: I don’t find the term “mental illness” very useful, and very often it is misleading, or even dangerous, or used to restrict the liberties of individuals unjustly.  I very much prefer a more disaggregated approach, citing more exact information about a person’s condition, rather than applying a very general label in a manner that could end up being irresponsible.  It seems to me that a more disaggregated description is almost always possible, maybe always possible.

But you shouldn’t take that brand of skepticism as endorsing the kind of mono-conceptual straitjacket Bryan wishes to impose on this whole problem.

What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.

And:

TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.

And:

AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.

And:

AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.

And:

AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.

Excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.

The culture that was Parfit

“‘Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.’ This was the opening sentence of Derek Parfit’s philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons… However, there was a problem. Derek did not, in fact, own a cat. Nor did he wish to become a cat owner, as he would rather spend his time taking photographs and doing philosophy. On the other hand, the sentence would clearly be better if it was true. To resolve this problem Derek drew up a legal agreement with his sister, who did own a cat, to the effect that he would take legal possession of the cat while she would continue living with it.”

And this one:

Derek Parfit was famously a fast and creative thinker. He used to advise students and colleagues to set up autocomplete shortcuts on MS Word for their most commonly used phrases to boost their productivity, unaware that very few other philosophers felt that their productivity was being restricted by their typing speed. Despite this, he published sparingly. He hated to commit himself to arguments unless he was certain of them. What he did produce however were numerous, and lengthy, drafts of papers and books (at least two of which never saw the light of day) that were widely circulated amongst the philosophical community and even more voluminous comments and responses to other philosophers on how they could improve their arguments. Likening Derek to an iceberg would be mistaken. Up to 10% of an iceberg is above the waterline, whereas I doubt if even 1% of Derek’s work has ever been published. As one of his obituaries noted ‘When Derek Parfit published, it mattered!’

Here is the link, by Simon Beard, and it offers further Parfit anecdotes, via Michael Gibson.  And here is the famed Larissa MacFarquhar profile of Parfit from 2011.

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.

[laughter]

ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism

Having tracked the libertarian “movement” for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow.  One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.  For one thing, it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.  For another, smart people are on the internet, and the internet seems to encourage synthetic and eclectic views, at least among the smart and curious.  Unlike the mass culture of the 1970s, it does not tend to breed “capital L Libertarianism.”  On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.

There is also the word “classical liberal,” but what is “classical” supposed to mean that is not question-begging?  The classical liberalism of its time focused on 19th century problems — appropriate for the 19th century of course — but from WWII onwards it has been a very different ballgame.

Along the way, I believe the smart classical liberals and libertarians have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.  I define State Capacity Libertarianism in terms of a number of propositions:

1. Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due.

2. Earlier in history, a strong state was necessary to back the formation of capitalism and also to protect individual rights (do read Koyama and Johnson on state capacity).  Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets.  This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet.  (If you’ve read my other works, you will know this is not a call for massive regulation of Big Tech.)

3. A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state.  A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties, in many cases its #1 duty.

4. Rapid increases in state capacity can be very dangerous (earlier Japan, Germany), but high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.  Denmark should in fact have a smaller government, but it is still one of the freer and more secure places in the world, at least for Danish citizens albeit not for everybody.

5. Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending.  Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality.  I favor much more immigration, nonetheless I think our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either.

Those problems require state capacity — albeit to boost markets — in a way that classical libertarianism is poorly suited to deal with.  Furthermore, libertarianism is parasitic upon State Capacity Libertarianism to some degree.  For instance, even if you favor education privatization, in the shorter run we still need to make the current system much better.  That would even make privatization easier, if that is your goal.

6. I will cite again the philosophical framework of my book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

7. The fundamental growth experience of recent decades has been the rise of capitalism, markets, and high living standards in East Asia, and State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem or embarrassment in endorsing those developments.  It remains the case that such progress (or better) could have been made with more markets and less government.  Still, state capacity had to grow in those countries and indeed it did.  Public health improvements are another major success story of our time, and those have relied heavily on state capacity — let’s just admit it.

8. The major problem areas of our time have been Africa and South Asia.  They are both lacking in markets and also in state capacity.

9. State Capacity Libertarians are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.  Modern Democrats often claim to favor those items, and sincerely in my view, but de facto they are very willing to sacrifice them for redistribution, egalitarian and fairness concerns, mood affiliation, and serving traditional Democratic interest groups.  For instance, modern Democrats have run New York for some time now, and they’ve done a terrible job building and fixing things.  Nor are Democrats doing much to boost nuclear power as a partial solution to climate change, if anything the contrary.

10. State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem endorsing higher quality government and governance, whereas traditional libertarianism is more likely to embrace or at least be wishy-washy toward small, corrupt regimes, due to some of the residual liberties they leave behind.

11. State Capacity Libertarianism is not non-interventionist in foreign policy, as it believes in strong alliances with other relatively free nations, when feasible.  That said, the usual libertarian “problems of intervention because government makes a lot of mistakes” bar still should be applied to specific military actions.  But the alliances can be hugely beneficial, as illustrated by much of 20th century foreign policy and today much of Asia — which still relies on Pax Americana.

It is interesting to contrast State Capacity Libertarianism to liberaltarianism, another offshoot of libertarianism.  On most substantive issues, the liberaltarians might be very close to State Capacity Libertarians.  But emphasis and focus really matter, and I would offer this (partial) list of differences:

a. The liberaltarian starts by assuring “the left” that they favor lots of government transfer programs.  The State Capacity Libertarian recognizes that demands of mercy are never ending, that economic growth can benefit people more than transfers, and, within the governmental sphere, it is willing to emphasize an analytical, “cold-hearted” comparison between government discretionary spending and transfer spending.  Discretionary spending might well win out at many margins.

b. The “polarizing Left” is explicitly opposed to a lot of capitalism, and de facto standing in opposition to state capacity, due to the polarization, which tends to thwart problem-solving.  The polarizing Left is thus a bigger villain for State Capacity Libertarianism than it is for liberaltarianism.  For the liberaltarians, temporary alliances with the polarizing Left are possible because both oppose Trump and other bad elements of the right wing.  It is easy — maybe too easy — to market liberaltarianism to the Left as a critique and revision of libertarians and conservatives.

c. Liberaltarian Will Wilkinson made the mistake of expressing enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren.  It is hard to imagine a State Capacity Libertarian making this same mistake, since so much of Warren’s energy is directed toward tearing down American business.  Ban fracking? Really?  Send money to Russia, Saudi Arabia, lose American jobs, and make climate change worse, all at the same time?  Nope.

d. State Capacity Libertarianism is more likely to make a mistake of say endorsing high-speed rail from LA to Sf (if indeed that is a mistake), and decrying the ability of U.S. governments to get such a thing done.  “Which mistakes they are most likely to commit” is an underrated way of assessing political philosophies.

You will note the influence of Peter Thiel on State Capacity Libertarianism, though I have never heard him frame the issues in this way.

Furthermore, “which ideas survive well in internet debate” has been an important filter on the evolution of the doctrine.  That point is under-discussed, for all sorts of issues, and it may get a blog post of its own.

Here is my earlier essay on the paradox of libertarianism, relevant for background.

Happy New Year everyone!

What to think about Modi these days

Ian Bremmer offers one account of all the wrongdoing, which I will not summarize here.  In any case, many of you have asked me what I think of these recent events.

I do not at all favor replacing India’s secular democracy with “Hindu nation” as a ruling principle.  For one thing, I believe in strong libertarian protections for minority rights against state power, including for Muslims.  I also believe these moves will be bad for India’s economy.  Nonetheless I find most of the extant commentary on Modi fairly misleading and/or naive.

As this outsider sees it, India’s secular democracy was never liberal.  It had certain de facto liberal elements, but largely out of low levels of state capacity, necessitating a kind of tolerance but of course also leading to a very sub-par infrastructure.  Furthermore, it has been commonly described by political scientists as a “democracy without accountability.”  National voting has so much to do with religion, caste, and other particularistic principles that Indian democracy never enforced superior practical performance as it should have.

Then enter several forces at more or less the same time, including Modi, ongoing Indian economic growth, higher expectations and thus greater demands for state capacity, a rise in what is called “populism,” and also an increase in the focality of Islam and also terrorism around the world.

In essence that state capacity starts to be built and part of it is turned to wrong ends, in an attempt to appeal to the roughly 80 percent Hindu majority.  Here is the NYT:

The Modi administration has also done a better job than previous governments in pushing big anti-poverty initiatives, such as building 100 million toilets to help stop open defecation and the spread of deadly disease.

In other words, the positive and negative sides of the story here may be more closely related than is comfortable to contemplate.  The picture reminds me a bit of how parts of Renaissance Europe were often more anti-Semitic or racist than medieval Europe, in part because persecuting states had more resources and it was easier to mobilize intolerant sentiment, partly due to the printing press.  I don’t however idolize medieval times as being so libertarian, rather the earlier ideology contained the seeds of the Renaissance oppressions, which in time turned into foreign imperialism as well.

Similarly, oppression and religious conflict is hardly news in India, for instance you may recall the Partition which in the 1940s killed at least one million people and displaced at least 10 million more.

None of this is to excuse any of these oppressions, whether in India or elsewhere.  The libertarian rights still ought to apply, and should be written into the Indian constitution and laws more firmly.

(It is an interesting and much under-discussed result that the greatest violations of libertarian rights tend to come in periods of high delta in state capacity, not high absolute levels of state capacity per se.  The Nazi government was not that large as a percentage of gdp, but it was growing rapidly in terms of its efficacy along certain dimensions.)

The moral and resonant message here is “libertarian rights for minorities truly are important and beware state power!”  And somehow we need to think strategically, at a deep level, how that message can be combined with the inevitable and indeed desirable growth in Indian state capacity.  The libertarians only make this their issue by eliding the need for growth in state capacity.  So they moralize correctly about the situation, but they don’t see the underlying dilemma so clearly either.

Consider this NYT passage:

“Modi is not a normal politician who measures his success only by votes,” said Kanchan Chandra, a political scientist at New York University. “He sees himself as the architect of a new India, built on a foundation of technological, cultural, economic and military prowess, and backed by an ideology of Hindu nationalism.”

The real question here is — still mostly unanswered — “what else is the new ideology of state capacity supposed to be?”  I am happy to put in my vote for Anglo-American liberalism, but still I recognize that probably will not command either a majority or even a plurality.

Here is one proffered alternative to Modi:

“Rahul Gandhi felt people would support the Congress on issues of farmers, youth, employment, inflation. But, the core issues were left behind and surgical strikes and nationalism were highlighted. The Congress was dubbed a Muslim party. Aren’t we nationalists?” Gehlot asked.

I am not so impressed.  Or try this discussion “What is alternative to ‘Modi cult'”.  Again, on the ideas front underwhelming, at least for this classical liberal.  Maybe something good can come out of the current protest movement (NYT).

All the more, the “establishment media” just isn’t interested in framing the story in terms of individual rights and constraints on democracy.  That narrative is too…well…libertarian and also anti-statist.

For one example, blame either Nilinjana Roy or the person who titled her FT column “Democracy in India is on the brink.”  Last I checked, Modi was elected, then re-elected, and his party and its allies control almost 2/3 of the lower house.  That is truly an Orwellian column title.  It should not be so hard to write “The problem with Modi is the statism, and lack of respect for minority rights, sadly this is democratically certified and thus democracy requires real constitutional constraint of the powers of the government.”  But so many people today are mentally and emotionally incapable of thinking and writing such thoughts, having spent so much time in their mood affiliation glorifying “democracy” (or what they take to be democracy) above all other values.

So we should be spending our time developing and publicizing a new (non-Modi) ideology for greater state capacity in India, combined of course with greater liberty.

And yes, please do restore, redefine, re-enforce or in some cases discover all of the required minority libertarian rights.  Hundreds of millions of Indians and others are counting on it.

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

Charles Murray’s *Human Diversity*

His new book is coming out in January, and the subtitle is The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. I will get to the details shortly, but my bottom-line review is “Not as controversial as you might think,” but do note the normalization at the end of that phrase.

Here is one bit from p.294 toward the end of the book:

Nothing we are going to learn will diminish our common humanity.  Nothing we learn will justify rank-ordering human groups from superior to inferior — the bundles of qualities that make us human are far too complicated for that.  Nothing we learn will lend itself to genetic determinism.  We live our lives with an abundance of unpredictability, both genetic and environmental.

Most of the book defends ten key propositions, laid out on pp.7-8.  The first four of those propositions concern differences between men and women (“Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide…”) and I do not find those controversial, so I will not cover them.  The chapters on those propositions provide a good survey of the evidence, and a good answer to the denialists, though I doubt if Murray is the right person to win them over.  Let’s now turn to the other propositions, with my commentary along the way:

5. Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity.

True, but Murray’s analysis did not push me beyond the usual citations of lactose intolerance, sickle cell anemia, adaptation to high altitudes, and the like.  That said, pp.190-195 offer a very dense discussion of target alleles for various traits, such as schizophrenia, and how those target alleles vary across different groups.  I found those pages difficult to follow, and also wished that discussion had been fifty pages rather than five.  Toward the end of that discussion, Murray does write (p.194): “…proof of the role of natural selection for many genetic differences will remain unobservable without methodological breakthroughs.”  With that I definitely agree.

On p.195 he adds “It is implausible to expect that none of the imbalances will yield evidence of significant genetic differences related to phenotypic differences across continental populations.”  That returns to my core point about this book not shifting my priors.  You could agree with that sentence (noting the ambiguity in the word “significant”) and still have a quite modest vision of what those differences might mean.  In any case, nothing in the book pushes me beyond that sentence in the direction of the geneticists.

And here the contrast with the chapters on men and women becomes (unintentionally?) glaring: those biological differences are relatively easy to demonstrate, so perhaps hard-to-demonstrate biological differences are not so significant.  That too is just a conjecture, but there are multiple ways to play the “absence of evidence” and “how to interpret the residuals” cards, and I wish those had received a more extensive philosophy of science-like discussion.

Now let’s move to the next proposition:

6. Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.

That one strikes me as a miswording or misstatement, though I do not see that it corresponds to any actual mistakes in the broader text.  You might think that general, non-local evolutionary selection for all humans has been quite large over the millennia, relative to local selection.  I genuinely do not know the ratio here, but Murray does not seem to address the actual comparison of “across all human groups” vs. “local” as loci of selection pressures.

Next up:

7. Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.

Clearly true, but note this proposition does not claim biological roots for those differences.  The real question comes in the next proposition:

8. The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personalities, abilities, and social behavior.

Here I have what I think is a major disagreement with Murray.  If he means the term “shared environment” in the narrow sense used by say twin studies, he is probably correct.  But in the more literal, Webster-derived conception of “shared environment” I very much disagree.  Culture is a truly major shaper of our personalities, abilities, and social behavior, and self-evidently so. For my taste the book did not contain nearly enough discussion of culture and in fact there is virtually no discussion of the concept or its power, as a look at the index will verify.  The real lesson of “twins studies plus anthropology” is that you have to control almost all of a person’s environment to have a major impact, but a major impact indeed can be had.  I behave very differently than my Irish potato famine ancestors, and not because I am genetically 1/8 from the Madeira Islands.  That said, within the narrower range of environmental variation measured in twins studies…well those studies seem to be fairly accurate.

9. Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.

Correct as stated, but I see those differences as much less genetic than Murray does.  For instance, IQ is to some extent heritable, but how much does that shape economic outcomes?  It is worth turning to Murray’s discussion on p.232 and the associated footnote 17 (pp.428-429).  His main source is what is to me a flawed meta-study on IQ and job performance (Murray to his credit does also cite the best-known critique of such studies).  I would opt more directly for the labor market literature on IQ and individual earnings, based on actual measured wages, which shows fairly modest correlations between IQ and earnings (read here, here and here).  So, at the very least, the inherited IQ-based permanent stratification version of The Bell Curve argument is much more compelling to Murray than it is to me.

10. Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior.

Clearly this is literally true, if only because of the meaning of “constrained.”  But mostly I would repeat my remarks on culture from #8.  Cultures change, and over time they are likely to change a great deal.  For instance, early in the 20th century, Korea, Japan, and China often were described as low work ethic cultures.  As cultures change, in turn those cultures can shape the personalities, abilities, and social behaviors of subsequent generations, in significant ways albeit constrained.  So while Murray is correct as stated, I believe I would disagree with his intended substantive point about the weight of relative forces.

Overall this is a serious and well-written book that presents a great deal of scientific evidence very effectively.  Anyone reading it will learn a lot.  But it didn’t change my mind on much, least of all the most controversial questions in this area.  If anything, in the Bayesian sense it probably nudged me away from geneticist-based arguments, simply because it did not push me any further towards them.

Murray of course will write the book he wants to, but my personal wish list was two-fold: a) a book leaving most of the normal science behind, and focusing only on the uncertain and controversial frontier issues, in great detail, and b) much more discussion of the import of culture.

Most of all, I am happy that America’s culture of achievement is inducing Murray to continue to produce major works at the age of 76, soon to be 77.

You can pre-order here.

Social science explanations don’t usually require so much intentionality

“What will you do to stay weird?”  Ah, how many people responded with claims like:

No offense, but I think if you’re doing a lot of these things consciously and for the expressed purpose of being weird or differentiating yourself from those around you, you’re just a poseur. Truly weird people don’t have to come up with lists like this about how to be weird; they just follow their preferences.

But it’s not about intentionality.  Take one of today’s MR stories, namely that universities are tracking the locations of college students to make sure they come to class.  That is bad for the weird!  So if you are weird, and you like to cut out on class and read Gwern instead (recommended), maybe you shouldn’t go to a school like that.

Going to those schools might be bad for you.  Going to those schools might make you less weird.  But you don’t have to sit around thinking “I’m going to try to look really weird, as if I were getting a bizarre tattoo, by refusing to attend schools with surveillance.”  No, you need only to say “I love Gwern more than class!”  And then think through the means-end relationship of how to keep the weird stuff flowing to the weird you.

Thus refusing admission at such schools is part of how you stay weird.  But it need not have any element of poseur, artificiality, or deliberate image construction.  What you want is to read Gwern instead of attending class, which indeed is weird (and good).  At the same time, without artificiality you still to think through ends-means relationships, so you don’t end up stuck in class all day.  And thus it is worth thinking about how to keep your freedom to be weird, poseur-free at that.

Thinking that social science explanations require more intentionality than in fact they do is one of the classic mistakes of internet comments.

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.