Category: Philosophy

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Those new service sector jobs is this one in fact torture?

Imagine: For the rest of your life, you are assigned no tasks at work. You can watch movies, read books, work on creative projects or just sleep. In fact, the only thing that you have to do is clock in and out every day. Since the position is permanent, you’ll never need to worry about getting another job again.

Starting in 2026, this will be one lucky (or extremely bored) worker’s everyday reality, thanks to a government-funded conceptual art project in Gothenburg, Sweden. The employee in question will report to Korsvägen, a train station under construction in the city, and will receive a salary of about $2,320 a month in U.S. dollars, plus annual wage increases, vacation time off and a pension for retirement. While the artists behind the project won’t be taking applications until 2025, when the station will be closer to opening, a draft of the help-wanted ad is already available online, as Atlas Obscura reported on Monday.

The job’s requirements couldn’t be simpler: An employee shows up to the train station each morning and punches the time clock. That, in turn, illuminates an extra bank of fluorescent lights over the platform, letting travelers and commuters know that the otherwise functionless employee is on the job. At the end of the day, the worker returns to clock out, and the lights go off. In between, they can do whatever they want, aside from work at another paying job.

That is by Antonia Noori Farzan at WaPo.  The project is called “Eternal Employment.”

For the pointer I thank Peter Sperry.

Toward a theory of random, concentrated breakthroughs

I don’t (yet?) agree with what is to follow, but it is a model of the world I have been trying to flesh out, if only for the sake of curiosity.  Here are the main premises:

1. For a big breakthrough in some area to come, many different favorable inputs had to come together.  So the Florentine Renaissance required the discovery of the right artistic materials at the right time (e.g., good tempera, then oil paint), prosperity in Florence, guilds and nobles interested in competing for status with artistic commissions, relative freedom of expression, and so on.

2. To some extent, but not completely, the arrival of those varied inputs is random.  Big breakthroughs are thus hard to predict and also hard to control.

3. A breakthrough in one area increases the likelihood that further breakthroughs will come in closely related areas.  So if the coming together of the symphony orchestra leads to the work of Mozart and Haydn, that in turn becomes an inspiration and eases the path for later breakthroughs in music, not just Mahler but also The Beatles, compared to say how much it might ease future breakthroughs for painting.

4. Some breakthroughs are very very good for economic growth, such as the Industrial Revolution.  But most breakthroughs do not in any direct way boost gdp very much.  The Axial age led to the creation of significant religions and intellectual traditions, but the (complex) effects on gdp are mostly lagged and were certainly hard to see at the time.

5. Even if Robert Gordon is right that we will never have a new period of material progress comparable to the early 20th century for improving living standards, the next breakthrough eras still might be very important.

6. One possibility is that the next breakthrough will be some form of brain engineering.  People might be much happier and better adjusted, but arguably that could lower measured gdp by boosting “household production” in lieu of market activity.  At the very least, gdp figures may not reflect the value of those gains.

7. Another candidate for the next breakthrough would be institutional changes that make ongoing international peace much more likely.  That would have some positive effects on gdp in the short run, but its major effects would be in the much longer run, namely the prevention of a very destructive war.

8. Judged by the standards of the last breakthrough, the current/next breakthrough is typically hard to see and understand.  It almost always feels like we are failing at progress.

9. When a breakthrough comes, you need to ride it for all it is worth.  Arguably you also should embrace the excesses of that breakthrough, not seek to limit them.  It is perhaps your only real chance to mine that mother lode of inspiration.  So let us hope that Baroque music was “overproduced” in the early to mid 18th century, because after that production opportunities go away.  For that reason, “overuse” of the internet and social media today may not be such a bad thing.  It is our primary way of exploring all of the potential of that cultural mode, and that mode will at some point be tamed and neutered, just as Baroque music composition is now dormant.

10. Progress in (many forms of) science may be more like progress in Baroque music composition than we comfortably like to think.  But I hope not.

My Conversation with Sam Altman

Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI.  We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent.  Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is one excerpt:

ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.

Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.

We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”

Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.

And:

COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.

ALTMAN: I might not.

COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?

ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.

COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?

And:

COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?

ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?

COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.

ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.

Definitely recommended.

What is the real problem with social media? And how should we respond?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who is also a Nobel laureate in economics, has written and co-written a number of papers on happiness in which he distinguishes between enjoying the moment and having an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life. As it turns out, these two variables often diverge quite dramatically…

My tentative conclusion from all this: Online life is inducing us to invest less in our memories and long-term sense of satisfaction. It is pretty obvious from human behavior that, right now, the internet is doing more to boost short-term pleasures.

The more negative take would be that online life is obscuring our understanding of our own lives. I do not go that far. After all, humans make analogous choices about balancing short- and long-term happiness when they have one child rather than four, or when they sit on an exercise bike rather than get on a plane to Paris. Those aren’t the wrong decisions for everybody.

The solutions include pro-natalism and more travel:

There is so much talk about regulating or controlling the internet. Dare I suggest an alternative approach? Use public policy to help shift the balance of ease back toward life satisfaction and the formation of longer-term memories. Make it cheaper and easier to have and raise children. Use the education system to support more study trips abroad. Think about how to ease the pursuit of long-term life satisfaction.

There are plenty of human imperfections behind our online choices. As we respond, why not accentuate the positive — and keep the freedom to choose?

There is much more at the link, please do read the whole thing.

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

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

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

What should I ask Emily R. Wilson?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, no associated public event.  She is the translator of a splendid and highly readable Homer’s Odyssey, which I named as the very best book of the year for last year.  She is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a classicist, a Seneca scholar, and an all-around very smart person.  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask her?

Steven Pinker on slavery and the Enlightenment

Here is his Quillette response to critics.  Here is one of his arguments, one where I do not find the framing so convincing:

Slaves were always the most desirable spoils of conquest, and anyone who has been to a Passover seder or seen the movie Spartacus knows that slavery was not invented in 18th century Europe or America. Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition…

As the historian Katie Kelaidis put it in The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics, “Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity, but no one—not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates—considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment was not the inventor of slavery, but it was the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave.”

This strikes me as a classic case of mood affiliation: “we must have a positive mood toward the Enlightenment!”  And perhaps we must. But what is wrong with this alternative formulation?:

“Early modern Europe, including its later manifestation of the Enlightenment, brought great benefits to the world.  Part of those benefits involved enhanced capacities.  Some of those enhanced capacities were used to do great evil, such as to capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale.  The extermination of many indigenous groups could be added to that ledger too.  Therefore we should beware of greater capacities, because even when they bring significant good, they also can carry great evils.”

More accurate than Pinker, but it also invokes a more complicated mood toward progress.

I would note also that so many of the most radical abolitionists, including in Britain, were Christians.  It is fine to consider them part of the Enlightenment as well, but still to describe the Enlightenment as “the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave” seems off-base to me.  The 16th century Spanish Salamancans — theologians I might add — strongly opposed slavery well before the Enlightenment.  To call the Salamancans themselves “proto Enlightenment” is perhaps not wrong, but also has a tautological element if such a move is being used to defend the primacy of the Enlightenment (otherwise identified by Pinker as originating in the 18th century) in this regard.

It is also worth a query of the Pinker passage “Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition…”  First, you can hold a properly mixed opinion about this whole matter without “blaming the Enlightenment for slavery.”  (Most of all I would blame the slave capturers, traders, and owners.)  Second, “particularly ludicrous” is too often the mark of an under-argued claim, beware such rhetoric.  Third, so many of America’s greatest Enlightenment figures were themselves slaveholders or at least slavery defenders or tolerators.  I don’t mean to suggest any simple “blame the Enlightenment” approach here, but surely that is worth a mention and discussion?  Finally, the Enlightenment in America is well up and running by 1765, and slavery lasts for a full century more?  More yet in Brazil.  Maybe that is worth a bit of discussion too?

I am very much an admirer of Pinker and his work, and I consider myself an optimist, especially across longer time frames.  But what is sometimes called progress does also have a dark side, and we will do better fighting that dark side if we are clearer — in our own minds and with each other — on how things have run to date.

*Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism*

That is the new book by University of Maryland philosopher Dan Moller, and it is one of the most sensible expositions and defenses of libertarianism you will find.  Here is from the Amazon summary:

In this major new defense of libertarianism, Dan Moller urges that critics and supporters alike have neglected the strongest arguments for the theory. It is often assumed that libertarianism depends on thinking that property rights are absolute, or on fetishizing individual liberty. Moller argues that, on the contrary, the foundations of libertarianism can be found in widely shared, everyday moral beliefs-particularly in strictures against shifting our burdens onto others. The core of libertarianism, on this interpretation, lies not in an exaggerated sense of our rights against other people, but in modesty about what we can demand from them.

The book then connects these philosophical arguments with related work in economics, history, and politics. The result is a wide-ranging discussion in the classical liberal tradition that defies narrow academic specialization. Among the questions Moller addresses are how to think about private property in a service economy, whether libertarians should support reparations for slavery, what the history of capitalism tells us about free markets, and what role political correctness plays in shaping policy debates.

I have just started this book, but am already happy to recommend it.  Can I ask for a Mid-Atlantic libertarianism however?

My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.

And:

COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

Some thoughts on second chances in the #MeToo era

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

Whether we like it or not, as the list of wrongdoers grows, questions of forgiveness will begin to outnumber questions of punishment. The thing is, questions of forgiveness are never entirely easy.

Much Christian doctrine, and especially Catholicism, emphasizes the value of confession, forgiveness and redemption. Thus it is not hard to convince many Americans that sinners should be given a second chance. This impulse occasionally finds its way into policy; just last month, a prison-reform bill became law, reflecting notions that criminals can indeed be rehabilitated. In her book “The Up Side of Down,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle stresses how many features of American life, including bankruptcy law and startup culture, depend on second, third or even more chances…

The more delicate truth is that, in the context of the #MeToo movement, forgiveness carries great dangers. I am not referring to those asking for it; rather, I am talking about those in a position to offer it. The survivors of such abuse often feel shame, guilt and a loss of confidence and self-esteem. It is very costly, both psychologically and practically, for such individuals to step forward and levy charges. An emphasis on forgiveness could reinforce victims’ tendencies to bury the crimes and wrongdoings.

And:

The result is a set of conflicting and probably irreconcilable values. America believes in equal treatment before the law. But America’s increasingly powerful system of social pressures and sanctions does not provide for equal treatment.

Do read the whole thing, which also considers both John Lennon and Picasso.

My *Stubborn Attachments* essay for Cato Unbound

Here it is, here is one excerpt:

The classics of political philosophy deal with wealth and economic growth awkwardly at best. John Rawls, in his Theory of Justice and elsewhere, was suspicious of economic growth outright. Rawls feared that the savings rate of the first generation would lead to deprivation, and a diminishment of the well-being of the worst-off group (that first generation), and so he toyed with John Stuart Mill’s idea of the stationary state. Robert Nozick evinced a good understanding of markets in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but still he focused on individual libertarian rights as an underpinning for a free society. Like Nozick, I believe in individual rights, but I don’t think they settle most questions, and I don’t find modest levels of taxation under democratic conditions to be morally problematic.

In part I wrote Stubborn Attachments to respond to Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, first published in 1984. In that wonderful book, Parfit wondered whether consequentialist reasoning could in fact produce coherent recommendations, for either individuals or societies. Yet there is no talk in Reasons and Persons of economic growth, or how a much better future might help resolve aggregation problems. Nonetheless Parfit did produce an important appendix on why the social discount rate should be zero, and you can think of Stubborn Attachments as trying to think through the broader implications of that argument.

And:

You should always ask what are the weakest points of any book, including this one. For me, it is the fear that progress has a mean-reverting character and that improvements end up as temporary rather than sustainable. In that case, the idea of enduring benefits would be an illusion, and even if pursuing such benefits were a good recommendation we might end up with the empty set in terms of policy recommendations. Historical pessimism would trump my recommendations, and we would be devoting our energies to the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Furthermore, Stubborn Attachments gives little guidance on how to offset the claims of humans versus the claims of nature. The benefits of economic growth are specified for human beings, and it is less clear that such economic growth is good for the animal kingdom as a whole, given the encroachments of humans and also the tortures of factory farming. If it is any consolation, however, I don’t think other philosophers have solved that problem either. Utilitarians, for instance, offer no plausible guidelines for weighting the well-being of non-human animals versus the well-being of humans, nor have they shown how it might be feasible to follow such guidelines.

Philosophical critiques will be forthcoming, so stay tuned!