Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with David Salle

I was honored to visit his home and painting studio, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

David joined Tyler to discuss the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.

And excerpt:

COWEN: Yes, but just to be very concrete, let’s say someone asks you, “I want to take one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” And they are a smart, highly educated person, but have not spent much time in the art world. What should they actually do other than look at art, on the reading level?

SALLE: On the reading level? Oh God, Tyler, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to come back with an answer in a few minutes. I’m not sure there’s anything concretely to do on the reading level. There probably is — just not coming to mind.

There’s Henry Geldzahler, who wrote a book very late in his life, at the end of his life. I can’t remember the title, but he addresses the problem of something which is almost a taboo — how do you acquire taste? — which is, in a sense, what we’re talking about. It’s something one can’t even speak about in polite society among art historians or art critics.

Taste is considered to be something not worth discussing. It’s simply, we’re all above that. Taste is, in a sense, something that has to do with Hallmark greeting cards — but it’s not true. Taste is what we have to work with. It’s a way of describing human experience.

Henry, who was the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was a wonderful guy and a wonderful raconteur. Henry basically answers your question: find ways, start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

And:

COWEN: As you know, the 17th century in European painting is a quite special time. You have Velásquez, you have Rubens, you have Bruegel, much, much more. And there are so many talented painters today. Why can they not paint in that style anymore? Or can they? What stops them?

SALLE: Artists are trained in such a vastly different way than in the 17th, 18th, or even the 19th century. We didn’t have the training. We’re not trained in an apprentice guild situation where the apprenticeship starts very early in life, and people who exhibit talent in drawing or painting are moved on to the next level.

Today painters are trained in professional art schools. People reach school at the normal age — 18, 20, 22, something in grad school, and then they’re in a big hurry. If it’s something you can’t master or show proficiency in quickly, let’s just drop it and move on.

There are other reasons as well, cultural reasons. For many years or decades, painting in, let’s say, the style of Velásquez or even the style of Manet — what would have been the reason for it? What would have been the motivation for it, even assuming that one could do it? Modernism, from whenever we date it, from 1900 to 1990, was such a persuasive argument. It was such an inclusive and exciting and dynamic argument that what possibly could have been the reason to want to take a step back 200 years in history and paint like an earlier painter?

It is a bit slow at the very beginning, otherwise excellent throughout.

Don’t overpredict a negative future

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

A second question would be whether there is evidence to support the contention that Americans have become more negative overall. I am doubtful. Do fans of the Boston Red Sox hate the New York Yankees more than they used to? It’s not obvious that the answer is yes. What about animosity between, say, Protestants and Catholics? That’s probably a good deal weaker. There is almost certainly less homophobia, too, in addition to many other forms of prejudice. There are other indicators of progress; the surge in the number of Americans starting new businesses, for example, is hardly a sign of pessimism.

And:

The good news is that shifts in national moods come relatively frequently, and they are difficult to forecast. In the 1990s, for instance, few people forecast our current predicament of such an extreme polarized emotional opposition. Negative moods do not necessarily feed upon each other and become worse, as shown by the broader currents of history. Civilization has been around for thousands of years, and the U.S. for a few hundred years, in both cases with many ups and downs. If negative moods inevitably lead to nothing more than further collapse or destruction, it is hard to see how we would have come so far.

It is even possible that national moods are characterized by mean-reversion — namely, that negative moods tend to turn more positive, and vice versa. That would imply we could look forward to better moods ahead. That is hardly gospel, but I haven’t seen anyone with a better theory.

And:

So, to sum up a few of the basic facts under this worldview: Americans are more negative and more oppositional in some important ways, especially around politics. This is not a good development. Yet — especially when you look beyond politics — the national mood is by no means entirely sour or hopeless. National moods also change frequently, and in unpredictable ways. There will be many positive developments in coming decades, most of all in biotechnology.

The negativity, in other words, is contained, and it could change swiftly and without notice. I don’t know about you, but I find this outlook liberating — or even, dare I say, a reason for some modest optimism.

The mention of MR commentators, however, is behind the paywall.

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

My podcast with philosopher Jimmy Alfonso Licon

Somewhat less than an hour, here is his summary of our chat:

Prof. Cowen and I had a wide ranging interview on topics ranging from whether economic growth is a moral imperative, UFOs are extraterrestrials, rent seeking is a drain on the economy, things like Plato, pumpkin spice, and the Founding Fathers are overrated, why we should (or shouldn’t) care about chess, and how to think about failure, among other topics.

I am pleased to have Jimmy visiting at George Mason this year.  Here is Jimmy’s home page and publications, note he is on the job market this year.

Servers are masked, the elites are unmasked

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

Even if the attendees are wearing masks at the beginning, the masks come off once they start wining and dining — and they usually don’t go back on. Isn’t this a sign that mask-wearing is no longer so essential? At the very least, it sends a mixed message: If you want to be comfortable eating and drinking with your peers, it’s OK to take off your mask — but it’s not OK if you want to be comfortable serving food, carrying heavy trays and describing the dessert menu…

By now everyone must realize just how selective the enforcement of mask rules can be. If those same employees are drinking or eating together in the back room, their masks are off and everyone is fine with that. All of a sudden, the possibility of spreading a Covid infection is not such a big deal.

And:

Many public health intellectuals and pundits may be uncomfortable with mask apartheid. But they have so strongly promoted the mask-wearing norm it is hard for them to object. They could argue that the elite guests should be required to wear their masks before and after the food and drinks are served, or even between bites, but at this point such a recommendation would be ignored.

If you read the whole piece, some of my readers will notice I am actually presenting one of the versions of Sen’s Paretian Liberal Paradox.

From my email

You sometimes draw attention to lookism––that is, discrimination based on a person’s physical attractiveness. I would say discussion of this form of discrimination is more taboo than others because of how deeply entangled it is with our intuitive perceptions of each other. And thus, that it is harder to overcome than other forms of prejudice. But I would like to suggest an even more subtle and intractable form of discrimination yet: interesting-ism. Have you ever considered how individuals and society discriminate against the boring and the mediocre? Have you ever considered that the more discriminating one’s taste, intelligence, and eye for talent is, the more one is apt to dismiss most people? Would you agree the most degrading slur you can receive in our culture is: “you’re boring”?
— Anonymous

A few observations on my latest podcast with Amia Srinivasan

I am reluctant to do this, as I have never offered ex post commentary on a Conversations with Tyler before.  It seems unfair to the guest (who may or may not have comparable platforms), and perhaps it is the guest who deserves the last word?  Still, I think I can at least try to clear up a few misunderstandings about the episode, as I see a number of important points at stake here.  So here goes, with some trepidation:

1. The number, frequency, and extremity of reactions to the episode, both on Twitter and in the MR comments section, I think shows that women simply have a much, much tougher time in the public sphere.  There is a much smaller intellectual and emotional space they are allowed to inhabit comfortably and without condemnation or excess judgment.  Had the episode been with a man, and had been comprised of the exact same words, it would not have received nearly the same attention or criticism.  But people don’t like women who argue back.  I realize that is a kind of cliche, but it is largely true.

In this regard, even if you largely disagree with Amia Srinivasan, you should take the strength of the reaction to the episode as a sign she might have a valid point after all.

And to put it bluntly, if said female guest plausibly can be perceived as attractive, the reaction will be all the more disproportionate.

2. Some listeners are teed off about “disabled individuals” vs. “disabled men.”  I’ve committed numerous tongue and memory slips in my time, and they are hardly ever pointed out.  Now you might be upset that she insisted I said “men” (when I didn’t), but in fact my interior monologue at the time was something like this: “We all know this is mostly about men.  But if I just say “men,” she will react to that word and drive the conversation in a different direction.  So I will say “individuals.””  Maybe she gets points for insight?

3. If I challenge a guest directly, it is typically a sign of intellectual respect for said guest or person (just ask Bryan Caplan, though perhaps by this point he has suffered too much?).  And if the guest comes back at me forcefully, I usually (and consistently) take that as a sign of respect.  If I don’t seem frustrated, it is because I am not.

4. If a guest challenges my questions (or indeed anyone’s questions) for having sexist premises, I don’t consider this an illegitimate response.  I may or may not agree, but I don’t think it should upset me (or you).  I think a lot of people’s questions have for instance highly statist or collectivist premises (and should not).  I may or may not be right, but surely that too is a response deserving of consideration, should I decide to raise it.

5. To be fully forthright, if you wish to hear my “negative take” on her responses, I don’t think she was very good at handling empirical evidence in the context of a discussion, and furthermore this is a major shortcoming.  I find this to be common amongst philosophers, if I may be allowed to continue my moment of condescension.  I also had the feeling she is not challenged sufficiently often with said evidence, and that may partly be the fault of Oxford.  This is exactly the point where I feel bad/uncertain offering ex post commentary on the episode, but still leaving off this opinion would not be offering my honest assessment of what happened.

6. I have studied her work carefully, including reading her doctoral dissertation and some undergraduate work, and I then and still now fully believe she will be one of the more important philosophers over the next few decades.  As I mentioned before, super-impressive in terms of combining intellect, depth, breadth, determination, and relevance, plus has the all-important “willing to put oneself out there.”  And if you don’t trust me as talent-spotter, dare I point out that Oxford University has a not too shabby history choosing and developing philosophical talent?  But to return a bit to boasting, I think my relatively strong ability to differentiate emotional response from the talent judgment is in fact one reason to trust my talent judgments.

7. You have to learn to learn from people who bother, annoy, or frustrate you.  If you do, they will not in fact bother, annoy, or frustrate you.  One central point under consideration is her view that even today in the Western or also Nordic countries, the treatment of women (among other groups) could plausibly be much, much better, and with general emancipatory effects for many other groups as well.  You may or may not agree, but is that such a crazy question to ponder and think through?  No.

So I thought it was a good episode.  I would gladly do another one with her someday, and I hope the feeling is mutual.

My Conversation with Amia Srinivasan

I am pleased to have had the chance to do this, as in my view she is one of the thinkers today who has a) super smarts, b) breadth and depth of reading, and c) breadth and depth of thinking.  That combination is rare!  That said, I don’t quite agree with her on everything, so this exchange had more disagreements than perhaps what you are used to sampling from CWT.

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Amia joined Tyler to discuss the importance of context in her vision of feminism, what social conservatives are right about, why she’s skeptical about extrapolating from the experience of women in Nordic countries, the feminist critique of the role of consent in sex, whether disabled individuals should be given sex vouchers, how to address falling fertility rates, what women learned about egalitarianism during the pandemic, why progress requires regress, her thoughts on Susan Sontag, the stroke of fate that stopped her from pursuing a law degree, the “profound dialectic” in Walt Whitman’s poetry, how Hinduism has shaped her metaphysics, how Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit influenced her, the anarchic strain in her philosophy, why she calls herself a socialist, her next book on genealogy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SRINIVASAN: No, it really wouldn’t. Part of why I find this whole discourse problematic is because I think we should be suspicious when we find ourselves attracted to data — very, very thin and weak data — that seem to justify beliefs that have held great currency in lots of societies throughout history, in a way that is conducive to the oppression of large segments of the population, in this particular case women.

I also think one error that is consistently made in this discourse, in this kind of conversation about what’s innate or what’s natural, is to think about what’s natural in terms of what’s necessary. This is a point that Shulamith Firestone made a very long time ago, but that very few people register, which is that — and it was actually made again to me recently by a philosopher of biology, which is, “Look what’s natural isn’t what’s necessary.”

It’s extraordinary. It’s not even like what’s natural offers a good equilibrium point. Think about how much time you and I spend sitting around. Completely unnatural for humans to sit around, yet we’re in this equilibrium point where vast majority of humans just sit around all day.

So, I think there’s a separate question about what humans — as essentially social, cultured, acculturating creatures — what our world should look like. And that’s distinct from the question of what natural predispositions we might have. It’s not unrelated, but I don’t think any of us think we should just be forming societies that simply allow us to express our most “natural orientations.”

COWEN: Should women’s chess, as a segregated activity, continue to exist? We don’t segregate chess tournaments by race or by anything — sometimes by age — but anything other than gender. Yet women’s chess is a whole separate thing. Should that be offensive to us? Or is that great?

Recommended, engaging throughout.  And again, here is Amia Srinivasan’s new and (in the UK, just published yesterday in the U.S.) bestselling book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century.

Learning to live with Woke

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, or maybe try this link, note it is 3x the usual length and not easily excerpted.  Nonetheless here is one bit:

Note that it is not necessary to approve of all U.S. cultural exports to view the spread of wokeism as a net positive for the world. I do not like either Big Macs or Marvel movies, for instance. But at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.

As the motivational speakers like to say, Winners win! And woke is right now one of America’s global winners. Part of what makes America great, and could help to make the rest of the world greater yet, is accepting a certain amount of semi-stupid, least-common-denominator culture.

And:

It drives conservatives and libertarians crazy that woke ideas often have more purchase in the private sector than in the public sector. Private universities, for example, seem “more woke” than public universities.

Still, you read it here first (or maybe not): The halls of power in Washington just aren’t that woke! They are nothing like Twitter or Google or Yale University.

Yes, many woke opponents cite the role of government and the fear of lawsuits as forces driving woke behavior and corporate attachment to wokeism. And surely they have a point. Yet in much of the corporate and nonprofit world, wokeism is not merely a reflexive defense against lawsuits. It is embraced with enthusiasm.

Wokeism has passed a market test that has been going on for decades.

And in sum:

The arguments have been so fully joined because they are about how to define success, which is the fundamental American ideology. I believe such debates are not only healthy but also necessary. I also believe that the ideology of success will endure, though it may take less familiar forms over time. In some ways wokeism is what a feminized, globalized version of 21st century U.S. triumphalism looks like.

You don’t have to like that. But you may have to get used to it.

Recommended, do read the whole thing.

My appearance on the Ezra Klein Show

Talking with Ezra is always both fun and enlightening for me, here is his partial summary of the episode:

So we begin this conversation by discussing the case for and against economic growth, but we also get into lots of other things: why Cowen thinks the great stagnation in technology is coming to an end; the future of technologies like A.I., crypto, fourth-generation nuclear and the Chinese system of government; the problems in how we fund scientific research; what the right has done to make government both ineffective and larger; why Cowen is skeptical of universal pre-K (and why I’m not); whether I overestimate the dangers of polarization; the ways in which we’re getting weirder; the long-term future of human civilization; why reading is overrated and travel is underrated; how to appreciate classical music and much more.

Here is the link, full transcript here, definitely recommended!

China campaign of the day

The Chinese government has ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities as it escalates a fight against what it sees as a cultural import that threatens China’s national strength.

In a directive issued on Thursday, China’s TV watchdog said entertainment programs should firmly reject the “deformed aesthetics” of niangpao, a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men.

The order came as Beijing tightens control over the country’s entertainment industry, taking aim at an explosion of TV and streaming shows that hold increasing sway over pop culture and the youth.

Young, delicate-looking men who display gentle personalities and act in boys’ love dramas have amassed large fan bases mostly comprising women. Many of them, like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, are China’s top-earning celebrities.

They came in sharp contrast with the older generation of male stars, who were expected to sing revolutionary songs and play intrepid, aggressive soldiers defending the country from foreign enemies.

But the more gender-neutral aesthetics have come under criticism from conservative voices in society. Some officials and parents fear the less macho men on TV would cause young men to lose their masculinity and therefore threaten the country’s development.

Here is the full story, and I thank B. for the pointer.  As I said yesterday, I do get the point but such campaigns are not for me…

My dialogue with Lipton Matthews

I appeared on his podcast, and we discussed trust, Jamaica and Trinidad, what you can learn from visiting funerals for five years, what I want for my non-funeral and why, social media and outreach, neurodiversity and autism, the importance of Kant and Hegel, and more.

Here is Lipton’s broader podcast series, many good guests.  Here is Lipton on Twitter.

A simple illustration of the benefits of feminization

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)

From Michelle Goldberg (NYT), that in a nutshell is the case for the feminization of society, which I see as bringing strongly positive net benefits for both men and women, in most but by no means all cases.

Do note that if you ever see me describing this feminization in not entirely glowing terms, that is part of my desire to give you the entire unvarnished picture, as I would with most other topics.  (The most common reading mistake you can make in these parts is to over-infer an entire mood affiliation from a single post.)

When it comes to feminization, I also think sometimes of my grade and junior high school gym teacher, Mr. O (I will omit his full name, but in fact we also called him “Mr. O”).  He acted like a tough guy, but in fact was just a…grade school gym teacher.  Nonetheless he acted as if he was auditioning for the role of Patton in a Hollywood movie.

He smoked his cigarillos (?) in that kind of plastic thing-y, like the Penguin did on the original Batman show.

If a smaller or less athletic kid took a tough spill, or was picked on by the others, he would say “Suck it up, kid!”, with little sympathy.  (If you are wondering, the worst he ever said to me was “That was a stupid foul, kid,” in a fifth-grade basketball contest.  So I didn’t bear a personal grudge against him.)

He seemed to love the game of Bombardment, as in fact I did too.  (I still remember being one of the last two men standing, but losing to Jimmy Gravelis, who caught my too-weak toss.)

He was a Roman Catholic and a veteran of the Korean War.  He seemed to stare too long at the boys entering and leaving the shower, after the exercise period of gym.  But no one really questioned this.

Even as a kid, I thought he was a bit…sick and also over the top.  In some ways though he was a good teacher and he definitely maintained discipline.  Kids were afraid of him.  And he toughened them up for the world to come.

Still, at the end of the day I am not wishing to return to the cultural ascent of Mr. O.

I would rather live in a more feminized world, even if I still miss Bombardment.  But if you are not a fan of this new arrangement…hey, “Suck it up kid!”

Addendum: You might argue that I had the best of both worlds, namely to grow up in the “tougher” society, but live most of my life in the more feminized society — maybe so!

Toward a theory of Emergent Ventures

Tony Kulesa, a biomedical venture capitalist, has a very nice new piece up about how Emergent Ventures works.  He overrates me in particular, but the overall account is quite accurate and insightful, and the piece is based on a considerable amount of detailed research.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler’s success at discovering and enabling the most talented people before anyone else notices them boils down to four components:

  1. Distribution: Tyler promotes the opportunity in such a way that the talent level of the application pool is extraordinarily high and the people who apply are uniquely earnest.
  2. Application: Emergent Ventures’ application is laser focused on the quality of the applicant’s ideas, and boils out the noise of credentials, references, and test scores.
  3. Selection: Tyler has relentlessly trained his taste for decades, the way a world class athlete trains for the olympics.
  4. Inspiration: Tyler personally encourages winners to be bolder, creating an ambition flywheel as they in turn inspire future applicants.

Self-recommended!  The piece is interesting throughout, and has much social science in it.

Don’t shoot the messenger — on the value of human life

Thus, to analysts, picking one such meta-analysis may feel as hard as picking a single “best study.” This paper responds by taking the meta-analysis another step, estimating a meta-analysis (or mixture distribution) of six meta-analyses. The baseline model yields a central VSL of $7.0m, with a 90% confidence interval of $2.4m to $11.2m. The provided code allows users to easily change subjective weights on the studies, add new studies, or change adjustments for income, inflation, and latency.

Here is the new NBER paper, by H. Spencer Banzhaf.