So humanity in aggregate has spent about ten times as long worshiping the Greek gods as we’ve spent watching Netflix.
We’ve spent another ten times as long having sex as we’ve spent worshiping the Greek gods.
And we’ve spent ten times as long drinking coffee as we’ve spent having sex.
It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.
This should cheer you all up, yes indeed there is no great stagnation no wonder the rate of productivity growth has been so high:
FHI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now.
It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books. (If you read the transcript, the sentence in the middle about my believing in God as a teenager is a transcription error, it will be corrected.) David is one of the best, and best prepared, interviewers I have interacted with. Here is the audio and transcript.
Here is one bit from the middle:
David: …should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.
[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.
[00:39:14] David: They do.
[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.
[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?
[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.
[00:39:20] David: Better at?
[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.
[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–
[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.
[00:39:43] David: Do you?
[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.
In a post which is interesting more generally, Arnold Kling makes this point:
I think Tyler missed the important difference between taking identity into account and having someone appeal to their identity. I agree with Bryan that the latter is a negative signal. Opening with “Speaking as a ____” is a bullying tactic.
Many have had a similar response, but I figured I would save up that point for an independent blog post, rather than putting it in the original. Here are a few relevant points:
1. If someone opens with “Speaking as a transgender latinx labor activist…”, or something similar, perhaps that is somewhat artless, but most likely it is relevant information to me, at least for most of the topics which correlate with that kind of introduction. I am happy enough with direct communication of that information, and don’t quite get what a GMU blogger would object to in that regard. Does the speaker have to wait until paragraph seven before obliquely hinting at being transgender? Communicate the information in Straussian fashion?
2. Being relatively established, most of the pieces I write already give such an introduction to me, for instance a column by-line or a back cover photo and author description on a book. Less established people face the burden of having to introduce themselves, and yes that is hard to do well, hard for any of us. You might rationally infer that these people are indeed less established, and possibly also less accomplished, but the introduction itself should be seen in this light, not as an outright negative. It is most of all a signal that the person is somewhat “at sea” in establishment institutions and their concomitant introductions, framings, and presentations. Yes, that outsider status possibly can be a negative signal in some regards, but a GMU blogger or independent scholar (as Arnold is) should not regard that as a negative signal per se. At the margin, I’d like to see people pay more attention to smart but non-mainstream sources.
3. For many audiences, I don’t need an introduction at all, nor would Bryan or Arnold. That’s great of course for us. But again we are being parasitic on other social forces having introduced us already. Let’s not pretend we’re above this whole game, we are not, we just have it much easier. EconLog itself has a click space for “Blogger Bios,” though right now it is empty, perhaps out of respect for Bryan’s views. Or how about if you get someone to blurb your books for you?
4. I’ve noticed that, for whatever reasons, women in today’s world often feel less comfortable putting themselves forward in public spaces. In most (not all) areas they blog at much lower rates, and they are also less willing to ask for a salary increase, among other manifestations of the phenomenon. Often, in this kind of situation, you also will find group members who “overshoot” the target and pursue a strategy which is the opposite of excess reticence. I won’t name names, but haven’t you heard something like “Speaking as a feminist, Dionysian, child of the 1960s, Freudian, Catholic, pro-sex, pagan, libertarian polymath…”? Maybe that is a mistake of style and presentation and even reasoning, but the deeper understanding is to figure out better means of evaluating people who “transact” in the public sphere at higher cost, not simply to dismiss or downgrade them.
5. If someone like Bill Gates were testifying in front of Congress and claimed “Speaking as the former CEO of a major company, I can attest that immigration is very important to the American economy” we wouldn’t really object very much, would we? Wouldn’t it seem entirely appropriate? So why do we so often hold similar moves against those further away from the establishment?
How about “as a Mongolian sheep herder, let me tell you what kinds of grass they like to eat…”?
Then why not “As a transgender activist…”? You don’t necessarily have to agree with what follows, just recognize they might know more than average about the topic.
To sum up, appealing to one’s identity possibly can be a negative signal. But overall it should be viewed not as a reason to dismiss such speakers and writers, but rather a chance to obtain a deeper understanding.
The following is a series emails Vitalik Buterin and I [Glen] exchanged over the last day about RadicalxChange ideas. We thought the discussion might be useful to some as a) it covers a number of issues not discussed elsewhere that we consider important, b) it represents some of our latest thinking about these issues and c) it shows a bit of “the sausage being made” that some may find interesting. However, be aware that this is an internal communication and thus is at a pretty high level of specialization; there will be many parts that those not already well steeped in some combination of RadicalxChange ideas, economics, sociology, intellectual history, philosophy and cryptography may find hard to follow.
Here is the link. There are many excellent bits, here is one from Buterin:
Effect on centralization of physical power — one thing that scares me about more complex systems of property rights is that they would require more complex centralized infrastructure, including surveillance into people’s private activities, to be able to correctly enforce. Taxes already have this problem (you may recall Adam Smith believing that income taxes would be impossible because they would require an unacceptable level of intrusion into people’s private lives to enforce), and I wonder if the various proposals that we have for changing them would make things better or worse in this regard. I like Harberger taxes because they don’t require infrastructure to police whether or not undeclared transactions took place, though I worry in other cases, eg. your comment that your immigration proposal would require stronger enforcement of immigration rules, which realistically means stronger efforts to find and kick out people who overstay, which requires more surveillance of various kinds. All in all, I don’t think the radical markets ideas altogether fare that bad, but I guess my comment would be that non-panopticon-dependence should be an explicit desideratum to a greater degree than it is now.
Self-recommending…and which one of them do you think wrote this?:
The last couple of weeks talking to economists, sociologists and philosophers I have felt like they are hacking through a forest with pen knife and this perspective enables me to look from above (things still fuzzy) and have a crew of chainsaws at my command.
Bryan Caplan wrote this in his description of GMU blogger culture:
Appealing to your identity is a reason to discount what you say, not a reason to pay extra attention.
Bryan explains more, not easy for me to summarize but do read his full account. Let me instead try to state my own views:
1. If someone makes a claim new or foreign to you, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you probably should up the amount of attention you give that claim because the person is from a different background. Your marginal need to learn from that person is probably above-average, noting of course this can be countermanded by other signals. That said, I recognize that our ability to learn from “different others” may be below average, given the possible absence of a common conceptual framework. Nonetheless, I say be ambitious in your learning!
2. If someone makes a claim you already disagree with, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you should try to figure out why that person might see the matter differently. You should try harder, at the margin, precisely because the person is from a different background. Again, this follows from a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning and ambition in learning.
3. When you hear a person from a different background, try not to get too caught up in the “identity politics” of it, either positively or negatively. Try to steer your thoughts to: “People from this background in fact have a wide diversity of views on this topic. Still, I will try to learn from this person’s different background.” Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”
4. I’ve already noted that you often learn more efficiently from people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself. Even putting language aside, I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder. In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake. To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.
But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much. At the end of the day I am left with my intellectual ambition and I really do wish to go visit Mongolia, including for the sheep herders. And to the extent I am informed in some ways that maybe not all of my peers are, the intellectual ambition I am presenting here is a big reason why. I seek to encourage more such ambition, rather than to give people reasons for evading it.
Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:
Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.
So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”
Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.
Here is one bit:
MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.
It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.
COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.
MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.
COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?
MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.
But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.
The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.
Original and highly recommended. Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.
Here is an excerpt from Tim Herrra in the NYT, under the title “Three [sic] Tips to Have Better Conversations“:
To be a true conversation superstar, try these tips:
Be attentive and give eye contact.
Make active and engaged expressions.
Repeat back what you’ve heard, and follow up with questions.
If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening.
For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.
And keep in mind that when you say something declarative, seek out the other person’s opinion as well.
Those seem mostly wrong to me, and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic. I would suggest some slightly different tips, admittedly not for everyone in all situations:
1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.
2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour. Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.
3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.
4. Be worthy of a good conversation.
Rinse and repeat. I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.
What is conversation for anyway? I don’t even recommend being charming, or trying to be charming, unless a work situation is forcing you to do so. Let yourself be sullen when the mood beckons. Feel free to let eye contact lapse. Don’t repeat back what you’ve heard. Say something surprising. Be willing to go meta. Most of all, try to establish a “we actually can have a more genuine conversation than we thought was going to be possible” level of understanding, taking whatever chances are needed to get to that higher level of discourse.
By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.
Robert will be interviewing me later this week, as an installment of Conversations with Tyler, just as Patrick Collison once interviewed me a while back. At least part of the interview will focus on my forthcoming book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals. (And we will do 2.5 hours, a Robert specialty!) Here is part of Robert’s bio:
I studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduated top of my class and was named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.
I worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies including the Treasury and Productivity Commission.
I then moved to Oxford in the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director and then Executive Director.
I then became Research Director for 80,000 Hours. In 2015 the project went through Y Combinator, and in 2016 we moved from Oxford to Berkeley, California in order to grow more quickly.
He is renowned for his thorough preparation and he runs a very good podcast of his own. So what should he ask me?
In recent times, that is. Devon Zuegel asks:
Who would you name as a contender for having led the most interesting life in the last 100 years?
Keynes pops to mind as one contender. He was a top-tier intellect and economist, he was closely connected to the arts, had plenty of brilliant Bloomsbury people to chat with, married a ballerina, played a major role in politics several times, and he participated in several critical and indeed formative moments of history (Treaty of Versailles, fiscal policy, Bretton Woods). He experienced both world wars (no one said “interesting” has to be good!). Still, he didn’t travel enough to be a slam dunk (I can’t quite bring myself to write “nor did he have the internet.”)
How about Bill Clinton? He was president twice, oversaw the 1990s, has indeed traveled the world, and known many of the most interesting people of his lifespan. He also has had rather, um…diverse…experiences in one realm of life. And he married Hillary.
Paul McCartney was a Beatle, wrote amazing songs and hung out with John Lennon, had domestic bliss with Linda for a few decades, raised lots of kids, was successful as a businessman, and also has a history of…um…diverse experiences. But did he smoke too much pot?
This list of “best lives” includes Hugh Hefner, Tyra Banks, and Elon Musk. Here is one Quora answer for “most interesting”:
Personally, I find the following people intriguing: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Marie Curie, Diego Maradona, Michael Jordan, Socrates/Aristotle/Plato, Samori Toure, Nelson Mandela, Michel de Nostredame. It’s a long list. There are even some historical figures that I do not admire, but would like to know more about – people such as Joseph Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Judas Isacriot, among so many others.
I hope you are not offended if I rule some of those lives out on grounds of insufficient length, or too much time spent in prison. Here is a list of interesting writers’ lives, topped by Ernest Hemingway.
Contrarian but not crazy answers would cite the person who raised the greatest number of children, the person who lived the longest in decent health, “whoever you are,” and the person who has traveled the most, at least adjusting for the quality of the trips (working on an oil tanker may not count).
Is it possible for a very famous person to win this designation? Their very fame limits the possible range of experiences they have, and perhaps at some margin the consumption of additional status and adulation, however fun (?) it may be, just isn’t all that interesting. Can Paul McCartney or Bill Clinton go out in public much? Is the real answer someone most people never have heard of?
Who is your nominee?
As of today, we at Mercatus, led by me, are formally initiating a new project called Emergent Ventures.
Most importantly, here is the application page, and here is its opening summary:
We want to jumpstart high-reward ideas—moonshots in many cases—that advance prosperity, opportunity, liberty, and well-being. We welcome the unusual and the unorthodox.
Our goal is positive social change, but we do not mind if you make a profit from your project. (Indeed, a quick path to revenue self-sufficiency is a feature not a bug!)
Projects will either be fellowships or grants: fellowships involve time in residence at the Mercatus Center in Northern Virginia; grants are one-time or slightly staggered payments to support a project.
We encourage you to think big, but we also will consider very small grants or short fellowships if they might change the trajectory of your life. We encourage applications from all ages and all parts of the world.
Imagine you are the next Satoshi, trying to invent “the next Bitcoin.” Or say you are a budding public intellectual, seeking the reach and influence of Jordan Peterson, by building your social media presence. Or an 18-year-old social science prodigy, hoping to fly to Boston to meet a potential mentor. What about moving to Sacramento to write a quality blog covering California state government? I very much hope you will apply for a grant at Emergent Ventures. Most of all, I hope you are applying with ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.
We will be running Emergent Ventures with a minimum of overhead costs and a maximum of attention on upside potential from your projects. This means:
1. The money is given away, not spent on staff or creating a new self-perpetuating bureaucracy. That also keeps our incentives away from self-perpetuation and risk-aversion.
2. There is no committee to screen applications, or to keep the “crazy” ideas from getting to my desk. I will personally review each and every application, albeit with additional refereeing assistance from Mercatus, the Mercatus network, and my own personal network.
3. If you receive money, the “report back” requirements are minimal, typically a 1-2 page report a year or so later, and possibly future reports too. If you can’t show value or progress in a short report, you probably haven’t produced it.
4. The proposal you submit is limited to 1500 words, though with an option of supplementary documents. If you can’t get to the point and explain your plans succinctly, we will not fund you.
5. If you receive a grant, we at Mercatus — and also I personally — will do our very best to help you in your endeavors.
Think of the goal of Emergent Ventures as supporting new ideas and projects that are too difficult, too hard to measure, too unusual, too foreign, too small, or…too something to make their way through the usual foundation and philanthropic process.
If you wish, you also can think of Emergent Ventures as a bet on my own personal judgment. For some time to come, I will be devoting significant time to Emergent Ventures every single day (with a few exceptions, mostly travel-related). Most applications will be processed promptly.
If you are interested, as a donor, in supporting Emergent Ventures, please write to my email. It is a tax-deductible contribution. Within a short period of time we expect to have a total of $4 million lined up, from a very brilliant set of donors, but we hope to do more.
Those of you who are applying should use the main site (not my email), so I hope you will apply here.
If you tweet, write on Facebook, blog, write as a journalist, work as a professor or teacher — I am asking you to please do your best in helping us to publicize this endeavor.
Addendum: For the curious, here is one bit from the application: “…what is one mainstream or “consensus” view that you absolutely agree with? (This is our version of a “trick” question, reversing the now-fashionable contrarianism.)”
Here is the audio and transcript, and here is the summary:
Michele Gelfand is professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of the just-released Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. In her conversation with Tyler, Michele unpacks the concept of tight and loose cultures and more, including which variable best explains tightness, the problem with norms, whether Silicon Valley has an honor culture, the importance of theory and history in guiding research, what Donald Trump gets wrong about negotiation, why MBAs underrate management, the need to develop cultural IQ, and why mentorship should last a lifetime.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: As you know, it’s a common distinction in cross-cultural analysis to call some cultures individualistic and others collectivistic. How does tightness and looseness differ from that distinction? What do you pick up that, say, the work of Triandis does not?
GELFAND: Actually, Triandis is my mentor. I went to Champaign to work with him. I did a lot of research on collectivism and individualism. For a long time, that was the one dimension that we looked at in cross-cultural psychology.
It’s almost akin to, in personality psychology, only studying extroversion to the neglect of other dimensions, like neuroticism. In cross-cultural psychology, we got a little bit narrow in what we were studying. Collectivism-individualism is related to tightness but distinct.
Part of the problem we’ve had is, we’ve confounded cultures in our research. We’ve been studying East Asia, which is both tight and collectivistic, with the United States and other Western cultures, which tend to be loose and individualistic. So they have been confounded.
But when you think about the off-diagonals of that two-by-two, you can imagine cultures like Germany, Switzerland, Austria that tend to be pretty individualistic. They emphasize privacy. They’re not hugely group and family oriented, but they’re relatively tight. They have strong rules and punishments for deviance.
On the flip side, you can think about Latin American cultures — in our data, that’s Brazil or Spain — that tend to be pretty family oriented and pretty collectivistic, but they’re rather loose.
In a lot of ways, you can disentangle that variation, even if they’re related. They tend to be related about 0.4. That’s found both in modern nations and also traditional societies. At the state level, they also tend to be related but again distinct. Only in that case, it’s about 0.2 or 0.3, the correlation between tightness and collectivism.
COWEN: Overrated or underrated, Staten Island?
GELFAND: [laughs] I would say probably underrated. That’s because I actually am familiar with Staten Island. We have relatives that live there. It’s probably the last undiscovered place around the city. Brooklyn has become a chichi place to live, but Staten Island has not. There’s great delis there. I’ve spent some time there.
COWEN: Putting aside your political views, but just if you observe Donald Trump as a negotiator — as a psychologist, what strikes you?
GELFAND: Donald Trump has a very classic negotiation style. It’s a distributive negotiation style. It’s a win-lose style. It works in certain contexts, especially contexts where there’s one issue or when there’s very little expected future interaction.
What Donald Trump does is, he takes that style to international [laughs] politics where these contexts, the structure of these situations is very different. There’s usually many issues at the table. There’s expected future interaction…His style is really mismatched with the context that he’s in.
Many of the best parts are at or near the end, so do read or listen all the way through. And you can buy Michele’s book here.
I thank you all for your pre-orders of my forthcoming book from Stripe Press, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (did you notice how the title draws from Liberty Fund?), due out October 16. It is my most philosophic book, most heartfelt book, and least current affairsy book, at least in the last twenty years.
As I explained in an earlier post, all of my receipts from the book are going to Yonas (not his real name), a tour guide in Ethiopia, near Lalibela, who wishes to start a travel business. I met Yonas during my Ethiopia trip last May.
Yonas already has received one installment of the money, due to the great efficiency of Stripe Press and Stripe proper (it is, after all, a payments company). He has bought a plot of land and a house on that land with the money from the pre-orders to date, a modest house by your standards I can assure you but nonetheless a big step up for him. Of course I (and he) hope to sell more copies. Now that he has an effective means of storing and saving wealth, the next step is for him to expand the scope of his travel guide operations, and you can help him in that endeavor, while you at the same time foment enlightenment more generally.
Here is the Amazon link.
So I hope — for several reasons — that you buy and also gift copies of the book. You might have noticed in the post below that Chris Blattman is somewhat skeptical of cash transfers as a means of bettering the lot of the poor, at least relative to his earlier views. But this experiment differs in at least one critical way: Yonas is not randomly selected, rather he is the one person whom I thought would make the best use of the money.
So what is tragedy?
“A work is a tragedy, Aristotle tells us, only if it arouses pity and fear. Why does he single out these two passions?” That seems wrong to me. For one thing, it is overly subjectivist. Why start with the passions of the audience? What do they know?
I think of a tragic story as embodying a few elements:
1. The downfall represents some kind of principle.
2. Some aspects of the downfall are, in advance, quite expected in the objective sense.
3. The actual story combines both inevitability and surprise in a somewhat contradictory manner. (I reintroduce the subjective ever so slightly here.)
4. The villain probably should have some sympathetic and/or charismatic qualities.
5. There should be a quite particular logic to how the actual events unfold, as they might be related to the above-mentioned principles in #1.
6. A confluence of aesthetic and metaphysical and personality-linked forces should “conspire” to bring about the final outcome. There should be a melding and a consilience to the evolution of the story.
Some near-perfect tragedies are Don Giovanni, The Empire Strikes Back, The Sopranos (evokes nostalgia in me rather than fear or pity), and King Lear, among other works of Shakespeare. Don’t forget Homer, Melville, and the Bible.
Just stay away from Aristotle on this one.
Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”? Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks. It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling. But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.
Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades. “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter. I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all. Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.
Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout. There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick. For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.
The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5. But it will try your patience.
As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:
Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other. They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek. Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…
I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me. With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.
That is the topic of my recent Bloomberg column. Excerpt:
I am reminded of these points by the recent death of the economist James Mirrlees, a Nobel laureate. His most famous contribution to the field was a model suggesting that the marginal rate of tax on the most skilled workers should be zero.
To illustrate the rationale for this view, imagine that Jerry Seinfeld is no longer doing comedy. His non-existent output, correspondingly, results in no government revenue. What if the government taxed his additional comedy work at a rate of zero? Theoretically, such a policy would encourage Seinfeld to produce more comedy shows without harming government revenue. Both Seinfeld and his audience would benefit.
Mirrlees did not think this was a practical guide to policy, if only because the tax authorities will never be able to tell at exactly what level a zero marginal tax rate will have the desired effect of inducing talented people to continue working. Instead, the model is a guide to thinking about the relevant trade-offs behind tax policy — namely, that foregone output from the talented is a major consideration.
Now, do I wish the world was arranged in such a way that zero tax rates could be handed out, at the proper margins, to these highly talented individuals? Absolutely. I don’t think you would find the same aspirational enthusiasm from the progressive left on this issue.
Do read the whole thing.