Category: Philosophy

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

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

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

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

Principles for Amazon (and other?) censorship

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

Focus on whether the merchandise contributes to further understanding, one way or another, rather than whether it might embody evil.

And:

This principle runs counter to how the world of social media works, I realize. “Cancel culture” tends to issue decisions based on the worst aspects of a product, writer or public figure, because that is what is endlessly circulated and condemned. But there is another way of thinking about the problem — namely, by focusing on the positive.

It is still possible, for example, to buy Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on Amazon, either through third-party merchants or Amazon itself. That book is more offensive than an Auschwitz bottle opener, as it directly calls for the extermination of the Jews and the conquest of Europe, and it probably still inspires neo-Nazis today. Nonetheless, I hope “Mein Kampf” continues to be for sale.

For all of its evil, “Mein Kampf” is an essential document for understanding the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As such, it should be allowed in spite of its potential downside. There is both intrinsic and utilitarian value in maximizing public access to as much knowledge as possible.

In contrast, it is hard to argue that an Auschwitz-themed mouse pad has anything positive to offer, whether to our historical knowledge or otherwise. At best, it is an act of obnoxious trolling and thus it was appropriate for Amazon to take it down.

It is fine to watch Leni Riefenstahl and listen to Richard Strauss, for instance.  But most private platforms — if they can — should ban sheer trolls.

My Conversation with Mark Zuckerberg and Patrick Collison

Facebook tweets:.

@patrickc, CEO of Stripe, and @tylercowen, economist at George Mason University, sit down with our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg to discuss how to accelerate progress.

Video, audio, and transcript here, part of Mark’s personal challenge for the year, an excellent event all around.  This will also end up as part of CWT.

My podcast with Shaka Senghor

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting.  Here is part of the summary introduction:

Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.

Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.

Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.

A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”

COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.

SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.

COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?

And:

COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?

SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.

And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.

My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:

COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?

His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.

Progress Studies tranche of Emergent Ventures

Due to a special grant, there has been a devoted tranche of Emergent Ventures to individuals, typically scholars and public intellectuals, studying the nature and causes of progress.

Here are the winners of those awards so far:

Pseudoerasmus, for general excellence and his on-line writings on progress and development. He has donated the funds to the Economic History Society.

Alice Evans, Professor, King’s College London, for her work on social change and despondency traps, and podcasting, and general excellence.

Jason Crawford, to boost his writings and career as public intellectual on topics of progress and the benefits of economic growth and industrialism.  Here is his blog The Roots of Progress.

Tanner Greer, to help him move from Taiwan to Virginia/GMU, and to write a book on the last twenty years of U.S. history and its significance.  Here is Tanner on Twitter.

Adam Green, budding public intellectual, to study the pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos.

Ville Vesterinen, Finland, to produce podcasts and YouTube videos on the nature of progress and economic growth.

Leopold Aschenbrenner, 17 year old economics prodigy, to spend the next summer in the Bay Area and for general career development.  Here is his paper on existential risk.

Byrne Hobart, to write a book on technological progress with Tobias Huber.

Saloni Dattani and ,Sam Bowman, to set up a website on progress and progress studies, possibly a progress-related podcast.

Here is further information on the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures.

I’ll be announcing more winners soon, from the regular rather than the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures (both remain open).

Narcissism and coldness

…narcissistic people anticipate that success and failure is generally less momentous and (a) assume others are less affected by most success and failure and (b) often feel less happy for successful others and less concerned for unsuccessful others. Findings across three studies were consistent with these propositions. Narcissistic people anticipated that both the self and others will be less reactive to successes and failures (Studies 1–3); moreover, although narcissistic people indicated less warmth toward successful and unsuccessful others, these relations were eliminated after controlling for narcissistic people’s assumptions that other people are less reactive to success and failure (Study 3). Hence, narcissistic coldness could, in part, have its origin in what we believe is reasonable disagreement about the momentous nature of events.

That is from Hart, Tortoriello, and Richardson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Model this dopamine fast

“We’re addicted to dopamine,” said James Sinka, who of the three fellows is the most exuberant about their new practice. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.”

There is a growing dopamine-avoidance community in town and the concept has quickly captivated the media.

Dr. Cameron Sepah is a start-up investor, professor at UCSF Medical School and dopamine faster. He uses the fasting as a technique in clinical practice with his clients, especially, he said, tech workers and venture capitalists.

The name — dopamine fasting — is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more of a stimulation fast. But the name works well enough, Dr. Sepah said.

The purpose is so that subsequent pleasures are all the more potent and meaningful.

“Any kind of fasting exists on a spectrum,” Mr. Sinka said as he slowly moved through sun salutations, careful not to get his heart racing too much, already worried he was talking too much that morning.

Here is more from Nellie Bowles at the NYT.

“OK Boomer”

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, how can I excerpt this one?:

On the negative side, I worry that those who deploy “OK Boomer” are putting themselves down and signaling their own impotence. I am not arguing for “[Expletive Deleted] Boomer,” even though it would have a vitality and rebellious spirit very much reminiscent of the 1960s or 1970s (which of course were quintessential boomer eras). But when I read or hear “OK Boomer,” I start to think there might be something special about baby boomers after all. We boomers may not be different in kind from other generations, but we do seem to inspire rhetorical creativity in our critics.

The closest earlier analog to “OK Boomer” is probably “OK, Chief,” a slightly sardonic response to a bossy or persistent request. So the phrase “OK Boomer” is itself an implicit and indeed somewhat passive admission as to who is really in charge. Members of Gen Z are subtly demonstrating that the clichés about them may have a grain of truth.

As I said I am a baby boomer, born in 1962, and I do a lot of public speaking about such topics as the absence of free lunches in this world. Yet I have never heard anyone say “OK Boomer” back to me. Instead I see the phrase on social media — another sign of the essentially passive nature of the response. (And wearing an “OK Boomer” hoodie or buying other such merchandise doesn’t seem like a major sign of rebellion, either.)

If there is any native medium for the “OK Boomer” meme, in fact, it is short TikTok videos, one of the more evanescent forms of social media. That the site seems plagued by Chinese censorship is just another state of affairs that boomers find more offensive than does Generation Z.

There is also this:

I am greatly pleased that the post-boomer generations are by all appearances less racist and sexist than their predecessors. Still, prejudices are part of human nature. There is always a danger that they will re-emerge, redirected at other targets — defined by their age, their political views, their wealth, the size of their carbon footprint, or some other salient variable. Prejudice doesn’t become acceptable simply because it is not directed at someone’s race, ethnicity or gender.

There is indeed much more at the link.  A better cause for young people would be to fight against the growing age segregation in American society.

My Conversation with Ted Gioia

Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History.  We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more.  Here are some excerpts:

GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.

Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.

That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.

The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.

And:

COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…

GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?

Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.

People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.

Economists and non-economists on elasticity

From a recent paper by Joanna Venator and Jason Fletcher:

In this paper, we estimate the impacts of abortion clinic closures on access to clinics in terms of distance and congestion, abortion rates, and birth rates. Legislation regulating abortion providers enacted in Wisconsin in 2011-2013 ultimately led to the closure of two of five abortion clinics in Wisconsin, increasing the average distance to the nearest clinic to 55 miles and distance to some counties to over 100 miles. We use a difference-in-differences design to estimate the effect of change in distance to the nearest clinic on birth and abortion rates, using within-county variation across time in distance to identify the effect. We find that a hundred-mile increase in distance to the nearest clinic is associated with 25 percent fewer abortions and 4 percent more births. We see no significant effect of increased congestion at remaining clinics on abortion rates. We find significant racial disparities in who is most affected by abortion clinic closures, with increases in distance increasing birth rates significantly more for Black, Asian, and Hispanic women. Our results suggest that even small numbers of clinic closures can result in significant restrictions to abortion access of similar magnitude to those seen in Texas when a greater number of clinics closed their doors.

There are (at least) two possible responses to such results, and that is without even getting into one’s underlying view of the ethics of abortion.  One is to say that a great deprivation has occurred because many fewer women end up having abortions.  Another response is to infer that the marginal value of the abortions could not have been so high to begin with, if the number drops off so readily.

The same issue comes up with Obamacare.  If the price of health insurance goes up, quite a large number of people decide to go without coverage.  Is the size of that number a measure of the human tragedy resulting from the price increase?  Or is it a measure of how little those people actually value health insurance?  Or somehow both?

I have yet to meet a person who can think through these issues rationally and absorb what is interesting and valid in each of those two perspectives.

Loren Fryxell of Northwestern is a creative thinker

Here is his home page, here is one abstract:

A Theory of Criminal Justice

Abstract: I propose a general framework with which to analyze the optimal response to crime. Each criminal act, detected with some probability, generates a random piece of evidence and a consequent probability of guilt for each citizen. I consider a utilitarian planner with no artificial moral constraints. In particular, I assume no upper bound on punishment—such a bound can only rise endogenously from the utilitarian objective. I consider three types of “pure” responses—deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation—along with general sentences combining any of the three. If citizens are expected utility maximizers, a repugnant conclusion is reached—it is optimal to punish only with the realization of the most incriminating evidence. Allowing for more general behavior yields a weaker but more satisfactory result—optimal punishment is always decreasing in the quality of evidence. (Rehabilitation, incapacitation, and general sentence results coming soon.)

Here is his job market paper:

A Theory of Experienced Utility and Utilitarianism

Abstract: I present a theory of measurement of preference intensity and use this measure as a foundation for utilitarianism. To do this, I suppose each alternative is experienced over time. An individual has preferences over such experiences. I present axioms under which preferences are represented by an experienced utility function equal to the integral of instantaneous preference intensity over time and unique up to a positive scalar. I propose an ethical postulate under which social preferences are utilitarian in experienced utilities.

Job candidates with ideas can be difficult to come by, so I wanted to highlight his work…

A theory of narrow thinking

I develop an approach, which I term narrow thinking, to break the decision-maker’s ability to perfectly coordinate her multiple decisions. For a narrow thinker, different decisions are based on different, non-nested, information. The narrow thinker then makes each decision with an imperfect understanding of the others. Formally, it is as if the decision-maker is a collection of multiple selves playing an incomplete-information game. The friction effectively attenuates the degree of interaction across decisions and can translate into either over- or under-reaction depending on the environment. Narrow thinking leads to a violation of the fungibility principle and a smooth model of mental accounting. Narrow thinking also reconciles other seemingly disparate phenomena in a unified framework, such as excess smoothness to taste shocks, the small wage elasticity of daily labor supply, and the label effect. Finally, I study an endogenous narrow thinking problem: the decision maker chooses optimally what information each decision is based upon, subject to a cognitive constraint.

That is the abstract of a new paper from Chen Lian, who is on the job market this year from MIT.  (That is not his job market paper but it does have a revise and resubmit from Review of Economic Studies.)