Category: Philosophy

“Maybe it’s not that I am a regional thinker, but a regional feeler.”

Portugal has now had two lost decades. Adjusting for inflation, GDP per capita grew 7% between 2000 and 2008. I mean it grew 7% over that whole period, not on a yearly basis. Then it fell during the crisis and only last year did it get back to 2008 levels, so that between 2000 and 2017, total growth was 7%…

The population who lived in Portugal through the last 10 years now get extactic over 2.2% year-on-year growth. After so many years of nothing, mediocre growth feels amazing. Still, if you cross the border into Spain it no longer feels “this is what Portugal will be in 2021”, it feels like a much wealthier, qualititatively different, better economy. Portugal could have been that, but, at least in my lifetime, it probably won’t be. This is a lost opportunity and it brings me sadness.

Maybe it’s not that I am a regional thinker, but a regional feeler. I have a visceral feel for what it means to “grow to the level of Greece and then stop there” that comes from lived experience.

In summary, this is why I recommend you read Stubborn Attachments.

That is from Luis Pedro Coelho, there is more of interest at the link.

My Conversation with Paul Romer

Here is the audio and transcript, Paul was in top form and open throughout.  Yes economic growth, blah blah blah, but we covered many related topics too:

COWEN: And you also think we should simplify the English language. Right?

ROMER: [laughs] Well, there’s two parts to that. One is, in writing and communication, there should be a very high priority on clarity. It’s hard to know what’s the mechanism that enforces that. There are variants on English, like the English used to write the manuals people use to service airplanes, where there’s a very restricted vocabulary. The words are chosen so that you can’t have any ambiguity because you don’t want somebody servicing a plane to get confused. So there are some things you could do on writing, word choice, vocabulary, exposition.

There’s a separate issue, which is that amongst the modern languages, English has the worst orthography, the worst mapping between spelling and sounds of any of the existing languages. And it’s a tragedy because English is becoming the universal second language.

The incidence of people who don’t learn to read is substantially higher in English than in other languages. People have known for a long time, it takes longer to learn to read in English because of the bad orthography. But what hasn’t gotten enough attention is that there’s an effect on the variance as well. There are more people who never get over this hurdle to actually learning to read.

If there were a way to do in English what they’ve done in other languages, which is to clean up the orthography, that could make a huge difference in the variation associated with whether or not people can learn to read English.


COWEN: Can a charter city work if we import good laws from the outside world but not the appropriate matching culture?

ROMER: You’ve zeroed right in on the connection. The real motivation that I had for charter cities was exactly this one that you can see in the US versus New Zealand. You can think of a charter city exercise . . .

This is actually the story of Maryland: We’re going to create laws, and we’re going to guarantee freedom of religion in Maryland, and it’s in the laws; it’s in the institution somehow. That didn’t turn out very well. Maryland had a Catholic elite but then large numbers of Protestant indentured servants or workers. And this kind of commitment to freedom of religion was not stable in Maryland at all.

The case that’s worth trying to copy is Pennsylvania, where William Penn recruited large numbers of people who actually believed in freedom of religion. The word charter comes from the charter that Penn wrote for Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t the document that mattered. What mattered was that there were a bunch of people in the founding population who were committed to this idea of a separation of church and state and religious freedom. And that’s what made it durable in Pennsylvania in a way it wasn’t in Maryland.

And this:

ROMER: …Moses was of this generation that was too enamored of the car, and this is where I think Jacobs had a better intuition. But the challenge, the dichotomy I would pose would be Jane Jacobs versus Gouverneur Morris.

Morris was the guy who drew the grid that laid out the rectangular street map for Manhattan.

We also discussed music, including Hot Tuna, Clarence White, and Paul’s favorite novel, dyslexia, what Paul has learned about management, and much more.  Self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice

The excellent Jason Brennan with a short introduction to his new book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice:

Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise.

I think it helps in answering this question to think of other countries say South Africa under Apartheid or China today among the Uighur in Xinjiang province…then be consistent. Note that resistance to state injustice may be unwise even when it is ethical.

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

Open questions from Gwern

This is all Gwern, I won’t add another layer of indentation:

Open Questions

Some questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find standard answers to be unsatisfying (along the lines of Patrick Collison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas):

  • What is personal productivity and why does it vary from day to day so strikingly, and yet not correlate with environmental variables like weather or sleep quality nor appear as the usual kind of latent variable in my factor analyses? Is it something much weirder than the usual kind of latent variable, like a set of zero-sum measurements drawing on a generic pool of energy or mana?
  • Does listening to music while working serve as a distraction, or motivation?
  • What, algorithmicly, are mathematicians doing when they do math which explains how their proofs can usually be wrong but their results usually right?Is it equivalent to a kind of tree search like MCTS or something else? They wouldn’t seem to be doing a literal tree search because then there would almost never be mistakes in the proof (as the built-up tree of theorems only explores valid inferential steps), but if they’re not, then how are they handling logical uncertainty? Are they doing something like MCTS’s random playouts where lemmas are not proven but simply heuristically given a truth value to shortcut exploration and the heuristic is accurate enough to usually guess correctly and this is why the proofs are wrong but the results are right?
  • Why did Jean Calment live so many more years than other centenarians, breaking all records and setting a life expectancy record which decades later has not just not been broken, but not even approached? Which is extraordinary considering that she smoked, medicine has continuously advanced, the global population has increased, life expectancy in general has increased, and the Gompertz curve implies that, with mortality rates approaching 50%, centenarians should die like flies and ever closer in age to each other and not have occasional enormous permanent 3 year gaps between the record setter (Calment) and everyone since then.
  • Why do humans, pets, and even lab animals of many species kept in controlled lab conditions on standardized diets appear to be increasingly obese over the 20th century? What could possibly explain all of them simultaneously becoming obese?
  • What happened to the famous genome sequencing cost curve after late 2012, which stopped price decreases, damaged genetics, and delayed the advent of whole-genome sequencing by perhaps a decade? Was it really just the Illuminati’s fault?
  • Why do humans have such a large mutation load on common genetic variants? Common SNPs make up a large fraction of variance, even for traits which must be fitness-affecting. Culture or technology slow evolution doesn’t wash when human fitness differentials are so large and so many people died young or as infants, and how did the many deleterious variants get pushed up to such high frequencies in the first place?
  • Why does the immune system so often surface as a genetic correlation or tissue enrichment in GWASes for many things not generally believed to be infectious? Are we missing an enormous range of infections directly causing bad things (or indirectly through autoimmune mechanisms), or the immune system just sort of like intelligence in being a general health trait?
  • Why does catnip response vary so much across countries in domestic cats, and also across feline species, with no apparent phylogenetic or environmental pattern? It is so heritable in domestic cats that a genetic reason is plausible, but if it’s adaptive, what is it doing when catnip doesn’t exist in the ranges of most tested cats, and if it’s neutral why can so many closely-different different animals respond to it in different ways?

TC again: There is much more at the link.  If you don’t know Gwern, you should know Gwern.

Thanks a Thousand

For Thanksgiving I read a book about giving thanks, A. J. Jacobs’s, Thanks a Thousand. It begins like I, Pencil (which Jacobs discovers half-way through his book) and I, Rose:

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the presence of one of the most mind-boggling accomplishments in human history. This thing is so astounding in its complexity and scope, it makes the Panama canal look like a third grader’s craft project.

This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers and goatherds.

It required airplanes, boats trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets and shoulders.

It needed hundreds of materials–steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.

It has caused great joy but also great poverty and oppression.

It relied upon ancient wisdom and space-age technology, freezing temperature and scorching heat, high mountains and deep water.

It is my morning coffee.

Jacobs then sets out to thank everyone–which he soon finds is impossible, so he limits to a thousand people–who contributed to getting him his morning miracle. From the obvious, the barista and the coffee growers to the less obvious, the manufacturers and designers of the coffee lid and the NY water department, Jacobs sets out to offer thanks, giving the reader some interesting background along the way (“New York water is tested 2.2 million times a year.” “According to one estimate, pallets account for more than 46 percent of US hardwood lumber production.”).

Jacobs is also good on the importance of gratitude. Being mindful of and thankful for the things we ordinarily take for granted can make for a better life. He asks philosopher Will MacAskill what he is grateful for. “Sometimes I’m just thankful I have arms.” Yes.

Jacobs sometimes forgets, however, that the value of gratitude is more in the giving than in the receiving. He thus confuses gratitude with charity. But gratitude is neither payment nor alms. It’s nice to be recognized and thanked but thanks don’t make the world go round.

I ask Andy whether it feels good that the coffee in his warehouse brings joy to millions of people. Andy looks at me, his eyebrows knit. It’s as if I just asked him if he enjoys being a Buddhist monk who mediates ten hours a day.

“Well let me ask you this,” I say, “What are you thankful for?”

“My paycheck,” he says, laughing.

I like Andy. Andy understands that working solely for the sake of others can be demeaning and degrading. Andy is working for himself and his loved ones and more power to him. Beyond a few special relationships, to make doing for others one’s primary motive is undignified and subservient. Humans are not worker ants eager to die for love of their Queen. Each person’s life is their own.

The true marvel is that despite the fact that most people are not living for others we can still all live together harmoniously. As I like to put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the coffee brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.


COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

Stubborn predictions

Bayesian theories of perception have traditionally cast the brain as an idealised scientist, refining predictions about the outside world based on evidence sampled by the senses. However, recent predictive coding models include predictions that are resistant to change, and these stubborn predictions can be usefully incorporated into cognitive models.

That is the abstract to a new article by Yon, de Lange, and Press, via Michelle Dawson.

The sex recession

From Kate Julian at The Atlantic:

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.

Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.

I enjoyed this sentence:

In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high.

This is interesting too:

“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.”

The sex recession remains a puzzle.  Here is my much earlier blog post on why people don’t have more sex.

Words of wisdom from Vitalik Buterin

Both reasoning from behavioral-economic first principles, and my personal experience, people are at their most evil out of fear, not greed. Growth means there is less fear going around.

That is from Vitalik Buterin, reviewing Stubborn Attachments on TwitterAnd this:

I have a different take on “growth is good for harmony” (52-53). Arrow’s theorem doesn’t become more or less true if a conflict is between, say (+5, +1) vs (+1, +5) or (+2, -2) vs (-2, +2). Rather, the reason why the latter is more disharmonious is loss aversion.


Redistributing money to the rich (p88) is risky because the rich are not necessarily aligned with general population. Caring for old people (p91) is valuable not just for the sake of present individuals, but also as a commitment to future old people who are present-day workers.

Here is my earlier Conversation with Vitalik Buterin.  And here is Garett Jones’s tweet storm on the book.

The philosophy and practicality of Emergent Ventures

Let’s start with some possible institutional failures in mainstream philanthropy.  Many foundations have large staffs, and so a proposal must go through several layers of approval before it can receive support or even reach the desk of the final decision-maker.  Too many vetoes are possible, which means relatively conservative, consensus-oriented proposals emerge at the end of the process.  Furthermore, each layer of approval is enmeshed in an agency game, further cementing the conservatism.  It is not usually career-enhancing to advance a risky or controversial proposal to one’s superiors.

There is yet another bias: the high fixed costs of processing any request discriminate against very small proposals, which either are not worthwhile to approve or they are never submitted in the first place.

Finally, foundations often become captured by their staffs.  The leaders become fond of their staffs, try to keep them in the jobs, regard the staff members as a big part of their audience, and adopt the perspectives of their staffs, more so as time passes.  That encourages conservatism all the more, because the foundation leaders do not want their staffs to go away, and so they act to preserve financial and reputational capital.

To restate those biases:

  1. Too much conservatism
  2. Too few very small grants
  3. Too much influence for staff

So how might those biases be remedied?

Why not experiment with only a single layer of no?

Have a single individual say yes or no on each proposal — final word, voila!  Of course that individual can use referees and conferees as he or she sees fit.

The single judge could be an expert in some of the relevant subject areas of the proposals (that is sometimes the case in foundations, but even then the expertise of the foundation evaluators can decay).

This arrangement also can promise donors 100% transmission of their money to recipients, or close to that.  If someone gives $1 million to the fund, the award winners receive the full $1 million.  This is rare in non-profits.  (In the case of Emergent Ventures there are unbudgeted time costs for me and my assistant, who prints out the proposals, and the paper costs of the printing get charged to general operating expenses at Mercatus.  Still, a $1 million grant at the margin leads to $1 million in actual awards.  I am not paid to do this.)

The solo evaluator — if he or she has the right skills of temperament and judgment — can take risks with the proposals, unencumbered by the need to cover fixed costs and keep “the foundation” up and running.  Think of it as a “pop-up foundation,” akin to a pop-up restaurant, and you know who is the chef in the kitchen.  It is analogous to a Singaporean food stall, namely with low fixed costs, small staff, and the chef’s ability to impose his or her own vision on the food.

Once a fixed sum of money is given away, and the mission of the project (beneficial social change) has been furthered, “the foundation” goes away.  No one is laid off.  Rather than crying over a vanquished institutional empire and laid off friends/co-workers, the solo evaluator in fact has a chance to get back to personally profitable work.  It was “lean and mean” all along, except it wasn’t mean.

The risk-taking in grant decisions is consistent with the incentives of the evaluator, consistent with the level of staffing (zero), and consistent with the means of the evaluator.  A solo evaluator, no matter how talented, does not have the resources to make and tie down multiple demands for complex deliverables.  Rather, a solo evaluator is likely to think (or not) — “hmm…there is some potential in this one.”  The wise solo evaluator is likely to look for projects that have real upside through realizing the autonomous visions of their self-starting creators, rather than projects that appear bureaucratically perfect.

And how about the incentives of the solo evaluator?  Well, a fixed amount of time is being given up, so what is the point in making safe, consensus selections with the awards?  The solo evaluator, in addition to pursuing the mission of the fund, will tend to seek out grants that will boost his or her reputation as a finder of talent.  You might worry that an evaluator, even if fully honest will self-deceive somewhat, and use some of these grants to promote his or her own interests.  I would say donate your money to an evaluator who you are happy to see rise in status.

In other words, the basic vision of Emergent Ventures, the incentives, and its means are all pretty consistent.

The solo evaluator also has the power to make very small grants, simply by issuing a decision in their favor at very low fixed cost.  Alchian and Allen theorem!  That helps remedy the bias against small grants in the broader foundation world.

The single evaluator of course is going to make some mistakes, but so do foundations.  And the costs of these evaluator mistakes have to be weighed against the other upsides of this method.

In my view, at least two percent of philanthropy should be run this way, and right now in the foundation world it is about zero percent.  So I am trying to change this at the margin.

How does this idea scale?  What if it worked really well?  How would we do more of it?

Well, it is not practical for this solo evaluator to handle a larger and larger portfolio of grant requests.  Even if he or she were so inclined, that would bring us back to the problems of institutionalized foundations.  The ideal scaling is that other, competing “chefs” set up their own pop-up foundations.  Imagine a philanthropic world where, next year, you could give a million dollars to the Steven Pinker pop-up, to the Jhumpa Lahiri pop-up, to the Jordan Peterson intellectual venture fund, and so on.  Three years later, you would have an entirely different choice, say intellectual venture funds from Ezra Klein, David Brooks, and Skip Gates, among others.  The evaluators either could donate some of their time, as I am doing, or charge a fee for performing this service.  You also could imagine a major foundation carving off a separate section of their activities, and running this experiment on their own, with an evaluator of their choosing.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss how this model relates to the classical age of patronage running through the Renaissance, into the 18th century, and often into the 20th century as well, often through the medium of individual giving.  I also will consider how this relates to classic venture capital and the relevant economics behind “deal flow.”

In the meantime, I am repeating the list of the first cohort of Emergent Ventures winners.  That link also directs you to relevant background if Emergent Ventures is new to you.