Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Reverse nudge theory — when the many nudge the few

Nudge Theory, popularised by Thaler & Sunstein, proposes that our decisions can be biased by relatively small changes in choice architecture. While we might be well intentioned, our human fallibility and modern environments sometimes require ‘choice architects’ to nudge us back on the path toward individual and collective wellbeing. Whether used for good or bad, Nudge Theory is most often applied downhill – the few (state or commercial players) nudge the many (citizens or consumers).

I would like to propose that Reverse Nudge Theory might be a good term for nudging uphill. For governments and corporations are also made up of individuals – and these individuals are equally prone to political, economic, and career forces which may get in the way of them making decisions that would be in our best interests.

Such reverse nudging is not a new endeavour of course. The formation of labour unions, the democratic process, and ‘voting with your wallet‘ are all good examples of this. So while well-intentioned choice architects nudge us, perhaps we need to be equally creative in nudging them back for their (and our) own good.

That is from Benjamin Vincent at Journal of Brief Ideas.

Who are the most underrated and overrated libertarian thinkers?

A while back, freethinker had a request: “name the most overrated and underrated libertarian thinkers”

Here are the most underrated:

1. Robert Nozick.  Super-duper smart, always open and probing, and incredibly well-read.  Somehow other libertarians seem to undervalue that he independently became one of the world’s greatest philosophers, perhaps because they have not done the same.

2. Herbert Spencer: In his day, he often was considered perhaps the greatest thinker of his time or even his century.  That wasn’t quite right, but he did build a comprehensive system for the social sciences, understood the primacy of sociology and anthropology, outlined some of the better arguments for liberty, developed an early version of complexity theory, and the “Social Darwinist” caricature of him was exactly that.  He even influenced literary theory and rhetoric.  On the more practical side, read Social Statics.

3. Gustav de Molinari.  He tried to think about governance more seriously than the other late 19th century, early 20th century Belgian libertarians.  He understood the primacy of war, focused on futurism, and flirted with both anarchist and multi-lateralist constraints on state power.  He hasn’t received much attention since Murray Rothbard promoted his ideas, though see these works by David Hart.

4. Whichever critic of slavery was libertarian enough to count as libertarian for your purposes.  Bartolomé de las CasasLysander Spooner?  William Lloyd Garrison?  Take your pick.

Ayn Rand and Ludwig Mises belong in a separate category, because they both have overzealous disciples who so overrate them.  That in turn makes them somewhat underrated almost everywhere else.  Rand’s cocktail party analysis of the sociology of capitalism-hatred remains one of the great contributions to political thought, plus she reaffirmed the necessary high status of the business producer.  Mises’s Liberalism and also Socialism were two of the best books of the first part of the 20th century.  So I am happy to call them both underrated, subject to the above not entirely insignificant caveat.

The most overrated libertarian qua libertarian might be Milton Friedman.  He is not overrated as an economist, if anything he is still considerably underrated.  But as a libertarian?  For a guy that smart, I’m not sure he added much to the corpus of libertarian ideas, and I recall one closing segment to a Free to Choose episode where he couldn’t out-argue Peter Jay on some basic issues of political philosophy.  And have the Friedmanite ideas of school vouchers and social security privatization really held up as so central?  Friedman and Rothbard really didn’t like each other, and each was right about what the other couldn’t do.

*Skin in the Game*, the new Nassim Taleb book

By some mysterious mechanism, people fail to realize that the principal thing you can learn from a professor is how to be a professor…


…the deep message of this book is the danger of universalism taken two or three steps too far — conflating the micro and the macro.

This is Taleb’s deepest and most Straussian book, quickly you will notice that the Levant and the ancient world haunt the pages.  It may mystify some of his more casual fans, but I am happy to recommend it — it is the manly book Taleb wanted to write and it is full of ideas.  After all, he had skin in the game.

His closing advice is this:

  1. Never engage in virtue signaling;
  2. Never engage in rent-seeking;
  3. You must start a business. Put yourself on the line, start a business.

You can pre-order it here.

*Enlightenment Now*, the new Steven Pinker book

1. He is more likely right than wrong on the major points of optimism and progress and science.

2. The book is very clearly written, and it would do most of the world good to read it.

3. Contrary to Pinker, inframarginally I see the Enlightenment as a strong complement to Christianity/faith, even though the two at the margin often will clash.  The same is true for nationalism.

4. The Counterenlightenment, as Pinker calls it, is intellectually much stronger than he gives it credit for.  It’s time for yet another reread of Gulliver’s Travels.

5. I am uncomfortable with statements such as “Intellectuals hate progress.”  That sentence opens chapter four.  I know that he explains and qualifies it, but it is not how I like to organize concepts.

6. It is not a good book for understanding the Enlightenment.

7. Overall my main difference with Pinker might be this: I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing his schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system.  That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable.  It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear.  In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.

The book’s subtitle is The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  And here is my earlier discussion with Pinker, video, podcast, and transcript.

My Conversation with Matt Levine

Here is the transcript and audio, Matt was in great form.  We covered Uber, derivatives, crypto, Horace, Latin and the ancient world, neighborhoods of New York City, whether markets are volatile enough, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whether IPOs are mispriced, Nabokov and modernist literature, Achilles and Homer, and of course the Matt Levine production function (“panic”).

Here is one excerpt:


…What I’d like the story to be is that financial markets have gotten smarter and they reacted less to news. So even though the news is noisier, they react less to that noisy news because it turns out not to affect asset prices in as noisy a way as you’d think by watching TV.

I think that there is something compelling to that because we actually have seen smart people build smart things that do a good job of making investing decisions. So you’d expect over time, as people build more rational investing tools, investing would become more rational.

The good counterargument to that is that investing is not a technological problem in the world that can be solved. It’s an interpersonal fight. Trading, in particular, is an attempt to be better than someone else. You can never make trading more rational because as you get better, someone else gets better. The residue will ultimately still be your human biases.

I’m biased towards the view that we have gotten smarter at decoupling our emotional reactions to the news from financial asset prices. Part of that is — whether or not that’s true globally — there’s a local sense in which the first day of Trump’s election everyone panicked. Then he said another crazy thing, and then he said another. Eventually you tune it out. That’s a form of this thing of financial assets reacting less to human reactions to the news.

Here is another:

COWEN: Do you have a single biggest worry [about asset markets], however tiny, tiny, tiny it may be?

LEVINE: I don’t think I do. I don’t think I do. The thing that I find weirdest is the lack of volatility in the face of a very strange and volatile world, but I’ve reconciled myself to that. This is my efficient markets optimism, where I assume that if something bad is happening, it would happen.

COWEN: But efficient markets is also a pessimism, right? It’s harder to make the world better than it already is because you can’t see past what others are seeing very easily.

LEVINE: Sure, it’s an efficient markets conservatism or something.

And finally:

LEVINE: I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Do read and listen to the whole thing

Why the center-left became immoderate

Lack of ideology and belief in nothing in particular (except perhaps more redistribution):

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed — we humans are not worthy of it in every regard.

That is from Shadi Hamid at the WSJ; given this perspective, it is perhaps no accident that he is a scholar of Islam.  “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Hat tip goes to the excellent Samir Varma.

The advantages of organizing knowledge in terms of country and place

When a child is looking at a map, he or she is probably organizing some of the associated knowledge in terms of location or plac — “Hmm…so there’s a boot-shaped country at the bottom of Europe.”

If you say “I don’t know much about Algeria.  I should read Alastair Horne on the country, watch Battle of Algiers, and try to speak with some Algerians,” you are again organizing knowledge, and your quest for knowledge, in terms of place.

Alternatively, you might organize your knowledge in terms of historical eras, of fields of science, or in terms of people you know — “that’s Johnny’s view of the world!”  Of course we all use some combination of these methods and others.

I find that people who travel a great deal often organize their knowledge in terms of physical location.  For instance, they might be curious about visiting parts of the world they have had no previous exposure to, or alternatively they might decide “I am going to specialize in Brazil.”

I see a few advantages from organizing knowledge in terms of place:

1. It encourages objectivity, as most of us do not have strong political or partisan opinions about most other countries.  In contrast, if you set out to study “Does industrial policy work?”, you will approach your study of each place with a higher degree of bias.  Instead, just study each place, and let your conclusions about industrial policy come to you.  Quite literally, it has a useful “distancing” effect.

2. As I have mentioned, almost everyone in the world becomes an interesting potential partner in your quest for knowledge.  Even if a person doesn’t know much theory, or is not a good storyteller, almost certainly they can teach you something about the places they have lived in.

3. There are many places, so you will never feel you know so much.  And you can always be imagining the next quest.

4. Increasing returns to scale will drive your curiosity, much as one might seek to capture stones in the game of Go.  Imagine knowing all the countries that surround Uzbekistan, but never having visited Uzbekistan itself.  Oh how the passions would rise!

5. Even if distant travel is not available to you, you can study so many social science questions by comparing parts of your city, or by considering adjacent towns and their differences.

6. Folding over pages in a book, leaving books in piles on the floor, and trying to remember “where in a book you read something” are all methods of using space to better organize your knowledge.  Subsequent innovations in VR and AR may help us advance on these techniques.

Organizing knowledge in terms of place does not always encourage theoretical reasoning or thinking in terms of models.  It is therefore especially useful for people who tend to be systematizers in the first place.

In general, I believe that many people have a quite underdeveloped sense of how to use physical space as a cognitive tool.  You may recall that many medieval and Renaissance memory systems (pre-Google!) instructed the user to imagine all of the information arrayed at different points in physical space, such as in a sequence along a road, or as rooms in a house.

Similarly, if you organize your knowledge of the arts, music, and economics by country and place, many of the underlying study objects may become much more vivid to you.

What is the optimal distance from the past to have a satisfying knowledge of it?

It is easy to develop a better understanding of Renaissance Venice or Florence by simply visiting the cities, as much of their past remains to be seen.  Ancient Greece of course is much tougher, though still there are shards of significance.  I am pleased that I can read Shakespeare without a translation, although I suspect this won’t be true for most educated Americans a century from now.

To maximize the total joy from understanding and consuming the past, how close to that past do you wish to be?  One thousand years from now, assuming things are still up and running, you will have another thousand years of history to consume, enjoy, and perhaps grieve over.  But many important eras will seem strange or incomprehensible to you, beyond your intellectual grasp.  You might not know what “colonial America” really was, whereas today I know actual people who live in colonial homes, for instance in Alexandria, Virginia.

Is having a longer past to look back upon always more rewarding?  Or would you rather have a shorter past to ponder, but be closer in time and sympathy to some of the most foundational developments?

Would you prefer to see them inaugurate those space colonies, or instead have some partial grasp of what “The Enlightenment” really was about?

Is there a worry that human history could become like one of those never-ending, exhausting series of fantasy novels, where only the diehards care about volume 27 and the ongoing saga of the Mrithythambs and their struggle against the Kohnipoors?  One of the advantages of living in the current day is that you can have a pretty good and internally coherent narrative for what has happened from the ancient Greeks (or earlier?) up through the current day.

For this post I am indebted to a lunchtime conversation with S.

My personal moonshot

That is a short piece I wrote for the inauguration of a new Mercatus website The Bridge.  The focus of the piece is how I think about my own career and “moat”, excerpt:

My view, or at least hope, is that these diverse outputs [listed at the link] exploit two synergies.  First, my work in any one of these areas publicizes what I am doing in the others.  Second, what I learn from each task boosts my productivity in the others.  Overall, I think of these activities as a kind of collective intellectual blitzkrieg.

I will step out of my modest demeanor for a moment and suggest that relatively few people can construct and manage such a broad portfolio, and so this gives me some kind of competitive advantage or “moat” in the world of ideas.  My moonshoot, in essence, is trying to push as hard as possible on that advantage with this blitzkrieg.


By the way, I love it when people describe writing a blog, or writing on the internet, as “popularizing” economics or something similar.  That is a sign they don’t understand what is going on, that they don’t understand there is such a thing as “internet economics,” and also a sign they will not be effective competition.  It’s really about “the internet way of writing and communicating” vs. non-internet methods.  The internet methods may or may not be popular, and may or may not be geared toward a wide audience, so they are not the same as popularizing.  One point of the internet is to find an outlet for super-unpopular material.  What’s important right now is to develop internet methods of thinking and communicating, and not to obsess over reaching the largest possible numbers of people.

I would note that fits into the picture too, although this essay was too short to explain the larger schema with that one.

Do Tibetan Buddhists fear death the most?

It is an old philosophical idea that if the future self is literally different from the current self, one should be less concerned with the death of the future self (Parfit, 1984). This paper examines the relation between attitudes about death and the self among Hindus, Westerners, and three Buddhist populations (Lay Tibetan, Lay Bhutanese, and monastic Tibetans). Compared with other groups, monastic Tibetans gave particularly strong denials of the continuity of self, across several measures. We predicted that the denial of self would be associated with a lower fear of death and greater generosity toward others. To our surprise, we found the opposite. Monastic Tibetan Buddhists showed significantly greater fear of death than any other group. The monastics were also less generous than any other group about the prospect of giving up a slightly longer life in order to extend the life of another.

The economist might call this an income vs. substitution effect, the income effect in this case predominating.

That is from “Death and the Self,” by Shaun Nichols,  Nina Strohminger, Arun Rai, and Jay Garfield.  Via Rolf Degen, who in turn notes on Twitter:

I don’t think that the terrible thing about dying is the expiration of the self. The terrible thing is that WE must leave – and the party goes on without us. Social comparison until the end.

There is this famous saying that being ostracized is like death, it is “social death”. But it goes further: Real death IS social death, it is like being ostracized by the living.

Tyler Cowen’s 12 rules for life

After reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, a few people asked me what my list would look like.  I would stress that what follows is not a universal or eternally valid account, but rather a few ideas that strike me in the here and now, perhaps as the result of recent conversations.  I suspect the same is true for everyone’s rules lists, so please keep this in perspective.  Here goes:

1. Assume your temperament will always be somewhat childish and impatient, and set your rules accordingly, knowing that you cannot abide by rules for rules sake.  Hope to leverage your impatience toward your longer-run advantage.

2. Study the symbolic systems of art, music, literature. and religion, if only to help yourself better understand alternative points of view in political and intellectual discourse.  Don’t just spend time with the creations you like right away.  Avoid “devalue and dismiss.

3. When the price goes up, buy less.  Try to understand what the price really is, however, and good luck with that.

4. Marry well.

5. Organize at least some significant portion of your knowledge of the world in terms of place, whether by country, region, or city.  If you do that, virtually every person will be interesting to you, if only because almost everyone has some valuable knowledge of particular places.

6. When shooting the basketball, give it more arc than you think is necessary.  Consistently.

7. Learn how to learn from those who offend you.

8. Cultivate mentors, and be willing to serve as mentors to others.  This never loses its importance.

9. I don’t know.

10. Heed Cowen’s Three Laws.

11. Do not heed Cowen’s Three Laws.

12. Every now and then read or reread Erasmus, Montaigne, Homer, Shakespeare, or Joyce’s Ulysses, so that you do not take any rules too seriously.  The human condition seems to defeat our attempts to order it.

The five most influential public intellectuals?

A few of you have been demanding this, here are those who come to mind, note that “influence” does not have to mean I agree with them.  And I am sticking with the West, otherwise Uncle Xi wins hands down.  In no particular order:

1. Jordan Peterson

2. Catherine Mackinnon

3. Ta-Nehisi Coates

4. Charles Murray

5. A composite alt-right thinker, mixing features of Curtis Yarvin, Steve Sailer, Steve Bannon, and a bunch of others.

In the fairly recent past, both Andrew Sullivan and Peter Singer would have been on this list, but not in 2018.  I would cite Michel Houllebecq as a figure who is important, and relatively influential, but more important than influential and thus not in the top five.  I am not sure if religious figures should qualify for this designation, for the time being I have not considered them.  Obama has a good claim, but adding elected leaders only confuses the matter, relative to what people are asking me for.

One list I saw, which I can no longer find through Google, had on it Peterson, Cass Sunstein, and Samantha Powers, plus two other names I forget.

Arguably a tech person should be on the list, but neither Elon Musk nor Peter Thiel have much written output, nor is either representative of the tech world as a whole.  Maybe a kind of composite tech CEO?  Bill Gates is also a plausible pick, even though to many intellectuals his ideas seem to be quite mainstream.  The mainstream, by definition, is highly influential!

An alternative list could be, again in no particular order:

1. Bill Gates

2. Mark Zuckerberg

3. Jeff Bezos

4. Peter Thiel

5. Brin and Page

6. Elon Musk

7. Jack Dorsey

How’s that?  Better?