Due to popular demand, we are releasing a transcript of the Conversation with Lindsey and Teles.
We talk about liberaltarianism, how bad is crony capitalism really, whether government affects the distribution of wealth much, universities as part of the problem, whether IP law is too lax or too tough, why Steve didn’t do better in high school, the British system of government, Charles Murray, the Federalist Society, Karl Marx, Thailand, the Coase Theorem, and Star Trek, among other topics. Here is one bit:
COWEN: What’s the most important idea in the book that you understand better than he [Brink Lindsey] does?
TELES: Well, so there is a division of labor here. Brink did a lot more work on the cases than I did, although we talked about them all and I did a lot more work on the political analysis. We draw a lot on great, really seminal article by Rick Hall at University of Michigan called “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” And I think that idea is dramatically under appreciated. The idea that what lobbyists are essentially doing is providing information, that information is scarce, it is a source of power. And one thing that we add is, if the state isn’t providing information itself, it essentially has to get it from outside. And when they get it from outside, it imports the overall inequality and information gathering and processing that’s in civil society. And that can be a very strong source of inequality in policy outcomes. I think Brink understands that, but this is my wheelhouse so I think probably if you were gonna push me, I’d say I understood it better that he did.
LINDSEY: One can see the whole sort of second wave feminist movement since the 60s as an anti rent-seeking movement, that white men were accumulating a lot of rents because of the way society was structured, that they were the breadwinner and there was a sexual division of labor, and they received higher pay than they would have otherwise because they were assumed to be the breadwinner, and women were just sort of kept out of the workforce in direct competition with men in many roles. The last half century has been an ongoing anti rent-seeking campaign and the dissipation of those rents especially by less skilled white men has been a cause of a great deal of angst and frustration and political acting out in recent years.
Here is a link to the podcast version of the chat, plus further explanation of my interview method for the two. Better yet, you can order their new book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.
David Evans on the economics of attention:
In 2016, 437 billion hours, worth $7.1 trillion dollars, were exchanged in the
attention market in the US based on conservative estimates reported above. Attention
platforms paid for that time with content and then sold advertisers access to portions of that
time. As a result, advertisers were able to deliver messages to consumers that those
consumers would probably not have accepted in the absence of the barter of content for
their time. Consumers often don’t like getting these messages. But by agreeing to receive
them they make markets more competitive.
The economics of attention markets focuses on three features. First it focuses on
time as the key dimension of competition since it is what is being bought and sold. Second,
it focuses on content since it plays a central role in acquiring time, embedding advertising
messages, and operating efficient attention platforms. And third it focuses on the scarcity of
time and the implications of that for competition among attention platforms.
The $7.1 trillion estimate for the value of content seems too high. The high value comes from Evans assuming that the marginal wage is higher than the average so the average wage which he uses to calculate the value of time is, if anything, an underestimate while for most people I think the marginal wage is lower than the average (many people don’t even have jobs) so the average is an over-estimate. Brynjolfsson and Oh, however, using somewhat different methods estimate the consumer surplus from television as 10% of GDP and from the internet of 6% GDP or combined about $3 trillion at current levels. Either way the attention economy is very large and understudied relative to its importance.
Casual empiricism suggests that celebrities engage in more anti-social and other socially unapproved behavior than non-celebrities. I consider a number of reasons for this stylized fact, including one new theory, in which workers who are less substitutable in production are enabled to engage in greater levels of misbehavior because their employers cannot substitute away from them. Looking empirically at a particular class of celebrities – NBA basketball players – I find that misbehavior on the court is due to several factors, including prominently this substitutability effect, though income effects and youthful immaturity also may be important.
Elsewhere, here is a Kaushik Basu micro piece on the law and economics of sexual harassment. And a more recent piece from the sociology literature. The practice increases quits and separations, with some of the costs borne by harassment victims and not firms; given imperfect transparency, recruitment incentives may not internalize this externality. On other issues, here is a relevant AER article. And this piece applies an insider-outsider model. Here is Posner (1999), perhaps he has changed his mind. Here is work by Elizabeth Walls, from Stanford.
I see negative externalities to sexual harassment across firms and sectors, and so, contra Posner (1999) and Walls, the most just and also efficient outcome is to tolerate one explicit and transparent form of the practice in the sector of formal prostitution and otherwise to keep it away from normal business activity. I believe such a ban boosts womens’ human capital investment, investment in firm-specific skills, aids the optimal production of status, and limits one particular kind of uninsurable risk, with all of those benefits correspondingly higher in an O-Ring or Garett Jones model of productivity.
Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO who co-founded the company long before “streaming” entered the popular lexicon, was born during a fairly remarkable year for film. 1960 was the year Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho astounded and terrified audiences, influencing a half-century of horror to come. It was a year of outstanding comedies (Billy Wilder’s The Apartment), outstanding epics (Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) and outstandingly creepy thrillers (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—a close cousin of Psycho).
But in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.
Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.
The bottom line is that streaming rights are expensive, whereas for shipping around DVDs the company can simply buy a disc. Alternatively, you could say that the law for tangible media — such as discs — is less infested with special interests than the law for digital rights? What does that say about our future?
…we first propose a new instrument for exposure to media bias to complement estimates based on news channel availability: the channel positions of news channels in cable television lineups. The channel position is the ordinal position of news channels in the cable lineup. The assertion is thus that the Fox News Channel will be watched more when it is channel position 25 instead of channel position 65. We demonstrate that a one-standard-deviation decrease in Fox News’s channel position is associated with an increase of approximately 2.5 minutes per week in time spent watching Fox News. We estimate that watching the Fox News Channel for this additional 2.5 minutes per week increases the vote share of the Republican presidential candidate by 0.3 percentage points among voters induced into watching by variation in channel position. The corresponding effect of watching MSNBC for 2.5 additional minutes per week is an imprecise zero.
Plastic surgeons who give you Vulcan and elfin-like ears:
Of course, looking naturally elflike is not everyone’s goal. Luis Padron, 25, who owns a cosplay business in Argentina, said he has spent over $35,000 in surgeries and procedures including skin lightening, nose surgery and hair removal for his sylvan shape-shifting. His look has been influenced by Katherine Cardona, a contemporary illustrator specializing in fairies, and Sakimichan, a gender-bending fantasy digital artist.
Padron plans to change his eye color to violet using an intraocular implant procedure in New Delhi (not approved by the Food and Drug Administration) because “it is the color of magic, fantasy, dreams and imagination,” he said. The idea is on point, elfishly speaking, when you consider that Bloom, who wore blue contact lenses in the Tolkien film, once described elves as “incredible angelic spirits who create and appreciate great beauty.”
To complete his elflike transformation, Padron is planning a heart-shaped hairline implant and PRP scalp injections in Beverly Hills, California, because “elves have long hair,” he said. He is also planning more plastic surgery in South Korea, including Adam’s apple reduction, jaw reshaping and limb lengthening, and plans to finish his look with ear pointing surgery, which he calls “the cherry on top.”
Waiting time for ear pointing, however, is over a year, and over 40 percent of elf-ear wishers don’t have the right cartilage to perform the modification, Von Cyborg said. Black was one of the lucky ones.
Here is the full story. Should this be subsidized or taxed?
Here is the transcript and audio (no video).
We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?
BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.
On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore
COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.
Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?
BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.
It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.
COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.
BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.
COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.
Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career. Again, here is the link.
That is Dave Rubin the comedian. It is thirty minutes long, no transcript or video, audio only right here. We covered comedy and political correctness, which jokes should not be told, the economics of comedy, comedy in Israel and Saudi Arabia, comedy on campus, George Carlin, and the most underrated Star Wars installment, among other topics. Here is one excerpt:
Cowen: How much do you think comedy is what’s sometimes called ‘a winner take all’ market? So another way to phrase the question is 20 years from now do you think there will be more or fewer professional comedians? You might say, for instance, “Well, you’re on YouTube, you’re real ly funny, I don’t need to go to a comedy club.” There’s this fellow in South Korea, Robert Kelly, he did an interview, he was trying not to be funny doing the interview, his two kids ran into the room, his wife pulled the kids back, it created a viral video, one of the funnier things I saw all year.
Cowen: Maybe not a funny guy, he was trying to keep it serious, so it was hilarious, and I can find those through my filters, through Twitter, through search. What’s the role of a professional comedian when an amateur’s best moment from a guy who isn’t even funny goes so viral?
Rubin: Well, the role is always there because the commentary on society is always gonna be there, so the moments like… Of course, I saw that video and it’s hilarious and it’s in the moment and it’s a beautiful thing. By the way, there was an outrage to that, because a lot of people were saying that the woman who came in was his nanny because I think she was Asian but it was actually his wife so then that created… So even that, just a pure moment of something hilarious happening became part of the outrage machine too. But the role for the critic of society, it’ll always be there, but it’s just not gonna to come from the clubs anymore, I think. I think that unfortunately… Comedy in its rawest form of standing in front of a group of people with a microphone and connecting to them that way, it’s as beautiful as it gets, there’s nothing in between you and the audience. It’s like painting, if you were a great painter and every stroke you had to go, “Was that okay? Was that okay?” Well, that would make you kinda crazy as a painter, but in stand up up you have to do it that way, every line you have to make sure is funny. I have not been funny here today at all, maybe we have to do something else.
Cowen: There’s less live music in New York City today than in the 1970s, is there less live comedy?
I enjoyed doing the interview very much.
Here is the transcript and podcast (no video). Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics. Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt. Here is one good bit:
COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?
LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.
LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.
A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.
In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.
Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.
LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:
The decline of TV revenue is not the same as a decline of interest in the sport. NBA basketball is alive and well; it’s just that more people are cutting the cord on cable. They still might follow the NBA through its website, or watch highlights on YouTube, or share gifs on Twitter.
That shift is likely to favor the stars and the most athletic players, because they are more likely to be featured in very short clips. As for the incentives, player salary will matter less, and the desire to become famous on the internet — and thus win lucrative endorsement contracts — will discourage team play. Expect more attempts to produce spectacular sequences, even if that doesn’t always translate into wins. “Boring” but fundamentally sound teams — which are better to watch for a 2.5 hour game — will be disfavored by this trend. Sorry, San Antonio!
Here is another:
Another possibility is that the NBA will consolidate with fantasy basketball and video gaming to augment their revenue. The NBA already has plans to introduce an e-sports product. More speculatively, if more states legalize sports gambling, the league could enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with casinos or bookmakers. Imagine redesigning the playoffs to maximize the number of decisive games and thus boost betting interest — that could mean more but shorter playoff series. At least the fantasy component of such a basketball conglomerate might redistribute some of the attention back to players who are not superstars. Gamblers also tend to be well-informed about the teams they bet on, so this direction could encourage a smarter NBA, better designed for the nerds and fanboys.
Do read the whole thing.
Iron Fist, the latest Marvel-Netflix, superhero show, is by far the weakest. [Mild spoilers] The show has been accused of cultural appropriation because it casts a white actor rather than an Asian as a kung-fu superhero (Iron Fist is also white in the comic book but those were unenlightened times). I could live with that if the white actor actually fit the role. Unfortunately, lead actor Finn Jones, whatever his other talents, doesn’t look imposing or powerful. Bruce Lee wasn’t a big guy but he was ripped and you could see at once that despite his charm you didn’t want to mess with this guy. In contrast, Danny Rand, as portrayed by Finn, is a sniveling, crying, whining child who can’t get over the death of his mommy. Despite having supposedly been subjected to beatings, deprivation, and fifteen years of intense martial-arts training, Rand shows none of the hardness that surviving, let alone thriving, in such an environment produces. His fist may be iron but nothing else is.
The fight scenes with Jones are, with one exception, lackluster. The exception is a fight between the Iron and Drunken fist. Drunken Fist (Zhou Cheng) portrayed by Lewis Tan steals the scene. Not only does he clearly give Iron Fist a beat down (despite the nominal outcome) he does so with humor, intelligence and charisma. Watching this scene you cannot help but think, heh, they should have made Lewis Tan the Iron Fist. In fact, Tan was considered for the role! Ironically, after meeting Danny Rand, many characters ask, “Why did this guy get chosen to be the Iron Fist?” It’s a very good question.
The politics of Iron Fist are also annoying. Danny Rand inherits a powerful firm and in one of his first acts as owner he forces it, over the objections of the board, to sell its new drug at cost. What a sweet guy. Blech! The show does give some pretty good arguments for why this is a bad idea–namely it will reduce R&D and because of subsidies from charities and governments the drug will in any case go to everyone who needs its–so you could give Iron Fist a Straussian reading but I don’t give the writers that much credit.
The most serious failing of Iron Fist is that it breaks the cardinal rule: superheroes need supervillains. Outstanding performances by Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin and David Tennant as Kilgrave made for riveting conflict in Daredevil and Jessica Jones respectively. Luke Cage disappointed for its lack of a supervillain. Iron Fist is even worse as it jumps from villain to villain to villain, none of whom are especially super and some of whom are not even all that villainous.
The “hand” are supposed to be the supervillains but they come in (of course) right and left versions. The “left” hand are drug dealers and assassins. But the motives, actions, and consequences of the right hand are difficult to see. Although it’s not clear how the hand operates, their leader makes a case that their actions improve society. The Iron Fist almost joins the hand until he discovers that they have a bunch of computers and surveillance equipment. Then he and sidekick Colleen Wing go on an all out killing spree. What??? I’m no fan of the NSA but surveillance isn’t necessarily evil, Batman also had his sources of information. Iron Fist, however, has difficulty controlling his anger. He acts rashly and with little thought. He sees the world in childish ways. His actions often have unintended consequences and that is why in any battle between the Iron Fist and the invisible Hand, I will take the invisible Hand.
Here is one bit, from the rapid fire back-and-forth:
The rationality community.
Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?
Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.
Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.
There is much more at the link, entertaining throughout, with links to the full podcast as well.
One of Beijing’s busiest public toilets is fighting the scourge of toilet paper theft through the use technology – giving out loo roll only to patrons who use a face scanner.
The automated facial recognition dispenser comes as a response to elderly residents removing large amounts of toilet paper for use at home.
Now, those in need of paper must stand in front of a high-definition camera for three seconds, after removing hats and glasses, before a 60cm ration is released.
Those who come too often will be denied, and everyone must wait nine minutes before they can use the machine again.
But there have already been reports of software malfunctions, forcing users to wait over a minute in some cases, a difficult situation for those in desperate need of a toilet.
The camera and its software have also raised privacy concerns, with some users on social media uneasy about a record of their bathroom use.
He was superb, here is the transcript, audio, and video. We considered satire as a weapon, Harvard, long-distance running, Washington vs. NYC, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, Caribbean culture and intellectual history, and of course Malcolm’s mom, among other topics. His answers are so fluid and narrative they are hard to excerpt, but here is one bit from him:
COWEN: Overrated or underrated, the idea of early childhood intervention to set societal ills right?
GLADWELL: Overrated because to my mind it’s just another form . . . it became politically impermissible to say that certain people in society would never make it because they were genetically inferior. So I feel like that group, it’s like, “All right, we can’t say that anymore. We’ll just move the goalpost up two years.” And we’ll say, “Well, if you don’t get . . .” Or three years — “If you don’t get the right kind of stimulation by the time you’re three, basically it’s curtains.”
Why is that argument, which we decided we didn’t like it when they set the goalpost at zero, and somehow it’s super-important and legitimate and chin-stroking-worthy when they moved the goalpost to three. Truth is, people, it’s not over at three any more than it was over at zero. There are certain things that it would be nice to get done by the age of three. But if they’re not, the idea that it’s curtains is preposterous. It’s the same kind of fatalism that I thought we had defeated in the . . .
If you want to say that the goalpost should be at 30, then I’m open to it.
I asked what changes he would make to higher education:
GLADWELL: OK. I would establish a set of baseline criteria for admissions, and then I would have a lottery after that. So if you’re in the top 2 percent of your high school class — 5 percent, whatever cutoff we want — following test scores at a certain point, whatever cutoff we want, some minimum number of other things you do — you just go into the pot and we’re pulling out names. I’d probably triple or quadruple the size in the next 10 years, open campuses — probably two other campuses in the United States, one overseas.
I had this idea, I’m not sure how you’d do it, where I think that it would be really, really useful to ban graduates of elite colleges from ever disclosing that they went to an elite college.
I thought the Steve Pearlstein material was perhaps Malcolm’s highlight, but you need to read it straight through.
Here is a very short bit from me:
Most of my questions will be quite short, but my first question will be really, really long. Since everyone knows you and your work so well, I asked myself, “Who is Malcolm Gladwell?” And I tried to come up with an answer. I’ll give you my answer, and then you can correct me or add to that, and this will take a little while.
What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not? Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question. Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his). In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?