Category: The Arts

Hume on the Rise And Progress of the Arts And Sciences

Avarice, or the desire of gain, is an universal passion, which operates at all times, in all places, and upon all persons: But curiosity, or the love of knowledge, has a very limited influence, and requires youth, leisure, education, genius, and example, to make it govern any person. You will never want booksellers, while there are buyers of books: But there may frequently be readers where there are no authors.

David Hume explaining why it’s more difficult to explain the progress of the arts and sciences than economic progress, even if the latter may depend on the former. And here is Hume on geography and the growth of the arts and sciences:

But the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power. Reputation is often as great a fascination upon men as sovereignty, and is equally destructive to the freedom of thought and examination. But where a number of neighbouring states have a great intercourse of arts and commerce, their mutual jealousy keeps them from receiving too lightly the law from each other, in matters of taste and of reasoning, and makes them examine every work of art with the greatest care and accuracy. The contagion of popular opinion spreads not so easily from one place to another. It readily receives a check in some state or other, where it concurs not with the prevailing prejudices. And nothing but nature and reason, or, at least, what bears them a strong resemblance, can force its way through all obstacles, and unite the most rival nations into an esteem and admiration of it.

…In China, there seems to be a pretty considerable stock of politeness and science, which, in the course of so many centuries, might naturally be expected to ripen into some thing more perfect and finished, than what has yet arisen from them. But China is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathizing in the same manners. The authority of any teacher, such as Confucius, was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to the other. None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason, why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire.

If we consider the face of the globe, Europe, of all the four parts of the world, is the most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains; and Greece of all countries of Europe. Hence these regions were naturally divided into several distinct governments. And hence the sciences arose in Greece; and Europe has been hitherto the most constant habitation of them.

See Tyler’s In Praise of Commericial Culture for more Humean themes.

My Conversation with Cynthia L. Haven

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

…those two interests converged as they led her to interview and write books about three writers and thinkers whom she also came to call mentors: René Girard, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky.

Cynthia joined Tyler to discuss what she’s gleaned from each of the three, including what traits they have in common, why her biography of Girard had to come from outside academia, Milosz’s reaction to the Berkley Free Speech Movement, Girard’s greatest talent — and flaw — as a thinker, whether Brodsky will fall down the memory hole, why he was so terrible on Ukraine, why Cynthia’s early career was much like The Devil Wears Prada, the failings of Twitter, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: What is your philosophy of what is missing in most other people’s interviews?

HAVEN: I don’t know that it’s a philosophy.

COWEN: You must think you’re adding something, right?

HAVEN: I’m interested in big questions. I think a lot of people aren’t. A lot of interviewers aren’t. It’s not an era for big questions, is it?

COWEN: 2022? I’m not sure.

HAVEN: Really?

COWEN: Maybe the questions are either too big or too small and not enough in between.

HAVEN: That’s an interesting point of view.

COWEN: There’s plenty of ideology in the world and in this country. It doesn’t have to be a good thing, but —

HAVEN: Ideology is different than big questions, I think.

Interesting throughout.

Some simple analytics of Indian growth, economic and cultural

I think of India as, throughout much of its history, as having a surfeit of human talent but a scarcity of good infrastructure.  Infrastructure serves as a bottleneck for further advances.  Thus, many of India’s most significant advances are densely packed with talent, but capital goods are relatively scarce.  For instance:

1. Indian classical music is super-high G-loaded, but the instruments are relatively inexpensive, compared say to a symphony orchestra.

2. Indian mathematics and computational advance, such as we find in say Ramanujan and the broader South Indian tradition, is high on mental facility and low on capital goods.

3. Religious contemplation is another Indian specialty, ditto.

4. Indian food has lots of ingredients, but many of them are relatively inexpensive, for instance vegetables, lentils, or native spices.  The combinatorial achievements however are remarkable.

And so on.

As Indian economic growth proceeds, infrastructure will improve dramatically and indeed this process already is underway.  That will enable India to make contributions in a broader range of areas, and for those contributions to spread around the world more readily.

We are in essence entering a world where physical infrastructure and “ingredients” are no longer the binding constraint on Indian cultural development.  In cuisine, this is mirrored by the rise and spread of Indian “fusion” cuisine, including in India itself, and Indian molecular gastronomy.

Indian culture (and exports) will continue to rise in influence.  But many Indians will miss the older approach.  They expect talent-intensive cultural contributions, and have come to love them.  (Do you really want Pandit Kumar Gandharva to be replaced by a collaboration with some guy playing a mellotron?0  The next wave of Indian cultural exports will be less talent-intensive, less cognitively challenging, and to many people they will not feel “entirely Indian.”

Precisely as India succeeds in spreading its influence, its culture will seem just a bit stupider.  This will be reinforced by the likelihood that the global marginal customer is not so cognitively well-equipped to understand the greatest glories of Indian civilization.

Indians wielding capital will become increasingly influential, relative to Indians wielding talent.  Vishny Anand as Indian leader will be replaced by ????.

#Heckscher-Ohlin

What should I ask Katherine Rundell?

She is the author of the splendid new book on John Donne, reviewed by me here.  More generally, here is from Wikipedia:

Katherine Rundell (born 1987) is an English author and academic. She is the author of Rooftoppers, which in 2015 won both the overall Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award for Best Story, and was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. She is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and has appeared as an expert guest on BBC Radio 4 programmes including Start the Week, Poetry Please, and Seriously….and Private Passions.

Rundell’s other books include The Girl Savage (2011), released in 2014 in a slightly revised form as Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms in the United States where it was the winner of the 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction, The Wolf Wilder (2015), and The Explorer (2017), winner of the children’s book prize at the 2017 Costa Book Awards.

And this:

…all her books, and her play, contain a joke at Belgium’s expense…

She is also an avid roofwalker, and more.  Here is Katherine eating a tarantula.

So what should I ask her?

*Vanishing Asia*, by Kevin Kelly

Three volumes, $281.57, totally worth it.  Picture books!  Asia only, the vanishing part of course.  Very wide coverage of various regions, including parts of western Asia such as Georgia.  And yes this is the same Kevin Kelly who is a Hayekian, tech commentator, and much more.  It is thus one of the most conceptual picture books, noting the text is minimal and descriptive.

And it is not just the usual stuff, such as amazing old buildings or vistas of rice paddies and brightly colored festivals.  Kelly is not afraid to hit you with 40 door photos in a row, all lined up in neat little rows.

Might this be one of the very best picture books?  Based on 9,000 photographs and 50 years of travel, 40 of them spent taking photos, and none of it was paid for by other parties.  They don’t make ’em like this any more.  Recommended.

p.s. One trick of the book is that a lot of this stuff hasn’t vanished at all.  Note the gerund!

My excellent Conversation with Will MacAskill

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

William joined Tyler to discuss why the movement [Effective Altruism] has gained so much traction and more, including his favorite inefficient charity, what form of utilitarianism should apply to the care of animals, the limits of expected value, whether effective altruists should be anti-abortion, whether he’d would side with aliens over humans, whether he should give up having kids, why donating to a university isn’t so bad, whether we are living in “hingey” times, why buildering is overrated, the sociology of the effective altruism movement, why cultural innovation matters, and whether starting a new university might be next on his slate.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Of all the inefficient things, which is the one you love most?

And longer:

COWEN: If we’re assessing the well-being of nonhuman animals, should we use preference utilitarianism or hedonistic utilitarianism? Because it will make a big difference. We’re not sure all these animals are happy. They may live lives of terror, but we’re pretty sure they want to stay alive.

MACASKILL: It makes a huge difference. I think the arguments for hedonism as a theory of well-being, where that saying that well-being consists only in conscious experiences — positive ones contribute positively, negative conscious experiences contribute negatively — I think the arguments for that as a theory of well-being and the theory of what’s good are very strong. It does mean that when you look to the lives of animals in the wild, my view is it’s just very nonobvious whether those lives are good or not.

That’s me being a little bit more optimistic than other people that have looked into this, but the optimism is mainly drawing from just lack of — I think we know very little about the conscious lives of fish, let alone invertebrates. But yes, if you have a preference satisfaction view, then I think the world looks a lot better because beings, in general, want to keep living.

Actually, when we look to the future as well, I think if you assess how good is the future going to be on a hedonist view, well, maybe it’s quite fragile. You could imagine lots of future ways that civilization could go, where they just don’t care about consciousness at all, or perhaps the beings that will, are not conscious. But probably, beings in the future will have preferences, and those preferences will be being satisfied. So, in general, moral reality looks a lot more rosy, I think, if you’re a preference satisfactionist.

COWEN: But it’s possible, say, in your view, that human beings should spend a lot of their time and resources going around destroying nature, since it might have negative net expected utility value.

MACASKILL: I think it’s a possible implication. I think it’d be very unlikely to be the best thing we could be doing because once —

COWEN: But there’s a lot of nature. We have very effective bombs, weapons. We could develop animal-killing weapons if we set our minds to it.

And from me:

COWEN: I worry a bit this is verging into the absurd, and I’m aware that word is a bit question-begging. But if we think about the individual level — like what do you, Will, value? — you value, in part, the inefficient. It’s very hard to give people just pure utilitarian advice, because they’re necessarily partial.

At the big macro level — like the whole world of nature versus humans, ethics of the infinite, and so on — it also seems to me utilitarianism doesn’t perform that well. The utilitarian part of our calculations — isn’t that only a mid-scale theory? You can ask, does rent control work? Are tariffs good? Utilitarianism is fine there, but otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense.

Fascinating throughout.  Don’t forget Will’s excellent new book What We Owe the Future.

Addendum: Here is Ezra Klein’s conversation with MacAskill.  And with Dwarkesh Patel.

Peter Brook has passed away at age 97

Here is a NYT obituary, here is a Guardian appreciation.  Here is Brook’s Wikipedia page.  He was one of the very greatest talents of our time.  He was most of all a theatre director, and so most of his output I have never seen.  I can report that his filmed Mahabharata (5.5 hours on YouTube) is one of the great creations.  He and his co-workers spent eight years on the project.  I also give his King Lear, again on film, an A+.  At Lincoln Center I once saw his staging of The Magic Flute (in French!), again an A+.

RIP.

Rent seeking and the decline of the Florentine school

Economists have claimed that the invisible hand of competition is behind the historical episodes of outstanding artistic achievement, from Shakespearean theater to musical composition in Mozart’s Vienna. Competition, the argument goes, acts on producers of the arts just as it does on producers of mundane commodities. By pitting one artist against all others for the public’s purse and the critics’ praise, rivalry encourages them to supply more refined products. While often left unstated, the same argument implies that the absence of competition will be detrimental to the quality of artists’ output. We extend that insight to explain the decline of the Florentine school of painting in the Late Renaissance period. The rise of the Medici family as Florence’s ruling dynasty turned the previously competitive market for paintings into a monopsony. That development, we argue, strengthened the benefits to local painters of forming a cartel to reclaim the rents captured by the monopsonist. The result was the creation of a local painters’ guild that restricted competition, ultimately contributing to a decline in the quality and influence of Florentine painting.

That is from a new piece by Ennio E. Piano and Tanner Hardy in Public Choice.  Speculative, as they say, and declines in artistic quality are notoriously difficult to predict or to squish into standard models.  That said, the earlier model of competitive guild bidding for artists was, I think, better for quality than Medici patronage.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What should I ask Hanif Abdurraqib?

It will be a conversation, though not a recorded CWT.  Here is Wikipedia on him:

Hanif Abdurraqib is an American poet, essayist, and cultural critic. He is the author of 2016 poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (published as Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib), the 2017 essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, the 2019 non-fiction book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest on the American hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, the 2019 poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, and the 2021 essay collection A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance which received the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Go Ahead in the Rain was on the long list for the 2019 National Book Award.

So what should I ask?

*Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne*

This new book by Katherine Rundell, now out in the UK but still pending in the United States for September, is one of the very best studies of an individual poet I ever have read.  The book’s style is so energetic and so carefully crafted as a whole, it is difficult to excerpt from.  What is striking to me is that the blurbs are from super-smart people, and they all are literally accurate (has that ever been the case?). So for instance Claire Tomalin wrote:

Katherine Rundell’s brave and detailed new biography of John Donne is just the book we need…Every page sparkles…

Simon Jenkins wrote:

Rundell has a wonderful touch, light yet profound, which perfectly suits her extraordinary subject…Unmissable.

The great Maggie O’Farrell wrote:

A wonderful, joyous piece of work…with fierce, interrogative intelligence. I just loved it.

All true!  Recommended, a sure thing for the year’s best of non-fiction list.  You don’t even have to like poetry, as a history book it is first-rate as well.

Against Historic Preservation II

 In Manhattan, once famed for its ever-evolving skyline, an astonishing 27 percent of the borough’s lots now fall under the purview of the landmarks commission.

That’s from Jacob Andinder’s What Historic Preservation Is Doing to American Cities in the Atlantic. It’s a pretty good history of the movement for historic preservation focusing (of course) on some of the racist motivations and effects. But it has little to say about what to do about the consequent difficulties of building anything new. Similarly, here’s Binyamin Applebaum in the NYTimes correctly decrying the fact that historic preservation laws mean you can’t put solar panels on the rooftops of many homes in Washington, DC. Applebaum suggests a tiered approach.

I am more radical. All historical preservation laws should be repealed.

It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Successful People are also Happy and Well-Adjusted

It’s perhaps a consequence of the just-world hypothesis that we think beautiful people can’t be smart, wealthy people must have few friends, and people with greatly successful careers must have sacrificed a happy home. There are, of course, many such examples but alas there are also many people who are ugly and dumb, poor and friendless and unsuccessful and dysfunctional. So, is there any correlation? Probably not.

We examined the wrecked-by-success hypothesis. Initially formalized by Sigmund Freud, this hypothesis has become pervasive throughout the humanities, popular press, and modern scientific literature. The hypothesis implies that truly outstanding occupational success often exacts a heavy toll on psychological, interpersonal, and physical well-being. Study 1 tested this hypothesis in three cohorts of 1,826 high-potential, intellectually gifted individuals. Participants with exceptionally successful careers were compared with those of their gender-equivalent intellectual peers with more typical careers on well-known measures of psychological well-being, flourishing, core self-evaluations, and medical maladies. Family relationships, comfort with aging, and life satisfaction were also assessed. Across all three cohorts, those deemed occupationally outstanding individuals were similar to or healthier than their intellectual peers across these metrics. Study 2 served as a constructive replication of Study 1 but used a different high-potential sample: 496 elite science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) doctoral students identified in 1992 and longitudinally tracked for 25 years. Study 2 replicated the findings from Study 1 in all important respects. Both studies found that exceptionally successful careers were not associated with medical frailty, psychological maladjustment, and compromised interpersonal and family relationships; if anything, overall, people with exceptionally successful careers were medically and psychologically better off.

James Joyce, entrepreneur

At the critical elevator pitch, Joyce whetted investors’ appetites with the opening gambit: Dublin, a European city of 350,000, had no cinema and two more cities in the same country, Cork and Belfast, were also without a cinema. (Joyce the hustler bumped up Dublin’s population to 500,000 for effect.) Ireland, with close to a million urban dwellers, was virgin trading soil ripe for far-sighted operators. For a man who was a better spender than saver who would experience money problems throughout his life, the contract Joyce negotiated reveals a canny financial operator, and a true salesman. He convinced the partners to give him 10 per cent of the equity and profits, although he didn’t invest a penny. He was also paid expenses and a wage. Hands were shaken, the deal was done, Joyce was off. The portrait of the artist as a young entrepreneur.

…the mind that wrote Ulysses was also the mind that opened Ireland’s first cinema.

Here is the full FT story.  By the way, this being the 100th year of Ulysses, you should read that book if you haven’t already.  It is one of the very best books!  And it really isn’t that difficult.  If you need to, just keep on going, don’t try to figure it all out…

What should I ask Matthew Ball?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is some background:

Metaverse, metaverse, metaverse! You hear it everywhere. It’s mainstream, it’s a trendy buzzword, it’s even corporate strategy du jour.

But that wasn’t the case in early 2018. And this is when Matthew Ball, a former head of strategy at Amazon Studios, began writing a series of metaverse-themed essays – long, lucid, influential essays – that are almost uncanny in their prescience.

Matthew is now a venture capitalist as well and he has a forthcoming and already much-discussed book The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything.  Here is his home page and here is Matthew on Twitter.  So what should I ask him?

The paradox of auction happiness

If you win something at auction, even if you end up paying your full bid, you are typically quite happy, rather than just a smidgen happy.

Then why didn’t you bid more in the first place?

Is your mistake being too happy, or is your mistake having bid too low?

Do you become happy only by winning discrete, decent-sized lumps of happiness, rather than smidgens of happiness?  Does that even make sense?

Or is it just the value of winning per se, in which case there might be some other artificial way of manufacturing the same feeling?

Note this all runs a bit counter to winner’s curse arguments, which suggest you should be a smidgen unhappy when you win, not when you lose.

How should we best model this?