Category: The Arts

Women in Economics: Janet Yellen

Here’s a great new video on Janet Yellen from our team at MRU. In addition to Yellen, the video features Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer, who is tremendous. Other videos in the series are on Anna Schwartz and Elinor Ostrom with more on the way. The video is excellent but my favorite MRU video with Yellen has her in superhero mode.

Instructors, feel free to use these videos in any of your classes. Of course, you can also find these videos integrated with our textbook.

By the way, here is Adams and Yellen’s classic paper on bundling (ungated) and you can find an introduction to bundling in this video.

*Very Important People*

The author is Ashley Mears and the subtitle is Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit.  I loved this book, my favorite of the year so far.

Haven’t you ever wondered why more books shouldn’t just take social phenomena and explain them, rather than preening their academic feathers with a lot of non-committal dense information?  Well, this book tries to explain the Miami club where renting an ordinary table for the night costs 2k, with some spending up to 250k, along with the underlying sociological, economic, and anthropological mechanisms behind these arrangements.  Here is just a start on the matter:

Any club, whether in a New York City basement or on a Saint-Tropez beach, is always shaped by a clear hierarchy.  Fashion models signal the “A-list,” but girls are only half of the business model.  There are a few different categories of men that every club owner wants inside, and there is a much larger category of men they aim to keep out.

Or this:

Bridge and tunnel, goons, and ghetto.  These are men whose money can’t compensate for their perceived status inadequacies.  The marks of their marginal class positions are written on their bodies, flagging an automatic reject at the door.

A clever man can try to use models as leverage to gain entry and discounts at clubs.  A man surrounded by models will not have to spend as much on bottles.  I interviewed clients who talked explicitly about girls as bargaining chips they could use at the door.

The older, uglier men may have to pay 2k to rent a table for the evening, whereas “decent-looking guys with three or four models” will be let in for free with no required minimum.  And:

Men familiar with the scene make these calculations even if they have money to spend: How many beautiful girls can I get to offset how I look?  How many beautiful girls will it take to offset the men with me?  How much money am I willing to spend for the night in the absence of quality girls?

How is this for a brutal sentence?:

Girls determine hierarchies of clubs, the quality of people inside, and how much money is spent.

Here is another ouch moment:

…I revisit a second critical insight of Veblen’s on the role of women in communicating men’s status.  In this world, girls function as a form of capital.  Their beauty generates enormous symbolic and economic resources for the men in their presence, but that capital is worth far more to men than to the girls who embody it.

if you ever needed to be convinced not to eat out at places with beautiful women, this book will do the trick.  Solve for the equilibrium, people…

You can pre-order here.  (By the way, I’ve been thinking of writing more about “lookism,” and why opponents of various other bad “isms” have such a hard time extending the campaign to that front.)

My Conversation with Garett Jones

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

Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: But let’s say it’s the early 1990s. Eastern European countries are suddenly becoming free, and they ask you, “Garett, what electoral system should we have?” What do you say?

JONES: What I really would go for is presidential systems, if you can handle it, something like a first-past-the-post system, where those people elected from local districts focused on local problems — which have less of a free-rider problem involved — go up to the parliament and actually argue their case. The presidential element is less important than the parliamentary idea of the single-district voting. I tend to think that creates more accountability on the part of the government.

And more:

COWEN: For the United States, what is the most effective way, in your view, that you would want us to have 10 percent less democracy? What’s the one thing you would change?

JONES: I would change the House of Representatives to a six-year term. I picked that because it’s not outside the range of plausibility, and because I think people would instantly understand what it accomplishes — not because it has the highest payoff, but because it balances payoff with plausibility in a democracy.

And on boosting IQ:

COWEN: But what’s the key environmental lever? Whatever Ireland did [to have induced an IQ rise], it’s not that people were starving, right? That we understand.

JONES: No, true.

COWEN: So why don’t we do more of whatever they did, whatever was done to the East Germans, everywhere?

JONES: Exactly.

COWEN: But what is that lever? Why don’t we know?

JONES: I would say that thing is the thing we call capitalism.

COWEN: Capitalism is a big, huge thing. Not all of capitalism makes us smarter.

JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

There is much more at the link, an excellent Conversation.  Here you can order Garett’s book 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.  You can read the introduction to the book on-line.

In praise of art books

Running out of things to read?  Do you ever have the sneaky feeling that books might be overrated?  Well, for some variation at the margin try reading art books.  That’s right, books about art.  Not “how to draw,” but books about the content and history of art.  Some of them you might call art history, but that term makes me a little nervous.  Just go into a good art museum, and look at what they are stocking in their bookstore.  Many of them will be picture books, rather than art history in the narrower, more scholarly sense of that word.

Art books offer the following advantages:

1. They are among the best ways to learn history, politics, and yes science too (advances in art often followed advances in science and technology).  Even economic history.  Since the main focus is the art, they will give you “straight talk” about the historical period in question, rather than trying to organize the narrative around some vague novelty that only the peer reviewers care about.

2. They are often very pretty to look at.  You also feel you can read them in small bites, or you can read only a single chapter or section.  The compulsion to finish is relatively weak, a good thing.  You can feel you have consumed them without reading them at all, a true liberation, which in turns means you will read them as you wish to.

3. They have passed through different filters than most other books, precisely because they are often “sold into the market” on the basis of their visuals, or copyright permissions, or connection with a museum exhibit, or whatever.  Thus they introduce variation into your reading life, compared to say traditional academic tomes or “trade books,” which increasingly are about gender, race, and DT in an ever-more homogenized fashion.

4. They are among the best ways of learning about the sociology of creativity and also “the small group theory” of history.

5. These books tend not to be politically contentious, or if they are it is in a superficial way that is easily brushed off.  (Note there is a whole subgenre of art books, from theory-laden, left-wing presses, with weird covers, displayed in small, funky Manhattan or Brooklyn bookstores where you can’t believe they can make the rent, where politics is all they are about.  Avoid those.)

6. A bookstore of art books is almost always excellent, no matter how small.  It’s not about comprehensiveness, rather you can always find numerous books there of interest.

7. Major reviewing outlets either do not cover too many art books, or they review them poorly and inaccurately.  That suggests your “marginal best book” in the art books category is really quite good, because you didn’t have an easy means to discover it.

8. You might even wish to learn about art.

9. This whole genre is not about assembling a reading list of “the best art books.”  Go to a good public library, or museum bookstore, and start grabbing titles.  The best museum bookstore I know of is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

10. It is also a very good introduction to the histories and cultures of locations such as China and India, where “straight up” political histories numb you with a succession of names, periods, and dynasties, only barely embedded in contexts that make any sense to you.

Who is excellent and why?

A few of you have written in and asked me why some people, such as Kevin Lewis and Samir Varma, are designated as say “the excellent Kevin Lewis” on Marginal Revolution.

It is simple — I view this recognition as resulting from a combination of their intelligence and persistence, and thus their excellence in finding and sending me links and interesting commentary.  (I have met them both, and they do seem to have other virtues, but those other virtues are not the ones being recognized here.)  The word is completely unironic.  I view “belief in excellence” as one of the underlying philosophies of MR, and also belief in the notion that excellence should be mentioned and promoted.

In this sense, those designations are quite similar to the ongoing series “My Favorite Things [xxxx]“.

This designation of excellence is also related to why MR does not spend a great deal of time on all of the political depredations of our time.  Yes, they are important, but I fear that focusing on them too much would a) make me stupider, and b) distract from an underlying vision of excellence I wish to communicate.  I am too selfish to wish to be made stupider in that manner.

More generally, for any media source you are reading, what is the underlying vision of excellence?  Or are they just pukers?

If you can trace their underlying vision of excellence (or lack thereof), you will understand much of their material much better.

Toward a simple theory of YouTube and gaming

Outsiders and critics often think of YouTube and computer gaming as entertaining and quite superficial modes of cultural consumption.  I have increasingly moved away from that point of view, and to pursue the argument I will note that lately my favorite YouTube video is Magnus Carlsen doing 100 chess endgames in 30 minutes.  That is not recommended for most of you, but I believe that is part of the point.  I now think of YouTube as a communications medium with (often, not always) high upfront “investment in context” costs.  So if a lot of videos seem stupid to you, well sometimes they are but other times you don’t have enough context to understand them, or for that matter to condemn them for the right reasons.  This “high upfront costs” model is consistent with the semi-addictive behavior exhibited by many loyal YouTube users.  Once you start going down a rabbit hole, it can be hard to stop, and the “YouTube is superficial” models don’t really predict that kind of user behavior, rather they predict mere channel-surfing.

Did you know that Yonas, my Ethiopian contact in Lalibela, and recipient of royalties from my book Stubborn Attachments, loves YouTube videos on early Armenian church history?  He seems to know all about that topic.  A lot of those same videos would not make much sense to me.  I could follow them, but they wouldn’t communicate much meaning, whereas the Ethiopian and Armenian Christian churches have a fair amount in common, including in their early histories.

Has the popularity of PewDiePie — 103 million subscribers — ever mystified you?  I have in fact come to understand the material is brilliant, though not in a way I care about or wish to come to grasp in any kind of detailed way.  For me the entry costs are just too high relative to the kind of payoff I would achieve.  You really have to watch a lot of videos to get anywhere with grasping the contexts of his various jokes and remarks.

This also helps explain why there is no simple way to find “the best videos on YouTube.”

Perhaps computer games have some of the same properties.  They have great meaning to those who know their ins and outs, but leave many others quite cold.  Sometimes I hear people that things like “Twenty or thirty years from now, computer games will develop into great works of art.”  I doubt that.  To whatever extent computer games are/will be aesthetically notable, those properties are probably already in place, just with fairly high upfront context costs and thus inaccessible to someone such as I.

The high upfront costs, of course, mean a high degree of market segmentation and thus perhaps relatively high profits for suppliers, at least in the aggregate if not in every case.

Could it be that these top cultural forms of today have higher upfront costs than say appreciating 18th century Rococo painting?

In any case, trying to understand the cultural codes of 2020 is a truly difficult enterprise.

For this material, I wish to thank a related conversation with S.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

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

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

The culture that is Brazil? (and Nazi Germany)

A video in which Brazil’s culture minister uses parts of a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda boss, has sparked outrage.

In the clip posted on the ministry’s Twitter page, Roberto Alvim details an award for “heroic” and “national” art.

Lohengrin by Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, plays in the background.

Reacting to the controversy, Mr Alvim said the speech was a “rhetorical coincidence”. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been urged to fire him.

Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a conservative social agenda, has frequently accused Brazil’s artists and cultural productions including schoolbooks and movies of “left-wing bias”. He has not commented.

In the six-minute video detailing the National Arts Awards, Mr Alvim says: “The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national, will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement… deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing.”

Parts of it are identical to a speech quoted in the book Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, by German historian Peter Longerich, who has written several works on the Holocaust.

Here is the full story.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.


TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.


AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.


AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.


AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.


COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.

The U.S. cultural elite

Overall I do not regard this as good news:

We examine the educational backgrounds of more than 2,900 members of the U.S. cultural elite and compare these backgrounds to a sample of nearly 4,000 business and political leaders. We find that the leading U.S. educational institutions are substantially more important for preparing future members of the cultural elite than they are for preparing future members of the business or political elite. In addition, members of the cultural elite who are recognized for outstanding achievements by peers and experts are much more likely to have obtained degrees from the leading educational institutions than are those who achieve acclaim from popular audiences.

That is from a new paper by Steven Brint,, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.


COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.


ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

Sentences to ponder

Gerald Reitlinger, in his 1963 book, “The Economics of Taste,” wrote that back in 1937, when 18th-century French furniture was all the rage with the ultrawealthy, a desk by Carlin sold for 8,000 pounds, or about $700,000 in today’s money. That same year, a Cubist still life by Picasso failed to sell at auction for £105, according to Reitlinger.

Here is more from Scott Reyburn at the NYT.  Will Warhol prices be the big loser, as future generations lose interest in images of Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, Mao?  At the moment the less identifiable iconography of Basquiat seems to be holding up better, at least in the eyes of the market.

Emergent Ventures, sixth cohort

Sonja Trauss of YIMBY, assistance to publish Nicholas Barbon, A Defence of the Builder.

Parnian Barekatain.

Anna Gát, for development as a public intellectual and also toward the idea and practice of spotting and mobilizing talent in others.

M.B. Malabu, travel grant to come to the D.C. area for helping in setting up a market-oriented think tank in Nigeria.

Eric James Wang and Jordan Fernando Alexandera joint award for their work on the project Academia Mirmidón, to help find, mobilize, and market programming and tech talent in Mexico.

Gonzalo Schwarz, Archbridge Institute, for research and outreach work to improve policy through reforms in Uruguay and Brazil. 

Nolan Gray, urban planner from NYC, to be in residence at Mercatus and write a book on YIMBY, Against Zoning.

Samarth Jajoo, an Indian boy in high school, to assist his purchase of study materials for math, computer science, and tutoring.  Here is his new book gifting project.

One other, not yet ready to be announced.  But a good one.

And EV winner Harshita Arora co-founded AtoB, a startup building a sustainable transportation network for intercity commuters using buses.

Here are previous MR posts on Emergent Ventures.

Markets in everything

…if you stay in the hotel bedroom created by Christopher Samuel, don’t rush to post a scathing review. He has actually designed it to be as annoying as possible (while remaining just about habitable).

“You probably wouldn’t spend more than a night in it in reality,” says Michael Trainor, creative director of the Art B&B in Blackpool. “I think the novelty would soon wear off.”

Samuel is one of 19 artists who have kitted out a room in the seaside B&B. And it’s hard not to chuckle at the fiendishness of Samuel’s adaptations every time you spot another deliberately awkward feature (the upside-down shower gel dispenser is a particular triumph of user-unfriendliness).

But for him, it’s not a joke.

By making life difficult for visitors, the artist wants to give them a taste of the access problems faced by many disabled people…

In his room – titled Welcome Inn – the bed is surrounded by a 3ft lip, which you must scramble over every time you want to get in or out. The bathroom door doesn’t close because it hits the toilet, meaning there’s no privacy.

Here is the full story.