Category: The Arts
Matthew Prewitt wrote this interesting piece “Reimagining Property: A Philosophical Look at Harberger Taxation.” As he defines a Harberger tax, you report the value of your property, pay a tax on that amount, but if you under-report the value someone can buy the property from you at that price. The goal is to encourage turnover of assets, rather than hoarding of assets. Prewitt writes:
Recall that in a world where the natural and artificial components of capital were magically unmixed, we might impose a Harberger tax near the turnover rate on natural capital, and a Harberger tax near zero on artificial capital. But, recognizing that we do not live in such an ideal world, Posner and Weyl propose to set HT rates at varying percentages of the turnover rate for different assets, depending on those assets’ investment elasticities. That is, assets whose value increases more readily with investment should generally enjoy lower HT relative to their turnover rate, to facilitate investment.
…artificial capital is value that emerges in response to incentives…
As time passes, artificial capital starts to resemble natural capital.
Think of a new boat, built yesterday. Now think of the Parthenon. The labor that made the boat can and should be rewarded. It makes sense for the spoils of boat ownership to accrue to its builder. But the labor that made the Parthenon has dissolved into the mists of time. There is no sense rewarding it. We simply find the building in our environment, like an ocean, a mountain, or a nickel deposit. Whoever possess it deserves an incentive for its upkeep, but not a reward for its existence. Any profits from Parthenon ownership ought to be distributed broadly, and not end up in any particular pocket. Thus, unlike the new boat, the Parthenon ought to be treated like natural capital. Yet it is the product of human labor; when erected, it was the very epitome of artificial capital.
Of course there is a decay function in how we treat rights in intellectual property, and this argument suggests there should be a decay function for rights in physical capital as well. After some point in time, that physical capital becomes Georgist land, and thus subject to the efficiencies of the land tax, not to mention possible Harberger taxation.
Prewitt’s conclusion is:
- artificial capital should have a Harberger tax rate near zero
- natural capital should have a Harberger tax near the turnover rate
- artificial capital becomes more like natural capital as more time passes and/or it changes hands more times
More generally, as I suggested about five years ago, the forthcoming fights will be about the taxation of wealth not income.
I wonder, however, if this one shouldn’t be argued in the opposite direction. Let’s say excellence is under-rewarded. If a structure or capital expenditure lasts for a long period of time, maybe that is strongly positive selection and it deserves a subsidy? For one thing, such structures are likely to be iconic brands of a kind, with strong option value and the costs of irreversibility if we let them perish or fall into disrepair. The example of the Parthenon is a useful one, because in fact the monument is endangered by air pollution, and arguably it should receive a larger subsidy for protection, whether for intrinsic reasons or for its economic contribution to Greek tourism.
For the pointer I thank David S.
An art installation made up of £1,000 worth of penny coins left in a disused fountain disappeared in just over one day.
The 100,000 pennies were placed in the fountain at Quayside in Cambridge at 08:00 BST on Saturday and were due to be left for 48 hours.
All of the coins were gone by 09:00 BST on Sunday, but the In Your Way project is not treating it as theft.
Artistic director Daniel Pitt said it was “a provocative outcome”.
The work, which used money from an Arts Council England lottery grant, was one of five pieces staged across the city over the weekend.
Cambridge-based artist Anna Brownsted said her fountain piece “was an invitation to respond, a provocation”.
Here is the full story, via Adam, S. Kazan.
So what is tragedy?
“A work is a tragedy, Aristotle tells us, only if it arouses pity and fear. Why does he single out these two passions?” That seems wrong to me. For one thing, it is overly subjectivist. Why start with the passions of the audience? What do they know?
I think of a tragic story as embodying a few elements:
1. The downfall represents some kind of principle.
2. Some aspects of the downfall are, in advance, quite expected in the objective sense.
3. The actual story combines both inevitability and surprise in a somewhat contradictory manner. (I reintroduce the subjective ever so slightly here.)
4. The villain probably should have some sympathetic and/or charismatic qualities.
5. There should be a quite particular logic to how the actual events unfold, as they might be related to the above-mentioned principles in #1.
6. A confluence of aesthetic and metaphysical and personality-linked forces should “conspire” to bring about the final outcome. There should be a melding and a consilience to the evolution of the story.
Some near-perfect tragedies are Don Giovanni, The Empire Strikes Back, The Sopranos (evokes nostalgia in me rather than fear or pity), and King Lear, among other works of Shakespeare. Don’t forget Homer, Melville, and the Bible.
Just stay away from Aristotle on this one.
Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”? Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks. It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling. But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.
Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades. “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter. I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all. Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.
Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout. There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick. For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.
The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5. But it will try your patience.
As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:
Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other. They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek. Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…
I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me. With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.
Here is the transcript and audio, definitely recommended. Here is part of the summary:
She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.
Here is an excerpt:
COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?
LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.
COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.
I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.
That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.
Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.
I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.
COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.
LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.
COWEN: True or false?
LEHMANN: Probably true.
COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?
COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?
LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.
A question from me:
COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?
We also cover Australia vs. New Zealand, the masculine ethos of Australia and its origins, why PC is different in Australia, the movie Lantana (which we both strongly recommend), and yes Australian fashion.
These elegant pictures from Reuters illustrate the price of goods in Venezuela as the inflation rate hits 82,700 percent.
This one suggests some obvious substitutions.
Contemporary art had taught them [young Iranian artists] that there is always a different way of seeing.
That is from The Dawn of Eurasia, by Bruno Maçães, and it is worth more than the last ten essays you read dumping on contemporary art.
Studio Drift had a great exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam featuring drifter, a monolithic block that levitates, rotates and moves around and in space.
Drifter personifies Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Seeing it is magical. I can tell you that it’s 3-dimensional not a projection. You can see under, above and around it. There are no strings. You can see a video here. Music plays as the block moves. I’m pretty sure that isn’t an accident. I can guess how it was done but really the point is that this was an art work that fulfilled it’s promise
Drifter calls on the viewer to reconsider our relationship with our living environment, which is often accepted as static and lifeless. It creates a sense of disbelief and displacement, creating tension between humanity versus nature and chaos versus order. Disconnected from our expectations, it floats between the possible and impossible.
Drifter will be at the Stedelijk until August 26. Look for it elsewhere.
I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript. Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:
Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.
He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.
He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated. Here is one exchange of relevance:
COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.
Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .
POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.
One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.
One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.
The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.
Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.
COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?
For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.
If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?
POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.
But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”
COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?
POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.
But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.
I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.
In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.
COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?
POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?
COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.
W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer. Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:
COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?
POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.
When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.
Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.
Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
The city has some of the best Soviet war memorials, noting that the text at the main Babi Yar monument does not in fact refer to “Jews.” The museums are much better than expected, with at least five worthy of a visit, including the National Museum, the folk art museum, Scythian gold museum, and Russian art museum, and the Khanenko museum.
I am underwhelmed by the economy here, and Kiev is one of the least bustling national capitals I have seen, especially for a country of its size. The distribution of stores and commercial ventures is so thin as to remind me of some parts of San Francisco. Yes, this is August but still the streets feel empty, even in the center of town. Maybe especially in the center of town. The earlier Soviet infrastructure has not been built over, and the basic outline of the city does not yet feel “post-reform.”
Poland and Ukraine had about the same per capita gdp in 1992, but now Poland’s is three times higher. Even Russian wages are twice as high. The Ukrainian economy has shrunk 17.8% since 2008, and that is not even counting the loss of territory, which still counts statistically as part of Ukrainian gdp.
Markers of the new, post-2014 Ukrainian nationalism are seen frequently, and the use of the Russian language is actively discouraged.
There is a brand or chain of Karaoke parlors called “MAFIA Karaoke.”
Unlike some parts of Moscow, there are few signs of a rip-off culture here with respect to tourists. The citizenry is unfailingly helpful when possible, though short answers are hard to come by. People in random encounters seem quite willing to give all sorts of (wordy) advice as to what you should be doing and why.
Japanese restaurants are more common than Chinese. After Italian, there is not much culinary diversity to be seen, but the Georgian restaurants are among the best in the city. As for a single recommendation, Kanapa [Kanape] for “nouvelle Ukraine” would be my clear first pick, and it is on a picturesque street with many folk art stalls.
If two people each order bottles of mineral water, they will not open one bottle for each person. Instead, they induce you to first share the first bottle, and then the second, in sequence. Thus the water is not efficiently conserved.
It is remarkable how many different restaurants serve their chocolate ice cream with a basil leaf on top.
I am just arriving, and for the first time Here are my favorites:
1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin. Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa. But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others. Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists. So we are into A++ territory here. But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine! My head is exploding now.
1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.
2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts. Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.
3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian. But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian. His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known. A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him. For short stories there is Isaac Babel. Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem. Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin. The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.
4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization. With Dovshenko as my favorite director.
5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera. It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.
6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group. Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.
7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.
8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises. He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.
9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.
10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.
11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.
Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan. The region produced a few good chess players too.
Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian. They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.
A NEW GENERATION of celebrities is selling out concerts, starring in commercials, and amassing huge Instagramfollowings. But none of them exist—corporeally, anyway. In recent years, and starting in Japan, technology and social media have spawned a digital demimonde of computer-generated stars, ranging from fake musicians and models to company mascots who appear as holograms (like Betty Crocker, with AI). When they’re not entertaining you, they’re trying to convince you of their humanity, and even the more cartoonish among them have fleshed-out personalities. In a way, it’s the purest expression of celebrity, which has always been an elaborate illusion. CGI starlets, though, “are much easier to control,” says Ryan Detert, CEO of the branding firm Influential. Except when they misbehave.
I was surprised by the consistent level of quality in the production. It runs for about 2 hours, 20 minutes, with hardly any slow musical moments — how many pop or rap albums can say the same?
I do not agree with those who see it as too authoritarian or too glorifying of raw ambition and war. In my read of the piece, it is “crazy” King George III who speaks the truth about politics. The main plot of course has non-white characters in the roles of Founding Fathers. I view this as an imaginary history, to be compared against what actually happened, to illustrate just how far America is from having an actual emancipatory history. At the same time, America is the country where people tell such imaginary stories about emancipatory histories, a sign that we are not entirely hopeless. Yet when it comes to “who is in the room,” and “who gets to tell the story” — two recurring themes — the outcomes have been less than ideal. I saw Hamilton as a piece about shattered dreams and yet picking up the pieces yet again.
It is striking how good a job Hamilton does at appealing to viewers of all different levels of education and information.
Here is a review from David Brooks (NYT).
Due to the asymmetry of fame I feel that I know you quite well so I am just going to bombard you with random questions and hope that you see fit to answer some of them.
You seem to value journalism very highly. Is it just out of necessity as a generalist, or does popular writing on a topic have important information that can’t be learned from the academic/scholarly side?
Journalists have to try to explain things that actually happened to other human beings, often educated ones but not specialists either. It is hard to overrate the importance of that process to developing one’s thoughts and self, no matter what you may think of particular journalists in today’s MSM.
Related: Which elite profession or slice of society is most opaque to journalists and “book-learning” in general? (Oddly some of the categories that come to mind are those which are some of the most written-about – food, sex, friends, law, politics. But it’s probably maths.)
Making things. Archaeology. These days, tech. Maths. Journalism.
How much less interesting would it be to read Shakespeare if no-one else ever had? Does the answer differ much across top-tier “great” artists?
It would not be less interesting at all, maybe more interesting, because the shock of discovery would be all the greater. Admittedly, many artists require lots of discussion with other people, maybe rock and roll most of all? But not Shakespeare.
Overrated vs underrated: The New Yorker. How about Samin Nosrat?
The New Yorker has had a consistent voice and remarkable brand for more decades than I can remember (I recall Patrick Collison making a similar point, perhaps in a podcast?). Since I am now above the median age for the United States, that makes them underrated. The literariness of the historical New York and Northeast and the integration of American and European culture also have become underrated topic areas, and The New Yorker still does them, so that too makes the magazine underrated.
And who is Samin Nosrat? She must therefore be underrated.
Does the world have too many writers, or not enough? What about comparative literature professors? How should we think about the future of literary culture when the written word is becoming so much more culturally dominant at the same time as books and journalism are falling apart?
What variable are we changing at the margin? If people watch less TV and write more, that is probably a plus. I also would favor fewer photographs and more writing. But I wouldn’t cut back on charity to increase the quantity of writing. If only comparative literature professors were people who simply loved books — at the margin a bit more like used book store owners and somewhat less like professors — and would compare them to each other…then I would want more of them. Until then, I don’t know how to keep the extra ones busy.
Why does the USA not have open borders with Canada?
I believe America should have open borders with any nation that has a more generous welfare state than we do. That covers Canada, even though Canadian insurance coverage for mental health and dentistry isn’t nearly as good as you might think. As to why we don’t have open borders with Canada, I don’t think American voters would see that as solving any concrete problem (can’t we get many of the best Canadians anyway?), and it would feel a bit like giving up control, so why do it?
To what extent are Trump, Brexit, Orban, Erdogan, rising murder rates and stalling trade growth worldwide part of the same phenomenon? If they aren’t completely separate, which way does the contagion run?
Yes, no, and maybe so, get back to me in a few years’ time.
Have a great day…
Shane emails me:
What have you found to be the best books on small, innovative, productive groups?
These could be in-depth looks at specific groups – such as The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs – or they could be larger studies of institutions, guilds, etc.
I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question. Navy Seals are another possible option for a topic area. In sociology there is network theory, but…I don’t know. In any case, the key is to pick an area you care about, and read in clusters, rather than hoping to find “the very best book.” The very theory of small groups predicts this is how you should read about small groups!
But if you must start somewhere, Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies is probably the most intensive and detailed place to start, too much for some in fact and arguably the book strains too hard at its target.
I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:
1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age. Step #1 is often “what kind of regional thinker is he/she?” and step #2 is this.
2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.
3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.
4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups. In a sense, the logic behind an “in joke” resembles the logic behind social change through small groups. The “in joke” creates something new, and the small group can create something additionally new and in a broader and socially more significant context, but based on the same logic as what is standing behind the in joke.
5. How large is a small group anyway? (How many people can “get” an inside joke?) Has the internet made “small groups” larger? Or possibly smaller? (If there are more common memes shared by a few thousand people, perhaps the small group needs to be organized around something truly exclusive and thus somewhat narrower than in times past?)
6. Can a spousal or spouse-like couple be such a small group? A family (Bach, Euler)?
7. What are the negative social externalities of such small groups, compared to alternative ways of generating and evaluating ideas? And how often in life should you attempt to switch your small groups?
8. What else should we be asking about small groups and the small groups theory of social change?
9. What does your small group have to say about this?
I thank an anonymous correspondent — who adheres to the small group theory — for contributions to this post.