Results for “my favorite things”
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Who is Wealthy?

argues against comparing wealth over time:

The difficulty of measurement of wealth between different periods derives not only because of our lack of data for most of the past but from the inability to meaningfully compare wealth or consumption patterns in the past with those of today. Some economists believe that if people in the past did not have certain amenities that we have today they must have been infinitely poorer. This is what one finds in Nordhaus and DeLong’s view of historical progress as unfolfding through reduced cost of artificial lighting, the approach that Angus Maddison (in “Contours of the World Economy: 1-2030”) termed a “hallucigenic history”.

The logic of such authors is as follows. Take the example of artificial lighting or voice recording. For Julius Caesar to read a book overnight, easily move at night around his palace, or listen to the songs he liked would have required perhaps hundreds of workers (slaves) to hold the torches or sing his favorite arias all night. Even Caesar, if he were to do that night after night, might, after some time, have run out of resources (or might have provoked a rebellion among the singers). But for us the expense for a similar pleasure is very small, even trivial, say $2 per night. Consequently, some people come to the conclusion that Caesar must have had tiny wealth measured in today’s bundle of goods since a repeated small nightly expense of $2 (in today’s prices) would have eventually ruined him. Other people at Caesar’s time had obviously much less: ergo, the world today is incomparably richer than before, and people then must have felt horribly poor and deprived of all pleasurable things. (Even if you cannot feel deprived of the things you do not know exist.)

The logic seems at first reasonable even if somewhat extreme. But it is not reasonable. Let’s extend this logic, now in a different direction, from us today to the next 500 years. Suppose that in 500 years people are able to choose for their vacation between Mars, Venus, Pluto or perhaps even to go further than that. Suppose they can fly around our solar system, go to the bottom of the ocean, zip from one end of the Earth to another in a few minutes, or do lots of fun things that we cannot imagine today, no more than Caesar could have imagined that his singers’ voices could be recorded on a tiny chip and reproduced ad infinitum at almost no cost. And when we then look at Jeff Bezos’ wealth today using the consumption opportunities of the future, that wealth is likely to look to us –from the vantage point of 500 years hence- insignificant. Bezos might be rich in our own terms, but he cannot fly to Mars this weekend, no matter how much he tries.

So should we then absurdly turn around and claim that Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates et al. are poor? Clearly not.

I am baffled by the last two sentences. Bezos and Gates clearly are poor relative to people in the future who can choose to vacation on Mars. It seems absurd to me to think otherwise. Jeff Bezos has four children. Suppose one of them had cancer. If he could, do you think Bezos would hesitate for one minute to spend a billion dollars buying the medicine that will be available to an ordinary American in the year 2050? How much would Bezos pay for an extra 10 years of life? What about an extra 100? How much for a bionic eye, a dozen extra points of IQ, or freedom from Alzheimer’s disease?

Or put it the other way. How much wealthier would you have to be to want to live in 1950, 1900 or 1850? I can come up with numbers for 1950 and 1900 but I think I would prefer my income and lifestyle today to anyone’s income and lifestyle in 1850. Dentist anyone? I’d also prefer it if my wife didn’t die in childbirth.

Branko argues that comparisons of wealth across long time periods are impossible, meaningless, even “hallucinogenic.” I think he has it backwards. It’s quite difficult to compare wealth over fairly short periods. Am I wealthier than my father was at my age (he was also a professor). Maybe. Maybe not. We consume somewhat different bundles. I have Netflix and a nicer car. He had a nicer house. But am I wealthier than my grandfather? Absolutely. On either side.

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.

David Wright interviews me

Dave is an actuary, super-talented, and one of my very favorite interviewers and best prepared interviewers in the whole wide world (do say yes if he offers to interview you for his podcast).

Here is the audio, most of the questions go well beyond the usual.  It starts with my book Big Business but even gets into the Straussian side of things, globalization, the price of fame, and much more.

Recommended.

How I practice at what I do

Following up on my post a few days ago, about the value of deliberate practice for knowledge workers, a number of you asked me what form my practice takes.  A few of you were skeptical, but it is long since established that practice improves both your writing and your memory, so surely it can do much more than that for your thinking.  Here is a partial list of some of my intellectual practice strategies:

1. I write every day.  I also write to relax.

2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own.  I recommend this for most of you.

3. I do serious reading every day.

4. After a talk, Q&A session, podcast — whatever — I review what I thought were my weaker answers or interventions and think about how I could improve them.  I rehearse in my mind what I should have said.  Larry Summers does something similar.

5. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to crack cultural codes.  I view this as a comparative advantage, and one which few other people in my fields are trying to replicate.  For one thing, it makes me useful in a wide variety of situations where I have little background knowledge.  This also helps me invest in skills which will age relatively well, as I age.  For me, this is perhaps the most importantly novel item on this list.

6. I listen often to highly complex music, partly because I enjoy it but also in the (silly?) hope that it will forestall mental laziness.

7. I have regular interactions with very smart people who will challenge me and be very willing to disagree, including “GMU lunch.”

8. Every day I ask myself “what did I learn today?”, a question I picked up from Amihai Glazer.  I feel bad if I don’t have a clear answer, while recognizing the days without a clear answer are often the days where I am learning the most (at least in the equilibrium where I am asking myself this question).

9. One factor behind my choice of friends is what kind of approbational sway they will exercise over me.  You should want to hang around people who are good influences, including on your mental abilities.  Peer effects really are quite strong.

10. I watch very little television.  And no drugs and no alcohol should go without saying.

11. In addition to being a “product” in its own right, I also consider doing Conversations with Tyler — with many of the very smartest people out there — to be a form of practice.  It is a practice for speed, accuracy in understanding written writings, and the ability to crack the cultural codes of my guests.

12. I teach — a big one.

Physical exercise is a realm all of its own, and that is good for your mind too.  For me it is basketball, tennis, exercise bike, sometimes light weights, swimming if I am at a decent hotel with a pool.  My plan is to do more of this.

Here are a few things I don’t do:

Taking notes is a favorite with some people I know, though my penmanship and coordination and also typing are too problematic for that.

I also don’t review video or recordings of myself, for fear that will make me too self-conscious.  For many people that is probably a good idea, however.

I don’t spend time trying to improve my memory, which is either very bad or very good, depending on the kind of problem facing me.  (If I need to remember to do something, I require a visual cue, sometimes a pile on the floor, and that creates a bit of a mess.  But it works — spatial organization is information!)

I’ve never practiced trying to type on a small screen, though probably I should.

I’ll close by repeating the end of my previous post:

Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?”  If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

Better training has brought big improvements to the quality of athletics and also chess, and many of those advances are quite recent — when is the intellectual world going to follow suit?  When are you going to follow suit?

Fleabag and Killing Eve

Fleabag (Amazon) and Killing Eve (BBC America) are two television shows written by the absolutely brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge who also stars in the former. I tweeted:

Image result for fleabagFleabag 2nd Season even better than 1st. An indelible portrait of toxic femininity. No accident that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote Killing-Eve featuring a different female killer but in male style and fantasy form rather than the more mature & realistic Fleabag.

Not everyone understood the tweet and some were confused. How could Fleabag be about toxic femininity when Waller-Bridge is a feminist? Fleabag is misunderstood because people try to frame it in terms of victimhood and Waller-Bridge is having none of that. Her method for illustrating the equality of the sexes is to show that women can be just as evil as men. Fleabag is much darker and more religious and mystical than most people realize.

I have written somewhat elliptically in what follows so as not to give much away but….mild spoiler warning. Herewith some observations.

Killing Eve features the serial killer, Villanelle. In one episode, she kills her lover using perfume. What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that? Although they appear very different, Villanelle and Fleabag have much in common. Both of them, for example, are sociopaths.

Fleabag says as much herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” But even more telling is that the other characters tell us that Fleabag is a sociopath. “You know exactly what you are doing,” “You only do what you want,” “You know what you are going to do,” or words to that effect are said many times. To understand Fleabag the show, you need to take these words seriously and backcast them to the events that happened before Season One. Namely, in a fit of sexual jealousy, Fleabag decided that if she can’t have what she wants then no one will. She wills it. It happens.

In doubt? Consider the scene at the funeral of Fleabag’s mother. Is she upset? Distraught? In tears? No, she looks radiant. She is more beautiful, more composed, more at peace on the day of her mother’s funeral than any day before and everyone tells her so. “I have never seen you looks so good,” “You look glorious,” and my favorite, “Gosh, grief really agrees with you.” Her body tells the truth. It is a mistake to wish this away.

In Season One, Fleabag is only just realizing the power that her sociopathy and sexual charisma bestow upon her and at first she is frightened. By S2, however, she is in command and we see her using her intense sexual charisma to bend men to her will. Men worship her and she treats them like objects and playthings. In one case, she literally has her boyfriend on his hands and knees scrubbing the floors. It’s hilarious.

FB is not the only example of toxic femininity in the series. The stepmother is an older version of Fleabag who also uses her sexual charisma to get what she wants. She has Fleabag’s father by the balls and to prove it she hangs them on the wall (I am not making this up). Fleabag cannot defeat the passive-aggressive stepmother because her sexual powers work only over men (notice the Kristen Scott Thomas scene and recall that FB didn’t get what she really wanted pre Season One). The stepmother is in fact a kind of witch who uses words to destroy those around her even though the words themselves are pleasant sounding. The stepmother also fashions a voodoo doll, a statue of Fleabag’s mother–whom she has replaced–that is notably beheaded.

The real plot of Season Two is that Fleabag is bored by how easy it is to control men and so she goes after bigger game. Can she top her pre-Season One triumph? Can she steal a man from God? Priest and witch enter into a battle of wits and wills. The Priest thinks he is going to exorcise her demons. This is a feminist show. He doesn’t.

The priest is a very interesting character. He is specifically introduced as a new priest, i.e. a new church, and he is young and cool and sexy. He is also a complete failure. Is Waller-Bridge, who was schooled by nuns, saying the new church fails or the church in general? Either way, despite being celestially warned, the priest fails God, he fails the Church and, perhaps most of all, he fails Fleabag. To be saved, Fleabag needed to find an incorruptible man, one who truly believes that there are bigger things than sex and dominance and worship of self. Instead, she finds in the church nothing but hypocrisy. In choosing sex over God and devotion to others, the Priest violates a sacred trust just as the pedophile priests violated their sacred trust (and Waller-Bridge makes clear the family resemblance). It does not take much imagination to see that the Priest will soon meet his fate in an alcoholic stupor (many hints are given).

In the final scene Fleabag walks into the sunset contentedly, like a talented Mrs. Ripley. The priest leaves in the opposite direction pursued by a demon symbolizing his failure to guard his flock.

Addendum: By the way, we never learn Fleabag’s name. She is a temptress who kills. Thus, another good name for Fleabag would be Killing Eve.

Philip Serzo on travel writing

Philip sent me this email, and very generously allowed me to reproduce it:

Tyler,

I know you’ve been going back and forth recently on travel writing. I don’t read a ton of travel writing, but I could totally see why it has limitations, like all genres. I say this after studying Graham Greene a favorite writer of mine. He crossed over successfully into many genres of writing. Travel writing being one of them.
Here’s my point. Rolf Potts interviews Pico Iyer on a book he wrote about Graham Greene and Pott’s asks this questions below:

One interesting contradiction you raise in your book is how Greene was better at evoking the humanity of faraway places in his fiction than in his nonfiction travel books. You even go so far as to say that “his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel.” Why do you think this is the case, and what does it say about Greene’s way of seeing the world?

We are never less forthright than when writing of ourselves; that’s one of the lessons I feel I share with Greene (or maybe partly learned from him). Memoir to me is a kind of fiction, and the most striking autobiographical works I know—whether Philip Roth’s The Facts or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn or V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival—all present themselves as novels. So it’s always seemed perfect to me that in his two quasi-memoirs, Greene uses charm and anecdote and childhood memory to avoid really telling us anything about himself, his loves or his beliefs; yet in his novels, given a mask or cover, he’s as naked and unguarded as any author I know. Give yourself an alias or call your work fiction and you can say things you might not say to your closest friends.

In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he’d seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.

He might be almost offering us—inadvertently—a lesson on the limitations of travel-writing, much as Naipaul or Theroux or Maugham also do in novels that are far more compassionate and sympathetic than the travel-books that gave rise to them. In writing a non-fictional book about travel, you usually have to create a fictional persona of sorts, some convenient version of the self that will make the narrative work. But that front is almost never as rich or deep or conflicted as the self we allow ourselves to entertain in fiction; it can’t be. Very often the travel-writers we enjoy are engaging or buoyant or splenetic on the page, but all those are really just useful props, tiny fragments of the self, and don’t always take us very deep.

Why is most travel writing so bad?

The most painful sections of a bookshop to have to read through would be the management books, self-help, and also the travel books.  Yet management, self-help, and travel are all very important and indeed extremely interesting matters, so I am wondering why these books are so bad.  Today let’s focus on travel.

My biggest complaint is that travel books seem not to discriminate between what the reader might care about or not.  Here is a randomly chosen passage from a recent travel book of Jedidiah Jenkins:

We walked our bikes over one more bridge and into Tijuana.  Weston was barefoot, which he noted out loud as we entered Mexico.  We got on our bikes and rode into immediate chaos.

Or this:

I drank my coffee and read the news on my phone.  I felt him sitting next to me.

Who cares? And who is Weston anyway?  (Longer excerpts would not seduce you.)  Yet this book — To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret — has 85 reviews on Amazon with an average of four and a half stars and it was a NYT bestseller.

Is travel like (some) sex, namely that you can’t write about it because it is viscerally exciting in a “you had to be there” way?  Why cannot that constraint be overcome by shifting the focus to matters more factual?

Too many travel books seem like an inefficient blending of memoir, novel, and travel narration, and they are throughout too light on information.  Ideally I want someone with a background in geography, natural history, or maybe urban studies to serve up a semi-rigorous account of what they are doing and seeing.

Here is one mood-affiliated blurb for the Jenkins book:

“A thrilling, tender, utterly absorbing book. With winning candor, Jedidiah Jenkins takes us with him as he bicycles across two continents and delves deeply into his own beautiful heart. We laugh. We cry. We feel the glory and the agony of his adventure; the monotony and the magic; the grace and the grit. Every page of this book made me ache to know what happened next. Every chapter shimmered with truth. It’s an unforgettable debut.”
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things

What do people want from travel books anyway?  It seems the Jenkins work sold well because he is famous on Instagram, which may or may not correlate with book-writing skills.

Here is another randomly chosen passage:

I wait.  I drink some more water.  It sit in the grass and chat with the others.  I have a few false starts: “Ooh, I’m feeling it…just kidding, no I’m not.”  “Okay, now I am!  No, that’s an ant on my ankle.”

Is the problem an absence of barriers to entry for writing travel books?  That many books will sell automatically “by country” rather than because of the quality of their content, leading to an excessively segmented market?  Other travel book readers seem to obsess over the mode of transportation, such as whether a particular trip was undertaken by bicycle.  Are there too many celebrities and semi-celebrities trying their hand at a relatively easy-to-fudge literary genre?

What are the microfoundations for this failure in the quality of travel books?

Here are various lists of the best travel books of all time.  Even there I find many overrated, noting that Elizabeth Gilbert is better than most.

If you are wondering, three of my favorite travel books are Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, David G. Campbell, The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, and also Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, perhaps the best travel book ever written.

Somebody — fix this problem!

The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations

Yesterday I had lunch with a former Ph.D student of mine, who is now highly successful and tenured at a very good school.  I was reminded that, over twenty years ago, I was Graduate Director of Admissions.  One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter.  My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy.

At least two of our very best students went down this route.  Ex ante, neither realized that it was common simply to apply straight to a Ph.D program, skipping over the Masters.  I believe this is now better known, but the point is this.

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind.  It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.

This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.

Mexico City travel tips

I’m a loyal MR reader and follower of your work.  I’m so grateful for your work and your generous spirit.  I’m sure you get inundated with email and other correspondence but I’m adding to the pile by requesting that someday you’ll post advice for a Oaxaca or Mexico City visit.  I assure you that it would be carefully studied and utilized.

Happy Easter!

Here are my tips for Mexico City, taken from an email I sent to a friend a while ago, note I start with food but do not end there:

“1. Your number one task is to find a seller of tlacoyos in the street. This is likely a solo woman with a stand, on a corner. They are all over Mexico City, though whether in Condesa I am not sure. The vegetarian offerings are no worse, also, with beans and blue corn tortilla and cheese.  Get these, and they are in general quite sanitary.  You simply need to ask around, they will not be in highly visible places. I think about them often.

2. Ask for “tacqueria” rather than tacos, the latter might lead you into a restaurant.

2b. Most food in Condesa will be fine but underwhelming, think Clarendon. Try to find street food there.

3. The street food is the best food there and it is safer to eat than the restaurant food (though the latter is usually safe too).

4. Try a sandwich once or twice, just ask around, no need for a fancy place, these usually close by mid-afternoon. My favorite sandwich is the Hawaii, though I believe that is a purely subjective judgment, I do not think it is the best per se. The whole bakery culture there is quite interesting and often neglected by food people but it is important.

5. When you take a taxi out to the pyramids, there is excellent food along the way, in the middle of nowhere, have the driver stop and bring you somewhere. The pyramids are one of the best sights in this hemisphere, by the way, better than those in Egypt I think. There are also smaller pyramid sites on the way to the big pyramid site, worth visiting and also near some superb food.

6. Favorite fancy place there is Astrid and Gaston, not cheap but it won’t bankrupt you either.  Peruvian/Mexican fusion, nice to sit in too.

7. If you need a break from Mexican food, the Polish restaurants there are quite good, that would be my back up choice. Of Asian food the Japanese offerings might be the best. French and German can be quite good there, though not original.  Avoid “American.” Other Latin cuisines will in general be quite good there, including the steakhouses.

8. Go to Coyoacan (a suburb, sort of, but not far) and see the Frida Kahlo museum.  The food stalls (“comedores”) there are not only excellent, but they look the most sanitary and mainstream of just about any in Mexico. Even your aunt could be tempted to eat there. A good stop, try a whole bunch of things for $1.50 a piece, you could spend two hours there eating and not get bored and get to sample a lot of the main dishes.  Also a fun hangout.

9. When we flew into the airport, we immediately asked the taxi driver to bring us somewhere superb for a snack. Of course there was somewhere within five minutes, right nearby. Do this if you can open a line of communications.

9b. Walking is often the wrong way to find great food there, unless you are walking and asking. Walking and looking doesn’t work so well, because you are on the wrong streets if you are walking to just be walking around. Vehicles are the key, or asking and then walking to follow the advice, not to follow your walking instincts.

10. Chiles en Nogada is a seasonal dish, superb, I am not sure if they will still have it but ask around and get it if you can. It is delicious and a real treat, not to be forgotten.

11. Treat breakfast as a chance at some street food, don’t fill up on a traditional breakfast, least of all a touristy Mexican one. It will always be OK, but rarely interesting, even if it sounds somewhat authentic. Get a tlacoyo or something in the street. Any food represented by an Aztec word will be excellent, pretty much as a rule.

The non-food tips I will send separately. But the food is all about improvising, not about finding good restaurants. Most of the mid-tier restaurants are decent but for me ultimately a bit disappointing. Either go fancy or go street. Don’t trust any of the guidebook recommendations for mid-tier places, they will never be bad but mostly disappoint compared to the best stuff there.

Non-food

The Anthropology Museum is a must.

My personal favorite museum is Museo del Arte Popular, the popular art museum downtown, but I consider that an idiosyncratic preference.

Visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the murals there, and across the street House of Blue Tiles, get a juice there and see their murals too. Then walk from there down to the Zocalo on the main street, there is the number one walk in Mexico for a basic introduction to downtown. In fact that is the first thing I would do to get an overview of downtown and the older part of the city, even though that is not where you will end up hanging out.

The mural sites are in general excellent, I believe the best one is called Ildefonso.

I often find male clothes shopping there to be highly profitable, good mix of selection and prices. Polanco is the part of town you would go to for that, right near Pujol and also Astrid and Gaston, in fact.

Hotel Camino Real is a classic site, you can get a drink there at night with the funny colored lights. The movie Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot there in part, a great film. The Mexico City movie is Amores Perros, a knockout. Y Tu Mama Tambien is another, you probably know these already. I also like the old Mexican movies of Luis Bunuel, made while he lived there for a while.

The classic Mexico novel is Roberto Bolano, *The Savage Detectives*, a great read and one of the best novels of the latter part of the 20th century, the English translation is first-rate too, as good as the Spanish in my view.

I don’t like much of the music, but perhaps that is the point.  Control Machete, a Mexican rap group, works pretty good as soundtrack while you are being driven around the city.

The Alan Riding book, while now badly out of date, is still an excellent overview of the older Mexico, great for background, Distant Neighbors it is called.

Have a cabbie drive you around different neighborhoods, to see rich homes, poorer sections, particular buildings. Mexico City is first-rate for contemporary architecture although most of it is quite scattered, no single place for walking around it that I know of.

Art galleries there are good for browsing, often in or near Polanco, the wealthy part of town.

Insurgentes is a good avenue for cruising.

Avoid Zona Rosa altogether at all costs, bad stuff, lots of pickpockets, no redeeming virtues whatsoever, do not be tempted.”

*The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard*

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.

The contributions of Rene Girard

Carl L asks: Address the scapegoating theory of René Girard in general, and its possible application to economics. Peter Thiel has repeatedly cited Girard as an important influence and has even said his theory was partly the reason he invested in Facebook.

From my idiosyncratic point of view, here are a few of Girard’s major contributions, noting that I am putting them into “stupid simple” language, rather than trying to communicate his nuances:

1. His understanding of Christianity as fundamentally and radically different from earlier religions, as it exalts the individual victim rather than the conqueror.  Here is one point from a summarizer: “Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.”

2. Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.

3. Understanding the import of “mimetic desire,” namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process, due to scarcity.  The tech world, by the way, at least pretends to have found a solution to this in its extreme scalability of product; we’ll see how that pans out.

4. A theory of mediated and triangulated desire, not yet absorbed by behavioral economics, and partly summarized here: “Whereas external mediation does not lead to rivalries, internal mediation does lead to rivalries. But, metaphysical desire leads a person not just to rivalry with her mediator; actually, it leads to total obsession with and resentment of the mediator. For, the mediator becomes the main obstacle in the satisfaction of the person’s metaphysical desire. Inasmuch as the person desires to be his mediator, such desire will never be satisfied. For nobody can be someone else. Eventually, the person developing a metaphysical desire comes to appreciate that the main obstacle to be the mediator is the mediator himself.”

5. First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.

6. Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis.  These days one of those victims would be the big tech companies, as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.  You’ll understand these writings through the eyes of Girard, not economic theory.  Girard is also one of the best lenses for understanding the writings of bad and manipulative pundits.

7. Girard is of great use for understanding literature.  Try any Shakespearean play with “doubles,” Merchant of Venice, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (an all-time favorite), or Coetzee’s Disgrace, all Girardian to the core and very much illuminated by familiarity with his key ideas.  These are perhaps his most underrated contributions.  Shakespeare, by the way, is Girard’s most important precursor, also throw in the New Testament, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and maybe Montaigne.

What should you read by him?: Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Theatre of Envy.

Where is Girard weakest: His theory of language, his overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis, excess claims to have discovered universal mechanisms, just making lots of stuff up, and not knowing enough economics or empirical anthropology.

How important is he?: If you had to pick twenty thinkers from the latter half of the 20th century, he is definitely one of them.  By the way, Foucault and Baudrillard might be the other French writers on that list.

Why I write for Bloomberg View

A while ago I promised you my take on Bloomberg View [BV], and why I decided to work for them.  They don’t know I am doing this post, I don’t in any official or even unofficial way speak for Bloomberg View or for the broader company, and I hope they don’t get mad at me for attempting this brief capsule treatment.  And it is fine if you wish to dismiss this as biased pleading, because it is.

One of the most striking features of BV, from my personal point of view, is how many of the writers I was actively reading and following before they started with BV.  For instance:

1. A few years ago I tracked down Adam Minter for a Sichuan lunch in Shanghai, to talk with him about recycling, China, the metals trade and used goods, and his general take on things.  Adam is one of the very best writers for mastering small, apparently obscure details, based on years of personal travel and research, and then showing how they reflect broader and more important truths.  Adam later started writing for Bloomberg.

2. Megan McArdle and I have had periodic lunches and chats since I first met her in 2004 (?), when I was presenting an early version of Stubborn Attachments to Victor Niederhoffer’s Junto seminar in New York City.  She was one of the very first economics bloggers, along with John Irons and Brad DeLong.  The next time I see her we will again debate when and whether the world is going to end, and whether Panda Gourmet really does have the best cold noodles in Washington, D.C. (yes).

3. I met up with Christopher Balding for a lunch in Hong Kong, as he came over from Shenzhen.  I was a fan of his China blog and research, and lo and behold Christopher ended up writing for Bloomberg.  Here are his New Year’s resolutions.

4. Cass Sunstein is one of the polymaths of our time, and the #1 cited legal scholar, not to mention a Star Wars fan, and I interviewed him for Conversations with Tyler.  I don’t have to tell you where he writes now, or that his favorite musician is Bob Dylan.

5. I’ve had periodic email contact with Stephen R. Carter, of Yale Law School, as the two of us share many common interests and reading habits.  He’s now with Bloomberg View.

6. Virginia Postrel is a “dynamist” thinker of major significance, and I’ve been following her work for more than twenty years.  I hope she does more with the topic of textiles.  Here is a 2014 video she and I did together (mostly her) on the topic of glamour.

7. A few years ago, Noah Smith and I decided to get together at the AEA meetings, most of all to talk about Japan (Noah is fluent in Japanese and lived there for a good while).  He was then still a professor before he made the decision to work for Bloomberg full-time.  Last year, I took a long Uber ride to meet Noah for Thai food in Berkeley.

8. Conor Sen started blogging, and I thought: “This guy is awesome and has unique perspectives rooted in finance and housing and demographics and Atlanta.”  Soon enough, Bloomberg hired him.  Conor deservedly made this list of the year’s most interesting people.

8. I was a fan of Stephen Mihm’s work on history and economic history, before he started with BV.

9. And now we have Ramesh Ponnuru and Michael Strain, two of the very best market-oriented, right of center yet also eclectic columnists.

I don’t mean to neglect all the other people who write for Bloomberg View, as this list is determined by whom I knew before there was any Bloomberg connection.  As for some of the others, Leonid Bershidsky is an amazing polymath, the “every column is full of information” Noah Feldman has a new and wonderful book on James Madison, there is Joe Nocera and Justin Fox and Barry Ritholz, and I am trying to schedule a Conversation with the great Matt Levine, who always knows more than you think he does, even after taking this clause into account.  When I met Matt I simply uttered: “Matt Levine, only you can do what you do!”  Is any other greeting required?

One day I woke up and realized these people write for Bloomberg View, or that people like them were going to, and then it occurred to me that maybe I should too.  And there are still Bloomberg View writers I haven’t really discovered yet.  (By the way, one reason all these people are so good is because of the consistently excellent editors.)

What is the common element behind all of these writers?  I would say that Bloomberg View tends to hire reading-loving, eclectic polymaths, with both academic knowledge and real world experience, and whose views cannot always be predicted from their other, previous writings.

Over the last year, I think I would nominate Ross Douthat as The Best Columnist.  But overall I think Bloomberg View has assembled the most talented and diverse group of opinion contributors out there, bar none.

On top of all that, BV is perhaps the least gated major opinion website.

In addition to the writing, I also very much enjoy working for a great company.  Not all media outlets can offer that.

Anyway, forgive the biased rant, that is my take for today!  They also serve nice snacks and have an amazing art collection in the NYC building.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Best fiction books of 2017

I didn’t like most of the widely reviewed fiction of this year, but I did have a few favorites, namely:

Domenico Starnone,  Ties.  This is one of the better Italian novels of the last few decades.  It is short, easy to comprehend, utterly compelling, and the basic story line is that of a married couple and their children, to say more would spoil the plot.  The introduction and translation are by Jhumpa Lahiri, also first-rate (by the way, here is my conversation with Jhumpa, toward the end she discusses this project).  This Rachel Donadio NYT review provides very useful background knowledge.

Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak.  This short Chinese noir novel, with a dash of Murakami, is one of this year’s “cool books.”  I finished it in one sitting.  Set in Beijing, the protagonist sells audio equipment, and then strange things happen.  Here is a good interview with the author.

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An old-fashioned literary drama, unfolds slowly but is gripping, reminds me of Dickens and also Vikram Seth but set in Korea and Japan as an extended set piece running throughout most of the 20th century.  For me, this was clearly the #1 fiction book of the year, and I didn’t include it in my Bloomberg column only because I read it after the column was in the pipeline.  It’s also rich with history and social science, a real winner.  NYT picked it as one of their top ten of the year.

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, the new translation and edition by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.

My best fiction reading of the year was Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, though it wasn’t published in 2017.  It is one of the best science fiction classics, ever.  Just to recap, I like volume one the most, and it is the most complex, but for many readers disorienting.  You don’t find out the real plot until p.272, so perhaps spoilers will help you.  Volumes two and three are more in the style of classic science fiction, a’la Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke.

My best “classic I had never read before” gets two picks, the first being James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer (review at the link).  The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, though come to it with at least a basic understanding of its Anglo-Catholic milieu.  Sooner or later this novel will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists.

In Spanish I will pick Juan MarséRabos de lagartija, from 2011, don’t bother with the English translation.  In German it was Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld, Der Briefwechsel, a series of letters exchanged between an author and his publisher, some of them concern money (I haven’t finished it yet but so far it is quite consistent in quality).  As good as a really good Bernhard novel, also from 2011, there is no English-language translation.

Further thoughts on why the end of net neutrality will be fine

If a cable company really is a monopolist, still they (mostly) maximize profit by giving customers (cost-constrained) what they want.  When the de Beers cartel had a monopoly on diamonds, did they also make you buy their favorite soda brand?  No, that would lower the overall value of the package and thus lower profits.

The main exception to this argument is that the monopolist may favor its own content.  Monopolizing instances of that practice still would be regulated under standard antitrust law, and also transparency requirements, and most of the critical discussion seems to ignore this.  Furthermore, it is harder to make a profit this way than you might think.  If Comcast promotes “the stupider Comcast version of CNN,” a lot of people just won’t be interested.  Most of these websites aren’t that valuable — look at the recent revenue results for Buzzfeed.  Nor do I think Comcast can get away with denying its customers say Google or Skype, either legally or economically.  That said, advocates of removing “neutrality” need to face up to the reality that they will be relying on discretionary regulation to a greater degree in some regards.  Read p.1 of the actual proposal:

Restore the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to protect consumers online from any unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices without burdensome regulations, achieving comparable benefits at lower cost.

In the current debate, there is a common presumption that paying for slots hurts “the little guy.”  During the payola debates for radio, it turned out that payola favored the independent labels over the majors; see my book In Praise of Commercial Culture.  It doesn’t have to work out that way, but refusing to price scarce resources often helps the big established players, who can invest $$ to get what they want through bigger brand names or other means.   Note:

Pai says that one of the major mistakes of Net Neutrality is its pre-emptive nature. Rather than allowing different practices to develop and then having regulators intervene when problems or harms to customer arise, Net Neutrality is prescriptive and thus likely to serve the interests of existing companies in maintaining a status quo that’s good for them.

Furthermore, are there external benefits from small web upstarts?  Or are the external benefits from the big superstar internet companies?  If you are a Progressive who loves stable jobs and decent wages, you might think the more significant externalities are from the superstar companies.  Yet when it comes to net neutrality, all of a sudden the smaller companies are glorified and we need an ecosystem to foster them.  Overall, I don’t trust the regulators to make these decisions well, so I would rather take my chances with the market, even with some monopoly power at the cable end.

As Megan McArdle points out, over the last ten years consumers have opted overwhelmingly for the non-neutral private garden of Facebook.  That’s the real “threat” to net neutrality.  Personally, both as internet writer and user, I much preferred the older, semi-open, more neutral architecture of RSS and related systems.  The masses have spoken, however, and quite decisively in favor of less open systems and apps.  Nonetheless Alex and I still can do our thing on MR and in fact the project is thriving, and I would be shocked if it did not survive the new FCC decision.  That said, people want non-neutralities and they will introduce them to internet systems one way or the other, and suppliers will have to find ways to cope or perhaps even benefit.  To believe it could be any other way is a kind of wishful thinking, yes I want those old usenet groups back too.  All things considered, “net neutrality” is a biasing term, because the 2015-2017 period was by no means neutral either.  The notion represents a kind of undeserving “victory by language,” as who would wish to favor “bias” over “neutrality”?

Perhaps this point is misused a bit to make extrapolations, but still it is worth noting:

Pai…noted that today’s proposed changes, which are expected to pass full FCC review in mid-December, return the Internet to the light-touch regulatory regime that governed it from the mid-1990s until 2015.

More generally, I don’t see anything intrinsically morally wrong with a person deciding to “buy only one third of the internet.”  How many net neutrality supporters also favor or maybe even insist upon a’la carte pricing for cable TV?  What percentage of the public library do they take home over the course of their lifetime?

Or think of the whole issue in terms of a regulatory principal-agent problem.  Let’s say the water company has “too much” market power, and the public regulator doesn’t have the will or the resources to constrain the company properly.  Said company refuses to let Perrier flow through the pipes as an alternative option to plain tap water, for fear too much of the profit would go to France.  That somewhat mirrors potential problems from net non-neutrality.  But is it likely that a zero price for water is close to the correct solution?  I do get that alternative solutions might in some ways involve greater faith in outside regulators, such as antitrust authorities, but zero price is an awfully blunt instrument for a rapidly changing setting such as data flow.  It certainly hasn’t worked well for water, in a wide range of settings.

Finally, Viking notes in the MR comments:

The real benefits of net non neutrality would be applications that require a guaranteed minimum latency. Non net neutrality would allow some market participants to pay more for reduced latency, which could benefit video conferencing, virtual reality, remote surgeries, VOIP (already part of video conferencing) and other possibly new applications, say remote monitoring and control various kinds.

Are the defenders of net neutrality considering those opportunity costs in their assessments?  I don’t see it.

To be sure, net neutrality really might be better.  You might have a high opinion of the net neutrality regulator and a low opinion of all the other regulators of unjust or inefficient conduct.  You might think bandwidth won’t become scarce anytime soon, and that new, alternative uses for greater bandwidth just aren’t that promising.  You might think that access auctions disadvantage “the little guy,” and furthermore the positive externalities are on the side of the little guy, and thus we should stifle price-based access auctions.  You might think that rationing on a quantity/access basis will be more fair or efficient than rationing by price.  All that is possible.  But it seems hard to know those claims might be true.  Instead, those comparisons would seem to suggest a fair degree of agnosticism.  But when I read proponents of net neutrality, I am more likely to see a harsh excoriation of commercial incentives, or cable companies, than a balanced weighing of those considerations.

Neutrality ain’t neutral, it’s time to get over that myth.

Here is Tom Hazlett on the topic, here is my earlier column.

Nobel Prize awarded to Richard Thaler

This is a prize that is easy to understand.  It is a prize for behavioral economics, for the ongoing importance of psychology in economic decision-making, and for “Nudge,” his famous and also bestselliing book co-authored with Cass Sunstein.

Here are previous MR posts on Thaler, we’ve already covered a great deal of his research.  Here is Thaler on Twitter.  Here is Thaler on scholar.google.com.  Here is the Nobel press release, with a variety of excellent accompanying essays and materials.  Here is Cass Sunstein’s overview of Thaler’s work.

Perhaps unknown to many, Thaler’s most heavily cited piece is on whether the stock market overreacts.  He says yes this is possible for psychological reasons, and this article also uncovered some of the key evidence in favor of the now-vanquished “January effect” in stock returns, namely that for a while the market did very very well in the month of January.  (Once discovered the effect went away.)  Another excellent Thaler piece on finance is this one with Shleifer and Lee, on why closed end mutual funds sell at divergences from their true asset values.  This too likely has something to do with market psychology and sentiment, as the same “asset package,” in two separate and non-arbitrageable markets, can sell for quite different prices, sometimes premia but usually discounts.  This was one early and relative influential critique of the efficient markets hypothesis.

Another classic early Thaler piece is on a phenomenon known as “mental accounting,” for instance you might treat a dollar in your pocket as different from a dollar in your bank account.  Or earned money may be treated different from money you just chanced upon, or won that morning in the stock market.  This has significant implications for predicting consumer decisions concerning saving and spending; in particular, economists cannot simply measure income but must consider where the money came from and how it is perceived by consumers, namely how they are performing their mental accounting of the funds.  Have you ever gone on a vacation with a notion that you would spend so much money, and then treated all expenditures within that range as essentially already decided?  The initial piece on this topic was published in a marketing journal and it has funny terminology, a sign of how far from the mainstream this work once was.  It is nonetheless a brilliant piece.  Here is more Thaler on mental accounting.

Thaler, with Kahneman and Knetsch, was a major force behind discovering and measuring the so-called “endowment effect.”  Once you have something, you value it much more!  Maybe three or four times as much, possibly more than that.  It makes policy evaluation difficult, because as economists we are not sure how much to privilege the status quo.  Should we measure “willingness to pay” — what people are willing to pay for what they don’t already have?  Or “willingness to be paid” — namely how eager people are to give up what they already possess?  The latter magnitude will lead to much higher valuations for the assets in question.  This by the way helps explain status quo bias in politics and other spheres of life.  People value something much more highly once they view it as theirs.

This phenomenon also makes the Coase theorem tricky because the final allocation of resources may depend quite significantly on how the initial property rights are assigned, even when the initial wealth effect from such an allocation may appear to be quite small.  See this Thaler piece with Knetsch.  It’s not just that you assign property rights and let people trade, but rather how you assign the rights up front will create an endowment effect and thus significantly influence the final bargain that is struck.

With Jolls and Sunstein, here is Thaler on a behavioral approach to law and economics, a long survey but also constructive piece that became a major trend and has shaped law and economics for decades.  He has done plenty and had a truly far-ranging impact, not just in one or two narrow fields.

Thaler’s “Nudge” idea, developed in conjunction with Cass Sunstein over the course of a major book and some articles, has led policymakers all over the world to focus on “choice architecture” in designing better systems, the UK even setting up a “Nudge Unit.”  For instance, one way to encourage savings is to set up pension systems for employees so that the maximum contribution is the default, rather than an active choice people must make.  This is sometimes referred to as a form of “soft” or “libertarian paternalism,” since choice is still present.  Here is Thaler responding to some libertarian critiques of the nudge idea.

I first encountered Thaler’s work in graduate school, in the mid-1980s, in particular some of his pieces in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization; here is his early 1980 manifesto on how to think about consumer choice.  I thought “this is great stuff,” and I gobbled it up, as it was pretty consistent with some of what I was imbibing from Thomas Schelling, in particular Thaler’s 1981 piece with Shefrin on the economics of self-control, a foundation for many later discussions of paternalism.  I also thought “a shame this work isn’t going to become mainstream,” because at the time it wasn’t.  It was seen as odd, under-demonstrated, and often it wasn’t in top journals.  For some time Thaler taught at Cornell, a very good school but not a top top school of the kind where many Laureates might teach, such as Harvard or Chicago or MIT.  Many people were surprised when finally he received an offer from the University of Chicago Business School, noting of course this was not the economics department.  Obviously this Prize is a sign that Thaler truly has arrived at the very high levels of recognition, and I would note Thaler has been pegged as one of the favorites at least since 2010 or so.  When Daniel Kahneman won some while ago and Thaler didn’t, many people thought “ah, that is it” because many of Thaler’s most famous pieces were written with Kahneman.  Yet as time passed it became clear that Thaler’s work was holding up and spreading far and wide in influence, and he moved into a position of being a clear favorite to win.

Here is Thaler’s book on the making of behavioral economics.  Excerpt:

…my thesis advisor, Sherwin Rosen, gave the following as an assessment of my career as a graduate student: “We did not expect much of him.”

Very lately Thaler on Twitter has been making some critical remarks about price gouging, suggesting we also must take into account what customers perceive as fair.  Here is his earlier piece about fairness constraints on profit-seeking, still a classic.

Thaler has written many columns for The New York Times, here is one on boosting access to health care.  Here are many more of them.  Here is “Unless you are Spock, Irrelevant Things Matter for Investment Behavior.”  Here is Thaler on making good citizenship fun.  He also told us that trading up in the NFL draft isn’t worth it.

Thaler is underrated as a policy economist, here is an excellent NYT piece on the “public option” for health insurance, excerpt: “…instead of arguing about whether to have a public option, argue about the ground rules.”

His last pre-Nobel tweet was: “The web site is using lots of . Advertised rates include cashing in of “points”, cancellation policies not salient if bad…”

A well-deserved prize and one that is relatively easy to explain, and most of Thaler’s works are easy to read even if you are not an economist.  I would stress that Thaler has done more than even many of his fans may realize.