kottke.org posts about Tyler Cowen
In the most recent video from Marginal Revolution University, Tyler Cowen explains how the role of financial intermediaries contributed to the financial crisis of 2008. He highlights homeowners and banks taking on too much leverage, poorly planned incentive systems, securitization of mortgages, and banks making loans that are over-reliant on investor confidence.
By 2008, the economy was in a very fragile state, with both homeowners and banks taking on greater leverage, many ending up "underwater." Why did managers at financial institutions take on greater and greater risk? We'll discuss a couple of key reasons, including the role of excess confidence and incentives.
In addition to homeowners' leverage and bank leverage, a third factor played a major role in tipping the scale toward crisis: securitization. Mortgage securities during this time were very hard to value, riskier than advertised, and filled to the brim with high risk loans. Cowen discusses several reasons this happened, including downright fraud, failure of credit rating agencies, and overconfidence in the American housing market.
Finally, a fourth factor joins homeowners' leverage, bank leverage, and securitization to inch the economy closer to the edge: the shadow banking system. On the whole, the shadow banking system is made up of investment banks and various other complex financial intermediaries, highly dependent on short term loans.
When housing prices started to fall in 2007, it was the final nudge that pushed the economy over the cliff. There was a run on the shadow banking system. Financial intermediaries came crashing down. We faced a credit crunch, and many businesses stopped growing. Layoffs ensued, increasing unemployment.
The Complacent Class is a forthcoming book by Tyler Cowen.
Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.
The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition -- we're working harder than ever to avoid change. We're moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.
Of course, this "matching culture" brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We're more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.
Cowen is also releasing another book called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.
In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to "think big."
It is only available by emailing him that you've pre-ordered The Complacent Class. Oh, and a reminder about how I (try to) read books.
As Elon Musk plans to introduce a fleet of completely autonomous self-driving vehicles to America's roads, another PayPal co-founder is giving a speech in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. But why exactly is a canny libertarian with a penchant for undermining the fundamental pillars of democracy to forward his own personal aims supporting Trump? Jeff Bercovici has a not-so-crazy theory:
I think Peter Thiel supports Donald Trump because he believes it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to weaken America's attachment to democratic government.
I'm not accusing Thiel of any ambitions he hasn't more or less copped to. In an often-quoted 2009 essay, Thiel declared, "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."
He also wrote that his fellow libertarians were on a "fool's errand" trying to achieve their ends through political means: "In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms -- from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called 'social democracy.'"
Here's the essay Bercovici refers to: The Education of a Libertarian. Tyler Cowen, who interviewed Thiel last year and admires him (or at least finds his views interesting), has another take on Thiel's support of Trump, which is perhaps related to Bercovici's:
The Straussian interpretation of the Republican Convention is the correct one, which is perhaps one reason why Peter Thiel will be speaking there. They are not saying what they are saying, in fact they are saying "the world is going to hell, and many of those amongst us have been traitorously disloyal. That is why we scream out stupidities, debase ourselves, and court attention by waving our arms in ridiculous ways. We are a small church seeking to become larger." Is that not how many smaller churches behave? Is that not how some of the early branches of the Christian church behaved? Did they have any influence?
What does Donald Trump actually want? What does Thiel want? What do Republican voters want? I'd wager their actual goals have less to do with the party's official platform and what people are saying at the convention and more to do with broader opportunities to gain power that arise from disruption and the energetic application of fear.
A number of political thinkers have penned a non-partisan letter to supporters of Donald Trump. The letter is striking for its non-confrontational tone in nevertheless painting Trump as a dangerous authoritarian.
We aren't criticizing or praising Mr. Trump's policy proposals or his likely appointments. Our objection to him is deeper-we believe that his entire way of behaving represents a rejection of the essential character traits (the "qualities") that our democracy requires of its leaders. We of course acknowledge that policy positions matter. But doesn't political behavior inimical to democracy matter more?
A good read, but I'm skeptical of its impact. I keep thinking of Tyler Cowen's description of the Brexit vote as "the one lever" for sending a political message to the country's leaders:
Cities such as Bradford, while still predominantly white, no longer feel as English (and German!) as they once did. And if you are thinking that voting "Leave" does not at all limit Pakistani immigration, you are truly missing the point; this vote was the one lever the English were given for sending a message to their politicians.
Many Americans share a frustration of the current political system and how it is wielded against us in our name by skilled political practitioners, but I do not believe the US is a country filled with small-minded, intolerant racists, despite the perplexing level of national support for a proudly dishonest and bigoted TV personality, whatever his keen political instincts. Trump is the one lever being given to those frustrated voters for sending a message to their politicians and many are choosing to use it despite many of the reasons listed in that letter. Sending that message is more important than its potential consequences. (via @marcprecipice)
Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer and one of my favorite recent reads, is out with a new book called The Gene: An Intimate History.
Siddhartha Mukherjee has a written a biography of the gene as deft, brilliant, and illuminating as his extraordinarily successful biography of cancer. Weaving science, social history, and personal narrative to tell us the story of one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times, Mukherjee animates the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices.
The book comes recommended by Tyler Cowen, who IIRC also recommended Emperor of All Maladies to me.
This book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge, plus it is engaging to read. Overall it confirmed my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use.
This is on the must-read list this summer. Somehow. When I get a second.
In Trump Taps Into the Anxiety of American White Males, Anand Giridharadas writes:
Yet there is some evidence that a sizable number of white men see the push toward diversity, along with the larger changes it telegraphs, as less about joining and more about replacement, and a country that is less hospitable to them.
That sentiment is perhaps expressed in a quote widely circulated online in these discussions, though the origin is unknown: "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."
This is perhaps what Tyler Cowen was getting at with his highly speculative and provocative What the hell is going on?
The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don't sit well with many...what shall I call them? Brutes?
Quite simply, there are many people who don't like it when the world becomes nicer. They do less well with nice. And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.
I wouldn't recommend it, but a spin through the comments on Cowen's piece provides some examples of what he's talking about.
The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned & Constance Sublette is a book which offers an alternate view of slavery in the United States. Instead of treating slavery as a source of unpaid labor, as it is typically understood, they focus on the ownership aspect: people as property, merchandise, collateral, and capital. From a review of the book at Pacific Standard:
In fact, most American slaves were not kidnapped on another continent. Though over 12.7 million Africans were forced onto ships to the Western hemisphere, estimates only have 400,000-500,000 landing in present-day America. How then to account for the four million black slaves who were tilling fields in 1860? "The South," the Sublettes write, "did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people." Slavers called slave-breeding "natural increase," but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia's capital stock by four percent annually.
Here is how the American slave-breeding industry worked, according to the Sublettes: Some states (most importantly Virginia) produced slaves as their main domestic crop. The price of slaves was anchored by industry in other states that consumed slaves in the production of rice and sugar, and constant territorial expansion. As long as the slave power continued to grow, breeders could literally bank on future demand and increasing prices. That made slaves not just a commodity, but the closest thing to money that white breeders had. It's hard to quantify just how valuable people were as commodities, but the Sublettes try to convey it: By a conservative estimate, in 1860 the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, "most of it in the North," the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South's total farmland ($1.92 billion). Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.
Just reading that turns my stomach. The Sublettes also recast the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade as trade protectionism.
Virginia slaveowners won a major victory when Thomas Jefferson's 1808 prohibition of the African slave trade protected the domestic slave markets for slave-breeding.
I haven't read the book, but I imagine they touched on the fact that by growing slave populations, southern states were literally manufacturing more political representation due to the Three-Fifths clause in the US Constitution. They bred more slaves to help politically safeguard the practice of slavery.
Update: Because slaves were property, Southern slave owners could mortgage them to banks and then the banks could package the mortgages into bonds and sell the bonds to anyone anywhere in the world, even where slavery was illegal.
In the 1830s, powerful Southern slaveowners wanted to import capital into their states so they could buy more slaves. They came up with a new, two-part idea: mortgaging slaves; and then turning the mortgages into bonds that could be marketed all over the world.
First, American planters organized new banks, usually in new states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Drawing up lists of slaves for collateral, the planters then mortgaged them to the banks they had created, enabling themselves to buy additional slaves to expand cotton production. To provide capital for those loans, the banks sold bonds to investors from around the globe -- London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris. The bond buyers, many of whom lived in countries where slavery was illegal, didn't own individual slaves -- just bonds backed by their value. Planters' mortgage payments paid the interest and the principle on these bond payments. Enslaved human beings had been, in modern financial lingo, "securitized."
Slave-backed securities. My stomach is turning again. (via @daveg)
Update: Tyler Cowen read The American Slave Coast and listed a few things he learned from it.
2. President James Polk speculated in slaves, based on inside information he obtained from being President and shaping policy toward slaves and slave importation.
3. In the South there were slave "breeding farms," where the number of women and children far outnumbered the number of men.
Update: In his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist details how slavery played a central role in the making of the US economy.
As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, slavery and its expansion were central to the evolution and modernization of our nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, catapulting the US into a modern, industrial and capitalist economy. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a sub-continental cotton empire. By 1861 it had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution, and was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. It was through slavery and slavery alone that the United States achieved a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and was transformed into a global power rivaled only by England.
The person I listen to the most regarding books I should be reading is Tyler Cowen...he has never once steered me wrong. So when he wrote about the best fiction of 2015, I perked up. I've been hearing many good things about Elena Ferrante's series (Cowen himself flagged her The Lost Daughter as a favorite back in 2008) but his assertion that her recent series of novels ranks as "one of the prime literary achievements of the last twenty years" puts it solidly on my holiday beach reads list. The New World by Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz and Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty also sound particularly interesting.
Update: Cowen recently shared his list of best non-fiction books of the year as well. Biographies rule the list: on Elon Musk, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, and Genghis Khan. What a list...but I have to say that reading biographies of Thatcher or Kissinger doesn't appeal at all.
Update: The NY Times weighs in with their list of 100 Notable Books of 2015. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an appearance, as do the latest installments by Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Update: From Buzzfeed, The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015 and from Slate, The Overlooked Books of 2015.
Update: The NY Times Sunday Book Review names their 10 Best Books of 2015. Coates and Ferrante feature. By my count, 7 of the 10 books are written by women.
Update: From Slate, a list of the best audiobooks of 2015. The Economist's best books of the year, including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes. For part one of their best books list, The Guardian asked writers for their favorite books of the year; Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers got multiple mentions (but is not yet out in the US).
Update: Amazon's editors picked their 100 best books of the year and Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies topped the list. The top non-fiction book is Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family.
Update: A design-oriented list from Michael Bierut, including The Making of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'.
Update: Bill Gates shared his favorite books of 2015, including Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.
For The Millions Year in Reading 2015, they asked a bunch of writers for their reading recommendations. Joyce Carol Oates recommends the Didion biography The Last Love Song while Celeste Ng read The Suicide Index.
The Atlantic asked their editors and writers to share The Best Book I Read This Year. This is one of several lists to include The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf.
Update: The NY Times book critics weigh in with their favorite books of the year. Moar Ferrante! Moar Coates!
Tyler Cowen on Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and our selective preference for some religious beliefs over others.
Loyal MR readers will know that I am myself a non-believer. But what I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson's pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.
To the non-believer, the Scientologist's belief in thetans and the vengeful sky god of Christianity are both equally implausible.
From a 2005 post on Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen, an alternate take on the Star Wars movies positing that while the Jedi aren't the bad guys, they are also not to be trusted.
1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy. Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.
2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway? The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail). Aren't they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that? As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs. Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.
See also Darth Jar Jar and Luke Skywalker, Sith Lord. I also wanted to link to a video I saw within the past year that suggests that instead of a rebel leader, Princess Leia is a petulant child whose father, Vader, is attempting to bring to heel. Ring a bell? The internet is so choked with crackpot theories about Star Wars that it's impossible to search for one in particular. (And now this post is part of the problem.)
Update: Aaah, yes, the Auralnauts. (via @peteashton & @Lemur_Lad)
"Success through failure, calm through embracing anxiety..." This book sounds perfect for me. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.
Self-help books don't seem to work. Few of the many advantages of modern life seem capable of lifting our collective mood. Wealth -- even if you can get it -- doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. Romance, family life, and work often bring as much stress as joy. We can't even agree on what "happiness" means. So are we engaged in a futile pursuit? Or are we just going about it the wrong way?
Looking both east and west, in bulletins from the past and from far afield, Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual group of people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. Whether experimental psychologists, terrorism experts, Buddhists, hardheaded business consultants, Greek philosophers, or modern-day gurus, they argue that in our personal lives, and in society at large, it's our constant effort to be happy that is making us miserable. And that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty -- the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid. Thought-provoking, counterintuitive, and ultimately uplifting, The Antidote is the intelligent person's guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.
I learned about the book from Tyler Cowen, who notes:
[Burkeman] is one of the best non-fiction essay writers, and he remains oddly underrated in the United States. It is no mistake to simply buy his books sight unseen. I think of this book as "happiness for grumps."
Given Cowen's recent review of Inside Out, I wonder if [slight spoilers ahoy!] he noticed the similarity of Joy's a-ha moment w/r/t to Sadness at the end of the film to the book's "alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty". Mmmm, zeitgeisty!
Tyler Cowen writes about Steph Curry, the current dominance of the three-point shot, and how the reality of new technology lags in relation to its promise.
What took so long? At first the shot was thought to be a cheesy gimmick. Players had to master the longer shot, preferably from their earliest training. Coaches had to figure out three-point strategies, which include rethinking the fast break and different methods of floor spacing and passing; players had to learn those techniques too. The NBA had to change its rules to encourage more three-pointers (e.g., allowing zone defenses, discouraging isolation plays). General managers had to realize that Rick Pitino, though perhaps a bad NBA coach, was not a total fool, and that the Phoenix Suns were not a fluke.
This longer article on the rise of the three-pointer in the NBA by Tom Haberstroh provides further context to Cowen's thoughts.
Tyler Cowen was recently asked how he'd best use a time machine for financial gain. Here was the specific query:
Suppose you had a time machine you that you solely wanted to use for financial gain. You can bring one item from the present back to any point in the past to exchange for another item that people of that time would consider of equal value, then bring that new item back to the present. To what time period would you go, and what items would you choose to maximize your time-travel arbitrage?
Cowen notes some difficulty with an obvious approach:
The obvious answer encounters some difficulties upon reflection. Let's say I brought gold back in time and walked into the studio of Velazquez, or some other famous painter, and tried to buy a picture for later resale in the present. At least some painters would recognize and accept the gold, and gold is highly valuable and easy enough to carry around. Some painters might want the gold weighed and assayed, but even there the deal would go fine.
The problem is establishing clear title to the painting, once you got back home. It wouldn't turn up on any register as stolen, but still you would spend a lot of time talking to the FBI and Interpol. The IRS would want to know whether this was a long-term or short-term capital gain, and you couldn't just cite Einstein back to them. They also would think you must have had a lot of unreported back income.
So establishing present ownership of a past item is an issue...as is authentication via carbon dating. I don't have a specific scheme in mind, but I would think any general approach would also need to minimize the butterfly effect of your trade so that, for example, your existence in the present is not disrupted. So you can't trade Leonardo an iPhone 6 for the Mona Lisa. But maybe you could trade $1 for a winning ticket for last week's $300 million lottery jackpot...or would the numbers change somehow because of your visit? What if you bought 100,000 shares of Apple stock in 2003? How would that action effect the present? What is a large enough action to make you rich but with a small enough effect to keep the present otherwise unchanged? Since I didn't see any super-compelling solutions in the comments at MR, I'm gonna open the comments here...I know someone has been thinking about this extensively or has a link to a good discussion elsewhere. Please stay on topic, mmm'kay?
We've been listening to this quite a bit at home lately: Motown: The Complete No. 1's.
That's more than twelve hours of music, from The Miracles to Erykah Badu. Some of it, particularly from the 80s, is not so great, but as you listen, you're of course reminded of how great Stevie Wonder is. Rdio has more than 40 additional hours of Stevie for your listening pleasure. More than 30 hours of the Jackson 5. Hundreds more hours of The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Commodores, Diana Ross, and on and on. And that's just riffing off of one album in one genre. Freely choosing from an infinite buffet of choices is a completely different way of listening to music than any of us grew up with (unless you had tons of money or worked in a record store). For me, it's been an incredible way to take advantage of Tyler Cowen's observation that there's way more good unheard stuff in the back catalog than there is new music...e.g. if you haven't heard John Coltrane's The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings, it's likely to be better than most new music you'll hear this year.
In a masterfully edited video, David Ehrlich presents his 25 favorite films of 2013.
Fantastic. This video makes me want to stop what I'm doing and watch movies for a week. It's a good year for it apparently...both Tyler Cowen and Bruce Handy argue that 2013 is an exceptional year for movies. I'm still fond of 1999... (via @brillhart)
You're probably sick of this news already, but Amazon says they're working on 30-minute package delivery by drone.
The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.
Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations.
Back in January, riffing off a piece by John Robb, I speculated that Amazon would be an early mover into delivery-by-drone:
More likely that Amazon will buy a fledgling drone delivery company in the next year or two and begin rolling out same-day delivery of items weighing less than 2 pounds in non-urban areas where drone flights are permitted.
Tyler Cowen is already out of the gate this morning talking about the economics of drone delivery:
You would buy smaller size packages and keep smaller libraries at home and in your office. Bookshelf space would be freed up, you would cook more with freshly ground spices, the physical world would stand a better chance of competing with the rapid-delivery virtual world, and Amazon Kindles would decline in value.
But for now, Amazon Prime Air sure is providing lots of Cyber Monday PR for Amazon.
The Chess World Championship is currently underway in Chennai, India. Through nine games, challenger and world #1 Magnus Carlsen is leading reigning world champ and world #8 Viswanathan Anand by the score of 6-3. It seems as though Carlsen's nettlesomeness is contributing to his good fortunes.
Second, Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his "nettlesomeness," to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.
Or perhaps Carlsen's just inspired by the lovely chess set they're using? Either way, he needs just one draw in the remaining three games to win the Championship. Or putting it another way, Anand has to win all three of the remaining games to retain the title.
Huh, Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Here's the synopsis:
Three thousand years ago on a battlefield in ancient Palestine, a shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a stone and a sling, and ever since then the names of David and Goliath have stood for battles between underdogs and giants. David's victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn't have won.
Or should he have?
In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks.
Tyler Cowen liked it:
Take the book's central message to be "here's how to think more deeply about what you are seeing." To be sure, this is not a book for econometricians, but it so unambiguously improves the quality of the usual public debates, in addition to entertaining and inspiring and informing us, I am very happy to recommend it to anyone who might be tempted.
Christopher Chabris at the Wall Street Journal was not so kind:
One thing "David and Goliath" shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works. Mr. Gladwell should acknowledge when he is speculating or working with thin evidentiary soup. Yet far from abandoning his hand or even standing pat, Mr. Gladwell has doubled down. This will surely bring more success to a Goliath of nonfiction writing, but not to his readers.
I enjoy Gladwell's writing and am able to take it with the proper portion of salt...I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on. I skipped Outliers but maybe I should give this one a try?
Tyler Cowen gets the best email. Case in point is this advice from a former cab driver on the best way to get your stolen car back:
If your car is ever stolen, your first calls should be to every cab company in the city. You offer a $50 reward to the driver who finds it AND a $50 reward to the dispatcher on duty when the car is found. The latter is to encourage dispatchers on shift to continually remind drivers of your stolen car. Of course you should call the police too but first things first. There are a lot more cabs than cops so cabbies will find it first -- and they're more frequently going in places cops typically don't go, like apartment and motel complex parking lots, back alleys etc. Lastly, once the car is found, a swarm of cabs will descend and surround it because cabbies, like anyone else, love excitement and want to catch bad guys.
For the Financial Times' Lunch with the FT series, editor John McDermott sits down with Tyler Cowen at an inexpensive Ethiopian restaurant located in a strip mall. Lots of interesting little tidbits throughout.
Cowen is walking-talking-tweeting evidence for his theory. Why, then, apart from an early surge in the 1990s, hasn't the internet led to more measurable economic gains? "My view of the internet is that it is way overrated in what it's done to date but considerably underrated in what it will do." He notes that it took decades for earlier major inventions to have institutions built around them, such as roads for cars and grids for electricity. "If you're an optimist about what has come before, you tend to be a pessimist about what's on the way."
In the NY Times, Gareth Cook writes about the advantages some companies have found in employing people with autism.
To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark's largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees. Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars -- and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization -- he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family's home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for "the specialists," on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.
I particularly liked Tyler Cowen's observations:
Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University (and a regular contributor to The Times), published a much-discussed paper last year that addressed the ways that autistic workers are being drawn into the modern economy. The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows. Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker's greatest skill, not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people's weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts.
And so it begins, the end of the year lists. Love 'em or hate 'em, you've got to, um, ... I've got nothing here. You either love them or hate them. Anyway, the NY Times' list of the 100 notable books of the year is predictably solid and Timesish.
BRING UP THE BODIES. By Hilary Mantel. (Macrae/Holt, $28.) Mantel's sequel to "Wolf Hall" traces the fall of Anne Boleyn, and makes the familiar story fascinating and suspenseful again.
BUILDING STORIES. By Chris Ware. (Pantheon, $50.) A big, sturdy box containing hard-bound volumes, pamphlets and a tabloid houses Ware's demanding, melancholy and magnificent graphic novel about the inhabitants of a Chicago building.
I absolutely demolished Bring Up the Bodies over Thanksgiving break and loved it. I haven't had a chance to sit down with Building Stories yet, but that massive and gorgeous collection is a steal at $28 from Amazon. And as far as lists go, another early favorite is Tyler Cowen's list of his favorite non-fiction books of the year. Cowen is a demanding reader and I always find something worth reading there. (via @DavidGrann)
Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution are starting an online education platform.
We think education should be better, cheaper, and easier to access. So we decided to take matters into our own hands and create a new online education platform toward those ends. We have decided to do more to communicate our personal vision of economics to you and to the broader world.
The first course is Development Economics.
Development Economics will cover the sources of economic growth including geography, education, finance, and institutions. We will cover theories like the Solow and O-ring models and we will cover the empirical data on development and trade, foreign aid, industrial policy, and corruption. Development Economics will include not just theory but a wealth of historical and factual information on specific countries and topics, everything from watermelon scale economies and the clove monopoly to water privatization in Buenos Aires and cholera in Haiti.
A piece of unsolicited advice: change the name to Revolution University.
Tyler Cowen once gave the following final test to one of his classes:
Tyler [Cowen] once walked into class the day of the final exam and he said. "Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points." Then he walked out.
Writing for Grantland, economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier imagine how the NFL might end due to the increasing visibility of head injuries.
This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players -- or worse, high schoolers -- commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn't worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it's mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.
Is this how soccer finally conquers America? Not that soccer doesn't have its own concussion-related problems.
A forthcoming book from Tyler Cowen: An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. No description yet, but if you're a regular reader of Marginal Revolution (the Food and Drink stuff in particular), you can probably figure out what it'll entail.
The annual NY Times feature is out: the Year in Ideas for 2010. A particular favorite is the ten-year retrospective by Tyler Cowen:
The editors asked Tyler Cowen, the economist who helps run the blog Marginal Revolution, to read the previous nine Ideas issues and send us his thoughts on which entries, with the benefit of hindsight, struck him as noteworthy. Do any ideas from this year's issue look promising? "I recall reading the 2001 issue when it came out," he says. "And I was hardly bowled over with excitement by thoughts of 'Populist Editing.' Now I use Wikipedia almost every day. The 2001 issue noted that, in its selection of items, 'frivolous ideas are given the same prominence as weighty ones'; that is easiest to do when we still don't know which are which."
Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen picks some of his favorite books of the year. Cowen has never steered me wrong with a book recommendation (even in recommending his own books). Of the most interest to me this year are Siddhartha Mukherjee's Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (which I've seen rave reviews for all over the place) and Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.
Tyler Cowen takes a crack at defining American conservatism.
Fiscal conservatism is part and parcel of conservatism per se. A state wrecked by debt is a state due to perish or fall into decay. This is a lesson from history. States must "save up their powder" for true crises and it is a kind of narcissistic arrogation to think that the personal failures of particular individuals -- often those with weak values -- meet this standard.
Cowen did the same for progressivism a few weeks ago.
Progressive policies offer more scope for individualism and some kinds of freedom. Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games.
As Tyler Cowen seemingly reads every new book published in English each year (and I'm not even sure about the "seemingly"), a rave review from him directs my finger from its holster to Amazon's 1-Click trigger. This week Cowen is on about The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham. From the review:
What can I say? I have to count this tome as one of the best history books I have read, ever.
Having just finished, coincidentially, Cowen's Create Your Own Economy (more on that soon), I *am* looking for another book to read.
Of Wrestling with Moses, the story of how Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses and his plans for two Manhattan freeways, Tyler Cowen says:
The parts of this book about Jacobs are splendid. The parts about Moses are good, though they were more familiar to me. I believe there has otherwise never been much biographical material on Jacobs's life.
The New York Times has a lengthy excerpt from the book that recalls Jacobs' arrival in NYC.
Writing about the city remained her passion. She often went up to the rooftop of her apartment building and watched the garbage trucks as they made their way through the city streets, picking the sidewalks clean. She would think, "What a complicated great place this is, and all these pieces of it that make it work." The more she investigated and explored neighborhoods, infrastructure, and business districts for her stories, the more she began to see the city as a living, breathing thing -- complex, wondrous, and self-perpetuating.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tyler Cowen argues that society in general and academia in particular is prejudiced with respect to people with autism and that autism in the academy can be an advantage.
Autism is often described as a disease or a plague, but when it comes to the American college or university, autism is often a competitive advantage rather than a problem to be solved. One reason American academe is so strong is because it mobilizes the strengths and talents of people on the autistic spectrum so effectively. In spite of some of the harmful rhetoric, the on-the-ground reality is that autistics have been very good for colleges, and colleges have been very good for autistics.
Errol Morris' discussion of Robert McNamara's legacy nails why McNamara was such a compelling figure.
His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There's ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when "In Retrospect" was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.
One angry person once said to me: "Loyalty to the president? What about his loyalty to the American people?" Fair enough. But our government isn't set up that way. He was not an elected official, he said repeatedly. He served at the pleasure of the president.
Morris was also interviewed about McNamara on Here and Now. (thx, patricio)
Tyler Cowen also has a short appreciation of McNamara's efforts with the World Bank.
McNamara also had a huge influence on the economics profession, most of all through his 13-year presidency at the World Bank. He focused the Bank on poverty reduction, he brought Communist China into the Bank, he introduced the practice of five-year lending plans, he significantly increased the Bank's budget, he grew staff from 1600 to 5700, he favored sector-specific research, he raised money from OPEC, he strongly encouraged "scientific project evaluation," and he started a largely successful program to combat "river blindness"; the latter may have been his life's achievement.
Tyler Cowen previews a portion of his upcoming book, Create Your Own Economy, for Fast Company.
More and more, "production" -- that word my fellow economists have worked over for generations -- has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor. A tweet may not look like much, but its value lies in the mental dimension. You use Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other Web services to construct a complex meld of stories, images, and feelings in your mind. No single bit seems weighty on its own, but the resulting blend is rich in joy, emotion, and suspense. This is a new form of drama, and it plays out inside us -- with technological assistance -- rather than on a public stage.
Tyler Cowen on how to keep your job. Click through to see which of the following is most effective:
1. Make your boss aware of all your recent accomplishments at work.
2. Butter up your boss with compliments.
3. Tell your boss you'd be willing to accept a pay cut to keep your job.
I don't think he's talked about it on his site yet, but Tyler Cowen has a new book coming out called Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.
As economist Tyler Cowen boldly shows in Create Your Own Economy, the way we think now is changing more rapidly than it has in a very long time. Not since the Industrial Revolution has a man-made creation -- in this case, the World Wide Web -- so greatly influenced the way our minds work and our human potential. Cowen argues brilliantly that we are breaking down cultural information into ever-smaller tidbits, ordering and reordering them in our minds (and our computers) to meet our own specific needs.
Create Your Own Economy explains why the coming world of Web 3.0 is good for us; why social networking sites such as Facebook are so necessary; what's so great about "Tweeting" and texting; how education will get better; and why politics, literature, and philosophy will become richer. This is a revolutionary guide to life in the new world.
I never properly reviewed Cowen's last book (sorry!), but I found it as enlightening and entertaining as Marginal Revolution is. (via david archer)
Somehow I missed this a few weeks ago on Marginal Revolution: Do influential people develop more conventional opinions?
1. People "sell out" to become more influential.
2. As people become more influential, they are less interested in offending their new status quo-oriented friends.
3. As people become more influential, their opinion of the status quo rises, because they see it rewarding them and thus meritorious.
Tyler Cowen has updated his Ethnic Dining Guide for the Washington DC area. Even if you don't live in DC, the general remarks section is good advice to keep in mind when dining out.
The better ethnic restaurants tend to have many of their kind in a given geographic area. Single restaurant representations of a cuisine tend to disappoint. Competition increases quality and lowers prices. The presence of many restaurants of a kind in an area creates a pool of educated consumers, trained workers and chefs, and ingredient supplies - all manifestations of increasing returns to scale.
Cowen also wants against ordering ingredients-intensive dishes because of inferior American ingredients.
Avoid dishes that are "ingredients-intensive." Raw ingredients in America - vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. - are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do, at least if you have a U.S. income to spend there, and often even if one doesn't. Ordering the plain steak in Latin America may be a great idea, but it is usually a mistake in Northern Virginia. Opt for dishes with sauces and complex mixes of ingredients. Go for dishes that are "composition-intensive."
The first line of Tyler Cowen's review of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell's new book:
The book is getting snarky reviews but if it were by an unknown, rather than by the famous Malcolm Gladwell, many people would be saying how interesting it is.
Bing! I can identify with the fatigue one can get after reading too much of the same sort of thing from an author (even a favorite author), but dismissing a book because of who writes it rather than what's written is small-minded and incurious.
Tyler Cowen on why blogs should cover some topics randomly.
But with Google and Wikipedia you must choose the topic. A good blog writer can randomize the topic for you, much like a good DJ controls the sequence of the music. Sometimes you might trust us more than you trust other aggregators, but we can't count on that and arguably the other aggregators improve at a rate faster than we do.
The economics posts on Marginal Revolution are often less interesting to me than the supposedly off-topic posts.
Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen occasionally asks his readers to suggest topics for him to write about. Stump the polymath, as it were. I posted a suggestion that I'd been wondering about recently:
Is taking a photo or video of an event for later viewing worth it, even if it means more or less missing the event in realtime? What's better, a lifetime of mediated viewing of my son's first steps or a one-time in-person viewing?
and he answered it today:
If you take photos you will remember the event more vividly, if only because you have to stop and notice it. The fact that your memories will in part be "false" or constructed is besides the point; they'll probably be false anyway. In other words, there's no such thing as the "one-time in-person viewing," it is all mediated viewing, one way or the other. Daniel Gilbert's book on memory is the key source here.
I take a lot less photos than I used to -- even though cameras are easier to use and carry around than ever -- and prefer to experience the moment rather than fiddle with the camera. But that seems to swim against tide these days...camera irises seemingly outnumber real ones at photo-worthy events and places.
Economist blogger Tyler Cowen lists his anti-American attitudes. Among them:
1. The number of Americans in prison remains an underreported scandal, as well as the conditions they face.
7. The American culture of individual freedom is closely linked to the prevalence of mental illness and gun-based violence in this country. We can't seem to get only the brighter side of non-conformity.
Tyler Cowen has a short review of Peter Moskos' book, Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District.
This is one of the two or three best conceptual analyses of "cops and robbers" I have read. It is mandatory reading for all fans of The Wire and recommended for everyone else.
Tyler Cowen on invisible competition and how it differs from competing with those around you.
Let's look at individuals. Human beings evolved in small groups and hunter-gatherer societies, in which virtually all competition was face to face. That is the environment most of us are biologically and emotionally geared to succeed in, and it explains why our adrenalin surges when a rival wins the boss's favor or flirts with our special someone. But in the new arena, with its faceless and anonymous competitors, those who are driven to action mostly by adrenalin will not fare well. If that's what they need to get things done, they will become too passive and others will overtake them.
To me, the most interesting challenge is maintaining motivation in the absence of visible competition. How do you win a race you might not even know you're running?
Tyler Cowen has taken a look at a lot of this year's "best of" lists and has some meta-recommendations for you.
This wasn't meant to be Tyler Cowen day on kottke.org, but you need to check out this concise barnburner of an article written by Cowen for the Washington Post on the cost of the war in Iraq. Taking the form of a letter to President Bush, the article explores the opportunity costs of the war and then offers the real reason why the war has been disastrous:
In fact, Mr. President, your initial pro-war arguments offer the best path toward understanding why the conflict has been such a disaster for U.S. interests and global security.
Following your lead, Iraq hawks argued that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed to take out rogue regimes lest they give nuclear or biological weapons to al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. But each time the United States tries to do so and fails to restore order, it incurs a high -- albeit unseen -- opportunity cost in the future. Falling short makes it harder to take out, threaten or pressure a dangerous regime next time around.
Foreign governments, of course, drew the obvious lesson from our debacle -- and from our choice of target. The United States invaded hapless Iraq, not nuclear-armed North Korea. To the real rogues, the fall of Baghdad was proof positive that it's more important than ever to acquire nuclear weapons -- and if the last superpower is bogged down in Iraq while its foes slink toward getting the bomb, so much the better. Iran, among others, has taken this lesson to heart. The ironic legacy of the war to end all proliferation will be more proliferation.
As a refreshing mint, check out the length of the y-axis on this graph comparing the cost of the war and the amount spent by the US govt on energy R&D. (thx, ivan)
Update: Noam Chomsky, in an August 2002 interview:
The planned invasion will strike another blow at the structure of international law and treaties that has been laboriously constructed over the years, in an effort to reduce the use of violence in the world, which has had such horrifying consequences. Apart from other consequences, an invasion is likely to encourage other countries to develop WMD, including a successor Iraqi government, and to lower the barriers against resort to force by others to achieve their objectives, including Russia, India, and China.
Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution loves his iPhone and "can no longer imagine not having one" but has yet to make a phone call with it.
Psychology Today talks with psychologist Robert Epstein about his book, The Case Against Adolescence:
In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching puberty, animals function as adults, often having offspring. We call our offspring "children" well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing -- 30 is the new 20 -- and most Americans now believe a person isn't an adult until age 26.
The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways.
Epstein says the infantilization of adolescents creates a lot of conflict and isolation on both sides of the divide. Over at Marginal Revolution, economist Tyler Cowen adds:
The problem, of course, is that a contemporary wise and moderate 33 year old is looking to climb the career ladder, find a mate, or raise his babies. He doesn't have a great desire to educate unruly fifteen year olds and indeed he can insulate himself from them almost completely. He doesn't need a teenager to carry his net on the elephant hunt. Efficient capitalist production and rising wage rates lead to an increased sorting by age and the moral education of teens takes a hit.
You can read the first chapter of the book at The Radical Academy.
Update: Bryan writes to recommend Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood, saying that "Postman argues that the idea of childhood is a cultural phenomena that comes and goes through the ages". (thx, bryan)
"Travel is the starting point of learning social science." -- Tyler Cowen
Blogging makes us more oriented toward an intellectual bottom line, more interested in the directly empirical, more tolerant of human differences, more analytical in the course of daily life, more interested in people who are interesting, and less patient with Continental philosophy.
Manhattan, the greenest of cities? Not so fast says Tyler Cowen: "Praising Manhattan is a bit like looking only at the roof of a car and concluding it doesn't burn much gas. [...] Think of Manhattan as a place which outsources its pollution, simply because land there is so valuable."
Tyler Cowen takes a closer look at the recent "600,000 deaths in Iraq" claim. "We all know that the political world judges Iraq by the absolute badness of what is going on (which means Bush critics find a higher number to fit their priors), but that is an incorrect standard. We should judge the marginal product of U.S. action, relative to what else could have happened. In that latter and more accurate notion of a cost-benefit test, U.S. actions probably appear worst when deaths are rising over time, and hitting very high levels in the future."
Good review of Philip Tetlock's new book about expert predicitons, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices." Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen calls Tetlock's book "one of the (few) must-read social science books of 2005".