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America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

Phil at Transparency Revolution

It is possible to have an enjoyable life without earning and spending a whole lot of money. If health care and education are the areas where costs are growing, and if their marginal benefits are in doubt, then if you just get your basic needs met and focus on the enjoyment you get from the stuff that is not so expensive, you can do pretty well without a ton of money.

Arnold Kling

I think a lot of us would rather not work for somebody else. It’s not necessarily that we’re burgeoning entrepreneurs eager to start small businesses. It just sucks to have a boss.

Will Wilkinson

A job seeker is looking for something for a well-defined job. But the trend seems to be that if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.

Arnold Kling again

What many, maybe most, people actually want, it turns out, is the creativity and autonomy of entrepreneurship combined with the stability of a 1950s corporate drone.

Megan McArdle

These ideas are rattling around in my head.  Commentary to follow…

This is a place-holder for a much more detailed series of posts, but reading Will Wilkinson and then Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writing about Steve Jobs, I find myself hanging onto this thought:

It’s entirely consistent with capitalism to think poorly of Steve Jobs on the basis of a) the vast majority of Apple products being overpriced status symbols that provide little real value and b) his lack of charitable donation.  That is, one can fully support an economic system that allows Steve Jobs to have the career he had, while simultaneously having a system of values that assigns very low esteem to Steve Jobs as a person.  Which is to say, capitalism is very different than consumerism.

  1. Find a fairly unknown, relatively promising candidate
  2. Convince the candidate to run for president
  3. Hype the candidate as the savior of the party
  4. Watch as the media takes a month to completely discredit the candidate
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 as needed
  6. Nominate Mitt Romney
  7. Lose

Previous iterations: Trump, Cain, Pawlenty

Current: Rick Perry

Future: Palin, Paul Ryan, Christie, Pataki, Giuliani

David Henderson has a good post on how studying economics led him to combat his emotional feelings and adopt a more libertarian viewpoint:

I started to understand that the vast majority of income in a relatively free society is earned. It’s true that a small number of wealthy people did get their money by fraud or dishonesty. More common, especially in societies with lots of government controls, were people who got wealthy by using political pull. But I started to see that the typical high-income person in a relatively free society gets his or her income the old-fashioned way–by earning it.

What interests me about the post has less to do with the intellectual underpinnings of Henderson’s argument and more to do with the relationship between reasoning and emotion.  Even after adjusting his intellectual framework, Henderson retained the emotional effects of a prior framework:

Even though this was a full four years after I had realized that the vast majority of “the rich” get their money relatively honestly, I felt the old resentment at these people who had what I could not imagine myself ever being able to afford. I looked down at my fists and saw that I had clenched them in anger.

It’s fundamentally difficult to confront one’s own emotional intuitions, and if you surround yourself with like-minded thinkers (or include only the most extreme and moronic opponents) you never have to do so, because you’ll never have to change your views.  This is, in my humble opinion, a very bad thing.  It turns you into a fundamentally unthinking person.  Instead, I strongly advocate a deliberate attempt to seek out the most intelligent opposing voices you can tolerate, to engage with them in argument, and when tension arises between your emotions and reason, acknowledge and address the tension, no matter how difficult or painful.

In response to a request via facebook, I’ve compiled a short list of blogs that I read regularly.  My basic stance on media consumption is that people should read sources that resonate with them, but should also actively seek divergent viewpoints.  I disagree with a lot of what I read on these sites, but the writers are all brilliant, and they almost always present interesting, well-defended, and honest arguments.

  1. Marginal Revolution, RSS feed: George Mason University economist on politics, economics, travel and other interesting things.
  2. Matt Yglesias, RSS feed: Interesting blend of liberal activism, neo-liberalism, and some fairly unique policy ideas.
  3. Ross Douthat, RSS feed: Intellectually honest and quite conservative.
  4. Overcoming Bias, RSS feed: Another GMU economist, proposes fairly crazy theories merging economics, science, philosophy and future-gazing, and then defends them very convincingly.
  5. The American Scene, RSS feed: Group blog of conservative, mostly young writers on culture and politics.

If you lean conservative and thus want more left-leaning analysis, I like Ezra Klein (RSS) and Nicholas Kristof (RSS); if you’re a liberal and want more right-leaning analysis, I’d try Daniel Larison (RSS) and Conor Fridersdorf (RSS).  Will Wilkinson (RSS) and EconLog (RSS) have pretty solid analysis from, respectively, left-libertarian and right-libertarian perspectives.  Please submit any further suggestions in the comments; I’m always looking for new sources of content.


American conservatism is fixated on the idea that the country’s most numerous and powerful group identity—white, right-leaning Christians—is under relentless attack by the “cultural elite”. These nasty, moronic comparisons of tea-party Republicans to terrorists are high-octane fuel on the right’s raging identity-politics bonfire. And that’s the thing. Why are liberals so eager to invigorate the right by justifying its grievances? It completely baffles me.

I can think of two answers: habit and cynicism.  By the first explanation, party-line extremists say stupid and extreme things because they don’t know how not to.  By the second explanation, party-liners deliberately try to empower the fringe elements on the other side; they want the debate to move to its extremes so that they–extremists–can gain in prominence.  Regardless of cause, this is a dynamic that thinking people across all ideologies need to oppose, as it does real damage to discourse, to public policy, and ultimately to everyone’s well-being.

The more I think about this Andrew Gelman post, the more ridiculous it seems.  Gelman argues that economists, especially popular economists, use a pair of contradictory arguments to explain phenomena:

1. People are rational and respond to incentives. Behavior that looks irrational is actually completely rational once you think like an economist.

2. People are irrational and they need economists, with their open minds, to show them how to be rational and efficient.

In the comments, he clarifies his position:

My problem with some pop-economics is not with the use of arguments 1 or 2 but rather with what seems to me as the arbitrariness of the choice, accompanied by blithe certainty in its correctness.  This looks more to me like ideology than science.

I have no problem criticizing economists for their blithe certainty, a criticism I’d also to apply to just about everyone, myself included.  But I don’t follow Gelman’s criticism of the fact that economists apply different models to different situations.  This happens in all disciplines, including Gelman’s field of statistics.  For instance, statisticians often apply one of the following arguments:

  1. Phenomenon X follows a normal distribution.
  2. Phenomenon X follows a log-normal distribution.

1 and 2 are entirely contradictory, and to a non-statistician, it would appear entirely arbitrary whether to apply 1 or 2.  But to a statistician, there is a logic (part science, part art) as to whether to apply 1, 2, both, or neither.  Similarly, it may appear arbitrary to Gelman whether to assume rationality or non-rationality in a particular situation, when there is a consistent logic apparent to economists.  Ultimately, models should be judged based on the reliability of their predictions, not perceived arbitrariness by outsiders.

Liberal Massimo Pigliucci on libertarians:

Now I have acquired yet another reason to dislike [Larry] Summers, while reading Debra Satz’s Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, which I highly recommend to my libertarian friends, as much as I realize of course that it will be entirely wasted on them.

Libertarian John Goodman on liberals (in a post David Henderson describes as a home  run):

I generally try to avoid ethical discussions with my friends on the left for two reasons. First, with respect to actual legislation they seem incapable of distinguishing what really happened from their ideal vision of what should have happened. More fundamentally, I find that people on the left seem incapable of thinking rationally about the ethics of public policy.

I find these comments fascinating, firstly because they’re basically equal and opposite, and secondly because they’re entirely self-defeating.  Both read, essentially, as: “My intellectual opponents are idiots.  Why won’t they listen to me?”  The answer to the question comes from the preceding statement, but not in the way the authors suppose.  It’s trivial to show that neither libertarians nor liberals are, exclusively, idiots.  It’s also trivial to show that libertarians and liberals generally don’t like to be called idiots, and don’t listen to people who treat them as such.

Pigliucci, Goodman and Henderson have a choice to make.  They can continue to insult each other, toe their party lines, and reinforce the boundaries between themselves.  Or they can recognize that complicated systems can be understood in multiple ways, respect each other, try to better understand where the other side is coming from, and work to bridge the gap.

One purpose of this blog has been to question the way to think about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which world problems are most worthy of discussion, having received insufficient attention.

Today I followed Tyler Cowen’s link to Mike McGovern’s essay about development economics.  Development economics is a topic I don’t understand well but consider highly important and under-discussed.  It’s also a meta-analysis, exploring different ways to think about problems.  For instance:

The difference between poets and economists…there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points…Paul Collier, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs can all be tenured professors and heads of research institutes, despite the fact that on many points, if one of them were definitively right, one or both of their colleagues would have to be wrong. If economics really were like a natural science, this would not be the case.

I wasn’t expecting to find philosophy of science (or philosophy of poetry) in an essay about third world development, but I think this type of thinking is necessary to address the particulars of third world development.  It’s a slightly morbid point of view; most people who want to solve problems want to do something; instead I want to think about thinking.  But actions are driven by views, and views and driven by the way we think about the world; when we don’t analyze the ways we think, we’re more likely to hold misguided views and take misguided actions.

McGovern’s assessment of development economics is shaped by his philosophy of science; in the above paragraph, he first criticizes economists for trying to be scientists, and then criticizes economists for being bad scientists.  The two criticisms contradict, and don’t account for the fact that throughout history, hard science regularly maintains contradictory points of view, whether in cosmology or mathematics.

My concerns about McGovern’s philosophy of science should dismiss what’s he written; his concerns about development economists may have more to do with their rhetoric than their scientific thinking.  On the whole, his essay is a really interesting read, and I’ll continue to think about it throughout the day.

Happy July 4th.

Just as it’s easy to write computer code that would badly fail a Turing test, it’s easy for humans to fail an ideological Turing test.  All you have to do is express your own thinking.  For instance, here’s Brad DeLong:

I have never met a believer in Nozickianism who can [successfully explain Nozickian political philosophy], and I expect never to do so…if any Nozickian believer ever grasps the structure of the argument well enough to successfully explain it, they thereby cease to be a Nozickian believer. Nozickian believers are thus, in a sense, incapable of passing the Turing Test.

This is a failure of the ideological Turing test, since it’s obvious to any observer from this writing that its author is indeed not a Nozickian.  Indeed, DeLong is expressing his liberal interpretation of Nozick.  Which is a fine thing to do.  But it’s not something that Nozickians would ever do, (unless they were trying to pass the ideological Turing test for Nozickians).

DeLong is arguing that an opposing view, if understood the way he understands it, is wrong.  This is not a way to win the ideological Turing test; it merely begs the question of whether DeLong actually understands the opposing view correctly.  There are other thinkers who understand Nozick differently and, unsurprisingly, they have different interpretations of the merits of Nozickian.  The point of the ideological Turing test is not for thinkers with opposing views to angrily point fingers at each other and say “You’re wrong!” “No, you’re wrong!”  The point is for thinkers to try to show that they can express opposing views in a favorable light, such that a neutral observer would think the arguer supported these views.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty unimpressed by Bryan Caplan–who initially proposed the ideological Turing test–backtracking:

If someone wanted to make me fail an ideological Turing Test, what kinds of questions would they ask? … Questions that explicitly solicit arguments.  I’m apt to get carried away, and forget that these implicitly test whether you understand what people take for granted.  Even if I keep this fact in mind, it’s hard to strike a believably intermediate stance.

My prediction remains that Caplan would fail an ideological Turing test quite miserably. as would most thinkers with strong views.  Here he’s saying that while he can state liberal viewpoints, he can’t defend them the way a liberal would.  Or, in other words, he doesn’t think about liberalism the same way a liberal does, and couldn’t convince observers that he does.

Which is fine.  It’s okay that Brian Caplan is a libertarian and Paul Krugman is a liberal, that David Gordon likes Nozick and that Brad DeLong does not.  Ideological diversity is a good thing.  What’s not fine is for Caplan or Krugman or anyone else to get up on a high horse and claim that they understand their opposition better than their opposition understands them.  Rather, they need to recognize that their views are theories, based on their own (highly limited) perception of the world, that their theories clash, and that in order for them to improve their and our understanding of their world, they need to talk to each other.