Nothing as Useful as a Bad Theory

To a true anti-hereditarian, every day is fresh & new & surprising, because hardly anything happens as they expect.

Gregory Cochran, "Local brain drain"


The American Left's Authoritarian Turn

I grew up in a far-left college town, and I've known so many young people who were free spirits, who were nonconformists, who were determined to be themselves no matter what anyone else said, who had a passion for noisy music and experimental art, who would listen to the color of their dreams . . . Back then, it didn't seem incongruous that they were mostly on the left. Today, I see so many people on the left sternly admonishing a 16-year-old for having the wrong smile in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's a prissy attitude which seems like the antithesis of so many lefties I've known.


Be Careful What They Wish for

No doubt that candid feedback is necessary to improve as an individual and as an organization. But I question how many people are truly interested in constructive criticism even if they ask for it. They know they should be asking for constructive criticism but deep down they don’t want to hear it and will resent you afterwards (without ever admitting the source of the resentment, of course).

Ben Casnocha, "What I’ve Been Reading"


Libertarians vs. Marxists: The Extremes Don't Touch

Libertarians [...] tend to see life within the ubiquitous life-structuring matrix of state-backed legislation as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations in much the same way that Marxists see private property as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations.


What Is Not Procrastination?

People commonly use the word "procrastination" to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working.


What Is Force?

No woman should be authorised to stay at home to bring up her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.

Simone de Beauvoir, quoted here


More Right than he Knew he Was

Thomas Mann once remarked, against Nietzsche, that the world never suffers from a surfeit of reason. And he never went online!


Bilingualism and Cognition

"It’s easier to bear in mind that the map is not the territory when you have two different maps."


Literature Summarized

Anthony Burgess said there are two kinds of writers, A-writers and B-writers. A-writers are storytellers, B-writers are users of language. [...] [I]f the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form.

Martin Amis, interviewed by Francesca Riviere


Consider the Alternative

Consider all those irritating people who over the last few years have taken to commenting whenever there’s a study they don’t like: “Correlation is not causation!” Well, sure, that’s lame, but that’s actually an improvement over what they had previously assumed.


The Old Standby

Whatever truth correlation does not equal causation might have is outweighed by the damage it does when it is used to ignore evidence.


Under the Feet of Giants

I just don't think I'll ever be able to bring myself to truly enjoy rock & roll.  Whether it's the music, or it's me, or it's the culture I've been brought up in I don't know, but to me rock & roll (and I'm using that phrase to refer explicitly to the Elvis Presley / Chuck Berry / Little Richard / Jerry Lee Lewis / Buddy Holly axis and not anything later) is largely wallpaper music, a soundtrack to any TV show or movie scene that wants to tell you it's the '50s or early '60s without labouring the point (like Holly's own "Heartbeat" when sang by Nick Berry and used as the theme tune to, erm, Heartbeat).  In any other context, it has been thoroughly defeated by the times - it laid the groundwork for other genres to expand on and then saw itself battered into irrelevance by them when they came along.  And not in a particularly good way, either; some country and jazz sounds weather-beaten to me, its age becoming a virtue as it offers a tantalizing glimpse of a time long before mine, but rock & roll just sounds old.  It's the difference between the continuing appeal of Mount Rushmore itself, and a newspaper one of the builders was reading while working on it.


Answer That One, Christians!

I would argue that physical gratification (though less pleasurable and intense than commonly believed) is not especially wicked. Millions of people have killed themselves over “love”, but who has killed himself over his masturbatory habits?


Survivorship Bias

Francis Bacon, often crdited with the principle that beliefs must be grouded in observation, wrote of a man who was taken to a house of worship and shown a painting of sailors who had escaped shipwreck by paying thier holy vows. The man was asked whether this didn't prove the power of the gods. "Aye," he answered, "but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?"

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. 144


Keep Your Identity Robust

A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person's beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. [...] Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, p. 140


The Scientific Method in Action

Some officials became infected with the scientific spirit and tested the witchcraft hypothesis for themselves. A Milanese judge killed his mule, accused his servant of committing the misdeed, and had him subjected to torture, whereupon the man confessed to the crime; he even refused to recant on the gallows for fear of being tortured again. (today this experiment would not be approved  by committees for the protection of human subjects in research.) The judge then abolished the use of torture in his court.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, p. 140


How Not to Fight Online Procrastination

I followed a popular “personal productivity” blog for a while, but in the end spent too much time reading the forums.

Joan (quoted here)


Testability and the Methodology of Positive Economics

Friedman also made an influential contribution to economic methodology in arguing that an economic theory should be tested by its predictive accuracy alone, without regard to the realism or unrealism of its assumptions (Friedman 1953). The argument is questionable because, owing to the difficulty of assessing such consequences (reliable experiments concerning economic behavior are very difficult to conduct), economists have tended to rely heavily—certainly Friedman did—on assumptions, often assumptions based on priors rooted in ideology, personality, or other subjective factors.

Richard A. Posner, "Why Is There No Milton Friedman Today?", Econ Journal Watch 10: 210-213 (p. 210)


Putting the Iraq War in Perspective

Consider how bizarre the history of the 1940s would seem if America had attacked China in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.


Wisdom for the Coming Years

[D]ata is not knowledge and big data is not wisdom.

Alex Tabarrok, "The Battle over Junk DNA"


Failure Can Be Informative

[A]t least some drug trials begin with seemingly sensible expectations that a drug will work; those expectations are often wrong. Usually that is the end of the matter. But, to me, an important question may well be “Why didn’t the drug work as expected?”

Lee Sechrest (quoted here)


Education against Human Nature

Human nature: People who are the same want to be different. Formal education: People who are different should be the same.


Does the Libet Experiment Prove the Steam Whistle Hypothesis?

Thomas Huxley articulated the “steam whistle hypothesis” over a century ago (1874). It says conscious thought resembles the steam whistle on a train locomotive: It derives from and reveals something about activity inside the engine, but it has no causal impact on moving the train. 


Skepticism about consciousness was particularly fueled by Libet’s (1985) research. In his studies, participants watched a highly precise clock and recorded when they made a conscious decision to initiate a finger movement. Brain wave activity showed a sharp increase prior to the conscious decision. Although the interpretations of these findings have been debated sharply (e.g., Mele 2009), many have taken them as further support for the steam whistle theory. Roediger et al. (2008), for example, said Libet’s findings contradict the “naive view” that “conscious intention causes action. Clearly conscious intention cannot cause an action if a neural event that precedes and correlates with the action comes before conscious intention” (2008, p. 208).


We are skeptical of uncaused causes. Hence arguments of the sort exemplified by the above quotation from Roediger et al. (2008)—that if a brain event precedes the conscious thought, then the conscious thought is not a cause of the subsequent behavior—are fallacious. The question is whether the conscious thought is a vital link in the causal chain as opposed to being merely a signal or side effect of the true causes. It is quite plausible, for example, that impulses to act generally originate in the unconscious, but the behavioral outcome depends crucially on what happens when they are contemplated consciously.
Libet (e.g., 2004) proposed that action begins outside of consciousness, but the conscious self can stop an action before it happens. Mele (2009) indicated the fallacy in the Roediger interpretation by making the analogy of a fuse: The existence of a previous and correlated cause (lighting the match) does not rule out a causal role for the fuse in setting off the bomb.

Roy F. Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs, 2011, "Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?"


Let the Theory Fit the Hope

The over-emphasis on early years also has to do with the conventional wisdom's hopes for egalitarianism and blank slate social engineering. The younger the child, the harder to measure his capabilities, so the easier it is to theorize that everybody is conceived the same, so All We Have To Do is intervene at 36 months or 24 months or 12 months or 0 months or minus 8 months and 29 days and we can end inequality, especially racial inequality.

Steve Sailer, "High School"


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (7)

Doch das Genie, sogar schon das große Talent leitet sich weniger aus Faktoren der Intelligenz oder speziellen Verfeinerung her, welche die der anderen in den Schatten stellen, als aus der Fähigkeit, sie umzuwandeln, sie zu transponieren. Um eine Flüssigkeit mit einer elektrischen Lampe zu erhitzen, braucht man nicht eine extra starke Lampe, sondern eine, in der der Strom nicht mehr Licht, sondern nach einer entsprechenden Umformung eben Wärme spendet. Um sich in den Lüften zu ergehen, braucht man nicht ein denkbar kräftiges Automobil, sondern eines, das die Erde verlassen, die Linie, welche es vordem verfolgte, zur Vertikalen umbiegen und die Geschwindigkeit seiner Bewegung in der Ebene in Auftriebskraft verwandeln kann. Ebenso sind diejenigen, die geniale Werke hervorbringen, nicht Menschen, die in dem feinsinnigsten Milieu leben, in der Unterhaltung glänzen, über die breiteste geistige Kultur verfügen, sondern die, welche die Kraft gefunden haben, von einem gewissen Augenblick an nicht länger für sich selbst zu leben, sondern ihre Persönlichkeit zu einem Spiegel zu machen, der ihr Dasein, mag es auch gesellschaftlich und in gewissem Sinne sogar geistig betrachtet noch so mittelmäßig sein, reflektiert; denn das Genie besteht in solcher Kraft des Zurückstrahlens und nicht in der Qualität, die dem widergespiegelten Geschehen von sich aus innewohnt.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 170-171


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (6)

Er erklärte mir, der Raum, in den Gilberte sich begebe, sei die Wäschekammer, erbot sich, ihn mir zu zeigen, und versprach, er werde Gilberte, wenn sie dort zu tun habe, mich jedesmal mitnehmen heißen. Durch diese Worte und die Entspannung, die sie mir verschafften, brachte Swann mit einem Male die furchtbaren inneren Distanzen zum Schwinden, durch die eine Frau, die wir lieben, uns so fern erscheint. In solchen Augenblicken hegte ich ein Gefühl der Zärtlichkeit für ihn, das ich für tiefer hielt als meine Zuneigung für Gilberte. Denn er, der Herr über seine Tochter war, gab sie mir, während sie sich zuweilen entzog, und ich hatte von mir aus nicht so viel Macht über sie wie indirekt durch Swann. Sie aber liebte ich und konnte sie dementsprechend nicht ohne jene Unruhe sehen oder ohne jenes Verlangen nach mehr, das einem in Gegenwart des geliebten Wesens das Gefühl der Liebe benimmt.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 137


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (5)

Aber während er sich früher geschworen hatte, er werde, wenn er jemals diejenige zu lieben aufgehört hätte, von der er noch nicht wußte, daß sie eines Tages seine Frau sein werde, ihr rücksichtslos seine endlich echte Gleichgültigkeit zu verstehen geben, um seinem so lange gedemütigten Stolz Genugtuung zu verschaffen, legte er auf diese Repressalien die er jetzt unbesorgt ausüben konnte (denn was machte es ihm schon aus, der intimen Zusammenkünfte mit Odette verlustig zu gehen, die ihm einst so notwendig waren), keinen Wert mehr; mit der Liebe war auch sein Verlangen geschwunden, zu zeigen, daß keine Liebe mehr in ihm war.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 132


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (4)

Besonders aber durch die Bemerkung über meine Neigungen, die sich nicht mehr ändern würden, und über das, was dazu dienen könnte, mein Geschick glücklich zu gestalten, pflanzte er in mich zwei Formen überaus schmerzlichen Argwohns ein. Die erste galt dem Umstande, daß (wo ich mich doch Tag für Tag noch auf der Schwelle eines bislang unberührten Lebens glaubte, das erst morgen beginnen werde) meine Existenz bereits ihren Anfang genommen hatte, ja schlimmer noch, daß das, was käme, nicht allzu verschieden von dem sein werde, was vorausgegangen war. Der zweite Argwohn, der genau genommen nur eine andere Form des ersten war, bezog sich darauf, daß ich offenbar nicht außerhalb der Zeit existierte, sondern ihren Gesetzen unterworfen war, ganz wie die Personen in einem Roman, deren Lebensabläufe mich aus diesem Grunde bei der Lektüre in meiner Combrayer Rohrhütte stets mit soviel Wehmut erfüllt hatten. Theoretisch weiß man, daß die Erde sich dreht, in Wirklichkeit aber merkt man es nicht; der Boden, auf dem man schreitet, scheint sich nicht zu rühren, und so lebt man ruhig dahin. Ebenso aber ist es im Leben mit der Zeit. Um ihren Flug uns bewußt zu machen, haben die Romanschriftsteller nötig, den Lauf des Zeigers stark zu beschleunigen und den Leser zehn, zwanzig, dreißig Jahre in zwei Minuten durchmessen zu lassen. Oben auf der Seite hat man sich von einem hoffnungsvollen Liebhaber getrennt, und unten auf der nächsten findet man einen Achtzigjährigen wieder, der auf dem kleinen grasbestandenen Hof eines Altersheims mühselig seinen täglichen Spaziergang absolviert und dabei kaum auf die an ihn gerichteten Fragen Rede stehen kann, da er das Vergangene längst vergessen hat. Dadurch, daß mein Vater von mir sagte: 'Er ist kein Kind mehr, seine Neigungen werden sich nicht mehr ändern', hatte er mir mit einem Schlage mich selbst als in der Zeit existierend gezeigt und mich in die gleiche Art von Trauer gestürzt, als sei ich, wenn auch noch nicht gerade der vertrottelte Hospitalinsasse, so doch einer jener Helden, von denen der Autor in dem gleichgültigen Ton, der so besonders grausam ist, am Ende eines Buches sagt: 'Kaum noch einmal verläßt er sein Dorf. Er hat sich dort für immer zu Ruhe gesetzt', oder dergleichen mehr.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 77


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (3)

"Wie sagt doch ein schönes arabisches Sprichwort: 'Die Hunde bellen und die Karawane zieht vorüber.'" Nach diesem Zitat schwieg Monsieur de Norpois einen Augenblick, um uns anzuschauen und die Wirkung seiner wörtlichen Anführung auf uns abzuschätzen. Sie war groß, das fragliche Sprichwort war uns bereits bekannt. Es war in diesem Jahre bei den Großen an die Stelle einer anderen Wendung getreten, die gelautet hatte: 'Wer Wind sät, wird Sturm ernten', die Ruhe nötig hatte, denn sie war nicht so widerstands- und lebensfähig wie: 'Travailler pour le roi de Prusse'. Diese Herrschaften nämlich bestellten den Acker ihres Geistes nach dem Prinzip des Fruchtwechsels, dessen Turnus zur Zeit drei Jahre lief.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 49


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (2)

Mein Vergnügen steigerte sich noch, als ich hinter diesem noch geschlossenen Vorhang verworrene Geräusche hörte, wie man sie unter der Schale eines Eies vernimmt, bevor das Küken ausschlüpft, Geräusche, die allmählich zunahmen und sich plötzlich aus dieser für unsere Augen unzugänglichen Welt, die uns gleichwohl ihrerseits mit ihren Blicken umfaßt, in ganz unbezweifelbarer Weise in der gebieterischen Form eines dreimaligen Klopfens, das so aufregend war wie Signale vom Planeten Mars, an uns wendeten.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 29


Proust für Eilige: Die besten Stellen aus Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte (1)

Aber der tiefere Grund, der sich übrigens auf die Menschheit im allgemeinen anwenden läßt, war der, daß unsere Tugenden in sich selbst nichts frei Verfügbares sind, mit dem wir nach Belieben schalten und walten können; sie gehen in unserem Geist schließlich eine so enge Verbindung mit den Handlungen ein, bei denen wir uns ihre Ausübung erstmalig zur Pflicht gemacht haben, daß eine plötzlich von uns verlangte Betätigung ganz anderer Art unvorbereitet trifft und gar nicht auf den Gedanken kommen läßt, hier könnte ihre Anwendung ebenfalls angezeigt sein.

Marcel Proust, Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte, S. 10


Model Learning: The Negative Version

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style.

H.P. Lovecraft, Writings in the United Amateur, 1915-1922 (quoted here)


Don't Take Advice from Fiction

A lot of our biases come, I think, from expecting real life to be like fiction. For example, when we have negative opinions on important subjects, we tend too much to expect that we should explicitly and directly express those negative opinions in a dramatic conversation scene. We should speak our mind, make it clear, talk it through, etc. This usually a bad idea. We also tend to feel bad about ourselves when we notice that we avoid confrontation, and back off when from things we want when we encounter resistance. But such retreat is usually for the best.

Robin Hanson, "Biases Of Fiction"


Wasteful Signaling: The Time Dimension

I think about this a lot: you’re young, you come from a smart, wealthy family, you’re somehow supposed to show that you’re successful quite quickly. Banking, law, consultancy allow you to do this; engineering, science and entrepreneurship less so. Your friends expect it, your parents, your potential mates do ... So we see so many talented people very quickly having to signal how smart they are but that may not be the longest-term social productivity.

Tyler Cowen, quoted in "Lunch with the FT: Tyler Cowen", by Josh McDermott


Game Theory

If you lack the willpower to resist your kids' rent-seeking on an issue, magnanimously give them what they would have extracted from you under duress.  You won't get your way, but at least you won't blatantly reinforce their bad behavior.


Compared to What?

Nothing is easier than the proof that something human has imperfections. I'm amazed how many people devote themselves to that task.

Thomas Sowell, Q&A session (25:07-25:16)


History Teaches Anything

Policy makers are as likely to use history as a way to validate their preconceptions, or endorse existing plans, as they are to scour it objectively for ideas. [...]

The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called this susceptibility “history by rationalization.” What politicians are falling prey to is what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” whereby people tend to both seek out and trust only information that corroborates their judgments. And policy makers have lots to choose from. Billions of words have been written about historical events, offering modern-day thinkers plenty of material to convince themselves of the wisdom of their thinking.

Jordan Michael Smith, "Did a mistake save the world?"


Disdain Fictional Fiction, Demand Fictional Nonfiction

Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

Steven Pinker, interviewed by Steve Sailer


A Two-Step Model of Political Opinions and Affiliations

I think a lot of people go along with Democratic economic policies largely because they've already decided to be Democrats based on social issues. As Knepper points out, social issues are relatively easy to have clear, unwavering views about. Given the choice between memorizing and repeating a few slogans to sum up the mainstream Democratic positions on economic issues, or reaching your own conclusions on those issues by soberly weighing the smartest arguments on all sides, many people just don't have time for the latter, no matter how much more intellectually honest it would be.

Yet people would rather feel a sense of clarity than uncertainty on the major issues of the day. So, when they don't have time to master those issues, they develop shortcuts, like saying their side cares, and the other side doesn't care — or, only cares about the wrong people. That approach is simplistic but powerful enough to be able to explain almost any political divide. Given that Republicans are the party of social and economic conservatism, and that their social conservatism is blatantly uncaring, socially liberal voters have a readily available shortcut for taking a stand on Republican economic policies: just as Republicans' social policies show that they don't care about women, blacks, gays, immigrants, etc., their economic policies show that they don't care about the middle class (or the poor), and that they only care about the rich (or corporations).

It's not just that many voters are socially liberal and prioritize social issues, causing Republicans to lose a portion of the electorate every Election Day based on those issues. Of course, that's true, but Republicans have a broader problem: their positions on social issues are turning off many voters from the very idea of agreeing with them on any issue.

John Althouse Cohen, "How can Republicans Win after 2012?"


Role Specialization and Jealousy

Role specialization is a robust way to limit jealousy. If dads have different parental roles than moms, then my kids could like me best as a dad, and their mom best as a mom, and I less have to fear that they will substitute her for me. If I teach a particular course well, then my students can like me for being good at my course, and others for teaching their courses well, and I need less fear that few students will want me to teach them.

Robin Hanson, "On Friend Jealousy"


Style of Learning Shapes Performance

The courses in medical school can be approached in two different ways. The ideal approach is the pyramid method: the student masters the basic concepts in the early courses to build the foundation layer and then adds concepts from subsequent courses to build more layers. This approach makes it easier to learn advanced topics because the student remembers the underlying fundamentals. This approach also improves the higher levels of learning: application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Unfortunately, only a minority of medical students use that approach. The alternate approach is memorize and forget. [...] This approach addresses only the lowest level of learning: knowledge.

In later years, the medical students who used the memorize and forget approach never master the concepts underlying all of medicine. Instead of understanding diseases and integrating that knowledge with information on the various ways patients present when sick, they memorize the commonest patterns of diseases. When a pattern memorizer encounters a patient that doesn't fit the pattern, the patient is in trouble. The physician will shoe-horn the patient into a wrong pattern or request many diagnostic tests or consults or refer the patient to another physician (who may be equally clueless). The lack of thorough understanding of health and disease underlies the mediocre performance of many physicians.

MingoV, comment on "Learning and Retention in Medical School" by Bryan Caplan


A Tax on Bullshit

I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit; and it is a just tax, tribute paid by the bullshitters to those with genuine knowledge.

Alex Tabarrok, "A Bet Is a Tax on Bullshit"


Taking Honourary Authorship a Little Too Far

One of the authors on the paper, the most distinguished of the several cardiologists, actually died before the study began. Yet that hasn’t stopped him being an author on a recently published letter that he cannot have read in response to another letter that he cannot have read about a paper that he cannot have read.


Lob der Faulheit

Wenn die Jugend unerfahren ist, so kommt das daher, daß sie niemals wirklich gefaulenzt hat. Der Fehler unserer Erziehungsmethoden ist, daß sie sich der großen Zahl wegen nur an die Mittelmäßigen wenden. Für einen Geist, der sich entwickelt, gibt es keine Faulheit. Ich habe niemals mehr gelernt als an jenen langen Tagen, die einem Zuschauer leer erschienen wären, und an denen ich mein unerfahrenes Herz beobachtete wie ein Parvenu seine Bewegungen bei Tisch überwacht.

Raymond Radiguet, Den Teufel im Leib, S. 102


Easy vs. Hard

When people say that something is wrong, they are almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Tucker Max (quoted here)


Two Visions of Power

Contemporary controversies revolving around differences in the very conception of power often go back to centuries-old differences in the visions of man and social causation. Whenever one individual or group can change the behavior of another, then the former has power over the latter, as power is conceived by J. K. Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, Laurence Tribe, or other modern thinkers in the tradition of the unconstrained vision. Those with the constrained vision reject this conception of power, when behavioral changes are made in response to a quid pro quo, and conceive of power as the ability to reduce someone's pre-existing options. The result may be the same in both cases, whether achieved by threat or reward, but the constrained vision is not a vision of results but of processes.

Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, pp. 190-91


Another Reason to Teach Statistics in School

Until they understand statistical concepts, people seem inevitably drawn toward essentialism. Essentialism in the history of biology led to typological concepts of species, race, characters, and developmental stages, all of which explained variation in terms of deviation from the ideal type. We now appreciate that populations transform according to statistical rules, not typological rules.


Über Mustererkennung

Die Arbeit eines Fußballexperten besteht darin, Ereignisse, die zum Teil mit Zufall zusammenhängen, hinterher als unvermeidliche Folge von Fehlentscheidungen des Trainers darzustellen.


Big Identity

A common failure mode in human reasoning is to become too attached to theory, to the point where we begin ignoring the reality it was intended to describe. The way this manifests in ethical and moral reasoning is that we tend to forget why we make rules – to avoid harmful consequences. Instead, we tend to become fixated on the rules and the language of the rules, and end up fulfilling Santayana’s definition of a fanatic: one who redoubles his efforts after he has forgotten his aim.


"Natural" Property Rights as Libertarianism's Root Mistake

One gets the sense that libertarians are unwilling or unable to acknowledge that property rights are the product of institutions and legal norms; instead, they think of rights to property as natural, immutable, inherent, whatever. And when it is pointed out that property relations form a matrix of domination and power relationships in the private sphere, the libertarian response seems to be that this is No One’s Fault or Problem, since of course one can do with one’s property as one pleases. The idea that property rights are merely instrumental toward other goods and ends is apparently off the radar. (As is the idea that power is, more generally, distributed unequally.)

Rob Hunter, comment on "Fuck Me or You're Fired!" by Chris Bertram


Ulysses and the Knifemongers

If a sophisticated agent had access to an effective private self-control device, she would take advantage of it, reducing the value of a government intervention. However, we find it unlikely that fully effective self-control devices can be found in this context. Market-provided self-control mechanisms are probably undercut by the market mechanism itself: although firms have a financial incentive to provide self-control to agents, other firms have a financial incentive to break it down. For example, if a firm developed a self-control shot that causes pain when the consumer smokes, another firm has an incentive to develop a drug that relieves these effects for agents who temporarily want to get rid of their commitment. Other problems arise in contracting setups. If there are ex post gains to be made, the future self might want to renegotiate today's contract. But even if there are none,17 there is an ex post incentive to cheat on the contract: smoking is hard to verify in court. This leaves us with privately provided self-control mechanisms like betting with others or becoming involved in situations where it is very difficult to smoke, but these mechanisms are likely to run into enforcement problems similar to those discussed above.

Jonathan Gruber and Botond Köszegi, "Is Addiction 'Rational'? Theory and Evidence", Quarterly Journal of Economics 116,p. 1286


On Metaconfidence

Those who don’t know the past are doomed to over-trust experts.


Obvious but Unfashionable

If you tax ice cream, people will be less obese, which is good, but they will also be enjoying less ice cream, which is bad.


Umso schlimmer für die Theorie

Einmal besichtigen wir Siedlungen für die Arbeiterschaft, Krankenhäuser, Schulhäuser etc. Der Herr vom Bauamt, das ich um die offizielle Gefälligkeit gebeten hatte, ein Adjunkt, der uns mit einem amtlichen Wagen an alle Ränder der Stadt fuhr, verstand die Fragen des Gastes nicht, erläuterte von Siedlung zu Siedlung dasselbe, während Brecht, anfänglich verwundert über soviel Komfort für die Arbeiterschaft, sich mehr und mehr belästigt fühlte durch eben diesen Komfort, der Grundfragen nicht zu lösen gedenkt; plötzlich, in einem properen Neubau, fand er sämtliche Zimmer zu klein, viel zu klein, menschenunwürdig, und in einer Küche wo nichts fehlte und alles glänzte, brach er ungeduldig die Besichtigungsfahrt ab, wollte mit der nächsten Bahn an die Arbeit, zornig, daß eine Arbeiterschaft auf diesen Schwindel hineinfällt; noch hoffte er, das sei nur in dieser Schweiz möglich, Sozialismus zu ersticken durch Komfort für alle.

Max Frisch, Tagebücher 1966-1971, S. 23-24 (Abschnitt "Erinnerungen an Brecht")


It Depends on whether You Were Born to

In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That's OK; he's a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot - how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway.

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, p. 136 (ch. 11)


Lizenz zum Töten

Um Böses zu tun, muß der Mensch es zuallererst als Gutes begreifen oder als bewußte gesetzmäßige Tat. So ist, zum Glück, die Natur des Menschen beschaffen, daß er für seine Handlungen eine Rechtfertigung suchen muß.

Macbeths Rechtfertigungen waren schwach - und es zernagte ihn sein Gewissen Und auch Jago ist ein
Jagnjonjok - ein Lamm. Die Phantasie und Gesteskraft der shakespearischen Bösewichter machte an einem Dutzend von Leichen halt Denn es fehlte ihnen die Ideologie.

Alexander Solschenizyn, Der Archipel Gulag, S. 172 (Erster Teil, Kap. 4)


Irrational Rationality

When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Robin Hanson, "What Use Far Truth?"


To Be Productive, Be Confident

I used to wonder, enviously, how he could write so much, especially given his drinking, his travels, his public appearances and his demanding social life. He told me once that a writer should be able to write with no difficulty, anytime, anywhere—but actually, not many writers can do that. I think part of the reason why he was so prolific—and the reason he had such an outsize career and such an outsize effect on his readers—is that he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth.

Katha Pollitt, "Regarding Christopher"


The Risk of Trying Hard

[I]f you work hard and fail, there's the presumption that you're innately not very talented. If you don't work hard and fail, you can credibly preserve the belief or illusion that had you only put forth 100% effort, it would have worked out.

Ben Casnocha, "The Risk of Working Hard"


A Reeducation

Enduring a flue alone in an apartment has always included a certain psychedelic aspect, it seems to me. But it is a psychedelia of the body, not the mind. A sustained, sapping fever is a reeducation in the true weight of a blunt human collection of arms and legs, of a lollipop head wobbling on a wooz neck, and in the sensation of a throw pillow's scrape against ribs as sensitive as a lover's lips.

Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City, p. 231 (Ch. 12)


Well, There's a Figure of Speech for That One

Herman Kahn observed that the Hans Christian Andersen story about the emperor's clothes was psychologically flawed. It was impossible to believe, Herman said, that people committed to the wonderfulness of the clothes would instantly reverse course and accept that the emperor was naked, just because somebody pointed out this obvious truth. People truly committed to beliefs don't get turned around that easily. At a minimum, they would have furiously denounced the little boy who blurted out the nakedness news

David Seligman, "Trashing 'The Bell Curve'"


Are IQ Tests Biased against Non-Western Populations?

IQ, as measured by IQ scores, is a decent measure of the cognitive skills that you need in order for technical innovation or more routine science and engineering. It’s generally useful in modern technical civilization. Populations with low average IQ produce very few individuals that are good at innovation. Very few. If there were one or a few kinds of intelligence that were not measured well by IQ tests, but allowed people with low IQs to accomplish remarkable things - you’d think we would notice. We know that they don’t invent railroads or transistors or penicillin: what comparably important and useful things have they done?

Gregory Cochran, "The Only Game in Town"


Graphic Anarchy

Serious works of economics or statistics tend to be written in a serious style in some version of plain academic English. [...]

Serious works of social science nowadays use all sorts of data display, from showing no data at all, to tables, to un-designed Excel-style bar charts, to Cleveland-style dot and line plots, to creative new data displays, to ornamental information visualizations. The analogy in writing style would be if some journal articles were written in the pattern of Ezra Pound, others like Ernest Hemingway, and others in the style of James Joyce or William Faulkner.


Akademisches Marketing v. Chr.

Die Griechen hatten weder in ihren Thorien noch in der Praxis viel für Mäßigkeit übrig. Heraklit hat behauptet, daß alles sich wandelt, Parmenides hingegen erklärte, daß nichts sich verändert.

Bertrand Russel, Philosophie des Abendlandes: Ihr Zusammenhang mit der politischen und der sozialen Entwicklung, S. 70 (5. Kap.)


The Asymmetric Interpretation of Advice

I will here offer a bit of meta-advice. The single thing that has surprised me most about serving on evaluation/selection committees is the heterogeneity of criteria that individuals on committees have. There is a direct asymmetrical implication for how you should parse advice: when people talk about what matters to them and what they personally take into account, listen closely; when they talk about what doesn’t matter, regard any implication cautiously until it plainly aggregates.

Jeremy Freese, "some advice re: advice" (emphasis in original)


Why Are Left-Wing Groups Such a Mess?

Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.


And the six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.

For Occupy Wall Street, fairness seems to be the chief concern—as it appears to be for the Tea Party. Occupy's version opposes rich people taking money through cheating and exploitation. The Tea Party's restores karma by punishing laziness and cheating, Haidt has written, "and they see liberalism and liberal government as an assault on that project." But, as tonight's meeting shows, the right owns an advantage in creating effective groups: Far-left activists dial down "authority" to zero.


On Being Drunk in a Foreign Country

Howard walked across the street and into the Windmill pub. Here he ordered and began drinking a perfectly reasonable bottle of red wine. His chosen seat was, he thought, in a neglected corner of the bar. But two minutes after he sat down, a huge flat screen that he had not noticed was lowered down near his head and switched on. A football game commenced between a white team and a blue team. Men gathered round. They seemed to accept and like Howard, mistaking him for one of those dedicated souls who come early to get the best seat. Howard allowed this misinterpretation and found himself taken up in the general fervour. Soon he was cheering and complaining with the rest. When a stranger, in his enthusiasm, tipped some beer down Howard’s shoulder, Howard smiled, shrugged and said nothing. A little while later this same fellow bought Howard a beer, saying nothing when he put it down in front of Howard and seeming to expect nothing in return. At the end of the first half another man beside him knocked glasses with Howardin a very jolly way, in approval of Howard’s random decision to cheer the blue team, although the game itself was still 0–0. This score never changed. And after the game finished nobody hit each other or got angry – it didn’t seem to be that kind of game. ‘Well, we got what we needed,’ said one man philosophically. Three other men smiled and nodded at the truth of this.

Zadie Smith, On Beauty, p. 305 (part 3, ch. 4)


There Is No Good Reason to . . .

"There is no good reason to" precedes all kinds of arguments for banning things I could well have good reason to want.

Eric Crampton, comment on his own post "Dog days of summer... this time with data"


Check for Inconsistencies

In general, people seem far more eager to collect respectable arguments for or against various specific regulations, than to consider the coherence of a pattern of regulations they endorse. They are satisfied to offer arguments for why janitors should have work hour limits, why musicians should not, why doctors should be highly regulated, and why car mechanics should not, all without much noticing or caring how much they treat similar cases differently.

This suggests that there is a lot of rationalization going on. That is, rather than choosing some principles and then consistently applying them, people instead pick various random policy positions and then search for justifications.

Robin Hanson, "Regulatory Differences"


Cocktail Party Bore

[S]tatistical and probabilistic thinking is a real damper on "intellectual" conversation. By this, I mean that there are many individuals who wish to make inferences about the world based on data which they observe, or offer up general typologies to frame a subsequent analysis. These individuals tend to be intelligent and have college degrees. Their discussion ranges over topics such as politics, culture and philosophy. But, introduction of questions about the moments about the distribution, or skepticism as to the representativeness of their sample, and so on, tends to have a chilling affect on the regular flow of discussion. While the average human being engages mostly in gossip and interpersonal conversation of some sort, the self-consciously intellectual interject a bit of data and abstraction (usually in the form of jargon or pithy quotations) into the mix. But the raison d'etre of the intellectual discussion is basically signaling and cuing; in other words, social display. No one really cares about the details and attempting to generate a rigorous model is really beside the point. Trying to push the N much beyond 2 or 3 (what you would see in a college essay format) will only elicit eye-rolling and irritation.

Razib Khan, "Why People Don't Care about Statistics" (emphases omitted)


Why Be an Early Adopter?

Old technology is typically pretty stable; new technology is improving. It can make sense to switch early (before the new technology actually performs better than the old) to get the benefits of being familiar with the new technology once it does take off.


Opportunity Costs

Poor people are people who make decisions. They are not a combination of circumstances that can be tweaked to make them stop acting like poor people. They like babies and sleeping in for the same reasons you do. And they are generally asked to give up those things in return for much less reward than the middle class people who cluck at them for their bad decisions.


Der Markt für Politiker

Leider kann man keine Autorität ausüben, indem man die eigene Fehlbarkeit akzeptiert. Wir Menschen müssen einfach durch Wissen geblendet werden - wir sind dazu gemacht, Führern zu folgen, die Leute versammeln können, weil die Vorteile der Zugehörigkeit zu Gruppen die Nachteile des Alleinseins ausstechen. Es ist für uns profitabler gewesen, uns in der falschen Richtung zusammenzutun, als allein in die richtige Richtung zu trotten. Diejenigen, die nicht dem introspektiven Klugen gefolgt sind, sondern dem selbstsicheren Idioten, haben einige ihrer Gene an uns weitergegeben.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Der schwarze Schwan: Die Macht höchst unwahrscheinlicher Ereignisse, S. 238 (Kap. 12)


Antinostalgia, Holiday Card Edition

The thing is, a holiday card is something you're only supposed to look at for about a minute. Then you throw it away. This is practically the definition of internet content. It isn't that a fine old tradition is dead: it's that the perfect technology for holiday greetings has finally arrived.

J. Robert Lennon, "End of an Era?"



Jetzt warteten sie auf das Ende, und vielleicht zeigt sich die Natur hier von ihrer barmherzigen Seite, denn wenn die Erschöpfung so groß ist, daß man stehenbleiben und sich nach seinen Verfolgern umdrehen muß, kann man das mit einer Ruhe tun, die dem Wissen entspringt, daß es keine andere Möglichkeit gibt.

Peter Høeg, "Hommage à Bournonville", in: ders., Von der Liebe und ihren Bedingungen in der Nacht des 19. März 1929, S. 51


Is "Vision of Liberty" the First Factor of Political Preferences?

Conservatives value above all else what Berlin called the negative vision of liberty, namely, freedom from coercion. Liberals are more willing to balance that against the positive vision of liberty — that is, having a reasonable opportunity to realize one’s potential. The negative vision focuses conservatives on restricting the government’s ability to interfere in people’s lives. The positive vision leads liberals to believe that government has a role in guaranteeing baseline minimums in education, medical care, and healthy communities. Most of us probably accept both visions to some extent, but how we balance the two may be built into our DNA. It is not to be expected, therefore, that a liberal will be converted by reading the great works of conservatism, or vice versa.


Conoisseurs Are Easy to Please

People think of connoisseurs as having higher standards. [...] Connoisseurs make unusual demands, yes, but in some ways they are easier to please than non-connoisseurs. Indie films are less pleasant than mainstream films. Yet film connoisseurs like them more. To most people, indie films are also much cheaper and more experimental than mainstream films. By supporting them — by preferring them — film connoisseurs are supporting innovation. The connoisseurs have lowered their standards for film in the sense that they can enjoy cheaper films. A friend of mine attends the San Francisco International Film Festival each year. He enjoys it. I wouldn’t. The SF film festival films don’t cost much, yet they have a certain innovative quality. (I”m not a film connoisseur, I barely understand it.) The source of pleasure has shifted from conventional sources (plot, music, dialogue, gorgeous actors, sets, and landscapes) to something else, perhaps novelty and complexity.


The Organisational Sociology of Deception

Here’s an easily falsifiable statement, but there’s something in it that interests me and I want you to pick it apart. I would start with the moment when George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin and said, “I looked into his eyes and saw this was a man I could really trust.” So, my thesis is this: If you’re Vladimir Putin, and you rise to the top of this chaotic and brutal society after going through the KGB, you must be some kind of strategic genius with amazing survival skills, because the penalty for failure may be torture or death. This kind of Darwinian set-up exists in many countries around the world. What does it mean to be head of the security services in Egypt? It means that you had to betray your friends but only at the right time, and you had to survive many vicious predators who would have loved to kill you or torture you, or otherwise derail your career. By the time you become Vladimir Putin or Omar Suleiman, your ability to think ahead and analyze threats has been adequately tested.

By contrast, what does it take to become a U.S. Senator? You have to eat rubber chicken dinners, you have to impress some rich people who are generally pretty stupid about politics, and smile in TV commercials. The penalties for failure are hardly so dire. And so, American leadership generally sucks, and America is perennially in the position of being the sucker in the global poker game. That’s the thesis. So, tell me why it’s wrong.

Even if your analysis is totally correct, your conclusion is wrong. Think about what it means to work for a Putin, whose natural approach to any problem is deception. For example, he had an affair with this athlete, a gymnast, and he went through two phases. Phase one: He concealed it from his wife. Phase two: He launched a public campaign showing himself to be a macho man. He had photographs of him shooting a rifle, and as a Judo champion, and therefore had the news leaked that he was having an affair. Not only an affair with a young woman, but a gymnast, an athlete. Obviously such a person is much more wily and cunning and able to handle conflict than his American counterpart. But when such a person is the head of a department, the whole department is actually paralyzed and they are all reduced to serfs and valets. Therefore, what gets applied to a problem is only the wisdom of the aforementioned wily head of the department. All the other talent is wasted, all the other knowledge is wasted.

Now you have a choice: You can have a non-wily head of a department and the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole department, or else you can have a wily head and zero functioning. And that is how the Russian government is currently working. Putin and Medvedev have very little control of the Russian bureaucracy. When you want to deal with them, and I dealt with them this morning, they act in very uncooperative, cagey, and deceptive ways because they are first of all trying to protect their security and stability and benefits from their boss. They have to deceive you because they are deceiving their boss before he even shows up to work. And they are all running little games. So, that’s the alternative. You can have a wily Putin and a stupid government. Or an intelligent government and an innocent head. There’s always is a trade-off. A Putin cannot be an inspiring leader.


The World Series Fallacy

I would often have to fight the “World Series Fallacy,” which is that a strategy fails if it doesn’t help you win the top honor. A new coaching strategy is useless unless you win a Gold medal at the Olympics or the Super Bowl. We can think of other fallacies. You are a failure unless you are as big as Google, or you get elected President, or publish in the #1 journal, or so forth. The point is that good management is often about shifting the average performance, not getting all the variance. Not winning the World Series is besides the point.


Tradeoff des Todes

Erst sah es wie eine Ohnmacht aus, wir fuhren sogar noch eine Weile. Aber dann war kein Zweifel, dass wir stehenbleiben mußten. Und hinter uns standen die Wagen und stauten sich, als ginge es in dieser Richtung nie mehr weiter. Das blasse, dicke Mädchen hätte so, angelehnt an ihre Nachbarin, ruhig sterben können. Aber ihre Mutter gab das nicht zu. Sie bereitete ihr alle möglichen Schwierigkeiten. Sie brachte ihre Kleider in Unordnung und goß ihr etwas in den Mund, der nichts mehr behielt. Sie verrieb auf ihrer Stirn eine Flüssigkeit, die jemand gebracht hatte, und wenn die Augen dann ein wenig verrollten, so begann sie an ihr zu rütteln, damit der Blick wieder nach vorne käme. Sie schrie in diese Augen hinein, die nicht hörten, sie zerrte und zog das Ganze wie eine Puppe hin und her, und schließlich holte sie aus und schlug mit aller Kraft in das dicke Gesicht, damit es nicht stürbe.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, S. 117-18


Introversion: A Hypothesis

My theory--that "social unease" is the euphemism for scant curiosity about someone else not kin, spouse, peer, or authority figure (often w/ semi-conscious contempt)--is a nice mood-killer at parties.

All Nations Welcome But Carrie, comment on "Oktoberfest" by Steve Sailer


Wer A sagt

Solange wir das Prinzip anerkennen, dass religiöser Glaube respektiert werden muss, einfach weil es religiöser Glaube ist, kann man auch den Respekt gegenüber dem Glauben eines Osama bin Laden oder der Selbstmordattentäter kaum ablegen. Die Alternative springt so ins Auge, dass man sie nicht sonderlich betonen muss: Man kann das Prinzip des automatischen Respekts für religiösen Glauben aufgeben.

Richard Dawkins, Der Gotteswahn, S. 427 (Kap. 8)


Macht, Charakter und Verhalten, supraindividuelle Version

Viele Religionen kommen heute schmeichlerisch lächelnd mit ausgebreiteten Armen auf uns zu wie schmierige Händler auf einem Basar. Im Wettbewerb mit anderen Marktschreiern versprechen sie uns Trost, Solidarität und Läuterung. Aber wir dürfen daran erinnern, wie barbarisch sie sich aufgeführt haben, als sie noch stark waren und den Menschen ein Angebot achten, das sie nicht ablehnen konnten. Wer vergessen hat, wie das gewesen sein muss, kann sich einfach die Staaten und Gesellschaften ansehen, in denen die Geistlichkeit noch über die Macht verfügt, ihre Bedingungen zu diktieren.

Christopher Hitchens, Der Herr ist kein Hirte: Wie Religion die Welt vergiftet (Kap. 5, S. 88)


Don't Express Yourself

Pity is such an awful, useless emotion - you have to bottle it up and keep it to yourself. The moment you try to express it, it only makes things worse.

Paul Auster, Invisible, p. 123 (pt. II)


Plausibilität und Wahrscheinlichkeit

Das folgende Experiment zeigt, dass Erzählungen zu einem Fehler bei der Abschätzung der Chancen führen können. Geben Sie jemandem einen gut geschriebenen Kriminalroman, beispielsweise ein Buch von Agatha Christie mit einer Handvoll Figuren, die man alle plausiblerweise für den Täter halten kann. Fragen Sie den Betreffenden dann nach der Wahrscheinlichkeit, mit der die einzelnen Figuren der Mörder sind. Wenn er die Prozentsätze nicht aufschreibt, um sie exakt verfolgen zu können, dürfte ihre Summe deutlich über 100 Prozent liegen (bei einem guten Roman sogar weit über 200 Prozent). Je besser der Krimischriftsteller ist, desto höher liegt die Zahl.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Der schwarze Schwan, S. 96 (Kap. 6)


Damn Right

My identity is not the accidents that have happened to me. It is what I choose.

Eric S. Raymond, "Why I Hate Identity Politics"


The Progress Equation

progress = resources*knowledge*time*freedom*motivation



Modern liberalism takes the idea that people and subsets of people must be virtually identical. This is taken as essentially a religious given, no different from “the bible says so.”

tenthring, comment on "Twin Studies and Beyond" by Alex Tabarrok


Not Racist (But What's "a Pick in the Back"?)

Pull up your pants and buy a belt 'cause no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt. If you walk into somebody's office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, and your shoes untied, and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arms and on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won't hire you? They don't hire you 'cause you look like you're crazy.

Michael A. Nutter (quoted here)


Some Proxies Are Useless

[T]he idea that there is one thing called "government"—and that you can measure it by looking at total spending—makes no sense.

First of all, the number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn't tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let's say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government's impact on society.


Was aufs Papier gelangt

Ich hasse das Klappern der Schreibmaschine, weil es den Strom der Imagination zerhackt. Handschrift, Sprechzwang beim Tonband, das gleiche. Von dem, was bis in die Vorstellung vordringt - wenig genug - gelangt doch nur sehr wenig aufs Papier.

Bernward Vesper, Die Reise, S. 34


Resources Are Limited

Across a variety of disciplines, many researchers aim to show that subtle biases continue to exist. My reaction tends to be, yes, and the world is still round. It’s not merely a glass half-full versus half-empty difference. It’s a glass nearly to the brim, but upon very, very close inspection, we’ve determined that it’s fractionally below the rim, too close to see with the naked eye or even with typical magnification; but with a really high-powered lens we’ve discovered a measurable distance between the rim and the water level. As economists, we frequently assert and explain how zero is rarely the optimal amount of anything, even undesirable things like pollution. If the standard against which bias is to measured is zero, then I suppose we haven’t reached it


Exchange and Power

Should police officers be paid per arrest? Most people think this is a bad idea, I imagine, but the larger point (what can we learn from this?) isn’t clear. In Systems of Survival, Jacobs tried to spell out the larger point. She wrote about two sets of moral rules. One set (“guardian syndrome”) applied to warriors, government officials, and religious leaders. It prizes loyalty and obedience, for example. The other set (“commercial syndrome”) applied to merchants. It prizes honesty, avoidance of force, and industriousness, for example. The two syndromes correspond to two ways of making a living: taking and trading. [...]

A powerful newspaper isn’t inherently bad; we want a powerful newspaper to keep other powerful institutions (government, large businesses) in check. Murdoch’s News International, of course, has became very powerful. Yet Murdoch newsrooms retained commercial norms, especially an emphasis on selling many copies. Reporters in Murdoch newsrooms were under intense pressure to produce — like policemen paid per arrest.


People Respond to Incentives, Mental Health Edition

As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid. According to MIT economics professor David Autor, “This has become the new welfare.” Hospitals and state welfare agencies also have incentives to encourage uninsured families to apply for SSI payments, since hospitals will get paid and states will save money by shifting welfare costs to the federal government.

Growing numbers of for-profit firms specialize in helping poor families apply for SSI benefits. But to qualify nearly always requires that applicants, including children, be taking psychoactive drugs.


What Is Kindness?

In common use, whether you are kind or cruel is not about what happens to the person you are supposedly being kind or cruel to. It is about what your actions say about your psychology.

You can be perfectly kind while knowing strangers die far away for want of help. If strangers die in front of you without you responding, that’s much more of a problem because it says you have no strong emotional response to this. That’s a worrying characteristic in an ally, for whatever reason. You can be kind while you vote for policies that everyone knows will indirectly harm people, as long as you’re apparently motivated by the right feelings about the immediate, visible effects. Do the opposite, and you are a cold and heartless calculator. Not kind at all, even if your actions benefit abstract people somewhere.

Kind people respond to immediate, vivid things, but are less required to respond to more abstract ones, and should never do so at the expense of the vivid things.


Why Isn't Sociology Better?

After three days of observing academics, it is clear to me that the social sciences attract precisely the wrong kind of people. They are I-want-to-help-and-thus-look-good people. In terms of personality, they are like sheep. Social science needs curmudgeons, but it gets womanly men and ideological women.


Framing Inequalities

This is something Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is really good on. His point is that if you look at the European aristocrats who ran the governments that colonized America, none of them were big into racism. In their eyes an African slave, a (Native) American savage, and a European peasant are all about on a par — they’re the scum of the earth, to be exploited economically, and perhaps feared as a potential source of violence and disorder. European governments of the 16th and 17th centuries typically presided over multiple linguistic groups, and important aristocrats could have very diverse landholdings. This was a very class-bound society, and the division between the elite and commoners was much more important than any proto-national considerations.

Matthew Yglesias, "Dimensions of Inequality"


Success and Selection on the Dependent Variable, Again

There’s an obvious selection-effect problem here. Most book-writing advice is going to comes from people who are able to successfully apply standard book-writing advice. But I don’t need book-writing advice from those people. I need to know what works for people with a mind like mine. Maybe nothing works. Maybe the best advice for people like me is: don’t try to write a book, you flake.


The Songwriter's Disease

The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning, and he'd managed to do that with just about everybody he'd ever met or married or fathered. The truth about life was that nothing ever ended until you died, and even then you just left a whole bunch of unresolved narratives behind you.

Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked, p. 244 (ch. 15)


Why Track?

In junior high and high school, tracking was the only thing that made my life bearable. In my memory, normal classes were a combination of Waiting for Godot and Lord of the Flies.