Entries in tyler cowen (6)


The confrontations of philosophy

It's been a while since there's been a good philosophy bunfight. Certainly, nothing to match the glory days of the late nineties, when Daniel Dennett engaged in a couple of running disputes, one with Jerry Fodor, another with Stephen Jay Gould. (The Gould one got particularly nasty; at one point Gould wrote something like "if Thomas Huxley was known as Darwin's bulldog, Daniel Dennett is Richard Dawkins' lapdog").

But there might be one a-brewing. For years now, the ethics community has been waiting for Derek Parfit's two-volume epic, On What Matters, drafts of it have been circulating for a while. I've never liked Parfit's work -- I was forced to read his Reasons and Persons as a grad student, and I'll never forgive my supervisor for insisting on it. Nor do I find the overarching mission of On What Matters -- to show how Kant and Mill can be shown to be arguing the same thing -- to be an interesting or useful project.

I'll never read the books, but the reviews from people I respect are devastating. Tyler Cowen writes "I see the biggest and most central part of the book as a failure, possibly wrong but more worryingly “not even wrong” and simply missing the questions defined by where the frontier — choice theory and not just philosophic ethics — has been for some time." And that's no good, since Cowen had earlier been cheerleading the work as the philosophical equivalent of a Beatles reunion tour. 

But more devastating still is the review from Simon Blackburn, which the FT declined to publish. Blackburn opens his review by praising the publisher for getting the book's price point down to a nice level, and the compliments only get more backhanded after that. As for the question that leads the second paragraph ("So is this, as Peter Singer hailed in the TLS, the most significant contribution to moral philosophy since 1874, when Henry Sidgwick sculpted his own great tombstone, The Methods of Ethics? Or is it a long voyage down a stagnant backwater?"), it's probably not necessary to say upon which horn of that dilemma Blackburn impales his subject.

Given how much time and intellectual effort Parfit has spent on this, and how many people's reputations are at stake (Parfit apparently lists 260 philosophers who have helped him), there has to be a response. It can only get more entertaining from here.


Authenticity Watch: The narcissism of indifference

(Picture courtesy of Ryan Davey)


1. A very good Q&A about reason and skepticism with philosopher Stephen Law, author of "A Field Guide to Bullshit"

2. New York performance artist Tania Bruguera is spending a year as a poor immigrant, living amongst illegal immigrants in Queen's. Her new-found neighbours aren't sure what to make of her, and Bruguera herself is having trouble fitting in: "After finding her apartment and roommates in January through a flier on the street, she was surprised that the local gym did not offer yoga."

3. The latest in authentic tourism: An outfit in Turkey will let you come and be "Muslim for a month".

4. The narcissism of indifference: The New York Times finds a couple of hyperlocal fanatics who are actually smug about how their ecolunacy is completely pointless and apolitical.

5. China's assualt on our preconceptions about authenticity continues with Hengdian World Studios, aka "Chinawood," which contains, among other things, a full-scale replica of the Forbidden City.

Hengdian has plenty to offer beyond the Forbidden City. There is the Qin dynasty imperial palace that was the backdrop for the movie "Hero." There are 100 authentic Ming dynasty riverside houses shipped in from southern China, and the largest indoor Buddha in China.

6. And then there is this lovely Austrian town, a UNESCO heritage site, that the Chinese are secretly making a complete copy of. Tyler Cowen gets its exactly right: "It’s funny how a town gets insulted when outsiders start taking its kitsch seriously as proper kitsch."




Measles in Massachusetts: The hatred of the present and our medieval future

Megan McArdle picks up on a report of a measles outbreak in Massachusetts. Officials don't know where it came from, though it may have spread from the French consulate: "France reported 10,000 cases — and six deaths — during the first four months of the year, most likely due to low vaccination rates."

This has been in the making for years. British health officials were warning over a decade ago that immunization rates were dropping dangerously low and that the "herd immunity" was going to disappear. It is tempting to blame it all on the criminal Andrew Wakefield, but his sort of panic-mongering only gets traction in a public that is already widely disposed to despise the present, and fear the future. 

Indeed, as McCardle points out, "It's hard to believe, but we're sliding backwards on two of the three public health achievements of the 20th century: vaccination, antibiotics, and clean water." And she doesn't mention that while our water might be clean (well, for most of us anyway, unless you happen to live on a native reserve in Canada), some of our largest cities have decided that another great public health achievement -- control of tooth decay through water fluoridation -- is some black-helicopter plot. 

We are on what is looking like an inexorable slide into magical thinking, turning our backs on the technologies, the medicines, and the markets that are the basis of our civilization. McCardle suggests that we make a guy like Wakefield "spend the rest of his life explaining himself to the parents of children who have died from diseases that could have been prevented through timely vaccination" but that misses the essence of the madness. Wakefield's victims will go to their graves singing his praises. 

(Via Tyler Cowen)


Authenticity-seeking and counter-signalling: the case of the cavemen hunters

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Justin Scheck reports on the latest in stone-age lifestylism: hunters who have eschewed high-powered rifles and composite compound bows in favour of weapons made with prehistoric materials and techniques. These include handmade bows, flint-tipped arrows, rudimentary spears, and 19th century muskets.  They use these to kill deer and wild boar, along with alligators and feral pigs.

At first glance, this sounds like something straight out of Williambsurg, yet another click in the ratchet of urban cavemanism that briefly flourished last year in New York’s restaurants, fitness gyms, and yoga studios. If it was the height of authenticity last year to butcher your own pig and make your own moose jerky, the ante has most definitely been raised.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to lump Scheck’s paleo-hunters in with the hipster Groks and Urrgs wandering the stone-age wastelands of Brooklyn trying to one-down each other in their rejection of the comforts and privileges of civilization. There’s probably something to that: as Scheck quotes Ted Fry, the owner of Raptor Archery in Hood River, Oregon, more people now want to hunt with "a piece of handcrafted artwork that's functional." (I wonder if anything of them are making use of artisanal axes?)

But I think the overwhelming motivation is something that’s a bit more subtle, and a bit more tolerable to boot:

Prehistoric hunts are back partly because technology has made hunting a bit of a yawner, say some of the sport's aficionados. The proliferation of gear like high-powered sniper rifles and "compound bows"—which use carbon fiber, metal wire and a set of pulleys to fling an arrow almost as fast as a bullet—took much of the sport out of hunting, they say.

This motive -- to get back to a form of sport hunting where skill and technique are what matters, not how high-tech the equipment -- is pretty neat. Too many sports are being ruined because new gear makes it possible for weekend amateurs to hit professional quality shots. Tennis has been ruined by space-age power racquets with enormous sweet spots, while Polara recently announced a golf ball that won’t slice. Both of these are illegal for use by pros, but they have the effect of evening out skill levels amongst amateurs.

The ethics of this sort of equipment (along with composite bows and high-powered hunting rifles are fascinating – perhaps Wayne over at This Sporting Life will weigh in – but what I find interesting is the implicit status move here: the real hunters use primitive tools -- the fancy bows and guns are for weekend wannabes. 

While this has many overt (and implicit) affinities with the authenticity-seekers at whom I like to poke fun, what’s really going on here is a form of counter-signalling: “the behaviour where agents with the highest level of a given property invest less into proving it than individuals with a medium level of the same property.” (Here's a good Tyler Cowen post on the phenomenon).

Counter-signalling is extremely widespread, and is in many ways the most delightful form of status-seeking. Paul Fussell’s book Class has some great anecdotes about how at the extremes of wealth in America, it is hard to tell the homeless men from the robber barons – both dress like complete bums. My own favourite example was from a few years ago, when I spent two weeks paddling down a raging mountain river in the Northwest territories. While all of the paying customers on the trip were kitted out in the latest high-tech paddling gear, my guide – a laconic 19-year old university student – went the entire trip without changing out of a ratty old pair of cargo shorts and a torn rugby shirt.

There is a great deal over overlap between authenticity-seeking and counter-signalling, but they are very different forms of status display. One is essentially a way of signaling one’s underlying politics, while the other is about signaling one underlying skill or competence.


Inequality III: Tyler Cowen's strange silence

UPDATE: Forget everything I've written here. Stephen Gordon says taxing the rich is no use.


OK, I’ve had another look at Tyler Cowen’s AI essay on inequality, and the more I think about it, the more annoyed I am by it.

To recap: What I found initially so intriguing about his argument is that he doesn’t  worry about the effects of income inequality. He dismisses most of it as mere envy, which he sees as for the most part a “local” phenomenon.

So instead, what he does is flip the argument upside down. What we should worry about, he argues, is the dynamic that is causing increased inequality. As he sees it, a substantial amount of the rise in inequality is due to the functioning of the financial markets, in particular the strategy of "going short on volatility". This allows bankers to rack up huge private profits in normal times, and then socialize all the losses during abnormal (crash) times.

As Cowen himself concedes, this has a large number of serious and highly negative public effects.

1. The outsized gains in the sector attract a disproportionate share of society’s smartest and most hardworking individuals. This “represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large”.

2. The correlated nature of the risk means that when the bets go wrong, everyone pays the price. In particular, it puts a huge number of people out of work.

3. The bailout transfers money from “the Treasury to the major banks”, i.e. from taxpayers to the people who caused the problem.

4. It constrains productivity by preventing huge amounts of capital from being put to any productive use.

Inequality is simply an effect of the banking and financial sectors learning to game the system. These are very, very serious effects, which even Cowen himself concedes. So what to do about it? Cowen thinks the answer is, “not much”, and he goes so far as to suggest that this is “simply the price of modern society.”

This is obscene. When you boil it down, all Cowen has done is repeat many of the arguments that were accepted by mainstream economists years ago: Excessive inequality is wrong because it is inefficient. It results in a colossal misallocation of human capital, of the public treasury, and of private wealth. And keep in mind – these are Cowen’s points, not mine.

The only way, then, Cowen’s quietism can be justified is if the banking and finance sector provided such a vital public service that the public benefits outweigh the costs of the occasional crash. But there is no evidence that is the case. Even Cowen doesn’t try to make that case – as he puts it, these people aren’t providing a vital service, they are “gaming the system”.

Why on earth would we then simply accept it as the price of “modern society”? Maybe it is true, that we don’t have the ability to properly regulate the industry, and that any attempt to do so will backfire or result in perverse consequences. So be it. But that doesn’t mean that we have to just suck it up. After all, those outsized gains exist, they are sitting there in bank accounts, and in the form of Jags and houses in the Hamptons and Damien Hirsts and all other perks of being a Wall Street big shot.

And keep in mind, again, that these gains are, ex hypothesi, illegitimate. That is, by Cowen’s own analysis, these are windfall profits earned by gaming the system and which play no productive role in the economy.

So while we might not be able to regulate the industry so as to prevent this money from being acquired, there is another mechanism at the state’s disposal. It’s called the tax system. Tax something and you get less of it, economists like to say. Well, one of the most influential popular economists in North America is concerned that there are too many people going into finance, concerned that these people are earning too much money, and concerned that the public fallout from their activies is too great. We want less of all of this? Tax the hell out of it at every stage. Tax the business schools that train these people. Tax the incomes on the earnings. If that's too hard, tax their expenditures on the Jags and the homes and the Hirsts.

As it turns out, this is exactly the solution to rising inequality proposed by the economist Robert Frank: A massive and steeply progressive luxury tax that returns these outsized gains to the public treasury. At the very least, that money can then be used to fund an extremely generous employment insurance fund for workers who lose their jobs during crises caused by the operations of the financial sector. Instead of the state bailing out the people who caused the crisis, the people who caused the crisis would be bailing out the people they have harmed.

Tyler Cowen has argued against this solution in the past. Given his new analysis of income inequality, I don’t see how he can continue to resist it.


Foodie Cosmopolitanism

Slate has a big honking interview with Anthony Bourdain about the notion of being "wrong", which detours into a very pleasing discussion of authenticity and food. My bold:

There's enormous respect and a romanticized reverence for what's considered the "right" way, meaning, the classic wayand I think most chefs feel powerfully that one should know that before moving on. Like, "I've researched this, this is the way they were making it in 1700, goddamn it, and that's the way it should be made." Or: "This is the way they make laksa in Kuching and Borneo; that stuff I just had on Ninth Avenue is definitely not the same; ergo it's wrong." But, you know, what does "real" or "authentic" mean? The history of food is the history of migrating ingredients and occupation and foreign influences and accommodation.

This is via Worldhum