|Martin Gurri (youtube, mp3) is an author and former CIA analyst whose book, the Revolt of the Republic, describes how and why we have political revolutions and a seeming explosion of negativity in media and politics. |
Martin spent his career analyzing media reports around the world and noticed the decline of the primacy of ‘papers of record’ coincided with big changes in political discourse everywhere. I normally avoid political analysis and discourse as mostly unproductive shouting but Martin stands out as a dispassionate and insightful observer of current events.
In this interview we compare various social media platforms, discuss what the public really wants and how we might get out of this mess. Martin has the unique distinction of recognizing the commonalities between Obama and Trump and his theory ties together movements on the left and the right.
One quick bit of extra background from my research: other than his own experience, Gurri drew on material from Walter Lippman, a mid-20th century journalist who feared that the spread of mass media would disempower the ‘elites’ in a destructive and destabilizing way. These elites wring their hands with every new ‘wave’ of media technology as Gurri describes in the book. And for the most part they’re wrong.
Is this time different? The pessimist might say it’s a question of degree rather than type.. We are an archer walking towards a target, the closer we get the better our chances. More democratization of media means more frequent and more violent and more random the revolutions. Even here!
The optimist says there is a direction to history. All technology is an amplification of human nature: mostly good and partly evil. There is a natural check pre-built inside us that stops the madness from overcoming the wisdom of crowds at scale for long.
Gurri is careful to not come down too strongly on this but offers some predictions for the world might change: institutions of authority must become more open. It’s an interesting nod (head fake?) in the direction of that ultimate fascinating but not-sure-where-it’s-going technology of our day: blockchain. See my show with Steve Mildenhall on that most open of technologies.
Thanks for listening!
My guest for this episode is Agnes Callard (episode page, youtube). Agnes is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and her specialties are in ethics and ancient philosophy.
Agnes recently wrote a book called Aspiration which tackles an intuitively clear concept, that we aspire to learn new things and to value them. Easy, right? The thing with philosophy, though, is that things aren’t always as straightforward as our fallible minds are apt to think. Actually, the whole discipline of modern philosophy exists to apply order to our thoughts and it isn’t easy…
[35:57] Agnes Callard: And one thing philosophers can show you is that you didn’t actually say anything when you said that you thought you did, right, it sounded good to you. Um, but when we put a kind of… conceptual microscope on it, it turns out you said P and NOT P, you contradicted yourself.
We find that the idea in Agnes’ book, aspiration, is riddled with contradictions. How can you learn to value something new, like, say Opera? If you already value Opera you don’t need to learn anything. If you don’t value Opera then you’re just another irrational human agent wasting her time listening to all that Opera. As you’ll hear, Agnes has figured this puzzle out!
We also talk about philosophy generally. Philosophers spend their time sorting through intuitions to find the logical reality to our thoughts. It’s abstract stuff and in preparing for this interview I was reminded exactly how my mind recoiled at this in my undergraduate philosophy studies.
[03:38] David Wright: I was thinking like that’s the feeling I always have when I’m studying philosophy or thinking about philosophy. It just doesn’t quite seem clear enough. And sometimes there’s a little snap into, into detail and you’re good, but for the most part you sort of wandering around and this kind of haze, is that what it feels like to be a philosopher?
And there’s so much more like our discussion of the culture of refutation in philosophy ([01:18:20] David Wright: Is there an etiquette of refutation?)
… and weakness of will:
[34:43] David Wright: What is a Akrasia, and is it real? What did Socrates think? What do you think?
[34:48] Agnes Callard: Okay. Um, Socrates and I don’t agree on this particular point…
Ever wondered if you should be angry forever? It’s not like an apology reverses the wrongdoing!
[41:22] David Wright: So next question, should I be angry forever? why? Why would I want to be angry forever? Why should I be? And then why might that be wrong?
And then I bring it all together in defense of Tyler Cowen’s Straussian analysis of Agnes’ book and come up with my own, which is that “[56:18] Everybody got Socrates wrong, starting with Plato”.
Agnes is breaking all kinds of new philosophical ground by reconciling the very deep urge of aspiration in us with the rest of mainstream philosophy. This was an amazing experience for me. Agnes is one of the more charismatic interviewees I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with. So buckle up and come get philosophical with me!
Here is a transcript of the episode:
David Wright: 00:00:00 My guest today is Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Agnes’ specialties are in ancient philosophy and ethics and she’s the author of a recent book called Aspiration, the Agency of becoming. We’ll be covering all that today and more. Agnes, welcome to the show.
Agnes Callard: 00:00:14 Thank you.
David Wright: 00:00:15 So I want to start with how you’ve influenced yourself kind of grounding philosophical thinking in actual experience. So what are the most philosophically formative life experiences you had? And that means the way that the real world, real world Agnes has influenced the philosopher Agnes?
Agnes Callard: 00:00:30 Well, interestingly, I think that the further back you go in time, the less it’s me influencing me and the more it’s other things in the outside world influencing me. Like I think I can now make myself more philosophical, but when I was much younger I think other things had to. So if I, there are a lot of things along the way that I could cite, but I guess I don’t know, something is jumping out to me is when I was in high school, uh, I read James Joyce’s Dubliners and then I read like most of the rest of the drug of choice. Um, but the thing about Dubliners that really resonated with me was that it every story kind of had an epiphany in it. It had this sort of moment of realization in which somebody suddenly has a new understanding of their life but not just a new understanding and understanding maybe for the first time is especially striking and the final story of the dead, um, and I think you could get this thought out of so many movies, but I didn’t. It’s a wonderful life or something like that. So I was just amazed by that, by the idea that you could suddenly have an understanding of your life that it could like light up for you. And that seemed really desirable to me. And I think that eventually it took awhile. But eventually philosophy just came to seem like being able to have one of those epiphanies continuously for your whole life.
David Wright: 00:01:53 Hmm. Because you’re always learning about more about yourself or about the world or
Agnes Callard: 00:01:59 Because you’re always adopting the point of view that somebody has when they have that epiphany where they’re sort of thinking about their own life in a, not in a fully detached way. So not as an anthropologist of themselves or something. Right? Um, but, um, but in a way that isn’t just going along, going along with the flow of their everyday experience. Right? So if you’re a philosopher and say, I don’t know, you were thinking about, um, say I’m teaching the Meno and there’s a line in the Meno “shape is that alone of all existing things that always follows color” it’s definition of shape. Right? And so I have the students look around the room and look at the shape things in the room and just notice the fact that where you see a color boundary you see a shape boundary. And that is the way the world presents itself to us. Now that was always true. We always, but you know before they had that experience, color boundaries and shape boundaries would come right in their visual field, but that’s a moment where you noticed that it’s like it shines a little bit of light into the way in which the visual space is organized for you and philosophy is just kind of like doing that all the time with everything.
David Wright: 00:03:14 There was a feeling that I remember having when I studied philosophy as an undergraduate that I felt again as I was studying some of your work and related works and stuff, which is this feeling of fuzziness and by that I mean and you make mention in the kind of, in the closing remarks of your, in your book where you say, I don’t really see this as clearly as I need to to finish this process. Right. And that really resonated with me because I was thinking like that’s the feeling I always have when I’m studying philosophy or thinking about philosophy. It just doesn’t quite seem clear enough. And sometimes there’s a little snap into, into detail and you’re good, but for the most part you sort of wandering around and this kind of haze, is that what it feels like to be a philosopher?
Agnes Callard: 00:03:52 That’s a great point. Because the epiphany analogy that I was using suggests, well, it’s just the sudden clarity that it would be hard to imagine how you could extend it in time, actually. Right? It suggests something that occupies a moment rather than a period. Right. And I think you’re completely right that the trick philosophers have discovered in order to extend it in time, um, is to turn that, like, ‘looking for something’ into inquiry into trying to understand, but in order to try and understand there has to be something you’re trying to understand and that requires that there be something you don’t understand, some kind of puzzle. Right? So, um, so often any, any kind of philosophical inquiry will have somewhere at the back of it a kind of dilemma or a problem where sort of, there’s no easy way for you to think about the situation because if you’re inclined to go one way and then that creates one problem and if you move away from that, it creates another problem. And so you’re caught between these two problems and you have to find a way to think through whatever subject matter you’re thinking about without falling into either of those two problems. And um, that I think that creates that. That’s the kind of fuzziness of it. The fuzziness of it is that there’s something you’re trying to figure out or understand and you don’t and you know, that you don’t. And so you can experience the fuzziness.
David Wright: 00:05:19 There’s a frustration there. I had a, a conversation interview with Cathy O’Neil, who’s a mathematician and author and she has this phrase which I feel like I’m, this feeling of mine maybe predates my conversation with her, but she definitely articulated it best where she said everyone thinks mathematicians are smart, right? Because this is difficult, well it’s a subject area which.. Every subject areas has its own difficulties, right? But for whatever reason, mathematicians kind of wind up being elevated in some way intellectually, cognitively. And she said that the irony of being a mathematician and she was a mathematician for a few years, Is that you don’t feel smart, you feel stupid all the time because you’re always working on these problems that are really hard and you have to get used to that feeling. And I have the same characteristics as some actuaries who are to a degree mathematicians and taking these exams you have to do for actuarial.. there a lot of them and, and you spend the entire time just feeling inadequate because you’re always trying to learn this material which is such a challenge and you failed the exams.
David Wright: 00:06:11 And, and so it’s this exercise and, in feeling kind of pretty dumb. And, and yet, from the outside world they’re saying, oh wow, you know, you guys are so smart. It’s like it is not what it’s like on the inside. And what’s what’s interested me in the philosophy kind of comparison is that it’s a different kind of feeling of frustration, intellectual frustration, doing math and philosophy for math is it feels more discreet or it’s like you don’t get it, you don’t get it, you don’t get it, Bang, you get it. With philosophy, I feel like there’s much more of a feeling of progression in between it’s a little more continuous or I feel like you sort of can feel yourself coming towards the conclusion before you get there. And math. I feel like it just sort of snaps into place. Do you have any thought on, and you study, you study science for a little while, right? Before philosophy.
Agnes Callard: 00:06:49 Yes. And I, I think in high school probably my favorite subject was math. I love math and I love that feature of it. Um, the thing that’s amazing about math is that when you get the right answer, you know it’s the right answer. And that was one reason why Plato used it often as an example of, well, what we might now call something like a priori knowledge. Um, the thought he said math. It’s like remembering, um, because when you want to say you want to remember someone’s name, right? What was his name? What was his name? And then when you actually remember it, you know that that’s right, right. It’s like, it’s like, oh yeah, it had that “Oh yeah” moment, as opposed to just learning some new thing. Like here’s so and so, and here’s his name. Right? Yeah. And so every mathematical thing comes packaged with that thing that we also get in memory, which is like, oh yeah, that’s the right one.
Agnes Callard: 00:07:41 Right. And so Plato thought, well, yeah, so we should um, we should think of learning math as a kind of recollecting of what you knew when in a past life or something. So it has that click, right, that click of recognition and Plato thought philosophy could have that too. Um, but it’s a lot harder I think to get the click. I mean, maybe in some ways it’s easier because you get close. Well, I think you can, but then I, and I think maybe some people just do it, maybe, you know, maybe with just really differs from person to person, but for me I get it, but then it falls apart again. And so there is this progress, but the progress is two steps forward, one step back. It never it. Um, and, and I can always sort of tell as, as you’ve noted at the very end of my book, I’m like, yeah, and I haven’t really solved any of these problems and in fact I’ve just kind of gotten started and it always sort of feels like you’ve just gotten started. So, so I think that may Plato, was pretty optimistic that, or at least Socrates was that I think both of them actually were optimistic about the possibility of arriving at that click though it’s not clear that either of them thought you could do it within your lifetime.
David Wright: 00:08:50 Yeah. Well let’s, let’s talk about the beginnings of the book. So the book’s called Aspiration. Maybe you can describe a bit about what it is and I want to come back to the idea of of its origins in your own development, because let’s put it this way, when do you think was the first time that you were consciously aspiring, maybe a previous version of the theory and you’re thinking, wait, that’s what this is, is I’m doing it right now. You can you think of that example? So first describe it and then maybe talk about an early example in your own life?
Agnes Callard: 00:09:16 Yeah. Okay. Um, so, um, so Aspiration is the rational process of value acquisition. So it’s trying to come to value something that you don’t already value and um, so if you think about all the things you care about now and that includes people you care about, um, it includes, you know, maybe political ideologies that are important to you, religious views, um, um, activities that you love, um, you know, if you go back and think about yourself at age 10 or something, probably very few of those things were you into, right? Yeah. So there’s like, you know, what we’re all about in life and as adults, those are not the same things that we’re all about the children. And so the book is just about that process of like how do we get from there to here and you know, one story you could tell is it’s just a series of accidents.
Agnes Callard: 00:10:10 And so that’s why the phrase “a rational processes” important, um, where I’m making an assertion about that process, namely that you have some role to play and where you ended up. Um, um, in terms of my own. Well, so one thing about the book is that it came about, I suppose I’ve, this might be unusual because I’ve never heard anybody else say this about how their book came about. It came about with me trying to say something, write.. write up on a different topic and, and I was giving talks on this different topic and they kept getting refuted by my audiences and I kept, um, and yet I kept feeling like I was. What I had to say was there was something really right and important about the topic.
David Wright: 00:10:56 What was the other topic?
Agnes Callard: 00:10:56 Weakness of will
David Wright: 00:10:57 Right
Agnes Callard: 00:10:58 So this came out of my dissertation, right, and I was giving this theory of weakness of will and people kept pointing out that like, there were lots of cases of weakness of will that didn’t fit what I was talking about and that there seemed to be cases of what I was talking about that didn’t fit, that weren’t weakness of will, and people just kept making these, like giving these counterexamples and I’m like, there are good ones.
Agnes Callard: 00:11:14 I’m like, you’re right. Um, and uh, and then all of a sudden, one time I realized that the problem wasn’t that it was a bad theory. It was just, that it was a theory of something else.
David Wright: 00:11:22 Interesting.
Agnes Callard: 00:11:23 So, so it was almost like I kept the theory but shifted the topic. Um, and so that’s how it came about. So it didn’t come about by me thinking about my own experiences of aspiration. I was thinking about a set of like wrong examples, but clearly something in me wanted to think about this problem. Um, it’s, I think part of the reason why I didn’t think about it is it’s not discussed in philosophy very much. The word is basically not used, um, so I didn’t have anything to plug into and philosophy on the other hand, weakness of will is widely discussed and so it was sort of the closest thing to the thing I wanted to talk about and it just took me a really long time to figure out that there was this other thing.
Agnes Callard: 00:11:58 It was super widespread. No one had really philosophized about it. Um, but as for my own life, yeah, I think it would have been full of examples if I had thought to use them early on. I, I, I didn’t. Um, I guess the best ones would probably actually have been and were once I started to think in a more straightforward way. I’m just my students actually. That is, I’m just constantly interacting with aspirants, paradigmatic cases of aspirants and they often come to me and say, I’m thinking about my life and where it should go and like what road philosophy should play in it. Um, and we have, we have these conversations that are basically about aspiration. So that would be maybe the best.
David Wright: 00:12:44 You’re immersed in aspiration.
Agnes Callard: 00:12:46 [laughs] Yes
David Wright: 00:12:46 Everywhere, almost everywhere.
Agnes Callard: 00:12:47 And yet I didn’t see it for years.
David Wright: 00:12:49 We all are, but maybe it’s supercharged and universities because it’s explicitly.. explicitly an aspirational activity: going to school.
Agnes Callard: 00:12:55 Yes. And also there’s something. There’s something very special about university. So after I wrote the book, I read, but I. But before it was published, I was able to put in a correction. I already realized a mistake, a big mistake that I made. So in the book I say that in order to aspire first towards some end you have to have some grasp of what the end is. You’re aspiring towards. So you can’t just like have no idea what you’re doing and yet still in some sense be aspiring. I made that claim in the book, but then I realized it was wrong because I think that’s what universities are, is that they are. That the question of whether you can aspire without knowing what you’re doing is actually more a question of institutional support than it is a question about individual psychology and that in some way that’s what a university is.
Agnes Callard: 00:13:41 It’s like an invention that not maybe not originally for this purpose, but that we have deployed for the purpose of making it possible to throw, throw, throw people into an environment where all they have is like, I want to become someone. I want to do something important and let that thought is productive in a way that it often isn’t. When you sort of go find yourself thing, right? Because when you go find yourself in Europe, there isn’t an institutional structure that is in any sense guiding you so that you’ll get somewhere. But I think in universities you are being guided in a, in a very gentle way and there’s so many ends you could pick that even if you don’t know where you’re going, you can be going somewhere.
David Wright: 00:14:19 you know, one of the things that I find interesting about young employees that we hire is a common criticism, and I gave it myself when I first started working is there’s not enough guidance, right? So it’s a bit more like a discover yourself in Europe, than discover yourself in college kind of thing. And people really liked the guidance, through college and it’s now it’s much harder because there isn’t an explicit pedagogy, I guess, saying here’s all this stuff and how you kind of learn it and, and nobody thinks about that because in business you’re not focused on education. It’s an important component of any successful company is training it’s, it’s, it’s younger staff and older staff and everybody for that matter. But the focus is not. The focus is on whatever the social function of the business is on producing profit of course, and selling things and helping the customer and all that. And, and so you kind of have this lack of guidance relative to what people have experienced before. And they really like the guidance. And so everybody wants to feel in this kind of comes back to an idea in the book which is in some of your papers to uh, which is that we have, we look outside of ourselves for the aspirational inspiration, right? I mean, where do you get the ideas from? Is from the people around you understanding your, you should we go to this university, gives them a lot of that. I guess, right?
Agnes Callard: 00:15:30 Yeah. So I think that guidance is really tricky because.. and the older people get the trickier it is to guide them. Right. Um, and um, so we have the same thing and universities just do you think about Grad students, right? So in some sense, I always feel like they don’t get enough guidance. I remember feeling that as a Grad student. Um, I remember feeling like I had this advisor who all he ever did was refuted everything I said and he would just like pick it apart and it was like, it was absolutely the best thing anyone could have done for me, but it didn’t always feel that way. And um, and I remember one point I actually learned a special trick with him, which is that you could deploy him against himself by just saying something like there’s no possible way to produce an argument for this conclusion.
Agnes Callard: 00:16:19 And then he’d refute you and give you an argument. You just like write it down and then of course next time it would show up in your work and he’d refute it. But, you know, I’m at least, at least you made a little progress there. So I think the problem is that, that, um, there’s, as with philosophy problems with guidance, they’re sort of two extremes, right? One is I’m just leaving people to their own devices and I don’t think they’re going to really get anywhere. I mean, maybe there’s some geniuses who would, but I’m very few of us are that sort of genius, very few geniuses or that sort of thing as even I think. So there’s just that, right? And then at the other extreme there is, I’m making other people into yourself and that’s a real danger. Um, people, um, when you influence someone and you make them and you and you bring it about that they do things in a similar way to how you do them, it makes you feel really good because it makes you feel like you’re living your life with knowledge.
Agnes Callard: 00:17:29 Like, wow, look at what a good thing I’m doing. If somebody else wants to do the same thing. Right? And so, um, like when I was first learning how to cook, I used to always pretend that I was in a cooking show and giving people advice about cooking. This is when I was first learning how to cook so I didn’t know anything, so I’m making stuff up and I would be like, so this is how you do it. Know. And like as though I knew, right? But the idea that I was guiding, someone made me feel like I knew, okay, so that’s very dangerous because we’re just motivated to make ourselves feel like we know by imprinting ourselves and other people. And so it’s, that’s the tension, right? Is that you want to guide someone but you want to guide them in a way where they become themselves and not you. And that gets harder as the person gets older. I think
David Wright: 00:18:20 it was a social feedback loop then I guess. Right? So you’re saying, you know, you’re right because people around you agree that you’re right. And, and that’s one of the things that really interests me and back to back to the book where we allow. I’ll pose this question, then we can get into it, which is, there’s no such thing as negative aspiration. Right? So maybe talk a bit about that, about why that’s the case or not the case.
Agnes Callard: 00:18:43 Yep. Good. So there’s actually two things you might mean by negative aspiration. One is aspiring to cease valuing something. I think that is possible, right? I give an example of it in the book, um, but the other is aspiring to value something that isn’t in fact valuable. Okay. So I think it’s possible to value things that aren’t valuable. I think people do that. Um, people make valuational mistakes, right? Um, however, um, I don’t think it’s possible to aspire to have one of those false values or more specifically, more carefully what I think is if you see that somebody is on the road to acquiring some false value, okay, as we’ll call it, valuing something that isn’t in fact valuable, then you can’t see that person as aspiring. They might see themselves as aspiring insofar as they falsely believe that that thing really is in fact valuable.
Agnes Callard: 00:19:43 Right? Um, but that aspiration, using the concept of aspiration and applying it to someone would, that someone could be yourself, is predicated on taking the thing that they’re moving towards, to be, as a matter of fact valuable and one way that, that, that might sound crazy, but one way to sort of see what family of thoughts that belongs to is just to see that, like on the picture I’m presenting of aspiration, what you’re doing when you’re aspiring, as you’re learning or you’re learning the value of something like say you’re learning to become an actuary and you’re learning the value of how to manifest a certain kind of honesty and integrity in relation to certain sorts of predictive practices, right? Um, so, um, and the word learning is effective. That is you can only learn what is in fact there to be learned. Just like the word knowledge is factive. So you can, the word say belief is not fact. If you can come to believe something, even if it isn’t true, but you can’t come to learn something if it isn’t true.
David Wright: 00:20:49 Santa Claus.
Agnes Callard: 00:20:49 Exactly right. You can’t learn that Santa Claus exists because he doesn’t exist. You can come to believe, right
David Wright: 00:20:54 I won’t be playing this for my six year old.
Agnes Callard: 00:20:59 You can’t, um, so you can come to value something that isn’t valuable, but you can’t come to learn that value. Um, and so since I think that aspiration is a learning process, I think there isn’t any false aspiration in that sense.
David Wright: 00:21:15 And so I think one of the really important ideas there, which I really liked, and this is the one thing that I’ve thought about a lot, which is your initial idea of what the value is, is, isn’t you know enough to know that this is worth pursuing, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you get there. Right? And so I think that what is, what is, you can have the false positive. That’s what we’re talking about, right? So I think this is there, but it’s not there yet. But one of the things that surprises me a lot about this is that when you get to the end, you might realize it was never there. And how do you determine or who determines or how is it determined that that value is in fact true or not?
Agnes Callard: 00:21:49 Right? So there are a couple of different ways to hear that question, right? So one of them is, um, who determines quite generally, which are the real values in which are the false ones. I don’t think anyone determines it.
David Wright: 00:22:04 And yet everyone does.
Agnes Callard: 00:22:05 I think that, um, well I think it’s a fact. There’s a fact of the matter, right? So nobody makes it be the case. It just is the case. But I think, I suspect that isn’t the question that you’re really asking. I suspect the question is you’re asking is sort of like, how can you know at an early stage, right? How can you be sure that this thing is going to, that you are going to come to the correct judgment that is valuable at the end of the day, how can you be sure secure that you’re in a good direction, moving in a good direction? The answer is you can’t.
Agnes Callard: 00:22:35 I think so aspiration is kind of a risky process, but that’s exactly why I’m. We do rely on so many structures as we’re aspiring, right? So we don’t just us, most of us, the vast majority of majority of us aspire to a way of life in a way of valuing that is in some sense socially sanctioned. And this is part of why the social sanctioning of certain practices is actually so ethically significant because, um, you know, if take something like homosexuality, right, so it’s now a possibility for someone to, in a kind of relatively comfortable way, depending on where they live. Right? But say they live around here, um, aspire to um, a certain kind of homosexual life, right? Um, but that aspiration was available to very few radicals and you know, as recently as 50 years ago or something. Right? And so the kind of value possibilities that are available to a person are partly a function of their community. It’s sort of function of both their community and sort of like how risk averse they are. Right? Because you might be willing to take more willing to take those chances, but it, that’s why, you know, that’s why we’re looking for a certain kind of feedback because we’re worried that we could be wrong and we’re correctly worried because we could be wrong.
David Wright: 00:24:02 Well, I want to actually, I’m going to come back to kind of the main theme of the aspiration, but I want to make sure. One of the things that amazes me about your career so far is that, and this made me make sense given that you started out with a different question but have kind of been, been drawn towards this idea of aspiration because a lot of your work winds up in the book, a lot of your papers. I was like, okay, I saw that before and then it turns out, yeah, there was a paper on that. So I’m gonna ask you a few questions that have touched on some papers and maybe you can sort of talk through some of the ideas and we can come back to it.
Agnes Callard: 00:24:31 Okay.
David Wright: 00:24:31 So, um, what is AristotleIian deliberation and how is it different from what we think it might might be or should be?
Agnes Callard: 00:24:39 So Aristotelian deliberation is the process where you go from having an end like say your end is, um, to buy your mother a birthday present. Okay. Um, you go from that towards some particular action that you’re going to perform that is going to lead to that end. We’re working backwards. Exactly. Yeah. So you work backwards from the end to the immediate action that you can take and Aristotle thinks of this as analogous to analysis and geometry so that if you have a problem in geometry, like construct such and such a shape, one thing you can do is start with the shape, assume that it’s constructed and then deconstruct it and see when you get to the first step that you could have done from the beginning and then go the other way. And that’s what he thinks deliberation is like. You start right? You start with like, okay, my mother has the president and
David Wright: 00:25:42 yes, yes, yes, how do I make that happen
Agnes Callard: 00:25:43 Exactly the way that it’s different from, um, I would say the thing that it’s really different from is how contemporary philosophers think of deliberation, which is that they think of deliberation as I’m, I’m offered a set of options. I’m in a marketplace say, right, and someone says you can have this or this or this, and I’ve got to choose which one. Right? And I’m going to choose whichever one is best say right? But they’re nothing has been presupposed about what my goals are. It’s almost like, well, look, there’s just some abstract idea of the best or utility or pleasure or something that I can measure them in terms of. And I just got to do the calculation. Which of these is the best option for me? Um, and um, so that, that clearly that accountant deliberation also presupposes a whole bunch of things. Like it presupposes that I have options like that. There’s more than one thing I can do, right? It’s almost like we’re imagining ourselves into kind of supermarket and in Aristotle’s day there weren’t any supermarkets and there were just a lot fewer choices such that from his point of view being able to come up with one thing you could do that could achieve your end, that’s like really impressive and he’s not too concerned with coming up with the best way.
Agnes Callard: 00:26:51 Right. I’m coming with any way is good. He does actually… there is a line where he says, Hey, if you come up with more than one way, then choose the one that’s more efficient or the one that’s more noble doesn’t care much. Right. Like, like, you know, every modern interpreter are coming at that line is like, wait a minute, wait a minute. How do we decide between the more efficient and the more noble. And Aristotle was just profoundly indifferent to that. He’s like, this is an awesome situation, right? Whichever way you like, you’ve got to. That’s an embarrassment of riches. Right. Whereas the modern point of view is it’s all about comparing your options.
David Wright: 00:27:22 You know, what’s interesting about that coming to my head, and this is another idea that I’ve been thinking about which is in Aristotle maybe picked up some of the lower hanging fruit philosophically because he was probably thinking that we can get to a decision is so important and, and that we can get to an end is very important. And these days that’s. We kind of figured that part out. Right now we’re moving on to maybe things that are harder to figure out but also maybe a little bit less impactful. Perhaps you know, sorting out which one is best is, is not as good as kind of the. Maybe you get the 80 percent solution right away. And I’m wondering like, you know, this.. Come back to an idea of what you’ve written on, which is quite a lot of what we do now is based on what on the, on the prior work of of say ancient philosophers and others and and you know, they might’ve picked a lot of low hint lowest hanging fruit and then we’re kind of just still working out going higher and higher up in the tree. And it’s a little bit less clear where the value is. So what do you think about that?
Agnes Callard: 00:28:15 I find that to be a question that’s very hard to think about. Maybe. Maybe it’s harder for someone to think about that question when they spend so much time directly kind of in the ancient world as I do, right? Where it’s almost like it doesn’t seem as low hanging because I’m trying to figure out exactly what Aristotle thinks about these things is actually super hard. Right? Whereas if I were looking at it from enough distance, um, you know, like if I think about Kant, say, so a philosopher I know pretty well, but who I’ve ever spent any time I’m trying to really interpret, right? I just kind of read them quickly and I’m like, yeah, I get what he’s saying, you know, the way that someone else might have been Aristotle. Right? Then I’m just like, oh, I see here are the things that he realized were achieved.
Agnes Callard: 00:28:57 Right? But what I’m like looking at ourselves so close. Um, so I guess I think that, um, you know, one, one way that I have of thinking about this problem is it’s not exactly so much a question of low hanging fruit as it is that a lot of what earlier philosophers do is come up with a kind of conceptual repertoire that gets integrated not just into later philosophy but into common, ordinary thought. Um, so like one example of that with Aristotle is, um, and this is not an original claim to me. There’s a book that was written maybe maybe 10 years ago, by Wolfgang Mann called the discovery of things where basically he makes the case that Aristotle discovered things in the sense of like continuing durable physical objects as a way of organizing the world. Um, whether or not you think you’re going to willing to attribute that much to Aristotle and go.. They were already there except, well, it was a popular conception of it.
Agnes Callard: 00:30:04 There’s a, there’s a, there’s a way in which it’s like, that’s like our question about value, right? It’s like, um, who determines. And it’s like, were they there? I mean, in some sense there were subtly determined it, right, but of course, in another sense they were there, but the world isn’t already, or the organization of the world doesn’t come along with the world. Right? So the lines dividing things from other things aren’t themselves just in the world. Um, we have to draw those lines. We have to carve the world up and what, you know, what you saw in sort of the earliest ancient philosophy, the Ionians people like Perimedes was a real skepticism about whether the world could be carved up in any way at all that made sense and not know.
Agnes Callard: 00:30:43 Um, and then you have Plato who thinks, well it can’t, but then there’s this other world that can, namely the forms, right? And then Aristotle comes along. It’s like, no, no, no. This world right here can be carved up and understood in a way that made intelligible and divided into things. Right? So one way to sort of appreciate that discovery is that it wasn’t obvious in the sense that it was challenged before Aristotle. Um, and so now think about where we are, right? Obviously there are things, there are all around us, we see them, right? We think we just see them, but we don’t realize we’re also thinking them. We’re thinking them using Aristotle’s concept of a substance. Um, and um, and so now I’m, it’s not just low hanging fruit, right? It’s, um, it’s that they built a kind of, um, they, they had, because they came first, they had a kind of foundational place in our conceptual repertoire.
Agnes Callard: 00:31:36 So we’re mostly thinking Aristotle’s thoughts as we walk around in the world, um, especially if we’re not philosophers.
David Wright: 00:31:45 So I want to keep going through this and we’ll come back to, we’ll come back to the, I think that next paper. How is the Socratic desire thesis foundational to socrates thinking in what ways?
Agnes Callard: 00:31:58 Um, so the desire thesis, the thesis that everyone desires the good, right? And um, I think in some way that is Aristotle’s foundational, sorry, Socrates’ foundational ethical thought. So Socrates had a set of idiosyncratic views that, that sort of coming up. Yeah, they kept coming up and they were sort of the um, it was like, this is the sort of thing that you always hear when you talk to Socrates, say his interlocutors
David Wright: 00:32:31 here he goes again.
Agnes Callard: 00:32:32 So there’s a lot of that. Actually, there’s a lot of the here you get here he goes again, line in a bunch of dialogue very strikingly in the Laches right. Um, so, so some of those, you know, Socratic principals are, um, there’s no such thing as weakness of will, virtue is knowledge of the good, men can’t be harmed. I’m a, nobody does evil voluntarily. Um, a punishment is education, etc. Etc. So there are these views that when Socrates would say them, people be like, that’s insane. And then, but then he would sort of argue you into them. And I would Say that the, the big sort of lever or sort of fulcrum that he used argue you into them was the idea that everyone desires to good because of that one is I’m actually relatively palatable and easy, right? Because the thought is, well, what do you, what is it that you would want from the bad? Why would you want bad things, right? No one wants bad things. Everyone wants good things. Um, and so of course everyone desires to good and now let’s move on.
Agnes Callard: 00:33:31 But that, that quick move that I just did hides a really crucial ambiguity, which is when you say everyone desires, they could do you mean that everyone desires what they think is good or what actually is good. And Socrates thought that the answer was both, in fact, that is people desire what they take to be good and what actually is good and it’s the same thing. Um, and getting his interlocutors to accept that, that version of the desire thesis right, where they’re committing themselves both to the objective goodness of the thing that they desire and their own grasp of that goodness that is then more work and that, that extra bit of work is then very important for getting you to accept some of the other crazy. Right?
David Wright: 00:34:17 It just reminded me of something I meant to mention a minute ago, which is that how much detail you go into in your work of going to the original, original Greek, trying to translate it again and think that the way we typically translate this word is a little bit kind of off and you can give me a few different ways and then you’re able to actually pull more meaning at a lot of the texts than is, has been accepted up to that point. And you know, there’s still more to be found. I mean, it’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? I mean, whatever, thousands of years later. Um, so what about what, so what is a Akrasia, and is it real? What did Socrates think? What do you think?
Agnes Callard: 00:34:48 Okay. Um, Socrates and I don’t do, don’t agree on this particular point. so, um, so, uh, a crazy acquisition is weakness of will, which is to say when you act against your better judgment. So you’re like, I am not going to eat another cookie. I’m not going to have another drink. But then you do anyway. Or like, I’m going to go to the gym tomorrow, but then you don’t, right. And, and, and you wake up in the morning and you’re like, I know I should go. I realized that would be the best thing for me. that would be the thing that I should do, but I just don’t feel like doing it. I’m not going to do it. and when I, when you give examples like this to people, everyone immediately recognizes them from their own lives as like, oh yeah, I do that. Right?
Agnes Callard: 00:35:27 And so then it’s really fun to tell them, well, philosophers, at least some philosophers think that’s impossible actually. So the thing you just think you described an experience, you didn’t experience it in a way that’s actually a really good example of the sort of thing I was talking about a minute ago about parmenides. It’s sort of like, um, there’s a way that the world appears to you or manifests itself to you. And you can describe that. But then there’s a question about the coherence of your description. Like have you said anything at all when you described it that way? And one thing philosophers can show you is that you didn’t actually say anything when you said that you thought you did, right, it sounded good to you. Um, but when we put a kind of, um, my conceptual microscope on it, it turns out you said p and not p, you contradicted yourself.
Agnes Callard: 00:36:12 And so we’re gonna need to find some new way to talk about the thing that you took to be what you just described. And I think that much that is the idea that the way people ordinarily think about those episodes is conceptually confused and incoherent. I’m there. I think that’s correct. Um, I’m with Socrates on that now. Socrates wants to go even further and just say, yeah. And really nothing like that can happen. It can happen. Namely, you always do what you believe to be good. You always act on your better judgment. Um, and so at that point you can come up with a variety of sort of, um, dismissive explanations as to why people mistakenly take themselves to act against their better judgment. for instance, self deception would be one. Another would be they quickly changed their minds right at the last minute. Um, I’m, Socrates has a much more.. Socrates doesn’t give either of those, actually he gives it a much more complicated and interesting explanation of what’s really going on there.
Agnes Callard: 00:37:09 um, um, namely that people actually can’t tell apart different kinds of mental states so that, you know, there’s such a thing as believing that it would be good to get a bed and then there’s such a thing as say fantasizing or imagining that it would be good to get out of bed, right? You can have a thought in a variety of moods. You can have a thought in unbelief motor and say hypothetical mode or fantasy mode and Socrates thinks that you think you can just using introspection tell apart your thoughts, which one, which kind you’re having, but you can’t. And so you called it a belief, but it wasn’t a belief. It was a kind of fantasy of like the, you know, that I really think that I should get out of bed. That’s not even a thought you have. So that’s the socr, Socratic analysis.
Agnes Callard: 00:37:51 Um, I have a different analysis. My analysis is that akrasia is the product of an interrupted growth process. Um, so, um, you know, over the course of our lives we adopt new value frameworks and we adopt them with different degrees of perfection in terms of how much to what degree have we completed the aspirational process and come to inhabit the new value. Um, and one thing that sort of stands in the way in an almost universal sense of like coming to value anything is just the basic condition as animals, right? Where like what we want is immediate physical pleasure. That’s, we’re, that’s the value system we’re born with a biological exactly right. And, um, and so like no matter what, like you might value exercise, right? I’m in this and it’s going to be an aspirational project to come to value it. Right? And it’s gonna take years of I’m hating it. And then sort of coming to see what forms of exercise give you a certain kind. It’s not going to be enough for almost anybody to be like, this Is good for me in the abstract, right? They’re going to, you have to find something that gives you a certain kind of pleasure or delight. Um, but even if you find that thing, the chances are you didn’t ever come to inhabit it completely fully. And so there’s this kind of vestigial value system that is in you. And when that comes out, that’s awkward. My understanding.
David Wright: 00:39:19 So is there, is there a way in which it’s kind of a value confusion, is that a way of thinking about it where you think that some things more or less valuable than it should be?
Agnes Callard: 00:39:27 I… So there are one place where confusion definitely shows up is in people’s self descriptions of being Socratic because I don’t think most people do see akrasia as being, um, what I just said, right? Nor do they see as being what Socrates just said. Um, and um, of course you might ask, and I think you should ask at this point, well, why not just trust what people say? Right? But the answer is that it sort of turns out that, and I didn’t sort of spell this out a minute ago, but the, under philosophical analysis, the idea that, look, I fully knew that it was the wrong thing to do, but I intentionally decided not to do it. That’s a contradiction. It’s a contradiction because intentional action is action for a reason. And when you act for a reason, your reason has to be that the thing that you’re doing is good.
Agnes Callard: 00:40:15 And, um, if you think that something else is better and you’re free to choose while everyone desires the good, so there’s a reason you wouldn’t choose the better thing. Right? And so to say, I intentionally and freely chose the worst thing. It’s kind of like saying I desired the Bad. It doesn’t make sense. Yeah. So that’s the confusion. The confusion is in some sense the ordinary person taking a kind of liberty with a concept like action or intention that once you analyze it a bit into its components, you see the contradiction. Um, but, um, so that’s one level, that’s just the level of the person theorizing about themselves right now. There’s another level of confusion where, you know, you might say, if I’m right about akrasia, my analysis is correct, then it entails at least this much confusion. The person who was akratic hasn’t fully inhabited a certain value system, and so they are to that degree, confused about it. They don’t have the knowledge that somebody would have had they fully inhabited it. Yes. Yeah.
David Wright: 00:41:22 So next question, should I be angry forever? why? Why would I want to be angry forever? Why should I be? And then why might that be wrong?
Agnes Callard: 00:41:31 So, um, suppose that I’m somebody wronged you in some way, like they stole money from you, let’s say. Then you have a reason to be angry with that person, right? That is your anger is rational, right? And the reason is that they stole money from you. That’s why you’re angry at them. Um, and so now let’s think about what it would take for you to no longer have a reason to be angry at them. well, let’s say they gave you back the money, gave you back the money, but, but it’s still true that they stole from you and that’s what you were angry about, that they stole from you. So when they give you the money back, if they haven’t changed it yet, they apologize. They haven’t changed it. Um, you might say, and I do think about this a little bit in at least some version of paper I wrote on this.
Agnes Callard: 00:42:25 What if we went back in time? Could they do, could they solve it that Way? At least theoretically, right now there’s a question actually, whether it’s going back in time is theoretically possible. It’s an active debate in the, uh, philosophy of physics. David Lewis, one great philosopher from who I took a class on this very topic thought. Yes, but most philosophers think no, but anyway, I suppose suppose we can go back in time and so I suppose it goes back in time and decides like, this one I’m not going to steal from you. Right? Well then I think it’s true that you don’t have a reason to be angry at them, but you never did have a reason then, right, in that weird world in which time travel happens. And so the question is, supposing the real question is like, supposing you do have a real reason to be angry with someone, um, is there anything they can do to address that reason?
Agnes Callard: 00:43:09 And there’s at least a prima facie argument that there isn’t anything that can do, um, and that would, it would follow that you would have a reason to be angry with them forever. Now it doesn’t follow from that, that you should be angry with them forever because you might have other reasons. Right? In fact, you most certainly will have other reasons and those reasons can easily dwarf your reason to be angry with them. But the point is, and it might even be irrational for you to be angry because you have so many reasons not to be angry with them. Right? But the sort of so, so in a sense, the, the, the philosophical position that I’m looking at doesn’t make an um an interestingly counter intuitive, practical recommendation that everyone stay angry forever. But I think it’s puzzling enough to think that whatever reason you have to be angry with someone, like even when you were a child, that you still in some sense have that reason.
Agnes Callard: 00:44:00 Um, and, and it would still be rational for you to respond to it in some way. And I think that’s an unacceptable conclusion. So what I try to do is find some way around it. I think one of the reasons why it’s unacceptable is that it makes it impossible to give a really good account of apology and forgiveness because I think that what you were doing when you forgive someone is to say, I no longer take myself to have any reason at all to be angry with
David Wright: 00:44:26 and that matters
Agnes Callard: 00:44:28 Exactly. Um, and so I think in a way puzzle about eternal anger is really a puzzle about how we can account for forgiveness
David Wright: 00:44:38 yep. and
Agnes Callard: 00:44:39 you wanna know how?
David Wright: 00:44:41 how?
Agnes Callard: 00:44:41 So I think that, um, I think that the sort of illusion that you have a reason to be angry forever is a product of the fact that, um, anger severs you from the person that you’re in a relationship with, right? Um, so, um, and this is going to be true even if the person is a stranger, but it’s easier to explain if the persons close to you. So let’s imagine that it’s your spouse, right? You’re angry at them. Um, and um, so anger feels like when you’re angry at someone, you think about them a lot, right? And you have these conversations with them in your head and you’re like, we, you show them how wrong they are obsessed with it. Exactly right. And yet you hate them and you don’t want them to be in your head. It’s like anger is like being trapped in a room with like the last person in the world.
Agnes Callard: 00:45:40 You want to reach out to them. You can’t get them away from you. And um, I think what’s going on there is you’re trying to think about your relationship with this person. Um, which is essentially a two way street, but the thing they did has broken it and so you’re angry thinking is sort of your attempt to do something that requires two people but only as one person. Right? Just like your attempt to have a conversation that’s a two person thing, but you’re just going to have it on your own and it never works. Like the fight you have with the person in your head. You sound so good and they sound so Bad. And then in real life you have that fight and like they have much better arguments. Right? Um, and so I think that the sort of feeling like there’s nothing they could say is the feeling like, well, there’s nothing that the image of them that I have in my mind could say to make me forgive that image.
Agnes Callard: 00:46:27 Right? Um, and so in a sense there is a kind of myopic or sort of Cartesian bubble quality to the rationality of anger and that when like the actual interaction with the actual other human being makes a real difference in terms of creating a repair to the relationship that you then become able to think about this problem together with them. And I think once you can think together with them and not in the illusory whatever you’ve just imagined them, you’re sort of rational resources change. Um, and um, it’s no longer the case that the fact that they did that thing is a reason for you to be angry with them.
David Wright: 00:47:13 Framing that, uh, that I read about in the paper that I really liked, and this kind of comes back to the aspiration book is interpreting that in terms of valuational progression. Right? And so the, the idea of being angry with somebody is that we have the shared value system, would you violate it? And now bring me back, show me that we have this value system is still in.
Agnes Callard: 00:47:33 Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly right. So, you know, the way that I understand anger is sort of predicated on the idea that to be in a relationship with someone is to be engaged in like a kind of co valuing people valuing one thing together where that’s not the same as just two people who both values something, right? I’m sort of like the difference between walking with someone and just walking next to a stranger. Um, and that, um, what happens with anger is that there’s a kind of injury to that valuation so that you’re now trying to do something by yourself that you can only really do with another person. That’s why you need them in your head. Um, and so you have devolved into a kind of doing a two person activity as a one person know you’ve transformed it into a defective one person version and the processes of like fighting with the person and talking it through with them and apologizing and all of that is repairing the relationship so that you can do it as a two person thing again. And then there, that sort of eliminates the need for anger because that’s what anger is, is trying to do a two person thing as a one person thing.
David Wright: 00:48:38 So I want to change gears just a little bit and we’ll come back to that now. Which is, this comes to your, to the conversation you had with Tyler Cowen. Oh, it was great. I mean, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Really enjoyed it. And he, he has a reading of your book. would you pushed back on. And I’m going to, I’m going to try and mount myself to mount to his defense here. So his reading is that actually this is a piece of a theory of everything. Would you have in your head whether you know, it or not? so he calls the Straussian reading the book because there’s all. This covers a lot of ground here. And uh, you know, you think of like, just the, the papers you mentioned where deliberation is an important idea here. The Aristotelian deliberation which you were examined because that’s about looking at a goal and thinking about how you get to that goal.
David Wright: 00:49:15 It’s a goal oriented process even though you might not see it as clearly as you want to. The aspirational element, deliberate aspirational deliberation Aristotelian, I think the desire thesis, I think it’s important there because you have this, you are desiring the good and that’s another way of putting the value system. Right? And so this was goal oriented kind of process again, where we’re looking, where we, we, we are all, there’s a set of values that are out there and they’re all good and that’s what values are and if they’re not values and they’re not good, you know, it kind of an equality there. So the angry forever. There’s valuational progress there, right? So you’re either moving away from somebody becoming angry with them, moving towards them and, and you’re creating a deeper relationship and so you pushed back because you said this is the value of change.
David Wright: 00:49:55 So does the theory of change and this isn’t just describe states, right? So where I would then say where I think Tyler was onto something there is that I don’t think there isn’t such a thing as state, right? I think that we’re always changing. We’re always nudging a little bits here and there towards goals end of every interaction we have with somebody else’s other progressive value system deeper or farther away and every act we take in the world I think is actually moving towards something or away from something. And I think the human experience isn’t necessarily one, at least in its, in its most fulfilling version where you’re working towards goals. So this is actually a theory of everything because that is everything. Everything is a progression towards something. What do you think about that?
Agnes Callard: 00:50:36 So, um, I have sort of two kinds of responses to that. One is sort of meta and methodological and the other is more first order. So maybe the meta or methodological one is just to say like, even if I were to grant all of that, the book is not even really a theory of aspiration. Um, there’s so much left to do. There’s nothing in the book about love.
David Wright: 00:51:01 It is itself aspirational.
Agnes Callard: 00:51:02 Exactly right. And so if you think about it then if you think about the book as being itself aspirational and as having left out a whole, that is what the methodology that I use in the book is to sort of break a whole bunch of stuff in philosophy to say here’s like a whole bunch of distinctions that are super useful that like we’ve been using internal external reasons and then, and then like none of them work to describe this phenomenon.
Agnes Callard: 00:51:24 So look, let me just create a mess and then I hope someone else is going to clean it up and produce some new because it’s not like we can live without them. Right. And so I haven’t cleaned, haven’t done the cleanup work. Um, and so then, you know, there’s a question, what point of view do you adapt towards somebody who’s done what I did, right? And you could adopt this sort of optimistic perspective where you’re like, yeah, but like we can sort of project forward and see that like in a sense it implies a view about everything. Um, and I prefer like as an aspirant myself, I guess I prefer the more negative approach of like, what is this? It’s nothing because that’s what’s gonna get me to produce the next thing, right? It’s like if you think it’s already there, that induces a kind of complacency of like, um, and nothing more even really needs to be done.
Agnes Callard: 00:52:13 Whereas my approach is like so much wanting to be done because that’s what’s gonna get me to do it. So it’s almost like there’s a kind of a gestalt question were part of the what part of what goes into how you’re going to view that is the place that’s going to play in your future, you know, deliberations. All right. So that’s the sort of methodologic question. But now the sort of first order substantive question of like are there states, right? So there’s an issue that I don’t come down on in the book. It’s probably the most important issue that I don’t come down on. Um, and I would say it’s the single greatest way in which ancient philosophy influences that book is making me realize that there’s a debate that I don’t know how to resolve, and so I have to steer clear of suggesting and solution one way or the other.
Agnes Callard: 00:52:59 But the debate is about whether aspiration is infinite or not. And it’s a debate between Plato and Aristotle. And Plato thought, yes. So Plato thought you should spend your whole life trying to improve yourself in the sense of trying to more fully acquire the values that are in some sense I’m ill suited your mortally embodied soul. And so never going to have them in any kind of perfect way. You’ll always be subject to something like akrasia. I right. Even if we don’t call it that, um, and so you should just try to perfect yourself. That’s the Platonic view that aspiration is infinite. Aristotle’s view. And the ultimate underlying disagreement here is whether or not the soul is immortal, whether dies. So implant as you, it doesn’t die. So you know, it’ll be reincarnated, those afterlife, you just, you just keep trying, okay? Maybe forever. Aristotle thinks the souls mortal, so when you die, you’re dead.
Agnes Callard: 00:53:49 That’s it. Um, and so you’ve got to achieve something in your life and that achievement can’t just be making yourself as good as possible. There’s got to be some amount of making yourself into something where at that point it’s good enough and now your job is not to have yourself as a project anymore. But to have outside projects where you do things like help other people become good and write constitutions for cities, for new cities that’s like ourselves, you know, prime example of like a great thing you can do for the world. It’s like create a new city, right? A really good constitution for write a really good set of laws. And like when you’re doing that, you’re not aspiring. What you’re doing is putting into action knowledge that you have. And I think it was really important to Aristotle to think that you can have knowledge.
Agnes Callard: 00:54:33 Knowledge isn’t just something you’re always trying to get. Um, knowledge is a state of your soul, an ordered state of your soul. And, um, there’d be no point to spending your whole life trying to get it if you could never get it. Um, and again, whether or not there seems like a point actually, it really matters whether you think the soul is mortal or not. So I think that really is the fundamental disagreement. Now what do I think that is? What do I think about whether aspiration is finite or infinite? Whether it is self indulgent to spend your whole life perfecting yourself. I really go back and forth on this one and I have a really hard time. Um, you know, I, I’m pulled, I’m very much pulled by both sets of intuitions I have to say. And so I try not to come down on that question and um, but so now the question is whether or not my book is really a theory of everything actually depends on how you answered this question because if you answer it.
Agnes Callard: 00:55:24 So maybe Tyler is a Platonist right? Um, and maybe that’s like my Straussian reading of his Straussian reading of my book is that he’s just taking a Platonic framework for granted. Um, and the Platonic framework is the one in which in the human realm, all there ever is this change because in this world there is nothing stable. Um, whatever is stable, it has to happen in another world. In the Aristotelian framework is more humanist and it says no, there is something stable in this world to go for. And so there are states and that’s what his whole theory of ethics is about how their states of character, they can be acquired and once you have them you’re not still trying to get them in the period of education as a period up to age, maybe 30 or 40 and then you’re done with education and now it’s time to do things.
David Wright: 00:56:09 So let me give you my Straussian reading here and, and that’s that. I’m sure you’re not going to believe this, but it’s my reading of your book. So we’ll see what you think. Everybody got Socrates wrong, starting with Plato and so that it is not about the goal actually. So the goal is there to get us to work, to work, right? But it’s the work that is actually the goal in some kind of weird way. Right. So if you think about Socrates’ method where he’s, I believe, I believe Socrates, which is to say that I think he’s actually trying to figure it out in conversations. Right? I don’t think he was with. When you read the books, you sort of get this feeling that he had in the answer all along. Right. You know, there’s always kind of Socrates’s it isn’t always the case, but he’s the hero who conquers the problem and he wins and carries the day.
David Wright: 00:56:55 Right. But I want to believe anyway in a Socrates that was there really to try and figure it out with other people and say, let’s all get together and work this problem out. Right. And I think Plato’s Plato almost, right. Socrates is a little bit too superpowered then. Then maybe he really was because Plato wants it to be a direction towards a correct answer at the end and bang just draw a line under that one. Move on to the next book. Right. The next dialogue. But Socrates never actually wrote anything down and I think the reason why he didn’t write anything down with, because you never probably never felt like it was complete and I think that he was probably okay with that as a result because he could have rewritten history. Socrates perhaps and said actually had all the answers all along and Plato kind of did it that way.
David Wright: 00:57:33 Right? So he rewrote it or he wrote it, he wrote it, and so he’s the authority. We’re kind of trying to see through Plato to Socrates, but I think he created more certainty than Socrates would have felt because Socrates is this underlying kind of feeling of a social construction of all these ideas. And Aristotle just took that and ran with it. And on we go to philosophers of the day. We’re trying to find the right answer. But actually, and this is where the ask, this is where I’m okay with the mess you created in that China shop, because I’m thinking, well, it’s the process of cleaning it up and breaking in and cleaning it up. That’s actually what we’re doing and we should be okay with that and some kind of weird way. What do you think?
Agnes Callard: 00:58:04 So there’s a lot in what you say that I agree with. I very much tended, as one person once said to me something like, for you, Plato is like, Socrates’ ugly, clothing. He’s like clothing you’re going to take off to get to the real Socrates. So yes, I think that’s very much how I read that. I lost. I disagree that the way Plato presents Socrates is like the dialogues and with some answer because they don’t. I mean most of them, most of the dialogues that are considered the most Socratic end in confusion
David Wright: 00:58:33 How about the ones that were the ones that were the most Platonic,
Agnes Callard: 00:58:35 um, well I’m
David Wright: 00:58:37 not in the formal philosophical sense of Platonic
Agnes Callard: 00:58:39 They still end in weird ways. You know, the Theaetetus. Um, the Republic, the Sofist. I mean, um, so, but, but you know, in any case we have the Socratic ones and so we do have Plato presenting Socrates as being aporetic. That is Plato didn’t merely present Socrates as just having a bunch of views. But I mean, even in the Platonic ones, you might arguably in the Platonic ones a view emerges, but it isn’t something where it’s like always asserted by Socrates. Um, so, um, the Parmenides, I mean, that’d be a great example. Um, um, socrates is just totally lost. Um, so, so, um, but on the other hand, I guess I look, I do think that Socrates is genuinely looking for answers to these questions and that’s what the, what are you doing in the dialogues? And he often says it, he’s like, actually, you think I’m trying to beat you or whatever, but I actually am just trying to look for an answer to this question and many of the conversations, this becomes an explicit topic in the Protagoras and the Gorgias. And it’s a really interesting question, why it is that, you know, doing that so much shows up for people as being something else. Right? um, Socrates understood that he was going to be misinterpreted and he says that in the dialogues and he’s like, you’re going to think I’m being ironic. He says that uses the word ironic in greek, right? Um, and so the problem of interpreting Socrates is already a problem even within the dialogues and Plato presents us that problem. Um, and you know, as for um, like the process is the goal.
Agnes Callard: 01:00:06 See, I guess the thing that’s, that’s a not unpopular interpretation of Socrates, that’s the thing that worries me about it is like how pleasing of a story that is to tell yourself and, and how often Socrates seems to not be willing to allow himself that I think he thinks that the thing that he’s doing, which is looking for answers and not finding any, is the only possible worthwhile way to spend your life. Okay. So does he think it’s valuable? Yes. Um, does he think that it’s enough? No, I think um, that is um, the idea, it’s like there’s a real temptation to make a certain inference from it’s valuable and it’s the only kind of meaningful human life to. It’s enough because it’s got to be enough then. Right. I mean this has got to be like pretty good. It’s got to be pretty awesome if it’s the best possibility. And I think that Socrates, one of the ways in which Socrates challenges us as to say this is all we can do and it’s not very good because what you actually want is knowledge and you can’t have it in this life, that’s Socrates, right? And of course one sort of like Straussian and reading of that is like, no, really, that you don’t need to worry about the afterlife or this is the valuable thing. Right? But just think about how that reading of it defangs the point and makes it easy and acceptable and kind of, um, uh, kind of.
David Wright: 01:01:34 Meaningless
Agnes Callard: 01:01:35 Yeah. And not only meaningless, but a kind of, it really allows you to flatter yourself in a certain way, right? Um, in the sense that it allows you to be like, hey, I wrote this book. And like there’s a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t explain, but it’s fine. Like, I’m doing the great thing and this is awesome and I’m but like, what’s going to move me forward? What’s gonna move me forward is it’s not that it’s not awesome and this is not good enough and we need to answer these questions. And merely being like engaged in the activity. I mean it’s kind of a paradox, right? Because the thing I was describing to you at the very beginning was like, well I want this light to be shining in my life. It’s kind of a piff epiphanic light. And you were saying, but it’s kind of this, there is, it’s partly there’s this confusion and it’s like the thing that, the thing that allows you to extend it in time is the fact that there’s this confusion in the fact that there’s a direction you’re moving through it and you’re inquiring. But none of that would make any sense if there weren’t something you were after. And I don’t think the idea that you’re after something is a lie you tell yourself, I think you really have to be after…
David Wright: 01:02:28 So let me push back here. So because think of what aspirations teaches me is that you don’t necessarily need to know what the goal is. I mean, you kind of do, right? Think about… Think about the example of your own career. Right? So this book came up, but I mean you weren’t looking for it. So you’re looking for something else and then suddenly this thing is discovered and so it’s almost like those, those authentic moments, those eureka moments, the accumulation of knowledge, that’s kind of like a byproduct that keeps you going, that you love and who knows why where motivation comes from, right, why do we work so hard, all that kind of stuff, but for some reason we love it. We also love the good parts of it too. Right? But the process does seem to create a lot of value for the world.
David Wright: 01:03:05 One of the things that, and reading Tyler’s book Stubborn Attachments.. that I thought was so neat was he’s integrating directly this idea of economic growth into philosophy and economic growth. I mean, I don’t know how familiar you are with kind of the intellectual side of the venture capital business in silicon valley and all that, but one of the amazing things about what their whole strategy is that we don’t have a stake… We don’t have a strong idea here for what’s going to work. So we’re gonna place a lot of bets and all these little companies and most of the vast majority of them are gonna, fail spectacularly, lose all the money, but once in a while one of going to hit on something, it’s almost impossible to tell in advance and that’s what efficient markets teach us is you don’t know what, which one’s going to work, so you have to let it emerge on its own.
David Wright: 01:03:44 And there’s a goal there kind of implicitly. So two ways to think about the goal. One is the goal here is to make money. The goal is progress.. the goal is knowledge! The goal is some, some good that nobody can dispute, but the pursuit of that goal is almost mindless or it’s almost like, I don’t know, it’s almost, I don’t know what the right word is. Maybe you can help me with that, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I’m just kind of trusting that it’s going to happen and I’ve seen it a few enough to have enough times that I believe it’s gonna work, but that’s not really why I’m doing this. I’m just kind of doing it and I love it and I love the good parts and that sort of keeps me going, but I feel like that that’s a much more accurate description of how I lead my own life and how I observe. I’ll have other people do it too. When we really liked the idea of goals, we tell stories about goals and they are important to a degree, but that’s not what’s really going on, what’s really going on. Something else, something a little messier, harder to see, but, but just as powerful in the generation of insight and knowledge and wealth in society.
Agnes Callard: 01:04:40 So I mean, I guess one question about say that process that you described. If placing bets and then we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have say some reason to believe that one of them will work out. One question to ask is like, could that fit the paradigm that I’ve described about a learning process? Are you learnIng anything when you’re doing that? Now you can totally discover things over the course of discovery. You discover like that this one was the good one, right? Um, but when you’re trying to say, come to appreciate classical music, come to see what people see in it. Like what is that thing? I think there’s something there, but I don’t know what it is and I’m trying to get myself to see it. Um, there’s, it’s important that in that process you’re changing, right? The idea of prediction is sort of, there’s a kind of way in which you’re holding yourself fixed and you’re letting the world vary it up.
Agnes Callard: 01:05:38 Um, and your description of venture capitalism is a description of that sort of activity, which I think can add value. I have no objection to it, but it isn’t aspirational. Um, and not all ways of having new things come into being are aspirational.
David Wright: 01:05:57 Sure.
Agnes Callard: 01:05:58 Um, um, you know, one way to have new things come into being is just doing a bunch of random stuff and like some of it will work out right? And you can do that in a more informed way where like, you have some reason to believe some more reason to believe that one of the, one of the more account, what’s really interesting is to think about a kind of continuum between that kind of random activity on the one hand and something like a university on the other hand, right? because I think of a university is kind of a structure that makes possible aspiration that makes aspiration possible, um, where in some sense it fits what you just described with venture capital, right?
Agnes Callard: 01:06:32 Where you’re like, we’re going to get a bunch of people in here and we don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’re gonna do something great. Right. Um, but, um, but there, there is a kind of structure present that um, you have some reason to believe is going to do some work in guiding them towards the things that are valuable. You have a history department and you have
David Wright: 01:06:50 the structure is pretty rigid, isn’t it in universities? You have departments.. you have a hierarchy established status markers. And..
Agnes Callard: 01:06:52 I mean, I guess it depends what you’re comparing it to, you know, like in some ways I teach classes on whatever I want. Nobody ever tells me what to teach on next quarter, I’m teaching James Joyce and Elena Ferrante and in a class that I made up and I’m a philosopher. So like there’s a lot of ways in which universities are not rigid that are, maybe not as obvious, but there are some ways in which it is.
Agnes Callard: 01:07:21 Um, I mean also students like mostly just take the classes that they want. They have to fulfill a major and they have some basic requirements. Some, some, some universities, any of those, um, they have a lot of choice as to what kinds of classes they take. And then we have a lot of choices to whether they want to be in the drama club or whether they want to do sports or like there are all these, there are all these sort of institutional things that are available to them but they don’t have to do. Right. Um, and so that’s, you could say, you know, there is an institutional structure there, but it actually makes possible a certain kind of freedom I think. So the question is, so I think that structure is a structure where you can sort of say that what you’re doing is in some sense guiding people towards this kind of value where you hope that some or many of them are going to become great.
Agnes Callard: 01:08:06 Um, I think that like I’m betting on people, it’s just a very different approach to that. And um, even in silicon valley there’s um, you know, some amount of that university structure is starting to be incorporated in the form of guidance and even institutionalized guidance. Right?
David Wright: 01:08:24 Yeah.
Agnes Callard: 01:08:25 Um, and in a way, what you can see happening there is in some sense silicon valley is just aspiring to become a kind of university, right? To incorporate the best aspects of it and we’ll see whether it works or not. Right. The university is a very old institution that we’ve kind of been handing down to ourselves for a thousand years or so. Um, and you know, and I mean our, I mean arguably arguably dates back to Plato’s academy. Okay. But certainly to the, you know, medieval Germany or something.
David Wright: 01:08:54 Yeah. And I think that there is an element of knowledge acquisition in a lot of venture capital and this is something that Tyler and I discussed a little bit and it’s something that I believe is the case. I mean they’re not just smart people, they’re smart people who think very deeply and are using the experiences of what works to learn more about kind of the underlying reality of the world or whatever it is, you know, the current state of the economic process, which itself is so complex. It’s so hard to understand. And, and one, one theory of why, why a venture capital firm exists is, is, well this is kind of a new conception of it used to be just a parceling out cash, right? But the way that particularly one firm Andreessen Horowtiz manages and others do now too is we’re here to help these entrepreneurs and a much more explicit way and use the network.
David Wright: 01:09:36 And, and, and we know the firms did do this before, of course, but it seems so much more prominent now as a way of using using this as knowledge distribution. So, so we’ve learned these lessons from these other places and we are learning something about the way the world works and here’s what you, here’s the knowledge and you can go work with it and figure it out. So anyway, I want, I want to move on to another idea here which is the idea of optimism and I see it, I see aspiration and this is another kind of theme where it linked me to venture capital. And so that’s kind of jumping off point here is that it’s fundamentally optimistic, right? I think or, or it could be interpreted that way. So I wonder if you could talk to me a bit about how you think of it as optimistic and another, another idea here is whether it is, whether it’s kind of their philosophy itself generally is optimistic or not. What do you think?
Agnes Callard: 01:10:25 I guess I think of optimism and pessimism, more as features of people rather than features of institutions or concepts or activities. So I sort of agreed that aspiration is optimistic, but I guess my thought was that aspirants are, um, yeah. Okay. Um, yeah. And, um, and I think that, I guess what I would say is it’s a kind of tempered optimism, right? Because as an aspirant you’re constantly aware of the way in which you were defective and that awareness is crucial to your development. So, um, but, um, you know, that is the flip side of how good you could become, right. Um, and the idea that the idea of aspiration is the idea that how good you can become when weighed in the balance with how bad you are, it outweighs it. So you’re going to move in that direction. Right? And that’s optimistic.
Agnes Callard: 01:11:23 Is philosophy optimistic. I’ve found that strangely a lot of philosophers are really pessimistic. Um, and I, I’m not sure why I think that there could be a lot of different reasons. So one of them could be a lot of philosophers now especially, you know, people who have tenure track jobs. You like me just seeing a lot of students, great students not get jobs that’s bound to make you pessimistic. Right? Yeah. Um, and then maybe you started out in philosophy thinking that you’re really going to get somewhere and the more philosophy you do, like, I don’t know, the more I feel like even in my intro courses, I’m just like, wow, I thought I understood the Meno, I’ve taught it 50 times. And so there’s this, um, it, I think that can be quite difficult as you get older to live with. So here’s the thing, here’s like a demographic fact that I’ve found about people who work in ancient philosophy. So, um, you know, as you were noting a little while ago, part of what I do is interpret passages right? And I’ll read it in Greek and say, well, here’s the translation, but actually here’s a slightly different translation that’s maybe better, more accurate, right? And then there, there’s not just translation issues. There’s text issues for a lot of these text, especially like say Aristotle’s De Anima, book three. Our manuscript edition is terrible. So it’s like we don’t know what it says, right? and people argue about what the Greek says, not just how we translate it. okay. So here’s something I’ve found that I find super interesting, which is that the older people get, the more dogmatic they become about those issues, about issues of, um, you know, uh, what the text says, textual criticism as it’s called, um, what that text actually says, but then even more so like how we interpret it and when there were like multiple readings of a passage, right?
Agnes Callard: 01:13:13 I’ll be like, oh, here’s another reading. And like if somebody is over the age of 60, the chances that they’re like, no, there’s only one reading. This is how you have to read it. Like super high. Right. And I think it’s partly that, like they’re like, look, I’m approaching death and at the very least I have to know what Plato’s republic says. You know what I mean? It’s like I can’t keep going. I can’t just die and admit as I’m dying that I don’t know what those books that I find the very basics. Like what is the first line of the republic mean or something, you know, I went down to the Piraeus that. So I think that that could explain something like pessimism is like this feeling like that as you get older, as a philosopher, the need to leave things open just becomes harder and harder. And Socrates actually encounters in the Gorgias because Callicles says to him like, you have this philosophy thing you do is, is, is really appealing and young people, it’s kind of like a list which is kind of attractive and like a young person. But like when you see an old person doing it, it’s kind of and stupid like move on with your life, make some progress. Right. And like if you’re a philosopher, you haven’t done that. You’re still listening at the age of 60, you know, and uh, that can seem sort of pathetic to you, I guess.
David Wright: 01:14:23 Uh, we’re, we’re out of a time, uh, but, uh, I want to ask one more question, which is you’re, your own journey really intrigues me in that when you were refuted so, so convincingly right on your initial version of the aspiration idea you kept going, not everybody would right or you might say, okay, that didn’t work, I’m going to try something else. And so you, there’s a persistence about your efforts there, which I think ultimately is, and will mark the success because that’s kind of one of the more interesting and important qualities in any person. Where does that come from? Do you, do you recognize that as something that maybe you do well? Um, and, and what do you think about it?
Agnes Callard: 01:15:08 I don’t think it’s a personality trait. I think it’s that at that time I was working in contemporary philosophy, not ancient that, you know, the basis of my book. I was reading a lot of ancients and um, I’ve just been really persuaded that refuting someone is the best thing you can do to them. It’s the greatest favor that one person can do to another. And I mean simpliciter not just as philosophers. Um, and so that gave me a kind of perspective on it where I’m just like, wow, these people are really doing this amazing favor right over and over again because it’s still there. It wasn’t just my book, this happens to me all the time and happens to me kind of with every talk that I give, but I’m looking for it. Right? I’m listening for it. I’m like hunting for the refuting point. I’m not trying to avoid it. I’m like, what’s the best version of this point that this person just made that I can even turn it into? If I can respond to it? Is there a version of it I can’t respond to you? I’m always looking for that. I’m, I want to help them refute me because I want to help them do me this favor. And I think that I just have been persuaded by Socrates. Somebody says that in the Gorgias okay. Refuting someone is the greatest favor you can do them. Um, and he’s like, yeah, I’m always doing people these favors and like I wish someone would do them to me, but nobody’s ever willing t.. right. Um, and so I really appreciate that, that they’re doing that. I sincerely appreciate it. And I think that, um, I don’t know. I think maybe that’s the best thing I’ve gotten out of Plato is the ability to sincerely appreciate that and so then it makes me kind of cheerful and it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself or feel like I need to give up because the feeling like you would need to give up is the feeling like you need to avoid having that happen to you again. Right. Shift ground so it doesn’t happen or say something else or. But I’m not trying to avoid it because I’m actually trying to make it happen. It’s unusual.
David Wright: 01:16:52 Do so. When you refute other people, do you find that they have a similar response or or not?
Agnes Callard: 01:16:58 No, usually no.. Though I’m hoping. I’m hoping to make it more usual how by teaching this to my students and I think my students do respond in this way
David Wright: 01:17:12 Saying this is a good thing. Socrates was right.
Agnes Callard: 01:17:13 Yes. Like what I’m doing because I wouldn’t say it to them. Like they’ll like my grad students who like have this thing that my teacher did to me. I mean that’s another big part of it, right? I had this teacher who just refuted me and even when it didn’t feel good, I could kind of see that it was good, right? So I do that, but not only do I do it, but I do something he didn’t do, which is to be like, and right now I’m doing you a favor. Let me explain why this is the thing you should actually instead of trying and then they’ll sort of try to avoid. And I’m like, no, no, no, don’t, don’t do this thing where you’re trying to avoid seeing my point. Actually just try to see it and make it worse. Um, try, try that approach or something. And I think it’s kind of liberating when you, when you try it, you realize that like it, it’s almost like you become empowered again somewhere. Um, so, so I don’t know, maybe if like, yeah, if I hope to have a legacy that would be an awesome one. And I do think that some people by temperament are such that being refuted, it doesn’t bother them very much actually. Yeah. But that’s not true of me. It’s not for me. It’s not a fact about my temperament, it’s more about like a commitment to a certain ideal in the light of which I’m trying to shape myself. And so I think that that’s available to people even who don’t have the temperament.
David Wright: 01:18:20 Is there an etiquette of refutation? Does, is it sort of implicit there? Maybe that’s something you need the handbook you need to write. I mean,
Agnes Callard: 01:18:26 oh my god, there’s such a huge. This is a big issue in philosophy because um, for a long time like say in my early years in grad school, but much more so before that there was a very bad culture of how refutation was nasty. Yeah, exactly. They get nasty, they pick on particular kinds of people. They try to refute them in a way that makes them look maximally stupid. Sure. Um, and um, it’s so easy to turn a refutation into an attack on a person. Right? And so there, I think there really is an art of trying to refute people where I’m like, what you make you make him part of the problem with trying, with turning reputation into an attack on the person.
Agnes Callard: 01:19:13 I think the main problem is not that it hurts people’s feelings, but that a, it’s a bad way of refuting them because you’re usually not going to be centering on their main point, you’re just going to be finding the point where you make them look stupid, but you should be finding the point where they’re most relevant. Yeah. Or about them. Um, but like it, you got to get to the heart of what they’re saying and show that’s wrong. You’ve got to bring down the whole edifice who can’t be satisfied to be like, oh, you got this little fact about Socrates wrong or something. Right. But that might be more embarrassing. So yeah, I think that there’s a lot of work to be done. I mean, there’s a lot now. There’s a lot more consciousness in philosophy that we have to refute politely, but I think it’s for the wrong reason. Namely it’s like, so that we can be more civil to one another, which is a good goal. It’s not that that’s a bad goal, but like there are intra-refutational reasons why we shouldn’t be that way.
David Wright: 01:20:01 Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. My guest today is Agnes Callard. Thank you very much for joining me.
Agnes Callard: 01:20:06 Thank you so much. That was really fun.
I chuckled to myself as I read about the integration of two big insurance broking houses:
Chris Lay will continue as CEO of the UK & Ireland. Adrian Girling, currently Chairman UK, Europe and South Africa for JLT, will become Chairman of UK & Ireland Corporate and Risk Management for Marsh and report to Mr. Lay. Nick Harris, CEO of Australia and New Zealand for JLT, will become CEO of Pacific for Marsh. Scott Leney, currently Marsh Pacific CEO, will become CEO for Australia and report to Mr. Harris. Andre Louw, currently Chairman of Australia and New Zealand for JLT, will become Chairman of Pacific for Marsh. Christos Adamantiadis will continue as CEO of Middle East & Africa (MEA). Peregrine Towneley, currently CEO of MEA for JLT, will become Chairman of Middle East for Marsh. Robert Makhoul, currently Marsh & McLennan Companies Chief Client Officer and Chairman of Middle East for Marsh, will continue as MMC Chief Client Officer for the Middle East. David Jacob will continue as CEO of Asia. Alan Cheah will continue as Chairman of Asia. James Addington-Smith, currently Asia Specialty Leader for March and April , will become CEO of ASEAN, a sub-region of Asia, reporting to Mr. Jacob. I am the only continues to be CELEBRATION of COMPANIES that are on the road Continental Europe. Ricardo Brockmann will continue as CEO of Latin America.
If that looks like a blizzard of CEOs and Chairmen and my goodness who is in charge here and who cares, anyway!.. be at ease.. you aren’t supposed to understand. That above paragraph is in fact a masterpiece of corporate communication. To see why, you first understand a critical truth about brokers: we are peacocks.
A Peacock is a status hungry omnivore. Brokers tend to be scrappy and thick-skinned and entrepreneurial while carrying surprisingly sensitive egos. This ego is bolstered by two facts: they control their client book, making them powerful, and the best of them interact with the highest status ranks of client organizations, CEO, CFO, etc. Consequently brokers need to be intelligent and high status in their own right to ‘belong’ in those relationships. Threaten that and you imply they are impostors in their social circle.
Managing egos is delicate work. Here are three things everyone wants:
Supply of these is finite and can be zero sum. Compensation is usually the easiest because salespeople tend to work on commission. Autonomy on the other hand is most constrained. The more one salesperson gets, the more likely she’s going to wander onto another’s turf.
Status is in the middle. It’s primarily mediated by titles and the supply of titles can be increased. Hence title inflation yields a whole slew of the most senior-sounding honorifics scattered around broking organizations.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is nothing more than a ruse to convince everyone they’re simultaneously better than everyone else. It’s not. The political reality of a sales organization is that there really are that many cooks in the kitchen.
These organizations aren’t pyramids, they’re something called a frustum.. And clients like it because more of them can have access to the ‘top’.
Back to the quote above, which serves three purposes:
- It’s a scorecard on distribution of influence following a merger of two organizations. Everyone in my office tallied up the score of JLT vs Marsh appointments.
- It shows clients who to access to push the organization around.
- Finally, of course, it serves the most opaque function of a reallocation of status within the firm. What signals does senior management want to send? Who deserves the roles?
The thing that has surprised me most about management is how much of the success of the job is simply getting along with other managers. You have such a little amount of time to spend building rapport but interdepartmental collaboration is perhaps the most important difference between good and great companies. And this quality of being able to get along with others is radically undervalued, especially by those who don’t have it.
So managing broking organizations is hard but at least sales performance is famously solitary work. One broker’s failure is irrelevant to another’s success. This contrasts with managing empowered risk taking institutions like reinsurance companies or hedge funds where a bad decision from one cowboy can bring the whole house down. Since your fellow trader / underwriter can put you out of a job you’re gonna watch his ass. Yet at the same time these people are enormously skilled and need to feel nearly as empowered as a broker would to put that extra effort in to find great opportunities. What a balance to strike!
I’ll leave you with a clip from my conversation with Bart Hedges where he discusses exactly this problem. Enjoy!
While my interview guests are getting settled in I occasionally ask them to read out some of the actuarial code of conduct and we discuss it. I’m assembling those clips into some content for my paid actuarial continuing education channel which all actuaries should check out (and get those CE credits before year-end!).
When I did this with Tyler my little warmup act turned into an impromptu Conversations with Tyler where we explore what it means to be an actuary and whether he and I might start a competitor organization! We end with a discussion of fronting and I missed an opportunity to talk about how fronting can enable competition among insurers but that will have to wait for another day!
Listen to the (10 min) clip here!
Tyler Cowen:0:29Hello, this is Tyler Cowen, precept five an actuary who issues an actuarial communication shall as appropriate, identify the principals for whom the actuarial communication is issued and describe the capacity in which the actuary serves.
David Wright:0:47Any reaction to that?
Tyler Cowen:0:49I don’t understand it. It seems general enough, it’s probably true, uh, but legally what counts as an actuarial communication? I don’t understand. And, uh, to describe the capacity in which the actuary serves. Again, it sounds trivial, the appropriate, but what it means in practice. Uh, I, as an economist, I’m not qualified to say,
David Wright:1:10Well, I’ll give you a bit of insight on that. There’s a fear overall and it’s an implicit fear. We don’t actually talk about it. Have people misappropriating an actuarial work product. And so the thing with any kind of, I think deep analysis is that it’s subtle and it’s intended purpose is really important
David Wright:1:25for actually the content of the communication and and undefined. You’re right, and they don’t really tend to define it very often. Sometimes people define actual work product as anything an actuary does and you kind of have to define a little bit broadly because of the possibility for misuse. So you email something out, right?
David Wright:1:39And it says, here’s what my conclusion is, and if you’re not an actuary, you might not understand it. You might take it and say it, that supports my purpose and send it onto somebody else and screw somebody or do something maybe not nefarious, but maybe a little bit misleading or misleading enough that the original actuary wouldn’t want you to do that. And when you would see this is not an intended purpose and I didn’t want you to be able to. I didn’t want to empower you in this way. Uh, I wanted to empower you in these specific ways and so we have to be very careful about defining the, the scope of any kind of work that we do because we are dealing with people who need what we do. So we’re empowered in a certain way but don’t understand what we do.
Tyler Cowen:2:14The real lesson to me is how much background context can be behind an apparently simple statement.
David Wright:2:19Absolutely. Yeah. Isn’t it interesting. And so one of the things that fascinates me, both these I think that the precepts are under appreciated and I think people tend, you have to read them or every year, every actuary has to spend three hours doing professionalism development. So reviewing one of the things that we have to do where they go to talks or seminars or we had to sit down and read the precepts of the code of conduct in 3 50 minute private sessions and then a test that you did it.
Tyler Cowen:2:42And what actually is an actuary legally speaking, is defined at the state level by a licensing process or is it by some other.
David Wright:2:49Great question. So it’s not. So it’s a private organization. It’s endorsed by state regulators for signing off,
Tyler Cowen:2:55So it’s a natural monopoly, somewhat like a credit rating agency or. I would.
David Wright:2:59It probably is. I don’t know that there’s any kind of legislative. So here’s one of the things about insurance was interesting is that it’s state regulated and so there’s this herd of cats being all 50 states. There’s no federal kind of charter of any sort. Now actuaries are. I’m thinking it might get this wrong. I think it’s. It’s not mandated as centrally, but I think that there’s this coordinating process for state regulators to collectively say actuaries are the ones who can sign off on the final statement of financial statements of insurance company insurance is opaque. It takes a long time for the cost to be realized and so you have to have somebody say this insurance company solvent because it’s not obvious that they’re solvent and it’s kind of given point in time and so the actuaries have that power to build a sign off on the financial statements. So there’s. There’s an arrangement there, but it’s not. You don’t have to go to university to be an actuary. It’s a. it’s like a trade,
Tyler Cowen:3:43But let’s say I, Tyler Cowen came along and set up the actuary certification company in New York state.
Tyler Cowen:3:49And I decided, ah, these seven people that are actuaries, how far could I get with that? Is there a legal problem or just everyone would ignore me? I don’t know. I think everyone would ignore you. You would say, I picked seven really good people. You’re one of them and then next year, you know, I pick another 20 and five years from now I’m picking the best people and I’m doing slightly better than the supposed natural monopoly. Is that a contestable market or do I just have no chance there?
David Wright:4:12I think you have no chance and… But the thing is, I’m not totally sure what the mechanism for the failure is going to be. I think that I know that there you have to attest to the fact that you are an actuary when you sign off on financial statements, but that information comes from the actuarial body. Who, who, who actually.
David Wright:4:28You know who they write the exams, are they they build the exams that we have to pass to become sort of as an actuary. I don’t know where the mechanism is for the states to actually require that designation or or where it’s embodied in legislation anywhere. I think it probably is.
Tyler Cowen:4:40And what about cross border certification? Say I’m the best actuary in Canada and I want to do something in the United States. Is there a sort of free trade in that service or am I out of luck
David Wright:4:50no you’re out of luck. Well, in Canada
Tyler Cowen:4:52Is there any country where there’s cross
David Wright:4:53In Canada..
David Wright:4:55In Canada there happens to be pretty close to one though. There’s one exam that’s different between Canadian actuaries and US actuaries, if you take. It’s like the accountants, so accountants, you have to actually have a recertification process to be an accountant in United States if you’re one in Canada, and so different countries have certain amounts of overlap between the educational qualifications. Canada is one of super, super close. The UK is not as much and some countries you can apply for an equivalence and you’d get your credential converted and sometimes that takes more work or less work. I don’t know that anybody has a real total clean shot in. I think anywhere you have to go, there’s some local knowledge you have to accumulate usually as embodied in an exam process or an or an application for an exemption from that.
Tyler Cowen:5:30How about within the European Union?
David Wright:5:32Uh, I don’t know. I think the UK is separate from the EU. The EU might be one. I’m not sure on that,
Tyler Cowen:5:38but if I’m a Croatian actuary I would be surprised if I could just show up in Germany and practice without hindrance.
David Wright:5:43I don’t know.
Tyler Cowen:5:44As a matter of fact, that seems to me one of those service areas where the EU is not really close to a free trade zone, at least not yet.
David Wright:5:51Well there. There’s another layer of complexity there because insurance is a, as it was a really long history of insurance. There was conflict between whether it’s a local or a national service. So you can think state regulation, right? It shouldn’t this be interstate commerce, you think it would be a lot of other financial services are not. And so there’s this hole and it’s a debate that kind of goes back and forth a little bit in the history of the regulation of insurance, but also just in the practice of the business as it is today. It’s a very, very local business. And you know, what’s amazing about insurance is that you’re an insurance agent in some small town and there was like, there’s like 3000 insurance companies in the United States compared to like how many smartphone makers, right? I mean this is a business which is non aggregated because the local relationships that people have, you know, and I think that this is, this has to do with what I like to think of insurance as a moral economy, which is like, it’s all really uncertain. We’re not sure what’s going to happen. So we’re going to have to trust each other a little bit here. And as a result, you trust people you know, and you liked the idea of having a local and it’s not something that I would choose myself. I’m with the big guys like lemony other people, but you’re living in a small town. I think you gain comfort from the fact you have a local agent, a local company that’s actually issuing your insurance policy and you’d like that. And so there’s this real low, you know, localization kind of idea. That’s in insurance. And so back to the EU example, it would surprise me if your Croatian actuary could go to German insurance companies because the Germans were like, we want the guys we know, right?
Tyler Cowen:7:05But say I’m a nationwide company, maybe I’m chartered in Delaware, but I’ve branches in all 50 states and I go to the Supreme Court and I say, I don’t want to be covered by any state regulator. I want to be regulated by the federal government. What would they say to me?
David Wright:7:20They don’t have. I mean, I think the federal government doesn’t have the legislative authority. They’re the way that
Tyler Cowen:7:24Well but the court could rule. I’m not saying they would, but what’s their argument for not doing so?
David Wright:7:28So I, I think right now there is actually a bit of legislative precedent or legislative structure for this where the federal government is allowed to regulate insurance where there is no state regulations. There was an act that was passed in the thirties, which correct. Which sort of clarified all of this.
Tyler Cowen:7:41What act was that?
David Wright:7:41Uh, I think it was McCarran Ferguson
Tyler Cowen:7:43McCarren. Yeah.
David Wright:7:44Yeah. And pretty important moment because at that point there was a supreme court ruling actually in the nineteen twenties that flipped from state to federal regulations reports that actually the precedent was wrong. This is really interstate commerce should be federal and then the whole thing blew up and they gave them like they think they gave them five years to figure it out and they said we’re going to, we’re just sort of set a ticker on this ruling and then the McCarran Ferguson passed and rewrote the rule book. And so federal regulation can exist. We’re a state. Regulation is not so state regulation is enshrined in the federal act, but if in some in some lines of business are federally regulated right now, you know there is a, there’s always this movement afoot and Dodd Frank at one point had a bit of a federal regulation of insurance conversion as a part of it and I don’t, I don’t. I think to some degree it did make it through in some degree it didn’t. So there’s always a tension there. So that battle is happening all the time actually. And, and you know, I’m not, I’m not aware of, you know, kind of a blow by blow analysis of it, but it’s not working. Staying state.
Tyler Cowen:8:33But you mentioned trust. So let’s say I’m in mostly a high trust country, but maybe a low trust state or province and I decide I want to do my insurance through Singapore because I trust them more than my local people. Does that ever happen? Is that the wave of the future or it really is about geographic distance.
David Wright:8:49It’s your, your insurance policy is, is as. You aren’t allowed to have one in the United States. If it’s not a federal, uh, not, not, not federally, if it’s not a regulated entity in the United States now.
Tyler Cowen:9:00But they could have a shell of some kind in the US, but the actual business is done in Singapore and I get on a plane to Singapore. I meet them, I shake their hand, I say, Oh, I trust Singaporeans. This is what I want to do. Sure.
David Wright:9:11So that can happen and that happens in my day job I do organize such arrangements periodically, but where it falls down, it’s not necessarily on a preference. It falls down because of the economics or the finance financial arrangement is just not profitable because if margins are too thin and insurance companies and you get to pay another another mouth in the chain just doesn’t make you don’t make any money so you can do it, but you won’t make any money doing it. If you wanted to pay more for it as a consumer, you could probably organize that and you said, yeah, well I’m going to be paying 20 percent more for my insurance premium if you wanted to do that. I could organize it for you tomorrow. And insurance policy through a federal relay Shell.. Front company on front companies, United States with the financial backing of somebody in Singapore. It does happen.
Tyler Cowen:9:47Can we put all this into my podcast too?
David Wright:9:49Absolutely. You got it. Um, okay. So that’s the warmup. Holy Cow.
|This week I published (mp3, youtube) my blockchain episode with Steve Mildenhall and reprised the topic with Steve for a talk at the Casualty Actuarial Society Annual Meeting (see the videos page!). These two ‘events’ were the culmination of a few months-long deep dive into the technology and application of blockchains, particularly for insurance.*
For the sake of this post I thought I’d put down some of the more important reference material for my blockchain education. These sources were invaluable. Enjoy!
Chris Dixon’s comment in this podcast that crypto currencies are the natural funding mechanism for networks was a powerful early aha moment for me:
Here’s Vitalik Buterin’s podcast with (NU Guest) Tyler Cowen (Vitalik invented Ethereum):
Here I learned a lot about the pre-history of bitcoin, which was embodied in BitGold, a precursor in many ways. It was in studying BitGold that I learned that the real innovation in Bitcoin was
Szabo on origins of money:
You can learn a lot about a technology by learning what the key incremental innovation was that made it work. Blockchains are a governance innovation, a *social* innovation.
Here is another good interview with Buterin:
*I put together a ‘working’ insurance company on my home machine running a local Ethereum node and found the whole experience fascinating. If anyone is interested in seeing it I’d be happy to walk you through the thing.
Earlier this year I did a talk at the Casualty Actuaries of Greater New York spring meeting on disrupting insurance and I just posted it to youtube, check it out! The talk was a reprisal of this article I published in a reinsurance journal and updates some ideas.
A few big themes are explored here. First that insurance is more resilient than it might first appear. The talk starts with a geek-out session on disruption theory and how it might apply to insurance generally, concluding that when we talk about insurance disruption we really mean disintermediation. The entire insurance industry is an economic intermediary so to shortcut past them is by definition removing an intermediary!
I consider what it would take to disintermediate a few key institutions of insurance: brokers and regulated insurance entities. It ain’t pretty, which is why these institutions have survived for centuries. The market needs them!
I don’t mean to be a complete pessimist, of course. My heart lies with the barbarians, even if my mind is safely behind the gates. Insurance is tough but not invincible!
|This episode features Terri Vaughan (mp3, youtube), professor of actuarial science at Drake University and CEO of the NAIC during the Great Recession. We can call this the Not Unreasonable 10-year retrospective on the financial crisis. I first came across Terri’s work as an actuarial student and been fascinated ever since by her case for state regulation and citation of the insurers’ performance during the financial crisis as evidence in its favor. Here’s the gist:
And on the feds:
Finally, where is state regulation going?
We also cover the origins of insurance regulation, how and why she joined the NAIC, what it was like in Washington during the financial crisis and more! Terri has been a huge influence on my own thinking about our industry, it was an honor to have her on the show!
I’m not alone. Tyler blogs with Alex Tabarrok at marginalrevolution.com, which is usually ranked as the top economics blog and Tyler as one of the most influential economists of the day. Tyler’s books (see below) are also enormously influential and you name your favorite economic or financial public intellectual and they probably read Tyler every single day.
The interview I’ve wanted to do with Tyler has been the “who is Tyler” conversation. Luckily he just wrote an entire book on what he values and why. That new book, Stubborn Attachments, is the foundation for Tyler’s entire value system. What an opportunity to dig in.
And yet I am so immersed in Tyler’s thinking that it’s hard for me to appreciate that you might not yet see why I think he’s worth understanding (and he is!). So down below I’ll put a quick run-down and reading list of some ideas and books that will help prime you for this conversation.
From my interview, here is the first question:
David Wright: I want to start with what I see as the most marginally important Cowenian contribution. For the sake of the audience, marginal in this case doesn’t mean small, it means that there are a lot of commentators and public intellectuals out there saying for the most part a lot of the same stuff. But given all the very smart people saying very smart things, where does Tyler stand out? What do you *need* to go to him for? My answer is it isn’t even Tyler… it’s Tyrone. I’ll defend this selection in a moment but can you explain to us who Tyrone is… and I don’t mean the name on his driver’s license, but you can tell us that, too. Who is Tyrone REALLY..
On how Tyler might have hatched the most important philosophical innovation in 2000 years. Really, you ask? You be the judge!
David Wright:…we read the ancient philosophers because they.. they’ve.. I’ll use my my word: infected our thinking and it’s the roots of quite a lot of current philosophical thought.. they wouldn’t have had a chance to think about compound growth and and in zero time preference right. So it seems to me this is actually a philosophical innovation the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in millennia. Could that be the case?
Tyler Cowen: Yes, you know.. Agnes [DW: Agnes Callard, CoT guest, see below] has one of the deeper understandings of ancient philosophy because she also has a Ph.D. in ancient history and has studied ancient philosophy and the view of many of the early Greeks was there’s something retrogressive about history or sect like so you advance for a while and then you move backwards. So it’s hard to keep a lot of compound returns was probably correct for them to believe that in their time. But we’re now in a world where at least say Great Britain since you know the 16 twenties or so has mostly had positive compound returns for centuries. And that’s a practical innovation and our theories need to adjust accordingly.
What I think is really going on in this book (and then get one-upped!):
David Wright: So I have a Straussian reading of this book and my Straussian reading is that
Tyler Cowen: I’m happy already by the way.
David Wright: It’s that it’s actually a sequel to Average is Over. And I know it’s not. But I would think of it as a sequel to average is over and I was listening to your podcast with Russ Roberts and in that he made the point or you made it I’m not sure who made it first but you were agreeing about the fact that Average Is Over which I’d like you to summarize if you don’t mind a moment I’ll give it my shot which is it’s about how there’s this.. in society there is going to be a big difference between people who are very good at the kind of development the technology that society is producing and then you have people who are not and you’re going to wind up with you know what Ross calls a bi-modal distribution which as you have you know a whole bunch of haves and a bunch of have nots and sort of hollowing out of the middle of society. And in that conversation you were talking about how really the book was not, as you put it, this is not normative in the sense that you weren’t really venturing an opinion on it saying this is good or bad this is kind of what’s happening. And I think that the Straussian reading of Stubborn Attachments is *that that’s not true*. It actually is a message to the have nots from Average Is Over and saying *just do it for your grandkids*.
Tyler Cowen: I agree with that. But I’ll see your bid and raise you a few…
This interview is so jam-packed with awesome moments including where I worry about the social status of venture capitalists (and Tyler tries to reassure me), who the Einstein of Journalism might be, Straussian readings of Conversations with Tyler, how Tyler consumes podcasts, how we value non-economic social phenomena and of course much, much more on Tyrone.
I needed this show to try to understand who Tyler really is and why and came away pretty satisfied! Big thanks to Tyler for his time and thanks for listening!
Tyler Cowen reading list:
- Stubborn Attachments: the book we’re talking about today. Out October 16th!
- The Great Stagnation: A short book. Key observation: our great grandparents’ lives were revolutionized (television, automobiles, airplanes, microwaves, etc, etc) and our parents’ lives are almost indistinguishable from our kids’. Why?
- Average is Over: the middle class will ‘hollow’ out with an upper middle class of tech-enabled thinkers and a lower middle class of customer service workers. How will this happen?
- The Complacent Class: much of the stagnation of the last generation has come about because we want comfortable, riskless lives.
- Conversations with Tyler: as background for this podcast, I’d suggest his talks with Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Peter Thiel, Agnes Callard, Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Barry
- marginalrevolution.com. Some key posts that give you a feel for Tyler’s writing and thought process:
I haven’t even told you about his daily links, yet. Read marginalrevolution.com!
I’ve been experimenting with transcripts of my podcasts. Here is one below:
David: My guest today is Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, blogger at marginalrevolution.com. Podcast host had conversations with Tyler, and my words cannot convey how strongly I recommend his work. Tyler is the author of numerous books, the latest of which and the subject of today’s show is Stubborn Attachments. This is a philosophical work where Tyler lays out his value system. Here’s a quick quote from his blog, “No punches are pulled. This is my account of what I strongly believe, and you should believe too my bottom lines so to speak.”
Before we start though I want to try and give listeners a little bit of insight into why I’m talking to Tyler because honestly, I’m worried that I’m going to fail him what I’m trying to accomplish today. It might sound weird, but before reading his book I thought of Tyler as an emotional mentor and role model to me. Luckily, I think morality as being built on emotional foundations, so Tyler’s book actually gives us a pretty good framework for exploring what I mean by that. The goal today is to do no less than figure out what Tyler is and why. Big project. So let’s see how we do. Tyler welcome to the show.
[00:03:12] Tyler: Thank you for having me on. Thank you for the kind words.
[00:03:14] David: I want to start with what I see as the most marginally important Cowenian contribution. Now for the sake of the audience, Marginal in this case doesn’t mean small, it means that there are lots of commentators and public intellectuals out there saying for the most part a lot of the same stuff. Given all the very smart people saying very smart things, where does Tyler stand out.
What do you need to go to Tyler for? My answer is that it isn’t even Tyler, is Tyrone. I’ll defend that selection in a minute, but maybe first Tyler if you can explain to us who Tyrone is and I don’t mean by name on his driver’s license but you can tell us that too. Who is Tyrone really?
[00:03:47] Tyler: Tyrone is a guest writer on the Marginal REVOLUTION blog, and he appears periodically and writes very controversial or provocative ideas in a very straight forward no holds barred tone. The reason there is a Tyrone, I thought some while ago well, these thinkers out there you’d like to read variants on them.
Like couldn’t you like to read a pessimistic Steven Pinker, or maybe a right wing Paul Krugman you wouldn’t necessarily agree with these variants, but you’d want to see what would come out of the talent mixed with some different set of views, different approach.
What I did was, I got on a plane and I flew to South Korea. Just as that woman had her dogs cloned in South Korea, I thought I would have myself cloned. I had myself cloned in South Korea and then brought back the clone, but I figured most people wouldn’t believe this. I described Tyrone as you know my brother.
In fact when I was born my father wanted to name me Tyrone, my mother wouldn’t let him, and it became Tyler. He liked Tyrone Power, the movie star. Now, there’s this persona Tyrone who’s a clone of me but you know the cloning process a lot doesn’t carry through. So you get like a variant on Tyler, and it’s a way of having multiple Tyler voices that may be is interesting or provocative, but Tyler himself doesn’t have to bear all the hassles of being Tyrone.
[00:05:06] David: Reason I think Tyrone is important is that it seems to me that you’re able to through that persona embody a couple of different points of view the gap for which we do not see many people cross. There’s a strong kind of almost anti intellectual sort of bent about Tyrone, I’m not sure the right way of putting it. But he has a perspective on the world’s problems that are as wrong as certain kind of way and you’re often quick to point out Tyrone is so wrong about all these things.
Then in a near they go publish it on your blog, under your own name is the author that goes in the publisher line or the writer line. I think of it as embodying a kind of conflict within yourself. If there’s a dialogue that goes on that generates the Tyler Cowen view at the end, but Tyrone’s part of that. Is that a representation of what you are? Is it a version of you or is it something that is just like a spoiler that you like to just sort of play off of or do you believe what Tyrone says in anyway?
[00:06:04] Tyler: Tyrone likes to bang on the table. Tyler doesn’t. If you think, what’s the best way to learn different arguments or points of view or avoid getting trapped? It’s to take points of view you may not agree with and simply write them out. I think it’s the single best thing you can do whether or not you blog. In the course of doing this, sometimes you may decide like, Hey, I actually agree with this, but it will be a diverse set of responses.
Sometimes you move away from it. You write it out, oh my goodness now I see what this implies, that really must be wrong. Engaging with Tyrone I would say it pushes Tyler’s views in all kinds of different directions. It’s not that Tyler really agrees with Tyrone or Tyrone is the opposite of Tyler. You could say Tyrone increases the variance of Tyler in any different directions and keeps him open minded.
[00:06:52] David: I liked that phrasing. Now, I’m going to go a bit deeper on Tyrone still, I’m not done with him yet because–
[00:06:57] Tyler: Nor is he done with you.
[00:06:58] David: I think not. I learned that you’re from Bergen County.
[00:07:02] Tyler: New Jersey, correct. Northern Jersey.
[00:07:04] David: That’s right. During our correspondence and I live right now. I’m from Canada originally, but I live in a town called Ridgewood, New Jersey. There are a few towns over from the town you grew up. What interests me about that particular area where you grew up; it’s a little bit country? It’s a suburban area of New York, but it’s not manicured gardens. It’s a little hilly, there’s little rocky, there is more of that.
Then there is a lower socioeconomic level there than you’d think, being that close in New York City. When you grew up there it must have been very much more like that, I would think for 30 40 years ago. Am I right on not being an important feature of that part of the country, because I know I know Tyrone’s? I grew up in a small town myself. I know people who are really smart, smarter than you think they should be in some way, and who are giving opinions about things that are irritatingly difficult to push back on because they are kind of right.
It’s hard to actually defend call it a more sophisticated view which might be more correct, but in a way it beat them on their own terms, and actually beat them on their own terms. I think it’s a very frustrating intellectual process. My working hypothesis on Tyrone, there might be a real person that you’re modeling Tyrone after. Could there be somebody that you grew up with or met or knew when you were a child or a young adult?
[00:08:25] Tyler: Well, a composite weight. Think of my background this way. I was born into Hudson County which at the time was completely working class. As my father was upwardly mobile, we moved into the wealthier Bergen County, but my town Hillsdale was still part like Irish-American working class, Italian-American working class and Jewish which tended to be more intellectual. I had those diverse influences. Then this is quite working class background. My father hadn’t gone to college. I too grew up with many Tyrone’s or if I hear Donald Trump speak, it sounds very familiar to me. It’s not strange or disorienting. It’s like, I heard that 40, 50 years ago.
[00:09:01] David: When did these guys made it?
[00:09:02] Tyler: Correct. Tyrone is somewhat of a throwback to that time and place. I like to say all thinkers are regional thinkers. Tyrone himself is indeed a regional thinker.
[00:09:13] David: His region is a working class Northern New Jersey.
[00:09:17] Tyler: I would say Tyrone’s region is a bit to the south of Tyler’s region. Tyler’s region is Bergen County intellectual not too far from New York City, New Jersey. Tyrone’s region is much more Hudson County, closer to the heartland Soprano’s territory, Bruce Springsteen land.
[00:09:34] David: I think Tyrone, the way I think that he gets integrated into real view, I think of that as being really I don’t know instructive as a way to diversify your own thought process I guess. There is a lot of thread in a lot of rethinking to the point I made earlier about the word I was using was an emotional mentor. Although this is the first time we’ve met, so you don’t know me or know what kind of person I am. I like your attitude and the openness you have to these different kinds of view, and actually accepting them on their own terms and saying, there’s something here.
This isn’t just you being less educated than me or speaking with different jargon or wrong and wrong is just wrong and I can now dismiss everything that you say. There are good parts there and I think there’s openness. The word you use in your book which will touch on now maybe a little bit as pluralism which I think, is evidence of this phenomenon in your own personality. Maybe you can tell me what you think of that assessment and maybe define what pluralism is, and then how it works in Stubborn Attachments.
[00:10:35] Tyler: Well, first maybe Tyrone needs a sister, but since I plan to keep on writing the blog there’ll be time for that. Pluralism I take to be the view that everything is not just what utilitarianism suggests. Human well-being is very important but other values matter, they are human rights. The arts can have an independent value above and beyond. How much people are willing to pay for them. There’s such a thing as beauty as justice. Our assessment of a good society, it’s a kind of weighted average of many different things. We always need to be viewing a question from multiple perspectives.
[00:11:11] David: Valuing those perspectives even if well, I suppose maybe overvaluing them in some sense because deliberately, so you might not agree with somebody’s view, but you recognize and respect that it has some value even though you yourself don’t assign any value to it.
[00:11:25] Tyler: You ought to weigh it with some probability. So let’s say you mostly think the arts don’t have any value above and beyond what people are willing to pay for them, but it might be true with 5%. Well, in your calculations for a good society, you should put it in with right 5%. So you have to worry about many more things than you might actually think are true. That’s a huge burden. People don’t like it. They like to push that stuff away, keep things neat and easy to deal with. What I call the philosophy of once and formalism. They want to be done with stuff once and for all, but that rarely works. It’s always tempting.
[00:11:58] David: One of the things that another idea I associate with you is actually being pretty okay with the messiness of the world in some ways.
[00:12:05] Tyler: Or celebrating it.
[00:12:06] David: Right, and that’s related. It might surely that’s related or there’s some link there between being able to acknowledge that other people’s perspectives. There is a Tyrone inside of you and there are people who have views that you don’t agree with, but still value with some probability and it’s a mess and that’s okay.
[00:12:21] Tyler: Absolutely.
[00:12:22] David: In the book I think that there is a way that manifests itself is in this idea of I think and I may be drawing this line properly between radical uncertainty. Maybe you can define for us what radical uncertainty is and how that works in your philosophical view or your framework?
[00:12:41] Tyler: Any action you take now to bring about a better state of affairs in the world is subject to extreme uncertainty. It will have many long run ramifications you can’t forecast partly just policy science or policy analysis isn’t imperfect. If its foreign policy are ways of modeling those decisions, they’re really not very good. We don’t have systematic data and easy models to measure. Then there’s the deeper philosophical point that even small changes they will influence which people meet each other, which people marry, the timings of their conceptions, so they remix the future identities of everyone in the world.
The general point is even if you’re doing something that you think unexpected value terms are the best thing to do, the chance you will be pretty wrong is likely fairly high. You may favor what you were doing like 52 to 48 or 53 to 47, but rarely is it like 99 to 1 or 98 to 2. For most reasonable disagreements with none totally evil people, the chance you might be wrong is really pretty high even if your arguments to you seem much better, and you don’t see why the other people don’t get them.
[00:13:51] David: That’s related to pluralism, is it?
[00:13:52] Tyler: Absolutely. That pluralism and this epistemic uncertainty there are really two sides of the same coin.
[00:13:58] David: There is a twin idea in the book and we’re going to kick it into the book, as a book idea.
[00:14:03] Tyler: This is the book.
[00:14:03] David: Yes, that’s twin idea in a book which is about rights. They are actually still absolutes.
[00:14:08] Tyler: That’s right. There are some activities we should not do even if it will bring great gain to civilization. Killing and torturing large numbers of innocent people would be an obvious example. It’s not the main topic my book is about, I simply want to point out there are constraints on the calculus of utilitarianism.
[00:14:27] David: I think of those two ideas, so this idea of call it relativism maybe, you can push back against my use of that word, and rights as being conflict, being an intention always inside of you and inside of other people, or did you always have both or did you have started hasn’t been more of a pluralist and you drifted towards a bit more of, I’m not sure whatever the opposite of pluralist is, over time.
[00:14:51] Tyler: I started more as a rights theorist, but the space of decision making open for utilitarianism has gone up in my mind with age. I would say this. Here’s the surprising thing I learned writing the book. A meaningful notion of rights has to be pretty close to absolute, because if your rights are weak wishy-washy rights, over a long enough period of time the well being from the utilitarian calculus will overwhelm those rights. Rights are either not very important or they’re strong and absolute. I hadn’t really understood that until I tried to write down this book.
[00:15:23] David: Interesting. What part what parts of this book existed in Tyler Cowen age 16?
[00:15:30] Tyler: Probably a lot of it. This is an unusual book. I’ve been working on it for 20 years, but not the whole time. Every year I would take a month or two and just try to improve this book. I thought well my views on these topics will change. This book needs 20 years but it’s too short a book to have just worked on it straight through for 20 years. Some of the 20 years I spent taking out parts of the book. I had a lot in an earlier draft on existential risk which I still agree with, but enough other people published on that topic. I narrowed down this book and it took me a year and a half just to basically do control C and delete.
[00:16:08] David: In terms of the younger Tyler, so you mention that you’re bit more of a rights theorist was that really pre college high school Tyler.
[00:16:18] Tyler: Like 14 year old Tyler.
[00:16:19] David: Was the rights guy?
[00:16:20] Tyler: Was the rights guy. Back then I believed in capital…
[00:16:24] David: Who influenced you in that?
[00:16:24] Tyler: Sorry.
[00:16:24] David: Who influenced you in that to get you to that opinion do you think? Was your dad a rights guy or it was something?
[00:16:29] Tyler: He was not very philosophical. You might say he had an inchoate view similar to our right’s view, but I in the end I read when I was early. I was influenced by that libertarian thinkers people like Milton Friedman who was not himself a rights thinker. You read Friedman; you start thinking in terms of rights even though he claimed to be a utilitarian. The real Milton Friedman in fact was also a rights thinker, our early exposure to a lot of libertarians mostly Rothbard.
[00:16:56] David: What was the most important thing your father told you?
[00:16:59] Tyler: To get up every day and work, and be responsible, and don’t complain, and don’t feel the world owes you a living.
[00:17:06] David: Do you think about that?
[00:17:08] Tyler: All the time of course
[00:17:09] David: As part of his teaching you think about your dad, and you think about doing that every day.
[00:17:14] Tyler: I don’t know, every day but very often some days more than once. He didn’t pay for my college, I should add. That was very good for me. When I was an undergraduate, I started my own business like writing and editing and doing things. I supported myself. Maybe now that sounds outrageous to people like an upper middle class father wouldn’t pay for his kid going through college. It’s one of the best things anyone ever did for me. I’m very grateful that’s how it was.
[00:17:38] David: How about your mom, what did she teach you?
[00:17:40] Tyler: Kindness, compassion, openness and tolerance. My father was more dogmatic, my mother was very open. She loved to read about Eastern religion. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was one of her favorite books. A kind of–
[00:17:55] David: Pluralist.
[00:17:56] Tyler: -pluralist, absolutely.
[00:17:57] David: Right, versus pluralism in the county household.
[00:17:59] Tyler: Correct.
[00:18:00] David: How true is that as a characterization of your upbringing? Are you actually just the synthesis of your parents force of use implicit or they might be?
[00:18:11] Tyler: Probably. Sure.
[00:18:13] David: Here’s another thought that I actually asked this people in job interviews. You’ll be interviewing for a job now Tyler. How does the relative strength of your intellectual capability, your personality change over time? You’re in high school and you’re probably pretty good high school student I would imagine, so but you had a relative strength say against your peer group and then in college that changed.
Now everybody is smart now. Now I’m going to adapt a little bit and there’s a feedback mechanism, you’re right. Then maybe as a graduate student, maybe as a professor and over time it involves what your marginal contribution is. How would that have changed over your life?
[00:18:49] Tyler: In relative terms, I’ve become much worse at math relative to my peer groups with age.
[00:18:54] David: Having you started out pretty good probably?
[00:18:56] Tyler: Right, in a much better at the humanities and doing and integrating theory and practice and judging talent. I’ve worked hard at trying to better myself in those areas. I’ve gained a lot in those areas. In terms of how rapidly I can multiply two numbers in my head, both have gotten worse at it absolutely. I keep on meeting people who are way better at it than I am. Not to mention topology and differential equations
[00:19:21] David: Is there a lesson there in kind of a value statements embedded in that because you could have chosen to work more at math, but you’ve chosen instead to work more at these other things. Does that mean they’re more valuable, those skills?
[00:19:32] Tyler: You always need to change what you’re doing as you age, because your peers are changing what you’re good at. Change isn’t what the world demands changes. If you’re just doing the same thing you get into a right. You either tend to burn out or you become bored. Waking up every day and asking myself what should I be doing next? How is it different? It’s something I’ve tried to live know from the beginning pretty much.
[00:19:54] David: Here’s another thread to a lot of your writing and thinking and I share this with you where a there’s an appreciation of respect for religion and them same of what you read a quote a lot of what you write.
[00:20:04] Tyler: I’m not religious myself.
[00:20:06] David: Likewise, and yet, but man it does a lot of good for the world for the most part, right?
[00:20:10] Tyler: Correct. Even if some of it harms the world, we should seek at the margin to move toward having more constructive religion and less destructive religion. It’s one of the main forces that move people. A lot of secular intellectuals, they might pay lip service to this but it’s not internalized as part of their worldview.
[00:20:31] David: I think of religion for those who choose to be critical of it, they see it as a set of constraints against people. They say there’s a rule, you can’t do this, you can’t do that and people find that confining. I think for outsiders find that confining. I think the experience of people within religion is some really think it is, is that its restraint not constraint.
Restraint is more about I’m choosing to not do these things because I think it’s good for me. Whether I totally understand why it’s good for me or not, restraint is actually almost a liberating feeling as opposed to constraint which is a confining feeling. What do you think about that distinction?
[00:20:59] Tyler: It’s true when religion can tie people together and give them opportunities the secular don’t necessarily have. They feel related. They would call it God, but whether or not you think it’s God to some notion of creation the universe in a way that may well be harder for secular people.
[00:21:15] David: You don’t drink, right?
[00:21:19] Tyler: Not at all. That’s right.
[00:21:20] David: That’s a restraint that you’re choosing to adopt in your life. What’s interesting, so I had this experience when I was in high school, I sat through class and these women came from alcoholics anonymous? They said to me, they said to the class anyway, they referred to themselves in the present tense as alcoholics. They hadn’t a drink in whatever 20 or 30 or whatever number of years, but it was a personality characteristic whereby they had to impose upon themselves this extraordinary restraint.
They needed to because they had this problem of addiction. There’s an interesting kind of point there about I think once you let something in, it can take over. Then you have to be more extreme in your removal of it after the fact. I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt you’ve been addicted to something before where you need to have extraordinary restraint. It could be work; it can be all kinds of things. Whether there need to be something necessarily destructive, actually?
[00:22:15] Tyler: I think I’m addicted to work, but I’ve never accepted the restraint on that. I’ve been drunk twice. I used to drink red wine reasonably often a few times a year. I enjoyed it. I still think it’s a very fine pleasure. At some point I just stopped realized I don’t miss it. I work enough if I have like a meal out with people, I actually go back and odds are I want to do some work.
If I’ve had some alcohol, I can’t do that. I think it’s a positive for other people just to say you can live a life without alcohol. There was a study on my blog Marginal Revolution this morning, an estimate that one out of 20 deaths in the world result from alcohol. It may be a mismeasurement but that it’s even plausibly the right number.
To me it’s stunning, and it’s hardly ever discussed the early 20th century notion that prohibition was like a major social issue has fallen off the table. I think we should think about it much more. I don’t want to throw people in jail for drinking but people I think should voluntarily abstain and become social examples that it’s possible not to drink at all.
[00:23:17] David: In language you’d use raised the status of none drinking.
[00:23:20] Tyler: Correct. Mormons have done this as well. It’s another way in which religion can be a big positive.
[00:23:26] David: I’ll want to turn now back to the book and talk about another I call them I think it’s in a pair of ideas which I think are really related. I actually think of the first set of ideas there is sort of them, I don’t know the moral core of Tyler. These are the urges maybe you have and you’re acting to a bit more emotionally perhaps.
The next set of ideas I think of as actually being much more intellectual ideas and your studios are time preference and economic growth. Maybe you can talk about some interesting thoughts. The first time I’ve ever seen something like this on time preference. Can you define what that is and then explain your view on it in a book.
[00:24:00] Tyler: Time preference is the preference that many people have to think what is coming up soon is significantly more important than what’s going to happen later. From the social point of view, I argue that time preference is not rational, that we should care just as much about the distant future.
We should discount if we’re not sure something will happen, but we shouldn’t discount it simply because it’s more distant in time. Imagine that if in the days of antiquity Cleopatra had taken an extra heaping of dessert and said, well, this may lead to 5,000 people dying a horrible death in the year 2000, but that’s more important.
When the year 2000 comes, it’s just as real as the time of Cleopatra for the people in it. There’s not some kind of waiting in the meantime that anyone has done. Morally we usually at the social level should think of time as an illusion and worry more about the future. That has an interesting implication that it turns out the best social policy will be the one that maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth because that will make the future much better.
[00:25:07] David: What I think is especially powerful about these ideas, powerful might not be the right word here, but they are countering instinctive, let’s call it. Particularly the idea of zero discount rate that values an outcome in the future the same as you value it today. That is not something that humans naturally do. We prefer the bird in hand as opposed to two in the bush. That’s not an exact metaphor of mapping what you’re talking about.
[00:25:34] Tyler: Put off going to the dentist.
[00:25:35] David: Right. I’d rather have something today that’s more real and you deal with some of those arguments. It’s not something that instinctively somebody would just come up with probably.
[00:25:43] Tyler: You’re an actuary, so the notion of taking advantage of the power of compound returns must be quite familiar to you.
[00:25:49] David: Of course
[00:25:50] Tyler: What I’m saying is society should in essence be organized around this principle. It’s the strongest principle we have. People in finance, insurance, people who are actuaries understand this. They live and work it every day, but it’s not really a part of political philosophy. If you read the great political philosophers, it is mostly absent from their thought. What I’m trying to do is bring the idea of compound returns into philosophy. I might add also into education that the way to train yourself to be smarter is to be along learning curves that have compound returns and not just one off learning.
[00:26:23] David: Again, I think the idea of compounding is something we struggle with intuitively. Something you have to learn.
[00:26:29] Tyler: That’s right.
[00:26:30] David: You have to deliberately learn. Observe in the data in order to convince yourself that it’s true, and probably.
[00:26:34] Tyler: People will borrow money at crazy rates of interest. They think of it as a onetime fee, but when you compound that return year after year after year, it’s a terrible bargain for them, and just teaching people to think that way does not come easily.
[00:26:48] David: What I was wondering about as I was reading this, and I’m harkening back to a conversation you had with Agnes Callard where you talked about philosophy and reading the ancient texts. There’s a point she made I think it might have been an article that you referenced not necessarily the conversation itself, but this idea was there which is that we read the ancient philosophers because they’ve—
I’ll use my word, infected our thinking and it’s the roots of quite a lot of philosophical thought. They wouldn’t have had a chance to think about compound growth and zero time preference right. It seems to me this is actually a philosophical innovation, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in millennia. Could that be the case? Big words.
[00:27:26] Tyler: Yes, Agnes has one of the deeper understandings of ancient philosophy because she also has a Ph.D. in ancient history and has studied ancient philosophy. The view of many of the early Greeks was there’s something retrogressive about history or sect like. You advance for a while and then you move backwards.
It’s hard to rip a lot of compound returns, was probably correct for them to believe that in their time. We’re now in a world where at least say Great Britain since the 1620s or so has mostly had positive compound returns for centuries. That’s a practical innovation and our theories need to adjust accordingly.
[00:28:04] David: Is this the beginning of that adjustment? Have people talked about this before or has this been unconsumed by the philosophical community for the most part?
[00:28:14] Tyler: If you look at the classical economists Smith Ricardo, John Stuart Mill they were at least toying with the idea of compound returns, they’re still living in an age of relatively slow growth. It’s not until fossil fuels that industrialization truly picks up. As far as I know those are the first glimmerings of it.
Before the industrial revolution, the cyclical model you do well for a time but someone conquers you or there’s an environmental problem and then things fall into decay. That was the rational and common view for much of human history
[00:28:46] David: There’s another problem that’s actually framing things in terms of economic growth being the ultimate goal. I know you actually define it not just as… Can we talk this for a minute? It’s not just economic growth, GDP growth, it’s wealth plus. Maybe talked about what wealth plus is.
[00:29:02] Tyler: While I talk about the notion of maximizing the rate of sustainable economic growth, but I don’t think we can quite just use current GDP numbers. They’re missing some important features. There is generally an overall decent guide, actually somewhat underrated, but they don’t count leisure time, they don’t in every way count the quality of the environment. We need to tweak them a bit if we’re going to use GDP numbers as our guide. I don’t think it’s very hard to do, but I call it wealth plus instead of just taking GDP as measured for granted
[00:29:30] David: What’s an example of something that’s in wealth plus but not in GDP.
[00:29:33] Tyler: For instance if we are releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere, and maybe 30 years from now this will have a terrible consequences, but we don’t see it quite now. We need to worry about that or a country that is growing at a higher numerical rate, but everyone is unhappy because all people do is work, you need to count that leisure time.
[00:29:53] David: The problem that this idea solves, it’s also a really nasty one. Maybe a few interlinked problems are something that you call the aggregation problem which is so let’s say the alternative to call it a numerical aggregation. In numerical this is a case of economic growth something you can measure. Now, there’s actually a value we’re assigning to things because they have a number and you add those numbers up and you get the total amount of economic growth which occurs.
The alternative to that is if you were to say talk about goals and it’s hard now to say, my objective is to maximize peace, maximize happiness, where you need to define these things for one. Then you have to determine tradeoffs between them for another. How do you add them all up together, an aggregation problem is almost insoluble in that kind of philosophical world.
[00:30:35] Tyler: My answer to the question like when can we say one choice is better than another, it’s when the better choice gets you compound returns and the other doesn’t. That’s the one judgment you can make. If the time horizon is long enough the compound returns will pay off for you.
[00:30:51] David: Maybe it’s worth talking a bit about what I think might be some downsides to that. I was struck again by your interview with Elizabeth Gelfand. You were talking about tight and loose cultures.
[00:31:05] Tyler: Michelle Gelfand.
[00:31:06] David: Michelle Gelfand, sorry. When you’re talking about that, you asked her whether there was a relationship between tight and loose cultures. Maybe we can define that for a second, if you are right with that. That it wasn’t necessarily related to economic growth. Tight cultures don’t tend to do better or worse in terms of wealth or economic growth. That seemed to be disappointing to you in a certain way. Am I right on that?
[00:31:28] Tyler: A tight culture she defines as one where the norms are fairly strong and people are fairly constrained. A loose culture is one where there’s more of choice and tolerance and openness, but also maybe people will be free to make too many mistakes. She argues in her work, there’s no correlation with wealth. I’m not sure I agree with that judgment. It seems to me there are some cultures more conducive to producing wealth than others. Maybe they cannot be well described along the axes of tightness and looseness.
If you look at the well-off countries in the world today they do have common features. The places say from East Asia that has become wealthy Singapore, Japan, South Korea have done so by importing or copying at least some particular practices from outside. I think there are common norms behind prosperity.
[00:32:18] David: Let’s just take the counterfactual then and say that there wasn’t. How would you fit what it seems to be an important distinction between human experiences in different countries that doesn’t map on economic growth? Does not just fall into the pot of the uncertainties saying that these are the sort of things are boiling away in the world they don’t actually matter, actually in the end.
How do you fit the discussion of tight loose cultures into your value system as it’s? How would you in this book or something else that didn’t necessarily affect economic growth, but it feels like it should matter but it’s not a right. It’s also not effecting growth. Is there another category or are these things actually that don’t matter?
[00:33:00] Tyler: Partly I interviewed Michelle Gelfand because she has this other axis of culture tight versus loose cultures that I hadn’t thought about enough and I thought well I’ll learn something by talking to her. What I see is a critical norm for instance is that what age do women have children and that if that’s pushed off somewhat in time you have a much better society. It seems to me that’s close to universal. You look at a country like Niger, where really a very high percentage of women have children before 18, and the human capital transmitted from the mother to the children is low.
That tends to lead to bad political outcomes, much lower standard of living. It’s not on the loose versus tight axis necessarily. It gets back to the why do the cultural axes that explain the world best. One of them is that.
[00:33:49] David: It seems to me that– I did interview with Robin Hanson on his podcast and one of the questions I asked him was what he thought was going on by– he has this distinction between farmers and foragers. This is better than me. They’re more organized society farmers, organize is the right way of putting it, but you have stronger norms, you have tight cultures. Then I think that’s the right way of mapping that. Then you have foragers societies which are much looser, I guess.
He describes it I feel like it made sense to me of this progression of our own societies, call it North American society, have going from tight to loosening over time. I asked him what he thought was going on there and he’s ever just get richer. Whereas we’re getting richer, whereas behaving more like rich people have always behaved. It’s more of a transition as opposed to a progression. Am I getting that right? What do you think about that?
[00:34:38] Tyler: That’s a good description of what Robin thinks. I’m not convinced by. Everyone has their own set of cultural distinctions or the cultural axis that matters. In my view we don’t really know it foragers societies where like. There’s a few of them left in the world today, but we’re watching highly corrupted versions of them, that are that also have had a lot of contact with agriculture and a small sample. Even then they seem to be highly diverse. Pigmies tribes found in the Amazon tribes found in the Philippines.
From what little I know about them they don’t seem to be all the same thing, the notion that values necessarily get looser as we become richer. It’s mostly been true since World War II. I’m not convinced it’s a general pattern it’s like people who think well liberalism is inevitable. Tolerance is inevitable. We’re all going to be secular.
I would just say those are hypotheses. They’ve appeared mostly true for about 40 or 50 years. If you just think we’re going to play out the clock and keep on waltzing along that line, you’re probably in for some huge surprises. Just we’ve seen like Brexit trump happen, to me suggests the standard view of; you’re sliding along these curves of ever greater liberalization is probably not right.
[00:35:46] David: The cyclical?
[00:35:47] Tyler: I would say we don’t know. Cyclical means well on average you tend to move in the opposite direction. That may just be a random walk. It may depend on say technologies which are not cyclical, but not just always moving in the same direction. The foragers, I don’t know what hunter gatherer societies really were like or are like now.
[00:36:07] David: What would your story be for their cultural, let’s not call it progression but transition over the last 50 years. You have things that appear to be called liberal changes of our society, think about gay marriage, and think about various other kind of social constraints which existed 100 years ago which don’t look so much now. What is going on or was going on, maybe?
[00:36:27] Tyler: Maybe there are two stages to the pattern. The first would be earlier in the 20th century where people go from living on farms and not graduating high school to basically car in every garage, chicken in every pot, that’s bringing us up maybe through the 1960s. You go from pretty poor to actually pretty well off. Then after that there’s still economic growth. A lot of life looks the same. Like this table we’re the bottle of water, it’s not that different from the 1960s other than the Smartphone.
Then there are stories like greater tolerance. Most of all elevation of women are social changes, changes in health. Retirement is much more pleasant. People are less likely to beat their children. In the last 40 years those seem to be maybe more important than just piling more prosperity on top of the heap. What’s coming next? We don’t know how I feel we’re at another break point. It’s making many people uncomfortable, they’re flipping out.
[00:37:23] David: Are those in wealth plus, those things?
[00:37:24] Tyler: Yes, those are in wealth plus. A greater tolerance if you’re born gay today, your prospects are really much better than would have been the case in the 1970s, in the United States at least.
[00:37:35] David: Does that result this the idea of being born gay being better off and wealthier societies, does that hold statistically across the world?
[00:37:43] Tyler: Certainly for the Western world it seems to me there might be some African countries where that’s not the case.
[00:37:49] David: The richer they get the better it gets for the gay population.
[00:37:53] Tyler: I would say I’m uncertain, but it could be wealth is also greater surveillance in some ways. If you have anti gay norms in a society, you can have periods maybe also in Jamaica, where greater wealth is going with inferior treatment of minorities, people who are gay, people who are different in other ways. It’s not always all pointing in the positive direction.
[00:38:13] David: Again back to my original thinking here is these are things which in the strict reading of your value framework matter then in the sense that they are related to economic growth, and they are a part of wealth plus.
[00:38:24] Tyler: Absolutely. If today you’re born and you end up being gay, you will be probably more productive. There’ll be less discrimination against you. You’ll get a better job; you may have a better chance of founding a company. That counts than regular GDP, but you’re probably happier, you have a greater chance of finding a partner or building the kind of life you want to have. Not all of that’s in GDP but it’s very important.
[00:38:48] David: Another thought that I was having, this is more in your wheelhouse of the world of public intellectuals. Here’s the question, should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.
[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.
[00:39:14] David: They do.
[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.
[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?
[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.
[00:39:20] David: Better at?
[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.
[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–
[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.
[00:39:43] David: Do you?
[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.
[00:39:53] David: Would there be an analogue? Is it like a Rockefeller kind of thing or is there a higher level of status associate of you get they’re achieving, that is achievable for them. Something like, I think between let’s say a Rockefeller and Albert Einstein. Similar levels of achievement. Einstein’s way more revered and more famous, I think. What in the future would today’s Einstein actually pale in comparison to Peter Thiel let’s say or Marc Andreessen or one of these guys.
[00:40:17] Tyler: I don’t know that we have an Einstein today. There’s plenty of science but particular contributions are more doled out into parts. There’s more division of labor. Maybe Craig Venter or someone would be something like that but you don’t even hear his name as much anymore.
[00:40:30] David: You don’t.
00:40:30] Tyler: Which is odd. Someone like Mark Zuckerberg Peter Thiel in relative terms I think a lot of us are underestimating how much fame they will keep. They will be like symbols of an era, people behind Google.
[00:40:44] David: They will build a point to something because I feel like you need it. You need a trinket. I think you need some cool in the water if that is.
[00:40:49] Tyler: Because the internet is that trinket and the internet may be replaced by something better, but it will still be seen as an extension of the Internet. These will be like the Einstein’s of the internet.
[00:40:57] David: It’s not too diffuse because I worry about their status. I worry about the future status, future perception of the current status of a Peter Thiel because I feel like he had a great return on equity or whatever the percentage that some assessment of the economic contribution that he made, but those seemed to be such dry statistics. That is not inspirational to people. I worry about that. Do you think I’m right on that or?
[00:41:19] Tyler: I think there will be 10 to 15 people seen as essential behind the development of the internet. Peter Thiel and other venture capitalists and CEOs will be on that list. There’s still time for others to displace them, but they were in there at the early stages and people in the early stages they who wrote the first novels or the first symphonies, they tend to keep those positions I think.
[00:41:41] David: I think I distinguished, so let’s call it the Venn diagram of intellectual life you have academics obviously explicitly dedicated to that. You have venture capitalists. The circle covers academics but also covers some of this business; you may call more prosaic kind of business thinking how to manage people, which are important skills. I spend a lot of my day job thinking about those problems and there are problems underappreciated problem. There’s another part of that Venn diagram which doesn’t really overlap as much as with venture capitalists, and that’s journalists. Things surprise me a lot of what journalists actually how damn smart they are.
[00:42:13] Tyler: Of course.
[00:42:14] David: Remarkably so. They are also I think of as another world academics in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of overlap to what academics do and what journalists do. It seems to me that venture capitalists are just eclipsing them as couch potato or sorry like armchair academics and are not adding maybe as much value. What I’m wondering about is in your philosophical framework, do you think that journalists are overvalued because are not necessarily contributing to economic growth.
[00:42:40] Tyler: I think journalists contribute a great deal to making politics better by enforcing accountability. I can’t think of individual journalists today who I think will remain famous for long periods of time. There are simply very many good ones. It’s journalism that’s adding value. If you said Well who’s the Einstein of journalism or even like the Peter Thiel, Mark Andreessen of journalism. Mark Zuckerberg of journalism whatever you might think that to mean, it’s much harder to come up with the names. You would just say well, the whole ecosystem.
Whatever happens with the Trump administration I don’t have a prediction at the moment. It seems under all scenarios journalism will have played a major role in the final outcome there and that’s significant.
[00:43:23] David: It may be tying it together with the book, you mention it was interesting actually you said, one of the ways in which you recommended we synthesize it, is actually that we should have undervalued East Asia. Can you explain what that means? That’s an interesting comment.
[00:43:41] Tyler: Well, I’m not sure that East Asians undervalue East Asia.
[00:43:44] David: Fair enough.
[00:43:45] Tyler: Americans were certainly all familiar with the fact that a number of those countries have grown at a rapid pace. To me there of special moral importance that’s like the one case in world history where countries did everything possible to grow at its rapid pace as possible, and basically succeeded. We should revere those experiences as a kind of central principle, a world historical principle that East Asia got right so far and nowhere else has.
[00:44:15] David: Do you know why? Why would they have gotten that right because I think if they had come a longer history of these ages is being a little bit more depressing and cyclical?
[00:44:22] Tyler: Of course.
[00:44:22] David: Things like China, they’re closing off in Japan and those countries actually being to reference another book of yours, “incredibly complacent.”
[00:44:29] Tyler: At least recently, relatively recently they’ve grown at rates approaching 10%. For the most part they have stayed quite stable or even become more stable. Of course growth rates fall at some point. They had wise leadership, often good policy, in many but not all cases well-educated population. If you look at Chinese education or even Chinese IQ, while China was still poor, IQ and education were pretty decent in a way that was not true for Western Europe in the year 1500 or 1600. They had that Headstart. They understood how to build on it.
Singapore were probably has had the smartest economic policy maybe of any country ever. Those are impressive achievements. I’m glad there’s this movie out now, Crazy Rich Asians, there are objectionable features to the movie don’t get me wrong. The mere fact there’s something on the screen Americans can look at the screen see Singapore and say Oh my goodness these people live in a much nicer place than we do, ought to be like a slap in the face and a wakeup call. I’m delighted that it’s out there for all of team perfections.
[00:45:35] David: The word you actually used when you described that was the Straussian reading of the book. Listen, I’ve been reading your blog Tyler for 10 years, and it was only a couple of years ago I figured out what Straussian means, should you just define that for us quickly, and we’ll talk about that again for a second.
[00:45:48] Tyler: Well, I often use the phrase Straussian reading or I refer to Strauss. The single question emailed to me the most often is what does this mean? I think the point is there’s not quite a single meaning and if you Google what is Straussian
[00:46:02] David: I tried that a few times.
[00:46:03] Tyler: It doesn’t necessarily help that much. Leo Strauss himself was a deliberately obscure writer. I think of Straussian and thought as a method, not a single conclusion. That’s why it’s hard to define. You try to read things that ever deeper levels and pullout ever richer layers of meaning, and that’s the Straussian and method. It’s useful for making you smarter and see different perspectives. It is the like much more specific view the belief that older writers wrote in a form of code. They didn’t always say upfront what they thought. I agree with that. When I say Straussian I mean the broader approach to Straussian and as–
[00:46:39] David: As a close reading, deep reading. There’s a hidden messages maybe it’s deliberate, maybe it’s not.
[00:46:44] Tyler: Always probing more and more. Then you meet actual Straussians, ask them what Strauss means, you get all these different answers, but like the thing they embody is this passionate commitment to always trying to read think at a deeper level. That to me is very impressive.
[00:46:58] David: I have a Straussian reading of this book and this Strauss in reading is that actually—
[00:47:02] Tyler: I’m happy already by the way.
[00:47:04] David: It’s actually a sequel to average is over. I know it’s not. This is how I think of it, is actually averages over. We’re listening to your podcast with Russ Roberts. In that he made the point and first but you were agreeing about the fact that averages over which I’d like you to summarize that if you don’t mind in a moment.
I’ll give it my shot which is about how there’s this in society there is going to be a big difference between people who are very good at the development, the technology that society is producing. Then you have people who are not and you’re going to wind up with what Ross calls a bi-modal distribution which as you have a whole bunch of haves and a bunch of have-nots and sort of hollowing out of the middle of society.
In that conversation you were talking about how really the book was, as you put it there are, not normative in the sense that you were make really bettering opinion on it. You weren’t saying whether this is good or bad, this is what’s happening. I think that the Straussian in reading of Stubborn Attachments is that that’s not true. It actually, this is a message to the have-nots, a room averages over and saying, just do it for your grandkids.
[00:48:06] Tyler: I agree with that, but see your bid and raise your feel. I think there is a consistent Strauss in reading of all my books starting in 1997 with In Praise of Commercial Culture. In Praise of Commercial Culture what price fame my early books on culture. They’re mostly positive and optimistic about commercialism, but they see some ways in which it’s alienating and they raise the question of whether commercialization, capitalism creates sufficient mythology or religion to be self-sustaining.
The optimistic books are in fact a bit pessimistic. One thing Stubborn Attachment is trying to do is fill in the boxes of what that mythology has to look like. There’s extreme valuation of the future attachment to compounding returns, sustainable economic growth. I also understand that’s not enough to inspire most people. You need a lower level more religious version of that idea. Stubborn Attachments read between the lines indicates that I think suggests that rather strongly.
I think I don’t know like 15 books or so however many I’ve written, they more or less all tied together with this consistent message. Each one has a kind of flipped Straussian in reading the optimistic books are a bit more pessimistic than they look. The pessimistic books are more optimistic than they look. It’s all part of this big long story, but I’m not allowed to say that anywhere else only on your podcast. I’ll never say it again.
[00:49:32] David: Boy, you very much. I’m always switching to some more general topics I guess. One of the things that you’ve done for me actually is and this is probably not as early Strauss in reading of your own advice which is to lower the status of books, so you read a lot of books?
[00:49:47] Tyler: I read a lot of books.
[00:49:48] David: You throw books away?
[00:49:50] Tyler: Correct, it’s become a problem for me. I get so many review copies not a complaint. By the way if you’re a publisher listening, but simply carrying them away from the house is become a logistics issue.
[00:50:01] David: They’re heavy.
[00:50:01] Tyler: I give a lot of them away. I don’t throw them all the way by any means. The good ones I give away. I’m very careful to give it to the right person. Some of them I feel well if I give this to a person they might read it and they should be reading Moby Dick instead. Unless I think it’s the very best book for someone in particular to read I won’t give it away.
[00:50:18] David: You don’t finish books, most your books.
[00:50:20] Tyler: Correct. I just read parts of them.
[00:50:22] David: As much as you feel like you want to.
[00:50:25] Tyler: A lot of books I reread, my favorite books the most important books I try to read three four times in the course of my life.
[00:50:30] David: You’ve mentioned many times that you reread Shakespeare frequently. It’s something that I’ve struggled with because I can’t get through the language. Any advice for me?
[00:50:42] Tyler: It’s very hard. I find for instance if I see a Shakespeare play on the stage, I literally cannot understand what they’re saying. If I read a Folger edition with notes and follow the notes, I can do fine. I’m a slow reader of Shakespeare. To get the right edition for you, Folger is one place to start. Without the notes, it’s maybe not going to work. I worry that 50, 100 years from now, no one will be able to really read Shakespeare. The sense that hardly anyone can read the real Chaucer today.
[00:51:12] David: What do you get from it then, if you can’t really read it? Could you still get something from it? What do you get from it?
[00:51:19] Tyler: I can read Elizabethan in English well enough with notes. I think Shakespeare is the deepest most profound observer of human nature and the diverse condition of humanity, the nature of political power, the differences between the sexes, tragedy, comedy everything is in there in a way that’s not the case for any other thinker humanity has produced. Maybe only two thirds of them require study. Some of them are not necessarily that good. Merry Wives of Windsor, you should you read it once. Probably should you study? Probably not.
Something like the Henriad or King Lear or Hamlet or Measure for Measure, Midsummer Night’s Dream, my goodness you could like read these every year for the rest of your life and always discover more.
[00:52:03] David: Is Tyrone kind of Shakespearean? What does he emphasize intellectually relative to you? Is it more about the kind of the darker side of human condition; is that an appropriate reading of Tyrone?
[00:52:15] Tyler: Think of Tyrone as one of the Shakespearean, “Fools or buffoons,” who Very often speaks the truth and says things other people won’t say or can say are afraid to say. He’s a particular kind of Shakespearean character.
[00:52:28] David: I think sometimes of when I see somebody making a mistake or doing something that’s wrong or appears to be wrong or probably is wrong, I often get it. I know why you did that. I feel like that because I’ve experienced similar urges in my life which are the wrong thing. You don’t always do it sometimes you do have made mistakes, of course. I feel like that I’ve an appreciation maybe an over appreciation for that and a little bit too much sympathy to people who make mistakes because I just kind of get it, and I understand how you could easily do that.
I for some reason get the feeling that people when they have those feelings, they forget about them for some reason. They load up with negativity or opprobrium on people that make mistakes. Don’t seem to me to understand feeling in the right kind of way. Tyrone seems to me to be an indication that you do understand feelings in people, is that you feel them yourself? Do you do you introspect about that and do you like I get why somebody made those mistakes?
[00:53:26] Tyler: I Sure. I have a phrase I call it devalue and dismiss. You can always look at what other people are doing find the mistakes and play a strategy of devalue and dismiss, this person said that or they had this outrageous moral view, they forecast that incorrectly. You still want to learn from them. It’s often the people who offend you the most at least at the margin; you can learn the most from. I’m not even saying they’re the wisest but they’re probably the people in the past you’ve learned last from, because they offend you. Try to learn more from those people.
[00:53:58] David: I want to switch your podcast a little bit. I was Straussian reading of your podcasts. I love your podcast.
[00:54:03] Tyler: Thank you.
[00:54:04] David: What’s interesting to me is the variety of guests. Podcasts tend to be tend to be variety shows. I think that your style is really interesting because you have obviously a broad range of interests. In some ways I find that that description of you to be a little silly because I feel like everybody has broad reaches of interest, you’re just more public about them. The more the people are maybe, you’re putting yourself out there a bit more.
You’ve interviewed Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Martina Navratilova, Dave Barry and what amazes me about some of those interviews in particular Dave Barry one it struck me. As you’re coming to it actually as an economist, and so the jargon you are using and the kind of questions you’re asking, to me the Strauss you’re reading of your podcast, incorrect Strauss reading in my mind is saying to I guess the world isn’t it cool how economists are, and how we can actually ask people these questions. I’m a variety show, one man variety show, and that’s neat and academic.
Raising the status of academics, but actually in the real Strauss you’re reading is the message the audience for conversations with Tyler is academics and saying here’s the things you should be interested in. I’m interpreting the rest of the world in a language that you can understand, and I don’t care if you don’t know what Straussian means.
You don’t use that word and you’re being more kind on that of course. You’re not actually sacrificing what I see it as your intellectual style, as a certain region you’re from. You’re interpreting the world explicitly as an academic economist and showing everybody that it can be done.
[00:55:31] Tyler: Well, I think both of those are true. You called one the real Straussian in reading-
[00:55:34] David: Or my own.
[00:55:35] Tyler: -that makes me a little nervous about possible Straussian readings. Then the other Straussian reading is I want to do these interviews so I can focus my own reading. I learned more when I read if I’m preparing for someone or something. I’m not in any way paid to do it. The notion that it improves the quality of my reading as what it’s really about in a selfish way. That’s yet another quite significant; you could call it Straussian in reading. I don’t know if it’s even that but it’s a big motive for me.
[00:56:05] David: Do you listen to podcasts?
[00:56:06] Tyler: No not at all.
[00:56:07] David: Really, interesting.
[00:56:09] Tyler: I find them to slow, often boring. I don’t like how most people do interviews. There are too many questions. Could you tell us what your book says? Then you get some kind of drone like answer, where I could read it like 13 x speed. Even you do one point 5 x on podcast why should I listen. I will listen if I’m about to interview a person as a prep but I never feel it’s like what I want to be doing. What I want to be doing is reading.
[00:56:33] David: I listen to a lot of podcasts reason I’ve started this podcast. I get a couple of things out of it. One, I can do it on podcast time which is when I’m doing something else; I actually tend to listen to a podcast. Cleaning the dishes or walking the dog whatever I’m doing, commuting. A little less than I’m commuting because I feel like I have too much attention energy when I’m commuting, I’d rather be reading or writing or doing something else. I think podcasting is maybe the one the most significant educational innovations since the printing press, because I think that.
[00:57:03] Tyler: I agree.
[00:57:03] David: This one particular way because I think that what’s great about conversations is that there’s misunderstanding in a conversation. You can get worked out in real time. I think writing is a little bit too perfect and in the sense that you can actually express an idea very efficiently and a written word but it isn’t understood efficiently because you read it over and over again sometimes only a complex idea. Necessarily you don’t have an audience to kind of react to what you’re saying. I think in podcasting in conversations you have this interactive element to it.
In listening I think that Russ Roberts’s podcast is one of the things that taught me maybe more than anything else I’ve ever encountered in my life because it’s two experts talking about something for the most part. They skipped through all the intro crap because that’s boring for the most part to them into me.
They go right to the hard issues. Through the hard issues you can actually get enough feel for what the underlying principles are leading to enough of them. Hearing experts converse about a topic I think is really I think the best thing I want to do with my spare time. I want on particular to learn about a new topic.
[00:58:03] Tyler: I like reading transcripts of podcasts.
[00:58:05] David: That is interesting.
[00:58:06] Tyler: Here’s the thing in my life. I write every day. In my downtime things like driving, commute, I listen to music first of all I love, but I feel I need to keep my mind open for what I’m writing on. The podcast fills me up too much. I don’t want to hear it in the car. I don’t want to be trying to learn Spanish in the car or whatever else I might do. I want that to be a free open time and music does that for me. Then I get more in.
[00:58:32] David: I find that sometimes I can have some of my most interesting thoughts or when I’m listening to a podcast and my mind wanders a little bit into some other topic that it’s almost a subconscious wonder. I actually stop the podcast and I’ll just sort of think that thought for a little while and I might write something down.
Once that being a kind of catalyst for other thoughts which are like– There’s one podcast episode which is I think my favorite podcast episode. I’m wondering if you’ve heard of it. It is Ezra Klein and Sam Harris debate, have you heard of that?
[00:58:56] Tyler: I’ve heard plenty of it. I’ve heard many people email me and ask me what I think of it. I haven’t ever heard it. I’ve heard it was a kind of train-wreck though no one can quite agree like who is at fault or what went wrong. I certainly know what you’re talking about.
[00:59:10] David: It’s my favorite podcast episode of all time. I agree with the assessment that it can be considered a train-wreck. I think that the people who came out most disappointed that were probably Ezra and Sam, because I think that they didn’t resolve their tension and I don’t think their minds didn’t meet.
It’s almost as though that the product they created was a phenomenal educational tool for everybody else. I think the rest of us really benefited from it because I think it shows how two well-meaning super smart caring people; people who wanted to get there and figure something out couldn’t do it.
To me there are all sorts of Straussian readings hidden messages but also just sort of naked displays of the limits of some inquiry can be. I listen to it again. I’ve listed to it twice. I’ve listened three times. I don’t like hearing it. I actually find it uncomfortable, but I found it to be educational. I think that it’s almost I think the Strauss reading of that debate is actually whether politics matters.
You think of like Sam’s point is he’s against the extreme criticism, the ostracization of public intellectuals for associating with Charles Murray’s ideas. Ezra. I think his point there are certain topics which should be off limits, and because of the social destruction they can wreak and empowering other people who will do bad things with those ideas.
That’s kind of my assessment of it. Ezra might not agree with that or Sam. Really it comes down to is I think of whether if you’re influencing a debate publicly in some ways do you have to consider that when you are writing something or when you’re conducting research.
It’s not just about the objective question you’re asking or they were things which are unrelated or should be taken into consideration. I think Sam disagreed with me. What do you think about that? I know you haven’t listened to it you’ve heard a lot about it, about that idea?
[01:01:03] Tyler: Maybe I deliberately choose not to listen to it, but I suppose I’d like a controlled experiment to rerun that podcast but switch out no one time Sam and one time Ezra with other people and see what the result is and compare. Maybe we’d learn something more from that.
[01:01:19] David: That’s interesting. Here’s the other pitch for podcasts. My favorite podcast is a podcast called heavy hands which is about mixed martial arts.
[01:01:27] Tyler: Who runs it?
[01:01:28] David: These two guys called Connery Bush and I used to be named Patrick Wyman, now it’s Connery and Phil McKenzie. It’s independent and I don’t even watch anime. What is amazing about it is that technical analysis of the sport. These two guys who are really smart guys just talking about something that I’ve learned by listening to the podcasts and don’t actually directly enjoy it myself, I’ve had a history of doing this because I’ve read Bill Simmons blog for years and you’re a basketball fan.
[01:01:56] Tyler: Sure, I love Bill stuff.
[01:01:57] David: I don’t even like basketball but I love reading and writing about basketball.
[01:02:00] Tyler: It’s just the analytic.
[01:02:01] David: That’s right.
[01:02:01] Tyler: Informationally dense.
[01:02:03] David: I don’t really watch movies but I loved reading Roger Ebert when he wrote movie reviews. He was such a great writer in movies. I actually enjoyed the reviews and liked Bill’s articles more than I enjoyed the actual product itself. It’s a kind of consumption, it’s a medic consumption of an actual product which itself can be enjoyed which to me is counter intuitive.
[01:02:22] Tyler: One of the things we learned from podcast I think is how often the audience doesn’t mind when they’re completely clueless about what’s going on. My podcast with Garry Kasparov, there’s a part where he and I talk about chess quite intensely and rapidly.
[01:02:35] David: I loved it.
[01:02:36] Tyler: A lot of people love that. They’ve written me, they’ve told me and they don’t even play chess, but they feel something about the connection. I think podcasts could go further in this direction of realizing look, what the audience actually wants from the podcast isn’t quite what the producers might think, it’s something more ineffable.
[01:02:55] David: I think of the quality as you’re looking for people who are real. I guess that’s what charisma to me is. It’s something that you can be coherent and articulate and interesting at the same time is really actually speaking from the heart.
[01:03:07] Tyler: My podcast with Callard has the same whether or not people know a lot about ancient philosophy or Plato, somehow that dialogue felt real to them I think.
01:03:16] David: It did. It’s a personal expression of your interest is to do your podcast and overlap with some parts of your audience and not others. It amazes me when I talk to people about it. Everybody likes a different episode, listens to different episode. It makes it very hard to track how many people it listens to the stupid thing.
[01:03:29] Tyler: That it’s not too professional. The sound quality should be good. It shouldn’t be obviously unprofessional, but at the same time you don’t want to package the way say a TV show would be.
[01:03:41] David: We’re running out of time, but I wanted to touch on one of the idea which is your own audience. You recently you were writing a New York Times column for many years, and you switched over to Bloomberg. You do write popular works, right?
[01:03:54] Tyler: Popular is a tricky word, you can continue.
01:03:16] David: It did. It’s a personal expression of your interest is to do your podcast and overlap with some parts of your audience and not others. It amazes me when I talk to people about it. Everybody likes a different episode, listens to different episode. It makes it very hard to track how many people it listens to the stupid thing.
[01:03:29] Tyler: That it’s not too professional. The sound quality should be good. It shouldn’t be obviously unprofessional, but at the same time you don’t want to package the way say a TV show would be.
[01:03:41] David: We’re running out of time, but I wanted to touch on one of the idea which is your own audience. You recently you were writing a New York Times column for many years, and you switched over to Bloomberg. You do write popular works, right?
[01:03:54] Tyler: Popular is a tricky word, you can continue.
[01:03:56] David: I’m wondering why you do that, is it just because you find it fun to try and constrain yourself in a certain way to speak because your blog is the popular voice Tyler, right? You use more jargon, you speak about kind of over esoteric things. I think that I definitely when I flick through your links and read the Bloomberg columns, it’s definitely for a popular audience and it’s edited, and there’s a different feel to it. Why do you do it?
[01:04:22] Tyler: My Bloomberg editors don’t in general change my voice. They may improve certain things, but they don’t try to make it sound not like Tyler. What you read on Bloomberg is like the Tyler Bloomberg voice. It’s this idea of multiple perspectives that you should try to write some things through blog posts, other things through Bloomberg columns, New York Times columns, other things through tweets and you’ll understand it better. Writing for the Bloomberg audience which has a fantastic audience, I meet people who read them all the time is another way to learn things. It’s also a job too, right?
[01:04:59] David: Sure, that helps. Let’s close on one last point which is the proceeds of the book Stubborn Attachments, you want to talk a bit about when and why you decided that because you did publish a version of this book a little while ago. Then now, you actually this is a proper publication and something changed your mind. What was that?
[01:05:14] Tyler: I put it free online about two years ago I think. I just wanted people to read it. Then there was a new project called Stripe Press which comes from the payments company, the tech company Stripe. I thought this would be a great place to publish the book with a company that’s actually doing things and trying to maximize GDP of the internet. It’s part of the Stripe mission. I just thought that would be perfect. The book is idiosyncratic and of the mainstream New York publisher probably wouldn’t even consider it. It’s too philosophical. It’s not like the normal length, it’s shorter than average.
Stripe was interested but I thought like this shouldn’t be a book for me to profit from. I was traveling in Ethiopia, I guess this was in June and I met a guide in Lalibela who I will call him Yonis. It’s not his real name to preserve his privacy. I thought it would be neat to send all the proceeds of this book to him. One of the themes of the book is the wealthy countries being wealthy helps the poorer countries. I believe people should actually try to live their work. If they write something and mean it they should incorporate that into their lives to be consistent.
I’m saying well, the wealthy countries help the poor countries; I should do more of that. I argue in the book people should be more altruistic at the margin. I thought here’s my chance. Yonis’s yearly income is really quite low. The proceeds of this book in terms of him buying a house, taking care of the 10 people he is responsible for, he wants eventually to start a travel business in Lalibela. He struck me as a man of high integrity and intelligence. He taught himself good English all on his own. Of all the people I met, I thought he’s the one I should give this money to.
[01:06:57] David: My guest today, Tyler Cowen.
[01:06:58] Tyler: Thank you very much.
[01:06:59] David: Thank you very much.
Ironic Opportunity (n): a business opportunity that gets better the worse its pursuit fails. Most commonly seen in financial markets when an investment loses money and investors pour capital into it because the upside potential grows as the losses mount.
This episode (mp3, youtube) is about diving deep into a comparison between stock market arbitrageurs and specialty insurance underwriters. The idea for the show came from the guest, Rich Derr, an actuary at Nationwide Insurance Company’s specialty division and I love nothing more than falling down a well with someone comparing financial and insurance markets.
The original paper that inspired Rich is called The Limits of Arbitrage and doesn’t really contemplate insurance. That’s our job! I learned a lot in this conversation, actually, and some of the insights will stick with me a long time.
The paper has two really important ideas. The first describes what I’ll call ‘ironic opportunities’, which are situations where failure actually emboldens you to further action.
David Wright: It looks riskier and that’s the real core insight, isn’t it? When the position goes farther away from where you think it should be, it looks scarier.
Rich Derr: Yep. And especially if you don’t have that specialty knowledge, you’re looking at that position and as the investor, you’re going, wait a minute, you’re telling me everything’s fine, but you’re, you’re recognizing a loss and now you’re coming to me for more money. And where it gets even more fun is the arbitrageurs are saying not only that, but the opportunity is actually better right now. And so we need more capital to go heavier into that position. Um, and that’s, that’s the difficulty of the arbitrageur.
The second idea is that monitoring a specialist is incredibly hard, so capital providers can understand these that ironic opportunities exist in principle but you need to have limits to your ability to trust an arbitrageur. The solution is almost cruel in its simplicity: just look at their track record.
David Wright: So how do the capital providers decide whether to give you money or not?
Rich Derr: So that’s one of the key assumptions of this paper and it gets into the performance based arbitrage, sorry, performance based allocation. What they do is how they decide who gets the capital as they look at the historic experience of the arbitrageur because the strategies of the arbitrageur is so difficult that they don’t really understand it. So they’ll look at the historic results and say, hey look, historically you’ve done great, you’re going to get capital. Historically you’ve done.. meh.. you don’t get a lot of capital, but that kind of provides a disconnect, right? Because what you should be looking at is the expected results.
It’s fantasy football time. So just using that as an example, like if you just used the last year to judge what the players are going to do next year, you’re gonna you’re going to lose. You need to. You need to look at what’s the expected results are and that’s how they’re making the capital decision.
Both of these ideas map to insurance: you have ironic opportunities all the time in insurance and extremely opaque measures of quality. It’s so hard to know who is good!
Listen to the whole thing for more including on some issues I have with this including the point that long successful track records might not be so great and deeper dives into what this framework can teach us about insurance.
Thanks for listening!
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