How much of economic development is determined by long-run historical forces, and how much of it by contingent leaders, thinkers, and events? I originally took these notes for an entry to an economics contest. They’re not rigorous in any way, but I thought it might be of interest to readers. I posted a lightly edited version of this post on the EA Forum.
Persistence and institutions
There are several results mentioned in this post where I have read common conclusions by authors who posit different explanatory mechanisms. Extracting causal relationships is really hard, and as usual, you shouldn’t trust studies whose statistical methods are too complex.
One attempt to measure the effect of long-run history found that 78% of the variance of wealth today is explained by a country’s technological sophistication in 1500AD. The regions that were rich in 1000BC even have predictive power for the regions that are rich today, insofar as that can be measured. So, countries that are on a historical path of prosperity tend to stay prosperous, and countries that are on a historical path of poverty tend to stay poor. It is not so much a country’s historical path that is of greatest significance, but its population’s historical path. People descended from those who lived in more advanced civilisations have better economic outcomes today, even if they have migrated. The differential success of various people groups is (presumably) because they bring with them their political institutions, technologies, capital, and culture. High-quality institutions are key to economic development – two examples being the diverging fates of the two Koreas, and the differing fates of African countries after being carved up by colonialism.
The importance of historical paths in economic development appears to imply that some cultural values persist for hundreds or thousands of years. However, the fact that much of current prosperity is explained by a history of prosperity is only a proximate, and not an ultimate, explanation. A people group with a history of strong social institutions had those institutions for a reason. What determines which countries have a strong history of state formation to begin with?
A major problem with this ancestral account is that it fails on the three most prominent examples. Ancestry would anticipate that India and China would do extremely well, and that America’s development would be so-so. In general, a lot of this research is very dependent on outliers: some of the Africa results disappear, for example, when you take out Nigeria or one or two other countries.
Another famous result is that groups that historically adopted plough-based agriculture have less egalitarian gender norms and lower female labour-force participation today. This is because the plough relied on upper-body strength to a greater extent than other methods of farming, creating a larger division between the role of men and women. These attitudes persist even if you look at children of immigrants, raised in Europe and the United States.
Growth and inequality
Long-run history is very significant in determining the modern wealth of nations, but what about other economic factors like their growth and inequality? Interestingly, the growth rate of GDP is relatively insensitive to long-run history. The norm since the industrial revolution has been a 1-1.5% growth rate excluding the effects of a growing population (more from Nintil). Deviations from this norm are explained by temporary bubbles, countries recovering from wars and unproductive economic systems like communism, and countries like those in East Asia achieving catch-up growth by adopting Western technologies. One or more of these conditions was true of most countries in the 20th century, but they were all anomalous in some way. 1-1.5% real per capita growth has been the norm at the technological frontier. So, here we will not expect to see the persistent historical effects as strongly, except insofar as they make a country more likely to go to war or have advanced technology.
What about inequality? One relevant fact documented in the literature is that the ancestral heterogeneity of a country’s population is strongly correlated with income inequality today. However, income inequality is largely a political issue, being shaped by short-term economic policies, which is difficult to explain with a long-term historical path.
In looking at inequality, esoteric points about the calculation of inflation are actually surprisingly important. This may or may not be the cause of the wage decoupling phenomenon: technology means that the efficiency of businesses grows faster than the productivity of its employees, the CPI measures price changes in consumption, and so the inflation calculation potentially masks solid middle-class gains. According to some economists, if you measure income inequality including taxes and transfers, it has not even been rising in the US since the 1970s! Russ Roberts would also point out that some studies measure household income and others measure individual income, and so changes in family structure (e.g. increase in divorce) look like decreases in wealth.
This broad question of “Why are some countries rich and others poor?” is the nominal subject of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But there was a lot less to explain in his day: the richest countries were only 4-5x richer than the poorest ones, while today the richest countries are 100x richer than the poorest ones.
Economic outcomes are positively associated with being coastal, far away from the equator, and being an island. The tropics predict worse outcomes, among other things, because of the prevalence of diseases like malaria, and because worker productivity is lower when the weather is very hot. Guns, Germs and Steel also famously argued for the importance of the distribution of domesticable species (Eurasia has many, Africa has almost none), and the orientation of the continents (Eurasians could spread inventions and cultures east-west to similar climatic zones, while Africans and the indigenous Americans couldn’t).
One of the reasons Africans disproportionately settled in geographically unfavourable conditions is slavery: people moved to areas where it was difficult for them to be captured. Nathan Nunn has a paper in which he shows that countries were benefitted by their rugged geography insofar as it allowed their citizens to escape capture.
This persistence research has been taken as an argument for scepticism about immigration, for instance by Garrett Jones. But there is another way of looking at the research which makes a pro-immigration case: namely that there are significant benefits from just moving people around. Caplan does the naive calculations of the gains from doing this.
Colonialism left lasting economic effects, yet the mere status of having been colonised does not explain very much of modern economic outcomes. Former European colonies vary from low-income (Zimbabwe) to middle-income (Brazil) to high-income (New Zealand). So, what in history explains these differences? One factor is slavery. Colonies which had more slaves taken from them now perform worse economically and have higher levels of mistrust, and the relationship appears to be causal. A famous result is that former colonies saw a “reversal of fortune” – the richer a country colonised by Europe was in 1500, the more likely it is to be poorer now, and vice versa. The proposed reason for this, as I understand it, is that Europeans were more likely to introduce institutions which encouraged investment in poorer regions, and to simply extract labour and resources from the richer ones. An optimistic view is that extractive institutions are there because of mistakes, or bad judgement, but in fact it is probably rational for elites to set up such institutions to enrich themselves at the cost of long-run growth. For instance, North American colonists (e.g. the Virginia Company) tried to set up extractive institutions, but failed, while their South American counterparts were more successful. North American colonists struggled to enslave local people through a combination of low population density, lack of political centralisation, and lots of wide open spaces from which they could be ambushed. My understanding is that they then settled for a system based on individual rights (for those other than the imported slaves, of course).
This paper argues that the “reversal of fortunes” result is true for countries but not for ethnicities: being a successful people group in 1500 predicts success today. There are also other ways in which the result is fragile.
Melissa Dell has a paper in which she shows that areas in Vietnam with stronger government before colonialism are richer today. North Vietnam appears to be poorer for this reason, despite the benefit of having more ethnic Chinese (the proportion of ethnic Chinese predicts prosperity in southeast Asia relatively well). In the aforementioned regions where local government is historically stronger, you see higher social capital, people default less often on loans, etc.
Another key feature in colonies’ historical paths was settler mortality. Europeans who arrived in hot climates with diseases to which they did not have immunity spent minimum time there and established extractive institutions – i.e. those aimed at conferring the profits of resources and labour to a small elite. Where mortality was similar to the levels in Europe, settlers established better quality, more inclusive, institutions. This factor alone has been calculated to explain 25% of the variance in the quality of current institutions. This is a partial explanation as to why temperature and proximity to the equator remain so important in a world with air conditioning: in places that were hot and perilous, colonists set up extractive institutions that remain to this day.
This research still leaves room for single individuals, and indeed chance, to play a big part in economic development. Mao and Hitler are two obvious examples of individuals who have shaped economic history in a way that cannot be explained by broad societal trends. We cannot run history over to see how things could have gone differently. Moreover, the last two centuries have seen the floor of poverty rise dramatically, and so even if relative poverty were historically predetermined, good economic policy would still stand to cause huge improvements in the standard of living.
Some articles I recommend on this topic: Ben Kuhn’s post on the longtermism view of global poverty, and Bryan Caplan’s reading club. See also the Conversations with Tyler with Nathan Nunn and Melissa Dell. The famous book on this topic is Why Nations Fail, and its authors (Acemoglu and Robinson) are giants in the field who I linked to several times in this post.
Thanks to Leopold Aschenbrenner, Cian Mullarkey and Gytis for comments on drafts of this post.
I recently watched Ken Burns’ 12-part documentary series about the history of jazz. Burns is known for producing epic documentary series like this, including one on the Vietnam War. Here are the notes I took from it, for those of you interested:
This series talks a lot about how jazz could only have happened in America, and frankly leans into the American angle to an excessive degree. The relevant factors it points out are: a large ethnic minority, a cultural history of appreciating freedom, and a general penchant for improvisation and error-correction, embodied in things like the constitution.
Ted Giola writes about the ‘Pythagorean paradigm’ that dominated Western music for centuries. This is the view that “holds that notes should always be played in tune, without bends or deviations of pitch.” The benefit of this is that music can be notated and passed on with high reliability – in the language of James Scott, it can be made legible. The angle this series takes is that jazz was indelibly influenced by African music, because Africa never shared this obsession with systematisation and notation.
This series very much ties in with my interest in cities, urban design and agglomeration effects. The important developments in jazz were remarkably concentrated in Chicago and New York (and, briefly, Kansas City). The heart of jazz in the war years was 52nd street in New York. Jazz was being heard by tens of millions of people, and yet its artistic development was occurring largely on the one street! There were a few different traditions in jazz, including the bebop-y Kansas City tradition and the West Coast tradition, which was mostly white and exemplified by Dave Brubeck. It’s very interesting to me how these artistic and intellectual trends can be so geographically clustered – e.g. West Coast vs. East Coast hip hop, the Chicago school in economics, Continental vs. Anglo-American philosophy, etc. How accurate are these labels? Is the main effect in talented people moving to places where they fit in intellectually, or that people in different locations get influenced differently?
It appears that musical ability does not remotely fit in a Gaussian distribution. This is most evident in the mid-to-late 20s jazz scene, in which you have Louis Armstrong and you have everyone else, and no-one else is even close. In other words, why is there only one Elon Musk? If talent were a normal distribution, you would expect there to be many people who are 90% as accomplished as Elon Musk, but very few, or none, of these people exist. Is this an extreme version of the Matthew effect?
People love a good rivalry, and there are a few of these scattered throughout the history of jazz. During segregation, this “rivalry” was between the dominant white band and the dominant black band. In the late 20s, Fletcher Henderson led the foremost black big band and Paul Whiteman led the foremost white one.
This series should have been shorter. The major figures get introduced multiple times, in large part owing to the fact that most viewers won’t have seen all previous parts, and so they have to catch you up. They could have cut four of the episode without much loss, particularly when covering the early development of jazz in New Orleans.
I’m interested in whether people’s musical attention spans have shortened. Generally, jazz is an interesting case study in the story of whether media in general has gotten more complex. Charlie Chaplain films can be followed by a kid; Friends is simple and easy to follow; Game of Thrones is sprawling and extremely complicated. Similarly, jazz during the ‘jazz age’ was actually pretty simple and consisted often in 3-minute dance tunes. My guess is that the selection effects within genres or media are toward complexity, but the selections effects between genres are away from complexity. Hence why you get a progression from books to TV to TikTok, but a growth in the sophistication of radio, TV, and music over time.
The series briefly alludes to the possibility that jazz should be referred to as a form of classical music. Indeed, the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan referred to jazz as ‘black classical’. The meaning of classical music seems to be unclear in much the same way the meaning of the word ‘literature’ is, which so far as I can tell, is often used to mean fiction that’s actually good.
I can see why someone would think that the series is dismissive of more popular forms of jazz – for instance, Glenn Miller is brushed over remarkably quickly. There is a certain attitude that if people actually listen to the music you make, you must be doing something wrong.
The episode featuring Coleman Hawkins was the most interesting to me. He really transformed the use of the saxophone. Before him, tenor sax in particular was considered kind of a joke instrument because of its association with vaudeville. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins were another great jazz rivalry. They had an opposite sound: Young was airy and hollow-sounding, while Hawkins’ playing was heavier.
The series relies extensively on interviews with Wynton Marsalis, Gary Giddins, Gerald Early and others. They are subject to the usual hyperbole present in the “guy interviewed for a documentary” genre. I find that people who love a certain topic are apt to overstate the influence of the most influential figures. I see this a lot in philosophy, where people will talk about about how 20 or 30 philosophers from a certain era are “essential” reading, even though, realistically, people with only a casual interest in philosophy only need to know about a few of these.
Something I hadn’t thought about before: in the 30s, the top white jazz musicians were mostly Jewish and the rest of the top musicians were black. This was a pretty powerful symbol to send before and during WW2, and was one of the reasons that jazz was banned by the Nazis. In a totally bizarre episode of history, the Nazis later changed their minds about this and Goebbels ordered the creation of Nazi jazz, (!) which featured popular swing tunes with anti-semitic lyrics.
An under-appreciated figure I learned about: Billy Strayhorn. He was a composer and pianist with the Duke Ellington big band. He even arranged “Take the “A” Train” and named it after the directions Ellington gave to get to his apartment.
Dizzy Gillespie was the famous trumpeter who in collaboration with Charlie Parker launched the bebop revolution (see here for the only surviving footage of them playing together). The series has a number of interesting things to say about Gillespie. For one thing, he revived the association between jazz and the Caribbean, which had existed since the beginning due to the many Caribbean immigrants to New Orleans who influenced the music. He was very public-facing, and kind of silly, which led people to not really realise the extent to which he drove the music forward. You get the sense that he was this under-appreciated mentor figure that orchestrated one of the most significant musical shifts in the 20th century.
Something I neglected to mention in my Miles Davis post: the first Miles Davis band was the Miles Davis nonet. Nine is an usual number of musicians for a band, and it featured a tuba and French horn. They only recorded a few sessions but one of them was released as The Birth of the Cool.
I loved the stuff about how Miles Davis relentlessly wanted spontaneity in his musicians. Apparently none of the musicians he recorded with ever even saw the sheet music before they got to the recording session (!).
I can see why people say that this series is harsh on jazz fusion. It’s not harsh on the Avant Garde, or on modern jazz in general. In a 12-part series they only really have one interviewee talk about jazz fusion (!) and he does so in a very negative light, which makes it seem like the producers endorse this view. While the late Miles Davis period does not make for easy listening, some of it is excellent.
The actual content of Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hopeby Johann Hari is significantly less self-help-y than the title would suggest. If I were to summarise my main takeaway from this book, it would be this: people are mostly depressed because their lives are bad. Lost Connections is about how antidepressants are wildly overprescribed, and how Big Pharma has marketed them as a panacea using dodgy science while ignoring the complex social and economic roots depression and anxiety. There are parts of the book that I liked, but I have some problems with it.
What is depression, anyway?
One of the things people say about depression is that it’s a “chemical imbalance” – usually, a lack of serotonin. Needless to say, this is nonsense. It’s unclear what it would even mean for the brain to be in a state of “chemical imbalance”. Also, while serotonin is known to have something to do with depression, it’s not a straightforward relationship: if you give a chemical cocktail to normal people which lowers their serotonin, they don’t get depressed. Also, tianeptine is a common antidepressant in Europe which works by lowering your serotonin. Some claim that psychiatrists used to believe in the “chemical imbalance” theory but have since moved on. This seems like a strawman and I can’t find evidence of it ever being widely believed.
So that’s one confusion about depression. Another is about the extent to which depression is psychological vs. physical. Of course, the brain is physical, and its behaviour is completely determined by the laws of physics. So, in a trivial sense everything is equally physical. What it means to call something ‘psychological’ is actually quite philosophically complex. It means something like this: there are multiple emergent levels of reality. For instance, atoms are real, and presumably chairs are real too. Something can be considered psychological insofar as it’s more parsimonious to consider it with respect to the mind/consciousness level of reality, rather than the cells/biology level of reality.
There are two extreme ways of looking at depression. One is that it is caused purely by one’s thoughts in a way that is entirely divorced from the physical world – this is the naive view Hari attributes to most doctors in the past. Another is that depression is “just” like a physical illness and should be treated as such. I hear this kind of language from people sometimes, and one of the motivations for saying this, I gather, is that if people think of mental illnesses in much the same way they do, say, cancer, then there wouldn’t be such a stigma surrounding it. But Hari points to research showing that things actually become more stigmatised when they are thought to result from unchangeable biological characteristics rather than development. I discussed this research (Mehta 1997) with friends recently, and the best explanation anyone could come up with was that humans are tribal, and people who are genetically or biologically different to us are an out-group, whereas those who had bad things happen to them or fall into a negative cycle may well be in our in-group. The next step would be to check whether congenital conditions get less funding relative to the proportion of the disease burden they represent.
Ethan Watters discusses stigma in his excellent NYT piece The Americanization of Mental Illness. He points out that, while the social acceptance of many forms of mental illness has grown, for others acceptance has actually fallen:
“At the same time that Western mental-health professionals have been convincing the world to think and talk about mental illnesses in biomedical terms, we have been simultaneously losing the war against stigma at home and abroad. Studies of attitudes in the United States from 1950 to 1996 have shown that the perception of dangerousness surrounding people with schizophrenia has steadily increased over this time. Similarly, a study in Germany found that the public’s desire to maintain distance from those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia increased from 1990 to 2001. Researchers hoping to learn what was causing this rise in stigma found the same surprising connection that Mehta discovered in her lab. It turns out that those who adopted biomedical/genetic beliefs about mental disorders were the same people who wanted less contact with the mentally ill and thought of them as more dangerous and unpredictable. This unfortunate relationship has popped up in numerous studies around the world. [A] study, which looked at populations in Germany, Russia and Mongolia, found that “irrespective of place . . . endorsing biological factors as the cause of schizophrenia was associated with a greater desire for social distance.””
On the flip side, there is the worry of concept creep: when people have a term for something, the set of phenomena that it refers to tends to grow over time. So, what appears to be a mental health crisis could just be a broader class of symptoms being regarded as mental illnesses. Concept creep is, in a way, what happens when there isn’t enough stigma – at least, enough stigma surrounding carelessly diagnosing oneself or others with a mental illness.
So, there are downsides to couching depression in biomedical language, but it is of course to a large extent biological. We know from adoptive twin studies, for instance, that depression and anxiety are 30-40% genetically determined. When I mention the “biological” causes of depression, you probably think of sleep, diet and exercise. But there are other more obscure factors: people sometimes get depressed as a side-effect of medications to treat unrelated conditions, or because they’ve been exposed to lead, and their depression sometimes goes away after they start using really bright lightbulbs.
Antidepressants (mostly) don’t work
Anecdotally, for most people who take antidepressants, it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re working. But for some subset, it helps substantially and is sometimes utterly life-changing. Given this, you would expect that, in clinical trials, you would see a moderate effect size from antidepressants. But nope: you see a tiny one that is frequently indistinguishable from placebo. (Side note: effect size is frequently mistakenly thought to mean “the size of the effect”. But effect size in statistics is this number divided by the standard deviation, making it a dimensionless quantity.) How do we square this with these anecdotal reports? Part of the answer lies in the variance of outcomes. The rule of thumb seems to be that one third of people have undeniable positive effects from their first antidepressant and two thirds of people eventually get the same from one of the antidepressants that they try. These studies are averaging across an entire group, hence why we see such a small effect size. There are also more technical points about study design – for instance, if the study is not of first-time takers, then those individuals with particularly intractable depression will be overrepresented among those being studied. Another part of the answer is regression to the mean: people are likely to seek out medical help when they are at a low points of their lives, and so things will likely get better due to pure chance, which patients (and their doctors) may well think is an actual effect of the drug. When people talk about studies containing a placebo group, they really mean two things: some mysterious psychological force whereby the expectation of something causes it to happen, and regression to the mean. There is a fascinating body of evidence showing that, often, this get-better-anyway effect is much larger than the bona fide placebo.
So, the evidence for the efficacy of antidepressants is quite weak, but we also have these reasons to believe that they’re somewhat helpful. Plus, even if it’s mostly a placebo, that’s still worth it as long as people feel better, right? Well, Hari says, this might be correct if it weren’t for the very real side-effects of antidepressants. There are the usual side-effects you might get from any drug, like nausea and fatigue, but notably also sexual dysfunction. Sexual side-effects are particularly common among takers of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which is the most common type of antidepressant and what most people think of when they think of antidepressants. The drug companies who produce these medications have a pretty strong incentive for exaggerating their effect and downplaying the severity of the side-effects. Also, as we’ll see, the side-effects of long-term antidepressant use are not well understood.
The number of people who take drugs for psychiatric problems is pretty shocking: 20% of US adults are taking a psychiatric drug, 25% of middle-aged women are taking an antidepressant, and 10% of boys in high school are using prescribed stimulants to help them focus. These numbers are so high that I don’t believe them. The US government says that antidepressant usage is 10%, although the figure for middle-aged women is, alarmingly, basically accurate.
Hari introduces us to the foremost critic of antidepressants, Irving Kirsch, author of The Emperor’s New Drugs. Hari summarises his research as concluding that the effects of antidepressants are 50% placebo, 25% regression to the mean, and 25% real effect. His arch-nemesis, Peter Kramer, is antidepressants’ foremost defender:
“[Peter Kramer’s] first argument is that Irving is not giving antidepressants enough time. The clinical trials he has analyzed—almost all the ones submitted to the regulators—typically last for four to eight weeks. But that isn’t enough. It takes longer for these drugs to have a real effect. This seemed to me to be an important objection. Irving thought so, too. So he looked to see if there were any drug trials that had lasted longer, to find their results. It turns out there were two—and in the first, the placebo did the same as the drug, and in the second, the placebo did better.”
I think it’s appropriate to be flabbergasted that there are (or at least, were) only two studies that lasted for more than eight weeks of a type of drug that 10% of Americans use. Even Kramer doesn’t agree with the current regimen of keeping people on antidepressants for basically their whole lives (for context, Hari has a history of depression and had been taking antidepressants every day since he was a teenager):
“Even Peter Kramer had one note of caution to offer about these drugs. He stressed to me that the evidence he has seen only makes the case for prescribing antidepressants for six to twenty weeks.”
Next, Hari talks about 5-HTT, a gene that was thought by the research community to be significant in explaining depression but which, according to this Slate Star Codex piece, turned out to have no effect whatsoever. (This article is about 5-HTTPLR, and I can’t figure out if this is the same thing as 5-HTT. I know very little about biology and I can’t understand the first few links on google.) Hari says that 5-HTT, and other genes that are risk factors for depression, work by multiplying the risk of depression in response to negative life events, raising the probability of a depressive episode following a major negative life event from (say) 15% to 20%. I would be interested to see how people’s genes cause them to shape their environment differently, thus making negative life events more or less common.
I mentioned earlier the extreme view that depression is entirely unrelated to the physical world. He writes:
“Michael [Marmot, the Australian psychiatrist] would walk around the hospital wards and think—all this sickness and distress must tell us something about our society, and what we’re doing wrong. He tried to discuss this with the other doctors, explaining that he believed that with a woman like this patient, we “should be paying attention to the causes of her depression.” The doctors were incredulous. They told him he was talking rubbish. It’s not possible for psychological distress to cause physical illnesses, they explained. This was the belief of most medical practitioners across the world at that time.”
Marmot went on to conduct a study that looked at UK civil servants in Whitehall. Anyone can notice that the poor and those with difficult and unpleasant jobs tend to have worse mental and physical health. But this could be for lots of reasons. All of the civil servants studied had somewhat similar lives, pay on the same order-of-magnitude, but massive differences in status, and the extent to which they had control over their jobs:
“After years of intensive interviewing, Michael and the team added up the results. It turned out the people at the top of the civil service were four times less likely to have a heart attack than the people at the bottom of the Whitehall ladder . . . If you worked in the civil service and you had a higher degree of control over your work, you were a lot less likely to become depressed or develop severe emotional distress than people working at the same pay level, with the same status, in the same office, as people with a lower degree of control over their work.”
There’s no problem so bad overregulation can’t make it worse
Hari never accepts the conclusion that a lot of his evidence appears to be pointing to: that the government, and other regulatory bodies like institutional review boards, have been slowing progress in mental healthcare for decades. The two most exciting recent developments in the fight against depression are the use of ketamine and psychedelics. Psychedelics were schedule 1’d by the US government, which dried up the research funding for decades. Ketamine is also illegal and extremely difficult to get by prescription, despite its miraculous ability to treat (via injection) intractable forms of depression.
The regulatory environment seems to be in a worst-of-all-possible worlds situation, where the fact that drug companies are really desperate to show that their drug works results in byzantine regulation to stop them from exploiting people or defrauding anyone, but the government itself won’t cough up the money to just test what actually works. He writes:
“When [a drug company] wants to conduct trials into antidepressants, they have two headaches. They have to recruit volunteers who will swallow potentially dangerous pills over a sustained period of time, but they are restricted by law to paying only small amounts: between $40 and $75. At the same time, they have to find people who have very specific mental health disorders—for example, if you are doing a trial for depression, they have to have only depression and no other complicating factors.”
Hari points out that there are basically zero large clinical trials which test the major antidepressants against one another, through a weird sort of market failure where no-one has an incentive to do this, and even if the government or a philanthropist wanted to do this, the regulations are such a pain in the ass that they don’t.
If antidepressants were mediocre but there was no alternative, then their frequent usage would be no mystery. The problem is that we know other solutions are more effective. For instance, one of the common scales for depressive symptoms is the Hamilton scale, which runs from 0 (perfect bliss) to 51 (perfect misery). Antidepressants, on average, produce a 1.8-point jump on the Hamilton scale, while having a regular sleep schedule produces a 6-point jump. Hence there needs to be some reason why antidepressants are used in excess of how useful they actually are.
Hari’s answer is corruption combined with people looking for easy answers. Indeed, almost everyone involved has bad incentives: he points out how 40% of regulators’ wages are paid by drug companies in the US, and the figure is 100% in the UK (!). I’m not sure whether he would agree with this, but it seems like he’s hinting that regulatory agencies are too liberal when it comes to approving new drugs. But I’m the kind of person that reads many blog posts arguing that the FDA (and by extension the EMA) is too conservative. Indeed, a priori, it would be surprising if drugs were approved too quickly on average. Regulators face much harsher consequences for pursuing a policy that actively leads to harm rather than by making an omission that leads to people being harmed.
Why are we getting more depressed?
Johann Hari takes it as a given that people these days are more depressed than they used to be. I’m not so sure; suicide is declining almost everywhere, in some places massively so. The past seemed pretty crap. And yes, self-report studies show mixed results, but self-report studies are almost worthless. Nonetheless, insofar as his premise actually is true, he offers multiple possible explanations. The first is that we’re more materialistic:
“[A] social scientist named Jean Twenge . . . tracked the percentage of total U.S. national wealth that’s spent on advertising, from 1976 to 2003—and he discovered that the more money is spent on ads, the more materialistic teenagers become.”
I would hope that there were corrections done in this study to try to show causality. Hari isn’t good at summarising the results of studies, and he frequently uses vague language. Regardless, this seems somewhat plausible. Advertising is, in a way, a business model based on making you feel insufficient. Being materialistic wouldn’t make people unhappy by itself, but the theory would be that it causes people to chase extrinsic goals like wealth and not intrinsic ones like fulfilling relationships, and therefore they don’t get any happier:
“The results, when [the psychologist Tim Kasser] calculated them out, were quite startling. People who achieved their extrinsic goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness—none. They spent a huge amount of energy chasing these goals, but when they fulfilled them, they felt the same as they had at the start. Your promotion? Your fancy car? The new iPhone? The expensive necklace? They won’t improve your happiness even one inch. But people who achieved their intrinsic goals did become significantly happier, and less depressed and anxious . . . Twenty-two different studies have, in the years since, found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be.”
A second explanation is that we’re lonelier:
“What [John Cacioppo] wanted to know was—would isolated people get sicker than connected people? It turned out that they were three times more likely to catch the cold than people who had lots of close connections to other people . . . What John’s experiment found was later regarded as a key turning point in the field. The people who had been triggered to feel lonely became radically more depressed, and the people who had been triggered to feel connected became radically less depressed . . . It turned out that—for the initial five years of data that have been studied so far—in most cases, loneliness preceded depressive symptoms.”
The evidence appears to be pretty good that loneliness does in fact cause depression, rather than people getting depressed for some other reason and consequently withdrawing from society and becoming lonelier. The increase in loneliness and decline in social capital, most particularly in America, has been well-documented, most famously in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The amount of time people spent with their families has also dropped, and these trends are true in most of the developed world. This is not necessarily evidence of increased loneliness, because loneliness is not the same thing as being alone: indeed, Hari says that the correlation between how many people you know and speak with, and how lonely you feel, is actually quite weak.
It’s obvious that Hari is quite left-wing, and he identifies much of this decline in social capital with the excesses of post-1970s neoliberalism. The mechanism for this isn’t made clear – maybe the growth of an individualist mindset that is more focused on individual consumer experience than on social experiences like family and church? He has some obligatory digs at Margaret Thatcher and he approvingly gives an example of people improving their mental health via community organising… to lobby for rent control.
Depression and grief
If your mother dies, we might say it’s “justified” for you to feel depressed for a while, but if your life is going fine but for some reason you feel terrible all the time, that’s “unjustified” and therefore should be treated. So, where do we draw the line between a normal reaction to tragic things happening in your life, and bona fide mental illness?
“After you lose (say) a baby, or a sister, or a mother, you can show these symptoms for a year before you are classed as mentally ill. But if you continued to be profoundly distressed after this deadline, you will still be classified as having a mental disorder. As the years passed and different versions of the DSM were published, the time limit changed: it was slashed to three months, one month, and eventually just two weeks.”
He then goes on to mention how, in the DSM-V, the latest version, this proviso has been eliminated and you can be diagnosed with depression irrespective of your life circumstances. Hari hints that this is because the people who write the DSM are robots who don’t understand that humans sometimes feel negative emotions in response to bad events. But the DSM makes a deliberate (albeit, controversial) decision to prescribe entirely on the basis of symptoms and not on the basis of aetiology. The benefit of this is that we can just list what the symptoms are of certain mental illnesses and what has helped to treat them, rather than allow psychologists to become arbiters of what counts as a “reasonable” or “proportionate” emotional response to different life events. Nevertheless, there’s a good point here, which is that psychologists and psychiatrists have historically not given sufficient attention to how people’s life problems arise from their circumstances, diet, exercise, sleep, and so on. Hari’s own experience of the medical system seems to be particularly bad in this respect:
“As [the researcher Joanne Cacciatore] said this, I told her that in thirteen years of being handed ever higher doses of antidepressants, no doctor ever asked me if there was any reason why I might be feeling so distressed. She told me I’m not unusual—and it’s a disaster.”
The solution to this dilemma – that many depressed patients were having perfectly understandable reactions to negative life events – was to divide depression into “reactive depression” (in response in life events) and “endogenous depression” (that comes on for seemingly no reason). Needless to say, this dichotomy has been quite problematic, mostly because the things someone is reacting to in becoming depressed can be quite subtle:
“George [Brown] and Tirril [Harris] explained that they had, all along, been studying women who had been classified by psychiatrists as having “reactive depression” and women classified as having “endogenous depression.” And what they found—when they compared the evidence—is there was no difference between them. Both groups had things going wrong in their lives at the same rate. This distinction, they concluded, was meaningless.”
So, is endogenous depression just fake news? Maybe. To be fair, Hari talked to a number of people about endogenous depression, and they gave a range of answers, ranging from thinking the distinction is meaningless to thinking that endogenous depression is real but makes up a small subset of depressives.
Hari is great at pointing out the extent to which we do not currently have a pill that you can take that will make you magically happier. But I think he fails to appreciate how amazing it would be if we did, and how this should be a top priority for science. A quote from Joanna Cacciatore sums up his position pretty well:
“Our approach today is, Joanne said, “like putting a Band-Aid on an amputated limb. [When] you have a person with extreme human distress, [we need to] stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Let’s get to the deeper problem.””
I get this at an individual level. People want easy answers. They don’t want to be told that they’ve made many bad life choices that will be difficult to undo, or that they need to lose weight or get better friends. Or worse yet, that their woes are a necessary consequence of free trade and capitalism. Maybe this is just because Hari and I inhabit different worlds, but if anything, at a societal level this seems like the opposite of the attitude that we take. Most people are far too quick to jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with society, and vehemently try to avoid the possibility that there is something wrong with them. On my old blog, I wrote a piece that argued that prestigious universities should use a partial lottery to allocate places. I’m not sure whether I particularly endorse this, but nonetheless, the most common response was that this would only be a bandage on the true problem, and that to really fixthis, we would have to invest in education and eliminate the discrepancies that led to the rich and privileged being so overrepresented in elite universities. From my perspective, it seems like people are absolutely desperate to go on multi-decade long questionable social engineering projects, and they don’t want to put bandages on problems enough.
The old way of thinking was to blame depression on personal failure. The new way of thinking is to blame it on nature. Hari wants us to blame nature less and society more, and he doesn’t say much about the personal failure part. I’m sceptical of efforts to blame it on any of these, and I think it’s more like we’ve been bequeathed with a tragic mismatch between all three.
Antidepressants are almost certainly overprescribed, and this is almost certainly because doctors have bad incentives. If your doctor were actually incentivised to make you healthy, healthcare would look very different. They’re incentivised to make you relatively healthier while minimising risk of malpractice lawsuits and not offending you or your parents too much. If a parent comes in describing how their teenage son is feeling depressed, the correct response may well be to point out how it would be a miracle to have such an annoying mother and not be depressed. But given the incentives the doctor faces, the correct response is to just shut up and prescribe him Zoloft. Maybe I should get in while the market is young and start selling t-shirts that say “Shut up and prescribe Zoloft”.
Thanks for Gytis for reviewing a draft of this piece.
Miles Davis (1926-1991) was a jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He was one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, and he had a prolific output (just on Spotify, he has over 1,000 songs). Many of these are different recordings of the same song, but jazz is so improvisational that it’s difficult to draw the line of what counts as a distinct song.
My aim with this guide is to write something that would have been very helpful to me when I started listening to Miles Davis. I will list and discuss the albums that I view as essential listening, and bullets beneath will list my favourite songs from that album. This list is far from comprehensive and there are many albums I chose to leave out. This means that the jazz fusion period is underrepresented, because I personally don’t like it as much as his earlier work. Miles was famously difficult, rude, and beat his wives on multiple occasions. So do not take this piece as an endorsement of him as a person. If you feel that I missed something important, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
This post is grouped chronologically within periods, but the different periods overlap so it’s not strictly chronological. Some of the years in this post may be confusing because of the lag between recording and release. The years I mention are from the date of release. This difference is most apparent for Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, all of which were recorded over a two-day session in 1956 (!) to complete Davis’ contract with Prestige records.
There is a perception that jazz is dead, and Davis himself even famously declared that jazz was dead. This is pretty unfair. For one thing, almost all of jazz is on Spotify now at amazingly high quality. For another, the decline of the cultural centrality to jazz has led to a decline in the price of concert tickets, etc., such that there’s high returns to having expertise. Tyler Cowen writes that “current times are the very best for jazz, ever”.
Jazz is so interesting to me because of its fusion of intricate underlying structure with improvisation and spontaneity. As Ken Burns put it, jazz is “familiar, but brand new every night”. Moreover, I enjoy the intellectual demandingness of jazz as a genre. Jazz musicians seem to be the most thoughtful and intelligent of any genre. Many of the more Avant Garde songs mentioned in this post don’t sound good unless you’re really concentrating. Some of it sounds cacophonous to a newcomer. This is why jazz is considerably more difficult to get into than other genres and has a lack of listenership among the youth.
Disclaimer: I’m a philistine with limited musical knowledge or ability. This guide is by no means meant to be authoritative. But I worked very hard on it. So, after hundreds of hours of listening, I present to you: a beginner’s guide to Miles Davis. You may find this guide significantly more helpful if you follow along with this playlist on Spotify, which compiles all of the featured songs in order.
The Early Years (recorded pre-1955)
Miles Davis’ career spanned the most important eras in jazz. He replaced Dizzy Gillespie as trumpeter for the quintet of the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, which is how he first came to notoriety. There’s a lot of static on the earlier recordings. This doesn’t bother me so much anymore, but in any case, I recommend remastered versions where you can find them. My overall highlights from this era are Boplicity, Four, and Bags’ Groove.
The Musings of Miles (1955)
Will You Still Be Mine
A Night in Tunisia
Blue Haze (1956)
That Old Devil Moon
Collectors’ Items (1956)
In Your Own Sweet Way
In general, there are many remastered, extended and reissued versions of all of Davis’ popular songs and albums, and frequently no canonical version. Luke Muehlhauser talked about this on his blog, which I recommend.
Bags’ Groove (1957)
But Not for Me
If you listen to this album, it’ll probably be the Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) remaster. Van Gelder was a legendary audio engineer known for editing in such a way that produced a distinctive sound.
Birth of The Cool (1957)
As far as I know, this album played an important part in the etymology of the word cool. Davis, with his suits, beautiful women, and suave look, was the definition of cool. He was part of what it meant to be cool. In his later more experimental years his clothing was much more unusual, colourful, and counter-cultural. Another interesting thing about this album is how Davis exemplified a kind of 50s masculinity, but his music was disarming and romantic. It was very common for couples to go to see him in jazz clubs together.
Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1959)
The Man I Love
The First Great Quintet (1955-59)
Miles Davis’ band repeatedly shifted in its composition, but it can be roughly grouped into two stable periods: the First Great Quintet and the Second Great Quintet. There is a famous debate among Miles Davis fans over which quintet is better. The First Quintet had Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and John Coltrane on tenor sax. Cannonball Adderley later joined with alto saxophone (making it a sextet). Davis had a reputation for featuring up-and-coming unknown artists on his album, and he launched Coltrane’s career. If you are only vaguely familiar with Davis sound, it’s likely this is the period that you recognise. It includes Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all it. Bill Evans replaced Red Garland on piano for some of this period, most famously on Kind of Blue. My overall highlights from this era are ‘Round Midnight, Walkin’, Milestones, My Funny Valentine and So What.
‘Round About Midnight (1957)
Bye Bye Blackbird
All of You
Dear Old Stockholm
‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk is one of the most famous jazz standards. Miles was the origin of many jazz standards, including Milestones and So What.
You Don’t Know What Love Is
In general, title tracks really are better on average.
Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957)
My Funny Valentine
Blues by Five
Straight, No Chaser
Two Bass Hit
One interesting feature of jazz is that it’s a fundamentally American genre. American songs dominate popular music, and especially so with jazz. Some of this is because of the specific role played by race relations in jazz history. But one could speculate that there’s a deeper reason. America, at its best, has separation of powers and constitutional protections (or, rather, it has a longer history of this than other developed countries). It’s all about error-correction and human fallibility. Jazz, likewise, is all about revising and improvising. Contrast this with continental Europe, which has spent much of its history falling prey to one utopian ideology or another, with classical as the dominant music of high culture.
Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958)
It Could Happen to You
If I Were a Bell
I Could Write a Book
It’s worth mentioning that the mid-to-late 50s was the apex of Davis’ cool jazz period. This is much lower tempo than bebop, which is characterised by fast continuous saxophone melodies and is where Davis got his start. Cool jazz is what people might think of as ‘coffee table jazz’. I sometimes work while listening to it, but other sub-genres within jazz are too fast-paced and complex for me to listen to while concentrating on something else. Some jazz purists would disdain the idea of listening to jazz while working at all, as opposed to giving it your full attention. Indeed, before maybe a year ago, I had never intensely listened to music while doing nothing else for any significant period, because I got bored too easily. But now I usually listen to jazz while browsing the album covers, and very often with my eyes closed.
Kind of Blue (1959)
Blue in Green
On Green Dolphin Street
Stella By Starlight
Love for Sale
So What – Live at Kurhaus
This was a major force in the introduction of modal jazz, characterised by switching among musical modes. It’s essential to listen to all of it. The last few songs listed here are from the extended edition of the album. I recommend the extended versions of most of these albums, where one exists, and listening to alternate takes of the same song. Sometimes the albums also include banter from the band, in which you can hear Miles’ famously raspy voice, which he acquired because of a throat condition.
Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1960)
It Never Entered My Mind
In Your Own Sweet Way
If you really liked any of the music from before this point, you’ll probably like most or almost all of it. One of the great things about jazz is that there’s a functionally infinite amount of top-tier jazz, supposing you don’t have extremely niche tastes, while with almost everything else I consume I struggle to find content I love that I haven’t already read/watched/listed to.
Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1961)
When I Fall in Love
Surrey with the Fringe On Top
Salt Peanuts has been stuck in my head a lot recently. Because jazz usually doesn’t have any vocals, it’s harder at first for songs to get stuck in your head or to tell them apart. With time, I’ve gotten a lot better at this. There are certainly excellent jazz vocalists – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker. But there is something to be said for consciously choosing to not have any lyrics in your music. Asking why jazz doesn’t have any words strikes me as a bit like asking why novels don’t have any pictures. The music speaks for itself.
Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)
Someday My Prince Will Come (yes, it’s based on the theme from Snow White)
I Thought About You
This may be my favourite album cover of all time. In general, the album covers from the golden era of jazz are absolutely gorgeous. This seems like a lost art because album covers are so much less prominent in the digital era. The Sketchesof Spain, Miles Ahead, and Birth of the Cool covers are all iconic. I think that one of the first things that drew me to jazz, before I had any appreciation for the music, was the way people looked when they were playing it. They just looked so cool!
Collaboration with Gil Evans (1957-63)
Davis’ collaboration with the pianist and arranger Gil Evans was legendary. My overall highlights are Miles Ahead, The Duke, Summertime, and Solea.
Miles Ahead (1957)
Blues for Pablo
Another point: this is not dancing music. I believe that some of Davis’ concerts even had signs up to stop people from dancing. This is in stark contrast to earlier years of jazz, which developed around a culture of dancing halls and highly rhythmic music. Take this with a grain of salt, but it seems like one of the motivations for this era of jazz was to prove to white people that black people were capable of inventing a rich and complex art form that was musically on a par with classical. Indeed, Lee Morgan, the jazz trumpeter, famously said that jazz should be called “black classical music”.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
It Ain’t Necessarily So
Porgy and Bess is a famous opera by George Gershwin. The Gershwin songbook has been covered many times, and the rendition by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald might be the most famous. There have been more arrangements of summertime than anyone can keep track of, but I think Davis’ may well be the best.
Sketches of Spain (1960)
Will O’ The Wisp
Concierto de Aranjuez: Adiagio
The Pan Piper
This album was inspired by his wife, Frances Taylor Davis, and her love of flamenco dancing. Sketches appears to be his first movement toward an acoustic-electric sound. I was surprised to learn that this album is somewhat controversial among Davis fans, so I think it’s thoroughly underrated.
The Second Great Quintet (1964-68)
Miles Davis’ Second Great Quartet had Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. Its sound was more unconventional, and arguably the 60s are passed the ‘golden era’ of jazz. E.S.P. and Seven Stepsto Heaven are my favourite albums from this era. My overall highlights are Seven Steps to Heaven, E.S.P. and Agitation.
Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)
Seven Steps to Heaven
I Fall in Love Too Easily
Basin Street Blues
One of my favourite things about jazz is the extent to which its subject matter is universal. Many (most?) popular songs are about love, which is fine, but it’s narrow. The best jazz is a kind of philosophical meditation about the tension between planning and improvisation. The benefits of bottom-up versus top-down design. The extent to which life is an interrelated mesh of trade-offs and constraints. How beauty – and perfection –balances on a knife-edge between order and chaos.
I don’t have the musical talent to predict which way a piece of jazz will go, but there is a very satisfying way in which it feels like the notes makes sense after they’re played. It’s curious: I feel like asking ‘how could it have been otherwise?’, when of course, it could easily have been otherwise.
Miles Smiles (1967)
Bill Evans, who was a pianist with the Miles Davis Quintet for a time, once said “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” The way the very same note can sound totally different when played accidentally by an amateur compared to consciously played by a virtuoso is fascinating to me.
Nefertiti is one of Davis’ last albums of ‘conventional’ jazz before he developed a more experimental style.
The Fusion Period (1968-91)
One of the key things to understand about Miles Davis is the extent to which he was continuously switching up his style and changing genres. Jazz fusion and Avant Garde jazz are acquired tastes. I found Directions to make for the easiest listening. My favourite songs from this section are Love for Sale, Duran and Black Satin.
Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968)
Filles de Kilimanjaro
The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said that “in jazz, every moment is a crisis.” This was a much more elegant way of putting one of my earlier points about the universality of the themes in jazz.
In a Silent Way (1969)
Shhh / Peaceful
In a Silent Way
Bitches Brew (1970)
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
Perhaps the most famous jazz fusion album of all time. There are single versions and shorter edits of many of these songs, which you might appreciate if you don’t like listening to long songs. Many of his fusion pieces are 30+ minutes long.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
On the Corner (1972)
On the Corner
Miles took a lot of inspiration from world music, as evidenced in Sketches. This album uses a lot of Indian percussion.
Circle in the Round (1979)
Circle in the Round
Love for Sale
Two Bass Hit
Placing this in the fusion period is somewhat of a mischaracterisation, because this album compiles 15 years’ worth of previously unreleased tracks. Nonetheless, the title track is the first recording where Davis used electric instruments.
Water on the Pond
Time after time – live in Nice (from the Deluxe edition)
Davis continued making music until he died in 1991, but the most recent material is of more mixed quality and never really found an audience. Some of the live recordings from this period are much better, however, as we’ll see in the next section.
Live Recordings and Soundtracks
I actually prefer listening to live recordings. They often last much longer than the originals and they give interesting re-imaginings and re-interpretations of familiar tracks. My favourite songs in this section are So What, Walkin’, Générique, Sur l’autoroute and Autumn Leaves.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958)
Florence sur les Champs-Élysées
Dîner au motel
This album was an improvised soundtrack for a French film. After spending some time in France in the 50s, Davis was frustrated when he returned to America’s more backward racial attitudes. It’s possible that this anger influenced his music, but I really don’t know.
The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965)
If I Were a Bell
Stella by Starlight
My Funny Valentine
I Thought About You
One of the themes I find most interesting in jazz is the constant tension between improvisation and planning. The different takes sound really different to one another. You would naively think that, however good your music is when you’re composing on the spot, it must be better when you can plan it out in advance. But something is lost when you write the music down. In the very early days of jazz, even the introduction of recording technology was controversial, because when you can record music there is a sense in which it becomes set in stone, and unchanging. But jazz, it was argued, was all about change and revisions. There’s an obvious parallel here with Socrates’ dislike of writing. I say “on the spot” but this is unfair: jazz improvisation requires tremendous practice and intellectual effort. People sometimes conflate “genius” with “very talented”, but so far as I’m concerned, Miles Davis was legitimately a genius in this regard.
“Four” & More (1966)
So What (this is my favourite take on the song)
There is No Greater Love
Stockholm 1960 Complete (1992)
Side note: It’s striking how many errors are made in the transcription of lesser-known albums onto Spotify. A lot of the songs on this album have inconsistent capitalisation, i’s that aren’t capitalised, and others have spelling errors.
Miles and Quincy Live at Montreux (1993)
This was recorded the year that Davis died, with Quincy Jones. You can tell that he had lost some of his technical proficiency with the trumpet by this point. While Davis was at a time extremely fit and enjoyed boxing, decades of frequent alcohol, cocaine, and heroin use took its toll. With Davis, though, you’re generally not listening for technical proficiency: he certainly couldn’t play faster or higher than some other trumpeters. It’s more that his style is incredibly distinctive. Even today, I’m not aware of any trumpeter that can make their instrument sound the same way Miles could, which is an impressive feat for any musician.
Bonus: Books, documentaries and films about Miles Davis I recommend
This is a documentary series and accompanying book. I haven’t been able to find a place to affordably watch the documentary, but I recommend the book wholeheartedly. I also recommend this YouTube interview with Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns about the series. A quote I liked: “When historians in 1,000 years look back on America, it’ll be remembered for three things: baseball, the constitution, and jazz.”
This film is set during Davis’ dormant period in the late 70s in which he was struggling with drug addiction and not making any music. It’s pretty good, though not amazing. The film was Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and stars Don Cheadle and Obi-Wan Kenobi Ewan McGregor. Cheadle did a great job with the raspy voice. People who know about this sort of thing say that the fingering and playing look believable because Cheadle actually learned how to play trumpet for the film.
The film was scored by the excellent Robert Glasper, who also produced the ending track, which is really good. I’ve included the Go Ahead John edit from the film in the playlist. I have had frustrations trying to find jazzy hip hop where the jazz wasn’t just bad or excessively electronic. Kendrick Lamar and Glasper seem like exceptions to this. Glasper also made a video for Wired where he reviewed jazz scenes in films, which you should watch.
One of my favourite documentaries. It contains interviews with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Frances Taylor Davis, and others. They even interviewed the French woman whom Davis had a relationship while he was living in Paris in the 50s. The soundtrack is really good, and it includes Donna Lee, which I’ve also included in the companion playlist.
Other podcasts and videos
There were interesting discussions about Miles Davis on the Conversations with Tyler episodes with John McWhorter and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (you can search the transcripts to skip to the relevant part). I’m not sure whether they mention Davis specifically, but Tyler Cowen’s discussions with the music critics Alex Ross and Ted Giola are also excellent. Giola now has a Substack that you should subscribe to if you enjoyed this post. I also enjoyed this video from the YouTube channel Polyphonic about Kind of Blue. Allofhisothervideos about jazz are also worth watching.
Thanks to Sydney, Gytis and Tom for reviewing drafts of this piece.
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Predictionwas written by Nate Silver, a consultant-briefly-turned-poker-player-turned-political-analyst who is most famous for the election forecasting website fivethirtyeight.com. The Signal and the Noise is one of the small number of books – along with Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting– that aim to seriously assess the question of how predictable the future is, and how people can systematically improve their prediction ability. This is a question which is of a lot of interest to me. Improving judgements about the future seems to be highly important in many areas (what will the effects of a policy be? When will different technological developments occur? How many people will die from COVID?) and very little attention is paid to it. I found The Signal and the Noise to be thoughtful, and I learned a lot from it.
A running theme of this book is that humans don’t have very good track records predicting the outcomes of complex systems. But one domain where humans have excelled is weather forecasting. Weather forecasts are amazingly accurate relative to the complexity involved. In the mid-70s, the US National Weather Service was off by about 6 degrees (Fahrenheit) when trying to forecast three days in advance. This isn’t much more accurate than what you get if you look at long-term averages – as in, what temperature is most likely in this region at this time of year, not taking into account any specific information. Now, the average miss is 3.5 degrees. This is actually slightly less of an improvement than I would have guessed, although to reduce the error in a forecast by a factor of two requires way more than twice as much effort, since errors can compound.
I was surprised to learn how large a role humans still play in weather forecasting. Having a human expert use their judgement in assessing many computer-generated forecasts is better than any of the forecasts are by themselves. Humans make precipitation forecasts 25% more accurate than computers alone and temperature forecasts 10% more accurate. Moreover, the accuracy added by humans has not significantly changed over time, so humans have been getting better at the same rate as the machines (!). If you’re wondering why the weather forecasts you use don’t feel very accurate, it’s in part because weather services are private companies that tend to exaggerate forecasts for appeal; you won’t see this inaccuracy in government forecasts. In particular, meteorologists are known to have a “wet bias” – they forecast rain more often than it actually occurs.
There have been some pretty tremendous positive social externalities of commercial weather forecasting, most notably in creating sophisticated early warning systems for extreme weather. The ability to predict typhoons in India and Bangladesh, for instance, has probably saved many thousands of lives. Silver has a few stories in here about people who refuse to leave their homes during an evacuation because of an unjust scepticism of the forecasts. There also appears to be an exposure effect egoing on: studies of hurricanes find that having survived a hurricane before makes you less likely to evacuate future ones.
The terms ‘fox’ and ‘hedgehog’ used in this book come from the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”. Foxes are people who don’t have grand unified theories, who constantly revise their beliefs to account for new evidence, and live in uncertainty. Hedgehogs are partisans, and have overarching worldviews which they’ll contort the evidence to fit.
The legendary psychologist Philip Tetlock ran a forecasting tournament in which he tracked and graded the predictions of political experts including professors and government officials over nearly two decades and which he summarised in his book Expert Political Judgement. The main finding: experts are barely more accurate at prediction than chance, and usually perform worse than simple extrapolation algorithms (like “assume nothing will change”). There were too many hedgehogs and not enough foxes. The incentive for pundits and journalists is not to actually be accurate; it’s to appear reasonable while giving novel and entertaining predictions. Indeed, another of Tetlock’s major findings is that the more often an expert was on TV, the less accurate their predictions were.
Tetlock also found an overconfidence effect: when an expert says something has no chance of happening, it happens 15% of the time. When they said it is guaranteed to happen, it happens 75% of the time. While foxes get better at predicting with more information, hedgehogs get worse. If you have grand theories instead of partial explanations, having more facts can make your worldview even less accurate. Partisan differences in prediction were not seen in general (people were relatively unbiased in guessing how many seats republicans vs. democrats would win) but there were marked in specific cases (a left-leaning pundit is much more likely to say a specific democrat will win). These predictions were graded using a Brier Score.
(I wonder if this generalises? If we have some kind of broad philosophical or political worldview that biases us, we might actually see more bias the more we zero in on specific cases. Hence, while talking about specifics and partial explanations is usually the better way to get at the truth, to be effective it might require some deconstructing of one’s prior beliefs.)
The woeful state of prediction might lead you to worry about climate science, where government policy is explicitly shaped by expert forecasts. Indeed, the magnitude of warming from climate change has been overestimated by scientists historically. The actual level of warming was below the 1990 IPCC estimates’ most optimistic projection. In response, the IPCC revised down its models in 1995, and now the observed outcomes fall well within the confidence interval of the projected outcomes (albeit the warming is still slightly less than predicted). You can certainly tell a story here about bias: scientists probably want to find a large warming effect and they think (correctly) that we’re at way more risk of panicking too little than too much. However, these estimates assumed a “business as usual” case; so, one factor that wasn’t addressed adequately was that Chinese industry caused an increase in sulphur dioxide concentration starting around 2000, and sulphur dioxide causes a cooling effect. People forget about the other factors that contribute to warming – I was unaware that water vapour is actually the factor that contributes the most to the greenhouse effect! This all seems complicated to take into consideration so the less-than-stellar prediction performance of climate scientists can probably be forgiven. They also seem to have humility: just 19% of climate scientists think that climate science can do a good job of modelling sea-level rise 50 years from now, for instance. At least as of when this book was published (2012), the effect of climate change on most extreme weather events also appears to be unclear. This is a level of uncertainty that the media definitely fails to communicate.
Notably, the estimates around climate change are spectacularly noisy, which is well-known, but I think I had failed to appreciate just how noisy they are. Over the last 100 years, temperature has declined in one quarter of decades – for instance, global temperatures fell from 2001 to 2011.
Another thing people seem to forget is for how long we’ve known about the greenhouse effect. It was discovered by Fourier (of Fourier transform fame) in the 1880s, and Arrhenius in 1897 was the first to predict that industrial activity would lead to a warming effect.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that “the only function of economic forecasting it to make astrology look respectable.” Indeed, at least in terms of asset pricing, we shouldn’t expect economics to be of any help at all because of the efficient market hypothesis (EMH). This says that stocks and other financial products are priced in such a way that encapsulates the sum total of the information available to the market, such that individual trader advantage is rare. There are two components to EMH, which Richard Thaler sometimes calls the No Free Lunch assumption and the Price is Right assumption. No Free Lunch, or, colourfully, the Groucho Marx theorem, says that you shouldn’t be willing to buy a stock from anyone willing to sell it to you; in other words, it’s difficult if not impossible to consistently beat the market. The Price is Right says that assets are efficiently priced in a way that encapsulates all information.
Thaler has made a career out of exposing the extent to which economic models do not take sufficient account of human irrationality, and he is the ideological arch-nemesis of Eugene Fama, the father of EMH (they’re also golfing partners, which I think is cute). Thaler has a famous paper in which he looks at the company 3Com, which created a separate stock offering for its subsidiary Palm. There was a scheme whereby 3Com stockholders were guaranteed to receive three shares in Palm for every two shares in 3Com that they held, which implied that it was mathematically impossible for Palm stock to trade at more than two thirds of the value of 3Com stock. Yet, for several months, Palm actually traded higher than 3Com, through a combination of hype and transaction costs.
The final point that Silver makes about EMH is that it’s in this fascinating epistemic state where if people actually believed it was true, it would stop being true. The only reason people trade stocks is because they think that they have better judgement than the market (if you invest in a portfolio that tracks the market average you will outperform 50% of traders by definition). This mirrors a lot of what people say about startups: if people actually believed that almost every possible great company idea has already been taken, then they wouldn’t start so many companies, undermining the process that made the original statement close to true.
Why does Silver talk about a theory of asset pricing so much? Because it’s epistemically important to forecasting. If there’s an efficient market for ways to improve the world, then if something were a good idea, someone would already be doing it. If there was an efficient market for ideas, every good idea would already have been tried and rise to the level of scientific consensus. And yet science is subject to massive systemic flaws, and huge opportunities for improving the world remain untapped because of inertia and apathy. Improving our forecasts of the future is important. It seems like a lot of people stand to make a lot of money from doing this. It seems like a smallcommunity mostly consisting of nerds on the internet would not be able to massively advance this field. But this impression is wrong.
Silver points out that if you look at the predictions of the Blue Chip Economic Survey and The Survey of Professional Forecasters, the former has some forecasters which do consistently better than others over the long run, but the latter doesn’t. The reason why is that Blue Chip isn’t anonymous, and so forecasters have an incentive to make bold claims that would garner them a lot of esteem if they turned out to be true. One study found a “rational bias” – the lesser the reputation of the institution that someone was forecasting from, the more bold they were in the claims they made. While considerations of esteem probably worsen forecasts overall, they lead some individuals to consistently outperform the crowd.
All of this should help us to understand bubbles. If EMH is true, how could outside observers notice massive market inefficiencies? Robert Shillerpointed out how the price-earnings ratio (share price divided by earnings per share) during the dot-com boom was unreasonably high, which was the sort of thing that had previously preceded a crash. One of the reasons why the bubble did not sort itself out despite people like Shiller pointing this out is the career incentives of traders: if you bet against the market and the market doesn’t crash, you look like an idiot, while going along with the herd won’t result in exceptionally bad personal outcomes. Silver says there is significant evidence that such herding behaviour exists.
Given all this volatility, it shocked me to learn that, over the long run, house prices in the US were remarkably stable until recently. In inflation-adjusted terms, $10,000 invested in a home in 1896 would be worth just $10,600 in 1996 (as measured by the Case-Schiller index). The value of such an investment would then almost double between 1996 and 2006!
There are a lot of interesting applications of the lessons from the science of prediction. One of the most exciting to me is predicting what research is going to replicate. One of the key lessons we should take from The Signal and the Noise is that academics, like everyone else, have all sorts of motivations, including prestige. Through honest motivations, scientists might go along with results that conform to their expectations and worldview, but that a financial market wouldn’t price as being likely to actually be true. While markets have problems (see above), they’re a vast improvement over hearsay and surveys. A ‘prediction market’ works because it actually incentivises people for accuracy in a way they almost never are in other domains. It also works in part because of the wisdom of crowds: group aggregations of forecasts outperform individual ones by 15-20% on average.
Many of you will know this story: John Ionaddis publishes a paper with the provocative title Why Most Published Research Findings Are False which argues that due to the high number of researcher degrees of freedom, and the large variety of results that can be demonstrated with sophisticated statistics, most published research is probably wrong. More than a decade later, he seems to have been proven right. Bayer Labs found that more than two thirds of psychology research papers failed to replicate. Hence, the possible gain from a prediction market in study replication is large. One such project is Replication Markets.
Scott Alexander criticises how people sometimes use the low total death tolls from terrorism as a way to mock conservatives, or people who are concerned about terrorism in general. Most years, lightning kills more people in the US than terrorism, so why worry? Well, here’s a graph of the number of people that atomic bombs have killed since WW2 compared to the number of people who die by lightning each year. Would this be a convincing argument for not worrying about nuclear war? The tail risks are the whole goddamn point.
If you’ve read The Black Swan, you’ll know that lots of things are like this, with ‘heavy-tailed’ risk, and that we sometimes try to shoehorn these into normal distributions.
Earthquakes are distributed according to one such heavy-tailed distribution – a power law – whereby for every one point increase on the Richter scale, an earthquake is ten times less likely. So the bulk of the devastation comes from just a few earthquakes. The Chilean earthquake of 1960, the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, and the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004 accounted for half of all energy released by all earthquakes in the world over the entire 20th century! What else is less like height and more like earthquakes?
In one of the book’s middle chapters, Silver uses terminology about infectious disease that many of us have become familiar with over the last couple of months, particularly SIR models. One interesting thing he talked about was the failure of SIR models to account for how there wasn’t a re-emergence of HIV in the early 2000s among active gay communities like that in San Francisco (there was an increase in unprotected sex and other STDs). It’s actually still somewhat a matter of debate why this happened but probably it was because people began to “serosort” – namely, choose partners who had the same HIV status as them. This goes against one of the major assumptions of the SIR model, which is that interactions among individuals are random.
The next few pages blew my mind the most out of anything I had read in a while. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of President Ford’s 1976 campaign to vaccinate 200 million people against a suspected H1N1 pandemic. The vaccine dramatically increased the rates of the nerve-damaging Guillain-Barré syndrome, and the public turned against it, such that only 50% of people were willing to be vaccinated! The severity of the outbreak also turned out to have been exaggerated, so the government gave up after 25% of people were immunised. How have I not seen this being brought up in the context of COVID?
I recommend this book, particularly if you’re not already familiar with Philip Tetlock, forecasting, and Bayesian statistics. For people who are already interested in that kind of thing, I can still recommend skimming. I’m sure I’ll write about forecasting again on this blog at some point – I didn’t even have time to talk about superforecasters, the people who can consistently outperform expert predictions. ★★★★☆
Afterword: Philosophical Pondering on the Problem of Prediction
One question that Tetlock sometimes gets asked about is whether it’s nonsensical to ascribe a probability to an event that only occurs once. If you think the universe is deterministic, you might say that the probability of a certain candidate winning an election is either 0% or 100%, but you simply do not know which. So, in what sense can this be evaluated probabilistically? Does probability represent something metaphysical about what the outcomes would be if the trials were run infinitely many times? Or just a degree of belief? The former view is identified with the frequentist school and the latter the Bayesian school. Regardless of one’s philosophical position, Tetlock’s approach is to just get on with it: if we look at the set of all supposedly unpredictable things, do the things you predicted would happen 10% of the time happen 10% of the time?
Viewing probability as just degree of belief is actually very counterintuitive. There are problems with this that I still haven’t figured out, like the distinction between external and internal ‘credences’, of degrees of belief. I may think there is a 50% chance that Trump will win re-election, but isn’t there some higher-order uncertainty I have about whether I’m using the correct mental model to assess this, or whether I’m actually in a computer simulation, or something? But doesn’t this eliminate the initial theoretical appeal of having all considerations cash out into a single credence? What if your credences hold some mathematically impossible property?
David Hume thought that, because we don’t have certainty, saying that the sun will rise tomorrow is inherently not any more rational than saying it won’t. More recently, probability-as-beliefs was famously opposed by the statistician Ronald Fisher. One of the main problems with the frequentist school is how much of forecasting and probability turns into a game of finding the correct reference class, or relevant comparison group. The reference class for the die you roll is fair six-sided dice, but what reference class would the 9/11 attacks be in, for instance? So the principal objection to the Bayesian approach – that it is too subjective – applies also to views of probability-as-frequency.
The speakers of some languages have a reputation for talking quickly while others have a reputation for talking slowly. Is this because some cultures actually communicate quicker than others, or are they just using more words to communicate the same information?
That is what Coupé et al. aims to answer empirically, using a dataset of 17 languages. They conclude that, indeed, the information communicated per second of speech is similar across languages – in particular, around 39 bits/s.
If you’re wondering how a syllable could have a bit value, you have a fun afternoon ahead of you reading about information theory. In an information-dense 8 bit/syllable language like Vietnamese, you on average have a 1 in 256 chance of predicting the next syllable, while in a 5 bit/syllable language like Japanese, you have a 1 in 32 chance. So, there are two competing strategies that balance each other out: either have information-dense syllables, and speak more slowly, or have information-sparse syllables, and speak quicker. Cool!
I couldn’t find anything on whether the same thing is true of dialects. Speakers with some accents speak much more quickly than others – for instance, Northerners are known for speaking quicker than Southerners in the US. This would be a great secondary school or undergraduate summer project. And it wouldn’t even be that hard to run – you could just give people the same piece of text to “translate” into their dialect, then see if the same information is communicated in the same amount of time.
Can a language benefit its speakers in general?
Researching speech efficiency got me wondering: are there specific benefits that speaking a certain language can give you?
I’m somewhat biased against this being true. If speaking East Whereverese raised your IQ by 5 points, you’d expect its beneficial features to be adopted by other languages, or be independently converged upon by multiple languages.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that one of the reasons why Chinese students perform so well on mathematics tests is because of beneficial features of the Chinese language itself: namely, saying words in English is clunky and takes a lot of syllables, but numbers in Chinese are quicker and easier to speak. Being able to hold numbers in working memory for even a fraction of a second longer can be a real boon for maths ability. By age 4, Chinese children can already count to 40, while Americans of the same age can only count to 15, putting them a full year behind. And this is before formal education starts, so you can’t pin this one on the education system.
Again, this is mysterious to me. If you can upgrade your children’s numerical reasoning by a full year just by giving them a vocabulary that makes it easier to talk about words, why haven’t other languages evolved to do the same thing? I’ve always thought those parents that teach fake languages to their kids were wasting their time, but if Klingon is anywhere near as efficient in talking about numbers as Chinese, maybe they have a point! Are there other cognitive capabilities that the English language enhances that compensate for the mathematical disadvantage it puts its speakers at?
(Note: Scott Alexander points out how Chinese mathematics test scores are kind of fake, in that China struck a deal whereby it only administer the PISA exam (the standard test for comparing countries’ mathematics ability) in its most educated provinces (!). If the US were allowed to do the same thing, you find that the Chinese mathematical advantage goes away. But this wouldn’t explain Chinese kids being able to count higher. So, all in all, not sure what to make of this.)
Appendix: Podcast listening speed
It still boggles my mind that not everyone has realised that you can listen to podcasts and audiobooks at >160% speed while losing no comprehension. This seems to imply that the rate-limiting part of speech – and therefore why languages communicate at the same rate – is how fast people can speak, not how fast people can listen. In which case, I await the day where I can have a neural implant that allows people to communicate all the same information to me in half the time 🙂
There’s a lot more to talk about with this book, but my main review has all the points I have a strong view about. Caplan discusses the objection that immigrants would lower average IQ, and talks about Garrett Jones’ book Hive Mind, which argues that national IQ is very important in determining national prosperity. I’ll point you to the Slate Star Codex review for more discussion (with the caveat that IQ research is very controversial so please don’t get mad at me).
Caplan has a cute section of the book called ‘All Roads Lead to Open Borders’ in which he describes how open borders remain a good idea under a wide variety of philosophies, including utilitarianism, Kantianism, Christianity, and libertarianism. I don’t have strong views on the philosophy of immigration – my impression studying the subject at university was that any a priori objections should only make a difference at the margin, and are dwarfed by the empirics. Still, there are some plausible moral values you could hold that would make immigration less appealing – such as cultural preservation, or countries’ right to self-determination. Conversely, if you especially value cultural diversity or individuals’ rights to freedom of association, open borders seem more appealing.
One thing I didn’t talk about was brain drain, mostly because I don’t think it’s a very significant problem. Developing countries are not even close to coming up against the ceiling of people who are capable of doing in-demand jobs like being health professionals. Crudely, the reason why there aren’t many engineers in Chad isn’t that Chad trained a bunch of engineers who all left; it’s that Chad doesn’t have many engineers full stop. A lot of the philosophical literature on open borders also seems to be confused about this point. Doctors immigrating from developing countries doesn’t reduce the supply of doctors in those countries. The Philippines’ supply of nurses has actually increasedas a result of the fact that they send so many nurses abroad.
Appendix B: Arguments that Caplan Didn’t Use
How much of India and China’s economic growth is as a result of the fact that they’re really big, and therefore, moving across them is a lot like immigrating? When Caplan pointed this out, I was pretty surprised I hadn’t thought about it before. Were the two major economies to take drastic steps in reducing poverty in recent decades able to do so largely because they’re really big? This is like one panel on one page, but I felt like he could have developed the argument more. In general, I think the book’s argumentative style leans too highly on Estimates by Economists™ and not enough on case studies and natural experiments. Do more populous countries have greater growth in the long run? If so, this points us in the direction of open borders. Relatedly, I liked how Caplan talked about what Lant Pritchett calls ‘zombie economies’ – economies kept alive by restrictions that forbid people from leaving. A shockingly large share of the US has been declining in population for decades, yet we would regard it as absurd to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to leave Nebraska because doing so would go against Nebraska’s interests.
There are various arguments related to long-termism that Caplan didn’t use; namely, the downsides of immigration (higher crime, perhaps draining the government’s budget) are temporary but the upsides (higher economic growth) bear their fruit over centuries and will likely affect billions of future people. If you buy the argument, popular within effective altruism, that what matters most morally is our consequences on the long-run future, this would seem to be a point for open borders.
Caplan makes it seem like it’s an open-and-shut case that immigration doesn’t lead to an increase in unemployment. But many economists are also fans of the minimum wage. But surely there’s a tension here? If the minimum wage has no disemployment effects, the labour market is perfectly inelastic, and if immigration has no disemployment effects, the labour market is perfectly elastic. So how elastic is the labour market?
Such a disproportionate amount of innovation comes from immigrants. More inventors immigrated to the US from 2000 to 2010 than to all other countries combined. Immigrants account for a quarter of total US invention and entrepreneurship. Maybe this is just because America disproportionately lets smart and innovative people move there. But maybe there are some agglomeration effects going on here specifically related to immigration? Immigration – or more particularly, clustering people together – seems to have been key to the success of various intellectual hubs throughout history, like the Bay Area recently, Vienna in the 20th century, and Edinburgh in the 18th century. This seems like a ripe topic for progress studies to tackle. Aesthetically, I agree with Caplan’s choice not to talk about this much. People talking about all the “amazing contributions made by [insert immigrant group]” often comes off as condescending, in much the same way as token engagement with other cultures might. Make the case for immigration from prosperity and freedom, or don’t make it at all! But it still has to be confessed that immigrants do seem to contribute a disproportionate amount – technologically, artistically, scientifically, and culturally – to the US.
I think there are good reasons to believe that way fewer immigrants would actually move than Caplan presupposes. During the entire Greek financial crisis, only 3% of the Greek population moved country (!), at a time when the unemployment rate was 27% – and remember, Greeks have more than a dozen prosperous destination countries to choose from with no paperwork involved! Inertia is the most powerful force in the universe. Caplan’s defence of his high implicit estimates is that, once the ball gets rolling, more and more immigrants from a particular country will move – for instance, historically immigration from Puerto Rico to the US was lower than you would expect given the difference in economic opportunity, but then Puerto Rican communities formed in many US cities, and more and more people moved. Gallup finds more than 100 million people want to migrate to the US. 750 million say that they would leave their home country if they could. But we have reason to doubt people would actually act on this. This makes open borders a little more palatable to people that are sceptical of immigration: it wouldn’t be as different to the status quo as you might expect.
What factors have led Canada and Australia to handle immigration so well?
There is a general perception that Muslim immigration to the EU has gone poorly. How much of this is hysteria? Why would future rounds of immigration not have problems in the same way?
Greying is not something that Caplan talked about much. At first this might seem surprising – one common-sense case for immigration is that people in Europe and America are getting too old to work and they need immigrants to replenish their workforce.
There aren’t really jobs that “Americans won’t do”, since, if people don’t like doing something, the wages will rise until they start doing it to meet demand. However, this price is such that there’s significant deadweight loss – mutually beneficial trades that no longer occur. For instance, more people would get more childcare if the government allowed more immigration. Caplan discusses this, but I didn’t feel sufficiently inspired to think about how this would be great for me personally. If I lived in a place with open borders, I’d probably hire a personal assistant or something.
Appendix C: One Billion Americans
Another book I read recently and recommend is Matt Ygelsias’ One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger (Caplan reviewed it on his blog). He argues for large-scale population growth, partially through immigration but mostly through an increase in fertility, to maintain American pre-eminence over China and India. He argues that, for all of its failings, American dominance is better than the alternative. And America is at a disadvantage on this front by having a billion fewer people than the Asian giants.
I’m not sure this argument should have gone in the book – it would take a long time to justify, and open borders appeals to a lot of left-libertarian sensibilities that might be offended at the idea of American global hegemony. But it would be an interesting project for the open borders community to look at the geopolitics of population growth. How important are marginal increases in population to geopolitical power? Are spurts in population growth followed by increases in various measures of hard power? Soft power?
Bryan Caplan is an economist at George Mason University and all-around interesting guy who is known for his out-there views about various social and political issues (especially education). Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration is his latest book, which argues for an end to all restrictions on migration and is in the format of a graphic novel illustrated by Zach Weinersmith of SMBC fame. The first thing I would say about this book is that the graphic novel format works really well. The art style is cute and I think graphic novels are heavily underrated. Realistically, most people are not going to read a regular book about the economics of immigration. But this way Caplan can lure us in with fun cartoons! The next thing I would say is that the book makes an important argument on an issue where people have particularly poorly thought-out opinions. The data are pretty clear that immigration is massively more beneficial than most people realise – certainly economically, and perhaps socially too. However, upon reflection there are serious objections to open borders, and the arguments in the book have a number of omissions.
Caplan really does believe that there should be no restrictions on immigration whatsoever, and that’s exactly what his cartoon representation in this book argues for. The basic argument goes like this: people should, in general, be allowed to make decisions that they think will improve their lives, assuming they’re not hurting anyone. Moving to a new country is exactly such a decision. Since immigrants often move in search of work, moving is associated with a massive increase in economic prosperity: by moving to the US and receiving no additional training or education, the average citizen of a developing country can expect their income to increase fivefold; for countries like Nigeria, the figure is tenfold. This is because developed countries are safer, more prosperous and have better quality institutions, so immigrants are more productive in them. The gains are so vast that a standard estimate is that open borders would double world GDP. And yet rich countries continue to restrict immigration, sometimes through formal caps, and sometimes through complicated bureaucracy and paperwork which at best dissuades people from entering and at worst makes it literally impossible (like rejecting you for not filling out the middle name section on a form when you don’t have a middle name). Some of the arguments against immigration are xenophobic or racist, but many are legitimate concerns bought up in good faith. However, most (all?) of these are simply not borne out by careful consideration of the evidence. The consensus among economists is that immigration does not generally decrease natives’ wages. Nor does it lead to an increase in poverty, crime, or a significant strain on the welfare state and social services. While the data about this is more unclear, immigrants seem to be barely different from natives in their political views and they adopt a lot of the cultural values of their destination country. Hence, the contrary considerations are not enough to overwhelm our initial presumption in favour of allowing people to move and massively improve their standard of living, and so we should have open borders.
Open Borders is an extremely US-centric book. As someone from the land of ‘not America’, this is something that frustrates me about a lot of non-fiction. Caplan justifies his focus on the US by saying that his audience is mostly Americans and that that’s where the highest quality data exists for. But in this case, the book makes a way narrower argument than is set out in the book’s intro. By focusing primarily on America, the case is made stronger than it otherwise would be. For instance, immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Europeans but fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Immigrants to the US also seem to assimilate unusually well (although some people say this is just because European countries are more regulated, and in their infinite wisdom make decisions like forbidding refugees from getting jobs).
Focusing so much on the US is bizarre because the European Union has open borders between its member states! Surely analysing whether this has gone well should be the most convincing piece of evidence about open borders. Ireland is 17% foreign-born, a significantly higher proportion than the US, and from eyeballing the data is looks like the immigration rate to Ireland has nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years. This would seem like a major success story of immigration. Meanwhile, Caplan only talks about the EU for a few panels toward the end of the book. The considerations above don’t seem to justify anywhere near this level of parochialism.
Until the 1920s, the US had de facto open borders, and this is another thing that I wish Caplan had dug into more. It certainly seems like America benefited a lot from immigration at this time (or, at the very least, that immigrant groups like the Irish did) but have people studied what the effects of open borders actually were?
Open borders would be the largest social transformation possibly ever, and there isn’t even that much research about it. We should in general be extremely humble about the prospects that our views about complex topics are completely right, and the downsides from open borders, if we are wrong, could be quite significant.
Caplan is unusually scrupulous at making sure his claims are backed up by the data. His book The Case Against Educationis one of the most meticulously researched books I have ever read. So, it was a bit disappointing that there weren’t more margins of error attached to his claims. How confident are we that open borders would really double world GDP? 10%? 50%? 90%? Even with such error bars, after reading about the replication problems in economics and the colourful uses of statistics to get one’s desired conclusion, I don’t find these kinds of projections very convincing compared to natural experiments and case studies, and I mentioned that the EU, the most compelling such example, is not talked about much.
Unless I’m mistaken, at no point does Caplan address the environmental harms of open borders. Moving people from low-emitting poor countries to high-emitting rich countries would lead to a pretty dramatic acceleration in global CO2 emissions. Admittedly, “keep most of the world poor” is a terrible climate change strategy, but there are some climate problems you might want to solve first before advocating for open borders. A world with open borders would be much richer, and so would have a lot more money to throw at the problem of climate change, but how much more would it throw? If the case for open borders were airtight, it would have to address this. I’m confident that Caplan has reflected and come to the conclusion that there are no climate problems that we can solve in a short-enough period of time to justify the harm caused by delaying open borders, but he doesn’t show his work.
Sometimes, climate change gets used as an excuse for opposing almost any societal progress. This is unfortunate. But “open borders would create this gigantic problem, namely massively accelerated climate change, but the benefits outweigh the harms” was not the argument I got from the book. “Open borders are so good, and the objections are not that significant” was the argument I took away from the book.
There are considerations I can think of that would make the environmental objection less serious. Immigration would probably accelerate the trend of urbanisation, and cities are better for the environment (smaller houses, more use of public transportation, etc.). People would also be able to move away from the regions that are worst affected.
I’m also seriously concerned about the animal suffering that would be induced by open borders. I think that we should give a high degree of moral consideration to complex animals like cows and pigs, and that globally, eating meat, 90% of which comes from factory farms, creates an almost unimaginable level of suffering. There are a couple of reasons why open borders would make this worse: the Western diet is more meat-heavy than diets from other places, and richer people in general consume more animal protein. Some people talk about the meat-eater problem: many interventions in global development look much less cost-effective if you give moral concern to animals (since, if the interventions save human lives or make people better off, they lead to greater meat consumption). The high demand may further entrench factory farming as the default way meat is produced. This is not a consideration that most people have when thinking about open borders, but the premises are relatively uncontroversial. Virtually everyone agrees that animals are worthy of moral concern, and many (most?) people see some problem with eating factory-farmed meat, even if they do not act on their discomfort.
Caplan has a section where he addresses the political effects of immigrants, largely drawing on data from Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute finding that immigrants are a tiny bit more liberal than the general population but that their kids and grandkids regress to the political mainstream. Immigrants and natives didn’t have a partisan difference until the 1980s, and the partisan difference comes from immigrants being more likely to identify as independent, not from being more likely to identify as Democrat (although maybe after a while immigrants become acclimated and realise that third-parties never win…). This is interesting but doesn’t address the tail risk of immigration leading to a Trump/Brexit dysfunctional level of polarisation or backlash (admittedly, that would be very speculative). It may be the case that the biggest harms from immigration come from people irrationally freaking out about immigration, but, uh, people are in fact irrational.
Here’s Michael Huemer, in one of the most well-known philosophical defences of open borders, on the effects of immigration on culture:
“Empirically, it is doubtful whether apprehensions about the demise of American culture are warranted. Around the world, American culture, and Western culture more generally, have shown a robustness that prompts more concern about the ability of other cultures to survive influence from the West than vice versa. For example, Coca-Cola now sells its products in over 200 countries around the world, with the average human being on Earth drinking 4.8 gallons of Coke per year. McDonald’s operates more than 32,000 restaurants in over 100 countries.”
This seems to kind of sidestep the objection. Mass migration to the US is not a concern because Coca-Cola will go out of business; it’s a concern because democracy, freedom of speech, and the rights of women and homosexuals are deeply unpopular in much of the world. Importing millions of people from autocracies and societies that are otherwise deeply illiberal may well have adverse effects on democracy. This makes the case for having long waiting times for citizenship pretty good.
The selection effects right now for immigration to the US are really strong, but we have every reason to believe that they would decline under open borders. If immigration restrictions were lifted, the average quality of immigrant would almost certainly drop. This is something Caplan admits to, but the response to it didn’t feel convincing. Just howmuch selection bias is there in who gets admitted and who doesn’t?
Caplan is an economist, so I can’t really argue with his reasoning about the economics of immigration. While the book is pretty convincing in arguing that immigration is the best tool we have for reducing poverty in an absolute sense, I’m less clear about the effects on poverty in a relative sense. Poor Americans still have it great by global standards, but they certainly don’t feel that way, and the point of all this prosperity is presumably to make people subjectively better off. Defeating bona fide poverty – the type where people can’t feed their kids – is priority number one, but still!
Currently, the people who move from poor countries to rich countries are self-selected for being hard-working, intelligent, and conscientiousness. But what happens when the really unmotivated ne’er-do-well’s start coming too? Under the current regime, these people would be relegated to the fringes of society. Could open borders even make some immigrants worse off, even if their pay cheque triples?
Caplan also doesn’t really consider the extent to which racism and xenophobia might flare up in response to immigration (though he does have a great section covering the effects on social trust). The countries that are the closest to having open borders are the gulf states; they have many migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. On one level, this is great: Qatar benefits from cheap infrastructure, the Sri Lankans benefits by getting higher-paid jobs. But I do also fear that this will lead to a kind of racially segregated dystopia.
In fact, immigrant groups would be largely stratified based on how wealthy they were to begin with. African immigrants would likely be deeply poor, followed by not-as-poor Indians, then richer Chinese, and so on. What happens to the politics and culture of a society that is that racially stratified? This is of course also a problem now, but I wonder what it might mean to scale it up so much. The fact that levels of education and training correlate with immigrants’ ethnicity vis-à-vis the differences in wealth among countries would lead to a problematic level of statistical discrimination, at the very least.
I initially was very sympathetic to the view – defended by some philosophers – that wealth inequality is not a problem per se; poverty is. But the more I think about it, the more this feels like squabbles over semantics. Yes, the distribution of resources is not intrinsically morally significant, but the mere fact that poor people don’t have very much money isn’t morally significant either. Conducting research about this is hard, and take the literature with a grain of salt, but, holding poverty constant, inequality seems to have lots of negative effects on all sorts of outcomes, including crime. So, given that it has negative outcomes, and is frequently caused by unjust social conditions, inequality – which would be increased within countries by open borders – is worth worrying about!
(Finally, regarding the welfare state, because I didn’t know what section to put it in. One of the more sophisticated considerations contra redistribution is that excessive transfer payments aren’t really compatible with high levels of immigration (unless you want to go bankrupt), and we know with a high degree of certainty that immigration is better at reducing poverty than government programs. But does this actually happen? Do places that grow their welfare state subsequently shrink their level of immigration, or shift it toward higher-skilled immigrants? Is there something funky going on such that support for immigration and welfare became tightly correlated beliefs?)
Toward the end of the book Caplan discusses whether it’s a good idea to be advocating for open borders, or whether the idea is so radical that it will turn people off immigration even more. He comes to the conclusion that discussing open borders shifts the Overton window toward increasing immigration. I’m not so sure. For how important it is to convince people about things, I’ve seen remarkably little empirical research as to how you do it. Putting group polarisation aside, is it a good idea to give someone a stronger case or a weaker case to convince them to move their views in the direction of the argument?
This book made me think about what low-hanging fruit might exist in the space of increasing immigration. As I mentioned, immigration in many countries is not formally capped but is de facto limited by being confusing and costly. Have people tried to start companies to fill this niche of streamlining immigration? Are there any foundations willing to run this kind of thing as a non-profit? Google turns up surprisingly few results.
All in all, I recommend this book. The thing it changed my mind the most about is the extent to which wealth is a function of where you are, not who you are. One estimate is that 60-70% of the global wealth disparity is explained by location alone. You could fix the institutions of poor countries from the ground up – but we don’t know how to do this, it would take a long time, and it’s unclear to what extent their problems arise from geography, so wouldn’t get fixed by better policies anyway. Hence, the case for more immigration still looks pretty watertight. I hope to see these arguments developed further!
One of the critiques commonly levelled against psychology is that its samples mostly come from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Joseph Heinrich and others published a highly cited paper in 2010 in which they found that the cross-cultural range of psychological variation was much larger than previously assumed, and that WEIRD samples are actually some of the least representative of humans in general. You cannot test a bunch of Yale sophomores and make conclusions about the universal human condition, as it turns out. A bunch of cross-cultural psychology work ensued. Here’s a highlight from Scott et al. 2014:
“A large literature proposes that preferences for exaggerated sex typicality in human faces (masculinity/femininity) reflect a long evolutionary history of sexual and social selection. This proposal implies that dimorphism was important to judgments of attractiveness and personality in ancestral environments. It is difficult to evaluate, however, because most available data come from large-scale, industrialized, urban populations. Here, we report the results for 12 populations with very diverse levels of economic development. Surprisingly, preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits are only found in the novel, highly developed environments. Similarly, perceptions that masculine males look aggressive increase strongly with development and, specifically, urbanization. These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value. One possibility is that highly developed environments provide novel opportunities to discern relationships between facial traits and behavior by exposing individuals to large numbers of unfamiliar faces, revealing patterns too subtle to detect with smaller samples.”
I take this to mean that in the ancestral environment, it may well have been the case that more masculine men made better mates, but the sample size of men that the average woman had observations of was so small that she couldn’t make the inference. And vice versa for femininity. A number of books have given me the general picture that humans’ preferences and dispositions (for instance, boys’ preferences for rough and tumble play) are mostly genetic and don’t result from social conditioning. Explanations like this, that appeal to the group dynamics of interacting with many more people than we did as hunter-gatherers, seem more convincing to me.
I added an ideas page to this website, which can be accessed from the homepage.
I also added a projects page for miscellany that doesn’t fit into a blog post.
What I’ve been reading
George Orwell’s thoughts on the common toad. “Presently [the toad] has swollen to his normal size again, and then he goes through a phase of intense sexiness.” I’m guessing the word ‘sexy’ used to mean “desiring sex” and George Orwell was not attracted to a toad? Otherwise, I will need to rethink the message of Animal Farm…
Simon Beard has a bio of the moral philosopher Derek Parfit on his website. Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Parfit for the New Yorker remains one of my all-time favourite articles.
Scott Alexander on how effective lockdowns have been. It’s a mixed picture, the between-country comparisons are significantly less informative than the between-state comparisons in the US, due to data-reporting issues and cultural differences.
Mark Lutter released a catalogue of examples of successful social movements. I would add various postcolonial movements to restore a country’s language and culture, like the Gaelic League.
Higher than the Shoulders of Giants A very intriguing argument that the slowdown in growth post-1970 is due to the Controlled Substances Act, and that cultures tend to see periods of artistic and intellectual flourishing after the introduction of new drugs. An excellent post.
The Bomber Mafia A short engaging read about how the US switched from precision to civilian bombing. If you are going to read it, however, you should also read the LA Times review, which is very negative. Gladwell seems to have returned to his roots of cutesy and simplistic narratives. The reviewer takes a moralising perspective that I don’t appreciate: this is a book about white men in the air force – it’s simply not attempting to be comprehensive, or claim to represent the victims.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom I can tell this works better as a play, right down the “all taking place in one room” (well, two rooms) trope.
The Miles Davis Quintet live in Milan 1964. 40:50 is where Miles gets pissed off at Herbie Hancock. Also, the Karlsruhe 1967 concert. It’s striking how little exposition or narration there is in old concerts. They don’t even say the names of the songs. Finally, Stockholm ’67.
The Eddy I was very excited to see that Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash and La La Land) had a Netflix series about jazz. I was a little bit disappointed, however the soundtrack was excellent – I particularly recommend ‘Kiss Me in the Morning’ and the uptempo version of ‘The Eddy’.
A Quiet Place Part II An unnecessary sequel to be sure, although still a worthy way to pass the time. It felt good to go to a real-life cinema!
Jazz by Ken Burns A 12-part series, so this has taken up most of my TV-watching recently. I posted my notes.
A documentary about Monserrat, a Caribbean island that was originally settled by the Irish and has maintained a strong (and often bizarre) cultural connection to it. Many different parts of the island are named after places in Ireland, like Kinsale. It is weird to see black people from the Caribbean being called Seamus Murphy!
What I’ve been listening to
Tom Monyihan on the intellectual history of existential risk.
My Miles Davis post got a fair amount of traction. I got a lot of feedback, most of which was constructive. My biggest error was not paying more attention to the late career live recordings, which are often significantly better than the studio albums. I’m keeping the post updated in response to my current thoughts and tastes.
I’ve decided to rename these posts from ‘media diet’ to ‘links’. I’ll still include films and albums I recommend, but most of it will be links to podcasts, articles, and other interesting things that I find.
I’ve made some aesthetic changes to the website, and I now have a cute lil’ owl as my icon.
Tim Urban on how to pick a life partner. And a review of the American presidents. It ends at McKinley, so I didn’t get to hear this thoughts about my boy Herbert Hoover 😦
Carl Zimmer in the NYT on aphantasia, or the inability to form mental images, and hyperphantasia, the formation of unusually vivid mental images. “Based on their surveys, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues estimate that 2.6 percent of people have hyperphantasia and that 0.7 percent have aphantasia.” I’m glad to see this subject getting more coverage.
Straight Outta Compton Recommended even if you know nothing about the subject matter. And Ben Westhoff on the evolution of gangster rap.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 I know that Tarantino is a great filmmaker. What I’m less certain of is whether he’s ever directed a truly great film.
Sherpa Is there now a sherpa union? Is Everest overcrowding due to squeamishness about raising prices? How highly are guides implicitly valuing their lives? Someone needs to write a paper about the economics of sherpas.
The Dawn Wall There seem to be unusually many great documentaries about mountain climbing.
The Adventures of Tintin One of my favourite comic series as a kid, although some of it is indeed horribly racist so I am not sure the print versions will survive cancellation. I think this film is an underrated masterpiece.
Tom Scott on Ogham, the ancient Irish writing system. We learned about this in school, but the unusual implications for unicode I did not know about.
What I’ve been listening to
Blue’s Moods One of the most underrated jazz albums I know about. My favourites are ‘I’ll Close My Eyes’, ‘Scrapple from the Apple’ and ‘When I Fall in Love’.
Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia A wonderful collection. The best tracks are ‘Dinah’ and ‘The Gypsy’.
The Capitol Studios Sessions Jeff Goldblum released a jazz album and it’s actually… surprisingly good. Listen to ‘Cantaloupe Island’.
The Sidewinder I recently watched the documentary ‘I Called Him Morgan’, which has rekindled my interest in Lee Morgan. The best tracks are the title song and ‘Totem Pole’.
Covered (Live at Capitol Studios) I mentioned Robert Glasper in my Miles Davis post, this is one of his ‘pure’ jazz albums. ‘So Beautiful’ is my favourite song here.
I realise that we’re now quite a bit into June, but I only had the idea for this post a few days ago. These posts will be a collection of articles, books, podcasts, music and films that I read/listened to/watched recently. I won’t bother mentioning things that I’ve already written separate posts about.
My friend Will Robbins and others have written a Progress Studies 101 curriculum on Notion. If you’re not familiar with progress studies, it’s a new intellectual movement to study the causes of civilisational progress, and how to continue it – from industrial history to funding models. It was inspired by this Atlantic article by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen
It turns out that famous story about how Pepsi used to have the 6th largest navy in the world isn’t true at all. The real story is still very interesting.
Making Sense Kind of a lazy premise for a book, because it’s just the lightly edited transcripts of the best episodes of Sam Harris’ podcast. And I’m not even sure I agreed with the selection of conversations: I would have included the Will MacAskill and Jonathan Haidt episodes, and I would have dropped the particular emphasis on conversations about consciousness (unless Harris is planning to turn this into two books). The David Chalmers and Anil Seth conversations repeat the same old tropes about the hard vs easy problem, qualia, what it’s like to be a bat, and so on.
Blink Enjoyable as an audiobook, narrated by Gladwell, but it doesn’t hold up well scientifically even by the standards of his books. The most interesting study he talks about is that one where you can predict people’s personality traits shockingly well just by examining their bedrooms because, for example, people with tidier rooms will be higher in trait conscientiousness. This is why Republicans have tidier rooms than Democrats. I don’t know whether this has survived replication. I think if you’re going to read any of Gladwell’s books, you should read them all. Because, even though the scientific details of many of them are sketchy, as a whole they are much more nuanced. Outliers, for example, is about advantages that look like advantages, while David and Goliath is about advantages that look like disadvantages. Similarly, Blink is about the reliability of snap judgements, and Talking to Strangers is about the unreliability of snap judgements.
To Explain the World Pretty standard book for the history of science genre. Main takeaways: the distinction between episteme and techne and the natural and the artificial in ancient Greece was a big impediment to progress. Aristotle, a great observationist, didn’t trust experiments for this reason. Also, it’s also not as simple as Copernicus coming up with the heliocentric model to replace the geocentric one: heliocentric models go back to Aristarchus, and there were a couple of variations on the geometry of the solar system – for instance, that the planets went around the sun but the sun went around the Earth. Also didn’t realise Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were different people 🙂
The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Pretty good as an audiobook, although the ‘sensitive college students are destroying academia’ genre is done to death by now. The more interesting part is about the alarming mental health trends, most among girls, of people born post-1996. There is a well-known study that shows that screen time is uncorrelated with mental health outcomes for teenagers (which is true), but Haidt points out that, among girls, social media use explains more of the variance of mental ill health than heroin use (!!). (Note that this is mostly because very few people do heroin.) I hope that Haidt stays on this intellectual path and fleshes his argument more by looking at other countries.
Them: Adventures with Extremists Light and entertaining, just like all of Jon Ronson’s stuff. The book is significantly outdated, and treats conspiracy theorists with a kind of levity that you wouldn’t see today, in an age of QAnon and covid denialism. A main theme of the book is that a lot of people with fringe beliefs are just garden-variety crazy, rather than part of an organised hate movement. I don’t think a book would be written today, now that conspiracy theories like anti-vax have done so much harm.
A Promised Land Malcolm Gladwell once said that the best autobiographies are form people who were second-in-command, or lower down the ranks of power, because the people on top have too much to lose from writing candidly. This is certainly the case with Obama’s book. It’s possible that he really does think the way he writes, but in that case, I overestimated his intellectual depth. I wish he had talked more about his intellectual influences and what he was reading at Colombia and Harvard, but the stuff about his upbringing was mildly interesting.
What I’ve Been Watching
Operation Varsity Blues This documentary is well put-together and has a cool format (real phone transcripts that are acted out) but seems morally mistaken in a number of respects. To be honest, I’m not sure that auctioning off university slots would be worse than the current system.
In Bruges One of my favourite comedies. The film is filled with references to death, and the whole setup with the midget is almost Shakespearian.
Parasite Immediately became one of my favourite films. Bong Joon-Ho just released a black-and-white version of the film, and I’m very excited to watch it. My girlfriend and I had an interpretation closer to the politically incorrect version given by Alex Tabarrok: namely, that the real villains of this film are the poor family, and the rich family are actually good, if naive, people. Some of the things said about this film in places like Vox and NYT makes me question whether they really watched the film.
No Country for Old Men There’s a good hour in the middle of this film that feels like completely pointless violence, and you only figure out that it’s not pointless toward the end when there’s a more philosophical and subversive twist.
A Beautiful Mind There are surprisingly many great films about maths. Fermat’s Room and The Man Who Knew Infinity are also great.
This was a great two-part series on the Napoleonic wars that I watched. This period in history is absolutely insane.
What I’ve been listening to
Plays – Chick Corea Chick Corea was a famous jazz pianist who died this year. Pastime Paradise (a cover of Stevie Wonder) is just sublime.
RoundAgain – Joshua Redman Brad Meldheu is one of the best living jazz artists I know about. Right Back Round Again is the best song from this album.
Anatomy of Angels – Jon Batiste Jon Batiste’s jazz is great. Listen to the title track and to Round Midnight.
Swingin’ in Seattle – Cannonball Adderley Recently released. His voiceovers are great and it really shows Cannonball as the playful more popular version of the First Great Quintet era jazz giants.
My Favorite Things – Joey Alexander Joey Alexander is spectacularly talented, and he’s only 17 which really makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life. The best tracks from this album are Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and Tour De Force.
Making Sense with Iain McGilchrist I’m surprised that McGilchrist isn’t more well-known. I’m building up to The Master and his Emissary, which is about hemispheric lateralisation (i.e. how the brain was divided in two and assigned functions to them). He has a theory about how this division shaped history, although I don’t understand the argument. He was also excellent on EconTalk.
Very Bad Wizards: William James on habit William James, the father of American psychology, seems like an incredibly underrated thinker. He reminds me of Adam Smith in that he pre-empted so much of his field. Indeed, the very topic of habits and automatic processing is very scientifically and philosophically rich. Very Bad Wizards is one of my favourite podcasts – if you have any interest in psychology or philosophy, I highly recommend going through their archive and listening to the episodes that interest you.
80,000 Hours with Howie Lempel The 80,000 Hours podcast, hosted by Rob Wiblin, is one of the most popular pieces of media in the effective altruism community. This recent episode about living with a mental illness is very relevant to my recent post about depression.
Julia Galef has done a number of interviews for her new book The Scout Mindset. The best is this one on the Mindscape podcast with Sean Carroll.
The New Shape of Pasta from Planet Money. This chronicles one man’s journey to try to invent a new form of pasta, which combines the benefits of flat pastas like tagliatelle with the frills of farfelle (the dickie bow pasta). Click through for a picture.
Disclaimer: I recognise that a lot of people have strong views about Jordan Peterson. I don’t have a strong opinion about him as a person, and I’m not interested in his personal controversies. But his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is light on politics. This is my response and review. His new book Beyond Order: Another 12 Rule for Life just came out, but I have less to say about it.
12 Rules for Life is a weird book. It can be read in a lot of different ways. It revolves around twelve rules to live your life by, accompanied by cutesy illustrations, based strangely enough on a Quora post. Much of it is ambiguous. The single biggest strand is theology, particularly Biblical hermeneutics (Peterson is a Christian) but it’s also about philosophy, psychology (Peterson is a psychologist) and mythology. Scott Alexander’s review is excellent and sums up a common view about the book among secular analytical types:
“Jordan Peterson [is] a mildly competent purveyor of pseudo-religious platitudes. But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.”
The forward to the book was written by a doctor I hadn’t heard of named Norman Doidge, but it pre-empts some of the themes so it’s worth talking about. He argues that, while few people would profess to the label of moral relativist, its influence has seeped into many strands of elite thought. This is so much the case that words like ‘virtue’ and ‘sin’ are anachronisms. He writes:
“The decent thing to do—once it becomes apparent how arbitrary your, and your society’s, “moral values” are—is to show tolerance for people who think differently, and who come from different (diverse) backgrounds. That emphasis on tolerance is so paramount that for many people one of the worst character flaws a person can have is to be “judgmental.” And, since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live.”
This is a curious use of the word ‘judgemental’, because in other respects modern society is very judgemental, like the ubiquitous comparison on social media. But if I can steelman his view, it’s that modern society is highly permissive of macro choices in lifestyle, and making bad choices, or at least thoughtless ones, is less of a transgression than judging people for doing so. He’s saying that society is sending you a message that the real problem is not with single motherhood, but with sexist conservatives judging other people’s non-traditional lifestyles, etc.
The subtitle of the book might seem a little weird: an antidote to chaos. One gets the sense that Peterson thinks that society is always on the brink of unimaginably horrible catastrophe. This book is about pulling yourself out of rut, taking agency over your life, and building discipline. His new book is more about ambition and going from a merely average life to extraordinary accomplishments (or, at least, to not be counterproductive in your attempts to change the world).
Despite his religiosity, there’s one respect where I view Peterson more in the intellectual tradition of the new atheists. His previous book, Maps of Meaning, seems to be really complicated and I don’t particularly intend to read it, but he summarises one of its goals as trying to work out how ideology could be so important to people that they’re willing to die for it. And this is in many ways the problem of interpreting religious fanaticism. There is something deeply mysterious about how someone can believe in something which is obviously wrong and believe in it so strongly that they are willing to blow themselves up on a bus for it. Peterson’s answer, in brief, is that people who live by the same code, or belief system, are mutually intelligible to one another. The actions of people who have the same conceptual framework as you at least make sense, even if you don’t agree with them. The simplification of the world that systems of belief provide is crucial. This fits with some of the literature on religion, which seems to find that the social and performative aspect of it are more important than the specific beliefs.
The self-help philosophy Peterson has built is something like this: Life is really brutal, and to the extent that it isn’t brutal, this is because of recent fragile progress we’ve made as a civilisation that we need to treasure. Not only are you not going to be happy all the time, but you may well plunge into depths of misery you didn’t even know existed because of things you couldn’t have prevented. And the brief moments when things are going well can easily be thwarted by your own malevolence. So, the question of having a meaningful life, not just a merely pleasant one, is core to Being (a word Peterson uses repeatedly, in reference to Heidegger, which refers, I think, to something like the entirety of conscious and unconscious human experience). Your problems often really do come from your own malevolence and flawed character. All the time, there are things that you know are wrong, but you still do. The line dividing good and evil passes through every heart, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said.
One of the impressions I got from this book is that Peterson thinks that a lot of self-help is very politically correct. I don’t mean politically correct in the sense of adhering to any specific political sensibilities; I mean, more in the sense of being very afraid of offending anyone. Telling people that it’s their fault that they’re depressed is a dangerous business and probably makes them feel worse most of the time, even if it’s true for some subset of them.
Peterson, to my reading, is sick of this enlightened disbelieving-in-free-will ultra-compassion that is popular among academics. Unbelievable depths of evil exist, he says, and these people really are evil, rather than a victim or their circumstance. One facet of Peterson’s project seems to be elevating the concept of sin as central to Being. Sin has an etymology that goes back to the Greek hamartia which means “to not hit the target.” Sin, he says, is a function of not aiming in the right place, and not having the discipline to execute on your shot.
When people talk about how the youth are lacking in moral instruction and things must be set right, they are often cult leaders. But Peterson says the youth really are lacking in moral instruction. This is something I’m sympathetic to. Sometimes when you’re listening to advice from an elder, it’s to listen and scrutinise and participate in the inner philosophical struggle required to live a meaningful existence.
In the more critical appraisals of him, Peterson is frequently analogised to a prophet, or his followers described as cult members. Even if this description is accurate, there are a lot of good things about religion. As far as I’m concerned, people listening to elders to gain moral clarity is one of the good parts. What’s bad is believing things without evidence. I fear that ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘religion’ have become catch-all terms to discredit one’s opponents. The patriarchy is a conspiracy theory! Veganism is like a religion! If you think these things are dogmatic and not based in evidence, or inspire groupthink, fair enough; you ought to say as much. But describing something as a religion because of the social component is a standard of ‘religion’ which classes just about everything as a religion. Sports are a religion! I vote for a moratorium on analogising things to religion 🙂
Another reason this book is weird is that it will be in the self-help section in many bookshops, but it’s actually incredibly dark. Perhaps there’s an expectation that Peterson will say these positive inspirational things, but he says these other things with an incredible moral seriousness, and that’s disconcerting. Peterson talks a lot about the atrocities of Nazism and of the Soviet Union. Why take a stand against something that is so obviously wrong? Because he wants to communicate moral severity. Catastrophes are an accumulation of personal failures. This isn’t a self-help book, in the sense that you’re not supposed to read it, put its advice into practice, and then feel better. It’s really collected essays about steering away from the worst possible misery for everyone. He writes: “I’m amazed I have been allowed (even encouraged) to teach what I taught first in Harvard and now in Toronto. I’ve always thought that if people really noticed what I was teaching there would be Hell to pay.”
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
So, this is the chapter with that thing about the lobsters. If I were to summarise his point here, it would be something like: The biological continuity between animals and humans is larger than is often assumed, and one of the ways in which this is manifested is that humans also form a dominance hierarchy. When humans (or lobsters, for that matter) face defeat, they have a higher propensity for negative emotion, and a lower propensity for positive emotion. And so, if you feel depressed, you might blame it on society, or think that your serotonin receptors got zapped by lightning, but actually, you might be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, and you should be cautious complaining about this because the neural mechanism involved is literally 350 million years old. Peterson also makes a deal about how serotonin regulates posture, which is pretty cool. This is, I suppose, why we have an image of a loser (In editing, I misread this as ‘lobster’) as having drooped shoulders, and the reason for the allusion in the title of the chapter. It seems like having low serotonin causes bad posture, and maybe the converse is true? In any case, posture is important, so, uh, moving on. The comparison with lobsters was mocked endlessly, but… it was an analogy. By my reading, he’s making the point that I made above. Am I going crazy? Having said that, the lobster thing is, aesthetically, really weird. The whole chapter is filled with references to lobsters, including on the last page.
I think this is another one of the reasons why people don’t like Peterson. People like to imagine that you if take out the specific hierarchies in our society – capitalism, or the patriarchy, or whatever – then what would be left is a state of egalitarianism. But actually, the dominance hierarchy is (he says) a kind of superstructure that is historically, psychologically, and philosophically anterior to these contingent hierarchies. And so, when you get rid of the surface-level structure, you’re still going to be left with some manifestation of the dominance hierarchy, and probably a worse one.
I can see why people don’t like this. “Egalitarianism is a pipe dream and not even desirable” sounds cartoonishly evil. But maybe this is just because this conjures to mind a picture of rich oil barons profiting from the suffering of the working class, and not the more abstract sense of hierarchy that’s embodied in community, family, and maybe even respect for expertise. And it’s this second sense of hierarchy that is in fact desirable and that society would fall apart without.
My second main takeaway from this chapter is that happiness is not the opposite of sadness. Nor is it the absence of sadness. Peterson is irritated by the modern infatuation with happiness, and views happiness as more of a fortuitous by-product that sometimes occurs when you get your affairs in order. Happiness is a gift, not a proper pursuit.
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Peterson seems to agree with my take that trivial inconveniences are the most powerful force in the universe. Of people who are prescribed drugs, one third don’t even fill the prescription, and half of the remaining don’t take the drugs properly (they either don’t take it at all, skip days, or take the wrong dose). But when people have medication that they need to give to their dogs, they almost always administer it properly. Could we really care so much more about our pets than about ourselves? To answer this, Peterson (of course) goes on a chapter-long digression about the Book of Genesis.
Recall that in Genesis, Adam eats the apple and then he blames it on Eve. Then, when God comes to him, he hides behind a bush because he’s self-conscious about being naked. This is despite the fact that the almighty can presumably see through bushes. I think he’s saying the causal chain goes like this: Self-consciousness leads to understanding of the necessity of work, which leads to a general understanding of human vulnerability, which leads knowledge of how to produce suffering in others, which leads to knowledge of good and evil. So, I think he’s saying that there’s a kind of self-contempt and self-consciousness at the core of Being, such that even sensible people can allow a degree of self-decline that beggars belief, and the story in our culture which elucidates this is Adam eating the apple.
If this sounds to you like a real stretch, you would be correct. There are a couple of perspectives on why people fail to take medication that would dramatically improve or save their lives. One is a signalling story – that maybe we don’t really care so much about ourselves, or about our loved ones, but we still go to the doctor to flag ourselves as considerate and virtuous. Another is that there’s a kind of weird psychological mechanism whereby people are unreasonably deterred by trivial inconveniences. (There are cases where people have the belief that they’ve been misdiagnosed, and presumably sometimes they are correct. But he is talking here about weakness of will, in the sense of people believing deep down that they probably should do some thing but falling to do it.) Peterson offers an alternative vision where our failure to take our meds is a kind of revealed preference for embedded self-hatred.
My sense of the general Petersonian reading of the Bible goes something like this: the fall of man is about the inevitability of human weakness. Genesis is about the organisation of the self, and the sort of superstructure of experience. The rest of the Old Testament is about the escape from evil – Exodus, for instance, having obvious significance as being a morality tale about the escape from tyrannical order (the Israelites in Egypt) into chaos. Peterson repeatedly talks about the (significant) differences between different translations of the Bible, and the fact that famous Bible stories are actually repeated multiple times with contradictory details. So, it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t draw the inference that the stories can’t possibly be as meticulous as he is crediting, and therefore at least some of the insight comes from translators and interpretation, not from the text itself. And this is more believable to me – a multi-thousand-year intellectual tradition including many of the greatest minds in history is unlikely to have produced nothing of value. He writes about Jung on lessons from the Bible:
“I learned two very important lessons from Carl Jung, the famous Swiss depth psychologist, about “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “loving your neighbour as yourself.” The first lesson was that neither of these statements has anything to do with being nice. The second was that both are equations, rather than injunctions. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obliged to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. What good is that? It’s much better for any relationship when both partners are strong. Furthermore, there is little difference between standing up and speaking for yourself, when you are being bullied or otherwise tormented and enslaved, and standing up and speaking for someone else. As Jung points out, this means embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect.”
I think this is probably what Peterson was getting at when he said that many women were making themselves unhappy by choosing weak male partners, which he got a hard time for. Presumably people can prefer having submissive male partners, and freely choose to do so, so it is difficult to see what the issue is. But Peterson probably sees it as something like the Jungian bargaining described above. You may enjoy having a boyfriend who doesn’t Stand Up Straight with His Shoulders Back, but it does a worse job adhering to the Platonic ideal of a relationship, in which he is “bargaining as hard on [his] own behalf as on” yours, and this leads to sub-optimal long-term outcomes.
Peterson writes that you’re morally obligated to help yourself. There are a lot of old ideas that Peterson is trying to revive in this book, and one of them is destiny. There’s this destiny out there for us that we ought to be fulfilling – maybe it’s just being a janitor, but the hospital needs to be clean to run. By not taking care of yourself, you commit a kind of sin that is in a league of its own from object-level sins like stealing, because you’re subverting Being.
A core message of this book is that clichés are often incredibly profound and worth meditating upon. And this chapter is the proper introduction of the idea that life is a balancing act between order and chaos, yin and yang. To straddle the boundary between them involves achieving something like a flow state. There is something conspicuously absent from this discussion, which is whether Peterson thinks most people are too chaotic or too orderly. I don’t know which is true for myself. I often feel anxious, and that I don’t have complete control over my life, and this certainly feels chaotic. But this chaos in part comes from the monotony of life under lockdown. Which am I deficient in – order or chaos? Or is that the wrong question to ask, and it’s all about engineering the appropriate interplay between the two?
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
This chapter largely consists of Peterson telling stories about his adolescence in a town incredibly far north in Canada, where his friends were mostly layabouts who never did anything, despite cheap easily available college education. People hang around with crappy friends for two reasons, other than necessity: one, naivete, and two, narcissism. There is a well-worn trope of the teenage girl falling in love with someone “broken” to fix him up. Choosing the right friends is underrated and cultivating a friend group that makes you smarter, more interesting, and better able to achieve your goals should be among your top priorities:
“Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible—and, perhaps, more likely—that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible. Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.”
Following Carl Rogers, Peterson says that if someone really doesn’t want to be helped, you shouldn’t help them. How can you tell whether your alcoholic friend whose life is falling apart truly wants help, or is just saying that despite having decided a thousand times to accept his lot in life and not work to improve it? This sounds harsh, but maybe it’s advisable?
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
People sometimes talk about the depressive realism literature, which is the controversial finding that depressed people have more realistic worldviews. Might happiness really just be sustained by self-delusion? Probably not: this literature has many problems, including that it looks at only moderately depressed people, and it’s certainly not the case that the deeply mentally ill have more sane outlooks on things as healthy people. But still, somewhat in response to this idea, “positive illusions” were recommended by psychologists for quite some time. The Petersonian perspective on comparing yourself to others is that you’re playing this game where you’re sizing yourself up with respect to other people. And when your brain chatters away telling you about how worthless you are, regardless of the circumstances, you should take this as a signal that the game is rigged against you. Saying that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others at all is stupid, because you have to make value judgements to operate in the world.
At this point, Peterson is in the domain of self-help clichés again. The thing that’s important is the day-in day-out habits, not the exceptional experiences like great parties, holidays, and so on. This is true for the prosaic reason that those events don’t take nearly as long as the totality of the rest of your days. But – and at this point I’m reading beyond what he’s actually written – the daily rituals and habits are also important for the more spiritual reason that progress is excruciatingly incremental, and that these one-off events don’t build virtue and moral fibre. This is a conclusion I came to even as a child – that actually, things like holidays, while pleasant, were kind of a distraction from daily existence, and so a lot more effort should go into optimising for that. See also Kahneman on the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self.
Next, a note of caution on the critique of religion’s insistence on obedience:
“Religion is… about proper behaviour. It’s about what Plato called “the Good.” A genuine religious acolyte isn’t trying to formulate accurate ideas about the objective nature of the world (although he may be trying to do that too). He’s striving, instead, to be a “good person.” It may be the case that to him “good” means nothing but “obedient”—even blindly obedient. Hence the classic liberal Western enlightenment objection to religious belief: obedience is not enough. But it’s at least a start (and we have forgotten this): You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored. You will not know what to target, and you won’t fly straight, even if you somehow get your aim right. And then you will conclude, “There is nothing to aim for.” And then you will be lost.”
People call Peterson a counter-Enlightenment figure, and indeed, he’s a big fan of Nietzsche, who I think is considered very counter-Enlightenment. But it’s not like Peterson thinks the world used to be better and we’re in some kind of unique period of decadence and debauchery. Indeed, he heartily endorses Steven Pinker and his shtick that society has been getting better, with things like violence, hunger, and disease on the steady decline. Peterson isn’t a declinist but a Chicken Little, warning people about how civilisation can collapse into tyranny, and about the chilling effects of their complacency and naive political activism.
One of the biggest problems with this book is that its focus is more on formulating the same key concepts in different ways and not on addressing (often obvious) counterarguments. For example, he writes:
“You might [say] “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs—those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.”
Hehe, you think that there’s no god, but Jordan Peterson says that there’s really no atheists! This a very silly and esoteric way of using the word ‘belief’. Peterson never says “Yes, I realise that I am using a version of the word ‘belief’ that implies that sceptics who are a little bit nervous sleeping in a haunted house believe in ghosts, despite claiming to the contrary. But I’m going to bite the bullet and say that this is what belief is.” He also doesn’t seem to address the psychological game of cat-and-mouse this would create. Yes, we all believe mutually contradictory things. But when Sam Harris goes away for 30 years and thinks about it and comes to the conclusion that yep, I’m definitely an atheist, I want to live in a world in which ‘belief’ isn’t such a semantically abstract concept that I can say yep, Sam Harris really is an atheist. Moreover, religion might be a kind of special case, because it’s a belief that people actually embody in their behaviour. But most beliefs don’t have associated behaviours! What stance on monetary policy are my bones embodying right now?
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
I’ve long believed that parents spend too much time with their children. The amount of time parents spend with their kids in total has risen since the 50s, even though the number of children per woman has more than halved. This is at best wasteful, making parenting unappealing at a time when birth rates are alarmingly low, and at worst actively psychologically harmful (see, for instance, the evidence in this book about the effects of ‘helicopter parenting’).
Peterson talks a lot in this book about the parental relationship, and about the sorts of parents that his patients had. These stories sound plausible: he says, for instance, that of patients he’s treated who are highly conflict-averse, a disproportionate number had abusive fathers. But there is also a literature in behavioural genetics which finds that parents seem to have almost no effect on their children’s life outcomes (beyond the effect of passing on their genes). It’s pretty shocking, but decades of studies have consistently shown this to be the case. These studies involve comparing twins raised apart to those raised together, fraternal twins to identical twins, and adopted to non-adopted siblings. So, we should have a prior against parents being the cause of adult neuroses. But also, parental effects (small as they generally are) are much larger among poor and very-deprived people, who have a disproportionate number of psychological problems, so maybe it really is true that his patient is having a tough time at work because his father was very domineering?
I should clarify that this literature is about adult life outcomes, and so Peterson’s parenting advice can apply so long as parents affect children’s behaviour, which is obviously true (indeed, it often makes them entitled and mean). He also sounded extremely sceptical of the methodology on an episode of EconTalk. He writes of a couple he knew: “Because they did not dare to teach him what “No” means, he had no conception of the reasonable limits enabling maximal toddler autonomy. It was a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order (and the inevitable reversal).” In this section, we see Peterson’s general contempt for theories where humans are pure and corrupted by social institutions. How can the society be corrupt, but none of the people who make it up? How would the corruption propagate?
I always thought that, if I have kids, I’m going to take an extremely hands-off approach with them. But after thinking about this chapter, I’m not so sure. Not because it will leave them with worse outcomes as adults (see above), but because it will make them annoying. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s parents’ failure to invite Maleficent to her christening is a metaphor for overprotection. Peterson interprets the spinning wheel whose prick Aurora falls into a slumber from as the wheel of fate. And the prick is the loss of her virginity. This is only one of many great moral lessons he derives from Disney movies.
Par for the course, Peterson proceeds to argue in favour of spanking your children as a disciplinary technique. It makes complete sense for people to say that hitting your children is psychologically harmful, or unethical, or that it’s so hard to figure out which small subset of cases it’s useful in that you shouldn’t even try. But when people say that, if you only treated your child with respect, or gave him a welcoming enough home environment, then he wouldn’t have so many behavioural problems. So far as I can tell, this is total crap, and kids are often nightmares for no particular reason. I know, because I was like this as a kid.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Scott Alexander writes that “Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that social activism is the opiate of the masses”. College students think that all this stuff about “personal responsibility” and “inner spiritual struggle” is a distraction from the excesses of capitalism, and Peterson thinks that grandstanding about capitalism is a distraction from the difficult work of finding meaning and executing on your responsibilities. The book The Coddling of the American Mind offered a similar perspective, in which the meltdown on campuses over political correctness is deeply psychologically unhealthy, and even analogous to the symptoms of depressed individuals (catastrophising, black-and-white thinking, etc.).
Peterson writes about serial killers, and about how this is a kind of extreme case of how people don’t take their medication because they’ve internalised their self-consciousness about being a vindictive human (see Rule 2). And so, when people say things about how oh gosh, it really wouldn’t be so bad if humans went extinct, because we’re messing up the climate so much, they don’t realise that they’re going down a very dangerous intellectual path.
Many of Peterson’s patients believe that humans are bad or a waste of space. He’s talked about one of his childhood friends who fell into this trap and ended up committing suicide. I do kind of wonder how often this actually leads to mental illness, rather than the other way around. This might be related to the growing neuroses around whether it’s moral to have children – it could just be that the economy increasingly penalises having kids, people respond to incentives, but they make up some story about how they’re not having kids because of climate change. Peterson gets suspiciously annoyed about this.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
We’re back to Genesis. In Eden, Adam discovers work, and Peterson equates this with the discovery of the future – the future being something that can be bargained with, because to work is to forego some pleasures now to better achieve your goals later. This calls to mind John Maynard Keynes, who famously credited the Jews with the discovery of the future. This next part is almost in the tradition of The Leviathan, which is to say, a discussion of how society can exist, metaphysically speaking. Tyler Cowen once said that he reads the book of Genesis as having the emergence of the social contract as one of its major themes, and this puzzled me. But maybe this is kind of what he meant? The problem of stable cooperation is the same as the problem of delayed gratification, and the toolkit to solve this is what God bequeaths onto Adam. In modern parlance, many of these Biblical stories are about how to play iterated games. I have to admit that it is kind of weird that the tree Adam and Eve eat from is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Peterson also makes a deal out of the etymology: ‘paradise’ means walled garden and ‘Eden’ means well-watered place. Our ideal of the good is a well-watered garden surrounded by a wall.
Peterson describes an episode of Cartesian doubt he had in the 80s in which he was looking for something to anchor his worldview upon, and he found the reality of suffering to be such an anchor:
“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.””
Once again, on Jung:
“Jung observed that the construction of… a moral hierarchy was inevitable—although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what the person acted out. It was what the person believed most deeply. Something enacted is not a fact, or even a set of facts. Instead, it’s a personality—or, more precisely, a choice between two opposing personalities. It’s Sherlock Holmes or Moriarty. It’s Batman or the Joker. It’s Superman or Lex Luthor, Charles Francis Xavier or Magneto, and Thor or Loki. It’s Abel or Cain—and it’s Christ or Satan. If it’s working for the ennobling of Being, for the establishment of Paradise, then it’s Christ. If it’s working for the destruction of Being, for the generation and propagation of unnecessary suffering and pain, then it’s Satan. That’s the inescapable, archetypal reality.”
I suppose this responds to my criticism from earlier about trusting that people accurately report their beliefs but understanding that beliefs don’t propagate completely through the brain. If the brain is a hierarchy, then it wouldn’t be arbitrary to privilege some subconscious hypothesis over another as being your “real” belief. But still, really? God is the apex of our moral hierarchies? This is at least non-obvious.
One idea I liked here is that binding constraint are good. Here’s a passage I’ve been thinking about recently, from David Brooks’ The Second Mountain:
“All of this points in one direction: into the ditch. The person who graduates from school and pursues an aesthetic pattern of life often ends up in the ditch. It’s only then that they realize the truth that somehow nobody told them: Freedom sucks. Political freedom is great. But personal, social, and emotional freedom—when it becomes an ultimate end—absolutely sucks. It leads to a random, busy life with no discernible direction, no firm foundation, and in which, as Marx put it, all that’s solid melts to air. It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side—and fully commit to something.”
The mere fact that you’re committing to something, or someone, is valuable in itself. The loss of option value is itself valuable. I’ve had many discussions with my girlfriend about the way that I use constraints. I feel that rules and restraint are absolutely necessary not only to my flourishing, but to me having a life which is not utterly terrible. If I don’t impose specific restrictions on how much I can play video games, (namely: never) I will become addicted, I will fall behind on my obligations, and my life will fall into chaos. I even have to place hefty restrictions on how much I can read blogs!
Maybe my temperamental conservatism is me projecting these personality traits onto the world. If we don’t have proper restraint, and roles, and be extremely humble about what can be achieved, then things will go to hell in a handbasket. And this flows right into a major piece of advice that Peterson gives to young people: just commit to something. If you don’t know what to do with your life, take your best guess, and take your best damn shot. Drifting through life in your late 20s as an investment banker or consultant murmuring about “keeping your options open” seems to be a common failure mode for ambitious and promising young people.
Rule 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
I basically share Peterson’s intuition that I’m lying constantly. To Peterson, lying is a kind of spiritual crime. Lyingby Sam Harris is a short book I recommend, and Harris underscores the extent to which not lying is really hard and is an active process. Even the first part – knowing what the truth actually is, or rather, what you really think the truth is – is hard.
The idea that totalitarian states are propped up the small everyday lies is very interesting to me, and I haven’t read detailed discussion of it. First, you’re telling cavalier lies about your political opponents, then you’re selectively ignoring a few historical events here and there, until eventually you’ve built up a mythology in which Stalin is the saviour of the universe:
“One of the major contributions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, was his analysis of the direct causal relationship between the pathology of the Soviet prison-work-camp dependent state (where millions suffered and died) and the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own day-to-day personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering, and thereby prop up the dictates of the rational, ideology-possessed communist system. It was this bad faith, this denial, that in Solzhenitsyn’s opinion aided and abetted that great paranoid mass-murderer, Joseph Stalin, in his crimes.”
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Most of this chapter is not about learning things from others directly, but about how we organise our own thoughts through conversation. Appropriately formulating problems is hard. And to this end, the contrasting philosophies can be identified with the specific therapeutic traditions: Freud famously didn’t face his patients, because he didn’t want their free association to be influenced by his reactions and emotions. But most psychologists now are explicitly having a conversation with their patients. From what I’ve read about Freud beyond his reputation in popular culture, people think he’s way more ridiculous than he actually is, because everything that Freud got right, we now take for granted such that all that’s left is the ridiculous stuff. Peterson said in one of his lectures that one of Freud’s big mistakes is thinking that people know what they want to repress. But actually, what we’re repressing is quite opaque to us. In clinical psychology, you’re taking plausible guesses. And then you’re refining these guesses. This is another theme that I’ve become interested in recently: the (un)reliability of introspection.
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
You may have heard about the illusion of explanatory depth, even if not by that name. People feel that they understand things they rely on and interact with, but this illusion breaks down as soon as they are asked to explain how they work at the level of detail. The archetypal example of this is a toilet: many studies have shown that people think they understand how a toilet works, but when asked to write down, in as much detail as possible, the exact mechanism, they have no idea. Peterson has a view where life crises similarly break the illusion with perception. Perception, in this view, is all about objects’ purposes – and, by extension, perception is not very objective. This is the difference between being immersed in a film vs. realising you’re sitting in a cinema watching it.
How can modified perception be more accurate than the original thing, and by extension, how can a modified recollection of the past be more accurate than the original impression? I take this to be another intractable philosophical problem at the core of Being where humans somehow square the circle and solve it. We all do six impossible things before breakfast, and all that.
Finally, he’s saying that the essential virtue of precision is that it collapses the space of possible bad things. It’s like talking to your doctor: “If you talk to your doctor, all those terrible possible diseases will collapse, with luck, into just one terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into nothing. Then you can laugh at your previous fears, and if something really is wrong, well, you’re prepared. Precision may leave the tragedy intact, but it chases away the ghouls and the demons.”
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
Peterson says that, when all else fails, you can sometimes infer people’s motivations from the consequences of their actions. If you really wanted to change the world, you would probably not be so concerned with changing other people’s desires and motivations. Paternalism is often a very ugly impulse. Outrage is another example of a negative and ugly emotion that gets couched in moral language to make it appear just.
You can skip this chapter without much being lost. A lot of it is the tired old rant about campus political correctness. But this part is worth keeping: he says that the boundaries we draw between groups are arbitrary, and group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. Equalising outcomes across gender makes some sense and has some theoretical appeal. But why not equalise outcomes across people whose names start with the letter ‘A’ and the letter ‘B’? Yes, in this case you would infer that any differences are just randomness, but there seem to be a lot of other groups that have different outcomes for unjust reasons, like tall and short people.
Peterson also gives his spiel about gender differences. The gender paradox is a reasonably well-replicated result that finds that in the countries that have the most egalitarian social policies, like Sweden, the personality differences between men and women get larger, not smaller. The best countries in the world for female representation in STEM are places like Zimbabwe and Angola, and the US does better than progressive northern Europe. I admit this is surprising, and I’m not sure what direction the causal arrow in this correlation points in. There are, after all, lots of things that are different between Sweden and Angola. If there are differences in ability or differences in interest between men and women, it is literally mathematically impossible to have equal opportunity and equal outcomes. At some margin, the more equal your outcomes, the less equal your opportunities, and vice versa. And Peterson thinks attempts to fix this are totally catastrophic because of the instances in which this kind of thing has been tried before (USSR, Venezuela, Cuba) literally all of them have been catastrophic. The extent of this exaggeration is not lost on me. To be honest, this whole section was tangential, and I don’t care about it in the context of this book. There seems to be something about correcting people’s misperceptions about gender that is addictive to people; when Peterson incorporates talking about the gender paradox into one of his talks, he ends up going on a very long and mostly unrelated tangent. Which, come to think of it, is what I am currently doing.
Rule 12: Pet a cat if you encounter one on the street
Why does evil exist if God is infinitely good? Proposed solutions to this problem have been so ubiquitous throughout history that they have their own name: a theodicy. This was my favourite chapter, and it’s implicitly a kind of theodicy. Peterson’s daughter had childhood arthritis in forty joints and crippling depression, which he gives an account of. It is easy to forget in the midst of this that Peterson is a really good storyteller. If you find Peterson’s politics so odious that you can’t find anything to like about him, I think you should be able to see a kind of silver lining in the resurrection of a certain kind of oral tradition.
Do I recommend this book? For a certain kind of person, yes. My position is more like this: I can see why this book is helpful to people who seek it out, and I found it somewhat helpful, but I don’t think it’s the kind of book that you’ll get sucked into if you’re not highly self-motivated to read it. Shaming people for reading or liking this book is counterproductive and mean.
Writing this review was of more benefit to me than reading the book. Peterson is bullish on writing as being a useful tool for your life and career, as well as exactly the kind of thing with which to execute the Inner Spiritual Struggle I’ve been talking about. So probably the biggest object-level effect that Peterson has had on my life is to get me to write a lot more, which has had some very positive effects. So, I suppose that is what I leave you with. Pet a cat if you see one on the street 🙂