For and Against Lotteries in Elite University Admissions

People sometimes suggest replacing the admissions systems of highly selective universities with lotteries (their names often rhyme with Palcolm Sadwell). The proposal is that universities would mark a pool of students as ‘good enough’ and then students from that pool would be accepted at random. Here are some arguments for and against this idea, inspired by Julia Galef’s unpopular ideas series. I don’t agree with all these arguments (or even fully endorse any); the point here is just to categorise the arguments worth considering on both sides.

For:

  • Competitive university admissions generate enormous amounts of waste (through Goodhart’s law) with time and money being spent on extracurriculars and private tutoring for what is essentially a zero-sum game. It may also be incentivising unethical behaviour: the proportion of students who admitted to cheating in high school went from 34% in 1969 to 74% in 2002.
  • Current admissions are racist and classist, especially when they rely on interviews, because admissions officers are unconsciously biased.
  • Noise is systematically much higher than people suspect so the system is already, to a moderate extent, random.  
  • With a lottery, admitted students would be from more racially and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. Different countries and universities have differing levels of remedial discrimination policies, so a lottery would make some colleges less diverse, but the net effect would be to make them more diverse.
  • The current system penalises students who spend their teen years doing things they actually enjoy. There’s adverse selection for people who are unoriginal, uncreative, and place little value on their time.  
  • Students applying to top universities are very stressed out, e.g. 46% of Cambridge students either have depression or suspect they might. Easing the competition would help with mental health problems and lead them to put less pressure on themselves.
  • If getting into top universities is more arbitrary, it will cease to be a reliable signal of competence to employers. Therefore, the labour market will rely more on non-credential signals of competence, bursting the higher education bubble.
  • Lotteries will make universities more intellectually diverse. Conservatives are highly underrepresented in top universities, and (at least in America) this is in part because of ideological admissions officers that discriminate against people they disagree with. More generally people are biased in favour of their in-group. Lotteries give a boost to the academic careers of heterodox thinkers, who can push back against echo chambers that produce low-quality research.
  • Grades and chances at admission do not signal how much people will contribute to society. For example, a study at Michigan Law found that black students admitted through affirmative action had worse grades but contributed equally (measured by satisfaction, income, and ‘service contributions’) in their later careers.

Against:

  • Thinking students get into top universities because of privilege confuses correlation with causation. Private schools do not particularly benefit children academically, and standardised tests are very hard to game. Thus, what looks like bias in who gets admitted is actually a statistical illusion.
  • If the problem is Goodhart’s law leading to gaming of the wrong metrics, you can solve this with an admissions system that is opaque from the outside, or with tests that are difficult to predict in advance (Oxbridge interviews are famously difficult to prepare for).
  • Many university admissions systems (like Ireland’s) already work well and don’t waste students’ time without recourse to a lottery. Even Oxford and Cambridge accept a relatively high proportion of acceptable candidates. The problem of zero-sum competition over irrelevant metrics for university spots is exclusively faced by a small number of (mostly privileged) Americans. The people who say this is a niche problem are correct. It appears to be a much larger problem than it is because the people who went through this gruelling process are disproportionately represented in academia and the media.
  • A few elite intellectuals make almost all the contributions to academia, attending a prestigious university is important to their success, and yet they would have the same chance as anyone else ‘good enough’ under a lottery system. Since these people are so socially valuable, it may even be worth some social injustice in higher education in general to make sure we catch every genius with a high chance to make a large contribution.
  • A lottery isn’t fair. Someone who worked extremely hard on their application would have the same chance as someone who applied as an afterthought and was barely good enough.
  • A lottery undercuts the mythology of education. We live in a society which values individual achievement and treats people as solely (or mostly) responsible for their own success. This may not be the best way to organise society, but it is currently the case. Changing to a lottery would lead to the winners feeling undeserving, and the losers feeling cheated.  
  • Admissions are not actually very biased. The research on unconscious bias is plagued with problems, and most of the studies referenced in books like Blink have failed to replicate. People in charge of admissions are competent professionals who make their decisions on basically sensible grounds. 
  • Less privileged and wealthy students mean that the university will get fewer donations. While it is perhaps sad that universities need to rely on alumni donations, they also do a large amount of social good, funding important research and scholarships.
  • Applying to university is the first stressful interaction many secondary school students have with the real world, and it teaches them many valuable skills: how to prepare for interviews, how to write good cover letters, and how to deal with rejection. This is only effective if students are trying their hardest and the admissions procedure isn’t random.

Thanks to Gytis Daujotas, Cian Mullarkey and Luise Wöhlke for reading drafts of this post.

Links for November

What I’ve been reading

Much more than you wanted to know about ivermectin. Has broader applications, a general response to the question of “How can the initial evidence for a drug look so strong when it (probably) does nothing?”.

Why VAT is better than sales tax.

Examining the culture of 1999 through its greatest films, maybe the greatest year in cinema history. Matt Lakeman’s excellent travel series has also continued with Notes on the Dominican Republic.

The Library of Athena A project to make reading classic texts online easier. It’s like Project Gutenberg but good.

The Queen’s Gambit Entirely forgettable, a competently written book but almost identical to the Netflix miniseries, which was itself competently produced but lacking in heart.

David and Goliath And with that I’ve now read all the Malcolm Gladwell books. All his books are at least worth listening to, since he does the narration for the audiobook. Sometimes I feel like he’s pulling the lever on a slot machine to determine what X is counterintuitively related to Y, in a way that somehow feels like it makes sense when you get into his mindset.  

The Great Mental Models: Vol 1 I’m not sure Shane Parrish has anything particularly interesting to say by himself, as I didn’t get much out of this nor his blogposts. The motif of returning all the examples to Berkshire-Hathaway is also off-putting, it makes it feel like too much of a business book. And we all know how much filler there is in business books.

What If? Pure fun, from XKCD creator Randal Munroe. If you have any 13-year-olds in your life with a burgeoning interest in science, get this for them for Christmas!

Shenzhen Another travelogue from Guy Delisle, all of which are worth reading.

What I’ve been listening to

Balaji Srinivasan on… many topics. He did another podcast with Tim Ferriss earlier this year, also worth listening to and covers a lot of the same ground. The anti-woke stuff is boring, I’m not qualified to have an opinion on the crypto stuff, but I found Balaji’s ability to talk for very long periods of time intelligently and without being repetitive very impressive. And the Fry and Laurie skit about the Treaty of Westphalia.  

Niall Ferguson on Lex Fridman discussing University of Austin, his influences, literature, and financial history. You can skip the anti-woke stuff, or at least listen on 2-3x speed.

Paul Bloom has a new book out, so he’s been doing the podcast circuit. Two of the best are with Sam Harris and Very Bad Wizards.

Tyler Cowen: “Gifting someone a book is actually a cruel thing. Because they’ll feel some obligation to read it, and that’s bad unless it’s the best book for them to be reading at that time. I have some people where I give them books and they feel no obligation to read them, and it’s a beautiful thing.”  

The Complete Live at the Lighthouse, especially ‘The Beehive’. Lee Morgan, 1970.

What I’ve been watching

The French Dispatch Initial impression: too busy, too “Wes Anderson”. I feel I will have to watch again as there are many details I missed the first time. The lack of French spoken in the film is my biggest single problem with it. This was somewhat excusable in ‘Isle of Dogs’ but it reaches new heights here.

No Time to Die Entertaining, but immediately forgettable. It’s weird that there is such an arc between the Craig Bonds, despite the fact that almost no one goes back and rewatches the old ones when they come out. His relationship with Vesper in Casino Royale was starkly more believable than his relationship with Madeline here and in Spectre.

The Cat Returns My new third favourite Ghibli.

Dirty Dancing Given that this is a classic film I thought it would be good and it… really isn’t. You have to be in a certain mood to not cringe at the sheer awkwardness of the dialogue. My mum tells me it absolutely rocked conservative Ireland in the 80s, and that my uncle even made Patrick Swayze t-shirts for the family. Simpler times.

Okja From Bong Joon Ho, the director of Parasite. Excellent, filled with heart, plays to the strength of the language barrier (half the film is in Korean and the other half in English). It also has the guts to show the inside of a slaughterhouse, which I don’t think I’ve seen in a single feature film. Too real, I guess.

My First Trip to America: A Photo Essay

Alternate title: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Ireland.

I recently visited America for the first time. I went to Washington DC for two days, then Arlington for three, then New York for five. I travelled on the day the US border opened, for which every airport I travelled through was completely unprepared. I was there for an Emergent Ventures meetup, which was both wonderful and exhausting. But here I’m just going to talk about what visiting was like.

The first thing I learned about America is that when you cross the road, you take your life into your own hands. I’m exaggerating, but crossing the road is legitimately stressful and frustrating.

Why would you choose white as the colour for ‘walk forward’?! You can barely even see it in the daytime!

It struck me quite how much of my cultural knowledge of America was initially derived from The Simpsons. For example, I first learned about Capitol Hill from the “I’m an Amendment to Be” song.

“Why can’t we just make a law against flag burning?” “Because, little Johnny, that would be unconstitutional.”

I drank at a bona fide American Starbucks, where the barista somehow misheard my name (after three attempts) as “Chrem”. See here for some discussion of how the sad state came to be in which the pre-eminent coffee brand is American not Italian.

I don’t have anything funny or cynical to say about the National Mall – it’s beautiful. I saw Biden’s helicopter overhead, and I was told he always travels with two others so that if a missile hits them, he still has a 2/3rds chance of surviving. I suppose he and Kamala also never eat the same meals either…

I recently learned that the Washington Monument used to look kind of crap before philanthropist David Rubenstein paid for its refurbishment.

The outside of the White House was surprisingly empty. I guess when there are no European tourists, people in DC probably aren’t going to go there.

Following the success of the musical Hamilton, the Washington DC city council has decided to dedicate a plaza in honour of the titular character.

There are always protesters outside the White House. Some of these are pretty funny – for example, someone protesting the presence of American troops in ‘Corea’.

US troops remain stationed in South Korea to enforce proper spelling. Or, to hoard legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea.

I also saw this tent, which was protesting every major political cause of the last forty years (I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by photographing the front). We have Afghanistan in there, Black Lives Matter, Palestine, Cuba, El Salvador (?), Burma. He also seemed to be anti-QAnon, but also think that the election was stolen, so maybe he was in like a faction of QAnon that split off from the main branch?

A highlight of DC was visiting the Udvar-Hazy Center, where for instance I saw the space shuttle Discovery:

My favourite part was the bizarre one-person experimental aircrafts, for example the Hiller (unfortunate name) Flying Platform, which you controlled by leaning forward!

After arriving in New York, we couldn’t decide which of the bridges in Central Park was the one where the scene with the bird lady from Home Alone 2 was shot, but this was the closest we got:

I found MoMA to be surprisingly inaccessible. Other than the famous artists and artworks I was already familiar with, I didn’t really understand what point any of the other artwork was making. The information panels at the side are also written in a trite and unenlightening way. My favourite piece was Monet’s Water Lilies, which was stunning.

To not have someone in the way while you photograph a famous artwork you have to take it at an awkward angle.

I spotted this chair, designed by the architect Le Corbusier, famous in the rationalist blogosphere for his push for excessive centralisation in urban planning, as discussed in Seeing Like a State.

This is where you recline when you are denying metis.

Seeing this reminded me to tell my friend about the Mondrian Squares riddle:

Our hotel was somewhat near to Times Square, so we passed it a few times. My overall impression was that Times Square should really be called Times Wedge. It has a road going right through it!

Times Square… never before have you seen such a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

I really have to respect American corporations on this one. They managed to turn looking at advertisements into a tourist attraction.

I definitely did not get carried away with building a house from the Lego pit while my friends waited outside.

I expected to find the constant American flags annoying, but I actually found it endearing. Constant visual reminders of your country seem important in cementing national unity in the absence of shared ethnicity. It’s a shame that the Irish flag is somewhat bland, and that in certain areas it’s coded as nationalist/Catholic. The previous flag was cooler.

As someone who celebrates human progress I am compelled to love the Empire State Building. They built it in 13 months! In 1930! As mind-boggling as the history is, my new official favourite skyscraper is the Chrysler building, which has a much more memorable design.

One of the most fun things we did in New York was go to a meetup in a tiny rented-out museum. We were speaking to the curator who told us he was working on a COVID museum. He showed us empty vials of the four American/European vaccines, as well as the type of syringe that retracts in on itself. Most syringes leave ~0.1ml of excess at the bottom, but this type doesn’t, allowing you to squeeze out one or two extra doses.

Seeing Wayne Tucker and the Bad Motha’s live in Birdland was one of my highlights of the entire trip.

We went to Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, which was (like everything else in New York apparently) under construction.

My friend Gytis, after buying some outrageously expensive Ethiopian drip coffee.

Finally, we rounded off the trip at the Statue of Liberty. My overall impression is that America is significantly nicer than I expected, with the streets being much cleaner than I’m used to. It was also much more expensive than I expected, although I’m not sure if this is related to recent supply chain problems and inflation. Having said that, visiting also probably reduced my probability of moving there because America is no longer a mythical fountain of wealth and larger-than-life characters, but a normal country.

Henderson on Me on Caplan

David Henderson over at EconLog has written three response posts to my review of Open Borders. Two of these were since I made my comment response post, hence why I’m putting this in a separate post. In his first post, Henderson criticizes my argument from animal suffering, about which, to remind you, I said this:

“I’m also concerned about the animal suffering that would result from open borders. Globally, the production of meat, 90% of which comes from factory farms, creates an almost unimaginable level of suffering. There are two reasons why open borders would make this worse: the Western diet is more meat-heavy than diets from other rich parts of the world, and richer people, in general, consume more animal protein. People sometimes 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. Increased demand for meat may be unusually harmful now, because it further entrenches factory farming as the default way meat is produced.”

To which he responded:

“At first I found this criticism somewhat persuasive. . . But as I thought about it, I realized that this is not a good argument at all. Let’s say we could reduce the demand for factory farming by imposing draconian regulations that reduce Americans’ per capita income by 80 percent. Would that justify those regulations? I think not. So then how, if we accept the other parts of Bryan’s argument, can we justify, based on reducing factory farming, draconian immigration restrictions to keep many people’s income 80 percent lower than otherwise. Even if you think regulation is justified to reduce factory farming, shouldn’t the regulation be aimed, not at keeping people poor, but at reducing or ending factory farming?”

I admit that I wasn’t very clear on my position here. My position is this: I support a much higher level of immigration, but not open borders. Animal suffering or climate change is not what puts me over the edge. Rather, open borders people seem to way overgeneralise both from America and from a small number of economics papers. On the animal suffering point, I was just trying to point out that this is a cost that many people wouldn’t think of. I admit that draconian regulations that reduced income would be bad, but reduced animal suffering presumably makes them less bad than they otherwise would be. I thought this was something worth thinking about for people on the fence. But it’s not like I was previously convinced of open borders then persuaded otherwise by the animal suffering argument.

In his second post, Henderson expressed dissatisfaction with my response to his first post.

“In his original review, Sam seemed to be saying that open borders are a bad idea because of animal suffering. Otherwise, why raise the issue? But now he says that he’s not saying that. Good. So what is he saying? He’s saying that “open borders is less good of [sic] an idea than it otherwise would be.” So then wouldn’t he have to say that, for the same reason, economic growth for Americans is less good an idea than it otherwise would be? And if that’s so, how much reduction in economic growth does he advocate?”

I suppose my argument does commit me to the belief that there’s a “silver lining” to poverty (to be clear, nowhere near a large enough silver lining to justify poverty!). Economic growth is somewhat of a special case because it bears fruit over centuries. It also accompanies technological change, some of which might be able to lessen animal suffering (e.g. clean meat). Finally, there might be a kind of animal Kuznets curve, where people care more about animals when their country gets richer. (If you think that I’m ignoring applications of the Kuznets curve to immigration, I think even the richest countries today clearly have a problematic relationship with animals.) Economic growth is definitely underrated and I’ve been influenced a lot on this point by Tyler Cowen.

To be clear, this “less good of an idea than it otherwise would be” argument is what I was trying to argue all along, but evidently, I didn’t do a good job communicating it in my original review.

In his third post, Henderson makes two points. One is that he agrees with me that the book is too America-centric. The other is that he disagrees with my implicit compliment of Bryan when I wrote:

“Immigrants account for a quarter of total US invention and entrepreneurship. Maybe this is just because America selectively lets smart and innovative people move there. But maybe there are some agglomeration effects going on here specifically related to immigration? Immigration and 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 is 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 a certain 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!”

In Henderson’s earlier review of Open Borders, he wrote “While few people would accuse Caplan of understating the benefits from immigration, I am one of those few. Immigrants start businesses at a rate that is twice that of native-born Americans.” Caplan’s book is, I think, pretty clear about selection bias – the immigrants currently let into Western countries are disproportionately rich, educated and hard-working. But it’s less clear about whether there is a mysterious force that makes immigrants qua immigrants more entrepreneurial. This is plausible; there may be something about moving to a new country that leads you to take more risks and not be complacent. It indeed would have been good if Caplan addressed this. I no longer endorse the quote above starting with “Aesthetically”. What I was talking about is this American cultural export where we weigh up the contributions of different immigrant and ethnic groups, as if they were in zero-sum conflict, rather than there just being people who sometimes invent cool stuff. But realistically, Caplan is at no risk of doing this so I don’t know why I even brought it up.    

The Very Best of Very Bad Wizards

Very Bad Wizards is a podcast with the philosopher, my dad, and psychologist, Dave Pizarro, having an informal discussion about issues in science and ethics. Please note that the discussion contains bad words that I’m not allowed to say and, knowing my dad, some very inappropriate jokes.” 

-Eliza Sommers

This is the disclaimer at the start of Very Bad Wizards, which is my favourite informal academic podcast. I’ve already written about Conversations with Tyler, which is my favourite rapid-fire academic interview podcast. I would have written about the 80,000 Hours podcast, but their content is already so meta that I wouldn’t add much by talking about my favourite episodes.

Very Bad Wizards is hosted by Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, and David Pizarro, a psychologist at Cornell. The format is like this: there is an opening segment, where Tamler poses a rhetorical question to Dave, or where they discuss funny issues related to the news and academia. Then in the second segment, the hosts interview an academic, or discuss a book, film, or paper. Here are the best episodes to start with, sorted by the subject of their discussion.

Book and short story episodes

163: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The co-hosts discuss Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, which is a critique of utilitarianism (I also recommend Sam Harris’ discussion of it). They also do a round of ‘guilty confessions’, a recurring segment.

160: Everything is Meaningless

Dave and Tamler discuss one of the strangest and most interesting books in the Bible, The Book of Ecclesiastes. It came as a shock to me that there are parts of the Bible that throw into question whether God even exists, whether heaven is real, whether the God is the only God, and so on. From this podcast Ecclesiastes comes across almost nihilist. A friend tells me that there is a more Christian interpretation here, but that Ecclesiastes is indeed one of the most unusual books of the Bible. They also make fun of an article from Aeon (an endless source of silly philosophy articles) about compersion.     

144: Borges’ Babylon

They discuss a VBW favourite, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and his most famous short story, The Library of Babel. You should read the original story. Borges’ stories are open to interpretation in the good way, so they make for great discussions. They also have a hilarious discussion about the Ashely Maddison leak.

30: The Greatest Books Ever Written

Dave and Tamler both talk about their five favourite books, which is a great source of recommendations. It also shows something I find unreasonably hilarious – that Tamler always breaks the rules of their top five list by including something from a different category or having ties. The podcast has definitely gotten better over time, hence why so many of these featured episodes are recent. But one great thing about the earlier episodes is that the co-hosts get pissed off at each other at the drop of a hat.

Best intro segments

209: Basic Instincts (with Paul Bloom)

In the main segment, they discuss William James’ account of instinct in The Principles of Psychology with classic VBW guest Paul Bloom. In the intro segment, Dave and Tamler take a peep into the weird and horrible world of “orgasmic meditation”.

161: Reach-Around Knowledge and Bottom Performers

Tamler complains about how the Dunning-Kruger effect, like so many findings in psychology, has become a misunderstood tool for liberals to bludgeon conservatives over the head with. They also discuss an evolutionary psychology article which argues that poor and hungry men prefer women with big breasts. Are there not many differences between rich and poor men? Does this not imply that fat guys should be incredibly sexually desirable? Is this a good use of public research funding? If you wanted the answers to these questions, you’re reading the wrong paper.

100: It’s a Celebration

Dave’s daughter and Tamler’s daughter have a confrontation about what it’s like having dads with a podcast. Dave and Tamler also make fun of that webapp from MIT that presents people with dilemmas about self-driving cars in honour of making it to 100 episodes.

Paper episodes

221: Granite Cocks vs Robot Overlords

In this recent episode Dave and Tamler discuss Meditations on Moloch, which is the most famous essay by the blogger Scott Alexander. The essay is about coordination problems, and how the world is so screwed up despite how most people have good intentions most of the time.

199: When Philosophy Goes Sideways

Einstein’s relativity implies that time is a dimension just like the three spatial dimensions. If we turn a physical object sideways, it retains all the same properties. But if we turn a piece of music sideways (?) through time (??) it is no longer the same piece of music. Therefore, Einstein is wrong about spacetime. Dave and Tamler discuss a real philosophy paper written by a real person that makes this argument.

Best guest appearances

212: Follow Your Nose (with Yoel Inbar)

Yoel Inbar is a VBW favourite and co-host of the great (and similar) podcast Two Psychologists Four Beers. He comes on the show to discuss Gogol’s bizarre 1836 short story ‘The Nose’.

203: Gorgias, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know (with Agnes Callard)

This discussion is about the Gorgias, one of Plato’s lesser-known dialogues, with the University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard. She’s a great interviewee.

80, 128,153: Drunk Thanksgiving (with Christina Hoff Sommers)

Tamler Sommers’ stepmother is the professional anti-PC public intellectual Christina Hoff Sommers, with whom he has… many disagreements. It became a VBW annual tradition for them to record a podcast together while drunk at Thanksgiving and try to iron out their differences.

Film Episodes

167, 168: The Big Lebowski vs Pulp Fiction (pts. 1 and 2)

The great debate: which is better, The Big Lebowski or Pulp Fiction? Outcome unclear. The primary source of tension in my relationship is that my girlfriend thinks The Big Lebowski is bad 😦

155: Alfred Hitchcock’s Money Shot

I don’t generally enjoy the film episodes nearly as much, because I usually haven’t seen the film, and I’m usually not bothered to watch it just to listen to a podcast. But Vertigo is a phenomenal film which I have actually seen, and I found their discussion enlightening.

104: Top 3 Movies About Empathy (with Paul Bloom)

The psychologist Paul Bloom is famous for writing the contrarian (and excellent) book Against Empathy. So, it was only fitting that they brought him on to discuss the best films about empathy. They’ve done a number of favourite film episodes, giving their top five films about topics like revenge and personal identity.

Links to Very Bad Wizards: Website, iTunes, Spotify.

Response to the Comments on Open Borders

I posted a (significantly improved) version of my review of Bryan Caplan’s book Open Borders on LessWrong and the EA Forum. It was also linked to and discussed on Marginal Revolution. I got enough thoughtful responses that I thought it was worth making a comment response post.

From my email

From Fergus McCullough, in my email:

“I don’t have any answers to what I’m about to say… it’s noticeable that this guy emphasises brain drain from secondary regions of China. So there’s some margin at which there can be (harmful?) brain drain from such regions. Not sure whether this conflicts with the benefits of within-country migration that economists talk about, and you mention in your piece. Also I wonder whether migration might be bad for a country if its population is shrinking, e.g. people leaving an already declining Germany might accelerate population trends there and risk quite a bad outcome. I don’t know whether we can even know what that would look like.”

This was my response:

“I didn’t mean to imply brain drain is not a problem. Just that it’s kind of like worrying about overpopulation on Mars for a lot of countries. A very poor country might have capitalised on only a few percent of its available (say) medical talent. Surely if China loses a lot of talent to emigration, it can just allow in more immigrants. The only possible loser is very poor countries, which were really not that nice to begin with. I think this concern is most respectable in the context of people talking about somewhere like Croatia, which has lost 10% of its population to outward EU migration. But for someone outside the EU, it’s extremely difficult to move to Croatia! Many would if they could. And again, the pool of people with the ability to do things is not fixed. I didn’t bring this up [in the review] but there is also a revealed/stated preferences thing going on here. People have a stated preference for “maintaining your heritage” and living in harmony with the land in an idyllic town. But in practice, people usually choose to move to the city and get wealthy over the idyllic Croat town. So insofar as there are policies to reduce brain drain, it feels like this elite aesthetic preference being imposed on everyone else.” 

From Tyler Cowen:

“I often say to Bryan “How about open borders for Israel and Taiwan!?” I don’t think he has a good answer.”

I kind of touched on this in the review, when I mentioned how the real risk with immigrants’ political views is the tail risk of fringe parties and political breakdown, not a slight shift in the median voter. And a natural corollary of this is that open borders are worse for countries that are politically unstable, or whose stability is particularly dependent on the ethnicity or political beliefs of their citizens.

David Henderson wrote an entire blog post responding to my review! He writes:

“I realized that this [the argument that open borders would increase animal suffering] is not a good argument at all. Let’s say we could reduce the demand for factory farming by imposing draconian regulations that reduce Americans’ per capita income by 80 percent. Would that justify those regulations? I think not. So then how, if we accept the other parts of Bryan’s argument, can we justify, based on reducing factory farming, draconian immigration restrictions to keep many people’s income 80 percent lower than otherwise. Even if you think regulation is justified to reduce factory farming, shouldn’t the regulation be aimed, not at keeping people poor, but at reducing or ending factory farming?”

Enough people were confused by this that I really should have made it clearer. I’m not saying that open borders are a bad idea because of animal suffering. I’m saying that, if we think that eating meat is wrong at all, then open borders is less good of an idea than it otherwise would be. The response to this has been a reductio: “Doesn’t this imply that it’s actually good to kill people or make them poor?”. But this only shows that the amount that animal suffering impacts these arguments is somewhere between “not at all” and “humanity is terrible and you should feel bad”.

From the EA Forum

From tessa:

“You’ve identified my two main frustrations with the book: US-centrism and the attitude that there exist no substantial objections to open borders (rather than a more measured argument that the benefits outweigh the harms). There were a few panels towards the end of the book which typify this for me.

I, uh, I don’t think “the only thing that stands in the way of opening the [US-Canada]  border is sheer political apathy”. Québecois separatists were ransoming politicians within my parents’ lifetime, and Québec nearly separated in 1995. I don’t expect most Americans to pay attention to the fragility of Canadian federalism, but it’s super frustrating to see someone be so confident that there is no possible argument against their position!

This book contained several interesting economic arguments (e.g. “migration good for the economy = big countries do better”, as you pointed out) but enough credibility-straining overconfidence that I haven’t been recommending it.”

Tsunayoshi writes:

“You mention “It’s probably the case that the biggest harms from immigration come from people irrationally panicking about immigration, but (surprise!) people are in fact irrational.”. 

From an EU-perspective, the effect seems pretty clear: After the refugee crisis 2015-2016 there have been numerous cases of populist right-wing parties gaining support or outright winning elections after running on anti-immigration platforms: to name just a few: the Lega Nord in Italy became part of the government, the FPÖ polled at their highest in 2016,  and anti-immigration sentiment was at least influential for Brexit. These are arguably outcomes that substantially weaken political institutions and lead to worse governance. 

This kind of backlash from some parts of the established population happens at moderate levels of immigration. We should expect it to be much stronger when immigration would be much higher under an Open Borders system, and account for the effects of that.”

I agree that the effects of immigrants on politics are less uncertain than I led on, and the right-wing backlash seems to have been fairly reliable.

From LessWrong

Aphyer writes:

“Without commenting on the rest of your post, I am extremely suspicious of your climate change argument.

When the 2008 crisis led to an extended recession, I do not recall many people saying ‘actually this is good, as reduced economic activity due to recession will improve the climate’. When Haiti got hit by natural disasters, lots of people died, and society and the economy collapsed, I again recall very few people saying this.

If you are a single-issue climate change voter, and genuinely do consider everything via a lens of ‘good things are actually bad because they will hurt the environment, and bad things are actually good because they will help the environment’, I withdraw this criticism.

But if your first thought when you read a newspaper report about falling murder rates is not ‘oh no, all those people continuing to live First World lives, think of the environment’, it seems disingenuous to expect Caplan to do the same.”

Man, people really overinterpreted my argument about climate change… I do not think that climate change is so bad that recessions, natural disasters, and poverty are actually good! Just that, if we put any value on the climate whatsoever, these things are not as bad as they otherwise would be. If we were on the fence about whether natural disasters were a bad thing (which of course we’re not) then the climate change argument may put us over the edge. This is the relevance of climate change to open borders. Let’s say that climate change and other forms of pollution make the harms of open borders 10% greater. Then the benefits would have to absolutely completely outweigh the harms to a greater extent than they otherwise would. My steelman of these commenters is that my points about climate change and animal welfare are a general argument against basically every proposed policy change that makes people better off, and since they’re so general there’s no point bringing them up. And I probably won’t again, but this review was the first time I wrote about proposed policy changes!

Benfox:

“One weirdly striking thing missing from Caplan’s book and this review is one of the most common objections people have to mass immigration: loss of their dominant culture.

Given how much anti-immigration rhetoric focuses on precisely this argument, it is bizarre for Caplan not to take it seriously and makes me concerned he is living in an academic bubble so heavily biased towards pro-immigration arguments that he’s failed to even acknowledge it as a concern.

Consider that many people in the UK/Europe bemoan that their major cities have entire sections with no native speakers, are full of Arabic/Polish/Chinese signage or whatever, and bear no resemblance to the place they grew up in. 

Lots of anti-immigrant US groups online also fear the the displacement of Christianity (or Judeo-Christian culture) as the major value system in America.  A less controversial version of this argument may just be that people value shared continuity/history with their fellow countrymen and enjoy having a sense of kinship with people who share their cultural background.

I’m not saying this is the best argument, nor am I agreeing with it, but it is extremely common.”

I agree that Caplan lives in an academic bubble (as does Caplan himself). I think the fact that this concern doesn’t get brought up is his Americacentrism in disguise. He identifies American culture to a large extent with Western culture, which looks to be on course to dominate the world. But people concerned about the effects of immigration on culture are often from the small pockets of regional cultures that are now mostly extinct in the Anglosphere. For example, there was once a Puritan Massachusetts culture, and we are probably now witnessing the death of the Appalachian honour culture, to be replaced with Western culture, vaguely corresponding to America/capitalism/globalisation/liberalism. This point in Caplan’s thinking is discussed in-depth by Scott Alexander in How The West Was Won.

I am from Ireland, which is a place that had a very distinct culture, which has been decimated and almost entirely replaced with global Western culture. And… I have mixed thoughts about it. These sorts of issues are not well suited to the format of Caplan’s book. I hope someone writes a sequel in which they talk about the effects of immigration on culture in a more qualitative way, not relying on these “People are worried about the death of American culture, but look at how many foreigners are drinking Coca Cola, hardy har har” arguments.

DanArmak:

“The US is famous for being culturally and politically polarized. What does it even mean for immigrants to be “barely different from natives” politically? Do they have the same (polarized) spread of positions? Do they all fit into one of the existing political camps without creating a new one? Do they all fit into the in-group camp for Caplan’s target audience?”

“Barely different from natives” means that, on a test designed to measure how politically left or right people are in America, immigrants, on average, score very similarly to natives. I don’t know if polarisation is higher or lower among immigrants. I admit this methodology sucks, and I admit that political science sucks in general.

teageegeepea:

“Was there really that much immigration in 18th century Edinburgh? And in terms of agglomeration, I’m sure it was denser than, say, the highlands of Scotland, was it really that much compared to other cities in Britain?”

I live there so I should probably know this! I’ve heard that a lot of intellectuals came from the islands to Edinburgh, which was almost like moving country. The older parts of Edinburgh are really rather high-density so I suspect it was only matched in density by a few other British cities at the time.

Dzoldzaya left a long and thoughtful comment, but I’ll only respond to one part of it here:

“”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.” This seems the strangest line of the review. Depending on your definition, I’d say that the Gulf States have the opposite of open borders. They previously had targeted immigration policies allowing other Arabs from the MENA region to work there, then they caused too many social problems, so the Gulf countries threw them all out, and invited targeted immigration from a few specific poor countries (with people who didn’t speak Arabic, and therefore wouldn’t get involved in local politics). There is actually a decent amount of social mobility in these countries (a strangely high proportion of my friends are Gulf-state Indians based in Europe), so I wouldn’t be too worried about long-term racial segregation. If you see this story of poor South Asians taken out of poverty by working in the gulf, the Gulf States are a strong argument for a very ‘non-open borders’ way of doing mass immigration: inviting large numbers of migrants to come to a country on guest worker schemes, with very limited rights. Although these migrants have no social support, and can be thrown out on the whim of the recipient country, they can make loads of money compared to back home. I actually think this might be a really good idea, and this is also similar to what Chinese cities do with domestic migration, which avoids parts of Beijing and Shanghai turning into huge shantytowns. However, as you mention, having a ‘second-class’ population sits poorly with European norms and sensibilities.””

This comment made me realise there are two meanings of the term ‘open borders’, which I had been using interchangeably. One is where you take the number of people who immigrate to the country, divide by the number of people who want to immigrate, and the closer this number is to one the more open your borders are. The other meaning is unrestricted or unregulated immigration. The Gulf States have the former but definitely not the latter. I know very little about this topic; the point about the Gulf States being the country with the closest thing to open borders I got from an interview with Caplan.

From Marginal Revolution

From an anonymous commenter:

“”Until the 1920s, the US had de facto open borders, and this is another thing that I wish Caplan had dug into more. Did this work? How did infrastructure cope? What was the wage premium of immigrating?”

Property owners and employers were free to discriminate, criminality could be brutally punished, vagrancy was a crime, no or extremely limited welfare. No public education. English was the lingua franca–you spoke it, or stayed at the bottom of the ladder. Much, much lower population with lots of empty land–if you weren’t willing to be a settler the US was actually pretty inhospitable. Unless you were Irish or Italian and willing to jam into an Eastern seaboard city.”

I admit that the past sucked, but see above. In that sentence I wasn’t talking about the rights of immigrants nor anyone else: I just meant to say that, if you really wanted to go to America, you almost always could before the 1920s. Someone brought up the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which I probably should have mentioned, but I suspect that the American administrative state was so minimal at this time that it was easy to get around, which Wikipedia appears to agree with.

Another anonymous commenter:

“Good to know that budding intellectuals can be lured in by fun cartoons.”

Hell yeah we can!

Finally:

“I find the critique that it’s overly US-focused to be a good one. A second would be the argument of reciprocity. How many Americans would retire to the Caribbean if it were as simple as retiring to Florida?”

I didn’t really discuss this because the gains to people from poor countries are much greater, but yes, it being easier to travel to other countries and/or retire to ones where you wouldn’t necessarily work would be great.

P.S. My review has now been endorsed as being good and fair by Bryan Caplan and Patrick Collison.

Links for October

What I’ve been reading

Wang Huning: the world’s most influential public intellectual?

Human costs aside, is bombing actually good? More generally, when is it better to destroy something and start over?

Some of you may have read about the recent case in which a famous psychologist was found to be faking data in a very obvious way in one of the most well-known papers in behavioural economics. In that spirit, here’s a critical behavioural economics reading list.

Why Gavin Leech is not a philosopher.

Andrew Sullivan on the gay rights movement and AIDS: parts one and two.   

Outdated, but Rob Wiblin on which supplements a healthy person should take.

Tim Urban talking about what it was like giving his very funny TED talk.

Ted Giola on Frank Sinatra’s arrogance and why his earlier period was better.

Scott Alexander on why we can’t build beautiful buildings anymore

Michael Huemer is a two-boxer in the Newcomb problem. If you have no idea what that sentence means, then definitely click through.

Scott Aaronson on how to use technical methods to bite off and make progress on philosophical problems. “Experience has shown that scientists are terrible judges of which of their ideas will be interesting or important to others. Pick any scientist’s most cited paper, and there’s an excellent chance that the scientist herself, at one point, considered it a “little recreational throwaway project” that was barely worth writing up.”

What if scientists were as good at detecting fraud as the speedrunning community? I discussed the Dream speedrunning controversy in my guide to recreational mathematics on YouTube.

Slime Mold Time Mold has a long series that argues that the recent increase in obesity is entirely due to environmental contaminants (in our water and food) and not diet or exercise. How they can say that it’s entirely this I still don’t understand, but the evidence is fairly compelling that contamination corresponds to a significant proportion of the increase. Start with part one.

Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1938 and 1939-1944. You had me at “manga about the history of 20th-century Japan”. The books (I’m two volumes in out of four) bombard you with information, but there are at least notes at the end to understand what’s going on and the cultural references (but weirdly they also cover extremely basic stuff like who Hitler was). The art style is phenomenal. I’ve never seen this book on a shelf or in a comic book shop, it deserves to be more widely known.

In Cold Blood I was inspired to read this after watching the film Capote. I wrote out some of my thoughts here. Certainly the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a while.

The Periodic Table This is a book I’ve been reading for two and half years, despite the fact that it’s only 200 pages. I found it surprisingly hard to get into, especially the earlier sections with the details about his family history. If you don’t know of the book, Primo Levi was a famous chemist, and The Periodic Table is a collection of stories about his life in science and in Auschwitz, where each chapter is named after a different element that somehow plays into the story. The flowery language comes through well even in translation: “Prometheus had been foolish to bestow fire on men instead of selling it to them: he would have made money, placated Jove, and avoided all that trouble with the vulture.”

What I’ve been listening to

Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell, has come out of his shell and has more of a public presence now. Part of that was his great interview with Ezra Klein about Open Philanthropy Project’s giving strategy.

A good conversation on the podcast Very Bad Wizards about Meditations on Moloch, one of Scott Alexander’s most famous essays.   

The new 80,000 Hours podcast with Carl Shulman is one of the most interesting and in-depth they’ve done in a while.

Paul Bloom on Two Psychologists Four Beers discusses his new book The Sweet Spot. If you like informal discussions about academia, you will enjoy Two Psychologists Four Beers.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer live in Copenhagen 1967. The level of focus on the threat of nuclear war is striking (🎵”Israel’s getting tense / Wants one in self-defence / The lord is our shepherd, says the psalm / But just in case, we better get a bomb”🎵). It was funny when he joked about the Apollo project being a waste of money! You can tell there’s a lot of cultural references his Danish audience aren’t getting. They also have a bizarre degree of spontaneous clapping synchronisation.

Soul: Soundtrack The ability of Pixar to still make great original films is impressive. My only major complaint is with the overuse of famous actors.

Bob Dylan: Desire I’ve been listening to more Dylan since I watched Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the Rolling Thunder Revue. ‘Isis’ and ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ are my favourite tracks here.

What I’ve been watching

Squid Game Like everybody else, I watched Squid Game. Following Parasite, there is somewhat of a trend of Americans misinterpreting Korean media. In interviews, the director doesn’t mention anything about ‘capitalism’. I see it as much more of a morality play about how monetary incentives beget non-monetary ones. By the end, they’re killing each other not because of rational self-interest but because they hate each other! It’s a solid 7/10 series. There are significant flaws: the two twists don’t make sense, game #5 breaks the show’s internal rules, (the Front Man interferes while the game is still ongoing) and all of the American actors are hilariously atrocious.

The Talented Mr Ripley Might this be the best Matt Damon performance?

The Princess Bride Another entry in my mission to watch classic films that I somehow missed in my upbringing. A near-perfect film.

1917 A technical war film, not driven by characters, firmly in the tradition of Dunkirk. I’d like to see an exploration of how video games have influenced film, because a lot of the shots here are reminiscent of third-person shooters. It struck me while watching this how many war films involve a delivery or journey that is theoretically simple but in practice difficult and complicated – Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, etc.

A threepart series on how The Hobbit ended up being so meh, featuring a lengthy diversion into New Zealand labour law. When I eventually show my girlfriend The Hobbit I may use one of the fan edits that cut the series down from three films to one.

A brilliant piece of conceptual analysis: how many Super Mario games are there? And, from the same channel: there are 48 regular polyhedra.

Questions about YIMBY

I’ve been trying to convince my girlfriend that we should live in a renovated shipping container, but I haven’t been successful

If you want to change the world, start by giving people free books. Or at least, this is the approach of the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank in the UK. At an event of theirs, they gave me a copy of John Myers’ little book (or long paper) YIMBY: How to end the housing crisis, boost the economy and win more votes. Weirdly, the book starts with specific solutions to the housing crisis, and then only in the middle talks about why this is a problem you should care about.

You probably already know this story: NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) want to preserve the value of their homes, so they lobby the government to restrict supply through zoning laws, historic preservation rules, and widely distributed veto power. Hence, when demand goes up, prices increase. YIMBYism (Yes in My Back Yard) is a recent movement of people who want to allow more building to solve this (the author is a cofounder of London YIMBY).

I feel that whether you view NIMBYism as a problem of excessive government intervention or civil society is dependent on your pre-existing biases. I take a central claim of libertarianism to be that the government is overrated, and civil society is underrated. But if we had been trying to show the opposite, we could use the fact that civil society obstructs building so much to argue that the government needs to socialise more housing.

This gets at my general confusion about decentralisation arguments. There is a well-known thesis that decentralisation is good because it allows for the synthesis of information from many different sources, in a way that couldn’t plausibly be done by central authorities. The problem of NIMBYism is a problem of decentralised town councils, part of the centralised government, being lobbied by decentralised homeowners, to obstruct the ability of decentralised individuals to pay centralised developers to build new buildings. For whom is this a win – the centralisers or the decentralisers?

There’s a paper from Hsieh and Moretti that finds that US GDP growth between 1964 and 2009 was 50% lower as a result of restrictions on building. If we take this at face value, it’s pretty staggering. A standard result in the economics literature is that restrictions on the supply of housing cause a doubling in house prices. For London, they seem to correspond to a quadrupling in rents (these figures come from the book). Apparently, we’re not in flying cars colonising the galaxy because we wasted all our money on rent…

…or because we’re living in the wrong places. There are two problems with supply constraints on housing: waste and inefficiency. The average UK renter pays 30% of their income on rent, so a crude guess is that society is paying a 15% tax on economic activity to pay for restrictions on building. But this effect is plausibly smaller than the problem of people not living where their labour is most valuable. This is why you get software engineers in the Bay Area doing their own plumbing: few plumbers can afford to live in San Francisco. Then you get an oversupply of service workers in economically stagnant areas, driving down wages… you get the idea. 

I’m not sure whether anyone actually believes that there were more restrictions on building in the past. Britain’s modern planning system didn’t exist until 1947, with the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act. Britain now has possibly the most dysfunctional planning system of any rich country (except maybe Ireland?). Is this because the Town and Country Planning Act is just really bad? Or does it work as poorly as systems from other countries, but the nicer pre-existing supply of houses in the UK inspires more NIMBYs?  

Houston famously has no zoning laws (it does however have other planning regulations including parking minimums that make the city less walkable). Houston represents one equilibrium, in which the city has enough renting tenants (44% of the population) to form a permanent bloc to vote for more housing. The South of England represents the opposite equilibrium, in which there are enough homeowners to consistently block new developments. 

This book focuses mostly on the UK and London in particular, where expansion is strictly limited by the green belt. It’s safe to assume that the primary reason for the popular support of the green belt is that it contains the word ‘green’. Most of London’s green belt is occupied by farmland, which uses pesticides and is generally bad for the environment. The green belt doesn’t exist because it’s an area that is particularly beautiful (people who think this are probably confusing it with an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Nor does it exist for specific scientific or environmental reasons. Its function is primarily to restrict the supply of housing and ensure that Londoners in the suburbs have access to nice outdoor areas. Having access to nice outdoor areas is important, but this is a spectacularly inefficient way to do it. 

An angle I’m surprised the book didn’t push harder is that zoning laws are almost certainly harmful to the environment, because they limit densification, and higher-density buildings are better for the environment. For example, carbon emissions per capita in London are almost 40% below the UK average. When you think about it, this is entirely unsurprising: cities have lots of people living close together using public transport who don’t need goods transported to remote locations.

Another notable omission is the effects that high house prices have on fertility. One of the most important things I learned from reading Matt Yglesias’ book One Billion Americans is that women in Western countries’ ideal number of children is not, in general, going down. If anything, the number of children the average American woman wants is slightly up since the 1980s. What’s changed is the economic circumstances: women make more money, so the opportunity cost of having a child is higher. There is also a Baumol’s disease driving up the price of education and childcare: some sectors (like software) have increased in productivity so much that compensation has had to rise in low-growth sectors to keep people from jumping ship. Childcare may even be experiencing negative productivity growth, because of various laws restricting the number of children that can be taken care of by one carer (in my native Ireland, depending on the circumstance, the child:adult ratio can be no larger than 3:1). But plausibly more important than these effects is that couples have to wait longer until they can afford a house, and they don’t want to have children in a cramped expensive apartment. The evidence for this looks pretty solid to me, although the book doesn’t discuss it. I assume the reason that YIMBYs don’t make this argument more often is that more children are not an unalloyed good; some people even say that having children is a bad thing because of climate change. The argument that people really do want more children, but that we price them out of being able to do so through a screwed-up planning system, is a pretty good one. 

The ASI and London YIMBY propose ‘street votes’ as a practical solution to increasing the supply of housing, in which each street can vote to ‘up-zone’ and allow for denser development, thereby greatly increasing the value of their property. This would be done through a double majority: it would be approved by two-thirds of residents and two-thirds of residents that have lived on the street for at least three years. The hope is that this would replace the current vetocracy, in which small numbers of cranky residents can oppose new developments while not clearly violating any ‘will of the people’.

The author doesn’t consider the other proposed solutions to this problem, but that is mostly because the other proposed solutions are silly. Rent control, for example, is almost universally condemned by economists as being a terrible idea. Even the Freakonomics guys once released a plea for people to stop supporting rent control. Obligatory reference to the time Assar Lindbeck said that “Short of bombing, I know of no way to destroy a city that was more effective than rent control”, et cetera et cetera. 

I’ve also heard people suggest that second homeownership be heavily taxed or banned altogether. But second homeownership is already pretty rare; vanishingly so in expensive cities. Insofar as there are unoccupied units in desirable cities, it is usually because someone lives there during the week for their job and elsewhere at the weekend. The reason they do this is that rent is very high and the rental market sucks because of (you guessed it) insufficient supply. Advocating a policy with mostly symbolic value against the elites is not usually a good way to solve problems. 

You might be wondering about whether the dilemmas caused by NIMBYism can’t be solved with Coasean bargaining. Coase’s theorem says that, in the absence of transaction costs, rational actors will bargain to efficient outcomes. If my flatmate likes listening to loud music that I don’t like, theoretically she will compensate me exactly to the extent that I am harmed by listening to her music. Similarly, you could imagine developers compensating nearby residents to the extent that they are harmed by living near an ugly building and/or an irksome construction site. I’m assuming that the reason this doesn’t happen in practice is that it’s very hard to say what counts as ‘nearby’, it’s hard to make this compensation in a legal way, and that lots of NIMBYs oppose developments nowhere near where they live. 

I don’t generally recommend making people feel bad for supporting something because the initial motivation for that thing was racist. But still, it’s worth mentioning that single-family zoning (the primary form of zoning in the US) was designed to exclude black people from white neighbourhoods. Something similar is true of the American college admission system, by the way: it started out as an elaborate scheme to keep Jews out of universities.

In a competitive market, the cost of a good falls closer and closer to the cost of replacing it. And indeed, for centuries, house prices outside city centres generally hovered above replacement levels. Now, houses cost at least double their replacement cost, and many multiples more in cities. The ONS says that the market value of houses exceeds replacement costs by £3 trillion, which is 150% of the UK’s GDP. The book says £3 trillion is “more than double” UK GDP, but this is in violation of what Google tells me. 

I’m not sure how distinct a problem high house prices are from homelessness. The rent in San Francisco is very high, and there are lots of homeless people there. But presumably, most of them still wouldn’t be able to afford to live in an apartment even if the rent were half as much. Is the reason that NIMBY contributes to homelessness that it blocks the development of ultracheap tenements for homeless people? If so, this seems like an odd point to neglect in a book about housing regulations. A few years ago a man in LA built tiny $1,200 houses for the homeless, before the government shut him down, presumably to free the homeless people from oppression or something, and then they went back to sleeping on the streets. Maybe someone needs to make a tear-jerking documentary about this, Blackfish style. If only people were as cute as killer whales…

Thanks to Sydney and Gytis Daujotas for reviewing drafts of this post. 

P.S. I wasn’t aware of John Myers, Ben Southwood and Sam Bowman’s new piece in Works in Progress when I wrote this, but it covers very similar ground. 

Some Ramblings on ‘In Cold Blood’

My favourite of the alternate coves, with Dick and Perry on the front

I feel bad about not reading more fiction. I have this weird obsession with obtaining new information in everything that I do for pleasure, even if the information is trivial, or just generally less interesting than the insights gained from fiction. I’ve compromised by reading a lot of non-fiction that’s written like novels. So, it’s fitting that I just finished In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which birthed the genre of the non-fiction novel.

First, some context: In Cold Blood is a novel from 1966 that documents the murders of Herb Clutter and his family of four in a small village in Kansas by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. They carried out the murders in November 1959, then fled to Mexico, changed their minds and went back to Kansas City, and then were eventually caught over a month later in Las Vegas. The murders received extensive media coverage at the time, and the two murderers were eventually hanged. The book was adapted into a 2005 film called Capote, which is more about Capote himself and his research and writing for the book. The film is, I gather, much more historically accurate. Indeed, one of Truman Capote’s signature moves was flagrantly making stuff up. Here are some of my initial thoughts about the book:

  1. I was surprised by how little Capote inserted himself into the story. There’s only one sentence in which he appears to refer to himself, simply as ‘the journalist’. This is a little bit surprising because I had a picture of Truman Capote as a larger-than-life slightly narcissistic figure. But, come to think of it, him inserting himself would be too on-the-nose. The real reason this is surprising is that, in real life, he played a very important causal role in the events that occurred. He is, at least according to the film, the reason why the murderers got a re-trial. Perry thought they could use his book as evidence in their defence, and Capote ends up becoming Perry’s first real friend, of a sort. The fact that this is omitted from the book is dishonest, but I suppose he was trying to avoid blowback. If your actions strengthened the defence of two obviously guilty killers, you probably wouldn’t want to put it in a bestselling book either. In Cold Blood is in this really interesting position of being an impossible book to finish, because Truman Capote ended up so intimately intertwined with the events. And yet no-one else could have written the book, because he’s the only one that did the extensive research needed to write it.
  2. Capote was gay and spent most of his adult life in a relationship with fellow writer Jack Dunphy. He had a high-pitched voice and very distinctive vocal mannerisms which, one would assume, meant that he was faced with a harder job gaining the trust of the Kansans. It’s also easy to speculate that his sexuality may have left him with more of an interest in outsiders, whether they be murderers or not.  
  3. Capote’s interviews were conducted with Harper Lee, who just so happened to be a childhood friend. Given that he was writing this book when To Kill a Mockingbird came out, and given his upbringing in Alabama, it makes sense that he has an interest in the racial components of the story. Perry was half-Native American, and this is brought up constantly, but I didn’t feel like I understood its significance. Is it that he never really came to terms with his identity? Is it just another generic hurdle to him having a successful life? Is he generalising from one example (his alcoholic mother) to think that all Native Americans are bad, and does this make his childhood neglect sting even more? If there is no symbolic significance, then why bring it up so much?
  4. I recommended this book to a friend and said that a large part of it was a deep psychological analysis of the killers. This friend has been reading too much about sketchy psychology studies, and reflexively put what I was talking about in the same category. I suppose the cardinal sin of psychological theorising is that it is not sufficiently grounded in behaviour. Good novelists do a good job giving genuine psychological insight because they talk about what characters say and do, and humans are good at extrapolating from this. Psychological studies involve coming up with a hypothesis about the mind and testing it in a contrived experiment. Why can’t we do the thing novelists do, but scientifically? Because as soon as effects become large and obvious enough that we can notice them without formal study, then our observations cease to be psychology and start becoming journalism.  
  5. The selective revelation of information in this book is really clever. Every time you think you have Dick and Perry’s relationship figured out, there’s something new that makes you realise you haven’t. At first, Dick seems like the puppeteer, and Perry is the real psychopath who’s going to do the killings for him. Then you realise both men think they’re mentors of the other. This would normally result in one-upmanship, but they don’t have the rapport for that. Perry is grasping at a higher social class, and Dick is class static. Then there’s this sexual element going on, where Dick is paedophilic, and Perry thinks people being unable to contain their sexual impulses is uncouth (his problem is less so about Dick’s cravings being for children!). So, again, you have the dynamic where Dick just accepts his terrible preferences and way of life, and Perry tries to do better, but puts in so little effort that he ends up even worse out of disaffection.
  6. The end of the book drags. Some of this appears to be a result of Capote not wanting the book to end, and so stretching it out by doing things like giving backstory to the killers’ fellow inmates on death row. But most of it is just that, legislatively, executing someone in the US drags on for a very long time. There’s a trial, then a re-trial, then a lot of questioning of the re-trial because the initial person in charge of the re-trial retired. All in all, arrest to execution took six years. This is the kind of thing that could have been interesting – there’s a constant tension between justice right now and the more abstract ideals of due process – but, for me at least, wasn’t.

Thanks to Sydney for reviewing a draft of this post, and for getting me to read the book!

Links for September

PSA: If you live in the Edinburgh area, I am organising an Astral Codex Ten meetup group. The first meeting will (probably) be on the 24th of October with Scott Alexander himself, but hopefully we will have enough people to be sustaining after that. I also help organise an effective altruism group in Edinburgh, so if you are the type of person that reads this blog and live in or near Edinburgh then check out our website and Facebook page.

What I’ve been reading

Something cool that happened: I posed a question to Tyler Cowen about why British talk/panel shows are so much better than American ones and he posted it on Marginal Revolution, and later posted a response.

I was completely unaware that smallpox hadn’t come to large swaths of Central Asia until the 18th century.

I’ve been reading through all of Paul Graham’s essays as a source of startup-related wisdom. I enjoyed reading his argument that the reason manufacturing workers were overpaid in the 20th century was not because of unions but because manufacturing was a growth sector. Software engineers might be overpaid today for similar reasons. I also finally read What You Can’t Say.

An argument that the recent fiasco in Afghanistan shows that expertise in the social and political sciences is basically fake. I loved the opening paragraph:

“Imagine that the US was competing in a space race with some third world country, say Zambia, for whatever reason. Americans of course would have orders of magnitude more money to throw at the problem, and the most respected aerospace engineers in the world, with degrees from the best universities and publications in the top journals. Zambia would have none of this. What should our reaction be if, after a decade, Zambia had made more progress?

Obviously, it would call into question the entire field of aerospace engineering. What good were all those Google Scholar pages filled with thousands of citations, all the knowledge gained from our labs and universities, if Western science gets outcompeted by the third world?

For all that has been said about Afghanistan, no one has noticed that this is precisely what just happened to political science.”

 A critique of rationalist amateur sociology using rationalist amateur sociology.

A post about Scott Alexander’s writing style and what makes it so good. Next I want to see a breakdown of how he’s able to write so much.

Scott Alexander on ivermectin, the knee-jerk reaction to a story about ivermectin, and the knee-jerk reaction to the knee-jerk reaction.

The Browser has a great interview with the blogger Applied Divinity Studies. “I once met a guy who dropped out from a Harvard PhD and launched a startup entirely because Tyler [Cowen] linked to a post he wrote.”

A recent post that has been doing the rounds about how Tyler Cowen is such a good curator of talent. Although of course I am strongly motivated to come to the conclusion that Tyler Cowen is a good curator of talent 😀

Replacing Guilt Initially a series of blog posts, now a book, that argues against guilt as a motivation and in favour of finding other intrinsic motivations. I would like to see a sequel in which someone argues for a rigorous humanities education on this basis. The book format didn’t add anything for me, so feel free to read as blog posts.

What I’ve been listening to

A conversation between Julia Galef and Kelsey Piper, a journalist from Vox, about how to reason about COVID and other hard things. Ivermectin bad, fluvoxamine good (probably). Also contains a discussion of the “degrowth” movement, of which there has been several critiques recently.

Mushtaq Khan on the 80,000 Hours podcast talking about using institutional economics to predict which government reforms will work. I appreciate his point that it’s excruciatingly difficult to make generalisations. Neoclassical economic theory grew out of trying to understand Britain and America, and if this is your starting point, then it is no surprise that you come to the conclusion that what’s good for economic development is free markets and democracy. If economics had first developed in Singapore and Korea, then we would have concluded that what’s good for economic development is protectionism and authoritarianism.

Bryan Caplan on open borders and who’s to blame for poverty. This podcast was unusually good and is now my favourite conversation with him.

I greatly enjoyed the Conversations with Tyler episode with David Cutler and Edward Glaeser about the economics of cities. Edinburgh is mentioned as an example of a city that is beautiful and dense. Everywhere near where I live is at least five-stories; it is only on the outskirts that you see ugly low-density modern buildings. Density doesn’t come at the expense of beauty; frequently, the opposite is true.

A podcast with Ben Kuhn, the CTO of Wave. I can’t yet recommend other episodes of this podcast – they still have audio issues and such – but it has potential.

Sam Harris talks to Balaji Srinivasan about crypto, monopolies, Singapore and building new institutions. Balaji is much further along the train to crazy town than I am, but he makes for an excellent podcast guest.  

Zeynep Tufekci on CWT. For those of you who don’t know, Tufekci is a Turkish sociologist who is recently famous for having been right very early about COVID. Conversations with Tyler has been unusually good recently, possibly because some of the episodes are recorded in-person again.

Two recent episodes of the 80,000 Hours podcast with Holden Karnofsky were particularly good. In the second of these podcasts Holden argues that effective altruism has been radically underestimating personal fit and the excruciating finitude of our willpower. Interestingly, Caplan argues the opposite in the podcast linked above (“Of course I am morally obligated to go on a skiing holiday in the alps. I need to feel refreshed so I can make more money and donate it!”).

Candy – Lee Morgan I am working on a guide to the trumpeter Lee Morgan, but it’s taking a while because cultivating in myself a greater appreciation of music is a lot of work. See also Lee Morgan in concert. My favourite songs have been Sweet Honey Bee from the album Charisma and (of course) Moanin’.   

What I’ve Been Watching

The Good Place Surprisingly good, although corny at times. The characters are absurdly exaggerated, but I found the plot very satisfying and engaging. Finally people will stop telling me to watch it because I’m interested in moral philosophy!

Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson’s second animated film. Some people think that Anderson is getting too contrived, and I can see where this critique comes from. I plan to write a post about Wes Anderson at some point, so come back to me then.

Wilde Who else could be cast to play Oscar Wilde other than Stephen Fry?

The Rolling Thunder Revue A documentary about Bob Dylan’s famous 1976 tour by Martin Scorsese. I don’t know much Dylan, but he has done a uniquely good job staying weird. And perhaps this is because of the dickishness and not in spite of it. You can see this in the recent interview clips with him for the documentary: he clearly doesn’t want to be there and thinks the premise of the documentary is bullshit.

Capote Phenomenal, I don’t know why I waited so long to watch it. In this video an accent expert breaks down Philip Seymour Hoffman’s vocal performance for this film.