I did not grow up around guns at all. As far as I remember, no one I knew in my extended network owned a gun. We did not hunt, we did not feel the need to have one for self-defense, and we didn’t go to a shooting range for recreation. I think I asked my immediate family in the last few years how many of them had even shot a gun before, and it was only about half. In a country of 300 million people, I imagine there are a lot of people that grew up just like me. And it’s in this context that so many Americans are absolutely perplexed by the support for gun rights even after events like mass shootings. I’ve tried to understand the passion for gun rights that so many Americans have that leads to a stalemate in the legislative process. In the end, one’s view of whether gun ownership is a fundamental right is probably the determinant on how one looks at the entirety of gun legislation.

Imagine a right that you consider to be very sacred. Now imagine that 1) a bunch of people are harmed by an incident and a legislative abridgment of that right is thought to be a meaningful way to reduce future harm. Or consider 2) a slight abridgment of the right – a law that imposes restrictions on your sacred right only in very exceptional circumstances, but those exceptional circumstances can also be seen as the most egregious instances of this right.

Rather than continue in the abstract, I’ll apply the thinking in the above paragraph to actual issues. If you consider the civil liberties of privacy and protection from unwarranted government surveillance to be really important, will a terrorist attack or an increase in organized crime change your value of that? Was the Patriot Act justified because of September 11th? Probably not. For people who view the 4th amendment to be particularly sacred, a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people does not change their fundamental right to protection from intrusive government surveillance. People who are a little more waffley on the 4th amendment argued that we’d need to compromise a little for the sake of security. I mean, we have to do something. This applies to point number 1 in the paragraph above.

For point #2, consider this logic in the context of abortion access, specifically partial birth abortion. Partial birth abortion is incredibly rare, and reproductive rights advocates often point to it as a distraction from the overall issue, saying that it paints a misleading picture of what typical abortions really look like. And if one is of the mindset that abortion choice is a fundamental right, a partial birth abortion ban is chipping away at that right with a slippery slope towards bigger and more meaningful restrictions.

Maybe you can see where I’m going here with the analogue to gun rights. For scenario 1, a mass shooting does not sway gun rights enthusiasts away from their sacred right to bear arms. Other peoples’ abuse of gun use does not change the right to own a gun, just as people planning a terrorist attack under the guise of privacy from FBI surveillance does not change my right to privacy either. In fact, any statistics showing how gun ownership leads to accidental deaths in the home or more suicides are totally irrelevant. The rush to “do something” in both circumstances – tighter gun control or the Patriot Act – was viewed by opponents as a knee-jerk reaction that encroached on fundamental liberties.

In scenario 2, one can see parallels between partial birth abortion and an assault weapons ban. Most gun deaths are not caused by assault weapons, even though their existence and use appear to be the least reasonable instance of self-defense or hunting. Legislation restricting ownership or even banning them is an encroachment on a fundamental right to own a gun, anyway. And it’s only time before laws keep chipping away at the guns people are allowed to own and everything falls into the category.

I think there’s also some truth to the idea that those seeking partial birth abortion bans do see it as a roadmap to outlawing abortion entirely. Similarly, those banning assault weapons would be open to the idea of outlawing gun ownership entirely – or at least they’re comfortable with getting to that point.

In these scenarios, the important difference is where your “square one” is. If your square one is that gun ownership is a fundamental right, all logic flows from that and restrictions on gun ownership are almost always dubious and a huge burden of proof is placed against legislation that restricts it. If your square one does not include a particularly passionate defense of gun ownership, then you probably see all gun control as completely reasonable.

I of course am in the latter camp, struggling to see why people are willing to tolerate a society that allows so much gun violence. But the more important thing is that I don’t see why gun ownership is held so sacred to so many people. And if the starting point for such a critical mass of Americans is holding this right so closely to their heart, is there much room for meaningful overlapping compromise? If the 2nd amendment is so important to so many in the electorate, will any significant efforts to limit ownership be seen as an unjustified violation of rights? Maybe people are less extreme than we assume they are. That the binary of “pro choice” and “pro life” is as exaggerated as the “gun rights” vs “gun restrictions” dichotomy. I hope that’s the case.

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The first Democratic primary debates are tonight, and in the midst of a very very crowded field it’s worth asking: beyond “anyone who will win,” who are the stronger candidates and why? I want to focus particularly on the second aspect of that question: why are we drawn to certain candidates? In that context, I’d argue that we – as in, the electorate, when determining what candidate to vote for – focus too much on personality and not nearly enough on executive/administrative skill.

In any election, people typically can choose between an incumbent and a number of challengers. When it comes to the Democratic candidates for 2020, we’re only looking at challengers. People often take the present state of the economy or their overall living situation when considering the incumbent – blaming or passing the President in office, rightly or wrongly, for their current standard of living. But with only challengers in the field, I’d say that people are drawn to specific candidates for some combination of personality and policy.

The appeal of personality

The first one, personality, is the most significant, even for many policy wonks who’d like to think they are immune to it. Under the bucket of personality, I’d put things like how relatable a candidate is, trust, scandals, etc. Consider Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. There were some meaningful policy differences between the two of them in 2008 – especially when it comes to foreign policy – but people fell in love with Obama because of what his personality represented. Were Obama’s policies all that much different than a John Kerry, Joe Biden, or Lincoln Chaffee? Obama was not a once-in-a-generation political talent because he somehow whipped up a portfolio of mind-blowing policies that no one had ever thought of. In fact, there was notably a huge overlap between the economic advisors during the Bill Clinton administration and Obama’s. Nor did people fall in love with Obama because of his incredible experience. He had spent a little time as a state legislator in Illinois and a couple years in the Senate before he ran for President. He was criticized during his 2008 run for having had little more career experience than “community organizer” under his belt.

With the obvious caveat that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are complete opposites in almost every meaningful way, one could argue that much of Obama’s initial appeal/criticism came from the same root of human motives as those for Donald Trump. I think people fell in love with Obama because he represented the America they aspired to have: he was the hope candidate, a multiracial cosmopolitan law professor who would bring back technocratic thinking to the Presidency after George Bush and project tolerant liberal values abroad. But to his critics, he was an out-of-touch elitist who was “weak” and had never experienced the real world. As one of my friends put it, there were a lot of people who loved or hated Obama for the same reason: he was a cool black guy.

The disdain for Trump goes deep and for many reasons. But I find his supporters are much more drawn to what his personality represents to them than any of his actual policies. The flip flops of Republican voters on policy preferences during his Presidency are noted and remarkable. Farewell to support for free trade, cutting deficits, or any semblance of free markets and individual liberty. Hypocrisy of elected officials aside, I think what drew Republican voters to him was the idea that he – believe it or not – represented the kind of dude they want in the White House. The same reasons that his critics can’t stand his personality – toxic masculinity combined with a desire to reject all technocratic advice and unashamedly bulldoze through anything close to norms – are the reasons his supporters love him. Trump is an alpha male. He cheats on his wife with porn stars. He says racist things – or “politically incorrect” depending on your viewpoint – unapologetically. He likes big strong tough American things like steel, coal, and #business.

When I think about which of the Democratic candidates I am drawn to, I must admit I fall into a similar framework of seeking out a candidate’s “vibe” more than anything else. As Ezra Klein spelled out in a couple podcast episodes he did, Democrats love the idea of “the professor” or the “educated multicultural person.” They’re itching to have an academic back in the White House so that reality can be as close to the West Wing as possible (something Emily VanDerWerff has also described in a podcast episode). When I look at the 23 (24? 25?) candidates vying for the nomination, many of their policies blend together. Yes, there’s a substantial difference between a Joe Biden and a Bernie Sanders. But what about between a Corey Booker or a Kamala Harris?

The reality is that we judge the value of these candidacies by their personality, their “vibe.” Ezra also point out in his interview with Pete Buttigieg how Mayor Pete seemed to strike at the heart of the West Wing-minded people of the Democratic party. The guy learned Norwegian so he could read a book he liked, for heaven’s sake. Outside of Biden and Sanders (and potentially Warren), few candidates have enough name recognition to really have convinced the electorate of their meaningful differences. Because of this, Kamala Harris is “the Senator who badgered Kavanaugh but also used to be an overzealous attorney.” Amy Klobuchar is “the nice Senator from Minnesota who throws her binders at staffers.” So which vibe do people most relate to? Which person do you see as someone you’d love to have represent you and America abroad?

My gut reaction – after of course “whoever will beat Trump” – is towards Buttigieg. I can’t give you firm answers about questions regarding his policies, his young age, or that he’s never been elected to statewide of Federal office. He just seems to have that vibe that I like. He was a Rhodes Scholar, he’s a midwesterner, and he spontaneously played a Spoon song on piano. I recognize that even as someone who loves reading about policy nuances and claims to value “substance” entirely over “style,” I still make my choice in a crowded field towards the guy whose #vibe I like the most.

Now maybe personality at some point manifests itself into actual substance. Could Obama’s likability have been a strategic asset abroad? Is Trump’s unpredictability and toughness actually going to get countries to the negotiating table? It’s possible, but it still needs to be put into the context of everything else.

Where is the place for policy?

As a generalization, the parties’ constituents and representatives can be divided into their “moderate”/”establishment” sections and their “populist” wings. Trump is the rightwing populist, maybe a Mitt Romney is the establishment Republican, Biden is the establishment Democrat, and Bernie is the populist lefty. There are definitely differences in the policies of Biden versus Bernie. In fact, even between Warren and Sanders – both people I would consider as being a part of the left-populist group – there are big policy differences. I think many primary voters will keep these in mind, but only as far as it extends to how it feeds into the personality/vibe. Warren and Sanders both want to burn the place down and take out Wall Street. Biden and Harris want to tinker with the 2015 system rather than throw out the baby with the bath water. There are policy-lovers that will look at specific policies once the crowded field narrows, but I still think that for the vast majority of the general primary voting population, personality wins out.

In the current state of affairs, it’s worth pondering how much policy preferences will matter, and in what ways. Obamacare passed with 60 Democrats in the Senate and is still being challenged legally in the courts. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think the ACA changed the previous system all that much compared to current 2020 proposals and still it is constantly being challenged. With Mitch McConnell running the Senate, or at the very best Democrats having a majority that doesn’t reach 60 votes, not many if any of the Democratic dream legislation will have a chance at passing.

Proposing Medicare for All or a Green New Deal may not pass now, but maybe it will shift the Overton window? Republican voters have suggested openness to expanding the social safety net, contingent on its branding. Could it be that entering these proposals into the national discussion will in itself advance their likelihood of passing down the line? I don’t discount it totally, but there’s so much uncertainty with that line of thinking. And blowback effects seem just as likely for radical legislation that could actually be counter-productive.

There are aspects where Presidential policy differences do matter of course, outside of Congressional representation. The Executive branch has huge control over regulation, as we have seen with Trump. As the arbiter of enforcing laws, the President can effectively choose how hard they will uphold the laws that Congress has passed. Where does each candidate stand on financial, environmental, and commercial regulation? Furthermore, the President appears to be able to unilaterally dictate foreign policy under the status quo. The differences on foreign policy between the primary candidates should thus be taken much more seriously. But with economic issues at the forefront, the only buzz I’m getting from many Democrats about foreign policy is “not as aggressive as Trump, and don’t be friends with North Korean dictators.”

Executive/administrative skill

The aspect of a candidacy that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention is the administrative skill level. There was some appeal to Trump for his supposed business acumen, but people don’t seem to take into account enough the fact that the President is the head of an Executive branch that employs millions of people. In fact one of Trump’s biggest incompetencies is his ability to effectively administrate all of those who technically report to him. His incompetence seems to be a blessing disguise for many of his critics, as his most disastrous policies often hit roadblocks and aren’t enacted because he’s so bad at the chain of command. This is where someone like Hillary Clinton would have really been exceptional. Her experience would have given her an unprecedented ability to manage the bureaucratic machine that makes up the Executive Branch. I also think that Obama was caught flat-footed in his first term, though eventually found his way in his second term very effectively.

Being President is tough and the oft-spoken cliche is that everyone has no experience being President until they’re elected. But there are also people who are quicker to learn and are quicker to apply their executive experience to the role. Governors – maybe mayors? – or people who have had executive experience are thus undervalued to me. Or at least trying to find out what their executive skills would be. Can you see Bernie being able to manage millions of people? I can see him coming up with a cohesive political philosophy and inspiring lots of people, but I can’t see him pulling the strings to get things done. Elizabeth Warren? Much more so. It’s hard to tell (for non-incumbents) how people will perform in this regard before they actually become President. But not enough voters/commentators are even asking the question.

495 days

As I write this, there are 495 days until the 2020 Presidential general election. The Democratic nominee will be decided 6 or so months before then. I’m eager to see how the debates and ensuing campaigning change my view of which candidates to favor. As the field narrows, I think the differences in policy, demeanor, and executive capabilities will become more clear. Until then, I’ll admittedly be over-relying on the perceived personalities of the candidates to make my evaluations.

Tyler Cowen tries to argue in his latest book Big Business that big businesses are in reality not the villains they’re often made out to be and, in fact, deserve our praise. While the book presents strong counter-intuitive arguments about the good that big business does in America, I suspect readers skeptical of large private enterprise will walk away unconvinced. In the big picture, critics of big business are still likely to assume that some combination of more regulation, smaller businesses, and public ownership would be a superior alternative to the status quo.

In a huge ecosystem of large corporations, Cowen emphasizes that a fair assessment needs to look at the “net net” of the total impact of big business and not just the worst offenses. Cowen acknowledges the salesmen swindling low-information customers, dentists recommending more appointments than necessary, and pharmaceuticals striking shady deals with doctors to dish out addictive drugs. But his underlying thesis is that we need to look at the net effect.

The Good

While admitting these egregious offenses, Cowen claims “the propensity to commit fraud is essentially just an extension of the propensity of people to commit fraud.” He points to a survey showing that 53% of people admitted to lying in their online dating profile. One study estimated that we tell an average of nearly two lies per day and most often those are to people we are the closest to and not total strangers. Another showed 31% of people having completely fabricated information on their resumes and 76% “embellished the truth.” Indeed, when we look at big business in the modern economy we often evaluate things as they are and think of alternatives as we wish to be. It’s worth considering the possibility that big business is no more dishonest than we are as individuals.

In fact, Cowen argues that big business is incentivized to be even more honest than individuals or small companies. Because they have an (inter)national brand to uphold, big businesses are more incentivized to avoid the PR disasters that come from customer negligence in a world of viral social media. Further, there is evidence big businesses are more likely to treat their workers better than their mom-and-pop counterparts.

The NFL can shamefully exclude Colin Kaepernick because of his politics, but often overlooked is the idea that the profit motive can be a positive force for social justice. Cowen points to our national reckoning with sexual assault to argue that private business can be a better force for good in these regards than the public alternative. Allegations against men in the entertainment industry were met with swift action – think of Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, etc. – while a man with a long history of unambiguously immoral treatment of women sits in the Oval Office. Roy Moore only barely lost in the Alabama Senate race. Market forces can be seen as a villainous determinant to cut corners and exploit people unfairly, but it can also be a force for social justice under some circumstances. As Sam Hammond argued in Liberal Currents, corporate capitalism and social justice are not always opposing forces.

Too many arguments in favor of scrapping the entire system assume that a radically redefined economic system and culture will mold to their ideal reality. But what happens when we put government in control of every industry and Donald Trump is the one running that government? Fox News is an easy target for the ills of profit-driven media, but would an entirely publicly-owned media landscape just mean Trump hires Roger Ailes to run PBS?

Cowen spends the majority of the book tackling the common criticisms of big business: CEO pay, the financial industry, big tech companies, and corporate influence over government. The gravity of these statements need to be analyzed through his “net net” framework and does add counter-intuitive arguments to the conversation, even if not always entirely convincing.

CEOs today work in a more demanding environment, he argues, needing to steer through a globalized economy full of public relations issues, foreign investment, and regulatory know-how. How important is leadership to a company’s performance? The top 4 percent of corporate performers are responsible for the entire increase in the U.S. stock market since 1926. Cowen offers evidence that these higher demands are borne out by higher performance. For example, Chinese firms could improve their productivity by 30 to 50 percent by bringing management quality up to the standard of Americans, Indian firms 40 to 60 percent. One study says a company’s leader accounts for 5 to 6 percent of the value of a company. Under this backdrop, Cowen believes higher pay is warranted under the greater demands.

An important stylized fact is that the main driver of inequality is not from changing pay scales within firms, but changing pay scales between firms. In other words, superstar firms that are torching the competition with higher productivity are paying all of their workers better, and Cowen believes this rise of superstar firms is thanks in large part to good CEOs.

The benefits of the financial industry are not always obvious for the typical citizen but Cowen tries to paint a brighter picture. He points to the role of credit in supporting the country’s biggest projects and the strong correlation between prosperous countries and the health of their financial sectors. American venture capital, he believes, is the envy of the world and funds some of our greatest success stories – without ever expecting a bailout. The American banking system is more fragmented than any other high-income country in the world, and the proliferation of smaller banks during the Great Depression shows “breaking up the banks” is no guarantee in preventing catastrophe.

Contemporary tech companies give us unparalleled power at our fingertips, often for free. The cost of privacy has become the common public rallying cry but Cowen still believes their value to each and every one of us far exceeds the cost. We’ve become so accustomed to free email, free mapping, one-day shipping, and reliable spreadsheets that it’s easy to only focus on what appears to be corrupting market power. But only recently did companies like Kodak, Myspace, General Motors, IBM, AOL, and Blackberry seem to be too dominant. The image of too-powerful tech titans complicates our appreciation for the value of these companies, in Cowen’s mind. The common criticism of brain-rot through the internet and smartphones is strikingly familiar to the doomsday predictions of yesteryear about the opera, rock and roll, and the novel.

The election of Donald Trump shows the hold of big business on government is not nearly as strong as portrayed, Cowen believes. Business leaders most often state their priorities to be predictability, more open immigration, and free trade – a clear opposite to Trump’s policies. The $3 billion companies spend annually on lobbying is pennies compared to the $200 billion they spend on advertising. Farm subsidies – one of the most offensive instances of crony capitalism in the Federal budget – only accounts for $20 billion a year out of a $4.4 trillion budget.

In Search of a Better Alternative

But to all of the good of businesses, a skeptical outsider would rightly point out that these realities exist within the current system. What if we lie on our resumes because it’s a brutal rat race economy? Or we lie on our dating profiles because the market economy conditions us to be self-interested and cut corners to get ahead? It’s true that Monsanto supplies the food that keeps me alive, tech giants allow me to communicate with my family, and big pharmaceutical companies produce drugs that fight infections. Every prosperous society has indeed depended on a well-oiled financial system. And the dignity of work that employers give us through jobs is indeed important. But why are these actions necessarily being done in the most optimal way?

Feudal lords could be given credit for the food given to peasants or the dignity their work provides, tyrannical leaders for military protection, and the DMV for making sure our roads are safe. Skeptics of the market economy believe that we could have a world that is more prosperous, more egalitarian, and more ethical under a different regime. Just as an anarcho-capitalist would refute gratitude towards roads or a public school education with “well, the private sector could do it better,” any critique of the status quo asserts a superior alternative outside big business.

Incrementalists who criticize big business may just want more regulation or more support for small business, while radicals prefer more public ownership. I sense that many of Cowen’s observations on the goods that big business provides will fall on deaf ears to skeptics whose prior beliefs are that we could have an even better regime.

Of course, Cowen is up against an insurmountable foe in many of those skeptical arguments. Critics of the status quo can struggle to find strong counterfactuals in order to prove there is a better system out there. Saying that “culture and economy would shift under a different system to one where we’d all be moral, not run the rat race, cut corners, or tolerate pollution” is a tough argument to prove or disprove when it is so hypothetical.

In Cowen’s (wonderful) podcast, he always asks the guest about their “production function” – what habits/routines the guests do to ensure their highest productivity. In a recent Ezra Klein Show podcast episode about workism, Ezra brings up how an inevitable part of capitalism is the encouragement to always maximize productivity…even doing something like meditation or wellness as a means to counteract the toxins of modern life. But it’s still under a framework of “optimizing” time. Can this cultural reliance on “productivity” actually make us miss the point, even when we appear to be cognizant of mindfulness? For an infovore like Cowen, the current culture and system gives him every opportunity he can to learn and explore new things. But for the vast majority of us, are smart phones instead just giving us a bigger portfolio of addictive distractions from more important matters?

As a response to skeptics, Cowen points to data he believes reveals that – despite our self-reported disdain for tech and working – we love our smart phones and love working. He says that the fact Americans work longer hours now than they did in 1950 shows we necessarily like our jobs better. But what if we are just being motivated to “keep up with the Joneses” and none of the extra work is actually making us better? Similarly, he argues few people actually leaving Facebook despite all the public criticism shows that people like it a lot more than they let on. But the powerful network effects and addictive qualities of social media are not always the easiest thing to shake off. It seems a far jump to assume these facts necessarily reveal strong-willed rational decision-making. It’s not encouraging that the people who designed the notification mechanisms for phone apps don’t let their own children use them.

So Why the Hate?

The last chapter of Big Business addresses a lingering question: If big business is so good, why does everyone seem to hate it? While the vast majority of the population loathe the post-Citizens United saying that “corporations are people,” Cowen believes we indeed do anthromorphosize corporations. In fact, projecting human qualities onto our outside world is how we have long attempted to understand and relate to it. In all of recorded history, civilizations have told stories of the weather and natural forces as gods with faces, arms, and legs. “When it comes to our cars, our ships, and our pets, we give them names, talk about their loyalty, and feel abandoned or let down if they disappoint us.”

It is this humanizing fact that makes us inevitably disappointed by corporations’ performance. We want them to be our fuzzy friends that take care of us but in the end they are actually just … “faceless” corporations. It presents a case that we will never be grateful enough for what big businesses do for us. Cowen says hating corporations is like hating your parents – the people who give you everything but also enforce rules. This might be true…but again, couldn’t oppressive feudal landlords fit the same description?

 

It’s important to view any analysis of big business in “net net” terms by focusing not only on the most outrageous failures, but the tremendous good big business brings to our lives. To these points, Cowen does a service by providing under-appreciated defenses of the most common shortcomings of big business. I agree with Cowen’s point of view and think big business needs more appreciation. In the end, skeptics may be impossible to sway as they rely on non-falsifiable hypotheticals. But a better appeal to their stronger arguments would likely leave a stronger impression on the critics of big business.

I have another piece in the LA Review of Books, this time a review of Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments.

The end blurb:

Stubborn Attachments is short and intentionally vague on many dimensions. Respecting human rights is an admirable pursuit, but what is the definition of human rights? At what point do income transfers become so excessive that they make immigration untenable? How exactly can we be sure to establish institutions that lead to higher sustainable economic growth? Cowen knows these are important questions but instead chooses to emphasize the need to rethink our big-picture goals. How we get there is still up for debate, but Stubborn Attachmentspresents a compelling case for redefining our long-term priorities in favor of more sustained economic growth and a greater respect for human rights.

I’ve always struggled to nail down a definitive reason to explain the human urge to be creative. Naturally, my current answer takes me to Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator.

The desire to write, paint, compose, perform, or act is an interesting aspect of human nature. What is it exactly that gives people satisfaction to do these things?

Before diving in, I want to make a distinction between “being creative” and “to create.” There’s some overlap in what drives us to do both, but I think the satisfaction from, say, putting together a bike from spare parts is distinct from doing something we’d call creative like writing a poem.

When someone makes a creative piece of work, what they are effectively saying is “Given the rules we have constructed in this medium, this is my new interpretation of that chaos.” Popular music in the west has a twelve-tone system that today follows basic rules of how to order a verse, chorus, middle eight, etc. A chorus is often times the sub-dominant chord of the tonic, meant to represent a resolve or jubilation. A beat is a rule that provides consistency and predictability, perhaps with roots in the human heartbeat. Chords are combinations of these notes and their relationship to one another has been socially constructed over the last few centuries. Some of these rules change throughout time and some are more consistent. In any case, a musician creates a piece largely within these rules. Some experimental music will go outside these boundaries and often times when music feels “fresh” or “interesting” it’s because it subverts one of these norms. But when a musician composes a piece, they are saying “I understand these rules of the game. Here is my interpretation of them and how I can contribute something new.”

It can be hard to verbally articulate why something creative is beautiful, engaging, rocking, or funny. Often times we can agree that a painting is beautiful but I can’t really tell you why it is and another one similar isn’t. And if I really could articulate it, why can’t I make something just as beautiful? Along the same lines, we all might agree that something is funny, but not necessarily why. A comedian’s expressive tendency comes from saying “society and human nature are full of absurdity and chaos but I’m going to point out the weirdness of it in ways that show I understand it better than you; you will know exactly what absurdities I’m talking about, even if you didn’t notice them before or you can’t explain what makes them absurd.” There’s nothing funny about saying “so I was at the pool the other day and saw a lot attractive women I’d love to kiss!” This is an interpretation of a scenario people can relate to, but it’s also very obvious. Consider a typical Seinfeld bit which is “you ever notice that…” The value here is that it is not only relatable, but it’s non-obvious. Everyone recognizes what Seinfeld points out, but he’s the first one to interpret the absurdity in his special way.

This brings me to the beginning of answering my original question. I believe creating is an attempt at expressing, and expressing is an attempt at trying to be understood. And being understood and sharing with the sentiment of others is of course the ultimate desire of human nature, according to Adam Smith. One may remember from the Benevolent Dictators song Fellow-Feeling the idea our first human impulse is to put ourselves in the situation of others, and to have them understand our joys and share disdain for our dislikes. The emptiness of fame, as Smith writes about, can be viewed through this lens. When Kurt Cobain started making music, it was an outlet for his angst and an expression of his inner spirits. When Nirvana blew up past his wildest imagination, he saw jocks dancing to Smells Like Teen Spirit and he couldn’t stand it. How could people who bullied him growing up and personified his idea of The Man suddenly be rocking out at his concerts? I believe the dream of any musician or creative person at the start is to finally be understood. “Oh man, people will really get me after all this.” If my creative work gets really popular, it’ll be because people really understand me and appreciate my comprehension of the chaos. And then, when that dream is unrealized and you don’t feel any more understood? Well, that’s probably the cliche story of famous rockers who get everything they ever wanted and realize it was all a disappointment.

This is based on my own interpretation of where I consciously get my creative inspiration from and where I try to understand my personal unconscious creative urges. Other people are likely different to some degree. But it seems to explain a lot of the creative world. No matter what an artist tells you, they do care about what people think about their work. This analysis, to me, not only explains why people create, but also why they share it. If a writer didn’t care about what other people think, they’d save the file on their computer (or not) and then never let anyone read it. Artists can be fully confident in their work even in the face of large public disapproval, but even then they still care about someone’s approval.

I don’t care what Garth Brooks-listening people think of my music. But I certainly would care a lot to hear Thom Yorke or Neil Young’s opinion. When we create, we intend to hit an audience whose views we care about, in the same way that Smith’s Impartial Spectator views the propriety of our actions not from the overall population but from the crowd that we necessarily care about. My Impartial Spectator will care little about what a middle aged man from 1200s Ottoman Empire thinks of my actions. My Impartial Spectator will care about what my friends and family and others in my bubble think about my actions. So when an avant garde artist is shunned by people who only like watered-down popular stuff, they might be able to brush it off; but they will care about the views of their fellow avant garde friends and the other artists that they look up to.

Now of course this has to be related back to commercial exchange. Many people have a fundamental disagreement about leaving the provision of creative work to the marketplace. Some argue that works of art have externalities that people do not reflect in private valuations, and this justifies public funding for the arts. To me, the strongest argument in favor of subsidies for the arts actually has nothing to do with consumption of art. I think that people pay for art they value and if they don’t it’s because they don’t value it enough. Those indie bands that struggle to make a living are in their situation because not enough people want to listen to their music. There is no market failure in explaining why my band the Benevolent Dictators does not have me playing music full-time; people simply don’t like us enough. No – the strongest argument in favor of subsidizing creative works is from the producer side. Art isn’t really about the audience and I don’t think it really ever has been. The value of art comes from what it gives the creators. The creators feel like they are satisfying an urge to express that will hopefully get them to be better understood. The right to self-expression is so important then, from a formal rights and effective ability perspective, because it gives the creators an outlet and ability to be understood.

 

The persistence of history’s effects on economic growth is significant and remarkably robust to negative shocks.

A paper by Comin, Easterly, and Gong asks the question “Was the wealth of nations determined in 1000 B.C.?” The paper looks at the relationship between the technology available in various regions in 1000 BC, 1500 A.D., and levels of per capita income today. Their findings suggest that history from three thousand years ago can be a strong predictor of economic standards of living today. The results are even stronger for the connection between 1500 AD and contemporary per capita incomes. These two chosen periods of time are picked as a way to tease out the impacts of industrialization and colonization, two massive forces prone to cause noise in the analysis. In a pre-explorer world with very little long-distance trade and very high isolation, the math of compound economic growth suggests, as the paper writes, “those who started out ahead would be even further ahead in both population and income today.” Further evidence from Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) shows that areas of Africa with higher participation in the slave trade centuries ago still suffer from lower levels of trust.

The larger question I think this idea begs is how persistent certain X-factors of economic growth can be throughout time. Economists theorize about factors like institutional quality, levels of trust, culture, access to trade, and natural resource environment, among many others, as the catalyzing “ingredients” for economic growth. However difficult it may be to nail down what these x-factor ingredients are, evidence suggests that the x-factors can survive massive external forces.

All areas started out as poor at one point. What made countries that initially escaped economic misery centuries ago in northwest Europe rich was the subject matter of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Of course many other countries have since followed suit, with the East Asian Tigers rising up to “Western” levels of wealth, and so-called emerging market economies realizing double digit economic growth. The exact recipe for a country to grow is debatable and varies across countries, but as a country finds this special recipe for economic growth, it’s nearly impossible for it to regress. Some countries may stagnate or exhaust their potential for a period of time. But only one country – Argentina – was considered high-income a century ago and middle-income today.

Think of the dramatic events that can happen that would seem to shake the x-factors out of its crucial hold. Political upheaval leading to “failed states,” a currency or financial crisis that breaks the economy, a civil war that breaks social fabric and kills millions of people. Surely, these would reset the conditions needed for economic growth?

While watching the great Babylon Berlin television show, I’m drawn to the powerful example of Weimar Germany – the country’s history between the two world wars. Consider what happened in Germany after 1913: first, the country led the losing side of a world war that killed 60-80 thousand of its soldiers and was fought partially in its backyard; then, experiencing massive sovereign debt and unable to reach any stability, the country entered a debilitating economic depression and accompanying hyperinflation that ravaged any sense of social fabric and functioning economy; then, Hitler took power and… you know this part of the story; then, the country was rebuilt in significant part by Turkish immigrants because so many German men had died; then the country was physically divided by a wall for the almost-45 years after WW2 ended, governed on one side by social democracy and the other by Soviet proxy rule. The tumult, uncertainty, constant mindless death, identity struggles, ripe distrust, and sheer hopelessness seem like overwhelming forces that would keep the country poor for a long time. Yet ten years after the Wall falls, the country is the de facto leader of the European Union, hosts the European Central Bank, and today has a top 5 economy in the world.

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Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany

 

There seems to be an implied “potential” GDP per capital level in Germany that was able to sustain itself throughout that near-century of struggle. Countries with less conflict and instability were poorer than Germany in 1913 and continue to be today. Very few Germans were alive before World War I that saw the transition into the euro currency on January 1, 1999. So what characteristic is it that Germany kept during the 1913-1989 period that allowed its potential standard of living to stay the same? The formal governmental institutions have changed dramatically, the demographic makeup has changed, and the surrounding world is entirely different. The physical geography has remained relatively constant, but this is not the underlying reason Germany is the 5th richest economy in the world today.

“Culture” is a squishy catch-all term that some social scientists like to use as the significant explanatory variable in economic growth. It could be a “Protestant work ethic” or the entrepreneurial spirit of diasporas like the Murid sect of Islam that explain why some groups are rich and others poor. If this is so, is culture really that persistent – and robust to so many outside forces – that it withstands the strongest winds of history?

Another set of evidence comes from Alexander de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. de Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s as a Frenchman describing what made America so different than its European counterparts. There’s a question about how accurate his descriptions were for the time, but he notes cultural differences between the regions of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies in his chapter “Origin of the Anglo-Americans.” His analysis is apt to ascribe contemporary differences as being borne out of differences set centuries before. For example, compared to England settlers, “the men sent to Virginia were seekers of gold, adventures, without resources and without character, whose turbulent and restless spirit endangered the infant colony.” Remarking on the lasting impact of of slavery in the South:

[slavery] was the main circumstance which has exercised so prodigious an influence on the character, laws, and all the future prospects of the South…it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance, and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.

The areas were settled under slightly different circumstances and by slightly different groups that determined the nature of their political institutions and cultures. Remember, the settlement of these places by European pilgrims was centuries before – yet in his eyes, the differences persisted to that day. Even now, many of his descriptions of the regions ring true, at least to our intuitive sides – whether it be the individualism on the frontier or the commitment to localized governance. What’s striking is the strength of this persistence. The quality and type of institutions and culture that were set up at square one had such strong path-dependence that all of the coinciding forces that one would assume would “reset” the environments were in reality unable to change.

Perhaps revolutions can reset these environments. But do political revolutions change what we might believe to be the crucial x-factors conducive to economic growth?De Tocqueville also believed the American Revolution to be borne out of an ethos present at initial settlement, “the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, which had been nurtured in the townships and municipalities, [that] took possession of the State.” Maybe cultural revolutions – that at least claim to change the underlying social fabric of a nation – reset and redefine these conditions. But what are examples of true cultural revolutions? Did Mao’s gruesome one really change thousands of years of history for the Chinese people? Maybe on the surface, but I’m unconvinced it was a “reset” in the way meaningful to economic potential.

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Alexander de Tocqueville

But the vast majority of Americans are not children of Puritans, at least in the biological sense. Today, German is the most common ethnic group in the United States. And, importantly for this analysis, New England is now dominated by non-English people. Over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born. In fact, every region has had its demographic makeup totally shaken up and redefined with each new wave of immigration and cross-mating of ethnicities and religions. If different groups are assumed to have a “culture” or “work ethic,” did the newcomers to these regions adopt the local customs rather than modify the regions to be more like their homelands? Compared to Germany’s 20th century, which has seen a nontrivial amount of inward migration, America’s demographic makeup has changed even more.

Yet the regions of the United States, as far as I can tell, are not defined by the Native American tribes that resided there pre-colonization. It could be that the newcomer migrants, unlike the original colonizers that wiped out the native population, never arrived in a critical enough mass to totally redefine the areas they moved into. Instead, their relatively small numbers meant they had no choice but to assimilate to the pre-existing norms, cultures, and customs of their destination. This usually meant they added their own flavor with a nod to their homeland, but it wasn’t a total reset.

So did the governments that were set up in Plymouth or Jamestown or the Pascua Florida peninsula in the 1500s – seemingly arbitrary and highly fungible at the time – define the destiny of these areas nearly five hundred years later? Does this mean that America’s national fabric – struggling to find itself amidst contemporary politics – will continue on relatively unscathed? The past shows that underlying cultural x-factors can have an incredible amount of resilience.

New podcast episode with Katherine Lin of Dartmouth College about how the relationship between work life and home life changes throughout the different stages of parenthood and by gender.