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.


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.


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.

I’ve got an essay published in the LA Review of Books about Universal Basic Income. Here’s a snippet:

…before a greater UBI context is considered, the essential task is to convince the public that unconditional cash transfers for every citizen are feasible and beneficial. Redefining society’s view of what “work” is and what it means to contribute to society is no easy feat. Yet we are beginning to be engulfed by the seismic winds of societal and economic change from a globalized digital age. We need a paradigmatic shift in how we view these things in order to ensure a broad-based peaceful prosperity for the future.

I’ve found that most UBI discussions hop right to “how can we afford this?!” and “how much will it be?!” without hashing out the important intermediate steps, namely rethinking how we view work and its place in the social safety net. Rather than focus on the policy details – which are essential, of course – I decided to focus on this bigger picture about getting comfortable with the idea that *everyone* should get *cash* (Universal and Income) rather than government assistance being means-tested and having restrictions for what it can be spent on.

New podcast episode out featuring Sam Hammond of the Niskanen Center about his paper on “The Free Market Welfare State.” In it, he makes the argument that social spending is not only compatible with but even strengthens free market policies. Native feed here but of course you can always listen on iTunes and any of your favorite podcast providers. I wrote a short write-up with some points of skepticism of Sam’s paper in a previous post here.

It’s hard to imagine a left-wing version of Trump. And for Trump’s detractors, it’s even more difficult to imagine lefties ever compromising their values the way conservatives have to support Trump. But maybe it’s not as farfetched as you think, and the case of Rod Blagojevich in Illinois proves it.

Trump has diverged from the Paul Ryan-rhetoric of the Republican party when it comes to inclusivity, trade, immigration, and entitlement reform. At some point, it’s worth considering what Republicans are even supporting when they support Trump if not just “my team is better than your team” tribalism. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans put up with all of Trump’s incompetence, corruption, and vulgarity for “Gorsuch and tax cuts.” So, at the end of the day, they’ll look past all of Trump’s imperfections because he gave them a conservative – specifically a pro-life – Supreme Court pick and a tax cut that was promoted as being a prudent supply-side boost.

Maybe there is a model for this type of left-wing forgiveness too. First elected in 2002, Rod Blagojevich was the Democratic Governor of Illinois until he was impeached in 2008. He won re-election in 2006 while publicly being under numerous Federal investigations and being exceptionally incompetent. He beat state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka by 11% with a 36% approval rating versus 56% disapproval rating (sound familiar?!). Through the re-election campaign and while he was later on trial for selling Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, Illinois Democrats engaged in what they hopefully see now as embarrassing oversight of Blagojevich’s transgressions because he was able to deliver on some key progressive promises like death penalty reform and expanded healthcare for children.


Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in prison

In retrospect, Blago was unbelievably corrupt, incompetent, and divorced from reality. One story from his deputy Governor claims that he would hide in the bathroom when confronted with tough budgetary decisions, like an 8-year old thinking they can avoid a math test by just pretending it doesn’t exist. Even after being caught on tape selling the vacant Senate seat, Blagojevich allegedly still had plans for an eventual Presidential run. The only parallel to total shamelessness and ignorance of reality I can think of is the man who sits inside the Oval Office now.

So how could Illinoisans still vote for him, even with so much obvious idiocy and corruption as of the 2006 re-election campaign? Well if Trump supporters’ motto is “Gorsuch and Tax Cuts,” the Blago equivalent could be “Child Healthcare and Gun Control.” Anecdotally, I remember talking to people defending Blagojevich because of his increase in child healthcare coverage and engaging in different forms of “Well, he might not be perfect but Topinka…” Yes, the same justification for Trump voters doing anything to not vote for Hillary. In a Presidential nominee, Democrats’ justification would likely be “Pro-choice nominee and single-payer.” Voting for a Blago that would give liberals those two things is an entirely plausible alternative to voting for a Lindsey Graham-type Republican candidate that would scrap Obamacare and nominate a pro-life SCOTUS judge.

It’s hard to imagine who exactly would embody a left-wing version of Trump. Seth Stevenson wrote a while back at Slate about how Sean Penn could be this figure. His piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll just summarize it by saying a left-wing personification of Trump and Democrats voting one in is not all that difficult to imagine.