Awesome people

What follows is the fourth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 1, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

The book commonly referred to as “Wealth of Nations” is actually an abbreviation of its full-length title “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The question at this time was why, amidst millennia of abject poverty and subsistence-level living, a few countries mostly in the northwest of Europe had started to have a significantly better standard of living. For some, the answer was obvious: the farther from the equator you were, and the whiter your skin was, the more superior you were. For others, it was a country’s ability to hoard gold or other fine metals. Or maybe it was that good-ol’ Protestant work ethic? Smith rejected all of these explanations and instead used Wealth of Nations to argue that a nation’s standard of living is determined by its ability to utilize specialization and the division of labor.

Smith went farther than just rejecting the racial explanation as a determinant of wealth. He saw all humans as essentially equal in worth and dignity. What we perceive to be inequalities is actually the result of, and not the cause of, the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labor. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference.

Smith uses the comparison of a street porter and a philosopher as extremes of social standing. One is near the lowest status of society as far as prestige and perceived skill level, the other considered to be a wise and distinguished profession. But before they enter into schools or the labor force, their skills are basically equivalent. Through different levels of education, parenting, and circumstance, these previously-indistinguishable individuals end up working two jobs with incredibly different reputations in society. Yet deep down the two people are not so different.

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter.

This is a radical contrast to any “nature” arguments in a “nature versus nurture” debate. This specifically departs from Aristotilean thinking that certain people like the Barbarians were meant to be slaves (thus explains our lyric “so Aristotle was wrong about the slaves”). The commercial economy, in addition to giving us the capability to innovate and flourish, also gives us deep material inequality that deceives us into thinking we are less equal in worth or dignity than we actually are.

It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Just as with Smith’s conception of sympathetic fellow-feeling, this propensity to engage in commerce is universal across people. In fact, it is what separates us from other animals. Unlike dogs, for example, humans are able to engage in trade and specialize.

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts…The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog.

So the next time you go down to your corner store to buy a pack of gum or toothpaste, think to yourself, “damn, it feels good to be human.”

The complete lyrics to “The Street Porter & the Philosopher“:

Well at six years old we seem to be
In ability nearly the same soon changed by modernity
And our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

But the fellow dogs separately
Can’t utilize their different skills: strength, swiftness or docility
From no innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

It’s our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity



What follows is the third installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 3, Chapter 2 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love…he desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness.

We are motivated, Smith says, to behave in a way that not only garners approbation of those around us but to live in a way that makes us the proper beneficiary of that approbation. Our love for society and the desire to share in the sentiments of others leads us towards cooperative and ethical behavior.

To judge our actions to the best of our abilities, we use our capacity for sympathetic fellow-feeling to put ourselves in the shoes of our peers and see what they would think of our actions. But oftentimes our interactions with others lack a third party to judge our actions and sometimes we engage in behavior without even a second party directly involved. Smith develops a mechanism for how we judge the propriety of our actions known as the “impartial spectator.” This spectator is an imaginary figure that looks onward at our behavior from the outside, full of all the information others may lack that is needed to judge our actions.

But in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the impartial spectators of our own character and conduct. We must endeavor to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.

If we have the opportunity to cheat on an exam or find a wallet on the street, what pulls us towards “doing the right thing” when we could reasonably get away with unethical behavior? It is this desire to be lovely, the desire to be worthy of our peers’ praise. If we ace an exam and win lots of awards, we have an empty feeling inside, knowing we don’t deserve the accompanying accolades.

On the contrary, if we are doubtful about [being the natural object of approbation], we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation and provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy…

This explanation is an interesting contrast to many predecessors, contemporaries, and later thinkers who explain human morality as coming directly from God or purely utilitarian motivations derived from expected reciprocity. Our innate desire to belong, be understood, and share in the sentiments of others is what drives us to live ethically and the impartial spectator is our best conception of how our peers’ will judge our actions.

The song is in a sense a love song to our own impartial spectator. Here are the complete lyrics to Impartial Spectator:

How am I to know if what I do is right or wrong
I’m seeking approbation from the need to get along
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Tell me how it seems from the outside looking in,
I want to be worthy of your praise devoid of sin
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

The emptiness of fame when the public misconstrues,
Fills me with anxiety, ‘cuz you know it’s not true
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Check out this artistic rendition of Smith’s Impartial Spectator on our very own unisex t-shirt (Available for purchase at the Theory of Moral Sentiments price of $17.59).


What follows is the second installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.” The first post for the titular track can be found here. Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by the first section and chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of the many misunderstandings of Adam Smith’s work, the idea that Smith saw humans as being motivated entirely by rational self-interest is the one that looms largest. The robotic Homo Economicus model of human nature so dominant in modern economic theory is far from how Smith explained human behavior. The first song on Silent Revolution, called “Fellow-Feeling,” invokes his idea that the basis of human behavior is not in rational utility maximization, but rather sympathetic fellow-feeling and a desire to share in the sentiments of others.

The first of Smith’s two books, Theory of Moral Sentiments, starts with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principals in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others…for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…

A few things to emphasize here: 1) as selfish as we may appear to be and often can be, we exhibit behavior suggesting we are interested in the well-being of others ; 2) there is universality in his analysis (“by no means confined to the virtuous and human”). Smith was writing specifically in contrast to David Hume and Bernard Mandeville‘s writings that took more of a utility maximization perspective. People’s tendencies to exhibit altruistic, sympathetic, or ethical behavior could be viewed through a redefined utility function, they argued. In other words, we are nice to each other and follow rules because it’s in our best interest. Smith is not convinced. He gives a number of examples where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, with no discernible self-interest or rational calculation.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm…the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies…persons of delicate fibers and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation…

As another example, consider instances where we cry while watching movies. Our tears will not help the characters in the movie and the characters are often fictional and/or experiencing fictional events; there can be no explanation for our tears being out of expected reciprocity or benefit to anyone. So what gives? Smith would say our impulse towards fellow-feeling has put ourselves in the shoes of the characters concerned, and though we cannot feel exactly as they do, we respond as if it were happening – in part – to us. In his examples, seeing someone about to be hit, struggling for balance on a tight rope, or experiencing severe discomfort from homelessness, our reaction is so instantaneous that it’s hard to imagine it being the result of a rational calculation or perceived personal benefit.

This tendency towards sympathetic fellow-feeling not only governs our behavior, it is the basis for explaining what we truly desire. Rather than pursuing a straightforward utilitarian life of wealth, fame, and prosperity, what we seek is for others to share our sentiments. We want them to understand how we feel, like what we like, and – more importantly – dislike what we dislike. We can all relate to the giddiness of sharing with friends works of art that we enjoy. Knowing that they enjoy it as we do gives us a deep pleasure.

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself…When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion…But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.

Similarly, when our friends dislike people or things that we disliked, we are even more pleased (more on this in the future). To me, Smith believes that the deep pursuit of our lives is to feel we are correctly understood by the peers we care about, and to be worthy of accompanying praise.

Nestled towards the end of this section in TMS is a quick teaser on how Smith explains our ethical behavior.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave…It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.

Through the mechanism of fellow-feeling, Smith says we put ourselves in the position of those we see that are dead and think “wow, that would really be a bummer to be that guy.” Again, mourning for someone that’s dead – especially one in fiction or someone you don’t know halfway across the world – cannot be explained through the lens of rational self-interest. Your tears cannot bring them back to life, being sad does not benefit you, and crying for a fictional character should have no real effect on your well-being. But from this tendency to sympathize with the dead, we refrain from killing each other and are given “the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” By understanding as best we can what it feels like to be dead – in the cold, dark grave, never again able to experience the pleasures of life – we aim to never put anyone in that situation nor put ourselves in that situation anytime soon.

So why can we sometimes be unethical? Aren’t there limits to our fellow-feeling? How does this square with the view of human nature found in Wealth of Nations and the market economy? Answers to all of that coming up later in this series!


The complete lyrics to “Fellow-Feeling”:

So I mourn for the dead, though they cannot hear my cries
What good is it unnoticed, what good is it to try
From that fear of cold and darkness, when imagined in that grave
Give power to restrain the injustice of mankind

The fortune of others, as I conceive
Not just the virtuous, or humane
However selfish that I may seem
Derive his sorrow
Though at ease I cannot feel his pain, imagination puts me in his place

The stroke is aimed (I shrink back) upon his arm
The beggar on the street, ulcers and sores
On the slackrope (I twist) the dancer writhes
Only conception
Yet enough to cause me that unease, the robust and feeble feel it too

To share the amusement of a book or a poem
And to enter in their sentiments just as if they were our own
The mortification when we jest and no one joins,
Feels so instantaneous that it cannot be self-love


P.S. here’s a selfie I took by the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh last week


Alex Tabarrok posts this speech Nobel Laureate Thomas Sargent gave at Berkeley’s 2007 graduation:

I remember how happy I felt when I graduated from Berkeley many years ago. But I thought the graduation speeches were long. I will economize on words.

Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches.

1. Many things that are desirable are not feasible.

2. Individuals and communities face trade-offs.

3. Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

5. There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.

6. In an equilibrium of a game or an economy, people are satisfied with their choices. That is why it is difficult for well meaning outsiders to change things for better or worse.

7. In the future, you too will respond to incentives. That is why there are some promises that you’d like to make but can’t. No one will believe those promises because they know that later it will not be in your interest to deliver. The lesson here is this: before you make a promise, think about whether you will want to keep it if and when your circumstances change. This is how you earn a reputation.

8. Governments and voters respond to incentives too. That is why governments sometimes default on loans and other promises that they have made.

9. It is feasible for one generation to shift costs to subsequent ones. That is what national government debts and the U.S. social security system do (but not the social security system of Singapore).

10. When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation.

11. Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves).

12. Because market prices aggregate traders’ information, it is difficult to forecast stock prices and interest rates and exchange rates

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was finally released in English last Monday. It’s been hailed by many as one of those once-in-a-decade game changing books. Needless to say, I am very excited to read it. I’ve only read through the first fifty pages but the basic arguments are clear and already fascinating.

A narrative of economic development prominent today is that inequality is efficient (to an extent) and decreasing. Simon Kuznets observed in the middle of the twentieth century that in developed countries income inequality was decreasing and incomes were converging. He made it clear that this was only a correlation and he gave no declaration that this was inevitable or sustainable. Nonetheless, incomes were converging and many took this to be the beauty of capitalism: inequality may exist for a while but in the end we’re all better off.

In fact, convergence happened a century before. As the Industrial Revolution steadily expanded in the early 19th century, the vast majority of workers saw stagnant or falling wages next to exploding incomes of capital-owning individuals. David Ricardo and Karl Marx separately predicted different doomsday scenarios of a massive scarcity of land causing an unhealthy concentration of wealth and spiraling returns to capital causing a global revolution, respectively. Of course, neither apocalypse happened. In the last third of the 19th century, low-income individuals saw their wages rise, even if it occurred with massively increasing inequality.

Inequality increased in the roaring 20s until the Great Depression and World War II. From the time of these events until the early 1970s, income inequality decreased in most developed countries. The prevailing wisdom was that high inequality was followed by converging incomes in the natural progression of economic development.

What Piketty aims to drive home is that this convergence was the exception, not the rule. The Great Depression and Second World War caused the fortunes of the capitalists to implode. In fact, the financial crisis of late initially decreased inequality mostly because the rich had more to lose. After World War II, he argues, American policy was set up to reward broadly distributed growth instead of growth aimed at rewarding capitalists. Then, Reagan and Thatcher won and it was reversed. I should note here that Piketty is French, has been a member of the Socialist Party, and by virtue of being an inequality economist comes with certain biases. His points are largely data-driven but do need to be placed in the context of his background.

The fundamental identity he proposes in the book is that when r > g capitalism will breed unsustainable inequality. r is the rate of return on capital and g is economic growth. When the return to capital is bigger than the rate of economic growth, wealth accumulates in a concentrated set of hands. When an economy is slow-growing, past accumulated wealth has growing importance. Inequality is thus bound to increase and continue to do so. Developed economies have slowed since 1973 and r is becoming greater than g, in the eyes of Piketty. Further, g includes population growth and this has been close to zero in many countries. As he promises to show in later chapters, this identity need not be necessary. Policy can help change this to prevent a revolution or massive conflicts Ricardo and Marx once predicted.

I find the premises presented so far to be interesting for a number of reasons. One is that Piketty admits this divergence is not the result of any market failures. Rather, he finds the more perfect the capital market the more inequality a country will have. Second, I have always assumed a convergence of incomes in economic progress or, at the very least, figured that increasing inequality can be forgiven as long as everyone is better off in absolute terms. If this is not the natural path of capitalism, we are all in for a surprise of hurt. And third, a few writers have posited that we are in a Second Machine Age much like the first industrial revolution, where wages may stagnate now but eventually they will rise. Whereas the first industrial revolution replaced brawn with machines, now we are replacing brains. The gains from this may be realized by the masses eventually, but there could be a very rough transition period. I hope to see how Piketty addresses this and how fatalistic he sees a spiraling inequality.

After 15 months of separation, Carson and I will finally be meeting up in his current living quarters in Bordeaux, France in what can only be described as the most anticipated meeting of intellect since the Constitutional Convention. I am hoping that this vacation and the discussions that will surely ensue will renew my interest in American politics and economics, an interest that has slowly gone from very enthusiastic to very apathetic over the last six months. I also hope those damn strikes in France don’t get in my way.

I’ve been reading Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues which, among other things, argues that the free market is virtuous and the capitalist middle class needs to to stop apologizing for its success. Somewhat related to these ideas is this video with Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution fame, who answers questions about the morality of the market, the greed of bankers, and the wonderfulness of globalization.

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