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.


What follows is the seventh 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 5, Chapter 3 of Wealth of Nations.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Adam Smith is the idea that he believed unregulated free markets were perfect and ideal. While he believed the market system to be the best way to fight poverty and increase the produce of a nation, he knew that market economies were not without their faults. Specifically, Smith observed that the specialization from division of labor, while allowing the flourishing he saw in Northwest Europe at the time, has the inevitable consequence of intellectual atrophy. From this, he justified a public provision of education to promote a well-informed electorate and prevent superstitious ignorant beliefs.

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too are perhaps always the same, or very nearly same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…the uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard, with abhorrence, the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier.

The worker whose entire life is devoted to one tiny task in the pin factory will cease to exercise the vast majority of his or her brain. This mind-numbing life is accompanied by a decrease in “marital spirit” – the desire to go to war for one’s country. Smith contrasts all of this with the people in less economically developed societies.

It is otherwise in the barbarous societies…of hunters and shepherds…invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior.

These societies that have yet to reach commercialization and industrialization require every person to be a jack-of-all-trades, stimulating the parts of their brain required for war, cooking, navigation, etc. It is by necessity that these people lead well-rounded lives and are always ready for battle.

In addition to the decrease in martial spirit, Smith noticed the harm this intellectual atrophy would have on society. The population would be prone to superstition and ignorance, with detrimental effects on civil institutions.

The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.

A base level of education is necessary to mitigate the dumbing effects of division of labor. (though his idea of public education is a little different than how we imagine it today). Marx even picked up on this in his description of the alienation of labor.

The complete lyrics to The Dumb Specialist:

Through division of labor, so improved and refined
With so much variety of goods I can try
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

And from this mindless employment, I’ll avoid and abhor
The life of a soldier, I won’t go to war

Will I forget how to read? My intellect atrophies
I’m drawn to superstition from the routine of my trade

For the hunters and shepherds, though their state is so rude
Every man is a warrior, industrious too
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

Mental invigoration, can I be saved? Ten years of education, I’ll be ok


What follows is the sixth 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 Section 1, Chapter 1 of Wealth of Nations.

The reason why certain nations get rich and others don’t is from a country’s ability to utilize the gains from specialization and division of labor. If we are all left to independently grow our own food, tend to our own wounds, or build our own airplanes, we’d all have a material standard of living dramatically less than what we have by participating in a commercial society. The “Robinson Crusoe” scenario is an extreme example showing how much we gain by having people focus on fewer tasks and work together to produce more with this same amount of inputs.

Smith was inspired by this picture in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie that showed the different stages of pin production.


Even in such a seemingly trifling trade, the tasks are split up between all the workers in a pin factory to significantly increase input.

One man draws out the wire; another straightens it…it is even a trade by itself to put them into paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operation, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands…

Within a firm, division of labor increases output. Twenty people trying on their own and separately to do all tasks needed in pin production will surely turn out fewer pins in a given day than when they work together.

…But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them, have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the…what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

And within a society, specializing and utilizing division of labor increases output even more. A brain surgeon’s time is too valuable to force him or her to grow their own food and learn to program their computer. Instead, the brain surgeon goes to the supermarket where specialists in food production sell their services and resources. Or buys the iPhone that was programmed by the people who studied computer science.

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.

The complete lyrics to Pin Factory:

From wire drawn until the straightening, pass through eighteen distinct hands
Ten people now could make more in a day than if left to do on their own
Cut then before put into paper, the pin comes out in completion
What seemed at first to be a trifling trade is revealed to greatly improve

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

What follows is the fifth 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 3, Chapter 3 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Despite our tendency to engage in sympathetic fellow-feeling, it’s abundantly clear that this is not infinite. We do not feel equally connected to everyone across the world. In Smith’s view, this is limited in part by our ability to put ourselves in the situation of others.

He tells us to consider a scenario where, as a Scottish person in the 1700s that hasn’t travelled much, you hear that an earthquake has happened in China:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake…[a man in Europe] would, I imagine express very strongly his sorrow and misfortune of that unhappy people…he would too, perhaps, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe.

So after saying “aw shucks, that’s so sad,” one would go on to thinking about how this might affect the commerce of Europe – in other words, how would it actually affect me? At the end of the day, this Scot wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over this tragedy. Contrast this to a scenario that is clearly less severe than an earthquake swallowing up tons of Chinese people:

The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.

Philosophers over the ages observed this pattern in human nature and thought of a variety of remedies to correct this tendency. One group Smith mentions – the Stoics – believed that we should bring down our own feeling of pain and happiness to the level at which we naturally consider those of the anonymous humans we hear about across the globe. Another group – unnamed but implied to be Catholics – suggests that we should feel for others the same way we feel about ourselves; in other words, feel lots and lots of suffering. But Smith thinks neither of these methods gets the point, and is able to rationalize our asymmetric emotions towards our pinky finger and the millions of Chinese people. In his scenario, the Scot has likely never met a Chinese person, never been to China, and only knows vague stories about the country thousands of miles away. To the Scot, hearing of suffering in China is such a distant concept because the Scot finds it nearly impossible to put themselves in the shoes of a Chinese person and understand how this tragedy makes them feel.

Think of the saying “this really hits close to home.” It’s a suggestion that we feel stronger about intense events that happen to those we love, those that live near us, and those that we can relate to better. When a terrorist attack happens in Paris, American social media reacts much differently compared to when a terrorist attack happens in Jakarta. Of course these events are equally tragic in a human sense when lives lost are the same, but Americans are much more likely to know French people, have been to Paris, be ethnically French, or have studied in Paris than to have experienced similar things with Indonesia. If you hear of a school shooting in Iran, how does it make you feel compared to a school shooting in your town?

So maybe reacting to the terrorist attack in Paris differently than the attack in Jakarta can be rationalized by Smith’s conception of a finite level of fellow-feeling, but can we really consider it ethical? Well, here the Impartial Spectator comes back in. Given the tradeoff between our pinky finger and millions of Chinese lives, we would never pick our pinky finger.

“…would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them…human nature startles with horror at the thought…It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power…the inhabitant of the breast, the man within…calls to us…It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the nature misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of the impartial spectator…it is a stronger lover, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble…

The Impartial Spectator thus tempers the absurdity of our self-love and makes us recognize that, although our instinctive fellow-feeling may make the loss of a pinky more intense at first, the honorable and noble thing is to care more about these millions of Chinese lives.

The complete lyrics to Chinese Earthquake:

Far away from where I’m sleeping, tragedy shakes the earth
Myriad of its inhabitants, the Chinese empire swallowed whole
Annihilated in a moment, reflect upon misfortune
But what for European trade? Return to pleasure all the same

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

But if you told me that tomorrow, my little finger would be gone
I’d lie awake in real disturbance, do you tremble at the thought?

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited


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 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


A few months ago, I made a conscious decision to overhaul my Twitter feed. The vast majority of accounts I followed were not only economists, but they were white, male, and in an ideological range from libertarian to Technocratic Left. I eliminated a lot of those accounts, replacing them with accounts representing a diverse range of views/demographics. Even in this simple experiment, the A/B test gives me conscious conclusions about how one’s media bubble affects one’s line of thinking, and suggests there are even more implicit outcomes that I don’t recognize. It also made me realize how reasonable it is that nearly everyone is under-exposed to an optimally diverse set of views in their media diet.

B.O. (Before Overhaul), I was pretty sure there weren’t any smart socialist thinkers out there. And this extends past purist socialism and even into what you might now call the “Bernie Left.” Most arguments I read were caricature defenses of socialism that frankly could easily be refuted. Naomi Klein would make outrageous ad hominem attacks on Milton Friedman and claim it delegitimized the market economy, Jeremy Corbyn would defend the wonderful work Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela for the poor, college-aged kids would spew half-baked defenses of what they thought Marx meant, and a plethora of writers would accuse anyone against rent control as selfish idiots. If the best arguments I came across were entirely unconvincing, it only made sense that I became more confident in my views.

But that’s where the problem is. I assumed the views I was being exposed to were the best ones out there. By default, my media diet as a self-identifying liberal/cosmopolitan/technocratic/educated guy included MainstreamMedia sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic,, etc. Those sources don’t often include a prominent voice on the socialist left. Just as David Brooks and Thomas Friedman are unconvincing voices for a centrist conservatism, the voices I was being exposed to were making weak arguments for socialist and left-populist economic policy. The reasonable voices were in a narrow range of centrism somewhere between Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, and Greg Mankiw. In hindsight, this group of people has way more in common than I or they ever realized. What I mean to highlight is that these sources, the ones I was reading as an Enlightened Educated Gentleman, were not amply exposing me to economic arguments for strong pro-labor, pro-nationalization, massive taxation, or significant adjustment to labor laws aiming to equalize gender/racial disparities. The people I was reading were all pretty in favor of markets as a basis for economic policy, where technocratic solutions through NBER papers and incremental adjustments were the road to ideal policy. The debates, in retrospect, were over the magnitude of redistribution and balancing economic liberty with regulation. Joseph Stiglitz would enter into the picture every now and then, but not enough to really shake my worldview.

It turns out there are a lot of smart people that have very far left economic views. Matt Bruenig, Elizabeth Bruenig, Marshall Steinbaum, to name a few, consistently are writing things that not only give a drastically different point of view – they are writing things that I find very difficult to argue against given my current toolkit of existing knowledge. This is when you know you’re actually exposing yourself to new ideas. Before, it was as if I was unconsciously exposing myself only to straw men arguments and red herrings in order to simultaneously reenforce my priors and give me a false sense of being open-minded. These people were always out there, but they don’t have a prominent (enough) voice in where I assumed a good media diet was found. [Elizabeth writes for the Washington Post now, and many of these people have some exposure, but you get my point]

The same can be said for the level of female economists out there. I used to rationalize not reading many female economists by saying that the field just didn’t have many women. While the discipline does seem to be hostile to women and it’s not at total parity, I was dead wrong. Some of the best work in academia is being done by people like Alice Evans, Claudia Goldin, Dina Pomeranz, and many many more. But except for Janet Yellen, Joan Robinson, Anna Schwartz, and a handful of others, female economists don’t have too much exposure in the mass media. Only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in economics (and she could be considered more of a political scientist). Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Mark Thoma, Brad Delong all seem to get much more exposure than their female counterparts. Without making a conscious effort to include more female voices in my media diet, I was left reading a much more homogenized set of views.

The same can be said for non-economists. I have made more of an effort to include historians, sociologists, and anthropologists in my twitter feed and blog roll. Robert Solow once quipped, “Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper.” Economists are prone to see everything as an economic problem; it’s all about incentives. All other disciplines fall prey to their own unique narrow-mindedness. But forcing yourself to look through that lens can be quite revealing. Looking through a lens of “everything is gendered” or “everything is explained by our irrational cognitive biases” at least exposes you to the possibility of these ideas.

So far in my experiment, I’m happy to report I’m much less sure of any of my beliefs. When Matt Bruenig gives an analysis with thorough empirics and theory showing the greatness of socialism, I can scoff all I want but if I can’t convincingly refute his points, how sure am I of the greatness of markets? I think I have a good idea of how economic history shows that markets and liberalism set the stage for the industrial revolution, but when Pseudoerasmus talks about the oh-so-ridiculous conventional wisdom that I of course had wrong, how sure am I about any of those beliefs?

Twitter is pretty much the worst, but also can be used for good. The freewheeling platform made it pretty easy to find these new alternative voices once I made the conscious effort. My worry is not that people don’t have access to a diverse set of views, it’s that their habits and circumstances will inevitably lead to equilibria that perpetuates echo chambers.

There’s still one thing everyone in my twitter feed agrees on: Trump is the worst. I’m not yet ready to start following alt-right accounts, Holocaust deniers, or MAGA fanboys. Yet it does beg the question: if I did, what would the mere exposure to these accounts do to my confidence in my own beliefs?

Episode 4 is wheeling and dealing and causing havoc all over the RSS feed universe. Check it out on iTunes or if you need the RSS URL:

Tyler Cowen has tried to explain the recent trend in wage stagnation by claiming we have reached a “Great Stagnation” – we have exhausted the low-hanging fruits of cheap labor from immigration, trade liberalization, increased education, and previously unused land and natural resources. Basically, we have reached diminishing returns in many of the areas from which we expected to keep getting high growth. A worker’s productivity is easy and cheap to improve when they are illiterate, for example; but increasing productivity when they’re already college-educated is a little harder, more expensive, and at some points not even possible.

I’d like to posit that we have also reached a great stagnation in music. Remember that the Great Stagnation does not claim growth has stopped or we will regress; it merely states that our rate of growth has slowed down. Much like the American economy, popular music extracted what it could in low-hanging fruits during a golden age and getting those incredible returns again is harder to come by.

By some metrics technological innovation peaked in the 1870s and we only realized all the benefits of these innovations decades later. By the same token, popular music had technical and creative innovations in the first half of the twentieth century that we did not fully exploit until the golden age of popular music, which I’d like to theorize was between 1964 and 1973. These progressions include many things, but chiefly the introduction of the electric guitar, increased access of music to influence wider audiences, and better access to recording studios and production equipment.

The Beatles recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s in an incredible 18-month span. Bob Dylan released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in about 14 months. Today, regardless of your musical taste and what you consider the most relevant music, artists will usually take years upon completing albums. Releasing two landmark albums within a year is essentially unheard of. Radiohead took 4 years between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, 4 years between In Rainbows and King of Limbs. When I think of any of my favorite rock/indie/pop bands in my lifetime, their careers span twice as long as my Theorized Golden Age and often produce half a many albums as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, or the Kinks did in the same time period.

I want to emphasize again that the presence of a great stagnation in music does not mean we are no longer creating really awesome music, it just means you have to push that much harder to squeeze out valuable creative juices that turn something incredible. In the beginning to mid 60s there were so many low hanging fruits that the aforementioned could churn out excellent albums, often while touring.

Thomas Edison filed thousands of patents centuries ago, all without much formal education. In a sense, he had so much to work with because there was so much potential that was yet to be realized. Now such a renaissance man is impossible to come by. Even the greatest innovators are only known for one or two great inventions, spending their whole lives devoted to coming up with and perfecting one great idea. Edison managed to make hundreds or thousands, depending on how you look at it.

The artists of 64-73 encountered a similar atmosphere. Many production techniques, the electric guitar, a recovered post-WWII global economy – these were all things that made it very easy to release lots of high quality music very quickly. There is simply no other reason why John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson could poop out the music they did so quickly. Never before had the rate of fusion of so many genres of music – blues, jazz, barber shop, classical, folk, country – happened anywhere near what it did during the golden era.

And the music wasn’t just good, it was innovative. I think the reason why bands now have to take years to release an album is because they need to work so hard to be perfectionists and manage to create something unique. It’s still possible, just like making that college graduate more productive is possible; it just means you have to spend five years giving them a phd, whereas when they were illiterate all you needed to do was teach them to read to make them more productive. Fleet Foxes is awesome, but I’d hesitate to call them truly innovative. Whatever hip-hop is coming out may be good, but it’s not as innovative as Paul’s Boutique (yes, I know this wasn’t in the Golden Era, but I state it just as a point to emphasize the difference between quality and innovation).

Today recording equipment, access to audiences, and a richer global economy imply that the music industry has many tools and financial resources needed to create incredibly innovative music. Before, the industry was dominated by middlemen called record companies that basically decided who was going to even have a chance at succeeding. They owned the capital (the recording studios), the means of distribution, and an essential monopoly on the ability to promote, so there were huge barriers to entry for musicians. Today, musicians can record at home, go viral on the internet, play live shows, afford equipment because we’re all richer, have endless access to musical influences. No matter how one looks at it, the barriers to entry for musicians is a lot less than it was 70 years ago.

It is in spite of these facts, not because of them, that musicians in the golden era were able to produce the music they did at the quick rate they did. That they were able to achieve their quick rate of release makes it even more impressive that they were able to overcome the past barriers to entry for musicians.

Sure, musical culture has changed. Bands rely more on touring it seems to produce revenues. This means more time away from the studio and less time sitting around writing songs. But this didn’t stop the Beatles in the first half of their career, Dylan during his first three electric albums, or Frank Zappa from churning out quality music quickly.

Think of what the most famous classic rock musicians were able to achieve during this time period: those rich sounds and timeless songs on what we’d now think of as primitive technology. No ProTools to redo that one 10 second take to get that right sound from farting on keyboards, sometimes only 4 tracks at one time, and generally less sophisticated instruments. The Flaming Lips create new sounds because they have tons of new technology at the ready – new pedals/effects, lots of recording options, etc. The golden era musicians didn’t have this. Still Wayne Coyne needs to work tirelessly to create a new sound. Before, it seemed Phil Spector could open his fridge and find a new “Be My Baby” or another wall of sound gem.

Most of my favorite albums were not in the Golden Era, so I don’t state all of this as a dork who listens exclusively to classic rock. Instead, I merely see the rate of production during this time period to be phenomenal. Sure Radiohead has grown from Creep to Lotus Flower, but that happened over twenty years. The Beatles went from I Saw Her Standing There to Helter Skelter in FIVE.

Yeah, I am writing this from the perspective of my musical collection/taste. But maybe, though I may be wrong, you can extend it to genres I’m not as familiar with. I’d have to guess punk bands today can’t churn out stuff equal to Give Em Enough Rope and London Calling in the 13 month The Clash did. Overall, I think no matter what your musical preference, bands don’t release music nearly as quickly as they used to.

It could be that we are getting genre-defiers and massive innovators right now that will spur another golden age, and we just don’t know it yet. Much like we have arguably not extracted all productive efficiencies from computer or the internet yet, or it took decades for the mass innovations of the 1870s to be realized fully, we could be on the brink of another mass innovation fest.

What do I think this generally implies? We’ll have to have some sort of industrial revolution equivalent in music to reach the rate of innovation we had in the golden era. We’ll continue to have great music, but we’ll have to wait two or three times as long to get another OK Computer or Veckatimest than we did to get Pet Sounds or After the Goldrush.

This is an admittedly working theory, so I’m happy to hear criticisms or points that I have not mentioned.

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