Moana, Complacency, and the Enduring Appeal of Steady-State Economics

Even a cursory reading of Disney’s Moana suggests that it is built around a not-so-Straussian story of complacency and risk-taking. (Now try listening to it on repeat for a year because your four year-old loves it, and it starts to take on, like, layers, man.) Moana’s island is both a rich source of happy subsistence and under threat from a mythological enemy that seems like a clear metaphor for overfishing. Thus she constantly struggles with a desire for exploration that she feels duty-bound to discipline, and yet her failure to be dutiful is ultimately the salvation of her people as she learns to navigate the dangerous oceans beyond the safe harbor of the island.

You can find happiness right where you are

Like many Disney films, the ordinary storyline tells the fantasy story in reverse: in the ordinary A-story we see a culture suffering from stagnation and accepting the need for new discoveries and risks. In the supernatural B-story we see that the trickster god’s risk-taking is to blame for misfortune, and human piety is required to achieve a mythical overcoming of divine vengeance and the rejection of creativity and innovation in the name of divine–but soporific!–fecundity.

In the A-story, a group of Pacific Islanders end their nomadic wayfaring to settle in a reef-protected idyll that promises them a flourishing steady state. They develop traditions and rituals that ensure stability with minimal growth, which includes communal ownership of the means of subsistence, as well as rites of cultural passage that refuse innovation:

“Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need.”

Yet this steady state is itself the result of great innovations: for instance, the villagers of Motunui have discovered uses for every part of the coconut tree and the taro root. And one of those innovations–fishing nets from the coir fibers of the coconut–threatens to deplete their local fishing stock. Over a long enough period the island has become unsustainable, slowly growing beyond its own carrying capacity. Yet the current chief, Moana’s father Tui, can’t see the need to return to their wayfaring traditions because he was traumatized as a child by going beyond the reef with a friend, who died in the unprotected waters. Moana’s rebelliousness thus finally meets with her  obligations as the future chief, and so she ventures out beyond the reef on her own to learn Pacific Ocean navigation techniques.

The B-story stars the trickster god Maui, who once stole the heart of a maternal creator god, Te Fititi, in order to grant her life-giving powers to humanity in the form of divine creativity and innovation. The care-giving Te Fititi is thus transformed into the vengeful volcano god Te Ka, who–thousands of years later–is blamed for the shortages on the island of Motunui. The B-story resolves when the heart of Te Fititi–the power of creativity–is returned to Te Ka by Moana, and Te Ka’s desire for vengeance is sated: restored as Te Fititi she becomes so complacent she literally returns to sleep. Here it is the desire for risk-taking and innovation that causes trouble, and the supernatural resolution comes from eschewing novelty for tradition.

Moana’s first encounter with Maui depicts him as coasting on the laurels of his earliest accomplishments (creating the sky, sun, and wind; inventing or discovering coconuts; stealing humanity fire like Prometheus) while trapped in a cave. Moana doesn’t appreciate these ancient achievements and demands that Maui return the heart of Te Fititi, launching a few picaresque adventures. Maui eventually teaches Moana wayfinding for the A-story, but along the way, Moana and Maui go to the realm of monsters to steal Maui’s magic shapeshifting hook from a giant crab named Tamatoa, another figure of complacency, who has mastered the art of fish attraction so completely he doesn’t need to do any work to feed, they just pour right into his mouth.

The stories thus resolve with the sacrifice of cosmological creativity in the name of mundane risk-taking: the volcano/nature goddess goes back to sleep, making it safe for the islanders to take moderate risks to navigate to new islands. The Motunuians political economy is shown its way to a new equilibrium steady state, nomadically moving from island to island in order to avoid depleting the resources of a single place.

Complacency, Stagnation, and the Duty to Grow

In a recent triptych of books, Tyler Cowen has been exploring a kind of generic theory of political economy that appeals to me. In The Great Stagnation (recall), Cowen argued that many of our recent economic woes were due to discovering that much recent growth had been illusory. In Average is Over, he argued that current long-run trends are all pushing towards increasing inequality. And in his most recent book, The Complacent Class, he spins the story of decreasing innovation and increasing concentrations of wealth as related: too few comfortable people are taking the risks that would lead to the next big economic (or political) revolution which would be disruptive enough to lead to major increases of overall wellbeing. (In a sense this is really a tetraptych because his free ebook of meta-ethics, Stubborn Attachmentsargues along the same lines that we have serious obligations to future generations to continue innovating.)

So: Cowen thinks most of our biggest economic problems are due to a lack of growth and invention. That’s not to say that the pace of novelties is decreasing, but just that few of these novelties are truly innovative in ways that would substantially change the quality of our lives. Computers seem like a big deal, but they haven’t been that big. They haven’t fundamentally changed the way our lives work as much as, say, the washing machine did. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving a billion people from starvation. Mark Zuckerberg just gave billions of people a distracting website where we can fight about politics and look at cute animal pictures. If someone masters self-driving cars and trucks, maybe that will be the kind of disruptive, physical economy shift Cowen says we are morally obligated to pursue.

But we’re complacent, see? We don’t take those kinds of risks anymore. We make off-color Twitter jokes, or rap musicals about the founding fathers, when we should be moving mountains. Elon Musk is a genius, and a weirdo, and a comic book villain, because that’s what it takes to start a new car company, send rocketships to space, and redesign the electrical grid around solar power. The rest of us don’t do that kind of thing because we don’t like risks. We don’t even move out of town for new jobs as much as we used to do.

If you buy Cowen’s argument in Stubborn Attachments then we actually have a kind of limited obligation to try to innovate, because compounding innovations are what will make the future better off than the present. (In philosophy we talk about this as the “intergenerational justice” question, or under the heading of John Rawls’ discussion of the “just savings principle.”) We are ourselves massive beneficiaries of past generations’ efforts to store up for their posterity the technological and artistic achievements of their own and previous epochs. We owe the future the same.

Cowen even bites the bullet in arguing that we should be wary of making prioritarian investments in the poorest or most needy members of the current generation if they come at the expense of slowed discovery and invention. (Often these goals are not at odds, but when they are….) But he’s clear that the bourgeoisie are the real problem, insofar as we bask in our current quite high standards of living without taking the risks that could lead to greater growth. For the most part, then, Cowen’s target is not the poor but the well-off.

The Steady-State Economy

Whenever I teach environmental policy or ethics courses, we spend some time with arguments like that of William Ophuls or Herman Daly or Wendell Berry. I’ve probably taught Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay once or twice a year for more than a decade. There’s even a utopian novel, Ecotopia, depicting a California that has seceded and voluntarily created a non-growth economy (with a dash of hippy free love that eventually sways the uptight unreliable narrator.) The gist of the arguments all boil down to this: perpetual physical growth is impossible on a finite planet. Too many humans, living too good a life, will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth. Or perhaps even worse: we’re already there! Life as the American middle class is unsustainable and will lead to our destruction.

So we need to either find our way to new planets or learn to live within the planet’s means. And given the near-impossibility of terraforming within our solar system, we might as well get used to the idea that economic growth cannot continue forever *now* and work to arrest it. The parts of our political economy that are addicted to growth need to be reined in, and that’s most of them. Apparently we need more farmers and fewer philosophers; more plumbers and fewer petroleum engineers.

Depictions of the steady state economy usually emphasize more egalitarian and communal cultural mechanisms. But my sense is that steady states usually depend on strict deference for authority and a lack of disruptive mobility. Abilities vary, but roles are assigned (as Moana’s is) by birth. What marks out stable societies is a clearer connection between cultural prestige, political power, and economic privilege. I think that’s part of the appeal that steady state political economy holds for cultural elites in particular; a community where our mastery of the seminar room will be rewarded with attendant power and wealth, and we won’t have to defer to stockbrokers who got rich by taking big risks with other people’s money. (I always associate this critique with Lynn Sanders’ “Against Deliberation” but there are other sources for this insight, including Karl Marx himself.)

The problem is that infinite growth does look impossible on a finite planet. Certainly we can sustain a little more growth, at least for a while. But the obligation to future generations may be to waste less electricity on Bitcoin mining and spend more time fighting for adequate policy responses to climate change! While Cowen might not disagree with those priorities, he certainly doesn’t seem to think that growth (understood as innovations and discoveries and cultural production) is limited. We’re not getting closer to any recognizable ceilings, for the simple reason that there are still diseases to be cured, technologies to be invented, and novels to be written. Even the rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is still unfinished!

This is how I think about the error of the steady-staters: that they assume the old model of growth, where production and consumption occur primarily in terms of linear increases in resource use. This is what we measure, kind of, with GDP. But some kinds of innovation and invention are different: they create lots of value for lots of people without really costing a lot. A pill saves a life, and it only costs fifty cents to make; the pharmaceutical company will register some of those gains as profits contributing to GDP, but then the patent will expire, and it’ll SEEM like stagnation. But in fact, it’s a permanent increase in our shared wealth. More people live, but they live for cheap. (There are ways that this is supposed to be captured by the surviving worker’s productivity and the fall in drug prices is supposed to impact inflation measures, but it’s imprecise.) Growth is a misnomer: creating new things and ideas and experiences is the good bit. And there’s no reason to stop.

Aue aue
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain

Aue aue
Te fenua, te mālie
Nā heko hakilia
We know the way

Calm is not Rational

I’ve written a bit before about Tyler Cowen’s idea for a fallacy of mood affiliation, and I generally find something useful in discussions of it. Here’s the basic story:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.  (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Byran Caplan offers some reflections on using mood as a credibility heuristic (that are consonant with others things he has said) and so it seems worth discussing where he goes wrong.

On Caplan’s account, evidence is the best way to judge credibility and truth. There we agree. But he adds that using appropriate mood as a heuristic for credibility is a wise backup for discounting some movements or claims. He describes the appropriate moods that environmental activists ought to bring to bear on fossil fuels:

A reasonable person who was convinced that fossil fuels posed a major danger would feel a specific package of moods:

1. Sadness that a crucial resource has terrible side effects.

2. Gratitude for all the wonders the resource brought us in the past.

3. Resignation that mankind must forego many of these wonders.

4. Determination to salvage as many wonders as possible by using the best available substitutes for fossil fuels.

When an opponent of fossil fuels evinces none of these moods, it strongly suggests he isn’t reasonable.

This seems unlikely to be true. On the one hand, I do think those are basically the right judgments about fossil fuels: they are awesome, we should be glad that they existed, and it really sucks that we’re going to be giving them up, but it’s time to take action. That said, it’s not clear why I can’t also feel:

  1. Anger that providence does not supply as good a solution without the costs.
  2. Resentment that those who have profited from fossil fuel extraction are willfully denying the evidence that we must change.
  3. Frustration that scientific consensus does not bind more of my fellow citizens and their elected representatives.
  4. Suspicion of the ways that our current interests cause us to downplay the risks and need for resignation and determination.

Those seem perfectly rational to me, too. And we might not be able to hold all those emotions in our mind at the same time, and thus we find that we’re unable to capture the state of perfectly neutral ambivalence that Caplan here suggests is a prerequisite for being considered rational. Worse, though, Caplan’s account of those prerequisite “moods” mistakes how social movements work with how scholars comport themselves.

  1. For Cowen, mood is about having too much of the wrong sort of alignment within your portfolios of beliefs. So mood affiliation is not about demeanor but about getting your beliefs to support your preferred mood (like the just world fallacy.) Some things are good and some things bad, some things are more certain than others, etc. And yet we tend to adopt similar judgments rather than diversify, suggesting that it’s us and not the world that’s drawing those beliefs together. So Bryan Caplan is not using mood in Cowen’s sense, but rather describing something like demeanor.
  2. Most of the evidence suggests that groups of people actively resisting the status quo fall into group polarization dynamics. This is regardless of whether the status quo is just or unjust or safe or dangerous. This means that they will tend to circulate ideas and attitudes among themselves, developing more extreme and fanatical opposition to it than the overall community could support. Thus a heuristic based on demeanor is basically a pro-status quo heuristic.
  3. Sometimes this polarization is primarily attitudinal, and sometimes it is primarily evidential: that is, sometimes movement members help each other engage in motivated reasoning and skepticism, and sometimes they help each other by egging each other on with a bias for action. The attitudinal polarization is likely to be MORE reasonable than the evidential one. Yet representatives of the status quo can then use those attitudinal group polarization dynamics to depict the resistors as irrational and thus wrong. (We can see this in all sorts of places, not just the standard ones.)
  4. The demeanors of calm and dispassionate analysis are, frankly, overrated by college professors and college graduates. It’s how we signal competence, but it’s not the same as subject-matter competence, rather it’s generally a prerequisite competence in dealing with other college graduates.
  5. Lots of obviously wrong people demonstrate the wrong demeanors. But lots of *subtly* wrong people have the right demeanors. Probably then, we should actually develop enough subject-matter expertise to parse the evidence (as Caplan is doing by reading Epstein) and not rely on demeanor so much as a heuristic.

Basically, where I see Cowen contributing is in allowing us to reflect on the ways that our ideas may be too tightly connected to each other by some overarching mood or partisan affiliation. Disaggregation, decoupling, debundling: these aren’t always smart epistemological moves, but there’s a lot of good reasons to experiment with them, rooted in methodological individualism and the necessities of the scientific method.

Caplan, by contrast, seems to want to use it as a heuristic for discrediting others. I’ll admit a bias here: I really want to bend over backwards to understand the views of others and listen carefully to their arguments in hopes of finding useful insights. That’s my fallibilism talking, a mood that I’m quite sure has its own pitfalls. But still, doesn’t it seem unwise to pretend you can’t hear people just because they are shouting? After all, they’re very likely to be shouting because no one listened when they spoke.

The Middle Class is Losing the Race for Second Place

I think about inequality a lot. But I also think about the middle class a lot, which isn’t quite the same thing. Generally, my sympathies lie with the “least advantaged” or “subaltern,” but I also feel the pull of the American cultural commitment to the middle class.

There can be little doubt that we are seeing a dissolution of the middle class, and this often seems a tragedy. Indeed, my favorite financial guru, Elizabeth Warren, put it like this:

“A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.”

And yet, data going back to 1970 indicates that more people are failing to remain in the middle class due to wealth than due to poverty:

the entire reason the middle class has “shrunk” is that more households today have incomes that put them above middle class. That’s right, the share of households with income that puts them in the middle class or higher was 76 percent in 1970 and 75 percent in 2010—two figures that are statistically indistinguishable. For that matter, I am not discovering fire here; Third Way made the same point in early 2007 (page 7).

As Third Way put it in 2007:

The bottom line is that the middle class is shrinking but not because the bottom is dropping out; it is because more people are better off.

Now, let’s be clear: the two middle quintiles of income will always be populated by 40% of the population, so in some sense there will always be a “middle.” But increasingly this group will not be a class.

Alan Kreuger defines the middle class “as having a household income at least half of median income but no more than 1.5 times the median.” And the incomes statistics suggest that it is increasingly difficult to tread water this close to the median income: either you sink below it, or you rocket above it. But compared to 1970, more people are rocketing above it than sinking below it. (As Warren points out, this is largely a matter of women in the workforce: a couple with two incomes is too rich for the middle-class, and couples and single folks with only one income are too poor for it.)

Many different kinds of inequality compete for our attention when we discuss the politics of fairness. For instance, as Tyler Cowen has pointed out, the difference between the top 1% and the rest of the top quintile is largely what has driven the growing inequality over the last thirty years:

the share of pre-tax income earned by the richest 1 percent of earners has increased from about 8 percent in 1974 to more than 18 percent in 2007. Furthermore, the richest 0.01 percent (the 15,000 or so richest families) had a share of less than 1 percent in 1974 but more than 6 percent of national income in 2007. As noted, those figures are from pre-tax income, so don’t look to the George W. Bush tax cuts to explain the pattern. Furthermore, these gains have been sustained and have evolved over many years, rather than coming in one or two small bursts between 1974 and today.

But this inequality is distinct from the inequality that has afflicted the bottom 50% of the income spectrum:

At the same time, wage growth for the median earner has slowed since 1973. But that slower wage growth has afflicted large numbers of Americans, and it is conceptually distinct from the higher relative share of top income earners. For instance, if you take the 1979–2005 period, the average incomes of the bottom fifth of households increased only 6 percent while the incomes of the middle quintile rose by 21 percent. That’s a widening of the spread of incomes, but it’s not so drastic compared to the explosive gains at the very top.

And even this may conceal accounting effects and the inequality that emerges as the US population ages and some among us become better educated. It is at least plausible that there has been no meaningful growth in the inequality of the 99% at all:

Attacking the problem from a different angle, other economists are challenging whether there is much growth in inequality at all below the super-rich. For instance, real incomes are measured using a common price index, yet poorer people are more likely to shop at discount outlets like Wal-Mart, which have seen big price drops over the past twenty years. Once we take this behavior into account, it is unclear whether the real income gaps between the poor and middle class have been widening much at all. Robert J. Gordon, an economist from Northwestern University who is hardly known as a right-wing apologist, wrote in a recent paper that “there was no increase of inequality after 1993 in the bottom 99 percent of the population”, and that whatever overall change there was “can be entirely explained by the behavior of income in the top 1 percent.”

What we see, then, is a world where the rich have gotten much richer and the poor and median incomes have been relatively stagnant.

I agree with Cowen that the first trend is largely driven by financial engineering (“going short on volatility” and expecting a bailout when those bets don’t pay off) that appears to be negative-sum: the very richest get richer not through work but through arbitrage and winner-take-all approaches to the markets, and they do so by putting the brakes on the rest of the economy. In other words, the problem is financial capitalism, and it requires a response rooted specifically in managing the banking, insurance, and real estate sectors of the economy. (This is the so-called FIRE economy.)

But what about the second non-trend? The largely stable infra-99% inequalities somehow disguise the “dissolution of the middle class.” Or do they?

Game theorists like to joke about the “race for second place”: if the winner realizes she’s winning, she has to slow down, which creates a weird disequilibrilizing competition. In decision-theory, this is called “satisficing” and it is opposed to “maximizing.”

Tyler Cowen refers to people who satisfice on income as “threshold earners,” a group that I certainly belong to:

It is also the case that any society with a lot of “threshold earners” is likely to experience growing income inequality. A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold.

There is plenty of evidence that the richest quintile is full of people who have enough and are unwilling to work any harder to get more. Consider exhortations to “chill” that are quite popular among the upper-middle class.

abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.

These are folks who were competing for second place, and, having rocketed out of the middle class, have chosen to take more time off. This behavior certainly expands the income inequality between the richest 1% and the rest of the top quintile. But should it bother us?

Now, we all satisfice, i.e. chill, all the time: even the serial entrepreneur satisfices on non-monetary goods: she has a “good enough” marriage, a “good enough” exercise routine, etc. But we’re not proud of this in the same way that so many Americans are proud about being middle class. We don’t all brag about how we get away with giving our spouse “just enough” attention or how we’re “phoning it in until retirement.” Why not? Because we belong to a culture that doesn’t value income-as-such. But when you’re poor, money does buy a measure of happiness, so why do we take such joy in making less simply because we don’t need it? Resources in excess of need can always be given to those who need them more, either through voluntary charity or state-run cash transfers (i.e. taxing and spending.) To my mind, the reality of satisficing is largely selfish.

I suspect these little exhortations to “chill” are not in fact designed to change anyone’s behavior. Rather they’re a kind of self-congratulation. “Look at me! I’m rich and I don’t work very hard!” Last time I checked, the word for self-congratulatory idle rich folks? “Parasites.” In that sense, “medium chill” is just another way of saying “I got mine.”

Congrats! You won the genetic, educational, and financial market lotteries! You bought low and sold high! To say that the middle class is “losing the race for second place” is to point out that, despite their efforts to “chill” they just can’t help getting ahead. The problem is privilege, and structural inequality, and a changing global economy.

That’s why I tend to think that we ought not to worry so much about losing the race for second place through the enrichment of the middle class. We should focus on the poor, many of whom don’t even figure in national inequality numbers because they don’t live in this country: they belong to the “Bottom Billion” who live outside the US on less than $1 a day PPP.

Now, the strongest argument in favor of a domestic middle class (and a massively reduced upper class) is Elizabeth Anderson’s argument for “relational equality,” sometimes also called “democratic equality.” If we prioritize political participation over a more general account of capabilities, then we might worry less about the material well-being of the poorest and more about their capacity to participate as equals in the self-governance of our democracy. But I’ll save that for another day.

Deciding Whether or Not to Tell a Story

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class called “Truth and Beauty” with the poet Ann Lauterbach. It was basically a class on reading and writing essays, but I took it because I was a philosophy major and I thought it would be about aesthetics, i.e. about whether judgments about beauty can be true or false. Every week we’d read a collection of essays and we would turn in a response essay of our own. We also met with Ann regularly to discuss our work, which was great because she had the kind of presence that made one-on-one encounters particularly powerful and instructive, like academic therapy.

During one of our sessions, I remember bemoaning the fact that my essays were all so analytical. I had read some of her poetry and I yearned for the kind of imaginative approach to language that I thought she had. (I really had no idea about poetry.) I can’t remember her exact response, but it was something like this:

Everybody has their own way of thinking, their own voice. You shouldn’t try to change the way you think, but rather work on improving it.

At the time, I found that inspiring. Here was a brilliant poet giving me permission (nay, charging me with the duty!) to dig deeper into the habits of thought and writing that were most comfortable for me. It was liberating. I’ve since come to realize that my style of thinking is much less strictly analytical and much more about exploring questions and the various possible ways of answering them. (Those links point to a couple of posts addressing different approaches to power and freedom.) But I’m glad I took Ann’s advice, because look where it got me: I got a PhD in philosophy, and I get to teach my favorite texts and questions for a living!

Now, here’s the question: why did I tell you that story?

Notice how my story works: it puts some pretty banal clichés into the mouth of a famous poet, but all she said was “be yourself.” I start by establishing her authority and gravitas, I introduce a problem via a distinction with an implicit hierarchy (analytic versus imaginative), and then the authority figure in my story teaches me a lesson that reverses the hierarchy: it’s okay to be analytic and nerdy! Then I pretend like this simple lesson is what got me to where I am today. Yay poets! Yay philosophy nerds!

But wait! Maybe my story is deceptive. Maybe, as Tyler Cowen said in his recent TEDx talk, stories have a tendency to paper over the messiness of real life:

Narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip [detail] way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Oh shit! Did I just make myself and my readers dumber? Did my little “A Man Learns a Lesson”-style story just get us all stoned on narrative inanities?

Cowen goes on to qualify this:

we use stories to make sense of what we’ve done, to give meaning to our lives, to establish connections with other people. None of this will go away, should go away, or can go away.

But, he explains, we should worry about stories more, and embrace the messiness of life more. But I wonder if he’s right? After all, Lauterbach told me I shouldn’t try to change the way I think, but rather get really good at the modes of thinking that I already prefer. Surely the same thing is true for people who love stories and think primarily in terms of stories?

So, here’s how I think about this question: Should we listen to Cowen or to Lauterbach? Why?

It seems to me that we should be suspicious of stories if we think that letting reality be messy is good for thinking clearly. The problem there is that we’re only likely to think that if we’ve had good experiences with other forms of analysis: plotting data or formalizing syllogisms. In that case, we’ll hear Cowen’s comments like I heard Lauterbach’s: “Be yourself! Those story-tellers are phonies, anyway.”

On the other hand, we might also want to dig deeper into stories and develop our critical thinking skills from within the narrative form: when is a story too neat? When is a narrator’s omniscience really pandering to the reader? What are the other stories we can tell about authors, about cultures, and about narrative manipulation that might help us to avoid the traps that narratives set for us? If we’ve already got a pretty good sense of the structure of stories, the kinds of things that narratives do and can do, we might prefer to dig deeper and hone this method. But still, the message is Lauterbach’s: “Don’t kick the poets out of the city! Poets can be wise, too!”

In this post, Lauterbach is going to stay the hero. But Cowen is a smart guy, and he tries to inoculate himself against this kind of criticism in the section on cognitive biases. Basically, he reminds us that people tend to misuse their knowledge of psychology through a kind of motivated reasoning that reproduces their earlier, ignorant biases but now with supposed expert certification. In this, as in most things “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” (But isn’t that what TED is for?) Then he reminds us of the epistemic portfolio theory, which holds that we’ll tend to balance our subjects of agnosticism, unpopular beliefs, and dogmatism in a rough equilibrium, so we ought to beware of the ways we abjure narratives in only some parts of our lives. (This is pretty much like ending his whole talk with the prankster’s “NOT!” Silly rationalists: truth-tracking and reason-responsiveness are myths we tell to children to hide the messy emotional facts of the matter.)

The passage in his talk where he typologizes the various narratives we’ll tell about the talk is also pretty funny: “I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories!” Yay economists! They’re smart and have all the bases covered. Hey wait: do you think that’s why he told us that story?

Sentence Lover

Tyler Cowen writes:

I have an irrational fondness for this sentence of Mann’s:

The First World War distracted governments from the task of monitoring insect movements.

The sentence from Charles C. Mann is quite good, but Cowen’s sentence is better: it encapsulates his exuberance for the written word and for heterodox points of view. (And of course, it includes Mann’s sentence, so it’s kind of a twofer. Like Tom Townsend’s callow claim in Metropolitan: “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”)

If you look around the internet, his “good sentences” trope is everywhere. In this exuberance for the epigrammatic, he has something in common with the science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany:

I begin, a sentence lover. I’m forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing. I’m astonished—just plain tickled!—at the sharp turns and tiny tremors they can whip your thoughts across. I’m entranced by their lollop and flow, their prickles and points. Poetry is made of words, Mallarmé told us a hundred years back. But I write prose. And prose is made of sentences.

More good sentences from Delany.