Tag Archives: Tyler Cowen

Cowen Vs. Singer

The brain drain from philosophy couldn’t be demonstrated better than on this BloggingHeads: Tyler is clearly the more competent philosopher, the more playful, the more far ranging…and yet, he’s an economist.  Singer comes across as dull as a public monument and as silent.  Also, I love Cowen’s argumentative strategies, his chess moves, pushing Singer to accept certain points, leaving them, moving other pieces, then coming back to the earlier steps to settle the checkmate.  Compare this debate with the debate Cowen had with Robin Hanson, where his arguments are more tepid, confused, speculative.  Cowen likes to play Devil’s Advocate with his GMU colleagues, but it’s fairly certain he’s much better when he truly disagrees with his oppenent.


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Tyler Cowen’s Snobbery

A recent squabble over Slumdog Millionaire‘s relative merits has prompted Cowen to expand his thoughts on movies. At first Cowen’s eclecticism seems impressive. He regularly flaunts his knowledge of obscure novels and songs and movies and travel destinations and restaurants and weaknesses in your arguments. But upon further reflection, you can’t help but notice how…conservative his tastes run.  By his cataloguing, he wants to signal how open to experiences he is, especially to his staid colleagues in economics, but in general his recommendations read like the syllabus at Williams College circa 1979: the more European, the better, the more apathetic the protagonist, the more abstract the import, the better, the more the story spins its tires in the anti-plot, Hallelujah! All of which may impress classical economists, but really you can’t help wondering how this intellectual status jockeying doesn’t lose its verve after a while. But Cowen plugs on. He says: 

My problem with movies is simple.  I can read faster than some people, but I can’t watch a movie faster than anyone.  So the relative price of movie-watching for me is high (the marginal utility of books does not for me decline rapidly) and often I need the big screen to hold my interest.

The nut: Cowen enjoys reading books more than watching movies because he can read more of them than you. What snobbery! Never mind that the two media have two entirely different effects…


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Press Release Contagion Part II

Almost as if on cue, from stage left, another erroneous piece of science reporting struts upon the stage.  USA Today’s headline: Poverty Dramatically Affects Children’s Brains.  The nut: 

A new study finds that certain brain functions of some low-income 9- and 10-year-olds pale in comparison with those of wealthy children and that the difference is almost equivalent to the damage from a stroke.

“It is a similar pattern to what’s seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex,” which controls higher-order thinking and problem solving, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley.

Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on science reporters.  The feedback from experts via blogs is…what was Bill Gates’ phrase?….faster than the speed of thought.  Tyler Cowen passed the USA Today story and the research paper it was based on to Michelle Dawson, a researcher at the University of Montreal who specializes in childhood brain development.   No need for press releases!  Dawson writes: 


I read the poor vs rich kids brains study (Kishiyama et al.). It’s a very small study (13 in each group) and the groups aren’t matched on ethnicity. In the major task (the one which got media attention), where the authors looked at ERPs [TC: here is a link on ERP], the performance of the two groups was the same. The performance of the two groups on a Stroop task, a classic test of what the poor kids are said to be incapable of, was also the same. The major performance difference between groups was on vocabulary (the WISC-III vocabulary test), but only a few tests were used. There was no attempt to match the groups on IQ.

Sez Cowen: 

Just to repeat two key points: a) the observed difference in electrical current patterns may depend on IQ differences, not poverty, and b) on the actual major task the poor kids did just as well.  There are tasks where the poor children do less well but this is hardly news.

Popular science reporting on neuro issues is very often not to be trusted.

Science reporters of the world.  Let’s sing it again: correlation does not imply causation! 



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Does Democracy Corrode Moral Character?

Yes, and I’ll offer a few points as to why. Consider it the flip side to the forum hosted by the Templeton Foundation on a different, though also important, question. They ask whether liberty corrodes moral character; I take it that they wish to know whether free markets bring out the worst in us. A host of intellectuals of diverse persuasions answer yes, no, maybe, including Michael Walzer, Tyler Cowen, and Garry Kasparov, and elsewhere, the likes of Gary Becker, Richard Posner and Will Wilkinson have all said their word.  Most of the answers are disappointing. Respondents spend a lot of time discussing the virtues and vices of business men as compared to politicians, which is an interesting game of moral hotornot, but such answers also evade the question. There are more professions than these. And what I think is more important, the forum overlooks a fundamental problem: just as most people confuse the current American health care industry with a free market in heath care, so too do our respondents confuse our current society with a completely free one.  Yes, commercial society pervades western culture, but it’s also balanced by the prevalence of democracy in politics, by which I mean representative government. Both institutions–the market and Super Tuesday–have their influence on the manners and mores of the West. So it’s patently silly to consider one without the other.

Wilkinson makes a critical point–namely, that we must distinguish moral means from moral ends. He writes: 

The moral ends worth caring about are the various constituents of human welfare–longevity, health, wealth, pleasure, happiness, a sense of purpose and self-efficacy, the realization of potential, creativity, love, friendship, etc. Moral character, or virtue, is a means to achieving moral ends. As the socioeconomic structure shifts, the means of achieving moral ends shifts.

I have no quibbles with these ends. We may allow for some pluralism,  but such an approximation will do. Now consider the influence of democratic institutions on our character as a means to these ends and ask yourself whether the behaviors cultivated by politics lend themselves to the promotion of such worthy goals. Could it be that much in democratic politics brings out the worst in us? Are the Democratic Vistas barren ones? O Templeton! O Whitman!! Let us count the vices democracy cultivates. 

  1. Fear–demagogues flourish in democratic societies and it is their professional science to whip the mob up into a mad crowd of witch-burners. Together, the herd and the herdsman hunt perfectly innocent victims. Elections become wild orgies wherein each side attempts to substitute a new and worse, though largely imaginary fear for the one that previously prevailed.
  2. Envy–the democratic man takes an unhealthy interest in the superiority of his fellow man. Demagogues and academic philosophers thrive on creating the illusion that your neighbor’s success comes at the cost of your own and that the prosperity of the country requires tearing that man down.
  3. Helplessness–once the demagogues have convinced the public to fear a minority and once they have whipped up their envy of the wealthy and superior, the skilled politician next claims that he is the only one who can save the public from these menaces. This is change you can believe in.
  4. Ignorance–largely convinced politicians will solve his problems, the democratic man doesn’t follow the far-reaching and slow-moving consequences of his ballot. Meanwhile, he is bamboozled and exploited by a small but disciplined group of rent-seekers and special interests. 
  5. A lack of integrity–first in politicians, whose overarching aim is to retain their jobs. If a politician can hold onto his office by lying, he will hold on to it by lying. Moreover, he will preach harmful policies to gullible men he knows to be idiots, provided that this will win him the election. No issue is too absurd, no principle untouched, if the votes will come around. And similarly then in the democratic man himself, we see a crack in his purity. He loses his sensitivity to dishonor. Faced with a myriad of government scandals, the democratic man becomes inured to public vice, simply shrugs, murmurs something about how they all do it, and then continues to vote for his man. Of course, if the democratic man were to consider hiring this venal buffoon, he wouldn’t even give the consideration a second of his time. 
  6.  Profligacy–yes, the government is wasteful but that’s not what I mean. I refer to the opportunity cost. Thousands of years of life and I daresay trillions of dollars have been wasted pursuing laudable goals with improper machinery. Political victories are often phyrric. There will always remain a great if…what could have been accomplished if these talents had been used somewhere other than the state house, Congress, or even law school. 
  7. Nosiness–the democratic man lusts for ways of controlling the merriment of his fellow men. He suffers knowing others, somewhere, are having fun. Thankfully, he knows no joyful behavior will go unexamined. Smoking…drinking…sex…carousing…how you drive your car…who you pay for what pleasure…who you hire for a job…it all comes within the purview of the democratic man’s moral legislation. He begins to believe it his divine right to regulate such things. 
  8. Cowardice–the institutions of democracy provide many buffers to protect the mob from confronting those they exploit. If they had to meet their victims face to face, a full nine tenths of their idiotic legislation wouldn’t stand a chance. This holds true on any issue from immigration to taxes. 
  9. A low self-worth–many decent men are converted into criminals for performing acts that are natural but deemed subversive by the demagogues and the witch-burners following them. 
  10. Nationalism and xenophobia–there are no better scapegoats than those who live outside our walls. No successful demagogue can let outsiders have a space at federally financed welfare tough. 
  11. Intolerance–the democratic man increasingly fears and loathes the followers of opposing ideologues, which is natural since every proposition is win-lose.
  12. A lack of charity–why be generous and solve problems through the institutions of civil society when we have guns to point at people to force them to cough up seven tenths of their paycheck? 

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Nor do I believe the Templeton foundation will continue the discussion any time soon. Tho I wish they would.


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