The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream — Tyler Cowen

The Complacent Class came out last week and it’s excellent. Drop everything and read it. That said, if you read Cowen’s previous two books on related subjects, The Great Stagnation and Average is Over, you will recognize some of the underlying facts that drive the narrative (the preceding links go to my previous essays on those two books).

I’m not going to summarize The Complacent Class because it’s already been well-summarized in many places, like “Dreaming small: how America lost its taste for risk” (though you may not be able to cross the FT paywall). This piece is also good. Here is another. Here is another. More may be found.

That being said, the summaries don’t and can’t account for the many, many small details and sometimes counterintuitive swoops the book makes, and some of the articles I’ve seen argue with strawmen. So I’m going to discuss some of the smaller details and possible counterexamples while attempting to avoid fights with inanimate bags of straw.

Cowen enumerates the many ways our desire for safety actually increases risk, but I can think of one macro trend that defies this general point. For all the complacency of the complacent classes, guns are one domain that remains wildly dangerous. Politicians are reluctant to touch anything to do with guns; by at least some measures, gun laws are more lax than ever and it’s easier than ever for anyone, including mentally ill or deranged people, to get guns. Guns kill tens of thousands of people a year; among non-medical issues, only cars rival them (and opioids, if one considers them non-medical). Yet the collective response has been to make guns easier to get, rather than less. We’re over-obsessed with safety in some domains and seemingly under-obsessed in others, including cars and guns.

In the chapter “Why Americans Stopped Creating” Cowen writes:

A recent report by Wells Fargo showed productivity slowdowns in almost every sector of the American economy. Perhaps most strikingly, the sector “professional and technical services” showed no increase in the productivity of the average office worker at all. You might think IT and the wired office has boosted productivity substantially, and it has in some ways, such as enabling rapid-fire communications across great distances or after work hours are over. But the evidence has yet to materialize for any kind of recent boost in office productivity. We don’t yet know why this is, but maybe the time Americans waste on Facebook and texting and social media takes back some of the gains from all that added connectivity and greater ability to network.

This is plausible, and I’ll add that it may not only be that we’re wasting time “on Facebook and texting and social media.” We may also be deploying technological gains in efficiency terms to create more onerous, bureaucratic, or difficult processes that don’t necessarily add value. In 2015, I wrote a post on “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” Computers have enabled us to produce more drafts for clients; clients to comment more on each draft; and, perhaps worst of all, funders to produce longer, harder-to-understand RFPs.

Funders can also just become more demanding in general. When I started working for Seliger + Associates, most foundation and corporate funders wanted a one-, three, or five-page letter proposal, and writing one such proposal was enough to ensure that it could be cleanly and quickly customized for each funder. Many funders are moving to online systems that are hard to use and that often demand persnickety, weird answers to non-standard questions. Our productivity has fallen in some ways, because funders can demand more onerous application processes—which may be attractive to them while raising costs to nonprofit and public agencies.

Email may be another example of technology slowing things down by almost as much as it speeds things up. While email can be very useful often it isn’t, which many of us know as we check it compulsively anyway. In addition to grant writing I do some work as an adjunct professor; I get lots of emails from students, very few of them substantive and most about material covered by the syllabus or about persnickety issues that are best struggled with (the word “persnickety” is useful in dealing with technological availability). I don’t want to turn this into an ill-advised kids-these-days rant, but I’m definitely not convinced that email has improved teaching, learning, or the university experience.

The email bombardment is significant enough that I’ve instead banned email, in part using the rationale at the link, and the results have been good. But not everyone can ban email and it’s still hard for me to separate the substantive from the substanceless. Still, I don’t think being able to receive student emails about sicknesses and petty points around assignments and so forth has improved the education process. Students used to have to wrestle with more problems for themselves, while today they can and do often email questions and concerns that they ought to be able to decide autonomously.

The ways computers have made us more productive are obvious; it’s much faster to write a proposal via computer than typewriter, and it’s more pleasant writing on a 27″ iMac than the 10″ IBM CRT my Dad bought when he started Seliger + Associates. Yet the ways we’ve clawed back gains, through a kind of information Jevons Paradox, are also on my mind. Books like Deep Work take on special salience. How many of you are reading as many books as you used to? I don’t: I do read a lot more longform articles and essays, using and a Kindle, and while this may be a net improvement I wonder about the costs.

Earlier I mentioned opioids. Cowen writes about what our drugs may say about us:

The 1960s was also an era that called for greater freedom with drug experimentation. But of all the drugs that might have been legalized, American citizens chose the one—marijuana—that makes users spacey, calm, and sleepy. LSD attracted great interest in the 1960s for its ability—for better or worse—to help users see and experience an entirely different world, often with different physical laws. That is now out of fashion.

That point is well-taken, especially regarding marijuana legalization, yet we’ve also seen the growth of molly / ecstasy / MDMA-style uppers that make people better able to connect with each other and that seem most often used in shared, group spaces far from computers. Ayahuasca is popular (or trendy) enough to merit a New Yorker article, “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.” I’m not sure molly helps people imagine a different world, like LSD does, but it’s far from the spacey, calming effects of marijuana.

We also all live in our own bubbles, but I’ve been offered that class of drug more often probably than any other. Or maybe people today want to be different enough to be interesting but not so different as to be dangerous; the molly class of drugs, if synthesized in pure form, seems much less dangerous than, say, coke (back to The Complacent Class: “Crack cocaine, a major drug in the 1980s, can rile people up, but for a few decades now it’s been losing ground to heroin and other opioids…”). I don’t have good data on the molly class of drugs and their popularity, and I’d be curious to see if any readers do.

On transport Cowen writes:

The more general picture on transportation can be described with two words: less and slower. The number of bus routes has decreased, and America has done very little to build up its train network, even when additional or faster train lines would be profitable. Although American cities have growing populations and wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years, with the exception of the partial system in Los Angeles. The Department of Transportation has written, “All indicators show declines in personal travel for every age group, particularly among young people since the early 2000s.”

To me the problems are obvious: traffic is horrendous in many cities; parking is horrendous; plane travel is a relentless horror show, especially given the relentless security theater encountered in airports. For the last six months I’ve been meaning to visit L.A., but I despise going through airports and dealing with the unaccountable TSA goons who man them—and, speaking of subways, there’s no subway from LAX to the rest of the system.

To Seattle’s slight credit, it is (too slowly) building a subway system, which works well so far. Over the next 25 years, it will expand dramatically, but there is no planned route across the 520 floating bridge—people familiar with Seattle will know this is a huge problem. There is progress, but too little, and while Seattle is doing better on housing affordability than San Francisco and some other cities, it isn’t doing as well as it could and should.

Still, in some ways maybe driving less is getting closer to a green energy utopia: we don’t have to drive as much as we once did. In an era of climate change, cell phones, Netflix, and Internet porn may help us avoid or alleviate some of the challenges that arise from the oil economy.

The Complacent Class’s humor is real, underrated, and mostly unnoticed by the commenters I’ve noticed. For example: “There are dating or sex services to find people of specific nationalities, religions, ages, breast sizes, preferred sexual practices, and various weight sizes, including for those who prefer the very obese. Facebook helps people hook up with their exes and their junior high school crushes—not always for the better, of course.” An understatement: one can imagine that junior high crushes are best left in the imaginary past than the somewhat cruel light of the present.

In addition, part of the book’s overall and grimly focused humor comes from the way members of the complacent class (like me) are the people most likely to be reading it and discussing it.

This is an unfair criticism and mostly about my personal preference, but I would’ve liked to see more about books. The comment about Jane Austen being the canonical canonical writer of today, given her interest in matching, versus Dostoyevsky being the canonical canonical writer of the ’60s, being obsessed with morals, murder, and ethics, is good, and I wanted more. Is Gone Girl a fantasy about complacency shattered? Is Seveneves another way of yearning for complacency’s end? Is the seeming end of high culture itself a form of complacency?

I haven’t written much about the chapter on matching, which is interesting throughout, and the chapter “How a Dynamic Society Looks and Feels” is especially good. The last chapter is more speculative, and one wonders what “The Return of Chaos” might mean, beyond current political problems. Still, it’s striking to me that we barely avoided a global catastrophe in the form of Ebola. But I do think we’ve become collectively unaware of how bad, bad can really be. I wrote some about those issues in “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” especially regarding how it’s possible to sleepwalk into war. Many of the things done by Trump so far are bad but not catastrophic. Some catastrophic things may yet come to pass through his action, inaction, or simple incompetence, and we will all bear its costs. Everything, including complacency, has a cost.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — Cal Newport

In college, a guy who lived on my floor and spent seemingly all day every day on his computer, doing not much of anything, always with a browser window open and perpetually scrolling, searching, watching, surfing, or reading—for what I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. There seemed to be no purpose in his activities. I’d ask him sometimes what he was doing, and he never had a real good answer. I don’t remember his name.

deep_workThe difference between that guy then is that he was seen as an isolated weirdo loser (I think, anyway). Now, the way he lives has become for many of us the way we all live. For that reason Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is, properly read, an indictment of me and probably of you. Because it’s an indictment it can be hard to read because it wounds through its accurate dissection of the way many of us live—or rather, don’t live. Newport writes:

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field. . . .

Deep work isn’t only about your “current intellectual capacity”—it’s about improving and developing that intellectual capacity. Your current intellectual capacity probably isn’t and shouldn’t be your final intellectual capacity. Yet:

The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contract to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers—a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit

Sound familiar? Maybe too familiar? It does to me. I’ve gone through periods of very intense deep work and periods of very little deep work. I know what the habits of both look like and I also know the temptations of the shallows. Many of you probably do too, but the reinforcement Newport offers is useful, like a reminder that sugar is terrible. We know. But we need to move from knowing to implementing change. Deep Work covers both.

Newport is not arguing for an all-work-all-the-time approach, and he knows that doing the max necessitates some downtime. I also think there is some important balance necessary between radical “openness” (random browsing, searching, connecting, that sort of thing) and radical “closedness” (shutting the door, solitude, going deep within the self to create). The radically open never get anything important done, like major software, books, articles, essays, or projects. The radically closed probably need an influx of new ideas, influences, concepts, and techniques. Too much of either is a detriment, but I myself am probably now too “open” in this sense.

In almost any finite system, one question should be, “What is the scarce resource here?” For most of us, it’s probably not excessive closedness.

To be sure, I learn much from the Internet, Hacker News, blogs, and so forth, but it is often too tempting to do shallow to medium-depth reading at the expense of more substantive projects. It’s too rare for me to do really deep reading—or writing. I know the problems: “Among other insights, [Clifford] Nass’s research revealed that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain” and I know the solutions. But the implementation can be hard.

Smartphones can’t be helping this, either, anymore than they can be helping the quality of relationships. Doesn’t stop us from using them, though.

Students report shocking (to me) levels of interest in and keeping up with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others. I don’t want this to turn into a “kids these days” essay, in which I wave my cane and tell everyone to get off my damn lawn, but it does seem like it’d be hard to accomplish much with the endless background noise forever buzzing. Then again, I see my friends engage the same behaviors, so maybe age is less a factor than I might think at first. We have all the world’s information in our hands, but what do we do with it? That’s a key question underlying Newport’s book—and all of our lives.

Briefly noted: Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments’s annual question book, Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, is out in paper—and it’s available in its entirety online. Many responses discuss global climate change, like this one:

There is no real difficulty in identifying the most important news of 2015. Global warming is the news that will remain news for the foreseeable future, because our world will continue to warm at a rate that has never been seen before, at least at the moment without a foreseeable end.

The choice is a good and important though depressing one, but one should note that some progress is being made in terms of decarbonization of energy, the spread of electric vehicles, and the like. It may also be that we need or want less stuff than we once did:

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Maybe the most obvious avatar of this change is the smartphone.

The other big groupings are particle physics and genetic engineering. In the former group, for example, Sarah Demers writes:

The terrifying possibility floating through these “Higgs and nothing else” conversations is that we might reach the end of exploration at the energy frontier. Without better clues of our undiscovered physics, we might not have sufficient motivation to build a higher energy machine. Even if we convince ourselves, could we convince the world and marshal the necessary resources to break the energy frontier again and continue to probe nature under the extreme conditions that teach us about nature’s building blocks?

The particle physicists seem about split between optimism that we’ll get breakthroughs and the terror described here that we’ll reach the end of effective measurement and breakthroughs. Yet many of the writers enumerate the many unresolved problems in physics, which could be read as a rebuke to people who say or imply that there’s nothing left to do, no blank spaces left on the map, and nothing left to discover.

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction — Derek Thompson

In 2011, a pseudonymous woman wrote a book about a BDSM romance between an improbably matched couple who in many ways defy romantic convention. When you read the preceding sentence you probably think of 50 Shades of Grey, a terribly written book that eventually got turned into a massive movie. But I’m actually referencing Never the Face: A Story of Desire, a well-written book—at the link I expend 2,000 words analyzing it—that’s also been totally forgotten. The post I wrote is one of my least-read pieces. Aside from my post and a Guernica magazine interview, it appears that no one has written anything about Never the Face. A paperback edition was never released. Even a Kindle edition is absent. Never the Face never went viral.


hit_makersI don’t know. Certainly the topic has a long history—the Marquis de Sade wrote extensively and famously about what we now call BDSM in the 18th Century—but Never the Face never got going. Thompson attempts to find out why some of the answers as to why many if not most people have heard of 50 Shades while Never the Face is likely to remain forever obscure. He even has a chapter devoted to 50 Shades, and while he traces the mechanics of the book back to its fan fiction origins, he doesn’t answer—and probably can’t—why that particular work of fan fiction took off. He notes that E. L. James vigorously networked with other readers, but I bet other fan fic writers did too. We don’t see them, however—they’re cultural dark matter to us.

At the end of that 50 Shades chapter Thompson writes:

To understand why some hits get so big, one cannot look exclusively at characteristics like familiarity or at marketing strategies like one-to-one-million moments. The broadcasts come first, but they are not enough. A handful of products will inevitably become massively popular each year for the simple reason that, once they are pushed into the national consciousness, people just can’t stop talking about them.

So how do you get people to talk?

That question doesn’t have easy answers either; one of the more interesting I’ve seen comes from Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

I finished Hit Makers a week or two ago and its ideas have been popping up in my mind since; for example, the next links post will include “Why Great Critics Make Disastrous Judgments.” Hit Makers offers a useful answer: some works are so new and different that they can’t be evaluated by previous metrics. They are most advanced yet acceptable (or acceptable to many readers). Critics, bringing their previously developed and honed sensibility to the new work, miss what makes it good, and they miss the way the new work will make the critical conversation itself swerve. Cultural evolution is unpredictable, and we’re all nodes in the shaping of things. Great critics make a lot of judgments, and by the sheer quantity of them some are bound to be bad. New works can have the function of teaching us how to read the new works themselves. It takes time to let the new work work on your mind.

There are other examples of weird popularity. In “Stan Smith is more than just a shoe,” Lauren Schwartzberg profiles a mostly forgotten, middling tennis player who, decades ago, managed to sign an endorsement contract with Adidas, who released a shoe named after him. That shoe achieved improbable pop culture stardom and has sold millions of copies per year for years on end. It’s so popular that other companies make their own versions; I didn’t realize this, but I actually own a pair of Cole Haan’s copy of Stan Smith sneakers (but they’re not very comfortable and I walk wrong in them). Somehow, though, Stan Smiths have retained their cool aura over decades of fashion changes.

Hit Makers is too long and rich to summarize briefly. I will note, however, that sometimes the data is just depressing:

Television proved an irresistible seductress. By 1965, more than 90 percent of households had a television set, and they were spending more than five hours watching it every day.

One is awed by the sheer waste of time, energy, and attention. Still, when I hear critics of education talk about the problems with the school system, sometimes I think about what the alternatives may be: for many people, they are TV (or now Facebook and its equivalents: “In 2012, for the first time ever, Americans spent more time interacting with digital devices like their laptops and phones than with television”). Digital devices are probably an improvement on TV but not on many alternatives.

One is also awed by the amount of time people waste on what seems to be bullshit on Facebook. But many makers make contrarian bets that still work. HBO and The Sopranos is one example Thompson uses. That is actually an important part of HBO’s business model: do something different from what everyone else is doing. Being a contrarian is dangerous, though, since most contrarians are simply wrong. And one also faces supply and demand problems. My own medium may be the best example of those problems:

Writing in the twenty-first century might be the most competitive industry in human history. The barriers are low, the supply is massive, and the competition is global, with countless publishers producing content for a global audience.

Yet writers—like this one—keep doing it. Content is everywhere but insight is rare. Keep hunting insight. It may lead you to hits.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow — Paul Theroux

V.S. Naipaul as a character in a novel would be unbelievable because his hysterical obtuseness would seem unrealistic; no one would want to read a book about him, especially as he’s seen at the beginning of Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Only Theroux’s perspective makes this one readable. Many greats are ornery—one favorite depiction is Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder—but this one seems not great enough to justify his orneriness; if I’d been Theroux I think I would’ve given up at or just after the first meeting. Phrases like, “Who needs all that negativity?” are overused and have been corrupted by New Age morons, but reading about Naipaul one does have to ask: Who needs all that negativity?

State of Wonder is a good comparison. Switch the literary examples for scientific ones and the sexes and this could be Swenson:

He knew his own mind. He knew what he wanted. It was clear that he would not find what he was looking for Uganda — anyway, he had already given up on us. He had impossibly high standards. He said there was no point in having standards unless they were high. He did not compromise. He expected the best, in writing, in speaking, in behavior, in reading.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow sometimes reads like a parody yet isn’t one. One sees the contradictions in Naipaul, in Theroux, and their relationship pop up; the many brilliant scenes the beginning of the memoir eventually set up this, which doesn’t occur until page 71:

I was just a young man in Africa, trying to make my life. He was one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossibly high standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music, and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or fellow writer, I had always to be at my best.

sir_vidias_shadowA few people hate children, a few more hate dogs, but music? Almost no one hates music, not even me, who is not the most musically inclined or astute person alive. One gets the sense in this paragraph too of how irritating Naipaul can be: the repeated “He was” begins to weigh, like a literary weight, as it and variations on it is repeated, until the relief of the “But” that tells us the good sides of Naipaul, the shining sides, the reasons one would want to be around him.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow can be read many ways, which is one of its pleasures. It can be read as Theroux’s education in humanity; Naipaul is like no one else yet still somehow manages to operate somewhat. Theroux is educated in other ways. He is educated in the literary marketplace, which is brutal and poorly remunerated. He learns other things. At the beginning of the book Theroux’s lover is immediately eager to have his baby. After their three-month romance both discover she is four months pregnant. The lesson is clear yet it seems to be one each generation must re-learn.

What else? As noted in the preceding paragraph the book is about many things; being a writer is one, and peppered throughout we learn about writers’ struggles. Naipaul goes off on a journalism assignment that “meant breaking off work on his book, a hard thing to do.” Yet Theroux “was teaching every day and also working on a novel, so it consoled me to hear about his interruptions.” “Consoled” is an interesting word here, with its implication of grief or disappointment assuaged. Maybe teaching every day is a grief, but finding someone else in a condition of grief may make us feel empathy, but there is also a little notion, a whisper, of small-minded competitiveness here.

Maybe the best thing about Sir Vidia’s Shadow is the way every word feels essential, deliberate, chosen. It demands and rewards close attention the way too few books I’ve read lately do. Those that demand attention because of the quality of their sentences often have dull or empty plots. Those that demand attention because of their content often have dull sentences. Sir Vidia’s Shadow brings together both sides—or should I say “brings both sides together?” After reading such a book, the answer matters again.

Still, I keep noticing the struggles, especially about money. There is rarely enough of it and the principles do shockingly large amounts of work for shockingly small amounts of money. Scenes of privation are too frequent to quote at length, but I will give one touch from midway through:

My strategy has been to write and survive that way; my strategy was not working. A novel, a book of criticism, scores of book reviews, a collection of short stories — this in less than a year had produced such a paltry income that I was grateful to my wife for getting a job. Now I was at work on my seventh novel. . .

Grant writing may be hard but it is not so hard as this. The artists’ struggle with money is an old story and one told too rarely in schools. Reading about Theroux’s struggles also make me wonder how many writers and would-be writers are out there, living like Theroux, but never quite making it, leading them to mid- and late-life bitterness at their own struggles and fiscal catastrophes.

Some moments are useful in the age of distraction: “At the age of thirty, I had my first telephone.” One senses a conceivable link between that and the novels written.

I will not give away the end, which is hard to read and more emotionally powerful than one might initially expect. There are shades of the end of Michael Lewis’s much more recent book The Undoing Project. There is something powerful and terrible about broken friendship, which is beyond even the terribleness of romantic breakups. But breakup and breakdown is in Sir Vidia’s character. One sees it throughout the book. Theroux knows as much and takes his risks. In fairy tales and mythology it is rare that a mortal who consorts with supernatural beings comes out of the encounter, be it brief or be it a marriage, well. Sir Vidia’s Shadow is not a fairy tale but it has elements of the fairy tale in it, and one sees that the long friendship teaches Theroux much, yet the friendship cannot forever endure Sir Vidia’s nature.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds — Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project is entertainingly written, appears well-researched, and is also tremendously important—three things that, while not intrinsically opposed, occur together too infrequently. It’s so funny that I burst out laughing during class, while students were engaged in peer review, and every pair of eyes turned to me. I wanted to stop myself but couldn’t. It’s the best book I’ve read in recent memory and you should stop whatever else you’re doing to read it.

undoing_projectThe “tremendously important” part is important for many reasons, one being that most people don’t seem to even know the (many) biases humans are prone to, let alone that knowing the biases often isn’t enough to change the behavior. We can understand the problems and still not turn understanding into action.*

Still, there are steps we can consciously take to attempt to minimize or combat our biases. For example, “People had trouble seeing when their minds were misleading them; on the other hand, they could sometimes see when other people’s minds were misleading them.” That means we have to minimize hierarchy in many situations; empower people to speak up when they perceive problems; and listen to those who have differences of opinion, even if we want to immediately assume they’re wrong.

There are too many good sections in the book to cite them all. One example:

People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things. Economists, and anyone else who wanted to believe that human beings were rational, could rationalize, or try to rationalize, loss aversion. But how did you rationalize this? Economists assumed that you could simply measure what people wanted from what they chose. But what if what you want changes with the context in which the options are offered to you?”

Conveying the humor in The Undoing Project is hard, maybe impossible, because so much of it is embedded in larger stories.

“Amos approached intellectual life strategically, as if it were an oil field to be drilled, and after two years of sitting through philosophy classes he announced that philosophy was a dry well. ‘I remember his words,’ recalled Amnon. ‘He said, “There is nothing we can do in philosophy. Plato solved too many of the problems. We can’t have any impact in this area. There are too many smart guys and too few problems left, and the problems have no solutions.”’”

I wonder if English lit suffers from the same (or a similar) problem. There’s been little progress since the advent of close reading, and the development of “critical theory” or “theory” is often if anything a step back. If there is anything interesting going on right now it seems to be in some aspect of applying computers to literature, but that is likely more a CS problem than an English lit problem.

We do get an ethnology of academia, too. Like:

Economists were brash and self-assured. Psychologists were nuanced and doubtful. ‘Psychologists as a rule will only interrupt a presentation for clarification,’ says psychologist Dan Gilbert. ‘Economists will interrupt to show how smart they are.’ ‘In economics it is completely normal to be rude,’ says economist George Loewenstein. ‘We tried to create a psychology and economics seminar at Yale. We had our first meeting. The psychologists came out completely bruised. We never had a second meeting.’ In the early 1990s, Amos’s former student Steven Sloman invited an equal number of economists and psychologists to a conference in France. ‘And I swear to God I spent three-quarters of my time telling the economists to shut up,’ said Sloman. ‘The problem,’ says Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, ‘is that psychologists think economists are immoral and economists think psychologists are stupid.’

There seems to be no solution.

There also seems to be no solution for the systematic errors in human cognition. As I noted above, awareness is not enough. Even imagining possible futures is not enough, because one may come to predominate and stifle the others before they can be explored:

What people did in many complicated real-life problems—when trying to decide if Egypt might invade Israel, say, or their husband might leave them for another woman—was to construct scenarios. The stories we make up, rooted in our memories, effectively replace probability judgements. ‘The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking,’ wrote Danny to Amos. ‘There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way.

The parallels to present world politics are too clear. We have forgotten the lessons of totalitarianism in just a generation and a half. We are too fond of constructing Kahneman’s rosy scenarios, which replace probability judgments. The probability of nuclear conflagration has grown in recent times. Yet we discount it. Recent elections in the U.S., U.K., Poland, and Hungary are systematic cognitive errors writ large.

The number of cognitive errors we’re subject to staggers. It’s “not just that people don’t know what they don’t know, but that they don’t bother to factor their ignorance into their judgments” (192). This book should above all make us doubt ourselves more, and especially doubt ourselves even when we think ourselves sophisticated. Over and over, we see people who receive training in statistics make basic statistical errors. We see people violate the law of small numbers.

I cannot recall all the times I’ve explained sample bias problems to people—rarely clients but more often students or friends—only to sense that no one is getting what I’m saying, or, if they do get it, they don’t care. The more one understands recurring cognitive weaknesses the more one sees them, the more I worry about succumbing to them myself. I myself succumbed to them in the last election, by substituting the opinions of people who are readily observable around me for the opinions of the much larger political body. And I myself wonder how often people have explained cognitive biases to me, or pointed out cognitive biases in action, only for me to ignore them.

The secret to the successful friendship between Kahneman and Tversky seems to have been pleasure: “‘We just found each other more interesting than anyone else,’ said Danny. ‘Even if we had just spent the entire day working together.’ They’d become a single mind, creating ideas about why people did what they did, and cooking up odd experiments to tests them.” The joint mind: It seems beautiful. I wonder how many of us accomplish such a feat. Lewis does cite a writer who began a book about productive pairs but never finished it. Another writer, Joshua Wolf Shenk, wrote and published Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.

Lewis quotes his beautifully articulate subjects: “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”

This is a kind of boring NYT review. This is a better New Yorker review, from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who are both cited repeatedly in the book itself. For example:

[Cass] Sunstein was particularly interested in what was now being called ‘choice architecture.’ The decisions people made were driven by the way they were presented. People didn’t simply know what they wanted: they took cues from their environment. They constructed their preferences. And they followed paths of least resistance, even when they paid a heavy price for it.

How are you paying?

* Maybe the robots do deserve to win.

Briefly noted: Dreamland: The True Tales of America’s Opiate Epidemic — Sam Quinones

Dreamland is well-reported and consistently interesting, but its chapters are chopped into tiny pieces that interrupt narrative flow—the word dream is disrupted. Many if not most chapters are around 800 to a thousand words, yet the book covers several important threads: the rise and marketing of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharmaceutical; the drug sales practices of Xalisco natives who figure out how to game the U.S. legal and immigration systems; and the insatiable love Americans have for drugs.

dreamlandDespite the chopped narrative problem, however, Dreamland covers important developments around opioid addiction and its origins. The better sections are arresting; for example, the description of the Xalisco traffickers could be from a business case study, as the Xalisco organizations respond to a number of different factors: supply and demand, a difficult regulatory environment, and unique managerial challenges (the best business case studies are themselves little novels, with the artistry that implies).

In many forgotten cities, most of the wealthy top has left or disappeared, most of the productive middle has moved to a relative handful of cities and suburbs, and many of those who remain are poor. While elite cities accrue service-sector advantages and develop information economies, many other places that existed for agriculture or manufacturing are suffering, and there’s no real way to help them. As a result, “Remaining behind was a thin slice of educated people. They found work in the schools or the hospitals, in some way or other tending to those for whom the factory closings were the beginning of an American nightmare.” “Nightmare” is too strong a word here—one thinks of Behind the Beautiful Forevers—but the challenges seem insurmountable over the short term.

“Nightmares” is not the only linguistic misfire. Some of the writing is cliché: “Two Portsmouths exist today.” You will have heard the “two [geographic area]” terminology. Some sentences are merely banal. Too many say things like, “I learned, too, that envidia—envy, jealousy—was a destructive force in the rancho.” Is there any society for which that is not true? Every society experiences envy, hate, jealousy, striving, signaling, and so on.

In the Two Portsmouths,

One is a town of abandoned buildings at the edge of the Ohio River. The other resides in the memories of thousands in the town’s diaspora who grew up during its better years and return to the actual Portsmouth rarely, if at all.

Heroin remains a statistical phenomenon for me, maybe because of where I live. I’ve never known anyone who has admitted to doing it and I’ve never been offered it. No one I know has died from it. It’s just… out there, somewhere, mostly in the media (which is maybe a reason to read less news, not more). Yet it’s killing tens of thousands of people a year. Dreamland takes this data from statistical abstraction to specific people.

Be ready to notice more after you’ve read Dreamland. For example, the Wall Street Journal just published “For Small-Town Cops, Opioid Scourge Hits Close to Home,” this time about a common drug named fentanyl.

Dreamland’s ending disappoints, maybe because there is no real solution short to the problem. Decriminalization and better treatment options may help but will not cure. The policy recommendations Quinones offers amount to “more of the same.” We may see improvements at the margins but are unlikely to see a solution to the problem of humans liking mind-altering substances.

Here is Isaac’s take on Dreamland. Here is Tyler Cowen on rural America, suggesting we “Support a voluntary temperance movement for zero alcohol, zero drugs.” It’s not for me but I take the reasoning seriously and it’s clear that large numbers of people can’t handle alcohol or drugs, for whatever reasons, and that the pharmacological utopians of the ’60s and ’70s were wrong, or wrong about the experiences of many people.

%d bloggers like this: