*Do* we need Shakespeare?

Megan McArdle asks: “Do We Need Shakespeare?“, and she offers some theories about why we might that don’t rely on “Because we’ve always done it that way,” including “What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them” and “Maybe the best argument you can make for English class is that it offers a way for people like myself, and many thousands of future English teachers, to find out that they like English class.”



Still, I’m not so sure. I began imagining reasons almost immediately, but most reduced to, “Because we’ve been doing it that way for a long time.” Which can be reduced to “path dependence.” Teaching a writer who seems incomprehensible at first glance and requires experts to decipher also raises the status of (some) teachers and professors, who have knowledge that can’t be readily accessed by every day people. That Hansonian reason, however, isn’t real good reason why we should choose Shakespeare plays over some other means of teaching English.

Let me try to develop an alternate possibility that will likely make many people unhappy. I’ve begun to think that education is really about cultivating a relatively small elite who really push forward particular domains (which is a variant of McArdle’s comment about the thousands of future English teachers). In other words, mass education doesn’t matter nearly as much as intensely educating a small number of very high skill people, but those people probably aren’t identifiable in advance. This idea isn’t purely mine, and I’ve been thinking about it explicitly since reading Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, in which he writes:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies.

Wow: Something as big a deal as the Industrial Revolution may have been driven by a small number of people. I’ve also read a lot about the early computer industry and the early development of integrated chips, and that too seems to have been driven by a small number of physicists and mathematicians, with particularly important companies like Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel starting off with tiny workforces. Most of the world didn’t matter much to the development of those industries, even though those industries are now so large that a large part of the workforce spends our time in front of glowing screens that show executed code most of us don’t understand and can’t write. Computers and the Internet are the biggest stories of our age, possibly excepting global warming and mass extinction, yet many of us aren’t substantially participating and don’t care to.

What gives?

The unpleasant answer may be that most of us don’t matter that much to the process. By the same token, most people who learn to despite reading from being made to read Shakespeare may never be good readers, writers, or thinkers—but they’re not the ones who push the world forward, intellectually speaking. Instead, those of us who go on to realize that, say, “
Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense: What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind
” are the ones who matter, at least in this domain.

Most Westerners are uncomfortable with outright elitism, but I’d ask: How many of us really work as hard as we can at a given domain? In “How A Slight Change In Mindset: Accelerated My Learning Forever,” Tristan de Montebello observes that few of us really throw ourselves into learning. Most of us learn as much as we need to to survive and do okay and reproduce, but not much more than that. You can tell as much via behavior.

That may be true in language as a domain as well. I read more than the vast majority of people I know, and yet there are people who read and write much more than even I do.

To return to Shakespeare, I’d also argue that sometimes complex, weird, or seemingly outdated works force us to read closer and more carefully than we might otherwise. Shakespeare makes contemporary readers work harder to understand what the writer means—which is ultimately a useful and under-used skill. Just look at most Internet forums: since the 1980s and Usenet, going forward all the way to today with Reddit, we have numerous places where people gather online and utterly fail at basic reading comprehension (this is one reason I spend little time posting there and much more posting here).

Under this theory, reading someone like Shakespeare is akin to lifting weights: a 500-pound deadlift may not translate directly into 500 pounds of force in a game, but it sure translates more force than a guy who can’t deadlift 500 pounds.

Still, I’m treating the argument that Shakespeare-is-good like a lawyer and trying to come up with the best possible argument, rather than arguing from first principles. I’m not fully convinced we need Shakespeare, as opposed to some other writer or group of writers, as a necessary component of teaching English.

Thoughts on New York life as seen through the lens of Britain

Megan McArdle’s “American Household Gadget Exceptionalism,” which is about the rapid dissemination of labor saving devices, but even in the U.S. that dissemination is not even. It seems to have missed much of New York, where a lot of apartments lack stuff that I’ve always taken for granted, like dish washers. In this respect New York is apparently like Britain:

The British housing stock was older and less easily adapted to the new electric wonderworld. Obviously, this is not a permanent obstacle–I live in a 1905 rowhouse with a very nice dishwasher. But such retrofitting is expensive–especially if your house never had electricity in the first place.

Much of Britain lagged behind the U.S. in adopting household gadgets. This data matches my own experience with the UK, which I wrote about in 2010. Since living in New York, however, I’ve noticed that New York also lags the rest of the U.S. Until moving here I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone without a dishwasher. Now most New Yorkers I know don’t have dishwashers.

On New York in general, Penelope Trunk is right: a lot of people fundamentally don’t belong here. Beyond the not-so-good apartments, I observe:

* The subway system is incredible if you happen to live near a major node, like the Barclays Center, the downtown hubs, or Union Square. But many of the major nodes are surprisingly under-built: to continue with the Union Square example, buildings on avenues from 4th to 1st are rarely more than four or five stories tall, when they should be forty.

* The heat in the summer and cold in the winter has a much greater effect on daily life because so many people walk. In addition, much of the housing stock lacks air conditioners and modern furnaces; many apartments are too hot or cold.

* Despite or perhaps because of the high rents, there is more interesting, more cheap, and more available food than anywhere else I’ve ever seen in the U.S.

* New Yorkers are stereotyped as rude, but that hasn’t been my experience at all, with the exception of various flavors of municipal workers, bureaucrats, and quasi-bureaucrats. People working in, at, and around airports are almost always awful but the New York seem worse than average.

* There is “something to do” every night if you’re the sort of person who has a broad definition of “something.”

* Most people acclimate to wherever they live.

* In Seattle many tourists and immigrants are Asian; in New York there are obviously many Asian tourists and immigrants, but they seem outnumbered by Europeans, perhaps due to the relative proximity of Seattle to Asia and New York to Europe.

* New York seems to collect people who hit the trifecta of smart / beautiful / successful. Most places specialize in at most two of those.

* Almost no one really “knows the city;” they know their own neighborhoods and maybe a few others very well, have sporadic knowledge of a couple others, and that’s it.

One other point, not by me but by Paul Graham:

People who like New York will pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment in order to live in a town where the cool people are really cool. A nerd looks at that deal and sees only: pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment.

That’s in an essay about how to be Silicon Valley, but paying a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment is still true and perhaps even more true than it was in 2006. NIMBYs are still shockingly powerful. People still love living in New York and we see evidence of this in the form of high rents. One interesting thing, however, is that Silicon Valley has become at least as expensive as New York, if not more so. Living there now costs a small fortune.

Let me return to the dishwasher problem for a moment: I hate washing dishes relative to the time it takes, so this may simply be a pet peeve. But it’s one of these notable things that probably isn’t obvious until one lives here. (I’m also not spending a lot of time with hedge fund titans who are presumably renting more expensive places. Still, the lack of what I consider normal appliances in Manhattan is startling, as is the number of noisy radiators that don’t quite work correctly.)

The reason for the lack of dishwashers (and power outlets, and non-claustrophobic kitchens, and so on) also comes from another shared Britain-New York feature: it’s hard to build stuff. It’s very, very hard to build new stuff in Britain, which means that buildings designed around modern life are pretty scarce—just as they are in NYC. And scarcity implies higher prices. New York, however, has a key advantage: it’s very easy to leave it and move to another state. In places that are gaining population (like Texas), building is pretty easy, so lots of people have dishwashers and AC that works and so on.

Politics and pernicious expectations

Last month there was a long and mostly stupid discussion about “The Cheapest Generation,” and in the long and mostly stupid discussion someone mentioned delaying having children and that “everyone i know considers the world far too precarious to start a family.” I replied and said that, “By virtually every metric, the world is a much safer, healthier place than it used to be, as Steven Pinker observes in The Better Angels of our Nature. Someone else replied, “Safer? Yes. Healthier? Yes. Stable? No. Between income/job volatility and lack of proper social safety nets (at least in the US), its a dangerous gamble to start a family unless you’re in the right situation.”

I don’t know what “the right situation” is, but I think that person underestimates just how hard most people have worked throughout history and how low their material expectations were—and, by contrast, how high they are now. If you expect two cars, a large house with a room for each child and a spare room too, in a sweet coastal city location like L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle, then yeah, things are tough (though much of that is because of land-use policy, not because of “intrinsic” how prices). If you have lower expectations, however, it’s possible to move to Texas, buy a $140,000 house that maybe isn’t in the world’s best location but is okay, and has room for kids but maybe not tons of extra space, then things aren’t all that expensive. The “right” situation is much cheaper.

Most of the commentariat, however, is looking at NYC / L.A. / Seattle / etc., and wants the “best” schools, and wants a BMW, and interesting vacations to foreign countries, and, and, and… all those things add up. If you radically scale back expectations, a lot of things become more possible. If you realize what people use to expect, your expectations might change too. My grandparents barely escaped the Holocaust and, according to family lore, never really made it to the American middle class. Tales of living in Minneapolis without heat in the winter were and are common.

Along similar lines, Megan McArdle tells this story:

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26, in the depths of the Great Depression. For six years, he supported a wife on that salary — and no, it’s not because You Used To Be Able To Support A Family On A Grocery Boy’s Wages Until These Republicans Ruined Everything. He and my grandmother moved into a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole through the wall for their stovepipe and set up housekeeping. They got married on Thanksgiving, because that was the only day he could get off. My grandmother spent six years carefully piecing his tiny salary into envelopes — so much for food, for rent, for gasoline for the car he needed to get eight miles into town. And they stayed married for 67 years, until my grandfather’s death in 2004.

“We didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression,” sociologist Brad Wilcox told me. “That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.”

By modern standards that sounds really crappy, but McArdle’s grandparents managed to have kids and be more-or-less okay in material conditions that would strike most contemporary Americans as being at a level of shocking privation. Yet the commenters above mention “income/job volatility” without noting that, in many circumstances, we have very high incomes—we just choose to spend them instead of save them (Note that I’m guilty of this too and am not throwing stones from my own glass house). In an environment of low or zero growth, or highly uneven growth, that may be a tremendous problem, and the problem has individual and political components—and responses.

To return to McArdle, this time in “How to Put the Brakes on Consumers’ Debt:”

[. . .] this is a conflict between what Walter Russell Mead calls the blue social model and the red-state world where Ramsey lives and finds most of his listeners. We can quibble about this or that [. . . ] But what it boils down to is that Olen thinks that rising economic insecurity calls for a massive expansion of the blue social model, while Ramsey thinks it calls for getting more entrepreneurial and adjusting your lifestyle to meet reduced income expectations. How well you think this works is probably closely connected to where you live.

(Emphasis added)

The whole piece is worth reading, but I think the debate between the two gurus McArdle cites is actually about a large-scale public response to current conditions versus how a particular individual or family should respond. Olen is arguing politics; Ramsey is arguing personal. I also think we’re going to see this change: “But for blue-state professionals, that’s something close to suggesting that they should abandon their kids in the street (or have them take out $150,000 in student loans, which is not much better). The social norm is that you send your kid to the best college he or she can get into, by any means necessary,” because for one thing I’m not convinced any school is worth $150,000 in student loans. Maybe one could make that argument for the very, very elite schools, but not many others.

The problem with arguing for a political response is that most individuals can’t do much on their own to change policies. But they can decide to say, “No, I can’t afford that house or vacation or dinner or whatever.” I also suspect that very few individuals have any coherent idea about how public policies work, as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter shows. My own pet peeve is urban land use controls, since those raise prices by preventing new development, but very few people connect high prices with supply limits. That’s basic econ, but almost no one acknowledges it. If we collectively can’t even understand that, I’m not optimistic about Olen-style political solutions. Those mostly seem to boil down to taking a lot of money and dumping it into systems and institutions that aren’t necessarily working all that well.

Education is one of those systems, and I suspect that a basic idea is taking hold: a lot of higher education has become increasingly exploitive over time, with student loans fueling the binge. There is very little incentive for most institutions to say, “We’re going to forget about a diversity department staff and counseling staff and subsidizing dorms, and we’re just going to provide professors, classrooms, and labs, and you buy the rest, unsubsidized, if you want to.” We’re going to see some non-elite schools go for radical cost reductions, and we’ll see if people go for them. If the price is good enough they might.

In the meantime, lots of people are moving to places like Texas, where land controls are low. On average they’re leaving places like New York and California. For people with medium or low incomes and high material expectations, that totally makes sense. Historically speaking, I think it’s easy to forget high low material expectations were: until recently, houses were shockingly smaller than they are today. In 1975 the median new home was 1,535 square feet, and now it’s 2,169 square feet—even as family size and children-per-woman has been declining.

To return to the original point in the first paragraph of this post, job volatility might not matter so much for someone who decides to live in a 1,535 square foot house instead of a 2,169 square foot house, and that basic dynamic can be extrapolated across a range of purchases. Most of us, however, ask ourselves, “Why not take the Vicuna?” Then we complain when the world doesn’t conform to our material expectations.

Connecting the dots between beliefs: an example from density and housing policy

In “New York City, NIMBY Paradise: New Yorkers genuinely believe that their housing restrictions are normal” Megan McArdle points out that “a combination of zoning ordinances, building permits, and local NIMBY opposition had made New York distinctly unfriendly to new development, and that it would be rational to build far more units than the city currently allows” but that “I am constantly surprised by the extent to which New Yorkers regard all this not only laudatory, but normal–even as they bemoan the high cost of housing.”

I too am surprised. It’s at least intellectual coherent to complain that prices are high or to argue that development should be limited, but the two together is bizarre. I’m living in Manhattan and occasionally lament to friends or people in bars or whatever that we don’t get more housing built,* which would reduce rents (or at least rent increases), and they inevitably look at me like I’m from Mars. Then they say, “But there’s construction all over the city!” Which is (sort of) true, in the sense that walking around the East Village and LES reveals a fair number of projects—but almost all of them are short. When I mention supply and demand, I get funnier looks, like I’ve just revealed I’m a community, Christian, libertarian, or some other suspicious outsider.

I just don’t think most people connect difficulty in building, or how supply affects demand.

IMG_2181The other day I was wasting time on Reddit and spent time responding to people in this thread about housing in Seattle, which is another place where it’s hard to build and rents are rising, and a lot of people on the thread manifest the kind of difficulty in connecting supply and demand you’re talking about in your post and that I’ve noticed out and about. If I were being mean / direct, I would posit that most people like to complain and don’t understand, or choose not to understand, simple economics.

If I’m being less mean, I’d argue that most people just lunge at a random opinion, hold it, and don’t really think anything more about it; that’s one of Jonathan Hadit’s important points in The Righteous Mind. Still, I never hear, “Extensive housing regulation leads to high prices and that’s a desirable trade-off,” or “We should accept high prices as a reasonable consequence of limiting construction.” Those are normative statements and closer to morality or philosophy, and they’re at least reasonable.

Most people, however, have only a vague sense of the link between public policy and their living arrangements. My Dad, when I told him about this, mentioned that he used to work for cities and had to listen to people express their opinions, most of which were incoherent. Apparently little has changed, except that the incoherent can organize through the Internet.

Anyway, Matt Yglesias has pointed out in many contexts that “Gentrification can’t be stopped by halting construction—to have a chance you need even more construction.” People with money will simply outbid people with less for scarce real estate resources, and various legislative efforts to prevent this basic dynamic have failed and always will fail because people are cleverer than legislatures and markets want to clear. It’s also common for people in hot urban areas like New York and Seattle to lament gentrification, high rents, and developer avariciousness.

If this were limited only to random idiots in bars and coffeeshops, that would be okay, but many reporters are economically illiterate too. One recent random but representative example is Lynn Thompson’s Seattle Times story “Would new rules leave loopholes for big houses on small lots?,” which spends 900 words discussing housing issues but doesn’t include supply or demand.

I sent a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times and to Thompson pointing this out, and I got a nice note back from Thompson saying that “I did another story about a month ago that found that we have enough growth through 2040 under current zoning [. . . .]” But what does “enough” mean? It too is a basically incoherent concept, at least in economic terms, because particular individuals don’t know what “enough” means. That’s why we have markets. Moreover, she didn’t mention price, or the pricing issues

Her colleague Sanjay Bhatt, however, reported that Single-family home prices rose by 20% from 2012 – 2013, and rents in Seattle and environs have been rising faster than inflation for a decade or more.

Why don’t reporters working in this field understand econ 101? And why do editors let them get away with it? The omission is glaring, and it works to undermine the confidence of anyone with any reasonable amount of knowledge in the Seattle Times (and other papers, which routinely make the same kinds of errors). I don’t mean to pick on Thompson or the Seattle Times in particular, since they just happen to be salient examples and the general problems I’m describing here are widespread.

* Are or sex chat are more fun and was the norm is college, but not everyone is ready for the latter five minutes after meeting. A shame, really, but I learned many things from Martha McPhee’s wonderful novel Dear Money, and one is that people above the age of 30 often regard real estate and wealth as a sort of sexual sport.

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