Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero — Tyler Cowen

The question underlying Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is, “How can problems best be identified and solved?” (Although the book is much more interesting than my question may imply.) Sometimes individuals acting alone are the best agents; sometimes groups of individuals who agree to be lassoed together under a corporate aegis are the best agents (that is a long way of saying “business”); sometimes government(s) are the best agents, depending on the type, scale, and fixability of the problem(s). Many political arguments are essentially arguments that want to move problem domains or solutions from one of these classes to another.

Pages 22 – 23 deal with industries that exist despite selling products that, at the very least, likely don’t do what proponents say they will do—industries like dentistry, stockbrokers, sales reps, and food. The food industry is particularly notable, as a lot of food is what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” Another way of looking at those products, though, is that they’re selling hope or reassurance, and people like buying hope much more than they like buying evidence-backed products. Consumer Reports is not all that popular and their evaluations rarely if ever go viral. Perhaps most importantly, a lesson from industries Cowen cites, like dietary supplements, is that most people have bad epistemic hygiene—and, in most circumstances, don’t care about it. I spent much time attempting to teach undergraduates research strategies and how to evaluate claims and sources, and most of the time I wasn’t very successful. It took too long for me to realize that, rather than start with peer review, publication reliability, and that kind of thing, I need to start with a question: “How do you know what you know?” From there, it’s possible to build out towards epistemic hygiene, but the overwhelming majority of students seemed not to give a shit, and, indeed, if you go around asking normal people questions like, “How do you know what you know?” they will at best look at you strangely and at worst leave to talk to someone else about fun topics—at least, I speculate that that may happen.

Human rationality is often not that strong, and we like to give ourselves reasons for our failures while castigating others for theirs. People working in businesses are often engaging in similar activities and ways of arguing.

“How do you know what you know?” is a context question, and Cowen is a great expert in context. He asks us to “step back and consider what standard we are measuring business against. The propensity of business to commit fraud is essentially just an extension of the propensity of people to commit fraud.” The problem is mostly within us, rather than in the specific structures of business.

The chapter “Is Work Fun?” resonates:

I am not trying to whitewash the burdens of the workday and the workplace. Nonetheless, a lot of the other evidence points us toward the more positive side of work. Work provides us with a lot of what we value in life, including affirmation of our social worth, a structure for problem solving combined with rewards, and an important source of social interactions [. . .]

Yet we can rarely say as much in public or among our friends. Why not?

This paragraph is also characteristic of Cowen’s thought, where words like “but” and “nonetheless” play key roles. He’s really trying to get us to rejigger our levels. The “burdens” are real, but so are the benefits, even if those aren’t emphasized. Cowen is great at connecting ideas that are underemphasized and not often foregrounded. Chapter 9 asks us, “If Business Is So Good, Why Is It So Disliked?” Many possible answers are advanced. I will add one that I didn’t see or that I missed: it is easier to blame abstract “business” than ourselves.

I want to quote the book’s last sentence and paragraph but would prefer you to experience it after reading all of Big Business.

One chapter discusses tech companies; many of the criticisms against tech companies are misguided, as you’ve read here. More vitally, I see those criticisms as really being criticisms of individual people. If we, collectively, wanted to, we could all switch to DuckDuckGo for search—a boon for privacy—and many of us could be using Linux as a primary desktop operating system, especially today, when so much software is delivered via the browser. Dell offers high-quality Linux laptops, and using Linux is probably an improvement for privacy; homing beacons and tracking seem much less prevalent in open-source software. Yet most of us—including me when it comes to Linux—don’t choose the privacy-focused option. We don’t choose free software. We choose convenience. Is that the fault of tech companies or individual choices? To me, it looks a lot like we see the faults of tech companies when we look in the mirror in the morning. The number of people who really care about freedom, broadly defined, seems to be small, and far smaller than the number of people who say they care about freedom. Most people want convenience more than freedom or privacy, just as most people want junk food more than they want physical health. To return to my photography examples, most people want greater sharing convenience than the best image quality or artistic effect.

It’s possible to imagine an even more pro-business book than this one; a company like Amazon is amazing, for example, in that what I order, almost always shows up, and it’s convenient too. Contrast that with the many dealings I’ve had lately with New York’s tax office; I could go into detail, but the reader would likely want to stab their eyes out, as I have often wanted to do.

Cowen touches on alternatives to for-corporations:

Another possible way to test the honesty of business would be to compare nonprofit and for-profit organizations. If you think profits induce corruption, you might then conclude that nonprofits should be especially trustworthy. The evidence, however, will show that for-profits and nonprofits, at least if we are comparing enterprises in the same basic economic sector, usually operate in pretty similar ways.

This has been my experience; it’s also apparent to me, having worked for nonprofits for years, that nonprofits are much more like businesses than most people realize. I’ve also spent a lot of time working in and around universities, and they are the ultimate businesses: just try taking classes for grades if you can’t pay tuition. Try returning a low-value, high-cost degree. For a while I’ve been advancing the argument that many parts of the university system are self-interested (and sometimes just bad) actors that have great marketing skills. Most people react to that argument skeptically, but as evidence of student loan burdens grows, the skeptical reaction seems to be declining.

I’m not against nonprofits and the best ones are very important. The science research function at most universities still works fairly well, despite having some well-known incentive problems. The gap between university-in-theory and university-in-practice, though, remains wide, and most universities don’t want to publicize some obvious truths—like the idea that not everyone should go, or that not everyone has the conscientious and IQ necessary to thrive in an academic setting.

Among nonprofits, one possible purpose of the grant system is to keep nonprofits both honest and effective. It is possible to be honest without being particularly effective, and vice-versa. Ideally one wants both. Few of us do both perfectly, despite the way we often demand that others do both perfectly.

One chapter asks whether CEOs are paid too much: Cowen mostly says no, they’re not, and he cites a lot of empirical evidence on the subject. But he also says, “it’s hard to find someone who can both run the day-to-day operations of a company and do these other things [like social media and PR, communication, Congressional and other testimony].” I wonder if it’s really hard to find people who can do those things, or if there’s a kind of weird selection and vetting process going on through which only a small number of people are considered by the relevant people, and thus the number seems smaller than it is because those doing the selecting won’t broaden their search criteria. Think of it as the CEO equivalent of companies that only want to hire from certain schools that reject as many qualified applicants as they admit. I also wonder what level of compensation, if any, is necessary for satiation: many CEOs seem to reach, and to have reached, that level long before. Can we shift from money to some other yardstick? If so, how?

Is the business world changing faster than it used to? If so, is agility more important than it used to be? Many businesses may not be “set it and forget it” anymore (if they ever were). My personal favorite example is camera companies: standalone camera shipments have been dropping for the last six years, and the response of photo company CEOs has mostly been to shrug. No companies have made substantial efforts towards making their camera bodies into smartphones combined with superior image sensors. As a result, Apple and Google have come to dominate the imaging and video worlds, while camera makers seem to lack the agility necessary to compete. In many consumer industries, competition seems to be increasing; to cite another example I’m familiar with, large bike companies like Trek are facing a host of Internet startups like State, Priority, and numerous others that source direct from China and Taiwan. Innovators in electric bikes have not been the biggest companies. Low agility may result in eroding market share and profits. The future is happening and it doesn’t seem to be happening evenly, to everyone.

The modesty of many Big Business claims stand out: “[CEO pay in the aggregate] could be better, but it works much more effectively than many people think.” “Much more effectively than many people think” could still be not all that effective; in this and in many other sections, Cowen is trying to move the needle a bit. He’s describing situations with a large number of potential analogue, intermediary places, and in this he’s moving against the modern Twitter tendency to see things as binary: good or bad, zero or one, shit or brilliant. Most of things in the most of the world are in this intermediary space, including all humans, however virtuous all Twitters may portray themselves to be (in contrast to their vile enemies).

Big Business is much more story-based than one might expect from Cowen, who argues that we should be more suspicious of simple stories. Fortunately, Big Business is not a simple book.

As with all the Cowen books I’ve read, there’s much to think about and much more I could write here; he is very good at finding the space where “rarely argued/articulated” and “possibly correct” intersect. Common arguments and ideas are common, and incorrect or ridiculous ideas are common, but finding the Cowen quadrant is too rare. I sometimes worry that my own ideas are too common to be worth repeating. Finding ones that hit the Cowen quadrant is satisfying, like a deadlift PR.

The world is filled with problems and our goal as humans is to solve them until we die. We very rarely see life formulated in that way, but maybe we should say this explicitly more often. “What problems have you solved recently?” may be a more valuable question than, “What do you believe?”

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 Instapaper.com 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.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory — John Seabrook

You know The Song Machine is going to be good from the fourth page, in this close reading of the song “Right Round:”

The nation was near the bottom of its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, but you wouldn’t know it from “Right Round.” Like a lot of CHR [Commercial Hit Radio] songs, it takes place in “da club,” where Pitbull oils his way around the floor, calling women “Dahling” and remarking on their shapely behinds. The club is both an earthly paradise where all sensual pleasures and the arena in which achievement is measured: the place where you prove your manhood.

The_Song_MachineThe understatment from the “Social realism” sentence is enough to express skepticism but not so much as to be overbearing. Seabrook is good at, over and over again, hitting the right description and the right tone. He notices much and picks the right things to make readers notice along with him; his restatement of the place of da club makes da club seem ridiculous, but in a way that’s easy to forget in the context of the fantasy of a song. Seabrook pierces that fantasy like a finger through a bubble, yet the image of the club as paradise remains, and it remains enough to enchant millions of people into clubs every weekend. I’m not a routine clubgoer and to my eyes da club seems to not be a place of great happiness to most people, most of the time, unless they’re made artificially happy—as Seabrook says of the songs his son likes, which seems both a short and a long way from the “soulful ballads played by the singer-songwriter” he listened to:

The music reminded me a little of the bubblegum pop of my preteen years, but it was vodka-flavored and laced with MDMA; it doesn’t taste like “Sugar, Sugar.” It is teen pop for adults.

I don’t care much about pop music and yet this book made the subject fascinating. Comparisons between Seabrook and John McPhee, another master of making many topics mesmerizing, are apt. Though I may not care especially about pop, I hear it and sometimes like it and know how universal it is. A few times in discussions with students, alcohol’s effects on characters in novels and stories have arisen, and I sometimes write on the board, “Blame it on the a- a- a- a- alcohol:” Most students know, immediately, the reference, and laugh.

Seabrook is also aware that hit makers exist yet mostly aren’t known:

Who are the hit makers? They are enormously influential culture shapers—the Spielbergs and Lucases of our national headphones—and yet they are mostly anonymous. Directors of films are public figures, but the people behind pop songs remain in the shadows, taking aliases, by necessity if not choice, in order to preserve the illusion that the singer is the author of the song.

The Song Machine seeks to change that, but Seabrook also fingers an important reason why hitmakers stay away: the “illusion” that must be preserved, insofar as possible, or at least not have attention drawn to it. We seem to want the illusion, or, more likely to not care how the song is made: only that the sound is good, regardless of whose hands and ears it passes through before it gets to us.

I’m probably just too old to be the target audience for most pop music, and even when I was in pop’s demographic sweet spot I found much of it annoying—not out of allegiance to weirder and more interesting music, but because I’m not that musically driven a person. To me, most music boils down to, “I’m romantically desirable” or “You done me wrong” or “I’m better than my romantic rival,” or some combination thereof. They’re sentiments I of course agree with—we all do, which is why it’s pop—but at some point I’d prefer a wider array of ideas, sentiments, or emotions. Yet that wider array isn’t easily expressed in three-minute intervals. These views are pretty weakly held, but they are mine, for now at least, and apparently almost no one listens to the lyrics and wonders what they might mean. The market for people who want lyrics that might make sense is small, though maybe larger than the market for contemporary poetry.

There are many fascinating details in The Song Machine. The three-woman group TLC rejected the famous Britney Spears song “Hit Me Baby (. . . One More Time).” Oops. Spears captured the zeitgeist for years and in some ways still has it. Her image was in many ways a lie but in a few ways real: she knew that a video that portrays her as a sexy schoolgirl checking out “hot guys” was wiser than what an industry veteran proposed. Still, that’s a rare example of the amateurs winning over the professionals; one subtext of the book is that, most of the time, professionals win: that’s why they’re pros.

Spears, by the way, later rejected the song “Umbrella,” which launched Rihanna’s career. Why? “In trying to fathom how Britney could have rejected ‘Umbrella,’ Tricky notes drily that ‘her personal life was . . . a little out of control’ at the time.” She may never have heard the song.

Another detail, this time about Asia, from the chapter on K-pop:

In a classic example of ‘soft power,’ Korean cultural exports erased South Korea’s regional reputation as an unsophisticated emerging industrial nation and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life. Thanks to Winter Sonata middle-aged Japanese women now swoon over Korean men, while complaining about the ‘grass-eating—that is, lacking in virility—males of Japan. Korean ancestry used to be a stigma in Japan; now it’s trendy.

I’ll leave this without comment, beyond this post.

Many, many parts of The Song Machine reminded me of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over; the latter book is about topics far removed from pop music, but in many respects The Song Machine can be seen as a specific application of the general principles Cowen describes. For example, Seabrook writes, “Whole subcultures of musical professionals—engineers, arrangers, session musicians—are disappearing, unable to compete with the software that automates their work.” Yet those who can work effectively with software, like Denniz PoP, Max Martin, and Dr. Luke, can still make enormous amounts of money and have influence that is in some ways vaster and longer term than virtually any musician who came before them. At the same time, though, it is hard to say what many modern artists stand for, apart from the party:

On sheer vocal ability, the new artists fell short of the pop divas of the early ’90s—Whitney, Mariah, Celine. And who are these artists? Britney? Kelly? Rihanna? Katy? Kesha? What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth. And who really writes their songs?

The Song Machine answers that last question. As for “sheer vocal ability,” that doesn’t matter as much in a Pro Tools and social media age (though it still matters somewhat: Rihanna is initially feared to be too “pitchy” to make it as a singer). The social media age may not seem to affect the need to have a great voice, but social media means that lifestyles, persona, and image are relatively more important than they once were and, in many respects, harder to control. Being “harder to control” and of great importance means that stardom selects for the ability to control persona and image. The selection filters change.

Consider, for example, Rihanna being beaten by her ex-boyfriend is in The Pop Machine a crisis of investment: Rihanna had already had millions of dollars and much valuable, irreplaceable time and attention put into her. Being hit by her boyfriend threatened to undo that (the reaction of her fans may also say something important about the influence of contemporary “feminism,” although what that may be I’ll leave to the reader).

But back to Average is Over: Seabrook recounts briefly how much technology influences the music industry when he writes that in the 80s and 90s “Other song-making machines arrived—Roland and Prophet polyphonic synths, the Linn drum machine, Fairlight and Synclavier samplers. The ‘MIDI’ interface between a keyboard and the computer . . .” We are our technologies, in all domains, even music, fantasies of purity and authenticity aside. And while we have the technologies they are not easy to use:

In 1997, Denniz [PoP] told a reporter, “It’s easy to say producing this music is equal to pushing a button in the studio. But that’s like saying writing a novel is a simple push of a button on your typewriter.” Denniz liked to say that no matter how technically adept you were at programming, sometimes you just had to “let art win.”

Letting art win is hard and sometimes unknowable. Much later in the book, Seabrook hears an early cut of a song and thinks it garbage, though he is too polite to say. It turns out to be Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” which goes on to be a number one. I’m oddly glad Seabrook doesn’t like it—I’ve heard it too many times and still find it insanely annoying—but its sheer popularity remains.

The Song Machine is best read with Spotify open.

I finished it, turned it around, and re-read it.

Movies as Modern Visual Art: Paglia, Stephenson, Cowen

In Glittering Images Camilla Paglia writes of George Lucas’s work:

Lucas says, “My films are basically the graphics”: “Everything is visual.” He views dialogue as merely “a sound effect, a rhythm, a vocal chorus in the overall soundtrack.” In structure, Star Wars unfolds as dynamic action sequences alternating with grand panoramic tableaux, including breathtaking cityscapes stacked with traffic skylanes. Lucas declares, “I’m not really interested in plots.” And elsewhere: “To me, the script is just a sketchbook, just a list of notes.”

Tyler Cowen notes that Transformers 4 may be best seen as an art movie. To accuse a movie like Transformers of being plotless or absurd is pointless because plot is not its point. The utter lack of anything resembling a coherent plot may explain why I thought the first one so stupid; it may also be that I failed to go into it with the proper frame of mind. Expecting something novelistic and getting something like a painting or dance is likely to disappoint. Among novels I tend to prefer ones with plots over ones that are about “consciousness” or similar highbrow topics.

Glittering_ImagesI am not necessarily opposed to movies as dance / art—Gravity (discussed by me at the link) has some Lucasian qualities but is also a plea for us to get off this planet—but there may be other implications.

Neal Stephenson, for example, has noticed the trend in movies towards either the visual (to use a positive term) or incoherence (to use my own feelings): in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” he writes of how the changes in the Star Wars movies from 1977 to today also track changes in American culture, away from writing and dialogue and towards the visual. In the decade since he wrote his piece, it is hard not to see the general trends he describes as accelerating. His novel Anathem could be described in many ways, and one is a commentary on what mind happen if current trends regarding the divergence of the technical / literary / intellectual class (which is a class not defined by income) from everyone else. Paglia has not addressed this directly in a contemporary context as far as I can tell. She has a great deal of deserved scorn for what she calls word-obsessed, French theory laden academics, but in the overall scheme of American culture they’re a very small part of the picture.

Still, even in universities that are supposed to conserve knowledge and promote reading the movie temperament has made headway. In universities English professors are eager to show movies in class and have students write about movies instead of books; while that’s okay, I’m reminded of the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”* There is always an impedance mismatch between writing and the subject of writing that does not exist in writing about other writing; the latter two inform each other in a way that writing about other subjects, including art, does not.

I’m not opposed to watching movies, or movie criticism, or courses about movie criticism or movie making, but the extent to which the people who are supposed to be teaching writing are using movies is another example of the trends Stephenson describes.

When I was a first-year grad student at the University of Arizona I was part of a small teaching group with other first years and one faculty facilitator. A girl and I got into a discussion about why I didn’t show movies in class, and I told her some of the above; watching movies in basic English classes is a waste of time. Reading is an essential part of writing, and people who don’t read can’t be good writers. Period. Most students have plenty of screen time but very little reading time. She said she thought I was wrong about the coevolution of reading and writing, so I sent her some studies demonstrating what is already obvious to every writer. She said didn’t care and was going to keep showing movies anyway. The exchange is symptomatic of deeper issues in academia itself. As Paglia might say, the culture has corrupted it, in ways that it shouldn’t be corrupted, rather than in ways it should be corrupted (which is a subject for another post).


* If so, the criticisms about modern action or blockbuster movies have incoherent plots or dialogue are no more meaningful than saying that dance or architecture have incoherent plots or dialogue. People like me, who like movies that make sense, don’t realize that we’re criticizing the wrong genre.

Photography and Tyler Cowen’s “Average is Over”

Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over should be read for many reasons, and one of them is a prediction that marketing and similar activities are going to grow in importance over time. At first I thought the claim was bullshit: shouldn’t the Internet make substance win over style? In many ways it does, but I keep seeing evidence that supports Cowen’s point. The latest example: a few years ago I became interested in photography. A few days ago Thom Hogan wrote an essay called “What’s Your Biggest Problem?“, in which he says:

I’d say that the biggest problem I find that most photographers have is a really fundamental one: what is it they’re taking a photo of? And why?

Ironically, pros didn’t use to have this problem. If you were working for a client, generally they were directing you towards what you were taking a photograph of and why. Back in the film days just mastering the technique of getting proper exposure and focus and all the rest was generally enough to set you apart. These days of ubiquitous and cheap stock photography and digital cameras with instant feedback on the basics, for a pro to stand out they need something more than the basics: generally a recognizable and unique style.

Indeed, that is one of the two primary problems pros have these days. Problem 1: standing out amongst all the good imagery that exists, much of it near “free”. Problem 2: marketing yourself so that people know your work. Unfortunately, solving #2 means that you have to be highly visible, which makes more people attempt to copy you, which eventually increases problem #1. Pros have to keep moving, keep reinventing themselves, and above all be great marketers and salespeople.

average_is_overMachines (cameras, in this case) are getting so good that even relatively unskilled photographers like me can take pretty good shots most of the time, and marketing distinguishes a lot of the pros from uncompensated amateurs who share their work online.

A lot of high-skill / low-income photographers disdain Terry Richardson for “boring” shots, blown-out highlights, and other technical flaws, and those photographers say that they could do what Richardson does. (More than a little jealousy also probably animates those attacks, since Richardson appears to lead an active, varied sex life—let’s ignore that for now.) But Richardson has something important almost no one else does: people know his name and to a lesser extent his work. Not many photographers have strangers who know their name—let alone have strong opinions about their work. Whatever his flaws may be, Richardson has what people commenting on the Internet don’t: a brand.

More very good photos are probably being taken today than ever before, and, as I wrote here, I’m a small but real contributor. Writing is still the main focus of my life but I still get some decent shots. Like anything touched by computers and Moore’s Law cameras are getting better all the time, and that makes the shooting envelope more forgiving. I shoot with an Olympus E-M5 that originally retailed for about $1,200 and now goes for half that used.* The E-M5 is better in many respects than most of the professional cameras that cost many thousands of dollars in 2006, and in a year or two it’ll be cheaper still.**

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoftware tools like Adobe Lightroom are also making pictures easier to enhance (or “save”) through simple parameter adjustments. Most semi-serious photographers learn to shoot in their camera’s raw file format, which yields greater latitude in post-processing. It’s often possible to get a very professional look by changing a few parameters. Messed-up shots can often be saved in post-processing. That’s always been somewhat true but it’s becoming more true over time.

So what’s going to separate the pros? Marketing. Money in what’s called “stock” photography has already basically disappeared, and journalistic photographers have seen their ranks dwindle along with newspaper subscriptions. Photography is becoming a secondary, not primary, skill for many people. For example, this guy took professional-caliber shots for his friend’s website.

What’s left is finding a way to make people think you’re better than the race-to-the-bottom, even if some people still think some heavily marketed / known photographers are the bottom.


* The people in charge of camera naming and marketing are idiots. Cameras are named with a baffling array of impossible-to-remember letters and numbers, and only obsessive nerds like me take the time to figure out what they mean. The only camera with some mainstream name recognition is the Canon Rebel line; while the name is nonsensical—what exactly is one rebelling from?—it is at least memorable. If I were put in charge of a camera company I’d start by firing everyone in marketing and PR.

** Update from 2015: Olympus just released the OM-D E-M5 II (the successor to my camera), and it’s retailing for $1,100—yet the the updates are, charitably speaking, minor. The new camera will put price pressure on the model I use, which is now under $400 for a still-incredible camera. Camera companies can’t get people to upgrade because existing cameras are so good.

What makes a person special: Name of the Rose edition

“But there is no precise rule: it depends on the individuals, on the circumstances. This holds true also for the secular lords. Sometimes the city magistrates encourage the heretics to translate the Gospel into the vernacular: the vernacular by now is the language of the cities, Latin the language of Rome and the monasteries. And sometimes the magistrates support the Waldensians, because they declare that all, men and women, lowly and mighty, can teach and preach, and the worker who is a disciple after ten days hunts for another whose teacher he can become.”
“And so they eliminate the distinction that makes clerics irreplaceable!”

That’s from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and we can see a similar situation happening now among many professional, privileged, and credentialed classes: with the Internet, the cost of being able to “teach and preach” goes down; anyone motivated can learn, or start to learn almost anything, and anyone inclined to teach can start writing or videoing on whatever topic they believe themselves to be an expert in. The key of course is motivation, which is in scant supply now and probably always will be.

Whether the existing power structures want to encourage self-learning, like many of the “secular lords” and “city magistrates,” or want to preserve existing institutions, depends on the person speaking and their aims. But “the distinction that makes clerics irreplaceable” is similar to the one that makes professors or other professional teachers irreplaceable. It’s a distinction that’s less important than the knowledge and skill underlying the distinction. Some with the distinction are not very good at their jobs and some without distinction are incredibly skilled. Those lines are blurring. Blurring slowly, to be sure. The language of knowledge is spreading. The issue of credentialing remains, but the number of jobs in which work product is a better examination than formal credentials is probably growing.

Does the average software startup want a famous degree, or an extensive Github repository? Right now I’m sifting through freelance fiction editors, and I’ve asked zero of them where they got their degrees or if they have any. I’m very interested in their sample edits and other novels they’ve edited. Clients almost never ask Seliger + Associates about formal degrees—they want to know if we can get the job done.

In writing this post, I am also conforming to the second of Umberto Eco’s “three ways” of reading The Name of the Rose:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coupes de scene, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and the revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunnit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Eco published this novel in 1980, around the dawn of the personal computer age and long before the consumer Internet. Whatever connections existed in the 1970s between The Name of the Rose and that era—the ones Eco presumably had in mind, whatever his view of authorization—are not the ones I most notice. That the novel’s correspondences can grow and change with decades make it so powerful and deep. Few works of art transcend their immediate context. This one does. It deals with the eternities much more than the news, though the author has demonstrated in essays his interest in the daily news.

If someone had told me before I read The Name of the Rose that a novel set in 1327 and utterly enmeshed in the recondite politics of Christianity would be one of my favorite novels, I would’ve scoffed. Religion as a subject is of little interest to me, except in meta sense. But sufficiently great novels transcend their context, even as they adapt the language, rhetoric, and world of their context. As Eco’s third category of reader indicates, the novel is composed of many other novels, books, articles, and speech. He has, it seems, 800 years of literary history composted into a single work. Few novels do, and fewer still do so in a novel with an actual plot.

Thoughts on Tyler Cowen’s “Average Is Over”

You should read Average Is Over, which makes many subtle and unexpected (to me) points.

* This: “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch” is a useful way of thinking about things, but if you read books (like Average Is Over) you’re more likely to already know about skill changes and adjust appropriately based on new, incoming information. Yet I am fond of citing the fun fact that people watch an average of four to five hours of TV per day, and by some measures Americans are reading fewer books (or were in 2007) than at any time in the last century or so. Reading skills don’t appear to be high. Basic reading and reading skills may be the low-hanging fruit for many if not most people, especially since reading skills help develop writing skills.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It, Mark Cuban describes how reading conferred on him an information advantage: “Everything I read was public. Anyone could buy the same books and magazines. The same information was available to anyone who wanted it. Turns out most people didn’t want it” (though he doesn’t like fiction, which may also speak to the fields in which he works).

* Cowen writes, “Adult males are seceding from the workforce—or being kicked out—in frightening numbers. Few of these individuals are wealthy playboys. It is no surprise that popular culture today has this image of the male slacker, a young man who lives at home, plays video games, is indifferent to holding down a job, and maybe doesn’t run after young women so hard.” That’s probably true, but a lot of guys have probably realized that marriage markets are stacked against them (see also “How DNA Testing Is Changing Fatherhood“), that relatively few women appear to value guys getting mid-level jobs relative to guys who are cool / fun / have strong game, and there are better alternatives to working for 50 hours a week in a not-that-interesting job. For many guys, learning game and guitar is a more viable route to romantic success than improving a career.

The above, and its absence from contemporary media discussions, may say much about actual power in contemporary society.

* “[M]any of these young earners are threshold earners, meaning earners who are content just to get by and who do not push ambitiously for a higher wage or stronger credentials at every step. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is full of young threshold earners, although rising rents are starting to push them out into other parts of the city, such as the further reaches of Brooklyn or the Bronx.” This goes back to the question above: what are we being productive for?

Stumbling on Happiness says that income above about $50,000 appears to do surprisingly little for the quality of one’s life. In your 20s, perhaps the best investment in happiness-per-dollar is the condom; condoms + an OKCupid account may be the most efficient use of turning resources into fun. Large incomes also expose earners to higher and higher marginal taxes. For someone making, say, $30,000 or $40,000 a year, it might make more sense to stay at a relatively low income OR try to make a very high income of say $200,000 a year. But the middle may be not worth much, especially if the job necessary to stay there is highly time consuming.

In Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer says that “I have also been able to live on very little money without any sense of sacrifice (a valuable skill, almost a privilege, for anyone wishing to become a writer). Going without things that most of my contemporaries took for granted never felt like hardship. I spent years living on the dole, more than happy with the trade-off: little money, lots of time.” The Dole provided a generation of artists with enough money for food. We may be heading towards or already at that sort of thing in the U.S. Being a Brooklyn writer is already a cliché. Some people living artists’s lifestyles are writing software instead of prose. Someone like Notch, creator of Minecraft, falls into this category, as do some open-source software writers.

* Early Facebook resembled an art project more than a business, and until recently a lot of people thought Facebook would never make substantial money. The same spirit that animated its creation animates the “threshold earners” in Brooklyn. Many contemporary programmers are closer to painters and writers than is commonly realized.

* I’ve heard friends discuss the benefits of gray economy living (though they don’t use the term “gray economy”), and they usually cite taxes—for good reason. Paying both sides of the Social Security tax eats 15% of a paycheck. Add in Medicare and Medicaid, and even low-wage earners can end up with 20 – 25% of their paychecks eaten by payroll taxes. Someone earning $10 in hard-to-trace cash babysitting in the gray economy is getting a de facto $12 – $12.50, which is a huge improvement, and I see the trends Cowen discusses pushing more people in that direction. When discussing these jobs, I have increasingly heard people ask a simple one-word question: “Cash?” The forecasts Cowen makes on page 236 probably increases the number of threshold earners, since it’s not worth making more if the state is going to take more.

Then there are the sex workers I’ve met; those who earn a lot usually report much but not all of their income, and they pay for pretty much everything they can in cash. They can earn surprisingly high real incomes by minimizing reported income and using a lot of untraceable cash to pay for goods and services.

* Learning discipline and conscientiousness are major themes in Average Is Over, and towards that end I expect pre-binding commitment software like Mac Freedom and Anti-Social to proliferate. While writing this post I reached a point that I didn’t know how to express, so I wandered over to Hacker News and then to a photography forum. I forgot the context, so it took five or ten minutes for me to get re-focused on the sentence—which I still needed to resolve. Micro attention problems may be growing for many people. It is easier and more fun to “waste” time on the Internet, and for most of us there are rapidly diminishing returns to random reading and browsing, although those activities may feel work-like.

* Software is becoming increasingly good at grading student essays and other written work, and Cowen says that “These programs still need to work out some bugs (a clever student can game them with coherent-sounding nonsense).” Some humanities journals can also be gamed with coherent sounding nonsense. Many corporate and government bureaucracies produce huge amounts of coherent-sounding nonsense, so gaming the system in this way may actually be a job skill.

* The restaurant industry soaks up a lot of low- to mid-skill labor, and I’m struck by the extent to which many chefs treat food as art. In New York there is a de facto infinite variety of interesting food, and even someone who restricts themselves to $10 – $20 meals will find innumerable interesting, tasty options. That being said, I see diminishing returns here for all but the most adventurous and exotic of eaters—how much more interesting chefs can get? (I would be happy to be proven wrong here.) Already a lot of menu items look more like differentiating gimmicks than dishes I really want to eat.

The world’s stock of new foods or consumable substances does not appear to be growing rapidly. Genetic engineering may change that, giving chefs a host of new, interesting ingredients to experiment with.

Food has the advantage in that it’s made and then gone; the chefs of today are not competing against the chefs of twenty years ago in the way that, say, writers or musicians are. At bars and clubs I still routinely hear Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Britney Spears.

* I found the first and third sections of Average Is Over much more interesting and useful than the second, which uses games and especially chess to illustrate larger points about human-machine cooperation and the future of the labor market. It could have been shorter, and one (unstated, I think) takeaway is that it’s better to be the person making the machines than the person using them.

* “The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key [to new businesses and employability], not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake” sounds like something Paul Graham would say, or at least the first sentence does.

* “[W]hen income and wealth disparities are pronounced, everyone who isn’t at the very top will be scrambling for the attention of those who are” is an outcome I hadn’t considered and yet seems true, especially in light of how service industries cater to the very wealthy. Even something like “Pilates studios” may fit this criteria.

* Many things now considered to be “productive” used to be considered useless (like quantum mechanics when it was first discovered). It is also worth pondering what we are trying to be productive for. The long-run answers may be “for its own sake,” or for various kinds of sexual marketplace signaling or kids. Nonetheless, most people do not seem to be asking, or coherently trying to answer: “What are we being productive for?” Cowen writes that “When economists investigate human rationality, they are often too dependent on arbitrary stipulations about what is rational and what is not, expressed in the form of models.” Economist may also be too dependent on productivity and income as proxies for the quality of life (though I do not think this true of Cowen). For example, Philip Greenspun’s post “Danish happiness: bicycle infrastructure” notes that bikes don’t contribute nearly as much to measured GDP as cars, but for many people are a real improvement in terms of the quality of their life.

* Many people have not listened to labor market signals: “the slacker twenty-two-year old with a BA in English, even from a good school, no longer has such a clear path to an upper-middle-class lifestyle. At the same time, Facebook, Google, and Zynga are now so desperate for talent that they will buy out other companies, not for their products, but rather to keep their employees. It’s easier and cheaper to buy the companies than to try to replicate their recruiting or lure away their best employees.” Thinking about men, however, many of the slacker twenty-year olds with BAs in English do substantially better with women and get laid a lot more. There may be a correlation-is-not-causation issue here, however.

* Wow: “Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a health insurance premium today for a family of four averages over $15,000 and within ten years’ time could be $32,000 or more. That’s more than a lot of workers are worth. Keep in mind that the 2010 median wage in the United States for an individual (not a household) was about $26,363.”

* “Just as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polyani stressed that a market economy evolves to the point where it is very difficult to understand the overall interrelationships of production, so can the same be said for many branches of science.” This leaves space for Houellebecq novels and other works about modern alienation, since we often lack a sense of impact in an important way.

* This: “It will become increasingly apparent how much of current education is driven by human weakness, namely the inability of most students to simply sit down and try to learn something on their own” has long been apparent to me and probably to other teachers, and it is largely missing in a lot of the elite online technical discourse about education found on sites like Slashdot, Reddit, and Hacker News, where atypical, highly self-motivated people tend to congregate.

* I’m more skeptical of many conventional consulting firms than Cowen (discussed on page 42 – 44), and I see the proliferation of generic consulting firms employing 22 – 30 year olds with little industry experience as symptomatic of the problems in many very large employers—a symptom that may be cured by startups or other competitive means. Do large, well-run companies like Google hire consultants to present PowerPoints?

* “Some of what is going on in today’s global economy is a reorienting of economic activity toward where most of the people are, and obviously, most people live in Asia.” One way to make the U.S. stronger is to bring more people to the U.S., as Cowen says, but that is made difficult by political resentments, misunderstandings, and fears of the other. We are still a highly tribal species.

* “When it comes to technology, progress is usually good, but gradual progress is usually better.” That’s because gradual progress lets people adjust. I’d also ask where, and on what timescales, rapid progress ends and gradual process begins.

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