Monday Links 8-Oct-2018: Tyler Cowen Straussianism explained, Banksy shreds, China v English prose

Each week I do a post with links/commentary. Here’s what I liked this week, and why.

1. Tyler Cowen’s Straussianism — explained. Tyler Cowen comments on his podcast interview with David C. Wright: “It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.” This is the single best interview of Tyler Cowen I’ve seen. For context let me add Cowen’s widely read blog is one of the most interesting things I read on a regular basis.

The podcast transcript is clearly machine created, which is better than nothing, but hard to parse. So rather than quote the transcript, let me summarize/paraphrase what I liked best.

  • What does Straussian mean? Cowen says that’s the single most often emailed question he gets. The colloquial meaning of Strausianism (also see wikipedia) is there are hidden meanings in great works, and great authors can be read at both a surface and an esoteric (hidden) level of meaning. For example Spinoza writes as a Deist, but if you read closely you can tell he’s really an atheist. But Cowen says Strausianism is more than just finding the hidden meaning. It is a method. To assume there’s a single hidden meaning presupposes there’s a single “right” answer. Our minds are not capable of understanding the universe in its full complexity. So there’s always another deeper level or new (Straussian) perspective to find. As a recent example, I noticed many people I follow commenting favorably on Cowen’s recent piece on global warming. He says it’s bad and our reaction to it is making it worse. But I suspect there’s (at least) another level to his post, which is our overreaction to global warming may turn out to be worse than global warming itself. But you won’t pick this up unless you look for it. Or maybe it’s not there and my reading discovered it. Who knows? This is one reason so many people like reading Cowen. He’s a fine prose writer, who also has a playful way of layering meaning. Each piece a micro-tutorial on Straussianism.
  • Later Cowen does a Straussian reading on his entire set of books. He says “they raise the question of whether commercialization and capitalism create sufficient mythology or religion to be self-sustaining.” Cowen believes the best future from a utilitarian framework is one where economic growth is maximized, as this compounding wealth allows the greatest possibilities. So he suggests we need to create a mythology around growth to inspire people, or it won’t persist. Then he says “And it’s all part of this big long story but I’m not allowed to say that anywhere else only on your podcast. I’ll never say it again.” Which is a very Cowen statement of course.
  • Regarding the internet: “there will be 10 to 15 people seen as essential behind the development of the Internet.” And these internet founders will be historically famous, more so than academics, because: “They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.” He names Mike Moritz, Marc Andreessen, and Sam Altman as examples.
  • I found the Tyrone discussion overrated.
  • I was surprised David C. Wright re-listened several times to the painful Ezra Klein/Sam Harris podcast. Yet it strangely made me fond of Wright. As an aside, here’s my post on it: Attempting a constructive take on the Sam Harris/Ezra Klein/IQ disagreement. The Nerd and the Manager.
  • Some other tidbits. One out of twenty deaths in the world are due to alcohol, and it’s negative effect is underrated. He doesn’t drink. Religion is generally undervalued. He believes utilitarianism, to be self-consistent, implies zero time preference, so a death today is as bad as a death 1000 years from now. Hence the best social policy is one which maximizes economic growth and future possibility. He also says the “devalue and dismiss” style of argument is a common and pernicious err. You learn far more by using the Straussian method of trying to see things from different perspectives. Especially those that seem obviously wrong.
  • And of course this is just my paraphrase. If you go to the source you may find your own layers of meaning.
  • link to podcast

2. More Kavanaugh. My personal preoccupation with Kavanaugh is as a trigger for domestic violence. So what caught my eye this week is the chart below. You’ll note Democratic hate for Republicans jumped after Bush became president over Gore in 2000, and the Republican hate for Democrats jumped when a black man won the presidency in 2008. Of course Kavanaugh will escalate hate to new heights.

source: Hetherington and Weiler

Peter Turchin discusses the three phases towards political violence. Phase 1 – days of rage. Much verbal anger but little actual violence. That’s now. Phase 2 – triggers. This is a specific and highly symbolic event, typically a sacrificial victim, which justifies violence. Hard to tell if Kavanaugh/Ford is this event or not. We’ll see. Phase 3 – spiral of violence. This is where the victim is avenged with violence, by a radicalized domestic terrorist group. Phase 4 – burn-out. Eventually violence burns itself out. The example Turchin uses in this post is the Weather Underground. Phase 1 Vietnam war, draft, oppression of African Americans, corporate greed. Phase 2 trigger was murder of Fred Hampton, when the FBI/police killed a popular Black Panther. Phase 3 was Weather Underground bombings. Phase 4 was when the violence burned itself out by the late 1970s.

Here’s three quotes that made me think:

  • “The Right is angry because they have near-total political power, but little cultural power. The Left is angry because they have near-total cultural power, but little political power. Each covets what the other has and feels is rightfully theirs.” link
  • “The Democrats will have to answer for their sins, the Republicans for theirs, and the ‘both sides’ journalists for theirs.” This is Jay Rosen pointing out that the “both sides” school of journalism is failing everyone. Each side has their own sins, but they are different. Saying both sides are the same and both are bad is a cop out. link
  • “But one final thought: the only way out of awful times like this is to come together as a nation over things that matter. Things that express shared values, and unite us in a good cause. Like hating the Red Sox, and rooting for them to lose. E pluribus unum. Red Sox delenda est.” That of course is from the excellent Megan McArdle. Though I must disagree about that last bit. Red Sox fans are fine. As for Yankee fans. Well. Enough said. link

3. Banksy Shredder Prank. This is so great. If you missed it, a piece sold by Banksy sold at auction for $1.3M, and the moment the gavel went down a shredder built into the frame sliced the art to shreds. Of course, a few people at Sotheby’s auction house may have been in on the prank, since it was the last piece sold and was hung on the wall off to the side rather than on a stand as is typical. Nonetheless a brilliant stunt. story here. Banksy’s instagram video below.

4. Flowery prose in Chinese. As for English? Not so much. An interesting thread on how written Chinese, with over 3000 years of literacy, your prose should allude to historical poetry. Someone who moved from China back to the US had to adjust her style accordingly. Quote: “For example, someone might use “梨花带雨“ or pear blossoms carrying rain to describe a woman crying just as a normal thing. No big, I just quoted some poetry and expected you to know it. AND I expected you to know PRECISELY what I’m trying to convey. Pear blossoms are pale, fragile, and they droop under the weight of rain and can even be batter/crushed by rain. So 梨花带雨 is meant to imply feminine fragility in the face of sorrow and crushing fate.” link

Of course writers in English such as Lincoln used to allude to the Bible and Shakespeare as canonical texts in exactly this way. But no current politician would. So perhaps it’s best the Chinese have retained their flowery style. Let me quote the last few lines from Lincoln’s second inaugural as a reminder:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

And that’s all for this week. Thank you for reading.

 

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