Russia’s attack on Ukraine has generated a lot of attention. Many people care deeply about this unfolding crisis. I wondered back in March 2022 where all this energy would end up getting channeled?
What I had in mind was not an army of “cartoon dogs”, and yet here we are. Official coverage of the #NAFO dog memes this week has come from the Economist and Politico.
The North Atlantic Fella Organisation (spellings vary) is a tongue-in-cheek label adopted by a virtual army that champions Ukraine’s cause and harangues its foes on social media. Its members don the avatar of a cartoon shiba inu dog…
When your enemy is as humorless as Putin, there is an advantage to being funny. After circulating in internet backwaters for weeks, official Ukrainian accounts have acknowledged the help offered by the movement.
The effects of #NAFO are 1) to influence the flow of information/opinions and 2) raise money for Ukraine defense.
Balaji Srinivasan recently released a book called The Network State suggesting that online communities of likeminded people are so powerful that they could supplant what we have known as “countries” for a few centuries. From what I can tell, families want to live in a real place that has tangible services and security. The interesting thing about #NAFO is that it’s purpose is to support an old-fashioned country defending its physical borders.
Meanwhile, in the country of Russia, as reported by the WSJ, “The chairman of Russia’s second-largest oil-and-gas giant, Lukoil PJSC, died Thursday after falling from a hospital window in Moscow, according to Russian state media agency TASS.”
Things go by online about moms and kids that bother me. Here I will Be Like Pete and try to articulate a positive vision. We could talk more about parenting small children.
Ambitious people, both men and women, might want to be parents. Time spent on parenting takes away from other projects, so the earlier you start planning the better. Hearing about the experiences of other parents is both instructive and inspiring.
Parenting, like modern creative careers, is an unpredictable enterprise. Maybe one reason people are not encouraged more to plan is because the disappointments can be so devastating in this arena. There is a risk that I will sound insensitive if I am too positive. That said, I feel like discussions I see in public miss the point too often and fail to use the “billboard space” we have effectively. There is an ocean of thoughtful honest free content for How to Achieve Your Writing Goals, but there is very little on how to achieve your parenting goals that resonates with ambitious young people. The writing advice can be ignored by those who don’t want to write; parenting advice can be ignored by those who don’t want kids.
Economists talk a lot about parents and children, especially now that the US is near population decline. One particular point I have heard is: “Data shows that piano lessons do not have a causal impact on lifetime earnings, so your problems are solved. Everyone sit back and enjoy your kids.”
This message may be helpful to some people, but it seems like primarily a lie to me. “Enjoy your kids” assumes a lot. I’d prefer an honest approach about the sacrifice involved, or the “opportunity cost”. I think that the benefits of parenting outweigh the cost, but it’s not inspirational to say “selfish lazy people will enjoy parenting.” Raising kids who you enjoy being around is not easy, but there are tricks and proven methods to help.
The economist who gets it is Emily Oster. Her books go more like this: “You probably aspire to having family meals that you can enjoy. Sit down with your co-parent 6 months ahead of time and plan out how you are going to achieve such a wonderful ambitious goal while also being able to schedule other events and pursuits.”
Emily Oster books/newsletter is a great place to start. She’s not for everyone, but if you are reading an econ blog then she might be for you. The good news for ambitious parents is that many books have been written that explain how to achieve certain results. Ambitious smart people can figure out good techniques, although as I said earlier be prepared for things not to go as planned. It helps to start on the learning process before you have kid to care for. Once you become a primary caregiver, you will have less time to read, so read widely and often whenever you can. We have a /Parenting category in this blog, to curate some of the good stuff.
Kids could come up in conversation about ambition more, as a possible complement not just as a substitute.
This Elon tweet has layers: “Being a Mom is just as important as any career” What do you think the subtext is? How would a college student would understand this?
Why use this hackneyed phrase when he could say something to actually inspire both his male and female Gen Z fans to become parents? If Elon is a good parent, then teach us how he combines it with an ambitious life. And if he’s a bad parent, he should say less about it. If he’s trying to elevate mothers, then retweet a mother.
Similarly, a male economist who writes books about how easy parenting is should explain how he got through the first 5 years. Either someone else raised his children or he worked hard to maintain a routine and boundaries. Did he create his own routine from scratch or did he borrow from someone else’s model? Were his children in daycare 40 hours a week?
It can be hard to write about these topics honestly, because of privacy issues. So, we are back to Emily Oster, because she has been willing to tell the world what really goes on in her own family. Elon should just tweet out her newsletter every week if he’s such an advocate for mothers.
Dr. Oster is not the only one. There are millions of mothers creating content who would value the exposure. What if Elon (or some other ambitious person with a large platform) retweeted a trick for getting children to try carrots. “Wow, genius technique. Follow this Mom for more…” Or, Elon could highlight a man who being a great parent.
I will engage in some introspection here, not because I think I’m so interesting, but because I see pro-natalist men talking past everyone else on how to raise the birth rate. I had a parenting win this past week. I solved a behavioral problem in a creative way and I’d love to talk about it. I’d like to feel like I’m part of a community conversation. I’d like to be recognized for my expertise. That’s what most people want, right? More resources in the attention economy devoted to parents is a form of compensation that I have not heard discussed before.
I have heard advice to female professors to not put up pictures of their children at the office. If colleagues know you care about your children, then you might be ostracized from the intellectual community that you have spent your whole life trying to join. In my own small way, I have pushed back against this norm by occasionally talking about kids and babies, so that other people who want families can feel part of a bigger community online and in academia. My broader point in this post is that there is a kind of rhetoric about family life and parenting strategies that would make young ambitious people think that having kids will not prevent them from having a meaningful life.
It’s not bad to talk about a 14-hour workday or an organizational strategies for achieving professional goals. I wouldn’t want to censor anyone or stop them from sharing how they accomplished something valuable. On the margin, more conversations could also include a discussion of how life changes if you become a parent, so that ambitious young people can build mental categories for this.
The Freakonomics podcast provides examples:
Stephen Dubner brought the teen children of famous economists on his show to talk about what it was like to grow up with those weirdos. It’s funny. Listeners will not feel like they are being told what to do or judged. Dubner is simply lending his platform to parents and children. He’s using the billboard space. There is parenting content on the internet already, but if it’s all siloed over at parents.com then it may not make it to the young person who is trying to figure out what “the Good” is.
Science keeps getting bigger- more researchers, more funding, and of course more publications. Scientific progress is much harder to measure, but there are good arguments that it’s roughly flat over time. This implies that productivity per researcher is plummeting.
There’s been a lively debate about what drives this falling productivity- is it that the easy discoveries got made first, leaving only harder ones for today’s scientists? Or is something else tanking scientific productivity, like the bureaucratic way we organize scientific research today?
When the number of papers published per year in a scientific field grows large, citations flow disproportionately to already well-cited papers; the list of most-cited papers ossifies; new papers are unlikely to ever become highly cited, and when they do, it is not through a gradual, cumulative process of attention gathering; and newly published papers become unlikely to disrupt existing work. These findings suggest that the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon.
What is driving this? They argue:
First, when many papers are published within a short period of time, scholars are forced to resort to heuristics to make continued sense of the field. Rather than encountering and considering intriguing new ideas each on their own merits, cognitively overloaded reviewers and readers process new work only in relationship to existing exemplars. A novel idea that does not fit within extant schemas will be less likely to be published, read, or cited. Faced with this dynamic, authors are pushed to frame their work firmly in relationship to well-known papers, which serve as “intellectual badges” identifying how the new work is to be understood, and discouraged from working on too-novel ideas that cannot be easily related to existing canon. The probabilities of a breakthrough novel idea being produced, published, and widely read all decline, and indeed, the publication of each new paper adds disproportionately to the citations for the already most-cited papers.
Second, if the arrival rate of new ideas is too fast, competition among new ideas may prevent any of the new ideas from becoming known and accepted field wide.
Supposing they are correct, it’s not totally clear what to do. At the biggest level we could fund fewer researchers in large fields, or push more fields to be like economics, where the quality of each researcher’s publications is valued much more than the quantity. But what can an individual researcher do differently? One idea is “boutique science” or “hipster science”, trying to find the smallest or newest field you could reasonably attach yourself to.
Another idea is that the role of generalists and synthesizers is becoming more valuable, as Tyler Cowen often says and David Esptein applies to science in his book Range. When papers are coming out faster than anyone can read, we need more people to sift through them and explain which few are actually important and which are forgettable or wrong. There are lots of ways to do this- review articles, meta-analysis, replication at scale, and of course blogs. But the junk pile is going to keep growing, so we’ll need new and better ways of finding the hidden gems.
I discuss how job perks are portrayed in the show. The bosses in the show are creepy and we come to find out that they are totally evil. Given the way everything feels in the show, you could come to the conclusion that perks are generally manipulative and false. Someone implied that in an op-ed published by the NYT.
My argument is that free adults can use “perks” to motivate themselves and each other to do the right thing.
We are all just trying to get that dopamine, in the short term. Should people only feel happy when they are doing drugs or playing video games? Should bosses not be allowed to create a fun moment at work?
Trivial gifts and prizes must be cheap, so that their cost does not start to outweigh the benefits of incentivizing things we should be doing anyway. Finding ways to make a responsible life exciting is in fact the key to maintaining our liberty. Most people do not want to be martyrs. They want life to be fun.
The following tweet shows the character Dylan and his performance prize.
Behavioral scientists have documented lots of quirks in human behavior. We aren’t solely motivated by our (real wage) salaries to produce effort. The good news is that we are capable of self-reflection. We can make these quirks work for us. Lots of successful people will promise themselves a small reward at the end of the week if they accomplish something hard.
Perks aren’t all bad at work, but, on the other hand, Severance could make you more alert to genuine manipulation that is out there.
Watching Severance prompts good questions. Who are you? (That’s the opening line of the show.) What are you doing with your life? Whose purposes are you serving?
I liked the show because it has great characters, funny moments, and it gets you thinking. If you watch the show, don’t take it too seriously. Ben Stiller is a co-director. The man (the genius) brought us Zoolander (2001).
One give-away that this ain’t the new 1984 is a plot hole concerning how the main character Mark decided to sever himself and join the evil corporation. According to the show, his wife died and he was so sad that he quit his job as a history professor after three weeks of feeling sad. I know a lot of academics. History professors have worked too hard and too long to quit their jobs after three weeks of feeling sad. Take everything with a grain of salt from these writers. Mark’s general lack of executive control is at odds with the backstory that he once obtained a job as a history professor.
Severance is described as science fiction but it clearly takes place in the United States of America. For one thing, a “senator” has a role. For another thing, the work schedule is pretty American. This is a funny video on how Europeans view the American work schedule:
I have no idea how far down the rabbit hole the writers will feel like they have to do in Season 2. Will there be a role for a POTUS?
A question this raises is whether we can develop AGI that will be content to never self-actualize.
And, back in May, OLL ran my first blog about Severance and drudgery.
The first line in the show is, “Who are you?” Themes about identity and purpose are explored alongside the thrilling hijinks of the prisoner innies. Outie Mark has nothing except his personal life to think about, which in his case is tragic. Innie Mark has nothing but work. Neither man is happy or complete.
Have you heard of The World Games? It’s the Olympics for sports that are too random to be in the real Olympics. It is happening right now in Birmingham, AL. It’s not too late to get your tickets to see Canoe Polo.
For people interested in regional politics, this blog about the city successfully hosting a major event might be interesting. His references to people in “the suburbs” is something you won’t understand without some context and history. But you don’t have to be a local to learn that history, since everything is online.
Anyone can comment on this blog. We’d love to see more comments. Challenging our ideas is fine. Telling us that you like our work is encouraging.
If you are in the know, then you assume we have a comment moderation policy, because everyone needs one. If you have never run a website then you might think it is possible to simply have an open form that anyone could type into and get immediately published on the platform.
Comments come in every day, but most of them never get posted. We are not against free speech or silencing an opposition. Most of the comments, if you can even call them comments, are spam. Sometimes spammers try to get posted by saying that they love the site, and sometimes the text seems like AI-generated pornography. The words are not written by humans or at least not humans who have actually read our content.
I don’t think it’s smart to be 100% transparent about our “algorithm” for filtering out this spam. That would make it easier to for bad actors to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
To our human readers, please comment. Your comment will get posted, although sometimes it might take a minute or even hours to get through. We are not censoring ideas, yet we need a moderation policy or else this place would not be fun. People would not want to wade through spam.
Elon Musk buying Twitter is the big news this week. He wants to enhance free speech on the site and, according to him, make it more open and fun. Some fans are hoping that he will make the content moderation and ban policy more transparent. Maybe that’s possible. Maybe he can improve the site.
My point is that if you have not been on the admin side of an internet forum then you might not realize the challenge it presents. There are trade offs involved. I believe that there can be improvements to the current system at Twitter. However, if you want to be taken seriously be tech folk then ask for a system that is possible. A substantially better experience might be incompatible with the site being free to users.
In our case, we could improve our system at EWED. Real people who comment will not like the lag, and fixing that is a technical problem. More time and money could solve it, but this site makes no money.
The economics insight is that you get what you pay for. Studio executives make the movies they believe you will pay for. We get the politicians we bother to vote for. Journalists report what they get paid to write.
Twitter could create a paid user tier. Paid users would be entitled to speak to a human on staff at Twitter in the event that they get censored and have the option of an appeals process.
I am used to getting a lot of services for free online. New companies roll out a huge free initial offering to harvest users and data. I have spent most of my adult life in that roll out phase. Eventually the party stops and investors want to see a revenue stream. Maybe I should start paying for the internet services I value. Maybe part of the reason the conversation is so rancorous is that we are transitioning away from everything being free. Inventing social media is sort of like humans discovering fire and cocaine at the same time! We are still figuring out how to use these tools effectively and safely.
I think a bad scenario happens if we cannot transition over to a patronage model. Remaining trapped in a free stuff mentality would be worse in the long run. I hope Napster didn’t ruin me. In an ideal world, I would be willing to pay for social media and also never spend more than 2 hours a day scrolling on any open platform. We should try for that. We should supplement our online reading with content that has made it past a publisher. For now, one way to get around Twitter censorship is to buy and read books.
On the Bretton Goods podcast, host Pradyumna Prasad asked student Trevor Chow about blogs. To start the segment, Prasad noted that there has been an increase in what he called “econ blogs” in the past 2-3 years. Will that trend continue? Prasad believes that this is not sustainable because: 1) he thinks the paid subscriber model will not support many writers, which leads to 2) bloggers writing for free will run out of time and energy.
Chow replied that he thinks the recent explosion is partly due to Substack, which makes it easy to start blogging. Chow described the current climate as a “flourishing blogosphere.” He assumes that some people started during a Covid shutdown when the opportunity cost was low. Some of the younger people might shift their focus, as he did when his interests changed, but he believes that many of the blogs started in this phase are here to stay. Both young men think about longevity.
Prasad asked, “What are the qualities of the most successful bloggers across time?”
Chow replied that the only blog that has influenced him “across time” is Marginal Revolution, partly because few writers stick with blogging. Chow thinks a successful blogger over time would find a special niche. I have a similar intuition, even though MR is not about a niche topic. If everyone is checking MR for their “daily links”, then it’s unlikely that inferior new aggregator blogs will attract large numbers of readers. Also, Twitter largely fills that role now.
The fact that duration was discussed more than quality is interesting. To blog is to enter a network and join a community. Part of sticking around for a while is not just writing but also reading and paying attention to the work of others. Good writing is a necessary but not sufficient component of what would be considered a successful blog.
As an economist, I was happy to hear Prasad open this segment by talking about “econ blogs”. Econ blogging occurs when people are interesting online, even if the topic is outside of the traditional domain of economists. I think this is partly due to Tyler Cowen both being prolific and also willing to engage non-standard thinkers.
I enjoyed the podcast. It raised some questions which I posed to Tyler Cowen, the OG econ blogger. We all know that MR generates a high level of engagement, today. My first question was:
1. What was the evolution of reader engagement with MR? How long did you work before a lot of people were reading, commenting?
Cowen: It took us 3-4 years to have a lot of readers. but I never tracked the numbers very closely. When I started, I was thrilled by the notion of 5,000 readers a day — of course we have done many times more than that.
2. The consensus is that many new people have started since 2020, which I believe is something that you called for. Do you now see the space as, in some sense, saturated, or would you encourage more people to keep joining now?
Cowen: I don’t think it is saturated now.
3. For bloggers who started since 2020, should they quit if the opportunity cost increases?
Cowen: The main thing is simply whether you enjoy it and learn from it! If so, reason to continue. That sounds trivial, but it is really the bottom line.
Should the new bloggers keep going? Yes, if you enjoy it and learn from it. Is it too late to start? No, if you will enjoy blogging and learn from it.
The blog form is better than a 280-character tweet for capturing nuance. Something I learn from blogging, which might not be obvious from the outside, is that I have some bad ideas. Sometimes trying to write out a piece teaches me that I had an unsupported thought. It would be good if more people would stop scrolling for an hour a week and try to write out an argument.
Co-blogger Mike alerted me to this comic:
The comic first describes a cynical take on academia, with which I don’t fully agree. Then, the woman paints a picture of an alternative haven for intellectual conversation. Can econ blogs be an old pub where the people are always and only there in earnest? “Most people don’t even want to go in, and you certainly don’t get credentials for descending the stairs.”
I read 23 books in 2021, but none that were written in 2021. Tim Ferriss stopped reading new books deliberately but for me it just happened, something about this year made me want to hang out in the ancient world instead.
I read about how five thousand years ago the Indo-Europeans figured out how to ride horses and use wheels, and so ended up spreading their language to half the world. I read about the Bronze Age Collapse three thousand years ago. Also set three thousand years ago are the semi-mythical events of the Aeneid and the Odyssey; I particularly enjoyed Emily Wilson’s new translation of the latter. From two thousand years ago, Caesar’s Commentaries reads like an action-packed fantasy novel but gives real insight into history and strategy. It was also a good year to go back to the Biblical events of two to three thousand years ago, though I didn’t make it cover to cover.
Bueno de Mesquita, author of The Dictator’s Handbook, is a political scientist but his analysis is very much economic, in both the methods (rational choice & methodological individualism) and in the focus on material incentives as the main driver of behavior. The book is good as a manual for aspiring tyrants, but suprisingly great as an explanation for why many poor countries stay poor.
So overall compared to 2020 I don’t have many good books to share, apart from things like The Odyssey that you presumably already know about. The best new writing in 2021 probably isn’t happening in books at all, but in Substacks. Many bloggers switched to the Substack blogging/newsletter platform last year because it makes it easy to monetize their writing, while many professional journalists switched over as a way to keep being paid to write while enjoying near-complete editorial freedom. I recommend Byrne Hobart on finance and business strategy, and Razib Khan on history and genomics. Probably my favorite writing of 2021 was the return of Scott Alexander to blogging, now at Substack as Astral Codex Ten. He is also a great demonstration of just how much the monetization game has changed, as less than a year into the new Substack he is making enough money to start giving large amounts of it away.
While the blog got its start with Joy Buchanan in mid-2020, we are now just finishing up our first full year and now have a full weekly slate of bloggers. This seems like a good opportunity to reflect on our most popular posts from each of our regular bloggers. We hope you enjoy looking back at these popular posts.
Monday: Mike Makowsky
Makowsky‘s most popular post was from May 2021, titled “Academic Publishing: How I think we got here.” This post generated a significant amount of discussion on Twitter among economists and other academics, and is the second most widely read post on this blog with almost 10,000 views. Makowsky outlined the history and incentives of “how we got here” in terms of the problems with academic publishing, and he is skeptical that there is any easy fix. It seems there is nothing economists love arguing about more than our profession itself. (Follow Makowsky on Twitter)
Tuesday: Scott Buchanan
Scott Buchanan‘s most popular post is “Money as a Social Construct” is from September 2020. It discusses the very basic definition of what we mean by money, and the importance of social trust for both the functioning of money and general social order. The related theme of cryptocurrencies is something he has written a lot about in the last few months of 2020. (He is not yet on Twitter!)