This episode features a talk by Canadian physician and addiction expert Gabor Mate from 2012. He talks about the link between stressed parenting and the preponderance of childhood disorders like ADHD, autism and oppositional defiant disorder. Purchase books by Gabor Mate on Amazon here.Open This Content
Tyler Cowen’s previous book, Stubborn Attachments, is right in general, but wrong on particulars. His latest book, in contrast, is largely right on both. The world needed a new book to be pro-market and pro-business at the same time, and Tyler’s Big Business delivers the package. I’m almost tempted to quote Keynes:
In my opinion it is a grand book … Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.
1. A popularization of Bloom and van Reenen’s work on the power of management:
We must take a moment to appreciate the particular character of American business. By global standards, its overall performance is remarkably impressive. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom and a group of co-authors studied and compared management practices in some of the major economies, including the United States. Their survey assessed how well a workplace uses incentives, the quality of performance measures and reviews, whether top management aims at long-term goals, whether top creators are well rewarded, and whether the firm attracts and retains quality employees, among other relevant metrics…
So at the end of all of these measurements of management quality, which country comes out on top? The United States is a clear first…
Management really matters. Let’s say we take two American plants producing comparable wares, but one of those plants is in the 90th percentile in terms of productivity, while the other is in the 10th percentile. The former plant will have a productivity level four times higher than the latter plant, due to superior management practices. It has been estimated that Chinese firms could increase their productivity by 30–50 percent and Indian firms could do so by 40–60 percent merely by improving their management practices up to an American level of quality.
2. Business practices and promotes good manners and civility. Despite modern political hysteria…
the world of American business has never been more productive, more tolerant, and more cooperative. It is not just a source of GDP and prosperity; it is a ray of normalcy and predictability in its steady focus on producing what can be profitably sold to customers. Successful businesses grow dynamically, but they also try to create oases of stability and tolerance in which they can perfect their production methods and which help to attract and retain talent…
American big business in particular has led the way toward making America more socially inclusive. McDonald’s, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and many of the major tech companies, among many others, were defining health and other legal benefits for same-sex partners before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage… This push for tolerance shouldn’t come as any surprise. Big business has lots of customers and relies on the value of brand names. It doesn’t want any group of those customers to feel put out or discriminated against or to have cause for complaint…
3. Some deliberate (?) understatement on fraud:
Most of all, business is criticized for being fraudulent and ripping us off. While there is plenty of fraud in business, the commercial sector isn’t any more fraudulent than individuals in other capacities, and it may even be somewhat less fraudulent.
I’d say there’s no “may even be somewhat less fraudulent” about it! Who wouldn’t trust Amazon or Uber or Airbnb over a random American who promised to provide the same product?
4. Business thinks long-term, usually:
It can be very difficult to distinguish between short-termism and an inability to see into the future. The failed Netflix competitors were mainly not venal rip-off artists; rather, most of them genuinely did not see that providing massive amounts of streaming content would prove to be a winning strategy. If half of the time businesses think too short-term and the other half of the
time too long-term, there will be thousands of valid examples and anecdotes about excessive short-term thinking and planning, and they aren’t necessarily related to CEO dishonesty.
Of course, markets also think long-term when it comes to successes, and that long-term mentality is encouraged through CEO pay structures. Consider Amazon, which has a stratospherically high share price, even though the quarterly earnings reports usually fail to show a sizable profit. Whether you think that valuation has been justified or not, it is a clear example of how markets can consider the broader, longer-term picture. Circa 2018, Jeff Bezos ended up as the richest man in the world, and he achieved that status by sticking with some long-run goals.
5. Employment may not be fun, but it’s meaningful and prevents misery:
Another way to think about the non-pay-related benefits of having a job is to consider the well-known and indeed sky-high personal costs of unemployment. Not having a job when you want to be working damages happiness and health well beyond what the lost income alone would account for. For instance, the unemployed are more likely to have mental health problems, are more likely to commit suicide, and are significantly less happy. Sometimes there is a causality problem behind any inference—for instance, do people kill themselves because they are unemployed, or are they unemployed because possible suicidal tendencies make them less well suited to do well in a job interview? Still, as best we can tell, unemployment makes a lot of individual lives much, much worse. In the well-known study by economists Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, involuntary unemployment is worse for individual happiness than is marital divorce or separation.
6. Even much-maligned low-skilled jobs have unsung psychological benefits:
In contemporary American society, poorer individuals are more likely to have problems with divorce, spousal abuse, drug addiction in the family, children dropping out of school, and a variety of other fairly common social problems. These problems plague rich and poor alike, but they are more frequent in poorer families and, furthermore, very often wreak greater devastation on poorer families, which have fewer resources to cope with them. The workplace, however, is a partial equalizer here. At least in this sample, the poorer individuals found relatively greater solace in the workplace than did the richer individuals.
7. Employers’ alleged mistreatment of individual workers is often for the greater good of their whole team:
Along these lines, I hear so many criticisms that companies do not give workers enough personal or intellectual freedom. For instance, many critics have noted that companies have the right to fire workers for their Facebook or other social media postings. Surely that sounds like an unjustified infringement on freedom of speech. But on closer inspection, the stance of the companies is often quite defensible. Unfortunately, a lot of workers put racist, sexist, or otherwise discomforting comments and photos on their Facebook pages, on Twitter, or elsewhere. When employers fire them, very often it is to protect the freedom of the other workers—namely, the ability of those other workers to enjoy the workplace environment free of harassment and threats. It’s not always or even usually a question of the employer versus the workers, or the old story of a struggle between worker and boss struggle. Rather, the boss is trying, sometimes in vain, to adjudicate conflicting notions of workplace freedom among the workers. In other words, the firings are in part an employer attempt to take the overall preferences of the workers into account.
8. Big business is often the cure for monopoly rather than the disease:
[Y]ou can think of Amazon and Walmart as two big reasons a lot of collusive and price-fixing schemes don’t work anymore or don’t have a major impact on consumers. Amazon and Walmart are the two biggest retailers in America, and both compete by keeping prices low—permanently, it seems. Their goal is to become dominant platforms for a wide variety of goods and to use low prices to boost their reputation and their focal status as the place to go shopping. By now both companies are old news, and it is increasingly difficult to argue that their strategies are eventual market domination and then someday super-high monopoly prices. Instead, their strategies seem to be perpetually low prices, followed by taking in insanely large amounts of business and using data collection to outcompete their rivals on the basis of cost and quality service.
My main criticism: Tyler is so pro-business that he often forgets (at least rhetorically) to be pro-market. He spends minimal time calling for moderate deregulation – and even less calling for radical deregulation. So while he effectively calls attention to everything business does for us, he barely shows readers how much business could do for us if government got out of the way. Above all, Tyler mentions the following only in passing – or not at all:
1. The evils of housing regulation. Business is ready, willing, and able to build mega-cities worth of affordable housing in the most desirable places in the country – the moment land-use regulations permit.
2. The evils of immigration restriction. Perhaps to broaden his audience, Tyler fails to mention the eagerness of business to provide international workers with the opportunity to use their talents for the enrichment of mankind. If I were him, I would have highlighted (a) how much business has done to increase immigration, and (b) how much business has engaged in righteous civil disobedience by hiring workers despite our unjust immigration laws.
3. The evils of labor market regulation. Tyler barely mentions the many awful side effects of much-loved labor market regulations. This was a mighty missed opportunity to lambast the horrors of European labor market regulation. Big Business was also a great opportunity to explain why discrimination is usually bad for profitability, making anti-discrimination regulations superfluous at best. Indeed, Tyler could have used the ubiquitous employment of illegal immigrants to illustrate these truths.
Fortunately, it’s not too late for Tyler to correct his unfortunate omissions on his blog. Big business has been miscast as an anti-hero, but populist regulation is a Thanos-level supervillain.
P.S. Exercise for the reader: Name a better book cover than Tyler’s!Open This Content
This episode features an interview of journalist Johann Hari from 2019 by Joe Rogan, host of the Joe Rogan Experience. They discuss the effects of the War on Drugs, the roots of drug addiction, and his new book, Chasing the Scream. Purchase books by Johann Hari on Amazon here.Open This Content
Nobody asked but …
With a nod to Thomas De Quincey, I have had to deal with the consequences of an addiction once again. As a life long University of Kentucky basketball fan, I now must look forward to a long, cold summer. I will have fleeting moments, perhaps in the NBA playoffs, perhaps when they contest the Rugby World Cup to see who can deny the New Zealand All Blacks.
But this all got me thinking about the nature of undying love, freedom, individuality, and consequences, from the POV of a voluntaryist. Nobody got me into this mess, but myself. I know the risks, however, so I suppose I suffer gladly (acknowledging that I would celebrate even more gladly, as I have done countless times in the past). Looking at my nearly 76 earthly years with the Wildcats and the All Blacks, it has been worth it.
The point, however, is that addictions are one of the consequences of voluntarily seeking joy. If you do it in the true spirit of the non-aggression principle (initiate no violence), the golden rule (do to others as you hope they will do to you), studying war no more, and hearty acceptance of ALL the responsibilities conferred with your goals of liberty, you can have joy, even among the heartaches.
— Kilgore ForelleOpen This Content
I just finished re-watching the entirety of The Sopranos, HBO’s classic Mafia drama. I saw it season-by-season when it originally aired (1999-2007), and I still hew to the allegedly philistine view that the ending was not only bad, but insulting. Overall, though the show’s reputation is well-deserved. Here are the top social science insights I take away. (minor spoilers)
1. Human motivation is overdetermined. For any important action, people usually have several plausible reasons, and pinpointing the marginal factor is nigh impossible. Thus, does Tony kill Ralph because he believes Ralph torched their racehorse? Because Ralph denied doing so? Because Tony had stolen Ralph’s girlfriend, and didn’t believe Ralph was OK with it? Or was it all because Tony never forgave Ralph for murdering his own pregnant girlfriend a season earlier?
2. Humans are unbelievably petty. By providing readers with an array of credible motives, the show leads us to think that small grievances at least occasionally cause massive reactions. When Paulie murders his mother’s elderly frenemy, for example, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done so if the frenemy hadn’t tried to wrongfully appropriate his mother’s dinner rolls. Similarly, Carmela doesn’t try to divorce Tony because he’s a serial adulterer or brutal criminal. She’s known both for years. Instead, she tries to divorce him because Irina, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, calls Carmela’s home to tattle that Tony slept with Irina’s one-legged cousin.
3. Out of sight, out of mind. In The Sopranos, criminals and non-criminals routinely interact. The non-criminals would have to be fools not to realize that the criminals aren’t merely violent, but murderous. Still, as long as the non-criminals do not witness the violence with their own eyes, they barely care. Even when they discover details that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the horrifying had happened, they look the other way. Thus, everyone except Adriana’s mother gets over her disappearance (murder, actually) with minimal cognitive dissonance. Never mind that her boyfriend was a junkie who repeatedly beat her; Adriana must have just decided out of the blue to leave New Jersey and never talk to her family or friends again.
4. A disciplined organized crime family can act with near-impunity. It’s easy to catch the typical murderer because the typical murderer murders someone he personally wants to murder. A crime family, however, can handily re-allocate its crimes so everyone lacks a personal motive for the crimes he personally commits. Criss cross! When Adriana tries to get Chrissy into witness protection, he doesn’t murder her. Instead, he tells Tony, who delegates the job to Silvio.
5. Organized crime families are not, in fact, disciplined. Criminals are overwhelmingly impulsive, macro males. So even though they have a great social technology for manufacturing ironclad alibis, they routinely fail to use it. Early in the series, Chrissy shoots a random baker in the foot in broad daylight. A great way to get caught… but Chrissy felt slighted, so he shot anyway. Ralphie beats his pregnant girlfriend to death in the Bing parking lot because she insulted his manhood.
6. Hedonic adaptation is mighty. The leading criminals on the show aren’t just filthy rich; they’re very popular with the ladies. Yet these criminals almost never count their blessings or stop to smell the flowers. Instead, they’re deeply bitter – and constantly on the edge of throwing temper tantrums. The wives of the leading criminals objectively have even less to complain about; they enjoy their husbands’ riches without ever facing the danger and brutality of acquiring those riches. Even so, the mob wives spend their days complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. Carmela, Tony’s wife, is the clearest case. Her main happy minutes come when she unwraps new jewels and furs. The rest of the time, she’s crinkling her nose with crankiness.
7. Rooting for the bad guy is easy… as long as he’s got charisma. If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time. As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? Because the criminals have amusing personalities. My family’s personal favorite is Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri; we can’t stop quoting this scene:
Paulie: As far as f***n’ bears are concerned, I say, get rid of them all. They had their turn, and now we got ours. That’s why dinosaurs don’t exist no more.
Dancer: Wasn’t it a meteor?
Paulie: They’re all meat eaters.
Chris: Meteor, me-te-or.
How can we feel such affection for a sadistic killer like Paulie? Because he’s hilarious, and we’re in no danger. Oh, and how he loves his mother!
8. Psychiatric language is largely a set of excuses and power-plays. The Sopranos addresses anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, sociopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, and much more. Yet in virtually every case, it acknowledges that there is, to quote psychiatrists’ psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg, a reasonable “pre-therapeutic” take on the same situation. Yes, you can say that addicts are helpless victims of a “disease.” But you can also say that addicts are people who willfully place their own self-destructive habits over family harmony. Indeed, The Sopranos standardly insinuates that psychiatric language mostly boils down to Social Desirability Bias. If a character has ADHD, he’s sick and needs help; only a monster would growl, “Man up and work harder.” But as the plot plays out, attentive viewers will notice that it’s the no-nonsense approach that fits the facts and improves behavior. Even psychiatrist Dr. Melfi reverts to old-fashioned theories of personal responsibility when she exits her office; if you cross her, she’ll lash out no matter what psychiatric labels you carry.
The only clear-cut exception to this psychiatric skepticism is Uncle Junior’s dementia. Even here, he starts out as a faker, feigning dementia to delay his trial. By the end of the show, however, Junior’s run out of money – and can’t remember where he stashed his emergency funds. Indeed, he barely knows who he is anymore. The lesson: Dementia, unlike the other mental problems characters face, is a hard constraint rather than an exotic preference.
9. Despite ubiquitous ambiguity, right and wrong is fairly obvious if you calm down and detach yourself from your society. In season 3, a lone righteous character, psychiatrist Dr. Krakower, sees through a web of wrong-doing and lame excuses in a matter of minutes. Carmela Soprano goes to Krakower for help, and he delivers The Moral Answers. Highlights from one of the greatest scenes of all time:
Carmela: […] [Tony’s] a good man, a good father.
Krakower: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger. Serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?
Carmela: I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to be judgmental.
Krakower: Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament. Because of events that occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade. Witness the results.
Carmela: What we say in here stays in here, right?
Krakower: By ethical code and by law.
Carmela: His crimes. They are, uh, organized crimes.
Krakower: The mafia.
Carmela: Oh so, so what? So what? He betrays me every week with these whores.
Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds. You can leave now, or you can you stay and hear what I have to say.
Carmela: Well, you’re gonna charge the same anyway.
Krakower: I won’t take your money.
Carmela: That’s a new one.
Krakower: You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice.
Carmela: So . . . You think I need to define my boundaries more clearly. Keep a certain distance. Not internalize my–
Krakower: What did I just say?
Carmela: Leave him.
Krakower: Take only the children, or what’s left of them, and go.
Carmela: I’d have to, uh, get a lawyer. Find an apartment. Arrange for child support.
Krakower: You’re not listening. I am not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.
10. Dylan Matthews and Tyler Cowen notwithstanding, the Columbus Day episode was hilarious and wise. The veneration of this murderous slaver isn’t just shameful; it exposes the shameful essence of identity politics of every description. And what better vessels for these truisms than a gang of self-righteously aggrieved mafiosi?Open This Content
The ethnographies of Oscar Lewis paint a bleak picture of lower-class life. The thousands of pages of published interviews in books like Five Families, The Children of Sanchez, Four Men, and La Vida show a relentless trainwreck of impulsive sex, unplanned pregnancy, child neglect, child abuse, drug addiction, drunkenness, degenerate gambling, intra-family violence, near-random violence, parasitism, and gross financial mismanagement. The picture is so bleak that I struggle to believe Lewis’ subjects are representative of any human subculture. But if his subjects are representative, it’s hard to imagine how a thoughtful person could look upon their “culture of poverty” with anything but horror.
Yet in the rare moments where Lewis stops letting his subjects speak for themselves, he is far from horrified. From the Introduction* to La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty – San Juan and New York:
Middle-class people — and this would certainly include most social scientists — tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of the culture of poverty. They tend to associate negative valences to such traits as present-time orientation and concrete versus abstract orientation. I do not intend to idealize or romanticize the culture of poverty. As someone has said, “It is easier to praise poverty than to live in it”; yet some of the positive aspects that may flow from these traits must not be overlooked. Living in the present may develop a capacity for spontaneity, for the enjoyment of the sensual, for the indulgence of impulse, which is often blunted in the middle-class, future-oriented man. Perhaps it is this reality of the moment that the existentialist writers are so desperately trying to recapture but that the culture of poverty experiences as natural, everyday phenomena. The frequent use of violence certainly provides a ready outlet for hostility so that people in the culture of poverty suffer less from repression than does the middle class.
Yes, Lewis even finds something positive to say about “the frequent use of violence.” Sure, the victim gets a savage beating, often leading in his narratives to permanent disability. But on the other hand, the perpetrator eases his “repression”! Frankly, if social scientists are going to “overlook” anything, this dubious “positive aspect” of violent crime should be near the top of the list.
Why would Lewis makes such bizarre claims? The only plausible explanation is the painful psychological tension between his scrupulous empiricism and his fervent Marxism.
A typical Marxist would have searched the world’s slums for heroes to interview, but Lewis had too much integrity for such trickery. An apolitical ethnographer would have followed Lewis’ methods, but drawn the obvious conclusions that (a) his subjects’ culture is plain evil, (b) since the subjects refuse many opportunities to exit this culture, they’re evil too. The most sympathetic thing you can reasonably say is, “I feel so sorry for the innocent children in these families.”
Intellectually, however, Lewis was stuck between a rock and a hard place. So he showed his readers the trainwreck in gory detail, then tried to convince us that trainwrecks have “positive aspects” that “must not be overlooked.” A crazy route, to be sure. But the day you admit that personal irresponsibility is the leading cause of adult poverty – and parental irresponsibility the leading cause of child poverty – you have left the church of Marxism.
* You can read the Introduction online; go here, then scroll down to Chapter 7.Open This Content