Reflections on The Sopranos

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 BiasIf 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?

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The Dissident Ambassador

In a new paper, Greg Mankiw shares some thoughtful reflections on teaching and heterodoxy:

I have always thought that instructors, especially in introductory courses, are like ambassadors for the economics profession. The role of ambassadors is not to represent their own views but to act as agents for their principal. Just as ambassadors are supposed to faithfully represent the perspective of their nations, the instructor in an introductory course (and intermediate courses as well) should faithfully represent the views shared by the majority of professional economists.

[…]

This perspective of instructor as ambassador raises the question of what instructors should do if they hold views far from the mainstream of the economics profession. If you are an Austrian or Marxist economist, for example, what should you do if asked to teach an introductory course? In my view, there are only two responsible courses of action. One is to sublimate your own views and spend most of the course teaching what the mainstream believes, even if you disagree with it. Because many introductory students will take only one or two courses in economics throughout their educations, it would be pedagogical malpractice, in my judgment, to focus on an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint. The other responsible course of action is to avoid teaching introductory (and even intermediate) courses entirely. In a more advanced elective, there is nothing wrong with teaching an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint, as long as students know what they are getting.

Mankiw’s view definitely resonates with me, but my position – and my practice – is rather different.  I say that a professor’s fundamental fiduciary duty is to teach their students about the world – not what his peers think about the world.  As long as your discipline is fundamentally sound, fortunately, these two goals closely overlap.  If your discipline is a corrupt pseudo-science, however, your obligations to your students require you to teach heterodoxy.  Sure, you’ll have to explain the normal view in the process of debunking it.   Yet it’s a dereliction of duty to teach nonsense as fact.

Analogously, by the way, it’s fine to act as a loyal ambassador for a fundamentally virtuous organization.  But if you’re the ambassador for North Korea, you have not only the right but the obligation to be a traitor.  “I’m just promoting my client’s interests” is as flimsy a defense as “I’m just following orders.”  See Mike Huemer on legal ethics for further discussion.

Since I am a professional economist, I’m happy to say that I don’t consider my discipline a corrupt pseudo-science.  However, economics is also far from “fundamentally sound.”  When I teach, then, I try to split the difference.  I spend about half of the time as Mankiw recommends: neutrally describing the economic consensus.  When the consensus is far from the truth, though, I go out of my way to amend it.

Yes, I try to plainly disclose whether I’m describing the research consensus or just telling them what’s actually reasonable to believe.  And no, I don’t penalize students for arguing that the consensus is right and Caplan is wrong.  Some of my exams even require students to disagree with me!  Still, my primary goal is to teach students how the economy works, not what most economists happen to believe.

Furthermore, the only economics students who really need to understand the current conventional wisdom of economics are… graduate students!  After all, no matter how misguided the research consensus happens to be, you can’t be a successful researcher unless you understand it.  Most Econ 1 students, in stark contrast, will never take another economics class.  So the sole economics instructor they’re ever going to have should rigidly focus on economic reality.  Thus, I essentially reverse Mankiw’s advice to confine “idiosyncratic minority viewpoints” to advanced students.  No matter what you think about Keynesianism, you have a fiduciary responsibility to teach your grad students all about it.  Otherwise, they’ll be at a severe professional handicap.  For undergrads, in contrast, the truth of Keynesianism is pivotal.  If your students’ lifetime commitment to economics comes to fifteen weeks, it would be silly to spend five weeks on an intellectual dead-end.

Am I saying that professors should teach whatever they feel is true?  No; a thousand times no.  If you use your “feelings” to form beliefs, you shouldn’t be a professor at all.  The first fiduciary duty of every intellectual is to set emotions aside, and calmly and patiently study a wide range of arguments and evidence.  Once you’ve done that, however, you owe it to your students to share the fruits of your labors.  And if, along the way, you discover that your discipline is misguided, you should let your students know that, too.

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Reward Someone’s Faith

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world in which humans had faith in other humans?

Wouldn’t it be nice if people had faith that good wins out over evil, that virtue leads to happiness, and that freedom creates the best kind of society?

Answer: it would be very nice.

But the faith – the core *trust* – in all of these notions is something that gets put to the test every day. And we’re often the ones doing the testing.

When we fail to keep promises, we don’t just make ourselves look bad. We actually *punish* the faith of people who trust that people keep their words. We make trust a liability.

We do the same thing when we condone evil people (cough, politicians, cough), or when we punish people for being better than us (see: all envy or “Puritan” name-calling, ever).

We punish people’s faith in the good all the time.

Why don’t we reward it for a change?

Let’s keep our words. Let’s use our freedom well. Let’s call out the evil around us. Let’s restore victims. Let’s reward excellence and virtue.

We all know we need to better with our lives. But there is a special power to just knowing how our actions shape the faith of those around us. In doing virtuous things, we will be doing more than just meeting some requirements, or pleasing some people. We will be giving a gift.

So many people out there long desperately for truth, goodness, and beauty. They’re caught in a desert. And we have the option to give them the water they’ve been seeking.

When we reward faith, we will be giving them hope. When they have hope, they will act.

And then maybe – one day – they’ll reward our faith, too.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Trade Peer Pressure for Past Pressure

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. . . Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Peer pressure is shockingly sneaky. Despite all the warnings against it, I’ve ended up falling into many of the lifestyle choices (high-consumption, etc) of people around me – even while being able to break the mold of peer pressure in other ways (skipping college, etc).

I want to try to live my own life, as fully as possible without the (unconscious) rule of following the masses. Maybe that’s possible for me. Maybe I’ll fail. But I have discovered at least one way of thinking about peer pressure that’s helping me on my way:

Even if it is impossible to break free of the sway of others, why settle for such a poor pack of peers?

There’s no particular reason I have to let the pressure of my 21st century late millennial, city-dwelling, and social-media driven peers be my only guiding light and influence.

I’m looking a little further back – and biographies have been helping to change my perspective on who my peers can be.

With the great “cloud of witnesses” of those long-dead I can pick and choose a much better cross-section of peers to pressure me.

I can look to people like Cato to learn how to resist corruption and face death bravely.

I can look to people like Frederick Douglass, who stood up to claim his manhood and freedom from slavery.

I can look to Richard Winters (of the 101st Airborne, Band of Brothers fame) to learn how to lead people well.

I can look to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and other Americans of the Enlightenment era for inspiration on becoming a learned and accomplished man.

I can look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Sophie Scholl or Pino Lella to learn how to act from faith and justice against a system of darkness.

Spend enough time around the good and dead people of the past and you will grow in their direction – just like you might grow in the direction of your millennial peers. Our brains don’t seem to mind treating the dead recorded as if they were living. Several hours listening to an audiobook about Benjamin Franklin might have much the same effect of spending time with the man himself, and being influenced by him.

Listen to the words of wise, good men and women. Read their biographies. Imitate them – play-acting if you must. This past pressure is a far better and far more productive kind of peer pressure.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Rusty Mechanics

Nobody asked but …

Some say that the wheels of justice grind slowly.  Boy, howdy!  I’m not sure which outcome I fear more:

  1. It is taking this long to clear POTUS, or
  2. It is taking this long to spill the beans on POTUS?

In the meantime, what a complicated web we weave …

Will we lose faith in all institutions of government?  As a voluntaryist, that happened with me long ago.  I say let ‘er rip.  I’m getting tired of hearing that we get the government that we deserve — a “wet sidewalk” fallacy if ever I’ve heard one.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Flying By: My Experience of 2018

It’s that time of year again! The time when the planet Earth is at that one particular spot in its orbit around the sun where a lot of us like to pause, reflect on our lives and the world we live in, and get wasted. So here are my own reflections on the year-that-was, 2018, and my experience of it.

In a number of regards my experience of this year was a boring repetition of the same-old same-old. I lived in the same apartment, worked the same job at the same location, drove the same car, and had the same friends, the same family situation and the same coworkers as the year prior. I don’t view that as being a necessarily “bad” or “good” thing, it just is. It is/was the bedrock of stability from which I can look at everything else.

Traveling-wise, this year I traveled out to Las Vegas, New York City, West Virginia, Michigan, South Dakota and Chicago. So I was able to get some traveling in this year, albeit each one of these trips was a little short trip. I had the most fun in Las Vegas, which is kind of what the city is designed for. But going to New York City was my favorite of them all, simply because: I ❤ NYC.

My time in NYC this year was also probably the most eventful time for me, as far as different big events crammed into a small period of time goes. During my time there I saw a few long-time friends of mine, I ended the friendship with one of those friends, I narrowly missed meeting up with some new friends of mine, I met up with someone who was once a member of a cult that I was once tangentially involved with that nevertheless had a huge impact on my life, I became disillusioned with NVC (which some people also call a cult), and I realized there that going to public anarchist events is a waste of my time. Oh, and I also saw the remains of real-life dinosaurs!

This year I got involved with a bunch of different things/groups that go by Three Letter Acronyms: PCT, NVC, NFP, DSA, LSC. With each of these I went through cycles of thinking that they were quite interesting and that I had a bright future with them, to eventually thinking that they were quite boring and overblown. My thoughts on all of these things now is that they each have their place in life and the world at large, but also that putting too much faith or importance in them is best described with a Two Letter Acronym: BS.

Belief-system-wise, my heart is still with The Beautiful Idea of anarchy/anarchism. There is no particular hyphenated ideology of anarchism that I am tied to, I am more interested in the whole thing in general. Yes, the whole social scene/subculture that surrounds anarchism is total shit, but I am lucky to have some friends who are anarchists as well as a body of thought that speaks to how I see life and the world at large.

Speaking of the world at large, 2018 has been a big year for Politics! I spent a lot of time paying attention to mainstream politics this year, mainly in the U.S., but also in some other countries as well. I view mainstream politics, particularly in the U.S., as being a kind of team sport, and this year I treated it as such. My team that I root for is the Democrats, and so as the scandals, investigations, testimonies and elections wore on, I cheered as my team scored points, booed when the opposing team scored points, and strategized as to how the next few moves can and should play out. I have no illusions that the Democrats, nor any other political party or politician, will ever bring us freedom, meaning, a brave new future, or anything else worthwhile. The whole system is based on deception, death, destruction and despair, it is all propped up with outright violence and the threat thereof, and while it all plays out the Sixth Mass Extinction Event for this planet is continuing on unabated. But team sports, be it political or otherwise, can be a fun way to pass the time, and so that was a game that I partook in this year as well.

Speaking of entertainment, in the world of science fiction Star Trek and Star Wars surprisingly were not that big on my mind this year. 2017 was a big year for me for both of those franchises, but not 2018. This year I would say that my favorite sci-fi TV show was The Expanse, my favorite new sci- movie was Prospect and my favorite new publishing sci-fi author was the wonderful Kim Stanley Robinson. Yes, I acknowledge that there are other genres out there besides science fiction, I just don’t see them as being interesting enough for me to write about here. 😉

Real-life science had an interesting year this year as well, what with SpaceX doing some cool things, a robotic lander successfully touching down on the surface of Mars, the first genetically engineered humans being born, and the details of our impending doom being laid out for all to see and ignore.

Speaking personally, one notable thing for me this year was that 2018 was the year that I turned 40. 40! There is no more pretending that I am a youngling anymore! Ten years ago, when I turned 30, I went through a huge existential moment of trying to figure out who I am and what I am doing in the world. Turning 40 was far less dramatic, more subdued, more accepting of my place in life. I wonder if turning 50 will be similar?

Happy New Year to all! And good luck to New Horizons as it flies by Ultima Thule!

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