Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?

She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.

When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.

I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults. 

I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling. Continue reading “Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?”

Steve Jobs And The Nature-Nurture Debate

a-young-steve-jobs-smelled-so-bad-he-had-to-be-put-on-the-night-shift-at-atariMany years ago, I dropped out of college. People have often asked me whether I felt fear when I dropped out of engineering college. But, people are cowards. They do not understand college dropouts. The night I decided to drop out, I paced on the terrace of the college hostel, throwing stones, watching their trajectories. I felt exhilaration and a great sense of relief. Then onward, I had all the time in the world to read whatever I wanted to read.  Everything I did since then—and before—was rooted in my absolute confidence in creating a world of sublime beauty and tenderness by pressing my fingers on the keyboard.  

In the years I spent there, I cut myself off from the outside world to read the tall pile of books in my otherwise Spartan wooden room. My hostel mates called it “The Eiffel Tower”. All they could hear was me shutting the door loudly behind their backs. So, they often loosened the screws of my room to see what went on inside my room. Each time they did, I filled those holes with my large collection of ancient pens and pencils. Once, they did not allow me to sleep till 2 past midnight because they wanted to know what was in my briefcase. It was a battle I won.

In one of those days, I read a speech by Steve Jobs on dropping out of college. It was beautifully written. If Steve Jobs were not a visionary leader, he would have been one of the greatest writers of our times and of all times. The impulse that drives men like Steve Jobs to lose everything for their beliefs is the same that drives me to burn inhuman energy to create a work of unparalleled beauty. Over years, I read his speech many times because what kept me going was that I loved to write. Nothing else mattered much to me. Years later, when I was working in a run-down building in Safdarjung, I wept reading a beautifully written eulogy. It was the most beautiful tribute written when Steve Jobs died. It was written by Steve Jobs’ sister Mona Simpson, a successful novelist who was unaware of his existence for the first 25 years of her life. Mona Simpson’s husband is a writer for The Simpsons.

Similarities do not end there. Steve Jobs’ biological father ran a popular Mediterranean restaurant in Silicon Valley. Once Steve Jobs’ biological father told Mona Simpson without knowing that Steve Jobs was his own son: “Even Steve Jobs used to eat there. Yeah, he was a great tipper.” Steve Jobs called his biological parents his egg and sperm bank. But, it was his egg and sperm bank that shaped him, and not the working class parents who raised him.

When Steve Jobs’ high school sweetheart visited his home for the first time, she wondered “how these hardworking, blue-collar parents, these people with common sense but so few books, gave him the space to be completely otherworldly. To be extraordinary, in fact.” But, Steve Jobs’ biological father was a PhD in Economics and Political Science. He was his mother’s teaching assistant when she was a doctoral candidate. Steve Jobs was born when his father was 23. When Steve Jobs was young, his girl friend gave birth to a child he was not willing to raise. He was then 23 years old. Jobs’ biological parents wanted him to be adopted by a wealthier couple that rejected him at the final moment because they wanted a baby girl, and not a baby boy. So much for the belief that parents prefer baby boys. Anyone who has read enough about gender knows that parents prefer to adopt baby girls.

Is Steve Jobs’ case exceptional? No. As Bryan Caplan points out:

“In early 1979, a pair of identical twin brothers who had been separated at four weeks were reunited after 39 years. Both named Jim, they discovered that they smoked the same brand of cigarettes, vacationed in the same town and both called their dog “Toy.” Struck by the story, psychologists at the University of Minnesota started studying separated twins that same year. Their efforts blossomed into the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, which ran for a quarter century, attracting world-wide fascination and antipathy.  The Minnesota researchers tracked down every pair they could find—and measured traits related to almost every aspect of life: health, cognition, personality, happiness, career, creativity, politics, religion, sex and much more. The Minnesota study reveals genetic effects on virtually every trait. The breakdown between nature, nurture and everything else varies from trait to trait. But Ms. Segal emphasizes the uniformity of the results—the consistent power of genes, the limited influence of parenting. Some findings go down easy: As most would expect, identical twins raised apart have virtually identical heights as adults. Some findings seem obvious after the fact: Genes, but not upbringing, have a pretty big effect on personality traits like ambition, optimism, aggression and traditionalism. Other findings perennially cause outrage: The IQs of separated identical twins are almost as similar as their heights. Critics of intelligence research often hail the importance of practice rather than inborn talent, but a three-day test of the Minnesota twins’ motor skills showed that how much you benefit from practice is itself partly an inborn talent.”

Interesting Links

“Naipaul was not a bridge burner, he wrote, but a “mushy soul afflicted with a cruel streak, and like many severe men, something of a sentimentalist. He cried easily.” He was, said Theroux, also a mean freeloader who rarely paid his share of bills.”

VS Naipaul And Paul Theroux

Why do so many famous men gamble their reputations, their careers, and their marriages on reckless sexual encounters?  It’s hard to believe the “James Bond” theory, that men crave the esteem that society bestows on the dashing stud. Men try to conceal their liaisons, not advertise them, and when they fail, their reward is ridicule from Leno and Letterman, not the respect of a nation. Perhaps the political process selects rapscallions who thrill at defying the conventions that govern the rest of us. Or perhaps, as Henry Kissinger said, power is an aphrodisiac.  But the simplest explanation may be that our leaders and celebrities show ordinary male appetites in extraordinary circumstances.

Presidents Behaving Badly by Steven Pinker

“It’s the age-old debate: Do people wear clothes for functionality (such as staying warm or protecting feet), or do they wear clothes for style? A lot of people think the answer is “both,” but those people are no fun. I like to make it sound like I really believe it is nothing but style, except if you challenge me with obvious counterarguments then I’ll say, “Well duh, obviously I wasn’t denying that.” Anyway, if the critics are right and we really wear clothes because they serve an actual pragmatic function, then why is it common for people to dream about being naked and horribly embarrassed in front of a crowd? Nobody ever has a nightmare about being naked in the tundra, all alone, and then freezing to death. This post inspired by Bryan Caplan.”

A Dreamy Argument by Robert Murphy

“Similarly, just as on National Days you take the time to appreciate your nation’s virtues and accomplishments, the point of Foreigner Day is to appreciate other nations’ virtues and accomplishments.  What can we learn from foreigners?  In what ways should we emulate foreigners?  It is possible that we take foreigners for granted – or even mistreat themForeigner Day is not about self-hatred, but the quest for self-improvement.  Suppose your country is the best on Earth.  It would still be miraculous if your country were the best in every respect.  So why not examine the planet in all its variety and see how yours can improve?  And needless to say, half the world’s countries are, by definition, worse than most countries on Earth.  Foreigner Day, for them, is a time to humbly look beyond their borders for solutions their own culture has failed to originate. Foreigner Day is a simultaneously a celebration of both multiculturalism and Western civilization.  Like multiculturalism, it takes seriously the fact that almost every culture has something of value to share with the world.  But it also embraces Western civilization at its best: Universalism, or, as I call it, openness to awesomeness.”

Belated Foreigner Day by Bryan Caplan

“Every year I seem to have the same resolution: say “no” more often. Despite my black belt in economics-fu, it’s an endless challenge. But economics does tell us a little about why “no” is such a difficult word, why it’s so important — and how to become better at saying it. Let’s start with why it’s hard to say “no”. One reason is something we economists, with our love of simple, intuitive language, call “hyperbolic discounting”. What this means is that the present moment is exaggerated in our thoughts. When somebody asks, “Will you volunteer to be school governor?” it is momentarily uncomfortable to refuse, even if it will save much more trouble later. To say “yes” is to warm ourselves in a brief glow of immediate gratitude, heedless of the later cost. A psychological tactic to get around this problem is to try to feel the pain of “yes” immediately, rather than at some point to be specified later. If only we could feel instantly and viscerally our eventual annoyance at having to keep our promises, we might make fewer foolish promises in the first place.”

—The Power of Saying No by Tim Harford

Why Do Intellectuals Hate Hindu Fundamentalists?

Against fundamentalism.
Against fundamentalism.

Everyone seems to hate the Hindu fundamentalists. I do not know why. The Hindu fundamentalists are the friendliest people I have come across, over the internet. This is true even in the real world. Whenever I write a blog post or column that they even remotely agree with, they treat me like an ally. If these rascals knew to hide envy—-their honest vulgarianism—some of them would have been tolerable, I believe.

But, I am not the only person to make this observation. Vinod Mehta observes:

“Actually, I have more friends in the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) than in the Congress. The Congress people are very arrogant and if you say anything against them, they hold it against you in perpetuity. Take someone in the BJP, like L.K. Advani or Arun Jaitley. You can write against them. They are grateful for being written about, they understand that you’re just doing your job. But in the Congress, there is this belief that “You will need me sometime or the other.” Therefore, after I had written about some Congress politicians in the negative, I have found that I had finished my relationship with them.”

I don’t think he is making this up. This is cross cultural. 

But, the median economist is a democrat. So, why are some conservatives and Hindu nationalists friendly toward libertarians? Why do many conservatives identify themselves as libertarians? There aren’t many intellectuals that are openly nationalist. They need allies. The liberals have nothing to gain by building an alliance with libertarians because they are way too many liberals. Liberals and libertarians are culturally liberal, but cultural conservatism doesn’t have many takers among intellectuals, activists and journalists. Religiousness and cultural conservatism do not fit in too well with elite culture. If almost everyone agrees on the merits of cultural liberalism, this cannot be a good foundation for an alliance.

The economically literate nationalists see a clustering of socially acceptable justifications and socially unacceptable positions in Hindu Nationalism—-as a package deal. The socially acceptable justifications are, of course, more of a matter of appearance than of substance. If someone asks why they like the mass murderer Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, it ain’t hard to claim, “I believe in development”. Or that I am against dole schemes. Or that “He gets things done.” The usual fig-leaf excuses. Much of this is product differentiation. Of course, this plays into the hands of their opponents and the leftist intellectuals. They know that the masses love dole schemes, and think(!) that efficiency is a capitalistic concept. The man on the street feels there is something sinister about “development”.

But, in this battle, the Hindu nationalists have finally won. There are only two possibilities. 1) Hindu Nationalism matters more to them than their preference for dole schemes, and hatred toward capitalism and the rich. 2) The masses—dull as they are—are instinctively shrewd. They know that this is the same old wine in many different bottles. They know that Hindu fundamentalists are not anymore capitalistic and that their opponents aren’t any less religious or nationalistic. They vote for the more charismatic leader. This makes sense because if policy preferences aren’t too negotiable, political parties cannot differ too much.

Of course, almost everyone is a nationalist. Almost everyone is culturally conservative. Liberal intellectuals like Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra oppose globalization. What does this mean?They are against ideas, goods, cultural entities and people crossing the borders. This is nationalism and cultural conservatism smuggled in through the backdoor, but people do not notice. Why should they, if they can roll in the mud without feeling bad about it? There is, of course, plausible deniability.

But, for much of India’s independent history, the Hindu nationalists did not have much of success. Why? This never made much sense to me because much of India’s population is Hindu, and I suspect they are fundamentalists, deep down. Why, oh, Why? Perry Anderson seems to be onto something here:

“By the mid-thirties, Congress as a party was close to monolithically Hindu just 3 per cent of its membership was Muslim.  Privately, its more clear-sighted leaders knew this.  Publicly, the party claimed to represent the entire nation, regardless of religious affiliation.  The reality was that by the end of the thirties, it commanded the loyalty of an overwhelming majority of the Hindu electorate, but had minimal Muslim support.  Since Hindus comprised two-thirds of the population, it was already clear that free elections on either an unaltered or universal franchise would deliver Congress absolute control of any future all India legislature.  Common sense indicated that from a position of such strength, it would be necessary to make every feasible concession to ensure that the quarter of the population that was Muslim would not feel itself a permanently impotent – and potentially vulnerable – minority.  Ignoring every dictate of prudence and realism, Congress did the opposite.  At each critical juncture, it refused any arrangement that might dilute the power to which it could look forward.”

Now, this is Hindu nationalism without guilt or shame. You can have your cake and eat it too. That’s a temptation most Indians couldn’t resist. Unlike the Hindu Nationalists, the politicians of the Indian National Congress did not have to verbalize their motives. They were even allowed to openly denounce the religious fundamentalists. This attracted more articulate, witty, charming, educated and affluent individuals, reinforcing this tendency even further.

Power begets power. It ain’t very surprising that most journalists and intellectuals—much as they claim that opposing Hindu fundamentalists does not mean that they support the Indian national Congress—are softer on the Congress. Many of these journalists even claim that Nehru’s mistakes sound foolish, but only in hindsight. (Oh, Like Karl Marx’s? Indian journalists know nothing about the history of ideas. Any good economist before Nehru would have seen this coming.) Is it a coincidence that this is a political party that wielded power for so long? If you notice the political positions of the journalists who lost their jobs in the past one year, when the proprietors anticipated that Modi might come to power, you’d see a clear pattern. But, the Indian National Congress has been in power for many decades, and they would have been setting the precedent for long. Add to this: School and college text-books. It ain’t easy to switch coalitions. Most journalists are liberal. So, this would have been easier for them than for Modi.

There are, of course, other reasons. As Satoshi Kanazawa observes in The Intelligence Paradox:

“The United States is one of the oldest and most well established representative democracies in the world. It is also probably the only major world power which has never had any history of hereditary monarchy. In fact, the nation was founded with the very goal of rejecting the rule of hereditary monarchy. Why then, now that we have firmly established a secure form of representative democracy in the last two centuries, do we act as if we want hereditary monarchy, by electing wives, sons, and other family members of politicians to succeed? Now, I’m sure that, just like any other profession or career, being a good politician requires certain skills and personality traits, and these skills and personality traits may very well be heritable.(Remember, Turkheimer’s first law of behavior genetics? All human traits are heritable. Many of these important traits may be 50% heritable.) So it makes sense that sons and other genetic relatives (but not wives) of former politicians want to pursue political careers and turn out to be good politicians themselves. Wives of politicians may also turn out to be good politicians themselves if there is assortative mating—where like marries like—on the important personality traits for politicians.

My question is, why do the people want the wives, sons, and other relatives of former politicians to succeed in office and vote for them, as if we have hereditary monarchy and politics ought to be family business? Family business is ubiquitous. Everywhere in the world, sons and daughters inherit and continue their parents’ occupations and professions. But politics in representative democracy is different because the continuation of family business requires popular support and consent. The son of the hardware store owner or the plastic surgeon does not require anyone’s consent and support to continue his family business. The son of the Congressman does. If it turns out that people everywhere tend to want family members to succeed in political office, then such desire may very well be part of universal human nature.

Does that mean that humans everywhere naturally want hereditary monarchy (but with popular support)? Is there something in our human nature that would want our political leaders to be succeeded by their wives, sons, and other family members? People sometimes complain that the wives and the sons who inherit their political offices from their family members are not qualified to be elected. Such complaints were particularly strong for George W. Bush and Mary Bono. But this is precisely the point. When a king dies, nobody asks the question “But is the crown prince ready and qualified to succeed to the throne?” Instead he automatically, unquestioningly, and immediately succeeds to his father’s throne and becomes the next king, regardless of whether he is qualified or ready. Nobody complains that the legitimate son of a king is not qualified to succeed to the throne, because his bloodline is his qualification. That’s how hereditary monarchy works.

My point is that we are acting like we are electing hereditary monarchs. Despite all the complaints about their utter lack of qualification, George W. Bush was reelected for the second term (a feat his father did not achieve), and Mary Bono continues to be reelected today. The fact that they and others may not be qualified for their office therefore supports my speculation. If the desire for hereditary monarchy—political succession within the family—is part of human nature and universal among all humans, then it means that such a desire is evolutionarily familiar, and the desire for representative democracy—or any other form of government—is evolutionarily novel.

Our ancestors during most of human evolutionary history were undoubtedly more egalitarian and democratic than we were in the recent historical past, during the late agrarian and early industrial periods.  However, all the accoutrements of modern representative democracy—such as the secret ballot, one person-one vote, universal suffrage, and proportional representation—are all evolutionarily novel. The Intelligence Paradox would therefore suggest that more intelligent individuals and populations have greater desire and capacity for representative democracy than less intelligent individuals and populations.

Indeed this appears to be the case. In his comprehensive study of 170 nations in the world, the Finnish political scientist Tatu Vanhanen showed that the average intelligence in society increases its degrees of democracy.  The more intelligent the population on average, the more democratic their government. Vanhanen’s finding suggests that representative democracy may indeed be evolutionarily novel and unnatural for humans. It does not necessarily mean that humans naturally prefer authoritarian government, the only major alternative form of government in the world today to representative democracy. After all, authoritarian government is also evolutionarily novel. My suggestion is merely that it may be natural for the human mind to expect their new political leader to be a blood relative of the old political leader, and that pure representative democracy, where political successors are not related to their predecessors, may therefore be unnatural. Natural does not mean good or desirable, and unnatural does not mean bad or undesirable. It simply means that humans did not evolve to practice representative democracy.”

Should Jonathan Gruber Have Lied About Having Lied?

gruber2.rOnce when I asked an economist how the government should cure the fiscal deficit, he said that the government should cut spending. “The government shouldn’t run schools and colleges. The government shouldn’t run hospitals. The government shouldn’t run the police and the courts. The government doesn’t do anything well—except perhaps running the NHAI roads.” Then he asked, laughing, “Do you disagree with that?” I said, “No. I don’t disagree. This is obvious. Everywhere I see idiots. I haven’t talked to an honest guy before.” He said, “Thank You. But, you can’t quote me on this.”

Call him a hypocrite, but my respect for him went up. The establishment economists do lie, or at least they do not tell the whole truth. Whatever the ethical aspects of the matter, this is the necessary price they pay for being part of the establishment. We’re better off when the establishment economists are otherwise sane, thoughtful fellows. Would you rather have sincere mad scientists as appointees? I’d pick economists who cannot help speaking their mind over others any day.

Once when a proposal to raise the tax rate on the rich in India was under discussion, in a meeting with the Finance minister, all the economists present disagreed with the proposal. When I was at the finance ministry, an economist who spoke after the meeting had as much as said so. After an hour, I noticed that the finance ministry had issued a statement saying that there was a near-unanimous consent on the proposal. I couldn’t even believe what I read. When I asked an economist, he said that he was surprised to hear this too, but he was not willing to be quoted on that.

I am not willing to believe that “They are doing this for the nation.”, but I am sure that they see this as a necessary price to pay for having a say in policy matters. But, irrespective of whether they would like to believe it or not, are they right? I suspect “sincere” policy making is scarier.  India’s central bank head, Raghuram Rajan, for instance, is more sensible than he comes across. Inflation has fallen drastically in the past one year.

Few days ago, Rich Weinstein, an obscure investment adviser publicized tapes of establishment economist Jonathan Gruber’s cynical comments on Obamacare. Now, this is what Jonathan Gruber said that angered people:

“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.” 

Of course, now he claims that these were off-hand remarks. Human nature being what it is, this is what we should expect. Jonathan Gruber has proven not to be a sincere liar. But, would Jonathan Gruber have been an honest man if he had accepted the official party line, lock, stock and barrel? People think that the sincere liars have more integrity than the intellectuals who consciously lie. I have my doubts. I have learned from hard experience that people can convince themselves of almost anything they want to believe. The conscious liars at least feel bad about what they do, but the sincere liars feel good about themselves.  Wouldn’t they go too far?

What is unusual about Gruber is that people penalized him for not having consistently lie dabout having lied. Remember: He is not being punished for being deluded, or even lying, but for not having consistently lying about having lied. Otherwise he would have been damned all along.

He wouldn’t have been publicly humiliated if he had kept his mouth shut. The harm has already been done. So, what did he gain by speaking his mind? Gruber probably felt better saying that he did not really agree with how things were being done. Wouldn’t it be good if this happened often enough? By punishing Jonathan Gruber for making off-hand remarks, libertarians are punishing him for not being a good coalition partner. I think we should subsidize that more. Or, should false excuses inspire more trust?

I do not believe that there is something antisocial about too much honesty, but I think libertarians haven’t internalized this enough:

“Although we claim to value truth above all else, we are also at least dimly aware that there is something antisocial about too much honesty. This dilemma has often been portrayed in literature and film, from Dostoevsky’s Prince Mishkin, whose innocence and honesty destroy the lives of those around him, to the 1997 film Liar, Liar!  in which a lawyer wreaks havoc when he is placed under a spell condemning him to be truthful for twenty-four agonizing hours. Evolutionary biology suggests that no normal person would be capable of such a feat. We are natural-born liars.

The power to deceive is our main weapon in the struggle for social survival. Like it or not, without it, we are sheep in the company of wolves. Similarly, the power to read intentions from nonverbal expressions is our best safeguard against victimization by others. Without it, we are at their mercy.

Immensely rapid, specialized unconscious modules are humming in the background of our minds twenty-four hours a day. We could not get along without them. We could not get manage if we had to consciously coordinate our bodily movements, choose words in a conversation, or laboriously parse streams of sound from people’s mouths into choppy words and sentences. Fortunately, our brains come equipped with pre-installed cognitive software for these tasks, and the same holds true of our ability to understand the meaning of social behavior.

“All social inferences flow from a common set of assumptions, an informal folk-psychological theory of human nature. If the theory is biased, it will deliver faulty appraisals of everyone: not only of oneself, but also of other people. Commonsense assumptions include gems of sagacity such as the notion that self-deception is abnormal, that good people do not lie, that so-called normal people are not motivated by self-interest, and that politicians aspire to serve the public. Such homilies cannot serve as a basis for sound social reasoning, but they are terrific gimmicks for Machiavellian manipulation. The knife of self-deception cuts two ways: you cannot maintain a highly distorted conception of yourself side by side with a true estimate of others.

A savvy social operator needs to have an excellent grasp of human self-interests, because it’s impossible to beguile others unless you understand what makes them tick. However, self-deception, which is also essential for competent social manipulation, pulls us in the opposite direction, leading us to disavow knowledge about human self-interest and encouraging a rather naive conception of human nature. So, there is a tension between the profound psychological understanding needed by the shrewd social player and the dumbing-down of social intelligence required by self-deception. How could nature have engineered the mind to make the most out of these conflicting forces? The obvious solution is to split the mind. It is all right for consciousness to be socially myopic if this helps social intelligence to operate smoothly behind the scenes. Our sheer conscious stupidity about one another is a perfect front for a wily Machiavellian intelligence. If these considerations are on the mark, we must be far better at “reading” other people unconsciously than we are consciously. We must all be gifted, instinctive psychologists, whose conscious minds are left out of the loop. The chasm dividing unconscious astuteness from conscious naivete is a consequence of the way that natural selection has sculpted our psyches to handle the pressures of a complex social life. It is distinctly and quintessentially human.

In short, we are like people playing poker in the dark. We are in the dark because “part of the game of social competition involves concealing how it is played.” from our own conscious minds. As unconscious poker players, we can manipulate the others while remaining innocent of many of our own self-serving intentions. If accused, we can sincerely take offense and claim that it is all in the paranoid eye of the beholder. Self-deception about our own Machiavellian agenda also makes us relatively insensitive, on the conscious level anyway, to the selfishness of others. We sleep because waking up would spoil the game.”—Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith

Patience And Passion

Ethan Casey, in a speech on why we should bother trying to change the world, quotes Paul Rogat Loeb:

“Sometimes we achieve the impossible sooner than we expect. Knowing that can stiffen our resolve. But relying on quick victories can also tempt us to place too much emphasis on outcomes; it can cause us to become unduly impatient, brittle, with our will easily broken by setbacks. A deeper, more farseeing hope, by contrast, combines realism with resilience, acknowledging suffering and despair without giving in to them. By letting go of impatient hope we can persist no matter how hard it gets.”

On the face of it, it is a bit of a puzzle why the “idealists” who seem to be guided by noble motives are often very impatient. I judge people by their patience. We are more likely to be patient when we genuinely care about something. The most creative thinkers, scientists and artists do not think too much about the “certain something” that they might achieve at some point in their life. They go on for very long because they do not really doubt that they will get what they want.

We are perhaps more patient when we are confident of getting what we want. Anyone who has been around for a while knows that the passive aggressive people are very patient. They seem to be very confident of things working out in their favor, as it often happens. This is true of the creative writers, scientists and artists too, but for entirely different reasons.

We are also more patient when we are trying to create something meaningful. A great writer does not rush to publish his work. A dime-a-dozen reporter does.

This is true, even of relationships. As Robert Greene points out:

“If you’re trying to seduce a woman for instance, taking the man’s point of view that they are obviously different and the main problem that a man would have in a seductive situation is he is too impatient. The only thing he is thinking about is sex. He is not willing to spend two months courting a woman knowing that in the end the sex will be a million times better if he just calms himself down. He can go home and take care of himself on his own if he needs to. Just spend those couple months, whatever is needed to court her, to make her feel like she is an individual, like she is worth it, and you know it’s going to pay off. On the other side a lot of times a woman all she thinks about is the relationship. Is this going to? My boyfriend, you know, is he going to be committed? They’re thinking about that after one week and it frightens the man away. The woman has to calm down. The woman has to be more patient. She has to let the man trust her more and not feel like she is coming at this with this need for a relationship right away. Both sides have to learn patience, but for different reasons.”

If this is true, why are men and women so impatient? Perhaps they are not too interested in a deep relationship. The man wants sex, and the woman wants the man to channel more resources toward her. But, this does not sound “too nice”. So, they claim to be searching for “love” while being hard-nosed traders, in practice.

What if this is true of the idealists too? What if the “idealists” are impatient because they care too little about what activism might accomplish? The people who desperately want to change the world are impatient because it is hard to genuinely care about putting down atrocities. There’s only so much you can do. This seems to be the case.

The young people are the most idealistic, as Robin Hanson points out, despite idealism being not too effective when you are young because you attract allies and partners when you are young. The young men and women in their 20s, or even 30s do not have much influence over policy. If they are truly idealistic and passionate about changing the world, they would’ve been better off investing money, or acquiring skills that’d help them change the world when they’re older.

As Robin Argues:

“Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.

But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.

Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years. Why such a short term focus? Especially since idealism should if anything induce a far view. Yes young folks are often short-sighted, but why be more so about altruism than about school, relationships, etc.?

This seems related to the puzzle of why people don’t leverage the power of compound interest to donate to help the future needy, instead of today’s needy. Some argue that the future won’t have any needy, or that helping today’s needy automatically helps future needy, at a rate growing faster than investment rates of return. I’m pretty skeptical about both of these claims.

One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts). But if you save money to help the future needy, or if you invest now in skills useful in future idealistic projects, that is less clearly a signal of altruism, because you might later change your mind and use that money or those skills for other purposes.

So to signal your youthful idealism to potential associates, you must spend the money and time now, even if such spending is less effective toward the idealistic cause. But hey, at least the cause gets something.”

The Dead House

Much of the ideological debates in India remind me of this:

“The two children of the family were divided on the question. June Sanborn, aged nineteen, had always thought that all architects were romantic, and she had been delighted to learn that they would have a very young architect; but she did not like Roark’s appearance and his indifference to her hints, so she declared that the house was hideous and she, for one, would refuse to live in it. Richard Sanborn, aged twenty-four, who had been a brilliant student in college and was now slowly drinking himself to death, startled his family by emerging from his usual lethargy and declaring that the house was magnificent. No one could tell whether it was esthetic appreciation or hatred of his mother or both.

When the house was completed, Mrs. Sanborn refused to live in it. Mr. Sanborn looked at it wistfully, too tired to admit that he loved it, that he had always wanted a house just like it. He surrendered. The house was not furnished. Mrs. Sanborn took herself, her husband and her daughter off to Florida for the winter, “where,” she said, “we have a house that’s a decent Spanish, thank God!–because we bought it ready-made. This is what happens when you venture to build for yourself, with some half-baked idiot of an architect!” Her son, to everybody’s amazement, exhibited a sudden burst of savage will power: he refused to go to Florida; he liked the new house, he would live nowhere else. So three of the rooms were furnished for him. The family left and he moved alone into the house on the Hudson. At night, one could see from the river a single rectangle of yellow, small and lost, among the windows of the huge, dead house.”

Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers

Nietzsche compared himself to the flame that insatiably consumes and destroys itself.

“Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers, the men whose deeds and ideas cut out new paths for mankind. For the pioneering genius to create is the essence of life. To live means for him to create.

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation. The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster.

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him. The Austrian poet Grillparzer has depicted this in a touching poem “Farewell to Gastein.” We may assume that in writing it he thought not only of his own sorrows and tribulations but also of the greater sufferings of a much greater man, of Beethoven, whose fate resembled his own and whom he understood, through devoted affection and sympathetic appreciation, better than any other of his contemporaries. Nietzsche compared himself to the flame that insatiably consumes and destroys itself. Such agonies are phenomena which have nothing in common with the connotations generally attached to the notions of work and labor, production and success, breadwinning and enjoyment of life.

The achievements of the creative innovator, his thoughts and theories, his poems, paintings, and compositions, cannot be classified praxeologically as products of labor. They are not the outcome of the employment of labor which could have been devoted to the production of other amenities for the “production” of a masterpiece of philosophy, art, or literature. Thinkers, poets, and artists are sometimes unfit to accomplish any other work. At any rate, the time and toil which they devote to creative activities are not withheld from employment for other purposes. Conditions may sometimes doom to sterility a man who would have had the power to bring forth things unheard of; they may leave him no alternative other than to die from starvation or to use all his forces in the struggle for mere physical survival. But if the genius succeeds in achieving his goals, nobody but himself pays the “costs” incurred. Goethe was perhaps in some respects hampered by his functions at the court of Weimar. But certainly he would not have accomplished more in his official duties as minister of state, theater manager, and administrator of mines if he had not written his plays, poems, and novels.

It is, furthermore, impossible to substitute other people’s work for that of the creators. If Dante and Beethoven had not existed, one would not have been in a position to produce the Divina Commedia or the Ninth Symphony by assigning other men to these tasks. Neither society nor single individuals can substantially further the genius and his work. The highest intensity of the “demand” and the most peremptory order of the government are ineffectual. The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact for praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term.”-Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action.

Beautiful, beautiful prose. Mises was one of the heroes of my early youth.

 

Women Are Too Smart To Even Try

A social nerd sure is too happy.

In the battle between nerds and jocks, the jocks have always the last laugh. Well, almost. For much of human history. But, what might happen if the influential nerds decide to oust jocks from positions of power? The nerds will engage in traditional jock pursuits, pressurizing others nerds to follow suit. The traditional nerd pursuits will take a backseat. The nerds are now living a lie, attending the social gatherings they do not want to attend and exchanging meaningless words with jocks when they would rather be writing novels, doing Math or learning to program.

The old neurotypical taunt will be hurled against the nerds who refuse to toe the official line: “Apart from writing and Facebook, do you have a life? You must be really sad!” The influential nerds will see them as traitors to their own tribe. The influential nerds will claim that the nerdy nerds are violating their own nature while they themselves itch to do “their own thing”. The media will publish studies on how the nerd-jock gap is being bridged, with the nerds replacing the jocks in traditional jock pursuits like sales and marketing. (No nerd is yet a successful politician.)

The nerd is rising. Slowly, but assiduously. 

One day, the long-suffering nerd finds himself old, long past his prime. He has not written the novels he had wanted to write when he was a teen. He has not invented anything worth mentioning. He is still recovering from a hangover from the previous night’s party. Then he hauls himself to work, where he is beaten fair and square by the jocks. They are pros at office intrigue. A social nerd sure is too happy. Like the much ridiculed post-menopausal cat woman.

If you know what this means, it is not hard to understand why women claim that women are too smart to even try their hand at traditional male pursuits. Satoshi Kanazawa is probably right:

“Contrary to what they may have told you, it is very unlikely that money, promotions, the corner office, social status, and political power will make women happy.  Similarly, it is very unlikely that quitting their jobs, dropping out of the rat race, and becoming stay-at-home dads to spend all their times with their children will make men happy.”

The traditional male pursuits are not useless. But, neither are the wide, shallow networks created by jocks. That is how humans built culture.

Why Do Liberal Intellectuals Hate Narendra Modi?

CM_Narendra_Damodardas_ModiIf the admirers of democracy were honest, they would have rejoiced when a tea-seller becomes the Prime Minister. If they were consistent, they would have considered this the logical end result of democratic politics. But, they do not. The liberal intellectuals and journalists still treat Narendra Modi like a pariah. It is perhaps true, as they say, that Narendra Modi is a philistine whose understanding of the world is limited to his narrow experiences. But, they do not realise that the same tribute could be paid to almost any voter. Why is this considered a virtue in the voter- a sign of his incorruptibility – and a vice in Narendra Modi?

For liberal intellectuals, it is very tempting to blame Modi for the “politics of hatred”. But, is there any good reason to assume that the vast ethnic massacres, ethnic cleansing and forced sterilisations that underscored post-Independence India like a long trail of blood has nothing to do with the “politics of hatred”? 

But then, it is worse than a waste of time to blame politicians. Without pandering to popular prejudices, they would not have been elected to power. But, the common man could have easily taken reasonable steps to avoid political ignorance. After all, he has nothing to lose. The liberal intellectuals themselves could have read an elementary text on Economics. They too have nothing to lose, except their friends and those positions of power and influence.

Read my column in DNA.

Happy Birthday, Szasz

szaszfaceToday is Thomas S Szasz’ 94th birthday. When I discuss the Szasz-ian view that mental illness is a myth, virtually no one accepts this view as the truth. Even when they are reasonably intelligent people, they do not understand what this even means. They tend to think that this is a hypothesis, or that I do not understand how grave a threat mental illness can be.

But, I think certain facts are obvious. Most people are really dumb. Half the people have IQs below 100. Half the people in India have IQs below 82. You have to remember that someone with an IQ of 100 is still way below someone at the top of the IQ pyramid. The difference between him, and someone whose IQ is 100 is the difference between the person with an IQ of 100 and a chimpanzee. Is it even plausible that the judgment of the large majority of the people of what constitutes normal behavior is likely to be true? Does a chimpanzee know how a man behaves and how he ought to behave?

People do not know that in the mid-19th century, the slaves who ran away were believed to have drapetomania. Drapetomania, of course, was a disease that caused the slaves to run away. A physician Samuel Cartwright believed that drapetomania was caused by: Continue reading “Happy Birthday, Szasz”