You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Arnold Kling shares his thoughts on the saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with:

Right now, I don’t have five close friends.


My social friends and my intellectual friends would not get along with one another.


Typically, someone matters to me very intensely for a few years, but hardly at all apart from that. In the late 1990s, I talked with my main business partner several times a day. Now we communicate about once a year.


If I were to say that my intellectual life is an average of other people, I would list my father (a political science professor), Bernie Saffran (who was an economics professor at Swarthmore), and Russ Roberts. All three rank much higher in wisdom than their place in the academic hierarchy would indicate. All I would describe as much more open-minded, capable of lifelong learning, and able to change their mind more than typical academics. In general, I have found that people in business (such as Collison) are much more oriented toward learning than are academics. Many professors by age 30 have narrowed their intellectual world to a few peers that operate within their narrow sub-field. In business, you fail if you do that.


At all points in my life, the key people in my life have been very high in conscientiousness. Compared with others around them, they have been far more averse to recreational drugs or sexual adventures. You might accuse them of being inhibited. They are very conservative with personal finances and could live on much less than what they have. They would never allow career ambition to jeopardize family cohesion. They have a strong sense of agency – they would never celebrate victimhood. (In new-age jargon, they are “at cause” as opposed to “at effect.”)

I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Arnold Kling found Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Bryan Caplan to be one of his favorite EconTalk episodes, “because Russ pushes back so hard and of course Bryan debates effectively.” I also enjoyed both the Caplan quotes he cited:

I would say if there is no designable test that can show that people learn something, then they haven’t learned it. You might say the test is bad, in which case I would say, ‘Fine. Design a better test, and then show it to me.’ But, if you want to say that people have been transformed but it’s a way that no one can actually show, no matter how hard they try, then I’m going to say, ‘No. That just sounds like wishful thinking.’


I’m weird in this way, in that when I read something that seems true to me, like I just feel this incredible, this weight on the world: ‘I must repent. I can’t keep living the way I used to live anymore. I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions, day after day. And, I’m a sinner if I don’t.’ But even that is such a weird response to a book. Most people read Tetlock’s Superforecasting and say, ‘Oh, yeah. So interesting. Some people are really great at this stuff. Yeah. Right.’ And then they go back and live their normal lives.

Intellectual indoor plumbing and toxic ideas that spread like wildfire

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds has been reading James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, and he notes how fragile early civilizations were:

A bunch of people and their animals would crowd together in a city, and diseases that weren’t much of a threat when everybody was spread out hunting and gathering would suddenly spread like wildfire and depopulate the town almost overnight.

As Scott writes, an early city was more like a refugee resettlement camp than a modern urban area. He observes that “the pioneers who created this historically novel ecology could not possibly have known the disease vectors they were inadvertently unleashing.”

Then I ran across this observation on Twitter: “The Internet is rewiring brains and social relations. Could it be producing a civilizational nervous breakdown?” And I saw another article noting that depression in teens skyrocketed between 2010 and 2015, as smartphones took over. It made me wonder if we’re in the same boat as the neolithic cities, only for what you might call viruses of the mind: Toxic ideas that spread like wildfire.


Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

It took three things to help control the spread of disease in cities: sanitation, acclimation and better nutrition.


We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

And perhaps people will acclimate. Twitter is still new, and amplifies crazy opinions. People may learn to spend less time on social media or to avoid them altogether. (In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, the elites of the future consume their news on paper, and send each other handwritten notes; electronic communication is for the plebes.) But that will take time.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

The Diamond Age is definitely one of those novels that stuck with me. (Dune is another.)

Arnold Kling points out that this ties in nicely with the recent talk between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt, where they discuss how the sense of disgust evolved to protect people not just from disease:

We tend to feel an instinctive disgust toward groups with customs and manners that differ from our own. If you can overcome this instinct to feel disgust when you are around foreigners, then you can benefit from their ideas and culture. But you increase somewhat your risk of contracting disease. Peterson describes Adolf Hitler as operating on the theory that having Jews or Gypsies in a population was like having rats in a factory. He was so concerned about the disease that might be spread by such creatures that he wanted them eradicated.

A cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Arnold Kling sees politics as religion, defining religion as a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe:

A broad set of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices constitutes culture. Narrow that down to a subset of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices that clearly define who is or is not a member of the tribe. Focus on that subset. For example, Jews eat gefilte fish, observe Yom Kippur, and don’t pray to Jesus. But only a subset of those (observing Yom Kippur and not praying to Jesus) are tribally definitive. The rabbis won’t question your Jewish identity if you turn down gefilte fish.

No tribe is perfectly defined by a precise list of cultural characteristics. But bear with me and think in terms of tribally defining cultural subsets.

A tribally defining cultural subset will (a) tend to empower adherents to obey, enforce, and regularly re-affirm tribal norms, and (b) lead its members to fear and despise people who are not members of the tribe.

Further comments:

1. Cosmopolitans (including progressives, libertarians, and conservative intellectuals) would say that, yes, historically, “fear and despise” was part of religion, but that is a bug, not a feature. Ironically, cosmopolitans start to look like a tribe that fears and despises people who espouse traditional religions. And yes, there does seem to be a fourth axis here: cosmopolitan vs. populist, or Bobo vs. anti-Bobo.

2. The role of a transcendent being is to help motivate members to obey tribal norms, for fear of being punished by the transcendent being (See Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods). However, belief in a transcendent being is not necessary to have a modern large-scale tribe. But it does seem necessary to have an out-group that you fear and despise.

3. Historically, major religions have usually fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe.

4. Usually, modern nation-states have fit this notion. There are those who say that nation-states were a better tribal bonding technology (so to speak) than belief in a transcendent being, and hence they made religion relatively unnecessary.

5. Finally, to the commenter’s point, I think that some political ideologies have come to fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe. The current progressive ideology seems to me to fit the notion particularly well. But the three-axis model suggests that conservatives and libertarians are tribal, also. Again, the emergence of the Bobo vs. anti-Bobo conflict has scrambled things quite a bit.

The null hypothesis is not an iron law

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

Statistically, educational interventions tend to affect resource allocation much more than outcomes, Arnold Kling reminds us, so, for educational interventions within roughly the current institutional setting, the null hypothesis is not an iron law, but it is an empirical regularity. This led me to add:

What stands out to me is just how little variation we see between schooling options. Public schools are all run on the same basic plan. Catholic schools are too, but with stricter discipline. Private schools aren’t much different, but with a wealthier clientele.

Only a few niche alternatives, such as Montessori and Waldorf, offer something truly different, and they obviously attract unusual families.

Reading Technology Review is a wonderful antidote to reading Regulation Magazine

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Arnold Kling has grown more pessimistic about American political culture:

I think that I would have preferred that the elite stay “on top” as long as they acquired a higher regard for markets and lower regard for technocratic policies. What has been transpired is closer to the opposite. There was a seemingly successful revolt against the elite (although the elite is fighting back pretty hard), and meanwhile the elite has doubled down on its contempt for markets and its faith in technocracy.

I am disturbed about the news from college campuses. A view that capitalism is better than socialism, which I think belongs in the mainstream, seems to be on the fringe. Meanwhile, the intense, deranged focus on race and gender, which I think belongs on the fringe, seems to be mainstream.

The media environment is awful. Outrage is what sells. Moderation has fallen by the wayside.

It seems increasingly clear that no matter who wins elections, my preferences for economic policy get thrown under the bus. The Overton Window on health policy has moved to where health insurance is a government responsibility. The Overton Window on deficit spending and unfunded liabilities has moved to where there is no political price to be paid for running up either current debts or future obligations. The Overton Window on financial policy has moved to where nobody minds that the Fed and other agencies are allocating credit, primarily toward government bonds and housing finance. The Overton Window on the Administrative State has moved to where it is easier to mount a Constitutional challenge against an order to remove regulations than against regulatory agency over-reach.

Outside of the realm of politics, things are not nearly so bleak. Many American businesses and industries are better than ever, and they keep improving. Scientists and engineers come up with promising ideas. Reading Technology Review is a wonderful antidote to reading, say Regulation Magazine. The latter is the most depressing thing I do all month.

School has become an abnormal setting for children

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

School has become an abnormal setting for children,” according to Boston College psych professor Peter Gray, but “instead of admitting that, we say the children are abnormal.”

Arnold Kling adds this:

Those of us who grew up many decades ago probably would not want to trade our childhood for today’s childhood. My memories are of spending all day playing “hit the bat” out in the street, or practicing handstands in the yard, or playing board games. With no adult supervision.

Gray’s recent book on the topic is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

He’s on to something, but I don’t completely agree him.

US healthcare is famous for three things

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

US healthcare is famous for three things, Ben Southwood notes:

It’s expensive, it’s not universal, and it has poor outcomes. The US spends around $7,000 per person on healthcare every year, or roughly 18% of GDP; the next highest spender is Switzerland, which spends about $4,500. Before Obamacare, approx 15% of the US population were persistently uninsured (8.6% still are). And as this chart neatly shows, their overall outcome on the most important variable — overall life expectancy — is fairly poor.

But some of this criticism is wrongheaded and simplistic: when you slice the data up more reasonably, US outcomes look impressive, but being the world’s outrider is much more expensive than following behind. What’s more, most of the solutions people offer just don’t get to the heart of the issue: if you give people freedom they’ll spend a lot on healthcare.

The US undoubtedly spends a huge amount on healthcare. One popular narrative is that because of market failures and/or extreme overregulation in healthcare, prices are excessively high. So Americans with insurance (or covered by Medicare, the universal system for the elderly, or Medicaid, the government system for the poor) get the same as other developed world citizens, but those without get very poor care and die younger. A system like the NHS solves the problem, according to this view, with bulk buying of land, labour, and inputs, better incentives, and universal coverage.

But there are some serious flaws in this theory. Firstly, extending insurance to the previously-uninsured doesn’t, in America, seem to have large benefits. For example, a recent NBER paper found no overall health gains from the massive insurance expansion under Obamacare.* A famous RAND study found minuscule benefits over decades from giving out free insurance to previously uninsured in the 1970s. In fact, over and above the basics, insuring those who choose not to get insurance doesn’t ever seem to have large gains. Indeed, there is wide geographic variation in the life expectancy among the low income in the US, but this doesn’t even correlate with access to medical care! This makes it unlikely that the gap between the US and the rest is explained by universality.

To find the answer, consider the main two ingredients that go into health outcomes. One is health, and the other is treatment. If latent health is the same across the Western world, we can presume that any differences come from differences in treatment. But this is simply not the case. Obesity is far higher in the USA than in any other major developed country. Obviously it is a public health problem, but it’s unrealistic to blame it on the US system of paying for doctors, administrators, hospitals, equipment and drugs.

In fact in the US case it’s not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it’s accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it’s not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it’s an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear. Just simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.

One of our cultural problems, Arnold Kling adds, is that we spend too much on health care and not enough on public health.


Sunday, July 19th, 2015

Arnold Kling sums up William Manchester’s view of the 1932-1940 period in British history in two paragraphs:

The British ruling class was rotten. The British Prime Ministers of that era were dull-witted and feckless. Traumatized by the first World War and frightened of Bolshevism, they came up with an endless list of excuses not to confront Hitler. The role played by the media during this period was dreadful — covering for Hitler and suppressing the views of Churchill until very late in the game.

Churchill was, in many ways, more out of touch with the twentieth century than were other members of the ruling class. However, he had the strength and intelligence that the leading politicians lacked. And unlike most others of his class, he saw Hitler with clarity.

Between the time he wrote that and posted it, an Islamist terrorist attacked and killed multiple American service members in Tennessee:

A casual reader of the Washington Post could be forgiven for blaming the attack on conservatives and the National Rifle Association. The lead Post story said that this was “the latest eruption of gun violence in the United States.” The print newspaper also provides a second front-page story, headlined “Shooter grew up in conservative family.” [The online version says “middle-class Muslim family.”]

I read every word of the second story, looking for the basis for terming the family “conservative.” Did they have a Romney bumper sticker on their car? A subscription to National Review? Perhaps they flew a Confederate flag? Were active in the Tea Party?


I would love to know how the Post determined on the basis of the content of the story that the best adjective to describe the family was “conservative.” Getting back to the 1930s comparisons, I do not want to equate Muslim radicals with Nazis, because I think that there are important differences. What I am getting at here are the similarities between the British media in the 1930s and what we find in the U.S. today.

As for the American educated in class in general, consider Harry Painter’s analysis of summer reading lists for college students.

Upon browsing the list, one might conclude that all of humanity’s best books are about minorities fighting and ultimately overcoming the oppressive constrictions of Western, male-dominated society.

Anti-Elitist, but Even More Anti-Mobist

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Arnold Kling thinks of himself as anti-elitist, but even more anti-mobist:

When the mob emerges, I cease to be libertarian and instead become ultra-conservative. There is no phenomenon more barbaric than the mob.

Kling was delighted to learn about “unfollowing” on Facebook, so he could unfollow any friends who constantly posted political screeds.

He also cites James Poulos on why Twitter is terrible:

Twitter is a megaphone for the worldview wars. It fosters constant competition among our claims that everyone should care and act as we do.

Hayek and Business Management

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Arnold Kling cannot emphasize enough how much he agrees with this:

If extensive knowledge is possible, then bosses might be able to manage big companies well. If not, then centrally planned companies will be inefficient. Sure, perhaps competition will eventually weed out egregious incompetence, but market forces might not grind so finely as to eliminate all inefficiency.

Kling explains:

Because I spent 15 years in business, I got an opportunity to see large organizations close up. I saw that in a large business, the top management cannot keep track of more than about three major initiatives at a time. I saw that compensation systems have to be frequently overhauled, because employees learn to game any system that stays in place for more than a couple of years. I saw the “suits vs. geeks” divide, as specialists in information technology or financial modeling had difficulty communicating with executives who had only general knowledge.

The notion of large, efficient organization is an oxymoron. If you think that large corporations have overwhelming advantages, then you have explained why IBM still dominates the computer industry, while Microsoft and Apple never really got amounted to much of anything. I like to say that if you are afraid of large corporations then you have never worked for one.

Of course, large corporations do exist. That is because as clumsy as they are, they can still be less clumsy than the alternative, which is to break a corporation into a network of contractually related divisions.

Community College: What is the Right Price?

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Arnold Kling is skeptical about free community college:

Just based on my gut feeling, I think that the vast majority of students attending community college do not have favorable outcomes. [...] I am not even sure that students in the lower tier of four-year colleges have favorable outcomes. Instead, the true cost, including what the students pay out of pocket plus subsidies plus opportunity cost, exceeds the benefit for many who attend college. In contrast, President Obama seems to endorse the fairy-dust model of college, where you can sprinkle it on anyone to produce affluence.

Politicians and policy wonks face different incentives:

If I were President Obama, of course, I would champion universal “free” community college. Worst case, my proposal becomes law. A lot of money gets wasted, but it’s not my money. Best case, the Republicans vote it down and I call them anti-opportunity meanies.

How Civilizations Die

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Arnold Kling describes David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die as very anti-Islam, very pro-Jewish and pro-Christian, very heavy on the civilization-barbarism axis and shares this representative sample:

Wherever Muslim countries have invested heavily in secondary and university education, they have wrenched their young people out of the constraints of traditional society without, however, providing them with the skills to succeed in modernity. An entire generation of young Muslims has lost its traditional roots without finding new roots in the modern world. The main consequence of more education appears to be a plunge in fertility rates within a single generation, from the very large families associated with traditional society to the depopulation levels observed in Western Europe. Suspended between the traditional world and modernity, impoverished and humiliated, the mass of educated young Muslims have little to hope for and every reason to be enraged.

He thinks that recent events will lead people to give more consideration to such darker outlooks — and notices a change in the Zeitgeist:

By the way, my Facebook feed has changed radically in recent months, with much less political snark and a surfeit of cute animal videos. Part of me wonders if something like that happened in Britain when Hitler took power in 1933. Was politics just too unpleasant to contemplate at that point?

The Unintended Consequences of God

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

This year, a Super Bowl ad stated that God created a farmer. God created a money-lender, too:

In The Chosen Few, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein offer an explanation for how Jews wound up in high-skilled, urban occupations. They argue (p. 95) that between 200 and 650 AD,

world Jewry became a small population of literate individuals (“the chosen few”). The unintended consequences of the religious ruling that required Jewish fathers to invest in their sons’ literacy and education fully displayed themselves.

Jews became much more literate than other populations, but at a cost of numbers, as those who could not afford to educate their sons converted to other religions. Over this time period (p. 113)

the general population decreased by about 12 percent, whereas the Jewish population collapsed by roughly two-thirds.

In those days, most people were farmers, for whom literacy’s costs generally outweighed its benefits. However, in an urbanized society with skilled occupations, literacy pays off. As urbanization gradually increased in the late Middle Ages, Jews came to fill high-skilled occupations. Botticini and Eckstein argue that literacy, rather than persecution, is what led Jews into these occupations.

Thoughts on the New Commanding Heights

Monday, September 12th, 2011

Arnold Kling shares some thoughts on the new Commanding Heights of our economy, education and health care.

From Paul Howard:

Government policy both encourages consumer spending in health and education and protects providers in those industries through licensing requirements that reduce competition from lower-cost or higher-quality providers (charter schools, retail clinics, etc.).

From John Goodman:

We are living in a world in which entrepreneurs are encouraged to make unlimited amounts of money exploiting reimbursement formulas, but are not allowed to make any extra money making the formulas better and more effective.