Keeping up with the FITs, 1/17
Ed West on academic prose; Scott Alexander on marriage; Robert Wright on retribution; Matt Yglesias puts on rose-colored glasses; so does Nellie Bowles
I’m more inclined to think that academics deliberately make their subject matter needlessly-complicated sounding, but not because they have nothing to say – but more because what they say is so obviously insane that it needs to be disseminated among prestigious figures in academia before it can face the world.
I strongly believe that clear writing is a sign of clear thinking, and conversely. Unfortunately, in much of academia esoteric writing is treated as a positive signal instead of a negative one. This includes a lot of the use of equations in economics papers. If I were in charge of economics writing, I would insist on papers where the ideas are expressed clearly in prose. Equations would be used to say, “Yes, if you make explicit the accounting identities and behavioral assumptions I have in mind, the theoretical claim is coherent.”
If you go to a party, and you don’t meet anyone interesting there, it’s tempting to get discouraged. If you try again and again, with identical results, it’s tempting to give up. Chris says: instead, think of yourself as getting 500 micromarriages each time (or whatever you decide the real number is, with the understanding that you should update your estimate at some rate conditional on success or failure). All you need to do is go to a thousand parties and you have a 50-50 chance of meeting the right person! Maybe that number would sound more encouraging if it was lower - but it took me twenty years of trying, so I couldn’t have been getting more than a few hundred micromarriages a day, and I wasn’t slacking off.
I think more folks would get married for the right reason if they appreciated how happy people are as grandparents. Or, to put it differently, a good marriage is one that is embedded in the process of making someone a grandparent.
Robert Wright talks about the impulse we have to get back at people who bother us. He uses road rage as an example. He notes that in a small group, retribution can have a deterrent effect. But in our large, anonymous society, it only causes harm. He also reiterates that we are prone to over-estimating the goodness of people in our tribe and the badness of people in other tribes.
If, as a progressive, you think of Joe Manchin as “negotiating the terms of a centrist coalition government” rather than “blocking the Biden agenda” and as “junior partner in the coalition” rather than “the real president,” you’ll be a lot less mad. And if, as a moderate, you think of the country as being governed by a centrist coalition government thanks to the pivotal role of Joe Manchin (and Kyrsten Sinema, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, etc.), you’ll also be a lot less mad.
I would phrase this as “Strong partisans disdain the median voter theorem, but we tend to get it anyway.”
What if America is actually in pretty good shape? What if we’re not in the last days, on the edge of slaughtering each other? Things always need improving. Suffering needs alleviating. (I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t think that.) But what if we took the panic level down a few notches. Maybe that would help make things a little more reasonable.
I’ll bet that passage gives you zero desire to read more. You want to go back to clicking on catastrophe porn. Admit it.