To My Readers
So many of you are new! Allow me to introduce myself.
Recent Subscriber Growth
When I moved to Substack, the audience I brought along had followed me as long as a decade or more.
But 33% of my total subscribers have signed up in the last three months. I would like to provide background to “newbies,” meaning anyone who has been following me for less than a year. This essay will be shorter than what I want to write, but probably longer than what you want to read.
Almost none of you pay, which is fine. But I hope that you pay for at least one of the newsletters you get on Substack. I am a fan of Substack, and I would like to see their business model rewarded.
Whenever I get an unsubscribe, I wish you would tell me why. Note that if you don’t like getting emails every day, you can turn those off and just check for updates whenever you want. My cadence is one post per day.
I am old. Born in 1954, I have vivid memories of the 1960s. Like many old people, I like to refer back to the past when I give my perspective on today. You probably need to appreciate that sort of thing in order to enjoy what I write here.
I have written a lot. More than you can ever hope to read. The best thing I ever wrote was Memoirs of a Would-be Macroeconomist, a book-length essay. When you have time to dip into it, I would like to get your reaction.
Fantasy Intellectual Teams and In My Tribe
All of my adult life, the question of how to think has mattered to me. The “tribe” referred to in “In My Tribe” consists of public intellectuals who display a careful thought process.
When I first moved over to Substack, in November of 2021, I had just attempted a project called Fantasy Intellectual Teams (FITS), in which I developed a scoring system to measure quality of thinking. Most of the scoring categories rewarded people who showed a willingness to take seriously different points of view.
When I was running the FITS contest in the Spring of 2021, high scorers included Russ Roberts, Robert Wright, Scott Alexander, and Emily Oster. I continue to admire them, as well as Coleman Hughes, Tyler Cowen, Jonathan Haidt, Heather Heying, and Razib Khan. Lately, I have been citing Rob Henderson and Noah Smith frequently in my “Links to Consider” posts.
As early as 2003, I identified Paul Krugman in his NYT columns as modeling how not to think (and he knows better, which makes it all the more painful to watch). Instead of talking about consequences of alternative policies, he claims to have penetrated the hearts of conservatives and found their evil motives. Years later, David McRaney introduced me to the term asymmetric insight to describe this style of counterproductive “analysis.”
My most widely-read book, The Three Languages of Politics, mentions McRaney, as well as Haidt. It gives a simple model of conservatism, progressivism, and libertarianism. One emphasizes civilization vs. barbarism, the second emphasizes oppressed vs. oppressors, and the third emphasizes liberty vs. state coercion. These are not grand political philosophies, but they indicate the type of language that each tribe is drawn to. These languages serve as war whoops to denounce other tribes. The book can be downloaded for free. For that matter, so can Specialization and Trade, which gives my perspective on economics.
I have been blogging for over twenty years (I count my substack as a blog). I think that the format of quoting someone else and then adding my own spin suits me. My first blog was called The Internet Bubble Monitor, for which I wrote my own blogging software. I used it to make fun of Dotcom valuations while the bubble was inflating.
I started one of the first commercial web sites, in April of 1994, when there were only about 1000 web sites total, most of them representing universities. The next five years were wild and crazy, and I came out of it fine, although far from a legendary success. My book that recounts this is called, appropriately enough, Under the Radar. For the TL;DR version, see A Sequence of Miscalculations.
Before the Web business, I worked at Freddie Mac, the large mortgage conduit established by Congress in 1970. I started late in 1986. Over the next few years it underwent major changes, going from a small government agency to a shareholder-owned corporate giant.
In hindsight, it is remarkable how little I understood the real world of business when I started at Freddie. I value what I learned there more highly than what I learned at MIT. I give myself credit for absorbing many insights into organizational behavior, even if I never developed the capacity to handle anything larger than a staff of about five people.
Before that, starting in 1980, I worked at the Fed in D.C. I was not cut out for such a hierarchical, hidebound institution, and I should have left sooner than I did.
I went to the Fed after graduate school in economics at MIT. I found the leading professors to be much more enthusiastic about mathematics and the then-current fad of “rational expectations” than I ever could be. I have since become better able to articulate my discomfort with mainstream economics and academia in general. Oddly enough, academic life is not suitable for someone with my sort of intellectual curiosity.
My views on politics and economics have changed a lot over the years, although they have remained fairly stable over the past decade. I was on the left in the 60s, particularly regarding the Vietnam War. To those conservatives who say “We coulda, shoulda won that war,” I say we were always doomed to lose at nation-building.
My evolution from left to right took place gradually. Now when I look at issues, I always start with the libertarian perspective, although I do not necessarily end up there. For example, returning to the Vietnam War, the left-wing view back in the day was that the Vietnamese were going to be better off under Communism. In my libertarian incarnation, I can see that was silly. But libertarians presume that our government is no better at intervening overseas than it is at intervening domestically.
I get off the libertarian train when I see it headed toward radicalism or utopianism. Not for me to endorse Open Borders or Bitcoin. I share with conservatives a respect for Chesterton’s Fence. Also, I share what Thomas Sowell calls “the constrained vision.”
I do not endorse pure individualism. Since late 2022, one of my main projects on this substack has been a series of posts on human interdependence.
The market is one mechanism for coordinating human interdependence. I began to appreciate this coordination function when I first delved deeply into the Internet, which began as a decentralized coordination mechanism.
Libertarians are accused of believing that the market is perfect. Not me. I believe that markets are never perfect. What I don’t believe is that whenever markets fail government is the solution. I say, “Markets fail. Use markets.” I think that markets will usually correct failures more quickly and more effectively than government.
From my perspective, people who claim to know how to use government policy to “fix” markets are sometimes clever, but not as clever as they believe. People who claim that markets can be done away with altogether are not even sometimes clever.
Thank you. Very fine links, just starting the 90+pages of macromemoir, delicious to read. (No one uses delectable anyways)
One of the non-paying newbees (paid sub of Razib+Erik Hoel - recommended: https://erikhoel.substack.com/p/publish-and-perish
Scott Alexander is the Michael Jordan of FIT, but the marginal value of the 5678th payer may be, err, marginal).
This is a great introduction to you, and not too long!