Saturday, October 13, 2012

Montaigne and How to Live

I read Sarah Bakewell's book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer last week. It is an original and beautifully written biography, but more than that: it not only looks at Montaigne's life and writings, the book also traces how their reception and meaning has changed in succeeding centuries. That adds a whole additional layer of complexity, exploring how different ages have reinterpreted the same ideas in different ways.

Of course, I have Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays on my shelf, but must admit I hadn't read much of its rather intimidating bulk. Bakewell's book certainly inspires a return to the original.

The reason I picked up the Bakewell book, besides serving as an easier way into the thousand pages of the Essays, is because she reminds us that Montaigne's central question is how to live. I often talk about how we have let serious discussion of the good life lapse. That discussion is very much present in the Essays.

He is endlessly curious about other people.

Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did. He wanted to know how to live a good life—meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one. This question drove him both to write and to read, for he was curious about all human lives, past and present. He wondered constantly about the emotions and motives behind what people did. And since he was the example closest to hand of a human going about its business, he wondered just as much about himself.

Reason, for Montaigne, cannot be relied upon, because it is still inevitably human reason. Things must be seen as intrinsically uncertain and provisional.

Skepticism guided him at work, in his home life, and in his writing. The Essays are suffused with it: he filled his pages with words such as “perhaps,” “to some extent,” “I think,” “It seems to me,” and so on—words which, as Montaigne said himself, “soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions,” and which embody what the critic Hugo Friedrich has called his philosophy of “unassumingness.” They are not extra flourishes; they are Montaigne’s thought, at its purest. He never tired of such thinking, or of boggling his own mind by contemplating the millions of lives that had been lived through history and the impossibility of knowing the truth about them.

He is a fox to the core, suspicious of systems. Bakewell brings out the context for Montaigne's humane skepticism about the fallibility of human capacities and the mind: the appalling violence and cruelty and bigotry that tore France apart in his lifetime.

There was a tiredness and a sourness in Montaigne’s generation, along with a rebellious new form of creativity. If they were cynical, it is easy to see why: they had to watch the ideals that had guided their upbringing turn into a grim joke. The Reformation, hailed by some earlier thinkers as a blast of fresh air beneficial even to the Church itself, became a war and threatened to ruin civilized society. Renaissance principles of beauty, poise, clarity, and intelligence dissolved into violence, cruelty, and extremist theology.

Protestants and Catholics massacred each other and demobilized soldiers roamed the countryside stealing and killing.



This is not directly visible in the Essays, on the whole; but the general sensibility of awareness of human fallibility and search for equilibrium must be a reaction to the turbulent horror of the times.

The answer is, in part, to be sensitive to different angles of view. The wise do not just accept their surrounding assumptions.

Instead of accepting what they are born into, they acquire the art of slipping out of it and seeing everything from a different angle—a trick Montaigne, in the Essays, would make his characteristic mode of thinking and writing. Alas, there are usually too few of these free spirits to do any good. They do not work together, but live “alone in their imaginings.”

I find this very congenial, as aspect-seeing or different ways of seeing is something that fascinates me. The world's problems are generally not so much a lack of theoretical or academic understanding, as failure to perceive what is there. Blind spots bring us to disaster. Virtue is in essence a way of seeing, too.

Incidentally, this humility about reason, although seemingly so modern, is also in direct contradiction to some of our other contemporary ideas - such as Steven Pinker's argument that the "escalator of reason" makes war and cruelty less acceptable and likely. Montaigne would disagree.

Skepticism and ataraxia

However, more of Montaigne's outlook is explained by his desire for detachment and equilbrium: an attitude which is not so much modern as rooted in the classical world. Bakewell has a fascinating discussion of the origins of Montaigne's attitude in Hellenic and Roman philosophy. His generation was steeped in the classics. Indeed, Montaigne was elaborately educated with Latin as his native language and did not learn French until age six.

Epicureanism, Stoicism and Pyrrhonic skepticism shared some features, she says.

They also agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which might be rendered as “imperturbability” or “freedom from anxiety.” Ataraxia means equilibrium: the art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry. To attain it is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs. It was on the question of how to acquire such equanimity that the philosophies began to diverge.

Stoics and Epicureans shared a great deal of their theory, too. They thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present. If one could only get these two things right—controlling and paying attention—most other problems would take care of themselves.

This is a very interesting idea. Change of perspective is fundamental to the approach.

The key is to cultivate mindfulness: prosoche, another key Greek term. Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life.

And proper control and attention means appropriate response.

Whatever happens, however unforeseen it is, you should be able to respond in a precisely suitable way. This is why, for Montaigne, learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) is the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life. Stoics and Epicureans alike approached this goal mainly through rehearsal and meditation. Like tennis players practicing volleys and smashes for hours, they used rehearsal to carve grooves of habit, down which their minds would run as naturally as water down a river bed. It is a form of self-hypnotism. The great Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept notebooks in which he would go over the changes of perspective he wished to drill into himself.

It was not much fun.

Stoics were especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most.

I haven't been that familiar with this background. Ataraxia is a conception of the good life which is especially attractive in exhausted, troubled times. The good life is sometimes, as Voltaire later said, cultivating one's own garden.

But it is also a rather passive and defeatist conception, even if it is understandable in times of civil war or immense suffering. The original arête of the fifth and fourth century Greeks declined into detachment and activity turned into passivity. If it is reminiscent of Eastern philosophy, Bakewell says, it may be because it reflected contact with the East following Alexander's conquests .

Stoicism and its variants is a thin philosphy, and a little inhumanly austere. All the same, I'm now reading Seneca's Letters from a Stoic.

However, it is worth emphasizing it was not Stoicism that survived the Roman world, but Christianity. Christianity has aspects of detachment and "turn the other cheek" as well, of course, but it also offers hope.

That makes me think; one major argument against virtue ethics is that it is a doctrine for the aristocratic few. But it does not have to be austere. Flourising ought to be more than cultivating imperturbability. The doctrine of the golden mean is somewhat lost. Temperance does not imply renunciation. There has to be positive content to eudaimonia and flourising, freedom to as well as freedom from.



Another issue which Montaigne ponders is how to make use of leisure, which is an increasingly important question as more and more basic work becomes automated. How to avoid being bored is increasingly one of the main questions of our age. And much of our answer in recent decades has been passive: television.

Montaigne chose to withdraw from public life in Bordeaux as he reached his early forties, and retired to a tower in his estate in the countryside.



He was later voted Mayor of the City in his absence on a trip to Italy, but never sought the public spotlight.

Seneca, in advising retirement, had also warned of dangers. In a dialogue called “On Tranquillity of Mind,” he wrote that idleness and isolation could bring to the fore all the consequences of having lived life in the wrong way, consequences that people usually avoided by keeping busy—that is, by continuing to live life in the wrong way. The symptoms could include dissatisfaction, self-loathing, fear, indecisiveness, lethargy, and melancholy. Giving up work brings out spiritual ills, especially if one then gets the habit of reading too many books—or, worse, laying out the books for show and gloating over the view.

Right at the beginning of the blog, we noted Keynes's discussion of the bored upper-middle class housewives as a warning sign of what will happen if the "economic problem" is solved. As Keynes argued:

To use the language of to-day-must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown”? We already have a little experience of what I mean -a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations--who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed--for sweet-until they get it.

The interesting thing is these problems are not new. They have affected the aristocratic few, the wealthy, through much of history.

In the early 1570s, during his shift of values, Montaigne seems to have suffered exactly the existential crisis Seneca warned of. He had work to do, but less of it than he was used to. The inactivity generated strange thoughts and a “melancholy humor” which was out of character for him.

And the answer? Mindfulness: curiosity and attentiveness.

Seneca would have approved. If you become depressed or bored in your retirement, he advised, just look around you and interest yourself in the variety and sublimity of things. Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature. Montaigne tried to do this, but he took “nature” primarily to mean the natural phenomenon that lay closest to hand: himself.

Withdrawal - a "room at the back of the shop" - is attractive but surely cannot be the whole answer, however. Engagement must be part of the good life: purpose as well as endurance.

Yet it is a vision that often recurs, from the Roman aristocrat in his villa far from the imperial court to the Chinese official retired to his pavillion in the deep mountains.

Perhaps the most disturbing possibility is we do not ultimately want to be happy.

He knew, all the same, that human nature does not always conform to this wisdom. Alongside the wish to be happy, emotionally at peace and in full command of one’s faculties, something else drives people periodically to smash their achievements to pieces. It is what Freud called the thanatos principle: the drive towards death and chaos. The twentieth-century author Rebecca West described it thus: Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. West and Freud both had experience of war, and so did Montaigne: he could hardly fail to notice this side of humanity. His passages about moderation and mediocrity must be read with one eye always to the French civil wars, in which transcendental extremism brought about subhuman cruelties on an overwhelming scale.

And perhaps that brings us back to the issue of coexistence. It is a noble thing to avoid suffering and war. It is necessary but not sufficient for the good life. But tempering fanaticism and zealotry is a better way to get along than imposing universal rules of neutrality, or retreating to one's garden.



Ineffective spending

Just as government spending increasingly appears unsustainable, it also seems as if it is doing much less good than supporters claim. Margaret Wente writes in the Globe & Mail:

Now comes the discouraging part. The evidence to date – such as it is – suggests that many, perhaps most, social programs do not make a difference, except to the legions of administrators and social workers who are directly and indirectly employed in delivering them. This is not a conservative conclusion. It is the conclusion of independent groups such as the Brookings Institution (a non-partisan think tank) and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, which are part of a growing movement to make social spending more accountable.

Here’s one example of how big the problem is, as laid out by the Brookings Institution. The U.S. federal government funds dozens of programs to help youth. These include a $1.2-billion after-school program for disadvantaged youth, a $1.5-billion Job Corps program for at-risk high-school students, and the legendary Head Start program, which spends $7-billion a year to help disadvantaged younger children. Ten of these programs, including Head Start, have been evaluated using the gold standard benchmark of random control groups. Nine of the evaluations found weak or no positive effects. A Brookings report says, “Only one program [Early Head Start, aimed at even younger children] was found to produce meaningful, though modest, positive effects.”

But it is hard to remove even useless programs, as doing so launches a firestorm of protest from beneficiaires. As Wente says, programs are measured on volume of cash spent, not outcomes.

That does not mean all government spending is bad, as some Republicans think. But it does mean that if liberals persist in refusing to identify what does and does not work, or talking about "the vulnerable" in undifferentiated terms, they undermine the case for it. Good intentions are not enough: indeed, they can often be wholly counterproductive if there is no practical effort to deliver better outcomes.


Writing novels

Here's a lovely profile of Hilary Mantel, with much humane insight into writing and fiction. It took a long time languishing in semi-obscurity before she somehow hit it big with Thomas Cromwell. I talked about Bring Up the Bodies here.

(H/t AI Daily)


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Homo Ludens: Play and Contest as Life

I mentioned a week ago that I was reading through the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. It follows on from my recent interest in games and how they relate to stimulation and purpose.

It is an immensely erudite book in an old-fashioned way. Written in 1938, it has the feel of a time when philology and anthropology had a much more dominant role in the culture. Huizinga devotes a great deal of attention to etymology, and he has a dazzling knowledge of Greek (in particular) and even Sanskrit word origins. He is very attuned to customs and ancient practices. He talks at great length about myth, ritual and the origins of culture. He writes fluently and imaginatively.

But ultimately is a frustrating book, with a central problem; play for him explains almost everything, but at the same time almost nothing.

Huzinga believes culture in general originates from play. He stresses the competitive, or as he terms it agonistic aspect of culture is fundamental. But he also insists that play is voluntary and limited and has no function or purpose outside itself.

He never resolves this tension. And the reason harks back to the issue underlying the Suits book: are concepts precise entities, or groups of overlapping family resemblances as argued by the later Wittgenstein?

Huizinga's book is very clearly a web of family resemblances, but which wants to be a precise concept. Play for him is both a narrow concept, and in defiance of this also steadily extended to other concepts, such as games or contest or honor or glory or order or poetry or rhythm, which stretch it imperially across culture.

Play is, according to his narrower definition:

an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow. p132.

It is older than culture, he says; even animals play. There is no good functional explanation for the passion of a football crows or children's absorption in a game, either. There is no play-instinct.

This intensity of, and absorption in, play finds no explanation in biological analysis. Yet in this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play. p3

But nonetheless it underlies civilization and culture as we known them. Language, myth and ritual are rooted in play.

Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play. p 5

Play is voluntary and free; it is not "ordinary" or "real life", but it can run away with the players and feel very serious as well (like flow).

Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath. p8

Confusion creeps in here. Yes, play can be serious - but does this not suggest it can have consequences?

Play lies outside the immediate satisfaction of wants, he says, but it is highly important.

It adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual - as a life function - and for society by reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short, as a culture function. p9

But it is

distinct from 'ordinary' life both as to locality and duration. That is the third main characteristic of play; its secludedness, its limitedness. It is 'played out' within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning. Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is over. p9

So is it limited or is it a necessity for society by reason of the meaning it contains?

Play tends to have its own marked-off , almost sacred spaces, he says, from card-tables to tennis courts or even real courts.

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another , very positive feature of play: it creates order, it is order. .. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noticed in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. p10


So we have an enormously expansive view of play. But, after all this, he also says it "does not contribute to the necessary life processes of the group."

Like all other forms of play, the contest is largely devoid of purpose. That is to say, the action begins and ends in itself, and the outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group. The popular Dutch saying, 'it is not the marbles that matter, but the game', expresses this clearly enough. Objectively speaking, the result of the game is unimportant and a matter of indifference." p49

The argument seems blatantly contradictory, or at very least confused. Play is the essence of order and aesthetics. But it does not contribute to the group?
Incidentally, he says, we tend to be harsher on the cheat, who acknowledges the rules but quietly ignores them, and the spoilsport, who rejects the rules and hence shatters the play-world.

He goes even further. He links the competitive aspect of play to the desire to show virtue and achieve honor and glory, and hence the whole underlying drive of traditional aristocratic life:

From the life of childhood right up to the highest achievements of civilization one of the strongest incentives to perfection, both individual and social, is the desire to be praised and honoured for one's excellence. In praising another each praises himself. We want to be honored for our virtues. We want the satisfaction of having done something well. Doing something well means doing it better than others. In order to excel, one must prove one's excellence; in order to merit recognition, merit must be made manifest. Competition serves to give proof of superiority. .. Consequently virtue, honor, nobility and glory fall at the outset within the field of competition, which is that of play. p63, 64

(my bold). Honor is the very essence of traditional nobility, he says, and honor is a better explanation of war than anything else.

The highest demand of a noble life is to preserve your honor safe and unsulied. p 67

The great wars of aggression from antiquity down to our own times all find a far more essential explanation in the idea of glory, which everybody understands, than in any rational and intellectualist theory of economic forces and political dynamisms. p90

International law functions as the rules.

As soon as one member or another of a community of states virtually denies the binding character of international law and, either in practice or in theory, proclaims the interests and power of its own group - be it nation, party, class, church or whatsoever else - as the sole norm of political behavior, not only does the last vestige of the immemorial play-spirit vanish but with it any claim to civilization at all. Society then sinks down to the level of the barbaric, and original violence retakes its ancient rights. p101.

So play has no function, apart from being the one thing holding back barbarism and original violence, apparently. And it explains war and history better than any kind of political analysis as well, he says.

He elides the concept of play into that of competition in general:

Contest means play. As we have seen, there is no sufficient reason to deny any contest whatsoever the chatacter of play. p76.

Poetry ls also related to play:

What poetic language does with images is to play with them. .. The playfulness of poetic language is so obvious that there is hardly any need to illustrate it with examples. p134.

Systemized team sports, developed since the 19th century, may lose something of the play-spirit, however.

Now, with the increasing systematization and regimentation of sport, something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost. .. The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness. p196

He concludes that civilization cannot exist without play:

real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. p211

Ultimately it is a civilized and learned, but terribly confused book. He illegitimately extends his narrow of definition of play to also cover competition and honor and reputation and poetry and art. And in the end, far from play being purposeless, he concludes that it utterly essential to civilization itself.

I think a better conclusion would be that the spirit of play or games, with their own set of rules and motivations, underlies many aspects of human culture, as he suggests, and are linked to independent instincts towards competition and status. But those things matter. Games do extend their significance beyond the playing fleld, as deserted streets testify when a major football game is played, as people are fixated on their TV sets.

And games do have significance and purpose in a wider sense, because they are tangled up irretrievably with the things that do provide us with purpose: extending our skills, living up to greater potential, feeling more alive. The winner, whether the Cubs or the Yankees, or Barcelona or Milan, does not matter so much as playing the game itself.

Play is intrinsic to flourishing. And flourishing ought to be our principle purpose as a society.



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

State schools "desperately avoid preaching"

There is a "moral vacuum" in state schools in the UK, or so this article claims. I found it interesting after discussing ethos in education the other day. A teacher in a struggling inner city school has written an anonymous condemnation.

Children are routinely being allowed to get away with bad behaviour as schools desperately avoid being seen to “preach” to pupils, it was claimed.

In a provocative article, Matthew Hunter said that schools regularly resorted to using rewards to bribe unruly pupils instead of imposing proper boundaries.

There is little attempt to instill values:

Writing under a pseudonym, he said many schools now failed to instil children with traditional values because of the dominance of the “teach, don’t preach” doctrine.

“Rules exist, but are broken on such a regular basis that it would probably be better not to have them at all,” he said.

“Pupils know that their school is chaotic and that most of their misbehaviour will go unpunished. Thus, on a routine basis, justice is not seen to be done.

“Personal responsibility is never developed among the pupils, as they are so rarely held to account for their actions. Only misbehaviour of an extraordinarily extreme nature (such as hitting a member of staff) is sure to be met with definite consequences.

“The idea that senior staff will deal with the most serious infringements does not exist. Far from being the school’s ultimate moral arbiters, senior members of staff perceive themselves as administrators, often unknown to the pupils.

"Progressive" has turned into "amoral" in practice. Saying that sounds conservative, of course. But why should it be necessarily conservative to lay some stress on character or disposition?


Intellectual Property..and Theft

The NYT has a very interesting series on the impact of intellectual property disputes. The cost of litigation is becoming astronomical:

In the smartphone industry alone, according to a Stanford University analysis, as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years — an amount equal to eight Mars rover missions. Last year, for the first time, spending by Apple and Google on patent lawsuits and unusually big-dollar patent purchases exceeded spending on research and development of new products, according to public filings.

IP law is a mess, and it is holding back innovation - especially by small companies who cannot afford battalions of lawyers and lobbyists. I was talking about patent trolls here.

Copyright ls is just as much of a mess - for example, Google and publishers continue to fight over orphan copyright works, although they have apparently just settled terms for other uses.

There's a common theme here. Our basic intutions about property and property rights don't work very well for many kinds of intangible property. And much of the value in the economy is now intangible. Instead of owning defined parcels of land, this is more like an evolving ecosystem, like a coral reef, where interactions and recycling and reuse can be highly complex and interdependent.

At very least, patent and copyright terms ought to be getting shorter as change accelerated, not longer.

It isn't clear we do need such an elaborate patent system to incentivize innovation. MIT and public universities and NASA and the national labs and DARPA and the National Institutes of Health are churning out new innovations all the time, and that is just in the US. The fundamental long-teamwork is much more likely to be done this way.

In fact, the worst way through most of history to generate innovation has been to let huge corporations and organizations get monopolies, often at the expense of startups, disrupters and the less connected.

Much of the value in the Economy is increasingly nonrival and largely nonexcludable. An economy based on ideas and innovation has to work differently to one based on manufacturing trucks or toasters or life insurance. That's a fact. We have to get used to it.



Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Gossip: Democratization of tragedy?

I was talking about celebirty gossip the other week. This is an interesting article in the British New Statesman. The Greeks had Oedipus: we have TMZ.

Gossip seems at first glance to conform quite closely to Aristotle’s demands for classical tragedy. At any rate, it revolves around the rich and the famous, the fortunate of our time, and involves stories about them inviting us to consider that even the great (these days only a few of them kings and queens, but many either heroes or outstandingly fortunate by birth or chance) must also suffer death, loss, failure, disappointment and divorce, and tumble further and land harder than those of us watching, who also suffer such things.

The analogy between the falling darlings of a modern public and the old Greek dramas does not go very deep, however. Both Aristotle and more contemporary literary critics are inclined to think that an essential part of tragedy is that it deals with the weightiest of matters and eschews triviality. It is the human condition on show, but acted out on a high moral plain that equates, in antiquity, to the highest social plain. This does look as if it rules out much of modern gossip as a contemporary version of tragedy, such as the Daily Mail’s revelations that Christina Aguilera and Kim Kardashian have cellulite, on the grounds that cellulite, when you stop and think about it, doesn’t measure up well against a plague in Thebes, the suicide of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus, however god-given and inescapable cellulite might be in all our lives.

But perhaps it provides a minor democratic catharsis of a kind, for democratic ills.

While gossip seems to belittle tragedy, it also (for better or worse) democratises it –who’s to say that the shiver of inevitable ageing and death felt at the first sign of cellulite is too trivial a signifier of mortality?

Willy Loman is now on every newstand. It's an interesting argument - if there was any kind of cathartic effect. I suspect it's more simply just envy and prurience. There is something in us that likes to see the great and the beautiful brought low.

(H/t AI Daily)


Baumol's disease, now in a book

Here is a review of something I must read: William Baumol on healthcare costs. "Baumol's cost disease" is one of the primary challenges for productivity. It says industries which require large amounts of expensive labor (like education and healthcare) get steadily more expensive - and often migrate to the public sector. And of course rising healthcare costs is one of the primary problems of society, and the largest driver of fiscal costs. So this is likely a wonky but essential read which I will come back to.