When colleges were originally built, there were only two ways to get scholarly information: read a book or talk to a smart person. So it made sense to concentrate the books and smart people in distinct places, and colleges benefited enormously from the combination of a growing demand for expert information and the high barriers to entry for building libraries and assembling learned faculty. The... college business model depends on holding that position, so they don’t take kindly to upstart companies facilitating new ways of sharing their once-scarce information.
According to Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we humans are very poor decision makers when it comes to our own happiness. The problem begins with language. We use the word happiness, Kahneman says, to refer to two very different and often mutually contradictory phenomena: the mood of the moment and our overall life-satisfaction. The former is an evanescent and notoriously unreliable gauge of the latter.
As it happens, we don’t need behavioural science to ‘show us’ that people behave in ways that violate the dictates of expert advice and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis. We all know that human beings are subject to habit, slothfulness and passion. Some people take pleasure from indulging in activities that come with a health warning or which run counter to the latest expert advice. Sometimes we even display altruistic behaviour that might directly contradict our self-interest.
My colleague objects to Mr Obama talking about the general moral obligation to contribute to the polity when making a specific argument that the rich in America right now ought to be contributing more. I find this a trivial objection. Speeches arguing for specific causes always include general statements of relevant moral principles; the claim that people have a right to life, liberty, and the... pursuit of happiness was really neither here nor there in a document justifying the secession of some colonies from the British empire, but it's appropriate and actually rather important for politicians to make clear the principles that guide their positions.
Ramdas went on to suggest that the econometric model of philanthropic activity may come with dangerous blinders. "At the root of the difference in approach is what we believe causes hunger or poverty. If you think that people are poor because there is not enough food, then you will concentrate on making measurable gains, in growing more food, and more nutritious food, more efficiently. But if you... think that people are poor because of problems with equality, with access, with education, then developing a concrete strategy is far more difficult; these things are not readily measurable."
Of all the status obsessions that preoccupy our elites, none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness. Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one that stretches back to the early years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment. Intelligence is a... vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a Cult of Smartness in which intelligence is the chief virtue, along with a conviction that smartness is rankable and that the hierarchy of intelligence, like the hierarchy of wealth, never plateaus. In a society as stratified as our own, this is a seductive conclusion to reach. Since there are people who make $500,000, $5 million and $5 billion all within the same elite, perhaps there are leaps equal to such orders of magnitude in cognitive ability as well.
SPIEGEL: How can you tell whether a prediction is any good? Kahneman: In the first place, be suspicious if a prediction is presented with great confidence. That says nothing about its accuracy. You should ask whether the environment is sufficiently regular and predictable, and whether the individual has had enough experience to learn this environment.
Good science is more like Proust than Mr. Popper’s Penguins; its stories startle us with their strangeness, but they intrigue us by their originality, and end by rewarding us with the truth, after an effort. It is the shock good stories offer to our expectations, not some sop they offer to our pieties, that makes tales tally, and makes comtes count. The story that tells us only that we like all kinds of stories lacks that excitement, that exclusionary power, which is the only thing that makes us want to hear stories at all.
Again suppose, that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men’s views, and the force of their mutual connexions. History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice, in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue.
Unfortunately, econometric research can’t prove definitively whether Keynes is right. That is because any rigorous, scientific, controlled experiment is impossible — especially one involving a suitably large sample of whole nations. Hence, abstract theory, intuition and metaphors loom especially large in our thinking.
That model was imported from Prussia with a different purpose in mind. Horace Manns free school movement stemmed less from a belief in the economic or moral imperative of education for all children and more from a desire to simply create a tolerant, civilized society.
The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we... just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing. But "astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn't based on comparison with something else.
"We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction."
Fukuyama has been working on a two-volume opus called “The Origins of Political Order,” and I could detect from his recent writings that his research was leading him to ask a very radical question about America’s political order today, namely: has American gone from a democracy to a “vetocracy” — from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all?
Powell told Dowser that he sees Brooks’ arguments as symptomatic of a generational divide. “An older generation grew up in a world with many more trade-offs, in the sense that if you were ambitious, it meant you wanted to go into politics or make money,” said Powell.