Browser Interviews: Interfluidity on the dynamics of capitalism and the fallacy of composition


Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews, today I'm with Steve Randy Waldman who writes about finance, economics, and politics at interfluidity.com.

Welcome to The Browser.

Steve: Hi, I'm delighted to be here, thank you so much for having me.

Baiqu: We know the drill by now, so we can dive into our recommendations when you're ready Steve.

Steve: So I'm very flattered to be asked by The Browser, kind of the preeminent recommendation site on the internet, to recommend things. I wanted to begin with a caveat that I view my own life history more as a cautionary tale than recommendation. So recommendations with a grain of salt, I will recommend stuff, but I don't claim to have any great footsteps others should follow in.

How to expand the river of intellectual life by falling in love with random things

Baiqu: Thank you, Steve. I'm very excited to hear what you have to say.

First question then, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about your area of expertise? Now, this one is a little bit tricky because you obviously have a very diverse array of interests.

Steve: Thanks. Another way of rephrasing what you just said is it's not exactly clear to me that I have an area of expertise per se. I have a lot of interests.

So for recommendations, I was trying to think of things to recommend in finance or something that's pretty easy to recommend, although it's pretty hard to do. I sort of bootstrap myself into finance by going through the CFA program materials. I never got the certification. I actually passed all the tests, but you have to have work experience that I never had, but it was a very good program. And for someone like me, who has a difficult time integrating into institutions, it was really very wonderful to have a very full and professional curriculum provided by somebody and tests at the end to stress you out a little bit into learning them.

Other than that, the main thing I'm going to say I think throughout this conversation, is that the river of intellectual life I think is much more important than the particular water that you drink. I learned and taught Java programming for a long time, so an area of expertise of mine, I suppose, is programming. Over the years I went through book after book, and if you were to ask me in any different epoch which is a great book, I would have one. I have one now, if you're interested in what I do now as a computer programmer, Scala programming, which is a little bit of a boutique-y programming language, but I love it very much. There's a wonderful book about it called Programming in Scala by Martin Odersky, who is not the author only of the book, but who is the originator of the language along with a bunch of colleagues.

But besides that book, it's interesting to think about, would I recommend Scala as a programming language? And the answer to that is yes, I would, but in a very idiosyncratic way, because I fell in love with it. When people who are getting into programming for the first time, asked me what programming language they should learn, I might tell them you should probably look into Python, because it's extremely popular and versatile. If they ask me what I love, it won't be Python. It will be Scala. I say that not to say that one should be persuaded one way or another, but to say that in my experience, embracing serendipity and randomness, and falling in love with things that you can't really justify falling in love with is not rational or wise. It's not going to get you ahead in life, but life isn't really about getting ahead. It's about being an interesting part of a bigger tapestry. And that's sort of my most serious meta recommendation. Don't try to struggle against the currents of randomness, but look for opportunities in serendipity and fall in love with unusual things and try to contribute based on those things.

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On the virtue of bad takes

Baiqu: What a wonderful recommendation. You talked about a different epochs that you've had through your lifetime. I mean, it seems to me that you're someone who's very motivated by the things that I guess you fall in love with serendipitously. Who has this curiosity for expanding your intellect, do you think that's what's driven you to do so many things in the course of your life?

Steve: I think that's a very flattering way to put it, another way to put it would be that I'm an extremely flaky person who doesn't like to get tied down in particular things. I have never really committed institutionally to anything, so I jumped around. But the best way to do anything meaningful in life is to find some way of doing it socially that you can live with.

So for me, the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in my sort of professional or intellectual life is the blogosphere. Which was an incredibly social kind of enterprise, where on the one hand you're sitting at home writing on your computer all alone. But on the other hand, you were contributing to a conversation. There was a great post recently by a guy who blogs under the name Scholars Stage. I think his name is Tanner Greer, talking about the virtue of bad takes in the blogosphere and I think that's exactly right. The early blogosphere had an extremely low barrier to entry because it was understood that whatever you were writing was just a river of first drafts. There was very little of this sense that what I'm producing is an essay, a thing that is supposed to be a commodity, that it's supposed to compete in the marketplace of public writing or anything else. It was naturally inclusive because it didn't require as much courage as it does now to write publicly then. It was just much better than what we have right now, I think. It would be easy and not wrong to describe this as a dynamic of capitalism.

The most natural example of that is a website like Vox which was founded by prominent early bloggers. But something happened with the sort of Vox suffocation of the blogosphere, which is that the individual pieces of writing got much, much better. But the quality of the conversation very rapidly declined. So there was a kind of fallacy of composition, and this is sort of ubiquitous in capitalist incentives. Which is to say that the intuition that governs markets is if you make each individual product better and better, then overall you'll get a better ecosystem. But what we saw with the blog post was the opposite. We increasingly specialised, but we ended up with a much poorer conversation. Both in the obvious sense that once you professionalise something like that, then only the professionals are participating. The last point that I want to say about it is that it's also worse in terms of intellectual quality.

The early blogosphere was conversational and inclusive and intertextual. I think we produced a much better conversation in terms of informing ourselves as a public who is both contributing and consuming that conversation. But now we have reverted to a very hierarchical form of conversation where credentials and prestige go along way in serving as a filter. I think that informs our policy and our governance much more poorly and creates opportunities for a lot more gaming for the world that we live in.

How to sound smart in a conversation

Baiqu: That's a very interesting retrospective look at the evolution of the blogosphere. You talk about the dynamic between intellectual prestige versus a conversation that enriching, and in a way you've also begun to answer my second question, which is what would you recommend if one was to pursue coming across as being smart in a conversation?

Steve: The first point I think, and I saw you interviewed Ian Leslie and he made a similar point, which is to say that in general, probably trying to be smarter isn't a great goal. I think again, I'll blame it on capitalist dynamics, you can take issue with that if you want. What is it, Fredrik deBoer has a book The Cult of Smart right. That book is controversial for a variety of reasons, but just the title itself, The Cult of Smart, we all know what he's talking about. We all know that the world that we live in, or have lived in, the word smart comes up a lot and people try to be smart or try to be intelligent.

But again, it leads to this fallacy of composition, the same one as before. If everybody is trying to be smart, we don't behave better as a group, we behave worse. We've become a bunch of egos. So, If you're trying to come across as smart, it might or might not be good for you in various kinds of personal senses. I mean there are definitely reasons why people try to appear smart in how they present themselves. But making your life of mind an exercise in ascending to the peaks of hierarchies, whether it be in publishing or in academia or in anything else. I don't think even from a personal perspective, Is the most fulfilling way to do it.

I think from a public or collective perspective, it's a very poor way to do it. So I dis-recommend trying to be smart. In fact, I recommend strongly putting yourself in situations where you're willing to be stupid, where I'll defer again to Tanner Greer, in defensive of bad takes. If you can. Involve yourself in conversations where you take those risks, and other people take those risks. Which means often not looking smart at all. And if you're part of that kind of conversation of people who are genuinely trying to make progress... and progress, what the fuck is progress anyway right? I keep using pretentious phrases like "intellectual life" or something like that, but that's all wrong. Like progress is a real thing and it's not intellectual life, it's life. These exercises that we're in, in talking to each other, are informing how we are, and how we organise. And ultimately decide, whether kids eat, whether people starve, whether we have a world in which we build institutions under which it's affordable for everybody be kind to everyone else and people aren't lacking health care. The full character of human life, not at an individual level, but at a social level is a significant part of function of the quality of our conversations. If we want to do a good job of that, we need to create communities in which people take big risks with the understanding that those risks will be appreciated, charitably, and elaborated or built upon whatever the next step is. Most of those risky things will turn out to be stupid, but that's okay. And overall, we'll do a better job. Of our collaborative project of arranging human life and life on this planet. And it's the conversations in communities that matter, the individuals, we're idiots and assholes each and every one of us.

Best Amazon purchase

Baiqu: Agreed, agreed on that point. Yeah it's interesting that you brought up Ian Leslie, because he talked about the two schools of thought between the interactionists and the intellectualists. And his point was also very much around creating a culture where you can openly disagree with each other because that fosters the conditions for productive conversations and for creative ideas. I liked what you said about that really underpinning how we progress as a society in creating conditions that are good for human life in general.

Our next question is really leaning into the cashless mouse trap. So I want to ask you, what was your best Amazon or online purchase over the pandemic if you have one?

Steve: Well I thought about that since you gave me a heads up about it. I looked through my Amazon order history. As much as Amazon is problematic, I did my share of Amazon-ing over the last year. So I think like a lot of people, about a year ago, I was obsessed with, cleaning products and sanitation. So I was ordering from Amazon like barbicide, the thing that they use to disinfect scissors and stuff, because I couldn't find disinfectant wipes. So I don't recommend that, that was just the neurosis of that moment. But one thing I did discover that I do recommend is bulk hand soap. Normally I just go and buy the bottles at the drugstore when they run out, and on Amazon you can order very nice hand soap in bulk and refill those plastic things rather than throwing them out.

Baiqu: Yeah, exactly. It's like counteracting the consumption side of our lives is by trying not to use so many plastic bottles and trying to reuse as much as we can.

Steve: Right to use like Amazon, the essence of consumerism to find ways of at least reducing the extremity of that.

Cure for an existential crisis

Baiqu: Exactly. So next question. And I feel like you've said a few things that actually could potentially be the answer to this, but I'm curious as for your thoughts on a recommended cure for an existential crisis.

Steve: So again, my initial caveat about recommending stuff is, is that I feel like the worst recommender. I think I have been in an existential crisis since adolescents and with ebbs and flows, never fully emerged. I will say from my perspective, I am definitely of the outside work rather than inside work view. That when you find yourself in an existential crisis, one way of approaching it is to try to understand yourself, and think and learn introspectively, maybe take a psychedelic, this kind of thing. For me that has always been a bad approach. I'm not dis-recommending psychedelics in particular, but the way that's worked for me to deal with existential crisis is to attach more of my attention to the external world. To look at myself as a third party might, and try to improve the terms of my life, and then the interior work becomes less difficult and devastating.

I'm not sure if you've ever encountered in social policy debates, the so-called success sequence that conservative intellectuals often put forth. So they say something like nobody in the United States is poor if they do the following four things: I think it's graduated from high school, get a full-time job, marry and have children in that order. These conservative intellectuals put this forward as a normative idea that all we have to do is get everybody to follow the success sequence and everything will be okay. There's an obvious problem with this, which is it presumes that everybody can successfully follow those things. And if you're only looking at it at an individual level, then you are going to start blaming people or creating incentives, which means punishing people for not doing things that they can't in fact do. So your original project was unworkable because not everybody can do the things that you claim, and you're going to make a worse world by making things rougher for the people who lose out on that game of musical chairs.

So this is a big digression because when I give this sort of advice about, getting out of existential crises, thinking it through, I'm making the same kind of error. Which is to say that if you can do the kinds of things that I suggest, then you probably won't be in an existential crisis. But so many of us are in existential crises so often because in fact, most of us have trouble doing all these things.

So if you can find communities of people to be in conversation with, I think you'll be less in an existential crisis. My second piece of advice here was try to diversify your conversations in communities, so that when you're bankrupt in one, you were helped by the other. That's often what provokes an existential crisis because once we lose that sense of being valued in a social sphere, then we have nothing but yawning nihilism beneath us. This is really prominent now in intellectual life because you know, cancel culture.

Ultimately I think existential crises are real crises. When we think we lack social connection and support. And also when we feel like we were materially precarious. We don't talk nearly enough about financial stress, I think we try to keep that to ourselves. But similarly, I think if you want to avoid existential crisis, a really important thing is to try manage your life so that you have a baseline of material stability. Because when you become materially precarious, you will lose your existential confidence. And of course we don't want to be materially precarious. But most of us fail at all of those things, which is why many of us live our lives in perpetual existential crisis?

Baiqu: Well, maybe just knowing that everyone else goes through the same thing on a regular basis is somewhat soothing at least to the momentary crisis.

Steve: That's a wonderful point. A wonderful thing to say too, is sort of flipping the question around, how can we behave so that the people around us are less likely to suffer?

Favourite piece of music and a daily habit

Baiqu: Definitely, and I guess that sort of also leads to a wider sense of, inter-connectivity, and a sense of purpose that is beyond our own perceived ideas of security, ego, and whatever else. Which I think ultimately relieves you from, some of the things that you mentioned earlier, which might trigger a crisis in the first place.

Well, we're onto our last question. I'm going to ask you to recommend one piece of music, an article that stuck with you that you've read, and one daily habit that you practice.

Steve: So I've been thinking about this. I'm going to flake on the article.

On the habit, I'm going to be extraordinarily obvious. But again, coming off this period of COVID, hopefully coming off of it, God knows what's happening day to day. But I've been a nomad for the past year, my family has been wandering around for various reasons and it has really underlined for me the importance of the most basic habits of having constant physical places to set aside your glasses, your wallet, and your keys. Always putting things in the same place and keeping things in the same place are sort of so basic, but when you find yourself in situations where you can't do it anymore, I think you really come to appreciate how important those habits are. Trying to arrange your life so that you don't have to think about trivial things, and you know, it's horrible when you lose your keys. Like, it's just a horrible thing. So that was my habit. Like it's really dumb, but it's really important.

And then for music, I didn't have a piece of music to recommend. But sort of in sync with a lot of the themes of this conversation, I've recently found that I really am glad to hear Phillip Glass. For people who aren't so familiar with Phillip Glass, he's sort of an avant garde classical composer. He's written operas and I associate him very strongly with the eighties, hanging out with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed and people like that.

Actually when I was young, I think I thought of him as a little bit avant-garde in the sense that you were tempted to sort of make fun of it. I remember having friends who made fun like, oh he's just playing two piano keys, doo doo doo doo doo to over and over again. Maybe it's because I'm older, but I think it's also because we live in particularly jarring times, I find that Phillip Glass's music simultaneously has the aspect of this trance-like repetitiveness, but it also has a forward motion and something happening sort of slowly in increments over time through the repetition, very hopeful and soothing somehow. That it doesn't all have to be so terrible and we can move through this at a glacial pace with some comfort, and find our way to another side.

Baiqu: Definitely sounds very fitting to how we're all living at the moment and hopeful is good.

Well, Steve, thank you so much for talking to me. I've really enjoyed the conversation.

Steve: Well, I am really delighted to meet you and I look forward to seeing you again somehow. It's been a pleasure.

Steve R Waldman: @interfluidity

https://www.interfluidity.com/

Scala programming language

Programming in Scala by Martin Ordesky

The Scholar's Stage by Tanner Greer

The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer

Phillip Glass


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