Russ Roberts

Martha Nussbaum on Alexander Hamilton

EconTalk Episode with Martha Nussbaum
Hosted by Russ Roberts
PRINT
Hey, I Know What You Need.... Hercules's (and Hamilton's) Ch...

Hercules.jpg Martha Nussbaum, Professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Alexander Hamilton. Nussbaum talks about the tension between acquiring power and living a life of virtue. Topics discussed include Hamilton's relationship with Aaron Burr, Burr's complicated historical legacy, and the role of the humanities in our lives.

Size:28.4 MB
Right-click or Option-click, and select "Save Link/Target As MP3.

Readings and Links related to this podcast episode

Related Readings
HIDE READINGS
This week's guest: This week's focus: Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode: A few more readings and background resources: A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

Highlights

Time
Podcast Episode Highlights
HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
0:33

Intro. [Recording date: June 20, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is Alexander Hamilton--the man, and especially the musical and the ideas in that musical based on an essay that Martha Nussbaum wrote, "Hamilton's Choice," that appeared in the Boston Review.... Before we begin, I want to remind listeners that there may be some spoilers ahead about the musical, Hamilton's life. If you don't know what happens to him at the end of his life, you might want to miss this one until you've seen the show or read the Chernow biography. But, most of you probably have an idea what's happening.
[Econlib Editor's Note: Throughout these typed Highlights below, I will try to indicate references to Hamilton-the-musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with italics. References to Hamilton-the-person will be in ordinary text and unitalicized. Occasional other references such as to Ron Chernow's biography, Alexander Hamilton, or writings attributed to Hamilton in The Federalist will be clarified as they arise. Feel free to email errors or suggested corrections to me at webmaster@econlib.org.]

1:25

Russ Roberts: Now, Martha, you frame your essay around what you call Hamilton's choice--tying Hamilton to a classic story that the Stoics would tell about Hercules. Explain.

Martha Nussbaum: Okay. So, in the ancient philosophical world, they had to appeal to young people and tell them why they should go in for thinking hard, studying hard, doing philosophy. And so they told this myth that the great hero, Hercules, is faced with a choice. And there are two goddesses who appear to him. And one of them is called Virtue; and she says, 'Do good deeds and pursue justice, and that will be a great life.' And the other one, in the original myth, was called Pleasure, and it just says, 'Wow, drink and have sex and be merry,' and so on. And so, that one, the Stoics rewrote a little bit, because obviously that version is and obvious loser. And so it turned into the life of fame, the life of positional pre-eminence--like, 'Try to be the person that everyone is talking about; try to be the one who is on the inside of whatever is going on.' And so, then, the young person is supposed to make a choice between those two paths. And in the end, of course, you are supposed to see that the life of virtue and creation is the better life.

Russ Roberts: I couldn't help but think of our mutual friend, Adam Smith, who, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments--and Smith, of course, was influenced by the Stoics--he says--this is a quote:

Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object [meaning to be loved and people paying attention to you--RR]; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity, the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline.
And that really is the same choice, right.

Martha Nussbaum: Yeah; I had forgotten that passage. That's wonderful. And of course when you think about Smith himself, it becomes even more interesting, because he was a very severe professor of philosophical; then he went into politics and he actually didn't have much of a capacity for politics. He worked for the customs office. But, because he was a hypochondriac and he was always sick, and he lived with his mother all his life and was kind of a weakling and mama's boy, he really didn't do very well in the life of politics. So, I think he always envied all those very dashing, strong figures. So, he really did have--he was a little bit torn himself about which life was better--the dashing life or the studious and serious life.

Russ Roberts: I think you are being a little tough on him. I think he's--in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he's extremely disdainful of the rich and powerful. And in particular, I think calling him a pol--living in the world of policy because he held a bureaucratic job, I think might be a bit of a stretch. What I do think is right and where I do agree with you is that he held himself out: He took the less-glittering path. He was quiet, and a philosopher, as you say; and an author, a teacher and a tutor. And yet he became world-famous, and his wealth in terms of fame and greatness is quite large. So, he got the best of both worlds.

Martha Nussbaum: Well--yes. I mean, but I think I'm not talking about worship of the rich, which of course he didn't have. But he does love, and really describes in loving detail, certain heroic, dashing figures, such as the Native Americans, who he forms a strange fascination with and he likes to imagine how they lived and how they died, being tortured--

Russ Roberts: Yes, that's true--

Martha Nussbaum: but nonetheless, they are very courageous--

Russ Roberts: have a stoic nature.

Martha Nussbaum: So, that was what I was thinking about. And of course he doesn't like the rich. But he does like another kind of obvious bodily kind of heroism.

Russ Roberts: That's for sure. That's his stoic side--the ability of native people, I think he uses more than one example, to endure pain and to do it with grace. But I don't think--my only point was he really did not care for the aristocracy--

Martha Nussbaum: No, certainly not--

Russ Roberts: or for powerfulness necessarily.

6:00

Russ Roberts: So, what is this choice, that we all face, between fame and money on one side, and virtue and wisdom on the other? To some extent we all face it. What does that have to do with Hamilton?

Martha Nussbaum: Okay. So, there are lots of careers that people can go into where this choice comes up, because you have to choose, as a scholar whether you just focus on doing what you think the truth is and pursuing truth, or whether you have to do politics in the scholarly world--trying to get ahead of other people or get a job when 10 people are applying for it. And, you know, even in the world of scholarship, which is relatively pure of that kind of bad competition, you've got to compete. Or else you don't get the job. And so you have to learn how to compete. I train my graduate students how to go on the job market, how to do a good job interview, and all that stuff. Now, if you are, maybe, a poet, you have to do less of that. Like, in an era where women could never compete, because no one wanted to have them around, Emily Dickenson could write the wonderful poetry she did just sitting in her room. And lots of other cases of that same thing. Once you get the paper and the pencil, then nothing stops you, so long as you have enough to eat and place to write. But there are some careers where this choice is much more complicated--and I think politics is perhaps the most complicated--where, yeah, you go into politics wanting to serve humanity, wanting to create something that's lasting, wanting to do what's right and just. But, given that it's politics--and especially democratic politics, right? Because if you are in a monarchy you might just get to do it by being born in the right family. But in democracy you have to compete. And you have to please people; and you have to seek votes; and so on. So, I think Hamilton is all about these two aspects of a political career, and how they are in a very difficult kind of tension with each other. Now, Hamilton's main interest, as the musical presents him but I think it's true in real life, is to create--he says, "I want to build something that's going to outlive me." And the musical presents that, I think, very, very well. But, in order to do that, he has to get powerful friends. So, he has to befriend George Washington, who becomes his kind of surrogate father. He has to later try to win some elections. And so, he can't avoid playing that game. And, on the other side is Aaron Burr. Who, in real life, as in the musical, didn't really stand for anything; didn't have anything that he particularly wanted to create. But, he was a consummate insider, always trying to position himself. And, the great song in the musical that defines him is "The Room Where It Happens." He just wants to be an insider, to be in the room where it happens.

Russ Roberts: to be a player--

Martha Nussbaum: To be a player. And, of course, if that's what you want, then it's better, perhaps, not to have any firm convictions. So, Burr says to Hamilton, 'Don't let them know what you are against or what you are for.' To which, Hamilton replies, 'You can't be serious!' Right. So, that's the choice. So, the difficult thing about the choice is that in this society, where American society was full of honor-culture, a lot of ranking of people as to their honor, you have to play the game of competition and honor in order to get to the position. Where you can really create. And so, here we get to the topic of dueling. Which is a motif that runs all the way through the musical, just as it ran through everyone's life. So, people fought duels to establish that they were honorable people. And there was this elaborate culture, where if you were assaulted, your honor was called into question, then you had to challenge the person to a duel. You couldn't get an apology; then you had to fight the duel. And maybe sometimes you tried not to shoot to kill, but sometimes you did. In any case, Hamilton, by the time we get to actual challenge of Burr, he does not want to fight duels. He's been convinced that, on religious grounds and on human grounds, it's immoral. His son was killed in a duel, and that's probably a main reason why he comes to that conclusion. But, he also knows that if he doesn't accept the challenge to a duel, that's an ungentlemanly thing to do. And it would force it--his public role in American politics. And so he has a very profound dilemma, in real life. That is absolutely the way he saw it. And so he thinks that Burr is actually correct. He--Burr says Hamilton has insulted him. And Hamilton sort of says, he says,

Hey, I've not been shy.
I'm just a guy in the public eye,
trying to do the best for our Republic.
I don't want to fight,
but I won't apologize for doing what's right.
[lyrics from the Broadway show Hamilton in song "Your Obedient Servant"--Econlib Ed.]
So, that's what he says to Burr. He says
Burr, your grievance is legitimate
I stand by what I said, every bit of it.
You stand only for yourself.
It's what you do.
I can't apologize because it's true.
[lyrics from the Broadway show Hamilton--Econlib Ed.]
So, then, the question is: What to do? And the effect is that Hamilton in real life wrote a very poignant letter--it was a kind of a public statement describing his reasons for accepting Burr's challenge despite the fact that he didn't agree with dueling. So, let me just read you a bit of this letter, because I think it's very moving.
... all the considerations, which constitute what men of the world denominate honor, impressed on me as I thought a peculiar necessity not to decline the call. The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or affecting good in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.
So, that's a quote from the historical letter. It's not exactly that way in the musical, but the sentiments are the same. So, he's realized--he doesn't want to play this game of one-upsmanship and being in the room and so on. But he's got to play it, or else no one will listen to him when he tries to do something important and good. So, then he goes out to New Jersey--which was the land of lawlessness, where everyone fought the duels thinking they wouldn't be arrested. And, of course, Burr shoots to kill. And he is killed. So, that's the tragedy of Hamilton's ambitions.

12:59

Russ Roberts: There are really two moments in the musical--they mirror what happened in real life--where Hamilton has a choice to respond to a crisis: The one you just mentioned--and he clearly refuses to reduce the tension or lower the flame with Burr. He could have said, 'Yahh, I was just kidding.' That seems like a personal, a piece of personal integrity. The letter, you are writing, suggests he wanted to be a player. Like you said--he wanted to be useful; he wanted to create; he wanted to have an impact on the world. And he knew he'd reduce his ability to do that if he didn't abide by the norms, even though those norms were illegal--as you alluded to. The other moment is when he is accused of infidelity. And, it looks like his infidelity is a form of corruption. It looks like he's been funneling money off to himself--which he'd really been doing--he's paying blackmail to the woman he was unfaithful with and her husband. And, it's an interesting thing there, as well, the way it's at least portrayed in the musical: That, he's not going to lie; he's not going to spin. He comes across with a lot of dignity. He's made a terrible mistake. He's betrayed his wife--which, of course, is a huge theme of the second act of the musical. He's betrayed his wife; he's betrayed his own principles. Here, again, with the duel--he doesn't want to do it. He thinks it's wrong. But he feels he has to--he's wearing a straitjacket of honor and virtue, as you allude to. And he gets punished terribly for both of those pieces of virtue. He is, by admitting his infidelity, he really has a huge negative impact on his political career. And, of course, the duel kills him.

Martha Nussbaum: Yeah. That's very well put. And I think the motif of the sexual infidelity is also a very interesting thickening of the polarity between Hamilton and Burr. Because, Hamilton is a creep toward his wife. He was called by Martha Washington, a tomcat--or she named her favorite tomcat 'Hamilton' to indicate that he was just a very--he was a real womanizer, and after he got married, maybe for a while he settled down, but not for too long. And he had this affair. And, even though the musical does portray the relationship with his wife as quite a deep one--I don't how accurate that actually is.

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Martha Nussbaum: So, he was a creep in that realm. Whereas, Burr is pretty interesting, in that respect. He marries a woman that's 15 years older than he is, Theodosia. He does appear to love her. And indeed the musical creates a song about love:

Love doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
[lyrics, Hamilton]
is assigned to Burr in [?] Hamilton. Then, Theodosia dies very quickly. But they have a daughter, first, who is also named Theodosia. And that Theodosia was the apple of Burr's eye. He made her the hostess of all her dinner parties. He taught her Latin and Greek. He taught her how to hunt and shoot. He really was a feminist. And not just by accident. Because he kept a portrait of the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the wall in the study in his room. That's not in the musical, but it was true in real life. And also, in real life, he introduced the first Bill for women to have the vote in the New York State Legislature; and it's like the first we know about anywhere. Because it wasn't until, like 150 years later, that women really started getting the vote. And we know that in England, John Stuart Mill introduced a motion for women to have the vote in 1872. But here, we're talking 1790. And Burr is already in favor of women having the vote. So, he was, in that area, he was complicated and deep and somewhat heroic. He adored Theodosia, the daughter, who unfortunately died at sea: the ship capsized at sea. And then the rest of his life was kind of aimless, with women, and so on. But he really did love that daughter. And so, the musical is great because it doesn't make the choice easy. And so, in this other area, you are quite right: that Hamilton is truthful; he has a lot of integrity; but, before that, he was a real creep. I mean, this woman--he was a player, and she was just a--lured him into a casual liaison and then blackmailed him--so it wasn't like it was a deep love of any kind. And he was just--

Russ Roberts: Flawed--

Martha Nussbaum: interested in womanizing. Yeah. So, it was very interesting. And there's also the possibility that he just liked the sound of his own voice too much. That's mentioned in the musical, as in real life: That Hamilton always said twice as much on any issue as any other person. So, like, any speech he made in the Assembly was a couple of hours long. And anything he wrote was just--he kind a kind of verbal flow that was excessive. And some people did think that that pamphlet he wrote confessing his own adultery was an example of that--that he just loved to dramatize his own life. It's almost like the days of the Internet were anticipated, where people love to sensationalize their own lives by publicizing everything they do sexually. And there was a little bit of that in Hamilton.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Human nature hasn't changed since the 18th century. I always like to remind myself of that. It's very important.

18:44

Russ Roberts: As you point out, Burr's character is complex and rich. And he has many admirable things about him. Which makes the musical and real-life story more powerful, because he's not just a cardboard villain who kills Hamilton in a fit, or in anger. He feels his honor has been harmed. And he has many redeeming moments throughout the show. Without going to the ones that you just mentioned. Of course, what's interesting is his shot kills two people, really. It kills Hamilton, and it kills himself. And I think there's--I can't remember the line, but there's a moment of awareness there that--you know, Burr, after that, after martyring Hamilton, essentially, he becomes a cardboard character. He's irredeemable by history. And then, Miranda is really--

Martha Nussbaum: I don't really agree[?]. I mean, if you read Gore Vidal's novel, Burr, he doesn't like that one event does him in. It's rather that he goes on, for of course, another long time. He doesn't die until almost the age of 90. And he leads this strange rebellion in some of the Western Territories trying to establish a separate republic. But it's like the same thing is in his character that made him behave badly with Hamilton, make him a traitor to his country in that other incident. And so it's not so much that that incident did him in, but it was part of a--I think, a lifelong pattern: That he didn't have a sense of honor, true honor. That he didn't have a sense of integrity. And he was willing to do things that aggrandized himself. But, not totally dumb things. Like, this rebellion, if it had succeeded, then there would have been another country and Burr would have been likely King of that country. So, it was a fantasy that wasn't totally ridiculous, that he got taken in by.

Russ Roberts: I'm just suggesting it didn't turn out so well for him.

Martha Nussbaum: Well, it did not. Sure enough. I mean--but, but, in the meantime, he was received by everyone, after the brouhaha about the duel [?], he was received in American society and in European society. He met all kinds of fancy people in England. He talked to the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, and they formed quite a friendship.

Russ Roberts: Interesting.

Martha Nussbaum: So, he had a pretty complicated and interesting life after that. And I think Gore Vidal's novel, Burr, is very good, because it's told mostly from the point of view of Burr. And so what's so interesting is to see how the personality of Burr is sort of like a yellow stain spreading over everything. This enviousness changes the way the recounts all the episodes that we know about from history. So, Washington comes off as a real dummy, and dupe of Hamilton. Of course, Hamilton comes off very badly. So, I really do think that novel is a great example of what in literary discourse is called the 'unreliable narrator'--where you [?] see how different the world looks from Burr's eyes. But he--you know, if you think about whether a Burr could ever succeed, and how far could a Burr succeed, it's an interesting question. I think, you know, when we think about people who have had spectacular falls from grace, someone like Richard Nixon, for example--I don't think that he is a Burr, actually. I think he had a lot more of Hamilton in him. And really had grand ideas about the opening to China. And, so it's not surprising that John Adam's great opera, Nixon in China shows us a Hamiltonian Nixon, if you will--like a Nixon with big ideas and true love of what he was doing. I think that part was real. And then the other part was there, too. So, Nixon is the example of where the, kind of the envy/honor part ended up doing in the good part. And maybe Burr just didn't have the honor part at all. But he certainly got pretty far.

23:03

Russ Roberts: I want to come back to the envy--and we'll go into that in some detail. But I want to digress for a second on something you said a few minutes ago that's haunting me. Listeners to this program know that I'm not a big fan--there are a lot of politicians I don't like, and my general attitude toward politics is: A pox on both their houses. But it's interesting that you made the point that, to be a player--certainly in the United States, democracy, you have to do some things: you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, to get into power, to do things. Even if your intentions are good. Which is where you started--that the people who go into politics to try to make the world a better place--you conceded that people, of course, to get there often have to do things that are not so virtuous. And certainly Adam Smith was very aware of this and talked about it a lot. And he also saw that the case in business as well--I think that was more true in his time, perhaps than ours, but maybe not. But my point is that--I never thought about this--you said, unless you get to be a monarch, in which case you don't have to do those things to get into power because you've already got it already through heredity, or whatever. And yet, I think most monarchs are remarkably more despicable than most democratic leaders, because of that competition. So, I keep thinking back to one of my favorite EconTalk episodes of all time with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, where he mentioned that King Leopold was revered in Belgium and despised in the Congo. In the Congo he was an absolute emperor: he could do whatever he wanted. In Belgium, he was constrained by Parliament. And, he did some progressive things in Belgium that a lot of people liked. In the Congo, he was a murderer, and a thief. And a looter. So, it's interesting. We can bemoan the half-empty glass of democracy and its political ugliness; but, compared to the alternatives it's not so bad.

Martha Nussbaum: Well, I think that's a great point. Of course, with monarchs, they also just--there's this lottery aspect that people of absolutely no ability at all end up being monarchs because they [?] were the first, the oldest son. And you see this in Shakespeare's history plays where people like Richard II and Henry VI are perfectly fine people, but they should never have been running anything. And they couldn't really run anything. And Henry VI probably should have gone and become a priest, or whatever he thinks he wants to be. So, there's that aspect. But I do think you are right, that democracy constrains people in certain ways. Absolutely right. But it also means that you've got to be willing to really play the game of getting people on your side, if you are going to do anything fine in democracy. But let's take the contrast between Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, okay?

Russ Roberts: Ohhh, I was just thinking about Lyndon Johnson. I love Lyndon Johnson's portrait in the--

Martha Nussbaum: He was an honorable person, but he couldn't get anything done. He had no ability to play that game of compromise and putting together a group of people, etc. With Johnson--I've been through all the volumes of Robert Caro's wonderful biography--

Russ Roberts: Incredible book--

Martha Nussbaum: and he certainly in some ways a very despicable person, with very little marital honor, little personal honor. But, when he wanted to get the Civil Rights Act passed, he knew how to wheel and deal; he knew how to use whatever he had on people to get them to vote for it and to make some package that they could support. So, you know, I'm glad that we had Johnson at that time in our nation's history. I think if we had had Jimmy Carter at that time, we'd never have gotten the Civil Rights Act.

Russ Roberts: You're glad we had him because you weren't married to him. Although, you know, there were a lot of people who he crushed ruthlessly on his way, to be able to do that. And I will never forget--I encourage somebody out there listening to find the page--it's in the 2nd volume if I remember correctly of the Caro biography--where LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson) needs the endorsement of a racist. I think the guy's got a music show. I can't remember the exact details. And Johnson doesn't want this guy's endorsement because--he's a wicked man. And, within the span of about 15 minutes or so in the book--it's a page--he talks himself into why it's a good thing to get it. Because, he's going to do all this good once he gets into the Senate and into power. It's a very slippery slope, and a lot of people, of course, unconstrained by democracy climb over a lot of bodies to get into that power and then just use it mainly to help themselves.

Martha Nussbaum: Yeahhh. But when I think about which big political leaders I really like and I would love to meet and be friends with, and so on, it turns out that they are usually people who didn't come up through the rough-and-tumble of democracy. I'm thinking particularly of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Now, Nehru was elevated because he was already a Kashmiri Brahmin; he was aristocratic to the core. If you listen to recordings of his speeches on Indian independence, he sounds like he's from the most upper-crust British school. I mean, he's just not an Indian democrat. Gandhi was much more a man of the people. But, Nehru was a very introspective person, of beautiful character, I think, who loved his family--his wife, his daughter--loved his friends; and was very, very honorable. But he never could have been elevated in today's India, which is a pure, much more a pure democracy. Because then he would have had to have had traits of pure competitiveness and party politics that he just didn't have. So, you know, it's very complicated, I think. Maybe what it teaches us is we might want something that combines the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics with the respect for ideas, with the respect for the leadership of--I don't know--thoughtful people. Which, right now, I think we don't have so much in our country.

29:32

Russ Roberts: Let's go back to envy. You say--this is a quote:

A society that rejects fixed orders and destinies in favor of mobility and competition opens the door wide to envy the positional achievements of others. If envy is sufficiently widespread, it can eventually threaten political order, particularly when a society has committed itself to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
How does envy play out in Hamilton, and how do you see it playing out in America today?

Martha Nussbaum: Okay. Well, let me just talk a little about the emotion itself, because there is a lot of stuff written about envy. John Rawls, the great political philosopher, devoted a long discussion to envy in The Theory of Justice. So what is it, what is it like, and how is it different from jealousy? So, envy is a painful emotion that focuses on the fact that other people are enjoying good things and you are not. So, the difference from jealousy that people usually identify is that jealousy is all about competition for a preferred rival; and it's about insecurity that the person feels he's a very particular person, or particular rival. And jealousy can be satisfied, because you might just come to the conclusion that your spouse really loves you; your spouse is not unfaithful. And unless you are a rather pathological character like Othello or like the character in Proust's novel where jealousy is never satisfied, then jealousy is not going to destroy you, in most human situations. But, thinking about envy, it's really Iago, not Othello, who is the envy person. Because, what he wants is position. He wants the good things of life. And when he sees a person enjoying it and he doesn't, there's a kind of bottomless pit that opens up, this feeling of hopelessness towards the good things in life: that you see someone else as being on top, and you're not. So, what John Rawls does is to then ask, 'Okay, clearly that could destabilize democracy. So, what can we say about under what conditions would envy not be such a destabilizing factor in democracy?' And what he says, I think, is really, really interesting. Namely, what we first of all have to do is arrange to show people that their efforts can bear fruit. There is some good thing they can achieve, just by being the people they are. They are not going to be cut out entirely. And, while we can do this by having good employment opportunities, having a good social safety net, and things of this sort, we can also do it by kind of narrowing the gap between the top and the bottom. Because, what is happening with Iago is, the general is very different from his aide-de-camp. And he just knows he's not going to get to be the general. So, if we have a society like that, where there's a few people who are on top and everyone else is kind of in the outer darkness, that's not so good. Because then there could be a real rebellion of envy. And so what we have to do is to kind of narrow the gap between the bottom and the top. And show that there are lots of things that you can do to get yourself into a good position. And then, what I would add to this--and I guess I do it in the piece by thinking about a high school, which I think is a veritable cauldron of envy--well, I think I don't do it actually in the published version of the piece--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I don't think it's in there. But yeah. It certainly is a culture of envy. That's for sure.

Martha Nussbaum: It's a good way of thinking about it. What can a high school do, to not be a culture of envy? Well. So, one thing is to focus on lots of different things that people can do to achieve. So, if you can have sports stars, fine. And they are going to be the popular kids, fine. You could also encourage achievement in the arts. You can encourage achievement in--heaven help us--even scholarship. And, you know, my daughter went to a school where they had an Arts Olympics alongside the Sports Olympics. And that was really good for her, because she hated sports and wasn't very good in sports. So, you know, these are the things that you can do: just a number of different paths to a kind of positional achievement. And so, these are thoughts that I think we have to have in American society, be they probably--there are several paths to pre-eminence, but not enough, because there's the cult of celebrity; there's the cult of sports stars; and then there's politics. All of these revolving around fame. And all of those things create a lot of envy. But, I think it would be a good thing for our society to do much more to honor school teaching, to honor people who serve in various ways--you know, various service jobs--nursing, taking care of aging people. If the society could recognize those achievements and give them pre-eminence, that would be an extremely good thing to do. But also, I think we need to narrow the gap and have more of a social safety net, because then people, whatever their feeling they lack, at least they have basic wherewithal of security and a basically flourishing life. And I think in Europe, you often achieve that kind of sense of security.

Russ Roberts: Well, we could devote an entire show to that issue, to this issue. And I don't want to talk too long in response. I just want to say two things, trying to be brief. One is: It's such a corrosive emotion. I can think of few things I wish more for my children than to not feel envy at the success of others and to rejoice in the success of others instead. And, I wonder if our politics in catering to it is making two mistakes: First of all, for all you know, in the last 8 years, we really changed the incomes at the top. And in fact, the gap has gotten smaller. But you only know that--and you can perceive it in a high school, the gap. But you can't perceive it in a country. The only way you perceive it in a country is through data. The data are often flawed. But if the data were different, the idea that somehow that would be compensation or make you feel better or less envious, if you were told that the top CEO (Chief Executive Officer) only made x times instead of 2x times or 10x times more than the average person--it feels like a really bad political strategy to cater to that emotion, and to then allow people to market it. Which is what we have now, on both sides of the political fence. And I think it's incredibly destructive. So, I don't see that as the way to solve the problem. I do think we should create capabilities. You and I agree on that: that we can give people a chance to transform themselves personally. But to always be worrying about the gap between me and someone else--I think it is the road to unhappiness at the individual level; and it's the road to tyranny at the national level.

Martha Nussbaum: Well. I think, you know, there are a lot of things to say. I think we need ultimately to talk about the nature of media today, because, on the one hand, the Internet creates many openings. You would think it helps us get rid of envy, because now anyone can be famous. If you write your blog and put it out there, you don't have to, like, go through the usual channels of getting a publisher to publish your works. So, it's done some good things for envy. But, unfortunately, I think what's happened more often is it's ratcheted up the focus on celebrity. How many people are citing you? How many Likes does a post have? And, you know, all that stuff. Now, I'm not expert on this because I don't actually belong to Facebook and I don't actually belong to Twitter. I like the old style of just writing an email to my friends. But, in any case, I think people are preoccupied by citations, by others. So, even before that, there were citation indexes--

Russ Roberts: Yep--

Martha Nussbaum: and the whole idea that you promote somebody because their work is cited always seemed to me pretty silly, because it might be cited as bad, or as an example of some error. And no one even bothers to ask that. But, in any case, that was still not as bad as this social media thing, where it's just the--the [?] and celebrity of some brief remark that you make that gives you your title to status. And so I think: What can we do about that? Well, I guess I don't know how to use social media for those ends. So, what I personally would focus on is more like, let's reinforce in the classroom and in our local community discussion groups and in fora like our local public libraries, which are wonderful centers now of adult education and public discussion--let's reinforce this discussion. Let's re-discover the joy of coming together and actually talking together about an issue, where we are not worried about who is famous, but what we are worried about is what's true. And we can encourage that. And I do feel, people are hungry for real discussion. People flock to book stores, public libraries, and so on, whenever they can. This is more of an urban phenomenon right now because that's where it's possible. But, you know, it should, we should do much more to encourage that. To have discussions surrounding museums, galleries, musical events of all kinds. And, of course, popular media--like the musical, Hamilton. So, I guess to encourage real discussion is what I think would help counteract this cult of evanescent celebrity. What do you think about that?

39:49

Russ Roberts: Well, I think it's really a--you know, it's a part of life that we've lost a handle on, which is character development; the role that religion used to play. It still does, but it's a much smaller role. For all that public education used to play. But it's a much smaller role, trying to help us cope with our own shortcomings, our own weaknesses. You know, my kids want to spend less time on Facebook. But it's hard for them. I want to spend less time on Twitter. But it's hard for me. So, how do we control our urges, impulses, etc., and lead a dignified life, is--well, that's part of what we're doing, I hope. It's part of what you do, teaching philosophy. I want to come back to that. It's part of what I try to do a little bit of here at EconTalk. But, your point about public conversation, certainly and I [hold/hope?] at EconTalk in public--a lot of people just want to see human beings. Listening is wonderful. You can't be face-to-face with many people in your life at any one time. But now and then you want a human being. You want to interact with a human being. You want to look in their eyes. You want to smile at them. It's a human thing that we're losing a little bit of. I wonder if there would be some sort of backlash. We'll see.

Martha Nussbaum: Well, let's see. I do feel like what we do know--and I did just finish a book on aging, coming out shortly, coming out with a colleague. So, one of the things we talk about is the search for meaning, as people are aging; and the fact that increasingly people are seeking out this forum for discussion. Seeking out humanities courses in adult education. All kinds of places where you can really search for virtue, in terms of the old myth. And, you know, that's partly because they've lived a life of competitive me-first-ism. And then suddenly that doesn't seem to be about, what would you give your life its meaning. And then you start thinking more like Hamilton: What shall I create that's going to outlive me? So, the search for meaning, I think that's bringing people back, if they live long enough. And if they have some leisure--to the real discussion and real reading, real pursuit of important, good things. And I think that's great. I think it would be good if people have that started when they are undergraduates. And one reason I'm such a big defender of humanities courses for all undergraduates is that I think then, when they are much younger, they learn what it is to search for truth and to search for meaning. Of course, they should learn it also in the sciences, because science, really deep science, not just applied money-oriented science but deep, theoretical science, that's also search for truth and meaning. So, as undergraduates, they learn to search for meaning. Then they have to go out and do a job that may not seem to be very meaningful to them. But if they can keep that love going, outside their work, or come back to it after they retire, or in place of retiring have a second career or something--that, I think is very, very important. I also think--and this isn't for everyone's taste--I think religion is very important as a way of keeping the search for truth and the search for meaning going, all the way through human life. When I go to synagogue, I do feel that we are all coming together to talk about real things. And, you know, sometimes, maybe people are as envious in the synagogue--one thing to be the president of the Board or whatever, as they would be anyplace else. But, on the whole, you know, life is focused on meaning. And that's why I keep [?] come there--come there for the meaning, and the music, and so on. And so these are areas in life in America. Is it the arts, and humanities? And then religion? Which, seem to me, less prone to turn people envious and more prone to turning them kind of in the direction of virtues. So, if we can just remember that and encourage that, I think that's helpful.

Russ Roberts: I want to say something on behalf of religion which I think is often misunderstood by people who don't have a role for religion in their life. I'm religious, as my listeners know. I'm a religious Jew. So, I also sit in synagogue, as you do, and I think people who are not religious assume that religious people thereby know all the answers: everything is taken care of; there are no doubts any more and you don't have to worry about anything. And it's all taken care of. When, in fact for me, religion is really the way that I process and consume and think about the mystery of life and the puzzle of suffering and the tragedy and bittersweetness of a finite existence, in such a crazy place called 'our lives.' So, I want to echo that.

Martha Nussbaum: That's very nicely put. And I would add, the Jewish tradition anyway is all about continuing the argument and taking responsibility for your choices. And, as a Reform Jew, I think, well, the text tradition in history is something you should know about; but we should really be committed to is following the moral law and making it real in your life and in other people's lives. So, it's about that kind of search. And so, it's not that different--on a smaller and more local scale from Hamilton's search for political virtue.

45:15

Russ Roberts: A good segue. But I want to say one more thing about the Humanities; and then I want to ask you a question about philosophy in the Humanities. I've been reading Leisure, by Josef Pieper, which is a very strange and interesting book--a book of philosophy written, I think, in 1952--where he complains about our emphasis on work and that leisure is only to recharge your batteries to do more work. And he tries to make the case for a different kind of leisure. It happens to be in a religious context, but that's not necessary--I don't think. He claims it is. I don't think it is. But let's put that to the side. Certainly he makes the claim that there should be leisure that is devoid of usefulness. Not, idleness, but rather exploring philosophy, exploring the meaning of life, exploring the transcendent. And, that's a remarkably unpopular view in 2017. And it's been unpopular in America, even among young people, now, for, it seems, a while. The Humanities are taking a pounding. So, I'd like to hear you say something in defense of them. In particular, my middle son is thinking of being a philosophy major. And, I think that's a great idea. I think most people would say, 'What a waste that is!' So, I disagree. And I'd like to hear your view.

Martha Nussbaum: Well, of course, I disagree. I wanted to stop, though, for a minute, with this word 'transcendent.' Now, sometimes that means the focus should be the other world. As a Reform Jew, I--

Russ Roberts: Not what I mean--that's not what I mean--

Martha Nussbaum: --don't believe that. [?] It could just mean going further, going deeper, going better. And that's what I think it means. For me, in general transcending our laziness, our selfishness, and trying, particularly, to do something good for other people. Okay. So, the Humanities--I actually am not as much of a pessimist as you seem to be, because I've just done a new edition of my book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. And, for that, I looked at a lot of data. And, in fact, in our country, where in fact crucial, that we have a liberal arts system, so people study humanities sometimes as Humanities majors, but even if not, they'll study it in their required general education courses. There's actually a pretty robust increase in Humanities enrollments: particularly in community colleges enrollments in the Humanities are way up. And, as I mentioned, in adult continuing education, huge upward surge. So, I am not such a pessimist. I think people need--they feel a thirst for meaning. And it's a very important thing that you don't have to make that your whole life. You could say, 'I'm going to major in computer science because that's where I think the jobs are.' Although, not entirely true: I think there are actually more unemployed computer science majors than unemployed English majors. But anyway, you can do what you want to do. And, still prepare yourself for the whole of life by taking Humanities courses. And we are so lucky that we have this system. Our country, Scotland, Canada, South Korea--those are the only countries that have that liberal arts system. In most countries of the world, like all of Europe, basically, except for Scotland; and in all of Asia, you have to choose, when you enter university, one subject. And then you do only that. So, it's either all Philosophy, or no philosophy; all Literature, or no literature. And so, in that context, it's not surprising that parents and kids are scared. And they think: 'Well, what am I going to do, if I do 3 years of nothing but Philosophy? What am I equipped for?' Well, I don't think they should have to make that choice. Now, there are pockets to resistance to that in the rest of the world. So, for example, all the Jesuit universities in Latin America and elsewhere are basically on the Liberal Arts model. But I really think that's the right way for all universities to be. Because, university education has a two-fold purpose. It prepares you for a career; but it also prepares you for being a good citizen and having a complete, meaningful life. And those are both important purposes. But, we are lucky, anyway, that our university system does preserve that sense. And I believe that this is something that, although there are some politicians who like to beat up on the Humanities, by and large, when I actually go to places and interact with the community, people from the community love to turn out to Humanities lectures. They support the Humanities. And often, they support it with their money as well as their presence.

Russ Roberts: Do you think majoring in Philosophy makes you a better person?

Martha Nussbaum: I think it makes you a person who is better at detecting inconsistences and flaws in your own reasoning and the reasoning of other people. And I think that is one part of being a good person, because often, there's a lot of hypocrisy in society. And so, people can kind of mask some bad program by making a specious argument for it. So, learning to detect this kind of falsity and unmask it--that's part of being a good person. But, of course, I mean, look at the Socratic Dialogues of Plato. Socrates did think that he was doing something valuable and morally good. But that assumed that people had basically good intentions. So, what they lacked was the ability to put that all together into a coherent program. And then they got led astray by people who said, 'Oh, we'll go in this direction. That direction' because they really weren't fully clear about what they were doing. But, if they didn't--if they were vicious people to begin with, then, you know, it isn't going to help them. So, you've got to hope that before people get into Philosophy, they've learned a lot of other things, first: I mean, that they've had a good upbringing in their family, and in their community. That their parents have told them about respect and love for other people. That their schools have taught them about bigotry and bullying and so on. And I think, you know, by and large we do know how to do that. We don't always do that. But, a friend of mine is an actress in a children's' theater, and she acts in front of hundreds of children every week. And the teachers bring the kids in. And right now they've got a new play about--it's based on the "Ugly Duckling," but interestingly, they don't want to make it like beauty is the be-all and end-all, so they turned it into the duckling who is different. Right? It's kind of--

Russ Roberts: Let's water it down. It's--

Martha Nussbaum: Well, I mean, it's not the original. Most fairy tales are morally bad. So, anyhow, this duckling with his blue cuffs[?] rather than green is bullied and made fun of. And then they sing a song--be an upstander, not a bystander. Which apparently is a very common slogan now in elementary schools: about, you see something bad going on, say something; don't just let it happen. So, these kids are learning, through theater and through their teachers and so on, the rudiments of being a good person. And then, at some point, when they are older and more sophisticated, they can do Philosophy over that basis. And I think that would supply something important. But it's not--of course, it's not sufficient by itself.

Russ Roberts: I'm just going to add one thing, I think I hadn't really thought of before. I'm not a big fan of majoring in Psychology. I'm biased against it. My father has a Master's in Psychology, and he told me never to study it. And so, I never studied it in college. But I've become a fan of many psychologists through this program, as listeners know. And it seems to me that there's a piece of psychology--an important piece, and it's part of philosophy as well--you can kind of stretch and say it's part of economics, certainly the moral philosophy part of economics that comes from Adam Smith. And that's self-awareness. I think--I think none of these things make you a good person. But they give you the potential to be a good person. And I would argue that without self-awareness it's going to be extremely difficult to do anything good. It also could help you be--if you want to be a wicked person, being self-aware is probably effective, too. But, for those of us who like to think of ourselves as wanting to be good, being self-aware--which is, to me, a lifetime challenge--is something we don't really teach very well. And it would be a good thing if we did. I think--we do a little bit of it here at EconTalk. We talk about confirmation bias, which is a huge thing. But I think it's a big part of life that we don't think about very systematically.

Martha Nussbaum: Yeah. I agree entirely. And I do agree that Socrates didn't get the whole thing right. I have a very strong interest in psychoanalysis. And I had a wonderful discussion recently with my colleague and friend Jonathan Lear, a propos of his new book, Wisdom Won From Illness. But we had a kind of public forum together in Hyde Park, where we talked about how philosophy needs to learn from psychoanalysis. And how psychoanalysis needs to learn from philosophy. I think they both have things to learn from each other. But certainly, philosophy that doesn't care about the unconscious, about the deep inner life of the person's emotions and so on--that's not going to be enough. And so we need[?] more than one type of understanding. And then, the question is, of course, how do you do that? And I ended up asking Jonathan--who does in fact see psychoanalytic citations[?] on a regular basis as well as writing and teaching--'You know, what else can we do if we are interested in that kind of understanding but we are not actually practicing analysts? What do we do to make it real?' And I struggle with that. And I try to do it by writing about the emotions, and writing in a way that shows that kind of understanding. But, I'm aware that the nature of the communication that I have with my own students and my own readers is in some ways only skin deep. I mean, I'm not an analyst. And so, then, that other part, that goes beneath their skin, someone like Jonathan, has to do that part.

55:50

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's--um--a complicated thing, the human psyche, consciousness, what we really want. All those things are part of leading a good life and understanding them, and understanding yourself. I want to finish with a point that was made by one of the critics of your essay, Boston Review, for people to respond to--we'll put up links to the whole forum--had an interesting approach. She said, and I'm [not?] quoting[?] her, 'The focus on being in the room where it happens, the focus on being--' I'm now, belatedly bringing us back to Hamilton: that the focus on being an insider, to be at the levers of power, is not the only way that we can make the world a better place. And of course, we do that in many, many ways in the small; but those small steps add up. Reflect on that and this idea that in a democracy--I don't think it's necessarily a democracy. I'd say it's in any civil society where there's freedom to associate with other people to create organizations that help people voluntarily--that that's another way to make the world a better place, not just in Washington, D.C.

Martha Nussbaum: Oh. I couldn't agree more. And I said so in my reply to her.

Russ Roberts: You did. Yeah.

Martha Nussbaum: Yeah. I thought that was a great point. Because, I mean, of course Hamilton is a drama and an attempt to hook people in by a glamorous story of the leader. But, the fact is that all of us have contributions to make that are good. And there are so many ways we can do it. We just have to think: What are you good at doing? If you are doctor, well, that leads you in one direction. If you can do something in the arts, that leads you in another direction. But, yeah, I mean, even just something like in my synagogue, we have this food garden that provides fresh produce for the poor. It's the largest such food garden in the United States. [?] work in the garden. So many different things. Bringing up children is of course one of the most important ways of contributing something fine to the world. So, yeah. I think Socrates didn't understand that either, because he really--Plato's vision of how you could contribute was pretty male-centered and it didn't include the family of all--

Russ Roberts: Yeah--

Martha Nussbaum: and so on. So, we could just think about all the different ways you can contribute; and then, [?] is: What's the one where you fit in best? And, what's the one that would give you joy and satisfaction?--because that's crucial--are you best placed to make.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think about the end of Middlemarch, which is one of my favorite endings of a novel, the last line--which is not a spoiler, by the way. It gives away nothing of the plot. But the last line is, "[T]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life and the rest in unvisited tombs." End of quote. And we focus on those who get the monuments. Certainly here in Washington, D.C. we do that. But, a lot of what makes life glorious and real takes place over the breakfast table, at community places like churches, synagogues, and mosques. At associations like food banks where people come together to help other people. And I think we need to remember that and not think it all comes through power and legislation.

Martha Nussbaum: Oh, absolutely. I guess the only thing I don't like about that is that at the end of novel about the limits of aspiration that characterized a woman's life in the 19th century, that's a bit of a cop-out, to me. Because it says, 'Well, never mind that the big positions are not open to women. Forget about that. You can contribute in small ways.' And so, while, I mean, it's perfectly true, it's still a horrible injustice and one that we're still living with, that the wider range of options is not fully open to women. So, I guess, I think George Eliot, who, after all had to publish under the name "George" rather than Mary Ann, she was just trying to wrestle with her own personal limitations, which were terribly wrong and unjust.

Russ Roberts: But I would say--I agree with you; it's a great point. But I would add that, I would never again, going to my own children, I would never want any of them to aspire to be President of the United States. And I think it's interesting that we say, 'There's never been a woman.' There will be a woman President of the United States someday, and it will be probably a good thing for the world, a good thing for America, a good thing for American women. But I don't think it's something that anyone should aspire to. And that puts me in a small group of people, I suppose.

Martha Nussbaum: No. I guess I think what's most important for one's children is that they do something they love that does make a contribution. And, I'm just so thrilled that my daughter is doing legal work on behalf of animal rights, that she really loves, in a great organization--it's not one of these $200,000 law-firm jobs, but thank goodness it isn't! It's actually more meaningful than that. And she's doing something real. So, I agree totally.



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Greg G writes:

I know it was a digression but I thought one of the most interesting parts of the discussion was the brief debate about Martha's Rawlsian view of economic inequality.

Russ claimed that the only way people can perceive an increase in economic inequality at the national level "is through the data." This strikes me as so obviously wrong it is hard to take seriously. Our culture and our media are absolutely saturated with descriptions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Are we really to believe that lower income people can't perceive how different these lifestyles are from their own? And how much more extravagant and commonplace the lifestyles of the rich today are from what they were a generation or two ago?

Libertarian economists who think humans should be less subject to envy are like socialist psychologists who think market prices should be less subject to supply and demand. Daniel Kahneman won a well deserved Nobel Prize in Economics for showing economists how futile it is to base their policy prescriptions on the hope for a different human nature than the one nature has given us. Try thinking of it as "catering to" human nature rather than "catering to" envy.

Humans have always cared more about relative status than absolute status. And they have always reacted particularly badly to losses in status. Kahneman called this loss aversion showed how it consistently led to irrational behavior.

The rapid growth of the social safety net in western democracies after WWII was not based on a theory of economics. It was based on a theory of history, psychology and politics. It was considered obvious by most of the people who lived through the period that widespread unemployment and poverty laid the foundation for the growth of totalitarianism in all its forms.

Technically, "the data" showed a great economic leveling during this period. But the loss in status felt by people who could not support their families was a lot greater than the loss in status felt by the rich who were less rich than before.

Nor is it obvious to me that those advocating for a stronger social safety net are any more envious on average than anyone else. It sometimes seems that the rich envy the lower tax rates of the poor at least as much as the poor envy the the lifestyles of the rich. There is no shortage of envy among the rich. What is it that drives someone to continue building a financial empire long past the point he has made more money than he and his children could possibly spend? Envy sometimes drives a great work ethic. Apathy is far more likely than envy to make someone seek a life on the dole.

Trent writes:

For a podcast that was described and introduced as a review of "Hamilton" and Alexander Hamilton's life, it sure got off track quickly. Very disappointing that the discussion devolved into things like the evils of competition, the need for solutions to reduce inequality, Socrates, the human psyche, etc., etc., etc. And more disappointing that the discussion stayed there and never got back to "Hamilton."

Focusing on the musical, we (my wife and I) found it overrated - roughly a 5 out of 10. Didn't hate it....didn't love it....just so-so that didn't live up to the hype. Not wanting to harp on historical inaccuracies, so sticking to the musical itself:

* The lack of a showstopper (e.g. "Memory" in "Cats") was noticeable. There wasn't a single song that was running through our heads on the way home from the theater....no compelling urge/reason to rush out to buy the soundtrack, nor to see it again any time soon.

* Not kid-friendly as there's harsh profanity in this musical. I'm not opposed to it, mind you, but there was no warning beforehand a la "The Book of Mormon."

* The plot dragged at multiple times, the worst being Hamilton's death scene after the dual, when it took him a looooooooong time to finally die.

* What was particularly entertaining were the three interludes by King George - welcome comic relief that channeled the old "Schoolhouse Rock" series. But then the writers/director messed that up by including him in the fiasco of a dance scene in Act II.

For all the hype, we expected something akin to "The Phantom Of The Opera" and instead were treated to something akin to "The Beautiful Game." Again, we didn't hate it....just not the raving hit show that we expected.

Jerm writes:

I love Hamilton (the musical), even though I'll probably never see it live. But I get why some people either didn't like it as much as I did. Or didn't like it at all.

Which makes me wonder: Should you listen to the soundtrack before you see the play?

At first, I would have said NO. That it would be best to go in completely fresh and see it all for the first time on stage.

But now I think it's best to listen first. Most importantly, because you need to know if you can understand what the actors are saying...the words are fast, and some people would do better with supertitles. But also, you'll know if "rap musical" will be enough to satisfy your personal music requirements.

One thing that is interesting about Hamilton is that the entire soundtrack was easily (legally) accessible from the very beginning of its popularity. And now that there's a new crop of interesting shows on Broadway, I'm surprised that more of them aren't going that same route, gaining fans who have memorized the entire soundtrack before they ever see a minute of it with their eyes.

I saw an (illegal) copy of the play, and there's a ton of artistic merit that you don't get with the soundtrack. I now tell people that it's best to be familiar with the music before seeing the visuals. I hope there's some discussion of the play in the comments, even though there wasn't much discussion in the talk. I have a ton of things I'd love to say about the play.

Alonzo Fyfe writes:

On Envy

Since you mentioned confirmation bias, one of the ways in which confirmation bias works is by taking a statistic as being used in a way that is easy to attack and ignoring its more significant implications.

You mentioned inequality and envy - promoting envy of those who have more.

I would grant that envy simply because somebody has more of something is a vice. It is nothing to be encouraged.

However, inequality has other implications. This being: if you were to give advice to an entrepreneur on how to make money, the answer is to invent or create something that fulfills the desires of those who have money to spend. Do not waste time or effort on those who cannot afford to pay.

In short, the greater the inequalities of wealth, the more resources are diverted from serving the significant interests of those with very little and using it to serve the trivial interests of those with a lot.

In fact, you can take resources being used to provide the poor with food and mefical care they cannot afford, and use it instead to provide entertainment that the very wealthy can easily and happily pay for.

This wealth effect means that, as wealth inequality increases, food and medical care for the poor becomes increasingly expensive as the wealthy bid the resources that would go into its production away - into providing entertainment for the wealthy.

And the wealthy are not buying this entertainment from the poor (who are of no use to them), they are buying it from each other.

To dismiss these concerns because one can frame the issue as a pointless form of envy is not entirely accurate.

[Broken link to your website has been removed. Please check your links when you preview your comments.--Econlib Ed.]

bogwood writes:

Recent criticism of "Hamilton" suggests that it is still white history and despite having black actors, under- estimates their, blacks, actual role in history.

This allows a segue to the biophysical economics of the day. There would have been no educated class, no military options without surplus energy. In large part that surplus energy depended on slavery and indentured servitude. Showing them in the theater would have been accurate but possibly a distraction. Slavery was an essential element of the Revolution, obviously for Washington and Jefferson, but also for Hamilton after leaving Nevis.

If the slaves had been depicted would they have been envious? Maybe a little annoyed at a government imposed inequality which in more subtle form persists today. It is the basic fairness gene seen in the primate behavior experiments. It is really difficult to cite an example of a 0.01% income person without compromised ethics or actual criminality. I am counting all forms of rent-seeking as unethical and thus cover professional athletes and entertainers. Mega-bankers are in their own circle of hell.

As an aside, religion deserves some careful scientific study, but it may be a "gateway drug" in the sense that someone absorbing religion early might later believe in fractional reserve banking.

Zarro writes:

Martha Nussbaum said at the end: "The wider range of options is still not open to women."

Russ Roberts responds: "I agree with you, it's a great point."

It isn't clear that Russ is agreeing with this point in the present as well as in the 18th century.

Just out of curiosity, which areas or options are still not open to women in 2017?

Trent writes:

@ Jerm,

I try not to listen to the soundtrack before seeing a musical for the first time for two reasons:

* It takes the surprise away, whether it's a dramatic song, a plot device, a scene stealer, etc.

* I find myself comparing the soundtrack to what I'm watching. Sometimes the soundtrack is a concept album....sometimes changes are made to the show between the 'original cast recording' and the version I'm watching....sometimes the current cast has a significantly different style than the original cast. In each case, I always seem to notice the differences & then I get irritated instead of enjoying the performance.

Of course, I end up hearing, say, part of a showstopper or other scene beforehand when it's a big hit or a long-standing classic. In the case of "Hamilton," I'd seen a few clips of scenes on TV, but nothing to ruin any potential surprise - the King George scenes were therefore a completely unexpected, welcome, comedic surprise.

Tim Bugge writes:

What's to be made of claims that the humanities programs across too many universities are being ruined, perhaps fatally, by the influence of post modernism? Important or overblown?

Vincent Passanisi writes:

Wonderful conversation. Very interesting and many thoughtful points.

I have two thoughts.

The first, is that I thought professor Nussbaum was over-generous in her praise of Burr's character as compared to Hamilton's. It seems odd to make a judgment based on a novel. I have not read Gore Vidal's novel, but I have read Chernow's biography. Burr was just as much the womanizer, if not more, even bragging of his amorous conquests to his adult daughter in letters. It will be recalled that Burr had an affair with Theodosia before he married her--she was married to a British army officer.

My second is in response to Prof. Nussbaum's comment that undergraduates study science,

because science, really deep science, not just applied money-oriented science but deep, theoretical science, that's also search for truth and meaning. So, as undergraduates, they learn to search for meaning. Then they have to go out and do a job that may not seem to be very meaningful to them.

I agree that the study of the sciences is very important. Yet I disagree in that I think tremendous meaning can come from "money-oriented science," if what we mean by that term is akin to what I'll call "tinkering." There is an unimaginable amount of real world, scientific-tinkering that has bettered our lives in so many ways. So much of this scientific tinkering is never seen, but it drives improvements, of which we are many times not even aware. The meaning, satisfaction, sense of reward, fulfillment, and yes, sometimes monetary gain derived from such scientific tinkering and experimentation is equal to theoretical science.

I may even go a step further and point out that theoretical science has done more damage than good in the medical field if you consider the many wrong paths that it has taken us in the quest to find cures and understand the workings of the human body.

Ezekiel Baye writes:

What a great, rambling, and truly fascinating conversation. Pardon the pun, but I especially loved the humanity of it all. The asides involving their children, their worries over their own weaknesses, their hopes and disagreements over the path forward.

But the true kicker for me, was that shortly after the discussion on the evils of envy, Martha was mentioning her synagogue’s food garden that provides fresh produce for the poor. She notes "the largest such food garden in the United States."

:)

Greg A writes:

Martha's view that studying philosophy prepares you to spot faulty thinking is spot on. My undergraduate degree is in philosophy and, though it did very little to set me up for employment, I continue to benefit from that training in correct and careful thinking every day.

POST A COMMENT




Return to top