Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Scott Sumner on Meaning

Economist Scott Sumner responds to a question about meaning:
Compared to most people, I probably find less meaning in success and fame, and more in art. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’m probably about average for seeing meaning in friends and family (although given my Northern European cultural heritage, perhaps a bit less than average for family.)

During my career, I noticed that some colleagues cared a lot about things like promotions, whereas I didn’t care at all. I did get some satisfaction from the positive press I got in September 2012, but probably less than most people would. I’m not ambitious in a career sense. If given the opportunity to be Fed chair, or a senator from California, or CEO of Goldman Sachs, I’d immediately turn down the opportunity. If not for this Mercatus position, I’d already be retired—at age 62. I’d rather make $20,000/year and have the health I had at age 31, than $200,000/year and have the health I have today—and I don’t even have any serious health problems, just chronic annoyances. That’s why the income inequality debate doesn’t really resonate with me; it just doesn’t seem that important. (That’s my impression; I’m not trying to defend it.) On the other hand, extreme poverty in developing nations such as North Korea seems like by far the most important problem in the world.

I also find much less meaning that usual in ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, graduations and other such events. I’m not a social person.

When I was a young academic, my research was meaningful to me. As I got older, I realized that people simply didn’t care and it lost meaning. What made my depression book so hard to write is that I did it after I’d become disenchanted, after I realized the book would be ignored. Fortunately, the hardest part (all the research) was done by the time I reached that view, but it was still an agonizing process to write the book.

Conversely, I got a lot of meaning out of a brief summer course I taught at Cato this summer. I was great seeing younger students from really good schools that were interested in market monetarist ideas. My blog also gave me meaning, especially during the early years when I still had new things to say and the readership was larger and more engaged. I still have modest hopes for my blog book, but I don’t think book length projects are my forte. If I were actually able to influence Fed policy, that would seem meaningful to me.

For me, the greatest meaning in life comes from art, broadly defined to include aesthetically beautiful experiences with nature, old cities, and scientific fields like astronomy and physics. The most meaningful experience in my life might have been seeing the film 2001 at age 13. I’ve never tried LSD, but after reading about the experience it reminds me of this film, and indeed the director was someone who experimented with acid. (It might also be the only “psychedelic” work of visual art that’s actually any good. Whereas pop music from the 60s is full of good examples.)

To me, art is “real life” and things such as careers are simply ways of making money in order to have the ability to experience that real life. After art, I’d put great conversation second on the list. And the part of economics that most interests me is the ability to converse with like-minded people (such as at the Cato summer course.)

I’m sort of like a satellite dish, receptive to ideas and sounds and images. My ideal is Borges, who regarded himself more as a great reader than a great writer (of course he was both, and a great conversationalist.) I’d rather be a great reader than a great writer. I’d rather be able to appreciate great music than be able to produce it.
I think Sumner's life course is a common one for those who are ambitious when they are young. For a while climbing the ladder of success energizes them and feels like the most meaningful thing. Eventually they realize that they are not really going to shake the world – notice that Sumner still fantasizes about influencing real monetary policy – and settle back into a quiescent enjoyment of the things they love most, preferably in the company of like-minded people. Because of all that youthful drive they have plenty of money for an ordinary life and no longer care about getting more. Instead they brace up their self-esteem by insisting they would not even want the jobs they will never be offered.

Realizing that they are never going to win the game, they take their winnings and cash out, abandoning the Stoic for the Epicurean. Which actually seems to me like a pretty good way to live.


Unknown said...

I wonder if there's anyway to insulate the kind of thing Sumner is talking about from the charge, implicit in your comments, that it's essentially a loser's consolation prize.

John said...

"Loser" is not a word I would use, because I think that many who rise to the top of highly competitive fields are insane. The process I have in mind involves deciding that you don't want to work 80 hours a week for decades or subject yourself to the humiliation of running for office etc. To me, the people who opt out are the real winners.

Unknown said...

As an opter-out, I would like to agree with you. And I do think that, under current conditions at least, many of those who rise to the top are pretty weird, often off-putting, sometimes insane, usually not too good for the larger community (though not all; Obama and Atul Gawande are good counter-examples). But, again as an opter-out, I feel the insidious force of the loser label.

In Sumner's case, I definitely get a regretful "I'd rather be advising the Fed" feel. Though, to judge by his Wikipedia page, he looks to me like one of life's winner's, in the more conventional sense. Why he seems to feel like a failure is an interesting question. Perhaps his narcissism is wounded by the fact that he's not in the ranks of Milton Friedman, et al. Or perhaps it's more that he's an ideologue who regards anything less than pure monetarism from the Fed as a defeat for his side.