Bryan Caplan

How Different Are People? A Caplan-Cowen Dialogue

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Here's a true conversation between me and Tyler Cowen, filtered through several years of memory:

Tyler: People like to think they're special, but we're all pretty much the same.

Me: No we're not. Some people are really great; others are simply awful.

Tyler: That's just the kind of thing people say to make themselves feel special.

Me: You don't really believe that.

Tyler: Do too.

Me: What if we use the metric of your willingness-to-pay to spend an hour with a person? There are a few awesome people you would pay thousands of dollars to meet. But you'd pay hundreds of dollars to avoid an hour with most people.

Tyler: [3-second hesitation.] Well, it's not clear why that should be the relevant metric.

Me: But it's your metric!

Tyler: What's so special about my metric?

Me: What's so special about it? By definition, that metric captures everything that you think matters. And by that very metric, people are not "pretty much the same." They're incredibly different.

I don't remember what Tyler said next. I'm sure, though, that it wasn't "You're right, I take it all back!" But shouldn't it have been?


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Biomed Tim writes:

It depends how Tyler defines the word "special."

grant writes:

I think Cowen's test is likely a measure of how special a person makes you feel.

Daniel Yokomizo writes:

Different or same is a matter of resolution, when compared to plants all humans are the same. In college we used to say that every place on earth is near, because we far was the distance between the Sun and the Milky Way's center. Also different is not the same as special, people can be different without being special. On the whole it was a nice way to corner a flawed argument.

Patrick writes:

> Some people are really great; others are simply awful.

The awful people and the great people may have much more similar nature than is appreciated. Often the difference is in how the person learned to handle their nature, or channel it.

Steve Jobs is megalomaniac genius. As a business leader, he's created some awesome products that have made the world a much better place. A lot of dicators have also been meglomaniac geniuses. But that nature channeled into politics products evil.

Jeffrey Rae writes:

You were talking about different things and therefore differences in the 'metric' to be used is indeed one of the issues.

I believe that Tyler is talking how one person is perceived by the rest of us compared to how they see them selves. Tyler's asserts, correctly IMO, that there generally is a significant difference between a person's evaluation of him/herself and the collective evaluations of that person by everyone else.

Bryan, on the other hand, was positing, again correctly, that one person's evaluation of different people will generally differ. This is, however, an entirely different issue!!

Tyler has asserted that these differences will tend to cancel out because of differences in what we each value in other people. I think that this is correct as a general tendency but, as always, there is ample room for 'outliers' of the kind that Bryan instanced.

Personally I would be happy to spend an hour with each of you. Or better still two hours with both of you. Heavens, have we discovered the existence of 'spillovers' at GMU?

gregory writes:

which points up the essential arbitrariness of words like "value"

David writes:

Isn't this just a function of a demand curve? There is a smaller quantity of chances to meet certain people, and those are the ones we would pay more to meet (presidents, CEOs, professional athletes), and we're certainly less willing to pay to spend time with everyday acquaintences.

In any event, de gustibus non est disputum. You would need to determine the combined willingness to pay to meet everyone by everyone to determine who is awesome and who is awful. The conjecture that on average, most people are the same and very few fit in the awesome or terrible categories would be too costly to calculate, so we'll go with that.

David writes:

ok, that's supposed to be disputandum

One of the most important things I learned from economics is that people are doing exactly what they want to do. If you really want to know what someone believes, watch their behaviors. If you really believe people are basically the same, then you would spend more or less equal amounts of time (adjusting for family, which which you by definition spend more time with) with everyone you knew. You would not have a hierarchy of people you knew: acquaintances, friends, best friends. You would not be able to select a spouse or significant other, since such a selection would be completely arbitrary, or based on superficialities at best. The theory behind NCLB would be accurate, and soon all students except those with severe mental handicaps would be on their way to college. Affirmative action would have resulted in absolute equality by now. One could go on and on against this fundamentally egalitarian viewpoint. But the bottom line is that you're right that there are people we would love to spend time with, and others we would spend money to keep far, far away from us.

Matt writes:

I don't have special lines for myself at the grocery store, though I shop for different things.

Tylers answer was simple, see, we all use monetary transactions, we are mostly the same.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

We're all the same - in that, we're all different.

[loyal Tyler fan here ;]

Chuck writes:

I agree with Tyler in the sense that when you talk about desires, motives, value to society, flaws, etc - in impersonal, objective worth, we are all basically the same, that is to say, 80% or more of us.

On the other hand, in terms of subjective entertainment value to any given one of us, we are not at all the same.

For example, we all exist on a spectrum of our sense of humor. That doesn't really change our worth to society at large, but it has a major impact on how we get along with a specific person.

So, my sense of humor might make me really different from someone else and make me want or not want to spend time with them, but in the end that person has the same utility to the world at large as I do.

I like to think of it as, "Remember, you're special, just like everyone else."

It's funny; because it's true!

Zubon writes:

I can't see how anyone can talk to Bryan Caplan and be thinking, "He's pretty much like everyone else I know," unless you are doing that "compared to plants or objects across the Milky Way" thing above. Or maybe everyone at GMU really is like that. Must be a nice place.

Dr. T writes:
Matt writes: Tylers answer was simple, see, we all use monetary transactions, we are mostly the same.

How about: We all breathe air, so we're mostly the same. Well, are we mostly the same as every reptile, bird, and mammal?

Tyler Cowen strikes me as a very smart man who was raised to believe illogical credos (eg: everyone is the same, people are basically good, no one deserves special treatment, etc.). He should watch 'The Incredibles' and pay attention to the context surrounding Dash's line "If everyone is special, then no one is."

Dr Jayesh Sharma writes:

How can a sane person argue that all people are equal? I have my strengths & my weaknesses..... overall it may turn out that my pluses & minuses are about average, but that depends on what is measured. When Cowen claims to have a single number instead of an average & claims that all people will total to that number, it sounds like determinism of the worst kind. People are not equal in either their abilities or in their inclination to pursue goals. This kind of utopian egalitarianism leads to totalitarianism of the worst kind.

Jason Malloy writes:

People like to think they're special, but we're all pretty much the same.

I can't agree or disagree with this statement. It isn't operationalized to be falsifiable, and until it is, there is nothing to argue about and Cowen has communicated nothing.

There are a virtually unlimited number of ways to operationalize this statement so it can be true as well as ways so it can be false.

So, no, Dr. Caplan has not "won" the argument either, since no logically arguable premise has been stated.

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