What smart people think, and where to start

Suppose you are a bright young student who wants to get up to speed with the best of the blogosphere. I could encourage you to read Marginal Revolution, Slate Star Codex, Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Scott Aaronson, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Econlog, Crooked Timber, Razib Khan, Nick Rowe, David Beckworth and many other bloggers.

But you might prefer to start with this mega blog post by David Siegel, in which he offers opinions on a wide range of topics. You will be quickly brought up to speed on what smart people think about all sorts of issues. Here’s a brief excerpt, which leads into section 2:

BELOW ARE 150 QUESTIONS AND SHORT DISCUSSIONS WITH LINKS TO RESEARCH. They are not meant as short-cuts or my “opinion,” but rather as launching points for your own research. The links are more important than the text. Feel free to skip to the section that interests you, the questions are in no particular order. Here are the categories again:

NOTE: I am a rationalist. I feel most at home in the rationalist tribe. Rationalists generally see things in a similar way, and we are happy to change our minds when we see new evidence that points in a new direction. When we disagree about something, we never “agree to disagree.”* Instead, we define a suitable test and make a friendly bet on the outcome. Whoever loses is happy to give up the money in exchange for a more accurate view of the world.

DISCLAIMER! This is not investing, health, legal, or policy advice. I give a lot of recommendations here. Some may be wrong (or wrong for you). You are responsible for your own actions and outcomes.

If you are like me, you might have had the following reaction to reading his post. I have opinions on about 50% of the topics covered by Siegel. On those topics I agree with him at least 90% of the time. I can infer that his opinions on the other 50% (about which I know little) are also mostly sound. Thus I can quickly learn a lot about what the evidence suggests to a rational person by reading this long blog post. He also has lots of good methodological advice, regarding how to best approach difficult issues.

I see two areas where Siegel offers views on big issues that do not align with what smart people think. I’m not going to mention one of those areas, as I believe it would give readers a misleading impression of his overall approach and would cause some people to avoid reading his post. And you really should read it!

The second area where he offers a very heterodox take on a major issue is the housing bubble and the Great Recession. He pushes back against what most smart people think, and cites my views as well as those of Kevin Erdmann. He’s a market monetarist.

Now here’s an interesting question. Should this particular heterodox view cause me to have a higher opinion of David Siegel or a lower opinion? My inside view (gut instinct) tells me that I should have a higher opinion, while my outside view (dispassionate perspective) tells me that I should downgrade Siegel; it should push me a bit in the direction of viewing him as a crackpot. After all, only a crackpot would believe a Bentley professor over the best and the brightest of economics. But in the broad scheme of things these two areas don’t matter very much. His overall post is very high quality, and a good introduction into the smarter thinking in the blogosphere.

After you read and absorb this information, you’ll be ready to meet the other bloggers you read on a more level playing field.

PS. You might object “there’s nothing new here.” That’s not quite right, as he really is an expert in a few particular areas (such as cybercurrencies.) But that’s not the point. The point is that you can absorb this information in one quick reading, whereas elsewhere on the internet you’d have to read through hundreds of scattered blog posts to get all of this information.



25 Responses to “What smart people think, and where to start”

  1. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    16. April 2019 at 11:56

    I’m not going to mention one of those areas, as I believe it would give readers a misleading impression of his overall approach and would cause some people to avoid reading his post.

    You mean the climate change issue. How sweet.

    I do not believe the climate change hype either, but his approach seems a bit weird indeed. He really questions almost everything. It would have been enough (even for me) if he just said: Look, the hype is probably too extreme. It’s a new protestant religion, with people like Greta as new Messiah.

  2. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    16. April 2019 at 12:42

    I agree with quite a bit about what Siegel says about climate change except him concluding none of the temperature increase of the past 70 years is caused by human based CO2 emissions.

    Segel claims: “I spent a year on this topic looking at thousands of graphs and reading thousands of papers, and after about six months I changed my mind.”

    He read, on average, 8 to 10 climate papers a day for a year to reach ‘thousands’?

    Yeah, right.

  3. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    16. April 2019 at 13:20

    I can’t wait to read it – I’m especially looking forward to his take on why the NBA’s Western Conference is always so much better than its Eastern Conference.

  4. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    16. April 2019 at 13:23

    Rationalists lean libertarian. Scott Alexander wrote his “Anti-Libertarian FAQ” several years ago, and he has inched toward libertarianism since.

    As you know, Yudkowsky wrote a market monetarist tract for the people that’s about as good as anything I’ve read on the subject.



    “This means that making your money policy slightly too tight does much more damage than making it slightly too loose, because it’s a well-tested empirical fact that the people inside the economy have a much easier time adjusting to slightly higher money flow than slightly lower money flow.

    Big deflation and big inflation both do enormous amounts of damage, and hyperinflation is worse because it goes further and faster. But money that’s a little too tight does much more damage than money that’s a little too loose! So it’s really important that you create more money right now, and don’t worry so much about the possibility of overshooting your inflation target a little, especially when you’ve undershot your target a lot up until now.”

    And yes of course climate alarmists are way overblown, which is not at all to say there is no issue here.

  5. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    16. April 2019 at 15:57

    Interesting: over at eEconlog, a bertarian writer posited that since an asteroid strikes the Earth every 60 million years or so, the US government should fund an anti-asteroid program. For sake of argument, let us say there is a 1 in 1000 chance that an asteroid will strike Earth in the next 1000 years.

    Okay, for sake of argument, let us suppose there is a one in ten chance that the climate alarmists are right. Then what should the US government do?

  6. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    16. April 2019 at 16:15

    In reading through Siegal’s blog, I see that he attributes the Great Depression to gold hoarding.

    Maybe he is right.

    What if, in a modern economy, citizens are engaging in paper-cash hoarding?

    This seems to describe citizens in Western developed nations, where circulation of paper cash has been rising and rising and rising as inflation rates drop drop and drop.

    In Japan today there is the equivalent of $8,000 in paper cash outside of banks per resident.

    In the US there is more than $5,000 in cash in circulation per resident (although othodox macroeconomists, apparently on the basis of Miami Vice reruns, believe that all the US cash in circulation is in briefcases used by drug dealers).

    What is the difference between burying a gold coin in the backyard (in the gold standard days) and putting $5,000 in cash into a mattress, today?

  7. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    16. April 2019 at 17:50


    I read the parts on the environment and my own views are very close on most subjects. About climate change I had a very similar approach to his, trying to get a hang of “the facts” around the ca. 2005 to 2008 period. That included reading the full IPCC reports and a bunch of papers, both original research and secondary sources (aka pundit websites). Mind you, for years I worked in an adjacent area (oceanography) and some of my research was funded by climate change related projects. But the more I read, the more I concluded similarly to Siegel: highly politicized area, hard to believe anything for sure, and on balance, climate change currently doesn’t scare me very much. I find the political and publicly diffused consensus around it quite suspect.

    That being said I was a bit disappointed that Siegel in his links does have a predilection for pundit websites over hard data sources, and has occasional lapses in areas where I do have an opinion (e.g. in paper recycling, corrugated cardboard definitely can be recycled profitably, which is why its recycling rates are very high).

    But on balance it made me chuckle because, as you, Scott, i kept thinking, mostly the same thing I’m also thinking.

  8. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    16. April 2019 at 18:47

    I also don’t buy some of his other statements, for example:

    The common conception that your weight equals calories in minus calories out was disproven decades ago by several well designed studies.

    Of course, this equation is far away from perfect, but who claims that is perfect? What is he even talking about? Everybody knows that it is an approximation. A very rough approximation of course, but taking into account its simplicity, it’s still a pretty good approximation. Does he have something better? I don’t think so.

    He also seems to misrepresent the approximation, it looks like a straw man to me. Nobody says “weight equals (exactly) calories in minus calories out”. The simple basic knowledge is just: In the long run, you won’t lose weight by ingesting more calories than you spend.

    You don’t need any studies for this, it’s just very simple physics.

    And then the links that are supposed to prove his point. One link ends like this:

    Weight gain or loss is not primarily determined by varying proportions of CHO and fat in the diet, but instead by the number of calories ingested. Changes in EE, which metabolic pathways are used and other considerations are quite modest when compared with caloric intake. Until high-quality, metabolic ward primary data become available indicating otherwise, a calorie is still a calorie.

    @Benjamin Cole
    Interesting thoughts about cash.

    Not to mention all the “cash” in bank accounts. That’s far more. Why would people invest their cash at all, when returns are very low and inflation is close to zero? Most people are really risk averse. I bet many people think like that. But I don’t see why this would be a huge problem.

    And $5,000 – $8,000 in paper cash outside of bank accounts per resident does not sound like much. Let them hoard as much cash as they want.

  9. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    16. April 2019 at 20:07

    Benjamin, paper cash hoarding is just a form of saving.

    That’s even easier to see when looking at competitively issued money. Their paper cash hoarding is exactly what the issuers want to see, because that’s equivalent to cheap funding for them. (Check out George Selgin’s work,if you haven’t.) That’s part of what made the gold standard so attractive and institutionally stable even in a decentralized system: you have the usual network effects of any established standard, but gold in particular saw secular deflation of the price level over the 19th century.

    That’s awesome for the issuer, because that slight deflation makes people hoard even more paper currency.

    Government monopoly money isn’t as nimble as the private stuff, so they have a somewhat harder time supplying just the right amount of currency.

    But people seem to be using less and less actually physical cash these days, and we still have privately issued account balances. (Though with too much regulation and regulatory capture.) And various other electronic forms of money or near-money like m-pesa or stable coins or PayPal balances or money market funds and other forms of shadow banking etc.

    The important features are: light / no regulation on bringing out new money, and adverse clearing to impose market discipline on the issuers.

  10. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    16. April 2019 at 20:49

    “Research shows little evidence that punishment of low-level offenses reduces serious crime — and considerable evidence that it disproportionately harms communities of color.”

    Also an AGW denier. F*ck this f*ggot. I trust David Shor (Mostly reliable Obama 2012 campaign consultant) more on this one.

    For most non-social scientific fields, I’d say “trust the consensus”.

  11. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. April 2019 at 01:43

    OT, but on blog:

    “TOKYO — The Bank of Japan will overtake a state-run pension fund as the top shareholder in Tokyo-listed companies as early as 2020, Nikkei calculations show, as concerns rise regarding the central bank’s outsize role in the nation’s capital market.”


    So, what do smart people think about the efficacy of QE? What does Siegel think?

    The BoJ also owns 45% of that nation’s epic level of national debt (bonds).

    The average Japan resident has $8,000 (equivalent) in cash stuffed into a drawer.

  12. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    17. April 2019 at 06:37

    I’d like to add a third item. If he reads Hanson then he should know that he is probably not as rational as he thinks he is. To that point, one of the reasons (if not the main reason) so many leading economists have been so slow to embrace MM is that doing so would reduce their status, by having to admit that their previous positions were incorrect. Science advances one funeral at a time.

  13. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    17. April 2019 at 09:37

    Question: “crackpot” or “crank?”

  14. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    17. April 2019 at 09:40

    Harding, AGW = Anthropogenic Global Warming?

  15. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    17. April 2019 at 10:55

    Orthodoxy is passe, contrarians the rage. Why is that? One might have noticed that the Mercatus Center is a hotbed of contrarians. Well, maybe not hotbed (how hotbed are contrarians?), but a bevy. If a tree falls in the forest, . . . .? I suspect the problem here is that with social media the noise from trees falling in the forest is deafening. Looking back, how many great ideas were never heard; today, there seem to be few great ideas but an abundance of bad ideas heard around the world.

  16. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    17. April 2019 at 12:23

    I found it ironic he cites both Alfie Kohn and Bryan Caplan on education given what Caplan has written about Kohn. Siegel also cites Caplan to say that “tests don’t work”, but the psychometric literature shows tests are actually effective signals of cognitive ability, which is predictive of a great many things we (particularly schools) care about. His bit on policing doesn’t acknowledge at all the evidence that more police on the street reduces crime rates (something even a fairly strident libertarian like Alex Tabarrok would acknowledge).

    Less importantly, I found it amusing that his exemplar of anarchism is Murray Rothbard, even though most self-described anarchists are on the anti-capitalist left, and that left-wing self-described syndicalist anarchist Noam Chomsky is made a representative of “liberalism”!

  17. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    17. April 2019 at 12:28

    Harding is so over the top. Strong believer of the Jewish Israelian world conspiracy. But when you are a strong AGW denier, like this Siegel guy, wrongly so but still, then Harding is like: “Man, you must be SO crazy!”

    That’s just gold.

  18. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. April 2019 at 15:43

    Where is Major Freedom when we need him?

  19. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    17. April 2019 at 17:10

    That mammoth post is a very useful resource, thanks for directing our attention to it.

  20. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    17. April 2019 at 21:21

    1) On fish stocks, Siegel wrote: “I’m generally not concerned with most environmental alarms, but this one keeps me up at night.”
    Siegel is assuming no technological or legal changes over the next several decades, which is as usual a poor assumption.

    2) “Japan and the United States will almost certainly have to reduce benefits. People will have to work longer.” Again, this assumes almost no technological or other structural changes. You also can’t use a population pyramid out to 2050 or 2100 as Siegel does.

    3) “Most science is junk science.” False.

    4) “Are robots and Artificial Intelligence stealing our jobs? Not in the next 30 years, no.” By 2049? There will be a *lot* more computer power out there by just the 2030s and there is no basis to make this claim with just a “no” when nobody knows.

  21. Gravatar of Vid Vid
    18. April 2019 at 03:31

    “You will be quickly brought up to speed on what smart people think about all sorts of issues.”

    You’re right that this is the aim of the blogpost, despite the claim that this isn’t about his opinion. It’s a list of his opinions deliberately framed to get the reader to agree with him as their “starting point”. He does this by cherry-picking sources and links which bolster his position, and then, almost as a side-note, conceding that other research concludes differently. So, while agreeing with many of his positions, I was still highly skeptical of his approach.

    Then comes the climate change example, where he cites denialist blogposts to support his position and cherry-picks the temperature data to ignore the long-term warming trend.

    “Rationalist”? I almost choked on my cereal.

  22. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    18. April 2019 at 05:55

    I don’t think I can take him as an expert in digital currencies when he says “We are decades away from any cryptocurrency becoming accepted as money.”. That’s like saying that we are decades away from accepting that homeopathy cures all diseases.

    But libertarian leaning people love the idea of cryptocurrencies so much, that they forget to look at the negatives carefully. Without said libertarian streak, the more people look at the technical problems faced by the field, the higher the pessimism.

    This of course doesn’t mean we won’t have all electronic money: We already have mostly electronic money anyway. It’s just money that has none of the characteristics cryptocurrencies have, and it’s only good for them.

  23. Gravatar of Romeo Stevens Romeo Stevens
    18. April 2019 at 07:03

    First linked study doesn’t support author’s talking point. Spot checking randomly doesn’t find anything interesting. This is an old man rant with citations, not the truth. It’s a shame as the introductory framing is good.

  24. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    18. April 2019 at 10:27

    @Romeo Stevens

    Spot on. +1

    I think Scott is biased because Siegel understood the economic part so well. But unfortunately, there isn’t much more.

    @Benjamin Cole
    I think you got it wrong. Gold hoarding is not the problem, the gold standard was the problem. Even Siegel says so. People can hoard as much gold as they want (without a gold standard).

  25. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    18. April 2019 at 11:12


    how is your first paragraph related to paragraph two and three?

    It looks like a contradictory statement to me. In paragraph one, you attack Siegel, just to agree with him in paragraph two and three???

    Siegel himself is also great again:

    Bitcoins are extremely speculative assets. So they are a great store of value, much better than gold. —> OKAY! Whatever he’s having it must be great stuff.

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