What I’ve been reading

by on December 5, 2012 at 3:57 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Rwanda, Inc., by Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond.  The positive story on that country, though I don’t buy it, given that the broader region still is not close to peace.  Governance problems will do them in.

2. Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675.  It is stunningly good, not just “stunningly good for a 90-year-old.”

3. Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork:  A History of How We Cook and Eat.  The first 61% of this book, as measured by Kindle, is fascinating and superbly original.  The rest is a well-done retread of other intelligent popular food books.  That is for me a high ratio of excellent to good.

4. Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds: A Novel.  Everyone else loved it, though for me it was too impressionistic.  Call it my fault.

5. Benoit Peeters, Derrida: A Biography.  An excellent book, though I find it hard to care.  Easier than reading Derrida, and the author doesn’t make the mistake of trying to tell you what Derrida is all about.

I have not yet seen a copy of Erik Angner, A Course in Behavioral Economics, but perhaps it is of interest.

Ray Lopez December 5, 2012 at 4:37 am

@1 – yeah it seems this author writes hagiographies, a Greek word meaning ‘saint writing’: see, The House of Dimon: How JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon Rose to the Top of the Financial World by Patricia Crisafulli (Apr 6, 2009)

@2 – of interest is that back in 1776 the US population was 2.5M, about one-third the size of a major US city, and less than one-tenth the size of present Tokyo. Malthius’ law of disease counters progress applied. The cities were full of disease, the countryside was healthier, especially up north where malaria was less common. The natives were able to exploit the carrying capacity of the land so only a few people (at best) per square mile. The entire continent of North and South America held about 50M people, which is about 2.5 greater NYC. J. Diamond is a good read here.

@3- I’ve read somewhere the chopstick was invented in Asia after the fork…

allan December 5, 2012 at 9:39 am

I have a question for the marginal revolutionaries. There is a table in a jewely store with 20 diamonds on it. I buy the first one for $5k. I look at the next one and decide I have less use for it, so I buy it for $3k. By the time I get to the last diamond I have practically no use for it at all and I buy it for $1. I then take up all the diamonds and prepare to leave the store. The jeweller stops me and asks what am I doing. I explain the marginal utility theory of value to him. He calls the cops.

My question is, will the cops enforce the law of marginal utility?

What December 5, 2012 at 9:55 am

The cops will put you in jail. *You* should enforce the “law of marginal utility” by only buying the diamonds which you value more than their price.

allan December 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm

but each additional diamond that I want has less marginal utility for me, therefore, the price is less, until it becomes zero. And since price is deterrmined by my marginial utility, the price for the last diamond is zero.

The cops, being good Austrian economists, will let me go with my diamonds. And all is best in the best of all possible worlds.

Ntrust December 5, 2012 at 7:02 pm

“And since price is deterrmined by my marginial utility, the price for the last diamond is zero. ”

Individual demand (i.e. your willingness to pay) is determined by marginal utility. Price is determined by the interaction of supply and demand in the market. Thanks for presenting this opportunity to clear that up for you.

Cyrus December 5, 2012 at 9:55 am

Each blade of the Marshallian scissors is individually a razor. You have cut yourself while shaving.

Ray Lopez December 5, 2012 at 9:58 am

This is the diamond/water paradox variant. I would say you are insane for thinking that the last diamond has only $1 value. In fact, it may be worth thousands of dollars, say $5k. Why not buy it for $4k and make an easy $1k reselling it? So at the margin, the marginal value of something is determined by the market, not by individuals subjectively.

Thor December 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I’m kind of a “marginal reactionary”, not a revolutionary, myself.

Does anyone write about marginal utility and non-market things, like happiness and subjective experiences?

allan December 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

On this site it is maintained that there are markets in everything.

allan December 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Value not determined subjectively?? Apostasy!! Heresy!!

TGGP December 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Other people have not bought the first diamond, so they are willing to pay more for it than you. The market price is determined by all suppliers & purchases, not you individually. Otherwise someone who doesn’t care about diamonds at all might buy every diamond in the world for $0.

kyle December 5, 2012 at 9:52 am

“Easier than reading Derrida…”

The trick is finding something that is NOT an easier read than Derrida.

Thor December 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Apropos of, er, nothing…

I suppose the difference is that Derrida wrote to beguile and impress, while Peeters wrote to explain.

Thor December 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Though Tyler doesn’t think Peeters even try to explain Derrida…

Isn’t that a fault? Shouldn’t biographies attempt, at least in part, to explain their subjects? I want biographers — well, writers of intellectual biographies anyhow — to make the mistake of trying to explain their subjects.

GiT December 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Explaining the work of Derrida and explaining the person of Derrida are not the same thing. There are much better resources and formats for the former than a biography.

Thor December 5, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Sure, good point. And I’m not someone who reduces intellectual contributions to the biographies of their originators either, but since I see Derrida as a neo-Romantic writing against large cohesive systems, and favouring uncertainty and ambiguity to do so, I have little doubt that the era he grew up in played a part. Lots of people of his time/place rebelled against “systems” (as they called them, grand narratives).

So Much for Subtlety December 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Thor, and I see Derrida as a Used Carpet Salesman who figured out early what nonsense French intellectuals would worship and provided them with it. He cannot be explained because he is not trying to say anything. Perhaps that reflects badly on me.

Lots of people of his time and place did not rebel against systems, or grand narratives if you will. Derrida’s good friend Paul de Man certainly did not. Being, you know, an active Nazi and all. Derrida claimed a strong influence from Heidegger, who was also, of course, a Nazi. But still Derrida does seem to have avoided going too far the other way. He did not, for instance, embrace every totalitarian sh!thole like Sartre. His personal politics seem to moderate as to be almost boring. Of course in a very conventional and childish French way. But that just draws attention to the fact that people like Sartre did get taken up with every single “Grand Narrative” that came his way.

And let’s not forget his famous defence of a man who was living with a six year old girl and his call for an end to France’s age of consent laws. But even in that he did not stand out I suppose. Isn’t that a grand narrative too?

Thor December 5, 2012 at 11:19 pm

SMFS: I agree.

For someone who (allegedly) only ever said that we cannot say anything, Derrida certainly wrote a lot of books.

The market in post-modern ideas, in the academic world, is much like the market in contemporary art: if you ain’t outrageous, you ain’t nothing.

PS — I think the only reason Derrida didn’t embrace totalitarianism is that … well, let’s say this: credulous French intellectuals will believe a lot of things, but even they had trouble seeing the virtues in the Khmer Rouge’s Marxism.

So Much For Subtlety December 6, 2012 at 12:48 am

Thor, the problem with that last bit is that the Khmer Rouge were credulous French intellectuals. They learnt their Marxism as students in Paris.

Scoop December 5, 2012 at 10:14 am

#2: Sounds interesting but the publisher summary on Amazon worries me about excessive focus on diversity. (Yes, I’m sure there were Finns in North America by 1700. No, I don’t think their presence here was an important part of our cultural stew.) How “modern” is this book? Do the parts about blacks and Indians read like history or lectures?

Roy December 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm

It is mostly about what is today seen anachronistically as internecine warfare among colonists, so the Swedish adventure in the Delaware is actually much more important than what is usually seen. It is not a la David Hackett Fischer, that the Swedo-Finns contributed much to colonial culture directly, as the evolution of the Mid Atlantic and even New England was greatly effected by the warfare and competition among European colonzers.

Another example outside the scope of this book, would be that modern New York doesn’t have a lot of French Influence, what it has is mostly elite contacts and a trickle of Quebecois immigrants from the late 19th century, but the presence of the French above the headwaters of the Hudson and a century of French sponsored Indian wars is still felt in both the historical development and institutions of the modern state of New York. This is also true, though to a lesser extent about Swedo Dutch conflict along the Delaware.

Roy December 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm

#2. The Bailyn book is really fantastic, I totally agree with Tyler on this.

The first chapter set my teeth on edge, with its very parochial and Yankee-centic, ignores and somewhat out of date description of timeless Indian xprehistory, but once actual history starts it is about the best thing I have read on the topic.

Go Kings, Go December 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Beware Cowen Bearing Praise. Professor Cowen’s glowing blurb (“the new go-to book on the evolution of science and technology”) for “Half Life of Facts” seems unmerited. The book brags too much about scientometrics and its offshoots discovering mathematical rates of fact-growth and fact-decay, without even a chuckle spared for the irony, but the specificity of that claim is unconvincing and the book’s remaining content are observations held by everyone who regularly glances at “Science News” group on Goggle News.

Naturally, long audience at MR has conditioned me to question whether the the good Professor’s blurb means what it seems to mean, or disguises an underlying insult by low praise; e.g., “new” directs the mind to old go-to books, of which none come to mind; “evolution of science and technology” places the book in a narrow silo, thereby undermining the book’s primary assumption (that science and technology conceived in the aggregate, with large undifferentiated data, tells us something useful); and, of course, it’s a “book”, not a stunningly good or excellent book.

Bill December 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm

#2 Looks interesting, just for its description of role religion played in daily Indian life.

Maybe something the Shaman Pat Robertson would want for the role of religion in society. According to the book:

“The shamans, authoritative cosmologists and custodians of the myths of creation, could make personal contact with the immanent powers, penetrate the mysteries of lost balances, identify forgotten violations of taboo or offenses that demanded apologies, and recommend the proper forms of recovery. They could even diagnose the ultimate causes of physical illnesses that defied herbal cures, and find remedies in magical chants, amulets, rattles, and sucking procedures that rid the body of the disbalancing, destructive spirit. For they, above all others, knew that physical nature was only part of the great universe whose ultimate forces were spiritual. So in these emergencies, the shamans, the powwows, the sorcerers and soothsayers transcended ­physicality—­in trances, by hallucinogenic drugs, by hypnotic, ­mind-­blinding incantations, perhaps in epileptic ­seizures—­in order to penetrate the deeper recesses of being and connect with spiritual sources. They emerged from these encounters with mandates that could be strange, at times frightening, entailing everything from symbolic gestures and prayerful dances to warfare, torture, and cannibalism.”

Urso December 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm

A niche now filled by pop economics bloggers.

Chase Thomas December 5, 2012 at 6:59 pm

@2 – Certainly the broader region is is questionable from a stability standpoint, but most of the literature I’ve read on Rwanda places governance as one of the few problems the country faces. Granted, Kagame has established an authoritarian/centralized government built around former Rwandan Patriotic Front members, but has also built corruption-resilient institutions that hold even high ranking officials responsible for their actions. Similar to the PRC model, party members are stakeholders in the economic development of the country through series of SOEs but unlike the PRC are not responsible for direct rent extraction. In addition, the government has aggressively courted talent from the diaspora to replace human capital lost during the genocide (though have read arguments that this has drained the private sector of necessary talent to drive economic growth).

Whether this can be sustained post-Kagame is a real question, but for now governance does not seem to be the biggest problem. Rather, it is the fact that Rwanda remains a landlocked country in a rough neighborhood with no discernible natural resources or import/export capabilities.

…and then there’s the whole “backing Congolese rebel groups” thing.

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