What I’ve been reading

by on April 16, 2017 at 12:40 am in Books | Permalink

1. Mark Zupan, Inside Job: How Government Insiders Subvert the Public Interest.  This is now the very best book on how special interest groups subvert the quality of public policy.

2. Historically Inevitable: Turning Points of the Russian Revolution, edited by Tony Brenton, contributors include Dominic Lieven, Orlando Figes, and Richard Pipes.  I, for one, often find it easier to learn history through counterfactual reasoning.  “What if they hadn’t put Lenin into that train?, and so on, and so this is my favorite from the recent spate of books on 1917 in Russia.

More generally, there are people who very much like counterfactual reasoning (say Derek Parfit), and people who don’t care for it much (say Jim Buchanan).  The two types often don’t communicate well.  The counterfactual deployer seems like a kind of smart aleck, caught up in irrelevancies and neglecting “the real issues.”  In turn, the non-poser of counterfactuals seems stodgy and unable to understand the limitations of principles, how one might handle the tough cases, and what might cause one to change one’s mind.  Being able to bridge this gap, and learn from both kinds of thinkers, is both difficult and yields high returns.

3. Mary Gaitskill, Somebody with a Little Hammer, Essays.  Short pieces, never too long, strong throughout, mostly on literature (Nicholson Baker, Peter Pan, Norman Mailer, Bleak House) with some essays on movies too.  This will make my best of the year list, and she remains an underrated author more generally.

4. Jace Clayton, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.  An original and consistently interesting extended essay on how “World Music” is evolving in digital times.  A must-read for me, at least.

5. Johan Chistensen, The Power of Economists Within the State.  I haven’t read this one, but it appears to be a very interesting look at the role of economists within government, for the case studies of New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and other cases (in less detail).  “Economists in government” remains an underappreciated topic, so I expect this book is a real contribution.

6. Julie Schumacher, Doodling for Academics: A Coloring and Activity Book.  It’s funny, for instance one panel has the heading “Find and color the many readers who will enjoy your dissertation.”  The images include a rat and a snake in the grass, but there aren’t even so many of those.

1 Steve Sailer April 16, 2017 at 1:28 am

A lot of governments did pretty wild stuff in 1917. The Germans not only put Lenin in that train, they promised Texas to Mexico (but warned the Mexican government that California was reserved for Japan) in the Zimmerman Telegram. (And then Zimmerman admitted it wasn’t a forgery, helping bring the U.S. in against Germany.) The Brits promised Palestine to both the Jews and the Arabs. The German foreign office wanted to respond to the Balfour Declaration by endorsing Zionism too, until their Ottoman allies reminded them that Berlin couldn’t give away Constantinople’s territory.

The term “nervous breakdown” isn’t much used anymore, but it seems like a good description of the 1917-1919 era, including the interrelated crusades of Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage in the U.S.

2 AlanG April 16, 2017 at 7:25 am

Not to mention the Sykes/Picot agreement carving up the Middle East leading to the problems that continue to resonate today.

3 tjamesjones April 16, 2017 at 8:01 am

I’d love to hear your solution for the post Ottoman middle east. I’m sure the right answer was just staring those guys in the face.

4 Dick the Butcher April 16, 2017 at 9:49 am

Consider the likelihood that we are led by idiots and/or totalitarians and the case for limited government.

5 Yancey Ward April 16, 2017 at 3:36 am

I don’t really buy much counterfactual reasoning. I am someone who basically thinks if you had a time machine and had gone back to 1918 and put a bullet in the head of Adolf Hitler, nothing would have changed in a fundamental way- WWII would have occurred in basically the same way and with many of the same actors playing their parts, with the Hitler part played by some other opportunist. Thus, if Lenin had had a heart attack and died the week before the Germans sent him back, the revolution still occurs and the Bolsheviks still take over the empire.

I just don’t think individuals affect the flow of history all that much- there are simply too many ready replacements around us to fill the niches that the deep currents of the world leave open for exploitation.

6 itsallrigged April 16, 2017 at 4:18 am

Interesting. It made me think of Nicolas Maduro taking over from Chávez. Who would be the Trump?

7 tjamesjones April 16, 2017 at 8:09 am

surely it’s both, right. There are historical forces, some of which will triumph regardless of individuals. But individuals matter, including both Hitler and Lenin. They are why this happened, rather than that. History is not inevitable.

8 Art Deco April 16, 2017 at 5:29 pm

By December 1938, every piece of Germanophone territory in Europe it would have been practical to obtain and hold was in the hands of the German Reich bar Danzig (a de facto dependency of the Reich), Memelland (which they seized without incident in March 1939), and some south Tyrolean municipalities (which were held by Mussolini). There weren’t 1 million people living in these areas. The economic output of Austria and of the Germanophone parts of Bohemia and Moravia (which had never been held by the Hohenzollern empire) largely made up for that of the territories Germany lost in 1914-19. The disarmament provisions of the Versailles Treaty had been effectively abrogated (something to which Britain had acceded). The country’s standard of living had surpassed that of most occidental countries (including France) and it had the robust labor market Britain, France, and the United States lacked. They went to war anyway. As long as people are just replaceable parts, I’d like to know who in Hitler’s cabinet or on the German general staff would have made that decision had the discretion been theirs. Who among them would have sent German armies into the Balkans or into Soviet Russia?

9 Art Deco April 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Oh, and they pretty much stiffed everyone for the Reparations.

10 Anonymous April 16, 2017 at 9:26 am

The polite way would be to pay Hitler to go to Brazil and paint landscapes.

I think it is possible that would have prevented a second world war, but the problem with counterfactuals is that there are so many. There are a million ways the world might unfold with Hitler safely painting. Say, an earlier EU, but a Japanese Block dominating Asia to this day.

Or, as you say, it might be closer to our world. Who can know?

11 Art Deco April 16, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Other counter-factual: Chancellor Muller or Chancellor Bruning is replaced with a sensible military officer and the Reichtag is indefinitely prorogued. Variations on this happened all over Europe at the time.

12 Art Deco April 16, 2017 at 5:14 pm

I just don’t think individuals affect the flow of history all that much- there are simply too many ready replacements around us to fill the niches that the deep currents of the world leave open for exploitation.

That’s a fiction of which I’m sure political scientists are fond. Makes their job easier.

13 dearieme April 16, 2017 at 5:39 am

#2: Figes is not trustworthy.

WKPD: In 2010, Figes posted several pseudonymous reviews on the UK site of the online bookseller Amazon where he criticised books by two other British historians of Russia, Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky, whilst praising his own work. Initially denying responsibility for the reviews, he threatened legal action against those who suggested he was their author. Figes’ lawyer later issued a statement that Figes’ wife had written the reviews, but in a further statement Figes admitted “full responsibility” for the reviews himself, agreeing to pay legal costs and damages to Polonsky and Service, who sued him for libel.

14 prior_test2 April 16, 2017 at 6:16 am

But in the counterfactual, he would never do anything like that. And even he did, it make no difference anyways, we just need to consider the alternative facts as being sufficient.

15 tjamesjones April 16, 2017 at 8:06 am

you don’t trust a historian because of his personal behaviour, you trust him because of how he commands the evidence. Figes is a wonderful historian as well as being, no doubt, a flawed human being. (He actually taught me the Russian Revolution as part of my MA a good few years ago. Yes he was a bit of an upstart and strode around like Napoleon, but he also brought to life that wonderful and terrible period of Russian history)

16 dearieme April 16, 2017 at 9:21 am

“you don’t trust a historian because of his personal behaviour”: if by ‘personal behaviour’ you had meant shagging the chambermaid, OK. But he established himself as a liar, which surely goes to the heart of being a historian.

17 AlanG April 16, 2017 at 7:27 am

#3. Totally agree that Mary Gaitskill is underrated!

18 LW April 17, 2017 at 12:07 am


19 mhl April 16, 2017 at 8:37 am

Mark Zupan should write a book about how he let Vernon Smith leave Arizona the year before he won the Nobel Prize.

20 john April 16, 2017 at 9:01 am
21 JCC April 16, 2017 at 10:10 am

Tyler, here’s my tip for you: “Njinga of Angola – Africa’s Warrior Queen” by Linda Heywood (Harvard University Press)

“Though largely unknown in the Western world, the seventeenth-century African queen Njinga was one of the most multifaceted rulers in history, a woman who rivaled Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great in political cunning and military prowess. Linda Heywood offers the first full-length study in English of Queen Njinga’s long life and political influence, revealing how this Cleopatra of central Africa skilfully navigated – and ultimately transcended – the ruthless, male-dominated power struggles of her time”

22 n April 16, 2017 at 1:41 pm

Jace Clayton a.k.a. DJ /rupture. His blog is at http://www.negrophonic.com/.
The first two mixes linked here are an incredible collision of styles from sweet melody to stuff that’s about as melodic as a jackhammer:
Guaranteed to annoy the complacent!

23 Ricky Tylor April 16, 2017 at 7:35 pm

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24 mkt42 April 17, 2017 at 4:21 am

1: I hadn’t realized that Mark Zupan had become the president of Alfred University last year.

25 Ryan T April 19, 2017 at 9:37 pm

I just finished Snyder’s “On Tyranny.” It presents 20 lessons from the 20th century. The book is short. I’d mostly recommend it to TC to see what rules he would add/ challenge.

Snyder includes this passage, which I found startling, from a German Jewish newspaper in 1933:

“We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check … and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.”

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