Books

That is from Venkatesh Rao, retweeted by Ben Southwood, a version of “Questions that are rarely asked.”

I suppose if you haven’t read the Bible or Quran those are easy answers, but let’s say you have.

I’ve only read snippets of Mein Kampf, so that has to stand as a contender.  But has the book really influenced and shaped my life?  Maybe you can attribute the relevant marginal product to the life of Hitler, with the book being intermediated by Hitler himself.  Therefore I am not sure that answer is true to the spirit of the question.

How about a training manual of some kind, which perhaps my early teachers read but I have never seen or even heard of?  Might my mother have read Dr. Spock or other parenting books?  That would be my best guess.

1. The subtitle is A New Theory of Chinese History, and volume one has just been translated and published from the Chinese.

2. The author, Dingxin Zhao, now is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

3. The book has a curious 19th century air to its intellectual influences.  The main argument uses Herbert Spencer to revise Michael Mann, a 20th century British sociologist who wrote on the sources of power.  Lamarckian ideas are deployed frequently.

4. The Western model has had four independent power sources: states, churches, aristocracy, and the urban bourgeoisie.

5. Neither merchants nor religion had much of a strong, independent role in early Chinese politics.  Only the state and the aristocracy were powerful actors.

6. In the model of this book, the dual forces of competition and institutionalization drive historical change.  More than anything else, individuals maximize power.

7. The empowerment of economic power by ideology is the most fundamental feature of modernity.

8. “Three pivotal institutions of Western Zhou origin exerted an enduring impact on the history of China: the Mandate of Heaven, the kinship-based “feudal” system, and lineage law.” (p.79)

This is not an easy work to parse, but it is a book of substance and it reflects a considerable amount of careful thought.

The authors are Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, and the subtitle is Why Elections Do Not Produce Representative Government.  This book is brutally depressing, not to mention very well presented, though I cannot say the core message is surprising at this point.  Voters choose on the basis of partisan loyalties, and these days party voting has a much bigger influence on state and local elections than it used to.  So where is the accountability?  Some voters engage in “retrospective voting,” but on the basis of super-short time horizons, and often the voters hold politicians accountable for matters those politicians cannot control, even storms and other natural disasters.  The authors really do demonstrate these points with lots of rigorous analysis.

OK, now a segue.  Given all this, the natural and appropriate policy response should be to a) expand the responsibilities of democratic government, or b) consider limiting the responsibilities of democratic government?

You are allowed only two guesses…

The book is due out in April.

Markets in everything

by on February 4, 2016 at 1:08 pm in Books, Religion | Permalink

From my email Inbox:

Greetings T. Cowen,

I’m L. Ron Gardner and I’ve just published a mind-blowing novel/libertarian manifesto — Kill Jesus: The Shocking Return of the Chosen One — that you might want to review at your site. It is about Jesus reincarnating and attempting to end the Fed, which his father controls. The book, which has been described as “Atlas Shrugged on ‘roids,” is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Larry Summers reviews Robert Gordon

by on February 3, 2016 at 9:50 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Many rightly wonder about mis-measurement of productivity as new products become available and quality improves. Gordon is compelling in arguing that productivity growth is indeed significantly underestimated. He is also more persuasive than I expected in arguing that, if anything, this understatement was greater decades ago than it has been recently. In part this is because there were more of these transformational changes that are inherently hard to assimilate in standard frameworks. In part it is because the statisticians do a much better job than they once did of taking account of quality change.

And:

The question of how to square developments that are large enough to have a major impact on wage and employment patterns with the paucity of measured productivity growth looms for future research.

Do read the whole thing, again my review of Gordon is here.

*There IS Life After College*

by on February 3, 2016 at 2:34 pm in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

That is the new book by Jeffrey J. Selingo, and the subtitle is the highly practical What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.

If you want one book which delivers what this subtitle promises, this is it.

Due out in April.

*Unequal Gains*

by on February 3, 2016 at 9:27 am in Books, Data Source, Economics, History | Permalink

That is the forthcoming book by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, and the subtitle is American Growth and Inequality since 1700.  The sections on recent America, while unobjectionable, are ordinary, but the early coverage of American history is very interesting indeed.  Here is one excerpt:

Why the Old South reversal of fortune?  A benign part of the story seems to have been that the colonial South was still a labor-scarce frontier region with high returns to coastal land producing export crops, like indigo, rice, and tobacco. Its decline after 1774 was echoed in two other frontier cases many decades later.  One was the dramatic relative decline of the West South Central income per capita between 1840 and 1860 — from 60 percent of the U.S. average to just 9.5 percent above it…The other was the loss of the Pacific region’s gold-discovery-generated super-incomes after the 1850s and early 1860s (the Pacific states were 213.3 percent above the US average in 1860, and the mountain states were 30.5 percent above).

I hope to report on other interesting sections of the book soon; it is due out in April.  Again, most business cycles in history have been real business cycles.

The Seattle company plans as many as 400 bookstores, Sandeep Mathrani, chief executive of large mall operator General Growth Properties Inc., said on an earnings call with analysts Tuesday.

“You’ve got Amazon opening brick-and-mortar bookstores and their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400,” said Mr. Mathrani in response to a question about mall traffic.

That compares to the 640 stores Barnes & Noble Inc. operates and the 255 locations Books-A-Million Inc. said it had as of last summer.

The WSJ story is here, here are others.  What is the underlying business plan?  To make these iconic locations like Apple stores?  To treat all future business, in all sectors, as depending on the focality of the company behind it?  To start with books, move on to other items, and eventually steal middle-class and upper-middle class consumers away from Walmart?  Somehow use these stores to lock people in Amazon Prime?  Do you have other hypotheses?  Is this overconfident folly, or is it the “for good” return of brick and mortar bookstores to our lives?

Here is the video, the podcast, and the transcript.  Kareem really opened up.  Here is the summary:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on segregation, Islam, Harlem vs. LA, Earl Manigault, jazz, fighting Bruce Lee, Kareem’s conservatism, dancing with Thelonious Monk, and why no one today can shoot a skyhook.

Maybe you think of Kareem as a basketball player, but here is my introduction:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of America’s leading public intellectuals. I would describe him as an offshoot of the Harlem Renaissance, and what he and I share in common is a fascination with the character of Mycroft Holmes, the subject of Kareem’s latest book — and that of course, is Sherlock Holmes’s brother.

Here is Kareem:

I did know Amiri [Baraka]. I think the difference is I believe in what happened in Europe during what they call the Enlightenment. That needs to happen to black Americans, absolutely a type of enlightenment where they get a grasp of what is afflicting them and what the cures are.

I think that the American model is the best in the world but in order to get everybody involved in it we have to have it open to everyone. That hasn’t always been the case.

The most under-appreciated Miles Davis album?

For me [Kareem], the most under-appreciated one is Seven Steps to Heaven. And that shows, I think, Miles’ best group. There’s a big argument, what was Miles’ best group, the one that had Cannonball Adderley, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland or Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter?…number two is Porgy and Bess.

He cites Chester Himes as the underappreciated figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  And Kareem thinks like an economist:

It [my instruction] was going well with Andrew Bynum, but Andrew finally got to sign his contract for $50 million, and then at that point Andrew thought that I didn’t know anything and that he didn’t have to listen to me, and we don’t know where Andrew is right now.

Read or hear also his very interesting remarks on Islam, and where its next Enlightenment is likely to come from, not to mention Kareem on the resource curse and of course his new book (and my Straussian read of it).  And Kareem on his favorite movies, starting with The Maltese Falcon.  Self-recommending!

Kareem

No, I’m not in Iowa, but I’ve never covered it before, and today seems like as good a day as any.  Here goes:

1. Painter: Grant Wood.  Here is an interpretative take on American Gothic.  It’s not by the way man and wife in the picture, but rather Wood’s sister standing next to the local dentist.

2. Novelist: I draw a blank, sorry people…Does it count that Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) was a product of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?  There must be other examples as well.

3. Hero: Norman Borlaug.

4. Actor: John Wayne is from Iowa, but I can’t call him a favorite.  I guess he is my favorite version of…John Wayne.  If that.  Can one call Johnny Carson an actor?  I never took to him either.

5. Jazz musician: Yes there is one, Bix Beiderbecke.  Art Farmer too, and also Charlie Haden.  Yet how rarely one hears of the “Iowa jazz tradition.”

6. Guitarist: Dick Dale, don’t by the way forget his Lebanese background, which you can hear in his riffs.

7. Movie, set in: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?  Honorable mention to the more obvious Field of Dreams, an OK but not great film in my view.

The bottom line: Who would have thought “jazz musician” would be the strongest category here?  Those Iowans are so busy with their jazz, it is amazing they have time to lobby for their ethanol subsidies.

81.105

From Foreign Affairs.  Here is my bottom line:

His latest entry into this debate [over stagnation], The Rise and Fall of American Growth, is likely to be the most interesting and important economics book of the year. It provides a splendid analytic take on the potency of past economic growth, which transformed the world from the end of the nineteenth century onward.

In a nutshell, Gordon is probably right about the past, but wrong about the future.  My greatest reservation about the work is that Gordon thinks he can predict future rates of productivity growth with considerable accuracy:

…although Gordon focuses on the demographic challenges the United States faces, he never considers that today, thanks to greater political and economic freedom all over the world, more individual geniuses have the potential to contribute to global innovation than ever before.

…many past advances came as complete surprises. Although the advents of automobiles, spaceships, and robots were widely anticipated, few foretold the arrival of x-rays, radio, lasers, superconductors, nuclear energy, quantum mechanics, or transistors. No one knows what the transistor of the future will be, but we should be careful not to infer too much from our own limited imaginations.

And here is the “oops” aspect of the book:

What Gordon neglects to mention, however, is that he is also the author of a 2003 Brookings essay titled “Exploding Productivity Growth,” in which he optimistically predicted that productivity in the United States would grow by 2.2 to 2.8 percent for the next two decades, most likely averaging 2.5 percent a year; he even suggested that a three percent rate was possible.

…Gordon offers a brief history of the evolution of his views on productivity. Yet he does not mention the 2003 essay, nor does he explain why he has changed his mind so dramatically. He also fails to cite other proponents of the stagnation thesis, even though…their work predates his book.

Nonetheless this is a tract well worth reading.  Again, here is my entire review.

*The Moral Economy*

by on January 29, 2016 at 1:57 pm in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

The author is Sam Bowles and the subtitle is Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens.

Bowles

Due out in May.

The subtitle of Thomas Leonard’s new and excellent book is the apt Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.

I take it you all know by now this is quite an ugly story, namely that both early progressives and late 19th century American economists were often quite appalling racists and eugenicists, and that such racism was built into the professional structure of economics in a fairly fundamental way, including but not restricted to the American Economics Association.

Kevin Drum had an interesting point in response (and do read his full post, there is more to it than this quick excerpt):

Early 20th century progressives supported eugenics out of a belief that it would improve society. Contemporary liberals support abortion rights and right-to-die laws out of a belief in individual rights that flowered in the 60s.

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today.

I view it this way.  Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century.  Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened.  For instance if you look at the British Parliamentary debates of 1912 over the Mental Deficiency Bill, the anti-eugenics forces drew heavily upon Mill for their inspiration.  This was standard stuff, but the Progressives of the time didn’t see much of a pro-liberty reason for being pushed into a Millian position, quite the contrary.

The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty.  Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that.  They probably admire Mill’s more practical reform progressivism quite strongly, or would if they gave it more thought, but they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others.  That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point.  This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.

I don’t mean to pick on Kevin, who is one of my favorite bloggers, but I disagree (and find indicative) another one of his claims, namely:

…eugenics died an unmourned death nearly a century ago.

To give one (not the only) example to the contrary, Swedish “progressive” sterilization persisted through the 1970s, as was true for Canada as well.  Eugenicist views toward autistic people, among others, remain common across the political spectrum (no special brickbat for Progressives here, but they are guilty too), and with CRISPR a lot of eugenicist debates are already making a comeback.

Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition?  I think Mill himself would say no.

mill

From my inbox, from Bruce Caldwell:

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer, May 29-June 17. The three week program is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is designed primarily for faculty members in economics, other social sciences, and the humanities, though three of the twenty-five slots are reserved for graduate students. Participants will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive a $2700 stipend for attending, out of which they will pay for their own room and board. Our line-up of discussion leaders is quite impressive, and includes Maria Pia Paganelli, Nicholas Phillipson (author of Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life), Bart Wilson, Duncan Foley, Tim Leonard, Angus Burgin, Eddie Nik-Khah, and Steve Medema. The deadline for applying is March 1. A special bonus for those who attend: the History of Economics Society meetings will be held at Duke from June 17-20. Attendees who wish to do so can stay over for the HES meetings. 

More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website, 
http://hope.econ.duke.edu

Oxford University Press, 1024 pp., New School lineage, endorsements from the big “heterodox” names, this may be another one of the big economics books this year.

I’ll keep you posted.  Here is the Amazon link.

For the pointer I thank the excellent David Gordon.