Books

That is the new and interesting book by Rachel Sherman, consisting primarily of field work and interviews with the very well-off.  Here is one bit:

…they described their desires and needs as basic and their spending as disciplined and family-oriented.  They asserted that they “could live without” their advantages if they had to, denying that they were dependent on their comfortable lifestyles.  They distanced themselves from the negative images of consumption often associated with the wealthy, such as ostentation, materialism, and excess — all markers of moral unworthiness.  These interpretations allowed them to believe that they deserved what they had and at the same time to cast themselves as “normal” people rather than “rich” ones.

…for my respondents to be a “good person” was not to be entitled.

The rich themselves seem to be fond of the distinction between “the deserving rich,” and “the undeserving rich.”

You can pre-order here.  Here is the book’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with her.  On the off chance you don’t already know, here is a brief Wikipedia summary of her work:

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor.[1] As of 2016, she has published seven books,: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016).

But there is much more to her than that.  Here is the full Wikipedia page.  Here is her own home page.

So what should I ask?  I thank you in advance for your inspiration.

Where to even begin enumerating the wealth of fruitful work — some of it highly critical — that continues to emerge from real engagement with Freud’s ideas? Consider Marina Warner’s musings on Freud’s mediation of Eastern and Western cultural tropes told through the story of his Oriental carpet-draped couch; Rubén Gallo’s panoramic exploration of the reception of Freud’s work in Mexico and the reciprocal influence of Mexican culture on Freud; and the rich medley of sociopolitical critiques grounded in Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud’s thought.

The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.

That is from an excellent NYT book review by George Prochnik.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 14, 2017 at 12:10 am in Books | Permalink

1. Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Technique.  Dense but carefully argued and consistently insightful, perhaps the best introduction to its subject matter.  It is especially strong on how Kierkegaard’s Lutheranism informed his critique of Hegel, his supernaturalism, and his strong opposition to complacency.

Kierkegaard also was an influence on my Stubborn Attachments, as Hampson writes: “Given that faith is to look beyond ourselves to Christ, the ‘future’ is for Lutheranism a critical category.  In the thought of the 20th-century Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann ‘future’ and ‘God’ become concomitant.  The relation to this future, to God, takes one outside oneself, whereas to rest on my laurels (my past) is of the essence of sin.  As we shall see, for Kierkegaard, relating to the idea of eternal life is existentially life-transforming.  It follows that in this tradition there is little continuity of person, for one and again I must break myself open (in my self-satisfaction) as I consent to dependence on God.”

Recommended.

2. Johnny Rogan, Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: Volume 2: The Lives of Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin.  Full of amazing and loving detail, this volume covers the less famous of the Byrds, and why their careers did not go further; whether in business or the arts, we spend too much time studying the winners.  Here are my earlier remarks on Rogan’s earlier editions as an extended essay on management theory and career advice.

3. Michael D. Barr, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence.  From 2013, but all the more relevant today.  Barr’s coverage is insufficiently appreciative of good results, but nonetheless offers an invaluable “how things really work” guide to Singaporean government, most of all on where accountability lies and where it does not.  There is guesswork involved, but this book offers plenty of details and analysis you won’t get elsewhere.

4. Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon: The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Age.  Published in 1964, before Kissinger became Kissinger, although he is a war criminal this volume shows the quality of his thought: “…an equilibrium based on considerations of power is the most difficult of all to establish, particularly in a revolutionary period following a long peace.  Lulled by the memory of stability, states tend to seek security in activity and to mistake impotence for lack of provocation.”  The person who recommended this volume to me told me it would explain why the internal and external requirements for foreign policy on the Continent are much more in accord than they are for either England or America.  It does no such thing, so I still would like to read on that question.

Jack Schneider, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.  Under a true value added measure, the schools in Somerville, Massachusetts turn out to be quite good, even though their raw test scores are not impressive.

David Osborne, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Education System, covers how charter schools are transforming the American educational landscape.

*For They Know Not What They Do*

by on August 11, 2017 at 2:30 am in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

…the Party needs “dissidents”, for this that it needs “Goldstein”: it cannot express its truth in the first person — even in the “innermost circle” it can never come to a point at which “the Party knows how matters actually stand”, at which it would recognize the tautological truth that the aim of its power it just power itself — so it can achieve it only as a construction imputed to someone else.  The circle of totalitarian ideology is thus never closed — it necessarily contains what Edgar Allan Poe would call its “imp of perversity” compelling it to confess the truth about itself.

That is from Slavoj Žižek”s book, the subtitle being Enjoyment as a Political Factor, one of his best, intermittently lucid and sometimes brilliant, most of all on Hegel.   Žižek also reminded me of an old Christopher Hitchens quotation: “mass delusion is the only thing that keeps a people sane.”

Here is the podcast and partial transcript.  Russ describes it as follows:

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and the co-host of the blog Marginal Revolution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Stubborn Attachments, his book-length treatment of how to think about public policy. Cowen argues that economic growth–properly defined–is the moral key to maintaining civilization and promoting human well-being. Along the way, the conversation also deals with inequality, environmental issues, and education.

Self-recommending!

What I’ve been reading

by on August 6, 2017 at 1:39 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.  At first I feared it was too trendy, but I ended up engrossed.

2. Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.  Pseudoerasmus calls this the best book on the most underrated big war in human history; he is right.  It also gives you a good sense of how 50-100 million people might have died.

3. Mark Bowden, Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam.  Both a very good Vietnam War book, and a very good Vietnam book.

4. Rousas John Rushdoony. The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church.  Uneven in argumentative quality, but brilliant in parts, this is one of the conceptually most interesting books on early Christianity.  It turns out your views on Christology really do shape your politics, and furthermore there is a coherent version of libertarian Calvinism, except it isn’t very libertarian, and it comes from…having the right Christology.  Recommended, it opens up new worlds for the reader.

5. Thomas Mann, Der Zauberberg.  I had never read this in German before.  For all its extraordinary intellectual and emotional peaks, it is also remarkably witty.

…most important of all was the gulf between the man and the national media, who could not understand each other — Romney’s billboards in New Hampshire read THE WAY TO STOP CRIME IS TO STOP MORAL DECAY; he could not understand why newsmen found the slogan funny; and they could not understand what he meant by moral decay.

That is from the still-engaging Theodore H. White The Making of the President 1968.  And here is Rod Dreher on crime and morality.

Why their sudden inward turn, and why the Chinese state’s abandonment of the oceans?  Some historians, like Bruce Swanson, cite a power struggle within the bureaucracy between eunuchs and conservative neo-Confucians, dubbed “continentalists,” with the eunuchs ultimately losing out.  Another important factor was probably China’s reopening of its enlarged and completely renovated Grand Canal, an extraordinary feat of engineering that connected northern China to the increasingly populous breadbasket of the south.  At eleven hundred miles long, the canal was controlled by numerous locks, much like New York’s Erie Canal, which measures only one-third its length and was not built until four hundred years later.  In 1415 the state banned the shipment of grain to the north by sea to compel use of the canal, for which thousands of barges were built.  Such a decision would have dramatically reduced the need for shipping, and hence shipbuilding and the maintenance of fleets, leading to the halting of oceangoing ship construction altogether by Yongle’s successor in 1436.

That is from the new and interesting Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard W. French.  I believe the definitive economic history of the Grand Canal remains to be written, it will be a major achievement when it happens.

Yes, I am in Vienna, but I will take this country in discrete chunks because the contributions are so significant.  Today is literature, here are a few remarks:

1. Thomas Bernhard.  One of the very best post-war writers, obsessive and funny and extremely neurotic.  The Loser [Der Untegeher] is the one that works best in English, though his unique style is not at its most fevered pitch.  Wittgensteins Neffe [Wittgenstein’s Nephew] is my favorite, one of the smartest and funniest novels I know, close to perfect.  Das Kalkwerk is entrancing, though I suspect unreadable in English.  He remains grossly underrated in the English-speaking world, mostly for linguistic reasons but also he is a rebellion against the idea of a culture of entertainment.  In my personal canon he is one of the more significant writers.

2. Hermann BrochDeath of Virgil is a 20th century classic, again much under-read amongst the American educated classes.  Die Schlafwandler [The Sleepwalkers] is impressive, and perhaps seen as his major work, but it is more uneven in quality and eventually it falls apart.

3. Robert Musil. There are wonderful and historically significant major passages in The Man Without Qualities, but the drama loses its interest, the loose ends are not tied up, and ultimately I will call him overrated, especially compared to Bernhard or Broch.

4. Peter Handke.  In German only, I say, and in any case not my taste.  He is serious about politics in exactly the wrong way, and I hope future generations reject him.

5. Elfriede Jelinek.  Many were surprised when she won the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, and you are most likely to know her for writing the book behind the movie The Piano Teacher.  Like Wagner, you could say her work is “better than it sounds,” but still it doesn’t sound that good.  I find it irritating and offensive, plus she is a communist.  Nonetheless, irritating fiction is better than boring fiction, see “Günter Wilhelm Grass.

6. Karl Kraus.  I used to think his work would eventually “come together” for me, but the more of it I read, and the more I read about him, I conclude he is a figure of historic interest only, and a good aphorist, but not an enduring literary artist.  He was a keen satirist of the mores and totalitarian tendencies of his time, and that is to be appreciated.  But if you try reading the rambling 500-page The Last Days of Mankind, in either English or German, you will conclude it was a work of its time only.

7. Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo Hofmannstahl.  Both remain underrated, and don’t forget Hofmannstahl’s libretti for Richard Strauss, including Der Rosenkavalier.

8. Christoph Ransmayr.  He is popular in contemporary Austrian literature.  I was not convinced, but will try again, if you love The Last World let me know.

9. Heimito von Doderer — I have not yet read him but am hopeful.

9b. Ingeborg Bachmann.  I just bought some this morning.

10. Johann Nestroy.  From the Enlightenment, mostly a playwright, worth spending some time with to get a perspective on Austrian literature before the 20th century.

11. Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein are both often best read as literature.

12. Stefan Zweig. The World of Yesterday is a favorite, sad and bittersweet, and it treats the European civilization that was passing away at the time of the Second World War, still relevant.  Zweig committed suicide in Brazil, here is an excellent biography.  The rest of his fiction still is read around much of the world (not so much America, famously in Russia), but I find it pretty ordinary and of its time.

I’m not counting Canetti, Kafka, and the like, who are not properly Austrian, though they lived in the Empire.  Rilke does not count either, though he is one of the greatest of poets.  Joseph Roth was born in Galicia, yet I think of him as an Austrian rather than Polish writer, again still somewhat neglected in the English-speaking world.  Try Radetzky MarchFranz Werfel I find ordinary, though I have not yet read Forty Days of Musa Dagh, for some his masterpiece, I did buy a copy of that one recently.

The bottom line: There are amazing wonders here, and yes “weird stuff.”  Most of the educated people I know are not clued into them.

The South’s enormous economic stake in slavery far outweighed the impact of protective tariffs on its income.  In 1860, the aggregate value of slaves as property was $3 billion, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth.  The value of slaves was more than 50 percent greater than the capital invested in railroads and manufacturing combined, a calculation that excludes the value of land in southern plantations.  Slavery generated a stream of income that enable overall white per capita income in the south to approximate that of northern whites.  In the seven cotton states, nearly a third of white income came from slave labor.

That is from the new Douglas A. Irwin book on trade policy, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.

That is the new, magisterial, and comprehensive history by Douglas A. Irwin, just arrived in my hands and due out November 27.  It is likely the best history of trade policy to be written, 821 pp., the questions it covers include:

How did Jefferson’s trade embargo in 1808 affect the economy?  Did high tariffs promote America’s industrialization in the nineteenth century?  Did the Hawley-Smoot tariff of 1930 exacerbate or ameliorate the Great Depression?  Were liberal trade policies after World War II responsible for the economic prosperity experienced in the postwar period?  Did trade with China in the early 2000s destroy jobs in manufacturing?

Most of all, this book focuses on the determinants of US trade policy.  I am just starting to make my way through it, highly recommended, readable too, and of course all of these issues matter more than you thought they were going to.  You can pre-order here.

No, it’s not Michael Oakeshott:

At the London Review Bookshop, John Clegg reports a fondness for philosophers. “Our most-stolen authors, in order, are Baudrillard, Freud, Nietzsche, Graham Greene, Lacan, Camus, and whoever puts together the Wisden Almanack. The appetite for Greene (which seems to have died down a little now) was particularly surprising, but I suppose they identify with Pinkie,” said Clegg.

“We caught a gent last Christmas with £400-worth of stolen books in his trousers and elsewhere. We grabbed all of the bags back, but he returned about half an hour later to reclaim a half-bottle of whisky and his dream journal, which had been at the bottom of one of the bags of stolen books. As we showed him the door he told us: ‘I hope you’ll consider this in the Žižekian spirit, as a radical reappropriation of knowledge.’”

Daunt says that the kleptomaniacal customers in Waterstones have always had a penchant for Kierkegaard, à la Renton in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. “You slightly wonder when it’s always books by the likes of Sartre and Kierkegaard – there must be an awful lot of people working their minds out so much that they don’t have any money,” says Daunt. “Whenever I’d go past Kierkegaard I’d make sure they and Wittgenstein were all there, but often the odd one or two would be gone and it always made me smile.”

Here is the full story.

What I’ve been reading

by on July 28, 2017 at 12:38 am in Books | Permalink

1. Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.  One of the few books that have a perfect title.  These are a cross between short stories, ruminations, and essays.  Yiyun Li is from China, yet she refuses to write in Chinese or to have her work published in Chinese.  At times you wonder what is really in here, but her voice and vision stick with you.

2. Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holy Shrine.  Compulsively readable, and also excellent background on both the Gulf region and the Saudi-Iran conflict.

3. William R. Cline, The Right Balance for Banks: Theory and Evidence on Optimal Capital Requirements.  Not for the unconverted, but a good guide for anyone with a prior interest.  Capital requirements should be higher, but it is wrong to think the American economy currently has “too much finance.”

4. Regulating Wall Street: Choice Act vs. Dodd-Frank, published by NYU, with many notable contributors including multiple essays by Lawrence J. White.  Balanced, judicious, the best look so far at pending reforms to banking and finance.

5. Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?  A lot of this book is only so-so, but the Preface — “A Glance into the Archives of Islam” — counts as one of the better works I’ve read this year, even though it comes in at only 27 pp.  It covers Hagar and Sarah, how Muslim and Christian understandings of the Abraham story differ, and the intellectual sources of institutional problems with Islam and political order.  That’s the secret to reading SZ, not to let yourself get distracted by the bad stuff or empty pages.  Amongst those who do not revere him, he remains underrated.

Arrived in my pile is the exhaustive and comprehensive Edward N. Wolff, A Century of Wealth in America.  This is likely to prove an important work for many researchers.

What also appears valuable, but I cannot read right now, is Kevin R. Brine and Mary Poovey, Finance in America: An Unfinished Story.

Now it is textbooks:

When primary school administrators in the U.K. choose study materials for the fall semester this year, they will have a new option: math textbooks imported from Shanghai, a city celebrated as a global math power.

In the books, the British pound will replace references to the Chinese yuan. But in just about every other way, the versions of Real Shanghai Maths available in London will be exactly like those used in China, the ideas, sequencing and methods kept intact.

It is a remarkable admission by British education authorities that their own methods have stumbled, and that Chinese educators – after years of racking up world firsts in math scores – have developed something admirable enough to import in whole cloth.

Here is the full article, via A.T., our A.T.