Books

It is potent:

If people married each other more randomly, poverty levels would be considerably lower than they are now.  If we abandoned all current family arrangements and randomly grouped all Bolivians into new families of 5 persons, poverty levels would fall by about 15 percentage points (from the current level of 55% of all households to about 40% of all households).  The Gini coefficient measuring inequality would also fall from about 0.70 to 0.55.

But Bolivians do not mix much in marriage.  The correlation between partners’ education levels is extremely high at about 0.77, with no signs of falling.  For comparison, the corresponding number for Germany is 0.52 and for Britain it is 0.41.

But not all Bolivians are equally restricted in their marriage choices.  In the department of Santa Cruz the correlation is only 0.69 while in Potosi it is 0.82, with a corresponding difference in poverty rates.

That is from Lykke E. Andersen, Development from Within, an interesting and well-written collection of essays on Bolivian development, and sometimes on development policy more generally.  The cited piece was written in 2008.

Here is a good sentence from that book:

Just one little road block can disrupt an entire vacation.

Here is the author on Twitter.  Here is her blog.

Love in the old East Germany

by on August 30, 2014 at 2:14 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The East German woman had a job, was economically independent, self-confident, and divorce-happy; at a time when only 50 percent of West German women made their own money, 90 percent of women in East Germany were employed.

…the East German woman didn’t consider her male partner an enemy but rather a partner who, economically speaking, had little or nothig on her.  Indeed, the average East German man, unless he had managed to gin a foothold in the regime’s upper echelons — but what woman would want a man like that? — wasn’t in a position to boast any typically macho privileges.  He couldn’t show off with money, fast cars, or a house on Ibiza.  he had to rely on his potential talent as a lover and his qualities as a father and partner.  As a result, he tended to cultivate a rather “soft” masculine image.

…And, on top of all this: the suppression of free movement in public in East Germany had led both sexes to develop a relatively uninhibited attitude toward sex.  What other unregulatable pastime did East Germany have to offer its citizens?

That is from the newly translated book by Peter Schneider, Berlin Now: The City After the Wall.  Much of that passage makes sense, but one part confuses me:  does “rely on his potential talent as a lover” support or contradict “cultivate a “soft” masculine image”?

From David Cay Johnson:

From 2000 to 2012, American workers as a whole had a tough time, as population grew much faster than new jobs and many people gave up looking for work. There was one major exception: jobs paying $100,000 to $400,000 (in 2012 dollars).

This is what I call America’s new prosperous class. Many of these workers have an advanced degree. They no longer struggle, but they continue to work because their wealth is far from adequate to support their lifestyles.

The number of prosperous-class jobs soared to 10.8 million, an increase of 2.1 million since 2000. That is almost 10 times the growth rate of jobs paying either more or less.

Most astonishing is how much of the overall increase in wages earned by the 153.6 million people with a job in 2012 went to this narrow band of very well paid workers: Just 7 percent of all jobs pay in this range, but those workers collected 76.9 percent of the total real wage increase.

For the pointer I thank Mary Ray.  (p.s.: the paperback edition of Average is Over is out today).

I sometimes say it is coming first to Israel and Singapore (and England?), but the Kiwis are a different case.  Eric Crampton quotes from an NZ Ministry report:

Overall, there is no evidence of any sustained rise or fall in inequality in the last two decades. The level of household disposable income inequality in New Zealand is a little above the OECD median. The share of total income received by the top 1% of individuals is at the low end of the OECD rankings.

You also will note that New Zealand has been a steady under-performer in terms of economic growth, despite a lot of good policy decisions.  This has helped keep income inequality down.

On this note, the paperback of Average is Over is coming out August 26th, you can order your copy here.

The actual title is Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography.  I enjoyed this book and learned a good deal from it, here is one excerpt:

…understanding the Summa as based on the cycle of emanation and return helps tie much of Thomas’s theological work together, from the Writing on the Sentences to the Summa.  In his earliest synthesis Thomas had already referred to the coming forth from and return of all things to God as a key theological principle…

For Thomas this circular motion reveals god’s sapiential ordering on the most universal level.  To think of the exitus-reditus model as primarily philosophical and Neoplatonic, as some have argued, is a modern view that Thomas would not have shared.  What else does scripture teach but how all things were created by God and are directed back to him as their final goal?

You can order the book here.

*Gaza: A History*

by on August 22, 2014 at 12:27 pm in Books, History | Permalink

That is the new book by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Oxford University Press.  It would not have come right now unless I were supposed to read it on the plane, so I will.

I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement.  Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read.  I’ve ordered my copy.

Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:

I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is.  That he treated women and co-workers badly?  That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own?  That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera?  That he failed to crack America?  That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union?  That he was drab and a killjoy?  That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949?  That he was consumed with his own importance?

Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”

Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.

There is a new paper out by them:

Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, follows in the tradition of the great classical economists, Malthus, Ricardo and Marx, in formulating “general” laws to diagnose and predict the dynamics of inequality. We argue that all of these general laws are unhelpful as a guide to understand the past or predict the future, because they ignore the central role of political and economic institutions in shaping the evolution of technology and the distribution of resources in a society. Using the economic and political histories of South Africa and Sweden, we illustrate not only that the focus on the share of top incomes gives a misleading characterization of the key determinants of societal inequality, but also that inequality dynamics are closely linked to institutional factors and their endogenous evolution, much more than the forces emphasized in Piketty’s book, such as the gap between the interest rate and the growth rate.

For the pointer I thank Nathaniel Bechhofer.

From Alison Flood at The Guardian:

A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation on the reading experience.

The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might “find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses” to the story. Her predictions were based on an earlier study comparing reading an upsetting short story on paper and on iPad. “In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers,” said Mangen.

But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.

That is speculative, but consistent with my own intuition, and my own tendency to (sometimes) organize information by remembering physically where it was in the book.

Facts about food

by on August 16, 2014 at 5:44 am in Books, Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

There is more here, you can pre-order the book here.  My previous posts about this work are here.

That is the new Haruki Murakami book, which Amazon sent me a day early.  It is (dark) fun, but not deep and not top drawer Murakami.  Most of his fans will like it enough to be glad they bought it.

Fear: A Novel of World War I, by Gabriel Chevalier, is being touted as the “latter day All Quiet on the Western Front.”  At first I thought that was just exaggerated promo, but it is quite good.

Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities: Across Latin America In Search of a New Architecture is broader than the title implies and recommended to anyone who follows that part of the world.

*Finding Equilibrium*

by on August 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The authors are Till Düppe and E. Roy Weintruab and the subtitle is Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit.  I very much liked this book, which provides an inside look at the discovery of some key theorems in economics, with an emphasis on the problem of joint discovery.  McKenzie, by the way, is the one who received the least credit, an example of the Matthew Effect.

Facts about birds

by on August 9, 2014 at 12:50 am in Books, Science | Permalink

…despite the putrid menu vultures favor, their excrement is sterile. In fact, letting the waste run down their legs can clean off germs from the gore; it’s their version of freshening up with a moist towelette after a barbecue. Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses, who spend 95 percent of their lives over open ocean, are thought to be able to shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 m.p.h. For blackcap warblers, the direction of migration is clearly innate, so crossbreeding a group of blackcaps who flew south for fall migration with a group that oriented westward resulted in offspring who flew in a southwesterly direction.

That is from this Vicki Constantine Croke review of two new bird books.

Thinking Inside the Box

by on August 8, 2014 at 11:21 am in Books, Education, Travel | Permalink

I like this library building in Nice, France.

NiceBlockHead

A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times.   I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him.  In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture.  An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.

Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper.  Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero.  Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper.  In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.

Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture.  And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms.  The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.

It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.

My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption.  The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base.  Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions.  You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live.  And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before.  Ugh, that is why I stopped going.  NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor.  If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.