Books

That is the subtitle, the title proper is Pedigree, by Lauren A. Rivera.  This is a very good book on the microdynamics of inequality and the important role played by social networks, how you present yourself, and…pedigree.  Not all of it is a revelation, because by now many of these mechanisms are well-known.  Still, it is unfailingly intelligent, well-written, and it documents these matters better than any other book I know.  Here is one excerpt:

…individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization.  HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees.  Insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm.  First-year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns, or word-of-mouth to the interview phase, provided that they could successfully get the application on the “right desk,” in person or via email…In addition, the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong.

More generally, it is often better to have a contact “within” an institution rather than at the very top.  Recommended, for all those who have an interest in such topics.

Via Chug, here is what happens when you plate junk food as if it were high-end food, a good link.

It is now available, notice the new subtitle The Economic Malaise at a Technological Plateau: Problems of the United States and Oppotunities for China.

I will be doing some book promotion in China in May, and soon I will have a few questions for you all.

ChinaTGS

1. Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine.  Why not read a biography of one of the most important men of the twentieth century?  I found this book valuable even though I am already familiar with the Ezra Vogel tome on Deng.  Recommended.

2. Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia, by Ian Barnes, Belknap Press.  This is not only one of the best introductions to Russian history, there are clear and excellent maps every two or three pages.  More history books should follow this standard.

Joseph Heath has written an interesting and thoughtful comment on my review of his excellent book Enlightenment 2.0 (fyi, we have never communicated but it turns out that Heath is a long time reader of MR.). Samuel Hammond concisely summarized on twitter part of Heath’s response:

In reply to @, Joseph Heath shares the dire Straussian reading of his own book: The US is Rome burning

Quite accurate but I want to focus on a different point.

Finally, Tabarrok suggests that I am “too sanguine about the role of politics.” I thought I was being fairly pessimistic about politics. I think the nub of the disagreement between Tabarrok and myself on this point – and certainly the basis of our major differences of political ideology – is that I am much more sanguine about the role of the state than he is. This is not the same as being sanguine about democratic politics. For example, he points out that:

In a large electorate, no individual’s vote is likely to change the outcome of an election. As a result, it doesn’t pay to be informed about politics nor to think about politics in objective and rational terms. Consider an individual who spends time and effort to be informed about politics. What does this individual receive in return for their investment? The same thing as the uninformed individual. Since better information doesn’t lead to better consequences, it doesn’t pay an individual to be informed.

I couldn’t agree more….Indeed, the sort of considerations that motivate Tabarrok’s enthusiasm for making decisions through betting markets are, I would guess, quite similar to the ones that motivate my own enthusiasm for cost-benefit analysis. The key difference is that Tabarrok (and Bryan Caplan) tend to assume that democracy gives “the people” much greater control over the behaviour of the state than it actually does. In the background there is, I suspect, a somewhat public-choicy picture of legislation as a complex process of preference-aggregation. By contrast, I follow Ian Shapiro in thinking that we need to get past these sorts of “general will” theories of democracy.

There is one point in the last chapter where I say what I really think, but again, it might easily be overlooked. So let me just say, for the record, that I was also dead serious when I wrote the following paragraph (and that it comes closest to summarizing my considered view):

It is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision-making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded. They do so largely by shifting power and control away from elected representatives toward experts. Even in the United States, where this is difficult to do, one can find examples all over. The most obvious example is the enormous role that the Supreme Court has played in making decisions that, in most other democracies, would be left to the legislature. But one can see it in other areas as well, such as the amount of autonomy that government agencies have or the increased use of cost-benefit analysis in public decision-making (338).

So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing.

Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.

One of the reasons that I oppose the extension of democratic politics into every aspect of modern life is precisely that in trying to do too much, democracy delivers incoherence, gridlock and frustration, forces that eventually undermine its own legitimacy. I worry about democratic legitimacy because I see democracy as a check and balance on Leviathan (while Heath sees it as a check on government by experts).

The legislature has become a sideshow. But I worry, because the more Congress is held in contempt the greater the support for a bold executive that takes charge, makes decisions and gets things done. Under these pressures, executive power has grown not just in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain (on this theme see F.H. Buckley’s The Once and Future King.) But for all its faults, the legislature and the rule of law are more conducive to liberty than the executive and the administrative state. Legislators are satisfied with reelection and a bit of pork but executives hunger for greatness and in so doing they promote the real dangers, idolatry, the centralization of power and war.

In short, I worry that the pathologies of democracy drive the demand not for rational, technocratic government but for Caesarism.

Jonathan Chait writes:

At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.

Read his whole discussion, but he more or less disapproves.  I’ve long wanted to disagree with Chait “from the left,” and it seems this is my chance, I had better grab it while I can.

While teaching Law and Literature this year, I attached very gentle, low key “trigger warnings” to a number of items on the syllabus, namely those dealing with extreme violence, rape, and some other very unpleasant situations.  I am glad I did this.  I told students that if they preferred to do a substitute assignment, I could arrange that.  Is that so unreasonable?  There were no takers, but I don’t see it did anyone harm or limited free speech in the classroom (or outside of it) to make this offer.  If anything, it may have eased speech a slight amount by noting it is OK to feel uncomfortable with some topics, or at least serving up that possibility into the realm of common knowledge.  That struck me as better and wiser than simply pretending we were studying the successful operation of the Coase theorem the whole time.

I don’t doubt that trigger warnings may be misused in some situations by some professors, but overall they seem to me like another small step to a better world.  I do agree we need to liberate trigger warnings from the strictures of the PC movement, no argument there.

Addendum: I am pleased to see that GMU was moved into the highest category for university free speech, according to FIRE.

This passage shook me up, bravo to the author:

…although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense.  The claim that armed self-defense was a necessary aspect of the civil rights movement is still controversial.  However, wielding weapons, especially firearms, let both participants in nonviolent struggle and their sympathizers protect themselves and others under terrorist attack for their civil rights activities.  This willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself.

That is from the recent book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr.  Also related is the 1962 book Negroes with Guns, by Robert F. Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Truman Nelson, about the use of guns for protection against the Ku Klux Klan.  Martin Luther King of course did keep a gun in the house, and he relied on neighbors who, at times, protected his house by carrying guns.

*To the Edge*

by on April 19, 2015 at 3:00 pm in Books, Economics, Law | Permalink

That is the new Philip A. Wallach book and the subtitle is Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial CrisisPhilip is one of the underrated up-and-coming young policy economists, and this book focuses on the financial crisis and the law.  It is original, a rare quality for books on the crisis at this point.  My own blurb says: “Why did America respond to its recent financial crisis the way it did? And why did the bailouts so quickly become unpopular, even as the economy was recovering?  How much did the law stop the government from doing more? Philip Wallach’s To the Edge is the very best book on all of these questions.”

Christopher DeMuth puts it well: “The financial crisis of 2008 was also a crisis of law and a crisis of government legitimacy,” and Wallach is now the go-to guy on that angle.

*Those Who Write for Immortality*

by on April 19, 2015 at 3:03 am in Books, History, The Arts | Permalink

Joshua Rothman writes in The New Yorker about a new book by H.J. Jackson, on the romantic poets:

Truly long-term literary endurance depends, Jackson writes, on “regular reinterpretation,” and, for that to happen, your writing has to be rich and multi-dimensional. That doesn’t mean, though, that other factors can’t help it along. Thanks to Wordsworth’s liberal, politically active youth, biographers were able to keep discovering previously-unknown political episodes in his early life; that allowed them to keep publishing controversial biographies, which kept him in the public eye long after his death. That distinction between youth and age was also useful for professors: it allowed them to keep arguing over who was better, the “early” or “late” Wordsworth. Even without all these factors, Jackson concedes, Wordsworth’s poetry would still be read today, especially in universities—but academic study alone could never have given him the high cultural profile that he enjoys now. “To sum up,” she writes, Wordsworth’s fame “is due to a concatenation of circumstances, most of which Wordsworth himself could not have foreseen, most of which he would have objected to if he could have foreseen them, and most of which had little to do with the communication of eternal truths.”

You can order the book here, the subtitle is Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame.

What I’ve been reading

by on April 17, 2015 at 12:46 am in Books | Permalink

1. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson.  My favorite of his books, fun and readable as you would expect, many interesting details including what happens to you in water at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Philip Glass, Words Without Music.  “A lot of Einstein on the Beach was written at night after driving a cab.”  An excellent memoir of both Glass’s early life and the New York creative world up through 1976 or so.

3. Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop.  A good example of a book I wish was longer than it was, it is shorter than its 199 pp. might indicate.  As a poet I much prefer Bishop to her correspondent Robert Lowell; their letters collection by the way makes for superb reading and drama.

4. Njal’s Saga.  I just taught this in Law and Literature, and on the re-read I enjoyed it more than expected.  The core model is that arbitration is binding, provided the expected outcome does not stray too far from what violence would bring.  The best way to go through the book is first to master the internal story of sections 121-145, then read to the end, and finally go to the beginning.  A recommended guide is William Ian Miller’s “Why is Your Axe So Bloody?”; yes that is the same Miller who wrote very good books on disgust and humiliation.

I will second the recommendation.  Michael is a political scientist at UCLA, and this volume is one of the most important social books of the last fifteen years.  He shows the importance of “common knowledge” in explaining social phenomena, namely we create rational rituals so that others can see we are acting in concert with them.  It’s all about public ceremonies, parades, dances, and meetings.  It’s also why good Super Bowl commercials can be so effective.  The work dates from 2001, but it seems more relevant each year.

Business Insider puts it well:

Chwe’s concept is readily apparent in the dynamics of social media. When a media organization posts a link to an online article on Facebook, for example, and people begin “liking” it, others will begin to assign some level of importance to the story and some will be compelled to share it and discuss it. The idea of “common knowledge” may also lend itself to thinking about advertising strategies on social media.

In this regard, by the way, the openness of the internet may make us more rather than less conformist.  Here is a good review of the book.

Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 is one of the best books I have read in years. I offer an extensive review at the New Rambler. Here’s the opening:

Heath-Enlightenment-2Joseph Heath is a Canadian philosopher who is unusually conversant with economics and also unusually capable of writing sparkling prose for a popular audience. His earlier book Economics Without Illusions was split into 6 right-wing fallacies and 6 left-wing fallacies, and he did a commendable job on both sides. Heath has his own left-liberal point of view: the subtitle of Economics Without Illusions was Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism and in the original Canadian version, the book was subtitled Economics For People Who Hate Capitalism. However, I like capitalism and I still enjoyed it! Enlightenment 2.0 is Heath’s foray into political philosophy. Drawing on psychology, economics and political science, Enlightenment 2.0 is a brilliant defense of reason, an important call for a more rational politics, and a great read.

Heath is worried that the foundations of liberal society are being eroded by the cultural denigration of reason combined with ruthlessly competitive economic and political forces that exploit the biases and hooks of our unreasoning mind.

Although I admire Enlightenment 2.0, I answer the question of the post differently than does Heath and my review contains plenty of critical commentary. Ayn Rand, Idiocracy, mind viruses and other interesting characters make an appearance. Read the whole thing.

That is the new book by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, the subtitle is Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors.  The basic message is that North Korea is far more (black) marketized — and more corrupt — than most outsiders realize.  Here is one representative passage:

Homes near the Sino-North Korean border are apparently quite expensive, since living there offers good business opportunities, and the ability to access Chinese cell phone networks.  There are reports of high-quality apartments changing hands for US$30,000 in the border city of Hyesan, for instance.  But this pales in comparison to the upmarket areas of the capital: a decent apartment in the central Pyongyang district of Mansudae (which is now jokingly referred to by expats as “Dubai” or “Pyonghattan”) will change hands for US$100,000 or more.  There are even those who talk of US$250,000 apartments.

A fascinating look at the hard to access part of the Hermit Kingdom, definitely recommended and as far as I know this book has no close substitute.

By the way, in Pyongyang, rain boots are seen as quite fashionable footwear.  And it can take up to a week to cross the (small) country by train.  In the border city of Hyesan, up to ten percent of the population may be involved in the meth trade.

This sprawling comic novel cum history is likely to go down as one of the books of the year.  I thought Lawrence D. Mass’s review was excellent, here is one excerpt:

Conversely, is The American People the War and Peace or Gone With The Wind of LGBT history? The American People is so many disparate things that comparisons will inevitably fall short. It’s a Swiftian journey through an America we never knew; a Voltairean satire of American life and ways; a literary offspring of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Myra Brenckenridge; a pornographic American history through the eyes of a Henry Miller; a Robin Cook medical mystery. It’s a Sinclairean expose of American industrial and corporate skulduggery, and otherwise breathtakingly testimonial to the art of muckraking. It’s a treasure trove of historical findings, especially of the history of sex in America — of prostitution, communal living, of STD ‘s, of medicine and infectious diseases, of sanitation and health care, of medical and historical institutions, research, opinion, publications, figureheads and testimony. It’s an ultimate coming together (pun intended) of the personal with the political. And it’s the grandest telling yet of Kramer’s own story.

But as you can see from the above description, a significant chunk of readers will reject the book’s premise, language, and topics altogether.  I think it is very, very good, you can order it here.

The author is Andrej Svorenčík and he has produced the definitive account of the history of experimental economics.  The SSRN paper is here, but it is more accurate to think of this as a monograph at 248 pp. of text.  I hope a major publisher is interested, but do note it starts off a bit slow.  Once it gets going it never lets up and I learned a great deal from it.  Here is just one excerpt:

When Austin C. Hoggatt died on April 29, 2009, at the age of seventy-nine the experimental economics community lost a low profile yet very influential figure.  Hoggatt was the first to build a computerized laboratory for controlled experimentation in economics or, more broadly, in the social, behavioral, and decision science — the Management Science Laboratory at the Center for Research in Management Science at UC Berkeley in 1964.

If you think you might be interested you will be.  The paper/monograph is strong on recognizing the need for an integrated approach to experiments, involving software, support staff, programmers, and researchers, and tracing how all this came together, or in some cases did not.  You really get the inside story from Svorenčík.

What I’ve been reading

by on April 9, 2015 at 12:58 am in Books | Permalink

1. The Seventh Day, by Yu Hua.  This is perhaps my favorite of all the contemporary Chinese novels I have read: “Lacking the money for a burial plot, he must roam the afterworld aimlessly, without rest.”

2. Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation.  Have you ever wondered how recipes, fashion, fonts, and comedians’ jokes function without strong intellectual property protection in the classic sense?  We have needed a book on that and now we have one, this is both fun and instructive.

3. Stanley G. Payne and Palacios, Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.  This is readable, reasonably comprehensive, and unlike many competing books shows clearly that Franco, whatever his flaws may have been, was no buffoon.  A useful corrective to the usual treatments, even if many readers will feel the authors go too far in their sympathies for Franco.

4. Karl Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark, My Struggle volume IV.  I like it, and the tales about trying to bed down Nordic chicks as a teenager are compelling and sometimes hilarious, but overall it is not up to the exalted standards set by the first two volumes.  So far this is out only in the UK.

5. The Greening of Asia, by Mark l. Clifford, a genuinely useful and informative book about some of the most important environmental dilemmas, very even handed and a model of clarity.

6. Robert P. Murphy, Choice, Cooperation, Enterprise and Human Action.  If you want a clear, well-written, 2015-based, non-obscure, non-Galician version of Ludwig Mises, this is your book.

For the specialist I can heartily recommend Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson, Yale University Press.