Books

That is the new Robert D. Putnam book and it focuses on the widening opportunity gap among America’s young.  Much of the work is narrative and case studies, starting with Port Clinton, Ohio but not stopping there.  Any Putnam book is an event, and this one is the natural sequel to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  The writing and the underlying intelligence are of an extremely high quality.

One significant theme is that upward mobility results from a mingling of the upper and lower income classes, and such mingling is more scarce than in the immediate postwar era.  You can think of it as case study evidence for the cross-sectional statistical regularities stressed by Chetty et.al.  Contra Chetty, however, Putnam believes that declines in socioeconomic mobility will start to show up in the data as current generations age.

The book’s problem is finding a new note to strike.  Putnam stresses this is a story of social forces rather than personal villains, but, for all the merits of his text, he identifies no new culprits or solutions.  Inequality of opportunity seems to have more to do with parents than schools, but how to control parents?  This book does not flirt with the so-called Neoreaction.  Putnam favors increased access to contraception, professional coaching of poor parents, prison sentencing reform and more emphasis on rehabilitation, eliminating fees for school extracurricular activities, mentoring programs, and greater investment in vocational education; contra Krugman he gives a lot of evidence for skills mismatch (pp.232-233).  More generally, he asks for federalist solutions and lots of experimentation.  Maybe those are good paths to go, but the reader feels (once again) that matters will get worse before they get better.  There is very little on either political economy or the evolution of technology.

Do read this book, but by the end Putnam himself seems to come away deflated from dealing with some of America’s toughest problems.

Arrived in my pile

by on February 24, 2015 at 2:05 pm in Books | Permalink

Melissa Lane, The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter.

Melanie Swan, Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy.  This appears to be a very clear and useful treatment of the idea of a blockchain, including Ethereum and even futarchy.

Oxford Companion to the Economics of China, edited by Shenggen Fan, Ravi Kanbur, Shang-Jin Wei, and Xiaobo Zhang.

Robert Alter, a translation with commentary, Strong as Death is Love, including The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel.  I haven’t read this one yet, but Alter’s biblical works are among the greatest scholarly creations of our time.

That is the newly published volume 16 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by Sandra J. Peart.  Of course this is splendid from beginning to end, including Peart’s introduction, the letters, Hayek’s commentary, and assorted documents, and the book even contains three very nice poems written by Harriet Taylor.

Is Hayek here blaming Taylor for moving Mill in a collectivist direction?  Is that the Straussian reading of this book and the reason why Hayek did it?

If there were a phrase for “one step above and beyond self-recommending,” this volume would get it.

That is the new and forthcoming book from Richard H. Thaler, due out in May.  It is excellent and fascinating, and yes even if you have read all of the other popular books on behavioral economics you should read this one too.

The title is good but I find the subtitle even more alluring.  For me the very best parts of the book are about Thaler’s career as an economist.  Indeed much of the book traces the development of behavioral economics through a biographical lens.  Here is one excerpt:

…my thesis advisor, Sherwin Rosen, gave the following as an assessment of my career as a graduate student: “We did not expect much of him.”

And:

I spent a fair amount of time staring at the List and adding new items, but I did not know what to do with it.  “Dumb stuff people do” is not a satisfactory title for an academic paper.

Other figures of note make cameo appearances in the book, including Cass Sunstein and John Lott.

Arrived in my pile

by on February 17, 2015 at 3:12 pm in Books | Permalink

Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas, Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11.

Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet.

The causes of the Bengal famine

by on February 17, 2015 at 11:31 am in Books, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

The 1943 Bengal famine has been cited by Amartya Sen and others as a classic example of market failure.  But in his new (and excellent) book Eating Dead People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, Cormac Ó Gráda devotes an entire chapter to that episode and comes away with a different impression.  Here is a summary sentence:

The 1943-44 famine has become paradigmatic as an “entitlements famine,” whereby speculation born of greed and panic produced an “artificial” shortage of rice, the staple food.  Here I have argued that the lack of political will to divert foodstuffs from the war effort rather than speculation in the sense outlined was mainly responsible for the famine.

I will add to that price controls were imposed once the famine was underway, and campaigns were conducted against hoarders.

In the book I also very much enjoyed the discussion of the 1946-47 famine in Moldova, which apparently involved a good deal of cannibalism.

Those questions are considered by Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica in their new JPE paper “Suspense and Surprise.”  Here is one to the point excerpt:

In the context of a mystery novel, these dynamics imply the following familiar plot structure.  At each point in the book, the readers thinks that the weight of evidence suggests that the protagonist accused of murder is either guilty or innocent.  But in any given chapter, there is a chance of a plot twist that reverses the reader’s beliefs.  As the book continues along, plot twists become less likely but more dramatic.

In the context of sports, our results imply that most existing rules cannot be suspense-optimal.  In soccer, for example, the probability that the leading team will win depends not only on the period of the game but also on whether it is a tight game or a blowout…

Optimal dynamics could be induced by the following set of rules.  We declare the winner to be the last team to score.  Moreover, scoring becomes more difficult as the game progresses (e.g., the goal shrinks over time).  The former ensures that uncertainty declines over time while the latter generates a decreasing arrival rate of plot twists.  (In this context, plot twists are lead changes.)

There are ungated versions of the paper here.  Note that at the very end of the paper…well, I’ll just let you read it for yourselves.

I had never heard of this novella, and yet it is a splendid and and indeed frank exhibit of Hardy’s rather brutal and tragic view of human psychology.  It is explicitly a version of the Romeo and Juliet story, except the pair end up marrying rather than dying.  What happens then?  The story is full of behavioral economics and rational choice dilemmas.

Here is one excerpt:

“The only woman whom I never loved, I may almost say!” he added, smiling; “and therefore the only one I shall ever regret!”

Hardy later rewrote this novella under the title The Well-Beloved (available in the same Penguin volume), but a brief skim indicates to me that the first version was much better (here is one analysis of the differences in revision, pdf).  In any case there is much Thomas Hardy out there waiting to be rediscovered.  Some Google searches indicate this novella is not extremely well known, commonly read, or analyzed in detail.  Yet it will turn out to have been one of the best things I have read this year.  Caveat emptor: this one does not pull any punches about the male romantic psyche.

No, not your own.  Here is one view:

The main effect of reading Hamlet a 100 times was, counter-intuitively, that it lost its sense of cliche. “To be or not to be” is the Stairway to Heaven of theatre; it settles over the crowd like a slightly funky blanket knitted by a favorite aunt. Eventually, if you read Hamlet often enough, every soliloquy takes on that same familiarity. And so “To be or not to be” resumes its natural place in the play, as just another speech. Which renders its power and its beauty of a piece with the rest of the work.

That reader is Stephen Marche, the link is here, interesting throughout.  Can you guess which is his other pick?

By the way, I believe that to do this you need to own many copies of the work (can you figure out why?), and indeed Marche owns at least ten copies of Hamlet.

Facts about music

by on February 8, 2015 at 3:02 am in Books, Music | Permalink

Between 2008 and September 2012, there were 66 No. 1 songs, almost half of which were performed by only six artists (Katy Perry, Rihanna, Flo Rida, The Black Eyed Peas, Adele, and Lady Gaga); in 2011, Adele’s debut album sold more than 70 percent of all classical albums combined, and more than 60 percent of all jazz albums.

That is from William Giraldi, who is reviewing Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, an interesting book which I hope to cover more soon.

The pointer here is from Torsten Kehler.

That is the new and notable book by Jacob T. Levy.  Here is one overview bit:

…the book is not a defense of pluralist liberalism, except as against the pretensions of some rationalist liberals that it should be ignored altogether.  It is rather, ultimately, an argument for that claim of irresolvability.  A full understanding of liberal freedom would draw on truths from both the rationalist and pluralist traditions; it would recognize that states and intermediate groups alike can oppress.  And yet we cannot compromise between or combine the two accounts in a wholly satisfactory manner.

In this “contrast between pluralism and rationalism, Montesquieu is the crucial figure,” to quote Jacob.

Overall I am myself inclined to side with rationalism over pluralism.  We can use rationalism to judge a rationalism-pluralism blend to be acceptable, but pluralism cannot play a comparable role.  Mostly we like pluralism because we have a good empirical sense of which plural entities will survive and flourish in a modern capitalist democracy; hardly anyone likes a pluralism where their favored groups would absolutely lose out in terms of influence and status.  In this sense the debate is rarely about pluralism per se.  Jacob is I think skeptical that we can have a good answer as to how much plural groups (e.g., churches, mosques, Boy Scouts) should be regulated by the state.  I nonetheless think that a) public choice theory suggests over-regulation is far more likely than under-regulation of such groups, and b) rationalism can broadly identify some political and economic conditions which will tend to lower the costs of exit from such groups, and perhaps that is enough to make a case for those conditions.  In these ways I end up as more of a classic Nozickian — on “utopia” — than Jacob does.

In any case, as might be expected, this book cements Jacob’s place as one of the leading thinkers in today’s liberal tradition.

At least not too visibly:

Thijs Biersteker of digital entrepreneurs Moore has created a book jacket that will open only when a reader shows no judgment. An integrated camera and facial recognition system scans the reader’s face, only unlocking the book – in the prototype, filled with creative work for the Art Directors Club Netherlands annual – when their expression is neutral.

“My aim was to create a book cover that is human and approachable hi-tech. If you approach the book, if you’re overexcited or your face shows a sceptical expression, the book will stay locked,” explains Biersteker on his website. “But if your expression is neutral (no judgment) the system will send an audio pulse and the book will unlock itself. I often worry about my scepticism and judgement getting in the way of my amazement. Judgment should never hinder the relentless enthusiasm of seeing things for the first time.”

The full story, which includes photos, is here.  The Twitter pointer is from Ted Gioia.

That is the new eBook from my colleague Philip Auerswald and Anthony JoonKyoo Yun, you can buy it here.

Arrived in my pile

by on January 31, 2015 at 4:29 pm in Books | Permalink

Doug Hendrie, Amalganations: How Globalisation is Good.

Arnold Thackray, David Brock, and Rachel Jones, Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary.

Jeffrey A. Frieden, Currency Politics: The Political Economy of Exchange Rate Policy, somehow this is oddly relevant these days.

Andrew Levy, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shape His Masterpiece, looks quite good on first glance.

Rafael Yglesias, The Wisdom of Perversity, a novel.

*Schubert’s Winter Journey*

by on January 28, 2015 at 3:53 pm in Books, History, Music | Permalink

The author is Ian Bostridge and the subtitle is Anatomy of an Obsession, and of course it focuses on Die Winterreise.  This is the first book published this year to make it into my 2015 “best of the year list.”  Here is one good review of the book.