Books

Moral Effects of Socialism

by on July 19, 2014 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Dan Ariely and co-authors have an interesting new paper looking at moral behavior, specifially cheating, in people who grew up in either East or West Germany.

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We
exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts
individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans
who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to
capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of
plausible deniability.

…If socialism indeed promotes individual dishonesty, the specific features of this socio-political
system that lead to this outcome remain to be determined. The East German socialist regime
differed from the West German capitalist regime in several important ways. First, the system
did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass
anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to
demoralization (Ariely et al., 2008), and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of
honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed
to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most
straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official
laws and cheat to game the system. Over time, individuals may come to normalize these types
of behaviors. Given these distinct possible influences, further research will be needed to
understand which aspects of socialism have the strongest or most lasting impacts on morality.

It’s interesting that Ariely et al. try to explain cheating as a result of socialism. My own approach would look more to the virtue ethics of capitalism and Montesquieu who famously noted that

Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

See Al-Ubaydli et al. for a market priming experiment and especially McCloskey on The Bourgeoise Virtues for more work consistent with this theme.

Will Amazon copy Netflix?

by on July 17, 2014 at 12:07 am in Books, Economics, Film | Permalink

According to Gigaom, the e-commerce giant [Amazon] is working on a subscription ebook service called Kindle Unlimited, which would offer unlimited ebook rentals for $9.99 a month.

There is more here.  According to one estimate it would be for 638k titles or so, of course it will matter a great deal which ones.  I would consider this “developing,” but also “not yet confirmed.”

Addendum: Virginia Postrel offers a good analysis.

*The Falling Sky*

by on July 15, 2014 at 2:06 am in Books, Education, Medicine, Philosophy | Permalink

The subtitle is Words of a Yanomami Shaman, and the shaman is Davi Kopenawa from the Amazon, with transcription and assistance from French anthropologist Bruce Albert.  Imagine 487 pp. of a highly intelligent, articulate shaman telling you what he thinks, and perhaps more importantly telling you what he thinks about.  Here is one bit:

As children, we gradually start to think straight.  We realize that the xapiri [spirits] really exist and that the elders’ words are true.  Little by little, we understand that the shamans do not behave as ghosts without a reason.  Our thought fixes itself on the spirits’ words, and then we really want to see them.  We take hold of the idea that later we will be able to ask the elders to blow the yakoana into our nostrils and give us the xapiri’s songs.  This is how it happened for me a long time ago.  The spirits often came to visit me in dreams.  This is how they started to know me well.

For those who are willing to swerve in the direction of the mystical, I recommend this strongly, read the Amazon reviews at the first link above.  Here is a brief excerpt from one: “This is an astonishing book, a gripping story, and a poetic revelation of an entirely different world view than our own. Every single page sparkles with provocative meditations on the impact that industrial societies have on the environment and the role of Yanomami shamans in protecting it for the sake of all humanity.”  You won’t find cost-benefit analysis here.  Here are some selections from the book.  Here is one blog review from LSE.  Google is not turning up too many other reviews, but this came out in late 2013 and it is a truly significant work deserving of further attention and it is rather dramatically under-reviewed.

Arrived in my (classical liberal) pile

by on July 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism?

2. Steffan Hentrich und Sascha Tamm, editors, Regeln für eine freie Gesellschaft: Ein James-Buchanan Brevier.

3. Jason Brennan and Lisa Hill, Compulsory Voting: For and Against.  I like Jason’s chapter entitled “Should We Force the Drunk to Drive?”

4. Jason L. Riley, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed.

The editors are Dow James and Glen Whitman and the subtitle is Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science.  Authors include Steven Horwitz, Sarah Skwire, Ilya Somin, and also Hollis Robbins, “Killing Time, Dracula and Social Coordination”, among others.

1. From 1964: “Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is obnoxious. She dresses like a boy, throws temper tantrums, swears at her parents and thinks terribly unkind thoughts. She refuses to eat anything but tomato sandwiches for lunch. She even invents her own middle initial.”

2. She also keeps a notebook, spies on everyone, and writes down the truth about them.  Her notebook is made public and she is disgraced, until making a comeback as the elected editor of the school newspaper (though see below).  At the end she learns that some lying is necessary.

3. One message of this book is that writers, and journalists in particular, are neurotics.  And liars.  A more core message is that heroines are allowed to be nasty and tell the truth.  Harriet throws a pencil in the face of Beth Ellen.  Compare this with the goody two-shoes Nancy Drew.

3b. “Harriet…Are you still writing down mean things about people?” “No. I am writing my memoirs.”  When I first read this book at age ten or so, I didn’t get the jokes.  Note also the phallic wurst joke on p.105.  Food/sex references run throughout, and there is a running contrast between Harriet’s duty to be an onion (hard, gets cut down the middle) with her desire to instead do nothing but munch on tomato sandwiches.

4. The opening of the book makes Harriet sound like an macroeconomist: “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town.  “See, first you make up the name of the town.  Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it.  You can’t have too many or it gets too hard.””

5. Harriet the infovore announces her intention to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

6. On p.278 author Fitzhugh indicates to us that she is not herself telling us the entire truth about growing up.  It is yet more brutal than this book is allowed to let on.  After that page, everything which happens in the text is a lie, designed to make the casual reader feel better and to sell more copies.  Harriet is not in fact voted editor of the school newspaper and not allowed to publish her critical rants to general acclaim with only a few retractions.  This is a Straussian text and it makes fun of the reader’s willingness to believe in happy endings.  The opening “make believe” scene mirrors these later deceptions.

7. This short essay compares Harriet to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Other commentators stress that Louise Fitzhugh, the author, was a lesbian and perhaps Harriet is a budding lesbian too (she dresses like a boy and has a tomboyish haircut).  I view Sport’s father, who is obsessed with getting a $$ advance for his book, as the stand-in character for Fitzhugh (start at p.260 and see also p.52 on the obsession with writing and money).  Luxury is portrayed as corrupting and leading to indolence, so becoming a successful writer is a self-destructive process, noting that Fitzhugh herself stagnated after this hugely successful book.

8. In this book parents are typically indifferent, brutally indifferent I would say, toward their children.

9. In the movie version “…Harriet competes against Marion Hawthorne to see who has a better blog.”

10. This is a deep work, rich in jokes, and more than worthy of its iconic status.  I am very glad to have reread it.

Here is my previous post on Catcher in the Rye.

Arrived in my Twitter feed

by on July 9, 2014 at 12:25 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

Notice of:

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

By Russ Roberts, now available for pre-order.

In March 1917, the EEF [Egyptian Expeditionary Force, from Great Britain] launched offensive operations in southern Palestine.

That is from the new and noteworthy book by Kristian Coates Unrichsen, The First World War in the Middle East.  I wouldn’t say it is a fun book, but it is clear, well-written, and very good background reading on a number of today’s crises.

You can get a good sense of this by seeing the distribution of “most marked” Kindle passages within the book itself.  For the winner, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, “all five top highlights come from the final 20 pages.”  That suggests many readers actually finished the book (as did I, though I found it forgettable).  So that wins the prize as the most read bestseller this year, although it does not seem every single bestseller was sampled.  Not so well read are Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and coming in last (first?) overall is a book which has been covered rather frequently on MR as of late, can you guess the name?, 700 pp. or so and “the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26.”

The full article, by Jordan Ellenberg, is here.

Fracking Australia

by on July 3, 2014 at 11:33 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

As growth in China slows and Australia’s mining boom ends, Australians are asking, Can our luck last? Australia’s Lowy Institute asked me to discuss John Edward’s new monograph Beyond the Boom. My comments and those of a number of experts can be found here. Here is one bit of interest at both antipodes:

As Jon Stewart memorably illustrated, every US president since Nixon has called for freeing the US from ‘dependence on foreign oil’ (within ten years!). Every president has failed. Fracking, however, has delivered the goods. Fracking has reduced the price of energy while generating millions of jobs and reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases. The fracking revolution has only just begun in Australia. Australia has abundant supplies of natural gas and if it creates a national market and avoids parochial calls for price controls and environmental NIMBYism it will certainly become the world’s largest exporter. While profiting from natural gas production and infrastructure investment, Australia will also help the world to move closer to greenhouse gas targets.

1. Back then, if you didn’t use your prostitute and then tried to underpay her, she would call you a “crumb-bum.”

2. It really does have passages like: “”Most guys at Pencey just talked about having sexual intercourse with girls all the time — like Ackley, for instance — but old Stradlater really did it.  I was personally acquainted with at least two girls he gave the time to.  That’s the truth.”  And the “crumby,” squirting water passage on p.70 sounds really bad but in fact ties into what the novel is really about, which I say is impotence and also post-traumatic stress disorder.  Read p.156 with this in mind.

2. Here is the original Robert Burns poem connected to the book’s title, mostly about sex, unlike its use in the novel, which I take to mean saving young men from the grim reaper (p.191) in a manner reminiscent of a Winslow Homer painting.  So the book is saying America is not yet ready to fuck, not really, not in 1951, Fed-Treasury Accord or not.  And in the final section of the book “fuck you” is the phrase which Holden is determined to wipe out.

3. Salinger took part in the D-Day invasion with part of the manuscript in his backpack.  Salinger also fought in some of the toughest battles of WWII and later in his life sought extreme withdrawal.  Here is more about Salinger at war.  It all supports the notion of WWII as the major event in his life and one which he never got over.  It is no accident that the deceased younger brother is named Allie.

4. Back then, they still called it Atlantic Monthly.  pp.134-135 reflect the earlier fascination with dioramas in museums.

5. There is a corniness to how people thought and spoke back then which the book captures remarkably well.

6. Here is a recent re-read of the book which picks up on a lot of its funny slang.  Here is a recent polemic against the book.

7. The Amazon site for the book is here.  Here is the Wikipedia page, the book still sells about 250,000 copies a year.  Steven Spielberg once bid for the movie rights.

I expected not to like the re-read, but overall I thought it was pretty damn good and almost universally misunderstood.

Next up: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. and maybe also Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.

What I’ve been reading

by on July 1, 2014 at 1:11 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Tom Doyle, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s.  This book actually has some fresh material, plus you realize that John and Paul were even more obsessed with each other than we used to think.

2. Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.  Further evidence that politics is often the enemy of really good books, nonetheless this is still a moderately interesting treatment.

3. Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, Inc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.  Lots of emphasis on the islands.  Pretty good, not great.

4. Hans Ulrich Obrist, ?Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating*?, a successful Swiss attempt at being clever and punchy.

5. Carl Wilson, editor, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.  Most of this volume concerns Céline Dion, or is that Celine Dion?  Fascinating in parts, the subtitle should have been the title.

As part of an agreement with Bryan Caplan, I’ve also started an attempted reread of Catcher in the Rye, and hope to report back to you on that one…

The author of this new and excellent book is David Skarbek and the subtitle is How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System.  It carries rave blurbs from Thomas Schelling and also Philip Keefer.  My favorite section was the discussion of how the rate of gang formation in prisons depends on how the prisons are governed (start at p.65).  For instance when prison officials cannot reliably protect prison inhabitants, gang membership is especially likely.  Gangs rarely operate in UK prisons and when they are do they are usually far less powerful.  Some observers believe that indeterminate sentences increase inmate frustration and stimulate gang formation within prisons.  Female prisoners in many states, such as California, also do not have gangs in the traditional sense, although they may form into “small families.”  Gangs are also more likely in large prisons with many inmates than in small prisons.

A very interesting book, which should be read by anyone with an interest in this topic.

War: What is it Good for? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris, Profile, RRP£25/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$30

In this remarkable book, historian Morris argues not only that war is a source of technological advance but that it brings peace. Through war, more powerful and effective states emerge and these in turn do not merely offer the blessings of peace, but impose it. The thesis is disturbingly persuasive. But, in a nuclear age, the great powers will have to try something else.

The full list is here, possibly gated.  They also recommend the Adam Tooze book on the post WWI era, which I now have finished and really like and also find to be quite Sumnerian.  Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet is an excellent read as well.

I interviewed him.  You will find the full version here, the edited version here.  Not surprisingly, I prefer the full version.  Here is one excerpt:

TC: If I look back at your career, I see you’ve been fighting various kinds of wars or struggles against a lot of different injustices. If you look back on all those decades, during which time you’ve been right about many things, what do you think is the main thing you’ve been wrong about?

RN: Oh, a lot of things. Nobody goes through these kinds of controversies without making bad predictions. I underestimated the power of corporations to crumble the countervailing force we call government. We always knew corporations like to have their adherents to become elected officials; that has been going on for a long time. But I never foresaw the insinuation of corporatism as a policy in one agency after another in government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt foresaw some of this when he sent a message to Congress when he started the temporary national economic commission to investigate consecrated corporate power. That was in 1938. In his message he said that whenever the government is controlled by private economic power, that’s facism. Now, there isn’t a department or agency in Washington where anyone has more power—over it and in it, through their appointees, and on Congress, through lobbyists and political action committees. Nobody comes close. There’s no organized force that comes close to the daily power to twist government in the favor of Wall Street and corporatism, and to disable government from adequately defending the health, safety and economic well-being of the American people.

TC: Let’s say we look at the U.S. corporate income tax. The rate on paper is 35 percent, which is quite high. When you look at how much they actually pay after various forms of maneuvering or evasion, maybe they pay 17–18 percent, which is more or less in the middle of the pack of OECD nations. So if corporations have so much political power in the United States, why is our corporate income tax still so high?

…Sweden, a country you cited favorably, taxes capital income much more lightly than the United States does—not just on paper but in terms of what’s actually paid.

I also ask him about the Flynn effect, whether America needs a new kind of sports participation, and how much American churches have resisted corruption through corporatization, among a variety of other topics.  I tried to avoid the predictable questions.

By the way, you can buy Nader’s new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.  I very much enjoyed my preparation for this interview, which involved reading or rereading a bunch of his books and also a few biographies of him.