*The Midas Paradox*

by on November 24, 2015 at 12:28 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

That is the forthcoming book by Scott Sumner, and the subtitle is Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression.  Here is one of Scott’s brief capsule descriptions of the book:

I will show that if we take the gold market seriously we can explain much more about the Great Depression than anyone had thought possible.  Three types of gold market shocks generated much of the variation shown in Table 1.1: changes in central bank demand for gold, private sector gold hoarding, and changes in the price of gold.  The remaining output shocks are linked to five wage shocks that resulted from the New Deal.  This is the first study to provide a comprehensive and detailed look at all high frequency macro shocks during the Great Depression.

I would stress that Scott devotes far more attention to asset price reactions than do many other studies of economic history; that is perhaps his main methodological innovation, in addition to the economics.

Scott also insists — correctly in my view — that the artificially engineered real wage increases of the New Deal were a true disaster.  This point is underemphasized in most competing accounts, or perhaps even actively denied by many Keynesians.  Yet the evidence here is overwhelming.

This is a very good book, one of the best on the economics of the Great Depression ever written.

Best non-fiction books of 2015

by on November 23, 2015 at 12:53 am in Books, Education | Permalink

These are in the order I read them, more or less, not in terms of preference.  And I would say this year had more good entries than ever before.  Here goes, noting that most of the links go to my earlier reviews of them:

First, here are the economics books:

Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect, by Joshua D. Angrist and Jörn Steffen-Pischke, technically late 2014 but it was too late to make that list.

Dani Rodrik, Economics Rules.

Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics.  Self-recommending.

Garett Jones, The Hive Mind.  Why national IQ matters.

Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox.  Boo to the gold standard during the Great Depression.

Greg Ip, Foolproof: Why Safety Can be Dangerous, and How Danger Makes Us Safe.

And the rest, more or less the non-economics books:

Robert Tombs, The English and Their History.

R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past.  The last section is brilliant on current Japanese politics.

Michael Meyer, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.  Adam Minter has a very good and useful review of a good book.

Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey.  Will improve your listening.

The Mahabarata, by Carole Satyamurti.  Rewritten and edited to be easier to digest, intelligible and rewarding.  As “an achievement,” this book does have some claim to be number one.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.  You can never read enough commentary on the Torah.

Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, North Korea Confidential, how things really work there (speculative), rain boots for instance are a fashion item and black markets are rife.

Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, a good general history of the country.

Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi.  He’s a very smart guy.

Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.  Goes deep into a place most people are ignoring.

Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People.  The Nordics, that is.

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth.  He succeeded in writing an original book about the Holocaust, which is hard to do.

Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie?  Background on France being screwed up.

Niall Ferguson, Henry Kissinger, vol. I.  Background on America being screwed up.

Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane.  How to talk, think, and write about the British countryside.

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.  The best of the various recent books on Humboldt.

Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan.  Background on a whole bunch of other places being screwed up.

Daniel P. Todes, Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science. I didn’t have time to read all of this book, but it seemed very good in the fifth or so I was able to read.  By the way, the whole salivating dog at the bell story is a fiction.

Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, readable and useful.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: At her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, vol.2 of the biography, 1984-1987.  This one I haven’t finished yet.  I ordered my copy advance from UK Amazon, it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until early January.  There is some chance this is the very best book of the year.

I don’t quite see a clear first prize.  If I had to pick, I would opt for a joint prize to the biographies of Musk, Kissinger, Thatcher, and Genghis Khan.  This was the year of the biography.

Sorry if I forgot yours, this list is imperfect in various ways!  And the year isn’t over yet, so I’ll post an update on the very good books I read between now and the end of the year, probably on December 31.

Best fiction of 2015

by on November 22, 2015 at 12:55 am in Books | Permalink

I thought it was a stellar year for fiction, even though most of the widely anticipated books by famous authors disappointed me.  These were my favorites, more or less in the order I read them, not in order of preference:

Michel Houellebecq, Soumission/Submission.  The correct reading is always a level deeper than the one you are currently at.

Larry Kramer, The American People.  Epic, reviewed a lot but then oddly overlooked in a crowded year.

The Seventh Day, by Yu Hua.  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.”

Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz, New World, “An innovative story of love, decapitation, cryogenics, and memory by two of our most creative literary minds.”

Vendela Vida, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty.  Fun without being trivial.

Elena Ferrante, volume four, The Story of the Lost Child.  See my various posts about her series here, one of the prime literary achievements of the last twenty years.

The Widower, by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed.  My favorite novel from Singapore.

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud.  I’ll teach it this coming year in Law and Literature.

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound.  It’s been called the Garcia Marquez of Indonesia, and it is one of the country’s classic novels, newly translated into English.  Here is a good NYT review.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti.  Okorafor is American but born to two Nigerian parents, this science fiction novella is creative and fun to read.  Ursula K. Le Guin likes her too.

Of those, Houllebecq and Ferrante are the must-reads, the others are all strong entries, with New World being perhaps the indulgence pick but indulgences are good, right?

And here are three other new books/editions/translations which I haven’t had any chance to spend time with, but come as self-recommending:

The Poems of T.S. Eliot, volume 1 and volume 2, annotated.  Rave reviews for those.

Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Dennis Washburn.

Homer’s Iliad, translated by Peter Green.  Also gets rave reviews.

*The Iran-Iraq War*

by on November 21, 2015 at 3:03 pm in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink

Oddly this war isn’t discussed much any more, even though it is arguably the breakthrough event for the ongoing collapse of parts of the Middle East.  And by many metrics it was the worst and most brutal war since WWII, with the Congo clashes in the running too.

I found Pierre Razoux’s The Iran-Iraq War to be a highly readable and useful account, translated from the French, Harvard Belknap Press.  I can’t judge the details of the substance, but I never had the feeling it was overreaching or implausible.  Here is one quick excerpt, of relevance to contemporary events:

For his part, Hafez al-Assad saw Saddam Hussein as an even more ruthless rival now that he supported the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.  The moment hostilities broke out between Iran and Iraq,Assad decided to provide military assistance to Teheran…Syria also provided Iran with numerous pharmaceutical and food products and allowed it to deploy several hundred Pasdaran in London.  This gave Irana foothold in the land of the Cedar, allowing it access to the Mediterranean and an opportunity tighten its grip on the Lebanese Shiite community.


From the ubiquity of media reference to them, one might suppose that Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot were the only actors of consequence on the Ottoman theater in the First World War, and Britain and France the only relevant parties to the disposition of Ottoman territory, reaching agreement on the subject in (so Google or Wikipedia informs us) anno domini 1916…

It is a seductive story, simple,compact, elegant, and easy to understand.  But the Claude Rains summary of Sykes-Picot bears little resemblance to the history on which it is ostensibly based.  The partition of the Ottoman Empire was not settled bilaterally by two British and French diplomats in 1916, but rather at a multinational peace conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1923, following a conflict that had lasted nearly twelve years going back to the Italian invasion of Ottoman Tripoli (Libya) in 1911 and the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13.  Neither Sykes nor Picot played any role worth mentioning at Lausanne, at which the dominant figure looming over the proceedings was Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish nationalist…Even in 1916, the year ostensibly defined for the ages by their secret partition agreement, Sykes and Picot played second and third fiddle, respectively, to a Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, who was the real driving force behind the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, a Russian project par excellence, and recognized as such by the British and French when they were first asked to sign off on Russian partition plans as early as March-April 1915.

That is from the new and interesting The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, by Sean McMeekin.

Here is a NYRoB Malise Ruthven piece on Sykes-Picot.

Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare

by on November 16, 2015 at 12:12 am in Books, History, The Arts | Permalink

From the Diaries, April 13th, 1930:

I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing.  When my mind is agape and red-hot.  Then it is astonishing.  I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.  Even the less known plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.  Look at this.  “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.”  (That is a pure accident.  I happen to light on it.)  Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; and, relaxing, let fall a shower of such unregarded flowers.  Why then should anyone else attempt to write?  This is not “writing” at all.  Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

By the way, she notes that Keynes’s favorite novel of hers was The Years, which he preferred over the harder to understand The Waves.

I am only on p.90 but I will be reading this one all the way through.  Here is one excerpt from the opening bits:

The following morning, Mrs Thatcher met Deng Xiaoping.  Those present at the meeting were conscious of an air of unease and of two formidable individuals confronting one another.  ‘They were mirror images,’ recalled Percy Cradock.  Robin Butler remembered ‘a great diatribe’ by Deng, with Mrs Thatcher being ‘pretty equally aggressive.’  Deng started hawking, and expectorating into the spittoon which was uncomfortably near to her; ‘She moved her legs. It threw her.’

The book covers 1982 to 1987, the peak of Thatcher’s power and influence.  Here is a rave review from Bruce Anderson, very much deserved.  I am very glad I paid the extra shipping fee from, you also might try ordering it here at elevated prices, very much worth it, one of the books of the year.

Glasgow fact of the day

by on November 11, 2015 at 2:07 am in Books, Data Source, Medicine | Permalink

For 1998-2002, male life expectancy in the Calton district of Glasgow was fifty-four.

For those same years, male life expectancy in the well-off district of Lenzie, Glasgow was eighty-two, a rather large gap.

For purposes of contrast, by the way, at that time average life expectancy for men in India was sixty-two, eight years longer than for Calton.

That is all from Michael Marmot, The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World, pp.24-25.

Stuff I’ve been reading, or not

by on November 10, 2015 at 12:43 am in Books | Permalink

The Pavlov biography and volume two of Moore on Thatcher — both superb — having been taking a lot of my reading time, so you should not take my limited attention for some of these books as a mark against them.

James A. Harris, Hume: An Intellectual Biography.  I quite liked and admired the parts I read, my main hesitation is that such books have to compete against…reading Hume himself.  In any case many commentators seem to consider this the definitive study.  If you think maybe you should read this, you should.

Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void.  He is the author of the novel Skippy Dies, which has a strong cult following, this one.  Australian, snarky, deals with a financial crisis.

Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.  As Chris Blattman wrote, a very good book.  In China, never underestimate the role of The Party.

Louise O. Fresco, Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat.  A  pro-capitalist, pro-globalization, pro-technology food book, or so it seems.  I am eager to spend more time with this one.

Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.  How to turn uncertainty and ambiguity to your advantage as a thinker, I kind of enjoyed it.

Riad Sattouf, The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984.  A graphic novel set in Libya, Syria, and France, very moving and effective.

The new Umberto Eco novel, Numero Zero, didn’t do much for me.

That is the new book by Daniel P. Todes, the first sentence is:

Contrary to legend, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) never trained a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell.  In over three decades of research and tens of thousands of experimental trials, he and his coworkers used a bell only in rare, unimportant circumstances.  Indeed, the iconic bell would have proven totally useless to his real goal, which required precise control over the quality and duration of stimuli (he most frequently employed a metronome, a harmonium, a buzzer, and electrical shock).

Nor was Pavlov a behaviorist, to address another common misconception.

This superb book — one of the year’s best — is 731 pages of original material on Russia, Russian communism, Russian science, and of course the life of Pavlov.  The TLS Stephen Lovell review of the book had a good line: “Controls were unthinkable: all the dogs were individuals.”

Overkill for some, recommended for many.

The Amazon bookstore (hi, future!)

by on November 5, 2015 at 10:21 am in Books, Web/Tech | Permalink

Every book is tagged with a custom label featuring its aggregate rating on, along with a review from the website. There are no prices. To get a book’s price, you must use the Amazon app on your smartphone to scan the barcode. This act will provide you with the product listing, all the title’s reviews on, and the price. If you don’t have a smartphone or the app handy, associates are on hand to assist.

An associate at the store also confirmed what many news reports about Amazon Books have stated, that the store only stocks books with ratings of four stars and above [TC: is this really wise?]. The associate also confirmed that prices for books in the store are identical to those of the books sold online. And, since book prices on can fluctuate regularly, so can prices in the store. The associate said one thing they are vigilant about in the store is ensuring customers don’t get confused by receiving different price quotes at different times.

The store, which aims to seamlessly transition the online shopping experience to a real world scenario, allows you to use credits associated with your account at the register. However, you cannot order merchandise online and have it delivered to the store.

There is more here, interesting throughout, via M.  Can anyone from Seattle report on this?

Here is the Stanford report of his passing, well done, and here are previous MR mentions of Girard.  He was one of the world’s great thinkers.

I am very excited to report that next week will see the publication of Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, by my colleague Garrett Jones, with Stanford University Press.  This will go down as one of the social science books of the year.

Here is Garett’s opening paragraph:

This isn’t a book about how to raise IQ: it’s a book about the benefits of raising IQ. And a higher IQ helps in ways you might not have realized: on average, people who do better on standardized tests are more patient, are more cooperative, and have better memories. But while dozens of studies by psychologists and economists have established these links, few researchers have connected the dots to ask what this means for entire nations. And since average test scores vary across nations—whether we’re talking about math tests, literacy tests, or IQ tests—an overall rise in national test scores likely means a rise in the number of more patient, more cooperative, and better-informed citizens. This in turn means that higher national test scores will probably matter in ways too big to ignore. And if education researchers and public health officials can find reliable ways to raise national test scores, productivity and prosperity will rise where poverty and disease now flourish.

Here is chapter one, here are Garett’s chapter summaries.  Here is Garett’s home page.  On Twitter, here you will find The Wisdom of Garett Jones.

At 9:30 Tuesday morning, the online retail giant will open its first-ever brick-and-mortar retail store in its 20-year life in University Village.

The store, called Amazon Books, looks a lot like bookstores that populate malls across the country. Its wood shelves are stocked with 5,000 to 6,000 titles, best-sellers as well as customer favorites.

Here is more, via M.

What I’ve been reading

by on October 29, 2015 at 6:37 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. C.E. Cubitt, A Life of Friedrich August von Hayek.  How come you don’t hear of this book more often?  It is an extensive, rambling meditation on Hayek’s last years, full of anecdotes about Hayek’s medical ailments, arguments with his wife, and which groups he did not like.  It is also short on any kind of formal documentation.  But what could be more of a document than this book itself?  Self-published by Hayek’s last private secretary, it seems too detailed and too strange to be entirely made up.  You can pull out a random sentence and get something like “He [Hayek] liked women, he told me, providing they were not hirsute and did not offend his sensitive nose, and on one occasion even told me that he was “a little in love” with one of the waitresses in the Colombi Hotel.”  Or we read that Hayek was obsessed with euthanasia, and in his last years carried around a razor blade in case it might be needed on short notice.  It’s like absorbing a Thomas Bernhardt novel without the literary skill but with real stakes in the history of ideas.  Ultimately I found this one unreadable, though it is consistent with my view that intellectual history is first and foremost a matter of biography.  And what about the biography of Charlotte Cubitt herself?  That is the real mystery here.

2. Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.  I loved this book and found every page gripping, it is hard to see how it could be better than it is.  One of the best books of last year, it turns out.

The new novels by Orhan Pamuk and David Mitchell appear to be serious efforts, but so far neither one is grabbing me.