Books

The Crimean War, which it lost, and resistance to its great-power pretensions at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, drove the Tsarist Empire to look farther eastward.  Siberia acquired a new luster in official propaganda and the national imagination, and a major scientific effort was made to “appropriate” it.  Great tasks seemed to lie ahead for this redeployment of national forces.  The conviction that Russia was expanding into Asia as a representative of Western civilization — an idea that had originated in the first half of the century — was now turned in an anti-Western direction by currents inside the country.  Theorists of Pan-Slavism or Eurasianism sought to create a new national of imperial identity and to convert Russia’s geographical position as a bridge between Europe and Asia into a spiritual advantage.  The Pan-Slavists, unlike the milder, Romantically introverted Slavophiles of the previous generation, did not shrink from a more aggressive foreign policy and the associated risks of tension with Western European powers.  That was one tendency.  But after the 1860s, after the Crimean War, also witnessed the strengthening of the “Westernizers,” who made some gains in their efforts to make Russia a “normal” and, by the standards of the day, successful European country.  Reforms introduced by Alexander II seemed to restore this link with “the civilized world.” But the ambiguity between the “search for Europe” and the “flight from Europe” was never dissolved.

That is from the just-published The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.  Here is my previous post on the book.

Here is Bryan Caplan “You Don’t Know the Best Way to Deal with Russia.”  Here is a short piece on how much sympathy some Germans have for the Russians.

*The Transformation of the World*

by on March 31, 2014 at 9:35 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

The author is Jürgen Osterhammel and the subtitle is A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.  The book’s home page is here.  Piketty’s tome is French and this one is…um…German.  Very German.  Translated from the German.  Imagine a 1165 pp. German Braudel-like take on the importance of the 19th century and here you go.

I was expecting a review copy but I saw a bookstore which put it out prematurely and so I spent $40 to give you all advance notice and read it sooner myself.  That is an endorsement of sorts, but also a confession of my own weak discipline.

So far I am on p.44 and I plan to continue.  I learned for instance that:

In continental Europe, Norway was the first country to have a free press (from 1814); Belgium and Switzerland joined it around 1830, and Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands by 1848.

My final verdict is not yet in, but I suppose the bottom line is that I expect to have a final verdict.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.

This was mentioned by Jason Kottke on Twitter.

What I’ve been reading

by on March 30, 2014 at 3:27 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

The new Simon Schama book on the history of the Jews did not grab my attention, nor did the new short (derivative) novel by David Grossman.  Possibly the latter is better in the original Hebrew, given how much poetry it contains.  The new Siri Hustved book also didn’t thrill me.

The Rough Guide to Economics, by Andrew Mell and Oliver Walker, is another attempt to thread the needle between popular econ book and text.  I would have wished for a more dramatic and intuitive treatment of a) core microeconomic reasoning in the old Chicago/UCLA style, and b) a far greater and more central place for the truly dramatic importance of economic growth in boosting human welfare.

John Drury, The Life and Poetry of George Herbert is a beautiful treasure and it will make my best books of the year list.  Here is Herbert’s best poem.

Mai Jia’s Decoded: A Novel was a bestseller in China, and so far I am finding it compelling, and most other readers seem to agree.

Arrived in my pile are:

Cass Sunstein, Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas.

Romain D. Huret, American Tax Resisters.

Peter H. Schuck, Why Goverment Fails So Often, And How It Can Do Better.

Matt Grossman, Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change Since 1945.  And a related blog post Do policymakers ignore voter agendas and priorities?, by Matt.

That is the new book by Robert D. Kaplan, and the subtitle is The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.  Since this is possibly the most important topic in the world right now, you should read this book.  Here is one interesting excerpt of many:

According to Yale professor of management and political science Paul Bracken, China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an “anti-navy” navy, designed to push U.S. sea and air forces away from the East Asian coastline.  Chinese drones putting lasers on U.S. warships, sonar pings from Chinese submarines, the noisy activation of Chinese smart mines, and so on are all designed to signal to American warships that Beijing knows about their movements and the United States risks a crisis if such warships get closer to Chinese waters.  Because “relations with China are too important to jeopardize with a military confrontation,” this anti-access strategy has a significant political effect on Washington.  “The strategic impact of China’s agility is not so much to tilt the military balance in its direction and away from the United States.  Rather,” bracken goes on, “it introduces new risks into the American decision-making calculus.”

Some chapters of this book are deeper and better thought out than others, but still it is definitely worth reading.

The Frederick Taylor book is The Downfall of Money: Germany’s hyperinflation and the destruction of the middle class, and Martin’s is Money: The Unauthorised Biography.

On Taylor I wrote:

It’s about time we heard the classic Weimar hyperinflation story from the side of governance, just as it is indeed illuminating to reread Hamlet while omitting the parts about the Prince.

Taylor has oddly little on monetary policy in his book, even though he clearly understands the core issues.  On Martin’s book I wrote:

Like Taylor’s work, this is an excellent book to read, full of interesting history and insight, and very clear and well written.  It is an overview of the history of money, and thought about money, yet through a more philosophical lens than is usually the case.  It is not clear, however, if the central thesis of the book is either correct or relevant.

Martin tends to trace financial crises to the defects in underlying philosophies of money, such as whether money is viewed as a thing or as a sign.  I also wrote this about the book:

Yet, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a financial crisis is just a financial crisis.

If you click on the top link here and register for a trial period, you can read the review.

*Nature’s Oracle*

by on March 22, 2014 at 6:11 am in Books, Science | Permalink

The author is Ullica Segerstrale and the subtitle of this excellent and fascinating book is The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton.  Here is one bit:

She had decided to break up with him.  The reason for this…was Bill’s strange idea of marriage.  Bill had told her that they should have no more than two children, of which one child would be his and another her child with another man.  His girlfriend thought about this and realized she could not agree.  She also wondered what lay behind this suggestion.  (She probably did not recognize Bill’s experimental scenario as coming straight out of some book like Out of the Night.)

This book has many excellent lines, including:

There is a famous New Zealand expression: “Anything can be fixed with a number 8 wire.”

And:

Who carries around cyanide?

Robert Trivers makes numerous cameos as well.

The subtitle is The Myth of Benjamin Strong as Decisive Leader.  Here is a summary from the book’s back cover:

Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression challenges Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s now-consensus view that the high tide of the Federal Reserve System in the 1920s was due to the leadership skills of Benjamin Strong, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In this new work, Toma develops a self-regulated model of the Federal Reserve, which stands in contrast to a conventional discretionary model. Given the easy redemption of dollars for gold and the competition among Reserve banks, the self-regulated model implies that the early Fed could control neither the money supply nor the price level. Exploiting an untapped data set, later chapters test the thesis of self-regulation by focusing on the monetary decisions of individual Reserve banks.

The micro-based evidence indicates that “Reserve banks really did compete” – and that Benjamin Strong as decisive leader during the 1920s is a myth. This finding, with its emphasis on monetary policy in the years leading up to the Great Depression, will be of interest to scholars, students, and sophisticated lay readers with an interest in macroeconomic and monetary economic policy issues, specifically to those with an interest in economic history.

I have not read it yet, but it is sure to be controversial.

*Water 4.0*

by on March 18, 2014 at 7:38 am in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new book by David Sedlak and the subtitle is The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource.  I found this consistently interesting, going well beyond the usual anecdotes one finds in the other general “history of water” books.  Here is one bit about Japanese water relations being Coasean in earlier times:

In Japan, human wastes were separated prior to recycling.  Fecal matter was the more valuable commodity, because solids were easier to transport.  In the first stage of the recycling process, landlords sold the feces in their tenants’ cesspools to merchants who were members of a guild that had secured the right to collect the wastes from that part of the city.  The wastes were so valuable that the rent of an apartment would increase if the number of people living in the house, and hence the amount of solid waste produced, decreased.  When it came time to renegotiate the price for the wastes, the guilds sometimes fought with each other for the rights to buy the increasingly valuable fertilizer.

Urine — the less prized waste — was still a marketable commodity.  Because of its lower value, tenants, who owned the rights to their urine, sold it to a group of merchants who were not part of the fecal waste guild.

That discussion, by the way, is drawing upon this S.B. Hanley piece.

Recommended.

*The Once and Future King*

by on March 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm in Books, Law, Political Science | Permalink

The author is my colleague F.H. Buckley and the subtitle is The Rise of Crown Government in America.  I am very enthusiastic about this book, which is a comparative study of American and Canadian systems of government with respect to the abilities to produce varying degrees of tyranny, in the former case mostly through the executive branch.  Buckley is himself from Canada and overall favors that system of government.  Here are two excerpts:

That was why McGee and the other Fathers thought Canada the freest country in the world.  When they looked south, they saw a country with more of Constant’s liberty of the ancients, but with less (so it seemed to them) of the liberty of the moderns.  Moreoever, of the former, the right of self-government had been corrupted by political machines and trivialized by elections for dogcatchers.  The high ideals of the American Founders had been forgotten, and McGee thought that their republican virtue, in the era of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, was now little more than American braggadocio.

And:

Presidential regimes are more likely than parliamentary ones to turn into dictatorships, and to rank lower on measures of public corruption.  Thus far we have examined two explanations for this: The president is the head of state and symbol of the nation; and he is relatively immunized from accountability to the legislature.  We now turn to a third possible explanation: The separation of powers creates inefficiencies in government that invite the president to step in and correct, and in so doing, to augment his powers and independence from congressional oversight.

I would argue that, for better or worse, a big part of the differences is driven, not only by constitutions but also by the much more active foreign policy of the United States.  I wonder what a true parliamentary discussion of nuclear weapons use would look like.

…companies have introduced “Knausgaard-free days” in order to keep people’s minds on work.

By Adrian Wooldridge, a longer Economist profile of Knausgaard is here.

That is the new book by Daniel Hannan and the subtitle is How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.

Oh how one can mock those subtitles about the making of the modern world, heh heh!  Yet this subtitle has a plausible claim to be…true.  Even more shockingly, the subtitle accurately describes the book.

Every time my plane lands in England I shed at least a tear, maybe more, out of realization that I am visiting a birthplace (the birthplace?) of liberty.  This is not a joke and during my trips there I never quite snap out of that feeling, though I am also well aware of all the problems those people have foisted upon the world as well.

I found many parts of this book to be superficial, or perhaps well-known.  Yet often they were superficial and…true.  Here is one excerpt:

To put it another way, the distinction was not between Catholic and Protestant individuals, but between Catholic and Protestant states.

Here is from an Amazon review:

Author Daniel Hannan is a person of English ancestry who was born and raised in Peru then relocated to the United Kingdom as an adult and made a career in politics, including becoming one of the U.K.’s representatives to the European Parliament. His global experience has shown him how unique is our “Anglosphere” heritage of representative democracy, protection of property rights, the sanctity of law, and the inalienable rights of the individual.

This is in some ways an important book, though I do not think it is a book which will satisfy everybody.

For the pointer I thank Daniel Klein.

That is the new forthcoming Charles Murray book and the subtitle is Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

Murray by the way just published a review of Average is Over in the latest Claremont Review of Books which I enjoyed very much.  It is not yet on-line but cited here.

For the pointer I thank Alex.

The subtitle of his book is Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I am finding this book interesting, here is one good bit:

The call for a greater Syria reflected the prevailing sentiment among Palestine’s Arab intellectuals.  Some notables who were active in the Muslim-Christian Associations wanted an Arab Palestine within the British Empire, but many of the activists and intellectuals, inspired by Faisal’s success, envisaged Palestine as “Southern Syria.”

…There was a good geographical as well as political argument for greater Syria.  As subsequent events would reveal, Palestine lacked natural boundaries, especially in the north and south.  There were looming disputes over water rights that could be avoided by combining Palestine and Syria.

…The British, fearful that the movement for a greater Syria would undercut their hold over Palestine, encouraged Palestine’s Arabs to think of themselves as Palestinian.

Overall the text offers a strongly non-sentimental account, does not whitewash any of the participants in the disputes, and it communicates how much early American policymakers , including Truman, were skeptical about what ended up happening.  Today’s often-unquestioned assumptions were very often historically quite contingent.  You can buy the book here.

*Massacre in Malaya*

by on March 10, 2014 at 2:38 am in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

The author is Christopher Hale and the subtitle is the rather misleading Exposing Britain’s My Lai.

The first fifth of this book is in fact the best short early economic history of Malaysia and Singapore I know, even though the focus of the book as a whole is on one colonial event, namely the 1948 Batang Kali massacre during the post-war Malayan Emergency.  The next section is a superb treatment of the Japanese occupation and the political issues leading up to that occupation.  This book reflects a common principle, namely that often, to learn a topic, you should read a book on an adjacent but related topic, rather than pursue your preferred topic directly.  The book on the adjacent topic often will take less background knowledge for granted and explain the context more clearly for what you actually wish to learn, while getting you interested in other topics along the way.

Just about every page of this book has useful and interesting information, here is one new word I learned:

The history of the ‘Malay World’ in the centuries before the momentous fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 is predominantly a convoluted narrative of maritime statelets, technically thalassocracies.

This one will make my best non-fiction of the year list.