So many books on China recycle the same stories and historical anecdotes, but this one tells the story from the point of view of economic history.  It is scholarly yet readable, interesting throughout but best in the first half, runs up through contemporary times, and does not have too much overlap with any other China book.  Here is one excerpt:

The urban entrepreneurial elite in eighteenth-century England benefited from absolute and unconditional support from the state, which shielded them against resistance from below.  This support was justified by the increasingly dominant ideology of classical political economy…The dominance of this ideology can be understood against the backdrop of Europe’s interstate conflict that urged state makers to ally with capital in building up its military capacity…The entrepreneurial elite in eighteenth-century China, in contrast, enjoyed only relative and conditional support from the state.  It is true that the Qing state elite never saw the mercantile elite as their antinomies and were diligent in facilitating their business and helping them secure their property rights in merchant-merchant or merchant-official disputes…But when it came to managing conflict between entrepreneurial profits and subsistence of the poor, the state elite often favored the latter at the expense of the former.

File under capitalist oppression is underrated.

Definitely recommended, you can buy the book here.

*The Midas Paradox*

by on October 27, 2015 at 2:27 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The author is Scott Sumner and the subtitle is Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression.  Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Economic historians have made great progress in unraveling the causes of the Great Depression, but not until Scott Sumner came along has anyone explained the multitude of twists and turns the economy took. In The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression, Sumner offers his magnum opus—the first book to comprehensively explain both monetary and non-monetary causes of that cataclysm.

Drawing on financial market data and contemporaneous news stories, Sumner shows that the Great Depression is ultimately a story of incredibly bad policymaking—by central bankers, legislators, and two presidents—especially mistakes related to monetary policy and wage rates. He also shows that macroeconomic thought has long been captive to a false narrative that continues to misguide policymakers in their quixotic quest to promote robust and sustainable economic growth.


The culture that is French

by on October 25, 2015 at 2:53 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

The innovation-friendly Green party mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, has ordered eight vending machines to be placed in the heart of the city that will dispense literary short stories to pedestrians for free at the push of a button.

The big orange terminals have three options – stories of 1, 3 or 5 minutes – that are printed out on thin recycled paper reminiscent of a lengthy shopping bill and can be tucked into a wallet.

“The idea came to us in front of a vending machine containing chocolate bars and drinks. We said to ourselves that we could do the same thing with good quality popular literature to occupy these little unproductive moments,” Christophe Sibieude, a digital publisher who pitched the idea to the city council, told AFP.

There is more here, via Ted Gioia.


What should we infer about how terrible it is to work there?

That is from @JanDawson.

The subtitle is The Man Who Conquered the World, and this is one of the very best non-fiction books of the year, quite possibly the best.  Virtually every page is fascinating and should be read carefully.  It makes intelligible a period of history which is so often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader,and rather than just throwing a bunch of dates and facts at you it tries to make them intelligible in terms of underlying mechanisms.  Here is one summary bit:

The harshness of the Mongolian habitat and the complexities of nomadic pastoralism help to explain the many potentialities of Mongol society eventually actualised by Genghis Khan.  Care of massive and variegated herds and flocks produced a number of consequences: adaptability and ingenuity of response and initiative; mobility and the capacity for rapid mobilisation; low levels of wealth and of economic inequality; almost total absence of a division of labour; political instability.  Migration meant constant alertness and readiness to fight, since wealth in livestock is almost by definition highly vulnerable to raiding, reiving and rustling. Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops, so the very nature of pastoral life produced a hardier breed than would be generated by the peasantry.  Migration in peacetime also produced martial qualities via the surplus energy available for fighting, since in a pacific context warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.  when the fighting came, it was less destructive than for sedentary societies that had to defend fields of crops, cities, temples and other fixed points.

There were other military ‘spin-offs’ from pastoralism.  Moving huge herds of animals generated logistical skills and the capacity to navigate through uncertain terrain, coordinating with far-flung comrades while doing so.

Strongly recommended, you can buy the book here.

What I’ve been pawing through

by on October 24, 2015 at 1:11 pm in Books | Permalink

Roger Lowenstein’s America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve covers a poorly understood topic.

Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island is nicely done but didn’t inspire me.  It’s already out in the UK.

Also arrived is Eric Rauchway, The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace.  I haven’t read it but Eric is always smart.

Jim Baggott, Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation (both life and the universe) trods a familiar path but does it much better than most, recommended.

Casey Mulligan, Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health Care Reform.

Romanian publish or perish

by on October 24, 2015 at 12:36 am in Books, Law | Permalink

A change in the law in 2013 allows convicts to claim 30 days off their sentences for every work they publish while in prison. This has led Romanian tycoons and politicians imprisoned on corruption charges to indulge in a frenzy of scribbling. It is a system as corrupt as they are.

…Manuscripts must be written with pen and paper. According to Romanian journalists, wealthy prisoners generally hire outside academics as “research supervisors”. They, or other ghostwriters, do the actual writing; the work is then smuggled into jail, where the prisoner copies it out by hand. A publisher is paid to print a few copies, which are presented to the parole board, which (with no guidelines or expertise) judges whether it is worthy of a reduced sentence.

Most of the work has met with derision. Mr Copos, who wrote about the matrimonial alliances of medieval Romanian rulers, was accused of plagiarism. Mr Becali produced a picture-heavy book about his relationship with Steaua Bucharest, the football team which he controls. Realini Lupsa, a pop singer, wrote about stem cells in dental medicine. No one knows how many people have taken advantage of the system. One recent report put the figure at 73, with some prisoners producing up to five books in only a few months.

The story is here, via @DoubleEph.

The title says it all.  That is the new book by Shane Greenstein of Harvard Business School, the subtitle is Innovation, Privatization, and the Birth of a New Network.  This extensive history is the best counter I know to the view that the internet as we know it was most of all a government project.  Definitely recommended.

That new book has the subtitle Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped.  In addition to its critique of Putin, there is a good deal of political economy in this book, including some hypotheses which are worthy of further investigation.  For instance:

Unfortunately, Putin, like other modern autocrats, had, and still has, an advantage the Soviet leadership could never have dreamed of: deep economic and political engagement with the free world.  Decades of trade have created tremendous wealth that dictatorships like Russia and China have used to build sophisticated authoritarian infrastructures inside the country and to apply pressure in foreign policy.  The naive idea was that the free world would use economic and social ties to gradually liberalize authoritarian states.  in practice, the authoritarian states have abused this access and economic interdependency to spread their corruption and fuel repression at home.

And this:

It is no coincidence that right-wing autocracies have a much better track record of emerging from political repression and achieving democratic and economic success.  Chile, Portugal, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan — their regimes were about power for the sake of power, without a deeper ideology.  When their regimes fell, with elections in most cases, the roots, the human values of individual freedom, were still healthy enough to flourish.

It is easy enough to criticize Kasparov for being “too hawkish,” but the reality is that virtually all of his earlier predictions about Putin and Russia have come true, including ones which I have heard but he may not have published directly.


*The Peregrine*

by on October 20, 2015 at 11:01 am in Books, Science | Permalink

That is a classic and beautifully written nature book by J.A. Baker, here is my favorite passage:

The peregrine swoops down towards his prey.  As he descends, his legs are extended forward till the feet are underneath his breast.  The toes are clenched, with the long hind toe projecting below the three front ones, which are bent up out of the way.  He passes close to the bird, almost touching it with his body, and still moving very fast.  His extended hind toe (or toes — sometimes one, sometimes both) gashes into the back or breast of the bird, like a knife.  At the moment of impact the hawk raises his wings above his back.  If the prey is cleanly hit — and it is usually hit hard or missed altogether — it dies at once, either from shock or from the perforation of some vital organ.  A peregrine weights between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 lbs.; such a weight, falling from a hundred feet, will kill all but the largest birds.

Here is my earlier essay “Policing Nature.”

American University professor Thomas Merrill writes:

Hume’s message to the “honest gentlemen” is therefore something like this: “you may not understand this curious character the philosopher; you may think him flaky and unhinged; but if you care about establishing a regime dedicated to individual liberty, you need him around. You need not model your life on his; in fact it is better if you do not. But you need to tolerate him and even be open to being guided by him. Especially do you need to heed his negative message of calling into question the political claims advanced by the various forms of superstition on the basis of alleged insights into the ‘original and ultimate principle.’ Think of the philosopher as you might a garbage man: you might not want to do the job yourself, but it is very useful to society that someone does it.”

That is from Merrill’s Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment, and the passage was sent to me by Daniel Klein, who describes the book as “new and highly recommended.”

What I’ve been reading

by on October 18, 2015 at 6:58 am in Books | Permalink

1. Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.  Haven’t I read too many recent books about him already?  Well, this is the best one and will make my “best of the year” list.  Now if we could only have a renaissance of interest in his brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt…

2. James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.  What was the political and social setting in which Lear was composed?  Recommended, substantive throughout with hardly a wasted page.

3. Pallavi Aiyar, New Old World: An Indian Journalist Discovers the Changing Face of Europe.  I’ve been waiting for a book like this to be written, and now it exists.  It’s fun, and full of good humor.

4. 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.

The author is Tonio Andrade, and the subtitle is China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History.  This is an excellent book, full of history, science, and political economy, think of it as a parallel history of the evolution of guns across China and Europe, with an eye toward explaining larger state structures.  Some of the things I learned or learned in a new way were:

1. The “competing states” argument for the rise of Europe is in some ways overvalued, as it neglects some critical time periods of competition across states in Chinese history.

2. Walls and guns co-evolved, in both China and Europe.  And in earlier times, China had much bigger and stronger walls.  That may have lowered the rate of return on investing in guns.

3. By 1510 or 1520, European guns already were better than Chinese guns.  But through the following centuries, the Chinese were more aware of the need to catch up than is often realized.

4. Guns and gunpowder co-evolved, and when it comes to gunpowder some historians argue Europe had a second-mover advantage.  Yet the exact source of European superiority in this regard is murky.

5. Korea developed one of the most effective musket-based armies of the seventeenth century.

6. The British development of “cylinder powder” in the late eighteenth century was a major advance over Chinese techniques at the time, and represented a final and decisive relative advance for the West.

Recommended, due out in January.

Here is Martin Sandbu of the FT in his new book Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt on that topic:

In an integrated regional economy like Europe’s, it is improbable that every country is able to offer just the right investment opportunities to match the country’s own savings.  Countries that want to save more than they invest need to find a productive outlet for their savings.  Countries that can productively invest more than they are willing or able to save must find funds from the outside.  And so long as the fund that flow across borders are invested well, such flows can benefit lenders and borrowers alike.  Indeed, large asymmetries are not only compatible with efficient economic development but they can be vital for making it happen: Norway’s current account deficit reached 14 per cent of GDP in the late 1970s, but the capital is imported enabled it to build up one of the world’s largest oil industries.

I do not agree with all of Sandbu’s extended apologia for the euro, but this is nonetheless a highly intelligent, thought provoking book, to be read by anyone who follows contemporary macroeconomic policy.  Another point he makes is that the euro didn’t actually cause so many countries to give up the option of debt monetization, given they would have ended up borrowing in foreign hard currencies in any case.

*The Invention of Science*

by on October 16, 2015 at 12:36 am in Books, Education, History, Medicine, Science | Permalink

That is the new, magisterial and explicitly Whiggish book by David Wootton, with the subtitle A New History of Scientific Revolution.

I wish there were a single word for the designator “deep, clear, and quite well written, though it will not snag the attention of the casual reader of popular science books because it requires knowledge of the extant literature on the history of science.”  Here is one excerpt, less specific than most of the book:

My argument so far is that the seventeenth-century mathematization of the world was long in preparation.  Perspective painting, ballistics and fortification, cartography and navigation prepared the ground for Galileo, Descartes and Newton.  The new metaphysics of the seventeenth century, which treated space as abstract and infinite, and location and movement as relative, was grounded in the new mathematical sciences of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and if we want to trace the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution we will need to go back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to double-entry bookkeeping, to Alberti and Regiomontanus.  The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers.

769 pp., recommended — for some of you.

I had to order my copy from UK, in the US it comes out in December and can be pre-ordered.