Books

War dissolves customs

by on November 9, 2017 at 4:39 am in Books, History, Religion, Uncategorized | Permalink

…the role of wars in dealing the coup de grace to lingering customs is quite remarkable.  Contemporary observers noted this development without comment or simply attributed it directly to the catastrophe.  But war was less a cause of change than a precipitant of changes already under way.  Edgar Morin makes precisely this point when he writes that in the parish of Plodémet “the war of 1914 accelerated and amplified most of the processes set off in 1880-1900.”  Like the Great Revolution in peasant parlance, the Great War became a symbolic dividing line between what once was and what is, so that informants in a survey used terms like jadis and avant de guerre interchangeably.  Yet wars are not watersheds for customs, but difficult times in which people are forced to focus on essential matters and come to see things differently.  Many festive customs were not necessarily suspended by the Great War.  In the countryside, mourning was almost as universal as hardship; two years for parents, one for siblings.  There were few pigs to slaughter, no festive family meals, no public festivities.  And after the war there was the great influenza epidemic.  By 1919 the old customs were no longer part of people’s lives.  Some were restored to their prewar prominence, but many were quietly forgotten.

That is from Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.

The state flown over the most actually is…Virginia.

Next in line are Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

In part this is because so many flights from the very busy Atlanta airport cross Virginia.  Yet the airport with the most flights above Virginia is Toronto, including most of its flights to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Other than Hawaii, the least flown over state is — surprise — California.  Hawaii is also the “most flown under” state, if you look at the opposite point on the globe.  Most of the continental U.S. “opposites” into obscure parts of the Indian Ocean, but Hawaii opposites into Botswana.

That is all from Randall Munroe’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd and Hypothetical Questions.

Due to popular demand, we are releasing a transcript of the Conversation with Lindsey and Teles.

We talk about liberaltarianism, how bad is crony capitalism really, whether government affects the distribution of wealth much, universities as part of the problem, whether IP law is too lax or too tough, why Steve didn’t do better in high school, the British system of government, Charles Murray, the Federalist Society, Karl Marx, Thailand, the Coase Theorem, and Star Trek, among other topics.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: What’s the most important idea in the book that you understand better than he [Brink Lindsey] does?

TELES: Well, so there is a division of labor here. Brink did a lot more work on the cases than I did, although we talked about them all and I did a lot more work on the political analysis. We draw a lot on great, really seminal article by Rick Hall at University of Michigan called “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” And I think that idea is dramatically under appreciated. The idea that what lobbyists are essentially doing is providing information, that information is scarce, it is a source of power. And one thing that we add is, if the state isn’t providing information itself, it essentially has to get it from outside. And when they get it from outside, it imports the overall inequality and information gathering and processing that’s in civil society. And that can be a very strong source of inequality in policy outcomes. I think Brink understands that, but this is my wheelhouse so I think probably if you were gonna push me, I’d say I understood it better that he did.

And this:

LINDSEY: One can see the whole sort of second wave feminist movement since the 60s as an anti rent-seeking movement, that white men were accumulating a lot of rents because of the way society was structured, that they were the breadwinner and there was a sexual division of labor, and they received higher pay than they would have otherwise because they were assumed to be the breadwinner, and women were just sort of kept out of the workforce in direct competition with men in many roles. The last half century has been an ongoing anti rent-seeking campaign and the dissipation of those rents especially by less skilled white men has been a cause of a great deal of angst and frustration and political acting out in recent years.

Here is a link to the podcast version of the chat, plus further explanation of my interview method for the two.  Better yet, you can order their new book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.

What I’ve been reading

by on November 3, 2017 at 12:52 am in Books | Permalink

1. Andrea Dworkin, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant.  Published in 2002, this sure sounds like 2017.  Your mileage may vary, but it has a strong, unique voice and it looks more relevant than ever.  It reminds me of the in-your-face directness of Amiri Baraka, another underrated figure who ought to be rediscovered just about now.  If you are going to read only one Dworkin book, this is the one.

2. Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  This is a high quality work, as you might expect.  Still, I am numb from the oversupply of material on the Founding Fathers, and so I could read no more than a third of this one.  If only it had come out twenty years ago.

3. George William Van Cleve, We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.  The best book I’ve read on the Articles period, most of all a revision of Merrill Jensen.  Van Cleve details clearly and analytically why the Articles did a poor job on fiscal, trade, foreign policy, and Western settlement issues.

4. Augustine, Confessions, new translation by Sarah Ruden.  This is the most readable translation I have encountered.  While I cannot vouch for the accuracy, Ruden has very strong qualifications as a classical translator.

5. c n lester, Trans Like Me: a journey for all us.  A memoir of sorts, might this be the best introductory book on its topic?  It is already out in the UK, not until June in the US.

Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism, my blurb reads: “This is the best contemporary anthology introducing the reader to the basics of libertarianism.”

Joshua Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.  Covers African American bookstores, head shops, businesses in the women’s movement, and natural foods stores, a good revision of Milton Friedman on the social responsibility of business.

What if you had a closed, isolated society of 100 people, half male, half female?  Russian and American.  Politics depends on the family and on sexual relations, and since you can’t predict how the sex will evolve, you can’t predict the politics either.  That lowers stability, but terraforming will bring you some dynamic TFP, introducing additional chaos.  Put it all on Mars.  Then let the plot meander but remain interesting, and introduce a transformational religious cult figure.

I look forward to reading the sequel.

This is an out-of-synch bonus episode, rushed out because I think their new, just-out book — The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Slow Down Growth, Enrich Themselves, and Increase Inequality — is so important.  You will find the podcast here, lots of rapid fire back and forth.

Everyone wanted me to interview them together, but I said no, I would instead interview them separately and ask about 2/3 the same questions to see how their answers might hang together, or not.  That is how co-authors should be treated!  I also asked each what the other has for breakfast, and by the end each had confessed to several crimes, to avoid a longer sentence of course.

Here is the smallest of bits:

COWEN: Are higher levels of executive compensation part of the problem?

TELES: There you probably would get a different answer between me and Lindsey.

COWEN: That’s why I asked

Recommended, again here is the podcast (no transcript, we wanted to get this out right away).

I will be having a Conversations with Tyler with Andy Weir, author of The Martian and assorted on-line works (many of which appear to be off-line at the moment).  He has a new book coming out, Artemis.  Here is Andy’s Wikipedia page.

I thank you all in advance for your ideas and assistance.

There is a new edition out, edited and translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.  This eighteenth century bestseller could hardly be more relevant today.  Is it possible to lead a philosophic life?  How do political leadership and wisdom intersect?  How do Christianity and Islam differ politically?  How does politics reflect gender relations in a society?  Is there a case for optimism in modernity?  I still am not sure we have improved on Montesquieu’s investigations, although I cannot claim he gives us final answers.  This is a volume of polyphony, with travel as a source of learning and liberation as a major theme throughout.

Harems play a role too, here are the final paragraphs from Roxane to her sultan master Usbek:

You were astonished not to find in me the ecstasies of love.  If you had known me well, you would have found in me all the violence of hatred.

But you have had for a long time the advantage of believing that a heart such as mine was submissive to you.  We were both happy you believed me deceived, and I was deceiving you.

This language, without doubt, appears new to you.  Could it be possible that after having overwhelmed you with grief, I could still force you to admire my courage?  But it is done: poison consumes me; my strength abandons me; the pen falls from my hand; I feel even my hatred weaken; I am dying.

The introduction and notes are outstanding, and also of interest for those of you who are piqued by Straussianism.  You will note that the book was first published anonymously.

“Jokes in a serious work are acceptable on the condition that they hide a profound sense beneath a trivial form. It is in this way that Montesquieu, in his novel, Persian Letters, has written one of the most philosophical books of the eighteenth century.” – Alexis de Tocqueville [link]

I am pleased, by the way, to have once had the chance to spend two days with co-editor Stuart Warner discussing Persian Letters and nothing but (thank you again Liberty Fund!).  I cannot think of any person more qualified to have undertaken this endeavor.

You can order the volume here.

Yes, by Robert A. Heinlein.  I wasn’t expecting too much from this one, which I last read at age 13.  Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully.  It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice.  TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea.  The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak.  Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles!  This is also perhaps the best novel for understanding the logic of a future conflict with North Korea, furthermore Catalonians should read it too.  Most of all, I recall upon my reread that this book was my very first exposure to game-theoretic reasoning.

NB: The “character” of Adam Selene is poking fun at H.G. Wells’s lunar Selenites, from The First Man in the Moon, arguably suggesting they descended from earlier human settlers.

Written by Mike Wallace, and weighing in at almost 1200 pp., this is one of the best books of the year.  Every page has interesting material.  You could pull out just the bits on the origins of the subway, or the development of the arts and entertainment, or immigration, and still have one of the best books of the year.  From one Amazon review:

The narratives are well-honed and to the point. There is not one ounce of journalistic fluff. There are no fanciful digressions into fads and fashions of the day. There is no imaginary dialogue, unlike the situation found in some “history books” written by mere poseurs.

And:

Simply put this is another masterpiece deserving the highest accolades. Tremendously rich in anecdotes it is superbly written. If you grew-up in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs, the book will have a special meaning for you as you see the physical, cultural and human development of your neighborhood. My favorite sections were on the development of the ‘arteries and ligaments’ of the city; the radicals among the Jewish immigrants, and New York in World War I.

I have read only a few hundred pages of it, and may not read it all, but am likely to read more than half of it.  Strongly recommended, it’s also one of the best books on American history period.  You can order it here.

Ray Bradbury markets in everything

by on October 23, 2017 at 1:37 pm in Books | Permalink

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a dystopian future where books have been outlawed and are destroyed by firemen who set them ablaze. But in an ironic twist, Super Terrain, a publisher in France, has created a new edition of Bradbury’s classic that actually requires extreme heat in order to be read.

Jo Frenken shared this video to Instagram showing a prototype copy of the book, which was developed by the Charles Nypels Lab at the Netherlands-based Jan van Eyck Academie—a research institute known for its experiments in materials and media. The pages of the book appear completely blacked-out—like a redacted CIA file—as you flip through them. But when heat is applied, using a flame from a lighter, in this case, the heat-activated ink disappears and the underlying text is revealed.

That is by Andrew Liszewski, via Ted Gioia.

What I’ve been reading

by on October 23, 2017 at 12:57 am in Books | Permalink

1. Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education, edited by Stephen M. Kosslyn and Ben Nelson.  The new university Minerva explains its educational philosophy, imagining redesigning higher ed from scratch.  I would do something very similar to what they did, and this book explains the curricular philosophy and practice in great detail.

2. Olivier Roy, In Search of the Lost Orient: An Interview.  There should be a book like this for every substantive thinker, namely a very long, book-length interview with frank rather than perfunctory answers.  The dialog covers Afghanistan, Yemen, 1968 Paris and radicalism, China, “political Islam,” and women (ahem), among other topics.  Recommended.

3. Aaron Carroll, The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully.  Yes, that is the Aaron Carroll, the one who writes about health care policy.  What does the evidence actually say about which foods are good and bad for you?  I’ll just say my diet is healthier than I had thought, and beware added sugar.

I have only browsed Abbas Amanat’s Iran: A Modern History, but it appears to be a very readable and highly useful 908 pp. overview of Persian/Iranian history, though less theoretical and conceptual than what an economist might be looking for.

Harvey Sachs, Toscanini: A Musician of Conscience, is a very high quality book, I would have read more of it except I can’t stand listening to Toscanini.

Eric A. Posner has the forthcoming Last Resort: The Financial Crisis and the Future of Bailouts.  He argues that much of what was done was not fully legal.

Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy is a very good introduction to Rodrik’s basic ideas on trade.

*The Second World Wars*

by on October 22, 2017 at 12:56 am in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

The subtitle is How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, and the author is Victor Davis Hanson.  I loved this book, even though before I started I felt I didn’t want to read yet another tract on WWII.  Most of the focus is on the logistics and management side:

By 1944, the U.S. Navy was larger than the combined fleets of all the other major powers.

At the start of the War, the United States accounted for about 55-60 percent of world oil output.

The U.S. soldier was treated for psychiatric disorders at a rate ten times that of German troops.  The average hospital stay for an American soldier was 117 days and 36 percent were not returned to the front.  Supplies for a typical American soldier exceeded 80 pounds per day.

The German army killed about 1.5 GIs for every German soldier lost.

The highest American fatality rate was in the Pacific, at 4 percent, still a remarkably low rate for the war as a whole.  America did so well because of high gdp and remarkably efficient supply lines and equipment and air and naval support.

Poland alone lost more citizens than all of the Western European nations, Britain, and the U.S. combined.

WWII took place in a strange technological window when weapons had advanced much more rapidly than protective body armor.  That is one reason why casualties from the fighting were so high.  The war is also unusual for having had so many battles and fronts where the victor gave up more lives than the loser, including of course the war as a whole.

Hanson considers the American submarine offensive against Japan as perhaps the most “cost-efficient” offensive from the war.

“No navy in military history had started a war so all-powerful as the Japanese and ended it so utterly ruined and in such a brief period of time…”

Strongly recommended, a shoo-in for the top tier of the year’s best non-fiction list, the writing is gripping too.

Here is a HistoryNet review: “utterly original.”  Here is Matthew Continetti at NR: “Masterful.”

That is the new Peter Leeson book, and it is just out.  Here is the Amazon summary:

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

Here are the book’s rather spectacular blurbs.  Here is a short Peter piece on medieval ordeals.  Here is a Reddit thread on whether medieval ordeals actually were an effective test of guilt.  And he has this piece on superstition and Friday the 13th in Newsweek.  I would like to see a media outlet excerpt his piece on the rationality of gypsy culture.

I would say that Peter has written a very effective book within the Beckerian tradition, namely trying to explain economic phenomena in terms of a neoclassical rational actor model.  Nonetheless I am much less of a Beckerian than Peter is, at least for the socially-oriented issues he is considering.  Here is a simple typology of approaches:

1. Beckerians and the rational actor model.  I slot Peter in here, along with many Chicago School economists, Marvin Harris, and much of public choice economics.  An explanation shows how a social outcome stems from the interaction of means-end maximizing individuals, translated into some aggregate result.

2. Behavioral economics.  By now this is old news, but these researchers find what I consider to be relatively small deviations from the rational actor model.  This is usually done by measurement, rather than through more complete models.

3. Cultural economics, anthropologists, and many sociologists.  Peer effects are paramount, and Frenchmen see the world differently than do Americans, not to mention Bantus or Pygmies.  This is due to a social contagion of perception that does not boil down to rationality in the sense that economists understand it (you can build a model in which social mimicry at young ages is rational, but that model won’t generate much insight into the particular phenomena we are trying to explain, nor does that model pick up the mimicry mechanism very well).  Historical study plus thick description plus economic rationality at various margins (but margins only) plus some statistics is the way to go.  Mostly we’re trying to understand how and why other groups of people see the world in fundamentally different terms.

The economists who can best grasp other points of view thus are the masters of explaining macro-phenomena (by which I mean something quite distinct from traditional macroeconomics).

I am much closer to #3 than are most economists.  Furthermore, I view economists as patting themselves excessively on the back for #2, when #3 is far more important.  Peter has written a very good book mostly in the tradition of #1, though due to his Austrian background with periodic forays into #3.  I once wrote to Peter: “Gypsy culture rational?  How about Episcopalian investment bankers in Connecticut being rational?”  Probably neither are.

*The Fate of Rome*

by on October 19, 2017 at 11:21 am in Books, History, Medicine, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new and very important book by Kyle Harper, with the subtitle Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire.  I am just reading through this now, but it appears to be an significant revision of our views on the decline of Rome.  p.21 offers a capsule summary, which I will summarize in turn:

1. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a pandemic “interrupted the economic and demographic expansion” of the empire.

2. In the middle of the third century, a mix of drought, pestilence, and political challenge “led to the sudden disintegration of the empire.”  The empire however was willfully rebuilt, with a new emperor, new system of government, and in due time a new religion.

3. The coherence of this new empire was broken in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.  “The entire weight of the Eurasian steppe seemed to lean, in new and unsustainable ways, against the edifice of Roman power…and…the western half of the empire buckled.”

4. In the east there was a resurgent Roman Empire, but this was “violently halted by one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recorded history — the double blow of bubonic plague and a little ice age.”

Here is a key passage from the book:

The centuries of later Roman history might be considered the age of pandemic disease.  Three times the empire was rocked by mortality events with stunning geographical reach.  In AD 165 an event known as the Antonine Plague, probably caused by smallpox, erupted.  In AD 249, an uncertain pathogen swept the territories of Roman rule.  And in AD 541, the first great pandemic of Yersinia pestis, the agent that causes bubonic plague, arrived and lingered for over two hundreds years.  the magnitude of these biological catastrophes is almost incomprehensible.

Here is the book on Amazon.  Here is Kyle Harper on Twitter.  Here is Harper on scholar.google.com; he is also Provost at the University of Oklahoma.

I do not feel I can assess the veracity of this thesis, but it does seem to be intelligently and reasonably argued.