Books

Based on my paper, Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City (with Shruti Rajagopalan) I discuss private cities with Russ Roberts over at EconTalk this week.

I think the conversation went well but I haven’t heard it yet so let me also take the time to point you to my favorite recent EconTalk, Russ interviewing Greg Page, the former CEO of Cargill, the largest privately-held company in America. Their discussion covers the global food supply, false definitions of national food security, the role of prices, comparative advantage and more. It’s a great discussion.

Each monastery had its own estates, and all the people farming on these estates paid taxes in money and goods.  One of the main tasks of the stewards was to increase this income; for instance, by lending grain back to the peasants at high interest rates, or selling goods at market.  Before the destruction of the monasteries in the 1960s, they owned as much as half of Tibet’s farmland.

The description however is referring to the 15th century.  Another interesting part of the book concerns how, during Tibet’s “Golden Age,” the Tibetans tried to impose their language and culture on the neighboring regions of China, and with some success.

That is all from Sam Van Schaik, Tibet: A History.

As part of a publicity stunt, author James Patterson is giving away 1,000 self-destructing digital advance copies of his latest novel, Private Vegas. If you score one, you have 24 hours to finish the entire book before the text vanishes forever. And if that’s just not risky enough, Patterson is selling a real self-destructing copy (for a whopping $294,038) that includes a dedicated bomb squad, among other creature comforts. There are likely much better ways to spend six digits in record time, but it’ll probably be the most exciting reading experience you ever have — no matter how good the story might be.

There is more here, via Kurt Busboom.  Much better than my advice, it would seem.

Arrived in my pile

by on January 22, 2015 at 1:17 pm in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Ian Morris, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.

A Tanner Lecture, with comments by Richard Seaford, Jonathan D. Spence, Christine Korsgaard, and Margaret Atwood, and edited by Stephen Macedo.  Due out March 22.

John Bayley has passed away

by on January 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm in Books, Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

An Oxford Don, he wrote one of my all-time favorite books:

“Elegy for Iris” — titled “Iris: A Memoir” in Britain — appeared in 1998, when Murdoch was in the final stages of her disease. She died in February 1999 at age 79.

One obituary is here, more are here.  The book is here.

Equine markets in everything

by on January 19, 2015 at 1:38 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Circa the late nineteenth century, in urban America:

Even the wastes of horses were commodified.  The collection of urban manure had old, even ancient roots.  Again, the process is most easily documented in New York City.  Before 1878, individuals roamed the street and picked up manure.  In that year the Common Council supposedly sold an exclusive license to a William Hitchcock, who sold the street sweepings to farmers for fertilizer.  Street sweepings varied in quality and were worth more if from an asphalt street than if from a gravel street or a dirty alley.  They were always worth less than stable manure, a purer product.  The older pattern of individuals collecting street manure for urban gardens never fully went away, and as late as the first half of the twentieth century neighborhood children in the Italian American neighborhood of East Harlem did a thriving business collecting horse manure from the streets for backyard gardens in the area.

That is from Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, an excellent book from 2007.  I am sorry it took me so long to discover this work.  It has wonderful sentences such as:

Stables rarely make it into the histories of the built environment, although they constituted a substantial part of that environment.

How can you go wrong with that?  There is good economics on every page of this book.

Ezra Klein has an excellent essay on this topic, reviewing the (very good) Philip Klein book.  Here is one bit:

Klein’s book is a service: it’s far and away the clearest, most detailed look at conservative health-policy thinking in the post-Obamacare world. But it can leave a reader with the impression that the important cleavages in conservative health-policy thinking are between the Replacers, the Reformists, and the Restarters.

It’s not. It’s between those in the party who want to prioritize health reform and those who don’t. And it’s worth being clear: those who don’t have a case. Health reform is an incredibly tough, painful project. Everything you do has tradeoffs, some of them awful.

And to sum up, the Democrats really cared about health care reform (for better or worse), but:

…that’s really the problem for conservative health reformers. For all the plans floating around, there’s little evidence Republicans care enough about health reform to pay its cost.

I am less positive on Obamacare than is Ezra, but still the piece is interesting throughout and a good challenge to would-be reformers.

In his 2011 book Brahma Chellany reports:

…Singapore has pursued demand management through greater water productivity and efficiency.  By plugging system leaks and inefficiencies and raising the price of domestic water, with the tariff and tax rising steeply after the first 40 m3 a month, it managed to reduce household water use by about 10 percent since the mid-1990s to about 155 liters per person per day in 2011.  That consumption level is nearly four times lower than that of an average American.

That is from Water: Asia’s New Battleground, which is actually one of the most interesting political economy books published in the last few years.

Arrived in my pile

by on January 14, 2015 at 1:25 pm in Books, Economics, Medicine | Permalink

1. Lives of the Laureates: Twenty-three Nobel Economists, edited by Roger W. Spencer and David A. Macpherson.  I know an earlier edition of this book, my favorite piece is the essay by Thomas Schelling but it is a good book throughout.

2. Eric Topol, The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands.  I don’t have the time to read a book on medicine just now, but it looks quite interesting, a rebuttal to the claim that consumers are helpless in the world of medicine.

What a strange pattern to find in a book.  The first 264 pp. are good enough but not exceptional and at times boring through being overly familiar.  The last two chapters I found to be a brilliant treatment of recent Japanese politics through the lens of public choice models, probably the best since Karel von Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power.

Have you wondered what distinguishes the regime of one Japanese prime minister from another?  Which are the different interest groups for and against the consumption tax hike and why?  What accounts for the initial failure and then later resurgence of Abe?  What role does Okinawa play in broader Japanese politics?  Which kinds of regular struggles are played out between the elected officials and the bureaucrats?  What does a sentence like this mean?: “The people around Abe wanted, finally, to stamp out forever the ghost of Tanaka Kakuei.”

How many other books rise to “superb” status but only through their last two chapters?

Here is a review of the book from The Economist, positive but not along the lines I offer above.  Here is a Literary Saloon review.  Here is an FT review by the excellent David Piling.

You can order the book here.  It came out in December 2014 but will make my best books of 2015 list for sure.  For the initial pointer to this book I wish to thank Jim Olds.

That is a new (early 2014) and excellent book by Elaine Scarry, the subtitle is Choosing Between Democracy and Doom.  Here is one good sentence:

…the British government arranged a secure fallout shelter for 200 leading officials, it neglected to include the queen in its plans…

Here is a more thematic sentence:

The impossibility of “governing” nuclear weapons emerges across many pages of this book.

Recommended, and consistent with my long held view that the production of nuclear weapons represented one of the most fundamental revisions of the U.S. Constitution.  The discussion of nuclear submarines, and how hard it can be to send them revised orders, is both fascinating and scary.

The review is excellent and interesting throughout, here is one good bit:

Come to think of it, lack of intelligibility runs like a red thread throughout Average is Over, from “ugly” machine chess moves that human players scratch their heads at, to the fact that Cowen thinks those who will succeed in the next century will be those who place their “faith” in the decisions of machines, choices of action they themselves do not fully understand. Let’s hope he’s wrong on that score as well, for lack of intelligibility in human beings in politics, economics, and science, drives conspiracy theories, paranoia, and superstition, and political immobility.

Cowen believes the time when secular persons are able to cull from science a general, intelligible picture of the world is coming to a close. This would be a disaster in the sense that science gives us the only picture of the world that is capable of being universally shared which is also able to accurately guide our response to both nature and the technological world.

Read the whole thing, the pointer is from Arthur Charpentier.

I ordered this book through the UK, as it does yet have a U.S. publication date on Amazon.  It has a fascinating 891 pp. of text (and an excellent annotated bibliography), virtually all of which are worth reading.  In just about any year it is one of the top five non-fiction books of that year.  I found it especially strong on English-French relations, and early modern times, and perhaps a bit weak on post-1970 developments, which are in any case harder to cover.

It is not an easy book to excerpt but here is one short bit on Shakespeare:

…at deeper levels he is astonishingly not the product of his times, which is an evident reason for the continuing power of his work.  Most obviously, he is not dogmatic; he displays a wide variety of cultural and religious influences, but is not defined by the religious conflict that shaped his time — hence continuing modern debate about his personal beliefs.  He pays little respect to social and gender hierarchy.  He writes of a ‘deep England’, beyond London and the court.  Women are always important and often dominant in his plays, and women came in large numbers to see them, scandalizing foreign visitors.  It is often said that he conceals his opinions; it seems rather that the ideas he explores transcend the limits of contemporary polemics.

Definitely recommended, I quickly became addicted to this book.  Do any of you know when it will have a formal release on this side of the Atlantic?

The third edition of Modern Principles of Economics is now available! Modern Principles is the best written and most interesting economics textbook and it has a wonderful new feature which puts it far ahead of its competition.

The third edition features over 30 beautifully produced videos each carefully chosen to integrate perfectly with Modern Principles of Economics. A majority of the videos are newly written and designed by Tyler and myself and all are linked in the text with URLs and QR codes. The videos will also be available in Macmillan-Worth’s learning management system, LaunchPad, along with the e-text, grading system and assessment tools.

The videos integrate perfectly with Modern Principles but they also work great with any textbook, Most importantly, we will be making all of the videos available to anyone in the world completely free of obligation or charge (more on that next week!).

A new chapter in Modern Principles covers asymmetric information so here is our video on adverse selection featuring Groucho Marx and George Akerlof!

If you read a book, how many other related or similar books does it make you order?  (Of wish to order, if you are budget constrained.)  If the number is at least three or four, the book you read is almost certainly very interesting and worthwhile, if not always accurate.

Andrew Roberts’s biography of Napoleon made me want to read an additional biography of Napoleon, because it made his life to me more interesting.  It made Napoleon’s period more interesting too.  I might read a book on cavalry tactics as well, a topic I have never read on before.

Some books pretend to be the final word on a topic, but it is unlikely they succeed.  If you don’t end your read with some additional book orders, maybe you need to ask yourself what exactly went wrong.

At times it is not a book order which is the appropriate follow-up.  Say you read a book on Sri Lanka and you respond by going to Sri Lanka, well that counts too.  Or a biography of Beethoven may lead you to more of his music, rather than to another book on his life.

If I apply the Amazon order test, the best book for me this last year was Michael Hoffman’s Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.

Hofmann’s book wins additional points for chain effects, namely the books I ordered, as a result of reading Hofmann, in turn made me want to order further books.  But chain effects are tricky.  Following my read of Andrew Roberts, and then a follow-up Napoleon biography, will I read yet another life of Napoleon?  That may depend on how good the follow-up is, and Roberts should not be held liable for that.  Or should he?  What should you think of a book which leads you to so-so follow-ups rather than to excellent follow-ups?  A blog post which does the same?

What percentage of the value of a book is derived from the quality of the follow-ups it induces?  Under plausible rates of discounting, for serial readers this could easily by eighty or ninety percent or more.  (Could it be that actual book reviews are not consequentialist? Horrors.)  How about a book review outlet which refuses to consider the books under consideration, but rather considers and evaluates what they will induce you to read next?

I would subscribe.