I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement.  Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read.  I’ve ordered my copy.

Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:

I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is.  That he treated women and co-workers badly?  That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own?  That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera?  That he failed to crack America?  That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union?  That he was drab and a killjoy?  That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949?  That he was consumed with his own importance?

Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”

Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.

There is a new paper out by them:

Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, follows in the tradition of the great classical economists, Malthus, Ricardo and Marx, in formulating “general” laws to diagnose and predict the dynamics of inequality. We argue that all of these general laws are unhelpful as a guide to understand the past or predict the future, because they ignore the central role of political and economic institutions in shaping the evolution of technology and the distribution of resources in a society. Using the economic and political histories of South Africa and Sweden, we illustrate not only that the focus on the share of top incomes gives a misleading characterization of the key determinants of societal inequality, but also that inequality dynamics are closely linked to institutional factors and their endogenous evolution, much more than the forces emphasized in Piketty’s book, such as the gap between the interest rate and the growth rate.

For the pointer I thank Nathaniel Bechhofer.

From Alison Flood at The Guardian:

A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation on the reading experience.

The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might “find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses” to the story. Her predictions were based on an earlier study comparing reading an upsetting short story on paper and on iPad. “In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers,” said Mangen.

But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.

That is speculative, but consistent with my own intuition, and my own tendency to (sometimes) organize information by remembering physically where it was in the book.

Facts about food

by on August 16, 2014 at 5:44 am in Books, Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

There is more here, you can pre-order the book here.  My previous posts about this work are here.

That is the new Haruki Murakami book, which Amazon sent me a day early.  It is (dark) fun, but not deep and not top drawer Murakami.  Most of his fans will like it enough to be glad they bought it.

Fear: A Novel of World War I, by Gabriel Chevalier, is being touted as the “latter day All Quiet on the Western Front.”  At first I thought that was just exaggerated promo, but it is quite good.

Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities: Across Latin America In Search of a New Architecture is broader than the title implies and recommended to anyone who follows that part of the world.

*Finding Equilibrium*

by on August 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The authors are Till Düppe and E. Roy Weintruab and the subtitle is Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit.  I very much liked this book, which provides an inside look at the discovery of some key theorems in economics, with an emphasis on the problem of joint discovery.  McKenzie, by the way, is the one who received the least credit, an example of the Matthew Effect.

Facts about birds

by on August 9, 2014 at 12:50 am in Books, Science | Permalink

…despite the putrid menu vultures favor, their excrement is sterile. In fact, letting the waste run down their legs can clean off germs from the gore; it’s their version of freshening up with a moist towelette after a barbecue. Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses, who spend 95 percent of their lives over open ocean, are thought to be able to shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 m.p.h. For blackcap warblers, the direction of migration is clearly innate, so crossbreeding a group of blackcaps who flew south for fall migration with a group that oriented westward resulted in offspring who flew in a southwesterly direction.

That is from this Vicki Constantine Croke review of two new bird books.

Thinking Inside the Box

by on August 8, 2014 at 11:21 am in Books, Education, Travel | Permalink

I like this library building in Nice, France.


A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times.   I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him.  In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture.  An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.

Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper.  Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero.  Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper.  In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.

Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture.  And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms.  The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.

It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.

My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption.  The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base.  Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions.  You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live.  And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before.  Ugh, that is why I stopped going.  NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor.  If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 2, 2014 at 7:35 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Walter Lippmann: Public Economist, by Craufurd D. Goodwin.  An excellent study of the man who was probably the most influential economics columnist and commentator of his era, even though he is not usually remembered as such.

2. The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh.  A popular book on how a lot of future jobs will be very short-term and how to deal with this world on a practical basis.

3. Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.  More intelligent and thoughtful than most other books in this area, this treatment stresses the (partial) cognitive advantages of having a tendency toward depression.

4. David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.  A look at China’s outermost regions and their ethnic minorities, an excellent perspective on The Middle Kingdom.

5. Steven Conn, Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century.  Good background for understanding today’s blue-red divide and the origins of progressivism.

6. Lawrence A. Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffet: The Enduring Value of Values.  Maybe the title doesn’t sound promising, but this is a substantive take on what actually goes on out there.

Arrived in my pile are:

6. Paul Know, editor, Atlas of Cities.

7. Dan DiSalvo, Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences.

8. Stephen L. Carter, Back Channel: A Novel.

SES [socio-economic status] correlates to willingness to use military force, but not one’s assessment of the need for it.

That is from a fascinating and just-released book I have been reading from Jonathan D. Caverley, A Theory of Democratic Militarism: Voting, Wealth, and War.

The author of this new and excellent book is my colleague Peter T. Leeson and the subtitle is Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think.  Here is one excerpt:

Twenty-two of thirty-seven street gangs Jankowski (1991: 78-82) studied have written constitutions.  Sicilian Mafiosi follow a largely unwritten code of rules, and recently police found a written set of “ten commandments” outlining the Mafia’s core laws…Kaminski (2004) identifies extensive (yet unwritten) rules dictating nearly every aspect of Polish prisoners’ lives, from what words are acceptable to use in greeting a stranger to how and when to use the bathroom.  And the National Gang Crime Research Center considers constitutions so central to criminal societies that the use of a constitution is one of the defining characteristics it uses when classifying gangs…

Peter of course does not favor criminal gangs, rather he seeks social principles for voluntarism and yes perhaps you could call these views a kind of anarchism.  My stance, however, differs from his.

I accept the reductionist argument that government too is a kind of anarchy, since it must rely on norms and internally polycentric and perhaps even ultimately intransitive mechanisms for maintaining order.  There is no “final court of authority” in the practical sense, but rather a series of overlapping constraints which give rise to a spontaneous order of rules and governance, for better or worse.  In this sense anarchy is not an absurd idea at all, and we can imagine many varieties of orderly anarchy, including those in a more libertarian direction.  That said, while I often favor smaller government, when it comes to political philosophy I do not seek to move toward “more anarchy.”  In fact I often admire the relatively centralized governmental structures of Great Britain and New Zealand, with their clean and sharp lines of accountability.

I think modern anarchy would indeed be “orderly,” but I also think that private protection agencies would end up colluding and re-evolving into a form of coercive government (pdf), furthermore in a form that libertarians would find objectionable.  I would much rather have the West’s current democratic governments, for all their imperfections, than a for-profit “shareholder state,” not to mention the transition costs and the uncertainties along the way.  The best thing you can say about a shareholder state is that it might have a better immigration policy.  In the meantime, we are seeking to rebuild the history we have.

The subtitle is An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, and the author is Russ Roberts.  The focus is on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and why that is an important book.  This is Russ’s best book in my opinion, so you should consider buying it here.  My favorite section is the discussion of the Chilean maid, definitely recommended.

When it comes to mail delivery service in Iceland, two days stand out from the rest. The first is when the IKEA catalogue arrives. The second is when the bókatíðindi shows up in the mailbox.

“This is the Christmas catalogue,” says Bryndís Loftsdóttir of the Icelandic Publishers Association, handing over a copy of last year’s glossy, 208-page tome. “It’s always the same,” she continues in an amused tone. “Weeks before this is published we anxiously get phone calls from people asking, ‘When is it coming? Can I get it now?’”

A copy of the bókatíðindi, which lists approximately 90% of the books published in Iceland each year, is mailed to every household in the country, free of charge. While in most countries the presents under the Christmas tree come in all shapes and sizes, Loftsdóttir jokes that in Iceland one finds a row of neatly wrapped books. “The book is still the most popular Christmas present in Iceland,” she says. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the “jólabókaflóð,” which means Christmas book flood.

I like the photo at the link.

Moral Effects of Socialism

by on July 19, 2014 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Dan Ariely and co-authors have an interesting new paper looking at moral behavior, specifially cheating, in people who grew up in either East or West Germany.

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided one nation into two distinct political regimes. We
exploited this natural experiment to investigate whether the socio-political context impacts
individual honesty. Using an abstract die-rolling task, we found evidence that East Germans
who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to
capitalism. We also found that cheating was more likely to occur under circumstances of
plausible deniability.

…If socialism indeed promotes individual dishonesty, the specific features of this socio-political
system that lead to this outcome remain to be determined. The East German socialist regime
differed from the West German capitalist regime in several important ways. First, the system
did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass
anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to
demoralization (Ariely et al., 2008), and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of
honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed
to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most
straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official
laws and cheat to game the system. Over time, individuals may come to normalize these types
of behaviors. Given these distinct possible influences, further research will be needed to
understand which aspects of socialism have the strongest or most lasting impacts on morality.

It’s interesting that Ariely et al. try to explain cheating as a result of socialism. My own approach would look more to the virtue ethics of capitalism and Montesquieu who famously noted that

Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.

See Al-Ubaydli et al. for a market priming experiment and especially McCloskey on The Bourgeoise Virtues for more work consistent with this theme.