I will second the recommendation.  Michael is a political scientist at UCLA, and this volume is one of the most important social books of the last fifteen years.  He shows the importance of “common knowledge” in explaining social phenomena, namely we create rational rituals so that others can see we are acting in concert with them.  It’s all about public ceremonies, parades, dances, and meetings.  It’s also why good Super Bowl commercials can be so effective.  The work dates from 2001, but it seems more relevant each year.

Business Insider puts it well:

Chwe’s concept is readily apparent in the dynamics of social media. When a media organization posts a link to an online article on Facebook, for example, and people begin “liking” it, others will begin to assign some level of importance to the story and some will be compelled to share it and discuss it. The idea of “common knowledge” may also lend itself to thinking about advertising strategies on social media.

In this regard, by the way, the openness of the internet may make us more rather than less conformist.  Here is a good review of the book.

Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 is one of the best books I have read in years. I offer an extensive review at the New Rambler. Here’s the opening:

Heath-Enlightenment-2Joseph Heath is a Canadian philosopher who is unusually conversant with economics and also unusually capable of writing sparkling prose for a popular audience. His earlier book Economics Without Illusions was split into 6 right-wing fallacies and 6 left-wing fallacies, and he did a commendable job on both sides. Heath has his own left-liberal point of view: the subtitle of Economics Without Illusions was Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism and in the original Canadian version, the book was subtitled Economics For People Who Hate Capitalism. However, I like capitalism and I still enjoyed it! Enlightenment 2.0 is Heath’s foray into political philosophy. Drawing on psychology, economics and political science, Enlightenment 2.0 is a brilliant defense of reason, an important call for a more rational politics, and a great read.

Heath is worried that the foundations of liberal society are being eroded by the cultural denigration of reason combined with ruthlessly competitive economic and political forces that exploit the biases and hooks of our unreasoning mind.

Although I admire Enlightenment 2.0, I answer the question of the post differently than does Heath and my review contains plenty of critical commentary. Ayn Rand, Idiocracy, mind viruses and other interesting characters make an appearance. Read the whole thing.

That is the new book by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, the subtitle is Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors.  The basic message is that North Korea is far more (black) marketized — and more corrupt — than most outsiders realize.  Here is one representative passage:

Homes near the Sino-North Korean border are apparently quite expensive, since living there offers good business opportunities, and the ability to access Chinese cell phone networks.  There are reports of high-quality apartments changing hands for US$30,000 in the border city of Hyesan, for instance.  But this pales in comparison to the upmarket areas of the capital: a decent apartment in the central Pyongyang district of Mansudae (which is now jokingly referred to by expats as “Dubai” or “Pyonghattan”) will change hands for US$100,000 or more.  There are even those who talk of US$250,000 apartments.

A fascinating look at the hard to access part of the Hermit Kingdom, definitely recommended and as far as I know this book has no close substitute.

By the way, in Pyongyang, rain boots are seen as quite fashionable footwear.  And it can take up to a week to cross the (small) country by train.  In the border city of Hyesan, up to ten percent of the population may be involved in the meth trade.

This sprawling comic novel cum history is likely to go down as one of the books of the year.  I thought Lawrence D. Mass’s review was excellent, here is one excerpt:

Conversely, is The American People the War and Peace or Gone With The Wind of LGBT history? The American People is so many disparate things that comparisons will inevitably fall short. It’s a Swiftian journey through an America we never knew; a Voltairean satire of American life and ways; a literary offspring of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Myra Brenckenridge; a pornographic American history through the eyes of a Henry Miller; a Robin Cook medical mystery. It’s a Sinclairean expose of American industrial and corporate skulduggery, and otherwise breathtakingly testimonial to the art of muckraking. It’s a treasure trove of historical findings, especially of the history of sex in America — of prostitution, communal living, of STD ‘s, of medicine and infectious diseases, of sanitation and health care, of medical and historical institutions, research, opinion, publications, figureheads and testimony. It’s an ultimate coming together (pun intended) of the personal with the political. And it’s the grandest telling yet of Kramer’s own story.

But as you can see from the above description, a significant chunk of readers will reject the book’s premise, language, and topics altogether.  I think it is very, very good, you can order it here.

The author is Andrej Svorenčík and he has produced the definitive account of the history of experimental economics.  The SSRN paper is here, but it is more accurate to think of this as a monograph at 248 pp. of text.  I hope a major publisher is interested, but do note it starts off a bit slow.  Once it gets going it never lets up and I learned a great deal from it.  Here is just one excerpt:

When Austin C. Hoggatt died on April 29, 2009, at the age of seventy-nine the experimental economics community lost a low profile yet very influential figure.  Hoggatt was the first to build a computerized laboratory for controlled experimentation in economics or, more broadly, in the social, behavioral, and decision science — the Management Science Laboratory at the Center for Research in Management Science at UC Berkeley in 1964.

If you think you might be interested you will be.  The paper/monograph is strong on recognizing the need for an integrated approach to experiments, involving software, support staff, programmers, and researchers, and tracing how all this came together, or in some cases did not.  You really get the inside story from Svorenčík.

What I’ve been reading

by on April 9, 2015 at 12:58 am in Books | Permalink

1. The Seventh Day, by Yu Hua.  This is perhaps my favorite of all the contemporary Chinese novels I have read: “Lacking the money for a burial plot, he must roam the afterworld aimlessly, without rest.”

2. Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation.  Have you ever wondered how recipes, fashion, fonts, and comedians’ jokes function without strong intellectual property protection in the classic sense?  We have needed a book on that and now we have one, this is both fun and instructive.

3. Stanley G. Payne and Palacios, Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.  This is readable, reasonably comprehensive, and unlike many competing books shows clearly that Franco, whatever his flaws may have been, was no buffoon.  A useful corrective to the usual treatments, even if many readers will feel the authors go too far in their sympathies for Franco.

4. Karl Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark, My Struggle volume IV.  I like it, and the tales about trying to bed down Nordic chicks as a teenager are compelling and sometimes hilarious, but overall it is not up to the exalted standards set by the first two volumes.  So far this is out only in the UK.

5. The Greening of Asia, by Mark l. Clifford, a genuinely useful and informative book about some of the most important environmental dilemmas, very even handed and a model of clarity.

6. Robert P. Murphy, Choice, Cooperation, Enterprise and Human Action.  If you want a clear, well-written, 2015-based, non-obscure, non-Galician version of Ludwig Mises, this is your book.

For the specialist I can heartily recommend Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson, Yale University Press.

When to Rob a Bank: …And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants

Drawn from the Freakonomics blog, self-recommending of course…

Compensating Differentials

by on April 8, 2015 at 7:28 am in Books, Economics, Education, Film | Permalink

The latest section of our Principles of Economics course at MRU is up today and it covers price discrimination and labor markets.

In this video, The Tradeoff Between Fun and Wages, we introduce the idea of compensating differentials in wages, an idea that goes back to Adam Smith.

Sharp readers will notice a homage near the beginning in what might otherwise appear to be an odd scene setting.

By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, due out in May, here is some summary:

In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt, no matter which party is in control.

But there’s good news beyond the Beltway. Technology is siphoning power from sclerotic government agencies and putting it in the hands of individuals and communities. The rediversification of American culture is making local freedom attractive to liberals as well as conservatives. People across the political spectrum are increasingly alienated from a regulatory state that nakedly serves its own interests rather than those of ordinary Americans.

An AEI notice is here, and for the pointer I thank David Levey.

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception.

Due out September 6, I have pre-ordered of course.  Hat tip goes to Cass Sunstein.

*Genealogy of American Finance*

by on March 31, 2015 at 1:12 pm in Books, Economics | Permalink

By Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla, Columbia Business School Publishing, this is both a beautiful picture book, coffee table style, and also a history of America’s “Big 50″ financial institutions.  It appears to be a very impressive creation, full of useful information.

File under “Arrived in my Pile”!  You can order it on Amazon here.

Education in Mao’s China

by on March 28, 2015 at 3:02 am in Books, Education, History | Permalink

Advancement in China’s school system was highly competitive, and the odds of reaching the top of the educational ladder were very steep.  Of the 32.9 million children who entered primary school in 1965, only 9 percent could expect to enter junior high school.  Only 15 percent of junior high school entrants, in turn, could expect to graduate and enter high school.  Among the highly selected groups that graduated from academic high schools, only 36 percent could expect to enroll in a university.  Of those who entered primary school in 1965, only 1.3 percent could expect to attend an academic high school, and only one-half of 1 percent could expect to attend university.

Of course the Caplanian point is that China managed a lot of post-1979 economic growth with what was fundamentally a not very educated generation.

That excerpt is from Andrew G. Walder’s China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed, my previous post on this excellent book is here.

Here is one excerpt from his very interesting post:

I get and very much like the skeptical, anti-theoretical thrust of Strauss. I like his deep wariness of ideal theorizing, his exhortations to pay attention to the political life we are always already living. He’s right to see reasoning with others about about how to live as an inherently political activity. He’s right to insist on honoring the distinctive excellences of those sensitive to the texture of real political life and expert in its ceaseless negotations. He’s right that social scientific theories about politics are less politically valuable then good political judgment, and that people who think they’re going to govern “scientifically” are dangerously stupid. (Paraphrasing, here.) And, yes, when philosophy is merely a handmaiden to the dogmas of our age, pursued under the “ecumenical supervision” of the universities, it is profoundly compromised. To be a philosopher is not to have a job you clock in and out of. To be a philosopher is simply to be, philosophically, always. Right! But the Socratic life is the one very best life? The naturally right, life? Nope. Nope. I’ve read and read and never quite follow how we end up there. I mean, I think this is a great life, beyond wonderful. But nope.

Anyway, Strausseans are strangely obsessed with this idea that the philosophical life, so construed, is the best human life, full stop, and are therefore obsessed with the tension between the best life, which is in the business of exposing bullshit, and the political life, which is built on it.

I am very happy to order this book in advance, I hope Will lets me know when that is possible.

China under Mao

by on March 26, 2015 at 2:37 am in Books, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

That is the new and excellent book by Andrew G. Walder.  Here is one excerpt:

The Communists’ contribution to the war effort was extremely modest.  According to a December 1944 Soviet Comintern report, a total of more than 1 million Nationalist troops had been killed in battle, compared to 103,186 in the CCP’s Eighth Route Army and another several thousand in the New Fourth Army.  The Communists suffered only 10 percent of total Chinese military casualties.  One author has called Mao’s famous doctrine of people’s war one of the “great myths” about the period: “people’s war was hardly used in the conflict against the Japanese.”

Definitely recommended.

1. I enjoyed my page browse through Becoming Steve Jobs, which seems fun, readable, and informative, but it’s not what I feel like reading right now.  But if you think you might want to read it, you probably should.

2. Charles C.W. Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future is all the rage right now.  Books which attempt to redefine or carve up the political spectrum aren’t exactly my thing, but this one is well-written and vital.  Here is a Reason interview with Cooke.  Here is a NYT interview with Cooke.

3. The new edition of David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind is out.

4. The best piece so far on Lee Kwan Yew; how much and how rapidly will it matter that the focal point has passed away?

5. Hopes grow for climate-proof beans.

6. John Nash shares the Abel Prize in mathematics.