Books

Jeremy Waldron on Nudge

by on September 23, 2014 at 11:08 am in Books, Education, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

Waldron is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, here is one bit from his NYRoB essay:

More reassuring, I think, would be a candid assessment of what might go wrong with nudging. One of Sunstein’s many books (from before his time in the White House) is entitled Worst-Case Scenarios. Could we please have something like that as a companion to Nudge?

I am afraid there is very little awareness in these books about the problem of trust. Every day we are bombarded with offers whose choice architecture is manipulated, not necessarily in our favor. The latest deal from the phone company is designed to bamboozle us, and we may well want such blandishments regulated. But it is not clear whether the regulators themselves are trustworthy. Governments don’t just make mistakes; they sometimes set out deliberately to mislead us. The mendacity of elected officials is legendary and claims on our trust and credulity have often been squandered. It is against this background that we have to consider how nudging might be abused.

The full piece is here.  By the way, there is a new Cass Sunstein book out, which I have not yet read, Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State.

The Twitter pointer is from Michael Clemens.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 23, 2014 at 1:46 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

Ruth Towse, Advanced Introduction to Cultural Economics.  She remains the definitive presenter of this material.

I very much enjoyed Ian Leslie’s Curious, a polyglot look at being…curious.

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  A moving and vibrant novel about an Australian in a prisoner of war camp in WWII and his escapades surrounding that time in his life.

Edward D. Kleinbard’s We are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money is a well-done progressive take on the expenditure side of fiscal  policy.

Andrea Louise Campbell, Trapped in America’s Safety Net: One Family’s Struggle.  A good anecdotal but also analytical study of how means-tested welfare programs can make life very difficult for the poor.  Recommended.

There is a symposium in The Guardian on that question, here is my short contribution:

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been a hit for several reasons, most notably the quality of the work. But I’d like to focus on a neglected reason why the book has found so much support, namely it appears to strengthen the case for redistribution.

Most previous commentators focused on income inequality. Bill Gates or JK Rowling have earned more than CEOs or authors in the past, while incomes in the middle class or lower middle classes are often stagnating below what previous generations could expect. That’s a labor market issue – namely that some individuals are not very much demanded by employers.

The obvious questions are then a) how can we make low-earners more productive, and also b) how can we improve education?

Perhaps most importantly, as these issues get processed by the public there is a common attitude – whether justified or not – that many of the lower earners are partially or fully responsible for their own plight. The egalitarians don’t tend to win these policy debates.

In the simplest version of the Piketty model, wealth grows more quickly than does the economy as a whole and thus the picture changes. The relative losers are no longer low earners but rather anyone who is not a capitalist. Any disparity is due not to their shortcomings in labor markets but rather to their lack of a high initial endowment.

Furthermore redistribution will work like a charm, at least provided the redistribution is enough to give the poorer individuals some capital to invest.

If you are an activist who favors lots of redistribution, the Piketty story is a lot easier to tell yourself and to tell your audiences – and that is yet another reason for its popularity.

The other contributions are by Brad DeLong, Stephanie Kelton, and Emanuel Derman, who cannot bring himself to read the book.

This is the new and fantastic book by Arthur M. Melzer and the subtitle is The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.  It is the best book I know on esoteric writing and its history and furthermore it is clear and to the point!  (I think)

Melzer starts his chapter eight with this quotation from John Toland’s eighteenth century Pantheisticon:

[Esotericism is] practiced not by the Ancients alone; for to declare the Truth, it is more in Use among the Moderns.

Here is another bit from the book:

To begin with, we need an author who, in his interpretations, is willing to follow the very un-Straussian injunction — often found on mathematics exams — “show all work.”  We need to see, once or twice, how the sausage is made.  The best writing for this purpose that I am familiar with comes from an appropriately un-Straussian source: Stanley Fish.  His “Georgics of the Mind: The Experience of Bacon’s Essays” is a brilliant and nuanced exercise in textual analysis that openly displays, at every stage of Fish’s encounter with the text, what he thinks and why he thinks it.

…Another excellent and highly communicative reader…is Robert Connor.  His Thucydides is a very sensitive reading of Thucydides’s great history, a reading openly arrived at and clearly conveyed.  In conjunction with this, one should also read Clifford Orwin’s superb The Humanity of Thucydides.

Recommended.

Friday, 1:15, EST.  The LiveStream is here.  I commend the Center for Equitable Growth for sponsoring this event.

Chitmahals

by on September 15, 2014 at 1:57 am in Books, History, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

I had not known of these:

The Indo-Bangladesh enclaves, also known as the chitmahals (Bengali: ছিটমহল chitmôhol), sometimes called pasha enclaves, are the enclaves along the Bangladesh–India border, in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

There are 106 Indian enclaves and 92 Bangladeshi enclaves. Inside the main part of Bangladesh, 102 of these are first-order Indian enclaves, while inside the main part of India, 71 of these are Bangladeshi first-order enclaves. Further inside these enclaves are an additional 24 second order- or counter-enclaves (21 Bangladeshi, 3 Indian) and one Indian counter-counter-enclave, called Dahala Khagrabari #51. They have an estimated combined population between 50,000 and 100,000.

In September 2011, the Prime Ministers of the two countries (Manmohan Singh of India and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh) signed an accord on border demarcation and exchange of adversely held enclaves; however, the Indian parliament has yet to ratify it. Under this intended agreement, the enclave residents could continue to reside at their present location or move to the country of their choice.

Here is the Wikipedia entry.  It now seems the ruling BJP party seems to want to take that 2011 agreement back.

Alastair Bonnett, in his new and excellent Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and other Inscrutable Geographies, notes that these enclaves are usually not supplied with public goods.  Furthermore:

In order to leave these tiny enclaves, the inhabitants have to obtain a visa to travel through the foreign territory that surrounds them.  But in order to obtain a visa they have to leave their enclave, since visas can only be obtained in cities many miles away.

And:

The Indian Enclave Refugees’ Association has been formed to lobby for the right to “return” to India.

Many of them are denied the right to settle in what is ostensibly their home country, namely India.

The author is Joe Zhang and the subtitle is Is China’s State Capitalism Doomed?  Here is the summary of his conclusions:

1. The state sector remains the dominant part of the Chinese economy.

2. In the past decade, China has erased most (if not all) of the liberalization of the previous two decades.  As a result, the state sector has become more dominant than it was a decade ago.

3. The state sector enjoys widespread public support in China, contrary to perceptions in the West.  there are political, social and cultural reasons for this “strange” situation.

4. The state sector and SOEs are constantly adapting to the public demand for transparency and efficiency.  As a whole, they do not necessarily underperform the private sector.  Indeed, due to systematic discrimination against the private sector, there is evidence to the contrary: the state sector has had a better financial track record in the past three decades.  Indeed, it is not fair to make comparisons given the unleveled playing field.

5. The many challenges China faces today need a robust and well-funded state sector.  At least that is, in my judgment, what the Chinese government and most members of the public think.  These challenges include social inequality, overpopulation, environmental damage, and the depletion of global resources.

I do not agree with every claim in this book, especially the normative ones, but this is one of the better places to go for a look at how the Chinese economy actually works.  Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

Javier Cercas, *Outlaws: A Novel*

by on September 13, 2014 at 2:05 am in Books | Permalink

This is so far my favorite novel in what I consider to be a very weak year for fiction.  Set in and near Barcelona, this story of a gang member and his confrontations with the law, as seen through the eyes of one not totally reliable narrator, reminds me a bit of Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios.  Here is one excerpt from the novel:

Let’s go, she said.  Where?, I asked, following her: she was wearing jeans, a white shirt, sneakers and her handbag strap across her chest, like twenty years ago when we’d meet up in La Font to go out and steal cars, snatch old ladies’ handbags and rob banks on the coast.

I also quite liked “Talking to Ourselves,” by Andrés Neuman: “Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.”

*The Shifts and the Shocks*

by on September 11, 2014 at 8:03 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

That is by Martin Wolf and the subtitle is What We’ve Learned — And Still Have to Learn — From the Financial Crisis.  You can buy it here.

File under Arrived in my pile.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 11, 2014 at 1:44 am in Books | Permalink

1. Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.  Kai Bird is very highly rated, but in my view he remains underrated.  I very much like each and every one of his books, and this sympathetic treatment brings to life the Middle East conflicts through the 1980s, and also the life of a CIA officer, as well as a bygone era in U.S. foreign policy.

2. Henry Kissinger, World Order.  I liked parts of his China book, but there’s nothing really to this one.  Leave it alone.

3. Pascal Bonafoux, Rodin & Eros.  Beware of visiting too many Rodin museums, you might end up thinking he just repeated the same themes over and over again.  This book, including the color plates, will jolt you into seeing his work fresh once again.

4. Samuel Fromartz, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.  A fun cross-sectional look at the bread universe, combined with some recipes and reminiscences.

5. Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan.  We could use more of this, and I am referring to each of those words “conservative” and “internationalism,” as well as the combination of the two.  This book was published about a year ago, and I don’t think the author could have realized how relevant it was going to become.  An important book for 2014, it sets out a manifesto for a classical liberal but non-isolationist approach to foreign policy.

6. Jeff Riggenbach, Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor and the Rebirth of American Individualism.  I knew her a bit and was always fond of her.  This book is a good look at 1970s libertarianism, and the rebirth of libertarian feminism in the United States.  Both Alex and I make cameos in the text, he as an editor, gatekeeper, and theorist of self-ownership and abortion, I as a purchaser of the CD collection from the estate of Roy Childs (Joan was executor of the estate and also Roy’s dear friend).

I’ve spent time with both the new Ian McEwan novel and the new David Mitchell.  Both have some virtues but neither appears to be a must-read.

dyfalu

by on September 10, 2014 at 1:07 am in Books, Education, History, The Arts | Permalink

In Welsh poetry, dyfalu is the piling on of comparisons, definition through conceit.  The word also means “to guess” in Welsh, and many poems of dyfalu have an element of guesswork, a fanciful and riddling dimension.  “The art of dyfalu, meaning “to describe” or “to deride,” rests in the intricate development of a series of images and extended metaphors which either celebrate or castigate a person, animal, or object,” the encyclopedia of Celtic Culture explains.  Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poems to the mist and the wind are classic fourteenth-century examples.

That is from Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, which I am quite enjoying.  There is interesting material on every page and it is written with passion.   A hendiatris is a “figure of speech in which three words are employed to express an idea, as in Thomas Jefferson’s tripartite motto for the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.””  When there are only two words so employed, it is of course a hendiadys.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 8, 2014 at 12:23 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

1. Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.  A genuinely interesting book about why someone with tenure at Harvard might be crazy enough to run for high public office, and then what it is like to lose somewhat ignominiously.

2. Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide.  A genuinely humble and pluralistic introduction to the economic way of thinking, from a “developmentalist,” linkages are important for economic growth, anti-free trade point of view.

I disagree with both Ignatieff and Chang pretty thoroughly, but of the last few dozen books I read, these are the two which are truly philosophical, in the best sense of that word.  There is no need to list the others, except there is Umberto Eco on Peanuts, scroll down about four paragraphs to start reading.

Sapiens [the new book by Yuval Noah Hariri] devotes large sections to unsparing accounts of the domestication and factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens. This, he contends, has made them some of the most genetically “successful” creatures in history but the most miserable too.

It is an interesting question how much that will prove to be the equilibrium more generally, namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment.  After all, capital is more productive today than in times past, so evolution might now produce more slaves.  Here is another bit from John Reed’s coverage of the lunch interview with Hariri:

What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he [Hariri] argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain “fictions” – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.

…I tell Harari I like the idea of fiction as the supreme human construct.

That is from the FT’s lunch with Yuval Noah Hariri.  If I recall correctly, I pre-ordered Sapiens from UK Amazon.

It is potent:

If people married each other more randomly, poverty levels would be considerably lower than they are now.  If we abandoned all current family arrangements and randomly grouped all Bolivians into new families of 5 persons, poverty levels would fall by about 15 percentage points (from the current level of 55% of all households to about 40% of all households).  The Gini coefficient measuring inequality would also fall from about 0.70 to 0.55.

But Bolivians do not mix much in marriage.  The correlation between partners’ education levels is extremely high at about 0.77, with no signs of falling.  For comparison, the corresponding number for Germany is 0.52 and for Britain it is 0.41.

But not all Bolivians are equally restricted in their marriage choices.  In the department of Santa Cruz the correlation is only 0.69 while in Potosi it is 0.82, with a corresponding difference in poverty rates.

That is from Lykke E. Andersen, Development from Within, an interesting and well-written collection of essays on Bolivian development, and sometimes on development policy more generally.  The cited piece was written in 2008.

Here is a good sentence from that book:

Just one little road block can disrupt an entire vacation.

Here is the author on Twitter.  Here is her blog.

Love in the old East Germany

by on August 30, 2014 at 2:14 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The East German woman had a job, was economically independent, self-confident, and divorce-happy; at a time when only 50 percent of West German women made their own money, 90 percent of women in East Germany were employed.

…the East German woman didn’t consider her male partner an enemy but rather a partner who, economically speaking, had little or nothig on her.  Indeed, the average East German man, unless he had managed to gin a foothold in the regime’s upper echelons — but what woman would want a man like that? — wasn’t in a position to boast any typically macho privileges.  He couldn’t show off with money, fast cars, or a house on Ibiza.  he had to rely on his potential talent as a lover and his qualities as a father and partner.  As a result, he tended to cultivate a rather “soft” masculine image.

…And, on top of all this: the suppression of free movement in public in East Germany had led both sexes to develop a relatively uninhibited attitude toward sex.  What other unregulatable pastime did East Germany have to offer its citizens?

That is from the newly translated book by Peter Schneider, Berlin Now: The City After the Wall.  Much of that passage makes sense, but one part confuses me:  does “rely on his potential talent as a lover” support or contradict “cultivate a “soft” masculine image”?