I very much enjoyed the new LRB piece by Amia Srinivasan.  Here is a good “standing on one foot” statement of what effective altruism recommends:

The results of all this number-crunching are sometimes satisfyingly counterintuitive. Deworming has better educational outcomes among Kenyan schoolchildren than increasing the numbers of textbooks or teachers. If you want to improve animal welfare, it’s better to stop eating eggs than beef, since caged layer hens live worse lives than farmed cows, and because eating eggs consumes more animals than eating beef: the average American consumes 0.8 layer hens but only 0.1 beef cows per year. Buying Fairtrade goods can be worse than buying regular goods, since the extra cost goes mostly to middlemen rather than farmers, and when it doesn’t, it benefits farmers in relatively rich countries: because Fairtrade standards are hard to meet, most Fairtrade coffee production comes from Mexico and Costa Rica rather than, say, Ethiopia, where the marginal pound would go much further. The green value of buying locally grown food is overblown, too, since transport accounts for only 10 per cent of the carbon footprint of food, while 80 per cent of it is generated in production; tomatoes grown in the UK can have five times the carbon footprint of tomatoes shipped from Spain because of the energy required to hothouse them. If you’re really committed to minimising your carbon footprint, MacAskill recommends donating to the carbon offsetting charity Cool Earth; he estimates that the average American could offset all his carbon emissions by donating $105 a year. There isn’t much point in unplugging your electricals, either: leaving your mobile phone charger plugged in for a whole year contributes less to your carbon footprint than one hot bath.

And here is part of the critique:

MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man. He repeatedly talks about philanthropy as a deal too good to pass up: ‘It’s like a 99 per cent off sale, or buy one, get 99 free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.’ There is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That he speaks in the proprietary language of the illness – global inequality – whose symptoms he proposes to mop up is an irony on which he doesn’t comment. Perhaps he senses that his potential followers – privileged, ambitious millennials – don’t want to hear about the iniquities of the system that has shaped their worldview. Or perhaps he thinks there’s no irony here at all: capitalism, as always, produces the means of its own correction, and effective altruism is just the latest instance.

Not my view, but well written as a piece and definitely recommended.  Here is comment from Scott Alexander.

By Barry Cunliffe, due out in November.  I’m counting the days…

No, not Dani Rodrik, the guest for tomorrow’s Conversations with Tyler chat, rather Elias Canetti.  As prep for Dani at 3:30 tomorrow (live stream), I thought I should read some more Canetti.  Here are a few maxims from his The Secret Heart of the Clock:

At the edge of the abyss he clings to pencils

Curiosity diminishing, he could now start thinking

He reads only for appearances now, but what he writes is real

Newspapers, to help you forget the previous day

His disintegrating knowledge holds him together

I am delighted to have been reading this 2001 history, which is now one of my favorite books on China.  It is perhaps the best background I know for understanding current Chinese foreign policy, even though it does not focus on foreign policy per se.  Do you wish to understand why the 19th century was so traumatic for China?  How the Opium Wars and Taiping rebellion fit together?  Why Manchuria was once such a flash point for global affairs? (Has any region fallen out of the major news so dramatically?)  How is this for a good sentence?:

The 1929 Sino-Soviet conflict is perhaps China’s least studied and understood war.

I learned something from every page, you can buy the book here.

Elsewhere on the China front:

The flash reading of the Caixin China general manufacturing purchasing managers’ index dropped to 47 points in September, down from 47.3 in August, marking the worst performance for the sector in 78 months.

A reading above 50 indicates improving conditions while a reading below 50 signals deterioration. The index has now indicated contraction in the sector for seven consecutive months.

How quickly do services have to be expanding for the entire Chinese economy to be growing at anything close to six percent?

What I’ve been reading

by on September 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Deep South, by Paul Theroux.  It’s OK enough, but Theroux’s best writing was motivated by bile and unfortunately he has matured.  Still, he can’t get past p.9 without mention Naipaul’s “rival book” A Turn in the South.  My favorite Theroux book is his Sir Vidia’s Shadow, a delicious story of human rivalry and one of my favorite non-fiction books period.

2. Elmira Bayrasli, From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places.  A well-written, completely spot on analysis about how the quality of the business climate needs to be improved in emerging economies, and about how much potential for entrepreneurship there is.  If economists were to do nothing else but repeat this message, the quality and usefulness of our profession likely would rise dramatically.

3. Michael White, Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir.  Nominated in the non-fiction National Book Award category, I actually enjoyed reading this one, all of it except the parts about…Vermeer.  It’s better as a memoir of alcoholism and divorce, interspersed with visits to art museums.

Tom Gjelten’s A Nation of Nations is an interesting “immigration history” of Fairfax County.  I enjoyed Deirdre Clemente’s Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style.

Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State is a useful history of how a social welfare state for the military was first created, for recruitment purposes, and then  later dismantled.

I recommend L. Randall Wray’s Why Minsky Matters: An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist, forthcoming in November.  Minsky isn’t so readable, but Wray is.  I’ve just started my review copy, I hope to report more on it soon.

A Phool and His Money

by on September 21, 2015 at 7:21 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

I was disappointed with Akelof and Shiller’s Phishing for Phools.

Cinnabon pastries are hard to resist. Advertising can be deceptive. Humans sometimes act in foolish ways. If these statements strike you as anodyne then there is no need to read George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s new book Phishing for Phools, a disappointing foray into behavioral economics from two recent Nobel Prize winners. If these statements strike you as novel then I recommend instead Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, to name just a few classics in the field

You can read my full review at The New Rambler.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 21, 2015 at 1:05 am in Books | Permalink

1. Lavinia Greenlaw, A Double Sorrow.  A deeply sad but very affecting poem, based loosely on Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida.  Here is a useful review of the work, and unlike many poems it is very easy to read.

2. Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World.  This 1815 volcanic eruption in Indonesia had a bigger impact on global history than you might think.  Be afraid, be very afraid.

3. Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.  A good, readable, even-tempered treatment of what the title promises.  I learned a good deal about the 1940s and 50s most of all, recommended.  It is 816 pp. but never a drag.  I am surprised it is not being reviewed more prominently.

4. Andrew Wender Cohen, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century.  A good look at how America really ran its nineteenth century trade policies, full of good anecdotes and examples.

5. Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, it is out already in the UK, which was my source.  My main objection to this book is the overselling in the subtitle.  It is a nice, readable account of Silk Road history and the importance of Eastern land transport for global economic history.  I liked it, but didn’t feel it revised my worldview in any big way or even tried to.  The material on the twentieth century struck me as too familiar.  Here is one useful review.

I read about thirty pages of the new Salman Rushdie.  While it was better than expected, I didn’t feel compelled to continue; it is odd to tell a rationalist story through magical realist means.  Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is turning out to be one of the year’s sensations.  I’ve read about one hundred pages and seems to be of high quality but its themes don’t grab me (New York City, child abuse), and it is taking too long to become conceptual.  And for another recent novel on child abuse themes, don’t forget the new Rafael Yglesias.

I found this a fascinating book, in spite of some over-generalizations.  We all know that something is wrong with Europe, and with France in particular, but what?  The argument starts with this:

We need to take religion seriously, especially when it starts to disappear.

It continues:

…we gave the name ‘zombie Catholicism’ to the anthropological and social force that emerged from the final disintegration of the Church in its traditional bastions…This cultural survival is probably the most important social phenomenon of the years from 1965 to 2015.  It eventually led France into a multifaceted ideological venture, including the rise of a new kind of socialism, decentralization, a surge of pro-European feeling, a masochistic monetary policy, a deformation of the nature of the Republic, and, as we shall later see, a particularly shifty form of Islamophobia and, probably, of anti-Semitism.

It’s hard to unpack this following sentence in a blog post, but it gives you an indication of where the book is heading:

The demonization of Islam is a response to the intrinsic need of a completely de-Christianized society.

Todd notes that the vote share of the National Front is higher in “egalitarian territory” than in inegalitarian territory (pp.125-126).  And yet there is more:

We have been obliged to admit that there is a zombie Catholicism, and a zombie Protestantism too.  We should not shy away from postulating that there is a zombie Islam.

Ross Douthat, telephone!

I ordered my copy from  Here is a useful article on the French controversies surrounding this book.  It’s making my list for one of the most interesting of the year.

*Good Profit* by Charles G.Koch

by on September 12, 2015 at 12:31 am in Books, Economics, History, Philosophy | Permalink

I am pleased to have received an advance review copy.  The subtitle is How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies, and here are three excerpts:

One of the many schools I attended was a Catholic school, to which I was sent at age five for a couple of years.  But I was a skeptic even at that young age.  I rejected the nuns’ claim — which I took literally — that Jesus was behind the altar.  They offered graham crackers and milk as reward for good behavior, but the incentive wasn’t strong enough for me.


…Barbara Walters included David [Koch] on her television special The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014.

His selection highlights the difference in our lifestyles.  His is interesting; mine is not.  When I am not in the office, I’m either studying praxeology, working out in our basement gym, analyzing the twenty-four components of the golf swing, enjoying one of Liz’s “heart-healthy” meals in our kitchen, or trying to understand what my toddler grandsons are saying when we FaceTime.


…Koch [Industries] has enjoyed better results hiring from Wichita State or Kansas State than from Harvard.  (The four employees who have succeeded me as president of Koch Industries hailed from the Murray State University School of Agriculture, Texas A&M, the University of Tulsa, and Emporia State University.)

This is no dull, ghost-written tome, rather it is interesting throughout.  You can pre-order the book here.

I have not yet had time to peruse my copy, but it appears to be a definitive achievement of sorts, 994 double column pages.  The topics include the Navier-Stokes equations, communications networks, the Black-Scholes equations, finite differences, foams, the flight of a golf ball, and the mathematics of sea ice.  The book’s home page is here.  The lead editor is Nicholas J. Higham.

*Black Earth*

by on September 11, 2015 at 7:38 am in Books, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

The author is Timothy Snyder and the subtitle is The Holocaust as History and Warning.  Here is one bit:

The Germans had come to understand that pogroms were not an effective way to eliminate Jews, but that the production of lawlessness was an appropriate way to find murderers who could be recruited for organized actions.  Within weeks they grasped that people liberated from Soviet rule could be drawn into violence for psychological, material, and political reasons.

In per capita terms more Jews from Estonia died than from any other country at the time.  As of 1944 there were still three-quarters of a million Jews in Hungary and ultimately more than half of Hungary’s Jews survived the Second World War, even though Hungary was both a German ally and it was later invaded by Germany.  More generally:

Jews who were citizens of Germany’s allies lived or died according to certain general rules.  Jews who maintained their prewar citizenship usually lived, and those who did not usually died…Jews from territories that changed hands were usually murdered.  Jews almost never survived if they remained on territories where the Soviet Union had been exercising power when German or Romanian forces arrived…In all, about seven hundred thousand Jews who were citizens of Germany’s allies were killed.  Yet a higher number survived.  This is a dramatic contrast to the lands where the state was destroyed, where almost all Jews were killed.

Recommended, interesting throughout, and gripping throughout, including the discussions of agricultural productivity and of Hitler as a non-nationalist who saw race as the primary category of human existence.  It’s not easy to write an original and readable book on the Holocaust these days, but Snyder seems to have done it.  You can read some reviews here.

The new Greg Ip book is coming out soon, I just bought my copy…

I learned a good deal reading Ramon H. Myers’s essay “The World Depression and the Chinese Economy 1930-6” in Ian Brown’s The Economies of Africa and Asia in the Inter-war Depression.  Here are a few of his points:

1. In the 1920s, per capita growth in China was probably around 0.33 percent a year, one percent a year in absolute terms.  I would add the notion that the country already was on an explosive growth path does not seem borne out by these estimates.

2. The Chinese financial system at the time was quite free-wheeling and money flowed into China to facilitate the country’s 1915-1930 growth.

3. By the late 1920s, China’s exports were only about 2 to 3 percent of gdp.

4. The Japanese seized Manchuria 1931-32, and the region had been accounting for a significant portion of China’s industrial growth.

5. The loss of Manchuria excepted, Chinese internal growth rose about 11.6 percent a year across 1930-36.  It seems the country just wasn’t hit that hard by the global Great Depression.

6. There was sustained deflation during 1931-1935; some of this ties in to complex developments in the silver market, as China was on a silver standard.  Yet economic activity still expanded.  Silver flowed out of the country, but there was a big boost in credit and “inside money.”

7. As an aside, had I mentioned that the Nanjing government only firmly controlled two provinces of the country as of 1935, with “minimal control” in eight others?

8. Shanghai grew throughout most of the 1930s, with exceptions for the Japanese attack and the Yangtse flood of 1931.

Myers’s conclusion that the Great Depression did not hit China so hard has been challenged (pdf), but so far his account is the most convincing I have found.  China during the Great Depression remains an understudied topic.

America’s hottest author apparently has been thinking about economics, as you can see on page one:

It wasn’t as if Pip felt good about making fun of her mother.  But their dealings were all tainted by moral hazard, a useful phrase she’d learned in college economics.

Or later:

“America put too much carbon into the atmosphere, renewable energy could help with that, federal and state governments were forever devising new tax inducements, the utilities were indifferent-to-moderately-­enthusiastic about greening their image, a gratifyingly non-negligible percentage of California households and businesses were willing to pay a premium for cleaner electricity, and this premium, multiplied by many thousands and added to the money flowing from Washington and Sacramento, minus the money that went to the companies that actually made or installed stuff, was enough to pay 15 salaries at Renewable Solutions and placate its venture-capitalist backers.”

There is even some Widow’s Cruse:

Their theory was that the technology-driven gains in productivity and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs would inevitably result in better wealth distribution, including generous payments to most of the population for doing nothing, when Capital realized that it could not afford to pauperize the consumers who bought its robot-made products.

Ted Gioia liked it.  Laura Miller liked it.  Here is a useful Christian Lorentzen review.  Here is Colm Toibin’s take:

“Purity,” in other words, depends more on story than on style. It can seem, in fact, as though there is a battle going on in the novel between the slackness of its style and the amount of sharp detail and careful noticing, especially regarding Pip’s role as a damaged innocent in need of rescue and redemption. Most of the time, there is something oddly invisible about the style, so that you do not notice it as the plot moves from event to event.

Overall, after sixty-one pages of reading, I would not dissuade the eager, nor would I attempt to convert the skeptical.  I am closer to the latter group, as the main theme, described by Sam Tanenhaus as “the false idolatry of the digital age,” is too close to my daily life to interest me further; it’s Raskolnikov, Captain Ahab, and Colonel Kurtz for me.  It is Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan from Indonesia, that I am waiting for: “There is much dying in the novel.”

Her new The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers is a tour de force of economics, anthropology, Pierre Bourdieu, management theory, and anecdotes about Sony and Facebook and UBS and Cleveland Clinic.

It turns out Gillian wrote her doctoral thesis in anthropology on Islamic marriage practices in Tajikistan.