Books

It was a forty-minute chat (podcast, no transcript), most of all about the decline of liberalism, based around Ed’s new and very well-received book The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  We also covered what a future liberalism will look like, to what extent current populism is an Anglo-American phenomenon, Modi’s India, whether Kubrick, Hitchcock, and John Lennon are overrated or underrated, and what it is like to be a speechwriter for Larry Summers, among other topics.  Here is the opening bit:

COWEN: Having a taste for the esoteric, I’d like to start with a question. If we go back to the 1680s and James II takes the throne, then, William of Orange comes over from what we now call the Netherlands and pushes him out — was that a liberal development or an illiberal development?

LUCE: At the time, it was very much a liberal development. Of course, we then get the bill of rights. We then get a further restriction of the power of the monarchy that comes with this new Dutch co-monarchy, William and Mary.

In retrospect, given the fact that this is very much the Protestant fundamentalist, the Battle of the Boyne, the victory of the Orange forces, William of Orange. In retrospect, I think it’s being celebrated in a pretty illiberal manner.

Of course, that’s very germane right now in Britain, given that Theresa May is trying to form a government in which the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party are going to make up the difference between being a minority government and majority government.

It depends which bit of history you’re looking at it from is my answer.

And then I toss him this question:

COWEN: Let’s say we take the British election that was just held. So many people are calling it a mess, chaos, no-good results but, say, I offered you a revisionist view, how would you respond?

I would say it’s the first real election where voting by class has essentially fallen away. You even have Kensington in London going Labour for the first time since 1974.

Voting is now much more by age. You’ve more female representatives than ever before. You’ve 15 Muslims elected, 7 of those being female. More LGBT individuals. Maybe the new liberalism is reflected by that kind of elevation.

Then on top of that, the election definitely thwarted Scottish independence. It probably helped a soft border for Ireland. We hope it’s helping a soft Brexit.

No Corbyn, no UKIP. Wasn’t it exactly the vote we needed and the most liberal outcome you could have imagined, at least relative to all the initial constraints? Or not?

Ed is extremely interesting and articulate throughout.

Again, you can subscribe to the whole series here, we will be doing more bonus offerings of this nature.

Arrived in my pile

by on June 20, 2017 at 2:07 pm in Books | Permalink

All look very good and very useful:

George Selgin, Money Free and Unfree

Barak D. Richman, Stateless Commerce: The Diamond Network and the Persistence of Relational Exchange

Guy Standing, Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded

Eminent Domain: A Comparative Perspective, edited by Iljoong Kim, Hojun Lee, and Ilya Somin

*Little Soldiers*

by on June 20, 2017 at 2:24 am in Books, Education, Uncategorized | Permalink

The author is Lenora Chu and the subtitle is An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.  It’s about what the Shanghai public school system really is like, from an American/Chinese-American point of view.  Here is one bit:

“Self-esteem” doesn’t exist in the Chinese lexicon, at least not in the way Americans use it.  In China, a child’s regard for herself is rarely as important as a stark evaluation of performance.  Almost as if child-rearing were an Olympic sport, the Chinese rank children on everything from work ethic to Chinese character recognition and musical skill.

Comparisons can be informal and conversational.

“He’s not as smart as his brother, but he’s a better singer,” my acquaintance Ming said to me once, nodding at one of her boys, in earshot of the less-smart brother.  Sometimes the desire to rank is combined with a threat. “Does your father love your brother more?” a Chinese teacher once asked my friend Rebeca’s daughter.  The question came after the girl had a bad showing on an in-class assignment.

By the way, according to the author:

Nearly half of all children outside of China’s large cities are high school dropouts.

An interesting read.

Here is his long post, here is the opening entry:

Development

Pranab Bardhan, The Economic Theory of Agrarian Institutions. There was a time when development took theory seriously, and this book came out of that time. This book is a bit uneven (it’s an edited volume), but the introductory chapter by Joseph Stiglitz is probably the single, most important statement peasants in developing countries as rational human beings. In short: Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. and If you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their economic environment.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, this post is a good meta-reflection of what actually influences the thinking of economists, or not.

The superb Michael Hofmann

by on June 18, 2017 at 12:39 pm in Books, History | Permalink

…the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages.

That is from his NYT review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.  It is so far my favorite review of the year.  Here is another good part:

When the young duke reeled him in, the barely older Goethe performed the duties of a cabinet minister. He built roads. He oversaw mines. He was put in charge of a theater. He shrank the deficit. He was someone at court. He put Weimar on the map. He met Napoleon, he met Beethoven. He corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt. He helped Schiller run a literary magazine. He was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.

There is something almost clownishly omni-competent about Goethe. He was a great beginner who ultimately finished most of the things he began. (“Faust,” which he had on the go for about 60 years, was completed in the last year of his life; Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” look by comparison like something finished the following morning.) He was interested in geology and anatomy, he developed a theory of color, he made watercolors and sketches himself, 3,000 of them. He went looking for something called the Urpflanze — the basic, or original, or prototypical, plant. He acted in his own plays. He wrote poems in many modes effortlessly. They entered the language (German, that is). When he finally grew frustrated with his married friend Charlotte von Stein, he eloped with Italy for a couple of years. He buried his wife; he buried his one surviving son. He buried his best friend, who died at 45. Near the end of his life, he gave perhaps the best description of himself, as “a collective singular consisting of several persons with the same name.” We rarely see or feel the hand in the many glove-puppets.

Here are earlier MR posts on Hofmann, one of the most underrated writers and thinkers today.

India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.) is exactly what the title promises.  This 700 pp. or so book by Kaveh Yazdani, teaching in South Africa, is not published within the traditional network of outlets.  Yet from my perusal of the first 100 pp. or so it seemed quite promising, plus it has excellent endorsements, for instance:

“Yazdani has made a great addition to scholarship on the Great Divergence. His analysis of military, economic, technical, and political advances in Mysore and Gujarat – two of the most commercially advanced areas of 17th and 18th century India – sheds new light on the nature and complexity of the differences between contemporary Indian and European states. No analysis of the Great Divergence will be credible without taking Yazdani’s research, and Indian developments, into account.”
– Jack A. Goldstone, Hazel Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University, Fairfax

Recommended, to some of you, let’s hope it gets a broader circulation.  We do indeed live in a golden age for economic history.

That was a tweet from Matt Yglesias, so here goes:

The best, in order

The Henriad (as a unit!)

King Lear

Hamlet (even if it is a bunch of cliches, strung together)

Measure for Measure

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Merchant of Venice

Romeo and Juliet

As You Like It

Twelfth Night

Winter’s Tale (underrated)

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Anthony and Cleopatra

The Tempest

Othello (slightly overrated, Verdi’s opera actually is better)

Richard II + III

Pretty flawed, but I still want to call underrated

Cymbeline

Coriolanus

Troilus and Cressida

OK, and would be pretty awesome from anyone else

Comedy of Errors

Much Ado About Nothing

All’s Well That Ends Well

Overrated, though you still can think they are pretty good

Julius Caesar

Macbeth

Taming of the Shrew

Just not that good

Henry VIII

Two Gentleman of Verona

Merry Wives of Windsor

Timon of Athens

Titus Andronicus

King John

Let’s not even get into the possible co-authorships.

The bottom line

Shakespeare is very likely the deepest thinker the human race has produced, so these are worth careful study!  I am a fan of the Folger Library editions.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

Your Next Government

by on June 13, 2017 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Private governments can learn from the commercial corporate world, where intense competition has driven the evolution of institutions capable of supporting large, complex, and consent-rich communities. Your next government might thus resemble a city-sized corporation, with you and other residents buying shares, electing the board of directors, and so forth. Think of it as residential co-op, upgraded for the big leagues.

Read Tom W. Bell for more, including his intriguing idea for “double democracy” and a generous appreciation of dominant assurance contracts.

What I’ve been reading

by on June 12, 2017 at 1:03 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History.  Things might have been different, if you believe this book.  German support for Lenin was very important, and the author sticks to the main story lines.  Hard for me to judge, but at the very least it was interesting and also clearly written.

2. Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13.  This novel builds too slowly to fit my reading style in a somewhat busy time of year, but I suspect it would be wonderful read aloud in a monotone, or as an audio book.  A young girl disappears in England, and the story records how the town processes the event, and eventually forgets about it, over the course of 13 years.  Here is one good review, it is a quality work of some originality.

3. Ken Gormley, editor, The Presidents and the Constitution.  An edited volume that is wonderful and deserving of the “best of the year” list.  The book considers how each American president in turn faced constitutional issues, and how those were resolved.  This is an excellent survey of constitutional law, and a very good refresher on American political history.  If you are a non-American, and looking to learn who all those lesser-known American presidents were, and what they did, and why and how so many of them were mediocre or worse, this is also perhaps the best place to start.

4. Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.  As clear and understandable a treatment of this topic as you are likely to find, Wilson himself writes: “A major reason for the Empire’s relative scholarly neglect is that its history is so difficult to tell.  The Empire lacked the things giving shape to conventional national history: a stable heartland, a capital city, centralized political institutions and, perhaps most fundamentally, a single ‘nation.’  It was also very large and lasted a long time.  A conventional chronological approach would become unfeasibly long, or risk conveying a false sense of linear development and reduce the Empire’s history to a high political narrative.  I would like to stress instead the multiple paths, detours and dead ends of the Empire’s development…”  Relative to those obstacles this is an amazing book.

5. Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañia.  I tried this a few years ago in English, but it clicked for me only in Spanish.  It is a series of short, interconnected philosophical meditations on those who don’t write, have given up writing, or who cannot help but write.  One of the better novels of the new century, though note it does require some basic background knowledge of figures such as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger.

Facts about Qatar

by on June 11, 2017 at 12:34 am in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink

1. Qatar is about the size of Yorkshire or Connecticut.

2. The United States and Qatar have been friendly only since the first Gulf War; before then, the relationship was somewhat hostile or at least problematic.  But Qatar was keen to invite in American troops, and the country took the lead in condemning Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

3. The British left only in 1971, so modern Qatar had a relatively short window of time with no foreign/Western troops in the country.

4. Qatar does not charge the U.S. for these bases, and “Qatar has never been able to guarantee its own security by itself.”

5. In the new century, Qatar turned itself into a major provider of hostage negotiator services.  That it is Sunni, yet has friendly relationships with Iran, Lebanon, and the United States has made it a useful go-between, and the Qatari leadership has used this as one of many ways to build up Qatari soft power.

6. “Qatar has no history of animosity towards the Shia movement…”

7. Qatar owns 20 percent of the London Stock Exchange and 20 percent of Heathrow airport.

8. The country’s main revenue is a natural gas field it shares with Iran.

9. “Al Jazeera can be seen as one of Qatar’s most significant means of antagonising Saudi Arabia…”  One can view the much-vaunted “press freedom” of the outlet as part of a more calculated balancing strategy.

10. The government of Qatar came out early for regime change in both Libya and Syria.

11. “Qatar’s history has long been punctuated by challenges emanating from modern-day Saudi Arabia.”

12. “…Qatar’s policy is worryingly dependent on two or three individuals, giving the state little strategic depth or institutional back-up capability.  The personalised nature of politics marginalises the structures in place to inform and support decision-making.  This cycle is exacerbated by Qatar’s youth as a country, which means it has only had a meaningful bureaucracy for a generation, while its educational system has been mediocre at best.”

Those are all from David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State, an excellent book, just out, recommended reading for you all.

Jason Kottke reports:

On the website for the book, you can browse the solutions in a ranked list. Here are the 10 best solutions (with the total atmospheric reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions in gigatons in parentheses):

1. Refrigerant Management (89.74)
2. Wind Turbines, Onshore (84.60)
3. Reduced Food Waste (70.53)
4. Plant-Rich Diet (66.11)
5. Tropical Forests (61.23)
6. Educating Girls (59.60)
7. Family Planning (59.60)
8. Solar Farms (36.90)
9. Silvopasture (31.19)
10. Rooftop Solar (24.60)

Refrigerant management is about replacing hydro-fluorocarbon coolants with alternatives because HFCs have “1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide”. As a planet, we should be hitting those top 7 solutions hard, particularly when it comes to food. If you look at the top 30 items on the list, 40% of them are related to food.

Here is the background context:

Environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken has edited a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming which lists “the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming, based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world”.

I will however order the book.

What I’ve been reading

by on June 6, 2017 at 12:33 am in Books | Permalink

1. Gunther S. Stent, The Coming of the Golden Age: a view of the end of progress.  Starting on p.84 (!), this short 1969 tract becomes a remarkable disquisition on stagnation, through the lens of “Faustian Man,” the decline of romanticism, Ortega y Gasset, Kierkegaard, and the hippie beats of San Francisco.  At some point the social sciences won’t make that much more progress, and Stent portrays the Maori as the non-complacent branch of the Polynesians.

2. Susan Southard, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.  What is a city like after a nuclear bomb hits?  Beautifully written, both historical and anecdotal, and the ignoble record of the American government in this episode, with respect to cover-ups and poor treatment of survivors, extends well into the recovery period.

3. Jonathan Abrams, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution.  A study of youth vs. experience, you can think of this as an excellent management book in addition to its basketball virtues.

4. Javier Cercas, La verdad de Agamenón, selected essays about literature, Borges, Tijuana, Spanish political culture as expressed through history, and the life of an author.  About half of them are excellent, none of them bad.  Could Cercas be the least-known (in America) great author in the world today?

5. Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What To Do Abut It.  The top one percent is not the relevant group.

6. Fernando Vallejo, Our Lady of the Assassins.  This short and violent novel is about Colombia during the period of its troubles.  Full of life and vigor, makes the case for complacency.

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Cents and Sensibility: What Economists Can Learn from the Humanities, covers a topic I am greatly interested in; here is a partial review by David Henderson.  Related issues are considered by Mihir A. Desai, The Wisdom of Finance, with Charles Sanders Peirce and Wallace Stevens being two points of focus.

I am happy to have just written a blurb for Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles, The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Become Richer, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, self-recommending.

That is the new James C. Scott book, and so far it is the most interesting non-fiction read of the year (I am about halfway through).  You can think of it as an extended essay on which technologies actually gave rise to economies of scale, expressed through governance but not only.  Ultimately the focus settles on Mesopotamia, but the discussion is wide-ranging and the lessons are applicable to much of human history.  Here is an opening summary bit:

I propose that cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building.  I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state.  Unlike many historians, I wonder whether frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization.  And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better.

Here is one good passage:

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets.  History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana Republics” don’t qualify!)  My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing.  On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects.

In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years.  If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dip up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported.

The discussion of how the technology of fire is the ultimate root of economies of scale is alone worth the price of the book.  Scott analogizes complacency/peace to the domestication of non-human animals, including the phenomenon of less violent emotional reactions and greater conformity.

Urgently recommended, and fun to read as well.

Here are various articles on the work of James C. Scott.  Here is a good NYT profile of Scott and also his farming work.

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Marginal Revolution is one of the most popular economics blogs on the Internet, with a libertarian slant. It has been in constant operation since 2003, and has posted over 4000 links to books on Amazon.

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Feedback and ideas appreciated!

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