*Nature’s Oracle*

by on March 22, 2014 at 6:11 am in Books, Science | Permalink

The author is Ullica Segerstrale and the subtitle of this excellent and fascinating book is The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton.  Here is one bit:

She had decided to break up with him.  The reason for this…was Bill’s strange idea of marriage.  Bill had told her that they should have no more than two children, of which one child would be his and another her child with another man.  His girlfriend thought about this and realized she could not agree.  She also wondered what lay behind this suggestion.  (She probably did not recognize Bill’s experimental scenario as coming straight out of some book like Out of the Night.)

This book has many excellent lines, including:

There is a famous New Zealand expression: “Anything can be fixed with a number 8 wire.”


Who carries around cyanide?

Robert Trivers makes numerous cameos as well.

The subtitle is The Myth of Benjamin Strong as Decisive Leader.  Here is a summary from the book’s back cover:

Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression challenges Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s now-consensus view that the high tide of the Federal Reserve System in the 1920s was due to the leadership skills of Benjamin Strong, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In this new work, Toma develops a self-regulated model of the Federal Reserve, which stands in contrast to a conventional discretionary model. Given the easy redemption of dollars for gold and the competition among Reserve banks, the self-regulated model implies that the early Fed could control neither the money supply nor the price level. Exploiting an untapped data set, later chapters test the thesis of self-regulation by focusing on the monetary decisions of individual Reserve banks.

The micro-based evidence indicates that “Reserve banks really did compete” – and that Benjamin Strong as decisive leader during the 1920s is a myth. This finding, with its emphasis on monetary policy in the years leading up to the Great Depression, will be of interest to scholars, students, and sophisticated lay readers with an interest in macroeconomic and monetary economic policy issues, specifically to those with an interest in economic history.

I have not read it yet, but it is sure to be controversial.

*Water 4.0*

by on March 18, 2014 at 7:38 am in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new book by David Sedlak and the subtitle is The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource.  I found this consistently interesting, going well beyond the usual anecdotes one finds in the other general “history of water” books.  Here is one bit about Japanese water relations being Coasean in earlier times:

In Japan, human wastes were separated prior to recycling.  Fecal matter was the more valuable commodity, because solids were easier to transport.  In the first stage of the recycling process, landlords sold the feces in their tenants’ cesspools to merchants who were members of a guild that had secured the right to collect the wastes from that part of the city.  The wastes were so valuable that the rent of an apartment would increase if the number of people living in the house, and hence the amount of solid waste produced, decreased.  When it came time to renegotiate the price for the wastes, the guilds sometimes fought with each other for the rights to buy the increasingly valuable fertilizer.

Urine — the less prized waste — was still a marketable commodity.  Because of its lower value, tenants, who owned the rights to their urine, sold it to a group of merchants who were not part of the fecal waste guild.

That discussion, by the way, is drawing upon this S.B. Hanley piece.


*The Once and Future King*

by on March 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm in Books, Law, Political Science | Permalink

The author is my colleague F.H. Buckley and the subtitle is The Rise of Crown Government in America.  I am very enthusiastic about this book, which is a comparative study of American and Canadian systems of government with respect to the abilities to produce varying degrees of tyranny, in the former case mostly through the executive branch.  Buckley is himself from Canada and overall favors that system of government.  Here are two excerpts:

That was why McGee and the other Fathers thought Canada the freest country in the world.  When they looked south, they saw a country with more of Constant’s liberty of the ancients, but with less (so it seemed to them) of the liberty of the moderns.  Moreoever, of the former, the right of self-government had been corrupted by political machines and trivialized by elections for dogcatchers.  The high ideals of the American Founders had been forgotten, and McGee thought that their republican virtue, in the era of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, was now little more than American braggadocio.


Presidential regimes are more likely than parliamentary ones to turn into dictatorships, and to rank lower on measures of public corruption.  Thus far we have examined two explanations for this: The president is the head of state and symbol of the nation; and he is relatively immunized from accountability to the legislature.  We now turn to a third possible explanation: The separation of powers creates inefficiencies in government that invite the president to step in and correct, and in so doing, to augment his powers and independence from congressional oversight.

I would argue that, for better or worse, a big part of the differences is driven, not only by constitutions but also by the much more active foreign policy of the United States.  I wonder what a true parliamentary discussion of nuclear weapons use would look like.

…companies have introduced “Knausgaard-free days” in order to keep people’s minds on work.

By Adrian Wooldridge, a longer Economist profile of Knausgaard is here.

That is the new book by Daniel Hannan and the subtitle is How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.

Oh how one can mock those subtitles about the making of the modern world, heh heh!  Yet this subtitle has a plausible claim to be…true.  Even more shockingly, the subtitle accurately describes the book.

Every time my plane lands in England I shed at least a tear, maybe more, out of realization that I am visiting a birthplace (the birthplace?) of liberty.  This is not a joke and during my trips there I never quite snap out of that feeling, though I am also well aware of all the problems those people have foisted upon the world as well.

I found many parts of this book to be superficial, or perhaps well-known.  Yet often they were superficial and…true.  Here is one excerpt:

To put it another way, the distinction was not between Catholic and Protestant individuals, but between Catholic and Protestant states.

Here is from an Amazon review:

Author Daniel Hannan is a person of English ancestry who was born and raised in Peru then relocated to the United Kingdom as an adult and made a career in politics, including becoming one of the U.K.’s representatives to the European Parliament. His global experience has shown him how unique is our “Anglosphere” heritage of representative democracy, protection of property rights, the sanctity of law, and the inalienable rights of the individual.

This is in some ways an important book, though I do not think it is a book which will satisfy everybody.

For the pointer I thank Daniel Klein.

That is the new forthcoming Charles Murray book and the subtitle is Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

Murray by the way just published a review of Average is Over in the latest Claremont Review of Books which I enjoyed very much.  It is not yet on-line but cited here.

For the pointer I thank Alex.

The subtitle of his book is Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I am finding this book interesting, here is one good bit:

The call for a greater Syria reflected the prevailing sentiment among Palestine’s Arab intellectuals.  Some notables who were active in the Muslim-Christian Associations wanted an Arab Palestine within the British Empire, but many of the activists and intellectuals, inspired by Faisal’s success, envisaged Palestine as “Southern Syria.”

…There was a good geographical as well as political argument for greater Syria.  As subsequent events would reveal, Palestine lacked natural boundaries, especially in the north and south.  There were looming disputes over water rights that could be avoided by combining Palestine and Syria.

…The British, fearful that the movement for a greater Syria would undercut their hold over Palestine, encouraged Palestine’s Arabs to think of themselves as Palestinian.

Overall the text offers a strongly non-sentimental account, does not whitewash any of the participants in the disputes, and it communicates how much early American policymakers , including Truman, were skeptical about what ended up happening.  Today’s often-unquestioned assumptions were very often historically quite contingent.  You can buy the book here.

*Massacre in Malaya*

by on March 10, 2014 at 2:38 am in Books, Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

The author is Christopher Hale and the subtitle is the rather misleading Exposing Britain’s My Lai.

The first fifth of this book is in fact the best short early economic history of Malaysia and Singapore I know, even though the focus of the book as a whole is on one colonial event, namely the 1948 Batang Kali massacre during the post-war Malayan Emergency.  The next section is a superb treatment of the Japanese occupation and the political issues leading up to that occupation.  This book reflects a common principle, namely that often, to learn a topic, you should read a book on an adjacent but related topic, rather than pursue your preferred topic directly.  The book on the adjacent topic often will take less background knowledge for granted and explain the context more clearly for what you actually wish to learn, while getting you interested in other topics along the way.

Just about every page of this book has useful and interesting information, here is one new word I learned:

The history of the ‘Malay World’ in the centuries before the momentous fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 is predominantly a convoluted narrative of maritime statelets, technically thalassocracies.

This one will make my best non-fiction of the year list.

The great Robert Ashley, one of the musical geniuses of the last forty years, has passed away.  He is one of the few who did something truly new in music.  Here is NPR on Ashley.  Here is the opera Perfect Lives, perhaps his greatest contribution.  Here are parts of that opera on YouTube.  Here is Ashley on Wikipedia.

Sadly, Sherwin Nuland has passed away too.  His How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter is one of my favorite books, recommended to all.

Megan McArdle dialogue at AEI

by on March 4, 2014 at 2:59 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

You will find the video here, the dialogue is with me and Tim Carney.

The underlying question behind the book is when the general possibility of error helps you learn and when it leads you off the precipice, never to return.  As I understand Megan’s argument, additional error-making propensity has positive individual and social returns at the margin, which means we should offer implicit or sometimes explicit subsidies to experimentation.  That means a liberal bankruptcy law, relatively easy divorce, and a focus of subsidies on areas with high fixed costs.  In other words, the National Science Foundation should worry more about labs and less about individual researchers.

As I had predicted, this is proving to be a breakout book for Megan.  You can buy her book here.  There is more on the book here.

Recommended reading

by on March 4, 2014 at 12:04 am in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink

Anatol Lieven, Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.  And here is a short essay of his on Ukraine today.

Orlando Figes, A Crimean War.

Vassily Aksyonov, The Island of Crimea, discussed here: “Written in 1979, Vassily Aksyonov’s “The Island of Crimea” imagines an alternative history (abetted by alternative geography—the Crimea is a peninsula) wherein the Russian civil war ends with the tsarist forces able to hold onto this southern scrap of the old empire. “

That is a new and highly useful book by Stuart J. Hillmon, here is one bit from it:

Truthfully, majoring in economics is not really all that helpful for your admissions prospects.  This is true for two reasons.  First, knowing who does well in undergraduate economics is not terribly helpful in identifying who will be a good academic economist.  Unlike other fields such as chemistry or physics, what happens in undergraduate courses bears little relation to what happens in graduate courses.  For this reason, the committee cannot predict how well you will do as an academic economist based on your doing well in your undergraduate econ courses.  Consequently, they don’t give too much weight to your stellar performance in the usual undergraduate classes.

For this book, I would have asked for greater length, more discussion of government and private sector careers, and more discussion of non-orthodox paths through academic economics, or for that matter seeking employment at a teaching school or attending a Ph.D. program below the top tier.  You will note “Stuart J. Hillmon is the pseudonym for an academic economist who graduated from a top five doctoral program in economics and currently teaches courses in policy and economics.”  The book is structured accordingly and perhaps that will frighten some of you away.  If everyone were like Hillmon, I would not myself today be an economist.

Still, this is a good place to start if you are considering whether to get a Ph.D. in economics.

That is the new and excellent book by Daniel W. Drezner and the subtitle is How the World Stopped Another Great Depression.  It is largely if not entirely correct, here is a summary excerpt:

A closer look at the global response to the financial crisis reveals a more optimistic assessment.  Despite initial shocks that were more severe than the 1929 financial crisis, global economic governance responded in a nimble and robust fashion.  Whether one looks at economic outcomes, policy outputs, or institutional operations, these governance structures either reinforced or improved upon the pre-crisis status quo.  The global economy bounced back from the 2008 financial crisis with relative alacrity.

I would myself stress two additional points, whether you call them addenda or qualifications is up to you.  First, we now know that the Fed could have done much more in 2008.  I consider this a mistake rather than a mistake in governance, and later the Fed did a great deal to try to make up for this error.  Second, the performance of the eurozone is hardly spectacular, to say the least, and the ECB should have moved to a much looser monetary policy in 2009 if not sooner.  Still, given what a screwy, seventeen-nation system had been set up, and given the severe distributional consequences of four percent inflation in the eurozone, I am surprised the system performed as well as it did.

*The Tyranny of Experts*

by on February 25, 2014 at 10:11 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The author is William Easterly and the subtitle is Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor.

This is Easterly’s most libertarian book, self-recommending.  It is due out March 4.