Books

The story is here, his book is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  Previous MR coverage is here, it was one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.

From Chris Taylor’s new How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise:

The comments section on the Marginal Revolution blog post about the Death Star calculation is a case in point.  Here, even now, sober economists [TC: is that what you people are?] hash out questions about the variables: Whether to factor in the slave labor of Wookiees (which was partly responsible for its construction, according to the novel Death Star). Or whether you could fund the whole thing from taxes on the population of Coruscant (which is said to have a trillion inhabitants, thus funding the Death Star at a cost of roughly $8,000 per person)  or whether a quality assurance engineer should have nixed a thermal exhaust port two meters wide that led to the main reactor shaft, and what effect this oversight might have had on the Empire’s chances of getting an insurance policy on its second Death Star.

The original MR post on the Death Star is here, and by the way the Taylor book is excellent for all those interested in the topic.

For the pointer I thank a Mr. Christopher Weber.

2015 Law and Literature reading list

by on November 18, 2014 at 1:26 am in Books, Education, Film, Law | Permalink

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

The Law Code of Manu, Penguin edition

Njal’s Saga (on-line version is fine)

Lawyer Poets and that World Which We Call Law, edited by James Elkins

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Conrad Black, A Matter of Principle.

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville, excerpts, chapters 89 and 90, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.

Haruki Murakami, Underground.

Honore de Balzac, Colonel Chabert.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta, House of Glass.

M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.

Films: A Separation, Memories of Murder, other.

Podcast: Serial

If you are eligible (economics graduate students have taken it in the past), do take my class, I am very happy to have you there.

This passage is from Gao Wenqian’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary:

Doctors in China could not conduct major medical procedures on top leaders without the approval of the Politburo Standing Committee.  Such was the long-standing rule.  Thus, in 1975, Deng Ziaoping and Marshal Ye Jianying, leaders among the old CCP cadres who had generally despised the Cultural Revolution and had shown little enthusiasm for the political style of the mercurial Jiang Qing, now had to negotiate emergency surgery for Zhou Enlai with her allies Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao.  For once, these tough political adversaries managed to see eye-to-eye.  They all gave their consent to surgery and sent their decision to Mao, who always had the final say.

Zhou Enlai had four operations before dying of cancer.  For the last two operations, however, Mao instructed the doctors to tell Zhou that in fact he was being cured and the tumors were removed.  He ceased to believe that when the unbearable pain arrived.

Over the more than four centuries from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day.

That is from the extraordinary new Stephen Kotkin biography of Stalin, titled Stalin.  The first volume of 949 pp. brings the reader up only until 1928.  A lot still happened after that.

There are already more speakers of Aramaic in metropolitan Detroit (around a hundred thousand) than in Baghdad…

That is from Christian Caryl in the 4 December 2014 New York Review of Books, reviewing Gerald Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

I just clicked on pre-order

by on November 11, 2014 at 11:58 am in Books, History, The Arts | Permalink

Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Hofmann is a poet, translator, and essayist and in my view he is one of the finest (and most underrated) thinkers and writers of our day.  The book is due out December 2.  Here are previous MR mentions of Michael Hofmann.

My favorite fiction of 2014

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

Overall I found this to be a weak year for fiction, with most of the highly anticipated books disappointing me, including those of Murakami, MacEwan, and David Mitchell.  Even the third volume of Knausgaard had extraordinary material through only about fifteen percent of the text; it was worth reading but most of it did not hold my attention very well.  Here are the ones I really liked, with the first two being my favorites:

1. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel.  A missionary visits space aliens, some of whom embrace the Bible eagerly, almost too eagerly.  Meanwhile he and his wife on earth write letters back and forth, showing they are the true aliens to each other.  This is the fiction book this year I enjoyed most, and the one I kept on wanting to pick up after I had put it down.  It is one of the most resonant portraits of space aliens I have read. yet without it being a science fiction novel.  Here is a useful NYT review, describing the book as “defiantly unclassifiable.”

2. Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov, The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, A Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia.  This work blends fiction, non-fiction, and occasional social science (was a non-corrupt transformation of the Soviet Union really possible?, Gaidar ultimately decided it wasn’t), but in terms of the subjective experience of the reader it is most like a novel.  In addition to its literary quality, this is a deep book about why liberalism will never quite win over human nature.  Here is an interesting Julian Barnes review, although it is insufficiently appreciative.

3. Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves, “Women who know what they want never want anything interesting.”

4. Javier Cercas, Outlaws: A Novel, my earlier remarks are here.

5. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  The Booker Prize winner, I thought this was at times too sentimental but an excellent story with some depth too.  It deals with an Australian in a prisoner of war camp in WWII and his escapades surrounding that time in his life.

I have yet to start the new Colm Tóibín novel, and I often like his work.  I read some of the new Sarah Waters, which struck me as a little too belabored for the time I had to give to it, but a quality work which will please her fans.  Cesar Aira wrote some more and he continues to be interesting.  I continued a reread of Moby Dick.

I am preparing my list of my favorite non-fiction books of the year and that should be ready before the Christmas shopping season starts.

In the meantime, what new fiction can you all recommend to me?

What I’ ve been reading

by on November 8, 2014 at 7:58 am in Books | Permalink

I’ve been on a roll with my last few books:

1. Denis Johnson, The Laughing Monsters.  This one doesn’t seem like it is trying very hard, and yet I like it more than the author’s other books, perhaps for that reason.  It’s about two (ostensible) buddies, set in Africa, then all kinds of secrets unfold.  There is a NYT review here.

2. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel.  A missionary visits space aliens, some of whom embrace the Bible eagerly, almost too eagerly.  Meanwhile he and his wife on earth write letters back and forth, showing they are the true aliens to each other.  This is the fiction book this year I enjoyed most, and one I kept on wanting to pick up after I had put it down.  Here is a useful NYT review, describing the book as “defiantly unclassifiable.”

3. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.  The fact that so many pages still feel so non-comprehensive is a testament to the life being covered here, and to the richness of its historical period.  Still, this is fresh and easy to read throughout, recommended.

The world’s urban population is growing very rapidly, especially in the developing world. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that in India alone such an expansion will require the building of, in essence, a new Chicago every year for the next several decades. The problem with these numbers is not the expense. The problem is political and organizational. Many currently less-developed countries, including India, remain high in corruption and low in efficiency, especially in the administration of their towns and cities. It would be wonderful if foresighted and public-spirited government planners would provide India and other developing nations with wise urban planning but it seems unwise to rely on what has historically been rare for this massive transformation. Is there an alternative?

In Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s private city (working paper) found in a new book Cities and Private Planning  Shruti Rajagopolan and I explore this question. Gurgaon, which I have written about before, shows both the successes and failures of private development. On the surface, Gurgaon is a gleaming, modern city built nearly overnight on wasteland. Gurgaon was built, however, without benefit of planning and its failures–most notably poor and inefficient provision of  water, sewage, and electricity–are a warning. The failures all stem from high transaction costs, Gurgaon’s private developers have simply not managed to Coasean bargain and internalize externalities. It’s clear from Gurgaon that cities need advance planning–a reservation of rights of way for water, sewage and electricity at the very minimum–but does the planning have to be provided by government which is often incapable of such foresight?

The lessons of Jamshedpur, India, suggest another approach. Jamshedpur is a private township, planned from the beginning by visionary businessman Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, who, after travelling to the United States to see Pittsburgh, returned to India to found Tata Iron and Steel. Jamshedpur has been run by a single, integrated entity for over 100 years and as it is integrated it has internalized externalities. As a result, Jamshedpur, India’s other private city, has some of the best urban infrastructure in all of India.

Gurgaon shows the benefits of competition. Jamshedpur the benefits of integration. Can we get the best of both worlds?

If the rights to develop Gurgaon had originally been sold in very large packages, some five to seven proprietary but competitive cities could have been created in that region. Within this system the role of the state is to make it possible to auction large parcels of land. Once such parcels and associated rights to develop the land are created, private developers will provision public goods and services up to the edge of their property.

As proprietary communities, the competitive cities would have every incentive to invest in and especially to plan for appropriate infrastructure. Moreover, with five to seven communities in the same region, competitive pressures would keep rents low and at efficient levels for maximizing net benefits (Buchanan and Goetz 1972, Sonstelie and Portney 1978). Within the larger city, subdivisions on the order of neighbourhoods and business districts could be sublet and run by competitive firms with the overarching city establishing rules to internalize externalities. Competitive private governments would also generate experimentation and innovation in new rules that would then spread through intercity learning (Romer 2010).

Thus, Rajagopolan and I conclude:

In the next five decades many entirely new cities with populations in the millions will be built in places where today there is little or no population or infrastructure. Most of the urban development will occur in the developing world where government resources are stretched thin and planning is in short supply. Gurgaon illustrates the scope and the limits of private sector provisioning when the state machinery fails to provide essential public goods. The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban report:

Despite occasional statements to the contrary, most political scientists have long known — going back at least to Philip Converse’s work in the 1960s, and probably farther to Walter Lippmann’s in the 1910s/1920s — that many Americans do not in fact show substantial ideological consistency across policy views, except among limited groups…The 20% of the adult population who are white voters with bachelor’s degrees show some degree of coherence when it comes to views on same-sex marriage and income redistribution.  But, when it comes to the 40% of the adult public who have one or none of these characteristics — including, for example, African Americans and Latinos without bachelor’s degrees and nonvoting whites without bachelor’s degrees — there is no tendency whatsoever for people who lean in a given direction on one of these issues to lean in the same direction on the other.  For the remaining 40% of the adult public, who have two but not three of these features (e.g., white voters without bachelor’s degrees), ideological coherence is barely measurable.

That is from their new book The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, interesting throughout.

What I’ve been reading

by on October 27, 2014 at 1:52 am in Books, Film | Permalink

1. Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov, The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, A Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia.  Blends fiction, non-fiction, and occasional social science (was a non-corrupt transformation of the Soviet Union really possible?, Gaidar ultimately decided it wasn’t), but in terms of the subjective experience of the reader it is most like a novel.  Excellent and also entertaining.  I consider this a deep book about why liberalism will never quite win over human nature.  Here is an interesting Julian Barnes review, although in my opinion it is insufficiently appreciative.

2. Kenneth D. Durr, The Best Made Plans: Robert R. Nathan and 20th Century Liberalism.  I may be biased because I just gave a talk at the Nathan Foundation and received it as a gift copy.  I call this the “real history of economic thought.”  It’s a look at the career of a man who worked with Simon Kuznets to improve gdp statistics, helped lead the war effort in the 1940s, supported the civil rights movement, founded a major economic consulting firm, and supported the idea and practice of economic development, most of all for South Korea and Myanmar.  It’s a splendid look at twentieth century economics as it actually influenced the world, without centering the story on academia.  By the way, here is Diane Coyle on Walter Lippmann.

3. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings.  This account of 1970s Jamaica, centered on a plot to shoot Bob Marley, shows a remarkable amount of talent, as well as a mastery of plot construction and different novelistic voices, some of which are in Jamaican patois.  If you pick up this book you will be impressed and indeed many of the reviews are glowing.  Yet somehow never did I care, feel entertained, or wish to read further.  I stopped.  I remain interested in that era, but will instead recommend a viewing — or reviewing — of The Harder They Come or Marley.

4. John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element.  That element would be Providence, and this work looks at how Scholastic insights can serve as a foundation for economic thought.  Loyal MR readers will know that is not exactly my brew, but some of you will find this of interest.

Matt Yglesias on publishing and ebooks

by on October 24, 2014 at 1:04 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

It is undeniably true that Amazon has a very large share of the market for e-books. What is not true is that Amazon faces a lack of competition in the digital book market. Barnes & Noble — a company that knows something about books — sells e-books, and does so in partnership with a small outfit called Microsoft. Apple sells e-books and so does Google.

These are not obscure companies. It is not inconvenient for customers to access their products. And since these are companies that are actually much bigger and more profitable than Amazon, there is absolutely no way Jeff Bezos can drive them out of business with predatory pricing.

Amazon’s e-book product is much more popular than its rivals because Amazon got there first, and the competition has not succeeded in producing anything better. But consumers who prefer to buy a digital book from a non-Amazon outlet have several easy options available, and thus a book publisher who chooses to eschew Amazon will not actually be unable to reach customers.

There is more here, a good rant.

Heilman, the expert in Hasidic succession, told me that one reason so many dynastic fights emerged in the past decade is that the grand rabbis are living longer, sometimes too long to have the vigor to conclusively determine whom their successors will be or so long that their increasingly entrenched institutional court refuses to cede power.  In Hasidic Europe before World War II, a contender to the throne unhappy with a chosen successor could set up his seat in a neighboring village, Heilman said.  But since the war, with the consolidation of Hasidim into relatively few sects, each sect’s brand name has been enshrined so that successors want to become, say, the Satmar Rebbe, not the Kiryas Joel Rebbe.

That is from the new Joseph Berger book, The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America.

Let’s assume books — at the margin of course — bring some external social value, perhaps by stimulating ideas production or by improving the quality of voting and citizenship.  If that were the case, at which margin should we look for this external benefit?  I can think of a few possibilities:

1. More books should be produced.  Yet this hardly seems plausible, as there are so many books produced right now and most of them are largely ignored.  In any case, Amazon clearly makes a larger number of books readily accessible, although its lower prices may discourage the number of books longer run.

2. Better books should be produced.  Arguably this is true by definition, but it is not a useful means of evaluating most proposed changes to the book market.  That said, Amazon creates an open forum for useful reviews.  That may improve long-run book quality, or at least lead to a more useful matching of readers with books.

3. Books should be cheaper and thus purchased and read more often.  Maybe so, but public libraries give books away for free — great books too — and their shelves are not stripped bare.  So making commercial books cheaper will get us only so far.  If all books were completely free, reading would go up by only so much, because time and attention would remain scarce.  In any case, with reference to the recent debates, Amazon does in fact make books cheaper.

4. Books should be more vivid in the minds of readers.  People would read more if the books meant more to them and that is a more effective lever than simply making books cheaper.  You will note of course that “buzz” can make books more vivid, and so Piketty’s Capital became a vivid book for a large number of people.  They bought it, though most of them did not read past page 26.  So even making books more vivid will not necessarily bring about the desired end of additional interested readership.  That said, Amazon does create various lists to try to boost the buzz around books, and Amazon tries to raise the relative status of reading and book-buying more generally.

It is in fact not so easy to specify how we might reap significant additional social benefits from the current book market.  The real externality, if there is one, lies in improving the humans not the books.

In the meantime, Amazon, in its current configuration, seems to be producing some marginal social benefits.