Books

Although all church fees were wrong, argued Francis Sadler in a much-reprinted 1738 tract, “selling” one part of the churchyard for three times the price of another “to keep Rich and Poor asunder as if there were a difference in their dust” was especially ridiculous.

Within the courtyard, “the chancel was a better address than the center aisle, which was, in turn, preferred to the side aisles.”  And lead coffins cost ten times more than coffins of wood.

That is from the excellent The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas Laqueur.  Here is a truly splendid Marina Warner review of the book.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 26, 2017 at 12:10 am in Books | Permalink

1. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn.  While this volume of very short essays does reflect a literary sensibility, I didn’t find it fun or insightful to read.  By the way, “Vomit is usually yellowish and can range from pale yellow to yellowish-brown, with certain areas of quite different colours, like red or green.”  So I suppose the Knausgaard canon really is just the first two volumes of My Struggle.

2. Alex Millmow, A History of Australasian Economic Thought.  A very good introduction, New Zealand too.  There is no problem filling a book with substance on this topic, in fact it left me wanting more.

3. Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., John D. Jackson, and Robert D. Tollison, The Economics of American Art: Issues, Artists, and Market Institutions.  A useful overview and survey of the role of economics in the development of art markets in American history.

4. Cynthia Estlund, A New Deal for China’s Workers? The best book I know on labor unions and labor policy in China: “It surprises many Westerners to learn that the labor standards established by Chinese law on the books, apart from actual wage levels, track modern Western (especially European) labor standards rather closely in many respects…Professor Gallagher has described China’s labor standards regime as one of “high standards-low enforcement.””

5. Beowulf, translated by Stephen Mitchell.  I cannot judge veracity, but to read this is in the top tier of Beowulf renderings to date.  The Old English is presented on the opposing page, this book I will keep.

6. Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman.  Eh. Contrived.

Arrived in my pile are:

Robert Wuthnow, American Misfits and the Making of Middle Class Respectability.

Jean Tirole, Economics for the Common Good, with nary an equation in sight.

These aspects raise an uncomfortable possibility for libertarians: is there a sort of law of conservation of coercion in well-functioning societies? A community with a minimal state can only function if it is thick enough and homogeneous enough to enforce sanctions for antisocial behavior that are almost state-like in their severity, and, furthermore, can make them stick. Freeing individuals from their smothering parochialisms will lead to a compensating increase in the scope and reach of the state as people search for a new solution to social dilemmas formerly handled via informal means. Conversely, attempts to suddenly curtail state power may lead to chaos in the intervening period when social institutions have not yet reasserted themselves. Principled libertarians might still have good reasons to prefer the non-state forms of compulsion—among them the arguments from public choice economics and a federalist preference for decisions being made at the lowest feasible level, where actors are most likely to have relevant information. But “increased freedom” may not be one of them.

Here is more:

Kuznicki thinks the engineering mindset in political theory is an antidote to what he sees as a philosophical tradition of abstract theorizing that puts the state on a pedestal and makes it into an almost metaphysical nexus of the human condition. But as I look around, much of the vapid theorizing seems to be in favor of liberalism writ large, while the best current example of a state built on hard-nosed pragmatism is Singapore. Kuznicki himself is a representative of a currently fashionable sort of cosmopolitan libertarianism that has never existed in governmental form, and which I suspect is the least likely form of government ever to exist. What if a practical politics that took account of human frailty implied a world formed from a combination of cosmopolitan but illiberal city-states, unified but homogeneous nation-states, and sprawling empires that vacillate between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies? In fact, this is the world that has existed for most of recorded history. Perhaps the real ideological blinders are those which tell us that we have transcended this condition and can replace it with something else.

That is from William Wilson in American Affairs, hat tip goes to Garett Jones and Rogue WPA Staff.  Here is Jason Kuznicki’s new book, which I have not yet seen.

Tim reaffirms his status as one of the great (greatest?) contemporary popular writers on economics, this time turning his attention to technology.  From a Smithsonian interview:

So what made you decide to write a book looking at the modern economy through specific inventions? 

I think it was a slight sense of frustration. I’m an economist, and economics often feels abstract and very impersonal, even though I don’t think it’s abstract or impersonal. As an economics writer, I’m also looking for a way to tell a good story and get some ideas across. I realized if I produced a kind of technological history with lots of ideas and examples I could teach some economics lessons through these very specific stories.

What’s your favorite invention in the book?

It varies, but right now it’s paper. I just loved the realization that there was an alternative to talking about the Gutenberg press. Obviously I have nothing but admiration for the Gutenberg press – it’s a tremendously important innovation. But everybody told me, ‘oh, you’ve doing fifty inventions that shaped the world, you must do the Gutenberg press.’ And I thought, ‘yeah, but it’s so obvious.’ Then I was looking at the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library, and thinking, ‘this bible is printed on something. It’s not printed on nothing. It’s printed on a surface.’ It turns out that the Gutenberg press works perfectly well with parchment, technologically speaking, but economically speaking it doesn’t make any sense without paper. Parchment is just too expensive to produce a long print run. So as long as all you’re doing is handwriting bibles and making them look beautiful, there’s no need to use paper at all. But with paper you’ve got a mass-produced writing surface. It’s often the very cheap inventions that get overlooked, but nevertheless change the world.

Here is an adaptation from the book on the history of barbed wire.  Here is another BBC adaptation on why electricity did not change manufacturing more quickly.  You can pre-order the book here.

*The Dawn of Eurasia*

by on August 21, 2017 at 5:34 pm in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

By Bruno Maçães, due out in January.  I was asked to blurb it, I’m going to go “off the reservation” and call it so far the best and most important book I’ve read so far this year.  From Amazon:

In this original and timely book, Bruno Maçães argues that the best word for the emerging global order is ‘Eurasian’, and shows why we need to begin thinking on a super-continental scale. While China and Russia have been quicker to recognise the increasing strategic significance of Eurasia, even Europeans are realizing that their political project is intimately linked to the rest of the supercontinent – and as Maçães shows, they will be stronger for it.

The Kindle edition at least you can pre-order.

Chris Blattman tweets:

Is there a modern day Fanon or Memmi writing about dvpt & globalizn as they wrote about colonialization? Doesn’t only have to be leftist.

Hardi and Negri come up in the mentions, but I am underwhelmed.  There is the alt right, mostly on the internet rather than in books of note.  To whatever extent they are objectionable, keep in mind Fanon was a Marxist, and in any case agreement is not the metric here.

I also nominate Alexander Dugin.  There is plenty in Islamic theology too, and the environmental movement would be yet another direction.

On the academic and also more liberal side, there is Joe Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik.  Is Roberto Unger going too far back?  Three-quarters of the Bengali intelligentsia?  Arundhati Roy?  Or maybe you think Naomi Klein is not serious enough, but the lower quality of at least some of these answers is itself data.  Does the writer have to be from a developing nation?

Frank Fukuyama would be a subtle answer, as would be “the government of China.”  I am reluctant to categorize Slavoj Žižek, but he is not irrelevant for this question by any means.

And let’s not restrict ourselves to non-fiction.  How about Roberto Bolaño’s 2666?  Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of SinNeill Blomkamp?  Michel Houllebecq of course.

What do you all think? I know I am missing a great deal.  That said, if you look for a very direct parallel and just google “leading Algerian intellectuals,” little of relevance comes up, focus maybe there on rai music and theology.

I would stress that the nature of intellectual fame has changed, and if there are few exact parallels to Fanon it is for that reason.  I do not think there is a more general vacuum in this area of inquiry.

That is the new and interesting book by Rachel Sherman, consisting primarily of field work and interviews with the very well-off.  Here is one bit:

…they described their desires and needs as basic and their spending as disciplined and family-oriented.  They asserted that they “could live without” their advantages if they had to, denying that they were dependent on their comfortable lifestyles.  They distanced themselves from the negative images of consumption often associated with the wealthy, such as ostentation, materialism, and excess — all markers of moral unworthiness.  These interpretations allowed them to believe that they deserved what they had and at the same time to cast themselves as “normal” people rather than “rich” ones.

…for my respondents to be a “good person” was not to be entitled.

The rich themselves seem to be fond of the distinction between “the deserving rich,” and “the undeserving rich.”

You can pre-order here.  Here is the book’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with her.  On the off chance you don’t already know, here is a brief Wikipedia summary of her work:

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor.[1] As of 2016, she has published seven books,: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016).

But there is much more to her than that.  Here is the full Wikipedia page.  Here is her own home page.

So what should I ask?  I thank you in advance for your inspiration.

Where to even begin enumerating the wealth of fruitful work — some of it highly critical — that continues to emerge from real engagement with Freud’s ideas? Consider Marina Warner’s musings on Freud’s mediation of Eastern and Western cultural tropes told through the story of his Oriental carpet-draped couch; Rubén Gallo’s panoramic exploration of the reception of Freud’s work in Mexico and the reciprocal influence of Mexican culture on Freud; and the rich medley of sociopolitical critiques grounded in Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud’s thought.

The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.

That is from an excellent NYT book review by George Prochnik.

What I’ve been reading

by on August 14, 2017 at 12:10 am in Books | Permalink

1. Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Technique.  Dense but carefully argued and consistently insightful, perhaps the best introduction to its subject matter.  It is especially strong on how Kierkegaard’s Lutheranism informed his critique of Hegel, his supernaturalism, and his strong opposition to complacency.

Kierkegaard also was an influence on my Stubborn Attachments, as Hampson writes: “Given that faith is to look beyond ourselves to Christ, the ‘future’ is for Lutheranism a critical category.  In the thought of the 20th-century Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann ‘future’ and ‘God’ become concomitant.  The relation to this future, to God, takes one outside oneself, whereas to rest on my laurels (my past) is of the essence of sin.  As we shall see, for Kierkegaard, relating to the idea of eternal life is existentially life-transforming.  It follows that in this tradition there is little continuity of person, for one and again I must break myself open (in my self-satisfaction) as I consent to dependence on God.”

Recommended.

2. Johnny Rogan, Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: Volume 2: The Lives of Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin.  Full of amazing and loving detail, this volume covers the less famous of the Byrds, and why their careers did not go further; whether in business or the arts, we spend too much time studying the winners.  Here are my earlier remarks on Rogan’s earlier editions as an extended essay on management theory and career advice.

3. Michael D. Barr, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence.  From 2013, but all the more relevant today.  Barr’s coverage is insufficiently appreciative of good results, but nonetheless offers an invaluable “how things really work” guide to Singaporean government, most of all on where accountability lies and where it does not.  There is guesswork involved, but this book offers plenty of details and analysis you won’t get elsewhere.

4. Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored: Europe After Napoleon: The Politics of Conservatism in a Revolutionary Age.  Published in 1964, before Kissinger became Kissinger, although he is a war criminal this volume shows the quality of his thought: “…an equilibrium based on considerations of power is the most difficult of all to establish, particularly in a revolutionary period following a long peace.  Lulled by the memory of stability, states tend to seek security in activity and to mistake impotence for lack of provocation.”  The person who recommended this volume to me told me it would explain why the internal and external requirements for foreign policy on the Continent are much more in accord than they are for either England or America.  It does no such thing, so I still would like to read on that question.

Jack Schneider, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.  Under a true value added measure, the schools in Somerville, Massachusetts turn out to be quite good, even though their raw test scores are not impressive.

David Osborne, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Education System, covers how charter schools are transforming the American educational landscape.

*For They Know Not What They Do*

by on August 11, 2017 at 2:30 am in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

…the Party needs “dissidents”, for this that it needs “Goldstein”: it cannot express its truth in the first person — even in the “innermost circle” it can never come to a point at which “the Party knows how matters actually stand”, at which it would recognize the tautological truth that the aim of its power it just power itself — so it can achieve it only as a construction imputed to someone else.  The circle of totalitarian ideology is thus never closed — it necessarily contains what Edgar Allan Poe would call its “imp of perversity” compelling it to confess the truth about itself.

That is from Slavoj Žižek”s book, the subtitle being Enjoyment as a Political Factor, one of his best, intermittently lucid and sometimes brilliant, most of all on Hegel.   Žižek also reminded me of an old Christopher Hitchens quotation: “mass delusion is the only thing that keeps a people sane.”

Here is the podcast and partial transcript.  Russ describes it as follows:

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and the co-host of the blog Marginal Revolution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Stubborn Attachments, his book-length treatment of how to think about public policy. Cowen argues that economic growth–properly defined–is the moral key to maintaining civilization and promoting human well-being. Along the way, the conversation also deals with inequality, environmental issues, and education.

Self-recommending!

What I’ve been reading

by on August 6, 2017 at 1:39 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.  At first I feared it was too trendy, but I ended up engrossed.

2. Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.  Pseudoerasmus calls this the best book on the most underrated big war in human history; he is right.  It also gives you a good sense of how 50-100 million people might have died.

3. Mark Bowden, Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam.  Both a very good Vietnam War book, and a very good Vietnam book.

4. Rousas John Rushdoony. The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church.  Uneven in argumentative quality, but brilliant in parts, this is one of the conceptually most interesting books on early Christianity.  It turns out your views on Christology really do shape your politics, and furthermore there is a coherent version of libertarian Calvinism, except it isn’t very libertarian, and it comes from…having the right Christology.  Recommended, it opens up new worlds for the reader.

5. Thomas Mann, Der Zauberberg.  I had never read this in German before.  For all its extraordinary intellectual and emotional peaks, it is also remarkably witty.

…most important of all was the gulf between the man and the national media, who could not understand each other — Romney’s billboards in New Hampshire read THE WAY TO STOP CRIME IS TO STOP MORAL DECAY; he could not understand why newsmen found the slogan funny; and they could not understand what he meant by moral decay.

That is from the still-engaging Theodore H. White The Making of the President 1968.  And here is Rod Dreher on crime and morality.

Why their sudden inward turn, and why the Chinese state’s abandonment of the oceans?  Some historians, like Bruce Swanson, cite a power struggle within the bureaucracy between eunuchs and conservative neo-Confucians, dubbed “continentalists,” with the eunuchs ultimately losing out.  Another important factor was probably China’s reopening of its enlarged and completely renovated Grand Canal, an extraordinary feat of engineering that connected northern China to the increasingly populous breadbasket of the south.  At eleven hundred miles long, the canal was controlled by numerous locks, much like New York’s Erie Canal, which measures only one-third its length and was not built until four hundred years later.  In 1415 the state banned the shipment of grain to the north by sea to compel use of the canal, for which thousands of barges were built.  Such a decision would have dramatically reduced the need for shipping, and hence shipbuilding and the maintenance of fleets, leading to the halting of oceangoing ship construction altogether by Yongle’s successor in 1436.

That is from the new and interesting Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard W. French.  I believe the definitive economic history of the Grand Canal remains to be written, it will be a major achievement when it happens.