From Foreign Affairs.  Here is my bottom line:

His latest entry into this debate [over stagnation], The Rise and Fall of American Growth, is likely to be the most interesting and important economics book of the year. It provides a splendid analytic take on the potency of past economic growth, which transformed the world from the end of the nineteenth century onward.

In a nutshell, Gordon is probably right about the past, but wrong about the future.  My greatest reservation about the work is that Gordon thinks he can predict future rates of productivity growth with considerable accuracy:

…although Gordon focuses on the demographic challenges the United States faces, he never considers that today, thanks to greater political and economic freedom all over the world, more individual geniuses have the potential to contribute to global innovation than ever before.

…many past advances came as complete surprises. Although the advents of automobiles, spaceships, and robots were widely anticipated, few foretold the arrival of x-rays, radio, lasers, superconductors, nuclear energy, quantum mechanics, or transistors. No one knows what the transistor of the future will be, but we should be careful not to infer too much from our own limited imaginations.

And here is the “oops” aspect of the book:

What Gordon neglects to mention, however, is that he is also the author of a 2003 Brookings essay titled “Exploding Productivity Growth,” in which he optimistically predicted that productivity in the United States would grow by 2.2 to 2.8 percent for the next two decades, most likely averaging 2.5 percent a year; he even suggested that a three percent rate was possible.

…Gordon offers a brief history of the evolution of his views on productivity. Yet he does not mention the 2003 essay, nor does he explain why he has changed his mind so dramatically. He also fails to cite other proponents of the stagnation thesis, even though…their work predates his book.

Nonetheless this is a tract well worth reading.  Again, here is my entire review.

*The Moral Economy*

by on January 29, 2016 at 1:57 pm in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

The author is Sam Bowles and the subtitle is Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens.


Due out in May.

The subtitle of Thomas Leonard’s new and excellent book is the apt Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.

I take it you all know by now this is quite an ugly story, namely that both early progressives and late 19th century American economists were often quite appalling racists and eugenicists, and that such racism was built into the professional structure of economics in a fairly fundamental way, including but not restricted to the American Economics Association.

Kevin Drum had an interesting point in response (and do read his full post, there is more to it than this quick excerpt):

Early 20th century progressives supported eugenics out of a belief that it would improve society. Contemporary liberals support abortion rights and right-to-die laws out of a belief in individual rights that flowered in the 60s.

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today.

I view it this way.  Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century.  Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened.  For instance if you look at the British Parliamentary debates of 1912 over the Mental Deficiency Bill, the anti-eugenics forces drew heavily upon Mill for their inspiration.  This was standard stuff, but the Progressives of the time didn’t see much of a pro-liberty reason for being pushed into a Millian position, quite the contrary.

The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty.  Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that.  They probably admire Mill’s more practical reform progressivism quite strongly, or would if they gave it more thought, but they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others.  That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point.  This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.

I don’t mean to pick on Kevin, who is one of my favorite bloggers, but I disagree (and find indicative) another one of his claims, namely:

…eugenics died an unmourned death nearly a century ago.

To give one (not the only) example to the contrary, Swedish “progressive” sterilization persisted through the 1970s, as was true for Canada as well.  Eugenicist views toward autistic people, among others, remain common across the political spectrum (no special brickbat for Progressives here, but they are guilty too), and with CRISPR a lot of eugenicist debates are already making a comeback.

Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition?  I think Mill himself would say no.


From my inbox, from Bruce Caldwell:

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer, May 29-June 17. The three week program is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is designed primarily for faculty members in economics, other social sciences, and the humanities, though three of the twenty-five slots are reserved for graduate students. Participants will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive a $2700 stipend for attending, out of which they will pay for their own room and board. Our line-up of discussion leaders is quite impressive, and includes Maria Pia Paganelli, Nicholas Phillipson (author of Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life), Bart Wilson, Duncan Foley, Tim Leonard, Angus Burgin, Eddie Nik-Khah, and Steve Medema. The deadline for applying is March 1. A special bonus for those who attend: the History of Economics Society meetings will be held at Duke from June 17-20. Attendees who wish to do so can stay over for the HES meetings. 

More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website,

Oxford University Press, 1024 pp., New School lineage, endorsements from the big “heterodox” names, this may be another one of the big economics books this year.

I’ll keep you posted.  Here is the Amazon link.

For the pointer I thank the excellent David Gordon.

That is the title of the new and forthcoming Robin Hanson book, due out in May.  I was asked to supply a blurb, and offered two possibilities.  One was:

“Robin Hanson is one of our most original and important thinkers.  This is his book.”

The ostensible premise of the book is that people have become computer uploads, and we have an entirely new society to think about: how it works, what problems it has, and how it evolves.  One key point about this new world is individuals can be copied.  But this is more than just a nerdy tech book, it is also:

  1. Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in.  We are already something-or-other, uploaded into humans,and very often Robin is describing our world in cloaked fashion, albeit with some slight tweaks to parameters for the purpose of moral illumination.
  2. A reminder of how strange everything is, and how we use self-deception to come to terms with that strangeness.  It’s a mock of all those who believe in individual free will.
  3. An attempt to construct a fully rational theology, proving by various deductions that God is not fully benevolent in the traditional sense.
  4. An extended essay on the impossibility of avoiding theology, given the imposition of competitive constraints on a world where production and copying are possible.  And ultimately it is a theodicy, though it will not feel that way to Westerners, Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  It hearkens back to medieval theology, Descartes, and the idea of living in God’s possibly terrifying simulation.
  5. A satire on the rest of social science, and how we try to explain and predict the future.
  6. A meta-level growth model in which energy alone matters and the “fixed factor” assumptions of other models are relativized.  Copying is taken seriously, besides how special are you anyway?  In the meantime, we learn just how much of the world we know depends upon the presence of various fixed factors.  But surely that is temporary!
  7. A challenge to our notions of wherein the true value of a life resides.

I hope enough readers pick up on some of this.  And yes, there is a chapter on sex, love, and affairs.

It is hard to excerpt from this book, but here is one short bit:

Compared with humans, ems fear much less the death of the particular copy that they now are.  Ems instead fear “mind theft,” that is, the theft of a copy of their mental state. Such a theft is both a threat to the economic order, and a plausible route to personal destitution or torture.  While a few ems offer themselves as open source and free to copy, most ems work hard to prevent mind theft.  Most long-distance physical travel is “beam me up” electronic travel, but done carefully to prevent mind theft.

I am wildly enthusiastic about everything the Robin upload does, and some of his copies are better yet.  Here is the book’s home page.


Addendum: Here is Robin Hanson’s response.

Arrived in my pile

by on January 25, 2016 at 2:29 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Rowena Olegario, The Engine of Enterprise: Credit in America.

2. Jürgen Kocka, Capitalism: A Short History.

3. Michel De Vroey, A History of Macroeconomics: from Keynes to Lucas and Beyond.

4. Despina Stratigakos, Where are the Women Architects?

5. Heather Boushey, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict.

Very good sentences

by on January 24, 2016 at 7:02 am in Books, Current Affairs, Political Science | Permalink

Moreover, the forces that are disfiguring the right are likely to spread in future years, consuming the Democrats in much the same way as they have consumed the Republicans. The stagnation of the living standards of average Americans is creating widespread angst. The culture wars are extending to new areas. The ­Internet-enabled news-cum-entertainment industry stokes political resentments even as it creates epistemic anarchy. Interest groups are finding ever more ingenious ways to pretzel the political process. Interesting times don’t remain confined to one part of the political spectrum for very long.

That is from an Adrian Wooldridge review at the NYT.

The disaster in Flint, Michigan is being treated as an aberration but Werner Troesken’s excellent book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster demonstrates that there is a history of such problems in the United States.

In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials.

Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects—particularly for pregnant women and young children—and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure—explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.

Full disclosure: Troesken was a colleague at GMU a few years ago around when this book was published.

A question about deep reading

by on January 23, 2016 at 12:38 am in Books, Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Brad asks:

Prof. Cowen – I’m a longtime MR reader, but just came across an old post on your prolific reading. In the post, you mention:

“But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand.  I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.”

I am intrigued by this process of deep reading the canonical classics – have you detailed your method/routine for this anytime on MR?


Here is my preferred method:

1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back.  Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

1b. Mark up the book with bars and questions marks, but don’t bother writing out your still-crummy thoughts.  That will slow you down.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature, keeping in mind that you now are looking for answers to some particular questions.  That will structure and improve your investigation.  But do not read the secondary literature first.  You won’t know what questions will be guiding you, plus it may spoil or bias your impressions of the classic, which is likely richer and deeper than the commentaries on it.

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need.  If you don’t finish this part of the program, at least you have read the book once and grappled with some of its problems, and taken in some of its commentators.  If you can get through the reread, you’ll then have achieved something.

4. I am an advocate of the “close in time” reread, not the “several years later” reread.  The several years later reread works best when it has been preceded by a close in time reread, otherwise you tend to forget lots, or never to have learned it to begin with, and the later reread may be more akin to starting a new book altogether.

5. If you want to find new things in books you already know and love, opt for new editions, new translations, and new typesettings where you will encounter it as a very different visual and conceptual field.

That is the new Kirk J. Beattie book, and I find it one of the very best studies on how Washington actually works; I am less interested in the determinants of Middle East policy per se.  Here is one bit:

On the Senate side, I got the distinct impression that the constituents are not, in general, as important to senators as they are to House members.  One gets the distinct impression that individuals with financial clout are far more likely to get senators’ attention than others.  As one staffer put it, “If you’re talking to me, you’re talking about money.  People are not coming to these issues for the first time.  But for us, where our constituents are is very marginal.”  That said, a small number of well-heeled individuals can get senators’ attention in many but certainly not all cases.  The bias here runs distinctly in favor of putative supporters of Israel.  While other religious or ethno-religious factors are in play, like the size and strength of a senator’s evangelical community, senators appear to be less concerned about these voices, unless of course the senator either shares or sees utility in that perspective.  This parallels views held by House staffers, leaving one to think that evangelical senators’ commitment to Israel exceeds the level of pro-Israel concern by the evangelical masses.

Among other virtues, the book offers a new (to me) channel for how money might affect politics.  Even if donors cannot “buy positions” from politicians, the need to stay competitive in a more or less zero-sum fundraising game means that Congressional staff do not have enough time to study or learn issues very well, and thus depend all the more on outside sources of information.

Definitely recommended, you can buy it here.

This is probably one of the most useful things you will learn from MR all year.  It is from Maria Konnikova’s new book The Confidence Game:

In 2010, Nicholas Epley and Tal Eyal of Ben-Gurion University published the results of a series of experiments aimed at improving our person and mind perception skills.  The title of their paper: “How to Seem Telepathic.”  Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others.  When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail.  When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level.  For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues.  For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion.  For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist.  So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.

If, however, we can adjust our level of analysis, we suddenly appear much more intuitive and accurate.  In one study, people became more accurate at discerning how others see them when they thought their photograph was going to be evaluated a few months later, as opposed to the same day, while in another, the same accuracy shift happened if they thought a recording they’d made describing themselves would be heard a few months later [TC: recall Robin Hanson’s near vs. far mode].  Suddenly, they were using the same abstract lens that others are likely to use naturally…

Upon reading this passage I realized I have been thinking in these terms for years, without quite realizing it so explicitly.

One implication: if you feel bad one morning, don’t let it get you down and lower your confidence.  Other people probably won’t notice your problems.

Another implication: you’ll understand yourself better if, in a given moment, you can pretend to distance yourself from some of your immediate impressions of your day, and treat yourself like a piece of your writing which you set aside for a week so you could look at it fresh.

A third implication is this: you can read other people’s moods better by ignoring some of your overall impressions of them, and by focusing on what they might perceive to be small changes in their situation, appearance, or stress levels.

The original research is here, worth a read (pdf).  And here are various reviews of the Konnikova book.


When Cruz was thirteen his father brought him to Rolland Storey, a kindly and charismatic septuagenarian who ran a conservative foundation aimed at teaching youth about economics and government.  Storey educated his pupils about the brightest minds of free market economics: they pored over Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and marveled at Frederic Bastiat’s denunciations of socialism as legal plunder.  A veteran of vaudeville, Storey liked to re-create constitutional conventions and assign students to play delegates in mock debates.  Many of his students were gifted, but none could keep up with Cruz in terms of passion and inherent ability.  Thrust into some of the momentous scenes from world history, the thirteen-year-old was perfectly at home.

That anecdote is from McKay Coppins, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, a fun read with lots of background information I did not know.

I will never forget the time Gregory Rehmke took me to meet Rolland Storey in Houston.  But that is a story for another place and time…

What I’ve been reading

by on January 18, 2016 at 1:00 am in Books | Permalink

1. Robert Trivers, Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist.  A wild memoir, full of tales of bipolar, murders in Jamaica, study at Harvard, marijuana, knee symmetry as a key variable in sprinting success, and the Black Panthers.  It has sentences like “Best way to put it, nobody fucked with Ernst Mayr.”  From one of the leading evolutionary biologists, recommended if you are up for the offbeat and the exotic and not obsessed with coherence.  Burial instructions are included.

2. R.W. Johnson, How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis.  A stunning yet deeply pessimistic book about why the country is doing so badly.  The rot seeps more badly than I had realized.  The corruption, collapse of the legal system, and dismantling of the use of the government public to spend on public goods all are out of control and getting worse.  Recommended.  A bit idiosyncratic, but conceptual and original throughout.

3. C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary.  Many people consider this the best book on cricket ever written.  I cannot judge that, but it is a stellar sports book, colonialism book, and most of all a Caribbean Bildungsroman (Trinidad), definitely recommended to anyone with interests in those areas.  Beautifully written, I read this one to prepare for Kareem.

4. Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back.  I don’t usually read books with “the Hitler gimmick,” but this recently translated German novel caught my eye in a London bookstore.  Imagine that Hitler comes back (an unexplained plot twist), no one believes it is “the real Hitler,” and he is given his own TV show as a kind of crank celebrity imitator.  It’s an interesting meditation on the commercial trivialization of evil, and how the modern world can process virtually any kind of message.  Relevant for American politics today, I even laughed at some parts and I don’t usually find novels funny.

5. Amiri Baraka, SOS Poems 1961-2013.  Is he actually one of America’s better poets?  Imagine a mix of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and the Black Panthers.  Truly original and full of energy, here is his NYT obituary.

6. James Baldwin, Collected Essays.  My favorite Baldwin, not the novels.  The biggest surprise in here is his film criticism, most of all the short essay on Bergman, or on Porgy and Bess.  Here is an Atlantic piece appreciating Baldwin as a movie critic.  Or how about this sentence?: “He [Langston Hughes] is not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable.”

The Age of Stagnation: Why Perpetual Growth is Unattainable and the Global Economy is in Peril, by Satyajit Das, and

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, by Todd Rose.

I have a keen interest in both topics…