Books

In my spare time I was reading some Huey Newton, and it struck me how contemporary his ideas were in some regards, in particular the risk of arbitrary violence at the hands of the police.  Here is an excerpt from Revolutionary Suicide:

As our forces built up, we doubled the patrols, then tripled them; we began to patrol everywhere — Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and San Francisco.  Most patrols were a part of our  normal movement around the community.  We kept them random, however, so that the police could not set a network to anticipate us.  They never knew when or where we were going to show up…The chief purpose of the patrols was to teach the community security against the police, and we did not need a regular schedule for that.  We knew that no particular area could be totally defended; only the community could effectively defend and eventually liberate itself.  Our aim simply was to teach them how to go about it.  We passed out our literature and ten-point program to the citizens who gathered, discussed community defense, and educated them about their rights concerning weapons.

By the way, Hillary Clinton worked as a young intern for the Huey Newton legal defense team (he was accused of shooting a policeman).

His new book Inequality: What Can Be Done?, is out mid-May but already available in some bookstores.  Here is an interview with Atkinson.  I thought this book did not take sufficient care with some very basic distinctions, such as the difference between a problem of poverty and a problem of inequality.   Nor does it put enough emphasis on wealth creation, or explain why Korean-Americans have done pretty well over the last thirty years, among other possible examples.

The book is dedicated to the NHS workers of Britain.  That’s fine, many of them are very good, but Atkinson doesn’t mention a few key points, namely that a) the British system ranks relatively poorly by European standards, b) the British system probably has too much governmental ownership and provision, and c) bureaucracies usually underpay their best workers and thus do not generate enough initial income inequality.

François Bourguignon has a very good and readable new book on the international dimension of inequality, The Globalization of Inequality.

Martin Wolf has an FT review of both books.

For the pointer to the Atkinson interview I thank Enrico Schaar.

Arrived in my pile

by on April 30, 2015 at 2:20 pm in Books | Permalink

Gary B. Gorton, The Maze of Banking: History, Theory, Crisis.  This volume collects his best articles.

Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock, and Rachel Jones, Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary.  Appears to be the most thorough and comprehensive treatment to date.

Vishaal Kishore, Ricardo’s Gauntlet: Economic Fiction and the Flawed Case for Free Trade.

That is the new Keynes biography by the renowned Richard Davenport-Hines.  It’s not like most biographies I know.  The font is fairly large, and the presentation is non-comprehensive and fairly subjective.  It is more like reading the transcript of some very good talks on Keynes, and less of a trudge than many bios.  There is even a chapter on Keynes as lover, but actually quite serious and good, as it helps set the man in context.  For Davenport-Hines, Keynes was most of all a Cambridge Apostle.  This book will help you get inside the mind of Keynes, definitely recommended.

I’m passing through Baltimore on the train today (a talk at U. Penn and chatting with Ashok Rao), so I have license to do this.  Here goes:

1. Author: There is plenty to choose from here, including Poe, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Frank O’Hara, and H.L. Mencken.  I do not love F. Scott Fitzgerald as many do, same with Upton Sinclair, but they deserve mention.  I’ll opt for Poe, with Gold-Bug as my favorite story.  Hammett’s Red Harvest I also enjoy and have taught a few times, delicious incoherence.  Anne Tyler has a few good books, but stop reading after one or two of them.

2. Philosopher: John Rawls, though since we’re talking about Baltimore I feel I should call him Jack.

3. Painter: Morris Louis or Grace Hartigan?  I feel I can do better, help out people.

4. Popular music: Tori Amos grew up in Baltimore, I like her Little Earthquakes and various singles, live cuts, and cover versions, available only in scattered form as far as I know.  Is Dan Deacon popular?  Frank Zappa is a remarkable musical talent, but I don’t actually enjoy listening to him.

5. Jazz: Eubie Blake, there is also Bill Frisell and Billie Holiday.

6. Classical music: Philip Glass was born there, though I associate him with NYC.

7. Baseball: I still remember that old Orioles rotation with Cuellar, McNally, Palmer, and Dobson, all twenty-game winners in the same year.

8. Soviet spy: Alger Hiss.

9. Movie, set in: I don’t love Diner or Avalon, how about The Accidental Tourist, or Twelve Monkeys?  The first half of Silence of the Lambs is excellent.

For good measure toss in Thurgood Marshall, Tim Page, Babe Ruth, The Wire, Walters Art Museum, the underrated BSO, and Brooks Robinson.  Who or what else am I forgetting?

The bottom line: Lots for one city!  Let’s hope it gets better soon.

Eric Posner’s (with Adrian and Blakey Vermeule) new and excellent venture The New Rambler asked me to write a book review for them.  The impish side of me thought “what book better to review than the old Rambler?”, namely by Samuel Johnson?  Here is the opening of my piece:

A blogger by the ostensible name of “Samuel Johnson” has compiled his previous posts into a book, edited by a supposed W.J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss. But the true work here is “Johnson’s,” and the sequential editing, as such, seems to have been done by WordPress. The editorial illusion, of course, is a trick dating from the eighteenth century, as for instance Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope presented the work of an imaginary Martinus Scriblerus in the 1740s. These Johnson posts claim to date from the early 1750s, a typical blogger’s conceit and misdirection, but the content is too modern and innovative to sustain that illusion for long.

Cutting through the postmodern trappings, Johnson’s blog reflects his ongoing interest in behavioral economics. He is continually skirting the frontier of the latest research insights, although like many bloggers he is lax in providing the proper citations. He writes off the top of his head, though without care for what came before from Thomas Schelling, Jean Tirole, or Cass Sunstein, among other titans of the field. Reading these short pieces is thus a fascinating but often frustrating experience. And as is true for most of the work in behavioral economics, there are insights but a fully fleshed out model, applied consistently to all human choices, is nowhere to be found.

Here is the full review, recommended!

That is the subtitle, the title proper is Pedigree, by Lauren A. Rivera.  This is a very good book on the microdynamics of inequality and the important role played by social networks, how you present yourself, and…pedigree.  Not all of it is a revelation, because by now many of these mechanisms are well-known.  Still, it is unfailingly intelligent, well-written, and it documents these matters better than any other book I know.  Here is one excerpt:

…individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization.  HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees.  Insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm.  First-year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns, or word-of-mouth to the interview phase, provided that they could successfully get the application on the “right desk,” in person or via email…In addition, the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong.

More generally, it is often better to have a contact “within” an institution rather than at the very top.  Recommended, for all those who have an interest in such topics.

Via Chug, here is what happens when you plate junk food as if it were high-end food, a good link.

It is now available, notice the new subtitle The Economic Malaise at a Technological Plateau: Problems of the United States and Oppotunities for China.

I will be doing some book promotion in China in May, and soon I will have a few questions for you all.

ChinaTGS

1. Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine.  Why not read a biography of one of the most important men of the twentieth century?  I found this book valuable even though I am already familiar with the Ezra Vogel tome on Deng.  Recommended.

2. Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia, by Ian Barnes, Belknap Press.  This is not only one of the best introductions to Russian history, there are clear and excellent maps every two or three pages.  More history books should follow this standard.

Joseph Heath has written an interesting and thoughtful comment on my review of his excellent book Enlightenment 2.0 (fyi, we have never communicated but it turns out that Heath is a long time reader of MR.). Samuel Hammond concisely summarized on twitter part of Heath’s response:

In reply to @, Joseph Heath shares the dire Straussian reading of his own book: The US is Rome burning

Quite accurate but I want to focus on a different point.

Finally, Tabarrok suggests that I am “too sanguine about the role of politics.” I thought I was being fairly pessimistic about politics. I think the nub of the disagreement between Tabarrok and myself on this point – and certainly the basis of our major differences of political ideology – is that I am much more sanguine about the role of the state than he is. This is not the same as being sanguine about democratic politics. For example, he points out that:

In a large electorate, no individual’s vote is likely to change the outcome of an election. As a result, it doesn’t pay to be informed about politics nor to think about politics in objective and rational terms. Consider an individual who spends time and effort to be informed about politics. What does this individual receive in return for their investment? The same thing as the uninformed individual. Since better information doesn’t lead to better consequences, it doesn’t pay an individual to be informed.

I couldn’t agree more….Indeed, the sort of considerations that motivate Tabarrok’s enthusiasm for making decisions through betting markets are, I would guess, quite similar to the ones that motivate my own enthusiasm for cost-benefit analysis. The key difference is that Tabarrok (and Bryan Caplan) tend to assume that democracy gives “the people” much greater control over the behaviour of the state than it actually does. In the background there is, I suspect, a somewhat public-choicy picture of legislation as a complex process of preference-aggregation. By contrast, I follow Ian Shapiro in thinking that we need to get past these sorts of “general will” theories of democracy.

There is one point in the last chapter where I say what I really think, but again, it might easily be overlooked. So let me just say, for the record, that I was also dead serious when I wrote the following paragraph (and that it comes closest to summarizing my considered view):

It is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision-making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded. They do so largely by shifting power and control away from elected representatives toward experts. Even in the United States, where this is difficult to do, one can find examples all over. The most obvious example is the enormous role that the Supreme Court has played in making decisions that, in most other democracies, would be left to the legislature. But one can see it in other areas as well, such as the amount of autonomy that government agencies have or the increased use of cost-benefit analysis in public decision-making (338).

So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing.

Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.

One of the reasons that I oppose the extension of democratic politics into every aspect of modern life is precisely that in trying to do too much, democracy delivers incoherence, gridlock and frustration, forces that eventually undermine its own legitimacy. I worry about democratic legitimacy because I see democracy as a check and balance on Leviathan (while Heath sees it as a check on government by experts).

The legislature has become a sideshow. But I worry, because the more Congress is held in contempt the greater the support for a bold executive that takes charge, makes decisions and gets things done. Under these pressures, executive power has grown not just in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain (on this theme see F.H. Buckley’s The Once and Future King.) But for all its faults, the legislature and the rule of law are more conducive to liberty than the executive and the administrative state. Legislators are satisfied with reelection and a bit of pork but executives hunger for greatness and in so doing they promote the real dangers, idolatry, the centralization of power and war.

In short, I worry that the pathologies of democracy drive the demand not for rational, technocratic government but for Caesarism.

Jonathan Chait writes:

At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.

Read his whole discussion, but he more or less disapproves.  I’ve long wanted to disagree with Chait “from the left,” and it seems this is my chance, I had better grab it while I can.

While teaching Law and Literature this year, I attached very gentle, low key “trigger warnings” to a number of items on the syllabus, namely those dealing with extreme violence, rape, and some other very unpleasant situations.  I am glad I did this.  I told students that if they preferred to do a substitute assignment, I could arrange that.  Is that so unreasonable?  There were no takers, but I don’t see it did anyone harm or limited free speech in the classroom (or outside of it) to make this offer.  If anything, it may have eased speech a slight amount by noting it is OK to feel uncomfortable with some topics, or at least serving up that possibility into the realm of common knowledge.  That struck me as better and wiser than simply pretending we were studying the successful operation of the Coase theorem the whole time.

I don’t doubt that trigger warnings may be misused in some situations by some professors, but overall they seem to me like another small step to a better world.  I do agree we need to liberate trigger warnings from the strictures of the PC movement, no argument there.

Addendum: I am pleased to see that GMU was moved into the highest category for university free speech, according to FIRE.

This passage shook me up, bravo to the author:

…although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense.  The claim that armed self-defense was a necessary aspect of the civil rights movement is still controversial.  However, wielding weapons, especially firearms, let both participants in nonviolent struggle and their sympathizers protect themselves and others under terrorist attack for their civil rights activities.  This willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself.

That is from the recent book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr.  Also related is the 1962 book Negroes with Guns, by Robert F. Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Truman Nelson, about the use of guns for protection against the Ku Klux Klan.  Martin Luther King of course did keep a gun in the house, and he relied on neighbors who, at times, protected his house by carrying guns.

*To the Edge*

by on April 19, 2015 at 3:00 pm in Books, Economics, Law | Permalink

That is the new Philip A. Wallach book and the subtitle is Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial CrisisPhilip is one of the underrated up-and-coming young policy economists, and this book focuses on the financial crisis and the law.  It is original, a rare quality for books on the crisis at this point.  My own blurb says: “Why did America respond to its recent financial crisis the way it did? And why did the bailouts so quickly become unpopular, even as the economy was recovering?  How much did the law stop the government from doing more? Philip Wallach’s To the Edge is the very best book on all of these questions.”

Christopher DeMuth puts it well: “The financial crisis of 2008 was also a crisis of law and a crisis of government legitimacy,” and Wallach is now the go-to guy on that angle.

*Those Who Write for Immortality*

by on April 19, 2015 at 3:03 am in Books, History, The Arts | Permalink

Joshua Rothman writes in The New Yorker about a new book by H.J. Jackson, on the romantic poets:

Truly long-term literary endurance depends, Jackson writes, on “regular reinterpretation,” and, for that to happen, your writing has to be rich and multi-dimensional. That doesn’t mean, though, that other factors can’t help it along. Thanks to Wordsworth’s liberal, politically active youth, biographers were able to keep discovering previously-unknown political episodes in his early life; that allowed them to keep publishing controversial biographies, which kept him in the public eye long after his death. That distinction between youth and age was also useful for professors: it allowed them to keep arguing over who was better, the “early” or “late” Wordsworth. Even without all these factors, Jackson concedes, Wordsworth’s poetry would still be read today, especially in universities—but academic study alone could never have given him the high cultural profile that he enjoys now. “To sum up,” she writes, Wordsworth’s fame “is due to a concatenation of circumstances, most of which Wordsworth himself could not have foreseen, most of which he would have objected to if he could have foreseen them, and most of which had little to do with the communication of eternal truths.”

You can order the book here, the subtitle is Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame.

What I’ve been reading

by on April 17, 2015 at 12:46 am in Books | Permalink

1. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson.  My favorite of his books, fun and readable as you would expect, many interesting details including what happens to you in water at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Philip Glass, Words Without Music.  “A lot of Einstein on the Beach was written at night after driving a cab.”  An excellent memoir of both Glass’s early life and the New York creative world up through 1976 or so.

3. Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop.  A good example of a book I wish was longer than it was, it is shorter than its 199 pp. might indicate.  As a poet I much prefer Bishop to her correspondent Robert Lowell; their letters collection by the way makes for superb reading and drama.

4. Njal’s Saga.  I just taught this in Law and Literature, and on the re-read I enjoyed it more than expected.  The core model is that arbitration is binding, provided the expected outcome does not stray too far from what violence would bring.  The best way to go through the book is first to master the internal story of sections 121-145, then read to the end, and finally go to the beginning.  A recommended guide is William Ian Miller’s “Why is Your Axe So Bloody?”; yes that is the same Miller who wrote very good books on disgust and humiliation.