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!

Jeffrey Rothfeder has a very good piece on that question, here is one excerpt:

Somewhat surprisingly, cross-border capital flows are equally anemic. Despite the common perception that multinationals these days manufacture their products anywhere but the West, global foreign direct investment (which reflects the amount that companies earmark for doing business in other countries) has fallen to a mere 2 percent of global GDP from 4 percent before the recession.

Still, the most tangible metric that belies the Pollyannaish depictions of globalization is corporate financial performance, which is also a window into the fundamentals of local economies. Although most companies don’t separate out geographical earnings, revenue comparisons provide an apt picture — and few multinationals can boast big returns in global markets.

There is much more to the argument, do read the whole thing.

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.

I had not known such a thing exists:

There are raisins stored in California warehouses as part of the U.S. government’s National Raisin Reserve — but the program may shrivel in the face of a Supreme Court challenge.

The National Raisin Reserve — which is overseen by the Fresno-based Raisin Administrative Committee — is part of post-World War II-era program that forces raisin producers to give part of their annual crop to the government to prevent an oversupply of the dried fruit. Controversially, the program seizes the raisins from the farmers without paying them, and that has created friction, lawbreaking farmers, and a Supreme Court case. One scofflaw farmer, Marvin Horne, has refused to surrender his raisins to the government and owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and over 1 million pounds of the sweet dried fruit to Uncle Sam.

The controversial raisin-seizing program could soon be, however, a relic of history.

Several Supreme Court justices expressed doubts Wednesday that federal officials can legally take raisins away from farmers without full payment even if the goal is to help boost overall market prices.

The article is here, via Jeffrey Lessard.  Here is commentary from Ilya Somin, here is an IJ video on the case.

The oldest stone tools on record may spell the end for the theory that complex toolmaking began with the genus Homo, to which humans belong. The 3.3-million-year-old artefacts, revealed at a conference in California last week, predate the first members of Homo, and suggest that more-ancient hominin ancestors had the intelligence and dexterity to craft sophisticated tools.

“This is a landmark discovery pertaining to one of the key evolutionary milestones,” says Zeresenay Alemseged, a palaeoanthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco…

The article is here, and the pointer, not surprisingly, is from Robin Hanson.  I say this should make us more pessimistic about dysgenics, and more pessimistic about the likely prospects for civilization in the future.  Ideally we would like to think that once brains reached a critical threshold, all sorts of good things started happening.  That scenario now seems yet further away from the truth, and the notion of civilizational dead ends, if only for long stretches of time, now seems more likely.  Your views?

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.

Here is a long and excellent post, whereby Robin outs himself as a strange kind of environmentalist.  Do need the whole thing, but here is one summary excerpt:

So, bottom line, the future great filter scenario that most concerns me is one where our solar-system-bound descendants have killed most of nature, can’t yet colonize other stars, are general predators and prey of each other, and have fallen into a short-term-predatory-focus equilibrium where predators can easily see and travel to most all prey. Yes there are about a hundred billion comets way out there circling the sun, but even that seems a small enough number for predators to careful map and track all of them.

“At first they came for the rabbits…and then they came for me.”  I find that intriguing, but I have a more marginalist approach, and perhaps one which encompasses Robin’s hypothesis as a special case.  The death of human (and other) civilizations may be a bit like the death of the human body through old age, namely a whole bunch of things go wrong at once.  If there were a single key problem, it would be easier to find a patch and prolong things for just a bit more.  But if we have reason to believe that, eventually, many things will go wrong at once…such a concatenation of problems is more likely to defeat us.  So my nomination for The Great Filter, in a nutshell, is “everything going wrong at once.”  The simplest underlying model here is that a) problems accumulate, b) resources can be directed to help solve problems, and c) sometimes problems accumulate more rapidly than they can be solved.

This is also why, in many cases, there is no simple “fact of the matter” answer as to why various mighty empires fell in the past.  Here is my earlier review of Apocalypto, a remarkable and still underrated movie.

*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.

Just in case you are tempted to go all Wesley Snipes and refuse to pay your taxes on “constitutional” grounds, the income tax is legal and mandatory. Sorry.

Jonathan Siegel, professor of law at GWU has carefully examined all the primary tax protester arguments. All are wrong. Some are quite interesting

Some tax protestors claim that [the 16th] amendment is not really part of the Constitution — it was never ratified! Therefore, they say, the income tax is unconstitutional. This argument was popularized by Bill Benson in a book called “The Law That Never Was.”

Surprisingly enough, this argument has a little something to it. When the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified by state legislatures in the early twentieth century, the versions that some states voted on contained minor textual errors. Some of them neglected to capitalize the word “States,” one had “income” in place of “incomes,” one said “remuneration” instead of “enumeration,” one said “levy” instead of “lay,” and so on.

If the states didn’t all vote on the same, identical text for the Sixteenth Amendment, can the amendment really be considered ratified? When Congress makes a law, the House and the Senate must vote on the same text. Similarly, if the states didn’t vote on the right text, one could argue that they didn’t ratify the amendment. No Sixteenth Amendment, no income tax, the argument goes.

However, it seems that the amendment really was ratified. The alleged defects in the ratification process were considered at the time of ratification in 1913. The Solicitor of the Department of State convincingly explained why the minor textual variations in the versions the states voted on should be disregarded.

First, it seems that the state legislatures intended to ratify the amendment as proposed by Congress. They understood themselves to be voting to approve the proposed Sixteenth Amendment. The text set forth in their instruments of ratification was for recitation purposes only. The errors in the text were not proposals to change the text being ratified; they were just inadvertent errors that do not detract from the intention of the state legislatures to ratify the amendment as proposed.

Benson denies this. He claims that states deliberately altered the text of the proposed amendment. But the evidence just isn’t there. In one of his court filings, Benson singles out Oklahoma as a particularly clear case. He says the facts “unequivocally show that Oklahoma intentionally amended what the United States Congress had proposed” (see page 2 of Benson’s filing). But looking at Benson’s own book (pp. 61-67), one can see that the Oklahoma legislature adopted what it called “A resolution ratifying an amendment proposed by the sixty-first Congress of the United States” (emphasis added). This resolution then begins its ratification by reciting that “Whereas . . . Congress . . . on Monday the fifteenth day of March, one thousand nine hundred and nine, by joint resolution proposed an amendment to the constitution of the United States, in words and figures as follows:” Then, it’s true, the resolution misstates the text of the amendment (and pretty badly too). But it sure looks as though the Oklahoma legislatorsthought they were ratifying the amendment that Congress had proposed on the specified date and just misstated it. So even in a case that Benson himself singles out, it seems quite clear that the state legislature thought it was ratifying the Sixteenth Amendment, not proposing to change it.

…For all these reasons, it seems clear that the Sixteenth Amendment really is part of the Constitution.

Certainly that has been the uniform holding of the courts in cases in which this argument has been raised. For some representative cases, see United States v. Benson, 941 F.2d 598 (7th Cir. 1991) (rejecting these arguments in a criminal case brought against the author of the “Law that Never Was” book); United States v. Foster, 789 F.2d 457 (7th Cir. 1986); Cook v. Spillman, 806 F.2d 948 (9th Cir. 1986) (calling the argument that the Sixteenth Amendment was never ratified “frivolous” and imposing sanctions of $1,500 on the party making it); United States v. House, 617 F.Supp. 237, 238-39 (W.D. Mich.1985).

So while this argument is not as utterly absurd as most tax protestor arguments, one can be confident that it would not succeed in any actual court proceeding.

This sprawling comic novel cum history is likely to go down as one of the books of the year.  I thought Lawrence D. Mass’s review was excellent, here is one excerpt:

Conversely, is The American People the War and Peace or Gone With The Wind of LGBT history? The American People is so many disparate things that comparisons will inevitably fall short. It’s a Swiftian journey through an America we never knew; a Voltairean satire of American life and ways; a literary offspring of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Myra Brenckenridge; a pornographic American history through the eyes of a Henry Miller; a Robin Cook medical mystery. It’s a Sinclairean expose of American industrial and corporate skulduggery, and otherwise breathtakingly testimonial to the art of muckraking. It’s a treasure trove of historical findings, especially of the history of sex in America — of prostitution, communal living, of STD ‘s, of medicine and infectious diseases, of sanitation and health care, of medical and historical institutions, research, opinion, publications, figureheads and testimony. It’s an ultimate coming together (pun intended) of the personal with the political. And it’s the grandest telling yet of Kramer’s own story.

But as you can see from the above description, a significant chunk of readers will reject the book’s premise, language, and topics altogether.  I think it is very, very good, you can order it here.

“There are individual US pilots that have had more carrier landings than the whole of the Chinese military,” says Mr Midgley. Gary Li, an independent defence analyst on Beijing, adds that having an aircraft carrier “does not equate to knowing how to use it. They are years away from being able to conduct carrier operations.”

I am not sure however that this is true:

The army will eventually have to get rid of troupes of dancers, opera singers and drivers who are more representative of a former era when ideological concerns were more pressing.

The FT article is interesting throughout.

The author is Andrej Svorenčík and he has produced the definitive account of the history of experimental economics.  The SSRN paper is here, but it is more accurate to think of this as a monograph at 248 pp. of text.  I hope a major publisher is interested, but do note it starts off a bit slow.  Once it gets going it never lets up and I learned a great deal from it.  Here is just one excerpt:

When Austin C. Hoggatt died on April 29, 2009, at the age of seventy-nine the experimental economics community lost a low profile yet very influential figure.  Hoggatt was the first to build a computerized laboratory for controlled experimentation in economics or, more broadly, in the social, behavioral, and decision science — the Management Science Laboratory at the Center for Research in Management Science at UC Berkeley in 1964.

If you think you might be interested you will be.  The paper/monograph is strong on recognizing the need for an integrated approach to experiments, involving software, support staff, programmers, and researchers, and tracing how all this came together, or in some cases did not.  You really get the inside story from Svorenčík.

The Guardian reports:

Researchers led by Gert Stulp, a specialist in population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, combed a Dutch database for clues.

Called LifeLines, the record contains exhaustive detail about the lives and health of more than 94,500 people who lived in the northern the Netherlands from 1935 to 1967. In this three-decade snapshot, the people who had the most children were tall men, and women of average height, the team found.

For example, the most fertile men were seven centimetres above the average height. Statistically, they had 0.24 more children on average than the least fertile men, who were about 14 cm below the average height.

Compared to counterparts in other countries where they often tended to have fewer children, taller women also reproduced more in the Netherlands. Many postponed having children until after their studies, but once they forged a successful relationship, often had a large family.

…Stulp pointed to figures showing that, in the United States, shorter women and men of average height have the most reproductive success.

The short piece is interesting throughout, and for the pointer I thank John B. Chilton.  And elsewhere on the height research front, the Indian height advantage, relative to Africa, exists only for firstborn sons.

A live stream version is posted here, slide to 6:00 to start, YouTube and podcast and transcript versions are on their way.  I thought Jeff did just a tremendous job.  We covered the resource curse, why Russia failed and Poland succeeded, charter cities, his China optimism, how his recent book on JFK reflects the essence of his thought, why Paul Rosenstein-Rodan abandoned Austrian economics for “big push” ideas, whether Africa will be able to overcome the middle income trap, where he disagrees with Paul Krugman, his favorite novel (Doctor Zhivago, he tells us why too), premature deindustrialization, and how we should reform graduate economics education, among other topics.

You will find it here.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: New York City, overrated or underrated?

PETER THIEL: That’s massively overrated.


PETER THIEL: We had a 25-year boom in finance, from ’82 to ’07. I think that’s slowly ebbing, slowly abating. It’s going to be increasingly regulated, and so if you want a long/short blue state trade, you want to be long California, short New York. The long/short red state trade, by the way, is you want to be long Texas, short Virginia.

If you ask, what do Virginia and New York have in common, and what do Texas and California have in common? Both Texas and California are very inward-focused places. California, both the Hollywood version and the Silicon Valley version, are very focused in on themselves. Texas is also a very inward-focused place.

What Virginia and New York, or let’s say DC and New York City, have in common is that they’re centers of globalization. Finance is an industry that’s fundamentally leveraged to globalization, and DC is fundamentally leveraged to international geopolitics.

I would bet on globalization slowly being in abeyance. I think with the benefit of hindsight, we will realize that 2007 was not just the peak year of the finance boom, but also the peak year of globalization, like maybe 1913. Happily, it hasn’t resulted in a world war, at least not yet, but I think we are in this period where globalization is steadily pulling back.

And so you want to be in places or industries that are levered to things other than globalization.

Self-recommending…The YouTube and podcast versions are here.