*The Fall of Heaven*

by on September 7, 2016 at 12:43 am in Books, History, Political Science, Religion | Permalink

I loved this book, the author is Andrew Scott Cooper, and the subtitle is The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.  It is the best book I know for understanding the Iranian revolution, and it is compulsively readable throughout.  Did you know for instance that the Ayatollahs were deeply disturbed by the presence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and also Rhoda on Iranian TV?

Here is one excerpt:

Iran’s political and economic malaise gave a renewed sense of urgency to the Shah’s top priority, which was to settle the question of the Imperial succession once and for all.  His initial preference was for a European princess who could provide the House of Pahlavi with the luster of dynastic legitimacy.  He soon ran into trouble.  The Windsors rebuffed his interest in Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin Princess Alexandra of Kent, while his favorite, Princess Maria Gabriella, the Catholic daughter of the deposed King Umberto of Italy, was ruled out owing to opposition from the Vatican and Iran’s ulama.

And this, from the Shah himself:

“When everybody in Iran is like everybody in Sweden, then I will rule like the King of Sweden,” he declared.

I would describe this book as relatively sympathetic to the Shah, and also arguing that the oppressions and tortures of Savak are sometimes overstated.

This one makes my best non-fiction of the year list, and it will be in the top tier of that list.

There are separate issues that get muddled up under this label.

1. There’s a semantic debate among mathematical evolutionary biologists about what the best fitness accounting system is (e.g., inclusive fitness as promoted by the Oxford crowd, or a pluralistic approach favored by most other mebs). This debate will seem totally stupid to economists. This debate shouldn’t be confused with the empirical question of whether intergroup competition has shaped genetic or cultural evolution.

2. The difference between genetic vs. cultural evolution, and between cultural group selection and genetic group selection. Many researchers like Boyd and Richerson have argued against the importance of genetic group selection for humans but FOR the importance of intergroup competition shaping cultural evolution. Much modelling suggests that conditions that normally inhibit the importance of GGS in genetic systems are mitigated in cultural evolutionary systems–because of multiple stable equilibrium (think folk theorem with different populations stuck at different equilibrium)

3. Empirically, a lot of evidence suggests that intergroup competition has shaped cultural evolution (institutions, social norms, religions, etc.)

Two recent target articles in BBS with full commentaries and replies are the places to start



I would avoid the opinions of web-publishing non-experts, who have not contributed to the primary literature and don’t understand cultural evolution.

In general I thought the comment thread on group selection was excellent.

How do partisans of the signaling model of education explain female wage growth over the last few decades?  It’s easy for the human capital theory: female education went up and so did female productivity (plus discrimination fell, but let’s put that aside for now).

But if those women were just signaling, their productivities are about the same and yet their wages are way higher.  Are they now massively overpaid?  That hardly seems possible — when will the en masse firing begin?

Alternatively, perhaps the women were considerably underpaid in 1963, because their lack of interest in educational signaling branded them as lower quality workers.  (Again, this has to be an effect net of discrimination.)  But why would that have been a rational inference for employers to make?  If a woman didn’t go to college or graduate school back in 1963, there were plenty of obvious sociological reasons why not, and it didn’t much signal low intelligence or low conscientiousness.  It shouldn’t have lowered wages, not in the signaling model.  So in 1963 there was a discrimination-based underpayment, but it is hard to argue for a signaling-based underpayment to women as a class.

You also might think that female wages have gone up since 1963 because women have been socialized to desire work and money more.  But if that socialization raises productivity, it still won’t support a signaling story, which treats productivity as fixed due to type.  Furthermore then the door is open for socialization theories of education, even if college is not the only source of socialization.

So why then have net-of-discrimination female wages gone up so much, if not for the human capital story?

You will note that the signaling theory seems most plausible as an explanation of what happens right after people get out of college, and thus it appeals to many students and also to some academics.  Signaling theories of wages are least plausible as they try to explain broad patterns of wage movements over time, and then you must bring in human capital considerations.  In similar fashion, signaling theories won’t explain the relative wage stagnation since 1999 and many other longer-term puzzles; they just don’t play in this arena.

Here are some data on female wages and labor supply over this period.

Addendum: Bryan Caplan refers me to this piece of his on related issues.  And here is my Econ Duel with Alex on education and signaling.

Group selection bleg

by on September 2, 2016 at 12:56 pm in Books, Education, History, Science | Permalink

What are the best arguments for and against explanations relying on the concept of group selection?  I would like to read more in this area, your suggestions are welcome, please leave them in the comments.  Thanks!

Despite all of their adversities, Haitians had rather low crime rates.  Martinez and Lee’s 1985-95 study reported a homicide victimization rate of 16.7 for Haitians, which was lower than those for non-Hispanic whites and Latinos and far lower than the rate for American blacks.  In fact, the Haitian crime figures may be inflated, since over 54 percent of the suspected killers of murdered Haitians were African American.  In other words, the Haitian victimization rate is not an especially good indicator of Haitian offending, because, contrary to the usual situation, Haitians were the victims of an inordinate number of out-group killings.  They were believed to have been only 3.5 percent of the murder suspects at a time when they were 14 percent of Miami’s general population.

That is from Barry Latzer’s new and interesting The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America.

Perhaps less than you might think.  There is a new paper by Mario L. Chacon and Jeff I. Jensen:

We use the Southern secession movement of 1860-1861 to study how elites in democracy enact their preferred policies. Most states used specially convened conventions to determine whether or not to secede from the Union. We argue that although the delegates of these conventions were popularly elected, the electoral rules favored slaveholders. Using an original dataset of representation in each convention, we first demonstrate that slave-intensive districts were systematically overrepresented. Slaveholders were also spatially concentrated and could thereby obtain local pluralities in favor of secession more easily. As a result of these electoral biases, less than 10% of the electorate was sufficient to elect a majority of delegates in four of the six original Confederate states. We also show how delegates representing slave-intensive counties were more likely to support secession. These factors explain the disproportionate influence of slaveholders during the crisis and why secessionists strategically chose conventions over statewide referenda.

Not entirely unlike the first American secession!

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

No, that is not enlightenment about life, that is enlightenment about Enlightenment, as in the eighteenth century phenomenon.  P., a loyal MR reader, wrote to me with such a request, noting correctly that “I usually find that broad, ambitious survey books are not the answer.”

That survey would be Peter Gay, recently a bestseller in China by the way, and then Ernst Cassirer, Jonathan Israel, and Roy Porter, but let me outline an alternative program of study.  The goal here is to be practical, engaging, and vivid, not comprehensive or scholarly per se:


Geoffrey Clive’s short book The Romantic Enlightenment.

James Boswell, Journals, selected excerpts, he was an early blogger by the way, and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  I find that to be one of the wittiest of books.  Plus Hume’s Essays.

Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, and Rousseau’s Second Discourse.  Condorcet, Essay on the Progress of the Human Mind.  Voltaire I consider overrated.

Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, yes I know it is arguably “anti-Enlightenment,” better yet.  If you insist on another Irishman, Bishop Berkeley is an entertaining writer as well.

Founding documents of the United States, and Ben Franklin, Autobiography.

Kant, Perpetual Peace, “What is Enlightenment?”, and Lessing, Nathan the Wise.

Beccaria, Of Crimes and Punishments.

If you have the time to tackle longer books, start with Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Boswell’s Life of Johnson and then Casanova and Tristram Shandy (there is by the way a splendid book on the postmodern in the Enlightenment but I can no longer remember the cite).  Leave Montesquieu to the Straussians, although the returns are high if you are so inclined.

For history, read up on eighteenth century scientific societies, Robert Darnton on the rise of publishing and the book trade, Habermas on the coffeehouse debate culture and the public sphere, and Brewer and McKendrick on the rise of consumer society in England.  Try Wikipedia for Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, and other rulers of the time.  There is also Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment, and books on 18th century Freemasonry.  The French Revolution seems to require its own blog post, as does the Industrial Revolution, slavery too, in a pinch resort to the MR search function box on this blog.  Foucault will give you a sense of the dark side of the Enlightenment, his history is unreliable but read him on Discipline and Punishment and on ideology try the rather dense The Order of Things.

That all said, I would start with music and the arts first.


Haydn, the London symphonies and late piano sonatas and string quartets Op.76.

Mozart, the major operas, including reading through the libretti while listening.  If you can only do one thing on this list…

Gluck, assorted operas, noting he is not nearly the equal of Haydn or Mozart as a composer but he did capture the spirit of Enlightenment.

C.P.E. Bach, the Prussian Sonatas.


Study French painting from Chardin through David, picture books will do if you can’t visit the original works.  Focus on Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Vigée-Le Brun, Boilly, Hubert Robert, and others, how their works tie into the history of the period and how the styles transformed over time.  Visit Paris, Huntington Gardens, and Tiepolo’s work in the Residenz in Würzburg.  Do a tour of Georgian architecture in England, in a pinch visit the derivative works at Harvard, Yale, and Alexandria, Virginia.  Study Tiepolo more generally, Goya, and also Antonio Canova.



Why not?  I’ll toss up Dangerous Liaisons (Vadim and Malkovich versions), Barry Lyndon, Casanova, Amadeus, A Royal Affair (can’t forget Denmark!), Marie Antoinette, Ridicule, and The Madness of King George.

What did I leave out that is of utmost importance?

*American Heiress*

by on August 28, 2016 at 3:25 pm in Books, History, Law | Permalink

What an excellent title, the subtitle is The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, and the author is Jeffrey Toobin.  Our age is actually not that crazy by historical standards.  Yet here are the last four sentences:

In the end, notwithstanding a surreal detour in the 1970s, Patricia led the life for which she was destined back in Hillsborough.  The story of Patty Hearst, as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending.  She did not turn into a revolutionary.  She turned into her mother.


The rest of the story” stories have a punch line that twists everything that came before into an entirely new and deeper perspective. My favorite such story is about John Nestor.

Nestor became a minor if hated celebrity in the mid-1980s in Washington, DC for his policy of driving on the beltway in the left hand lane at 55 mph, not a mile faster, the rest of the traffic be damned. Nestor believed that the 55 mph speed limit saved lives and he was going to help other people by slowing them down regardless of the exasperation, raised fingers, or honking. He knew better than other people.

The truth, of course, is that it’s actually variance in speed that kills so by driving more slowly than everyone else Nestor was increasing risk not lowering it. But that’s not the punch line. The punch line? John Nestor was an FDA bureaucrat so obstinate that even the overly cautious FDA thought he was a menace and they pulled him from his job in the renal section for not approving a single new drug in more than four years. On the roads or at the FDA, John Nestor illustrated why I say caution can be deadly.

My second favorite story like this comes from a recent article on land use policy by Mark Gimein at the New Yorker:

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain.

The punch line? “The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.” As Gimein notes Oppermann wasn’t able to move people out of San Francisco but he was able to “[cripple] growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums.”

So now you know the rest of the stories.

City_ArtMichael Heizer, the large-scale sculpture artist, has been building City, a sculpture in the Nevada desert since 1972. City is reputedly on the scale of the Washington, DC’s National Mall and something like Teotihuacan but no one knows for sure since “Visitors are explicitly not welcome, and due to its orientation away from the road and system of earthen berms no part of “City” can be viewed from the ground without trespassing on posted property.” A few photos have been smuggled out.

The New Yorker has an interesting article on Heizer. Naturally I appreciated his thoughtful consideration of the economics of building something for the ages:

“City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that Heizer has mined and mixed on site. The use of valueless materials is strategic, a hedge against what he sees as inevitable future social unrest. “My good friend Richard Serra is building out of military-grade steel,” he says. “That stuff will all get melted down. Why do I think that? Incans, Olmecs, Aztecs—their finest works of art were all pillaged, razed, broken apart, and their gold was melted down. When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The virtues of business startups have led to many a success story. These enterprises start with clean slates. They embody the focused and often idiosyncratic visions of their founders. The successful ones grow faster than their competitors. Even after they become larger and more bureaucratic, these companies often retain some of the creative spirit of their startup origins.

It is less commonly recognized that some nations, including many of the post-World War II economic miracles, had features of startups. For instance, Singapore started as an independent country in 1965, after it was essentially kicked out of Malaysia and suddenly had to fend for itself. Lee Kuan Yew was the country’s first leader, and he embodied many features of the founder-chief executive: setting the vision and ethos, assuming responsibility for other personnel, influencing the early product lines in manufacturing and serving as a chairman-of-the-board figure in his later years.

Other start-ups nations have been UAE, Israel, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cayman Islands, Estonia, South Korea, and of course way back when the United States.  You will note that many of these examples are imperfectly democratic in their early years, and they do not in every case grow out of it.  And this:

The world today seems to have lower potential for startup nations. This is in part because international relations are more peaceful and also because most colonial relationships have receded into the more distant past. Those are both positive developments, but the corresponding downside is not always recognized, namely fewer chances for reshuffling the pieces.

This is the close:

To paraphrase John Cleese from Monty Python, the startup nation concept isn’t dead, it’s just resting. Whether in business or in politics, the compelling logic of the startup just isn’t going away.

The best chances for future start-ups may be in Africa, around the borders of Russia, and perhaps someday (not now) Kurdistan.  Do read the whole thing.

Here is the summary:

The stereotypical obituary is a formulaic recitation of facts — dry, boring, and without craft. But Margalit Fox has shown the genre can produce some of the most memorable and moving stories in journalism. Exploiting its “pure narrative arc,” Fox has penned over 1,200 obituaries, covering well-known and obscure subjects with equal aplomb.

In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, Fox reveals not only the process for writing an obituary, but her thoughts on life, death, storytelling, puzzle-solving, her favorite cellist, and how it came to be that an economist sang opera 86 times at the Met.

Here are the transcript, video, and podcast versions of the dialogue.  Here is one excerpt:

FOX: …Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.

That said, the vast majority of what my colleagues and I down in the trenches do, probably 90 percent of our working life, are daily obits that are found out about, reported, written, edited, copyedited, put in the paper all in the space of a single day, just like any other article in the paper.

And this:

COWEN: Are there obituaries of economists that stand out in your mind? Or maybe some you’ve written?

FOX: Well, interestingly, there is one. As I said, my original training was in classical music, so my editors almost jumped out of their skins with excitement when they discovered they could assign me the obituary of a Harvard economist named Richard T. Gill.

Now, why did they give that to me? Because as we say in the lede of the obit, “Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, died,” etc., etc.

COWEN: Yes, I remember reading that one. That was before I knew that you were you.

FOX: I was me then. You just didn’t know it.

COWEN: Correct.

Do read the whole thing.  I asked her about privacy concerns, how well a famous person is really known by his or her family and friends, whether there should be affirmative action in the obituaries section, who is chosen for this exclusive club and why, what one learns reading obituaries (“death sucks”), what is underrated in life (“silence”), why British obituaries are different, and about her very good books on linguistic code cracking from antiquity and Bedouin sign language.  And more.

Here is the Conversations with Tyler series.  Here is basic information on Margalit Fox.  Here is Margalit Fox on Twitter.

In 2015 our iron ore exports alone were four times the value of all of our combined services exports to China. And in services the only things that really count are tourism and education. That’s not going to change for a long, long time.

The alas now gated article, by Greg Sheridan, is of interest more generally and concerns some myths about China and Australia.

Addendum: To read the piece, try here.

From Scott Sumner:

…what’s happened since 2009 involves not just one, but at least five new types of voodoo:

1. The claim that artificial attempts to force wages higher will boost employment, by boosting AD.

2. The claim that extended unemployment benefits—paying people not to work—will lead to more employment, by boosting AD.

3. The claim that more government spending can actually reduce the budget deficit, by boosting AD and growth. Note that in the simple Keynesian model, even with no crowding out, monetary offset, etc., this is impossible.

4. More aggregate demand will lead to higher productivity. In the old Keynesian model, more AD boosted growth by increasing employment, not productivity.

5. Fiscal stimulus can boost AD when not at the zero bound, because . . . ?

In all five cases there is almost no theoretical or empirical support for the new voodoo claims, and lots of evidence against. There were 5 attempts to push wages higher in the 1930s, and all 5 failed to spur recovery. Job creation sped up when the extended UI benefits ended at the beginning of 2014, contrary to the prediction of Keynesians. The austerity of 2013 failed to slow growth, contrary to the predictions of Keynesians. Britain had perhaps the biggest budget deficits of any major economy during the Great Recession, job growth has been robust, and yet productivity is now actually lower than in the 4th quarter of 2007.

There is more at the link. And here is Scott from the comments:

As I recall, productivity did well during the 1930s. Why? If falling AD hurts productivity, then shouldn’t productivity have done very poorly during the 1930s?

See also my earlier post “Not all complaints can be true at the same time.

My current pet peeve is advocacy of fiscal stimulus without even bothering to consider whether the economy might be at or very close to full employment, much less considering whether the stimulus will target unemployed resources.

We do in fact need a good aggregate demand-based macroeconomics; the topic is far too important to allow it to become so politicized.

The author is Nancy Tomes and the subtitle is How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers.  Here is one excerpt:

While unwilling to pass any kind of national insurance program, the U.S. Congress strove to advance the cause of “medical democracy” by other means.  Instead of guaranteeing a right to medical care, legislators voted to spend public funds on hospital construction and basic medical research as a means to yield more and better treatment.  To make that treatment affordable, the federal government looked to the private sector for help, using tax policy to encourage the growth of employee insurance plans.  In this fashion, postwar political and business leaders hoped to create a free enterprise alternative to “socialized” medicine.

The first step toward expansion came in 1946 when Congress passed the Hill-Burton Act, which funneled federal funds into hospital construction and expansion.  Over the next two decades, Hill-Burton funds would be used on almost 5,000 projects, many of them in rural areas that previously had had no hospitals.  The program proved very popular, giving local communities a new institution to be proud of while creating more “doctors’ workshops” for medical education and private practice.  At the same time, Congress vastly increased funding for medical research, from about $4 million in 1947 to $100 million by 1957.  Postwar political leaders found appealing the idea of tackling cancer, mental illness, and other dread diseases through “a medical research program equal to the Manhattan Project,” as the National Health Education Research Committee urged in 1958.  Taxpayer dollars helped to build up the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, as the hub of what a later generation would christen the “medical-industrial complex”: a network of researchers located in American universities and scientific institutes whose careers depended on the generation of medical innovations.

I found this book extremely useful for understanding the evolution of American health care policy and institutions before 1965.