History

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?

Thanks!

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.

Now, the Israel Antitrust Authority has announced that nine tour operator executives have been arrested on suspicion of running a secret price-fixing ring that was aimed at artificially inflating the cost of trips to former Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz.

At least six tour operators are being investigated on suspicion of involvement in the alleged cartel. In some cases, the homes of company executives were searched and property confiscated. According to the publication Haaretz, one of those detained is also suspected of bribery.

…The Israeli government had given a number of tour operators the tenders for the business of flying high school students to Poland. In theory, these companies would be in competition: The schools were supposed to negotiate among the companies to find the best deal. The investigation found that in practice, however, the prices appeared to be fixed among the companies. Although the operators appeared to offer discounts to schools, investigators say, these discounts were secretly coordinated and there was no real competition.

That is from Adam Taylor, via Otis Reid.

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…

There is a reason chess evolved the way it did:

…we find that queenly reigns participated more in inter-state conflicts, without experiencing more internal conflict. Moreover, the tendency of queens to participate as conflict aggressors varied based on marital status.

Among married monarchs, queens were more likely to participate as attackers than kings. Among unmarried monarchs, queens were more likely to be attacked than kings. These results are consistent with an account in which queens relied on their spouses to manage state affairs, enabling them to pursue more aggressive war policies. Kings, on the other hand, were less inclined to utilize a similar division of labor.

This asymmetry in how queens relied on male spouses and kings relied on female spouses strengthened the relative capacity of queenly reigns, facilitating their greater participation in warfare.

As Chris Blattman tells us, that is from “A new paper, Queens, by Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish.”

I don’t like most Tarantino movies, except for Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill, vol.I.; I usually find his style too mannered and self-conscious.  And I read so many negative or lukewarm reviews in the American press.  But more positive evaluations started to trickle in, as the British Guardian, Telegraph, and FT all gave it five stars, and some of my friends seemed to like it.  One of my canonical views is that when critics have split views on a talented director, you should go see the movie.  I am very glad I did.

Think of the film as a retelling of John Locke’s social compact story, except the individuals are not tabula rasa in terms of history, but rather they bring ineradicable racial and historical backgrounds to the table, epistemically uncertain backgrounds as well.  The game-theoretic solution concepts unfold accordingly.  The setting and details of the story are then set up to spoof Agatha Christie and the British haunted house tradition, except with snow, guns, and the American West as props.

Recommended, even for skeptics, Straussian throughout.

A decade after their military service, white veterans of the draft were earning about 15 percent less than their peers who didn’t serve, according to studies from MIT economist Josh Angrist.

Now, new research suggests that the draft did more than dim the prospects of that earlier generation: The children of men with unlucky draft numbers are also worse off today. They earn less and are less likely to have jobs, according to a draft of a report from Sarena F. Goodman, an economist with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Adam Isen, an economist at the Treasury Department. (A copy was released by the Fed in December, but research does not reflect the opinions of the government.)

The researchers have not nailed down how, exactly, any of this is happening, nor why the disadvantage appears to be over twice as potent for sons than for daughters. But the work is valuable for showing how the circumstances of one’s parents can have lasting repercussions. This is one way that inequality persists through the generations.

That is from Jeff Guo at Wonkblog.

Adam Ozimek wrote the blog post everyone else is talking about; he gives good examples there.

Where to start?  I could write a whole ongoing blog on this question (wait…).  In any case, here are just a few examples of where I have changed my mind due to economic evidence:

1. Before 1982-1984, and the Swiss experience, I thought fixed money growth rules were a good idea.  One problem (not the only problem) is that the implied interest rate volatility is too high, or exchange rate volatility in the Swiss case.

2. Before witnessing China vs. Eastern Europe, I thought more rapid privatizations were almost always better.  The correct answer depends on circumstance, and we are due to learn yet more about this as China attempts to reform its SOEs over the next five to ten years.  I don’t consider this settled in the other direction either.

3. The elasticity of investment with respect to real interest rates turns out to be fairly low in most situations and across most typical parameter values.

4. In the 1990s, I thought information technology would be a definitely liberating, democratizing, and pro-liberty force.  It seemed that more competition for resources, across borders, would improve economic policy around the entire world.  Now this is far from clear.

5. Given the greater ease of converting labor income into capital income, I no longer am so convinced that a zero rate of taxation on capital income is best.

6. The social marginal value of health care is often quite low, much lower than I used to realize.  By the way, hardly anyone takes this on consistently to guide their policy views, no matter how evidence-driven they may claim to be.

7. Mormonism, and other relatively strict religions, can have big anti-poverty effects.  I wouldn’t say I ever believed the contrary, but for a long time I simply didn’t give the question much attention.  I now think that Mormonism has a better anti-poverty agenda than does the Progressive Left.

8. There are positive excess returns to some momentum investment strategies.

Overall I find that history and theory-laden observation tend to be the forms of evidence which have convinced me the most.  #3 and #8 are examples of “sheer econometrics,” but that is not usually how minds are changed, mine included.  But I don’t intend that as an anti-econometrics remark, rather econometrics is a very useful check on our theory-laden historical observations.  If you can’t get your synthetic, empirically-driven intuitions to work out in the numbers more formally, and that is indeed sometimes the case, your views probably still need more tweaking.  And for some questions, especially in number-heavy, numbers-mean-clear-things finance, it’s sheer econometrics from top to bottom.

Here is Paul Krugman on the topic; he seems to hold a broadly similar view of econometrics.

Here’s the latest video from our MRUniversity course on the Principles of Macroeconomics; it’s an introduction to growth rates and comparing countries across time.

The author is Lars Mytting, and the subtitle is Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.  If only every book could be this good and to the point!  Here is your Norway fact of the day:

Even in oil-rich Norway, as astonishing 25 percent of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood, and half of that is wood chopped by private individuals.

In per capita terms, however, Bhutan is number one for wood chopping.  Yet in the 1960s, the government of Norway had its own advisory body for the burning of wood chips.

I enjoyed this segue:

Although it may seem strange today, chain saws were regarded with suspicion at that time and there was much resistance to their use…

There were quite a few colorful players in the early days of the chain-saw industry in the 1950s.  The competition was hard and the business attracted people with a fiery temperament.  One legendary character was John Svensson (alias Chain Saw Svensson), who imported saws made by the Canadian firm Beaver.  He had been arrested and tortured during the war and for the rest of his life suffered pains in his arms and joints; when demonstrating the Beaver saws he always made a point of stressing how the vibrations that passed up through the handle brought a welcome relief to his aching joints.

Svensson was not a man to take professional disappointments lying down.  On one occasion he was so annoyed when a visiting government delegation refused to let him demonstrate his chain saw to them that he felled five trees across the road to stop them from leaving.

The interest of a Norwegian man in his firewood often rises sharply in his sixties.  Perhaps this sentence from the book says it all:

It took a while, but that didn’t bother them, as long as it turned out the way they wanted.

You can order the book here, recommended.

Joel S. Wit, who has negotiated with North Koreans for over twenty years, has a very interesting NYT piece on that topic, here is one excerpt:

The North Koreans may know a lot about the outside world, but they don’t know everything, even about the United States, their main adversary. In one meeting, an official asked, “Why do the president and secretary of state keep saying that the United States will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons when in fact you are not doing much to stop us?” He deduced that there must be a hidden agenda. “It’s because you want us to have nuclear weapons as an excuse to tighten your grip on South Korea and Japan, your two allies.” We responded that there was no hidden agenda and that the United States really did not want the North to have those weapons. I’m not sure we convinced him.

The piece is interesting throughout, most of all Wit stresses their realism and sophistication as negotiators, and urges us not to think of them as lunatics.

Given all of the recent publicity, I thought I would re-up on my China video, The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Economy.  This is a recent addition to our Everyday Economics series from MRUniversity, and it also will be part of our in-progress macroeconomics course.

The Learn More page features additional resources about this topic.  As I say in the video, the key variable to track for whether things get really bad is capital flight.  In other words, recent developments have indeed been unsettling.

What we’ve seen is the central government spending down reserves at a much higher pace than virtually anyone had expected…except perhaps the central government.  The response to falling stock prices has been to make it legally harder and harder to sell — what do the prices even mean at this point?  A barometer of which kind of PR hit the government feels like taking on a given day?  And perhaps most importantly of all, more and more people, both in and outside of China, are questioning whether the government really has matters under control.  It seems not.

By the way, here is your China fact of the day, Larry Summers informs us:

Over the past year, about 20 per cent of China’s growth as reported in its official statistics has come from its financial services sector, which is now about as large relative to gross domestic product as in Britain, and Chinese debt levels are extraordinarily high. This is hardly a case of healthy or sustainable growth.

That said, China will do everything possible to prevent a financial crisis.

On the (somewhat) cheerier side: “Film market analysts have pointed out that the biggest films have performed similarly in China and the US in recent years.”  Star Wars: The Force Awakens had the biggest single-day opener in Chinese history (FT link), let’s see how well the future installments do.

Here is an excerpt from the now published Tonio Andrade book, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History:

Part of the answer of course has to do with industrialization.  Steamships destroyed warjunks, towed long trains of traditional vessels into position, reconnoitered shallows and narrows, and, equally importantly, decreased communication times, allowing for minute, systematic coordination of the war effort.  Similarly, industrial ironworks made strong, supple metal for muskets and cannons, and steam power was used to bore cannons and mix, crumble, and sort gunpowder.

But industrialization isn’t the only answer.  Many of the innovations that most helped the British weren’t about steam power or the division of labor or mechanized factories.  They stemmed, rather, from the application of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century experimental science to warfare.  During the mid-1700s, new scientific discoveries enabled Europeans to measure the speed of projectiles, understand the effects of wind resistance, model trajectories, make better and more consistent gunpowder, develop deadly airborne missiles, and master the use of explosive shells.  These innovations as much as the use of steamship and industrial manufacturing techniques underlay the British edge in the Opium War.

Here is my previous coverage of the book.

For all the talk about recent advances in economics, you don’t hear much about one of the very biggest: how rapidly researchers are filling in the contours of Chinese economic history.

I would like to learn more about the U.S. Navy.  What should I read?

I thank you all in advance for your excellent suggestions.

Petros Milionis and Tamas Vonyo have a new paper on this question (click through to the first pdf here), the effect was a major and long-lasting one, here is part of the abstract:

…this reconstruction process was an important driver of growth during the post-war decades, not only in Europe but globally, and its impact on growth rates lasted until the mid 1970s. Moreover, a counterfactual analysis suggests that in the absence of the reconstruction effect global growth rates from 1950 to 1975 would have been on average 40% lower and only slightly higher than those observed during the years from 1975 to 2000.

Here is Alex’s MRU video on the Solow growth model, part two here.