“The convulsions of a civilized state usually compose the most instructive and most interesting part of its history”

That is from Hume’s History of England, via Dan Klein and also Andrew Sabl.

Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2016 at 12:19 am in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink


That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

In 1987, Trump made his goal of Russian collaboration on nuclear power explicit: The Soviet Union and the US should partner to form a nuclear superpower with the intention of intimidating other countries into dropping their own nuclear plans.

“Most of those [pre-nuclear] countries are in one form or another dominated by the US and the Soviet Union,” Trump told journalist Roy Rosenbaum. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate any of those countries. So we should use our power of economic retaliation and they use their powers of retaliation, and between the two of us we will prevent the problem from happening. It would have been better having done something five years ago. But I believe even a country such as Pakistan would have to do something now. Five years from now they’ll laugh.”

Nuclear-related sanctions, from the two major powers, were to be applied to both Pakistan and France [sic].  Here is the full article, I cannot vouch for this account or any particular interpretation of it, but the hypothesis is new to me and so I present it to you as well.

What I’ve been reading

by on December 24, 2016 at 12:10 am in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix, Beyond Earth; Our Path to a New Home in the Planets.  The core claim is that humans can (will?) colonize Titan, the moon of Saturn.  But what are we to make of sentences such as: “The temperature is around -180 Celsius (-290 Fahrenheit), but clothing with thick insulation or heating elements would keep you comfortable.  A rip wouldn’t kill you as long as you didn’t freeze.”  Pregnancy would be tricky too.

2. Ian Thomson, Primo Levi.  One of my favorite literary biographies, ever.  This is also a first-rate look at the history of the Holocaust, and the postwar Italian literary world.  Definitely recommended.

3. Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture.  One of the best and most readable treatments of the Haitian revolution, with a focus on Louverture of course.  Here is one good bit:

When it came time to pick between two extremes — slavery and unfettered freedom — Louverture stopped well short of the latter.  By order of General Louverture, all former field slaves, even those who had settled in urban areas during the Revolution, would return to their original plantations, sometimes under their former masters.  Those who refused would be “arrested and punished as severely as soldiers,” which implied that plantation runaways could be shot as deserters.  He thereby merged the two worlds he knew best — the sugar plantation and the army camp — into a kind of military-agricultural complex.

According to many critics at the time, rebel leaders were in essence confiscating the slave plantations of their former white masters.  Furthermore, the importation of laborers from Africa was to continue.

4. Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew, delivers exactly what it promises: “For many young Israelis, Arial is virtually the only font they read.”

Also in various stages of undress are:

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, foreword by Bernie Sanders.

Niall Kishtainy, A Little History of Economics, a modern-day Heilbroner.

Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, a Julian Simon-esque take on the case for optimism.


by on December 23, 2016 at 1:03 pm in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

Do you remember the early 90s movie Shazaam! which featured Sinbad as the genie? Many people do and some people think that this is the best evidence that we are living in a simulation. They are correct.

If I were to make a list of the top groups/performers during the critical 1964-1973 period, no doubt the Stones would make the top five handily, perhaps the top three.  They also belong to that select tier with more than six excellent and important albums.  They probably have created more great and memorable riffs than any other rock and roll group, ever.

So I don’t think I am unappreciative.  My favorite cuts are probably the acoustic country songs on “Beggars Banquet’ and “Let It Bleed,” plus the riff-based songs from the mid- to late-1960s, such as “Under My Thumb” or “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

Still, I have not heard anything new in a Rolling Stones song for more than twenty years.  I don’t mean that their later work is worse (though it is, much, for forty plus years running), rather I don’t hear anything new in their very best work and thus repeated re-listening is a waste of time.  I don’t enjoy it.

In contrast, I’ve been listening to Jimi Hendrix for about forty years and still hear new bits in his songs most of the time.  I am almost always excited to hear this work again.

I have two other objections.  First, most (all?) of their blues covers are worse than the originals (the Beatles’ “Money” and “You Really Got a Hold On Me” and “Long Tall Sally” are all improvements, in contrast, not to mention John Lennon’s “Be Bop a Lula” or Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”).  Second, you don’t have to invoke political correctness to feel that a lot of the early misogyny has worn thin and aged poorly.

So the Stones are boring, mostly, though still excellent in the abstract.  It’s hard to imagine classic rock and roll, or the 1960s, without them.  But in terms of lasting overall aesthetic merit they are just a wee bit closer to The Who than you might like to think.


Here are Ross Douthat’s reading suggestions for the Trump years (NYT), I ordered what I haven’t already read.  And here is Ray Dalio on the Trump administration, better than most of what you will read on the topic.  Here is a short excerpt:

The question is whether this administration will be a) aggressive and thoughtful or b) aggressive and reckless. The interactions between Trump, his heavy-weight advisors, and them with each other will likely determine the answer to this question. For example, on the foreign policy front, what Trump, Flynn, Tillerson, and Mattis (and others) are individually and collectively like will probably determine how much the new administration’s policies will be a) aggressive and thoughtful versus b) aggressive and reckless. We are pretty sure that it won’t take long to find out.

The piece also offers data on Trump’s appointees, hard to excerpt but worth going through.

You don’t have to be a supporter (Dalio sees big risks, as I do, and Douthat has been a consistent opponent) to feel that so much of the discourse has become remarkably uninteresting, mostly because of a preponderance of self-righteousness over analysis.  America’s intellectual class is failing us, with these two gentlemen being notable exceptions to that generality.

There are now pollution red alerts in at least 24 cities in north China, so are things really hopeless in the Middle Kingdom?  I say no.  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here are some excerpts:

One famous paper, by economists Gene M. Grossman and Alan Krueger, found that (in current dollars) the turning point for environmental improvement comes in “almost every case” when countries reach the range of $17,000 to $18,000 in per capita annual income. Current Chinese per capita income can be plausibly estimated at over $14,000 per year. That means China may not be far from starting to clean up its air, and indeed air quality is already one of the major political issues in China.

The Chinese government already responds to pollution problems with factory closings and automobile restrictions more quickly than it used to, and in general there is better data and more transparency from policymakers.  The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reports pollution improvements for particulate matter over the last year. Over the last two years, there have been suggestions, admittedly debatable ones, that China’s evolution into a service-sector economy means that the turning point already has been reached.

What about the U.S. and its history of fighting air pollution?

By my estimates (see the column), the United States started cleaning up at a per capita income of at least 28k (in current dollars), in the mid-1960s, arguably later than that date.  In other words, if the Chinese waited to start cleaning up their air until they were about twice as rich as is currently the case, they still would be matching the pace of America.

I will be chatting with him for the next Conversation with Tyler, January 26.  Here is an excerpt from his bio:

Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post…In addition to serving as the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in LA, Rabbi Wolpe has written eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe also writes a weekly column for Time.com. His writing has been included in The LA Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and the New York Jewish Week. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the American Jewish University, Hunter College, and UCLA.

Here is his Wikipedia page, and his most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.

This event will be held at the Sixth and I St. Synagogue in Washington, D.C., 7 p.m.; please note they charge admission but that is for them not for me!  This will not be a regular feature of the series moving forward, but they do need to cover their costs and we really wanted to use that venue.

So what should I ask David Wolpe?

Legislative power grab for me but not for thee edition: remember when HRC was (possibly) considering Elizabeth Warren as her running mate?:

The thing is, ahead of past expected Senate vacancies, rather than looking for a loophole, Massachusetts state legislators have opted to simply change the appointment rules. Multiple times.

In 2004, the Democratic-controlled State House pushed through a bill that stripped then-Gov. Mitt Romney of his power to fill Sen. John Kerry’s seat, presumably with a fellow Republican, as the Democratic senator ran for president. The measure—to keep the seat vacant until a special election was held in 145 to 160 days—was ultimately passed with a veto-overriding two-thirds majority, despite the fact the Kerry ultimately lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.

But then in 2009, with Democrat Deval Patrick as governor, state legislators passed a bill at the behest of Sen. Ted Kennedy to give Patrick the power to choose a replacement for the terminally ill Democrat.

Would Massachusetts legislators change the rules a third time for Warren? According to state House and Senate leaders, there are no such plans.

Do you find this more or less objectionable than the recent changes in North Carolina?  Did you complain about them both with proportional fervor?  Do you now recognize that “whataboutism” is a highly useful means of testing whether your views and outrages are in fact justified?  I enjoyed the earlier comment by Albatross:

My outrage at the power grab in NC is somewhat diminished by my wish that something similar (legislative power grab to limit the power of the incoming executive) were happening at the federal level, too.

Here is a summary from Politico:

The state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the bills this week during a special session. The new laws reduce the number of positions the governor can hire and fire at will from 1,500 to 300, strip the governor’s party of the power to control the state board of elections, require legislative approval of gubernatorial cabinet appointments, and move the power to appoint trustees for the University of North Carolina to the legislature.

The first sounds like a good change, as in general the professional bureaucracy in American politics should be more powerful, as it is in Western Europe.  The second clause — power over elections — sounds like a simple power grab, but can I say I find it an inferior arrangement to vest this responsibility with the legislature?  No, and note the new deal gives each party equal representation on the election commission (otherwise the Democrats would hold a majority).  The trustee appointment change I find it hard to get worked up about, though it does seem to me more naturally the prerogative of the executive, but the state constitution gives trustee appointment rights to the legislature.

How about “require legislative approval of gubernatorial cabinet appointments,” which sounds pretty severe?

Well, check out the North Carolina state constitution: “Appointments. The Governor shall nominate and by and with the advice and consent of a majority of the Senators appoint all officers whose appointments are not otherwise provided for.”  [Later sections seem to cover the “appointments…otherwise provided for.”]  Furthermore, this seems like pretty standard practice at various levels of American government.

Perhaps the Republicans have good legal advice, and are likely to win this in the courts, as the source behind the last link is suggesting.  As a commentator, a good starting question is whether you have in fact read the North Carolina state constitution.

Overall the story seems to be that the legislature is — within the provisions of the state constitution — seizing more power for the legislature.  (You don’t have to like that, given some of the other Republican stances, but don’t confuse the different issues here.)  Don’t presidents and governors try to do the same?  Succeed in doing the same?  Is it perhaps worth criticizing the state constitution, rather than just condemning the Republicans for exercising constitutional powers?  Here is a link outlining many of the power grabs in previous North Carolina history, including by the Democrats.

Have your feelings about the filibuster changed as of late?

Is it so much worse if such shenanigans are done in a lame duck period?  Would it have been so awful if Clinton had won the presidential election and TPP had passed during the lame duck session, as many people were talking about?  Or if the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court had been approved?  Do we all condemn the flood of “midnight regulations” that come during each federal lame duck session?

I am very willing to consider limiting the power of lame duck sessions.  And I am very willing to believe that the North Carolina legislature made moves in the wrong direction from a utilitarian and also public legitimacy point of view.  Furthermore, I am also no expert in North Carolina constitutional law and I would gladly be set straight if I am overlooking some relevant facts on these issues.

In the meantime, I don’t quite see this as a coup d’etat, it seems like a pretty traditional power grab within established constitutional structures, it’s not the Republicans heralding the end of constitutional government in the United States, and I’m not sure that the critics are being entirely consistent in applying the principles articulated in their shrillness.  The critical commentary here really does need to up its game.  If your argument is simply “I don’t want groups I disagree with to take more power through legitimate means,” well by all means say so!

As for my summary view, the legislative actions do seem unwise to me, they seem to be coming at an especially fraught time, I don’t favor all of the other policy preferences of this legislature, and I think they are extending what is already a series of unwise precedents.

Here are my favorite things North Carolina, none of them refer to politics.



by on December 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm in History, Music, Uncategorized | Permalink

Stephen Stills is underrated.

He was the driving force behind three of the best (non-Beatles) songs of the 1960s/early 1970s: Bluebird, Wooden Ships, and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes; in the process he anchored two of the major super-groups of that era.  “For What It’s Worth” is one of the most recognizable and oft-used iconic songs of the 1960s.  “Helplessly Hoping” is good too.  He was an underrated guitarist, try Super Session, with Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper.

One of his problems may be that his underlying personal aesthetic is often corny and unappealing (“Love the One You’re With,” “Change Partners”), and that comes out all too strongly when he is removed from monitoring collaborators of equal or greater stature.

On satellite radio the other day I heard the acoustic solo demo version of Suite: Judy Blues Eyes (try “Stephen Stills Suite Judy Blue Eyes” on Spotify) and thought “People don’t praise this guy enough!”  In general, artists should be judged by their best work, and his is very good indeed.  I’d rather hear one of those Stills songs than anything by the Rolling Stones.

Here you will find the transcript, podcast, and video of the chat, Joe of course was in top form.  In addition to a wide-ranging conversation on cultural and social evolution, we touched on topics such as Star Trek, Hayek’s atavism theory, what he learned from the Mapuche, the pleasures of cooking in coconut milk, why WEIRD matters, whether Neanderthals were smarter than humans, and whether Joe is a conservative after all.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: The Flynn effect in the short run puzzles me more than in the long run. If I compare today to the 18th century, I can see where the difference might be. But in many countries, it seems the Flynn effect hasn’t stopped. Nutritional gains probably are over.

The environment — smartphones are newer than the Flynn effect, but it doesn’t seem to be changing now compared to a generation ago. They both seem quite complex. We’ve had TV for a while. People have books, market society. What exactly is the difference over the last generation in the short run?

HENRICH: It’s a cultural-evolutionary treadmill. One place where you see this is the complexity of television shows. Now, you have an ensemble cast and 20 different plots going on. You’ve got to track all these different plots. That wasn’t the television of the 1950s. It was one plot, one thing after another. Simple. The whole world is getting more complex, at least in terms of your need for analytic thinking.

COWEN: Some of that in your view is the supply-side effect. It’s not that we got smarter and they made TV better, it’s also they made TV better and that made some of us smarter.

HENRICH: Coevolutionary.

COWEN: Coevolutionary. This is going to make you out to be quite an optimist, then, because TV is going to get better and better. We’re just going to keep on getting smarter.

HENRICH: Yeah, of course.


COWEN: You’re an anthropologist. You’ve spent a lot of time with economists — coauthored, worked with Paul Romer, Colin Camerer, others. As an anthropologist, what do you find strange about the tribe known as econ? [laughs]

HENRICH: I had a real opportunity. I was very fortunate in my career to be a professor of psychology and a professor of economics at the same time but to be neither in some deep sense. I would get to go back and forth from seminars in economics and psychology.

In economics, there’s this really competitive culture. The way I like to describe it: If you’re giving a seminar in economics, the crowd — everybody’s trying to show who’s the smartest guy in the room. Just on your first slide, someone will raise their hand. (I’m like, I haven’t said anything yet!) Then they’ll try to ask the killer question which undercuts your whole talk so that they can get you right at the beginning.


HENRICH: Whereas psychologists, they’ll sit quietly. They watch your talk. You go through your whole PowerPoint. You probably touched a lot of different research projects.

Then there’ll be question time; at first no hands will go up. Then someone will be like, “I got a question.” Then they say, “I just have one small question. I mean, it was a great talk and this is just a very minor thing.”

Then it could be a killer question at that point when they’ve done the preface. It’s a very strong cultural difference between the econ tribe and the psychology tribe.

I’ve always wanted to write an ethnography: My Life among Two Strange Tribes: The Psychologists and the Economists.

Do read, hear, or watch the whole thing.

Here you can order Joe’s book The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

Here is my 2005 tribute post, Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate.  Here are all the other MR posts about Schelling.  A great loss of course and for me he was a true role model and important advisor throughout my career.  Here is the University of Maryland notice.