I’ve argued before that much of the collapse of Nato is in fact due to Germany, and not Trump.  There is now an update:

Germany and Austria have castigated new American sanctions on Russia that target Moscow’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe, describing them as an illegal threat to EU energy security.

Sending a strong message to Moscow, the US Senate on Wednesday voted 97-2 to approve measures that toughen existing sanctions on Moscow and create new restrictions that target companies which support Russian “energy export pipelines”.

In a joint statement on Thursday, Berlin and Vienna said the amendment heralded a “new and very negative quality in European-American relations”.

The Senate move threatens to break a delicate transatlantic consensus on Russia sanctions orchestrated by Chancellor Angela Merkel, which has until now excluded Russia’s export pipelines precisely because they involved key German interests.

Here is the FT article.  How would America have reacted to Russia’s election tampering back say in 1966?  How might Germany have gone along with that response?  How willing was Germany back then to accept such a high percentage of its energy supplies from Russia/USSR?

Thursday assorted links

by on June 15, 2017 at 3:46 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

That was a tweet from Matt Yglesias, so here goes:

The best, in order

The Henriad (as a unit!)

King Lear

Hamlet (even if it is a bunch of cliches, strung together)

Measure for Measure

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Merchant of Venice

Romeo and Juliet

As You Like It

Twelfth Night

Winter’s Tale (underrated)

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Anthony and Cleopatra

The Tempest

Othello (slightly overrated, Verdi’s opera actually is better)

Richard II + III

Pretty flawed, but I still want to call underrated



Troilus and Cressida

OK, and would be pretty awesome from anyone else

Comedy of Errors

Much Ado About Nothing

All’s Well That Ends Well

Overrated, though you still can think they are pretty good

Julius Caesar


Taming of the Shrew

Just not that good

Henry VIII

Two Gentleman of Verona

Merry Wives of Windsor

Timon of Athens

Titus Andronicus

King John

Let’s not even get into the possible co-authorships.

The bottom line

Shakespeare is very likely the deepest thinker the human race has produced, so these are worth careful study!  I am a fan of the Folger Library editions.

Wednesday assorted links

by on June 14, 2017 at 12:33 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.


LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.


LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.


That is the title of a new and interesting short essay by Arthur Waldron, here is one interesting bit of many:

Since the attack on Scarborough Shoal, now six years ago, my own opinion is that China expected to have occupied a lot more. Her slightly delusional view of her claims, first made explicit in ASEAN’s winter meeting of 2010 in Hanoi, was that “small” countries would all bow respectfully to China’s new pre-eminence. This has failed to occur. All of China’s neighbors are now building up strong military capabilities. Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons are even a possibility. Over-relying on their traditional concept of awesomeness (威 wēi), the Chinese expected a cake walk. They have got instead an arms race with neighbors including Japan and other American allies and India too. With so much firepower now in place the danger of accident, pilot error, faulty command and control, etc. must be considered. But I’d wager that the Chinese would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots.


China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: in China one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.


Tuesday assorted links

by on June 13, 2017 at 1:49 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Relative to my education, including self-education, I think of myself as commanding only a limited English-language vocabulary.  Some of this comes from having studied two foreign languages as an adult, which means picking up vocabulary in other languages instead, as the marginal value of a word in the foreign language usually will be higher.  Another factor is the complementarity of “direct speech” modes and a fairly modest vocabulary; it doesn’t make sense to talk common sense and suddenly interject “albescent.”

There is also a third reason.  I think of “flowery” vocabulary as operating against what Richard Hamming calls “compound learning.”  Compound learning occurs when your new learning, and your new analysis, builds steadily upon the old.  Over time, learning is a bit like compound interest and it cumulates.

When compound learning is possible, you wish to keep a relatively well-defined set of analytic pieces on the table.  It is fine and indeed essential to add to those pieces, but then the new piece should be one that will stick around for a while, again so that you may learn with it.  Furthermore it should be readily shared with other people, used with ease on the blog or Twitter, and stick in your mind without much if any effort.  It’s a bit like having a consistent programming language or micro model to share across a lunch table, or indeed with yourself over time.

Should I write of a “velleity,” or of a slight, non-fervent wish?

The former seems to me rather periphrastic.

Monday assorted links

by on June 12, 2017 at 11:24 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Inclusivity and working less.

2. Do fractal planting patterns yield optimal output, without centralized direction?

3. How and why to coin flip travel decisions.

4. “”Now we have weddings where one headliner isn’t enough; they need three or four. Then you hit problems as to what order do you put them on in.” Tell a big name that she’s not the headliner, and she’ll drop out.” Link here, interesting throughout: “I love the look of a corset and I love a waist and I love drama,” she says.

5. “The scientists calculated that one 220,000-gallon, commercial-size swimming pool contained almost 20 gallons of urine.

6. Deirdre McCloskey summarizes her views (pdf).

What I’ve been reading

by on June 12, 2017 at 1:03 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History.  Things might have been different, if you believe this book.  German support for Lenin was very important, and the author sticks to the main story lines.  Hard for me to judge, but at the very least it was interesting and also clearly written.

2. Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13.  This novel builds too slowly to fit my reading style in a somewhat busy time of year, but I suspect it would be wonderful read aloud in a monotone, or as an audio book.  A young girl disappears in England, and the story records how the town processes the event, and eventually forgets about it, over the course of 13 years.  Here is one good review, it is a quality work of some originality.

3. Ken Gormley, editor, The Presidents and the Constitution.  An edited volume that is wonderful and deserving of the “best of the year” list.  The book considers how each American president in turn faced constitutional issues, and how those were resolved.  This is an excellent survey of constitutional law, and a very good refresher on American political history.  If you are a non-American, and looking to learn who all those lesser-known American presidents were, and what they did, and why and how so many of them were mediocre or worse, this is also perhaps the best place to start.

4. Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.  As clear and understandable a treatment of this topic as you are likely to find, Wilson himself writes: “A major reason for the Empire’s relative scholarly neglect is that its history is so difficult to tell.  The Empire lacked the things giving shape to conventional national history: a stable heartland, a capital city, centralized political institutions and, perhaps most fundamentally, a single ‘nation.’  It was also very large and lasted a long time.  A conventional chronological approach would become unfeasibly long, or risk conveying a false sense of linear development and reduce the Empire’s history to a high political narrative.  I would like to stress instead the multiple paths, detours and dead ends of the Empire’s development…”  Relative to those obstacles this is an amazing book.

5. Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañia.  I tried this a few years ago in English, but it clicked for me only in Spanish.  It is a series of short, interconnected philosophical meditations on those who don’t write, have given up writing, or who cannot help but write.  One of the better novels of the new century, though note it does require some basic background knowledge of figures such as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger.

Sunday assorted links

by on June 11, 2017 at 12:35 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

I mean for the West, not for emerging economies.  Obviously we need to know future trajectories, and that is hard to do.  But try this simple question: since 2000 or so, have the predictions of the optimists or the pessimists come closer to being correct and insightful?

At a dinner party two nights ago, the unanimous opinion, even from the optimists, was that the pessimists had been doing better in the predicting game.  Of course, that does not mean the pessimists will be correct going forward.  The optimists might try these counters:

1. There isn’t much of a true structure period, so a bunch of correct pessimist predictions doesn’t mean much.

2. The optimists had the better predictions for the 1980s and 1990s.  Perhaps the sides simply alternate being correct every now and then.

3. The recent correct predictions of the pessimists are mostly noise.  Soon, optimistic predictions are likely to start being correct again.

4. Since 2000, the pessimists didn’t actually predict as well as you might think.  They failed to see how quickly the internet would spread, the power and reach of smart phones, and furthermore peace has continued, at least among the advanced economies.  GDP still grew.

I don’t see #1 as giving a huge boost to a structurally-rooted optimism.  Note that for #2, it is usually cheaper to destroy than to build.  They are not the bleakest scenarios either, but still a big comedown for the optimists, I would think.

#3 cannot be ruled out, but it’s not a huge amount of evidence for optimism either.  It does allow the optimists, however, to keep their structural models intact.

#4 runs the risk of “if this is what optimism looks like…”

I believe many optimists wish to invoke an inconsistent mix of #1 and #3.

I thank Veronique de Rugy for pushing me on this point in the conversation.

How much should the predictive ability of a group matter anyway?  People who are good at predicting may or may not be good at understanding.

Church said “almost all” of his visionary ideas and scientific solutions have come while he was either asleep or quasi-asleep, sometimes dreaming, at the beginning or end of a narcoleptic nap. Such as? The breakthrough during graduate school that ushered in “next gen” genome sequencing, a fast and cheap way to “read” DNA. “Writing genomes,” or constructing them from off-the-shelf molecules as a way to improve on what nature came up with. Innovations in editing genomes.

These brainstorms, and more, occurred while he was “either daydreaming or night dreaming or in that period when I’m really refreshed right afterward,” said Church, who will be 63 in August. “It took me until I was 50 or 60 years old” to realize that narcolepsy “is a feature, not a bug.”

In 2017, Time magazine named Harvard professor George Church one of the 100 most influential people.  Here is the article, interesting throughout, via Michelle Dawson.

Saturday assorted links

by on June 10, 2017 at 3:11 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is the article, here is one excerpt:

A new issue of Econ Journal Watch, an online journal, includes a symposium in which prominent economic thinkers are asked to provide their “most regretted statements”. Held regularly, such exercises might take the shame out of changing your mind. Yet the symposium also shows how hard it is for scholars to grapple with intellectual regret. Some contributions are candid; Tyler Cowen’s analysis of how and why he underestimated the risk of financial crisis in 2007 is enlightening. But some disappoint, picking out regrets that cast the writer in a flattering light or using the opportunity to shift blame.

Here again is the symposium, here is my contribution.