Results for “china book”
620 found

*The 1 Hour China Book*

I enjoyed this book, which is authored by Jeffrey Towson and Jonathan Woetzel.  Here is one excerpt:

Looking at China today, what you don’t see is an integrated continental economy.  You don’t see infrastructure connecting each part of the country, like say in the United States.  That is likely the future but not yet the present.

If you look at the population and the existing infrastructure, what you actually see is a series of “clusters.”  You see local groups of cities with over 60 million people.  For example, Beijing/Tianjin in the North is actually a cluster of 28 cities — all tightly interconnected by roads, rail and other infrastructure.  Qingdao, well known for its beer, is actually part of a 35-city cluster.

Overall, China has more than 20 of these clusters…and each of these clusters is about the size of a European country.  According to government plans, China’s main clusters will cover 80% of GDP and 60% of the population.

The book is compact and useful, but it didn’t take me an hour.

China book fact countercyclical asset of the day

The People’s Press – the biggest publishing
house for China’s orthodox revolutionary books – reports that Marx’s
anti-capitalism opus "Das Kapital" has been selling about 4,000-5,000
copies nationwide a month since last November. That’s a big jump from
before the economic crisis, when the book sold well under 1,000 copies
per month on average.

The "Selected Works by Mao Zedong," a book
owned by almost every Chinese citizen a few decades ago, is also
witnessing a big jump in sales since late last year, according to Mr.
Pan from the People’s Press circulation department.

Here is the full story and I thank Ryan Tetrick for the pointer.

New books and notes on China

1. Run of the Red Queen: Government, Innovation, Globalization, and Economic Growth in China, by Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree.  This book argues that China is not on the verge of making major product innovations, but is coming up with a healthy stream of product-cheapening process innovations.  Here is a good interview with one of the authors.  Reading it is not always a thrill, but it is full of substance and an important book.  It provides lots of evidence — from novel corners — for the “China as more decentralized than we think” view.

2. Tom Orlik, Understanding China’s Economic Indicators: Translating the Data into Investment Opportunities.  A very useful book, the title is much more accurate than the last three words of the subtitle.  I wish the book had more on believability, however.

3. Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.  I have yet to read this one.

Here are some interesting estimates:

Data from UBS show China’s bank-sector credit—a measure that includes bank loans and holdings of bonds—as a share of gross domestic product rising from 121% in 2008 to close to 150% in 2010. Taking account of banks’ off-balance-sheet lending, the number is even higher, closer to 180%, and the rate of increase in the last year sharper.

Such a rapid expansion in credit is risky. UBS points out that a 35 to 40 percentage-point increase in the credit-to-GDP ratio of other economies over a five-year period has often coincided with the arrival of a crisis. In China, fault lines in loans to the property sector and local governments are already starting to emerge.

As important, China is getting less growth bang for its credit buck than it used to. From 2003 to 2008, total social finance—a Chinese government measure that includes on- and off-balance-sheet lending by the banks as well as bond and equity issuance—expanded on average by 18% a year, supporting growth in nominal GDP of 17% a year. In 2009 and 2010, finance exploded 33% a year on average, but GDP growth slowed to 12%.

China fact (book) of the day

When it comes to the overall death toll, for instance, researchers so far have had to extrapolate from official population statistics…Their estimates range from 15 to 32 million excess deaths.  But the public security reports compiled at the time, as well as the voluminous secret reports collated by party committees in the last months of the Great Leap Forward, show how inadequate these calculations are, pointing instead at a catastrophe of a much greater magnitude: this book shows that at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962.

That is from Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which is one of the scariest books I have read.  Here is another passage, I am not sure how well it is sourced:

Mao was delighted.  As reports came in from all over the country about new records in cotton, rice, wheat or peanut production, he started wondering what to do with all the surplus food.  On August 4 1958 in Xushui, flanked by Zhang Guozhong, surrounded by journalists, plodding through the fields in straw hat and cotton shoes, he beamed: "How are you going to eat so much grain?  What are you going to do with the surplus?"

"We can exchange it for machinery," Zhang responded after a pause for thought.

[Showing a poor understanding of Say's Law] "But you are not the only one to have a surplus, others too have too much grain!  Nobody will want your grain!"  Mao shot back with a benevolent smile.

"We can make spirits of out of taro," suggested another cadre.

"But every county will make spirits!  How many tonnes of spirits do we need? Mao mused.  "With so much grain, in future you should plant less, work half time and spend the rest of your time on culture and leisurely pursuits, open schools and a university, don't you think?…You should eat more.  Even five meals a day is fine!"

Here are some reviews of the book.

China’s Private Cities

In Rising private city operators in contemporary China, Jiao and Yu report that China’s private cities are growing.

…the last decade has witnessed a large growth in private city operators (PCOs) who plan, finance, build, operate and manage the infrastructure and public amenities of a new city as a whole. Different from previous PPPs, PCOs are a big breakthrough…they manage urban planning, industry development, investment attraction, and public goods and services. In other words, the traditional core functions of municipal governments are contracted out, and consequently, a significant neoliberal urban governance structure has become more prominent in China.

In the new business model, the China Fortune Land Development Co., Ltd. (CFLD) was undoubtedly the earliest and most successful. It manages 125 new cities or towns with a total area of over 4000 km2. Founded in 1998, the enterprise group has grown into a business giant with an annual income of CNY 83.8 billion in 2018. The company’s financial statements demonstrate that the annual return rate of net assets has grown as much as 30% annually from 2011 to 2018, which is the highest among the Chinese Fortune 500 companies.

As Rajagopalan and I argued in Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City the key development has been to scale large enough so that the private operator internalizes the externalities. Quoting Jiao and Yu again:

The key to solving this problem is to internalize positive externality so that costs and benefits mainly affect the parties who choose to incur them. The solution of the new model is to outsource Gu’An New Industry City as a whole to CFLD, which becomes involved in the life cycle including planning, infrastructure and amenity construction, investment attraction, operations and maintenance, and enterprise services. In this way, a city is regarded as a special product or a spatial cluster of public goods and services that can be produced by the coalition of the public and private sectors. The large-scale comprehensive development by a single private developer internalizes the externality of non-exclusive public amenities successfully and achieves a closed-loop return on investment.

As a result private firms are willing to make large investments. In Gu’An, an early CFLD city, for example:

CFLD has invested CNY 35 billion to build infrastructure and public amenities, including 181 roads with a length of 204 km, underground pipelines of 627 km, four thermal power plants, six water supply factories, a wastewater treatment plant, three sewage pumping stations, and 30 heat exchange stations. The 2018 Statistical Yearbook of Langfang City illustrates that the annual fiscal revenue increased to CNY 9 billion, and the fixed asset investment was approximately CNY 20 billion, and Gu’An achieved great success in terms of economic growth and urban development strongly promoted by the collaboration with CFLD.

By the way, The Journal of Special Jurisdictions, is looking for papers on these cities:

Although a relatively recent phenomenon in urban development, Chinese Contract Cities already cover 66,000 square kilometers and house tens of millions of residents. They host a wide range of businesses and have attracted huge amounts of investment. In cooperation, local government entities, private or public firms plan, build and operate Chinese contract cities.  Developers obtain land via contracts with local government or long-term leases with village collectives and enjoy revenues generated from economic activity in the planned and developed community. Residents contract a management firm for housing and other municipal services. In that way, Chinese contract cities offer innovative solutions to urban finance, planning, and management challenges.

The Chinese Contract Cities Conference will offer the world’s first international gathering of experts on this important new phenomenon.

…The proceedings of the Chinese Contract Cities Conference will appear in the Journal of Special Jurisdictions.

See also my previous post on Jialong, China’s Private City.

Best non-fiction books of 2021

What an incredible year for non-fiction books!  But let me first start with two picks from 2020, buried under the avalanche of Covid news then, and missed because I was less mobile than usual.  These books are not only good enough to make this list, but in just about any year they are good enough to be the very best book of that year:

Edward Nelson, Milton Friedman and Economic Debate in the United States, 1932–1972, volumes one and two.

Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.

Also noteworthy is Reviel Netz, Scale, Space and Canon in Ancient Literary Culture, which I hope to write more about.

Per usual, there is typically a short review behind each, though not quite always.  As for 2021 proper, here were my favorites, noting that I do not impose any quota system whatsoever.  (And yet this list is somehow more cosmopolitan than most such tallies…hmm…)  I don’t quite know how to put this, but this list is much better than the other “best books of the year” lists.  These are truly my picks, ranked roughly in the order I read them:

Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China.

Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.

Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.

Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19.

Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.

Ivan Gibbons, Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided.

Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Alan Taylor, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.

William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, brief discussion of it here.

Roderick Matthews, Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.

Alejandro Ruiz, Carla Altesor, et.al., The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital.

Tomas Mandl, Modern Paraguay: South America’s Best Kept Secret.

Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be.

Tony Saich, From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party.

Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.

Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.

John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.

Scott Sumner, The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism, the Great Recession, and the Future of Monetary Policy.

Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Joanne Limburg, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism.

McCartney, Paul. The Lyrics.  A remarkably high quality production, again showing McCartney’s skill as manager and entrepreneur.  Perhaps the biggest revelation is when Paul insists that if not for the Beatles he would have been an English teacher.  He also claims that he and not John was the big reader in The Beatles.  It is also striking, but not surprising, when explaining his lyrics how many times he mentions his mother, who passed away when Paul was fourteen.  There is a good David Hajdu NYT review here.

Bob Spitz, Led Zeppelin: The Biography.  They always end up being better than you think they possibly could be, and this is the best and most serious book about them.

gestalten, Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture.  Self-recommending…

Is there a “best book” of 2021?  The categories are hard to compare.  Maybe the seven volumes of Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa?  But is it fair they get seven volumes in this competition?  The McCartney?  (He took two volumes.)  The Pessoa biography?  Roderick Matthews on India?  So much to choose from!  And apologies to all those I have forgotten or neglected…

Read more!  And here is my favorite fiction of 2021 list.  And I will write an addendum to this list as we approach the very end of 2021.

How did China end up with so many people?

I cannot judge this hypothesis, but I have always wondered about the question:

We hypothesize that besides technology and resource expansion, risk-mitigation improvements pushed the Malthusian limits to population growth in pre-industrial societies. During 976-1850 CE, China’s population increased by elevenfold while the Confucian clan emerged as the key risk-sharing institution for members. To test our hypothesis using historical data from 269 prefectures, we measure each region’s clan strength by its number of genealogy books compiled. Our results show that prefectures with stronger clans had significantly higher population density due to better resilience during natural disasters and fewer premature deaths of children. Confucian clans enabled pre-industrial China to sustain explosive population growth.

That is from a new paper by Zhiwu Chen and Chicheng Ma.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Book Review: Andy Slavitt’s Preventable

Like Michael Lewis’s The Premonition which I reviewed earlier, Andy Slavitt’s Preventable is a story of heroes, only all the heroes are named Andy Slavitt. It begins, as all such stories do, with an urgent call from the White House…the President needs you now! When not reminding us (e.g. xv, 14, 105, 112, 133, 242, 249) of how he did “nearly the impossible” and saved Obamacare he tells us how grateful other people were for his wise counsel, e.g. “Jared Kushner’s name again flashed on my phone. I picked up, and he was polite and appreciative of my past help.” (p.113), “John Doer was right to challenge me to make my concerns known publicly. Hundreds of thousands of people were following my tweets…” (p. 55)

Slavitt deserves praise for his work during the pandemic so I shouldn’t be so churlish but Preventable is shallow and politicized and it rubbed me the wrong way. Instead of an “inside account” we get little more than a day-by-day account familiar to anyone who lived through the last year and half. Slavitt rarely departs from the standard narrative.

Trump, of course, comes in for plenty of criticism for his mishandling of the crisis. Perhaps the most telling episode was when an infected Trump demanded a publicity jaunt in a hermetically sealed car with Secret Service personnel. Trump didn’t care enough to protect those who protected him. No surprise he didn’t protect us.

The standard narrative, however, leads Slavitt to make blanket assertions—the kind that everyone of a certain type knows to be true–but in fact are false. He writes, for example:

In comparison to most of these other countries, the American public was impatient, untrusting, and unaccustomed to sacrificing individual rights for the public good. (p. 65)

Data from the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) show that the US “sacrifice” as measured by the stringency of the COVID policy response–school closures; workplace closures; restrictions on public gatherings; restrictions on internal movements; mask requirements; testing requirements and so forth–was well within the European and Canadian average.

The pandemic and the lockdowns split Americans from their friends and families. Birthdays, anniversaries, even funerals were relegated to Zoom. Jobs and businesses were lost in the millions. Children couldn’t see their friends or even play in the park. Churches and bars were shuttered. Music was silenced. Americans sacrificed plenty.

Some of Slavitt’s assertions are absurd.

The U.S. response to the pandemic differed from the response in other parts of the world largely in the degree to which the government was reluctant to interfere with our system of laissez-faire capitalism…

Laissez-faire capitalism??! Political hyperbole paired with lazy writing. It would be laughable except for the fact that such hyperbole biases our thinking. If you read Slavitt uncritically you’d assume–as Slavitt does–that when the pandemic hit, US workers were cast aside to fend for themselves. In fact, the US fiscal response to the pandemic was among the largest and most generous in the world. An unemployed minimum wage worker in the United States, for example, was paid a much larger share of their income during the pandemic than a similar worker in Canada, France, or Germany (and no, that wasn’t because the US replacement rate was low to begin with.)

This is not to deny that low-wage workers bore a larger brunt of the pandemic than high-wage workers, many of whom could work from home. Slavitt implies, however, that this was a “room-service pandemic” in which the high-wage workers demanded a reopening of the economy at the expense of low-wage workers. As far as the data indicate, however, the big divisions of opinion were political and tribal not by income per se. The Washington Post, for example, concluded:

There was no significant difference in the percentage of people who said social distancing measures were worth the cost between those who’d seen no economic impact and those who said the impacts were a major problem for their households. Both groups broadly support the measures.

Perhaps because Slavitt believes his own hyperbole about a laissez-faire economy he can’t quite bring himself to say that Operation Warp Speed, a big government program of early investment to accelerate vaccines, was a tremendous success. Instead he winds up complaining that “even with $1 billion worth of funding for research and development, Moderna ended up selling its vaccine at about twice the cost of an influenza vaccine.” (p. 190). Can you believe it? A life-saving, economy-boosting, pandemic ending, incredibly-cheap vaccine, cost twice as much as the flu vaccine! The horror.

Slavitt’s narrative lines up “scientific experts” against “deniers, fauxers, and herders” with the scientific experts united on the pro-lockdown side. Let’s consider. In Europe one country above all others followed the Slavitt ideal of an expert-led pandemic response. A country where the public health authority was free from interference from politicians. A country where the public had tremendous trust in the state. A country where the public were committed to collective solidarity and the public welfare. That country, of course, was Sweden. Yet in Sweden the highly regarded Public Health Agency, led by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, an expert in infectious diseases who had directed Sweden’s response to the swine flu epidemic, opposed lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the general use of masks.

Moreover, the Public Health Agency of Sweden and Tegnell weren’t a bizarre anomaly, anti-lockdown was probably the dominant expert position prior to COVID. In a 2006 review of pandemic policy, for example, four highly-regarded experts argued:

It is difficult to identify circumstances in the past half-century when large-scale quarantine has been effectively used in the control of any disease. The negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme (forced confinement of sick people with the well; complete restriction of movement of large populations; difficulty in getting critical supplies, medicines, and food to people inside the quarantine zone) that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.

Travel restrictions, such as closing airports and screening travelers at borders, have historically been ineffective.

….a policy calling for communitywide cancellation of public events seems inadvisable.

The authors included Thomas V. Inglesby, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, one of the most highly respected centers for infectious diseases in the world, and D.A. Henderson, the legendary epidemiologist widely credited with eliminating smallpox from the planet.

Tegnell argued that “if other countries were led by experts rather than politicians, more nations would have policies like Sweden’s” and he may have been right. In the United States, for example, the Great Barrington declaration, which argued for a Swedish style approach and which Slavitt denounces in lurid and slanderous terms, was written by three highly-qualified, expert epidemiologists; Martin Kulldorff from Harvard, Sunetra Gupta from Oxford and Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford. One would be hard-pressed to find a more expert group.

The point is not that we should have followed the Great Barrington experts (for what it is worth, I opposed the Great Barrington declaration). Ecclesiastes tells us:

… that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

In other words, the experts can be wrong. Indeed, the experts are often divided, so many of them must be wrong. The experts also often base their policy recommendations on factors beyond their expertise, including educational, class, and ideological biases, so the experts are to be trusted more on factual questions than on ethical answers. Nevertheless, the experts are more likely to be right than the non-experts. So how should one navigate these nuances in a democratic society? Slavitt doesn’t say.

Slavitt’s simple narrative–Trump bad, Biden good, Follow the Science, Be Kind–can’t help us as we try to improve future policy. Slavitt ignores most of the big questions. Why did the CDC fail in its primary mission? Indeed, why did the CDC often slow our response? Why did the NIH not quickly fund COVID research giving us better insight on the virus and its spread? Why were the states so moribund and listless? Why did the United States fail to adopt first doses first, even though that policy successfully saved lives by speeding up vaccinations in Great Britain and Canada?

To the extent that Slavitt does offer policy recommendations they aren’t about reforming the CDC, FDA or NIH. Instead he offers us a tired laundry list; a living wage, affordable housing, voting reform, lobbying reform, national broadband, and reduction of income inequality. Surprise! The pandemic justified everything you believed all along! But many countries with these reforms performed poorly during the pandemic and many without, such as authoritarian China, performed relatively well. All good things do not correlate.

Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic make it easy to blame him and call it a day. But the rot is deep. If we do not get to the core of our problems we will not be ready for the next emergency. If we are lucky, we might face the next emergency with better leadership but a great country does not rely on luck.

China fact of the day

China is still wrestling with how to rule over a diverse, ethnically mixed population that does not necessarily accept the dominance of the Han or the CCP narrative.  The challenge for the CCP is that ethnic minorities constitute only about 10 percent of the total population but inhabit 60 percent of the land mass, much of which is in sensitive border areas (the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  The national language is a recent construct and has priority in schools over the local languages.  About 30 percent of the population speaks a language at home other than the national language.

That is from the new and “must read” From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of Chinese Communism, by Tony Saich.  Keep in mind that the CCP is the most important institution in the world today — have you ever read a book on it?

China Straussian poem-sharing mistake of the day

Shares in Chinese food delivery giant Meituan have fallen sharply after its boss reportedly shared a 1,000-year-old poem on social media.

The Book Burning Pit by Zhang Jie was posted, then deleted, by the firm’s billionaire chief executive, Wang Xing.

The Tang dynasty poem was interpreted as a veiled criticism of President Xi Jinping’s government.

Meituan is currently under investigation over allegations of abusing its market dominance.

The company is one of China’s biggest takeaway food delivery and lifestyle services platforms and is backed by technology giant Tencent…

Despite the statement, Meituan’s Hong Kong-listed shares have fallen by around 14% since the market opened on Monday morning. Investors are jittery as Chinese business leaders who have been seen to criticise the government have found their companies come under intense scrutiny from authorities.

Here is the full story.  Via Rich D.

Best non-fiction books of 2020

Usually I give this list much later in November, but shopping rhythms are off this year.  Furthermore The Strand bookstore in NYC is rather desperately asking for your business, as is Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and many other independent bookshops.  Nor would it hurt Barnes & Noble if you spent your money there, and I hear Amazon is hiring and boosting the macroeconomy.  I believe bookstores in England will be closing in a few days, so hurry now.  Finally, I hope you will stay home and read these rather than traveling for Thanksgiving!

As usual, these are (roughly) in the order I read them, not ranked by preference or quality.

Anton Howes, Arts & Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.

Garett Jones, 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.

Bruno Macaes, History has Begun: The Birth of a New America.

Thane Gustafson, The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe.

Dietrich Vollrath, Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success.

Ronald S. Calinger, Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius of the Enlightenment.

Ashley Mears, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit.

Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton, The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life.

Hollis Robbins, Forms of Contention: Influence and the African-American Sonnet Tradition.

Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Steven Levy, Facebook: The Inside Story.

Joe Henrich, The WEIRDEST People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

Oliver Craske, Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar.

Zachary D. Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.

Deirdre Mask, The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.

Daniel Todman, Britain’s War 1942-1947.

Brent Tarter, Virginians and Their History.

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

Matt Yglesias, One Billion Americans.

Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History.

Michael Wood, The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People.

Kevin Davies, Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.

Nicholas McDowell, Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

This is indeed a fantastic list, really strong, and apologies to those I have forgotten (there are always some).  I will be doing a revised, updated, and last two months filled in list much later in December.

And here are the additions:

Darmon Richter, Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide.

Thoughts on Peter Burke’s new book *The Polymath*

1. No one is really a polymath.

2. No one is really a unimath, for that matter.

3. Many supposed polymaths apply a relatively small number of learning techniques to many fields.  They remain specialized, although their modes of specialization happen not to line up with how the academic disciplines are divided.  Say you apply non-parametric statistics to five different fields — do you have one specialization or five?

4. What to make of the economist who can run experiments, use computational methods, build models, run regressions, find new data sources, has mastered machine learning, can speak fluently about macroeconomics, and popularize for a lay audience.  Is there any such person?  (No.)  Would he or she count as a polymath?

5. The medieval polymaths Albert the Great and Ramon Llull seem especially impressive to me, because they had to learn before printing presses or easy travel were available.

6. One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.  “I can tell exactly how much people weigh just by looking at them.”  That sort of thing.  What is your claim in this regard?  Polymaths also must encompass the trivial!

7. How many “polymaths” are great at say only seven very trivial tasks, and fail to excel at anything important.  Should the polymath concept be held hostage to Jeremy Bentham?

8. Is Leibniz — amazing philosopher, an inventor of the calculus, mastery of languages, theologian, diplomacy, legal reform, inventor, political theorist, and supposed expert on China — the most amazing polymath of all time?

9. Leonardo seems a little thin in actual achievement (though not imagination) once you get past the visual arts.  And there are fewer than fifteen paintings to his name.

10. I think of the 17th century as a peak time for polymaths.  Enough chances to learn and create things, and read lots, but not so much knowledge that you could stand on only one frontier.

11. John Stuart Mill is the most impressive polymath economist.

12. Alan Turing contributed to virtually every field, but in some sense he did only one thing.  Von Neumann did more than one thing, did he do two?  He too contributed to virtually every field.

13. I am very much a fan of Susan Sontag, but I think of her as having done, in essence, “only one thing.”

14. Here is a good piece Beware the Casual Polymath.

I am very happy to recommend this book, especially to MR readers, the full title is The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke.

What is the single best volume to read on China?

I do not know!  But this is one of the questions I receive most often, after “Can we have more of Tyrone?”, and “What do you mean by “Straussian”?”

I do find that Michael Wood’s new The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People is a plausible contender for this designation.  Consistently interesting, substantive, and conceptual, but without over-interpreting for the sake of imposing a narrative straitjacket.

Due out November 17, I am pleased I paid the extra shipping costs to get it from the UK.

Might you all have alternative suggestions for a single best book on China?

Why China prospered with corruption

In her new book China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption, Yuen Yuen Ang presents four reasons:

1. Access money dominates.

More concretely, politicians prosper by getting things built, not by preventing things from getting built.

2. China’s political system operates on a profit-sharing model.

3. Capacity-building reforms have curtailed damaging forms of corruption.

4. Regional competition checks predatory corruption, spurs on developmental efforts, and ratchets up deals.

The book in fact presents serious data and argumentation in favor of those propositions, and thus it is significantly more useful than most of the China books you will read.

*Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World*

That is the new book by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei.  It is perhaps not so novel to students of Jean Bodin and medieval political thought, or say Chinese history, but still the book crystallizes a moment and I consider its publication a matter of note.  Here is one short bit:

But which hierarchical relations are justified and why?  In our view, it depends on the nature of the social relations and the social context.  As a method, we are inspired by Michael Walzer’s call for a pluralistic approach to justice.  There is no one principle of justice appropriate for all times and places.  Our main argument is that different hierarchical principles ought to govern different kinds of social relations.  What justifies hierarchy among intimates is different from what justifies hierarchy among citizens; what justifies hierarchy among citizens is different from what justifies hierarchy among countries; what justifies hierarchy among countries is different from what justifies hierarchies between humand and animals, and…The sum total of our argument is that morally justified hierarchies can and should govern different spheres of our social lives…

The discussion of the Kama Sutra, and its notions of hierarchy, was interesting too.