What I’ve been reading

1. Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom.  A useful and readable introduction to the practical issues of Florentine politics and how they influenced the life and writings of Machiavelli.

2. Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America.  Volume one of the Penguin History of the United States, this book is especially good at tying in “settlement issues” to later “governance issues.”  It is compulsively readable and has an excellent annotated bibliography.  Circa 1770, exports were about 10% of American gdp (p.311); today exports are a bit over 12% of gdp.

3. Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth.  This is a look at the significance of violence in American history, focusing on the Revolution itself, and it is a good way to remind foreigners how screwed up (and dynamic) we are.

4. Arguments for Liberty, edited by Aaron Ross Powell and Grant Babcock.  I do not think the arguments in this book succeed as arguments for liberty, with the exception of some of the utilitarian arguments, noting that I am only a “2/3s utilitarian.”  Still, you get Eric Mack, Jason Kuznicki, Kevin Vallier, Neera Badhwar, Michael Huemer, and Jason Brennan, and so this is the rare edited volume that lives up to what you ideally might want it to be.

5. Jok Madut Jok, Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace.  I’ve read a few books on South Sudan lately, to try to figure out, if only in broad terms, what is going on there.  This is the one that actually does a good job explaining things!  Above all else, I now have some sense of just how historically deeply rooted the current conflict is.  Recommended.

Jonathan Schwabish, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks, is specific in all the right ways, most of all when it comes to Powerpoint slides.

My colleague Philip E. Auerswald has just published the very useful The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History.


1. So, does Dante get a companion book involving Florentine politics?

5. 'if only in broad terms' - if the book does not mention that China extensive involvement in South Sudan's energy industry, not to mention China's extensive efforts to get that industry back on it feet, it is missing the only 'broad term' that matters - 'China is heavily invested in South Sudan, with which it has long had important economic ties. China financed and constructed the pipeline that sends petroleum north from Unity State through Sudan to the Red Sea, for export to China in Chinese-owned tankers. China attempted to defend the pipeline when Sudan and what is now South Sudan were at war, and supplied arms and ammunition to Sudan as South Sudan broke away. Later it helped to arm South Sudanese forces.

When the pumps were working in Unity State, South Sudan supplied about 5 per cent of China’s oil imports. The China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 per cent of South Sudan’s oil fields. Before 2014, Chinese managers and workers were active in developing those concessions.' http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/why-china-is-south-sudans-best-hope/article31394168/

Further, China is in the dominant position concerning Sudan's oil/gas industry - http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article59816

1. TC did cite last year Marco Santagata's Dante biography (Belknap Harvard, 2016). Without seeing Benner's work, I'd still cite Corrado Vivanti's intellectual biography of Machiavelli (Princeton, 2013), if not also Christopher Celenza's portrait (Harvard, 2015).

2. I would strongly recommend Taylor's American Revolutions as well. Before I read it, I was under the impression that the US war of independence was fundamentally different from many other revolutionary wars because the colonial governments ratified and supported the push for independence (meaning it was more like a war of secession than revolution). But the book showed that it was a lot messier and more revolutionary than I thought - now I'm waiting for someone to write the comprehensive world history on street violence and political change.

Heads up, the #2 link goes to the Holger Hoock book as well.

No need to note such a minor error - Prof. Cowen only occasionally looks at the comments anyways.

"My colleague Philip E. Auerswald has just published the very useful The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History."

I enjoy reading the opinions of a GMU professor with no computer science background on coding and the blockchain.

2. I assume most of those exports in 1770 consisted of raw cotton sent to England by southern planters. As for support for the revolution, much of it was highly personal (e.g., some personal offense by the often clueless British) rather than based on high moral principles. Even George Washington was motivated in part by personal offense: the British refused to grant him an officer's commission after leading troops against the French and Indians and refused to give him the vast Ohio Territory after he surveyed it though he considered it rightfully his. The Enlightenment was well and good, but an officer's commission and a few thousand acres of wilderness for his labors may have changed the course of history.

Not so much cotton, but tobacco and indigo for Europe, and staple foods (wheat, corn, rice, fish, meat) for the Sugar islands, so they could use every inch of arable land for sugar cane. Also a bit of rum and timber. The big manufactured goods were ships and naval stores (rope, tar, what-have-you).

4. Never heard of any of these guys. I guess the defenders of liberty aren't what they used to be.

2. I found Taylor's level of political correctness really unbearable: the endless parade of noble red men, courageous black men, and murderous, oppressive white men is just too wearing.

That said, you might ask, harking back to an earlier generation of historians, do I find Commager's casual racism unbearable? Annoying, yes, but not unbearable. So I have a double standard, no doubt.

Hey, what's the other 1/3rd? I.e., is Tyler one-third Kantian?

I rate "American Colonies" the best single-volume history of the period. His "American Revolutions" is good, but not as good, and there are many good single-volume histories of the Revolution. There is nothing else quite like "Colonies" out there.

American Revolution violent? Obviously, you never heard of the French Revolution or the Gulag. More anti-US?

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