Month: March 2019

Which are the best autobiographies by women?

That question has been floating around Twitter, here are my picks:

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

Janet Frame, Autobiography.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own.

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis.

Golda Meir, My Life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures.

Am I allowed to say Virginia Woolf, corpus?

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir.

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life.

Anne Frank of course.

What else?  Maybe Carrie Fisher?  Maya Angelou?  Erica Jong?  St. Therese of Liseaux?  (I Am Rigoberto Menchu turned out to be a fraud.)  There are a variety of important feminist books that read like quasi-autobiographies, but maybe they don’t quite fit the category.  What is a memoir and what is an autobiography in this context?  Do leave your suggestions in the comments.

It is also worth thinking about how these differ from well-known male autobiographies…

The Destruction from an Asteroid Strike

The Day the Dinosaurs Died is an amazing tale of scientific discovery. You should read the whole thing. One sub-point, however, is a vivid description of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The asteroid was vaporized on impact. Its substance, mingling with vaporized Earth rock, formed a fiery plume, which reached halfway to the moon before collapsing in a pillar of incandescent dust. Computer models suggest that the atmosphere within fifteen hundred miles of ground zero became red hot from the debris storm, triggering gigantic forest fires. As the Earth rotated, the airborne material converged at the opposite side of the planet, where it fell and set fire to the entire Indian subcontinent. Measurements of the layer of ash and soot that eventually coated the Earth indicate that fires consumed about seventy per cent of the world’s forests. Meanwhile, giant tsunamis resulting from the impact churned across the Gulf of Mexico, tearing up coastlines, sometimes peeling up hundreds of feet of rock, pushing debris inland and then sucking it back out into deep water, leaving jumbled deposits that oilmen sometimes encounter in the course of deep-sea drilling.

…The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phytoplankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999 per cent of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.

…One of the authors of the 1991 paper, David Kring, was so frightened by what he learned of the impact’s destructive nature that he became a leading voice in calling for a system to identify and neutralize threatening asteroids. “There’s no uncertainty to this statement: the Earth will be hit by a Chicxulub-size asteroid again, unless we deflect it,” he told me. “Even a three-hundred-metre rock would end world agriculture.”

When the asteroid hit it unleashed the energy of a billion Hiroshimas, that’s one reason I support foundations like the B612 Foundation who are working to map asteroids and develop systems to protect our world. As Tyler and I point out in textbook, protection from asteroids is a true public good which is one reason why we aren’t spending enough on this project.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

*Ash is Purest White* (movie, total spoilers in this post)

A phenomenal movie, by Chinese director Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin, 2013), large screen only.  The reviews are very positive but mostly nonsense.  Here are the two things you need to know to understand this movie:

1. Most of what is on the screen after the Three Gorges scene probably isn’t really happening.  The woman is crazy and is dreaming or imagining it.  There is plenty of absurd coincidences and contradictory information (the health and mind-state of the ex-boyfriend are various fantasy versions), but the real clincher is when the UFO appears.  How can so many reviewers (NYT) be baffled by this?

2. The film is a stinging critique of the CCP, in Straussian fashion, and much of the action is a running commentary on a previous Chinese film, the wonderful The Chinese Mayor (maybe the best movie about how China works?).  Both are set in Datong, a quite undistinguished Chinese city in Shanxi, and Ash is Purest White shows how the building of Datong, glorified in the earlier movie, is in fact based on corruption and mob rule.  Also check out the surveillance and Xinjiang references for a full understanding of the politics of this movie.

*Maoism: A Global History*

By Julia Lovell, so far this is clearly the best book of the year.  I’ll have more to say about it, here is one excerpt:

Mao’s lack of enthusiasm for a risky conflict in Korea is understandable: the CCP’s military capacity was clustered around the south-east coast, perched for an invasion of Taiwan.  A Cold War conflagration on the north-east border would require the shifting of all these offensive troops to defence in the north-east — from one end of the country to another.  Drafts of telegrams and notes of conversations unearthed from archives make clear that Mao came within a whisker of refusing to help the Koreans…

Mao therefore was bounced into the Korean War — not as part of a long-term conspiracy, but through Stalin’s self-interested impulses and instinct for playing on Mao’s status-conscious desire to claim leadership of the Asian revolution.  Given that Mao and his immediate lieutenants had already committed themselves publicly to leading the world revolution — wit their Beijing training courses, their proclamations about the relevance of China to oppressed people in Asia — their revolutionary credentials would have been shredded had they not stepped into the war.  Stalin and Kim, in short, created a conflict that impinged not only on one of China’s most sensitive, complex frontiers — the Korean-Soviet-Chinese border — but also on Mao’s self-image.  The Chinese were thus forced to rescue Kim when the war turned against the North Koreans.

The book also covers Indonesia, Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia, Peru, Nepal, and more, all with an emphasis on China’s earlier foreign policy role.  Every chapter is full of fascinating information with strong but not overreaching conceptual framings.  Very strongly recommended, it comes out in America in September, I ordered my copy from the UK, available now and cheaper too.  Here is a review from The Economist.

Saturday assorted links

Brexit day has come and gone

I must have read two hundred tweets about how dysfunctional the British government is, or what a bad leader Theresa May has been.  Really?  That has yet to be demonstrated.  I’ve all along been “vote Remain,” but I also recognize Remain works only if British membership in the EU has a certain amount of internal legitimacy.

What might a process of testing that legitimacy look like?  Long, extended confusion, lots of back and forth, indecisiveness, and inability to form a durable majority for any other option, perhaps?

Right now the chances of Remain seem to be rising, or perhaps some version of Norway plus, and those are among the better options.  I am hardly distraught, noting that I genuinely do not have a strong sense of what will happen next.  I am pleased to see that not one of the seven versions of Brexit could command a majority.

Is it really so tragic and terrible to have all this — whatever comes to pass — revealed only at the last moment?  Isn’t that often how optimal search looks?  Isn’t it how the “to Remainers all-holy EU” so often does its business?  Alternatively, how smooth, open, and transparent did the American constitutional convention actually run?

I’m not predicting triumph or victory here, only that I don’t yet see that anything has fallen off the rails.  Nor is the British pound being hammered in the markets.  Nor do I know many (any?) people who could have done much better than Theresa May.

But now is the time to pay more attention again, these are the proverbial last five minutes of the basketball game…

Elizabeth Warren on food and agriculture

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is on excerpt:

The most striking feature of her team’s plan, called “Leveling the Playing Field for America’s Family Farmers,” is what it doesn’t call for: namely, an abolition of farm subsidies, a reform favored by virtually all economists. Those payments often run more than $20 billion a year, and are typically considered an inefficient form of crony capitalism.

And:

Warren’s document asserts that “food prices aren’t going down.” That’s true but misleading. When the Federal Reserve is targeting near 2 percent inflation, most prices in the economy will rise steadily over time. The link behind that claim, to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, offers some recent data, but it is hardly damning: In 2018, it notes, retail food prices rose 0.4 percent. “This was the first increase in 3 years, but the rate was still below the 20-year historical annual average of 2.0 percent.” Or how terrible are these numbers, from the same report: “In 2019, price growth may continue to remain low at the grocery store. Food-at-home prices are expected to rise between 0.5 and 1.5 percent, as potentially the fourth year in a row with deflating or lower-than-average inflating retail food prices.”

A look at the longer-term historical data also shows slow, steady inflation in the food and beverage sector, rather than a recent crisis of price spikes. Food price inflation does become higher after 1973, but that is probably due to higher energy prices and the more general productivity slowdown that has plagued the U.S. economy.

In this context, Warren’s lengthy complaints about monopoly and market power in the food sector just don’t seem that persuasive. Furthermore, America’s food sector has been remarkably innovative in terms of product choice and rising diversity of options.

Warren also calls for greater agricultural protectionism and the banning of foreign investment in American farmland.  And she is supposed to be the leading policy thinker in the race?  People, this is not good, and furthermore it is the same tiresome “tested by social media let’s bash the corporate villains” set of cliches.  My close:

If American voters want to be inspired, then opposing seed-company mergers won’t be nearly enough.

*Coders*, by Clive Thompson

The list of small-person or one-person innovators is long…[long list follows]…

The reason so few people can have such an outsize impact, Andreessen argues, is that when you’re creating a weird new prototype of an app, the mental castle building is most efficiently done inside one or two isolated brains.  The 10X productivity comes from being in the zone and staying there and from having a remarkable ability to visualize a complex architecture.  “If they’re physical capable of staying awake, they can get really far,” he says.  “The limits are awake time.  It takes you two hours to get the whole thing loaded into your head, and then you get like 10 or 12 or 14 hours where you can function at that level.”  The 10Xers he has known also tend to be “systems thinkers,” insatiably curious about every part of the technology stack, from the way currents flow in computer processors to the latency of touchscreen button presses.  “It’s some combination of curiosity, drive, and the need to understand.  They find it intolerable if they don’t understand some part of how the system works.”

The subtitle is The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, I enjoyed the book very much, you can order it here.

Immigration Status, Immigrant Family Ties, and Support for the Democratic Party

That is a newly published piece by George Hawley, Social Science Quarterly, not yet available on-line as far as I can find:

I test the hypothesis that immigration status itself is a predictor of Democratic Party affiliation and vote choice, even controlling for other attributes. I further test whether having immigrant parents and grandparents has a similar effect. Method.To examine these questions, I created single- and multilevel models of party affiliation and vote choice using the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Results. Even after controlling for a myriad of individual and contextual attributes, immigration status was a statistically significant and substantively important predictor of Democratic affiliation. This was also true of the children and grandchildren of immigrants, but this effect weakened over multiple generations. Conclusion. Immigration status itself appears to be an important determinant of voting patterns, which is highly consequential, given the large and growing foreign-born population in the United States.

Perhaps this explains some small part of American politics in recent times.

For the pointer I thank D.

Demand curves slope downward incentives matter

The typical all-you-can-eat buffet customer serves herself more than 4 pounds of food—much of which winds up in the trash, he said. The by-the-pound guest, in contrast, serves herself 1-to-2 pounds and the more she takes, the better it is for the business.

Here is the longer story (WSJ), with additional points of interest, via the estimable Chug.

Thursday assorted links

Paying People to Stay Out of Jail

Should we pay people not to commit crime? Could we? Murat Mungan from GMU Law shows that it could pay in principle:

This article considers the possibility of simultaneously reducing crime, prison sentences, and the tax burden of …financing the criminal justice system by introducing positive sanctions, which are benefits conferred to individuals who refrain from committing crime. Specifically, it proposes a procedure wherein a part of the imprisonment budget is re-directed towards financing positive sanctions. The feasibility of reducing crime, sentences, and taxes through such reallocations depends on how effectively the marginal imprisonment sentence reduces crime, the crime rate, the effectiveness of positive sanctions, and how accurately the government can direct positive sanctions towards individuals who are most responsive to such policies. The article then highlights an advantage of positive sanctions over imprisonment in deterring criminal behavior: positive sanctions operate by transferring or creating wealth, whereas imprisonment operates by destroying wealth. Thus, the conditions under which positive sanctions are optimal are broader than those under which they can be used to jointly reduce crime, sentences, and taxes. The analysis reveals that when the budget for the criminal justice system is exogenously given, it is optimal to use positive sanctions when the imprisonment elasticity of deterrence is small, which is a condition that is consistent with the empirical literature. When the budget for the criminal justice system is endogenously determined, it is optimal to use positive sanctions as long as the marginal cost of public funds is not high.

It’s harder to implement in practice, however. Increasing the minimum wage and the EITC might be easier or maybe not.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

Perceptions of crony capitalism

This paper discusses a national survey of business leaders that sought to deter-mine how government favoritism toward particular firms correlates with attitudes about government, the market, and selectively favorable economic policy. Findings indicate that those individuals who believe they work for favored firms are more likely to approve of free markets in the abstract but also more likely to say the US market is currently too free. These individuals are more skeptical of competition and more inclined to approve of government intervention in markets. They also are more likely to approve of government favoritism and to believe that favoritism is compatible with a free market. Those who have direct experience with economic favoritism or are more attuned to such favoritism are more likely to have distorted perceptions of free- market capitalism and are more comfortable with further favoritism.

That is the abstract of a new Mercatus working paper, by Matthew D. Mitchell, with Scott Eastman and Tamara Winter.