What I’ve been reading

1. Robert W. Poole, Jr. Rethinking America’s Highways: A 21st Vision for Better Infrastructure.  Highways can and will get much better, largely through greater private sector involvement.  He is probably right, and there is much substance in this book.

2. Aysha Akhtar, Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies.  An unusual mix of memoir, animal compassion, and childhood horrors, I found this very moving.

3. Ethan Mordden, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide.  Should there not be a fanboy book like this about every person of some renown?  Insightful and witty throughout, for instance: “…we comprehend Streisand from what she does — yet a few personal bits have jumped out at us through her wall of privacy.  One is the “Streisand Effect”…which we can restate as “When famous people complain about something, they tend to make it famous, too.”

4. Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education.  Hard-hitting and courageous, and I can attest that much of it is absolutely on the mark.  Still, I did wish for a bit more of a comparative perspective.  Are universities more hypocritical than other institutions?  Might the non-signaling, learning rate of return on higher education still be positive and indeed considerable?  I am not nearly as negative as the authors are, while nonetheless feeling much of their disillusion on the micro level.  Furthermore, American higher education does pass a massive market test at the global level — foreign students really do wish to come and study here.  What are we to make of that?  Which virtues of the current system are we all failing to understand properly?

5. Kirk Goldsberry, Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA.  A highly analytical but also entertaining look at the rise of the three point shot, the history of Steph Curry, how LeBron James turned into such a good player, and much more, with wonderful visuals and graphics.

6. Paul Rabinow, Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology.  PCR is the polymerase chain reaction, and this is a genuinely good anthropological study of how scientific progress comes about, noting there is plenty of lunacy in this story, including love, LSD, and much more.  There should be more books like this, this one dates from the 1990s but I am still hoping more people copy it.  Via Ray Lopez.

Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, covers Boas, Mead, Benedict, and others.  Not enough of the material was new to me, though I expect for many readers this is quite a useful book.

I enjoyed Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite.  Remember how I used to say “The only thing worse than the Very Serious People are the Not Very Serious People?”  Well, you should have listened.  I have the same fear with the current critiques of meritocracy.  That said, this is the book that does the most to pile on, against meritocracy, noting that much less space is devoted to possible solutions.  There are arguments in their own right for wage subsidies and more low-income college admissions, but will those changes reverse the fundamental underlying dynamic of knowing just about everybody’s marginal product?

John Quiggin, Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly.  The third lesson, however, is government failure, and you won’t find much about that here.  Still, I found this to be a well-done book rather than a polemic.  Here is the introduction on-line.


4. Yes foreign students do want to study in the US but how much of that is because they will be in the US, as distinct from getting a better education?

That, and inertia. We are already seeing a shift to foreign universities as China and India develop their own high-quality universities.

I analogize it to U.S. manufacturing in the mid-70's- still riding high on our manufacturing dominance that we got coming out of WW2, but the seeds of our "downfall" (not so much as a downfall as taking some hits as we learned to improve and be competitive again) already sown in countries like Japan and China.

As long as the Very Serious People continue push their economic cuckoldry agenda on everyone, they will keep losing elections. They still haven't learned the lessons of 2016.

& then mexico" accidentally" jabbed canada in the nads(ouch)

1. 'Highways can and will get much better'

Sometimes, you really have to wonder about the details concerning such platitudes - were highways facing a great stagnation, will average highways be over, or are complacent highways the scourge of free motoring for free citizens?

4. 'foreign students really do wish to come and study here'

In flat to declining numbers - 'The number of students projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018 is 19.9 million, which is higher than the enrollment of 15.3 million students in fall 2000, but lower than the enrollment peak of 21.0 million in fall 2010 (source). Total enrollment is expected to increase between fall 2018 and fall 2027 to 20.5 million.' https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372

10? 'The third lesson, however, is government failure, and you won’t find much about that here. ' And the fourth lesson is government success - no idea if there is much about that there, however.

I wonder what was going on in the world in 2010 vs 2018 that would cause an increase in people choosing to enroll in schools?

Let’s put on our thinking caps, prior!

The bubbas enlisted the private sector to build us a highway, the interstate having become choked, the bubbas in their wisdom having allowed it to become not the limited access city-to-city road that was envisioned and that it briefly was - but instead a several hundred-mile long urbanized thread, with businesses and frontage roads nearly its whole length. So, do-over. And since we evidently can't afford to build highways anymore, or lost the know-how, we contracted with a European outfit to oversee the local construction company, and operate the thing. They did build it pretty quickly, and seem - for now, but it's not going to be easy, culturally, to accept that not everything the state does is meant to encourage a land play - to have had the sense to make it very limited access, with only a few services allowed.

Embedded in that contract however was a little sweetener; the bubbas could recoup $100 million if they allowed the road company the latitude of an 85 mph speed limit, in stretches, to encourage drivers to make the (longer) switch from the nearby interstate. In 2017, per local news, "... more than half of speed-limit violators on the toll road were clocked going 95 mph or faster, and 115 people were alleged to be driving 100 mph or faster on the toll road. Those DPS records showed one driver going 143 mph."

All might be well - but this isn't Deutschland. The tractor-trailers and big rigs aren't going 100 mph, and the numerous wild hogs - feral descendants of the bubbas' favorite food - definitely aren't going anywhere fast.

The Europeans declared bankruptcy and are out of the picture, but the state didn't elect to take over - so the 85 mph that seems more optimistic than advised, and interesting mix of speeds, remain. Caveat emptor if you buy a ticket to drive on this private highway.

Third lesson: Regulators require banks to wear much more heavy protective gear (capital) when lending to entrepreneurs, than when lending to sovereigns or financing home purchases, seriously distorting the allocation of credit to the real economy.


#6: great advances in biotechnology are being done right now. If the book is from the 1990s, the last 20 years are very interesting.

Riffing on education and meritocracy - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47963633: "Smart, motivated students who go to an elite college earn about the same as equally smart, motivated ones who go to a slightly less selective one.

Studies suggest that students admitted to a more selective college who then chose to enrol at a lower-ranked institution don't earn less in later years."(Brookings Institution)

As in the case of British public (selective, fee paying) vs grammar (selective, state funded) vs state (non-selective, state funded) schools, where there is no difference once selection is accounted for, or the case of urban productivity vs rural productivity where selection significantly reduces any productivity gap (possibly to the degree there are no net benefits once city costs are taken into account).

While not excusing the US furore (the "Asian admissions" case or the scandal), this suggests that the case for correcting an unjust distribution of teaching resources probably does not exist (if there were an advantage in teaching resources, we'd see).

The groups excluded from elite institutions due to various impurities in US meritocracy (cheating, Asian quotas, Affirmative Action) probably aren't losing out in income terms. (Though they may be losing out in power and social connections, more on that as follows.)

Brookings add a caveat however: Students who are the first in their family to attend college, or who come from a minority background, appear to be the only groups who benefit from attending elite colleges. First-generation students, for example, get about a 5% earnings bump if they attend a more selective college, research suggests.One possible explanation for this is that these institutions give disadvantaged students access to networks more affluent students already have through their parents. It looks, then, as if the students with the least access to top-ranked institutions may well be those with the most to gain. But fewer than one in 50 young people whose family are in the bottom 60% of incomes actually attend elite colleges, compared with about 40% of those in the top 0.1%.

However, it is a strange suggestion to take from this that more meritocratic enrollment would be fairer and better as:

1) More meritocratic enrollment would reduce the strength of network effects from networking with the scions of the moneyed.

2) These sort of network effects are not "good" and we don't really want this sort of nepotism in society. Having more meritocracy to allow "meritocrats" to take greater advantage of crony and nepotistic systems and a closed power elite of connections is hardly an overall meritocratic outcome.



"These sort of network effects are not "good" and we don't really want this sort of nepotism in society. Having more meritocracy to allow "meritocrats" to take greater advantage of crony and nepotistic systems and a closed power elite of connections is hardly an overall meritocratic outcome."

Finally somebody said it well. The problem with the meritocracy is that it has no merit - they have have f*cked everything up. They only thing they are good at is gaining power, influence, and money for themselves. They all need to be fired, but that is not enough. They need to have deplorables camped out on their front lawns and following them wherever they go.

Well, we do have them on our lawns (mowing) and following us (valeting)

Higher education and meritocracy: I suspect the critics of higher education are merely offering a rationalization for the low rate of economic mobility among the current generation of college graduates. Blame higher education rather than conditions in or the structure of the economy. Higher education does make itself an easy target, though, with costs disproportionate to the return for many graduates. It wasn't always so: there was a time, not long ago, that one could attend a state's flagship university for a few hundred dollars per semester, and graduate with no debt and a good entry level job. There are many explanations for the spike in costs (it's the state government's fault for cutting funding to higher education, it's the federal government's fault for subsidizing the costs, it's the university's fault for building sports palaces and monuments to two-bit politicians, it's the celebrity professors' fault for demanding a level of compensation that belongs in the business sector not education, and so on), none of which is satisfying and all of which together offer neither a consensus nor a solution. As for the increasing influence of economists in the real economy, I suggest they consider a return to academia for more study and some self-reflection: one's measured marginal product does not take account of the fact that the value of the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

I used to shoot pool with a group of copy writers in Yonkers where the bartenders were female and wore pantsuits and neon shoes. One night in the bathroom, a homeless guy I’d seen took off his garbage bag before going in the stall. The guy was always muttering and motioning his hands but not that night, so I bummed a cigarette and followed him outside. He had turned left, was about twenty-five yards at the top of a ridge, where a limo and a truck met him followed a wave of small cars for the last half of my cigarette. Datsun after Honda, even a rare Mercedes or BMW had a boxed-off hood. I hailed a Dodge Checker and started to give my address when the stale scent of coffee and cigarettes left me stymied. At home, I was greeted by my roommate Gummy, whom worked at hedge fund in White Plains, naked, basking in front of the refrigerator. I took a job at Target in Minneapolis the next month, bought a medley of sweat suits and wrote ad copy for “three-hour deals,” spirographs, and color campaigns, happy enough eating chicken wings in relative obscurity.

Brilliant Rayward!

"Blame higher education rather than conditions in or the structure of the economy."

Exactly! Trade policy, hamstringing energy development and deployment, and looney tunes global warming policy have destroyed about half of the country - hence Trump.

And this:

"Higher education does make itself an easy target, though, with costs disproportionate to the return for many graduates. It wasn't always so: there was a time, not long ago, that one could attend a state's flagship university for a few hundred dollars per semester, and graduate with no debt and a good entry level job. "

Another home run. I attended a community college in CA for virtually FREE, I think it was like $13 total for a semester. I then went to the University of CA and paid around $400 per quarter. I graduated with a STEM degree and got an entry level high tech technical job that led to a great career. Then the Republican pets of big business and the social justice warriors in the Democratic party decided to open the borders after the 1986 amnesty and flooded the state with poor ignorant Mexicans. The community colleges changed their mission to a remedial education solution for the newly imported population of cheap compliant workers. The middle class got screwed and has largely migrated out of CA.

As for the University of CA, it is a little less clear to me, but it has clearly expanded administrative staff while awarding itself rich and expensive benefits. Meanwhile, to make up the deficit, it has expanded the number of seats going to foreign nationals paying bloated tuition. Don't assume this foreign students are exceptional, the Chinese are known cheaters and their academic records are unverifiable. Then, once again, there is the expansion of the nanny state to pander to the crybaby generation needing protection from the fictional rape culture - PC gone wild. Finally, there is the "great accommodation", whereby the university bloats up with unqualified, needy, and expensive Latinas (not Latinos). It's pretty costly to accommodate a marginally educated 29 year old single Latina with three kids - the university requires an enormous welfare infrastructure. They aren't majoring in STEM either, but there are lots of social science majors. God help us.

The elites responsible for implementing this madness will be lucky if they just lose their jobs.

Jobs? Cupcake, we don't work. We OWN.

I recently re-read (likely last time) Richmond Lattimore's translation of The Iliad.

"Thus was their burial for Hektor, breaker of horses."

Homer knew that civilizations require heroes and "quality" enemies. Your "civilization" sucks if among your heroes and enemies are cartoons like Barack Hussein Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump, . . .

4. "Which virtues of the current system are we all failing to understand properly?"

Isn't it simply that STEM curricula/classes/degrees are practically immune from the "micro" problems you witness? Actual teaching, learning and evaluating in the math, physical sciences, computer science, and engineering is still objective and meritocratic. The professors in these areas are mostly good, have integrity, are constrained by the inherent quality of the subject matter, and therefore deliver the goods. Students in these disciplines - both foreign and domestic - are getting their money's worth.

In the humanities and social sciences, not so much - and therefore you don't see nearly as many foreign students (as a percentage) matriculating in those subjects.

I agree re: STEM professors.

Though I did see massive cheating in the CS department. That CS credential has massive signalling value in the workplace. I saw a few people actually writing the code and everybody else copying - cheating. Most of the good coders were already writing software before they went to the University. Knowing this, when I became a hiring manager I dug deeper into a candidates background. I also tended to hire coders with degrees in physics, chemistry, and math, all degrees that require high intelligence and problem solving skills. Or, I hired people outside the university system altogether, also with good results. I know where they are in their careers today.

A disproportionately large number of the not good coders were women. I think that is why many of the women in software end up in sales, marketing, HR etc and are not well represented in the software engineering positions. Pointing out this well known secret got James Damore fired.

The sjws in the big corporate HR departments are downright scary. Small companies and startups are safer environments for a young developer.

Note that neither Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, nor the Zuck graduated from a CS department. If you are that good, staying in school has a very high opportunity cost.

As a young adult, I had a group of friends that followed a rule where if you wanted to veto a proposed group activity, you had to propose an alternative activity. I feel like this rule should apply to social critique as well. If someone is against meritocracy, what is the alternative? Seniority? Nepotism? Communism?

Deep down, I think almost everyone agrees that meritocracy is the best system, which is why the upshots of critiques against meritocracy are almost always some kind of marginal tweak, or something that actually increases meritocracy (like reducing the role of credentialism).

I thought the criticism was that while we say Meritocracy very easily, we don't really do it that well.

And so these arguments are for more/real forms.

Consider Tyler's quip about "knowing just about everybody’s marginal product." Is that going to stop failsons from being set up in pseudo careers?

That’s fair. I have not read the book but the description makes it sound like the author is attacking meritocracy as an ideal, not our society for failing to live up to it: “All this is not the result of deviations or retreats from meritocracy but rather stems directly from meritocracy’s successes.“

In general the major established alternatives are:

Democratic election.
Lotteries (as in peer juries).
Process based rule that takes away from any sort of class of person to which can be suffixed -cracy - the 'Rule of Law' as distinct from the 'Rule of Judges' and the 'Rule of Lawyers.

Meritocracy of a limited sort is sustainable and useful. As long as it is understood that it is an alternative to patronage, as a means to the best meet the stated and desired ends of the people who appoint meritocrats or grant them their official status / education and as a means to find capable servants of those appointed by election or lot or the law and so on.

Meritocracy is not sustainable as a sort of thing that is in service of the Greater Good of efficiency as an ends in itself, or as the 'right' of 'the best' to power which they 'deserve' (the sort of thing where it is somehow simply inherently right that people who do well on exams govern others or something), or where meritocrats are seen as 'leaders' who are meant to decide on the ends of society rather than merely bureaucrats who exist to implement some popular will as best they are able (even should it be despite their beliefs about the best ends).

To respond again and labour the point: I mean, what does 'meritocracy' mean other than 'people who are best to be in a position should be in that position', which is basically circular and meaningless?

Generally, it means that people should have power based on ability as measured and assessed by neutral, fair testing without regard to their wealth, experience, background, popular favor and popular accountability, connections, to name a few factors.

But wealth gives ability to get things done without calling on public taxation. Background gives them specific experiences and knowledge which are not signaled by neutral ability testing. Popular favor and accountability gives public support and willingness for the public to pay them taxes (rather than protesting, rebelling, etc.) and checks human tendency towards graft and indulgence (of whims, vendetta, favour) when presented with power. Connections (including family connections) mean they have specific backing that can do things for them.

To the extent then that you view meritocracy as a replacement and not supplement to the above, then, you've got a recipe for an isolated power elite that does not command much in the way of public respect or resources or have much ability to mobilize society. Which was roughly what Chinese Mandarins for instance, often ended up, when they were truly meritocrats; supplicants trying to operate off moral authority making pleas to a central hereditary power and local clans and gentry to command resources and public respect. Compromised supplicants to the other major institutions of the Chinese Empire, institutions which were not in any sense meritocratic...

3. Umm...it's not the Streisand Effect unless the complaint has the unintended consequence of making something which was repressed (e.g. photos of Barbara's home) available to everyone via the Internet.

Consider what meritocracy did for Venezuela. Ricardo Hausmann exposes the dangers of the prestige equilibrium.

Meritocracy: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/opinion/sunday/chris-hughes-facebook-zuckerberg.html

1) The only change you're gonna see on America's highways -- and many busy local roads -- will be all those little toll thingies quietly charging you mile by mile under the flimsy pretext of "congestion pricing."

It's not a 'flimsy pretext'. Costs and benefits are more precisely aligned when the construction and maintenance of limited-access highways is financed through tolls. Ideally, the whole cost would be financed through tolls. As for other roads, ideally, their construction and maintenance would be finance through a motor fuels excise and auto registration fees. People pay for these roads in their capacity as motorists rather than in their capacity as property holders or consumers.

Right, but every Manhattan avenue below 60th St -- and then watch it become 96th St -- is not a "limited access highway." It's just another tax, and if deBlasio can make it stick it'll spread faster than state lotteries and casinos, to not just highways but a busy through street near you.

It doesn't have to be 'another tax'. Put the Pigou levies into a holding fund. At the end of the fiscal year, distribute the contents of the fund to everyone who has filed a local property tax return or a New York state income tax return. Everyone gets cut a small check and the revenue from these levies is nil. You're doing it to change relative prices.


A. End the padding, per Allan Bloom's suggestion. Replace the baccalaureate degree with briefer programs incorporating specialized courses of study. Programs exceeding 60 credits in duration would be limited to the most demanding sort of professional schools. Some of these programs might require preparatory certificates consisting of a menu of academic or business courses.

B. Ration berths at the colleges of arts and sciences at state institutions. Perhaps 12% of each cohort might have a berth for a one-year course of study, a subset of 8% for a two-year course of study, and 4% for a three year course of study. Again, these courses would be specialized. One year means 30 credits worth of history or thirty credits of biology or thirty credits of music. If there's excess demand for academics and the arts, private institutions can take the spill-over.

C. Rank applicants to state institutions by a procedure making use of a composite index which incorporates a student's high school GPA, board scores, and achievement test scores.

D. End patronage for favored political interests. Do this at public institutions through state law.

E. Place nearly all institutions under boards of modest dimension (say, nine members) elected quadrennially via postal ballot among alumni resident in state. Have the state board of elections or secretary of state run the elections.

F. Simplify compliance costs for institutions public and private. For ex., require institutions to disclose the stock and the flow of the demographic categories of their student body, faculty, and miscellaneous employees. Require also that they publish the median and standard deviation of scores on college boards and achievement tests among each demographic subset of their flow. Insist these statements be audited and prosecute colleges and their officials for lying. Otherwise, free them from 'anti-discrimination' law.

G. Enact by state law a glossary which delineates the universe of permissible degree and certificate programs at state institutions.

H. Limit degree and certificate programs at community colleges to vocational subjects and to preparatory courses of study tagged to specific vocational degrees available at state colleges and universities.

The Meritocracy Trap...I'm sorry, but I believe in the founding myths. We need to do better, but throwing them out would be a mistake.

"Furthermore, American higher education does pass a massive market test at the global level — foreign students really do wish to come and study here."

As a European living in Asia, I can tell you that most people are completely ignorant of the culture war. And also, it doesn't matter what you actually learn as long as you have the name of a prominent university on your degree you're already at the top of the hierarchy because you're super rich.

But that's not going to last...

"foreign students really do wish to come and study here"
The "Varsity Blues" investigation shows that one such Chinese student was willing to pay millions of dollars to get in a university here, pay someone else to actually go to class, do the homework and take the tests, then do the same thing for a graduate education. If someone else is receiving the actual schooling, he's obviously not getting any "human capital" for his money. It's just signalling via the degree at the end.

What's the secret to being able to read more than few books at a time? If it is something along the lines of "read faster" then what is the secret to retaining the content while reading fast?

How long of a period of time is "have been" in Tyler's reading function?

Is reading one book a week overrated or underrated?

Many thanks

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