Category: Books

My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.


COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jackie Chan, with Zhu Mo, Never Grow Up. “My ankle joint pops out of its socket all the time, even when I’m just walking around, and I’ll have to pop it back in.  My leg sometimes gets dislocated when I’m showering.  For that one, I need my assistant to help me click it back in…I can’t lift heavy objects.”  He needed brain surgery after filming Armour of God, and he sustained permanent hearing loss in his left ear.  Recommended, if you like the movies.  And: “That was how I pursued girls, I overwhelmed them.”

2. John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: the Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.  “…the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can only be understood if it is placed in the context of the hermetic tradition.  The distinctive doctrines of the church — preexistent spirits, material spirit, human divinization, celestial marriage — are opaque unless we explore their relationship to the evolving fusion of hermetic perfectionism and radical sectarianism occupying the extreme edge of the Christian tradition from the late Middle Ages into the early modern age.”

3. Guy Arnold, Africa A Modern History: 1945-2015, second edition.  It is hard to image that a 1077 pp. doorstop kind of a book on “Africa” might be very good, but in fact this one is.  It is the best book on contemporary Africa and its (recent) historical roots that I know.  I am reading this book all the way through.

4. Cass Sunstein, How Change Happens.  How does social change happen, organized around Cass’s favorite topics, such as nudge and polarization and cascades.  This book doesn’t cover everything, but it is one of the essential introductions to a topic that is very difficult to handle.  And I am happy there is no subtitle.

Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, is a good and correct “green” take on the case for nuclear energy.

The Cato Institute has put out Michael D. Tanner, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, and Randal O’Toole Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love are Not the Transportation We Need.

*The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis*

That is the new and highly comprehensive book by Sheilagh Ogilvie, and it is likely to stand as one of the more important works of economic history from the last decade.  Here is one opening summary bit:

…my own reading of the evidence is that a common theme underlies guilds’ activities: guilds tended to do what is best for guild members.  In some cases, what guilds did brought certain benefits for the broader public.  But overall, the actions guilds took mainly had the effect of protecting and enriching their members at the expense of consumers and non-members; reducing threats from innovators, competitors, and audacious upstarts; and generating sufficient rents to pay off the political elites that enforced guilds’ privileges and might otherwise have interfered with them.

And yes she really does show this, with a remarkable assemblage of data.  For instance:

…the 14 guilds in Table 2.4 devoted an average of 28 per cent of their expenditures to lobbying.  However, the average was 45 per cent across the five poor guilds and just 14 per cent across the eight rich ones.


Guild mastership fees could not be paid off in a couple of weeks of work.  Across these 1,102 observations, the average mastership fee consumed 276 days’ wages for a labourer, 215 days for a journeyman, and 1543 days for a guild master.

Operating licenses were expensive too (pp.125-126).  There are more “Ands”:

Guild entry barriers pushed people into illicit production, as emerges from 14 per cent of observations in Table 3.15.


Guild members whose trades stagnated could not legally diversify to other guilded work…

On top of that, guilds typically restricted the training of women and would not let them enter the relevant sectors.  And:

The amount of attention guilds devoted to product quality in their ordinances does not suggest they regarded it as a major concern.

Ouch!  Ogilivie also concludes, and demonstrates using data, that guilds did not promote human capital accumulation or innovation.  The various revisionist defenses of guilds, as produced over the years, basically seem to be wrong.

You can pre-order the book here.

What I’ve been browsing

A lot of my reading time has been absorbed by job market papers (some of them covered here on MR) and CWT prep, in the meantime I have been browsing these with profit:

Alexandra Popoff, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century covers what the title promises.

David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.  The title aside, a very good and very well-written book on the basics of climate change.

Sophus A. Reinert, The Academy of Fisticuffs: Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy, is the best English-language book I know of on the Italian Enlightenment.  Everything you wanted to know about Pietro Verri but were afraid to ask.

Margaret C. Jacob, The Secular Enlightenment, again delivers good coverage of what the title promises.

Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, Love, Money & Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids.  Note this book is sober rather than actually telling you how to raise your kids.  And it has sentences like: “In earlier times, men and women had sharply distinct roles.”

Michael Tomasello, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny does not quite intersect with cultural economics and Joe Henrich, but someday somebody will write a book like this and start making the connections.

What should I ask Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson

They are my colleagues, and both are economic historians, and they have an important forthcoming book Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom.  I will be doing a Conversation with them.

More generally they have worked on state capacity, nation building, why China evolved into such a large political unit, the Black Death, scapegoating, usury prohibitions in history, the economic impact of volcanic eruptions, and more.  I am always happy to see them.

Their home pages are here and here.  So what should I ask them?

My *Stubborn Attachments* essay for Cato Unbound

Here it is, here is one excerpt:

The classics of political philosophy deal with wealth and economic growth awkwardly at best. John Rawls, in his Theory of Justice and elsewhere, was suspicious of economic growth outright. Rawls feared that the savings rate of the first generation would lead to deprivation, and a diminishment of the well-being of the worst-off group (that first generation), and so he toyed with John Stuart Mill’s idea of the stationary state. Robert Nozick evinced a good understanding of markets in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but still he focused on individual libertarian rights as an underpinning for a free society. Like Nozick, I believe in individual rights, but I don’t think they settle most questions, and I don’t find modest levels of taxation under democratic conditions to be morally problematic.

In part I wrote Stubborn Attachments to respond to Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, first published in 1984. In that wonderful book, Parfit wondered whether consequentialist reasoning could in fact produce coherent recommendations, for either individuals or societies. Yet there is no talk in Reasons and Persons of economic growth, or how a much better future might help resolve aggregation problems. Nonetheless Parfit did produce an important appendix on why the social discount rate should be zero, and you can think of Stubborn Attachments as trying to think through the broader implications of that argument.


You should always ask what are the weakest points of any book, including this one. For me, it is the fear that progress has a mean-reverting character and that improvements end up as temporary rather than sustainable. In that case, the idea of enduring benefits would be an illusion, and even if pursuing such benefits were a good recommendation we might end up with the empty set in terms of policy recommendations. Historical pessimism would trump my recommendations, and we would be devoting our energies to the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Furthermore, Stubborn Attachments gives little guidance on how to offset the claims of humans versus the claims of nature. The benefits of economic growth are specified for human beings, and it is less clear that such economic growth is good for the animal kingdom as a whole, given the encroachments of humans and also the tortures of factory farming. If it is any consolation, however, I don’t think other philosophers have solved that problem either. Utilitarians, for instance, offer no plausible guidelines for weighting the well-being of non-human animals versus the well-being of humans, nor have they shown how it might be feasible to follow such guidelines.

Philosophical critiques will be forthcoming, so stay tuned!

Non-martial legislation passed during The Civil War

The Homestead Act of 1862, providing (nearly) free land for settlers in designated parts of the West

The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862

The National Banking Act of 1863, creating a national banking system and currency

Several transcontinental railroad bills

The first federal income tax

Created the National Academy of Sciences

Establishment of the Department of Agriculture (which had a significant R&D component), the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Immigration.

Love it or hate it or both, that’s a lot.  Not only do the pressures of war lead to “things getting done,” but of course the Southern states and their representatives had dropped out of Congress.

That is all from Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century.

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?


KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

The Amazon War and the Evolution of Private Law

It’s well known that to boost their sales, sellers sometimes post fake 5-star reviews on Amazon. Amazon tries to police such actions by searching out and banning sites with fake reviews. An unintended consequence is that some sellers now post fake 5-star reviews on their competitor’s site.

The Verge: As Amazon has escalated its war on fake reviews, sellers have realized that the most effective tactic is not buying them for yourself, but buying them for your competitors — the more obviously fraudulent the better. A handful of glowing testimonials, preferably in broken English about unrelated products and written by a known review purveyor on Fiverr, can not only take out a competitor and allow you to move up a slot in Amazon’s search results, it can land your rival in the bewildering morass of Amazon’s suspension system.

…There are more subtle methods of sabotage as well. Sellers will sometimes buy Google ads for their competitors for unrelated products — say, a dog food ad linking to a shampoo listing — so that Amazon’s algorithm sees the rate of clicks converting to sales drop and automatically demotes their product.

What does a seller do when they are banned from Amazon? Appeal to the Amazon legal system and for that you need an Amazon lawyer.

The appeals process is so confounding that it’s given rise to an entire industry of consultants like Stine. Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee, set up shop in 2014. CJ Rosenbaum, an attorney in Long Beach, New York, now bills himself as the “Amazon sellers lawyer,” with an “Amazon Law Library” featuring Amazon Law, vol. 1 ($95 on Amazon). Stine’s company deals with about 100 suspensions a month and charges $2,500 per appeal ($5,000 if you want an expedited one), which is in line with industry norms. It’s a price many are willing to pay. “It can be life or death for people,” McCabe says. “If they don’t get their Amazon account back, they might be insolvent, laying off 10, 12, 14 people, maybe more. I’ve had people begging me for help. I’ve had people at their wits’ end. I’ve had people crying.”

Amazon is a marketplace that is now having to create a legal system to govern issues of fraud, trademark, and sabotage and also what is in effect new types of intellectual property such as Amazon brand registry. Marketplaces have always been places of private law and governance but there has never before been a marketplace with Amazon’s scale and market power. It’s an open question how well private law will develop in this regime.

That was then, this is now

[Andrew] Jackson imagined his role as that of a Roman tribune or dictator, summoned to executive power for a season for defend the plebeians against corrupt patricians.  That meant, among other things, slashing federal expenses and retiring the national debt.

Jackson in fact worked hard to strike down “internal improvements” in only a single state, as he was convinced that such legislation was unconstitutional, and that a corrupt Congress was working to enrich itself.

That is all from Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, p.60.

What I’ve been reading

1. Elaine Dundy, Life ItselfShe as a teen taught Mondrian how to jitterbug, married Kenneth Tynan and moved into London high society, became an important writer in her own right, and got tired of him wanting to whip her.  I was never inclined to stop reading.

2. Amina M. Derbi, The Storyteller and the Terrorist in Our Newsfeeds.  In this novella a Muslim girl in Northern Virginia posts stories of murders on-line and those murders start coming true.  I finished this one too.  Unusual in its approach.

3. Timothy Larsen, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith.  On the surface this is an account of various famous British anthropologists and their views toward Christianity.  At a deeper level it contrasts the anthropological and religious approaches to understanding society.  Why do so many anthropologists have more tolerant attitudes toward the religions they study than to Christianity?  Do the Christian beliefs of an anthropologist help or hurt that individual’s understanding of other religions in the field?  Once you’ve seen another religion “from the outside” as an anthropologist, and observed its apparently arbitrary features, can you still be religious yourself?  Definitely recommended, here is my previous review of Larsen on John Start Mill.

4. Colin M. Waugh, Paul Kagame and Rwanda: Genocide and the Rwandan Patriotic Front.  This is perhaps the most conceptual book I know on the Rwandan genocide, most of all because it ties the killings to both prior and posterior events very well.  Recommended, but (for better or worse) note the author is relatively sympathetic to Kagame in the post-conflict period.  I did just buy Waugh’s book on Charles Taylor and Liberia, which you can take as a credible endorsement of this one.

Noteworthy is Kieran Healy, Data Visualization: A Practical Introduction.  I have not read it, but had positive impressions from my paw-through.

Sister Wendy has passed away

Here are some notices.  In addition to her duties for the Church, she was an art historian “for the people.”  I thought she had a remarkably good eye, and was especially strong in explaining the virtues of late medieval/early Renaissance art, most of all works “from a school” or attributed to a pseudonym.  She was “a thing” in the 90s, so if you don’t know her work I would recommend all of her books, they are full of life and love for art and yes love for the reader too.  Here is the NYT obituary.

Life at the margin?

With Seamus Heaney:

Poetry isn’t important in one sense — it’s more important to live your life and be a good person. Who cares about poetry, there’s plenty already around. Life is more important than art.

Under what conditions is that true?  Under what conditions is it actually believed by Heaney?  Here is the rest of the interview, interesting throughout.  I enjoyed this bit:

MB: What do you like to discuss in terms of literature in your classes?
SH: I’m radical about this, but it seems strange to have discussions with people who don’t know anything and who overreact. They usually don’t have much to say. Maybe discuss literature with them the following year — after the class — when they’ve had time to have the material enter their memory. Until it’s entered their personality they can’t say much.

Via Anecdotal.

Philip Serzo on travel writing

Philip sent me this email, and very generously allowed me to reproduce it:


I know you’ve been going back and forth recently on travel writing. I don’t read a ton of travel writing, but I could totally see why it has limitations, like all genres. I say this after studying Graham Greene a favorite writer of mine. He crossed over successfully into many genres of writing. Travel writing being one of them.
Here’s my point. Rolf Potts interviews Pico Iyer on a book he wrote about Graham Greene and Pott’s asks this questions below:

One interesting contradiction you raise in your book is how Greene was better at evoking the humanity of faraway places in his fiction than in his nonfiction travel books. You even go so far as to say that “his travel books were a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel.” Why do you think this is the case, and what does it say about Greene’s way of seeing the world?

We are never less forthright than when writing of ourselves; that’s one of the lessons I feel I share with Greene (or maybe partly learned from him). Memoir to me is a kind of fiction, and the most striking autobiographical works I know—whether Philip Roth’s The Facts or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn or V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival—all present themselves as novels. So it’s always seemed perfect to me that in his two quasi-memoirs, Greene uses charm and anecdote and childhood memory to avoid really telling us anything about himself, his loves or his beliefs; yet in his novels, given a mask or cover, he’s as naked and unguarded as any author I know. Give yourself an alias or call your work fiction and you can say things you might not say to your closest friends.

In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he’d seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.

He might be almost offering us—inadvertently—a lesson on the limitations of travel-writing, much as Naipaul or Theroux or Maugham also do in novels that are far more compassionate and sympathetic than the travel-books that gave rise to them. In writing a non-fictional book about travel, you usually have to create a fictional persona of sorts, some convenient version of the self that will make the narrative work. But that front is almost never as rich or deep or conflicted as the self we allow ourselves to entertain in fiction; it can’t be. Very often the travel-writers we enjoy are engaging or buoyant or splenetic on the page, but all those are really just useful props, tiny fragments of the self, and don’t always take us very deep.