Category: Books

“Boring Friends”

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

That is a Lydia Davis short story (yes, the whole thing) from her excellent book Samuel Johnson is Indignant.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.

HARFORD: A hat?

COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.

And:

COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

Peter Thiel reviews Ross Douthat

The word “self-recommending” now takes on a stronger meaning yet, here is the review.  Here are the closing two paragraphs:

It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy. If things were sure to improve or bound to collapse, then our actions would not matter one way or the other.

Not only do our actions matter, I believe they matter eternally. If we do not find a way to take the narrow and moderate path, then we may find out that stagnation and decadence were all that kept immoderate men from stumbling into the apocalypse.

Self-recommending!  Here is my own short and very positive review of Ross’s book.

What I’ve been reading

1. Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism.  A very smart, well-written, well-argued book, and an argued book indeed it is.  As the title suggests, Kenworthy tries to persuade the reader to embrace social democratic capitalism, but with an emphasis on what government can do, not the market.  One rebuttal: responding to the Swiss experience requires far more than the two short paragraphs on pp.105-106, and furthermore Switzerland has done very well in many sectors above and beyond being a financial safe haven (which in some regards hurts those other sectors through exchange rate effects).

Laurence Louër, Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History of Discord.  Captures the complexities, and in fact pulls the reader away from the usual tired dichotomy.

Neil Price, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm.  I have only browsed this book, yet it appears to have much more information about the Vikings than other books I know, yet without getting squirrelly.  That said, I find it difficult to connect books on the Vikings with the broader conceptual narratives I know, and thus I do not retain their content very well.  So I am never sure if I should read another book on the Vikings.

John Took’s Dante is the book to read on Dante after you’ve read all the other books (an interesting designation, by the way, I wonder how many areas have such books?  In most cases, if you’ve read all the other books you shouldn’t bother with the next one!).

Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, is not a secret history, but it is a good general overall introduction to its chosen topic.

Dietrich Vollrath, Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success is now out, my previous review is at that link, an excellent book on economic growth and it will make my best of the year list.

Martin Gurri, philosopher and social scientist

I am pleased to announce that Martin Gurri is joining Mercatus as an affiliated scholar.  As you probably may know, Martin is the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, one of the more important and more prophetic social science books of our time.

Here is Martin’s recent short piece for Mercatus on revolt, populism, and reaction.  Here is a 21-minute podcast with Martin.

*Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius of the Enlightenment*

By Ronald S. Calinger, what a beautiful book, clearly written, conceptual in nature, placing Euler in the broader history of mathematics, the funding of science, and the Enlightenment, all in a mere 536 pp. of text.  Here is one bit:

At midcentury Leonard Euler was at the peak of his career.  Johann I (Jean I) Bernoulli had saluted him as “the incomparable L. Euler, the prince among mathematicians” in 1745, and Henri Poincaré’s later description of him as the “god of mathematics” attests to his supremacy in the mathematical sciences.  Euler continued to center his research on making seminal contributions to differential and integral calculus and rational mechanics, and producing substantial advances in astronomy, hydrodynamics, and geometrical optics; the state projects of Frederick II required attention especially to hydraulics, cartography, lotteries, and turbines.  At midcentury, when d’Alembert and Alexis Claude Clairaut in Paris, Euler in Berlin, Colin Maclaurin in Scotland, and Daniel Bernoulli in Basel dominated the physical sciences, Euler was their presiding genius.

Nor had I known that Rameau sent his treatise on the fundamental mathematics of music to Euler for comments.

Definitely recommended, you can order it here.

*A Treatise on Northern Ireland*, by Brendan O’Leary

This three-volume set is quite the remarkable achievement, and it would have made my best books of 2019 list (add-ons here) had I known about it earlier.  It starts with “An audit of violence after 1966,” and then goes back to the seventeenth century to begin to dig out what happened.  It has more detail than almost anyone needs to know, yet at the same time it remains unfailingly conceptual and relies on theoretical social science as well, rather than merely reciting names and dates. How about this?:

The breakdown of hegemonic control in Northern Ireland [mid- to late 1960s] exemplifies Tocqueville’s thesis that, when a bad government seeks to reform itself, it is in its greatest danger.

Here is an excerpt from volume II:

The thesis advanced here is that hegemonic control was established between 1920 and 1925 by the UUP, and, aside from a few exceptional moments, exercised successfully until 1966.  After 1925 opportunities for effective opposition, dissent, disobedience, or usurpation of power were minimal.  The major possibilities of disruption came from the outside, from independent Ireland or from Great Britain, from geopolitics, or the world economy.  Eventually, when external forces of disruption combined with major endogenous changes, hegemonic control would be contested, and would shatter.  But at no juncture did Northern nationalists or Irish Catholics in the North internalize the UUP’s rhetoric, or become significantly British by cultural designation.  When the civil-rights movement learned to exploit the claim to be British citizens entitled to British rights, the regime’s days were numbered.

I will continue to spend time with these volumes, which will not be surpassed anytime soon.  Unlike in so many history books, O’Leary is always trying to explain what happened, or what did not.  You can order them here.

As a side note, I find it shocking (and I suppose deplorable) that no American major media outlet has reviewed these books, or put them on its best of the year list, as far as I can tell.  We are failing at something, though I suppose you can debate what.  And I apologize to O’Leary for missing them the first time around.

What I’ve been reading

Randy Shaw, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America.  A YIMBY book, with good historical material on San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other locales involved in the struggle to build more.

Conor Daugherty, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.  Coming out in February, this is a very good book about the YIMBY movement and its struggles, with a focus on contemporary California, written by a NYT correspondent.

Jennifer Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism.  Why don’t more books fit this model: take one topic and explain it well?

Economists, Photographs by Mariana Cook, edited with an introduction by Robert M. Solow.  Self-recommending.  Interestingly, I recall an old University of Chicago calendar of economist photographs, still buried in my office somewhere, with pictures of Frank Hyneman Knight, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, and others.  At least in terms of personality types, as might be revealed through photographs, the older collection seems to me far more diverse.  Or is the homogenization instead only in terms of photograph poses?

Michael E. O’Hanlon, The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes.  A very useful practical book about what options a U.S. government would have — short of full war — to deal with international grabs by China or Russia.  There should be thirty more books on this topic (#ProgressStudies).

Christopher Caldwell, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.  This is both a very old thesis, but these days quite new, namely the claim that 1965 and the Civil Rights movement created a “new constitution” for America, at variance with the old, and the two constitutions have been at war with each other ever since.  It will be one of the influential books “on the Right” this year, I already linked to this Park MacDougald review of the book.

Robert H. Frank, Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work.  From the Princeton University Press catalog: “Psychologists have long understood that social environments profoundly shape our behavior, sometimes for the better, often for the worse. But social influence is a two-way street—our environments are themselves products of our behavior. Under the Influence explains how to unlock the latent power of social context. It reveals how our environments encourage smoking, bullying, tax cheating, sexual predation, problem drinking, and wasteful energy use. We are building bigger houses, driving heavier cars, and engaging in a host of other activities that threaten the planet—mainly because that’s what friends and neighbors do.”

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.

And:

The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.

Or:

…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

And:

Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.

What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.

And:

TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.

And:

AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.

And:

AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.

And:

AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.

[laughter]

ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

The New Arthashastra

The Arthashastra, the science of wealth and politics, is one of the world’s oldest treatises on political economy. Written by Kautilya, legendary advisor to the Indian King Chandragupta Maurya (reign: 321–298 BCE), the Arthashastra has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince and has been a touchstone in Indian political economy for well over a thousand years.

In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by [Kelkar, Vijay, Shah, Ajay]Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, two long-time advisors to the Indian government, have written the new Arthashastra, In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economy Policy. In Service doesn’t go into great detail on current policies in India (Joshi’s Long Road is the best recent overview), it instead distills timeless wisdom on the making of political economy.

When faced with a potential government intervention, it is useful to ask three key questions. Is there a market failure? Does the proposed intervention address the identified market failure? Do we have the ability to implement the proposed intervention?

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) the resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint. These five problems interact, and jointly generate government failure, of both kinds; pursuing the wrong objectives and failing on the objectives that have been established.

A government organization that is riven with corruption is not one which was unlucky to get a lot of corrupt people. It is one where the rules of the game facilitate corruption.

The competitive market process should force the exit of low-productivity firms. This does not happen when the low-productivity firms violate laws–e.g. a low productivity firm may emit pollution, while the high-productivity firm incurs the higher costs associated with the pollution control required in law….When enforcement capabilities, of laws or of taxes, are improved…production will shift from low-productivity firms to high-productivity firms. This reallocation will yield GDP growth, in and of itself.

There are two pillars of intervention in banking in India. On one hand, the state regulates banking. In addition, the Indian state produces banking services through the ownership of bank….There are conflicts between these two [pillars]. Regulation by the state may be indulgent towards its own entities….this calls for strong separation between the two pillars.

Kelkar and Shah are especially concerned with policy making in the Indian context of low state-capacity:

A policy pathway that is very successful in (say) Australia may not work in India as it is being placed in a very different setting. Envisioning how a given policy initiative will work in India requires deep knowledge of the local context.

If the fine for driving through a red light is Rs 10,000, there will be pervasive corruption. Jobs in the highway police will be sought after; large bribes will be paid to obtain these jobs. There will be an institutional collapse of the highway police. It is better to first start with a fine of Rs 100, and build state capacity.

(On that theme see also my paper with Rajagopalan, Premature Imitation.)

In Service to the Republic is the book that every policy maker and future policy maker should be given while being told, “before you do anything, read this!”

Addendum: I will be in India next week and after a visit to Agra and Hampi, I will be giving some talks at Ramaiah University in Bangalore and later in the month at the Indian School of Public Policy.

Solitary Confinement is Torture

Rather than fading away, solitary imprisonment, a form of torture in my view, has become more common:

Criminal Justice Policy Review: Solitary confinement is a harsh form of custody involving isolation from the general prison population and highly restricted access to visitation and programs. Using detailed prison records covering three decades of confinement practices in Kansas, we find solitary confinement is a normal event during imprisonment. Long stays in solitary confinement were rare in the late 1980s with no detectable racial disparities, but a sharp increase in capacity after a new prison opening began an era of long-term isolation most heavily affecting Black young adults. A decomposition analysis indicates that increases in the length of stay in solitary confinement almost entirely explain growth in the proportion of people held in solitary confinement. Our results provide new evidence of increasingly harsh prison conditions and disparities that unfolded during the prison boom.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

Emergent Ventures, sixth cohort

Sonja Trauss of YIMBY, assistance to publish Nicholas Barbon, A Defence of the Builder.

Parnian Barekatain.

Anna Gát, for development as a public intellectual and also toward the idea and practice of spotting and mobilizing talent in others.

M.B. Malabu, travel grant to come to the D.C. area for helping in setting up a market-oriented think tank in Nigeria.

Eric James Wang and Jordan Fernando Alexandera joint award for their work on the project Academia Mirmidón, to help find, mobilize, and market programming and tech talent in Mexico.

Gonzalo Schwarz, Archbridge Institute, for research and outreach work to improve policy through reforms in Uruguay and Brazil. 

Nolan Gray, urban planner from NYC, to be in residence at Mercatus and write a book on YIMBY, Against Zoning.

Samarth Jajoo, an Indian boy in high school, to assist his purchase of study materials for math, computer science, and tutoring.  Here is his new book gifting project.

One other, not yet ready to be announced.  But a good one.

And EV winner Harshita Arora co-founded AtoB, a startup building a sustainable transportation network for intercity commuters using buses.

Here are previous MR posts on Emergent Ventures.