Category: Books

The rant against Amazon and the rant for Amazon

Wow! It’s unbelievable how hard you are working to deny that monopsony and monopoly type market concentration is causing all all these issues. Do you think it’s easy to compete with Amazon? Think about all the industries amazon just thought about entering and what that did to the share price of incumbents. Do you think Amazon doesn’t use its market clout and brand name to pay people less? Don’t the use the same to extract incentives from politicians? Corporate profits are at record highs as a percent of the economy, how is that maintained? What is your motivation for closing your eyes and denying consolidation? It doesn’t seem that you are being logical.

That is from a Steven Wolf, from the comments.  You might levy some justified complaints about Amazon, but this passage packs a remarkable number of fallacies into a very small space.

First, monopsony and monopoly tend to have contrasting or opposite effects.  To the extent Amazon is a monopsony, that leads to higher output and lower prices.

Second, if Amazon is knocking out incumbents that may very well be good for consumers.  Consumers want to see companies that are hard for others to compete with.  Otherwise, they are just getting more of the same.

Third, if you consider markets product line by product line, there are very few sectors where Amazon would appear to have much market power, or a very large share of the overall market for that good or service.

Fourth, Amazon is relatively strong in the book market.  Yet if a book is $28 in a regular store, you probably can buy it for $17 on Amazon, or for cheaper yet used, through Amazon.

Fifth, Amazon takes market share from many incumbents (nationwide) but it does not in general “knock out” the labor market infrastructure in most regions.  That means Amazon hire labor by paying it more or otherwise offering better working conditions, however much you might wish to complain about them.

Sixth, if you adjust for the nature of intangible capital, and the difference between economic and accounting profit, it is not clear corporate profits have been so remarkably high as of late.

Seventh, if Amazon “extracts” lower taxes and an improved Metro system from the DC area, in return for coming here, that is a net Pareto improvement or in any case at least not obviously objectionable.

Eighth, I did not see the word “ecosystem” in that comment, but Amazon has done a good deal to improve logistics and also cloud computing, to the benefit of many other producers and ultimately consumers.  Book authors will just have to live with the new world Amazon has created for them.

And then there is Rana Foroohar:

“If Amazon can see your bank data and assets, [what is to stop them from] selling you a loan at the maximum price they know you are able to pay?” Professor Omarova asks.

How about the fact that you are able to borrow the money somewhere else?

Addendum: A more interesting criticism of Amazon, which you hardly ever hear, is the notion that they are sufficiently dominant in cloud computing that a collapse/sabotage of their presence in that market could be a national security issue.  Still, it is not clear what other arrangement could be safer.

What should Robert Wiblin ask Tyler Cowen?

Robert will be interviewing me later this week, as an installment of Conversations with Tyler, just as Patrick Collison once interviewed me a while back.  At least part of the interview will focus on my forthcoming book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  (And we will do 2.5 hours, a Robert specialty!)  Here is part of Robert’s bio:

I studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduated top of my class and was named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

I worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies including the Treasury and Productivity Commission.

I then moved to Oxford in the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director and then Executive Director.

I then became Research Director for 80,000 Hours. In 2015 the project went through Y Combinator, and in 2016 we moved from Oxford to Berkeley, California in order to grow more quickly.

He is renowned for his thorough preparation and he runs a very good podcast of his own.  So what should he ask me?

Texas likely is removing Helen Keller from the curriculum

Here is the story, note that Hillary Clinton was removed as well and Billy Graham was added, at least on a preliminary vote.  Various historical figures were assessed for their relevance, and Helen Keller did not receive a high enough score.  Barbara Jordan, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Henry B. González — all figures from Texas history — made it through easily.  Dolores Huerta was added.

On Keller, here is some additional background:

In 1929 and again in 1938 she published books that both contained extended sections defending the Soviet Union—which she maintained was still a more or less democratic workers’ state—and praised the late Vladimir Lenin, whose great legacy rested on how he had helped to sow in Russia “the unshatterable seed of a new life for mankind.”

There is some chance the Texas decision will influence textbooks on a nationwide basis, because Texas is such a large market and publishers wish to market the same book nationally.

Keller should be kept because she is an impressive, focal, and easy to explain example of an individual who overcame disabilities and became prominent and influential.  At the margin, her radicalism is a reason to include her, not to exclude her.  Students should be encouraged to think of America as having had a diverse intellectual history, including radicalism.  That said, the same should hold for a variety of now-disgraced figures on the Right, provided of course that they have meritorious achievements worthy of note, and no this is not by definition impossible.

The first linked article claims that cutting Keller from the curriculum will save forty minutes.  Even if you don’t think Keller is worth exactly forty minutes, surely she is worth more than zero minutes, and besides the teacher simply can talk faster if need be (don’t most teachers talk too slowly?).

I don’t mind keeping the relatively obscure Texas figures in the social studies course of study.  If nothing else, it encourages young Texans to think of themselves as special and to resist assimilation into broader America, again to the benefit of diversity.

Addendum: Keller is a very good choice if you are playing Twenty Questions.  It is unlikely if someone will ask whether you are a famous person connected to the idea of disabilities.  And that reflects exactly why she should be kept in the curriculum.

Second addendum: Here are some other changes:

The board also voted to add back into the curriculum a reference to the “heroism” of the defenders of the Alamo, which had been recommended for elimination, as well as Moses’ influence on the writing of the founding documents, multiple references to “Judeo-Christian” values and a requirement that students explain how the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East.

Barry Goldwater was removed as well, with Moses replacing Thomas Hobbes.  There will be a chance to overturn these decisions by a final vote in November.

*A Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life*

That is the new and excellent book by David Quammen, here is one summary excerpt:

We are not precisely who we thought we were.  We are composite creatures, and our ancestry seems to arise from a dark zone of the living world, a group of creatures about which science, until recent decades, was ignorant.  Evolution is tricker, far more intricate, than we had realized.  The tree of life is more tangled.  Genes don’t move just vertically.  they can also pass laterally across species boundaries, across wider gaps, even between different kingdoms of life, and some have come sideways into our own lineage — the primate lineage — from unsuspected, nonprimate sources.  It’s the genetic equivalent of a blood transfusion or (different metaphor, preferred by some scientists) an infection that transforms identity.  “Infective heredity.”  I’ll say more about that in its place.

My favorite part of the book is the section, starting on p.244, on bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics that have not yet been invented.  Overall this is likely to prove the best popular science book of the year, you can buy it here.  Here are various reviews of the book.

My Conversation with Michele Gelfand

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

Michele Gelfand is professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of the just-released Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. In her conversation with Tyler, Michele unpacks the concept of tight and loose cultures and more, including which variable best explains tightness, the problem with norms, whether Silicon Valley has an honor culture, the importance of theory and history in guiding research, what Donald Trump gets wrong about negotiation, why MBAs underrate management, the need to develop cultural IQ, and why mentorship should last a lifetime.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: As you know, it’s a common distinction in cross-cultural analysis to call some cultures individualistic and others collectivistic. How does tightness and looseness differ from that distinction? What do you pick up that, say, the work of Triandis does not?

GELFAND: Actually, Triandis is my mentor. I went to Champaign to work with him. I did a lot of research on collectivism and individualism. For a long time, that was the one dimension that we looked at in cross-cultural psychology.

It’s almost akin to, in personality psychology, only studying extroversion to the neglect of other dimensions, like neuroticism. In cross-cultural psychology, we got a little bit narrow in what we were studying. Collectivism-individualism is related to tightness but distinct.

Part of the problem we’ve had is, we’ve confounded cultures in our research. We’ve been studying East Asia, which is both tight and collectivistic, with the United States and other Western cultures, which tend to be loose and individualistic. So they have been confounded.

But when you think about the off-diagonals of that two-by-two, you can imagine cultures like Germany, Switzerland, Austria that tend to be pretty individualistic. They emphasize privacy. They’re not hugely group and family oriented, but they’re relatively tight. They have strong rules and punishments for deviance.

On the flip side, you can think about Latin American cultures — in our data, that’s Brazil or Spain — that tend to be pretty family oriented and pretty collectivistic, but they’re rather loose.

In a lot of ways, you can disentangle that variation, even if they’re related. They tend to be related about 0.4. That’s found both in modern nations and also traditional societies. At the state level, they also tend to be related but again distinct. Only in that case, it’s about 0.2 or 0.3, the correlation between tightness and collectivism.

And:

COWEN: Overrated or underrated, Staten Island?

GELFAND: [laughs] I would say probably underrated. That’s because I actually am familiar with Staten Island. We have relatives that live there. It’s probably the last undiscovered place around the city. Brooklyn has become a chichi place to live, but Staten Island has not. There’s great delis there. I’ve spent some time there.

And:

COWEN: Putting aside your political views, but just if you observe Donald Trump as a negotiator — as a psychologist, what strikes you?

GELFAND: Donald Trump has a very classic negotiation style. It’s a distributive negotiation style. It’s a win-lose style. It works in certain contexts, especially contexts where there’s one issue or when there’s very little expected future interaction.

What Donald Trump does is, he takes that style to international [laughs] politics where these contexts, the structure of these situations is very different. There’s usually many issues at the table. There’s expected future interaction…His style is really mismatched with the context that he’s in.

Many of the best parts are at or near the end, so do read or listen all the way through.  And you can buy Michele’s book here.

Update on Yonas and *Stubborn Attachments*

I thank you all for your pre-orders of my forthcoming book from Stripe Press, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (did you notice how the title draws from Liberty Fund?), due out October 16.  It is my most philosophic book, most heartfelt book, and least current affairsy book, at least in the last twenty years.

As I explained in an earlier post, all of my receipts from the book are going to Yonas (not his real name), a tour guide in Ethiopia, near Lalibela, who wishes to start a travel business.  I met Yonas during my Ethiopia trip last May.

Yonas already has received one installment of the money, due to the great efficiency of Stripe Press and Stripe proper (it is, after all, a payments company).  He has bought a plot of land and a house on that land with the money from the pre-orders to date, a modest house by your standards I can assure you but nonetheless a big step up for him.  Of course I (and he) hope to sell more copies.  Now that he has an effective means of storing and saving wealth, the next step is for him to expand the scope of his travel guide operations, and you can help him in that endeavor, while you at the same time foment enlightenment more generally.


Here is the Amazon link.

So I hope — for several reasons — that you buy and also gift copies of the book.  You might have noticed in the post below that Chris Blattman is somewhat skeptical of cash transfers as a means of bettering the lot of the poor, at least relative to his earlier views.  But this experiment differs in at least one critical way: Yonas is not randomly selected, rather he is the one person whom I thought would make the best use of the money.

*Sick: A Memoir*, by Porochista Khakpour

I very much enjoyed this book, which is simultaneously an account of having Lyme disease (and not knowing for a long time), a tale of multiple substance abuses, a look into the mindset of somebody not at all like me, a second-generation Iranian-American memoir, and (unintended) the strongest case for social conservatism I have read in some time.  Here is one excerpt, another application of the intersectionality concept:

It is no coincidence then that doctors and patients and the entire Lyme community report — anecdotally, of course, as there is still a frustrating scarcity of good data on anything Lyme-related — that women suffer the most from Lyme.  They tend to advance into chronic and late-stage forms of the illness most because often it’s checked for last, as doctors often treat them as psychiatric cases first.  the nebulous symptoms plus the fracturing of articulacy and cognitive fog can cause any Lyme patient to simply appear mentally ill and mentally ill only.  This is why we hear that young women — again anecdotally — are dying of Lyme the fastest.  This is also why we hear that chronic illness is a woman’s burden.  Women simply aren’t allowed to be physically sick until they are mentally sick, too, and then it is by some miracle or accident that the two can be separated for proper diagnosis.  In the end, every Lyme patient has some psychiatric diagnosis, too, if anything because of the hell it takes getting to a diagnosis.

And this bit:

I am a sick girl.  I know sickness.  I live with it.  In some ways, I keep myself sick.

You can order the book here.

What I’ve been reading

1. Donna Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age.  Ten or fifteen years ago, would I have predicted that Harvard University Press would publish a serious academic argument claiming that on-line pick-up artists misread the classic texts they cite?

2. Cass R. Sunstein, The Cost-Benefit Revolution.  One of the very best Cass Sunstein books, the product of decades of reflection, remarkably well thought out on every page to an extent which is rare these days.

3. William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era.  Winner of a Pulitzer, this remains one of the essential takes on mid-20th century Soviet history and is highly readable as well.

4. Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.  Yes, that is Mister Rogers.  If you’ve seen the movie, this book is the perfect complement.  I hadn’t know that Mister Rogers was born into wealth, self-financed his early work, and consistently turned down opportunities to market “Mister Rogers toys” to kids for large sums of money.  His email address by the way was zzz143@aol.com, with the triple z’s indicating he slept soundly every night, and the 143 referring to the constant weight he kept throughout his adult life.

The sixth and final volume of Knausgaard’s *My Struggle*

Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”?  Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks.  It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling.  But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.

Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades.  “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter.  I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all.  Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.

Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout.  There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick.  For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.

The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5.  But it will try your patience.

As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:

Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other.  They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek.  Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…

I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me.  With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.

You can pre-order it here, or if you were in a rush as I was, order from the UK.

How dangerous was the Mexican-American War for American soldiers?

The Mexican War of 1846-1848, largely forgotten today, was the second costliest war in American history in terms of the p ercentage of soldiers who died.  Of the 78, 718 American soldiers who served, 13, 283 died, constituting a casualty rate of 16.87 percent.  By comparison, the casualty rate was 2.5 percent in World War I and World War II, 0.1 percent in Korea and Vietnam [TC: you’ll find better but still lower estimates here], and 21 percent for the Civil War.

That is from American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White, a good book by the way.  I had not known that a possible U.S. takeover of “Santo Domingo” (today’s D.R.) was such a big issue during Grant’s administration.

Indonesia fact of the day

Even though Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population of any nation, it witnessed, in marked contrast to Egypt, a steady growth in the size of the Christian community in the course of the twentieth century.  The Roman Catholic community grew from only 26,000 in 1900 to 500,000 in 1940, and to 6 million in 2003.  The number of indigenous Protestants rose from 285,000 in 1900 to 1.7 million in 1940, and to perhaps 16 million in 2003.  What is more, it is estimated that 1 million of the new Christians converted in the course of the century were of a Muslim rather than a traditional religious background.

That is all from the new and interesting Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History, published by Princeton University Press.

That was then, this is now, Hubert Humphrey edition

Is this only slightly corrupt, or very corrupt?  It is not obvious to me:

The financial assistance wealthy friends provided, in an era when ties between politicians and businessmen were not scrutinized, was indicative of Humphrey’s longer-term dependence on such people. His three sons…attended Shattuck Military Academy…courtesy of scholarships provided to the school by Minneapolis-born William Benton, who had made a fortune in advertising before becoming Humphrey’s Senate colleague from Connecticut during 1950-52…Eventually, Ewald [a wealthy Minnesotan dairyman] also helped.

Later, when Humphrey became vice president, he would turn over his modest stock holdings to Dwayne Andreas, the multimillionaire agribusinessman who transformed the Archer-Daniels-Midland Company into a multinational powerhouse, to be put into a blind trust.  Andreas commingled Humphrey’s funds with his own in his mutual income fund that invested heavily in ADM stock.  Andreas never mentioned this arrangement to Humphrey, who never inquired.  By the time of his death in 1978, Humphrey’s share of the mutual income fund was about half a million dollars…

That is all from Arnold A. Offner’s Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of a Country.

Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out

I wrote this as a blog post for Penguin blog about ten years ago (when I guest-blogged for them), and it has disappeared from Google.  So I thought I would serve up another, slightly different version to keep it circulating.  Here goes:

Most of you should throw books out — your used copies that is — instead of gifting them.  If you donate the otherwise-thrashed book somewhere, someone might read it.  OK, maybe that person will read one more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that person reading some other book instead.  Or substitute for watching a wonderful movie.

So you have to ask yourself — this book — is it better on average than what an attracted reader might otherwise spend time with?  Even within any particular point of view most books simply aren’t that good, and furthermore many books end up being wrong.  These books are traps for the unwary, and furthermore gifting the book puts some sentimental value on it, thereby increasing the chance that it is read.  Gift very selectively!  And ponder the margin.

You should be most likely to give book gifts to people whose reading taste you don’t respect very much.  That said, sometimes a very bad book can be useful because it might appeal to “bad” readers and lure them away from even worse books.  Please make all the appropriate calculations.

Alternatively, if a rational friend of yours gives you a book, perhaps you should feel a little insulted.

How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up?  So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.

Toss it I say!

What I’ve been reading

1. Rob Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better.  A sustained argument that current manifestations of philanthropy are not very egalitarian or necessarily realizing democratic ideals.  My views stand “to the right” of this book, but for some of you it will serve as a very good articulation of why philanthropy might be making you nervous.

2. Edmund White, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading.  An exquisitely written book, yet his reading narrative leaves me cold (too much an insider? not eccentric enough?).  I found the chapter on his husband and their relationship extraordinarily compelling.  A highly intelligent book, at the very least.

3. Jason Brennan, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice.  A well-argued libertarian take on exactly what the subtitle promises.

4. Robert Skidelsky, Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics.  The history of macro and money told through its historical development, which in my view is the right approach.  The coverage ranges from the classical economists up through the present day.  I hope this book does well.

5. Nicola Gennaioli and Andrei Shleifer, A Crisis of Beliefs: Investor Psychology and Financial Fragility.  An “as smart as you would expect” take on the hypothesis that investor over-extrapolation of recent price trends can cause financial crises, including our recent financial crisis.