Category: Books

Two Podcasts

Two podcasts I have enjoyed recently, First, The Social Radars, headed by Jessica Livingston and Carolynn Levy, co-founder and managing director of Y Combinator respectively. Jessica and Carolynn bring a lot of experience and trust with them so the entrepreneurs they interview open up about the realities of startups. Here is a great interview with David Lieb, creator of Google Photos and before that the highly successful failure, Bump.

I’ve also enjoyed the physician brothers Daniel and Mitch Belkin at The External Medicine Podcast. Here’s a superb primer on drug development from the great Derek Lowe.

The rise of Louise Perry

I am pleased to see Bryan Caplan reviewing the new Louis Perry book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.  He opens with this:

I read Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century in a single day. If you want a page-turner, look no further. The sentences are gripping, the anecdotes are shocking, and the thesis is eyebrow-furrowing. For pure entertainment, I honestly don’t think I can compete with this book, which strives to convert today’s young feminists to a heretical syncretic creed of sex-negative feminism and social conservatism.

On Amazon the book has a five-star average with 716 ratings, and I strongly suspect it still will be read and referenced in ten or twenty years.  I disagree with much of what Bryan says on this topic, but am glad to see he recognizes the importance of the book.  In my view, Bryan is insufficiently Freudian, unwilling to see both “sexual freedom” and “sexual repression” as embodying a complex bundle of options, with no unproblematic way out and with no truly stable solution.  I read Perry (who is an Emergent Ventures winner, by the way) as embodying the Freudian perspective, and not denying it, but not willing to emphasize it either.  She has chosen her side, and would rather tell the woman not to let the guy choke you for his own fun.

On that I can agree.  I am pleased to see this book doing so well.

*The Lost Album of the Beatles*

The author is Daniel Rachel, and the subtitle is What if The Beatles Hadn’t Split Up?  This is perfectly fine as a music book (for Beatle fans, it won’t convince the unconverted), but I couldn’t stop thinking of the Lucas critique.

For the author, the Beatles “final last album” is a double album of the best cuts from Beatle early solo careers, and that is an impressive assemblage indeed.  McCartney’s “Back Seat of My Car,” for instance, was written in 1968, or at least started in that year, so surely it would have ended up on the last album.  Or would it have?  It didn’t end up on Let It Be or Abbey Road, so who knows?  As long as the end of The Beatles was in sight, perhaps each Beatle would have hoarded his best potential solo material.  Or maybe the other Beatles would have vetoed some of those songs, just as Paul in 1968 had decided that George’s “Isn’t a Pity?” wasn’t suitable as a Beatles song.  Or maybe John and Paul would have had to give more songs to George and Ringo, to keep the group together, but arguably to the detriment of the final album.  Most of the songs on All Things Must Pass are very good, but best suited to their own little walled garden.

In contrast, this economist believes that an additional album would have fallen somewhere between Let It Be and The White Album, with an overall sound somewhat akin to “Free as a Bird,” or perhaps also Ringo’s “I’m the Greatest,” penned by John and cut with George as well.  Good stuff, but I’m still glad they split.  Get that Q up, especially given that market power was present!

And don’t assume that Beatle behavior remains invariant across different policy regimes.  Lucas truly was a universal economist.

*The Soul of Civility*

The subtitle is Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, and the author is the still-on-the-rise Alexandra Hudson.  Most of all this is a sane and healthy book!  And it indicates a direction for the future evolution of classical liberalism.  Here is one short excerpt:

In Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser notes the dark side to hospitality.  she argues that hosting others can be a power play.  The host has the opportunity to be the guest of honor, the center of all praise and attention in the comfort of their own home.  Guests must fawn and thank them whether or not the hospitality or food is any good, and often feel obligated to reciprocate whether they want to or not.  While cynical, I’ve come to see some wisdom in her insight.

I am very glad this book now exists, you can pre-order it here.

Jonathan Swift/Gulliver/Laputa optimal taxation

I heard a very warm debate between two professors, about the most commodious and effectual ways and means of raising money, without grieving the subject. The first affirmed, “the justest method would be, to lay a certain tax upon vices and folly; and the sum fixed upon every man to be rated, after the fairest manner, by a jury of his neighbours.” The second was of an opinion directly contrary; “to tax those qualities of body and mind, for which men chiefly value themselves; the rate to be more or less, according to the degrees of excelling; the decision whereof should be left entirely to their own breast.” The highest tax was upon men who are the greatest favourites of the other sex, and the assessments, according to the number and nature of the favours they have received; for which, they are allowed to be their own vouchers. Wit, valour, and politeness, were likewise proposed to be largely taxed, and collected in the same manner, by every person’s giving his own word for the quantum of what he possessed. But as to honour, justice, wisdom, and learning, they should not be taxed at all; because they are qualifications of so singular a kind, that no man will either allow them in his neighbour or value them in himself.

The women were proposed to be taxed according to their beauty and skill in dressing, wherein they had the same privilege with the men, to be determined by their own judgment. But constancy, chastity, good sense, and good nature, were not rated, because they would not bear the charge of collecting.

First Pigou taxes on vice, then taxes on inherited rents, and finally no tax on ideas, knowledge, or wisdom.  That is from part III, chapter six.

*The Fall of the Turkish Model*

The author is Cihan Tuğal, and the subtitle is How the Arab Uprisings Brought Down Islamic Liberalism, though the book is more concretely a comparison across Egypt and Tunisia as well, with frequent remarks on Iran.  Here is one excerpt:

This led to what Kevan Harris has called the ‘subcontractor state’: an economy which is neither centralized under a governmental authority not privatized and liberalized.  The subcontractor state has decentralized its social and economic roles without liberalizing the economy or even straightforwardly privatizing the state-owned enterprises.  As a result, the peculiar third sector of the Iranian economy has expanded in rather complicated and unpredictable ways.  Rather than leading to liberalization privatization under revolutionary corporatism intensified and twisted the significance of organization such as the bonyads…Privatization under the populist-conservative Ahmedinejad exploited the ambiguities of the tripartite division of the economy…’Privatization’ entailed the sale of public assets not to private companies but to nongovernmental public enterprises (such as pension funds, the bonyads and military contractors).

This book is one useful background source for the current electoral process in Turkey.

My Conversation with Simon Johnson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the episode description:

What’s more intense than leading the IMF during a financial crisis? For Simon Johnson, it was co-authoring a book with fellow economist (and past guest) Daron Acemoglu. Written in six months, their book Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity, argues that widespread prosperity is not the natural consequence of technological progress, but instead only happens when there is a conscious effort to bend the direction and gains from technological advances away from the elite.

Tyler and Simon discuss the ideas in the book and on Simon’s earlier work on finance and banking, including at what size a US bank is small enough to fail, the future of deposit insurance, when we’ll see a central bank digital currency, his top proposal for reforming the IMF, how quickly the Industrial Revolution led to widespread prosperity, whether AI will boost wages, how he changed his mind on the Middle Ages, the key difference in outlook between him and Daron, how he thinks institutions affect growth, how to fix northern England’s economic climate, whether the UK should join NAFTA, improving science policy, the Simon Johnson production function, whether MBAs are overrated, the importance of communication, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If institutions are the key to economic growth, as many people have argued — Daron and yourself to varying degrees — why, then, is prospective economic growth so hard to predict?

In 1960, few people thought South Korea would be the big winner. It looked like their institutions were not that good. It was a common view: oh, Philippines, Sri Lanka — then Ceylon — would do quite well. They had English language to some extent. They seemed to have okay education. And those two nations have more or less flopped. South Korea took off. It’s now, per capita income roughly equal to France or Japan. Doesn’t that mean it’s not about institutions? Because institutions are pretty sticky.

JOHNSON: Yes, I think of institutions as being part of the hysteresis effect, if you can get it in a positive way, that if you grow and you strengthen institutions, which South Korea has done, it makes it much harder to relapse. There are plenty of countries that had spurts of growth without strong institutions and found it hard to sustain that.

You make a very good point about the early 1960s, Tyler. There wasn’t that much discussion that I’ve seen about institutions per se, but education — yes, absolutely. Culture — people made the same comparisons. They said, “Confucian culture is no good or won’t lead to growth. That’s a problem, for example, for South Korea.” That turned out to be wrong.

I think institutions are sticky. I think history matters a lot for them. They’re not predestination, though. You could absolutely carve your own way, but the carve-your-own way is harder when you start with institutions that are more problematic, less democratic, more autocratic control, less protection of property rights.

All of these things can go massively wrong, but building better institutions and making them sustainable, like Eastern Europe — the parts of the former Soviet Empire that managed to escape the Soviet influence after 1989, 1991 — I think those countries have worked long and hard, with very mixed results in some places, to build better institutions. And the EU has helped them in that regard, unquestionably.

I enjoyed this session with Simon.

*Russia and China*

Authored by Philip Snow, the subtitle is Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord.  This book is excellent and definitive and serves up plenty of economic history, here is one bit from the opening section:

The trade nonetheless went ahead with surprising placidity.  Now and again there ere small incidents in the form of cattle-rustling or border raids.  In 1742 some Russians were reported to have crossed the frontier in search of fuel, and in 1744 two drunken Russians killed two Chinese traders in a squabble over vodka.

I am looking forward to reading the rest, you can buy it here.

*Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death*

By Nick Lane, here is one excerpt:

Should NASA and other space agencies back missions to Mars, or to the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, Enceladus and Europa?  If light is essential for the origin of life, then Enceladus is the last place to look, as those who favour warm ponds are quick to assert.  But if life emerges from deep-sea hydrothermal vents, then Enceladus is an ideal place to look, as beneath its icy crust is a liquid ocean bubbling with hydrogen gas and small organic molecules, to judge from the plumes that jet hundreds of miles into space through cracks in the ice.  It’s the first place I’d look.

Arguably even more important are the practical connotations for metabolism and our own health today.  Is the Krebs cycle at the heart of metabolism because life was forced into existence that way, by thermodynamics — fate! — or was this chemistry invented later by genes, just a trivial outcome of information systems that could be rewired, if we are smart enough?  Is the difference between ageing and disease an tractable outcome of metabolism, written into cells from the very origin of life, or a question for gene editing and synthetic biology to come?  That in turn boils down to genes first or metabolism first?  The thrust of this book is that energy is primal — energy flow shapes genetic information.  I will argue that the structure of metabolism was set in stone (perhaps literally in deep-sea rocky vents) from the beginning.

Among the other things I learned from this book are the importance of Otto Warburg, why men get mitochondrial diseases more than women do (there is some speculative component here), why respiration is suppressed with age, why the brain prefers to burn glucose, what it might mean to think of cancer as “growth-based” rather than genes-based, and most of all the importance of the Krebs cycle and reverse Krebs cycle for a broader array of biological questions.  The final section considers why chloroform seems to rob fruit flies of their “consciousness.”

I can’t pretend to evaluate the more controversial claims of the author, but at the very least I learned a great deal reading this book and it has stimulated my interest in the topic areas more generally.  You can buy it here.

*The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe*

An excellent book by Martyn Rady, here is the passage most relevant to the history of economic thought:

A Norwegian economist and his wife have published a line of bestsellers in the field of economics written before 1750.  Top is Aristotle’s Economics.  Composed in the fourth century BCE, it is still available in paperback.  Martin Luther’s denunciation of usury (1524) is number three.  But there, in the top ten, is an unfamiliar name — Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (1626-1692), who was a government official in the duchy of Saxe-Gotha in Thuringia.  Seckendorff’s German Princely State (Teutscher Fürsten-Staat, 1656) is a thousand-page blockbuster that went through thirteen editions and was in continuous print for a century.  Although only ever published in German, it was influential throughout Central Europe, shaping policy from the Banat to the Baltic.

I enjoyed this sentence:

Besides his distinctive false nose (the result of a duelling accident), Tycho Brahe kept an elk in his lodgings as a drinking companion.

And yes the book does have an insightful discussion of Laibach, the Slovenian hard-to-describe musical band.  You can buy it here.

What should I ask Seth Godin?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Here is part of his bio:

A serial entrepreneur, Godin has a degree in computer science and philosophy from Tufts University, and an MBA from Stanford Business School. He runs the altMBA, a global business-thinking workshop, and founded two companies, Squidoo and Yoyodyne. In 2013, Godin was one of just three professionals inducted into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, and in May 2018 he was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame too.

Here is his “could be better” Wikipedia page.  Here is Seth’s blog.  So what should I ask him?

*Promoting Progress*

The author is Michael Magoon, and the subtitle is A Radical New Agenda to Create Abundance For All.  A good introduction to the ideas surrounding progress, here is the author’s particular recipe for progress:

1. A highly efficient food production and distribution system…

2. Trade-based cities…

3. Decentralized political, economic, religious, and ideological power…

4. At least one high-value-added industry that exports…

5. Widespread use of fossil fuels…

You can buy it here.

My Conversation with the excellent Kevin Kelly

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

…Kevin and Tyler start this conversation on advice: what kinds of advice Kevin was afraid to give, his worst advice, how to get better at following advice, and whether people who ask for advice really want it in the first place. Then they move on to the best places to see traditional cultures in Asia, the one thing in Kevin’s travel kit he can’t be without, his favorite part of India, why he’s so excited about brain-computer interfaces, how AI will change religion, what the Amish can teach us about tech adoption, the most underrated documentary, his initial entry point into tech, why he’s impressed by the way Jeff Bezos handles power, the last thing he’s changed his mind about, how growing up in Westfield, New Jersey affected him, his next project called the Hundred Year Desirable Future, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Do you ever feel that if you don’t photograph a place, you haven’t really been there? Does it hold a different status? Like you haven’t organized the information; it’s just out on Pluto somewhere?

KELLY: Yes, I did. When I was younger, I had a religious conversion and I decided to ride my bicycle across the US. And part of that problem — part of the thing was that I was on my way to die, and I decided to leave my camera behind for this magnificent journey of a bicycle crossing the US. It was the most difficult thing I ever did, because I was just imagining all the magnificent pictures that I could take, that I wasn’t going to take. I took a sketchbook instead, and that appeased some of my desire to capture things visually.

But you’re absolutely right. It was a little bit of an addiction, where the framing of a photograph was how I saw the world. Still images: I was basically, in my head, clicking — I was clicking the shutter at the right moments when something would happen. That, I think, was not necessarily healthy — to be so dependent on that framing to enjoy the world.

I’ve learned to wean myself off from that necessity. Now I can travel with just a phone for the selfies that you might want to take.

COWEN: Maybe the earlier habit was better.

Recommended.  And here is Kevin’s new book Excellent Advice: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier.

Sebastian Edwards on Chilean social security reform

In his forthcoming book on the Chilean reforms, Edwards is clear that the social security reforms did not succeed.  He gives the following reasons (a partial and incomplete summary):

1. “At 10 percent of wages, the rate of contribution was obviously too low.  The average for the OECD countries was 19 percent.”  Accumulated funds ended up being too low.

2. The system assumed a static labor market, where workers stayed in the formal sector for 30 to 50 years.

3. Workers were never quite sure if they really were going to get the funds, or if they just were paying another tax.

4. Workers’ representatives were not included on the relevant program boards, and so workers felt little stake in the system.

5. The number of retirement years rose dramatically, due in part to rising life expectancy.  Yet the system made no adjustment for this, requiring a certain amount of savings to be stretched out to finance a growing number of years.

6. Management fees were very high, and this became a major issue when equity returns fell.

Here is my earlier post on the bookThe Chile Project: The Story of the Chicago Boys and the Downfall of Neoliberalism, one of the must-reads of the year.