Category: Books

Words of wisdom from Vitalik Buterin

Both reasoning from behavioral-economic first principles, and my personal experience, people are at their most evil out of fear, not greed. Growth means there is less fear going around.

That is from Vitalik Buterin, reviewing Stubborn Attachments on TwitterAnd this:

I have a different take on “growth is good for harmony” (52-53). Arrow’s theorem doesn’t become more or less true if a conflict is between, say (+5, +1) vs (+1, +5) or (+2, -2) vs (-2, +2). Rather, the reason why the latter is more disharmonious is loss aversion.

And:

Redistributing money to the rich (p88) is risky because the rich are not necessarily aligned with general population. Caring for old people (p91) is valuable not just for the sake of present individuals, but also as a commitment to future old people who are present-day workers.

Here is my earlier Conversation with Vitalik Buterin.  And here is Garett Jones’s tweet storm on the book.

Hey, wait a minute!

In November 1931 Churchill also published an article entitled ‘Fifty Years Hence’ in Maclean’s Magazine, in which he made some absurd predictions — that we would grow only those parts of chickens we wanted to eat, for example — but also some astonishingly accurate ones.  ‘Wireless telephones and television…

That is from the new and excellent Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny.  It is true of course that the fifty years prediction was off.  Here is the Churchill essay.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard A. Arenberg, Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress.  You know, this stuff matters a lot more than it used to.

2. Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life.  Covers the evolution of religion in Mill’s life, and stresses that toward the very life he turned back to a religiously-oriented world view.  Arguably all of the (< 12) people at Mill’s funeral were Christians.  As a side benefit, the book has an illuminating treatment of the romance with Harriet Taylor.  I’ve since ordered four other of Larsen’s books, the ultimate compliment.

3. Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs.  An excellent history book in its own right, this is also one of the best sources for understanding the 19th century roots of our current dilemma.  Reading everything by Daniel Walker Howe is in fact a good algorithm for proceeding in life.

Daniel S. Hamermesh, Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource is a good introduction to what economists know about the allocation of time, both evidence and theory.

Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon: A Life I read only some parts of, and found very well-written and entertaining, but it wasn’t sufficiently conceptually innovative to hold my interest.

Jacy Reese has a new book The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists are Building an Animal-Free Food System.  It is overstated, but still better than the near-unanimous ignoring of these issues which goes on in the economics profession.

China sentences of the day

With the Internet, too much information leaks out about the failings of governments. Thus, they are unable to “rule by persuasion” and are increasingly reduced to relying on sheer force. As a provocative example, Gurri believes that the Chinese government now is more dependent on force than it would be without the Internet.

That is from Arnold Kling reviewing Martin Gurri’s forthcoming The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

Amazon search is getting worse, especially for classic books

Just type in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and the first page will not show any editions you actually ought to buy.  And there are so many sponsored ads for mediocre, copyright-less editions.  If you type in “Gulliver’s Travels Penguin” you eventually will get to this, a plausible buy for the casual educated reader.  And wouldn’t it be nice if someone told you the $156.31 Cambridge University Press edition is by far the best choice? — full of marginal annotations!

Can You Outsmart an Economist?

Can You Outsmart an Economist? is an excellent book of puzzles put together by Steven Landsburg. Steve includes a lot of classics such as the Girl Named Florida Problem, the Potato Paradox and Newcomb’s paradox, the former two problems are presented in slightly different and in the first case improved forms so you might not recognize them on first reading. Steve also includes many economic puzzles, Bayes puzzles, common knowledge problems and more. Readers of this blog will certainly know some of the puzzles but will also find lots of novel problems and puzzles. Also included are philosophical paradoxes. For example, the headache problem.

A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is killed, in which case the headaches will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person?

The puzzle here isn’t the answer. The answer is obvious. The puzzle is that smart people can’t agree which answer is obvious.

Overall, this is the best and most diverse collection of puzzles that I know. It’s meant to be dipped into and sampled at leisure. My only complaint is that the puzzles are followed by answers which makes it too easy to fool yourself into thinking you always knew the answer! Answers in the back of the book would have been a minor form of commitment. Recommended.

*Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom*

That is the forthcoming book by my excellent colleagues Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, due out next January, you can now pre-order here.

Here is the Amazon summary:

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood. Tracing the history of religious persecution from the Fall of Rome to the present-day, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama provide a novel explanation of the birth of religious liberty. This book treats the subject in an integrative way by combining economic reasoning with historical evidence from medieval and early modern Europe. The authors elucidate the economic and political incentives that shaped the actions of political leaders during periods of state building and economic growth.

I have read the entire thing (a slightly earlier draft), very definitely recommended.

The Year that Words Were First Used in Print

In the year that I was born, 1966, some words which were used for the first time in print were:

cryonics, art deco, assault weapon, ROM, biocontainment, hot button, kung fu, meth, male-pattern baldness, multitasking, multiorgasmic, Medicaid, number cruncher, paperless, street smarts, ranch dressing, z-score

I would have guessed that many of these terms were older.

New words in recent years are ico, manspreading, utility token and aquafaba (?).

All this is according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

My Conversation with John Nye, what should I ask him?

Soon I will be having a Conversation with my esteemed colleague John V. Nye, one of the smartest people I know.  John is an economic historian but also a polymath with broad-ranging interests, including travel, classical music, chess, education, “institutions,” Asian food, the Philippines (his home country), and much more.

So what should I ask him?

*Stubborn Attachments* opening week

I thank all of you buyers and reviewers for making the opening week of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals such a success.

The book hit #1 in 4 Amazon browse subcategories over the last week:
– Macroeconomics
– Commerce
– Philosophy
– Theory of Economics, and also Comparative Economics

What I’ve been reading

1. Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.  I hadn’t realized that so much was known about her life, or that she spent so much time in Canada, or that she fell into such obscurity during the early part of the twentieth century.  She died the same year Rosa Parks was born.  I liked this book very much.

2. Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road.  A good look at the new conflicts between China and its southeast Asian and central Asian neighbors.  Clear enough to be a good introduction, detailed enough to be useful to those who already know something about the topic.

3. Robert Alter, The Art of Bible Translation.  Alter is one of today’s most important doers, and his forthcoming Hebrew Bible translation is likely to be definitive and the most important act of publication this year.  This short volume presents his perspective on what he has done, most of all focusing on how to turn Hebrew into English.

4. Michael Tomasello, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny.  How does human psychological growth run in the first seven years, in particular how does it instill “culture” in us?  Tomasello address this question in a Belknap Press book by comparing us to chimpanzees and bonobos.  Most of all, how does the capacity for shared intentionality and self-regulation evolve in people?  This is a very thoughtful and also important book, but I’m not sure it finally succeeds into tying up all the pieces into a broader picture of…shared intentionality.

5. Camille Paglia, Provocations.  At first I was discouraged by the notion of a recycled Paglia compilation, but the quality of these pieces is often high and many of them are not readily available elsewhere.  The now-classic  Sexual Personae is still the best introduction to her work, but if you think you might be tempted by this one, you should buy it.  I would put the hit rate at about fifty percent (who else will give you running commentary on the main cinematic adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey?), and it is sad to see so far it has not been seriously reviewed.

Iceland book fact of the day

Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.

Iceland has a wonderful tradition of giving books as Christmas presents, with people reading into the night on Christmas Eve. However, even this may be under threat: in 2005, an Icelander received an average of 1.4 books as gifts at Christmas; this number is now 1.1, with 42% of Icelanders not receiving a single book for Christmas according to the most recent poll…

Recent research shows an alarming rise in students under 15 struggling to read their own language. And they are picking up English at a much faster pace than before – it is not strange to hear them speaking it in the playground.

Here is the full story.

That was then, this is now

A Cincinnati newspaper printed a malevolent editorial proclaiming that [Andrew] Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers.  thereupon she married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, among them Andrew Jackson.  Apprised of this far-fetched, scandalous tale, [John Quincy] Adams thought it absurd, but cynically went on to comment that even if proved true it would probably not hurt Jackson.  The course of the campaign seemed to substantiate all Adams’s apprehensions that fervent partisanship was demolishing reasonableness, a slugfest of calumny and lies replacing political civility.  Vice was triumphing over virtue.  And the cynicism expressed in his reaction to the malignant piece regarding Jackson’s mother and his birth signaled that he had begun to doubt the probity of the republic and its citizens.

That is from the very good book by William J. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics.