Category: Books

What I’ve been reading and browsing

Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman.  Fun and easy to read, plus the first set of photo has perhaps the greatest photo I ever have seen, with the caption: “Agatha’s brother Monty liked flirting, ‘talking slang’ and ‘getting into tempers’.  He disliked any kind of work.  In later life he behaved badly with firearms and became addicted to morphia.”

Alan S. Blinder, A Monetary Fiscal History of the United States, 1961-2021.  A very good introduction to these topics from a mainstream point of view.

There is also Stephen M. Stigler, Casanova’s Lottery: The History of a Revolutionary Game of Chance.

And Sean Carroll, The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion.

Tom Mustill, How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication.  Will the greatest achievement of AI be allowing us to speak with whales?

*Indigenous Continent*

The author is Pekka Hämäläinen, and the subtitle is The Epic Contest for North America.  Rich with insight on ever page, might it be the best history of Native Americans?  At the very least, this is one of the two or three best non-fiction books this year.  How is this for an excellent opening sentence:

Kelp was the key to America.

Here is another excerpt:

Spain had a momentous head start in the colonization of the Western Hemisphere, but North American Indians had brought Spanish expansion to a halt; in the late sixteenth century there were no significant Spanish settlements on the continent — only petty plunder regimes.  North America was still essentially Indigenous.  The contrast to the stunning Spanish successes in Middle and South America was striking: how could relatively small Native groups defy Spanish colonialism in the north when the formidable Aztec, Inca, and May Empires had fallen so easily?  The answer was right in front of the Spanish — the decentralized, kinship-based, and egalitarian political regimes made poor targets for imperial entradas — but they kept missing it because the Indigenous nations were so different from Europe’s hierarchical societies.  They also missed a fundamental fact about Indigenous warfare: fighting on their homelands, the Indians did not need to win battles and wars; they just needed not to lose them.

The general take is that pushing out the Native Americans took longer than you might think, and also was more contingent than you might think.  The decentralized nature of North American Indian regimes was one reason why the Spaniards made more headway in Latin America than anyone made in North America.

To be clear, I am by no means on board with the main thesis, preferring the details of this book to its conceptual framework.  Too often the author heralds the glories of a Native American tribe or group, and along the way lets it drop that they numbered only 30,000 individuals, as was the case for instance with the Iroquois.  If you didn’t know the actual history of this world, and had read only this book, you would be shocked to learn that Anglo civilization was on the verge of subjugating one-quarter of the world.  Or that England had learned how to “take care of Ireland” in the seventeenth century, and it was only a matter of time before similar techniques would be applied elsewhere.  And it is not until p.450 that the author lets on how much technological progress the Westerners had been making throughout; somehow that part of the story is missing until the very end.

I cannot quite buy that “The Native Reservations were a sign of American weakness, not strength,” though I can see how they might be both (p.408).

Yet I think you can simply put all this aside and still get full value — and then some — from this book.  Among its other virtues, it is an excellent treatise on the 17th century and its energetic, exploratory nature.  Or for another example, I loved the p.152 discussion of whether Indians wanted the settlers to fence in their animals (the fences cut off travel paths for deer and other hunted animals, though the fences kept the settlers’ animals from destroying native crops).  The discussions of equestrianism are consistently excellent.

In the first twenty years of the United States, fights with Indians absorbed 5/6 of overall federal expenditure (p.343).

Here is a good NYT story about the book and its reception.  I would say that a Finnish white guy even tried to pull this off is a positive signal about its quality, at least these days.

As recently as 2019, his epic Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power was an MR “best book of the year.”  You don’t have to buy the whole story, and so I conclude that Pekka Hämäläinen is one of the more important writers of our time.

What should I ask Ken Burns?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is the beginning of his rather formidable Wikipedia entry:

Kenneth Lauren Burns (born July 29, 1953) is an American filmmaker known for his documentary films and television series, many of which chronicle American history and culture. His work is often produced in association with WETA-TV and/or the National Endowment for the Humanities and distributed by PBS.

His widely known documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019). He was also executive producer of both The West (1996), and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015). Burns’s documentaries have earned two Academy Award nominations (for 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge and 1985’s The Statue of Liberty) and have won several Emmy Awards, among other honors.

His forthcoming book is the lovely Our America: A Photographic History.  So what should I ask?

The End of History (of Philosophy)

Hanno Sauer on why philosophers spend far too much time reading and writing about dead philosophers:

What credence should we assign to philosophical claims that were formed without any knowledge of the current state of the art of the philosophical debate and little or no knowledge of the relevant empirical or scientific data? Very little or none. Yet when we engage with the history of philosophy, this is often exactly what we do. In this paper, I argue that studying the history of philosophy is philosophically unhelpful. The epistemic aims of philosophy, if there are any, are frustrated by engaging with the history of philosophy, because we have little reason to think that the claims made by history’s great philosophers would survive closer scrutiny today. First, I review the case for philosophical historiography and show how it falls short. I then present several arguments for skepticism about the philosophical value of engaging with the history of philosophy and offer an explanation for why philosophical historiography would seem to make sense even if it didn’t.

A devastating example:

Consider Plato’s or Rousseau’s evaluation of the virtues and vices of democracy. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of evidence and theories that were unavailable to them at the time:
  • Historical experiences with developed democracies
  • Empirical evidence regarding democratic movements in developing countries
  • Various formal theorems regarding collective decision making and preference aggregation, such as the Condorcet Jury-Theorem, Arrow’s Impossibility-Results, the Hong-Page-Theorem, the median voter theorem, the miracle of aggregation, etc.
  • Existing studies on voter behavior, polarization, deliberation, information
  • Public choice economics, incl. rational irrationality, democratic realism
The whole subsequent debate on their own arguments…When it comes to people currently alive, we would steeply discount the merits of the contribution of any philosopher whose work were utterly uninformed by the concepts, theories and evidence just mentioned (and whatever other items belong on this list). It is not clear why the great philosophers of the past should not be subjected to the same standard. (Bear in mind that time and attention are severely limited resources. Therefore, every decision we make about whose work to dedicate our time and attention to faces important trade-offs.)

This is obviously true so I think the more interesting question is why do philosophers do this?

Hat tip: Jason Brennan

*Magnificent Rebels*

The author is the excellent Andrea Wulf and the subtitle is The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self.  The focus is on the German group of thinkers who worked together in or near Jena, including the Schlegels, Novalis, Schiller, Goethe and Schelling, with a later cameo from Hegel.  This is one of my favorite books of the year, but note it focuses mostly on their personal stories and not so much on their ideas.  Perfect for me, but not the ideal introduction for every reader.  And their ideas are hard to explain!  Their emphasis on imagination and subjectivity has been so absorbed into the modern world it can be hard to grasp their revolutionary nature at the time.  Context is that which is scarce.  Recommended nonetheless.

*Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain*

By Richard Vinen, do not forget that the Lunar Society (subject of the very first MR post!) was based there.  Here is one excerpt:

What has come to be called the Birmingham or Midlands Enlightenment brought together an unusually curious and energetic group of men…Joseph Priestly and William Hutton epitomized the atmosphere of optimism, uninhibited enquiry and material prosperity some associated with Birmingham in the eighteenth century.  The former was a minister of religion, though mainly known to posterity as a scientist; the latter was a well-to-do bookseller, though mainly known to posterity as a writer, particularly as the author of the first history of his adopted city.  Both men, however, came ot have less happy memories of Birmingham than those implied by the quotations above because both their houses were burned down in the Church and King riots of 1791.

Strongly recommended to all those who care about such things, you can order here.

The new Alexander J. Field book

Field is one of the world’s greatest economic historians, and the title is The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for The Second World War.  I am just starting to read it, here is some of the early material:

The initial aim of this book is to document what for many will surely be the surprisingly disappointing record of manufacturing productivity growth during the war.  A second objective is to understand the effects of the war on the level and rate of growth of potential output in the postwar period.  Getting a fix on that is what matters when we ask whether or to what degree the war laid the foundations for growth in the years after 1948…

The empirical sections of this book will show, inter alia, that both labor productivity and TFP in manufacturing declined during the war in comparison with 1941 and grew anemically after the war…

A principal argument can be stated succinctly: TFP in manufacturing fell during the war because the conflict forced a wrenching shift away from products and processes in which manufacturers had a great deal of experience toward the production of goods in which they had little.

Obviously an important work, I look forward to reading the rest.  Due out October 18.

*The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left*

That is the new forthcoming book by Garett Jones (and his wisdom), I am very much looking forward to reading/rereading the final version of this one!  (See the link for my blurb based on a pre-pub reading.)  Here is the Amazon summary:

Over the last two decades, as economists began using big datasets and modern computing power to reveal the sources of national prosperity, their statistical results kept pointing toward the power of culture to drive the wealth of nations. In The Culture Transplant, Garett Jones documents the cultural foundations of cross-country income differences, showing that immigrants import cultural attitudes from their homelands―toward saving, toward trust, and toward the role of government―that persist for decades, and likely for centuries, in their new national homes. Full assimilation in a generation or two, Jones reports, is a myth. And the cultural traits migrants bring to their new homes have enduring effects upon a nation’s economic potential.

Built upon mainstream, well-reviewed academic research that hasn’t pierced the public consciousness, this book offers a compelling refutation of an unspoken consensus that a nation’s economic and political institutions won’t be changed by immigration. Jones refutes the common view that we can discuss migration policy without considering whether migration can, over a few generations, substantially transform the economic and political institutions of a nation. And since most of the world’s technological innovations come from just a handful of nations, Jones concludes, the entire world has a stake in whether migration policy will help or hurt the quality of government and thus the quality of scientific breakthroughs in those rare innovation powerhouses.

You can pre-order here, due out November 15.

The new Bryan Caplan book

The title has attracted a lot of attention and controversy, it is Don’t be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice, description here.  Bryan writes a letter to his daughter, telling her not to be a feminist.

To counter Bryan, many people are trying to cite the “official” definition of feminism, which runs something like:

feminism, the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.

Who could not believe in that?  But here is a case where the official definition (which comes in varying versions) is off base.  Many people do not consider themselves feminists but would endorse those conclusions or come close to endorsing those conclusions entirely (I’m not sure what “social” equality for the sexes is supposed to mean.)  Or can’t you be a pretty radical fighter for women’s rights, without necessarily believing full equality (of which kind?) is possible?  What if you thought women shouldn’t be drafted into the military for combat?  Would that disqualify you?  Could Mary Wollstonecraft qualify on that basis?  Yet Wikipedia presents her as the founder of feminism.

Bryan’s preferred definition of feminism is:

feminism: the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women

That also seems off base to me.  If you were a feminist, but all of a sudden society does something quite unfair to men (drafts them to fight an unjust and dangerous war?), does that mean you might have to stop calling yourself a feminist?  Somehow the definition ought to be more weighted toward the status of women and remedies for women, rather than treating men and women symmetrically.  It seems weird to get people thinking about all of the injustices faced by men.

I don’t go around calling myself a feminist.  There is too much in “the other people who call themselves feminists” that I don’t agree with.  And it seems to me too aggregative a notion, and furthermore an attempt to win an argument by putting forward a definition that other people will be afraid to countermand.  Nonetheless here is a view I do agree with:

There is an important emancipatory perspective, one that would improve the lives of many women, and it consists of a better understanding of how social institutions to date have disadvantaged women, and a series of proposals for improvement.  Furthermore large numbers of men still do not understand the import of such a perspective, one reason for that being they have never lived the lives of women.

Unlike Bryan’s definition, this puts the treatment of women at the center of the issue.  And unlike some of the mainstream definitions, it does not focus on the issue of equality, which I think will be difficult to meet or even define.  Do we have to let men play in women’s tennis?  In women’s chess tournaments?  Whether yes or no, I don’t think the definition of feminism should hinge on those questions.

If you want to call that above description of mine feminism, fine, but I am finding that word spoils more debates and discussions than it improves.  I won’t be using it.  By the way, John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women remains one of the very best books ever written, on any topic, and indeed I have drawn my views from Mill.  Everyone should read it.  He never used the word feminist either.

I also would stress that my definition does not rule out emancipatory perspectives for men or other gender categories, or for that matter other non-gender categories, quite the contrary.  Freedom and opportunity are at the center of my conception, and that means for everybody, which allows for a nice kind of symmetry.

In the meantime, I will read Bryan’s book once it comes out Monday.  I’ve seen its component pieces already in Bryan’s other writings, I just am not sure which ones are in the book.

By the way, I wonder if Bryan’s views on gender are fully consistent with his views on poverty.  He advocates marrying, staying married, etc., that whole formula thing.  But if men are treated so badly in society, maybe in many cases there just aren’t enough marriageable men to go around?  What are the women (and the men) to do then?

*The Rise and Fall of the EAST*

The author is Yasheng Huang of MIT and the subtitle is Examination, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology in Chinese History and Today.  Forthcoming from Yale University Press in 2023.  Excerpt:

For many years, I struggled to come up with a coherent explanation for the power, the reach, and the policy discretion of the Chinese state.  There is coercion, ideological indoctrination, and probably a fair amount of societal consent as well.

Keju [the civil service exam system] had a deep penetration both cross-sectionally in society and across time in history.  It was all encompassing, laying claims to time, efforts and cognitive investments of a significant swath of Chinese population.  It was incubatory of values, norms, and cognitions, therefore impacting ideology and epistemology of Chinese minds.  It was a state institution designed to augment the power and the capabilities of the state.  Directly, the state monopolized the very best human capital; indirectly, the state deprived society access to talent and preempted organized religion, commerce, and intelligentsia.  The Chinese state in history and today is an imprinted version of this Keju system.

Chinese state is strong because it reigns without a society.

Among the other interesting features of this book, including many, are:

There is a very useful discussion of Sui Wendi, the man who reunified China (and is barely known in the West).

Just how much the exam system expanded in the 17th century, to support a larger and growing Chinese state.

Why Chinese bureaucrats in the provinces tend to be generalists and the ministerial officials tend to be specialists.

Oliver Williamson is applied and cited throughout.

“A state without society is a vertically integrated organization…Keju’s powerful platform effect crowded and stymied alternative mobility channels…the Keju was an anti-mobility mobility channel.”

“In the 1890s, China’s population literacy was only 18 percent, way below 95 percent of England and the Netherlands.”

Exam competition takes up so much of individual mind space.  Furthermore the competition atomizes society and makes it harder to form the kinds of collective movements that might lead to democracy.

The author sees the 1980s as the truly revolutionary time in Chinese history.

“Throughout Chinese history very few emperors were toppled by their generals or senior functionaries, a sharp contrast with the Roman Empire.”

I could say much more.  This is by far the best book on Chinese bureaucracy I have read, and probably one of the best books on China period.  I am sure many of the claims will be contested, but the author tries in a very serious way to be explanatory and to actually answer the questions about China you care about.  So few books even attempt that!

Addendum: Note that the author also wrote Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, another of my favorite books about China.

What I’ve been reading

Michael Strachan, The Life and Adventures of Thomas CoryateCoryate was an intrepid traveler from 17th century England.  He walked along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, through Persia and Afghanistan, and into the heart of the Moghul empire.  He was the first Englishman to visit India “for the heck of it,” and he walked.  Quite possibly he introduced the table fork to England, and the word “umbrella” to the English language.  Non-complacent from top to bottom, he died at age forty, of dystentery, while underway in Surat.

Johan Fourie, Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom: Lessons from 100,000 Years of Human History.  An unusual narrative take on the broad sweep of economic history, Africa-centered, original, unusual, broken up into different stories.  The author is professor of economics and history at Stellenbosch, here is his home page.

Ronald H. Spector, A Continent Erupts: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945-1955.  This book is an excellent way to pick up knowledge on a critical period that most Westerners do not know enough about.  Most interesting to me were the sections on how many people thought the Indonesians would gladly return to Dutch colonial rule.  Narrator: They didn’t.

S Encel, Equality and Authority: a Study of Class, Status and Power in Australia.  Might this be the best explanatory book on Australia ever?  Explains the odd mix of egalitarianism, individualism, plus bureaucratic authoritarianism that characterizes the Aussies.  There should of course be many more books like this, books attempting to explain countries to us.  From 1970 but still highly relevant.

W. David Marx, Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change.  A very good book outlining status and signaling arguments for explaining how culture works and changes.  My main gripe is that it doesn’t seem at all aware of Simler and Hanson, and Robin Hanson more generally and for that matter my own What Price Fame? (among other writings).  So while I like the content, on the grounds of both scholarships and originality I have to give it a pretty big ding.

Arrived in my pile are:

Kevin Erdmann, Building from the Ground Up: Reclaiming the American Housing Boom, and

Daniel B. Klein and Jason Briggeman, Hume, Smith, Burke, Geijer, Menger, d’Argenson.

Annie Duke, Quit.  A defense of quitting, which is often necessary to reallocate resources properly.

Hume on the Rise And Progress of the Arts And Sciences

Avarice, or the desire of gain, is an universal passion, which operates at all times, in all places, and upon all persons: But curiosity, or the love of knowledge, has a very limited influence, and requires youth, leisure, education, genius, and example, to make it govern any person. You will never want booksellers, while there are buyers of books: But there may frequently be readers where there are no authors.

David Hume explaining why it’s more difficult to explain the progress of the arts and sciences than economic progress, even if the latter may depend on the former. And here is Hume on geography and the growth of the arts and sciences:

But the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power. Reputation is often as great a fascination upon men as sovereignty, and is equally destructive to the freedom of thought and examination. But where a number of neighbouring states have a great intercourse of arts and commerce, their mutual jealousy keeps them from receiving too lightly the law from each other, in matters of taste and of reasoning, and makes them examine every work of art with the greatest care and accuracy. The contagion of popular opinion spreads not so easily from one place to another. It readily receives a check in some state or other, where it concurs not with the prevailing prejudices. And nothing but nature and reason, or, at least, what bears them a strong resemblance, can force its way through all obstacles, and unite the most rival nations into an esteem and admiration of it.

…In China, there seems to be a pretty considerable stock of politeness and science, which, in the course of so many centuries, might naturally be expected to ripen into some thing more perfect and finished, than what has yet arisen from them. But China is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathizing in the same manners. The authority of any teacher, such as Confucius, was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to the other. None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason, why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire.

If we consider the face of the globe, Europe, of all the four parts of the world, is the most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains; and Greece of all countries of Europe. Hence these regions were naturally divided into several distinct governments. And hence the sciences arose in Greece; and Europe has been hitherto the most constant habitation of them.

See Tyler’s In Praise of Commericial Culture for more Humean themes.

Shruti Rajagopalan talks talent with Daniel Gross and Tyler

A Conversation, a special bonus episode, taped in San Francisco in front of a live audience, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one bit:

RAJAGOPALAN: …Daniel, if you’re looking for talent in investing or finance, how does that look different from the talent in the start-up world?

GROSS: In the start-up world? What makes a good investor is very different from what makes a good founder. If you were to make a scatterplot of it, some of the attributes are completely diametrically opposed. For example, I think very good investors are the right degree of optimistic but also realistic, whereas founders are too optimistic, which they should be.

At the end of the day, start-ups are a very funny activity when you think about it from a probability standpoint. Most companies fail. Almost all companies fail, and yet, people seem to be seemingly doing this activity over and over. They’re jumping off the cliff over and over again. You look over the cliff, and everyone who jumped off of the cliff is just on the ground dead, but people keep on jumping off the cliff. Founders are almost too optimistic.

When you’re evaluating a business, especially at later and later stages, I think optimism can be your enemy. Often, you see when a lot of founders later on in life — and I’m such a person — who started a business, sold it, and became an investor, you actually have to be able to wear very different kinds of psychometric hats. One of them is this continuum of realism and optimism. I’d probably say that’s the starkest difference between what makes a good start-up investor and a good founder. There are probably many others, but that’s the main thing that you look for.

I later have a monologue on chocolate ice cream, but overall Shruti steals the show.  Recommended.

What should I ask Mary Gaitskill?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is Wikipedia:

Mary Gaitskill (born November 11, 1954) is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Her work has appeared in The New YorkerHarper’s MagazineEsquireThe Best American Short Stories (1993, 2006, 2012, 2020), and The O. Henry Prize Stories (1998, 2008). Her books include the short story collection Bad Behavior (1988).

I consider The Mare, Veronica, and Lost Cat (among others) to be some of the best and most insightful American fiction of recent times.  She is um…frank, and has held a series of actual jobs in her lifetime, including stripper and sex worker.  She was also a teenage runaway.

Here is the The New Yorker covering her new Substack.  Here is a Guardian profile:

Mary Gaitskill’s fiction is often called cold, or even brutal, but I have always loved it for nearly opposite reasons: its tender attention to the complexities of human emotion, and the compassion it coaxes from clear-eyed perception.

So what should I ask her?