Category: Books

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

What I’ve been reading

Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden.  Every page of this book does indeed have economics.  It just does not have interesting economics.  Which may mean that gardens are not so interesting from an economic point of view.  Which in turn would make this a good book.  But not an interesting book.

Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India.  A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT.  Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.

Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion & The Future of Clothes.  Some parts of this book have bad economics and extreme mood affiliation, but in general it has more actual information than other books on the same topic and at times the author makes decent external cost arguments against the current system of clothes production.  So a qualified recommendation, at least I am glad I read it, even though some parts are obviously too sloppy.

Razeen Sally, Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island.  People do not think enough about Sri Lanka, including in the social sciences!  It is a richer and nicer country than what most people are expecting, and it is good for studying both conflict and ethnic tensions.  This memoir — information rich rather than just blather — is one good place to get you started.

David Goldblatt, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century.  Football meaning soccer of course, this book covers how soccer interacts with politics in many particular countries, including Africa, and just how much the game has grown in global markets.  Mostly informative, good if you wish to read a book about this topic (I don’t).

Conversations with Zizek.  Maybe the best introduction to why Žižek is a richer thinker than his critics allege?  The book serves up insights on a consistent basis, and there is a minimum of jargon.  Marcus Pound had a good blurb: “Audacious and vertiginous, this book is everything one expects from him, a heady mix of psychoanalysis, politics, theology, philosophy, and cultural studies that will leave the reader both exhausted and exhilarated.”

*The Korean Mind: Understanding Contemporary Korean Culture*

This is a weird book, published primarily in Singapore, and somehow not fitting the canons of what people “are supposed to do” (NB: it is not at all racist, just bolder in its cultural generalizations than is currently in vogue).  Nonetheless I learned a great deal from the book, while taking some parts with a grain of salt.  Here is one interesting bit of many:

Since 1948 the government in North Korea has been dominated by people from North Hamkyong Province, where the late Il Sung Kim, founder of the North Korean regime, was active as a guerrilla leader during World War II.  Since that time people from the North Korean provinces of Hwanghae and Kangwon, which are the closest to South Korea, have been virtually banned from high government offices because they are considered untrustworthy and unfit.  In South Korea government has been controlled mostly by natives from North Kyongsang Province in the Youngnam (formerly Shilla) region.

…Ongoing competition and conflicts between people from Cholla and Kyongsang Provinces are said to be serious enough that they have significant negative impact on national politics, the economy, and life in general.

The author is Boye Lafayette de Mente, and he seems to know a lot about Korean bowing.  Do note the book is mainly about South Korea.  Reviewers, by the way, complain that there are significant mistakes in the Korean characters.  Recommended nonetheless, albeit with caveats, you can buy it here.

My Conversation with Daron Acemoglu

Self-recommending of course, most of all we talked about economic growth and development, and the history of liberty, with a bit on Turkey and Turkish culture (Turkish pizza!) as well.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt, from the very opening:

COWEN: I have so many questions about economic growth. First, how much of the data on per capita income is explained just simply by one variable: distance from the equator? And how good a theory of the wealth of nations is that?

ACEMOGLU: I think it’s not a particularly good theory. If you look at the map of the world and color different countries according to their income per capita, you’ll see that a lot of low-income-per-capita countries are around the equator, and some of the richest countries are pretty far from the equator, in the temperate areas. So many people have jumped to conclusion that there must be a causal link.

But actually, I think geographic factors are not a great explanatory framework for understanding prosperity and poverty.

COWEN: But why does it have such a high R-squared? By one measure, the most antipodal 21 percent of the population produces 69 percent of the GDP, which is striking, right? Is that just an accident?

ACEMOGLU: Yeah, it’s a bit of an accident. Essentially, if you think of which are the countries around the equator that have such low income per capita, they are all former European colonies that have been colonized in a particular way.


COWEN: If we think about the USSR, which has terrible institutions for more than 70 years, an awful form of communism — it falls; there’s a bit of a collapse. Today, they seem to have a higher per capita income than you would expect a priori, if you, just as an economist, write about communism. Isn’t that mostly just because of what is now Russian, or Soviet, human capital?

ACEMOGLU: That’s an interesting question. I think the Russian story is complicated, and I think part of Russian income per capita today is because of natural resources. It’s always a problem for us to know exactly how natural resources should be handled because you can do a lot of things wrong and still get quite a lot of income per capita via natural resources.

COWEN: But if Russians come here, they almost immediately move into North American per capita income levels as immigrants, right? They’re not bringing any resources. They’re bringing their human capital. If people from Gabon come here, it takes them quite a while to get to the —

ACEMOGLU: No, absolutely, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Russians are bringing more human capital. If you look at the Russian educational system, especially during the Soviet time, there was a lot of emphasis on math and physics and some foundational areas.

And there’s a lot of selection among the Russians who come here…

The Conversation is Acemoglu throughout, you also get to hear me channeling Garett Jones.  Again, here is Daron’s new book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

*Towards an Economics of Natural Equals*

The authors are David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, and the subtitle is A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School.  This is the true history, told by people who know, and with extensive citations from correspondence and primary documentation.


Beginning quite early and throughout his long career, Buchanan studied, endorsed, and extended the Smithian economics of natural equals.

You will find the correspondence of Buchanan and Rawls, the dealings of Buchanan with a skeptical Ford Foundation, the real story behind the Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter “Universal Education” voucher plan, what actually happened in Buchanan’s Chile visit, Chicago vs. Virginia disputes, the anti-democratic views of Murray Rothbard, and the contested history of neoliberalism.  And much correspondence from Ronald Coase.


David Levy worked with Buchanan and Tullock from the late 1970s through their deaths, and he and Peart are extremely careful in their sourcing and quotation practices — get the picture?

Due out Februrary, leap year day, you can pre-order here.

What I’ve been reading

Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, editors, with Nellie Liang.  First Responders: Inside the U.S. Strategy For Fighting the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis.  Too many people will judge this volume by its editors, for better or worse.  In reality, almost everything here is by other people, and well-informed ones too.  This is one of the best comprehensive books on the crisis, and it is usefully organized by topic (“Crisis-Era Housing Programs,” or say Jason Furman on fiscal policy).  I haven’t read through the whole thing, but there is a good chance this is the best overall volume on the response to the crisis, though again I suspect opinions on the book will follow whatever opinions the reviewers have of the editors.

Justin Marozzi, Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization.  Did the Islamic Middle East invent the notion of a truly splendid city?  This book makes the case for yes, starting with 7th century Mecca, moving to Damascus, Baghdad, and Cordoba, and finishing in 21st century Doha, “City of Pearls.”

Todd S. Purdum, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution.  Of course the music is worth learning about, but this volume is also a splendid take on managerial teamwork in a duo.

Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. Some of her speeches, transcribed.  Call me crazy, but I think of her and Donald Trump as the two great orators of our generation, regardless of what you think of their content.

Vicky Pryce, Women vs. Capitalism: Why We Can’t Have It All in a Free Market Economy.  Compared to what, I am inclined to ask?  Still, if you are looking for a readable book on how and why capitalism does not lead to gender equality, this is now the place to go.

Matthew D. Adler’s Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction is a very good take on its chosen topic.

Emmanuel Todd, *Lineages of Modernity*

Sadly I had to read this book on Kindle, so my usual method of saving passages and ideas by the folded page is failing me.  I can tell you this is one of the most interesting (but also flawed) books I read this year, with “family structure is sticky and it determines the fate of your nation” as the basic takeaway.

Todd suggests that the United States actually has a fairly “backward” and un-evolved family structure — exogamy and individualism — not too different from that of hunter-gatherer societies.  That makes us very flexible and also well-suited to handle the changing conditions of modernity.  Much of the Arab world, in contrast, has a highly complex and evolved and in some ways “more advanced” family structure, involving multiple alliances, overlapping networks, and often cousin marriages.  The mistake is to think of those structures as under-evolved outcomes that simply can advance a bit, “loosen up with prosperity,” and allow their respective countries to enter modernity.  Rather those structures are stuck in place, and they will interact with the more physical features of globalization and liberalization in interesting and not always pleasant ways.  Many of those societies will end up in untenable corners with no full liberalization anywhere in sight.  Much of Todd’s book works through what the various options are here, and how they might apply to different parts of the world.

To be clear, half of this book is unsupported, or sometimes just trivial.  There were several times I was tempted to just stop reading, but then it became interesting again.  Todd covers a great deal of ground (the subtitle is A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus), not all of it convincingly.  But when he makes you think, you really feel he might be on to something.

Todd describes Germany as having a complex, multi-tiered, somewhat authoritarian family structure, and one that does not mesh well with the norms of feminism and individualism that have been entering the country.  That family structure is also part of why Germany was, relative to its size, militarily so strong in the earlier part of the twentieth century.  He also argues that the countries that stayed communist longer have some common features to their family structure, Cuba being the Latin American outlier in this regard.

Todd makes the strongest bullish case for Russia I have seen.  He reports that TFR is back up to 1.8 after an enormous post-communist plunge, migration into the country is strongly positive, and Russia is very good at producing strong, productive women (again due to family structure).  If you think human capital matters, the positives here are significant indeed.

Here is some related work by my colleagues Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp on cousin marriage.

You can order Todd’s book here.  Recommended, though with significant caveats, mainly for lack of evidence on some of the key propositions.

Favorite fiction of 2019

Linn Ullmann, Unquiet: A Novel.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha.

Aladdin, a new translation by Yasmine Seale.

Broken Stars: Contemporary Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.

Sally Rooney, Normal People: A Novel.

I did try many of the more famous recommended novels of the year, and mostly didn’t like them.  Still, I don’t feel this list is coming very close to capturing the year’s best fiction — I think I’ll have a better sense in two or three years and then I will report back.  In the meantime, what do you recommend?

Best non-fiction books of 2019

It was a very strong year for non-fiction, these were the best books, more or less in the order I read them:

Toby Green, Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.

Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.

Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities.

James W. Cortada, IBM: The Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon.

Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.

T.C.A. Raghavan, The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan.

Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History.

Ana Fifield, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.

Charles Fishman, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon.

Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.

Bruce Cannon Gibney, The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System.

Ben Westhoff, Fentanyl, Inc.

Ben Lewis, The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting.

Judith Grisel, Never Enough: the neuroscience and experience of addiction.

David Sorkin, Jewish Emancipation: A History of Five Centuries.

Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, Natalia Goncharova.

Lydia Davis, Essays One.

Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan.

Frederic Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.

Alan Galley, Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire.

Robert Alter, translator, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (or should that go under “fiction”?).

Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, more here.

And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year?  You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups.  But again a strong year all around.

Of course the year is not over yet, this list is for your holiday shopping, I’ll post an update toward the very end of December.

In the meantime, apologies to those I missed or forgot…

*Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power*

That is the new wonderful and stunning book by Pekka Hämäläinen, here is one excerpt from the opening section:

Two centuries earlier, in the middle years of the seventeenth century, the Lakotas h ad been an obscure tribe of hunters and gatherers at the edge of a bustling new world of Native Americans and European colonists that had emerged in the Eastern Woodlands of North America.  They had no guns and no metal weapons, and they carried little political clout, all of which spelled danger: the odds of survival were slim for people who lacked access to Europeans and their new technologies of killing.  That crisis set off what may be the most improbably expansion in American history.  Lakotas left their ancient homelands and reinvented themselves as horse people in the continental grasslands that stretched seemingly forever into the horizon.  This was the genesis of what I call Lakota America, an expansive, constantly transmuting Indigenous regime that pulled numerous groups into its orbit, marginal and dispossessed its rivals — both Native and colonial — and commanded the political, social, and economic life in the North American interior for generations.  Just as there was Spanish, French, British, and the United States of America, there was Lakota America, the sovereign domain of the Lakota people and their kin and allies, a domain they would protect and, if necessary, expand.  A century later, the Lakotas had shifted the center of their world three hundred miles west into the Missouri Valley, where they began to transform into a dominant power.  Another century later they were the most powerful Indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling a massive domain stretching across the northern Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

…Yet they never numbered more than fifteen thousand people.

I will blog this book a bit more, for now I’ll just say it is very much in the running for very best book of the year.  It brings Native American history to life in a conceptual manner better than any other book I know.  You can buy it here, I found every section gripping and highly instructive and fun to read as well.  Here is a very good and accurate Parul Sehgal NYT review.

My podcast with Shaka Senghor

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting.  Here is part of the summary introduction:

Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.

Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.

Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.

A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”

COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.

SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.

COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?


COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?

SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.

And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.

My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:

COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?

His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.

*The Decadent Society*

The author is Ross Douthat and the subtitle is How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.  Excellent book!  It has a real dose of Peter Thiel (and some Tyler Cowen), and most of it comes as fresh material even if you have read all of Ross’s other columns and books.  Imagine the idea of technological stagnation tied together with a conservative Catholic critique of decadence, and in a convincing manner with a dose of pro-natalism tossed in for good measure.  There is commentary on Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jordan Peterson, and much more.

America’s problems are not what you think they are!

Definitely recommended, due out February, and you can pre-order here.

Garett Jones on open borders

I am very pleased that the new Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith open borders graphic novel has hit #1 on The Washington Post non-fiction bestseller list.  I am also pleased to see Garett Jones examine the idea in a new short paper, here is part of his critique:

I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S.residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities: because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore, a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I will be sure to link to Bryan’s reply when it comes.