Category: Books

This experiment will be run

The New York Public Library is proud to announce a major policy shift: Beginning today, all late fines have been eliminated going forward—and all prior late fines and replacement fees have been cleared—so that everyone gets a clean slate at the Library. Research shows that fines are not effective in ensuring book returns—New Yorkers are quite reliable and responsible, clearly respecting our collections and the need for them to be available for others to borrow. But, unfortunately, fines are quite effective at preventing our most vulnerable communities from using our branches, services, and books. That is the antithesis of our mission to make knowledge and opportunity accessible to all, and needed to change. As New York grapples with the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, it is all the more urgent that we ensure the public library is open and freely available to all.

Tony
Anthony W. Marx
President, The New York Public Library

Via ZS.

16th and 17th century Protestantism (that was then, this is now)

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant culture is, despite both popular and popular scholarly persuasion, diametrically opposed to each one of the cardinal positions of the liberal tradition listed above.  Those central features of early modern evangelical culture might be quickly and crudely summarized thus: enslavement of the will, with total repudiation of works as currency in the economy of salvation, and the permanent shadow of despair; a sense of self subject to an impossibly high bar of authenticity, and forever vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy; a fear of dramatic performativity, now described as seductive, irrational, and lethal magic; repudiation of visual images, both material and psychic, as the destructive allurements of idolatry; obsessive focus on the literalist written as the source of salvation; and non-toleration for freedom of religious conscience.

The author, James Simpson, later lists some traits of this earlier [sic] ideology:

  • posited unmediated power relations between highly centralized, single sources of power on the one hand, and now equalized, atomized, interiorized, and terrorized subjects on the other…
  • produced a small cadre of internationally connected, highly literate elect who belonged to the True Church, and who felt obliged by revolutionary necessity both to target the intellectuals of the ancient regime, and to impose punishing disciplines on the laity…
  • generated revolutionary accounts of both ecclesiology and the individual life: both could achieve a rebirth, wholly inoculated from the virus of the past;
  • demanded total and sudden, not developmental, change via spiritual conversion,
  • targeted the hypocrisy of those who only pretended to buy into the new order;
  • abolished old and produced new calendars and martyrologies…
  • actively developed surveillance systems;
  • legitimated violent repudiation of the past on the authority of absolute knowledge derived from the end of time…
  • promoted the idea of youth’s superiority over age;
  • redefined and impersonalized the relation of the living and the dead…
  • legitimated revolutionary violence by positing a much more intimate connection between violence and virtue…In this culture, persecution and violence were a sure sign that the Gospel was being preached…The absence of tumult was symptomatic of somnolent hypocrisy.

That is all from the excellent book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, Belknap Press 2019, again by James Simpson.

In case you don’t know when the Reformation was, it was a long time ago.

I also loved the author’s take on how Shakespeare was in fact, for his time, a deliberate answer to the (what we now would call) Wokeism surrounding him.  Here is one of the best sentences I have read this year:

By the seventeenth century, Shakespeare began to educate audiences out of the revolutionary discipline of sincerity, by inventing partial escape routes from the schismatic and intolerable logic of early modernizing authentic, singular selfhood.

CS should like that sentence!  It is followed by a very good analysis of Measure for Measure and Winter’s Tale.

And I thank GC for carrying this book to me.

What I’ve been reading

1. Anne Enright, The Green Road.  Could Enright be the least heralded, English-language novelist in the United States today?  I also was a big fan of her last book Actress.  Her short pieces are wonderful as well.  Having won a Booker, she is hardly obscure, and yet I have never had anyone tell me that I absolutely must read Anne Enright?  Even after the very recent burst of interest in Irish writers…I will read more of her!

2. Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands.  My favorite Fermor book, the best sections were on Trinidad and Haiti, but you might have known I would think that.

3. Nadia Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907.  Back then vaccines were quite often dangerous: “Victorian public vaccinators used a lancet (a surgical instrument) to cut lines into the flesh in a scored pattern.  This was usually done in at least four different places on the arm.  Vaccine matter, also called lymph, would then be smeared into the cuts…[often] vaccinators required infants to return eight days after the procedure to allow lymph to be harvested from their blisters, or “vesicles.”  This matter was then inserted directly into the arms of waiting infants…After 1871, a fine of up to 20 shillings could be imposed on parents who refused to allow lymph to be taken from their children for use in public vaccination.”  Oddly, or perhaps not, the arguments against vaccines haven’t changed much since that time.

4. Andrew G. Farrand, The Algerian Dream: Youth and the Quest for Dignity.  There should be more books like this!  Imagine a whole book directed at…not getting someone tenure, but rather helping you understand what it is actually like to be in Algeria.  Sadly I have never been, but this is the next best thing.  As I say repeatedly, there should be more country-specific books, simply flat out “about that country” in an explanatory sense.  As for Algeria, talk about a nation in decline…

Eswar S. Prasad, The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution is Transforming Currencies and Finance is a useful overview of its source material.

Anna Della Subin, Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, starts with the question of how Emperor Haile Selassie became a god to Rastafarians in Jamaica, and then broadens the question accordingly, moving on to General Douglas MacArthur, Annie Besant, and much more.  I expect we will be hearing more from this author.  At the very least she knows stuff that other people do not.

You can learn the policy views of Thomas Piketty if you read his Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021.  Oddly, or perhaps not, his socialism doesn’t seem to involve government spending any more than fifty percent of gdp, which would be a comedown for many European nations.

Kathleen Harward and Gabriella Sulbarán, The Shared Dog, for young children, teaching the economics of property rights through the tale of a dog.  From BrandyPie Books.

My Conversation with Amia Srinivasan

I am pleased to have had the chance to do this, as in my view she is one of the thinkers today who has a) super smarts, b) breadth and depth of reading, and c) breadth and depth of thinking.  That combination is rare!  That said, I don’t quite agree with her on everything, so this exchange had more disagreements than perhaps what you are used to sampling from CWT.

Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Amia joined Tyler to discuss the importance of context in her vision of feminism, what social conservatives are right about, why she’s skeptical about extrapolating from the experience of women in Nordic countries, the feminist critique of the role of consent in sex, whether disabled individuals should be given sex vouchers, how to address falling fertility rates, what women learned about egalitarianism during the pandemic, why progress requires regress, her thoughts on Susan Sontag, the stroke of fate that stopped her from pursuing a law degree, the “profound dialectic” in Walt Whitman’s poetry, how Hinduism has shaped her metaphysics, how Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit influenced her, the anarchic strain in her philosophy, why she calls herself a socialist, her next book on genealogy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SRINIVASAN: No, it really wouldn’t. Part of why I find this whole discourse problematic is because I think we should be suspicious when we find ourselves attracted to data — very, very thin and weak data — that seem to justify beliefs that have held great currency in lots of societies throughout history, in a way that is conducive to the oppression of large segments of the population, in this particular case women.

I also think one error that is consistently made in this discourse, in this kind of conversation about what’s innate or what’s natural, is to think about what’s natural in terms of what’s necessary. This is a point that Shulamith Firestone made a very long time ago, but that very few people register, which is that — and it was actually made again to me recently by a philosopher of biology, which is, “Look what’s natural isn’t what’s necessary.”

It’s extraordinary. It’s not even like what’s natural offers a good equilibrium point. Think about how much time you and I spend sitting around. Completely unnatural for humans to sit around, yet we’re in this equilibrium point where vast majority of humans just sit around all day.

So, I think there’s a separate question about what humans — as essentially social, cultured, acculturating creatures — what our world should look like. And that’s distinct from the question of what natural predispositions we might have. It’s not unrelated, but I don’t think any of us think we should just be forming societies that simply allow us to express our most “natural orientations.”

COWEN: Should women’s chess, as a segregated activity, continue to exist? We don’t segregate chess tournaments by race or by anything — sometimes by age — but anything other than gender. Yet women’s chess is a whole separate thing. Should that be offensive to us? Or is that great?

Recommended, engaging throughout.  And again, here is Amia Srinivasan’s new and (in the UK, just published yesterday in the U.S.) bestselling book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century.

More on Ireland during World War II

A few more points:

1. Since both Germany and Britain maintained embassies in Dublin, Ireland became renowned during the war as “one of the whispering-galleries of Europe and a natural centre of for intrigue and spying of every kind.”

2. Fuel was so scarce that private motoring virtually ceased by 1943, and even public transport was problematic.

3. The War threw Ireland back into a state of almost complete cultural isolation.

4. In some odd ways the existence of Northern Ireland as ruled by Britain increased the autonomy of the rest of Ireland, which otherwise might have been commandeered for naval bases and the like, and might have been drawn into the conflict as well.

5. Ireland did receive Marshall Plan aid after the War, and this began what turned into a long-running process of integrating the Irish economy with the other economies of Western Europe.

That is all from E.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine.  This book is difficult to read for two reasons.  First, the print is too small.  Second, the author wastes no time regurgitating “the usual” from all the others book on Irish history.  On a given page, most of what is on that page one learns, and thus the book is slow to read.  Which is a sign of a very good book, though do note it is quite the time commitment.  One of the more essential books on Irish history.

Here is my earlier post on Ireland and WWII.

Ireland during World War II

The Republic of Ireland of course was neutral.  I had not known these facts:

1. Irish were allowed to emigrate to Britain to work, but with assurances they would not be conscripted.

2. Ireland engaged in heavy censorship during the War, mostly to stop people from getting the impression that the War was a moral struggle between good and evil.  The government wished to avoid pressure to enter the war, fearing the initial strong support for neutrality might fade.  This censorship even covered the telephone and telegraph, or at least tried to.

3. German broadcasts to Ireland did get through, and “There was still a tendency in Ireland at the end of the war to believe that Irish suffering was more marked than that experienced anywhere else in Europe, a narrow mindset which government policies facilitated.”

4. Erwin Schrödinger spent much of the War in Ireland.

5. The Belfast Blitz of 1941 made 100,000 homeless and damaged 53 percent of the homes in Belfast.

6. Following the death of Hitler, Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera visited the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences, an action that was much criticized at the time.

That is all from The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, a quite good book by Diarmaid Ferriter.

What I’ve been reading on Ireland

1. Susan McKay, Northern Protestants on Shifting Ground, and also Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People.  These two books straddle a journalistic and anthropological approach to what the titles indicate.  As one Protestant in the text remarked, Irish reunification would work just fine, it is the ten years getting there that everyone is afraid of.  It seems increasingly muddled what actually the Northern Irish Unionist is supposed to stand for — passionate attachment to union with an unwilling or indifferent partner, namely England?

2. David Dickson, The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation.  One of the best books on cities in recent years, and more general than the title might indicate.  I had not known that Waterford was once a rival for Dublin, or fully realized that Ireland has no significant city which is not right next to the coast.  Readable throughout, and gives you an excellent sense of how the Irish pecking order for cities evolved.  Recommended.

3. Fintan O’Toole, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks.  Most educated outsiders approach Ireland through the lens of its rather prominent literary history (Joyce, Yeats, etc.).  That’s fine, but also somewhat misleading.  This book gives you an alternate tour — focused on modernism and the 20th century — through the visual arts, design, television, theatre, and more.  It should prove eyeopening to many people, and is also a wonderful book for browsing or as a guide to further study.  Harry Clarke’s stained glass “Eve of St. Agnes” work, located in Dublin and produced in the 1920s, is much more central to the Irish narrative than many people realize.

*Beautiful World, Where Are You?* — the new Sally Rooney novel

It is really good, and more subtle than one might have expected.  Imagine Ireland’s #1 left-wing writer imbibing the brew of Ross Douthat over the last few years and putting it all into fictional form, and convincingly at that.  I don’t just mean the Mass scene and the pornography discussion, it is the consistent theme running throughout the book.

The tale ends up as a true case for cultural optimism, albeit with some reasonable qualifications.

Here is a good New Yorker review by Lauren Michele Jackson.  The title of the book is excellent as well.

My appearance on the Ezra Klein Show

Talking with Ezra is always both fun and enlightening for me, here is his partial summary of the episode:

So we begin this conversation by discussing the case for and against economic growth, but we also get into lots of other things: why Cowen thinks the great stagnation in technology is coming to an end; the future of technologies like A.I., crypto, fourth-generation nuclear and the Chinese system of government; the problems in how we fund scientific research; what the right has done to make government both ineffective and larger; why Cowen is skeptical of universal pre-K (and why I’m not); whether I overestimate the dangers of polarization; the ways in which we’re getting weirder; the long-term future of human civilization; why reading is overrated and travel is underrated; how to appreciate classical music and much more.

Here is the link, full transcript here, definitely recommended!

My Conversation with Ed Glaeser

I did David Cutler and Ed sequentially, based on their new co-authored book, here is the joint episode but there is also a separate link concerning Cutler.  Here is one excerpt from the general summary:

They joined Tyler for a special joint episode to discuss why healthcare outcomes are so correlated with education, whether the health value of Google is positive or negative, why hospital price transparency is so difficult to achieve, how insurance coding systems reimburse sickness over health improvement, why the U.S. quit smoking before Europe, the best place in America to get sick, the risks that come from over-treatment, the possible upsides of more businesses moving out of cities, whether productivity gains from remote work will remain high, why the older parts of cities always seem to be more beautiful, whether urban schools will ever improve, why we shouldn’t view Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as a failure, how 19th century fights to deal with contagious diseases became a turning point for governance, Miami’s prospects as the next tech hub, what David and Ed disagree on, and more.

And from my exchange with Ed:

COWEN: Let’s start with a simple question. All this enthusiasm about cities and agglomeration benefits — the pandemic comes along. A lot of people transition to work from a distance, and then we see big measured productivity gains. What has gone on there?

GLAESER: It reminds us that for many jobs, in a static sense, you can do this long-distance. You can make things work. I think many of us found this. We wrote this book in eight months over the pandemic year, distinctly away from each other, partially because there were no distractions, and all that was good.

However, you also need to recognize the limits of long-distance living. The most important of those limits is just it’s much less fun. It’s much less joyful, but while it seems as if it’s fine for static productivity, it seems distinctly more problematic for people learning and for onboarding new talent.

Let me just give you two types of studies, one of which is we have the call center studies. The father of that was the Nick Bloom paper, which was a randomized control trial in China. A more modern version is done by our students, Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington, which looks into American call centers.

Both of them find the same thing in terms of static productivity. If anything, it goes up, but the workers who go remote are much less likely to be promoted in both studies. One interpretation of this is that promotion in the call center work means that you actually are given the job of handling more difficult calls.

How would your boss know that you are good at handling difficult calls if they weren’t in the same room with you? How would you learn how to do those difficult calls if you weren’t around other people? So while the static productivity remains, you lose the dynamic benefits of being around other people.

Second piece of evidence it comes from Burning Glass Technologies and new hires. Even though Microsoft tells us that its programmers were just as productive, overall, new hires for programmers were down 42 percent between November 2019 and November 2020. Firms were clearly unwilling to take the same kind of risks of hiring new workers that they couldn’t inculcate in their corporate culture or screen them properly, or do any of those other things.

Even though measured productivity did well during the pandemic, there were still lots of disruptions. In particular, many younger workers who came of age really lost out as a result of this.

COWEN: If work from a distance goes fine in the short run, what’s the cross-sectional prediction about where it will persist in the future? Is it firms facing bankruptcy, firms with immediate projects now, possibly start-ups who will then later transition to all being together in one big happy family, but they’re afraid they’re going to fail before then? What should we expect?

GLAESER: I think we should expect young workers to be more likely to be brought together. Young firms, as well, because you’re very much at this learning, creative phase. I think the optimal work-from-home strategy is a couple of partners who are in an accounting practice and have decided they know each other perfectly well and are delighted to Zoom it in from wherever they are.

I think, unquestionably, working from home will remain a part of the economy. It may well be many workers end up spending 20 percent of their time working from home, even if they’re part of a generally full-time job. But for younger workers, for firms that are just getting started, I think being live is likely to continue being a major part of the work environment.

It also depends a lot on what your home environment is like. If you’re like us —  if you are a middle-aged professor who’s likely to have a comfortable home office, and maybe even not having kids at home anymore, certainly not kids who are crying all the time at home anymore — working at home is a lot more pleasant than if you’re a 23-year-old and live in a studio apartment in Somerville or New York or London.

Recommended!

My Conversation with David Cutler

I did Cutler and Ed Glaeser sequentially, based on their new co-authored book, here is the joint episode but I will create another link concerning Glazer.  Here is one excerpt from the general summary:

They joined Tyler for a special joint episode to discuss why healthcare outcomes are so correlated with education, whether the health value of Google is positive or negative, why hospital price transparency is so difficult to achieve, how insurance coding systems reimburse sickness over health improvement, why the U.S. quit smoking before Europe, the best place in America to get sick, the risks that come from over-treatment, the possible upsides of more businesses moving out of cities, whether productivity gains from remote work will remain high, why the older parts of cities always seem to be more beautiful, whether urban schools will ever improve, why we shouldn’t view Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as a failure, how 19th century fights to deal with contagious diseases became a turning point for governance, Miami’s prospects as the next tech hub, what David and Ed disagree on, and more.

And from David:

COWEN: But even if we adjust for that, education seems to matter a lot. It’s also puzzling to me — in your own work, it matters more at younger ages. You would think the returns are cumulative: it would really pay off when you’re 67 because you’ve invested in a stock portfolio for decades, but it matters most when you’re young. What’s your best micro account of that?

CUTLER: One of the things that’s super interesting is that, for example, people who live in cities — where there are more better-educated people — smoke less, even conditional on your own education. The same thing is true about age and so on.

I think it’s partly that cities and areas are run by upper-middle-class folks often. For example, the environment is set up in a way that’s more conducive to health when you have more upper-middle-income people. It’s much more difficult to smoke. There are healthier behaviors in general. There are parks and things like that. I think part of it is just that society is shaped by higher-income, higher-SES people, and that can be good for everyone who lives around those areas.

COWEN: To the extent education makes you healthier by lowering your stress and raising your relative status — which is a possible hypothesis — what are the policy implications of that? What should we do?

CUTLER: Part of what we’re learning over time is that social insurance programs are actually having a bigger and more sustained effect on health than we had thought they did. For example, we’ve always thought of Medicare and Medicaid as being the primary social insurance programs that affect health, but then there’s research that the WIC program — Women, Infants, and Children — affects health, that food stamp programs affect health, that TANF benefits affect health, that housing policies can affect health.

COWEN: And you think that’s through lowering stress as one mechanism?

Recommended!

What I’ve been reading

1. Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, The Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus.  Self-recommending (they were leaders on the team), most of all it is striking how much time they spend covering and complaining about problems in the science funding network.  Let’s improve that.  In any case I enjoyed the book.

2. Harald Jähner, Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-55.  A quite interesting book which considers how German women were disappointed in German men, how eastern German women dealt with Soviet soldier rape, how the Soviets resumed classical orchestral concerts within weeks (for their own pleasure), currency conversion, and more: “But Beate Uhse fell foul of the law for the first time, not because of violation of the moral code of corrupting the young, but for breach of price regluations.”

3. Jeevan Vasagar, Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia.  Selective rather than comprehensive, but entertaining and balanced and insightful.  Those interested in Singapore should read this book, and even Singapore experts will learn some new nuggets.  The author was the FT correspondent in Singapore from 2015 to 2017.

4. Mathilde Fasting and Øystein Sørensen, The Norwegian Exception: Norway’s Liberal Democracy Since 1814.  “This book started as an idea to explain Norwegian society to a broader public.”  I am not sure they quite succeed, but still it is the best single Norway book I know.  I hadn’t known for instance that Norway has two different official written languages.  In general there should be more books trying to explain highly successful countries!  This is a move in the right direction, and I am happy to see that the authors do not try to deny or run away from Norway’s first-rate performance.

5. James Hawes, The Shortest History of England.  One can pick nits with books such as these, but I found this one useful.  It stresses the role of the French in English history, and also the ongoing clash between the South and the North over who will rule whom.

There is also Robert Wuthnow’s Why Religion is Good for American Democracy (true), and Michael Taylor’s The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery, which dashed my hopes when I learnt that Alexander McDonnell, the Belfast-born 19th century chess player who famously sparred with Louis de la Bourdonnais, also was a strongly pro-slavery and pro-imperialism economist in his time.

What I’ve been reading

1. Anne Serre, The Beginners.  What is it like for a woman to go from loving one man to another?  This newly translated French novel was fun enough, insightful enough, and direct and short enough for me to finish.

2. Lachlan Goudie, The Story of Scottish Art.  Even if you don’t care about art, this is a wonderful way to learn the history of Scotland.  My takeaway favorite painters were Allan Ramsey (friends with Smith and Hume), Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, and John Duncan, more or less consistent with my earlier views but now they are better informed.  A good book with a nice blue and yellow cover.

3. Frank Herbert, Dune.  For me a reread, I loved it when I was twelve, but how does it stand up?  I am struck by how excellent and pathbreaking the best chapters are, including the introductory chapter.  The influence on Star Wars is obvious, as is the role of Islam in the story.  It strikes me as remarkably cinematic, with the right kinds of transitions to boot — how was this never put successfully on the big screen?  I am about two-thirds through it right now, and maybe it 2/3 holds up?  But would you want all of the slow pacing of the detail removed?

Carole Hooven, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us.  Recommended.

Aubrey Clayton, Bernoulli’s Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science.  I found this most interesting as a history of probability theory, and with more coverage of Quetelet than one usually finds.