Category: Books

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

Best non-fiction books of 2018

First let me start with three books from my immediate cohort, which I will keep separate from the rest:

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education.

Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three.  Otherwise, we have the following, noting that the link often contains my longer review.  These are in the order I read them, not by any other kind of priority.  Here goes:

Varun Sivaram’s Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet.

Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.

David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.

Nick Chater, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.

Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death, and Resurrection, 1815-1849.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.

Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.

W.J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Concise History.

Victor Sebestyen, Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

There are also books which I think very likely deserve to make this list, but I have not had time to read much of them.  Most notably, those include the new biographies of Alain Locke, Thomas Cromwell, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Overall I thought this was a remarkably strong year for intelligent non-fiction.  And as always, I have forgotten some splendid books — usually it is yours.  Sorry!

Thanks a Thousand

For Thanksgiving I read a book about giving thanks, A. J. Jacobs’s, Thanks a Thousand. It begins like I, Pencil (which Jacobs discovers half-way through his book) and I, Rose:

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the presence of one of the most mind-boggling accomplishments in human history. This thing is so astounding in its complexity and scope, it makes the Panama canal look like a third grader’s craft project.

This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers and goatherds.

It required airplanes, boats trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets and shoulders.

It needed hundreds of materials–steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.

It has caused great joy but also great poverty and oppression.

It relied upon ancient wisdom and space-age technology, freezing temperature and scorching heat, high mountains and deep water.

It is my morning coffee.

Jacobs then sets out to thank everyone–which he soon finds is impossible, so he limits to a thousand people–who contributed to getting him his morning miracle. From the obvious, the barista and the coffee growers to the less obvious, the manufacturers and designers of the coffee lid and the NY water department, Jacobs sets out to offer thanks, giving the reader some interesting background along the way (“New York water is tested 2.2 million times a year.” “According to one estimate, pallets account for more than 46 percent of US hardwood lumber production.”).

Jacobs is also good on the importance of gratitude. Being mindful of and thankful for the things we ordinarily take for granted can make for a better life. He asks philosopher Will MacAskill what he is grateful for. “Sometimes I’m just thankful I have arms.” Yes.

Jacobs sometimes forgets, however, that the value of gratitude is more in the giving than in the receiving. He thus confuses gratitude with charity. But gratitude is neither payment nor alms. It’s nice to be recognized and thanked but thanks don’t make the world go round.

I ask Andy whether it feels good that the coffee in his warehouse brings joy to millions of people. Andy looks at me, his eyebrows knit. It’s as if I just asked him if he enjoys being a Buddhist monk who mediates ten hours a day.

“Well let me ask you this,” I say, “What are you thankful for?”

“My paycheck,” he says, laughing.

I like Andy. Andy understands that working solely for the sake of others can be demeaning and degrading. Andy is working for himself and his loved ones and more power to him. Beyond a few special relationships, to make doing for others one’s primary motive is undignified and subservient. Humans are not worker ants eager to die for love of their Queen. Each person’s life is their own.

The true marvel is that despite the fact that most people are not living for others we can still all live together harmoniously. As I like to put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the coffee brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Best fiction of 2018

This year produced a strong set of top entries, though with little depth past these favorites.  Note that sometimes my review lies behind the link:

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Stories.

Gaël Faye, Small Country.  Think Burundi, spillover from genocide, descent into madness, and “the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history.”

Madeline Miller, Circe.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, volume six, My Struggle.  Or should it be listed in the non-fiction section?

Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.

Anna Burns, Milkman, Booker Prize winner, Northern Ireland, troubles, here is a good and accurate review.

Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Uwe Johnson, From a Year in the Life of Gessine Cresspahl.  I haven’t read this one yet, I did some browse, and I am fairly confident it belongs on this list.  1760 pp.

Which are your picks?

The best book of 2018

Soon I’ll offer up my longer lists for fiction and non-fiction, but let’s start at the top.  My nomination for best book of the year is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.  It is a joy to read, the best of the five translations I know, and it has received strong reviews from scholars for its accuracy and fidelity.  I also would give a top rating to the book’s introductory essay, a mini-book in itself.

Normally I would say more about a book of the year, but a) many of you already know the Odyssey in some form or another, and b) this spring I’ll be doing a Conversations with Tyler with Emily Wilson, and I’ll save up my broader thoughts for then.  I’ll just say for now it is one of the greatest works of political thought, as well as a wonderful story.  In any case, a reread of this one is imperative, and you will learn new and fresh things.

There you go!

*A Fistful of Shells*

The author is Toby Green, and the subtitle is West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.  Here is one excerpt:

The past twenty years have seen a huge boom in studies that show the many different ways in which — even in the shadow of slavery — Africans were decisive actors in building modernity in the Americas.  Rice-growing technologies in West Africa contributed to the emergence of rice plantations in South Carolina and northern Brazil; livestock and herding skills from West Africa were used by Africa herders in many parts of the New World, from Louisiana to Argentina; and fencing techniques  were imported from West Africa and used in agriculture and in defending communities of runaway slaves (known as maroons).  Healing practices from Dahomey and Angola were brought to Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean, and helped to develop new treatments in the colonies; healing practices and medicines were also borrowed by the Portuguese in Angola in an early form of ‘bio-prospecting’.  Warfare techniques learn in the Kingdom of Kongo and in the Oyo-Yoruba Kingdom of what is now southern Nigeria were vital to the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804, as well as the rebellions against slavery in Brazil and Cuba in the early nineteenth century.  In short, just as there were shared frameworks of diplomacy through which Atlantic African kingdoms sought political influence, so the modern world emerged from a mixed cultural framework in which many different peoples from West and West-Central Africa played a significant part.

This book is full of economics, currency movements (both gold and cowrie shells), battles between empires (Portuguese vs. Dutch, above all), and the longue durée.  It is the “Braudel of West Africa,” and the best book on West Africa I have ever read.  It is especially strong on Lusaphone Africa, and one underlying theme is that West Africa was globalizing even before colonialism came along.  Toby Green, by the way, has an impressive background in philosophy and music as well as in history more narrowly conceived.

Very strongly recommended.  It is not out until March of 2019 but you can pre-order now.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.

And:

COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

*Where Economics Went Wrong: Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism*

That is the new book by David Colander and Craig Freedman, here is one short bit:

The best way of conveying our conception of what is at least suggestive of a Classical Liberal stance is to present a handful of economists who, in our view, reflect this attitude.  We have chosen six economists: Edward Leamer, Ariel Rubinstein, Alvin Roth, Paul Romer, Amartya Sen, and Dani Rodrik.  Each have, in our view, displayed a Classical Liberal attitude to methodology in important aspects of their work.

I am very much in favor of what the authors propose here, although I might reserve the term classical liberal for the more traditional political distinction.

*Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy*

By Mary L. Hirschfeld, here is the opening passage from the Preface:

My rather peculiar intellectual journey began with my pursuit of a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University, granted in 1989, and culminated in a second Ph.D. in theology, from the University of Notre Dame in 2013.  Economics and theology are two very different sets of discourses, and this book is the result of my effort to sort out the resulting cacophony in my own head.  When I began my career, I would never have imagined writing such a book.  For starters, I was an ordinary somewhat spiritually inclined but definitely not religious type when I began my academic career at Harvard in the fall of 1983.

Definitely recommended, and not just for Ross Douthat.  It is exquisitely written as well.  I enjoyed this sentence in the acknowledgements:

It is because of Tyler that I am a convinced Thomist, though that outcome would undoubtedly horrify him.

I am not easily horrified these days!  Thus there are doubts, always doubts.

Buy the book here.

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?