Category: Books

*Of Boys and Men*

…I was shocked to discover that many social policy interventions, including some of the most touted, don’t help boys and men.  The one that first caught my eye was a free college program in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  According to its evaluation team, “women experienced large gains,” in terms of college completion (increasing by 50%), “while men seem to experience zero benefit.”  This is an astonishing finding.  Making college free had no impact on men…So not only are many boys and men struggling, they are less likely to be helped by policy interventions.

And:

In the U.S. for example, the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.

And:

The bottom line is that Finland’s internationally acclaimed educational performance is entirely explained by the stunning performance of Finnish girls.

That is from the forthcoming Richard V. Reeves book, one of the most important of this year, perhaps the most important.

What should I ask Katherine Rundell?

She is the author of the splendid new book on John Donne, reviewed by me here.  More generally, here is from Wikipedia:

Katherine Rundell (born 1987) is an English author and academic. She is the author of Rooftoppers, which in 2015 won both the overall Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award for Best Story, and was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. She is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and has appeared as an expert guest on BBC Radio 4 programmes including Start the Week, Poetry Please, and Seriously….and Private Passions.

Rundell’s other books include The Girl Savage (2011), released in 2014 in a slightly revised form as Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms in the United States where it was the winner of the 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction, The Wolf Wilder (2015), and The Explorer (2017), winner of the children’s book prize at the 2017 Costa Book Awards.

And this:

…all her books, and her play, contain a joke at Belgium’s expense…

She is also an avid roofwalker, and more.  Here is Katherine eating a tarantula.

So what should I ask her?

My EconTalk podcast on *Talent*

With Russ Roberts, here is the link and here the summary:

How do you hone your craft on an everyday basis? It could be writing, meeting with experts, even listening to podcasts, just so long, argues economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, as it makes you better at what you already do. Perhaps more than anything else, he believes, it’s practice that divides middle managers from founders, and mere good hires from the creative obsessives who end up transforming the world. Join Cowen and EconTalk host Russ Roberts for a conversation about Talent, Cowen’s new book on how (and how not) to identify the talented. Hear Cowen explain why, for high-level positions, unstructured interviews are important, why stamina is usually preferable to grit, and why credentials are largely a relic of the past.

Self-recommending…

*Vanishing Asia*, by Kevin Kelly

Three volumes, $281.57, totally worth it.  Picture books!  Asia only, the vanishing part of course.  Very wide coverage of various regions, including parts of western Asia such as Georgia.  And yes this is the same Kevin Kelly who is a Hayekian, tech commentator, and much more.  It is thus one of the most conceptual picture books, noting the text is minimal and descriptive.

And it is not just the usual stuff, such as amazing old buildings or vistas of rice paddies and brightly colored festivals.  Kelly is not afraid to hit you with 40 door photos in a row, all lined up in neat little rows.

Might this be one of the very best picture books?  Based on 9,000 photographs and 50 years of travel, 40 of them spent taking photos, and none of it was paid for by other parties.  They don’t make ’em like this any more.  Recommended.

p.s. One trick of the book is that a lot of this stuff hasn’t vanished at all.  Note the gerund!

What I’ve been reading

1. Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Brazilian Authoritarianism: Past and Present.  One of the best general books on where Brazil is right now, and yes it is sad that you can say that about a book on political authoritarianism.  Don’t forget that most of the slaves brought to the New World were brought to Brazil, and the country now has the second largest African population in the world.  The problem with this book is that while the first half on Brazil is quite good, too much of the second half is social science mumbo-jumbo.

2. Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity.  This novel is not so famous, but it is one of his best and also most literary creations.  Like so many Asimov tales, it is fundamentally biblical in inspiration.  Of course Asimov wrote numerous books about the Bible, so he knew it well.  You can start with Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Samson, but it doesn’t end there.

Dan Slater and Joseph Wong, From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia is a good “state capacity” take on how democracies developed from strong states in Asia.

Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age.  Among its other virtues, including excellent research, this book does a good job of recharacterizing the “Mughal” era as one of massive Persian influence in India.

Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great.  I only read part of this book, as it had more detail than what I was looking to consume, but it is clearly a major and very useful source on its topic.  It focuses on the progress, science, and state-building sides of the reign of Peter.

My charitable giving advice from 2007

I had a chapter on this topic in my 2007 book Discover Your Inner Economist, with much of the material based on blog posts from 2004-2006 or so.  No, I was not recommending particular charities, but rather considering how to think about giving more generally.  Since that time there has been so much discussion of the topic in EA communities, I thought it would be interesting to see how well my earlier recommendations have held up.

I argued for the following:

1. Do not give money to beggars, it only encourages rent-seeking for further transfers.

2. Accordingly, many donations should be surprise donations.  In the meantime, limit the ability of people to invest resources in donation-seeking.

3. Give to causes where your giving will have a positive contagion effect upon others.

4. The promise of matching grants is not always very effective in stimulating larger donations.

5. Many forms of ostensible charity in fact have negative effectiveness.  For instance parachuting for charity can lead to a good number of injuries and not bring much positive attention to the charitable cause, at least not relevant to alternatives.

6. I endorse cash transfers, provided you don’t encourage people to work too hard to receive them.

7. There is a cautious endorsement of micro-credit.

8. A fundamental problem is that a lot of giving is driven by motives of affiliation rather than effectiveness.

#8 seems more true than ever before and it is now widely recognized.  #3, while discussed in the current literature, still seems an undervalued point.

On the revisions, microcredit has lost some status since that time, though it still seems modestly effective and it has the further virtue of being self-sustaining.  Cash transfers remain a popular and reasonably effective option, although a) sometimes they are much more effective with mentoring, b) some recent Chris Blattman results suggest they may wash out in the longer run, and c) sometimes cash transfers raise expectations without making the recipients happier in the longer run (a recent paper measures this, does anyone have the link handy?  From Ariella, link is here).

Overall I overrated the dangers of charitable rent-seeking, and underrated the dangers of the bureaucratization of altruism?  In any case, it was interesting to go back and read my earlier thoughts on the question.

Geoff Brennan, we hardly knew ye, RIP

Geoff has long been one of my favorite economists, and he was perhaps the single most underrated economist around.  For all of Geoff’s brilliance, wisdom, and contributions, he never quite made it into mainstream renown (maybe living and teaching in Australia hurt him?).

The three Brennan contributions that have influenced me most are:

1. His account of expressive voting with Loren Lomasky, showing how politics can generate a measured concern that people may not care about all that much.  That was also a big influence on Bryan Caplan’s book on voting.

2. His arguments with Jim Buchanan about the limitations of optimal tax theory (Amazon, when I search for this book, why do you summon up as the first pick “Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bum Bum Body Cream“?).  If government policy is misaligned with social welfare, “more efficient” forms of taxation, such as the Ramsey rules, will not in general be more efficient.  In particular they can make it too easy for the government to maximize revenue and transfer resources to the public sector.  The profession as a whole still refuses to recognize this point, but it should be front and center of most analyses.  One side of the coin is that the French government is too large a share of gdp, but it would be interesting to flip the argument and try to apply it to Mexico…

3. Geoff’s book The Economy of Esteem (with Philip Pettit), which analyzed approbational incentives, building upon Adam Smith’s TMS.

Geoff was one of the few scholars comfortable in economics, philosophy, and also political science.  Two of his main books, listed above, are co-authored with philosophers.  Here is Geoff on scholar.google.com.

Personally, Geoff was popular with just about everybody.  He is also one of the few people to have worked with Buchanan and come out of the experience intact.  If he was at a conference dinner, he would be sure to find the occasion to sing a song for everybody, and he had a wonderful voice.

Geoff Brennan, we shall miss ye.

*The Case Against the Sexual Revolution*

The author is Louise Perry and the subtitle is A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.  Definitely recommended, here is Louise’s brief summary of part of the book’s arguments:

In this book I’m going to ask — and seek to answer — some questions about freedom that liberal feminism can’t or won’t answer: Why do so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests?  What if our bodies and minds aren’t as malleable as we might like to think?  What do we lose when we prioritise freedom above all else?  And, above all, how should we act, given all this?

Some of my conclusions might not be welcome, since they draw attention to the hard limits on our freedom that can’t be surmounted, however much we try.  And I start from a position that historically has often been a source of discomfort for feminists of all ideological persuasions: I accept the fact that men and women are different, and that those differences aren’t going away.

This book is very well written and I believe it will make a big splash.  I am closer to a consent, libertarian viewpoint than is the author but still I read this eagerly.  Here is Louise Perry debating Aella about the sexual revolution on YouTube.  A smart set of exchanges.

My Conversation with Leopoldo López

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

As an inquisitive reader, books were a cherished commodity for Leopoldo López when he was a political prisoner in his home country of Venezuela. His prison guards eventually observed the strength and focus López gained from reading. In an attempt to stifle his spirit, the guards confiscated his books and locked them in a neighboring cell where he could see but not access them. But López didn’t let this stop him from writing or discourage his resolve to fight for freedom. A Venezuelan opposition leader and freedom activist, today López works to research and resist oppressive autocratic regimes globally.

López joined Tyler to discuss Venezuela’s recent political and economic history, the effectiveness of sanctions, his experiences in politics and activism, how happiness is about finding purpose, how he organized a protest from prison, the ideal daily routine of a political prisoner, how extreme sports prepared him for prison, his work to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: In 1970, you were richer than Spain, Greece, or Israel, which I find remarkable. But do you, today, ever look, say, at Qatar or United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and think the problem actually was democracy, and that here are oil-rich places that have stayed stable, in fact, but through autocratic rule, and that it’s the intermediate situation that doesn’t work?

LÓPEZ: Well, I think that I, personally, will always be in favor of a democratic regime, a democratic system that promotes a rule of law, the respect for human rights, the respect of freedoms. I think that’s a priority. For me it is, and I believe it’s a priority also for the large, large majority of the Venezuelan people that want to live in a democracy.

However, there has been great mismanagement due to misconceptions of the economy, to a state-led economy that did not open possibilities for a private sector to flourish independently of the state, but also with the level of corruption that we have seen, particularly over the past 22 years — it’s what has led Venezuela to the situation in which we are.

In Venezuela, you could argue that we did much, much better economically, and in terms of all of the social and economic standards, than what happened during these last 20 years of autocracy. This autocracy had the largest windfall and the largest humanitarian crisis.

During the democratic period of 40 years, Venezuela became one of the most literate countries in Latin America, with the largest amount of professionals being graduated every year, with the best in social, health, and education standards, vaccination rates, housing programs that were in Latin America. So, we did perform much better under the democratic period than has been the performance by any means in the autocratic regimes of the last 22 years.

Interesting throughout.

What should I ask Walter Russell Mead?

He is a leading foreign policy expert, and I will be doing a Conversation with him.   Here is from Wikipedia:

Walter Russell Mead (born June 12, 1952) is an American academic. He is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and taught American foreign policy at Yale University. He was also the editor-at-large of The American Interest magazine. Mead is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a scholar at the Hudson Institute, and a book reviewer for Foreign Affairs, the quarterly foreign policy journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

His new book is The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.

So what should I ask him?

What I’ve been reading

1. Ann Mari May, Gender and the Dismal Science: Women in the Early Years of the Economics Profession.  A good history of the injustices suffered by women in the earlier years of American economics.  It also serves indirectly as a good history of early journals, early academic practices, and the ongoing professionalization of American academia.

2. Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe, editors, Market Civilizations: Neoliberals East and South.  Many of the individuals essays here are quite interesting, such as the coverage of Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala, how Montenegro became a neoliberal outpost of sorts, Rothbardianism in Brazil, or the career of Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson of Iceland.  But the book would be much better if it reversed its mood affiliation and turned these essays into tributes.  There is a fair amount of sneering, use of words like “tentacles” (in conjunction with neoliberalism), and one-sentence rebuttals of neoliberal views, without any real documentation of the evidence.  How many of the individuals semi-criticized in this book have done anything worse than favor price controls for U.S. pharmaceuticals?  Or oppose Covid vaccine boosters, as did so many members of the health care establishment so recently?  Not too many of them, I suspect.

3. Hugh Eakin, Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America.  John Quinn is the hero of this story.  Who’s he?  He was a wealthy Irish-American lawyer on Wall Street in the early part of the twentieth century.  He supported James Joyce, the various Yeatses, the later-famous Irish playwrights, Irish painters, and Pound and Eliot, all before they became accepted and then famous.  What a talent spotter.  He simply sent them money.  He was also very early on the Picasso and Henri Rousseau bandwagons, most of all in America, where Quinn was a central figure in popularizing, collecting, and displaying modern art.  His is a career to study, and this book is the place to start.

4. Mustafa Akyol, Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance.  Progress Studies for Muslims?  Akyol, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues that the values of the Western Enlightenment had Islamic counterparts in the broader sweep of history, and that it is possible to win them back.

*The World the Plague Made*

The author is James Belich, and the subtitle is The Black Death and the Rise of Europe.  This is a fascinating but not entirely persuasive book.  In any case it is one of the books to read this year.  Here is a summary sentence:

This book has argued that plague’s dire crucible triggered the Fourth Divergence.

My main worry is simple, namely that the author does not demonstrate his main proposition that the Black Death significantly boosted living standards where it hit.  That might be true, and I would say I don’t have a view of my own view on the matter one way or the other.  (Here is a recent and very useful survey indicating the positive effects were mostly short-run.)  But I would need to see a more careful presentation of wage data, and the author too frequently invokes a) massive literature citations, and b) a pat “half the people, so twice the per capita wealth” argument.  Losing up to half the people is highly disruptive, including for the ability to exploit material resources.  And is it per capita wealth that matters, or income?  Matters for what and for which income classes?  I needed to see much more on this.

Anyway, if you buy into the main premise (or even if you don’t) what follows is interesting throughout.  Belich takes on exactly when and why various plagues stopped circulating, and whether insufficiency of rats was a major reason.  Here is one interesting passage:

The rise of rat resistance — and the decline of it — seems like to have played a major role in the decline of plague — and the exceptions to it — throughout West Eurasia.  But as we saw in the last chapter, plague history increasingly diverged regionally from 1500.  Epidemics ended in Western Europe by 1720 and Eastern Europe by 1780.  Major strikes continued to afflict the Muslim South until about 1840.  the end of plague is conventionally attributed to human agency, notably the growing power of states to run effective quarantine measures, public health regulations, and border controls.  Other factors include a shift from wood to brick and tile, which was less rat-friendly , and to cheaper arsenic in the 1720s, which was not rat-friendly at all.  The decline of wooden houses and thatched roofs, ideal black rat environments, and their replacement by brick and tile varied by class, which may account for the trend toward higher casualties among common folk after 1500.

Belich then sheds some doubt on the public health measures argument, noting that Italy had bad plague outcomes in the 17th century, even though it had the best public health measures at the time.  No simple answer, but plenty of interesting discussion.

Another of my favorite sections of the book covered the difficulties at the time in persuading women to emigrate, and how that shaped colonial policies.  You also get the author’s take on the Persianate nature of the Mughal invasions, a lengthy account of how the plague shaped the settlement of Siberia, an optimistic take on the capabilities of peak Ottoman empire, how the fiscal state was Britain’s main innovation, how Britain manned its sea fleets from the Nordic countries, and much more.  You might say this is all too much, but who am I to complain?  I did find every page of the book substantive and interesting, even if I often felt the author was biting off more than he could chew.

So definitely recommended, though with caveats on the side of some of the actual conclusions.

Here are my previous posts on the work of James Belich.  In general he is someone whose books I always will read.

*Adventure Capitalism*

The author is Raymond B. Craib and the subtitle is A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age.  This is really two books in one.  The first is a quite useful and well-researched history of various libertarian attempts to ease the costs of political exit, or sometimes to obtain exit altogether.  He is well-informed about the 1972 Michael Oliver attempt to set up the libertarian “Isle of Minerva,” nearby to Tonga.  The King of Tonga nixed it, but even Rothbard and Tuccille mocked it.  And remember Jimmy Stevens and the Phoenix Foundation and their plans near New Caledonia?  This stuff was never the libertarian mainstream, or close to it, but it dominates this book (that said it is a fascinating story and well-researched).

Nonetheless these odd goings-on are treated as “the history of libertarian exit” when in fact plenty of other plans were afoot, how about say free movement within the European Union? The dismantling of capital controls?  Fighting to have the Berlin Wall come down?

The narrative then continues through seasteading, charter cities, Balaji, and so on.

The second book contained herein is simply a use of smear terms and sneering, Nancy MacLean style, to indicate that these various ventures are bad, playthings of the evil wealthy, anti-democratic, even loose affiliates of these ventures were bad people, and so on.  Usually there is not even an argument, rather it is assumed that somehow the reader is on board with an anti-exit perspective.  In this regard the author is simply a defective thinker.

I’ll leave the final evaluation up to you.