Category: Books

My EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts about books and reading

Here goes!

Intellectual omnivore Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and EconTalk host Russ Roberts talk about their reading habits, their favorite books, and the pile of books on their nightstands right now.

And a transcription is offered for the first half hour.  Here is one early excerpt:

Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. You don’t give away–do you lend books out?

Tyler Cowen: Not very often. I don’t own many books. So, I collected books in great numbers when I was an undergraduate, mostly history of economic thought. I thought I would build up this incredible collection of the great economics masterworks. But then I started moving around, and then I moved to Germany for a year and I’m, like, ‘This is not going to work.’ So, what I will do–there’s some economic historians in my department. If I get a history book, I will give it to them because I know they won’t necessarily read it. They’ll use it or not use it for reference. And I don’t feel I’m tricking them into reading a book. But I would be very reluctant to give you a book, Russ. Not that I don’t love you or like you, or both, but I would feel that you would feel obliged to read the book. Correct?

It is immoral to give away books unless you truly feel the recipient should read them!

I enjoyed this segment too:

Russ Roberts: You’re a lunatic.


Larry Temkin takes half a red pill

His new book is Being Good in a World of Need, and most of all I am delighted to see someone take Effective Altruism seriously enough to evaluate it at a very high intellectual level.  Larry is mostly pro-EA, though he stresses that he believes in pluralist, non-additive theories of value, rather than expected utility theory, and furthermore that can make a big difference (for instance I don’t think Larry would play 51-49 “double or nothing” with the world’s population, as SBF seems to want to).

So where does the red pill come in?  Well, after decades of his (self-described) intellectual complacency, Larry now wonders whether foreign aid is as good as it has been cracked up to be:

In this chapter, I have presented some new disanalogies between Singer’s original Pond Example, and real-world instances of people in need.  I have noted that in some cases people in need may not be “innocent” or they may be responsible for their plight.  I have also noted that often people in need are the victims of social injustice or human atrocities.  Most importantly, I have shown that often efforts to aid the needy can, via various different paths, increase the wealth, status, and power of the very people who may be responsible for human suffering that the aid is intended to alleviate.  This can incentivize such people to continue their heinous practices against their original victims, or against other people in the region.  this can also incentivize other malevolent people in positions of power to perpetrate similar social injustices or atrocities.

The book also presents some remarkable examples of how some leading philosophers, including Derek Parfit, simply refused to believe that such arguments might possibly be true, even when Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton endorsed one version of them (not exactly Larry’s claims, to be clear).

Another striking feature of this book is how readily Larry accepts the rising (but still dissident) view that the sexual abuse of children has been a grossly underrated social problem.

What is still missing is a much greater focus on innovation and economic growth.

I am very glad I bought this book, and I look forward to seeing which pill or half-pill Larry swallows next.  Here is my post on Larry’s previous book Rethinking the Good.  Everyone involved in EA should be thinking about Larry and his work, and not just this latest book either.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susanne Schattenberg, Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman.  Can you have an interesting biography of a life and man that was fundamentally so…boring?  Maybe.  He ruled the world’s number two power for eighteen critical years, so surely he deserves more attention than what he has received.  “Nevertheless, Brezhnev had dentures and only stopped smoking in the mid-1970s because his doctors told him his false teeth would fall out at some point if he didn’t.”  And “Analysis of why Brezhnev’s children made themselves known largely for their drinking and scandals would fill another book.”  I’ll buy that one as well.

2. Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics.  One of the very best books on Ireland and Irish ideas, and more broadly I can recommend virtually anything by Kiberd.  Do note, however, that much of this book requires you have read the cited Irish classics under consideration.  Nonetheless there is insight on almost every page, recommended.

3. Olivier Zunz, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville.  A self-recommending biography of one of the greatest social science thinkers.  Easy to read, and good for both the generalist and specialist reader.  Note that it is a complement to reading Tocqueville, in no way a substitute.

4. Kevin Lane, The Inca Lost Civilizations.  Short and readable and with nice photos, maybe the best introduction to this still underrated topic?

Paul Sagar, Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics considers the broader implications of Smith’s thought from a “freedom as non-domination” perspective.

John E. Bowit, Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia’s Silver Age.  The early twentieth century, basically.  Beautiful plates, good exposition, and if nothing else a lesson in just how far aesthetic deterioration can run.  A picture book!

Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism is interior to my current knowledge set, but clear and I suspect for many readers useful.

Rainer Zitelmann’s Hitler’s National Socialism is a very thorough, detailed look at Hitler’s actual views.

James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington also serves as a better than average general history of the city.

Why the innocent can’t get out of prison

The main title is Barred, and the author is Daniel S. Medwed.  The book has many interesting points, here is one excerpt:

Alaska eliminated plea bargaining in 1975.  The rationale was grounded in fairness, with the governor at the time proclaiming that the new policy was designed to counter “weakened public confidence in the administration of justice.”  The conditions seemed ideal.  Small population, small(ish) amount of criminal activity, creative attorney general, open-minded governor.  The results were initially promising.  Although the number of trials in the state rose by 37 percent in the year following the ban, the system appeared capable of absorbing the surge.  But the experiment didn’t last.  A new state attorney general relaxed plea policies in 1980, and bargaining was officially back in the 1990s.  By the 2010s, nearly 97 percent of Alaska’s criminal cases resulted in pleas.  Those who’ve studied the history of plea bargaining Alaska attribute the demise of the ban to a change in  personnel in the AG’s office and a decline in state revenues.  Trials don’t come cheap.

Recommended, for those who care.

The best fiction in recent times

Here are my picks, in no particular order:

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1992, maybe not recent?).

Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan quadrology.

Karl Knausgaard, My Struggle, volumes one and two.

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials.

Michel Houellebecq, Submission.

Min Lee, Pachinko.

Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem.

Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives.

And addended:

Haruki Murakami, IQ84.

Vikrram Seth, A Suitable Boy.

Orhan Pamuk, Museum of Innocence.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon.

David Grossman, To the End of the Land.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

Jose Saramago, Blindness.

China Mieville, The City and the City.

J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace.

I do not feel that recent times lag far so behind some of the earlier, more classic literary eras.  Which books am I forgetting?

*Streets of Gold*

In one of our research  projects, we followed pairs of brothers born in Norway, one of whom left for the United States by 1900 while the other remained behind…Brothers who immigrated to the United States earned nearly twice as much as their siblings back home.

That is from the new and excellent Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan.

That was then, this is now

The Red Army collapsed in the first weeks of the war.  This is no criticism of its individual troops.  It is a statement about bureaucratic rule, coercion, lies, fear, and mismanagement.  The problems were not new, nor were they unfamiliar.  Lack of transport, for instance, which was identified by nearly every front-line officer as the reason the retreat turned into a route that June, was a long-standing concern of units based along the Soviet border.  “It is absolutely unknown to us where and when we will receive the motorized transport we need for newly mobilized units”…Spare parts, fuel, and tires were impossible to guarantee.

Circa 1941, that is from the very good Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.  Do not arrive too readily at conclusions about the current situation in Ukraine!  And Merridale books are in general a good place to read about Russian history.

*Blood and Ruins*

The author is Richard Overy and the subtitle is The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945.  There are two categories of Richard Overy books, the good and the tremendously good.  So far this book falls into the latter camp, noting that some of the introductory material (while fine) was excessively familiar to me.  The eventual focus is on North Africa, the Turkey-Persia region and the Caucasus, how Japan ran its new colonies, how the British empire started collapsing, and much more along those lines.  The history of the war is told through what are usually regarded as the peripheries, though Overy makes us rethink that as well. I am only on p.240, but so far this one is strongly recommended.

As a general rule you can never read enough good books about World War II, even after you feel you have read enough good books about World War II.  Its lessons never go stale, and the scope of the war itself has attracted remarkable talents to write about it.

The Rewired Soul reviews *Talent*

I was highly skeptical of this book, but after reading it, I legitimately think it needs to be mandatory reading for anyone involved in hiring. Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross wrote a book that is about as close to perfect as you can get destroying conventional wisdom about hiring. As someone who has been lower-middle-class my whole life, but I work my ass off, I’ve always hated the mindless process of how applications and interviews go. Too often employers won’t even consider you if you don’t check certain boxes on an application, but Cowen and Gross are looking to change that.

The book dives into so many different nuances about hiring people and finding the right people. Because people are complex, and there’s much more under the surface (Crazy, right?!). Cowen and Gross give tips for better interviews and what to look for in candidates as well as identifying potential. They also dive into various pros and cons of different personalities and even have a section about interviewing online or over the phone.

Here is the full review.

My excellent Conversation with Roy Foster

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the episode summary;

Roy joined Tyler to discuss why the Scots got off easier than the Irish under British rule, the truths and misconceptions about Ireland as a policy laboratory for the British government, why spoken Irish faded more rapidly than Welsh, the single question that drove a great flowering of Irish economic thought, how Foster’s Quaker education shaped his view of Irish history, how the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Rising cemented the rift between the Northeast and the rest of the country, what went wrong with Irish trade policies between the 1920s and 1970s, the power of Irish education, why the re-emergence of The Troubles in the 1960s may not have been as inevitable as many people believe, the cultural effects of Ireland’s pro-Allied neutrality in World War II, how Irish visual art is beginning to be looked at in a similar way to Irish literature, the social and economic changes of the 1970s that began to radically reshape Irish society, the reasons for Ireland’s openness to foreigners, what Irish Americans misunderstand, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of the 19th century, as you know, I think it’s in 1831 that free universal schooling comes to Ireland. Are there ways in which, in the 19th century, Ireland is more modern than Britain?

FOSTER: That’s a very interesting and subtle question.

There is a theory that Ireland is used as a laboratory for British government and that they will apply further afield, in India and the Caribbean, models and lessons that they’ve learned in Ireland, which is sometimes referred to as Britain’s oldest or England’s oldest colony.

I have a slight problem with that, because Ireland is a very special kind of colony, if it’s a colony: it’s a metropolitan colony. The original inhabitants remain, one could say, in a far stronger position than in many of the areas of the British Empire, where they are effectively either enslaved or wiped out. But the point is really that what’s happening in Ireland in the 18th and 19th century is, as I’ve said earlier, a kind of dispossession.

But at the same time, there are elements — and this is true from the Act of Union, which abolishes the old, very elite Irish Parliament in 1800 — there are elements of experimentation in the British government of Ireland which aren’t (I have to say this) entirely malign, and you zero in on education. The attempt that was being made in the early 1830s was to introduce a nondenominational form of primary education for the Irish people.

Ireland being Ireland, it was rapidly denominationalized: the Catholics used it for their purposes and the Protestants used it for their purposes. But the theory of it was that you had to overcome the religious differences, which by the early 19th century seemed to dictate everything that was happening in Ireland.

The great novelist William Thackeray, who was married to an Irish woman, said when he did a tour of Ireland and wrote his Irish Sketch Book, “Where to get at the truth in this country: it is not possible. There are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth.” By the early 19th century, this seemed all too true.

Substantive throughout, in my view one of the very best CWTs in some while.

*Arbitrary Lines*, by M. Nolan Gray

The subtitle is How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, and here is one bit:

By today’s standard, New York’s 1916 zoning code is surprisingly liberal.  Modern zoning mainstays, like use subcategories or explicit floor area limits, are absent.  This is because the framers of New York’s zoning ordinance saw themselves as balancing a desire for some control against a natural skepticism of this new institution.  After all, as a historically unprecedented curtailment of property rights, the constitutionality of zoning was very much in question, and one ill-conceived regulation risked a court decision that could imperial the entire project.  The strategy of starting small worked, and the code survived, expanding from just a small pamphlet to hundreds of pages over the coming decades, before the 1961 rewrite.

And this:

At the end of 1916, 8 municipalities had adopted some form of zoning, and over the next seven years, a steady stream of municipalities would follow, such that by 1923, 218 municipalities had adopted zoning.

Nolan is an urban planner who is very skeptical of such zoning.  Recomnended, and I am pleased that both Mercatus and Emergent Ventures had a hand in supporting this project.

How heritable are various sports abilities?

Let us start with data from identical twins:

Take wrestling.  Of 6,778 Olympic wrestling athletes, there have been something like thirteen pairs of identical twins.  This implied that the identical twin of an Olympic wrestler has a better than 60 percent chance of becoming an Olympic wrestler himself.

That is from the forthcoming Seth Stephens-Davidowitz Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life.  From such reasoning you can divine the relative import of genetic factors for success in various sports.  Here are the derived calculations, with the number indicating “Percent of Same-Sex Siblings Who Are Identical Twins” (when both make the Olympics, or achieve some other status):

Track and field: 22.4%

Wrestlers: 13.8%

Rowers: 12.4%

NBA players: 11.5%

Boxers: 8.8%

Gymnasts: 8.1%

Swimmers: 6.5%

Fencers: 4.5%

Shooters: 3.4%

NFL players: 3.2%

MLB players: 1.9%

Alpine skiers: 1.7%

Divers, equestrian riders, and weightlifters: All zero percent.

What I’ve been reading

1. Alan Bollard, Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars.  A useful book on a much underrated topic.  Keynes, Kantorovich, and Leontief receive the most attention, though the book also covers of Takahashi Korekiyo of Japan.  My main complaint is the absence of Thomas Schelling.

2. Elizabeth Wilson, Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia.  She converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, and her career spanned from the 1920s through 1970.  She was at times out of favor, other times Stalin’s favorite pianist.  Called a “holy fool” by many, this is an excellent biography that brings its subject to life.  And her playing was full of depth, albeit with often creaky sound..

3. Ian Barnes, Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia.  One of the very most useful books for understanding Russian history — about half of this one is maps!  Changing maps over the ages.  These are the maps that Putin looks at, you should too.  A high quality book in all regards.

4. Sarah Weinman, Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free.  The murderer is Edgar Smith and the conservative is William F. Buckley — how could anyone have been fooled by these remorseless criminals?  A good look at what had been becoming a forgotten episode.  A tale of self-deception to the nth degree.

5. Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.  Yes, the empire truly was based in unacceptable levels of violence, and at its very core.  This excellent book is the very best demonstration of those propositions.  Historically thorough, and covers more than just a few cases.

There is a new reissue, with a new and good introduction, of Orlando Patterson, The Sociology of Slavery: Black Society in Jamaica, 1655-1838.

Ben Westhoff, Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and my Search for the Truth is a very good narrative by a very good author.

Jeevan Vasagar, Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia is a decent first book to read on Singapore, although mostly it was interior to my current knowledge set.