Category: Books

The changing value of Shakespeare

Auction values for the publishing rights to Collected Works of William Shakespeare:

1709: "a small fraction of" 200 pounds

1734: "less than" 675 pounds

1741: 1,630 pounds

1765: 3,462 pounds

1774, End of perpetual monopoly copyright: Nil

That is from William St. Clair’s recent The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period.  Many books deal with the rise of print culture and the commercial revolution, but in terms of thoroughness and data work, this marvelous work is a clear number one.  Here is more on the book.  I am learning just how much early British copyright law kept the price of literature high, and kept books out of public hands.

The Founding Fathers of Law and Economics

…the most neglected side of law and economics is empirical.  In most areas of law and economics, there is a dearth of empirical studies…  Recently, I surveyed articles published in the Journal of Legal Studies (the leading ‘new’ law and economics journal) during the 1972-2002 period, and found that 39 percent of the 571 articles had some empirical content [TC: a Chicago code word for "econometrics"?]…In contrast, 71 percent of the 604 articles published in the Journal of Law and Economics, (a leading economics journal in industrial organization) during the 1972-2002 period were empirical.  Similarly, 70 percent of the articles recently published in the Journal of Political Economy contained substantial empirical analysis.

That is William Landes, writing in The Origins of Law and Economics: Essays by the Founding Fathers, edited by my colleagues Charles Rowley and Francesco Parisi.  Other contributors to this important volume include Coase, Tullock, Becker, Epstein, Posner, Buchanan, Demsetz Williamson, and others.  Read more here.

The economics of seduction?

Are there secrets of seduction, drawn from (gasp) social scienceIn his new book Neil Strauss says yes.  Here is an interview.  He recommends playing hard-to-get, perhaps he has read signaling theory:

I learned that the more unavailable you make yourself, the more people would want you. The more you say ‘stop touching me’ or ‘I’m taken’ or ‘you’re just not my type,’ the more people would actually chase you…A small example would be — this sounds awful to say, but it’s true — if, say I tried to kiss someone and got rejected. I found that if I just turned my head away and ignored them for about five seconds, then turn back and say the same thing, most of the time they’d then go ahead and kiss me. I could be a punishment-reward thing, or it could be that people’s first reaction is no, but once they’ve had a moment to think about it, they think, ‘Well maybe this guy’s alright.’

And yes there are workshops for pick-up artists.  Here is a website on how to act like an alpha male.

I can only wonder: What would Barbara Ehrenreich do with this material?

My second question, which perhaps an alpha male would never ask, is how the hard-to-get strategy is an equilibrium, equating returns on all margins for all players (no pun intended) in the repeated game.  Isn’t "hard-to-get" too easy to mimic

And don’t you have to be noticed in the first place?  I never came on to Salma Hayek (unlike Daniel Drezner, who courted her repeatedly on his blog), yet this reticence paid few dividends, not even a courtesy trackback or link.  So how do you know when to back off, isn’t this like forecasting when the real estate bubble will crash?

Of course this point about timing addresses whether the strategy is easy to mimic.  A proper application of hard-to-get is well…hard to get right.  Plus some women are shrewd, which means you actually have to be hard-to-get, which is no fun at all, just remember the movie about that forty-year-old guy with all the action figures.

Thanks to Michael at for the pointer.

Bait and Switch: final installment

I talk about labor markets and public policy, here is one nibble from my final piece:

…displaced white-collar workers do not lead my list of victims deserving compensation. It is unfair that a 56-year-old is now expected to compete in a world for which he was never prepared. But we ought to be realistic. These transitional costs are borne by a class that has been about the richest and freest human history has seen. Let us say that you, Alan, could design a public policy to ease their readjustment. I probably would zero out that budget line and spend those funds in Niger, or on boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit, or paying for future Medicare benefits, or, dare I say it, lowering the corporate income tax as a means of encouraging white-collar re-employment.

Bait and Switch

Here is my not-so-positive review of the new Barbara Ehrenreich book, courtesy of  Here is her basic premise:

Ehrenreich gives up her identity and sends around a vita for media/public relations work. After a year of looking–with comic adventures along the way–she has no serious offer. She concludes that the white-collar world is one of "economic cruelty."

There will be further installments, including a response from Alan Wolfe, stay tuned…

The Republican War on Science

Chris Mooney’s new tract is one of the most important books of this year.  Here is a CrookedTimber review.  If you can’t figure out the book’s contents from the title, here is Chris’s blog

My take: I agree with most of the arguments but would have called it The Political War on Science.  Democrat politicians are excessively enamored of government regulation, for instance, and many of them do not pay enough attention to incentives.  (Admittedly these issues are not as clear cut as the theory of evolution; Mooney in fact suggests a scientific approach will lead to more regulation.)  The left often treats human beings as excessively malleable.  Both Carter and Clinton committed some gross errors out of self-deception; they violated the simple principle of dominance rather than any complicated scientific hypothesis.  (What exactly should count as an error of science?)  In fairness to Mooney he does point out many Democrat or left-wing transgressions although not all of these.

Has the increase in Republican hostility to science sprung from an especially bad and craven administration on this issue?  Or has there also been a more fundamental shift in the political equilibrium, due to the greater mobilization of interest groups?  Perhaps voters will be judging science on a more frequent basis from now on, and asking their politicians to take the side of untruth.  Advances in biology will spur this tendency.  Why do Democrat errors more frequently get framed as failures of will or morality, rather than ignorance, vice versa for current Republican errors?  How much of the difference is real and how much is framing?  For how long will media take the side of the Democrats on scientific issues?  Here is today’s New York Times piece on related issues.

Elsewhere on the book front, John Coetzee’s Slow Man is due out September 22, pre-order it hereThe FT reviewer was not crazy about it but I hold greater trust in the author.


At the DNA level, all the major cereals — wheat, rice, maize, millet, barley, and so on — are surprisingly alike.  But despite their genetic similarity, maize looks and acts different from the rest.  It is like the one redheaded early riser in a family of dark-haired night owls.  Left untended, other cereals are capable of propagating themselves.  Because maize kernels are wrapped inside a tough husk, human beings must sow the species — it cannot reproduce on its own…no wild maize ancestor has ever been found, despite decades of search.  Maize’s closest relative is a mountain grass called teosinte that looks nothing like it…And teosinte, unlike wild wheat and rice, is not a practical food source; its "ears" are scarcely an inch long and consist of seven to twelve hard, woody seeds.  An entire ear of teosinte has less nutritional value than a single kernel of modern maize…

…the modern species [of maize] had to have been consciously developed by a small group of breeders who hunted through teosinte strands for plants with desired traits.  Geneticists from Rutgers University…estimated in 1998 that determined, aggressive, plan breeders — which Indians certainly were — might have been able to breed maize in as little as a decade…modern maize was the outcome of a bold act of conscious biological manipulation — "arguably man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering," [Nina Federoff]…"To get corn out of teosinte is so — you couldn’t get a grant to do that now, because it would sound so crazy…Somebody who did that today would get a Nobel Prize!  If their lab didn’t get shut down by Greenpeace, I mean."

That is from 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.  I loved this book, which also tells you why Norte Chico, at its peak, may have been as advanced as the Sumerians.  The book covers much of the New World, and the evidence in this area is in general muddy.  So the text is virtually certain to contain mistakes.  But the judgments are generally well-reasoned, the author is remarkably well-read, and the area I know best — the Nahua culture of early Mexico — is presented in a sober and balanced manner.

Teaching students to *do* economics

Doing Economics, buy it here.  This book is based on the novel premise that undergraduate instruction should be based on teaching practical skills.  Imagine chapters like "Overview of the Research Process in Economics," "What is Research?", "Critical Reading or How to Make Sense of Published Research," and "Locating (and Collecting) Economic Data."  It is more mechanical and less incisive than I would like, but every serious undergraduate economics major should be familiar with this book.

By the way, here is what undergraduates actually do, courtesy of one anthropologist; thanks to the readers who sent in the link.

What I’ve been reading

Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body: The title says it all, this book is not for the squeamish.

Hunger’s Brides: A Novel of the Baroque, by Paul Anderson.  I’m a sucker for 1400-page Canadian novels about Mexican nun/poetesses who are learning to speak Nahuatl and are involved in murders.  The New York Times ran an article on how to deal with the book’s size and weight.

Chronicles, volume I, by Bob Dylan.  No, I don’t care about him anymore either, but  nonetheless this was one of the best books I read all summer.  A primer on what it means to be American and why low rents are good for artistic creativity.

Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It, by Michael Cannon and Michael Tanner, published by the Cato Institute.

Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World, by Hugh Pope.  A useful and entertaining book on modern Turkey and how it relates to Azerbaijan and the "stan" countries.  Short of actual travel, this is your best hope of gaining a knowledge foothold in these areas.

My favorite book this summer remains the accessible yet deeply philosophic The Time Traveler’s Wife.  More generally, Michael at offers a comprehensive set of links on what is new in the world of books.

Writing tips

Christopher Paolini (teen author of the fun Eragon and the just-published Eldest, now 21 years old) notes:

I tend [sic] to get up, grab breakfast, sit in front of my computer [and not] get up until about an hour before dinner.  I do this seven days a week, every week of the month, every month of the year.

That is from today’s Washington Post, Kids Section. 

I have a different idea, taking effort as a scarce variable.  Every day, stop writing just a short while before you really want to quit.  The next day you will be very keen to get going again.  For most mortals, your real enemy is the number of days when you get nothing written.  Getting "not enough" done each day is a lesser problem.

Addendum: Here are my previous writing tips.