Category: Books

Christmas gifts

OK, the end of the year is approaching, here are my “best of” lists:

1. Classical music CD: Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, conducted by Paul McCreesh. As good a recording as you will find, and this is arguably the best piece of music ever. One voice to a part, as they did it in Bach’s day, but never stale or musty.

2. Popular music CD: Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Starts at hip-hop but spans the entire musical map, from an immensely talented duo.

3. Book, fiction: J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. The finest novel yet by this year’s Nobel Laureate in literature, deep and philosophical, but also a great read.

4. Book, non-fiction: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Games. Baseball puts me to sleep, this book is actually about human irrationality and performance. Everyone should read it.

5. DVD: Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders. OK, so he was (is?) a commie. Still, he understands the power of cinema in a way that few other directors do. The screen sparkles in every frame, the release is of course by Criterion.

And if you really want to go on a shopping spree, here is an article about notable art masterpieces still in private hands. I would recommend the Pollock at $50 million, except that the owner is not selling at that price.

Why not?

Here is a new way of earning seigniorage revenue, after all we offer vanity license plates:

..vanity stamps already exist in Canada and Australia…In the land down under, your picture goes next to the stamp, while our neighbors to the north put your picture in the middle of a border…The price in OZ is about a 100 percent premium (for example, one hundred 40-cent stamps for $87), while in Canada the price is $24.95 for one sheet of twenty-five domestic stamps.

From Why Not?, by Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres. My previous blog post on this book also brings you to their web site, full of other ideas of this ilk.

It is not just prescription drugs

You may have spent $100 for your textbook, or made your class cough up this money. That same text might have been sold overseas for half of the price or less. Today’s New York Times offers the full account.

And yes, arbitrage has begun:

At one prestigious university, a sophomore imported 30 biology books from England this fall and sold them outside his classroom for less than the campus-bookstore price, netting a $1,200 profit. Next semester, if all goes well, he plans to expand the operation.

How about this:

The differences are often significant: “Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, Third Edition,” for example, lists for $146.15 on the American Amazon site, but can be had for $63.48, plus $8.05 shipping, from the British one. And “Linear System Theory and Design, Third Edition” is $110 in the United States, but $41.76, or $49.81 with shipping, in Britain.

Many college bookstores, meanwhile, have taken matters into their own hands, arranging their own overseas purchases.

And it is now a business. BookCentral.com will get you the text from overseas at the lower price, of course you pay them a commission.

The legal status of these reimportations remains an open question. Some publishers are placing stickers on their books, forbidding reimportation, but the Times article suggests that such reimportation is not obviously against the law.

Facts about books

From 1450 to 1500, between 10,00 to 15,000 titles were published, with an average print run of 500 copies.

By 1962, 250,000 titles were being published each year; this implies a growth rate five times more rapid than that of population.

Since the development of television (defined as 1950), world population has grown 1.6 percent a year. The number of book titles has grown by an average of 2.8 percent a year.

The human race publishes a book every thirty seconds.

From Gabriel Zaid’s fun, new So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance.

By the way, the first book to sell a million copies was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

Hypotheses about envy

1. We envy those close to us, who get paid just a bit more, not Bill Gates.

2. Men find it hardest to forgive other men for their success with women.

3. Men do not much envy women because they view women as “one of life’s prizes”.

4. The philosophers who wrote most insightfully about envy were all bachelors (Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche).

I found these claims in Joseph Epstein’s recent, and entertaining, book Envy. Here is an interview with Epstein. Here is an essay by Epstein on envy. Here is a whole host of Epstein-related links.

My take: I envy how well he writes, but was comforted to read that tenured academics typically earn more than he does.

Discounted economics books for sale

Laissez-Faire Books is offering special sales this month, they have by far the cheapest prices and a very good selection of libertarian and market-oriented books, including my own books, portrayed in the right column on this blog, co-blogger Alex’s books too.

Thanks to David Bernstein for the pointer, from Volokh Conspiracy.

Or maybe you want DVD and video products for economics? Also check out Films for the Humanities & Sciences, only some of them appear to be junk.

The new Stiglitz book

Last night I read my newly-arrived copy of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade. As you might expect from Stiglitz, it is well-written and smart.

His key theme is that, although the nineties were a wonderful time economically, they also brought some dangerous trends. Most of all, the capital market ruled resource allocation, and economic policy, like never before. We misallocated resources on a tremendous scale, such as with the telecommunications boom and bust. Stiglitz also argues against the deregulation of the nineties, as too little was done to reign in corporate abuses, such as Enron. He also believes that the Clinton administration was too obsessed with balancing the budget.

My hesitations about this book are simple: We are never given much of a recipe for how things could have been better. Stiglitz opposes the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the Clinton telecommunications reforms. To be sure, these policies were problematic in some regards, but they did not drive the excesses of the 90s. To what extent can government policy limit a dot.com or fiber optic boom? To what extent can government policy, as opposed to intra-firm institutional reforms, limit corporate conflicts of interest? We do not get much of an inkling on these critical issues.

Occasionally Stiglitz gets specific, but his examples do not help his case: “Would the bubble have been averted if only we had only supported better accounting of executive stock options? We will never know the answer.” But the answer is almost certainly “no,” most commentators regard the option accounting issue as a red herring, here is one treatment of many.

It is OK to write a pure critique, rather than a recipe for change, but the book promises “a coherent and convincing alternative.” That is precisely what we do not get. The final chapter “Toward a New Democratic Idealism” also does not move beyond the vague. It is not enough to say we had too much deregulation and forgot our concern with social justice.

Stiglitz also expresses concern that the Clinton administration pushed “market fundamentalism” on the poorer countries of the world, while rejecting it at home. I cannot agree here. Even if you take the Stiglitzian worldview as correct and given, the quality of government in the developed countries is much higher than in the developing world. Admittedly the quality of the market is often higher as well, but why promote a regulatory regime that will bring corruption and privilege? Most poorer countries simply cannot count on good and honest regulation, and they don’t have Joe Stiglitz as the main economic advisor to their Presidents.

The new Robert Putnam book

Robert Putnam has a new book out, with Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community. I started writing a short review of it, which ended up morphing into a look at Putnam’s oeuvre more generally, most of all his renowned Bowling Alone. The bottom line: I admire the quality of Putnam’s work, but am not convinced by his arguments that “bowling alone” is a growing problem. Click here to read my piece.

Amateur reviewers are conformists

Let’s say you just saw a movie and now you review it for a web site. Many reviewers will be influenced, albeit subconsciously in many cases, by the ratings already available for viewing. If a movie has many high ratings, you will be less likely to pan it, and vice versa. This occurs even when you see only the number of stars assigned by other people, and have no access to concrete information about the opinions of others, as you might get from a written review. Overall people end up losing trust in peer-driven reviewing systems, and it is plausible to assume that this applies to Amazon.com reviews as well. Thanks to Randall Parker for the original pointer to the research. Cass Sunstein’s new Why Societies Need Dissent explores the pressures for conformity in more detail. Here is a link to the relevant economics research.

Why does the middle class feel so poor?

I’ve just read The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke, by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. This book has received a good deal of popular press.

Having children is a big part of the financial burden, Americans have been spending less on appliances, food, and clothing. Housing prices are the real killer, especially if the family has children. Good schools and safety are becoming increasingly hard to buy. In real terms, families with children paid 79 percent more for housing, comparing 1983 to 1998.

Having just overpaid for a house, to put my stepdaughter into a good school district, I can sympathize with this argument. But I don’t understand the core logic as a more general claim. The authors claim that this financial predicament is affecting very large numbers of middle class Americans. At the same time we are told that good schools are increasingly hard to come by. Which is it? If there are a small number of homes with good schools, not too many people can be overpaying. If there are a large number of such homes, good schools cannot be that scarce, and the bidding war should not be so fierce.

I nonetheless recommend the book to stimulate your thoughts. It also argues for anti-usury laws, claiming that debt-ridden families will make rash decisions and overborrow at excess rates. You might recall Adam Smith made a similar claim over two centuries ago.

Style and Virginia Postrel

From time to time we will be posting book reviews on this site, until our software improves some of them will go on a separate web page, connected by a link. Many of you probably already know Virginia Postrel, she is a columnist for The New York Times, former editor of Reason magazine, and a well-known blogger. I was very taken by her recent book, The Substance of Style, about the rise of aesthetic value under capitalism, here is my review.

The value of a lone dissenter

People will often abandon their opinions to conform to what a group expects of them, but a lone voice of reason can save the day. Cass Sunstein’s new book, Why Societies Need Dissent, reports the following (see chapter one):

You can give people a problem and allow them to solve it. Also give them a group of confederates, who unanimously advocate the wrong answer to the same problem. One confederate, proclaiming the wrong answer, will have little influence on the problem solver. Two confederates increased errors to 13.6 percent. Using three confederates increased errors to 31.8 percent. Under some results, more than three confederates do not increase the error rate, although this is controversial. But putting one voice of sanity in the group, who knows and proclaims the right answer, makes a big difference. “Conformity errors” were reduced by an average of three quarters, even if a strong majority of the group leaned the other way. Sunstein draws upon the work of Robert Baron, at the University of Iowa.

Darwinian politics

Have you ever wondered if political failures might somehow be rooted in man’s nature as a biological being? Paul Rubin has just published a book, Darwinian Politics, Arts and Letters Daily offers this review and summary.

Rubin argues that humans have a long biological experience with constructing political alliances, and our inherited propensities continue to shape our politics. What else does he argue? We often view society as a zero-sum game because early competition for mates was in fact a zero-sum game. We carry this worldview with us. The desire for liberty springs from our early days in hunter-gathered societies, where we were relatively free in political terms. Sports are a reenactment of hunting and bonding rituals. Women are more risk averse than men. We have too much envy for the effective working of modern society, this springs from a tendency to wish to cut down the dominant males in groups. You will note that this is not a politically correct book.

Critics will make two charges. First, Rubin is not a professional biologist and the arguments are not based on his primary research. Second, the major arguments are “just-so” stories rather than the results of testable experiments. Both may be true, but I still would rather read a book that explores interesting and important topics.

Rubin admits his libertarian orientation, but he recognizes that the overall argument does not support libertarianism in every way. For instance he realizes that the desire for paternalism may be rooted very deeply. (Note that Peter Singer tries to ground left-wing ideas in Darwinian argument.) My view is that biological approaches, if you buy into them, strengthen the case for a conservative worldview, and I mean the word conservative in its literal rather than political sense. If politics is rooted in biology, political failures may be very hard to cure. This will support a mix of right-wing and left-wing policies, apologizing for institutional failures on both sides of the partisan spectrum, without necessarily making us feel better about them.

Thanks to Bryce Wilkinson for the pointer, note that readers are encouraged to write to us about bloggable material.