Category: Books

Levitt and Dubner update

ABC just signed the pair to a one-year deal for recurring spots on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and Nightline, including backing for their own documentaries…

Conventional wisdom says there’s more to come. Dubner says, "We’re working on another book: ‘Superfreakonomics.’ "

Here is the link.  Elsewhere on, here is a piece on the mathematics of Sudoku.

Don’t trust expert predictions

Last night I finished Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment:

…no matter how unequivocal the evidence that experts cannot outpredict chimps or extrapolation algorithms, we should expect business to unfold as usual: pundits will continue to warn us on talk shows and op-ed pages of what will happen unless we dutifully follow their policy prescriptions.  We — the consumers of expert pronouncements — are in thrall to experts for the same reasons that our ancestors submitted to shamans and oracles: our uncontrollable need to believe in a controllable world and our flawed understanding of the laws of chance.  We lack the willpower and good sense to resist the snake oil products on offer.  Who wants to believe that, on the big questions, we could do as well tossing a coin as by consulting accredited experts?

Daniel Drezner has two excellent posts on the book, here and here.  Here is Louis Menand’s glowing review from The New Yorker.  Here is Tetlock’s home page.  Here is a sample book chapter.

And yes Tetlock has data, drawing upon twenty years of observation of 82,361 forecasts.  Tetlock also finds that "foxes" forecast better than "hedgehogs" and that only the forecasts of foxes have positive value.

This is one of the (few) must-read social science books of 2005.

My caveat: Assume that the experts are usually wrong in their novel predictions.  The consensus views of a science still might be worth listening to.  Economists cannot forecast business cycles very well, but you should listen when they tell you that a deflationary shock is bad news.  Each new forecast or new theory is an example of individual hubris and in expected value terms it is stupid.  But the body of experts as a whole, over time, absorbs what is correct.  A large number of predictions creates a Hayekian discovery process with increasing returns to scale.  Social knowledge still comes out ahead, and in part because of the self-deceiving vanities put forward every day.  You can find that point in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Comments are open, most of all if you have read the book or other work by Tetlock.

Cautionary tales for smart alecks

Morales, who only months earlier had extolled True’s qualities when the Huichols were released from jail, now demonized him.  He was up to no good, she insisted.  The Huichols had issued an all points bulletin in their communities announcing that True was persona non grata because of previous forays into Huichol territory made without permission in search of agates and opals to enrich himself.  He had been caught trading in gemstones before, she assured me, and on one such trip had been detained and held in a crude Huichol stockades.

That is from the new and excellent Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True, A Reporter’s Murder in Mexico and His Editor’s Search for Justice, by Robert Rivard.

Freakonomics Sells

The first signed copy of Freakonomics inscribed,  "To Tim, The first book I’ve ever signed. You can probably get at least $9.50 on
eBay. Steve Levitt," sold on EBay for $610!

Congratulations to the winner of the auction, to Tim Harford who donated the funds to charity and to Steve who doubled the donation.

Tim Harford, by the way, will be speaking at GMU on Monday Dec. 5, 7:30 in the Johnson Center meeting room B.  The Undercover Economist is a great read and Tim is a fun speaker so I invite all to come and enjoy.  You can even ask him to sign your copy of the Undercover Economist!

100 Notable Books of the Year

Here is The New York Times link, not gated, and thanks to John Palmer for the pointer.  Here is the printer-friendly version of the link.  In addition to what I have already covered, I recommend Bob Spitz’s The Beatles and Bob Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master.  I’m now keen to read John Gimlette’s Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador, which somehow had slipped through my claws during the year.  Orhan Pamuk’s book on Istanbul is the obvious missing choice.  Comments are open for other book suggestions from 2005, or if you wish to take issue with the NYT list.

Intellectual megalomaniacs deserve attention

Among contemporary writers, perhaps no one deserves a retrospective anthology at midcareer as much as William T. Vollmann, whose staggering rate of production has made it all but impossible to keep up with him—just blink and it seems he has brought out yet another doorstop. Since his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon, appeared in 1987, he has completed four outsize installments of his magnificent Seven Dreams project, a "symbolic history" related through novels that stretch back in time to the first Norse incursions into Greenland and Newfoundland, and portray the clashes of European colonizers and their descendants with indigenous North Americans. He has also published The Atlas, a collage of dispatches from some of the world’s riskiest locales; An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World, a memoir of sorts recounting his 1982 trip in search of mujahideen at war with the Soviets; Europe Central, just out this spring, a collection of fictionalized portraits that explore the lives of intriguing and often morally ambiguous figures who lived under the twin totalitarian evils of Stalinism and Nazism, with emphasis on the war years; and five books, set in the present, that have emerged from his abiding fascination with prostitutes, mostly, along with a supporting cast of urban-underbelly types. Alternately hard-edged and lyrical, lurid and incandescent, Vollmann’s visions of contemporary life—especially in Whores for Gloria and the monumental Royal Family, in which he’s forged a phantasmagorical urban realism to chronicle San Francisco’s lower depths—are shot through with brutality, yearning, and fever-dreams that fuse squalor and transcendence.

As extensive as this listing of works is, it falls well short of encompassing the full cyclone of Vollmann’s creativity, which also includes poems, reviews, occasional pieces, and even numerous "book objects," which feature his own artwork along with contributions by collaborators such as photographer and friend Ken Miller. At the core of his oeuvre, though, is what he himself describes as his life’s work, some twenty years in the making, the seven-volume, 3,352-page treatise Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means, first published by McSweeney’s in 2003 and reissued in a single-volume abridgment last year by Ecco Press. Toiling in a sweatshop of his own devising, clocking up to sixteen hours a day at his desk, the forty-five-year-old Vollmann has exacted a considerable toll on his body at a relatively young age. In his 1998 essay "Writing," considering his "swollen and aching fingers," he tells how "sometimes the ache oozes up to my shoulders, sometimes only to my wrists; once or twice I’ve felt it in my back. Poor posture, they say, or ‘repetitive stress injury,’ or possibly carpal tunnel. . . . Writing is bad for me physically, without a doubt, but what would I do if I stopped?"

Here is the longer and fascinating story.  Here is my previous post on Vollmann, and do offer comments if you have read his works.

Favorite business books

Steve Levitt in The Financial Times:

My favourite business book is A Whack in the Side of the Head by Roger Von Oech.  It certainly is not a traditional business book.  It is a book about how to generate ideas.  My view is that business people spend too little time trying to generate ideas and too much time making reports.  I always go back to this book when I am in a rut.

Stephen Dubner picked Thomas Schelling’s Choice and Consequence.

Europe Central

A generation before, the Iron Chancellor had observed: I’ve always found the word Europe on the lips of those statesmen who want something from a foreign power which they would never venture to ask for in their own name.

That is from William Vollman’s Europe Central, which just won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction [correction: Fiction].  The Amazon reviews make it sound daunting, but so far (p.32) it is great fun.  If you’re reading it, add your opinion in the comments.

The economics of textbook revision

…the economists Austan Goolsbee and Judith Chevalier, in a study of more than a thousand colleges, found that the year before a textbook is revised new-book sales drop sharply. That’s because a textbook in its final year is significantly less valuable, since you won’t be able to resell it. In other words, before nineteen-year-olds decide to buy a textbook, they consider not just the use they’ll get from it but also its current price, the probable future demand for it, and perhaps whether they can blow off the reading entirely. Funnily enough, they’re acting in what economists would call textbook fashion. And that serves as a check on publishers, who know that if they revise too frequently they could end up losing sales.

That is James Surowiecki, thanks to Chris F. Masse for the pointer. 

By the way, Pizzatola’s, Shepherd and Rt.10, is superb Houston barbecue.  "You look like you’ve never been here before," was the first thing they said to me.

Amazon purchase circles

Find out what people are buying in a particular area or institution, click here.  Here is the list of bestsellers for George Mason University.  Is it better or worse than the list for Fairfax, Virginia?  Here is the Marine Corps list.  Here is the federal judiciary.  Here is the list for The New York Times.  Dow Jones Co. is less intellectual.  Here are other media listings.

Browse geography.  Try MIT.  Compare it to Brown University.  For self-referentialist reading, try Oracle Corporation.

Thanks to Pablo Halkyard for the pointer.  Comments are open, in case you know more about this.

The “Vanity of the Philosopher”

"What does the price of tea in eighteenth century China have to do with Bishop Berkeley’s theory of vision?"  If you have to ask such a question, you haven’t spent enough time around my colleague David M. Levy.  David combines expertise in Adam Smith, ancient Greek democracy, non-normal distributions, Victorian literature, and advanced Monte Carlo techniques. 

Twenty years ago, David was viewing economics in Quinean rather than Mengerian (Austrian) terms.  An economic model can be matched to the real world in more than one way.  This makes models invulnerable to "realist" criticisms but leaves open the question of what we are doing as economists.   

David promotes "analytic egalitarianism," the view that agents or entities "outside" a model should be treated no differently than agents or entities "inside" a model.  Again, we are left with no unique vantage point for interpreting results.  The "public choice" revolution was only the first step; we must now put researchers into the model as well.  Empirically, scientific integrity is elevated to a major issue.  Theoretically, an economic model becomes a mirror of Borgesian self-references which may or may not converge through a fixed point theorem.

Lately David has rediscovered the Austrians, albeit against his conscious will.  I read his recent work as essentialist and focused on social justice.  Connecting Mises and J.S. Mill, David now views neoclassical economics as realistic in nature.  Its implicit egalitarianism — all people behave according to the same principles — should be taken seriously and for David it provides ontological foundations for a free society.  Economists are the natural liberals, as our science is a mathematical version of Schiller’s "Ode to Joy." 

Smithian sympathy comes first and is prior to the idea of trade, thereby solving das Adam Smith Problem.  Man stands above the animals as the talking being and also as the sympathizing being.  Trade, speech, and symbols are part of a broader picture of how an ultimately monistic reality gives rise to diverse and plural epiphenomena.  Eugenics is the evil on the other side.  It has a pluralistic foundation — people are different in their cores — and empowers one untrustworthy group of elitists to reduce mankind to a monistic outcome.  Don’t trust it.

If citizens deal with symbols, theorists should also.  Why not offer a picture with an economic theory?  Is not a picture, like a poem or a novel, just another form of a model?  The analytical egalitarianism ensures that theorists offer pictures and poems for the same reasons that citizens do.  Man as an imagining being, and not just a simple maximizer, is primary.  Kant joins Smith and Hume in the pantheon, and the differences between aesthetics and economics are blurred.  Proverbs are models too.

Analytical egalitarianism helps us vanquish the Socratic claim to find impartial or trustworthy planners.  All these themes are played out in literary and philosophic works over the ages, and David helps you trace the connections.  The Greek poet Homer offers a precursor of the Tiebout model.  Will the next step be a treatise on Hogarth?  Or a picture of one of Hogarth’s pictures?

David covers the big issues, and he has almost always seen further and more deeply than have others.  Reading David can be a puzzle, but he is on my list of thinkers I would not do without.  Might he be the most consistent monist yet, and the one most willing to confront where monism must lead you?  At the same time, the pluralism of his writings would dazzle Gilles DeLeuze.

His latest book, The "Vanity of the Philosopher" co-authored with AdamSmithLives blogger Sandra Peart, is out, buy it here.  Btw, the above is my account of David, don’t trust it!

“I spent eleven years not finishing my Ph.d.”

Vikram Seth, author of the renowned A Suitable Boy, passed much of his life in the economics Ph.d. program at Stanford.  His latest book, Two Lives, recounts:

I discovered soon after I had begun my compulsory courses in macroeconomics and microeconomics that I could not get by without wasting a whole lot of time studying. 

He adds:

The subject was dry, mathematically unrealistic and intellectually unchallenging [TC: it took him eleven years to figure that out???  I know someone who needed less time].

That is from a preface of sorts.  Most of the book concerns Shanti, an Indian relation of Seth’s who moves to Berlin in 1931 to study dentistry; Shanti falls in love with a Jewish girl and later marries her.  The narrative is sentimental and the authorial intrusions are often mawkish, yet the main storyline delivers. 

Keep Seth in mind the next time you feel frustrated at your ne’er do well graduate students.

Addendum: If you, like I, are also a sucker for the Stalinist romance, try Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, compulsively readable and well above average for its genre.

Second addendum: Read this interview with Seth, thanks to Pablo Halkyard for the pointer.