Category: Books

The Fountainhead

If ethics is about the virtuous man then politics is about the social requirements for the virtuous man to exist (the modern literature lags behind Rand in connecting ethics and politics). One can  understand Rand’s novels as an extended disquisition on virtue ethics and the political and social requirements necessary to practice such an ethics. In particular, she argued that rights, a legal concept creating a protected sphere for independent action, were a necessary condition to live a life of virtue.

One need not buy Rand’s deductive argument that laissez-faire capitalism is the sine-qua-non of ethical action to appreciate her insights connecting the good man and good woman with the good society. Ayn Rand was absolutely right to say that capitalism requires a moral defense. Moreover, the only plausible defense must involve the virtue of selfishness. It is all too obvious that capitalism promotes and rewards self-interest and, Mandeville nothwithstanding, no defense which simply excuses this fact will succeed.

Rand’s language hasn’t done much to advance her case and indeed it has obscured areas where her insights are now widely accepted. Today, for example, you can find many books
attacking the evil of altruism. Surprised? Of course, the books don’t use those terms, instead they call it the problem of codependency (or some other such). Relatedly, it’s no accident that Hillary Clinton was once an avid Randian (recall her political career started with Barry Goldwater) because Rand is an important feminist. Rand’s portrayal of strong, independent, intelligent women is coming to be recognized as a landmark in fiction but in addition Rand’s attacks on self-sacrifice have special meaning in a culture that has long used the “caring ethic” to bind women to the service of others.

Of weaknesses there are many, most of which flow from the combination of Rand as philosopher, novelist and powerful personality. John Galt, for example, is but one instantiation of the Randian/Aristotelian virtue ethic, an instantiation which was created for a particular aesthetic purpose by a particular person. To often both Rand and her detractors have taken the instantiation for the class thereby limiting the vision.

Tips for viewing The Merchant of Venice

1. There is textual evidence that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, but anti-Semitism is not the primary point of the plot.

2. Shakespeare uses stereotypes about Jews to mock his audience and to mock anti-Semites.  Most of all he is pointing the joke back in the faces of the bigots.  "Who is the merchant and who is the Jew?" is one of the central lines of the text.  And it is no accident that the play is named after the merchant, not after Shylock.

3. Shakespeare shows most of the play’s Christians to be mean, hypocritical, and full of lies.  They have every bad quality that they accuse the Jews of having, and more.  This is a very dark comedy.

4. The stories concerning the rings should be followed carefully.  The film mentions briefly (too briefly, perhaps) that Shylock treasured and kept the ring from his wife.  Compare this to how the Christians treat their rings.

5. The homosexual and lesbian implications of the story are explicit rather than some postmodern reinterpretation.

Elsewhere on the cinematic front, Yana has been watching the Star Wars trilogy for the first time ("…so these are the ones where he has the breathing problem").  I’ve been amazed how readily and appropriately the episodes have made the transition from "slick futuristic vision" to "dark tale of collapse, decay, and clunky technological malfunction."  I can hardly wait for May to roll around.

Do MacArthur Awards stimulate genius?

As part of a program widely known as genius grants, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation most years gives one or more authors $500,000, hoping financial freedom will help the writers produce their best work.

An examination of the program, however, reveals that most of the 31 writers chosen since 1981 as MacArthur Fellows had already hit their artistic peak. That conclusion is supported by the 14 major awards – either a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award or PEN/Faulkner prize – and 37 minor awards the authors received before getting their MacArthur money.

Surveying book reviews, author profiles and the opinions of literary scholars, Crain’s determined that 88% of the MacArthur recipients wrote their greatest works before being recognized by the Chicago-based foundation. The sheer number of books produced by the writers declined, too, after their MacArthur awards.

It would reinforce romantic notions that great art requires personal sacrifice to suggest that, half-a-million dollars in hand, writers get lazy. But something else appears to account for the failure of the MacArthur program to fulfill its promise: Writers are mostly chosen too late in their careers, average age 48, and well after the literary establishment has recognized them for excellence.

Daniel Drezner offers further commentary.  I see two options.  Either the prizes stimulate genius by paying rewards ex post, or we would be better served by scattering smaller grants to a greater number of unknown writers.  Ex ante subsidies do better than ex post prizes when the relevant creators are liquidity constrained.  That is, without the upfront grant, a great but still obscure writer might have to drop out of the game for lack of money.  Since that is a plausible description of the market for fiction, most prizes and grants in this area should take more chances.  Tenured academics, in contrast, are not usually liquidity constrained (unless they have expensive lab bills); ex post prizes will work better for them.

That being said, it is easy to see why foundations — which involve accountability to a board of trustees — might prefer a more conservative approach.  Yes a foundation may care about the world, but it must also support its own reputation, generate favorable publicity, and build a "ruling coalition" which reaps reputational awards from making quality grants.  All of these factors will militate in favor of awards to established producers.  When accountability is in place, who will opt for a very risky investment which fails in at least ninety percent of all cases?

Murakami and Kafka

The most important fact we gleaned from the records was that, medically speaking, the incident had caused no lasting impact on the children.  From right after the event to the present day, the examination and tests consistently indicated no internal or external abnormalities.  The children were leading healthy lives, just as they had before the incident.  Detailed examinations revealed that several of the children had parasites, but nothing out of the ordinary…The one notable thing was that the two-hour span during which the children had been unconscious in the hills was erased from their memory.  As if that part had been extracted in toto.  Rather than a memory loss, it was more a memory lack.

That is from Haruki Murakami’s new Kafka on the Shore.

He is one of the few contemporary writers always worth reading.  His Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a minor (and neglected) classic of social science.  Or do you love intellectual-geeky science fiction, but think you have run dry?  Try his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  The best "literary" introduction is probably A Wild Sheep Chase.


In one study we were watching newlyweds, and what often happened with the couples who ended up in divorce is that when one partner would ask for credit, the other spouse wouldn’t give it.  And with the happier couples, the spouse would hear it and say, ‘You’re right.’  That stood out…for a marriage to survive, the ratio of positive to negative emotion in a given encounter has to be at least five to one.

That is one early passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  So far I find the book intriguing but once I have read it I will offer a less accurate evaluation.

Who is James Buchanan?

James Buchanan was asked to define himself in a single paragraph, here is the result:

all is said, I have faced few genuine choices between work and play
because there is really no distinction.  My work is my play, and I am
surely among the fortunate in this as in so many other aspects of a
happy and well-ordered life.  I have not been plagued by psychological
hangovers that make me try to respond to the "whys" of existence or the
"whats" beyond.  I hope that I seem what I think I am: a constitutional
political economist who shares an appreciation for the Judeo-Christian
heritage that produced the values of Western culture and institutions
of civil order, particularly as represented in the Madisonian vision of
what the United States might have been and might still become.  Am I
grossly naive to think this definition is sufficient unto itself?

That is from Ideas, Persons, and Events, volume 21 in the collected works of James Buchanan, published by Liberty Fund.  This book is remarkable fun, and costs only $12.00, recommended.

Energy economics

What most of us think about energy supply is wrong.  Energy supplies are unlimited; it is energetic order that’s scarce, and the order in energy that’s expensive…

Our main use of energy isn’t lighting, locomotion, or cooling; what we use energy for, mainly, is to extract, refine, process, and purify energy itself.  And the more efficient we become at refining energy in this way, the more we want to use the final product.  Thus, more efficient engines, motors, lights, and cars lead to more energy consumption, not less…

These are the seven great energy heresies we propound in this book:

1. The cost of energy as we use it has less and less to do with the cost of fuel.  Increasingly, it depends instead on the cost of the hardware we use to refine and process the fuel.  Thus, we are not witnessing the twilight of fuel.

2. "Waste" is virtuous.  We use up most of our energy refining energy itself, and dumping waste energy in the process.  The more such wasteful refining we do, the better things get all around.  All this waste lets us do more life-arrirming thing better, more clearly, and more safely.

4. The competitive advantage in manufacturing is now swinging decisively back toward the United States…[information technologies]

6. The raw fuels are not running out.  The faster we extract and burn them, the faster we find still more.  Whatever it is that we so restlessly seek — and it isn’t in fact "energy" — we will never run out.  Energy supplies are infinite…

That is all from the new Peter Huber and Mark Mills book, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.  The authors do not quite connect their premises to their conclusions, but it makes for interesting reading.  I took away the lesson that our energy consumption will rise indefinitely (and why), at least until our civilization falls.

Is French taxation progressive?

…French social policy is not overwhelmingly redistributive, and it is not financed with progressive income taxes, as in Denmark and Sweden, nor is it financed with a mix of progressive income taxes and payroll taxes, as in Germany, Canada, and Britain.  As in other corporatist/continental consrevative welfare states, French social spending is financed with a mix of regressive payroll taxes, regressive sales taxes, and, for a little over a decade, a smaller "general social contribution" tax…

From the 1950s until roughly 1980 France was the leader in income inequality among OECD nations….in France the top 20% of income earners received 24% of transfer payments and the bottom 20% of earners only 18%.  By 1991 French social policy was slightly more progressive, but French manual workers "remain[ed] in virtually the same relative position…"

…France remains a highly stratified society in both the social and economic sense.  The wealthiest 10% of the French income ladder are 50% richer than their Swedish counterparts and the upper quarter of the French income ladder is not brought down by the tax system the way it is in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany…today many of France’s wealthy citizens occupy privileged spots at the core of the "welfare state."  This is one of the key reasons they tend to support it.

That is from Timothy Smith’s recent and excellent France in Crisis: Welfare, Inequality, and Globalization since 1980.  The tale is told from a center-left perspective, and yes he also explains what the French get right.  Highly recommended, it is the best book I know on the contemporary French economy and polity.

…if the atoms obeyed Newton’s laws, they would disintegrate whenever they bumped into another atom.  What keeps two atoms locked in a stable molecule is the fact that electrons can simultaneously be in so many places at the same time that they form an electron "cloud" which binds the atoms together.  Thus, the reason why molecules are stable and the universe does not disintegate is that electrons can be many places at the same time.

But if electrons can exist in parallel states hovering between existence and nonexistence, then why can’t the universe?  After all, at one point the universe was smaller than an electron.  Once we introduce the possibility of applying the quantum principle to the universe, we are forced to consider parallel universes.

That is from Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos.  The book offers the best popular explanation I have seen of why we may be living in a hologram.  But if you wish to feel better about your intellect, and baffle your friend with a Ph.d. in physics, buy him Douglass North’s new Understanding the Process of Economic Change.

Jared Diamond’s new book

Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed came out this weekend.

In essence Diamond’s book consists of two parts.  The first and lengthiest part (416 of 525 text pages) examines how several past societies — including the Mayans and Easter Island — met their doom.  In every studied case deforestation and soil erosion played important roles.  This part of the book could have been published on a stand-alone basis with the title How Poor and Backward Societies Suffer From Deforestation and Ill-Defined Property Rights.  Specialists might carp that the material relies on secondary sources, but I found it to be stimulating and informative throughout.

The second part of the book is brief, and details major environmental problems faced today.  This includes overpopulation, vanishing energy supplies, the loss of biodiversity, and so on.  The material was well-presented but the overall level was not much above what you would find in a good magazine article.

The key to the "meta-book" is Diamond’s claim that part one — the history of deforestation — means we should worry more about part two, namely current environmental problems.  The meta-book fails.

Yes we should worry about the environment today, but largely because of current data and analysis, not because of past history.  If you look at the past, the single overwhelming fact is that all previous environmental problems, at the highest macro level, were overcome.  We moved from the squalor of year 1000 to the mixed but impressive successes of 2005, a huge step forward.  Environmental problems, however severe, did not prevent this progress.  We may not arrive in 3005 with equal ease, but if you are a pessimist you should be concerned with the uniqueness of the contemporary world, not its similarities to the past.

Today’s world is indeed different.  We are much wealthier, we have (partially) responsive democratic governments, reasonably effective government regulations, much higher population, an astonishing command over science, we are globally connected, and of course we use resources at a much higher clip.  Whether you are an optimist or pessimist about modernity, the history of Greenland or the Pitcairn Islands should not much revise your priors about our future.

Here is Diamond’s recent NYT Op-Ed; Cafe Hayek has a negative reaction.  Here is a quasi-review of the book from Matt Yglesias.  Here is Alex on a fishy fact in the book.  Here is my previous post on the book, which links to an interview with Diamond and a Malcolm Gladwell review.

The claim in the book I would most like to bet against:

"In the long run it is doubtful that Australia can even support its present population: the best estimate of a population sustainable at the present standard of living is 8 million people, less than half of the present population." 

Any takers?

What I’ve been reading

Garry Kasparov – Garry Kasparov on Fischer, My Great Predecessors, volume 4 – Fascinating, just imagine if Beethoven had written a book on Mozart.  Most of the page is chess games, but the remaining text is alone worth the price.  Kasparov makes a convincing case that Fischer relied heavily on his opponent’s major blunders, and that he would have a hard time beating many of the best post-1972 players.  Can a subsequent champion make such an argument and keep a gracious tone?  That is just part of what makes the book so interesting.  Here is one review, including an interview.

Ron Chernow – Alexander Hamilton – I’ve reached the point where I hate books on the Founding Fathers, and I vowed I would not touch this one.  But I weakened and it won me over.  It stands as one of the best biographies I have read, plus it is full of economic history.

Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo – He’s Just Not That Into You – Natasha reads me excerpts from this at night.  Recast in rational choice terms, the main point is that women suffer from weakness of will, and require exhortation to adopt higher standards.  They should split up with more guys, most of whom have no intention of marrying them. 

Is the postulated problem — namely excessively low female standards — well-suited for genetic fitness but not utility maximization?  Or was it well-suited for hunter-gatherer society but no longer today?  How elastic is the supply of quality manhood, in response to higher standards from females?  Must we revise the standard economic account that males will invest too much in signaling quality?

Gregory Conko and Gregory Miller – The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the BioTech Revolution – The title says it all, recommended.  Here is a summary interview.

Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson – Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior – Main point: animals are smarter and more sensitive than you think, most of them just happen to be autistic.  After you read the book, this suddenly seems intuitively obvious.  This book I could not put down, and note that one of the authors is herself autistic.

Jared Diamond on Ecocide

Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed is due out December 29th.  His main argument is that many past civilizations have declined due to ecological catastrophes, and that we underestimate similar risks today.  Here is an exclusive article by Diamond, which summarizes much of the book. 

His older Guns, Germs, and Steel is a modern classic on the rise of the West; I am also much enamored of his The Third Chimpanzee.  You’ll hear more on his latest once I get my hands on it, any Diamond book is an event.

Addendum: Blogger David Friedman points my attention to this Malcolm Gladwell review.  Read Matt Yglesias on the book as well.