Category: Books

My Conversation with Benjamin Friedman

Here is the audio, transcript, and visual. Here is part of the CWT summary:

Benjamin Friedman has been a leading macroeconomist since the 1970s, whose accomplishments include writing 150 papers, producing more than dozen books, and teaching Tyler Cowen graduate macroeconomics at Harvard in 1985. In his latest book, Religion and the Rise of CapitalismBen argues that contrary to the popular belief that Western economic ideas are a secular product of the Enlightenment, instead they are the result of hotly debated theological questions within the English-speaking Protestant world of thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume.

Ben joined Tyler to discuss the connection between religious belief and support for markets, what drives varying cultural commitments to capitalism, why the rate of growth is key to sustaining liberal values, why Paul Volcker is underrated, how coming from Kentucky influences his thinking, why annuities don’t work better, America’s debt and fiscal sustainability, his critiques of nominal GDP targeting, why he wouldn’t change the governance of the Fed, how he maintains his motivation to keep learning, his next big project on artificial intelligence, and more.

Here is one excerpt about religion:

COWEN: If we think of the most influential advocates for capitalism in the mid–20th century, there’s Hayek, I would say Keynes at most phases of his career — maybe not all, Milton Friedman. They seem to be largely secular rather than religious. If we look at theologians — while there’s a great diversity of views, on average, they seem to be left-leaning. So why is it the religious thinkers lean towards socialism, and the economists are quite secular?

FRIEDMAN: I think there’s a part of the story that you’re missing, and that has to do with the coming together at mid–20th century in America, of religious conservatism and economic conservatism. I think the catalyst that brought them together was the existential fear of world communism. Here we are — call it 70 years later, and it’s difficult to put ourselves back in the shoes of Americans in the 1950s, but that was a real fear.

Communism, at least as advocated at that time, had a unique feature of being simultaneously the existential enemy of lots of things that we hold dear. It was the enemy of Western-style political democracy, but it was also the enemy of Western-style market capitalism, and importantly for purposes of this line of argument, it was the enemy of Western-style religion.

I think the religious conservatives and the economic conservatives realized that they had an enemy in common, and they took the threat seriously, and this led them to come together.

And about macro:

COWEN: Pandemic aside, if, on average, G is greater than R, can’t we just grow our way out of the debt? As you mentioned, now borrowing rates are negative in real terms, right? Economic growth, on average, is positive, so just keep on plowing straight ahead. Let the clock tick.

FRIEDMAN: There are two parts of the sustainability question, and you hit one of them correctly. If your economy is growing in real terms faster than the debt, then you can grow your way out of any debt. But there’s another side of it, and that’s how rapidly are you taking on new debt?

Let’s take your question seriously and say we’re going to put the pandemic aside. In the year before the pandemic — we’re talking about the government’s fiscal year 2019, so ended September 30, 2019 — none of us had talked about pandemics yet. In that year, the US government spent $4.5 trillion, and it only took in, in revenues, $3.5 trillion.

That $1 trillion deficit, even at a time of a fully employed economy and, of course, before the pandemic hit, that was nearly 5 percent of our national income — even though our economy was growing nicely, more rapidly than the rate of interest that the government was paying on the debt, we were on the other side of the equation, adding new debt so rapidly that the debt-to-income ratio was going up instead of down.

So simply pointing to the so-called R-minus-G factor, I think, is a very incomplete way to look at the question of sustainability.

Recommended, and here is Ben’s new and very interesting book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

What I’ve been reading

1. Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live.  A pathbreaking book that unearths and presents part of the “hidden” history of economics, in this case as practiced largely by women, and often black women at that.  Think of it as the science and craft of Beckerian household production but with a managerial emphasis.  If you like books on paths not taken, this one is for you.

2. David M. Carballo, Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain.  I never tire of books on this topic, but that should tell you something about the topic, right?  This one is written by an archaeologist, and you can think of it as unearthing the different layers of Aztec culture more effectively than most competitor books.

3. Avi Loeb, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.  The Oumuamua book, by the former chair of the Harvard astronomy department.  I am not able to judge the scientific claims about comets, light refraction, travel spin, and the like, but too much of the book felt like “argument from elimination” to me.  “Well it can’t be this, and can’t be that, and thus it is likely to be…”  That works well for phenomena we understand!  But it can lead you into dangerous traps when you apply it to mysteries.  I get nervous when I read sentences like “Shmuel and I went down a logical path.”  The book is well-written and plenty clear, and can be usefully supplemented with this podcast with the author.  In any case, I find alien origin unlikely, but still see a one percent chance as more than sufficient to justify this entire line of inquiry.

4. Bryn Rosenfeld, The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy.  When is it the middle class that contributes to the resilience of autocracy, rather than its breakdown?  A very interesting book, highly relevant to China among other places.

China fact of the day

Bureaucratic politics is a politics of privilege.  By 1956, the wages of the highest-ranking party and government personnel were set at 36.4 times those of the lowest rank.  (By way of comparison, the highest wage in the “corrupt” Nationalist government in1946 was 14.5 times that of the lowest wage.)

That is from the new and important The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Yang Jisheng, who himself participated in the Cultural Revolution.

What should I ask Dana Gioia?

Dana is what I call one of the world’s information billionaires.  For more specifics, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Michael Dana Gioia (/ˈɔɪ.ə/; born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer. He spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. He served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2003 and 2009. Gioia has published five books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, song cycles, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies.

Gioia is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California, where he teaches, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum. In December 2015 he became the California State Poet Laureate.

He is also well-known as a composer of opera libretti, and more recently as a spokesperson for the importance of Catholicism for culture.  And he is brother of TedGioia, former CWT guest.  And here is Dana’s home page.

I will be doing a Conversation with him — so what should I ask?

That was then, this is now, now it’s now again

To see how much the sanitary and medical revolutions have changed the risks of global interaction, examine what kills Americans abroad these days: cardiovascular events including heart attacks account for 49 percent of all deaths, injuries for a further 25 percent, and infectious diseases other than pneumonia for just 1 percent…even travel to pathogen-rich environments has become far, far safer than it used to be: a study of 185 deaths of US Peace Corps volunteers,  placed in some of the world’s least healthy countries, found that unintentional injuries and suicides were far more deadly than infection, accounting for more than 80 percent of deaths between them.

That is from Charles Kenny’s new and excellent The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, which was started well before Covid.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820.  One of the best books on the history of Enlightenment science, in addition to the core material it focuses on how the leading researchers went about creating public audiences for their investigations and for the scientific questions that interested them.  Indirectly, it is also a good book for understanding the importance of social media today.  And unlike many books of science, it properly places the “could you actually make a career out of doing this?” question in the forefront.

2. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1898-1922.  It is striking how quickly in his life Eliot is corresponding with very famous people, including Bertrand Russell, Ezra Pound, Conrad Aiken, Julian Huxley, Herbert Read, Wyndham Lewis, and others, all before Eliot himself is renowned.  I also enjoy the 23 March 1917 letter to Graham Wallas where Eliot boasts about his new job at Lloyds, praises the extraordinary nature of banking work, and roots for a salary boost.  Later Hermann Hesse and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are added to the mix, and this is only volume one (out of eight).  I have ordered more.  Simply reading the short bios of the letter writers, at the end of the book, is better than most other books.

3. Lara Lee, Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen.  Yes, I have been learning how to cook Indonesian food, a natural extension of my previous interest in cuisines from India, Malaysia, and Singapore.  This is an excellent book for several reasons, and a better book yet for a pandemic.  First, you can fold it open easily on the kitchen counter.  Second, the pages can take some wear and tear.  Third, the key ingredients are readily storable.  Galangal, turmeric, and narrow red chiles all freeze very well.  Refrigerated lemon grass stays good for at least a few weeks.  Shallots and garlic and coconut milk and cream are easy enough to buy and store.  This is actually the #1 issue for a cookbook, if like me you cannot so often plan your cooking in advance.  The Thai grocery in Falls Church has all the “marginal’ ingredients as well.  On top of everything, the resulting food product is yummy!

What should I ask Sarah Parcak?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Sarah Helen Parcak is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, who has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In partnership with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

And here is Sarah on Twitter.  Here is her very useful bio page.  Here is her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes the Past.  So what should I ask her?

What I’ve been reading

1. David M. Friedman, The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrell, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.  This book doesn’t seem so well known, but it should be essential reading for those obsessed with life extension.  It helps explain why the idea has not been historically popular for some time, and why it might stand in tension with certain liberal values.

2. Jonathan Cohn, The Ten Year War: Obamacare and the Unfinished Crusade for Universal Coverage.  This is the book by the person who should have written this book.  Whether you will choose to read a book on this topic, at this point, is perhaps the question. But if you do…

3.Allan Chapman, England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution. Of all the books on Hooke, this one seems to be best (most of what I’m reading I never cover on MR), most of all for showing the unity of his contributions and situating them within the 17th century English milieu.  Microscopes and air pumps and chemistry and barometers and the motion of bodies and helping to rebuild London, and more!

4. Chinmay Tumbe, The Age of Pandemics: 1817-1920, How They Shaped India and the World.  Across 1817-1920, India lost an estimated eight million lives to cholera.  In 1907 alone, India lost an estimated one million lives to the plague.  So there should be many more books on this topic. In the meantime,this is a good introduction to the basic outlines of what happened.

5. Philippe Aghion, Céline Antonin, and Simon Bunel, The Power of Creative Destruction: Economic Upheaval and the Wealth of Nations. A good and clearly written look at that approach to growth and macroeconomics.

6. Emmanuel Kreike, Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime Against Humanity and Nature.  Might this be the most important topic that most smart, very well educated people have never read a book on? And this treatment is excellent and engaging, covering the attacks on Dutch water systems in the 17th century, various Spanish attacks on indigenous American environments, the late 19th century conquest of Aceh, Indonesia, the colonial conquests of Angola and Namibia, and more.  Recommended.

You will note that I have been watching YouTube videos to accompany the science books I have been reading.

Amazon search is failing us

Maybe it is different for you, but when I search Amazon for “D.M. Knight, Science and Spirituality”, D.M. being commonly used in citations to the book, I get this mess — no listing of the book!

If I pop the same into Google, the Amazon listing for the book comes up third.

So more and more I am using Google to search on Amazon (heaven forbid that your Amazon author’s name is “Glass,” you will be offered all sorts of glassworks for sale and if you are lucky the book listing is on p.3).

But what can I use for doing a Google search?  Surely not Google…Daniel Gross must know!

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter

Most of it was about China, but here was my favorite part:

The key to reading Proust is not to pay too much attention to the plot. It’s of no great import, and one has to get used to abrupt shifts. In this way the novel is like Moby-Dick, which can shift from the politics of dining at Ahab’s table to a loving tour of the literal interior of a sperm whale’s head. Couldn’t find the transition? No matter, that detracts not at all from the wonderfulness of the scenes. Focus instead on the humor. There are many funny things that take place in the aristocratic set pieces, such as the constant misunderstandings of M. de Charlus at the dinner of the Verdurins, or his suspicion at the violinist who professes to enjoy solving algebra equations until late into the evenings, or his interactions with the Duc de Guermantes. Really anything with Charlus portends comedy.

Interesting throughout.  And:

I may not not have accomplished much in life, but I’m proud at least to have eaten thalis in Chennai, pizza in Naples, and mie goreng in Singapore.

I know that Beijing is not the world’s best food city, but it might be the best food city for me. One can grab expensive sushi at the restaurant favored by the Japanese embassy or walk a few blocks and order five plates of dumplings for $20. One can find decent dosas, lots of Thai food, and even a bagel store whose breads would be out of place on the Upper West Side but would not be in San Francisco. Best of all, every region of China is represented in this city. To deal with the various challenges of a pandemic year, I found solace in stuffing my face.

I managed to sample dishes from all the provinces this year, including the relatively obscure cuisines from places like Anhui, Guangxi, and Jiangxi. My favorites are: Shanghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan…

Here is my four-step process for ordering success in China:

  1. Greens are usually the glories of the cuisine: order as many vegetables as there are people
  2. If you will have a meat, consider the juiciness that pairs well with the starch: something saucy if you will eat with rice, or less saucy if you will have soup noodles
  3. Order Yunnan mushrooms if they are on the menu
  4. Fill out the rest with cold appetizers, they are never a bad idea

Here is the full piece.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year

Here is a selection of the most popular MR posts of 2020. COVID was a big of course. Let’s start with Tyler’s post warning that herd immunity was fragile because it holds only “for the current configuration of social relations”. Absolutely correct.

The fragility of herd immunity

Tyler also predicted the pandemic yo-yo and Tyler’s post (or was it Tyrone?) What does this economist think of epidemiologists? was popular.

Tyler has an amazing ability to be ahead of the curve. A case in point, What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism was written on January 1 of last year, before anyone was talking about pandemics! State capacity libertarianism became my leitmotif for the year. I worked with Kremer on pushing government to use market incentives to increase vaccine supply and at the same repeatedly demanded that the FDA move faster and stop prohibiting people from taking vaccines or using rapid tests. As I put it;

Fake libertarians whine about masks. Real libertarians assert the right to medical self-defense and demand access to vaccines on a right to try basis.

See my 2015 post Is the FDA Too Conservative or Too Aggressive for a good review of ideas on the FDA. A silver lining of the pandemic may be that more people realize that FDA delay kills.

My historical posts the The Forgotten Recession and Pandemic of 1957 and What Worked in 1918? and the frightening The Lasting Effects of the the 1918 Influenza Pandemic were well linked.

Outside of COVID, Tyler’s 2005 post Why did so many Germans support Hitler? suddenly attracted a lot of interest. I wonder why?

Policing was also popular including my post Why Are the Police in Charge of Road Safety? which called for unbundling the police and my post Underpoliced and Overprisoned revisited.

Tyler’s great post The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren remains more relevant than I would like. On a more positive note see Tyler’s post Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year.

One of the most popular posts of the year and my most popular post was The Gaslighting of Parasite.

But the post attracting the most page views in 2020 by far, however, was Tyler’s and it was…

  1. John Brennan on UFOs.

You people are weird. Don’t expect more UFO content this year. Unless, well you know.

What I’ve been reading

1. Tim Lee, Jamie Lee, and Kevin Coldiron, The Rise of Carry: The Dangerous Consequences of Volatility Suppression and the New Financial Order of Decaying Growth and Recurring Crisis.  If you are looking for the most current version of Austrian Business Cycle theory, this is it.  Doesn’t mean it is right.

2. Abigail Tucker, Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct.  These days this science has an inevitably politically incorrect feel, in any case this is a good book for anyone contemplating or experiencing motherhood, or otherwise tied up in that whole set of issues.  That includes social scientists, too.

3. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.  A better book than it subtitle indicates, it has very good treatments of the role of Humphry Davy in British chemistry, William and Caroline Herschel, and the overall import of Joseph Banks for many decades, among other related topics.

4. Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790.  This tome offers 780 pp. about the Enlightenment, how unhappy can you be?  This book is a well-done introduction, yet perhaps for my knowledge level it spends too much time regurgitating general truths.  I am happy to recommend it to people less interested than I am in reading the primary sources.

I have read the first one hundred pages of Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, a lengthy book due out in April, and my physical review copy just arrived.

I have not had time to read Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II, but it is of possible interest.

I have not had time to read Rachel Holmes’s Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, about the suffragette movement and one of its leaders, but its 840 pp. would appear to be a major achievement with no comparable competitor.