Category: Books

Marijuana fact of the day

In California, three years into the era of legalization under the Proposition 64 ballot initiative, data indicate that only about one-quarter of weed sold and consumed in the state is legally licensed and that the remaining three-quarters is produced outside legal market channels.

And from a later chapter:

And that is why some people say, and we consider it plausible, that the so-called legalization of weed in some North American markets has illegalized more weed than it legalized.

That is from the new and excellent Can Legal Weed Win?: The Blunt Realities of Cannabis Economics, by Robin Goldstein and Daniel Sumner.

James Person’s Hawaii bleg

Could you please recommend or ask your readers’ recommendations for books about Hawaiian history and culture? I am visiting the state for the first time and like to approach my travels with a deeper understanding as you exemplify in your MR travel posts. Thank you for your time and help and especially for MR and Conversations!

Your assistance for James would be much appreciated!

That was then, this is now, again Russia/Ukraine edition

Circa 1919, with Ukraine under siege from the Bolshevik armies:

Things, however, did not soon improve.  Again to take the case of Odessa, by the end of April electricity was running out.  “Thus in one month they have brought chaos to everything,” Bunin snarled, “no factories, no railroads, no trams, no water, no bread, no clothes — no nothing!”  In fact the Bolsheviks had inherited the chaos and the crisis; they also inherited — and exacerbated — the free-wheeling brutality displayed on all sides and of which…they were the beneficiaries.  To this kind of panache they applied a new moral calculus.

That is from Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921, which as noted yesterday is quite a good book, especially for viewing the Bolshevik Revolution through the eyes of what became the broader Soviet empire.

That was then, this is now: Russia/Ukraine edition

What became known as “the first Soviet conquest of the Ukraine” was achieved without much resistance. The Ukrainian soldiers who had pledged allegiance to the Rada in summer 1917, while still part of the Imperial Army, were now back in their villages.  Petliura had poorly trained men at his disposal, mostly the so-called Free Cossacks (Vilne kozatsvo), some of whom found the Bolshevik appeal more attractive and changed sides.  In abandoning the city, Petliura’s followers not surprisingly had executed as many of the renegades as they could get their hands on.  Once in possession of Kiev, Colonel Murav’ev introduced his own reign of terror.

That is from Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921, which is in general a very useful book.

*Amongst Women*

That is the title of a 1990 Irish novel by John McGahern, well-known in Ireland but as of late not so frequently read outside of Ireland.  In addition to its excellent general quality, I found this book notable for two reasons.  First, it focuses on the feminization of Ireland, being set in the mid-century decades after independence.  An IRA veteran slowly realizes that the Ireland he fought for — a place for manly men — was a figment of his civil war imagination, and not an actual option for an independent, modernizing Ireland.  The latter will be run according to the standards and desires of women, and actually be far more pleasant, whether or not Moran likes it.  Second, the book is an excellent illustration of the importance of context for reading fiction.  The story reads quite differently, depending how quickly you realize the protagonist is an IRA veteran with his wartime service as a fundamental experience.  Few readers will know this from the very beginning, but I suspect many Irish readers — especially older ones — will figure this out well before they are told.  In general, the very best fiction is context-rich, and this is one reason why many people may not appreciate all of the literary classics.

That was then, this is now, Russian political economy edition

From Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon:

Though all four continental great powers were in theory absolute monarchies, no one doubted that the power of The Russian emperor was more complete than that of his French Austrian or even Prussian peers.  He could make laws and tax his peoples without their consent, and no laws protected even his most aristocratic subjects against his arbitrary whims.  By contrast, especially in France and Austria, aristocratic assemblies and judicial institutions inherited from medieval feudalism inhibited a monarch’s power, as indeed did the ethos of the social elites, including sometimes of the monarchs themselves and their relatives.  Other factors also enhanced the power of the Russian autocrat.  For examples, in Protestant Europe the previously enormous landholdings of the Catholic church had been confiscated during the Reformation and had mostly fallen into the hands of the aristocracy.  In eighteenth-century Catholic Europe most of these lands were still held by the Church.  In Russia, however, the monarchy had confiscated the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church by the 1760s and largely held on to it for itself.  That was one key reason why by the 1790s more than 40 per cent of the entire serf population “belonged” not to private landlords but to the crown.


The Russian army traditionally fought with a higher ratio of artillery to infantry than was the case elsewhere in Europe.


The Russians instead soon overran the principalities of Moldova and Wallachia, and made their acquisition the key war aim.

I found this book very useful for understanding the mindset of Putin and some of the other Russian elites.  For instance, none of the characters in this earlier history seemed to regard the national borders of the status quo as anything close to sacrosanct.

*The Restless Republic*

The author is Anna Keay and the subtitle is Britain Without a Crown, of course covering the 17th century British interregnum without a king.  Here is one relevant bit:

The rise of the newspapers was itself an aspect of the explosion in publishing which took place in the mid-seventeenth century.  In the year 1500 just over fifty books were printed in England, in 1600 the number was 300, come 1648 more than 2,300 titles poured off the presses in a single year.  Perhaps 30 percent of all men and 10 per cent of all women could read, and over double those percentages in the capital, a readership now offered an addictive weekly news fix that involved them as never before in the turbulent goings on of their kingdom.

One of my ongoing projects is to brush up on my seventeenth century European history, out of fear that it may be an especially relevant era right now.  The Keay book I found excellent throughout, especially her treatment of the Levellers, Sir William Petty, and more generally how the Irish and English histories of that time intersect.

What I’ve been reading

1. Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism.  An excellent look at all the icky ideas that have been circulating around Russia for the last few decades.  This book also brings the relevant characters to life, for better or worse.  Recommended.

2. Christopher Prendergast, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust.  Unlike most of the secondary literature, this book actually makes In Search of Lost Time sound like it is worth reading.

3. Elizabeth Popp Berman, Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy.  A useful book, and many people should read it, that said I have some caveats.  Was “equality” ever the standard?  Why isn’t there more public choice/political economy analysis in here?

4. Joseph Sassoon, The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty.  A fun read, I had not known the family was Iraqi-Jewish, or so heavily involved in the opium trade in 19th century China.  The author, by the way, is a distant relation to the main family tree, but it turns out he can read all the relevant languages for deciphering the family archives (and hardly anyone else can).

5. Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout.  Bowen has to be one of the most underrated writers of the twentieth century.  No human ever has told me to read one of her books!  Yet this one is a subtle knockout.

Kotkin on Russia and the West

A great interview with historian Stephen Kotkin. Kotkin has some some thoughts on the Kennan, Mearsheimer, Kissinger, Hill, Service et al. view that expanding NATO was a precipitating event in the Ukraine-Russia war which are well taken, albeit he fails to think on the margin. Much more important is his full throated defense of the West. Just a few months ago a defense like this would have been branded as right-wing agitprop and the author attacked for not being woke to the evils of capitalism. But Putin has reminded the West of its virtues.

How do you define “the West”?

The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. We sometimes forget where they came from. But that’s what the West is.

And yet, as corrupt as China is, they’ve lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. Education levels are rising. The Chinese leaders credit themselves with enormous achievements.

Who did that? Did the Chinese regime do that? Or Chinese society? Let’s be careful not to allow the Chinese Communists to expropriate, as it were, the hard labor, the entrepreneurialism, the dynamism of millions and millions of people in that society.

On a kind of natural resource curse:

…in Russia, wealth comes right up out of the ground! The problem for authoritarian regimes is not economic growth. The problem is how to pay the patronage for their élites, how to keep the élites loyal, especially the security services and the upper levels of the officer corps. If money just gushes out of the ground in the form of hydrocarbons or diamonds or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors can say, we don’t need you. We don’t need your taxes. We don’t need you to vote. We don’t rely on you for anything, because we have oil and gas, palladium and titanium.

On why the stupid get on top:

You have to remember that these regimes practice something called “negative selection.” [In a democracy, AT] You’re going to promote people to be editors, and you’re going to hire writers, because they’re talented; you’re not afraid if they’re geniuses. But, in an authoritarian regime, that’s not what they do. They hire people who are a little bit, as they say in Russian, tupoi, not very bright. They hire them precisely because they won’t be too competent, too clever, to organize a coup against them. Putin surrounds himself with people who are maybe not the sharpest tools in the drawer on purpose.

That does two things. It enables him to feel more secure, through all his paranoia, that they’re not clever enough to take him down. But it also diminishes the power of the Russian state because you have a construction foreman who’s the defense minister [Sergei Shoigu], and he was feeding Putin all sorts of nonsense about what they were going to do in Ukraine. Negative selection does protect the leader, but it also undermines his regime.

On the importance of error correction:

…Finally, you’ve given credit to the Biden Administration for reading out its intelligence about the coming invasion, for sanctions, and for a kind of mature response to what’s happening. What have they gotten wrong?

They’ve done much better than we anticipated based upon what we saw in Afghanistan and the botched run-up on the deal to sell nuclear submarines to the Australians. They’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the thing about the United States. We have corrective mechanisms. We can learn from our mistakes. We have a political system that punishes mistakes. We have strong institutions. We have a powerful society, a powerful and free media. Administrations that perform badly can learn and get better, which is not the case in Russia or in China. It’s an advantage that we can’t forget.

And most importantly, we need to blaze a path to de-escalation.

The problem now is not that the Biden Administration made mistakes; it’s that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to “do something” because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

A great interview. Read the whole thing.

Do pictures signal less power than words?

This research shows people are perceived as less powerful when they use pictures versus words. This effect was found across picture types (company logos, emojis, and photographs) and use contexts (clothing prints, written messages, and Zoom profiles). Mediation analysis and a mediation-by-moderation design show this happens because picture-use signals a greater desire for social proximity (versus distance) than word-use, and a desire for social proximity is associated with lower power. Finally, we find that people strategically use words (pictures) when aiming to signal more (less) power. We refute alternative explanations including differences in the content of pictures and words, the medium’s perceived appropriateness, the context’s formality, and the target’s age and gender. Our research shows pictures and words are not interchangeable means of representation. Rather, they signal distinct social values with reputational consequences.

That is from new research by Elinor Amit, Shai Danziger, and Pamela K. Smith.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighteenth cohort

Zvi Mowshowitz, TheZvi, New York City, to develop his career as idea generator and public intellectual.

Nadia Eghbal, Miami, to study and write on philanthropy for tech and crypto wealth.

Henry Oliver, London, to write a book on talent and late bloomers.  Substack here.

Geffen Avrahan, Bay Area, founder at Skyline Celestial, an earlier winner, omitted from an early list by mistake, apologies Geffen!

Subaita Rahman of Scarborough, Ontario, to enable a one-year visiting student appointment at Church Labs at Harvard University.

Gareth Black, Dublin, to start YIMBY Dublin.

Pradyumna Shyama Prasad, blog and podcast, Singapore.  Here is his substack newsletter, here is his podcast about both economics and history.

Ulkar Aghayeva, New York City, Azerbaijani music and bioscience.

Steven Lu, Seattle, to create GenesisFund, a new project for nurturing talent, and general career development.

Ashley Lin, University of Pennsylvania gap year, Center for Effective Altruism, for general career development and to learn talent search in China, India, Russia.

James Lin, McMaster University gap year, from Toronto area, general career development and to support his interests in effective altruism and also biosecurity.

Santiago Tobar Potes, Oxford, from Colombia and DACA in the United States, general career development, interest in public service, law, and foreign policy.

Martin Borch Jensen of Longevity Impetus Grants (a kind of Fast Grants for longevity research), Bay Area and from Denmark, for a new project Talent Bridge, to help talented foreigners reach the US and contribute to longevity R&D.

Jessica Watson Miller, from Sydney now in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit to improve the treatment of mental illness.

Congratulations to you all!  We are honored to have you as Emergent Ventures winners.

The cultural evolution of love in literary history

Since the late nineteenth century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred to as the emergence of ‘courtly love’). However, more recent works have shown a similar increase in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese cultures. Why such a convergent evolution in very different cultures? Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we leverage literary history and build a database of ancient literary fiction for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3,800 years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Modern period. We first confirm that romantic elements have increased in Eurasian literary fiction over the past millennium, and that similar increases also occurred earlier, in Ancient Greece, Rome and Classical India. We then explore the ecological determinants of this increase. Consistent with hypotheses from cultural history and behavioural ecology, we show that a higher level of economic development is strongly associated with a greater incidence of love in narrative fiction (our proxy for the importance of love in a culture). To further test the causal role of economic development, we used a difference-in-difference method that exploits exogenous regional variations in economic development resulting from the adoption of the heavy plough in medieval Europe. Finally, we used probabilistic generative models to reconstruct the latent evolution of love and to assess the respective role of cultural diffusion and economic development.

Speculative, that is a new paper by Nicholas Baumard, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, and Lou Safra.

(Small) markets in everything

Ralph Nader spent a career bashing corporate executives. Now he’s written a book praising some. It’s not going down too well.

Tentatively called “Twelve CEOs I Have Known and Admired,” the book is more than a little off-brand for the man who upended the world of auto safety with the blockbuster “Unsafe at Any Speed” and then attacked corporate behavior in a number of other industries.

Based on a string of rejection letters from publishers, Mr. Nader said he fears he’s been typecast, making any accolades he might have for corporate tycoons a hard sell. His literary agent, Ronald Goldfarb, advised him to change course and go negative, he says.

“He wanted chapters on bad CEOs,” Mr. Nader said of Mr. Goldfarb.

“I didn’t tell him what to write,” Mr. Goldfarb retorts. “I told him what I could sell.” The two parted ways after working on the manuscript for three months.

Mood affiliation strikes again.  Nader fans don’t want to positively affiliate with CEOs, and “love letter” types do not always wish to affiliate with Nader.  (By the way, here is my 2014 chat with Nader.)  Here is the rest of the Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg WSJ article.

*The Affirmative Action Empire*

The author is Terry Martin of Harvard, and the subtitle is Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939.  This is an excellent book for understanding how some of the current Russia vs. Ukraine issues are rooted in Bolshevik times.  Here is one excerpt:

This understanding of nationalism led Platakov to support the only apparently logical response: attack nationalism as a counterrevolutionary ideology and nationality itself as a reactionary remnant of the capitalist era.  Lenin and Stalin, however, drew the exact opposite conclusion.  They reason as follows.  By granting the forms of nationhood, the Soviet state could split the above-class national alliance for statehood.  Class divisions, then, would naturally emerge, which would allow the Soviet government to recruit proletarian and peasant support for their socialist agenda.  Lenin argued that Finnish independence had intensified, not reduced, class conflict.  National self-determination would have the same consequences within the Soviet Union.


As a nationalized entity, the Soviet Union can best be described as an Affirmative Action Empire…The Soviet Union was the first country in world history to establish Affirmative Action programs for national minorities, and no country has yet approached the vast scale of Soviet Affirmative Action.

The goal of course was to limit the emergence of non-Russian nationalism, not to boost the fortunes of the ethnic and national minorities themselves.