Category: Books

American dams in the 19th century

To appreciate how essential dams were in the nineteenth century, simply look at the 1840 U.S. Census: It found that almost every river had a dam, and many rivers had dozens.  In total, the twenty-six states that made up the United States at the time had around 65,000 dams.  With a population of only 17 million at that time, the United States had one dam for every 261 people.

That is from the new and often quite interesting Martin Doyle, The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers.

What I’ve been reading

The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony.  Falls into the “contrarian, but shouldn’t need to be contrarian” category.  It makes good points, but I felt it was interior to my knowledge set.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Spring, a comeback for Knausgaard.

Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Quran and the Bible: Text and Commentary.  I won’t have the time soon to work through the thousand pages of this book, but it appears to be a major achievement and of very high quality.  Here is the book’s home page.  Here is a good piece by Reynolds on related topics.

Nick Polson and James Scott, AIQ: How People and Machines are Smarter Together, is a new and (believe it or not) original and very good take on this theme.

Heiner Rindermann, Cognitive Capitalism: Human Capital and Wellbeing of Nations perhaps covers too much ground, but is still a very useful 500 pp. plus survey of exactly what the title suggests.

Jan Assmann, The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus.  One of the best introductory works on the best and most important book ever written.

*Parking and the City*, edited by Donald Shoup

This is the definitive book on the economics of parking, here is one short summary bit by Shoup from his introduction:

Remove off-street parking requirements.  Developers and businesses can then decide how many parking spaces to provide for their customers.

Charge the right prices for on-street parking.  The right prices are the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on each block, so there will be no parking shortages.  Prices will balance the demand and supply for on-street parking spaces.

Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets.  If everybody sees their meter money at work, the new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular.

You can order the book here.  Here is my earlier NYT column on the economics of parking.

*The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50*

I was very happy to have blurbed this new and wonderful book by Jonathan Rauch, here is one adapted excerpt:

Like adolescence, the happiness dip at midlife is developmentally predictable, and can be aggravated by isolation, confusion, and self-defeating thought patterns. Like adolescence, it can lead to crisis, but it is not, in and of itself, a crisis. Rather, like adolescence, it generally leads to a happier stage. In short, although adolescence and the trough of the happiness curve are not at all the same biologically, emotionally, or socially, both transitions are commonplace and nonpathological. But one of them has a supportive social environment, whereas the other has … red sports cars.

You can order the book here.

*Paul Simon: The Life*

In 1974, near the peak of his fame, Paul Simon started taking music lessons.

The melody of “American Tune,” my favorite Paul Simon song, is taken from a Bach chorale from St. Matthew’s Passion.

Paul Simon originally was to have played guitar on “Rock Island Line” for the Nilsson/Lennon Pussy Cats album, but Lennon and Simon could not get along with each other and Lennon kept on putting his hand on Simon’s guitar strings to stop him from playing, eventually causing Simon to leave.

Art Garfunkel originally was slated to be dual vocalist on the Hearts and Bones album (TC’s favorite Paul Simon creation by the way), though Simon cut out the vocal tracks that Garfunkel had recorded.

Around 2012 Simon developed a strong interest in the music of American “hobo composer” Harry Partch.

Those are from the new Paul Simon biography by Robert Hilburn.

My Conversation with Bryan Caplan

Bryan was in top form, I can’t recall hearing him being more interesting or persuasive.  Here is the audio and text.  We talked about whether any single paper is good enough, the autodidact’s curse, the philosopher who most influenced Bryan, the case against education, the Straussian reading of Bryan, effective altruism, Socrates, Larry David, where to live in 527 A.D., the charm of Richard Wagner, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You love Tolstoy, right?

CAPLAN: Yeah. You love Tolstoy because here’s a guy who not only has this encyclopedic knowledge of human beings — you say he knows human nature. Tolstoy knows human natures. He realizes that there are hundreds of kinds of people, and like an entomologist, he has the patience to study each kind on its own terms.

Tolstoy, you read it: “There are 17 kinds of little old ladies. This was the 13th kind. This was the kind that’s very interested in what you’re eating but doesn’t wish to hear about your romance, which will be contrasted with the seventh kind which has exactly the opposite preferences.” That’s what’s to me so great about Tolstoy.

Here is one of my questions:

What’s the fundamental feature in Bryan Caplan–think that has made you, unlike most other nerds, so much more interested in Stalin than science fiction?

Here is another exchange:

COWEN: You think, in our society in general, this action bias infests everything? Or is there some reason why it’s drawn like a magnet to education?

CAPLAN: Action bias primarily drives government. For individuals, I think even there there’s some action bias. But nevertheless, for the individual, there is the cost of just going and trying something that’s not very likely to succeed, and the connection with the failure and disappointment, and a lot of things don’t work out.

There’s a lot of people who would like to start their own business, but they don’t try because they have some sense that it’s really hard.

What I see in government is, there isn’t the same kind of filter, which is a big part of my work in general in politics. You don’t have the same kind of personal disincentives against doing things that sound good but actually don’t work out very well in practice.

Probably even bigger than action bias is actually what psychologists call social desirability bias: just doing things that sound good whether or not they actually work very well and not really asking hard questions about whether things that sound good will work out very well in practice.

I also present what I think are the three strongest arguments against Bryan’s “education is mostly signaling” argument — decide for yourself how good his answers are.


COWEN: …Parenting and schooling in your take don’t matter so much. Something is changing these [norms] that is mostly not parenting and not schooling. And they are changing quite a bit, right?


COWEN: Is it like all technology? Is the secret reading of Bryan Caplan that you’re a technological determinist?

CAPLAN: I don’t think so. In general, not a determinist of any kind.

COWEN: I was teasing about that.

And last but not least:

CAPLAN: …When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn . . .

COWEN: And when they get mad at me?

CAPLAN: Eh, I understand that.

Hail Bryan Caplan!  Again here is the link, and of course you should buy his book The Case Against Education.

Why aren’t all tall buildings in the same neighborhood the same height?

Let’s say there is a 40-story building and a 60-story building.  You would think the different builders face more or less the same costs for their height decisions.  If you want to own 60 stories, it is still the case that everyone can build the cheapest-height building, and you can buy the stories you want from a variety of sellers.

If you had lots of companies that needed 60 stories, and you didn’t want to split up those firms across locations, and lots of companies that needed only 40 stories, the differential building heights could be explained rather easily.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Most tall buildings house a variety of tenants, and those tenants don’t “need the whole height” or anything close to it.

This puzzle is from Steve Landsburg, who says “color me stumped” in his new and forthcoming book Can You Outsmart An Economist? 100+ Puzzles to Train Your Brain.

Anthony Downs on race and urbanism, that was then this is now

It always surprises me that the name of Anthony Downs is not mentioned more often in conjunction with the Nobel Prize in economics.  His An Economic Theory of Democracy is one of the best and most important books on public choice economics, and it is the major source for the median voter theorem. Yet now a new paperback copy of the book is not to be had for less than $100.  Downs also had major contributions to transportation economics (traffic expands to fill capacity) and housing and urban economics and the theory of bureaucracy.

Yesterday I learned that Downs was a major White House consultant on race and urban affairs in 1967, working with James Tobin and Kermit Gordon and other luminaries on the National Commission on Urban Problems.  What they produced fed into what was described as “The Most Courageous Government Report in the Last Decade,” namely the Kerner Commission report.  Here are some details:

1. Downs did much of the work of the commission and much of the actual writing, including of the Kerner Report, including the section on housing policy and the ghetto.

2. He was very concerned with “white flight” and thought a more radical approach to urban poverty was needed.  He thought Great Society programs had not been tried on a large enough scale.

3. In the view of Downs, major progress already had been made, but he worried that aspirations were rising faster than living standards.

4. He spelt out a “status quo approach,” a “ghetto-improvement strategy,” and a “dispersal strategy” based on integration.  He considered the latter the most ambitious and perhaps the most unikely.  He focused on outlining these alternatives, and their benefits and costs, rather than recommending any one of them.

5. Among the specific proposals considered were a Neighborhood Youth Corps, increasing the minimum wage, job training, public service programs, and a federally enforced fair employment-practices bill.  The draft also encouraged policymakers to think about educational vouchers, decentralizing urban school systems, and educational innovation.  There were arguments as to whether teachers’ unions should be held at fault and weakened.

It is striking how little these debates have progressed since more than fifty years ago.

p.s. Many on the right were critical of the report.

This is all from Steven M. Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.

What I’ve been reading and not reading

Sara Zaske, Achtung Baby: The German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children.  Es erinnert mich an meinen Freund Bryan Caplan aber auf deutsch.  Behind the link you will see how they changed the title for the American edition, I am giving you the better British title.

Pascal Boyer, Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create. Boyer is one of my favorite writers in the “social science tries to explain the previously underexplained anthropological practice” genre, but this one I thought lacked focus and doesn’t have an obvious enough pay-off.  I will try it again, however.

Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen, Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics is an important documentation of their core results.

Primavera De Filippi and Aaron Wright, Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code, is a good treatment of how the principles of blockchain and principles of the law may clash, overlap, or coexist.  It’s a good place to start on the notion that blockchains are fundamentally innovations in governance.

I have yet to crack open The Structural Foundations of Monetary Policy, edited by Michael D. Bordo, John H. Cochrane, and Amit Seru.

There is Christopher Payne and Rob Barnett, The Economist’s Diet, by two economists and based on economic reasoning, noting that I wish never to offer opinions on diet books; this one is “micro habits and meta rules.”

W. Kip Viscusi, Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society, is as you would expect full of good common economic sense.

*The Mind is Flat*

The author is Nick Chater and the subtitle is The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.  I found this to be one of the most interesting books on the mind I have read.  Overall the message is that your hidden inner life ain’t what you think:

According to our common-sense view, the senses map the outer world into some kind of inner copy, so that, when perceiving a book, table or coffee cup, our minds are conjuring up a shadowy ‘mental’ book, table or coffee cup.  The mind is a ‘mirror’ of nature.  But this can’t be right.  There can’t be a 3D ‘mental copy’ of these objects — because they don’t make sense in 3D.  They are like 3D jigsaw puzzles whose pieces simply don’t fit together.  The mind-as-mirror metaphor can’t possibly be right; we need a very different viewpoint — that perception requires inference.

Take that Thomas Reid!  By the way:

This perspective has a further, intriguing and direct prediction: that we can only count colours slowly and laboriously…the apparent richness of colour is itself a trick — that our brains seem to be able to encode no more than one colour (or shape, or orientation) at a time.  But this is what the data tell us.

Here is perhaps the clincher:

…all of us perceive the world through a remarkably narrow channel — roughly a single word, object, pattern or property at a time.

So much of the rest is the top-down processing function of our minds filling in the gaps.

By the way, if you are told to shake your head up and down, nodding in agreement, while reciting a plausible argument, you will assign a higher truth value to that claim.  And emotion is more a “creation of the moment” rather than “an inner revelation.”  If you cross a dangerous bridge to meet up with a woman, thus raising your adrenalin levels, you are more likely to develop a crush on her, that sort of thing.

I cannot evaluate all of the claims in this book, and indeed I am partly skeptical in light of the rather scanty treatment given to cross-sectional variation across heterogeneous individuals.  Still, the author cites evidence for his major claims and applies reasonable and scientific arguments throughout.  I can definitely recommend this book to those interested in serious popular science treatments of the mind, and it is not simply a rehash of other popular science books on the mind.

The top link above is for U.S. Amazon orders, due out in August, I was very happy to have ordered from AmazonUK.

I believe this book was first recommended to me by Tim Harford.

Josh Angrist Joins MRU!

Tyler and I are thrilled that Josh Angrist has agreed to teach a class at MRU, Mastering Econometrics! Josh will be teaching the “Furious Five” of econometrics: random assignment, regression, instrumental variables, regression discontinuity designs, and differences-in-differences methods based, of course, on his great book with Jörn-Steffen Pischke, Mastering Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect.

Josh’s course is in production and will begin later this year. Join up now to get notified as the course begins.

Modern Principles for principles of economics, Mastering Metrics for econometrics, MRU has it all!


What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

Indian population bottlenecks

…we found that West Eurasian-related mixture in India ranges from as low as 20 percent to as high as 80 percent…

Groups of traditionally higher social status in the Indian caste system typically have a higher proportion of ANI [Ancestral North Indians] ancestry than those of traditionally lower social status, even within the same state of India where everyone speaks the same language.  For example, Brahmins, the priestly caste, tend to have more ANI ancestry than the groups they live among, even those speaking the same language.

It also seems that a disproportionate share of the ANI genetic input came from males.  Furthermore:

Around a third of Indian groups experienced population bottlenecks as strong or stronger than the ones that occurred among Finns or Ashkenazi Jews.

Many of the population bottlenecks in India were also exceedingly old.  One of the most striking we discovered was in the Vysya of the souther Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a middle caste group of approximately five million people whose population bottleneck we could date…to betweenthree thousand and two thousand years ago.

The observation of such a strong population bottleneck among the ancestors of the Vysya was shocking.  It meant after the population bottleneck, the ancestors of the Vysya had maintained strict endogamy, allowing essentially no genetic mixing into their group for thousands of years.

And the Vysya were not unique.  A third of the groups we analyzed gave similar signals, implying thousands of groups in India like this…long-term endogamy as embodied in India today in the institution of caste has been overwhelming important for millennia.

…The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.

That is all from David Reich’s superb Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.  Here is my earlier post on the book.