Category: Books

*Stubborn Attachments* opening week

I thank all of you buyers and reviewers for making the opening week of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals such a success.

The book hit #1 in 4 Amazon browse subcategories over the last week:
– Macroeconomics
– Commerce
– Philosophy
– Theory of Economics, and also Comparative Economics

What I’ve been reading

1. Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.  I hadn’t realized that so much was known about her life, or that she spent so much time in Canada, or that she fell into such obscurity during the early part of the twentieth century.  She died the same year Rosa Parks was born.  I liked this book very much.

2. Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road.  A good look at the new conflicts between China and its southeast Asian and central Asian neighbors.  Clear enough to be a good introduction, detailed enough to be useful to those who already know something about the topic.

3. Robert Alter, The Art of Bible Translation.  Alter is one of today’s most important doers, and his forthcoming Hebrew Bible translation is likely to be definitive and the most important act of publication this year.  This short volume presents his perspective on what he has done, most of all focusing on how to turn Hebrew into English.

4. Michael Tomasello, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny.  How does human psychological growth run in the first seven years, in particular how does it instill “culture” in us?  Tomasello address this question in a Belknap Press book by comparing us to chimpanzees and bonobos.  Most of all, how does the capacity for shared intentionality and self-regulation evolve in people?  This is a very thoughtful and also important book, but I’m not sure it finally succeeds into tying up all the pieces into a broader picture of…shared intentionality.

5. Camille Paglia, Provocations.  At first I was discouraged by the notion of a recycled Paglia compilation, but the quality of these pieces is often high and many of them are not readily available elsewhere.  The now-classic  Sexual Personae is still the best introduction to her work, but if you think you might be tempted by this one, you should buy it.  I would put the hit rate at about fifty percent (who else will give you running commentary on the main cinematic adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey?), and it is sad to see so far it has not been seriously reviewed.

Iceland book fact of the day

Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.

Iceland has a wonderful tradition of giving books as Christmas presents, with people reading into the night on Christmas Eve. However, even this may be under threat: in 2005, an Icelander received an average of 1.4 books as gifts at Christmas; this number is now 1.1, with 42% of Icelanders not receiving a single book for Christmas according to the most recent poll…

Recent research shows an alarming rise in students under 15 struggling to read their own language. And they are picking up English at a much faster pace than before – it is not strange to hear them speaking it in the playground.

Here is the full story.

That was then, this is now

A Cincinnati newspaper printed a malevolent editorial proclaiming that [Andrew] Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers.  thereupon she married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, among them Andrew Jackson.  Apprised of this far-fetched, scandalous tale, [John Quincy] Adams thought it absurd, but cynically went on to comment that even if proved true it would probably not hurt Jackson.  The course of the campaign seemed to substantiate all Adams’s apprehensions that fervent partisanship was demolishing reasonableness, a slugfest of calumny and lies replacing political civility.  Vice was triumphing over virtue.  And the cynicism expressed in his reaction to the malignant piece regarding Jackson’s mother and his birth signaled that he had begun to doubt the probity of the republic and its citizens.

That is from the very good book by William J. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics.

Robert Wiblin’s Conversation with Tyler Cowen

This was two and a half hours (!), and it is a special bonus episode in Conversations in Tyler, here is the text and audio.  The starting base of the discussion was my new, just today published book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but of course we ranged far and wide.  Here are a few excerpts:

WIBLIN: Speaking of Tetlock, are there any really important questions in economics or social science that . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.

And this:

COWEN: I think most people are actually pretty good at knowing their weaknesses. They’re often not very good at knowing their talents and strengths. And I include highly successful people. You ask them to account for their success, and they’ll resort to a bunch of cliches, which are probably true, but not really getting at exactly what they are good at.

If I ask you, “Robert Wiblin, what exactly are you good at?” I suspect your answer isn’t good enough. So just figuring that out and investing more in friends, support network, peers who can help you realize that vision, people still don’t do enough of that.


COWEN: But you might be more robust. So the old story is two polarities of power versus many, and then the two looks pretty stable, right? Deterrents. USA, USSR.

But if it’s three compared to a world with many centers of power, I don’t know that three is very stable. Didn’t Sartre say, “Three people is hell”? Or seven — is seven a stable number? We don’t know very much. So it could just be once you get out of two-party stability, you want a certain flattening.

And maybe some parts of the world will have conflicts that are undesirable. But nonetheless, by having the major powers keep their distance, that’s better, maybe.


*Stubborn Attachments* blurbs

You can find them here, note you may need to click on the right to read the furthest right-hand side of the page.  Here are excerpts from those blurbs:

Tim Harford: “His best, most ambitious and most personal work.”

Cardiff Garcia: “I think you’ll find that following the logic in Stubborn Attachments is as fun as it is intellectually provocative.”

Mason Hartman: “The book invites you to fight it.”

Cass Sunstein: “It’s a book for right now, and a book for all times. A magnificent achievement.”

Tomorrow is publication date for the book, you can order here, and here is some background on Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

Note I am donating all of the proceeds to a man in Ethiopia.

Who is a conservative?

From Maxim Gorky’s My Universities:

And I remembered Ibsen’s lines:

“Am I a conservative? Oh, no?

I am still the same as I have been all my life,

I don’t like moving the pieces from one square to another,

I would like to move the whole game.

I can remember only one revolution

It was more clever than those that came after

And it could have destroyed everything

— I mean, of course, the Flood”

The Civil War boosted Northern support for immigration

Here we arrive at one of the least appreciated factors in the equation that led to the Union victory: the military service of immigrants.  Foreign-born recruits provided the Union army with the advantage it needed over its Confederate rival.  An estimated 25 percent of the soldiers in the Union army (some 543,000) and more than 40 percent of the seamen in the navy (84,000) were foreign-born.  If one includes soldiers with at least one immigrant parent, the overall figure climbs to 43 percent of the Union army…

The demands of war meant that Union officials needed to appeal to immigrants.  Military recruitment placards were printed in foreign languages; Union officials presented the war as part of a transnational struggle for republican government, thereby decoupling the idea of the nation from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism…

The military service of the foreign-born did more than enhance the Union’s advantage in the field.  It also transformed the politics of nativism in the United States.  From the nativism of the 1850s, exemplified by Know-Nothingism and bigoted anti-Catholicism, the Union now moved in the direction of welcoming — indeed, encouraging — foreign arrivals.

That is all from the new book by Jay Sexton, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History.

What I’ve been reading

1. Nate Chinen, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century.  Chinen mounts a persuasive argument that the “golden age of jazz” is in fact today, and fills in the background knowledge you might need to grasp such a claim.  I’ve long suggested that if you enjoy live performance, the access/price/talent gradient is truly remarkable.  You can see virtually any world class performer, from an A+ quality seat, for a mere pittance.  Except in London.  The bottom line is that I will keep this book, hardly ever the case.

2. James Mustich, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List.  Paging through this book, from beginning to end, or just browsing it, and buying the attractive-sounding titles is in fact a good (but expensive) way to find new reading.  I see no reason why such volumes should be regarded as absurd.  Right now I am on “Bradley,” and while I don’t agree with all of the selections, they are unfailingly intelligent and at least plausible.

3. Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.  Is she the Chinese writer most likely to next win a Nobel Prize?  “In this darkly comic novel, a group of women inhabits a world of constant surveillance, where informants lurk in the flowerbeds and false reports fly.”  Much of the story is set in a brothel, with a rotating cast of characters.  Parts remind me of The Dream of the Red Chamber, in any case this is definitely a new fictional work of note.  Here is an atypical excerpt: “He and Xiao Yuan had one thing in common: they both valued sensual pleasures.  His greatest wish was to sit in the darkened National Theater and listen to La Traviata with her.  He thought that after experiencing that atmosphere, their sex life would become satisfying.  His idea was naive; Xiao Yuan said he was “too practical.”  She added, “Sex is a black hole.  People can’t understand all of its implications within a lifetime.”

4. Thomas J. Bollyky, Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways is a good history of public health advances, but also how they have led to what are now plague-prone poor megacities.  Here is the author’s piece in Foreign Affairs.

The excellent David C. Wright podcasts me on *Stubborn Attachments*, and on other things

It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.  (If you read the transcript, the sentence in the middle about my believing in God as a teenager is a transcription error, it will be corrected.)  David is one of the best, and best prepared, interviewers I have interacted with.  Here is the audio and transcript.

Here is one bit from the middle:

David: …should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.

[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.

[00:39:14] David: They do.

[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.

[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?

[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.

[00:39:20] David: Better at?

[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.

[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–

[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.

[00:39:43] David: Do you?

[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.

Definitely recommended.

That was then, this is now

Negotiations for the preliminary agreement would be conducted under a new process, which the State Department, employing classic bureaucratic jargon, called “the selective nuclear-multilateral approach.”  In preliminary discussions held in July 1945, the Canadians had proposed this method of negotiations led by a small group of influential nations — which effectively became the model for multilateral trade negotiations for the remainder of the twentieth century — as a compromise between the strictly bilateral approach, which had been favored politically by FDR and Cordell Hull, and the broader multilateral approach the British insisted upon.  The Americans believed they were constricted by the requirements of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act specifically, and by political realities in Congress more generally, to negotiating bilaterally on select tariffs on an item-by-item basis.

That is from the new and highly useful and still under-discussed book The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America, by C. Donald Johnson, Oxford University Press.  I am happy to second Doug Irwin’s blurb: “This splendid book covers the politics of American trade policy from the country’s beginnings through Trump.  Johnson provides a great overview of a fascinating subject.”

Unusual failed Beatle Asimov markets in everything

[Paul] McCartney was still wrestling with the comparison between the two bands [the Beatles and Wings].  A few months earlier he had commissioned veteran sci-fi author Isaac Asimov to write a screenplay. “He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups,” Asimov recalled, “a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters.  The real one would be in pursuit of the imposters and would eventually defeat them, despite the fact that the latter had supernormal powers.”  Beyond that framework, McCartney offered Asimov nothing more than “a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when the group realised they were being victimised by imposters.”  Asimov set to work and produced a screenplay that he called “suspenseful, realistic and moving.”  But McCartney rejected it.  As Asimov recalled, “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue out of which he apparently couldn’t move.”

That is from Peter Doggett’s excellent You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup.

An email from Glen Weyl

I won’t do an extra indent, but this is all Glen, noting I added a link to the post of mine he referred to:

“Tyler, I hope all is well for you.  I am writing to try to somewhat more coherently respond to our various exchanges, partly at the encouragement of Mark Lutter, whom I copy.  As I understand it (but please correct me if I am wrong), you have two specific objections to the COST and QV and one general objection to the project of the book.  If I have missed other things, please point me to them.  Let me very briefly respond to these points:

  • On the COST: you wrote (I cannot actually find the post at this point…not sure where it went) that human capital investments that are complementary with assets may be discouraged or otherwise prejudices by the COST.  However, as we explain in the paper with Anthony (, it has been known since at least Rogerson’s paper ( that VCG leads to first-best investment, including in human capital, as long as those investments are privately valued; we show that this property extends to the COST.  You seem to focus on examples in your post where those human capital investments are privately valued.  I thus do not see an economic efficiency objection to the COST on these grounds.
  • On QV: you write ( that democracy is about far more than decision-making; it is about what people learn and are induced to learn through the democratic process.  This is a deep and critical point and central to what Sen has called the “constitutive” role of democracy.  And this objection has been lodged not just by you but, for example, by Danielle Allen.  It is one I greatly respect and have struggled with.  A fundamental problem here is that no one to my knowledge has managed to model this information acquisition process in a formal model in a way that allows comparison across systems; I have tried, but things get very messy very quickly.  Nonetheless, I have not been able to understand the informal arguments that suggest this would be systematically worse under QV and there are several suggestive arguments that it would be better.  For example, under QV people have the ability to specialize in certain areas of issue or candidate expertise, which in turn should allow for deeper education and for advertising campaigns targeted at those who actually know and care about an issue, rather than those who are hardly paying attention.  Perhaps some would argue that this is a bug, not a feature, because we want every citizen to be informed about every issue; but this seems to be as implausible as suggesting that the division of labor degrades our ability to perform a variety of household tasks.  For more on these, Eric and I have written several articles that discuss: [and]
  • There is a broader Burkean argument that you seem to be making, namely that these institutions are extremely different than those we have historically used and may well have very bad, unintended consequences.  Here, I don’t think we disagree, but I think nonetheless there are at least two reasons I don’t see this as greatly diminishing the value of the ideas.  First, all novel improvements, whether to technology or social institutions, must confront this objection.  And they should confront it, I think, by experimenting at small scales and gradually scaling up and/or course-correcting as we learn about them.  The questions are then a) does the innovation have enough promise to be worth experimenting with, b) is it so risky to experiment with at small scales even that this vitiates a) and c) does it seem like these experiments will teach us something about broader scale applicability.  It seems to me that designs that so clearly address failures that economic theory we both accept says are very large, that are not just worked out in a narrow model but that we have studied from a range of not just economic but sociological and philosophical perspectives and which have caught the imagination of a broad set of entrepreneurs, activists and artists who are really interested in such experiments satisfies a).  I don’t see any objections you or others have raised as raising significant concerns on b).  And on c), it seems to me we will learn quite a lot from even relatively modest experiments (and already have) about the objections I hear most frequently (such as those related to collusion for QV or instability for the COST) that at very least will allow us to incrementally improve and scale a bit larger. So, it seems to me, the strong interest in experimenting with these ideas should be encouraged.

Finally, it seems to me that even if you remain convinced that there are unsurmountable practical difficulties with these mechanisms, that they play an important role in illustrating some pretty sharp divergences between what basic allocative efficiency calls for (and what the marginal revolutionaries like Jevons and Walras were quite explicit about their theories implying) and the outcomes we would expect to arise in the classic libertarian world.  I think the liberal radicalism mechanism makes this sharpest.  This seems instructive even if there is no way to remedy the limitations in these mechanisms because it suggests that the ideal toward which we should be steering societies using mechanisms that are not so dangerous are quite different than the ideal envisioned in standard libertarian theory.  For example, the ideal would seem to involve a much greater role for a range of collective organizations at different community scales with some ability to receive tax-based support than standard libertarian theory would allow.

I am interested in your thoughts on these matters and continuing the exchange.  Sorry for the length of this email, but I felt that I owed you a single, coherent and fairly detailed response.”

TC again: For further detail, I refer you to Glen’s book with Eric Posner.  For background, here are my earlier posts on their work.