Category: Books

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.

And:

The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.

Or:

…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

And:

Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.

What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.

And:

TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.

And:

AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.

And:

AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.

And:

AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.

[laughter]

ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

The New Arthashastra

The Arthashastra, the science of wealth and politics, is one of the world’s oldest treatises on political economy. Written by Kautilya, legendary advisor to the Indian King Chandragupta Maurya (reign: 321–298 BCE), the Arthashastra has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince and has been a touchstone in Indian political economy for well over a thousand years.

In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by [Kelkar, Vijay, Shah, Ajay]Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, two long-time advisors to the Indian government, have written the new Arthashastra, In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economy Policy. In Service doesn’t go into great detail on current policies in India (Joshi’s Long Road is the best recent overview), it instead distills timeless wisdom on the making of political economy.

When faced with a potential government intervention, it is useful to ask three key questions. Is there a market failure? Does the proposed intervention address the identified market failure? Do we have the ability to implement the proposed intervention?

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) the resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint. These five problems interact, and jointly generate government failure, of both kinds; pursuing the wrong objectives and failing on the objectives that have been established.

A government organization that is riven with corruption is not one which was unlucky to get a lot of corrupt people. It is one where the rules of the game facilitate corruption.

The competitive market process should force the exit of low-productivity firms. This does not happen when the low-productivity firms violate laws–e.g. a low productivity firm may emit pollution, while the high-productivity firm incurs the higher costs associated with the pollution control required in law….When enforcement capabilities, of laws or of taxes, are improved…production will shift from low-productivity firms to high-productivity firms. This reallocation will yield GDP growth, in and of itself.

There are two pillars of intervention in banking in India. On one hand, the state regulates banking. In addition, the Indian state produces banking services through the ownership of bank….There are conflicts between these two [pillars]. Regulation by the state may be indulgent towards its own entities….this calls for strong separation between the two pillars.

Kelkar and Shah are especially concerned with policy making in the Indian context of low state-capacity:

A policy pathway that is very successful in (say) Australia may not work in India as it is being placed in a very different setting. Envisioning how a given policy initiative will work in India requires deep knowledge of the local context.

If the fine for driving through a red light is Rs 10,000, there will be pervasive corruption. Jobs in the highway police will be sought after; large bribes will be paid to obtain these jobs. There will be an institutional collapse of the highway police. It is better to first start with a fine of Rs 100, and build state capacity.

(On that theme see also my paper with Rajagopalan, Premature Imitation.)

In Service to the Republic is the book that every policy maker and future policy maker should be given while being told, “before you do anything, read this!”

Addendum: I will be in India next week and after a visit to Agra and Hampi, I will be giving some talks at Ramaiah University in Bangalore and later in the month at the Indian School of Public Policy.

Solitary Confinement is Torture

Rather than fading away, solitary imprisonment, a form of torture in my view, has become more common:

Criminal Justice Policy Review: Solitary confinement is a harsh form of custody involving isolation from the general prison population and highly restricted access to visitation and programs. Using detailed prison records covering three decades of confinement practices in Kansas, we find solitary confinement is a normal event during imprisonment. Long stays in solitary confinement were rare in the late 1980s with no detectable racial disparities, but a sharp increase in capacity after a new prison opening began an era of long-term isolation most heavily affecting Black young adults. A decomposition analysis indicates that increases in the length of stay in solitary confinement almost entirely explain growth in the proportion of people held in solitary confinement. Our results provide new evidence of increasingly harsh prison conditions and disparities that unfolded during the prison boom.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

Emergent Ventures, sixth cohort

Sonja Trauss of YIMBY, assistance to publish Nicholas Barbon, A Defence of the Builder.

Parnian Barekatain.

Anna Gát, for development as a public intellectual and also toward the idea and practice of spotting and mobilizing talent in others.

M.B. Malabu, travel grant to come to the D.C. area for helping in setting up a market-oriented think tank in Nigeria.

Eric James Wang and Jordan Fernando Alexandera joint award for their work on the project Academia Mirmidón, to help find, mobilize, and market programming and tech talent in Mexico.

Gonzalo Schwarz, Archbridge Institute, for research and outreach work to improve policy through reforms in Uruguay and Brazil. 

Nolan Gray, urban planner from NYC, to be in residence at Mercatus and write a book on YIMBY, Against Zoning.

Samarth Jajoo, an Indian boy in high school, to assist his purchase of study materials for math, computer science, and tutoring.  Here is his new book gifting project.

One other, not yet ready to be announced.  But a good one.

And EV winner Harshita Arora co-founded AtoB, a startup building a sustainable transportation network for intercity commuters using buses.

Here are previous MR posts on Emergent Ventures.

What I’ve been reading

Chris W. Surprenant and Jason Brennan, Injustice For All: How Financial Incentives Corrupted and Can Fix the US Criminal Justice System.  A good and clear introduction to exactly what the title promises.  Possible reforms are “End Policing for Profit,” “Stop Electing Prosecutors and Judges,” “Required Rotation of Public Defenders and Prosecutors,” and others.

Laurence B. Siegel, Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance.  A Julian Simon-esque take on the nature and benefits of economic growth and progress.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution traces how Washington created a cabinet more than two years into his first term, and modeled after the military councils of the Continental army.

Maxine Eichner, The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored). There are so many anti-market books floating around these days, but this one is more likely to be true than most (the book is not as exaggerated as the subtitle).  The author takes too much of a “kitchen sink” approach for my taste, and doesn’t carefully enough consider trade-offs (U.S. as Finland is not actually a dream), but still I would rather spend time with this book than most of what is coming out these days.

Peter Andreas, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, does a good job of restoring drugs and alcohol to their rightful place in the history of war.

Artificial Intelligence Applied to Education

In Why Online Education Works I wrote:

The future of online education is adaptive assessment, not for testing, but for learning. Incorrect answers are not random but betray specific assumptions and patterns of thought. Analysis of answers, therefore, can be used to guide students to exactly that lecture that needs to be reviewed and understood to achieve mastery of the material. Computer-adaptive testing will thus become computer-adaptive learning.

Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand—much more personalized than one professor teaching 500 students or even 50 students. In his novel Diamond Age, science fiction author Neal Stephenson describes a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive book that can answer a learner’s questions with specific information and also teach young children with allegories tuned to the child’s environment and experience. In short, something like an iPad combining Siri, Watson, and the gaming technology behind an online world like Skyrim. Surprisingly, the computer will make learning less standardized and robotic.

In other words, the adaptive textbook will read you as you read it. The NYTimes has a good piece discussing recent advances in this area including Bakpax which reads student handwriting and grades answers. Furthermore:

Today, learning algorithms uncover patterns in large pools of data about how students have performed on material in the past and optimize teaching strategies accordingly. They adapt to the student’s performance as the student interacts with the system.

Studies show that these systems can raise student performance well beyond the level of conventional classes and even beyond the level achieved by students who receive instruction from human tutors. A.I. tutors perform better, in part, because a computer is more patient and often more insightful.

…Still more transformational applications are being developed that could revolutionize education altogether. Acuitus, a Silicon Valley start-up, has drawn on lessons learned over the past 50 years in education — cognitive psychology, social psychology, computer science, linguistics and artificial intelligence — to create a digital tutor that it claims can train experts in months rather than years.

Acuitus’s system was originally funded by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for training Navy information technology specialists. John Newkirk, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, said Acuitus focused on teaching concepts and understanding.

The company has taught nearly 1,000 students with its course on information technology and is in the prototype stage for a system that will teach algebra. Dr. Newkirk said the underlying A.I. technology was content-agnostic and could be used to teach the full range of STEM subjects.

Dr. Newkirk likens A.I.-powered education today to the Wright brothers’ early exhibition flights — proof that it can be done, but far from what it will be a decade or two from now.

See also my piece with Tyler, the Industrial Organization of Online Education and, of course, check out our textbook Modern Principles of Economics which isn’t using AI yet but the course management system combines excellent videos with flexible computerized assessment and grading.

The Dan Wang year-end letter

Always recommended.

This year I want to discuss mostly science and technology. First, some thoughts on China’s technology efforts. Then I’ll present a few reflections on science fiction, with a focus on Philip K. Dick and Liu Cixin. Next I’ll discuss books I read on American industrial history. I save personal reflections for the end.

Dan now lives in Beijing.  He left out music, however…

The great Lemin Wu reemerges

Very loyal readers may recall that Lemin Wu was a Berkeley Ph.D in economic history and a student of Brad DeLong.  Then he seemed to disappear.  But for the last few years he was been working and writing, and later in 2020 he has a book coming out in China, in Chinese, title still undetermined.

I have read only parts of the book (the parts in English), and an outline.  Still , I am willing to predict it will be the best and most important economics book of the year, in any language.  It also likely will mark the first time a Chinese economist, writing in Chinese, created an important work.

I won’t “give away the plot,” but suffice to say it is about the rise of the West, the Malthusian model, group selection in history, why development takes so long, and related big topics.  Oh, and it does tie in to and draw upon Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, just in case you were wondering.

I hope very much this book will be published in English as well.

Hail Lemin Wu!

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

*Capital and Ideology*, by Thomas Piketty

This book is more than 1000 pp., here are my impressions:

1. About 600 pp. of this book is a carefully done history of the accumulation and sometimes dissipation of wealth and property.  You can evaluate that material without reference to any particular set of political views.

2. At some point the book veers into partisan issues such as the wealth tax.  Many of those parts remain interesting, but it also becomes clear that Piketty is “out to lunch,” to wit (p.591):

To return to the Soviet attitude toward poverty, it is important to try to understand why the government took such a radical stance against all forms of private ownership of the means of production, no matter how small.  Criminalizing carters and food peddlers to the point of incarcerating them may seem absurd, but there was a certain logic to the policy.  Most important was the fear of not knowing where to stop.  If one began by authorizing private ownership of small businesses, would one be able to set limits?

I can think of a less naive explanation of Soviet attitudes toward the private sector.  Piketty also calls for “participatory socialism” (p.592), a dubious doctrine not to be confused with say Nordic social democracy.  For instance, Sweden (among other countries) seems to have fairly extreme wealth inequality.

3. The sentence “Real wages are much higher in America than in Western Europe” does not come easily to his pen.  Nor does “The United States is a remarkably successful innovator, let’s see what we can learn from that.”  Or even “Raising wages is more important than merely limiting inequality.”  Those seems to be banished thoughts in the Piketty intellectual universe.

4. The sections on Soviet and socialist experience can only be called “delusional.”  In his account, if only a few political decisions had gone the other way, the USSR might have ended up on a path similar to that of Norway (p.603 and thereabouts).

You know, maybe you think that the inequalities of the current day are much worse than people had been expecting.  but that should not revise your view of socialism and the Soviet Union, two matters fairly well settled by historical research.

5. Give these lenses, it is impossible for Piketty to offer any commentary on recent events (about the last 400 pp. of the book) that is anything other than distorted and unreliable.  There is massive distrust of the wealthy in this book, and virtually no distrust of concentrated state power.

6. There is a considerable sum of useful and valuable material in this book, and I would not try to dissuade anyone inclined from reading it.  Nonetheless I suspect its main import is as another sign of the growing compartmentalization of academic discourse — good work intermingled with highly questionable partisan material — and how so many academics, if the mood affiliation tilts in the right direction, will tolerate or even encourage that.

You can pre-order the book here.

Extreme Aging

Japan now has over 70,000 people who are more than 100 years old.

That stunning fact comes from Extreme Economies, an interesting new book by Richard Davies. Davies looks at extreme economies around the world such as extreme failure (Darien, Kinshasa, Glasgow), extreme resilience (Aceh, Angola Prison, LA), extreme inequality (Santiago) and in the case of Japan (Akita), extreme aging.

Japan’s aging is unprecedented and is having effects throughout the economy and society:

In 1975 social security and healthcare spending commanded 22 percent of the country’s tax revenues; by 2017 the figure, driven up by elderly care and pensions, had risen to 55 percent. By the early 2020s the figure is set to hit 60 percent. To look at it in another way, every other public service in Japan — education, transport, infrastructure, defense, the environment, the arts–could rely on almost 80 percent of tax revenue in 1975, but the increase in elderly-related spending means that only 40 percent is left for other national public expenditures. In budgetary terms, ageing is eating Japan.

As a country, Japan is aging not just because it’s people are getting older but because it’s birth rate is well below replacement. This year there will be fewer than 900,000 births in all of Japan–a number not seen since 1874 when Japan’s total population was much smaller. Overall, Japan’s population is declining.

Population decline may have some good effects but the combination of fewer young people and more elderly people is straining Japanese culture along with its finances. The young naturally resent the increasing burden put on them for supporting the elderly. As with all Ponzi schemes, pay-as-you-go social security schemes come under stress when the population is no longer growing.

…over the next 30 years or so, many countries’ pension systems will require young workers to fund a system that everyone knows will be far less generous by 2040. It is hardly a way to generate confidence in public policy.

And those 70,000 centenarians? Almost 90 percent are women so an aging society is a gender unbalanced society meaning old people lose caregivers or at least someone to share a household with.

Davies is interested in Japan as an example of where many countries are going,

Southern Europe, in particular, is following fast with Italy, Spain and Portugal already experiencing population decline. Germany will start to shrink in 2022, Korea in the early 2030s. Akita, Japan’s cutting edge of ageing economics,…offers a valuable window on the future.

My look back at the last decade

Via Bloomberg, here is one bit:

Consider the 10 best-selling books of the decade. All have female protagonists, and the top seven are authored by women. (“Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels take the top three spots, with three others having the word “Girl” in the title.)

The feminization of our culture is for me trend number one.  Next in line is screens:

They simply convey more interesting narratives than most of the other spaces in our lives.

There is much more at the link.