Category: Books

Gordon S. Wood’s *Power and Liberty*

The subtitle is Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, and of course self-recommending.  Here is one excerpt:

The breadth and depth of popular interest in the Constitution in 1787-1788 was remarkable.  The towns of Massachusetts, for example, elected 370 delegates to the state’s ratifying convention, of whom 364 attended.  Most were eager to meet and discuss the Constitution.  It took six days for the delegates from Bath, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), to make their way south across rivers and through snow to Boston.  The people of Massachusetts believed they were involved, as the little town of Oakham told its delegates, in deciding an issue of “the greatest importance that ever came before any Class of Men on this Earth.”

And this:

Many expected the electoral college to work as a nominating body in which no one normally would get a majority of electoral votes; therefore, most elections would take place in the House of Representatives among the top five candidates, with each state’s congressional delegation voting as a unit.

You can buy it here.

*Smashing the Liquor Machine*

The subtitle is A Global History of Prohibition, and the author is Mark Lawrence Schrad.  I blurbed the book with this:

The best book on Prohibition, period. It is a revelation on the causes and nature of the Prohibition movement, and takes a properly international perspective, considering colonies and indigenous peoples as well. You will never look at Prohibition the same way again.

Highly recommended, you can buy it here.

How to tell when you are reading a truly great history book

When it treatment of secondary topics is better than what you can find anywhere else.  For instance I am reading Alexander Mikaberidze’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.  Just in the span of a few pages, his treatment of Dessalines and his plan to rule Haiti is excellent.  Then his discussion of the French motivations for allowing the Louisiana Purchase is amazing. Yet a page later his take on the evolution of the Swiss confederation, while offered only in passing, is more instructive than I’ve found in books written solely on Switzerland.

This is in the very top tier of history books I ever have read.  Highly recommended.

*Against White Feminism*

In Zero Dark Thirty (and the truish story behind it), American feminism — once a movement that existed in opposition to the state, as a critique of its institutions and mores — was recast as one that served the state’s interests through any means imaginable. This identification with state interests, and the idea of going out to conquer the world with the same mindset of subjugation and domination possessed by white men, seems to have become a warped feminist goal. Put another way, white women wanted parity with white men any at any cost, including by avidly taking on the domination of Black and Brown people.

That is from the new and noteworthy Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, by Rafia Zakaria.  Or how about this:

Securo-feminism, thus, bound white American feminism to the neoimperial and neoliberal project of nation-building around the world — one that Harvard professor Niall Ferguson had articulated in his history of “Angloglobalization,” proposing that young Americans should be taught to go overseas and transform other nations in their own image much as Britain had done.  Caught in its fevers, American feminists did not question loudly enough the wisdom of exporting feminism through bombs and drones.

Or:

White feminists in the colonial era were all about spreading their civilized ways, but neo-colonial white feminists want to illustrate their courage and compassion — often while providing moral subsidy for cruelties inflicted in feminism’s name. Times may have changed, but the commitment of whiteness to extracting value wherever it can — and dominating the narrative to frame this extraction as benevolence — persists.

Recommended, sort of.  And here is the author with more detail on “Securo-feminism.”

U.S.A. fact of the day

According to one recent measure, ninety-three of the top one hundred American television programs watched live across a single year have been sports related.  More people watched the Super Bowl than the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, and Tonys combined.

It is for this reason that I find it puzzling when some people simply are not interested in sports at all.  I find the “sports are just stupid” attitude defensible (though it is not my view), but that would in turn seem to make sports all the more interesting.

That is from Jonah Lehrer’s Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, a Solution, just published by Simon and Schuster.

What I’ve been reading

1. M.J. Ryan and Nicholas Higham, The Anglo-Saxon World.  I’ve been reading more books in this area, even though data limitations make it difficult to form an accurate picture of what was happening.  Here is Wikipedia on King Alfred, plenty of facts, broader context often difficult to recreate.  (What exactly would they have debated on Twitter, and why?)  I would put this as one of the two or three best Anglo-Saxon books I have seen, and with excellent visuals and photos.

2. John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.  Thompson’s Merchants of Culture was surprisingly excellent, now the quality is no longer a surprise.  This book covers the Kindle revolution (now dominated by romances), Google books, how electronic publishing rights evolved, crowdfunding books, the ascent of Amazon, and much more.  In all or most of these areas he offers you more substance and more inside scoops than the other discussions you might have read, thus recommended.

3. Max Siollun, What Britain did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule.  It is hard to find good books on Nigeria that are easy to follow and not just for specialists.  This new one is maybe the best overall treatment I know?  The British conquest of Nigeria took seventy-seven years to accomplish.  Siollun also stresses the role of missionaries in bringing literacy to Nigeria, noting that what you might call Nigerian literacy skills, for instance in native scripts, were longstanding in many regions.  Before the British arrived, the north of Nigeria was much more advanced economically than the south, though colonialism inverted this relationship.  I found this sentence interesting: “Perhaps no question makes Nigerians disagree as much as why Britain created their country.”

4. Matthew Affron, et.al. Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art.  Clustered discoveries are one of the best areas to read about, whether they be scientific or artistic.  There will be many overlapping treatments, biographies, and so on.  And the people who write about these areas may do so with a certain amount of passion.  The rise of abstract art early in the twentieth century is one of the most remarkable of such clusters, as in so many countries top-rate artists made major breakthroughs in similar directions.  This book shows you how better than any other I know, with excellent color plates as well.

5. Trevor Rowley, The Normans: A History of Conquest.  As I understand the author, he presents the Normans as an essential part of what fed into the creation of modern Europe, also serving to spread those practices and norms.  I hadn’t known that Tocqueville was in part originally a Scandinavian name, deriving from “Toki’s ville,” the Scand name tacked onto the Norman suffix.

*Cabbage and Caviar: A History of Food in Russia*

That is the title of a new and excellent book by Alison K. Smith.  I have watched other people eat this food for eighteen years, and now I am beginning to understand:

The real shift in the world of Soviet salads, however, came in the Brezhnev era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Then, named prepared salads started to appear, some initially associated with particular places but which soon spread out into the wider culinary world.  The salads often features mayonnaise — not a new ingredient, but one increasingly produced not at home but industrially for sale in shops.  Two of the most famous are layered salads that also featured another not new but newly prominent product: canned fish. ..In salad ‘Mimosa’, canned fish is layered with chopped boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs separated into whites and yolks, cooked carrots and mayonnaise.  Finely chopped hard-boiled yolks make up the top layer, giving the salad its name: the yolks mimic mimosa flowers.  Another salad, seld pod shuboi — literally herring under a fur coat — is similar, but uses herring instead of other canned fish and adds a layer of grated cooked beetroot under the topping of mayonnaise and chopped egg yolk.  The beetroot bleeds into the mayonnaise, making the salad one of the most vibrantly colored parts of the Russian table.

And:

In the Soviet era, the kotlet came to take precedent over whole roast pieces of meat.  It was economical and could be made so as to stretch out a small portion of meat with breadcrumbs or other starch, and it made tougher cuts more palatable.  It was also a challenge.

And:

The preference for mushrooms was extensive, and in a way that struck some as particularly Slavic.

And:

One thing that Russians did not have until relatively recently was cheese — at least, not cheese in the sense of aged or ripened cheese.

I can’t quite utter “recommended,” but the book is really good!

How good was Paul Samuelson’s macroeconomics?

Reading the new Nicholas Wapshott book and also Krugman’s review (NYT) of it, it all seemed a little too rosy to me. So I went back and took a look at Paul Samuelson the macroeconomist. I regret that I cannot report any good news, in fact Samuelson was downright poor — you might say awful — as a macroeconomist.

For instance, during the early 1970s there was a debate about President Nixon’s 1971 wage and price controls. There is some disagreement about the actual stance of Samuelson, as Wapshott (p.152) claims Samuelson opposed Nixon’s wage and price controls, but that doesn’t seem to be true. The Los Angeles Times for instance reported Samuelson opining as follows: “With the wage and price controls, he [Nixon] assured a more rapid short-term economic recovery, and made it absolutely certain he would be the overwhelming victor in the 1972 election.” Maybe that is not quite a full endorsement, but consider Samuelson’s remarks on the August 17, 1971 ABC Evening News: “I don’t think that a ninety-day freeze is going to solve the problem of inflation. But it’s a first move toward some kind of an incomes policy. Benign neglect did not work. It’s time the president used his leadership…We’re better off this Monday morning than we were last Friday. Friday was an untenable situation.”[1]

Really?

For Samuelson and many other Keynesians of his era, it was mostly about wage-push inflation. Do you know what my take would have been?: “The wage and price controls are neither good microeconomic nor good macroeconomic policy.” Samuelson did not come anywhere near to uttering such words. In October 1971, Samuelson argued that Nixon’s NEP [New Economic Policy], which included both severing the tie of the dollar to gold and wage and price controls, was “necessary,” and that the wage and price controls were working better than might have been expected.[2]

In October 1971, Samuelson also argued that the Fed should continue to let the money supply grow, to stave off the risk of a liquidity crisis occasioned by America’s lingering involvement in the Vietnam War (what??…if this is fear of a Bretton Woods collapse, print fewer dollars, besides Samuelson wanted to end Bretton Woods). He said he favored presidential “guideposts” to lower the rate of price inflation from four to three percent, but didn’t favor explicit wage and price controls because it wasn’t enough of an “emergency” situation. That is the extent of his opposition to wage and price controls – lukewarm at best, not objecting in principle, contradicting his earlier stances, and showing a poor understanding of monetary economics more broadly. You don’t have to be a hardcore monetarist to realize that continued money supply growth, in an expansionary period, combined with presidential “guideposts” to lower rates of price inflation, was simply an incorrect view.

In a 1974 piece, Samuelson continued to insist, as he had argued in the past, that the inflation of that era was cost-push inflation, and not driven by the money supply. He also asserted (without evidence) that full employment and price stability were incompatible. In one 1971 piece he made the remarkable and totally false assertion that: “…with our population and productivity growing, it takes more than a 4 per cent rate of real growth just to hold unemployment constant at a high level.”[3]

Really?

In other words, his basic model was just flat out wrong. More generally, the Samuelson Newsweek columns of that era make repeated, dogmatic, and arbitrary stabs at forecasting macroeconomic variables without much humility or soundness in the underlying model.

Milton Friedman did have an overly simplified view of the money supply, as many of his critics have alleged and as Scott Sumner would confirm. But as a macroeconomist he was far, far ahead of Paul Samuelson.

Don’t forget how bad macro was before Friedman came along.

[1] For The Los Angeles Times, see Hiltzi (1994), and also see “Questions and Answers: Paul A. Samuelson,” Newsweek, October 4, 1971. For the ABC News remarks, see Nelson (2020, volume 2, p.267).

[2] See “Questions and Answers: Paul A. Samuelson,” Newsweek, October 4, 1971.

[3] See Paul Samuelson, “Coping with Stagflation” Newsweek, August 19, 1974, and for the 1971 remarks see “How the Slump Looks to Three Experts” Newsweek, Oct.18, 1971. On the four percent claim, see Paul A. Samuelson, “Nixon Economics,” Newsweek, August 2, 1971.

My Conversation with Andrew Sullivan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the overview:

Andrew joined Tyler to discuss the role of the AIDs epidemic in achieving marriage equality, the difficulty of devoutness in everyday life, why public intellectuals often lack courage, how being a gay man helps him access perspectives he otherwise wouldn’t, how drugs influence his ideas, the reasons why he’s a passionate defender of SATs and IQ tests, what Niall Ferguson and Boris Johnson were like as fellow undergraduates, what Americans get wrong about British politics, why so few people share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, why Bowie was so special, why Airplane! is his favorite movie, what Oakeshottian conservatism offers us today, whether wokeism has a positive influence globally, why he someday hopes to glower at the sea from in the west of Ireland, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Well, and so you get used to real conversations about people, and you don’t mistake credentials for intelligence. You realize that people outside of the system may be more perceptive about what’s going wrong with it than people buried within it. I honestly find life more interesting the more variety of people you get to know and meet. And that means from all sorts of different ways of life.

The good thing about being gay, I will tell you, is that that happens more often than if you’re straight — because it’s a great equalizer. You are more likely to come across someone who really is from a totally different socioeconomic group than you are through sexual and romantic attraction, and indeed the existence of this subterranean world that is taken from every other particular class and structure, than you would if you just grew up in a straight world where you didn’t have to question these things and where your social life was bound up with your work or with your professional peers.

The idea for me of dating someone in my office would be absolutely bizarre, for example. I can’t believe all these straight people that just look around them and say, “Oh, let’s get married.” Whereas gay people have this immense social system that can throw up anybody from any way of life into your social circle.

Interesting throughout.  And again, here is Andrew’s new book Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.  942 pp. of text, yet interesting throughout.  Brings you into Pessoa’s mind and learning to a remarkable degree.  (Have I mentioned that the world is slowly realizing that Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of the great works of the century?)  His favorite book was Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and he very much liked Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.  This biography is also interesting about non-Pessoa topics, such as Durban, South Africa in 1900 (Pessoa did live there for a while).  I am pleased to see Pessoa finally receiving the attention he deserves — definitely one of the books of this year.  Here is a good review of the book.  For a man who never had sex, this book covers his sex life a great deal!  And what a short and lovely title, no long subtitle thank goodness.

2. Nicholas Wapshott, Samuelson Friedman: The Battle over the Free Market.  Quite a good book, though it is interior to my current knowledge set and thus better for others reader than myself.  Contrary to what I have read elsewhere, Wapshott points out that Samuelson did not support Nixon’s wage and price controls, but this LA Times link seems to suggest Samuelson thought they were a good idea?

3. Jamie Mackay, The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History.  While it was less conceptual than I might have preferred, this is perhaps the single best general history of Sicily I know of.  Short and to the point in a good way.

4. N.J. Higham, The Death of Anglo-Saxon England.  In 1066, five different individuals were recognized as de facto King of England — how did that come to pass?  Why was Aethelred the Unready not ready?  (He was only 12 when he assumed the throne, though much of the actual criticism concerned the later part of his reign.)  I find this one of the most intelligible and conceptual treatments of Anglo-Saxon England out there.  I don’t care what the Heritage Foundation says, beware Danish involvement in your politics!

Peter Kinzler, Highway Robbery: The Two-Decade Battle to Reform America’s Automobile Insurance System is a useful look at where that debate stands and how it ended up there.  Here is a good summary of the book.

It does not make sense for me to read Emily Oster’s The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision-Making in the Early School Years, but it is very likely more reliable information than you are likely to get from other sources.

What should I ask David Salle?

Yes, the famous painter, I am slated to do a Conversation with him.  Here is the beginning of his Wikipedia page:

David Salle (born September 28, 1952; last name pronounced “Sally”) is a Pictures Generation American painter, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer. Salle was born in Norman, Oklahoma, and lives and works in East Hampton, New York. He earned a BFA and MFA from the California Institute of the ArtsValencia, California, where he studied with John Baldessari. Salle’s work first came to public attention in New York in the early 1980s.

And he has written the well-known and excellent book How to See.  He directed the Hollywood movie Search and Destroy, starring Christopher Walken.  So what should I ask him?