Category: Books

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.

Charles Murray’s *Human Diversity*

His new book is coming out in January, and the subtitle is The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. I will get to the details shortly, but my bottom-line review is “Not as controversial as you might think,” but do note the normalization at the end of that phrase.

Here is one bit from p.294 toward the end of the book:

Nothing we are going to learn will diminish our common humanity.  Nothing we learn will justify rank-ordering human groups from superior to inferior — the bundles of qualities that make us human are far too complicated for that.  Nothing we learn will lend itself to genetic determinism.  We live our lives with an abundance of unpredictability, both genetic and environmental.

Most of the book defends ten key propositions, laid out on pp.7-8.  The first four of those propositions concern differences between men and women (“Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide…”) and I do not find those controversial, so I will not cover them.  The chapters on those propositions provide a good survey of the evidence, and a good answer to the denialists, though I doubt if Murray is the right person to win them over.  Let’s now turn to the other propositions, with my commentary along the way:

5. Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity.

True, but Murray’s analysis did not push me beyond the usual citations of lactose intolerance, sickle cell anemia, adaptation to high altitudes, and the like.  That said, pp.190-195 offer a very dense discussion of target alleles for various traits, such as schizophrenia, and how those target alleles vary across different groups.  I found those pages difficult to follow, and also wished that discussion had been fifty pages rather than five.  Toward the end of that discussion, Murray does write (p.194): “…proof of the role of natural selection for many genetic differences will remain unobservable without methodological breakthroughs.”  With that I definitely agree.

On p.195 he adds “It is implausible to expect that none of the imbalances will yield evidence of significant genetic differences related to phenotypic differences across continental populations.”  That returns to my core point about this book not shifting my priors.  You could agree with that sentence (noting the ambiguity in the word “significant”) and still have a quite modest vision of what those differences might mean.  In any case, nothing in the book pushes me beyond that sentence in the direction of the geneticists.

And here the contrast with the chapters on men and women becomes (unintentionally?) glaring: those biological differences are relatively easy to demonstrate, so perhaps hard-to-demonstrate biological differences are not so significant.  That too is just a conjecture, but there are multiple ways to play the “absence of evidence” and “how to interpret the residuals” cards, and I wish those had received a more extensive philosophy of science-like discussion.

Now let’s move to the next proposition:

6. Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.

That one strikes me as a miswording or misstatement, though I do not see that it corresponds to any actual mistakes in the broader text.  You might think that general, non-local evolutionary selection for all humans has been quite large over the millennia, relative to local selection.  I genuinely do not know the ratio here, but Murray does not seem to address the actual comparison of “across all human groups” vs. “local” as loci of selection pressures.

Next up:

7. Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.

Clearly true, but note this proposition does not claim biological roots for those differences.  The real question comes in the next proposition:

8. The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personalities, abilities, and social behavior.

Here I have what I think is a major disagreement with Murray.  If he means the term “shared environment” in the narrow sense used by say twin studies, he is probably correct.  But in the more literal, Webster-derived conception of “shared environment” I very much disagree.  Culture is a truly major shaper of our personalities, abilities, and social behavior, and self-evidently so. For my taste the book did not contain nearly enough discussion of culture and in fact there is virtually no discussion of the concept or its power, as a look at the index will verify.  The real lesson of “twins studies plus anthropology” is that you have to control almost all of a person’s environment to have a major impact, but a major impact indeed can be had.  I behave very differently than my Irish potato famine ancestors, and not because I am genetically 1/8 from the Madeira Islands.  That said, within the narrower range of environmental variation measured in twins studies…well those studies seem to be fairly accurate.

9. Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.

Correct as stated, but I see those differences as much less genetic than Murray does.  For instance, IQ is to some extent heritable, but how much does that shape economic outcomes?  It is worth turning to Murray’s discussion on p.232 and the associated footnote 17 (pp.428-429).  His main source is what is to me a flawed meta-study on IQ and job performance (Murray to his credit does also cite the best-known critique of such studies).  I would opt more directly for the labor market literature on IQ and individual earnings, based on actual measured wages, which shows fairly modest correlations between IQ and earnings (read here, here and here).  So, at the very least, the inherited IQ-based permanent stratification version of The Bell Curve argument is much more compelling to Murray than it is to me.

10. Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior.

Clearly this is literally true, if only because of the meaning of “constrained.”  But mostly I would repeat my remarks on culture from #8.  Cultures change, and over time they are likely to change a great deal.  For instance, early in the 20th century, Korea, Japan, and China often were described as low work ethic cultures.  As cultures change, in turn those cultures can shape the personalities, abilities, and social behaviors of subsequent generations, in significant ways albeit constrained.  So while Murray is correct as stated, I believe I would disagree with his intended substantive point about the weight of relative forces.

Overall this is a serious and well-written book that presents a great deal of scientific evidence very effectively.  Anyone reading it will learn a lot.  But it didn’t change my mind on much, least of all the most controversial questions in this area.  If anything, in the Bayesian sense it probably nudged me away from geneticist-based arguments, simply because it did not push me any further towards them.

Murray of course will write the book he wants to, but my personal wish list was two-fold: a) a book leaving most of the normal science behind, and focusing only on the uncertain and controversial frontier issues, in great detail, and b) much more discussion of the import of culture.

Most of all, I am happy that America’s culture of achievement is inducing Murray to continue to produce major works at the age of 76, soon to be 77.

You can pre-order here.

What I’ve been reading

1. Ben Cohen, The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.  An intelligent popular social science book covering everything from Stephen Curry to Shakespeare to The Princess Bride, David Booth, Eugene Fama, and more.  I am not sure the book is actually about “the hot hand” as a unified phenomenon, as opposed to mere talent persistence, but still I will take intelligence over the alternative.

2. Richard J. Lazarus, The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court.  A genuinely interesting and well-presented history of how climate change became a partisan issue in the United States, somewhat broader than its title may indicate.

3. Ryan H. Murphy, Markets Against Modernity: Ecological Irrationality, Public and Private.  The book has blurbs from Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner, and I think of it as an ecological, historically reconstructed account of the demand for irrationality as it relates to the environment, interest in “do-it-yourself,” and the love for small scale enterprise.  Interesting, but overpriced.

4. Juan Du, The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City.  An actual history, as opposed to the usual blah-blah-blah you find in so many China books.  The author has a background in architecture and urban planning, and stresses the import of the Pearl River Delta before Deng’s reforms (Shenzhen wasn’t just a run-down fishing village), decentralization in Chinese reforms, and fits and starts in the city’s post-reform history.  Anyone who reads books on China should consider this one.

Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments, The Master is finally receiving his poetic due.

Toby Ord’s forthcoming The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is a comprehensive look at existential risk, written by an Oxford philosopher and student of Derek Parfit.

*The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe*

What an excellent book.  Imagine somebody — in this case Thane Gustafson — taking all those snippets of gas history you used to read about and turning them into a coherent, well-written narrative.  The Dutch disease, Norwegian gas, the origins of Gazprom and Western Siberian reserves, the French decision to go nuclear, and much more.  It’s all here.  Every topic should have a book like this about it.   Excerpt:

Kortunov’s importance as the founder of the Soviet gas industry and the originator of the gas bridge with Europe cannot be overstated.  Without his vision and drive, organizational talent, and political skill, the development of West Siberian oil and gas might have been delayed by as much as a generation.  Gas exports to Europe would have remained modest, for lack of sufficient ready reserves and a pipeline system through which to ship them.  Above all, the rapid displacement of coal and oil by gas in the Soviet primary fuel balance  — one of the last successes of the Soviet planned economy — would have taken much longer.  By the beginning of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Soviet oil industry with it, it was the gas industry, by then Russia’s most important source of primary fuel, that kept the Soviet cities heated and lighted, while oil was exported for desperately needed dollars.  That was Kortunov’s legacy to the country he so ardently believed in.

Due out in January, you can pre-order your copy here.

10% Less Democracy

My colleagues at GMU are awesome and you can see why by reading the opening to Garett Jones’s forthcoming new book, 10% Less Democracy.

ONCE I GOT THE CALL FROM CAMPUS POLICE, I knew I needed to write this book.

It was spring semester 2015, and I’d recently given a brief talk to a student group at my university. Natalie Schulhof, a reporter for the student newspaper, Fourth Estate, had come to the event and reported on my talk, entitled “10% Less Democracy.” That was the first time I’d spoken at any length about this book’s central idea: that in most of the rich countries, we’ve taken democracy, mass voter involvement in government, at least a little too far. We’d likely be better off if we kept the voters and even the elected officials a little further away from the levers of power. Let the government insiders run more of the show. After all, the insiders don’t have to be perfect for 10% less democracy to be an improvement; they just have to be better than the voters.

About a week after my talk, Schulhof’s piece came out, quite thorough and extremely accurate, complete with a photo of me standing before the small student audience. From the article: “Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States. . . . Less democracy would lead to better governance.”

But in our new age of social media, that article, accurate down to the last detail, wasn’t the article that became widely shared online. Instead, the subsequent firestorm was fed by ideology-driven websites, with authors posting articles loosely based on Fourth Estate’s original piece but filling in the blanks of the short, accurate article with their own vitriol and blue-sky speculation.

…In the days after these ideology-driven websites wrote about my talk, I discovered a torrent of hate polluting both my email inbox and my Twitter account. I welcome disagreement with my ideas, and passionate disagreement is part of a healthy public debate, but for a brief period, I had my sole experience (so far!) as an object of profanity-laced Internet rage. It culminated in the call from campus police—and in my dozen years at George Mason, that was the first and still the only time I’ve received such a call. An officer left a voice-mail message, and I called back at my first opportunity. She said someone had left an angry voice mail criticizing me on a general campus phone number, and the officer noted with great discretion that the voice mail contained at least one profane expression. Was there anyone who might be upset with me lately? the officer asked.

I had an idea. And that idea became this book. So to the unknown person who left that voice mail, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. I dedicate this book to you.

By the way, the title of Garett’s book might sound inflammatory but it’s only 10% inflammatory. Surely, we can talk about that rationally? Do we want all judges to be elected? Aren’t two year terms a little short in the modern age? Might we better off with an independent tax authority more like an independent central bank? Garett discusses these and many other ideas and unlike much of the constitutional economics of the past, Garett brings plenty of empirical evidence to bear–this is a good book to learn about modern political economy regardless of whether you buy the conclusions.

You can pre-order 10% Less Democracy at the link and you should, it’s very good.

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

Addendum to best books of 2019 list

Here is the original non-fiction list, the original fiction list, and these are my post-Thanksgiving additions:

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity.

John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Herself Alone, volume three.

Susan Gubar, Late-Life Love: A Memoir.

Bernardine Evaristo. Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel.  The Booker co-winner and yes the focus of black women’s gender-fluid lives in Britain sounds too PC, but I was won over.  There is a Straussian reading of it as well.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again: A Novel.

On the classical music front, Jean-Paul Gasparian’s Chopin CD is one of the best Chopin recordings ever, which is saying something.

The list of add-ons is I think a bit shorter than usual, which suggests that other people’s “best of” lists are declining somewhat in quality.  In essence I construct this add-on list by ordering the items off other people’s lists which I am not already familiar with.  I didn’t find so many undiscovered-by-me winners this time around, the Gubar and Strout being the main choices I drew from the discoveries of others.

*The Economics Book*

The author is Steven G Medema, and the subtitle is From Xenophon to Cryptocurrency, 250 Milestones in the History of Economics.  It is over 500 pages, one page per idea, with lovely color plates next to each page of text.  Test both your knowledge of economics and of history of economic thought.  For instance, it covers the median voter theorem, linear programming, the socialist calculation debate, and much more.  Very well done, and also a good gift book.

You can order it here.

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

What I’ve been reading

Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden.  Every page of this book does indeed have economics.  It just does not have interesting economics.  Which may mean that gardens are not so interesting from an economic point of view.  Which in turn would make this a good book.  But not an interesting book.

Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India.  A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT.  Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.

Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion & The Future of Clothes.  Some parts of this book have bad economics and extreme mood affiliation, but in general it has more actual information than other books on the same topic and at times the author makes decent external cost arguments against the current system of clothes production.  So a qualified recommendation, at least I am glad I read it, even though some parts are obviously too sloppy.

Razeen Sally, Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island.  People do not think enough about Sri Lanka, including in the social sciences!  It is a richer and nicer country than what most people are expecting, and it is good for studying both conflict and ethnic tensions.  This memoir — information rich rather than just blather — is one good place to get you started.

David Goldblatt, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century.  Football meaning soccer of course, this book covers how soccer interacts with politics in many particular countries, including Africa, and just how much the game has grown in global markets.  Mostly informative, good if you wish to read a book about this topic (I don’t).

Conversations with Zizek.  Maybe the best introduction to why Žižek is a richer thinker than his critics allege?  The book serves up insights on a consistent basis, and there is a minimum of jargon.  Marcus Pound had a good blurb: “Audacious and vertiginous, this book is everything one expects from him, a heady mix of psychoanalysis, politics, theology, philosophy, and cultural studies that will leave the reader both exhausted and exhilarated.”

*The Korean Mind: Understanding Contemporary Korean Culture*

This is a weird book, published primarily in Singapore, and somehow not fitting the canons of what people “are supposed to do” (NB: it is not at all racist, just bolder in its cultural generalizations than is currently in vogue).  Nonetheless I learned a great deal from the book, while taking some parts with a grain of salt.  Here is one interesting bit of many:

Since 1948 the government in North Korea has been dominated by people from North Hamkyong Province, where the late Il Sung Kim, founder of the North Korean regime, was active as a guerrilla leader during World War II.  Since that time people from the North Korean provinces of Hwanghae and Kangwon, which are the closest to South Korea, have been virtually banned from high government offices because they are considered untrustworthy and unfit.  In South Korea government has been controlled mostly by natives from North Kyongsang Province in the Youngnam (formerly Shilla) region.

…Ongoing competition and conflicts between people from Cholla and Kyongsang Provinces are said to be serious enough that they have significant negative impact on national politics, the economy, and life in general.

The author is Boye Lafayette de Mente, and he seems to know a lot about Korean bowing.  Do note the book is mainly about South Korea.  Reviewers, by the way, complain that there are significant mistakes in the Korean characters.  Recommended nonetheless, albeit with caveats, you can buy it here.

My Conversation with Daron Acemoglu

Self-recommending of course, most of all we talked about economic growth and development, and the history of liberty, with a bit on Turkey and Turkish culture (Turkish pizza!) as well.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt, from the very opening:

COWEN: I have so many questions about economic growth. First, how much of the data on per capita income is explained just simply by one variable: distance from the equator? And how good a theory of the wealth of nations is that?

ACEMOGLU: I think it’s not a particularly good theory. If you look at the map of the world and color different countries according to their income per capita, you’ll see that a lot of low-income-per-capita countries are around the equator, and some of the richest countries are pretty far from the equator, in the temperate areas. So many people have jumped to conclusion that there must be a causal link.

But actually, I think geographic factors are not a great explanatory framework for understanding prosperity and poverty.

COWEN: But why does it have such a high R-squared? By one measure, the most antipodal 21 percent of the population produces 69 percent of the GDP, which is striking, right? Is that just an accident?

ACEMOGLU: Yeah, it’s a bit of an accident. Essentially, if you think of which are the countries around the equator that have such low income per capita, they are all former European colonies that have been colonized in a particular way.

And:

COWEN: If we think about the USSR, which has terrible institutions for more than 70 years, an awful form of communism — it falls; there’s a bit of a collapse. Today, they seem to have a higher per capita income than you would expect a priori, if you, just as an economist, write about communism. Isn’t that mostly just because of what is now Russian, or Soviet, human capital?

ACEMOGLU: That’s an interesting question. I think the Russian story is complicated, and I think part of Russian income per capita today is because of natural resources. It’s always a problem for us to know exactly how natural resources should be handled because you can do a lot of things wrong and still get quite a lot of income per capita via natural resources.

COWEN: But if Russians come here, they almost immediately move into North American per capita income levels as immigrants, right? They’re not bringing any resources. They’re bringing their human capital. If people from Gabon come here, it takes them quite a while to get to the —

ACEMOGLU: No, absolutely, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Russians are bringing more human capital. If you look at the Russian educational system, especially during the Soviet time, there was a lot of emphasis on math and physics and some foundational areas.

And there’s a lot of selection among the Russians who come here…

The Conversation is Acemoglu throughout, you also get to hear me channeling Garett Jones.  Again, here is Daron’s new book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

*Towards an Economics of Natural Equals*

The authors are David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, and the subtitle is A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School.  This is the true history, told by people who know, and with extensive citations from correspondence and primary documentation.

Excerpt:

Beginning quite early and throughout his long career, Buchanan studied, endorsed, and extended the Smithian economics of natural equals.

You will find the correspondence of Buchanan and Rawls, the dealings of Buchanan with a skeptical Ford Foundation, the real story behind the Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter “Universal Education” voucher plan, what actually happened in Buchanan’s Chile visit, Chicago vs. Virginia disputes, the anti-democratic views of Murray Rothbard, and the contested history of neoliberalism.  And much correspondence from Ronald Coase.

Self-recommending!

David Levy worked with Buchanan and Tullock from the late 1970s through their deaths, and he and Peart are extremely careful in their sourcing and quotation practices — get the picture?

Due out Februrary, leap year day, you can pre-order here.

What I’ve been reading

Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, editors, with Nellie Liang.  First Responders: Inside the U.S. Strategy For Fighting the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis.  Too many people will judge this volume by its editors, for better or worse.  In reality, almost everything here is by other people, and well-informed ones too.  This is one of the best comprehensive books on the crisis, and it is usefully organized by topic (“Crisis-Era Housing Programs,” or say Jason Furman on fiscal policy).  I haven’t read through the whole thing, but there is a good chance this is the best overall volume on the response to the crisis, though again I suspect opinions on the book will follow whatever opinions the reviewers have of the editors.

Justin Marozzi, Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization.  Did the Islamic Middle East invent the notion of a truly splendid city?  This book makes the case for yes, starting with 7th century Mecca, moving to Damascus, Baghdad, and Cordoba, and finishing in 21st century Doha, “City of Pearls.”

Todd S. Purdum, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution.  Of course the music is worth learning about, but this volume is also a splendid take on managerial teamwork in a duo.

Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. Some of her speeches, transcribed.  Call me crazy, but I think of her and Donald Trump as the two great orators of our generation, regardless of what you think of their content.

Vicky Pryce, Women vs. Capitalism: Why We Can’t Have It All in a Free Market Economy.  Compared to what, I am inclined to ask?  Still, if you are looking for a readable book on how and why capitalism does not lead to gender equality, this is now the place to go.

Matthew D. Adler’s Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction is a very good take on its chosen topic.