Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. Peter Doggett, CSNY: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  A good management study of a creative foursome doomed to split and splinter pretty much from the beginning.  Oddly, their best work still sounds good to me, even though I never hear much new in it with repeated listenings.  That is a rare combination.

2. David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.  David’s best book this century, it has many subtle points.  It is a “wisdom book,” noting that not everyone likes wisdom books.

3. Harold Bloom, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism.  Bloom is now 89 I believe, but unlike in some of his recent shorter books this one seems as thoughtful as much of his best later work.  Yes, it is a bunch of largely separate, short, multi-page essays on topics of Bloom’s choosing, but at this point that is optimal.  It won’t convince the skeptic, but if you are on the fence I say yes, though try The Western Canon first.

4. Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan.  A much-expanded version of her earlier Land of Plenty.  No, I haven’t touched this one yet, but if the word self-recommending ever applied, it is here.  If you don’t already know it, here is my earlier CWT with Fuchsia Dunlop.

5. John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths.  Anglican, British, highly reasonable, full of useful information, I read it all the way through.  Barton teaches you the Bible is not always easy to understand and why that is.  Already out for ordering on UK Amazon.

Daniel S. Milo, Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, on a quick browse seemed to have interesting points.

UK fact of the day

Unless Labour and the Conservatives can cobble together a Brexit deal that is supported by parliament, then Britain’s election-weary voters will have their fifth nationwide election in only six years.

That is from Matthew Goodwin in The Times, there is also Matthew’s book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.  Remember how we used to praise parliamentary systems for their decisiveness?

Coasean kidnappings and the bargaining range

One of the highest ransoms ever paid — US $60 million for the two Born brothers in Argentina in 1975 — was negotiated by one of the captives himself: Jorge Born.  As a company insider, he knew how much money could be raised, but it still took seven months before his captors were convinced that they had truly squeezed him dry.  When it finally arrived, the father felt he had no option but to accede to the memorandum signed by his son and his kidnappers.  So negotiators work extremely hard to avoid parallel negotiations and bat away unhelpful interventions from the hostage.  It is not surprising that some victims despair.

That is from the new and interesting Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business, by Anja Shortland.

Is work fun?

Ladders runs an excerpt from my book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, here is one part:

Another way to think about the non-pay-related benefits of having a job is to consider the well-known and indeed sky-high personal costs of unemployment. Not having a job when you want to be working damages happiness and health well beyond what the lost income alone would account for. For instance, the unemployed are more likely to have mental health problems, are more likely to commit suicide, and are significantly less happy. Sometimes there is a causality problem behind any inference—for instance, do people kill themselves because they are unemployed, or are they unemployed because possible suicidal tendencies make them less well suited to do well in a job interview? Still, as best we can tell, unemployment makes a lot of individual lives much, much worse. In the well-known study by economists Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, involuntary unemployment is worse for individual happiness than divorce or separation. Often it is more valuable to watch what people do rather than what they say or how they report their momentary moods.

There is much more at the link.

Wall Street Journal reviews *Big Business*

By George Melloan, here is one bit:

So Mr. Cowen’s book is timely, and his writing style is a refreshing contrast to the strident left-wing declamations that are so common today. He is calm and conversational, splashing cool water on the firebrands. He writes: “All of the criticisms one might mount against the corporate form—some of which are valid—pale in contrast to two straightforward and indeed essential virtues. First, business makes most of the stuff we enjoy and consume. Second, business is what gives most of us jobs. The two words that follow most immediately from the world of business are ‘prosperity’ and ‘opportunity.’”

Here is the full review, very well done in my admittedly biased view.

Bryan Caplan *Open Borders* launch day

From Bryan:

Dear friends: Monday, April 8 isn’t just my birthday.  It’s also the official launch date for *Open Borders*!

URL for ordering the book: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1250316960/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1250316960&linkCode=as2&tag=bryacaplwebp-20&linkId=1ed2cdfe4a1c0cd2a62e942a39f87b9d

URL for an introductory post on the book: https://www.econlib.org/pre-order-open-borders-the-science-and-ethics-of-immigration/

U.S.A. fact of the day, *Jump-Starting America*

The United States, as of 2014, spends 160 times as much exploring space as it does exploring the oceans.

That is from the new and interesting Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream, by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, two very eminent economists.  And if you are wondering, I believe those numbers are referring to government efforts, not the private sector.  I am myself much more optimistic about the economic prospects for the oceans than for outer space.

Most of all this book is a plea for radically expanded government research and development, and a return to “big science” projects.

Overall, books on this topic tend to be cliche-ridden paperweights, but I found enough substance in this one to keep me interested.  I do, however, have two complaints.  First, the book promotes a “side tune” of a naive regionalism: “here are all the areas that could be brought back by science subsidies.”  Well, maybe, but it isn’t demonstrated that such areas could be brought back in general, as opposed to reshuffling funds and resources, and besides isn’t that a separate book topic anyway?  Second, too often the book accepts the conventional wisdom about too many topics.  Was the decline of science funding really just a matter of will?  Is it not at least possible that federal funding of science fell because the return to science fell?  Curing cancer seems to be really hard.  Furthermore, some of the underlying problems are institutional: how do we undo the bureaucratization of society so that the social returns to science can rise higher again?  Will a big government money-throwing program achieve that end?  Maybe, but the answers on that one are far from obvious.  This is too much a book of levers — money levers at that — rather than a book on complex systems.  I would prefer a real discussion of how today science has somehow become culturally weird, compared say to Mr. Spock and The Professor on Gilligan’s Island.  The grants keep on going to older and older people, and we are throwing more and more inputs at problems to get at best diminishing returns.  Help!

Still, I read the whole thing through with great interest, and it covers some of the very most important topics.

What I’ve been reading

1. Ruby Warrington, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Concentration Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.  Both the title and content make it self-recommending.

2. Jonathan Bate, How the Classics Made Shakespeare.  “One key argument is that Shakespeare’s form of classical fabling was profoundly antiheroic because it was constantly attuned to the force of sexual desire.”  Bate is very smart and this book shows it.

3. Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman, Of Privacy and Power: The Transatlantic Struggle over Freedom and Security.  An important contribution to political science, expanding on their concept of “weaponized interdependence,” namely how the U.S. (and sometimes other political actors) uses access to international networks, such as SWIFT, to push other nations around.  See #weaponizedinterdependence on Twitter for an introduction.

4. Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World.  Covers the Phoenicians, Venice, the Dutch Golden Age, the rise of the British empire, and more.  Interesting throughout, but I most liked the final section on why there are no seapowers today, and why China and Russia never will be seapowers.  Overall a nice integration of geopolitics and culture.

5. Rucker C. Johnson and Alexander Nazaryan, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.  A good summary of what the subtitle promises, though I was hoping for more attention on the costs and losers from those arrangements.

6. Guzel Yakhina, Zukeikha.  Translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden, a Tatar woman is sent into exile in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  This is one of the novels I enjoyed this year, several others I know concur.

U.S.A. fact of the day

According to publisher Penguin Random House, [Becoming] has sold more than 10 million copies — including hardcover, audiobooks and e-books — since its November release. That puts it near the top, if not the pinnacle, of all-time memoir sales.” It’s already the top-selling hardcover of last year, and it has outsold both of her husband’s books put together.

Here is the full story.

Are top CEOs underpaid?

There is another lesson from the numbers: CEOs are paid less than the value they bring to their companies. More concretely, CEOs capture only about 68–73 percent of the value they bring to their firms. For purposes of comparison, one recent estimate suggests that workers in general are paid no more than 85 percent of their marginal product on average [Isen 2012]; that difference is attributed largely to costs of searching for workers and training them to become valuable contributors. In other words, workers actually seem to be underpaid by somewhat less than CEOs are, at least when both are judged in percentage terms. Both of those are inexact estimates, but in fact these results are what economic reasoning would lead us to expect. It may be easier to bargain the CEO down below his or her marginal product a bit more, given that the talents of the CEO would be worth much less in non-CEO endeavors.

I find the most convincing estimate of the gap between pay and marginal product to be that of Lucian A. Taylor, at the Wharton School of Business. He finds that a typical major CEO captures somewhere between 44 percent and 68 percent of the value he or she brings to the firm, with the additional qualification that the CEO’s contract offers some insurance value—that is, in bad times for the firm the pay of the CEO won’t be cut in proportion, but the CEO shares to a lesser degree on the upside. That 44–68 percent is therefore a better deal for the CEOs than it may appear at first glance. Still, you won’t find credible estimates suggesting that major CEOs, taken as a group, are capturing more than 100 percent of their value added. Here too, that is what you would expect from a competitive bidding process.

Part of the accompanying footnote: For the 68–73 percent estimate, see Nguyen and Nielsen 2014; for the 44–68 percent estimate, see Taylor 2013… It is a little-known fact that the current use of high-powered financial incentives for American CEOs still has not reattained the level it held in the pre–Second World War period.

That is an excerpt from my Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, due out next week.

Facts about Native Americans

Not only have those who identify on the census as Indian risen from about 200,000 in 1900 to over 2 million by 2010; another 3 million identify as Native and something else.  Of this ever-increasing population, in 2010 more than 70 percent lived in urban areas, continuing the trend begun in the years after World War II.  Indians are young, too: 32 percent are under age eighteen, compared with 24 percent of the overall population.  On reservations, the median age is twenty-six, compared with thirty-seven for the nation at large…Between 1990 and 2000, the income of Americans Indians grew by 33 percent, and the poverty rate dropped by 7 percent.  There was no marked difference in income between Indians from casino-rich tribes and those from poorer tribes without casinos.  Between 1990 and 1997 the number of Indian-owned businesses grew by 84 percent.  And the number of Native kids enrolled in college has doubled in the last thirty years.

That is from David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

Is the corporation your friend?

The funny thing is, although it is wrong to think of corporations as people, it is probably also necessary for social cohesion. If the American people are going to support business in the court of public opinion, business must to some extent have a friendly face. Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly, ultimately leading to bad consequences for American private enterprise. Furthermore, consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. Companies know that if they build up a good public image and stick around with a track record of reliable service, consumers will reward them with a kind of emotional loyalty. Overall, that creates a largely positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. Instead, we should view companies more dispassionately, as part of an abstract legal and economic order with certain virtues and also plenty of imperfections. Unfortunately, that is not about to happen anytime soon.

That is from the final chapter of my forthcoming book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.  Ah, and there is more:

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations—for our food, for our entertainment, for communicating with our friends and loved ones, and for getting around from one place to another. But for all the talk from economists about consumer sovereignty, it’s not clear how much people actually are in control at all. It’s true you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, and the nature of that network shapes so many of our choices and thus our lives.

Of course, it is impossible for customers to ponder these philosophical questions in their deepest and subtlest terms all day long, as that would consume way too much of people’s mental and emotional energies. So instead people translate their rather bizarre, non-hunter-gatherer modern commercial society into terms that their more primeval selves are familiar with. That is, people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople, and of being in a familiar environment in which they are exercising their free will as consumers and also as workers. Given the need to get through each day, it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior.

You can debate exactly how true or untrue our generally held picture of freedom in modern commercial society is, but I can’t help but feel that part of it is a lie. The system offers many formal properties of freedom, such as the immense choice of products and jobs, and the relative lack of imposed coercion on most of these decisions. Still, when you combine pressures for conformity, the scarcity of attention, the stresses of our personal lives, and the need for “ready quick” decision-making heuristics, it’s not exactly a life of true freedom we are living. It is (more or less) close to the freest life a society is capable of providing us, but it isn’t quite free in the metaphysical sense of actually commanding our individual destinies through the exercise of our own free will. At least some of the freedom of contemporary consumer society is an illusion, taken upon ourselves to make our lives feel bearable and to help us feel more in control—precisely because, to some extent, we are not very much in control at all.

Recommended, by your friend, namely me.

China fact of the day

It is undeniable that China since the late 1950s has deployed hard and soft power in its determination to exert influence over Africa.  In the Mao era this translated into enormous aid budgets.  By 1975, China was throwing ‘more than’ — in Zhou Enlai’s revealingly hazy formulation — 5 per cent of its national budget into foreign aid; in fact, two years earlier it had reached 6.92 per cent.  Compare this proportion with the 0.7 percent of national income that the much wealthier UK annually reserves for international aid..It thus seems certain that Mao-era china spent a greater proportion of income on foreign aid — including in Africa — than did either the US (around 1.5 per cent of the federal budget in 1977) or the USSR (0.9 per cent of GNP in 1976).

That is from Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History, so far my favorite book of the year.  One implication of course is that One Belt, One Road isn’t as new as you might think, and that contemporary China has more in common with the Mao era — and I’m not just referring to the censorship element — than many people realize.

Which are the best autobiographies by women?

That question has been floating around Twitter, here are my picks:

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

Janet Frame, Autobiography.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own.

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis.

Golda Meir, My Life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures.

Am I allowed to say Virginia Woolf, corpus?

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir.

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life.

Anne Frank of course.

What else?  Maybe Carrie Fisher?  Maya Angelou?  Erica Jong?  St. Therese of Liseaux?  (I Am Rigoberto Menchu turned out to be a fraud.)  There are a variety of important feminist books that read like quasi-autobiographies, but maybe they don’t quite fit the category.  What is a memoir and what is an autobiography in this context?  Do leave your suggestions in the comments.

It is also worth thinking about how these differ from well-known male autobiographies…