Category: Books

*The Case for Space*

The author is Robert Zubrin and the subtitle is How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.  I found this book fun, ambitious, and informative, even if I was not entirely convinced.  Zubrin thinks big and bold in an exciting way, here is one bit:

Exploring Mars requires no miraculous new technologies, no orbiting spaceports, and no gigantic interplanetary space cruisers.  We can establish our first small outpost on Mars within a decade.

There is not much talk of the stress space (or for that matter life on Mars) might place on the human body.  Zubrin talks of Mars tours of four or six years or more.

Yet my biggest difference with Zubrin is this: I think of space and planetary exploration as presenting many surprising and difficult problems, ones which cannot be foreseen and fixed in advance by stocking a spacecraft with “just the right materials.”  There are many sentences like this:

Mobile microwave units will be used to extract water from Mars’s abundant permafrost, supporting such agriculture and making possible the manufacture of large amounts of brick and concrete…

But when the problem of missing parts arises, or perhaps missing links between systems, you can’t run to the local hardware store.  Try this one too:

Extracting the He3 from the atmospheres of the giant planets will be difficult, but not impossible.  What is required is a winged transatmospheric vehicle that can use a planet’s atmosphere for propellant, heating it in a nuclear reactor to produce thrust.

My other worry is that if we do not find it profitable to inhabit rural Nevada, Mars might stay empty as well.  Zubrin does make a detailed economic case for the value of space, though to my eye much of it falls on satellites.  Asteroids have valuable minerals, such as uranium, and that might spur mining operations, powered by nuclear fusion.  But is that really the cheapest way to get more uranium, in any case I suspect its price and value would fall rapidly with quantity.

Zubrin puts forward the interesting hypothesis that life in space will encourage a great deal of political freedom:

Historically, the easiest people for a tyrant to oppress are nominally self-sufficient rural peasants, because none of them are individually essential…In a space colony, nearly everyone will be individually essential, and therefore powerful, and all will be capable of being dangerous to those in authority.

Hard to verify, but worth a ponder.

Under another scenario, arks full of large, smart salamanders, genetically programmed to build incubators by instinct, will settle the galaxy at “a speed exceeding 20 percent the speed of light.”

There are many interesting ancillary points, such as using the length of the growing season to estimate global warming, or how pp.284-285 offer an ambitious take on the spin-off benefits from the space program so far, or pp.294-295 on exactly why taking out an asteroid with bombs is so hard.

With plenty of caveats of course, but recommended, the author of this one is never coasting.

What should I ask Hollis Robbins?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Robbins is a noted expert in the field of nineteenth-century African American literature and recently co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. an anthology of African American women’s writing. Robbins’ work focuses primarily on nineteenth and early twentieth century black print culture; she is affiliated with the Black Press Research Collective and serves as an advisor to the Black Periodical Literature Project at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University

…Previously, Robbins edited several other books with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., including The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) and In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2003). She also co-edited The Works of William Wells Brown (2006) with Paula Garrett and an edition of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy.

In addition to now being Dean at Sonoma State University, she also has written on film music, the history of post offices, the gold rush, higher education, African-American sonnets, and numerous other topics.  So what should I ask her?

*Dignity: Seeing Respect in Back Row America*

That is the new book by Chris Arnade, insightful throughout and with excellent photos.  Excerpt:

McDonald’s wasn’t just central to my friends, it was important to everyone in the neighborhood.  It was always packed with families and older couples, especially on weekend mornings.  In the evenings, it was filled with teenagers or young couples going out.

There weren’t really many other options.  McDonald’s was one of the few spaces in Hunts Point open to the public that worked.  While wonderful and well-intentioned nonprofits serve Hunts Point, whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal, it was almost always McDonald’s.

Arnade indicts “the elitists,” whereas I would lay heavier blame on alcohol and drug abuse.  Many much poorer people never touch the stuff, and furthermore I would have added a comparison with America’s dark-skinned, not entirely popular Muslim immigrants, the non-drinking ones most of all.  There is indeed something wrong with much of American culture, and we need to think harder about what that might be.  Neither sympathy nor empathy changes that fact, and I am happy to be one of the elitists under indictment.  I would rather write what I think than try to make other people feel better, or to support my favored politics, and perhaps that attempt is doomed in any case?  Is it more or less condescending to hold the poor to high standards?

What I’ve been reading

1. Michael H. Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany.  The best general introduction to this still-important topic.

2. Alev Scott, Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire.  Imagine setting off to write a book about Turkey, finding your access shut down, and then coming up with what is probably an even better travelogue about the former fringes of the Ottoman Empire.  I will buy the author’s next book.

3. James Walvin, Freedom: The Overthrow of the Slave Empires.  Perhaps not original, but a highly readable and very much conceptual overview of how the slave trade developed and was then overthrown.  Recommended.

4. Chester Himes, If He Hollers, Let Him Go.  Pretty brutal actually, a kind of pre-integration African-American noir, dating from 1945.  People should still read this one.

5. John Steinbeck, East of Eden.  At first I enjoyed this one, but after a while I grew bored.  If it came out today, by John Anonymous, how many people would think it was a great book?  (“Most of those who wrote the Amazon reviews” you might reply.  Maybe, but what other current books do they like?  Barbara Kingsolver?)  If Sally Rooney’s Normal People, or some time-synched version thereof, came out in the 1920s or 30s, how many today would claim it is an absolute masterpiece?  I am happy to recommend that one.

Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism is a good introduction to what the title and subtitle promise.

Gareth Williams, Unraveling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA.  A good, detailed look at thought on DNA-related issues, before Crick and Watson published the solution.

I will not have time to read Anthony Atkinson’s Measuring Poverty Around the World, his final book, but as you might expect it appears to be a very serious contribution.

Linda Yueh’s What Would the Great Economists Do? How Brilliant Minds Would Solve Today’s Biggest Problems, now out in paperback, is the closest we have come to producing a modern-day version of Robert Heilbroner’s book.  As with Heilbroner, it is from a somewhat “left” perspective.

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?


ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

W.E.B. Du Bois sentences to ponder

Du Bois was born in 1868, the year that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg had its debut: he died in 1963, when “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was on the charts.  His longevity gives us, I think, a sense that he is more modern than he really was.  It can be startling to realize, for example, that when Khruschev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior.

That is from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.

*The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics*

That is the new book by Michael Malice, and I have to say it will go down as one of the more important albeit objectionable books of this year.  Imagine an well-informed anthropological treatment of Gamergate, PUA, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Milo, and all the rest of “that stuff,” both its history and how it fits together.

Just to be clear, this book is not written from the perspective of a journalist trying to make these movements look weird, rather it is written from the perspective of an anarchist trying to make these movements look (relatively) normal.  You might find that approach is not affiliated with the proper mood.  I don’t get the sense that Malice is “one of them,” but his “objectivity” might not be the right kind of objectivity.  I’m not going to try to resolve that meta-issue here, I’ll just say that a “normalizing” treatment of “the New Right” has some descriptive virtues, and you might end up more scared and more concerned than if you read a journalistic expose.  That said, I am not sure the author really grasps the non-niceness of so much of this stuff, or the import of that non-niceness.

Every page of this book is interesting, and so I am going to recommend it.  Here is a Kirkus Review, otherwise MSM doesn’t seem to be touching this one at all.  Here is the Amazon link, 79 reviews and an average of five stars.  The reviews themselves are not entirely reassuring.

I thank an MR reader for the pointer.

The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges & Universities

We briefly cover higher education in Why Are the Prices So D*mn High? If you are interested in a longer treatment that covers many more issues I highly recommend Archibald and Feldman’s The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges & Universities. Archibald and Feldman reach the same conclusion we do with regard to dysfunction versus the cost disease:

We have offered two contending viewpoints about the drivers of college cost, and we have made a judgement between them. The dysfunction stories form the dominant narrative in public discussion, but we think it’s a story with weak foundations. Yet we agree that the status quo likely costs more than it could or perhaps should. You might notice that we mounted no defense of lazy rivers. Still, the cost consequences of true excesses probably are small. The major drivers of college costs are as follows (1) higher education is a service, and productivity growth in services lags productivity growth in goods; (2) higher education relies on highly educated service providers, and the income gap in favor of highly-educated workers has grown; and (3) higher education institutions adopt technology to meet a standard of care, even if meeting that standard pushes up cost.

In addition to discussing costs, Archibald and Feldman look at the demand for college, the role of the federal and state governments, online education, policy proposals such as free college and much more. Throughout their book they are data driven, analytic, and judicious.

*The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas*

That is the new and very interesting forthcoming book by Janek Wasserman, focusing on the history of the Austrian school of economics and due out in September.  A few comments:

1. It is the best overall history of the Austrian school.

2. It is in some early places too wordy, though perhaps that is necessary for the uninitiated.

3. I don’t think actual “Austrian school members” will learn much economics from it, though it has plenty of useful historical detail, far more than any other comparable book.  And much of it is interesting, not just: “Adolph Wagner and Albert Schaeffler taught in the Austrian capital in the 1860s and early 1870s, but quarrels with fellow incumbent Lorenz von Stein led to their departure.”

4. Even a full decade after its release in 1871, Menger’s Principles was not achieving much attention outside of Vienna.

5. The early Austrians favored progressive taxation and fairly standard Continental approaches to government spending.

6. The Austrian school of those earlier times was in danger of disappearing, as Boehm-Bawerk was working in government and the number of “Austrian students” was drying up, circa 1905.

7. The very first articles of Mises were empirical, and covered factory legislation, labor law, and welfare programs.

8. Wieser and some of the others lost status with the fall of the Dual Monarchy after WWI; Wieser for instance no longer had a House of Lords membership.  Schumpeter and Mises responded to these changes by writing more for a broader public, often through newspapers (not blogs).  Mises’s market-oriented views seemed to stem from this time.

9. Hayek in fact struggled in high school, though his grandfather had gone on Alpine hikes with Boehm-Bawerk.

10. The Lieder of the original Mises circle were patterned after the poems of Karl Kraus, and one of them mentioned spaghetti and risotto.

11. Much of this book is strong evidence for the “small group” theory of social change.

12. The patron institution for Hayek’s business cycle research of 1927 to 1931 was partly sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.

13. By the mid-1930s, Mises, Tinbergen, Koopmans, and Nurkse were all living in Geneva.  There was a Vienna drinking song saying farewell to Mises.

14. I wonder how these guys would have looked as Emergent Ventures applicants.  [“We’re going to run away from the Nazis and recreate anew our whole school of thought in America, with thick Austrian accents…and with a night school class at NYU to boot.”]

15. The Austrian school eventually was reborn in the United States, which accounts for many more chapters in this book, some of them concerned with the ties between the Austrian school and libertarianism.  There are some outright errors of fact in this section of the book, sometimes involving matters I was involved with personally (and which are non-controversial, not a question of “taking sides”).  I think also the latter parts of the book do not quite grasp the extensive influence of the Austrian school on America, extending up through the current day, and covering such diverse areas as regulatory policy and tech and crypto.

Nonetheless, recommended as an important contribution to the history of economic thought.

*Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World*

That is the new book by David Epstein, the author of the excellent The Sports Gene.  I sometimes say that generalists are the most specialized people of them all, so specialized they can’t in fact do anything.  Except make observations of that nature.  Excerpt:

In an impressively insightful image, Tetlock described the very best forecasters as foxes with dragonfly eyes.  Dragonfly eyes are composed of tens of thousands of lenses, each with a different perspective, which are then synthesized in the dragonfly’s brain.

I am not sure Epstein figures out what a generalist really is (and how does a generalist differ from a polymath, by the way?), but this book is the best place to start for thinking about the relevant issues.