Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. Allen Lowe, “Turn Me Loose White Man”, two volumes and 30 accompanying compact discs.  “Personally I accept the assumption that a great deal, if not all, of American music is rooted in forms that derive in some way from Minstrelsy.”  Would you like to see that documented over the course of 30 CDs and almost 800 pp.?  Would you like to know how early blues, country, gospel, jazz, bluegrass (and more) all fit together?  Then this is the package for you.  It is in fact of one of the greatest achievements of all time in cataloguing and presenting American culture.  Here is a WSJ review.

2. Luke Burgis, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.  This book is the best introduction to this key Girardian concept.

3. Blake Bailey, Philip Roth: The Biography.  I only read slivers and won’t finish it, because I just don’t need 800 pp. on Philip Roth.  But…it’s really good.  I like Picasso too, and Caravaggio (a murderer).  I’ve heard, by the way, that this book will be picked up by Simon and Schuster and put back into print.

4. Martha C. Nussbaum, Citadels of Pride: Sexual Assault, Accountability, and Reconciliation.  There are so many recent books on these topics, you might feel a bit weary of them all, but this is one of the best.  It is rationally and reasonably argued, from first principles, and focuses on the better arguments for its conclusions.  It nicely situates the legal within the philosophical, it is wise on power vs. sex, rooted in the idea of objectification, and it has at least one page on alcohol.

5. Kenneth Whyte, The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise.  How the consumer and auto safety movement helped to bring down GM.

6. Fabrice Midal, Trungpa and Vision, a biography of Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist leader.  I enjoyed this passage: “He never hesitated to tell the truth, even if this meant provoking the audience.  At a talk in San Francisco in the fall of 1970, he began by saying: “It’s a pity you came here.  You’re so aggressive.””

And this passage: “Chögyam Trungpa might have appeared, at first, sight, to be very modern and up-to-date in his approach to the teachings.  He had abandoned the external signs of the Tibetan monastic tradition.  He drank whiskey, smoked cigarettes, and wore Western clothes.  He had a frank often provocative way with words and ignored the normal conventions of a guru.”  In fact he died from complications resulting from heavy alcohol abuse.

It feels like we are living in a science fiction novel

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I am living in a science fiction serial.

The break point was China’s landing of an exploratory vehicle on Mars. It’s not just the mere fact of it, as China was one of the world’s poorest countries until relatively recently. It’s that the vehicle contains a remarkable assemblage of software and artificial intelligence devices, not to mention lasers and ground-penetrating radar.

There is a series of science fiction novels about China in which it colonizes Mars. Published between 1988 and 1999, David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series is set 200 years in the future. It describes a corrupt and repressive China that rules the world and enforces rigid racial hierarchies.

It is striking to read the review of the book published in the New York Times in 1990. It notes that in the book “the Chinese somehow regained their sense of purpose in the latter half of the 21st century” — which hardly sounds like science fiction, the only question at this point being why it might have taken them so long. The book is judged unrealistic and objectionable because its “vision of a Chinese-dominated future seems arbitrary, ungrounded in historical process.” The Chung Kuo books don’t reflect my predictions either, but it does seem that reality has exceeded the vision of at least one book critic.

I also consider Asimov, Dogecoin, and Stephenson at the link.

Model this art market illiquidity what would Hayek say?

She [an artist] tries to do a show a year, one every three years at each of the three galleries.  The idea, she explained, is for your prices not to have a sudden rise, precisely because they can crash, but rather for your dealers to increase them slowly as your work receives exposure through venues like group shows, exhibitions, and biennials.  Auctions can be dangerous for just that reason.  At the time we spoke, Wilcox’s works on paper (19″ x 24″) were selling for around $6,000; her largest paintings (12′ x 6′), for $45,000.  Dealers take 50 percent.  Prices are based on size, not judgments of quality, because you don’t want to influence buyers’ opinions.  Smaller works are cheaper, but more expensive per square inch (kind of like real estate).  Large paintings are easier to sell in Los Angeles than London or New York, because the houses are bigger.

That is an excerpt from William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, an excellent book (ignore the subtitle).

The Moral Foundations of Progress

Applied Divinity Studies has written an excellent and thought-provoking 34-pp. review of my book Stubborn Attachments.  Excerpt:

Naively, say there are three possible timescales for humanity, and we assign equal (33.3%) credence to each of them:

1. Short: Humanity dies out within 100 years or fewer
2. Medium: Humanity dies out within 1,000 years or fewer
3. Long: Humanity dies out within 1,000,000 years or more

In this case, the overwhelming moral importance still lies in the far-future (1,000,000+ years). So long as you accept the basic Atemporal argument of Attachments, the mere possibility of a far-future dominates the expected value calculus.

You could tweak the probabilities to assign 99% credence to the medium-term view and only 1% to the long-term view, and the math will still work out.

Growth will still matter in that it accelerates our arrival at the “saturation” point, but as estimated by Nick Bostrom in Astronomical Waste, the cost of this delay is miniscule compared to the cost of outright extinction. So existential-risk remains of tremendous importance, but where does that leave progress?

There is much more at the link.  And here is the blog of Applied Divinity Studies.

Sarah Ruden’s Gospels translation

Am I the one who should be judging this?  I am neither Christian nor have any fluency in ancient Greek.  Nonetheless as a reader experience I am happy to give this one an A+.  The “discursive glossary of unfamiliar word choices in English” is superbly useful, better arranged than most uses of footnotes.  More importantly, to me it reads “like the New Testament ought to read.”  (Please revisit my first sentence here!)  Other translations, even say the serious Oxford one, sound too much like “a lot of casual stories in colloquial English” for my taste.  This sounds like The Bible.

I had not known that Sarah Ruden was a Quaker, and perhaps that is why she is willing to veer away from the “chatty” approach and delve into the strangeness of these texts.  You should pair this with David Bentley Hart and other translations (do read the first Amazon review), but for now I am willing to call this one “an event.”  Heartily recommended.

Here is the Amazon link, the company came through after San Francisco failed me.

“The Chiefs Now in This City”

Virginia, the largest British colony, had nearly 350,000 people in 1763, but the capital, Williamsburg, had no more than 2,000 residents, black and white.  The largest urban center in Virginia was actually Norfolk, another port at the intersection of key trade networks.  Norfolk thrived exporting timber, tar, and tobacco to Europe and provisions to the Caribbean, and it was the sixth-largest city in mainland British America by the second half of the eighteenth century.  Like Baltimore, it had a population of more than 6,000 by 1776.  Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, was even smaller than Williamsburg.  Andrew Burnaby, an English vicar, saw it in 1759 and reported: “None of the streets were paved, and the few public buildings here are not worth mentioning.”

The largest city in the southern colonies and the wealthiest in all of the North American colonies was Charleston, or Charles Town, the seat of government in South Carolina.

The author is Colin G. Calloway, the subtitle is Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America, and the main theme is Native American interactions with the major urban areas of the British colonies.

What I’ve been reading

1. David Thomson, A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors.  One of the best attempts to make the auteur notion intelligible to the modern viewer, he surveys major directors such as Welles, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Godard and others.  Stephen Frears is the dark horse pick, and he recommends the Netflix show Ozark.  I always find Thomson worth reading.

2. Wenfei Tong, Bird Love: The Family Life of Birds.  Now this is a great book, wonderful photos, superb analytics and bottom-line approach throughout.  By the way, “Superb fairywrens are particularly adept at avoiding incest.”

3. William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech.  Ignore the subtitle (which itself illustrates a theme of the book), this is the best book on the economics of the arts — circa 2021 — in a long time.  “The good news is, you can do it yourself.  The bad news is, you have to.”  Every aspiring internet creator, whether “artist” or not, should read this book.  If you don’t think of your career itself as a creative product — bye-bye!

I very much enjoyed Richard Thompson (with Scott Timberg), Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975, still smarter than the competition and you don’t even have to know much about Thompson.

Dorothy Sue Cobble, For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality is a serious and thorough yet readable account of what the title promises, with a minimum of mood affiliation.

Joanne Meyerowitz, A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit. A history of antipoverty efforts, with an emphasis on the shift toward “enterprise” in the 1980s, with the microcredit treatment being mostly pre-Yunus.

Mathilde Fasting has edited After the End of History: Conversations with Frank Fukuyama.

Julian Baggini’s The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well is not written for me, but it is a lively and useful introduction to one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Don’t forget Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Bettering Humanomics: A New, and Old, Approach to Economic Science.

Arrived in my pile there is William D. Nordhaus, The Spirit of Green: The Economics of Collisions and Contagions in a Crowded World, and in September Adam Tooze is publishing Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, and also for September there is Gregg Easterbrook’s Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity — And Why We’re in Danger of Losing It.

Have you noticed there are lots of books coming out now?  How many were held over from the pandemic?

The first date book walk out meme

Michele W. (citing @ogbrenna) asked on Twitter:

You’re on a first date with someone, and they tell you the name of their favorite book. You immediately leave. What’s the book?

This caused Atlas Shrugged to trend, and The Bible was another popular response.  It is striking to me how, with a simple change of setting, and a shift in the mood affiliation of the example, how discrimination on the basis of religion suddenly is glorified and celebrated.  Funny how few cited The Quran, or for that matter “The Hebrew Bible,” albeit for two very different reasons.

(By the way, I’ve been going around to many San Francisco book stores, and none of them carry the new Sarah Ruden translation of The Gospels, which is likely a significant work.  I could feel people looking down on me as I asked for it.  Part of me wanted to say “But this is Sarah Ruden,” but that would be making the problem only worse.  Since I did not feel tempted to say “But this is God,” perhaps I am part of the problem.)

Why not email a bit with a potential date beforehand, if such matters are so important?  Or is this meme a simple, never-to-be-enacted revenge fantasy for those who don’t quite have the options they might ideally prefer?

One thing the contemporary world definitely has not come to terms with is how much a highly feminized culture will be (rather strongly) enforcing new forms of discrimination, albeit cloaked under different and rhetorically emancipatory principles.

Addendum: Here is a statistics variant.

*Peace, Poverty and Betrayal*

The author is Roderick Matthews, and the subtitle is A New History of British India.  This book has been highly controversial for its supposed “whitewashing” of British rule in India, but so far I find it insightful and indeed revelatory.  It is to date my favorite book this year, most of all conceptual but also remarkably well-informed historically.  Here is one excerpt:

Ultimately, we should condemn [British] colonialism not because it was self-glorifying and arrogant, but because it was small-minded and fearful.

Colonial rule was undoubtedly heavily responsible for the fact that India remainder both poor and backward — but the high Rah hid a subtler hypocrisy, in the way that Indian landlords, for a muddle of humanitarian and political reasons, were denied the scope that their British counterparts had allowed themselves.  British landowners drove their tenants off the land and adopted new methods of husbandry to increase profitability, which allowed them to create the agricultural surplus that stimulated the industrial revolution, and provided Britain with a float of national wealth to pay for colonial adventures.  Rural India remained overmanned and underproductive.

This short charge sheet differs from the extensive accusations made by modern left-leaning historians, who recognize economic exploitation but choose instead to emphasize cultural issues, especially the bureaucratization of Indian society and the introduction of capitalist norms.  This is hardly fair, because the progressive middle classes in India would have done broadly the same things if they could.  Almost nothing of the imperial administrative agenda was undone in independent India.  However, it is true that the modernization process was rushed and defective.  It was too self-interested, and the guiding hands were not indigenous.  Something similar might have emerged, but with a more Indian face.  We cannot know.

I will be covering this book more, but so far strongly recommended.  It is no accident that the author, while an experienced Indian historian, is not an academic.

The Essential James Buchanan

The Essential James Buchanan is an excellent new primer on Buchanan written by Don Boudreaux and Randy Holcombe. It’s part of the Essential Scholar series from the Fraser Institute which also includes Hayek, Nozick, Locke, Smith and Hume among others. Each book can be downloaded in entirety or by chapter and each comes with introductory videos and a guide to further readings. Boudreux and Holcombe’s chapter on Buchanan on government debt is especially clear and concise. All the books in the series are written by experts, such as Erik Mack on John Locke, Steven Landsburg on Milton Friedman and Sandra Peart on John Stuart Mill. Recommended.

*Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment*

That is the new and very interesting book by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein.  Think of “noise” as the new major problem rather than bias.  Here is one excerpt:

…we presented our findings to the senior managers of an asset management firm, prompting them to run their own exploratory noise audit.  they asked forty-two experienced investors in the firm to estimate the fair value of a stock (the price at which investors would be indifferent to buying or selling).  The investors based their analysis on a one-page description of the business; the data included ismplified profits and loss, balance sheet, and cash flow statements for the past three years and projections for the next two.  median noise, measured in the same way as in the insurance company, was 41%.  Such large differences among investors in the same firm, using the same valuation methods, cannot be good news.

I will be covering this book more soon, you can pre-order it here.  And here Tim Harford does FT lunch with Kahneman, self-recommending.

My Conversation with Daniel Carpenter, on regulation and also the FDA

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, I found it a very substantive and also illuminating episode.  Carpenter is very, very smart and also very well-informed historically.  Here is part of the summary:

Daniel Carpenter is one of the world’s leading experts on regulation and the foremost expert on the US Food and Drug Administration. A professor of Government at Harvard University, he’s conducted extensive research on regulation and government organizations, as well as on the development of political institutions in the United States. His latest book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, details the crucial role petitions played in expanding the franchise and shaping modern America.

Here is an excerpt from the non-FDA section, much of which focuses on (non-FDA) regulation:

COWEN: What kinds of records should the Postal Service keep about itself?

CARPENTER: [laughs] Great question. There’s a whole set of things that they don’t since the Griswold decision and since the First Amendment decisions. They don’t keep as much records of what goes through the mail. They can’t prohibit things like pornography, contraception.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “itself.” I would start with the idea that basic privacy restrictions, which governed the postal system as much through norm as by law in the 19th century and early 20th century, should govern the system.

It’s a crime if I were to walk past your mailbox and open your letter. I’m committing a federal crime, but there were also norms that seals were not to be broken, things like that. I do think whichever way the Postal Service goes — and it’s quite possible that you could imagine an electronic platform for the US postal system — I think basic privacy restrictions have to be guaranteed.

Actually, in some respects, I think we need to know a fair amount about what postal workers do without, say, calling for Amazon tracking. But if we think that postal workers are misplacing ballots or not providing birth control pills or something like that, then we should probably have some way of picking up on that kind of nefarious behavior.

In the FDA section I got mad at him, the first (but not last?) time that has happened in a CWT, do read or listen to the whole section, the two of us really had at it!  Here is a tiny sliver from it:

COWEN: But shouldn’t there be a button within the FDA that can be pushed, where the FDA goes into a kind of wartime mode?

I don’t want to misrepresent Carpenter by an ill-chosen excerpt, so please do digest his full set of replies.  Recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Marcel Proust, The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories.  Yes they read like fragments, but Proust’s fragments are still better than almost anything else.

2. Michele Alacevich, Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography.  There can never be enough books on Albert Hirschman, noting this one focuses on his ideas rather than his life.

3. Jennifer Ackerman, The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think.  A good and entertaining overview of some of the most interesting questions about birds, including bird intelligence.  “Extreme behavior in birds is more likely in Australia than anywhere else.”

4. Paul Betts, Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II.  The immediate aftermath of WWII was the last time the Western world was truly chaotic, and this book captures that time well, including its intellectual milieu.  Are you interested in how West and East German books of manners differed in the late 1940s and 1950s?  If so, this is your go-to book.

5. Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology.  As I tweeted: “I am coming to the conclusion that the quality of books about birds is higher than about almost any other subject.”  Simple question: have you read a better book about the history of ornithology than this one?

Tom Standage, A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next is a very good history of what it promises.

Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, is indeed…a defense of truth.

There is Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, lots of bad news yes, but is he short the market?