Category: Books

Elizabeth Bowen speaks to her lover

“Take it from one of the best living novelists that people’s personalities are not interesting,” she said in a dry voice unlike the voice she uses with me as a rule.  “Except,” she added, when you are in love with them.”

And more from the diary of Charles, the lover:

Would I ever have fallen for her if it hadn’t been for her books?  I very much doubt it.  But now I can’t separate her from her literary self.  It’s as if the woman I ‘love’ were always accompanied by a companion spirit infinitely more exciting and more poetic and more profound than E herself…When it comes to writing, well I had a letter from her the other day so blunderingly expressed, so repetitive, that the least of the characters in one of her books would never have been guilty of it.

That is from Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries, Their obsessional, thirty-year love affair.

What I’ve been reading

1. Russ Banham, The Fight for Fairfax: Private Citizens and Public Policymaking.  A well-informed story of the great men and women who built up Fairfax County, Virginia, including Til Hazel, Sid Dewberry, Earle Williams, Jack Herrity, George Johnson, Dwight Schar, and others.  WWNN: “We were never NIMBY!”  It is striking how much the key builders were not born as elites.

2. Dan Levy, Maxims for Thinking Analytically: The wisdom of legendary Harvard professor Richard Zeckhauser.  How many of us will end up getting books such as this in our honor?  If you are curious, Zeckhauser’s three maxims for personal life are: “There are some things you just don’t want to know,” “If you focus on people’s shortcomings, you’ll always be disappointed,” and “Practice asynchronous reciprocity.”  Zeckhauser, by the way, was on my dissertation committee.

3. Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.  Could this be the best history of Central Asia?  The author takes special care to tie the region to the histories of Russia and China, the author seeming to have a specialization in Russian history, and for me that makes the entire enterprise far more intelligible.  Useful for Xinjiang history as well, here is one useful review of the book.

4. Paul Greenhalgh, Ceramic: Art and Civilisation.  Picture book!  Need I say more?  And a big one.

Edward J. Watts, The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea.  How has the decline of Rome been discussed and analyzed throughout the ages, including by the Romans themselves?

Loyd Grossman, The Artist and the Eternal City: Bernini, Pope Alexander VII, and the Making of Rome.  Has all the virtues of a picture book, but the price of a regular book.  With the common educated public, Bernini is still probably underrated.

Michael S. Malone, The Big Score: The billion dollar story of Silicon Valley is the new Stripe Press reprint.

Seth David Radwell, American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secrets to Healing Our Nation.  This is not a book written for me, but it is nonetheless good to see someone putting forward Enlightenment ideals as a solution to our problems.

What I’ve been reading

1. Barnaby Phillips, Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes.  Among its other virtues, this book is an excellent “in passing” way to learn about British imperialism and also West African economic collapse.  One thing I learned from this book is that Nigeria already has one of the very best collection of these bronzes in the world.  It does not seem they are being stolen or ruined, but they are not deployed very effectively either.  Recommended.

2. Paul Atkinson, A Design History of the Electric Guitar. “Why is it that so many guitars produced today, not only by Gibson and Fender, but by competing companies, still hark back to the classic designs of the 1950s?  Why do so many manufacturers produce designs that are very clearly derivative forms of the Les Paul, the Telecaster, the Stratocaster, the Flying V and the Explorer?”  There is now a book on this question, and quite a good one.

3. Cass Sunstein, Sludge: What Stops Us from Getting Things Done and What to Do about It.  More people should write books about the most important topics.  Have you and your institution done a “sludge audit” lately?

4. Andras Schiff, Music Comes Out of Silence: A Memoir. A well-written and in fact gripping treatment of what makes classical music so wonderful, life as a touring concert pianist, and defecting from Hungary and later being disillusioned by a resurgent European populism.  Zoltan Kocsis was at first the more brilliant pianist, but Schiff was more persistent and ended up with a more successful career.

Alex Millmow’s The Gypsy Economist: The Life and Times of Colin Clark covers the now-neglected Australian pioneer of development economics and relative historical optimist.

There is also Kathleen Stock, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, controversial.

Book Review: Andy Slavitt’s Preventable

Like Michael Lewis’s The Premonition which I reviewed earlier, Andy Slavitt’s Preventable is a story of heroes, only all the heroes are named Andy Slavitt. It begins, as all such stories do, with an urgent call from the White House…the President needs you now! When not reminding us (e.g. xv, 14, 105, 112, 133, 242, 249) of how he did “nearly the impossible” and saved Obamacare he tells us how grateful other people were for his wise counsel, e.g. “Jared Kushner’s name again flashed on my phone. I picked up, and he was polite and appreciative of my past help.” (p.113), “John Doer was right to challenge me to make my concerns known publicly. Hundreds of thousands of people were following my tweets…” (p. 55)

Slavitt deserves praise for his work during the pandemic so I shouldn’t be so churlish but Preventable is shallow and politicized and it rubbed me the wrong way. Instead of an “inside account” we get little more than a day-by-day account familiar to anyone who lived through the last year and half. Slavitt rarely departs from the standard narrative.

Trump, of course, comes in for plenty of criticism for his mishandling of the crisis. Perhaps the most telling episode was when an infected Trump demanded a publicity jaunt in a hermetically sealed car with Secret Service personnel. Trump didn’t care enough to protect those who protected him. No surprise he didn’t protect us.

The standard narrative, however, leads Slavitt to make blanket assertions—the kind that everyone of a certain type knows to be true–but in fact are false. He writes, for example:

In comparison to most of these other countries, the American public was impatient, untrusting, and unaccustomed to sacrificing individual rights for the public good. (p. 65)

Data from the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) show that the US “sacrifice” as measured by the stringency of the COVID policy response–school closures; workplace closures; restrictions on public gatherings; restrictions on internal movements; mask requirements; testing requirements and so forth–was well within the European and Canadian average.

The pandemic and the lockdowns split Americans from their friends and families. Birthdays, anniversaries, even funerals were relegated to Zoom. Jobs and businesses were lost in the millions. Children couldn’t see their friends or even play in the park. Churches and bars were shuttered. Music was silenced. Americans sacrificed plenty.

Some of Slavitt’s assertions are absurd.

The U.S. response to the pandemic differed from the response in other parts of the world largely in the degree to which the government was reluctant to interfere with our system of laissez-faire capitalism…

Laissez-faire capitalism??! Political hyperbole paired with lazy writing. It would be laughable except for the fact that such hyperbole biases our thinking. If you read Slavitt uncritically you’d assume–as Slavitt does–that when the pandemic hit, US workers were cast aside to fend for themselves. In fact, the US fiscal response to the pandemic was among the largest and most generous in the world. An unemployed minimum wage worker in the United States, for example, was paid a much larger share of their income during the pandemic than a similar worker in Canada, France, or Germany (and no, that wasn’t because the US replacement rate was low to begin with.)

This is not to deny that low-wage workers bore a larger brunt of the pandemic than high-wage workers, many of whom could work from home. Slavitt implies, however, that this was a “room-service pandemic” in which the high-wage workers demanded a reopening of the economy at the expense of low-wage workers. As far as the data indicate, however, the big divisions of opinion were political and tribal not by income per se. The Washington Post, for example, concluded:

There was no significant difference in the percentage of people who said social distancing measures were worth the cost between those who’d seen no economic impact and those who said the impacts were a major problem for their households. Both groups broadly support the measures.

Perhaps because Slavitt believes his own hyperbole about a laissez-faire economy he can’t quite bring himself to say that Operation Warp Speed, a big government program of early investment to accelerate vaccines, was a tremendous success. Instead he winds up complaining that “even with $1 billion worth of funding for research and development, Moderna ended up selling its vaccine at about twice the cost of an influenza vaccine.” (p. 190). Can you believe it? A life-saving, economy-boosting, pandemic ending, incredibly-cheap vaccine, cost twice as much as the flu vaccine! The horror.

Slavitt’s narrative lines up “scientific experts” against “deniers, fauxers, and herders” with the scientific experts united on the pro-lockdown side. Let’s consider. In Europe one country above all others followed the Slavitt ideal of an expert-led pandemic response. A country where the public health authority was free from interference from politicians. A country where the public had tremendous trust in the state. A country where the public were committed to collective solidarity and the public welfare. That country, of course, was Sweden. Yet in Sweden the highly regarded Public Health Agency, led by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, an expert in infectious diseases who had directed Sweden’s response to the swine flu epidemic, opposed lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the general use of masks.

Moreover, the Public Health Agency of Sweden and Tegnell weren’t a bizarre anomaly, anti-lockdown was probably the dominant expert position prior to COVID. In a 2006 review of pandemic policy, for example, four highly-regarded experts argued:

It is difficult to identify circumstances in the past half-century when large-scale quarantine has been effectively used in the control of any disease. The negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme (forced confinement of sick people with the well; complete restriction of movement of large populations; difficulty in getting critical supplies, medicines, and food to people inside the quarantine zone) that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.

Travel restrictions, such as closing airports and screening travelers at borders, have historically been ineffective.

….a policy calling for communitywide cancellation of public events seems inadvisable.

The authors included Thomas V. Inglesby, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, one of the most highly respected centers for infectious diseases in the world, and D.A. Henderson, the legendary epidemiologist widely credited with eliminating smallpox from the planet.

Tegnell argued that “if other countries were led by experts rather than politicians, more nations would have policies like Sweden’s” and he may have been right. In the United States, for example, the Great Barrington declaration, which argued for a Swedish style approach and which Slavitt denounces in lurid and slanderous terms, was written by three highly-qualified, expert epidemiologists; Martin Kulldorff from Harvard, Sunetra Gupta from Oxford and Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford. One would be hard-pressed to find a more expert group.

The point is not that we should have followed the Great Barrington experts (for what it is worth, I opposed the Great Barrington declaration). Ecclesiastes tells us:

… that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

In other words, the experts can be wrong. Indeed, the experts are often divided, so many of them must be wrong. The experts also often base their policy recommendations on factors beyond their expertise, including educational, class, and ideological biases, so the experts are to be trusted more on factual questions than on ethical answers. Nevertheless, the experts are more likely to be right than the non-experts. So how should one navigate these nuances in a democratic society? Slavitt doesn’t say.

Slavitt’s simple narrative–Trump bad, Biden good, Follow the Science, Be Kind–can’t help us as we try to improve future policy. Slavitt ignores most of the big questions. Why did the CDC fail in its primary mission? Indeed, why did the CDC often slow our response? Why did the NIH not quickly fund COVID research giving us better insight on the virus and its spread? Why were the states so moribund and listless? Why did the United States fail to adopt first doses first, even though that policy successfully saved lives by speeding up vaccinations in Great Britain and Canada?

To the extent that Slavitt does offer policy recommendations they aren’t about reforming the CDC, FDA or NIH. Instead he offers us a tired laundry list; a living wage, affordable housing, voting reform, lobbying reform, national broadband, and reduction of income inequality. Surprise! The pandemic justified everything you believed all along! But many countries with these reforms performed poorly during the pandemic and many without, such as authoritarian China, performed relatively well. All good things do not correlate.

Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic make it easy to blame him and call it a day. But the rot is deep. If we do not get to the core of our problems we will not be ready for the next emergency. If we are lucky, we might face the next emergency with better leadership but a great country does not rely on luck.

*The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River*

The author is Janet M. Hartley from LSE, here is one excerpt:

…the religious composition on the Volga is complex.  Finno-Ugric settlers originally followed shamanistic beliefs, although many converted, at least nominally, to Orthodoxy after they became subjects of the Russian Empire.  The ruler and the elite in Khazaria probably converted to Judaism sometime in the early ninth century.  Kalmyks in the south and south-east of the Volga were Buddhists (the only Buddhists in Europe).  The Bolgar state, the Golden Horse and the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan were, or became, Muslim.  the Russian and Soviet states were conscious of the potential threat of Islam in the Volga region from the time of the conquest of Kazan in 1552.  The history of the Volga is, in part, the history of (often forced) conversion to Orthodoxy by the Russian government and the reaction to this of the local inhabitants.  In many cases, the conversion process was incomplete or, in the case of Islam, could be reversed.  The remoteness of much of the Volga countryside attracted Old Believers — that is, schismatics from the Russian Orthodox Church who did not accept the changes in liturgy and practice in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Recommended.

Let’s all have a revisionist Fourth of July

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

Revisionist history serves many useful purposes, and for the most part it should be encouraged — even though many particular revisionist claims turn out to be wrong. The natural human state of affairs is a kind of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. If historians sometimes write a bit too sharply or speculatively to capture the audience’s attention, it is a price worth paying. At any rate, the audience tends not to take them literally or to pay close attention to their more detailed claims.

And:

The problem is that the revisionism isn’t diverse enough. A few issues — most of all those raised by Critical Race Theory — get caught up in the culture wars and are debated above all others. I agree that we should devote more time and attention to America’s disgraceful history of slavery and race relations, and I have incorporated that into my own teaching.

Still, other matters are being neglected. The longer trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is hardly debated, or what that history should mean for current decisions. There is plenty of carping about “the deep state,” but actual history has fallen down a memory hole, including the history of U.S. intelligence agencies.

It gets worse yet. According to one recent survey, 63% of the American public is not aware that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Ten percent had not heard of the Holocaust at all. Or consider the treatment of Native Americans, which was terrible and produced few heroes. Yet American soul-searching on this history seems to be minimal.

America needs revisionism, more of it please, and on timely and controversial topics. But it also needs less politicized and more intellectually diverse interpretations of its history. On this Fourth of July, what America needs is not the promotion of some particular claim of historical hypocrisy, but the elevation of the historical itself.

Recommended, and have a happy Fourth!

The Premonition

In The Premonition Michael Lewis brings his cast of heroes together like the assembling of the Avengers. In the role of Captain America is Charity Dean, the CA public health officer who is always under-estimated because she is slight and attractive, until she cracks open the ribcage of a cadaver that the men are afraid to touch. Then there is Carter Mecher, the redneck epidemiologist who has a gift for assembling numbers into coherent patterns. And Richard Hatchett the southern poet who finds himself at the head of The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), the world’s most important organization during the pandemic; and Joe DiRisi the brilliant, mad scientist picked by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as the person most likely to cure disease…all of them. As you might expect from Michael Lewis, it’s all terribly well done, albeit formulaic and  sometimes over-the-top, e.g.

Charity’s purpose was clear….she was put on earth to fight battles, and wars, against disease. To save lives and perhaps even an entire country. p. 200-201

But Lewis has a bigger problem than over-the-top writing.

The heroes were defeated. Lewis likes to tell stories of brilliant mavericks like Billy Beane and Michael Burry who go against the grain but eventually, against all odds, emerge victorious. But six hundred thousand people are dead in the United States and whatever victory we have won was ugly and slow. Indeed, Lewis assembles his mighty team but then The Premonition trails off as the team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise before they even have a chance to enter the real battle against the virus. It’s telling that none of Lewis’s heroes are even mentioned in Andy Slavitt’s Preventable (about which I will say more in a future post).

To be fair, Lewis’s heroes are fascinating, brilliant people who did some good. As part of the Kremer team I interacted a bit with Richard Hatchett and CEPI. Hatchett headed CEPI and understood the danger of SARS-COV-II before anyone else and with Bill Gates’s support started funding vaccine production and shoring up supply lines before anyone else was off the starting line. CEPI was magnificent and their story has yet to be told in full measure. Had Lewis’s heroes been in charge I have no doubt that many lives could have been saved but, for the most part, the heroes were sidelined. Why and how that happened is the real question but Lewis’s story-telling skills aren’t the right skills to answer that question.

If there is one central villain in The Premonition, it’s the CDC. Lewis acknowledges that his perspective has changed. In The Fifth Risk, the system (the “deep state” used non-pejoratively if you will) is full of wisdom and power but it’s under threat from Trump. In The Premonition, Trump is an after-thought, at best a trigger or aggravating factor. Long before Trump or the pandemic:

Charity had washed her hands of the CDC. “I banned their officers from my investigations,” she said. The CDC did many things. It published learned papers on health crisis, after the fact. It managed, very carefully, public perception of itself. But when the shooting started, it leapt into the nearest hole, while others took fire. “In the end I was like ‘Fuck you’, said Charity. “I was mad they were such pansies. I was mad that the man behind the curtain ended up being so disappointing.” p. 42

As the pandemic starts the CDC fails repeatedly. At the beginning of the pandemic on January 29 the government had started to repatriate Americans from Wuhan bringing some of them to a National Guard base just outside of Omaha. But shockingly the CDC doesn’t test them for the virus.

Never mind that every single one of the fifty-seven Americans in quarantine wanted to be tested: the CDC forbade it. And [James] Lawler [US Naval Commander and national security coordinator on pandemic response] never understood the real reason for the CDC’s objections…Whatever the reasons, fifty-seven Americans spent fourteen days quarantined in Omaha, then left without having any idea of whether they’d been infected, or might still infect others. “There is no way that fifty-seven people from Wuhan were not shedding virus,” said Lawler. p. 176

Many of the people brought home from China are not even quarantined just told to self-quarantine:

…When local health officers…set out to find these possibly infected Americans, and make sure that they were following orders to quarantine, they discovered that the CDC officials who had met them upon arrival had not bothered to take down their home addresses.

…[Charity] posed a rude question to the senior CDC official moved on the call: How can you keep saying that Americans are at low risk from the virus if you aren’t even testing for the virus. She’d been answered with silence, and then the official move on to the next topic. [p.206-207, italics in original]

And all of this is before we get to the CDC’s famously botched test an error which was amplified by the FDA’s forbidding private labs and state governments to develop their own tests. Charity Dean wanted California to ignore the CDC and FDA and, “blow open testing and allow every microbiology lab to develop its own test.” But Dean is ignored and so by as late as February 19, “Zimbabwe could test but California could not because of the CDC. Zimbabwe!” p. 223. The failure of testing in the early weeks was the original sin of the crisis, the key failure that took a containment strategy ala South Korea and Taiwan off the table.

Lewis’s most sustained analysis comes in a few pages near the end of The Premonition where he argues that the CDC became politicized after it lost credibility due to the 1976 Swine Flu episode. In 1976 a novel influenza strain looked like it might be a repeat of 1918. Encouraged by CDC head David Sencer, President Ford launched a mass vaccination campaign that vaccinated 45 million people. The swine flu, however, petered out and the campaign was widely considered a “debacle” and a “fiasco” that illustrated the danger of ceding control to unelected experts instead of the democratic process. The CDC lost authority and under Reagan the director became a political appointee rather than a career civil servant. Thus, rather than being unprecedented, Trump’s politicization of the CDC had deep roots.

Today the 1976 vaccination campaign looks like a competent response to a real risk that failed to materialize, rather than a failure. So what lessons should we take from this? Lewis doesn’t say but my colleague Garett Jones argues for more independent agencies in his excellent book 10% Less Democracy. The problem with the CDC was that after 1976 it was too responsive to political pressures, i.e. too democratic. What are the alternatives?

The Federal Reserve is governed by a seven-member board each of whom is appointed to a single 14- year term, making it rare for a President to be able to appoint a majority of the board. Moreover, since members cannot be reappointed there is less incentive to curry political favor. The Chairperson is appointed by the President to a four-year term and must also be approved by the Senate. These checks and balances make the Federal Reserve a relatively independent agency with the power to reject democratic pressures for inflationary stimulus. Although independent central banks can be a thorn in the side of politicians who want their aid in juicing the economy as elections approach, the evidence is that independent central banks reduce inflation without reducing economic growth. A multi-member governing board with long and overlapping appointments could also make the CDC more independent from democratic politics which is what you want when a once in 100 year pandemic hits and the organization needs to make unpopular decisions before most people see the danger.

Lewis hasn’t lost his ability to write exhilarating prose about heroic oddballs. Page by page, The Premonition is a good read but the heroes in Lewis’s story were overshadowed by politics, bureaucracy and complacency–systems that Lewis’s doesn’t analyze or perhaps quite understand–and as a result, his hero-centric story ends up unsatisfying as story and unedifying as analysis.

*The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade*

That is a new and very useful book by Benjamin T. Smith, oddly it came out first in the UK.  Here is one excerpt:

Over the past fifty years, to earn the median wage, a Mexican has had to sell an average of 700 grams of marijuana, 18 grams of heroin, or 66 grams of cocaine on the U.S. streets. It amounts to weed weighing two cans of soup, coke weighing a tennis ball, or smack weighing just three U.S. quarters. And this is only the average. During the economic collapse of the mid-1980s, it took only 280 grams of marijuana and 4.8 grams of heroin to make the annual wage. You could earn as much growing a single marijuana plant or a window box of poppies as driving a cab for a year.

And this:

Up to the 1970s, violence was rarely employed to sort out disputes between drug traffickers. The trade was relatively peaceful. Cooperation was the rule. Deep ties of blood, marriage, friendship, and neighborhood, which linked many of the traffickers, prevented the frequent use of force. In general, so did the local protection rackets. Both state governors and state cops were keen to avoid conflicts that risked exposing their own ties to the traffickers.

This changed because sometimes the later state authorities sought to institute their own protection rackets, using force toward that end. Many of the gangs sought to extend their turf beyond drugs to other commercial areas, also leading to conflict. Finally, the U.S.-led war on drugs induced a form of Mexican aggressive counternarcotics policing that bred conflict as well.

Overall this is a good book about a hard to research topic.

There is now actually a book like this

And a very good book at that:

My main argument is that Jacob’s approach to urbanism and economics was developed parallel to, and perhaps benefited from, a much broader field of knowledge than is generally understood.  Therefore, the chapter considers a wide context, including the revolutionary critique of planning espoused by Alison and Peter Smithson throughout the 1950s, on the one hand, and the Austrian-school theory of spontaneous order, on the others.  Decades before Jacobs’s remarkably hypotheses, liberal theorists had advanced a demoralizing critique of central design as a challenge to the legacy of collectivist planning while advocating market-based solutions and demonstrating the crucial role that informal commerce played in spontaneous order.

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That is from the new and noteworthy Anthony Fontenot, Non-Design: Architecture, Liberalism & the Market.

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What I’ve been reading

1. Ivo Maes, Robert Triffin: A Life.  There should be more biographies of economists, and while this one does not succeed in making Triffin exciting, it is thorough and informative and shows there was more to the man than his famous dilemma.  I hadn’t even known Triffin was from Belgium.

2. Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September.  A wonderfully subtle Irish novel about the Anglo-Irish elite in south Ireland right after WWI, how they self-deceive about the impending doom of their rule and way of life, and the diverse forms those self-deceptions take.  An underrated modernist classic.

3. Cynthia Saltzman, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast.  Among other things, this book shows how clearly Napoleon understood the role of art in both reflecting and cementing power.  Nor had I known that Canova, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Napoleon all had a single intersecting story, revolving around the theft and return of art.

4. Mircea Raianu, Tata: The Global Corporation that Built Indian Capitalism.  No, this book does not “read like a novel,” and it could use more economics rather than plain history, but it is an entire book of full of content, meeting mainstream standards, on the still understudied topic of Indian business, one very major Indian business in particular.

There is Emily J. Levine, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, on yet another understudied topic.

Paul Strathern’s The Florentines: From Dante to Galileo: The Transformation of Western Civilization is probably the best current, general interest book on its (very important) topic.

What should I ask Ruth Scurr?

Dr Ruth Scurr FRSL (born 1971, London) is a British writer, historian and literary critic. She is a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

Her first book, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 2006; Metropolitan Books, 2006) won the Franco-British Society Literary Prize (2006), was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize (2006), long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize (2007) and was listed among the 100 Best Books of the Decade in The Times in 2009. It has been translated into five languages.

Her second book, John Aubrey: My own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2015; New York Review of Books, 2016) was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was chosen as a 2015 Book of the Year in fifteen newspapers and magazines, including: the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sunday Express, the Guardian, the Spectator and the New Statesman. It was chosen as a 2016 Book of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review and the Washington Post.

Scurr began reviewing regularly for The Times and The Times Literary Supplement in 1997. Since then she has also written for The Daily TelegraphThe ObserverNew Statesman, The London Review of BooksThe New York Review of BooksThe NationThe New York ObserverThe Guardian  and The Wall Street Journal.

That is from her Wikipedia page.  She is an expert in the philosophy of biography and her new biography of Napoleon, which views his life through the medium of his involvement with gardens, has been receiving rave reviews.  And here is her home page, and her article on her Cambridge house.

So what should I ask her?

China fact of the day

China is still wrestling with how to rule over a diverse, ethnically mixed population that does not necessarily accept the dominance of the Han or the CCP narrative.  The challenge for the CCP is that ethnic minorities constitute only about 10 percent of the total population but inhabit 60 percent of the land mass, much of which is in sensitive border areas (the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  The national language is a recent construct and has priority in schools over the local languages.  About 30 percent of the population speaks a language at home other than the national language.

That is from the new and “must read” From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of Chinese Communism, by Tony Saich.  Keep in mind that the CCP is the most important institution in the world today — have you ever read a book on it?

Racial segregation is increasing in many parts of America

Some of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions have become increasingly segregated in the last 30 years, underscoring racial inequalities that have led to poorer life outcomes in Black and brown neighborhoods, according to a study released Monday by the University of California Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.

The study found that 81% of regions with more than 200,000 residents were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990, despite fair housing laws and policies created to promote integration.

Some of the most segregated areas included Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit in the Midwest and New York, northern New Jersey and Philadelphia in the mid-Atlantic.

Conversely, large metropolitan regions that saw the biggest decrease in segregation included Savannah, Georgia, San Antonio and Miami.

Here is the full story, exactly as I argued in my earlier book The Complacent Class.  Via Ilya Novak.  And from the study, don’t forget this:

Southern states have lower overall levels of segregation, and the Mountain West and Plains states have the least

Ouch…!