Category: Books

The Essential Women of Liberty

Here’s another excellent book in the Essential Scholars series. You can download the book for free, find additional resources, introductory videos and more at the Women of Liberty web page.

This series of essays, written by leading scholars in the United States, Canada and Europe, explores the lives and ideas of some of the most influential women over the past few centuries whose work contributed enormously to the democratic, prosperous and free societies that many people enjoy today. They are a remarkably diverse group of women. Their lives span the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries and their contributions are significant despite the barriers each faced. Some were educated at prestigious universities while others only had informal schooling. Some were academics, others writers and journalists, and still others activists. What they had in common was an understanding of the power of freedom and liberty, and their influential advocacy of such during their lives. These essays are a celebration and recognition of their lives and contributions.

*The Baby on the Fire Escape*

An excellent book, full of substance and going well beyond cliche, the author is Julie Phillips and the subtitle is Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem.  Strikingly unsentimental, it covers women writers who balanced (or didn’t balance) their creative urges with their child-rearing responsibilities.  Excerpt:

Grace Hartigan married at nineteen and had her son the same year, 1941.  In 1975 she said:

“My son bitterly opposed my painting.  He would stay after school and would come in at five o’clock, look at me, and say: “I know, you have been painting again.”  When he got to be twelve and his father had remarried, I sent him to California.  I have never seen him since.  It is a very bitter relationship.”

I especially enjoyed the chapters on Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin, and Angela Carter.  Will make the year’s “Best Non-Fiction” list.

What I’ve been reading

1. Dervla Murphy, A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  Imagine a single Irish woman in the 1970s bicycling though Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles.  Charming and perceptive throughout, and remarkably well-written.  Murphy is in general an underrated figure, and note she is still at it, recently in her 90s she did a Lunch with the Financial Times.

2. Marc F. Bellemare, Doing Economics: What You Should Have Learned in Grad School — But Didn’t.  A sober and very useful book, covering topics such as “Navigating Peer Review” and “Finding Funding” and “Doing Service.”  The advice offered is on the mark.  Yet the book as a whole makes economics (academia?) as a whole come across as a grim and dysfunctional profession.  You won’t find much on “generating new ideas” or “influencing policy” or “inspiring students.”  I guess they taught all those things so well in grad school!

3. Gregory Forth, Between Ape and Human: An Anthropologist on the Trail of a Hidden Humanoid.  The claim is that the Flores mini-humanoids may have existed on the island until quite recently, or possibly even still today.  I am not persuaded (for one thing the villagers promote too many other ancillary hypotheses about these creatures, for instance they fly), but at the very least this is a fascinating take on how to interpret eyewitness evidence.  And the author is a credible authority.  They should invite this guy to Hereticon, he is an actual heretic!

William R. Cross, Winslow Homer: American Passage is a definitive biography with wonderful photos, maps, and images.  Not a “picture book” but a book with amazing pictures.  And text.

Yaffa Assouline, Avant-Garde Orientalists: Tribute to Igor Savitsky.  One of the largest collections of Russian avant-garde art is in Karakalpakstan in northwestern Uzbekistan — you can view the work here, recommended.

Thomas W. Merrill, The Chevron Doctrine: Its Rise and Fall, and the Future of the Administrative State, “This book is primarily a work of history about the Chevron doctrine — where it came from, how it spread, the fate of attempts to cabin it, and recent arguments that it should be overruled o significantly rewritten.”

I have not read Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, but it appears to be a work of promise.

My Conversation with the excellent Chris Blattman

Here is the audio, transcript, and video, we did this one face-to-face.  Here is part of the summary:

What causes war?…Chris and Tyler also cover why he doesn’t think demographics are a good predictor of a country’s willingness to go to war, the informal norms that restrain nations, the dangers of responding to cyberattacks, the breakdown of elite bargains in Ethiopia, the relationship between high state capacity and war, the greatest threats to peace in Ireland, why political speech isn’t usually a reliable indicator of future action, Vladimir Putin’s centralized motives for invading Ukraine, why he’s long on Colombia democratically — but not economically, why more money won’t necessarily help the Mexican government curb cartel violence, the single-mindedness necessary for bouldering, how Harold Innis’s insights about commodities led Chris to start studying war, how the University of Chicago has maintained a culture of free inquiry, and more.

And from the dialogue:

COWEN: If you look at the marginal cases — since there are some wars — there’s a bunch of cases, even if unusual, where someone is right at the margin. At the margin, what are the factors that are most likely to account for the explanatory variation in whether or not a country goes to war?

BLATTMAN: For me, the one that people talk the least about that strikes me as the most important is how concentrated is power in the country. What’s holding back someone from considering all of the implications of their actions on other people, should they decide to take their society to war?

It’s maybe the most important margin in history, and it’s maybe the one that no one of my tribes — which are political economists — think and talk the least about. It’s the one that — in journalism, people leap to psychological explanations, and they try to understand the psychology of leaders, but they don’t try to understand the way in which they’re constrained. So, it’s this combination of the most important and the most ignored.

COWEN: So federal societies are less likely to go to war?

Interesting throughout.  And I am very happy to recommend Chris’s new and important book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace.  And here is my earlier 2018 Conversation with Chris.

My excellent Conversation with Thomas Piketty

Lots of disagreement in this episode, though always polite.  Here is the transcript, video, and audio.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss just how egalitarian France actually is, the beginning of the end of aristocratic society, where he places himself within French intellectual history, why he’s skeptical of data from before the late 18th century, how public education drives economic development, why Georgism isn’t sufficient to address wealth inequality, the relationship between wealth and cultural capital, his proposal for a minimum inheritance, why he turned down the Legion of Honor, why France should give reparations to Haiti despite the logistical difficulties of doing so, his vision for European federalism, why more immigration won’t be a panacea for inequality, his thoughts on Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I visit every major country in Europe, what I observe is the highest living standard is arguably in Switzerland — Norway and Luxembourg aside. Switzerland has one of the smallest governments, and they attempt relatively little redistribution. What is your understanding of Switzerland? What if someone said, “Well, Europe should try to be more like Switzerland. They’re doing great.” Why is that wrong?

PIKETTY: Oh, Switzerland. It’s a very small country, so it’s about the size. . . . Actually, it’s smaller than Île-de-France, which is a Paris region. Now, if you were to make a separate country out of Île-de-France, GDP per capita, I think, would actually be higher than Switzerland. Of course, you can take a wealthy region in your country and say, “Okay, I don’t want to share anything with the rest of the country. I’m going to keep my tax revenue for me. I’m going to be a tax haven based on bank secrecy.” That’s going to make you 10 percent or 20 percent richer. I’m not saying —

COWEN: It’s been a long time since Switzerland relied on bank secrecy, right? Following 9/11, that Swiss advantage largely went away.

PIKETTY: Oh, that’s wrong. Oh, you’re wrong on this.

We talk about Matt Rognlie and Greg Clark as well.  Recommended, this was fun for me to reread.

My EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts about books and reading

Here goes!

Intellectual omnivore Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and EconTalk host Russ Roberts talk about their reading habits, their favorite books, and the pile of books on their nightstands right now.

And a transcription is offered for the first half hour.  Here is one early excerpt:

Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. You don’t give away–do you lend books out?

Tyler Cowen: Not very often. I don’t own many books. So, I collected books in great numbers when I was an undergraduate, mostly history of economic thought. I thought I would build up this incredible collection of the great economics masterworks. But then I started moving around, and then I moved to Germany for a year and I’m, like, ‘This is not going to work.’ So, what I will do–there’s some economic historians in my department. If I get a history book, I will give it to them because I know they won’t necessarily read it. They’ll use it or not use it for reference. And I don’t feel I’m tricking them into reading a book. But I would be very reluctant to give you a book, Russ. Not that I don’t love you or like you, or both, but I would feel that you would feel obliged to read the book. Correct?

It is immoral to give away books unless you truly feel the recipient should read them!

I enjoyed this segment too:

Russ Roberts: You’re a lunatic.


Larry Temkin takes half a red pill

His new book is Being Good in a World of Need, and most of all I am delighted to see someone take Effective Altruism seriously enough to evaluate it at a very high intellectual level.  Larry is mostly pro-EA, though he stresses that he believes in pluralist, non-additive theories of value, rather than expected utility theory, and furthermore that can make a big difference (for instance I don’t think Larry would play 51-49 “double or nothing” with the world’s population, as SBF seems to want to).

So where does the red pill come in?  Well, after decades of his (self-described) intellectual complacency, Larry now wonders whether foreign aid is as good as it has been cracked up to be:

In this chapter, I have presented some new disanalogies between Singer’s original Pond Example, and real-world instances of people in need.  I have noted that in some cases people in need may not be “innocent” or they may be responsible for their plight.  I have also noted that often people in need are the victims of social injustice or human atrocities.  Most importantly, I have shown that often efforts to aid the needy can, via various different paths, increase the wealth, status, and power of the very people who may be responsible for human suffering that the aid is intended to alleviate.  This can incentivize such people to continue their heinous practices against their original victims, or against other people in the region.  this can also incentivize other malevolent people in positions of power to perpetrate similar social injustices or atrocities.

The book also presents some remarkable examples of how some leading philosophers, including Derek Parfit, simply refused to believe that such arguments might possibly be true, even when Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton endorsed one version of them (not exactly Larry’s claims, to be clear).

Another striking feature of this book is how readily Larry accepts the rising (but still dissident) view that the sexual abuse of children has been a grossly underrated social problem.

What is still missing is a much greater focus on innovation and economic growth.

I am very glad I bought this book, and I look forward to seeing which pill or half-pill Larry swallows next.  Here is my post on Larry’s previous book Rethinking the Good.  Everyone involved in EA should be thinking about Larry and his work, and not just this latest book either.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susanne Schattenberg, Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman.  Can you have an interesting biography of a life and man that was fundamentally so…boring?  Maybe.  He ruled the world’s number two power for eighteen critical years, so surely he deserves more attention than what he has received.  “Nevertheless, Brezhnev had dentures and only stopped smoking in the mid-1970s because his doctors told him his false teeth would fall out at some point if he didn’t.”  And “Analysis of why Brezhnev’s children made themselves known largely for their drinking and scandals would fill another book.”  I’ll buy that one as well.

2. Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics.  One of the very best books on Ireland and Irish ideas, and more broadly I can recommend virtually anything by Kiberd.  Do note, however, that much of this book requires you have read the cited Irish classics under consideration.  Nonetheless there is insight on almost every page, recommended.

3. Olivier Zunz, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville.  A self-recommending biography of one of the greatest social science thinkers.  Easy to read, and good for both the generalist and specialist reader.  Note that it is a complement to reading Tocqueville, in no way a substitute.

4. Kevin Lane, The Inca Lost Civilizations.  Short and readable and with nice photos, maybe the best introduction to this still underrated topic?

Paul Sagar, Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics considers the broader implications of Smith’s thought from a “freedom as non-domination” perspective.

John E. Bowit, Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia’s Silver Age.  The early twentieth century, basically.  Beautiful plates, good exposition, and if nothing else a lesson in just how far aesthetic deterioration can run.  A picture book!

Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism is interior to my current knowledge set, but clear and I suspect for many readers useful.

Rainer Zitelmann’s Hitler’s National Socialism is a very thorough, detailed look at Hitler’s actual views.

James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington also serves as a better than average general history of the city.

Why the innocent can’t get out of prison

The main title is Barred, and the author is Daniel S. Medwed.  The book has many interesting points, here is one excerpt:

Alaska eliminated plea bargaining in 1975.  The rationale was grounded in fairness, with the governor at the time proclaiming that the new policy was designed to counter “weakened public confidence in the administration of justice.”  The conditions seemed ideal.  Small population, small(ish) amount of criminal activity, creative attorney general, open-minded governor.  The results were initially promising.  Although the number of trials in the state rose by 37 percent in the year following the ban, the system appeared capable of absorbing the surge.  But the experiment didn’t last.  A new state attorney general relaxed plea policies in 1980, and bargaining was officially back in the 1990s.  By the 2010s, nearly 97 percent of Alaska’s criminal cases resulted in pleas.  Those who’ve studied the history of plea bargaining Alaska attribute the demise of the ban to a change in  personnel in the AG’s office and a decline in state revenues.  Trials don’t come cheap.

Recommended, for those who care.

The best fiction in recent times

Here are my picks, in no particular order:

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1992, maybe not recent?).

Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan quadrology.

Karl Knausgaard, My Struggle, volumes one and two.

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials.

Michel Houellebecq, Submission.

Min Lee, Pachinko.

Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem.

Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives.

And addended:

Haruki Murakami, IQ84.

Vikrram Seth, A Suitable Boy.

Orhan Pamuk, Museum of Innocence.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon.

David Grossman, To the End of the Land.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

Jose Saramago, Blindness.

China Mieville, The City and the City.

J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace.

I do not feel that recent times lag far so behind some of the earlier, more classic literary eras.  Which books am I forgetting?

*Streets of Gold*

In one of our research  projects, we followed pairs of brothers born in Norway, one of whom left for the United States by 1900 while the other remained behind…Brothers who immigrated to the United States earned nearly twice as much as their siblings back home.

That is from the new and excellent Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan.

That was then, this is now

The Red Army collapsed in the first weeks of the war.  This is no criticism of its individual troops.  It is a statement about bureaucratic rule, coercion, lies, fear, and mismanagement.  The problems were not new, nor were they unfamiliar.  Lack of transport, for instance, which was identified by nearly every front-line officer as the reason the retreat turned into a route that June, was a long-standing concern of units based along the Soviet border.  “It is absolutely unknown to us where and when we will receive the motorized transport we need for newly mobilized units”…Spare parts, fuel, and tires were impossible to guarantee.

Circa 1941, that is from the very good Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.  Do not arrive too readily at conclusions about the current situation in Ukraine!  And Merridale books are in general a good place to read about Russian history.