Category: Books

*Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologer Can Save the World*

Still more incredible is the fact that one person almost single-handedly created the first maps of two-thirds of the planet yet is unknown to the average citizen of Earth (while Amerigo Vespucci, whose cartographic credentials are suspect, has two continents named for him).  The unsung mapmaker Marie Tharp, who earned a master’s degree in geology from the University of Michigan, worked briefly for an oil company, and then in 1948 became a drafter for a new oceanographic project led by Maurice Ewing at Columbia University.  For years, Ewing’s all-male team of graduate students collected sonar soundings of the ocean floor while Tharp laboriously transformed the linear strings of depth readings into three-dimensional topography.

Here is the Wikipedia page for Marie Tharp.  Here is a biography of Marie Tharp, which I just ordered.  Timefulness is by Marcia Bjornerud and you can order it here.

Markets in everything those new service sector jobs

Advansun, 39, is a full-time “sleep writer” in Toronto. He writes with one goal in mind — to lull people off to la-la land.

Advansun publishes his bedtime stories for adults on the popular app Calm.com, where they are voiced by famous actors like Matthew McConaughey.

Calm.com says its roster of 120 sleep stories has been listened to more than 100 million times.

“I think we are putting a modern take to something that’s pretty timeless,” he says. “We are giving grownups permission to drift off to sleep to a story, and that’s not something a lot of people have thought about before.”

Advansun says the key is to get the attention of the listener and then “hold it gently” without ever jostling them awake. He maintains this is a tough balance to achieve … especially since Advansun is trained as a screenwriter (think plot twists, car chases and explosions).

“I certainly didn’t set out to write stories that put people to sleep,” he jokes. “I have sort of fallen into it, and I adore it. It’s not only quite rewarding, it is a great challenge as a writer.”

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

My Conversation with Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama

Lots of economic history in this one, with the underlying themes of persecution and tolerance, here is the audio and video.

We talk about the evolution of anti-Semitism, how the Black Death influenced Europe, the economics and politics of volcanic eruptions, how much prejudice will come back, amateur astronomy,  Jared Diamond, cousin marriage and the origins of the West, why England was a coherent nation-state so early, the origins of the Industrial Revolution, Schindler’s List, and more.  I split the time between the two, here is one excerpt:

JOHNSON: Mark and I have done a lot of work on building datasets of Jewish persecution and Jewish expulsions at the city level and the country level in Europe over a very long period of time. And a question that I, for one, don’t fully understand is, you don’t need to actually kill all the Jews or expel them in order to extract resources from them. In fact, in some way, this is off the equilibrium path. You’re no longer in some optimal equilibrium for both the ruler and for the Jewish community.

Oftentimes, these Jewish communities would be expelled from a city, they would be invited to come back, and they would come back — in 5, 10, 15 years, sometimes even shorter. But that’s a little bit easier to understand.

In the case I gave you in England in 1290s, I think I understand a little bit about why it might have happened that way. I think it was signaling credibility in some political compact between the king and the nobles, but I’m not sure. But that’s an example of top down.

Other times, clearly, people are . . . You have, say, guilds moving against these Jewish communities. An example of this would be in 1614, when the most well-known Jewish persecution was in Frankfurt am Main. It was called the Fettmilch Massacre. Fettmilch was a baker. He was in guild, and he was upset about the terms of the political deal between the city rulers — the city council — and what the guilds were getting. One of the things that the guilds wanted were the Jews to be expelled. This was competition in some sense.

There was this bit from me:

COWEN: If the Black Death raised wages, does that mean that immigration today lowers wages?

And:

COWEN: Large volcanic eruptions earlier in history. From an economic point of view, what’s the single most interesting thing we know about them?

JOHNSON: I think what’s very interesting about the volcanic eruptions is that we are discovering more and more that they may have played a large role in political change that occurred. Joe Manning at Yale, and I believe his graduate student (Bruce M.S. Campbell) have been doing work on . . . They looked at a series of volcanic eruptions that led to the end of the pharaonic empire. That ended around 30 or 60 BC, I forget. Right around that time.

That was an empire that lasted for 300 years, but they experienced all these crop failures. And then once you look at it, you see that in Indonesia, all these major volcanic eruptions were happening in perfect timing with these crop failures that were taking place. Actually, they can tell from looking at the Nile and how much it’s flooding and things.

COWEN: Politics becomes nastier when the volcano goes off?

And from Mark Koyama:

COWEN: Why was China, as a nation or territory, so large so early in world history?

KOYAMA: Yeah, that’s a great question. There are several potential explanations, one of which is geographic. Another one would be an argument from the writing system. But I think the geography story is quite important. Jared Diamond, building on people like Eric Jones, argued that China’s geography . . .

Essentially there are two core geographic regions in China around the Yellow and Yangtze river deltas, which produced a huge amount of grain or rice. If you control those core regions, you can raise large armies. You can have a large population and dominate the subsequent regions.

Whereas, the argument is for Europe that these core regions are, perhaps, arguably more separated by geographical boundaries. The limitation of that argument on its own is that geography is static, so it doesn’t really tell you anything about the timing.

The interesting thing about China, in my view, is not just that it was once unified, or unified early. But it’s persistently unified. It reunifies. Interestingly enough, the periods of de-unification get consistently smaller. So there are always periods where it’s fragmented, like the warlord period in the early 20th century, but over time may become smaller.

Europe doesn’t seem to have that centrifugal force, so a lot of Europe is unified by the Romans, but it’s not able to come back together along those lines later.

And the argument that I put forward in an article with Tuan-Hwee Sng and Chiu Yu Ko of National University of Singapore is that it’s not just the core geographical reason. That’s part of it. But actually, the periodic threat from a nomadic steppe is another key factor.

This is geographic because China has a very sharp slope from really productive agricultural land to land which is only fit for horses, for Eurasian steppe. China could be invaded very easily from the north by these steppe nomads, whereas Europe — it was much less vulnerable to this. And that helps to explain why the Chinese state is often a northern state.

So if I can add, if you think about China today, or even China in the past, the really productive land — a lot of it’s in the quite far south, in Shanghai, Yangtze delta. But the political center of China is near Beijing, or it’s in the north. And that’s due to this political economy threat from the steppe. And it’s these periodic steppe invasions which we argue are responsible for the centralization, an almost militarized character of the Chinese state through history.

And:

COWEN: Max Weber. Overrated or underrated?

KOYAMA: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

KOYAMA: Because most people just know the Protestant theory, and they misreport it. Whereas, actually, his most interesting stuff is on Chinese religion and ancient Judaism. And the role of —

COWEN: The history of music, right?

There is much more at the link.  I am very happy to recommend their forthcoming book Persecution and Tolerance: The Long Road to Religious Freedom.

What I’ve been reading

1. Josh Rosenblatt, Why We Fight: One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring.  An actual conceptual phenomenology of fighting, there should be more books like this about more different topics.  Think of the model “X is actually like this.”  Recommended.

2. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States — and the Nation.  A serious and scholarly book, rather than the kind of hysterical falsehoods we’ve come to expect on such topics.

3. Peter Doggett, Are You Ready for the Country? Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the roots of country rock.  Five hundred pages of text, and consistently interesting throughout, at least if you care about the topic.  Otherwise not.  I have pre-ordered the author’s forthcoming biography of CSNY.

4. Tony Spawforth, The Story of Greece and Rome.  Highly readable and useful, not comprehensive on say the economics side but a fresh look and what we know and do not know and how the various pieces fit together.

Eric Kaufmann’s *Whiteshift*

The subtitle is Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, and might this be the must-read book of the year?  It is “to the right” of my views on immigration policy, but still I found it informative, fascinating, and relevant on just about every page.  Here is the author’s opening framing:

First, why are right-wing populists doing better than left-wing ones?  Second, why did the migration crisis boost populist-right numbers sharply while the economic crisis had no overall effect?  If we stick to data, the answer is crystal clear.  Demography and culture, not economic and political developments, hold the key to understanding the populist moment.

Kaufmann, by the way, is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck in London, but hails from Canada.  As for the basics, there is this in addition:

Much of this book is concerned with the clash between a rising white tribalism and an ideology I term ‘left-modernism.’

If you wish to understand “all the stuff that is going on today,” maybe Whiteshift is the best place to start?  Kaufmann, by the way, is not a mega-pessimist and he seems to think that “broadening the category of white” will lead to a “good enough” solution for many of the Western democracies.  Still, much of this book is disturbing, especially for readers who might consider themselves to be on the left.  Most of all, he sees “whiteness” as a legitimate cultural interest, and one which, if we deny, will lead to more overt racism rather than less.

Here is Kaufmann on Brexit, brutal but I think largely correct:

…many analysts bring a political lens to their analysis which inclines them to want to tell a story about wealth and power.  Over half the country voted Leave and we can’t condemn such a large group.  So we pretend populist voters are motivated by the same things we are: economic stagnation (for fiscal conservatives) or, for left-liberals, inequality and resentment of the establishment.

Kaufmann also has strong evidence for the “immigration backlash” hypothesis, for instance:

…a higher immigrant share is a consistent predictor of higher opposition to immigration over time…in Western Europe there is a .63 correlation between projected 2030 Muslim share and the highest poll or vote share a populist-right party has achieved.

On top of all of its other virtues, Whiteshift provides the best intellectual history of the immigration debates I have seen.  It also has the best discussion of why Canada seems to be different when it comes to immigration, and I may cover that in another blog post.

Kaufmann does very much argue that the left-wing values of diversity and solidarity stand very much in conflict.  How is this for an “ouch” sentence?:

Casual observation would suggest that being black in diverse San Francisco is not necessarily better than being black in white-majority Fargo [North Dakota].

By no means am I convinced by everything in this book.  I don’t think European politics can handle systematized refugee camps in Europe itself (rather than Turkey and Lebanon), and most of all I am not sure that recognizing whiteness as a legitimate cultural concern will diminish rather than boost racism.  I wish he had said much more about gender, and how immigration and gender issues interact.

Nonetheless this book has more points of interest yet, including an original and persuasive take on residential clustering, a good analysis of racial intermarriage, and a sustained argument that avoiding the “no dominant ethnic group” approach of Guyana and Mauritius is imperative.

Strongly recommended, it is out next week, you can pre-order here.

Dalrymple on Aleppo

The history of Aleppo is terrible stuff; a long succession of massacres and sieges disappearing into the mists of Syrian pre-history. First held by the Hittites, it was captured in turn by the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Persians (again), Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols and Ottomans, each of whom vied to outdo the carnage of their predecessors. The Assyrians were the most imaginatively sadistic: they impaled the town’s menfolk on their spears and feasted for two days while their victims groaned to a slow death.

In between invasions Aleppo was ruled by a succession of aristocratic thugs who exacted outrageous taxes and perfected ingenious ways of bankrupting their burghers.

In all the town’s history there are only two cheering anecdotes. The first tells of the Arabs who captured Aleppo by dressing up as goats and nibbling their way into the city; the second concerns Abraham, who is supposed to have milked his cow on the citadel’s summit. It is not much in ten thousand years of history, especially when the one story ends in a massacre…and the other is a legend, and untrue. It is the result of a misunderstood derivation of the town’s (Arabic) name Haleb, which comes not from the Arabic for milk (halib) but a much older word, possibly Assyrian, connected with the mechanics of child abuse.

From William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu written in 1989…things have not since improved.

Steven Pinker on slavery and the Enlightenment

Here is his Quillette response to critics.  Here is one of his arguments, one where I do not find the framing so convincing:

Slaves were always the most desirable spoils of conquest, and anyone who has been to a Passover seder or seen the movie Spartacus knows that slavery was not invented in 18th century Europe or America. Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition…

As the historian Katie Kelaidis put it in The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics, “Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity, but no one—not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates—considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment was not the inventor of slavery, but it was the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave.”

This strikes me as a classic case of mood affiliation: “we must have a positive mood toward the Enlightenment!”  And perhaps we must. But what is wrong with this alternative formulation?:

“Early modern Europe, including its later manifestation of the Enlightenment, brought great benefits to the world.  Part of those benefits involved enhanced capacities.  Some of those enhanced capacities were used to do great evil, such as to capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale.  The extermination of many indigenous groups could be added to that ledger too.  Therefore we should beware of greater capacities, because even when they bring significant good, they also can carry great evils.”

More accurate than Pinker, but it also invokes a more complicated mood toward progress.

I would note also that so many of the most radical abolitionists, including in Britain, were Christians.  It is fine to consider them part of the Enlightenment as well, but still to describe the Enlightenment as “the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave” seems off-base to me.  The 16th century Spanish Salamancans — theologians I might add — strongly opposed slavery well before the Enlightenment.  To call the Salamancans themselves “proto Enlightenment” is perhaps not wrong, but also has a tautological element if such a move is being used to defend the primacy of the Enlightenment (otherwise identified by Pinker as originating in the 18th century) in this regard.

It is also worth a query of the Pinker passage “Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition…”  First, you can hold a properly mixed opinion about this whole matter without “blaming the Enlightenment for slavery.”  (Most of all I would blame the slave capturers, traders, and owners.)  Second, “particularly ludicrous” is too often the mark of an under-argued claim, beware such rhetoric.  Third, so many of America’s greatest Enlightenment figures were themselves slaveholders or at least slavery defenders or tolerators.  I don’t mean to suggest any simple “blame the Enlightenment” approach here, but surely that is worth a mention and discussion?  Finally, the Enlightenment in America is well up and running by 1765, and slavery lasts for a full century more?  More yet in Brazil.  Maybe that is worth a bit of discussion too?

I am very much an admirer of Pinker and his work, and I consider myself an optimist, especially across longer time frames.  But what is sometimes called progress does also have a dark side, and we will do better fighting that dark side if we are clearer — in our own minds and with each other — on how things have run to date.

Great Britain land privatization fact of the day

What has been Britain’s biggest privatization to date?

…Britain’s biggest privatization has not been of housing or a bank.  It has been of land.  Since Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979, and continuing all the way to the present day, the state has been selling public land to the private sector.  It has sold vast quantities — some 2 million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the entire British land mass…my best estimate…is that, at today’s prices, the land that has been sold is likely to be worth something in the order of £400 billion…

That is from the new and useful The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain, by Brett Christophers.  Land, land, land!  The author, by the way, is mostly critical of this privatization.

*Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism*

That is the new book by University of Maryland philosopher Dan Moller, and it is one of the most sensible expositions and defenses of libertarianism you will find.  Here is from the Amazon summary:

In this major new defense of libertarianism, Dan Moller urges that critics and supporters alike have neglected the strongest arguments for the theory. It is often assumed that libertarianism depends on thinking that property rights are absolute, or on fetishizing individual liberty. Moller argues that, on the contrary, the foundations of libertarianism can be found in widely shared, everyday moral beliefs-particularly in strictures against shifting our burdens onto others. The core of libertarianism, on this interpretation, lies not in an exaggerated sense of our rights against other people, but in modesty about what we can demand from them.

The book then connects these philosophical arguments with related work in economics, history, and politics. The result is a wide-ranging discussion in the classical liberal tradition that defies narrow academic specialization. Among the questions Moller addresses are how to think about private property in a service economy, whether libertarians should support reparations for slavery, what the history of capitalism tells us about free markets, and what role political correctness plays in shaping policy debates.

I have just started this book, but am already happy to recommend it.  Can I ask for a Mid-Atlantic libertarianism however?

Facts that contradict the standard housing bubble story

Here I am doing a mix of quoting and paraphrasing the excellent Kevin Erdmann:

1. “Housing construction has been constricted in our most prosperous cities.”

2. “Home prices in many developed countries rose at least as sharply as inthe US.”

3. “…rent inflation has been persistently high for 20 years.”

4. “Growth in real rent expenditures generally had been declining throughout the supposed boom period.”

5. “During the boom, the relative income of the typical homebuyer did not decline.”

6. During the boom, homeowners were not “buying up.”

7. Homeownership rates, even at their peak levels in 2004, among age groups under 65 years old, were no higher than homeownership rates had been in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

8. “…when taking into account all types of housing, the number of new housing units never even rose very far above the long-term average.”

Those are all from Kevin’s new and very important book Shut Out: How a Housing Shortage Caused the Great Recession and Crippled Our Economy.  The simple “housing bubble” story is not in fact as true as it might seem, as Kevin shows, and furthermore just look at how many parts of America now have home prices at or above their “bubbly peaks.”  I hope this work gets the attention it deserves.

My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.

And:

COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jackie Chan, with Zhu Mo, Never Grow Up. “My ankle joint pops out of its socket all the time, even when I’m just walking around, and I’ll have to pop it back in.  My leg sometimes gets dislocated when I’m showering.  For that one, I need my assistant to help me click it back in…I can’t lift heavy objects.”  He needed brain surgery after filming Armour of God, and he sustained permanent hearing loss in his left ear.  Recommended, if you like the movies.  And: “That was how I pursued girls, I overwhelmed them.”

2. John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: the Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.  “…the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can only be understood if it is placed in the context of the hermetic tradition.  The distinctive doctrines of the church — preexistent spirits, material spirit, human divinization, celestial marriage — are opaque unless we explore their relationship to the evolving fusion of hermetic perfectionism and radical sectarianism occupying the extreme edge of the Christian tradition from the late Middle Ages into the early modern age.”

3. Guy Arnold, Africa A Modern History: 1945-2015, second edition.  It is hard to image that a 1077 pp. doorstop kind of a book on “Africa” might be very good, but in fact this one is.  It is the best book on contemporary Africa and its (recent) historical roots that I know.  I am reading this book all the way through.

4. Cass Sunstein, How Change Happens.  How does social change happen, organized around Cass’s favorite topics, such as nudge and polarization and cascades.  This book doesn’t cover everything, but it is one of the essential introductions to a topic that is very difficult to handle.  And I am happy there is no subtitle.

Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, is a good and correct “green” take on the case for nuclear energy.

The Cato Institute has put out Michael D. Tanner, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor, and Randal O’Toole Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love are Not the Transportation We Need.

*The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis*

That is the new and highly comprehensive book by Sheilagh Ogilvie, and it is likely to stand as one of the more important works of economic history from the last decade.  Here is one opening summary bit:

…my own reading of the evidence is that a common theme underlies guilds’ activities: guilds tended to do what is best for guild members.  In some cases, what guilds did brought certain benefits for the broader public.  But overall, the actions guilds took mainly had the effect of protecting and enriching their members at the expense of consumers and non-members; reducing threats from innovators, competitors, and audacious upstarts; and generating sufficient rents to pay off the political elites that enforced guilds’ privileges and might otherwise have interfered with them.

And yes she really does show this, with a remarkable assemblage of data.  For instance:

…the 14 guilds in Table 2.4 devoted an average of 28 per cent of their expenditures to lobbying.  However, the average was 45 per cent across the five poor guilds and just 14 per cent across the eight rich ones.

Or:

Guild mastership fees could not be paid off in a couple of weeks of work.  Across these 1,102 observations, the average mastership fee consumed 276 days’ wages for a labourer, 215 days for a journeyman, and 1543 days for a guild master.

Operating licenses were expensive too (pp.125-126).  There are more “Ands”:

Guild entry barriers pushed people into illicit production, as emerges from 14 per cent of observations in Table 3.15.

And:

Guild members whose trades stagnated could not legally diversify to other guilded work…

On top of that, guilds typically restricted the training of women and would not let them enter the relevant sectors.  And:

The amount of attention guilds devoted to product quality in their ordinances does not suggest they regarded it as a major concern.

Ouch!  Ogilivie also concludes, and demonstrates using data, that guilds did not promote human capital accumulation or innovation.  The various revisionist defenses of guilds, as produced over the years, basically seem to be wrong.

You can pre-order the book here.