Category: Books

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.

What I’ve been reading

1. Alex Wiltshire and John Short, Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.  Thrilling photos, I suspect the text is very good too but I don’t need to read it to recommend this one.

2. Jonathan Bate, Radical Wordsworth: the poet who changed the world.  A magisterial biography by Bates, who has been working on this one for many years.  The best Wordsworth (ah, but you must be selective!) is at the very heights of poetry, and Bate exhibits a great sympathy for his subject.  if you wish to understand how the still semi-pastoral England of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution transformed into…something else, Wordsworth is a key figure.

3. Maria Pia Paganelli, The Routledge Guidebook to Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  It goes through WoN book by book, this is the best reading guide to Smith that I know of.

4. Daniel Todman, Britain’s War 1942-1947.  An excellent book, one of the best of the year, full of politics and economics too.  You might think you have read enough very good WWII books, but in fact there is always another one you should pick up.  Right now this is it.

5. Carl Jung, UFOs: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.  A short book of high variance, occasionally fascinating, half of the time interesting, often incoherent.  The most interesting parts are the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” discussions, basically suggesting that decentralized mechanisms do not give people a sufficient sense of “wholeness.”  He is trying to find a classical liberal answer to the fascist temptation, and worried that perhaps he cannot do it.

I have only skimmed Bruce A. Kimball and Daniel R. Coquilette, The Intellectual Sword: Harvard Law School, The Second Century, but it appears to be an impressive achievement at 858 pp.

*The Address Book*

The author is Deirdre Mask and the subtitle is What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.  The opening bit would have fit under “New York City fact of the day”:

In some years,  more than 40 percent of all local laws passed by the New York City Council have been street name changes.

I guess that is because garbage collection, education, and policing are running so smoothly.  Does any other fact so well sum up the pathology of our time?

In Paris, only 2.6 percent of the street names commemorate women, and this is expected to be a “growth sector,” as they say.  I liked this sentence:

Tantner is perhaps the world’s leading expert on house numbers.

House numbers were in fact one of the more important results of the 18th century Enlightenment.  For all their benefits in enabling mail, or finding your way, there was a dark side because they also made it easier to tax or imprison you, sometimes a good thing but not always.

Number streets are an especially American phenomenon, and today “every American city with more than a half million people has numerical street names.  Second Street is the most common street name in America…”

Recommended, you can order it here.

That was then, this is now, *Mayday 1971* edition

That forthcoming book is authored by Lawrence Roberts, and the subtitle is A White House at War, A Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest.  Here is one excerpt:

The president had made his wishes clear.  That was why Kleindienst was pushing a military solution.  The police chief made one last attempt to dissuade him.  Let’s just suppose the crowd is big enough to shut down the government, Jerry said.  Wouldn’t it be better for us, he gently suggested, if the militants could crow only that they had defeated the police, rather than the mighty U.S. military?  An army official chimed in on Jerry’s side.  Why not wait a day, see if the troops were really necessary?


My excellent Conversation with Ashley Mears

Tired of lockdown, pandemic, and rioting?  Here is a podcast on some of their polar opposites, conducted by “a bridge and tunnel guy” with an accomplished sociologist.  Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.

Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.

Here is one excerpt especially dear to my heart:

COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?

MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.


COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?

MEARS: Who benefits?

COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?

MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.

Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.


COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?

MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.

…in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.

The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.

Definitely recommended, a unique and fascinating episode.  And again, I strongly recommend Ashley’s new book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, one of my favorite books of the year.

What should I ask Annie Duke?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Anne LaBarr Duke (née Lederer; September 13, 1965) is an American professional poker player and author. She holds a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet from 2004 and used to be the leading money winner among women in WSOP history (a title now held by Vanessa Selbst). Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010. She has written a number of instructional books for poker players, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone, and she published her autobiography, How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, in 2005.

Duke co-founded the non-profit Ante Up for Africa with actor Don Cheadle in 2007 to benefit charities working in African nations, and has raised money for other charities and non-profits through playing in and hosting charitable poker tournaments. She has been involved in advocacy on a number of poker-related issues including advocating for the legality of online gambling and for players’ rights to control their own image.

She also has a new book coming out this fall, How to Decide: Simpler Tools for Making Better Choices.  So what should I ask her?

*The Puzzle of Prison Order*

That is the title of the new and excellent book by David Skarbek, and the subtitle is Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary of its contents:

Many people think prisons are all the same-rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners’ needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. Why does prison social order around the world look so remarkably different?

Here is one excerpt:

…Nordic prisons have a much smaller proportion of prisoners to members of staff, about one prisoner for every staff member.  These jobs attract high-quality employees, and in Finland and Norway, it is common for there to be an excess supply of applicants.  Working in corrections is a more attractive career than it is in many other countries.  The fact that students sometimes work as prison officers suggests that the environment in Nordic prisons is more relaxed than that in many other prisons and the work is socially acceptable.  Many Nordic prison officers have university and vocational education.  For example, about 20 percent of staff in Swedish men’s prisons have university degrees and staff members participate in a 20-week in-service training program and take 10-week university courses on sociology and social psychology.  In Norway, prison officers receive two years of training at full salary and nearly all have tertiary educational qualifications.  By comparison, California correctional officer training lasts 12 weeks and requires only a high-school diploma.

The book is due out from Oxford University Press on August 3rd.

The Spanish-language Kindle edition of *Stubborn Attachments*

The various subtleties of the title “Stubborn Attachments” do not translate well into Spanish, so here is “El imperativo moral del crecimiento económico: Una visión de una sociedad libre y próspera de individuos responsable.”

You can order it here, and I expect a print edition will be coming in due time.

I thank all of those involved for helping this project come to fruition, and thank Gonzalo Schwarz for doing the translation.

*The Deficit Myth* and Modern Monetary Theory

That is the new book by Stephanie Kelton and the subtitle is Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy.  Here are a few observations:

1. Much of it is quite unobjectionable and well-known, dating back to the Bullionist debates or earlier yet.  Yet regularly it flies off the handle and makes unsupported macroeconomic assertions.

2. Like many of the Austrians, Kelton likes to insist on special terms, such as the government spending “coming first.”  You don’t have to say this is wrong, just keep your eye on the ball and don’t let it distract you.

3. “MMT has emphasized that rising interest income can serve as a potential form of fiscal stimulus.”  You don’t have to believe in a naive form of Say’s Law, but discussions of demand should start with the notion of production.  Then…never reason from an interest rate change!  Overall, I sense Kelton has one core model of the macroeconomy, with a whole host of variables held fixed (“well…higher interest rates means printing up more money to pay for them and thus greater stimulus…”), and then applies that model to a whole series of quite general problems and questions.

4. She thinks “demand” simply puts resources to work, and in this sense the book is a nice reductio ad absurdum of the economics one increasingly sees from mainstream writers on Twitter.  p.s.: The economy doesn’t have a “speed limit.”  And it shouldn’t be modeled using analogies with buckets.

5. We are told that the U.S. “…can’t lose control of its interest rate”, but real and nominal interest rates are not distinguished with care in these discussions.  The Fed’s ability to control real rates is fairly limited, though not zero, and those are empirical truths never countered or even confronted in this book.

6. The absence of a nominal budget constraint is confused repeatedly with the absence of a real budget constraint.  That is one of the major errors in this book.

7. It still would be very useful if the MMT people would take a mainstream macro model and spell out which assumptions they wish to make different, and then solve for the properties of the new model.  There is a reason why they won’t do that.

8. I don’t care what the author says or how canonical she is as a source, a federal jobs guarantee is not part of MMT.

9. Just because the economy is not at absolute full unemployment, it does not mean that free resources are on the table for the taking.  Again, in this regard Kelton is a useful reductio on a lot of “Twitter macro.”

10. I am plenty well read in the “money cranks” of earlier times, including Soddy, Foster, Catchings, Kitson, Proudhon, Tucker, and many more.  They got a lot of things right, but they also failed to produce coherent macro theories.  I would strongly recommend that Kelton undertake a close study of their failings.

11. For all the criticisms of the quantity theory, I would like to know how the MMT people explain the Fed coming pretty close to its inflation rate target for many years in a row, under highly varying conditions, fiscal conditions too.

12. The real grain of truth here is that if monetary policy is otherwise too deflationary, monetizing parts or all of the budget deficit is not only possible, it is desirable.  Absolutely, but don’t then let somebody talk loops around you.

You can order the book here.

That was then, this is now

Ali Akbar was two years younger than Robu [later named Ravi Shankar], but a couple of years ahead in his musical training.  He has been through a brutal regime: Baba had even tied him to a tree and beaten him when his progress was unsatisfactory.  Although Baba had arranged for Ali Akbar to marry at the age of fifteen, he still expected him to remain celibate — married to music.  Twice Ali Akbar ran away.  Ultimately the harsh discipline brought out his talent and made him into a master of the sarod, although one wonders about the emotional cost.

That is from Oliver Craske’s Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, which I am quite enjoying.

What I’ve been reading

1. Jordan Mechner, The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993.  A memoir and game development journal from a game developer.  The content is foreign to me, but this is one of the most beautiful and artistic books I ever have seen and I suspect some of you will find the narrative gripping.  A product of Stripe Press — “Ideas for Progress.”

2. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions.  This book is a series of lectures, based on Sachs’s earlier work on economic geography and development, yet somehow with a vaguely Yuval Harari sort of glow.  Some parts are a good introduction to the earlier work of Sachs, other parts are pitched a bit too low or too generally.  It is strange to see chapter subheadings such as “Thalassocracy and Tellurocracy.”  As an economist, I still maintain that Sachs is considerably underrated.

3. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi.  Yes this is a work of fiction.  Clarke of course wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a very long novel that I have read twice, an odd mix of fantasy, science, magic, and Enlightenment esotericism, the only novel I know with fascinating footnotes.  I was thrilled to receive this one, and on p.51 I am still excited.

4. Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs.  The hot new novel from Japan, it comes with a Murakami rave endorsement.  To me it seems like “ordinary feminism” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and so far it is a bore.  If it doesn’t get better soon, I’ll write it off as a “mood affiliation text,” not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It probably makes most sense read in a very specific cultural context.

5. Douglas Boin, Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome is a fun look at one part of ancient history through alternative eyes.  I always wonder what to trust about this era other than primary sources, and if you can’t understand them or grasp them intelligibly maybe that is itself the correct inference, namely that we have no idea what the **** went on back then.  Still, as imaginary reconstructions go, this is one that ought to be done and now it is.

6. Ryan Patrick Hanley, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life.  Smith as a practical moral philosopher, this short volume pulls out the side of Smith closest to Montaigne and the Stoics.  You can ponder Smithian sentences such as “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.”

7. Sonia Jaffe, Robert Minton, Casey B. Mulligan, Kevin M. Murphy, Chicago Price Theory.  A very good intermediate micro text, patterned after how Econ 301 is taught at Chicago.  Apparently in the current Coasean equilibrum, this book ends up published by Princeton University Press.  Get the picture?

From a legal perspective there is Ron Harris, Going the Distance: Eurasian Trade and the Rise of the Business Corporation, 1400-1700.

*The WEIRDest People in the World*

That is the new 655 pp. book by Joseph Henrich, due out September 8, and yes it is “an event.”  The subtitle is “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” and that is indeed one of the very most important questions in all of social science.

“WEIRD” of course refers to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”  And is it not weird that we (some of us, at least) are WEIRD?

Here is an excerpt from the opening segment:

Let’s close by returning to the core questions of this book:

1. How can we explain the global psychological variation highlighted above?

2. Why are WEIRD societies particularly unusual, so often occupying the extreme ends of global distributions of psychology and behavior?

3. What role did these psychological differences play in the Industrial Revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?

If you are wondering how this material might differ from Henrich’s previous output, there is above all much more on marriage customs and monogamy, for instance:

…I’ll make the case that monogamous marriage norms — which push upstream against our polygynous biases and the strong preferences of elite men — create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups.

Obviously recommended, and you will be hearing more about this both from me and from others.  You can pre-order here.

My Conversation with Adam Tooze

Tinges of Covid-19, doses on financial crises, but mostly about economic history.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Adam joined Tyler to discuss the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, his advice for visiting Germany, and more.

Here is one excerpt:


Tooze’s discussion of his own career and interests, toward the end, is hard to excerpt but for me the highlight of the conversation.  He also provided the best defense of Twitter I have heard.

Definitely recommended.

*Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia*

That is the new Jason Brennan book, just out yesterday, here is a summary:

This candid, pull-no-punches book answers questions big and small, including

• Should I go to graduate school—and what will I do once I get there?
• How much does a PhD cost—and should I pay for one?
• What kinds of jobs are there after grad school, and who gets them?
• What happens to the people who never get full-time professorships?
• What does it take to be productive, to publish continually at a high level?
• What does it take to teach many classes at once?
• What does it take to succeed in graduate school?
• How does “publish or perish” work?
• How much do professors get paid?
• What do search committees look for, and what turns them off?
• How do I know which journals and book publishers matter?
• How do I balance work and life?

This realistic, data-driven look at university teaching and research will make your graduate and postgraduate experience a success.

Here is my blurb:

“In Good Work If You Can Get It, Jason Brennan tells it like it is. You will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is the one book to read about trying to become a professor.”

Self-recommended.  And here is Bryan Caplan’s excellent review.