Category: Books

How dangerous was the Mexican-American War for American soldiers?

The Mexican War of 1846-1848, largely forgotten today, was the second costliest war in American history in terms of the p ercentage of soldiers who died.  Of the 78, 718 American soldiers who served, 13, 283 died, constituting a casualty rate of 16.87 percent.  By comparison, the casualty rate was 2.5 percent in World War I and World War II, 0.1 percent in Korea and Vietnam [TC: you’ll find better but still lower estimates here], and 21 percent for the Civil War.

That is from American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White, a good book by the way.  I had not known that a possible U.S. takeover of “Santo Domingo” (today’s D.R.) was such a big issue during Grant’s administration.

Indonesia fact of the day

Even though Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population of any nation, it witnessed, in marked contrast to Egypt, a steady growth in the size of the Christian community in the course of the twentieth century.  The Roman Catholic community grew from only 26,000 in 1900 to 500,000 in 1940, and to 6 million in 2003.  The number of indigenous Protestants rose from 285,000 in 1900 to 1.7 million in 1940, and to perhaps 16 million in 2003.  What is more, it is estimated that 1 million of the new Christians converted in the course of the century were of a Muslim rather than a traditional religious background.

That is all from the new and interesting Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History, published by Princeton University Press.

That was then, this is now, Hubert Humphrey edition

Is this only slightly corrupt, or very corrupt?  It is not obvious to me:

The financial assistance wealthy friends provided, in an era when ties between politicians and businessmen were not scrutinized, was indicative of Humphrey’s longer-term dependence on such people. His three sons…attended Shattuck Military Academy…courtesy of scholarships provided to the school by Minneapolis-born William Benton, who had made a fortune in advertising before becoming Humphrey’s Senate colleague from Connecticut during 1950-52…Eventually, Ewald [a wealthy Minnesotan dairyman] also helped.

Later, when Humphrey became vice president, he would turn over his modest stock holdings to Dwayne Andreas, the multimillionaire agribusinessman who transformed the Archer-Daniels-Midland Company into a multinational powerhouse, to be put into a blind trust.  Andreas commingled Humphrey’s funds with his own in his mutual income fund that invested heavily in ADM stock.  Andreas never mentioned this arrangement to Humphrey, who never inquired.  By the time of his death in 1978, Humphrey’s share of the mutual income fund was about half a million dollars…

That is all from Arnold A. Offner’s Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of a Country.

Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out

I wrote this as a blog post for Penguin blog about ten years ago (when I guest-blogged for them), and it has disappeared from Google.  So I thought I would serve up another, slightly different version to keep it circulating.  Here goes:

Most of you should throw books out — your used copies that is — instead of gifting them.  If you donate the otherwise-thrashed book somewhere, someone might read it.  OK, maybe that person will read one more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that person reading some other book instead.  Or substitute for watching a wonderful movie.

So you have to ask yourself — this book — is it better on average than what an attracted reader might otherwise spend time with?  Even within any particular point of view most books simply aren’t that good, and furthermore many books end up being wrong.  These books are traps for the unwary, and furthermore gifting the book puts some sentimental value on it, thereby increasing the chance that it is read.  Gift very selectively!  And ponder the margin.

You should be most likely to give book gifts to people whose reading taste you don’t respect very much.  That said, sometimes a very bad book can be useful because it might appeal to “bad” readers and lure them away from even worse books.  Please make all the appropriate calculations.

Alternatively, if a rational friend of yours gives you a book, perhaps you should feel a little insulted.

How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up?  So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.

Toss it I say!

What I’ve been reading

1. Rob Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better.  A sustained argument that current manifestations of philanthropy are not very egalitarian or necessarily realizing democratic ideals.  My views stand “to the right” of this book, but for some of you it will serve as a very good articulation of why philanthropy might be making you nervous.

2. Edmund White, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading.  An exquisitely written book, yet his reading narrative leaves me cold (too much an insider? not eccentric enough?).  I found the chapter on his husband and their relationship extraordinarily compelling.  A highly intelligent book, at the very least.

3. Jason Brennan, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice.  A well-argued libertarian take on exactly what the subtitle promises.

4. Robert Skidelsky, Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics.  The history of macro and money told through its historical development, which in my view is the right approach.  The coverage ranges from the classical economists up through the present day.  I hope this book does well.

5. Nicola Gennaioli and Andrei Shleifer, A Crisis of Beliefs: Investor Psychology and Financial Fragility.  An “as smart as you would expect” take on the hypothesis that investor over-extrapolation of recent price trends can cause financial crises, including our recent financial crisis.

What should I ask Michele Gelfand?

I am doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, here is her home page.  She is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and has a new book coming out: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Out World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why was the Daimler-Chrysler merger ill-fated from the start? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”

In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.

She also is well-known for her analyses of how negotiations vary across organizations and cultures. Here is Gelfand on  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask?

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

My Conversation with Michael Pollan

I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:

Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.

He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.

He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated.  Here is one exchange of relevance:

COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.

Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .

POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.

One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.

One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.

The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.

Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.


COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?

For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.

If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?

POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.

But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”

COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?

POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.

But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.

In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.

COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?

POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?

COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.

W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer.  Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:

COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?

POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.

When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.

Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.

Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

My preface to *Stubborn Attachments*, and why this book is especially important

Here it is:

One theme of Stubborn Attachments is that economic growth in the wealthier countries has positive spillover effects for poorer individuals around the world.  If you think of the publication of this book as a form of economic growth/gdp enhancement, I want to boost its positive global effects.  I also argue in Stubborn Attachments that we should be more charitable and altruistic at the margin.  That includes me!

So having written Stubborn Attachments, I now wish to live the book, so to speak.  I am donating the royalties from the book to a man I met in Ethiopia on a factfinding trip earlier this year, I shall call him Yonas [not his real name].

He is a man of modest means, but he aspires to open his own travel business.  He has a young and growing family, and also a mother to support.  He is also hoping to buy a larger house to accommodate his growing family.  In his life, he faces stresses – financial and otherwise — that I have never had to confront.  When I visited his home, his wife had just had a new baby girl, but Yonas’s income depends on the vicissitudes of tourist demand, and by American standards it is in any case low.

I met Yonas when he served as my travel guide around Lalibela.  I spent a full day with him, touring the underground, rock-hewn stone churches of that city.  He struck me as reliable, conscientious, well-informed, and I was impressed by the quality of his English, which he had acquired on his own.  He also took me by his village to meet his family, and they performed a coffee ceremony for me, cooking freshly ground coffee beans (it was delicious, something I had never imagined).  Based on my impressions from that day, I believe an investment in Yonas will help his entire family and perhaps his broader community as well.  Since then, he and I have kept in touch by email.

As another way of “living the content” of my book, I will be sending the funds via Stripe, Stripe Press being the publisher of this book.  Stripe, a payments company, really has made it easy to send money across borders, thereby helping to knit the whole world together.  I hope someday Yonas is able to apply for incorporation through Atlas, a Stripe service that helps entrepreneurs incorporate in Delaware, with his travel business, or with whatever else he may do.

I suppose this means I will remain stubbornly attached to Yonas.  And with the publication of this book, Stripe Press is now stubbornly attached to me.

Think of this book — due out in October — as my attempt to defend and explain why a free society is objectively better in terms of ethics, political philosophy, and economics.  No punches are pulled, this is my account of what I strongly believe you should believe too.  My bottom lines, so to speak.

But today I’d like to focus upon Yonas, in Ethiopia, rather than the content of the book.  All of my share of the income from the book goes to him and his family, I get nothing.  So if you order Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, you are very directly contributing to economic development and human betterment and the multiplication of possibilities.  And perhaps you are also expressing some faith in the quality of my judgment as to who would put the money to good use.

I would like to see that you pre-order the book to make a difference for Yonas and his family.  And the earlier you order, the more attention the book will receive, the greater the chance of reviews and a further print run and further sales, and so on.

You can pre-order here.  By the way, what is your stubborn attachment?

*Prohibition: A Concise History*

That is a new and truly excellent book by W.J. Rorabaugh.  It is a perfect 116 pp. of text and a model for what many other books should be.

From 1825 to 1850, the per capita consumption of alcohol in the United States dropped by half, due largely to religious influence.

As late as 1914, alcohol taxes accounted for 35 percent of the revenue of the federal government.

The Russian government moved to prohibition during WWI, and the resulting loss of revenue was a significant factor contributing to the downfall of the regime.

Note that “per capita consumption of alcohol was reduced for a very long time.”  If you were born in 1900, for instance, you could not legally drink until 1933, at the age of thirty-three, a relatively late age for this habit to form.

Today “more than half of Mexican American women are teetotalers.”  And: “African Americans continue to be light drinkers, and more than half of black women do not drink.”

Strongly recommended.  If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.