Category: Books

U.S.A. historical facts of the day

In 1820-1821, commerce between America and Haiti accounted for 4 percent of America’s foreign trade.

“Historians agree that about one in ten slave ships experienced an attempted insurrection during the Atlantic slave trade.”

And:

“Liability for slave ship revolts was one of the maritime perils that underwriters often refused to assume.”

Those are all from Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie’s Rebellious Passage: The Creole Revolt and America’s Coastal Slave Trade.

What should I ask Eric Kaufmann?

I am doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  I am a big fan of his book WhiteShift (perhaps the best book of the year so far?), here is my review.  Here is Wikipedia on Eric:

Eric Peter Kaufmann (born 11 May 1970) is a Canadian professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist on Orangeism in Northern Ireland, nationalismpolitical demography and demography of the religious/irreligious.

Eric Kaufmann was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His ancestry is mixed with a quarter Chinese and a quarter Latino. His father is of Jewish descent, the grandfather hailing from Prostejov in the modern Czech Republic. His mother is a lapsed Catholic; he himself attended Catholic school for only a year. He received his BA from the University of Western Ontario in 1991. He received his MA from the London School of Economics in 1994 where he subsequently also completed his PhD in 1998.

Here is Eric’s home page.  He’s also written on what makes the Swiss Swiss, American exceptionalism, and whether the Amish will outbreed us all.

So what should I ask Eric?

What I’ve been reading

1. Robert W. Poole, Jr. Rethinking America’s Highways: A 21st Vision for Better Infrastructure.  Highways can and will get much better, largely through greater private sector involvement.  He is probably right, and there is much substance in this book.

2. Aysha Akhtar, Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies.  An unusual mix of memoir, animal compassion, and childhood horrors, I found this very moving.

3. Ethan Mordden, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide.  Should there not be a fanboy book like this about every person of some renown?  Insightful and witty throughout, for instance: “…we comprehend Streisand from what she does — yet a few personal bits have jumped out at us through her wall of privacy.  One is the “Streisand Effect”…which we can restate as “When famous people complain about something, they tend to make it famous, too.”

4. Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education.  Hard-hitting and courageous, and I can attest that much of it is absolutely on the mark.  Still, I did wish for a bit more of a comparative perspective.  Are universities more hypocritical than other institutions?  Might the non-signaling, learning rate of return on higher education still be positive and indeed considerable?  I am not nearly as negative as the authors are, while nonetheless feeling much of their disillusion on the micro level.  Furthermore, American higher education does pass a massive market test at the global level — foreign students really do wish to come and study here.  What are we to make of that?  Which virtues of the current system are we all failing to understand properly?

5. Kirk Goldsberry, Sprawlball: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA.  A highly analytical but also entertaining look at the rise of the three point shot, the history of Steph Curry, how LeBron James turned into such a good player, and much more, with wonderful visuals and graphics.

6. Paul Rabinow, Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology.  PCR is the polymerase chain reaction, and this is a genuinely good anthropological study of how scientific progress comes about, noting there is plenty of lunacy in this story, including love, LSD, and much more.  There should be more books like this, this one dates from the 1990s but I am still hoping more people copy it.  Via Ray Lopez.

Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, covers Boas, Mead, Benedict, and others.  Not enough of the material was new to me, though I expect for many readers this is quite a useful book.

I enjoyed Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite.  Remember how I used to say “The only thing worse than the Very Serious People are the Not Very Serious People?”  Well, you should have listened.  I have the same fear with the current critiques of meritocracy.  That said, this is the book that does the most to pile on, against meritocracy, noting that much less space is devoted to possible solutions.  There are arguments in their own right for wage subsidies and more low-income college admissions, but will those changes reverse the fundamental underlying dynamic of knowing just about everybody’s marginal product?

John Quiggin, Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly.  The third lesson, however, is government failure, and you won’t find much about that here.  Still, I found this to be a well-done book rather than a polemic.  Here is the introduction on-line.

My Conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of my favorite Conversations. Here is the CWTeam summary:

Knausgård’s literary freedom paves the way for this conversation with Tyler, which starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.

Here is one excerpt:

KNAUSGÅRD: You have this almost archetypical artist putting his art before his children, before his family, before everything. You have also Doris Lessing who did the same — abandoned her children to move to London to write.

I’ve been kind of confronted with that as a writer, and I think everyone does because writing is so time consuming and so demanding. When I got children, I had this idea that writing was a solitary thing. I could go out to small islands in the sea. I could go to lighthouses, live there, try to write in complete . . . be completely solitary and alone. When I got children, that was an obstruction for my writing, I thought.

But it wasn’t. It was the other way around. I’ve never written as much as I have after I got the children, after I started to write at home, after I kind of established writing in the middle of life. It was crawling with life everywhere. And what happened was that writing became less important. It became less precious. It became more ordinary. It became less religious or less sacred.

It became something ordinary, and that was incredibly important for me because that was eventually where I wanted to go — into the ordinary and mundane, even, and try to connect to what was going on in life. Life isn’t sacred. Life isn’t uplifted. It is ordinary and boring and all the things, we know.

And:

COWEN: So many great Norwegian writers — Ibsen, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun — there’s nationalism in their work. Yet today, liberals tend to think of nationalism as an unspeakable evil of sorts. How do we square this with the evolution of Norwegian writing?

And if one thinks of your own career, arguably it’s your extreme popularity in Norway at first that drove your later fame. What’s the connection of your own work to Norwegian nationalism? Are you the first non-nationalist great Norwegian writer? Is that plausible? Or is there some deeper connection?

KNAUSGÅRD: I think so much writing is done out of a feeling of not belonging. If you read Knut Hamsun, he was a Nazi. I mean, he was a full-blooded Nazi. We have to be honest about that.

COWEN: His best book might be his Nazi book, right? He wrote it when he was what, 90?

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah.

COWEN: On Overgrown Paths?

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah.

COWEN: To me, it’s much more interesting than the novels, which are a kind of artifice that hasn’t aged so well.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah.

COWEN: But you read On Overgrown Paths, you feel like you’re there. It’s about self-deception.

KNAUSGÅRD: It’s true, it’s a wonderful book. But I think Hamsun’s theme, his subject, is rootlessness. In a very rooted society, in a rural society, in a family-orientated society like Norway has been — a small society — he was a very rootless, very urban writer.

He went to America, and he hated America, but he was America. He had that in him. He was there in the late 19th century, and he wrote a book about it, which is a terrible book, but still, he was there, and he had that modernity in him.

He never wrote about his parents. Never wrote about where he came from. All his characters just appear, and then something happens with them, but there’s no past. I found that incredibly intriguing just because he became the Nazi. He became the farmer. He became the one who sang the song about the growth. What do you call it? Markens Grøde.

COWEN: Growth of the Soil.

And:

COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?

I told you we ask different questions.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.

Knausgaard showed up for the taping carrying a package of black bread, which he forgot to take with him when leaving.  So for the rest of the day, I enjoyed his black bread…

John Lukacs has passed away at age 95

Here is a Washington Post obituary.  Yes, he did write a bestselling tribute to Churchill, but more importantly he was one of the last representatives of a particular central European notion of history and culture.  I much prefer the Times of Israel obituary.  Here is WikipediaThe Last European War and Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture are two of my favorite books by him.

Big business isn’t big politics

That is my recent essay, adapted in Foreign Policy, from my new book Big Business: Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.  Here is the opening:

The basic view that big business is pulling the strings in Washington is one of the major myths of our time. Most American political decisions are not in fact shaped by big business, even though business does control numerous pieces of specialist legislation. Even in 2019, big business is hardly dominating the agenda. U.S. corporate leaders often promote ideas of fiscal responsibility, free trade, robust trade agreements, predictable government, multilateral foreign policy, higher immigration, and a certain degree of political correctness in government—all ideas that are ailing rather badly right now.

To be sure, there is plenty of crony capitalism in the United States today. For instance, the Export-Import Bank subsidizes U.S. exports with guaranteed loans or low-interest loans. The biggest American beneficiary is Boeing, by far, and the biggest foreign beneficiaries are large and sometimes state-owned companies, such as Pemex, the national fossil fuel company of the Mexican government. The Small Business Administration subsidizes small business start-ups, the procurement cycle for defense caters to corporate interests, and the sugar and dairy lobbies still pull in outrageous subsidies and price protection programs, mostly at the expense of ordinary American consumers, including low-income consumers.

…overall, lobbyists are not running the show. The average big company has only 3.4 lobbyists in Washington, and for medium-size companies that number is only 1.42. For major companies, the average is 13.9, and the vast majority of companies spend less than $250,000 a year on lobbying. Furthermore, a systematic study shows that business lobbying does not increase the chance of favorable legislation being passed for that business, nor do those businesses receive more government contracts; contributions to political action committees are ineffective too.

If you are looking for a villain, it is perhaps best to focus on how corporations sometimes help poorly staffed legislators evaluate and draft legislation. But again, national policy isn’t exactly geared to making businesses, and particularly big business, entirely happy.

References and further support are available in the book,

The progressive nature of big business

That is my new opinion piece for The Washington Post, derived from my Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.  Here is one excerpt:

Yet big business often has been a strong progressive force in U.S. history, not only by providing jobs but also by spreading emancipatory practices and norms.

For instance, McDonald’s, General Electric, Procter & Gamble and many of the big tech companies offered health care and other legal benefits for same-sex partners well before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. In addition to dramatically improving the lives of thousands of Americans, the companies’ moves put a mainstream stamp of approval on the notion of same-sex marriage itself.

And:

The larger the business, the more tolerant the institution is likely to be of employee and customer personal preferences. A local baker might refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple for religious reasons, but Sara Lee, which tries to build very broadly based national markets for its products, is keen on selling cakes to everyone. The bigger companies need to protect their broader reputations and recruit large numbers of talented workers, including from minority groups. They can’t survive and grow just by cultivating a few narrow networks as either their workers or customers.

There are further arguments at the link.

Caplan, Weinersmith, and Open Borders

Caplan and Weinersmith, in their splendid forthcoming graphic novel, present some rebuttals to the “cultural critique” of open borders.  For instance (and here I am presenting their views):

1. The average immigrant has political views which poll as pretty close to those of the average American.  They don’t even by huge margins favor more immigration.  (The author do admit that low-skilled immigrants do favor significantly less free speech, in any case on all of these points they do present actual numbers and visuals.)

2. Support for the welfare state remains strong in Western European nations, even as they have taken in many more migrants.

3. Open borders once before produced American political culture.

4. In “deep roots” terms, the United States already has a mediocre ancestry score, yet America has very high gdp and relatively strong political institutions.

5. There is an extended response to Garett Jones on IQ which I do not feel I can summarize well.  Toward the end, it is noted that babies adopted from poorer countries into richer countries typically do very well later in life.

6. The end of this chapter proclaims: “Open borders won’t destroy our freedom.  It’s going to bring freedom to all of mankind.”

I will again repeat my earlier point: the value and import of this new book does not very much depend on your actual opinion of open borders.  Still, if you would like to hear my views, I’ll repeat my earlier discussion:

And no I do not favor open borders even though I do favor a big increase in immigration into the United States, both high- and low-skilled.  The simplest argument against open borders is the political one.  Try to apply the idea to Cyprus, Taiwan, Israel, Switzerland, and Iceland and see how far you get.  Big countries will manage the flow better than the small ones but suddenly the burden of proof is shifted to a new question: can we find any countries big enough (or undesirable enough) where truly open immigration might actually work?

In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice.  The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.  I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring.  Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs.  (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

In any case, do buy the Caplan and Weinersmith book.  I have now begun to think there should be a book like this, or two, for every major political issue of import.

*Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration*

That is the already-bestselling graphic novel by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, and I would just like to say it is a phenomenal achievement.  It is a landmark in economic education, how to present economic ideas, and the integration of economic analysis and graphic visuals.  I picked it up not knowing what to expect, and was blown away by the execution.

To be clear, I don’t myself favor a policy of open borders, instead preferring lots more legal immigration done wisely.  But that’s not really the central issue here, as I think Caplan and Weinersmith are revolutionizing how to present economic (and other?) ideas.  Furthermore, they do respond in detail to my main objections to the open borders idea, namely the cultural problems with so many foreigners coming to the United States (even if I am not convinced, but that is for another blog post).  Even if you disagree with open borders, this book is one of the very best explainers of the gains from trade idea ever produced, and it will teach virtually anyone a truly significant amount about the immigration issue, as well as economic analytics more generally.

There is more actual substance in this book than in many a purely written tome.

It will be out in October, you can pre-order it here.

Average annual change in total factor productivity between 1990 and 2014

Here are the estimates from Penn World Tables, only selected countries are presented:

Sri Lanka 2.48

China 2.40

Poland 1.70

Uruguay 1.61

Romania 1.61

United States 0.89

Brazil -0.12

South Africa -0.53

Mexico -0.82

Ukraine -1.20

A few points.  First, I still believe Sri Lanka is an undervalued development story, in spite of recent developments.  Second, the economy of Poland is not discussed enough.  Third, other sources confirm similar numbers for Mexico, arguably because misallocations of capital and labor have increased due to the growing size of the informal sector.  Fourth, there are far too many other nations in the negative column.

Those numbers are reproduced in “Productivity in Emerging-Market Economies: Slowdown or Stagnation?”, by José de Gregorio, in the new and interesting volume Facing Up To Low Productivity Growth, edited by Adam S. Posen and Jeromin Zettelmeyer.

*The AI Does Not Hate You*

That is the new book by Tom Chivers, and the subtitle is Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World.  Here is one excerpt:

Overall, they have sparked a remarkable change.  They’ve made the idea of AI as an existential risk mainstream; sensible, grown-up people are talking about it, not just fringe nerds on an email list.  From my point of view, that’s a good thing.  I don’t think AI is definitely going to destroy humanity.  But nor do I think that it’s so unlikely we can ignore it.  There is a small but non-negligible probability that, when we look back on this era in the future, we’ll think that Eliezer Yudkowsky and Nick Bostrom  — and the SL4 email list, and LessWrong.com — have saved the world.  If Paul Crowley is right and my children don’t die of old age, but in a good way — if they and humanity reach the stars, with the help of a friendly superintelligence — that might, just plausibly, be because of the Rationalists.

There is also material covering Scott Alexander and Robin Hanson, among others.  Due out in the UK in June.

What I’ve been reading

1. Patrick Bergemann, Judge Thy Neighbor: Denunciations in the Spanish Inquisition, Romanov Russia, and Nazi Germany.  A very specific, useful, and interesting account of actual denunciation practices during the above-mentioned episodes.  During the Inquisition, there was general immunity given to most denouncers, you can imagine the resulting incentives.  This book is becoming more relevant than it ought to be.

2. John L. Rudolph, How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters.  I found this book boring, but it is the kind of book people should be writing and I suspect some readers and researchers will find it very useful.  A fact-rich, reference-laden history of American science education, still by the end I still was looking for more organizational principles.

3. Samme Chittum, Last Days of the Concorde: The Crash of Flight 4590 and the End of Supersonic Passenger Travel.  An excellent book on why the Concorde was in fact abandoned.  I hadn’t realized it was never so safe in the first place:  “They soon learned that Concordes operated by British Airways and Air France had been involved in a range of tire failures over the years.  No fewer than 57 such incidents had taken place since Concordes began flying in 1976, 47 were either burst or inflated tires, and 10 were instances in which tires lost tread.”

4. Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, translated and edited by Ken Liu.  I found the “hit rate” in this collection to be slightly over fifty percent, which is rare for a science fiction anthology, plus even the lesser stories give one some insight into China, so definitely recommended, at least if you think you might like it.  But don’t read this before The Three-Body Problem.

Ethan Pollock, Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse, delivers what it promises.  The coup against Gorbachev was plotted in a banya, I learned.

Joshua Specht, Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America.  A good economic history of the “cattle-beef complex”: “Abilene, Kansas was the first major cattle town.”

Emily Oster, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool is in my pile, it may someday be revised to cover older children.

Also in my pile is Julius Caesar, The War for Gaul, a new translation by James J. O’Donnell.  I can’t speak to this translation, but the book is a winner.

Slavery is usually worse than you think

The men were allowed to come on deck night and day if they wished, but it was the rule to whip the Negro men if they went in the hold with the women.  Aboard the Creole, sex was apparently (and, it turned out, wrong) deemed a greater threat than slave rebellion.  Gonorrhea, according to slaveholding commonplace, was a disease “generally contracted among Negroes en route who are brought for sale.”  A number of different traders had their slaves aboard the ship, and segregating them by sex was a way to keep one slaveholder’s slaves from diminishing the value of another’s by passing a disease — or starting a pregnancy.

That is from Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.