Category: Books

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.


COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

*Where Economics Went Wrong: Chicago’s Abandonment of Classical Liberalism*

That is the new book by David Colander and Craig Freedman, here is one short bit:

The best way of conveying our conception of what is at least suggestive of a Classical Liberal stance is to present a handful of economists who, in our view, reflect this attitude.  We have chosen six economists: Edward Leamer, Ariel Rubinstein, Alvin Roth, Paul Romer, Amartya Sen, and Dani Rodrik.  Each have, in our view, displayed a Classical Liberal attitude to methodology in important aspects of their work.

I am very much in favor of what the authors propose here, although I might reserve the term classical liberal for the more traditional political distinction.

*Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy*

By Mary L. Hirschfeld, here is the opening passage from the Preface:

My rather peculiar intellectual journey began with my pursuit of a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University, granted in 1989, and culminated in a second Ph.D. in theology, from the University of Notre Dame in 2013.  Economics and theology are two very different sets of discourses, and this book is the result of my effort to sort out the resulting cacophony in my own head.  When I began my career, I would never have imagined writing such a book.  For starters, I was an ordinary somewhat spiritually inclined but definitely not religious type when I began my academic career at Harvard in the fall of 1983.

Definitely recommended, and not just for Ross Douthat.  It is exquisitely written as well.  I enjoyed this sentence in the acknowledgements:

It is because of Tyler that I am a convinced Thomist, though that outcome would undoubtedly horrify him.

I am not easily horrified these days!  Thus there are doubts, always doubts.

Buy the book here.

Words of wisdom from Vitalik Buterin

Both reasoning from behavioral-economic first principles, and my personal experience, people are at their most evil out of fear, not greed. Growth means there is less fear going around.

That is from Vitalik Buterin, reviewing Stubborn Attachments on TwitterAnd this:

I have a different take on “growth is good for harmony” (52-53). Arrow’s theorem doesn’t become more or less true if a conflict is between, say (+5, +1) vs (+1, +5) or (+2, -2) vs (-2, +2). Rather, the reason why the latter is more disharmonious is loss aversion.


Redistributing money to the rich (p88) is risky because the rich are not necessarily aligned with general population. Caring for old people (p91) is valuable not just for the sake of present individuals, but also as a commitment to future old people who are present-day workers.

Here is my earlier Conversation with Vitalik Buterin.  And here is Garett Jones’s tweet storm on the book.

Hey, wait a minute!

In November 1931 Churchill also published an article entitled ‘Fifty Years Hence’ in Maclean’s Magazine, in which he made some absurd predictions — that we would grow only those parts of chickens we wanted to eat, for example — but also some astonishingly accurate ones.  ‘Wireless telephones and television…

That is from the new and excellent Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny.  It is true of course that the fifty years prediction was off.  Here is the Churchill essay.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard A. Arenberg, Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress.  You know, this stuff matters a lot more than it used to.

2. Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life.  Covers the evolution of religion in Mill’s life, and stresses that toward the very life he turned back to a religiously-oriented world view.  Arguably all of the (< 12) people at Mill’s funeral were Christians.  As a side benefit, the book has an illuminating treatment of the romance with Harriet Taylor.  I’ve since ordered four other of Larsen’s books, the ultimate compliment.

3. Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs.  An excellent history book in its own right, this is also one of the best sources for understanding the 19th century roots of our current dilemma.  Reading everything by Daniel Walker Howe is in fact a good algorithm for proceeding in life.

Daniel S. Hamermesh, Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource is a good introduction to what economists know about the allocation of time, both evidence and theory.

Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon: A Life I read only some parts of, and found very well-written and entertaining, but it wasn’t sufficiently conceptually innovative to hold my interest.

Jacy Reese has a new book The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists are Building an Animal-Free Food System.  It is overstated, but still better than the near-unanimous ignoring of these issues which goes on in the economics profession.

China sentences of the day

With the Internet, too much information leaks out about the failings of governments. Thus, they are unable to “rule by persuasion” and are increasingly reduced to relying on sheer force. As a provocative example, Gurri believes that the Chinese government now is more dependent on force than it would be without the Internet.

That is from Arnold Kling reviewing Martin Gurri’s forthcoming The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

Amazon search is getting worse, especially for classic books

Just type in “Gulliver’s Travels,” and the first page will not show any editions you actually ought to buy.  And there are so many sponsored ads for mediocre, copyright-less editions.  If you type in “Gulliver’s Travels Penguin” you eventually will get to this, a plausible buy for the casual educated reader.  And wouldn’t it be nice if someone told you the $156.31 Cambridge University Press edition is by far the best choice? — full of marginal annotations!

Can You Outsmart an Economist?

Can You Outsmart an Economist? is an excellent book of puzzles put together by Steven Landsburg. Steve includes a lot of classics such as the Girl Named Florida Problem, the Potato Paradox and Newcomb’s paradox, the former two problems are presented in slightly different and in the first case improved forms so you might not recognize them on first reading. Steve also includes many economic puzzles, Bayes puzzles, common knowledge problems and more. Readers of this blog will certainly know some of the puzzles but will also find lots of novel problems and puzzles. Also included are philosophical paradoxes. For example, the headache problem.

A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is killed, in which case the headaches will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person?

The puzzle here isn’t the answer. The answer is obvious. The puzzle is that smart people can’t agree which answer is obvious.

Overall, this is the best and most diverse collection of puzzles that I know. It’s meant to be dipped into and sampled at leisure. My only complaint is that the puzzles are followed by answers which makes it too easy to fool yourself into thinking you always knew the answer! Answers in the back of the book would have been a minor form of commitment. Recommended.

*Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom*

That is the forthcoming book by my excellent colleagues Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, due out next January, you can now pre-order here.

Here is the Amazon summary:

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood. Tracing the history of religious persecution from the Fall of Rome to the present-day, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama provide a novel explanation of the birth of religious liberty. This book treats the subject in an integrative way by combining economic reasoning with historical evidence from medieval and early modern Europe. The authors elucidate the economic and political incentives that shaped the actions of political leaders during periods of state building and economic growth.

I have read the entire thing (a slightly earlier draft), very definitely recommended.

The Year that Words Were First Used in Print

In the year that I was born, 1966, some words which were used for the first time in print were:

cryonics, art deco, assault weapon, ROM, biocontainment, hot button, kung fu, meth, male-pattern baldness, multitasking, multiorgasmic, Medicaid, number cruncher, paperless, street smarts, ranch dressing, z-score

I would have guessed that many of these terms were older.

New words in recent years are ico, manspreading, utility token and aquafaba (?).

All this is according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

My Conversation with John Nye, what should I ask him?

Soon I will be having a Conversation with my esteemed colleague John V. Nye, one of the smartest people I know.  John is an economic historian but also a polymath with broad-ranging interests, including travel, classical music, chess, education, “institutions,” Asian food, the Philippines (his home country), and much more.

So what should I ask him?

*Stubborn Attachments* opening week

I thank all of you buyers and reviewers for making the opening week of Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals such a success.

The book hit #1 in 4 Amazon browse subcategories over the last week:
– Macroeconomics
– Commerce
– Philosophy
– Theory of Economics, and also Comparative Economics