Category: Books

That was then, this is now, a continuing series

This is part of a letter from Miss Howe to Miss Clarissa Harlowe, from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa [1748].

You and I have often retrospected the faces and minds of grown people; that is to say, have formed images for their present appearances, outside and in, (as far as the manners of the persons would justify us in the latter) what sort of figures they made when boys and girls. And I’ll tell you the lights in which HICKMAN, SOLMES, and LOVELACE, our three heroes, have appeared to me, supposing them boys at school.

Solmes I have imagined to be a little sordid, pilfering rogue, who would purloin from every body, and beg every body’s bread and butter from him; while, as I have heard a reptile brag, he would in a winter-morning spit upon his thumbs, and spread his own with it, that he might keep it all to himself.

Hickman, a great overgrown, lank-haired, chubby boy, who would be hunched and punched by every body; and go home with his finger in his eye, and tell his mother.

While Lovelace I have supposed a curl-pated villain, full of fire, fancy, and mischief; an orchard-robber, a wall-climber, a horse-rider without saddle or bridle, neck or nothing: a sturdy rogue, in short, who would kick and cuff, and do no right, and take no wrong of any body; would get his head broke, then a plaster for it, or let it heal of itself; while he went on to do more mischief, and if not to get, to deserve, broken bones. And the same dispositions have grown up with them, and distinguish them as me, with no very material alteration.

Only that all men are monkeys more or less, or else that you and I should have such baboons as these to choose out of, is a mortifying thing, my dear.

I am enjoying this splendid book for the first time, and yes it is OK to read an abridged edition.

*Stubborn Attachments* is being published by Stripe Press

The full title is Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  I have been working on this book for about twenty years, and I recommend it to you all.

Here is the Amazon link, you can pre-order for October 16.  Here is the Kindle link.  I will get you the Barnes and Noble link as soon as it is available.  The Stripe Press people have done a fantastic job with the cover and also with the production more generally, my commendations to them!

Milton Friedman in *Death Wish*

Dan Klein writes to me:

Yes, a movie character (young woman student) was reading it aloud to her friend in a coma, Bruce Willis’s daughter, who had been attacked and shot. Willis comes in and asks what she’s been reading. The young woman replies that she had to read it anyway, for summer reading in anticipation of NYU, and figured good for coma victim to hear voice. Willis makes a joke about “I don’t think that will wake her up” or “Do you think that will wake her?”

When Willis asks her what she’s reading she says “Essays in Positive Economics, by Milton Friedman”. And then explains that it is on the NYU summer reading list.

The text quoted was: “Normative economics and the art of economics, on the other hand, cannot be independent of positive economics. Any policy conclusion necessarily rests on a prediction about the consequences of doing one thing rather than another…”

Has anyone else seen this movie?

That was then, this is now

Politicians were not shy about discussing sexual pleasure, even as a matter of state business.  During Jefferson’s second term, when the ambassador from Tunis arrived in Washington, he requested that the secretary of state make his stay complete by providing him and his entourage with concubines.  Madison (generally portrayed as prim and proper) charged the ambassador’s pleasure to the government, listing “Georgia a Greek,” as one of the expenses among “appropriations for foreign intercourse”  He made light of the incident in a letter to Jefferson, noting the double meaning of “foreign intercourse.”

That is from Nancy Isenberg’s excellent Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.  I also learned that Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and that late in his life Burr spent time with Bentham, was intrigued by the Panopticon idea, and he may have influenced Bentham on suffrage

My favorite things Ukraine

I am just arriving, and for the first time  Here are my favorites:

1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin.  Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa.  But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others.  Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists.  So we are into A++ territory here.  But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine!  My head is exploding now.

1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.

2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts.  Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.

3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian.  But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian.  His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known.  A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him.  For short stories there is Isaac Babel.  Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem.  Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin.  The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.

4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization.  With Dovshenko as my favorite director.

5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera.  It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.

6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group.  Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.

7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.

8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises.  He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.

9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.

10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.

11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.

12. Legal scholar, blogger, and First Amendment advocate: Eugene Volokh.  And don’t forget Sasha!

Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan.  The region produced a few good chess players too.

Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian.  They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.

What I’ve been reading

1. Annie Lowrey, Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.  A very good book, one of the hot books of the year, and much deeper and broader and balanced than the subtitle might imply.

2. George Magnus, Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is In Jeopardy.  The case for pessimism, based on all possible reasons.  Worth reading, but who knows?

3. Devin Fergus, Land of the Fee: Hidden Costs and the Decline of the American Middle Class.  Not a balanced treatment, but a fact-rich and handy starting point for reading about this topic.  You won’t learn how many of those fees are efficiency-based, but you will go around asking the question more.

4. François Cusset, How the World Swung to the Right:Fifty Years of Counterrevolutions.  Full of generalizations and unsupported claims, but still a better guide to reality than most of what you will find from the other big think books.  An attempt at fresh thought, in pocket-sized form.

5. Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation.  Yet another good social and intellectual history of the early, formative period of Christianity.

Charles Silver and David A. Hyman, Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much for Health Care.  I find most books on this topic too painful to read, including this one, but it does appear to be comprehensive and the new go-to coverage on this topic.

How phony was the “phony war”?

It is misleading to think of 1939-1940 as the phoney war or twilight war, or the Sitz-krieg, or bore-war, with all the sense of lack of authenticity and reality these terms now convey.  This was war as Britain and France wanted to wage it and win it.  The dominant propaganda line in Britain in the early months of the war was ‘assurance of victory’, the policy was economic offence and military defence.  Britain was fighting a war ‘for King, for Empire, and for Freedom’, as British propaganda put it.  One reason we still think of the early war as phoney is that the air force was not used for bombing and that Germany was not attacked on land either.  But the navy went on the offensive.  German shipping and trade were swept from the seas.  Imports into Germany were blocked, and from November 1939 its exports too, both extraordinary changes to a world economic system in which Germany was a more significant trader than France.

That is from the quite good Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton.

Bob Luddy and the Thales Academy

Scott Alexander reports:

Bloom’s Two Sigma Problem: children given private tutoring will do two sigmas better than average (ie the average tutored student will be in the 98th percentile of nontutored students). But see here for some argument that the real value is lower, maybe more like 0.4 sigma. Some further discussion on the subreddit asks the right question – can we simulate this with some kind of clever computer-guided learning? – and gives the right answer – apparently no. TracingWoodgrains has a great comment. Especially interested in their discussion of Direct Instruction: “One of the few schools to use it as the basis of their program for math and English, a libertarian private school in North Carolina called Thales Academy, is reporting results exactly in line with the two-sigma bar: 98-99th percentile average accomplishment on the IOWA test. Their admissions process requires an interview at the elementary level, but no sorting other than that, so it’s not a case of only selecting the highest-level students.” (though note that IOWA is nationally normed, and Thales is in the well-off Research Triangle area). On the other hand, it costs half of what public schools do, so file this under “cost disease” too.

By the way, I have been enjoying my read of Robert L. Luddy’s Entrepreneurial Life: The Path from Startup to Market Leader.  Luddy is founder of Thales Academy, and the final chapter of his memoir covers his thoughts and praxis on education.

Facts about abortion history

1. In 1800, there were no formal laws against abortion in the United States, although common law suggested that the fetus had rights after a process of “quickening.”

2. Ten states passed anti-abortion laws in the 1821-1841 period.  De facto there were many exceptions and enforcement was loose.

3. Abortion became a fully commercialized business in the 1840s, and this led to more public discussion of the practice.  Abortion in fact became one of the first medical specialties in American history.  It is believed that abortion rates jumped over the 1840-1870 period, and mostly due to married women.

4. Drug companies started to supply their own abortion “remedies” in the 1840s on a much larger scale.

5. At this time there were few moral dilemmas, at least not publicly expressed, about the termination of pregnancies in the earlier stages.  That came later in the 20th century.

6. In 1878, a group of physicians in Illinois estimated the general abortion rate at 25%.  In any case during this time period abortion was affordable to many more Americans than just the wealthy.

7. Several states started to criminalize abortion during the 1850s.

8. 1857-1880 saw the beginning of a physicians’ crusade against abortion.  By 1880, abortion was illegal in most of the United States, and this occurred part and parcel with a rise in the professionalization of the medical profession.  These policies were later sustained and extended throughout the 1880s and also the early twentieth century.

9. Over the 1860-1880 period, doctors succeeded in turning American public opinion significantly against abortion.  The homeopaths supported them in this.

This is all from the very useful and readable book Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, by James C. Mohr.

Margaret Thatcher and the size of government

There are those who still believe that the Thatcher government (1979-1990) rolled back the state and cut taxes.  In fact Thatcherism involved an increase in the proportion of national income passing through the state and an increase in the tax burden.  Only income taxes went down, with great publicity — the more hidden taxes increased.  Value Added Tax, a form of purchase tax, was increased and was by comparison with income taxes regressive, though not quite as regressive as the additional taxes which were levied on alcohol and tobacco…the Thatcher government, and indeed subsequent ones, ended up spending more in absolute and even in relative terms on welfare taken overall.

That is from David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century.  Here are my previous posts on the book and on other work by Edgerton.

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

Stripe Press

Stripe partners with hundreds of thousands of the world’s most innovative businesses—organizations that will shape the world of tomorrow. These businesses are the result of many different inputs. Perhaps the most important ingredient is “ideas.”

Stripe Press highlights ideas that we think can be broadly useful. Some books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today.

Link here.

Facts about British exports (and imports)

Yes, I am continuing to read David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, and it is one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.  Here are a few points I gleaned from my time spent with the book on the plane last evening:

1. During WWII, British imports kept to their pre-war levels, with imports of munitions picking up the slack.  The book stresses how much the British empire did in fact pay off, as Britain through a variety of mechanisms forced or induced its colonies to lend it resources during this critical time.  Along some  dimensions, the British economy became more global due to the conflict.

2. In 1942, exports from Malaya (mostly rubber) to the U.S. were higher than UK exports to the U.S. at that time.

3. Early in the 20th century, wheat in Great Britain was about ten times more expensive than coal.  Britain was the largest importer of food, and in essence sold coal for foodstuffs.

4. British coal was centered in rural areas, and this kept British country life economically vital.  Furthermore this mining was largely horse-powered.

5. From the end of WWII to the 1980s, more people left Britain than migrated to it.

6. Goods trade as a percentage of gdp was about 32% for Britain around 1920, and then lower at about 20% in 2000.

I hope to write about this book more, but I’ll tell you two of the overall messages right now.  One is that the history of British economic globalization is more lurching and back and forth than you might think.  Another is that British industry was more successful, innovative, and scientific during periods of supposed decline than you might think.

And by the way, while we are on the topic of must-read books, here is another rave review for Varlam Shalamov.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

1. Gaël Faye, Small Country.  Short, readable, and emotionally complex, one of my favorite novels so far this year.  Think Burundi, spillover from genocide, descent into madness, and “the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history.”  Toss in a bit of romance as well.

2. David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.  I’m only on p.34, but this one is spectacular and I expect to read it closely all the way through.  You’ll probably hear about it more in future blog posts.  He takes on many myths about British postwar decline, for instance, arguing that British business actually did pretty well in the 1950s and 60s.  Right now it is out only in the UK, but the above link still will get you a copy.  Here is a good Colin Kidd review in New Statesman: “Every so often a book comes along that the entire political class needs to read.”

3. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write).  92 short pp. on how he thinks about writing, consistently high in quality, the contrast between Kundera and Hamsun was my favorite part.

Laurence M. Ball, The Fed and Lehman Brothers: Setting the Record Straight on a Financial Disaster is a very serious and useful book.  The Fed could have saved Lehman Brothers and didn’t, partly because of political pressures, and partly because they underestimated the damage it would cause to the economy.  Ball documents what I have supposed from the time of the event.

Cass R. Sunstein, The Cost-Benefit Revolution.  Not since the 1970s has cost-benefit analysis been as underrated as it is right now.

Joy Lisi Rankin, A People’s History of Computing in the United States appears to be interesting.  It tries to liberate the history of American computing from the usual emphasis on Silicon Valley, and offers greater focus on Dartmouth, Minnesota, and other less studied locales.

*Kolyma Stories*, by Varlam Shalamov

It is difficult to express just how good these Gulag short stories are.  I would very literally second the blurb by David Bezmozgis:

“As a record of the Gulag and human nature laid bare, Varlam Shalamov is the equal of Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, while the artistry of his stories recalls Chekhov. This is literature of the first rank, to be read as much for pleasure as a caution against the perils of totalitarianism.”

That is not blurb inflation.  Note that the book is long (734 pp. of stories), and the reading is slow, mostly because the narratives lack redundant information, not because they are clumsy or awkwardly written.  It also takes perhaps a few stories to get into the swing of things and figure out how the fictional yet not fictional universe works here.  But the content is entirely gripping, and full of social science.  You can buy it here.   A second volume from this translator will appear in 2019, completing the series.

An earlier version of the work, with a different translation and less complete, was published in 1995.  By the way, here is the author’s Wikipedia page.

Have you ever wondered how the contemporary world would react if a masterpiece were dropped into its midst?  If your guess was “with a fair amount of indifference unless it was Elena Ferrante and even then it wouldn’t really change anything except give rise to probably what will be a mediocre television series”…well, you were right.  For Shalamov, I don’t yet see an Amazon review.

Here is my earlier post on what Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag.