Category: Books

*A Beginner’s Guide to Japan*

“My colleague spends two hours a day making herself up,” my wife says, on her way to the department store where she works.

“She wants everyone to look at her?”

“No.  She wants everyone not to.”

That is from the new Pico Iyer book, pleasing throughout.  Here is an FT interview with Ayer about the book, and more.  Don’t forget:

Anime is the natural expression of an animist world.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

Ethan Pollock, Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse. The title says it all, noting that without the banya I for one would not perish.

George Weigel, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform.  Always fascinating to see there is a whole ‘nother world of politics you hardly know (or care) about.

Eric D. Weitz, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States, is indeed a history of human rights in theory but most of all in practice.

Katrina Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy covers how liberalism took egalitarian and Rawlsian turns in the 20th century.  The author makes this seem more natural than I would take it to be.

David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation, argues that from a Christian point of view all will be saved and none damned to eternal torment.  Not my framework, but I am not going to push back against what I take to be a Pareto improvement.

I am an admirer of Yancey Strickler, of Kickstarter fame, he has a new book coming out This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World.

Has a more beautiful “Progress Studies” book introduction ever been written?

On January 5, 1845, the Prussian cultural minister Karl Friedrich von Eichorn received a request from a group of six young men to form a new Physical Society in Berlin.  By the time their statutes were approved in March, they numbered forty-nine and were meeting biweekly to discuss the latest developments in the physical sciences and physiology.  They were preparing to write critical reviews for a new journal, Die Fortschritte der Physik (Advances in physics), and from the beginning they set out to define what constituted progress and what did not.  Their success in this rather aggressive endeavor has long fascinated historians of science.  In fields from thermodynamics, mechanics, and electromagnetism to animal electricity, ophthalmology, and psychophysics, members of this small group established leading positions in what only thirty years later had become a new landscape of physical science populated by large institutes and laboratories of experiment and precision measurement.

How was this possible?  How could a bunch of twenty-somethings, without position or recognition, and possessed of little more than their outsized confidence and ambition, succeed in seizing the future?  What were their resources?

That is the opening passage from M. Norton Wise, Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society.

Is this the very best book ever written?

No, I don’t mean Proust, Cervantes, or the Bible.  I mean Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.

To be sure, it is not the greatest book qua book, or even in the top tier (though it is very good and Marsh is very smart and knowledgeable).

It is possible it has become the greatest book of all time because of YouTube.  Scroll through the pithy, one-page or sometimes even one-paragraph reviews of the various songs, and play them on YouTube while you are reading.

I had not known of Marvin Gaye’s “One More Heartache,” or Aretha Franklin’s “Think.”  Nor had I known the live version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from 1966 (though is it really “Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound”?).  I heard again many favorites as well.

Let’s be honest, amusia aside, do not humans love music more than books?  By no means does everyone read, but virtually everyone listens to music, and with some degree of passion. It therefore follows that “book + music” is better than book, right?  Whatever virtues the book may have are still contained in “book + music,” or more generally “book + YouTube.”

Have we now entered an age where all or most of the very best books are part of “books + YouTube”?

Of course I’m not trying to sell you on music or for that matter on Dave Marsh.  What about reading Abraham Pais, Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, accompanied by these videos?  Might the possibility of YouTube combination make that the 37th best book of all time, displacing Braudel or Flaubert?

Should not at least 2/3 of your reading be books accompanied by YouTube?  And if not, why not?

Inquiring minds wish to know.  Perhaps there is a book accompanied by YouTube that gives the answer?

Is a quality book better or worse if there is no useful way to combine it with YouTube?

Addendum: You will note that the Cowen-Tabarrok Modern Principles text can be combined with our micro and macro videos on YouTube, and thus it is one of the best books, not just our favorite.

German export history Germans are good at exporting

The growth of foreign trade was especially significant for Germany, which by the middle of the nineteenth century was among the world’s three leading exporters.  The German export trade at the time was mostly in food and raw materials.  As worldwide economic connections grew and Germany itself developed from an agricultural into an industrial nation, world trade became increasingly important as an agent of German prosperity.  Between 1850 and 1913 German foreign trade increased on the average of 4% annually, even faster than overall economic production.  As a result, Germany’s share in the volume of world trade had reached 13% in 1913, while the export quota of the German Reich amounted to 17.5% of total industrial production.

That is from Wilfried Feldenkirchen, Werner von Siemens: Inventor and International Entrepreneur.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard J. Williams, Why Cities Look the Way They Do.  Mostly interesting, think of this as a humanities-laden approach to cities, but without too much mumbo-jumbo.  Excerpt: “As long ago as 1968, a British art critic, Lawrence Alloway, grasped something of this.  Writing about the Biennial, he argued that Venice wasn’t a city, but should be better understood as a cultural medium, like an exhibition or a newspaper, ‘compounded of famous architecture, recurrent festivals, and tourist industries’.  Venice, he wrote was ‘ a communicative pattern, a geo-temporal work of art’.”

2. Evan Thompson, Why I am Not a Buddhist.  For every view, there should be a book “Why I am not X.”  This gets us part of the way there.  That said, I have simpler reasons for not being a Buddhist, namely I do not think it is true.

3. Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life.  Definitely recommended, this is an excellent boxing book, race relations book, 1960s and 70s book, and much more.

4. Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel.  Readable, with a clear and propulsive plot, but somehow it stopped being of interest to me about halfway through.  It is the recent Hugo and also Nebula Award winner for best novel.

5. Manjit Kumar, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality.  A very good study of the developments of early 20th century physics, the parts about Rutherford and Planck being most novel to me.

6. Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, with essays by A. Roy, Mishra, and others.  You may or may not agree with the pro-Kashmiri take of this book, but some issues you learn best by reading the partisans on each side, who offer clarity if nothing else, and then drawing your own conclusions.  I suspect the Kashmir crisis falls into that bucket.  (Learning when to apply this trick is one good way to make your reading more productive.)

Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765 is a useful, non-partisan, and coherent take on exactly what the title suggests.

Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, has gotten good press on Twitter, but it reminds me of Churchill on democracy.

I started two very long novels — Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School and Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, but neither clicked with me.  The former seems too simple/brutal/masculine for its 1300 pp. length, and the latter is a mix of American and obscure I don’t care about this kind of stuff.  Still, I will try them each again.

The new Stripe Press book is Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto, Get Together: How to build a community with your people, a how-to guide.

*Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?*

That is the new book by my colleague Virgil Storr and co-author Ginny Seung Choi.  Here is a summary take on it, excerpt:

This book explores whether or not engaging in market activities is morally corrupting. Storr and Choi demonstrate that people in market societies are wealthier, healthier, happier and better connected than those in societies where markets are more restricted. More provocatively, they explain that successful markets require and produce virtuous participants. Markets serve as moral spaces that both rely on and reward their participants for being virtuous. Rather than harming individuals morally, the market is an arena where individuals are encouraged to be their best moral selves. Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? invites us to reassess the claim that markets corrupt our morals.

Here is a Deirdre McCloskey blurb:

“Storr and Choi have brought economics and politics back to ethics, which should never have been left. Of course values matter. Of course markets smooth off the rough sides of humans. Of course ‘sweet commerce’ reigns, and should. Of course. But it took a brilliant book like this one to show it.”

You can order the book here.

*10% Less Democracy*

The author is Garett Jones and the subtitle is Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses A Little Less, coming soon to a theater near you, early 2020.

If you believe in judicial independence, you do not believe in complete democracy.

If you do not think we should elect judges, sheriffs, and dog catchers, you do not believe in complete democracy.

If you believe in those European proportional representation systems, with post-election bargaining, you do not believe in complete democracy.

If you are a fan of the EU…etc.

Here is an excerpt from Garett’s excellent book:

Some cities in California appoint their treasurers and others elect their treasurers.  Cities can have elections to decide whether the city treasurer should be appointed by the city government; the default is that they’re elected.  Whalley checks to see which kinds of cities have lower borrowing costs: ones with appointed treasurers or elected ones.  The interest rate paid on a city’s debt is a useful index of how well the city is running its finances…So Whalley’s overall question is this: Do cities with appointed treasurers pay lower interest rates on their debt?

…Over the period Whalley examined, 1992 to 2008, forty-three cities held referenda to ask whether they should switch to appointed treasurers.  He’s therefore able to look at the before-and-after differences of these elections…

[there is] an even bigger benefit of appointed treasurers: seven-tenths of a percent lower interest rates every year.  The average city has $30 million in debt, so that comes out to a savings of $210,000 per year.

Do I hear eleven percent anybody?  Though twenty percent I do not wish to hazard, not at all.

You can pre-order the book here.

*The Enchantments of Mammon*

The author is Eugene McCarraher, and the subtitle of this Belknap Press book is How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity.  Here is one excerpt:

The world does not need to be re-enchanted, because it was never disenchanted in the first place.  Attending primarily to the history of the United States, I hope to demonstrate that capitalism has been, as Benjamin perceived, a religion of modernity, one that addresses the same hopes and anxieties formerly entrusted to traditional religion.  But this does not mean only that capitalism has been and continues to be “beguiling” or “fetishized,” and that rigorous analysis will expose the phantoms as the projections they really are.  These enchantments draw their power, not simply from our capacity for delusion., but from our deepest and truest desires — desires that are consonant and tragically out of touch with the dearest freshness of the universe.  The world can never be disenchanted, not because our emotional or political or cultural needs compel us to find enchantments — though they do — but because the world itself, as Hopkins realized, is charged with the grandeur of God…

However significant theology is for this book, I have relied on a sizable body of historical literature on the symbolic universe of capitalism.  Much of this work suggests that capitalist cultural authority cannot be fully understood without regard to the psychic, moral, and spiritual longings inscribed in the imagery of business culture.

I remain wedded to the traditional Weberian view that capitalism represents a discrete break away from such modes of thought, and I believe this perspective supported by the work of Joe Henrich and co-authors on WEIRD.  Nonetheless, this is a book of note, and it has a clearly stated thesis on matters of direct relevance to what is explored on Marginal Revolution.  Due out in November, pre-order at the link above.

My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.


COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.


COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.


COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

Recommended throughout.

*Good Economics for Hard Times*

Yes, that is the new and forthcoming book by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, and it tells you what they really think about everything.  Everything in mainstream economic policy debate, at least.

So far I have read only the first chapter, on migration, but I found it informative, highly readable, and (unlike many other popular books) subtle.  I am excited to read the rest of the book, in the meantime here is one short excerpt:

Mahesh found these would-be [Nepali] migrants were in fact somewhat overoptimistic about their earnings prospects.  Specifically, they overestimated their earning potential by around 25 percent, which could be for any number of reasons, including the possibility the recruiters who go to them with job offers lie to them.  But the really big mistake they made was that they vastly overestimated the chance of dying while they were abroad.  A typical candidate for migration thought that out of a thousand migrants, over a two-year stint, about ten would come back in a box.  The reality is just 1.3.

Here is the table of contents:

1. MEGA: Make Economics Great Again

2. From the Mouth of the Shark

3. The Pains from Trade

4. Likes, Wants and Needs

5. The End of Growth?

6. In Hot Water

7. Player Piano


9. Cash and Care

Due out November 12, you can pre-order here.

*Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success*

That is the new book by Dietrich Vollrath, strongly recommended, it is a primer on the current state of knowledge about economic growth.  Tightly argued, and a remarkable amount is covered in 216 pp. of regular text.  Here is one excerpt:

Although there were plenty of changes in the individual markups firms charge, many of them actually fell over the last twenty years.  What explained the overall rise in markups from 1.18 to 1.67 was that spending shifted away from firms with low markups and toward firms with high markups.  Which high markup firms did we shift our spending to?  Well, a lot of service firms, including those involved in communications, technology, health care, and education.  In short, the rise in economic profits and markups we see at the aggregate level is part of the overall shift toward services we discussed a few chapters ago.

Here is where things get a little weirder.  Baqaee and Farhi show that the shift toward high-markup firms was good for productivity growth.  Whatever the source of a high markup, it indicates a product that is very valuable relative to its marginal cost.  If we take the inputs required to produce a low-markup product and use them to instead produce a high-markup product, then we have raised the value of what we produce.  As this increase in value came from reallocating our existing inputs toward a different use, rather than from accumulating new physical or human capital, the shift in spending toward high-markup firms shows up as an increase in productivity growth.

More books should be like this, it actually tries to teach the reader something!  And succeeds.  Definitely recommended.  Due out in January, you can pre-order here.

*The Economist’s Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society*

That is the new and forthcoming book by New York Times writer Binyamin Appelbaum.  I did not agree with all of the perspectives in the book, but enjoyed reading it, and found no errors of fact in it (rare for a book on free market economics!).  I was happy to give it this blurb:

“I very much enjoyed reading The Economists’ Hour, an entertaining and well-written look at how market-oriented ideas rose from the academy and transformed nations. I do not agree with each and every perspective, but found this a valuable and highly recommendable book, which I devoured in a single sitting.”

The text even covers Walter Oi, who is arguably the most accomplished blind economist to have lived.  Lots more on Laffer, Friedman, Alfred Kahn, Aaron Director, Thomas Schelling, the Chile episode, and more.

First world problems

Soon there may be non-stop 19 hour flights from New York to Sydney, Australia:

On long-haul flights, cabin lights are typically dimmed about two hours after take-off and turned back up about two hours before landing, said Sveta Postnova, a senior lecturer in neurophysics and brain dynamics at the University of Sydney. Depending on the destination, that practice can make jet lag worse, she noted.

One of the test [19 hour] flights from New York will follow the normal pattern. But on the other flight, lights will stay on for about six or seven hours after departure. Researchers will compare passenger data from the two flights to determine whether the lighting change affected jet lag. Meal service will be aligned with the lighting, Ms. Postnova said.

Light plays a key role in regulating sleep, but “recently we are learning that meals, exercise and other environmental factors also affect our body clock,” Ms. Postnova said. A big unknown for air travel is how to schedule lighting, meals and exercise to minimize jet lag.

Here is the WSJ article.  My preference is for them to keep the lights on, and the windows open, for much longer than is currently the case.  Eyemasks are cheap and underused.

Also, it may be my imagination, but anecdotally I observe that screen viewing has (additionally) replaced reading to an extraordinary extent even in just the last five years.  True?