Category: Books

What should I ask Zachary Carter?

Zachary is first and foremost the author of the New York Times bestselling The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.  Here is part of a broader bio:

Zach Carter is a senior reporter at HuffPost, where he covers economic policy and American politics. He is a frequent guest on television and radio whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among other outlets. Zach began his career at SNL Financial (now a division of S&P Global), where he was a banking reporter during the financial crisis of 2008. He wrote features about macroeconomic policy, regional economic instability, and the bank bailouts, but his passion was for the complex, arcane world of financial regulatory policy. He covered the accounting standards that both fed the crisis and shielded bank executives from its blowback, detailed the consumer protection abuses that consumed the mortgage business and exposed oversight failures at the Federal Reserve and other government agencies that allowed reckless debts to pile up around the world. ​Since joining HuffPost in 2010, Zach has covered the implementation of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, political standoffs over trade policy and the federal budget, and the fight over the future of the Democratic Party. His feature story, “Swiped: Banks, Merchants and Why Washington Doesn’t Work for You” was included in the Columbia Journalism Review’s compilation Best Business Writing. ​

So what should I ask him?

*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

Keynes on what is required to make a great economist

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together.  He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

That is from Keynes’s 1924 essay on Marshall, reprinted in Essays in Biography. Most of all, it is Keynes describing himself!

Thoughts on Peter Burke’s new book *The Polymath*

1. No one is really a polymath.

2. No one is really a unimath, for that matter.

3. Many supposed polymaths apply a relatively small number of learning techniques to many fields.  They remain specialized, although their modes of specialization happen not to line up with how the academic disciplines are divided.  Say you apply non-parametric statistics to five different fields — do you have one specialization or five?

4. What to make of the economist who can run experiments, use computational methods, build models, run regressions, find new data sources, has mastered machine learning, can speak fluently about macroeconomics, and popularize for a lay audience.  Is there any such person?  (No.)  Would he or she count as a polymath?

5. The medieval polymaths Albert the Great and Ramon Llull seem especially impressive to me, because they had to learn before printing presses or easy travel were available.

6. One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.  “I can tell exactly how much people weigh just by looking at them.”  That sort of thing.  What is your claim in this regard?  Polymaths also must encompass the trivial!

7. How many “polymaths” are great at say only seven very trivial tasks, and fail to excel at anything important.  Should the polymath concept be held hostage to Jeremy Bentham?

8. Is Leibniz — amazing philosopher, an inventor of the calculus, mastery of languages, theologian, diplomacy, legal reform, inventor, political theorist, and supposed expert on China — the most amazing polymath of all time?

9. Leonardo seems a little thin in actual achievement (though not imagination) once you get past the visual arts.  And there are fewer than fifteen paintings to his name.

10. I think of the 17th century as a peak time for polymaths.  Enough chances to learn and create things, and read lots, but not so much knowledge that you could stand on only one frontier.

11. John Stuart Mill is the most impressive polymath economist.

12. Alan Turing contributed to virtually every field, but in some sense he did only one thing.  Von Neumann did more than one thing, did he do two?  He too contributed to virtually every field.

13. I am very much a fan of Susan Sontag, but I think of her as having done, in essence, “only one thing.”

14. Here is a good piece Beware the Casual Polymath.

I am very happy to recommend this book, especially to MR readers, the full title is The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke.

Samuel Brittan has passed away

At the age of 86, he was one of Britain’s great liberals.  He wrote columns for the FT for almost fifty years, defended capitalism, and also was an early advocate of an ngdp approach.  From the FT:

Brittan had a wonderful, restless intelligence which made him an ideal, if demanding, companion…Peter Jay wrote that when he was economics editor of The Times, he was “haunted by the spectre . . . of Brittan endlessly at work, morning, noon and night, reading, reading, reading, while I tried ineffectually to reconcile the demands of work and family life”.

His Capitalism and the Permissive Society is now but a shell of a listing on Amazon, but I can recall Roy Childs excitedly telling me about the book.  Back then, it seemed like the way forward for liberalism, a way to develop a truly emancipatory vision of free market capitalism.  Now all that seems so long ago.

Here is Sam’s Wikipedia page, note the badly “off” and misrepresentative second sentence: “He was a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a non-profit organisation “restoring balance and trust to the climate debate” that has been characterised as promoting climate change denial.”

Here was Sam in the 2009 Spectator:

I have no expertise on the subject of global warming; nor do I have a strong view about it. But I do know attempted thought control and hostility to free speech when I see it; and I find these unlovely phenomena present among all too many of the enthusiasts for climate action. Words such as ‘denial’ are intentionally brought into the debate and recall those who deny the reality of the Nazi Holocaust.

Here is John McDermott’s Ode to Sam upon Sam’s retirement in 2014.  And here is Cardiff Garcia on Sam.

*Editing Humanity*

That is the new book by Kevin Davies, and the subtitle is The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.  So far I am on p.74, but it is one of the best science books I have read in some while, maybe the best this year.  Excerpt:

…Cas9 normally takes about six hours to search through every PAM sequence in the bacterial genome, pausing at each prospective site for a mere twenty milliseconds to peer into the double helix to see if it has found the correct target.  But the packaging of DNA in a eukaryotic cell nucleus is far more complex than bacteria.  During lectures to his students at the University of Edinburgh, Andrew Wood shows a diagram of a bacterial cell alongside a winding, looping mammalian DNA fiber.  “Cas9 didn’t evolve to work in the environment in which we now put it,” he says.  “It’s mind-boggling that it is possible to interrogate hundreds of millions of nucleotides in a matter of hours.”

Recommended.  Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, the two Nobel winners from last week, are so far the central characters of the story.

Ralph Hawtrey was a Moorean

Hawtrey came from a family long associated with Eton, where he was educated himself, before coming up to Trinity in 1898.  In 1901 he was 19th Wrangler; in 1903 he briefly entered the Admiralty, before going to the Treasury, where he found his vocation as an economist and remained for forty-one years.  He was a very faithful Apostle, attending every annual dinner until 1954, when he was prevented from going by ill health.  He was devoted to Moore, whose impassioned singing of Die Beiden Grenadiere made him realize how horrible war was for the soldiers who actually did the fighting: this constituted an epiphany for Hawtrey, and reinforced his life-long Liberalism.  Moore was so much the most important influence on the life and career of Sir Ralph Hawtrey that he spent his last years working on a systematic philosophical treatise (inspired also by Robin Mayor), which was to have been a summa of his twenty-odd books and the hundreds of letters he published in The Times.  He was married to the famous pianist Titi d’Aranyi.

That is from Paul Levy’s book Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.  Here is more on Titi, also known as Hortense, who studied with Bartok and received numerous letters from him.  And here is Scott Sumner on Hawtrey, one of the great monetary economists.

*Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime*

That is the new book by Lt. General David Barno and Nora Bensahel, here is one excerpt;

This emphasis on decentralized, independent battlefield actions, long a part of German military thinking, once again became a central tenet of German army doctrine in the modest force of the post-Versailles period.  Mission orders were regularly emphasized and practiced during peacetime training exercises.  moreover, the German army relentlessly critiqued the performance of its leaders and units in exercises and war games.  Commanders and staff officers at all levels were expected to do so candidly and objectively, without regard to personal embarrassment or potential career damage.  This candor extended to critiquing the performance of senior officers and higher headquarters as well.  These principles made German doctrine inherently adaptable in the face of battle.

And then a few pages later:

In stark contrast to the Germans, in the French army there was “no large-scale examination of the lessons of the last war by a significant portion of the officers corps.”  Partly as a result, the lessons that the French army drew from world War I led to a warfighting doctrine that was nearly the polar opposite of that developed by the Germans.  The French army assumed that the next war in Europe would largely resemble the last.  The staggering number of French casualties during World War I led French leaders to conclude that an offensive doctrine would prove both indecisive and prohibitively costly.  They reasoned that a defensive doctrine would best preserve their fighting power and prevent the enemy from winning another major war through an offensive strike.  As a result, nearly all French interwar thinking focused on leveraging defensive operations to prevail in any future war.

Overall, it is striking to me just how much substance there is in this book per page — a rarity to be treasured!  You can order it here.

What is the single best volume to read on China?

I do not know!  But this is one of the questions I receive most often, after “Can we have more of Tyrone?”, and “What do you mean by “Straussian”?”

I do find that Michael Wood’s new The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and its People is a plausible contender for this designation.  Consistently interesting, substantive, and conceptual, but without over-interpreting for the sake of imposing a narrative straitjacket.

Due out November 17, I am pleased I paid the extra shipping costs to get it from the UK.

Might you all have alternative suggestions for a single best book on China?

What I’ve been reading

1. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears).  A fun look at the Free Town project as applied to Grafton, New Hampshire: “During a television interview, a Grafton resident accused the Free Towners of “trying to cram freedom down our throats.””

2. Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeulen, Law & Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State.  Self-recommending from the pairing alone, there is a great deal of interesting content in the 145 pp. of text.  It is furthermore an interesting feature of this book that it was written at all on the chosen topic.  Perhaps the administrative state is under more fire than I realize.  And might you consider this book a centrist version of…maybe call it “state capacity not quite libertarianism”?

3. Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.  A somewhat forgotten but still fascinating episode in the history of science, extra-interesting for those interested in Venus.  I had not known that Velikovsky pushed a weird version of a eugenicist theory stating that Israel was too hot for its own long-term good, and that its inhabitants needed to find ways of cooling it down.

4. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, edited by Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll.  I love Blumenberg, but the selection here didn’t quite sell me.  Better to start with his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, noting that book is a tough climb for just about anyone and it requires your full attention for some number of weeks.  Might Blumenberg be the best 20th thinker who isn’t discussed much in the Anglo-American world?  And yes it is Progress Studies too.

5. Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces.  Smart books on Beethoven are like potato chips, plus you can listen to his music while reading (heard Op.33 Bagatelles lately?).  In addition to some of the classics, this book covers some lesser known pieces such as the Septet, An die Ferne Geliebte, and the Choral Fantasy, and how they fit into Beethoven’s broader life and career.  Intelligent throughout.

6. Sean Scully, The Shape of Ideas, edited and written by Timothy Rub and Amanda Sroka.  Is Scully Ireland’s greatest living artist?  He has been remarkably consistent over more than five decades of creation.  This is likely the best Scully picture book available, and the text is useful too.  Since it is abstract color and texture painting, he is harder than most to cancel — will we see the visual arts shift in that direction?

Jonathan E. Hillman, The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

Robert Litan, Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save Our Democracy: “…incorporate debate or evidence-based argumentation in school as early as the late elementary grades, clearly in high school, and even in college.”

I am closer to the economics than the politics of Casey B. Mulligan, You’re Hired! Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President, but nonetheless it is an interesting and contrarian book, again here is the excellent John Cochrane review.

There is also Harriet Pattison, Our Days are Like Full Years: A Memoir with Letters from Louis Kahn, a lovely romance with nice photos, sketches, and images as well, very nice integration of text and visuals.

*The Murder of Professor Schlick*

The author is David Edmonds, and the subtitle is The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.  I very much enjoyed this book, and found its direct style refreshing, and I hope it will serve as a model for others.  The author actually tells you what you want to know!

I enjoyed the small tidbits.  I had not known that Frank Ramsey traveled to Vienna for psychoanalysis, because he was in love with a married woman his senior.  Ramsey ended up drinking the Freudian Kool-Aid, and also in Vienna became acquainted with Wittgenstein’s sister Gretl.

I had forgotten that Quine was two years the senior of A.J. Ayer.  He also spoke sarcastically of his forthcoming audience with Wittgenstein but sought it nonetheless.  Quine learned German remarkably quickly in Vienna, and then was lecturing philosophy in it without much difficulty.

Karl Popper was first an apprentice cabinetmaker, then a social worker, and then a teacher before he became a professional philosopher.  When he moved to New Zealand during the War, the university library in Otago had fewer books than his father’s library back home.

You can pre-order the book here.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

What I’ve been reading

1. Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics.  One man’s version of “the real Stephen Hawking story,” including the marital arrangements and rearrangements, told by a former good friend.  I am not sure that books such as this should be written (or read), but…this one is pretty good.  It also gives Hawking’s account of why he did not win a Nobel prize (“radiation must be observed”), among other tidbits.

2. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody.  The authors serve up many on-target criticisms of current academic nonsense, but somehow it is not how I would proceed.  Given the ridiculousness of so much of what is going on, I say there are new intellectual profit opportunities to mine the best insights from critical theory, postmodernism, intersectionality and the like.  I would rather read a book that did that.  Start with Foucault, and steelman everything as you go along.

3. Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History.  Truly an excellent book covering the history, politics, and culture of…the Himalayan region.  Full of substance, lovely cover too.  The USA link here has a worse cover, no surprise.  But you’ll get the British version quicker, with the preferred cover, and at a lower price.  Arbitrage!

4. The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, edited by Frederick C. Beiser, but basically Novalis, Schlegel, and a bit of Schleiermacher.  In particular I was surprised how well the Novalis has held up: insightful, to the point, and laying out the aesthetic approach to politics (and more) with a stark and memorable clarity.  If you are looking for something to read that is non-liberal, but not the tiresome version of non-liberal being beat to death these days, maybe try this book.

5. George Prochnik, Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution.  Heine has aged very well, circa 2020, and he is an appropriate liberal but also satiric counterpart to the writers mentioned immediately above, plus he was more historically prescient, and for all the talk about culture from the Romantics, it was Heine who was the perceptive observer of other people’s cultures.  This is a good book for additional historical background once you already know Heine, though not at all an introduction to his charm and import, available only from the man himself.

And I have just received my copy of Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.