Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

Arvind Panagariya, Free Trade and Prosperity: How Openness Helps the Developing Countries Grow Richer and Combat Poverty.  Self-recommending.  The book has plenty of evidence, not just the usual hand-waving.

Knut Hamsun, On Overgrown Paths.  Hamsun’s memoir, last creation, and maybe most interesting work?  But few like to talk about it, for it is 1945 and the Norwegian government has just come to place him under house arrest and in turn bring him to an institution, for having wholeheartedly supported the Nazis. The story of course is told from his rather matter of fact point of view…

Jenny Davidson, Reading Jane Austen.  I hardly know any books about Jane Austen, and indeed I don’t much enjoy reading her novels.  Still, this is the best book on Austen I have seen, take that for what it is worth.  It is very much to the point and furthermore the author writes: “I also hold a degree of suspicion toward those who love Austen, though, myself included.”

James Grant, Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian is a good treatment of someone who was not the greatest Victorian.

Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, I had high hopes but it bored me.

Mercatus has republished The Market Process: Advanced Studies in Political Economy, a series of Austrian-like essays from the 1980s, edited by Peter J. Boettke and David L. Prychitko.

Joel S. Baden, The Book of Exodus: A Biography is forthcoming, a good general introduction.

David C. Rose, Why Culture Matters Most, is from the perspective of a Douglass North-type economist.

*Law and Macroeconomics: Legal Remedies for Recessions*

That is the new and interesting book by Yair Listokin.  He argues that during a downturn regulators perhaps should be slower to approve utility rate increases, the IRS should run tax policy in a more stimulative manner, construction expenditures should be less regulated, and some environmental review should be eased.  Perhaps during the Greek financial crisis, all prices and debt contracts should have been lowered, by law, an immediate ten percent, to ease the deflation.

Should so many different parts of government, including at the state and local level, have macroeconomic goals added to their missions?  I am not sure, but I am glad to see an entire book devoted to the idea.

Liu Cixin on American vs. Chinese science fiction

Presently — faced with the immaturity of Chinese sci-fi — everyone in our sci-fi community is envious of the adult sci-fi readership in the US, and see it as a sign of maturity in sci-fi literature. But one must know that senility comes after maturity, and death comes after senility. The prosperity of US sci-fi is largely a result of the prosperity of its movie and TV industries, and these sci-fi movies and TV shows are but a stylistic extension of the “golden age” (sci-fi). Contemporary sci-fi literature itself in US is already deep in twilight — full of works applying complex techniques to express dense metaphors, completely devoid of the youthful energy of the “golden age” (sci-fi); and many magnum opuses in recent years already have an air of death about them. Americans under 25 these days basically don’t read sci-fi; I don’t see what’s to be envied about that.

And this:

But to look at it in another way, sci-fi literature is by its very nature immature — because it shows humanity in its childhood, filled with curiosity and fear for the vast and profound universe, as well as the urge to explore it. In the face of such a universe, human science and philosophy are very immature, and sci-fi is the only literary form available to express our scientific and philosophical immaturities; so it’s no surprise that sci-fi is filled with immaturity. When human science is developed to the furthest extent and everything in the universe is discovered down to its minutia, that will be the day sci-fi dies.

Here is the entire Reddit thread, via Benjamin Lyons.

*VC: An American History*, by Tom Nicholas

An excellent and original economic history of venture capital, with lots of new material, brought together in a convenient and readable form.  Here is one excerpt:

…nineteenth century whaling can be compared to modern venture capital in at least three respects.  First, whaling was the archetypical skewed-distribution business, sustained by highly lucrative but low-probability payoff events.  Voyages often lasted several years and and covered geographic areas in the search for elusive whale pod.  The long-tailed distribution of profits held the same allure for funders of whaling voyages as it does for a venture capital industry reliant on extreme returns from a very small subset of investments.  Although other industries across history, such as gold exploration and oil wildcatting, have been characterized by long-tail outcomes, no industry gets quite as close as whaling does to matching the organization and distribution of returns associated with the VC sector.

The book also covers VC in the Industrial Revolution, to what extent Mellon and Morgan can be thought of as venture capitalists, the institutionalization of venture capital in the 1950s, how the limited partnership structure came to VC, the roles of Intel and Genentech, Sequoia Capital, and the growth of a true Silicon Valley ecosystem.

How about this?:

During the 1970s, San Jose State University was graduating more scientists and engineers than Stanford or Berkeley, while local community colleges within the California system provided crucial access to technical training programs.

Recommended to anyone with an interest in the topic, you can pre-order here.

Unicorns Found!

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.

Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.

While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”

Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.

While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”

However, Pérez also pointed out that it is likely that the only way of knowing for sure if unicorns are indeed the descendants of a lost alien race is through DNA. “But they seem to be able to communicate in English quite well, which I believe is a sign of evolution, or at least a change in social organization,” said the scientist.

Click here for the rest of the story.

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

What I’ve been reading

The Story of Silver, by um…William Silber, probably is the best book on silver, as I suppose it should be.  How many other books have this same property of coincidence of name and topic?  Did James Igel ever write a book on hedgehogs?

Adrian Tinniswood, The Royal Society & the Invention of Modern Science is the best short introduction to its stated topic.

Linn Ullmann, Unquiet: A Novel.  A novel, yes, but also a not so thinly veiled memoir of life with her two very famous parents Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann.  Fantastic if you already know the back story, but at the very least readable if you don’t.

Kenneth M. Pollack, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.  Pollack takes a look at the systematic dysfunctionalities behind Arab militaries, arguing most of them have been worse than the North Korean or Somalian fighting forces.  Jordan in 1948, Hizbullah, and early ISIS are the main exceptions here, British training in the former case being a factor and morale a factor in the latter two cases.

Andrew S. Curran, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely.  A good filling-in of what were to me many blanks in the life of Diderot, a figure whom I never can decide whether he is underrated or overrated.

What should I ask Emily R. Wilson?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, no associated public event.  She is the translator of a splendid and highly readable Homer’s Odyssey, which I named as the very best book of the year for last year.  She is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a classicist, a Seneca scholar, and an all-around very smart person.  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask her?

Sentences to ponder — *Who Wants to Run?*

Incumbent polarization is also consistently below that of new candidate polarization.

That is from the forthcoming interesting book by Andrew B. Hall.  He also argues that while voters can elect moderates, they cannot force more extreme candidates to govern as moderates.  Furthermore, devaluing office leads to more extreme candidates being interested in running for office.

The book’s argument is that who runs for office helps determine the level of ideological polarization in the legislature.

*Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologer Can Save the World*

Still more incredible is the fact that one person almost single-handedly created the first maps of two-thirds of the planet yet is unknown to the average citizen of Earth (while Amerigo Vespucci, whose cartographic credentials are suspect, has two continents named for him).  The unsung mapmaker Marie Tharp, who earned a master’s degree in geology from the University of Michigan, worked briefly for an oil company, and then in 1948 became a drafter for a new oceanographic project led by Maurice Ewing at Columbia University.  For years, Ewing’s all-male team of graduate students collected sonar soundings of the ocean floor while Tharp laboriously transformed the linear strings of depth readings into three-dimensional topography.

Here is the Wikipedia page for Marie Tharp.  Here is a biography of Marie Tharp, which I just ordered.  Timefulness is by Marcia Bjornerud and you can order it here.

Markets in everything those new service sector jobs

Advansun, 39, is a full-time “sleep writer” in Toronto. He writes with one goal in mind — to lull people off to la-la land.

Advansun publishes his bedtime stories for adults on the popular app Calm.com, where they are voiced by famous actors like Matthew McConaughey.

Calm.com says its roster of 120 sleep stories has been listened to more than 100 million times.

“I think we are putting a modern take to something that’s pretty timeless,” he says. “We are giving grownups permission to drift off to sleep to a story, and that’s not something a lot of people have thought about before.”

Advansun says the key is to get the attention of the listener and then “hold it gently” without ever jostling them awake. He maintains this is a tough balance to achieve … especially since Advansun is trained as a screenwriter (think plot twists, car chases and explosions).

“I certainly didn’t set out to write stories that put people to sleep,” he jokes. “I have sort of fallen into it, and I adore it. It’s not only quite rewarding, it is a great challenge as a writer.”

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

My Conversation with Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama

Lots of economic history in this one, with the underlying themes of persecution and tolerance, here is the audio and video.

We talk about the evolution of anti-Semitism, how the Black Death influenced Europe, the economics and politics of volcanic eruptions, how much prejudice will come back, amateur astronomy,  Jared Diamond, cousin marriage and the origins of the West, why England was a coherent nation-state so early, the origins of the Industrial Revolution, Schindler’s List, and more.  I split the time between the two, here is one excerpt:

JOHNSON: Mark and I have done a lot of work on building datasets of Jewish persecution and Jewish expulsions at the city level and the country level in Europe over a very long period of time. And a question that I, for one, don’t fully understand is, you don’t need to actually kill all the Jews or expel them in order to extract resources from them. In fact, in some way, this is off the equilibrium path. You’re no longer in some optimal equilibrium for both the ruler and for the Jewish community.

Oftentimes, these Jewish communities would be expelled from a city, they would be invited to come back, and they would come back — in 5, 10, 15 years, sometimes even shorter. But that’s a little bit easier to understand.

In the case I gave you in England in 1290s, I think I understand a little bit about why it might have happened that way. I think it was signaling credibility in some political compact between the king and the nobles, but I’m not sure. But that’s an example of top down.

Other times, clearly, people are . . . You have, say, guilds moving against these Jewish communities. An example of this would be in 1614, when the most well-known Jewish persecution was in Frankfurt am Main. It was called the Fettmilch Massacre. Fettmilch was a baker. He was in guild, and he was upset about the terms of the political deal between the city rulers — the city council — and what the guilds were getting. One of the things that the guilds wanted were the Jews to be expelled. This was competition in some sense.

There was this bit from me:

COWEN: If the Black Death raised wages, does that mean that immigration today lowers wages?

And:

COWEN: Large volcanic eruptions earlier in history. From an economic point of view, what’s the single most interesting thing we know about them?

JOHNSON: I think what’s very interesting about the volcanic eruptions is that we are discovering more and more that they may have played a large role in political change that occurred. Joe Manning at Yale, and I believe his graduate student (Bruce M.S. Campbell) have been doing work on . . . They looked at a series of volcanic eruptions that led to the end of the pharaonic empire. That ended around 30 or 60 BC, I forget. Right around that time.

That was an empire that lasted for 300 years, but they experienced all these crop failures. And then once you look at it, you see that in Indonesia, all these major volcanic eruptions were happening in perfect timing with these crop failures that were taking place. Actually, they can tell from looking at the Nile and how much it’s flooding and things.

COWEN: Politics becomes nastier when the volcano goes off?

And from Mark Koyama:

COWEN: Why was China, as a nation or territory, so large so early in world history?

KOYAMA: Yeah, that’s a great question. There are several potential explanations, one of which is geographic. Another one would be an argument from the writing system. But I think the geography story is quite important. Jared Diamond, building on people like Eric Jones, argued that China’s geography . . .

Essentially there are two core geographic regions in China around the Yellow and Yangtze river deltas, which produced a huge amount of grain or rice. If you control those core regions, you can raise large armies. You can have a large population and dominate the subsequent regions.

Whereas, the argument is for Europe that these core regions are, perhaps, arguably more separated by geographical boundaries. The limitation of that argument on its own is that geography is static, so it doesn’t really tell you anything about the timing.

The interesting thing about China, in my view, is not just that it was once unified, or unified early. But it’s persistently unified. It reunifies. Interestingly enough, the periods of de-unification get consistently smaller. So there are always periods where it’s fragmented, like the warlord period in the early 20th century, but over time may become smaller.

Europe doesn’t seem to have that centrifugal force, so a lot of Europe is unified by the Romans, but it’s not able to come back together along those lines later.

And the argument that I put forward in an article with Tuan-Hwee Sng and Chiu Yu Ko of National University of Singapore is that it’s not just the core geographical reason. That’s part of it. But actually, the periodic threat from a nomadic steppe is another key factor.

This is geographic because China has a very sharp slope from really productive agricultural land to land which is only fit for horses, for Eurasian steppe. China could be invaded very easily from the north by these steppe nomads, whereas Europe — it was much less vulnerable to this. And that helps to explain why the Chinese state is often a northern state.

So if I can add, if you think about China today, or even China in the past, the really productive land — a lot of it’s in the quite far south, in Shanghai, Yangtze delta. But the political center of China is near Beijing, or it’s in the north. And that’s due to this political economy threat from the steppe. And it’s these periodic steppe invasions which we argue are responsible for the centralization, an almost militarized character of the Chinese state through history.

And:

COWEN: Max Weber. Overrated or underrated?

KOYAMA: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

KOYAMA: Because most people just know the Protestant theory, and they misreport it. Whereas, actually, his most interesting stuff is on Chinese religion and ancient Judaism. And the role of —

COWEN: The history of music, right?

There is much more at the link.  I am very happy to recommend their forthcoming book Persecution and Tolerance: The Long Road to Religious Freedom.