Category: Books

*Virtue Politics*

The author is James Hankins, and the subtitle is Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.  Here is one excerpt:

I have sought to present the political ideas of the humanists as the expression of a movement of thought and action, similar in its physiognomy if not in its content to the movement of the philosophes of the Enlightenment.  It was a movement that was stimulated by a crisis of legitimacy in late medieval Italy and by widespread disgust with its political and religious leadership.  Its adherents were men who had wide experience — often bitter, personal experience — with tyranny.  They knew that oligarchs and even popular governments could be as tyrannical as princes.  Their movement was largely in agreement about its goals: to rebuild Europe’s depleted reserves of good character, true piety, and practical wisdom.  They also agreed widely about means: the revival of classical antiquity, which the humanists presented as an inspiring pageant, rich in examples of noble conduct, eloquent speech, selfless dedication to country, and inner moral strength, nourished by philosophy and uncorrupt Christianity.  The humanist movement yearned after greatness, moral and political.  Its most pressing historical questions were how ancient Rome had achieved her vast and enduring empire, and whether it was possible to bring that greatness to life again under modern conditions.  This led to the question of whether it was the Roman Republic or the Principate that should be emulated; and, once the humanists had learned Greek, it provoked the further question of whether Rome was the only possible ancient model to emulate, or whether Athens or Sparta, or even the Persia of Xenophon’s Cyrus, held lessons for contemporary statesmen.

An excellent book, you can order it here.

Robert Whaples reviews *Big Business*

An excellent review, here is the closing bit:

Labeling it a “love letter,” would render Cowen promiscuous (or is it adulterous?) since the letter is addressed to so many businesses. Seen as a fan letter, the book works much better. Cowen, a huge NBA fan, realizes that his hardwood heroes are supposed to be great at basketball. It’s OK to admire them from afar and not an affront if they cannot be your actual friends, as long as they can drain three-pointers. Likewise, with his business anti-heroes.

Do read the whole thing.

*Sontag: Her Life and Work*

That is the new biography by Benjamin Moser, along with Ingmar Bergman bios you can call this topic my soap opera equivalent.  Here are a few scattered bits:

“I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation,” Susan wrote in 1971…she read about the University of Chicago, “which didn’t have a football team, where all people did was study, and where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas day and night.  I thought, that’s for me.”

And:

The connection between sex and pain was so natural for her — “All relationships are essentially masochistic,” she told Burch — that she could never imagine the loving partnership of equals that Freud had posited.  Her “profoundest experience,” of her mother’s giving and then withdrawing her love, was perpetually renewed.  Harriet dribbled out her affection by the scant thimbleful, which Susan gratefully slurped down: “I suppose, with my sore heart + unused body, it doesn’t take much to make me happy.”  A couple of weeks later, she described the “total collapse” of their relationship and “blindly walking through a forest of pain.”

And:

Brodsky, after all, was the friend she dreamed of…the teacher she hoped to find in Philip Rieff; the companion she had sought all her life, an intellectual and artistic equal, and even a superior.  She never found another friend as congenial, and it was in these terms that she mourned his premature death, at fifty-five.  I’m all alone,” she told a friend.  There’s nobody with whom I can share my ideas, my thoughts.”

Recommended, for those who care.

Philip K. Dick predicts the future

From 1981:

1995: Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts

2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.

That is from The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, edited by Lawrence Sutin.

What I’ve been reading

Thomas J. Campanella, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City. More detailed than what I am looking for on this topic at 552 pp., but some of you will find this an interesting resource.

Nicholas Lemann, Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream.  Lots of mood affiliation in this one, but the chapter on finance economist Michael Jensen and his longstanding connection with “guru” Werner Erhard is excellent material you cannot find elsewhere.

Tom Segev, A State At Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion.  I read about one-third of this one.  A fine book, beautifully written, but somehow too much of the material felt familiar given other accounts I had consumed.

Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh, Innovation and Equality: How to Create a Future That is More Star Trek and Less Terminator.  A very useful 131 pp. introduction to those issues, most of all arguing that a future full of innovation does not have to push inequality to untenable levels.

Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, Natalia Goncharova.  The images in this book I found mind-blowing, claiming a place for Goncharova as one of the very best artists of her time (and what a time for the visual arts it was).

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record.  Starts slow, but an interesting read no matter what you think of him, most of all of how one can step by step be led to actions one did not originally intend.  I thought his own case for what he did was weaker than I had been expecting.  Embedding it in an “the internet used to be so much better” narrative doesn’t help.  Nonetheless, I read through to the end eagerly.

My Conversation with Alain Bertaud

Excellent throughout, Alain put on an amazing performance for the live audience at the top floor of the Observatory at the old World Trade Center site.  Here is the audio and transcript, most of all we talked about cities.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Will America create any new cities in the next century? Or are we just done?

BERTAUD: Cities need a good location. This is a debate I had with Paul Romer when he was interested in charter cities. He had decided that he could create 50 charter cities around the world. And my reaction — maybe I’m wrong — but my reaction is that there are not 50 very good locations for cities around the world. There are not many left. Maybe with Belt and Road, maybe the opening of Central Asia. Maybe the opening of the ocean route on the northern, following the pole, will create the potential for new cities.

But cities like Singapore, Malacca, Mumbai are there for a good reason. And I don’t think there’s that many very good locations.

COWEN: Or Greenland, right?

[laughter]

BERTAUD: Yes. Yes, yes.

COWEN: What is your favorite movie about a city? You mentioned a work of fiction. Movie — I’ll nominate Escape from New York.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: Casablanca.

Here is more:

COWEN: Your own background, coming from Marseille rather than from Paris —

BERTAUD: I would not brag about it normally.

[laughter]

COWEN: But no, maybe you should brag about it. How has that changed how you understand cities?

BERTAUD: I’m very tolerant of messy cities.

COWEN: Messy cities.

BERTAUD: Yes.

COWEN: Why might that be, coming from Marseille?

BERTAUD: When we were schoolchildren in Marseille, we were used to a city which has a . . . There’s only one big avenue. The rest are streets which were created locally. You know, the vernacular architecture.

In our geography book, we had this map of Manhattan. Our first reaction was, the people in Manhattan must have a hard time finding their way because all the streets are exactly the same.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: In Marseille we oriented ourselves by the angle that a street made with another. Some were very narrow, some very, very wide. One not so wide. But some were curved, some were . . . And that’s the way we oriented ourselves. We thought Manhattan must be a terrible place. We must be lost all the time.

Finally:

COWEN: And what’s your best Le Corbusier story?

BERTAUD: I met Le Corbusier at a conference in Paris twice. Two conferences. At the time, he was at the top of his fame, and he started the conference by saying, “People ask me all the time, what do you think? How do you feel being the most well-known architect in the world?” He was not a very modest man.

[laughter]

BERTAUD: And he said, “You know what it feels? It feels that my ass has been kicked all my life.” That’s the way he started this. He was a very bitter man in spite of his success, and I think that his bitterness is shown in his planning and some of his architecture.

COWEN: Port-au-Prince, Haiti — overrated or underrated?

Strongly recommended, and note that Bertaud is eighty years old and just coming off a major course of chemotherapy, a remarkable performance.

Again, I am very happy to recommend Alain’s superb book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.

The new Catholic illiberals

A few of you have asked me what I think of this movement, surveyed here (possibly gated for you), or try this coverage.  If you would like the whole thing in one tweet, maybe try this one from Sohrab Ahmari:

What I’d say to liberal friends who are men and women of goodwill: “Persuade your comrades to ease up and back off while there’s yet time. You don’t want to pit your ideology against forces much older and more potent than liberalism, which is thin civilizational gruel, indeed.”

Other than disagreeing with this group, here is my general impression.  They have not managed to produce a deep, compelling illiberal book comparable say to the works by James Fitzjames Stephens, Carl Schmitt, Burke (not actually an illiberal in my view, but the comparison remains relevant), Jean Bodin, or others from that tradition.  I’m not sure they could beat the arguments of Thomas Mann’s liberal caricature Settembrini in The Magic Mountain.

They have not attached themselves to any great social movement or revolution, either as leaders or followers, unless you count the Church itself, but that is hardly new news.

They do not have a signature policy proposal (at the end of the article behind the first link, the big policy proposal unveiled at the end is “restrictions on share buybacks” — Cliff Asness, telephone!  Are they kidding?)

Do they have a T.S. Eliot or an Emil Nolde or for that matter a J.S. Bach, who probably was not a Millian liberal?

So I believe they are part of the same “thin civilizational gruel” as the rest of us.  They are too embedded in liberalism and its presuppositions to get very far with their own programme.  That said, I am fine with them coexisting within the froth of a liberal order, insisting correctly that the heritage of “the Church” is essential to western civilization, in the meantime allowing their intuitions to be muddled by a confusion of rates of changes and levels when it comes to liberalism in the West today.

A few comments to close, returning to the tweet presented above:

1. Is all gruel thin?

2. Would thick gruel be better or worse?

3. Is Karachi haleem a form of thick gruel?

4. Isn’t the key word here “civilizational”?  It is liberalism that produced, nourished, and sustained the world’s first truly admirable societies.  There is nothing in the arguments of these new illiberals which seriously contradicts that.

5. Many people have longed for gruel, which I take to be underrated.

Do they object to dividends as well?

What should I ask Henry Farrell?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  As you read blogs, you might know Henry’s longstanding work over at CrookedTimber, and also his role in Monkey Cage.  Henry is also professor of political science at George Washington University, has with Abraham L. Newman recently published a path-breaking book on the increasingly important concept of weaponized interdependence, is an expert on comparative labor relations, and is an all-around polymath, including on fiction, science fiction, and the politics of Ireland, his home country.  Here is his home page.

So what should I ask Henry?

*Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime*

That is the new, interesting, and engaging book by Sean Carroll.  Some of it is exposition, the rest argues for a version of Many Worlds Theory, but with a finite number of universes.  Here is one excerpt:

String theory, loop quantum gravity, and other ideas share a common pattern: they start with a set of classical variables, then quantize.  From the perspective we’ve been following in this book, that’s a little backward.  Nature is quantum from the start, described by a wave function evolving according to an appropriate version of the Schroedinger equation.  Things like “space” and “fields” and “particles” are useful ways of talking about that wave function in a appropriate classical limit.  We don’t want to start with space and fields and quantize them; we want to extract them from an intrinsically quantum wave function.

I very much liked the discussion on pp.300-301 on how a finite number of quantum degrees of freedom implies a finite-dimensional Hilbert space for the system as a whole, that in turn constraining the number of worlds in an Everett-like model.  If only I understood it properly…

You can buy the book here.

Frequency of conflict initiation worldwide

That is from the new and interesting Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age, by Bear F. Braumoeller, which is largely a critique of Pinker on trends toward peacefulness (Pinker gives only the more optimistic data on Europe).  And from the text:

…there is variation in the rate of conflict and war initiation over time, and it’s pretty substantial.  Leaving aside the two jumps during the World Wars, the median rate of conflict initiation quadruples in the period between 1815 and the end of the Cold War, after which it abruptly drops by more than half.

The “falling rate of conflict” is thus not entirely reassuring.

How about the deadliness of occurring conflicts?:

Analyzing the two most commonly used measures of the deadliness of war, I find no significant change in war’s lethality.  If anything, the data indicate a very modest increase in lethality, but that increase could very easily be due to chance…Worse still, the data are consistent with a process by which only random chance prevents small wars from escalating into very, very big ones.

Overall, the arguments in this book are strong, and the discussion of data issues is subtle throughout.  You can buy the book here, its arguments seem fundamentally correct to me.

My favorite things Pakistan

1. Female singer: Abida Parveen, here is one early song, the later material is often more commercial.  Sufi songs!

2. Qawwali performers: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers, and try this French collection of Qawwali music.

3. Author/novel: Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.  I am not sure why this book isn’t better known.  It is better than even the average of the better half of the Booker Prize winners.  Why doesn’t he write more?

4. Dish: Haleem: “Haleem is made of wheat, barley, meat (usually minced beef or mutton (goat meat or Lamb and mutton) or chicken), lentils and spices, sometimes rice is also used. This dish is slow cooked for seven to eight hours, which results in a paste-like consistency, blending the flavors of spices, meat, barley and wheat.”

5. Movie: I don’t think I have seen a Pakistani film, and my favorite movie set in Pakistan is not so clear.  Charlie Wilson’s War bored me, and Zero Dark Thirty is OK.  What am I forgetting?

6. Economic reformer: Manmohan Singh.

7. Economist: Atif Mian, born in Nigeria to a Pakistani family.

8. Textiles: Wedding carpets from Sindh?

9. Visual artist: Shahzia Shikhander, images here.

I don’t follow cricket, sorry!

*The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us*

That is the new book by Paul Tough, I read it through in one sitting.  The back cover offers an appropriate introduction to the work:

Does college work?  Does it provide real opportunity for young people who want to improve themselves and their prospects?  Or is it simply a rigged game designed to protect the elites who have power and exclude everyone else?

That may sound a little overwrought, but this book actually delivers a quality product on those questions.  In addition to the well-selected anecdotes, Tough also engages seriously with the research of Raj Chetty, Caroline Hoxby, and others.  He is also willing to report politically incorrect truths (for instance the percentage of black attendees at top colleges who are from Africa or the Caribbean) without gloating about it or slanting the evidence, as is so commonly done.

Here is one short zinger to savor:

At the University of Virginia, only 13 percent of undergraduates are eligible for Pell grants — a lower rate than at Princeton University or Trinity College.  At the University of Michigan, the figure is 16 percent.  At the University of Alabama, the flagship public institution of one of the poorest states in the nation, the median family income for undergraduates is higher than at Bryn Mawr College.

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.