Category: Books

U.S.A. fact of the day, *Jump-Starting America*

The United States, as of 2014, spends 160 times as much exploring space as it does exploring the oceans.

That is from the new and interesting Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream, by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, two very eminent economists.  And if you are wondering, I believe those numbers are referring to government efforts, not the private sector.  I am myself much more optimistic about the economic prospects for the oceans than for outer space.

Most of all this book is a plea for radically expanded government research and development, and a return to “big science” projects.

Overall, books on this topic tend to be cliche-ridden paperweights, but I found enough substance in this one to keep me interested.  I do, however, have two complaints.  First, the book promotes a “side tune” of a naive regionalism: “here are all the areas that could be brought back by science subsidies.”  Well, maybe, but it isn’t demonstrated that such areas could be brought back in general, as opposed to reshuffling funds and resources, and besides isn’t that a separate book topic anyway?  Second, too often the book accepts the conventional wisdom about too many topics.  Was the decline of science funding really just a matter of will?  Is it not at least possible that federal funding of science fell because the return to science fell?  Curing cancer seems to be really hard.  Furthermore, some of the underlying problems are institutional: how do we undo the bureaucratization of society so that the social returns to science can rise higher again?  Will a big government money-throwing program achieve that end?  Maybe, but the answers on that one are far from obvious.  This is too much a book of levers — money levers at that — rather than a book on complex systems.  I would prefer a real discussion of how today science has somehow become culturally weird, compared say to Mr. Spock and The Professor on Gilligan’s Island.  The grants keep on going to older and older people, and we are throwing more and more inputs at problems to get at best diminishing returns.  Help!

Still, I read the whole thing through with great interest, and it covers some of the very most important topics.

What I’ve been reading

1. Ruby Warrington, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Concentration Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.  Both the title and content make it self-recommending.

2. Jonathan Bate, How the Classics Made Shakespeare.  “One key argument is that Shakespeare’s form of classical fabling was profoundly antiheroic because it was constantly attuned to the force of sexual desire.”  Bate is very smart and this book shows it.

3. Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman, Of Privacy and Power: The Transatlantic Struggle over Freedom and Security.  An important contribution to political science, expanding on their concept of “weaponized interdependence,” namely how the U.S. (and sometimes other political actors) uses access to international networks, such as SWIFT, to push other nations around.  See #weaponizedinterdependence on Twitter for an introduction.

4. Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World.  Covers the Phoenicians, Venice, the Dutch Golden Age, the rise of the British empire, and more.  Interesting throughout, but I most liked the final section on why there are no seapowers today, and why China and Russia never will be seapowers.  Overall a nice integration of geopolitics and culture.

5. Rucker C. Johnson and Alexander Nazaryan, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.  A good summary of what the subtitle promises, though I was hoping for more attention on the costs and losers from those arrangements.

6. Guzel Yakhina, Zukeikha.  Translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden, a Tatar woman is sent into exile in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  This is one of the novels I enjoyed this year, several others I know concur.

U.S.A. fact of the day

According to publisher Penguin Random House, [Becoming] has sold more than 10 million copies — including hardcover, audiobooks and e-books — since its November release. That puts it near the top, if not the pinnacle, of all-time memoir sales.” It’s already the top-selling hardcover of last year, and it has outsold both of her husband’s books put together.

Here is the full story.

Are top CEOs underpaid?

There is another lesson from the numbers: CEOs are paid less than the value they bring to their companies. More concretely, CEOs capture only about 68–73 percent of the value they bring to their firms. For purposes of comparison, one recent estimate suggests that workers in general are paid no more than 85 percent of their marginal product on average [Isen 2012]; that difference is attributed largely to costs of searching for workers and training them to become valuable contributors. In other words, workers actually seem to be underpaid by somewhat less than CEOs are, at least when both are judged in percentage terms. Both of those are inexact estimates, but in fact these results are what economic reasoning would lead us to expect. It may be easier to bargain the CEO down below his or her marginal product a bit more, given that the talents of the CEO would be worth much less in non-CEO endeavors.

I find the most convincing estimate of the gap between pay and marginal product to be that of Lucian A. Taylor, at the Wharton School of Business. He finds that a typical major CEO captures somewhere between 44 percent and 68 percent of the value he or she brings to the firm, with the additional qualification that the CEO’s contract offers some insurance value—that is, in bad times for the firm the pay of the CEO won’t be cut in proportion, but the CEO shares to a lesser degree on the upside. That 44–68 percent is therefore a better deal for the CEOs than it may appear at first glance. Still, you won’t find credible estimates suggesting that major CEOs, taken as a group, are capturing more than 100 percent of their value added. Here too, that is what you would expect from a competitive bidding process.

Part of the accompanying footnote: For the 68–73 percent estimate, see Nguyen and Nielsen 2014; for the 44–68 percent estimate, see Taylor 2013… It is a little-known fact that the current use of high-powered financial incentives for American CEOs still has not reattained the level it held in the pre–Second World War period.

That is an excerpt from my Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, due out next week.

Facts about Native Americans

Not only have those who identify on the census as Indian risen from about 200,000 in 1900 to over 2 million by 2010; another 3 million identify as Native and something else.  Of this ever-increasing population, in 2010 more than 70 percent lived in urban areas, continuing the trend begun in the years after World War II.  Indians are young, too: 32 percent are under age eighteen, compared with 24 percent of the overall population.  On reservations, the median age is twenty-six, compared with thirty-seven for the nation at large…Between 1990 and 2000, the income of Americans Indians grew by 33 percent, and the poverty rate dropped by 7 percent.  There was no marked difference in income between Indians from casino-rich tribes and those from poorer tribes without casinos.  Between 1990 and 1997 the number of Indian-owned businesses grew by 84 percent.  And the number of Native kids enrolled in college has doubled in the last thirty years.

That is from David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

Is the corporation your friend?

The funny thing is, although it is wrong to think of corporations as people, it is probably also necessary for social cohesion. If the American people are going to support business in the court of public opinion, business must to some extent have a friendly face. Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly, ultimately leading to bad consequences for American private enterprise. Furthermore, consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. Companies know that if they build up a good public image and stick around with a track record of reliable service, consumers will reward them with a kind of emotional loyalty. Overall, that creates a largely positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. Instead, we should view companies more dispassionately, as part of an abstract legal and economic order with certain virtues and also plenty of imperfections. Unfortunately, that is not about to happen anytime soon.

That is from the final chapter of my forthcoming book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.  Ah, and there is more:

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations—for our food, for our entertainment, for communicating with our friends and loved ones, and for getting around from one place to another. But for all the talk from economists about consumer sovereignty, it’s not clear how much people actually are in control at all. It’s true you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, and the nature of that network shapes so many of our choices and thus our lives.

Of course, it is impossible for customers to ponder these philosophical questions in their deepest and subtlest terms all day long, as that would consume way too much of people’s mental and emotional energies. So instead people translate their rather bizarre, non-hunter-gatherer modern commercial society into terms that their more primeval selves are familiar with. That is, people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople, and of being in a familiar environment in which they are exercising their free will as consumers and also as workers. Given the need to get through each day, it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior.

You can debate exactly how true or untrue our generally held picture of freedom in modern commercial society is, but I can’t help but feel that part of it is a lie. The system offers many formal properties of freedom, such as the immense choice of products and jobs, and the relative lack of imposed coercion on most of these decisions. Still, when you combine pressures for conformity, the scarcity of attention, the stresses of our personal lives, and the need for “ready quick” decision-making heuristics, it’s not exactly a life of true freedom we are living. It is (more or less) close to the freest life a society is capable of providing us, but it isn’t quite free in the metaphysical sense of actually commanding our individual destinies through the exercise of our own free will. At least some of the freedom of contemporary consumer society is an illusion, taken upon ourselves to make our lives feel bearable and to help us feel more in control—precisely because, to some extent, we are not very much in control at all.

Recommended, by your friend, namely me.

China fact of the day

It is undeniable that China since the late 1950s has deployed hard and soft power in its determination to exert influence over Africa.  In the Mao era this translated into enormous aid budgets.  By 1975, China was throwing ‘more than’ — in Zhou Enlai’s revealingly hazy formulation — 5 per cent of its national budget into foreign aid; in fact, two years earlier it had reached 6.92 per cent.  Compare this proportion with the 0.7 percent of national income that the much wealthier UK annually reserves for international aid..It thus seems certain that Mao-era china spent a greater proportion of income on foreign aid — including in Africa — than did either the US (around 1.5 per cent of the federal budget in 1977) or the USSR (0.9 per cent of GNP in 1976).

That is from Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History, so far my favorite book of the year.  One implication of course is that One Belt, One Road isn’t as new as you might think, and that contemporary China has more in common with the Mao era — and I’m not just referring to the censorship element — than many people realize.

Which are the best autobiographies by women?

That question has been floating around Twitter, here are my picks:

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

Janet Frame, Autobiography.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own.

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis.

Golda Meir, My Life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures.

Am I allowed to say Virginia Woolf, corpus?

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir.

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life.

Anne Frank of course.

What else?  Maybe Carrie Fisher?  Maya Angelou?  Erica Jong?  St. Therese of Liseaux?  (I Am Rigoberto Menchu turned out to be a fraud.)  There are a variety of important feminist books that read like quasi-autobiographies, but maybe they don’t quite fit the category.  What is a memoir and what is an autobiography in this context?  Do leave your suggestions in the comments.

It is also worth thinking about how these differ from well-known male autobiographies…

*Maoism: A Global History*

By Julia Lovell, so far this is clearly the best book of the year.  I’ll have more to say about it, here is one excerpt:

Mao’s lack of enthusiasm for a risky conflict in Korea is understandable: the CCP’s military capacity was clustered around the south-east coast, perched for an invasion of Taiwan.  A Cold War conflagration on the north-east border would require the shifting of all these offensive troops to defence in the north-east — from one end of the country to another.  Drafts of telegrams and notes of conversations unearthed from archives make clear that Mao came within a whisker of refusing to help the Koreans…

Mao therefore was bounced into the Korean War — not as part of a long-term conspiracy, but through Stalin’s self-interested impulses and instinct for playing on Mao’s status-conscious desire to claim leadership of the Asian revolution.  Given that Mao and his immediate lieutenants had already committed themselves publicly to leading the world revolution — wit their Beijing training courses, their proclamations about the relevance of China to oppressed people in Asia — their revolutionary credentials would have been shredded had they not stepped into the war.  Stalin and Kim, in short, created a conflict that impinged not only on one of China’s most sensitive, complex frontiers — the Korean-Soviet-Chinese border — but also on Mao’s self-image.  The Chinese were thus forced to rescue Kim when the war turned against the North Koreans.

The book also covers Indonesia, Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia, Peru, Nepal, and more, all with an emphasis on China’s earlier foreign policy role.  Every chapter is full of fascinating information with strong but not overreaching conceptual framings.  Very strongly recommended, it comes out in America in September, I ordered my copy from the UK, available now and cheaper too.  Here is a review from The Economist.

*Coders*, by Clive Thompson

The list of small-person or one-person innovators is long…[long list follows]…

The reason so few people can have such an outsize impact, Andreessen argues, is that when you’re creating a weird new prototype of an app, the mental castle building is most efficiently done inside one or two isolated brains.  The 10X productivity comes from being in the zone and staying there and from having a remarkable ability to visualize a complex architecture.  “If they’re physical capable of staying awake, they can get really far,” he says.  “The limits are awake time.  It takes you two hours to get the whole thing loaded into your head, and then you get like 10 or 12 or 14 hours where you can function at that level.”  The 10Xers he has known also tend to be “systems thinkers,” insatiably curious about every part of the technology stack, from the way currents flow in computer processors to the latency of touchscreen button presses.  “It’s some combination of curiosity, drive, and the need to understand.  They find it intolerable if they don’t understand some part of how the system works.”

The subtitle is The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, I enjoyed the book very much, you can order it here.

What I’ve been reading

1. Sarah A. Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.  “The revolution in automotive freedom coincided with an equally unprecedented expansion in the police’s discretionary power.”

2. Allison Schrager, An Economist Walks into a Brothel, and Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.  My blurb: “Allison Schrager’s An Economist Walks Into a Brothel is the best, most readable, most informative, most adventurous, and most entertaining take on risk you will find.”

3. Marlon James, Black Leopard Red Wolf.  While the author of this new budding fictional series seems quite talented, this is more a book to admire than to enjoy.  I can’t imagine that people will read it fifteen years from now.  I’ve also read a bunch of reviews which try to praise it, without every telling the reader it will hold their interest.

4. Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro, The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.  A good overview of their work together on economics and religion, and also more generally a take on what the social sciences know empirically about the causes and effects of religion (not always so much, I should add).

5. The Bitter Script Reader, Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films.  There aren’t enough enthusiastic, intelligent fanboy books, but this is one of them.

For prep for my Conversation with Knausgaard, I read a good deal of Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: The Man & the Mask, and was impressed by how much new material he had uncovered.

Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, Firefighting: The Financial crisis and its Lessons: your model of this book is what this book is.

Arrived in my pile are:

Thomas Milan Konda, Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America.

Uwe E. Reinhardt, Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care.  Uwe is gone but not forgotten.

Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life.  This one may not please the Brexiteers.

Marie-Janine Galic, The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe seems impressive, though I have not had time to read much of it.

My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.

And:

COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.

Why is there so much suspicion of big business?

Perhaps in part because we cannot do without business, so many people hate or resent business, and they love to criticize it, mock it, and lower its status. Business just bugs them. After I explained the premise of this book to one of my colleagues, Bryan Caplan, he shrieked to me: “But, but . . . how can people be ungrateful toward corporations? Corporations give us everything! Corporations do everything for us!” Of course, he was joking, as he understood full well that people are often pretty critical of corporations. And they are critical precisely because corporations do so much for us. And do so much to us.

Does my colleague’s outburst remind you of anything? Well, immediately he followed up with this: “Hating corporations is like hating your parents.”

And:

There is another reason it doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or by-laws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Those are both excerpts from my final chapter “If business is so good, why is it so disliked?”, from my book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

What do concert audiences really want?

Audiences only really like two parts of a show — the beginning and the end.  You should prolong the former by rolling directly through your first three numbers without pausing.  Then make sure you end suddenly and unexpectedly.  Audiences rewards who stop early and punish those who stay late…

Finally, there’s nothing an audience enjoys more than hearing something familiar.  If you think your songwriting and all-round musical excellence are enough to entertain a bunch of strangers for an hour with songs they have never heard before, bully for you.  The Beatles didn’t, but what the hell do they know?

That is from the entertaining and insightful David Hepworth book Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop.  He lists the following as the ten best blues songs ever:

Memphis Jug Band: K.C. Moan

B.B. King: You Upset me Baby

Blind Willie Johnson: Dark Was the Night

Mississippi Fred McDowell: Shake ‘Em On Down

Lightnin’ Slim: Rooster Blues

Muddy Waters: Too Young to Know

Elmore James: I Can’t Hold Out

Otis Rush: All Your Love

Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown: James Alley Blues

Blind Blake: Too Tight

By the way, Paul and the Beatles really did record both “I’m Down” and “Yesterday” in the same day.

The Hayek auction results are very impressive

You will find them here, for instance Hayek’s copy of Wealth of Nations went for almost 200k, it was estimated in the 4k to 6k range.

“Desktop ephemera and personal effects” were estimated at 200-300 British pounds, went for 87,500 British pounds.  Crazy!  Many of the items went for 10x or 20x their original estimates.

Perhaps Hayek is back in fashion again, if only with the wealthy.

For the pointer I thank Lotta Moberg.

Addendum: Here is BC from the comments section:

So, the central planners couldn’t accurately estimate the values of Hayek’s personal effects because the necessary information was distributed among all the auction participants?