Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Napier, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art.  A thorough and serious treatment of Miyazaki’s career, focusing on his creative works rather than biography per se.

2. Helen DeWitt, Some Trick.  Conceptual and informationally dense short stories for highly intelligent people.  Here is a good James Wood review.

3. Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: A Life.  A quite good, serious, and well-researched biography of the master, especially good in setting up the context of the martial arts in Lee’s time.  I hadn’t known that James Coburn took 106 private lessons with Bruce, nor that Steve McQueen was another notable pupil.  Nor had I known how much Bruce studied the fights of Muhammad Ali for some of his film sequences.

4. James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age.  Delivers on exactly what it promises, a strong look at India’s wealthy class.

5. Thomas Weber, Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi.  Perhaps you, like me, are totally sick of Hitler books.  But how exactly did his ideas morph into…what they became?  This book is detailed, well-documented, psychologically insightful, at times even brilliant.

*Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls*

That is the new book by Tim Marshall, yes Trump and Israel and the like, but it goes much further than that.  Here is one excerpt:

Since 1971, Assam’s population has more than doubled, from 14.6 million to over 30 million, much of which is due to illegal immigration.  Hindu nationalists have argued that the area might have a Muslim majority by 2060.  In 2015 there were 19 million Hindus and 11 million Muslims, nine of the twenty-seven districts being Muslim majority.  Equally importantly, the 2017 census showed that people who are ethnically Assamese are now a minority in the state as a whole, and as people continue to arrive their proportions will continue to drop.

This is a depressing but thought-provoking book.  Bangladesh, by the way, is smaller than the state of Florida, but has 165 million people.  And I had not known there are about 800,000 Nigerians in South Africa.  You can order the book here.

*Blockchain and the Law*

The authors are Primavera De Filipp and Aaron Wright, and the subtitle is The Rule of Code and it is published by Harvard University Press.  I am sent many books on crypto and blockchains, but this is the one I feel is useful to an educated readership.  It’s not for specialists, but if you have a good general economics and also law background, as one would expect from MR readers, but don’t “get” crypto, this is the book-length treatment for you.  It sees merit and potential in crypto, without buying into any particular claim just for the sake of hype.

It is striking that crypto learning and debate really has not occurred through books much at all, nor in the mainstream media.  It has been through white and yellow papers, various on-line fora, Medium essays, Twitter, Reddit threads, and a variety of other venues.  I believe this is a paradigmatic example of how knowledge spreads these days and it should be studied very seriously as such, because it is the most extreme case of the new methods I know.

Where do our best ideas come from?

A correspondent writes to me:

Isn’t it weird that the best ideas we have just…. pop into your head? I have no idea how to trace them. They just show up.

@Tyler any research into this area?

Dean Keith Simonton springs readily to mind, noting he has a new book coming out this year on genius.  Here are some overview pieces on simultaneous discovery, and of course those tend to stress environmental factors.  Here are some approaches to the multiplicative model of creative achievement.  I am a fan of that one.  What else?

What I’ve been reading

Gregory Claeys, Marx and Marxism, a better than expected take on where Marxism came from and how Marx’s different intellectual periods fit into his life.  One of the better introductions to Marx, noting that it does not stress issues of economic theory.

Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace.  Not well known in the United States, but still one of the better Norwegian novels.  Short, readable, concerns a boy who goes missing.

Peter Cozzens, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West.  Very good overall history of the post-Civil War campaigns against Native Americans, still highly relevant for understanding American foreign policy, and attitudes toward guns, among other things.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.  A very strong work about race relations on the other side of the Atlantic.  I had not known that “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is Yoruba for “life goes on.”  The song as a whole was intended by Paul McCartney as a parable of the possibility of West Indian assimilation and it was a direct response to Enoch Powell.  Definitely recommended.

Linda Yueh’s What Would the Great Economists Do?: How Twelve Brilliant Minds Would Solve Today’s Biggest Problems, is probably the closest we will come to having an updated version of Robert Heilbroner.

Joshua Keating, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood looks at Abkhazia, Kurdistan, Somaliland, Liberland, and a Mohawk reservation straddilng the U.S.-Canada border, as well as a Pacific Island that might disappear.  An interesting book for fans of alternative governance arrangements.

I’ve now see the page proofs for Steven Pearlstein’s Can American Capitalism Survive?: Why Greed is Not Good, Opportunity is Not Equal, and Fairness Won’t Make Us Poor.  His view is not mine, but if you want his view this book is the place to get it…

Advice for possible and wanna-bee book writers

Adam Ozimek asks me:

Bleg for , don’t think I asked this before but maybe I did…. advice for economists and other social scientists planning on writing a book (I’m not planning, just curious for the future)

Let me pull out those social scientists whose disciplines expect them to write books for tenure and promotion, because those are quite different cases.  I’ll start with a few simple questions:

1. Should you write a book?  You will always have something better to do, and thus IQ and conscientiousness are not necessarily your friends in this endeavor.  And you are used to having them as your friends in so much of what you do.

2. Should anyone, other than historians (broadly construed), write a book?

3. Will you make more money from an excellent email newsletter?

4. How about some YouTube lectures?  You don’t have to mention the lobster.

5. Consistently good columnists are hard to come by, and believe it or not blogs still exist.

6. Twitter is now up to 280 characters, photos too, maybe more to come.

7. Will your book idea still be fresh, given the long lags in the writing and publication cycle?  Won’t DT have done so much more between now and then?  Don’t his tweets obliterate interest in your book?

8. In advance, try to predict the price they will charge for your book.  Also try to predict the percentage of the reading public — and I mean those who bought your book — who will get past the first ten percent.

One good reason to write a book is when you have the feeling you cannot do anything else without getting the book out of your system.  In that sense, you can think of the lust to write books as a kind of disability.

Another good reason to write a book is so you can do the rounds on the podcast circuit.  It doesn’t matter if no one reads your book, provided you are invited to do the right podcasts.  Wouldn’t you rather talk to people anyway?

Yet another possible reason to write a book is the desire to get on “the speaker’s circuit,” noting that most book topics won’t help you with this at all.  You had better be good.

Bryan Caplan is perhaps the most natural “social science book writer” I have met, besides myself of course.  Not only does he want people to agree with him, he insists that they agree with him for the right reasons.

If you’re still game, start by writing every single day.  No exceptions.  Sooner or later, you will have something, and then you can write another one.

My Conversation with David Brooks

David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.

We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.

[laughter]

COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.

[laughter]

BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.

[laughter]

BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”

[laughter]

BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.

COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.

And on Milton Friedman:

BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.

And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.

Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.

Recommended.  (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)

Barter history teaching markets in everything?

The governments of Myanmar and Israel signed an agreement on Monday that will promote Holocaust education in Myanmar and allow each country to determine how it is depicted in the other’s history textbooks.

The agreement provides for a variety of joint initiatives that feature in standard agreements Israel has signed with other countries, such as encounters between educators and students from both countries and joint study trips. The two countries will also “cooperate to develop programs for the teaching of the Holocaust and its lessons of the negative consequences of intolerance, racism, Anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a part of the school curriculum in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

Here is the unusual story, via a retweet from the excellent Chris Blattman.

The stochastically best book to read on each country

A while back I requested random recommendations from readers about the best books to read about particular countries.  I call them “stochastically best” because I have some faith in your judgments, yet without really trusting you one whit.  Here is one of the two very last installments in that series, taken and collated from comments you all have submitted:

…or Australia it’s still Year of the Angry Rabbit:Bill Bryson’s Down Under for a casual read on an outsider’s perspective or Phillip Knightley’s Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Russell Ward, The Australian Legend

Turkey? I liked Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer.

I liked Hugh Pope’s Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World

Norman Stone wrote a very readable short history of Turkey.

For the Philippines, either “In Our Image” by Karnow or “Touch Me Not” by Rizal

I thought this book on Cambodia was fantastic: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The author won a Pullitzer Prize for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge.

On Myanmar: “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma” by Richard Cockett

Indonesia…etc. for… Indonesia (Elisabeth Pisani)

I second this opinion. Pisani was illuminating for me.

For Thailand: “Thailand’s Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times” by B. J. Terwiel is a fresh look. Many of the other books I have read follow the same boiler-plate narrative that’s been published for decades. His work also brings to light some unique source material that is valuable to the discussion.

Michael King’s “A Penguin History of New Zealand”

The Search for Modern China, China – Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

RE: #17 China Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 “bluebook”) or Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson

Yeah, and for a more contemporary take, the late great Richard Baum’s Great Courses lecture series (2010), Fall and Rise of China, completes the picture (Still noting that Tyler speaking of books, Baum’s lectures are so elegant, that the transcripts serve as a wonderful book.). All and all, Endymion’s work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.

If you collected all of Simon Leys essays on China that would be a very insightful book on the country – mostly touching on culture and politics. Beautifully and memorably written too. Simon Leys seems to me one of the most under-rated essayists of recent decades.

Pakistan, Breaking the Curfew by Emma Duncan

The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu.

India: the Idea of India, Subaltans & Raj: South Asia since 1600, Richard Lannoy : The Speaking Tree

Does anyone have any opinion of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha?

For India, one of my favourite books is “India: A History” by John Keay. It focuses much more on historical facts and events without passing judgement. I believe it is an extremely good and unbiased summary of Indian history from the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India.

While I haven’t found any properly good book that covers South India history, “A History of South India” by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and “A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations” by Noboru Karashima do address this topic.

I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan.

Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country” is a good read, which has chapters dedicated to antiquity and its influence on modern (South) Korea but mostly does concentrate on how the country is now and recent history. Tudor recommends “The Koreans,” since updated as “The New Koreans,” by Michael Breen, and “The Two Koreas” by Robert Carlin as “two foundational texts.” Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.

Burma / Myannmar: The River of Lost Footsteps

Haiti: Dubois’ Aftershocks of History? (though you’d know better)

Here are previous installments in the series.

*Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection, 1815-1849*

The bottom line here is that I ordered all of Philip Dwyer’s other books on Napoleon.  This one covers Napoleon’s time on St. Helena and how the memory of Napoleon was processed after his death, running up through the return of Napoleon’s body to France.  Here is one excerpt:

In 1840, the year of the return of Napoleon’s remains to France, thirteen or fourteen “Napoleons” were admitted to the insane asylum at Bicêtre in the south of Paris.  One can imagine that each of them considered the others to be made.  Of course, there had been people suffering from this kind of delusion even while he was still alive.  In 1818, at least five people were admitted to Charenton hospital believing they were Napoleon.  Now, however, Napoleon was being caricatured, right down to his temperament — ‘imperial’,  proud, haughty, abrupt, tyrannical, capricious, choleric.  The men (and one woman that we know of) who believed they were Napoleon always fit the same profile: they took themselves seriously, they gave orders and they demanded loyalty; in return they treated people with disdain.

Definitely recommended, surprisingly gripping throughout, you can buy it here.

What the Randomistas Taught TOMS

You probably know the story of Tom’s shoes (here told by Andrew Leigh):

After a visit to Argentina businessman Blake Mycoskie decided he wanted to do something about the lack of decent footwear in developing nations. A talented entrepreneur, Mycoskie had founded and sold four companies by his thirtieth birthday. Now he was affected by the poverty he saw in villages outside Buenos Aires”… “I saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections.”

To provide shoes to those children, Mycoskie founded ‘Shoes for Better Tomorrows’, which was soon shortened to TOMS. The company made its customers a one-for-one promise: buy a pair of shoes and TOMS will donate a pair to a need child. Since 2006, TOMS has given away 60 million pairs of shoes.

Perhaps you see where this is going (but don’t be too sure!):

Six years in, Mycoskie and his team wanted to know what impact TOMS was having, so they made the brave decision to let economists randomize shoe distribution across eighteen communities in El Salvador…

The results from the World Bank study were not great:

Results indicate high levels of usage and approval of the shoes by children in the treatment group, and time diaries show modest evidence that the donated shoes allocated children’s time toward outdoor activities. Difference-in-difference and ANCOVA estimates find generally insignificant impacts on overall health, foot health, and self-esteem but small positive impacts on school attendance for boys. Children receiving the shoes were significantly more likely to state that outsiders should provide for the needs of their family. Thus, in a context where most children already own at least one pair of shoes, the overall impact of the shoe donation program appears to be negligible, illustrating the importance of more careful targeting of in-kind donation programs.

In other words, the shoes didn’t add much to health but did increase feelings of dependency. Another bubble punctured by economists. End of story, right? No. To their great credit TOMS took the results to heart. TOMS reevaluated how they give, they made adjustments, they changed. The lead researcher Bruce Wydick wrote:

By our agreement, [TOMS] could have chosen to remain anonymous on the study; they didn’t…For every TOMS, there are many more, both secular and faith-based, who are reticent to have the impacts of the program scrutinized carefully by outside researchers…many organizations today continue to avoid rigorous evaluation, relying on marketing cliches and feel-good giving to bring in donor cash. TOMS is different…

Will TOMS’ new methods work better? Only randomization will tell. Fortunately, TOMS is committed to doing just that.

This is from Andrew Leigh’s excellent new book Randomistas. Leigh tells the story of how randomized controlled trials are being used to improve teaching, crime fighting, charitable giving and more. It’s a good read and even in areas that I know well, such as crime research, I learned new information. Leigh is also careful to point to the studies that didn’t replicate as well as those that did.

By the way, Leigh is a person to keep to an eye on. In 2011, he was awarded the Economic Society of Australia’s Young Economist Award, given to “honour that Australian economist under the age of forty who is deemed to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” As you can see from Google Scholar this was a well-deserved award. Yet even as he received this award, Leigh had already left his position at Australian National University to embark on a second career as a Member of Parliament. Since starting his second career, however, he has published three well received books about politics, economics, and inequality and now the world of randomized controlled trials! Look for Andrew as a future Australian Treasurer and who knows what more.

What I’ve been reading

Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies.  I didn’t quite come away with a takeaway from this book, but still I feel obliged to pass knowledge of it along to you.  It is a bunch of essays about economic themes in science fiction, and/or how the two “genres” might be more closely integrated, with a lead essay by Ha-Joon Chang.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.  Could this new book be the single best brief introduction to Reconstruction available?  Recommended.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.  I loved this book, which I also consider a paradigmatic example of how to write a wonderful non-fiction work.  Throughout it is clear, substantive, balanced, passes various ideological Turing tests, and it focuses on essentials, as well as framing everything in terms of broader theories of social change.  It is sure to make my best books of the year list, and if she had ten other books I would buy them all sight unseen.  Here is Dufton’s home page.

Bekelech Tola, Injera Variety from Crop Diversity.  She explains where all the different types of injera come from.  I hadn’t realized for instance that teff is sometimes mixed with maize, or sorghum flour, or cassava powder, all in the service of variety.

*The Trade*

This book is about what I call the Trade, the growing international business of political kidnappings, according to the US Treasury the most lucrative source of income, outside of state sponsorship, for illegal groups. But it’s more than about money. It is about my attempt, yes, to find the answer to two questions which have haunted me for nine years: Who kidnapped me, and why?

That is from Jere Van Dyk, The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping.

Solve for the equilibrium, as they say.  The puzzle, of course, is why there are not more kidnappings for revenue.