Category: Books

The Dan Wang year-end letter

Always recommended.

This year I want to discuss mostly science and technology. First, some thoughts on China’s technology efforts. Then I’ll present a few reflections on science fiction, with a focus on Philip K. Dick and Liu Cixin. Next I’ll discuss books I read on American industrial history. I save personal reflections for the end.

Dan now lives in Beijing.  He left out music, however…

The great Lemin Wu reemerges

Very loyal readers may recall that Lemin Wu was a Berkeley Ph.D in economic history and a student of Brad DeLong.  Then he seemed to disappear.  But for the last few years he was been working and writing, and later in 2020 he has a book coming out in China, in Chinese, title still undetermined.

I have read only parts of the book (the parts in English), and an outline.  Still , I am willing to predict it will be the best and most important economics book of the year, in any language.  It also likely will mark the first time a Chinese economist, writing in Chinese, created an important work.

I won’t “give away the plot,” but suffice to say it is about the rise of the West, the Malthusian model, group selection in history, why development takes so long, and related big topics.  Oh, and it does tie in to and draw upon Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, just in case you were wondering.

I hope very much this book will be published in English as well.

Hail Lemin Wu!

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

*Capital and Ideology*, by Thomas Piketty

This book is more than 1000 pp., here are my impressions:

1. About 600 pp. of this book is a carefully done history of the accumulation and sometimes dissipation of wealth and property.  You can evaluate that material without reference to any particular set of political views.

2. At some point the book veers into partisan issues such as the wealth tax.  Many of those parts remain interesting, but it also becomes clear that Piketty is “out to lunch,” to wit (p.591):

To return to the Soviet attitude toward poverty, it is important to try to understand why the government took such a radical stance against all forms of private ownership of the means of production, no matter how small.  Criminalizing carters and food peddlers to the point of incarcerating them may seem absurd, but there was a certain logic to the policy.  Most important was the fear of not knowing where to stop.  If one began by authorizing private ownership of small businesses, would one be able to set limits?

I can think of a less naive explanation of Soviet attitudes toward the private sector.  Piketty also calls for “participatory socialism” (p.592), a dubious doctrine not to be confused with say Nordic social democracy.  For instance, Sweden (among other countries) seems to have fairly extreme wealth inequality.

3. The sentence “Real wages are much higher in America than in Western Europe” does not come easily to his pen.  Nor does “The United States is a remarkably successful innovator, let’s see what we can learn from that.”  Or even “Raising wages is more important than merely limiting inequality.”  Those seems to be banished thoughts in the Piketty intellectual universe.

4. The sections on Soviet and socialist experience can only be called “delusional.”  In his account, if only a few political decisions had gone the other way, the USSR might have ended up on a path similar to that of Norway (p.603 and thereabouts).

You know, maybe you think that the inequalities of the current day are much worse than people had been expecting.  but that should not revise your view of socialism and the Soviet Union, two matters fairly well settled by historical research.

5. Give these lenses, it is impossible for Piketty to offer any commentary on recent events (about the last 400 pp. of the book) that is anything other than distorted and unreliable.  There is massive distrust of the wealthy in this book, and virtually no distrust of concentrated state power.

6. There is a considerable sum of useful and valuable material in this book, and I would not try to dissuade anyone inclined from reading it.  Nonetheless I suspect its main import is as another sign of the growing compartmentalization of academic discourse — good work intermingled with highly questionable partisan material — and how so many academics, if the mood affiliation tilts in the right direction, will tolerate or even encourage that.

You can pre-order the book here.

Extreme Aging

Japan now has over 70,000 people who are more than 100 years old.

That stunning fact comes from Extreme Economies, an interesting new book by Richard Davies. Davies looks at extreme economies around the world such as extreme failure (Darien, Kinshasa, Glasgow), extreme resilience (Aceh, Angola Prison, LA), extreme inequality (Santiago) and in the case of Japan (Akita), extreme aging.

Japan’s aging is unprecedented and is having effects throughout the economy and society:

In 1975 social security and healthcare spending commanded 22 percent of the country’s tax revenues; by 2017 the figure, driven up by elderly care and pensions, had risen to 55 percent. By the early 2020s the figure is set to hit 60 percent. To look at it in another way, every other public service in Japan — education, transport, infrastructure, defense, the environment, the arts–could rely on almost 80 percent of tax revenue in 1975, but the increase in elderly-related spending means that only 40 percent is left for other national public expenditures. In budgetary terms, ageing is eating Japan.

As a country, Japan is aging not just because it’s people are getting older but because it’s birth rate is well below replacement. This year there will be fewer than 900,000 births in all of Japan–a number not seen since 1874 when Japan’s total population was much smaller. Overall, Japan’s population is declining.

Population decline may have some good effects but the combination of fewer young people and more elderly people is straining Japanese culture along with its finances. The young naturally resent the increasing burden put on them for supporting the elderly. As with all Ponzi schemes, pay-as-you-go social security schemes come under stress when the population is no longer growing.

…over the next 30 years or so, many countries’ pension systems will require young workers to fund a system that everyone knows will be far less generous by 2040. It is hardly a way to generate confidence in public policy.

And those 70,000 centenarians? Almost 90 percent are women so an aging society is a gender unbalanced society meaning old people lose caregivers or at least someone to share a household with.

Davies is interested in Japan as an example of where many countries are going,

Southern Europe, in particular, is following fast with Italy, Spain and Portugal already experiencing population decline. Germany will start to shrink in 2022, Korea in the early 2030s. Akita, Japan’s cutting edge of ageing economics,…offers a valuable window on the future.

My look back at the last decade

Via Bloomberg, here is one bit:

Consider the 10 best-selling books of the decade. All have female protagonists, and the top seven are authored by women. (“Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels take the top three spots, with three others having the word “Girl” in the title.)

The feminization of our culture is for me trend number one.  Next in line is screens:

They simply convey more interesting narratives than most of the other spaces in our lives.

There is much more at the link.

Charles Murray’s *Human Diversity*

His new book is coming out in January, and the subtitle is The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. I will get to the details shortly, but my bottom-line review is “Not as controversial as you might think,” but do note the normalization at the end of that phrase.

Here is one bit from p.294 toward the end of the book:

Nothing we are going to learn will diminish our common humanity.  Nothing we learn will justify rank-ordering human groups from superior to inferior — the bundles of qualities that make us human are far too complicated for that.  Nothing we learn will lend itself to genetic determinism.  We live our lives with an abundance of unpredictability, both genetic and environmental.

Most of the book defends ten key propositions, laid out on pp.7-8.  The first four of those propositions concern differences between men and women (“Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide…”) and I do not find those controversial, so I will not cover them.  The chapters on those propositions provide a good survey of the evidence, and a good answer to the denialists, though I doubt if Murray is the right person to win them over.  Let’s now turn to the other propositions, with my commentary along the way:

5. Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity.

True, but Murray’s analysis did not push me beyond the usual citations of lactose intolerance, sickle cell anemia, adaptation to high altitudes, and the like.  That said, pp.190-195 offer a very dense discussion of target alleles for various traits, such as schizophrenia, and how those target alleles vary across different groups.  I found those pages difficult to follow, and also wished that discussion had been fifty pages rather than five.  Toward the end of that discussion, Murray does write (p.194): “…proof of the role of natural selection for many genetic differences will remain unobservable without methodological breakthroughs.”  With that I definitely agree.

On p.195 he adds “It is implausible to expect that none of the imbalances will yield evidence of significant genetic differences related to phenotypic differences across continental populations.”  That returns to my core point about this book not shifting my priors.  You could agree with that sentence (noting the ambiguity in the word “significant”) and still have a quite modest vision of what those differences might mean.  In any case, nothing in the book pushes me beyond that sentence in the direction of the geneticists.

And here the contrast with the chapters on men and women becomes (unintentionally?) glaring: those biological differences are relatively easy to demonstrate, so perhaps hard-to-demonstrate biological differences are not so significant.  That too is just a conjecture, but there are multiple ways to play the “absence of evidence” and “how to interpret the residuals” cards, and I wish those had received a more extensive philosophy of science-like discussion.

Now let’s move to the next proposition:

6. Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.

That one strikes me as a miswording or misstatement, though I do not see that it corresponds to any actual mistakes in the broader text.  You might think that general, non-local evolutionary selection for all humans has been quite large over the millennia, relative to local selection.  I genuinely do not know the ratio here, but Murray does not seem to address the actual comparison of “across all human groups” vs. “local” as loci of selection pressures.

Next up:

7. Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.

Clearly true, but note this proposition does not claim biological roots for those differences.  The real question comes in the next proposition:

8. The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personalities, abilities, and social behavior.

Here I have what I think is a major disagreement with Murray.  If he means the term “shared environment” in the narrow sense used by say twin studies, he is probably correct.  But in the more literal, Webster-derived conception of “shared environment” I very much disagree.  Culture is a truly major shaper of our personalities, abilities, and social behavior, and self-evidently so. For my taste the book did not contain nearly enough discussion of culture and in fact there is virtually no discussion of the concept or its power, as a look at the index will verify.  The real lesson of “twins studies plus anthropology” is that you have to control almost all of a person’s environment to have a major impact, but a major impact indeed can be had.  I behave very differently than my Irish potato famine ancestors, and not because I am genetically 1/8 from the Madeira Islands.  That said, within the narrower range of environmental variation measured in twins studies…well those studies seem to be fairly accurate.

9. Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.

Correct as stated, but I see those differences as much less genetic than Murray does.  For instance, IQ is to some extent heritable, but how much does that shape economic outcomes?  It is worth turning to Murray’s discussion on p.232 and the associated footnote 17 (pp.428-429).  His main source is what is to me a flawed meta-study on IQ and job performance (Murray to his credit does also cite the best-known critique of such studies).  I would opt more directly for the labor market literature on IQ and individual earnings, based on actual measured wages, which shows fairly modest correlations between IQ and earnings (read here, here and here).  So, at the very least, the inherited IQ-based permanent stratification version of The Bell Curve argument is much more compelling to Murray than it is to me.

10. Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior.

Clearly this is literally true, if only because of the meaning of “constrained.”  But mostly I would repeat my remarks on culture from #8.  Cultures change, and over time they are likely to change a great deal.  For instance, early in the 20th century, Korea, Japan, and China often were described as low work ethic cultures.  As cultures change, in turn those cultures can shape the personalities, abilities, and social behaviors of subsequent generations, in significant ways albeit constrained.  So while Murray is correct as stated, I believe I would disagree with his intended substantive point about the weight of relative forces.

Overall this is a serious and well-written book that presents a great deal of scientific evidence very effectively.  Anyone reading it will learn a lot.  But it didn’t change my mind on much, least of all the most controversial questions in this area.  If anything, in the Bayesian sense it probably nudged me away from geneticist-based arguments, simply because it did not push me any further towards them.

Murray of course will write the book he wants to, but my personal wish list was two-fold: a) a book leaving most of the normal science behind, and focusing only on the uncertain and controversial frontier issues, in great detail, and b) much more discussion of the import of culture.

Most of all, I am happy that America’s culture of achievement is inducing Murray to continue to produce major works at the age of 76, soon to be 77.

You can pre-order here.

What I’ve been reading

1. Ben Cohen, The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.  An intelligent popular social science book covering everything from Stephen Curry to Shakespeare to The Princess Bride, David Booth, Eugene Fama, and more.  I am not sure the book is actually about “the hot hand” as a unified phenomenon, as opposed to mere talent persistence, but still I will take intelligence over the alternative.

2. Richard J. Lazarus, The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court.  A genuinely interesting and well-presented history of how climate change became a partisan issue in the United States, somewhat broader than its title may indicate.

3. Ryan H. Murphy, Markets Against Modernity: Ecological Irrationality, Public and Private.  The book has blurbs from Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner, and I think of it as an ecological, historically reconstructed account of the demand for irrationality as it relates to the environment, interest in “do-it-yourself,” and the love for small scale enterprise.  Interesting, but overpriced.

4. Juan Du, The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City.  An actual history, as opposed to the usual blah-blah-blah you find in so many China books.  The author has a background in architecture and urban planning, and stresses the import of the Pearl River Delta before Deng’s reforms (Shenzhen wasn’t just a run-down fishing village), decentralization in Chinese reforms, and fits and starts in the city’s post-reform history.  Anyone who reads books on China should consider this one.

Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments, The Master is finally receiving his poetic due.

Toby Ord’s forthcoming The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is a comprehensive look at existential risk, written by an Oxford philosopher and student of Derek Parfit.

*The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe*

What an excellent book.  Imagine somebody — in this case Thane Gustafson — taking all those snippets of gas history you used to read about and turning them into a coherent, well-written narrative.  The Dutch disease, Norwegian gas, the origins of Gazprom and Western Siberian reserves, the French decision to go nuclear, and much more.  It’s all here.  Every topic should have a book like this about it.   Excerpt:

Kortunov’s importance as the founder of the Soviet gas industry and the originator of the gas bridge with Europe cannot be overstated.  Without his vision and drive, organizational talent, and political skill, the development of West Siberian oil and gas might have been delayed by as much as a generation.  Gas exports to Europe would have remained modest, for lack of sufficient ready reserves and a pipeline system through which to ship them.  Above all, the rapid displacement of coal and oil by gas in the Soviet primary fuel balance  — one of the last successes of the Soviet planned economy — would have taken much longer.  By the beginning of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Soviet oil industry with it, it was the gas industry, by then Russia’s most important source of primary fuel, that kept the Soviet cities heated and lighted, while oil was exported for desperately needed dollars.  That was Kortunov’s legacy to the country he so ardently believed in.

Due out in January, you can pre-order your copy here.

10% Less Democracy

My colleagues at GMU are awesome and you can see why by reading the opening to Garett Jones’s forthcoming new book, 10% Less Democracy.

ONCE I GOT THE CALL FROM CAMPUS POLICE, I knew I needed to write this book.

It was spring semester 2015, and I’d recently given a brief talk to a student group at my university. Natalie Schulhof, a reporter for the student newspaper, Fourth Estate, had come to the event and reported on my talk, entitled “10% Less Democracy.” That was the first time I’d spoken at any length about this book’s central idea: that in most of the rich countries, we’ve taken democracy, mass voter involvement in government, at least a little too far. We’d likely be better off if we kept the voters and even the elected officials a little further away from the levers of power. Let the government insiders run more of the show. After all, the insiders don’t have to be perfect for 10% less democracy to be an improvement; they just have to be better than the voters.

About a week after my talk, Schulhof’s piece came out, quite thorough and extremely accurate, complete with a photo of me standing before the small student audience. From the article: “Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States. . . . Less democracy would lead to better governance.”

But in our new age of social media, that article, accurate down to the last detail, wasn’t the article that became widely shared online. Instead, the subsequent firestorm was fed by ideology-driven websites, with authors posting articles loosely based on Fourth Estate’s original piece but filling in the blanks of the short, accurate article with their own vitriol and blue-sky speculation.

…In the days after these ideology-driven websites wrote about my talk, I discovered a torrent of hate polluting both my email inbox and my Twitter account. I welcome disagreement with my ideas, and passionate disagreement is part of a healthy public debate, but for a brief period, I had my sole experience (so far!) as an object of profanity-laced Internet rage. It culminated in the call from campus police—and in my dozen years at George Mason, that was the first and still the only time I’ve received such a call. An officer left a voice-mail message, and I called back at my first opportunity. She said someone had left an angry voice mail criticizing me on a general campus phone number, and the officer noted with great discretion that the voice mail contained at least one profane expression. Was there anyone who might be upset with me lately? the officer asked.

I had an idea. And that idea became this book. So to the unknown person who left that voice mail, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. I dedicate this book to you.

By the way, the title of Garett’s book might sound inflammatory but it’s only 10% inflammatory. Surely, we can talk about that rationally? Do we want all judges to be elected? Aren’t two year terms a little short in the modern age? Might we better off with an independent tax authority more like an independent central bank? Garett discusses these and many other ideas and unlike much of the constitutional economics of the past, Garett brings plenty of empirical evidence to bear–this is a good book to learn about modern political economy regardless of whether you buy the conclusions.

You can pre-order 10% Less Democracy at the link and you should, it’s very good.

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

Addendum to best books of 2019 list

Here is the original non-fiction list, the original fiction list, and these are my post-Thanksgiving additions:

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity.

John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Herself Alone, volume three.

Susan Gubar, Late-Life Love: A Memoir.

Bernardine Evaristo. Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel.  The Booker co-winner and yes the focus of black women’s gender-fluid lives in Britain sounds too PC, but I was won over.  There is a Straussian reading of it as well.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again: A Novel.

On the classical music front, Jean-Paul Gasparian’s Chopin CD is one of the best Chopin recordings ever, which is saying something.

The list of add-ons is I think a bit shorter than usual, which suggests that other people’s “best of” lists are declining somewhat in quality.  In essence I construct this add-on list by ordering the items off other people’s lists which I am not already familiar with.  I didn’t find so many undiscovered-by-me winners this time around, the Gubar and Strout being the main choices I drew from the discoveries of others.

*The Economics Book*

The author is Steven G Medema, and the subtitle is From Xenophon to Cryptocurrency, 250 Milestones in the History of Economics.  It is over 500 pages, one page per idea, with lovely color plates next to each page of text.  Test both your knowledge of economics and of history of economic thought.  For instance, it covers the median voter theorem, linear programming, the socialist calculation debate, and much more.  Very well done, and also a good gift book.

You can order it here.

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.