Category: Books

What I’ve been reading

1. M.J. Ryan and Nicholas Higham, The Anglo-Saxon World.  I’ve been reading more books in this area, even though data limitations make it difficult to form an accurate picture of what was happening.  Here is Wikipedia on King Alfred, plenty of facts, broader context often difficult to recreate.  (What exactly would they have debated on Twitter, and why?)  I would put this as one of the two or three best Anglo-Saxon books I have seen, and with excellent visuals and photos.

2. John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.  Thompson’s Merchants of Culture was surprisingly excellent, now the quality is no longer a surprise.  This book covers the Kindle revolution (now dominated by romances), Google books, how electronic publishing rights evolved, crowdfunding books, the ascent of Amazon, and much more.  In all or most of these areas he offers you more substance and more inside scoops than the other discussions you might have read, thus recommended.

3. Max Siollun, What Britain did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule.  It is hard to find good books on Nigeria that are easy to follow and not just for specialists.  This new one is maybe the best overall treatment I know?  The British conquest of Nigeria took seventy-seven years to accomplish.  Siollun also stresses the role of missionaries in bringing literacy to Nigeria, noting that what you might call Nigerian literacy skills, for instance in native scripts, were longstanding in many regions.  Before the British arrived, the north of Nigeria was much more advanced economically than the south, though colonialism inverted this relationship.  I found this sentence interesting: “Perhaps no question makes Nigerians disagree as much as why Britain created their country.”

4. Matthew Affron, et.al. Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art.  Clustered discoveries are one of the best areas to read about, whether they be scientific or artistic.  There will be many overlapping treatments, biographies, and so on.  And the people who write about these areas may do so with a certain amount of passion.  The rise of abstract art early in the twentieth century is one of the most remarkable of such clusters, as in so many countries top-rate artists made major breakthroughs in similar directions.  This book shows you how better than any other I know, with excellent color plates as well.

5. Trevor Rowley, The Normans: A History of Conquest.  As I understand the author, he presents the Normans as an essential part of what fed into the creation of modern Europe, also serving to spread those practices and norms.  I hadn’t known that Tocqueville was in part originally a Scandinavian name, deriving from “Toki’s ville,” the Scand name tacked onto the Norman suffix.

*Cabbage and Caviar: A History of Food in Russia*

That is the title of a new and excellent book by Alison K. Smith.  I have watched other people eat this food for eighteen years, and now I am beginning to understand:

The real shift in the world of Soviet salads, however, came in the Brezhnev era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Then, named prepared salads started to appear, some initially associated with particular places but which soon spread out into the wider culinary world.  The salads often features mayonnaise — not a new ingredient, but one increasingly produced not at home but industrially for sale in shops.  Two of the most famous are layered salads that also featured another not new but newly prominent product: canned fish. ..In salad ‘Mimosa’, canned fish is layered with chopped boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs separated into whites and yolks, cooked carrots and mayonnaise.  Finely chopped hard-boiled yolks make up the top layer, giving the salad its name: the yolks mimic mimosa flowers.  Another salad, seld pod shuboi — literally herring under a fur coat — is similar, but uses herring instead of other canned fish and adds a layer of grated cooked beetroot under the topping of mayonnaise and chopped egg yolk.  The beetroot bleeds into the mayonnaise, making the salad one of the most vibrantly colored parts of the Russian table.

And:

In the Soviet era, the kotlet came to take precedent over whole roast pieces of meat.  It was economical and could be made so as to stretch out a small portion of meat with breadcrumbs or other starch, and it made tougher cuts more palatable.  It was also a challenge.

And:

The preference for mushrooms was extensive, and in a way that struck some as particularly Slavic.

And:

One thing that Russians did not have until relatively recently was cheese — at least, not cheese in the sense of aged or ripened cheese.

I can’t quite utter “recommended,” but the book is really good!

How good was Paul Samuelson’s macroeconomics?

Reading the new Nicholas Wapshott book and also Krugman’s review (NYT) of it, it all seemed a little too rosy to me. So I went back and took a look at Paul Samuelson the macroeconomist. I regret that I cannot report any good news, in fact Samuelson was downright poor — you might say awful — as a macroeconomist.

For instance, during the early 1970s there was a debate about President Nixon’s 1971 wage and price controls. There is some disagreement about the actual stance of Samuelson, as Wapshott (p.152) claims Samuelson opposed Nixon’s wage and price controls, but that doesn’t seem to be true. The Los Angeles Times for instance reported Samuelson opining as follows: “With the wage and price controls, he [Nixon] assured a more rapid short-term economic recovery, and made it absolutely certain he would be the overwhelming victor in the 1972 election.” Maybe that is not quite a full endorsement, but consider Samuelson’s remarks on the August 17, 1971 ABC Evening News: “I don’t think that a ninety-day freeze is going to solve the problem of inflation. But it’s a first move toward some kind of an incomes policy. Benign neglect did not work. It’s time the president used his leadership…We’re better off this Monday morning than we were last Friday. Friday was an untenable situation.”[1]

Really?

For Samuelson and many other Keynesians of his era, it was mostly about wage-push inflation. Do you know what my take would have been?: “The wage and price controls are neither good microeconomic nor good macroeconomic policy.” Samuelson did not come anywhere near to uttering such words. In October 1971, Samuelson argued that Nixon’s NEP [New Economic Policy], which included both severing the tie of the dollar to gold and wage and price controls, was “necessary,” and that the wage and price controls were working better than might have been expected.[2]

In October 1971, Samuelson also argued that the Fed should continue to let the money supply grow, to stave off the risk of a liquidity crisis occasioned by America’s lingering involvement in the Vietnam War (what??…if this is fear of a Bretton Woods collapse, print fewer dollars, besides Samuelson wanted to end Bretton Woods). He said he favored presidential “guideposts” to lower the rate of price inflation from four to three percent, but didn’t favor explicit wage and price controls because it wasn’t enough of an “emergency” situation. That is the extent of his opposition to wage and price controls – lukewarm at best, not objecting in principle, contradicting his earlier stances, and showing a poor understanding of monetary economics more broadly. You don’t have to be a hardcore monetarist to realize that continued money supply growth, in an expansionary period, combined with presidential “guideposts” to lower rates of price inflation, was simply an incorrect view.

In a 1974 piece, Samuelson continued to insist, as he had argued in the past, that the inflation of that era was cost-push inflation, and not driven by the money supply. He also asserted (without evidence) that full employment and price stability were incompatible. In one 1971 piece he made the remarkable and totally false assertion that: “…with our population and productivity growing, it takes more than a 4 per cent rate of real growth just to hold unemployment constant at a high level.”[3]

Really?

In other words, his basic model was just flat out wrong. More generally, the Samuelson Newsweek columns of that era make repeated, dogmatic, and arbitrary stabs at forecasting macroeconomic variables without much humility or soundness in the underlying model.

Milton Friedman did have an overly simplified view of the money supply, as many of his critics have alleged and as Scott Sumner would confirm. But as a macroeconomist he was far, far ahead of Paul Samuelson.

Don’t forget how bad macro was before Friedman came along.

[1] For The Los Angeles Times, see Hiltzi (1994), and also see “Questions and Answers: Paul A. Samuelson,” Newsweek, October 4, 1971. For the ABC News remarks, see Nelson (2020, volume 2, p.267).

[2] See “Questions and Answers: Paul A. Samuelson,” Newsweek, October 4, 1971.

[3] See Paul Samuelson, “Coping with Stagflation” Newsweek, August 19, 1974, and for the 1971 remarks see “How the Slump Looks to Three Experts” Newsweek, Oct.18, 1971. On the four percent claim, see Paul A. Samuelson, “Nixon Economics,” Newsweek, August 2, 1971.

My Conversation with Andrew Sullivan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the overview:

Andrew joined Tyler to discuss the role of the AIDs epidemic in achieving marriage equality, the difficulty of devoutness in everyday life, why public intellectuals often lack courage, how being a gay man helps him access perspectives he otherwise wouldn’t, how drugs influence his ideas, the reasons why he’s a passionate defender of SATs and IQ tests, what Niall Ferguson and Boris Johnson were like as fellow undergraduates, what Americans get wrong about British politics, why so few people share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, why Bowie was so special, why Airplane! is his favorite movie, what Oakeshottian conservatism offers us today, whether wokeism has a positive influence globally, why he someday hopes to glower at the sea from in the west of Ireland, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Well, and so you get used to real conversations about people, and you don’t mistake credentials for intelligence. You realize that people outside of the system may be more perceptive about what’s going wrong with it than people buried within it. I honestly find life more interesting the more variety of people you get to know and meet. And that means from all sorts of different ways of life.

The good thing about being gay, I will tell you, is that that happens more often than if you’re straight — because it’s a great equalizer. You are more likely to come across someone who really is from a totally different socioeconomic group than you are through sexual and romantic attraction, and indeed the existence of this subterranean world that is taken from every other particular class and structure, than you would if you just grew up in a straight world where you didn’t have to question these things and where your social life was bound up with your work or with your professional peers.

The idea for me of dating someone in my office would be absolutely bizarre, for example. I can’t believe all these straight people that just look around them and say, “Oh, let’s get married.” Whereas gay people have this immense social system that can throw up anybody from any way of life into your social circle.

Interesting throughout.  And again, here is Andrew’s new book Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.  942 pp. of text, yet interesting throughout.  Brings you into Pessoa’s mind and learning to a remarkable degree.  (Have I mentioned that the world is slowly realizing that Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of the great works of the century?)  His favorite book was Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and he very much liked Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.  This biography is also interesting about non-Pessoa topics, such as Durban, South Africa in 1900 (Pessoa did live there for a while).  I am pleased to see Pessoa finally receiving the attention he deserves — definitely one of the books of this year.  Here is a good review of the book.  For a man who never had sex, this book covers his sex life a great deal!  And what a short and lovely title, no long subtitle thank goodness.

2. Nicholas Wapshott, Samuelson Friedman: The Battle over the Free Market.  Quite a good book, though it is interior to my current knowledge set and thus better for others reader than myself.  Contrary to what I have read elsewhere, Wapshott points out that Samuelson did not support Nixon’s wage and price controls, but this LA Times link seems to suggest Samuelson thought they were a good idea?

3. Jamie Mackay, The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History.  While it was less conceptual than I might have preferred, this is perhaps the single best general history of Sicily I know of.  Short and to the point in a good way.

4. N.J. Higham, The Death of Anglo-Saxon England.  In 1066, five different individuals were recognized as de facto King of England — how did that come to pass?  Why was Aethelred the Unready not ready?  (He was only 12 when he assumed the throne, though much of the actual criticism concerned the later part of his reign.)  I find this one of the most intelligible and conceptual treatments of Anglo-Saxon England out there.  I don’t care what the Heritage Foundation says, beware Danish involvement in your politics!

Peter Kinzler, Highway Robbery: The Two-Decade Battle to Reform America’s Automobile Insurance System is a useful look at where that debate stands and how it ended up there.  Here is a good summary of the book.

It does not make sense for me to read Emily Oster’s The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision-Making in the Early School Years, but it is very likely more reliable information than you are likely to get from other sources.

What should I ask David Salle?

Yes, the famous painter, I am slated to do a Conversation with him.  Here is the beginning of his Wikipedia page:

David Salle (born September 28, 1952; last name pronounced “Sally”) is a Pictures Generation American painter, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer. Salle was born in Norman, Oklahoma, and lives and works in East Hampton, New York. He earned a BFA and MFA from the California Institute of the ArtsValencia, California, where he studied with John Baldessari. Salle’s work first came to public attention in New York in the early 1980s.

And he has written the well-known and excellent book How to See.  He directed the Hollywood movie Search and Destroy, starring Christopher Walken.  So what should I ask him?

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Lapper, Beef, Bible, and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro.  A very good country-specific book, it takes you from “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be” to “Brazil was the country of the future and maybe never will be again.”  Did you know that the Pentecostals and Evangelicals have five times the number of radio stations as does the Roman Catholic Church?

2. Graham Johnson, Poulenc: The Life in the Songs.  An A+ book if…you give a damn.  Here is one song by Poulenc.  Compare it to this also beautiful recording.  And this one.  The book also serves as an excellent biography of the composer, the songs making up for the fact that his life did not see amazing amounts of action and dramatic tension.

2. Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz, Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United.  Short, but nonetheless one of the very best books on leadership and also talent search.  You also don’t have to know anything about soccer, or care about soccer.  Recommended, and this one supports my view that the best management books are about sports and music, not “business management” in the mainstream sense of that term.

Adrian Woolridge’s The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World is absolutely correct.  It is remarkable how many deeply wrong books the world has been generating about this topic.

Andrew W. Lo and Stephen R. Foerster’s In Pursuit of the Perfect Portfolio: The Stories, Voices, and Key Insights of the Pioneers Who Shaped the Way We Invest is a good look at the development of portfolio theory, starting with Markowitz.

There is William L. Silber, The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business.

I found rewarding Lily Collison and Kara Buckley, Pure Grit: Stories of Remarkable People Living with Physical Disability.

I have not had a chance to read Masaaki Shirawaka, Tumultuous Times: Central Banking in an Era of Crisis; he was Governor of the Bank of Japan from 2008 to 2013.

*The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery*

That is the new forthcoming Ross Douthat book, focusing on his struggles with Lyme disease.  It is very much a memoir, starting with talk of Connecticut, deer, and his family’s dream house, all leading to an unfortunate bite from a tick.  Visits to many doctors ensue, motivated by chronic pain and weakness.

Overall this is a book about the medical establishment, the psychological path of coming to terms with one’s own illness (a kind of Krankheitsbildungsroman), how bureaucracy shapes science, and a plea that a lot of people really are chronically sick rather than psychosomatic or malingerers.  It is Ross’s best-written book, and it has echoes of Susan Sontag and also Robert Burton.

If I understand Ross correctly, he is pro-antibiotic use under these circumstances, at least for his individual case.  I do not myself have any opinion about the various medical views expressed in this work.  Even prior to reading this book, my intuition was to believe that chronic Lyme disease is very much real, but that is not based upon aggregating a great deal of information.  In any case, Covid and the response of the public health establishment have made the relevance of this book much clearer.  The discussion here doesn’t give you much reason to trust them more.

I believe we are entering a new era where public intellectuals have an increasing degree of “medical sway.”

This is also a tale, under the surface, of how “the privileged” interact with the medical establishment in a fundamentally different way (I don’t mean that as snark or whining).

Here is an update on one potential Lyme disease vaccine.  Was the previous vaccine really so bad?

How should you react if electromagnetic stimulation appears to improve your symptoms?

NB: I don’t like walking in the woods.

What should I ask Claudia Goldin?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, so what should I ask?

Here is part of her Wikipedia page, which perhaps ought to have emphasized economic history more?:

Claudia Goldin…is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of the Development of the American Economy program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Goldin was the president of the American Economic Association in the 2013–14 academic year. In 1990, she became the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard economics department. Her research includes topics such as female labor force, income inequality, education, and the economic gender gap.

Here are her pieces on scholar.google.com.  And I will take this chance to plug her new, forthcoming book Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity.

*Home in the World: A Memoir*

That is the new Amartya Sen autobiography, and it is well…a biography.  You learn that he loves Sichuan duck and “hilsha fish” (if done properly with the mustard), his thoughts of enduring military service, Sen’s study of Sanskrit, his self-description as a hypochondriac, his bout with mouth cancer at a young age, and that Calcutta (!) is a great walking city, at least when Sen lived there in the 1950s, among other matters.  The readers definitely gets his or her “biography money’s worth.”

But should you care?

The name “Tagore” appears so many times in the text that it takes up 3/4 of a page in the index.  This is very much a Bengali memoir.

I learned that Sen’s family lived for a few years with him in Burma, he is sympathetic to Buddhism, he was ten at the time of the Great Famine and it had a major impact on his thinking, and that Sen was greatly influenced by Maurice Dobb and thought Marx was unjustly excluded from the economics curriculum.  Piero Sraffa was his Director of Studies at Cambridge, and introduced Sen to the wonders of ristretto.  Sen also stresses the import of Sraffa for converting the early Wittgenstein into the later Wittgenstein.  He has great praise for P.T. Bauer, both as a thinker and as an instructor.  He describes Buchanan as a “…very agreeable but rather conservative economist” who got him thinking about whether the notion of collective preference made sense at all.

This doesn’t have enough coherence to be a great book, but there is enough in here of interest to satisfy anyone curious about Sen.

You can pre-order here, I got my copy from the UK.

The manga culture that is French fiscal policy

When the French government launched a smartphone app that gives 300 euros to every 18-year-old in the country for cultural purchases like books and music, or exhibition and performance tickets, most young people’s impulse wasn’t to buy Proust’s greatest works or to line up and see Molière.

Instead, France’s teenagers flocked to manga.

“It’s a really good initiative,” said Juliette Sega, who lives in a small town in southeastern France and has used €40 (about $47) to buy Japanese comic books and “The Maze Runner,” a dystopian novel. “I’m a steady consumer of novels and manga, and it helps pay for them.”

As of this month, books represented over 75 percent of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May — and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organization that runs the app, called the Culture Pass.

Here is more from the NYT.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

What should I ask Amia Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, her forthcoming book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is already making a big splash.  Here is an excerpt from her Wikipedia page:

Amia Srinivasan (born 1984) is an American philosopher, specialising in political philosophy, epistemology and metaphilosophy. Since January 2020, she has been Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford.

Srinivasan was born…in Bahrain to Indian parents and later lived in New York. She studied for an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Yale University. This was followed by postgraduate Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. She completed her DPhil in 2014 with a thesis titled The Fragile Estate: Essays on Luminosity, Normativity and Metaphilosophy.

…She is an associate editor of the philosophy journal Mind and a contributing editor of the London Review of Books.

You can access some of her works here.  So what should I ask?