2. Justin Fox on the economics of textbooks. Greg Mankiw comments. I think OER [open educational resources] will do better, and is already doing better, than Greg suggests. A lot of “OER” is simply a mix of unmeasured uses of Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube, rather than a formal non-profit outcompeting the for-profit suppliers on their own terms. I do agree with Greg that “In any event, it is not a good time to be entering the market with a new textbook.”
1. Jordan Peterson update. Speculative?
2. Cancel culture comes to France (WSJ).
John G. Matsusaka, in his new Princeton University Press book Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge, calls for the introduction of referenda at the national level in the United States. For instance he favors advisory referendums called by Congress, advisory referendums called by petition, advisory referendums required for specific issues, binding referendums for required issues, or called by petition, and constitutional amendments, proposed by petition (but not settled by a referendum itself). The United States in fact have never had a national referendum.
But do referenda defuse populist sentiment, or stoke it? Why is it that populism might be bad but referenda good? Don’t referenda give in to populism in some manner? Whether or not you favored Brexit as an outcome, was the process so smooth and wonderful? How much better could it have been? (the author does discuss this). Won’t money matter in politics more, and in the bad sense? Exactly which policy area would see superior concrete results through the use of national referenda? Won’t it mean we get madder at each other?
Switzerland aside, I am not convinced by the call for more referenda, but I am happy to see such fundamental questions raised anew.
The author lives in California.
As financial markets fretted over the spread of a coronavirus outbreak in China this week, one security was in the firing line more directly than any other. Holders of the World Bank’s pandemic bond will lose principal if the disease spreads by a sufficient amount, writes Jasper Cox.
The World Bank’s pandemic bond, issued in 2017, provides funding for the development bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) if an outbreak of one of six viruses meets certain conditions.
The event triggers were calculated on a complex formula based on deaths in the country of origin, a smaller number of deaths in neighbouring countries, and a relatively rapid increase in infection and mortality. Interest charges were assumed by rich-country donors including Germany and Japan. The riskier bonds pay 11.5 per cent over Libor, since they required only 250 deaths to reach the trigger. Not bad, considering the “expected loss” for the tranche was only 7.74 per cent. The less risky tranche required 2,500 deaths, so only paid 6.9 per cent over Libor, compared with an expected loss of 3.57 per cent.
Here is a pre-coronavirus discussion of the bonds, mostly with reference to Ebola.
1. Does the quality of blog comments deteriorate? (MR post from 2008)
4. Africa has 1.2 billion people and only six labs that can test for coronavirus. And “We find that expansions of transportation networks have significant health costs in increasing the spread of viruses, and that propagation rates are pro-cyclically sensitive to economic conditions and increase with inter-regional trade.”
That is the new David Attenborough BBC nature show, available on streaming or buy the discs from the UK. Believe it or not it has better footage than the earlier BBC nature shows, while remaining inside the basic template of what such shows attempt to accomplish. Here is a very good Guardian review. Here is a somewhat snotty NYT review, bemoaning Attenborough’s tone of “polite optimism.” Strongly recommended.
1. Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism. A very smart, well-written, well-argued book, and an argued book indeed it is. As the title suggests, Kenworthy tries to persuade the reader to embrace social democratic capitalism, but with an emphasis on what government can do, not the market. One rebuttal: responding to the Swiss experience requires far more than the two short paragraphs on pp.105-106, and furthermore Switzerland has done very well in many sectors above and beyond being a financial safe haven (which in some regards hurts those other sectors through exchange rate effects).
Laurence Louër, Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History of Discord. Captures the complexities, and in fact pulls the reader away from the usual tired dichotomy.
Neil Price, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm. I have only browsed this book, yet it appears to have much more information about the Vikings than other books I know, yet without getting squirrelly. That said, I find it difficult to connect books on the Vikings with the broader conceptual narratives I know, and thus I do not retain their content very well. So I am never sure if I should read another book on the Vikings.
John Took’s Dante is the book to read on Dante after you’ve read all the other books (an interesting designation, by the way, I wonder how many areas have such books? In most cases, if you’ve read all the other books you shouldn’t bother with the next one!).
Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, is not a secret history, but it is a good general overall introduction to its chosen topic.
Dietrich Vollrath, Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success is now out, my previous review is at that link, an excellent book on economic growth and it will make my best of the year list.
4. David Wolpe remembers Kirk Douglas (NYT, do see “Paths of Glory” if you never have).
Scholar’s Stage has a long post on why public intellectuals often have such short careers in terms of quality output. Here are my tips for extending your shelf life, noting that I am not myself suggesting I have managed all of these, do as I say not necessarily as I do:
1. Take a cue from Kobe Bryant. As you get older, you have to practice critical thinking more, and harder, compared to when you were young. Most people let up on their practice habits over time.
2. Avoid criticizing other public intellectuals. In fact, avoid the negative as much as possible. However pressing a social or economic issue may be, there is almost always a positive and constructive way to reframe your potential contribution. This also will force you to keep on thinking harder, because it is easier to take apparently justified negative slaps at the wrongdoers.
3. You probably don’t have as much actual influence as you like to think, and besides fame is a mix of benefits and costs. So write to meet your own standards of quality, and no I don’t mean your standards for how much influence you think you ought to have.
4. In your copious spare time, keep on picking up and learning new areas of study.
5. Go to some travel locations you never would have gone to before, and without too many firm plans, so for instance avoid having a full schedule of public lectures.
6. Interact with students, and not just in a “famous person interacting with students” kind of way. The value of having to motivate and explain things to people who don’t necessarily care who you are is high.
7. Shy away from discussion of political candidates as much as possible. “Run away” is better yet.
8. Try not to write things, including tweets, a less analytical and intelligent person also could have written.
10. Hang around happy, cheery people. That said, also have some ornery friends determined to make (intellectual) life difficult for you. You need both.
11. Continue to read some serious fiction, always. Genre fiction has other uses, but most of it doesn’t satisfy this stricture.
12. Be very reluctant to purge your friends and acquaintances for perceived intellectual or political wrongdoings.
2. Visions of ARPA, from Policy Exchange, a genuinely good short, free book on how to create new ARPAs.
3. “Happy Birthday” in the styles of ten famous classical composers. Recommended, for those who care.
4. How conservatism is changing, with a nod to Leo Strauss.
From a new paper by António Henriques and Nuno Palma:
Why did the countries which first benefited from access to the New World – Castile and Portugal – decline relative to their followers, especially England and the Netherlands? The dominant narrative is that worse initial institutions at the time of the opening of Atlantic trade explain Iberian divergence. In this paper, we build a new dataset which allows for a comparison of institutional quality over time. We consider the frequency and nature of parliamentary meetings, the frequency and intensity of extraordinary taxation and coin debasement, and real interest spreads for public debt. We find no evidence that the political institutions of Iberia were worse until at least the English Civil War.
From the paper:
Our argument that the mid seventeenth-century is when English political divergence truly began gains support from the fact that this is also when English GDP per capita started to grow persistently,structural change began, and fiscal capacity took off in comparative terms…The idea that Iberian political institutions at the start of the sixteenth century (or evenearlier) were more absolutist than those in England and the Netherlands does not standup to close historical scrutiny.
Note by the way that Portuguese coinage was stable 1500-1800 throughout, and the same cannot be said for England or the Dutch Republic. For the time being, score at least one for the primacy of economics over the primacy of politics.
Here is my first CWT with him, I will be doing another, based in part around Ross’s new book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, reviewed by me enthusiastically here. So what should I ask him?
I am pleased to announce that Martin Gurri is joining Mercatus as an affiliated scholar. As you probably may know, Martin is the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, one of the more important and more prophetic social science books of our time.
Here is Martin’s recent short piece for Mercatus on revolt, populism, and reaction. Here is a 21-minute podcast with Martin.
3. Obituary for the great George Steiner (NYT). Much as I admire the knowledge of Lehmann-Haupt, the piece does not come close to reflecting just how much Steiner knew and could command in his writings and language.
5. “This may provide exploratory evidence that “state capacity” in certain domains eg innovation, health and education – might be important. This adds to the debate on “state capacity libertarianism” and in terms of current UK policy may inform on whether investing in an “ARPA organisation” or other areas of state capacity is a positive return on investment.” Here are the regressions. Lots at the link, and very nice visuals, a dose of sanity in exposition too, all from Ben Yeoh.