Results for “best non-fiction”
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Top Ten MR Posts of 2014

Here is my annual rundown of the top MR posts of 2014 as measured by page views, tweets and shares.

1. Ferguson and the Debtor’s Prison–I’d been tracking the issue of predatory fining since my post on debtor’s prisons in 2012 so when the larger background of Ferguson came to light I was able to provide a new take on a timely topic, the blogging sweet spot.

2. Tyler’s post on Tirole’s win of the Nobel prize offered an authoritative overview of Tirole’s work just when people wanted it. Tyler’s summary, “many of his papers show “it’s complicated,” became the consensus.

3. Why I am not Persuaded by Thomas Piketty’s Argument, Tyler’s post which links to his longer review of the most talked about economics book of the year. Other Piketty posts were also highly linked including Tyler’s discussion of Rognlie and Piketty and my two posts, Piketty v. Solow and The Piketty Bubble?. Less linked but one of my personal favorites was Two Surefire Solutions to Inequality.

4. Tesla versus the Rent Seekers–a review of franchise theory applied to the timely issue of regulatory restrictions on Tesla, plus good guys and bad guys!

5. How much have whites benefited from slavery and its legacy–an excellent post from Tyler full of meaty economics and its consequences. Much to think about in this post. Read it (again).

6. Tyler’s post Keynes is slowly losing (winning?) drew attention as did my post The Austerity Flip Flop, Krugman critiques often do.

7. The SAT, Test Prep, Income and Race–some facts about SAT Test Prep that run contrary to conventional wisdom.

8. Average Stock Returns Aren’t Average–“Lady luck is a bitch, she takes from the many and gives to the few. Here is the histogram of payoffs.”

9. Tyler’s picks for Best non fiction books of 2014.

10. A simple rule for making every restaurant meal better. Tyler’s post. Disputed but clearly correct.

Some other 2014 posts worth revisiting; Tyler on Modeling Vladimir PutinWhat should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism?, and network neutrality and me on Inequality and Masters of Money.

Many posts from previous years continue to attract attention including my post from 2012, Firefighters don’t fight fires, which some newspapers covered again this year and Tyler’s 2013 post How and why Bitcoin will plummet in price which certainly hasn’t been falsified!

What I’ve been reading

1. Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov, The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, A Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia.  Blends fiction, non-fiction, and occasional social science (was a non-corrupt transformation of the Soviet Union really possible?, Gaidar ultimately decided it wasn’t), but in terms of the subjective experience of the reader it is most like a novel.  Excellent and also entertaining.  I consider this a deep book about why liberalism will never quite win over human nature.  Here is an interesting Julian Barnes review, although in my opinion it is insufficiently appreciative.

2. Kenneth D. Durr, The Best Made Plans: Robert R. Nathan and 20th Century Liberalism.  I may be biased because I just gave a talk at the Nathan Foundation and received it as a gift copy.  I call this the “real history of economic thought.”  It’s a look at the career of a man who worked with Simon Kuznets to improve gdp statistics, helped lead the war effort in the 1940s, supported the civil rights movement, founded a major economic consulting firm, and supported the idea and practice of economic development, most of all for South Korea and Myanmar.  It’s a splendid look at twentieth century economics as it actually influenced the world, without centering the story on academia.  By the way, here is Diane Coyle on Walter Lippmann.

3. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings.  This account of 1970s Jamaica, centered on a plot to shoot Bob Marley, shows a remarkable amount of talent, as well as a mastery of plot construction and different novelistic voices, some of which are in Jamaican patois.  If you pick up this book you will be impressed and indeed many of the reviews are glowing.  Yet somehow never did I care, feel entertained, or wish to read further.  I stopped.  I remain interested in that era, but will instead recommend a viewing — or reviewing — of The Harder They Come or Marley.

4. John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element.  That element would be Providence, and this work looks at how Scholastic insights can serve as a foundation for economic thought.  Loyal MR readers will know that is not exactly my brew, but some of you will find this of interest.

What I’ve been reading

1. The Great Mirror of Folly: Finance, Culture, and the Crash of 1720, edited by William N. Goetzmann, Catherine Labio, K. Geert Rouwenhorst, and Timothy G. Young, with a foreword by Robert J. Shiller.  A beautiful full-size book with amazing plates as well as text.  Think of this as a book about a book, focusing on a Dutch publication around the time of the bubble called The Great Mirror of Folly, “a unique and splendid record of the financial crisis and its cultural dimensions.”  Recommended to anyone with an interest in the economic history of bubbles.

2. Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain.  An engaging and well written book about Thomas Macaulay’s father Zachary and then Thomas himself, focusing on themes of slavery, cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and empire, not to mention the education of children.  A good read on why some strands of liberalism hit such a dead end when confronted with the realities of the British empire.

3. Iain MacDaniel, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future.  A clear and conceptually argued account of Ferguson’s thought, which will convince you he is not the lightweight of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Starting with a comparison with Montesquieu, MacDaniel emphasizes Ferguson as a critic of the idea of progress and a historical pessimist, focusing on issues of war and martial virtue.  This book is also useful for understanding the subtleties of Smith on the ancients vs. the moderns and why he was more sanguine about Britain than about the Romans (no slavery, for one thing).

4. John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.  One of the world’s greatest Bach conductors is also one of the greatest Bach writers, with an emphasis on the vocal music and also what we know about Bach’s life.  Especially noteworthy is the lengthy case for the John Passion and the discussion of the B Minor Mass.  Definitely worthy of the “best books of the year” list and perhaps in the top tier too.  I’m not going to liberate this volume, I am going to keep it.

My favorite things China

1. Novel: Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian.  Parts of Dream of the Red Chamber are splendid, but it is hard to keep track of the whole thing and also I wonder whether any of the available editions in English are satisfactory.

2. Movie: The Story of Qiu Ju.  A real charmer.

3. Comedian: Jackie Chan.

4. Movie, set in, but not a Chinese movie: How about TranssiberianShanghai Noon?  Are any of those old movies set in China any good?

5. Book, non-fiction: James Fallows, China Airborne.  I am also a fan of the book where the guy drives a car around China.  The Private Life of Chairman Mao is a stunner, maybe the best book I know on tyranny.

6. Book, set in, fiction (not by Chinese author): Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China.  Pearl Buck I find boring.

7. Sculpture: Tang horses, some images are here.

8. Contemporary Chinese artist: Cai Guo-Qiang, images here.  His one man show at the Guggenheim is one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen.  Try this video, apologies for the ad at the beginning.

9. Chinese traditional music: I am interested in Chinese opera, but don’t quite feel I’ve heard the real thing.  I once heard an electrified performance, but my sense is the music is all about the timbre and needs to be heard in an nowadays-almost-impossible-to-achieve setting, given that I am not a 17th century Chinese noble.  Any advice?  By the way, here is a good article on recent developments in Chinese (semi-classical) music.

10. Cookbooks: Fuchsia Dunlop’s two Chinese cookbooks are not only two of the best cookbooks ever they are two of the best books ever.

11. Best book about Chinese fiction: Sabina Knight, Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction.  This short book is a marvel of economy, substance, and style.

12. Pianist: Yundi Li, try this video of Chopin’s 2nd Scherzo.

13. Architect: I.M. Pei.  We have friends who live in a Pei-designed house, and it is splendid.

14. Movie director: John Woo was born in China.  The Killer might be his best movie, but Once a Thief is arguably the most underrated.  WindTalkers is quite good too and also underrated.

I am not counting either Hong Kong or Taiwan for these categories.  I also am not counting American-born, ethnic Chinese, such as Maya Lin.  And J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai, but what category do I put him in?

What I’ve been reading

1. Dave Prager, Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital.  An excellent book on India, an excellent book on a city, and an excellent book on Delhi, all rolled into one.  Unlike many travel books, it tells you a lot about the city.  Here is a short excerpt.  I believe it does not yet have full availability in the United States; order it from the first link above, the author tells me that the current Amazon link is actually a fraud.

2. Katerina Clark, Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941.  A detailed and insightful revisionist look at Soviet culture during that period, asking whether it really can all be boiled down to communism or if there was more behind it and it turns out there was.

3. David Roodman, Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance.  Puts microfinance into a broader historical perspective, balanced and insightful throughout, informationally dense, recommended.  A good model for many other non-fiction books.

4. Michael Erard, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.  A fun and useful book, you can take the subtitle literally.  You need to ignore the very weak material on neurodevelopmental issues.

5. John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent.  Unlike George Steiner’s claim, this is not comparable to Tolstoy.  Still, it is an excellent if uneven 1920s novel that ought to be read more widely.  The best passages are frequent and striking.  The bottom line is that I can imagine someday reading it again.  If you are tempted, give it a try.

There is also the self-explanatory Emrys Westacott, The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits.

Assorted links

1. Kevin Drum reviews TGS.  And Lane Kenworthy.  And Nick Schulz at Forbes: "It’s possible the most important non-fiction book this year won’t be published on paper."

2. Megan on the 1954 kitchen.  And "densifying" to get more low-hanging fruit, from Ryan Avent.  And more from Scott Sumner on the book: "Tyler Cowen’s book has been both a marketing coup and an intellectual game changer.  It has gotten people to focus on issues they intuitively knew were out there, but for which they lacked a framework for thinking about."

3. Eric Falkenstein on TGS.

4. "Mobile money," in Kenya.

5. Index method?  why not just read the thing?

6. Do "Best Actress" winners have shorter marriages?

7. More on Iceland vs. Ireland.

*The Return*

The author is Daniel Treisman and the subtitle is Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.  Is this the first non-fiction book to be making my "Best of 2011" list?  Most of all, it argues persuasively that, rather than botching the transition away from communism, the Russians/Soviets did a remarkably good job, relative to what could have been expected.  It's also the best all-round book-length treatment of what the subtitle indicates and it is readable as well.  Excerpt:

But [under Putin] did the bureaucracy become more effective and the population safer?  The state certainly grew.  In Putin's eight years as president, about 363,000 additional bureaucrats were hired, mostly federal agents stationed in the regions.  Law enforcement mushroomed.  In the United States, there are two judges and prosecutorial employees per 10,000 residents.  When Putin took over, Russia had eight; when he left, it had fourteen.  Federal spending on law enforcement and national security rose from $4 billion in 1998 to $26 billion in 2007.

Despite this influx of resources, most indicators suggest the state became less, not more, effective.  It built less housing, paved fewer roads, and laid fewer water mains and gas lines per year than under Yeltsin.  The number of public schools and buses in service fell faster than before.  Reforms of the education and health systems were repeatedly postponed…As for keeping citizens safe, few saw any improvement.

Here is a recent review of the book from the WSJ; I liked the book more than he did.

Observations about Rio

I'm no expert on Rio, but I have visited the city twice, have taken a favela tour, been in a police vs. drug gang shoot out (not as a shooter), and read quite a few books about the place, so here are my observations on the latest events:

1. The authorities will not win until they have a superior ability to supply local public goods in the favelas.  That is a ways away.  (The broader lesson is you should not take in more immigrants than you can supply local public goods for, and that is why fully open borders is not a good idea in every setting.)

2. On a day-to-day basis, the police are outmatched in terms of weaponry and also will to win.  The military cannot remain deployed forever and a tank cannot rule a neighborhood.  I am skeptical about current victory claims, which from my comfortable perch in Fairfax I suspect are temporary at best.

3. Sometimes the Rio police push out the drug gangs, but the alternative is paramilitary groups which then run the drug trade.  (Those groups, by the way, employ a lot of former policemen.)  A police victory is not always the solution.  Here are the different types of police in Brazil.

4. The Brazilian state has extended its governance, throughout the country, much less than you might think.  The current battles are, among other things, an exercise in nation-state building, which historically has not come easily to most regions.  Furthermore relying on the military for a (partial) victory is in the longer run a double-edged sword, especially in a nation with a history of military coups and military rule.

5. For a different and now shocking look at Rio (the hills are mostly empty), watch the stunning 1959 film Black Orpheus.  Very good trailer here.

6. One of my favorite non-fiction books is Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, highly recommended.

7. The Brazilians are now building high-speed rail between Rio and Sao Paulo.

Comedy recommendations

Steve Hely writes to me:

I'm a real admirer of your blog.  You offer such great recommendations.  But it seems you rarely recommend any comedy.  Are there any books, TV shows, movies, etc. that have made you laugh in recent years?

It's well-known that comedy hits don't usually export well to other countries, because comedy is so culturally specific and also so subjective.  So these are not recommendations.  What I find funny is this:

1. On TVCurb Your Enthusiasm and the better ensemble pieces of Seinfeld and also The Ali G Show.  The best Monty Python skits are very funny to me, although I find their movies too long and labored.  I find stand-up comics funny only when I am there in person.

2. Movies: The last funny movie I saw was I Love You, Man.  I like most classic comedies, though without necessarily finding them very funny.  Danny Kaye's The Court Jester is a good comedy which most people don't watch any more.  I enjoy the chaotic side of W.C. Fields in short doses.  Jerry Lewis is funny sometimes, plus there is Pillow Talk.  I like the first forty minutes or so of Ferris BuellerStardust Memories is my favorite Woody Allen film, though I like many of them.

3. Books: I don't find books of fiction funny, blame it on me.  I do find David Hume, and other classic non-fiction authors, to be at times hilarious.

On YouTube, I find the economics comic Yoram Bauman funny.  Colbert can be very funny.

I wonder how many dimensions are required to explain or predict a person's taste in comedy?

What is emblematic of the 21st century?

A recent reader request was:

What things that are around today are most distinctively 21st century?  What will be the answer to this question in 10 years?

Here is what comes to mind and I think most of it will remain emblematic for some time:

Technology: iPhone, Wii, iPad, Kindle.  These are no-brainers and I do think it will go down in American history as "iPhone," not "iPhone and other smart phones."  Sorry people.

To read: blogs and Freakonomics, this is the age of non-fiction.  I don't think we have an emblematic and culturally central novel for the last ten years.  The Twilight series is a possible pick but I don't think they will last in our collective memory.  Harry Potter (the series started 1997) seems to belong too much to the 1990s.

Films: Avatar, Inception (for appropriately negative reviews of the latter, see here, here, and here).  Both will look and feel "of this time."  Overall there have been too many "spin-off" movies.  Keep in mind this question is not about "what is best."

Music: It's been a slow period, but I'll pick Lady Gaga, most of all for reflecting the YouTube era rather than for her music per se.  I don't think many musical performers from the last ten years will become canonical, even though the number of "good songs" is quite high.  Career lifecycles seem to be getting shorter, for one thing.

TelevisionThe Sopranos starts in 1999, so it comes closer to counting than Harry Potter does.  It reflects "the HBO era."  Lost was a major network show and at the very least people will laugh at it, maybe admire it too.  Battlestar Galactica.  Reality TV.

What am I missing?  What does this all add up to?  Pretty strange, no?

p.s. Need to add Facebook and Google somewhere!

*City on the Edge*

The author is Mark Goldman and the subtitle is Buffalo, New York.  I loved this book.  It is a splendid portrait of twentieth century America, the connection of industrialism and the arts, the decline of manufacturing and the resulting urban casualties, an applied study of the wisdom of Jane Jacobs, and on top of all that it is the best book I've read on how excess parking helped destroy an American downtown.  I recommend this book to all readers of serious non-fiction.

Is multi-tasking and modern information technology bad for us?

Here is one litany of complaints.  Nicholas Carr speaks to the issue and he recommends this summary piece, to defend his view that the internet is in some regards making our thoughts less focused and more superficial.

I've read the piece and I don't yet see the evidence.  There are plenty of studies where the experimenter imposes his or her own version of multitasking on the participants and then sees their performance fall.

I'm simply not convinced or even moved in my priors by these studies.  I can't operate a German Waschmaschine (imposed on me), and that's without an internet connection running in the background.  Nor would I do well if confronted by, say, the open internet windows of Brad DeLong, or his devices, whatever they may be, and in the broader scheme of things surely he counts as intellectually close to me.  Yet overall my life runs quite smoothly.

To sound intentionally petulant, the only multitasking that works for me is mine, mine, mine!  Until I see a study showing that self-chosen multi-tasking programs lower performance, I don't see that the needle has budged.

I do see stronger evidence (as cited) that video games make people more aggressive.  I also see overwhelming evidence that the internet gets people to read and write more.  The latter is probably a good thing.  I also believe the internet leads to less interest in long novels and more interest in non-fiction.  I won't judge that one, but it's misleading to cite only the decline of interest in long novels and by the way don't forget Harry Potter, the form is hardly dead.

I do, by the way, ban laptops in my smaller classes.  But that's paternalism, and the desire to produce a class-level publc good, not fear of my students' cognitive decline.  I can well imagine that they are processing more information, and doing it more effectively, when they are not listening to me, and the other students, so intently.

For extensions of my argument, see my book Create Your Own Economy, soon to be released in paperback with the new and superior title The Age of the Infovore.

My favorite things Berlin

1. Movie, set in: One, Two, Three captures a bit of comedy from the Cold War and shows Jimmy Cagney to be a surprisingly versatile actor.  Wings of Desire has stunning moments, most of all in the Staatsbibliothek with the angels and in the indie music club.  Goodbye, Lenin! shows German movies can be funny, as does Run, Lola, Run!.  I don't like films about either the rise or fall of the Nazis and I couldn't get through Berlin Alexanderplatz.

2. Essayist: Kurt Tucholsky.  He is hardly read by Americans, and perhaps does not translate well, but is arguably one of the most eloquent and also funniest essayists of his century.  Heinreich Heine also spent time in the city, although he is not a "Berliner" in the same way.

3. Painter: George Grosz and Otto Dix have lost their shock value.  I'll pick Lucien Freud, who was born in Berlin, though he ended up in England.  Käthe Kollwitz deserves consideration, as well as for sculptor.

4. Symphonic performance: Furtwängler's 1942 performance of Beethoven's 9th, recorded live.  Has to be heard to be believed.  Obviously there was a lot at stake and furthermore Hitler was in the audience.  This performance will terrify you.

5. Sociologist: Georg Simmel, especially his book on the philosophy of money.

6. Political philosopher: Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action, which to this day remains one of the best statements of libertarian political philosophy.  

7. Playwright: Lessing's Nathan the Wise is a beautiful plea for tolerance.  Bertolt Brecht was a compelling writer despite his communist politics. 

8. Architect: Walter Gropius or Erich Mendelsohn.

9. Philosopher: Schopenhauer and Hegel both taught in Berlin.  Even Hegel, while he is full of gobbledy-gook, is brilliant on a frequent basis.  Don't start with Phenomenology of Spirit.  At the very least, read Schopenhauer's aphorisms.

10. Film director: Ernst Lubitsch was born there, and filmed silents there, though he later had to leave.  His Trouble in Paradise (1932) is today an under-viewed movie, plus his later romantic features, such as The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, and To Be Or Not To Be, all merit attention.

11. Non-fiction book, about: Two that come to mind are Richard Grunberger's The 12-Year Reich and Anthony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945.  I do like books about the rise and fall of the Nazis; I just don't think the topic lends itself well to film.

12. Novel, set in: Uwe Johnson, The Third Book About Achim [Das dritte Buch über Achim] and John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

13. Poet: Rilke.

Kurt Weill belongs somewhere, as does Christopher Isherwood, Gustav Grundgens, or for that matter E.T.A. Hoffmann.  In popular music there is Ricardo Villalobos (born in Chile, but a Berliner), Einstürzende Neubauten (start with Halber Mensch), and Peter and also Casper Brötzmann.  I confess that most Mendelssohn bores me.

The bottom line: How many countries could beat this line-up?  And most of it comes in a relatively short period of time.