What Books to Read?

Diane Coyle asks,

What ten books would you absolutely want a young person to read – whatever their subject – to be well-rounded? The idea is a kind of summer reading list for someone about to go to university – what kind of broad mental hinterland should they have before arriving to start a social science degree?

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Of the ten she lists, I have read Hume, Kahneman, Camus, and Jacobs. I have strong impressions (possibly too shallow) of what is in Darwin, de Beauvoir, and Scott. I have no strong impression of the other three.

a. I have compiled these sorts of lists before. I think that perhaps more important than which books you put on the list is your thought process in assembling them.

b. There is nothing magic about the number 10.

c. Some of the books that would be in my list have yet to be written.

My first category might be called war and society.

1. Violence and Social Orders, by North, Weingast and Wallis. A very powerful political economy framework that I think works.

2. The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam, about the Vietnam War. It is an epic tale of government failure.

3. Alone, William Manchester’s second volume of his biography of Winston Churchill. If Vietnam was the costliest intervention mistake made by a western democracy in the 20th century, then the failure to heed Churchill’s warnings about Adolf Hitler was the costliest non-intervention mistake.

My second category might be called late 20th-century perspectives on 21st century technology and society.

4. The Diamond Age, a work of science fiction by Neal Stephenson, is longer and more confusing than I would like, but it offers a vision of the impact of technology on society that raises many of the important issues, particularly the class divergences that people are talking about today.

5. The Transparent Society, by David Brin. That also was a very farsighted book, about the issues of privacy and security that are being much discussed today. See my review.

6. The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil. He later updated and expanded his thinking in The Singularity is Near, but I think that the older version may be more interesting, because of the long list of predictions made in 1999 for 2009 and 2019 that we can now evaluate.

My third category might be called fictional insights into human nature and power over others.

7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. Don’t bother with the movie, even though it was voted Best Picture. For me, the book offers insights into the dynamics among people who feel entitled to power and people who are nervous about freedom.

8. Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Another book on the determination to exercise power.

9. Lord of the Flies, by William Fielding Golding. I see it as a story of reversion to barbarism.

I do not know how to categorize my next pick.

10. The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker. The book gives you a lot of modern European philosophy and a lot of evolutionary psychology.

My next category might be “dueling asymmetric insights.”

11. Moral Politics, by George Lakoff. Lakoff, a progressive, offers an interesting theory of the appeal of conservatism. Recommended for conservatives so that you can understand how progressives think of you.

12. The Vision of the Anointed, by Thomas Sowell. Sowell, a conservative, offers an interesting theory of the appeal of progressivism. Recommended for progressives so that you can understand how conservatives think of you.

Finally, I have my category of works yet to be written.

13. Readings on The Industrial Revolution. This would include timelines for growth rates, innovations, and trading patterns. It would include excerpts from various theories (Clark, North, McCloskey, etc.) of why the Industrial Revolution emerged at the time and place that it did.

14. Readings on the Great Depression. This would include a chronology of events, and it would include excerpts from various theories of why it started and why it persisted. It would include analyses of the political legacy of the Great Depression

15. A project that I am currently toying with (probability of attempting of about .2), on the challenge of trying to extricate yourself from political tribalism. A bit of Robin Hanson, a bit of the three-axes model, a bit of Martin Gurri. Possibly embedded in a work of fiction.

Thoughts on Social Class

Scptt Alexander writes,

All those studies that analyze whether some variable or other affects income? They’d all be much more interesting if they analyzed the effect on class instead. For example, there’s a surprisingly low correlation between your parents’ income and your own income, which sounds like it means there’s high social mobility. But I grew up in a Gentry class family; I became a doctor, my brother became a musician, and my cousin got a law degree but eventually decided to work very irregularly and mostly stay home raising her children. I make more money than my brother, and we both make more money than my cousin, but this is not a victory for social mobility and family non-determinism; it’s no coincidence none of us ended up as farmers or factory workers. We all ended up Gentry class, but I chose something closer to the maximize-income part of the Gentry class tradeoff space, my brother chose something closer to the maximize-creativity part, and my cousin chose to raise the next generation. Any studies that interpret our income difference as an outcome difference and tries to analyze what factors gave me a leg up over my relatives (better schools? more breastfeeding as a child?) are stupid and will come up with random noise. We all got approximately the same level of success/opportunity, and those things just happen to be very poorly measured by money. If we could somehow collapse the entirety of tradeoffspace into a single variable, I bet it would have a far greater parent-child correlation than income does. This is part of why I don’t follow the people who take the modest effect of IQ on income as a sign that IQ doesn’t change your opportunities much; maybe everyone in my family has similar IQs but wildly different income levels, and there’s your merely modest IQ/income relationship right there. I think some studies (especially in Britain) have tried analyzing class and gotten some gains over analyzing income, but I don’t know much about this.

My thoughts:

1. I agree that income is a noisy measure of something that is more fundamental and more highly heritable. I take Gregory Clark’s The Son Also Rises as strong evidence for that. Re-read my review.

Clark and his researchers looked at multi-generational outcomes on a variety of measures in several countries. They concluded that under many different institutional arrangements and across many time periods, the true correlation across generations in social status is somewhere between .7 and.8, which is much higher than most conventional estimates. In short, persistence of social class is much higher than most researchers believe it to be, based on single-generation correlations that are biased downward by measurement error.

2. Alexander describes a number of impressionistic descriptions of social class. I prefer the data-based approach used by sociologists and market researchers. See, for example, The Clustering of America, which uses cluster analysis.

3. People are much more tightly grouped around social class than around income or political beliefs. That is why so many of us feel totally isolated from the Trump phenomenon. Remember Charles Murray’s bubble test?

4. Speaking of Trump, Alexander writes,

Donald Trump appeals to a lot of people because despite his immense wealth he practically glows with signs of being Labor class. This isn’t surprising; his grandfather was a barber and his father clawed his way up to the top by getting his hands dirty. He himself went to a medium-tier college and is probably closer in spirit to the small-business owners of the upper Labor class than to the Stanford MBA-holding executives of the Elite. Trump loves and participates in professional wrestling and reality television; those definitely aren’t Gentry or Elites pastimes! When liberals shake their heads wondering why Joe Sixpack feels like Trump is a kindred soul even though Trump’s been a billionaire his whole life, they’re falling into the liberal habit of sorting people by wealth instead of by class. To Joe Sixpack, Trump is “local boy made good”.

I find that insightful.

Garett Jones Watch

Review by Scott Alexander. Review by Stuart Ritchie. Interview with Jones.

Alexander makes the point that I tried to make, which is that aggregation can produce higher correlation in noisy data. Ritchie says because the correlation between self-control and IQ is only 0.4, it is a bit of a swindle to say that self-control is a big factor explaining why nations with high average IQ do well economically. Among other interesting things in the interview, Jones says

Years of education is terrible measure of human capital. Look at broad-based test scores to get a sense of where a country’s economic future is heading.

Kling on Matt Ridley

My review of The Evolution of Everything is here. I end my review with a series of questions.

If ideas emerge from the “adjacent possible,” how is it that some rare individuals thousands of years ago were able to anticipate ideas that only began to penetrate our culture in the late 18th century, when Adam Smith published his most important works? And why does the idea of evolution continue to face so much resistance today? As Ridley points out, on the one hand there are many religious conservatives and others who insist that biology comes from design, not from evolution. And there are many on the left who insist that economic well-being comes from government planning, not from markets. Are those of us who see decentralized evolution as superior to central planning forever doomed to be in the minority? Or is it possible to envision evolutionary progress on that front as well?

The Quotable Roger Scruton

In Frauds, Fools, and Firebrands, he writes about those who condemn the commoditification of labor,

are we not tired, by now, of this tautologous condemnation of the free economy, which defines that which can be purchased as a thing and then says that the man who sells his labour, in becoming a thing, ceases to be a person? At any rate, we should recognize that, of all the mendacious defences offered for slavery, this is by far the most pernicious. For what is unpurchased labour, if not the labour of a slave?

1. I am reminded of Milton Friedman’s famous retort to a general defending the draft. The general asks, “Would you want to lead an army of mercenaries? Friedman replies, “Would you rather lead an army of slaves?

2. I am reminded of the widespread requirement of high school students to complete hours of “community service” in order to graduate.

Scruton says to the left: Condemn paid labor all you like. It is more voluntary than the alternative.

Separately, on the philosophy of science, Scruton writes,

Philosophers of science are familiar with the thesis of Quine and Duhem, that any theory, suitably revised, can be made consistent with any data, and any data rejected in the interest of theory.

That is certainly my view of macroeconomic theory.

Russel Arben Fox on Jacob Levy

He writes,

It introduces, in clear and compelling language, a new way of making sense of the development of liberal ideas, by distinguishing between what he labels “rationalist” (consistent, transparent, state-centric) and “pluralist” (variable, private, culture-dependent) responses to the threats to individual freedom which have arisen throughout the history of liberalism.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen. I also recommend this podcast with Levy, Aaron Ross Powell,, and Trevor Burrus.

Should a restaurant owner be allowed not to serve someone based on race? The “rationalist” theory of liberalism says “no.” The pluralist theory of liberalism says “yes.” An often forgotten aspect of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is that he took the pluralist side on this issue.

Before you jump to the pluralist side of this debate, consider what Fox calls

the rational reformer who wishes to get rid of inconsistent trade barriers and idiosyncratic excise and sin taxes, all in the name of maximizing the benefits of creative destruction

Think of the Commerce Clause as being on the rationalizing side.

Razib Khan on ISIS

He writes,

Being a good parent, friend, and a consummate professional. But not everyone is a parent, and not everyone has a rich network of friends, or a fulfilling profession. Ideologies like communism, and religious-political movements like Islamism, are egalitarian in offering up the possibilities of heroism for everyone by becoming part of a grand revolutionary story.

There is much more at the link. Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

I am reading Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, by Roger Scruton, the British conservative philosopher. Most of you will not want to read it, because it mostly discusses European philosophers. But I came away with some interesting ideas to chew on, and I may attempt to write an essay on the book. One of his points is that the left-right lens through which we view politics is designed not to be analytically sound but instead to tilt things in favor of Communists. The idea is to put fascism on the far right and Communism on the far left. Since everybody hates fascism, the implication is that you should like Communism, or at least cut it some slack.

I think that a more useful organizing axis for political movements might be satisfied vs. disaffected. People who support Hillary or Jeb are satisfied. They do not want to rock the boat. People who support Trump or Sanders are somewhat disaffected. Extremist groups, like ISIS, appeal to people who are extremely disaffected.

Where would you put libertarians on this axis? I would put them much closer to the satisfied end. As ticked off as they are about government and politics, they tend to be basically happy with their own lives.

Noah Smith’s Five Books

He writes,

2015 is the perfect year for me to list my recommendations, since this was a particularly epic time for books about the discipline of economics. In no particular order, here is a short list of good ones:

He goes on to cite books by Bernanke, Rodrik, Thaler, Ebenstein, and Tetlock. Interestingly, all of these books were on my radar screen, but I have not read through any of them, because of issues with the authors that rubbed me the wrong way.

My issue with Bernanke is that I believe that the driver of policy during the financial crisis was Hank Paulson. Bernanke’s role was to make Paulson’s bailout of his Wall Street cronies look intellectually respectable. Maybe I’ll read Bernanke’s book on my trip. I need to make sure that I am reading it with an open mind, but I fear that I will be inclined to view it as just more lipstick on Paulson’s pig.

My issue with Rodrik is that while he correctly sees that economic interventions often are based on analysis that is narrow and imperfectly informed, he thinks that interventionism is still the way to go.

My issue with Thaler is that he does not share Rodrik’s awareness of how economists’ imperfect knowledge can mess things up.

My issue with Ebenstein is that what I think is wrong with Chicago economics is not what he thinks is wrong with it.

My issue with Tetlock is that I don’t buy the reliability of what he does. And what exactly is a superforecaster? Winston Churchill had a horrible record of being wrong on many things. He was wrong during the abdication crisis. He was wrong about Indian independence. He was wrong to return England to the pre-war gold parity. But he happened to be right about Hitler. Probably any sort of “base rate” prediction would have been that Hitler would mellow once he took office and the Nazis could be easily managed. A Tetlockian superforecaster probably would have behaved more like Chamberlain.

Justin Fox on Academic Journals

He writes,

in economics almost every paper of significance is now available in some form free on the Internet before it is published in a journal. Yet economics journals that keep their articles behind paywalls and charge hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for library subscriptions continue to thrive.

This is apparently because the journal editors and referees are still needed to certify the quality of research, certification that informs hiring and tenure decisions and provides information on the relative quality of university academic departments. Also, scholars who want to cite others’ work in their own academic papers need access to the published versions to make sure they get the wording and the page numbers right.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.
These days, I am seeing the world through Martin Gurri’s lenses, as a conflict between the uncredentialed public and the credentialed elites. Thanks to the Internet, the uncredentialed public now has as much access to information as the credentialed elites. One consequence of this is that institutions like accreditation, selective college admission, faculty tenure, and publication come to be seen less and less as essential tools to promote scholarly quality and more and more as artificial gate-keeping.

The Quotable Martin Gurri

In The Revolt of the Public, he writes,

The rhetoric of democratic politics seems to have gotten out of whack with the reality of what democratic governments can achieve.

Actually, his book has many quotable soundbites, but this one is very central to his main theme. The public has become more informed about the failures of government, but politicians are not encouraging people to lower their expectations. On the contrary, the competitive equilibrium seems to lead toward politicians making ever more extravagant promises.