Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

A look at the 16th-century Scientific Revolution as one of the founding processes of modernity, with a special focus on England and the Royal Society. Pairs well with much of Joel Mokyr’s work on how cultural attitudes affect technological progress. Dolnick’s book is narrower in focus and not as rigorous, but it is more accessible, and provides a good look at the Republic of Letters, though its England-heavy focus doesn’t fully capture the scientific movement’s cross-national and cross-religious character. Dolnick could also have done more on the Scientific Revolution’s greater historical context. Its secular, cosmopolitan, and dynamist outlook built upon earlier Renaissance and Reformation thought, or at least their more liberal strains. At the same time, the Scientific Revolution was a necessary practical predecessor to the more philosophical Enlightenment that flowered in the 18th century in Scotland, France, America, and elsewhere. A useful book, but more of a sketch than a full-fledged investigation of the beginnings of modernity.


This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

Washington, D.C. was hit by a flash flood, but agencies were still able to publish new regulations ranging from electric program procedures to Fort Ord dog management.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 49 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register, after 73 the previous week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every 3 hours and 26 minutes.
  • Federal agencies have issued 1,482 final regulations in 2019. At that pace, there will be 2,765 new final regulations. Last year’s total was 3,367 regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 405 notices, for a total of 11,579 in 2019. At that pace, there will be 21,668 new notices this year. Last year’s total was 21,656.
  • Last week, 1,432 new pages were added to the Federal Register, after 1,084 pages the previous week.
  • The 2019 Federal Register totals 33,492 pages. It is on pace for 62,486 pages. The 2018 total was 68,082 pages. The all-time record adjusted page count (which subtracts skips, jumps, and blank pages) is 96,994, set in 2016.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. Two such rules have been published this year. Six such rules were published in 2018.
  • The running compliance cost tally for 2019’s economically significant regulations currently ranges from $205.1 million to $294.8 million. The 2018 total ranges from $220.1 million to $2.54 billion, depending on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies have published 37 final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” so far this year. 2018’s total was 108 significant final rules.
  • So far in 2019, 256 new rules affect small businesses; 14 of them are classified as significant. 2018’s totals were 660 rules affecting small businesses, with 29 of them significant.

Highlights from last week’s new final regulations:

For more data, see “Ten Thousand Commandments” and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

Ron Chernow – The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance

Ron Chernow – The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance

More of a corporate history than a history of the Morgan family. But this 1990 book, Chernow’s first, also chronicles the evolution of banking and finance from the Industrial Revolution up to about the 1980s. I picked this up due to an interest in antitrust law, competition, and the rise of big business. While this book is ultimately more useful for financial regulation scholars, I still found it useful. And though its characters are not as compelling as Chernow’s Rockellers in Titan, it is an enjoyable read.

Antitrust Basics: Regulatory Uncertainty

Antitrust laws are not enforced to the letter. They are a matter of regulators’ and judges’ discretion. If they were applied literally, every business transaction would be illegal:

  • A company that sells a product at a lower price than competitors can be charged with predatory pricing.
  • A company that sells a product for the same price as competitors can be charged with collusion.
  • A company that sells a product at a higher price than competitors can be charged with abusing monopoly power.

This exhausts all pricing possibilities. Fortunately, antitrust laws are not enforced consistently, so ordinary businesses do not need to worry. With laws like these on the books, such discretion is a good thing. While regulations do not need to satisfy philosopher Immanuel Kant’s hyper-strict categorical imperative to be acceptable policy, antitrust regulation falls short of any reasonable standard of sound policy.

A century of case law has evolved some antitrust guidelines that companies can try to comply with. But judicial precedents can be overturned with no warning any time a new case is brought. There are few bright-line legislative or judicial standards for antitrust enforcement. Under the “rule of reason” standard that prevailed before the consumer welfare standard took over in the 1970s and 1980s, there were none. Antitrust enforcement is mostly guided by a mix of inconsistent judicial precedents, regulators’ personal discretion, and political factors unrelated to market competition; cases are not always chosen on the merits.

Even the mere threat of antitrust enforcement can have a preemptive chilling effect on innovation, attempts at new business strategies, and potential efficiency-enhancing arrangements. Uncertainty is the enemy of investment. In the long run, this can have significant negative impacts on consumer welfare as fewer new products come to market, and companies seek fewer ways to lower prices.

Discretion does have a place in regulation. Written rules can’t possibly cover every situation, and they should have some flexibility to allow reasonable exceptions. But when an entire branch of law is based almost entirely on discretion, as in antitrust regulation, uncertainty reigns—with all the predictable negative consequences that come with regulatory uncertainty.

For more, see Wayne Crews’ and my study, “The Case against Antitrust Law: Ten Areas Where Antitrust Policy Can Move on from the Smokestack Era.” Further resources are at antitrust.cei.org.

Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

This book-about-a-book is a colorful history of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things with the larger purpose of shedding light on the origins of modernity. Lucretius argued for a materialist view of science and philosophy that has far more in common with modern thought than with early Christian doctrine.

Perhaps not coincidentally, On the Nature of Things was nearly lost for nearly a millennium. During this long post-Roman dormant period, Lucretius was occasionally copied by monks and forgotten by the secular public. But a nascent humanist movement led to a growing number of book-hunters interested in finding and reviving old texts.

This movement eventually became the Renaissance, and Lucretius was unknowingly one of its leading intellectual inspirations. As far as afterlives go, Lucretius has had a good one.

Greenblatt writes well, and his accounts of the early humanist bookhunters and their interactions with disinterested monks in their monasteries are particularly vivid, though the contrast between the two camps was probably not quite as dramatic as he portrays it. He also has a good eye for the big picture, and traces the arc of Lucretius’ influence over an impossibly long timeframe. If you ever doubt the power of books, Greenblatt puts up a strong affirmative case.

The Swerve would pair well with Christpher Krebs’ similar but rather darker A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich.

James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8

James S.A. Corey – Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse, Book 8

This book’s theme is hubris. Though the book’s universe and most of the characters are secular, it has an underlying tone of angering the gods. The totalitarian Laconian regime is continuing to consolidate its rule over the entire 1,300-world ring gate system, and the main characters are continuing a small underground resistance in ways reminiscent of dissenters under Stalin and Hitler. But High Consul Duarte, in his hubris, attempts to wake up the forces that destroyed the civilization that destroyed the protomolecule’s long-gone creators. It goes about as well as one would expect.

There is also a bit of game theory involving the prisoner’s dilemma game. Duarte’s misuse of it results in a spectacular mistake about a third of the way into the book, and at least two facepalms from this reader. The book ends on a rather large cliffhanger, presumably to be resolved in the series-concluding book 9, which will likely come out in 2020.

Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere: A Novel

Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere: A Novel

Heavy on the atmosphere. I imagine this book was written with a film adaptation in mind. The plot is a typical ordinary-guy-goes-on-magical-quest story. Most of the book takes place in London Below, an alternate-reality version of London where the protagonist sees strange sights, meets strange people, and to his surprise, finds himself much happier than in his ordinary life. The imagery is dreamlike, with characters and settings somewhat disjointed and not always wholly making sense. Something about it evoked in this reader’s imagination a poorly lit, musty-smelling place, with recently rained-on worn brick buildings framing dirty, potholed streets, in a perpetual night punctuated here and there with dim blue, red, and yellow neon lights. The characters and story are far less memorable than this sort of imagery and feeling Gaiman evokes. A good cinematographer with the right sensibilities could have a field day recreating London Below.