Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Follows the volatile fortunes of Pip, an orphan taken in by his abusive sister and her kind husband, a blacksmith. While still a child, he also spends time working in the household of a reclusive wealthy woman, and begins an apprenticeship to become a blacksmith. From these humble beginnings he is gifted a sizable fortune from an unknown benefactor. This places, ahem, great expectations on Pip to reject his lower class origins and become a gentleman.

Pip finds neither success nor happiness in his new life, and eventually falls into debtor’s prison. What struck me the most about this novel is how Pip redeems himself at the end: not by re-embracing stereotypical Dickensian poverty, but by pursuing the bourgeois commercial virtues.

Wealth, honestly earned, is a good thing, Dickens surprisingly argues. Pip joins a company started by one of his longtime friends, works hard and lives frugally, climbs the ladder and pays off his debts, and repairs burned bridges in a happy ending.

It reads a bit like a soap opera, in part because it originally appeared in serial form over the course of about a year, necessitating frequent cliffhangers and plot twists. Also, Dickens can be saccharine, and Pip comes off as a bit of a twit sometimes, as does Estella, his aloof love interest.

But contrary to Dickens’ popular anti-market reputation, he lauds Montesquieu-style doux commerce at the same time he disdains ancien régime noble wealth. Many people forget there is a difference between the two.

The values Dickens praises in Great Expectations are the same ones that made modern prosperity possible. This is a major thesis of economic historian Deirdre McCloskey’s work. The post-1800 Great Enrichment was possible because cultural values and the tone of conversation among regular, everyday people went from relatively bourgeois-hostile to relatively bourgeois-friendly.

Culture influences social institutions, which in turn influence economic processes. Dickens, probably unknowingly, was part of the process. Pro-bourgeois novels such as Great Expectations are one reason you can reasonably expect to see your 80th birthday.

Remember this the next time one of your more pedantic friends poo-poos novels, movies, and other pop culture. That stuff is important, not just enjoyable.

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Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Dennett’s ostensible goal is to explain how consciousness emerged. But he mostly offers a lively tour of modern evolutionary thinking, with extended discussions of language, memes and other topics. This book isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but evolutionary thinking offers valuable insights to a number of disciplines, from traditional biology to artificial intelligence and self-improving algorithms, to the spontaneous order that animates quality social science work. Dennett has written earlier well-regarded books about consciousness; perhaps I’ll turn to those.

Elizabeth C. Economy – The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

Elizabeth C. Economy – The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

A very useful guide to China’s economy and political culture. It is especially credible because it lacks the exaggerated, hyper-emotional tone that many China analysts have taken in the Trump era. Economy’s general take is that China’s reach exceeds its grasp. After five years in office, President Xi Jinping has established that he is no liberalizer. He is re-centralizing economic and political power and undoing some, though not all, of the limited 1990s and 2000s-era reforms.

This is bad for China’s future. But it is no reason for other countries to be scared. Centrally run economies tend not to perform well, to put it mildly. Economy gives example after example of grand central plans for Chinese education, manufacturing, technology, and urban planning that sounded scary, but turned to be pretty crappy in practice. Such plans also consume billions of dollars of resources that could have been better used elsewhere, doubly foiling China’s geopolitical ambitions.

in short, as long as China remains illiberal, it will have limited growth prospects. It will fall further behind its more liberal neighbors and potential adversaries.

This is a shame because China’s 1.3 billion people have both human rights and enormous potential. Their government’s policies have left the country without a vibrant economic or political culture—there is a reason China has few homegrown international brands besides Alibaba and Lenovo. The Great Firewall around China’s internet and its political repression might make the current regime feel more secure, but they prevent the Chinese people from engaging with and profiting from the rest of the world.

The rest of the world needs to continue to put pressure on China’s government to reform its human rights abuses and act in economic good faith. The Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump pulled out of is a natural venue. Eleven other countries are still party to it, and U.S. participation could only make it stronger. The WTO’s dispute resolution process, which Trump wants to pull out of is another option.

Some of Economy’s other policy recommendations, such as expanded use of the Export-Import Bank, are prone to the same problems as their Chinese analogues, and should be avoided. But overall, this is a smart and sober take in a political climate that badly needs it.

Adrian Goldsworthy – Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Adrian Goldsworthy – Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Julius Caesar’s story has been told a thousand times. What Goldsworthy brings to his telling is an attention to detail. For the larger-picture, go elsewhere; Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography is generally considered the definitive Caesar biography. But for hard-to-find details about Caesar’s personality, insights about what made him tick, and mostly-forgotten life events from flings to the demands he made of his captors while being held for ransom by pirates, Goldsworthy excels.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

A clever and wickedly funny novel by two famous collaborators, combining a comedy-of-errors plot with literally irreverent satire. An angel and a demon become good friends, and come to enjoy life on Earth, despite its many foibles. They are dismayed when the time for Armageddon draws near, and scheme behind their bosses’ backs to put a stop it.

Meanwhile, a baby-switching accident at a British hospital leads to the Antichrist being brought up in the wrong town by the wrong family; he turns out to be a normal 11-year old boy, though with some fairly major quirks.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse also put in amusing appearances, though Pestilence retired after modern vaccinations were invented. He was replaced by Pollution, whose youth and incompetence grate on the others. I get the sense Kevin Smith drew more heavily on this book than he should have for his movie Dogma.

The book also contains the famous line, “[C]ourting couples had come to listen to the splish and gurgle of the river, and to hold hands, and to get all lovey-dovey in the Sussex sunset. He’d done that with Maud, his missus, before they were married. They’d come here to spoon and, on one memorable occasion, fork.”

This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

President Trump has declared passing the new NAFTA/USMCA as his top legislative priority, but congressional ratification will not be automatic. Mexico and Canada are also refraining from ratifying the deal due to President Trump’s recent steel and aluminum tariffs against them. The Senate also pushed back against his national emergency declaration, and the world mourns with New Zealand after a terrible tragedy. Meanwhile, rulemaking agencies issued new regulations ranging from vegetable power of attorney to Honduran archaeology.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 69 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register, after 68 the previous week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every two hours and 21 minutes.
  • Federal agencies have issued 447 final regulations in 2019. At that pace, there will be 2,191 new final regulations. Last year’s total was 3,367 regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 494 notices, for a total of 3,885 in 2019. At that pace, there will be 19,045 new notices this year. Last year’s total was 22,205.
  • Last week, 1,102 new pages were added to the Federal Register, after 1,326 pages the previous week.
  • The 2019 Federal Register totals 9,691 pages. It is on pace for 47,505 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. One such rule has 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 $139.1 million to $175.8 million. The 2018 total ranges from $220.1 million to $2.54 billion, depending on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies have published 15 final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” so far this year. 2018’s total was 108 significant final rules.
  • So far in 2019, 92 new rules affect small businesses; 5 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.

Leland Yeager – Free Trade: America’s Opportunity

Leland Yeager – Free Trade: America’s Opportunity

Short, but packed with useful and principled arguments in favor of free trade, along with plenty of laugh-out-loud examples of actual tariffs. Much of what Yeager wrote in 1954 still applies to today’s trade battles. Yeager passed away in 2018, and the spontaneous outpouring of admiration from his former students and colleagues was truly impressive. Yeager was not as famous as Hayek or Friedman, but he certainly left his mark on the profession both in trade and monetary theory.