Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention

Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention (New York: Doubleday, 2020).

A wide-ranging world history told through the lens of cities. Wilson bounces around between Asia, Europe, and America, and concludes in Lagos, Nigeria, which is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s major urban centers. Wilson feels at home discussing subjects as diverse as the Epic of Gilgamesh and its relationship to Uruk, the first big city; coffeehouse culture in 18th century London, with its undercurrents of political dissent and rebellion against social norms; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their fast but difficult recovery; and the birth of skyscrapers in jazz age New York and the dashed grand plans for remaking social orders in glass and steel. For a Brit, he is also surprisingly well-versed in the early history of hip-hop.

Wilson is a cheerful tour guide and has a conversational prose style that reads quickly. Metropolis would go well with any number of books, ranging from James C. Scott’s Against the Grain about the close relationship between early agriculture, the first cities, and the first governments; Monica Smith’s very similar Cities: The First 6,000 Years; and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, the influential urban economist who took on Robert Moses’ machine politics in New York City in the mid-twentieth century.

Book Review: David Eagleman – Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

David Eagleman – Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (New York: Vintage, 2011)

Interesting and engaging, but second-rate compared to the leading works of the genre. Eagleman describes how the brain’s conscious and unconscious systems interact. The human brain turns out to be a wonderful economist. It is constantly taking in more information than it can process, and has evolved sophisticated, almost automatic algorithms to prioritize its resources to focus on what is important, and ignore what isn’t, to save energy. If it didn’t do this, our energy-hungry brain, which already accounts about a fifth of an average person’s calories burned despite being about 2 percent of body weight, would outpace what the body can provide it.

Along the way he gives the reader a tour of both famous and overlooked research, teaches brain anatomy, and at times turns philosophical. It also briefly name-checks Ryan Braun, one of my favorite baseball players, who won the National League MVP award around the time this book was written. As it turns out, the paths outfielders such as Braun take to catch flyballs are determined mostly unconsciously. Rather than direct routes to where the ball will likely land, even the best players take curving, circuitous routes that nobody would consciously follow. Same goes for hitters. The human eye cannot track a 90-mph fastball. Every swing is a guess, based on an unconscious algorithm. Deliberate thought simply isn’t fast enough.

Eagleman’s main public policy proposal is statistically-based sentencing for criminals, based on the likelihood of a person’s recidivism. This is not that far removed from the movie Minority Report, based on a dystopian Philip K. Dick story featuring a department of pre-crime, which punished people who have not committed crimes, but are about to.

Statistically-based sentencing proposal has two fatal flaws. One is a knowledge problem. Well-meaning experts cannot reliably predict who will re-offend, and who will not. Today’s most advanced experts might as well flip a coin, Eagleman points out. The second is a public choice problem—those experts are not always well-meaning.

Experts are subject to the same cognitive biases, mood swings, personal grudges and corruptibility as everyone else—which Eagleman describes elsewhere throughout the book. And the real-world government that would enact such a proposal would be influenced by electoral politics, by ideological and rent-seeking special interests, and would be bogged down by bureaucratic infighting and turf battles among prestige-seeking experts. Anyone interested in criminal justice reform should take a hard pass on Eagleman’s idea.

But Eagleman does offer up a good read on how the brain’s conscious and unconscious systems interact, and describes a lot of the research in an entertaining way. He does not operate at the same analytical heights as Kahneman and Tversky, Robin Hanson, Steven Pinker, or Michael Shermer. Eagleman’s certainty about philosophical determinism is also questionable, given that he, too, has the human brain’s cognitive shortcomings and shortcuts that he convincingly describes. But even if this book is a B or a B- compared to the top tier, most readers will still get quite a lot out of Incognito.

Book Review: Casey Mulligan – You’re Hired!: Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President

Casey Mulligan – You’re Hired!: Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President (Alexandria, VA: Republic Book Publishers, 2020).

Mulligan was the Chief Economist of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. He is much kinder to Trump than most economists are. While Mulligan pulls a lot of his punches and has some of the unconvincing persecution complex that many Republicans have, he offers credible insights into how Trump and his White House worked. Despite its restraint, You’re Hired has lessons for policy advisers of any political persuasion. Personality matters in politics. Advisers who do not account for that will not get sound policies enacted.

While President Trump is not knowledgeable about policy, he is also not as dumb as many of his critics allege. For example, when he would tweet out good economic news, he would often exaggerate it on purpose, knowing that media reports would instantly go about correcting him—and unintentionally spreading good news they might otherwise have ignored.

Mulligan also praises Trump’s tendency during meetings to intuit many mostly correct economic conclusions even when it is clear he is approaching a given issue for the first time. Mulligan is likely either selective or exaggerating, though, considering Trump’s long pre-presidency track record on issues such as trade, immigration, and industrial policy.

On the negative side, Mulligan’s treatment of opiate policy is at best incomplete. This was one of his primary issues during his CEA tenure; for the most part, Mulligan’s book focuses on issues he personally worked on. On one hand, Mulligan is correct that subsidizing opiates has had negative unintended consequences, and he offers sound policy fixes. On the other hand, Mulligan dismisses ending the criminalization of recreational users or prescribing doctors.

Mulligan is also ok with Washington interfering in doctor-patient relationships involving chronic pain patients—one of whom was my late grandfather, who suffered a great deal of unnecessary pain because of federal policies such as Mulligan endorses.

He also does not address the larger criminal justice problems created by federal drug policy. Mulligan is so narrowly focused on price controls, that while his analysis is correct as far as it goes, he dismisses larger—and politically possible—fixes that lie outside of formal price theory.

While Mulligan writes well, his consistent capitalization is “Federal” is an off-putting stylistic decision. Government documents use the same device. Mulligan’s use of the same honorific does not help his desire to appear independent, even though this is an example of style, not substance.

His lengthy tangent on the lack of collusion in President Trump’s Russia scandal feels out of place, both in they way it copies Trump’s terminology, and because Mulligan had nothing to do with the scandal; “collusion” was not a legal term at issue in the case.

You’re Hired is a useful counter to Trump Derangement Syndrome, which can be almost as harmful as Trumpism. But Mulligan is too sanguine about the administration’s illiberalism. The administration’s policy successes on regulation, education, environmental policy, and assorted other issues do not excuse its deficit spending, its expansive view of executive power, its immigration policies, its poor COVID response, its embarrassing personality cult, embrace of fringe figures and conspiracy theories, its ill-timed stress-testing of liberal political institutions, and its divisive impact on American culture. The administration was neither wholly good nor wholly bad. It had elements of both. Neither should be overlooked.

Mulligan offers pointed criticisms and telling stories of trade adviser Peter Navarro, with whom he crossed paths several times. Since Mulligan also writes at length about immigration policy in the book, he should have done the same to immigration adviser Stephen Miller, who pushed the Trump administration’s family separation policies, casually uses slang terms drawn from white nationalism, frequently cites its literature, and has several personal and online connections to that world. History will not look kindly on Miller; neither should Mulligan.

Mulligan is credible, unlike trashy reality-tv personalities who have surrounded Trump, such as Omarosa Manigault and Michael Cohen. He is also not sycophantic like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Matt Gaetz, or large swathes of conservative media are. He is also a skilled economist and an unusually clear writer for an academic economist. But Mulligan’s omissions and kid-glove treatments give the impression that he’s holding a lot back.

As fear of a Trump tweet-storm recedes, hopefully Mulligan will be more forthcoming in the future. Future administrations’ policy teams would benefit from this, especially if Trump’s personality and populism remain part of the GOP going forward.

See also a CEI book forum featuring Mulligan. Reading this review over, it is a bit harsh for a book I have a positive opinion of. The book forum balances that out a bit while still asking some pointed questions.

Book Review: Muhammad Yunus – Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

Muhammad Yunus – Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007)

Yunus is a Bangladeshi economist who did much to popularize microlending—small loans to budding entrepreneurs in the developing world. He won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. This is his autobiography.

While his bottom-up approach to development is a massive improvement from the top-down model favored by economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and organizations like the World Bank, Yunus is not without his critics, and was touched by scandal in recent years. Now 80 years old, he is mostly retired.

Though not entirely objective, this is a good introduction to how a creative, entrepreneurial approach can have a large positive impact on philanthropy and economic development. There are lots of ways to cook an egg. Yunus’ recipe is one of many that are not perfect, but are still part of a healthy diet.

Further reforms must operate not just in finance or in this or that policy area, but also at the institutional level, such as property rights protections, and in culture, such as a general sense that openness, innovation, and commerce are good things, and corruption should be resisted, rather than tolerated.

Book Review: Eamonn Butler – Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist

Eamonn Butler –  Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist (Hampshire, UK: Harriman House, 2012)

Butler has written accessible intellectual biographies of several major classical liberal thinkers. His entry on Hayek does exactly what it intends to. While it does not offer the same depth as Bruce Caldwell’s lengthy Hayek’s Challenge, that isn’t Butler’s goal. Instead, in about 150 pages, students and lay readers can get high-level yet accessible explanations of spontaneous order, the importance of using bottom-up processes rather than top-down planning, and other key Hayekian concepts, plus a tour of Hayek’s major works.

His native Vienna was at its cultural and intellectual peak during his childhood, and most of his family were natural scientists, as were both of his children. This sparked his interest in evolutionary processes, in which intricate designs require no designer. He fought in World War I, earned two doctorates, was a members of Ludwig von Mises’ famous seminars, then joined the London School of Economics faculty and became a friend and rival to Keynes.

He moved permanently when the Nazis made their intentions clear, and wrote his most famous book, 1944’s The Road to Serfdom, from a barn well outside London, which was still under the Blitz. This period marked the end of Hayek’s technical economics work on business cycles and monetary theory. Hayek instead turned to a multidisciplinary approach that contributed to political philosophy, law, history, and science, as well as economics. Serfdom, one of Hayek’s first works from this new approach, is commonly misunderstood as a slippery-slope argument, in which any move away from liberalism will send a country on a one-way street to totalitarianism.

Hayek instead makes a package-deal argument. A planned economy requires getting rid of liberal institutions such as private property, equality before the law, and all the other common rights. Similarly, a society that respects human rights must also have a free economy. For Hayek, economic freedom and personal freedom are a package deal. These two liberalisms cannot be chosen a la carte; it’s both or neither.

Butler goes over the highlights of Hayek’s major early papers, collected in Individualism and Economic Order, though he gives too little attention to Hayek’s larger “Abuse of Reason” project, which was never completed, but include The Counter-Revolution of Science, and influenced much of his later work. Also under-served here is Hayek’s major psychological work, The Sensory Order. One of Hayek’s main arguments in this book is that a mind cannot fully understand something more complicated than itself. A policy implication is that a central planner can never fully understand how millions of individual minds think, interact, and make their own evolving plans.

Butler also tours the Constitution of Liberty, which is Hayek’s positive vision of what a free society’s institutional and legal structures would look like.

Hayek’s later Law, Legislation, and Liberty trilogy also gets a close inspection, with a chapter on Hayek’s views on social justice—which in this reviewer’s opinion, don’t entirely hold up. More important is Hayek’s distinction between higher principles of natural law, and the flawed man-made legislation that attempts to capture its essence—or, just as often, attempts to overrule it. Butler also goes into the usually-overlooked third volume, in which Hayek take a cue from Plato’s Republic and builds his own utopian institutional system. It’s a bit out there, and one of Hayek’s least essential works.

Hayek’s final book was The Fatal Conceit, which haunts every aspiring planner who thinks he can overcome the knowledge problems that have attempted to impose their own top-down philosophy on a bottom-up world.

Butler concludes with a look at Hayek’s legacy and what the future of liberalism might hold.

Book Review: Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Adam Minter – Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Waste not, want not. Minter’s tour of the global scrap and recycling industry is fascinating. He grew up in the industry, as the son of a scrapyard owner in Minnesota. As Minter got older and learned the business (and dealt with his father’s messy personal life), he discovered a whole world based on turning trash into treasure, and parlayed that into a journalism career, based in Shanghai. The amount of creativity and hidden efficiencies he finds are a source of optimism. A dreary-sounding dirty job turns out to be vibrant, innovative, and highly globalized.

At the same time, Minter is realistic about his industry. There are some shady goings-on in the circuit recycling and scrap metal industries in China, including corruption, dishonesty, and worker mistreatment. On balance, the ingenious ways entrepreneurs find to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste are good for the environment. But there are still some problems, especially in China. While these abuses are almost certainly greener than shutting down these industries would be, there is room for improvement.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, the most effective way to make sure people are responsible environmental stewards is to allow them to make a profit, and allow them to be creative. As in so many other policy areas, progress happens from the bottom up, not the top down.

Minter recently published a sequel of sorts, titled Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.

Book Review: Judith Herrin – Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

Judith Herrin – Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press , 2020).

Less a history of Ravenna, than a history of Europe from about 390 to 813 AD. Herrin’s history ranges from Late Antiquity (Early Christianity in Herrin’s terminology) up to Charlemagne. Ravenna is more of a constant background character in a larger narrative than the star.

Ravenna has a fascinating place in history, and I would have loved to have learned more about the city itself. As the Roman Empire’s focus moved east, the city of Rome lost its luster. Ravenna became something of a second capital city on the Italian peninsula. Emperors would live their entire lives in or near Ravenna, perhaps visiting Rome once or twice in their reign to give a ceremonial appearance before the Senate, which still existed, but had no purpose other than to keep Rome’s remaining wealth squabbling with each other rather than with the Emperor.

But the Empire’s center of gravity continued to move east past Ravenna, to Constantinople. Ravenna never really got its due as the capital of a major empire. First, Diocletian split the Empire into separate Eastern and Western halves in the late third century AD. This would have been Ravenna’s best time to shine, but it was always overshadowed by Constantinople, the Eastern capital. Then the Western half collapsed in 476, and Ravenna slowly descended into obscurity—though as Herrin shows, for this entire period, and for centuries to come, it was still home to fascinating figures and power struggles.

Herrin does not go into great detail about Ravenna’s layout, architecture, daily life and culture, economy, intellectual life, geography, or much else about he city. But she does an excellent job on her narrower focus of monarchs and politics. The amount of times Ravenna changed hands between Romans, Byzantines, Goths, and eventually proto-national dynasties is astounding. Ravenna might rarely have been the center of attention, but it was nearly always part of the action. Most of Herrin’s narrative centers around powerful rulers.

Galla Placidia (d. 437 AD), the daughter of the Gothic emperor Theodosius I and regent to Valentinian III, emerges as a powerful figure at a time when women rulers were extremely rare. She spent part of her early life in the household of the Roman general Stilicho (d. 408), who became a de facto emperor. She was captured by the invader Alaric’s army, and married the Visigothic king Ataulf, becoming their queen. After he was murdered, she eventually married the Roman emperor Constantius II, with whom she had a son, Valentinian III, and served as his regent.

Theoderic the Great (d. 526) was an Ostrogothic king who filled the power vacuum left by the fall of Rome, and fought off the Byzantines, as Eastern Empire had come to be called. As an Arian Christian, he played an outsize role in early Church schisms, which the Arians lost.

Justinian (d. 565) was Byzantine emperor about a generation after Theoderic’s time. He came as close as anyone to reuniting the two halves through his general Valisarius, though he ultimately fell short. He also issued an influential law code in 525, and the Hagia Sophia was built during his reign—though far from Ravenna.

After Justinian’s death, the Lombards (“long beards”), thought to be of Scandinavian origin, took over Northern Italy, including Ravenna. They were in turn displaced by the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled over large pats of what is now France, and then the Carolingian dynasty, which takes its name from its founder Carolus Magnus, which translates from the Latin as “Chuck the Great.” He is today known as Charlemagne.

Charlemagne represents a lot of things. Two of the most important are the power struggle between church and state, and the power dynamics between East and West. Ravenna was home to the Byzantine papacy from 537 to 752, when it moved back to Rome under Stephen III. This represented a shift in the center of gravity from the East back to the West. In 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in St. Peter’s Basilica—in Rome, not Ravenna. This was another data point for the Western revival. It also marked a shift in power from church back to state.

A third Carolingian theme is European unification. After centuries of squabbling between Romans, Byzantines, barbarians, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Muslims, Charlemagne centralized power over the whole region in himself. And again, Ravenna did not play a starring role. The main locations for this drama were in Rome and Aachen, Charlemagne’s rising capital to the North that had its own symbolic significance. But Ravenna was right there in the middle, taking it all in.

Herrin’s book might have done with either a different title, or with more attention paid to the city in its title. But it is still an excellent history about a period and a city that do not get enough attention from either historians or their readers.

Book Review: Joe Gross – Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker (33 1/3 Series)

Joe Gross – Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker (33 1/3 Series), (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2018)

The 33 1/3 book series contains over a hundred monograph-length treatments of classic music albums. It takes its name from an LP’s rotation speed, 33 1/3 RPMs. My friend Shawn Macomber sent me this one on one of my favorites, Fugazi’s 1993 In on the Kill Taker album. Gross interviews and quotes all four band members at length, and explores every facet of their careers.

It’s roughly organized as an introductory overview of the band followed by a chapter for each song on the album, plus occasional interludes. But within that framework Gross tends to wander quite a bit.

Fugazi actually recorded Kill Taker twice. The first attempt was in Chicago with Steve Albini, and did not turn out well. Albini is the singer/guitarist in Shellac, a well-known producer whose credits include Nirvana’s In Utero, and has an outspoken DIY ethos that meshes well with Fugazi’s. They worked well together and became good friends, but for some reason something was missing from from what they put on tape.

The band decided to try again at their hometown Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, VA with their longtime producer Don Zientara, and this time they captured the spark that was missing from the Albini sessions.

Gross, without being intrusive, goes into the band’s upbringing and personal lives to explain what made the band tick, and what was going on behind the scenes in the Kill Taker era. As a straightedge band— guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye (pronounced Mc-Eye) coined the term—Fugazi never had the substance abuse troubles and related drama that felled so many other bands. For the most part they have positive family lives, including the MacKaye’s parents’ famous Sunday dinner tradition, which the band, their significant others, and their friends scrupulously attended whenever they weren’t on tour.

But the album-tour-repeat grind was getting to the band a bit, and there is an undercurrent of weariness on the album. Of all Fugazi’s releases, Kill Taker is also the angriest. It marks a dissonant evolution from their earlier fusion of punk rock with dub reggae-style rhythms. The band members were only about 30 years old at this point, but they were already grizzled veterans of the music business. MacKaye had been in high-profile bands since he was a teenager, playing in the Teen Idles and then Minor Threat. Guy Picciotto, Fugazi’s other guitarist and co-lead vocalist, along with drummer Brendan Canty, was previously in the influential but short-lived Rites of Spring.

MacKaye’s co-founded record label, Dischord, was its own full-time business, and another source of stress. It started as a way to self-release MacKaye’s bands and document other local DC acts. But DC was home to so many top-notch bands that Dischord ended up becoming one of the country’s top indie labels. As of 2020, MacKaye still owns and runs the label, and is still putting out new releases.

Two other Dischord bands, Shudder to Think and Jawbox, signed to major labels around this time. The controversy this caused seems a bit silly in hindsight, but it was a big deal in the indie scene. Both MacKaye and the bands handled it with grace, but the experience was a headache, not least because of the fan outcry.

MacKaye, Fugazi, Dischord, and the DC punk scene have been covered in countless books and documentaries. MacKaye takes his role as a documentarian of DC’s punk scene seriously, and he has always been generous with granting interviews. But Gross still unearths a lot of fresh information here, about both Kill Taker and Fugazi’s career.

There are an unusual number of typos and misspellings for a book published by an academic press. But that didn’t take away from the joy I got from, for the first time in years, listening to Kill Taker again a few times through over the summer while reading this book, armed with new knowledge about what abstruse song titles like “Facet Squared” mean, and the stories behind lyrics I’ve wondered about or misheard for years.

James Madison on Why Politics Ruins Everything

Politics has a way of ruining everything. Even kind and intelligent people go through an instant metamorphosis when the conversation changes to politics. Their body language tenses up. Their word choices include more intensifiers. They say horrible things about strangers they would never say in a different context. Their mental processes change to in-group-vs.-out-group mode, as though we were hunter-gatherers again.

And this sudden intensity can turn on and off almost instantly, like a light switch, as the conversation veers from topic to topic. It’s certainly unpleasant, and possibly unhealthy.

This very human foible may be what inspired James Madison to write in Federalist No. 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

The median voter is not a wise person, at least about politics. But even if he was, the effects partisan politics has on the brain can shut down rational thought in even the best and brightest.

Happy Election Day, everyone.

America Really Is Revolutionary

Several scholars I respect, including Daniel Hannan in his 2013 book Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, have argued that the American Revolution was more of an attempt to return to traditional English principles, than to create something new.

He has a point. John Locke’s influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is obvious. The Founders also drew on Magna Carta, the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the rationalism of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, and the larger common law tradition.

Even so, this Burkean interpretation has always sat uneasily with me. I’ve struggled to articulate why, beyond a simple feeling that liberal revolutions–liberal in the original, correct sense–are generally not conservative.

Clemson University historian C. Bradley Thompson puts a finger on it in his 2019 book America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. Here is a passage from page 69, quoting from a June 5, 1824 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright:

Rather than searching into “musty records,” hunting up “royal parchments,” or investigating “the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry,” the Americans appealed to the great principles “of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.” The Revolution, according to Jefferson, presented the Americans with “an album on which we were free to write what we pleased.”

These are not the sentiments of someone who saw himself as defending tradition. Or, as the (English!) comedian Michael Palin put it in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Listen. Strange women, lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government!