Category Archives: Books

Gary Becker – Economic Theory, Second Edition

Gary Becker – Economic Theory, Second Edition

The book version of the late Nobel laureate Becker’s graduate level intro to microeconomics course at the University of Chicago. A little heavy on geometric and algebraic analysis for my taste, but still a valuable brush-up on fundamentals. As a non-academic, I don’t keep my chops sharp through teaching, so books like this are very useful. Even just thinking through the exercise questions for each chapter are a good intellectual workout.

Becker is best known for his work on the economics of discrimination, crime and punishment, and other non-traditional areas, and was one of the founders of the economics imperialist movement, which applies economic thinking and methodology to other disciplines. Other leading “imperialists” include Gordon Tullock, Levitt and Dubner of Freakonomics fame, and my former professor Peter Leeson, author of, among other books, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, and the more wide-ranging WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird.

A personal note: I briefly met Becker at an American Economic Association annual meeting in the mid-2000s. Milton Friedman had recently passed away, and Becker was chairing a panel to honor Friedman and his accomplishments.

I was standing near the door handing out flyers for a new Cato Institute book about Friedman’s education reform ideas (I was at the conference to help work Cato’s booth) when Becker walked up to me and asked what the room’s capacity was. Directly behind him was a sign that said in large lettering, “Room Capacity: 647” or so. I told him the number without mentioning the sign, and he thanked me and went on his way. I didn’t let on that I recognized him, since he was obviously busy. But to Becker’s credit, he didn’t act like a big shot. And that is how I accidentally met a Nobel-winning economist.


Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Despite the title, this delightful volume is no self-help book. It is mostly a biography of Montaigne, the 16th century Frenchman who invented the modern essay, which means “to try” or “to attempt”.

The very word captures Montaigne’s basic humility. He did not intend his essays to be definitive, or the last word on the subject. His writing style and his philosophy were thoughtful, gentle, playful, scattershot, introspective, and curious. Montaigne conspicuously lacked certainty and dogmatism, which occasionally got him in trouble. Above all else, he seemed to value peace and quiet, and seemed to view his time as Bordeaux’s mayor as a burden, not an honor. Readers who know me personally can understand why Montaigne has long been one of my favorite thinkers.

Bakewell expertly captures his spirit. Rather than a straight biography, she mimics Montaigne’s literary approach in the Essays. She tells the story of both Montaigne and his writings in bits and pieces, going on frequent tangents while staying mindful of larger themes, such as humility and taking joy in little things.

Aristotle – The Poetics

Aristotle – The Poetics

A shorter work with useful insights for appreciating storytelling in general, and Greek drama and poetry in particular. Aristotle offers a key insight for making a character believable: a character’s every action and every word should be based on either necessity or probability.

The plot necessitates some actions on the character’s part. What the audience knows about the character’s personality dictates the probability that his reactions are believable. To use a lowbrow example, the reason it’s so funny when Homer says something intelligent on The Simpsons is that is so out of character.

Some of Aristotle’s other ideas about what makes good drama or good poetry seems to be his personal taste. This being subjective, it need not be taken as gospel.

An Antitrust Analogy

One of the biggest problems with antitrust regulation is that the statutes are so vague it can be difficult to tell what is legal and what isn’t. From p. 28 of Robert Bork’s 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself:

To put the matter roughly, lawyers forming a partnership could lawfully agree on fields of exclusive specialization (which is market division) and the fees each should charge (price fixing), while the same lawyers, if they were not in a partnership, could not do these things lawfully.

The same logic applies to anything a company does in-house. Hiring an in-house accountant instead of using an outside firm is a form of vertical merger. So is hiring cleaning or cafeteria staff instead of using contractors. More than a century of case law has not settled the matter, at least for companies above a certain size (which also hasn’t been defined). The uncertainty can make companies hesitant to make efficiency-enhancing decisions that might benefit consumers.

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a morally neutral tool that can equally be used for good or bad purposes. It is important to use it wisely and only towards good ends. Athens having no professional lawyers, On Rhetoric was Aristotle’s guide to pleading one’s case in court, and to persuasion in general.

Aristotle first goes over the different elements of rhetoric, than turns his attention to the structure of an effective persuasive speech. Aristotle’s main concepts are the three pisteis of logos (logic and truth; basically the facts of the case), ethos (audience emotions about the orator as a person) and pathos (audience emotions about the orator’s arguments).

Another key Aristotelian concept of argumentative structure is the enthymeme, which has many forms, but always leaves at least one of its premises unstated. This is both a strength and a weakness. It can hide vulnerabilities, if only by failing to mention them. But to hide a weakness, it must have one in the first place.

The most famous example of an enthymeme is Hegel’s structure of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—with the unstated premise being that the synthesis is, in fact, plausible. This is often not the case.

This is the first place a skilled rhetorician should attack such an argument. But few people can identify such an argument on the fly when it is being made, let alone know where that weak spot is.

So in many cases, especially in ancient Athens’ non-professional legal system, enthymemes can be used on offense with little fear of having to play defense. Again, Aristotle stresses, rhetoric by itself is morally neutral. Its powers can be used for good or for evil, depending on who wields it. Use it wisely.

Aristotle – The Politics

Aristotle – The Politics

Another fundamental work in its discipline. Despite never having read it until now, it still felt like review. This may be because it has influenced every major work since. Aristotle goes through the positives and negatives of the three major forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

Drawing from The Nicomachean Ethics and its emphasis on moderation, Aristotle prefers the mean version of each type of government to its extreme versions. Ever the taxonomist, Aristotle spends a good chunk of the book discussing weak, medium, and strong variants of all three forms of government.

Aristotle also takes a stab at constructing his ideal state, though not to the same level of detail as his teacher Plato did in The Republic. In line with the times, Aristotle has only a grudging acceptance of trade and commerce, arguing for ports to be built at a distance from the polis to keep moral degradation away, and to trade only for things the polis cannot produce for itself.

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s major work on ethics. It was named for either Aristotle’s son or father, who were both named Nicomachus. Basically lecture notes from his classes, this later work supersedes the earlier Eudemian Ethics. The major theme here is the golden mean. Courage lies between cowardice and rashness; liberality lies between being a cheapskate and a spendthrift; moderation in all things.

Aristotle’s views on slavery, women, and a few other topics show this work’s age. But the overall impression is one of human decency, if with a somewhat stiff and formal demeanor. Closely connected with The Politics, which was written later, The Nicomachean Ethics focuses mostly on the individual and those close to him. The Politics applies similar thinking outward to larger social and political life. Unlike many modern political combatants, Aristotle thought ethics and politics to be related.