Category Archives: Books

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

The story of the Joad family’s heartbreaking journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to Depression-wracked California. It can be a hard read, not just because of the characters’ exaggerated Okie dialect, but because the characters endure so much hardship through no fault of their own. For all his literary merits, Steinbeck was unfortunately not much of an economic analyst. Since much of his work was intended to make economic arguments, this causes some problems.

For starters, any first-year economics student can spot the common economic error in the following exchange on p. 241 of the Penguin edition (here’s a hint):

“Well, we all go to make a livin’.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “On’y I wisht they was some way to make her ‘thout takin’ her away from somebody else.”

In a market economy, people make money by creating value for other people—this is a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. For one person to have more, does not mean that another person must have less. The zero-sum model is often accurate for cronyism and for government, but not for voluntary activity. Deals don’t happen unless all parties expect to benefit. Steinbeck seems unable to tell the difference between cronyism and capitalism.  His attacks on cronyism ring true, but he keeps calling them capitalism, inaccurately. Many of the injustices in the book, whether perpetrated by banks, farm owners, company store clerks, or others, persist only because they have backing from politicians or police.

The scene in which the above conversation takes place involves just such a confusion of markets and cronyism. Most of the California-bound Joad family is staying at a campground somewhere in New Mexico where the owner charges 50 cents per night. Tom Joad arrives to meet his family there hours later, after fixing up a car. The owner wants to charge Tom as well, since he wasn’t with his family when they first arrived.

Tom says if that’s how it is, then fine. He won’t put up a fight. He’ll camp down the road instead, where he can avoid being charged. The owner says there is vagrancy law on the books, and he’ll call the police if Tom does that. Paying up is his only option. Tom, who is a bit smarter than most of the other characters, asks if the local sheriff is his brother-in-law, since that is a pretty sweet arrangement for the campground owner.

Steinbeck portrays this as capitalism, unmoored by greed. He’s right that the campground owner is a greedy man of low character. But there is nothing capitalist or free-market about him. Tom has an available alternative he prefers to paying money—sleeping a little farther down the road. Instead, the campground owner is using a government law, backed by government police, to force Tom to pay money for a service he doesn’t want. What is free-market about that?

This was not the only economic confusion surrounding the Joads’ story. The movie version of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the few American films allowed to be shown in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Its depiction of American hardship and poverty at the hands of capitalist oppressors sent a message he wanted the Soviet people to hear.

It backfired. Most Soviet people who saw the movie instead came away in awe that in America, even the poorest of the poor could afford their own car. In the USSR, only the elites had access to cars. Moreover, the Joads could travel across the country without a work permit or an internal passport.

Steinbeck brilliantly shows how physically draining and spiritually crushing poverty is. He shows how important it is to make life more secure and dignified for people at the economic bottom. In my own work as a policy analyst, poverty eradication is one of the top criteria by which I judge public policies, from tariffs to occupational licensing to minimum wage laws. In that sense, Steinbeck offers a vivid reminder of why I do what I do. What policies can make life better for people like the Joads? While Steinbeck had his eye on the right prize, he also had a poor grasp of what keeps it out of peoples’ reach.

Walter Scheidel – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Walter ScheidelEscape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

Since Rome fell, there has never been another empire so large, so dominating, and so enduring. Scheidel asks, why is that? His short answer is polycentrism. In post-Rome Europe, squabbling among kings and nobles prevented unitary states of any significant size from emerging. The rise of the Catholic church added church-vs.-state competition to the mix. The church itself had numerous internal splits leading to the Reformation, adding intra-church competition to the mix. As the economy slowly recovered from the Dark Ages, transportation and trade added economic competition to the mix.

A bit of context: Rome was founded in 753 B.C., at least according to mythical lore. Though Rome itself fell in 476 A.D., its government remained the de facto political system in much of Western Europe for another two centuries until Arab conquerors ringed three quarters of the Mediterranean and cut Europe off from long-distance trade. The Empire’s  Eastern half, the Byzantine Empire, continued until 1453 A.D. In all, the same state held sway over significant territory for more than 2,000 years—as much as a hundred generations. Nothing like that breadth or length has been approached before or since.

This is not for lack of trying. Europe alone had Merovingian and then Carolingian France; post-Columbian empires by the Netherlands, Spain, England, France, and Belgium; the Habsburgs; Napoleon; and America’s own efforts in Latin American and the Phillipines. Asia had Attila the Hun; Post-Mohammed Arab conquerors; Genghis Khan and his descendants’ four empires; Tamerlane; Imperial Russia; Chinese dynasties from the Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing; Japan’s Imperial Period; and more. None of these empires stuck around the way Rome did.

Scheidel’s answer to why Rome has never repeated is essentially a broader-ranging, but less sophisticated version of Harold J. Berman’s thesis in Law and Revolution, which applies polycentric frameworks to the evolution of law. Berman does not appear anywhere in the notes; Scheidel would likely find a lot to like in Berman. Berman also argued that his narrow polycentrism thesis applied much more widely. But as a specialist in the law, he intentionally confined himself to that, leaving a natural opening for someone like Scheidel. Nor does Scheidel cite Henri Pirenne, who not only dates the fall of Rome differently than Scheidel, but emphasized decentralized economic and political institutions as important engines of openness and progress. It would be a short step for Scheidel to add that such decentralization and polycentrism is also an important check against a re-emerging empire.

He also leans on economic historian Joel Mokyr’s arguments about a “culture of technology” leading to change and progress. Scheidel argues that dynamism prevents power concentrating in one set of hands for too long. Near the end, he also cites Deirdre McCloskey’s emphasis on values—when people hold roughly liberal cultural values, empire cannot emerge.

On the minus side, Scheidel relies too heavily on counterfactuals. Historians and social scientists use them sometimes to ask “what if?” some event or policy had turned out differently. For example, how would history have changed if the Nazis had won World War II? There is no way to know for sure. There is some value in these thought experiments, but they should not be treated as serious evidence. Initially defending them as an edgy alternative to traditional analysis, he leans on them throughout the book, shoehorning them into his narrative where they do not fit, and where they neither help nor hurt his polycentrism thesis. Most bizarre is his “what if Europe and East Asia switched places on the map?” What is London faced the Pacific, and China faced the Atlantic? It is never clear how this relates to Scheidel’s thesis about empires and polycentrism.

Escape from Rome is a good read. Scheidel’s polycentrism thesis is compelling and, in my estimation, largely correct. The best defense against a monopoly is competition. As with markets, so with geopolitics. Excising most of his counterfactual nonsense would have made this lengthy book shorter while improving its quality of argumentation.

Edmund Morris – Edison

Edmund Morris – Edison

This book is organized chronologically, but backwards, and for no good reason. Morris, who passed away after finishing this book but before its publication, gives no explanation for his mistaken choice. The book begins, as most biographies do, with a late-life “Exhibit A” scene with the main character in peak form. But instead of moving back to the beginning to show how the person became that way, Morris starts with Edison’s final decline, then goes back a decade at a time in each chapter. Each chapter also is roughly themed, though mostly by title only, based on what Edison was working on at the time—phonographs, electricity and lighting, war-related inventions during World War I, and so on. Edison’s approach to life was so scattershot that this approach doesn’t really work, either. The final chapter covers Edison’s formative years, with a brief epilogue returning to his death. This historiographical choice is an experiment, fitting its subject’s temperament. Also befitting many Edisonian experiments, it doesn’t work.

We meet his children when they are already fully-formed adults who have already experienced all of their major successes and mistakes. Only later do we see them falling in love and entering into marriages that we had already seen fail in earlier chapters, or begin to fight personal demons of which we had long since seen the consequences. Only after/before all that, do we finally see them as young children missing their distant father and get a sense of why they turned out as they did.

Edison seems to mostly remain the same person throughout. He had a salty temperament, but wasn’t necessarily mean. He also didn’t necessarily mind being mostly deaf. It spared him from distractions and gave him an easy out in social situations he wasn’t interested in, and gave him a running excuse to be cranky. He insisted on working long hours while barely eating, which led to numerous chronic health problems, though he still lived and worked to an advanced age. He also enjoyed being a bit of a showman, and had a keen interest in marketing his inventions and in promotional gimmicks. He had an odd way of not much caring about other people, yet having a need to be on their mind. He used an earthy, avuncular sense of humor to attempt to endear himself to people, though he could be clumsy about it.

Totally deaf in later years, even the young Edison was deaf in one ear and had limited hearing in the other, unable to hear high frequencies such as birdsongs after about age 12. It is miracle that he essentially invented recorded music. He had a surprisingly keen sense of sonic quality, though he had some odd ideas about, and a stubborn streak that limited his progress as other inventors improved on his technologies. For more on that, see

Morris also has some pretty basic misunderstandings. At the end of the book, when he fially gets to describing Edison’s father, he repeatedly describes him as “libertarian.” The elder Edison was a confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, and didn’t necessarily respect property laws. Opposition to slavery and respect for property rights are fundamental to any liberal philosophy; its is shocking that Morris doesn’t get that—enough to question his ability to interpret other matters more important to his subject.

Stanley Kim Robinson – Green Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book Two)

Kim Stanley Robinson – Green Mars

The second volume of Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and more enjoyable than the first. The characters, style, setting, main plot points, and stylistic conventions were established in the first book, so this book can get to the point more quickly. Red Mars began with a barren, untouched planet with its first hundred colonists just getting started in 2026 (the series came out in the 1990s). By the end, 35 years of active terraforming and immigration were making a noticeable difference in habitability, and Mars even had its first political revolution in 2061. Green Mars starts several decades after that revolution.

Political stability and ongoing terraforming lead to Mars being able to sustain first lichens, and then plants in its thickening atmosphere and warming climate. Robinson shines as he describes the various terraforming methods they try, ranging from solar arrays in space that increase Mars’ solar gain to inducing volcanism to release greenhouse gases. By the end of the book, Mars has warmed enough to have some liquid surface water here and there—hence the third book’s title, Blue Mars. The atmosphere has also thickened and warmed enough for humans to breathe with only the aid of a breathing mask and some warm clothing. This comes in handy, as the book ends with another revolution and Mars declaring its independence from Earth.

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

This book reminded me a bit of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants in its tech- and innovation-centric hyper-optimism. His optimism isn’t quite as sober as the Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, or Hans Rosling variety, but Diamond’s enthusiasm is contagious. Readers interested in this subgenre might also like John Tamny’s The End of Work and Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.

One useful contribution Diamond makes is a deep dive into just how disruptive new technologies are. For workers, the changes are often less severe than commonly thought. When cars replaced buggies, they still needed wheels, frames, and upholsteries, for example. Those workers’ skills did not become obsolete, though they did have to evolve. Many disruptive technologies take years or even decades for widespread adoption.

Ultimately, Diamond makes a culture-based argument for explaining technological progress. It takes more than research and development, or available capital for entrepreneurs. It takes a culture that approves of such things. People need to be willing to try something new and see if they like it or not. They need to have a certain audacity, or at least a positive view of it. People aren’t likely to give it a go if it makes them a pariah. Though Diamond openly admires Schumpeter—hence the phrase “creative destruction” in the title—ultimately his argument owes more to Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey.

Douglas Adams – So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Douglas Adams – So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

The fourth volume of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. After eight long years, our hero Arthur Dent finds himself back on Earth—better, it’s even in his own time. By now, he is more than ready to resume normal life. This being a Douglas Adams book, this is not going to happen. But unlike the previous volumes, the majority of this book takes place on Earth, and Arthur even falls in love.

Arthur receives a mysterious gift of an immaculately made fishbowl in the mail. He soon finds out the all the world’s dolphins have disappeared. Those versed in Hitchhiker’s lore will know that these two things are related.

Douglas Adams – Life, the Universe, and Everything

Douglas Adams – Life, the Universe, and Everything

The third volume of Adams’ Hitchikers of the Galaxy series. The opening scene is classic. The previous book ended with protagonist Arthur Dent back on Earth, but stranded alone, two million years in the past. This book begins with Arthur winding his way through several solitary years. One day, out of the blue, a spaceship lands. Is he being saved at last? An alien being walks out, holding a clipboard. “Arthur Dent?” He asks. “Yes.” “Arthur Philip Dent?” “Yes.” “You’re a jerk.” With this, the alien walks back into his ship and flies off. It is another two years before Arthur finds his friend Ford Prefect and off they go on another adventure with ex-President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the depressed robot, and others.