- Enrico Moretti, The New Geography of Jobs
Combines a popularization of some economic theory—of the sort that you’d read in Fujita, Krugman, and Venables, for instance—with the sort of boilerplate that you’d expect out of any popular work of economics nowadays. The author has to travel to see how Innovation is being done in various cities, for instance. This is all just filler. The author is an economist in good standing, and Krugman himself seemed to like it, so who am I to say that it’s underwhelming?
The basic premise is that we’re being sorted into thriving cities and failing cities, and that this sorting is self-reinforcing: people move to where other college graduates are, for instance, which only reinforces the strength of cities that already contain a lot of college graduates. As a big Boston booster, I’m happy about this. I’m unsure in a couple directions, though. First, the book makes some pretty strong conclusions about San Francisco, Boston, and New York, and on the other side about Detroit and Flint. But what about cities whose economic future is less certain, like Pittsburgh? Other than that these cities are teetering on a knife’s edge, which could lead them to either of two disparate futures, I don’t know what to conclude. As Moretti mentions at one point, economists have a term for this: “multiple equilibria”. For our purposes, this just means that self-reinforcing processes can either lead to self-reinforcing success or self-reinforcing failure. It’s probably good that Moretti didn’t try to make any predictions about the Pittsburghs of the world; predictions are above his pay grade.
A second question concerns what we’re to do with his Seattle-versus-Albuquerque example. Microsoft was established in Albuquerque but soon moved to Seattle, with fateful consequences for the economic success of the latter city. Albuquerque continues to linger in the doldrums. Seattle rose from a backwater to where it is today.
So what does that all tell us about Detroit? Is Detroit today like Seattle before Microsoft?
Maybe the answer is ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
The main thing I took away from this book is that we can only have a functioning democracy if our institutions support a basic respect for the truth. Putin succeeds by destroying the very concept of an objective reality, and by brazenly lying in front of everyone. The connection with Donald Trump is clear, and terrifying.
This book also pretty firmly cemented for me the idea that Trump is directly in the thrall of the Russian government.
Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc.
I didn’t really understand what was going on here. I also didn’t really understand what was going on in Wiener’s more-technical book Cybernetics. The thing about Wiener is that he’s one of the 20th century’s most brilliant scientists and mathematicians, with a beautiful Victorian style. Ideas that are seemingly quite obvious to him are not obvious at all to his readers, or at least this one.
Tim Weiner, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
I’ve read quite a number of books about Nixon now: All the President’s Men, of course, about the Watergate coverup, and then the same authors’ The Final Days, about the collapse of the Nixon White House that followed on the final Watergate revelations; and then John Dean’s yeoman-like The Nixon Defense, which gets down to the nitty-gritty of what Nixon said exactly when, on which tapes.
No book before Weiner’s, in my experience, even approaches his skill at connecting the Vietnam War to Watergate. The paranoia of the Nixon White House comes through on every page, and we see the bombing of Indochina escalate in lockstep with the man’s rapid mental decay. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough, both for its important historical clarifications and because it’s written with the driving force of a novel.
Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
This is an astoundingly poorly written book. That’s a shame, because the fundamental premise deserves to be more widely understood: misogyny isn’t about individual people being misogynists. Misogyny, in Manne’s telling, is about what happens when men believe that women owe them something—for instance, affection, or sexual favors, or housework—and that expectation is violated. To quote her list of gender-coded possessions:
Hers to give (feminine-coded goods and services): attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children (i.e., social, domestic, reproductive, and emotional labor); also mixed goods, such as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort; versus His for the taking (masculine-coded perks and privileges): power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, “face,” respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love, devotion, etc.
Manne takes this very expansive definition and lets it encompass even such seemingly trivial behaviors as mansplaining. She also counts it as misogyny if your wife cheats on you and you attack the other man:
when this sense is challenged, thwarted, violated, or threatened, this is often the trigger for misogyny toward her—or, in some cases, violence against male rivals who have trespassed on his supposed property. He might also seize what he thinks he is owed by her: that is, what he is supposed to have been given by a woman, and what is then supposed to be his for the taking.
Call that misogyny if you will. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like misogyny. Manne would probably deny my right, as a male, to tell her what is and isn’t misogyny, so do what you will with this.
Only if you really enjoy reading lifeless academic prose should you bother with this book. I expect that Manne, in making the rounds of the book-tour circuit, will either talk about this book on a podcast or write up a blog post about it; it would be better to find one of those and save yourself the aggravation of reading this book.
G.A. Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?
Cohen charts his migration from Marxist to Rawlsian and back to a position that nicely mixes Christianity with Rawls. He argues that you can’t be as indifferent to the individual moral behaviors of individual humans as Rawls would have it—that you need to take something from Christian teaching, and care about the inner life of the human as well. Merely building a basic structure, à la Rawls or Marx, isn’t enough. Merely building a just society isn’t enough; you need to give away much of what you own, as well.
There’s also something to Cohen’s argument structure that I find enjoyable here. He’ll periodically stop to sketch out an argument of Rawls’s or Marx’s, and write it down in precise “if A then B” form. He intersperses this blueprint-drawing with delightful anecdotes from his own upbringing in Canada and the U.K. This is one of the nicer combinations of abstract philosophizing and real human-interest story that I’ve ever read.
I moved on from here to Cohen’s Marx’s Theory of History. Somewhat similar structure, but certainly more rigorous and less breezy. I’ve found it slow going.
Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein
I barely understood a word of this. It’s a hardcore scientific biography. If you’re not clear on what a covariant and a contravariant tensor are (and I’m not), then this book will make no sense to you. I’m sure it’s great if you have the right background.
Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism
As Slobodian tells it, neoliberalism wasn’t born to remove the shackles of government from the market. Instead, it was born to build a protective shield around the market—to protect the market from the twin ravages of nationalism and democracy. As the World Wars ended, empires fell, and a new order had to be established by which free trade would be allowed to function between the newly established states. Meanwhile, the people demanded protection from the market. How could capitalism continue to function when subjected to these new stresses? The market needed to be walled off from democracy. It needed a constitution, by which the people’s ability to interfere with economic order would be strictly controlled.
This book should probably be read alongside Eichengreen’s brilliant Globalizing Capital. That book maps out what happens to governments as democracy ascends; they no longer have the power to defend exchange rates at all costs, and now must use some of their resources to provide for their people. The gold standard fell away precisely because governments had to listen more to their people. I suspect Slobodian would say that exactly this sort of populism is what scared Hayek and the other fathers of neoliberalism.
James Comey, A Higher Loyalty
Worth reading, if only because everyone talks about it and few people read it. It’s good to be one of the people who actually knows what he or she is talking about.
I certainly left the book feeling a lot better about Comey than I did before I went in. He paints his career with the FBI as being essentially about preserving the agency’s reputation at all costs. He’s an institutionalist, and he asks us to judge all his actions relative to that goal. The main reason everyone hates him is that he announced to the world, mere days before the election of 2016, that the FBI would be reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. In his telling, he had no choice: had he not told the world about the reopened investigation, after having previously declared that investigation closed, the FBI would be accused of having withheld important information from the American public just before an election.
If nothing else, it certainly seems that Comey was in a no-win situation. So if nothing else, I have sympathy for the position the man was in.
Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
This is an enjoyable history of 20th- and 21st-century media, framing radio and television and the Internet as, essentially, technologies that trade in a limited currency called “attention”.
Bill Browder, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice
This is the story of how Browder became the largest foreign investor in Russia and got himself kicked out of the country. We know Browder today because the Russian government tortured and killed Browder’s tax accountant, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder spent months fighting the Obama administration to pass the Magnitsky Act, by which those involved in Magnitsky’s death lose their assets held abroad.
This book tells the story of Browder’s rise to wealth, the agonizing death of his friend, and of Browder’s fight to ensure that his friend’s death wasn’t in vain. I couldn’t put it down.
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