My annual exhortation to students, friends, and family to read more started out as a bit of advice and has turned into a longer project than I had imagined (see 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016). Each December, people nudge me with “Where’s this year’s list?” So I start to pull together a few notes as I reflect back on the year’s reading; then the notes grow and grow. Out of embarrassment at my own prolixity, I whittle and whittle. There are too many interesting items; but I must not strain the patience of my audience. Pressure grows as the post crystallizes amidst holiday activities. Pressing “send” before the 31st carries my hopes that it will give a boost to New Year’s resolutions.
So Read! It stimulates creativity, broadens the aperture of response to opportunities and problems, and elevates one’s standard of excellence. It is impossible to write well if you don’t read well. “Reading maketh a full man,” wrote Francis Bacon in the 16th Century. To be “full” is to be both broad and deep—or ‘T’ shaped–in one’s thinking. It is good to know a little about a lot, and a lot about a little. Reading helps you get there:
· For breadth, you can draw on social media, blogs, periodicals and newspapers to alert you to important ideas as they are forming out there in society. I look at about a dozen blogs with some regularity and get reliable jolts from Economist’s View, Seeking Alpha, Ritholtz’s Reads, Early Returns, Calculated Risk, Axios Science, and Financial Revolutionist. The periodicals I follow remain largely unchanged from prior years: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Charlottesville Daily Progress, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Wired, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, and the Economist. I’ll admit that I read some of these more carefully than others. I pay more attention to contrasting opinion pieces, to news about developments that are potentially pivotal, and to topics that I’m currently writing or teaching about.
· For depth, nothing beats books. Books afford richness, complexity, better stimulation, and sharper analytical thinking; and they strengthen one’s ability to focus. Books needn’t be work: depending on what you’re reading, books can entertain, transport, and relax. In a typical year, I’ll finish fifty-ish books, which summons the disbelief of my students. “How can you possibly read all this?” they ask. Intentionality is my answer. You have to want to read broadly and deeply and to focus on good material. Duty is another part of my answer: it’s my job. The people I serve expect me to be up-to-date in my fields of expertise. Self-discipline is a third part: I don’t spend much time watching TV or endlessly surfing the Web for trivia. I manage my time and life in ways to make room for plenty of reading. A good evening for me is a good dinner followed by an hour or two of reading. And a fourth part of my answer would be adaptability: I adjust the time that I give to a book according to what I’m getting from it. Francis Bacon (again!) said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
“Best hits” of 2017
Biography. I started Bill Clinton’s My Life before the 2016 election and finished as the winter of 2017 wore on. Compared to other presidential memoirs, this is one of the best (an opinion unburdened by ideological leaning). Clinton claims to have written every word of it himself, which is plausible given the unity of voice throughout and the consistency of that voice with the way that Clinton actually talks. As with all other presidential memoirs, Clinton abjures his errors and seizes credit for his administration’s successes. He settles some scores with enemies—Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is at the top of the list. And he is reasonably frank about his own shortcomings and the humiliation and disgrace of his impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky affair. “What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it.” (page 774) A sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones triggered impeachment proceedings. He was absolved of allegations of sexual harassment, perjury, and abuse of power when only 50 of the 100 senators voted to remove Clinton (67 votes were needed). How times change: in the context of current outrage over sexual harassment by powerful men, would today’s Senators treat Clinton so benignly? For a well-written complement to Clinton’s memoir, read Patrick J. Maney’s, Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President—it is an objectively critical assessment. Maney concludes, “personal resiliency may be Clinton’s most durable legacy. What historian Garry Wills wrote of Richard Nixon upon his death was equally true of Bill Clinton: “He rose again, eerily, from each stumble or knockout, apparently unkillable. He raised undiscourageability to heroic scale”” (page 271.) (Like Clinton’s memoir, Nixon’s RN, is very well-written, and shapes a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions.)
Is another presidential tragedy in the making? The book by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed, reports some “bigly” ambition, self-promotion, and ego, but not much in the way of impeachable offenses. Kranish and Fisher conclude, “He was offering not an ideology, but a nostalgic journey to a better place. James W. Ceaser of the University of Virginia described the Trump phenomenon as less an “ism” and more a “mood” that struck with impressive force” (page 318.)
Why do politicians write what they do about themselves? Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History reviews the enormous literature of self-disclosure and portrays a range of uncomplimentary motives: vanity, revenge, and the effort to polish a tarnished reputation. Neglecting facts and/or bending them is common to memoirs, but not always intentional. Yagoda wrote that distortions and errors “creep in immediately after an event, especially when a person is trying to remember it …Suggestibility can arrive in many forms…the Act of memoir writing represents something very different from a neutral attempt to remember. Beneath the account of every incident, episode, or character is an interpretation of one’s life. Beneath that is the implied need to justify the whole enterprise of putting that life on paper, to show that in some way it makes a good story. The result is all kinds of internal suggestion.” (pages 104-105.)
Economics and Finance. While doing some research and writing about the 18th Century, I decided to delve into Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The unabridged version is a big book and worth every page. For their time, the ideas that Smith presented were revolutionary; the subsequent years have done nothing to diminish their potency. My favorites are 1) his explanation for the division of labor into specialties (because it is more efficient); 2) his arguments for the gains from foreign trade and comparative advantage (because each nation focuses on what it can do best and gets paid well for it); 3) his attack on mercantilism and protectionism (because it entails large opportunity costs from foregone gains from trade); and 4) his notion that people respond to incentives—all of these are hugely relevant to economic policy debates today. There are no elegant models here; no puzzling equations or graphs. It is all written in fairly plain English.
Of similar interest to me was Ron Chernow’s, Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton is to government economic policy as Adam Smith is to economic theory. Hamilton was a brilliant architect of economic policy and foresaw (along with Smith) the massive impact that government could have on national economic development. Chernow’s account presents the man in full: visionary, articulate, and administratively adept—as well as tempestuous, vain, ambitious, and impulsive. Hamilton warrants close study by professionals in business and public affairs as one of the iconic policy entrepreneurs in history. I have yet to see the musical, Hamilton!, but can understand why Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by Chernow’s book to take Hamilton’s life to the stage. Among Chernow’s books, Hamilton may well be his best.
Andrew Lo’s Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought is a comprehensive review of the state of theory and research about the functioning of financial markets. The dominant concepts of market efficiency and rationality occupy a somewhat diminished status in the pantheon of finance theory. Efficiency and rationality are still worthy of study, but mainly as special cases of a much richer view of financial markets as they are affected by cognitive biases, information asymmetries, technological advances, regulations, and all manner of anomalies. Lo’s book helps one understand the propensity of a stable financial system to tend toward instability.
Data Analysis. I have written about economic disasters of various kinds. Readers ask, “Why didn’t the leaders foresee this awful outcome?” This brings me to the general subject of forecasting. Nate Silver’s, Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t is an excellent complement to two books that I recommended last year, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction and Duncan Watts’s, Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer. Silver goes broad where Tetlock/Gardner and Watts go deep, and is very persuasive that forecasting with confidence is extremely difficult. A good deal of difficulty derives from the fact that forecasters get wedded to a framework or outlook and fail to detect when conditions change. It turns out that the most effective forecasters are intellectually aware and nimble; they regularly revise forecasts based on new information. To do so is to practice the implications of Bayesian statistics. The book by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, The Theory that Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule cracked the enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines & emerged triumphant from two centuries of controversy, gives an excellent, engaging, and persuasive overview of the subject. McGrayne wrote, “Conceptually, Bayes’ system was simple. We modify our opinions with objective information: Initial beliefs…+ Recent Objective Data…= A New and Improved Belief.” (page 8). This seems so easy. Yet an abundance of research shows that people are reluctant to modify opinions; we get anchored to past experience and prior beliefs such that we discount fresh information. As a result of reading this book, I have reflected usefully on issues as diverse as detecting the onset of financial crises, managing processes of technological innovation, and recruiting leaders.
Fiction. I’m the fifth of five sons, which has tended to draw me to novels and histories about brotherhood. For years, I’ve resolved to tackle Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and finally did so. It is a turbulent story about the love and conflicts among three brothers and their difficult father. This is not an easy read: the plot sprawls with flash-backs and digressions; the narrator changes often; the hero of the novel (the likeable youngest brother J) is absent for some of the most important action; and the reader is left hanging with unresolved questions about the fate of the characters, their motives, and the immense dilemmas that the book opens. Yet the book strongly warrants your time: it is an extended exploration of the debates about the virtues of free will versus faith in God, modernization versus tradition, and thinking versus doing. One of the greatest works in world literature, The Brothers Karamazov bears revisiting to harvest the rich range of insights latent there.
In the genre of crime novels, the hero is almost always on the fringe of society: Sherlock Holmes was a recluse and laudanum addict; Hercule Poirot was a loner too perfect for bonhomie; and Lisbeth Salander (the girl with dragon tattoo) was part of the cyberpunk underground. I raved about Steig Larsson’s trilogy about Salander and was glad that David Lagercrantz would sustain the crime series after Larsson’s untimely death. Lagercrantz’s latest in the series, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, offers less character development than Larsson’s oeuvre, but carries forward this mysterious yet appealing heroine with a fast-paced yarn.
History. I have enjoyed immensely reading two books by Stanford history professor, Richard White. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America is an extraordinary history of how a new technology can shape the social, political, economic, and environmental fabric of a nation. This is Big History: taking a half-century and focusing on one sector of the economy is marvelously instructive. White disabuses the conventional notion that building the transcontinental railroads was easy or entirely beneficial. The larger challenge to leaders and policy-makers is this: is infrastructure spending generally a good thing? If done wisely, I’ve always believed that it is. White’s book reminds us that wisely is the crucial word.
White’s other book, The Republic for Which it Stands is a history of the U.S. from 1865 to 1896, the end of the Civil War to the election of William McKinley as President—Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age.” As he describes it, this is the “flyover country” in American history, a period in which people assume that nothing much happened and that the U.S. motored along just fine. In fact, the opposite is true: it was a period of polarizing conflicts and great social stresses. The U.S. grew pell-mell during this episode as a result of immigration, technological innovation, Westward settlement, urbanization, and yes, infrastructure spending. How the country dealt with the stresses induced by that growth is highly instructive to leaders today. The experience of the U.S. in the late 19th Century lends useful perspective on issues recently in the news such as growth of the emerging economies, official corruption, stability of the financial system, and racial injustice. In passing, please note that The Republic for Which it Stands is part of The Oxford History of the United States, a series of volumes prepared by leading historians and written in sufficiently great detail to capture the incredible process of development moving forward in parallel streams at any moment. Each of the books is hefty and not for the faint of heart. I’ve read six of the nine volumes, but have seen enough to recommend enthusiastically the entire collection. In previous posts on recommended books I have suggested a decade-long reading program in American history based on the Oxford History series as the place to start.
Richard White warrants his chops as one of the eminent big picture historians of the current day. His histories are compelling and richly documented–and they are rather dark and depressing. His broad canvas diminishes almost to triviality some buoyant developments of the era such as inventions in telecommunication, electric illumination, and transportation; the rise of science and research through individuals (such as Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray) and institutions (such as the founding of Johns Hopkins University); the advent of honest government through civil service reform; and the astonishing growth in real GDP per capita that lifted the standard of living for the entire nation.
Social Unrest The violent protests in Charlottesville on August 12th reminded us that democracy functions best in the context of nonviolent social debate. The book by Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich illustrates the counterfactual: military defeat and economic repression polarize a society to such an extent that ordinary democratic processes succumb to the blandishments of a tyrant. Thoughtful debate descends into street violence among gangs sponsored by opposing parties. The vortex of state collapse sucks the broad middle class into the embrace of a madman. Evans is perhaps the foremost scholar on the rise of the Nazis and has produced a book that is both deep in documentation and engagingly written. Though I knew the outcome, I kept turning pages avidly as if reading a suspense thriller. How did the Nazis pull off the takeover of one of the most advanced and culturally-sophisticated societies? Evans’s final chapter points to the effect of the depression, some sinister roots in German culture, and the ideas of the Nazi movement itself. Evans wrote, “Its ideas evidently had a wide appeal to the electorate, or at least were not so outrageous as to put them off. Its dynamism promised a radical cure for the Republic’s ills. Its leader Adolf Hitler was a charismatic figure who was able to drum up mass electoral support by the vehemence of his rhetorical denunciations of the unloved Republic, and to convert this into political office, finally, by making the right moves at the right time.” (page 447.)
Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, literally offers 20 lessons as the chapter headings in this short polemic on tyrannical rulers. “Beware of paramilitaries” will be excellent advice to city councils when the season of protest returns in the spring. Snyder is a history professor at Yale and writes, “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from [fascism and communism]. This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” (page 13.)
Mark Lilla’s book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, is a critique of the Democratic Party following its defeats in November, 2016. It is no secret that the party is struggling to re-form in advance of the elections in 2018 and 2020. The Progressive left argues that the party failed in 2016 because it did not mobilize its many different constituencies through an effective appeal to their respective identities. Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia and a moderate Democrat, responds in this short volume that the problem is with identity politics itself. Lilla wrote, “Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people—African-Americans, women—seeing to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort. Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. Without which no vision of Americans’ future can be imagined.” (pages 9 and 10.) Though Lilla’s message is directed to Democrats and the Left, is there not a similar message for Republicans and the Right? Is not White Nationalism another manifestation of identity politics? If both Right and Left retreat into their pet identities, what is to become of our common identity as a nation?
What I’m reading now: some preliminary comments.
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly is edgy, profane, and occasionally hilarious perspective on food preparation in high-end restaurants. Bourdain reminds us that food service is a performance art. Most of our dining experience is banal and uninspired. To produce a meal that is a transformational experience requires training, dedication, talent, creativity, hard work, and above all, leadership. Bourdain comes off as a my-way-or-the-highway kind of leader, justified (he says) by the exacting standards of his clientele. Is autocracy the best or most sustainable leadership model? He reminds me of Steve Jobs: both were outsiders and renegades to their field who through brilliance and turbulent character challenged conventional thinking. Kitchen Confidential might be a stimulating resource for courses on entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership.
In my research about how financial markets evolve and why they experience episodic crises that change their societies, a friend recommended Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Gould challenges the classical Darwinian view of evolution, which sees biological change as gradual and steady over time. Instead, Gould reports extensive evidence for “punctuated equilibrium,” episodes of stasis interrupted by periods of sharp change that result in permanently different conditions. Evolution is not smooth through time; it is jagged—we see this frequently among companies and industries. Andrew Lo (see above) and other writers are exploring how investors and markets adapt to new conditions. I suspect that punctuated equilibrium is a useful metaphor for thinking about such adaptation.
A long-term interest of mine has been the path of economic development. Why did Europe break out of feudalism and not other regions? Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain and not other countries? What explains the astonishing growth of the U.S. in the 19th and 20th Centuries? Why can’t the emerging economies catch up to the developed economies? And so on. One answer has to do with economic “institutions” (i.e., norms and rules of the road) such as judicial independence, respect for literacy and education, assurance of civil rights and property rights, regard for the sanctity of contracts and rule of law, etc. The book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, makes this case impressively (I recommended it in prior posts.) I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which takes an opposing view: by looking back 50,000 years, he presents evidence that environmental geography and biogeography influenced societal development. Thus, advancement is contingent on a society’s resource endowment. In other words, it’s the luck of the draw. Can we lift the poor of the world out of poverty by insisting on the adoption of democratic institutions and free markets? I’ll be interested to finish Diamond’s book and to reflect on the broader literature.
No two ways about it: writing is hard work. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee is a wonderful evocation of the discipline and structure that one of the most acclaimed essayists brings to his craft. McPhee has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for decades, teaches writing at Princeton, and is the author of some 32 books—with such a resume, it is reasonable to assume that this guy knows what he’s talking about. Draft No. 4 is loaded with good sense. For instance, omission is a matter of letting the key ideas stand out. McPhee wrote, “Sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.” Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo, loosely, as we can imagine him with six tons of Carrara marble, a mallet, a point chisel, a pitching tool, a tooth chisel, a claw chisel, rasps, rifflers, and a bush hammer: “I’m just taking away what doesn’t belong there.”” (Page 183)
I wish you stimulating reading in 2018!