Best Books 2021

I read 23 books in 2021, but none that were written in 2021. Tim Ferriss stopped reading new books deliberately but for me it just happened, something about this year made me want to hang out in the ancient world instead.

I read about how five thousand years ago the Indo-Europeans figured out how to ride horses and use wheels, and so ended up spreading their language to half the world. I read about the Bronze Age Collapse three thousand years ago. Also set three thousand years ago are the semi-mythical events of the Aeneid and the Odyssey; I particularly enjoyed Emily Wilson’s new translation of the latter. From two thousand years ago, Caesar’s Commentaries reads like an action-packed fantasy novel but gives real insight into history and strategy. It was also a good year to go back to the Biblical events of two to three thousand years ago, though I didn’t make it cover to cover.

The one book about the modern world I gave 5 stars in 2021 was The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. The short version of my review is that it’s secretly a development economics book:

Bueno de Mesquita, author of The Dictator’s Handbook, is a political scientist but his analysis is very much economic, in both the methods (rational choice & methodological individualism) and in the focus on material incentives as the main driver of behavior. The book is good as a manual for aspiring tyrants, but suprisingly great as an explanation for why many poor countries stay poor.

So overall compared to 2020 I don’t have many good books to share, apart from things like The Odyssey that you presumably already know about. The best new writing in 2021 probably isn’t happening in books at all, but in Substacks. Many bloggers switched to the Substack blogging/newsletter platform last year because it makes it easy to monetize their writing, while many professional journalists switched over as a way to keep being paid to write while enjoying near-complete editorial freedom. I recommend Byrne Hobart on finance and business strategy, and Razib Khan on history and genomics. Probably my favorite writing of 2021 was the return of Scott Alexander to blogging, now at Substack as Astral Codex Ten. He is also a great demonstration of just how much the monetization game has changed, as less than a year into the new Substack he is making enough money to start giving large amounts of it away.

Fiction for Christmas

I hacked Christmas this year to get two books I had been hearing about from reviewers and friends: Project Hail Mary and My Struggle by Knausgård. I wrapped the sci-fi one for my husband, because he will like it. I handed the weird one to him and asked him to wrap it for me. I killed many birds with one stone. The people who read econ blogs will appreciate my accomplishment.

Right after Christmas I had a plane trip that provided some reading time for My Struggle. I like it. As a warning to others, I wonder if the reason “everyone” thinks it is so relatable is that the types of people who review books share the author’s burning desire to be a writer.

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EWED Recommends Gifts 2021

Economists know that holiday gift-giving is inefficient. However, if it’s going to happen anyway then we try to help on the margin with our personal recommendations. First, I will explain the products that writers liked this year, and then I will list the books. I thank the writers for participating in this exercise for a second time (see last year).

Not-Books

Jeremy made strong case for portable batteries that allow you to charge your electronics. As he said, you could be someone’s battery hero! This product would make a nice tidy box to wrap for an adult and it’s under $40. Are men hard to shop for?

For stocking stuffers, Zachary recommends a children’s music CD by Laurie Berkner. Your kid will start asking for something on repeat, so why not make sure it’s something good? Zachary also reminds us to consider nostalgic wrapped snack foods.

Scott gives two solid options that are affordable and small. A keychain light for adults and a spinner toy for kids. You can buy the plastic spinners in bulk and give them out to a whole family or neighborhood of kids at the same time. A more substantial adult gift would be a folding bicycle.

I recommended a pair of running shoes and, even though this might no longer be the “hot” gift, AirPods. Some people still don’t have AirPods, and it makes a tidy package. Or, maybe your teen lost one of their ear pieces over the last year?

James reminds us to order products ahead of time because of looming supply chain delays. He also suggests some internet paid subscriptions. If you don’t want to deliver a physical wrapped package, then buying someone a year-long subscription to one of these Substacks is a great idea.

Note that the tungsten cubes you are seeing in the news are not EWED-endorsed gifts.

Books

Jeremy highlights a brand new economics book, Career and Family, about the changes in women’s labor force participation throughout the 20th century.

Yesterday, I recommended Liberty Power about American abolitionists for adults and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for school-aged kids (in which, also, a slave trade is abolished).

Scott recommends How the Irish Saved Civilization. For many people, Scott’s book is probably a safer choice than mine because its scope is wider. Liberty Power would make a great gift for someone who reads so much that they have already finished How the Irish Saved Civilization.

James has given us a few suggestions. For fun, Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed. James found 4 Hour Body and 4 Hour Chef to be useful.

As a final note, a lot of my professor friends are getting the Remarkable II as a paper-reading-writing tablet. It seems superior to an iPad or previous tablets. Some functionality requires an extra data plan subscription.

Joy on Books 2021

The non-fiction book for adults I recommend this year is Liberty Power by historian Corey Brooks. If you have ever cared about social justice or affecting change, then wouldn’t you be curious to know how the abolitionists really did it around 1850? How, practically speaking, did a handful of people with moral convictions rid the United States of legal slavery? Abolitionists were striving and scheming to use the newly minted American democratic political system to their advantage even though they were in the minority. One of their big decisions was to start a third political party after they grew frustrated with slavery-complicit Northern Whig politicians. I blogged here about the connection with current politics.

I had a huge gap in my knowledge of American history before reading this book. Nothing that happened between George Washington and the Civil War seemed interesting, until this book created a narrative that I cared enough about to follow. History books might not be the perfect gift for everyone, but I bet no one in your family already has it!

Another book I reviewed earlier is Emily Oster’s The Family Firm, which any parent of young children would probably find helpful if they like research.

When I’m not reading for work, I read to my kids. I strongly recommend, for kids aged 6-12, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This ties into Liberty Power, because the main characters abolish the slave trade on one of the islands they sail to!

Before reading Dawn Treader, you should certainly start with the book that sets up the world, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. I have a tip for younger kids: start reading this book right at the point where Lucy walks into the wardrobe for the first time. Younger kids won’t miss the first few pages that explain how the 4 children came to be in the old house.

For 4yo and 5yo kids, I recommend Aesop’s fables. These are short and self-contained. There are many versions of fable books for kids with good illustrations.

In addition of my specific plug for the Narnia series, I encourage parents to read fantasy with children. I see a lot of children’s books that promote science or STEM-readiness. My son enjoys learning about dinosaurs and nature, however I am certain that he’s learned the most from the conversations we have had about adventure stories.

Reading to your kids is costly in terms of time. We have limited time, so let me make an argument for dropping some of the other competing activities. I speak as someone who professionally teaches hundreds of college students to program. Those games that try to trick 5-year-olds into “programming” are less valuable than reading and discussing fantasy stories.

Inspire them with the story of a ship sailing to unknown islands. Talk about how a lovable band of flawed characters can escape from a clever magician. What your child will need to be able to do when they are 20 is read and comprehend a textbook that explains a totally new technology that no one alive today understands. Then they will need to think of creative ways to apply that technology to real world problems.

Give the Gift of Cooking and Murder-Bears

What is the point of reading non-fiction?

Hopefully it is entertaining, and you feel like you are learning something, though usually it is hard to recall much of a book a year after you read it. The best you can usually hope for is that it makes you look at the world differently. But how often does a book actually clearly change what you do?

While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of books that changed how I think, Tim Ferriss’ books stand out for actually changing how I act. It was after reading The 4 Hour Body that I finally starting going to the gym every week, and it was after reading The 4 Hour Chef that I started to really cook.

Giving anything fitness-related as a gift can be dicey, so of the two I’d recommend The 4 Hour Chef as a gift. Its huge, its pretty, and its not just a book of recipes (though it has lots of them)- it is what made me think I no longer need recipes.

If instead you’d rather forget about big self-improvement books and just go for fun/entertaining, my best recommendation you’ve probably never heard of is Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed.

As a said as part of a review of my favorite non-fiction last year, its funny but not just funny. Its not just trying to highlight the craziest stories, its also full of lessons about how to read potentially confusing passages. “Murder-Bears” is a reference to the end of 2 Kings ch 2:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys

What to Read: Claudia Goldin’s Career and Family

A better battery is an excellent gift, but for the gift that never needs recharging, a book is always a great idea. So this week Joy asked us to recommend a book. Again, this would be great as a gift or for yourself!

My recommendation is a very new book: Claudia Goldin’s Career and Family, which just came out this month. Confession: the book is so new, that I’ve only read about half of it so far! But this book is, as they say, self-recommending.

Goldin has spent almost her entire academic career studying the history of women’s participation in the US labor force. I think it’s fair to say that there is no person living today that knows more about the subject, possibly no one ever. This book is her attempt to sum up much of her research into a cohesive narrative about the changes in women’s labor force participation throughout the 20th century.

Her 2006 AEA Ely Lecture, “The Quiet Revolution,” was an earlier attempt to explain these long changes, and it is highly readable still today. Her 2014 AEA Presidential Address, “A Grand Gender Convergence,” is also excellent (watch the video of it too!). But this book brings all the ideas together into a complete narrative, tracking five cohorts of women and their experience in the labor force from 1900 to 2000. The last of these five cohorts matches the title of her book, the generation of women that entered the labor force since 1980 and now have a reasonable chance of achieving both an career and a family, rather than having to chose between the two.

This does not mean, and certainly Goldin would not say, that the journey is over and all is well for women today. Goldin focuses primarily on college graduates in this story, since they are the group most well-positioned to achieve the goal of having a career and a family. Obviously there are still challenges, and Goldin spends some time discussing one that the COVID pandemic revealed but was always there: the challenge of finding affordable childcare.

If you want a taste of the book, you can read or watch her 2020 Feldstein Lecture, “Journey Across a Century of Women.” But really the story is so complex that it does take a book to explain it all.

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Book Recommendation: “How the Irish Saved Civilization”

It is hard to wrap our minds around how rapid and thorough was the loss of literate culture throughout Europe after the collapse of the Roman political and economic order. As of 400 A.D, the Pax Romana held throughout the whole Mediterranean world, and up through what is now France (“Gaul”) and England. The immense depth and breadth of classical knowledge comes through, for instance, in the works of Augustine. Writing just as the barbarian wave was starting to overrun the empire, Augustine casually alludes to a wide range of Greek and Roman philosophers, historical events, skilled medical procedures and a long list of metals and precious stones, knowing that his contemporary readers would be familiar with all these things.

All this changed after 406. On the last day of that year, the Rhine River, which formed the border between the Roman empire and the Germanic tribes to the north and east, froze solid.  A vast horde of barbarians began to surge across the border, overwhelming the thin force of Roman frontier guards. Every German man was a warrior, and their armed women followed closely behind. The invaders quickly spread south through Gaul and into Italy, Spain, and North Africa, looting and doing the generally disruptive sorts of things that invading barbarians do. Rome itself was sacked in 410.

In an orderly, diverse pre-industrial economy, there are enough slaves and peasants toiling away at the bottom of the pyramid to support a reasonable number of merchants, priests and aristocrats who can carry on higher culture. But with societal collapse in the fifth century, and new class of overlords who knew and cared little about literacy, centuries of Greek and Roman learning were nearly lost to most of Europe. In this bare survival situation, nobody had the leisure or drive to learn to read and appreciate literature, and to do the physical copy of manually copying  manuscripts which was necessary before the printing press.

The big, bright, exception, which is the subject of Thomas Cahill’s book, was the newly minted set of monasteries in Ireland. The Irish had been thoroughly pagan (think human sacrifice) and thoroughly illiterate until Patrick brought Christianity to them in the middle of the fifth century. Cahill describes the Irish mindset in detail, and how Patrick appealed to its best elements.

(Patrick’s story is very dramatic and monumental in its impact, but I won’t try to summarize it here in the interests of space.  Just one quote:  “The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again until the 17th century”).

The few monasteries on the European continent saw little value in the ancient non-Christian Greek and Roman writers, so those works were not reproduced. The Irish had a more eclectic attitude, and happily copied whatever texts came their way, including “pagan” authors like Plato.

The final step in this cultural saga is that starting around 600 many of these Irish monks, along with their precious manuscripts, made their way back to Gaul and northern Italy. They established their monasteries, which served as outposts of literacy, and they started to educate the local kings and  warlords and their children. And that is how “the Irish saved civilization”.

Anyone with an inquiring mind should enjoy this book. It manages to be deeply erudite and deeply engaging, giving depth portraits of representative personages in the late Roman empire, the Irish before and after Patrick, and key leaders in the succeeding centuries. One thing the author points out is that life in the later Roman empire was not typically much fun unless you were in the oppressive, narcissistic upper upper crust. Although we may rightfully mourn the loss of classical learning, for the vast majority of its inhabitants, the demise of the empire and its tax collectors was maybe not such a tragedy.

Cahill further makes the case that the fusion of Patrick’s Christianity with Irish sensibilities gave rise to a richer, healthier spirituality than could be found in Roman-type Catholicism:

Patrick could put himself – imaginatively –  in the position of the Irish. To him, no less than to them, the world is full of magic. One can invoke the elements – the lights of Heaven, the waves of the sea, the birds and the animals – and these will come to one’s aid, as in the incantation of [Patrick’s famous prayer] the “Breastplate”. The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind‘s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.

Patrick… could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile.

… Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen.

…This sense of the world as holy, as a Book of God – as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages – could never have risen out of Greco- Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy and the world as devoid of meaning.

Reading Slavery and American Economic Development

Slavery is a bad and we should rid ourselves of it. One of the arguments made by abolitionists before the Civil War in the United States is that slaves make poor workers and therefore it’s not that costly to get rid of slavery. Of course, it doesn’t matter if slaves worked hard or not. Slavery was a moral abomination, regardless. However, it does make it easier to argue that we should direct government resources to fight enslavers when we can make a case that slavery makes the entire country poorer.

On the one hand, there were many non-slave workers and farmers in North America, demonstrating that products including cotton could be produced by free labor. On the other hand, slavery as an institution expanded into the South and the West, presumably because of the economic advantage it gave to slave-owners.

In Slavery and American Economic Development, economist Gavin Wright states that whether or not slaves were as productive as free/wage labor is hard to measure and also is not hugely important. Slavery might have provided wealth to slave owners in the South, but that is only because of the institutional setting that was created explicitly to maintain the slave society.

The American South had some of the best land in the world for growing cotton and cotton became a lucrative export crop thanks to British demand before the Civil War. Before the Civil War, there were some extremely profitable plantations on which slaves worked. It is true that some enslavers became rich and that drives up what appears to be the GDP per capita in the South at the time.

Wright explains that a slave owner living closer to the East Coast was better able to go on an entrepreneurial venture into Alabama to clear a large plantation for cotton farming than a typical free family farmer. The slave owner could obtain large loans and had a future guarantee of workers (thanks to the local laws and police state). So, something like a modern corporation employing free labor could also have accomplished the venture. But, at the time, it was an opportunity that was easier for enslavers to take advantage of. Free farmers also expanded West into the United States, but they tended to move more slowly and focus on subsistence (e.g. wheat for consumption). That is, partly, what Wright means when he speaks of slavery as a “system of property” as opposed to just a “system of production”. That helps explain why slavery was on the rise in the American South.

Wright also examines slavery as a political regime. In a place with many slaves, resources had to be allocated to policing and preventing revolts. It might have been individually rational for a landowner to offer freedom to slaves as a form of compensation for work, but this was disallowed by that broader political environment. So, everyone was somewhat trapped. Most importantly, the slaves were abused and trapped. But the free residents of the South had to live in a stagnant society. Governments did not invest in schooling, even for white children.

Municipalities in the North were booming and attracting free migrants with public investments. These investments set the North on a path to overtake the South economically and demonstrate which system is superior for creating wealth. Wright blames property owners in the South for continuing to fail to vote for good institutions that foster economic growth after the Civil War.

Forecasting that Job Growth Would Continue

The number of new jobs is being heralded (example in picture) as disappointing relative to the expectation that we would march steadily back to pre-Covid employment levels. (Ben Casselman is a good Twitter source for the data.)

One of the reasons for a slow recovery is that the Delta variant of Covid hit hard at the end of the summer and people are not getting vaccinated, so the health threat of going out to work and consume did not decline as much as we had expected. Covid was hard on family caregivers, often women. The disruptions to childcare from Covid still are not over. We are seeing a reversal of the massive influx of women into the formal workforce that started in the previous century.

Some people are saying that workers no longer want “dead end jobs,” and there has been a permanent shift in the labor supply, although it is hard to disentangle that from the effect of temporary Covid subsidies.

I am reminded of two very different sources who claimed, before 2019, that what we had in the early 21st century was not sustainable.

First, there were agitators for a $15/hr minimum wage. They marched in the streets while leading Democrats voiced approval. They were pointing out that families in America who depend on $8/hr jobs do not feel like they have a part of the American Dream.

Someone who, I am certain, would be against a federally mandated $15/hr minimum wage was also pointing this out. Tyler Cowen published Average is Over in 2013, when unemployment was still high following the Great Recession. Chapter 1 of Average is Over is called “Work and Wages”. Tyler was concerned that market forces were creating a world where some people have the best jobs that humanity has ever conceived of, by virtue of their compatibility with intelligent machines, while the rest of the workforce is left with jobs that are not so great. At the time, I don’t think people realized how many jobs could be done from the comfort of home or from a hip coffee shop. Covid exposed that. The “not so great” jobs feel especially crappy when you know that people in your city get paid 6 figures to sit at a laptop.

Tyler might have been surprised when unemployment dropped so low in 2019, right after he had written The Complacent Class, which warns us that America isn’t working well for a large group of people.

We are not great at predicting the future.* Some of Tyler’s predictions have come true already, but even he did not try to put a date on things. The point is that maybe the latest job numbers are not as surprising for the reason that the forecasts were more wrong than we thought. Covid has moved us far out of equilibrium, so it is still hard to tell where we are going to land.

Personally, I thought prices at the grocery store, one of the few places you could go in early 2020, would shoot up faster. It seemed to me like we would need to start paying cashiers more as hazard pay.

*In one of my experiments, I asked subjects in the role of employers to predict what their employees would do. They failed to predict how strongly employees would respond to wage cuts. We are not great at predicting.