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.

Vernon Smith on Behavioral in 2008

Like last week, this post is adjacent to the internet chattering over whether behavioral economics is “dead”.

Vernon Smith wrote a book Rationality in Economics that came out in 2008. I’m going to pull some quotes from that book that I think are relevant. This is not an attempt to summarize the main point of the book.

I began developing and applying experimental economics methods to the study of behavior and market performance in the 1950s and 1960s…

Preface, pg xiii

Repetitive or real-time action in incomplete information environments is an operating skill different from modeling based on the “given” information postulated to drive the economic environment that one seeks to understand in the sense of equilibrium, optimality, and welfare. This decision skill is based on a deep human capacity to acquire tacit knowledge that defies all but fragmentary articulation in natural or written language.

Preface, pg xv

I think that improved understanding of various forms of ecological rationality will be born of a far better appreciation that most of human knowledge of “how,” as opposed to knowledge of “that,” depends heavily on autonomic functions of the brain. Human sociality leads to much unconscious learning in which the rules and norms of our socioeconomic skills are learned with little specific instructions… Humans are not “thinking machines” in the sense that we always rely on self-aware cognitive processes…

Introduction, pg 5, emphasis his

Research in economic psychology[footnote 6] has prominently reported examples where “fairness” and other considerations are said to contradict the rationality assumptions… Footnote 6: I will use the term “economic psychology” generally to refer to cognitive psychology as it has been applied to economics questions, and to a third subfield of experimental methods in economics and recently product-differentiated as “behavioral economics”… Behavioral economists have made a cottage industry of showing that SSSM assumptions seem to apply almost nowhere… their research program has been a candidly deliberate search “Identifying the ways in which behavior differs from the standard model…”

Introduction, pg 22, italics mine

Vernon Smith doesn’t always like the direction of the behavioral economics literature as a whole, however he agrees in the book that humans don’t always behave rationally. Chapter 6 has the very un-fuzzy title FCC Spectrum Auctions and Combinatorial Designs. Here’s an example of the way Vernon uses the word behavioral, which I offer like I did last week as an example of how “behavioral” is never going away.

I will provide a brief review of the theoretical issues and some… experimental findings that bear most directly on the conceptual and behavioral foundation of the FCC design problem.

Chapter 6, pg 116

Unfortunately, the popular press… has often interpreted the contributions of Kahneman as proving that people are “irrational,” in the popular sense of stupid… In the Nobel interview, Kahneman seems clearly to be uncomfortable with this popular interpretation and is trying to correct it.

Chapter 7, pg 150

Chapter 7 is about loss aversion and fairness and any other “behavioral” phenomenon of interest. I recommend anyone who is following the current conversation to read all of Chapter 7 for yourself. Vernon sees the best in all whenever possible, despite being annoyed that certain academics have used a tool he developed to make points that he believes are wrong. He forges a way forward for everyone in this book.

Experiments help us understand how human beings who are prone to error can arrive at good outcomes when they are working within good/effective institutions.

Reading The Family Firm

Emily Oster’s newest book on parenting dropped to my Kindle this week. I recommend it to parents if your oldest child is between 2 and 8 years old.*

Her first book in this genre (she invented this genre) was Expecting Better. In that book, pregnant women could get clear answers. Oster could put a precise estimate on the risk of, for example, eating sushi while pregnant. Then it was fairly easy to decide, for yourself, if you would eat sushi.

Right now, I have decisions like this: My 6-year-old says sushi is “yucky”. If I force him to eat it, will he get into a better college? Should I send him to bed without any food if he won’t eat the sushi I made for family dinner?

These are the questions that us, the original Expecting Better crew, now have. The answers are usually vague. That might bother you, if you’d like exact instructions for parenting. Still, I found this book helpful for thinking about parenting. Oster is not going to give you an absolute yes or no on video games for kids. She will summarize all of the relevant studies. Then you have help to set your own boundaries for your own kids based on your Big Picture family goals.

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Knowledge for 1990 Children

We picked up a yard sale book: People and Places: A Random House Tell Me About Book.* When I saw that the U.S.S.R. was a huge swath across the northern hemisphere (drawn as a Mercator projection), I checked the publication date. It was published in New York in 1991 by Random House.**

This content would have been considered uncontroversial knowledge for children. It was written by Boomers for Millennials, one year before The End of History came out.***

The first fact discussed is that the earth had about 5 billion people and they saw no end to population growth. The book states that the world could be up to 15 billion people within 60 years (which would be 2050). Today, it is predicted that world population will peak soon and then decline. Fertility rates in most rich countries are currently below replacement and birth rates are falling everywhere. I guess the authors didn’t see that coming.

On the next page is a matter-of-fact explanation that A.D. stands for Anno Domini. If there was a new edition printed today, they would likely follow the academic trend of using BCE/CE, to avoid referencing religion.

Much of the book is about culture, with illustrations. In today’s terminology, this might be considered an attempt at color-blindness. All of the major world religions are presented next to each other with a neutral/positive spin on each. Racial and gender representation is carefully balanced, like the stock images I grew up with in American public school.

Considering how many students were forced to learn remotely this year, I liked the section on the Australian School of the Air. Remote farm children talked to a teacher by radio and sent written work by mail.

At the end is the answer to, “How will we live in the future?” Jeff Bezos might be happy to know that they predict space travel will be more common and people will live in space colonies. The stated reason for space colonization was the predicted unrelenting population growth. There wasn’t a hint of pessimism about, for example, global warming.

Their diagram of a futuristic house has a “Main computer” prominently featured. They predicted that computerized machines would do more work for humans, which has already happened in the past 30 years. The idea of mobile computers and internet services was probably not considered. They imagined house-bound clunky robots that could follow simple instructions.

*Currently still available on Amazon

** Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. I suppose the publishers couldn’t be bothered to stop the presses.

*** In 1991, Gen X may have been too old to be the target audience of a children’s’ book.

Sympathy and Predicting Behavior

Part One of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith is called “Of the Propriety of Action”.  Smith argues that we naturally share the emotions and to a certain extent the physical sensations that we witness in others. “Sympathy” is a term Smith used for the feeling of moral sentiments.

In Section One, Chapter Five, Smith writes

In all such cases, that there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavour … to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded.

After all this, however, the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another… That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary. The thought of their own safety… continually intrudes itself upon them…  

The modern word “empathy” is the capacity to step into the shoes of another person and feel their pain or joy from within the other person’s frame of reference.

Adam Smith suggests that if we hear a neighbor just experienced the death of a loved one, then we can briefly experience some sadness on their account. The more we put ourselves in their shoes, the more sadness we can experience on their behalf.

We usually think of it as a nice thing to have empathy for others. It can also be instrumental to be able to think through the perspective of another person, in order to predict what they will do next. In practical dealings, it is an economic advantage to make accurate predictions about future behavior.

If I work backward through my 2020 paper “My Reference Point, Not Yours”, then I can start by saying that people can sometimes predict what others will do.

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