What I’ve been reading

- 2010 Nike Coach of the Year Manual. Self-recommending. The two articles on Alabama’s defense — one by Kirby Smart, the other by Saban himself — are alone worth the price.

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, by Dan Ariely. I just ordered this and it is, of course, self-recommending. The Kindle edition is a bit pricey for an e-version, but I guess we have Steve Jobs and the iPad to thank for that. In any event, Ariely’s new book looks like a worthwhile successor to his earlier great work, Predictably Irrational.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. Worth the read, as everything by Lewis is. My only complaint was, as someone who had read most of his magazine pieces in Portfolio, Vanity Fair, and so on, that I found a lot of overlap with those earlier pieces. But the overlap stopped around 80 pages in, and at that point the narrative took off — funny, insightful, and easy to read. It’s also quite timely: the trades described in the SEC’s complaint against Goldman Sachs take a very similar form to the trades described in Lewis’s book (though obviously Lewis doesn’t claim to know what Goldman was telling the people they did their trades with). Plus the Kindle edition is finally out.

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, by Liaquat Ahamed. A wonderful narrative following the world’s most prominent central bankers from the end of World War I up until World War II — from the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain. Ahamed gracefully mixes history with personality while he describes the blunders these men made, first while operating under the system of post-WWI reparations and second by hewing the gold standard despite all the evidence. (With John Maynard Keynes frequently appearing as gadly, before of course he had actually invented Keynesian economics.) It took me a bit to finish this as I put it down a few times and got busy but I highly recommend it.

12 Modern Philosophers, edited by Christopher Belshaw and Gary Kemp. This is book is not exactly self-recommending: it’s a collection of introductory but nonetheless academic essays about, well, twelve modern philosophers. From the introduction: “There are 12 philosophers represented here, all writing in English, and all of them active in the last third of the twentieth century…. They are all highly important figures in philosophy now: widely read, initiators of debate. Are they the top 12 philosophers of our time? Of course we make no such claim. But were someone to give a list of, say, the 20 key players, then, probably, the 12 here would be among them.” So far so good for me; the essays on Quine, Rawls, and Rorty were good, but I am admittedly deficient in the ways of analytic philosophers, and the non-linear nature of a book of essays by different people is both a good thing (can jump around), and a bad thing (some essays drag, and little incentive to move on to the next one after finishing the last).

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy. Brutal and haunting, McCarthy’s writing is something like if you made Nabokov use Ernest Hemingway’s sentence structures. I’m not sure I want to borrow McCarthy’s dark worldview (or his lack of commas), but it’s a great read. And, if it means anything, Harold Bloom considers it one of the best books of the 20th century and a work of “genius.”

  • Old South

    Dan Ariely is a douche. I had supper with him when he visited our campus (I was doing some lab work with neuro behavioral econ ramifications). He’s utterly dismissive of traditional economics and its ability to meaningfully model the world. He refuses any suggestion that it retains any utility.

    But The Blood Meridian is awesome if you’re a fan of Cormac’s prose.

  • Uptown

    Does Saban speak at all about program structure or motivation in the Coach of the Year manual or just defense?

  • http://variousprovocations.blogspot.com dth

    Old South, if he’s a douche he’s a douche…but I think if the maximal claims of behavioral economics are true, then he’s right: not much utility left. (I don’t think they’re true).

  • Old South

    dth, I firmly believe Behavioral Econ is the future and so forth. But traditional econ still offers two enormous advantages:
    1) It’s cheaper to conduct (fewer experiments involving paying participants, and those experiments that do exist are much cheaper), and
    2) It gives us information on optimality we don’t get from behavioral econ. Behavioral is great for letting us know how we DO behave, but for corporations trying to maximize their bottom line, sometimes it helps to know how we SHOULD behave first.

    As to 1), you see that cropping up in Psychology all of the time. Folks argue that basic cognitive psychology (perception & attention, memory, etc.) is obsolete now that we can do straight neurocognitive research. Neurocog gives us direct (rather than indirect) evidence and helps more with our “ultimate problems.” Regular cognitive psych, however, doesn’t cost $10,000 per fMRI scan and gives us cheap, timely info.

  • BC

    Chris,

    One of these days, try

    PERSEVERANCE: Life Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork
    by Marc Trestman

    Great autobiography of a talented football mind facing adversity to reach his dream of becoming a pro head football coach.

  • Gabe

    The Keynes cult I am witnessing here is depressing.

    You guys think the interest rate czar needs to centrally manage our monetary system by expanding the money supply during recesions and tightening money supply during expansions. Let us just forget that this is the 5th plank of the communist manifesto, I have a question.

    Why shouldn’t the federal government print the money as the expert central planners decide…why should we instead have the gov issue debt payable(with claims on taxpayer income streams as the collateral)…which is then bought buy the Central bank(with new fiat) money….while effectively giving the fed interest free loans for the year before the Fed takes whatever money it needs for “expenses” and then remitting the money back to the Treasury once per year?

    Why have this unneccesarily complicated system?

    Liaquat Ahamed’s book is worse than plain old keynsianism…he actually applauds the socialism for the rich that took place in 2008/2009 when the government took taxpayer money to bailout banks that made bad decisions. Where has this “heroic” theft gotten us? My generation x peers and our children are expected to pay larger and larger shares of our labor towards paying interest on bonuses we awarded to Goldman Sachs for the rest of history!

    I appreciate that you read Tyler Coween and thus use his annoying terminology “self-recommending”, but please step back and look at who was right about this crisis. It was not the NYtimes economist or the Aggregate Demand gurus or the tax and spend socialist and neo-cons that have been running this country for 30 years.

    Jim Rodgers/Marc Faber/Ron Paul/Mises and Rothbard have explained what happens when fiat currency system is put in place. There prediction were more accurate than the Keynsians or Chicago boys. We have seen the corruption spread the bubbles blowing up and the political establishment serially work to cover up one bubble with another for the three decades since Nixon took us off of the last remnants of a gold standard. The current issuance of more debt is not fixing the problems…it is merely inflating them and delaying the pop.

    free
    http://mises.org/rothbard/agd.pdf

    Rothbards book on the great depression
    is far more enlightnening than another “we are all keynsians now” book that shoddily blames the great depression on the gold standard. It is a fact that the average US GDP growth rates were higher before we instituted the marxist recomended central banks.

    I appreciate the spread offense and your articles/videos related to it. Please read some more of the Austrians before you use your college football platform to promote warmongering criminals.

  • Homyrrh

    Amusing – ‘Blood Meridian’ just came up in watercooler conversation at work today. Haven’t read it, but as with McCarthy’s other, often very good, prose, one can fairly expect it to be at once a thematic epiphany and a dreadfully depressing tale. Don’t know if the link mentioned this, but I’ve read once or twice that Bloom took two or three times to actually read the book in its entirety because of how painfully ominous it was.

  • PhilProf

    As an analytic philosopher who studies social science (esp. economics)and tries to keep up with football, I am overjoyed by this post! I haven’t read 12 Modern Philosophers (too much of a ‘busman’s holiday’ for me – I’m reading Coach Beckish’s Trap Option book now) but I would suggest the Davidson, Nozick, and Singer articles for you Chris. All of them should touch on decision-making themes of the sort you blog about.

    Old South – Behavioral economics is the future, but it isn’t the whole future. Even if “if the maximal claims of behavioral economics are true,” there’s still a whole lot of systematizing to be done. Putting all of the various effects together in one big theory is pretty important in economics. Aside: as someone familiar w/ Psychology, maybe you can tell me what the fascination is w/ fMRI scans. Cool data, sure, but unless they come w/ labels nowadays, they just establish more correlations to be theorized about.

    Gabe – Austrian economics = faith-based economics. In that sense, it isn’t much different from classical Marxism. I’ll take the performance of the economy in the 70 years since the Great Depression over the performance of the (laissez faire) economy in the 70 years beforehand.

  • Old South

    PhilProf- That’s a very good question, and unfortunately more correlations are still what we need. The brain is unbelievably complex, and our knowledge base is still in its infancy. We have basic functions more or less locked down (e.g., we know the medulla regulates critical involuntary processes like heartbeats and breathing patterns). But we don’t know much beyond that (e.g., we know the prefrontal cortex regulates personality, decision-making, and altruistic behavior. But we don’t know which subregions regulate which of those behaviors, and that’s pretty fundamental stuff).

    From a researcher’s perspective, fMRIs also have some pragmtic value–they’re universally available and superior to other brain imaging technologies. Because of that, you don’t need to blow grant money obtaining equipment your institution probably already owns AND your results are more easily compared across disciplines (it’s truly depressing how rare it is for the sciences to share measurement techniques).

    As for getting to the “ultimate questions,” fMRIs are inadequate. They simply tell us what areas of the brain are “active” when certain conditions are manipulated. It’s not much to go on, but it is a start.

  • PhilProf

    Old South – Good points all, esp. “more correlations are still what we need.” Sometimes philosophers focus so hard on what a certain category of data could (or couldn’t) possibly show that we neglect the importance of actually establishing some honest-to-god facts to work with. Division of labor, I guess.

  • Gabe

    “Gabe – Austrian economics = faith-based economics.”

    the empirical evidence suggest that higher taxes and larger government = slower growth.

    The faith that Aggregate Demand fetishist have in the mechanisms between government manipulating AD and increases in standards of living is rather strong and without justification.

    “I’ll take the performance of the economy in the 70 years since the Great Depression over the performance of the (laissez faire) economy in the 70 years beforehand.”

    and why do you support slower economic growth?

  • Gabe

    “I’ll take the performance of the economy in the 70 years since the Great Depression over the performance of the (laissez faire) economy in the 70 years beforehand.”

    The 50% reduction in government spending after WW2 helped make the last 70 years better than they would have been otherwise. Are we going to see a comparable drop in government spending sometime soon? If not, we are in for more of the last decade of stagnation.

  • PhilProf

    Gabe – the “Austrian economics = faith-based economics” claim wasn’t an ad hominem – that’s what Mises’ & Rothbard’s praxeology means. Look at the Rothbard book you direct us to – “Note that I make no pretense of using the historical facts to ‘test’ the truth of the theory. On the contrary, I contend that economic theories cannot be ‘tested’ by historical or statistical fact” (Intro to the 1st Ed., xxxix); “The only test of a theory is the correctness of the
    premises and of the logical chain of reasoning” (Intro to the 1st Ed., xxxx).

    As Mises’ defender, Roderick Long notes, “According to Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973), the basic principles of economics are not empirical but a priori; the laws of economics are conceptual truths,and economic truth is grounded in the science of praxeology: the study of those propositions concerning human action that can be grasped and recognized as true simply in virtue of an inspection of their constituent concepts” (http://praxeology.net/antipsych.pdf).

    There’s a lot interesting stuff to debate about government intervention in the market, but it’s hard to get into all of that if you think it is a conceptual truth (i.e., an article of faith) that government intervention is bad.

    I’m surprised by your comments about the 70 years since the Great Depression and the 70 prior years. What makes you think average growth was higher in the earlier period? The world was in the ‘Long Depression’ after the Panic of ’73 and economic growth was stagnant until at least the 1890s; throw in the Great Depression at the end and you don’t have a very good test case for laissez faire policies. Even if there was a great 30 year run in the middle, the post-war regime was much more stable & secure. Heck, the only good economic run started in the populist & progressive eras.

  • Gabe Harris

    1930’s is on the back of interventionism…nice try though

    http://www.measuringworth.org/datasets/usgdp/result.php

    They have some real GDP data going back to 1790.

    Taking the last 97 years since 1913, the year Federal Reserve and income tax etc started. We get a average real gdp growth of 3.3%…the 100 years before that we averaged a little over 4%.

    The 40 year moving average dropped sharply after the massive expansions of Government power in 1913. Yes, Rothbard and Mises use logic to show that bands of thugs plundering property will make economies worse off. Since most Keynsians are immune to logic I’ve brought you statistics. The statistics across multiple countries show that economic prosperity (even as conventionally defined) is likely weakened when property is confiscated by governments or when monopoly rights to the monetary presses are granted to those that are politically powerful(guys like JP Morgan and Paul Warburg).

  • PhilProf

    Gabe – go check your source again. I looked at it and here’s what I got: Annualized GDP Growth Rate per Capita, 1813-1912 = 1.38%; Annualized GDP Growth Rate per Capita, 1913-2009 = 2.02%. With regard to my original comparison, Annualized GDP Growth Rate per Capita, 1870-1939 = 1.56%; Annualized GDP Growth Rate per Capita, 1940-2009 = 2.29%. (FWIW, I like my comparison periods better b/c we’re talking about government intervention in markets. The 1912 income tax was quite low & restricted to very high incomes; the 1920s weren’t exactly a Keynesian heyday.) You might also want to check out the graphs of Real GDP per Capita for the relavant comparison periods – much less volatility in the Keynesian (WWII +) era. (I assume we are treating GDP growth as a rough proxy for the well-being of people, hence the appropriateness of looking at per Capita figures and the importance of considering volatility).

    Your comment about Keynsians suggests that you find logic and data analysis to be in some sort of tension. Odd. At any rate, I’m glad you’ve come around to the view that data at least matters in assessing economic claims.

  • Tom K

    Re: Blood Meridian.

    If McCarthy’s “The Road” is a story of the goodness of human character, “Blood Meridian” is the opposite. McCarthy is one of the greatest writers in American history, but be prepared with a thick dictionary and dark worldview for “Blood Meridian”. I am very glad I read it and will likely read it again, but make no mistake the prose and subject are challenging.

  • Emmett

    Blood Meridian blows your mind. It always makes me think that it would be similar to what would have resulted if Flannery O’Connor had done the screenplay for the movie THE WILD BUNCH.

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