May 31, 2008

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, May 2008

Stan Washburn, A Moral Alphabet of Vice and Folly: Embellished with Nudes and Other Exemplary Materials
A series of etchings by "California's foremost sixteenth century artist", accompanying short, mordant little fables. For example, under "P": "A Philosopher concluded that man's pretentions are absurd, and that worldly endeavor is without purpose. So assiduous were his ruminations on this insight that he neglected to publish, and in due course he perished. Moral: publish."
(Thanks to Carl Worth for introducing me to this book.)
John Sutton, Marshall's Tendencies: What Can Economists Know?
A wonderful little book about how economists do, and (what is not quite the same) should confront models with empirical data. Along the way he discusses the history of econometrics, the theory of the tides, option pricing, the origins of thermodynamics, the price of taxi-cabs in San Diego, how to bid for oil rights, etc., etc. It's a wonderful performance in only about a hundred pages, and requires no technical knowledge of econometrics or game theory, though some would probably help. Much of what he says would apply, mutatis mutandis, to any social or natural science, though many of them will not have such strong convictions about the form models should take.
Timur Kuran, Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism
This is a collection of essays on self-proclaimed "Islamic economics" and "Islamic banking", along with a final one on the causes of the comparative economic backwardness of the Islamic world (by which Kuran means the Middle East and not e.g. India or southeast Asia), as compared to western Europe.
The key point of the essays on Islamic economics and Islamic banking is sound: these are recent ideological creations, entirely a product of the last half century, and their goal is expressive, rather than actually being concerned with understanding or improving economies. Islamic banking, in particular, while it purports to avoid interest-based loans in favor of risk-sharing, in fact does so only through transparent dodges, and that for very good reasons. (It is, in fact, not at all clear that the Qu'ran prohibits interest as such, as opposed to certain usurious practices.) Kuran also speculates, plausibly but entirely without evidnece, that the creation of an "Islamic sub-economy" of banks, manufacturing and service firms, grocers, etc., allows up-and-coming emigrants to the great cities of the Islamic world to find networks of reasonably trust-worthy peers in similar situations, since they are shut out of the existing elite networks.
These points are made in most of the essays here, many times over, and highly repetitiously. They are also marred by what I can only call a very strange ethical scheme. Kuran claims, fairly enough, to be a Hayekian, and so what worries him about Islamism is whether it might be redistributive, or mess with the rights of property owners. To quote from p. 68,
Modern Islamist movements possess, then, the ideological capacity and flexibility to sustain a liberal economic agenda. Even if they promote illiberal policies while in opposition, they may be able to assume a liberal orientation once in power. In any case, to pursue effectively liberal policies they need not make deliberate or explicit ideological adaptations. By giving low priority to economic issues, they may end up promoting private investment, self-management, private ownership, and free trade by default. Such unintended liberalism is all the more likely where illiberal economic goals are overshadowed by objectives concerning family, sexuality, manners, and education. Though a prominent theme in Khomeini's pre-revolutionary rhetoric was the elimination of poverty and exploitation, once he rose to Iran's helm he subordinated his stated economic objectives to the general goal of restoring the centrality of Islam in public life &emdash; even to such particular objectives as eliminating the consumption of alcohol, veiling women, banning Western music, and severing Iran from its pre-Islamic heritage. After the revolution, he dismissed demands for concrete economic reforms on the ground that economic well-being is worthy of the donkey.
To put this in "shorter" form: "Sure, the new regime is using the coercive power of the state to impose a single scheme of values on all citizens, censoring all forms of expression, and forcibly subjecting half the people to lives of grossly restricted choices, but they're against rent control, the minimum wage, industrial policy and tarriffs — liberal values are safe!"
The last chapter tries to construct an explanation for the economic backwardness of the Islamic Middle East, drawing on Kuran's truly impressive book on preference falsification. This is extremely unpersuasive. The fact that Kuran sets out to explain is that, while this part of the world used to be on an economic level with western Europe, or even more advanced, it is no longer and has not been for some centuries. However, this is not just true of the Middle East but also of India, China, Japan, etc. By constructing an explanation which could, at most, apply to one of those cases, he is asking us to believe in a remarkable coincidence... The alternative, which he mentions but doesn't really address, is that something very peculiar started happening in one place, namely western Europe, and that this explains the relative decline of the rest of the world. (Don't get me started on his cross-country regression of growth rates.)
To sum up, Kuran has some important points to make, but also some truly remarkable lapses and blind-spots. His book is short (147 pages + notes) yet highly repetitive; it should have been even shorter. It's worth reading only if you are extremely interested in the subject; worth buying only for specialists.
Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology
Studies in the lives and works of three intellectuals who helped, each in their own way, to lay the road to ruin: Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. Good at not just seeing them in that light, and at seeing that many of their trends they participated in — for example, a driving hatred of liberalism — were not just German. (A nice study could be done comparing these ideologues' idea of "the West", home of "civilization", as opposed to German "culture", to the idea of decadent, socialist Europe among contemporary American conservatives.) The contrast cases Stern seems to have in mind, but who mostly show up in his footnotes and asides rather than his main text, are Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, who shared (at least for a time, in Mann's case) these writers' pretense of being "unpolitical", but with vastly more sense and vastly less moral depravity.
Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music: Poems
The poet wrestling with things, disasters, and his own "insomniac monkey-mind". I'll quote the last part of "First Things to Hand", titled "Door", because it is nice, but it's not representative of the range. (No one poem here is.)
The cat cries for me from the other side.
It is beyond her to work this device
That I open and cross and close
With such ease when I mean to work.

Its four panels form a cross—the rood,
Impaling gatepost of redempton.
The rod, a dividing pike or pale
Mounted and hinged to swing between

One way or place and another, meow.
Between the January vulva of birth
And the January of death's door
There are so many to negotiate,

Closed or flung open or ajar, valves
Of attention. O kitty If the doors
Of perception were cleansed
All things would appear as they are,

Infinite. Come in, darling, drowse
Comfortably near my feet, I will click
The barrier closed again behind you, O
Sister will, fellow mortal, here we are.

Andrea Camilleri, The Patience of the Spider and The Paper Moon
Wonderful as always; Montalbano continues to be a superb detective, and the tone of outrage at injustice and astonishment at human depravity and folly is nicely balanced with self-mockery (the scene with the alarm clock at the beginning of The Paper Moon, for example) and good food. (This I think distinguishes itself from American hard-boiled crime stories, which seem to take themselves and their disillusionment so seriously.) Previous installments discussed here, here, here, here and, most recently, here. — Many thanks to "Uncle Jan" for copies!
George R. Milner, The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America
Over-view of the archaeology of the pre-historic inhabitants of what is now the eastern US, with a little bit of Ontario thrown in, emphasizing the mound-building cultures of the mid-west and south-east. Milner seems somewhat more confident in some of his statements (e.g., about artifacts circulating by gift exchange rather than trade, or about social organization) than the evidence he presents would seem to warrant, but then I often have this problem when reading archaeologists.
Jessica Hagy, Indexed
Fun with Venn diagrams and little graphs on two axes. The effect is a little hard to describe, but fortunately you can just see examples.
David Rees, Get Your War On II
Reading this in 2008 brings back, in a truly vivid way, just how much of a feverish nightmare 2002--2004 really was.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Islam; The Dismal Science; Enigmas of Chance; The Running Dogs of Reaction; Writing for Antiquity; The Commonwealth of Letters; The Continuing Crises; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime

Posted at May 31, 2008 23:59 | permanent link

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