Rome’s Revolution – Richard Alston

“The great truth of history, so often unspoken, is that for most of our ancestors the key issues were not those of political philosophy, the nature of freedom and the nation, but how to feed oneself and one’s children. History is about food.”

In March of 44 BC, Julius Caesar was murdered by 60-odd members of the Roman aristocracy. They believed that with him gone, everything would return to normal, as it had in the past. Instead, a revolution in Roman society culminated in the formation of the Roman Empire, ending the Republic. Why didn’t a restoration happen? And why was the old version of Roman society destroyed, an outcome totally unexpected by the participants in the events of 44 BC?

These striking questions are what Rome’s Revolution sets out to address, in a novel and fascinating perspective on the history of Rome. As Alston points out, the Rome is often presented with the veneer of inevitability: unlike more recent history, which has not lost its power to shock, the events of Rome are so far removed from us it can be hard to empathize with how people must have felt. Yet in many ways, the events of 44 BC are more comparable to the American or particularly the French revolution in terms of associated chaos and trauma for participants, and indeed the ideals of the Republic helped motivate those and other more recent events, such as the English Civil War.

Alston has a narrative he wants to tell – the Roman revolution as a struggle between groups, and that many participants had no idea what was going on. This isn’t wrong, but for me he overemphasizes it: it’s easy to think of the past in slow motion, with all participants just a little bit less clever than us, but I suspect the contemporary Romans were well aware of many of the trends we discuss in retrospect, such as the rise of private armies within Rome. It’s just not clear what they could have done about it, an explanation Alston doesn’t sufficient much time to. Still, a great perspective on old events.

You can also see more reviews of Rome’s Revolution.

Daily Rituals – Mason Currey

“One’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.”

Beethoven believed the perfect cup of coffee had 60 beans in it: he would count them out personally to make sure it was correct. Franklin believed in air baths, sitting in his room naked for an hour, reading or writing, to reinvigorate his constitution. Victor Hugo, in contrast, would give himself ice water baths on his roof, in full view of both passersby and his mistress, who lived a few houses down. B.F. Skinner, practicing what he preached, had a buzzer to get him to start and stop working; Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart. Buckminster Fuller was a polyphasic sleeper, napping for thirty minutes every six hours.

There are a couple of lessons you could draw from those daily rituals. One is that most of us aren’t eccentric enough to be famous. Another is that there is a surprisingly large amount of variation in the routines of the successful: some got up early, some slept late. Some worked every waking hour, others would work a few hours and then take the rest of the day off. Some ate little; others ate lots. Some preferred solitude, others company. There are a lot of possible routines that can support a creative and productive lifestyle.

Daily Rituals is a quick and engaging read: Currey has done a great job gathering anecdotes and ideas from various successful authors, artists, and others. The book isn’t long on concrete take-aways, but it’s definitely entertaining and rich with anecdotes for use at cocktails parties. Who doesn’t want to hear about how geniuses did their thing? My only complaint would be the book is heavy towards creative types: not that they aren’t great, of course, but a few more scientists, politicians, and businesspeople might have been of interest to provide contrast. Perhaps in the next one!

The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel

“To resist a temptation we have to cool it, distance it from the self, and make it abstract. To take the future into account, we have to heat it, make it imminent and vivid.”

In 2013 and 2014, Sesame Street devoted itself to self-regulation. In one episode, the Cookie Monster played the ‘Waiting Game’ – he could have one cookie now, or if he waited, he could have two. During the episode, he learns strategies to help him wait. Sounds a bit familiar? It should – Walter Mischel was a consultant on the show.

Resisting temptation is a pretty useful skill. The classic example is the marshmallow test – children were told they could have one marshmallow now, or if they waited, they could have two later. In the cutest videos ever made, these children wrestle with their willpower, trying to find ways to resist the marshmallow (or chocolate, or whatever, depending on what they found most tempting) and wait for the greater reward.

What helped? Covering the treats so children couldn’t see them made it easier. Children who distracted themselves, or were told to do so beforehand, either by thinking about other things, singing to themselves, or even sleeping, could wait much longer. Focusing on non-tempting aspects of the marshmallow – imagining it as a picture, thinking of it as puffy cloud, etc. — also helped. Thinking about sad things, in contrast, reduced how long the children could wait.

Mischel (who ran the original marshmallow test) argues this captures the difference between ‘hot’ immediate stimuli and ‘cold’ distant stimuli. Hot, tempting things are what we find appealing in the short term, but if asked in the abstract whether we’d prefer one or two marshmallows, we know we’d prefer two. The key to willpower is making hot things seem cold, and/or cold things seem hot. Make punishments and costs immediate, and the benefits seem distant.

I find willpower fascinating, and so am always pleased when the giants in the field write about it. The Marshmallow Test isn’t perfect: it can feel a bit disorganized at time as it tries to cover 50 years of experimental work, and a lot of its content is already in the public eye, the danger of having NYT columns written about you. That said, for an engaging and enlightening look at the willpower field, particularly if you’re new to it, it’s hard to do better than one of its greats!

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers don’t go Crazy – Michael Barber

“Increasingly, prime ministers are like CEOs or chairmen of major companies. They have to set a policy direction; they have to see it is followed; they have to get data on whether it is; they have to measure outcomes.” – Tony Blair

Laws and sausages are two things one should never watch getting made. Politics is trendy – see House of Cards, Borgen, Homeland, or any of the other political thrillers out there at the moment. What isn’t trendy is delivery, the part where the meat actually gets processed and squeezed into animal intestine. Of course, without delivery, you don’t get any sausages.

Barber presents his 57 rules for effective government programs – not advice in policy, or what you should be doing, but conditional on you knowing what you want to do, how to make sure it happens. Ironically for a man with 57 rules, prioritization is rule 1. Most of it isn’t revolutionary, but it requires a methodical and careful approach, something that is sometimes lost with all the excitement around strategy and blue-sky thinking.

Barber led Tony Blair’s delivery unit, and it’s no surprise he advocates for one in general. Basically, it’s a small team with direct access to the PM (or whoever), which is entirely focused on delivery of programs. They don’t pick what to deliver, but when it is picked, they design metrics, track data, and make sure everything is going to plan. Having a group focused on this means that data can’t just slip through the cracks, or never be tracked at all, and it’s a model that has been adopted in several places, from Malaysia to several U.S. states.

Delivery isn’t flashy, and though Barber does his best, it’s hard to keep the book interesting. It is chock-full of fun ideas, though: he hates 3 point scales, for example, because far too many people just stick in the middle. He always uses 4 point ones. Apparently, he also went through and rated every project done by the UK government by their probability of succeeding at their goals, an exercise I imagine irritated almost everyone. For someone interested in service delivery and how sausages are made, well worth a read.

Exodus – Paul Collier

“Individual migrants succeed in capturing the huge productivity gains from migration. But migrants collectively have an interest in precisely what individually is most detrimental: entry barriers.”

Some countries ban immigration entirely; some encourage it; some allow people to settle, but forbid them citizenship. The range in immigration policies spans almost the entire spectrum of possible options, and it seems unlikely all of them are optimal.

Immigration is a controversial topic, in the UK more than most. It’s also one where arguments are generally made with very little evidence on either side: it’s not impossible immigrants are good or bad for the economy/social welfare/tolerance/the social fabric, but it’s hard to know either way. With that in mind, an evidence-based look at immigration is welcome. There are a lot of good sections in Exodus, but unfortunately as whole it also has some weaknesses.

The book basically goes through the costs and benefits to the three groups affected by immigration in turn – migrants, recipient countries, and sender countries. That’s helpful, and Collier makes some insightful points on each. Overall, though, his argument is that the costs and benefits to societies from sending or receiving immigrants are probably small, and the benefits to individual migrants are huge, making at least some migration attractive. At some point, however, there might be too much immigration, given the effect on social fabric and public services.

At the extreme, the possibility of too much immigration seems plausible – purely from a population density perspective, that almost has to be true. The extremely salient question of how much is too much, however, goes entirely unaddressed. Exodus also relies on abstract models to make its points, the stock and trade of economists but something I suspect most other readers will not find convincing. Data is a better approach for this sort of controversial issue, and there the book has much less.

Overall, I think immigration is aching to be addressed in as rigorous, empirically- and evidence-driven a manner as possible, but I’m not sure Exodus is quite there. Presents a useful difference in perspective from usual accounts, but certainly not decisive.

Under Another Sky – Charlotte Higgins

“I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape — not just through the sublime contours of the Northumberland hills, but in humbler urban and suburban tracts of territory.”

If you pull a pound coin out of your wallet (assuming you’re in the UK, or like carrying the currencies of many countries around with you), you’ll see the phrase Decus et Tutamen written on the edge of the coin. It’s from Virgil: Aeneas bestows some armour on one of his soldiers as prize for valour, and describes the cuirass as ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – Decus Et Tutamen. Slightly more recently, Charles II put in on English coins. Why? The goal was to prevent milling: if thieves attempted to shave off bits of precious metal from the coins, they would destroy the phrase. Hence: ornament and safeguard. No longer quite so relevant with a modern coin, but kept for history’s sake.

The Romans have played what is in some ways an astonishingly pivotal role in much of history: long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, children were taught Latin in school while their elders studied and argued over Cannae, the Gracchi, and the reasons for the fall. Higgins has written a book devoted to the Romans in Britain, or rather, how their presence has influenced and continues to influence the British.

The book ends up part travelogue, part history text, and part repository of interesting facts. It works because Higgins has a focus on beautiful imagery; as she discusses her trips to the extant sites of Roman Britain, she summons them up for the reader, before discussing how they affected later British generations. Despite being on the fringes of empire, England also has a lot to say: Constantine the Great, who turned the Roman Empire Christian, was crowned in York, and other emperors made repeated trips, both to visit and to build walls.

If you have no interest in Romans, I’m not sure this book will sell you on them: if you’re already a believer, this is a nice way to learn more about Roman Britain.

How Much is Enough – Robert & Edward Skidelsky

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” – Epicurus

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that in the generations to come, the increasing prosperity of the world would mean people would work steadily less: where once it took 50 hours of week to feed the family, it would only take 15, leaving more time for fruitful leisure time. That’s not exactly how it has worked out.

Why not presents an interesting problem. Three broad theses suggest themselves: because people enjoy work, because they feel pressured to, or because they want the things money can buy. The first is almost certainly true for some of the wealthy, and may explain why we see investment bankers working so hard they don’t even have time to spend the money they earn. The second has some appeal, but can’t really explain why the poor work fewer hours than the rich. The Skidelskys find the third the most compelling, however; people today might well make enough to meet their basic needs on 15 hours a week, but to afford the status goods we crave – big houses, iphones, etc. – we must work much more.

That argument, though, hinges on a distinction between what we need and what we want. That’s a tricky line to draw: humans can survive without internet access, obviously, but are they full participants in society without it? And does that make it a need or a want? Where you draw the line is going to depend a lot on your values.

The Skidelskys raise this important question, but don’t really answer it. Indeed, judging by how the first 2/3 of the book is spent, the core component of their good life is criticizing economists. Only at the very end do they outline what they see as the ‘needs’ for a good life: Health, Security, Respect, Personality, Harmony with Nature, Friendship, and Leisure.

Robert Skidelsky is the author of one of the seminal biographies of Keynes, and though I haven’t read it I’ve heard nothing but good things. In How Much is Enough, though, I find him a bit too much of an armchair philosopher: it’s clear they’ve thought a lot about this issue, but it’s not clear they know much about it. They cite Easterlin’s findings on happiness, for example, without mentioning the fact his results have been profoundly questioned: they criticize GDP without discussing the many valuable criticisms other people have made. The book asks important and interesting questions, but as a reader looking for answers and not complaints about economics, I’m not sure it was what I was looking for.

The Uses of Pessimism – Roger Scruton

“The knowledge we need in the unforeseeable circumstances of human life is neither derived from nor contained in the experience of a single person, nor can it be deduced a priori from universal laws. This knowledge is bequeathed to us by customs, institutions, and habits of thought that have shaped themselves over generations, through the trials and errors of people many of whom have perished in the course of acquiring it.”

Envision your perfect world, of justice tempered with mercy, of wealth and compassion for all. Is it obtainable? And if so, to what lengths would you be willing to go to achieve it? This, argues Scruton, is the key danger of unconstrained optimism: if all we do is focus on the best possible outcome, then almost any action is justified in achieving it, whether muzzling the media or violating civil rights. Better, instead, to be pessimistic: to worry about what happens if things go wrong, as well as if they go right.

Regular readers will know I like to complain about the appropriation of words like liberal and conservative to parties that have very little to do with their traditional roots. Scruton is an exception: he is a classic small-c conservative, so much so that had The Uses of Pessimism been written by Burke, it would likely say very similar things. He argues that conservatism is about understanding that the world is difficult and complicated, and that sometimes our best hopes are not always what is realized: that instead, we must be scrupulous optimists, carefully weighing out costs and benefits using history as a guide.

The book is an insightful one, if not particularly revolutionary (shockingly). As a thoughtful look at conservatism, however, it does very well. Perhaps most surprising is how poorly it correlates to modern political parties: the conservatism Scruton paints is neither Democrat nor Republican, not even Tory or Liberal. It worries about global warming, but believes radical solutions can bring their own dangers: dislikes inequality, but doesn’t believe centralizing power in the government can solve it. Readers will vary in how appealing they find these arguments, of course: they very clearly represent only one side of a discourse. They are, however, a sometimes underrepresented side, due to a modern right that often seems as focused on optimism as anyone else.

Increase Your Financial IQ – Robert T. Kiyosaki

“Ultimately, it is not gold, stocks, real estate, hard work, or money that makes you rich – it is what you know about gold, stocks, real estate, hard work, and money that makes you rich.”

I don’t really know if entrepreneurship can be taught. Critics of traditional education argue that if anything, schools teach the opposite: stay safe, give the accepted answer, and you get an A. Do something different, try something new, and you risk failure – even if you succeed, you may still be marked wrong, and at best you do no better than your peers who took the safe path. It’s not clear that’s what life is like.

Of course, I’m also not sure the point of school is to teach entrepreneurship: there are many things I’d like children to learn, and though risk-taking is one of them, citizenship, confidence, and a solid knowledge base on a range of topics that allows them to participate and contribute to modern society – not to mention reading and math – also score highly. Perhaps schools are better trying to teach knowledge, and leave spiritual growth and personal development to other fora, or perhaps there’s a way to fold in learning such things without formally trying to teach them, by including useful experiences and activities.

Either way, I wish people were more financially literate: as regular blog readers will know, for me it’s one of those things that if you don’t grow up with it, it can be hard to catch up later in life, and yet it seems to play a key role in determining financial security and stability.

The Rich Dad Poor Dad series is a titan among financial literacy books, selling millions upon millions of copies. Given my own interest in financial literacy, regular readers will know I often find reading such books interesting. For me though, Financial IQ is not a success, neither entertaining nor particularly informative. It is mostly fairly tired advice that is unlikely to surprise anyone, as well as some odd tangents on the value of the gold standard, which isn’t well linked to the content of the book. Not recommended.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back – Tim Harford

“Microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macroeconomics concerns things economists are wrong about generally. Or to be more technical, microeconomics is about money you don’t have, and macroeconomics is about money the government is out of.” – P.J. O’Rourke

How, you might wonder, should governments fight recessions? Keynesians suggest that recessions happen because there is too little demand: the answer is to stimulate demand, using government spending and monetary policy. More classical economists suggest it may be because there is insufficient supply: the economy just isn’t producing enough stuff, or has endured a serious shock like a spike in oil prices. To that line, we should stimulate production: reform the economy, increase efficiency.

Undercover Economist Strikes Back is Harford’s attempt to explain macroeconomics, in contrast to his other, microeconomics-focused, books. There’s a lot of solid common sense in it, such as the point that despite Krugman’s bombast, Keynesianism vs classical is almost certainly a false dilemma: in the short run, you should do one, and in the long run, the other.

He also responds well to the concern (often raised by physicists) that the economy simply can’t keep growing because there are finite limits to energy we can use. The second half of that is true, of course, but as Harford rightly points out the first half doesn’t follow. Physicists think about physical processes, and those do require increasing amounts of energy. Economic growth though doesn’t equal energy growth: in the last 30 years in the US, for example, the economy has grown by 2.5% a year, and energy use has actually fallen.

For more wonkish readers, I also learned something amusing: the oft-quoted story about the babysitter group in D.C. usually doesn’t include the ending. They did indeed double the number of scrips as a Keynesian policy, but they then ended up with too many scrips, and the market collapsed again. Not something the proponents of such policies seem to remember when they tell the story.

The book struggles a bit at some points: Harford isn’t a macroeconomist, and it shows. I’m also not sure whether a macroeconomist would be particularly pleased with some of his analysis. Still, if you’re looking for a jovial tour through macroeconomics, Harford is, as always, entertaining, amusing, and enlightening.