What Are You Reading?
2023 was a good reading year
Happy New Year! And a heartfelt thank you to those of you who sent me good wishes over the past month. The opthamologist says I'm just getting old (gee, thanks!) and my vitreous is getting more liquid and less gel-like, but I've also had one of the weird non-COVID non-RSV respiratory viruses that's been knocking around. Some rest and reduced screen time has been good for dealing with both of these things.
I read a lot for both work and leisure, and in 2023 I had an unusually good, thoughtful, and influential set of books and essays. I'm sharing them in the hopes that you find them interesting and useful. Please also share your reading recommendations in the comments!
My fiction reading ebbs and flows; I'll devour a book like Wolf Hall (and the rest of the trilogy) or Cryptonomicon, and then go months reading nonfiction. Right now to help with my sleep quality I'm rereading Jane Austen's Emma, largely because we've watched the 4-part BBC production of it so much that I wasn't sure what did and did not reflect her actual writing. Thomas Pynchon is an author I've been saving up to read, and I started Gravity's Rainbow in January 2020, but didn't want to read its bleak grimness during the pandemic; not sure it's time yet to pick it up again ...
I picked up Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land on a work trip this fall, and if you like imaginative stories with different threads woven together across time, that's what this book does. From the fall of Constantinople to the Korean War to contemporary Idaho and three generations in the future, Doerr uses an ancient Greek story as a focal point. In part a puzzle, in part a set of well-constructed narratives, it was an extremely enjoyable read.
History is my favorite reading genre, and 2023 saw some outstanding books in intellectual history and economic history. The Individualists, by philosophers Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, is a rich intellectual history of American libertarianism. These ideas draw on earlier work, particularly from the Scottish and French Enlightenments, but Zwolinski and Tomasi focus on the various American strands of liberal political philosophy that would weave 20th century libertarianism. They define the portfolio of libertarian ideas along six themes: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, individualism, spontaneous order, and individual liberty. Within this portfolio of ideas, radical and conservative ideas contest with each other. The Amazon blurb on the book is accurate: "Libertarianism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with an unwavering commitment to progressive causes, from women’s rights and the fight against slavery to anti-colonialism and Irish emancipation. Today, this movement founded on the principle of individual liberty finds itself divided by both progressive and reactionary elements vying to claim it as their own. The Individualists is the untold story of a political doctrine continually reshaped by fierce internal tensions, bold and eccentric personalities, and shifting political circumstances." Whether you are familiar with the source documents and writers or not, if you are interested in the contestation of ideas in political theory, you will get something out of reading this book because it provides both a depth and nuance that are sadly absent in today's discourse. And it's extremely well-written!
The other history of ideas book I read is a biography, but one suffused with ideas and big 20th century events: Hayek: A Life by Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger. Hayek's life spanned most of the 20th century, and the large events of the century affected the trajectory of his education, career, and personal life. This book is the first volume (1899-1950) of what will be a two-volume set, covering Hayek's early life in Vienna and the Austrian Alps, his education and interests in the natural sciences as well as law and economics, his military service in Italy during World War I, the difficulties of interwar Austria and the growing collectivism in Europe, his move to the London School of Economics, and his troubled personal life. I usually don't seek out biographies, but Hayek's life story is also the broader story of the 20th century in Europe, and Caldwell and Klausinger do an expert job of telling those stories at different scales. It really brings home the threats to the open, liberal social order that Hayek and his contemporaries (like Karl Popper and Lionel Robbins) experienced and were concerned about. The other striking feature of this work is that it is not a hagiography, it does not idolize Hayek and it is honest about his shortcomings. I suspect this book will be a good fit for you if you have read some Hayek (say, his 1945 "The Use of Knowledge in Society" and The Road to Serfdom), but because of the events in his life and the broad sweep of the narrative you don't have to be a Hayek scholar to appreciate the work. If you have an economics background you'll really appreciate the chapters on his work in Vienna with Ludwig von Mises and Oskar Morgenstern, his colleagues and students at the London School of Economics, and his relocation to Cambridge during World War II and the interaction with Keynes and the other Cambridge economists in the 1930s and 1940s.
As much as I loved those books, the book that gave me the most sheer joy in 2023 was Richard Langlois' The Corporation and the Twentieth Century. Langlois has written a rich, detailed, compelling, well-written history of the emergence of the corporate form of business in the late 19th century, and traced its evolution through the 20th century. The archival work and the details in the book are remarkable and bring the business history to life, in its organizational forms, its institutions, and its relationships. Langlois is one of the best institutional and organizational economists, and he also brings the lens of complex adaptive systems to his discussion of the growth of large-scale corporations and the impetus to regulate them in the Progressive Era, and how these legal and regulatory institutions interacted with innovation and technological change to shape the organizational form and managerial structures of firms in various industries. It's a magisterial work of economic, business, legal, intellectual, and political history, and if you are interested in any of the major industries of the 20th century (such as, say, electricity or digital communications), there is something in this book for you. The first two chapters alone provide fantastic background that many people working in electricity and in public utility regulation today do not know about the industry's and its regulation's origins, background that informs our current energy transition. It's a large book, almost 700 pages, but well worth it, and I will be rereading parts of it again and again.
By now it's a trite observation that Substack has enabled a republic of online essays to flourish, a bounty for readers and writers alike. Both on Substack and elsewhere I read many essays that stuck with me and that I shared with others; here I'll highlight just a few to whet your appetite.
I spend most of my time thinking about and working on electricity technology and institutions, and as an economist focused on market institutions I have long been an analytical advocate of the Texas model: competitive wholesale market, competitive retail markets, quarantine the regulated monopoly in the wires network where the cost structure and the network effects of an alternating current network persist. February 2021 provided a traumatic challenge to the operational and regulatory institutions of the past 15 years, and in my opinion since then, the Texas legislature and ERCOT have made many wrong decisions and have politicized grid operations, market operations, and business decisions. ERCOT needs reform, but not in the direction they have gone. An essential source of information about Texas is Doug Lewin's Texas Energy and Power Newsletter. Too many of his essays have been important and insightful for me to pick one, so I'll just recommend subscribing to his newsletter if you want to keep up with one of the most vibrant local economies in the US and the steps and missteps its political leaders are taking as they try to balance the many objectives of such a complex system.
Similarly, I could just recommend that you read Roger Pielke Jr.'s The Honest Broker newsletter regularly, because Roger combines physical science and political science expertise in his analyses of political influences in climate science and policy. It's not a 2023 post, but his most recent "Against Mathiness" poses the question of how we use quantitative data and analysis in policy debates, and the authoritativeness we attach to quantitative analysis.
If you are an energy person reading Knowledge Problem, you may not read Anton Howes' stellar history of invention, Age of Invention. Anton carefully and diligently ferrets out fascinating archival details of industrial era inventors, whether it's personal diaries or diagrams of their inventions, and provides deep insight into the individual and social processes of invention of the past three centuries. For example, in "The First Intangibles Revolution" he discusses the ideas that my favorite inventor-entrepreneur duo created, James Watt and Matthew Boulton. This famous partnership was built on licensing their ideas, not on building and selling steam engines. More recently Anton has written an outstanding essay on "How to Be A Public Historian", which is nominally about how to be a public historian but is in fact a deep musing on the epistemology and moral psychology of the process of discovering truth, whether from newly discovered historical information or through creating new knowledge. Anton provides a roadmap for the pursuit of epistemic humility and intellectual integrity.
Relatedly, I have a strong fascination with Josiah Wedgwood (yes, the pottery guy). Wedgwood was an intellectually curious entrepreneur who invented new pottery techniques in the mid-18th century, exercised leadership to form a partnership for the construction of a canal, invented a whole new concept of consumers shopping in showrooms, participated in the Birmingham-based Lunar Society (with Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, and James Watt), and transformed our world for the better. This recent essay from Paul Meany, "The Ethical Entrepreneur, Josiah Wedgwood" also highlights his involvement in the abolitionist movement in Britain. Especially in a time like ours, we can learn a lot from Wedgwood.
What do you recommend? What have you been reading, and why/how has it affected you?
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