Progress book recommendations

Link post

I re­cently posted this to my blog, and a few peo­ple were in­ter­ested in some of the books on the list, so I thought it might be worth cross-post­ing, as I think it’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing area for EA. It’s a pretty broad sub­ject, and I’d love to hear sug­ges­tions for other books!

I added a star (*) to ones I found es­pe­cially good to read.

Ear­lier this week, Pa­trick Col­li­son and Tyler Cowen pub­lished an ar­ti­cle call­ing for a new field, Progress Stud­ies, where progress means “the com­bi­na­tion of eco­nomic, tech­nolog­i­cal, sci­en­tific, cul­tural, and or­ga­ni­za­tional ad­vance­ment that has trans­formed our lives and raised stan­dards of liv­ing over the past cou­ple of cen­turies”, an in­di­rect fol­low-up to Pa­trick’s ar­ti­cle with Michael Niel­sen on de­clin­ing pro­duc­tivity in sci­ence.

The ar­ti­cle re­ceived some crit­i­cism for not ex­plic­itly men­tion­ing cer­tain dis­ci­plines and ar­eas of study, but I don’t think it’s the case that the au­thors are nec­es­sar­ily un­aware of them, or be­lieve they haven’t already con­tributed a lot. Rather, the sub­ject of progress can en­com­pass a huge range of top­ics, from ed­u­ca­tion policy, the his­tory of ideas and tech­nolog­i­cal in­no­va­tion, the sci­en­tific pro­cess and grant­mak­ing, to the study of effec­tive or­gani­sa­tions and man­age­ment, so­cial move­ments, or en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence. I think they would like to see more re­sources go­ing to all re­search which can help shine a light on progress in the past and pre­sent, par­tic­u­larly where it can help us figure out poli­cies to in­crease the rate of tech­nolog­i­cal progress in a pos­i­tive way, as well as more com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween dis­ci­plines.

I re­ally en­joy learn­ing and think­ing about sub­jects in this area, and I’ve found my­self shar­ing book recom­men­da­tions with friends a lot lately, so I thought now would be a good time to put some in one place!

Gen­eral Eco­nomic History

(*) Global Eco­nomic His­tory: A Very Short In­tro­duc­tion by Robert C. Allen

This is a short book which brilli­antly in­tro­duces many of the ideas and ques­tions which eco­nomic his­to­ri­ans think about, from the Great Diver­gence and the Need­ham puz­zle, de­vel­op­ment in Africa and the Amer­i­cas, to the twen­tieth cen­tury “Big Push” in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion in Ja­pan, China, and the Soviet Union. I started here be­fore mov­ing on to Allen’s longer work on the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion.

(*) The Tech­nol­ogy Trap: Cap­i­tal, La­bor, and Power in the Age of Au­toma­tion by Carl Benedikt Frey

This is a great read for un­der­stand­ing the his­tor­i­cal im­pacts of tech­nolog­i­cal change on jobs and in­comes, as well as think­ing about their fu­ture prospects from com­put­er­i­sa­tion and AI. It cov­ers the prein­dus­trial era, the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion and the ar­rival of the fac­tory, and the era of mass pro­duc­tion, look­ing at their short (of­ten nega­tive) and long term (of­ten pos­i­tive) effects. Fi­nally, it dis­cusses to­day’s global­i­sa­tion and po­lari­sa­tion, be­fore look­ing ahead to the com­ing decades.

I en­joyed one of his book launch events (video here) which was hosted with Di­ane Coyle, whose re­view is worth read­ing.

Civ­i­liza­tion and Cap­i­tal­ism, 15th-18th Cen­tury by Fer­nand Braudel

This book ap­pears kind of dry, but is re­ally su­per fun! I loved the first vol­ume, which de­tails huge parts of ev­ery­day life for most peo­ple that ex­isted in Europe dur­ing this time pe­riod, in­clud­ing food and drink, hous­ing, fash­ion, tech­nol­ogy, trans­porta­tion, money, and towns and cities. Th­ese read­ing notes provide a good sum­mary.

(*) Per­se­cu­tion and Tol­er­a­tion: The Long Road to Reli­gious Free­dom by Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson

I’m cur­rently read­ing this one, and so far it’s great! I recom­mend the Con­ver­sa­tions with Tyler epi­sode with the au­thors.

A com­mon view at­tributes the rise of re­li­gious free­dom to a chang­ing in­tel­lec­tual cli­mate and to ar­gu­ments made by thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Pierre Bayle for re­li­gious tol­er­a­tion. Our ap­proach is differ­ent. We ask: “If these thinkers were re­spon­si­ble for the rise of re­li­gious liberty in Europe, then why did they come to promi­nence when they did, at the end of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury?” If ideas are all that mat­tered, then why didn’t re­li­gious liberty take hold in Europe be­fore the sev­en­teenth cen­tury?

We pro­pose that ideas played a less cru­cial role than did the chang­ing in­cen­tives fac­ing Euro­pean rulers in the early mod­ern pe­riod. The trans­for­ma­tion of early mod­ern economies and states led to the grad­ual recog­ni­tion of the im­por­tance of re­li­gious free­dom.

(*) The Great Leveler: Violence and the His­tory of Inequal­ity from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Cen­tury by Walter Scheidel

Ever since hu­mans be­gan to farm, herd live­stock, and pass on their as­sets to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, eco­nomic in­equal­ity has been a defin­ing fea­ture of civ­i­liza­tion. Over thou­sands of years, only vi­o­lent events have sig­nifi­cantly less­ened in­equal­ity. The “Four Horse­men” of lev­el­ing—mass-mo­bi­liza­tion war­fare, trans­for­ma­tive rev­olu­tions, state col­lapse, and catas­trophic plagues—have re­peat­edly de­stroyed the for­tunes of the rich. Schei­del iden­ti­fies and ex­am­ines these pro­cesses, from the crises of the ear­liest civ­i­liza­tions to the cat­a­clys­mic world wars and com­mu­nist rev­olu­tions of the twen­tieth cen­tury. To­day, the vi­o­lence that re­duced in­equal­ity in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts se­ri­ous doubt on the prospects for a more equal fu­ture. (Source)

For more gen­eral eco­nomic his­tory, Jared Ru­bin re­cently posted a re­ally good look­ing syl­labus.

The Bri­tish In­dus­trial Revolution

As Kel­sey Piper puts it, “al­most all the gains in hu­man well-be­ing in his­tory hap­pened since the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion”. In ad­di­tional to be­ing su­per fun to think about, study­ing the causes and effects of the IR seems like it will provide us with a lot of in­sight about tech­nolog­i­cal change in the fu­ture, and help shape our policy-mak­ing in ar­eas like com­put­er­i­sa­tion and AI, or even the sci­en­tific pro­cess and grant­mak­ing.

Allen and Mokyr’s are per­haps two of the most pop­u­lar views on the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion in Bri­tain (al­though there are many oth­ers), and you will find them in most eco­nomic his­tory courses. They are both great in­tro­duc­tions to think­ing about the IR, al­though I’m pleased to have started with Allen.

The Bri­tish In­dus­trial Revolu­tion in Global Per­spec­tive by Robert C. Allen

Allen’s ar­gu­ment for why the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion oc­curred in Bri­tain in the eigh­teenth cen­tury is that wages were par­tic­u­larly high, while en­ergy was rel­a­tively cheap, which in­cen­tivised tech­nolog­i­cal break­throughs to re­place labour with cap­i­tal (ma­chines) and en­ergy. He ar­gues that this price and wage struc­ture was unique to Bri­tain, due to its in­ter­na­tional trade given by its ex­pan­sion and im­pe­ri­al­ism, and the abun­dance of coal de­posits and rel­a­tively cheap coal. The trade boom was already caus­ing ur­ban cen­tres such as New­cas­tle and Lon­don to grow by the end of the six­teenth cen­tury, in­creas­ing their de­mand for fuel, and caus­ing a rapid growth in the coal in­dus­try. The price of en­ergy sources like wood and char­coal rose sharply in re­sponse to the de­mand, while the price of coal, which had a vir­tu­ally un­limited source, could stay roughly con­stant from the fif­teenth to nine­teenth cen­tury.

This was the first book I read on the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion, and I re­ally en­joyed it, and bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the work­ings of in­ven­tions such as the steam en­g­ine and cot­ton-spin­ning ma­chines, and how their de­signs were in­cre­men­tally im­proved upon. That said, you could prob­a­bly get away with this abridged ver­sion if you are less in­ter­ested in the de­tails.

Humphries and Sch­nei­der (2019) ques­tions whether Bri­tain re­ally had a high wage econ­omy, and I en­joyed and agreed with An­ton Howes’ short post, which dis­t­in­guished be­tween in­duc­ing the in­ven­tive pro­cess and adopt­ing the new tech­nolo­gies. It points out that there still seems like a step in Allen’s the­ory which is miss­ing a full ex­pla­na­tion, be­tween the in­cen­tive for tech­nolog­i­cal in­no­va­tion ex­ist­ing, and peo­ple ac­tu­ally go­ing about in­vent­ing, par­tic­u­larly the con­di­tions which en­abled and caused them to do so with such in­ten­sity in Bri­tain all at the same time. I found read­ing Mokyr re­ally helpful for bridg­ing this gap, and in­deed pa­pers like Crafts (2010) sug­gest that their two views could be treated as com­ple­men­tary rather than com­pet­ing. The anony­mous blog­ger pseu­do­eras­mus dis­cusses some cri­tiques of Allen’s the­ory here.

(*) A Cul­ture of Growth: The Ori­gins of the Modern Econ­omy by Joel Mokyr

This book does a fan­tas­tic job of in­cor­po­rat­ing cul­ture into a the­ory of the IR, us­ing the defi­ni­tion pro­posed by Boyd and Rich­er­son that “cul­ture is a set of be­liefs, val­ues, and prefer­ences, ca­pa­ble of af­fect­ing be­havi­our, that are so­cially (not ge­net­i­cally) trans­mit­ted and that are shared by some sub­set of so­ciety”, and ex­plic­itly draw­ing par­allels with the field of cul­tural evolu­tion.

For Mokyr, the rele­vant sub­set for the IR were those in­volved in the “Repub­lic of Let­ters”, a ge­o­graph­i­cally spread com­mu­nity of in­tel­lec­tu­als shar­ing prac­ti­cal and sci­en­tific knowl­edge through­out Europe and the Amer­i­cas, cul­mi­nat­ing in the En­light­en­ment, and lead­ing to im­proved in­sti­tu­tions in Bri­tain for pro­mot­ing com­pe­ti­tion and tech­nolog­i­cal progress that in­cen­tivised en­trepreneurs. Mokyr ar­gues that what sep­a­rated Bri­tain was its readi­ness to take ad­van­tage of the new knowl­edge and con­di­tions, due to its unique sup­ply of skil­led in­ven­tors, crafts­men, en­g­ineers, and sci­en­tists. As Crafts (2010) writes, “he be­lieves that Bri­tain’s ad­van­tages must have been on the sup­ply rather than the de­mand side of the econ­omy since the Nether­lands was richer, France was larger, and Spain had more colonies.”

Di­ane Coyle re­viewed the book in the Fi­nan­cial Times, and this post is also worth read­ing.

Pre­co­cious Albion: A New In­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bri­tish In­dus­trial Revolu­tion (2014) by Mor­gan Kelly et al.

Many ex­pla­na­tions have been offered for the Bri­tish In­dus­trial Revolu­tion. This ar­ti­cle points to the im­por­tance of hu­man cap­i­tal (broadly defined) and the qual­ity of the Bri­tish la­bor force on the eve of the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion. It shows that in terms of both phys­i­cal qual­ity and me­chan­i­cal skills, Bri­tish work­ers around 1750 were at a much higher level than their con­ti­nen­tal coun­ter­parts. As a re­sult, new in­ven­tions—no mat­ter where they origi­nated—were adopted ear­lier, faster, and on a larger scale in Bri­tain than el­se­where. The gap in la­bor qual­ity is con­sis­tent with the higher wages paid in eigh­teenth-cen­tury Bri­tain. The causes for the higher la­bor qual­ity are ex­plored and found to be as­so­ci­ated with a higher level of nu­tri­tion and bet­ter in­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially England’s Poor Law and the su­pe­rior func­tion­ing of its ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem.

(*) Ex­plain­ing the First In­dus­trial Revolu­tion: Two Views (2010) by Ni­cholas Crafts

In the best ar­gu­men­ta­tive tra­di­tions of the new eco­nomic his­tory, Allen and Mokyr see their ac­counts as com­pet­ing. In essence, how­ever, they are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive and per­haps even­tu­ally will more ap­pro­pri­ately be seen as com­ple­men­tary. It is widely ac­cepted by eco­nomic his­to­ri­ans that the ex­pla­na­tion for a sus­tained ac­cel­er­a­tion of pro­duc­tivity growth must come from un­der­stand­ing the de­vel­op­ment and sub­se­quent in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ment of new tech­nolo­gies. Thus, a com­bi­na­tion of Allen and Mokyr’s claims might pro­duce the hy­poth­e­sis that this re­sulted from the re­spon­sive­ness of agents, which was aug­mented by the En­light­en­ment, to the wage and price con­figu­ra­tion that un­der­pinned the prof­ita­bil­ity of in­no­va­tive effort in the eigh­teenth cen­tury.

Cul­tural Evolution

I loved these two books, which were both amaz­ing in­tro­duc­tions to the field of cul­tural evolu­tion. Papers in this area are so much fun to read and re­ally in­sight­ful (e.g. Derax et al. (2019), Hen­rich et al. (2019), Noren­za­yan et al. (2016)), and it seems to have lots to con­tribute to our un­der­stand­ing of in­no­va­tion and progress.

Scott Alexan­der re­cently re­viewed the Hen­rich book. I can’t recom­mend ei­ther highly enough, and they pair well with Mokyr.

(*) The Se­cret of Our Suc­cess: How Cul­ture Is Driv­ing Hu­man Evolu­tion, Do­mes­ti­cat­ing Our Species, and Mak­ing Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich

(*) Dar­win’s Un­finished Sym­phony: How Cul­ture Made the Hu­man Mind by Kevin Laland

Eco­nomic Growth and Stagnation

(*) Stub­born At­tach­ments: A Vi­sion for a So­ciety of Free, Pros­per­ous, and Re­spon­si­ble In­di­vi­d­u­als by Tyler Cowen

In this short book, Tyler Cowen ar­gues for fo­cus­ing on poli­cies that seek sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth in the long-run, while pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, as per­haps the best way to en­sure and im­prove the welfare of ours and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, and that we should care deeply for the more dis­tant fu­ture, and there­fore long-term so­cial sta­bil­ity, as op­posed to ap­ply­ing a dis­count to it.

Are Ideas Get­ting Harder to Find? (2017, up­dated 2019) by Ni­cholas Bloom et al.

A key as­sump­tion of many en­doge­nous growth mod­els is that a con­stant num­ber of re­searchers can gen­er­ate con­stant ex­po­nen­tial growth. We show that this as­sump­tion cor­re­sponds to the hy­poth­e­sis that the to­tal fac­tor pro­duc­tivity of the idea pro­duc­tion func­tion is con­stant, and we pro­ceed to mea­sure re­search pro­duc­tivity in many differ­ent con­texts.

Our ro­bust find­ing is that re­search pro­duc­tivity is fal­ling sharply ev­ery­where we look. Tak­ing the U.S. ag­gre­gate num­ber as rep­re­sen­ta­tive, re­search pro­duc­tivity falls in half ev­ery 13 years — ideas are get­ting harder and harder to find. Put differ­ently, just to sus­tain con­stant growth in GDP per per­son, the U.S. must dou­ble the amount of re­search effort ev­ery 13 years to offset the in­creased difficulty of find­ing new ideas.

Tyler Cowen blogged about a new pa­per by some of the same au­thors to­day, called “A Toolkit of Poli­cies to Pro­mote In­no­va­tion”.

The Great Stag­na­tion: How Amer­ica Ate All the Low-Hang­ing Fruit of Modern His­tory, Got Sick, and Will Feel Bet­ter by Tyler Cowen

The Rise and Fall of Amer­i­can Growth: The U.S. Stan­dard of Liv­ing Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon

I’m ex­cited to read this at some point. From Gor­don (2012):

This pa­per raises ba­sic ques­tions about the pro­cess of eco­nomic growth. It ques­tions the as­sump­tion, nearly uni­ver­sal since Solow’s sem­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions of the 1950s, that eco­nomic growth is a con­tin­u­ous pro­cess that will per­sist for­ever. There was vir­tu­ally no growth be­fore 1750, and thus there is no guaran­tee that growth will con­tinue in­definitely. Rather, the pa­per sug­gests that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique epi­sode in hu­man his­tory. The pa­per is only about the United States and views the fu­ture from 2007 while pre­tend­ing that the fi­nan­cial crisis did not hap­pen. Its point of de­par­ture is growth in per-cap­ita real GDP in the fron­tier coun­try since 1300, the U.K. un­til 1906 and the U.S. af­ter­wards. Growth in this fron­tier grad­u­ally ac­cel­er­ated af­ter 1750, reached a peak in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury, and has been slow­ing down since. The pa­per is about “how much fur­ther could the fron­tier growth rate de­cline?”

The Mo­ral Con­se­quences of Eco­nomic Growth by Ben­jamin M. Friedman

The Scien­tific Pro­cess and Ba­sic Research

There are lots of peo­ple think­ing about and try­ing to im­prove the cur­rent sci­en­tific pro­cess within academia, from the open sci­ence move­ment and re­pro­ducibil­ity pro­jects, to boy­cotting ex­pen­sive jour­nal pub­lish­ers, or call­ing for longer post-doc­toral con­tracts, and in­creased fund­ing for more open-ended or high-risk, high-re­ward re­search.

The Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject has quite a few in­ter­est­ing posts and re­ports in this area:

  • Break­through Fun­da­men­tal Science (2015)

  • Hits-based Giv­ing (2016)

  • Some Case Stud­ies in Early Field Growth (2017)

In­cen­tives and Creativity: Ev­i­dence from the Aca­demic Life Sciences (2009) by Pierre Azoulay et al.

De­spite its pre­sumed role as an en­g­ine of eco­nomic growth, we know sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about the drivers of sci­en­tific cre­ativity. In this pa­per, we ex­ploit key differ­ences across fund­ing streams within the aca­demic life sci­ences to es­ti­mate the im­pact of in­cen­tives on the rate and di­rec­tion of sci­en­tific ex­plo­ra­tion. Speci­fi­cally, we study the ca­reers of in­ves­ti­ga­tors of the Howard Hughes Med­i­cal In­sti­tute (HHMI), which tol­er­ates early failure, re­wards long-term suc­cess, and gives its ap­poin­tees great free­dom to ex­per­i­ment; and grantees from the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Health, which are sub­ject to short re­view cy­cles, pre-defined de­liv­er­ables, and re­newal poli­cies un­for­giv­ing of failure. Us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of propen­sity-score weight­ing and differ­ence-in-differ­ences es­ti­ma­tion strate­gies, we find that HHMI in­ves­ti­ga­tors pro­duce high- im­pact pa­pers at a much higher rate than a con­trol group of similarly-ac­com­plished NIH-funded sci­en­tists. More­over, the di­rec­tion of their re­search changes in ways that sug­gest the pro­gram in­duces them to ex­plore novel lines of in­quiry.

Asian Eco­nomic History

(*) How Asia Works: Suc­cess and Failure in the World’s Most Dy­namic Re­gion by Joe Studwell

MITI and the Ja­panese Mir­a­cle: The Growth of In­dus­trial Policy, 1925-1975 by Chalmers A. Johnson

From Third World to First: Sin­ga­pore and the Asian Eco­nomic Boom by Lee Kuan Yew

Can we cre­ate more ex­per­i­men­tal cities?

World History

The Trans­for­ma­tion of the World: A Global His­tory of the Nine­teenth Cen­tury by Jür­gen Osterhammel

This is a su­per weighty tome which I have only skim-read, but it does an in­cred­ible job at map­ping out all the change oc­cur­ring in the nine­teenth cen­tury. It cov­ers al­most ev­ery sub­ject imag­in­able, but each sec­tion is pretty short, mak­ing it re­ally fun to pick up and read whichever topic seems in­ter­est­ing.


(*) GDP: A Brief but Affec­tionate His­tory by Di­ane Coyle

This book ex­plains GDP and de­scribes its his­tory, sets out its limi­ta­tions, and defends it still as a key in­di­ca­tor for eco­nomic policy. It is cer­tainly a bet­ter in­di­ca­tor than some of the al­ter­na­tives (like “hap­piness”) that have been pro­posed. I also ask whether GDP alone is still a good enough mea­sure of eco­nomic perfor­mance—and con­clude not. It is a mea­sure de­signed for the twen­tieth-cen­tury econ­omy of phys­i­cal mass pro­duc­tion, not for the mod­ern econ­omy of rapid in­no­va­tion and in­tan­gible, in­creas­ingly digi­tal, ser­vices. How well the econ­omy is do­ing is always go­ing to be an im­por­tant part of ev­ery­day poli­tics, and we’re go­ing to need a bet­ter mea­sure of “the econ­omy” than to­day’s GDP.

Why Are the Prices So Damn High? by Eric Hel­land and Alexan­der Tabarrok

In this study Eric Hel­land and Alex Tabar­rok fo­cus on Bau­mol’s cost dis­ease, also known as the Bau­mol effect, and point to the in­crease in the cost of skil­led la­bor as an ex­pla­na­tion of why ex­pen­di­tures in ed­u­ca­tion and health­care have con­sis­tently in­creased while qual­ity and pro­duc­tivity have risen at a much slower rate. The Bau­mol effect tells us that to con­trol costs, in­dus­tries must in­crease out­put from the same in­puts or use fewer in­puts in or­der to offset the ris­ing op­por­tu­nity costs of those in­puts.

Scott Alexan­der’s re­view.

In­ven­tions, labs, or­gani­sa­tions, and megaprojects

Peter Thiel is known for mak­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the world of atoms and bits, ar­gu­ing that the cur­rent rel­a­tive stag­na­tion is in the former, while we’ve had a lot more in­no­va­tion in com­put­ing and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy. If true (or if the slow­down is in soft­ware as well), this seems con­cern­ing, as so much of the progress we hope to achieve is in the out­side world, such as im­prov­ing health and cur­ing dis­eases, solv­ing cli­mate change, bet­ter trans­port and in­fras­truc­ture, and so on.

There are lots of rea­sons why in­no­vat­ing in atoms might be harder or slower (the real world is su­per com­plex and we’ve reached the low-hang­ing fruit sooner, per­verse in­cen­tives and strong near-term bias in sci­ence and academia, reg­u­la­tion, wages and work­ing con­di­tions in tech can be higher or bet­ter), some of which may be good, but study­ing suc­cess­ful in­no­va­tors and or­gani­sa­tions seems like one thing that could be re­ally helpful, and I’d like to read more in this area.

The Idea Fac­tory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of Amer­i­can In­no­va­tion by Jon Gertner

Creat­ing the Twen­tieth Cen­tury: Tech­ni­cal In­no­va­tions of 1867-1914 and Their Last­ing Im­pact by Va­clav Smil

(*) The Pur­suit of Power: Tech­nol­ogy, Armed Force and So­ciety Since A.D. 1000 by William H. McNeill

Col­lapse and Cliodynamics

Global Catas­trophic Risks ed­ited by Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Cirkovic

(*) The Fate of Rome: Cli­mate, Disease, and the End of an Em­pire by Kyle Harper

Harper does a re­ally con­vinc­ing job at stress­ing the role that the en­vi­ron­ment, par­tic­u­larly cli­mate events and dis­ease epi­demics, played in the col­lapse of the Ro­man Em­pire. The book is su­per read­able, and seemed re­ally ac­cessible to new­com­ers to Ro­man his­tory.

(*) War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Em­pires by Peter Turchin

(*) Col­lapse of Com­plex So­cieties by Joseph A. Tainter

Es­cape from Rome: The Failure of Em­pire and the Road to Pros­per­ity by Walter Scheidel

I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to the up­com­ing Schei­del book, which he sum­marises here:

I ar­gue that the “Great Diver­gence,” broadly un­der­stood as a uniquely Euro­pean or “Western” break­through in eco­nomic and cog­nate ca­pa­bil­ities, was causally con­nected with and ul­ti­mately de­pen­dent on the poli­ti­cal “First Great Diver­gence” be­tween Ro­man and post-Ro­man Europe and be­tween Europe on the one hand and East Asia and in­ter­me­di­ate re­gions on the other – a di­ver­gence be­tween the en­dur­ing dis­ap­pear­ance and the cycli­cal restora­tion of hege­monic em­pire. This is the case re­gard­less of which of the very many the­o­ries about the prox­i­mate causes of the mod­ern “Great Diver­gence” we ac­cept. [...] I show that all of these ex­pla­na­tions crit­i­cally de­pend on the ab­sence of Ro­man-style em­pire from Europe through­out its post-an­cient his­tory. For this rea­son, the fall and last­ing dis­ap­pear­ance of hege­monic em­pire was an in­dis­pens­able pre­con­di­tion for later Euro­pean ex­cep­tion­al­ism and thus for the cre­ation of the mod­ern world we now in­habit.

Cli­mate, En­ergy, and Sustainability

Sus­tain­able En­ergy — Without the Hot Air by David MacKay

Be­cause Bri­tain cur­rently gets 90% of its en­ergy from fos­sil fuels, it’s no sur­prise that get­ting off fos­sil fuels re­quires big, big changes – a to­tal change in the trans­port fleet; a com­plete change of most build­ing heat­ing sys­tems; and a 10- or 20-fold in­crease in green power.

Given the gen­eral ten­dency of the pub­lic to say “no” to wind farms, “no” to nu­clear power, “no” to tidal bar­rages – “no” to any­thing other than fos­sil fuel power sys­tems – I am wor­ried that we won’t ac­tu­ally get off fos­sil fuels when we need to. In­stead, we’ll set­tle for half-mea­sures: slightly-more-effi­cient fos­sil-fuel power sta­tions, cars, and home heat­ing sys­tems; a fig-leaf of a car­bon trad­ing sys­tem; a sprin­kling of wind tur­bines; an in­ad­e­quate num­ber of nu­clear power sta­tions.

We need to choose a plan that adds up. It is pos­si­ble to make a plan that adds up, but it’s not go­ing to be easy.

We need to stop say­ing no and start say­ing yes. We need to stop the Punch and Judy show and get build­ing.

Cli­mate-Smart Food by Dave Reay

Cli­mate change poses a se­vere and grow­ing threat to food se­cu­rity around the world. Our food is also a ma­jor driver of cli­mate change. Here we provide an overview of these in­ter­twined global challenges and the cur­rent state of progress (or lack thereof) in ad­dress­ing them. We in­tro­duce the con­cept of cli­mate-smart food, whereby cli­mate re­silience and pro­duc­tivity are in­creased while green­house gas emis­sions are si­mul­ta­neously re­duced. Fi­nally, we map out the spe­cific foods to be ex­plored in-depth, from farm, vine­yard or ocean to Scot­tish din­ner table.


(*) Order Without De­sign: How Mar­kets Shape Cities by Alain Bertaud

Devon Zuegel main­tains a brilli­ant cities read­ing list, which in­spired me to read this. It turned out to be one of my favourite books, and I strug­gled not to high­light ev­ery page. Ber­taud was re­cently a guest on the EconTalk pod­cast, which is a good in­tro­duc­tion. On the link be­tween mo­bil­ity and pro­duc­tivity:

The im­pact of travel time, size of la­bor mar­kets, and spa­tial dis­tri­bu­tion of jobs on ur­ban pro­duc­tivity has been con­vinc­ingly demon­strated for Euro­pean and Korean cities by Prud’homme and Lee and for US cities by Melo, Gra­ham, Lev­in­ston, and Aarabi. Prud’homme and Lee’s pa­per, ti­tled “Size, Sprawl, Speed and the Effi­ciency of Cities,” shows that pro­duc­tivity per worker is closely cor­re­lated to the av­er­age num­ber of jobs per worker that are reach­able in less than 60 min­utes. In Korean cities, a 10 per­cent in­crease in the num­ber of jobs ac­cessible per worker cor­re­sponds to a 2.4 per­cent in­crease in work­ers’ pro­duc­tivity. Ad­di­tion­ally, for 25 French cities, a 10 per­cent in­crease in av­er­age com­mut­ing speed, all other things re­main­ing con­stant, in­creases the size of the la­bor mar­ket by 15−18 per­cent. In the United States, Melo et al. show that the pro­duc­tivity effect of ac­cessibil­ity, mea­sured by an in­crease in wages, is cor­re­lated to the num­ber of jobs per worker ac­cessible within a 60-minute com­mut­ing range. Pro­duc­tivity in­creases as ac­cessibil­ity does due to the fol­low­ing: when in­di­vi­d­u­als are able to op­ti­mize in­di­vi­d­ual la­bor de­ci­sions, firms have the most pro­duc­tive peo­ple in jobs, and ag­gre­gate out­put in­creases. Beyond 20 min­utes of travel time, worker pro­duc­tivity still in­creases, but its rate de­cays and prac­ti­cally dis­ap­pears be­yond 60 min­utes.

Both pa­pers demon­strate that work­ers’ mo­bil­ity—their abil­ity to reach a large num­ber of po­ten­tial jobs in as short a travel time as pos­si­ble—is a key fac­tor in in­creas­ing the pro­duc­tivity of large cities and the welfare of their work­ers. Large ag­glomer­a­tions of work­ers do not en­sure high pro­duc­tivity in the ab­sence of worker mo­bil­ity. There­fore the time spent com­mut­ing should be a key in­di­ca­tor in as­sess­ing the way large cities are man­aged.

Here he’s cit­ing Bet­ten­court and West (2010) and Bet­ten­court et al. (2014):

When trans­port sys­tems provide ad­e­quate mo­bil­ity, then the large con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple in metropoli­tan ar­eas in­creases pro­duc­tivity and stim­u­lates cre­ativity. Em­piri­cal data con­firm the link be­tween large hu­man con­cen­tra­tions and pro­duc­tivity. Physi­cists from the Santa Fe In­sti­tute have shown that, on av­er­age, when the pop­u­la­tion of a city dou­bles, its eco­nomic pro­duc­tivity per cap­ita in­creases by 15 per­cent.

The in­ter­est­ing find­ings of the Santa Fe In­sti­tute’s sci­en­tists should be qual­ified, though. Their database in­cluded 360 US metropoli­tan ar­eas with, by world stan­dards, a very good trans­port in­fras­truc­ture net­work that en­sures mo­bil­ity to­gether with spa­tial con­cen­tra­tion. In a way, these sci­en­tists’ use of the word “cities” as­sumes the availa­bil­ity of trans­porta­tion. It would be wrong to in­ter­pret their work as demon­strat­ing that hu­man con­cen­tra­tion alone in­creases pro­duc­tivity. [...] Some ru­ral ar­eas in Asia have gross den­si­ties that are higher than the den­sity of some North Amer­i­can cities like At­lanta or Hous­ton, for in­stance. How­ever, in these ru­ral ar­eas, mo­bil­ity is poor to nonex­is­tent be­tween villages. In ab­sence of mo­bil­ity, there is no in­crease in pro­duc­tivity de­spite the high den­sity. The pro­duc­tivity of cities there­fore re­quires both con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple and high mo­bil­ity.

The Dis­tant Future

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth by Robin Hanson

Most peo­ple (hope­fully!) will live in the dis­tant fu­ture, so think­ing hard about how to get there safely, and en­sur­ing it goes well for them, seems re­ally im­por­tant, even if we think we can only have a small abil­ity to effect, or pre­dict, it. I re­ally like the mo­ti­va­tion Robin Han­son gives for study­ing the more dis­tant fu­ture:

To­day, we take far more effort to study the past than the fu­ture, even though we can’t change the past. Peo­ple of­ten ex­cuse this by say­ing that we know far more about the past than the fu­ture. Yet mod­est efforts of­ten give sub­stan­tial in­sights into the fu­ture, and we would know more about the fu­ture if we tried harder to study it. Also, rel­a­tive to the fu­ture, our study of the past has hit diminish­ing re­turns; most of the eas­iest in­sights about the past have already been found.

If policy mat­ters, then the fu­ture mat­ters, be­cause poli­cies only af­fect the fu­ture. And un­less we are very pes­simistic or self-cen­tered time-wise, the dis­tant fu­ture mat­ters the most, as with con­tinued growth we ex­pect the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple to live there.

The chance that the ex­act par­tic­u­lar sce­nario I de­scribe in this book will ac­tu­ally hap­pen just as I de­scribe it is much less than one in a thou­sand. But sce­nar­ios that are similar to true sce­nar­ios, even if not ex­actly the same, can still be a rele­vant guide to ac­tion and in­fer­ence. I ex­pect my anal­y­sis to be rele­vant for a large cloud of differ­ent but similar sce­nar­ios. In par­tic­u­lar, con­di­tional on my key as­sump­tions, I ex­pect at least 30% of fu­ture situ­a­tions to be use­fully in­formed by my anal­y­sis. Un­con­di­tion­ally, I ex­pect at least 10%.

Con­sider that while the fu­ture mat­ters more than the past, we have at least a thou­sand use­ful books on the past. So this book can be use­ful if it ex­pertly stud­ies a sce­nario with only a one in a thou­sand chance of hap­pen­ing.

Hu­man Com­pat­i­ble: Ar­tifi­cial In­tel­li­gence and the Prob­lem of Con­trol by Stu­art Russell

This one isn’t out yet, but should be worth a read.

Su­per­in­tel­li­gence: Paths, Dangers, Strate­gies by Nick Bostrom

De­ci­sion-mak­ing and Forecasting

Ex­pert Poli­ti­cal Judg­ment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip E. Tetlock


On the Over­whelming Im­por­tance of Shap­ing the Far Fu­ture (2013) by Nick Beckstead

In slo­gan form, the the­sis of this dis­ser­ta­tion is that shap­ing the far fu­ture is over­whelm­ingly im­por­tant. More pre­cisely, I ar­gue that: From a global per­spec­tive, what mat­ters most (in ex­pec­ta­tion) is that we do what is best (in ex­pec­ta­tion) for the gen­eral tra­jec­tory along which our de­scen­dants de­velop over the com­ing mil­lions, billions, and trillions of years.

(*) Rea­sons and Per­sons by Derek Parfit

I first read this when I was not long in­volved in what be­came the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity, which got me think­ing about util­i­tar­i­anism and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. I have only skimmed bits of it since, but it’s a great book which I re­ally en­joyed and still think about of­ten, and has had a huge in­fluence on oth­ers within philos­o­phy and in real life.

I felt so grate­ful to see him speak in Oxford a few years ago, in one of his last pub­lic ap­pear­ances.

I hope you found some of the list in­ter­est­ing! I of­ten find new reads look­ing at pseu­do­eras­mus’ list of eco­nomic his­tory books and pa­pers, and Pa­trick Col­li­son’s own pages, in­clud­ing Growth, Labs, and Fast.

The effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity spends a lot of time try­ing to think care­fully about the fu­ture (progress in many ar­eas, risks to civ­i­liza­tion, the far fu­ture), and I’d definitely recom­mend check­ing it out if you aren’t fa­mil­iar. A few EA-ish or­gani­sa­tions pub­lish­ing great re­search are:

  • The Fu­ture of Hu­man­ity In­sti­tute (and Nick Bostrom’s web­site)

  • The Cen­tre for the Study of Ex­is­ten­tial Risk

  • The Global Pri­ori­ties In­sti­tute (and Hilary Greaves’ web­site)

  • The Open Philan­thropy Project

  • The Cen­ter for Se­cu­rity and Emerg­ing Tech­nol­ogy (new)

I’ve also en­joyed read­ing BBC Fu­ture’s se­ries of ar­ti­cles called Deep Civil­i­sa­tion this year, and Vox’s Fu­ture Perfect ar­ti­cles and pod­cast.