What I've Been Reading (Summer 2021)
What I’ve been reading lately (Summer 2021)
Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter was an excellent (audio) book. Witty, highly readable, and sure to delight and infuriate. He makes a strong case that classic economic theories of voter behavior (that their ignorance is rational and their errors are unsystematic) are wrong, that the electorate has systematically biased beliefs, and that we all are “democratic fundamentalists.”
How to be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century by Frank Diktotter was another audiobook I enjoyed. It uses 8 different 20th century dictators as case studies in personality cults and the failure modes of dictatorship. Lots of interesting historical anecdotes that one might enjoy but what stuck out was the sense that propaganda and the personality cult were not about persuading people—they were about making everybody lie all the time. If everybody is constantly pretending to be a good communist/fascist/etc. then it becomes near impossible to coordinate and find like-minded dissenters against the regime. The dark genius of personality cults is that everybody is so focused on strongly signaling obedience to the regime that they can’t signal anything else. Also, it seems like every 20th century dictator was obsessed with having people think they slept only 4 hours a night—everybody wants the rep of an uberman!
With the recent Child Tax Credit in the news, a relevant book I read recently is Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage by Isabel Sawhill. Sawhill, affiliated with Brookings and a few presidential administrations, is an expert on American marriage patterns, family formation, and child poverty. It’s a data-rich work so it’s hard to summarize, but the most surprising bit of information was just how important rates of single parenting are to explaining rates of child poverty. Much of the gains of the War on Poverty were effectively erased by the sharp rise in single-parent households over the last 60 years or so. Another important but sobering fact: a decent range of policies have been tried to reduce the rate of single parenthood but few have worked. The most effective—easy access to LARCs, long-acting reversible contraception. That seems to have been responsible for the reduction in teenage pregnancies in the US in the early 2000s. The book will alternately delight (diagnosis: single parenting is intimately related to child poverty) and infuriate (treatment: easy access to simple contraception is the most effective way to prevent single-parenting) social conservatives.