Daniel May

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Progress book recs

Published Aug 04, 2019

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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.


Macroeconomics

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

Scheidel summarizes his new book, out in October:

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.


Cities

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


Philosophy

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.