Intellectuals You Should Know About

I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.

As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.

When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”

Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.

My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.

It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.

What, then, should you read?

In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.

Jared Diamond

Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday: 

  • Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
  • I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!

Paul Collier

Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:

  • Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
  • The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.

I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.

Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.

The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett

to which we should add the “one Horse-woman“, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I’m ashamed to only know as “the wife of Niall Ferguson” (yes, my background is money and history, OK, not politics or religion…).

Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:

Speaking of Ferguson, as I’m a big financial history guy, I am shamelessly squeezing in this prolific writer, professor (well, Senior Fellow at Hoover institution nowadays) and public intellectual:

I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.

Steven Pinker

Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:

  • The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced
  • Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
  • The Language Instinct
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Stuff of Thought

Matt Ridley

Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.

At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”

They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.

Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.

In sum: just bloody read more

Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.

As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.

Above are some amazing thinkers. Drop me a line or tweet me with readings you would add to a list like this.

Nightcap

  1. Why should we care about landing on the moon…50 years ago? Jill Lepore, New York Times
  2. U.S. escalates cyber attacks on Russia’s power grid Perlroth & Sanger, New York Times
  3. Stupid humans (is there hope?) Caleb Scharf, Scientific American
  4. The decline and rise of poverty in America Bryan Caplan, EconLog

The nonexistent moral decay of the west

Humankind’s struggle with moral is of course nothing new, it rather inherent to our nature to revolt against the meaningless world and the manmade system of reason. Furthermore, moral values vary over a specific period of time swinging from rather high moral standards to very low ones. Regarding morality as an abstract compass guiding our thought, goals and behaviour, Economist, in general, are not known for dealing in depth with the metaphysical reason behind our behaviour yet they explore and explain human actions through our surrounding incentives, which also structure and direct our action. Economist such as Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson or William J. Baumol have explored these changes in human behaviour through changing incentive structures thoroughgoingly.

However, folks mourning the moral decline of today’s west often fail to provide concrete evidence for their argument. They either cherry-pick events or legislatures to infer a macro trend inductively or they lose themselves in difficult language trying to somehow save their argument by making it incomprehensible. I cannot help feeling that mourning the moral decay of the west has somehow become a shibboleth for eloquently expressing the “Things used to be way better back then” narrative. However, I admit that there were probably a couple of sociological papers who have covered this issue very well which I am unaware of. Contrary, the public debate was dominated by a few grumpy intellectuals holding the above-named attitude. I was recently provided with a very concrete set of indicators to measure moral decline while digging through Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous classic “The clash of civilization” from 1996. He states that there are five main criteria which indicate the ongoing decline of moral values in the West. [1]

After being provided with a concrete framework to quantify the moral decline of the west, I was keen to see how the moral decline of the west has developed in the 20 years since the book has first been published in 1996. Although I also take issue with some of these indicators to measure moral decline, I avoid any normative judgement in the first part and just look at their development over time. Furthermore, since Samuelson himself mostly takes data from the USA representing the West, I might as well do so too for the sake of simplicity. So, let’s see what happened to moral values in the West in the last years by checking each of Huntington’s indicator one by one.

1. Increasing antisocial behaviour such as acts of crime, drug use and general violence

Apart from the global long-term trend of declining homicides, we can also observe a recent downward trend in the reported violent crime rate since 1990 in the USA. Scholars agree that the crime rate is in an extreme decline. Expanding the realm towards Europe, you will see similar results (see here).

1Source: Statista

Despite these trends, the public (as well as some intellectuals as well I assume) vastly still holds a distorted perception of the crime rate. The sharp decline in actual crimes strongly contradicts the fact that a majority of the people still uphold the myth of increasing crime rates.

2

Source: Pew Research Center

Regarding drug use in the USA, it is important to mention that the absolute amount of illicit drugs consumed has slightly gone up since 1990. This development is mostly driven by an increasing  consumption of marijuana: Use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined., states the National Institute on drug abuse in 2015.

Contrary, the number of deadly injections are increasing. However, the share of the population with drug use disorders has remained on the same level of 5.3% over the last 20 years.

2. Decay of the family resulting in increasing divorce rates, teenage motherhood and single parents

It is hard to measure the “Decay of the family” itself. Luckily, Huntington further concretizes his claim by naming some of the measurable effects. There is nothing much to do to refute these statement except for looking at the following graphs.

a) Firstly, the divorce rate is sharply declining.

3

Source: Statista

b) Second, teenage pregnancy rates are also dropping since 1990.

4Source: National Vita Statistics Report

c) Third, the number of Americans living in single parenthood is not increasing drastically since 1990.

5Source: Statista

I often take issue when (especially conservative) scholars mourn the declining importance of family. Even if there are certain indicators which would back up Huntington’s claims, he does not name them himself. While it is indeed true that “family” as an institution is undergoing changes, there is no evidence (at least named by Huntington) to back up the claim of a decline of its importance.

3. Declining “social capital” and voluntarism leading to less trust.

It is indeed true, that the adult volunteering rate declined from early 2000 to 2016 from 27.4% to 24.9%. Interestingly, it recently bounced back to a new high in 2018, hitting the 30% target. Really the only point where one must agree to Huntington’s claim is the decrease of interpersonal trust as well as trust in public institutions. This trend is indeed very worrisome considering that trust is a major factor for flourishing societies.

4. The decline in work ethic

The research here is a little bit tricky and points in both directions. Although there has been wide academic coverage of the millennial work ethic scholars could not find a consensus on this issue. Its is especially difficult to extract the generational influence from other key determinants of work ethic, such as position or age. Academics warn to mistake the ever-ongoing conflict between young vs. old with the Boomer vs. Millenial conflict. I haven’t settled my opinion on this one. These Articles from Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today provide a good overview of both sides of the medal.

5. Less general interest in Education

This indicator is particularly interesting for me because as a member of the 90’ generation, I have experienced quite the opposite in Germany. But let’s have a look at the data.

Despite ranking only in the middle in a global country comparison, the US students still made a huge leap in terms of maths and reading proficiency, which only slowed down in 2015:

6

Source: Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the overall educational level of the USA continues to rise, resulting in the fact that  “the percentage of the American population age 25 and older that completed high school or higher levels of education reached 90% [for the first time ] in 2017.” Contrary, there are still major differences when one looks at features like race or parent household (See here), but the overall trajectory of the educational level is sloping upwards.

What do these criteria measure?

As you can see, there is little to no evidence to empirically back up the claim of western moral decay. Furthermore, while many case studies have shown that lack of interpersonal trust, lack of education or a declining work ethic can pose a great threat to society, I refuse to see a connection (a no known to me study disproves me here) between (recreational) drugs consumption, alternative family models, increasing hedonism and moral decline. Thus I believe that many advocates of the moral decay theory regard it as an opportunity to despise developments they personally do not like. I do not imply that everyone arguing for the moral decline of the west is unaware of the global macro-trends which heavily improved our life, but I highly doubt their assumption, that we are currently in a short-to-medium term “moral recession”. Even when one upholds the very conservative statements such as drug consumption adding to moral decline, is hard to argue that we are currently witnessing a moral decay of the west. Contrary, It may be true that Huntington has observed something different in the period before publishing “The clash of civilization” in 1996. Of course, I myself witness the ongoing battle against norms on the increasing hostility towards the intellectual enemy in the west, but one should always keep in mind the bigger picture. Our world is getting better – in the long- and in the short-run; There is no such thing as a moral decline of the West.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. (2011): Kampf der Kulturen. Die Neugestaltung der Weltpolitik im 21. Jahrhundert. Vollst. Taschenbuchausg., 8. Aufl. München: Goldmann (Goldmann, 15190). P. 500

Government shutdown – private vs. public responses

The recent shutdown of the government in America has caused a midsize crisis for state employees leaving them unpaid for 35 days straight. Although the shutdown ended on the 25th of January, one can still draw a conclusion about the crisis handling from a public and a private perspective.

A failure of government

When you take a closer look at the history of governmental crisis management, you mostly look at a huge collection of mismanagement. In the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of intriguing works dealing with the failures of public crisis responses, especially the case of hurricane Katrina (Wikipedia here lists more than 100 references), which has been one the of most investigated disasters in recent history.

Crisis can provoke the good as well as the bad inside humans. One might think of the countless volunteers after nature catastrophes doing their very best to help. On the other hand, there have also been stories of grieving and plundering mobs on the streets, after hurricane Katrina for example. So, what we can say for sure is that crises push human behaviour to the extremes. Keeping this in mind it sounds reasonable to leave it to the government to set up an agenda of rules to coordinate humanitarian efforts. However, the government fails most of the time to deliver effective responses to crises, whether they are man-made or exogenous.

Not being able to find an agreement over the federal budget indicates that the government also has very limited options to offer to their employees. And indeed, Lara Trump gave some very handy advice to unpaid workers: “Listen, it’s not fair to you, and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person. It is a little bit of pain but it’s going to be for the future of our country. […] Their children and their grandchildren will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” Yes, please explain to your children how you nearly starved to death because of a dispute over a wall. Sounds reasonable.

Whereas Donald Trump’s kind of clumsy attempt to clarify Ross Wilbur’s statement that government workers should take out loans (Maybe a small loan of a million dollars, huh?) was not too stupid at all. He emphasizes that worker should “work along” with local grocery shop owners they know. He was very clear that employees could not expect help from the government, but instead, they should look out for support on a local level. I do not think that this is a good method of communicating this issue, but it is for sure a very honest one.

Mac & Cheese

A 35-day shutdown, so to speak nearly a missed monthly wage, might not sound unbearable for a central European. But keeping in mind the saving habits of many Americans, a huge amount of government workers are facing existential problems. A recent FED survey found out that about 40% of the American population is not able to cover a 400$ emergency expense without selling or borrowing something.

Witnessing the inability of the government to provide payments for their workers, private enterprises reacted in a remarkable way. The huge food company Kraft rented space for pop-up stores in Washington in which they gave away food entirely for free. One of the most demanded products was Mac & Cheese. The celebrity Chef José Andrés provided free groceries for affected government worker through his NGO “World Central Kitchen.” When the government stopped caring, people started to do so.

Learnings

The overwhelming care for the unpaid government workers by the private sector further strengthened the role and importance of individual responsibility. In situations of crises, people tend to be less submissive to authority and focus on voluntary cooperation of human beings. I feel like it is important to mention here that I do not want to praise crises as a suitable method of bringing people together. But when we take a closer look at the history of humanity it becomes evident that instead of governmental decisions, voluntary human cooperation made our modern life possible. And in times of crises, people become clear about the relevance of these values and processes, which normally guide human progress subconsciously and unnoticed. Private responses to crises are a sign to me that humans are capable to display kindness, cooperation, and humanity beyond the borders of government.