Recent reading

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig — The first thing I did when this book arrived is flip to the index and look up “public choice theory.” There’s no entry for it. Then I looked up James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Again no entries. Finally I tried Mancur Olson, who merits only a passing mention in the text and a very brief footnote. This was not a good sign: For a book that’s devoted to explaining how and why Congress has been captured by special interests, it’s bizarre that the branch of economics that studies precisely that topic is almost completely absent from the text.

Lessig focuses instead on campaign finance and makes a strong argument that our current system is very flawed. He’s also admirably cognizant that restricting spending is equivalent to restricting speech. His argument is at its strongest when discussing the pandering that results from forcing candidates to collect donations in tiny increments, although this could be ameliorated by simply lifting contribution limits and requiring disclosure instead of his preferred plan for public financing.

Ultimately the focus on the single problem of campaign finance makes Lessig’s diagnosis unsatisfying. It’s tempting to believe that by fixing one big problem we could achieve a much better democracy. However government fails for many additional reasons, perhaps the largest being that it’s simply irrational for voters to become informed and vote accordingly (see Caplan). I’m more sympathetic to Lessig’s suggested reforms than I was before reading this book, but it requires a much stronger case to show they would bring about anything more than marginal improvements in governance.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford — Here’s one from the “don’t judge a book by its cover” department. Had I not already been familiar with Tim Harford’s writing I could have easily passed this by as just another business book. It’s much deeper than that, a compelling analysis of how successful adaptation requires allowing room for failure and feedback from the bottom-up, whether in government, private institutions, or personal life. I would give the chapter on climate change to everyone I know who favors piecemeal, top-down policies over a simple carbon tax. Highly recommended.

Thai Food and Thai Street Food, David Thompson — These are just incredible books. The first is indispensable for understanding Thai cooking. The second is full of stunning photos and recipes. Everything I’ve tried so far has been excellent, though many of the recipes require significant prep or hunting for ingredients. An exception is the neua pat bai grapao from the street food book, a stir-fry of beef loaded with basil, garlic, and fish sauce, then topped with a crispy fried egg, that has become one of my go-to dishes for a quick dinner.