Meep's Recommendations: Thomas Sowell, Roaring 20s, and Shostakovich
If you like the sorts of things I like... you'll like these!
Hey, it’s summer, let’s look at some “fun” stuff.
For certain definitions of fun.
Thomas Sowell’s Accessible Work
Frankly, I know nothing of Thomas Sowell’s inaccessible work. I assume it exists somewhere. But he’s best known for his extremely-easy-to-read books on economics and public policy.
Here I review Sowell’s Applied Economics, which is more about political decision-making and its practical effects in the world, if you go beyond the immediate effects of policy:
He covers such items as rent control, discrimination, slavery, and international trade and the development of nations.
You need not have read anything else by Sowell to understand what he’s talking about in this book. I love the clarity of his writing, and the wide view he takes.
For a fairly short book, Sowell packs in a lot (quite a bit like his sentence-as-paragraphs in essays). What is refreshing about Sowell’s work is that it is quite accessible for those uneasy with equations and graphs, and he uses a diversity of example to illustrate the concepts. Too often in this type of writing, there is a U.S.-centric and current-day bias. I had thought to wish for an updated version of the book (I bought my copy back in 2005, so it was pre-financial crisis), but given Sowell’s examples reach back not only hundreds of years but sometimes thousands of years, that’s really irrelevant.
My favorite aspects was learning some history (I went to look up the history of Indian migration to Fiji after reading) as well as geography. The way Sowell writes about economics for the general public places the topic firmly in the humanities, where it belongs.
In many ways, the shift of economics to econometrics, has diminished both humanities and economics. I’m one very comfortable with equations, graphs, and more, but I love the approach of people like Thomas Sowell in explaining concepts.
A look at the Roaring 20s of 100 years ago
I am hoping for a Roaring 2020s, but there are some very good reasons to not expect such (cf: my post on the aging of society).
I subscribed to this Roaring 20s by Tate substack newsletter, where each week the author looks back to the financial activity of 100 years before.
It’s a nice historical nugget, with a graph that shows where the narrative is in where the stock market has progressed. From this week’s post:
Historical Fact: It’s easy to play “Monday morning quarterback” and question human behavior 100 years ago. Brokerage accounts went mainstream during 1917 after the US government encouraged Americans to fund the war effort through bond purchases. Government officials and pundits have a powerful, unified message to Americans in 1921: own high quality bonds. This reflects the US Treasury’s desire to balance the budget more than anything else. One legendary investor, Joseph P Kennedy (father of John F Kennedy), fought against this brash consensus and continued investing in equities while at brokerage Hayden Stone.
In this current age of rock-bottom interest rates (and high inflation—yay), high-quality bonds are not very attractive now.
That said, I can think back to when broad stock market investing was seen with a bit of suspicion….and the late 90s stock boom and then bust highlighted risk concentration in a memorable way, so I wasn’t caught out in 2008.
See what the first big U.S. stock market run looked like to the people going through it at the time, week by week.
I’m not recommending his death, per se, but Robert Greenburg‘s weekly podcast Music History Monday. The most recent entry was on Shostakovich’s death:
In 1936, some eight months before his 30th birthday, he was officially purged on the orders of Joseph Stalin himself during the Great Terror. Few people expected Shostakovich to survive, least of all himself. Later admitting to having been suicidal, he lay awake at night, too terrified to sleep, waiting for the van (the feared “Black Maria”), to take him away. But he survived.
In 1960 he was forced to join the Communist Party, something he had sworn he would never, ever do. But consumed with fear for himself and his children, join he did. Apoplectic with self-loathing, he again considered suicide, going so far – according to his friend Lev Lebedinsky – as to purchase a large supply of sleeping pills to do the job. But Shostakovich didn’t “do it”, and again he survived.
Shostakovich’s funeral, which was held on August 14, 1975, was turned into a propaganda extravaganza by the Soviet authorities.
Had Shostakovich the opportunity to witness his own funeral, he would have closed his eyes, put his left hand over his face, dropped his chin, and shaken his head. He was given a full state funeral; his body lay in state at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; members of the government wore black armbands.
Shostakovich’s obituary was signed by 85 Soviet movers-and-shakers, beginning with that of Premiere Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo. He was called “the great composer of our time,” “a loyal son of the Communist Party,” and a “hero of the Soviet people.”
If Shostakovich were here, with us, right now, he’d tell us that he was no hero; he’d remind us that in the Soviet Union, “heroes” died young.)
Professor Greenberg has been my favorite lecturer from the Teaching Company/Great Courses, and of course he has lectures on Shostakovich. You can often find deals on these lectures, or even copies through your library (which is how I first saw/heard his lectures.) I haven’t watched all his Great Courses lectures, but I’ve come pretty damn close.
(the Bach series is fabulous – it includes the Coffee Cantata!)
I “patronize” Professor Bob at Patreon, where we get access to all sorts of stuff, not just the podcast. He shares his own musical recommendations, such as Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola (and Piano), as performed by Yuri Bashmet and Sviatoslav Richter, completed a month before Shostakovich’s death:
To pull a short excerpt from Prof. Bob:
Shostakovich’s homage to Beethoven in the third movement of the sonata is meant – I think – to evoke not just his own debt to Beethoven and the musical past Beethoven represents, but as a retrospective look into his own past as well. It is an altogether astonishing movement, composed by someone who almost certainly understood that it was his valedictory statement, the last music he would ever write.
It’s good stuff. Check it out — both the Shostakovich and Professor Greenberg.
Finally, my son Diarmuid loves the Met Opera production of Shostakovich’s comic opera “The Nose”, based on a Gogol short story:
Truthfully, D loves the opera production because it involves a lot of text projected on the stage (and D can read Cyrillic as well as other non-Roman alphabets). But that’s okay. It’s a funny story, plus some commentary on Russian society. I think it was out of favor with the Soviets, but even if they had liked it, I would still like the opera.
I’ve opened up this post for anybody to comment on - let me know if there’s anything (book, music, blog, etc.) you’d like to recommend!