Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge


Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

In my final year of law school, Nudge was the book that was under every policy wonk’s arm. It’s not surprising that the khaki’ed masses of Du Pont circle wanted to read the first popular book explaining the policy implications of the findings of behavioral economics.

In Nudge, Richard Thaler and the dean of dork, Cass Sunstein, define behavioral economics, and then go on to use the lessons garnered from the scholarly literature in the field to propose certain approaches to big time policy questions, like health care, education, and the environment. Behavior economics, as all good wonks know, is a subfield of economics which uses behavioral psychology findings and argues that, despite what econometricians may want to suppose, we are not purely rational actors. Instead, our economic decisions are often based on impressions, crowd psychology and precognitive feelings. If policy makers have an understanding of how these non-rational factors work in effecting our decisions, then the policy makers can create incentives to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.

At the time of its release, this was, to many of us, very exciting, and slightly dangerous, stuff. There is a whiff of the totalitarian in using behavioral psychology to nudge people toward certain decisions, isn’t there? Sunstein and Thaler are very conscious of this and insist that their proposals are to “nudge” people towards certain choices, not force them there. But when is an economic nudge actually an ultimatum? There is no bright line between a nudge and a demand. We must walk carefully when creating government incentives for certain behaviors, economically punishing people for making unpopular lifestyle choices is something that makes me very nervous, but encouraging behavior that leads to a healthier population is something I am all about supporting.

Perhaps there is a middle ground of a “nudge” that we can find, but perhaps we should think twice about whether they are a good idea at all. Three years of the Obama administration and its obsession with the lessons of behavioral economics, there have been few victories on this front. Part of the health care reform act is based in behavioral economic ideas. As that program begins to roll out perhaps we will have more of a sense of whether or not these ideas are feasible or if the realm of human desire, and how to use it to create certain results, is still unknowable.


Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)

Is this the most disturbing of Shakespeare’s plays? If it isn’t, it is close. Titus Andronicus returns from war, triumphant, but his cruelty to his captive, Tamora, queen of the Goths, sets of a spiral of increasingly horrific acts of vengeance.  The violence is copious and horrific: Titus murders one of Tamora’s son in vengeance for the death of his own on the battlefield; Titus’s daughter, Lavina, is horrifically raped and mutilated; Lavina’s fiancée is murdered;  two more of Titus’s sons are murdered; Titus’s hand is cut off; Tamora’s sons are murdered and feed to her baked into a pie; Lavina is murdered, by her father; and, finally, after having lost everything, Titus himself is killed and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover who was behind much of the treachery, is buried chest deep and left to die.


It is important when reading plays like Titus to remember that in his time, Shakespeare was competing against such sophisticated entertainment as bear baiting. The level of violence here is like a horror movie and it can be very rough going.  Especially tough are the scenes involving the rape of Lavinia and its aftermath the cruelty here rivals the torture porn of today’s horror movie industry. There is a strong thread of misogyny running through Shakespeare works. Woman are routinely abused or portrayed as evil and conniving. In Titus, we have both.  Lavinia is raped, abused and finally killed, while Tamora is portrayed as the conniving, evil, villain. There are those who will think I am being too harsh, bringing my contemporary feminism to a playwright working hundreds of years ago, but it is hard to look past Shakespeare’s depictions of women in these early plays – he was profoundly sexist and that need to be remembered.


The rape scene and Lavina’s mutilation are hard enough, but the scene later in the play where Lavinia carries away her father’s hand in her mouth is really just over the top in its cheap cruelty. Am I supposed to laugh at this? If so, then something has been lost between the Bard’s time and our own. I find nothing amusing in the scene. There is a reason this is one of the least preformed of Shakespeares works. It is offensive, bloody, and just not very good.


Bloom and others have championed Aaron the Moor as one of Shakespeare’s first great characters. I am not sure I agree. Though Aaron is somewhat humanized by his love for his child, in the end, he is a caricature of the villain. If any character foreshadows the Bard’s later, greater, creations it is Titus himself, a sort of horror show funhouse King Lear and perhaps for that alone, this is one worth reading if you can stomach it.

Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Richard E. Rubenstein

From the modern perspective it is hard to understand how amorphous the early Christian movements were. In the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, much of what we now take for granted as pillars of the Christian faith were still in dispute. Were Christians Jews? Was Christ divine? Leaders of the Christian movement argued and died over these questions. Rubenstein, the author of Aristotle’s Children, another engaging book religious history attempts to tell the complicated story of this time in an accessible way. Overall he does a bangup job.

Like Rubenstein’s other works, When Jesus Became God is a good book with a misleading title. This isn’t really about defining the nature of Christianity – such a book would have to be much longer and more detailed. It is instead a popular history of one of the great theological debates of the early church – the Arian controversy. As that, it is a great read. I should say that I am no theologian, my knowledge of the time period and of the theological questions at issue in the Arian controversy are superficial at best, but from a layman’s perspective, Rubenstein brings the goods.

Briefly, the Arian controversy was about the nature of Christ and his relationship to god the Father. Was Christ the son of god, a part of god, or simple a prophet? Was he to be worshipped and if so, how? These were the issues that brought monks and priests of the fourth century into conflict and man did they get mad. Bitter fights, violence, excommunications, this controversy had it all. When it was all over we had the dogma which has remained the center piece of the Catholic faith – the trinity and the divine nature of Jesus.

Many biblical controversies seem silly in hindsight, but not the Arian controversy. That those who backed Jesus’s divine nature and the conception of the trinity won had a massive and long lasting effect on the Church and on western society.  All of which makes the Arian controversy an important and interesting story which Rubenstein tells well. I would recommend this to those interested in an overview of the era.

– Sean

A man, a plan…

Last year I found myself reading nothing but genre fiction. It was all spaceships and murders. I was putting off the heavy lifting of my other interests in favor of flying through a lot of fiction. So, being a man who likes a schedule, I set up a routine. I now rotate through my interests, switching between topics and genres in order to have a more balanced reading diet. The schedule below gives a pretty clear view of where my interests are focused as of late. Sometime down the road, this will surely change, but for now here is the schedule I am using:

1. A work of classical or Jewish philosophy or history.
One of my long term intellectual projects is to get a handle on the classical world, especially as it relates to Judaism. My interest in classical philosophy started in undergrad, but it is only recently that I’ve begun to delve into the area mu seriously. While most of the books I’ve read so far are background introductory texts, I’ve dabbled in a bit of source material.

Why Judaism? I converted to Judaism two years ago and have been working on deepening my understanding of the religion. Most of my reading in this area is concerned with the time frame around the birth of Rabbinic Judaism and the foundations of the Christian faith. I think this is one of the most interesting intellectual times in Judaism, but I’ve also been known to dip into more modern works (i.e. Hescehel, Scholem) as well.

2. A Shakespeare Play
As I have written about here before, I am working my way through the complete works of Shakespeare in chronological order. A long term goal is to read and see performances of all the plays. So far it has been a slog, but things should pick up when we get to the Julius Caesar sometime this winter.

3. A book on economics or the law
I am by trade an attorney and keeping up on the law is part of my job. My undergraduate degree is in economics and philosophy and I try to keep somewhat abreast of the popular books in these fields, though my days of reading econometrics are probably behind me.
4. A work of fiction
Being whatever the hell I feel like. Lately I’ve been switching here between a work of “serious” fiction (i.e. Bolano) and a work of genre fiction (i.e. Sojwall and Wahloo).

E teases me terribly for scheduling my recreational reading, but what can I say, I’m a man who likes a plan. I don’t always stick exactly to the schedule, but by and large I’ve found it helpful for keeping me on track with my more serious reading while still allowing time for alien civilizations and crime bosses. Do you plan out your reading, or am I alone in this insanity?


Schmahmann’s The Double Life of Alfred Buber

The Double Life of Alfred Buber

I received this as a review copy from the Permanent Press, an excellent independent publisher based in New York. The Permanent Press is one of only a few literary independent publishers left who take the chance to publish serious novels by little known writers. I admire that. And I admire what David Schmahmann was trying to do here, though he ultimately comes up a little short.

The Double Life of Alfred Buber is the story of an attorney who becomes involved in the sex trade and, eventually, prostitution in Asia. He falls for a Bangkok bar girl and his troubles begin. The role of fantasy for the men involved in sex tourism (“this girl really likes me” or “I’m helping this woman”) and the nature of the relationships between the Westerners who frequent Asia and the local people, especially the sex workers, a large part of what this book is about and the conclusions are both obvious and disturbing.

Schmahmann is definitely a Nabokov fan and the book leans heavily on the style of Lolita. Narrated by Buber, who comes off as a less charming version of Humbert, it is hard, just like in Lolita, hard to know what to believe. Turns out, it is best to believe nothing and let the story unwind as it will. By half way through, you’ll be pleasantly confused, by the end, you might be a bit disappointed by the failure to wrap things up cleanly, and I guarantee you’ll feel a little dirty.

The sex tourist is a sad creature, but he is also a powerful one, and that is an aspect of this world I wish the book had focused on more. The book hints at this, but it isn’t explored enough. Buber is powerful attorney in the United States, but also sad sack who can’t find love. In Asia, he thinks he can be a hero, or at least buy love but again, he comes up short. Buber is Buber no matter where in the world he goes. This is a decent read. The descriptions of sex tourism in Asia are suitably stomach turning, even if the power relations are not explored enough, and the depiction of the drudgery of the commercial lawyers is well done. Schamahmann can write, I just wish he had ended the book in a more careful manner.

– Sean

Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

Comedy of Errors (Arden Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare

Last year I decided I was going to read the Bard’s works in chronological order, who knew that was going to be such a trying ordeal? I warn you, before you get to Lear and Hamlet you have to go through the long and turgid Richard the VI and the silly and unfunny Comedy of Errors. You have been warned, fellow readers.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies leave me cold, but the early comedies, starting with Comedy or Errors, really take the cake for unfunny. The plot here is simple  and wildly unbelievable – two sets of twins, one set of gentleman, one set of servants, are separated at birth, but come together when the twins from Syracuse visit the twins from Ephesus. Confusion and plenty of cheap jokes ensue. Putting aside the shear implausibility that a wife wouldn’t recognize her husband, the comedic slap stick of the play is just poorly done.

Shakespeare’s later comedies are filled with double entendres and clever set pieces – this one is not. It is the same joke told in variation for five acts. Antipholus of Syracuse is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Dromio of Syracuse is confused for Dromio of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Antipholus of Syracuse confuses Dromio of Ephesus with Dromio of Syracuse and Drimio says something silly… and on and on.

Perhaps I’d like the work better if I saw it performed by a competent company. Comedy of Errors is one of the early plays which is often staged, probably because the comedies are eternally popular, and this has a relatively small cast. The only production of Comedy of Errors I have ever seen was performed by a high school drama group when I was fifteen. It was not funny. I would guess the Royal Shakespeare Company does a better job.

Harold Bloom, who seems able to find something or merit in almost all of the works of the Bard, says in his enormous Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human (which I am reading in conjunction with the plays) that “Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Human. A role in a face hardly seems an arena for inwardness by genre never confined Shakespeare, even at his origins, and Antipholus of Syracuse is a sketch for the abysses of self that are to come.” Really? I just don’t see it, Harold. Perhaps there are hints of the kind of character development and articulation of the human condition that will make the later plays so great, but on first reading all I see a silly little play which uses the same trick over and over again to get cheap laughs.

– Sean

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Book Nerds: Richard Prince

A new series on interesting book collectors.

Richard Prince is among my favorite of contemporary artists. His Marlboro Man changed the way I thought about art and his autographed photos remain among the high points of New York clever school of art.


Prince's Untitled (Cowboy)

The Brilliant Autograph Series

Prince is also a serious book nerd. His collection, housed in a climate controlled vault in upstate New York, is wide ranging. It includes a signed first edition of Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s desk copy of the Olympia Edition of Lolita, and Bridget Berlin’s handwritten Cock Book. As Prince explains, “Basically, my collection is about sex, drugs, Beats, hippies, punks. . . And great reads.” It is said to be among the best collections post war American literature in private hands.

The idea originally was American from Prince’s birth in 1949 to his 1984, but the collection has expanded a bit beyond that at this point. Rumor has it he is in the process of cataloging it and will perhaps donate it to the Morgan library or some other institution. I hope so; I’d love to see the hand corrections Vlad did on Lolita.

On a personal note, I’ve got a couple of Prince’s books myself. Two monographs, including the one issued for his retrospective at the Guggenheim, plus an edition of his book Why I Go to the Movies Alone bought by yours truly for four dollars, currently going for about two hundred on Amazon.

Further reading on Prince collection can be found here, and here.

City And the City

I was just on vacation (during my vacation, very post-modern) when I read City and the City by China Mieville.  It was my first time reading anything by this author and I will say I was very happy with this book.  It is a combination of noir, political allegory, and science fiction.

The basic premise is that there are two cities that touch but if you live in one, you can’t acknowledge the other (by law) and a person is from one city and murdered and their body is dumped in the other.  It is an interesting allegory of the Muslim and the western world.  I won’t spoil the book itself but I will say that it is worth picking up.

Sean’s Week in Review

The Week In Review

In a quixotic attempt to write more and reinvigorate this blog, I present to you the new feature, the week in the review wherein I note books acquired, work done, and posts written.

On Writing Well: 30th Anniversary Edition, William Zinsser (amazon)

Hell on Two Wheels: An Astoning Story of Suffering, Triumph and the Most Extreme Endurance Race in the World, Amy Snyder (Amazon)

Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record –Setting Run Across America, Marshall Ulrich (Amazon)


Restarted the study of Hebrew on Shabbat, putting in 1.25 hours and getting through a part of the alphabet. The plan with this is to get a decent level of letter recognition / pronunciation in the coming months and then focus in on vocabulary. Its intimidating, but an exciting project. I’ll probably post more about this.


I reviewed Aristotle’s Children by Richard Rubenstein here