Review: Alchemy

I bought this book (subtitle The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life) immediately after hearing Rory Sutherland debate the relevance of economics to normal people’s behavior on EconTalk.

It was well worth buying, as I made more than 150 notes and highlights while I was reading. (Speaking of notes, Sutherland loves footnotes, and they are funny, so I recommend buying the physical rather than the digital version of the book soo you can enjoy the footnotes.)

Sutherland’s main points are that (1) people are not the hyper-rational calculating machines that some economic models suggest and (2), marketing people  are well aware of the many “irrational” ways people make decisions — and they use that knowledge to sell stuff. Claim (1) is not controversial among economists, but claim (2) is, as that implies a “free lunch” that some people can use and others (including economists) cannot.

Such a situation is no surprise for anyone observing the continued (and annoying) existence of advertisements and marketing, but it’s a bit of a surprise to anyone assuming that humans dislike being fooled and manipulated. That said, the entire field of “behavioural economics” (read my review of Thinking Fast and Slow) more or less tests and measures the degree to which we are reliably manipulated right in front of our eyes!

With that preamble, I’ll now give my (typical) series of notes and quotes (“loc” refers to location in my Kindle copy of the book). Oh, and I am curious to know which of these notes/quotes you find to be the most useful/insightful. Please leave a comment 😇

One more thing: Sutherland is far wittier and concise than Danny Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) in discussing  similar topics. Read this book first.

  1. The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea. Don’t design for average. It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical… A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident. Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will… If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.” Loc 113
  2. Unfortunately, because reductionist logic has proved so reliable in the physical sciences, we now believe it must be applicable everywhere – even in the much messier field of human affairs. The models that dominate all human decision-making today are duly heavy on simplistic logic, and light on magic – a spreadsheet leaves no room for miracles.” Loc 141
  3. “It is difficult for a company, or indeed a government, to request a budget for the pursuit of such magical solutions, because a business case has to look logical.” Loc 174
  4. This book is not an attack on the many healthy uses of logic or reason, but it is an attack on a dangerous kind of logical overreach, which demands that every solution should have a convincing rationale before it can even be considered or attempted. If this book provides you with nothing else, I hope it gives you permission to suggest slightly silly things from time to time. To fail a little more often.” Loc 322
  5. Evolution, too, is a haphazard process that discovers what can survive in a world where some things are predictable but others aren’t. It works because each gene reaps the rewards and costs from its lucky or unlucky mistakes, but it doesn’t care a damn about reasons. It isn’t necessary for anything to make sense: if it works it survives and proliferates; if it doesn’t, it diminishes and dies.” Loc 391
  6. The single greatest strength of free markets is their ability to generate innovative things whose popularity makes no sense.” Loc 457
  7. It is impossible for human relations to work unless we accept that our obligations to some people will always exceed our obligations to others. Universal ideas like utilitarianism are logical, but seem not to function with the way we have evolved… And in reality ‘context’ is often the most important thing in determining how people think, behave and act: this simple fact dooms many universal models from the start.” Loc 476
  8. ‘At the federal level I am a Libertarian. At the state level, I am a Republican. At the town level, I am a Democrat. In my family I am a socialist. And with my dog I am a Marxist – from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ Loc 548
  9. ‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.’ … we simply don’t have access to our genuine motivations, because it is not in our interest to know.” Loc 687
  10. Science seems to fall short of its ideals whenever the theoretical elegance of the solution or the intellectual credentials of the solver are valued above the practicality of an idea.” Loc 889
  11. E-cigarettes and cognitive dissonance: “If you have spent the last 20 years as a public health advisor promoting policies designed to create shame, alongside colleagues who all believe the same thing, the last thing you want to hear is ‘Don’t worry about that, because a bloke in China has come up with a gadget which means that the problem to which you have dedicated your life and from which your social status derives is no longer a problem any more.’ Even worse, the inventor was a businessman rather than a health professional.” Loc 910
  12. I am willing to bet that there are ten times as many people on the planet who are currently being paid to debate why people prefer Coke or Pepsi than there are being paid to ask questions like ‘Why do people request a doctor’s appointment?’, ‘Why do people go to university?’” Loc 982
  13. Water! “One of the great contributors to the profits of high-end restaurants is the fact that bottled water comes in two types, enabling waiters to ask ‘still or sparkling?’, making it rather difficult to say ‘just tap’.” Loc 1129
  14. In maths, 10 x 1 is always the same as 1 x 10, but in real life, it rarely is. You can trick ten people once, but it’s much harder to trick one person ten times… Imagine you have ten roles to fill, and you ask ten colleagues to each hire one person. Obviously each person will try to recruit the best person they can find – that’s the same as asking one person to choose the best ten hires he can find, right? Wrong. Anyone choosing a group of ten people will instinctively deploy a much wider variance than someone hiring one person. The reason for this is that with one person we look for conformity, but with ten people we look for complementarity.” Locs 1270, 1298
  15. Metrics, and especially averages, encourage you to focus on the middle of a market, but innovation happens at the extremes… It’s true that ‘what gets measured gets managed’, but the concomitant truth is ‘what gets mismeasured gets mismanaged’…  I have never seen any evidence that academic success accurately predicts workplace success.” Locs 1351, 1360
  16. Nicholas Taleb applies this rule to choosing a doctor: you don’t want the smooth, silver-haired patrician who looks straight out of central casting – you want his slightly overweight, less patrician but equally senior colleague in the ill-fitting suit. The former has become successful partly as a result of his appearance, the latter despite it.” Loc 1380
  17. We may be more prone to ascribe ‘outsider status’ to someone of a different ethnic background, but this does not mean that we cannot easily adopt anyone of any ethnic background into an ‘in group’ in a different setting.” Loc 1398
  18. Architectural quality comes low on the list – and is further devalued because it isn’t quantifiable [such as floor area]. If you can convince yourself to value something which other people don’t, you can enjoy a fabulous house for much less.” Loc 1479
  19. A nervous and bureaucratic culture is closed-mindedly attaching more importance to the purity of the methodology than to the possible value of the solution, which leads us to ignore possible solutions not because they have been proven to be wrong, but because they have not been reached through an approved process of reasoning.” Loc 1527
  20. The more data you have, the easier it is to find support for some spurious, self-serving narrative. The profusion of data in future will not settle arguments: it will make them worse.” Loc 1628.
  21. I asked them what they did to make their telephone operators so good… ‘To be perfectly honest, we probably overpay them.’ The call centre was 20 miles from a large city; local staff, rather than travelling for an hour each day to find reasonably paid work, stayed for decades and became highly proficient. Training and recruitment costs were negligible, and customer satisfaction was astoundingly high. The staff weren’t regarded as a ‘cost’ – they were a significant reason for the company’s success.” Loc 1641
  22. The market mechanism is loosely efficient, but the idea that efficiency is its main virtue is surely wrong, because competition is highly inefficient… The reason this inefficient process is necessary is because most of the achievements of consumer capitalism were never planned and are explicable only in retrospect, if at all.” Loc 1695
  23. We don’t value things; we value their meaning. What they are is determined by the laws of physics, but what they mean is determined by the laws of psychology.” Loc 1743
  24. If you declare something highly exclusive and out of reach, it makes us all want it much more – call it ‘the elixir of scarcity’. Frederick knew this and so posted guards around his potato patch to protect his crop, but gave them secret instructions not to guard the patch too closely. Curious Prussians found they could sneak into the royal potato patch and could steal, eat and even cultivate this fabulously exclusive vegetable.” Loc 1822
  25. Framing and gender: “A course previously entitled ‘Introduction to programming in Java’ was renamed ‘Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python’. The professors further divided the class into groups – Gold for those with no coding experience and Black, for those with some coding experience. They also implemented Operation Eliminate the Macho Effect, in which males who showed off in class were taken aside and told to desist. Almost overnight, Harvey Mudd’s introductory computer science course went from being the most despised required course to the absolute favourite.” Loc 1878
  26. In Belgium and the Netherlands, he (or she) simply explains I can’t drink tonight, I’m Bob’ – a Dutch acronym* for Bewust Onbeschonken Bestuurder or ‘deliberately sober driver’… creating a name for a behaviour implicitly creates a norm for it.” Loc 1896
  27. Knowledge of the human physique is considered essential in designing a chair, but a knowledge of human psychology is rarely considered useful, never mind a requirement, when someone is asked to design a pension scheme, a portable music player or a railway. Who is the Herman Miller of pensions, or the Steve Jobs of tax-return design?” Loc 1966
  28. We naturally assume that something that only does one thing is better than something that claims to do many things… Google is, to put it bluntly, Yahoo without all the extraneous crap cluttering up the search page, while Yahoo was, in its day, AOL without in-built Internet access. In each case, the more successful competitor achieved their dominance by removing something the competitor offered rather than adding to it.” Loc 2007, 2018
  29. On asymmetric information: “Trust is always more difficult to gain in cities because of the anonymity they afford, and [medieval] guilds help to offset this problem. If it is costly and time-consuming to join one, the only people who enter are those with a serious commitment to a craft. Guilds are also self-policing; the upfront cost of being admitted adds to the fear of being ejected” Loc 2060. Guild members also recover those costs via higher charges.
  30. Solving a problem for a customer at your own expense is a good way of signalling your commitment to a future relationship.” Loc 2144
  31. Bits deliver information, but costliness carries meaning. We do not invite people to our weddings by sending out an email… Imagine you receive two wedding invitations on the same day, one of which comes in an expensive envelope with gilt edges and embossing, and the other (which contains exactly the same information) in an email. Be honest – you’re probably going to go to the first wedding, aren’t you?” Loc 2187
  32. Water! “The psychophysicist Mark Changizi has a simple evolutionary explanation for why water ‘doesn’t taste of anything’: he thinks that the human taste mechanism has been calibrated not to notice the taste of water, so it is optimally attuned to the taste of anything that might be polluting it.” Loc 2197
  33. It is therefore impossible to generate trust, affection, respect, reputation, status, loyalty, generosity or sexual opportunity by simply pursuing the dictates of rational economic theory. If rationality were valuable in evolutionary terms, accountants would be sexy. Male strippers dress as firemen, not accountants; bravery is sexy, but rationality isn’t.” Loc 2233
  34. Economists tend to dislike the idea of branding and are inclined to see it as an inefficiency, but then they might view a flower as an inefficient form of weed. The reason they might not understand the flower’s extravagance in squandering its resources on producing scent and colour is that they don’t fully understand what it is trying to do or the decision-making and information-transfer context in which it is trying to do it” Loc 2344 NB: I oppose advertising (read more) but not branding. Brands, as Sutherland explains, are costly to produce and defend. Advertising is cheap talk that “does whatever it takes” to sell the good. What’s the difference? A brand helps you find a product you know. Advertising induces you to try a product you don’t.
  35. Why does Coca-Cola advertise? It’s in an “empty-promises” arms race with Pepsi. Related: “We find that almost all brands seem to be over-advertising, and that they are earning a negative R.O.I. from advertising in an average week” and “Online advertising wears the emperor’s new clothes” [it’s often worthless].
  36. Modern environmentalists also suggest that status-signalling competition between humans [e.g., flying into space] is destroying the planet… the widespread conviction that humans could be content to live without competing for status in an egalitarian state is nice in theory, but psychologically implausible. Yet the status markers for which we compete don’t have to be environmentally damaging; people can derive status from philanthropy as well as through selfish consumption.” Loc 2436
  37. Most people will avoid giving credit to sexual selection where they possibly can because, when it works, sexual selection is called natural selection… Why are people happy with the idea that nature has an accounting function, but much less comfortable with the idea that it also has a marketing function?” Locs 2472, 2481
  38. The Soviets soon found that, without a maker’s name attached to a product, no one had any incentive to make a quality product.” Loc 2528
  39. Notice that ordinary people are never allowed to pronounce on complex problems. When do you ever hear an immigration officer interviewed about immigration, or a street cop interviewed about crime? These people patently know far more about these issues than economists or sociologists, and yet we instead seek wisdom from people with models and theories rather than actual experience.” Loc 4147 [Seems I stopped highlighting for many pages. Now you have to read the book, to uncover what I censored 😉 ]
  40. You attend a meeting with the UK Government, no biscuits are provided. It saves something like £50m a year. The hidden cost is that every meeting takes on a slightly unpleasant timbre by violating the most basic principles of hospitality. I don’t even like biscuits, but it still pisses me off. Chatting in the absence of biscuits feels less like a cooperative meeting and more like being interrogated by a Serbian militia. Under any Sutherland regime, scones will be mandatory.” Loc 4224
  41. Having various gods and goddesses of fortune – Ganesha, Tyche, Fortuna, etc. – ancient religions were perhaps more objective than modern rationalists, since they were not inclined to attribute all outcomes to individual human rational agency.” Loc 4363
  42. Strictly speaking these [“pocket”] radios were not pocket-sized, but in an early manifestation of his genius, Morita ordered shirts with outsized pockets for his employees. If you can’t make the radio smaller, make the pocket larger.” Loc 4459
  43. Modernism isn’t particularly efficient as an architectural style, by the way. Arches are better than beams for supporting a load, and flat roofs are awful in engineering terms. But modernist architecture, like economics and management consultancy, is good at creating the appearance of efficiency.” Loc 4519

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is worth your time, whether you’re an economist or normal person, as we need to better understand our  “irrational but powerful” desires and impulses, lest someone else take advantage of our misunderstanding them. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

H/T to TM for recommendung this 2009 book (subtitle an inquiry into the value of work) by Matthew B. Crawford, as it’s so good that I have been recommending to many people — whether they have rough or soft hands.

The hook: Crawford got a PhD in political philosophy (U Chicago). After getting a job at a think tank, he decided that work was neither tangible nor useful. So he bought a motorcycle repair shop.

So this book is about two things: debunking the myth that manual labor doesn’t require brains, skill & judgement, and focussing readers on the existential question of “why am I doing this?”

It came to me at an opportune time, as I have been putting more of my time into hobbies like woodworking, boats (1 part maintenance for each part boating), and renovating (e.g., painting ceilings, demolishing a chimney, or installing a new floor).

Top line: The book is short (160 pp), well written and thoughtful. I’m including many quotes because Crawford brings so much concise wisdom to the page. They are merely the appetiser for the main course: reading this book!

Many Quotes & some notes [emph added]

  1. “We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.” — p 12
  2. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.” — p 17
  3. “Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.” The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. ” — p 19
  4. “Parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that filthy plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and wants him to become a knowledge worker. If he accepts the basic premise of a knowledge economy that someone being paid a lot of money must know something, he may begin to wonder what is really going on under that sink, and entertain a suspicion against the widely accepted dichotomy of knowledge work versus manual work.” — p 21
  5. “The invention of modern shop class… was recognized as a necessity for the broader working-class population, precisely because the institutions that had previously served this socializing function [also see The Secret of Our Success], apprenticeship and guild traditions, had been destroyed by new modes of labor.” — pp27-8
  6. “The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules… The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way…  compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work. …”creativity is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place.” — p 31
  7. Scientific management meant converting autonomous skilled labor into scheduled repeated tasks that left workers unfulfilled. The rise of consumer culture (and debt), combined with the regular wages available to those who fit into the system, made it harder to live by the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin: “be frugal and free” [p 38]. These trends also choke most of the creativity and passion that we should be seeing in schools and white collar trades. Instead, we’re seeing more bullshit jobs.
  8. And managers are trying to hide that fact among empty slogans: “The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture… The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped” [p 43].
  9. “So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” — p 44
  10. “…one is urged to consider the “opportunity costs” of fixing one’s own car… Spiritedness is an assertion of one’s own dignity, and to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.” — pp 45-46
  11. We must be wary of consumerism cloaked in “choice and freedom” as an alternative to autonomy (self-direction) and active engagement with challenges that force us to understand and collaborate. There’s a big difference between “have it your way” (the Burger King slogan) and making your own burger.
  12. “The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.” […many pages later…] But by the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things, as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.” — pp 65, 81
  13. Sometimes it’s better to accept 90 percent working than struggle with 100 percent frustration. This wording is mine, but the advice borrows from Crawford, as well as the famous dictum: “do not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
  14. “Further, though the demands made on workers are invariably justified in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, in fact such calculations are difficult to make; the chain of means-ends reasoning becomes opaque, and this opens the way for work to become a rather moralistic place… Throughout this literature one finds an imperative for the manager to care, and to sincerely hold forth to his subordinates the possibility of personal transformation. He is not so much a boss as a life coach.” — p 100
  15. “In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor market demand creates for white-collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.” — p 101
  16. “One’s career depends entirely on these personal relationships, in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous. As a result, managers have to spend a good part of the day “managing what other people think of them.” … This gives rise to the art of talking in circles.” — p 108
  17. “Maybe we can say, after all, that higher education is indispensable to prepare students for the jobs of the information economy. Not for the usual reason given, namely, that there is ever-increasing demand for workers with more powerful minds, but in this perverse sense: college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensable to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.” — p 114
  18. “Not surprisingly, it is the office rather than the job site that has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation. Some might attribute this to the greater mixing of the sexes in the office, but I believe a more basic reason is that when there is no concrete task that rules the job—an autonomous good that is visible to all—then there is no secure basis for social relations. Maintaining consensus and preempting conflict become the focus of management, and as a result everyone feels they have to walk on eggshells. Where no appeal to a carpenter’s level is possible, sensitivity training becomes necessary.” — p 121
  19. “The more children are praised, the more they have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others. The credential loving of college students is a natural response to such an education, and prepares them well for the absence of objective standards in the job markets they will enter; the validity of your self-assessment is known to you by the fact it has been dispensed by gatekeeping institutions. Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.” — p 122
  20. “An apprentice may aspire to be a journeyman so he can enter that circle, quite apart from considerations of pay. This is the basis on which his submission to the judgments of a master feel ennobling rather than debasing. There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about differences of rank, and there are clear standards.” — p123
  21. “The worker’s product is “torn away” from him, and Marx suggests that it becomes an alien thing, hateful to him, because it is used by another. But why should this be? I find Marx unconvincing on this point. If I am a furniture builder, for example, what am I going to do with a hundred chairs? After all, I want to see them in use; this completes my activity of making them, and gives it social reality. It makes me feel I have contributed to the common good.” — p 143
  22. “It is harder to take pride in one’s work as “a Rolls-Royce man,” for example, if the car is assembled from parts made who knows where.
    One remedy is to find work in the cracks; work the market rationale of which is fully contained within a human scale of face-to-face interactions. This is what the speed shop offers; it is a community of making and fixing that is embedded within a community of use. Such enterprises are not “scalable” in the way that whets the appetite of remote investors, much as they might like to explode the happy scene and “take it global.” — p 145
  23. Crawford makes several good points about how abstract work (e.g., repackaging and selling mortgages) can encourage immoral decisions that may benefit the worker but harm society (more on economists’ role in the financial crisis).
  24. This is way grades (and salaries) are so dangerous to our happiness: “The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it.” [much later] “…the experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students. Those who struggle academically experience failure all the time, and probably write off attempts to sugar-coat it with “self-esteem” as another example of how deranged adults can be. But the praising of gifted students for being smart, by parents and teachers, has a far more pernicious effect, especially when such praise is combined with the grade inflation and soft curriculum that are notorious at elite schools. A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.”– pp 149, 156
  25. “The special appeal of the trades lies in the fact that they resist this tendency toward remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context. In the best cases, the building and fixing that they do are embedded in a community of using. Face-to-face interactions are still the norm, you are responsible for your own work, and clear standards provide the basis for the solidarity of the crew, as opposed to the manipulative social relations of the office “team.” — p 152

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should work on difficult projects (as a hobby if that’s not your job), as a means of learning humility from failure and appreciation of a job well done (or poorly done). FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Ministry for the Future

This book by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) came out in late 2020. It’s a CliFi story about The Ministry FOR the Future, a (fictional) UN agency based in Switzerland with a mission to protect future generations from our current (climate-changing) selves.

The book is long (577 pages; my page numbers are from the digital version), with interwoven stories that sometimes peter out and sometimes take up more space than you’d expect. It’s a bit operatic.

KSR has a deep understanding of the political and economic forces driving climate chaos (CC), various mitigation and adaptation options, and the science of what will is happening to ecosystems and humans as the chaos intensifies.

The book begins with an (entirely believable) heat wave in India that kills millions. NB: The difference between India and the Pacific Northwest (recently hit by a heat wave that killed hundreds) is the same in the book as now: wealth. CC will kill far more poor than rich, on a per-capita basis.

The undercurrent in the book is a struggle with adapting to worsening CC and attempts by the MftF, as well as many other actors, violent and diplomatic alike, to mitigate worse damages. I found the adaptation struggles and CC damages to be entirely believable. [SPOILER ALERT] I found the mitigation success to be a bit too fast and easy, although KSR at least builds a reasonable excuse (a carbon coin) for 200 or so nations to cooperate in reforming their economies, cities, transportation and infrastructure.

The central stories in the book involve Mary, who leads the MftF, and they focus on her work in the Ministry, building solutions with outsiders, and her relation with Frank, a near victim of the heat wave who travels to Switzerland to shock Mary and others into taking action. It’s difficult to combine fiction with science, but I think KSR does a good job (not that I could even get within miles of his writing!), putting this book firmly into my CliFi canon. (You know that I edited two books of short CliFi stories, right? Go download them; they’re free.)

So let me get to my usual set of bullet-point highlights and comments:

  1. Mary reminds me of Mary Robinson, another Irish leader, but I don’t know much about MR.
  2. KSR is absolutely right that fossil fuel reserves are mostly owned by national (not private) companies, that they must stay in the ground, that evolution will refill the Earth (after it recovers from the Anthropocene) in two million years (or more), that CC will break insurance markets, and that our overconsumption (not basics) is driving CC:

    “To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is a good as a feast— or better.
    Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.” P 75

  3. There are several instances of “eco-terrorism,” all aimed at the rich middle classes, with their flying, shopping, overfishing, etc. The MftF may — or may not — be supporting these attacks, which are (in the book) effective at changing behavior.
  4. Geoengineering plays a big role, as it must if we’re going to have “negative emissions,” and it takes both coordinated and go-it-alone forms.
  5. The Half Earth [for Nature] and 2000kWh [per year, per person] Society are existing ideas that deserve attention for their potential benefits.
  6. There are many vignettes in poor countries and poor communities in rich countries. Those people suffer but they also cooperate in mutual defence.
  7. Scientists are super excited to finally make progress against CC, using ideas and techniques that mostly (in 2021) exist.
  8. As I’ve advocated, the tide turns when money (bribes) are used to persuade incumbents.
  9. KSR’s scenario of converting all currency into crypto that can be tracked on the blockchain is not that believable, but central banks are trying!
  10. The recovery of ecosystems and species that comes with their protection doesn’t surprise me. It’s the protection that surprises me. KSR does not consider most of the difficulties of protecting commons. That said, consider this reality:

    “In a fight between sociopathic sick wounded angry fucked-up wicked people, and all the rest of them, not just the good and the brave but the ordinary and weak, the sheep who just wanted to get by, the fuckers always won.” — p510

  11. KSR  blames the Washington Consensus for many things it’s not about. Maybe the WC is a handy reference point but I would have preferred he attack crony capitalism (corruption) rather than the WC’s helpful macroeconomic policy suggestions.
  12. KSR highlights the many contradictions and hypocrisies within CC-discussions as well as everyday politics. He’s a good tutor.
  13. I was happy to see user data privatised away from social media leeches (e.g,  Facebook, YouTube) and back to users. This system links in with (9) above.
  14. Co-operatives, UBI and many other progressive-popular ideas get implemented. They work. As with (10), it’s the implementation more than the function that surprises me, but what’s the point of CliFi, if not to work through the implications of “what if” thought experiments.
  15. LA gets hit by an atmospheric river that drops so much water on the land that the weight causes faults to slip… and earthquakes. I’ve long thought that earthquakes would be ONE disaster not correlated with CC, but I now have reason to doubt 🙁
  16. A good summary:

    “A tax on burning fossil carbon, which could be called not a tax but rather paying the true cost, could be set progressively, or offset by feebates, to avoid harming the poorest who burn less carbon but also need to burn what they burn to live. A fossil carbon tax set high enough would create a strong incentive to quit burning it. It could be set quite high, and on a schedule to go even higher over time, which would increase the incentive to quit burning it. Tax rates on the largest uses could be made prohibitive, in the sense of blocking all chance of profits being made from any derivative effects of these burns” — p386

  17. Psychology (also see my “7 reasons we’re failing to stop CC“):

    “This was yet another manifestation of racism and contempt for the South, yes, but also of a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did. So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them, no. This was a cognitive error that, like most cognitive errors, kept happening even when you knew of its existence and prevalence. It was some kind of evolutionary survival mechanism, some speculated, a way to help people carry on even when it was pointless to carry on.” — p405

  18. Think about it:

    “Europe is just punishing the victims. Sudan takes care of more refugees than all of Europe, and Sudan is a wreck. People come to Europe and they get called economic migrants, as if that wasn’t just what their own citizens are supposed to do, try to make a better life, show some initiative. But if you come to Europe to do it you’re criminalized. You’ve got to change that” — p458

  19. The Chinese, Russians, and Americans also suffer so much, they decide to address CC. (The already suffering young and poor area already favor action).
  20. Farms, roads, cities need to go if “Half for Earth” is going to work.
  21. Migration also needs to be more flexible. KSR proposes “world passports” (with settlement rights in proportion to national capacities), which matches my 2012 idea.
  22. Hong Kong wins in this telling. Interesting that it was already dead (in the name of “national security”) before this book came out.
  23. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is finally returned to Nature (and taken away from rapacious farmers), much as I recommended in 2008.
  24. KSR ends with “we will keep going, because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.” — p639. True.

My one-handed conclusion is that anyone interested in their future, the science and political-economy of climate chaos, and good writing should read this book. It’s long, but always interesting. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Economics, a Crash Course

I bought this 2019 book by David Boyle and Andrew Simms with the hope that I could lend it to students to give them a decent introduction to economics (the book’s subtitle is “become an instant expert”).

Sadly, the book is too polemic — and too misleading — to fit this role. In fact, it’s terrible.

Disclosure: I only read the first 15 or so of the book’s 52 chapters, as the authors’ constant insinuations (see examples below) and biased “balancing” getting in the way of the economics. Skeptical of my method? Complain to Tyler.

I started off with hope that Boyle and Simms, both associated with the New Weather Institute and New Economics Foundation (see a pattern?), would explain “old” (neoclassical) economics and then bridge into the “new” (heterodox, post-autistic) economics that, they claim, are necessary for living in a post-2008 Financial Crisis world. They arranged the books into four chapters (history, ideas, people, planet) that each have 13 sections.

The trouble is that they — like Kate Raworth and Ha-Joon Chang (both appear in the acknowledgements) — are too quick to condemn on shallow or biased understanding of economic ideas and the history of economic thought. These weaknesses in comprehension, which they might portray as “cutting through” or “David vs Goliath”, mean that readers are less likely to become “instant experts” and more likely to come across as shallow and opinionated. That’s a pity, as the book’s aim and structure are laudable. Its execution, alas, is flawed.

Some issues I ran across:

  • Harry Truman, not Woodrow Wilson, asked for a “one-handed economist” (I take this personally 😉
  • The authors are quick to blame economists for the financial crisis but appear to have forgotten (a) the role of politicians and regulators and (b) that many economists are (were) very critical of the causes of the crisis.
  • I doubt Adam Smith was a “controversial figure in Western {?!] economic thought.”
  • In their biographical sketch of Mary Paley Marshall (the wife of Alfred), they offer the dodgy (and only) note on Principles of Economics, i.e., that it was “published in 1890 under Alfred Marshall’s name” [p 53], without offering any evidence.
  • Indeed, it would have been better if the authors had at least documented their claims. They instead sound like slightly drunk undergrads, egging each other on, hoping that they can overthrow The Man.
  • They do not understand that we (humans) gain “utility” from actions and choices, not just “spending and acquiring” (p 57).

…indeed, I can open the book on nearly every page and find errors and bias that don’t just mis-state what economists say and teach, but also deceive any reader from understanding economics. This book is more of a car crash than a crash course.

Just to put this into context, consider how they distort Adam Smith’s  “invisible hand.” First, they claim he introduced the idea in his 1776 Wealth of Nations (WoN), when he actually introduced it in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments (ToMS). I have read both books, but anyone on the internet could discover these facts within 2 minutes. Second, they brutalise a quote from ToMS (my strikeout shows what they omitted), which they claim came from WoN:

The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

So, they misquote Smith to fit their ideology: claiming Smith thought  “nothing should obstruct the pursuit of self interest because it would prevent markets from working efficiently” [p 54] when he wrote an entire book (ToMS) about constraining self-interest. It also seems they did not even read Smith’s update on the idea in WoN:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Note that the main idea (selfish acts help all) has not changed, but Smith has applied it to every individual.

I could go on, but I’m already tired of the fail in this book.

My one-handed conclusion, which should please both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Truman, is that this book is a waste of time. I won’t be able to lend it to my students as I’ve tossed it in the bin. ONE STAR.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

This book is better than its charming title suggests, although I am a strong advocate of swearing where appropriate. It draws on the author’s “growing up” process, experienced via many years of living the dream, psychotherapy and failure.

Here’s a summary of my notes:

  • You can’t give a fuck about everything. You need to choose when and where to give a fuck.
  • People without problems will invent them, so do give a fuck about something.
  • I just bought a sailboat (De Doffer, or The Pigeon), which I’d rename 90 Percent if renaming was not taboo. Why 90 percent? Because 90 percent of the boat is fine (it floats), so the other 10 percent is not worth worrying about because the “return on concern” is so low. Accept a few defects and issues and move along. Live wabi-sabi.
  • Happiness comes from solving problems, so get some and solve them!
  • You’re not special, not even when you “earn” your medal for participation, so stop comparing yourself to others, influencers, et al. Watch the “Century of the Self” to see how marketers hijacked self-regard. Read my paper on Google [pdf] to remind yourself that it’s impossible to compete with the world’s best.
  • Improve yourself. Set goals. Reach for them.
  • We are always choosing. You can chose to be a victim, or you can chose to accept reality and move along.
  • Every time you admit you’re wrong, you get the chance to improve and learn something. Accepting reality is easier than avoiding it.
  • The best way to improve is to fail. The best way to succeed is to start. Don’t know how to start? Doesn’t matter. Just start. (My boat kinda terrifies me, as it’s 77 years old and I’m not quite sure how to manage it, but the only way to learn is to do.)
  • Saying “no” is making a choice. You need to make choices and prioritise. In your relationships, you need to be honest about what you want and accept responsibility, just like your friend/partner does. Neither of you are responsible for the other’s happiness, since it’s impossible to do right and unethical to even consider.
  • “You need to be able to say no and hear no” in relationships (p177).
  • Some people are addicted to fixing others’ problems. Those people are never happy with folks who have their problems under control. They will make problems so they can have something to work on. Move on (I have).
  • Cheaters probably have issues that need more to fix than “I’ll try harder”.
  • You can lose trust in a fraction of the time it takes to rebuild that trust. Should you stick around to rebuild or more on? As someone accused of “betraying” someone (who happens to be deluded), I needed to hear this. There’s probably nothing I can do to rebuild trust when that person’s reality (and my role in it) is a fantasy.
  • Commitments to places, activities or people liberates you by helping you focus,  reducing the number of things you need to consider, and signalling to others where you need their support. I own my flat, have a permanent contract at work, and have a meaningful relationship. Now I can focus my energy on deepening those commitments, coping with surprise challenges, and trying new things — like sailing a boat!

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is well worth your time. Life is too short to give a fuck about the wrong things or too many things. Stop giving a fuck about useless shit and focus your fucks given on your priorities. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s daughter published this book (subtitled “…and sketches here and there“) in 1949, just after he died from a heart-attack at the age of 61.

The book has a strong reputation in the environmentalist community, but this reputation only came in the 1970s (Earth Day, etc), which is why Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is credited with sparking the environmental movement.

Leopold’s book is not as pointed or lyrical as Carson’s, but it’s well written, insightful, and yes — decades ahead of its time.

The book’s 226 pages fall into three parts: an “almanac” reflecting on 12 months of natural and human phenomena around the Leopolds’ Wisconsin farm (located in a region with sandy soils); “sketches” from Leopold’s travels in North America; and the “upshot” of what it all means. Leopold’s daughter chose the mix of topics and their order for the book. I found the contrast of different times and places (followed by a call for new thinking) to be a natural progression.

The book opens with Aldo’s main point: The rate of “progress” is slowing as  human increase their burden on Nature. Leopold’s claim was a minority view in 1949, and it is perhaps a minority view today, but I see it as extremely perceptive. Although many people think our environmental problems began with the Industrial Revolution (true if you’re talking about fossil fuel consumption), I date them to the post-WWII surge in destruction (courtesy of modern machines) and consumption (courtesy of excess prosperity). Leopold ends with a call for more nature and less artificial, more wild and free, and less tame and confined. Sadly, 70 years of loss and negligence confirm his worries.

Almanac

The struggle for survival delivers balance. The “circular economy” is a zero-waste system because resources are fought over and completely consumed. Every death brings new life. He reminds city folk that food and wood do not just appear in stores. Farmers know that food comes from struggle. Wood is precious to those who spend hours cutting, chopping, hauling and stacking. Wildlife chasing scarce resources will migrate to survive, spreading diversity and connecting distant places. A fisherman must work the waters and take his chances. For the fish, it’s life and death, so it’s only fair if your hunger endures because a fish’s life continues.

Leopold trained in forestry as a means of studying wildlife, and he quantifies his hunches. He compares, for example, the variety of flower species on his (weekend) “backward farm” to the (weekday) suburbs and campus. The farm has roughly double the species count throughout the year, mostly due to its open, unmanaged (“backwards”) spaces.

Leopold is sly:

Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains. Some hunters acquire it from geese, and some coffee pots from hunters. It is strange that of all the multitude of creatures who must rise in the morning at some time, only these few should have discovered the most pleasant and least useful time for doing it… Early risers feel at ease with each other, perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements. (p 59)

The shovel giveth and the axe taketh away, which is why the thoughts of the axe-wielder are so important: Is the chop going to improve or deface the land?

Sketches

Cranes and other birds were cousins of the dinosaurs. They have evolved with ecosystems over millennia eons, and their intricate adaptations to ecological niches are rightly confused with miracles. The paradox, notes Leopold, is that we, in our fascination with wilderness, are often the cause of its destruction. He is no fan of economists. Obsessed with marginal gains, they are blind to the efficiency of the messy chaotic system. (This perception is generally true today — and made worse by over-specialisation within and across academic disciplines.*)

Leopold’s descriptions of man’s interruption of circularity and ham-handed attempts to replace it are poetic but sad:

The old prairie lived by the diversity of its plants and animals, all of which were useful because the sum total of their co-operations and competitions achieved continuity. But the wheat farmer was a builder of categories; to him only wheat and oxen were useful. He saw the useless pigeons settle in clouds upon his wheat, and shortly cleared the skies of them. He saw the chinch bugs take over the stealing job, and fumed because here was a useless thing too small to kill. He failed to see the downward wash of over-wheated loam, laid bare in spring against the pelting rains. When soil-wash and chinch bugs finally put an end to wheat farming, Y [an atom] and his like had already traveled far down the watershed. 

When the empire of wheat collapsed, the settler took a leaf from the old prairie book: he impounded his fertility in livestock, he augmented it with nitrogen-pumping alfalfa, and he tapped the lower layers of the loam with deep-rooted corn. But he used his alfalfa, and every other new weapon against wash, not only to hold his old plowings, but also to exploit new ones which, in turn, needed holding.

So, despite alfalfa, the black loam grew gradually thinner. Erosion engineers built dams and terraces to hold it. Army engineers built levees and wing-dams to flush it from the rivers. The rivers would not flush, but raised their beds instead, thus choking navigation. So the engineers built pools like gigantic beaver ponds, and Y landed in one of these, his trip from rock to river completed in one short century. (pp 107-8)

Leopold traversed the Colorado River Delta in 1922 and vowed never to go back, for fear of the loss he would see. He was right. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact divided its waters among US states, without any reserve for the river itself. In 1935 Hoover Dam opened, its hydropower used to push water to Los Angeles via the Colorado River Aqueduct (opened in 1941). In 1938, Imperial Dam and All-American Canal opened, diverting a majority of the river’s remaining water to irrigators in the desert. “Since 1963, the only times when the Colorado River has reached the ocean have been during El Niño events in the 1980s and 1990s.

Speaking of *disciplines:

There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his lifetaking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university. A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. (p153)

…and another comment on “progress”:

The marshlands that once sprawled over the prairie from the Illinois to the Athabasca are shrinking northward. Man cannot live by marsh alone, therefore he must needs live marshless. Progress cannot abide that farmland and marshland, wild and tame, exist in mutual toleration and harmony. So with dredge and dyke, tile and torch, we sucked the combelt dry, and now the wheatbelt. Blue lake becomes green bog, green bog becomes caked mud, caked mud becomes a wheatfield. (p162)

Upshot

Part three generalises from earlier examples. Leopold contrasts a “conservation esthetic” to a drive-by attitude that has choked natural areas with a ring of car parks (in 1949!) and valuations that favor spending on gasoline, diners and tents rather than Nature’s priceless value.

Crowd-pleasing commodification favours hatchery trout over migratory birds, even if that means replacing webs of natural species with “managed” single-species. Staff are paid to create artificial habitats and manage fish hatcheries. Ecosystems that provided diversity free of charge are replaced by landscapes that can be counted and collated in reports.

Rather than reflecting over the causes of failures, managers double down on interventions. Fences fail to limit pests whose population explodes without natural predators. Simplified managed spaces replaces ecosystems diverse with uncountable species. Businesses encourage the spread of roads and trails that will bring more cars to parking lots. Farmers do not “husband” the landscape for their descendants; they follow theoretical guidelines written at a distance and collect subsidies for chasing errant targets.

Hunters shoot many animals to get the 12-point buck whose head hangs on their wall. The rest of the animals rot. Secret hunting, fishing and camping places are overrun by tourists visiting guidebook highlights. Economists contribute to these problems by measuring known knowns and ignoring the unknown unknowns that make the knowns possible.

For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization. Neither can be prevented, and perhaps should not be, but the question arises whether, by some slight amelioration of the impending changes, certain values can be preserved that would otherwise be lost. (p 188)

Shrinking ecosystems collapse roads and development encroach on food chains stressed by missing keystone species and voracious invasives.

The disappearance of plants and animal species without visible cause, despite efforts to protect them, and the irruption of others as pests despite efforts to control them, must, in the absence of simpler explanations, be regarded as symptoms of sickness in the land organism. (p 194)

Leopold calls for a science of land health to replace failing land management. This science would begin by understanding (and protecting) wilderness areas that have evolved and persisted for millions of years. The contrast with the “sick” lands humans are trying to save cannot be clearer:

In 1909, when I first saw the West, there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass, but you could travel for months without meeting a conservation officer. Today there is some kind of conservation officer ‘behind every bush,’ yet as wildlife bureaus grow, our most magnificent mammal retreats steadily toward the Canadian border. (p 198)

Leopold is known for espousing (inventing?) a “land ethic”, which “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (p204).

In calling for such equality he (rightly) criticises alternative value systems:

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century song- birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

Leopold’s land ethic replaces corrupt and poorly functioning extrinsic motivators (regulations, subsidies) with the intrinsic motivation (respect for the entire ecosystem) necessary to respect and protect the wholeness of ecosystems:

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts (p 214)

These days, Leopold’s ideas are echoed in the concepts of “spaceship earth,” industrial ecology, the circular economy, and so on:

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life (p 216)

Sadly, most people are not just ignorant of this miracle of sustainability; they actively avoid contemplating or respecting it:

Your true modem is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’

These words are over 70 years old! Leopold’s perceptions were far ahead his time and his warnings have only grown more relevant. His wise recommendations have only grown more urgent. The sad thing is that he has been so right while most of humanity has continued on paths that are so wrong. We cannot claim “we did not know.” We were warned by Leopold and others (all five of his children became academics devoted to sustainability), but we have ignored those warnings. A land ethic would not just save nature in all its glory, but also save humanity. But we have continued to trash, shrink and ignore ecosystems that have brought us so much joy and prosperity. Humanity’s futures is now threatened, and we only have ourselves to blame.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it — and appreciate what we’ve lost and what remains.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Fatal Conceit

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) published this book in 1988 as his last word in opposition to socialism. I read it to “update” myself on his thinking since The Road to Serfdom (1944) and “The use of knowledge in society” (1945) — an article I regularly recommend to students.

This book is full of insights on how individuals with distributed knowledge coordinate their actions (so this “review” will be long with his words), but Hayek also throws out the baby (the importance of social management of collective goods) with the bathwater (the dangers of centralized, “rational” social control). Given my interest and the global importance of the commons and environment (both social, or non-excludable goods), I think that Hayek — like Milton Friedman — could have delivered a sharper message. But most of this review focuses on what Hayek gets right.

Chapter 1: Between instinct and reason

This book argues that our civilisation depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation, an order more commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, known as capitalism. To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be ‘fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it’ (Genesis 1:28). This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.

Socialists take a different view of these matters. They not only differ in their conclusions, they see the facts differently. That socialists are wrong about the facts is crucial to my argument, as it will unfold in the pages that follow… If it were for instance true that central direction of the means of production could effect a collective product of at least the same magnitude as that which we now produce, it would indeed prove a grave moral problem how this could be done justly. This, however, is not the position in which we find ourselves.

[snip]

The main point of my argument is, then, that the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge of these resources is and can be generated and utilised (pp 6-8).

These opening paragraphs focus on the main issue, which is not morality but prosperity. Socialists who fail to understand this difference often suggest that equal access to the means of production will lead to equal outcomes from the fruits of production (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs“) when (a) that doesn’t happen and (b) capitalism’s job is to create wealth while the state’s job is to redistribute it (so-called “mixed economies”).

Why are (would-be) socialists or those sympathetic to socialism so often mislead? Hayek points the finger at our limited capacity to comprehend our complex social systems:

They [human instincts] were adapted to life in the small roving bands or troops in which the human race and its immediate ancestors evolved during the few million years while the biological constitution of homo sapiens was being formed. These genetically inherited instincts served to steer the cooperation of the members of the troop, a cooperation that was, necessarily, a narrowly circumscribed interaction of fellows known to and trusted by one another… The primitive individualism described by Thomas Hobbes is hence a myth. The savage is not solitary, and his instinct is collectivist. There was never a ‘war of all against all’. (pp 11-12)

Hayek calls our collective and innate instincts natural morality, defining “morality” as “those non-instinctive rules that enabled mankind to expand into an extended order” (p. 12). Hayek places morality between natural morality (a non-scaleable concern for one’s tribe) and rationality (a non-scaleable assumption that one can design the mechanism for converting resources into desired outcomes). Hayek’s morality allows us to compete with strangers (as we would not with “family”) in ways that convert our greed into gains (“as if guided by an invisible hand”) that we would never (in a tribe) knowingly share with other strangers:

In our economic activities we do not know the needs which we satisfy nor the sources of the things which we get. Almost all of us serve people whom we do not know, and even of whose existence we are ignorant; and we in turn constantly live on the services of other people of whom we know nothing. All this is possible because we stand in a great framework of institutions and traditions – economic, legal, and moral – into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we never made, and which we have never understood (p. 14).

How did these morals develop? As Joseph Heinrich explained in The Secret of Our Success (2015), they emerged as cultural evolution favored tribes willing to exchange with non-blood relatives over tribes held back by kin loyalty (Hayek cites much older sources). As a result, we created context-dependent loyalties:

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once. To apply the name ‘society’ to both, or even to either, is hardly of any use, and can be most misleading (p. 18, emphasis in original).

In those two worlds, it is necessary to Think Fast and Slow (2011) in discriminating between instincts (Type 1 thinking) and learnt rules (Type 2 thinking), and competition drove this process: “Competition is a procedure of discovery, a procedure involved in all evolution, that led man unwittingly to respond to novel situations; and through further competition, not through agreement, we gradually increase our efficiency” (p. 19). To Hayek, the most important word in that description is “unwittingly,” which refers both to the unintentional way that humans have improved their condition and the difficulty of wittingly designing improvements (the “fatal conceit”) — a concern at the center of Scott’s brilliant Seeing Like a State (and more recent Two Cheers for Anarchism).

And out of this concern, Hayek harkens to an old-fashioned (think Burke vs Paine) version of conservatism:*

Learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding. Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it. Man became intelligent because there was tradition – that which lies between instinct and reason – for him to learn. This tradition, in turn, originated not from a capacity rationally to interpret observed facts but from habits of responding. It told man primarily what he ought or ought not to do under certain conditions rather than what he must expect to happen.

[snip]

It is less accurate to suppose that thinking man creates and controls his cultural evolution than it is to say that culture, and evolution, created his reason. In any case, the idea that at some point conscious design stepped in and displaced evolution substitutes a virtually supernatural postulate for scientific explanation. So far as scientific explanation is concerned, it was not what we know as mind that developed civilisation, let alone directed its evolution, but rather mind and civilisation which developed or evolved concurrently.

[Thus…]

Just as instinct is older than custom and tradition, so then are the latter older than reason: custom and tradition stand between instinct and reason – logically, psychologically, temporally (pp. 21-23).

Hayek then repeats the oft-forgotten fact that Darwin read Smith’s Wealth of Nations before he came up with a theory of evolution. Darwin borrowed from Smith’s ideas of undirected, beneficial social evolution (“as if guided…”) when looking at the much-longer process of natural selection. Sociologists, likewise, claim “group selection” explains why some cultures succeed over others, without guidance, in continuously changing circumstances, i.e., “biological and cultural evolution… rely on the same principle of selection: survival or reproductive advantage… Not only does all evolution rest on competition; continuing competition is necessary even to preserve existing achievements,” regardless of what we consider fair or rational: “I do not claim that the results of group selection of traditions are necessarily ‘good’ – any more than I claim that other things that have long survived in the course of evolution, such as cockroaches, have moral value” (pp. 26-27).

…and that’s the first chapter. If you’ve made it this far, I suggest taking a short break to think over these ideas, since they underpin the rest of the book.

2: The origins of liberty

Liberty was not given as much as taken by the Mediterranean merchants who would leave oppressive for welcoming ports, taking their custom with them. In this early (pre-Roman) period, private property was synonymous with individual freedom. Slaves lived the difference. Traders knew the difference. Tribes did not know the difference, so their members were caught in a collective, protective — and stifling — safety net. Some Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Plato) disliked private property, and their influence might explain how the Greeks lost out to pro-property, pro-market Rome.

There is a tension between ruler’s desire to tax and control and their subjects’ desire to protect their money and autonomy. Individual and state prosperity suffered when the state was too strong. Paradoxically, strength came from weakness:

The revival of European civilisation during the later Middle Ages… owes its origins and raison d’être to political anarchy. It was not under the more powerful governments, but in the towns of the Italian Renaissance, of South Germany and of the Low Countries, and finally in lightly-governed England, i.e., under the rule of the bourgeoisie rather than of warriors, that modern industrialism grew. Protection of several property, not the direction of its use by government, laid the foundations for the growth of the dense network of exchange of services that shaped the extended order (p 33).

From these experiences, philosophers such as Locke argued that private property, justice and freedom went hand-in-hand, since the right to property could be interpreted to include oneself as well as one’s land, possessions and ideas (The Declaration of Independence very nearly said “life, liberty and property”). More recent examinations of “property rights” have veered into novel but important areas, e.g., Coase’s “Nature of the Firm” (where does control start and stop) and “Problem of Social Costs” (the right to pollute — or not be polluted).

Hayek thinks the application of property rights to ideas, patents, and copyright slows their exchange and thus learning and innovation.

3. The evolution of the market

“Modern archaeology confirms confirms that trade is older than agriculture or any other sort of regular production” (p39) — read my review of Jacobs (1969) for more support of Hayek’s rejection of the conventional wisdom of agriculture preceding trade or towns. From trade came norms of hospitality (and protection) for strangers, an appreciation of different ideas, and specializations in sourcing raw materials and crafted goods. Crossroads grew into towns and towns into cities. Cooperation was expected. Surpluses allowed more people to live better lives.

Rebels added bridging social capital to the bonding social capital of their home communities:

In any case, some individuals did tear away, or were released, from the hold and obligations of the small community, and began not only to settle other communities, but also to lay the foundations for a network of connections with members of still other communities – a network that ultimately, in countless relays and ramifications, has covered the whole earth (p. 42).

Historians and archaeologists can be biased by evidence, crediting rulers and bureaucrats (who left behind buildings, laws and records) instead of individuals for successes. Their informal, bottom up actions left few traces but delivered more prosperity. Rulers, sadly, preferred their control over people’s prosperity:

What led the greatly advanced civilisation of China to fall behind Europe was its governments’ clamping down so tightly as to leave no room for new developments, while… Europe probably owes its extraordinary expansion in the Middle Ages to its political anarchy (p. 45). 

…and China has not changed: President Xi’s need for control is more important than freedom (and prosperity) in Hong Kong — something I worried about on my first (and last) visit to HK in 2018.

Aristotle admired oiknomia (home economics) but not markets. He preferred autarky (self-sufficiency), so he was not an economist. His (surviving) writings omit discussion or understanding of evolution or self-organizing phenomena. His insistence that nature and human activities must be organized (via taxonomy) before they could be accepted or understood left him and his followers blind to most evolutionary successes.

Aristotle (and many religions) opposed interest, free prices, and profits. Rulers who embraced the insights of Hume and Smith (“one can serve another without kind intentions”) gave space for undirected but mutually beneficial trade. The move from feudalism and tribalism towards bourgeois dignity and a “propensity to truck barter and exchange” created wealth that was distributed through a self-organized system that no individual could understand, explain or control.

4. The revolt of instinct and reason

Enlightenment thinkers such as Decartes raised the profile of reason at the expense of tradition, sometimes pursuing “scientism” to the point of discarding “irrational” but functional institutions in favour of rational but dysfunctional replacements. Rousseau opposed rationalism with admiration for the “noble savage” but his admiration of “animal instinct” and “the will of the people” discarded thousands of years of tradition that had delivered — without design — the civilisation that supported Rousseau and others.

It’s hard to be an individualistic noble savage if you don’t have freedom for yourself or your property, but that “bug” was a “feature” to those — like Rousseau — who favoured collectivism over property. Academics and intellectuals (e.g., Marx) mythologize the past as they espoused flawed ideologies on putting humanity on the socially engineered path to a workers paradise.

One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realises that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilisation offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate any remaining undesired features by still more intelligent reflection, and still more appropriate design and ‘rational coordination’ of our undertakings. This leads one to be favourably disposed to the central economic planning and control that lie at the heart of socialism. Of course intellectuals will demand explanations for everything they are expected to do, and will be reluctant to accept practices just because they happen to govern the communities into which they happen to have been born (pp. 53-54).

Hayek’s complaint here echoes that of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, both of whom spent their careers understanding and explaining how informal institutions emerged, evolved and prevented “common pool situations” from turning into “common pool dilemmas” (or tragedies).

Hayek lists four ideas (rationalism, empiricism, positivism and utilitarianism) that “scientific” people implicitly accept before delving into the presuppositions that support those ideas, i.e.,

  1. The idea that it is unreasonable to follow what one cannot justify scientifically or prove observationally (Monod, Born).
  2. The idea that it is unreasonable to follow what one does not understand (Popper).
  3. The related idea that it is unreasonable to follow a particular course unless its purpose is fully specified in advance (Einstein, Russell, Keynes).
  4. The idea, also closely related, that it is unreasonable to do anything unless its effects are not only fully known in advance but also fully observable and seen to be beneficial (the utilitarians).

“To what purpose tradition, suffering or obedience?” Hayek answers:

…intellectuals from Rousseau to such recent figures in French and German thought as Foucault and Habermas regard alienation as rampant in any system in which an order is ‘imposed’ on individuals without their conscious consent…

On a less sophisticated level than the argument against ‘alienation’ are the demands for ‘liberation’ from the burdens of civilisation – including the burdens of disciplined work, responsibility, risk-taking, saving, honesty, the honouring of promises, as well as the difficulties of curbing by general rules one’s natural reactions of hostility to strangers and solidarity with those who are like oneself – an ever more severe threat to political liberty.

Everywhere, in the name of liberation, people disavow practices that enabled mankind to reach its present size and degree of cooperation because they do not rationally see, according to their lights, how certain limitations on individual freedom through legal and moral rules make possible a greater – and freer! – order than can be attained through centralised control (pp. 64-65).

5. The fatal conceit

Traditions, institutions and beliefs…  may be seen, as is especially fashionable today, as sources of alienation and oppression, and of ‘social injustice’. After such objections, the conclusion is reached that there is an urgent need to construct a new, rationally revised and justified morality which does meet these requirements (p. 67). 

What’s the danger of pursuing rationality?

If we stopped doing everything for which we do not know the reason, or for which we cannot provide a justification in the sense demanded, we would probably very soon be dead  (p. 68). 

Economists’ models of “rational” behaviour, expectations and so on, contribute to problems because they are used to argue for bad policies, such as those that contributed to the 2007+ financial crisis (read more and more).

Hayek explains how the “extended order” in which we live and which contributes so much to our prosperity is “transcendent”, i.e., beyond our understanding and thus immune to rationalist design and control. Those who ignore such orders are counterproductive (“decimal time” in revolutionary France) or dangerous (the Khmer Rouge killed ~2 million citizens in their quest to reset society to Year 0).

Turning to the opposite side of “it must fit in my brain box”, Hayek warns against an obsession with “moral” rules. Many people do good things for reasons outsiders cannot understand: “As if guided by an invisible hand” applies in markets as well as social situations. A requirement to “justify your actions” is not just a waste of time but a version of petty fascism. Who cares why consenting adults — whether they know each other or not — do what they do. (I give “reddit gold” anonymously to strangers whose ideas and words I like; they don’t need to know why.)

Civilisation is not only a product of evolution – it is a process; by establishing a framework of general rules and individual freedom it allows itself to continue to evolve. This evolution cannot be guided by and often will not produce what men demand. Men may find some previously unfulfilled wishes satisfied, but only at the price of disappointing many others. Though by moral conduct an individual may increase his opportunities, the resulting evolution will not gratify all his moral desires. Evolution cannot be just (p. 74). 

…and that means that the impacts of actions and choices, structures and relations should not — and cannot — be judged ex-ante or even ex-post, as impacts are partially felt and unevenly distributed days, years and centuries later. Hayek’s statement of this perspective is famous for those of us who play the Econtalk drinking game:

If we had deliberately built, or were consciously shaping, the structure of human action, we would merely have to ask individuals why they had interacted with any particular structure. Whereas, in fact, specialised students, even after generations of effort, find it exceedingly difficult to explain such matters, and cannot agree on what are the causes or what will be the effects of particular events. The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design (p. 76). 

I often think of this curious task when teaching, as one of my main jobs is convincing students that “it’s not as easy as you think.” That said, way back in 1995, I remember sitting in Sienna as a 25-year old with ambitious plans for government reform. (My plans, sadly, are lost. Government will have to struggle without me.)

Hayek then explains how decentralised information recommends decentralised  decisions in markets and politics (what the Ostrom’s called “polycentricity” [pdf]). Hayek reinforces these points by citing long human childhoods (necessary for understanding social norms), different sets of moral rules (allowing experimentation and adaptation), and diversification (individuals coming together to exchange based on their several talents, ideas and assets).

In calling for such humility, Hayek attracts opposition, i.e., “the individual can no longer know whose needs his efforts do or ought to serve… Directing his productive efforts altruistically thus becomes literally impossible for him… for intellectuals generally, the feeling of being mere tools of concealed, even if impersonal, market forces appears almost as a personal humiliation” (pp. 81-82). These words remind me of Peter Singer’s (utilitarian) quest to shame people for prioritising care for neighbours over the distant, anonymous poor. I think Singer is misguided. Hayek would probably call him dangerous.

Turning against Hayek, I think he misses an important role for the bureaucrats he despises: “Attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men’s wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know” (p. 84). I am not sure where he would stand on correcting market failures (such as pollution) via regulations and/or taxes, but I think those interventions are necessary and useful.

Hayek ends with an appeal to respect institutions that distribute power to those possessing the local and tacit knowledge needed to make good decisions.

6. The mysterious world of trade and money

A “primitive minds” distrusts a win-win transaction (e.g., I sell you a hamburger) because it is accustomed to simple win-lose interactions among peers (more meat for you means less meat for others) rather than mutually beneficial, impersonal exchanges based on comparative advantage. When I teach economics, I must always explain the differences among cost, price and value — concepts that many assume are interchangeable.

Trade – regarded as real work or not – brought not only individual but also collective wealth through effort of brain rather than of muscles. That a mere change of hands should lead to a gain in value to all participants, that it need not mean gain to one at the expense of the others (or what has come to be called exploitation), was and is nonetheless intuitively difficult to grasp (p. 93). 

Many people still prefer “honest” physical labor over the “alchemy” of ideas, innovations and value gradients. Marx’s obsession with the labor theory of value blinded him to the means in which capital multiplied the value of labor as well as the gains from trade arising from differences in talent, resources and taste. These fears only multiply when the marketplace under consideration expands beyond a few vendors or small-scale manufacturers to larger markets and longer supply chains that no individual (due to the knowledge problem) can ever hope to understand. For some people, it is fine to believe in an almighty, all-seeing god (who plays no role in our daily lives) but totally wrong to believe in the “magic of markets” delivering goods made by some strangers for the benefit of other strangers. Markets are autonomous, complex and robust — like ecosystems. People accustomed to simplifying ecosystems into gardens and food courts will also try to simplify markets into good, bad, ethical, and so on. Anyone who has studied (or operated) supply chains will know that such descriptors (let alone KPIs) are nearly impossible to measure or apply to supply chains.

That said, Hayek claims (correctly) that prices help us navigate this complexity as buyers of goods or sellers of inputs. Prices can be wrong if they ignore the costs of  “negative externalities” (such as pollution) or reflect a monopolist’s market power, but even flawed prices are better than no prices. We have not found any mechanism better suited to coordinating self-interested strangers than the invisible hand.

Money, interest, borrowing and lending are feared for their complexity (see, e.g., debates over fractional vs full-reserve banking), which leads to bad policies, resource waste, and greater income inequality (those who “get it” grow wealthier). Politicians, of course, have sometimes neglected citizens. Inflationary spending harms savers and the poor while saving debtors from accountability and the rich from taxes. In 2020, short term (MZM) money supply jumped by 25% in the US — a rate far greater than historic norms.

7. Our poisoned language

Understanding and cooperation require a common language. In some cases, language for new ideas needs to be invented (e.g., “telephone” to “mobile phone” to “zoom”). In other cases, language based on “erroneous theory” sows confusion and division. I see this problem with “post-modern” thinking faffing, but Hayek worries (justly) about socialists who attribute order to design when “observed order” actually results from an evolutionary process. Likewise, discarding the “state” for “society” is dangerous because it trades accountable known people for an unaccountable nebulous “movement.”

Building on this statement, Hayek then looks into the (mis)use of “liberal,” “capitalism” and “socialism” — terms with a variety of (sometimes) contradictory meanings. “Capitalists” and the “proletariat,” for example, are portrayed as opponents when they actually benefit each other.

One of the oldest terms… societas, from socius [Latin], the personally known fellow or companion… has been used to describe both an actually existing state of affairs and a relation between individuals… To call by the same name such completely different formations as the companionship of individuals in constant personal contact and the structure formed by millions who are connected only by signals resulting from long and infinitely ramified chains of trade is not only factually misleading but also almost always contains a concealed desire to model this extended order on the intimate fellowship for which our emotions long (p. 112-3)

Thus, we are confused when people use “social” to refer to small groups joined by personal relations as well as larger groups joined by impersonal norms.

Hayek lists over 160 nouns that are qualified by “social” (e.g., “social animal” or “social justice”), to show how those claiming (social) legitimacy try to avoid accurate terms that deliver less authority: “The traditional term for what is now called the ‘social state’ was ‘benevolent despotism’, and the very real problem of achieving such despotism democratically, i.e., while preserving individual freedom, is simply wished away by the concoction ‘social democracy’” (p. 117).

Hayek warns that social justice warriors’ support for redistributive interventions undermines the market forces that bring wealth and “society.” Although I agree with his point, note that some “social” measures (regulating bad behaviour, taxing wealth, subsidizing public goods, and reducing inequality) can be designed and implemented in ways that allow for individual decisions, market-efficiency and overall prosperity.

8. The extended order and population growth

It is, then, not simply more men, but more different men, which brings an increase in productivity. Men have become powerful because they have become so different: new possibilities of specialisation – depending not so much on any increase in individual intelligence but on growing differentiation of individuals – provide the basis for a more successful use of the earth’s resources This in turn requires an extension of the network of indirect reciprocal services which the signalling mechanism of the market secures. As the market reveals ever new opportunities of specialisation, the two-factor model, with its Malthusian conclusions, becomes increasingly inapplicable. (pp. 122-123). 

Although Hayek is right about the development and deepening of markets, he overlooks population- and growth-related issues as they affect the commons, which (by definition, due to missing property rights) are not amenable to market incentives or solutions. Hayek indirectly invokes such a caveat:

As long as an increase in population has been made possible by the growing productivity of the populations in the regions concerned, or by more effective utilisation of their resources, and not by deliberate artificial support of this growth from outside [=negative externalities], there is little cause for concern (p 124).

…but then fails to admit its relevance:

There is no danger whatever that, in any foreseeable future with which we can be concerned, the population of the world as a whole will outgrow its raw material resources, and every reason to assume that inherent forces will stop such a process long before that could happen (p. 125).

This bold statement is just wrong, and the fact that Hayek cites Julian Simon (see this post and this review) confirms his myopia with respect to non-excludable goods.

Hayek argues that population growth should be allowed to run its course and that humans will “find a way” to live sustainably, innovate solutions and thrive. Such hopes are misplaced as long as politicians and communities fail to manage their collective goods and markets continue to “grow artificially” using outside (non-priced) resources, as we can see with climate chaos, crashing biodiversity and increasing water scarcity.

9. Religion and the guardians of tradition

Hayek and I agree that “If God did not exist then it would be necessary to invent Him.” But the existence of so many religions — in contradiction to Voltaire’s gist — provides evidence of their social value. How do religions help? They use stories, beliefs and superstition to direct individuals towards choices that benefit the group.

In any case, the religious view that morals were determined by processes incomprehensible to us may at any rate be truer (even if not exactly in the way intended) than the rationalist delusion that man, by exercising his intelligence, invented morals that gave him the power to achieve more than he could ever foresee. If we bear these things in mind, we can better understand and appreciate those clerics who are said to have become somewhat sceptical of the validity of some of their teachings and who yet continued to teach them because they feared that a loss of faith would lead to a decline of morals. No doubt they were right; and even an agnostic ought to concede that we owe our morals, and the tradition that has provided not only our civilisation but our very lives, to the acceptance of such scientifically unacceptable factual claims. (p. 137). 

Collective well-being also helps religions survive. Judaism may have strange rules (no cheeseburgers, closed for Shabbat, etc.), but you can’t deny its long-running (3,500+ years) benefits to the Jewish community. Other religions (e.g., Communism) are doomed (recall this book is from 1988) because they denounce property and family, thereby undermining their current effectiveness and future prospects.

Hayek reminds readers that we have come this far without knowing why we believe, act or hesitate in certain situations. Taking success as the ultimate measure, he recommends we put our faith into the evolved institutions that have brought collective prosperity rather than the “rational” schemes offered by scientists, visionaries and quacks.

This “review” is now over 5,300 words, so congratulations for reading so far! I hope this review helps you understand (or decide to read) this excellent book. I think Hayek is 90 percent right and 10 percent wrong (mostly regarding collective goods) in his argument and analysis of how private decisions can combine to create positive collective outcomes. I give this book FIVE STARS.


* I definitely recommend you read “Why I am not a conservative,” an excerpt from Hayek’s 1960 Constitution of Liberty. In that short accessible essay, you will see how Hayek worried about radicals from the Right as much as the Left.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Classical School: The Birth of Economics in 20 Enlightened Lives

I bought this 2020 book by Callum Williams after I heard this podcast with him.

I like reading history of economic thought books because it’s interesting to see how economics has evolved over the centuries and useful to compare cumulative misunderstandings with what long-dead thinkers actually said. (That’s why I am reading and blogging on Alfred Marshall’s 1920 Principles of Economics.)

Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations (WoN) is widely considered to mark the start of economics, although it was then called “moral philosophy” before changing to “political-economy” in the 1800s and “economics” in the 1900s (roughly).

Overall, I found this book to be interesting, but not nearly as inspiring as the classic Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, which has been in print since Heilbroner published it in 1953. Williams has a tough act to follow.

In this review (as usual), I offer thoughts based on highlights and notes I made while reading.

  • Economics — the study of markets, choices, prices, etc. — became a useful topic when capitalism started to displace feudalism. Double-entry bookkeeping was invented during the Renaissance and used by merchants in Italian city-states. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. Economists brought the supply to meet these demands 😉
  • One early school of economics was mercantilist, which believes that it’s best to trade goods for gold rather than other goods. Colbert (1619-1683) imposed this win-lose trade policy on France in the 17th century and made the country much poorer. (Trump has a mercantilist obsession with trade balances.)
  • Mercantilists are right to focus on employment, but they used wasteful and  ineffective tools (high tariffs on imported goods and subsidies to domestic producers) to protect jobs. (Better to boost domestic employment by helping start-ups identify comparative advantages and grow.)
  • 18th century calculations of economic activity (GDP was not invented until the 1930s) were biased in favor of labor over land. The landed classes supported this bias as a way shifting taxes from land onto labor; see my post of property taxes.
  • Theory and data are often at odds. Data can be useful or biased (anecdata, missing variables, bad measurement). Theory can persist long after it has been empirically falsified.
  • Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733) wrote that the rich created jobs by consuming luxuries in the Fable of the Bees (1705). He also worried that an ultra-capitalist society would have weak morals. He was right.
  • Richard Cantillion (1670-1734) focussed on cause and effect, ceteris paribus (“all other things held equal”) and trade-offs, i.e., opportunity costs. He also raised an important question (“it is better to have a great multitude of Inhabitants, poor and badly provided, than a smaller number, much more at their ease”?) that Jeremy Bentham (“the greatest good for the greatest number“) later flubbed, as there are always tradeoffs [page 38].
  • Cities grow on the productivity that specialization, innovation and competition bring to deeper, broader markets. They fail when the commons (public health, crime, etc.) are weak. Economics did not pay attention to these failures until the 20th century, with the work of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, among others.
  • `The Scottish universities were superior to the English ones, where [Adam] Smith complained that “the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching”‘ [page 58].
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790) built the foundation for WoN with his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which focussed on our social (non-market) selves: `“We endeavour”, Smith says, “to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it.” In invoking this ghostly projection, Smith presents people as fundamentally social beings’ [page 59]. Smith, a member of the Scottish Enlightenment, was implicitly attacking God-given morality, which was not easy back then.
  • `The Wealth of Nations achieves something that no other work had quite done before. It clearly brings out the idea of an “economy” –- a self-regulating system of exchange, which is subject to its own natural laws” (page 66). I say the same of Bitcoin, which I consider a new species.
  • The debate over value vs cost in determining price was not resolved for decades. Marx was not alone in proposing the labor theory of value (a good’s value depended on the embedded labor needed to produce it). The joint-determination of price (as the two blades of scissors) via the interaction of cost (supply) and value (demand) was a real achievement for economics, even if many people today still don’t understand it.
  • Inflation makes it hard to see prices as an indicator of value or cost.
  • Who creates value? Workers, capitalists, landowners? Economists who backed one group (cynically or thoughtfully) would be attacked by the others, since political support went to those seen to be creating value.
  • Poverty is both absolute (are you hungry?) and relative (does your neighbor have better food?). Stop arguing for one definition.
  • Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) wanted people to respect each others’ views and advocated reading novels for this. I agree that people need constant reminders that their subjectivity is not reality.
  • David Ricardo (1772-1823) is credited with defining “rents” as the excess (or unearned) profits derived from possession of a productive resource. He used land as an example, but rents also arise with fossil fuels, minerals, intellectual property, and so on. Monopoly profits are often called “rents” by economists, but Alfred Marshall did not use that term for profits derived from market power that will disappear with deregulation, competition or entry. He reserved “rents” for profits arising from natural scarcity.
  • The first 50-100 years of the Industrial Revolution lowered prices for consumers but most of the profits went to capital, not labor. Under those circumstances, Ricardo wanted to repeal the Corn Laws that protected English farmers from competition and raised bread prices, to help the working classes. (They were repealed in 1846.)
  • Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) is known for “supply creates its own demand” by which he meant that economic imbalances (unsold inventory, unemployed workers) would correct over time. He was wrong, but it took 100+ years before Keynes explained failures in aggregate demand.
  • Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) worried about over-population, but he — like the neo-Malthusian Garrett Hardin — favored self-control over  birth control. Failure #1. Malthus also underestimated potential increases in  agricultural productivity, which was just taking off. Failure #2.
  • I had never heard of Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842), but I like his ideas, i.e., that human nature (and thus society) is not universal, but different  among places and eras. Capitalism was not inevitable. Workers were not doomed to suffer poverty. Although his nostalgia for (pre-capitalist) feudalism and guilds would not help the masses, Sismondi was right to want to reduce inequality by redistributing profits from capital to labor. Efficiency and fairness are complements, not substitutes.
  • John Stewart Mill (1806-1873) argued that the value of a good depended on how useful it was (demand), not just scarcity (supply) — a perspective that (correctly) undermined those who argued the labor theory of value.
  • Mill argued for a stationary state of the economy and population over endless growth, in what seems (to me) to be the earliest call for a steady-state economy or degrowth. This perspective evokes the pre-industrial era of a century earlier, but Mill “advocates a stationary state in which a stable population maintains itself at some reasonable average level of material comfort, yet most persons also attach more importance to certain ‘higher pursuits’ than to further labour, investment, and exploitation of natural resources” [p 140]. From this, I see a strong claim for quality over quantity. Indeed, Mill worried about inequality and the working classes. He was right to advocate steep inheritance taxes.
  • Mill was raised in books and developed some idiosyncratic ideas, but that didn’t keep him from important insights and opinions (p 140):

    The real reason Mill loved free trade was not because it made the economy more efficient but because it encouraged people of different backgrounds to talk to one another. “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.” Mill continued: “There is no nation which does not need to borrow from others.”

  • Karl Marx (1818-1883) “either did not know about the clear improvements in living standards that were happening all around him or chose to ignore them: From 1849, when Marx moved to London, to 1883, when he died, the average working week fell from 64 hours to 58 hours. Over the same period the average wage did not stay at subsistence level, as Marx predicted. In fact it rose by fully 35% in real terms” p 170.
  • My favorite footnote: “Marxist economists have developed a whole new set of economic terms, none of which is used by mainstream economists. This makes it almost impossible for Marxist and non-Marxist economists to discuss the use of empirical data” (p 278).
  • Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) came from a rich industrial family, so he knew that technology would help produce the food that Malthus thought impossible, but he (and Marx) took Hegelian dialectics too seriously. That’s why the duo predicted an inevitable triumph of communism, why Lenin et al. stubbornly ignored failures, and why millions died needlessly.
  • William Stanley Jevons (1835–1882) preferred “economics” to “political economy,” which differed:

    It is often said that political economy has more sociological and historical elements than dry old economics. The examples of Ricardo and Say, two of the archetypal political economists, undermine that idea. In my view the clearest distinction between political economy and economics is in the use of mathematics. Jevons argued passionately in favour of the systematic incorporation of maths into economic inquiry. (Note that today the term “political economy” tends to refer either to economic analysis with a bit of politics thrown in, or to a more left-leaning sort of economic analysis. Only economists really use this term.) p278.

    A few years ago, I started to call myself a political economist to emphasize my interest in history, institutions and the distribution of surplus. I see too many examples of “economics” depending on mathematical theories and predictions that deviate too far from reality.

  • The “Jeavons Paradox” states that a gain in efficiency in providing a good (e.g., lighting) will lead to more, not less, use of that good. I don’t see much of a paradox when an outward shift in the supply curve (making lighting more affordable) results in higher quantity demanded (the demand curve doesn’t move).
  • Jeavons said if economics “is to be a science at all, then it must be a mathematical science” (p 186). This aspiration is admirable but autistic, since humans do not behave in mathematical (predictable) ways, which means that math-centric models often fail to work. Williams’s summary of this discussion (pp 186-7) is worth quoting:

    Why did the political economists not use much maths [despite having math skills]? … In 1803, [Jean Baptiste] Say referred to “our always being misled in political economy, whenever we have subjected its phenomena to mathematical calculation”. The thinking goes that people are too unpredictable and unreliable for their actions to be reduced to simple equations. Political economy, in Say’s words, is “subject to the influence of the faculties, the wants and the desires of mankind” and therefore is “not susceptible of any rigorous appreciation, and cannot, therefore, furnish any data for absolute calculations”. The question, of course, is how representative were Say’s views. John Elliott Cairnes, a contemporary of Jevons who was a paid-up political economist, rather than an economist, reckoned that many of the data necessary to the mathematical solution of economic problems were too unreliable. Cairnes also worried that mathematics could not be applied to the development of economic truth, “unless it can be shown, either that mental feelings admit of being expressed in precise quantitative forms, or, on the other hand, that economic phenomena do not depend upon mental feelings”. In other words, you cannot quantify feelings like hunger, desire or love. But Jevons came to economics with a different philosophical background. For one thing he was a science nerd.

    … and many science nerds, physicists and engineers have tried — and failed — to reproduce economic dynamics in mathematical, statistical, game theoretic, or mass-balance models. (Today, they are pursuing big data, machine learning and agent-based simulations.) They have failed, in ways large and small, due to an inability to capture chaotic, complex human interactions. Maybe they are not wasting their time, but I worry that  misleading advice and predictions can lead to mistaken actions and policies. I prefer humble assumptions and robust (anti-fragile) policies that work with a range of potential behaviors.

  • Jeavons thought the labor theory of value was misleading: Something that costs £10 to make may only be worth £8 (to the marginal consumer) in the market.
  • Jeavons (and other marginalists) resolved the “diamond-water paradox” thus:

    Adam Smith was exercised by the question of why water is so much cheaper than diamonds, despite the fact that it is so much more useful. Smith reckoned that the paradox showed how useless questions of utility were in determining value. Jevons has another answer. He accepts that water is more useful than diamonds. But then the marginal stuff comes back in. The Jevons theory says that the marginal utility of water is far lower than the marginal utility of diamonds. As Ellen Frankel Paul says, “[w]hile water has great utility, it is so abundant that final increments of it, which is all that one is concerned about in the normal market situation, are worth little or nothing to people already in possession of all they need.” An extra diamond, by contrast, offers massive extra utility to someone. But imagine if there was a drought. Then, the marginal utility of water would be very high–people would be willing to trade diamonds for a glass of water, since it would stave off death for a few more hours (p 191).

  • Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) is another new name to me. This Indian economist called attention to — and calculated — the loss and extraction from colonial India to Britain, from poor to rich. I first appreciated this “drain theory” when I read Era of Darkness two years ago, and it’s still upsetting to me how many Brits claim that Empire helped India when the opposite was true. The damages from those 300+ years of exploitation are still visible; the dysfunction of inherited weak institutions still harms.
  • Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) claimed that capitalism could only grow with colonialism, since the metropole needed others to exploit. While I agree that colonialism is about exploitation, I don’t see how capitalists need it, since they can also thrive with voluntary trade in free markets.
  • The book ends with Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), the subject of my Marshall 2020 project. Marshall departed from Malthus and Ricardo’s pessimism over the Industrial Revolution because he had more data. At the beginning of the 19th century, wages, productivity and quality of life were rising very slowly but real-wage growth was much faster in Marshall’s time, which meant that workers were gaining relative to capital. We must note that these gains were not automatic, but the result of fights in the press, the streets and legislatures.
  • Marshall also developed Smith’s ideas (diversification increases with the size of the market) into theories of innovation-intensive industrial clusters.
  • Most important, Marshall found a middle way between scientistic plodding (paradoxical proofs promoting pessimistic predictions) and grand but groundless claims of inevitability. Marshall was skeptical and pragmatic. His facts were limited, his caveats numerous. I prefer this humble perspective, as did others. Marshall was influential in his time;  contemporary economists should follow his example in humility over “stylized facts.”
  • I became an instant fan of Marshall (even if it took me 15 years to get ’round to reading his work!) while in graduate school:

    I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules. (1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics (p219).

And with those 2,500+ words, I come to this one-handed conclusion: (Political) economists, from undergraduate to PhD, should read this book (and books like it) to understand where we came from, where we made mistakes, and how individuals and personalities affected our thinking. It is only with knowledge and humility that we can offer good advice on the everyday business of life. For others, I am not sure if this will be quite the page-turner as Heilbroner’s classic. FOUR STARS.


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Review: Bad Blood

I’d heard about this book — the story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Homes and her company Theranos — long ago, but I only decided to read it when preparing readings for my course, The World of Entrepreneurs. I wanted to understand her case, as an example of the dark side of Silicon Valley —  not the side of “fake it until you make it” —  but the side of “lie to everyone, about everything, if that gives you an advantage.”

Aside: I worked in three start-ups in Silicon Valley, of which two were dominated by frauds of the “funding secured” and “vaporware” models, respectively, so I have a real interest in similar stories. That said, I am pretty sure that at least 80% of start-ups are, on the whole, legitimate (read this review). The trouble is not the really bad apples — Theranos and WeWork being recent examples — but those that cut corners as a “necessary part of doing business” — Facebook and Uber being high on that list.

This review will be short because Carreyrou is such a good writer and the story comes at a fast pace. What strikes me are the following:

  • Elizabeth Holmes was an aggressive, ambitious founder who wanted to change the world and become rich and famous. Her challenge was reality. She preferred to ignore inconveniences and distorted reality to convince others that she knew what she was doing, i.e., building a machine that could run 200 blood tests based on a finger-prick sample of blood. Outside scientists told her that her goal was impossible, due to physics and chemistry. Inside scientists, lab workers and “beta-test” doctors said her machine was not working or viable. Rather than listen, she lied about using commercial equipment to do the tests supposedly run on her machines and ignored the dangers of bad results from her machines. (One million tests later deemed “inaccurate” translates into one million stories of false positives, false negatives and needless suffering.)
  • Holmes was aided and abetted by Ramesh Balwani, a boyfriend who assumed that his luck (presence) in an earlier start up made him a visionary. Balwani and Holmes bullied staff, fostered a culture of paranoia, and sent lawyers after whistleblowers seeking to protect investors and the innocent. Different product teams were separated, which limited their ability to spot the fraud but also their ability to find solutions. Lawyers like David Boies worked hard to threaten whistleblowers because they were paid in shares. Holmes recruited a bunch of famous old white men (George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch) whose “halo” protected her company from awkward questions.
  • The end came when an anonymous insider brought the story to Carreyrou, whose investigations resulted in Theranos’s tests being suspended, arrests and trials. Holmes was not a disruptor; she was caught wearing “the Empress’s new clothes.” The women who saw herself as the next Steve Jobs was actually just another blonde grifter.
  • Holmes’s most recent defense is that she’s mentally unfit to face charges. Given her history — and 2019 marriage to the male heir of millions — I assume her defense rests on more lies. (I also worry about her husband, especially if he has a high-value life insurance contract.)

My one-handed conclusion: Read this book if you want a fast-paced story of how self-delusion, greed and privilege (high-priced lawyers who will defend your lies) can allow someone to get away with “statistical murder” (all those wrong tests surely resulted in more than one death). FIVE STARS.

Update (2 Oct 2021): Read Carreyyou’s thoughts on Holmes’s trial


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Review: Bitcoin Clarity

Kiara Bickers, the author of this 2019 book, sent me a copy because I reviewed Digital Gold: Bitcoin, the Inside Story. As an economist with an interest in how bitcoin, blockchains, and crypto-assets are evolving, I agreed to look at her book.

In short, I found it insightful and interesting. I learned some useful stuff, but there were also some weaknesses.

The book is divided into four parts (conceptual reframing, analysis & knowledge, properties of the system, and synthesis & understanding), i.e., “what’s the idea, how does it work, how do people use it, and how can I get involved?” Some of these topics can get quite technical, but Bickers has a friendly tone and uses sketches to lay a foundation that readers can build on with further research.

(I’m now thinking the “bitcoin ecosystem” may now be too complex for anyone to understand.* The “crypto” ecosystem, of which bitcoin plays a small but significant part, is even more complex, confusing and chaotic.)

Here are some thoughts and highlights I noted while reading…

Part one explains bitcoin and the Blockchain (capital B, to distinguish it from many other blockchains that use similar protocols), two related ideas that depend on public key/private key cryptography. In my understanding, the blockchain records transactions linking bitcoins to various addresses that function as “safes.”

A miner is rewarded with bitcoin when they solve a math problem before other miners — all of them using special computer hardware and lots of electricity. Reward bitcoins are recorded in new blocks that also (and this is really important) record transfers of existing bitcoins among addresses. These actions mean that bitcoins, which can be divided into one million satoshis (think milli-pennies) are stored at an address until all or part of the bitcoin is transferred reassigned to a new address. Some addresses can be “rich” with many bitcoins but many addresses are empty. Transfers only occur when the person controlling coins at an address “signs” (cryptographically approves) a transfer to another address. Approved transfers are then bundled into new blocks that are added to the end of the Blockchain, copies of which are kept all over the world on “full nodes” (simple computers that do not use much electricity).

I learned from Bickers’s description of these steps. First, miners do the work but full nodes display the results of work, which — in the case of bitcoin — consists of a shared public ledger that shows where bitcoins are held as well as confirming when and where bitcoins are transferred. (I say “shared” in the sense that over 100,000 nodes agree have copies of the same Blockchain, which keeps the system “secure” from those who want to shut down the system or spend coins they do not have.)

Second, the combination of bitcoin+Blockchain is elegant and effective, just as many “alt coins” (or shit coins) and/or blockchains are solutions in search of problems. (Read “Blockchain, the amazing solution for almost nothing,” which is insightful, funny and cringy, and this academic analysis of the many useless projects that are burning government and enterprise cash without producing value, let alone evidence of success.)

Third, bitcoin/Blockchain are “trustless” in the sense that you can use them without needing to trust any person, organization or government.* This characteristic explains how and why people get scammed by so many alt-coins, but also why bitcoin is popular in dysfunctional countries (Turkey, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe spring to mind). Trustless doesn’t mean simple, by the way, which is why the “bitcoin industry” of consultants, speakers and services has sprung up. (Bickers offers her own advice to paying clients.)

Fourth, a lot of people think bitcoin is a terrible “payments solution” because it records a few hundred transactions every 10 minutes, rather than thousands of transactions per second, like Visa/Mastercard. This critique misses the point of the 10-minute block: to help synchronize 100,000+ copies of the Blockchain held in nodes around the world. Slow but secure is why many people see bitcoin more as digital gold (an asset) than as a digital currency.

Part two gets into some deep technical analysis, but it’s quite interesting.

I like the idea of the Blockchain as a method of “triple-entry bookkeeping” that shows where bitcoin have been subtracted (sender) and added (receiver) — the double-entry part — but also giving a global view of where all bitcoin are. (Bitcoin transactions are not anonymous but in plain view on the Blockchain; the tricky part is identifying who controls bitcoin at various addresses.)

Bickers is a fan of Austrian economists and “full” (as opposed to fractional) reserve banking, and the Blockchain’s “triple entry” nature means it’s impossible to inflate bitcoin by printing more (miners can’t get paid when they try that) or trading more (nodes prevent “double spending”), which gives bitcoin an advantage over fiat currencies that have value because governments say so. Although most of us trust US dollars or Euros, others want trustless, “sound” money as a hedge against printing new money and inflating the money supply via fractional reserves. (I keep a wad of 100 Bolivares notes as a handy reminder of how Venezuela debased its citizens’  savings. The wad of 100 notes was worth around USD2,500 in 2013, but only USD0.01 in 2018.)

The rest of Part two is technical but not unclear, covering transactions, node networks, mining and smart contracts. In that last chapter, Bickers does a pretty good job demolishing the 1,000-plus altcoins and blockchains that claim to be “trustless” but deliver scams and broken promises.

In Part three, Bickers discusses governance and decentralization, both of which exhibit robust stability under game-theoretic conditions in which many players in many roles cooperate via self-interest without creating vulnerabilities that can be taken over by insiders or outsiders.

When she turns to “the economics of money,” she falters, misinterpreting and misunderstanding comparative advantage, Smith’s interested bystander, the labor theory of value, quantitive easing, mortgage-backed securities, and service-sector inflation. I think most of these errors arise from her reading of biased, unreliable sources. Perhaps they can be fixed in edition 2.0?

Part four covers markets, hype cycles, and a healthy mindset for switching from fiat to bitcoin. These philosophical chapters draw on Bickers’s self-identity as a university drop-out pursuing a career in bitcoin. Although the discussion was useful, there were also errors in explaining the origin of “HODL”, the problem of known unknowns, and valuing growth stocks. Even so, the chapter ends with a heartfelt and welcome call to rebel against the status quo

My one-handed conclusion is that this book offers insights, explains complex ideas, and gives plenty of material to ponder. Although weakened by some preventable mistakes, I recommend it to anyone interested in bitcoin. FOUR STARS.

* 2 Nov 2020: I think it’s helpful to think of Bitcoin/Blockchain as a new (digital) species whose evolution, use and “goals” are beyond our control but important in our lives. If the 80s were the decade of the PC, 90s of the Internet/WWW, 00s of mobile phones, and 2010s of social media, then what consumer tech will dominate the 2020s? Bitcoin and crypto might be that tech.

Addendum: On bitcoin adoption: Discovering Digital Gold and Bitcoin and The American West

Feb 16: Ray Dalio and his researchers put out a great note on Bitcoin.


Here are all my reviews.