The End of Normal – James K. Galbraith

“The 1970s were not an interlude brought on by shocks, bad management, and policy mistakes – but instead, in certain respects, a harbinger of the world conditions that we now face and from which we will not, on this occasion, so easily escape.”

“There remains one alternative. It is to engineer the economy to grow at a low, stable, positive rate for a long time, and to adjust ourselves materially and psychologically to that prospect. It is to pursue slow growth: a rate above zero but below what cheap energy and climate indifference once made possible.”

For all the books on the financial crisis, I think most people struggle to understand what happened, or even differentiate it from the European sovereign debt crisis or related issues. James Galbraith, as befits the son of one of the best known economic historians of earlier in the century, John Kenneth Galbraith (a Canadian!), takes a long view of it, looking at broad trends of demography, world finance, and technology.

Galbraith emphasizes the oft-ignored role of resource prices in driving – and slowing – economic growth. At root, he argues, we rely on resources to fuel our economies and our bodies. When they become scarce or expensive, we must give up our resource-intensive activities and accept a lower intensity of civilization, or face destruction. When the meteor hit, and sunlight became scarce, the dinosaurs gave up space to smaller mammals that were less resource intensive: he suggests we should think of our society from a similar frame, and choose a level of resource intensity appropriate to resource availability. The financial crisis isn’t a deviation from the mean, but rather a signal of things to come.

The book addresses an important issue, and from a relatively novel perspective. Predicting the future is always hard, and Galbraith wisely spends more time on first principles than on trying to predict future conditions, other than saying they won’t be great. The book’s weakness is in structure: non-economists may find it difficult to follow. Galbraith leaps around from idea to idea and engages with things he disagrees with rather than advancing his own ideas, so some ideas can be hard to keep track of unless you already know the literature. In his attempts to make it accessible, it also feels a bit superficial at points: criticizing economists for finding their models beautiful seems a bit irrelevant. Not the last word on the subject, but definitely a start, and very much an underdiscussed issue.

Excellent Sheep – William Deresiewicz

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but are also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose…great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

“Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to.”

“People go to monasteries to find out why they have come, and college ought to be the same.”

Elite colleges tell their students how special they are, how they were picked from an enormous pool of possible applicants and showed themselves better than all the rest. In 1957, the Dean of Yale took a rather different view: welcoming the new students, he told them how large a pool of applicants they’d had that year, and pointed out that had they rejected every student in the room, they could still have had a great incoming class. Each student, he argued, was responsible for showing why they deserved to be accepted. The modern version has rather a different emphasis.

In recent years, between a third and a half of graduates of elite US colleges with a job head to finance or consulting. In contrast to the popularity of those fields, whole areas have disappeared: clergy, military, teaching, electoral politics, even academia to a lesser extent. Excellent Sheep worries that this stems from the warped perspective promoted by these colleges, that in telling the students endlessly that they are the elite and the special, they rule out whole worlds of possibility by implying they are a waste of a fancy education. Schools, Deresiewicz argues, are complicit in this because they like the fat donations they receive from graduates in consulting or finance, far more than they receive from a happier but poorer graduate who ends up as a minister or teacher.

Where the book suffers is when it turns to broader societal implications. The author’s background is in English, and though that should never be a bar to writing anything, in this case it betrays him a little when he attempts to look at issues of policy, society, and statistics. He also doesn’t really have any insight into structural solutions: his advice to students to go to a second tier school is all very well, but hardly scalable.

The value of such books though is what they make the reader think, rather than just what the author says. Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve largely been spared the lost or aimless feeling Excellent Sheep describes, despite being lucky enough to attend an elite college. My advantage, I think, is no surprise to readers of the blog: that I read widely. Any student seeking to find a sense of self and wisdom through their education needs to get beyond the bubble of their friends and professors, and reading is a great way to do that, to engage in debate with some of the foremost minds of our species, living and dead. Exposure to such great ideas and new perspectives can ground you, and provide a frame of reference very different from your own.

Deresiewicz also suffers from some of the same blind spots he criticizes elite schools for: he makes no effort to find out what students from top state schools do, for example, appearing to forget that schools other than the Ivy Leagues even exist as anything other than an abstraction. Nevertheless, Excellent Sheep’s opening sections are interesting, persuasive, and well-written. For those alone, the book is worth reading, and I recommend it. If the second half falls a bit short, that’s not the end of the world. As a book that makes you consider your own education – or lack thereof – it’s well worth it.

Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan – Klassen and Albo

“The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980′s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish customs but abhor rules. And so it was with kite fighting. The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck.” – Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Afghanistan is the 42nd most populous country in the world and was a major stop on the Silk Road linking China and Europe. As a result of its central location, it has also been the site of multiple military campaigns, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, and more recently by the British, Soviets, and NATO. Before the Taliban destroyed them, it had some unbelievably important ancient sites and relics.

The war in Afghanistan is an enduring source of controversy; not as widely condemned as Iraq, perhaps, but still much debated. Both wars tend to be seen as American wars, since the US contribution in blood and treasure has dominated the total effort. At a per capita level, however, many countries have contributed far more: the Netherlands and Canada in particular are known both for large contributions and for being willing to take on relatively large tasks, in contrast to the Germans, for example, who heavily restricted the possible roles their troops could take.

Since the start of the war, Afghanistan has seen marked progress on some indicators, like women’s education or schools, but the violence has persisted and to many it is not clear it can be satisfactorily ended. Klassen and Albo’s collection of essays on the topic is one of those: a selection of Marxist essays taking a critical perspective on the war and trying to understand Canada’s involvement through a broader lens of analysis, including the history of Afghanistan, the motivations for the intervention, and the anti-war movements.

Such analyses are often worthwhile, but unfortunately the book suffers two challenges. First, the last 6 months have seen significant events in the Middle East, and so many essays already feel out of date. Unavoidable but unfortunate. Still, some essays maintain their relevance, perhaps particularly John Warnock’s history of the country. More disappointing for the non-specialist, however, is the lack of solutions. For all the analysis, in the end the book offers little that hasn’t already been suggested by left and right; cooperate more with surrounding countries, convince the Taliban to give rights to minority groups, etc. For a specialist seeking to review some articles about Canada and Afghanistan that’s fine, but for a layperson I suspect it will be frustrating.

Disclosure: I read Empire’s Ally as an advance reader copy – it is available August 26th.

Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher: How Government Decides and Why – Donald J. Savoie

“It is exceedingly difficult for front-line workers and their managers to have a sense of responsibility in their place of work. It is true that their work was once guided by fairly rigid administrative rules, but it is also true that a number of these administrative rules have been done away with. In their stead, the work of front-line managers and workers is subject to many voices, many hands, and many oversight bodies.”

The public service is a classic whipping boy in the press and in the living rooms of the people. It is, the story goes, bloated, corrupt, inept, overstaffed, overpaid, underworked, and takes too many holidays. Statistics seem to support this impression to some extent: between 1995 and 2006, the Canadian public service ended up with 51% more executives, 46% more financial managers, 98% economists, and 40% fewer general service staff, including music teachers. While the private sector was in crisis between 2007 and 2010, the number of public servants paid over $100,000 a year doubled.

Savoie, a respected academic with a long history of work with the public service, proposes an explanation for why. The past few decades have seen, with the best of intentions, a push to use lessons from the private sector in the public service: extensive performance audits, centralizing final authority, making sure that things are cost effective.

These are doomed to failure, says Savoie. Cost-benefit analysis requires a bottom line, and that’s something the public sector, by definition, does not have. These attempts to create a private sector culture have sacrificed public service ideals like frugality and service without gaining commensurate benefits. The result has been steadily decreasing emphasis on front line workers like music teachers, and steadily increasing centralized control powers that have little to contribute to the overall public service mandate, leading to a reputation for bloat, overpay and underwork.

The book can sometimes be a bit heavy into political theory, but the bottom line message is interesting. Savoie is also sometimes a bit overeager to interpret things in a way that supports his theory, when it could as easily go the other way. Still, it takes on an interesting question, and if you flip through the political theory bits, it does so in an interesting way. If this is something you’re interested in, I suspect it’s one of the best books in the field. Well worth the read.

Clinton’s Favourite Books

A favourite blog of mine, Farnamstreet, just shared Bill Clinton’s 21 favourite books. Keep in mind this is from 93, and so says about as much as the regions and groups whose support he wanted as much as books he likes. For all that, interesting!

Original list here, and Farnam Street discussion of each book here.

 

•  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou.

•  Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.

• The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker.

• Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch.

• Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

• Lincoln, David Herbert Donald.

• The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.

• Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.

•  The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century, David Fromkin.

• One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

• The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Seamus Heaney.

• King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild.

• The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis.

• Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell.

• The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis, Carroll Quigley.

• Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Reinhold Niebuhr.

• The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron.

• Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber.

• You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe.

• Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright.

• The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, William Butler Yeats.

The Organized Mind – Daniel J. Levitin

“We need to learn how our brains organize information so that we can use what we have, rather than fight against it.”

Around 80% of Americans surveyed remember where they were on September 11th when they watched horrifying images of an airplane crashing into the first tower, and then, about 20 minutes later, a second plane hitting another tower. All of these, Levitin points out, are false memories. Clips of the first plane took 24 hours to reach broadcast television, so if you have any memory of seeing it on the day, it’s a false one.

Why does it matter? Levitin argues that without understanding the structure of how our brain works, we will be unable to organize our thoughts or our lives, or even understand when we can’t rely on our own memories. Knowing that when we try to remember something, our brain puts it in a rehearsal loop that prevents new memories from being formed, for example, tells us to carry something with us to take notes, whether smartphone or index card, so that we can avoid the loop. This reflects his most fundamental lesson: that though our brains are amazing, they are also limited, and the more we can shift the burden of organization to external devices, the better off we’ll be. In 2011, Americans took in the equivalent of 175 newspapers worth of information beyond what they did in 1986 (5 times as much), so whether you start taking notes in your smartphone, carrying index cards around with idea per index card, or just installing permanent hooks for your keys next to your doorway, it’s worth some thought.

It’s a great idea for a book, and it’s stocked full of interesting facts (who knew that in the 1800s lobster was so plentiful that they were ground up and fed to prisoners, and that servants would demand to be fed it no more than twice a week? We really screwed up that fishery). Unfortunately, it’s not as strong on insight. It’s interesting to know the different filters our mind uses to decide what to pay attention to, but the bottom line is focus on what you’re doing and turn off email and Facebook, which isn’t really a shock. It can also feel a bit repetitive: after the first half, he seems to run out of clear links between biological architecture and organizational plans, and the book wanders a little. Still, if you’re looking for interesting facts and fun ideas to try to organize your mind, the book makes for an extremely entertaining, not to mention informative, read. A good choice for the summer.

Disclosure: I read The Organized Mind as an advance reader copy, courtesy of Penguin – it is available August 19th.  You can get a copy (and see more reviews) here.

South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition – Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

“We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had ‘suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’ We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of men.”

Shackleton has reached almost cult status as a heroic figure who kept his team together in enormously difficult situations. He conducted three Antarctic expeditions, dying on the third one and being buried there at the request of his wife.

His second expedition, however, was what sealed his reputation, despite failing in the original aim to cross the Antarctic continent. His ship, the Endurance, got caught by ice over the winter, trapped by icebergs for 281 days and drifting 570 miles before eventually being crushed by the millions of tons of pressure placed on it by the ice. The 28 men were forced to camp on icebergs, waking up the middle of the night to find them splitting underneath them, and make their way over hundreds of miles of frozen ocean to the nearest island. There, 22 men were left to wait while the final six took a small boat over 800 more miles to get help. 24 hour darkness, massive blizzards, and rather chilly weather were just some of the obstacles they faced.

Despite all that, all of them survived, and Shackleton’s book is a testament to human endurance in the face of adversity. It practically oozes British stiff upper lip. Sailors ask for their tea to be a little weaker or stronger next time while losing limbs to frostbite; they trade imaginary bottles of champagne to each other while lying in icy sleeping bags. The book can at times feel dry as it proceeds through hundreds of pages of adversity and log entries, but the endurance of the men it talks about is truly astounding.

“Man can sustain life with very scanty means. The trappings of civilization are soon cast aside in the face of stern realities, and given the barest opportunity of winning food and shelter, man can live and even find his laughter ringing true.”

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions – Gigerenzer

“The breakneck speed of technological innovation will make risk literacy as indispensable in the twenty-first century as reading and writing were in previous centuries.”

Understanding and dealing with risk is essential in almost every aspect of the modern world; medicine, transportation, education, public policy, even game shows. Most of us do pretty badly at it; despite the fact that you’re more likely to die driving 12 miles than flying from New York to Washington, we feel more worried in the airplane than on the drive to the airport. The response of policymakers has been to argue the need for experts to save us from our biases. Risk Savvy disagrees: what we need, Gigerenzer argues, is risk education. Understanding probabilities is something that can be learned, and must be if we are to function in the world.

Gerd Gigerenzer is best known for his work arguing that though it’s easy to criticize instinct and human decision making as being biased and flawed, in reality those biases actually work better than being unbiased would in the majority of situations. We aren’t broken, leaky beta versions; rather, we operate with a well-designed and effective ‘adaptive toolbox’ one that allows us to successfully navigate a wide variety of situations with considerable success and a minimum of effort.

Gigerenzer is a top academic doing very interesting work in psychology, and I think his academic work makes some great reading. Unfortunately, this book is not that. He’s oversimplified his work, and as a result it often feels like a linear combination of other pop behavioural economics books, rather than a new addition to the field. He has some great examples of his points and some great stories, but nothing new to add to them. Still, some of the facts are really good. Consider the disparate policy approaches between mad cow disease and child proofing scented lamp oil bottles, despite the fact they kill similar numbers of people, or that reading to a 8-16 month year old child boosts their performance on language tests by 7 points, while watching TV reduces it by 17 points. Not world shaking, and not illustrating anything you didn’t already know, but interesting. Still, if I were you I’d stick with some of his earlier books.

The Panic Virus – Seth Mnookin

“Combined with the self-reinforcing nature of online communities and a content-starved, cash-poor journalistic culture that gravitates toward neat narratives at the expense of messy truths, this disdain for actualities has led to a world with increasingly porous boundaries between facts and beliefs, a world in which individualized notions of reality, no matter how bizarre or irrational, are repeatedly validated.”

In 2009, there were more than 13,000 cases of pertussis (whooping cough) in Australia. In 2010, the pertussis outbreak in California was so bad that some countries started warning their citizens about the dangers of traveling there. It still kills around 80,000 people a year globally. Most deaths are in Africa, where vaccination efforts are incomplete: increasing number of infections, however, also occur in the developed world, where there is no excuse. The reason, Mnookin argues, is increasing parental anxiety about vaccines.

Having read hundreds of scientific papers and thousands of pages of court transcripts for the book, Mnookin argues the evidence in favour of their use is decisive. Further, when children are not vaccinated it places those who cannot be, either because they are too young or have weak immune systems, at risk. Yet in many ways he is sympathetic to parents: overwhelmed by the flood of false information in the internet, they are understandably nervous about their child’s health. Instead, he places the blame on a media that prefers ‘neat stories at the expense of messy truths’ and the ‘charlatans and hucksters’ like Andrew Wakefield who have taken advantage of the fears of parents.

Scientists and the courts have been unequivocal in their support of vaccination, and Mnookin does a good job staying sympathetic to victims while sticking to the science. As he points out, critics of vaccines have often raised legitimately troubling questions insufficiently addressed by the medical community, but that somehow those critics have also decided they have the right to choose their own answer, instead of believing the science. The book thus reads not just as a discussion of vaccines, though it is comprehensive on that subject, but also as an examination of modernity and relativism in general. For anyone interested in the debate, I think there is no better reference on the issues of autism, a much needed counterweight to Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, and other well-meaning people whose advice puts children – and adults – at risk of serious harm.

Bill Gates Summer Reading Recommendations

Gates is good about giving book recommendations, so I thought I’d pass them along: this list is shorter than usual, actually. The comments about each book are his (I can’t get away with talking about Buffet like a personal friend): I like Ezekiel Emanuel, so would probably read his, and Doris Kearns Goodwin is always a good place to start. Any book that’s the favourite of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet seems like a reasonable choice, too.

Business Adventures, by John Brooks. Warren Buffett recommended this book to me back in 1991, and it’s still the best business book I’ve ever read. Even though Brooks wrote more than four decades ago, he offers sharp insights into timeless fundamentals of business, like the challenge of building a large organization, hiring people with the right skills, and listening to customers’ feedback.

Stress Test, by Timothy F. Geithner. The central irony of Stress Test is that a guy who was accused of being a lousy communicator as U.S. Treasury Secretary has penned a book that is such a good read. Geithner paints a compelling human portrait of what it was like to be fighting a global financial meltdown while at the same time fighting critics inside and outside the Administration as well as his own severe guilt over his near-total absence from his family.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.I read a lot about Teddy Roosevelt last year, around the time Melinda and I took our kids to the Panama Canal. He was instrumental in getting the canal built, and I’d assumed it was the highlight of his career. But it wasn’t. It’s a testament to the breadth and depth of Roosevelt’s accomplishments that the canal warrants only a handful of mentions in this biography.

The Rosie Project: A Novel, by Graeme Simsion. Melinda picked up this novel earlier this year, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Climate change is a big problem—one of the biggest we’ll face this century—but it’s not the only environmental concern on the horizon. Humans are putting down massive amounts of pavement, moving species around the planet, over-fishing and acidifying the oceans, changing the chemical composition of rivers, and more. Natural scientists posit that there have been five extinction events in the Earth’s history (think of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs), and Kolbert makes a compelling case that human activity is leading to the sixth.

Reinventing American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act Will Improve Our Terribly Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error Prone System, by Ezekiel J. Emanuel. One of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) makes the case for why the U.S. health care system needed reform and how Obamacare sets out to fix the problems. Although he was deeply involved in its creation, Emanuel is good about making it clear when he’s educating you about the history of health care and when he’s advocating for his ideas. And unlike a lot of experts, he’s willing to make predictions about how health care will change in the coming years.”

You can also watch a video of him talking about it, here.