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.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

“’Never mind, cut it off. When you are queen you will not care about toes; you will not want to go on foot.’ So the silly girl cut her big toe off, and squeezed the shoe on, and went to the king’s son.”

“L’histoire nous apprend ce que sont les humains / La fable ce qu’ils doivent être.” – Voltaire (History teaches us what humans are / stories tell us what they should be.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales have come a long way from their original form, standardized and gentled by Disney and other authors. In the Western tradition, though, they represent a seminal work in fairy tales, matched perhaps only in influence by One Thousand and One Nights. They can definitely be violent, often sexual, and always rude.

They also, however, serve to focus on themes, not individuals: on ideas, not specific settings. Characters are called ‘The Woodsman’ or ‘The Brother’, not given names, in order to ensure it is as widely applicable as possible. They also serve to teach fairly basic lessons about morality, including:

1)      Over-cleverness and arrogance are not rewarded.

2)      Always be polite.

3)      Keep your promises.

4)      Share what you have.

5)      People get what they deserve – out of their own mouths they are condemned.

Stories don’t get much credit these days, nor does fiction, but Voltaire, I think, has a point.

Capital in the 21st – Quotes

Having reviewed Piketty’s Capital earlier this week, I thought I’d also pass along a few choice quotes. If you haven’t read the review yet, though, I’d start there.

On his thesis

“A society structured by the hierarchy of wealth has been replaced by a society whose structure depends almost entirely on the hierarchy of labor and human capital. It is striking, for example, that many recent American TV series feature heroes and heroines laden with degrees and high-level skills, whether to cure serious maladies (House), solve mysterious crimes (Bones), or even to preside over the United States (West Wing).”

“Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified, whether there are reasons for it.”

“When the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth rate of the economy (as it did through much of history until the nineteenth century and as is likely to be the case again in the the twenty-first century) then it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than output and income.”

On ideology

“I was vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism, some of which simply ignored the historic failure of Communism and much of which turned its back on the intellectual means necessary to push beyond it.”

“Both the antimarket and the antistate camps are partly correct: new instruments are needed to regain control over a financial capitalism that has run amok, and at the same time the tax and transfer systems that are the heart of the modern social state are in constant need of reform and modernization, because they have achieved a level of complexity that makes them difficult to understand and threatens to undermind their social and economic efficiency.”

Interesting Facts

“There is no historical example of a country at the world technological frontier whose growth in per capita output exceeded 1.5 percent over a lengthy period of time.”

“Billionaires today own roughly 1.5 percent of the world’s total wealth, and sovereign wealth funds own another 1.5 percent.”

“Capital is a better indicator of the contributive capacity of very wealthy individuals than is income.”

Capital in the 21st Century – Thomas Piketty

“The overall conclusion of this study is that a market economy based on private property, if left to itself, contains powerful forces of convergence, associated in particular with the diffusion of knowledge and skills; but it also contains powerful forces of divergence, which are potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice on which they are based.”

This is a longer review than I normally write, so I thought I’d summarize takeaways first (who has the time to read long reviews with all those cat videos?)

  • Overall very good: lots of interesting information on wealth and income inequality.
  • Before world wars, inequality was from wealth inequality; now, it comes from income inequality. Rise of the supermanager.
  • Policy analysis weak – hasn’t really considered other options or read the literature. Still, capital tax may be good idea: can replace the common and unfair real estate tax. WIsh he had discussed a consumption tax.
  • Long run, the only cure to inequality is better education.
  • No big surprises: basically just fleshes out ideas that most people would have believed true intuitively, if without data.

Piketty’s work has been ridiculously popular: for a 600 page economics treatise to outsell fiction on Amazon.com is amazing to me, particularly given that it wasn’t very popular in France, where it was first published. Still, any book that can manage that is worth a read.

Piketty argues that because the interest on capital (r) is larger than the growth rate of the economy (g), capital ends up growing faster than the economy. Over time, therefore, capital owners own a larger and larger share of the whole pie, which leads to inequality. Though there are compensating factors, like the diffusion of knowledge and skills, without comprehensive educational policies and redistributive taxation, this inequality can grow to extreme levels. He uses income tax and estate tax information to study wealth and income inequalities over the past 200 years, finding high inequality pre world wars, low inequality after world wars, and increasing inequality today, though unlike before the wars, it is largely due to income inequality, not wealth inequality (managers with high salaries, not landowners).

His fundamental insight, as anyone who has read a review will know, is the fact that r > g. I think that’s true, and it does have the effects he describes, but speaking as an economist it’s also not surprising. Interest rates on capital are relatively high partly because people are impatient and aren’t good at saving, at least judging by their ability to save for retirement. If society lowers the return on capital, people will save less, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing either, something Piketty doesn’t consider. Still, he’s right that increasing inequality can be a source of stress for society, and it’s definitely an important subject for study.

The book is divided into a section analyzing the data, a section predicting future trends, and a section discussing policy. The first section is excellent; the Financial Times has raised some problems with his data work, but by and large I think it’s well done and the results are unchallenged. Lots of interesting information. The second section has the bad habit of making a prediction then immediately disavowing it as a guess, which is common but I think a bit disingenuous.

The third section I found very weak. The policies he supports may well be good ones, and I think there are good arguments for a capital tax, since most countries have a property tax and that’s basically just a capital tax that’s very unfair to the middle class. It’s clear this is not an area Piketty has thought about much, though, and his discussion of education policy is pretty shallow. Dismissing a consumption tax based on total spending, which is often a popular policy, he rejects it in a single line as never having been done, before advocating a global capital tax that has also never been done before. Long run, as he points out, it appears the only cure to inequality is better education and better skills transfer, and I think almost everyone, left or right, would support that.

Whether when you think of capital you think of landed aristocracy, as the French Piketty does, or of Bill Gates, as I suspect a lot of North Americans do, may play a role in how you feel about the book. In the end, I think the power of Marx’s original Capital is that it provides a new way of thinking about the world. I didn’t find Piketty managed the same: perhaps it’s because I’m an economist, but most of what he said I would have assumed to be true. I also find anyone that introduces mathematical identities (like 2+2=4, things that are defined to be true) as “fundamental laws of capitalism” to be a little pretentious for my taste, but that definitely doesn’t relate to the overall quality of the book. It’s well worth a read, and thinking about inequality and its solutions is definitely an important issue.

You can see the Amazon reviews here.