Book Review: Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs

dark_age_aheadI judged this book by the arresting title Dark Age Ahead, and decided that – in my current frame of mind – I had to read it.1

Jane Jacobs wrote this is 2004, and the book has a bit of the feel of a time capsule – as her current events examples stem from 2001 to 2002. Jacobs’ strength as a thinker and writer is that she can extrapolate from events in her own life, close observations, and from the newspaper, and illuminate patterns and principles of any age. She’s not academic, and she depends on telling anecdotes. Some may see that as a weakness, although I feel it’s a strength of her work. Her ‘big ideas’ tend to be right, and written in a way that an educated, but non-expert, reader can understand.

The central thesis of this book – and I tend to agree – is that invisible but essential strands of our strong society2are fraying at the edges. Her list of essential strands are not necessarily somebody else’s, but hers seem worthy of consideration, and worry. At the beginning of 2017, when the fraying seems particularly acute, its interesting to note, again, that Jacobs published her book in 2004.

So what is unraveling?

Households

Critiques of the breakdown of the nuclear family are commonly heard from the Right, but Jacobs does not mean exactly the same thing here. A main concern, she develops in the chapter, is the extreme rise in the housing prices, beyond the rise of household incomes. Now that’s interesting, since her book predates the housing crash by four years, although it was obvious to many in the early 2000s that we were on an unsustainable path brought on by low interest rates and easy credit. Her other concern – which will not surprise Jane Jacobs fans – is with the pernicious affects the automobile has had on the development of suburbs and the undermining of public transportation infrastructure.

jane_jacobsCredentials vs. Education

The replacement of a true education in favor of a more “practical” set of market signals through degrees offered by institutes, community colleges and universities. The focus of educational institutions has become to offer a set of letters that indicate preparation for a specific job, rather than passion about learning or knowledge. We can only imagine how justified Jacobs would feel about the $25 million settlement made by the President-elect with respect to his fraudulent “University.”

Science Abandoned

Jacobs has a specific complaint here about the “engineers” who deal with traffic congestion – a particular obsession of hers – but we see plenty of evidence lately of the denigration of science and the scientific method. I can’t tell if the problem has gotten better or worse (probably it’s mixed) but we suffer when society fundamentally doubts scientific conclusions or discounts the need for a scientific approach.

Dumbed Down Taxes 

Jacobs addresses here the problem of tax collection at the Federal level, for example, when certain problems must be solved at the local level. Or vice versa. The result is decision-making with the wrong branch or level of government. In my home state we are plagued by the problem of school funding, which is taxed at the local level, legislated at the state level, but clearly failing standards at the federal level.

Self-Policing Subverted

Specific industries sometimes do best when they self-regulate, recognizing their collective interest to seek best practices and internally police or punish wrong-doers. While acknowledging that truth, Jacobs points out examples – from architecture to police departments to accounting firms – where deeply problematic practices arise from bad self-policing.

Are these the root causes of the rest?

In her introduction, Jacobs asserts but does not prove that these five negative trends listed above over time increase the chance of a major societal breakdown. And she means “Dark Age” literally. Like, post-Roman Empire type reversion-to-chaos.

She also asserts, but does not prove, that these five are not just as consequential as a more typical list of “society-destroying trends” such as racism, environmental destruction, crime, voter apathy/distrust, and the widening gulf between rich and poor, but that they are causal. Meaning, the racism, environmental destruction, stuff etc are actually symptoms of the societal unravelling, rather than the root causes.

I don’t know if she’s right. But there’s good stuff there to chew on.

 
Please see related posts

Book Review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Book Review of Cities and The Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs

Book Review of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue On The Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs

Conflict of Interest And Moral Codes

 

 

 

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  1. My current frame of mind also has me reading Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic and seeking out any signs that the center will hold, and that things will not fall apart.
  2. Jacobs is a Canadian who lived a significant portion of her adult life in the United States, so her “strong society” comments could be considered aimed at both countries.

Book Review: The Fall of the Roman Republic by Plutarch

Why shouldn’t I review a book written 2,000 years ago?

I can’t say reading Plutarch for the first time gave me a definitive roadmap for how a republic turns to dictatorship, but a few themes are suggestive, such as the aggregation of wealth by the would-be dictators, and the constant military campaigns.

Each of the leaders either began or became extraordinarily wealthy in the course of their “public service.” Military conquest afforded them both taxing authority on conquered people, as well as the chance to be awarded extraordinary “talents” for victories won. Extraordinary wealth, in turn, allowed them to purchase loyalty, both military and civil, from leading Romans. Plutarch describes some of Caesar’s strategic use of wealth in advance of crossing the Rubicon.

A constant campaign of military conquests – almost always successful – also aided the rise of the dictators. Their popularity rose with each victory, limiting the Senate’s ability to do anything but:

1. Fund further conquests and

2. Award triumphs to the the victors.

One (possibly hopeful?) lesson of Plutarch is just how many violent demagogues it took to finally transform Rome from a Republic to a Dictatorship/Empire. Plutarch tracks the rise and fall of five such strongmen, each in his way worse than his predecessor, from Marius to his rival Sulla, through the wealthy Crassus, to Pompey, and finally ending in his rival Julius Caesar. Although clearly the Senate and republican institutions suffered from weaknesses even at the start of Marius’ reign (of terror), the succession of leaders who flouted the forms and reality of republicanism made Caesar and the turn to Emperors more probable.

julius_caesar
Hail Caesar!

Does this mean that – in order to completely erode our institutions – we need President Trump to be succeeded in 2020 by Kanye West,1 followed by some as-yet unknown MME fighter in 2024? Maybe.

 

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  1. I’m only partly kidding about Kanye by the way, as he’s got the name-recognition, unbridled narcissism, lack of empathy, and apparent misogyny to rival Donald Trump. He also seems to want to run.

Book Review: Rome In The Late Republic, by Mary Beard and Michael Crawford

Just some light reading in the final weekend before the US Presidential election. I checked Rome In The Late Republic by Mary Beard and Michael Crawford out of the library in an obvious despair-at-the-fall-of-the-West kind of mood. The first thing I learned is that the specific years of the “Late Republic” are in dispute and might span a whole century, but are roughly in the second and first centuries B.C.

Even that timeline alone could be encouraging or dismaying, when applied to the American context. Do we have a whole century of this kind of trouble ahead of us? Have we not either saved or destroyed the republic on November 8, 2016? Nope. It might just be one step in a long process.

I’ll highlight a few interesting ideas suggsted by this book include the concentration of elite wealth and power, the tensions between Roman and outlying areas in Italy, and the ‘defensive imperialism’ of the late Republic.

Concentration of Elite Wealth

Beard and Crawford explain some of the overlaps between extreme wealth and political power in Rome. The financial elite’s dominance of politics is a reminder that, while we sometimes associate “republicanism” and “democracy” with “economic equality,” we probably shouldn’t. There’s no particular historical precedent for that linkage. There was certainly nothing economically equal about political power in Rome.

Senators, three hundred men from the oldest and richest Roman families, sat on top of the political structure of the Republic. All decisions of any importance needed the approval, “the consultation,” of this financial elite. These Senators remained appointed for life.

Underneath them, institutions that represented the substrata gave some voice to others in the Republic. And these institutions purposefully weighted wealth in apportioning representation.

Roman citizens – men of property – voted to elect their representatives, often known as magistrates. A financial census explicitly sorted all voters according to their wealth.

bernie_sandersOne popularly elected assembly, the “centuriate assembly” was comprised of of 193 voting group, known as “centuries.” The lowest members of the financial census “class” were enrolled in one single “voting century.” Member of the top financial census “class” were apportioned among seventy, assuring a huge weighted advantage to the financial elite. As Beard and Crawford explain,

“This division gave weighted voting influence to the elite, both individually and collectively. The rich were far fewer in number than the poor, yet they were assigned to many more voting units. As a result the number of voters in those units would have been comparatively small – a few hundred in the centuries of the first ‘class,’ compared with many thousands in the bottom century. The arithmetic is obvious: the proportionate influence of a single voter in the first ‘class’ was many times greater than that of the individual voter in the lower ‘classes.'”

Anyway, it’s hard not to think of campaign contributions, income tax policy, Citizens United, and carried-interest taxation. And the financial reality that today, the elite are not “just like us!” Bernie Sanders – bless his weird old-guy ranting – is the only one who called this stuff like it is, in 2o16.

Center/Periphery mistrust

Three hundred Senators and eighteen hundred equestrians (the next rank down from Senators) held extraordinary power in the Republic, but they probably maintained legitimacy with the lower stata through patronage, and some fluidity in their ranks. In the successful years, Italians living outside of the main city could aspire, either through gaining wealth or through talent like Cicero, to penetrate the elite of the City of Rome.

cicero
Cicero: Wasn’t born in Rome, but got there as fast as he could

Something broke down in those linkages between the Roman elite and the folks “from the countryside” in the first century B.C, however. The City of Rome changed rules and made it harder for Italians in the outlying provinces to enjoy full Roman citizenship. Poorer people began to perceive that the benefits of wealth and power were concentrating in the Rome, leaving outlanders in the Latin Colonies in the Italian peninsula further behind. Meanwhile, Rome depended increasingly on manpower from the Colonies to maintain order on the borders.

Of course I’m thinking of flyover states (including where I live in Texas) that resent the kind of snobby city attitudes towards the less educated, less wealthy, less talented provinces. The Acela corridor of Washington, New York and Boston, plus the West Coast, are a country apart from the rest, and the misunderstanding runs both ways. The Italians and Romans didn’t have Drudge Report, Huffington Post, alt-right Twitter, Fox News and MSNBC to divide citizens into impermeable media islands, through which new data and perspectives may not pass.

Beard and Crawford point to evidence that some elites in the outlying provinces suffered when Rome attempted to enact land reform, distributing wealth at their expense. This created tensions among the elites of the periphery and the center. At the lower end of the scale, Italian soldiers probably received less booty than their Roman counterparts following conquest, further exacerbating feelings between the colonies and Rome.

At the end of the Republic, the result was outright rebellion by those who felt shut out by the Roman elites.

“The effects of the processes we have described must have varied enormously from one Italian community to another and from one social level to another. But generally it is clear that, through the last decades of the second century, the Italians were becoming increasingly alienated from the Romans. In addition, tensions within the Italian communities themselves were increasing, just as they were in Rome; and these tensions no doubt played a part in alienating some communities (or some sections of some communities) even further from Rome. At the end, communications between Rome and Italy simply broke down: at Asculum, in Picenum, the Romans sent to urge restraint were murdered. War broke out. “

Defensive Imperialism

Beard and Crawford note the interesting coincidence of two simultaneous transitions – First the move from Republican government to Despotic government, and second the move from a prosperous city with Italian colonies to an empire that conquered the world (as it was understood at the time.) One transition did not necessarily cause the other, but they interacted in interesting ways. Some of the peculiar political and economic institutions such as short terms of office for magistrates and methods of taxation in both the Republic and the Empire encouraged expansive militarism, and the authors give interestesting details for this.

rome_in_the_late_republicOf most interest to me, however, was a point they made about how Romans themselves perceived their own military efforts. At least as a Republic, they did not glorify conquest.1 By and large, Beard and Crawford, argue, Romans believed they fought to defend themselves and their borders from outside threats. A potential alliance between Macedonian leaders across the Adriatic Sea from Rome and Syrian leaders in the Middle East required a military response from the Republic. This led to the Second Macedonian War (200-196 BC). The fact that they were successful and vastly expanded Roman territory was just a happenstance of their defensive response to threats to the Republic.

This all just reminds me of today, where the US is of course merely defending itself from people who have attacked us, like Al-Qaeda, or who would like to attack us, like ISIS. Or defending ourselves from people who talk a big game about attacking us but really wouldn’t dare any such thing except secretive terrorist-style pinpricks and cyberattacks (Libya under Qaddafy, Iraq under Hussein, Iran, North Korea.) The expansion of our military into nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and permanent military bases throughout the world, is not conscious empire-building, it’s just us playing defense. Right? Or so we tell ourselves.2

My worldview on this topic, Imperial Overreach (even in the name of defense!), was set early on by the awesome Paul Kennedy book The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers.

More reading to do

In this same worried mood, I also checked from the library out Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic and Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I’ve gotten about 30 pages into the latter, but I’ve learned that I need more background, like what’s offered by the Beard and Crawford book, to understand Gibbon. Also, my present mood and concern for the election has much more to do with the decline of the Republic rather than the Empire. If I make it through either Gibbon or Plutarch or both, I’ll put up a post.

plutarch

 

Please see related post:

All Bankers Anonymous book reviews in one place

Book Review: Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland

 

 

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  1. Clearly later Roman Emperors gloried in imperial conquest, but that wasn’t the way the leaders of the Republic generally understood their military expeditions.
  2. Of course even before this War on Terror, the US did become the number one imperial military power as a result of actually defending ourselves (and allies) from the Axis powers in World War Two. We reluctantly entered the war for defensive reasons, and ended up replacing Britain when the war ended as the policeman of the world in 1945. Will historians of the “Late US Republic,” in 3100 AD, date the beginning of our decline from 1945?

Book Review: Between The World And Me

Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote Between The World And Me as a personal intellectual and political history, and guide for his son, for thinking about race in the United States. The book also might seem to serve as an updated guide for the rest of us to make sense of the mess of race relations in the United States.

We need the help. Along with rising inequality and rising oceans, rising racial tension is a defining Top-3 issue of our time.

We each understand the race issue in this country differently. The latest fault lines run between those who believe #BlackLivesMatter and those who respond that #AllLivesMatter. Some see an undeclared war on unarmed black men, while others see equal and compelling evidence for the disrespect and endangerment of uniformed police officers. It sometimes feels like the misunderstanding between these sides must be the worst ever. A little bit of history shows that, no, things may be bad now but they were actually even worse before.

Coates has a stark, powerful, way of describing race relations.

Right now it’s about – and always has been about – control over black bodies. Coates’ long thesis statement below:

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals…

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was a mark of civilization. ‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,’ said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. ‘And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.’ And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that ‘below.’ That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws. And they would rather subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin, slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transforming into a murderous juggernaut.”

So, Coates isn’t going to sugarcoat this for us.

Malcolm vs. Martin

I can’t remember if Coates actually ever mentions Martin Luther King by name in his book (I actually kind of doubt it) but one of the unspoken messages of Between The World And Me is a clear rejection of the King line of thought.

between_the_world_and_meI know it’s too simple to set up Malcolm X and MLK as the two competing branches of black thought in the twentieth Century, but if you’ll grant me that simplification, Coates roots himself deeply in Malcolm’s camp. First, by crediting him as the initial spur for Coates intellectual journey. Next, in naming his alma mater Howard University “The Mecca,” he references the need and centrality of a gathering point for blacks other than in the Judeo-Christian world. Finally, the enemy Coates identifies most strongly throughout his book, is “The Dream.”

The Dream of course is what all us are living – an imagined world of increasing prosperity, justice, keeping our head down, following the rules. For so-called whites1 in America, the Dream can be achieved through going to the right schools and living in the safe suburbs.

Coates recalls being taught in school about the King-inspired Freedom Marches and watching images of a seemingly endless series of beating, clubbings, water-cannoning, and dog-attacks on a compliant, non-resistant, group of blacks.

“The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists who bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?”

Maybe, as Coates believes, the message from teaching about the Freedom Marches is a disempowering one. The Dream, in Coates’ telling, is both a comfortable White illusion, and a Black prison of self-imposed subservience. It’s what allows white America to control black bodies. To embrace the Dream therefore – a word that we’ve made short-hand for MLK, the man who had The Dream – is to be complicit in the well-known deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, and Sandra Bland, in addition to of course the historical murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evars, and the children inside the 1963 Baptist Church.

Ta_Nahesi_coates

It’s a strong indictment of King’s legacy, even if Coates never mentions the man’s name.

My problem with the book

Coates has forgotten more about writing than I will ever learn, nevermind obviously his specialization in black intellectual history. His writing is amazing. He wins prizes for his stuff in The Atlantic more often than I visit the dentist. So I criticize this book at my peril. However…

Something I selfishly wanted from reading Between The World And Me was the feeling of walking around afterwards vibrating with my new knowledge as the most “Woke” white guy around. I’d read this book and then see race relations with a fresh perspective, offering cool insights and radical sympathy. It’s unfair, but I wanted transformation and I didn’t have that moment. Maybe I was so “Woke” already that I couldn’t improve upon myself? No, obviously not. Maybe I can’t feel the radical sympathy because the cognitive dissonance with my own whiteness would be too far a stretch? I don’t know. But that selfish desire and consequent disappointment affected my view of the book. Which is to say a main problem with this book was my high expectations.

I was more blown away by Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the MLK years than I was by Between The World And Me. Maybe those are unfair comparisons, between absolute all-time classics and a book that just came out last year. But Coates is our best contemporary writer on black America, and a MacArthur winner, so it’s not totally unfair either. I didn’t find myself transformed or breathless or wanting to tell everyone I know to go out and read it. I do think every US Citizen needs to read Taylor Branch’s trilogy in order to vote or to qualify to collect social security. I don’t have that same feeling about Between The World And Me.

Not The audience?

Now, maybe I wasn’t supposed to get that inspired feeling because I’m not the intended audience for Coates’ book. Coates uses the 2nd person voice throughout to address his son specifically, and in that sense this could be seen as a more personal book, or at least a book more directed at Coates’ inner circle than, say, me. His project may not be, in the end, to make so-called white, ex-finance guys, “woke.”

But I do actually think I’m one of his main audiences. He’s in the Style section of the New York Times this month, and I am the Atlantic-reading demographic.2 But what is he doing there if not trying to capture the likes of me?

Coates will remain a top voice on these issues in the decades ahead, so a lot is riding on whether he rises to the occasion. Like I said, we certainly need the help.

 

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  1. Coates makes the interesting point every time he mentions “whites” that this “so-called” racial designation is as invented as any other. Today’s “Whites” used to be called the Irish, or Jews, or Norweigans, or Italians, or Scots, any number of whom would resist common cause with any other now-designated “white” group. It just became convenient and powerful more recently to unite “whites” under a single designation, for the purposes, Coates posits, of control of black bodies. This seems, unconsciously, true.
  2. He’s also the latest comic-book author for The Black Panther, which obviously also makes him cooler than me in every way.

Book Review: The Market Wonders by Susan Briante

I met Susan Briante at a poetry reading recently. It was her reading, from her book of poems The Market Wonders, in particular. I had a sense that I could learn quite a bit from talking with her.

A poetry book about The Dow, and market values, and human values? How could I resist reading and reviewing it?

In the first poem “Toward The Poetics of the Dow,” Briante notes that “I wish more poets would write about money.” I agree. It seems fair to respond also that more finance people should write about poetry.

My own comfort with commenting on poetry fades fast, when we move above the A.A. Milne level. Milne specifically differentiates himself in the introduction to his first book of poetry from Wordsworth, by declining to explain the background to his poetry and what he was thinking about and where he was as he wrote certain lines. Briante, on the other hand, does include helpful notes and references in the back of her book. This proves useful for people like me, who will otherwise miss the reference.

In the notes, she explains her project of recording the daily closing level of the Dow throughout 2009. From there, armed with a number (more or less arbitrary) she sought inspiration from disparate sources online and offline.  Twenty-five of the poems in this book take their title from the format of “Date, Closing Level and direction of the Dow.”

The first three like that are, in order, “October 1-The Dow Closes Down 9509,” “October 6-The Dow Closes Up 9731,” and “October 14-The Dow Closes Up 10015”. You get the idea. There are twenty-five of these.

Briante writes:

“Poems should evidence some degree of control, but poets should be a little volatile. The poem is a high-risk investment, a long-term commitment. Like a big dirty city, it should make you feel

a little uncomfortable.”

Briante writes of Buddhist meditation. Drone attacks from above, police batons from the side. The heat of Texas and Arizona. Pregnancy, miscarriage, and then her daughter’s tiny form, breast-feeding. The Market as a shambling, nostalgic grandfather. Numbers in the titles, mini-poems along the bottom page like a running ticker.

The Market, as an old man, worries in one poem about falling down below the continental shelf from his excessive weight, and in another remembers a more carefree time when people made real things and he traveled the streets of Mexico City, and in a third he surveys the strip-mined earth from an airplane, just after contemplating the awful phrase ‘survived by,’ as if in an airplane crash.

susan_briante

Maybe my favorite appears like one of these little ticker-tape poems, although actually it’s a footnote to another poem. It is sly and horrifying.

*Can you imagine smell the Market picking up his your daughter from school in its teeth dragging parts of her body across a playground landscape touching everything he it touches as if it were a screen? See how reflective the glass, how he is an it is a we.

One obvious thing to say is that the author and I probably disagree about where on the spectrum of good and evil the invisible hand of capitalism falls. I’m enough of an Adam Smithian to think the thoughtlessness of The Market, allocating both fairly and unfairly, regardless of the moral preference of many, is also a magical cornucopia of efficiency, innovation, waste reduction, and wealth creation. Briante, I gather, dwells more on the ambiguities inherent in the different meaning we assign to the word “Values.” She is more likely to point out the awful history of children’s insurance, the compromises we make with the military-industrial complex through banal bourgeois decisions about “security,” and remind us of hungry children at the border, as she does all three in the extended poem “Mother is Marxist.”

But even if we differ, I think we’re both interested in similar things. I’m an EX-banker for a reason, which is to say I appreciate The Market but do not want it to dominate my life, because it is a cruel master. It lacks, well, poetry.

Onion_blue_line

Briante, I imagine, does not know about credit default swaps but wants to know more. She wants to meditate, and maybe guide other poetic types, to meditate on what it means to be immersed in a market economy, to hear – even unwillingly – about peripatetic fluctuations in the Dow and have a view on that. Is it all arcane numerology, as it may appear at first? Is there meaning? Or is it all – as I’m fairly convinced by this awesome Onion Article – mostly just noise?1

 

the_market_wonders

Please see related posts:

All Bankers Anonymous Book Reviews In One Place!

Not Cheering a Record-Setting Dow

Dow Hits New Highs Part I – Inevitability

Dow Hits New Highs Part II – The Future

Dow Hits New Highs Part III – What To Do Next

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  1.  I always look for any chance I get to re-post this Onion Article, which is among my very most all-time favorites, and kind of sums up much of the news coverage from the Financial Infotainment Industrial Complex. You should click on it if you haven’t seen it before.

Book Review: Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer

Gerd Gigerenzer wrote Risk Savvy: How To Make Good Decisions in the spirit of Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise, and Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. These latter books propose a “How To Think” while also proposing that people should be taught to think differently, and stop making epistemological errors.

Distinct from The Signal and The Noise, however, Gigerenzer has a strong respect for the value of intuition, which Silver tends to discount in favor of a “1. Hypothesis, 2. Data, 3. Revised Hypothesis” pure rational approaches.

Gigerenzer dedicates significant pages of his book to the value of intuition over rational approaches, and even authored a book called Gut Feelings.[1] (I haven’t read that, and probably won’t.)

Gigerenzer helpfully suggests that in a complicated world of high uncertainty, the best we can do may be to radically simplify our analysis by using rules of thumb. He’s proposing this in the face of a modern trend to build increasingly complex models for analysis, which may lead us to miss the big picture of uncertain risks.

Also distinct from The Signal and The Noise, I found Risk Savvy mostly tedious. It felt like an extended book version of anecdotes delivered to business school students or physicians or pharmaceutical executive retreats[2], and that’s not a good thing.

Gird covers a wide range of decision-making situations, from health-care to restaurant menus to investments and romance. I read the investments section carefully, intrigued by the promise of one subchapter: “How To Beat a Nobel Prize Portfolio.”

gerd_gigerenzer

His conclusion – use simple rules of thumb and eschew complexity – obviously appeals to me when it comes to investments. His explanation of a “mean-variance portfolio” from Nobel Prize winner Markowitz, and a comparatively better and simple portfolio known as “1/N” is terrible. He explains neither portfolio well, but glosses over what either of these would look like. Up until that point in the book, I had wondered what explained my simultaneous confusion and boredom by Gigerenzer’s book.

After reading his investments section, I realized he’s bad at explaining important but complex topics, while at the same time inundating his audience with dumbed down anecdotes gathered from his lectures to business people who want complex-sounding concepts without real substantive explanations.

Like Malcolm Gladwell, but much less interestingly written.

risk_savvy

Please see related post:

Book Review of The Signal And The Noise by Nate Silver

Book Review of Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos

 

[1] I gather Gut Feelings built on Gigerenzer’s good fortune that Malcolm Gladwell’s drew upon Gerd Gigerenzer’s research on the value of intuition for his popular book Blink. I further gather that Gigerenzer has produced important research in the field, and that I’m reading the popularized version of Gigerenzer’s research.

[2] Gigerenzer frequently cites talks he’s given to these groups throughout the book. The “I was giving a lecture to this group…” doesn’t make for a compelling anecdote.

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