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Moderate and nuanced

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 19-04-20

The author has written a very timely and useful book. Whether his conclusions are sound or not the book is a worthy contribution to the debate around nature and nurture in politics. It is sometimes hard to follow as an audiobook due to the technical jargon and statistical data.

an excellent sociobiography

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 24-11-19

Considering the controversial topic, it is surprising that the author neither fawns over nor sets out to destroy its subject matter. The result is a well researched, rich in scope, fair and balanced intellectual biography of the Austrian School. Its central characters are all the major thinkers of the school, from Menger and Böhm-Bawerk to Hayek, Morgenstern, and Haberler. Impressively, the book brings to life dozens of thinkers, institutes, and societies spread across a century of history and several continents. It manages to cover a lot of ground without losing track of the overall narrative. It is entertaining and educational in equal measure, and full of real world relevance. Although neutral in tone, the book is not entirely without its share of editorializing, especially towards the end. But for the most part the author wisely keeps editorial comments at a minimum and places them in parentheses and epilogues. And to the extent that the normative focus emerges, it is very commendable in its call for a "progressive" rediscovery of the Austrian school against reactionary appropriations and American simplifications. In reminding the reader of the dangers of dogmatism and narrow sectarianism, the book celebrates the pluralistic and cosmopolitan intellectual tradition of fin-de-siècle Vienna as the complex cradle of socioeconomic and scientific innovation.

Nice provocation

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-05-19

Lucifer Principle weaves a well-written and compelling narrative that is bound to shock the reader out of her ideological stupour. This style provides a healthy immunization against some of the illusions and self-deceptions that we all, by nature and education, live under. Thus broken free from dogmas, Bloom jolts the reader to freely exploring the link between dominance hierarchies, violence, genes, memes, and social groups. The very same passion that cures cancer often amplifies our self-righteousness into a blinding plea for world domination.

The book is well-researched and contains numerous fascinating and illustrative stories from history. At the same time, it suffers from a selective exposition of facts presented with a strong interpretative slant. I did not like the anti-Islamic rants that went on for way too long. And I did not like the many dubious empirical generalisations that appeared one-sided and based on anecdotal evidence. I concur with David S. Wilson's estimation, in the foreword, that Bloom has a tendency to exaggerate.

However, Bloom's cynical and pessimistic lens magnifies humanity's dark side in a way that is illuminating. It is illuminating not only of our capacity for evil, but also of the capacity for goodness and excellence in the same human organism. The takeaway lesson, if there is one, is therefore ambivalent. The pitfalls of the Lucifer Principle are ever present in our struggle to self-transcend our animal nature. And yet continually self-transcend we must. To reach for the stars and to perpetuate evolution is a bloody, violent, stressful affair, but without it we face the heat death of the universe. Bloom shows us how we can break free from entropy without succumbing to the worst conquering and genocidal illusions that humanity possesses.

1 person found this helpful

Engaging popular science

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-03-19

Do you like baseball metaphors? This is not a qualifier I expected to have to make - least of all for a book about two Israeli psychologists - but it is a question that inevitably comes up as the author repeatedly elopes away into another baseball escapade. But thankfully the sports section of today's audiobook is mercifully short.

The story of Tversky and Kahneman has sociological as well as academic interest. It is about clashing minds, clashing tribes, and clashing paradigms. Whatever the ultimate legacy of the behavioural psychologists, they have deepened our experimental grasp and classificatory understanding of the irrational vagaries of human mentality. And, in particular, their followers in economics have improved the discipline in important ways.

There are quite a few books about their ideas already, and some of them are much better on the actual science of biases and heuristics. The author explains the intellectual debate in a competent but superficial way. He focuses on catchy headlines and biased interpretations the key studies in the field. Critics of the twain protagonists are barely given a hearing, and e.g. the industry-shaking replication crisis (which, to be fair, is quite new) is not mentioned at all.

While the book falters as a definitive history of the academic impact of behavioural psychology, it succeeds in portraying the gut-wrenching drama and fierce friendship at the heart of it. This story exemplifies the old military wisdom that nothing brings people together like a common enemy - and this goes both for T&K and their critics. Their projects has been animated by a negative identification as much as a positive one: e.g. in the case of T&K, to subsume the "mis-" in misbehaving, the "ir-" in irrational, and the "deviation" in the norm.

The tribal camarederie that spawns from the sinuses of distrust and enmity can be a harbinger of love. Such love is an intense passion. The book showcases how this love affair is conditional on continued mutual cooperation and how this cooperation often breaks down into seductive defection. While the love still burns, the enemies are burnt into ashes; but when it is extinguished, "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." (T.S. Eliot)

This is the story that I picked up, on a very human level. I don't know why I read it in such an archetypical way, but it seems right. On another level, it's all about science modelling, statistical measurements, mental classification systems, and the fine-tuning of academic research. It's hard to make such data very compelling without recourse to the hypnotic power of storytelling, which connects us to the archetypical realm.

Suddenly the baseball analogies make more sense, don't they? They make academic insights concrete in the world of common events and common people. That said, I still intuitively dislike baseball. But that's just my bias. We all know how hard those are to override, thanks to the fierce friendship that burnt like the sun.

Jargon and Vision

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 16-02-19

Brilliant yet obscure; competent yet dilettantesque; visionary yet misguided... There is a lot to unpack in The General Theory.

The book is written with a heavy-handed jargon that freely mixes established economic terminology with Keynes's own innovations. I am firmly of the opinion that technical jargon and mathematical expression are important servants of economic analysis that should never be allowed to become masters. In Keynes's case, the consequence of the style is not clarity, but a needlessly frustrating reading experience.

Nonethless, the book also contains lucid sections and even a few inspiring and rhetorically powerful sections. This book is a real treasure trove of powerful quotations that distil important but counterintuitive ideas.

And speaking of counterintuitive, let me briefly talk about the contents (without any attempt to summarize the main arguments or to do justice to the pros and cons).

Aside from the obvious impact on trade cycle theory and depression management, the real strength of the book, in my opinion, is that it dares to go against the flow, to swim against the current, in so many crucial respects: 1) By positing a difference between the micro and the macro, and showing how the laws of the first need not operate on the second (and vice versa); 2) By denying the folk wisdom of "a penny saved is a penny earned" and the classical economic wisdom of household frugality (austerity) as a guide to sound fiscal policy under certain macro conditions. 3) By resuscitating numerous occasionally valuable heterodox theories, such as the theory of underconsumption (under the guise of aggregate demand management) and the Sentimentalist-Scottish-Mandevillean emphasis on the dark psychology of capitalism (under the guise of propensity to consume, animal spirits, etc). 4) And by mixing some fresh insights of psychology, probability theory, and complexity theory, with the classical insights of economics (although in a rudimentary way).

That said, there are severe problems with Keynes's theory - both in the pure formulation and in the impure application. The central notions of aggregate demand, the marginal efficiency of capital, the propensity to consume, full employment, the Kahn multiplier, etc., all seem to break down under careful scrutiny. The whole distinction between micro and macro might have been a big mistake. At the very least, the applicability of Keynesian concepts is much more tenuous and limited than might be supposed by the lofty title of a "General Theory."

But whatever the failings of the Keynesian enterprise (there goes one star!) and whatever the failings of the obscure prose (and there goes another!), the book is a rare achievement in two respects: in innovation and inspiration. It is impossible not to be delighted and impressed by the amount of valuable insights and out-of-the-box thinking contained herein.

The cute party trick of being a perennial contrarian seems less impressive when it leads to intellectual error and bad policy (both of which have been the occasional consequence of the General Theory). And the muddied terminology of Keynesian macroeconomics is a needless swamp. But the diversification and improvement of science - and social progress itself - is built upon the work of people who dare to be wrong in an enlightening way.

2 people found this helpful

Delightful skepticism

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-02-19

Anybody who doesn't appreciate Hume doesn't appreciate philosophy. His dialogues are entertaining and insightful, and they are a good introduction to Hume's style and thought.

The dialogues exhibit the typical Humean combination of technically proficient but also commonsensical arguments. Hume methodically dispels the haughty aura of self-declared experts in the ivory tower by appealing to the intuitions and the common sense of ordinary people. (In this there are strong echoes of Plato's dialogues.) But he simultaneously, and miraculously, avoids the trap of being caught up in the superstitions and logical fallacies of the uneducated mind.

Hume's skeptical agnosticism, while not as radical as the atheistic materialism of Hobbes or Lucretius, carried out the death sentence of theism and abstract theology. The arguments are rhetorically powerful and framed in a fashion that respects the intelligence of the reader. Religious philosophy has never recovered.

The only thing that drags the dialogues down is the passage of time. They seem partially outdated in the Western world, where Humean skepticism has become fashionable. The even more radical Marxist atheism and New Atheism have seemingly overtaken Humeanism. At the same time, advances in cosmology and biology have rendered some of the scientific speculations in the dialogues moot. But I'm sure Hume would appreciate those things, since he was a fan of radical thinking and science.

And in some ways these new developments have strayed from Hume's teachings. The spirit of Humean skepticism is a precious civilizational heirloom whose true value is easily forgotten by the younger generations. The skeptical attitude has too often been lost in the exuberant hubris of Enlightenment, Marxist, New Atheist, or physicalist-scientistic dogmatism.

Only a perpetual recursion back to Hume can save the critical spirit of humanity from succumbing to the dark nemesis of its own creation: the dogmatic certainty of belief.

Inspiring but outdated

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-02-19

This book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, many of its prophecies feel outdated. On the other hand, some of them feel incredibly prescient.

The central message that the right to wellbeing ("bread") should be guaranteed to all people irrespective of their labour contribution jives well with contemporary debates around Universal Basic Income. Whether or not anarcho-communism is the best form of implementing UBI is up for debate. I agree that anarchism of SOME kind needs to be involved, but, contrary to what Kropotkin would say, I think that a healthy dose of voluntary market transactions need to be included.

Kropotkin, like Marx, wrote on the cusp of the marginal revolution in economics whose insights he failed to appreciate. Like Marx, his economic theory is still unfortunately stuck on 19th century utopian economlc theory. This shows e.g. in Kropotkin's fetishistic celebration of local production over global trade, his opposition to voluntary wage labour and voluntary private property, his criticism of "luxury" good production over the production of "necessities," his failure to appreciate the deep incentive problems of (voluntaristic) communism, etc.

Unlike Marx, however, he correctly foresaw the dangers of collectivism and centralized state socialism. He brilliantly extols the virtues of self-organization from the bottom-up as the only viable means of achieving the collective ownership and distribution of social wealth and the means of production. He is thereby an important theorist of libertarian socialism.

At the same time, his call for the spontaneous bottom-up expropriation of bourgeois property in a sudden orgy of proletarian revolution is naive in its faith in the common man and the distributive wisdom of the masses. His most ardent speeches are full of economic, psychological, and sociological blind spots based on an ignorance of the best science of his day. I'm afraid they invalidate many of his most optimistic proclamations about utopian communism. In particular, there are many red flags (pun intended) in his treatment of the problem of organizing work and production in the absence of private property and its system of incentives (of reward and punishment). He simply cannot offer solid empirical or theoretical reasons for his speculative predictions.

The supposed anarcho-communist paradise of everflowing milk and honey is an elusive goal that suffers from numerous self-contradictions and avoidable scientific errors. How can a voluntary order be built upon a forceful expropriation of private property? How can self-interest be expelled without the policeman, the torture chamber, and the Gulag? But the core insights are still relevant today, e.g. on the dangers of statism, the need to deliver the bounty of surplus production to all, the unforeseeable possibilities of human liberation in the age of cooperative plenty, etc.

In the future, I believe the only rational choice social organization faces is between anarcho-communism and anarcho-capitalism. Statism has failed. It is time for the left and the right to move on to greener pastures, i.e. the Elysian fields of libertarian self-organization.

7 people found this helpful

Good ideas in a middling package

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-02-19

Like a good meal nearly ruined by a bad ingredient, it is frustrating to see good ideas delivered in a middling package. Shermer's skeptical optimism is firmly rooted in cutting-edge social and natural sciences. Many of his detractors are shocked by his unapologetic defence of free market capitalism, and it does sound occasionally starry-eyed. But he backs up his arguments with good evidence, especially when discussing the economic dimensions of behavioural, neuro- and social psychology.

The problem lies not with the contents, but with the structure of the book. Did the editor sleep on the job? The chapters are loosely connected ruminations on various topics without a strong, overarching narrative. They rehash latest popular science articles, which is fine, but they also recycle his own earlier books. And, by the end, you are left wondering, "That was it?"

Overall, I enjoyed the audiobook, thanks to the author's snappy narration, the abridged format, and the fascinating barrage of popular science trivia. Shermer's position is a strong and important one. But this book does not do it justice. It feels like a competent but forgettable cash grab for the airport lounge market.

Innovation and exaggeration

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-01-19

Mazzucato's book flips the narrative about the dynamic and innovative private sector on its head. It argues that the entrepreneurial state has been, and should continue to be, a vital player "not only in fixing markets, but in creating them."

The book applies the neo-Schumpeterian insights of evolutionary economics and innovation research to argue for a state-centric viewpoint on how innovation breaks new ground. Mazzucato correctly points out that radical innovation is subject to uncertain risks and rewards, and the initial risky investment for it is often hard to come buy in the private sector.

For Mazzucato, the short-sighted and risk-averse preferences of private venture capitalists prevent them from acting as the guardians of systemic long-term innovation. This allegedly means that the only reliable source of funding for technoindustrial revolutions comes from the deep and risk-loving pockets of governments.

There is much to admire in and agree with Mazzucato's thesis. The government clearly can play an important role in fostering innovation. In particular, although narrowly USA-centric, the book's history lesson is an important reality check. It highlights the contributions of various government-backed research institutions, such as Bell Labs, DARPA, the NIH, and NASA, to the growth and development of new technologies (and subsequently new markets). It also raises the important question of who should reap (privatise) the benefits of such distributed innovation.

That said, the book reads too one-sided. It does not properly explain the dangers of relying on heavy-handed and tax-funded government investment, nor the potential benefits of developing non-coercive and bottom-up alternatives to them. Many such arguments come from the very same evolutionary economics and innovation research literature that Mazzucato uses to cherry-pick the conclusions that support her argument. Her conclusions are therefore inadequate and undersupported by the available data.

Secondly, it fallaciously argues from the historical fact that the big government has played an important role in innovation research to the normative conclusion that a big government is therefore an indispensable part of all future innovation research. It could be that innovation research tends to take place in universities and research labs, whether or not these are tax-funded or privately funded. She 1) fails to consider how government has crowded out non-governmental alternatives; 2) conflates any government involvement with how the government should get credit for everything done with its (major or minor) help; 3) and completely ignores the possibility of charitable or privately funded institutes that are not driven by the profit motive but modelled on not-for-profit principles, such as the old Oxbridge model of research excellence based on the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

Overall, Mazzucato's broader case falters on selective scholarship and rhetorical hyperbole. The weaker thesis about the historical and continued importance of government finance in fostering innovation remains valid, however. When combined with a more nuanced recognition of the pitfalls of government involvement in its myriad forms, and a better recognition of the need for the private sector as a system of innovation, the innovation systems perspective can play an important role in guiding public policy discussions going forward.

2 people found this helpful

Once seen, can it be unseen?

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 16-01-19

Scott's book is a monumental paean to anarchist and anti-hierarchical wisdom. Although it stretches and extends across multiple disciplines - agriculture, forestry, city planning, industrial organization, etc. - it manages to weave them into a surprisingly coherent and compelling narrative.

The key boogeymen are the predictable (and sometimes unpredictable) shortcomings of technocratic hubris. Scott amply documents, mostly from primary sources, how such hubris has been a defining feature of modernistic statecraft - from Le Corbusier to Lenin.

The takeaway message of the book is that the preservation of bottom-up experimentation, and the harnessing of local knowhow, should inform all sustainable central planning. You should let cities and communities evolve on their own, rather than imposing a system of conformity.

The end result is an eye-opening, powerful narrative about the excesses of human optimism. All utopian schemers should read this book. They should think twice about the consequences of their actions - lest they risk becoming the supervillains of tomorrow.