A Little Ludwig Goes a Long Way

A smattering of opinions on technology, books, business, and culture. Now in its 4th technology iteration.

Recent Books -- How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, Do Interesting, The Tyranny of Merit, Legends & Lattes, Nettle & Bone, The Cutting Edge, The Lords of Easy Money

23 December 2023

I’ve read a bit about society and economics recently. A little longer discussion about some of these.

How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement by Fredrik DeBoer. I thought I would hate this book. But half of it is very good and very insightful, he does a great job skewering the left – all the performative nonsense, all the identity divisions, a failure to focus on real improvements for people. And some of his basic instincts on how progressives can better work together are dead on – unite, don’t divide; focus on actually improving outcomes; drop all the bs language nonsense; and above all else, engage and perservere.

Some of what he says drives me nuts though – for instance: “…as progressives, we should want a vibrant and expansive public sector.” I’m progressive, I want better outcomes and opportunities for everyone, I want a stronger safety net. But I certainly don’t have as a goal “a vibrant and expansive public sector”, that is not the end goal, it is as misdirected at best – show me a successful example in human history of “a vibrant and expansive public sector.” We need to embrace market mechanisms to improve our society, not discard them. We need to unlock and embrace human ingenuity, not prevent it.

The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel. This book is more right than wrong. The discussion of the politics of hubris vs embarrassment is very relevant. And the data on upward mobility in the US is sad. His criticism of the Ivys and the Public Ivys is good, they are not agents of upward mobility, nor have they ever been. So there is a lot to learn here. The book is not without shortcomings tho.

  • The political and social mobility problems here are very hard to fix – and he offers no realistic solutions. There is zero chance that we will implement a national lottery for access to the best schools. A more useful discussion would be around how we build up non-elite institutions that may be doing a better job creating opportunity.
  • He is an Ivy professor and he is very focused on the Ivys. I don’t think reforming the Ivys is all that material to the problems at large. They’ve always been elitist, they always will be, just move on.
  • I would love to see data on just engineering education and social mobility. My impression is that most of my classmates did not come from upper income families and that engineering was a great path, but I’d like to see the data.
  • In my professional experience material, wealth has flowed to those that are most adaptable, that have observed the waves crashing through the world and have decided to “get in front of the parade”. I’ve lived thru the PC revolution, the internet revolution, the mobile revolution, the cloud revolution, and now we are seeing the AI revolution, the CRISPR revolution, etc. These waves crash over us, none of us can stop them, the people that do well are the ones that don’t fight the waves, but get out in front of them and ride them. Some of my colleagues came from elite institutions, but many did not. He doesn’t really take on entrepreneurship, the tech industry, innovative waves, creative destruction, etc. This is all super material to economic mobility and opportunity.

The Lords of Easy Money: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy by Christopher Leonard. This book is an attempt at a couple of serious topics – how monetary policy has further exacerbated the inequality in our society, how our legislative dysfunction has pushed more power towards the Fed – but the book is so flawed. The economics in the book are secondary to his attempt to dramatize events. Each chapter tries to turn some events into a dramatic crisis, but the characters and events just aren’t that interesting, and he sensationalizes it all.

He also overlooks so many factors and simplifies the economics so much that it is hard to give his arguments any credence. Go read the 2-star reviews on Goodreads, they do a pretty good job of summarizing the problems with the book.

Another peeve, any discussion of the issues needs to start talking about relative percentage growth instead of absolute numbers, even inflation-corrected absolute numbers. Throwing around a bunch of absolute numbers means nothing and is just designed to scare, not to inform. When he does use percentages, he finds the most egregious examples to use to scare, not inform. “76,000 percent more excess bank reserves” – a quote designed to scare, not inform. I mean, there are like 13984098% more smart phones sold this year than in 2001, should that terrify us?

Overall he is trying to damn the Fed, but I actually think he does the opposite and shows how the Fed is resiliant and responsive.

And some lighter reads:

  • Do Interesting: Notice. Collect. Share. by Russell Davies. Really nice short book emphasizing the importance of doing, working at your craft and knowledge every single day.
  • Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree. A fun tale of friendship and adventure. A nice piece of palate cleansing brain candy.
  • Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher. Continuing my streak of books with ampersands in their titles, another nice tale of friendship and adventure. Either of these books is a lot of fun.
  • The Cutting Edge by Jeffery Deaver. I dip into Deaver every once in a while, a very engaging mystery.