mostly nonfiction listener
I read Why Nations Fail this month while traveling in South Korea. The book was much on my mind as I looked across the DMZ at North Korea on the 38th parallel. South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, enjoys a per capital PPP (purchasing power parity) GDP of around $32,000. (The U.S. is $48,000 by comparison - wealthier but also with a less equally distributed income). In North Korea, the GDP per capita (PPP) is $2,400 - an incredibly low numbers that still probably understates how desperately poor (and hungry) are the people of North Korea.
Why should North Korea be so poor, and South Korea so rich?
The two countries share common cultural roots, geography, and access to natural resources. This is the question Acemoglu and Robinson attempt to answer in Why Nations Fail. They look at examples such as North Korea, as well as other natural experiments of societies that share similar exogenous traits (resources, climate, etc.) - such as the twin Nogales's in Mexico and Arizona.
Acemoglu and Robinson's explanation as to why some nations are poor and others rich has everything to do with the elites. Poor nations are poor because the people who run these countries have made their subjects destitute in service of enriching themselves.
North Korea can best be understood as being run by a criminal family. Mexico is so much poorer than the U.S. because of its history of being run by elites whose main goal was to extract wealth, and who did not need to redistribute economic production as for most of its history the country lacked pluralistic institutions that could check the power of the rulers.
This argument, that some countries are poor because the powerful keep them poor, stands in direct opposition to the arguments that Jared Diamond makes in Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond believes that the wealth distribution was largely pre-determined by immunity to disease (or lack thereof), access to domesticable livestock, and the raw materials and technologies to make advanced weapons.
I am a huge fan of Diamond's writing, but Why Nations Fail has me thoroughly convinced that more deterministic view of development (as put forward by Diamond and others) is problematic. Why Nations Fail should definitely be on the syllabus in any economic history or development course, and on the bookshelf (physical or virtual) of anyone interested in global inequality, poverty, and why some nations are so much richer than others.
Should you invest the time to read Why Nations Fail? The book is 544 pages, or almost 18 hours by audiobook (my reading choice). Acemoglu and Robinson would have benefited from a strong-willed editor, one who was willing to push them to provide less historical detail (the book has a ton from around the world across numerous societies), and more analysis of the implications of their arguments for countries like China and India.
I came away from Why Nations Fail thinking that if the argument is correct then China's long-term economic prospects might not be as good as we assume, and India's may be better. But having spent time time in South Korea, which developed so rapidly at least partly under a repressive military regime, it is hard to square this conclusion with the recent facts of some of our fastest developing countries.
Perhaps Acemoglu and Robinson next book will take outliers and implications, building on top of the theoretical foundations for development and inequality laid out in Why Nations Fail.
This book is almost too perfectly aligned with my core beliefs that the story of the world is one of progress. The mental architecture that I place new learning is built around a narrative of progress. The story is one technology driven change towards lower mortality, lower fertility, better nutrition, and better health. My training in both demography and history has taught me to be weary of any talk of "better days or golden ages" - as I appreciate lower child mortality, the spread of democracy, and expanded access to education.
So Ridley has written the book that conforms to almost all my prior beliefs - although he arrives at his conclusions by routes I probably wouldn't go. First, Ridley is clearly leans libertarian. He is suspicious of the role of government in promoting progress. I'd be interested in how he explains away government led policies that are responsible for so much of the progress we have enjoyed, everything from sewer projects to social security, civil rights legislation to medicare, medicaid, and the recent health care bill. I think Ridley does not give enough credit to the role of organized labor for contributing to spreading the benefits of capitalism to more people, nor does he seem to grasp the importance of government in supporting education at every level.
His dismissal of global warming as a major concern will get lots of attention for being basically wrong-headed, and I'd agree that he oversells his case and therefore gets the actions that we should be taking basically wrong. (My take…worry less, invest prudently).
I like that Ridley comes out as a fan of hydrocarbons and big oil (timely given the BP disaster), and his critique of ethanol is accurate and devastating. But he misses the importance of investing in alternative energy as an engine to insure innovation, seemingly blinded by the idea of a zero sum game of social investments (which is strange as he rails against zero sum thinking). I like a book where I agree with the conclusions but disagree with how the argument is derived. This tells me that the fundamental truth of the progress story is intact - and where we need to argue and debate is around the means rather than the ends.
2011 was a great year for nonfiction, but no book comes close to The Quest for claiming top honors.
Everything we do depends on energy. Every industry, including higher education, ultimately is possible due to energy. Without energy, we could not teach or do research, heat our classrooms and offices, or cool our data centers. If you walked to campus today (or worked at home) that is terrific, but most of us relied on gasoline to power our cars for our commute. Higher ed may not be like the airlines, where fuel is the largest expense (ours is labor), but we are no less dependent on energy to run our business than Southwest airlines.
The past, present, and future of worldwide energy is a big topic, one that requires a big book. The Quest is 816 pages, none of which are wasted. This is an efficient book. Yergin manages to keep the narrative moving along without skimping on either the stories or the numbers.
The Quest systematically examines every major source of energy, including oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar and wind. The origins, technology, sustainability, and personalities attached to each of these major energy sources is given a complete and balanced treatment.
Readers looking either for an indictment or defense of our carbon or renewable fuel sources will be disappointed, as Yergin is scrupulously even-handed and non-polemical. Energy turns out to be too important, and too complicated, to be reduced to simple narratives and slogans. Rather, Yergin manages to consider the role of energy in the environment as well as the economy, while making strong (and actionable) policy recommendations for a sustainable energy future.
Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction audiobook addict.
I will start by admitting that I am a fan of Richard Muller. Before I even went to university I watched every lecture in his "Physics for future presidents" course at UC Berkeley, which was one of the first courses to become available online as a free webcast. I would describe Muller as an honest and rigorous scientist who is not afraid to speak his mind even when his views are controversial. He is also very critical of the way that different energy issues are portrayed in the media, something which you will realize if you read this book.
One good example of what can only be called overblown media reporting is what followed the BP oil spill in the Mexican gulf. When it happened the media was reporting on little else and many high standing politicians described it as one of the worst (sometimes the worst) environmental disasters in the history of mankind. What happened next? Suddenly the media moved on and I was surprised to learn (from this book) that though the initial explosion killed 11 workers, the subsequent oil spill only caused 6000-30.000 bird deaths. "Only" is indeed the appropriate term here, considering that glass windows kill 100.000.000 birds annually and power lines kill many million more. The BP oil spill was unfortunate, and it cost human lives, some birds and a lot of money to fix it, but it is clear that the media and the politicians got a bit carried away with this one.
Another so called " disaster" which got an unfair treatment in the media was the Fukushima power plant accident. To date not a single person have died from the radiation released and the prognosis is that a few hundred extra cancers, some of which could have a fatal outcome, will be the result of this “disaster”. My Fukushima headline would have read: “No deaths from breakdown of old nuclear power plant even though it was hit with an 8.0 earthquake and a tsunami”... (also see my pre-fukushima post on the irrational fear of nuclear power as well as my Review of the book “Radiation”).
Richard Muller spends a good deal of this book discussing the ever controversial topic of Global Warming. He was at a point very critical of the methodology used by climate researchers when they calculated the rate of global warming. For example it is not appropriate to use weather stations in populated areas because as population grows so does temperature. He also found some of the mathematics used... funky...
For this reason he did his own study, and unlike IPCC researchers this study was/is completely transparent with all data freely available for anyone who desires to make their own calculations. What did Muller find? Basically he says that the IPCC, despite their sometimes flawed methods, are correct. In other words, according to Muller the globe has warmed, and this warming has been due to human caused increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. While backing their overall conclusions about the temperature increase on earth Muller does not seem to share many peoples sense of pending disaster due to this warming. Models that predict the future climate of earth tends to have a lot of uncertainty associated with them, and it is almost impossible to know if we are able to come up with technologies that will significantly alter the future climate.
He also says that if we really want to prevent increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we should turn our efforts to China. For quite a long time they have been building one coal plant per week spewing out not only CO2, but also huge amounts of other pollutants such as lead and arsenic. Convincing them to use clean energy sources such as solar or nuclear power (by paying them if necessary), makes a lot more sense than going for expensive alternatives in the west. That is, if you aim to achieve the maximal reduction of CO2 release per dollar, that dollar should be invested in China. Muller also reiterates several times throughout the book that energy conservation will be a huge part of the future. Proper isolation of houses, driving efficient cars etc can drastically reduce energy expenditure.
I have really only touched upon some of the issues that are discussed in this book. Muller offers a perspective on many other energy related issues such as Shale gas/oil, electric cars, fusion, wind/solar/water energy, etc etc. All in all this book is both very educational and at the same time a page turner (keep in mind though that I am kind of a nerd). If you are even just a little interested in the technologies and politics related to energy issues this book is a terrific buy!