The five book challenge

This is something I wrote back in June about political worldviews, filter bubbles and trying to understand others’ positions.

I was just about ready to publish it when the referendum happened, and it became clear that it would be pointless to put it out into the ensuing maelstrom. Now that things have calmed down ever so slightly, I think perhaps it might find an audience.

The other week I finished reading Nicholas Shaxson’s ‘Treasure Islands‘ (subtitled ‘Tax Havens and the men who stole the world’ in the UK). As the title implies, it’s about how offshore banking works, who is benefitting and the major harm it’s doing both to the developed and the developing world. Shaxson is British and (although the US, France and many others get their dues), the British Government, the Bank of England, the Corporation of the City of London, the City as a whole and the network of British Overseas Territories and British Crown Dependencies all come in for a good kicking. It’s an excellent book, well-researched and on the whole powerfully convincing. It made me very angry and very sad.

But it also got me thinking again about the audiences for books like this. Although it filled in a lot of details for me, I was, unsurprisingly, already sympathetic to Shaxson’s argument. And this is true for many of the books of economics, politics and current affairs I read. I do try to read widely and ensure that I challenge my own thinking, but my own biases are to the left and of course that informs my reading habits.

When Gerard Lyons (right-leaning economist and an advisor to Boris Johnson during his time at City Hall) brought out ‘The Consolations of Economics: Good news in the wake of the financial crisis‘, I dutifully added it to my Amazon wishlist. But if I’m honest, when I still haven’t got around to Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century‘, I’m not likely to find time for Lyons’ book any time soon.

By contrast, my suspicion is that not that many of the people who arguably ‘should’ read Treasure Islands – the people who don’t see offshore as a major problem, who are unconcerned or even positive about tax avoidance, and who think that neoliberalism and the globalised economy is working as it should – will do so.

This is an example of a broader dilemma I frequently encounter. A Cambridge education and a 20 year involvement in the sport of rowing has meant that I have a lot of friends who tick some or all of the following boxes:

  • affluent upbringing;
  • Conservative voters as part of a long family tradition;
  • work in the City;
  • strong belief in the economic status quo.

These are good people: intelligent, educated, decent and compassionate – and I love them all dearly. But they frequently exasperate me, because I find it difficult to understand how they can look at the same world I do and yet comprehend it so differently.

I’m talking mostly here about the UK’s political economy here: questions about taxation, inequality, the financial system and so on. On social issues we are generally all on the same page – except perhaps about feminism and sexual equality, but that’s a whole different discussion for another day.

Anyway, perhaps this is naive, but I do retain a belief in the power of a good argument to convince someone – if their mind is open. And so, I’ve had an idea.

What if we make a deal: I recommend you five books which make the case for my worldview; you recommend five books which do the same for yours. We read each other’s books, and try to do so with as open a mind as possible. We then report back on whether our minds have been changed at all. I believe, of course, that my position has more evidence and more compelling arguments on its side. You, presumably, believe the same. Why don’t we put it to the test?

I’ve chosen five books that I’ve read over the last couple of years and that have made an impression on me. I’ve gone for brevity, variety and strongly-evidenced. Here they are:

1) A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives by Cordelia Fine

I put this one first because I think it’s essential for getting in the right frame of mind to try and challenge one’s own preconceptions. If anyone accepts this challenge and gives me five books to read, I’ll preface that with skim-reading this again. From my Goodreads review:

In a short and snappy (but evidenced and well-referenced) way, Fine demonstrates the ways in which we are deceived by our own brains. We protect our own egos; ignore evidence that doesn’t support our opinions; invent evidence that does; take decisions for arbitrary and irrelevant reasons; and have more prejudices than we might like to think. All in all, our brains (for all their wondrous talents) are flawed and imperfect – and we’d do better to appreciate that.

Others I considered for this slot:

Incognito by David Eagleman This is slightly less to the point than Fine but it is a great primer on the limits of our cognitive capacity.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman I went for the Fine because it’s shorter and pithier but Kahneman looms large and this is, of course, excellent.

2) Economyths: Ten Ways Economics Gets It Wrong by David Orrell

Second, this assault on the ‘received wisdom’ of the economic theory that we currently use in the UK as the basis for almost all the big decisions we (or at least our leaders) take. If I’d read Piketty, I expect that would go here instead. But I haven’t, and his is much shorter! From my Goodreads review:

His argument, reasonably convincingly put, is that neo-classical economics (i.e. the dominant school of thought running from Adam Smith, through Pareto, Hajek, Milton Friedman to the likes of Alan Greenspan) has tried to position itself as being, like physics, based on immutable, eternal laws (supply and demand, perfect markets, rational maximising of utility etc) but that there is no real evidence that this is how people, and the economy, actually works.

Further, he argues that this is dangerous because, while at one level everyone knows that economic models are very weak at making predictions, they still form the worldview of the large majority of politicians, central bankers, business and financial leaders, are used to make policy and, what’s more, to boldly assert that this is the way things must be done Because Free Market Orthodoxy Says So.

Others I considered for this slot:

Where Does Money Come From?: A Guide To The Uk Monetary And Banking System by Josh Ryan-Collins, Tony Greenham, Richard Werner, Andrew Jackson In the end I decided it was too abstruse for the list but it is important. Basically, the banking system doesn’t work in the way you think it does. Seriously, this isn’t an argument by left-wingers: it just doesn’t.

3) Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

A good introduction to various theories of justice (in the broadest sense i.e. what is just?), I put this on the list for two related reasons. First, it’s my experience that many university educated Brits have been exposed at some level to classical liberal thought (the likes of Locke and Mill) and utilitarianism, without even necessarily realising they have been – and without having explored the weaknesses as well as the strengths. Second, because it has a really good treatment of John Rawls (the difference principle, the veil of ignorance etc). Again, it’s my feeling that most Brits have never encountered Rawls – and he makes such a powerful, humane, coherent case that I challenge you to read it and not re-evaluate some of your beliefs about economic inequality.

4) Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

See my summary at the top of this article. The key point though is that even if you’re a great believer in free market capitalism, this book demonstrates how it’s not working the way it’s supposed to. The rich (both individuals and companies) are gaming the system and are not paying their fair share.

Other things I considered for this slot:

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis A different story, this one about high-frequency trading, about how some firms are exploiting large cracks in the regulatory environment to scalp others. As with Treasure Islands, I can’t believe that even red-blooded market fundamentalists would truly think that this sort of exploitation and criminality is how the system is supposed to function.

5) Get It Together – Zoe Williams

I put this last because I suspect that anyone who leans to the right is going to need a lot of softening up before they’re willing to accept the arguments of a Guardian journalist! But the fact is that it’s a damn good survey of where Britain is now (or at least where it was before the EU referendum). From my Goodreads review:

Zoe Williams attempts to articulate a coherent narrative for the British left, and actually does a damn good job – certainly far better than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls managed.

The book covers poverty, the NHS, housing, taxation, education, immigration, finance, privatisation and climate change; it necessarily skates over these big subjects but the author has clearly done a lot of reading and research, and spoken to a great many people. It’s pleasingly well evidenced and footnoted for a book by a columnist (which in my experience often have references only to other opinion pieces).

 

So there you have it. Those are my five suggestions for you – the compassionate, thoughtful Conservative – to read, if you want to understand why I believe what I do. What do you suggest I read in return, to explain why you believe what you do?

 

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5 comments

  1. Hey James,
    I don’t read many political books precisely for the reasons you mention that I feel they are already preaching to the converted – But I do read “around” politics and can give you a suggestion of 5 books to help understand how I think about the world.

    To give you the background: I would call my ideology something like “future focused, economist reading” – Reasonably centrist but certainly to the right of you. (Ideologically the coalition was perfect for me – though much bungled in practise which was not a surprise). I am also much more globalist than most – I think british politics is generally obsessed by small changes of comparatively minor importance. (For example, the program of “conservative cuts” so demonised by the left over the last parliament). Overall, I am highly suspicious of radicalism or alarmism – I think we are living in the greatest period of peace and prosperity ever and don’t want to mess that up.

    The Books I would suggest to understand how I look at the world are:
    1. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
    Just knowing about Biases and how the brain works is not enough – infact it [can be dangerous tool](http://lesswrong.com/lw/he/knowing_about_biases_can_hurt_people/) what really matters is getting better at understanding biases – and predicting what will happen in the future – you need to [make beliefs pay rent in the future](http://lesswrong.com/lw/i3/making_beliefs_pay_rent_in_anticipated_experiences/) . Of course, you only get a limited among of benefit from reading about biases – what would be really effective is taking part in something like [Good Judgement Open](https://www.gjopen.com/) and trying to improve your predictions over time.

    (Also considered: Rationality: from AI to Zombies by Elizer Yudokowsky – but it is a 3000+ page ebook full of repetition, stuff that is probably wrong and partial truths designed to convince you the most urgent cause in the world is preventing an AI apocalypse – still highly recommended though)

    2. The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World – Steven Radelet
    I don’t think most people appreciate how much better the world we live in is that the world I was born in. Over the last 25 years we have seen the greatest ever progress in human history – more than 700 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, six million fewer children die every year from disease, tens of millions more in school, millions more people have access to clean water. For me – this is not just an extraordinary achievement but perhaps the greatest achievement in human history. What should be really concerning to people who consider themselves left wing though is that came about in spite of, not because of, their ideology. The major reasons for this transformation which Radelet (I think correctly) identifies are: 1. The defeat of Communism 2. More free market internal economic policies in developing countries and 3. Increased globalisation and trade. These are ideas which the left either had a very spotty / halfhearted record on or continue to oppose and fight to this day. To me it should be very concerning to someone from the left that in the largest achievement in human history, left wing politics can take very little of the credit.

    3. What’s Left?: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen
    I read this several years ago, and I don’t know to what extent it holds up today and I forget a lot of its arguments. But I remember at the time as a slowly becoming more dissatisfied with the left Cambridge undergraduate it electrified and got to the heart of what annoyed me about liberal politics . It focuses much more on authoritarianism and contradiction – issues I am probably more sanguine about today than I was then – but it definitely showed me that “the left” was not a place I could call a home.

    4. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James Scott.
    This is the much more intellectual and economy focused book that dooms the left for me for the final time. What this book does brilliantly above anything is show the countless times again and again throughout history where a government uses power to do something (usually with good intentions) and ends up causing harm. Good intentions are not enough – what matters is good results and good results are incredibly difficult to get using state power which is a very blunt instrument.

    5. Average is Over by Tyler Cowen
    This book convinced me that we probably radically underinvest in scientific education and useful skills amongst the general population. Technological advance is creating resentments and the well off elite that dominates left wing politics is determined to respond to increasing meritocracy with increasing shaming and elitism. Overall – for a future focus it is a great look at the near term and the disruptions that are coming.

    1. I suspect I’m less of a typical leftie than you might think, too. I’m certainly not statist in my solutions, although I do think that well-planned regulation, and the state stepping in where the market fails (which happens more often than many would concede) both have very important roles – a number of years working in pensions helped inform those views.

      As it happens, Tetlock and Scott were both on my list already. The Cohen was for a long time too, but it never made it to the top and, as you’ve indicated, it’s a little dated now. I am reasonably familiar with his positions from his journalism though, and am fairly sympathetic to quite a lot of them.

      The Radelet sounds interesting and I will try to get to that. I’d be interested in how his take contrasts with Joseph Stiglitz – I read Globalization and its Discontents a number of years ago and, so far as I can remember, he makes the point that a number of the countries that developed fastest, and most successfully (I think South Korea is his biggest example) did so in spite of, or perhaps because of, ignoring stern admonitions by the IMF and others to liberalise fast and drop their tariff barriers instantly. They did things in their own way and seem to have done better from it.

      I think I had the Cowen on my to read list already but if I didn’t I will add it.

  2. Of your list I will say: 1.Skip – since I assume I am already familiar through Khaneman and the wider lit with everything it would say. 2. Skip – Seems provocative – but googling it the reviews from economics people are appaling and suggest it has so many basic errors as to be unreadable or deliberatley deceptive – I will subsitute your alternative suggestion (Though your review suggests I won’t be surprised since I do understand how bank lending works.) 3. Have read it – dull and avoids actual interesting arguments, this is the most popular Harvard undergraduate course and a superstar touring lecture course in China and in retrospect you can tell has to be dull to appeal equally to audiences with such different moral backgrounds. 4. Will read, I expect to be sympathetic to basic “this is wrong” argument but find any solutions proposed (if it does propose any) unrealistic. 5. Will read.

  3. I’m a little surprised you found the Sandel dull – although as I say it made it to this list particularly because of the chapter on Rawls and my sense that an awful lot of people are unfamiliar with what I think are powerful arguments.

    I’ve seen the criticisms of Orrell too and I do think it’s an imperfect book but nevertheless an extremely useful corrective. I suspect though that, yes, you may get more out of Where Does Money Come From? which is admirably thorough and detailed.

    On Shaxson, I’d be interested in what you think about his take on the nature of the negotiations and relationships between the UK Government and the British Overseas Territories.

    1. Dull in that I had already read Rawls, Singer, Kant, etc etc before hand as part of uni courses. In moral philosophy I am mostly looking for someone giving original positions that are action guiding rather than retreading abstractions. (It is probably valuable to explain the basics but not to decide for yourself how to make moral decisions). Definitley read the Scott – it is genuinely horrifying in places.

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