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?