Sunday, July 23, 2006

Books to make you think

After a couple of posts that took a bit of thinking, I want to turn the tables. Here are a set of links to a sampling of books that got me thinking when I read them; if you want to do some thinking, take a swing at these. I've got a ton more on my shelf; some I've read, some are still waiting in line.

[All the links are to Amazon. Yes, I own some Amazon shares; Amazon's tools for looking at reviews, etc, are pretty useful. Sure, I'll be crushed if you buy elsewhere, but I'll get over it -- eventually.]

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. The book talks about the tendency over time for people to cooperate in ever larger groups. More specifically, it points out that, over time, ever larger groups are more effective at competing against less collaborative groups. So while it highlights the benefits that humans have gained from collaboration, it also highlights that the motivation is pretty much driven by an us-versus-them perspective. In that context, it's tricky to see how you get all of humanity to join the same team. Best shot is an H. G Wells / Steven Spielberg production. If it's just small matter of climate change or other global concern, most of those can be recast as a shortage of one resource or another. Still, I find it encouraging to consider the evidence for human willingness to collaborate on a larger and larger scale.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. The book reviews several distinct cases of how localized human societies blithely steered themselves out of existence by failing to recognize that their approaches were not sustainable. Although there are a few cases (notably Easter Island) where the signals seem pretty plain, there are instances where remarkable perception would have been necessary to recognize the issue, let alone fix it. Do we now have that kind of perception? Hmmm.

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando De Soto. De Soto is a Peruvian innovator with business experience in wealth western free markets. Self-described as "not a academic", he never the less has puzzled over why free markets don't do well in Peru and other third world countries. He must be more of an academic than he lets on, because he discussed the slow development of property rights in the early US in great detail. He makes a convincing argument that the absence of well recognized property ownership is one of the keys of a working free market system.

The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, by Michael Mandelbaum. This book walks through the progress of Wilsonian thinking in the past 80 years. Presents a strong case for the linkage between the 3 pillars: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets, which also highlights the difficulty of attempting to establish one or two of these in isolation in a given nation or region or culture. Together with De Soto's book, it's easier to understand the trials of getting Russia up and running in a western model.

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs. An inspiring and yet (remarkably!) credible discussion of the possibilities for progress in very poor third world countries.

Globalization and Its Discontents, by Joseph Stieglitz. This is something of an expose on IMF and World Banks policies, and how they are largely driven by money interests in the US, rather than a money-neutral desire to foster growth and progress in client countries. The sense one gets (okay, the sense I got) is that this is not some vast evil conspiracy to thwart the World Bank and IMF so much as it is the (inevitable?) result of the influence of money interests acting independently at many steps along the way.

And here's a special case: International Relations from Wikibooks. This book has the usual neutral but very readable style that you expect from Wikipedia articles. I'm still working my way through it, but already I've encountered an interesting suggestion. Evidently the prominent theories of international relations are "realism" and "liberalism" (also pejoratively referred to as "idealism"). My early perception is that realism is concerned chiefly with the power of states, and is focused on achieving relatively tactical or short term gains in dealing with states. In contrast, liberalism approaches international relations from a "what are our end goals and how can we work toward them." Seems to me that the real world requires a bit of both. I do get the sense that "pure" realism may "work better" than "pure" liberalism, but realism seems to have the disadvantage that it makes no attempt to align with a system of values.

Well, as I said, these are books that make me think. Clicking on any of the Amazon links above will take you to a book page; scrolling down near the bottom of the page you can see various book lists. I'm impressed with several of the lists, in particular this one.

So... think.


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