Monthly Archives: December 2011

Book Review: The Rational Optimist

41lE-6SCVdL._SS500_Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is a dense but fascinating argument for why life is going to get better and better. Ridley’s optimism has to do with specialization, trade, globalization, networks, cooperation, exchange–there’ll be more of it, all, he says. Especially as ideas cross-pollinate: “when ideas have sex” is when civilization flourishes.

I found the book highly stimulating. First, Ridley synthesized and expanded on ideas I was already loosely familiar with. It was helpful to think back to these different books, and to try to draw some connections. His discussion of the interplay of ideas reminded me of Steven Johnson and Frans Johansson; his discussion of evolving modern prosperity remidned me of Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling; his discussion of why globalization leads to huge creative gains reminded me of Tyler Cowen; his discussion of why we’re pessimisstic despite the good news reminded me of Gregg Easterbrook; his discussion of non-zero sum global cooperation reminded me of Robert Wright. And of course his basic theses about trade and exchange draw on Adam Smith’s foundational work.

Second, Ridley taught me several new things. For example, he spends a good chunk of time discussing global food shortages and “renewable” energy. He covers these topics with an overt libertarian bent, admittedly, though in a style that’s never dogmatic.

My favorite sentences/paragraphs from the book are below. All are direct quotes from Ridley, but the bold emphases are my own.

At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.

Imagine if the man who invented the railway and the man who invented the locomotive could never meet or speak to each other, even through third parties….I shall argue that there was a point in human pre-history when big-brained, cultural, learning people for the first time began to exchange things with each other, and that once they started doing so, culture suddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic “progress” began. Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.

Specialization encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labour. The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they exchanged, the better off they have been, are, and will be.

Today, of Americans officially designated as “poor,” 99% have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95% have a television, 88% a telephone, 71% a car and 70% air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these….In Europe and America rivers, lakes, seas, and the air are getting cleaner all the time…Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.

Time: that is key. Forget dollars, cowrie shells or gold. The true measure of something’s worth is the hours it takes to acquire it. If you have to acquire it for yourself, it usually takes longer than if you get it ready-made by other people. And if you can get it made efficiently by others, then you can afford more of it….This is what prosperity is: the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work…A three minute phone call from New York to Los Angeles cost ninety hours of work at the average wage of 1910; today it costs less than two minutes.

The Easterlin paradox does not exist. Rich people are happier than poor people; rich countries have happier people than poor countries; and people get happier as they get richer.

It is probably true that the rich do lots of unnecessary damage to the planet as they go on striving to get richer long after the point where it is having much effect on their happiness — they are after all endowed with instincts for “rivalrous competition” descended from hunter-gatherers whose relative, not absolute, status determined their sexual rewards.

Let it never be forgotten that, by propagating excessive caution about genetically modified food aid, some pressure groups may have exacerbated real hunger in Zambia in the early 2000s.

“Declaration of interdependence”

Think of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.

Reciprocity means giving each other the same thing (usually) at different times. Exchange — call it barter or trade if you like — means giving each other different things (usually) at the same time: simultaneously swapping two different objects…Barter is a lot more portentous than reciprocity. After all, delousing aside, how many activities are there in life where it pays to do the same thing to each other in turn? “If I sew you a hide tunic today, you can sew me one tomorrow” brings limited rewards and diminishing returns. “If I make the clothes, you catch the food” brings increasing returns. Indeed, it has the beautiful property that it does not even need to be fair. For barter to work, two individuals do not need to offer things of equal value. Trade is often unequal, but still benefits both sides. This is a point that nearly everybody seems to miss…. I am saying that barter — the simultaneous exchange of different objects — was itself a human breakthrough, perhaps even the chief thing that led to the ecological dominance and burgeoning material prosperity of the species…Economists see barter as just one example of a bigger human habit of general reciprocity. Biologists talk about the role that reciprocity played in social evolution, meaning “do until others as they do until you.” Neither seems to be interested in the distinction that I think is vital, so let me repeat it here once more: at some point, after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.

A trillion generations of unbroken parental generosity stand behind a bargain with your mother. A hundred good experiences stand behind your reliance on a friend. The long shadow of the future hangs over any transaction with your local shopkeeper…My point is simply this: with frequent setbacks, trust has gradually and progressively grown, spread, and deepened during human history, because of exchange.

The working poor give a much higher proportion of their income to good causes than the rich do, and crucially they give three times as much as people on welfare do.

On average, when it lands in a town, Wal-Mart causes a 13 per cent drop in its competitors’ prices and saves its customers nationally $200 billion a year.

The size of the average American company is down from twenty-five employees to ten in just twenty-five years.

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between) – and a great deal of trade, not just because the mouths and the plants will not be in the same place, but also because trade encourages specialization in the best-yielding crops for any particular district.

There is not a single example of a country opening its borders to trade and ending up poorer.

Farm subsides and import tariffs on cotton, sugar, rice, and other products cost Africa $500 billion a year in lost export opportunities — or twelve times the entire aid budget to the continent.

Rural self-sufficiency is a romantic mirage. Urban opportunity is what people want.

Not long ago, demographers expected new technology to hollow out cities as people began to telecommute from tranquil suburbs. But no – even in weightless industries like finance people prefer to press into ever closer contact with each other in glass towers to do their exchanging and specializing, and they are prepared to pay absurdly high rents to do so.

United Nations’ best estimate is that world population will probably start falling once it peaks at 9.2 billion in 2075.

Eat Global, Not Local


It is fashionable these days to decry "food miles." The longer food has spent traveling to your plate, the more oil has been burnt and the more peace has been shattered along the way. But why single out food? Should we not protest against T-shirt miles, too, and laptop miles? After all, fruits and vegetables account for more than 20 percent of all exports from poor countries, whereas most laptops come from rich countries, so singling out food imports for special discrimination means singling out poor countries for sanctions. Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is a "profoundly flawed sustainability indicator." Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4% of all its lifetime emissions…A New Zealand lamb, shipped to England, requires one-quarter as much carbon to get on to a London plate as a Welsh lamb; a Dutch rose, grown in a heated greenhouse and sold in London, has six times the carbon footprint of a Kenyan rose grown under the sun using water recycled through a fish farm, using geothermal electricity and providing employment to Kenyan women.

That's from page 41 of The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. I'll post a full review tomorrow.

Caitlin Flanagan, last year in the Atlantic, wrote about Alice Waters "hijacking school curricula" in California to teach a bizarre set of local food ideas to students.

Here's a long Foreign Policy article on why the Whole Foods mantra of "organic, local, slow" is one that may interest rich Americans and Europeans yet profoundly disadvantages the world's hungry millions.

Here's a piece on why organic food is neither healthier to eat nor better for the environment.

When We Tell Ourselves Stories

Someone at LessWrong transcribed Tyler Cowen's TEDx talk on the problem with stories and narrative–and how we let ourselves be governed by them. It's a good one, and faster to read than listen.

I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it away, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more….

One interesting thing about cognitive biases – they're the subject of so many books these days. There's the Nudgebook, the Sway book, the Blink book, like the one-title book, all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don't these books tell us that? It's because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you're learning about some of your biases, but you're making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias. Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like "I bought this book. I won't be Predictably Irrational." It's like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It's why there's such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that's maybe the bigger fallacy. It's just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They're the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It's the people that realize, "I don't know anything at all," that end up doing pretty well.


The other week I hosted a storytelling night. Eight of us convened and each went around the room and told a story. My suggested theme to the group was travel. One person's said the following near the beginning of his story: "And then I embarked on a monthlong trip through the Bolvian highlands. I was all by myself, and I had plenty of time to think about Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Tyler Cowen." It was a fun evening.

Selective Excerpting to Reach the Masses

Tumblr post with life advice got sent around to several people I know, via retweets and shares. Key excerpts:

This is the thing: When you hit 28 or 30, everything begins to divide. You can see very clearly two kinds of people. On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find … themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults. Then there’s the other kind, who are hanging onto college, or high school even, with all their might. They’ve stayed in jobs they hate, because they’re too scared to get another one. They’ve stayed with men or women who are good but not great, because they don’t want to be lonely. … they mean to develop intimate friendships, they mean to stop drinking like life is one big frat party. But they don’t do those things, so they live in an extended adolescence, no closer to adulthood than when they graduated. 

Don’t be like that. Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming. Don’t lose yourself at happy hour, but don’t lose yourself on the corporate ladder either. Stop every once in a while and go out to coffee or climb in bed with your journal.

The advice is not bad — even if it succumbs to the "short. bursts. of advice. to do. something." formulation that peeves me — but I have two broader reactions.

First, "there are two types of people" is a smart, simple frame that plays on people's us vs. them instinct. It also enables subtle self-congratulation when someone shares the article online–you only share it if you are on the right side of the fence.

Second, and more interestingly, the original article from which the post excerpts actually appeared in a religious magazine called Relevant, which bills itself as about "God. Life. Progressive Culture." In fact, if you look at the original article, there are various religious references that got turned into ellipses in the excerpt.


On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find God and themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults. 

Tumblr excerpt that got shared: 

On one side, people who have used their 20s to learn and grow, to find … themselves and their dreams, people who know what works and what doesn’t, who have pushed through to become real live adults.


Walk closely with people you love, and with people who believe God is good and life is a grand adventure.


Walk closely with people you love, and with people who believe … life is a grand adventure. 

You could say the advice is just as valid with or without the God references. But it's interesting that whoever posted the excerpt decided to omit them. He must have figured he'd lose none of the religious readers by keeping the message secular (even if the connection with religious readers was made less intense), but that he stood to lose a lot of non-religious people were the God references kept. So he chose for the most universal excerpt.

It reminds me of the Insiders vs. Outsiders post I wrote the other week. When communicating to a group, you're always trying to decide whether to connect intensely with a small set of folks, or connect less intensely with a larger set.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?

Whether you think of Nietzsche or Kanye West when you hear the line "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"–you probably think of it as true. Or at least I did. Short term struggle builds long term strength. Even life's toughest experiences have a redeeming quality inasmuch as it instructs or inspires or hardens or softens a person in the right away. Etc.

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer. He's undergoing radiation. In Vanity Fair he reflects on the maxim that I took as fact–and finds it false.

In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.

On the pain he felt:

To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

He ends:

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.


Here's a touching book trailer about dying. I've rarely seen someone on camera who appears truly at peace in life. Lee Lipsenthal does. He passed away a couple months ago. His book, Enjoy Every Sandwich, came out last month.

One Simple Question to Test Dating Compatability

All dating compatability tests end up testing for a simple question: "Will we laugh at the same shit?"

That's one nugget among many from the relatively recent New Yorker article on online dating.

Another nugget: the answer to the question "Do you like the taste of beer?" is more predictive than any other of whether you’re willing to have sex on a first date.