On being factful

I’ve torn through the late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, completed by his son and daughter-in-law, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. I wish everybody could read it. The message in a nutshell is: learn to reflect about the news you read/hear, and appreciate that there’s a difference between good and better.

The book is written around a multiple choice quiz Rosling administered online and to many audiences he spoke to, which revealed that large majorities of all kinds of audiences (including Nobel prize winners and the Davos elite) get certain basic facts very badly wrong. In a lot of ways, things are not at all great, around the world. But they are a lot better than they used to be, and a lot better than most people think they are. This applies to health and longevity, girls’ education, violent crime, and so on.

In terms of applying a bit of thought to the drama of the news, Rosling gives very practical advice: always think about the size of  number you hear – what is a good comparator, should it be a ratio; don’t always extrapolate in a straight line; don’t mistake the extremes for the typical experience; understand the power of exponential change. He means ‘factfulness’ as an analogue to ‘mindfulness’ (but much more worthwhile).

I like Rosling’s philsosophy: “The goal of higher income is not just bigger piles of money. The gola of longer lives is not just extra time. The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want.” I agree with his diagnosis that fear plays a big part in our responses to news: “Critical thinking is always difficult but it’s almost impossible when we’re scared.”

Although (to boast a bit) I got 12/13 on the quiz, I learned a lot from the book. For instance, I was struck by his argument that given we know 88% of the world’s children now get vaccinated, this tells us most countries can now sustain the logistics and infrastructure of the necessary cool chains; “This is exactly the same infrastructure needed to establish new factories,” Rosling writes. Yet 88% of the investors he quizzed thought only 20% of children get vaccinated so don’t know about that opportunity. He also argues that big pharma is missing a business opportunity in its focus on expensive new drugs for the richest markets, when they could offer older drugs at lower prices in the extensive middle income markets.

The book is also a delightful read, full of personal anecdote. One can hear his voice, which is a testament to the loving work his son and daughter-in-law put into preparing it for publication. Also worth a look is Anna Rosling Ronnund’s fascinating Dollar Street photography project.


Jazz minds

Nick Chater’s The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind has some highly impressive endorsements on the back and there’s been a bit of a buzz about it. Maybe that’s why I was a little disappointed. The book is a very enjoyable read. It canters through lots of issues about the limitations of our sense perceptions, with an emphasis on visual perception. There are lots of illustrations. Chater also writes very well, and even starts out by drawing a parallel with some of my favourite novels, the Gormenghast Trilogy: Gormenghast Castle feels real as you read the details Peake lovingly describes, but it could never fit together in real life.Similarly, Chater argues, “The mind itself is an impossible object.” It feels solid and coherent, but there is no there there. Just a sequence of fleeting, confused, partial interpretations of the raw sense impressions. The brain makes up stories and kids us that there is a consistency of narrative and character.

Emotions are the same, Chater says – not inherently different to all our other acts of ‘reasoning’, differing only in the interpretation we place on them. Emotion isn’t an opposite to reason, it’s just a different kind of reason. The book states some principles about how the mind (not that it exists) work: attention is the process of interpreting sense impressions; our only conscious experience is the interpretation of sense impressions; the stream of consciousness is the succession of these thoughts. There’s no more to it. “We have all been the victims of a hoax, perpetrated on us by our own brains…. The mind is flat. The surface is all there is.”

All great fun but the perceptual shortcomings that make up a lot of the book are surely well known limitations? I recall these being covered at some length at an economics-psychology conference on attention in Toulouse in 2011. And others before – not least the great David Hume – emphasised the role of senory information in shaping throught and emotion. So the book left me with a so what feeling. I’m not devastated to learn that Freud was wrong and I have no hidden depths submergedin in the form of my unconscious.In fact, I quite like the idea of improvised, jazz minds.

As Chater says, each individual is shaped by a series of experiences and perceptions that shape them today just as a certain pattern of rock and rainfall shape a river bed. So I don’t know quite what message to take away., or not in terms of decision making Maybe it’s this: “As today’s thought or action is tomorrow’s precedent, we are, quite literally, reshaping and reinventing ourselves thought by thought.” If so, this isn’t entirely persuasive as part of today’s input into thought consists of records of the past – words or images, which to be sure pass through the crazy golf course of sense perceptions. But to the extent it is true, I don’t know whether it’s a disturbing or comforting message.

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Planning the unplannable

I just read a working paper by Joe Kane, ‘The Economic Flaws in Computerized Socialism’, which refers to Eden Medina’s excellent 2011 book about Project Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile, Cybernetic Revolutionaries. She recounts the history of this attempt to use computers for central planning, from a futuristic control room, relying on data input in factories around the country. Even before the coup, the project was in some trouble. As Kane notes, there has been a revival of the idea that computers and the internet (and now the blockchain) make central planning feasible. Evgeny Morozov trailed the idea an article that drew on Medina’s book. So did Paul Mason in his dire book Post-Capitalism. Kane cites a few other examples.

As he points out in the working paper though, the central planning problem is not one of computation or the transfer of information – or rather, that is only the case in the world of neoclassical general equilibrium theory. Frances Spufford’s brilliant book Red Plenty makes use of the formal equivalence of the centrally planned and competitive market economies in that la-la-land with no frictions, fixed preferences and complete markets. Markets are a process of discovery, as John Kay has to repeat over and over again. The data that would be needed for computerized central planning are not ‘out there’, but are created by the market. I wouldn’t go nearly as far as Kane in concluding government policies are therfeore useless, but do agree that “the outcome of the market process is not separable from the process which generates it.”

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Hot grease and cotton dust

Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World starts – of course- with the cotton mills of northern England during the Industrial Revolution. The early chapters had a (reverse-)Proustian effect, reminding me of the distinctive assault on the senses of taking my dad his lunch in his spinning mill, where he was a mule operator, or going to see my aunties in their weaving shed: the rhythmic clatter of the machines, the smell of hot grease and cotton dust. But they were small factories. The book’s theme is the economic and cultural role of giant factoriesm behemoths.

It’s an engrossing read, progressing from Manchester in England – inspiration for Marx and Engels (the latter running a mill there) – to the New England textile industry and the American System; the late 19th century enthusiasm for factories and manufactures with the Crystal Palace Exhibition and other grand fairs; Ford and Fordism; Soviet Gigantism; the Cold War era of mass production; and ending with the giant plants in China and elsewhere in Asia today.

The book notes the magnetic appeal of big factories, even for their social critics. This started early. In the 19th century, campaigners’ indignation focused on conditions of work in the new factories, including their use of child labour. Quite right too. Yet, Freeman notes, “The novelty of the factory system drew attention to the exploitation of its workforce, while the long-standing exploitation of agricultural workers, domestic producers, servants (encompassing twice as many women as in the textile industry) and others went largely unnoted by politicians, journalists and writers, who had little interest in the lower classes.” (The same is true now of the commentariat’s focus on ‘gig’ work via digital platforms; there are lots of worse jobs around.)

For much of their history, factories have been seen as symbols of modernity – including in the arts, especially by photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White or Alexander Rodchenko. In the late 19th century again, the structures of industry represented the Sublime. The link of the huge factory complex with modernity was particularly striking in the newly industrialising Soviet Union – and one of the things I learned from the book was how much that had depended on American engineers, designers, foremen, trainers in the 1920s and 1930s. The Soviet sphere continued to manufacture on a giant scale until 1989. As a journalist in 1990, I visited the Ganz Elecrtic plant near Budapest, up for sale to western investors. Steel went in at one end, everything from buses and lightbulbs emerged at the other. Some giant plants even had steel mills, integrating the entire vertical chain.

Yet in the US the biggest companies moved away from their emphasis on huge plants like Ford’s River Rouge – a tourist destination and much photographed and celebrated – in part to reduce their vulnerability to organised labour and industrial action. The need for labour and the constant to and fro in power relations is one of the threads running through the book. Freeman argues that unionization and labour power get too little attention in the economic literature on industrial location, which I think is right. The communist countries were able to continue on the behemothic scale because unions were part of the social state.

The book ends with China’s giants, such as Foxconn City. Why are they still so big, Freeman asks? These are not long and complex production lines like those involved in building a modern car or an aircraft. And there are diseconomies of scale in terms of management and organisation – not to mention hiring and managing such a large workforce – which one might have expected to lead to production on a smaller scale. His answer is that scale today serves the retailers, not the manufacturers. The focus on marketing and branding by the likes of Apple or Nike means they want consistent, timely and huge runs of new products. Modern communications – virtual and physical – have made contract manufacturing possible on this immense scale. Many western manufacturers outsourced their manufacturing from the mid-1990s. So whereas 19th and 20th century giant factories were public marvels – criticised, yes, but also admired, visited, debated – 21st century factories in China are dull boxes surrounded by walls and rarely photographed.

Still less do they inspire poets like Walt Whitman, who wrote of the sublimeness of steam power. The poetry quoted here is by a young Foxconn worker who committed suicide: “They’ve trained me to become docile/Don’t know how to shout or rebel/How to complain or denounce/Only how to silently suffer exhaustion.”

Being a factory worker has always been exhausting, draining, deafening, dangerous – for all that there are worse alternatives. Although unions briefly won great gains for (male, long-term) factory workers in the mid-20th century, leading some people now to romanticise blue collar jobs and factory communities, I’m happy to see robots taking over ever-more of the work. And yet, and yet, factories are still fascinating.


Ideal wet weather reading

In time for the long weekend, Behemoth: A history of the factory and the making of the modern world by Joshua Freeman has just arrived at Enlightenment Towers. It’s pouring with rain (well, what else would the weather do on a holiday weekend), I have an easter egg to eat, so as soon as I’ve finished reviewing a research proposal I know what I’ll be doing…