The end of empire in Asia

I’ve strayed outside my own territory to read a book by a colleague, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire by Tim Harper. I’ll start by saying it’s definitely a commitment as the book is 650 pages long (before counting the footnotes). However, I’ve found it completely gripping and was glad to have some long train journeys this week. This is a subject – Asian political and intellectual history from about 1900-1930 – that I knew next to nothing about beforehand. The book ranges across the whole of Asia including China and India, and follows the activists on their travels to Europe and the US, whether voluntary (seeking support) or not (sent into exile). So – to use an awkward metaphor – the book joins up unknown dots. It also completely brings home the immorality of empire, with none of the imperial powers – Britain, France, the Netherlands – coming out of it with any honour as they resisted realising that the days of empire were drawing to an end. The political developments, including the spread of actively revolutionary ideas and movements after the Bolshevik revolution, dominate the narrative; but I also relished the cultural elements of the story, including the popularity of English and French detective novels in the late 19th century or the proliferation of new journals as ideas spread along seaways and railways.

Here’s a longer and more informative review for those who know more about this subject than I do. One blurb on the back, from Peter Frankopan, describes the book as reading like a thriller. It absolutely does. An excellent beach paperback for the summer.

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UK economic performance: who to blame for what

The Chancellors: Steering the British Economy in Crisis Times by Howard Davies is a really interesting read. It’s an account of aspects of the UK’s economic performance since 1997, based on a mixture of looking at data and research, his own personal experience at the heart of the events covered, and interviews with the Chancellors and other senior officials during the past 30-odd years. Now, this could be a bit pedestrian, and it is certainly inside the UK equivalent of the Beltway (London postcode SW1 for Whitehall to EC2 for the Bank of England to E14 for Canary Wharf).

What makes it so interesting is that Sir Howard was in the middle of some key events. He was Deputy Governor of the Bank of England when Gordon Brown made the surprise announcement of its independence in mid-1997. (I was an economics journalist at the time, and remember the press conference vividly – my political editor colleague and I looked at each other asking silently, Did I just hear what I think I heard?) He was also close to the post-GFC debates about how to restructure financial regulation/supervision, having headed the then new FSA from 1997 to 2003. Indeed, his public service career started as an adviser in the Treasury, so he knows the institutions and the people well.

This could still be made dull, in the right hands. But adding to the reading spice, he also makes his not entirely flattering views about certain people perfectly plain. Often on picking up a new book, it’s gratifying to find that you’re cited – with this one, more anxiety-making (my work gets two references, both pretty neutral. Phew). There may be readers who are less than thrilled.

The book covers a mix of events – the GFC, the Scottish and Brexit referendums – and issues – public spending, climate change, macro policy and performance. It ends with some interesting reflections on the Treasury as an institution and whether it is in the right shape or has the right culture to tackle the challenges ahead, including Covd and climate. His conclusion is no, but not so much because of the embedded Treasury culture that drives many of its critics to despair as because of its under-resourcing. He argues this takes two forms: just not enough money and people, unable to retain staff; and also too many smart generalists who get moved around, and not enough people with deep expertise in say tax policy or financial regulation who stick around. Together these make for inadequate institutional memory and expertise.

So whether you’re interested in the soap opera aspects – who blames whom for what – or the underlying policy debates – how good/bad has the impact of QE been or how should financial supervision be structured – there is a lot to enjoy in this book. Highly recommended for anyone interested in UK economic policy.

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Swimming against the tide

There are some books whose success mystifies me. One was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which I tried when it was published and couldn’t get past p50. I tried with Homo Deus recently and got as far as p138 before giving up. Despite my fondness for Big History, I just can’t figure out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, there’s no original body of research underpinning a popular synthesis (unlike, say, Oded Galor’s interesting new book The Journey of Humanity, or a book like Joseph Henrich’s big cultural history The Weirdest People in the World).

But nor is there in Homo Deus a structured synthesis of other people’s work – ample references of course, but what’s the actual analysis and argument? I could cheat and look at some reviews by people who have actually read the whole thing.* But I think 138 pages gives it a fair shot at grabbing my attention, and it has failed, despite the positive blurbs from Jarvis Cocker and Kazua Ishiguro, and the many millions of sales and high profile fans.

No doubt somebody will explain why I’m wrong.

 

*OK, I cheated. Here’s a helpful review in the LRB by Steven Shapin who read the whole thing, found the argument and sums it up (‘technology has given us the power to reshape ourselves as a species and it’s full of risks’). I get the sense he wasn’t overwhelmed but is politely positive anyway.

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In thrall to games?

Hidden Games: The surprising power of game theory to explain irrational human behaviour by Moshe Hoffman and Erez Yoeli does exactly what it says on the cover. It’s an interesting strategy (ahem): irrational behaviour turns out to be rational after all! When being over-optimistic about our own abilities, fooling ourselves by only believing social media comments that reinforce our prior beliefs, spinning the truth, or over-spending on costly luxury goods, all these and more behavioural phenomena can be explained as dominant strategies in appropriately described games. It’s all about the Nash equilibria, stupid.

I enjoyed the book on the whole. It’s a breezy introduction to game theory applications, written with a light touch and plenty of anecdotes. An early chapter sets the scene with the classic evolutionary explanation for observed sex ratios, moving on then to the Hawks and Doves game, and of course the Prisoners’ Dilemma features extensively too.

It has always astonished me how few people think strategically at all, such that a read of the classic (1993) Thinking Strategically on how to apply game theory by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff would help almost anybody. I can remember once observing in a committee meeting (all economists) what the Nash equilibrium in a certain policy situation involving all EU member countries would be, which did my reputation among those colleagues a power of good as this made it obvious what decision our (UK) politicians would take, regardless of any economic advice we delivered.

Hidden Games does some of the same groundwork as Thinking Strategically in its first half, throwing in a brief explanation of Bayes theorem en passant. I found it less compelling when it gets to the second half, explaining the ‘irrational’ as Nash equilibria in various games. Perhaps this is because there are already pretty powerful models, whether cognitive – eg the rule-of-thumb argument about conserving brain energy in making decisions – or economic – classic signalling models. The application of game theory seems more interesting in contexts of collective choices (as in Kaushik Basu’s wonderful The Republic of Beliefs) than in individual decision-making.

Having said that, if you don’t mind the trope about rationalising the irrational, Hidden Games is a very nice introduction to applying game theory to life, an enjoyable read.

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Spending our time, the ultimate scarce resource

On the face of it, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin Smith and Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman are pretty different. The former a philosophical disquisition on the parallels (and differences) between historical communication networks and today’s internet of disinformation. The latter a self-help guide to being less busy and happier.

What they have in common is identifying digital platforms as the cuplrit gobbling up our time and attention through addictive design – that familiar ‘swipe down to refresh’ for a dopamine hit – and a business model that requires human fodder. One travels by way of classical Indian philosophers and the Enlightenment, the other via useful advice from popular psychology. Both have at their heart a concern with the manipulation of how we spend our time. I read them one after the other and enjoyed both – and both with more useful insight than the much-hyped Surveillance Capital doorstop.

Have I stopped scrolling so much? Not yet. I will be trying to take some of Burkeman’s advice in the hope of stopping feeling constant pressure to empty that inbox, tick off the whole to do list. As we’re stuck with the internet, it makes sense to resist the way it manages us humans. I don’t think Smith would reckon much for my chances. Wish me luck.

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