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The evolution of social capital

So, a little while back, I read Trust: The Social Virtues and the creation of prosperity by Francis Fukuyama. The following is a fairly long post distilling my thoughts about the book, social capital, and pointers to evolving sociability.

The book is an analysis of the manner in which “sociability” can help to build norms of trust which make exchange flow more readily among people within a market economy.

In academic parlance, this is known as “social capital”.

The book was written in 1995 so some of the business examples, he discusses micro processors for instance, might now seem dated but the over all discussion of sociability applied to different settings in the US, Germany, Japan (exhibiting mostly high levels of social capital) and Italy and China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (lacking in social capital) still seem very relevant.

“Trust” also helped develop some of the ideas I have been thinking about in recent times concerning community after reading Max Harris’s recently published The New Zealand Project.

I don’t share much in Harris’s vision, though he diagnoses some social issues within New Zealand worthy of consideration.

I have been critical of him but he has certainly pushed me to think about some of my ideas which is worthwhile.

Fukuyama makes many points about sociability. In my last post I drew on the idea that important values exist beyond the political sphere and that social expectations adapt, at least in many modern developed economies, over time as norms, around say women as part of the workforce, evolve.

Norms are important. What are the societal expectations around work and interactions between people? Beyond the family, social interactions between non-related individuals, Fukuyama argues, can foster economic growth by encouraging “trust” between people. That could happen because market participants have met in a church or their children attend the same school or they both belong to some other community organisation. Or they could simply be friends within the same social circle.

Family members form companies, an inherently social organisation, but Fukuyama suggests, most interestingly, that while strong family ties can build trust, if kin networks are too tightly bound then company size and economic development is limited. In capitalist societies, circles of trust expand beyond the primary social group of the family.

The question, then, becomes how are these norms developed?

Fukuyama is clear about how those norms cannot be developed.

A strong and stable family structure and durable social institutions cannot be legislated into existence the way a government can create a central bank or an army. A thriving civil society depends on a people’s habits, customs, and ethics – attributes that can be shaped only indirectly through conscious political action and must otherwise be nourished through an increased awareness and respect for culture.

He goes on to explain the difficulty which former Soviet states had in transitioning towards a market economy system after the collapse of communism.

That is because social interactions and levels of trust were eroded under the communist system of top down control where individuals did not collaborate on a voluntary spontaneous basis but rather found their roles predetermined by an over-arching political hierarchy.

The book is not, however, a libertarian individualist tract.

Fukuyama points out the importance of sociability to individuals within their place of work. He writes that, “”[w]orkers usually find their workplaces more satisfying if they are treated like adults who can be trusted to contribute to their community rather than small cogs in a large industrial machine designed by someone else”.

It is nice to feel that you are a productive part of something bigger than yourself.

Human beings do have social needs.

There are increasing numbers of people today who work as sole contractors who co-operate in more fluid ways as they move from position to position who may be exceptions to this rule.

But few people really eschew sociability for total individualism. Probably because total individualism can get pretty damn lonely.

Consider how shared work-spaces have grown in popularity around the world within the nomadic global entrepreneur community.

This insight about social needs takes Fukuyama in some interesting directions.

He writes glowingly about the Japanese workplace which exhibits a different type of capitalist model.

The Japanese system, as I understand it, is one of mutual obligation between employer and employee.

There is “lifetime employment” for those who get jobs with big firms such as Toyota or Sony but “company men” who earn those positions (often after having graduated from top Japanese universities) are expected to work long hours and demonstrate loyalty to the company in return.

That system, Fukuyama explains, is not un-meritocratic.

Mediocre performers are still identified and, while they won’t be fired, do not progress to the ranks of the executive.

There is a corporate hierarchy but those on the lower ranks are often trusted with more autonomy than in other settings.

Fukuyama explains how each worker on Toyota’s factory line can pull a cord which stops the production line.

Another component of “sociability” within the Japanese system is the business network known as the “keiretsu”.

From my perspective, the keiretsu looks very much like a cartel.

Members supply each other rather than receiving product from external parties even if those external parties offer lower prices and/or better quality.

Fukuyama spends a lot of time on that primary social unit, the family.

He reckons that the primacy of the family as a social unit can limit the possibilities for economic expansion. That is, according to Fukuyama, most evident within Chinese culture where kinship bonds are tight and trust does not easily extend to people beyond that primary network.

That can be a problem for business growth.

He cites the case of Wang Laboratories – an American firm founded by a Chinese American . In that case, founder An Wang appointed his son to the position of chief executive over more qualified non familial relation rivals.

The son found himself in over his head and the company struggled. Soon after the father’s death, the company filed for bankruptcy (Wikipedia tells me that after emerging from bankruptcy the business changed its name to Wang Global and was then acquired first by Getronics of The Netherlands in 1999, becoming Getronics North America, then was sold to KPN in 2007 and CompuCom in 2008, after which it no longer existed as a distinct brand or division.).

Robert Putnam’s essay “Bowling Alone” on America’s declining social capital using a drop off in numbers of Americans joining bowling leagues as a proxy has provoked much discussion of the topic in the years since.

I remember reading it in one of my Political Science classes.

Fukuyama’s book was written the same year as Putnam’s essay and he, too, expresses concern about declining social capital.

One disturbing example he gives concerns the case of a Japanese high school exchange student who was shot and killed in the US in 1992 when he rang the doorbell on the wrong address for a Halloween party.

Fukuyama says many American liberals were quick to point to the lack of adequate gun control legislation as a proximate cause but more than this, he says it demonstrates a deep anti-sociability.

It certainly strikes me as extraordinary that someone’s reaction to a visitor ringing their doorbell should be such an extreme one.

The book reminded me of Yuval Levin’s 2016 book The Fractured Republic where Levin bemoans both the loss of common cultural experiences in the US, such as watching the same television programmes, and the emergent gap between the individual and the state as support for “intermediary institutions” (community groups) erode while the federal government grows.

The problem, from my perspective, is that too often the state is seen as the means to improve sociability but that blunt institution is too top down to adequately address the issue.

Expanding the role of government may also lead to damaging outcomes on existing modes of sociability which cannot be foreseen.

It is interesting to think about Fukuyama’s thesis in 2017 when capitalism and social interaction have evolved so much further.

There are many more avenues for finding people who share your common interests. Social media includes Facebook, blogs, and websites such as

It is possible to co-ordinate with more people from more places than ever before but do these online avenues amplify existing social structures, change them, create new ones, or lead to a rise in anti-sociability?

That is a difficult question and one I do not have a ready answer for.

Alex Tabbarok, on the marginal revolution blog, cites a recently published paper which found that in the US, “[f]or the population of the average county, 62.8% of [Facebook] friends live within 100 miles”.

Capitalism has developed new means of securing trust between market participants. In Fukuyama’s book, he quotes Max Weber observing the shorthand role that Christianity played in the US at the time he wrote. To know a prospective buyer or seller was a Christian, like you, was to have confidence in their good will and therefore that they would make good on the deal. As globalism has increased, circles of trust, at least among the globally inclined, have expanded.

Today, apps such as Uber and Air BnB let both participants rank each other in a system which at least in theory provides sufficient reputational feedback to all users and providers of the service. These new systems may help to engender trust purely to ease market transactions but whether social networks and apps can do so and provide the meaningful sociability offered by more traditional means remains to be seen.


More thoughts on the new zealand project

So, a couple of weeks back, the ODT published my review of Max Harris’s book The New Zealand Project. Analysing the politics of New Zealand and assessing where there might be room for improvement is an ambitious undertaking. Ultimately, however, I felt that Harris failed to explain how his prescribed solutions, many of which are centred around the means of increased taxation and government spending, would actually deliver improved social outcomes within New Zealand. You can read that review in full here.

There was another issue I had with the book which I’d like to pick up here. Harris advocates a politics of “values”. For him this means “care”, “creativity” and “community”. He adds love.  I like the idea of all of these values but not sharing Harris’s leftist progressive political ideology, I see community, care and creativity as external to politics and government. Community, without government, does play a pretty important role in many peoples’ lives. Many of us voluntarily associate with others whose broader interests we share. That could be in a sports club, the parent teachers association of a local school, perhaps a church, or a rotary club. Or it could be within the family or two or more friends who decide to do something together.

I think values are better cultivated through the personal sphere. In a very good book which I read last year, Russ Roberts distills Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (I am yet to read that original text*) and applies it to the modern age. Smith, Roberts tells us, introduces the idea of “the impartial spectator” as a constraint on immoral behaviour. For the religious inclined, this is easy to suppose but even for atheists it can still be a good guide. Step outside from what you are doing and ask what your “impartial spectator” would make of it. It isn’t easy and we often fail in many small ways but it still seems worth pursuing. Smith, as Roberts explains, also had a rather sophisticated idea of how tolerance was an outgrowth of social interaction. It is through social exchange that, for the most part, different cultures, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations meet and learn to co-exist. We are guided through the necessity of forming relationships and making exchanges, yes as if by an invisible hand**, to tolerate others and encourage social harmony. The golden rule of treating others as you want to be treated fits. And if you want to see a more tolerant world then be more tolerant to those around you. That does not solely mean tolerating those who are different from you on one of the above levels but also those whose views differ from yours.

The left is inclined to over emphasise activism as a catalyst for social change. Certainly activism plays a role in social change but much of that change occurs as a result of evolving social norms. Women have moved into many realms of the work force in western countries in great numbers and social relationships have developed. Certainly the few age contemporary fathers I know would think nothing of bearing an equal share of the child rearing responsibilities.

Social values emerge and are tested through everyday exchange.

I might have more to say but this seems an apt moment to stop.

*Several years ago I borrowed The Theory of Moral Sentiments from the Wellington Public Library. I plowed valiantly through about 200 of the 500 odd pages but swimming alone in the challenging literary waters of 18th century philosophy I gave up. I will attempt it again one day.

**Thanks to the Adam Smith Institute for this primer on The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Smith’s morality

The Complacent Class

Something’s gotta give.

That’s the slightly stark message from Tyler Cowen in his recently published book The Complacent Class. The economist and blogger explains in myriad ways how American dynamism is in decline and a complacent comfortable status quo bias is on the rise. The problem with this, at least according to Cowen, is that complacency cannot hold. And postponing change increases the risk that when that change does finally come, the system over corrects. That could be a problem not just for individual Americans realising they have missed something in their lives but the broader culture as a whole and those who interact with the United States (ie the rest of us).

But I get ahead of myself. Who are the complacent class? And how does their complacency manifest itself?

Cowen  indentifies three subsets:

  1. The Privileged Class:

The wealthy top 3-5 percent.

2. Those who dig in:

The middle class leading a good existence with a good job, house and mortgage.

3. Those who get stuck:

People at the bottom who, Cowen says, “never really had a fair chance”. Many of them, resigned to their position, aspire to disability payments.

These experiences are strikingly different but, according to Cowen, they are bound by the expectation of slower change. There is resistance to new development (the so-called not in my backyard mentality), those who dig in try to hold on to what they have and the bleak picture Cowen paints of “those who get stuck” suggests some of these people, admittedly facing difficult circumstances, have given up.

American complacency, he says, has manifested itself in the following ways:

  • Fewer Americans move across state lines.
  • The proportion of firms five years or younger in the American economy has fallen.
  • Workers stay in jobs longer.
  • 80 percent of federal government spending is now “locked in” and cannot be allocated freely.
  • The rise of “matching” culture leads people to cocoon into their own groups and indirectly causes social  segregation.
  • Extreme social unrest is in decline. Cowen notes the following remarkable fact that “[d]uring an eighteen month period in 1971-1972, there were more than 2,500 domestic bombings reported, averaging out to more than five a day.”
  • Protests have become bureaucratised.

The static picture Cowen paints runs counter to the popular American narrative of economic (but also political and social) “disruption”. As the author notes, “disruption” is very much the buzzword of our times. Yet the Ubers and AirBnBs of the world do not appear to represent the whole, or even much, of the picture.

Some complacency seems built into the fabric of the rich country that the United States has become. Alibaba founder Jack Ma rose up from poverty to become a billionaire but there aren’t any genuine “rags to riches” stories in the United States any more. That comfortable standard of living probably engenders much complacency. Of course, the US is a very much richer country than China so maybe some complacency is inevitable. Some but probably not all.

Cowen thinks there are already signs of an over correction.

The election of Donald Trump was an early warning sign, he suggests. In a Marginal Revolution University video entitled “The Great Reset”, Cowen called Trump the canary in the coal mine. That phrase refers to the practice by miners of keeping canaries in coal mines as a warning signal when methane or carbon monoxide reached dangerous levels.

Towards the end of the book, Cowen quotes the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville rather liberally. Cowen calls him “the prophet of our times”. The counter intuitive insight Tocqueville had was that the very restlessness of Americans was the quality which helped stabilise the project of American democracy.

Here’s how Cowen explains Tocqueville as the first real diagnostician of the potential for American complacency and its risks.

He argued that the new kind of “tyranny” will not resemble the despotisms of antiquity but rather will be based on the conformism and mediocrities of Americans of the future: “[I]t would degrade men rather than torment them”. That’s Tocqueville describing his version of the complacent class.

Cowen continues by quoting Tocqueville giving this very bleak analysis of how democracy itself could lead people to relenquish their individual sovereignty.

Centralization is combined with the sovereignty of the people. That gives them a chance to relax. They console themselves for being under schoolmasters by thinking that they have chosen them themselves. Each individual lets them put the collar on, for he sees that it is not a person, or a class of persons, but society itself which holds the end of the chain. Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it.

Consulting my abridged version of Democracy in America, I was struck to re-read Tocqueville’s comparisons of Europe and America. The following passage, in particular, stood out:

In Europe, we are wont to look upon a restless disposition, an unbounded desire of riches, and an excessive love of independence, as propensities very dangerous to society. Yet these are the elements which insure a long and peaceful future to the republics of America. Without these unquiet passions, the population would collect in certain spots, and would soon experience wants like those of the Old World, which it is difficult to satisfy; for such is the present good fortune of the New World, that the vices of its inhabitants are scarcely less favourable to society than their virtues.

I think Tocqueville’s point here is that America’s strength was its people’s ability to reinvent themselves. That restlessness made for a vigorous diversity and contest of ideas and the ability for the body politic to adapt itself. Remember that when Tocqueville wrote, the institution of slavery was still in place and women could not vote. Cowen is concerned about that lack of restlessness, both at the business level in terms of a drive toward dynamic innovation but also the ability for society to adapt politically. The expansion of “safe spaces” as ideological enclaves to the detriment of open discourse on University campuses and overall safety culture fits into this diminished risk taking narrative.

Much of Cowen’s analysis reminded me of Peter Thiel who is mentioned just once in the book. The tech billionaire famously remarked that ““We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Thiel’s point was that social media, pleasant though it can be as a means of connecting with people, is not transformative. And the innovations we have today, think Uber or AirBnB, do not change our lives or inspire us in the same way that earlier iterations did. Perhaps that is just diminishing returns or perhaps there is something more at play. Nonetheless, the US remains a powerful force both as a source of business and political change.You will be familiar with the trope that when “the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold”. While that cliche is more usually deployed within a financial context, it resonates for me within the social, cultural and political spheres. The underlying truth of that cliche is reason enough for non Americans to read The Complacent Class.


Arnold Kling reviewed The Complacent Class here.

Russ Roberts spoke to Tyler Cowen for an Econtalk episode here.




A slice of Auckland

Auckland cops a fair bit of flak as a city. There are various complaints made. People object to Auckland traffic, the perceived snobbish attitude of the people and more. In spite of those complaints, it is a city with undeniable charm. My assessment, limited though it is, comes from the excellent weekend I have just enjoyed there.

It started soon after I disembarked my plane at Auckland airport. Heading out of the terminal, I confirmed the address of my sister (she lives in the city and I would visit her for dinner) and went to catch a Skybus. I didn’t know precisely where I was going but gave a staff member her address. The super helpful fellow told me which bus to catch and even told the driver where I wanted to get off which he announced when the moment came. I had a short ten minute walk from the bus stop to my sister’s place. The Skybus only cost $18. That’s quite reasonable. It rained on Friday night but Saturday’s forecast was good and the weather didn’t disappoint. The sun was high in a clear bright blue sky. That was great because my friend William and I had decided to take the ferry to Rangitoto Island. It is a DOC reserve 25 minutes from the mainland. It offers stunning panoramic views of Auckland city.

Take a look at this one.

Rangitoto 1

The walk to the summit is an easy climb of just under an hour. The summit affords probably the best views on the island. Here’s one of my friend William and I at the top.

Rangitoto 2

Descending from the summit we circled round to wait for our return ferry. Back on the mainland we strolled around Wynyard Quarter. I like walking around cities. There’s something about being surrounded by the buzz of social activity that you get in cities. There wasn’t the flurry of action you would get on a weekday but there were plenty of people out and about enjoying themselves and libations hot and cold. Wynyard Quarter has a cool vibe. Mission Bay, where we headed next, is a nice spot to sit down and enjoy an ice cream which we did. The ice cream was tasty but expensive. A treat but sod it I thought “I’m on holidays!”.

That evening, I joined William, my sister and some other friends for dinner on Dominion Rd. Lucky for me, my wonderful cousin with whom I stayed, had lent me a car so getting around was easy.

Parking in the city on Saturday night, ultimately, wasn’t such a drama. That’s because I stayed cool under pressure. I had headed down a side street in hopes of nabbing a good spot only to see vehicles bumper to bumper. I turned around and came back. I stopped. A woman clutching takeaways pushed the button to unlock her car and moved in. She spent an age inside the stationary vehicle. Pressure was building. Cars were piling up behind me. I heard some frustrated horn honks. Others may have faltered at this point but I had my eyes on the prize. Finally she moved and I swooped. It was a top spot. We enjoyed good Chinese dumplings (I thought beef with cumin was the best of the three flavours) and, of course, splendid conversation.

This morning it was brunch followed by a walk up to the top of Mt Eden. That vantage point afforded good views of other parts of the city including Eden Park.

Great weekend.

After the Storm

Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen posted a few weeks back that Japanese film After the Storm was the best movie he had seen this year and that it was a study in Japanese “complacency”. Complacency is on Cowen’s mind having this year published his latest book The Complacent Class on the decline of American restlessness, characterised by changes such as fewer people moving to different states within the USA in recent decades, and its impact on American dynamism. That book sits as yet unread on my beside table (to read it immediately when I read MR nearly every day would seem itself an act of complacency). Cowen film commendations are, however, nearly always well considered so last night I went to see After the Storm which didn’t disappoint.

Yes, the film is about complacency but nostalgia was the word that came to my mind. I wonder whether nostalgia is always tied to complacency and whether one can be complacent without being nostalgic. Our main character is middle aged man Ryota. He is, ostensibly, a novelist. Well he was. Having written a prize winning novel 15 years ago, he hasn’t written in years. Now he works as a private detective. It’s a tawdry business, most of his work involves tracing husbands or wives having extra marital affairs. What money he does make, he promptly gambles away. Ryota is also a father to a son, Shingo, aged somewhere between 10 and 12. Ryota sees Shingo just once a month whereby he annoys ex-wife Kyoto because he never pays the child support he owes. It is on one of these visits that the title narrative develops. Storm clouds are gathering in the city as newscasters warn that the 24th typhoon of the year is imminent when Ryota takes his son over to his grandmother’s place for dinner. He has now kept the boy out longer than Kyoto expected. She is then invited to Ryota’s mother’s apartment but the storm worsens and Kyoto decides to stay with the boy rather than taking him home late at night so they are all drawn together for the evening. Ryota has not moved on from his ex wife and still wishes to rekindle their relationship. She has taken another partner who she doesn’t seem to have strong affection for but is attracted to for pragmatic reasons (he is reliable, has a well paid job and can provide well for her and Shingo).

Kyoto has feelings for Ryota, we see her at one point glancing through one of his previous books on the shelf, and might still love him but that isn’t enough for her especially when she must take care of Shingo.

Ryota’s nostalgia is the strong narrative arc throughout the film. The film features moments of deep character reflection on relationships and life meaning.   Ryota is sort of stuck in nostalgia. His mother offers help when she tells him at one point that “you can’t find happiness until you let go of something”. Asked at one point during the film what he wanted to become as a child, Ryota says a public servant. When Ryota asks Shingo the same question, the boy gives the same answer. That probably tells you something about contemporary Japan though I do not know that country well so I will leave it for others to make that sort of deep analysis. The film is more than merely a study in Japanese complacency because the themes of loss and nostalgia are universal. These psychological traps hold us back from being who we want to be and accomplishing what we want whether writing that next great novel or something else. For these reasons, After the Storm is well worth a watch.

Here is the trailer.

Messy by Tim Harford

What do jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump and German field marshal Erwin Rommel have in common?

On the surface not much.  But Tim Harford says in his excellent recent book Messy that all these people have demonstrated the ability to improvise and embrace messy situations. Mess is a natural state and our efforts to impose order on a disordered world often backfire. Conversely, those who embrace mess can develop their own creativity and, in competitive endeavours, so confound their rivals as to gain a significant advantage. Harford begins by talking about jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s famous Koln concert. Jarrett turned up to the venue to find a hopelessly out of tune piano.  The 17 year-old concert organiser Vera Brandes begged him to play. He agreed. That turned out to be a very good thing for Jarrett.  As Harford recounts, the piano pushed Jarrett to play keys and notes he usually avoided and in so doing he was able to break out of his normal patterns. The album of the Koln concert sold more than 3.5 million copies making it the most successful solo album in jazz history and the best selling piano album.

The point about Jarret’s unlikely success in Cologne is that forcing ourselves into messy situations where we have to work harder can sometimes be beneficial.

Tech company Amazon expanded well beyond their capacity in the early days. Founder Jeff Bezos was selling more product than he actually had the capacity to deliver. Harford writes that in the first week of operations, Amazon sold $12,000 worth of books but shipped only $846 worth. In the second week sales were up to $14,000 but Amazon only shipped $7,000. The early weeks sound hectic. Many would have taken stock at that point and slowed down. Instead, Bezos embraced the mess of those early days and kept taking big orders and expanding the company.

Donald Trump confounded his political rivals in the lead up to winning the Republican party nomination by constantly changing the terms of the political debate. Trump made bold, in some cases outrageous, agenda setting statements and while his professional politician rivals scrambled to prepare a carefully scripted and work shopped policy response Trump moved on to the next issue. His scripted rivals couldn’t keep up (Harford’s book was written before the election result but the comments about his rival Republican candidates equally seem to apply to Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton).

German field marshal Erwin Rommel was effective because, like Trump, he did not play to a script. Harford recounts examples where Rommel found himself outnumbered behind enemy lines but counter punched anyway correctly reckoning that his enemy was in a messy state of disarray.

The subtitle to Harford’s book is: how to be creative and resilient in a tidy minded world. He gives us example after example where spontaneous mess beats the over planned course of action. I thought it very much built upon an earlier Harford book “Adapt: How Success Comes from Failure” where he pointed out the effectiveness of trial and error methods.

“Mess”, if I read Harford correctly, works when we have the autonomy and adaptability to change course midway through a course of action. Overly planned and imposed creativity does not seem to work too well. An example he gives is of advertising guru Jay Chiat (whose firm Chiat/Day had devised Apple’s groundbreaking 1984 advertisement). In building a new office for the firm, Chiat tried to impose creativity from the top. All desks were removed and furniture Chiat thought to be creativity inducing such as “curvaceous two seater pods from fairground rides” was installed. He also insisted on a digital, paperless office (this was in 1993).

The result was not the outpouring of creative zeal from an inspired workforce Chiat hoped for. Rather, resentment grew within his workforce who felt a loss of the autonomy linked to the creative instinct.

The book also devotes a fair amount of space to the problem of “homophily” (that means love of the same) and the benefits of diversity. Group diversity helps us challenge status quo thinking. As Harford writes: “adding a new perspective or a new set of skills can unstick us, even if the perspective is off the wall or the skills are mediocre”.

Harford talks at length about music composer Brian Eno who uses cards with random instructions such as “change instrument roles” to push musicians in strange and potentially creative directions and unstick them.

Fresh thinking can help to shake things up.

That’s easy to say but it’s harder to actually practise than to preach. It’s also something we instinctively resist. Musicians didn’t like Eno’s cards. Jarrett did not want to play on the out of tune piano. And more ordered enemy generals didn’t want to embrace Rommel’s messy approach.

But we can all gain from a little bit of mess.

The great thing about Harford’s book is it does contain lessons for everyone not just corporate titans, jazz piano maestros or politicians. The two that I took out of it were the problems of imposed creativity and the big gains from adopting out of the box “messy” solutions.

The book is well worth your time. Do read it.

PS: A Ted talk by Harford on “How frustration can makes us more creative”. He talks about Jarrett and Eno.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a thought provoking book.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a book with the subtitle “a brief history of humankind” covers a lot of ground but while the book was a times a bit of a slog (I took my time getting through it), author Yuval Noah Harari relays some very interesting information about homo sapiens and suggests reasons why we have advanced so far beyond other creatures.

It’s our ability to flexibly co-operate which is the chief reason. So what, you say, bees and ants who collectively build colonies and, in the case of bees, produce much much more as a hive than an individual could also co-operate. But that co-operation, impressive though it is, differs dramatically from the more sophisticated type of co-operation humans achieve.

As Harari points out to Russ Roberts, in this EconTalk interview from 2015, bees cannot overthrow the Queen to establish a republic of bees or a communist dictatorship of bees (the reader can judge whether either of these would progress bee society).  Furthermore, bees and ants in a colony or a hive are all related. Humans co-operate with many different types of people who are not family in the biological sense.

The point is that human beings can readily adapt their social structures. Other animals cannot.

We co-operate through corporations, churches, political parties, the broader economy, and in other ways.

There was a time when these things did not exist. They had to be created.

So, why did we create them?

Harari’s answer is as interesting as it is challenging.

He says it’s all about “stories”.

Sapiens’ capacity for imagination, Harari argues, allows us to create these stories which foster co-operation over a shared “myth”.

There are many examples. Religions created gods to establish group norms of morality* which consolidated in group identity. Political parties created ideologies based on shared “myths” such as exploitation around which group members could coalesce. Capitalism is an ideology centred around the fiction of money to establish norms of trust in the market economy. Why should little green pieces of paper with a dead president or prime minister on them mean anything?

It’s interesting when you really think about these things.

Religion is, for the most part, in our modern liberal society the “easy” story to discard. Marx’s observation that religion is the “opiate of the masses” has simply become de rigeur and I do not think that Friedrich Neitzsche’s Zarathustra really shocks any longer (there is an odd cognitive dissonance in the increased western sacralisation of Islamic religion at the same time Jewish or Christian practices are demystified and ridiculed but I digress).

So which other “ideologies” used stories?

Harari adds liberal democracy to the list. And human rights. The latter, Harari clinically but factually notes to Roberts in that EconTalk conversation, are not a biological reality. This jarred with me (in a good way) because I believe in universal human rights and I think, generally speaking, the performance of liberal democracy and capitalism is quite good. Yet, Harari is right when he tells Roberts that you can cut open a body and not see any rights. They are a “myth”.

Harari’s dispassionate analysis of these respective deeply cherished stories is, in itself, reason for reading the book.

It’s also worth reading because of the interesting historical tidbits Harari relays.

Before reading the book, I did not know just how industrious the ancient Sumerians (a people who lived in modern day Southern Iraq) were. Not only did they derive the first primitive written script but they also came up with a form of money as a means of exchange. That’s interesting and I’m glad I learned it.

I do have one point of criticism or perhaps more an additional observation about Harari’s own “myths”.

The Israeli  historian is a vegetarian. Harari spends much time lamenting humans’ terrible environmental impact on the earth. It’s true that humans have caused the extinction of a lot of animal species though I think there is reason to believe that modern legal farming is less likely to cause extinction or indeed harm to animals than earlier forms of exploitation.

And yet, Harari’s views on battery hens and on animal suffering in general did challenge my priors.  I am happily a meat eater. Perhaps it’s my contrarianism at heart but I don’t buy “free range” eggs either though I like to think animals whose meat or other produce I eat are humanely treated (animal welfare is, of course, yet another “myth” in the Harari sense). Here’s what interested me. Harari cites research on monkeys where a baby chimpanzee was given two fake mothers, one which was metal and contained milk, another which had no milk but had warm cloth. Though “she” offered no sustenance, the monkeys preferred the cloth mother to the metal one and spent more time with her. That animals should have emotional as well as physiological needs isn’t surprising. Any pet owner could tell you, though they are not an impartial judge, that this is so. Nonetheless, dogs and cats do recognise their owners and forge connections with them. I am unconvinced that animals are better off in the wild. Wild animals are subject to such horrors as being eaten alive which the domesticated do not face.

Harari finishes by opening up further avenues for questions. Humanity has come far with fewer people starving to death or suffering through horrible wars but how much further can it go? That is the subject of his next book, Homo Deus, which I was given as a Christmas gift. I shall report on it in due course.

*Jonathan Haidt discusses group morality in some detail in his excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and region which I have just recently finished. I will endeavour to make some comments on that book soon.

Additional links: A Financial Times profile of Harari.

The aforementioned EconTalk episode.