*Adapt*, by Tim Harford

by on April 29, 2011 at 7:42 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

I was excited to read Tim’s book because I have been thinking about similar issues.  He explores the fact that the division of labor, and division of knowledge, keeps on progressing, and that such progress brings surprising and sometimes frustrating results.  He starts with a vivid anecdote about how hard it is for a single person to invent a toaster:

The toasting problem isn’t difficult: don’t burn the toast; don’t electrocute the user; don’t start a fire.  The bread itself is hardly an active protagonist.  It doesn’t deliberately try to outwit you, as a team of investment bankers might; it doesn’t try to murder you, terrorise your country, and discredit everything you stand for…The toasting problem is laughably simple compared to the problem of transforming a poor country such as Bangladesh into the kind of economy where toasters are manufactured with ease and every household can afford one, along with the bread to put into it.

Tim remains a wonderful expositor and popular economics writer but this is also a book of ideas, and it is ahead of what most other people are thinking.  One implication is that greater specialization makes innovation much harder — hardly anyone has a good grasp of the whole — and Tim cites the work of Benjamin Jones.  Another implication is that we must rely more on particular kinds of experimentation to make progress on hard problems.  This is all taking Michael Polanyi and Hayek and Whitehead and Ortega y Gasset and turning the heat up a notch; we are increasingly alienated from a knowledge of the whole and yes that matters.

Ultimately Tim shies away from making this a book of breakdowns, but I would have enjoyed seeing him postulate a Don van Vliet Trout Mask Replica equilibrium and then trying to put the pieces back together again.  Is there some non-linear point at which some institutions can no longer be reassembled in working form?  There is plenty of material on this question, but perhaps not quite a full confrontation with pessimistic scenarios.  That will have to wait for the sequel.

The bottom line: I was never reading this because it will be popular and I wanted to review it, I was always reading it to ponder the ideas.  You can buy the book here.

SI April 29, 2011 at 7:59 am

Loved the Bangladesh reference, though I should point out that most Bangladeshis prefer fresh-off-the-stove flat breads and not sliced loafs you can put into a toaster: http://www.gourmetindia.com/uploads/monthly_08_2008/post-408-1219592455.jpg

Very labour-intensive.

E. Barandiaran April 29, 2011 at 9:33 am

You’re right “we are increasingly alienated from a knowledge of the whole and yes that matters”. But you don’t discuss why it matters and this is what matters.
Let me first say that you ignore what Tom Sowell wrote (and Hayek celebrated) in his Knowledge and Decisions. TS wrote: “When then is the intellectual advantage of civilization over primitive savagery? It is not necessarily that each civilized man has more knowledge but that he REQUIRES far LESS.” (read the section on The Quantity of Knowledge in Chapter 1). In other words, the division of labor and the division of knowledge have been the sources of civilization and our modern world. If you want to explain civilization and economic development first you have to explain those two divisions.
Thus, we can say that we have been moving away from knowledge of the whole for a long, long time. All sorts of self-appointed philosophers of the universe (or the multiverse) have always tried to explain the whole but they have failed –we can have BIG IDEAS about values and/or facts but none has been accepted by all members of the community of such philosophers (today dominated by some scientists that claim they can explain values not just facts).
So, do we need to know the whole in the sense that just one view of the whole is shared by at least most intellectuals? We all have beliefs about how things have been put together, although only few people can articulate them in such detail to share them with others. Scientists may one day come with some big idea about facts but they will never be able to persuade others that they have discovered a big idea about values.
Thanks for your post.

Dean Sayers April 29, 2011 at 11:04 am

“When then is the intellectual advantage of civilization over primitive savagery? It is not necessarily that each civilized man has more knowledge but that he REQUIRES far LESS.”

Marx made this point long ago:

“Along with the tool, the skill of the workman in handling it passes over to the machine. The capabilities of the tool are emancipated from the restraints that are inseparable from human labour-power. Thereby the technical foundation on which is based the division of labour in Manufacture, is swept away. Hence, in the place of the hierarchy of specialised workmen that characterises manufacture, there steps, in the automatic factory, a tendency to equalise and reduce to one and the same level every kind of work that has to be done by the minders of the machines”
Marx: Capital Volume 1 / Chapter 15 / Section 4

But then, some people still manage the intricacies of machines. And when the machines form a critical foundation of human society, that lack of knowledge carries with it totally different consequences besides your “lack of need.”

E. Barandiaran April 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Some of Tom Sowell’s early writings were about Marx and marxism, but I don’t think he had him in mind when he wrote Chapter 1 of Knowledge and Decisions. His book relied on Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society” as its starting point. Indeed, the paragraph you quote reflects a quite different context from that of Sowell’s quote.

Floccina April 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

One implication is that greater specialization makes innovation much harder — hardly anyone has a good grasp of the whole

Could this be something that was/is made worse by signaling squeezing out education in schools? The principles of the science are simple, though not always intuitive, and an intelligent person could absorb there principles across all sciences pretty quickly but in order for sciences to be difficult enough to signal high intelligence we go in great depth in a single area describing the principles in depth with difficult math that almost no one needs to know. This leaves little time for a broad approach. If one takes a broad but shallow approach in school, say by taking all low level classes, he will not have signaled enough intelligence to move on in the sciences.

Alex Godofsky April 29, 2011 at 10:40 am

Physicists absolutely do need to know the math they learn in their classes in order to, you know, actually do their jobs.

Dean Sayers April 29, 2011 at 10:57 am

“The bread itself is hardly an active protagonist. It doesn’t deliberately try to outwit you, as a team of investment bankers might; it doesn’t try to murder you, terrorise your country, and discredit everything you stand for…”

This has very relevant consequences to the number and tools of regulators versus subject bankers.

burger flipper April 29, 2011 at 11:23 am

I wonder how bad a book by Harford would have to be to not get a recommendation of this sort.

MPS17 April 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm

The actual sophistication of the toaster — and to much greater extent everyday things like cell phones and televisions and computers and such — demand organizational sophistication and in particular, high cooperation to develop. This raises the importance of trust and oversight. And thus the importance of administrators and bureaucrats.

In vague, hand-wavy terms, this is why it’s natural for a company to spend an increasing fraction of its revenues on administration, management, and other forms of overhead, with time, and likewise for an economy to spend an increasing fraction of its revenues on government. (This is not to imply that we haven’t perhaps overshot the optimum trajectory. This also doesn’t pertain to the largest govt expenses, of social security and defense.)

ad*m April 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm

TGS indeed!

“how hard it is for a single person to invent a toaster”. It requires a fire pit and a fork, all the rest is embellishment. What is so hard about that? If this is what is behind TGS, it is looking dark indeed.

But, can’t do that, smoke from the fire is a micro-poluttant, as is the CO2 produced.

Likewise “transforming a poor country such as Bangladesh”. Find the molecular pathways that lead to greater conscentiousness and IQ, intervene and presto – Bangladesh will self organize to a prosperous society possibly inventing even more exciting things than a toaster. But, can’t do that – politically incorrect, racism, able-ism, whatever.

I propose calling it TGIS – The Great Institutional Shackling – instead of TGS

ad*m April 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm

micro-polutant

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