What I’ve Been Reading

1. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

I liked Alan Schwartz’s Amazon review: ""Buy on apples, sell on cheese" is an old proverb among wine merchants. Taking a bite of an apple before tasting wine makes it easier to detect flaws in the wine, and the buyer who does so will not as easily make the mistake of paying more than the wine is worth. Cheese, on the other hand, pairs well with wine and enhances its flavor, so a seller who offers cheese may command a higher price for the wine (and may even deserve it, if the wine is intended to be drunk with cheese).""

2. Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.  Yes, that’s the Clay Shirky.  This is (implicitly) a very good Hayekian, spontaneous order treatment of social software on the web.  The book poses a simple and important question: what happens when it is virtually costless to organize people into groups?

3. Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa, by Robert Paarlberg.  The point is unassailable, the subtitle says it all.

4. Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: A Saudi Family in the American Century.  So far it’s great.  I know you’re sick of reading about Bin Laden; just think of it as a (partial) history of the Saudis.

Addendum: The new "Nudge" blog is here.

Comments

"The book poses a simple and important question: what happens when it is virtually costless to organize people into groups?"

What do we mean by "orangiz[ing] people into groups"? If I join the Marginal Revolution = Steroids for the Brain 'group' on Facebook, have I been organized into a group? If I sign up for email updates on No to Proposition X's website, am I part of a group?

I agree with the idea that it has become very inexpensive (perhaps nearly costless, at the margin) to communicate with individuals and to allow them to affiliate nominally with your good, service, candidacy, or cause, but in terms of getting people to go out and do something in the physical world as a group (even as simple a thing as meeting in the same place at the same time), it is still fairly costly.

Inasmuch as lowering the cost of communication makes it easier to converge on times and places to organize in the physical world, I see two results:

1) more people will converge more often, and,

2) those who would seek to organize people will shift their thoughts away from how to organize and towards what they can get the organized to do.

3) organizational success will be decreasingly measured by turnout and increasingly measured by outcomes.

It's a bit awkward critiquing a book I haven't read, but I dispute the point about biotech being kept out of Africa. The main reasons are patents (e.g., the golden rice debacle) and vendor lock-in agreements where you can't grow their crops without that company's chemicals and they're not allowed to keep and build their own seed piles -- they have to buy their seeds every season.

If these hardy seeds were just being given to poor African farmers, the Africans themselves would be beating down their door. But the crap that comes with it thanks to Monsanto is not worth the trouble.

So, if I buy the winemonger's swill, I suppose he would say he nudged me in the wise direction.

Also from the Schwarz review:

"Pediatricians have done a good job of making vaccination a default option."

Vaccination isn't really so much for the one getting it. I was going to say it is mostly to slow an epidemic, but in truth, it's mostly for the manufacturers. If my kid gets autism, which I doubt there is a link (but what's good enough for Bush and Cheney will be good enough for me), as Jason Bourne might say, the speed at which I take my fight to their doorstep will take their breath away.

Here's my non-review of the non-read book.

So, I suppose, we are all imbeciles now.

The behavioral finance ideas that were scoffed at a decade ago, but helped explain 6 sigma events like Warren Buffett has spawned a contagion of copycat books. Now they stand ready to reshape policy? Sounds a little knee-jerk to me.

Why does the pendulum need to swing from the market is always and everywhere efficient to the market is a numbskull. In reality, the pendulum never swung. Liberty, we hardly knew ya'!

Considering all the known problems out there that, if they are going to be solved, it looks like they will be have to be solved by individual actors, I'd say it's the politicians more in need of a good nudge. It seems the "nudgers" are already doing a lot to nudge us to get our houses in order (e.g. global warming) rather than spending their energy cleaning up the messes they made (e.g. entitlements, the economy, the war du jour, nuclear proliferation and the risk of rogue nukes)

From the personal file, I think I related a story about one of my healthcare experiences. I was able to get "off the grid." This was due in no part to the "nudges" that the hospital system is already pretty good at and solely to my dogged individualism. Everything in the hospital, like that in a casino, from the uniforms on down, is designed to "nudge" the patient into a mode of compliance. We need more of this idea?

It seems the "wise" choices are either the no-brainers (401k matching) or of questionable consensus (driving more fuel-efficient cars made of crepe paper) or outright biased to benefit special interests (100% vaccinations with little marginal benefit to the recipient).

And the no-brainers already have the nudge of social proof. They need more nudge? And do we need nudges more than we need better information about the latter two categories? Or is that someone else's book to write?

But are even the "no-brainers" beyond debate? Is the 401k match such a wise move? Personally, yes. "Free money!" right? Like a free lunch? Yeah, right. But widespread reliance on 401k plans has made the walking away from pensions easier to swallow. Someone please convince me that the company is giving me a match if I enroll in the 401k because the really care about me. Life would be so much more pleasant if I could meander through it believing everyone had my best interests in mind, and maybe they just need a little more power to nudge me towards what's best for me. But, on the contrary, I think they are already trying to "nudge" me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that "nudges," well-intentioned or not by theorists, in the hands of the ultimate wielders, will just be a kinder and gentler mandate.

Vaccination isn't really so much for the one getting it. I was going to say it is mostly to slow an epidemic, but in truth, it's mostly for the manufacturers.

Hmmm... I always thought that pharma manufacturers loathed to produce childhood vaccines (they are price controlled, and liability and PR disaster of any misstep makes them an unprofitable product). I thought that the U.S. had to subsidize liability with a no-fault vaccine court (where damages are paid by the government), and had to pretty much twist arms and threaten to get companies to produce vaccine.

If my kid gets autism, which I doubt there is a link (but what's good enough for Bush and Cheney will be good enough for me), as Jason Bourne might say, the speed at which I take my fight to their doorstep will take their breath away.

Don't vaccinate your kids if you are going to be all crazy. Reactionary parents who won the "my kid is sick I need millions of bucks" lottery are crippling progress in children's medicine - We don't need any further damage. I rather your child is crippled of polio or something than have you make it more difficult for companies to produce life saving vaccines for my child.

The main reasons are patents (e.g., the golden rice debacle) and vendor lock-in agreements where you can't grow their crops without that company's chemicals and they're not allowed to keep and build their own seed piles -- they have to buy their seeds every season.

If these hardy seeds were just being given to poor African farmers, the Africans themselves would be beating down their door. But the crap that comes with it thanks to Monsanto is not worth the trouble.

That is complete propaganda. There are plenty of projects to develop public-domain freely available biotech crops to help people in the third world, that have nothing to do with Monsanto... and there would be far far more without the anti-biotech hysteria. The trouble is, European farmers have learned that biotech hysteria is a good form of protectionism, and African countries believe they will be locked out of the European market if they use biotechnology. (Of course, Africa will be locked out of the European market no matter what). No government or NGO is going to fund or promote biotech either, because of the hysteria by the same people that usually support government aid to Africa and those kinds of NGOs.

People keep beating on that same, dead, tired straw-man of a single Monsanto product marked to North America farmers as being all of biotechnology.

That Alan Schwartz is a childhood friend of mine.

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