*Adapt*, by Tim Harford

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.


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