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James B. Delong "brad_delong" (Berkeley, CA USA)

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Economic Puppetmasters: Lessons from the Halls of Power
Economic Puppetmasters: Lessons from the Halls of Power
von Lawrence B. Lindsey
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Preis: EUR 23,69

4.0 von 5 Sternen Larry Lindsey Looks at the Limits of Policymakers' Power, 27. November 1999
This is a book about four movers and shakers in today's global economy: Alan Greenspan, Eisuke Sakakibara, Helmut Kohl, and George Soros. Lindsey does a very good job of describing what they do--what their jobs are--who they are, and how they think. His capsule descriptions of how they view the world are broad-brush descriptions, lacking details and subtlety, but are amazingly accurate for all that. Alan Greenspan is the contrarian, Eisuke Sakakibara is the mandarin, Helmut Kohl is the historian, and George Soros is the speculator.
But the book is more than just about these four individuals. It is a book about the institutions that they boss and serve: America's Federal Reserve (that Alan Greenspan heads), Japan's Ministry of Finance (where Sakakibara is the senior civil servant), the West German government (that Helmut Kohl stood at the top of for more than two decades), and the world of the speculative hedge funds (of which George Soros with his Quantum Fund is the most visible and public example). And this is where the value-added in the book truly lies. For no single individual, no matter how talented, can function without a staff. And no single individual whose mindset is out of sympathy with that of the staff or the environment can get much of anything done.
Lindsey's summaries of the institutional histories and of the typical patterns of thought of the Federal Reserve, the Japanese Ministry of Finance, and the other institutional locations are--I think--the best part of the book. These are matters that are almost never covered in the press. Journalists would much rather discuss the personalities of Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright than the cultures and orientations of the people who staff the bureaucracies they head--the Treasury believing that it is engaged in a positive-sum game of maximizing international economic integration, while State believes that it is in a zero-sum negotiation of exchanging favor for favor. And these cultures are very important.
Moreover, to the extent that it is not culture but individuals that matter, it is groups of individuals: groups of people who think more-or-less alike and work together. Journalists like to speak of the "Rubin Treasury." But it would be much more accurate to speak of the "Rubin-Summers-Froman-Lipton-Geitner-Wilcox-Truman-Sandberg-and a bunch of others" Treasury. Arcs of policy grow and shrink gradually over time, as the consensus least common denominator of agreement among senior policymakers armed with arguments by their staffs gradually shifts. So tracking the thoughts of the institutions rather than the off-the-cuff thoughts of individuals is very important.
The heads of such organizations are in positions in which action is much easier if taken along than across the grain because of the orientations and beliefs of those who surround them. Neverthless, they are not the puppets of their institutions. And they have powerful opportunities to surround themselves with like-minded people.
Thus my first quarrel with Lindsey's book: throughout it there is a tone of policy pessimism--that even powerful people are very tightly constrained by institutions and history, that strings are being pulled elsewhere by the system, and that the High Politicans spend most of their time frantically trying to pretend that they are leading the parade.
This certainly was not my experience in government. For example, the 1993 deficit reduction program was not dictated by history or institutional patterns but was instead an act of political will, guided by what turned out to be (we hope) correct economic theory--so far, so good. The amount of policy reform and change that can be achieved is limited, and the work is hard, but high officials are not tied down like Gulliver captured by the Lilliputians.
I found myself wondering whether Lindsey might have been generalizing from his own experience in the Bush administration, where there was little room for economic policy. But it was not the fault of the "system" that the strings were held tightly. Bush policy was tied down by its own actions--it was overstrong against itself--crippled by high bureaucrats who did not trust their staffs, rash convention-speech promises, and a lack of interest in economic policy at the very top of the administration. It seems to me that it was the exception not the rule.
I have a second quarrel--more a quibble--with Lindsey's book: his analyses would be more convincing (and, I believe, more correct) if he would be less attached to defending the hard-to-defend economic policy record of the Reagan administration. As it is, his discussion of "supply shocks" muddles the concept by confusing true positive or negative shifts in potential output or the price level with changes in expected inflation. He thus attributes to the Reagan administration things that could only be done (and were done) by the Federal Reserve--as if you were to thank your plumber because the overhead light in the living room now works. The Volcker Fed's decision to press for disinflation even in the face of Reagan's overexpansionary fiscal policy was a gutsy move, and it is not fair to rob them of credit for the successful decline in expected inflation that was its principal positive result. But let that pass. For there is a third, more important, quarrel that I have...
Throughout Lindsey's book there is an undertone of pessimism. Lindsey anxiously looks back to the Great Depression, when policymakers armed with inadequate economic theories and constrained by institutions, ideologies, and politics created the worst macroeconomic disaster ever. He draws gloomy analogies between 1929 and 1999. There is, however, one very important difference between 1929 and 1999 that Lindsey does not note: we in 1999 remember what happened after 1929. And that difference is a key difference: that we remember history means that we cannot be necessarily condemned to repeat it. We can--and do--take steps to head off a 1929-style macroeconomic disaster.
Thus I am much more optimistic about the future than Lindsey is.
But these three points of disagreement that I have with the book do not mean that it is a bad book. It is quite a good book: it offers a form of institutional analysis and description that is hard to get anywhere else, and that is very important to understand if you are to understand how our economy works today.

Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady:: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas: Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950
Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady:: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas: Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950
von Greg Mitchell
  Gebundene Ausgabe

5.0 von 5 Sternen Why You Should Hate Richard Nixon Too, 27. November 1999
Two weeks before election day in 1950, the Republican Senatorial candidate in California--Richard M. Nixon--accused the Democratic Senatorial candidate in California--Helen Gahagan Douglas--of being the conduit through which the decisions made by Josef Stalin in the Kremlin flowed to the United States Congress:
"This action by Mrs. Douglas," Nixon explained, "... came just two weeks after [U.S. Communist Party leader] William Z. Foster transmitted his instructions from the Kremlin to the Communist national committee.... [Thus] this [Communist] demand found its way into the Congress" (Mitchell (1998), p. 209).
Later on Nixon campaign manager Murray Chotiner would try to erase--or perhaps forget his role in?--history, claiming that the Nixon campaign of 1950 "had never accused Douglas of 'sympathizing' or 'being in league with' the Communists." Nixon himself claimed that he "never questioned her patriotism" and that he had been smeared by her. Nixon biographers like Jonathan Aitken would refer to Nixon's relatively clean hands in the 1950 Senate campaign.
But the most important thing was that Nixon won the 1950 California Senate race. Because he won the 1950 California Senate race he went on to become Vice President in 1953, and President in 1969. But perhaps more important, the way he won the 1950 Senate race--the fact that his tactics then worked--warped American politics for nearly half a century.
How was it warped? Into a pattern of "lie whenever you can" and "demonize your political opponents." Thus later on Nixon speechwriter William Safire would paint a picture of a President Nixon threatened by:
...a lynch mob, no cause or ideology involved, only an orgy of generalized hate.... The hall [where Nixon was speaking] was actually, not figuratively, besieged.... The Secret Servicemen, who always had seemed too numerous and too officious before, now seemed to us like a too-small band of too-mortal men... (William Safire, Before the Fall).
But Nixon's chief of staff would have a different view of the same situation. As H.R. Haldeman expressed it in his diary:
...we wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure a little so they could zero in.... Before getting in car, P[resident Nixon] stood up and gave the V signs, which made them mad. They threw rocks, flags, candles, etc. as we drove out.... Bus windows smashed, etc. Made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up, should make really major story and might be effective. (H.R. Haldeman)
And Nixon would demand that his top aides--H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger--"use any means" to defeat the "enemy... conspiracy" of his domestic political adversaries. What did Nixon think of as "any means"? We know from his immediate subsequent demand:
Was the Brookings Institute raided last night? No? Get it done. I want the Brookings Institute's safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else responsible... (Stanley Kutler)
that in 1971 the "any means" included burglary, theft, the planting of false evidence, conspiracy to frame innocent parties. We don't know how much further "any means" went, or would have gone.
Thus there is a sense in which the Nixon-Douglas campaign of 1950 was key to shaping America not just because of the character of the politician (Nixon) whom it elevated to prominence, but because, as Greg Mitchell writes in his preface:
[The race] set a divisive and rigid agenda for forty years of election campaigns. Until 1950, candidates [who]... campaigned primarily on an anti-Communist platform... usually lost.... [Republican presidential candidate] in 1948 Thomas E. Dewey... criticized fellow Republicans who called for repressive new measures to control subversives.... Republican and Democratic leaders alike interpreted the outcome [of the 1950 election] as a victory for McCarthyisam and a call for a dramatic surge in military spending.... Red-baiting would haunt America for years, the so-called national security state would evolve and endure, and candidates would run and win on anti-Sovietism for decades..." (p. xix).
Now Greg Mitchell has done an excellent job of taking us back to the campaign of 1950--legitimate fears, the backdrop of American apparent defeat in the Korean War, blacklists, loyalty oaths, and the general belief that a woman's place was in the kitchen, not in the Senate. It is a very, very readable book, and very much worth reading--for what happened in the 1950 Senate race played a remarkably large part in determining what America was to be in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains itself to the Membership in Davos, Switzerland
The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains itself to the Membership in Davos, Switzerland
von Lewis Lapham
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3.0 von 5 Sternen Worth Reading, But Too Short to Be Worth Buying..., 27. November 1999
Davos without a Translator
Every year in Davos, Switzerland a number of the world's great and good--or at least powerful and egocentric--meet for a few days at the World Economic Forum to discuss the economic destiny of humanity. Business executives, central bankers, politicians, intellectuals, futurologists, journalists--all descend to hear each other make speeches and to talk to each other in the halls.
To this assembly went Lewis Lapham, the somewhat iconoclastic high-ranking member in good standing of the American literary establishment. The Agony of Mammon is his report of what he heard there. My initial set of reactions on picking up this book were three:
First, the book is so short--only 80 pages, big print, each page only 6" x 4". It has a total of 19,000 words. Printed with normal margins in 12-point Times, its manuscript must have taken up only 48 pages. For Verso to charge... ...times the cost of xeroxing the manuscript for each copy--strikes me as extremely self indulgent. Books are supposed to be a more efficient way of reproducing text than a xerox machine. If Verso doesn't make money on this book, shame on them for gearing up the machinery of modern printing for something with such a trivial print run. If they do make money on this book, shame on them for overcharging those who bought the book.
Second, the book seems to miss the thing that is most interesting about the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum: that it happens at all, and that it is thought newsworthy by those who are not there. In previous eras the meetings that were of genuine interest were those between princes to decide between war and peace, or between churchmen to decide which of their number were heretics to be burned at the stake and which districts would suffer the fire and sword of the crusade. But in this era people meet to talk about monetary policy, productivity, business organization. To me at least that is a very hopeful sign--commerce and productivity being much more pleasant things to experience than war or excommunication. Yet Lewis Lapham doesn't seem to be aware that in the long historical perspective economics is an unusual subject for a worldwide newsworthy meeting.
Third, when Lewis Lapham arrives in Davos it soon becomes clear that he does not understand what he is hearing. When MIT economist Rudiger Dornbusch calls for the rich investors of New York and Frankfurt to be forced to eat a large share of the collective losses from the East Asian financial crisis, Lewis Lapham hears Rudi as a voice calling for "austerity"--a voice saying the same thing as the central bankers who say that European unemployment benefits are too high or the corporate princes who urge that the last shreds of the social-democratic welfare state need to be purged from South America. But Rudi was saying something completely different from the central bankers and the corporate princes: Rudi's point was that the East Asian financial crisis had already destroyed great wealth, and the question was whether the richest 1% were going to pay or the non-richest 99%. Rudi's speech was a message of anti-austerity. But that was not what Lewis Lapham heard.
Why not? Because Lewis Lapham doesn't speak the language. He doesn't understand the denotation of the words that he heard at Davos--that when X was said, it meant that Y was excluded, and that everyone else there understood the functioning of the economy well enough to know that if you wanted Q you also had to take R, and that S and T were compatible only in the absence of U. And Lewis Lapham did not take along a translator: there was no economist tagging along behind him to point out that he had failed to understand Rudi Dornbusch, or the Chinese entrepreneur for whom the coming of the pager to China is a big deal, or George Soros, or Alan Greenspan, or indeed the organizer Klaus Schwab, or in all probability most of the other people he talked to. As a reporter of what was actually said and meant at Davos, Lewis Lapham is the ultimate unreliable narrator.
But if he did not understand denotations, what then did he hear? And this is where the book becomes truly interesting. For not understanding the denotations he is forced to listen to the connotations: the emotional penumbra cast by the thoughts and ideas had and expressed at Davos. And in his listening to the connotative penumbra he hears four interesting--and I think very true--things.
* That in their claims to control--or even to understand--the course of the global economy, high politicians are faking it: Bill Clinton's "fine pose of high presidential seriousness was exactly that--a pose, an extended television commercial, a department store window display." That is not to say that there are not half-successful attempts to manage the global economy: there are, and they are half-successful. But politicians who promise all good things to all people and deny that there are choices (more insurance against global warming or more minivans? faster economic growth or smaller recessions?) are not the ones who make them.
* The uneasy combination of confidence in the utility and rightness of market forces--the market as the creator of wealth and efficiency, and also as the rewarder of industry and expertise--with the awareness that "...the market, like God, didn't always answer everybody's prayers... and that the world was a more uncertain place than one might guess sitting here on the terrace of the Berghotel Schatzalp..."
* "The sincerity of... [the] devotions or the wealth of... [the] good intentions" of those who had come to Davos to discuss the state of the world--but coupled with their inability to understand how the world was going to move, for the attendees at Davos were the world's best managers, not politicians, not visionaries. And it was politicians and visionaries that are needed to lead, not managers.
* The extraordinary role of Alan Greenspan--who truly has been "outfitted" (albeit not hastily) by the globe's businessmen and speculators with proconsular power to calm the world economy...
So definitely a recommended book.
But don't read it if you don't understand monetary policy, or the world economy--you will wind up confused because you will try to read it for the denotations, and you can't because Lewis Lapham doesn't understand them.
And don't buy it, period: it is socially inefficient--wasteful of time and energy and resources--to put the covers of a book around a manuscript so small. If the market is going to work as a social planning and resource allocation mechanism, organizations like Verso need to be punished for their destructive deviancy. Instead of buying it, read it in the bookstore. It will only take you at most thirty minutes, after all.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software (DV-MPS General)
Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software (DV-MPS General)
von Charles Petzold
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Best Book I've Read This Year, 27. November 1999
I think that this is the best book that I have read all year. In some sense this is the book that I have been looking for for twenty-five years--the book that will enable me to understand how a computer does what it does. And--given the centrality of computers in our age--it has been a long wait. But now it is over. Charles Petzold (1999), Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software does a much better job than anything else I have ever seen in explaining computers--what they really are, and how they really work.
Have you ever wondered just how your computers really work? I mean, really, really work. Not as in "an electrical signal from memory tells the processor the number to be added," but what the electrical signal is, and how it accomplishes the magic of switching on the circuits that add while switching off the other circuits that would do other things with the number. I have. I have wondered this a lot over the past decades.
Yet somehow over the past several decades my hunger for an explanation has never been properly met. I have listened to people explain how two switches wired in series are an "AND"--only if both switches are closed will the lightbulb light. I have listened to people explain how IP is a packet-based communications protocol and TCP is a connection-based protocol yet the connection-based protocal can ride on top of the packet-based protocol. Somehow these explanations did not satisfy. One seemed like answering "how does a car work?" by telling how in the presence of oxygen carbon-hydrogen bonds are broken and carbon dioxide and water are created. The other seemed like anwering "how does a car work" by telling how if you step on the accelerator the car moves forward.
Charles Petzold is different. He has hit the sweet spot exactly. Enough detail to satisfy anyone. Yet the detail is quickly built up as he ascends to higher and higher levels of explanation. It remains satisfying, but it also hangs together in a big picture.
In fact, my only complaint is that the book isn't long enough. It is mostly a hardware book (unless you want to count Morse Code and the interpretation of flashing light bulbs as "software." By my count there are twenty chapters on hardware, and five on software. In my view only five chapters on software--one on ASCII, one on operating systems, one on floating-point arithmetic, one on high-level languages, and one on GUIs--is about ten too few. (Moreover, at one key place in his explanation (but only one) he waves his hands. He argues that it is possible to use the operation codes stored in memory to control which circuits in the processor are active. But he doesn't show how it is done.)
Charles Petzold's explanatory strategy is to start with the telegraph: with how opening and closing a switch can send an electrical signal down a wire. And he wants to build up, step by step, from that point to end with our modern computers. At the end he hopes that the reader can look back--from the graphical user interface to the high-level language software constructions that generate it, from the high-level language software constructions to the machine-language code that underlies it, from the machine-language code to the electrical signals that load, store, and add bits into the computer's processor and into the computer's memory.
But it doesn't stop there. It goes further down into how to construct an accumulator or a memory bank from logic gates. And then it goes down to how to build logic gates--either out of transistors or telegraph relays. And then deeper down, into how the electrons actually move through a transistor or through a relay and a wire.
And at the end I could look back and say, yes, I understand how this machine works in a way that I didn't understand it before. Before I understood electricity and maybe an AND gate, and I understood high level languages. But the whole vast intermediate realm was fuzzy. Now it is much clearer. I can go from the loop back to the conditional jump back to the way that what is stored in memory is fed into the processor back to the circuits that set the program counter back to the logic gates, and finally back to the doped silicon that makes up the circuit.
So I recommend this book to everyone. It is a true joy to read. And I at least could feel my mind expanding as I read it.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, & Publishing)
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, & Publishing)
von Joseph M. Williams

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Best Book on Writing English..., 27. November 1999
Most books on how to write better English are pretty near to useless. Many of them scare you into worrying that you might use "which" when you should use "that" (never mind that an extra "which" never caused any reader the smallest bit of confusion). Others demand that you strive for "clarity" or "brevity" or "coherence"--but then somehow never provide any useful advice on just how, exactly, to do so.
Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is an exception. It is the only truly useful book on English prose style that I have ever found. Even Strunk and White cannot compete with the quality of the advice that Williams gives. Perhaps more important, the advice that Williams gives can be used. As Williams puts it, his aim is to go "beyond platitudes." Advice like "'Be clear' is like telling me to 'Hit the ball squarely.' I know that. What I don't know is how to do it." Williams tells us how to do it.
Williams's advice is particularly useful because it is reader based. Most books on style are rule-based: follow these rules and you will be a good writer. Williams recognizes that clear writing is writing that makes the reader feel clear about what he or she is reading. This difference in orientation makes Williams's advice much more profound: he has a theory of why the rules are what they are (and what to do when the rules conflict) that books that focus on rules alone lack.
His advice starts at the level of the sentence. Williams believes that readers find sentences easy to read and understand when the logic of the thought follows the logic of the sentence: the subjects of sentences should be the actors, and the verbs of the sentence should be the crucial actions. The beginning of a sentence should look back and connect the reader with the ideas that have been mentioned before. The end of the sentence should look forward, and is the place to put new ideas and new information.
His advice continues at the level of the paragraph. The sentences that make up a paragraph should have consistent topics. New topics and new themes should be found at the end of a paragraph's introductory sentence (or sentences). Readers will find a paragraph to be coherent if it has one single articulate summary sentence, which is almost always found either at the end of the paragraph or as the last of the paragraph's introductory sentences.
His advice concludes with four chapters on being concise, on figuring out the appropriate length, on being elegant, and on using constructions that do not jar the reader. I think that these last four chapters are less successful than the other chapters of the book. They contain much sound advice. But the argument of the book becomes more diffuse. The first six chapters present and illustrate overarching organizing principles for achieving clarity, coherence, and cohesion. The last four chapters present long lists of things to try to do. (However, the fangs-bared attack on "pop grammarians" found in the last chapter is fun to read.)
So, gentle reader, if you want to become a better writer of English, go buy and work through this book. I, at least, have never found a better.

Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing
Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing
von Philip Greenspun

5.0 von 5 Sternen Great, thoughtful book..., 25. Juli 1999
Philip Greenspun doesn't just want to teach people how to build effective, database-backed web sites. He wants to change the world. He genuinely believes that (a) almost all current websites should be backed by databases, because only by having the rich libraries of reserve content that databases can manage can a site be truly interesting; and (b) that collaboration-focused database-backed websites can genuinely create new types of communities--raise human interaction and information exchange to new levels.
Many of us have been lucky enough to pass through magical places and times when--somehow--education suddenly happens because some critical mass is exceeded and ideas and insights reflect off the walls and into our brains at an almost unbelievable rate. But for all of us these places and times are exceptions (and many of us never experience them at all).
Philip Greenspun believes that the web will make such magical times and places much more common...

The Transparent Society: Freedom Vs. Privacy In A City Of Glass Houses: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
The Transparent Society: Freedom Vs. Privacy In A City Of Glass Houses: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
von G. David Brin
  Gebundene Ausgabe

5.0 von 5 Sternen A honorable follow-on to Orwell's 1984, 2. November 1998
For perhaps two centuries people living in today's advanced industrial societies have had a modicum of privacy. Before two centuries ago, privacy was nearly unheard-of: you lived in a village where everyone knew everyone else and everyone else's business. Between two centuries ago and the present, people moved out of the village and out to a--relatively isolated--farm, or into a city where the sheer number of people made relative anonymity--and thus privacy--possible.
But, at least according to David Brin, the future will be different. In the future privacy as we know it today will be nearly impossible to attain.
In the future privacy will be next to nonexistent because of the explosion of audiovisual, communications, andcomputer technologies. Cheap hard disks will allow people to collect massive information about transactions: who did what. Cheap cameras will allow people to collect massive amounts of information about locations: who was where. Cheap computer power will allow the sorting and searching of massive amounts of information in search of those nuggets of data relevant to any one particular person. And cheap computers will allow anyone--or anyone with access codes--to access what will essentially become the stored life history of anyone.
From David Brin's perspective, this change is coming. The only question is who will have access to the information that will be contained in the great surveillance databases. Will the information be "secret" and "private"--in which case only governments which may turn thuggish will have access? Or will the information be "open" and "public"--in which case we will once again be back in the village, where nearly everything is done in public and everybody knows everybody else's business: truly a global village.
Brin makes a good case that the technology will bring us to one of these two outcomes. And he argues that the first outcome--in which we try to preserve our "privacy" by restricting access to the great surveillance databases--is a very dangerous outcome. It is a dangerous outcome because secret knowledge is power, and if the twentieth century has proven anything it is that governments cannot be trusted with secret knowledge. The great tyrannies of the twentieth century flourished because their surveillance gave them control and their secrecy kept enough citizens from realizing what they were up to fast enough. The advent of modern audiovisual, communications, and computing technologies greatly amplifies the power of surveillance, and greatly multiplies the danger if it is not countered by a greatly amplified power of the people to survey the government. And popular surveillance over the government carries as a side effect a potential loss of privacy. Anything that restricts popular access to information about other citizens restricts popular access to information about the government as well.
I believe that Brin's book is not necessarily an accurate forecast. The futures that he envisions will probably never come to pass. And the choice that he foresees may well never be posed in the stark form in which he poses it. Yet the book is useful: the future Brin envisions is clearly one of the possible futures that might come to pass, and the consequences of what he sees as the wrong choice in that possible future could turn the twenty-first century into an abattoir that would make the twentieth century look like a Sunday picnic.
If enough people read Brin's book, or are brushed by the currents of thought in represents, then it may turn into a self-negating prophecy: a warning of dystopia that by virtue of the horror it paints helps avoid that horror. That was the function of George Orwell's 1984.
That is an honorable role for anyone's book.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale Agrarian Studies)
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale Agrarian Studies)
von James C. Scott
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2.0 von 5 Sternen Not Seeing One's Intellectual Parents, 2. November 1998
There is a lot that is excellent in James Scott's _Seeing Like a State_. It begins with a romp through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German forestry--and the failure of the foresters to understand the ecology of the forests that they were trying to manage. It continues with a brief digression on how states tried to gain control of their populations through maps, boulevards, and names. These are prequels to a vicious and effective critique of what Scott calls "high modernism": the belief that the planner--whether Le Corbusier designing a city, Vladimir Lenin designing a planned economy, or Julius Nyerere "villagizing" the people of Tanzania--knows best, and can move humans and their lives around on as if on a chessboard to create utopia.
Then the focus appears to waiver. There is a chapter on agriculture in developing economies that characterizes agricultural extension efforts from the first to the third world as analogous to Lenin's nationalization of industry, or Nyerere's forced resettlement of Tanzanians. But the targets -- the agricultural extenders who dismiss established practices -- lose solidity and become shadows. They are no longer living, breathing, powerful rulers,; instead they are the "credo of American agriculture," the "catechism of high- modernist agriculture," the "high-modernist aesthetic and ideology of most colonial trained agronomists and their Western-trained successors" -- truly straw men.
The conclusion is a call for social systems that recognize the importance of what Scott calls "metis": a Greek word for the practical knowledge that a skilled and experienced worker has of his craft. Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details. T he key fault of "high modernism," as Scott understands it, is its belief that details don't matter -- that planners can decree from on high, people obey, and utopia result.
Well before the end of the book an economist is struck by a strong sense of deja vu. Scott's declarations of the importance of the detailed practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot -- of how such knowledge cannot be transmitted up any hierarchy to those-in-charge in a way to do any good--of how the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation--of how any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space in which there is sufficient flexibility for craftsmen to exercise their metis (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)--all of these strike an economist as very, very familiar.
All of these seem familiar to economists because they are the points made by Ludwig von Mises (1920) and Friedrich Hayek (1937) and the other Austrian economists in their pre-World War II debate with socialists over the possibility of central planning. Hayek's adversaries--Oskar Lange and company--argued that a market system had to be inferior to a centrally-planned system: at the very least, a centrally-planned economy could set up internal decision-making procedures that would mimic the market, and the central planners could also adjust things to increase social welfare and account for external effects in a way that a market system could never do. Hayek, in response, argued that the functionaries of a central-planning board could never succeed, because they could never create both the incentives and the flexibility for the people-on-the-spot to exercise what Scott calls metis.
Today all economists--even those who are very hostile to Hayek's other arguments (that government regulation of the money supply lies at the root of the business cycle, that political attempts to reduce inequalities in the distribution of income lead to totalitarianism, that the competitive market is the "natural spontaneous order" of human society) -- agree that Hayek and company hit this particular nail squarely on the head. Looking back at the seventy-year trajectory of Communism, it seems very clear that Hayek (and Scott) are right: that its principal flaw is its attempt to concentrate knowledge, authority, and decision-making power at the center rather than pushing the power to act, the freedom to do so, and the incentive to act productively out to the periphery where the people-on-the-spot have the local knowledge to act effectively.
In short, by the end of his book James Scott has argued himself into the intellectual positions adopted by Friedrich Hayek back before World War II. Yet throughout the book Scott appears to be ignorant that the intellectual terrain which he has reached has already been well-explored.

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