Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review (#8 of 2010)

The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin.

Godin is a marketing guru & prolific blogger. This book is about 78 pages, so it reads more like a long blog post and you can read it in less than an hour.

The "dip" Godin refers to is that point in any activity where the activity becomes difficult and requires serious commitment to complete. Becoming a CPA, or learning to surf, or getting a PhD are some examples of activities with serious dips. You enter into the subject area with zeal & interest and then probably quit when the going gets tough. And this is stupid because if you were mature, you'd have not gotten into the activity to begin with (not bought a surfboard, for example). And if you just hang on and determine to be the best in the world, then you'll be a scarce and valuable commodity. Quitting in the middle of the dip is often stupid, but we do it all the time.

The book is about quitting those tasks at which you're not going to be the best in the world at in order to focus on other areas where you WILL become the best in the world at. That's your goal: Be the very best there is. You should also quit your dead-end job and look for one that you can move upward with.

There's nothing really insightful in this book, just a way to evaluate where you're at in your job, career, etc. But Godin assumes that career is the most important thing. He counsels one person to quit because that person has achieved stability at his current job. The fact that the guy now can spend more time with his family after seriously making them sacrifice for him for years doesn't factor into Godin's advice. In fact, Godin basically says "Yuck, apple pie is mediocrity. Quit your job and take risks again." The guy probably could have kept his good job and instead worked on stepping up his game as far as his commitment to wife, children, community, etc. I'm reminded of many of Nassim Taleb's almost daily tweet snipes about business writing.

I give it about 2.5 stars out of 5. If you have an hour to kill in a Barnes & Noble somewhere, then check it out.

Book Review (#7 of 2010)

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World by Alan Greenspan.

Audio. This massive tome is actually two books in one. The first is his autobiography, a great look at his career and his views of several White Houses. I found most interesting how his own thoughts contradicted Bob Woodward's late 90's account, Maestro, which I read in college. I remember Woodward writing that Greenspan was complimentary of George H.W. Bush's knowledge of economics via his Yale degree. Greenspan isn't very complimentary of Bush '41 in his own memoir, and calls Nixon and Clinton the smartest presidents he ever knew (he's extremely complimentary of Clinton).

The second book is basically composed of essays ranging from the history of economic thought to his views on Latin America, Russia, India, and China, to his predictions of the coming decades. It's this part that Greenspan's book fell flat to critics. Greenspan doesn't forsee any financial crisis, and sees inflation in 2008 as the biggest potential threat. Here's the guy credited with seeing so much and yet he clearly saw so little.

Greenspan thinks that the benefits of government housing policies (subsidizing mortgages, tax breaks, etc.) outweigh the risks (which he viewed as rather minimal). Not sure if he's changed his tune, but recent Congressional testimony illustrated that he'd changed his tune about his confidence in market players to regulate themselves and avoid taking on too much risk.

In all, this book is too verbose. His economic writings are fantastic for a student who wants an intro into basic economics & finance, but his thoughts are quite droll by the end when he delves into climate change, and other things he knows little about. Given the gravity of the approaching crisis when the book was published in 2007, it's hard to take some of his feigned expertise seriously.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review (#6 of 2010)

How to Study Bible Prophecy for Yourself, by Tim LaHaye (1990).

I am pretty sure I bought this book while in college, and this version was written before the Left Behind craze. It has somehow traveled with us all these years and will now be donated. The title is a little misleading because LaHaye doesn't teach you to do anything for yourself. It is sort of like a Bible study. LaHaye will introduce a subject, give you a passage with some questions about it (fill in the blank) and then give you his own opinion and the opinion of others.

I appreciate his humility throughout the book. Too many people I know call him a "false teacher" for being a pre-millenial, pre-tribulation rapture proponent. He challenges other views rather simply in this book but he rejects dogmatic assertions by anyone, including himself.

That said, the scholarship in the book is pretty crude, and sadly typical of pop Christian works. Writing "Someone said..." without naming the person or giving a reference. Including plenty of exclamation points, etc. The earlier chapters are the worst, he does give some references and leave out some of the sensationalism in the later chapters.

This book will not teach you how to study anything for yourself, but it will give you the basics of pre-millenialism (but not deeper veins of dispensationalism or covenantalism, words which do not appear in the book).

I do leave this book, like LaHaye, wondering how so many Reformed Christians can be convinced of a post-millennial second advent. Do you really believe we're ushering in heaven on earth through our better moral behavior and changing hearts through the spread of the Gospel so that Utopia is getting closer every day? That seems like utter nonsense.

1.5 stars out of 5. (Because anything higher would make me appear to be un-sophisticated).

The next book of LaHaye's I would like to read would have to be The Unhappy Gays. Remarkably also selling dirt-cheap on Amazon.

Book Review (#5 of 2010)

Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen.
This was the first book I bought after returning home from two years overseas in 2004. It has traveled with us until now. It's probably best that I didn't read it until recently since I have a much better appreciation of the arguments.

Sen is a Nobel prize winning economist (1998), and one of my grad school teacher's teacher's teacher. He combines economic analysis with moral philosophy. His point (I think) is that freedom is both and ends and a means of development, and we should analyze policies' effects on freedom.

He delves into the philosophical problems of development. For example, material well-being can't be the best measure of economic development because American slaves had higher incomes and life expectancy than certain people in the third world today-- yet they had no freedom. We need a measure of freedom, which requires its own understandings and definitions.

Sen compares the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment to libertarianism to Rawlsian thinking. So, there are some deep philosophical weeds to wade through. Chapter 4 is the best, dealing with issues of statism vs. markets.

Sen bases his thinking mostly on Adam Smith, and he fleshes out many of the lesser-known aspects of Smith's writings. But he also brings Eastern thought to the table in an attempt to humble Western assumptions of moral/philosophical tolerance. He debunks the idea of "Asian values" being culpable for Chinese statism but roundly points out the progress of the Chinese economically while dealing with their restrictions on freedom.

It's not a book for the non-philosophically or economically inclined. But it was good to read at this stage in my career. I'm more interested in some of his other thinking and works on development.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review (#4 of 2010)

I'm just way behind in writing. Tis easier to absorb than to write. This book came with my wife when we got married. It is now checked off the list.
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider. (1997 edition).

"Can overfed, comfortably clothed, and luxuriously housed persons understand poverty?" is how the book opens. The first chapter closes with this summary of what the book talks about:

"Imagine what one quarter of the world's Christians could do if they became truly generous. A few of us could move...to desperately poor areas. The rest of us could defy surrounding materialism. We could refuse to let our affluent world squeeze us into its consumeristic mold. Instead, we could become generous non-conformists who love Jesus more than wealth. In obedience to our Lord, we could empower the poor through small loans, community development, and better societal systems. And in the process, we would learn again his paradoxical truth that true happiness flows from generosity."

Sider gets much of the economics correct in this book, and I wouldn't skip over any of the more "technical" chapters. He is advocating not just confronting the system with our choices, but fundamentally advocating changing the unjust system itself. This is where he steps on toes, but my only concern was that I think some liberal-leaning Christians use this book to say things that Sider does not say.
For example, Sider understands the incredible potential for free trade to empower poor people in developing countries to move up the economic ladder. However, because the North (wealthy countries) uses its enormous leverage to negotiate trade deals in a manner that benefits the North rather than the South (poor countries) the poor don't get as large a benefit as they should. I know some misguided Christians who take this and begin advocating against free trade deals, not understanding (as Sider does) that some trade is better than no trade.

Sider, like James Halteman, calls for a more Book of Acts style community way of living. To help each other make consumption decisions and to find ways to better invest in our communities. Sider is basically talking about house churches and deep community. Of choosing to live at a lower standard of living so that your income can be given to others.

I struggle with thinking of these aspects as they relate to economic development.

Let's suppose that tomorrow all Christians in the U.S. lived more simply-- buying much less stuff, refusing to buy on credit, growing much of their own food, and sharing their possessions as needed rather than replacing items. This would have an immediate negative impact on U.S. GDP. Prices would fall, output would decline, and unemployment would rise. As much of the stuff we buy comes directly or indirectly from developing countries, the negative impact would be felt there as well. Christians would all be healthier and happier (and the environment would be better off) but what about the rest of the world?

It's plausible that, providing income remains constant, the decrease in consumption would increase private saving and national saving. As that occurs, money would flow abroad to foreign countries, funding investment opportunities there, lowering interest rates for poor people to borrow to start new businesses, etc.

This is a question not fully explored in any text I've read. I think the implicit assumption is that so few Christians would choose to adopt a simpler lifestyle that it's overall effects would be nil. We would essentially still free ride off the consumption habits of everyone else (and hence, still have jobs).

While I agree with 95% of Sider's book, I just struggle with the overall macroeconomic picture. Is it better to send your $10 to sponsor a World Vision child, or spend your money on stuff that the child (or her parents) manufacture in a factory where they live?
My basic answer is that one should be aware of the consequences of your choices. If you're spending $10 on a meal, are you aware that that $10 could go to feed a child somewhere else for a month? Are your repeated purchases of new electronics helping fuel the war and rape in the Congo, where the valuable raw materials are mined? No easy answers.

I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5. It's a book that I think every Christian should read.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On Mitch Daniels

I haven't blogged in a long time. I've been reading and studying much more than I've been writing.

Here's an article from The Weekly Standard on Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, that I'd encourage others to read. The first few paragraphs give you the idea. The smart conservatives that I read* are enamored with him and eagerly want him to run for president in 2012. Right now he's a "dark horse."

I think I could really get behind someone like this.

*- David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and David Frum.