Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review (#3 of 2011)

Underwriting Democracy: Encouraging Free Enterprise and Democratic Reform Among the Soviets and in Eastern Europe by George Soros.
I bought this book for $1 several years ago after we returned from working in Eastern Europe. There, I had worked for a company competing directly with a Soros-funded microcredit firm in the same town. I thought this book would be about Soros' efforts towards those ends, but I was wrong (the title is somewhat misleading, I think).

The book was published in 1991, the period over which Soros wrote it was tumultuous as the Soviet Union was collapsing. In the first half, Soros explains the beginnings of his Open Society fund which provided research grants to scholars in the Eastern Bloc to pursue activities that wouldn't receive government support or funding. He details the frustrations of opening foundations in Hungary and elsewhere, dealing with government suspicion and red tape and office politics among members of his board.

Along the way, Soros begins meeting with various heads of state and giving advice on economic reforms. He worked with Jeff Sachs in Poland when they were getting rid of price controls and the like, and later brought Sachs and other economists to Russia to achieve the same ends-- but failed. It was interesting to get a behind-the-scenes take on how those meetings/discussions all came together as I've read about those events here, here, and here.

Pgs. 36-37 are the best two-page explanation of why communism/socialism fails. I like this tidbit, too:
"Economic activity under the Soviet system is simply not economic; it is better understood as the expression of quasi-religious dogma. Perhaps the best analogy is with the pyramid-building of the pharaohs. This interpretation explains why the portion of resources devoted to investment is maximized while the economic benefit derived from them remains at a minimum...We may view the gigantic dams, the steel plants, the marble halls of the Moscow subway, and the skyscrapers of Stalinist architecture as so many pyramids built by a modern-day pharoah. Hydroelectric plants do produce energy, and steel plants turn out steel, but if the steel and energy are used simply to produce more dams and steel plants, the effect on the economy is not very different from that of the construction of pyramids."

In the second half of the book Soros jumps off the deep end espousing his theory of reflexivity. He's been developing his thoughts for decades but studying some chaos theory helped formalize his thoughts. Here is a speech he gave about it at MIT in 1994, where he basically asks the academics "am I crazy?" Basically, due to human biases prices can deviate from the fundamentals those prices are supposed to reflect (as in behavioral finance). But as the prices deviate, they actually change the fundamentals. He gives some anecdotal evidence to back this up but it's a thought exercise rather than a mathematical one. Where it gets murky is how he applies this to a theory of history and how he claims reflexivity also shows up in the fall of communism.

Soros gives definitions for various "systems of thought." The "dogmatic" system is a "closed society" where all new information is filtered through certain supreme dogma. An "open society" is one where people can freely choose between alternatives and we can live in the tension of different opposing ideas. One gathers from various passages that Soros is an atheist or agnostic and hates those who believe in a supreme Truth being. The problem is that he's dogmatic about that-- so he falls into his own trap. Soros admits that the open society may be untenable-- people may be so uncomfortable in it that they return to dogma instead.

Soros believes that we're not always converging towards equilibrium; a closed society is one that is so far from equilibrium (where beliefs match reality [or price = fundamentals]) that it is stuck. As that society opens up and revolution occurs the fundamentals change faster than participants' beliefs can keep up-- hence revolution leads to a quick collapse of the old regime.

He also objects to the "theory of perfect competition" because it is divorced from reality. I don't know anyone who treats perfect competition as a reality-- it's just a theoretical construct. Consequently, he also rejects the "theory of property rights" because it requires perfect competition to justify it. He is obviously supportive of property rights, recognizing how the lack of which destroyed quality of life in the USSR. But he espouses that society should make sure the property is used for the "greater good." It doesn't sound much different than talking about externalities, but there is also just some general vagueness in his statements (and it seems odd from someone who has greatly profited off the demise of various countries' economic systems). I suppose I might want to read his 1987 book The Alchemy of Finance.

The book ends rather hastily, he has a hard time trying to bring it all together. It appears to have been revised as events in the USSR unfolded in 1991.

2 stars.

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