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Sunday 2009-01-25


Brief reviews of a few books I've read recently but don't feel like taking the time to write up properly:

Nation, by Terry Pratchett  ·  His latest; not a Discworld book. Pratchett was recently diagnosed with a horrible brain disorder. So it's natural (if callous) to ask: Does it show? The answer, I'm glad to say, is that it doesn't, not at all. Nation is a very enjoyable book, and doesn't read at all as if it was written by someone whose mind is going. It's inventive, and fun, and sometimes moving, and sometimes thought-provoking. Don't go expecting it to be like the Discworld books; it isn't. (In particular, it isn't the gag-fest that many of the earlier ones are.)

The myth of the rational voter, by Bryan Caplan  ·  Brief and unfair summary: Voters disagree a lot with economists on matters of economics, in consistent ways. This shows that they are severely irrational, because economists are unlikely to be badly wrong. Therefore, economists working on political issues, who have long consistently assumed that voters are on some level basically rational, are badly wrong.

Seriously, though, Caplan makes a pretty plausible argument that voters are systematically wrong about all sorts of important things; this is hardly surprising, at least not to cynical ol' me. He concludes from this that we need less democracy rather than more, and in particular (e.g.) that we shouldn't try to increase turnout because bothering to vote correlates with some things that correlate with thinking more like an economist. Nor should we worry if much real power is in the hands of businesses rather than politicians, for that effectively gives the power to markets, and markets do better than governments. In general, it seems he thinks that it would be better if richer, better educated, smarter people had more political power. We needn't worry that such people will vote for their own interests and thereby screw the already-underprivileged even worse than they are already screwed, because (he says) there's evidence that people vote for what they think right and not generally in their own selfish interest.

It seems to me that that last bit is absolutely critical; and that its truth is most likely highly dependent on (1) the very idea of democracy, with all the noble and possibly unrealistic sentiments that surround it, and (2) the fact that at present the privileged don't have absolutely all the political power. Therefore, although he may possibly be Repulsive but Right about the shortcomings of democracy and the likely short-term consequences of having a bit less of it, I suspect that in the longer term his faith in the reliability of markets and the virtues of the privileged is Wromantic but Wrong.

Ten moral paradoxes, by Saul Smilansky  ·  Underwhelming; Smilansky is, I think, too ready to call something a paradox when I'd just call it "mildly surprising" or "inconvenient" or "ironic". But aside from Smilansky's tendency to exaggerate the paradoxicality of the things he writes about, there are some nice things to think about here.

Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies  ·  The newspaper industry, says Davies, is hopelessly corrupt: just about all newspapers are now owned by people whose only interest is in maximizing their profits, which means that reporters have no time to research their stories properly and check their facts, and in any case are required to focus on whatever will sell best and cause least trouble; the inevitable result is a press corps easily manipulated by PR firms, governments, and others; so we far too easily see a journalistic consensus that lavishly fails to match reality. This last is what he calls "Flat Earth news". Davies isn't afraid to name names. It all seems pretty convincing, but of course I've got little more reason to trust him than to trust any other journalist on any other occasion...