This is yet another book about the idea that we are in a period of stagnation in terms of economic improvement for the average western person. Although it was enjoyable, as a book it didn’t make a strong argument. Most of the book is (admittedly fascinating) historical tidbits about technological development, mostly in the 20th century leading up to the 1970s. Levinson’s perspective ultimately agrees with that of Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen, at least to the extent that they all blame the nature of post-1970s technology for the failure to improve the average person’s life. And, like, the others, Levinson has hope that a few technologies on deck (e.g. self-driving cars) will reverse that trend.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
Dammit, Graeber. Every time I wanted to hate this book, he had something really insightful to say. This is my second time reading a Graeber collection, and this one is very similar. There are big, interesting, sweeping thoughts about how humanity and society work. I kinda like this – it’s a sort of throwback to the way people sometimes wrote in the 19th century, trying to grandly analyze The Whole Thing. On the other hand, as with those writers, Graeber often makes statements that are simply wrong.
For instance, he has a whole theory on why superhero comics are the most popular. It comes from an anthropological perspective, which is interesting, but completely neglects the fact that (as any comics dork can tell you) non-Superhero comic genres basically got killed off in the mid-50s by the Comics Code Authority. It’s possible the theory could be salvaged, but it’d have to bear the weight of that weird turn in history.
And yet… he’s got so much insight, you find yourself wanting his advice then wanting to scream at him. It’s like a conversation with a brilliant polymath who doesn’t quite have every little fact straight, but who nevertheless is absolutely delightful.
One particular bit really stuck with me: Graeber described the idea that in modern life, people have ideas but then don’t pursue them because they find something vaguely similar on Google. This is obvious, but Graeber’s theory is that this effect may hold back progress more than we think. I’ve certainly observed other cartoonists doing this, whereas my personal rule is to never check google after I have an idea. It’s a waste of time, and it benefits nobody.
A bit later (see next week’s book reviews) I happened to read Tom Standage’s book on the telegraph, in which an important occurrence was that Samuel Morse had no clue other people had tried and failed to make a long distance telegraph. I can’t help but wondering if our incredible connectivity today has more subtle negative consequences than we typically consider.
The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)
A very good book, which is in some sense a different take on Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation theory. Gordon’s book is much longer and quite extensive in detailing why, in his view, growth was abnormally high during the middle 20th century and part of the early 21st century, but has otherwise been disappointing. Somewhat depressing, but very enlightening. If it’s not something you’re interested in, you’ll find it painfully tedious, but if it’s a topic you’re curious about, it’s fantastic.
Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works
Gruber is the economist who was the architect of the ACA, also called Obamacare. This comic was apparently written as a sort of guide for the public. It’s unfortunately pretty awful. It summons up complex topics, then dismisses them in a hand-wavey sort of way. The art doesn’t do much to supplement the topic. And, in general, it feels like it was crafted hastily without much thought for the craft of a good comic. Too bad, because I was interested in the topic!
November 8 – Health Care Reform (Gruber, Schreiber, Newquist)