I was recently inspired by Arnold Kling’s blog post questioning the value of reading books as a way to learn: “The educational return on investment for the consumer is highest on essays and blog posts…Before you read the book you should search for an essay by the author that is the basis for the book.” I agree, and have found that time is better spent reading blog posts, articles summarizing books, criticisms and reviews of those posts, short video lectures, and even viewing all or part of a good MOOC (Russ Roberts at Econtalk did an ensuing podcast with Andy Matuschak, who inspired Kling in the first place. They emphasized the value of non-written learning sources such as MOOCs).
Thus, I have decided to start producing a list of articles that strike me as high bang-for-your-buck, and helped start a change in perspective I have had on an issue.
1. Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae”. David Auerbach. A very nice ‘summary and discussion’ of Stanislaw Lem’s Magnus Opus Summa Technologiae (500 plus pages). I really liked the book, but it is a tough slog. The article gives a taste of the book and its relevance, and is also an in-road into thinking about a lot of interesting ideas: artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, synthetic life, information theory, entropy and thermodynamics, complexity theory, the “singularity.” Added coolness: Lem was thinking about this stuff back in the 1960s from behind the Iron Curtain in Poland (along with writing Sci-Fi classics like Solaris).
2. Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse? by Timothy Snyder (New York Review of Books). Here, Snyder provides a very short summary of what is covered in his 2012 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (See also a 20 min interview here worth watching for an excellent discussion of the book). Why is this article so worth reading: i) To gain in depth understanding of the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, the sheer death of Central and Eastern European Jews, Slavs, and the interplay between Nazism and the Soviet Union the area roughly between Berlin and Moscow over a decade and a half; ii) In my experience, North Americans (and to a lesser extent Europeans) don’t have a good understanding of how, where and when the Holocaust actually took place, how it sits in the history of WWII, and the amount of death and suffering that occured: including that which the Soviets caused (through murder and forced starvation), and which the Nazis brought to other groups (ie Polish – both ethnic Poles and Jews).
If you cannot answer these couple questions with any sort of certainty, you should definitely read the article: How many Jews were killed in Germany in the Holocaust, how many in Poland, and what % of the Jewish populations there did that represent? How many non-Jewish civilians were killed in Poland in the WWII period? What % does this make up of total civilain death in WWII (including Jewish deaths).
The power of this article (and video), and Snyder’s book is in its undermining of ‘what you think you know’ (at least what I knew) about probably the most covered historical period of the 20th. It really shakes your understanding of the Holocaust and WWII period to such an extent that you will be forced to put into question much of what you think you know about history, why you have been taught they way you have, and how it is that we can be so confident in things we don’t really know much about.
3. Why is Money Difficult and Financialization and its Discontents by Perry Merhling. Great short introductory blog posts into The Money View, a credit-theory of money grounded in economic history, the functioning of our global financial system, and the interplay of the central bank (especially Fed), banks and shadow banks. The four key points to understand: Alchemy of banking -Banks make loans by creating deposits. Essential hybridity of money- Money is part private (bank deposits) and part public (central bank currency). Inherent hierarchy of money– Central bank money is better money than private bank money, even though they trade at par. The inherent instability of credit– all credit (non-bank as well as bank credit) seems to be subject to a kind of positive feedback loop and boom-bust cycles.
This framework lets you think about a lot of issues, ie bitcoin and blockchain (see Merhling’s post cryptos fear credit for an example), or Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
4. Will Global Capitalism Fall Again? Jeffrey Frieden 2008. A great overview of global economic history from the first wave of globalization in the late 1800s to today. Covers the interplay between workers, globalization, the gold standard and Bretton Woods, financialization and the instability of modern financial systems. “Whether an integrated global economy will be maintained is one of the great questions of our age. The relevance of the question is underscored bythe knowledge that an integrated world economy has collapsed before. Indeed, current patterns of international economic integration are similar inmany ways to the condition of the world economy in the generations before 1914.
5. Explaining Eastern Europe: Imitation and Its Discontents On Europe. Ivan Krasten and Stephen Holmes. Krastev’s After Europe is a great book (only 128 pages) for trying to understand ‘Populism’, Central and Eastern Europe, the EU, and identity in our globalized world. This article really gets into what’s driving the political dynamics of Central and Eastern Europe. I like this because it reminds us that the nuances of the individual country, region and its history are crucial to understanding how and why it’s moving in a given direction; this is at least as important as any overarching dynamics which mainstream liberal coverage of political unrest or populism usually point to – an anecdote to blanket prescriptions which one encounters in soft-liberal circles.
6. Evolution Unleashed by Kevin Laland. Talks about the Extended evolutionary synthesis, which incorporates genomics, epigenetics and developmental biology into traditional evolutionary thinking. The article touches on the nature of scientific knowledge (Kuhn, Popper), the history and complexity of evolution (as a field and as process). I came to this through the extended evolution framework of Manfred Laubichler (Arizona State University), which we drew on at IASS Potsdam.
Depending on where you go with all this, it may open the door to philosophical questions regarding accepted evolution, materialism and the evolution of consciousness from and evolutionary perspective. If so, see Thomas Nagel’s Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos‘. Here Nagel provides a reply to critics and summary of his poorly received 2012 book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This book questions the received wisdom that evolution has taken place via simple random computation (and even suggests some level of teleological universe). From a computational complexity perspective I am partial to the idea that completely random natural selection is not how evolution happens. (I think the Monkey Typewriter thought experiment would never produce intelligible works of literature). The article is a great way to both dive into recent evolution theory and to questions some of your foundations. Stuart Kauffman has also written about this ie in Humanity in a Creative Universe and you can see him explain his view here.
If you are like me, you could probably explain the basics of natural selection and hereditary traits, and that was ‘evolution’- but there is a huge amount of interesting thought beyond such a simplified explanation, and its a gateway to alot of tangental areas.
7. Peter Drucker on Keynes and Schumpeter. A short (6 page) article written by management guru Peter Drucker, comparing the legacy of Schumpeter vs Keynes. It is packed with a lot of relevant ideass: money/finance’s role in economy and society, technological innovation, societal sustainability, etc. This framework needs a “Minsky addition” to supplement Keynes theory – because the real financial plumbing angle of a modern economy is almost ALWAYS missing in any discussions of the above points (money/finance’s role in economy and society, technological innovation, societal sustainability). I re-encounter this constantly in my following of the tech, Fintech and crypto scene (and most recently again with Facebook Coin’s latest release).
See suggestion 3, on the Money View to fill the ‘monetary’ void.