Links and Literature

There are some websites that I visit and certainly derive some inspiration from (though that is of course not exclusive):

  • There is The Economist for one thing, which certainly was a part of the inspiration to create this blog. There are also several economists who are proliferate bloggers on the Internet.
  • Before you jump the gun and conclude I’m a hopeless Keynesian or got drunk on Adam Smith, well, first of all I would ask you to actually read their works and to remember that there is nothing wrong with making up your own mind about how the world works.
  • Then there is the blog of Science Fiction writer Charles Stross whom I first discovered through his excellent novel Accelerando – that certainly caught the spirit of the late 1990ies and 2000/01 better than any factual description could possibly do.
  • A true treasure trove is the archive of the (roughly monthly) Seminars on Long Term Thinking by The Long Now Foundation that is also running a blog. Before you dismiss them as a bunch of nut-jobs who think that the Pyramids, the Colosseum and the Golden Gate Bridge were essentially built in the same moment in time … well, you should try to keep in mind that the perspective of those nut-jobs can offer some truly novel insights – so long as you still remember that today is distinct from next year nevertheless.
  • Finally, there is the low-frequency but high-quality Low Tech Magazine. They average maybe one article per month, but they are very detailed and well researched. I especially applaud them for their usually dispassionate verdict on modern applications of old technology – be it small wind turbines, electric cars, ship mills, trolley buses or pedal powered appliances.
  • more will certainly follow

There is a lot of classic literature that can be found on the internet, that is certainly worth reading. I almost always like to go back to the first principles and the founders of certain ideas – sometimes going as far as trying to establish things a priori, if I can find a way to address a problem that way.

Very often the original ideas are being misrepresented after some time. An example is the atrocious treatment of Adam Smith, who is basically reduced in public to the concept of the invisible hand … an expression he used only twice in two different voluminous books written decades apart, totaling something on the order of 2000 pages of rather insightful text. (The other one was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”.) Or how about John Maynard Keynes, whose exquisite cynicism in his (otherwise rather dry) description of his Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is completely lost on all the critics I know.

The advantage of reading seriously old literature is that it is easy to get a mental distance between the content and reality. Very often you are forced to make up you mind in order to translate their insights into contemporary problems and the extra work is well worth it. Because you replace pure acceptance of what contemporary economists are telling you, with actual understanding of the concepts you should use – and very often you end up with a wealth of historical knowledge and examples to boot.

I also hold some of the older philosophers in high esteem. Although, here again, some concepts age better than others. Nicomachian Ethics are (broadly speaking) as applicable today as they were over 2000 years ago. But his Politica must be taken with quite a pinch of of salt, while Plato’s “The Republic” requires several spoonfuls (and subsequent reading of the Aristotle’s Politica, who deals just fine with a lot of his teacher’s conceptual mistakes).

So be careful.

As an example of the pitfalls, let’s have a look at the “Politica” of Aristotle:

Anything resembling modern automation or the use of complex machinery was not just an incomprehensible concept for the ancient Greeks – they were altogether unknown and inconceivable. In fact, Aristotle even points out that a loom that is weaving all by itself is a ridiculous and unrealistic idea. (Which it was … for another 2000 years or so.)

Both base their political ideas on an environment that mandates the use of either slaves or large numbers of (semi-free) workers as the foundation of any functioning state. This has serious repercussions on the number of people that needed to be represented without being perceived as unfair (as well as the moral basis Aristotleian political systems rest on) – but even then those “states” were tiny.

A country like Iceland – with about 300.000 people would have been regarded as a large  state in the ancient Greek’s minds. But scaling Aristotle’s concepts up to nations hundreds of times larger or even four thousand times larger than that (in the case of India or China) is bound to fail. (As was indeed quickly the case, when Aristotle’s pupil Alexander united the Greek states and went out to conquer most of the known world.)

Aristotle is very careful with scaling. He says that first of all, the man (women weren’t regarded as full citizens) must be in harmony with himself, then with his family, the families of a deme must be working together to form a unit so that they can be represented in the affairs of the state. But such unity will become hard to establish, if you increase the population of the state you want to govern by factors of several hundred or even thousand.

Inevitably, the legitimate interests of many people will go unrepresented – especially as there has been a tendency to increase the units that are being represented in the central government (that take the place of the deme in the hierarchy) without ensuring the unity of their population and thus fair representation by the representatives. (This is most obvious in the anti-democratic American practice of Gerry-Meandering.)

Aristotle’s ideas still form a large part of the foundation of basically every democratic constitution … and this is, by the way, the reason for some skepticism that I have regarding our current implementation of democracy. – With notable exceptions such as Iceland or Greenland, where the population is small enough that the old concepts should still work (but only because modern communication made the great geographic extend of those countries mostly irrelevant).

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