How Asia Works

How Asia Works : Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region (2013) by Joe Studwell is a great book on Asian Industrial development. Studwell was a business journalist who now has a PhD.

The book is recommended by a vast array of economists and businessmen. After reading Noah Smith recommend the book again I finally got around to reading it.

The book looks at the incredibly important question of why some large non-Western countries have managed to develop quickly and catch up to the richest countries in the world. So far, these countries are limited to Japan, Taiwan and Korea with China rapidly growing.

Studwell writes that three things were done by Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China successfully that were not done by Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Phillipines. They are 1) Land reform so small farmers can intensively farm. 2) Work on industrial policy for manufacturing and to increase technological sophistication with export discipline and 3) Direct financial institutions to support these endeavours.

Most importantly these are not the recommendations of textbook economics. Studwell also acknowledges substantial corruption occurring with this development but with the states having an over arching push toward exports and industrialisation.

Studwell excludes the very rich city states of Hong Kong and Singapore. This is a bit of a sneak. Hong Kong has 7.5 million residents and Singapore 5.4M. That is they more or about as many people than Denmark, which is a country often regarded by many as a model society.

At any rate, Studwell’s theory of growth definitely has successful examples. He also points out that Germany, the US and others followed similar strategies to catch up to Britain.

The book also points out that once a country has become rich and technologically sophisticated it should change and work on efficiency more. Studwell describes how Japan has failed to do this and this explains the lack of growth in Japan since the early 1990s.

The book is now nine years old and it has remained very relevant. The situation has changed somewhat for Indonesia and Malaysia that are now growing well but are still much poorer than Japan, Taiwan or The Phillipines.

How Asia Works is an excellent book that is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the question of how developing countries can get rich.

Arbitrary Lines

Arbitrary Lines : How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It (2022) by Nolan Gray is an excellent look at the problems that zoning has caused in the US. Nolan Gray has worked as a city planner in various US cities and is now doing a PhD in urban planning.

For anyone looking for a book to explain the Yes in my back yard (YIMBY) movement this is about the best book around. Gray has front line experience with the problems caused by zoning and the theoretical background to see the problems.

The book has three parts, in the first the origins of zoning and how zoning works are discussed. In the second part the issues with zoning are described and in the third part solutions to the problems of zoning are put forward. Gray writes well and the book is not too long but is long enough to make it’s points well.

There is a whole chapter on how Houston works without zoning that makes Gray’s points particularly well. It’s strange to see a problem where there is a place where the problem has been solved. The common objection that deed restrictions in Houston are the same as zoning is rebutted well by Gray. The most crucial reason being “For starters, deed restrictions only cover an estimated quarter of the city.”. Gray doesn’t comment on the fact that Houston is only about 25% cheaper than Dallas either. He also doesn’t mention that Houston is a very car dependent sprawling city. These facts may not be to some people’s taste. But sprawl is fairly cheap, indeed building 1-2 story dwelling is half the cost per square meter of high rise. But the issue with zoning preventing conversion into high rise when land prices become high enough is exactly what Houston deals with. Gray makes the very interesting point that ‘in 1019, Houston built roughly the same number of apartments as Los Angeles, despite the latter being nearly twice as large’.

Arbitrary Lines is a really excellent book though. It’s US focused which is fair enough. There is some mention of the UK but the issues that zoning has caused in places like Australia isn’t mentioned. Gray writes really clearly and the book is very readable. Along with ‘Order Without Design’ by Alain Bertaud it’s one of the best books on zoning, cities and how housing costs can be lowered.

Why It’s OK to Want to Be Rich

Why It’s OK to Want to Be Rich (2020) by Jason Brennan is a curious book that gives a serious philosophical justification as to why it’s OK to be rich. Brennan is an academic at Georgetown University’s Business School.

Many of us would quite like to be rich. But many of us are perhaps somewhat ashamed of this fact. The book makes the case that it really is OK to be rich. Provided the money is obtained in a normal job and not by theft or deception.

First Brennan describes how money has been described by religions as evil and he also points out that if you’re reading this book you’re probably rich by historic standards and within the world today already. Then Brennan describes what we can do with money and that more money does, according to surveys, make people happier. Although it’s important to note that the effect is logarithmic.

Then the idea that money makes us selfish is described. Brennan points out that people in market economies actually seem to trust more than in non-market economies. Brennan then looks at how our moral sense comes from thinking about smaller groups than today we interact with. The example of ‘I pencil’ is described. Brennan also describes how our work for money is valued by others which they demonstrate by paying us.

There is then a digression to look at wealth between countries and how wealth is not a zero sum game, nor is the evidence that modern wealth came from slavery. Brennan also discusses Peter Singer’s ideas about how it is required morally to give most of money away to poorer people in the world. Finally Brennan writes about how luxury goods fit and that buying them is not always immoral.

It’s OK to Want to Be Rich is a well written, well argued book that uses an academics skill to defend intellectually a position that many of us quietly hold. It’s well worth a read. It’s quite thought provoking.

Doing Good Better

Doing Good Better : How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make A Difference (2015) by William MacAskill is an overview of Effective Altruism. The Effective Altruism movement is all about trying to work out how much good different courses of action do with a kind of utilitarian calculus.

MacAskill puts forward five questions for evaluating aid. They are: How many people benefit and by how much? Is this the most effective thing I can do? Is this area neglected? What would happen otherwise? What are the chances of success and the risk?

Apparently MacAskill did simplify various things and elide some metrics for some of his preferred actions, such as de-worming, but still, the book makes solid points.

At any rate, Doing Good Better makes some very solid points. The idea that most people would be better off working hard and donating money to well evaluated charities in order to do good has real merit.

Doing Good Better is very readable and it’s nicely succinct. It’s well worth a read.

Streets of Gold

Streets of Gold : America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success (2022) by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan looks at US immigration through a lens of data. Abramitzky is a Professor of Economics at Stanford and Boustan is a Professor of Industrial Relations at Princeton. Abramitzky is himself an immigrant.

Everyone has stories about immigration, what is different with Streets of Gold is that the authors got masses of data. They got this data by using computers to scrape information from Ancestry.com. Again using computers they have combined it with data from the US Social Security program, the IRS and birth certificate files. This has lead to them being able to see trends in how immigration has gone in the US over time. It’s a great demonstration of how ‘big data’ can now be used to examine subjects like immigration. Somewhat ironically in the book the authors use stories of families to help bring their discoveries from data to life. But it’s to make a readable book and they back up the stories using their data.

Streets of Gold looks at how the data show that those who came with very little to the US rarely become wealthy. But the book describes how their children do become wealthy. There is also a history of how immigration changed in the US from huge numbers of people until the 1920s and then staying low until the 1970s when it started to rise again. They also use data to show how immigrants assimilate into the US in the past and how they continue to assimilate today. Abramitzky and Boustan also show how immigration to the US has not harmed US born people either. This is again using data. Immigration is not a zero sum game. Today a persons wealth and earning capacity is driven to a huge degree by where they are born, immigration allows people to go to higher wage countries, earn more there and pay taxes.

The book is inadvertently an anti-woke book. The book shows with data that the US is not structurally racist. The US attracts millions of people from around the world every year. The figures in chapter 5 (Figure 7A and 7B) show how the children of immigrants from all over the world succeed in the US, regardless of race. America is, in the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a place where people are judged by the content of their character.

Streets of Gold is a gem of a book. It shows how immigration helps America and how America is not a structurally racist society. Abramitzky and Boustan have used their data very well and intersperse the data with well chosen stories of immigrants and how they fare in the US.

Why It’s Ok to Ignore Politics

Why It’s Ok to Ignore Politics (2020) by Christopher Freiman is an interesting book that looks at why ignoring politics and doing other things instead makes sense. Freiman is a professor of Philosophy at William and Mary.

The book starts off by looking at how much we actually know about politics. Freiman points out that while many people have strong opinions about politics few have much expertise. Freiman also points out that wanting to improve things in various areas doesn’t necessarily mean people actually will.

Freiman then looks at how most people look at politics with very motivated reasoning. Freiman then goes on to point out that performing acts of altruism will surely do much better than reading much about politics.

Various arguments about Fairness and Free Riding are also made. The alleged moral importance of being politically active is also examined. The fact that politics makes people upset and angry and sometimes nasty is also pointed out. Politics is a bad sport to follow, something that people who follow actual sports often realise.

Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics is a though provoking, amusing and contrarian book that is well worth a look. For any political junkies it’s especially worth a read.

Factory Girls

Factory Girls : From Village to City in a Changing China (2006) by Leslie T. Chang is a gem of a book about migrant workers in China and China’s recent history. Chang wrote for the Wall Street Journal and lived in China for a decade.

Chang follows two women who move from the countryside to huge Chinese factory cities. Min moved to Dongguan and works in various factories. Wu Chumming is a little older and has been in Dongguan longer.

The lives of the women and their friends are pretty incredible. They move from poverty in villages into a free for all in the city where people are constantly moving jobs, bluffing their way into new jobs and sometimes getting ripped off.

Chang writes really well and has great material. She weaves together the story of the women with what is happening in China and her own families story later. It all works really well. It’s incredible to get an idea of what the millions of Chinese workers have been going through over the past 40 years. The changes from life under Marxism in poor villages to huge crazily dynamic cities are staggering.

It would be really interesting to see how things compare now to how they were in China roughly 20 years ago and to find out the fate of Min and Wu Chumming.

Factory Girls is a fantastic book. Highly recommended.

The Kill Chain

The Kill Chain : How Emerging Technologies Threaten America’s Military Dominance (2020) by Christian Brose describes how the author thinks that America’s armed forces and their procurement need to change in order to maintain a military dominance over China. Brose was an advisor to John McCain.

The Kill Chain is described as “a process that occurs on the battlefield or wherever militaries compete. It involves three steps: The first is gaining understanding about what is happening. The second is making a decision about what to do. And the third is taking action that creates an effect to achieve an objective.”

In the book Brose describes how the chain needs to be made quicker as automation and better sensors become more and more ubiquitous.

Brose sees US combat capabilities as having deteriorated due to the US fighting lesser adversaries and also because procurement has worsened. This is because procurement has become so bureaucratized and owned by the few remaining large defence companies that it is failing.

In the book Brose writes about how US carrier would be ineffective against China and that extremely expensive jets may well also be ineffective. Brose would instead like to see fleets of smaller, cheaper, networked unmanned vehicles. He states that the XQ-58 Valkyrie and the Orca AUV are models for the sorts of vehicles he thinks would be effective against China.

The book was written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Brose’s assessments of Russian capability now look substantially overdone. It’s also questionable how capable China’s military is and if Brose’s assessment there is also accurate. No doubt China’s military is capable and is likely to be the second most capable force in the world after the US but it’s questionable how capable it really is. As Brose writes “Militaries are unlike civilian institutions in many ways, but a primary difference is that they lack routine sources of real-world feedback on their performance. ” .

Brose now works for a venture capital backed defence company. Amusingly he periodically complains in the book about the revolving door between defence policy and the defence industry in the US.

The Kill Chain is quite an interesting book because it shows what some people in the US defence establishment are thinking and hints at where US defence spending is likely to head.

Kill Chain

Kill Chain : Drones and The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2015) by Andrew Cockburn is a really interesting book that examines how the US now has unprecedented drone technology but how this technology failed to yield results in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and later in Syria. Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine and has written extensively about US military issues.

Cockburn places the drones into the context of the long search for ways to fight wars with technology and in particular airborne technology. In WWII it was promised that bombing would end the war without the stalemate and cost of trench warfare. First area bombing and city destruction and then precision bombing of high valued targets was touted as a way to bring about German surrender. While the attacks on the Romanian oil fields brought results much of the bombing of German key ‘nodes’ and cities was clearly ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. Cockburn points out that when attacking a list of key nodes was shown to be a failure instead of giving up a larger list of key nodes was then created. This is echoed later in the book.

There is a fascinating chapter on how the US used sensors on ‘Operation Igloo White’ during the Vietnam War when the US put sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in order to try and stop Laos being used to supply troops in Vietnam. The pitch of high tech equipment to solve a problem with an insurgency was tried and failed here.

Cockburn then describes how people in the US theorized that drug dealers and insurgent and terrorist groups could be dismantled if key ‘nodes’ in their networks were removed. That is to say if their leaders were assassinated. This failed in the drug war. It was found that older dealers were quickly replaced with younger dealers who were often more violent.

The book describes how the US use of drones increased year after year as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. Despite the drones frequently crashing their use was loved by senior US leaders who get live feeds from them and also from the CIA who were changed from gathering intelligence to a more active role in killing people. US special forces, which grew dramatically also become keen on assassinating people.

The problem with this large scale assassination program was that rather than end the insurgency it probably made things worse. New leaders would appear who were younger and often more violent and who would have been aware they quite probably didn’t have long to live. Also substantial civilian casualties were caused. The combination of these factors must have played a part in the US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cockburn also makes the point that cheaper manned aircraft often have better visibility than Predators and this can help. The A-10 Warthog and the Seeker observation aircraft are described favorably. The Seeker is much cheaper at $US 500K than a $US 40M Predator system. Interesting Cockburn asserts that the big US defense contractors haven’t produced competitors for the Predator because the system cost is substantially lower than that of most front line US combat aircraft.

Kill Chain is a really interesting book that provides a bromide to much of the advocacy for unmanned systems and network centric warfare. It’s hard not to ponder that if the US had spent more money on teaching more soldiers Pashtun and Arabic and learning the culture of the places they had invaded that they might not have had more success.

High Output Management

High Output Management (1983) by Andy Grove (András Gróf) is a short distillation of Grove’s thoughts on management. Grove was a refugee from Hungary who escaped after 1956. He got a PhD in Chemical Engineering and then was one of the three co-founders of Intel.

High Output Management uses the example of a ‘breakfast factory’ to describe how to deal with a changing organisation. There are Four Sections, the first introduces the breakfast factory, the second is about how management is a team game, the third on how management is about teams of teams and the final part on the players.

Grove interestingly writes that middle managers are an absolutely key part of companies. The second section covers managerial leverage, meetings, decisions and planning. The third part looks at how organisations have mission oriented and functional sections. This part discussing the trade offs of centralising functions with the requirement to target certain missions was really good. In the Players section person management is examined.

You can see why High Output Management is highly regarded in Silicon Valley. It’s short and to the point and Grove, the founder of a key company in the rise of the US tech industry, clearly knows what he’s talking about. It does cover a high tech engineering company rather than a software company but many of the ideas are applicable to most organisations.

High Output Management is worth a read for anyone who is in technical management or aspires to be. It’s not a brilliant book but it is certainly a good one. It’s surprising to see that many people either regard it as fantastic or terrible.