Friday, December 24, 2010

The Price of Everything: Russ Roberts

Russ Roberts' The Price of Everything is an engaging story written by an economics professor in an attempt to show how prices help us direct our efforts so they will provide the most benefit to others we will never meet. In the story Ruth Lieber, a strikingly insightful Stanford professor leads Ramon Fernandez, a charismatic student athlete, to an appreciation for the unseen consequences of prices after he leads a protest of a local big box store for raising prices after an earthquake.

Ruth sometimes explains, but more often hints so Ramon will investigate for himself, how higher prices or the expectation of a higher return cause suppliers, inventors and others to provide more useful goods and services so they're available when people want them.

The prose is vivid and the characters are interesting. Most of the story is reasonably believable, though there are enough hints at the purpose of the exposition that no one should be surprised at the occasional speech. Roberts does a good job of keeping that to a minimum, but he does have some points to make. Ramon isn't initially interested in economics, but he's smart enough to look into the details when Ruth points out inconsistencies between how he expects people to act and the ways they actually do. Ruth (and Russ) rely on common experiences so Ruth's objections will strike home to readers who are reasonably honest about how events actually turn out, even if their prejudices align more with Ramon's.

I think this would be a reasonable book to give to someone who wants a gentle introduction to the economic way of thinking. It can be read as an interesting story, or for the insights it provides.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

That Hideous Strength: C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength has been a perennial nominee for the Libertarian Futurists Society's Hall of Fame award. Seeking to give it a fair shot, I waited to read it until after reading the first two works in the series: Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandria. Neither of those books impressed me, and this book doesn't significantly rely on the connection to them. Unfortunately, this book didn't impress me either. I think part of it is the style of the writing, which seems vague, foggy, and long-winded to me. I also didn't care much for the characters, didn't find the plot interesting, and had trouble seeing what the conflict was about.

Lewis sets up two clear factions, clearly struggling over something, but we appear to only watching the activities of people who are a few steps removed from those who are aware of the strategy and aims of each side. Instead of watching maneuvering about the great struggle that is going on, we watch the minor characters as they maneuver through office politics, attempting to ensure that they have a seat at the table, while those characters remain ignorant about what the goals of those at the table are whom they wish to join.

Eventually, we see more of the high level action, but the sides are painted so starkly--the bad guys are depraved, manipulating, torturers, while the good guys refrain from acting--that it's hard to imagine how Lewis will turn the struggle into a fair fight. In the end, it was hard to see that it was a fair fight; the bad guys laid waste to the countryside in an attempt to take control over everything, while the good guys recruited a top wizard who eventually makes the bad guys stop.

I couldn't see it as a struggle of ideas, because I couldn't tell what the ideas might have been. One side was full of people who were scrambling for power, and most of their efforts seemed to be the minor squabbles of factional politics. The other side acted in a more genteel fashion, and didn't seem aware that their opponents were preparing a rapacious campaign. In the end, the only part of the struggle that mattered was over who would recruit the master wizard, and this didn't seem to be about who he agreed with as much as who could bridge the language gap with him effectively or who could isolate him better. So the good guys won, but the territory was spoiled in the process, and neither we nor the characters learned much in the process.