Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 96: The best books of the decade; Dominic Cummings and state capacity; divisions in China; and more...

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The best books of the year and the decade

Each year I write up a short review of the books I read. This year’s list is here. In non-fiction, I loved The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich (see TiB coverage here). In fiction, my favourite was Lent by Jo Walton, which will be of particular interest to anyone interested in history, philosophy or theology (if you’re going to read it, don’t read any summaries before you do...)

I also decided to try to select the best books I read in the last ten years. This was a sobering exercise. It underlines how few books - particularly non-fiction - stand up well a few years on. Almost no popular “ideas” books do; the list is dominated by history. One reflection is that “of the moment” ideas are now much better accessed through podcasts and academic papers (which are increasingly available). This suggests to me that I focus my book reading more on (a) older books and (b) history. (It turns out Nassim Taleb agrees)

There are lots of good book lists at this time of year. Tyler Cowen’s end of year lists (here and here) are always strong and I loved this thread of recommendations from Mark Koyama. This curation of the best non-fiction of the 2010s is strong - and reinforces my contention that history ages well. If you believe me that academic papers are an increasingly valuable source of ideas, this list of the best social science of the decade is worth a look. I’m always looking for new books, so recommendations welcome! 

Tyler Cowen, Dominic Cummings and state capacity

Tyler Cowen opened 2020 with a post on the future of libertarianism, which he calls “State Capacity Libertarianism”. In this view, the state has a positive role - to extend capitalism and markets. In some ways, this is a continuation of ideas Cowen has been exploring for over a decade (see, e.g., this post on “The Libertarian Vice” that I cited last year as an essay I've reread many times). The post sparked a big debate. I recommend these responses from “liberaltarian” Will Wilkinson and more orthodox libertarian Nick Gillespie.

My main response to the post, though, was, “What should innovations in state capacity look like?”. The UK (coincidentally) received one answer the next day in the shape of this extraordinary blog post by Dominic Cummings (see previous coverage), which must be the most unusual job advert ever written for the public sector. It’s a general call for data scientists, experts and “assorted weirdos” to improve government performance. Do read the whole thing.

Can Cummings’ coterie transform the capacity of the British state? General reaction has been skeptical, but largely lacking in rigour. One of the more interesting responses is this post from a founder of the UK’s Government Digital Service. It's worth a read, if for nothing else than this fascinating link to “Project Cybersyn” - an experiment in state capacity by Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende (a comparison Cummings would presumably not consider favourable…) And to come full circle, here is Tyler Cowen crowdsourcing advice for Cummings. It’s going to be a fascinating few years. 

What are the divisions in Chinese society?

I wrote recently about the bear case on China. In an excellent essay from December, Tanner Greer looks at the topic through an interesting lens. If you believe that the reason that foreign “interference” campaigns (e.g. attempts to influence the US elections in 2016) have been successful against the West because they exploit existing fissures in our societies, are there equivalent divisions in China? 

For Greer, the answer is yes: “the Party is a racket” - and one designed to lock in privilege for the children of elites at the expense of everyone else (I discussed a similar phenomenon in the West not long ago). Greer cites the contrasting cases of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder (see previous coverage), and Li Hingyuan, a Huawei veteran targeted by the tech giant. As I’ve argued before, talent backlash is an increasingly big challenge in Silicon Valley and perhaps China is no different.

There’s other evidence too. Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman argue that inequality in China has been grossly undercounted (see this previous discussion of the new Chinese elite). And there’s this extraordinary story in the FT, which reports that Chinese prosecutors are dropping criminal corruption charges against private sector executives to avoid deflating the economy. Greer doesn't argue that these “fissures” are exploitable by the West - but that if the CCP's hold weakens, it will be because the people no longer believe in the "Chinese dream". It’s worth keeping an eye on. 

Quick links

  1. Fighting talk. Which countries have the highest proportion of citizens who would go to war for them?
  2. A tragic lesson in UX design. The terrifying story of how the USS John McCain crashed, killing 10.
  3. A brief history of trade. Great graphics on China's rise to global trading power (Relatedly, US public opinion on China...)
  4. Map your own adventure. Brilliant visualisations of classic "Choose your own adventure" stories.
  5. Never kiss a [insert political preference here]. How important is partisan affiliation as a dating criterion? (spoiler: very)

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Until next week,