Review: The Logic of Life, part 2 – Malthus vs. Kremer

Nearly two months after writing the first post in this review, I’ve finally gotten around to writing the follow-up.  I hope no one was holding their breath...

As I wrote in the first post, one of the unfortunate side-effects to the residency portion of the CCMBA program is that you have a LOT of time on the plane to kill (if you’re not sleeping).  Dubai was a good 12 hour flight or so, India was 14 hours, and China will no doubt be another marathon flight.  Sleep aids are good, but books also work in a pinch.  Just make sure they aren’t textbooks (those aren’t even good for sleep aids!)

In preparation for not being able to sleep on the way home from Dubai, I picked up ‘The Logic of Life’ by Tim Harford.  This book promised much of the same sort of behavioral economics entertainment as ‘Freakonomics‘, ‘SuperFreakonomics‘, or even ‘Predictably Irrational‘ by Duke professor Dan Ariely (which I read on the way to Dubai).  As an INTJ personality-type, I really enjoy reading these types of books instead of reading fiction; as someone who looks for logic in everything (often to a fault), it’s great to see logic applied to oddball situations, even if you have to stretch the example a bit!

One thing these books rarely do, however, is make me really think beyond the example in the book.  While reading why it can make economic sense for prostitutes in Mexico to not always use condoms, or how poker can be beaten in Las Vegas by using game theory (if you’ve got a computer for a brain) is interesting, these thoughts aren’t generally applicable to the larger outside world.  However, when a ‘worldly’ thought does come from books like these, it seems to ‘hit me’ harder than my normal, everyday type of thoughts.  The ‘The Logic of Life’ had such an idea:

The rate of technological progress is proportional to the World’s population.

That we can explain a ‘million years of logic’ using a simple, elegant formula is fantastic!

This idea was laid out in 1993 by a Harvard economist, Dr. Michael Kremer, in a seminal paper titled ‘Population Growth and Technological Change: One million B.C. to 1990″.  Tim Harford summarizes this idea in the ‘Logic’ book as follows:

Once Fred Flinstone invents something…it is available to everybody.  Assuming one really brilliant idea per billion people per year, then the million-strong Homo erectus population in 300,000 B.C. would come up with one such idea every thousand years.  By 1800…with a billion people in the world…the innovation rate would have risen to one stunning idea every year.  By 1930, it would be one world-changing idea every six months.  With six billion minds on the planet, we should now be producing this kind of idea every two months.

The pessimist in me says it’s too bad we aren’t producing a brilliant idea every two months (at least, that I’m aware of), but the implications of the idea is still astounding.  One of the unstated pieces of this ‘formula’ is communication technology…given the seemingly infinitely increasing rate of digital information sharing, could this imply that the brilliance per mind is actually understated?  Or that we’re overstating the ‘number of minds’, since so many billions of people aren’t ‘plugged in’ yet?  As the remainder of the billion Indian’s come online, in parallel with a billion Chinese, is humanity going to be able to move even faster in solving our collective struggles?  What happens if/when Africa turns itself around?

As someone who is very familiar with the Thomas Malthus influence on economic and political thought, I’m glad to know there’s a more positive, yet rational, way to view the world.  Especially since history is showing Kremer to be more correct than Malthus had been with his dire predictions of famine and suffering. I think that’s worth the 46 dirhams I paid to read this book…

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6 comments to Review: The Logic of Life, part 2 – Malthus vs. Kremer

  • syed

    There might be world changing ideas lurking in the minds of the teeming billions but I’m guessing the real challenge is getting those ideas out and applying them. I thought Nilekani’s book did a good job showing both the positive and negative aspects of Malthus’s arguments. I will need a good book for the flight to China, it’s going to be the first long flight I will take for this program.

  • Nice comparison, I hadn’t thought about the Nilekani book discussing these ideas. But you’re right, it was a good discussion of both sides; I especially liked how Nilekani discussed how India seems to be ‘importing’ some of the good lessons from Western culture, but ALL of the bad ones. Especially in terms of energy and fuel usage/choice.

    I really should write a review on that book too. It’s just so big, it would take like 10 posts to write about all of the ideas…

  • Matt


    Nice post. I own this book, but haven’t read it yet (I always have many like this, and the extent of my backlog might in fact be a reflection on the status of the global M&A market).

    I have however read Tim Harford’s previous book “The Undercover Economist”. In it that book had some excellent thoughts about the world economy (in particular, externalities, and the economic challenges facing Africa).

    While having (on several occasions from different sources) been on the receiving end of Economics education, Tim’s approach, while more simplistic than your usual macro-economics class, tends to have the benefit of being more creative/innovative and (for me at least) making one think and apply the concepts in a broader way.

    While I describe his approach as simplistic I don’t consider that this means that it should be seen as dumbing down – quite the opposite – making what can be a complex topic understandable is a worthy skill.

    On Twitter, or simply @TimHarford. He’s worth following in my view.


  • Already ahead of you on the Twitter account; I tried to reference one of my posts about this book with an @timharford, but I never got anywhere! I guess I’ll have to live with getting Tom Standage to comment on the post I wrote about ‘A History of the World in Six Glasses’.

    I’ll have to check out ‘The Undercover Economist’, I’m going to need a few books for that China flight!

    Note: For any CCMBA’ers, if you want to read The Logic of Life, send me an email and I’ll trade you for another ‘like’ book when in China. English script only, please ;)

  • Ian Comandao

    i was surprised to hear Preyas say that Dan Ariely was a prof at Fuqua… and now you mention it here. Predictably Irrational is a darn good book. better than Super Freakonomics. got both for 10RMB each.

  • Doesn’t it say on the Predictably Irrational book that Dan Ariely is now at Duke? If not, if you follow the Fuqua School of Business on Facebook, they often link to interviews he has done.