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…

Review: The Logic of Life, part 1

On my way home from Dubai, I was presented with a “problem” that I usually don’t encounter when I’m at home:  I had too much local currency!  Between the Dirhams that I took out when I arrived, the Duke per diem, and the cash leftover from when Kerry’s boat trip didn’t materialize, I had well over 1000 Dirham (~$250) in my pocket at the airport.

The entire bottom level of this airport is Duty-Free!

Of course, I could’ve taken this money to the currency exchange and gotten hammered on the transaction fees.  But since we got to the airport pretty early, I decided to wander around the massive Duty-Free for a while and see what I could spend it on instead.  Walking around, it’s unclear whether there is an airport at the Dubai (Airport) Mall, or if there’s a mall inside of the Dubai Airport!  When you can buy a $12,000 IWC Big Pilot watch, gold bars, or even a 6-foot hookah with complementary shisha, it stops being just an airport…

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