Friday, August 28, 2015

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts

First, an apologia. I haven’t completed reading Adam Smith’s The Theory of the Moral Sentiments. I’m reminded of this when I log into goodreads and it inquires about how I’m progressing. (It’s annoying. "I know, I know.") Right now, it’s on the backburner. But it’s not there because it’s not worthwhile (it is), nor because it’s poorly written (it’s not), but because, as Roberts mentions, it’s written in 18th century prose that—for all its beauty—can prove challenging to those of us living in the Age of Twitter. 

In addition to all of that, Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments is only one of many of the Great Books that I haven’t completed. I read a lot, but sometimes it seems like climbing an endless mountain. One must cast aside so many worthy candidates to delve into one. If I’m reading The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, I’m not reading Smith’s more famous An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

All of this brings me to an important point: secondary works, commentaries that riff off the original, provide a valuable service when we can’t manage a complete St. John’s-style—original texts only—reading diet. Is reading a commentary as good as delving into the original? No. But it’s better than no exposure at all. It reminds me of going to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence this summer. I did the audio tour, skipping careful examination of many great works, but with limited time—the ultimate scarce resource—it was the way to go. Thus, with secondary works (more than Cliff Notes, of course) you can follow someone like Roberts as he explores Smith’s work. The quality of the guide can vary. But it’s clear that Roberts has put in the time to qualify as our docent.

So why Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments and why via Russ Roberts? First, Smith.

A sketch of Adam Smith facing to the right
Smith without sunglasses, not in profile
Most recognize Smith as the intellectual father of modern economics via The Wealth of Nations. The “invisible hand” and all that. But The Wealth of Nations was just one end of the spectrum for Smith. His first and last book (in that he revised it up to near the time of his death) is Moral Sentiments. At appears that Smith considered this the more important of the two books. Moral Sentiments deals foremost with our life in face-to-face social circles and how we interact with one another through emotions (“sentiments”). The Wealth of Nations, at the other end, deals more with markets, those places where strangers (at least initially) come together to “truck, barter & exchange”. These insights make Smith one of the founders not just of modern economics, but also of modern social theory that deals with more than just markets.

Russ Roberts, The EconTalker
The other reason that I listened to this book was Russ Roberts. I’ve listened to many episodes of EconTalk that Roberts hosts, and I enjoy it very much. Roberts is a Chicago-trained economist who knows his econ, but he’s also a gracious and inquiring interviewer (his podcast consists of guest interviews). Roberts does a good job, even with guests with whom he disagrees. Not afraid to raise a point of contention, he’s also willing to hear the answer. He provides thoughtful conversation, not entertainment (if you can call people talking past one another entertaining). I sometimes disagree with Roberts, such as on the usefulness of government action (its flaws notwithstanding), on the ability of civil society along to deal appropriately with the mega-institutions of contemporary global capitalism, and on the wisdom and efficacy of sensible Keynesianism*. But I have a strong sense that if we sat down for a chat about politics and economics, we’d both benefit from the conversation, finding more points of agreement than disagreement. Disagreeing without being disagreeable. It’s refreshing.

As to the book itself, it’s a reflection on Smith’s insights into human nature and sociability. Roberts puts Smith’s insights into contemporary contexts and idioms. Smith, despite his bachelor life, developed some terrific insights into how society worked, how people work (their sentiments, emotions), and how people interact. In fact, along with his friend Hume and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith helped develop theories of sociability and morality that deserve greater consideration. (For the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, read Garry Wills’s Inventing America. These Scots, more than Locke, provided the intellectual foundations of Jefferson’s thought.) Smith was not an ideologue of individualism—far from it. Instead, he always located the individual within his or her interactions with others. Roberts explores these themes, teasing out their contemporary manifestations and applications. It’s a well-written, entertaining, and enlightening introduction to this neglected aspect of Smith’s work.

My guilt at not having read Moral Sentiments is assuaged by the fact that Roberts, well into a career as an econ professor, admits to having read the work only relatively recently. And now with his book, Roberts has helped take a bit more of my sting of shame away.

Postscript: I listened to this book instead of having read it. It was on my reading list (such a long list and still growing!), but serendipity struck by way of a sale offer on Audible. Listening works well for this book, but I have to say that despite the fine reading, I was disappointed not to have Roberts reading it. After having listened to so many of his podcasts, and with his relaxed manner—not as folksy as Garrison Keillor—but still with an inviting air, it would have been good to have Roberts read it. But as it was, I simply substituted his voice in my head as I listened.

*For a fun example of Roberts’s fairness, watch the brilliant videos of Keynes and Hayek that (among other things) poke fun at the perpetual sense of inferiority that Hayek and Hayekians feel about Keynes, Hayek’s Nobel notwithstanding.

(That is what’s going on, right?) 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Fat Chance by Dr. Robert Lustig, M.D.

Few topics are as fraught with controversy as diet. Everyone has one (whether recognized as such or
not), and most everyone has a high degree of confidence that their chosen diet is The Right One. However, most everyone knows that we’re suffering from a pandemic of obesity that continues to grow (literally) and that threatens to shorten life expectancy in the next generation. If you don’t trust statistics about this burgeoning problem, then fly around the world and see for yourself. At airports, it’s easy to spot people likely to be Americans: we’re No. 1—in waist girth and fat fannies. And to make matters worse, the rest of the world is catching up quickly. While most Indians and Chinese remain slender, the younger and wealthier among them are getting bigger and puffier, including more and more kids.

So what do we do about it? We can safely say that we don’t lack for advice. Diet and health books and articles abound. And they all seem to contradict one another. From vegan to Primal/Paleo, from low-fat to low-carb, from Pritikin to Ornish to Atkins we’ve been told, “This is the true path”. We’ve seen villains come and go: fat, salt, meat, carbs—just about everything edible will either kills us or save us. (Which is probably true, but that’s diving to a really deep level.) So what’s a person to do? Keep inquiring.

I’ve been reading books of fitness and nutrition for a long time. I’ve always been interested in how the human body works, how to improve performance, and I aspire to die young when I’m old. Thus, I’ve tried diet experiments of all sorts, including a stint as a vegetarian and fasting. The vegetarian thing was too boring to continue (I love a good steak), but occasional fasting remains a part of my repertoire, albeit not used enough. I’ve read John Robbins of Healthy at 100 (vegan-ish), Colin Campbell of The China Study (meat is the culprit), and Pritikin and Ornish pieces (very low fat—fat bad). I’ve also read in the Paleo/Primal world of Art De Vany and Mark Sisson (among others), and I’ve read Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories), who comes down close to the Paleo/Primal perspective. (Taubes's perspective comes mostly from scientific studies for the last two centuries and anthropologic data more than from an evolutionary viewpoint.) I’ve also learned from bio-hacker Dave Asprey (The Bulletproof Diet) and Dr. Peter Atilla, an N=1 student of a ketogenic diet.

I don’t follow any one lead strictly, although the Paleo/Primal, and lower-carb perspectives guide my current train of thought and practice (with some grains and some dairy—who’s perfect?). And I live in China, home of rice and of wheat noodles. Yet, for some reason, I couldn’t resist reading Lustig’s book, although I feared it would only add to my uncertainty and create a risk of dietary nihilism. 

I’m happy to report that I’m glad I read the book and that as a result, I’ve altered my diet. 

Dr. Lustig. Note the cup.
Some may recognize Lustig’s name for his viral YouTube video, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth". (Viral by health and diet standards, anyway. We’re talking 5,856,147 viewings; we’re not talking “Gangnam Style” (239,582,696 viewings) or “What Does the Fox Say?” (537,697,900 viewings) —priorities, right?) Or perhaps you’ve seen or heard about his “60 Minutes” interview. But now he’s written a book, and it’s the most comprehensive look at the obesity epidemic that I’ve seen or could imagine.  

Let me warn you if you’re going to read this book: it covers everything from biochemistry to public policy—and rightly so, because it’s all a part of the understanding the challenge of rampant obesity. So brush off your Krebs cycle cobwebs and put on your political scientist hat to read this. Just kidding! Don’t panic. Dr. Lustig, aiming at a general audience, doesn’t presume you know the process of the Krebs cycle or that you have your degree in biochemistry. He explains it all very well for the lay person. Ditto with the public policy. It’s a matter of clear conceptual thinking and understanding the incentives, and he does just as well in this field as he does with the biochemistry and endocrinology.

In making the rounds with Dr. Lustig, the first thing that you learn is that a calorie is not just a calorie, something that I’d learned earlier from Gary Taubes’s brilliant Good Calories, Bad Calories. A gram of protein, of fat, or of carbohydrate is not just a measure of energy (calorie), but a complex chemical that serves as a signal to the body. In other words, the body responds differently to fats than to proteins than to carbs. Put simply, based on evolution and the uncertain and often sparse food environment in which humans evolved, we developed the capability to store sugars (as in fruit) as fat when it exceeded our immediate energy needs. Insulin, which regulates sugars, prompts the body to store excess sugars as fat. Essential for survival in the wild. A killer in the convenience store. 

The other key biochemical and physiological fact is that fructose (the sweetness in any sugar) is a potential problem. It’s found in any fruit off the vine or tree, honey, processed cane sugar (table sugar), high-fructose corn syrup, and every other natural sweetener. As Dr. Lustig writes: “Finally, we come to the Voldemort of the dietary hit list: the sweet molecule in sugar. If it’s sweet, and it’s caloric, it’s fructose.” Lustig, Robert H. (2012-12-27). Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (p. 100). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. And what’s so bad about fructose? When we consume fructose, especially in large quantities as we are wont to do today, and it isn’t needed right away for energy, it's stored as fat (via insulin, the fat-storage hormone). The more sugar we eat, the more fat we create. (Starches, glucose without fructose, do something similar, but as Lustig puts it, starches will make you fat, but they won’t make you sick.) 

Here’s where a difficult problem that has long perplexed me (and I imagine others) becomes resolved. As I mentioned above, there are all sorts of diets, including some that have survived the test of time (i.e., not just fads) that seem to contract one another, but they have one common trait. Lustig decodes the dietary Rosetta Stone: 

Can low-fat and low-carb diets both be right? Or both wrong? What do the Atkins diet (protein and fat), the Ornish diet (vegetables and whole grains), and the traditional Japanese diet (carbohydrate and protein) have in common? On the surface they seem to be diametrically opposite. But they all have one thing in common: they restrict sugar. Every successful diet in history restricts sugar. Sugar is, bar none, the most successful food additive known to man. When the food industry adds it for “palatability,” we buy more. And because it’s cheap, some version of sugar appears in virtually every processed foodstuff now manufactured in the world. Sugar, and specifically fructose, is the Lex Luthor of this story.
Id. 117-118

By the way, if you thinking “Oh, damn! No fruit?” you’re like me. But Lustig points out that fruit—real fruit—always comes with fiber. And fiber prevents all that fructose from flooding into the body. But beware! Orange juice and other fruit drinks—even 100% fruit—along with “juiced” fruits that destroy the fiber, can provide a fructose jolt even greater than a can of Coke. 

There’s much, much more about the physiology of food and the biochemistry of obesity and its evil off-spring, metabolic syndrome, but I want to skip over that here to share another aspect of the book that proved compelling. 

Lustig emphasizes that obesity is not a matter of sloth and gluttony, as we’re often inclined to think. Lustig notes that we have a number of seats at what he terms “the table of blame” for obesity, with different “guests” having different degrees of culpability. While gluttony and sloth are usually seated at the head of the table commensurate with our individualistic culture and cult of “personal responsibility”, seats are also provided for:
  • the health insurance industry (“obesity is not a disease”); 
  • the medical profession (simple: eat less and exercise more);
  •  the “obesity profiteers” (selling diet books and plans); 
  • “fat activists” (it’s okay to be fat, “make bigger seats”); 
  • the commercial food industry (more food, more profits); and
  •  the federal government (keep crop prices high to please farmers; recommend a diet with lots of cheap carbs). 

Quite a list of suspects.  And all guilty in some measure, but not in the order that you may think. 

Lustig discounts sloth and gluttony as factors. This seems based on the fact that he’s a pediatrician and he can’t see blaming kids for their obesity. In fact, some obesity is the result of purely physiological defects in the body, such as a congenital lack of a hormone. But whatever the source, Lustig emphasizes that hormones drive behavior. And our outside environment shapes our hormonal environment (inside our body). “Biochemistry and hormones drive our behavior”. Id. 34. (If you doubt this, please consider a near-by teenager.) Lustig then expands our horizon: “The obesity pandemic is due to our altered biochemistry, which is a result of our altered environment.” Id. 30.

In the second part of the book especially, Lustig comes to grip with the fact that the worldwide obesity pandemic is a public health problem that screams for public policy remedies, but these remedies encounter the reality of political economics. Lustig discards the still-reigning paradigm of the rational, freely choosing individual as the model of decision-making. As Lustig notes, have you ever met a rational addict? Instead, he focuses on the larger environment of the political economy. (His insights reinforce my maxim that all economics is really political economy; that is, all decisions arise from within a framework shaped by political decisions and social habits created outside of market mechanisms.) Think about it: farmers are paid to grow corn and beans to supply all kinds of processed food (especially after the advent of high-fructose corn syrup). Food companies don’t make money selling raw fruits and veggies. They sell convenient, “tasty”, “low-fat” (extra sugar) foods at almost every street corner (including where we live in China). How do we continually say “no” in this environment? One can (I’m on it now), but it takes energy to say “no” to constant temptation. It’s the way of contemporary consumer capitalism. Lustig identifies the political and economic pressures that make eating healthy (i.e., real food) so challenging. He acknowledges that poor neighborhoods often only have access to a “convenience store” and a McDonald’s. When a mom arrives home late from work and the kids are hungry and cranky, what’s she going to do? Lustig sorts all of these issues out very well, and he isn’t afraid to mark sacred cows for extermination, although he’s enough of a realist to know that change will only come slowly. 

The depth and breadth of this book is truly amazing. It’s written by someone who writes as a scientist for non-scientists, combing the two registers with ease. For your own well-being and that of your loved ones, as well as to satisfy your scientific curiosity, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. 

And I have to admit—with some shame—that I’m glad that I read this book after our trip to Italy and all that delicious gelato. I’m on the sugar wagon now, but—Oh!—what a sweet farewell!

P.S. If you don't have time now to read the book, you might read "Is Sugar Toxic" by Gary Taubes. The article opens with a consideration of Lustig's work. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall

What do the following have in common?

·         LeBron James
·         Brazil
·         Arthur Evans
·         Patrick Leigh Fermor
·         Tom Myers
·         Fairbairn & Sykes
·         Shanghai
·         Pankration (Greek)
·         George Hebert
·         Norina Bentzel
·         Xan Fielding
·         The Minotaur
·         Wing Chun
·         Steve Maxwell
·         The Arizona desert
·         John Pendleberry
·         a glass eye
·         Fritz Schubert, a/k/a “the Turk”
·         Erwan Le Corre
·         Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller
·         Dr. Phil Maffetone
·         Dwight Howard
·         William Banting
·         Hitler
·         Churchill
·         Crete

If you had a difficult time discerning connections, don’t feel badly about it (although the last three items provide a strong indication of one topic). These topics—among dozens of other possible examples—are tied together in the two books written by Chris McDougall as one book: Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance (2015). In this book, McDougall examines the German invasion and subsequent resistance movement on Crete during WWII. British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents aided the Cretans during the occupation. These tales provide the central core of the book. Around this central core—fascinating and cinematic in its own right--McDougall constructs a second book about human performance from ancient Minoan culture to contemporary Parkour. In lesser hands this could have resulted in a mess, but as McDougall displayed in another favorite book of mine, Born to Run, he can weave and integrate stories as a master. The end result is a delightfully fun and entertaining book. 
Christopher McDougall. Notice the bare feet

The story of the invasion of Crete and the Cretan resistance probably isn’t well known among Americans, but it includes some incredible tales. Certainly the most astonishing feat—anywhere—involved successfully kidnapping a German general. The heist was conducted by British agents, led by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Cretan resistance-fighters (and a largely sympathetic populace). Some may recognize Fermor as among the best English prose stylists of the 20th century. His books include an account of his walk across Europe starting in 1933 (as a teenager) as well as accounts of Greece, monastic life, and the Caribbean. But one topic that he did not write at length about (other than in official reports) was his part in successfully kidnapping the German general and getting the general off the island of Crete to Egypt. (If you think that this begs for a movie, it spawned one long ago: “Ill Met ByMoonlight” (or “Night Ambush”), starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor. Bogarde, by the way, was a dashing British film star of his era. Billy Moss, one of Fermor’s accomplices in the exploit, wrote the book.)

The film version with Bogarde as Fermor

The actual kidnappers of General Kreipe: Georgios Tyrakis, William Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor, Emmanouil Paterakis and Antonios Papaleonidas

 But McDougall wanted to write a book about human performance, also. And so in recounting this tale of adventure—with lots of James Bond-like suave from the Brits—he also dives into the issue of how these men, Cretans and Britons, could have mastered such as harsh terrain while eluding capture by the forces of “The Butcher”, the other German general on the island. This tale of extraordinary human performance allows McDougall to tell about Brits learning to survive in the harsh Shanghai underworld of the early 20th century; about how the Frenchman George Hebert developed and trained people to survive and thrive using nature as a training ground; about how Erwan Le Corre resurrected Hebert’s genius and brought it into the 21st century; about how Tom Myers revealed that the fascia (connective tissue) provides the architecture and elastic energy that powers the human body; and about how Parkour demonstrates practical application of Myers’s insights about the elastic energy of the fascia. McDougall also hunted down the reclusive Phil Maffetone to learn about how he revolutionized diet and training techniques for distance runners like Stu Mittleman along lines that Paleo/Primal adherents will recognize as kindred thinking. And McDougall relates how distance running guru Dr. Timothy Noakes, the high priest of high-carb for distance runners, underwent a conversion of Pauline-like intensity to embrace a low-carb, high-fat “Banting” diet. (“I was quite wrong. Sorry, everyone.”) 

I could go on at great length about this book because it contains so many different angles, so many intriguing side-stories. But I will stop here to and sum it all up by saying that I found the book great fun. It provided well-told stories about fascinating stuff (WWII history and human performance are among my favorite topics), but even if you don’t’ share my predilections, I believe that most readers would enjoy this book. 

Side note: Because I didn’t read Born to Run but listened to it twice, I decide to listen to Natural Born Heroes. Alas, the listening experience was not as good. Mostly because the reader attempted—rather poorly—too many accents: British, Greek, American, French, and so on. He mastered none. Perhaps you’d have to get Meryl Streep or resurrect Olivier to do it right. In addition, because there was so much information, so much learning, I bought the book for my Kindle for my second and later readings.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Toast to Capitalism--And Now Junk It

David Brooks: defender of capitalism & yet conservative

I want to take up David Brooks’s challenge set forth in his column “Two Cheers for Capitalism”. But let me first state my opening position:

Capitalism is the best form of economic system—ever. And it needs to be replaced. Starting now.

Brooks argues in defense of capitalism that its better than socialism. He doesn’t use the word “socialism”, but it’s implied when he writes “government planners are not smart enough to plan complex systems”. True but trivial. Centralized planning as an alternative to markets lost long ago. No serious commentator wants to restore central planning.

Brooks ignores the extent that business and government are  intertwined in early 21st century consumer capitalism. We delude ourselves in believing that mainstream economics, which provides the intellectual infrastructure for capitalism, could ever escape political economics. An economy is always nested within political and cultural systems. The most important intertwining of politics and government in the U.S. today has to do with regulatory capture, not regulatory restraint. Big government today is controlled by Big Money. Big Money includes individuals (yes, think Koch) and aggregates (trade organizations, corporations, etc.). Adam Smith, the intellectual godfather of capitalism, pegged it when he observed that when two or more merchants meet, the conversation would inevitably turn to restraint of trade. We could add "politicians" to any merchant or private interest, and we'd get the same effect. This happens--often--and we ordinary folks suffer for it. (For an enlightening—and frightening—discussion of regulatory capture and flaws in economic thinking, read Dr. Robert H. Lustig’s Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Suger, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease (2012) (review forthcoming)).

Brooks is correct that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any time in history. As one currently living in China, I see proof everywhere of the power of consumer, market capitalism (for good and ill). But will it last?

Here I come to my greatest critique of contemporary capitalism: can this ride last? I do not (now) fear the backlash of resentment that growing inequality can spawn. Only a little of this has occurred yet. Humans are not the biggest challenge to the system, although this could change quickly. Rather, Mother Nature is the ultimate judge of capitalism.

I know that you’re thinking, “Yea, yea, and you forget the Ehrlich-Simon bet and how Ehrlich lost it—big time.” No, I don’t. Ehrlich lost within the time frame set for the debate, but Mother Nature doesn't recognize such puny time frames.

Every economic system extracts energy from the environment and returns entropic waste. Contemporary capitalism and its civilization do this more effectively than any other civilization. According to Dr. Joseph Trainer, Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, Dr. Jared Diamond, and Dr. William (Patrick) Ophuls, among others, no civilization has escaped the limits of the environment and entropy. It’s a social and environmental-economic challenge that capitalism has met better than any other system by using industrialization, rationalization, and technology. But no system—not even contemporary capitalism—can negate these limits. We’ve known about these limits in the form of global warming from dumping waste into our environment for over 20 years, but we've attempted to ignore it. Even the Pope, head of an organization not known for its embrace of cutting-edge science, has recognized the problem. (Pope Francis and his predecessors have long-recognized the corrosive social costs of capitalism.)

John Stuart Mill wrote about the need for a steady-state economy in the mid-19th century, well ahead of his time. We need to address these issues now. Endless acquisition and endless growth don’t square with the limits placed upon us by the natural world—the world of our atmosphere, our oceans, our lands, and our societies.

The hope I have is not for a revolution (or  rather only one seen only in the rearview mirror in slow motion). Nor am I a Luddite. Rather, we need to improve our lives by using what we have, consolidating our gains, and re-thinking some of our fundamental beliefs. This will be an immense challenge, but it’s a project that conservatives, like David Brooks (to the extent he’s really a conservative), should embrace. Not the factory, but the garden should serve as our guiding metaphor: we prune and graft and cultivate with the seasons, we don’t lay waste and move on. This is how capitalism must become something new. If grafted and cultivated along with democracy—real democracy—it could become something of lasting value.