Ajit Singh - Best Reads of 2012: AJIT SINGH
MANAGEMENT / ECONOMICS
6 Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, Crown Publishing, 2012.
I had read Jared Diamond’s review of Why Nations Fail in the New York Review of Books this past summer. The following endorsement by Diamond at the very end of his review was what triggered me to read the book:
My overall assessment of the authors’ argument is that inclusive institutions, while not the overwhelming determinant of prosperity that they claim, are an important factor. Perhaps they provide 50 percent of the explanation for national differences in prosperity. That’s enough to establish such institutions as one of the major forces in the modern world … Why Nations Fail should be required reading for politicians and anyone concerned with economic development … Donors and international agencies try to “engineer prosperity” either by foreign aid or by urging poor countries to adopt good economic policies. But there is widespread disappointment with the results of these well-intentioned efforts. Acemoglu and Robinson pithily diagnose the cause of these disappointing outcomes in their final chapter: "Attempting to engineer prosperity without confronting the root cause of the problems -- extractive institutions and the politics that keeps them in place -- is unlikely to bear fruit.”
Then, a few weeks later in New York, a friend of mine invited me to his lecture at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he juxtaposed Why Nations Fail with three prior bodies of work on this general topic: Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, and Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty. The key premise of Why Nations Fail was so markedly distinct from that of the other three (each of which I have reviewed in the past years) that it led me to include it in this year’s
Acemoglu and Robinson take a macro approach to parsing the economic success factors of nations. In their thesis, nations can only succeed financially when both political and economic institutions are inclusive, creating incentives for everyone to invest in the future. Nations fail when institutions are extractive, protecting the political and economic power of the elite few.
Now the counterpoint: Jeffrey Sachs’ review of the book in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs was scathing. He argues that the book is conceptually flawed -- from two perspectives. First, many of the arguments presented in favor of inclusive institutions don’t extrapolate well, beyond the few data points that are presented in the book. Second, the predictive value of the book is weak because it does not take into account future developments – economic, technological, and political.
To their credit, Acemoglu and Robinson present a thoughtful (and calm) rebuttal – arguing and refuting Sachs’ critique – systematically and point by point. Both, the review by Sachs and the rebuttal by the authors make for a thought provoking reading. Follow the links below:
Sachs’ Review: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138016/jeffrey-d-sachs/government-geography-and-growth
Authors’ rebuttal: http://whynationsfail.com/blog/2012/11/21/response-to-jeffrey-sachs.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
7 Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, Random House, 2011
This book is a clear departure from all of Sachs’ earlier works: it is not focused on the economic issues of poor nations. Rather, it examines the economic crisis of America. In Sachs’ own words:
During most of my forty years in economics I have assumed that America, with its great wealth, depth of learning, advanced technologies and democratic institutions, would reliably find its way to social betterment. I decided early in my career to devote my energies to the economic challenges abroad, where I felt the economic problems were more acute and in need of attention. Now, I am worried about my own country. The economic crisis of recent years reflects a deep, threatening, and ongoing deterioration of our national politics and culture of power.
At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws and elections is not enough if the rich and the powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty and compassion towards the rest of the society and towards the world. America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.
The thesis proposed by Sachs has three principal components. First, we have grossly under-analyzed the effects of globalization on the US – both short term issues such as employment and debt (correct … he classifies debt as a short term issue), as well as long term issues such as re-distribution of skills and skill-types across the globe, re-distribution of types of value creation across the globe, etc.
Second, we have, over time, created an overstimulated culture with disproportionate focus on consumption, compared to social trust and values. Third, we have a lack of general preparedness in the political system to deviate from a populist agenda. In reaching these conclusions, Sachs draws upon nearly five decades of trends in domestic policy, foreign policy, social psychology, political process, and of course, economic metrics.
The book is as thorough on the roadmap for recovery as it is on diagnosis. In five well-structured chapters over a hundred pages, Sachs outlines the critical decisions we will have to make as a society, and the pain we will have to incur as we implement them. The chapter focused on the role of the government (Seven Habits of Highly Effective Government) is substantive – both in its scope and its prescription.
My only one disappointment with the book: while the impact of globalization was a key element of the diagnostic in the first half of the book, it receives a rather rarified coverage in the prescriptive section of the book (where the focus is predominantly domestic and inward looking). For that, I found Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power to be a useful complement. It weaves political, economic, and strategic imperatives for the US in that region of the world with delectable travel writing.
If you would like a one-hour digest of the key points in the book, Jeff Sachs’ talk in the Earth Institute Archives can be found at http://www.earth.columbia.edu/videos/watch/353. If you have not read any of Sachs’ earlier works, the best place to start is actually a journal article, The Strategic Significance of Global Inequality, in The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer 2001.
HISTORY / POLITICS
8 J. L. Chestnut Jr. and Julia Cass, Black in Selma, The University of Alabama Press, 1990.
This was a very significant book for me this year. It came as a recommendation from my younger daughter Gunita. She was tremendously moved by it and insisted that I move it to the front of my reading queue. I had wanted to read it during the summer, but was unable to prioritize it. Then, last month I read it in four straight sittings.
J. L. Chestnut, Jr. was 35 when Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the campaign for voting rights for African Americans in Selma, Alabama. At that time, Chestnut was practicing law and was the only African American lawyer in Selma. This book is about him. The foreword of the book begins as follows:
The world-famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, arches up so sharply in the center that when you set out to cross it, you cannot see the other side – a perfect symbol for the civil rights movement, because those who participated in it could not foresee what the outcome of their risk-fraught actions would be or where the journey would take them.
In my opinion, the single biggest achievement of the book is that it tells an everyday story at the grassroots of the Civil Rights struggles, without capitalizing on the charged backdrop of the movement’s bigger tragedies, or on Selma’s place in the history of the movement.
Sadly, that everyday story continued well past the Civil Rights movement, as well as past the publication of the book. Chestnut practiced law in Selma through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and his work focused predominantly on Civil Rights cases.
While reading this book, I developed interest in the role of the sitting (white) judges at the time who presided over civil rights cases.
Frank Johnson, who in 1955 became the youngest Federal judge at the age of 37, is one of most relevant personalities in this context. In his twenty-four years on the District Court beginning in 1955, Judge Johnson presided over several landmark civil rights cases -- on desegregation of public transportation, desegregation of schools, integration of public facilities, and registration of black voters, etc. He also ordered authorizing of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
If this area of history if of interest to you, Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson and the South's Fight over Civil Rights by Jack Bass would make a compelling read.
9 Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, W. W. Norton and Co., 2011
Greenblatt is a Pulitzer winner, a Professor of Humanities at Harvard, and is the author of eleven books. I came across The Swerve in the local-authors display at the Yale bookstore this Fall. Then at Thali Too, the graduate-student-grade Indian restaurant next door, one of Pavita’s friends educated me that Greenblatt was not exactly a local author, even though he received his Ph.D. at Yale. I figured if Yale was willing to lay claim on a Harvard professor as one of its own, the book must be an important one.
In early 1400’s, the former apostolic secretary to several Popes, Poggio Bracciolini came across a very old manuscript in a German monastery and ordered that it be copied and translated. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius -- a poetic rendition of some provocative, forward thinking ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
Dissemination of this text fueled the Renaissance, and for the next four centuries, inspired artists, philosophers, and natural scientists: Sandro Botticelli, Giordano Bruno, Thomas Moore, Galileo, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. The Swerve is a richly chronicled, elaborate historical account of this critical arc of human development.
The book begins, appropriately enough, with the author coming across a copy of Lucretius’ book:
When I was a student, I used to go at the end of the school year to the Yale Co-op to see what I could find to read over the summer. I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums. They would be jumbled together in bins through which I would rummage with nothing much in mind, waiting for something to catch my eye. On one of such forays, I was struck by an extremely old paperback cover, a detail from a painting by surrealist Max Ernst. Under a crescent moon, high above the earth, two pairs of legs – bodies were missing – were engaged in what appeared to be an act of celestial coition. The book – a prose translation of Lucretius’ two-thousand year old poem On the Nature of Things – was marked down to two cents, and I bought it, I confess, as much for the cover as for the classical account of the material universe.
In the words of The New York Times reviewer, “… approaching Lucretius through Bracciolini was an ingenious idea. It allows Mr. Greenblatt to take some worthwhile detours: through the history of book collecting, and paper making, and libraries, and penmanship, and monks and their almost sexual mania for making copies of things.”
Here is an example - a curse that one monastery placed in its books if the borrower would not return them:
For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted … Let the flames of Hell consume him forever.
Greenblatt’s gift as a writer is multifaceted: he has a natural intuition to know what details are relevant, and the discipline to make them crisp and tangible without being verbose and elaborate. He writes with a journalistic economy, yet carries the rhythm and meter of lucid prose. Personally for me, this is a book that will spawn many a follow-up reading – other works by the same author, and the same subject by other authors. I will start with Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.
For a quick four-minute introduction to Greenblatt’s style and depth, check out Can Art be Universal, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q49GuL5safg. Also, a conversation relating to The Swerve can be found on CBS News at http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7389417n.
SCIENCE / MATH
10 Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind, Penguin, 2012
I first stumbled upon Kurzweil’s work in 2000, when I read The Age of Spiritual Machines. The book was a key milestone in developing my thought process, partly because of the bold thesis and fluid diction of Kurzweil, but mostly because of my own state of mind at the time when I read the book.
It was around then that I was beginning to appreciate Complexity both as a subject, as well as an overarching principle that would later guide my thinking and learning more generally. Over the next ten years, Kurzweil’s insights and didactics came to belong in the same league for me as the works on Complexity by Robert Axelrod, Melanie Mitchell, Stuart Kauffman, or Mitchell Waldrop. I have covered all of his books in my past reviews.
I find the book’s Table of Contents to be an apt introduction:
Thought Experiments on the World
Thought Experiments on Thinking
A Model of Neo-Cortex: Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind
The Biological Neo-Cortex
The Old Brain
The Biologically Inspired Digital Neo-Cortex
The Mind as a Computer
Thought Experiments on the Mind
The Law of Accelerating Returns applied to the Brain
Kurzweil draws upon a wide body of research in Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, Linguistics, Complexity, and Evolution and then deploys it to design his thought experiments. The insights, per se, are the outcome of these thought experiments. While Kurzweil’s central idea, that the complex abilities of the human mind are rooted in the self-organizing, emergent nature of the network, in and of itself is not new, the design of experiments that make it obvious is original and brilliant.
If you would like a video preview of the book, try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zihTWh5i2C4.
Also, http://www.ted.com/talks/ray_kurzweil_on_how_technology_will_transform_us.html carries his TED talk, in case you are interested in his overall body of work and his thought process; he belongs in the ranks of a handful of thinkers who I consider true non-reductionists.
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Ajit Singh is currently a General Partner at Artiman Ventures and
focuses on early-stage Technology and Life Sciences / Med-Tech
investments. On behalf of Artiman, he serves on the Board of Directors
of Aditazz, Inc., CardioDx Inc., Click Diagnostics, Inc., CORE
Diagnostics Pvt. Ltd., and OncoStem Diagnostics Pvt Ltd. Ajit is also a
Consulting Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford University
and is the Lead Director on Board of Directors of Max Healthcare, based
in New Delhi.
Prior to joining Artiman, Ajit was the CEO of BioImagene, a Cancer Diagnostics company that was acquired by Roche in 2010. Before BioImagene, Ajit spent nearly twenty years at Siemens in various CEO roles. Between 1988 and 1995, he concurrently served on the faculty at Princeton University. Ajit has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Columbia University.
December 28, 2012