Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Books #9 and #10: Superfreakonomics, Chinese Whispers

Superfreakonomics is the excellent follow-up to Freakonomics by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. The anecdotes and innovative ways of examining topics unrelated to conventional economics are interesting, of course, but what I found most useful was a definition of economics.

In high school, I was told that economics was the study of the allocation of scarce resources, which was a definition even duller than a class which consisted of curves which moved right or left depending on which way Ms. Petrie's hand moved on the overhead. Needless to say, I appreciated why George Bush (the Elder) had once dismissed Reagonomics as "voodoo economics".

Levitt and Dubner's definition of economics as the idea that people respond to incentives is far more cogent and interesting. It can be used to consider problems other than the mundane gibberish about how many seasonally adjusted jobs were created this month or what should be done about interest rates.

As for the book itself, suicide bombers and prostitutes get all the hype, but their takedown of children's car seats is most interesting. Despite the fact that car seats are mandatory by law in many developed countries, including for adolescents in some cases, they rightfully point out out the laziness of entrusting children's safety to an awkwardly designed piece of equipment that no one knows how to use, which in turn is held in place by a seat belt, which is designed to hold adult human beings in place, not car seats.

The other book I read while traveling this past month was Chinese Whispers by the Globe and Mail's Jan Wong. Much of the book is yet another look at the by now obvious reality that, yes, once China was desperately poor and Communist but has now embraced the free market. As a result, people that were once poor are now rich. If you've read nothing about China in the last 5-10 years, you might find that aspect of the book riveting, but otherwise it is trite.

What makes Chinese Whispers a great book is that, first, it takes a look at Beijing. The affection I have for Beijing is probably not shared by most people, but they should share it. It is a deeply historic city, the product of detailed planning, which is why its central sites are on a north-south axis and it develops around the old imperial palace in concentric circles. Coupled with its shameless commercialism, communist interlude and chilling winters, and it's easily one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

Wong's story intersperses Beijing's vast, fascinating history with her own history. She was a student in China during the Cultural Revolution. Not only that, she was a sincere communist who considered Maoist propaganda to have value. As a result, she ratted out a student that wanted to live overseas. Wracked with guilt, Wong revisits China 30 years later to try and find out her fate.

Wong does a service in telling the story of the Cultural Revolution, an odd misnomer for what was essentially a genocide. In addition to the roughly million peopled that died, there were many, many more whose lives were ruined. Promising careers turned into backbreaking labour in factories and farms in the middle of nowhere. Chinese Whispers does a good job of tracing lives that were jarred by the Cultural Revolution and, depending on circumstances, recovered or finished in ignominy.


lisa. said...

I really liked Superfreakonomics. I read it many months ago, so it's not super tight in my brain anymore, but I liked the car seat bit too. It's economics that I don't have to do any math to understand.

The global warming part was where I got distracted because I trailed off from the book and started reading criticisms of the section online instead.

It's a lot like reading Malcolm Gladwell in a very good way. I'm a Gladwell fan.

Have you read any fiction about China? I was floating in this world entirely ignorant of the Cultural Revolution, basically knowing nothing about China until I read the novel Beijing Coma. I don't know why I was so ignorant but I was.

Adeel said...

Lisa, not sure if you'll see this since it's an older post, but I have a really hard time reading fiction. I almost never read fiction, with the exception of the odd classical novel.