books book reviews

Books on psychological and economic topics

reviewed by T. Nelson


The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

by A. Gazzaley and L.D. Rosen
MIT, 2017, 286 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

W hen will I learn? Just as a book with “elementary” in the title is usually difficult, a book that has to tell me that it's “brilliant” on the front cover rarely is.

In this book you'll learn that people actually keep their telephones next to them while eating. Cell phones are giving people shorter attention spans, interfering with social tasks, depriving people of sleep, and causing collisions with telephone poles.

We are information foragers, say the authors. We can't really multitask; we're actually context switching, and it's expensive.

This is mostly lightweight cognitive psychology, and much of it won't be news. It's scientifically accurate, though a bit repetitive. Their graph showing the cost-benefit ratio of jumping to a new task, which they call the Marginal Value Theorem, is repeated numerous times with slight changes. I guess the idea is that people only remember one thing from a book, and they want it to be that graph.

Authors' graph of the Marginal Value Theorem (p. 218, cropped)

The most insightful thing is a quote by Herbert Simon that instead of us con­sum­ing infor­mation, infor­mation actually consumes the attention of its recipients, creating a poverty of attention.

Maybe people do glue their telephones to their faces because they fear missing out, but in my opinion they're actually trying to compensate for the low quality of the information in today's world: TV shows that are mostly ads, web pages that get covered up by pop-ups while you're reading them, and news sites with mostly propaganda. Information foraging is a rational strategy in the age of fake news. We have more information than ever, but its average quality is declining.

Likewise with person-to-person conversations: in the age of PC, when it's dangerous to reveal your honest opinion, conversations are repetitive and predictable. So we try to compensate, jumping around, and end up wasting our cognitive resources by excessive task switching.

The authors say that heavy cell phone users (>10 hours/day) are more susceptible to leisure boredom than “light” users (3 hours/day). They can only study for a few minutes before checking their telephone, which gives them a social reward. The authors say all those tweets and cat videos might be distracting, but prevent kids from reflecting and thinking.

In the last section the authors suggest techniques for improving cognitive control, like video games, meditation, exercise, and getting a good night's sleep. These can work: I once started practicing a video game that involved creating paths in a 2D grid while avoiding obstacles, which were, as I recall, bags of money. My goal was to beat a co-worker who kept posting high scores. I accom­plished that, at least temporarily, but I also became highly skilled at navigating the 2D grid of the local parking lot—and I've never had a bag of money fall on my head since then.

Interestingly, one exercise they omit is practicing turning the cell phone off and going cold turkey. Start small, they suggest, by closing an occasional window instead. Let's not get carried away!

dec 09, 2017; edited dec 10, 2017


The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality

Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles

Oxford, 2017, 221 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

I f you just read the first chapter of this book, you'd think these guys are Guardianistas who worship at the altar of Piketty and Karl Marx and plaster the back of their car with bumper stickers. They blame the 2008–2016 economic malaise not on whoever was running things in those days, but on economic inequality. The result, they say, was intolerance, racism, and political extremism, leading up to the “shocking election of Donald Trump—and the threat to liberal democratic norms and institutions that it entails.”

Geez, these guys could get a job at National Review.

But they soon come back to reality and get to their real topic, which is that both the left and right are misguided: some government is necessary, they say, but government inter­ference by special interests creates many of the economic problems we saw. This is called regulatory capture.

One way regulatory capture harms the economy is by encouraging rent-seeking behavior:

The rents enjoyed through government favoritism not only misallocate resources in the short term but they also discourage dynamism and growth over the long term. Their existence encourages an ongoing negative-sum scramble for more favors instead of innovation and the diffusion of good ideas.

Rent-seeking doesn't always redistribute wealth upward. Minimum wage laws, for example, can redistribute it downward as well. Regardless of where it goes, stagnation is the result. The decline in education also increases the value of those few who actually are knowledgeable, leading to greater inequality.

The authors talk about four areas: subsidies to financial institutions that cause excessive risk-taking, excessive monopoly and intellectual property rights, occupational licensing, and artificial scarcity caused by land-use regulation.

There are two separate books here. In the four chapters on regulatory capture, they take a libertarian view that government and regulatory capture are the problem. In the other chapters, they sound like eat-the-rich-liberals in claiming that inequality and “upward redistribution” are terrible problems, while brushing off the idea of reducing the size of government: no one, they say, would ever want that. Their solution instead is to increase funding for government staffers, OMB, CBO, and the FTC*.

This is what the authors call liberaltarianism, which, as far as I can tell, is when a liberal starts to realize that big government creates more problems than it solves, but still hates Donald Trump.

The authors say there are many other problems besides regulatory capture. But I kept wondering: if only we could elect a leader with a strong business background who would drain the swamp, cut taxes, and eliminate regulation, it would solve most of these problems. Alas, how could we ever, ever find someone like that?

* Office of Management and Budget, Congressional Budget Office, and the Federal Trade Commission

dec 24, 2017