Book Bits: 3 July 2021

Why Trust Matters: An Economist’s Guide to the Ties That Bind Us
Benjamin Ho
Review via NPR
A new book by Benjamin Ho, Why Trust Matters: An Economist’s Guide to the Ties That Bind Us, argues the story of the economy — and all of human civilization, really — is the story of how we’ve evolved to trust larger and larger groups of strangers.
Human beings are social creatures. But our monkey brains are equipped to know and trust only a limited number of people. Around 150, according to the research of the British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. It’s known as Dunbar’s number. Dunbar argues it’s why we see 150 as a standard number for infantry units of militaries throughout history, and even the upper limit of people we regularly interact with on Facebook.

The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World
Frank Rose
Summary via publisher (W.W. Norton)
In The Sea We Swim In, Frank Rose leads us to a new understanding of stories and their role in our lives. For decades, experts from many fields—psychologists, economists, advertising and marketing executives—failed to register the power of narrative. Scientists thought stories were frivolous. Economists were knee-deep in theory. Marketers just wanted to cut to the sales pitch. Yet stories, not reasoning, are the key to persuasion. Whether we’re aware of it or not, stories determine how we view the world and our place in it. That means the tools of professional storytellers—character, world, detail, voice—can unlock a way of thinking that’s ideal for an age in which we don’t passively consume media but actively participate in it. Building on insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, Rose shows us how to see the world in narrative terms, not as a thesis to be argued or a pitch to be made but as a story to be told.

The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World
Benjamin Bratton
Review via Publishers Weekly
In this dense yet potent account, Bratton (The New Normal), director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego, draws on lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic to “imagine a world in which planetary society is able to deliberately compose itself with compassion and reason” in order to tackle geopolitical problems. He blames Western countries’ chaotic, ineffectual response to the disease on a lack of international cooperation and “reactionary forms of political populism” in such nations as the U.S. and the U.K., where an overemphasis on individualism, combined with anti-Chinese attitudes and paranoia about surveillance technology, hindered the efficacy of available solutions such as mask-wearing and temporary lockdowns.

The War on Small Business: How the Government Used the Pandemic to Crush the Backbone of America
Carol Roth
Summary via publisher (Harper Collins)
For years, government bureaucrats have been looking for ways to destroy small businesses. With coronavirus, they finally had their chance. In 2020, the American economy suffered the biggest financial collapse in history. But while Main Street suffered like never before, the stock market continued to reach new highs. How could this be? The answer is that government had slapped oppressive restrictions on small businesses while propping up Wall Street and engineering a historic consolidation of power and wealth.

Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History
Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta
Review via The Guardian
The book is a deeply reported account of the beginning of a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 in the US and a federal response hamstrung by incompetence and infighting.
Trump’s derisive term for his taskforce, the authors write, was “a signal that he wished it would go away” and “didn’t want anyone to exert leadership”.
“Many on the taskforce didn’t want the responsibility either, fearful of the consequences.”

The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology
Jacob Darwin Hamblin
Summary via publisher (Oxford U. Press)
The “peaceful atom” had so much propaganda potential that President Dwight Eisenhower used it to distract the world from his plan to test even bigger thermonuclear weapons. His scientists said the peaceful atom would quicken the pulse of nature, speeding nations along the path of economic development and helping them to escape the clutches of disease, famine, and energy shortfalls. That promise became one of the most misunderstood political weapons of the twentieth century. It was adopted by every subsequent US president to exert leverage over other nations’ weapons programs, to corner world markets of uranium and thorium, and to secure petroleum supplies. Other countries embraced it, building reactors and training experts.

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