Saturday, 26 September 2020

The Lexus and the Olive Tree - 4 - Ten books that influenced me



I bought and read this book in 1999. I was stunned. It related a set of major and historical events in the 1980s and 1990s of which I was unaware, either totally, or tangentially. I was an avid reader of newspapers and a somewhat less avid consumer of television news : or so I thought.

Apparently I was reading the wrong news : mostly politics, sports, entertainment or science. Business, economics, finance etc didn't excite me in those days. It is just making money, I thought, simple arithmetic, accounting etc. What could possibly be complicated about it? 

This book, and The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner, which my cousin Deepa recommended, transformed my thinking on these subjects. (Or at least, made me aware that I was utterly ignorant of these matters, and was ignorant of my ignorance). I have since realized that almost every educated person suffers from this prejudice and ignorance - they don't think economics or finance is complex enough to read books about.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree is held in utter contempt by almost everyone who was educated in finance, economics or business, or involved in these fields professionally. It probably outsold all books written by experts in those fields COMBINED, the year it came out. Few of those experts can write for the general public. It is like complaining that Justin Bieber outsold Beethoven or that a railway timetable is not as sophisticated as the Theory of Relativity.

But for someone ignorant of the stock market, currency rates, the impact of the internet, of television, the sharp economic divide between capitalist and communist countries, the subtle variations between the philosophies of France and Italy or Boston and San Francisco or Indonesia and Bangladesh - in fact, the vast majority of the general public, Friedman's book was an excellent, brilliant, pacy, readable, eyeopener.

The book captured the difference between 

  • those who adopted cutting edge technology and those who didn't
  • the transition from the world of the Cold War to one of globalization
  • the power of markets of various kinds
  • the stunning effect of new kinds of securitization
  • the limits of diplomacy
  • the futility of some wars and a general cluelessness about different cultures

Very few people in the 1990s other than the foreign affairs correspondent of one the world's richest media organizations, could experience these, let alone understand or explain them.

Since then I have learnt some degree of economics and economic history from other books, but this one was a path breaker, a delightful read, and an eye opener.

What is "news?"

My essays on Economics

My essays on Literature

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