Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Conquest of Happiness - Book Review

After a few years when I will look back at this book there will be quite a few things that I’ll be able to recollect. I can easily make lot of associations with this book. I read one of the chapters of this book in a Critical Reading class, bought it at a real cool bookstore, happened to stumble upon a hidden treasure of a coffee shop where I spend some afternoons perusing it. And finally, some clarity of thought which I gained after completing it.

As is clear by the title – it is mainly about how we can stay happy.  
I am particularly struck by the mention of “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the inalienable rights of the citizens in the U.S declaration of Independence. Seems like the Committee of Five were wise enough to know what matters eventually. There is abundant material floating around which claims to provide answers to the complex questions people spend their lives struggling with. Bertrand Russell does a really good job stripping down the needs and necessities of a man/woman and come up with what are few basic things which can provide contentment/happiness/whatever you call it.

In the first half of the book – he lists the possible reasons why people are unhappy: -
  •        Mistaken views of the world
  •        Mistaken ethics
  •        Mistaken habits of life
  •        Absence of effort from life
  •        Absence of love
  •       Absence of quiet life
  •       Too much to worry
  •       Envy
  •       Fear of public opinion

He lists with examples, anecdotes going into detail as to how the above characteristics contribute to disillusionment with life and makes a person incapable to be happy. For instance – he so rightly points out that “boredom” is an essential ingredient of life. Even though most of us try to always indulge in exciting endeavors – little do we realize that their value will start diminishing and the need for stronger levels of excitement then arises. He also so wisely states that “the lives of most great men have not been exciting except at a few great moments.” The manner in which simple, unadulterated truth is presented in this book is what makes it such a classic even 80 years after it was first published. Russell clearly defines that certain great things in life are possible only with a certain degree of monotony. I had never thought about boredom through such a perspective. Point to be noted – not to feel bad if you have a low-key weekend or vacation!

Similarly, he talks about fatigue – how indecisiveness can cause fatigue and the buildup on fatigue (mental) causes a person to stop living in the moment. The best way to prevent it is to face our anxieties head-on i.e thinking of the worst-case possibility. Often, we will realize that the “worst case possibility” isn’t as big as we thought it would be. That realization can provide a sense of relief.

After listing down the possible avenues of unhappiness – he starts with whether happiness is even an achievable goal. He draws a subtle (but very interesting) distinction between the level of happiness which a scientist and an artist can attain. He points out that even though the general public cannot understand a picture or a poem – they conclude it is a bad picture or bad poem. But when they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. In a lot of places, you can spot Russell’s dry wit humor.

The last 7 chapters are dedicated to possible ways in which happiness can be derived.

In no proper order, he implores the reader to -
  • Let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.
  • Give affection to your dear ones as affection is reciprocal by nature.
  •  How having a tight-knit family contributes to a sense of satisfaction.

  He calls upon lot of focus to be given to personal relationships and upbringing kids. 
  • Need to Work.

He could clearly see much earlier in the 1930s that no matter how dull the work would be, life would be much worse if there was no work to do. Russell blames it to the failure of man to rely on being told what to do. As per him, man has not evolved yet to intelligently use his leisure time. Thus, the need to get up in the morning and do some (any) work remains important.    
  • Put in Effort.

You have to have a life where you put in effort. Also, it is extremely important to not fret over small things like missing the train or things that upset you. A wise man does not expend emotions over things that go wrong. Russell shares a powerful trick to put things into perspective. Ask yourself when things go wrong – In the history of the cosmos does the event in question has lot of importance?

With his simple powerful words the author is successfully able to drive home the point that happiness is not elusive. It is attainable. Most of our “unhappiness” is our own doing, our improper thoughts and expectations.
If we start approaching life with the right perspective which he shared we will become A Happy Man or Woman.

P.S - The very few things I did not like was that at places Russell seems to come across very conservative by nature specially when it came to women shouldering working opportunities. If you think of the time when he wrote the book it explains his viewpoint. At that time women were not even remotely provided equal opportunities to go out and work. Probably, that is the reason why he couldn’t come to the conclusion that factors affecting happiness of women were the same as men.

P.P.S - The other thing that stands out from the book is that Russell views drinking in a negative light. He says it is a shame that people are too tired to be capable of enjoying without the help of alcohol. At one place he mocks those who drink a lot - Me no drinkee for drinkee, me drinkee for drunkee!

P.P.S.1 - A bit of trivia.
Einstein is usually praised in the mainstream literature for the stance he adopted against nuclear weapons and the Nazi party. Both Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein signed statements against the adoption of nuclear weapons. And then Einstein went back to his research while Russell continued his struggle on the streets raising voice and trying to bring awareness on that issue. In Noam Chomsky's words - Einstein didn't rattle too many cages but Russell tried to do something about it. Thus, Russell was viciously attacked by the NYT and others. He was disregarded as a public intellectual and rather considered a crazy madman.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Random Musings for a Change

Off late I have been using this platform to write lengthy posts about the books I have been reading. However, this time I want to share a few personal thoughts musings I have had.

Harvard Commencement Speech by Mark Zuckerberg - 2017
I found it pretty powerful and positive. The points he touched upon in his speech and the conviction with which he talked generated optimism towards the future.

He talked how our system is biased towards success – how we should reward failures. The highlight for me was he acknowledged that many people don’t take risks or charter into unfamiliar territories just because they don’t have a cushion to fall back on (universal basic income to be the solution?); and how lucky he was to not have such worries while studying.

He reminded that the earlier generation struggled to get the right to vote and have their voice heard. And as a natural progression this generation will have to take up the cudgels to make it easy for everyone to exercise the right their forefathers earned. Modernizing democracy – online voting might NOT be an outrageous possibility in the future.  

Another arcane aspect of society which needs revolution is Education. It occurred to me hearing him that it is a matter of time that this rigid system will change. I do not know what form it will take. Maybe it will become move at your own pace i.e based on your ability – no stigma associated if you take more time to go to college, or more inter-disciplinary stuff, more specializations, online education? Since I’m trying to peek into the future – above possibilities could be totally wrong. It might go the other way. However, I’m sure it will change.

I liked that he reminded us that not enough funds are being generated to diagnose why people get sick at the first place. Rather 50 times more money is spent to treat them. Now this can be a tricky area since pharmaceutical companies are Wall Street companies – operating for-profit thus pricing medicines exorbitantly to make up for their R&D and shareholder value. Still, it is fascinating to imagine that eventually we will have breakthroughs via which we all could be disease free.

Also, he reminded us that the future generations will lead a life much different than their predecessors. More tech in their lives, normal jobs would disappear thanks to automation – the whole way of life as we know it would change. As associated with every unknown – thinking about it brings some anxiety and lots of excitement.

Who reads Blogs these days?
I see most people around me having short attention spans. Sometimes I feel does anyone even read people’s blogs. Is blogging dead? Is it going to be the next Myspace? What about people like me – who don’t write about fashion, films and entertainment – will they ever get page-hits? Is there still a non-zero chance for them to be a runaway hit?!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Economix - Comics about Economics

For anyone who’s interested in understanding economics and has been put off by the tedious, drab style of the curriculum books -  this book “Economix” is a great resource. It traces the history of economics in chronological order from the point of evolving of the banking system to the present day. It minces no words in calling out what the “economics” and the economists of today over-look and how they are still stuck over debating the ideas of the 70s. However, it is U.S centric but it more or less covers all economic policies which were practiced and how they fell apart. Someone who’s dedicated enough can use the references made throughout the book to read and understand in more detail how the economic policy has been shaped up.

Overall, it is a very informative book – one which definitely deserves a second reading. It also has a very cool site with latest policies like Trumpcare explained via comic strips.

I noted key things while reading the book – sharing them here below. Do read. It’s interesting.

It starts with how banking system originated in the Netherlands and the origin of Laissez-Faire. Then moves on to how Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations left a deep impact over economists. Personally, I liked this quote from Adam Smith which is a pure economic view stripped of any emotions.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer and the bakes that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest.

In Smith’s economy (free economy), market itself figured out what people wanted and how to get it to them most efficiently. As per Smith, in a free market, capitalists compete for workers which raises wages. However, Smith had the foresight to see the danger to the free market principle – the capitalists could trick the govt. into doing them favor.

Then it talks about the famous essay by Malthus – The Principle of Population which gave rise to the Malthusian theory which is very conservative. In brief, it means that the food production grows arithmetically while the population increases geometrically.

As we reach the Industrial Revolution mark it turns to how the Communist Manifesto came about and how in Russia different form of Communism sprang about (Vladimir Lenin). Here although it does call out why there was a need felt for such an ideology. As Industrial Revolution went about – it became evident that political power goes hand in hand with economic power.

The govt. helped the rich by -
i)              Tariffs that kept competition out
ii)             Immigration policies that let more workers (cheap foreign labour) in.
iii)           Land policy that let mining, logging and ranching business use public land for almost nothing
iv)           Foreign policy that pushed American businesses abroad.

It came as a surprise to me that Lenin’s New Economic Policy was kind of a mixed economy. He let small businesses run without too much interference and letting farmers keep what they grew and sell it. Rather, he controlled the “commanding heights” of the economy – Heavy industry, banking and mining. But when Stalin took charge of the whole economy (1920s), small farmers lost their land to big collective farms.

Post WW2 media was censored and T.V took place of newspapers. The news was sensitized as to not anger the advertisers which was the source of money. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower warned about the military establishment nexus with a large arms industry.
T.V advertising turned out to be a great asset for the propagation of Capitalism – Relentless advertising creates the want i.e. persuading people feel that they need that item.
This is how it works -
·      advertising creates a want in us for the product.
·      We buy the product to satisfy the want
·      By buying the product we provide money for more such advts. to be produced.

The Great Depression in the 1920s-30s marked a brief return of the Malthusian theory. However, Milton Friedman a big advocate of Laissez Faire returned to champion its ideas. Over the years it got distorted and followed the principle of Privatized Profits and Socialized Losses.

There’s a section called Revolt of the Rich which I found very apt and could see it playing out in today’s times too. This is what it basically says -
By the start of 1980s, the taxes were higher on the rich who started to propagate the idea that poor do not deserve tax breaks and govt. help. Since T.V was the new form of communication medium and it being in their control – this gained momentum. It is funny that the rich made the assumption that poor were lazy – as the two classes never had any interaction b/w them. Funding of think tanks and controlling of print and electronic media contributed to it. Then came the rise of neo-liberal economics (Milton Friedman) and idea of unregulated markets.
Reaganomics started and it promised –
i)              Smaller govt.
ii)             Balanced budgets
iii)           Less regulation
iv)           Tax cuts

As a result, tax rate fell benefitting the rich and big corporations massively. However, unlike his promise of balanced budgets – Reagan raised budget deficits due to increase in spending (military in particular).
In 1982-83, RR ended up increasing the taxes (bracket creep) not for the rich though. At this period of time, importance of Fed rose. Paul Volcker increased interest rates triggering a recession in an election year. Overall, due to increased deficit spending – national debt grew to unheard levels.

Since the rich also grew richer, they and Wall Street started to indulge in riskier practices i.e. junk bonds. Corporate raiders started lurking around. And to stave off them – companies started to focus solely on profit rather than other aspects of running a business like R&D, long term investments, workers benefits etc.
Profit margins were usually given a boost by mergers and layoffs. Thus, real wealth instead of bringing about more jobs and investment just reduced to paper wealth (i.e. balance sheet and stock).

The principle of bargaining for tax breaks and govt. subsidies gained momentum true to the idea of Privatized Profits and Socialized Losses.

Unlike the principle of laissez-faire, big banks were bailed out by the govt. when they were on the brink of failure. It prompted them to continue risky strategies as they figured govt. was always at their rescue. More risky financial instruments were created which were beyond the understanding of Nobel laureates let alone normal people.

By the time Reagan left, national debt was too high – the govt. had no money to spend thus leaving Reagan’s successors in a tight spot. The Cold War had also ended and U.S.S.R disintegrated. Healthcare became costly – insurers came into the picture and made matters worse. Inequality grew at a faster rate. Global warming accelerated and money power tightened its hold on politics. Internet arrived in this time – helping de-criminalize the power of big companies. It levelled a bit the playing field.

Globalization phenomenon drove business models. Third-world workers were employed in pitiable conditions to make goods they could never afford. WTO gained notoriety as it seemed to turn a blind eye to such practices. Finally, the Internet bubble burst when hype couldn’t match the reality.