Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Capitalists at Leisure: Book Corner

Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money
Terence Kealey /

Back from hols suitably refreshed, and before anger overtakes me at what I'm reading in the papers of the last 10 days, here's something more constructive: a short review of a very good book.

Coherent arguments based squarely upon inconvenient and messy reality are to be prized above mere ivory-tower hypotheses: and biochemist Kealey genuinely understands the facts of life about us Capitalists. We seek to identify and monopolise market niches (just as successful species dominate niches in nature), to which end we will, inter alia, exert and employ all available ingenuity to advance proprietary technology - and sometimes pure science into the bargain.

Thus, contra Francis Bacon and hordes of vested interests ever since, science is not a public good but a complex private good. As such it should not be funded by the public purse. Throughout all history (which Kealey surveys magisterially, if erratically) science and more especially technology have thrived when allowed to respond to market forces, and have languished or even declined when insulated from markets, e.g. when subsidised by the state. And although the developments thus stimulated start out as proprietary (and are perhaps intended thus to remain), they rarely fail to enter the public domain shortly thereafter. To the benefit of all.

This book is sustained polemic, albeit from an academic operating mostly to high standards of reasoning. It is stylistically casual: “When [eugenicists] encountered the Hardy-Weinberg Principle, they did not cry ‘falsifier, pants on fire!’, they simply ignored it.” “Male chimps obtain the monkey meat. Now, what do female chimps possess that male chimps might fancy in exchange? Yup, you’ve got it.”

And the editing has been casual too: repetition and typos abound and, more seriously, there are a number of discontinuities and even non-sequiturs in the account. But it is unfailingly entertaining and illuminating: most unusually (for me) I found myself starting back at the beginning again as soon as I had read it through. Buy This Book, as they say: you will be enthralled by Kealey’s bravura and compelling account of one aspect of, err, Capitalism at Work.


postscript: for longer reviews than space here permits, go here and here


Schadenfreude said...

Whilst it is true that science benefits little from state subsidy since it fails to apportion the funding to the science with maximum benefit, the same can also be said of private enterprise. Capitalism only wants that science that can improve the effectiveness of existing assets. Capitalists are not so interested in technology that renders existing assets obsolete. Ask any capitalist running a £5bn semiconductor manufacturing facility - do you think they want a revoloutionary technology rendering their investment obsolete? This tends to bias privately funded science towards evolution of existing science rather than revolution.

Entreprenuers like science, but are not always best placed to take advantage of it. In the end they want guaranteed success in the short term.

It is not an easy matter to resolve. The most unlikely science may have the most profound impact on human existence. But perhaps we needn't concern ourselves too much with such things. After half a lifetime of working in technology I haven't see it contribute one iota to net human happiness.

Nick Drew said...

Mr S -

... tends to bias privately funded science towards evolution of existing science

Kealey covers this quite well, showing that many 'revolutions' have been initiated by practical men tinkering purposefully with existing technology; and rather few have been based on applying a breakthrough of pure science (indeed, the steam engine - developed by ill-educated mechanics - disproved the then-current 'scientific' theory of heat)

... net human happiness

surely the net itself brings human happiness ?!
Seriously, I think you would enjoy the book, it is very 'clear-sighted' about capitalism, as should we all be

Anonymous said...

"the steam engine - developed by ill-educated mechanics - disproved the then-current 'scientific' theory of heat)": I take it that that is a reference to Newcomen - if it is intended for Watt, it's wrong by miles.

Schadenfreude said...

"surely the net itself brings human happiness ?!"

Tell that to the many cuckolds that have found their spouse has carried on an affair over the net for years! The law of unintended consequences strikes again! The net improves communication most between people that probably shouldn't be communicating (terrorists, nutcases, kiddie fiddlers)- those that should be communicating were probably communicating already!

Nick Drew said...

dearieme - yes, and also Trevithick and Stephenson.

Watt's story is interesting from a different perspective: as an 'educated' man, Watt rushed to patent his device and charged an onerous licence fee, as a result of which he sold relatively few ! In the 31 years when his patent was in effect, new installations were predominantly of the less advanced Newcomens, and the efficiency of steam engines only increased when Trevithick's greatly superior design was no longer being blocked by Watt's patent.

(Kealey is not a fan of patents ... but I notice from the front of the book that he has asserted his own IP)

Mr S - then I take it you will be re-launching your blog as a private-subscription letter ?!

Anonymous said...

actually the Hardy Weinberg principle doesn't negate eugenics as such it merely means that you have to cast your net very wide and for hundreds of generations to weed out the recessives hidden in the general population.

Baht At

Nick Drew said...

Mr Hatless Anon - thanks for visiting - & contributing the standard of debate around here !

not sure I like the sound of weeding out recessives, though ...

Schadenfreude said...

Nick: with 10 readers max (and one of those is me)I think the most likely thing to happen to my blog is its prompt demise!

Lets face it, the two most dramatic political uses for the internet in the world of British politics would be:-

1] Getting Peter Hain sacked

2] Working out how to blow up lots of "kaffirs".

Whilst [1] would be considered beneficial it hardly outweighs [2] and I don't think my meagre efforts will help redress the balance!

Old BE said...

Can't we have a balance between private R+D and public? I think that sometimes aimless or financially unviable research has its benefits although it is worth mentioning that the USSR developed no new pharmaceuticals despite its heavy research "investment".

The trick is to get the balance right so that state research doesn't crowd out private and vice versa.

I'm not sure how anyone could argue that the widespread dissemination of information is overall a bad thing even though it is true that it is now easier than ever to blow people up on trains. Before the internet, terrorists would just have to use swords or whatever...

Nick Drew said...

Mr S - courage, mon brave ! - we all start somewhere

Mr BE - you just have to read the d****d book ! crowding-out is a real issue, he covers all this stuff very well. If we meet for a beer I will lend you my copy ...

Anonymous said...

Chaucer Quango said...

I think that Gordon brown was terrific at PMQ's
He pummeled Cameron over his poor grasp of the
real economic situation.

The Tory Toff leader was weak and ineffective and
failed to land a single blow.
Brown has really got a grip now, and is more than
a match for him.

Clegg was just insipid. A total waste of a

Make no mistake, Labours fortunes are on the rise.

Nick Drew said...

Mr Quango (any relation ?), you are the very man I was hoping to meet, I have a little wager for you ...

Bill Quango MP said...

sorry just a post for the benefit of the Guido crowd. That Chaucer is gone now.

Anonymous said...

Ah, you mean the kind of people that realise that there was no PMQs today?

Old BE said...

ND - I may yet take you up on that offer :-)

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