Thoughts on “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

deep_work

With the wonderful whirlwind my life has been the past couple of years, I haven’t found quite as much time for reading as I used to. Now that things have settled, I look forward to getting into more books this year. The first on my list is Deep Work by Cal Newport, an associate professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University.

As someone whose work can often involve designing solutions to problems, I find the notion of “flow” and “deep work” intriguing. However, I am also someone who works on a team inside of a fast-paced business where serving customers’ needs is paramount to continuing our growth. These two forces can often be at odds, as Newport frequently reminds the reader.

He begins by pointing out the distracted nature of our society, and the workplace in general, which I think is obvious to most. The modern office isn’t structured for long periods of focused concentration, and especially the “open office” floor plan which is popular among tech companies. (The author displays a not-so-subtle disdain for open floor plans throughout the book.) He doesn’t spend too much time raising awareness of the problem, however. He quickly jumps to making his point by defining deep work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

So far, so good. We all want to push ourselves and create valuable things. Soon after this, the author takes some quick turns which nearly lose me as a reader.

First he gives examples of those who have gone to extreme lengths to make space for deep work. Psychologist Karl Jung would retreat to a custom-built cabin in the woods for days at a time. Nietzsche would take extended walks each afternoon while mulling over his philosophy. Academics of today place a “do not disturb” sign on their door to keep away any distractions. Suddenly, achieving deep work does not seem realistic for my situation, and indeed for the vast majority of people.

The second statement I disagree with is that “shallow work” has no value. While I understand the heart of the statement, I think it is short-sighted. I cannot say that no value is produced when I give a quick answer to our support team to help placate a frustrated customer. Nor is it value-less to stop what I’m doing and assist a coworker in clearing a technical hurdle. All such actions provide value to the business I support, if not the economy as a whole. While I concede that a lot of time is misspent on simple tasks in offices everywhere, I won’t go so far as to paint all human interaction at work a waste of my time.

There is a turning point, however, when Newport begins to soften his stance, albeit slightly. He writes, “You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life.” After this, he goes on to describe several different methods which someone may more realistically employ to achieve deep work in today’s environment. While the first few are still impractical for most (setting aside days at a time), he finally comes to what he reveals is the method that he regularly uses himself. “The journalist philosophy” involves fitting deep work into one’s schedule wherever possible as opposed to scheduling everything else around it. Indeed, it is how the author produced this very book while also churning out academic research papers.

From this point, the book makes much more sense to me. When I know that it’s realistic and beneficial to put on headphones for an hour, ignore my email, and focus on a problem, it suddenly becomes attainable, unlike making myself unreachable for one day each week. He goes on to detail specific methods which many have found helpful, and even cites the psychological research and reasoning behind them. From my perspective, these are the most useful pieces of the whole book. Even so, his view social media is particularly harsh here, and I think a more tempered view could be helpful. If it’s something you enjoy, I say “all things in moderation,” and have the self-control to set it aside, particularly when facing an intellectually challenging task.

Overall, I did enjoy Newport’s perspective and style, even if it seems extreme at places. I’m not sure why he chose to structure the book as he did – making such a hard stance for the value of deep work upfront, then backing into a more practical approach. (He is a computer science guy like me, so I suppose I can see the allure of starting with the theoretical and working down to the concrete.) He seldom presents a fact without citing a source, and the most practical and insightful pieces are all well-researched, which I thoroughly appreciate.

Ultimately, I think his position as an academic may have colored his perspective in regard to the subject. I understand that new ground won’t be broken in theoretical physics if the scientists are responding to tweets every five minutes, but few knowledge workers are in such a position. For the vast majority of people, setting their phones aside for a couple of hours will be a great benefit to their productivity at work, and that’s not a surprise to anyone. It’s actually doing it that’s the trick, and this book provides some helpful tools.

Deep Work is available on Amazon.com in both physical and Kindle editions, but don’t bother searching for it on social media.

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My Cashless Month

Money on fire

Back in July, I read The End of Money, a book about phasing out physical currency in the developed world. The author gives numerous reasons that he believes it’s in everyone’s best interest to go ahead and shift to using cash as little as possible. As one who tries to implement truth and practicality whenever I encounter it, I was intrigued. For me, there could hardly be a larger shift in the handling of my day-to-day finances; I’ve been using a cash-based envelope system for my entire adult life. Could I make the jump to transacting and tracking all of my expenditures electronically? Would it be that much more convenient and helpful? I decided to try it for a couple of months.

Being somewhat tech-savvy, I first sought out the right tool for the job, ultimately landing on Mint.com due to its good reviews and easy-to-use mobile app. Within a few days, I had connected all of my accounts with their read-only system, even my HSA which I never check due to the credit union’s subpar online banking. I have to admit that it was quite nice to see a full financial picture in one place for the first time. Prior to integrating with Mint, I had to log into four or five different sites to check balances, and if I actually cared to sum any of the figures, that was up to me. With Mint’s mobile app, I could easily see daily fluctuations in retirement accounts (for better or worse), and their basic analytics even showed that my portfolio has drastically underperformed the major indexes this year, a fact that I would never spend the time to unearth myself. So far so good. This cashless thing may work out.

When it came time to port my budget over to Mint, however, is when I felt the first friction. Perhaps rightfully so, everything in Mint revolves around “the month.” Budgets are created for the upcoming month with expected income declared and expenses divvied into numerous categories. This may work fine for someone who gets paid bi-monthly, but I currently receive my paycheck every two weeks, meaning my income will seldom, if ever, fall at the beginning and end of the month. Because their system of tracking expenses focuses on staying “in the green,” I would start off in the red immediately. You don’t get paid until the 6th this month, but you spent $10 at Chipotle on the 2nd? You, sir, are in the red, regardless of the balance in your checking account. To say this is annoying is putting it lightly. Though it would be a foundational shift to their system, allowing users to set budgets for specified date ranges would make a world of difference. In my case, it would make the tool actually useful.

The other hurdle I encountered in using Mint was the delay in posting transactions. When spending cash, it is literally instant; you can see the bills dwindling in your wallet each time you visit the grocery store or a coffee shop. With today’s financial network (which stems from the 1970’s), it often takes three or four days for “credit” transactions to clear. This is a big problem for someone trying to make the most of their income. Unless one wants to keep a tally of expenses in his head (which defeats the purpose), there’s a tendency to be overly-cautious or overly-carless. Frankly, I took the latter approach. Once the mess of delayed transactions in Mint seemed too difficult to reconcile and untangle, I kept telling myself I would figure it out later. That time never came, and I still haven’t fully pored through bank statements to assess the damage done. Suffice it to say, I know that I overspent considerably on restaurants and other social fun.

A final consideration, one which Wolman mentioned in his book, is that spontaneous generosity is seldom possible. Were I to come across someone selling a street paper or in need of a couple dollars, I was effectively powerless to help. It became all too easy to give the calloused response, “I don’t have any cash. Sorry.” While I try to be judicious in giving money to strangers, I found my heart becoming hard due to not even having to wrestle with the thought. In a sense, carrying no cash distanced me even further from those in need, shutting down the conversation before it could even begin. “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15-16). Coupled with the reckless spending I fell into, I did not like who I was becoming. Swiping my card all over the place and budgeting via mobile app, I became too hip, self-indulged, and uncaring.

So where does this leave me? As of my last payday, I made the ritual trek to an ATM and withdrew the cash I would need for the next two weeks. Ultimately, my attempts to go cashless left me feeling out of control, both in the sense that it was too easy to spend carelessly, and in the sense that I invested much more time managing money day-to-day, my finances effectively controlling me. I have returned to my trusty Google Docs spreadsheet whereby I spend five minutes each payday allotting funds, withdraw the necessary cash, and have few worries as I open my wallet for the next couple of weeks. Simple? Sure. But it works, and ultimately, going cashless did not work for me.

Until financial systems are advanced enough to eliminate transactional lag, until there is a well-integrated budgeting tool which is flexible enough to fit any situation, and until those in desperate circumstances are able to deal in money electronically, I will likely be carrying cash. The truth is that I have always done a hybrid system, paying many bills online and being paid via direct deposit, and I imagine that most people do. At this stage in the game, it doesn’t make sense to be an extremist and eliminate cash, even if that’s where society ultimately ends up.

Thoughts on “The End of Money” by David Wolman

The End of Money by David Wolman

 

Given the first six years of my adult life, my relationship to cash and personal finance is somewhat interesting. Straight out of college, I got a job working on Dave Ramsey’s web team. For those unfamiliar, the radio host and author espouses a back-to-basics approach to finances. The cornerstones of his message are avoiding debt in all its forms, saving up for emergencies and large purchases, and utilizing cash for day-to-day expenses. As I favor myself a common-sense person, I’ve been using this system since I was twenty-two. In specific, I’ve used the “envelope system,” literally driving to an ATM each payday to withdraw the cash needed for food, entertainment, and other expenses for the next couple of weeks. I have to say, thus far it has worked great for me and kept me from a number of monetary pitfalls.

That said, I was intrigued when I first spotted The End of Money by David Wolman. I confess that as much as I love learning and being challenged, sometimes I do avoid a book if I think the author’s biases and intent seem too obvious. Why take the time if I already know what they’re going to say, right? Indeed I have my own biases against credit card companies, banks, and their influence on our culture. That said, I finally consumed this book in audio form on a recent road trip, and it has given me some things to think about.

Though the initial chapter meanders through more of a narrative style, explaining how the author came to be interested in the topic at hand (and possible ties between the Apocalypse and a cashless society), the pace soon picks up with a history of money tracing back to its earliest appearances in civilization. While interesting to a fact-collector such as myself, the truly compelling portions come thereafter. I will only hit the highlights and sections which I found of particular interest.

Wolman points out that the notion of cash is so ingrained in modern Western culture that we are often blind to its costs. It is always assumed to be the cheapest way to do business for both consumer and merchant, but this can be far from true. First, there are the vast sums of government money required to mint, distribute, and monitor currency. The exact figures escape me, but I believe them to be in the billions per year. (As a fiscal conservative, anything that can be done to shrink the federal budget is a plus in my book.) Then there is the infrastructure required to shuffle money around, from bank vaults to armored cars to guards who attend it each step of the way. Lastly, there is the real cost of time involved in transacting with cash; if time really is money, the labor involved in businesses making change and keeping denominations on-site is more than negligible. True there are card processing fees (usually three percent) for vendors to account for, but in many cases the costs of manpower are higher. Could the efficiencies of moving to more of a cashless society actually spur economic growth? I think there are too many variables to say, but it’s a thought worth entertaining.

Further, there is often a psychological comfort to having cash in hand, as if it is the safest form of money. True, having a tangible representation may be one step above digits stored on a remote server, but there is nothing intrinsically valuable about coins, and much less bills. The reality is that we already live in a cashless society, passing around tokens of little worth, and we have since leaving the gold standard. There is nothing but good faith backing the dollar sign, whether it is on a screen or a piece of paper. As one driven by logic, I admit that this fact is compelling given the potential efficiencies mentioned above. There is nothing inherently safer about hard currency, and in fact the risk of carrying it may be greater in some cases with regard to loss and personal safety.

The last section which I found compelling deals with the argument that cash is actually a system which keeps the poor impoverished. It took quite a bit of explaining, but in the end I can see where the author is coming from. To those of us in developed nations, swinging by the ATM is an inconvenience, but to those without access to transportation or infrastructure, dealing in cash bears a much higher cost. Wolman states that the average cost of a bank visit for a consumer is around one dollar, considering time, effort, and other factors. To one who earns only a few dollars a day, this is a true hardship. In economies where electronic money transfer has been put into the hands of many via cell phone banking, growth has always followed. Saving money electronically is easier than hoarding bills which are always at the risk of being stolen. People seem able to lift themselves out of poverty more easily when the efficiency of electronic payment enters the picture. From this perspective, there may even be a philanthropic element to phasing out cash.

All of these points have led me to try an experiment. For the next month, I am going to try dealing in cash as little as possible. For a technology professional like myself, this may seem a little late in coming, but my method has worked well to this point, so I saw no need to mess with it. Given new information, however, I’m willing to take a second look. (This in no way changes my decision to live below my means and avoid credit at all costs, however.) I will be utilizing Mint.com to budget, track, and categorize spending, with the end goal being that I stick to my budget as well as a cash-based system. Honestly, I’m skeptical after years of having the psychological advantage of seeing bills dwindle from envelopes as the month wore on, but should the experiment succeed, I see no reason to continue making trips to the ATM. I may even gain more insight by having financial information to dig into in digital form. Ultimately, however, I am a pragmatist, and I will stick with whatever works best, regardless of the insights provided by the book.

Overall, David Wolman delivers an interesting and thought-provoking read on the nature of cash and its role in our society. Though it is thick on history and may meander from the central topic at times, the information he presents is clear and generally without bias, even if his personal worldview does poke through in a few editorial remarks. I say it’s worth a read for anyone loosely interested in economics or cultural trends.

The End of Money is available via audio book from the Nashville Public Library and multiple formats on Amazon.com.

Thoughts on “Just Do Something” by Kevin DeYoung

Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung

Everyone wants to know what we’re supposed to do with our lives.  We all want direction.  For the Christian, it may be particularly important to know “God’s will” for his life.  This excellent analysis by Kevin DeYoung points out that we may look at that question the wrong way, especially in light of scripture.

After a brief foreword by Joshua Harris (which I found ironic due to his rather passive approach to dating), Just Do Something begins by exploring the different things believers mean when they speak about God’s will.  The author explains that there are actually three different aspect to the will of God as we describe it:  His will of decree, His will of desire, and His will of direction.  It’s not as technical as it sounds.  The will of decree describes the truth that nothing will happen unless God allows it to, therefore it is His will.  The will of desire describes His will for all people as revealed in the instruction of the scripture.  Lastly, when someone is referring to God’s will of direction, they infer that He desires a particular path or set of events for their life.  DeYoung leans heavily on the first two but is skeptical of the third.  Most believers would agree that God’s ultimate will for history will be accomplished, and that He has clearly shown us His over-arching will for man, but there is less scriptural evidence to support the idea that God has one particular path for each individual’s life.  This quickly turns into a much deeper discussion about free will and God’s sovereignty, but I tend to agree with the author.  If there truly is just one exact outline God wants for each person, then anyone can irreparably foil their own destiny and that of others.  Kevin gives the example of marriage.  If “the one” exists for every person, what happens if I use my free will and take someone else’s soul mate?  The whole house of cards comes down.  Yet if we are given the freedom to choose whom we marry, and there are several with whom we can form a godly household, the stress of choosing the singular “right” person evaporates.  From this perspective, God retains His sovereignty in that his will of decree still cannot be violated, but humanity also retains free will.  I believe this best describes reality.

After defining terms, the book goes on to examine how various figures in scripture viewed the will of God and sought direction for their lives.  The audible voice of God is incredibly rare in the scope of human history if one stops to think about it.  Though it is relatively common in the Bible, it is still infrequent, even within the focused story of God’s people.  Most importantly, DeYoung points out that the voice of God always appears without being sought; He speaks when He wants to speak.  This gave me pause as I evaluated times in my life when I begged God to just tell me what to do, asking Him to speak clearly into my life, whatever that looks like.  There doesn’t seem to be a scriptural precedent to support this.  Yes, we are admonished to seek wisdom (James 1), but we should not expect to have God’s explicit, personalized instruction at our beck and call.  The author resolves this tension by stating that God has given us rational minds capable of wisdom and understanding, and He expects us to use them.  He will still instruct and give counsel through the Spirit, but to ask for signs may actually signify a lack of faith in God’s will and goodness.  For example, the quintessential illustration of Gideon’s fleece takes place in the book of Judges, a time of marked disobedience in Israel’s history.  It can be seen more as a second-guessing of the message delivered to Gideon than an act of faith.  This can be a tough pill to swallow, but with the biblical references cited, again I believe this to be the view most consistent with scriptural truth and my experiences.

A section of Just Do Something which particularly struck me was when DeYoung notes that the idea of “seeking God’s will for one’s life” is utterly rare in the scope of humanity.  Wealthy Westerners are really the first people to have the luxury of asking this profound question.  The thousands of generations before (and most in the world today) don’t have the paralysis caused by an over-abundance of choice as we do.  Even the author’s grandparents didn’t wrestle with this most important question; it’s a development of roughly the last half century, fifty years in the scope of tens of thousands of human history.  With that in mind, perhaps what my generation needs most is simplicity.  Rather than agonizing about whether to go to med school or marry a certain person, we should follow our inclinations, use our God-given minds, make a decision, and stick with it, all along pursuing God’s will of desire revealed in the Word.  This worked for the countless people who came before us, and indeed almost every person in the Bible.  For me, this is a very liberating revelation.  If I can’t violate God’s will of decree, there are few wrong paths as long as I foremost obey His will of desire.  Seek first the Kingdom of God.

I recognize this can sound somewhat like a Deist worldview, that God doesn’t actively intervene.  The author does not espouse such a viewpoint.  He is quick to say that the Lord can do whatever He pleases, and He does answer prayer.  Indeed, it is Jesus himself who prays “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Yet, we are not to sit around waiting for God to speak to us as our short lives tick away.  Instead, we should actively and passionately pursue His will for creation as so many before us have, not passively wait for the right circumstances or the answer we want.  It is challenging to shoulder such responsibility, but as image bearers equipped with the revelation of God’s goodness, I believe it is our calling.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book for anyone who questions what they are supposed to do with their lives.  It lends a wonderfully broad perspective of that question, leaning on scripture all along the way.  Even if one does not end up agreeing with the author as I have, it poses great questions to think about in regards to God’s will.  For its clarity, accuracy, scope, and brevity, I give it four out of five stars.

You can find Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung on Amazon.

Thoughts on “More Than Dates and Dead People” by Stephen Mansfield

More Than Dates and Dead People by Stephen Mansfield

Though I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak a couple of times, I had only read one Stephen Mansfield book before this one.  I enjoyed the historical perspective of The Search for God and Guinness, so I picked up this short work on one of my trips to McKay used books in Nashville.  It quickly became apparent that this book was written for students, but I still gleaned some interesting insights.

It begins by talking about what history is and why it is relevant.  In an early section explaining the importance of studying history, Mansfield points out an inconsistency in the worldview of most public education in the West.   “If evolution provides the philosophy we use to understand the past (and it does, because evolution is the official public school explanation for what exists), then it only makes sense that history is going to seem like a silly thing to learn” (8).  The validity of such curriculum aside (seriously, please don’t hone in on this one point), he raises an interesting observation.  There is often hubris in modern man, believing that we are much smarter and more advanced than those who came before us simply because we have technology.  What, then, could we possibly have to learn from the dumb people who lived long ago?  If we are their more fit descendants who have survived, nothing.  No wonder many kids educated in our public schools have no interest in history.  They are being taught conflicting principles.  When taken in the context of the biblical story, however, history has an intentional beginning and an end toward which all things flow.  From this perspective, it has great value.

Mansfield then looks at several key periods in Western history through the lens of Christianity.  He examines the stories of the Mayflower, the Titanic, Pocahontas, the nanny of Winston Churchill, the Logan County Revivals, and the 1960s in the United States.  I was hoping to glean some little-known facts about the times he covers, though I didn’t come away with anything significant for the most part.  Also, while I have great respect for Mansfield, I was concerned at his view of some historical events.  In one passage, he alludes to Christopher Columbus, giving quite a flattering account of how he brought the Gospel to America.  While that’s technically true, I believe most historians also acknowledge that he slaughtered many of the native peoples he encountered.  It’s because Mansfield usually has his facts straight that such one-sided views concern me.  Perhaps there wasn’t enough space in the pages of this short work to expound on the whole story.

By the end, the greatest take-away for me was the idea “Every generation is living in the wake of the generation that precedes it” (33).  This didn’t quite strike me until the section of the book covering the 1960s.  It’s no secret that the decade spawned several cultural revolutions in the United States, some more constructive than others.  Mansfield details the downward spiral of culture initiated by a backlash against authority.  The message of popular music (yes, including the Beatles) became one of hedonism.  Drug use and promiscuity increased with each passing year, buoyed by clever catch-phrases.  Protest against any and all authority, justified or not, became vogue.  Altogether these movements together comprised the “counterculture.”

Surprising to me were the connections to the occult and demonic woven through so many of the events of the day.  In 1966 Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan which aligned perfectly with the zeitgeist of self-absorption.  Many became swept up in his and other such movements, perhaps more for the rebellious shock value than anything else.  They may not have known the evil with which they dabbled.  The book notes how LaVey became an icon who had access to many of the culture-makers of the day including Sammy Davis, Jr., Jane Mansfield, The Rolling Stones, and later The Eagles.  While it is questionable whether such celebrities took the spiritual power of LaVey seriously, Mansfield believes it opened a door to the demonic in popular culture which has yet to be shut.  Still, the fruits of the counterculture quickly bore witness to its dark influences.  Charles Manson and his followers were members of the movement, and many of its front-runners died of drug overdoses or other excesses.  The “anything goes” attitude led to unbridled debauchery, manipulation, and violence, truly a picture of what happens when mankind forsakes all authority, particularly God’s.  This is the wake in which my generation is living..

Overall, I’m glad it was a short book, and I consider it worth reading for the brief analysis on historical study and the insights into the culture of the 1960s.  You can find More Than Dates and Dead People – Recovering a Christian View of History on Amazon.

Thoughts on “The Ethics of Paul” by Morton Scott Enslin

The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin

I can tell a book is somewhat obscure when there aren’t any publisher photos on Google image search.  I can tell a book is over my head when there is a Greek, Hebrew, or Latin word on almost every page.  Both were the case with this book, yet I really enjoyed it.

Enslin was a relatively unknown biblical scholar and author in the twentieth century.  That said, this book itself is quite old compared to what I normally read, but that’s part of its charm.  Because the author is writing about the first century, the content is more or less timeless.  He goes to great lengths to compare the writings of Paul with contemporary teachers from various philosophical schools such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, and also with Eastern mystical cults which were prevalent at the time.  I actually found this intriguing. From a certain perspective, some may feel this undermines the writings of Paul and early Christian thought in general, but Enslin is quick to point out that co-existence of ideas or expressions does not imply dependence.

Truthfully, I learned as much about the competing ethical systems and their writers as I did about the views of Saint Paul.  Many Stoic themes, such as “standing firm” in values, find parallels in the Pauline epistles of the New Testament, but they fall short of the glorious, eternal view brought by the Gospel.  To the Stoic, pursuing virtue in this life was the reward in itself, challenging though it was.  To the Christian, it is a testimony to usher in the perfect age to come.  Similarities with mystic cults were not as striking to me.  Many stress the apprehension of some “secret knowledge” as the means of initiation and salvation, though I found it a little more difficult to draw out these facets of early Christianity in what Paul wrote.  Regardless, the modern reader with access to the full cannon of scripture can easily see that, while Christianity does involve pondering some mysterious truths such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, it did not borrow these ideas wholesale from contemporary religions.

One of the most striking points for me was the emphasis on the Jewish background of Paul in his ethical system.  Hailing from Tarsus, he would have likely been familiar with many aspects of Greek thought, but he was a Jew from birth until death.  For him, religion and ethics were inseparable.  For the Greek, this was not the case.  For sons of Abraham, God was the basis for all virtue.  Again, this stands in contrast to the Stoic for whom reason was the ultimate basis for that which was considered virtuous.

It can be seen in some passages that Paul borrowed literary devices and catch phrases from his contemporary settings.  While some point to this as evidence that he patterned his ethics after those already in place, the subtleties indicate otherwise.  Often he would use an expression found in Stoic writing, but twist it ever-so-slightly.  Other times he employed lists of vices to be shunned (e.g. hatred, malice, jealousy) or virtues to pursue (e.g. love, joy, peace), only partially overlapping with sets commonly known in Greek culture.  It was the differences that set Christianity apart from every other.

Enslin goes into great detail covering many facets unique to Paul’s ethics, including his emphasis on unity of believers, motivation by love, and paradoxical expectation of joy in the face of hardship.  The contrasts drawn out in each chapter served to further distance the apostle’s thought from the other systems until the uniqueness of Christianity stood apparent.  It was a rather long book for me, and definitely one intended for the scholar, based on the copious footnotes and usage of in-line Greek and Hebrew.  I’m certain I missed some of the richness of the text by lacking knowledge of those languages, but the overall message of each section was easily comprehensible.

I would recommend this book to anyone desiring a deeper understanding of the world in which Paul lived and wrote.  I learned much about the competing ethical systems in the first century, including parts that I admire and agree with, even if they fall short of the truth of the Gospel.  You can find The Ethics of Paul at a used book store or borrow it from me, because apparently it’s not even on Amazon.

Thoughts on “I.O.U.” by John Lanchester

I.O.U. by John Lanchester

This audio book, available on the Nashville library’s site, taught me that I had very little knowledge about our complex financial system.  Unfortunately, it also failed my litmus test for being a great informative book when the author spent the final twenty percent editorializing.

I marvel from time to time about how the vast majority of the money in the world isn’t “real,” in the sense that there isn’t enough physical currency to represent it all.  This book opened my eyes to exactly how absurd and scary the Western financial system can be.  After spending a good amount of time explaining terms and describing complex financial instruments, the author turns his attention toward analyzing the current financial crisis which came to a head in 2008.  Prior to reading, I was fairly familiar with stocks and bonds, the consumer-facing side of the markets.  What I didn’t know were the kind of debt-soaked tools and misdirection investment banks had created in the name of making profits.

If I could sum up what I learned from the first half of the book, it would be this:  much of the “wealth” in our current system is based on nothing but debt.  I’m still a free-market capitalist through and through, but it seems a stretch to think that much of what investment banks do provides true value to our economy.  Their essential function seems to be to encourage individuals, businesses, and even governments to go into debt, and then make casino-like bets on whether they can repay, calculating risk in order to reap profits.  One bank will bet a consumer will pay back his mortgage, another will essentially make a counter-bet by purchasing insurance against a default while selling the debt to a third party.  It really is all smoke and mirrors based on my limited understanding of it.  Banks want to leverage themselves as much as possible, having financial obligations on the books, but wagering that they won’t have to pay them.  This, to me, is the epitome of foolishness and irresponsibility, regardless of the prevailing economic system.

With regards to the crash of 2008 and the subsequent “credit crunch,” the author does to a good job of explaining how the perfect storm came to be.  By his estimation, the problem actually stemmed back to the fall of Soviet communism over twenty years ago.  With such a large counter-force gone, free-market capitalism flourished in the developed world and enjoyed ever-loosened government restriction.  With economic growth, it became easier for individuals to borrow money, including home mortgages.  Because demand for housing increased, property prices skyrocketed, especially in the author’s native Great Britain.  Everyone wanted to get into the game.  This led to banks making riskier loans at sub-prime (read: higher-than-market-rate) interest rates.  It was no bother to the banks, however.  They were able to insure against consumer default, package risky debts, and sell them in financial markets.  Investors, of course, did not realize the true risk of what they had purchased, focusing only on the tantalizing profit potential.

This is a crude overview, of course, but those were the core issues.  As home prices peaked and then fell, unemployment rose, and mortgages went into default.  The house of cards began to collapse.  This is where the author’s personal viewpoints begin to creep into the writing.  He spends quite a while talking about “laissez-faire” capitalism as promoted by Alan Greenspan.  While it is a valid technical term, his usage of it sometimes comes across as sarcastic and condescending.  His solution seems to always be more government regulation, even while acknowledging that part of the problem was lack of enforcement of existing regulations.  While I do think it absurd that a bank must only retain enough liquid capital to cover eight percent of its obligations, it also seems apparent that the government is the worst manager in any arena it enters.  Further, the author portrays the consumers of sub-prime mortgages purely as victims.  To be sure, some were targeted with predatory lending practices, but at the end of the day, is it not my personal responsibility if I over-leverage myself, taking out a loan I will likely not be able to repay?  Personal responsibility, both at the consumer and bank level, would have gone a long way toward preventing such a collapse.  The author doesn’t seem to entertain this idea, instead insisting on more control by national governments which, by all accounts, can’t balance their own budgets.

The final section of the book came across as a bit of a diatribe against laissez-faire capitalism in general, which is where I began to lose interest.  I can understand why the author feels the way he does based on his worldview, but I was reading primarily for knowledge, not opinion.  He is certainly a smart man who did a good job of explaining complex topics, though I wish he could have left it at that.  I don’t know the answers to such complicated problems as were presented short of self-restraint and common sense, but we all know those can’t be legislated.

Overall, I’m glad to have read the book and garnered a better understanding of exactly what lies in the bowels of financial markets.  In some ways it was enlightening, in other ways it was a bit scary, but it is almost always better to have knowledge than to be blissfully unaware.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting a better understanding of the forces behind the 2008 financial meltdown or the world of finance in general.