Customer Review

89 of 103 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Right message, wrong way to tell it, 14 Feb 2012
This review is from: 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (Paperback)
Although I agree wholeheartedly with the author's message, that free-market capitalism needs keeping in check by regulation, I was unimpressed by the way he's chosen to give us this message.
To borrow from the title, here are three things I don't like about this book:

1) Although the author makes some very good points, many of them are really quite obvious, eg: Shareholders are not the best judges of how a company should be run, as they are mostly in it for short-term gain. Or this one: US managers (and many British ones too) are paid too much. Who would disagree with that, apart from US managers?

2) He devalues some of his more interesting points by exaggerating to an absurd level. For example, in saying that most people in the west are paid too much, in relation to workers in poorer countries, he tells us that a Swedish bus driver is paid 50 times as much as an Indian bus driver. Nowhere does he point out that the cost of living is about twenty times higher in Sweden than it is in India.
In other words, he totally ignores purchasing-power parity, which would probably make the Swede's pay about three times higher, not 50.
(Though he makes this very point when it suits his argument, like when he's telling us the US doesn't have the highest living standard in the world, another of his `things' that's hardly controversial).
Another exaggeration is the suggestion that the capitalist system works on the principle that all people are only out for their own gain. It works on the motivation factor, obviously, but it also works on the principle that most people behave decently most of the time, even if the reason for doing so is that decent behavior is ultimately in our own interest.

3) And some of his `things', or points, are rather pointless, such as devoting a chapter to telling us that some earlier inventions, such as telegraph and the washing machine, were more important than the internet. Is anyone arguing the point? And even if they are, so what?
There's a lot of this sort of thing - make a statement that most people would agree with anyway (eg: Making rich people richer doesn't make the rest of us richer, or that industry still matters), then go on to show why this is so, as if he's made an amazing discovery.

And I could add another `thing': the author takes political correctness to an absurd level, such as his habit of referring to everyone as `she', whether it be a garage mechanic, a senior manager, a company director ... Much as it might be good to suggest that such people could easily be female, we all know that they're usually male, so `he' would make a lot more sense, and also be a lot less annoying.
In fact, this is really quite an irritating book, even though there's some good stuff buried away amongst all the waffle and repetition. The problem here I think, as is often the case with these kind of books, is that the point can be made perfectly well in a 5,000-word article, but has to be padded out to 80,000 words to make a book.

The author sums up his main points quite adequately in the final chapter, adding to the repetitive nature of the book - anyone who doesn't have time for the whole thing could read this and still get 90% of the message.
So overall, of the 23 `Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism', I'd say that a few of them are interesting, most are obvious, and too many are plain pointless.
And who are `they' anyway? Who is it who isn't telling us these things? Everybody, surely. Or should that be nobody?
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Mar 2012 19:35:53 GMT
Turner says:
You make a couple of decent points about the repetitive nature of the book and PPP, but I think you underestimate the pervasiveness of the ideology the author attacks.

Things like 'The Knowledge Economy' and 'The Internet Has Changed Everything' are (or were until recently) repeated in the press ad nauseum.

As for shareholders, well, Milton Friedman literally argued that it was theft if companies did anything other than maximise their returns.

Also, the use of 'she' has become quite common in modern books. I couldn't tell you why, but it's not specific to HJC.

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Mar 2012 20:49:10 GMT
Phil O'Sofa says:
Well yes, it's quite possible that I underestimate the pervasiveness of the ideology the author attacks - I wouldn't argue with that. I'm not a fan of Milton Friedman's ideology and, as I said, I agree with the message that Ha-Joon Chang is giving. And I accept that you could well be right about the use of 'she', but it seems a bit excessive.
Thank you for an intelligent comment on my review.

Posted on 22 Mar 2012 21:49:55 GMT
After reading the book I was looking for the least positive reviews and found this one.

I'd like to give your review 4 stars as it shows the weak points, but I still like the book. It is hard to write a book able to talk to readers of various skills. Sometimes the author just has to be more verbose. I survived the verbosity and I can admit there are at least three excellent chapters that spoke to me - there is no free market, don't believe there is anything rational in economical behavior and maximizing shareholder value is bad. Yes, the last thing, which seems to be completely obvious to you, was revealing for me. Of course you are right, I could have read just the last part of the book where everything is summarized. But that would not convice me! That part is only for people who already believe. Being verbose seems to be necessary when trying to write a book for wide audience.

As far as the 'she' vs. 'he' debate goes. I have a feeling this is a hot topic in the U.S. and I tried to avoid using 'he/she' in my own book completely. When I forgotten, I was begging my editor to change such sentences to something neutral. I don't want to ever be part of such gender game (that seems to be popular in U.S.). I'd rather concentrate on the content, then on the form. But it is hard to avoid use of 'he/she' completely, so please forgive poor authors for giving up and accepting today's U.S. trends.

Btw. Thanks for excellent "negative" review.

In reply to an earlier post on 22 Jul 2012 20:10:35 BDT
D. V. Short says:
When god made man, she was only experimenting.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 17:50:53 BDT
But she evidently liked the product.

Posted on 8 Jan 2013 13:15:56 GMT
PS says:
Thanks for that helpful review. Can you suggest a book on the topic which doesn't suffer from those weaknesses?

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jan 2013 18:10:16 GMT
Phil O'Sofa says:
I've just finished reading a book called 'Ecology and Socialism', by Chris Williams, which is a much more serious look at the failings of capitalism, especially in regard to the environment. It's rather extreme (ie very Marxist) in places though. I'll review it properly when I get time (soon, I hope). Another old favourite is 'The Affluent Society' by JK Galbraith.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2013 13:05:18 GMT
Martin A says:
You can avoid "he/she" entirely by using "they" - it works even for the third person singular.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Feb 2014 16:48:33 GMT
Mr. T. White says:
Alas, if only the solution was that straightforward!? The removal of perceived gender bias ('political correctness') would then come at the expense of grammatical correctness.

A male writer may only 'avoid' this matter - by using "they" as suggested - provided he is also prepared to overlook correct syntax. In other words, if a writer uses 'they' in place of the correctly called for singular pronoun, then his doing so will only annoy grammatical puritans; while some of whom, are, of course, women!

Posted on 28 Mar 2014 09:20:33 GMT
Thanks for the very helpful review. I always find his Guardian columns similar, i.e. a mixture of the insightful, the obvious and the polemical. The fact is that it's very hard to write an 'axe to grind' book which doesn't outstay its welcome and involve a good deal of repetition and padding. Probably the best format for this sort of argument is the London Review of Books type essay, a substantial piece - 5-10,000 words - that delivers the argument in full but knows when to stop.
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