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Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Tom Send a noteboard - 07/09/2010 09:15:16 PM
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, is a remarkable little book. It clocks in at around 360 pages, but the fonts aren't terribly small and the dimensions are about the same as those of a European hardcover edition of a Harry Potter book. As a result, it's a nice little compact affair with a flashy red cover.

Inside, the book is pure dynamite. It is written in novel form, or rather, it is written as though from the viewpoint of various different people working to help achieve the Soviet socialist economic "miracle" of the 1950s and early 1960s. Sometimes the characters reappear later in the book, and other times they don't. The book's footnotes explain what ideas were fabricated by the author and what was taken from real interviews and books.

The result is a narrative that is largely factual, with dialogue imagined and some people merged, others split into two, for the sake of the story.

And what a story it is! Spufford introduces each section with a purely historical introduction. He explains how the Soviet economy worked, how the central planning attempted to replicate market forces without actually allowing them to exist and how the inefficiency of the system was masked through increased state investment. He explains how the whole system probably would have come crashing down by 1970 if the Soviet Union hadn't found oil in Siberia in the mid-1960s, which gave it more hard currency reserves to prop up its failing economy.

I believe that there are very strong lessons here for any government that wants to direct economic policy too strongly. In particular, I hope that many in the Obama Administration read this book and take away some valuable lessons, reverse current policies and listen to business leaders more. But I digress.

The story winds its way through the lives of people who were making policy decisions and then implementing them, all the way from Khrushchev himself and down to simple engineers for factories.

We find out about "shadow pricing" models, attempts by Soviet mathematicians to reduce human activity to predictable algorithms, intentional "industrial accidents" designed to allow facilities to procure better machinery, and the vagaries of how success was measured by Gosplan (often, by the weight of a factory's output rather than by the quality of the same).

The book also shows how ridiculous a Marxist approach to economics ended up becoming. The Party required more and more complicated systems and schemes to replicate natural processes that were deemed "heretical", and in the end the irrationality of much of life was underestimated. Spufford shows, with great flair and great humor, all of that irrationality bumping up against the fine-tailored arguments of the Party theoreticians.

At one point, the futility of it all shines through as one scientist says to another (I paraphrase), "We know about squirrels that they jump from tree to tree and gather nuts to survive the winter. If someone told you that, from now on, squirrels would all ride bicycles and live in small houses, what would you say? That the person is crazy and wasting his time? Yes, of course. Yet that's exactly what we're doing in this country."

(I hope Larry, if he reads the review, appreciates the subject matter of the allegory)

I recommend the book quite highly. It is engaging and fun to read at a purely aesthetic level, yet also instructional and practical in a way that most novels are not. It gives the reader food for thought and has lessons for policymakers on the role of the government in controlling the market. In short, it's a wonderful book with a lot going for it.

As a side note, I am glad that I had not yet read Ruth Sanders' German - Biography of a Language when I read The Economist's review of Red Plenty. The Sanders book, on its own, would have prejudiced my view of the value of The Economist's book reviews beyond repair. Taken in context with the Spufford book, I'm inclined to be wary but open to books recommended by that periodical.
Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. - 07/09/2010 09:15:16 PM 3072 Views
Hm. Looks really interesting. - 08/09/2010 01:17:04 PM 588 Views
Absolutely fine for complete novices. - 08/09/2010 02:15:07 PM 592 Views
You should write them. - 08/09/2010 10:28:03 PM 625 Views
I would expect you to understand it without any serious problems. - 08/09/2010 10:36:38 PM 615 Views
Excellent. *NM* - 08/09/2010 10:49:02 PM 324 Views
It's a book I plan on getting in the near future - 09/09/2010 02:31:03 AM 686 Views
I could only order it from Amazon in the UK for some reason - 09/09/2010 05:18:28 AM 624 Views
Sure - 09/09/2010 05:43:03 AM 613 Views

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