Michael Hanson
Business in Review

The Rational Optimist

By, 06/21/2010
I was in Austin, Texas recently and met with a client who is a retired French literature professor. After a lively afternoon discussing markets, economics, and geopolitics, the conversation turned to French modernism and Albert Camus. I quipped that Camus was a master author, but his philosophical writing is better than his fiction. Her eyes lit up, she sat up, and spoke through a wide smile, "Yes! Yes. The Myth of Sisyphus. Brilliant! Excellent! Oh!"

That's a lot of enthusiasm for a book about suicide! Well, that's not fully true. The point of Sisyphus (a longstanding work of the modernist pantheon) is to start with the apparent meaninglessness and absurdity of life, but actually conclude with hope as the only rational response. Indeed, it's in our nature to hope—to see a way forward, even be overconfident in our ability to achieve a brighter future. And it has been! Humanity's traversed an accelerating upward trajectory for a long time, albeit with bumps along the way.

But we tend to be hopeful about ourselves, not the world at large. We worry about the world and its future. That's probably for many reasons but this effect's been pronounced over the last decade, as it was in the ‘70s. Optimism is the four-letter word of our time. The perfect antidote? Matt Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist. This is the best investing book of the last several years—bar none. A sweeping account of human history through evolutionary and economic lenses, this book is a devastating, fact-driven, often empirical, cogent argument against today's de facto media dourness. Ridley uses economics and evolutionary psychology to chart the upward trajectory of human civilization with astonishing acuity and insight.

Yet, this book rarely mentions investing at all. I went on Amazon recently and noticed it ranked #2 in the category of Early Civilization and Civilization & Culture books, and #1 in Technology and Futurology, but wasn't listed in the economics or investing categories that I could see. This is status quo, to my view. The best investing books and ideas are rarely explicitly about those topics. Economics and investing are too narrow—married to their metaphors of equilibrium, market efficiency, supply and demand, bizarre calculations, and so on. Their practitioners cannot usually see these are useful—but limited—metaphors for describing the world. Mistaking these things for real observations about the world, they regard equilibrium, for instance, not as an abstract Platonic ideal, but a real thing. Thus, many spend their time seeking precision and depth in a field founded upon abstraction, as if economics were a physical science. I've never been a big Paul Krugman fan (the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist), but he's dead right when he says economic theory is best used as a "scaffolding" for positing a point of view that can eventually be stripped away to baser elements of an argument.

Additionally, intellectuals writing economics books—as a group—don't tend to be optimists. It isn't becoming of them to be cheery (the rare times they are, look out…a bear market's likely afoot). If they didn't have warnings to the populace about stuff, why listen at all? (The recent popularity of Nouriel Roubini's persona "Dr. Doom" is case in point.) Tiresias never had good news; seers generally have foreboding tidings. Yet, to view history broadly (especially market history) warrants a good dose of optimism.

As a staunch optimist, yes, Mr. Ridley is very biased. He's a freewheeling, no-apologies capitalist. He believes capitalism is as natural as natural selection. He thinks humans' natural overconfidence in themselves and capitalism are intertwined and symbiotic because capitalism is all about the pursuit of individual goals and not those of the elite. And while his rhetoric is highly compelling (in the opening chapters he bludgeons us with statistic after statistic of positive things in the world), one could easily argue he's being myopically optimistic just as pessimists will be myopically pessimistic. It's not until the end of the book that he balances his argument and acknowledges—almost in an obligatory way—much of the world is still a heinous place with big challenges ahead of it.

But at the very least, I encourage everyone to balance today's thrum of pessimism and get a dose of optimism with this book. The part I have trouble with is that it doesn't give pessimism its due. Worry, fear, and the preparation and adaptation they spur in us is a very necessary thing for the progress of mankind. Personally, I want folks overreacting to bird flu, the ozone layer, potential terrorism, etc. It makes us prepare and anticipate—often negating problems before they happen or expand. It's just not a good baseline perspective for long-term investing.

Economics as Historical Lens

One of the main shortcomings of history is its lack of economic perspective. We have books aplenty about wars and revolutions, and scads of biographies about famous leaders, but little of real quality about the economic forces that truly shaped much of history. That's mostly because we like narratives about people, not abstract, impersonal forces. (Though, Jarred Diamond's attempt with Guns, Germs, and Steel is an often flawed but noble attempt to highlight those faceless forces.)

In a way, this book is a recapitulation of Adam Smith—both his Wealth of Nations and the less touted but equally tremendous The Theory of Moral Sentiments—with updated scientific language. Ridley's crucial point: Economists and pundits who preach doom tend to ignore the most salient feature of life—adaptation. Which is also a baseline ingredient of capitalism. The human race is a collective problem solving machine. As individuals and as a society, we tend to figure stuff out and move forward. Which is a big reason why Malthusian arguments about food supply and energy constraints have never held. Sages and economists through the ages agree that the only thing that's constant is change and dynamism. It's therefore insane to extrapolate today's situations and potential problems into the far future—the world will adapt and change. This is where Ridley is most convincing, and a point that, admittedly, requires some faith in order to be optimistic. There's no explicit guarantee we'll adapt through time, but I'd bet on it.

Ridley makes some excellent economic observations about adaptation and progress through history. For instance, birth rates tend to go down with developed, highly productive nations, helping solve future population problems. He provocatively explains energy development and the Industrial Revolution's onslaught of efficiency effectively eradicated slavery through much of the globe—making slavery unprofitable and unneeded relative to steam engines, etc. But instead of going the route, as many do, of then worrying about how we'll fight over fossil fuels in the future, he observes that the most likely outcome is we'll figure out even better ways to harness and access energy, and as that happens our potential for even more prosperity also increases.

Ideas, Mating

Through all this, Ridley offers an interesting critique of science and the nature of innovation. He sees science as an appendage to the intellectual community where the real innovation and invention come from the mixing of ideas and technologies in the world at large. Ridley believes in trial and error as more powerful than hypothesis and testing. He predicates this on the observation that new discoveries tend to come from the private sector and via immediate needs, not the Academy or government. (Ask any major pharmaceutical company how they create new life-saving drugs, and you'll quickly realize just how haphazardly new discoveries are often made.)

The basis for this view of progress is technology. Ridley describes technology as a "mash up" of existing things (piggybacking off of Brian Arthur's excellent book, The Nature of Technology). Technologies are what create productivity, and therefore wealth. This is facilitated by idea exchange and self-interest (here's where Adam Smith pops in), and by the economic "technology" of exchange for mutual benefit and division of labor (trade)—what human communities and their mechanisms of exchange (like markets) are designed to do. Which, to Ridley's view, is the reason cities will naturally overtake rural areas—they bring us in to closer proximity and thus facilitate more exchange. In other words, the freer and more capitalistic the society and the more we're interconnected, the more innovation we can have. Thus prosperity and higher standards of living ensue in a positive feedback loop. This feature can and has accelerated through time.

This is a form of evolution—but out of the biological realm and into human civilization/culture (Marvin Minsky observed this with his idea of "memes" decades ago). Ideas, just as much as machines, are a form of technology and are dependent on reciprocity, exchange, and community to create wealth. Interconnection is the key. Without trade, innovation can't happen because there's no incentive for it.

These are not new arguments, but remain provocative because synergy doesn't come naturally to us—we tend to be very skeptical of it even though we behave in accord with it daily. We tend to be more comfortable with the idea of life as zero sum—dividing up a finite pie instead of making a bigger one. People think of trade and capitalism as selfishness because it's not natural think in terms of mutual benefit—most of life on earth has been about the struggle for scarce resources. This is especially true since capitalism rewards value creation as a core value versus egalitarianism. But nothing's been more effective at wealth creation through time.

The Nature of Hope

James Hillman, perhaps the greatest living thinker in the field of depth psychology, is harshly critical of hope. He views it an illusion. He says hope creates expectation, which can only lead to disappointment. We should live without the future and stay in the present.

That isn't possible. We humans think forward, we expect, we build, we accomplish, and we transfer those ideals to the next generation. And with those innate drives, we hope. Hope isn't an illusion, it's the motivator—and it is undying. The will to survive and thrive, to move forward, this is a big part of what it means to be a person. It's inherent and irreducible and even if it subsides for awhile (as it has communally these last years, at least in economic terms) it won't go away.

And that reason alone is why—above all the economist-speak about incentive, laissez faire, self-interest, profit; above all the hyperbolic political talk about fairness, independence, and freedom; above all the psychology clap-trap of loss aversion, biases, and behavior—beyond all those things, hope propels the world and its economies onward, especially where capitalism allows it to flourish. Today is no different.

Long-term investors simply must on some level believe in that. To stake your future on investment in any form (that is, on the future prosperity of the world), but particularly equities, you must on some level believe that the world will grow, that wealth will continue to be created, that higher standards of living will prevail. To be otherwise is against our nature. As Camus says, "The struggle itself...is enough to fill a man's heart." 

*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.


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