Five Books That Have Changed My Life

I read a lot of books. (See "Why I Read More Books than Economic Journal Articles.") Many books lead me to feel profound awe and gratitude toward the author. Today, let me acknowledge five books that have changed my life.  

The first is Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Characterization is not Isaac Asimov's strong suit, but what he does do is to paint a grand picture of a future Galactic Empire falling apart, and a band of social scientists working hard to make the dark times to come as short as possible. Though they are called "psychohistorians," the description of psychohistory might as well be a description of macroeconomics: it is hard to predict what individuals will do, but the average behavior of large aggregates of people can be predicted. Even though it is hard to predict the actions of a single individual, I credit Isaac Asimov's foundation series as predisposing me towards a career in economics. The Foundation series may have also predisposed me toward macroeconomics, though it was not the direct catalyst for becoming a macroeconomist. On that, see "Why I am a Macroeconomist: Increasing Returns and Unemployment."

(I also credit high school forensics with predisposing me towards economics— for me debate, extemporaneous speaking and one turn at oratory as my second event at the national tournament. See "A More Personal Bio: My Early Tweets." As for being an academic, I had decided much earlier I wanted to be a professor like my Dad; the question was in what field.)

Update: Simon Wren-Lewis tweets:

A conjecture: that more economists would rank Asimov's Foundation is one of their favourite books than scientists. Here is Paul Krugman writing about it ["Paul Krugman: Asimov's Foundation novels grounded my economics"]

The second book that changed my life was Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. I tell that story in "How I Became Optimistic": 

For several years when I was a teenager, I felt that facing reality meant I mustn’t fool myself by being optimistic. Studiously avoiding optimism had the side-effect of making me less cheerful. But then I read the Maxwell Maltz’s book Psycho-Cybernetics. Maxwell made an argument that changed my life. He argues that visualizing positive outcomes is a way to be prepared in case something good happened and a way to instruct one’s subconcious mind to strive for that outcome. In other words, visualizing a desired outcome is a way to tell one’s subconscious mind what its objective function should be.

To me this was like a bolt out of the blue. Visualizing a positive outcome was not a claim that that outcome would happen, it was simply presenting a certain image to one’s mind without any claim to inevitability, in a way meant to increase the probability that the positive image might be realized. Thus, it was possible to carefully maintain objectivity for analytical decision-making and evaluation purposes, while still gaining the psychological benefits of optimism.

In this case, it was not the book as a whole that changed my life; it was this single idea that changed my life. 

The third book that changed my life was the Book of Mormon. As I vividly remember telling my Harvard classmate and friend Anne Harrington (now Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard) when I was leaving Mormonism around the age of 40, the main story of my life until then was not about being an economist but about my spiritual journey within and then out of Mormonism—a journey I was very fortunate to take in reasonable sync with my wife Gail. 

At the end of the Book of Mormon (in Moroni 10:4) it gives this challenge:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This worked as advertised for me. I read the Book of Mormon, prayed to ask if it was true, then felt a remarkable warm feeling in my heart. I gave the Book of Mormon—and Mormonism in general—enormous credit for having made this true prediction that was confirmed so strongly. Not only that, I also took very seriously the next verse in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:5), saying that was a model for asking God any question: 

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

This was heady stuff, especially when combined with the promise in Mormonism's Doctrine and Covenants 121:46, "The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion" and further tips for the epistemological procedure in Mormonism's Doctrine and Covenants, 7:8,9

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong ...

On the strength of such seeming confirmations and personal inspirations, I was a fully believing Mormon until I neared the age of 40. I worked toward converting people to Mormonism for two years in Japan (in the Tokyo area), and after that served in many capacities in the Mormon Church ("home teacher," "Elder's Quorum President," Sunday School teacher, Ward membership clerk, etc.). I was also an enthusiastic apologist for Mormonism and continued to advertise Mormonism. (When she came to visit the University of Colorado Boulder a week ago, Ellen McGrattan spontaneously recalled how I had given Book of Mormon to V. V. Chari as part of my continuing proselyting efforts when I told her I was no longer a Mormon.) Intellectually, Mormonism was a grand adventure that led to my reading the Bible twice and the other Mormon books of holy writ (including the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenents) many times, as well as getting a fascinating take on ancient history from the Mormon apologetics of Hugh Nibley (whom I had the chance to get to know personally while I was earning my Master's degree in Linguistics at Brigham Young University).

In my 30's, I discovered that the epistemological procedure above didn't always work. I had several occasions where things ascertained through this procedure were falsified; that is a part of the story of why I left Mormonism. And a friend pointed out to me that a feeling in my heart didn't logically imply something to be true in the "universe out there." That is a part of the story of my journey out of Mormonism. 

Despite no longer considering myself a Mormon, I am still a Mormon by the Mormon Church's own technical definition (which I know well from my stint as a membership clerk). Indeed, by that technical definition a deacon, priest and elder of the Mormon Church. More importantly, other than Mormonism's occasional anti-intellectualism, more deeply entrenched inequality for women, harsh treatment of gays, and Mormonism's authoritarian streak, I have enormous affection for Mormonism.

Despite occasional lying in an official Church capacity, in other contexts Mormons are some of the most honest people in the world. Mormonism encompasses what I would describe as an extensive modern oral wisdom tradition that is shared every Sunday over a pulpit occupied by regular Mormons, not just leaders. I have benefitted greatly from having been immersed in that modern oral wisdom tradition for so many years. Sociologically, Mormonism has solved to a remarkable extent many of the problems that bedevil our society. And Mormonism gives its members strong encouragement to go out and save the world, not just religiously, but in material ways as well.   

Given my experience with Mormonism, I feel strongly that Mormons and Mormonism should be treated in a way that is more equal to other Christian denominations. Looked at fairly, Mormon doctrine is no stranger than, say, Catholic doctrine. Mormonism is, indeed, more supernaturalist than the many liberal Christian churches that keep their supernaturalism safely sequestered in the afterlife and in the distant past, but there are other Christian churches and New Age groups that are equally supernaturalist. Mormonism does have a history of polygamy, but that is getting to be a century ago (except for rebels from the Mormon Church), and current trends in parts of American society have been toward greater acceptance of polyamory (though accepting polyamory is a step too far for me). To make a comparison, I think most nonsupernaturalists would find the views of Mormons on most things to be more congenial than the views of Christian Evangelicals. In short, don't look down on Mormons! Almost all churches that haven't distanced themselves from their history have a lot of baggage. Mormon baggage is no worse than the baggage of most other religions. (I consider my own religion of Unitarian-Universalism as a religion that has distanced itself from its history, although it does teach its members about its history. And I think the history of Unitarian-Universalism genuinely has less bad stuff than the history of most religions.)

To appreciate Mormonism better, a good place to start is these posts,

and this Bloomberg View article by Megan McArdle:

If you are curious beyond that, follow the links in my posts above or type "Mormon" into the search box that comes up when you click the link "search" at the top of my blog.

Link to the Wikipedia article for Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Link to the Wikipedia article for Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

In addition to the experiences that I felt tended to falsify Mormonism's epistemological procedures and my distress at some of the negatives of Mormonism mentioned above, another big part of my journey out of Mormonism was my growing appreciation for the picture of the world that evolutionary theory and modern cosmology provide. (Mormonism's official position, as laid out in a document given to Brigham Young University students in biology classes is that it is OK with evolution. But Mormon doctrine as it stands tends to marginalize evolution.) Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett was the most mind-expanding of all the books I read on evolutionary theory and cosmology. This is the fourth book that changed my life. Though it was a major part of my mind-expansion during my 30's, it is better to put it in the context of other books I read as well. I said this in my Unitarian-Universalist sermon "Godless Religion": 

  • Imagine in your mind’s eye what the Copernican Revolution putting the Sun at the center rather than the Earth did to the Biblical worldview.
  • Think of modern discoveries about the Big Bang and the size of the Universe.
  • Think of what modern advances in neuroscience mean about the connection between the material and the spiritual ...
  • Think of the discoveries of anthropology about the wide range of often very firm religious beliefs different cultures hold (see for example Pascal Boyer’s wonderful book Religion Explained).
  • Think of Darwin’s theory of evolution and modern advances in understanding genes, with the lengthening of the history of the Earth from a few thousand years to billions of years, the idea that human beings could have arisen through evolution, and the idea that genes determine a large fraction of the way we are.

These scientific advances, let alone all the scientific advances now being discovered and yet to come, have shaken old religious interpretations to the core wherever people have taken the implications of that science seriously. In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has compared the idea of evolution to a universal acid that changes everything it touches. Among scientific ideas, it is not the only universal acid. 

Darwin's Dangerous Idea is, in my view, the 20th century book that best expresses the grandeur Charles Darwin writes of at the end of The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett manages to combine philosophical rigor with accessibility. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is not only mind-expanding, it also provides excellent mind-training because it deals with such hard concepts so clearly. 

I have also admired other books of Daniel Dennett's. In his honor, let me list here all the places where Daniel Dennett appears in this blog (culled by putting "Dennett" into the search box at the search link at the top of this blog):

 Link to the Amazon page for The Obesity Code by Jason Fung

 Link to the Amazon page for The Obesity Code by Jason Fung

The fifth book that changed my life is The Obesity Code, by Jason Fung. At 5 foot 7 inches or maybe a bit more, I weighed well into the 180s a year ago. Today I am in the low 150s. I have The Obesity Code and Jason Fung's companion book The Complete Guide to Fasting to thank. (Thanks also to my wife Gail, who searched these books out, read them first and recommended them.) To see how trenchant Jason Fung's take on obesity is, take a look at my post "Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon" or go straight to reading the books.

Almost all approaches to weight loss have been proven to have only temporary effects for the vast majority of people. Jason Fung's approach is not in that large category of weight-loss approaches that have been proven not to work in the long run. The difference is that Jason Fung embraces fasting: periods of time with no food, or only very restricted types of food. (In addition to "Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon," see "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid."

What most people don't realize is that in terms of one's experience during weight-loss, there is a nonlinearity in amount of food eaten. Calorie restriction—say anywhere from 400 to 1500 calories a day—is a miserable experience. Fasting—no food or almost no food—is remarkably easy. The reason is that when food consumption (and consumption of sweet beverages) is low enough, one's own fat stores start to be turned into blood sugar. By contrast, calorie restriction gives just enough food that for most people it keeps one's own fat locked away in the fat cells; a lack of sustenance from conversion of internal fat to blood sugar combined with the low levels of food consumption then leads to internal cellular starvation. In brief, as long as someone still has adequate fat stores on your body, they will paradoxically feel much better fed eating no food or almost no food than they will with 500 to 1500 calories a day. (But it isn't a deep paradox; what matters is nutrition in the bloodstream, not how much you are eating.)

I have written in "Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities" and in a series of tweets I storified as "On Fighting Obesity" about how excited I have been and am about these insights into obesity, weight-loss and how to avoid the large suite of "diseases of affluence" that typically go along with obesity. I have taken on as part of my mission in life and on this blog fighting obesity. In my talk "Restoring American Growth" last Spring I used a thought experiment to point out how much a solution to our obesity problem would add to social welfare. Paraphrasing:

Suppose we had had exactly the same growth in measured GDP as actually happened, but there had been no rise in obesity. Think how much better off America would be. 

The same can be said for most other nations as well. For example, I have been told that the rise in obesity in Arab countries has been especially severe. For those countries, a simple, and what I believe would be a religiously acceptable modification in Ramadan customs would make a huge difference: in that month of fasting, instead of eating a big meal before sunup and then a big meal after sundown, change to having only the big meal after sundown, and only water, tea and coffee before sunup. The experience of no food for about 20-22 hours every day is likely to be much easier if the big meal leans toward foods low on the insulin index I discuss in "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid."

I write in this blog—only slightly tongue-in-cheek—about "saving the world." I don't know of any more powerful way to save the world than to stop and reverse the worldwide rise in obesity. (For example, this is much bigger than eliminating the zero lower bound, which I have written on extensively.) And the great thing about fighting obesity is that it doesn't require going through policy makers. Leaving aside the minority of individuals who have no problem with being overweight, every individual who gets clearer about what really determines obesity and weight loss—and the attendant diseases of affluence, such as diabetes, heart disease and strokes—is empowered to make his or her life much better than it otherwise would be. 

Thanks to my wife Gail, for the excellent suggestion of marking Thanksgiving by writing about the books that have changed my life. And thanks to all the authors who have made a difference in my life through their writings, even beyond those featured above.