Week 0: Book review

As a first effort at blogging on technology policy, I thought it would help to reflect on your favourite (or least favourite or most memorable) book that you read in the past year.  Ideally, this would be from the 2018-19 Tech Pol Summer reading list, but you are welcome to offer any appropriate book. Rather than emphasising engagement for this week before full term, I would like the focus to be on your writing and how to convey a few points clearly in a few paragraphs.  It is relatively easy to write a book review of several pages, but it is usually more challenging to provide a short, succinct version.  For this week, since we are not iterating as much, feel free to write up to 280 words (my review is 276!).

I choose Tim Harford’s book Adapt.  The thesis is one I have long advocated, namely improving the ability of governments, institutions, and organisations to better respond to new information.  I am a big fan of Harford, because of the clarity of his prose and his ability to offer economic insights without ‘dumbing down’ the subject.  I highly recommend his BBC radio programme ‘More or Less’, one of the few examples of the media tackling serious numbers-based stories. 

One of the more searing stories is that of HR McMaster, a little-known Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army at the time with a PhD in history, who later went on to become National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration from February 2017 (after Michael Flynn was fired) until leaving in March 2018.  At the time, I was reading Adapt, McMaster was still in post and his presence gave me some degree of reassurance, amid the flurries of tweets threatening seven decades of rules-based international order, that there were still strong voices arguing for good policy.

The story of McMaster’s time in the Administration is yet to be fully told but Harford offers a vivid description of his perspective, first, as a historian of the Vietnam War and then as commander during the US campaign in Iraq coming up against established policy and procedures.  He describes the immense difficulty in overcoming institutional hostility to adaptive approaches, no matter how high the stakes or how obviously unsuccessful the status quo.  In most other settings the stakes are far lower and the failure of the existing strategy less transparent, which makes the McMaster case(s) a strong test of the hostility to adaptation.