The Programmed Prospect Before Us

Review of Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans by Simon Head
Basic Books, $26.99

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The entire thesis of Simon Head’s arresting new book is contained in the subtitle. It goes all the way back to Adam Smith’s telling observation that the division of labor in a pin factory, while doing wonders for productivity (output per worker), would make workers as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be.” This was because no worker needed to know how to make a pin, only how to do his part in the process of making a pin. Artisan production was on the point of becoming industrial production; industrial production would destroy work skills.

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Book Review: Can You Spare a Dime?

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
by Niall Ferguson
Penguin, 442 pp., $29.95

The historian Alan Taylor used to say, mischievously, that the only point of history is history. The idea that one could use it to predict the future, still more to avoid past mistakes, was pure illusion. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, a history of financial innovation written as a television documentary[1] as well as a book, offers a neat test of Taylor’s theory. Ferguson can claim some powers of anticipation. History convinced him in 2006 that the good times could not last “indefinitely.” This was an insight to which the Nobel Prize–winning mathematical economists who devised the Black-Scholes formula—the complicated model for pricing share options used by the highly leveraged firm Long-Term Capital Management, which famously crashed in 1998—were oblivious. Their formula persuaded them that a massive sell-off could occur only once in four million years.

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What’s Left of Marx?

Review of Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen
Norton, 431 pp., $27.95

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When Karl Marx was twenty-four, a contemporary wrote of him: “Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one person…and you have Dr. Marx.” Marx was not one of those brilliant young men who fail to live up to their promise. He produced the most powerful, coherent, and influential secular system of ideas ever devised to explain man’s past, analyze his present, and predict his future.

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