50 Facts That Should Change the World 2.0

I’m reviewing this book after mailing my copy to a friend… so that’s not quite setting myself up for success, is it? Anyway. Let’s see. The book is at its best when it is using numbers to show the contrasts in the world, such as the relative daily subsidy for a cow in the European Union (>$2/day in government subsidy, if I recall correctly) as compared to the aid subsidies for human beings in some comparatively poor places (<$1/day). Compare those two numbers, and you learn a thing about how badly the world is doing at living consistent with some kind of shared group anti-poverty value. The book is decently stuffed with numbers like these, that help you know what kind of world you live in. The book is somewhat less successful when it advocates for what to do about any of these problems, or how to view their root causes.

Sometimes it is able to point to very highly successful ideas that are being implemented (such as using technology or trained animals to find and disarm/dispose of landmines), but it often falls far short of an insightful look at the roots of these problems, instead seeming to take the view that these problems would go away if only people would, ahem, care about them more. Caring more is sometimes a solution all on its own–particularly where what is needed is government action, voters who care more can be a great solution, or where the problem itself is that people feel hated rather than loved. A kind word can go a long way. And more people caring more is almost always, if not helpful, then at least harmless. (NASA’s success with the moon landing program, one way or the other, probably didn’t depend that heavily on how much any particular person outside NASA ‘cared’–but more people caring sure didn’t hurt.) But where government action can’t readily address a problem, individuals just caring more might not do much to solve anything. In some cases, the caring is at least arguably a very serious contributor or even the root of the problem (See, e.g., Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, which I haven’t read yet, but did read enough of to recognize that this is not a trivial concern). Where 50 Ideas gets less informative is when it departs from where the “caring” lens is strong: identifying numbers that stand in apparent stark contrast with values; once 50 Ideas is in terrain where it is necessary to apply something more than a shallow not-caring-is-the-problem lens to understanding or solving these problems… it falls down completely.

Edited briefly for readability 24 Jan 2017.

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