Reviewed by Bill Creasy
With most intellectuals, you can ask: If they are so smart, why aren't they rich? You can't say that about George Soros. He has made a fortune by trading currencies, most famously making $1 billion in a single day. This book begins with his short biography, and Soros is also a frustrated philosopher, having studied under Karl Popper. He went into finance when the philosophy job didn't work out. Recently, he has concentrated on philanthropy and has returned to philosophy.
He claims in this short book, made up of 5 university lectures, that his understanding of philosophy gave him an edge for successful trading. The first lecture discusses the basis of his two important ideas, and the other chapters apply them to current issues. The lectures were given in Oct. 2009, so a major theme is to discuss the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The audio and video of the lectures are available on his website, www.soros.org.
His two ideas are direct challenges to prevailing assumptions of economics and other social sciences. The ideas seem obvious in some ways, but are also important in trying to explain social events.
The first idea is called "fallibility" by Soros. It is based on the fact that human beings have imperfect knowledge and reasoning about reality. Classical economics assumes a state of equilibrium from participants who have enough knowledge about a situation to make rational decisions. Soros says that this assumption is false. Imperfect information affects not only decisions, but also gives rise to simplified and simplistic approximations, rules of thumb, political slogans, generalizations, and moral precepts. Peoples' use of these simple rules cause imperfect responses to uncertain situations. This doesn't justify the postmodern statement that there isn't any real objective information. Soros thinks there is valuable information, but there is usually not enough information to fully characterize economic events.
Soros discusses the idea of a "fertile fallacy." This is an idea that can be wrong or flawed but can still lead to productive actions in the correct direction. He says, “We are capable of acquiring knowledge, but we can never have enough knowledge to allow us to base all of our decisions on knowledge. It follows that if a piece of knowledge has proved useful, we are liable to overexploit it and extend it to areas where it no longer applies, so that it becomes a fallacy.” For example (my example, not his), "liberty and justice for all" is a fertile fallacy. Liberty and justice are always in tension, because one person's liberty can lead to someone else's injustice. But the slogan can still lead people towards an ideal of a freer society with a fairer legal system. He says, “Fertile fallacies are...the equivalent of bubbles in financial markets.”
Soros's other idea is called "reflexivity," and it is more complex. The purpose of social science is to observe patterns or develop hypotheses about social behavior in a passive way. But as soon as a pattern is observed, human beings immediately try to exploit the observation to their own benefit, in an active, manipulating way. The active manipulation can change or even completely destroy the pattern!
This effect can explain the 2008 financial crisis to some degree. (The following is my condensed version of an explanation, which Soros discusses in more abstract terms.) Prior to 2000, mortgage loans were considered to be extremely safe investments. The mortgages were based on real property, and people were generally conscientious about paying for their houses. However, large financial institutions saw this simple rule and exploited it. They tried to sell as many mortgages as they could and combine them into "risk-free" securities. Many new houses were built and sold to generate more mortgages. The result was that mortgages were given to people who couldn't afford to pay for them. The surplus of houses and foreclosures caused a glut of housing, making prices fall so the amounts of existing mortgages were larger than the value of the property. The actions by the financial institutions changed mortgages from a safe investment to a risky one that has cost them a lot of money.
It would be nice if the crisis was over. But the current European financial problem is from other "safe" loans: sovereign debt, or loans to governments to finance deficits. Again, this is a safe investment until it is taken to excess. Soros said in a Newsweek interview, "The situation is about as serious and difficult as I've experienced in my career." (Jan. 30, 2012, p. 53). The U.S. is also borrowing money to make an unprecedented national debt.
This effect shows the difference between social science and physical science. In physical science, discovery of a pattern or a natural law can be exploited and the law doesn't change. With social science, discovery of a pattern causes people to change the pattern. As a result, the pattern can cease to be true, except historically.
Soros pointed out this problem, but there is a certain irony in Soros's description of his ideas. He puts them in terms of physical science, using terms such as "equilibrium" and "feedback," and he even develops a "human uncertainty principle," in analogy to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle. This doesn't seem to be unusual in the social sciences. Soros writes, “Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call 'physics envy.'” But the human uncertainty principle, as he describes it, is quite different from the physical one, because humans intentionally act to completely change the observations. Putting this effect in terms used by physics is simply misleading, because physics doesn't have such a problem. Soros comments, “The alchemists made a mistake in trying to change the nature of base metals by incantation. Instead, they should have focused their attention on the financial markets, where they could have succeeded.”
Regardless, the ideas that Soros discusses are interesting and relevant to current problems. In the second chapter, he discusses financial bubbles and the reason that government regulation is necessary to establish rules in financial markets. In the other chapters, he discusses the difference between markets and politics and why they should have different systems of operation. If you are wondering why financial deregulation doesn't work and why free market rules don't apply to politics, this small book is worth reading.
This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.