Review: Good Economics for Hard Times

Review: Good Economics for Hard Times

Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems by Abhijit V. Banerjee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is too important to be left to economists.


After listening to a series of lectures on introductory economics, I was struck by the degree to which the basic logic of supply and demand was used to make sweeping pronouncements about human behavior and economic policy. The lecturer, starting from the premise that supply and demand is inexorable, would rule out certain policies as working against the market, while promoting those he considered ‘market-friendly.’ But rarely did he stop to actually examine a case study to see how these theories played out, leaving me with the impression of a wholly a priori logic.

The central thrust of this book is that a priori logic cannot be trusted. The economy is complex and unpredictable, so the best way to understand it is through historical case studies and randomized control trials. The authors find that, when we examine the economy in such a way, many of our intuitions about how the it works or will respond to certain policies are wrong. Indeed, though this could hardly be called a revolutionary book—its tone is engaging but mostly academic—the two authors, Banerjee and Duflo, reach quite heterodox conclusions.

One basic economic argument used against permissive immigration policies is that the increased supply of cheap labor will inevitably drive down wages, thus hurting native workers. The logic is simple but it does not hold up under the evidence. In case study after case study, immigration is shown to be either economically neutral or beneficial to native workers. Indeed, ironically—and contrary to what Trump and his ilk may say—low-skill immigrants are better for native workers than highly skilled ones, because they often take jobs that native workers do not want—jobs requiring little communication and much labor. Native workers may even benefit by being promoted to managerial roles. A multilingual immigrant doctor actually competes more directly with native workers than a monolingual immigrant fruit picker.

Perhaps you can see that the above supply and demand argument against immigration is simplistic, since immigrants, apart from increasing the labor supply, also increase demand for goods. Indeed, most professional economists are decidedly in favor of migration. Workers have much to gain from moving to where their skills will be most highly rewarded; and businesses would gain from having good workers. But here the economists’ logic is shown to have its own flaw. Real workers are actually quite averse to migration. Banerjee and Duflo show that, even when a better job may just require move from the country to the city, most will simply not go. There is a large amount of inertia built into real people’s lives—the pull of family, friends, and familiarity—which works against even obviously beneficial moves.

This is not the only way that the real economy is (in economic parlance) ‘sticky.’ Though economists imagine a world of workers ready to move and re-train, of companies willing to fire and hire, banks that drop bad investments and jump on promising new ones, firms willing to relocate to new countries with cheaper labor, new businesses popping up and inefficient ones disappearing—in a word, a dynamic world governed by shifting supply and demand—the real world is consistently stickier than this logic suggests. This seems particularly true in the developing world—the authors’ main area of study—where they found that efficient and inefficient businesses coexisted, where bad-selling product lines were retained, where banks merely rubber stamped loan applications from existing clients, and where people do not migrate for work, or even take the work that is available locally.

Inhabitants of planet earth will likely not be surprised by all this. But the upshot, the authors argue, is that free trade does not deliver all that it promises. Now, the logic of free trade is simple and compelling, grounded in the law of Comparative Advantage put forward by David Ricardo. Simply put, this law states that we all will benefit from trade, since we can all specialize in what we are comparatively better at doing.

But the logic has not exactly played out as hoped. Though touted as a way of propelling developing nations out of poverty, in practice free trade policies have a mixed record. The authors use the example of India, which transitioned from a highly-regulated economy with high tariffs to a free market with low tariffs in the 1990s. The result of this transition was hardly the economic wonder that some economists could have predicted. In many places, wages actually went down rather than up, and in subsequent years much of the economic growth has simply gone to the country’s rich. This is not to say that the results of economic liberalization were all bad, only that it was hardly the panacea that free-market advocates promised.

The consequences for rich nations, like the United States, have also been mixed. While most economic transitions involve winners and losers, the shock of free trade has benefited those who were already ‘winning,’ and hurt those who were already ‘losing.’ In other words, while the big cities full of college-educated workers have grown richer, the arrival of cheap goods—mostly from China—has ravaged many blue-collar communities.

Admittedly, the theory of Comparative Advantage does predict that free trade will temporarily hurt some workers who are forced to compete with cheaper goods from abroad. But the belief in economic adaptability (not to mention the political will to help assuage the problem) was overly optimistic.

Even when jobs disappear, workers do not move. Many simply go on disability and leave the workforce entirely. In short, workers are sticky. Not only that, but the United States has been very bad at redistributing the gains of free trade in the form of worker retraining and extended unemployment. No wonder that many in the country are skeptical of the benefits. However, the authors are careful to note that the solution to this problem is not to impose new tariffs on China. This will only create further economic harm in other sectors (like agriculture) without remedying the harm already done. What is needed, the authors argue, are generous government programs to either re-train displaced workers, or to subsidize industries that are being driven out of business.

This leads us to the longest and most theoretical chapter in this book, that on growth. The argument is fairly dry but the conclusion the authors reach is striking: we do not know what makes economies grow. The greatest years of economic growth were between the end of WWII and the 1970s. This was also a time dominated by Keynesian economics, which led many to give Keynes the credit for this economic miracle. But the magic wore off with the coming of stagflation, which the Keynesian seemed powerless to stave off. This crisis brought the managed economy into discredit, and ushered in the neoliberal revolution, where deregulation, lower taxation, and free trade were seen as the best tools to rejuvenate the economy. Unfortunately, that did not work, either, and growth has never picked up to pre 1970s levels.

Instead, what has grown since the neoliberal turn has been inequality. Rather than stimulate the economy into mad activity, these policies have merely directed what modest economic growth there has been to the much-maligned top 1%. And their political influence has grown right along with their fortunes, which only reinforces the government’s tendency to embrace these sorts of ‘business-friendly’ policies.

As usual, the economic logic used to argue in favor of these policies—that lower taxes on the rich will spur greater activity—is supported by a priori logic rather than actual evidence. But the evidence does not bear it out. People work just as hard whether they are being taxed at 30% or 70%, or not at all, as demonstrated by a series of tax holidays in Switzerland. The notion that high salaries reflect employee value (which supply and demand would predict) is also not supported, as demonstrated by the remarkably high wages paid to those who manage stock portfolios, which consistently underperform against index funds—meaning that the wages are essentially a rent for holding onto money. (And since the high salaries in finance influence salary negotiations in other industries, this increases salaries across the board.)

A strange picture emerges from all this, a picture of an economic policy—at least in the United States—that is entirely divorced from reality. We wring our hands about immigration at a time when immigration is not going up, and even though immigrants pose no credible economic or cultural threat. We argue about tariffs but not about how to actually help those hurt by free trade policies. We cut taxes and deregulate businesses in the name of growth that never appears. Meanwhile, automation is likely to make many of these problems that much worse, and we persist in putting off any action related to the looming climate crisis.

The current pandemic—and concomitant economic crisis—has only put this magical thinking into high relief. Perhaps the best thing to call it is free-market fundamentalism: the belief that the economy, acting on its own, will sort out all of our problems—from poverty to pandemic—without any government aid. Strangely, it is a faith held most ardently by those who see the least evidence for it: people who have been hit by the economic dislocation of free trade. Indeed, at just the time when inequality is rising, we have embraced a kind of social Darwinism that treats the economic pecking order as a perfect reflection of personal merit. This mentality, resting upon the assumption of an imagined economic mobility (which is even lower in the US than in the European Union), justifies both extreme poverty and extreme wealth, since both are ‘deserved.’ To the extent that anyone is held responsible for the situations, it is either outsiders like immigrants or minorities, or the government—not the wealthy.

As Manny has suggested, the situation is rather reminiscent of the USSR in its final years. In both cases we have an economic philosophy based on a priori logic rather than evidence, and believed on the same grounds. As this philosophy fails to deliver, the country’s elites still do not publicly renounce it, but instead only increase their displays of fervor. Rather, entirely irrelevant factors—immigrants, minorities, nefarious citizens—are used to explain the lack of prosperity. Meanwhile, the rich line their already deep pockets while spouting the old egalitarian slogans. The result is a society gripped by nihilism, wherein the old ideals become barely-disguised lies by corrupt and incompetent leaders, and anger and hopelessness descend upon a country that senses it is going in the wrong direction but does not understand why.

This may seem rather hyperbolic. But when you consider how bad things have gotten in the United States in the short time since the publication of this book, when it was already quite bad, then perhaps you can see the justification.

If our economic logic is often misguided, and our policies either useless or worse, what do the authors suggest? Here is where I thought that the book was mostly lacking. Banerjee and Duflo are extremely heterodox when criticizing conventional economics, but are not nearly so bold in proposing solutions. Their general point, however, is that we ought to shift our focus away from trying to grow the economy—since we do not know how to do that anyway—and towards most justly distributing the resources we have now. High tax rates on the rich will help curb inequality without reducing effective incentives. Coordinated efforts between countries can help to reduce tax dodging, and enforcing anti-trust legislation will help curb corporate power.

The authors have a fairly nuanced view of basic income. They think that basic income schemes work well in developing countries, where the poorest are mostly working a variety of temporary or seasonal jobs. But they do not think UBI would work in developed countries, because people have come to rely on jobs not only for income but for structure and even meaning in their lives. In studies, people who stop working do not tend to increase time socializing, or volunteering, or on hobbies; instead, most people end up just watching a lot of television—which does not increase happiness or well-being. This is why the authors prefer significantly stronger unemployment support—helping workers to retrain and relocate.

This seemed somewhat timid to me. But perhaps it is misguided to seek bold, sweeping solutions from authors who insist on hewing to trial, experiment, and evidence. Hard-headed economists, the authors do not promise miracles. Yet if you are looking for a probing and insightful look at many of our current economic woes—now only exacerbated by the coronavirus recession—then this book is quite an excellent place to start. The most pressing point is that our economical problems have political solutions. As usual, the only thing we need is the political will to start acting.



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Quotes & Commentary #69: Keynes

Quotes & Commentary #69: Keynes

It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone, particularly in economics (along with the other moral sciences), where it is often impossible to bring one’s ideas to a conclusive test either formal or experimental.

—John Maynard Keynes

I have been thinking a lot about Keynes lately, and not only because I am reading a massive biography of his life. Keynes is one of those perennial thinkers whom we can never seem to escape. He exerted enormous influence during his lifetime and dominated economic thought and policy for thirty years after his death. Then, as inevitably happened, the Keynesian orthodoxy became too successful for its own good. His ideas came to be taken for granted, and his innovations became the conventional wisdom that the cleverest economists of the next generation came to reject. This ushered in the age of Neoliberalism—with Margeret Thatcher, Ronald Reagen, and Milton Friedman as the great standard-bearers—and the decline in Keynesian thought.

And yet, whenever there is a serious problem with the economy, everyone instinctively returns to Keynes. It was he who most convincingly analyzed the sources of economic recession and depression, and then plotted a way out of it. He was writing, after all, in the wake of the Great Depression.

To oversimplify the basic idea of Keynes’s analysis, it is this: High unemployment leads to a lack of demand, and a lack of demand can push financial systems beyond the breaking point. Put another way, the economy can be envisioned as an enormously complex machine that is composed of millions of cogs. Some cogs are small, some are large, and all are connected—either proximally or distantly. If one small cog stops working, then it may cause some local disturbances, but the whole machine can continue to chug along. But if too many cogs fail at the same time, the machine can come to a grinding halt.

As the coronavirus shuts down huge sections of the economy, this is exactly the scenario we are facing. Waiters, bartenders, actors, musicians, taxi drivers, factory workers—so many people face lay-offs and unemployment as businesses prepare to shut down. Besides this, if we are locked into our homes, then there are now far fewer places where people can spend their money, even if they have money to spend. It is inevitable that some people will not be able to afford rent, that some businesses will go under, and that much of the money that is available to circulate will remain unused in bank accounts. People are not going to be buying houses, or cars, or dogs, or much of anything in the coming weeks (besides toilet paper, of course).

Now, in a capitalist economy, anyone’s problem is also my problem, since buying and spending are so intimately related. The money you spend eventually becomes the money I receive, and vice versa. Thus, if there is a increase in unemployment (limiting the money you receive), an increase in bankruptcies (limiting the money the banks receive), and a decrease in spending (limiting the money I receive), then we have a recipe for serious economic contraction. A wave of bankruptcies inevitably puts pressure on banks; and if banks begin to collapse, then we are in grave trouble. Whether or not we like to admit it, banks provide an essential service in the economy, one which we all rely on. To return to my crude cog analogy, the banks are some of the biggest cogs of all; and if they stop turning, nothing else can move.

Keynes’s solution to this dilemma was essentially to use the government’s almost limitless ability to borrow money, and inject as much cash into the economy as possible. In other words, the idea is to stimulate demand, so that people can continue to spend money. It is an idea that has been criticized by so-called ‘responsible’ people for generations. Can the government really afford to go into so much debt during a recession? Can such artificial measures actually prop up an ailing economy? Can we tolerate such a huge degree of government involvement in a liberal society?

Republicans—and to a lesser extent, even Democrats—have been sharply critical of Keynesian economics over the years. When Obama wanted a stimulus package for the 2008 financial crisis, he faced endless opposition and criticism from the Republican party. And now that we are facing an economic crisis on a comparable scale, the Republicans are turning without hesitation to Keynes: hundreds of billions in stimulus, and even resorting to mailing checks to every American. One could hardly imagine a more straightforwardly Keynesian solution than this. Keynes had this to say about how the government could deal with a recession:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

This is the closest that Keynes got to the notion of simply giving people money. Paying people for absolutely useless work is better than nothing, since at least then people are being paid; and if they are being paid, they can spend their money; and if they spend their money, I can get paid; and so on. If this were a different kind of crisis—a kind where we did not have to practice social distancing—then perhaps we could imagine large-scale infrastructure projects as a way of combating recession. But now, we must resort to the even more radical idea of paying Americans to do nothing. Maybe Andrew Yang’s notion of a universal basic income is not so far after all?

Well, here is where I must warn my readers (all three of you) that I am really quite clueless when it comes to economics, so everything written here must be read in that spirit of ignorance. However, I think that Keynes’s quote is also quite relevant for non-economic reasons. As so often true in economics, we are facing an entirely novel situation. This is a crisis without precedent, and that means that all of our ideas of how to cope with the crisis are untested. The closest historical precedent to the coronavirus is the 1918 flu pandemic; and yet there are important differences between both the disease and the historical situation. We are thus operating without ‘conclusive tests,’ in Keynes’s words, of our ideas. It remains to be seen which country’s approach will be the wisest.

In the meantime, Keynes is an example for us to follow: an intellectual who responded to a historical crisis with both ingenuity and rigor. Let us hope there are many more like him.

Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

The Feeling Good HandbookThe Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike with previous Burns books, I read this one while I was feeling relatively normal and untroubled. I did this because I sensed myself relapsing. Cognitive therapy, as you might know, is based on the premise that your thoughts control your moods and emotions. Thus it works by changing your beliefs and even your values in order to alleviate depression, anxiety, and problems with relationships. In my own experience, this can have a remarkably liberating effect. The problem is that, when the relief passes and you once more get sucked into the humdrum world of daily troubles, the original beliefs and values come creeping back.

But why is this? Why are we so prone to adopting irrational and self-defeating patterns of thought? Why do we embrace unrealistic standards, make unjustified assumptions, jump to unwarranted conclusions—only to wallow in misery and fear and loneliness—when a few pen-and-paper exercises is sometimes all we need to feel better? It is peculiar. Robert Wright argues that our cognitive imperfections stem from our evolutionary heritage. A competitive and materialistic culture might also contribute. Burns, for his part, does not offer much in the way of explanation; his aim is therapy, not theory. Yet answering this question seems vital if we are to fight an offensive battle rather than a defensive one.

It seems to me that the most proactive strategy would be to intervene on the social rather than the psychological realm (if that were possible). To pick a simple example, if an obsession with being the best is really self-defeating—at least as far as happiness is concerned—then why the opposite message so passionately embraced in the culture at large?

Perhaps it is because these value systems, which equate happiness with accomplishment, do benefit the group even if they are not psychologically desirable. An office full of perfectionistic over-achievers might out-compete an office full of contented workers with nothing to prove. Advertisements may not have much effect in a world of high self-esteem. And political parties will have trouble getting elected in a world without anxiety. In these and a thousand other ways, society depends on the very thoughts and attitudes that books like this try to combat. No wonder that relapse is common once therapy ceases.

It is also true that there are hidden, and sometimes ugly, benefits to our bad habits. It feels satisfying to think oneself superior to others. Insulting and controlling other people brings a rush. Anxiety helps us to avoid discomfort. Intimacy requires painful vulnerability. And who wants to accept imperfections in oneself? Burns’ methods require that we see ourselves as flawed, that we acknowledge that other people have a point, that our anger is often unjustified, that we face our fears—and who wants to do that? Indeed, sometimes the beliefs that are most precious to us, the beliefs that form our identity and reality, are just what cognitive therapy encourages us to give up—the belief that, for example, your money makes you superior, or that life is rotten, or that your wife is crazy—and these beliefs can seem more important than happiness itself.

Well, I’m not sure I have a solution to this, other than meditating and occasionally dipping into some cognitive therapy books when I feel particularly troubled. For that purpose The Feeling Good Handbook is well suited, since it is a sort of omnibus of Burns’ general approach, with sections on depression, anxiety, and communication. Even though I was not looking for any special relief, I still found the book useful (specifically the section on procrastination, which prompted me to finally begin submitting my novel to agents). As usual, Burns is a heartening voice—compassionate, intelligent, and motivating—who is accessible without descending into tackiness. And it is always a relief to read his anecdotes, since they remind me that these problems, far from hopeless or strange, are part of the human condition.

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Review: Conquest of Happiness

Review: Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.


Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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Review: When Panic Attacks

Review: When Panic Attacks

When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your LifeWhen Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life by David D. Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been an anxious person. I think I get it from my mother.

One time, we were in the car on our way to the supermarket when, for whatever reason, she asked if I had my license on me. “No,” I said. “Why do I need it? You’re driving.” “But what if we get into an accident?” she replied. At first, this response confused me. Then I realized that she was wondering how people would identify my body if we both died in a crash. “I think they’d figure it out,” I said finally, as scenes of bloody car crashes played in my mental theater.

This anxiety was part of my identity. It shaped how I interacted with strangers, my friends, my family, how I behaved in school, at work, and in my relationships. I thought it was a part of me. Sometimes I would have episodes when my worrying would flare up to the point that I was incapacitated; but for the most part it was manageable. Around last year, however, my panicking got decidedly worse. Terrible fantasies would flood my brain, making my chest tense up, my stomach tie itself into a knot, and adrenaline rush through my body. After another attack again this year, I decided that I didn’t want anxiety to be such a big part of my life anymore, and thus reached for this book.

Burns begins with his general views on anxiety. He doesn’t believe in anxiety disorders. The criteria for diagnosis are, he thinks, vague and arbitrary. There are people who tend to be more anxious than others; but anxiety-proneness falls onto a spectrum and does not map onto two neat categories, normal and pathological. Burns also has a negative opinion of anxiety medications. In his experience, they often don’t work and generally leave the underlying cause untouched. Thus he thinks it’s more effective when people don’t tell themselves that they’re “sick” and don’t treat anxiety like a disease to be cured. Rather, anxiety is a common state and it can be effectively managed through fairly simple techniques.

After explaining his general views, Burns launches into his techniques. These techniques occupy the bulk of the book, and are divided into three categories, Cognitive, Exposure, and Hidden-Emotion.

The Cognitive techniques were the most familiar to me, since this is the same approach used in his book on depression, Feeling Good. As the name implies, these techniques focus on your thoughts and beliefs. Anxiety, in this view, is the result of unrealistically negative thoughts which are traceable to certain deeply held beliefs. Burns calls these beliefs self-defeating, because they equate certain things with happiness, and yet inevitably lead to unhappiness. These self-defeating beliefs may be personal—such as perfectionism or achievement addiction—or interpersonal—such as entitlement or blame. The techniques thus focus on these beliefs and the thoughts they give rise to, with the goal of adopting a more realistic, forgiving, and easygoing attitude towards yourself and others.

Exposure techniques operate on a different principle. Instead of combating your anxiety, you seek it out and embrace it. For people with phobias, this means doing exactly the thing they’re afraid of. For people with traumatic memories, this means revisiting these experiences. For people who are shy, this means socializing. If you run away from what you fear, you only tell yourself that you ought to fear it; but if you confront it, you can find out that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

The Hidden-Emotion technique is based on still another principle. It holds that anxiety results when people sweep negative emotions—like frustration, anger, or hatred—under the rug. This most often results from “niceness”—the fear of upsetting anyone or even admitting to yourself that you’re upset. It is not that the negative feelings are consciously shunned, but that they are not consciously registered at all. Thus the technique consists in examining your life—not your childhood, but right now—and looking for things that bother you that you’ve been ignoring.

By the end of the book, Burns has explained 40 techniques. He includes so many because nobody can be sure which technique will work for which person. His treatment plan consists of trying these techniques one after the other until you find one that’s effective. In his experience, it can be very difficult to predict which one will work in any given case, so he encourages you to experiment.

I can’t summarize each of his techniques here, but I want to include just a couple examples of cognitive techniques.

One technique is thinking in shades of grey—that is, avoid essentialism in your self-talk. This sounds simple enough, but I’ve found that most people tend not to do this. For example, if a guy is trying to quit smoking, but he only lasts three months, he might conclude “I’m a failure.” Yet it would be more realistic for him to say “I was successful for three months, and then I relapsed. Maybe I can be successful for longer next time.” That’s both more accurate and more encouraging.

Also useful is the double-standard technique. If you’re having a problem and beating yourself up, ask yourself how you’d treat a friend who was having this same problem. Often you’ll find that you’re much more compassionate, understanding, and optimistic with your friend. Once you realize that, try talking to yourself the same way. If you do this, you can respect yourself in good times and bad, just like you respect your best friends, rather than beating yourself up for falling short, failing, being rejected, or getting criticized.

You may be thinking that these “techniques” are childishly simple. Indeed they are. And yet I was acting in the very opposite way, and without this book I don’t think I would have changed. Besides, simplicity is a good thing. The techniques don’t require you to believe anything untenable or subscribe to a new philosophy of life. They only require that you do some work with a pencil or paper, or try a new approach in conversation, or get over a fear that’s been holding you back. They allow you to understand and confront your emotions rather than be their victim.

That’s all for my overview. I could stop here with the note that I’ve found the book extremely helpful, indeed emancipating. But it is hard to write reviews of self-help books without lapsing into autobiography—at least for me it is. Well, here it goes.

The biggest realization I had while reading this book is that much of my anxiety resulted from being out of touch with my emotions. I think Burns would say I had emotional perfectionism, and thus swept a lot of negative feelings under the rug. But lately some kind of interior barrier broke. I suddenly realized that I was sad, and I cried for the first time in many years. It was a huge relief! Now even children’s movies are enough to set me off. I watched Inside Out on the plane ride back from Spain and ended up in tears. My girlfriend was absolutely shocked.

My other main lesson from this book is that fears have to be faced, not shunned. Instead of trying to push away my anxiety—resulting in endless struggle—now I just let it do its work. And the strange thing is that as soon as I stop resisting, the anxiety loses its grip.

To reinforce this lesson, I decided to confront one of my oldest fears—roller coasters. I went out to Coney Island and rode three of them.

When I was a kid, I went on a few roller coasters and hated it. Looking back, I think that’s because I mentally resisted the experience. I kept wishing to stop and get off, and simply wouldn’t accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything but sit there. This time around, I was scared, but instead of resisting it I told myself that there’s no getting off so I might as well try to enjoy it. That made all the difference. The ride itself was actually fun, and not terribly scary. The only difficult part was making myself get on.

And I realized that roller coasters provide a perfect metaphor for anxiety. If you resist the experience and try to wish it away, it’s only going to seem terrifying, pointless, and dangerous. But if you accept the experience and embrace it, you’ll find that it’s harmless fun.

So treat fear like a roller coaster that you can’t get off. Accept the things that scare you, accept your fear, and accept the insecurities, limitations, and imperfections that make you afraid. You can’t wish them away, so you might as well have some fun.

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Review: Feeling Good

Review: Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood TherapyFeeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you can love and respect yourself in failure, worlds of adventure and new experiences will open up before you, and your fears will vanish.

It is an interesting statement on contemporary culture that practical, self-help books are often looked down on as lowbrow, unsophisticated, and unworthy of serious consideration. Just note how often in reviews of self-help books you come across the phrase, “I don’t normally read books like this,” or the like. Of course, skepticism regarding books of this kind is merited, especially when you take into account the amount of quackery, chicanery, demagoguery, and baloney in print. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we have a veritable advice industry in our culture today, with a great deal of money to be made and thus lots of enterprising, unscrupulous people peddling various forms of nonsense, hoping to get rich. Self-help books now sell so well that they have to be excluded from non-fiction sales rankings, because if they weren’t the top 10 best sellers would be an endless parade of one self-help book after another.

But why are so many people willing to pay for and devour book after book, getting swept about by the ceaseless winds of doctrine, navigating their lives through fad after fad? Fashionable ways of running and ruining your life have always been with us; yet I think there is another aggravating factor at work in the present day.

Recently I read two history books, one about Ancient Greece and the other about Rome. As I learned about the philosophies of education in those societies, I noticed how central were the ideas of ethical and moral teaching. I don’t mean ethical in the narrow sense of right and wrong, but in the wider Greek sense, used by Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—how to cultivate wisdom, how to live a well-regulated life, how to deal with the hardships and misfortunes that are so often thrown our way. These were primary concerns of pedagogy. By contrast, our current education system, as least here in the States, has deemphasized ethical teaching almost completely.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, and many of them are good ones; but I do think it leaves a certain gap in our culture that self-help books partially fill. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, many of these seem rather mediocre—or worse. But this book, by David D. Burns, is for me one of the exceptions. It is an interesting and, for me, an extremely useful book, based on a well-studied and much-tested therapeutic technique.

Burns’s aim in writing this book was to popularize the methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a therapeutic technique developed by the psychologist Aaron T. Beck, among others. The premise of CBT is very simple: your moods are caused by your thoughts, so by controlling your thoughts you can control your moods. At first sight, this may seem like complete nonsense; our moods come and go, and our thoughts simply take on the timbre of whatever mood we happened to be in, right? This seems to be what most people assume; certainly I did. Yet consider this scenario, which actually happened to me:

My boss scheduled a meeting with me out of the blue. I immediately started thinking that I hadn’t been doing a good job recently, so I began to panic, sure I was about to get fired. Eventually, this panic turned to indignation, as I convinced myself of the injustice of the situation, since I worked hard and tried my best. So, literally trembling with anxiety and outrage, I went to the meeting and sat down; and my boss said: “We’re giving you a bonus, because you’ve been doing so well. Congratulations!” Suddenly, all my negative feelings turned into joy.

This I think well illustrates the central idea behind CPT. All of my negative and positive emotions in this scenario were due to my interpretation of the event, not the event itself. I made the false assumption, based on no evidence, that I was going to be fired. I thought of every mistake and imperfection in my work over the last month or so, and convinced myself that I was doing poorly and that termination was imminent. Then, I persuaded myself that I wasn’t given adequate resources or support, and that the situation was unjust. And when I was finally given the bonus, I interpreted that to mean I was doing a good job and that I was getting all the support I needed—which were equally tenuous interpretations. Thus you can see how my mood was a direct product of my thoughts.

All of my negative assumption in the above paragraph contain what Burns calls “warped thoughts,” or cognitive distortions. These are irrational patterns of thinking which have been found to be common in depressed and overly anxious patients. The CBT interpretation of depression is that these thinking patterns are not caused by depression, but actually cause depression. In other words, depression results from persistent, unrealistic negative interpretations of one’s life and experience, leading one to focus solely on the bad and to feel hopeless about the future.

Burns gives a list of 10 types of warped thoughts, but in my opinion there is quite a bit of overlap in the categories. The distortions more or less boil down to the following:

—Making negative assumptions, whether about the future or about what someone else is thinking;
—Assuming that one’s emotions accurately reflect reality;
—Over-generalizing a small number of negative occurrences into an inevitable trend;
—Willfully ignoring all of the positives to focus solely on the negative;
—Thinking in black and white categories;
—Making unjustified “should” or “ought” statements about the world without considering other people’s perspectives;
—Feeling that you are responsible for things over which you have no control;
—Labeling oneself and others with vague pejoratives.

The first part of this book is dedicated to allowing the reader to recognize these types of thoughts and to combat them. This most often is just a matter of writing these thoughts down and exposing the distortions that lay beneath. Simple as this sounds, I’ve found this to be remarkably effective. As you might have guessed from the above example, I am rather prone to anxiety; and during this summer, my anxiety was getting to the point that I felt incapacitated. I was driving my friends and family nuts with my constant worrying; and nobody, including myself, knew how to deal with me.

Luckily, I heard about a site called MoodGYM, which is a website developed by the Australian National University for people dealing with anxiety and depression, using the techniques of CBT. Desperate for some relief, I completed the reading and activities on the website, and found that I felt much, much better. Impressed, I looked for books on CBT techniques, and of course came across this one.

What most intrigued me about CBT was the emphasis on accuracy. The techniques weren’t based on the premise that I was somehow damaged or filled with strange desires, nor did they include any amount of self-delusion or wishful thinking. Quite the reverse: the whole emphasis was on thinking clearly, basing beliefs on evidence, avoiding unreasonable assumptions, and seeing things from multiple points of view.

Take anger. Very often (though not always), our feelings of indignation simply result from seeing an event through a narrowly selfish lens. We don’t get the job we interviewed for, and we feel cheated; someone beat us to that parking spot, and we feel outraged. But when we consider these scenarios from the perspective of the boss or the other driver, the situation suddenly seems much more just and fair; they are pursuing their own interests, just like we are. So simply by looking at the situation from multiple points of view, and thus understanding it more fully, our feelings of anger are cooled.

When I began working through the techniques in the book, I was astounded by how often these types of distortions plagued my thinking. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so unpleasant: I could twist any situation or piece of information into somehow reflecting negatively on my character. Everything bad in the world confirmed my negativity, and everything good only served to reproach me and to make me envious and resentful. The good news was that, when I began to recognize these illogical patterns of thought, it was extremely easy for me to correct them; and for the past month or so I’ve been feeling a great deal happier and calmer.

After teaching the reader several personal and interpersonal techniques—strategies for dealing with oneself and others more effectively—Burns moves on to examining some of the underlying assumptions that give rise to warped thinking. It turns out that these all involve equating one’s “value” or “worth” with some extrinsic good, whether it be approval, love, success, fame, or even skill. There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the approval of others, the thrill of love, the sense of accomplishment, or the satisfaction of a job well done. The problem arises when, instead of enjoying something, we use it to measure ourselves.

To use a somewhat silly but germane example, how many people believe that those who read more books, bigger books, harder books, are somehow “superior” to people who don’t? I’ve certainly been guilty of this; but it is pretty clearly an absurd position when I think about it, and one that I couldn’t possibly defend on any valid moral or intellectual grounds. What on earth does it even mean to be a “superior” person?

Superiority only makes sense when we have some quality we can measure, such as wealth or strength; but when we say “superior” by itself, what quality do we mean? “Worth”? How do you measure that? You can try being clever and say “By the number of books you read” or something, but that’s clearly circular reasoning. If you are a humanist or religious, you might say that you have worth just from the fact of being alive; but then of course everyone is equally worthy and there’s no sense in feeling worthless.

In the non-Goodreads population, I suspect book addiction isn’t a big problem; more often, people feel down because they imagine that approval, love, money, or expertise is necessary to be a worthwhile and happy person. But the absurdity of this kind of thinking is revealed when you consider how many famous, beloved, rich, virtuosic, brilliant, successful people there have been, and still are, who are deeply depressed and feel worthless and hopeless. Short of torture, there are no circumstances in life that guarantee unhappiness; and the same goes for happiness. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to change or improve your situation, only a reminder you that the way you interpret a situation is often as important as the situation itself, if not more so.

I cannot hope to sum up the entire book in the space of this review; but I hope what I have included has convinced you that it’s at least worth looking into. After all, by definition, nothing feels better than happiness.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Burns’s writing style is nothing remarkable, and it is occasionally tacky; but I think that it’s excusable considering that he’s a therapist, not a writer, and that he’s trying to reach a popular audience. One flaw that I thought was less easy to excuse was Burns’s exclusive focus on straight couples in his sections on love and relationships. Burns writes in a purely heteronormative vein, not even acknowledging same-sex couples, which is difficult to justify, considering the higher rates of depression and anxiety among gays and lesbians—not to mention others in the LGBTQ community. I hope this is changed in future additions.

A criticism I am tempted to make, but which I actually think is unfair, is that CBT makes people passive, accepting, and more content with the status quo. It sometimes seems as if Burns is telling people not to try to change their circumstances, but rather to accommodate themselves to them. I think this is unfair for a few reasons. No matter how powerful we may be, there will always be things in life which we cannot change and which we simply have to accept; so developing the tools to do so without frustration or anger is useful for everyone. What’s more, real depression and anxiety are not conducive to effective action. Quite the opposite: depression often makes people apathetic and anxiety makes people feel too overwhelmed to do anything. Besides, you can’t solve a problem unless you can see it clearly, and the thinking patterns associated with depression and anxiety lead to a total inability to see problems clearly and to deal with them rationally. So I think accusations that this book is somehow reactionary or that it leads to passivity are unfair.

To sum up this already overlong review, I just hope I’ve convinced you that this book might be extremely valuable to you or to someone you know. It certainly has been for me. Now I no longer feel that I am at the mercy of my moods or emotions, or that my sense of self-worth or confidence is dependent on my circumstances. And I’d say these benefits definitely outweigh the tacky cover and the corny title, don’t you?

(Oh, and if the book seems like too big a commitment, MoodGYM is pretty swell too, despite additional corniness of course.)

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