23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang

Okay, so y’all know how I am on a quest to one day know everything?

What I have discovered on this quest is that it is possible to become interested in just about anything. Most things (maybe all things? I have not fully tested the hypothesis) are only boring until you know enough about them to get past the 101-level stuff, and then they quickly become very very interesting indeed. It’s like that thing where you’re never more than one really good story arc away from loving a certain superhero in comics? Seems weird now, but a few short years ago, I thought African history was boring.


Or to give another example, I’ve never been hugely interested in East and Southeast Asian history, but recently I learned a little bit more about Chinese history while reading up on the terracotta army guy, and I learned a little bit more about Vietnamese history from my Enormous Genocide Book, and now I’m kind of feeling like I should start dipping my toe in those waters. Like, the Opium Wars? Gotta know about that, right? That shit was insane!

So I think the stages are:

  1. Don’t know/care about the topic and feel fine about it
  2. Don’t know/care about the topic but feel guilty about it
  3. Feel guilty enough to grudgingly read an article/compile a mini-reading list about the topic
  4. Read a little bit about the topic but then feel annoyed that I still don’t know enough to speak with any authority on the topic
  5. Become mildly-to-very obsessed with the topic

I have been at Stage Two with economics since oh, around the end of the Bush Jr presidency, when the economy was shot to hell and everything was terrible and I couldn’t understand one damn explanation as to why. (Of course, the definition of terrible has since been reset by the Trump presidency and now basically has no bottom so I shouldn’t have worried my pretty little head about it, really.) I reached Stage Three like around maybe mid-2014, and reading 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism has nudged me into Stage Four.

Everyone I talk to regularly is now glancing at the exits as they contemplate the prospect of living with me if I should reach Stage Five with economics, the topic I have always claimed is the most boring topics in the entire fucking world and from which, therefore, they have probably felt they were secure from having to hear all about nonstop for weeks.

–my friends and relations, probably

All of that is to say that while I appreciated 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism for the critical eye that it casts on myths of the free market and why they are misleading, I do not feel I understood more than, oh, 30% of what the book was telling me. 30% is a generous estimate, really. The thing is (this is always the thing at Stage Four) that I do not know enough information to have any means of assessing the information 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism was providing me. I am a babe in the woods when it comes to economics. I hate being a babe in the woods. I HATE IT.

Here’s the one single thing I feel absolutely certain I have grasped and can believe: Ha-Joon Chang says early on in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism that the free market only seems free because we take for granted many market regulations such as immigration control. Because immigration control prevents the “free” market in developed countries like the US from capitalizing on cheap labor from developing nations. As soon as Chang said it, it seemed obvious, but that had never occurred to me before.

Anyway, I guess I now have to learn everything about economics. God damn it.

  • Totally agree about the stages. I even go through them somewhat with fiction, esp. fantasy. So hard and so much work at first to learn the rules of the world of the book and the vocab and the characters. Once you get over that hump, much easier and more enjoyable. But with non-fiction, I think it’s great you go through all the stages. Too many people read just one thing or one point of view and then want to speak with authority….

  • Jeanne

    I look forward to having you explain economics to me.

  • JeanPing

    Absolutely everything is interesting once you really see it. I’m constantly amazed at how the world is just stuffed with things that seem to be not that interesting, until you get inside and it turns out to be a whole universe. Irish dance was like that when my kid got into it. Or sure, economics, which I’ve kind of figured that if I can understand everything in that funny Keynes/Hayek rap battle video, I’m probably doing OK. Which isn’t true at all, obvs.

    IIRC, Republicans have traditionally been for globalization of markets and against tariffs/protections, on the grounds that globalization gets everybody closer to a freer market (by capitalizing on cheap labor in other countries, which eventually get enough jobs to raise wages). Not true any longer, but that used to be the rationale.

  • And this is why I want to be a perpetual college student, auditing as many classes as I can. It is also why I read so eclectically. The world is full of fascinating stuff. Even the things that seem boring or unintelligible at first.

  • When you know everything about economics, write up a reading list so I can learn everything too. Economics and statistics are the two things I didn’t take in college that I most wish I’d studied. And Spanish, but that’s kind of a distant third.

  • MumsyNK

    Insect/vermin extermination can be fascinating, but it turns out practitioners of same are likely to have imbibed a large quantity of vermin mythology. Difficult!

  • “What I have discovered on this quest is that it is possible to become interested in just about anything.”

    I love your attitude! I’m going to share a couple of quotes from this post with my kids. They need a little encouragement when it comes to learning subjects they think are “boring.”

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I used to think economics was dull as dirt too but then I read a few books about it last year and now it is super interesting and I am feeling completely betrayed by the government on so many levels. It’s a big topic and I have been picking away at it from different angles and feel like I still know hardly anything. But if you decide to geek out on it and need someone to geek out with/to who won;t say, Jenny please stop, you know how to find me 🙂

  • The only thing I was ever bored by in high school was the Knights of Labor, but I expect union history is actually fascinating.

    Currently the only thing I am bored by (to tears) is watching other people play video games.

  • Alley

    I like those stages of interest and the idea that you’re one good story away from being pulled into something, whatever the topic. I mean, my brain very much does not care about sailing or football and is actively trying to counter that idea that it could get into these things BUT WHO KNOWS

  • I completely agree with you about how anything can become interesting if you know enough about it! This is basically how I envision the process of getting a PhD actually. You learn more and more about a topic until there are some obscure questions you’re dying to find the answer to 🙂

  • If you have Netflix you should watch Inside Job (if you haven’t already). It’s one of the best explanations of not only the housing crisis and economic depression during Bush’s presidency, but a look at how finance and Washington are entertained.