What does it mean to live in a capitalist world? How can an individual living within a capitalist system not only survive, but “play the game” in a way that assures victory?
These are questions I’ve been asking myself for a very, very long time. My first formal introduction to the concept of capitalism came from my early days in finance.
When I was in my early 20s, I sat down and read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations over the course of 12 days — which translated to 100 pages per day (yes, I was a maniac back then).
That was part of what could be considered the beginning of my education in the world of finance, and the spark of my interest in capitalism as a concept.
What’s puzzled me ever since then is this key question: Why don’t more people understand the capitalist game? Why do they continue to behave in a way that puts them at a disadvantage?
This line of thinking took me down a long, winding, and at time convoluted path.
Through the course of this education in the ways of capital, I consumed more books, lectures, papers and miscellaneous content than I could count.
Compounding all this “academic” learning was my experience in the work world: first as an options trader, then as a salesman. In a very real sense, I have inhabited the world of hyper-capitalism for over a decade now.
There were some surreal moments, such as hanging out with Bob Benmosche during the aftermath of the financial crisis, or attending a talk by George W. Bush at a financial conference.
You could say I’ve seen the belly of the beast, and even fueled the beast to some extent.
For a long time, I’ve simply lived with this knowledge and wondered where it would take me.
But now that we’re living through a crisis that is highlighting many of the flaws of this worldwide system, I felt it was time to start to put what I’ve learned out into the world.
The Book of Capitalism
What I’ve settled on is a new series, structured as a free resource that will be continuously added to over time. I’m calling it The Book of Capitalism.
My first inclination was to write a whole new book, like The Learning Factory. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that books don’t make sense for such a fast-moving concept.
Ben over at Stratechery put it very eloquently when he described his decision to pick the blog format over traditional publishing:
While books remained a fantastic medium for stories, both fiction and non, blogs were not only good enough, they were actually better for ideas closely tied to a world changing far more quickly than any book-related editorial process can keep up with.“Books and Blogs” on the Stratechery Blog
With that in mind, I decided it’d be best to simply publish this one piece at a time, and even revisit it as needed.
Capitalism is a fast-moving subject, and this is no doubt the best way to describe it.
What You Get From The Book of Capitalism
The purpose of The Book of Capitalism is quite straightforward: to give you both a descriptive and normative understanding of capitalism.
Descriptive elements are there to highlight the structure and functional realities of capitalism.
Normative elements found within are designed to provide guidance for those who want to behave rationally within a capitalist system.
My goal is not to tell you everything there is to know about capitalism. That’s a subject that can, and does, fill many volumes.
Instead, I’ll be focusing on the key elements of capitalism, how they manifest in the real world, and, if possible, how the reader can leverage that knowledge in some way.
Topics covered will include (but not be limited to):
- Risk & uncertainty
- The ethics of capitalism
- The structure and impact of markets
- Regulatory capture
- Monopolies and monopsonies
For the normative side of things, there will be some ideas and algorithms that could be twisted for slightly evil ends.
A Controversial Topic
With all that being said: capitalism is perhaps the most controversial subject on the planet.
I find much of what I’ve discovered disturbing, and to say I don’t have my own political attitudes about them would be dishonest.
Understanding this subject (like anything else worth studying) involves examining it from every angle. This means taking a look at the warts, along with all the shiny toys capitalism has produced.
Don’t be surprised if you find some of the material to be shocking, offensive and/or overly brutal. It’s not written to fit anyone’s sensibilities — even mine.
There are fervent camps on either side, and my goal here is to present, in varying degrees, both sides.
Some of the sections are written from the perspective of someone who wants to “play the game” so to speak — to leverage capitalism for their own ends.
Tempering that somewhat are sections that explore the downsides of capitalism, so you can get a holistic perspective on what it means to operate as a capitalist.
This is dynamic driven by the fact that capitalism’s an intensely complex subject, and it’s filled with quite a few paradoxes.
It’s easy to be persuaded by either side, and I want you to get some sense of the whole picture before you decide which side of the fence you want to sit on.
I have my own opinions, of course, but the reality is that I’m just as paradoxical as anyone else.
On the one hand, I’ve been in the nexus of capitalism (as mentioned above) and my competitive drive sends me in directions that allow me to win in a capitalist society.
On the other, there are many valid criticisms of capitalism and what it does to the world. To claim it’s benign, wholly positive force in the world is misguided.
With that in mind, I expect you to be capable of thinking on your own. This isn’t written for idiots who want some kind of “brainhack” style of content.
There will be algorithms that you can exploit for your own ends, of course, but I want you to be equipped to understand the consequences of those algorithms as well. If you’re willing to live with those consequences, that’s on you.
If you’re ready, you can start reading The Book of Capitalism here.