Don’t you love second hand stores? I picked up two books 30-Second Philosophies (edited by Barry Loewer) and 30-Second Economics (edited by Donald Marron) at a local Goodwill for only a couple of dollars. These books are being sold from a high of $30.00 to a low of $3.29 (plus shipping and handling), so they were a bargain.

But since you may be only able to buy one, I thought I’d give you my opinion on which to buy, and which to avoid.

The Idea is Excellent

If you’re like me with a job, a family, church, volunteer work, a house, a blog, an avocation, and other demands on your time, reading the long treaties written by the philosophical and economic greats just isn’t feasible. Unless you’re a professor at a liberal arts college or unusually interested in the topic, you are more likely to watch a re-run of the Property Brothers, participate in a pick-up basketball game, or chat with a friend than you are to read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. And yet, you, like me, might be interested in both these topics.

And so, Metro Books and Ivy Press have given us books that can be read 30-seconds at a time (or thereabouts) and acquaint you and me with the major theories and thinking in both philosophy and economics.

But the execution is only as good as the editor and contributors, and I think one of these books is superior to the other.

TO avoid:

30-Second Philosophies tried (but I think failed) to bring lofty, philosophical thoughts down to an understandable level for the layman. It might be that it was just too difficult a project. These are complex thoughts after all, and boiling them down like this and retaining their core insights might not have been possible. But if that is true, that would mean it shouldn’t have been attempted.

One reason I found this book less compelling was my perception that Mr. Loewer’s biases (and those of his contributors) were evident. It was pretty obvious (especially when he got to the religion section) that he had strong opinions concerning which one the reader should believe. But at least he included those philosophers with whom he disagreed, which permitted the reader to make up his own mind.

Another problem I had with this book may rest on my another of my own biases. Some of these philosophical thoughts struck me as sophomoric. On page 42, we read about “The Brain in a Vat” theory. According to this theory, you really aren’t here. I’m really not there. You aren’t reading this. I didn’t write it. Instead, we are brains in a vat, being fed stimuli that mimics life. We can’t possibly know that this isn’t true, the theory goes. I would say that I find it hard to believe that anyone spends brain power on ruminations like this except that I once met such a young man in my student days who asserted just that opinion. I, personally, thought he might have been hitting the beer a little too hard, but he was having a good time.

I decided to go take the red pill.

Also, I had to wonder: were there no women philosophers of note? No Asian, African, or Hispanic philosophers that were good enough for inclusion? Perhaps that’s true. I don’t know enough to argue, but I did wonder.

And so, I’d give this one a pass.

To Consider:

30-Second Economics edited by Donald Marron was simply much better done. Were these economic concepts just less complex than the philosophical ones, or were Mr. Marron and his contributors simply more adept at bringing these concepts down to the level of the common man? Whatever the reason, this book is eminently readable and accessible.

Mr. Marron and his contributors also do does a superb job of being even-handed. Are they capitalists? Socialists? These (and other economic theories) are provided with easy to understand critiques without putting a thumb on the scales so you will adopt the “correct” theory. It’s really hard to tell which they might prefer.

Another plus is that all of these theories — even the competing ones — made sense. Even if you ended up disagreeing with a position, you weren’t left with my reaction to “the Brain in a Vat” (which was, as I said, struck me as incredibly silly.) The reader could see and understand why Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek could hold different opinions on the same topic and appreciate the contrast.

Lastly, for whatever reason, while the majority of the economists looked to be western men, there were economic ideas from women and men from other nationalities, too. It left me thinking that those who assembled the book was more widely read and inclusive, which provided me with more confidence that they had done their research.

Which one?

Well, I think that’s obvious. If you can only read one, go with 30 seconds of economics.

But what if you think you’ll like reading about brains in vats? Go for 30-Second Philosophies. It’s a short book. And maybe it will make more sense for you than for me. And it wasn’t without merit. For instance, until I read this book, I had no idea that Friedrich Nietzsche had gone insane — or why.

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