Friday, October 05, 2007

A Pickup Truck Full of Giraffes

Yesterday I went to a CGD seminar by Gregory Clark, author of the new and highly acclaimed A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

Clark presented many provocative slides that upset conventional wisdom about the dynamics of economic growth, social welfare, and happiness. But he spoke so fast that it was often hard to grasp the logic or even the points he was making. And then at the end he summed it all up into one big theory and sat down.

It being a (friendly) academic setting, the panelists immediately went at Clark with an aggressive slate of questions and doubts. I have to admit I was sympathetic with the questioners. His thesis seemed rickety, even though the individual points were very interesting.In the first few rounds, Clark handled the questions well and good naturedly.

And then he did something highly unusual and candid.

He said, "Listen, this book took me twelve years to write, and it was murder. Many times I did not think I would finish it. I had all of these novel facts and insights but could not come up with a way to pull them all together.

"Sometimes I would get two insights connected to each other, but they would be contradicted by a third. And then I would get the first and third insights in harmony, but the second one would not fit. "

And then:

"It was like having a pickup truck full of giraffes and trying to get them all to duck at the same time when you're driving under a bridge."

This image brought a wide smile to my face and was so endearing I will definitely buy his book.