Sunday, 15 April 2012

"Boulevard of Broken Dreams": Late But Not Forgotten

A book review is a tricky matter. Being an author myself, I am never quite how sure what my role is as a reviewer. That is particularly so when the book that I am reviewing does not leave me with a favourable impression. To write a lukewarm review and potentially damage a fellow author's likelihood of success, or simply to decline to write a review in such circumstances. I am not sure of the correct answer.

Another circumstance for declining to review a book is the feeling that I am not really the right person for the job. That is the sense that I had when I received the book, Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Princeton University Press, here) by Professor Josh Lerner of the Harvard Business School. Lerner is that rare blend of world-class thinker with hands-on experience who has made major contributions to the way that we think about innovation and entrepreneurship. At the time that I received a copy--18 months ago, I did not think that I could do justice to the book. And so I demurred, as the book lay on my bookshelf, unread and unattended. Over the ensuing 18 months or so, however, I have found myself more and more drawn to the subject of Lerner's book, in practice, writing and teaching. Eventually I read the book itself from cover to cover and later relied on portions of the book in preparing a talk. I suddenly realized that I had been engaged by the book at multiple levels. I am now ready to write a review.

Lerner's book is really two books in one, each about 85 pages in length. The first, entitled "Can Bureaucrats Help Entrepreneurs?" is what Lerner calls the "39,000 foot" look at the public role of entrepreneurship and venture capital. The second part drills down a much more granular and local view of the subject. Three chapter headings are particularly telling: "How Governments Go Wrong, Bad Design" (chapter 6), How Governments Go Wrong, Bad Implementation" (chapter 7) and "The Special Challenges of Sovereign Funds" (chapter 8).

Despite the doom and gloom of these titles, his discussion reveals a much more mixed bag and two countries of particular interest to me--Singapore and Israel-- serve as positive (though not perfect by any means) models of the potential for government involvement in entrepreneurship. It is these latter chapter from which I drew insight and inspiration in preparing my own public talk.

So what do I make of the Lerner book? First and foremost, I could not shake the impression that each of these two parts should have been the subject of a separate book. Short of that, I would have preferred if Lerner had expanded the second part of the book and provide further discussion of developments on the ground. I relished his discussions in this regard and I had only one complaint when I came to the end of chapter 8--it is such a pity that there is not more of it. Indeed, I cannot say that the first part aided much in my understanding of Lerner's elegant and edifying exposition of the granularity of the intersection between government involvement and entrepreneurship.

Perhaps another of saying this is that I remain a skeptic about the extent to which one can draw more generalizable lessons from the examples that Lerner describes. Lerner is no deductionist, and he does not impose a top-down view of the subject, even in the first part of the book. However, even inductive conclusions from these latter chapters should be be treated with caution. It is true that Lerner addresses "Lessons and Pitfalls" in his final chapter, but I am not sure that his descriptions warrant these conclusions. There is nothing surprising here--the subject matter that Lerner addresses is inherently "messy" for any analytical treatment. In that connection, I recall the observation of the March 10, 2012 issue of The Economist in its concluding words of obituary in memory of the great Harvard social scientist James Q. Wilson:
"Problems remained, however. None was more thorny, for him, than the qualifying of evidence. Many of the social problems he pondered seemed to boil down to culture and ways of thinking. for which the data were ungathered and ungatherable. As a scientist, political or social, he needed to count and collate things to find the answers to his questions. But nothing that was really important about human beings, he [James Q. Wilson--njw] once said. could be measured in that fashion." 
Wilson may have been a bit too pessimistic about our ability to reach durable social truths about ourselves, including the world of entrepreneurship and innovation. That said, better for the reader to consider the chapters in part two of the book in depth and to draw his own conclusions, based on the reader's own experiences. This in my view is the special contribution of the Lerner book and why it is worthy of reading, more than once.

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