I just started reading Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible by William Goetzmann. It will take a while as it’s too heavy to carry on trains, but I’m already loving it. This from the introduction:
“Markets taught people about such things as the limitations of the capacity for reason and the dangers of miscalculation. These complex conceptual frameworks augmented and stimulated the development of problem solving, but they also set up a conflict between traditional and quantitative modes of thought. This conflict is heightened during periods of financial innovation and financial disaster. Not only did financial architecture challenge traditional financial institutions, it also challenged traditional conceptual frameworks for dealing with the unknown. … Understanding and managing this conflict reman important challenges to modern society.”
I’m now deep in the opening chapter on Uruk, accountancy and cuneiform.
Yesterday – the morning after the Brexit vote – it was too painful to think about what had happened. I’m horrified by the outcome. At least for my train journal I had a completely absorbing book to read. It’s Rob Schmitz’s Street of Eternal Happiness: Big city dreams along a Shanghai road. Schmitz is the China correspondent for Marketplace, a speaker of Mandarin and has spent many years living in the country.
The book uses stories about different characters living on or near the street to illustrate some broader themes. The owner of a not-very-successful sandwich bar opens up the aspirations and culture of young people whose life experience has been so different from that of their parents, who suffered the Cultural Revolution, grew up with siblings, above all conformed. A flower seller has lived the rural-urban migration to work in a factory story, before setting up her small business and bringing her sons to Shanghai. An elderly couple scraping by on pension and a street food stall are victims of a fraudulent pyramid scheme.
The themes are familiar, but here are woven into the fabric of everyday life, and made human. I’ve only been to China once (Beijing) & would love to return, although am not at all sure I’d want to live there as Rob Schmitz has. It’s pretty clear now that America is in its post-imperial decline, the European dream is disintegrating, and the next century will be the Chinese one. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading Street of Eternal Happiness and if it could keep me from brooding over the UK’s historical (not in a good way) decision, that’s real testament to how interesting it is.
On Monday & Tuesday I attended an absolutely terrific conference, The Wealth Project, which is about “changing how we measure economic progress,” to quote the conference strapline. The aim is to develop concepts and measures of different kinds of wealth so that policies and decisions take due account of the future potential for consumption and well-being, as well as the short term. This has been a preoccupation of mine since at least writing The Economics of Enough as well as my GDP book. The Wealth Project will produce a book around the end of 2016 or start of next year.
Meanwhile, it’s always interesting to see what books people cite at conferences. This week I noted: C.A.Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World; David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature; Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation; Dieter Helm, Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet. I referred back to the recent crop of GDP books and the Inspector Chen novel featuring GDP growth as villain.
Self-indulgently, I read *another* novel this week, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It has some relevance to this blog, with fascinating insight into early modern (18th century London-New York) finance. Unlike his brilliant Red Plenty, however – which was about the formal equivalence of a centrally planned economy and a decentralised competitive general equilibrium (under certain assumptions, naturally) – Golden Hill is only tangentially about economics, to be transparent about it. It is, though, a rattling good read, highly recommended, and impossible to say more about without spoilers.
Anybody who hasn’t yet read Red Plenty should make it a priority. I also adore Spufford’s Backroom Boys, a hymn to the otherwise unsung heroes of British engineering. And his volume with Jenny Uglow, Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention.
Friday evening is a time for settling on the sofa with the magazines and catalogues that have arrived during the week, and last night it was the next season’s catalogue for Harvard University Press. There are some terrific upcoming offerings. Top of my list will be Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization. His papers on the successive ‘unbundlings’ in production driving global trade are wonderful.
Plenty of others look enticing too. Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent by Brooke Harrington – a study of the professional advisers who make global inequality possible. The Market as God by Harvey Cox looks intriguing, theology meets economics. Once Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth and Belonging Since 1500 by Charles S Maier – “territorial boundaries transform geography into history,” says the blurb. China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay by Minxin Pei will be a must-read for China-watchers. Also interesting-looking is Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China by Julian Gewirtz.
VIrtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke will be one for competition policy and IO folks. So too a recent title, Antitrust Law in the New Economy: Google, Yelp, LIBOR, and the Control of Information by Mark Patterson.
One for all newshounds, Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism by James Hamilton. And for all Camus fans, I spotted the backlist title A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zaretsky.