It’s always tough whittling down the list of books I’ve read in the past 12 months to the top 10 or 12, but here goes. The rules are: I’ve read it since this time last year (publication date is irrelevant); my choice is completely personal, idiosyncratic and final; the prize is that I offer to take the winner out for lunch or dinner should we ever be in the same city.
Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution – Rebecca Spang (review)
House of Debt – Atif Mian and Amir Sufi (review)
Rise and Fall of American Growth – Robert Gordon (review)
Global Inequality – Branko Milanovic (I reviewed this in Democracy)
The Great Invention – Ehsan Masood (I reviewed this in Nature)
Platform Revolution – Geoffrey Parker, Marshall Van Alstyne and Sangeet Paul Choudary (review)
Matchmakers – David Evans and Richard Schmalensee (review)
The Inner Lives of Markets – Ray Fisman and Tim O’Sullivan (review)
Messy – Tim Harford (will be reviewing soon)
A Culture of Growth – Joel Mokyr (I’ve reviewed it for the FT – to be published soon)
Bourgeois Equality – Deirdre McCloskey (I reviewed this for the FT too)
Ghettoside – Jill Leovy (review)
Capital Without Borders – Brooke Harrington (review)
The Moral Economy – Sam Bowles (review)
The alert will realise this is 14 titles, but I’ll postpone the hard decision until later this month.
PS apologies for the fact that Amazon links are broken in old posts. I had tech problems this summer and the fix meant removing the old widget.
It’s a grey, grey day. The nights are drawing in. A gang of crows has settled noisily on the roof of the house opposite, as if sent by Ted Hughes in a bad mood. Most of all, the state of the world in general and UK politics in particular is super-dismaying. So of course I found a blanket and sat down with a book that dropped through the letter box and wasn’t even pre-chewed by the dog before I got to it. The book is An Age of Risk: Politics and Economy in Early Modern Britain by Emily Nacol. Sometimes all you want to do is bury yourself in a scholarly book about 18th century philosophers.
Reaching the chapter on Hume, I read: “Hume understands how hard it is to live with uncertainty. More importantly, Hume is also exceptionally mindful of how, even if humans can push past the morass of uncertainty to identify probable future outcomes, the anxiety proviked by uncertainty remains untouched. He notes in A Treatise of Human Nature that even though uncertainty can trigger hope and fear in individuals, in practice it seems to generate mostly fear and discomfort. And this is true even when people are in possession of relatively sure probable knowledge about the future.”
‘Every thing that is unexpected affrights us,’ he wrote. Like the superb behavioural economist he was, Hume roots this in a diagnosis of cognition.
The book goes on to argue that one of Hume’s aims in writing his essays aimed at a general public was to shift risk attitudes toward recognising the benefits of taking risks, the oportunity for profit in economic ventures. He wanted to open the eyes of the fearful to ‘a counterpoising argument’: “Could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists.”
Hume specifically discussed the ‘groundless fear’ of open international trade. Nacol argues that he counters this by suggesting that an open attitude to risk-taking will enrich all parties. I wonder how far Hume would get with his argument these days? (NB, rhetorical question).
On the train yesterday I finished an enjoyable book, The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein and Heisenberg taught us to love Uncertainty by Robert Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. It’s the book of a course this philosopher and physicist teach to students who are a mix of humanities and science majors, and it concerns the interactions between discoveries in physics and the wider culture. Now, I must confess that, despite the simplification here, I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, condensates, entanglement and all that jazz: it feels like my brain can almost grasp what’s going on but despite straining can’t quite get there. I’m not alone but at least I don’t pretend; the book has nice examples of ‘fruit loopery’, meaningless claims of spurious authority based on the impressive sound of quantum terminology. The idea of there being no ‘out there’ outside the model, from which an expert and impartial observer can analyse everything, has obvious resonance for a social scientist. But let’s not pretend to do quantum economics.
Even so, the book is convincing in its argument that the Newtonian world (as imported into culture) of straightforward cause and effect has been replaced by a more uncomfortable world of ‘gaps, inconsistencies, warps and bubbles’. The authors think this is a good thing – perhaps it prefigures a ‘new humanism’ they suggest. Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. But I would agree that: “Understanding and appreciating quantum language and imagery – along with the ability to recognise its misuse in fruitloopery – is part of what it means to be an educated person today.” But is there any truly accessible explanation of it for the non-physicist?
As it happened, I read Minxin Pei’s China’s Crony Capitalism in the couple of days after I’d written this article about the importance of property rights in the Financial Times. In this interesting short book, Pei links the emergence of the rampant corruption in today’s China to “partial and incremental reforms of property rights associated with nominally state owned assets in the post-Tiananmen era.” These changes decentralized control over the assets to regional and local officials, without clarifying the ownership rights. The incentive was there, from the early 1990s, to exploit the lack of clarity. At about the same time, a political decentralization created the opportunity. The appointment system went from one where senior officials appointed people one and two ranks down, to one where each layer appointed the next layer down. A market for patronage emerged, which encouraged corruption because officials needed deals with private business to make the money to pay for their jobs. Finally, a fiscal reform enabled local governments to keep the proceeds from land sales while re-centralizing tax revenues to Beijing.
The book concludes: “It is inconceivable that the CCP can reform the political and economic institutions of crony capitalism because these are the very foundations of the regimes monopoly of power.” Even if the corrupt authoritarian regime were to fall, the book argues, liberal democracy would not be the outcome. Something more like Russia’s kleptocracy would emerge. Or will, rather. “The fragility of the institutions of the party state … raies fears that even modest reform efforts could unleash a revolution. The prospect of genuine market-oriented reform is equally unpromising because such a change would eliminate the rents for the ruling autocratic elites.” Any kind of change seems to spell collapse.
In another coincidence, as I finished this book, the FT’s Jamil Anderlini (author of a brilliant e-book about the rise and fall of Bo Xilai) published a big feature on neo-Maoism in China, which he portrays as am anti-elite, anti-inequality, populist movement in the same spirit as Trumpism, Brexiteering and right-wing and left-wing populism around the continent. Sobering stuff.
A comment on my post reviewing The Nobel Factor by Avner Offer and Gabriel Soderberg asked if the book covers the reasons Joan Robinson was never awarded the prize. There is a passing mention: “In the list of those who were denied the prize, it is difficult not to conclude that Robinson and Galbraith were kept out for ideological reasons.” Other non-winners in contention include, among others, Will Baumol, Zvi Griliches, Albert Hirschman, Moses Abramovitz, Harold Hotelling, Anthony Atkinson, Dale Jorgensen, Partha Dasgupta, Nicholas Kaldor and – the other woman – Anna Schwartz. A mixed bunch, some still alive of course.
I also received an interesting email from Helmut Lubbers, who pointed me to this review of the book from a heterodox perspective. It is of course true that although there has been great variety among the winners, to a degree that you can’t label it 100% mainstream, neither has it rewarded heterodox economists.