More classics (and other novels) for economists

Yesterday I reposted my 2013 list of classic novels for economists. Commenters on the post and many people on Twitter offered other suggestions. Here they are. First, classic novels:

Balzac – Alexandre Delaigue & others mentioned Le Père Goriot (cited by Thomas Piketty) and Eugenie Grandet was recommended by Rebecca Spang (about greed, speculation and coins).

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (of course! how could I have omitted it. Thanks Stephen Kinsella.

From Laurent Franckx, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Merjin Knibbe & others pointed to Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment and The Gambler, and Gogol’s Dead Souls. Also Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

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On the Gogol, “The plot of this hilarious satire revolves over an attempt by the protagonist to acquire fictious collateral (dead serfs) for which money could be borrowed from the Russian state bank (in early 19th century)”, writes Juha Tarkka.

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Merjin also suggested some others I hadn’t even heard of: by Heijermans, Kamertjeszonde (no translation?!). Multatuli’s Max Havelaar. Fukazawa’s The ballad of Narayama, Malot’s Sans Familie.

Price: Check on Amazon

Matt Clancy suggested The Grapes of Wrath. Of course! Another one I should have thought of, were it not for the A Level aversion therapy: hated it when forced to read it.

Nick Isles proposed Jude the Obscure. (I hate Hardy’s novels; I always want the characters to just pull themselves together.)

Zola was popular:  The Ladies’ Paradise, L’Argent. Anything by Zola is magnificent.

Trollope’s The Way We Live Now was a popular one, and again a glaring omission from the original list.

Robbie Mochrie, impressively, suggested a Jane Austen work I’ve never heard of, about “the ways in which economic activity was shifting from land use to provision of goods and services early in the industrial revolution,” Sanditon.

Cyril Ritter points to Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1945, “For its depiction of a system that exploits poor people and keeps them poor and uninformed.”

Then there were some non-classic suggestions, which was against the rules but there were some great ideas.

I thoroughly agree with all those recommending Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which in effect makes the point about the formal identity under ideal conditions of decentralised general equilibrium and the centrally planned economy. But more than that it’s a cracking good read. Also Spufford’s Golden Hill and The Backroom Boys. He’s a wonderful writer.

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Jacques Crémer recommended The Godfather, Mario Puzo, on game theory.

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Others in this category:

China Miéville, Embassytown

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Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun (international capital flows)

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Asimov’s Foundation series


Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

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David Lodge’s Nice Work

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Classics for Economists

Courtesy of Elizabeth Baldwin at Oxford, I was reminded of a list of classic novels economists should read, something I posted here a few years ago. I had forgotten about it, and must immodestly say it’s a great list. Here it is again, below.

However, it could be better. Even in my own cultural tradition, I haven’t read the great Russian authors on the whole. Which of those are particularly economics-relevant? I hate Henry James and Dickens (school aversion therapy) but accept novels like Little Dorrit could count. What about African, Indian, Chinese classics? Should modern classics be added, Vonnegut’s Player Piano, say? Suggestions please.

The 2013 list:

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad: the heart of colonialism

Germinal, Emile Zola: the fuel of the Industrial Revolution – coal and human life

Price: £7.25
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North and South or Mary Barton, Mrs Gaskell: the social effects of industrialisation with a special eye on women. Mary Barton is set in my home city, Manchester.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov: the murderous insanity of Soviet dictatorship – Professor Woland, Game Theorist? I’ve only just read this, having seen the truly, madly, deeply brilliant Theatre de Complicite staging earlier this year.

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The Charterhouse of Palma, Stendhal: pre-unification Italy and European politics

The Leopard, Giuseppe de Lampedusa: The Risorgimento, and modernity.

The Whirlpool, George Gissing: in fact anything by Gissing – as he summed it up, “Not enough money,” in Britain’s newly industrialising cities

Price: £8.49

Middlemarch, George Eliot (or again, pretty much anything by her): astute political and psychological analysis of 19th century social change. Bonnets and frocks without the saccharine.

Roxana, Daniel Defoe: the economic status of women, by one of the unsung feminist heroes, who was also a famous economic journalist in his day.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin: collectivism, conformity – the dark side of the early 20th century. Another recent discovery, courtesy of Nick Reynolds.

Price: £8.99

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo: need I say anything? I even loved the recent musical movie version

Price: £9.47
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My Antonia and O Pioneers, Willa Cather: the harsh life of the American frontier, and the strength of women.

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald: the Roaring 20s in a glamorous nutshell. I haven’t yet seen the new Baz Luhrmann movie version.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressel: not the greatest literature but a novel that still speaks to working people struggling for money.

Castle Rackrent, Maria Edgeworth: She was contemporary with Jane Austen, but lived a lot longer.


My damp Scandinavian view of the world

It’s the last full day of our holiday in Sweden and the weather has turned a bit wet, so in between the detective novels (the latest – Jill Paton Walsh’s Dorothy Sayers update, Thrones, Dominations) I read Robert Peston’s WTF. It’s as well-informed and full of insight about the present state of the world as you’d expect from such a distinguished journalist (although written in a slightly matey style which didn’t appeal to me). The book is mainly about Brexity UK – with a brilliant chapter on our last general election and the respective characters of Mrs May and Mr Corbyn – though it touches on parallel trends in Trumpland. I agree with his diagnosis that the issues contributing to the anti-establishment anger date back well before the financial crisis, to the deindustrialisation of the 80s and 90s, and the chasm between London/SE and the rest of the country. The book’s fundamental point is that the economy stopped working for an ever-growing number of voters, vast numbers of whom have seen no significant rise in living standards for well over a decade, and even longer for too many.

Interestingly, in the light of the current fashion for saying the big economic problem is all about concentration and the exploitation of market power, Peston instead pins the blame for a dclining labour share of national income on the Reagan-Thatcher-led attack on union power from the mid-70s on. The press reports of the Jackson Hole discussions this year noted that debate there focused on the issue of concentration. When I expressed some doubt on Twitter that this was anything other than a US phenomenon (as the UK labour share looked from eyeballing an ONS chart to have been fairly stable), a couple of replies insisted I was wrong (one arguing I was looking at the wrong data, and the other claiming the IMF said it was a global phenomenon). Well, after my years on the Competition Commission, I’m a big fan of tough competition policy, and agree it has been lax in the US for some time. The US also has an issue with creeping occupation licensing as the Obama CEA pointed out. But, reading up on the IMF’s recent work on trends in the labour share makes plain the great diversity of national experiences – and indeed, they say the UK labour share has increased.

Well, whenever a phenomenon is so varied across countries, it tells you institutions are playing a big part. Combined with the fact that across countries the big decline in the labour share occurred from the mid-1970s to around 2000, surely labour market institutions played a key part – for all that it’s right to be concerned about concentration in some countries/sectors now. (And the IMF data goes only to 2014, so perhaps there has been a dramatic decline in the latest 3 years of data…)

Anyway, looking out at the rain, on now to proofs of the forthcoming book by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge, which I’m going to be reviewing in due course – a history of capitalism in America, which is going to be fascinating, as I’m anticipating a defence. There has also on Twitter been some discussion about what books to put on the syllabus for a history of capitalism course (really, a history of thought course), in which I didn’t participate (& can’t find now), but noted with interest that all the books were critiques, from The Great Transformation on. Maybe the Greenspan/Wooldridge book could balance it out.


Holiday reading

I’m on holiday & luxuriating in the reading time, mostly non-work books. I did, though, read AIQ: How Artificial Intelligence Works and etc etc (am fed up now with these super-long subtitles) by Nick Polson and James Scott. If you read about AI already then this won’t add anything new. However, it’s a very nice, accessible and balanced introduction to AI for those who aren’t semi-immersed already, which is most people of course. The book explains the basics, and gives lots of examples of what ML and AI are already doing, and what they might be capable of in future – while also explaining what the potential risks are. It’s an enjoyable read, too, with lots of stories and real world examples. It isn’t Pollyannaish exactly, but it is nice to read something on this subject that isn’t all gloom and doom. AI beginners should start here.

One thing I particularly appreciated was the way the authors highlight the role of female scientific pioneers: astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (no, I’d never heard of her either), Grace Hopper, and Florence Nightingale. I learnt some new things: that real time data monitoring is already a thing in Formula 1 racing and starting now in basketball, for instance. There’s also a nice section on health explaining that the barriers to using AI and health data are not technological but social and economic – which will make it extremely hard to use data for the benefit of individual patients, even as massive data sets enable research on populations.

Apart from that, it’s been a diet of detective novels – Mick Herron’s Dead Lions (love this series), Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man – and also Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (clever but an acquired taste). And now, the great Swedish outdoors beckons.


What numbers make visible & what they erase

That I read Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management was a bit random – we’re going away for a week and I didn’t want to start a holiday book, so pulled this bound proof the publisher had sent me off the pile. I’m glad I did. It’s a terrifically interesting book. It’s in effect a business history of slavery in the Caribbean and the American south, using the detailed management records that remain to understand how plantations were run – just as business historians would later use similar documentary evidence to trace the practices of management in industry. As she writes, “Scale required structure.” The sugar and cotton plantations were sometimes very large scale indeed. And the science of management emerged in this context before any manufactories grew to the same kind of scale.

There is a particularly illuminating section on the standardisation of record keeping: “Preprinted forms were an important and overlooked technology in organizing plantation labor.” Early records were hand written and ruled, with documents often sent to absentee owners in England – this was, Rosenthal points out, also one of the earliest instances of the separation of ownership and control, as large plantations were often run by professional managers. (The role of earnings from slavery in fuelling the growth of financial instruments and the City in England are the subject of this UCL research project, Legacies of British Slave-ownership) The availability of standard forms helped spread the ‘scientific management’ techniques – again, ahead of Taylor’s famous introduction of scientific management in industry. (This reminded me of Donald Mackenzie’s brilliant essay on how the commercial availability of options prices calculated by computers helped grow derivatives markets.)

Rosenthal also covers the role of slaves as, literally, human capital. Plantation managers kept inventory records and appied several different valuation techniques. As she observes, this was fundamentally an issue about property and therefore about power and politics, property being something defined by law. (And property in the form of people is more political than most.) By the eve of the Civil War, the total value of enslaved human capital was over $3 billion. (Before anyone takes this particularly noxious version of human capital as an opportunity to knock economics, economists were prominent in the abolition campaign, and historian Thomas Carlyle named economics the ‘dismal science’ for not respecting the property rights of slave owners.)

Rosenthal (formerly a management consultant) ends by pointing out that labor conditions for many people in the world still leave much to be desired: “Confronting plantation account books can remind us how easy it is to overlook the conditions of production from the comfort of a counting house or safety of a computer screen. Reckoning with the ways planters accounted for slavery should encourage us to rethink the kinds of data we record and how we use it. Quantitative records can help us to see farther, but only if we remember what the numbers make visible and what they erase.”