Forthcoming economics books for 2016 – Part 2

Yesterday’s post had some of the new books being published by university presses in the months ahead. Here are the forthcoming titles from some other publishers. This selection is rather random/eclectic. So once again, suggestions for an update welcomed.

Penguin & its imprints: Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times, essays by Thomas Piketty; The New Case for Gold by James Rickards; The Rise and Fall of Nations by Ruchir Sharma; The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of 70,000 Ordinary Lives by Helen Pearson; The Euro: How Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe by Joe Stiglitz.

Random House: Mohamed El-Erian’s The Only Game in Town: Central Banks,Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.

Bodley Head: And the Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis; Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael Casey; Narconomics: How to Run a Drugs Cartel by Tom Wainwright; The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell (OK, philosophy, not economics); Saving Bletchley Park by Sue Black and Stevyn Colgan (again, stretching the category). Also from a Random House imprint: A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People’s Institution by Travis Elborough.

Little Brown: The End of Alchemy: Banking, the Global Economy & the Future of Money by Mervyn King. Via Virago, LB also supports the Virago New Statesman Women’s Prize for Politics and Economics – closing date for entry for new writers is 31 January!

The End of Alchemy: Banking, the Global Economy and the Future of Money

Profile: The Ways of the World by David Harvey; We Do Things Differently by Mark Stevenson; Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules by Jeremy Miller.

We Do Things Differently

Bloomsbury: Created in China: How China is becoming a Global Innovator by Georges Hauor and Max Von Zedtwitz (this is a big theme this season!).

Polity: Should Rich Nations Help The Poor by David Hulme; Can the Welfare State Survive by Andrew Gamble; Parallax of Growth by Ole Bjerg.

Basic Books: The Perfect Bet by Adam Kucharski; Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age by Ben Wilson; Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B Johnson, The Great Society and the Limits of Liberalism by Randall Woods; The Limousine Liberal by Steve Fraser; The Fractured Republic: Our Dissolving Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin; A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems by John Miller.

Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age

Harvard Business Review: Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy by Stephen Cohen and Brad Delong.

Verso: The City by Tony Norfield; American Socialist by Kshama Sawant; Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm.

The City: London and the Global Power of Finance

Macmillan: Socialist Optimism by Paul Auerbach; Risk, Power and Inequality in the 21st Century by Dean Curran.

Simon & Schuster: Conspiracies of the Ruling Class and How to Break Their Grip Forever by Lawrence Lindsay; American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson; The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross.

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Books to look forward to in 2016 – part 1

Naturally, everybody has made a New Year’s Resolution to read more economics books. Here are some forthcoming highlights. I’m starting with the university presses, and as ever favouritism as well as its excellent economics list means Princeton University Press kicks us off.

The PUP Spring 2016 catalogue highlights William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible; Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank; Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson; Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe by Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage. There’s also a fantastic list outside economics. I most want to read Frans De Waal’s Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.

 

Over at Yale University Press, there’s James Galbraith’s Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe; The Moral Economy by Sam Bowles; the paperback of Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm; and What They Do With Your Money: How the financial system fails us and how to fix it by Stephen Davis, Jon Lukomnik and David Pitt-Watson.

Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet

 Oxford University Press has just released Deborah Brautigam’s Will Africa Feed China? Coming soon are: A Few Hares To Chase: The Economic Life and Times of Bill Phillips by Alan Bollard; All The Facts: A History of Information in the United States Since 1870 by James Cortada (going to have to read that one!); China as an Innovation Nation by Yu Zhou, William Lazonick, Yifei Sun; and Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises by Anwar Shaikh. There’s also Calestous Juma’s Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies – not yet on Amazon but trailed on Twitter.

A Few Hares to Chase: The Economic Life and Times of Bill Phillips China as an Innovation Nation

 Cambridge University Press has fewer titles aimed at non-specialists. One that caught my eye was The Future of Financial Regulation: Who Should Pay For the Failure of American and European Banks? by Johan Lybeck. For growth folks, Structural Dynamics and Economic Growth edited by Arena and Porter looks a possibility.

  Structural Dynamics and Economic Growth

MIT Press has a promising-looking catalogue. On macro, there’s what will be a must-read, Progress and Confusion: The State of Macroeconomic Policy, by Blanchard, Rajan, Rogoff and Summers. Also coming soon are China’s Next Strategic Advantage: From Imitation to Innovation by George Yip and Bruce McKern, and The Disruption Dilemma by Joshua Gans. There’s a couple of interesting-looking edited volumes, Cognitive Unconscious and Human Rationality; and Public Sector Economics and the Need for Reforms. By Hal Scott there is Connectedness and Contagion: Protecting the Financial System from Panics.

I will have to read The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP by Philippe Lepenies from Columbia University Press. Other titles this spring include Economic Thought: A Brief History by Heinz Kurz; The Evolution of Money by David Orrell and Roman Chlupaty; and Inside the Investments of Warren Buffett: Twenty Cases by Yefei Lu.

The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP Economic Thought: A Brief History

Forthcoming from Harvard University Press are The Engine of Enterprise: Credit in America by Rowena Olegario; Finding Time: The Economics of Work Life Conflict by Heather Boushey; From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Post-Industrial City by Chloe Taft; From The War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elisabeth Hinton; Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization by Brank Milanovic; Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics by Jens Beckert; The Great Leveler: Capitalism and Competition in the Court of Law by Brett Christophers; and Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking and the Financial Crisis of 1772 by Tyler Beck Goodspeed. Lots of enticement here.

Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772

Inevitably, this is only a partial list. If any publishers particularly want to flag up something I’ve omitted to readers of this blog please let me know – I’m happy to update this post, and one covering other publishers’ forthcoming titles will follow.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Robert Gordon’s magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living Since the Civil War (out in mid-January), is going to be an essential read for anyone interested not only in US economic history but also American economic prospects. The book is a comprehensive overview of growth from 1870 on, with a close focus on innovation and productivity. It does not consider at all macroeconomic policy, and is not much interested in events such as the Great Depression or the creation and later collapse of Bretton Woods. This is the supply-side story. This is not a criticism; as it is, the book weighs in at 650 pages – 730 with notes etc.

There are three sections: the first covers 1870 to 1940; the second 1940-2015; the third is about the sources of growth and why it was fastest from the 1920s to 1950s (this is just about the US so this is earlier than European readers would recognise as the peak growth era) – and is slowing now. The final chapters are a kind of crescendo, for the whole book is organised to support Gordon’s well known thesis that the days of miracle and wonder, the rapid growth era of the early to mid-20th century, is long gone, and slower growth lies ahead of us. As he writes in the introduction: “Our central thesis is that some inventions are more important than others, and that the revolutionary century after the Civil War was made possible by a unique clustering, in the late 19th century, of what we will call the ‘Great Inventions’.” [his italics] By Great Inventions, he means electricity, water supply and sewage systems, the internal combustion engine, radio then TV, and innovations that reduced household drudgery such as refrigerators and washing machines. The core of his argument is that these so transformed health, life expectancy and connectivity that no future invention could possibly have such a dramatic impact on people’s living standards.

Who could argue with the idea that this era saw such dramatic change in human lives? For that matter, it is also hard to argue with the headwinds he notes about growth now: demographic change with ageing populations, and inequality, limiting the mass market for future innovations. The final chapters particularly emphasise the damaging effects on the economy of greatly increased income and wealth inequality. Hear, hear. What I find odd about Gordon’s argument is his insistence that there is a kind of competition between the good old days of ‘great innovations’ and today’s innovations – which are necessarily different.

One issue is the extent to which he ignores all but a limited range of digital innovation; low carbon energy, automated vehicles, new materials such as graphene, gene-based medicine etc. don’t feature. The book claims more recent innovations are occurring mainly in entertainment, communication and information technologies, and presents these as simply less important (while making great play of the importance of radio, telephone and TV earlier). (A minor European carp – he also claims that it is only Americans who invent things now, when it would be more accurate to say it is only Americans who commercialise them to massive scale, especially in digital.)

Sure, we won’t repeat the impact of connecting houses to the electricity grid; but if we can keep them connected while generating power at simlar cost with zero greenhouse gas emissions, well that would be a Great Invention with the potential to utterly transform humanity’s prospects. We won’t see the same gains in life expectancy as with the previous introduction of public health measures and antisepsis, but if we can increase the quality of health and life for the over-60s, that would be a very big deal.

A second issue is that throughout the first two parts of the book, Gordon repeatedly explains why it is not possible to evaluate the impact of inventions through the GDP and price statistics, and therefore through the total factor productivity figures based on them – and then uses the real GDP figures to downplay modern innovation. “This book … focuses on the aspects of improvements of human life that are missing from GDP altogether.” For example, he writes, just as important as the calorific intake, or price of a given quantity of meat, is the fact that Americans’ diets changed from the monotony of ‘hogs’n’hominy’ in the 1870s to a much more varied diet by the 1920s. I wholeheartedly agree with this approach. While the very long run of real GDP figures (the ‘hockey stick of history’) does portray the explosion of living standards under market capitalism, one needs a much richer picture of the qualitative change brought about by innovation and variety. This must include the social consequences too – and the book touches on these, from the rise of the suburbs to the transformation of the social lives of women.

Yet in the later chapters of the book, turning to modern growth, Gordon does an about turn, saying: “The impact of innovations and technological change [since 1970] was measured by their effect on total factor productivity.” If this is going to be the yardstick in the ‘race between the decades’, he should have addressed here the questions about the measurement of GDP and productivity in the modern US economy, based as it is on services and intangibles.

For instance, he says: “Nothing in the history of price index bias compares with the omission of automobile prices from the official price indexes over the entire period from 1900 to 1935.” His data in chapter 5 show a decline in quality-adjusted prices between 1906 and 1940, from $650 to $266, which does not seem to support the broad claim. Even the decline in the per capita ratio of quality adjusted price to nominal disposable income (from 2.47 to 0.46) presented there looks smaller than some other innovation-related price declines, similarly omitted from or understated in, official price indexes. The book does not explain, but it would need to go into the figures in more detail if the argument is to turn on the GDP and TFP statistics. Anyway, there are two points about current and future growth. One is about the extent to which innovation is slower, or its effects less important – case unproven, in my eyes. The other is the issue of headwinds slowing down whatever innovation-driven growth there might otherwise be – a stronger case, well expressed in the final chapters.

The obsession with things having been much better, innovation- and growth-wise, in the old days is an irritation, and does make the reader wonder how much the narrative has been bashed into shape to fit the conclusion. Having said that, the wealth of detail in the book far outweighs this annoyance. It is stuffed with wonderful evocations of the effects of economic growth, with institutional details, with tables and charts of useful historical data. The history is brought alive by such things as recounting the living conditions of different kinds of families – midwestern farms with their space and light, compared with New York tenements – or discussing the effect of food quality standards – dairy products stopped being watered down, but butter lost the distinctive taste and smell of its ‘terroir’. Some parts of the story will be familiar to some readers; if you have read a lot already about the history of the computer industry, or Ford’s creation of the assembly line and the mass market, the capsule versions here will not add much. But the book as a whole is a tremendous achievement. If not for the holiday, I wouldn’t have been able to read it from page 1 to page 650; I’m very glad I was able to do so.

Most popular posts of 2015

Seasonal fare.

There was an upward trend in user numbers through the year – thank you everybody – so many of the most read posts were later in 2015. Earlier ones that caught attention were:

Books to look forward to in 2015 (another annual feature, which I will repeat soon for 2016)

Mastering ‘Metrics (review)

Inequality – what is to be done? (review)

Other people’s money (review)

In the final quarter, the most popular posts have been:

How to be a good economist (review)

Revolutionary money (review)

The Enlightened Economist Prize longlist

Complements and substitutes

Cotton, empire and mill workers (review)

Robots, humans and other animals

Of robots and dogs

The most popular posts record 1500-2000 users. Google Analytics tells me there have been over 74,000 users this year, of which about 6,000 are “30-day active” and 43% returning. There has been an upward trend, particular since October. The UK accounts for 30% of traffic, the US 26%, Canada 4%, Australia and India each 3%, and France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain about 2% each. This is a pretty niche blog, so I’m delighted, and grateful.

Robots, humans and other animals

John Markoff’s Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots ends with a reference to Thorstein Veblen’s The Engineers and the Price System (not a book I’ve read – I’ve always found Veblen really heavy going). Apparently Veblen argued that the increasing technological complexity of society would give political power to the engineers. Markoff draws the analogy with the central role of algorithms in modern life: “Today the engineers who are designing the artificial intelligence-based prorams and robots will have tremendous influence over how we use them.”

 

Machines of Loving Grace is a history of the tension between artificial intelligence (AI) research, which substitutes robots for human activity, and ‘intelligence augmentation’ (IA) complementing human skills. It is also a call for those engineers to ensure their work is human-centred. It’s all about the humans, not about the machines, Markoff concludes. The book dismisses what he calls the ‘Apocalyptic AI’ tradition embraced by people like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, looking forward to the Singularity, the Frankenstein moment when our machine intelligence creation becomes conscious and alive. Yet Markoff worries about the failure of the ‘AI’ (rather than ‘IA’) researchers to stay alert to the dangers of not writing people into the algorithmic script.

   

The danger has always been apparent. Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, “Posed an early critique of the arrival of machine intelligence: the danger of passing decisions on to systems that, incapable of thinking abstractly, would make decisions in purely utilitarian terms rather than in consideration of richer human values.” (A comment that struck me because economics is of course purely utilitarian and notorious for setting the ‘richer human values’ aside.) Another danger is pointed out later in the book, attributed here to Alan Kay: that relying on machines, “Might only recapitulate the problem the Romans faced by letting their Greek slaves do their thinking for them. Before long, those in power were able to think independently. ” Markoff cites evidence that reliance on GSP is eroding memory and spatial reasoning. There is also, surely, the problem Ian Goldin underlines in his book The Butterfly Defect: that greater reliance on complex networks means greater vulnerability when they go wrong, or are attacked.

The Coming Of Post-industrial Society (Harper Colophon Books) by Bell, Daniel (1976) Paperback

To go back to the Veblen point, his was a political argument in the Progressive era. Accumulations of political power, via ownership of assets including technology and skills, always trigger political struggles. Daniel Bell made a similar point in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society – that the political faultline of the post-industrial age would be technocratic expertise versus populist demands. Perhaps he was too early: we seem to be deep into a populist backlash against the technologists right now. But for me the question isn’t so much whether the robots are human-friendly as whether the political and economic structures within which technological advance occurs are human-friendly. It isn’t looking promising.

Anyone prompted to mull over the question of what makes a silicon-based non-human being intelligent should read this wonderful article about carbon-based non-human intelligence. If it’s ever a case of us against the machines, we’ll have the dogs, dolphins and chimpanzees on our side.