Sometimes I think it is a fool’s errand to study economics and hope for enlightenment. Much economics knowledge is too simple for that goal—for example, the relationship of supply and demand to prices. Such facts are easy to grasp through direct personal experience. But beyond that, actual enlightenment never comes, because, as everybody knows, economics is not a science. Economists can’t even analyze the past with any precision or unanimity, much less the future. Because I thought highly of the explanations of monetary policy in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Money, I hoped that by reading this book I would at least move further down the curve toward enlightenment. But even the best writers cannot spin straw into gold.
Imprisoned inside this book is a good book screaming to get out. Buried alive, like the Man in the Iron Mask, this Hidden Book offers worthwhile insights into, and criticism of, the crony capitalism that has choked the free market out of our finance system. But the Hidden Book has disappeared from view under the crushing weight of authorial ignorance and an idol of, or rather an entire marble temple erected to, Elizabeth Warren. So each time the author of Makers and Takers, Rana Foroohar, yet again prostrates herself yet again before her idol, I think I can hear a tinny shriek from the dungeon, as the Hidden Book realizes that its message will never, ever, fly free.
Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is an excellent book. It identifies important problems, ties the problems to their historical precedents, and suggests some reasonable solutions. The book is not complete, or perfect, but in the emerging literature of why and how to curb the power of giant technology companies, this book is a useful introduction, although there is a long way to go from here to there.
This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant. Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.
Naked Money, by Charles Wheelan, has a primary goal and two secondary goals. The primary goal, admirably accomplished, is to simply, but not simplistically, explain monetary policy. One secondary goal, also well accomplished, is to defend fiat money against those who call for going back to a currency backed by gold or some other physical asset. The other secondary goal, less well accomplished, is to justify aggressive government action, in particular by central banks, to shore up the American financial system during the 2008 crisis.
This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space. The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures. In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before. All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct. But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop. Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus: a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.
This is a fantastic book that well deserves its reputation as a classic. Part history, part sociological study, part economic analysis, and part ecological survey, William Cronon examines the growth of Chicago by studying the city’s 19th Century relationship to the larger “Great West” (more or less the once-sparsely settled regions between the Ohio River Valley and the Pacific). He does this by analyzing, in fascinating detail, the city and its surrounding territory in three areas: transportation (water and rail), physical commodities (grain, lumber, and meat), and capital. For each topic, he focuses both narrowly on how each developed and changed over time, and more broadly on how each affected the city and the larger Great West. I suppose to some this sounds boring—but as far as I’m concerned Cronon nearly magically retains the reader’s interest throughout.
Arlie Hochschild has gone the extra mile, and then some, to understand conservatives. I would say that she exemplifies the (pseudo-) Indian saying, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins,” except that is not politically correct, so I will not say it. Nonetheless, Hochshild has spent a lot of time and effort genuinely trying to understand a group of Louisiana conservatives, and the result is a very interesting book. Sure, it’s not perfect, in part because Hochschild, like most of us, can’t fully overcome her own biases that sometimes lead her to engage in unsophisticated analysis. But she is never once contemptuous or patronizing of these people, whom she seems to really regard as her friends, and she never caricatures the individuals, who actually vary from each other quite a bit. This enables her to, overall, do an excellent job (and a better job than Joan Williams in the more recent White Working Class, which covers very similar topics in an obtuse way).
Joan Williams wants to “Overcome Class Cluelessness in America.” This is an admirable goal, and in many ways this is an admirable book (or brochure—it’s very short). But reading White Working Class (which, despite its title, gives equal time to both the white and black working class) makes the reader squirm. The reader appreciates the author’s, Joan Williams’s, attempts to objectively examine her class, that of the “professional-management elite,” or “PME,” but winces at her frequent inability to actually understand the working class, or to view the working class other than primarily as potential foot soldiers in the march of progressive politics.
It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more. This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier. There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”? Is it England? England and parts of the Continent? How does America fit in? When exactly did this takeoff begin? Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West? But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?