[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, a Canadian and grudging dilettante with too much time on his hands.] As I continue to re-evaluate my take on the economics of the 20th century, Coase’s work stands out as well as or better than it ever did. Ronald Coase is probably my favourite economist of all time; his work is arguably as foundational as Smith’s or Ricardo’s and was developed over just a handful of influential and easily-digestible papers. The Firm, the Market, and the Law is more or less a summary of Coase’s most important work, containing his famous The Nature of the Firm and The Problem of Social Cost, but also several other papers, plus ample commentary from Coase himself circa 1990. Coase died in 2013 at the ripe old age of 102.
A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect. This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.” Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds. But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters. And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.
As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.
This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all? The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.” What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century. The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize. The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.
For decades, “free trade” has been the American orthodoxy across the mainstream of both Left and Right. Some recent erosion has occurred, though, with the Bernie Sanders Left dividing from the neoliberal Left on this issue, and with the reactionary and Trumpian segments of the Right dividing from the corporatist Right. However, cogent, clear-eyed intellectual support has been thin for the position that wholly unfettered and unguided free trade is not necessarily a wonderful tonic for every economy. This 2010 book provides such support, and was an early entrant in a field that will, perhaps, become more crowded over time.
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.
This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains. I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000. Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book. Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day. But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome. This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.
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.
Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us. In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement. Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a three-legged stool, dependent on all of the broader culture, muscular group effort, and heroic individuals. Ayn Rand would not agree, but then, what did she ever actually accomplish?
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.