This unassuming little book (albeit with a strident subtitle) does something strange and convincing: convinces the world that the venerable law of dim...moreThis unassuming little book (albeit with a strident subtitle) does something strange and convincing: convinces the world that the venerable law of diminishing marginal returns is ill-conceived and dead wrong. In particular, he demonstrates that during conditions of insufficiency or scarcity, some types of goods (what he calls "relievers" rather than "pleasers") exhibit behavior where each addition to consumption adds greater and greater benefits. His point in damn-near demolishing a central "law" of economics? To demonstrate that the supposedly irrational behavior of the poor -- refusing to work, gravitation to criminal behavior, refusal to moderate alcohol consumption, disdain for education -- is in fact rational, because their economic life involves primarily contact with goods that are relievers, not pleasers.
Kerelis' blunt and imaginative approach to the topic -- including a thorough rebuttal of standard objections at the end -- does seem intuitively correct, but when he trots out the graphs and rational-behavior models I ended up getting a bit cynical myself. Economic "laws" always struck me as suspect anyway, especially where human behavior is concerned. Still, from a public policy perspective, he does offer some very concrete proposals that make lots of rational sense. Which means they will never be enacted in the United States. (less)
Wheen's brief, enthusiastic treatment of one of the Western canon's most forbidding volumes doesn't exactly make you want to read it, but does generat...moreWheen's brief, enthusiastic treatment of one of the Western canon's most forbidding volumes doesn't exactly make you want to read it, but does generate new respect for its eccentricity and prophetic power. Early on, Wheen argues that Das Kapital should be seen as a work of art, and not as a mind-numbing economics text:
"By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage -- juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors' reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound's Cantos or Eliot's The Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka."
I'm still unconvinced, but then again I find both The Waste Land and the Cantos (not to mention Schoenberg) dull as dishrags. Wheen goes on to talk about the hilarious gestation and birth of Kapital, featuring dilatory Marx lying to his publishers for twelve years (talk about a missed deadline), and having to write standing up toward the end (due to some painful warts on his ass).
The chapter on the book's "afterlife" was most fascinating to me, especially as Wheen outs Louis Althusser as a wife-murdering charlatan, and then quotes several recent free-market capitalists (including George Soros) as Marx enthusiasts.
This is a very sinister book. If some Austrian economist-zombies ordered M. Scott Peck's ghost to write a book for the masses about "pricing", this is...moreThis is a very sinister book. If some Austrian economist-zombies ordered M. Scott Peck's ghost to write a book for the masses about "pricing", this is pretty much what you'd get.
The style is reminiscent of Redbook or Discover magazine -- dishy customer-outrage anecdotes trotted out to provide evidence for cross-eyed pop-psych theory (which Maxwell seems to think has something to do with pricing). But she's clearly not in command of her "field", whatever it is. Much as I disdain social psychology, she should really get the theory of cognitive dissonance correct before trotting it out with such flimsy authority -- especially since that crazy Leon Festinger's experiments were often based entirely on pricing: the bribe size was the dependent variable.
Maxwell offers us a mushy sequence of buzzwords -- "social norms" and "trust" and "justice" (but with only one passing reference to John Rawls!), while ignoring obvious price determinants like labor value (shadow of Marx there), marginal utility, and profit. All this adds up to a squishy feelgood book disguising a hardnosed right-wing Austria-derived ideology. Note how she marshals the concepts of "power" and "trust" in Chapter 17 to advocate for the flat tax as something that would increase "tax morale". (And I kid you not: she includes "tax morale" in the book's ridiculous glossary: Having an intrinsic motivation to pay taxes.)
Or note how she talks about a "fair price utopia gone wrong" at the end of Chapter 18, a place where things got all haywire 'cause "prices of basic staples like bread were subsidized to help the needy" among other things. Wanna know where this Utopia was? No no, not New Deal America -- she never even mentions that! "This utopia was the pricing system of the former United Soviet Socialist Republic [sic]."
Wow. At least she spelled the names of "Germany" and "Brazil" correctly earlier in the chapter (though one is "individualist and flat" while the other is "hierarchical and collectivist" -- I'll let you guess which is which).
Anyway, though The Price is Wrong is tendentious, incompetent, and usually just wrong, I'm secretly glad she pulled it all off without a single reference to Sith Lords like Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk or Robert Nozick.(less)
This groovy and jargon-free narrative is both more and less than the title suggests. "People's history" now indicates an openly ideological effort to...moreThis groovy and jargon-free narrative is both more and less than the title suggests. "People's history" now indicates an openly ideological effort to recast "history" with sociology, underground martyrs, tragedies, and a general attempt to foreground the voiceless, plus ignore the "Great Men" except when they're bastards. This was Howard Zinn's messy specialty, and his foreword here is a benediction. But Irons doesn't wander into the Zinn muck very much: the Great Men (and Women) are very much with us here, albeit cut down to size. And though Irons gives some exciting narrative background to cases like Dred Scott and Gobitis, plus paints new portraits of the great Justices at work, on the whole I read this as more of a "popular history" -- i.e. a Supreme Court history stripped of mystery and legalese, with a bit of human frailty and excitement added in.
Some of the reviewers here were put off by the lengthy account of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 -- 115 days of argument in eighty pages here. But I was riveted, and I think Irons's purpose is clear: the United States Constitution was not holy writ created by a meeting of brilliant minds, but the product of prejudice, compromise, experiment, short tempers, and windows shut against spies in mid-summer heat. Irons gives the lie to "strict constructionists" who ignore the social context and bitter debates -- not just in Philadelphia but in twelve state legislatures -- that got this cool but obviously Frankenstein-shaped document passed. Barely.
The rest of the book is a very selective history of the Court (our least democratic institution) as it shaped and got reshaped by a bitter, global, and bloody historical trajectory. One thing you'll notice -- and Irons takes pains to point this out at every turn -- is that most Supreme Court justices were mediocrities, dimwits, or worse. Hell even the position of CHIEF JUSTICE has often been filled by blinkered ideologues and political hacks. Dred Scott was not just an institution shooting itself in the foot, but let's face it, a wizened Southern aristocrat using his limited brainspace to arbitrate the future of our country. Similar idiotic results obtain in Plessy vs. Ferguson and Korematsu among many others.
But Irons properly exalts the heroes of the story, including John Marshall, John Marshall Harlan, Brandeis, Frank Murphy, Earl Warren, William Brennan, hell even Thurgood Marshall (whose epic strategery for the NAACP far overshadowed his work as a Justice). Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. comes in for a bit of criticism as an elitist on several fronts, though it's hard to deny his writing and ability to keep the Court among America's respected institutions during rough times. Earl Warren is a fascinating mystery -- a conservative family-values Republican from California now widely perceived as the most liberal Chief Justice ever. Conversely, Antonin Scalia is revealed as a snarky and bitterly ideological justice whose pen gets dipped in Bible blood when homosexuality hits the docket. Fascinating to see justices grappling with their own ideology and this immutable (ha!) document to figure out crazy cases, and when the dodgy "right to privacy" came out the box in the sixties, well -- all hell breaks loose. And that continues today.
Irons does put together a compelling picture of strange times and strange cases, involving rightous grievants and grumbly, witty, twitchy justices -- hell I kinda think an illustrated version of this would become a bestseller. But he fails at the end, where he considers the contemporary (2005) Court. Bush v. Gore, where the Court essentially re-enacted Dred Scott and pissed a political decision into the air that had nothing to do with the Constitution -- gets a bland recounting without any fire of ideology whatsoever. And he seems all too careful in his assessment of Roberts and Alito... whereupon the book ends, abruptly, with no postscript or any effort to look back and bring these scores of morons and occasional geniuses into perspective as a part of American life and history. That omission forces me to omit a star. Well worth reading though... (less)
What strange beast is this? This book's original subtitle ("how the myth of free markets wrecked our economy") got a last-minute change to this fluffe...moreWhat strange beast is this? This book's original subtitle ("how the myth of free markets wrecked our economy") got a last-minute change to this fluffery about "unenlightened self-interest" -- an obvious turnaround from what could have been a radical critique. She really does posit that free markets are a myth -- very persuasively -- but you have to wade out to page 154, after lots of finance-industry shop talk, to find it. Elsewhere I get alternately entranced and cross-eyed.
This reads like the strangest jumble of blog posts and lengthy essays, heavily edited and shuffled around and -- hell I detect actual disruptive deletions of text (particularly concerning Beloit Mandelbrot's financial theories), often signaled by this odd five-dot section break that looks like an ellipsis. Her themes and arguments seem to get transposed and reversed like three-card monte, jumping from the necessity of state regulation to the nutzoid math that came out of financial theorists to the shadow banking industry. All very righteous and true, but, hold on, I'm just a bit dizzy and bored...
Yves is a necessary countervailing force in her penetrating critique of neoclassical economics (as well as their successor quants using arcane mathematics to mind-meld with the market). But this book, I am very sorry to say, is the product of much obvious meddling, "collaboration", and possibly an unfair publishing deadline. Even at the end, when she unveils her list of righteous reforms, we get this among them: "Improving capital buffers of regulated institutions, without restricting leverage-on-leverage mechanisms, would be unproductive." Whatever that really means, the "would be unproductive" at the bullet point's end reeks of ridiculous editing. So it's often an incoherent snoozefest, and you gotta put your ear to the ground sometimes to hear when Yves is making one of her trademark seismic arguments. (less)
Studwell is a penetrating and snarky reporter who loves to demolish received notions about Southeast Asian political economy (e.g. the notion that the...moreStudwell is a penetrating and snarky reporter who loves to demolish received notions about Southeast Asian political economy (e.g. the notion that the ethnic Chinese are culturally "programmed" to be economically dominant, or that import substitution industrialization was the cat's pajamas). His conclusion is that these Asian "godfathers" (and yes, he does half-apologize for that word choice at the outset) succeeded because of the unusual political circumstances, and because they essentially ended up in rent-seeking environments created by their respective states (or city-states in the case of Hong Kong and Singapore). Though he's never explicit on the point, Studwell does indicate that some form of co-dependency between tycoons and dictators (or brief statist strongmen) created these economic policy decisions. But he's very explicit about how capital is raised among tycoons in Southeast Asia: gambling revenues. Even that "moral" bastion Singapore has a casino now.
Studwell's access to these tycoons generated lots of fascinating confidential anecdotes and insights (many of which I bet came from Li Ka-Shing and family). Here's an example of the odd asides the author tosses off as his analysis proceeds:
Another [direct competitor], described as 'a cobra', recently sent a box of chocolates to one of the godfather's sons. The tycoon advised his heir to first feed a chocolate to his dog and, if the animal was still alive after a couple of hours, 'try one on his wife'.
I lost count after the seventh appearance of the word "schadenfreude" in these essays -- really, that's the tone of this collection, and why I enjoyed...moreI lost count after the seventh appearance of the word "schadenfreude" in these essays -- really, that's the tone of this collection, and why I enjoyed it thoroughly. Some of the essays here are duds -- a history-spanning puff piece by Niall Ferguson probably the worst offender, though Mark Seal's overstabbing of the Madoff empire's corpse (in three separate articles) also became very tedious. However, Michael Lewis is astounding and hilarious in his reports on AIG and Iceland, and Joseph E. Stiglitz contributes a succinct breakdown of the steps that caused our collapse, beginning with Reagan's firing of Paul Volcker in 1987. This being Vanity Fair, the great reporting is often spiced with nasty gossip, and there's no sympathy for these parasites anywhere. Bernie Madoff (plus sons and wife), as noted above, get an especially vicious kicking three times over, though through all the gossip and background I still don't comprehend at all how he got away with his shit for so long.
Strongly recommended, though I with Vanity Fair could have ponied up some cash to include lots of the photos that accompanied the original published articles. (less)
As for this particular book: those who think "shareholders" are an important and necessary economic force are in for a shock. She's pretty convincing that their economic gains are a sure sign that workers, neighbors, and other stakeholders are getting screwed. What I took away from this book is that shareholders are (often inadvertent) parasites. Here's an excerpt:
Employees might be shouldering a crushing workload, doing without raises for years on end. Still we will say, "the corporation did well."
We do not see rising employee income as a measure of corporate success. Indeed, gains to employees are losses to the corporation. And this betrays an unconscious bias: that employees are not really part of the corporation. They have no claim on the wealth they create, no say in governance, and no vote for the board of directors. They're not citizens of corporate society, but subjects.
Investors, on the other hand, may never set foot inside "their" companies, may not know where they're located or what they produce. Yet corporations exist to enrich investor alone. In corporate society, only those who own stock can vote - like America until the mid-1800s, when only those when owned land could vote. Employees are disenfranchised.
We think of this as the natural law of the free market, but it's more accurately the result of the corporate governance structure, which violates free-market principles. In a free market, everyone scrambles to get what they can, and they keep what they earn. In the construct of the corporation, one group gets to keep what another earns.
The first half tries to figure out what capitalism is, and Bowles makes it pretty clear only what it's not: "natural" or "eternal". Second half covers...moreThe first half tries to figure out what capitalism is, and Bowles makes it pretty clear only what it's not: "natural" or "eternal". Second half covers the recent history of capitalism in all its abundant varieties, including a frightening chapter on neoliberalism. Though he gives a fair hearing to clowns like Hayek and Friedman, it's pretty obvious he's on the side of us lefties. Concise and essential. (less)
I love Lewis Lapham, a well-rounded snark artist on the same page (and circle of hell) as Gore Vidal. Here is his experience among the neoliberals and...moreI love Lewis Lapham, a well-rounded snark artist on the same page (and circle of hell) as Gore Vidal. Here is his experience among the neoliberals and blutocrats at Davos. (less)
If you want to make sense of the current world economy, or even recent political events, this book is absolutely essential. The word "freedom" will ne...moreIf you want to make sense of the current world economy, or even recent political events, this book is absolutely essential. The word "freedom" will never be the same again. (less)