Category Archives: Book review

When Welfare Sabotages Lives

BOOK REVIEW

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Authors: Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

By Ngaire Woods – The first lesson is that people – rich and poor – often make bad choices when they lack a key resource, like money or time. For example, ruinously expensive “payday loans” can be appealing to cash-strapped borrowers, even if the terms of these loans tend to push people deeper into debt.

This is not because people lack education. But poor decisions can result from conditions of scarcity and stress.

Britain’s new program was championed as a way to reduce costs and incentivize better decisions, thereby moving more people into work and reducing benefit claims. But, so far, there is little evidence to support this rosy scenario.

By reducing benefits received by the poor, the government is ensuring that scarcity surges and poor decisions multiply. And by changing the system frequently and making it more complicated to access, Britain’s leaders are also forcing the poor to consume more mental bandwidth. Taken together, these factors are leaving welfare recipients worse off. <a href="http://Britain’s new program was championed as a way to reduce costs and incentivize better decisions, thereby moving more people into work and reducing benefit claims. But, so far, there is little evidence to support this rosy scenario.

By reducing benefits received by the poor, the government is ensuring that scarcity surges and poor decisions multiply. And by changing the system frequently and making it more complicated to access, Britain’s leaders are also forcing the poor to consume more mental bandwidth. Taken together, these factors are leaving welfare recipients worse off." more>

Restoring Social Cohesion: A Project For 2018 And Beyond

By Michael D. Higgins – Addressing the changes and the fracture in the relationship between the citizen and society has been a matter of great importance for me throughout my Presidency.

It is a relationship that was fraying long before the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, but it has markedly lost cohesion in these last ten years, aggravated by a global macro-economic policy response that saw the losses in so many economics socialized while the gains of the financial sector were not just privatized, but concentrated at the peak of the wealth and income pyramid. Unprecedented programs of austerity became mainstream for citizens and countries reeling from the consequences of an era characterized by a new form of lightly regulated speculative capital.

The transition, in its day, between The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) of Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations (1776) drew a more extensive debate in the eighteenth century than the changes in contemporary international economies, that are in our time presented as near inevitable, and that are being delivered as their sole policy choice to publics suffering the burden of what Pope Francis has called a ‘plague of indifference’. This includes not just the authors of policies but weary publics that are looking away, averting their gaze from deepening inequalities, the welfare of workers, the plight of migrants. He was referring to publics that, in the absence of technical literacy, felt they could not initiate change, were forced to accept what was socially damaging as ‘inevitable’.

The persistence of a failure to critique or challenge a political economy which maintains and even deepens existing inequalities of income, wealth, power and opportunity within societies and between nation-states is eroding social cohesion. more>

The real Adam Smith

By Paul Sagar – If you’ve heard of one economist, it’s likely to be Adam Smith. He’s the best-known of all economists, and is typically hailed as the founding father of the dismal science itself.

As he put it in The Wealth of Nations: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

The merchants had spent centuries securing their position of unfair advantage. In particular, they had invented and propagated the doctrine of ‘the balance of trade’, and had succeeded in elevating it into the received wisdom of the age.

The basic idea was that each nation’s wealth consisted in the amount of gold that it held. Playing on this idea, the merchants claimed that, in order to get rich, a nation had to export as much, and import as little, as possible, thus maintaining a ‘favorable’ balance. They then presented themselves as servants of the public by offering to run state-backed monopolies that would limit the inflow, and maximize the outflow, of goods, and therefore of gold.

But as Smith’s lengthy analysis showed, this was pure hokum: what were needed instead were open trading arrangements, so that productivity could increase generally, and collective wealth would grow for the benefit of all.

When he argued that markets worked remarkably efficiently – because, although each individual ‘intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention’ – this was an appeal to free individuals from the constraints imposed upon them by the monopolies that the merchants had established, and were using state power to uphold. The invisible hand was originally invoked not to draw attention to the problem of state intervention, but of state capture. more>

The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge

BOOK REVIEW

Markets Without Limits, Authors: Jason Brennan, Peter Jaworski.
Against Politics, Author: Jason Brennan.

By Jason Brennan – Who should hold power: the few or the many? Concentrating power in the hands of a few – in monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy – tends to result in power for personal benefit at the expense of others. Yet in spreading power among the many – as in a democracy – individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased and misinformed.

We have a dilemma.

Republican, representative democracy tries to split the difference. Checks and balances, judicial reviews, bills of rights and elected representatives are all designed to hold leaders accountable to the people while also constraining the foolishness of the ignorant masses. Overall, these institutions work well: in general, people in democracies have the highest standards of living.

But what if we could do better?

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. more>

Inside the growing backlash against China

By Peter Marino – The strategic environment in which China’s “lay low” approach to international affairs has helped to make it the world’s second-largest economy is changing – and a broader backlash against China is beginning.

The global conditions that favored China’s rise began at the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the West in general and the United States in particular were eager to bring additional countries into the world order they felt they had created. Throughout the 1990s, faith in the liberalizing power of commerce, and in Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the West’s triumph over Soviet socialism heralded the “End of History,” was at its height. As a consequence, concerns about China’s autocratic model were largely shelved in Western capitals.

The United States in particular pushed for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, which ultimately served as an inflection point in China’s economic growth.

While this was happening, Beijing played its hand skillfully. Deng Xiaopin advocated avoiding flashy shows of power in order to shield Chinese efforts from outside scrutiny while the country wasn’t positioned to handle them properly.

The last five years upended nearly all of this in very short order. Indirect diplomatic suggestions have been swapped for attention-grabbing proposals, strategic ambiguity has been abandoned for international military bases, high-profile drills, showy parades and standoffs with neighboring countries. Fueled by large state-subsidized loans, large Chinese firms were sent on international buying binges.

Modern China has never faced simultaneous suspicion of its motives and objectives in both the West and the developing world. Beijing’s diplomats are more experienced at sidestepping or deflecting critics than at engaging them, and the party’s domestic politics demand a near-absolute protection of “core interests.” This does not bode well for a country that will have to start addressing legitimate diplomatic concerns around the world. more>

Economics is quantum

BOOK REVIEW

The Money Formula: Dodgy Finance, Pseudo-Science, and How Mathematicians Took Over the Markets, Author: David Orrell.
Quantum Mind and Social Science, Author: Alexander Wendt.
Laws of Media: The New Science, Author: Marshall McLuhan.

Money and brains are both quantum phenomena – so it’s not surprising that economics is overdue for a quantum revolution
By David Orrell – In recent years there have been many calls for economics to reinvent itself, most noticeably from student groups such as the Post-Crash Economics Society, and Rethinking Economics. In 2017, the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council announced that it was setting up a network of experts from outside economics whose task it would be to ‘revolutionize’ the field. And there have been countless books on the topic, including my own Economyths (2010), which called for just such an intervention by non-economists.

But progress has been slow.

One problem is that, while there have been many demands for a revolution, the exact nature of the revolution is less clear. Critics agree that the foundations of economics are rotten, but there are different views on what should be built in its place.

But what if the problems with economics run even deeper?

What if the traditional approach has hit a wall, and the field needs to be completely reinvented?

What if, as with 19th-century physics, the problem comes down to ontology – our entire way of thinking and talking about the economy? more>

Wars are not won by military genius or decisive battles

BOOK REVIEW

The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, Author: Cathal J Nolan.

By Cathal J Nolan – War is the most complex, physically and morally demanding enterprise we undertake. No great art or music, no cathedral or temple or mosque, no intercontinental transport net or particle collider or space program, no research for a cure for a mass-killing disease receives a fraction of the resources and effort we devote to making war.

Battles also entice generals and statesmen with the idea that a hard red day can be decisive, and allow us to avoid attrition, which we all despise as morally vulgar and without redemptive heroism.

Whether or not we agree that some wars were necessary and just, we should look straight at the grim reality that victory was most often achieved in the biggest and most important wars by attrition and mass slaughter – not by soldierly heroics or the genius of command.

Winning at war is harder than that. Cannae, Tours, Leuthen, Austerlitz, Tannenberg, Kharkov – all recall sharp images in a word. Yet winning such lopsided battles did not ensure victory in war.

Hannibal won at Cannae, Napoleon at Austerlitz, Hitler at Sedan and Kiev. All lost in the end, catastrophically.

There is heroism in battle but there are no geniuses in war. War is too complex for genius to control. more>

21st-century Marx

By Terrell Carver – Both Stalin and Mao had helpfully provided ‘official’ accounts of Marx’s thought – with due acknowledgement to his very influential friend Friedrich Engels – and there were committed intellectuals on both sides who were more than fluent in the relevant arcana of ‘dialectical’ and ‘historical’ materialism.

Significantly, the ‘humanist Marx’ had raised the question of economics, though not in the way that 20th-century economists had made familiar, whether they were conventional micro- or macro-economists, or Marxist economists in Moscow or Cambridge. The former ‘mainstream’ economists overwhelmingly ignored Marx and dismissed Marxist economics as politically biased and lacking in rigor; meanwhile, scholars and apparatchiks well-versed in Marxist economics despised ‘mainstream’ economists as uncritical proponents of capitalism. But both sides shared many presumptions and concepts nonetheless in theorizing capitalism.

Refreshingly, the ‘humanist Marx’ had set the stage for an examination of capitalist society in ways that bypassed all these efforts in economics, of whichever opposing camp. ‘Alienation’ was neither economics nor Marxist, so it suited the New Left of the 1960s. more>

How Europe became so rich

BOOK REVIEW

A Culture of Growth: Origins of the Modern Economy, Author: Joel Mokyr.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Author: Edward Gibbon.

In a time of great powers and empires, just one region of the world experienced extraordinary economic growth. How?
By Joel Mokyr – How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin?

One of the oldest and most persuasive explanations is the long political fragmentation of Europe. For centuries, no ruler had ever been able to unite Europe the way the Mongols and the Mings had united China.

It should be emphasized that Europe’s success was not the result of any inherent superiority of European (much less Christian) culture.

It was rather what is known as a classical emergent property, a complex and unintended outcome of simpler interactions on the whole. The modern European economic miracle was the result of contingent institutional outcomes. It was neither designed nor planned. But it happened, and once it began, it generated a self-reinforcing dynamic of economic progress that made knowledge-driven growth both possible and sustainable.

How did this work? In brief, Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. The economic historian Eric L Jones called this ‘the States system’.

The costs of European political division into multiple competing states were substantial: they included almost incessant warfare, protectionism, and other coordination failures. Many scholars now believe, however, that in the long run the benefits of competing states might have been larger than the costs. In particular, the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation. more>

If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living?

BOOK REVIEW

The Good Life and Sustaining Life, Author: Andrew Taggart.
Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Author: Josef Pieper.

By Andrew Taggart – ‘Total work’ is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else.

By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the center around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

We are on the verge of total work’s realization.

What is so disturbing about total work is not just that it causes needless human suffering but also that it eradicates the forms of playful contemplation concerned with our asking, pondering and answering the most basic questions of existence. more>