Late, but still worth listening to. There’s a lot of terrific material this week, although to be fair several of my recommendations are repackaging previously released content, so think of this as a greatest hits package of greatest hits!
Several stories debunk the myths of poverty and ask why economists don’t ask the right questions about poverty.
Have You Heard – ‘I Quit’ – Teachers Are Leaving and They Want to Tell You Why
The stress and inequity of teaching in defunded and underesourced public schools is causing teachers to quit teaching, but some of them are prominently telling the world why they’re leaving in hopes of bringing positive change for future teachers, students, and schools.
Slavery and segregation not only meant discriminating against black people, but also defining what it means to be white. Three stories detail how the idea of whiteness played out in different periods of American history.
Three stories of the experiences of transgender persons, as well as an exploration of the “feminine” qualities of straight cis men. I was particularly touched by the story of “The Accidental Gay Parents.”
A sequel of sorts to 1491, this book investigates the wide-ranging impact of contact between Eurasia & Africa and the Americas and exchange of people, animals, plants, and micorganisms that followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyages. This is called the Columbian Exchange and is the root of today’s globalism. Mann investigates a wide variety of topics, places, and times right up to the present day that resulted from this exchange. It’s a fascinating overview of social and economical forces at work through history. Recommended books:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook , and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond Rating: ****
Author:Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein Title: The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes Publication Info: W. W. Norton & Company (2000), Paperback, 256 pages Summary/Review:
This is a book that I thought was a response to the widespread idea in the contemporary United States that taxation is a bad thing that restricts liberty. While it is in some ways that book, it comes at from a different angle presenting the legal and philosophical case that rights actually have a fiscal cost, and therefore taxes are necessary to protect them. The book is a bit challenging as it has some legalese, but overall the authors do a good job of defining the issues and presenting their case for taxation. Favorite Passages:
“American liberalism, like its counterparts elsewhere in the world is based on the reasonable premise that public investment is richly repaid, not least of all because reliably enforced property rights help increase social wealth and therefore, among other benefits, swell the tax base upon which government can draw to protect other kinds of rights. But the strategic wisdom of an initial investment does not undo the fact that it is an investment.”
“Many political conservatives, but not they alone, urge government to ‘get out of the marketplace.’ For their part, some liberals counter that government quite legitimately interferes, or ‘steps into,’ the market wherever disadvantaged Americans are at risk. But this familiar debate is built on sand. No sharp line can be drawn between markets and government: the two entities have no existence detached from one another. Markets do no create prosperity beyond the ‘protective perimeter’ of the law, they function well only with reliable legislative and judicial assistance.”
“Individual freedom, however defined, cannot mean freedom from all forms of dependency. No human actor can single-handedly create all the preconditions for his own action. A free citizen is especially dependent… Liberty, rightly conceived, does not require a lack of dependence on government; on the contrary, affirmative government provides the preconditions for liberty. The Bill of Rights is a do-it-yourself kit that citizens can obtain only at tax-payer-funded outlets.”
“The most common and persuasive criticism of the regulatory-welfare state concerns incentives to antisocial behavior and other undesirable side effects. But ‘dependency’ in and of itself should not be considered one of them. There are different kinds of dependency, and not all of them are bad. Although police and fire protection definitely make citizens dependent on ‘public assistance,’ such paternalistic support also increase the willingness of private individuals to embellish and add to their holdings. Publicly funded education, when operating well, has the same effect. It, too, is a form of state help designed to foster self-help. The question is not how to eliminate state intervention, but how to design welfare programs to enhance autonomy and initiative.”
This book exposes the ideology of neoliberalism, the idea that government should be limited to the bare bones and that corporations should be completely unregulated, a school of thought promoted by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. The book begins with the story of CIA mind-washing experiments which attempted to erase the very self-identity of the subjects. The shock doctrine applies these same actions (mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally with interrogation and torture techniques) to entire communities and economies. This begins with the overthrow of democratically-elected government in Chile and the installation of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was advised by Friedman’s own trained “Chicago Boys.” The same policies pop up again in response to disasters – war, economic collapse, and natural disasters – where neoliberal policies are ready to go at the time when democratic processes are least likely to be followed. Klein examines how both Iraq and New Orleans were deliberately cleared of their past and memory to be remade in a neoliberal model, with much exploitation and corporate profits in the process. This is a chilling and illuminating book.
Communism may have collapsed without the firing of a single shot, but Chicago-style capitalism, it turned out, required a great deal of gunfire to defend itself.
Author: Linda Tirado Title: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America Narrator: Linda Tirado Publication Info: New York : Penguin Audio, p2014. Summary/Review:
Tirado writes and narrates this extended essay on the poor in United States, unflinchingly and wryly explaining why the poor do the things the do and how both right-wing and left-wing stereotypes of the poor are off the mark. It’s an intelligent and honest account based on lived experience, not shying away from anything (especially an insightful chapter on sex among the poor). This book is build off an essay widely circulated on the web which captures the gist of the matter, but the whole book should be required reading. Favorite Passages:
“If the average rich person had to walk around for a day wearing a polyester work uniform, they’d need Xanax.”
“You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.”
“I once talked to a neighbor about the fact that people who lived on our block were statistically likely to die earlier than the people who lived five blocks over in the wealthy neighborhood. He told me that it was just life, it was the way it was. He’d stopped questioning it. So if you already figure you’re going to die early what’s the motivation for giving up something that helps get you through the here and now?”
Author:Thomas Frank Narrator: Thomas Frank Title: Pity the Billionaire Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2012 ISBN: 9781427223128 Previous books read by the same author: What’s the Matter With Kansas? Summary/Review:
Thomas Frank explores the ways in which the crash of 2008 and ensuing great recession failed to lead to a populist revolt against capitalists nor for greater government intervention into the economy, as it has in past recessions. In fact, we got the Tea Party instead where the government was blamed for over-regulating business and banking instead. Frank examines the common explanations for the rise of the Tea Party, dismisses them, and proposes the long growing movement that paints capitalists as victims of government overreach drawing from the works of neoliberal economists and Ayn Rand. It’s all very interesting, and well-composed, although nothing I’ve not read before. My favorite part of the book turned out to be the last chapter where Thomas Frank condemns the Democratic Party for failing to have any populist ideology to counter the right, nor drawing on what made them successful in past recessions, while at the same time maintaining cozy relations with Big Business. The Democrats failure to act on the historic principles of their party makes it somewhat plausible that they can be blamed for being affiliated with the banks that bankrupted the country while at the same time too strictly regulating those banks.
Author: Ellen Ruppel Shell, Lorna Raver (narrator) Title: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture Publication Info: Tantor Media (2009) ASIN: B002HIT0SG Summary/Review:
Cheap is an intriguing expose on the modern American desire for bargains fed by discount stores and discount ideology in more areas of commerce than one would realize. Ruppel Shell offers a fascinating history of discount stores from the late 19th-century to present. Interestingly, many of the originators went under by the 1980s to be absorbed by the more ruthless corporations of today. The hidden costs of inexpensive purchases are then detailed from environmental destruction, human rights violations of the employees who manufacture, distribute, and sell the products, the dangers of poor quality goods to the consumer, the erosion of the middle class, and the fact that a lot of this cheap stuff isn’t even worth what we pay for it. Ruppel Shell makes the interesting point that we now live in a world where there are high-end goods and discount goods, but no reliable in-between. IKEA, Wal-Mart, and outlet malls are singled out as some actors in the discount culture, but the closing “hope-for-the-future” chapter also details companies like Wegmans and Costco that are thriving despite adopting strategies that go against the grain of discount culture. While the essence of this book is not likely to be surprising to most readers, it is still eye-opening in its details.
Author: Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanksi Title:Soccernomics : why England loses, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey and even India are destined to become the kings of the world’s most popular sport Publication Info: New York : Nation Books, c2009. ISBN: 9781568584256
Summary/Review: A soccer writer and an economist bring a sabermetrics/Freakonomics approach to global soccer. Issues covered include:
That England based on their experience, population, and other demographics they are actually not underachievers but win more often than they should. The authors also give some tips on how England can improve (like not playing in the physically taxing Premier League).
Why soccer clubs are bad businesses and should not be run as a business.
Secrets of the transfer market, such as the wisdom of crowds, buy players in their early 20s, sell whenever another club offers more than he’s worth, and help players to relocate and adjust to their new culture. Olympique Lyonnais is the Moneyball club of Europe winning French titles using unconventional techniques.
Fans are analyzed with the devoted Nick Hornby-type fan proving a rarity (not so surprising) and the world’s most soccer-mad fans are in an unexpected nation.
Rankings of the most overperforming and underperforming soccer nations in the world and a glimpse at the future world soccer order.
It’s a fun book with a lot of analysis that seems to be based on hard data – although I sometimes wonder if it’s relevant data – but I can’t quibble too much with the results.
Author: Ha-Joon Chang Title:23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism Publication Info: Bloomsbury Press (2011) ISBN: 97816081916666 Summary/Review:
I received this book as an advanced reading copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. Like the title says, it goes through 23 aspects of capitalism that are myths, misrepresentations, or simply bald-faced lies. Now this book is not anti-capitalism, but the author does seek to debunk the ideology of free-market capitalism (itself misnamed) that over the past three decades has gained an almost religious reverence in political and economic circles. Some of the most interesting tidbits include:
The economic and technological revolution of the internet has been vastly overstated. We do not live in a post-industrial age and the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has.
There is no such thing as a free market as there is some level of regulation in all markets.
Running a company for shareholder interest is inefficient for the company and bad for the national economy.
If we assume the worst about people we will get the worst out of them (this applies to the frequently repeated belief that the economy is based on individual self-interest and denials that people are moral agents).
Many successful endeavors have been initiated by the government or through public-private partnerships.
Regulation works not because the government knows better but because it deliberately restricts our choices within the scope of humanity’s bounded rationality.
Bigger government allows people to take more risks by re-tooling their work skills knowing there is a safety net if they fail.
Chang’s writing style can be dry – although there are flashes of good humor – and he gets repetitive since the 23 things overlap often. I found it an interesting overview of economics and capitalism and makes a lot of good points about what’s wrong with the prevailing opinion. Of course, I may be predisposed to agree with Chang’s thesis, but I also feel I learned a number of things I never understood before. Favorite Passages:
“The higher purchasing power of US citizens (compared to the citizens of other rich countries) is owed in large part to the poverty and insecurity of many of their fellow citizens, especially in the service industries. The Americans also work considerably longer than their counterparts in competitor nations. Per hour worked, US incomes is lower than that of several European countries, even in purchasing power terms. It is debatable that that can be described as having a higher living standard.” – p. 111
“Simply making the rich richer does not make the rest of us richer. If giving more to the rich is going to benefit the rest of society, the rich have to be made to deliver higher investment and thus higher growth through policy measures (e.g., tax cuts for the rich individuals and corporations, conditional on investment), and then share the fruits of such growth through a mechanism such as the welfare state.” – p. 147
“When the managerial classes in the US and, to a lesser extent Britain, possess such economic, political and ideological power that they can manipulate the market and pass on the negative consequences of their actions to other people, it is an illusion to think that executive pay is something whose optimal levels and structures are going to be, and should be, determined by the market.” – p. 156
“Unless we deliberately restrict our choices by creating restrictive rules, thereby simplifying the environment that we have to deal with, our bounded rationality cannot cope with the complexity of the world. It is not because the government necessarily knows better that we need regulation. It is in the humble recognition of our limited mental capability that we do.” – p. 177
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes a brief overview of what he calls “depression economics” that arose from the perfect storm of events that brought down the global economy in 2008. Much of the book is a revised form of an earlier book about fiscal crises in Latin America and Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. These earlier crises should have been a clue to what could go wrong with the bubble economy of the 2000s but most of the people who should have known better thought that depression economics were a thing of the past. Krugman does a good job of explaining what went wrong and offers solutions to prevent a repeat: regulate anything that works like a bank as a bank and allow governments to offer stimulus to the economy when needed. These solutions seem obvious of course but Krugman also explains how these reforms work and what happens when they’re missing. In short this is a good overview of the fiscal crisis for the non-economist that is written in an engaging, sometimes even humorous, manner.
Recommended books: Free Lunch David Cay Johnston, What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank and The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz Rating: ***
I awaited the release of this book with great anticipation as it contains three elements I can’t resists: pirates, quirky application of social sciences, and a terrific pun in the title. Overall it did not disappoint. Leeson examines the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1680-1720) through the lens of economics, seeking economic reason for what pirates did. Much of pirate behavior is based in reaction to the harsh and unrewarding life of sailors under cruel captains. Leeson shows how pirates preceded both James Madison and Adam Smith by decades by creating democracies and free market capitalism aboard their floating communities. It was beneficial to the crews as a whole to elect their captains and to sign pirate codes that would determine fair treatment – and a fair share of the booty. Pirates also should a fair amount of tolerance for black sailors among their crew making their racism subservient to the economic benefits of a good hand on board no matter what his color.
The “Jolly Roger” and the wild antics of pirates like Blackbeard also have an economic purpose – to force the pirates’ prey to surrender without a fight. Sea battles would damage the pirates’ prize, their own ship, and perhaps even the pirates so it behooved them to act as threatening and crazy as possible to actually prevent violence. For many of these reasons, pirate ships were actually popular among the ordinary sailors who were willing recruits into a society that would allow them a voice in how things are done and take home a greater share of wealth than they’d earn in the merchant marine. The book concludes with a humorous management course as taught by a pirate with a syllabus of articles and books that back up the economics behind the pirate way.
One quibble I have in this book is that Leeson often deviates from economics to slip in Libertarian ideology in tangents that seem odd and out of place. For example, he takes up several pages to convince the reader that all government is based on the threat of violence as opposed to pirate societies which were freely joined. He even writes of the benefits of pirate torture in regulating the behavior of commercial ship captains (who had to treat their sailors well lest they too be caught and tortured by pirates) but seems to see only evil in any regulation whatsover by government. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and educational book that brings the dismal science to life through the romance of piracy. Arrr!
Recommended books:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt; Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly Rating: *** 1/2
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) by Chris Anderson has been so discussed, cited, and praised the past few years that listening to the first few chapters I almost felt that I knew it all already. The basic gist is that businesses can profit from selling just a few units of lots and lots and lots of different products instead of just focusing on selling lots and lots and lots of units of a few “hit” products. On a graph, the traditional hit economy appears as a short head, while the niche economy appears as a long tail, thus the origins of the term. Anderson’s original article on The Long Tail is still online at Wired (Issue 12.10 – October 2004) and is worth reading for a summary of the theory behind this book.
Anderson contends that the Hit Economy is actually unusual in economic history. Examples of the hit economy include Casey Casem’s American Top 40 (which I listened to devotedly as child), television programing dominated by three networks, and blockbuster films. All were designed to appeal to a lowest common denominator to attract as many people as possible with the outlets for production controlled by a few. Prior to mass broadcasting culture was regional, and thus the things people bought as well. Today, internet communities are gathering around common interests in niches similar to the old regional cultures although the people using them are geographically disparate.
While Anderson credits the internet with providing the resources that allow the Long Tail to flourish, he also provides a history of the Long Tail dating back to Sear, Roebuck’s Wish Book in 1897 and 1-800 numbers in the 1960’s. The internet allowed the democritization of the tools of production and distribution and allowing enterpreneurs like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia to find success. The economics of scarcity were replaced by the economics of abundance. It turns out that customers really like lots of choice contrary to the earlier conventional wisdom. The difference is that consumers need filters like recommendations and reviews.
I like the examples Anderson cites such as the history of house music, the study of jams, and the punk rock revolution. He makes a very compelling argument of the advantages of niche markets for the future of business. On the other hand, I wonder how permanent this change is. Anderson makes a point of the last big blockbuster pop album being an N*Sync record from 2001, their success in sales not repeated since. Yet this is a very short period of time. Despite the influence of the internet on exposing niche bands to communities who’ll support them, whose to say that commercial forces won’t co-opt these new tools of distribution and production to recreate the Hit Culture? I’ve read bloggers who are already complaining that blogs are no longer successful unless they have a staff of multiple writers with commercial support behind them. Another example was the success of the internet phenemom Lonely Island conquering Saturday Night Live with their “Lazy Sunday” skit. But is that the case? Could it not be said that the SNL’s of the world will just keep swallowing up the Lonely Islands?
Anderson, Chris, 1961-
The long tail [sound recording] : [why the future of business is selling less of more] / Chris Anderson.
it costs more to mint the coin than the value of the cent itself!
looking for and counting out cents wastes time in transactions
Americans for Common Cents counter:
cents are often collected by charities in fund raising drives
the cent, especially with President Lincoln’s portrait, has great cultural significance
losing the penny and rounding up to the nickel would raise prices
most Americans like them
You can read the websites for more discussion of the cent’s merits and weaknesses (including counter-arguments t0 each organizations main points). As a fan of AbrahamLincoln and someone who enjoyed collecting coins when I was young, I lean toward the save the cent side of the debate. Yet, I can see the inherent wastefulness of producing something that is worth less than it costs to make. I’ve long wondered, why not just revalue our currency? I searched the ‘net and found proposals to do just that by declaring the penny worth two cents or even redefining the base unit as five cents. It certainly makes sense for a decimal system to have a .01 unit and the Lincoln Cent is certainly a cultural icon worth preserving.
I say, let’s not do things in half measures though. Let’s revalue the cent so that it will be worth what is currently valued as ten cents. The other denominations in our currency would be revalued accordingly:
1¢ = 10¢
5¢ = 50¢
10¢ = $1.00
25¢ = $2.50
50¢ = $5.00
$1.00 = $10.00
$5.00 = $50.00
$10 = $100.00
$20, $50, & $100 would all be retired because no one would carry that ridiculous amount of money around.
The US Mint could also reintroduce the half-cent and two-cent coins to replace the role of the nickel and the quarter, and the $2 bill could return to useful circulation as the new twenty. Readjusting the value of our currency in a big way now will make it last for many more decades against the rate of inflation.
Obviously, they’re would be a confusing and laborious process of revaluing everything from the price of goods to employee salaries to adjust to the new system. Yet, I think even that will eventually have it’s charm. Imagine buying a soda from a vending machine for a dime or a movie ticket for a dollar! This new system would save the mint and the Bureau of Printing and Engraving a lot of money, be a boon to collectors, and preserve an important facet of our cultural heritage.
Let me know what you think in my first ever Panorama of the Mountains poll, or put a message in the comments:
It’s amazing what a major fiscal crisis can do to you. I’ve basically have no interest in economics. In fact I even managed to weasel myself out of the required economics course in High School by taking a special course in Japanese taught by a college professor (that worked out well as I know something like five words in Japanese).
I find it surprising that quite accidentally I find myself reading and listening to economics news pretty much on a daily basis. Here’s what I’m checking out:
Before we get to the links, I just want to mention a couple of things:
I’ve added a del.icio.us widget to the sidebar on the right which will show you the last 5 links of the day I’ve posted. I’m not sure what this does yet other than create redundancy but it’s a start. Again, any tips for social bookmarking/link sharing are much appreciated.
I’ve finally caught up with my backlog of posts from the past six weeks. I’ve dated them all from the day I started writing them not the day they were actually published. If you’re reading this on a feed you’ve probably already seen them pop up, but otherwise go back to Nov 7th and read forward and see if there’s anything you missed. I’ve some ideas for interesting original posts coming up this week so this deluge of link dumps will come to an end.
Handup Or Handout? The Case Against Micro-Loans by Josh Kearns (Brave New Traveler, 12/12/2007) – an interesting an analysis of how micro-loans force people in the developing world into dependence on money economy at the expense of local self-reliance.
Not-so-shocking news: Working moms are happier by Jessica Valenti (Feministing, 12/17/2007) -“The thing is, I have no doubt that most women (and men) would like more time with their children and more flexible schedules and workplace policies to facilitate that being possible. That’s definitely what feminists want.” Me too!