Here are some books I’ve read recently.
W. Arthur Lewis, The Evolution of the World Economic Order
This little book may have the highest insights-per-page density of any economics book I’ve read. This isn’t an unmixed blessing — what you’re getting here are the distilled conclusions of a lifetime’s work in development economics, without any of the concrete material that led to them. The central theme — among many fascinating side-trips — is a basically Ricardian vision of a three-class society in which conditions in agriculture fundamentally determine the possibilities for capitalist development, and landlords are the great enemies of progress.
Among the book’s many virtues is the way it demonstrates how Ricardo’s theories of trade has much more radical implications than the free-trade-is-good bromides it’s usually deployed in support of. As Lewis points out, the Ricardian model clearly shows that it is in the interests of the rich countries that poor countries develop their capacity to produce goods they are already specialized in (i.e. follow their comparative advantage). But it is in the interest of the poor countries themselves (except for the landlords) to develop their capacity to produce the goods currently produced by the rich countries.
Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution
Originally I’d picked up some other history of the pre-Civil War United States. It referred dismissively to the idea that resistance to wage labor and to production for profit had been important to political and social developments in the early United States, and referenced The Market Revolution as the leading example of this now-discredited view. Ah, I thought, that’s the book I should be reading. I was not disappointed. The transition from use-value production by family units to market production by wage (and slave) labor turns out to be a very effective tool for organizing a general political and social history of the US from the end of the War of 1812 to the 1840s.
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale
I’d had this sitting around for ages and for some reason picked it up when I was unpacking a box of books. It’s a history of evolution, told through the conceit of a pilgrimage from modern humans back to the origins of life. Each pilgrim represents the last common ancestor of us and some other group of organisms. It may not be obvious at first but there is a definite number of such meeting points, no more than a few dozen, though obviously there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the more distant ones. It’s a very effective device for telling the story of evolution in an unfamiliar way, and, thankfully, Dawkins’ cranky politics are confined to a few footnotes.
Richard Werner, Princes of the Yen
Someone recommend this book to me in comments on this blog. It’s an original retelling of the story of Japan’s long postwar boom and long post-1980s stagnation that puts monetary policy at the center of both.
The basic argument is that the distinctive features of Japanese capitalism are a product of wartime mobilization, not some ancient features of Japanese culture; Werner’s claim that 1920s Japan was as liberal as the US or UK on most economic dimensions is consistent with other things I’ve read. The central feature of wartime planning that was preserved after 1945 was direct allocation of credit by the state — not officially, but via “window guidance” to banks on the desired volume and direction of lending. Initially this was controlled by the Ministry of Finance but in the 1980s, Werner argues, the Bank of Japan became increasing independent, and the key decisionmakers there — the “princes of the yen” of the title — saw their control over credit as a tool to dismantle the distinctive features of postwar Japanese capitalism. His claim that the crisis was deliberately provoke and prolonged in order to push through a broader agenda of liberalization is highly relevant as a precedent for what’s happening in Europe today — though I have to admit that his evidence for it is more suggestive than dispositive.
Ray Madoff, Immortality and the Law
I stole this from Mike Konczal when I was visiting him last year; he was using it for a piece in The Nation. It’s a fascinating discussion of a question I’d never thought about much before — the legal status of dead people.
The argument is that the US is an outlier, in that it grants dead people no rights over their bodies — instructions about the disposal of remains have no legal force — but grants wealthowners almost unlimited freedom to dispose of their property however they wish. In most European countries, by contrast, children and other family members are entitled to a substantial share of the estate regardless of the wishes of the deceased. Piketty, incidentally, is critical of these rules, on the grounds that they reinforce inherited wealth, but the US has its own ways of maintaining fortunes across generations. As Madoff points out, the “rule against perpetuities” now exists only in law school classrooms. While at one time it was possible to leave wealth in trust only for named individuals, it is now perfectly possible to set up a trust to benefit your decendents unto the last generation. Even better, you can keep your property itself in the trust, allowing your heirs only an income, or the use of it (as with a house); this protects it from the taxman, your children’s creditors, and their own spendthrift ways. Of course the law is not the whole story here; whether the US has the norms and institutions to actually maintain such perpetual wealth remains to be seen.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction
If you’ve read Kolbert’s pieces on climate change in the New Yorker then you know what this book is like. It’s a good, readable summary of what we know about the mass extinction currently underway. There’s nothing really new here, but one thing I did learn from it is how much of what’s happening is due to factors other than warming per se. Ocean acidification is responsible for the extinction of coral, which may be completely gone by the end of the century; invasive species and the dissemination of pathogens is the main factor in the decline of bats and amphibians. No matter how familiar you think you are with this stuff there’s always something that hits you. I remember my fascination and disgust as a child when I learned there were frogs that swallowed their eggs and hatched the tadpoles in their stomachs. It turns out there aren’t anymore.
Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame
The central claim of Boehm’s previous book is that all the small bands of foragers we know of — the closest analogues to the societies that existed for 99 percent of human history — are strictly egalitarian, with no one (among adult males) allowed to assume authority over anyone else. This contrasts with the modern world of kings, cops and bosses, and even more so with the rigid dominance hierarchies of our nearest primate relatives. And yet there is a striking parallel between the alliances that dominant chimpanzees form to defend their top spot, and the alliances that entire groups of human beings form to prevent anyone from occupying the top spot in the first place.
Boehm’s idea — which I like a lot, though I don’t have any expertise — is that the same basic behavioral patterns, presumably with the same genetic underpinnings, can produce dramatically different kinds of society. An intense dislike of having people above you, plus the ability to form alliances against anyone who tries to move up in the ranks, are the ingredients for a world of chimpanzees, baboons, mafiosos and orcs, where everyone is jealously guarding their spot in the hierarchy and ready to violently retaliate against usurpers who try to cut ahead of them. But the same vigilance against anyone trying to put themselves above you can equally give rise to the absolute democracy of hunter-gatherer bands, or today to political movements like Occupy Wall Street.
The main thing the newer book adds to the story is a more explicit argument that egalitarian norms arose through natural selection, along the same lines as people like Bowles and Gintis. I am not sure this evolutionary turn is a step forward. Like all evolutionary psychology, this consists largely of speculative just-so stories. And it loses one of the most interesting ideas in the earlier work, that the same behavioral building blocks can give rise to both hierarchical and egalitarian forms of society.
As for fiction, I’ve recently read:
It’s a Battlefield, by Graham Greene
Q, by Luther Blissett
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July
The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden. (See Laura Tanenbaum’s review here.)
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers
The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro
Going after Caciatto, by Tim O’Brien
The Hunters, by James Salter
Cities of Salt, by Adulrahman Munif
Crow Fair, by Tom McGuane
My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elana Ferrante
I liked all of them a lot, would recommend them all. Maybe I’ll write mini-reviews in an another post. Or maybe not.