Tag Archives: economics

** Extreme Economies by Richard Davies

I found Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because the author manages to find all kinds of interesting twists in economies as diverse as those in refugee camps, prisons, Japanese villages with aging populations, or the Panama jungle. Frustrating because the narrative does not really rise above descriptions, often captivating (who knew that the design of refugee camps mattered so much in the way they actually function for the residents?), so there’s little sense of what we can really learn from both thriving and failing economies. Best enjoyed as a series of descriptions.

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** The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits

The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite makes its points within the first few pages (indeed, one could argue, within its very title), so the main issue is that it continues for 300 pages! The other is that many anecdotes come from the august halls of Yale, where the author teaches, and one wonders how restricted a view that may be. And finally the arguments seem to repeat on a loop from one chapter to another. Get to the point, already.

Still, the arguments are strong and unsettling. What we call meritocracy is really a race to the top for richer parents, from which the vast majority of middle-income children, and virtually all low-income children, are excluded. The remedies proposed sadly occupy only a few pages. One is an interesting idea of restricting non-profit status for private universities that educate only high-income students, which seems totally possible since the government already knows where mid- and low-income students go to school. The proposal to create more middle-skilled jobs seems highly suspect in the global economy we live in…

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*** Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo

Written before its authors won the Nobel Prize (and occasionally funny to read after they did), Good Economics for Hard Times ambitiously tackles inequality, globalization, social programs, politics, and more. It’s a bit much! But it highlights some important themes, most importantly that markets cannot, by themselves, solve all problems, and that economic ideas should be carefully tested, and not only in the country where the generator of the idea happens to be located. We are, happily, far from the rational homo economicus and WEIRD subjects of most economics discussions.

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** The Technology Trap by Carl Benedikt Frey

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation retraces the introduction of various technological changes from the Industrial Revolution to today, looking that the effect on workers, corporations, and governments. We know that technology has an overall beneficial effect on our lives, but it also brings spectacular changes in the kinds of work people do, along with economic ruin to those individuals whose jobs simply vanish.

It’s interesting to see how earlier technological revolutions were resisted, sometimes forbidden, by law (temporarily), and eventually legislated to impose some controls and safeguard, but always after the fact. It is also striking to see how benefits accrue sometimes to workers, and sometimes to capital. The author tries to apply the lessons of the past to the current AI revolution, and as we know predicting the future is a really tough job. One area he highlights that I had not thought about is housing and zoning. For all the talk about workers learning new skills, they do need to live in areas where the new jobs are, and today zoning laws make housing in “hot” areas very expensive indeed. Sometimes for the political class to think about.

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* Transaction Man by Nicholas Lemann

Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream is an awkwardly constructed story of the  economic history of the US from the New Deal to the Great Recession. Awkward because the author tries to tie it to a particular neighborhood in Chicago but it never quite fits and I, for one, thought it would illustrate only the strange relationship between car manufacturers and their dealers, when in fact the author had much grander ambitions. Still , there is merit int he description of how power moved from government institutions to large manufacturers and now (the author says) financial institutions.

Also, Foothill College is not in Sunnyvale, CA. Proofreaders, please proofread.

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*** The Human Tide by Paul Morland

It is said that demography is destiny, and The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World is packed with examples, from Irish emigration to everywhere, especially the US, to the astonishing fall of fertility rates that follows drops in infant mortality, to how dictators have killed and encouraged new generations to grow. The author occasionally forgets he is speaking about human beings and describes mothers as vessels (with a brain, but not much more). Still, I found the book to be a useful reminder of how population growth, decrease, and aging influences politics and economics.

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***The Human Network by Matthew Jackson

Written by an economics professor, The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors shows how connections between people determine power, contagion (of viruses,  ideas, even bankruptcies), and who gets access to jobs and other opportunities.

The author includes helpful and legible pictorial examples and seems equally at ease discussing the polarization of the US senate and high school cliques. The book emphasizes the need to create special access for people who, from birth, do not participate in the networks of power.

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