History

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Read: Nonviolence

While Kurlansky’s Nonviolence could have been just as appropriately titled “War, Warfare, and the Power and Impotence of the Elite” it confirms my earlier suspicion: Driven by a purpose and having a message he wants to impress upon his audience Karlansky’s writing improves dramatically.

Kurlansky’s message is clear. And to squash any doubt he provides a summary of his book himself: 25 theses that stress the need for nonviolence and its superiority are included as the last chapter: War, armed conflict is bad. Violence begets violence. Power corrupts, and religion and good intentions are easily tainted and defiled.

By the seventh century it was already an old pattern: the religious doctrine of peace meets the power politics of [the] state, the rules are bent for the “just war,” and once the first few doses are administered the state becomes an addict that will tell any lie to get its narcotic. War is simply the means. The real narcotic is power.

There is no such thing as a just war.

The book is a brief overview of the history of violence, war, and warfare, following the standard recipe of describing the fate and fortune – mostly the fate – of several individuals to illustrate the dominant practices at a time and the emerging nonviolent opposing forces. It is rather US-centric. Focusing on individual (non-violent) actions and settling for just reporting historic events Kurlansky fails to explore the philosophical aspects of nonviolence in a befitting extent and detail. Assessing nonviolence remains an empirical matter.

Finally, given the vast amount of space dedicated to Gandhi in Kurlansky’s Salt, Gandhi occupies a surprisingly minor role in this newer book. The details of Gandhi’s nonviolent opposition are not discussed here.

All in all, even if I am not fully happy with this book I can endorse its cause: the quest for peace and nonviolence.

The hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done.

Read: Salt - A world history

When I discovered Sweetness and Power as a potentially interesting book I also stumbled upon Salt: A World History. I liked Mintz’ book about sugar. I am disappointed by Kurlansky’s book about salt.

Kurlansky is not a scientist but a journalist. Hence, his Salt is not an in-depth anthropological study of the history, sociology, and economics of salt (as may have been expected after reading Mintz on sugar). Salt is a mere collection of anecdotes roughly ordered by regions and time. Neither order is kept strictly. So a single chapter may offer some trivia from antiquity and the recent past and different chapters may revisit geographical regions again and again and then overlap in the time that is covered.

While everything is somewhat connected to salt, the book is a terrible mess. Yes, the little anecdotes are interesting and entertaining enough to read on but a coherent narrative, a deeper purpose, and a meaning are absent. Some of the anecdotes are just one paragraph long and I don’t know why Kurlansky mentions the fate or fortune of the specific individual. He just does and moves on to the next one. He never tries to generalize or interpret for his readers.

Even the last chapter, that should offer some kind of a bottom line, is curiously opaque. Is there a hint of critique on modern capitalism, or materialism, or is there just a clumsy attempt to hint at the irony that artisanship is now in demand again, that people prefer the imperfect, impure product of the artisan over the perfect, standardized salt sold by modern industry?

Kurlansky’s fact checking is also questionable. At one point he translates the Alsatian surkrutschneider with sauerkraut tailor. Sauerkraut cutter, slicer, or shredder would have been the much more appropriate translation. Another time, he mentions that a particular person published a research paper. On what, however, is not revealed. If he is sloppy with these small things his credibility in general is hurt.

In short, Kurlansky does not want (?) to convey any message. His book, though diverting, is without purpose and as soon as it is read it is forgotten.

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Read: Sweetness and Power

I do not remember why or how I ended up on https://cs. brown.edu/~sk/Personal/Books/Mintz-Sweetness-Power/ where I read this:

Read this book. The next time you visit a cafe and confront a choice between white sugar (packed, perhaps, at the aptly-named Imperial Sugar Company) and the brown crystals of Sugar-in-the-Raw, the decision will suddenly seem so much more than one of mere taste or calories or purity. A hefty chunk of history, economics and anthropology will bear down upon you. Choose wisely.

I now have read the book. And I can co-sign this recommendation.

Sweetness and Power is an anthropological study of sugar. Or rather, it is a study in economic history that uses sugar, its production, use, and change of production and use to depict changes in (British) society and its economy. It is fascinating how much insight can be linked to just one commodity. It is fascinating seeing how essential it is to consider class – and not just the individual – in economic analysis of the past and therefore the present. Context matters.

Sweetness and Power was not just fun to read and instructive, it served also a very practical purpose because I accidentally could use it, its content, as illustrations in my International Trade course when discussing the issues related to colonization and mercantilism.

The text is sometimes a bit repetitive. On the other hand, this implies the evidence provided is not just anecdotal. There is plenty of support for Mintz’ points.

Mintz concludes in the last chapter “Eating and being” with a critique of modern society. The changing role of eating is just a symptom of the changing use of time. A thesis that may be central to the book as the use of (scarce) time may reflect the existence of individual power and freedom, and their absence.

As a result of scarce time, eating has become more individualized, noninteractive, and thus less social. Eating has been deprived of its hedonistic and social quality – just thing about “convenience” food. To make up for this loss, things need to be done simultaneously. Even the things that are supposed to generate pleasure. There is not enough time for consumption. A paradox, as increasing productivity should result in more free time, not less. I wonder whether this is about to change, given the imminent rise of the second machine age, the singularity.

Read: The Myth of the Rational Market

Slowly, very slowly I read through the backlog of books on my to-read-shelf. Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market must have been on my shelf for about three years. I should have read it earlier. It’s good.

The Myth of the Rational Market is an entertaining history of academic and applied finance. Fox links the events in the financial sector to financial innovations to changing schools of thought and to persons. The result is a vivid tour through the ups and downs of the stock market and an introduction to the various characters that shaped and challenged the scholar’s view on the financial markets. I honestly enjoyed reading the book, seeing all those well known names of (dare I say) colleagues and their research.

Though there is, of course, a chapter on experimental economics and behavioral finance it is pleasantly little pop-sciency. Given the hype around behavioral economics during the past years this is anything but granted…

Not being from or in the US I also found the remarks about the distinction between economics departments and business schools – which encourages differences in approaches, research questions and rigor – interesting. Yes, there is a similar divide in content and academic ‘style’ in Germany, yet, we are most often part of the same academic unit and not separated by the design of the institution.

Read: Living Economics

Peter Boettke’s Living Economics is an excellent collection of essays on the history of (austrian) economic thought and thinkers together with some more general remarks on the teaching and practice of economics.

As Boettke often summarizes the contribution to economics of a scholar’s whole lifetime in only a few pages Living Economics requires (and deserves) the reader’s undivided attention. (I have to admit that – I hope it was just due to me having a cold – I had to reread a few passages to fully grasp them.) It is well worth it and the reader is likely to be rewarded. It is obvious how passionate Boettke is about his profession.

I like the distinction between mainline and mainstream economics which allows Boettke to show the connections of the Austrian school to other streams of economics that follow the same or closely related lines, pulling the different streams closer together.

Yet, I would have preferred a more monolithic book. As it is a collection of essays there are some repetitions and the transitions between chapters (i. e. the essays) was often quite abrupt. On the other hand, this allowed me to put the book aside after an essay more easily and ponder on what I had just learned.

Read: The Hesitant Hand

This week’s theme seems to be history… The Hesitant Hand is a history of economic thought, of the government’s role in the economy to tame (the consequences of) self-interest. It’s remarkable how the economists’ perception of government and its role in the economy changed over time (laissez-faire – only hope – the worst thing on earth – as good or bad as any other market participant). And it is also remarkable how today’s common perception of past economists is wrong, distorted, and attributing too extreme positions. Hence it is really great to have Medema giving this very instructive overview and setting the record straight.

I found it also interesting that the change within the profession can be accredited to so few individuals (of course, there is a supporting cast).

Reading The Hesitant Hand I felt that the history of economic thought should have a much larger part in today’s economics courses. Even, or especially in the introductory courses. It’s amazing what can be found in the writings of Smith, Marshall, or Robbins. So many things got lost, and so many things get re-discovered and are not attributed to the original thinkers. I certainly got a few very good quotes that I will use in class this fall. I may even add the book to the recommended readings list for the Introduction to Economics that I teach at Jacobs University.

Given that the government’s role seems now to be on par with the market institution, both market participants and government officials and bureaucrats are driven by the same motives and have the same capabilities, it will be indeed exciting to observe whether and how dropping the assumption of unconditional narrow self-interest as suggested by contemporary behavioral economics will impact the profession – and the role of government.

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