▸ history

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.

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.

Read: Sepulchre

Kate Mosse’s thing is actually four things: There is the female protagonist(s); there is the south of France, Languedoc; there is the interweaving of the present and the past, two parallel story lines; and, there is the esoteric mystery, the innuendo of the supernatural. In these respects Sepulchre is very similar to the Labyrinth that I have read earlier.

I like the first characteristic, it’s adding a nice variety to the novels I usually read. It’s not a distinctive mark. There a lots of novels with female protagonists. Mosse manages, however, to not write for a stereotyped audience. In principle, anyone could enjoy her works.

I have no strong opinion with regard to the geographic location. Again, it adds some variety to the usual mix. Though it is not like I feel I could benefit from change in this particular aspect.

The two time lines and the parallel development of the plots I indeed like. The parallelism was much more pronounced in Labyrinth. In Sepulchre the link between the two time lines relies much more (actually: only) on the kinship of the protagonists. Hence, with respect to the stylistic devices Sepulchre is less interesting, less refined than Mosse’s earlier novel.

Finally, I could certainly do without the supernatural. It’s completely dispensable here. Some mystery, some unexplained events: yes. Ghosts, or supernatural entities: no.

In sum, still an (quite) enjoyable book. Though I am not sure whether or not I am going to read her next one…

Read: On Classical Economics

The nice thing about a (large) private collection of un-read books is that you can start immediately to read more of a topic as soon as your interest is turned towards that particular niche of you bookshelves.

After having read Robbins' A history of economic thought I now turned to Sowell’s On classical economics. What was a rather different experience.

On classical economics is a loose collection of independent essays that appear to have a common structure but actually have not. The first half of the essays deal with topics: philosophy, macroeconomics, microeconomics, and methodology of the classical economists; the second half focuses on individuals of the respective time period. Some of the essays are rather dated, the first were published in the 1970s. Though, since Sowell does not refer to (almost) any of the secondary literature on the topic – not in his older essays and not in the more recent ones that make up this collection – you just do not notice that they are from different periods. In fact, you do not notice that Sowell holds views on the topic that may differ substantially from those of the current majority of scholars (unless you already know about them). He just neglects all other research and focuses on the original works.

Consequently, opinions about the scholarly value of On classical economics may differ widely as can be seen in a number of reviews of the text (that can be found by a simple google search of the title). While, e.g., a J. Ahiakpor sees obvious deficiencies J. Ullmer and J. Berdell are much more enthusiastic about it.

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I enjoyed reading the book (if you discount the enormous number of endnotes – I hate endnotes, I much prefer footnotes). On the other hand, the text is too driven by a single opinion and not balanced at all. Thus, you are forced to read more on the sub-topics and diverse classical authors to get the whole picture, the essence of their work and accomplishments. Further, the focus on dissenters of the classical economics of their time is rather biased and leads to a debasing of the accomplishments of classical economics.

Read: A History of Economic Thought

I was not there.

I would have been five and would not have understood a single word. Still, I feel like I missed something.

Not too long ago a few colleagues of mine and I noticed that there are too few courses on economic history and history of economic thought in economics curricular today. Often, there are none. This is bad. Without the historic context we are bound to misinterpret and repeat mistakes. Without the historic context we do not know why we are where we are right now in economic science. Many approaches, assumptions, and conventions that seem obvious and natural today once were not, maybe they should not be today as they constrain our thought and handicap heterodox scholars.

Lionel Robbins must have been a great teacher. “A history of economic thought” edited by Steven Medema and Warren Samuels is a transcript of a lecture series Robbins gave at the LSE between 1979 and 1981. I am glad I have read it.

It is of course not a comprehensive history of economic thought; it is not “the” history, it is “a” history (Yes, please note this subtle modesty). It’s a history of economic thought as Robbins saw it. Although Robbins most of the times explicates the topic in an objective yet passionate way, he does not spare the occasional judgment. Always, however, he warns his audience that he is about to share an opinion and not an historic fact. Of course, the selection of focus is also a matter of personal judgment. In some cases, on the other hand, there is little room for choice. You have to cover the Scots. Nevertheless, he gives credit where credit is due. (And I have to admit that I have been negligently ignorant of some of the finer details.)

As a result of this excellent text I now feel motivated to embark upon further readings in economic history and history of economic thought – what may be a nice diversification to all the quantitative texts I read. I might even give a seminar on it…

Read: The Tenth Chamber

Cooper’s The Tenth Chamber is mixture of historical and crime fiction, its three timelines are set some 30000 year ago, during the medieval ages, and in our current time. The quite compelling story joins a longevity theme with some conspiracy theory.

All in all, the elements of the story are not overly original. There are monks, an old encrypted text, life-span enhancing organic potions with an unavoidable side effect, and a government cover-up. Indeed, I had a feeling of deja-vu when I read the novel. Yet, Cooper’s style is enjoyably suspenseful. There is no padding. The length and the pace of the story are just about right. In short a rather good book, not exceptional but not bad either.