Book Bits | 9 May 2015

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
By Martin Ford
Review via FT
Martin Ford has seen the future, and it doesn’t work. To be more precise, it generates wealth while obliterating demand for work. “Go West, young man”, was the career advice of the 19th century. Today’s equivalent is “get an engineering degree”. Alas, the latter is not as rewarding as the former. A third of Americans who graduated in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are in jobs that do not require any such degree. Up and down the US there are programmers working as fast-food servers. In the age of artificial intelligence, they will only drift further into obsolescence, says Ford.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics
By Richard H. Thaler
Summary via publisher (Norton)
Coupling recent discoveries in human psychology with a practical understanding of incentives and market behavior, Thaler enlightens readers about how to make smarter decisions in an increasingly mystifying world. He reveals how behavioral economic analysis opens up new ways to look at everything from household finance to assigning faculty offices in a new building, to TV game shows, the NFL draft, and businesses like Uber.

When to Rob a Bank: …And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants
By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Summary via publisher (HarperCollins)
When Freakonomics was initially published, the authors started a blog—and they’ve kept it up. The writing is more casual, more personal, even more outlandish than in their books. Now, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the landmark Freakonomics, comes this curated collection from the most readable economics blog in the world. Why don’t flight attendants get tipped? If you were a terrorist, how would you attack? And why does KFC always run out of fried chicken? Over the past decade, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have published more than 8,000 blog posts on Now the very best of this writing has been carefully curated into one volume, the perfect solution for the millions of readers who love all things Freakonomics. Discover why taller people tend to make more money; why it’s so hard to predict the Kentucky Derby winner; and why it might be time for a sex tax (if not a fat tax). You’ll also learn a great deal about Levitt and Dubner’s own quirks and passions. Surprising and erudite, eloquent and witty, When to Rob a Bank demonstrates the brilliance that has made their books an international sensation.

Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions: Redefining Next Generation Economics
By Eve Poole
Summary via publisher (Bloomsbury)
In Science, no-one believes the earth is flat any more. Economists, on the other hand, haven’t budged from their original worldview. Market Capitalism depends on seven big ideas: competition, the ‘invisible hand’, utility, agency theory, pricing, shareholder value, and limited liability. These served the world well in the past, but over the years they have become cancerous, and are slowly killing the system as a whole. Eve Poole argues that if you zoom in on any of these firm foundations, they start to blur and wobble. Here she offers alternative views for a healthier system. And looking at them together, it becomes clear why we’re so stuck. The capitalist system masquerades as a machine programmed by experts, with only Economists and Governments qualified to tinker with it. But the market is just a mass of messages about supply and demand. The rich world shapes the market in its image, because it has more ‘votes’. So if we want to change the way things are, we don’t need to wait for the experts, we can start now. In each chapter, Poole shows how quiet action by consumers, investors, employees and employers can make big changes, by shifting behaviours and adjusting the way financial ‘votes’ are cast in the market.

Making the Desert Modern: Americans, Arabs, and Oil on the Saudi Frontier, 1933-1973
By Chad Parker
Summary via publisher (University of Massachusetts Press)
In 1933 American oilmen representing what later became the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) signed a concession agreement with the Saudi Arabian king granting the company sole proprietorship over the oil reserves in the country’s largest province. As drilling commenced and wells proliferated, Aramco soon became a major presence in the region. In this book Chad H. Parker tells Aramco’s story, showing how an American company seeking resources and profits not only contributed to Saudi “nation building” but helped define U.S. foreign policy during the early Cold War.