Book Bits: 16 October 2021

Trillions: How a Band of Wall Street Renegades Invented the Index Fund and Changed Finance Forever
Robin Wigglesworth
Interview with author and excerpt via Marketplace.org
The finance industry has historically been adept at inventing new products that line its own pockets more than those of Main Street. The index fund is a rare exception to the rule. At a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening everywhere, the positive impact that an initially much-maligned invention by a motley group of self-described finance industry renegades and heretics can have in the space of a few decades is inspirational. Nonetheless, new technologies — and that is essentially what the index fund is — always have side effects, and not all of them are positive. As index investing has grown, the initially snide comments have been replaced by concern, even fear. Over the past decade, it has become a crescendo. Paul Singer, a famous hedge fund manager, even argues that passive investing has grown into a “blob” that is now “in danger of devouring capitalism.”

The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power
Jacob Helberg
Summary via publisher (Simon & Schuster)
From the former news policy lead at Google, an urgent and groundbreaking account of the high-stakes global cyberwar brewing between Western democracies and the autocracies of China and Russia that could potentially crush democracy. This tech-fueled war will shape the world’s balance of power for the coming century as autocracies exploit twenty-first-century methods to re-divide the world into twentieth century-style spheres of influence. Helberg cautions that the spoils of this fight are power over every meaningful aspect of our lives, including our economy, our infrastructure, our national security, and ultimately, our national sovereignty.

The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture
Matthew Stewart
Review via Vox.com
There are some defining characteristics of today’s American upper-middle class, per Stewart’s telling. They are hyper-focused on getting their kids into great schools and themselves into great jobs, at which they’re willing to work super-long hours. They want to live in great neighborhoods, even if that means keeping others out, and will pay what it takes to ensure their families’ fitness and health. They believe in meritocracy, that they’ve gained their positions in society by talent and hard work. They believe in markets. They’re rich, but they don’t feel like it — they’re always looking at someone else who’s richer.

Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History
Kyle Harper
Summary via Princeton U. Press
Plagues upon the Earth is a monumental history of humans and their germs. Weaving together a grand narrative of global history with insights from cutting-edge genetics, Kyle Harper explains why humanity’s uniquely dangerous disease pool is rooted deep in our evolutionary past, and why its growth is accelerated by technological progress. He shows that the story of disease is entangled with the history of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism, and reveals the enduring effects of historical plagues in patterns of wealth, health, power, and inequality. He also tells the story of humanity’s escape from infectious disease—a triumph that makes life as we know it possible, yet destabilizes the environment and fosters new diseases.

American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears
Farah Stockman
Review via The New York Times
Stories like this show that journalists have a vital role to play in helping us understand the complex economic forces that shape our societies. Rooting out the hidden networks and social capital that support our global economy is painstaking work. Stockman’s reporting reveals a fatal flaw in economics: Adjustment costs are not bumps in the road; they define lives. The task of 21st-century capitalism is to find a model that combines growth and innovation with ways to protect people from the painful shifts these forces so often bring. “American Made” is a reminder that this search continues.

Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be
Diane Coyle
Summary via publisher (Princeton U. Press)
Digital technology, big data, big tech, machine learning, and AI are revolutionizing both the tools of economics and the phenomena it seeks to measure, understand, and shape. In Cogs and Monsters, Diane Coyle explores the enormous problems—but also opportunities—facing economics today if it is to respond effectively to these dizzying changes and help policymakers solve the world’s crises, from pandemic recovery and inequality to slow growth and the climate emergency.

Building the New Economy: Data as Capital
Alex Pentland, et al.
Summary via publisher (MIT Press)
With each major crisis, be it war, pandemic, or major new technology, there has been a need to reinvent the relationships between individuals, businesses, and governments. Today’s pandemic, joined with the tsunami of data, crypto and AI technologies, is such a crisis. Consequently the critical question for today is: what sort institutions should we be creating both to help us past this crisis and to make us less vulnerable to the next crisis? This book lays out a vision of what we should build, covering not only how to reforge our societies’ social contract but also how institutions, systems, infrastructure, and law should change in support of this new order. We invite your comments and suggestions on both the ideas and the presentation, preferably by June 1, 2020 when we will move to make the book more widely available.

Recovery: How We Can Create a Better, Brighter Future after a Crisis
Andrew Wear
Summary via publisher (Black Inc Books)
As we emerge from the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, what can we learn from other recoveries? Through interviews with experts, policymakers and community leaders, Andrew Wear examines past recoveries, exploring what went well, what we should do differently and what the lessons might be for the recovery ahead of us. With governments prepared to lead, listen to experts and involve communities in decision-making, not only is a successful recovery possible – we can also choose to reconsider things we thought were fixed.

The Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters
Eric J. Johnson
Review via Publishers Weekly
People’s choices are not entirely their own making advises Johnson (Decision Research), the director of Columbia Business School’s Center for Decision Sciences, in this energetic survey. Dissatisfied with how decision research and behavioral economics usually focus on showing people as bad decision-makers, he takes aim instead at those who influence decisions in order to better guide consumers towards more informed choices. People will usually choose the “plausible path” that contains the most accessible credible information, Johnson writes, and presents a slew of stories about how these plausible paths are made.

Making a Killing: States, Banks, and Terrorism
Ian Michael Oxnevad
Summary via publisher (McGill-Queen’s U. Press)
The international financial system is not only economic, but political. Making a Killing explores the often-overlooked world of terrorist financing and the involvement of the international banking system. In order to address the threat of terrorist organizations in a post-9/11 world – and how they are funded and financed in particular – the international community has constructed a vast architecture of counterterrorist finance laws, policies, and institutions.

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