Book Bits: 20 May 2023

The Yellow Pad: Making Better Decisions in an Uncertain World
Robert E. Rubin
Review via The Wall Street Journal
These are uniquely uncertain times, says former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. From his office at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan, where he serves as chairman emeritus, he rattles off a list of challenges facing the U.S.: friction with China and Russia, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, rising economic inequality and the “existential threat” of climate change. As for American politics, he describes it as “about as dysfunctional as it has ever been in my lifetime.”
Even more troubling, Mr. Rubin, 84, suggests that our collective ability to make sound decisions is getting worse.

Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity
Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson
Review via MIT News
AI could develop as a beneficial force, Johnson says. However, he adds, “Many algorithms are being designed to try to replace humans as much as possible. We think that’s entirely wrong. The way we make progress with technology is by making machines useful to people, not displacing them. In the past we have had automation, but with new tasks for people to do and sufficient countervailing power in society.”
Today, AI is a tool of social control for some governments that also creates riches for a small number of people, according to Acemoglu and Johnson. “The current path of AI is neither good for the economy nor for democracy, and these two problems, unfortunately, reinforce each other,” they write.

Seven Crashes: The Economic Crises That Shaped Globalization
Harold James
Summary via publisher Yale U. Press
The eminent economic historian Harold James presents a new perspective on financial crises, dividing them into “good” crises, which ultimately expand markets and globalization, and “bad” crises, which result in a smaller, less prosperous world. Examining seven turning points in financial history—from the depression of the 1840s through the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Covid-19 crisis—James shows how crashes prompted by a lack of supply, like the oil shortages of the 1970s, lead to greater globalization as markets expand and producers innovate to increase supply. By contrast, crises triggered by a lack of demand—such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2008—result in less globalization as markets contract, austerity measures are imposed, and skepticism of government grows.

My Journeys in Economic Theory
Edmund Phelps
Review via The Wall Street Journal
Edmund Phelps is a knotty riddle for taxonomists. In the present day, with thinkers consigned to “left” or “right” on the basis of a few well-worn clichés, some would be tempted to class him as progressive solely on account of his long friendship with John Rawls, the late philosopher-saint of American income redistributionists.
And yet Mr. Phelps, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in economics and emeritus professor of political economy at Columbia University, is among the most lucid, passionate and original defenders of capitalism.

The New China Playbook: Beyond Socialism and Capitalism
Keyu Jin
Review via Kirkus Reviews
The author traces key policies since the time of Deng, and she delves into the impact of the “one-child policy,” an area often overlooked by armchair commentators. For the most part, the Chinese people are willing to accept government direction, including a high degree of personal surveillance and intervention in their lives. They value security over freedom and generally believe that China requires a powerful central authority. Significantly, the younger generation is in many ways more conservative than their parents despite their taste for Western brands and lifestyles. Jin acknowledges China’s incredible progress but wonders what the future holds. “China’s central leadership, which spurred the most successful economic growth story of our time, could also make choices that might have the opposite effect in the future,” she concludes. “The power of the state provides the system’s greatest potential and also poses its gravest inherent risk.”

Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life
Brandon J. Weichert
Summary via publisher (Encounter Books)
When COVID-19 erupted from Wuhan, China under mysterious circumstances, the Communist Party of China covered up its existence for as long as possible. It is now apparent that there is more to COVID than what the authorities wish for us to know. Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life details the decades-long pursuit by the Chinese Communists to dominate the biotechnology industry—to control the very building blocks of life on Earth—to further their political control at home and their supremacy abroad.

The Pandemic Paradox: How the COVID Crisis Made Americans More Financially Secure
Scott Fulford
Summary via publisher (Princeton U. Press)
In March 2020, economic and social life across the United States came to an abrupt halt as the country tried to slow the spread of COVID-19. In the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, twenty-two million people lost their jobs between mid-March and mid-April of 2020. And yet somehow the finances of most Americans improved during the pandemic—savings went up, debts went down, and fewer people had trouble paying their bills. In The Pandemic Paradox, economist Scott Fulford explains this seeming contradiction, describing how the pandemic reshaped the American economy. Fulford draws from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Making Ends Meet” surveys—which he helped design—to interweave macroeconomic trends in spending, saving, and debt with stories of individual Americans’ economic lives during the pandemic.

Capitalism XXL: Why the Global Economy Became Gigantic and How to Fix It
Geert Noels
Summary via publisher (McGill-Queen’s U. Press)
apitalism XXL makes it clear that current rules of capitalism favour bigness in an unfair way, and that a general unease with the capitalist system is growing. The trend for bigness goes beyond businesses: schools, hospitals, libraries, and all kinds of organizations, misled by economies of scale, have consolidated. A larger entity can seem attractive for its short-term financial gains, but the results produce enormous social costs. Rather than dismantling the capitalist system in favour of neo-Marxism, Geert Noels argues, we have to instead go back to the roots of capitalism and embrace its traditional principles as written by Adam Smith in the eighteenth century.

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