Book Bits | 22 September 2018

Fighting Financial Crises: Learning from the Past
By Gary B. Gorton and Ellis W. Tallman
Summary via publisher (University of Chicago Press)
If you’ve got some money in the bank, chances are you’ve never seriously worried about not being able to withdraw it. But there was a time in the United States, an era that ended just over a hundred years ago, in which bank customers had to pay close attention to whether the banking system would remain solvent, knowing they might have to rush to retrieve their savings before the bank collapsed. During the National Banking Era (1863–1913), before the establishment of the Federal Reserve, widespread banking panics were indeed rather common. Yet these pre-Fed banking panics, as Gary B. Gorton and Ellis W. Tallman show, bear striking similarities to our recent financial crisis. In both cases, something happened to make depositors—whether individual customers or corporate investors—“act differently” and find reason to question the value of their bank debt.

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World
By Robert Kagan
Review via The Economist
It is a common belief that human rights and democracy must prevail because they are noble and good. The world’s benighted multitudes yearn for freedom and one day will win it. Robert Kagan, a historian, thinks that is a dangerous fantasy.
Though he rejects the label, Mr Kagan is a neocon—an unfashionable proponent of using force to support liberal values. As he says at the start of his new book: “What we liberals call progress has been made possible by the protection afforded liberalism…by American power.” The question is what happens to freedom when that power retreats? His title captures his alarming answer: “The Jungle Grows Back”.

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World
By Tom Wright
Review via Publishers Weekly
Wall Street Journal correspondents Wright and Hope transform their investigation of a mind-boggling financial fraud into a nonfiction thriller tracking the rise and fall of Jho Low, the “alleged mastermind of a multi-billion-dollar scam.” In 2003, Low convinced an adviser to the rulers of the United Arab Emirates that he could broker deals between Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian governments. He then parlayed that connection into a relationship with a Goldman Sachs banker, who helped set up a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund in 2009, which was overseen by Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia and Low’s family friend. The authors contend that Razak turned a blind eye while Low siphoned billions of dollars from the state fund into a “byzantine labyrinth of bank accounts, offshore companies, and other complex financial structures.” Low, still a fugitive, used the stolen loot to “build a Hollywood production company, commission one of the world’s grandest yachts, and throw wildly decadent parties around the globe.”

Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy
Edited by Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk
Summary via publisher (Oxford University Press)
Uncertain Futures considers how economic actors visualize the future and decide how to act in conditions of radical uncertainty. It starts from the premise that dynamic capitalist economies are characterized by relentless innovation and novelty and hence exhibit an indeterminacy that cannot be reduced to measurable risk. The organizing question then becomes how economic actors form expectations and make decisions despite the uncertainty they face.

Are Markets Moral?
Edited by Arthur M. Melzer and Steven J. Kautz
Summary via publisher (University of Pennsylvania Press)
Despite the remarkable achievements of free markets—their rapid spread around the world and success at generating economic growth—they tend to elicit anxiety. Creative destruction and destabilizing change provoke feelings of powerlessness in the face of circumstances that portend inevitable catastrophe. Thus, from the beginning, capitalism has been particularly stimulative for the growth of critics and doomsayers. While early analysts such as Karl Marx primarily emphasized an impending economic disaster, in recent years the economic critique of capitalism has receded in favor of moral and environmental concerns. At the heart of this collection of original essays lies the question: does morality demand that we adopt a primarily supportive or critical stance toward capitalism?

Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race
By Shane Hamilton
Summary via publisher (Yale University Press)
Supermarkets were invented in the United States, and from the 1940s on they made their way around the world, often explicitly to carry American-style economic culture with them. This innovative history tells us how supermarkets were used as anticommunist weapons during the Cold War, and how that has shaped our current food system. The widespread appeal of supermarkets as weapons of free enterprise contributed to a “farms race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the superpowers vied to show that their contrasting approaches to food production and distribution were best suited to an abundant future.

Data Visualization Made Simple: Insights into Becoming Visual
By Kristen Sosulski
Summary via publisher (Routledge)
Data Visualization Made Simple is a practical guide to the fundamentals, strategies, and real-world cases for data visualization, an essential skill required in today’s information-rich world. With foundations rooted in statistics, psychology, and computer science, data visualization offers practitioners in almost every field a coherent way to share findings from original research, big data, learning analytics, and more.