Book Bits | 27 October 2018

Money: 5,000 Years of Debt and Power
By Michel Aglietta
Summary via publisher (Verso)
As the financial crisis reached its climax in September 2008, the most important figure on the planet was Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. The whole financial system was collapsing, with little to stop it. When a senator asked Bernanke what would happen if the central bank did not carry out its rescue package, he replied, “If we don’t do this, we may not have an economy on Monday.” What saved finance, and the Western economy, was fiscal and monetary stimulus – an influx of money, created ad hoc. It was a strategy that raised questions about the unexamined nature of money itself, an object suddenly revealed as something other than a neutral signifier of value. Through its grip on finance and the debt system, money confers sovereign power on the economy. If confidence in money is not maintained, crises follow. Looking over the last 5,000 years, Michel Aglietta explores the development of money and its close connection to sovereign power.

Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is in Jeopardy
By George Magnus
Review via International Policy Digest
Red Flags lists four red flags of likely impediments to Chinese economic development. Firstly is debt. China has been an unprecedented money-making machine for the past three decades or so. However, signs are starting to appear of a possible economic slowdown. Most significant is the debt to GDP ratio, which has skyrocketed over the past few years. Magnus writes extensively about how China’s growth, up to this point, has largely been fuelled by credit (debt). China’s much-maligned (by Trump, most notably) trade balance surplus has shrunk to no more than a few percent, statistically insignificant. China could theoretically make up for shrinking foreign demand for goods and services with domestic consumers. Magnus is unfortunately the bearer of bad news in this regard: “Household savings rose from about 5% of disposable income in the late 1970s to about 38% in 2016, or just over 25% of GDP. Savings by companies are also elevated, amounting to about 17% of GDP in 2016.”

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change
By Ellen Ruppel Shell
Q&A with author via BU Today
Some years back, Ellen Shell says, an economic analysis defined a “good job” as one that pays $40,000 or more a year and comes with health insurance and a pension. “Unfortunately,” she says, “by that standard, fewer than one in four Americans has a good job today.
For many analysts, college has been part of the answer to finding better paid work and a middle-class life. Shell, a College of Communication professor of journalism, begs to differ. In The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change (Currency, 2018), published this week after eight years of research and reporting, Shell writes, “People everywhere wish for the same thing—an education that will launch them into a life of productive, purposeful, and fairly compensated work. Wishes not being horses, only some will ride.”

Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work
By Alex Rosenblat
Summary via publisher (University of California)
Silicon Valley technology is transforming the way we work, and Uber is leading the charge. An American startup that promised to deliver entrepreneurship for the masses through its technology, Uber instead built a new template for employment using algorithms and Internet platforms. Upending our understanding of work in the digital age, Uberland paints a future where any of us might be managed by a faceless boss. The neutral language of technology masks the powerful influence algorithms have across the New Economy. Uberland chronicles the stories of drivers in more than twenty-five cities in the United States and Canada over four years, shedding light on their working conditions and providing a window into how they feel behind the wheel.

Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us
By Dan Lyons
Review via Publishers Weekly
In this darkly funny journalistic look at the contemporary workplace, Lyons (Disrupted), a former journalist at Newsweek and writer for HBO’s Silicon Valley, reveals how the culture fostered by tech firms has created toxic environments in which workers are dehumanized, wages are low, stressors are constant, and job security is nonexistent. Behind the typical tech start-up trappings, such as ping-pong tables and free snacks, lies a drastically reengineered social contract between employers and employees, one in which notions of contributing to social good have been replaced with profiting at any cost. Lyons traces the emergence of this new corporate style to valley titans such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Netflix CEO and chairman Reed Hastings, whose companies reap billions while their workers get an ever-dwindling share of the pie, and further back, to the erosion of the social safety net in the 1980s.

Corporations Are People Too: (And They Should Act Like It)
By Kent Greenfield
Summary via publisher (Yale University Press)
Are corporations people? The U.S. Supreme Court launched a heated debate when it ruled in Citizens United that corporations can claim the same free speech rights as humans. Should corporations be able to claim rights of free speech, religious conscience, and due process? Kent Greenfield provides an answer: Sometimes. With an analysis sure to challenge the assumptions of both progressives and conservatives, Greenfield explores corporations’ claims to constitutional rights and the foundational conflicts about their obligations in society. He argues that a blanket opposition to corporate personhood is misguided, since it is consistent with both the purpose of corporations and the Constitution itself that corporations can claim rights at least some of the time.

The Public Company Transformed
By Brian Cheffins
Summary via publisher (Oxford University Press)
For decades, the public company has played a dominant role in the American economy. Since the middle of the 20th century, the nature of the public company has changed considerably. The transformation has been a fascinating one, marked by scandals, political controversy, wide swings in investor and public sentiment, mismanagement, entrepreneurial verve, noisy corporate “raiders” and various other larger-than-life personalities. Nevertheless, amidst a voluminous literature on corporations, a systematic historical analysis of the changes that have occurred is lacking. The Public Company Transformed correspondingly analyzes how the public company has been recast from the mid-20th century through to the present day, with particular emphasis on senior corporate executives and the constraints affecting the choices available to them.

University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education
By Joshua Hunt
Q&A with author via The New York Times
To tune into major college sporting events is to see a parade of advertisements, many of them on the athletes’ uniforms, for Nike, Adidas and other powerhouse apparel companies. Earlier this year, the N.C.A.A. made changes that are meant, in part, to increase transparency around just what corporate sponsors pay for. But in the eyes of many critics, more reforms are needed. In “University of Nike,” Joshua Hunt trains his focus on the University of Oregon, arguing that it has damaged its mission through its relationship with Nike, a company run by Oregon alumnus Phil Knight. Mr. Hunt says that other schools have followed suit in building troubling partnerships, using the support of Nike and other major brands to make up for cutbacks in public spending. Below, the author talks about his initial interest in this subject, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who inspires him and more.