Book Bits | 7 September 2019

The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society
By Binyamin Appelbaum
Review via Reuters
What is it about “free markets”? The phrase creates a frisson of excitement among a certain group of people. In “The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society”, Binyamin Appelbaum describes what happened when these intellectual fanatics were given the power to act on their ideas. It is not a happy tale.
Like most foolish notions about human society, the basic belief in free markets is simple, appealing and deeply wrong. It’s simple to think that all will be well if governments just leave competitive markets alone. It’s also appealing: There’s no need to plan or judge if price signals provided by the self-regulating market do all the economic work. And it’s wrong: Neither human nature nor the modern economy works the way these economists assume. Appelbaum’s narrative provides ample evidence of that.

Extreme Economies: 9 Lessons from the World’s Limits
By Richard Davies
Summary via publisher (Bantam Press/Penguin)
In search of a fresh perspective on the modern economy, Extreme Economies takes the reader off the beaten path, introducing people living at the world’s margins. From disaster zones and displaced societies to failed states and hidden rainforest communities, the lives of people who inhabit these little-known places tend to be ignored by economists and policy makers. Leading economist Richard Davies argues that this is a mistake, and explains why the world’s overlooked extremes offer a glimpse of the forces that underlie human resilience, help markets to function and cause them to fail, and will come to shape our collective future.

The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts
By by Gilbert M. Gaul
Review via The New York Times
Hurricanes and other coastal storms create more costly damage than do earthquakes, tornadoes and wildfires combined, and 17 of the 20 most destructive hurricanes in history have occurred since 2000. At the moment of this writing, Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm at its strongest, has pummeled the Bahamas and is heading toward the Southeast of the United States. Past storms have pitched houses into forests half a mile away or submerged them beneath the sea. Doors and windows jut from the sand “like weathered dinosaur bones,” we’re told by the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert M. Gaul in this carefully researched and eye-opening book. But astonishingly, between 1970 and 2010, in coastal floodplains that are among “the most ecologically fragile and dangerous places on earth,” real estate values have risen and the population expanded.

Money, Power, and the People: The American Struggle to Make Banking Democratic
By Christopher W. Shaw
Summary via publisher (University of Chicago Press)
Banks and bankers are hardly the most beloved institutions and people in this country. With its corruptive influence on politics and stranglehold on the American economy, Wall Street is held in high regard by few outside the financial sector. But the pitchforks raised against this behemoth are largely rhetorical: we rarely see riots in the streets or public demands for an equitable and democratic banking system that result in serious national changes. Yet the situation was vastly different a century ago, as Christopher W. Shaw shows. This book upends the conventional thinking that financial policy in the early twentieth century was set primarily by the needs and demands of bankers. Shaw shows that banking and politics were directly shaped by the literal and symbolic investments of the grassroots.

The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite
By Daniel Markovits
Review via The New Republic
Daniel Markovits—a professor at Yale Law School, who has earned a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford, a master’s in econometrics at the London School of Economics, and a B.A. at Yale—believes that today’s highly educated, hyper-industrious elites have taken too large a share of the pie for themselves, and left over too little for the majority of Americans, who increasingly struggle to make ends meet from precarious and uninteresting work. If things continue this way, he worries, voters may “repudiate meritocracy wholesale and erect something considerably darker in its stead.”

Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic
By Ben Westhoff
Summary via publisher (Atlantic Monthly Press)
A deeply human story, Fentanyl, Inc. is the first deep-dive investigation of a hazardous and illicit industry that has created a worldwide epidemic, ravaging communities and overwhelming and confounding government agencies that are challenged to combat it. “A whole new crop of chemicals is radically changing the recreational drug landscape,” writes Ben Westhoff. “These are known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and they include replacements for known drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana. They are synthetic, made in a laboratory, and are much more potent than traditional drugs”—and all-too-often tragically lethal.

Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter
By Lee Hartley Carter
Summary via publisher (TarcherPerigee/Penguin)
In the post-fact, deeply divided world we live in, true persuasion is rare. Engaging with people holding differing opinions is rarer still. But for progress to take place, persuasion must happen. Whether it’s convincing an employer you are right for the job, a customer that your product is the best, or your closed-minded uncle that good people can disagree, it takes the art–and science–of persuasion to move forward. So, how do you change someone’s mind–or at least advance the conversation–when everyone is entrenched in their own points of view? Communication expert Lee Hartley Carter has spent nearly twenty years advising and helping the world’s most well-known companies do just that.