Book Bits For Saturday: 10.1.2011

The End of Progress: How Modern Economics Has Failed Us
By Graeme Maxton
Author’s lecture and book summary via publisher, Wiley
We live in an Age of Endarkenment. Our economic, social and political systems have failed us. Modern economics has not done what it promised. It has widened the gap between rich and poor. It has not allocated the world’s resources fairly. It has brought the West to the brink of financial ruin. It has valued short-term gain more than long-term progress. It has made us focus on the individual, not society. The social consequences are easy to see. Much of the world is laden with debt. Our planet is being scraped clean of the resources needed by future generations. Science and technology are exploited for profit, not social advancement. The cult of celebrity, rise in global greed and belief that information is knowledge are limiting our imaginations. We are ill-equipped to respond to these challenges. We have been dumbed-down. Our politicians have become self-serving. They play on our fears, monitor us without justification and promote conflicts for their own interests. China’s rise will make these problems worse… Economist Graeme Maxton looks at what brought us to this state and what we can do about it.

The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits
By Kent Greenfield
Summary via publisher, Yale University Press
In this provocative book, Kent Greenfield poses unsettling questions about the choices we make. What if they are more constrained and limited than we like to think? If we have less free will than we realize, what are the implications for us as individuals and for our society? To uncover the answers, Greenfield taps into scholarship on topics ranging from brain science to economics, political theory to sociology. His discoveries—told through an entertaining array of news events, personal anecdotes, crime stories, and legal decisions—confirm that many factors, conscious and unconscious, limit our free will. Worse, by failing to perceive them we leave ourselves open to manipulation. But Greenfield offers useful suggestions to help us become better decision makers as individuals, and to ensure that in our laws and public policy we acknowledge the complexity of choice.
Unexpected Consequences: Why The Things We Trust Fail
By James William Martin
Summary via publisher, Praeger
The world is full of wonderful products and services that occasionally disappoint and even harm us. Unexpected Consequences: Why The Things We Trust Fail explores the reasons these failures occur, examining them from technological, human, and organizational perspectives. Using more than 40 recent catastrophic events to illustrate its points, the book discusses structural and machine failure, but also the often-overlooked failure of people and of systems related to such things as information technology, healthcare, and security.
Black Box Casino: How Wall Street’s Risky Shadow Banking Crashed Global Finance
By Robert Stowe England
Interview with author via Gaston Gazette
“A black box in the financial world is a financial instrument that is very opaque and unless you’re inside, you don’t know what’s going on. The biggest black boxes were Fannie and Freddie. They were under pressure to lend more and more money to increase home ownership. The same thing was happening on Wall Street. So my view is that there was a lot of speculative, risky activity going on inside those black boxes. A lot of the financial activity had moved into shadow banking. The traditional banking system has deposits and loans. In shadow banking, they turn those into securities … which are less secure.”
The Fall of the House of Forbes: The Inside Story of the Collapse of a Media Empire
By Stewart Pinkerton
Review via CNNMoney/Fortune
Stewart Pinkerton, the magazine’s former managing editor — one of the top editorial bosses during my tenure there — has woven together a lively narrative that paints a less grim picture than the title heralds. But what it lacks in news-breaking revelations it more than makes up for with a tale rich in memorable anecdotes and colorful characters.
Risk and Meaning: Adversaries in Art, Science and Philosophy
By Nicolas Bouleau
Summary via publisher, Springer
Risk and Meaning is a richly illustrated book exploring how chance and risk, on the one hand, and meaning or significance on the other, compete for the limelight in art, in philosophy, and in science. In modern society, prudence and probability calculation permeate our daily lives. Yet it is clear for all to see that neither cautious bank regulations nor mathematics have prevented economic crises from occurring time and again. Nicolas Bouleau argues in Risk and Meaning that it is the meaning we assign to an event that determines the perceived risk, and that we generally turn a blind eye to this important fact, because the word “meaning” is itself awkward to explain.