Book Bits For Saturday: 7.2.2011

Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street
By Tomas Sedlacek
Summary via publisher, Oxford University Press
In The Economics of Good and Evil, Sedlacek radically rethinks his field, challenging our assumptions about the world. Economics is touted as a science, a value-free mathematical inquiry, he writes, but it’s actually a cultural phenomenon, a product of our civilization. It began within philosophy–Adam Smith himself not only wrote The Wealth of Nations, but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments–and economics, as Sedlacek shows, is woven out of history, myth, religion, and ethics. “Even the most sophisticated mathematical model,” Sedlacek writes, “is, de facto, a story, a parable, our effort to (rationally) grasp the world around us.” Economics not only describes the world, but establishes normative standards, identifying ideal conditions. Science, he claims, is a system of beliefs to which we are committed. To grasp the beliefs underlying economics, he breaks out of the field’s confines with a tour de force exploration of economic thinking, broadly defined, over the millennia. He ranges from the epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament to the emergence of Christianity, from Descartes and Adam Smith to the consumerism in Fight Club. Throughout, he asks searching meta-economic questions: What is the meaning and the point of economics? Can we do ethically all that we can do technically? Does it pay to be good?

Banker to the World: Leadership Lessons From the Front Lines of Global Finance
By William Rhodes
Review via The Economist
“Everyone knows Bill. Everyone trusts Bill.” Rupert Murdoch’s 2007 tribute to William Rhodes on the 50th anniversary of his joining Citigroup hints at how interesting this retrospective on a stellar career in finance could have been. Unfortunately, nobody had the heart to tell Bill to do a rewrite. Mr Rhodes is a former vice-chairman of Citigroup, with the ear of a series of the bank’s chief executives. He is a veteran of debt-restructuring negotiations in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. He headed a series of advisory committees (a term he insisted on over the previous, high-handed label of “restructuring committees”) representing international banks in talks with the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and others. He is an éminence grise of Wall Street, as a very long list of extra-curricular positions attests.
Reluctant Regulators: How the West Created and How China Survived the Global Financial Crisis
By Leo F. Goodstadt
Summary via publisher, Hong Kong University Press
The 2007-09 global financial crisis was predictable and avoidable but American and British regulators chose not to intervene. They failed to enforce legislation or implement their own policies because of an Anglo-American “regulatory culture” of non-intervention that came to dominate financial regulation worldwide. Hong Kong — the international financial centre of an increasingly prosperous China — defied world opinion and made stability its priority, even where that meant extensive government intervention. This policy ensured Hong Kong’s robust performance during the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis and the latest global crisis. More significantly, it made possible Hong Kong’s impressive contributions to financing China’s economic take-off and to the modernization of its financial institutions. Reluctant Regulators is a scathing indictment of regulatory inertia in the West. It provides important and original insights into the causes of financial crises and pays special attention to China’s attempts at reform and Hong Kong’s place in China’s financial modernization.
A ‘Short Treatise’ on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613)
By Antonio Serra, edited by Sophus A. Reinert
Summary via publisher.
Although no less an authority than Joseph A. Schumpeter proclaimed that Antonio Serra was the world’s first economist, he remains something of a dark horse of economic historiography. Nearly nothing is known about Serra except that he wrote and died in jail, and his ‘Short Treatise’ is so rare that only nine original copies are known to have survived the ravages of time. What, then, can a book written nearly four centuries ago tell us about the problems we now face? Serra’s key insight, studying the economies of Venice and Naples, was that wealth was not the result of climate or providence but of policies to develop economic activities subject to increasing returns to scale and a large division of labour. Through a very systematic taxonomy of economic life, Serra then went on from this insight to theorize the causes of the wealth of nations and the measures through which a weak, dependent economy could achieve worldly melioration. At a time when leading economists return to biological explanations for the failure of their theories, the ‘Short Treatise’ can remind us that there are elements of history which numbers and graphs cannot convey or encompass, and that there are less despondent lessons to be learned from our past. Serra’s remarkable tract is introduced by a lengthy and illuminating study of his historical context and legacy for the theoretical and cultural history of economics.
Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink
By Louis Hyman
Summary via publisher, Princeton University Press
Before the twentieth century, personal debt resided on the fringes of the American economy, the province of small-time criminals and struggling merchants. By the end of the century, however, the most profitable corporations and banks in the country lent money to millions of American debtors. How did this happen? The first book to follow the history of personal debt in modern America, Debtor Nation traces the evolution of debt over the course of the twentieth century, following its transformation from fringe to mainstream–thanks to federal policy, financial innovation, and retail competition.