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Nicholas Johnson (Hampshire, UK)

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From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics (Economics as Social Theory)
From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics (Economics as Social Theory)
by Ben Fine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £38.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A worthy sequel to a brilliant book and a call to arms, 29 July 2009
This fairly short volume is something of a follow-up to the authors' excellent 'From Political Economy to Economics'. The latter tells of how a subject which was once more interdisciplinary and concerned with the social and historical, as well as the economic, became 'economics', dominated by marginalism and general equilibrium theory. In the process, argue the authors, economics lost its explanatory power and richness.

This sequel, 'From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics', continues the story through the post-war period and into the twenty-first century. Economic theory and mainstream economists, having largely discarded the social and the historical, have begun to bring them back into the subject in a different form, through 'economics imperialism', a term which recognises how economics has begun to colonise the subject matter of the other social sciences such as sociology, politics, social history etc.

The authors argue that an old economics imperialism of modelling the non-economic, non-market, and non-rational as if they behaved according to the laws of the market has been superseded by a new economics imperialism, which has been highly influential in academic and popular discourse. The new version stems from the information-theoretic and new institutional economics, which model the non-economic and so on as responses to market imperfections. However this is apparently still deeply unsatisfactory, since it is still based on the methodological individualism (MI) which has dominated microeconomics and increasingly the foundations of macroeconomics during the last fifty years.

The book gives a fine critical analysis of these trends and evolving schools of thought, leading in extremis to 'Freakonomics', taken from the title of a popular book, which perports to offer explanations for almost any social phenomenon using the narrowest of methodological principles.

Following this critical analysis, the book book considers the state of economics and the prospects for a modern, interdisciplinary political economy, re-incorporating the social and the historical, more able to fruitfully analyse today's capitalism than mainstream economics. The authors draw from sociology to propose, instead of MI, methodological structurism as a basis for understanding and explaining the economy. Instead of narrow economic man, or homo economicus, they suggest a kind of socio-economic man as a more real world actor on the analytical stage. These principles would avoid the extremes of MI and methodological holism. While MI implies that the individual determines the whole in the economy and society, methodological holism implies the opposite, that individual behaviour is determined by society and the economy as a whole.

From this basis, the study of political economy can then proceed. The authors favour Marxist political economy, in the form of value theory combined with social and historical analysis. Such is the state of modern economic theory and the economics profession, that it seems that such a method and theory is likely to be more successful when situated among the social sciences, leaving mainstream economics to chart its own course, although political economy does bridge social and economic science.

I sympathise deeply with Fine and Milonakis' contention that a richer political economy is more useful for studying modern capitalism and the economy, but I am not yet fully at home with Marxist analysis.

With regard to theory, it seems that all models, not only economic ones, leave out information in order to simplify and be useful: 'the map is not the territory'. Every model will emphasise or delete particular aspects of reality in order to achieve some goal or other. So the question must be: what is our goal? For example: for Keynesian economics, the goal seems to be to save and preserve the capitalist system by making it perform better with government intervention, possibly until it transforms into something a little nicer. The goal of Marxists may ultimately be more radical: to inspire mass action which does replace capitalism with something better. Both schools illuminate and stress different aspects of reality in order to achieve different ends.

In sum, and returning to the one of the themes of the book, political economy is in my view worth promoting for the insights and understanding of the world it offers. Mainstream economics seems to leave out far too much information to yield useful and consistent insights. Finally, when it comes to academic study and economic policy-making, which model one chooses to use may depend on the goal in mind.

When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change
When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change
by Mohamed A. El-Erian
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of interest, but not much original thinking, and not for the lay reader, 13 Jan. 2009
I found plenty of interest in this volume, but also parts which made my eyes glaze over. I have a background in economics, but I do find thickets of financial jargon hard to comprehend at times. I have to admit that I skipped a few pages here and there, but only where I couldn't see the relevance to my own interests.

The author covers what he calls the 'journey' to the 'secular destination' in the global financial and economic landscape. Essentially this represents changes in the global economy which are taking place now and are likely to continue for a number of years into the future: the buildup of current account surpluses in emerging and oil-rich economies in recent years, and the counterpart deficits in some countries in the rich world, particularly the US; the emergence of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) in the former group of countries and their evolving investment strategies; and the shift in global growth towards emerging economies and away from the US as the global 'spender of last resort'.

The author traces, in a somewhat opaque fashion, the origins of the current financial crisis, though the book was published in early 2008 and he misses out on the really serious financial turmoil that took place towards the end of that year. To be fair however, he does promise a 'bumpy ride' to his 'secular destination'.

He calls for reform on the part of investors, and national and international policy-makers to make the 'journey' of economic adjustments as smooth as possible. It may be a little late for that given recent events, but perhaps his intentions could be heeded to avoid further major disruptions. I was really looking forward to what he had to suggest in these areas but I was disappointed. He has good intentions, but is vague in his suggestions and admits that the jury is out in many of the debates. If that is the case, why promise much with chapter headings such as 'an action plan for national policy-makers'?

A couple of other gripes: the graphs are poorly presented and labeled, and he does name-drop current and ex-colleagues quite a bit, which was unnecessary.

The author is clearly highly intelligent and accomplished and the book was ranked by The Economist as one of the best reads for 2008. All in all, for me, there were good bits, poor bits, and difficult bits. The reader will need a background in economics and finance to fully grasp it. And if they read and understand the financial pages regularly they probably won't need this book.

Indiana Jones: The Soundtracks Collection
Indiana Jones: The Soundtracks Collection

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's been a long wait, but worth it, 11 Jan. 2009
The Indiana Jones film soundtracks were some of the most vividly remembered from my childhood and it's fantastic to have them all released together at last. Only the three original Star Wars film soundtracks (also by John Williams of course) have for me the same resonance.

These albums do not contain every note from the films (like the latest Star Wars soundtrack albums seem to) but they are as good as they need to be. Each CD is pretty full up with music and there are extra tracks from the first three films on the fifth CD.

I am not as familiar with the Crystal Skull soundtrack as I am with the others so that will need some more listening. The first three films all have classic scores, aside from the main theme.

This set is also available on iTunes for £15.99, but of course you do not get all the booklets with that, although it has a digital booklet. Both are surely great value!

If you're a fan of John Williams film scores, this is a must have.

Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations and the Threat to Global Prosperity
Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations and the Threat to Global Prosperity
by Ha-Joon Chang
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely interesting and useful volume, with one doubt, 27 Dec. 2008
I much enjoyed reading this highly informative book. The 'Bad Samaritans' are those neo-liberals who are apparently promoting and sometimes forcing poor and middle-income economies to adopt policies which, argues the author, have not been successful in stimulating growth and development. Instead, such countries should follow the examples from the past of the current crop of rich countries and use protectionism, subsidies, regulation and other government interventions, at least until they become richer and maybe beyond.

Occasionally I wonder if Chang has set up straw men as his Bad Samaritans, and ideologues who don't exist in reality. But in general he makes a good case, with a deep understanding of history and shows how some current rich world policymakers are either hypocrits, or are deceiving themselves with their own misreading of history. He makes clear that the Bad Samaritans have a tendency to rewrite history to suit their own current ideologies.

Recommended for all students of economic development, economic history and policy.

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World
The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World
by Alan Greenspan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read: a look at the past, and a look into the future, 19 Dec. 2008
I found this book to be a great read, if a little dry to begin with. First of all, it can be split into two sections: the first half covers Greenspan's years growing up and most of all his career as an economist, particularly as chairman of the Federal Reserve, but also formerly as an economic consultant and as an advisor to Republican presidents; the second half contains his thoughts on what he sees as the major economic issues of the day, those that will face policy-makers across the globe in the near future. Having studied economics I was more interested in the latter so I read the second half first, and I do not think I lost anything by it.

Both parts of the book are compelling. The author makes clear that he is a strong supporter of free and open markets, balanced government budgets and a view of the economy which sees 'creative destruction' as essential to economic development. While I do not fully agree with his philosophy, he does make a case that markets have a tremendous power to modernise society and can be a great force for material gain. Even a final chapter (in the 2008 paperback edition) on the current financial crisis leaves him quite unmoved in his position. This was however written before the nationalisation of many of our banks and other such dramatic interventions.

The author makes reasonably clear his views on the US presidents he has worked with, though he is more subtle about George W Bush, not giving away too much except for his clear disapproval of the latter's budgetary policy.

The vast majority of the book then is about economic policy, which I find very interesting. But it remains a personal account, and is full of fascinating anecdotes. I would recommend it to anyone interested in macroeconomic and financial policy, US politics and world affairs.

From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the social and the historical in the evolution of economic theory (Economics as Social Theory)
From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the social and the historical in the evolution of economic theory (Economics as Social Theory)
by Ben Fine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £39.47

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and selective reading of the history of economic theory, 7 Dec. 2008
First of all, this book covers exactly what it says on the cover: it is a selective reading of the evolution of economic theory, with a specific focus on methodology, the social and the historical; in other words, those aspects which, it is claimed, are overlooked by modern orthodox (neo-classical) economics.

The book documents thoroughly how what was originally called political economy became economics as the subject narrowed in scope and method, jettisoning the analysis of history, society and institutions, in favour of methodological individualism and formalism. Economics and other social sciences ultimately split from one another and developed independently. Interdisciplinarity was abandoned, and economics has since, the authors contend, lost any sense of where it came from, as well as its previous richness. The schools of economic thought covered certainly illustrate this (for more details see the amazon synopsis).

Having finished the book, I am in broad agreement with the authors that a richer, more interdisciplinary approach to the subject yields more fruitful insights into the broadly economic and social, from the study of individuals to that of society as a whole and can better inform policy choices by governments and other actors.

This book also lays the groundwork for a future publication by the same authors, exploring 'economics imperialism' (entitled 'From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics'): how neo-classical economics has colonised the other social sciences in applying its method to the 'non-economic' (beyond the narrowness of the market, in the sense used in the book). I am looking forward to reading this next book when it comes out. It looks like being, in some senses, a sequel, apparently critically covering the last 50 years in the evolution of mainstream economic theory.

Marx's Capital
Marx's Capital
by Ben Fine
Edition: Paperback

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating introduction, hard-going at times, 21 Oct. 2008
This review is from: Marx's Capital (Paperback)
I fully admit that I have not read Marx's original work and I turned to this text hoping for an easier path to grasping much of his thought. Even though I am not in a position to compare the material covered in this little book with the original itself, I found this to be a real gem. At times I needed to re-read key ideas several times to more fully understand them, and even now I am not fully conversant with the text. On the whole however, I was fascinated by the breadth and depth of Marx's thought, and the examples the authors used to link it to some of the developments in economics and political economy since his time.

Very often, it seems, Marx's ideas can be taken as a starting point to more fully explore the workings of a capitalist economy. Marx could have gone further, but that is the job of those working in his tradition since his time. Overall, a brilliant starting point in a study of Marx.

As an aside I was only led to this book by a lecture one of the authors gave me at University, which I admit I did not follow completely at the time, as he only had that one lecture in which to summarise Marx. Having now read the book, I am more familiar with Marxian analysis.

Fantasy Island
Fantasy Island
by Larry Elliott
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful overview of the Blair legacy, a little short on detail, 28 Sept. 2008
This review is from: Fantasy Island (Paperback)
I found this quite an entertaining and reasonably informative read. Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, both economic journalists with the Guardian newspaper, have a lively style, and they are mostly critical of the Blair years. I was impressed by their fairly balanced account, despite their left-leaning background, which I do broadly sympathise with.

They make clear that on many policy issues in the UK, choices can and have to be made. For example, either we continue to fight expensive wars overseas and increase defence spending, or we reduce spending and withdraw troops to some extent. We cannot fight these wars, while holding defence spending down, and Blair has pretended that we can, with the consequence that our soldiers are not well-equipped enough. He therefore has us living on 'Fantasy Island'. I won't go into the other fantasies, as I recommend that you read the book.

On two key issues, indebtedness and the environment, the authors contend that we (politicians and citizens) have no choice. We must save more, spend less, and the economy must grow more sustainably. If we do not do this, we apparently face disaster: a deep recession, while debt levels fall, which may already be happening, and significant climate change, which may also already be underway. Action on climate change clearly needs to be global, but we all need to change our behaviour.On these last two, I agree with the authors.

They do avoid much detail, perhaps to make the book easier for the layman. There are no technical economic discussions at all. This doesn't really detract from the content, which remains interesting and informative. It does weaken a few of the arguments, some of which remain simply assertions about particular policy choices.

The final chapter sets out the choices and imperatives for any UK government facing the problems they describe.

A good read overall then, but if you follow Larry Elliott's columns, you may be familiar with much of it.

The Writing On The Wall: China And The West In The 21St Century
The Writing On The Wall: China And The West In The 21St Century
by Will Hutton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book that occasionally goes off-topic, 22 Sept. 2008
This is an intellectually stimulating read, covering a big topic, and it marshalls an enormous quantity of facts. I learnt alot about China, the development of which is covered in the first few chapters. Hutton then talks about China's economic and political relationships with the West, particuarly the United States. This is all good stuff, and his central thesis is that China must embrace what he calls 'Enlightenment' values and institutions if it is to continue to modernise successfully and integrate internationally. It is a powerful argument and he warns against the consequences if it fails to do so. Mostly though, he is very positive in that he argues strongly for the benefits to us all of China's continued growth and development in a globalising world, which he supports too.

He does goes a little off-topic towards the end of the book, when he criticises the US invasion of Iraq, with reference to its betrayal of these 'Enlightenment Values'. China is hardly mentioned during the final few chapters, and one begins to lose sight of his main thesis.

The author does go on a bit sometimes, if only to make his point, and sometimes the way he quotes academics and their studies seems to undermine his case because it can get a little boring. I mostly give him the benefit of the doubt however and generally found this a compelling work of non-fiction.

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