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Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
by Abhijit V. Banerjee
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.08
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction to RCTs in economics, July 7, 2013
This book convinced me of the usefulness of RCTs (randomised controlled trials) in economics. Banerjee and Duflo muster up empirical evidence to show that there are marginal dents we can make in poverty. They do not oversell their point - this is not a Sachs/Easterly/Collier polemic - and perhaps the title is misleading. There is nothing "radical" about the authors' proposals. Indeed, they caution that there is no easy fix to poverty.

"Poor Economics" has received well-deserved accolades, and I have little to add in this regard. I therefore make critiques of their work along three lines. First, Banerjee and Duflo do not properly discuss RCTs' limitations. Second, there is a lot of unexplored territory that the authors do not suggest. Finally, the book underestimates the impact of politics.

First, RCTs have important limitations, like their consideration of externalities. For example, a program that subsidises fertiliser in one village can harm farmers in another one that did not receive fertiliser. RCTs do not often measure the impact of externalities like this. This is a major limitation that the authors brush over.

Second, there is a lot of unexplored territory. For instance, I am surprised that the authors do not suggest exploring financial cooperatives. The poor already have informal social networks to coordinate the use of funds - so why not formalise this through a cooperative? Financial cooperatives can become good complements to microfinance. This is just one of many unexplored areas.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Banerjee and Duflo gloss over politics' pivotal role. Although RCTs can make aid more effective, aid itself can never radically reduce poverty. Massive poverty reduction only occurs when people overthrow elites and start implementing democratic reforms. The authors retort that marginal gains can be made on the political front - this is disingenuous, since their 18-country dataset does not include truly undemocratic regimes (like DRC and Afghanistan). Instead, their 18 countries are fledgling democracies, where marginal gains are possible because there is sufficient slack. There is a reason we cannot conduct politically-based RCTs in countries like Cuba. Ultimately, elite control of economic and political institutions engenders poverty.

These criticisms are not meant to suggest that the book is mediocre - every economist and policymaker should read "Poor Economics," and I highly recommend it to those interested in development. In fact, this should be development students' first port of call, and I will be using this book to teach students. Nonetheless, one should be aware of its limitations.


13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown
13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown
by Simon Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.98
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom for a crazy age, June 15, 2013
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As someone who works in academia, I am astounded by the number of academics who blindly declare that "We had to bail out the banks! We had no other choice!" Although letting the financial industry fail is foolish, it is equally naive to claim that TARP was a resounding success. The world is not black and white, and we cannot leave policy to snaky technocrats with their own interests.

Enter Johnson and Kwak's sensible diagnosis: banks are too big. The solution is equally straightforward - break them up!

13 Bankers is a remarkable book, placing the financial crisis in the context of history. The authors discuss the US financial industry's development from Independence to the present. Current debates over financial regulation can be traced as far back as the 1780s, when Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson quarrelled over the role of banks. Hamilton's prescription was government largesse and subsidies to industry, a sort of infant industry argument. Yet Jefferson was skeptical of banks, and thought that they could hamper democracy. As Jefferson wrote, "I sincerely believe... that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies." These sentiments were partly proved right, when President Andrew Jackson refused to renew the Second Bank of the United States's charter. The Bank's President, Nicholas Biddle, retaliated by ceasing lending, causing a nationwide recession. This tug of war between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideas about banking have moulded American financial policy up until the present.

Johnson and Kwak claim that our financial problem today is fundamentally political: financial institutions capture Washington with lobbying and a revolving-door of policymakers. The ideology of unrestricted free markets also causes troubles. For example, the Federal Reserve refused to enforce predatory lending laws, because Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was an ardent believer in Ayn Rand's libertarian philosophy. These factors created massive deregulation and led to a Wild West Wall Street with derivatives, arbitrage trading, and plenty of rent-seeking behaviour. What we should do, claim the authors, is deal with the political roots of the problem - this is the same advice Western entities like the IMF gave to Asian countries after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, after all. Let us follow our own advice!

I admire the authors' bravery; their analysis is not popular among Wall Street apologists and certain university economists. Johnson and Kwak realise that civil society is ultimately the answer: Washington is already corrupt, and Wall Street cannot be relied on to regulate itself. And so we must turn to The People. As they say towards the end, "What happens next will depend, improbably enough, on people like you." I can only hope, for all our sakes, that The People decide to organise and act. Our future, for better or worse, depends critically on what happens in the next few years.


A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930
A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930
by Stewart Emory Tolnay
Edition: Paperback
Price: $22.50
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written scholarly account of violent times, May 8, 2013
Tolnay and Beck snare you into their study from the very first page, describing a brutal 1981 Mississippi lynching of a young black man. This unique feature of US Southern society, the ability for mob violence to prevail at large, requires explanation, and the authors do an admirable job of sifting through the quantitative evidence with both time series and cross sectional analysis. Their conclusions are that the cotton cycle and inflation predict lynchings, and that the Great Migration led to lynching's decline. Political factors like disenfranchisement do not seem to be as important, nor do so-called 'popular justice' motives, which claim that mobs were merely compensating for weak law and order. This puts a bullet in the theories of southern apologists, who claim that only deserving criminals were lynched.

There are minor methodological problems, but these are due mainly to the passing of time: since 1995, the profession has adopted better quantitative techniques. Besides that slight qualm, this is a rewarding and well-written book for economic and social historians interested in racial violence.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 15, 2016 2:30 PM PDT


The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers
The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers
by Gordon Weiss
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.07
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balanced account of a deplorable tragedy, April 22, 2013
Gordon Weiss's well-written account of Sri Lanka's Eelam War IV is balanced and impartial: both the Tamil Tigers and SLA are equally condemned for war crimes. The book reads like a tragic love story, as Sri Lanka descends from a democratic state with strong economic growth, into a fundamentalist regime that regularly tortures dissidents. The acting president Rajapaksa has ruined what was once a beautiful country, and expropriated resources for himself in cold calculations of power. In the meanwhile, civilians have suffered, particularly Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. Already burdened by the brutal LTTE, Tamils have contended with a state that massacred them en masse during Eelam War IV.

I was especially enthralled by Weiss's story of Convoy 11, a United Nations convoy that was bombarded when it entered a No Fire Zone and tried to help Tamil civilians. The Convoy commander's bravery is commendable, and the tale is worthy of a Hollywood screen epic.

I have two broad problems with this work: one, the author is sometimes repetitive, and does not clearly explain how international law applies to certain situations. Two, Weiss, a liberal internationalist, holds the very naive and vague view that cooperation between nations creates 'norms of good conduct.' Yet the fact that the UN failed to respond to massacres in Sri Lanka disproves this very notion.

That being said, this is an informed look at a beautiful and prosperous nation's descent into barbarism and religious extremism. I highly recommend it to those interested in Sri Lanka, and other regions of the world torn by ethnic conflict.


Theory of International Politics
Theory of International Politics
by Kenneth Neal Waltz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $34.33
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A noble effort, February 27, 2013
There are many problems with Kenneth Waltz's 'Theory of International Politics,' which theorists continue to tackle. Nonetheless, this is, without a doubt, a groundbreaking work. Waltz does something that many social scientists fail to do: build a theory, one that is both elegant and rigorous.

To construct his theory, Waltz begins by defining what a theory is, and proceeds to argue that a systemic theory of international politics is required (Chapters 1-4). These initial chapters could have been frightfully dull, but Waltz layers them with colourful examples. I especially enjoyed the discussion of reductionism; Waltz uses Lenin's theory of imperialism to highlight the problems with reductionist theories of IR. He then deals with the requirements for a systemic theory.

The systemic theory starts with a simple ordering principle: anarchy. The international system has no higher power to regulate affairs between nations, which are in a 'self-help' system. This is an appealing construct, and one that allows for clear conceptualisation of relations between states. At this point, however, I was a little bit put off by Waltz's assertion that international decisions made within the nation state are part of a theory of foreign policy, not international politics. Although Waltz is usually correct in this assertion, it sometimes appears to be a cheap cop out.

This is merely a minor caveat, for I do firmly believe that Waltz's theory is logical, clear, and helps make sense out of international politics.


Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution (The Roundtable Series in Behavioral Economics)
Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution (The Roundtable Series in Behavioral Economics)
by Samuel Bowles
Edition: Paperback
Price: $59.80
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A delightful romp through evolutionary and behavioural economics, February 14, 2013
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Sam Bowles never fails to please. Not only is his writing style clear and eloquent, but he also conveys mathematical ideas with rigour and nuance. For those yearning for an introduction to evolutionary economics, look no further than this book and Herb Gintis' "Game Theory Evolving." The mathematics is not overly advanced, and someone with a university-level knowledge of calculus can grasp the author's main points. If you are a micro-economist, then this book absolutely must be on your shelf.

My only complaint would be that there is no accompanying solution manual. There is no point in books having problem sets without even partial solutions. That being said, this book is superb in every other way.


Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
by Edward S. Herman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.46
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read this to understand American media, August 4, 2012
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is not what I would consider an 'exciting' read. This is an academic text (though accessible to non-academics), meticulously researched with painstaking analysis. The authors' writing style is dry, with hints of sarcastic humour. What rescues this work from tedium, however, is its intellectual honesty and interesting content. Those wishing to truly understand how the press function in Western liberal democracies should absorb Herman and Chomsky's model.

For here we are presented with a radical idea: that although the mass media portrays itself as an obstinate seeker of truth and justice, in reality it often confines itself to elite opinion, and rarely strays outside a narrow set of views. The authors posit a "propaganda model" to explain why this is the case. The model itself contains five filters through which news reporting must pass before reaching the public at large: ownership, funding, sourcing, flak, and ideology.

The first, ownership, refers to the fact that news agencies are frequently giant corporations (or subsidiaries thereof) with boards of directors drawn from elite classes: retired state officials, bankers, corporate executives, and lawyers. Funding, the second filter, is how the media makes money: namely, through advertising. Sourcing comes third; profit-driven media avoids costly investigative reporting, and instead "sources" its reporters in high-profile areas like the White House and Pentagon, where prepared PR statements are readily available to be passed on as "news". Flak, the fourth filter, refers to corporations' ability to engender negative reactions to news reporting in the form of lawsuits, think tanks, Bills before Congress, etc. Lastly, ideology is the dominating political religion of the time - "Anti-communism" during the Cold War, and "The War on Terror" today.

These five filters combine to limit the scope and depth of news reporting, and the bulk of the book proves this with case studies. Among the more fascinating examples is the Vietnam War. The traditional story is that the United States intervened to save South Vietnam from Hanoi's communist aggressions. This could not be further from the truth. After the First Indochina War (1946-54), America imposed a puppet regime in South Vietnam which lacked mass support. Realizing that socialist elements were gaining popularity, the U.S. mobilized to suppress the South Vietnamese population. By 1956, executions and forced dislocations were common, and by 1962 the U.S. had adopted an all-out bombing strategy that left thousands dead. These well-documented facts were never reported by the media, and even when the media came around, after the Tet Offensive, to opposing the war, it was only on the grounds that the well-intentioned conflict was becoming too "costly" for the United States. The very reasons for going to war in the first place were never discussed.

Thus the media, rather than questioning power, upholds and exonerates it. Further case studies include Watergate, Jerry Popie'uszko's murder, and Mehmet Ali A'ca's attempted assassination of the Pope. In each case, Herman and Chomsky's application of the propaganda model leaves littles room for doubt; their arguments are clear, logical, and well-cited. Although some parts are tedious to get through, especially the overly repetitive Chapter 3, I found the work overall enjoyable to read.

Despite their sometimes depressing tone, the authors have a delightfully sardonic sense of humour, and conclude the work with a suggestion for positive change: those of us operating outside the mainstream media's deceitful ways should organize community and local alternatives. Already there are notable examples of independent journalism - Democracy Now, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Z Magazine, among others. Instead of the corporations controlling the press, the public should. As The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling hilariously put it, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."


Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir
Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir
by Carolyn Weber
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too preachy - while preaching to the choir!, August 3, 2012
The only reason I am giving this book three stars is because the author has a pleasant writing style, which sometimes verges on the poetic. However, the memoir itself is contrived and, at times, absurd: for instance, Weber discusses how during her orientation, the graduate students gathered to watch "Chariots of Fire," which is ultimately a spiritual film and blah blah blah. I do not want to be too hard on Weber. She seems sincere about her faith, but there are ways to discuss one's faith without preaching to the choir (ironically, Chariots of Fire itself is a great example of understated evangelism).
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 12, 2012 5:05 PM PDT


Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
by David Graeber
Edition: Hardcover
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11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Would be outstanding if the author understood contemporary economics, July 28, 2012
David Graeber's "Debt" is a good book, and may perhaps even turn into a great one. One reviewer on this website even claimed that the book has the power to transform economics. I am not so sure: Graeber lacks knowledge about contemporary economics, which is problematic.

In the first seven chapters, Graeber explains his theoretical underpinnings. This is somewhat tedious, yet the pace later accelerates as Graeber flies through history, framing events in terms of what some call "Graeber cycles": civilisations' tendency to alternate between periods of virtual and physical money. A key point is that the Axial Age's (800BC-600AD) reliance on physical money spurred the development of armies and empires. The story, in brief, is this: empires require armies, and it is relatively cost-efficient to pay soldiers in coinage - but for this coinage to be valuable requires it be redeemable, which in turn requires markets. Thus, the state creates markets by implementing taxation of coinage. This pattern repeats itself wherever physical money appears.

Credit, by contrast, is built on social relations and trust: an IOU is only as good as those underwriting it. Indeed, one of Debt's most shocking revelations is that economists' traditional view of the development of money, from barter to bullion to credit, is completely mistaken. Early societies, where everyone knew everyone, used credit rather than barter. If my neighbour has a shoe I want, for example, she simply lets me have the shoe, causing me to be indebted to her. In the future, she may come to me requiring a pig, which I would gladly give her. Initial "human economies" had this characteristic, resulting in deeper human relationships.

There are fascinating accounts of such economies in Graeber's story. He discusses anthropologist Phillipe Rospabé's theory that original units of currency - wampum belts, camwood, cattle - are not used in quotidian transactions, but rather to arrange relationships between people. A groom may give his bride's family a gift of brass rods upon marriage, but would never use such rods for normal market transactions. This is because early currency was largely symbolic, an acknowledgment that certain debts can never be repaid.

Although others, like Henry Farrell, have disapproved of Debt's final and most political chapter, I thought it was Graeber's best. I was particularly sympathetic to his concrete policy suggestion: to implement "some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee," in which all debts would periodically be forgiven. After all, debt is political - indeed, why should Third World debt be repaid, while American debt consists of less stringent conditions and discourse?

I cannot give this book a standing ovation, since Graeber fumbles when it comes to his economics understanding. In Chapter Eleven, for instance, he writes:

"Can we really use the methods of modern economics, which were designed to understand how contemporary economic institutions operate, to describe the political battles that led to the creation of those very institutions?... To take what might seem an 'objective,' macro-economic approach to the origins of the world economy would be to treat the behaviour of early European explorers, merchants, and conquerors as if they were simply rational responses to opportunities... This is what the use of equations so often does... if there is a demand for sugar in England, and enslaving millions is the easiest way to acquire labor to produce it, then it is inevitable that some will enslave them."

In this passage, Graeber makes a number of errors. For one, scholars such as Daron Acemoglu, John Roemer, and Adam Przeworski have described, through game theory, the "political battles" that led to the development of institutions. Indeed, when Graeber argues that if slavery is the cheapest way to acquire labour for sugar production, then slavery will occur, he is simply describing an optimal response - a Nash equilibrium in some scenarios. Furthermore, I am not sure why he singles out the "macro-economic approach," since contemporary macroeconomists seem more concerned with DSGE modelling and VAR estimations than political institutions and imperial history.

Graeber should fix the economic mistakes in subsequent editions of his book, but overall this is a good read. I recommend it, with the proviso that the reader be skeptical of Graeber's claims about contemporary economics.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 23, 2013 5:55 PM PST


Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (American Empire Project)
Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (American Empire Project)
by Noam Chomsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.75
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must-have for any student of politics, July 18, 2012
Noam Chomsky may not be a trained political scientist, but his views are nonetheless backed by well-documented and scholarly information, and he argues in a coherent and logical manner. In this sense, Chomsky is far better than many acclaimed political thinkers, like Samuel Huntington, whose views are largely speculative yet serve to justify establishment ideology. "Hegemony or Survival" is a damning indictment of U.S. economic and military power. The book's central thesis, that we either live harmoniously and survive, or else are annihilated as imperial power attempts to maintain its hegemony, is thought-provoking.

Chomsky's unit of analysis is the modern nation state, which he assumes is self-interested: not narrowly so, of course, but rather in the sense of powerful internal interests controlling foreign policy. In the United States, it is largely multinational corporations that determine foreign policy (indeed research by Jacobs and Page in the American Political Science Review, 2005, confirms this). From this point of departure, Chomsky demonstrates how the United States has used its power to perpetrate some of the most vicious crimes of the 20th and 21st Centuries, all in the name of self-interest and profit. Ultimately, then, this is a critique of the way U.S. power has been used globally.

Some may claim that Chomsky is overly critical of U.S. foreign policy. This is true to an extent, but Chomsky is an American himself, and it is a hypocritical to criticise others' flaws without first realising your own. Chomsky can criticise Iran, but it would be a waste of breath: it is better to criticise one's own nation, so that it can then be improved. This is a fair position to take.

I do not give this book five stars because the chapter "Cauldron of Animosities," which describes US-Israel relations, was not entirely satisfying. Chomsky portrays Israel as the bad guy, plain and simple, when in fact reality seems more nuanced; after all, there were more Israeli casualties in the Second Intifada than Palestinian ones. There has to be some subtlety.

I also wish Chomsky's description of the Kosovo War were a bit clearer and less mucky.

At any rate, these criticisms are minor, and do not hugely detract from the book's overall quality. I strongly recommend "Hegemony or Survival" to every student of international politics, as well as those interested in recent U.S. history.


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