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The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - AD 2000
The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - AD 2000
by Julia Lovell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.50
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4.0 out of 5 stars History of The Great Wall and how it can be used to interpret foreign policy, July 13, 2014
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I finally got around to reading this after having it on my shelf for years. The Great Wall is a look through Chinese dynastic history and how it built and used walls through time. The book focuses on using the wall as a milestone gauge for much of its history that could be considered independent of the wall as well as how to look at the wall as a foreign policy instrument. It is filled with poems and narratives of citizens through the ages to reinforce her arguments and shows how todays common knowledge conflicts with the historical account. The book is interesting and gives a good history of the dynasties and how they each focused on the wall as a means to enclose and defend but its arguments about Chinese priorities and perspectives also has distinct political translations to modern China today that the author focuses on.

The Great Wall is split into 12 chapters. It starts out by setting the stage in the opium wars and discusses the terms of trade in the late 18th century as well as the relative political positions of China and Britain. The author starts articulating her core thesis right from the beginning by discussing the Wall as an amazing construction that foreigners marveled at, like the early british travelers, but also how it represented an encasing of China's cultural center and its lack of interest in considering the outside world as a region to learn from. The author then goes into Chinese history; she discusses the change in ecosystem from the south to the north and how the differences between agricultural life and steppe life led to conflicting boundaries. She discusses the unification of China under Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China. The author discusses the Qin wall building and the Legalist system that was used as a means of governance. Confucius wasn't adopted until the Han Dynasty (though he lived before the Qin). The major figures of China's early history are all briefly discussed as well as a focus on the politics of the time and the ways in which emperors looked to consolidate power. The author moves from the Qin to the Han. The fall of dynasties from the beginning were catalyzed by steppe armies of the North descending South and destroying armies; with these dynamics the new dynasties were often quite quick to start rebuilding walls to the north to prevent history from repeating itself. This was how the author categorizes the Han's building of more walls. The author argues the walls were both defensive as well as imperialist as they extended into areas clearly not suited for farming. The author briefly focuses on the volatile period from 386-618 when 3 dynasties overlapped none truly in control (northern Wei, Northern Qi and the Sui Dynasties). The author moves from the volatile Sui Dynasty to the much more revered Tang Dynasty where a more stable regime is seen. Wall building was not a priority and Emperor Taizong focused on consolidating his power and using more power diplomacy than defense. During the Tang period the Turkish risks to the north were seen off. The author moves to the Jin dynasty, the dynasty that was destroyed by the mongols. The Ming Dynasty is discussed, the Ming were the builders of the largest and most impressive stretches of Wall that are north of Beijing and are often considered what the Great Wall is today. The Ming built much extravagance including the Forbidden City in Beijing. The author then discusses the fall of China as it lost its luster and corruption grew. The monthly salaries of the army to maintain the wall had no revenues to back it and the 700k strong army was perhaps 1/10 the size. Eventually yet again, the cost of the wall and the bureaucracy was too great and taxation on the rural peasants too high that when the Manchurians came down from the North to a crumbling empire they were easily able to take control. The cycle of Chinese Dynasties ended with the coming of foreigners from farther abroad. The Opium Wars started the century of humiliation in which China was torn apart by various foreign governments. The growth of Chinese nationalism was in place and the author goes into Sun Yat-sen and the fight for independence that happened 100 years ago. The author gives some perspective on the nationalists and the communists and the ways in which they fought and cooperated.

The author goes from the first dynasty to the modern era for China. The Great Wall is used as a symbol of foreign policy and a part of the mentality of Chinese leaders about the need for isolation at times. The author makes analogies between the Great Wall and the firewall that China is under for the internet. The argument sounds sensible and intuitive and all in all the book is well put together as well as informative about China from a historical perspective. That the wall is not the mythical object that it is often described at is definitely well argued and the human cost of it is pressed on the reader quite clearly. The association with the wall of the past with the firewall of today is where history turns to analogy. There are similarities clearly- the firewall is not to protect armed invaders from entering to uproot and replace the current regime, but rather that the diffusion of ideas that the internet might provide could heighten general dissatisfaction. I enjoyed reading this as it gave a good history of the dynasties and many of the notable characters in China's history.


The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State
The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State
by John Micklethwait
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.37
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5.0 out of 5 stars An analysis of the modern state- both its history as well as some brewing problems, June 30, 2014
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Just over a decade ago political scientists started to believe that we had reached the final stage of historical evolution for government. With the fall of communism and the supposed triumph of the democratic state there was a complacency about the success of Western democracy as the supreme form of government. In the Fourth Revolution authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge look back at the stages of developement of western government and consider it as having gone through 3 revolutions with being on the brink of a 4th in which the liberty of the individual is prioritized over the nanny state that the authors see us having grown into. The authors discuss the modern landscape of government and look at the various models which have been successful both in history as well as geographically and lay out clearly the history of political ideas and eras that took us from the past to the present. Many will disagree with the conclusions and the relative priorities put forth by the authors with respect to liberty relative to social benefits but this is a must read about some of the growing problems with the western state and how to think about some of the solutions.

The book is split into 3 parts, the first one is titled The Three and a Half Revolutions. The first section is a history of political thought which the authors begin with Leviathan by Hobbes. The fundamental idea that a state is needed to help restrain the fallible nature of man and create a social contract that enables society to form with stability was documented in Leviathan and the authors view this work as the first major work that had the idea of what a modern state required. The authors then discuss and the first ideas that sparked utilitarianism as well as libertarianism and some of the conflicting aspects of the two philisophies. But the priority of individual liberty and the goal of the state to allow pursuit of individual goals as long as they dont conflict with the needs of others is considered the second major political revolution. The authors then describe the growth of the welfare state which is considered the third revolution that takes people to the goal of the inclusive society with a focus on equality of opportunity. The author then ends with some discussion of Milton Friedman who started the road to the Fourth revolution in which liberty is re-prioritized and government becomes more constrained and efficient.

The second part is titled From the West to the East. The authors discuss the state of California and its political economy. The desire for social benefits without the budget for them is detailed; the high pension benefits of government workers is discussed and the fundamental divide of Palo Alto with Sacramento is used to articulate the problems with governance in the modern world. In particular the authors discuss how voters are furious about government largess and want it constrained but simultaneously want the benefits of a large state. The authors pivot to asia and discuss the Singapore and China model and how the representatives of the state are extremely well qualified with compensation to match. The authors focus on the political philosophy of Lee Kuan Yew. They discuss how the state focuses on results and the system forces citizens to rely on themselves for their success (again singapore).

The final section is titled The Winds of Change. This section wraps things together and discusses some of the methods that might chip away at the problem. The authors focus on the fact that government is a labour intensive business and labour intensive businesses have much slower productivity growth and are more inflationary than capital intensive businesses - Baumol's disease. They see the internet revolution as helping people to self regulate and will allow for a smaller state with greater individual interconnectivity that would require less state largess. They also see the need for states to adapt faster given the growing debt problems and competition among modern states. The US and Europe need to adapt to compete with the modern states in Asia which are more free to redefine the role of the state with less baggage. The authors also note the lack of democratic participation in the growing EU presence and how it has catalyzed more extremist parties.

The Fourth Revolution takes a look at modern democracy, its history and the future. It is well written, clear and concise. The author give a good history of the modern democratic state and the ideology that helped form where we stand today. They discuss the economics of the state and avoiding the tyranny of the majority and how democratic short sightedness has always been a risk that political philosophers have been aware of. The authors demonstrate clearly that short sightedness is creating growing risks in the modern western state with unfunded pensions and weakening demographics. It is hard not to be troubled by western politics today and its seeming apathy to do real introspection- the Fourth Revolution argues strongly for the need to reform aspects of the growth of the state and to use modern technology to facilitate less labour intensive governance.


Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
by Robert D. Kaplan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.71
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to regional politics in the South China Sea, June 22, 2014
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In recent years there has seemingly been a rise in regional conflict. Easter Europe is an obvious example in which Russia is becoming more aggressive with its bordering countries and agreements and Asia has had more and more incidents with respect to domestic unrest as well as regional conflict, though at this point it remains diplomatic rather than military. The world is becoming far more multipolar and understanding those dynamics and diverging regional interests in a world with scare resources is becoming more important. Much literature with respect to China and global politics focuses on China with respect to the large global powers and the multipolar world we seem to be transitioning to. Robert Kaplan focuses on the growing regional politics that will likely flare up with a much higher frequency and the importance of understanding the histories of these countries with respect to one another.

The author focuses on the South China Sea. The South China Sea has always been a critical lifeline of trade from both a global and regional perspective. It is also speculated that there are enormous energy reserves scattered throughout the sea and within the spheres of influence of the various nation states that inhabit the South China Sea. There are competing claims by Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam of which none will likely be resolved in the near future. With a growing China and growing resource demand and energy requirements the South China Sea is a hotbed for regional conflict with grounded in competing economic interests. Asia's Cauldron discusses the histories of each of the countries (excluding Brunei) and articulates the strengths and weaknesses of the various countries. The author discusses the rulers and their perspectives and how they have shaped their countries - with more centralized "benevolent" autocrats in Malaysia and Singapore vs more nepotistic despots in Philippines and Indonesia and more militaristic socialist regimes like Vietnam.

Asia's Cauldron is a combination of history and modern day geopolitics. The reader is given a perspective on why the South China Sea will continue to be an area of dispute and on the growing naval expenditures of all the countries with interests there. One understands how much the US remains a check on the current rise of material disputes but at the same time its longer term lack of relative strength with the regions growing military budgets. The historical accounts of the region are reasonable but the weaker part of the book; a history of Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines are better documented elsewhere, but the overviews are reasonable. Overall this book gives valuable insight into the politics of the South China Sea and how it will continue hold vital interests for all the regional powers and heightened importance for the growing regional superpower- China.


The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)
The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)
by Gregory Clark
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.96
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4.0 out of 5 stars A new approach to looking at social mobility, June 22, 2014
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Social mobility seems to be the hot topic today with Piketty's book being the center focus currently. Gregory Clark has a totally different approach to the subject and its analysis is insightful and unique. Gregory Clark approaches the topic of social mobility by looking at rare last names and analysing their relative frequency in high social status professions like law and medicine and uses the frequency data to see how much social mobility is implied by the relative frequency over long periods of time. The methodology is clever and the results are surprising.

The book is split into three parts. The first is titled Social Mobility by Time and Place. As the section titled alludes, this section is about social mobility accross a variety of places that are assumed to have different mobility as well as different times in which most are taught that social mobility was very different from today. Social mobility via surname alaysis is undertaken in Sweden, the US, the UK and medieval England. The author then provides the framework for which the rest of the book is benchmarked against. In particular the author provides a framework for looking at social mobility, rather than typical analysis of income mobility.

The author then looks at various social models and does similar surname analysis. The author looks at India and the caste system and the persistence of surnames in India among different professions and different regions and religious subgroups. India is considered a society with extreme social stratification due to its caste system and the evidence supports the lack of mobility. The author then looks at China and Taiwan. China is always a fascinating example due to the total levelling of society through Mao's revolutionary regime and Taiwan was a country for which the Nationalists only moved to post the Communist victory. The authors also discuss Korean and Japan, societies which are percieved to be very level among the citizens and also Chile a society that is very divided, like most of South America. The author also discusses Gypsy populations in the UK. The author discusses how all the various regimes can be embedded within his framework.

The author then concludes with his final section The Good Society. This summarizes the material and the author discusses social policy as a function of his results. The author concludes that social mobility is biologically limited and should not be the focus of policy makers; he focuses on some factors which can be partially adressed by policy like whether groups are endogamous our exogamous. But for the most part the author lays out the repurcussions of his results which support the fact that a surname analysis is evidence of social darwinism being true.

The Son Also Rises is definitely an interesting take on social mobility and the difference between social mobility and income generational income distributional shifts. In particular that income might have a distribution implied by gini coefficients but that social mobility is in effect much more mean reverting that social mobility is much more constrained than gini coefficients imply. The author shows throughout the book whether one is focused on pre industrial revolution or inclusive modern Sweden the correlation within higher social standing and lower social standing families on a multi generation basis for profession is in the .7-.85 range. The author's data set is focused on rare names analysis and as a result is a partial analysis of society and one has to assume that rare names are a representative subset of society at large (which seems a reasonable assumption). Perhaps the next step is an analysis based on mitochondrial DNA (sounds like Gattica). The author does at the end also look at families with adopted children and studies the explanatory power of adopted parents influence, which shows they have influence over educational attainment but less on social mobility. This is an interesting work and will be contentious, it is hard to read this and not think there is an element of truth to the underlying principles but there are many assumptions in this and the method of analysis is not an unbiased statistical one as it has to be based off of particular small subsets of society and their dispersion, or lack of over time, rather than larger pockets of society (like the last name Smith for example).


Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years
Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years
by Tom Standage
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.09
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4.0 out of 5 stars a historical account of how social, political and scholarly activity has coordinated through history, June 3, 2014
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The internet has changed our ability to interact with one another profoundly. Seems obvious to those who actively use the tools so easily available to us like facebook, twitter, whatsapp, etc... Tom Standage gives a perspective on how people have interacted given the mediums of their time in the past and perhaps not so surprisingly, our patterns today resemble patterns of the past. After an era of centralized broadcasting catalyzed by the radio and TV, social participation has reverted back to peer to peer. Writing on the Wall discusses our history and some specific technological breakthroughs that changed the way we interact with one another.

Writing on the Wall documents aspects of social interaction through the ages starting its first analysis with Roman Civilization. The author describes how messengers constantly delivered messages back and forth among the elite to keep each other abreast of the social and political spheres they operated within. The style was conversational and scribes for brevity had systems to efficiently condense common phrases to transcribe more efficiently. The author moves onto the origin of Protestantism with Martin Luther and the use of the printing press to disseminate information via pamphlet. The use of the printing press in spreading information was instrumental in igniting popular discontent with the corruption in the ecclesiastical system. The author discusses how in England poetry and clever and subtle rhymes were a means of earning a reputation and a source of creative outlet for the better educated. The author then discusses the role of the coffee house in the enlightenment and the migration from the social atmosphere of an ale house in which some of the darker aspects of social interaction happened to the coffee house facilitated lively debate and cross polination among intellectuals. The coffeehouse acted as a level playing field for all those who could afford the simple beveridge. The author moved on to the newspaper and how it spread throughout the US and provided for lively political commentary. The stamp tax catalysed a backlash from the media who would be directly affected and were an example of how again, the printing press was a strong force to enable dissemination of information. In the US having multiple points of view was applauded with the hope that the best explanations and reasons would be appreciated, in France papers were used as tools to attack ones enemies. The author shows how public media can be a force for informational dispersion as well as a force for creating chaos and paranoia. The author moves on to how the radio was used and the TV as well. The radio being more peer to peer initially as the cost of being a reciever and a transmitter is not particularly different but after specific incidents where individuals were seen to be interfering with state business, radio transmission went into a more regulated environment dominated by RCA (in the US) and BBC in the UK. The use of centralized media was instrumental in the spread of propoganda and controlling society (as in germany) as well as a medium to advertise, as in the US. The author then takes us into the modern world with the internet and the rebirth of peer to peer communication.

Writing on the Wall is a lively history of ways in which people have interacted through history. Peer to peer dominated social media interactions and marketing is becoming the norm again after a long period in which centralized media was the norm but in reading this work it is clear that this form of interaction has been the norm in the past as well. I enjoyed reading this, its definitely not all new- the ability to publish different points of view as a consequence of the printing press is pretty obvious to most, but the authors discussion of how that medium was used in different ways in different times gives good perspective. Definitely worth reading.


Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics
Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics
by Nancy Forbes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.86
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a highly readable history of electricity and magnetism through the biographies of its pioneers, May 17, 2014
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Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field is a readable and engaging account of the two pioneers of the subject and how they developed as individuals and developed their respective theories. Electromagnetics and the field theory that came with it is one of the most important development in physics and allowed us to move from the theory of classical physics to what is today modern physics. Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon give the reader an account of the evolution of thinking on the subject by writing the overlapping biographies of Faraday and Maxwell. It is engaging, readable and gives the reader a sense of the subject by discussing the physical results that both characters and in particular Faraday personally discovered.

In reading the book one gets a sense of the character of each and where there strengths and weaknesses lied. Faraday, born in 1791 was an incredible experimental physicist. He had the fortune early in his career to work with Davy who was a skilled experimenter as well. One gets a sense of the totally open nature of the subject during that era and how it was wide open to be explored. Faradays growing stature and influence is documented and the reader is familiarized with the deep insight Faraday had about discussing the phenomenon he was observing via a field theory rather than the action at a distance models that continental europe was focused on. The historical statements that are documented in the book give a sense of how visionary Faraday was. Despite his remarkable qualities as an experimental scientist he was not mathematically trained and the formalizing of the theory into something along the lines of newtons theory of classical mechanics was lacking. Maxwell, the Scottish prodigy, was to come along and bridge the gap. The history of Maxwell and his family is given as was his academic journey. Maxwell was a polymath and knowledgeable about a great many things without any ego. He brough methods of vector calculus to the subject of electricity and magnetism and at first proposed models purely to try to describe results rather than to figure out the actual physical processes that were occuring. Slowly though his more cumbersome models became more elegant simple mathematical explanations and Maxwell was the one who came up with the terms Div, Grad and Curl- methods fundamental to modern vector calculus and electricity and magnetism. Maxwell died young and his theory became more ane more appreciated as physicists caught up with mathematics and Oliver Heavyside simplified the equations a bit. The author briefly discuss the start of the quantum revolution as well.

Faraday Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field is fun an enjoyable to read. I found it informative both from a historical account of two remarkable physicists and also a refreshed idea of how the theory was slowly developed from experiments that were only pieces of a much larger and complicated puzzle. The two men were remarkable and the authors did a great job giving the reader a sense of their accomplishment and how it has impacted all of our lives.


The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance
The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance
by Eswar S. Prasad
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.37
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4.0 out of 5 stars A look at the role of the dollar through the crisis and how entangled the currency is in the modern global economy, May 7, 2014
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The dollar continues to be the center of much literature these days and its position as the primary reserve currency at the center of global finance remains unchallenged. The Dollar Trap recounts how the dollar has done through the crisis, how some of the empirical facts about its use would seem counterintuitive at first but more sensible with more time for reflection and describes the landscape today along with some of the fragilities that come with the architecture. It is an informative book for those unfamiliar with the role of the dollar today in international finance as well as even handed about the perspectives of its use by the central banking and international finance community.

The book is split into 4 parts but the first one titles "setting the stage" is just that, a short 2 chapters on the role of the dollar through the financial crisis and through quantitative easing and the euro sovereign crisis. Despite the financial crisis originating in the US, the dollar remained the asset of safety; a result that many would be considered counterintuitive. The first major part of the book is titled "Building Blocks". Starting with economic principles the author discusses how traditional economic theories of capital flows do not correspond to what happens in practice. Capital ought to flow from where capital is abundant to where it is scarce as the relative return would justify more investment where its marginal utility is higher. Thus from this lense of neoclassical growth poor countries should be the recipient of capital flows with the flows coming from the developed world. In practice the asian tigers, japan and China have all achieved growth while running account surpluses (asian financial crisis aside). The author discusses why this happens and discusses various perspectives but focuses on the role of the dollar as a macroeconomic stabilizing tool.

The author then moves on to the framework of the international monetary system and the differences in institutional quality around the world in the third section titled "Inadequate Institutions". With the Fed engaging in quantitative easing to try to ease monetary conditions with the belief that investment from lower rates would spur growth there was a spillover into exchange rates globally. The dollar would relatively weaken as participants would prefer to earn higher yields in other currencies (baring in mind that quantitative easing does not have a uniform record of weakening the dollar and as such the above argument can be true at times but is one of many background processes). In a time with subdued domestic demand, the export channel has been extremely important for many emerging economies and relative strength of the exchange rate became a political issue. The author discusses the economics and politics of this channel as well as the economic perspectives of both emerging markets and of the US. He also discusses classical arguments in favor of flexible exchange rates and then emerging market practical arguments for their failures. He includes counterintuitive narratives about how even better institutions might create new inflows and be counterproductive (ie usually economists would argue that if an economy cannot handle hot money flows it should develop better financial markets but there could be cases where better financial markets ceterus paribus would change the relative desirablility of the destination with better markets such that the improvement would be counterproductive). One gets a true sense of how interconnected the financial world is and local improvements to global problems might not be incrementally beneficial. Coordination is often required when a system is brittle to change. The author ends with a proposal for global insurance that is based off real time policy decisions by countries which would determine the premiums paid. It is an interesting idea though practically it is hard to see it happen anytime soon.

The author finally moves on to the competitors for the dollar. The fourth section is titled Currency Competition. The hegemonic position of the dollar and why is the topic of much of the book so the end focuses on whether there are competitors to it in the making. The author spends the most time on the RMB and discusses where it has grown, how the authorities are handling its introduction (which is gradualist) and what is needed for reserve currencies. The author notes that China, though incredibly important economically and as a trading partner does not fulfill the qualities of a reserve currency as in a world that is based off capital and financial flows rather than trade flows the depth, breath and liquidity of the reserve asset matter more than where the goods are being traded (though in the long run it is hard not to see a relationship between those two). The author also discusses the idea of dollar fragility but dismisses it in todays context by noting the self-reinforcement of the system. This is not to make the claim that the system is stable but rather than todays dynamics are locally self reinforcing.

The Dollar Trap is a comprehensive overview of the role of the dollar in a world of increasing financial and capital flows. Some of the attributes of the dollar at first seem counterintuitive but when looked at as the relatively most attractive asset in a world of scarce safe scalable assets the paradox's disappear. This is not encouraging as the use dollar can lead to complacence by the US and its fantastic institutions might not be sufficient at some point though that some point might be far in the future. It is interesting to note the Euro was not discussed at much length despite it being the 2nd reserve currency; its problems are quite obvious today but nonetheless speculaltion about a slow drift to a more consolidated fiscal region is not considered. All in all there is a lot of solid insightful information in this work. I dont think that it has a strong thesis though, it is just informative by its practical description of the landscape today. So at times the organization doesnt lead to a natural flow. Nonetheless it is a worthwhile read for those interested in the global monetary system as it stands today, what its vulnerabilities are and where it might be headed.


Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us
Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us
by Duncan J. Watts
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.77
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4.0 out of 5 stars cautionary book on using our intuition to make sense of the complexities of the world, April 22, 2014
Everything is obvious, by Duncan Watts, takes the reader through the role of common sense and how its incredible value at the micro-sense (person to person interaction) can lead us astray at the macro level. It is easy and fun to read and shows how certain commonly held beliefs about the influence of key people and how trends start are dubious at best. The author does not have his own theory of aggregate social behaviour and how it propogates and argues that such a goal, though admirable is unrealistic. Through discussion of big data and its ability to help us understand better group dynamics experimentally he sets the stage for a new means to test social theories in living labs. There are no strong conclusions in this book other than, one should not make strong conclusions about social physics, it is a field in its infancy whos complexity is not to be trivialized.

The book is split into two parts. The first is titled Common Sense and discusses at first how common sense gets us through our days but at its core is something we rely on far too much to explain phenomenon that are complex and interrelated that cannot be reduced to common sense. The author discusses feedback effects and discusses experiments where random effects and indirect influence of people can largely influence outcomes. He discusses how people are driven by a large number of different, often conflicting, motivations and incentives, though useful, can often be not sufficiently understood to be relied on as an ultimate driver of action. The author does a great job debuking common knowledge, he discusses how the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous and most valuable piece of art in the world was not always so, but became famous due to its initial theft by an italian nationalist that propelled its fame upwards. He discusses how there is often circular reasoning behind why certain items have properties of greatness. The author argues that the complexities are an inescapable property that we should not be focused on trying to reduce but rather just accept and focus on testing how nonlinearities can propogate. He discusses and experiment in which a group of unknown bands are tested for popularity in different online test groups in which most view statistics were restricted to the groups and set with different arbitrary initial conditions as well as a control group (with the assumption that people are influenced by what other people have viewed like going viral on youtube) and shows that views influences but are far from the sole determinant, but ultimately popularity cannot be reduced to the innate properties. The author also debunks some views on critical nodes in social networks (in terms of some of Malcolm Gladwells ideas) and uses evidence from twitter to try to make the point more clearly; in particular he follows tweets and re-tweets as they propogate through twitter and shows the influence of critical nodes is far less than common sense tells us. The author argues convincingly that even with perfect knowledge of today one cannot conclude what will be deemed relevant in the future.

The author then moves into moving beyond common sense and what to do when trying to avoid relying on such a natural fallback when planning for the future. He first discusses what we can predict; discussing statistical prediction in sports and the trailing value of additional variables past a few core ones. He discusses how thinking about the world as inherintly unpredictable past a certain point will help aid making decisions based more on durability rather than high accuracy prediction. The author discusses how even strategies based on distributional outcomes can fail as events can happen outside the distribution. The author then discusses Zara, a favorite study for using feedback to determine trends rather than trying to predict them in isolation. Zara adjusts its production flexibly and tries lots of different ideas to see which stick and then ramps up the production as they see results feed through. The author discusses the difficulty in marketing and to measure the value of incremental dollars spent (a problem the industry has always faced) but talks about how the web is helping to draw conclusions more easily. The author focuses on using experiments to help make strategic decisions. The author also has a a chapter on fairness and justice which seem to be an overview of two other books which are well worth reading, the Halo Effect and Justice (by Michael Sandel). The author concludes by trying to reinforce all his points, common sense is great at helping us to make sense of the past but terrible at helping to predict the future; that flexibility and feedback should be part of business strategy and that the internet gives us unprecedented ability to test social ideas and gather empirical evidence to better shape our views on actual cause and effect rather than use bottoms up models with representative agesnts to form macro views from a micro-understanding.

Everythign is Obvious is fun to read and insightful. It reminds us of our biases and tries to help us avoid letting them creep into our process. It is not a guide to how to solve the problems in sociology or answer questions, but it does help frame how we should adjust the process to avoid the pitfalls of relying on common sense. It introduces practical social experiments online that have given the experimenters insight into what is going on. He also though cautions that online data is partially deficient so that even though the experiments are insightful they are not all encompassing. I enjoyed this a lot and there is some good new material, there are decent portions of the book which rehash the work of others (which coincidentally I have read and reviewed in the past) so there are parts where the author is doing a bit more book reviewing than focusing on his own work. All in all, fun to read and insightful.


Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.97
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5.0 out of 5 stars indepth view of the distribution of profits to labour and capital through time with focus on France and US, April 21, 2014
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First off I'd like to state that the data that the author has compiled is very impressive and provides the reader with a new way to look at both the stock and flow of wealth of society and its distribution. It is unique and comprehensive and for this aspect of the book it is landmark and hopefully will improve and refine our thinking about capital and inequality going forward. The conclusions of the author i think are very suspect and not nearly as insightful as the analysis, but they are where the author's politics come out and are a relatively smaller portion of the book. The need to move beyond looking at crude measures of inequality like the Gini coefficient and distribution of profits between labour and capital was much needed and the author was able to, through meticulous analysis look at the entire distribution of wealth through society by looking at the bottom 50%, top 10% top 1% and top .1% when possible both from a labour and capital perspective. The dataset is not global, though the author was able to partially reconstruct a broad range of countries, but includes the US, France, UK, Germany aspects of Japan and the Scandinavian countries with a focus on the US and France.

The book is split into 4 part. The first three parts are both an introduction to the economics as well the accompanying economic analysis of the accompanying datasets. The first part - income and capital start out by defining the basics of what the author will discuss throughout the book namely income, capital and how the output of society is distributed and how that has changed over time. National accounting is discussed, the capital stock and its properties are introduced as well as some key identities that will be used throughout regarding the share of income going to capital which is determined by the return of capital and the size of the capital stock relative to annual output. The author also discusses growth over time documenting global growth rates over time and introduces to the unfamiliar reader the consequences of how small changes in growth compounded can lead to large cumulative changes. The author discusses demographic trends globally through time and some of the dynamics of them (which are largely unpredictable). The author also discusses how growth and demographics can influence the capital intensity of the economy. The author also discusses how the sectors of the economy and output have changed over time with agriculture and its share of both labour and capital much lower but the service sector replacing it and how manufacturing intensity and capital replaced agricultural through the industrial revolution as well. He also discusses modern concerns about growth by discussing Robert Gordon's recent paper on the end of growth and whether techonological innovation has run much of its course, he is relatively optimistic but nonetheless foresees growth following a bell curve for which we are at a peak which will decline but to much higher levels than centuries in the past. The author also discusses inflation and monetary policy and how it has changed over time.

The second part of the book is called the dynamiocs of the capital/income ratio. It is about precisely that with the author starting out by using novels to introduce the reader to society in the past. In particular the author refers repeatedly to Balzac and at times to Jane Austen to remind the reader what society was like in the 19th century. The core of the data set starts to become apparant in the second section with the author documenting the capital/income ratio over time in Britain peaking at 7x in 1700 falling to 2x post the first world war. The author includes the same information for france as well. The author discusses how foreign capital was important in the 19th and early 20th centuries during the colonial period and discusses the role of government debt and how it does not change national wealth just the distribution of wealth within the population. The author includes the value of national wealth through time by showing both public assets and public debt over time. The author discusses economic theory and how Ricardian equivalence is strictly only true of economies have a representative agent, which they do not hence the principal should be considered suspect. The author discusses the capital stock through the world wars and how it changed dramatically during the 20th century, though the capital stock has had a recent resurgence as economic policy has drifted back toward free market capitalism. The author then moves to look at the New World and in particular the US and repeats the analysis there as well (though the author starts with Germany as well). In the US the capital stock was more stable (it wasnt a colonial power which was a large part of the capital stock of the UK and to a lesse extent France). Canada is also analyzed as another data point. The author also discusses regional differences by including the differences between the South and the North and the repurcussions of Slavery to the capital/income ratio. The south had a much higher capital/income ratio as much of its human capital was effectively consdered part of the capital stock. The author shows the distribution of capital over time in the US from 1770 to today as well as spot distribution of wealth data points for UK and France. The author starts to discuss the dynamics of the capital/income ratio through his second law of capitalism, namely the ratio is equal to savings/growth. This is the result of the differentiam equation that leads to steady state rather than an identity which holds true at any given point of time. The author then moves into discussing the capital stock over the last 40 years and how its been on a resurgent trend that has been catalyzed by the s/g relationship as well as privatizations. The author discusses the components of savings, the resurgence of the value of capital and where the capital/income ratio is going. The author moves on to the Capital/labor split and its evolution through the 21st century. In particular with the resurgence of growth in the capital stock the trend towards growing labor share in the 20th century has reversed itself and we are heading towards the 19th century. There are regional differences with countries like the US being counterexamples with the rise of the supermanager.

The third part of the book is The structure of inequality. This is where the value of the books data set gets particularly apparant. The author discusses how the labor share of income has changed over time for the various portions of the population, in particular for the top 10 and top 1%. He discusses how the ownership of the capital stock has become less concentrated and there has been an emerging middle class of owners of capital. The author discusses how different countries have had different evolutions between there ownerships of capital and how the labour share of income is divided with the US having a more distributed capital base but a much more concentrated labour share distribution. The author discusses the "merit" of the distribution of labor income and how there is a conflict of interest now for supermanagers and the growth in the supermanager has coincided with the decline in the progressivity of the income tax. The author discusses the flow of income through inheritance and analyses the dynamics of this flow based on the ownership of the capital stock by age group and mortality rates. This form of analysis is definitely an important addition and goes against conventional wisdom of aging populations spending their savings on lifestyle maintenance. I would be very interested to know how this process is evolving in Japan and Italy for example. The author also discusses inequality at the global level and how there are increasing returns to scale in capital (this is definitely not a fact and much evidence is to the contrary but an empirical observation made by the author on a few examples). The author also looks at the growing share of wealth of the top centile and billionaires in particular. He discusses how Bill Gates and the Bettencourt family have had the same return on their capital over time despite one being self made and the other inherited reinforcing his thesis that growing capital has its own momentum based on the fact that if the return on capital is greather than the growth rate capital continues to accumulate to those who have it- a central point throughout the book.

The 4th part is Regulating Capital in the 21st century. It is the authors partial solutions to the growing inequality that we see that is due to inherint dynamics and unrelated to the merits of an individuals labour contribution or the foresight of those investing in the future capital stock. It discusses ideas like rethinking progressive tax, increasing the top income bracket to 80% to diffuse the rent seeking behaviour of the super manager. It includes ideas on taxing capital, in particular a graduating tax on capital to both make sure people are using the capital stock efficiently as well as counteracting the benefits of the economies of scale the author has been pointing out. Lastly the author focuses on the pressing problem of public debt with a focus on Europe.

The data the author has compiled has allowed him to look at the distribution of wealth in much of the Western world through a more refined lense. It is full of important insight and a true developement that takes us to a level with much more granular detail than what typically is focused on. For that reason the book is a must read and is definitely a 5* book. The policy recommendations i put far less value on. The author is focused on the distribution of wealth and the solutions he proposes are designed to get those more in line with politically what he believes is a more fair distribution, thus they are focused on optimizing a distributional outcome. Recommending confiscating capital to pay down national debt is an example of a solution to a problem without considering the consequences of the action on the future dynamics of the economic system. Though the solution might seem fair, it is also insane as funding the flow of capital stock would totally change. Discussing a policy that could have better dealt with preventing the ex ante buildup of national debt is better than discussing one that ex post unwinds it far more dramatically. In addition ideas like just taxing capital at higher rates depending on one's capital base is highly questionable. Imagine each year if an entrepreneur has to give up 5-10% of his equity of his company (as capital has migrated from land to financial capital this is precisely what will be required) then the world would be very different and I am a skeptic it would be a more utopian society. Generation transfer is far more dangerous than capital accumulation through a lifetime and the author's policy perscriptions are political and one gets a sense he is stepping outside his comfort zone of impacting wealth inequality and into impacting economic growth, which is another big factor in decreasing economic inequality. There are many things that are scary- in the UK the top 5 families own more than the bottom 20% with 2 of those 5 are ancestors of those who owned the fields which London was built on. Between the 2 facts above I worry far more about the fact that 2 are from ancient landowning families, a form of capital stock that does not depreciate than the former, which is worrisome, but a more granular analysis of the asset base and its properties would be required. Achieving better distribution of wealth is not about just taxing capital more (though that should be a part of it). We need better policies, this is a start in how to look at the problem more clearly. The solutions are food for thought, but at this stage only that- as the author states, economics is not a science it is a social science and democratic deliberation is necessary to help us decide what policies society believes in. This helps provide better tools to answer some of the questions we have to ask ourselves about why the asset base is owned as it is and how does that fit with our beliefs in how society should be organized considering all dimensions like individual merit, equality of opportunity, sanctity of contract for providing the right base incentives etc...


The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
by T. J. Stiles
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.20
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An illuminating look into capitalism in the US in the 19th century with a focus on Vanderbilt, April 7, 2014
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The life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is fascinating. T.J Stiles does a fantastic job of detailing the life of Vanderbilt in thorough detail from his birth to his death. Born in 1794 and breathing his last breath in Jan 1877 Cornelius Vanderbit led an incredibly full life starting with nothing and ending with the largest estate in the United States at the date of his passing. He lived through fascinating times being born just afer independence and living through the civil war and industrialization of the country. T.J Stiles takes the reader through the life of the great man as well as a journey through the times in which Vanderbilt lived including the political and economic climate that defined the man and how he evolved with the changing times.

The book is split into 3 major parts. He sets the stage by starting at the end and the court case over the Vanderbilt estate: the vast majority of the Vanderbilt estate was left to William Vanderbilt with a fraction left to the rest of his large family. The author discusses his formative years and how he scrapped together money to buy his first boats to ferry passengers back and forth his beginnings were humble. He then started working for Gibbons which was a defining moment for Vanderbilt as the larger than life Gibbons was a strong personality that fundamentally shaped Vanderbilt and his perspective on business. One goes through supreme court history in the Vanderbilt biography and gets taken through one of the first seminal cases, Gibbons vs Ogden which was a defining case for interstate trade and the ability of states to set local monopolies. The author details the tactics of competitive steam boat businesses and the ruthless characters involved. The lawlessness of the land is learnt through the history told. The author moves chronologically through Vanderbilt's life and details the growing fleet of ships Vanderbilt controls and the vast steamships he commissions. Gibbons passes away and his tie to his mentor's family is severed with rivalry with the son. Vanderbilt becomes his own man and the author takes the reader through history and the political and intellectual backdrop. The author tries to get the reader to appreciate the Jacksonian view of small scale business and laissez faire capitalism as invisioned by Jackson and how Vanderbilt's businesses were in early stage raw capitalism where participants were vying for monopoly rights through short term competition. The author details how politicians are intimately involved in speculation, using their power to manipulate outcomes favorable for their stock positions. The reader is introduced to "bull runs" and "bear runs" on stocks as well as cornering of markets by speculators to squeeze the positions of others. The complete insider trading aspects of the market are starkly shown. Vanderbilt evolves as a character, always focused on the markets as an owner operator despite the fact that ownership migrates from private partnership to public listed corporations. His attitude sets him ahead of his competitors as he always made his businesses operationally efficient due to longer term alignment of interest. The disregard for labour during this era is discussed as well. The author discusses how Vanderbilt moved from steamships to railroads. The capital commitment for railroads was a multiple for other businesses. Vanderbilt himself almost died from a railroad accident when they were first being built as a passenger car he was in derailed. Despite the difference in scale, Vanderbilt continued to focus on railroads in an owner/operator mentality. He competed, consolidated and tried to create regional monopolies. The author details his family life and the paths forged by his children and inlaws. One gets a real human side from the author as he details the often strained relationships with his children. Vanderbilt was sharp and committed until the end when he died as the richest man in America.

The life of Vanderbilt is fascinating and filled with details about the lives of his colorful contempories like Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, Augustus Schell, to name a few. The book is long and it takes a while to get through this but it is well worth the time. One gets a sense of how business was conducted 150 years ago and the economic and political debates of the time. One also gets a sense of how the industrial revolution was changing everything and the life of a man who was at the center of it and helped shaped the economic outcomes. We learn of how panics and overconfidence bankrupted many a men and how Vanderbilt managed a growing empire through the turbulent times. Definitely worthwhile read for both economic and american history.


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