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Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (Redback)
Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (Redback)
Price: $8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars You are seriously ill. Call in the homeopaths!, March 14, 2015
In one word, Battlers & Billionaires is "measured". This is not entirely a compliment.

Leigh describes the trajectory of Australian inequality: materially very equal Indigenous and early convict societies giving way to a more unequal export-based capitalist economy in the 19th century; income compression via progressive taxation, unionisation and other measures from the 1920s to 1970s; and decompression from the 1980s to the present as globalisation and technological change took hold and the top income tax and unionisation rates went into reverse.

He also argues why we should care: inequality not only leaves those who need the most with the least, but probably reduces social mobility, weakens democracy, and makes people unhappier even if they are not materially worse off. (We are basically jealous, status-seeking apes with less hair, although Leigh is not quite so blunt.) On the other hand, it probably doesn't have much direct effect on health or crime.

This is all pretty solidly based in the Australian and international literature, or at least as solidly as anything can be in economics and the social sciences. While Leigh is mostly scrupulous about correlation and causation, he is sometimes not quite scrupulous enough, such as on the relationship between inequality and economic growth or parenting styles and academic achievement.

The more you believe his arguments, however, the more homeopathic his remedies look. While he likes our 1980 level of inequality, he has few kind words for any of the policies of the time - 60% top income tax, high tariffs, etc. He likes unions, but not enough to propose any concrete method of restoring their power (certainly not the closed shop). The concluding list of eight recommendations is mainly conservative - that is, about not increasing inequality any more, rather than actively reducing it. Better education, light touch interventions to improve parenting, and more randomised trials of social policy all sound lovely, if maddeningly vague, but hardly enough to transform the income distribution, particularly if (as Thomas Piketty has argued) the trend to rising inequality still has a long way to run. I will be interested to see if Piketty shows up in promised future revisions of Battlers & Billionaires.

Of course, one would not expect the Communist Manifesto from a junior shadow minister. It is enough of a miracle that someone recently rated Australia's best young economist is now in Parliament and still writing books. And if Battlers & Billionaires is not a rousing call to action, it is at least an excellent primer. (Did you know that the 2012 BRW rich list had more people over 80 than under 50? That on average, the poorest fifth of women have only 0.3 more kids than the richest fifth - 2.5. vs 2.2? Or that only 2% of people think they are in the top 10%?)

Big Ideas in Macroeconomics: A Nontechnical View
Big Ideas in Macroeconomics: A Nontechnical View
by Kartik B. Athreya
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $36.00
47 used & new from $26.84

2.0 out of 5 stars A textbook without math, March 14, 2015
On the one hand, this book does deliver what it promises - a non-technical description of the core methodology of mainstream macroeconomics - and does so reasonably well, given the difficulty of translating mathematics and game theory into English. Athreya's prose is lucid, if not sparkling.

On the other, it is long, boring, full of jargon, and far more concerned with the internal consistency and logic of the models rather than their ability to explain economic events. The final chapter on financial crises feels tacked on, and mainly serves to underline how little use this style of economics has been in emergencies.

This the mostly the subject's fault, not the author's. However, the author chose the subject, not just for one book but for his life's work. And the book is not just a description but a defense of the subject. So . . . what the hell, I'll blame him anyway.

Big Ideas in Macroeconomics could be useful for intending or current graduate students to use as introductory or companion material. Anybody else? I doubt it. It is far too long and dense for the average reader (think Piketty's Capital minus the graphs and literary references). And it offers nothing to reassure those of us who fear that optimising microfoundations and rational expectations hit diminishing returns long ago.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 21, 2015 5:18 PM PDT

The Secret Life of Money: Everyday Ecnomics Explained
The Secret Life of Money: Everyday Ecnomics Explained
by Tess Read
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.19
27 used & new from $6.31

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good (but no d-squared digest), March 14, 2015
The premise of this book is that economists should understand more about how business works, so they will make better management consultants and investment bankers.

I am not sure I agree with this goal, but if you do, then 'Secret Life' is not bad. The Kindle preview (especially the numerous and lengthy chapter titles) gives a clear idea of the subject matter.

Compared to Davies' blogging, the book is pedestrian in both style and content. But if you are a non-economist wanting to pick up a few ideas, an economics graduate heading into the business world, or trying to teach economics to business students, you could do a lot worse.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
by Daron Acemoglu
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.83
121 used & new from $8.10

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, fairy tale history, February 17, 2015
Once upon a time, an unfortunate country was trapped in the Vicious Circle of Poverty and Extractive Institutions. Then thanks to a Small Difference at a Critical Juncture in the Contingent Path of History, they entered the Virtuous Circle of Inclusive Institutions and Growth and lived happily ever after.

Really, that's pretty much it. An equally convincing set of anecdotes could be collected about how the key to growth is geography, or culture, or race, or protection, or free trade, or anything you like. The authors have published some highly regarded papers, but if you read this book (as I did) hoping for a more accessible summary of their academic work, you will be sadly disappointed.

"They never define
their key variables with precision, present
any quantitative data or classifications
based on those definitions, or offer even
a single table, figure, or regression line
to demonstrate the relationships that
they contend underpin all economic
history. Instead, they present a stream
of assertions and anecdotes about the
inclusive or extractive nature of this or
that institution."
- Jeffrey Sachs

"Sachs ... argues that we provide no evidence.
Right, we do not in the book. But that's because a book for a general audience is not the right forum for presenting academic research ..."
- Acemoglu and Robinson

Transportation in the World of the Future,
Transportation in the World of the Future,
by Hal Hellman
Edition: Hardcover
10 used & new from $4.10

4.0 out of 5 stars Where's my jet pack, dude?, June 6, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I love the internet, but remember when progress meant cool vehicles that went fast? With Concorde retired, transport basically hasn't got any faster in the last 50 years.

This is a neat look at what people back then thought now would be like. Not just super- but hypersonic aircraft, trains in vacuum tubes, hydrofoils and hovercraft, and yes personal gyrocopters and jet packs. (Though it pessimistically concedes that "we probably won't see such [nuclear powered air-]craft for ten or more years." And it also talks about more boring stuff like the need to integrate different modes of public transport, which stands up surprisingly - or depressingly - well today.)

At least we are finally getting self-driving cars, and maybe a maglev or two.

I wonder what will happen when Moore's Law hits its limits?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.22
159 used & new from $16.78

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Monumental, but needs a tougher editor, June 5, 2014

For at least the last two centuries, it has been typical for small minorities – the notorious ‘top 1%’ – to enjoy a much larger share of national incomes, and for inherited wealth to greatly outweigh new entrepreneurial fortunes. The brief few decades of income compression and meritocracy were not due to any benign tendencies inherent in economic growth or improved education, but radical wealth destruction, taxation and catch-up growth from two world wars. We are already well on the way back to such a society, due the simple arithmetic of compound interest rather than the fashionable bogeymen of globalisation and technology.

There has been a bit of fuss about the data, which no doubt will continue. My money is still on Piketty for the big picture, but no doubt there will be a few mistakes here and there.

Still, I can't recommend Capital as a cover-to-cover read - it is too long-winded and repetitive. Skim the free figures and tables at, then if you do buy the book, start with Part Three.

(Longer version forthcoming in the Economic Record.)

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
by Andrew Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
32 used & new from $0.77

14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cud, badly chewed, November 18, 2011
I am astonished by the favourable reviews this book has received. To write yet another history of WW2, an author should have something new to say (especially if the subtitle is 'A New History Of The Second World War'), or at least put the old wine in a better bottle.

Storm of War does neither. Roberts is a dull and long-winded writer, with an amateur's knowledge of the war.

The bibliography is revealing: archives take up less than two pages, articles less than one, books (most of them general interest rather than specialist) over 25. He relies extensively on a small number of popular authors, particularly Alan Clark (despite classing him with David Irving as a Hitler apologist!), Lidell Hart, and George Macdonald Fraser. I had a brief, chilling vision of a one volume history of WW2 entirely based on previous one volume histories of WW2. The few allegedly new contributions are letters confirming the already well known (the Dunkirk halt order) or illustrating petty personal squabbles.

Unfortunately, it is not just cud, but cud badly chewed. Roberts' style is incredibly prolix: adjectives and synonyms proliferate, Goebbels is not just an 'evil genius' but "a man who fully deserves the cliche 'evil genius'," Manteuffel is "Colonel Baron Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel", etc. Long, pointless lists of statistics dot the text (no tables). The maps, grouped seperately, bear hardly a trace of the campaigns they are supposed to illustrate. (Perhaps this is how he can write of "a front connecting Smolensk, Minsk & Warsaw".) Oracular judgements as to whether so and so "deserves" something or was "correct" are frequent, and as frequently unsupported by evidence or authority.

Some errors inevitably creep into a book of this length, but giving the Graf Spee 8" guns, claiming that U-boats could only do 3 knots submerged, or that the T-34 only had two roadwheels per side should jump out at any self respecting war nerd. God knows there are enough of us, surely they could have hired one to do the proofreading?

More baffling are the claims which cannot be put down to mere typos. Where on earth did he get the idea that the King Tiger's chassis was the same as the Panther's, or that the Germans were idiots for not using diesel in their tanks, like they did in their Messerschmitts(!)? (In case you are interested, they relied on coal liquefaction, which produced mostly lighter fractions, and needed the 'natural' diesel for their navy.)

Petty technical details, one might say, not relevant to the big picture. But similar uncritical repetition of problematic claims occurs regarding strategy, especially the 'what ifs' that are prominent in the book. 'Blitzkrieg' is presented as a well defined official doctrine. A direct drive on Moscow in autumn '41, or an alternative 'Mediterranean strategy' giving more resources to Rommel, are no-brainers rather than massive logistical gambles. There is "no reason" to think that the Soviet Union would have been better prepared for a German invasion in '42 or '43.

Roberts cannot even keep his own stories straight: he first argues that "it was because he could not invade Russia before June that he was able to indulge himself in south-west Europe", then concludes that the invasion of Yugoslavia held up Barbarossa for six weeks. In the midst of several pages on how the Germans would have been better off being nice to Soviet civilians and prisoners, two sentences acknowledging they probably would have starved to death anyway if the German army and homeland was to be fed.

His moral homilies range from the bleeding obvious to the slightly creepy. The Holocaust was atrocious, and so was Japanese treatment of civilians and POWs. Area bombing was justified not just to win this war, but to discourage the Germans and Japanese from fighting another. Detailed recounting of Japanese submarine atrocities; no mention of Mush Morton. And of all things, a blast at Ireland (oops, 'Eire') for not giving more cooperation to the British. Conspicuously missing: any discussion of the Bengal famine, or the necessity for unconditional surrender.

It is also a very parochial work. Martin Gilbert's blurb calls it a good book about the British and Americans, which is at least half accurate. Roberts acknowledges the scale of the Sino-Japanese struggle only as a prelude to ignoring it, and despite frequent homage to the importance of the Eastern Front gives it little more time than the Burma campaigns.

Why two stars instead of one? Because a literate monkey could not go so badly wrong echoing conventional wisdom on such a well-studied subject. Germany and Japan were operationally brilliant but economically outmatched, generals are mostly egomaniacs but Hitler should have listened to his, etc. He doesn't make any really major factual errors, and his opinions are questionable but not completely insane.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2012 4:40 PM PDT

Gold, France, and the Great Depression, 1919-1932 (Yale Historical Publications Series)
Gold, France, and the Great Depression, 1919-1932 (Yale Historical Publications Series)
by H. Clark Johnson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $49.50
25 used & new from $21.28

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For once, a good reason to hate France., September 23, 2011
I don't know why the neo-cons didn't discover this book when they were mouthing off about "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and "freedom fries". It actually makes a pretty good argument that the Great Depression (and hence Hitler, maybe Japanese expansionism, WW2 and its associated joys) were caused by suicidal French monetary policy.

OK, "caused" is a loaded word. "Vital contribution", or "could have been avoided if not for . . .", if you prefer. There were many other things going on, and these have been covered in the classic works such as Friedman & Schwartz, Kindleberger, and Temin.

But a vital point that these authors did not emphasise is that the price level under the gold standard depends on the supply of and demand for monetary gold (duh!), and that this price level was at a century high (or equivalently, the real price of gold was at a century low) following the inflation of WWI.

It is axiomatic that maintaining this price level would require unprecedented economy in the demand for monetary gold - substitution of banknotes & cheques in domestic transactions, and foreign exchange in central bank reserves. The supply effect, of course, goes the wrong way - a low real gold price reduces the incentive for mining and increases the demand for non-monetary uses such as jewelry.) If these economies were not made, the inevitable result would be deflation in currencies fixed to gold, as the real price of gold returned to its equilibrium level.

While the first substitution was carried out in many countries, the second was not, at least where it mattered. Which brings us to the French Monetary Law of 1928. The French went back on the gold standard at an undervalued exchange rate, refused to accept foreign currency in settlement of the resulting balance of payments surplus, and sterilised the gold inflow, thereby ensuing that it was continued. Thus they went from holding 8% to 28% of the world's monetary gold in a few years (Dec '26 - Jun '32) that "coincidentally" bracketed the Great Crash and the beginning of the end for the gold standard.

It is about the only comparison I can think of that makes Jean-Claude Trichet look good right now.

Of course, I cannot summarise the whole argument in this review. Johnson makes many other fascinating points about the politics of this move (more muddle than conspiracy), the prewar gold standard, and why the immediate postwar deflation of '20-1 did not result in a Great Depression. He also spends a lot of time on the income vs profit deflation framework of Keynes' Treatise on Money, which to me does not add much value. But if you get the book and are not interested in the details, simply glance at Fig.2 (p.52) showing the real gold price, and Appendix 1 showing the distribution of the world's monetary gold. They speak for themselves.

Night of Hunters
Night of Hunters
Price: $10.00
74 used & new from $0.24

6 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More of the same . . ., September 23, 2011
This review is from: Night of Hunters (Audio CD)
OK, the classical acoustic instrumentation is completely different (to my taste a big improvement). But otherwise this is basically the same thing she has been doing for the last decade - pick a theme, fill a CD to capacity, etc etc.

The intro to 'Shattering Seas' was promising: big pounding piano chords with lots of bass, taking me back 15 years. But as soon as she started singing there was a vague sense of disappointment - nothing particularly wrong, but nothing to send shivers down the spine either. This feeling, unfortunately, kept on growing with every succeeding song. The music was nice, but there was just nothing in the lyrics or vocals that demanded a second listen.

As for her daughter's guest vocals: I guess you either find that cute or not. Me, not.

And for once, I wish her lyrics were more cryptic. I thought Roxette had the copyright on "listen to your heart", and "disempowerment" just should not be sung, ever, under any (non-satirical) circumstances.

Without wishing more personal tragedy into her life, my only other hope is that she starts doing more covers. My first pick? 'Paschendale' by Iron Maiden.

Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2011 2:36 PM PST

While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction
While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Hardcover
50 used & new from $1.38

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unpublished For A Reason, September 20, 2011
These stories are recognisably Vonnegut, but they are not equal to the short stories he did sell, let alone his more mature novels. You can see the same themes and style, but also that he hasn't quite perfected his art yet. Charming, in a way, like footage of a great athlete or musician when they were just starting out.

For dedicated fans or scholars only.

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