I had a fun interview with Sophie Roell of The Browser, talking about Five Books with the organizing theme of Utopia. It’s partly a plug for Zombie Economics, which just came out in a new paperback edition in the US, and also in an Australian edition published by Black Inc.
As I wrote before, my immediate (over-)reaction to George Megalogenis The Australian Moment, was driven by the ageist generational clichés that started on page 1, and reappeared periodically thereafter. But I promised to write something about the serious content of the book and here it is.
My one-line summary is that this is probably the best exposition of Australia’s political history, over the period of market liberal reform, and from the viewpoint of the reformers, that we have seen, or are likely to. In particular, it’s better than the main rival, Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty.
The Australian edition of Zombie Economics, updated and with an additional chapter on Economic Rationalism, is about to go on sale. I’ll be appearing at a launch event at Gleebooks in Sydney on Wednesday (9 May) talking with Jessica Irvine of the SMH.
The launch coincides with the US publication of a paperback edition, with a new chapter on Austerity. The Italian translation also came out recently, and there are versions coming in French, Greek, Portuguese, Korean and Simplified Chinese. Collect them all!
Update On reflection, I went a bit over the top here. Generational stereotypes press my hot buttons, but that’s no excuse for the excess aggression in this post. I respect George Megalogenis as a journalist and, except on this point, I’ve found him to be insightful and thoughtful. So, apologises for losing my temper here. I will try to write a proper review of the book soon. End update
When I started reading George Megalogenis’ new book The Australian Moment I was stopped on page 1 by a piece of generation-game nonsense so silly I could scarcely believe someone as smart as GM would write it. Several people commented that it was unfair to judge a book by its first page, which is true, though I don’t see that there is anything wrong with commenting on the first page.
Anyway, after finishing a couple of other books that had jumped ahead in the queue (notably Red Plenty about the hopes for, and ultimate failure of, planning in the Soviet Union), I got back to The Australian Moment last night.
It started well. The discussion of the Whitlam government was excellent with some keen insights and use of declassified US State Department cables I hadn’t previously seen. Then on p29, we get a quote from a young fogeyish Paul Keating in 1970, saying that “husbands have been forced to send their wives to work”. Graciously admitting that Keating is too old to be a baby boomer, Megalogenis nevertheless asserts that he “spoke for boomer men”.
Really? On the standard dating of the baby boom from 1946 to 1964, the youngest of them were six years old at the time, and even the oldest (at 24) were mostly unmarried. I doubt that many of them were worrying about household budgets. In any case, the terminology of “sending wives out to work” was crankily old-fashioned even in 1970. Keating was probably the last (in the sense of latest-born) person ever to use it in Australia. Boomer women joined the workforce as a matter of course when they finished school. The big problem for boomers entering the workforce in the 1970s wasn’t the need for two jobs but the lack of any.
At this point, I went to the index to check whether the generation-game stuff gets any better. It doesn’t. To take one of many examples, Megalogenis touts his own “generation W” as responsible for punk rock, and, in particular the Sex Pistols (fronted by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, born 1956), The Saints (Ed Kuepper, born 1955) and The Ramones, (formed in 1974, when most of Generation W was still unborn).
My point here isn’t that Megalogenis needs to redo his generation stuff with more accurate dating, though that would be better than nothing. It’s that any approach to political analysis that classifies people by birthdate is doomed to failure. As I pointed out more than a decade ago,
by the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their life courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences. The differences between men and women, rich and poor, workers and bosses, married and single, parents and nonparents count for much more than the commonality that comes from sharing a date on a birth certificate.
So what am I going to do here? If I could I would get Megalogenis to rewrite his book, deleting every reference to generations. Since that’s not possible, I will do the next best thing, and skip a couple of pages every time the word is mentioned. With that omission, the book promises to be a good read.
fn1. In reality, of course, given that it’s impossible to read more than a tiny fraction of the books that are printed every year, we all, quite literally, judge books by their covers most of the time.
fn2. No mention of the rumors, rife at the time, of CIA involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal.
fn3. An amalgam of Gens X and Y, consisting of those born between 1964 and the early 1990s. W stands for “Wogs and Women”.
fn4. If you are going to play this game at all sensibly, you need to split the Baby boom into the Vietnam generation, born before 1954 and therefore, if male, liable to conscription, and Generation Jones, born after 1954, who entered the workforce after the collapse of Bretton Woods. But the best thing to do is not to play the game at all.
I’ve just finished revising Zombie Economics for an Australian edition, to be published by Black Inc in May, with an all-new chapter on economic rationalism, the Australia form of Zombie econ. Keep a lookout!
At one point in Zombie Economics, I tried a Popperian (or maybe Paulian) smackdown, saying that some defenders of EMH used arguments that effectively rendered it unfalsifiable. I thought that was a bad thing, but apparently at least one reviewer disagrees. Following my stoush with Murdoch, a commenter pointed me to this piece by Stephen Williamson of Washington University at St Louis, who has apparently been asked to review the book for the Journal of Economic Literature. Williamson claims that I am badly confused about the EMH, and that
Market efficiency is simply an assumption of rationality. As such it has no implications. If it has no implications, it can’t be wrong.
He follows up with “Like the “efficient markets hypothesis,” DSGE has no implications, and therefore can’t be wrong.”"
A while ago I wrote a post responding to a Lowy Institute blurb for a new book by Michael Wesley, called There goes the Neighborhood and described as ‘A loud and clear wake-up call to Australians’. In response, I said that ‘At the global level it’s hard to think of a time when we have been less threatened, at least within living memory’, and concluded ‘unless commenters can point to something I’ve missed, I’m going back to sleep’.
Michael Wesley has now responded, and sent me a copy of the book, which I hadn’t read when I responded to the blurb. It turns out that he agrees with me that most of the threats that worried us in the past have dissipated. Also, as I surmised, his main concern is about the way in which the rise of India and China changes our strategic environment. He concludes
In short, we’re entering a world not of threats but of agonising choices that will come at us constantly. My bet is that we’ll look back on the vanished threats that Quiggin talks about with nostalgia for a world that all seemed so simple.
I agree with Wesley that the rise of India and China makes life more complicated in important ways. In the past, our foreign policy consisted, in essence, of the US alliance. That alliance gave us some protection against our local fears, most notably with respect to Indonesia, while also exposing us to some big costs (the need to join faraway wars in which we had no say) and an increased risk of nuclear annihilation, which faded away along with the Cold War, though it hasn’t disappeared.
In the new world, Wesley correctly argues, an uncritical adherence to the US alliance would be a disaster, particularly in the event of a major dispute between the US and China. I agree, and I think most serious foreign policy types already know this. Kevin Rudd’s recent visit to Washington seemed to be devoted, in large measure, to hosing down any expectation that Australia would line up with the US against China in any future dispute (a much more sophisticated line than the updated “All the way with LBJ” line, typically repeated by visiting PMs, up to and including Gillard). Even under the Howard government, generally gung-ho about the US, our diplomats sent the same kind of message from time to time.
Wesley also wants the Australian public to be more engaged and informed, pointing to the deplorable ignorance and anti-Indonesian prejudice surrounding the Schapelle Corby case. Actually, I think this was a good learning experience – most people eventually worked out that, while she cut a sympathetic figure in prison dress, Corby was given a fair trial, (if fact, the Indonesian courts had bent over backwards to give her justice, admitting evidence that would never be allowed in Australia). Australians are gradually adjusting to the idea of Indonesia as a friendly neighbor rather than a foreign threat. Even so, I think they are well justified in leaving to the experts the kind of diplomacy involved in telling three great powers what they want to hear, while committing ourselves to none of them.
fn1. While I’m on this, I’ll welcome the news that the death sentence imposed on Scott Rush has been commuted. This case was a far worse travesty of justice than anything in Corby’s case, but those most to blame were the Australian Federal Police, who sent Rush to possible death in Indonesia, rather than warning him off (as his parents begged them to do) or arresting him on arrival in Australia (which would have reduced their chances of convicting the ringleaders).
Ian Masters, who’s the US representative of the well-known Australian clan (Chris, Roy, Sue and Olga are all prominent figures here) has interviewed me for this radio program Background Briefing, broadcast and podcast on KPFK-LM, in LA, about my book Zombie Economics. Interview should go to air about noon Sunday Pacific time, and the podcast will be available almost immediately, and also, a bit later at Ian’s own site.
I’m thinking about doing another book, which would be a reply to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson a tract published in 1946, and available online, but still in the Amazon top 1000. It’s largely (as Hazlitt himself says) a rehash of Bastiat.
I’ll try to put up a prospectus soon, but I thought I’d start with something simpler, a response to Leonard Read’s 1958 I, Pencil. This essay is a description of the incredibly complex “family tree” of a simple pencil, making the point that the production of a pencil draws on the work of millions of people, not one of whom could actually make a pencil from scratch, and most of whom don’t know or care that their work contributes to the production of pencils. So far, so good. Read goes on to say that
There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work.
Hold on a moment!
I got an email the other day, trying to set up an interview about Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. Shortly afterwards there was a cancellation – they actually wanted the author of Zombie Economics: A Guide to Personal Finance, due to be released in May.
I’m well aware that there’s no copyright in book titles (Zombie Econ was originally going to be called “Dead Ideas from New Economists, and back in the 90s I wrote one which the publisher insisted on calling Great Expectations), but I can’t help wondering about the implications for sales. At least for the moment they don’t look too bad. According to Amazon, 12 per cent of people who viewed the doppelganger ultimately bought my book, while the proportion going the other way is zero (although some zombie fans go for Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism). But I imagine that’s the result of bad search results among people looking for mine, rather than a spillover from those looking for the doppelganger. If so, I imagine the flow will reverse when the new one is released.
Are there other interesting examples of book title recycling, or interesting ideas for new takes on classic titles?
When I signed the contract with Princeton UP for Zombie Economics, I read the section covering movie rights, and had fun chatting about which of my friends would be best suited to play Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium, Trickle Down (yes, yes, I know!) and so on. Then I found out that Freakonomics actually has been made into a movie, and of course, I wanted the same. But, even in the century of the mashup, it doesn’t seem likely that a polemical economics text could be made watchable just by adding zombies (though I thought the mash worked pretty well in print).
Instead, how about starting with a comic-horror zombie movie, then making the apocalyptic zombie-generating event a financial-economic crisis? That seemed much more promising, and I starting working out the treatment in my head. All was going well until I realized that I was stealing all my best ideas from Charlie Stross. I emailed Charlie, and he said to go right ahead, so I thought at least it would be fun for a blog post.
Over the fold some of the scenes I’ve sketched so far – feel free to make suggestions which I will then feel free to steal in the unlikely event that this goes any further.
Apparently, a reader wrote in to Princeton University Press asking for a poster of the cover, which isn’t standard issue for university press books. But thanks to the Internet, all things are possible these days, and within hours, they have been made available.
In discussions about markets and innovation, I’ve repeatedly made the point that the biggest single innovation of recent decades, the Internet, was not produced by markets at all. It started in the university sector (aided by a little seed money from the US Defense Department) and was developed by amateurs and volunteers for a couple of decades before it was handed over to the dotcommers, who proceeded to waste a trillion dollars or so on silly get-rich-quick schemes.
I’ve never had the time to go much beyond that, but a recent book, State of Innovation, edited by Fred Block and Matthew Keller takes a close look at the process of innovation in the US and the role of government funding. The key conclusion
over the last four decades, government programs and policies have quietly become ever more central to the American economy. From “basic research” to commercialization, the fingerprints of government can be found in virtually every major industrial success story of the late 20th and early 21st century.
At least in part, this reflects the disappearance of big corporate R&D outfits like Bell Labs, and the conversion of General Electric into a finance company. But there are lots more interesting details about the relationship between startups, venture capital and public funding. Well worth reading.
Slightly anachronistically, here’s what I wrote for the LSE blog in advance of my lecture last night. The blog as a whole is well worth reading.
I’m speaking at the London School of Economics tonight, basically recapping my Zombie Economics book. It’s a bit late notice, but in case any London-based readers are interested, I thought I would give the event a plug here.
I’ve done a podcast discussion with Russ Roberts for EconTalk. There’s also a transcript of the highlights, great for people who lack the time/ to listen to a long podcast.
Although we are pretty much at opposite ends of the spectrum as conventionally viewed (Roberts is a George Mason prof and Chicago PhD and EconTalk is published at the EconLib site) we found quite a few areas of agreement, and had a constructive discussion on the points of disagreement. That’s partly because Russ is a good host, but also because, as Matt Yglesias noted in a tweet not so long ago, my critique of ideas like the EMH is very similar to that of Austrian-inclined critics like Amar Bhide. I plan to have more to say about this.
fn1. I also got a review from Arnold Kling on the same site, which began “I agree with some of it, which might be considered a rave review.”
fn2. I’ve retweeted this, but I don’t know how to hyperlink to it
Zombie Economics gets its official Halloween launch at the Irish Club, 6:30 tonight, courtesy of Birsbane Young Economists
I wasn’t quite sure whether I was presenting my own dangerous ideas, or talking about the dangerous ideas of the zombie economists, but either way it was a fun event. I’ve attached the presentation in various formats PPT and PDF (v large) formats, and a font you may need to read it.
I’ve been living with the text of Zombie Economics for a long time and the cover art came out a while back. But now I finally have my hands on a physical copy of the book, and it’s surprising what a difference the real object makes. My immediate reaction was to open it with dread, sure that some terrible error would jump out at me, but that didn’t happen (no doubt the reviewers will find them, but that’s their job).
With that out of the road, I’ve been filled with irrational confidence. “Surely”, I think, “even the most jaded traveller, passing this book on the airport bookstall, will feel impelled to buy it”. No doubt, this optimistic glow won’t survive the arrival of actual sales figures, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
That’s the title of Daniel Drezner’s review Zombie Economics along with several other post-crisis books. I’m glad he likes the title, but he offers what seems to me to be a rather unfair representation of my argument. As the author, I’m not exactly unbiased, so see what you think.
Although Zombie Economics isn’t due out until Halloween (end of October), you can pre-order from the Australian distributor (Footprint Books, form attached) or from the main US outlets (Powells, Borders, Amazon).
… for the first book review to come in, and happily, it’s a good one, from Buttonwood, who has long been my favorite columnist/blogger at The Economist.
Get more news as it happens on
The final proofs of Zombie Economics went off to the typesetter this morning, and you’ve all seen this evening’s news. So, I guess it’s time for me to end my hiatus, and make whatever contribution I can to the marvel of democracy. Not to keep anyone in suspense, I’ll be advocating a vote for the Greens.
Both here and at Crooked Timber, libertarianism is getting a bit of a run. So, can anyone find me a copy of Hayek’s prescient 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, which predicted that the policies of the British Labour Party (policies that were implemented after the 1945 election) would result in relatively poor economic performance, and would eventually be modified or abandoned, a claim vindicated by the triumph of Thatcherism in the 1980s? This book, and its predictive success, seem to play an important role in libertarian thinking.
Despite a diligent search, the only thing I can find is a book of the same title, also written by an FA von Hayek in 1944. This Road to Serfdom predicts that the policies of the British Labour Party, implemented after the 1945 election, would lead to the emergence of a totalitarian state similar to Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, or at least to a massive reduction in political and personal freedom (as distinct from economic freedom). Obviously this prediction was totally wrong. Democracy survived Labor’s nationalizations, and personal freedom expanded substantially. Even a defensible version of the argument (say, a claim that, Labor’s ultimate program included elements that could not be realised without anti-democratic forms of coercion, and that would have to be dropped if these bad outcomes were to be avoided) could only be regarded as raising a hypothetical, but unrealised, cause for concern.. Presumably, this isn’t the book the libertarians have read, so I assume there must exist another of the same title.
I sent the manuscript of Zombie Economics off to Princeton University Press last night. There’s still plenty of work (figures, index, copyediting, some last-minute changes, galleys) to be done for a planned release at Halloween. But this is the official submission. In writing the preface I checked over the comments I’d received, here and at Crooked Timber. Several thousand in total, from more than a hundred different commenters. Thanks to everyone who took part. It was a huge help and encouragement to me.
My publisher just told me the publication date for my book has been moved forward, and the due date for the manuscript is “…well, now”. Lots needing to be done, and zero time to do it, but I’m sure I’ll manage somehow.
I’ve finally completed a near-final draft of my book, although some bits, such as the following ‘Reanimation’ section of the chapter on privatisation are still a bit rough.
I’m getting some good comments from readers here, and through more conventional academic channels, which should help me sand down the rough spots a bit. Anyway, thanks to all for the comments I’ve received. It’s made a huge difference to me, and made the production of this book a much less daunting undertaking than laboring alone.
Remember, before pointing out stuff that is missing, that an earlier draft is online here and may be worth reading to see where I’m coming from.
The deadline for the manuscript of Zombie Economics (last complete draft here) is only a few weeks away, and the zombies are popping up faster than I can knock them down. I’m adding a section on reanimated zombies to each chapter. Over the fold is the social mobility defense of trickle down economics, as animated by Thomas Sowell. There’s still time for me to benefit from your comments.
My book is due for publication in the US Fall, so work on my added sections on reanimation is starting to feel like one of those games where you have to kill all the zombies to get to the antidote before you fall victim yourself. Here’s another one – more on the way