The best books on Learning Economics

Following the release of Economics in Two Lessons, Sophie Roell of Five Books invited me to do an interview. The Five Books format is that the interviewee (usually an author) nominates the best five books (not including their own) on a given topic. My topic was the Best Books on Learning Economics, with the explanation

these are not textbooks for students studying economics. They’re books for the intelligent, general reader to learn what economics is about—and what the important issues are—without doing any actual [technical] economics.

I’ve picked books by Milton Friedman, Paul Ormerod, Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo. The interview is here.

6 thoughts on “The best books on Learning Economics

  1. The contemporary public do not need to learn conventional economics. They need to unlearn it.

    Money does not measure value. Neither does labor time. The best book on this is;

    “Capital as Power” – Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler.

    Nitzan and Bichler cut the Gordian knot of the value controversy.

    “Conventional theories of capitalism are mired in a deep crisis: after centuries of debate, they are still unable to tell us what capital is. Liberals and Marxists both think of capital as an ‘economic’ entity that they count in universal units of ‘utils’ or ‘abstract labour’, respectively. But these units are totally fictitious. Nobody has ever been able to observe or measure them, and for a good reason: they don’t exist. Since liberalism and Marxism depend on these non-existing units, their theories hang in suspension. They cannot explain the process that matters most – the accumulation of capital. This book offers a radical alternative. According to the authors, capital is not a narrow economic entity, but a symbolic quantification of power. It has little to do with utility or abstract labour, and it extends far beyond machines and production lines. Capital, the authors claim, represents the organized power of dominant capital groups to reshape – or creorder – their society. Written in simple language, accessible to lay readers and experts alike, the book develops a novel political economy. It takes the reader through the history, assumptions and limitations of mainstream economics and itsasso ciated theories of politics. It examines the evolution of Marxist thinking on accumulation and the state. And it articulates an innovative theory of ‘capital as power’ and a new history of the ‘capitalist mode of power’.”

    Two articles which also help to flesh out some of the ideas associated with CasP (Capital as Power) are;

    “The Autocatalytic Sprawl of Pseudorational Mastery – Ulf Martin

    “The Aggregation Problem: Implications forEcological andBiophysical Economics” – Blair Fix

    Look these articles up. They are easy enough to find.

    Stop reading the same old stuff in the same old 19th C economic paradigm. It’s a failed research program based on an entirely fallacious ontology.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I have read Piketty’s book and Atkinson’s book, and I enjoyed them both. I have the new Pikkety book on order from the United Kingdom. I think the best book about macroeconomics is Robert Skidelsky’s Money and Government. It’s a bit technical in places, but very detailed and engaging. I also highly recommend Schiller and Akerlof’s Animal Spirits. I do like the comparison to the natural sciences. I like to read books about biology and physics, but the granular details are well beyond me.

  3. The works of Nitzan, Bichler, Fix and Martin are enough to debunk the myth that money measures value (utils) or labor (SNALTs as “Socially Necessary Abstract Labor Time”). When the myth that money measures value collapses than all classical and neoclassical economics are seen to collapse with it; at least in any guise that is a pretense to descriptive (positive) economics.

    What remains is the clear reality that all conventional economics is prescriptive economics.The form(s) of money is (are) prescribed. The forms of markets are prescribed. The forms of ownership and the transformations between nominal / fictional capital and real capital are prescribed. They are all rules based. Finally, it is no surprise that changing formal rules leads to new behaviors and new relationships in the real world.

    Human agents at one level are programmable agents (not just rational agents); albeit operating with fuzzy logic and at times with resistance, contrariness and creative or destructive rule-breaking behavior (gaming the system, criminality and so on). If it is a rule to drive on the left hand side of the road, most will drive on the left hand side of the road. If it is a rule to drive on the right hand side of the road, most will drive on the right hand side of the road. What enforces conformity? Apprehension and arrest certainly enforce conformity. Also, the high probability of accident, injury and even death enforce conformity.

    The rule is formal and arbitrary. The legal controls are formal but backed by real force (arrest), theoretically arbitrary in detail and extent extent but necessarily consistent in basic logical form or else disorder (anarchy) would result. The real controls of non-conformist behavior are real, head-on collisions.

    The same applies to money and property. The rules are formal and arbitrary. The legal controls are formal but backed by real force as confiscation, arrest and/or detention. These socially instituted real controls on non-conformist behavior have real outcomes. You don’t live above immiseration level unless you “earn” money or goods or “steal” money or goods, with the terms “earn” and “steal” extensively defined by law and regulation.

    In addition, formal rules, if followed by programmable human agents (people in other words) can have real outcomes in real physical systems. The formal rules of our economy ensure endless economic growth, while this is still physically and ecologically possible, and endless destruction of ecology and biosphere, but only while enough resources can be appropriated and enough wastes dumped without significant negative feedback to enable the economic creation / environmental destruction machine to continue.

    It is finally a matter of what we consider “sacrosanct” or at least what we consider will allow indefinite continuance of human life and civilization. Are the current formal rules of money and property to remain sacrosanct or are life-supporting ecologies to be considered sacrosanct? The answer is very simple. Either money and property in their current form die or we do en masse. The radical detail of a new system to replace the current money and property system is not clear and simple. Processes of emergence of novelty and human-system evolution will have to occur. Whether these will be led by or will lead radical politics is also unclear. I rather suspect radical politics will follow the leads of emerging reality. Radical politics will still matter. If we don’t follow the right leads we are still all dead.

  4. Ikonoclast, thanks. It is a wicked problem.

    Money and property are power / Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

    Simplified: money and property grow out of the barrel of a gun.

    Money and property may be formal constructs. Guns are real.

    “Either money and property in their current form die or we do en masse.”

    There’s a high probability that death en masse stalks us either way, sadly.

    “The radical detail of a new system to replace the current money and property system is not clear and simple.”

    Sigh. Home-spun cotton? It probably has to be something that simple on the surface to save the planet, and save greater pain.

  5. Thanks for the link to the interview. Interesting choice of books. As a set, they contain more information than individually in the sense that they convey the mile stones of changes in political economy during the living memory of people in my age group.

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