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16 October 2003 (Thursday): reading list

The trend of Posts Without Real Content continues. Here are the books I'm working through these days:

Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics. An excellent introduction to the dismal science to a layperson like me. Think Econ 101 as taught by one of those passionate, entertaining young professors, clearly biased but also clearly up on his research. Don't agree with everything in here, but that's the idea of an introduction, I guess -- to point the way to further inquiry. Probably will go back and read it a second time, with a pencil. I figured I should get through this before I launched into the others.

Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies. I'm a sucker for nonfiction presented as dialogue. This is to economics what Janine Benyus's Biomimicry is to engineering: why not mimic a system that's nearly perfected the art of complexity? Haven't gotten far in this one yet, but it's holding the attention span. I should get Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities too.

William Greider, The Soul of Capitalism. Haven't cracked this one open yet, because I just heard Greider interviewed on NPR this morning. Funny how blips show up on the radar right as you start looking for them...

Also, Good Poems, ed. Garrison Keillor. I guess it's akin to buying a Mozart For Romantics compilation, or worse yet, an issue of Reader's Digest. But I opened to random pages in the bookstore and loved three out of three, dammit, and the success ratio hasn't fallen much since then either. Truth in advertising.

This was supposed to be a post about my thoughts on the first book, and it was supposed to have a big "more" section and spawn an even bigger set of comments. But an early Friday morning is in the cards, and I would rather sleep.

posted by enjelani @ 10:09 PM PST

Replies: 10 comments

That last line has discouraged comments here, methinks. What can you say to a person who would rather sleep? :)

If you find yourself disagreeing with a book, it ain't economics. You can no more disagree with economics than you can with calculus.

posted by beefeater @ 20 10 2003 01:18 PM PST

it was more his political opinions, based on economics, that i wasn't sure i agreed with. economics itself, he asserted, is amoral. the trick is what you decide to do with it.

for instance: "capitalism is effective not only because it rewards winners, but because it crushes losers." is this the kind of world we want -- where the ingenious and the hardworking and the lucky are extravagantly rewarded, but others starve to death? maybe the answer is yes; maybe that's the best way for humanity to evolve. but maybe not. maybe minimum wages, universal health care, all sorts of things that erode capitalistic incentives, are things we want in an ideal society. maybe it's a fair exchange.

posted by enjelani @ 21 10 2003 11:38 AM PST

I disagree that Economics can be put in the same credibility bucket as Calculus (if by "Calculus" you mean the differential and integral stuff you learn in high school/undergrad). There are only a few axioms that Calculus is built on, and, with deference to Goedel, there is not much that can go wrong between those axioms and what we think of as "Calculus". Economics, on the other hand attempts to apply simple mathematics and abstract models to the aggregate behavior of incomprehensibly complex agents (us); Economics therefore does nothing more than provide gross approximations and a taxonomy with which one can relate to those gross approximations.

When humans set out to model complex behavior, there is a perfectly natural tendency to beleive that the model is the real deal. However, a model is just that - a model. And we are free to disagree with that model, especially when the surrounding editorial embellishments ("crush the weak! spill their uncompetitive blood!") are distastefully cast as somehow fundamental.

posted by bill @ 21 10 2003 04:38 PM PST

Indeed. It's pretty much universally acknowledged that economics is one of the most contentious and debatable subjects in recent history. It's more like cosmology. Everyone's got a theory and the best of them are unconvinced of its validity.

posted by jim @ 22 10 2003 12:29 AM PST

Of course we are free to disagree with a model if we can fit observations with a better model. But that's not the same as normative disagreements, such as one about "crushing the weak". Normative claims are not part of the model, at least not in economics. They belong to political philosophy (where they may or may not be fundamental).

My own preference is to learn economics from economists, and philosophy from philosophers. These authors are more likely to know and respect their subject, and to put debatable matters in proper context. They are less likely to fuzzy up economics by bringing in philosophy, or to de-moralize philosophy by reducing it to a utilitarian formula.

posted by beefeater @ 22 10 2003 12:24 PM PST

"One study of 3,634 blogs found that two-thirds had not been updated for at least two months and a quarter not since Day One." ["Internet littered with abandoned sites", AP, 11/03/2003.]

posted by beefeater @ 04 11 2003 12:40 AM PST

Litter? Hardly. ;)

posted by jim @ 04 11 2003 02:53 PM PST

Well, we can't have THAT, now can we...

posted by bill @ 05 11 2003 12:29 AM PST

now now, twenty days do not an abandoned site make. :)

posted by enjelani @ 06 11 2003 09:20 AM PST

Not to worry - we've been posting pithy little nothings to keep you off the list! :-P

posted by bill @ 06 11 2003 10:05 PM PST

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