Following up on their earlier collaboration (Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 2005), two scholars examine why some nations thrive and others don’t.
Neither geography, nor culture, nor mistaken policies explain the vast differences in prosperity among nations. The reasons for world inequality, write Acemoglu (Economics/MIT) and Robinson (Government/Harvard Univ.), are rooted in politics, in whether nations have developed inclusive political institutions and a sufficiently centralized state to lay the groundwork for economic institutions critical for growth. In turn, these economic institutions give citizens liberty to pursue work that suits their talents, a fairly enforced set of rules and incentives to pursue education and technological innovation. When these conditions are not met, write the authors, when the political and economic institutions are “extractive,” failure surely follows. It matters not if the Tsars or the Bolsheviks governed Russia, if the Qing dynasty or Mao ruled China, if Ferdinand and Isabella or General Franco reigned in Spain—all absolutism is the same, erecting historically predictable barriers to prosperity. The critical distinction between, say, North and South Korea, lies in the vastly different institutional legacies on either side, one open and responsive to the needs and aspirations of society, the other closed with power narrowly distributed for the benefit of a few. In their wide-ranging discussion, Acemoglu and Robinson address big-picture concepts like “critical junctures” in history—the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, the Glorious Revolution—which disrupt the existing political and economic balance and can abruptly change the trajectory of nations for better or worse. They also offer a series of small but telling stories in support of their thesis: how the wealth of Bill Gates differs from the riches of Carlos Slim, why Queen Elizabeth I rejected a patent for a knitting machine, how the inmates took over the asylum in colonies like Jamestown and New South Wales and why the Ottoman Empire suppressed the printing press.
For economics and political-science students, surely, but also for the general reader who will appreciate how gracefully the authors wear their erudition.
An in-depth look at how financial risk-taking is linked to human biology, especially to the testosterone levels of young male traders, and the implications of this phenomenon for financial markets and the wider economy.
Coates, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and spent years as a trader at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Deutsche Bank, brings an educated, experienced eye to this examination of the biological side of the financial markets. In his view, the waves of irrational exuberance and pessimism that exaggerate bull and bear markets may be driven by physiological changes. The author has monitored the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems of traders in London to learn how physiological systems affect moods and behavior in competitive and risk-taking situations. When young male traders make money, their testosterone levels rise, and this chemical hit turbocharges their confidence and their level of risk-taking. Coates warns that overconfidence and overreaching lead to a bubble followed by a crash, and the stress response to a crash is a rise in another hormone, cortisol, leading to anxiety, fear and pessimism. The author also takes readers inside the brain, citing scientific research that explains how the brain and body work together, how gut feelings affect thinking, and how we might become physiologically more resilient to stress. Finally, the author suggests steps that banks and fund managers might take to manage the biology of risk takers—and thus keep them from turning from dog to aggressive, dangerous wolf. Among these are changing the year-end bonus system and reining in hot traders with mandatory cooling-off periods. Not surprisingly, another is to broaden trader demographics—i.e., hire more women and more older men. Generally, Coates uses concrete examples to make understandable both the financial and neurological complexities that are central to his argument.
A thorough, sobering study of the pernicious consolidation of Big Oil.
With admirable restraint, New Yorker contributor and two-time Pulitzer winner Coll (The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, 2008, etc.) demonstrates how the merger of Exxon and Mobil has allowed the company to wield more power and wealth than even the American government, in the manner of John D. Rockefeller. Exxon had functioned as an independent corporate state since its antitrust break-off from Standard Oil in 1911 and was ranked by profit performance in the top five corporations from the 1950s through the end of the Cold War. With the catastrophic spill of the Valdez in Alaska in 1989, the network of secrecy and internal security within Exxon was exposed but hardly tempered. The iron chief who emerged from the crisis, Lee Raymond, reappraised risk and security within the organization and took a hard line against efforts to extract from it punitive damages. Moving the headquarters to Texas in 1993, the company retrenched in its nose-thumbing determination to encourage and supply America’s thirst for oil, casting around at more far-flung spots in the world that could provide the crude—such as where Mobil held attractive assets, in places like West Africa, Venezuela, Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi. The Exxon-Mobil merger in 1999 created a global behemoth and also provoked small wars at drilling spots where the poor and disenfranchised deeply resented foreign workers on native soil and disrupted the extraction by violence and insurgency. Raymond and his cohorts’ cynical spin on the denial of global warming and the role of the burning of fossil fuels makes for jaw-dropping reading, as does the company’s cunning manipulations of the war in Iraq to garner an oil deal. The Obama administration’s emphasis on renewable energy sources and environmental concerns has barely challenged the formidable political power of Big Oil.
Leaks, reserves, PACs, hydrofracking, bloated corporate profits and more: all pertinent concerns nicely handled by Coll in this engaging, hard-hitting work.
An unforgettable tale of a one-of-a-kind visionary.
With a unique ability to meld arts and technology and an uncanny understanding of consumers' desires, Apple founder Steve Jobs (1955–2011) played a major role in transforming not just computer technology, but a variety of industries. When Jobs died earlier this month, the outpouring of emotion from the general public was surprisingly intense. His creations, which he knew we wanted before we did, were more than mere tools; everything from the iPod to the MacBook Pro touched us on a gut level and became an integral part of our lives. This was why those of us who were hip to Steve Jobs the Inventor were so moved when he passed. However, those who had an in-depth knowledge of Steve Jobs the Businessman might not have taken such a nostalgic view of his life. According to acclaimed biographer and Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and a Heroes of a Hurricane, 2009, etc.) in this consistently engaging, warts-and-all biography, Jobs was not necessarily the most pleasant boss. We learn about Jobs' predilection for humiliating his co-workers into their best performances; his habit of profanely dismissing an underling's idea, only to claim it as his own later; and his ability to manipulate a situation with an evangelical, fact-mangling technique that friends and foes alike referred to as his "reality distortion field." But we also learn how—through his alternative education, his pilgrimage to India, a heap of acid trips and a fateful meeting with engineering genius Steve Wozniak—Jobs became Jobs and Apple became Apple. Though the narrative could have used a tighter edit in a few places, Isaacson's portrait of this complex, often unlikable genius is, to quote Jobs, insanely great.
Jobs was an American original, and Isaacson's impeccably researched, vibrant biography—fully endorsed by his subject—does his legacy proud.
Sandel (Government/Harvard Univ.; Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, 2010, etc.) sounds the alarm that the belief in a market economy diminishes moral thought.
Taken to its extreme, a market economy dictates that any inanimate object, any animal, any human being can be bought and sold. That thinking justified human slavery in the United States until the end of the Civil War, but Sandel's examples are far subtler than slavery. Should any society find it desirable to place a price on polluting the environment? On first-rate health care? On admission to the best colleges? When so much is available for sale, writes the author, there are two inevitable negative consequences: inequality and corruption. Sandel devotes the first chapter to "Jumping the Queue." He explains the conundrums that arise when first-class airline passengers are allowed to skip the long lines at security, when single-passenger cars purchase the right to use express lanes designed for fuel-efficient multiple-passenger vehicles, when theatergoers pay somebody to stand in line overnight to score tickets for the best seats and when long waits for medical treatment at hospitals are circumvented by buying the services of concierge doctors, who guarantee quick access. Although not primarily a quantitative researcher, Sandel tests the boundaries of a market economy in his Harvard seminar on Ethics, Economics and the Law. The reactions of his students provide him with new examples of moral (or immoral or amoral) reasoning about everyday decision-making in an economy where cash payments rule. Sandel notes that the reality of a market economy embeds a vital question: How do members of the citizenry choose the values by which they will conduct their daily living? Are there certain commodities that markets should not honor?
An exquisitely reasoned, skillfully written treatise on big issues of everyday life.
From a fellow economist, an admiring biography of Paul A. Volcker.
Born in 1927, Volcker attended Princeton and eventually landed in the U.S. Treasury Department as an influential policymaker. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him chairman of the Federal Reserve, making the imposing man the most visible banker anywhere; Ronald Reagan retained Volcker as chairman. In some respects, Silber (Finance and Economics/New York Univ., Stern School of Business; When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America's Monetary Supremacy, 2007, etc.) delivers a conventional chronological biography light on Volcker's personal life. The author focuses instead on three daring policy battles that changed the world economic order: removing the U.S. dollar from its link to the gold supply; using fresh fiscal policies to tamp down high inflation rates; and President Obama's involving the octogenarian Volcker in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Obama hoped, not entirely in vain, that the combination of Volcker's brilliant mind and untarnished reputation would lead to a more secure banking system through a combination of moral suasion, executive branch regulation and congressional legislation. While Silber is admiring, he provides copious evidence that Volcker is worthy of his credibility. Without Volcker in charge at certain intervals, he writes, the American financial system might have tipped from the verge of collapse into total meltdown.
Although not the first biography of Volcker, Silber's book is the most up-to-date and blessedly free of jargon.