Posts Tagged ‘books’
This term I’m learning some more microeconometrics by way of a health policy class, so I have epidemiology on the brain. I’m about halfway through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I am enjoying it, but a little less than I thought I would, from the reviews. Mukherjee has a grating fondness for overwrought metaphors and several unconvincing theories relating attitudes towards cancer to America’s place in the world. But the middle chapters on efforts to compare cancer rates and outcomes over time and how researchers worked out the link between smoking and cancer are fascinating. Here’s one stat that I’ve been thinking about:
By 1953, the average annual consumption of cigarettes had reached thirty-five hundred per person. On average, an adult American smoked ten cigarettes every day, an average Englishman twelve, and a Scotsman nearly twenty. (241)
It reminds me of a similar passage from another recent nonfiction hit, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
By 1830 Americans were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. […] In modern terms those seven gallons are equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like. (8)
So this is what I’m wondering: What current habit will seem as absurd to future readers as these do to us now? Salt or saturated fat consumption? Physical inactivity among office workers? Some food additive or packaging material?
Susan Feiner discusses James Galbraith’s The Predator State over at Talking Point Memo Cafe’s Book Club. She likes it. The piece quickly segues to a discussion of women’s role in the workplace and at home.
Today’s vision of full-employment rightly includes women. But wait. If women are fully employed what’s going to happen to children too young for school? How many kids catch the school bus at 8:15 and have parents that leave for work at 7:30? The standard workday ends at 5:00 but the school day ends at 3:00. Then there’s the care of the elderly and the infirm. And please, don’t forget to wash the dishes. If the economy is really going to serve the public interest we have to deal with these realities.
And hints at the Bergmann effect:
Today’s liberals are likely to suggest flextime and long paid leaves to improve women’s economic condition. Nonsense. The breadwinner/dependent ideal relies on the same tired logic that seeks energy efficiency through deregulation and economic development through free trade.
This is only vaguely related, but it strikes me that those who advocate for a return to full employment policy spend too much time arguing about morality and compassion when they should be arguing that fiscal policy actually works. Don’t most Keynesian sceptics object to fiscal policy on practical grounds? An ethical argument is of no relevance if you haven’t convinced your opponents that your policy will work. In any case, as in so many areas, I declare myself firmly on the fence. Or lying underneath it. Or something.
A few evolutionary psychologists have gone off the rails of late – one of my favourite bloggers has taken to calling them “evo-psychos.” So I got a giggle out of this send-up of bad evolutionary psychology and the gullible reporters who breathlessly relay it: “Belief in Evolutionary Psychology May Be Hardwired, Study Says.”
We shouldn’t let a few psychologists turn us off the rest of evolutionary thought though, especially when some of it is happening within economics. I’ve been meaning to pick up Michael Shermer‘s recent The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics.
It was reviewed in The Globe and Mail recently (gated) by Richard Parker, whose own most recent book, about John Kenneth Galbraith, I’ve been enjoying. In fact, it’s possible that the review is better than the book. (Quick tip: the review is gated now, but if you hit Google’s “cached” button, you’ll find the full version for another day or so.) First, there’s a depressing observation:
So many economics schools have fallen flat, so many economic predictions have proved wrong, so many economic policy prescriptions have produced disastrous consequences, that these days economics is a discipline under siege. So demoralized are economists themselves that nearly two-thirds, according to an American Economic Association survey, have decided that their profession is completely “over-mathematicized and unrelated to the real world.”
But then Parker reminds us why we should care about economics anyway:
The answer, as you surely must understand, is that their theories are as central to our world, for better and worse, as theology was to the Middle Ages. Their policy conclusions end up framing some of the biggest issues of our times, even when their models and arguments seem as esoteric as counting angels on the head of a pin. Globalization. Trade deficits. Budget deficits. Wages. Poverty. CEO pay. The unions. Inequality. Taxes. Energy policy. Health care. Inflation. Recession. Privatization. Deregulation. When economics is done badly, we’re all at risk of becoming its victims; when it’s done well, the promise is that we’ll share in its reward.