June 2020

June was the busiest month I've had since the shelter-in-place order, but I still managed to read a bit. These are a few books and articles that stood out.

Money and Government by Robert Skidelsky

"The history of fiscal theory shows that, far from being the scientific paragon it claims to be, it is highly ideological"

Money and Government is a history of economic thought with an emphasis on how ideology affects economic theory. If anyone's qualified to write this book, it's Skidelsky: he's an economic historian best known for his enormous three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes.

This was a great read. The core information is solid, and I learned a lot about the Great Financial Crisis in particular. Skidelsky is also opinionated, and he doesn't pull punches. He calls a quote from Milton Friedman disengenuous; he says the claim that central banks saved the global economy is "sloppy journalism"; he writes that behavioral economics's insights are surprising "only to those who have literally taken leave of their senses." It's fun.

Catering To A Contracting Middle Class by Lisa Adkins and Martijn Konings

"The sustained acceleration of wealth at the top in a democratic society is only comprehensible if we recognize that this trend has been embedded in a wider middle-class politics that has come to center on housing and, in particular, property inflation."

In this concise and readable article, Adkins and Konings argue that government policy that creates wealth by inlfating asset prices inherently causes inequality and reduces the size of the middle class. Because so much middle class wealth is tied up in property, middle class households require property prices to increase lest they face financial ruin, but this makes property ownership more difficult for subsequent generations. It's a thorny problem, and I'm looking forward to the authors' (+ Melinda Cooper's) forthcoming book on this topic.

Money: The Unauthorized Biography by Felix Martin

In this book, Felix Martin emphasizes that money is a social technology, and that it's counterproductive to treat it as some kind of scientific phenomenon. I think I would have gotten more out of this book if I hadn't read Debt by David Graeber only a few months earlier. Debt is a more detailed account of the emergence of money than Money is, and Graeber is better equipped to write about social dynamics.

Still, there are some great historical examples in this book. The 1970 bank shutdown in Ireland and subsequent community workarounds and the laissez-faire justifications for witholding aid during the Great Famine in Ireland were both totally new to me.