What I’m Reading Now

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51pDum6hcwL Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang (2008) – The title is more incendiary than the book. Rather than some scathing attack on “capitalism” it is a primer on macroeconomic development and the failings of the neo-liberal reforms of the World Band the the IMF during the 80’s and 90’s.

I have no problem with the basic premise of the book. Many of the reforms suggested by the WB/IMF were wholly inappropriate for the level of the development of poor countries at the time. For example, it doesn’t really make much sense to privatize a health system before it has the structural means to support itself but that’s exactly what was recommended to a number of countries during the 1980’s. I do, however, become annoyed at the creation of monolithic enemies (“Bad Samaritans”), though I suspect that Chang’s view is much more nuanced than this popular work would suggest.

Worse yet is Chang’s unwillingness to present information on the situations which predicated some of the reforms, such as Zambia’s failed experiment with the nationalization of private firms and over-reliance on copper revenues. I’m willing to accept that the structural adjustment reforms were ill-conceived (because they were), but would like to see more information on why the reforms were suggested. Chang, Stiglitz and Stein (all heroes of mine, btw) fall too often into the trap of blaming ideology at the expense of history and overestimate the capacity of the WB/IMF, who were often grabbing at straws in the face of massive organizational adversity.

1845285000 The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperityby Jeffrey D. Sachs (2012)

Jeff Sachs of the Earth Institute at Colombia University in NYC is a macroeconomist. As a macroeconomist, he worries about the big picture. How does the overall economy function and what are the macro level factors which insure or compromise the economic health of a country or region? Here he takes on issues of American politics. He’s worried that American politics has become hijacked by corporate interests for their own short term benefit. We need to worry about growing inequality, environmental destruction, climate change and stop fighting useless wars. In short, Sachs, in a cookie cutter sense, represents the views of liberal America.

Now, I like Sachs. I share his view that the market economy is a good thing and an efficient means of distributing scarce goods, but that government is required to effectively insure fairness in the market, reduce the impact of economic shocks and provide or regulate public goods for which the market is unsuited (health care, education, etc). Government and the private sector should complement one another.

I feel that though sometimes Sachs’ works are so broad as to sound naive, his critics, particularly Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, are unfair, particularly regarding matters of the role of foreign aid in development. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years back. It was an experience I will never forget.

As before, I have no problem with the premise of the book. The US is facing a set of challenges that will be difficult to overcome. Health care, economic inequality, political impasses, failure to adequately tax its citizens to insure a health set of public services, etc. etc. As the world’s biggest and one of the most vibrant economies, the US has a special responsibility to keep its house in order.

However, Sachs’ book, as a polemic, is often overly broad and somewhat annoying to me. For example, in his attempt to pit politics against the American people, he fails to adequately deal with the problem of the behavior of individual Americans. He views the current set of problems as stemming from some nefarious clique of ambiguous groups which manipulate the world for their own evil ends (like the Koch Brothers), concluding that Americans are hapless in the face of these powerful forces. It’s easy to think that Randian ideas are an abomination, but I think that Sachs needs to get out into the country-side a bit more. Libertarian ideas resonate strong with a lot of voting America. The reason that Tea Party groups are successful is because they speak to the gut of a wide swath of Americans.

In the end, Sachs appeals to the Millenials as the last great hope of America. I think, however, he is assuming that they are far more liberal than they might appear. Though I have no data to back it up, I suspect that the current younger generation is quite conservative in more ways than Sachs cares to recognize.

More annoying are his calls for a wide cultural shift in America. A task easier written about than implemented. In the end, he sounds like a rocking chair curmudgeon bemoaning the state of the world and calling for a return to the more idyllic days of the past. I have little tolerance for this kind of writing, honestly.

There are some small gems, though. Sachs vents his frustration with his own camp. Notably, how even environmentalists have stymied development of renewable energy sources (BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anytime Near Anything) and how well meaning folks calling for a return to pre-industrial styles of agriculture are failing to deal with the reality that such a strategy would be disastrous for humanity and the environment.

An interesting book, though not a rigorous analysis of costs and benefits of potential implementable policies to mitigate the problems he addresses. The book is what it is.

TanakaHiddenHorrors Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II (Transitions–Asia and Asian America)
by Yuki Tanaka (1998)
This is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Tanaka has written a detailed account of the wide range of atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II. Cannibalism, rape, mass killings, prisoner abuse, it’s all here and it’s gut wrenching.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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