Where My Views Come From
Below is a collection of books, academic papers blog posts/newspaper articles which I consider to represent or have shaped my views in an important way. This grew as I assembled it, so now the topics range from economics (which I am well versed in) to sociology and psychology (which I am not so well versed in) to modern history (which I am medium versed in). The idea for this post was partly inspired by similar posts from my neoliberal frenemies; partly to collect my thoughts,;partly to provide a kind-of sequel to my favourite posts of 2016, which a couple of people have asked for (some of them reappear, having stood the test of time on a second reading); and partly to provide some #content as I haven’t posted in a short while. I’ve provided comments of varying length on each source.
Criticisms of Mainstream Economics
There are countless books and articles which offer convincing criticisms of economics, so here I’ll just highlight a few which either played a special role in opening my eyes or are a cut above the rest. One of the first was 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang. Chang brings a fresh perspective on many issues — from protectionism to ‘free markets’ to the nationality of capital — which was welcome after doing my economics A-level and hanging around the econo-libertarian blogosphere too long. His Economics: A User’s Guide is also an extremely valuable teaching tool for pluralist economists, and his steadfast commitment to economic pluralism has also warded me away from adopting a dogmatic post-Keynesian or Marxist view.
The Skeptical Economist, Jonathan Aldred. Like HJC this was one of my first exposures to new ways of thinking about economics through the ethics and philosophy underlying it. It is a good rejoinder to the ‘economics explains everything’ brigade that started with Freakonomics, focusing especially on the problems with reducing everything to incentives and cost-benefit analysis. On the other hand, Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics introduced me to the technical debates about the issues with neoclassical economics, although there is a Caveat emptor attached to the latter.
The Rhetoric of Economics by Deirdre McCloskey and Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics by Edward Leamer both speak to the fact that despite outward appearances of rigour and empiricism, much of economics rests on unstated intuitions and assumptions. Both articles are now somewhat dated but are by no means irrelevant, and direct experience doing an economics PhD has only supported their contentions.
On econometrics, Doubtful Significance: Can an Amorphous Cloud of Points Really Illustrate a Significant Relationship? By G. M. Swann and Let’s Put Garbage-Can Regressions and Garbage-Can Probits Where They Belong by Christopher Achen have given me good reason to doubt the habitual use of linear regression by social scientists.
There are countless criticisms of economics out there, but most of them are criticising macroeconomics. Anton Korinek’s is the most credible and to-the-point. Paul Romer’s The Trouble with Macroeconomics is also worth mentioning for its sheer hilarity, along with his follow-up blog.
Ariel Rubenstein’s Comments on Economic Models, Economics, and Economists: Remarks on Economics Rules by Dani Rodrik says all that needs to be said about the profession and its methods more broadly.
Do economists make policies? On the political effects of economics by Daniel Hirschman and Elizabeth Popp Berman accurately summarises the influence of economics and therefore why it’s so ripe for criticism. On that note, Dean Baker’s How About A Little Accountability for Economists When They Mess Up? is on point.
Jamie Galbraith’s Who Are These Economists, Anyway? is the best summary of which approaches helped to anticipate and understand the crisis. Rethinking Macroeconomic Theory Before the Next Crisis by Marc Lavoie illustrates perfectly how much can be gained, both intellectually and socially, from adopting these perspectives.
Gerd Gigerenzer’s paper The Priority Heuristic: Making Choices Without Trade-Offs parsimoniously explains and predicts individual behaviour under risk and uncertainty far better than any microeconomic theory out there. His other paper on behavioural economics with Nathan Berg is equally excellent.
Jason Smith’s work on information equilibrium economics has hugely impressed me as a parsimonious and ruthlessly empirical alternative to mainstream (and heterodox) macroeconomics — and anything on his blog is worth reading, really.
How Markets Work: Supply, Demand and the Real World, Robert Prasch (RIP! ☹). An excellent tour of some alternative models of how different markets might work according to models other than the standard scissors diagram.
David Freedman on Statistical Models and Shoe Leather remains the go-to article for how statistics are best used when they are kept simple and combined with a detailed knowledge of context and the relevant science.
If you’re going to use complicated statistical methods then do one of two things: let the data speak for itself, the approach taken in Is Class Real? Some Empirical Contributions from Econophysics. Alternatively, if you must impose a model use multiple models and test their predictive power against each other, the approach taken in Climate, agriculture, and hunger: statistical prediction of undernourishment using nonlinear regression and data-mining techniques.
It’s bargaining power all the way down, J W Mason. Explains the logic of capital and capitalism as an outcome of political power, not economic theory. J W’s characterisation of modern ‘trade’ is also on the money, and again I’d highly recommend his blog in general.
Andrew Kliman: Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency and The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession. In Reclaiming, Kliman provides a convincing new interpretation of Marx which leads to a coherent and testable theory. In Failure, he tests it and finds that it can go a long way to explaining our current economic malaise.
Sociology and Psychology
Social Constructs 101: what the term means, and what it doesn’t mean, Greg Stevens. A neat imagined Q & A on how virtually everything about humanity has both biological and social aspects.
On IQ (or g) and what it means, I’ve not seen anything better than Cosma Shalizi’s series of posts (and yes, I have read the rebuttals). This also speaks to my more general skepticism of over-interpreting findings from social statistics, so I am excited for Shalizi to turn his attention to macroeconomics.
On race and IQ, Stop talking about race and IQ by William Saletan and The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’ by Gavin Evans — both written in the past year for depressingly obvious reasons — have self-explanatory titles
On race, The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehsi Coates is a fantastic summary of how the legacy of racism persists in the United States, while Yes, there is a racial “bias” in police shootings by Michelle Phelps summarises the issue of police violence nicely. I still maintain that anyone who plays down modern racism in the West should just consider whether they’d be fine being treated the same way as black people (this also goes for other minorities).
Abi Wilkinson’s The White Knight Delusion is a masterful combination of the issues with both sexism and racism in western societies. While we’re talking about sexism, I’ve found the @everydaysexism project extremely revealing. I’ve not seen a better discussion of the gender pay gap than Reddit user (lol) besttrousers’ debate with Jordan Peterson, and the sources therein.
Trump and the social psychology of prejudice by Chris S. Crandall and Mark H. White is a great primer on how racism and fascism manifest themselves and respond to elite cues.
Seeing Like a State, James Scott. Few books have influenced me more than this book. It dissuaded me away from my brief flirtations with central planning and state ownership more generally. It also took what I liked in libertarianism and put it into a more coherent and less dogmatic belief system.
Let it Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace, Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch. My reason for including this piece goes beyond criticising libertarians; it is a fantastic summary of why freedom cannot exist without workplace freedom.
Liberty, Adam Swift (chapter 2 of his book Political Philosophy). Soundly refutes the Berlin-ist, liberal distinction between positive and negative liberty. Matt Bruenig also has countless posts on these kinds of false dichotomies which take the status quo as a given, such as the coercion inherent in property rights and contracts; question-begging notions of ‘voluntary’, etcetera, so it’s another blog I’d recommend reading extensively.
Is Objective Consequentialism Self-Defeating? By Stephen E. Sachs, The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience by Selim Berker and Obliquity by John Kay together illustrate why I’m much closer to virtue ethics than to consequentialism. One day I’ll elaborate on this point.
The Chomsky-Foucault debate changed the way I thought about many things, from science to justice. In short, I think Foucault is right that these things — and many other aspects of our society — cannot be separated from the power structures in which they were created. I don’t buy into post-structuralism completely, though.
Identity crisis: Leftist anti-wokeness is bullshit, Mike Harman. Identity politics is bad insofar as it’s been co-opted by neoliberalism, but otherwise minority groups’ struggles are a vital part of class struggle.
The Philosophy of Antifa, Philosophy Tube. Does for discussions of free speech what Bruenig and Swift did for discussions of coercion under capitalism.
Fuck Nuance, Kieran Healy. I’ve long been a sucker for straightforward explanations based on simple principles, evidence and arguments, and although that’s not exactly what this article endorses, it gives voice to some of my presuppositions.
Bertell Ollman’s book Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society is a delightful book on how Marxist philosophy helps us to understand modern society.
History of Capitalism & Communism
One of the crucial steps towards becoming a socialist was reading things that puncture the standard narrative about capitalism and communism. To this end, Left Anticommunism: the unkindest cut by Michael Parenti sums up my view of existing communism quite well. Conversely, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II by William Blum pulls together quite how brutal the USA was during he Cold War. Both of these should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they buy into the Soviet narrative too heavily, but they remain a good antidote to how we see things in the West. Blum’s account also crystalises the survivorship bias created by US militarism, which wiped out more peaceful prospects for socialism such as Allende or Arbenz.
For more in-depth, non-hysterical but non-revisionist accounts of existing communism, see Stalin: Revolutionary in an Era of War by Kevin McDermott and Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic by Maurice Meisner, as well as the documentary China: A Century of Revolution.
The Republic Of Hunger by Utsa Patnaik is a good article on how skewed the debate is on famine deaths under communism versus capitalism. Noam Chomsky’s review of the Black Book of Communism remains a classic of this genre. The books Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis and The Blood Never Tried: A People’s History of the British Empire by John Newsinger give good accounts of the starvation, terror and murder under early capitalism. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano is another good primer in this area.
Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism), Jesse Myerson. A nice clickbait summary of the modern communists’ viewpoint on capitalism vs communism, based in part on some of the sources above.
The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 1: The Inevitable Empire, Stratfor. Why is the US the richest country on earth? Geopolitics and historical accident, mostly.
The Modern World
Much has been written on how elites have failed to acknowledge the problems of ordinary people over the past few decades, how liberalism has morphed into a inward-looking and sterile technocratic centrism, and the implications of this for ‘Trump and Brexit’ — as well as Corbyn, Sanders and now Ocasio-Cortez . Glenn Greenwald’s Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit, Emmett Rensin’s The smug style in American liberalism, and Abi Wilkinson’s The Specter of Democracy are the best of the bunch.
As people who follow me will know, I do not buy the ‘New Optimist’ view of the world. The best article on this is by Jeremy Lent: Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why.
A salient feature of modern capitalism is that it is structured in a way that distributes wealth upwards (both globally and nationally). Quite a few people have pointed this out, including Jason Hickel in The Divide, Dean Baker, Robert Reich, and Daniel Immerwahr.
I only read this recently, but I was already looking for something which comprehensively summed up my view of the tempest in a teapot about ‘snowflake students’ on campuses, and Will Davies has provided it.
The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells. Terrifying but important summary of the widespread negative effects climate change could have.
New Atheism, Worse Than You Think, David Hoelscher. Yes.
How to Reach Socialism
How I became an erratic Marxist, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis gave me the final push to abandon ‘burn it all down’ militant socialism and engage more with the existing system. There is simply no other way for the left to (a) help people and (b) advance its goals in the long-term. Speaking of engaging with the existing system, I can’t say which within-capitalism vision I advocate better than Jeremy Corbyn himself.
Worker ownership is, for me, the key aim of socialism. Why Valve? by Yanis Varoufakis discusses in detail the benefits of participatory production, with the bonus that it is happening right now, as it is in Italy (and in at least one factory in Greece). Chris Dillow has many excellent articles on the benefits of worker ownership in terms of worker well-being, productivity, and alienation. As with Bruenig, Mason and Smith, I’d recommend virtually anything on his blog.
The Red and the Black, Seth Ackerman. Some sensible suggestions for the first steps a socialist government could take towards democratising the economy.
Private Property VS Possession is a helpful summary of the oft-misunderstood communist position on keeping your own toothbrush.
Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson. The most convincing case for abandoning economic growth and how to do it I’ve seen.
I’ll finish with a little fiction. Ursula Le Guin’s (RIP! ☹) The Dispossed is not only the best book I’ve ever read, it offers as plausible and honest an ultimate vision of communism as I’ve seen.