What I’ve been reading

by on January 21, 2013 at 7:11 am in Books | Permalink

1. Amy Willentz, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, and Jonathan M. Katz, The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.  Two excellent recent memoirs on what has been happening in Haiti post-earthquake.  My main complaint is that both books are marred by the same mistake in economics, namely starting with “small amounts of foreign investment haven’t done Haiti much good,” and moving to “Haiti should not be focusing on foreign investment.”  With so many lives at stake, that is a tragic and indeed needless error in reasoning.

2. Janan Ganesh, George Osborne: Austerity Chancellor.  A good profile to read for understanding how the modern UK arrived at the point it is at.

3. Zareer Masani, Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization.  A good profile to read for understanding how the earlier UK, in its colonial empire, arrived at the point it is at.

4. Franklin E. Zimring, The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control.  A useful and engaging survey of some of what we know about urban crime, and it knows not to reach too far.  Police crackdowns on open-air drug markets is one factor which receives some credit.

5. Ian W. McLean, Why Australia Prospered: The Shifting Sources of Economic Growth.  The writing is not exciting, but nonetheless an interesting look at the longer-run history of Australian prosperity.  I had not known that the nation was the wealthiest in per capita terms for part of the late 19th century and then underwent considerable stagnation in the first half of the 20th century.

1 Ray Lopez January 21, 2013 at 8:46 am

@#1 – this is always true, as most aid money is not enough. To a degree IMO it’s driven by rich people’s guilt. I’m reading this book on microfinance which is critical of the effort: Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance by David Malin Roodman . I’ve talked to people in Greece who lived through the “Marshall Plan”, which every US schoolchild knows saved Europe. The Greeks who lived through it say the rich got most of the money and American corn was fed to pigs, and canned corned beef was a curiosity. But I’m sure there was some “trickle down” effect to the masses that helped. As for the MP defeating the Communists in GR, some credit should go to Stalin, who refused to send aid to the Greek communists, as he had promised Churchill (in return for taking most of eastern Europe into the USSR sphere–a good deal for him). So the Marshall Plan had some sort of marginal effect, but whether or not it was the tipping point for recovery we’ll never know for sure (kind of like the US stimulus money of post-2008).

2 Amish scientist January 21, 2013 at 9:54 am

I wish I had time to read as many books as you do

3 norman January 21, 2013 at 11:00 am

#1 “How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” –
“part of a global response that reached $16.3 billion in pledges.” Haiti’s GDP is about $8 billion, right?

Why is anyone acting surprised? Haiti is full of Haitians – hence the disaster.

4 Ronald Brak January 21, 2013 at 8:49 pm

If there were no Haitians there would have been no one for the earthquake to kill, injure, or render homeless. However, as harm to humans is generally considered a necessary component of disasters, pointing out that if Haiti hadn’t been populated there would have been no disaster is merely definitional.

5 doctorpat January 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Norman is pointing out that when a huge earthquake struck China, the Chinese cleaned up the mess and now are back to growing at 8%.
Pretending to be too obtuse to get his point doesn’t make your argument more convincing.

6 Ronald Brak January 21, 2013 at 10:11 pm

I don’t think there was an argument in what I wrote, doctorpat. And I don’t think China had an earthquake that killed 40 million or so, which would be necessary for them to lose the same portion of their population as Haiti did.

7 norman January 22, 2013 at 12:09 am

That’s right, with an unemployment running 40%, it was the 3% population deficit due to the earthquake deaths that caused the country to utterly fail reconstruction after receiving a two-fold equivalent of its annual GDP. Good logic.

8 mulp January 23, 2013 at 1:27 am

The earthquakes in China didn’t destroy the steel mills, the cement production, the mining, the railroads, the factories, the government, or more than a fraction of the Chinese economy. Haiti started with no steel mills, the cement production, the mining, the railroads, factories that produced little for the local market, and a weak government.

Haiti has nothing to offer in trade, and nothing in Haiti to rebuild Haiti.

China could stand alone in a decade or less.

9 Buzzcut January 21, 2013 at 11:26 am

#4, while a readable book for such a technical subject (the author is a real, live criminologist), concludes with “we don’t know” as the answer.

The author does do a wonderful job of busting every pet myth as to why crime has fallen so much in NYC. Unfortunately, these myths include everything you could possibly imagine as to why crime has fallen.

10 Ray Lopez January 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Sounds reasonable. Maybe it was a combination of things. Reminds me of a book on the US Civil War that concluded the cause of the war was not just one issue (i.e., slavery) but a bunch of things. Kind of like in chess: you can have a game where a master beats another master and you really cannot put your finger on what move was critical: the loser gradually drifts into a lost position and that’s that. By contrast, when a near patzer like me plays chess and loses, you can usually definitely point to one crucial blunder that lost the game. 🙂

11 Adrian Ratnapala January 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I had not known that the nation [ed: Australia] was the wealthiest in per capita terms for part of the late 19th century and then underwent considerable stagnation in the first half of the 20th century.

I.e. right after we got ourselves a federal Government! BTW: I am making this comment for pure amusement value, I haven’t read the book and don’t really have any opinions about the issue involved.

12 Unanimous January 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm

The 1890s depression was as bad in Australia as the great depression. WW1 took a huge toll on the workforce, much bigger than WW2, and without the good economic management of WW2. And then there was the great depression.

I don’t think the federal government had much effect on the economy. Look at NZ progress if you want an idea of what the six states would be like with no federal Gov – not all that different really.

13 doctorpat January 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm

On the contrary. NZ is considerably worse off than Australia and seems to be falling further behind year by year.

14 Donald Pretari January 21, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I bought the McLean book, so thanks for the tip. Let’s hope it reinforces my own views.

15 Ronald Brak January 22, 2013 at 1:55 am

Norman, I don’t think I used logic either.

16 Michael Gordon January 22, 2013 at 5:48 am

I bought the McLean book too, it looks promising. My observation (as a Kiwi, if that matters) is that Australian business writers are in a surprisingly aggressive denial about the role that mining has played in their good fortunes over the last 50 years. They like to believe they’re richer than many developed countries because they simply do things better – nothing so crude as selling the ground out from under themselves, as plentiful as it is.

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