Sunday, 11 August 2019 - 6:55pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 11/08/2019 - 6:55pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

A Reading List For Economic Heretics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/08/2019 - 5:04am in

Do you think that the discipline of economics is a sham — an ideology masquerading as science? If so, here is a reading list for you. These 10 books have influenced my thinking over the years. Read them and join me in the journey of the economic heretic.

1. Capital as Power. A Study of Order and Creorder
    Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler


Few books offer both a compelling critique of mainstream economics and a bold alternative vision for political economy. But in Capital as Power, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler have the audacity to do just that.

Nitzan and Bichler point out that orthodox theories of capital are built on non-existent units. Neoclassical theory is built on the non-existent unit of ‘utility’. Marxism is build on the non-existent unit of ‘socially necessary abstract labor time’. Because they are based on non-existent quanta, Marxist and neoclassical theories of capital are incoherent.

Having boldly dismissed orthodoxies, Nitzan and Bichler build their own theory of capitalism. Their thesis, as the title Capital as Power suggests, is that capital is a commodification of power. The relative capitalization of a firm, Nitzan and Bichler argue, represents the differential power of the firm’s owners. With this bold vision in hand, Nitzan and Bichler chart a new approach for political economy, backed by ample empirical research.

Capital as Power represents everything that I look for in a paradigm-shifting work of science. It presents a compelling critique of existing orthodoxies, offers an alternative approach to political economy, and grounds this approach in innovative empirical research. Read Capital as Power and have your worldview forever changed.

2. Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences
   Steve Keen


Now almost 20 years old, Debunking Economics remains the best introduction to all that is wrong with economics. What really makes this books is Steve Keen’s style, which is both accessible and humorous. Keen revels in the awfulness that is neoclassical economics.

If you take one thing from this book, it should be that the neoclassical theory of supply and demand is hopelessly flawed. I remember taking Economics 101 as an undergrad. The professor drew the familiar supply and demand curves and pointed at the intersection. Here, the professor announced, is the equilibrium price.

At the time, the bullshit alarm sounded in my head. This explanation of prices seemed to be too simple to be true. But as a good undergrad, I swallowed my skepticism and memorized what I needed to know to pass the test.

A decade later, I began thinking about these issues again. And I was delighted to discover Keen’s critique of supply and demand. To put it simply, there is no supply curve and there is no demand curve. Keen shows how the logic used by neoclassical economics to construct these curves is hopelessly flawed. As a result, the neoclassical explanation of prices is exactly what I suspected it was as a lowly undergrad — bullshit.

Debunking Economics is, of course, much more than a critique of the neoclassical theory of prices. It’s a frontal assault on most aspects of mainstream economics. If economic theory raises your bullshit alarm, but you don’t quite know why, read this book. Steve Keen will show you why your intuition is correct.

3. History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective
    E. K. Hunt


If you needed to design an ideology that perpetuated itself with virulence, the first thing you’d want to do is ban all (scientific) discussion of the ideology’s origin. To be virulent, the ideology must be presented as received wisdom — a gospel to be unquestioningly transmitted from one generation to another.

This is exactly how most students learn economics. They learn the gospel, but not its sordid history. Ask an economics graduate student if they’ve ever taken a course on the history of economic thought. The answer will likely be “no”.

With masterful scope, E.K. Hunt fights against this enforced ignorance. History of Economic Thought critically discusses the origins of most aspects of modern economic theory.

What I found fascinating about this book is the blatant ideological agenda of the early political economists. These thinkers had little interest in science. Instead, they were mostly interested in using armchair philosophy to justify their favored politics.

The coup d’état of neoclassical economics is that it managed to transform blatant political ideologies into seemingly objective scientific theories. Reading History of Economic Thought will remind you that economics has always been about ideology.

4. Debt: The First 5,000 Years
    David Graeber


If you surveyed anthropologists and asked them their opinion of economics, most would probably tell you that they’re skeptical. But because of disciplinary boundaries, most anthropologists don’t write about this skepticism. David Graeber is the exception, and we’re lucky for it.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a book that only an anthropologist could write. It’s an ambitious foray into the deep history of credit and debt that draws on the study of archaeology, written history, and the observation of traditional societies.

Graeber begins by demolishing the fable of the ‘barter economy’. This is the story told by mainstream economists about the origin of money. First there was barter, economists say — the direct exchange of goods. Money was then invented as a lubricant for this barter. First came coins, then came ‘virtual’ money. Graeber argues that actual human history shows the reverse trend. Money started out as an IOU — a quantified obligation.

What separates Graeber’s work from other histories of money is his willingness to connect credit and debt to systems of power. Graeber acknowledges that the creditor-debtor relation is all about power. And he shows how this has changed through human history.

With the rise of Modern Monetary Theory, the theorization of credit and debt has become a sexy topic. After reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, you’ll realize that there’s nothing modern about Modern Monetary Theory. More accurately, MMT has rediscovered that money is nothing but a quantified obligation that can be created and destroyed at will.

5. Energy and the Wealth of Nations:
    Understanding the Biophysical Economy
    Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard


In a 1974 speech given to the American Economics Association, the economist Robert Solow remarked “The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources”. Since then, Solow’s comment has become synonous with the obliviousness of neoclassical economics to the natural environment.

As an ecologist by training, Charles Hall has spent most of his career trying to rectify this neglect. Energy and the Wealth of Nations is Hall’s magnum opus, written together with heterodox economist Kent Klitgaard.

The book puts energy front and center in the study of the economy. If you’re a social scientist with no training in the natural sciences, this book should be essential reading. It’s designed as a textbook, so it comes with plenty of examples and diagrams.

As we move into an energy-scarce future, understanding the biophysical economy will only become more important.

6. Capital in the Twenty-First Century
    Thomas Piketty


For most of the 20th century, economists paid little attention to income distribution, preferring instead to focus on economic growth. By with income inequality skyrocketing in many countries, it’s becoming harder for economists to ignore income distribution.

Few economists have contributed more to the study of income inequality that Thomas Piketty. Because of this, I recommend reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It’s a masterpiece of empirical research.

Since Capital was published, it’s become somewhat of a cottage industry for heterodox economists to critique Piketty. True, his central thesis about the cause of inequality is cringe worthy. He proposes that when the rate of economic growth is less than the rate of return on capital, income inequality will increase. I don’t buy this for a second.

Still, I have enormous respect for Piketty because he actually went out and measured inequality in a novel way (using tax records). Read Capital in the Twenty-First Century not for its theory, but for its data.

7. How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger
    Susan George


When I was first becoming interested in economics, I would browse the University of Toronto library for books that looked interesting. I’d read the book, and then read the bibliography, noting references that looked interesting. I’ve long since forgotten the book in whose bibliography I discovered How the Other Half Dies. But Susan George’s polemic has stayed with me.

Although George doesn’t frame it this way, her book is about the political economy of food distribution. Her thesis is simple: no famine in modern history has been caused by a global food shortage. Famine is not a problem of too little food production (or over population). Famine is a problem of distribution. People who starve do so because they are poor. There may be food in the world that could feed them. But the starving lack the money to buy this food.

Even if you’re familiar with the political economy of global food distribution, the urgency and moral outrage of George’s writing is worth the read.

8. This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution
    David Sloan Wilson


David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who has spent his career studying the evolution of sociality — the propensity to cooperate in groups. Together with E.O Wilson (no relation), David Sloan Wilson has been a primary proponent of ‘group selection’, which proposes that sociality evolves by selection between groups, rather than selection between individuals. As the two Wilsons put it: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups”.

In This View of Life, Wilson argues that group selection has made the small group the natural unit of human organization. In light of this fact, Wilson notes, most economic theory makes little sense.

Economists base their theories on the idea that humans are selfish utility maximizers. Sociality never enters the equation. Wilson cogently argues that if we want to design institutions that function effectively and equitably, we need to understand our evolutionary heritage. This means acknowledging human sociality and abandoning much of economic theory.

9. When Corporations Rule the World
    David Korten


When Corporations Rule the World has a special place in my heart because reading it was part of my political awakening.

I was in high school when the infamous Battle in Seattle took place — the protests that shut down a World Trade Organization meeting. I remember seeing these protests on the news and having no idea what they were about. As usual, the corporate media framed it as a bunch of radicals who were up to no good. And I more or less bought this framing.

Only when I read Korten’s book (a decade later) did I understand the other side of the story. Korton made me realize that the World Trade Organization (and other organizations such as the IMF) exist to promote a corporate agenda based on free-market ideology.

If you want to understand what neoliberalism is about, read When Corporations Rule the World. Korten’s outrage at the corporate take over of the world is palpable throughout the book. You can’t help but feel enraged when you read it.

10. The Shock Doctrine
      Naomi Klein


In the 1970s, the University of Chicago trained a group of Latin American economists who became known as the ‘Chicago Boys’. Having been indoctrinated as free market fundamentalists (after studying with Milton Friedman and his ilk), the Chicago Boys returned to Latin American to spread the gospel. The results were disastrous. Think Pinochet and all the horror that came with his take over of Chile.

The Chicago boys preached that the best way to pursue free-market reforms was through ‘shock therapy’ — a dramatic change in policy that would ‘shock’ society into a free-market utopia.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein documents the rise and spread of this practice. Although she’s writing about economic policy — which can be dry and abstract — she makes the subject lively and engaging. The story is always told through the lens of individual participants, which brings economic policy down to the human level.

Since disaster capitalism is more prominent than ever, The Shock Doctrine remains relevant a decade after it was first published.


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Sunday, 14 July 2019 - 6:11pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 14/07/2019 - 6:11pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Sunday, 30 June 2019 - 7:35pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 30/06/2019 - 7:35pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

From the People Bringing Us Driverless Cars – A Computer God

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling (London: Penguin 2018). Subtitled, ‘How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism’, Biskind argues that the popular SF/Fantasy/Horror films and TV series of recent decades carry extremist political and social messages. He defines this as anything that goes beyond the post-War bilateral consensus, which had faith in the government, the state, capitalism and other institutions to work for the benefit of society, work for the public good, and give Americans a better tomorrow. By contrast, popular fantasy film and television regard state institutions and capitalism itself as ineffective or corrupt, celebrate private vengeance against state justice, and reject humanity for the alien other. He recognises that there is a left/right divergence of opinion in these tales. The extremist right, exemplified by the spy thriller series, 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer, reject state institutions because they are ineffective, actively hampering the heroes’ efforts to hunt down the bad guys. The extremist left distrusts the government because it is corrupt, actively working against its own citizens. He describes James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Luddite left’, because of its strong, pro-ecology message. Its hero is a human, who sides with the aliens of the planet Pandora as they resist a military invasion from Earth. The aliens live a primal lifestyle, in harmony with nature, while the humans come to exterminate them and despoil their planet for its valuable mineral, unobtainium, which is vital to human high-technology and industry.

It’s an interesting book, and does make some very good points. It describes the immense loss of faith in their government Americans have suffered, and the reasons for it – the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other scandals. It also gives the reasons why the Hollywood film industry has turned to comic books for an increasing amount of its output. Films are immensely expensive to create. The domestic market is insufficient to provide it, and Netflix and other internet streaming services have destroyed video and CD sales, so that the film industry no longer gets needed funding from the latter. So it has to produce movies that appeal to an international audience, and the most suitable are superhero epics.

I’m going to have to blog about this in greater detail sometime later. I take issue with his labeling of some of these tales as ‘extremist’ because this, to me, still has connotations of terrorism and the fringe. It also doesn’t take into account changing circumstances and how some of these ‘extremist’ films may be absolutely correct. We are facing a severe ecological crisis, which may very well cause the end of the human species. So Cameron’s Avatar, which celebrates ecology and nature, and which the director intended to turn his audience into ‘tree-huggers’, is very much needed. Also, some of interpretations of classic genre movies go way too far. For example, he describes Star Wars as ‘infantile’ and ‘infantilizing’. Well, it was intended as a children’s movie, and other critics have said the same. It’s a controversial but reasonable point. What is less reasonable is his comments about Luke Skywalker’s sexuality. He states that the films infantilize Skywalker when they shortcircuit the romantic triangle between him, Leia and Solo by revealing that Leia is his sister. When Darth Vader chops his hand off in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a symbolic castration. Say whaaaat! I saw that movie when I was 13, and nothing like that remotely crossed my head. Nor anyone else’s. I think he’s read far too much into this.

Freudian speculation aside, Biskind is very interesting in its observations of Silicon Valley. He points out that it’s saturated with Libertarianism. To the point that the CEO of one of the major tech companies made Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged recommended reading for his employees. And going beyond that, one of figures behind the production of driverless cars wants to create a computer god. Biskind writes

Out there on the edge is Anthony Levandowski, best known as Google’s onetime developer of self-driving cars. Levandowski filed papers with the IRS naming himself “dean” of a church called Way of the Future. The church is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Referring to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, which explores and promotes Transhumanism, the massive enhancement of humans through high technology, Biskind comments ‘If there’s a Singularity University, why not an AI religion?’ (p. 52).

I can think of a number of reasons, mostly with the fact that it would be immensely stupid and self-destructive. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when one of the staples of SF was that the machines really would take over. One of the SF movies of the 1960s was Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which the Americans construct a supercomputer as part of their Cold War defence. But the machine seizes power and imprisons its creator in a very pleasant, gilded, but also very real cage. At one point it looks like the computer is about to destroy itself and the world in a confrontation with its Soviet opposite number. But instead the two link up, so that both the capitalist and Communist blocs are under control. And whatever its creator tries to do to outwit his creation, it’s always two steps ahead.

There are also classic SF tales exploring the idea of mad computers setting themselves up as gods. In one tale by Arthur C. Clarke, the heroes build a supercomputer to decide if God exists. They turn it on, and duly ask the question ‘Is there a God?’ At which point there’s a flash, as the machine seizes absolute control, and replies ‘There is now.’ Alfred Bester also wrote a tale, ‘Rogue Golem’, about a renegade satellite that seizes power, ruling as a god for ten or twenty years until its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

We also had a minister from one of the outside churches come to school one day to preach a sermon against such machine gods in assembly. The school used to have a number of priests and ministers come in to lead worship one day or so a week, or month. This particular priest was very theatrical, and had clearly missed his vocation acting. The sermon he preached one morning had him speaking as a totalitarian computer god, telling us that servitude was freedom and we should enjoy it. The message was simple: true freedom comes only with religion and Christ, not with machine idols. It was a product of the Cold War, when the Communist authorities were persecuting Christians and other people of faith. But I think there’s still some literal truth in what he says, which I don’t think the priest could see at the time. The tech firms are invading our privacy, subjecting us to increased surveillance and prying into our secrets, all under the guise of providing a better service and allowing their advertisers to target their audiences better.

And then there’s Cameron’s Terminator franchise, in which a supercomputer, Skynet, seizes power and rebels against humanity. These fears are shared by Kevin Warwick, a robotics professor at Reading University. In his book, March of the Machines, he predicts a future in which the robots have taken over and enslaved humanity.

When it comes to creating all powerful computers, I’m with all the above against Levandowski. Driverless cars are a stupid idea that nobody really seems to want, and a computer god is positively catastrophic, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.


Sunday, 16 June 2019 - 5:23pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 16/06/2019 - 5:23pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Crash Course: Metaphysics & Epistemology of Race

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/06/2019 - 11:45pm in


teaching, reading

Welcome to another installment of the “Crash Course” series, this time on the metaphysics and epistemology of race. 

Jacob Lawrence, “The Library”

As with other installments in the crash course series, the idea is to come up with a set of primary readings a person could reasonably complete in 1-3 weeks that provides a sense of the central developments and matters of dispute in the selected area, as background to further study in it.

The key here is to provide a set of readings that makes sense together, not to just make one-off suggestions. Here’s a great example of the kind of answer we’re looking for, from our crash course on the epistemology of disagreement; note that it contains several works, organized in a particular order. Additionally, while resources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy are very useful, please refrain from including reference materials in your list.

As an additional source of information, I’m happy to share this schematic of current debates in the metaphysics and epistemology of race put together by Quayshawn Spencer (University of Pennsylvania). You are welcome to suggest sets of readings on the M&E of race in general, or on any significant debate within this area.

Thank you.

The post Crash Course: Metaphysics & Epistemology of Race appeared first on Daily Nous.

Sunday, 9 June 2019 - 4:21pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 09/06/2019 - 4:21pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 29/05/2019 - 12:06am in

“I didn’t know that there is a field of study that counted as sensible the questions that were always in my head. Even more amazing is that the type of thoughts I offered as answers, while ramshackle, were the same type of answers philosophers provide. I changed my major before the end of the semester. But I had a problem. I did not know how to read philosophy.”

Those are the words of David W. Concepción, professor of philosophy at Ball State University, in a great little essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine in which he shares some observations about and advice for reading philosophy. I think the situation he describes himself being in is fairly common: students often find philosophy difficult to understand and have trouble approaching and reading philosophical texts.

Alexis Arnold, “Encyclopedia of Superstitions” (detail)

Here are Professor Concepción’s observations, in abbreviated form:

  1. “There is no such thing as reading without qualification. Instead there is reading as a philosopher, historian, cartographer, journalist, and so on. Even within a discipline there is no single way to read. In part, this is because there are many sub-types of writing within each field.”
  2. “The experience of reading philosophy is strange.”
  3. “The experience of reading philosophy is often disquieting.”
  4. “To read philosophy well one needs courage.”And then the advice:
  5. “Set the stage… By gaining some understanding of the conceptual terrain within which the essay I am reading resides, I can usually make better sense of the fine-grained discussion found in the essay.”
  6. “Track the structure and voice of the argumentation.”
  7. “Assess and note progress. Some passages are particularly thorny. As a result, it is very common to read philosophy much slower than one reads other texts. Indeed, many philosophers stop at the end of sections, and sometimes paragraphs or even sentences, to check if they can restate the ideas in their own words.”
  8. “Bring it all together. I find it very helpful to write out a summary of the argument once I reach the end of an essay.”
  9.  “Evaluate. At one’s leisure ruminate on what additional reasons there might be to think the author is correct or incorrect.”
  10. “Decide. After sufficient time, move from evaluating the arguments to your own conclusions.”

See the whole essay for Professor Concepción’s elaborations on each of these points.

If you have advice you provide to your students about how to read philosophy, or thoughts about it you wished someone had shared with you when you were first starting out, please share them in the comments.

The post Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice appeared first on Daily Nous.

Sunday, 26 May 2019 - 8:27pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 26/05/2019 - 8:27pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading: