A couple months ago, I promised to finish reviewing the books I read over the summer. However, as is often the case, I never got around to writing up the rest of the reviews. Thus, I’ve opted to sort of amalgamate my summer and autumn reading here. I decided not to include every book in this post, but the three books reviewed below are certainly three of the best in my summer/autumn stack.
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (by James C. Scott): Scott is perhaps best known for Seeing Like a State, which serves as a critique of high modernism and is a book I am finishing up presently. I think in many ways one could consider Against the Grain to be a kind of prequel to Seeing Like a State, as it considers how early, extractive states began to form in the Middle East and Asia through a fairly critical lens. What makes Scott’s work so interesting is that he is someone who is deeply skeptical of centralized planning, technocracy, and state power. Indeed, many who comment on his scholarship characterize him as an anarchist, though I personally find this label to be a tad too extreme. Regardless, his ideological leanings obviously inform his analysis of early state formation, and it means that his takes are often novel and always insightful. Two arguments struck me as particularly interesting while reading Against the Grain. First, it is possible that most contemporary historical and anthropological analyses overvalue early states simply because these are what they study. A period like the Greek Dark Ages is crushing for those who study Greek antiquity because it means an end to archeological evidence with which to conduct research. But anthropologists’ despair at this archeological lacuna is not a normative defense of the state, and anthropologists bemoaning the end of the great civilization are likely conflating the interests of contemporary researchers in the field with the interests of people living during the period being studied. Second, Scott makes a compelling case that most early states were actually pretty horrific places to live due to exploitative labor practices, frequent violence, and prolific and virulent diseases. Ur and Babylon certainly sound pretty amazing, but if Scott is correct, a rational person would almost certainly have chosen to be a barbarian. The one big issue I see with the book is the imposition of contemporary, dare I say state-centric, moral and ethical lenses on the past. Scott is probably right in emphasizing the awful conditions in early states. But if this critique is coming from a modern perspective grounded in the statist and legal-institutional traditions of the present, it’s unclear if he can ever fully demolish the value of the state, even in its earliest, most privative form.
House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again (by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi): This was an exceptionally good book that, at least in my view, perfectly balanced accessibility with economic rigor, making it eminently readable but thought-provoking throughout. Moreover, one of the authors studied at my institution – Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service – making this book a must-read by default. Mian and Sufi’s central argument is based on two core observations. First, foreclosures can quickly create vicious cycles as the liquidation of foreclosed houses by banks drives down home values in entire neighbors, leading to more foreclosures and even lower home values. Second, lower-income households have much higher marginal propensities of consumption. That is, for every additional dollar a less well-off household acquires, it spends a relatively higher percentage of it on consumption than a wealthy household. When you combine these two facts, you begin to realize why the collapse of housing prices in 2008 reduced aggregate demand by so much. Mian and Sufi argue that the correct response to the 2008 crisis would have been to focus on debtor households, not creditors and banks, because it was the indebted households that depressed aggregate demand to the point of generating a massive recession. This contention is supported by very good theoretical work and empirical data that suggest the bailout approach adopted by the U.S. government was superfluous: There was never any risk of a credit crunch, and almost all deposits were backed by the government. In other words, it wasn’t an end to bank lending that triggered the crisis, it was the fact that households with high levels of debt overhang weren’t able to absorb the depreciation of their homes and massively cut consumption in response. Mian and Sufi also make the interesting and persuasive point that the current system encourages destructive lending practices because most debt contracts expose the borrower to the first loss and give the lender a senior claim. Because of this, lenders will continue to dump credit into a bubble as long as there is sufficient equity to balance the risk. Thus, the greatest risk is placed on those least able to bear it – the debtors – and situations like the 2008 crisis occur. An excellent book by two excellent economists and writers. I simply can’t recommend this book enough.
The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (by Dennis C. Rasmussen): I enjoyed this book immensely because it both served as an excellent biography of two of the most important thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment and provided an interesting discussion of all their major works. To me, at least, Hume and Smith were not an obvious pair to include in a joint biography. But I think this is largely because of the contemporary division of their work into philosophy and economics. As another review put it, “In exploring the friendship between the two men, Rasmussen is also trying to break down these disciplinary barriers, showing how their contributions originally ranged over moral philosophy, epistemology, jurisprudence, history and political economy. And their way of thinking about the position of man within modern society was often far more global and inclusive than we now tend to find in the two disciplines that have adopted them as major representative figures.” As someone who is frustrated by the disciplinary barriers imposed within academia, I think Rasmussen’s attempt to connect the writing and thinking of Hume to Smith is commendable. I also appreciated the meticulous tracing of each man’s life and career, as it helped me contextualize and ground their writings. Some of this book’s analysis was speculative, of course. The paucity of primary source documents makes it simply impossible to isolate with certainty all the ways these two me influenced (or didn’t) each other. But Rasmussen’s arguments are always well-grounded and plausible, and I think they raise some crucial questions about Hume and Smith’s collaboration. Simply put, if you are looking for a book about the development of intellectual thought, friendship, and life among the 18th-century intelligentsia, you can’t do much better than this.