Tag Archives: economics

Cold War : A History from Beginning to End

Cold War : A History from Beginning to End by Hourly History (2016) is a very short, very silly history of the Cold War that is better to skip.

The book starts off by detailing the terrible repression that lead to the Cold War. This was, interestingly enough, in the US. It was allegedly furthered by the US just attempting to thwart Communist Revolutions that were happening around the world.

Russia apparently escaped The Great Depression via Communism. It must have been a great time there apparently, unless, possibly if you were one of the millions who died in the Holodomor. But this book, of course, doesn’t mention them. Russia apparently had a booming economy in the 1930s.

The book goes on to describe how Communism sprung up in Eastern Europe but allegedly the Americans tried to thwart and undermine this too. This led the Russians to become upset.

There is almost no mention of the massive repression in Communist states. There is no mention of the Great Leap forward where Communism caused at least 30 million people to starve.

This isn’t to say that the US’s behaviour was always good and that they didn’t support vicious, despicable dictators and regimes around the world in the fight against communism and that this did go against America’s ideals. However, to fail to look at the real horror of Communism and it’s economic failure when discussing the Cold War is laughable.

The book is really completely nonsense. I was hoping for something like the often excellent ‘short introduction to’ books but instead this book is completely fantastical.


Red Famine

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine 1921:1933 by Anne Applebaum is a book that looks at the first and second great famines in Ukraine that were brought on by Communism and Stalin. It’s a remarkably good book about an important topic.

In 1921 the Communists started to take much of the grain harvest and the idea of having any grain sown taken without compensation coupled with bad weather led to a collapse in the grain harvest. After this happened, there was some going back on Communist ideals and small farms were owned by the peasants. They again succeeded in producing grain. However, success made farmers ‘kulaks’ who were deemed anti-revolutionary and the cause of insufficient grain being harvested.

However, even this limited private ownership this was deemed incompatible with Marxism and taxes were raised and then peasants were forced to join collectives where the main incentive was to take as much as possible and do as little as possible. As insufficient peasants were joining the failing collectives voluntarily taxes were drastically increased, leading to a collapse in production that then resulted in outright confiscation of any food that seemed surplus. The confiscation then became taking food from anyone who had any at all.

The application of Marxism led not to a workers paradise but to a country that was poorer ten years after the revolution than it had been in 1917. I didn’t actually know this and thought that Soviet mechanisation had been fairly successful quite rapidly but this is not the case.

Also, Ukraine was a nation within the Russian Empire that continued to exist. During the revolution various groups had hoped a great liberation of Russia would lead to more independence for Ukraine. The Soviets however were determined to crush this and saw nationalism, other than Russian nationalism, as something to be destroyed.

The combination of anti-Ukrainian feelings by Stalin, the failure of the Communist system and a desire for hard currency from grain exports led to a terrible, deliberate, government directed famine that killed at least 3 million people in Ukraine. In the rest of Russia similar efforts also starved millions but it was worst in Ukraine.

Remarkably, some brave, honest reporters managed to cover the story, in particular a Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. He put together an amazingly accurate report that was published in some English newspapers. However, Walter Durant, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times writer trashed the report and said it was all nonsense. Due to the sympathy for Marxism in Western intellectual circles he was instead believed. Interesting, many other countries were also aware of what was happening. However, honest reports were not made to the citizenry of these countries because of the desire for influence with Stalin.

After the famine accounts did appear under the brief and murderous occupation by the Germans of Ukraine but they were again not promulgated in the West due to fear of offending Stalin.

The Soviets continued to suppress the record of what had happened but it was so large scale and so awful and there were enough survivors who united in Ukrainian ex-pat communities that the truth eventually got out. But it was not until the 1990s and the fall of Soviet Communism that the famine was openly and honestly accounted for.

The book is surprisingly very readable for a book about an awful mass death event driven by totalitarianism. Applebaum has written a great book about one of the biggest tragedies of the twentieth century that has been lied about and effectively suppressed until the last 25 years. It’s a great achievement and very much worth reading.


Depopulation: An Investor’s Guide to Value in the Twenty-First Century (2015) by Phillip Auerswald and Joon Yun is a semi-interesting book about a really important topic that gets far less attention than it should.

There are many books that deal with AI and how it could possibly end all our jobs. However, there is zero data that this is actually happening. AI has made ads marginally better and can recognize snapshots on Facebook. Which is amazing, but the real impact has been fairly small. However, Japan is shrinking by about the population of Canberra every year and this is the only book I’ve seen on this trend.

Almost every single developed country has a birth rate below replacement. The only large group of countries with high birth rates are really poor countries in Africa and once they too become richer, say approaching 10K GDP at PPP per year which they are on track to do by mid-century it’s highly likely birth rates will fall there too.

This book looks at how birth rates are falling and then makes some suggestions as to where investment will be good. The author’s suggest companies with good returns rather than high growth prospects.

The book has some interesting statistics and is not terrible, but it does far less than can be done with a really interesting subject. Looking at Japan and the many places where populations are declining now, such as East Germany, deserves better treatment and should be more interesting.


In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State

In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006) by Charles Murray describes an actual, costed out Universal Basic Income (UBI).Murray is a controversial scholar but this book does actually have figures and describes how a UBI could work.

UBI has currently had a resurgence of popularity due mainly to the fear the robots and automation are believed by some to be about to dramatically reduce employment. It has supporters on both the left and right. However, people appear to be talking about very different things in terms of levels of a UBI and also tend to be very vague at best about costing such a proposal out.

In the book Murray costs out a UBI for every adult over 21 at 10K that also has a supplement of 3K paid toward a catastrophic emergency medical fund. That is, the UBI would be under the current US poverty threshold. It’s not a lot. Murray goes on to suggest that people on this kind of level of money could then save 2K a year that could be used for old age. It’s worth noting that working beyond the UBI would result in none of it being taken back and the effective marginal tax rate would be zero.

At 60K of income the UBI would start to decrease and reduce eventually to zero. So it’s not quite a UBI but it is reasonable.

Murry then goes on to describe various scenarios for various people on the UBI.

The book did make me realise that the US has various odd programs like food stamps that many other countries, like Australia, do not and that may be part of the appeal of simplifying social payments.

The book didn’t convince me that a UBI is a good idea but it did have a serious attempt at costing and describing how a UBI could work. It isn’t the UBI of some people’s dreams of, say 25K a year, but it is costed out. The book is very short and is worth reading for anyone interested in a serious proposal for a UBI.

Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy

Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy (2017) by Tim Harford is a history of fifty very important technologies that have had a huge impact on the modern economy. It’s a bit like James Burke’s superb TV shows Connections and the Day the Universe changed but for the loyal listener set. Chapters from the book were first put into a podcast series that is also very interesting and well done.

Harford was a professional economist before becoming a writer for the Financial Times and then a presenter on BBC radio. He’s written a number of books on economics and has now written this one looking at a range of technologies. He hasn’t tried to pick the most important items, like the wheel, or light, because so many other people have looked at them. Instead it’s an inspired list of varying items and the tales behind them.

The items include : The Plough, Barbed Wire, Robots, The Welfare State, Infant Formula, TV Dinners, The Pill, Video Games, Market Research, Air Conditioning, Department Stores, The Dynamo, The Shipping Container, The Barcode, Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick, The Billy Bookcase, The Elevator, Cuneiform, Public Key Cryptography, Double-Entry Bookkeeping and the Light Bulb. They vary considerably.

Each chapter is very interesting on its own and the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts. The chapters are also quite short and so the book can be read in nice short chunks if desired. Each chapter has extensive references as well so anyone who wants to go into more depth can easily go off and read books about the inventions.

It’s really a great read and something that is really informative. Even if you have listened to the podcasts you’ll also find more in the book. It’s definitely one of Harford’s best books and for anybody at all interested in technology or the impacts of technology it’s highly recommended.


The Entrepreneurial State

The Entrepreneurial State (2013) by Marianna Mazzucato looks at how the state is, according to Mazzucato, entrepreneurial in its development of science and technology.

The first thing about the book is that it abuses the word ‘Entrepreneur’. Mazzucato tries to put forward the idea that the state, by financing research is being ‘Entrepreneurial’. But it’s not really. The financial risk for the state itself isn’t that great. The financial risk for the people who allocate the funding is also small.

The book does make the case well that a lot of technology had much of the initial development paid for by the state. The book looks at the IPhone extensively and points out that microprocessors, the internet, touchscreens and the GPS in the device were all built for the US government. She then implies that Apple and other technology companies and VC firms just took the money and should pay more of it in tax. The book downplays the difficulty of performing this kind of integration and ignores the many companies who tried and failed to build a successful smartphone prior to the IPhone.

There is a very interesting review of the book in The Guardian that points out the problems with her general thesis.

The book then puts forward the idea that the government is the key entity that needs to shape clean energy by being entrepreneurial, but also in taking the upside and more of the profit. She jumps from pointing out that the state created various technologies used by Google and Apple and pharmaceutical companies to saying that it can just shape the market to prefer her favored energy choices. It’s not a strong argument. The US government did invest in IT, but there was no design of a market for computers, software and smartphones. That simply evolved.

Mazzucato makes the point that Apple doesn’t pay their ‘fair share’ of tax by pointing out that they use tax shelters to minimize the tax they pay. She doesn’t mention the raw figure of how much tax big US IT companies pay. Even with various tricks to reduce their tax they still pay billions and their employees, in jobs created by these companies also pay a great deal of tax.

The Entrepreneurial State makes the case that well that state spending on R&D has paid off in many instances. The claims it makes that the state should obtain more of the profits and benefits and shape markets is not well made.



Utopia for Realists

Utopia for Realists (2017) by Rutger Bregman is a book that suggests that in the near future we can all have a Utopia where people only work 15 hours a week, there are open borders and there is a basic income. Machines will provide more and more of the things we want and we’ll all be able to have much more leisure according to Bregman.

Bregman starts his book by pointing out that the leisure standard we all enjoy today is something that previous generations would only have dreamed about. We work shorter hours doing less physically damaging work, half our children don’t die before age five and we can engage in sex that doesn’t cause pregnancy often and outside marriage should we choose to do so.

From here Bregman goes on to suggest that the future and the near future will be much better. He suggests that a universal basic income can be created and can be afforded because giving homeless people money is cheaper than paying for their emergency and other care and because a group of Native Americans had their life outcomes improved when a casino opened. Using this reasoning the welfare state should also have happily paid for itself and shouldn’t be expanding and leading to ever bigger deficits in developed countries. Bregman does go into the interesting story about how basic income was introduced by Richard Nixon but failed to get up in Congress. But it is disappointing that the book doesn’t start to describe how basic income is affordable.

Bregman also thinks that most jobs will disappear due to robotics and automation. Here he’s on stronger ground. Many other people think this is also the case. Remarkably Bregman thinks that Rosie, the robot maid in The Jetsons, is pretty much here with the Roomba. Bregman thinks we can all do less work and things will work out. He says that the drastically shorter week worked during the oil crisis in the 1970s in England and the modest drop in output shows that we could all work less.

He then goes on to suggest that international borders should be open so that people can make more money. Again quite a few on the left and the right support this view.

Somewhat surprisingly toward the end of the book Bregman describes what a fan he is of Milton Friedman and Fredrich Hayek.

The book isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t justify the positions Bregman takes with anything solid. I have no doubt the future will be better, but how much better and what will improve is very hard to tell. Flying cars were predicted, instead we got mobile phones.