(Economics) books to read over summer



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Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The Deficit Myth: How to Build a Better Economy

Stephanie Kelton, Hachette Australia

No book prepared ahead of time better targeted the year in economics.

Just as governments including Australia’s were embracing debt (A$800 billion and counting) and creating money out of nowhere ($200 billion scheduled) came a treatise explaining that at times like these (actually, at any time when the resources of the economy aren’t fully employed) that’s entirely responsible.

Stephanie Kelton’s book has rightly been displayed on Alan Kohler’s desk, and Kohler himself has become a convert to modern monetary theory which the book outlines in the clearest of terms.

Kelton explains that in an economy such as Australia’s the purpose of tax isn’t to raise money but to slow spending, and something else: demanding the payment of tax in Australian dollars forces Australians to use Australian dollars.

The example of teenagers not cleaning up around the house that she used in her talk at Adelaide University in January is priceless. You can watch the video here.

Economics in the Age of COVID-19

Joshua Gans, MIT Press

Written as we were coming to grips with what to do, and posted online chapter by chapter to get real-time feedback, the Australian author’s flash of inspiration was that we have experience in shutting down an economy and then restarting it.

We do it every Christmas writes Joshua Gans, and “no-one screams depression”.

That his way of seeing things now dominates talk about the pandemic doesn’t make it less radical. It’s partly because of his insights, published in April, that most governments no longer think that in this crisis they can trade off health against wealth.

He persuades by analogy. Fans of Mission Impossible II, the computer game Plague Inc and the came of chess will appreciate the references.

Radical Uncertainty

Mervyn King, John Kay, Hachette Australia

The idea that every possibility can be reduced to a number, to a probability, is what makes simple mathematical economics work. It’s what makes insurance and credit ratings and assessments of the risk of getting coronavirus work. And it is wrong, as became clear in the devastation caused by the global financial crisis.

By itself, that’s not a particularly useful observation, but what is useful is the author’s discovery of where the idea that probability could be reduced to a simple number came from. The Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman shares much of the blame. He insisted that every uncertainty could be reduced a number that a rational utility-maximising human being could use to make decisions.

Before Friedman and contemporaries, there used to be two numbers, one representing risk, and the other representing uncertainty, which are quite different things and can’t be thrown together.

If you’re too busy for the book, try the London School of Economics podcast.

Fully Grown: Why A Stagnant Economy Is A Sign Of Success

Dietrich Vollrath, University of Chicago Press

Advanced economies may or may not roar out of the recession, but they are unlikely to boom as they did before. For decade after decade throughout the 1900s annual economic growth has been strong, averaging 2% per capita in the US.

In the first two decades of the 2000’s that growth has been weak, averaging 1% – only half of what it did.

Dietrich Vollrath, who blogs on growth and had no preconceptions, approached the puzzle as a mystery and found that the usual suspects (rising inequality, slower innovation, competition from China) didn’t explain enough.

The extra comes from success. The populations of the US and kindred nations have become so rich and (on average) old that having more children and striving for even higher incomes no longer makes sense.

The technical stuff is at the back. The message from the front is that we’ve arrived at our destination, which needn’t be a bad thing.

Economics in Two Lessons

John Quiggin, Princeton University Press

I’ve slipped this one in from 2019 for a reason. John Quiggin is about to publish a sequel, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic.

Economics in One Lesson, published in 1946 financial journalist Henry Hazlitt, was a homage to the power of prices in a free market.

In lesson one (the first half of the book) Quiggin teases out Hazlitt’s thinking, and in lesson two shows how it follows from it that in many circumstances the market has to be contained.

Central to both lessons is opportunity cost, “what you give up in order to get something”, the most important concept in economics.

Polluters will make the wrong decisions if the cost of their pollution (largely borne by others) isn’t charged for. It’s a persuasive and increasingly-pressing argument.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hit the road, Jack: 5 epic literary road trips that are not by Kerouac



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Jessica Gildersleeve, University of Southern Queensland

Summer is the time for holidays and travel. But as we weakly wave goodbye (we hope) to the horrors of 2020, international travel is off the table and even domestic travel is still restricted.

A book is still your most faithful companion on summer journeys, even if that trip is limited to the journey between the kitchen and a sun lounge in the backyard.

Curated here is a mix tape of great literary road trips. There is one oldie but goodie, some 21st-century hits and shout-outs to the authors who mapped the way. Buckle up — or curl up — and enjoy.




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1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400)

Book cover: The Canterbury Tales

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Our journey begins with The Canterbury Tales, one of literature’s earliest road trip narratives, although Chaucer’s work takes its lead from Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron (c. 1353).

A series of stories told by a group of travellers, in Chaucer’s Middle English, takes readers on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. Indeed, the pilgrimage can be seen as the earliest form of today’s holiday (a “holy day”), in which the faithful would journey for days or even weeks to visit a holy site. The physical demands of the travel itself contributed to the pilgrim’s spiritual growth.

Each pilgrim of The Canterbury Tales represents a different class or social position — the knight, the priest, the merchant, and so on. Additionally, each story not only represents a particular and symbolic genre — the low humour of the miller’s fabliaux, or the knight’s idealisation of the courtly love poem — but when taken together signify the interactions between people and experiences of the period.




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If you enjoy The Canterbury Tales, you might also like Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (8th C BCE) — a heroic adventure on the high seas. Likewise: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days (both first published in English in 1872), or Jonathan Swift’s satirical masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

2. Cheryl Strayed, Wild (2012)

Book cover: Wild (a hiking boot)

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Perhaps best known for the image of Reese Witherspoon tossing her hiking boots into a canyon in the 2014 film adaptation, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is an epic pilgrimage in its own right.

Just as the archetypes of The Canterbury Tales undertake both a physical and a spiritual journey, so too Strayed commits to the trail as a trip of transformation and discovery: “a world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I’d once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long”.

Wild constitutes a modern, even feminist, reimagining of the American frontier narrative — a lone journey into the “wild west”, stripped of the markers of civilisation to truly find a self-made paradise. The book echoes and subverts the classic road trip novel, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) — a compulsory addition to any literary road trip list. It also hearkens back to Mark Twain’s boyhood novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), or even Vladimir Nabokov’s twisted trip in Lolita (1955).




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3. John Green’s Paper Towns (2008)

Book cover: paper towns (poster pin in map)

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That the road trip is frequently used as a symbolic journey of understanding the self makes it ripe for the contemporary bildungsroman form — a novel of development — in the Young Adult genre. Author John Green has plumbed this trope a number of times, perhaps most successfully in Paper Towns. The acclaimed Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson (2010), or the more recent I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest (2019) both also fall within this category.

Poised on the precarious cusp of adulthood and searching for their adventurous friend Margot, the teenaged protagonists of Paper Towns set off on a road trip through the night, determined to “right a lot of wrongs … wrong some rights … (and) radically reshape the world”. It is thus a moral journey, an effort to imprint the emerging self on a world not yet acknowledging its presence. The travellers want to make decisions about their lives, rather than be swept down a predetermined road.




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4. Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air (2006)

Book cover: Swallow the Air

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Australian road trip narratives are more often described by fear than frontierism, as in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961) or cinema’s Wolf Creek (2005). Similarly, Ari’s drug-fuelled trip around inner Melbourne in Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded (1995) tracks the urban intersections of individual, national and multicultural identity.

2020 has been a triumphant year for Tara June Winch. Her earlier short story cycle, Swallow the Air won the David Unaipon Award.

With a nod to the structure of The Canterbury Tales, Winch’s stories follow the cross country journey of a young Indigenous girl, May. She is determined to escape and change the cycles of violence and misery to which her family has been subjected. Like Tony Birch’s Blood (2012), it adopts the road trip as a means of going back to Country, providing not only a specifically cultural innovation in the genre, but a different understanding of self-discovery.




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5. Joe Hill’s N0S4A2 (2013)

Book cover: N0S4A2 (number plate)

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Not all road trips constitute journeys into the self. Instead, a psychological voyage might constitute a plunge into the depths of the nightmarish unconscious.

Joe Hill, son of that most famous horror writer Stephen King, offers up a road trip we might prefer not to take, although it does have a festive theme. In N0S4A2, Christmasland is the horrific and fantastic destination for the child victims of a phantom vehicle and its deranged driver.

Hill offers the chilling prophesy that “sooner or later a black car came for everyone”, pointing out the horrific inevitability of one final road trip. It’s a journey in the tradition of the monstrous vehicle, as in King’s Christine (1983), as well as the apocalyptic father-son walk in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Josh Malerman’s Bird Box (2014), King’s The Stand (1978) and (as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk (1979).

After the year we’ve all had, I hope your road trip is less nightmarish.The Conversation

Jessica Gildersleeve, Associate Professor of English Literature, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.