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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Light Summer Reading

(My apologies to my Southern Hemisphere readers for my title; I guess you can come back here in a six months...) School is out, the weather has heated up, and it is time for some light reading. I want to share some of the books that I have enjoyed (mainly non-economics).

(In addition to being a light post, this is also intended to act as a fund raiser for the blog's expenses. For those of you who shop at, if you follow the links below and buy anything, I get an advertising bounty. Thanks in advance.)

Economics Related

Since economics and finance was my day job, I do not normally consider the area to be "light reading" (although I am now reading Milton Friedman as research for my book on money, and it is frankly the best comedy I have read in a long time). I am avoiding textbooks which would require you pull out a pen and paper to work things out, such as the new Modern Monetary Theory textbook by Mitchell and Wray.

My first pick is GDP: A Short But Affectionate History by Diane Coyle. (This is supposed to be link to her site, but the site was down when I wrote this.)  This book is in the "what I am reading now" category and my recommendation is only based on the first chapter. My assumption is that the rest of the book is of similar quality. I will probably do a review once I finish it...

I read Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System a few years ago. At this point, my memory of the book is somewhat hazy, but it provides a good overview of the follies of the post-World War II currency system. I preferred his book Golden Fetters (the history of the Great Depression), but that is definitely a heavier work. Having an understanding of how the Bretton Woods system blew up is not exactly of immediate interest, but it provides a lot of context regarding the euro's current problems.

Diagrams & Dollars: Modern Money Illustrated  is a visual introduction to some of the ideas in Modern Monetary Theory. It is ebook only, for those of you who cannot get away from electronic screens...

Finally, I have a shameless plug for my latest paperback - Understanding Government Finance.

Non-Economics, General Interest

The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley takes on the idea that civilisation just appeared out of nowhere at around 5,000 BC. Instead, Neolithic humans were highly developed. For those of you with an interest in the history of money, his description of the use of clay tokens in trade as impetus for the development of writing in Chapter 3 is very interesting.

The End of Food by Paul Roberts is an interesting take on industrial agriculture. Despite the scary-sounding title, it is quite balanced.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition is also a balanced discussion of societies that have collapsed, and some that have avoided it. Has a wealth of interesting details within the discussion. Although not heavy-handed, the book hints that elites in developed countries are following the path of previously collapsed societies. (Update: As I should have noted, specialists question some of the claims in the book, particularly with regard to the Greenland Norse. For example, see, provided by Sam Taylor. However, working from memory, it was unclear whether it really mattered for the discussion in the book whether the Greenland Norse suddenly died off or else they drifted off to other locations; in either case the society disappeared. From my perspective, the value of the book is in the interesting details, and not whether his grand theory is completely correct.)

Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Thomas A. Lewis does not hint about elites; it argues that developed societies are heading for an epic crash. The focus is on the dysfunctional nature of decision-making in the United States. He is the publisher of The Daily Impact web site, which has excellent hair-raising stories on a variety of topics, such as the story of the struggle between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi river. The paperback is hit with small formatting issues (which I have been training myself to spot), but the text itself is well written.

Space Opera

I do not read a whole lot of fiction, but when I do, I prefer to read fairly light science fiction. The books above are older (like myself), but I prefer them to more recent books. Like other areas of fiction, genres have hardened within science fiction, generally becoming more serious and moving in stereotypical directions. (I have been reading about book cover design, and even the choice of font is largely determined by what sub-genre you are targeting.) The science fiction books I like are generally classified as "space opera" -- people flying around in space ships, and having adventures in the same way people did with sailing ships.

For those new to science fiction, Foundation by Isaac Asimov (the first book of a trilogy, which was then supplemented by other books, written by Isaac Asimov and others) would be a classic start. (Although there are many books with "Foundation" in the title, the story arc can be viewed as completed if you read just the trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.) It tells the story of the development of psychohistory, a science that was able to predict the evolution of human society based on the trends created by huge populations. (The only space-faring race in the galaxy is human.) Based on other articles I have seen, quite a few economists have been taken by the idea of psychohistory, as it could be viewed as a form of mathematical economics that is not entirely useless. The science was developed by Hari Seldon, at the time of the collapse of the galactic Empire. Psychohistorical predictions led him to believe that the age of barbarism that would come after the fall would be foreshortened if he set up a scientific foundation at the edge of the galaxy.

The Van Rijn Method: The Technic Civilization Saga by Poul Anderson is a collection of short stories set in a future history. They were generally published in magazines over a period of decades, and so they are self-contained stories. This book is part of a seven part series, which covers a future history from 2055-7100 (!). The first three books cover the period when human civilisation switches from a society dominated by trading companies -- the Polesotechnic league -- (Nicholas van Rijn is the memorable head of one such company) to a Terran empire. The latter four books mainly cover the career of Dominic Flandry, who could be compared to an interstellar James Bond. (His stories were first published before James Bond became a thing.) The books also include forewords with background information. Since the books mainly consist of short stories, they are perfect for short episodic reading, and you can skip over to stories that look the most interesting without losing much. (As a warning, the first story in the series is quite different from the rest. It is set in 2055, and discusses the mishap created by a spaceship crew getting too involved in a virtual Dungeons and Dragons type game. It may have been cutting edge in 1981, but the premise is somewhat dated now. I note this because it shows up in the "Look Inside" feature online.)

The Tar-Aiym Krang by Alan Dean Foster discusses one of the adventures of Flinx and Pip (his small flying, deadly dragon-like companion). The space-faring adventures are largely stand alone; I read them in a random order, and it did not matter.

Chronicles of the High Inquest: Light on the Sound, by S.P. Somtow is the first book of the Inquestor series. (The books were first published under the author name Somtow Sucharitkul; he switched over to "S.P. Somtow" for some reason or another. The older books may be available used, with slightly different titles.) These books are definitely not "hard" science fiction (in which the author attempts to have a scientific explanation for everything), it might be viewed as fantasy set in space. However, he describes an extremely unusual society, in which the galaxy is ruled by near-immortal Inquestors who flit from planet to planet. They periodically destroy planets as part of a game called makr├║gh, in order to create an illusion of change in a largely static (galactic) society. The books cover the decline of the Inquest. Once again, the books are somewhat stand alone; I actually started with the last book (The Darkling Wind) without damaging my enjoyment of the series.

 (c) Brian Romanchuk 2016


  1. I'd be perhaps somewhat skeptical of Diamond. My understanding is that professional archaeologists seem to think that he somewhat overstates his case, particularly with the case of the greenland norse.

    1. Good point. I used to have a comment to the effect that the book could be viewed as fables about collapsing societies. I liked the details, although I tend not to worry about the exact causality of events in the past. (I write about a field where there is no agreement whatsoever what is happening in 2016, even though we have an almost endless availability of data).

      If I ever ended up sitting next to an archaelogist, I would not ask him why the Greenland Norse society collapsed, rather whether they did not eat fish, despite being stuck next to excellent fishing grounds. (If Diamond made the part about not eating fish up, well, I guess I should not have recommended the book.) Diamond's story about why they did not eat fish was deliberately silly, but it would be interesting to see the archaelogist's take on the fish non-eating.

  2. I think the more recent evidence undermines his claim somewhat, see the following for example:

    I believe that his idea that they didn't eat fish was based more on the absence of fish bones, than any strong evidence suggesting that they didn't eat fish. Absence of evidence and all that.

    I don't know if this would be up your street, but it's a rather dour assessment of the current state of our democratic models and systems:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

    The following (by another Canadian, no less) is in a similar vein

    1. Thanks, I updated the text, and added the link. To be honest, I had a "collapse" theme going, and so I tacked in the Diamond book because it fit in so well...

      I am somewhat less pessimistic about Canadian politics, given the tendency for the electorates to blow out establishment parties with populist uprisings. (I describe myself as a Prairie Populist, to give a hint where my sympathies lie.) This successful populist tradition is missing from other countries. Trying to find a book that is still in print on that topic is probably difficult; I guess I have a topic for a non-economics book...

  3. "Based on other articles I have seen, quite a few economists have been taken by the idea of psychohistory, as it could be viewed as a form of mathematical economics that is not entirely useless."

    They will be very disappointed when they read Foundations Edge & Foundation and Earth then :)

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