Category Archives: Books

A Book That Needed To Be Written

By James Kwak

I have previously written about (here, for example) what I call economism, or excessive belief in the little bit that you remember from Economics 101. The problem is twofold. First, Economics 101 usually paints a highly stylized, unrealistic view of the world in which free markets always produce optimal outcomes. Second, most people in the world who have taken any economics have only taken first-year economics, and so they never learned that, from a practical perspective, just about everything in Economics 101 is wrong. (Complete information? Rational actors? Perfectly competitive markets?) This produces a nation of people like Paul Ryan, who repeats reflexively that free market solutions are always good, journalists who repeat what Paul Ryan says, and ordinary people who nod their heads in agreement.

The problem is not the economics profession per se. These days, to make your mark as an economist, it helps to be arguing (or, better yet, proving) that the free market caricature of Economics 101 is wrong. The problem is the way it is taught to first-year students, which pretty much assumes that Joseph Stiglitz, Daniel Kahnemann, Elinor Ostrom, and many others had never existed.

What we need, I have often thought, is a companion book for students in Economics 101, one that points out the problems with the standard material that is covered in the textbook. For a while I was thinking of writing such a book, but I decided against it for a number of reasons, one of them being that I am not actually an economist. Fortunately, John Komlos, who really is an economist, has written a book along these lines, titled What Every Economics Student Needs to Know and Doesn’t Get in the Usual Principles Text.

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The Politics of Intellectual Fashion

By James Kwak

Update: See bottom of post.

For years now, Anat Admati has been leading the charge for higher capital requirements for banks, especially large banks that benefit from government subsidies, first in a widely cited paper and more recently in her book with Martin Hellwig, The Banker’s New Clothes. Admati’s great service has been clearing the underbrush of misunderstandings and half-truths so that it is possible to have a debate about the benefits of higher capital requirements. Yet even after all this work, the media (and, of course, the banking lobby) continue to repeat claims that are simply false or highly misleading.

In another effort to beat back the tides of ignorance, Admati and Hellwig have put out a new document, “The Parade of the Bankers’ New Clothes Continues,” which catalogs and addresses these claims. In the simply false category, the most common is probably that capital is “set aside”; in fact, banking capital is assets minus liabilities, and the capital requirement places no restrictions on what a bank can do with those assets.

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Tobin Project Book on Regulatory Capture

By James Kwak

One of the last things I did in law school was write a paper about the concept of “cultural capture,” which Simon and I discussed briefly in 13 Bankers as one of the elements of the “Wall Street takeover.” The basic idea was that you can observe the same outcomes that you get with traditional regulatory capture without there being any actual corruption. The hard part in writing the paper was distinguishing cultural capture from plain old ideology—regulators making decisions because of their views about the world.

Anyway, the result is being included in a collection of papers on regulatory capture organized by the Tobin Project. It will be published by Cambridge sometime this year, but for now you can download the various chapters here. It features a lineup including many authors far more distinguished than I, including Richard Posner, Luigi Zingales, Tino Cuéllar, Richard Revesz, David Moss, Dan Carpenter, Nolan McCarty, and others. Enjoy.

Regression to the Mean, JPMorgan Edition

By James Kwak

I haven’t been writing about the JPMorgan debacle because, well, everyone else is writing about it. One theme that has stuck out for me, however, has been everyone’s reflexive surprise that this could happen at JPMorgan, supposedly the best and most competent of the big banks. For example, Lisa Pollock of Alphaville, who has provided some of the most detailed analyses of what happened, asked, “could this really happen under CEO Jamie Dimon’s watch?” Dawn Kopecki and Max Adelson at Bloomberg referred to “JPMorgan’s cultivated reputation for policing risk.” Articles about Ina Drew’s resignation are sure to point out her relative success at dealing with the financial crisis of 2007–2009.

“Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are.” Why? Is it that intelligent men don’t want to compete with intelligent women?

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My Daughter Will Be CEO of the World’s Most Valuable Company Someday

By James Kwak

At least, that’s the impression I get from reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which I finally finished this weekend. It’s not a particularly compelling read; it basically marches through the stages of his professional life, which is already the subject of legend, so there isn’t much suspense. I fear that it will inspire a new generation of corporate executives to imitate all of Jobs’s personal shortcomings—but without his genius.

The picture you get from the book is basically that Steve Jobs acted like a five-year-old for his whole life. He could be wrong about some basic, uncontroversial fact yet insist stubbornly that he was right. He divided the world into things that were great and things that were terrible, and his classifications could be arbitrary. He was an obnoxiously picky eater, constantly complaining about his food and sending it back. He threw epic tantrums that only a CEO (or a five-year-old) could get away with.

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Public Service: Why Nations Fail Crib Notes

By James Kwak

I’m reviewing Why Nations Fail for a print publication, so I’m out of basic courtesy I’m not going to preempt my review here. But if you’re like me and not an expert in the history of every part of the world, sometime around page 250 you probably got confused about where Acemoglu and Robinson discussed the Kingdom of Aksum as opposed to early modern Ethiopia or the Kuba Kingdom as opposed to the Kingdom of Kongo. After a while I created my own crib sheet, which I reproduce here for those who may find it helpful.

1. So Close and Yet So Different: Spanish Conquest, Jamestown, Mexico (19th century)

2. Theories That Don’t Work

3. The Making of Prosperity and Poverty: Korea, Kingdom of Kongo

4. Small Differences and Critical Junctures: The Weight of History: Black Death (14th century), early modern Western Europe

5. “I’ve Seen the Future and It Works”: Growth Under Extractive Institutions: USSR, Kuba Kingdom, Neolithic Revolution, Mayas

6. Drifting Apart: Venice, ancient Rome, Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia)

7. The Turning Point: England (17th-18th centuries)

8. Not on Our Turf: Barriers to Development: Spain, Austria-Hungary and Russia, China, Ethiopia, Somalia

9. Reversing Development: Dutch East Indies, Central Africa

10. The Diffusion of Prosperity: Australia, French Revolution, Japan

11. The Virtuous Circle: Great Britain, United States (Progressive movement and 1930s), Argentina

12. The Vicious Circle: Sierra Leone, Guatemala, American South, Ethiopia

13. Why Nations Fail Today: Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Clombia, Argentina, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Egypt

14. Breaking the Mold: Botswana, American South, China

15. Understanding Prosperity and Poverty: China, Brazil

White House Burning Open Thread

By James Kwak

Now that the book has been available for a week, I imagine at least two or three people have started reading it. This post is for people to discuss the book if they are so inclined.

If you want to hear Simon discussing the book, the book website has a page of links to past media appearances. Several are the five-minute cable news variety, but for in-depth interviews there are Fresh Air and Leonard Lopate, among others.