Friday, April 26, 2013
Book Review: The Occupy Handbook
Author: Noah Smith
This is a book you should read. It's been a year and a half since the Occupy protests, and they've mostly disappeared off of the public radar. Doesn't matter. The Occupy Handbook (edited by Janet Byrne) is a great general guide to a number of the economic problems our country is facing, the solutions people have put forth, and the grassroots movements that have sprung up to vent people's dissatisfaction.
The Occupy Handbook consists of 55 chapters, each chapter written by a different author (though there are a couple repeat appearances). The authors include famous economists, no-name activists, authors and TV personalities, and more. Among said economists are Paul Volcker, Robert Shiller, Paul Krugman, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Brad DeLong, Tyler Cowen, Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, Jeffrey Sachs, Nouriel Roubini, Raghuram Rajan, and others. The topics range from statistics on inequality in America, to the social structure of protest movements, to the history of Marxism, to the nature of third-world informal economies, and more. Almost all of the chapters are brief and to the point, and there are very few that did not teach me something interesting and new.
The overall message of the book is (or should be) that America's problems are complicated and deep, and not confined to a cyclical recession. They are related to our industrial structure, our class structure, our political institutions, and our government policies. And there are lots of people working on solving these problems in a number of different ways, from the halls of academia to the streets of New York to the corridors of government. No person sees all of the problems. Each person has only a piece of the elephant. And no one's solution is completely right. We all have something to learn from each other.
Anyway, some of the chapters really stood out as excellent, even in a very strong field:
John Cassidy asks the question "What good is Wall Street?", a question that (surprisingly!) receives too little discussion in the rest of the book.
Michael Hiltzik gives a great history of protest movements during the Great Depression.
James Miller has a truly excellent discussion of the problems of "consensus" decision-making, and the reason we use majority-rule democracy instead.
Robert M. Buckley writes a history of Marxism that forever changed my thinking about that movement. Specifically, he presents Marxism as a quiet but ever-present underlying threat in Western societies - a spectre that continues to haunt Europe - that forces elites to share power and wealth with the masses. This is quite possibly the best chapter in the whole book.
The incomparable Michael Lewis has two brief, witty chapters whose writing outshines the rest of the anthology.
Martin Wolf's chapter serves as a microcosm for the entire book. It represents one of the most succinct summaries of the West's economic problems that I've ever read.
Felix Salmon has the single most sensible policy proposal in the book, a call for banks to write down the principal on underwater mortgages.
The ideological distribution of the authors is naturally centered on the left, but there is definitely a spread. Tyler Cowen gives a reasonable (if not entirely convincing) conservative rebuttal to many of the complaints about inequality voiced elsewhere in the book. If I were the editor, I would have included one or two more of these, just to make Cowen's piece seem slightly less out of place, but it's not a big problem.
The book does whiff badly a couple of times - with over 50 authors, that's really inevitable. In particular, a guy named Brandon Adams is given three (three!!) chapters, more than any other author, in which he spouts a bunch of derp about how American culture is going down the tubes. These chapters can be safely skipped.
Also, Thomas Philippon really should have had a chapter.
But these are very minor quibbles. Overall, Occupy Wall Street is perhaps the most important, comprehensive guide to America's discontents since...well, I can't even think of another such guide in recent decades, and we haven't had this many discontents for quite a while. Its influence seems likely to outlast the Occupy movement itself. So, go read it, if you haven't already.
Posted at 4:14 PM