Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review: The Occupy Handbook



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.

35 comments:

  1. You should have a link to the book on Amazon in your blog. (And you should set up an amazon kickback service for click traffic, if you don't already have that.)

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    1. Sure, I'd do that. How does one set that up?

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    2. Also, it's linked in the post.

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    3. https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/

      just set up the thing where you can make links. you can even get paid in amazon credits if you already spend a lot there.

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    4. I can't see blue from black, apparently. I found it this time.

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    5. Thanks, Jonas! :-)

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    6. No problem, Doktor! You can even make something like this if you are spectacularly motivated:

      http://astore.amazon.com/consciwarrio-20

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    7. Anonymous3:08 PM

      As is often the case, you can find the book for less on Half.com:

      http://product.half.ebay.com/_W0QQprZ111987609

      No kickbacks from Amazon, but you don't have to feel bad about supporting what Amazon is doing to other booksellers....

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  2. Herman9:21 PM

    This is almost completely OT, but a genuine question, not a rhetorical one

    "Among said economists are ... Raghuram Rajan ..."

    Why do you (and virtually everyone) classify Rajan as an economist? AFAIK, he does not have any qualifications in economics..Rajan is just a management PhD from a business school. Banking and finance are not economics. My impression was that a management PhD from Sloan is very different from an MIT economics PhD.and in fact has a much lower status academically.

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    1. Management science is if anything more rigorous on average than economics at all levels (although the gap between Ph.D.s in the fields is admittedly small).

      Only in the case of MIT is it the case that a Ph.D. in economics is clearly higher "status academically" than a Ph.D. in operations research and that is a because MIT is #1 at econ.

      Even so, numerous "management scientists" have won Nobel prizes in econ. The 1975, 1978, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1997, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2012 awards were to people who either had degrees in or called themselves "operations researchers/management scientists. The 1969-1973, 1975, 1976 (sort of!), 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987-1990, 1994-1998, 2000-2007, 2009, and 2011-2012 were awarded for contributions to subtopics of "operations research/management science."

      Even as an economist, Rajan's abilities are unquestioned. He called the "securitization --> financial information gets destroyed --> crash" channel before anyone and while his work isn't the kind that wins Nobel Prizes or JBC medals, he's a damn good economist.

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    2. Management science includes a bunch of different fields, such as marketing, but finance is completely a subfield of economics, and everybody would consider Rajan an economist.

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  3. The collection does have several interesting pieces, but as far as I can tell it has just slightly more than zero to do with the Occupy movement, other than that some of the authors profess to be "sympathetic observers" of the movement. It was put together by a freelance editor and launched at the Peterson Institute. There are a few figures from the left represented - Barbara Ehrenreich, Amy Goodman - but most of the contributors are eminently mainstream figures. Rogoff and Reinhart are there, Volcker. Hardly rabble rousing occupiers. It does have Graeber, however.

    Seems like it was an attempt to grab some more readers and publicity for prominent and oft-published public intellectuals whose opinions are easily found elsewhere in very mainstream publications by spuriously attaching the collection to the once-trending "Occupy" meme. I doubt many people in Occupy actually adopted it as a handbook of any kind.

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    1. Dan, did you ever consider the possibility that maybe you're wrong about everything and the right-wing Republicans are right?

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    2. Anonymous10:37 AM

      Noah, here's the problem with that, I believe.

      The right-wing Republicans are right in their minds. No question. People don't just decide to become evil tyrants because it is fun, they do it because they don't understand any other way to keep this world in an order they can understand.

      But the reason it matters that there is an objective right and wrong is because we already have set up a technical system that requires knowledge to run as intended. We could go the way of the right-wing Republicans, but a heck of a lot of people would die unnecessarily. Is that right? It certainly could be to them.

      But the most important point is that we have a democracy, and not that people should understand the technical details of their system, but that the people in charge should have some understanding of what the people are asking for, and an understanding of how that can and cannot be achieved in the context of this technical system we have.

      A leader is inept if they don't understand their responsibility in defending the democratic wishes of the people. They people don't want to die.

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    3. If right-wing Republicans are right, then racism an sexism are right, child labor laws are wrong, attacking Iraq was right and necessary, dead fire-fighters in West Texas are a small price to pay for free-market utopia, history and science are bunk, global warming is a hoax, Obama is a Communist with members of the Muslim Brotherhood on his staff and his wife is sheltering the real Boston Marathon bomber.

      Now I must go hug a squid.

      JzB

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    4. I consider every possibility Noah. I don't see what that has to do with my comment here, though, which only made the claim that this book, despite its title, has little to do with the Occupy movement. I think that's a claim about current affairs, not political or economic philosophy. I doubt that even right wing Republicans think that Paul Volcker, Paul Krugman and Ken Rogoff are connected in any non-frivolous way with the Occupy movement.

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    5. Jazzbumpa and Anonymous:
      Yes, I agree. Right-wing Republicans are out of their f***cking gourd!

      Dan:
      It just seems like a lot of your comments can be essentially reduced to: "RAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!"...

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    6. @Dan Kervick: Noah is clearly trolling you.

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    7. Was that ever in doubt? One good troll deserves another...

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    8. Sorry, I'm mentally slow and awkward.

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    9. Dan, I'm just teasing, you know that...

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    10. "RAAAAAARRRRGH!!!" is a popular position in American politics, it should be noted.

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  4. John S1:33 AM

    Just FYI: I'm not very familiar with Brandon Adam's ideas on economics, but he is a pretty sharp cookie. He was Michael Lewis's primary research assistant on The Big Short (Lewis wrote: "Brandon Adams proved to be so smart about [Wall Street] that I half-wondered if perhaps he, instead of I, should be writing the book"). He also started a company which allowed you to get 1-on-1 consulting from Gary Becker for the bargain-basement price of $5,000 an hour. Even though it failed, that's pretty baller.
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-19/harvard-s-adams-enlists-nobel-economist-charging-5-000-for-hour-of-advice.html

    He's also a successful high-stakes poker player (here he steals $19K from Phil Hellmuth, although tbh it's a pretty poorly played hand on both sides: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1tcCH2a7Fg ).

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    1. First sentence from Brandon Adams' Wikipedia page: "Brandon Adams (born December 12, 1978 in New Orleans) is a self published author, and poker player who once taught a university class."

      Last two sentences: "Adams predicted the firm would reach profitability by the beginning of 2013. As of February 26 2013, Expert Insight does not exist."

      Whoever wrote his Wikipedia page seems to have it in for him...

      Anyway, a sharp cookie he may be, but his stuff in the Occupy Handbook was a bunch of derpy derp, especially the crap about the "decline of American culture"...what a pile of crap!

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    2. John S4:01 AM

      Well, your review has convinced me to read the book for the other essays. I'll have to get back to you on BA's contribution.

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    3. Agreed, I don't know how Adams' got so many essays in. It's basically cultural speculations + goldbuggery.

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  5. I read around half of it and I got bored. There were some very impressive names and Michael Hiltzik was really, really a joy to read.

    However the book felt kind of rushed and everyone brought his own agenda to the pages. A large part of the book felt like a yet another standard annoying centrist pundit op-ed. I used to be a Newsweek international subscriber in my teens but those bore me to tears now. Although "The Politics of Rage: Why they hate us" is incredible. I take it back. I love me a good op-ed, but I have to see some true original thought from an author who has really thought about it.

    I will probably revisit it though sometime.

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  6. Anonymous11:48 AM

    If Marxism is such a threat to "the elites," why have Marxist movements in the West and Russia historically been heavily sponsored by "the elites" themselves through funding and media? See Jacob Schiff and the Bolsheviks; George Soros and Occupy; the American communist movement of the mid-20th century, etc.

    Or could it be, just maybe, that Marxism is never in practice what it purports to be in theory? Kind of makes sense considering that every implementation of Marxism in the real world has resulted in uber-crony capitalism (control of all the state's resources and wealth by a chosen few ['the party']).

    Hmmmmmmm........

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    1. Anonymous11:59 AM

      It isn't a threat to the elites anymore. The problem now is that we know Marxism doesn't work, and cannot work. That was a lesson learned. But don't equate Marxism and socialism, or socialism and communism. And don't believe it for a second that the US is a capitalist system. It never was. The time of greatest strength of the US occurred only after FDR put in place some socialist policies to offset the self-destructive nature of capitalism.

      As long as we have been great, we have been a mix of socialism and capitalism, and if we are to remain great, we must maintain a mix. We know of no other way.

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    2. Robert M. Buckley is probably right. It was the threat of communism that drove the New Deal and it was the threat of communism that drove policies after the Second World War that favored the working and middle classes. If you were wealthy in 1946 would you have wanted any significant portion of the fifteen million veterans (who made up 10% of the population) to be out of work or suffering in poverty? Do the wealthy now care if there are large numbers of homeless, hungry or unemployed people? It was when the threat of communism receded that the right launched the attack on the middle class which is continuing to this day. A justified fear of being dragged from your bed by a hungry mob might make a liberal out of any plutocrat.

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    3. George Soros and Occupy don't advocate anything like Marxism.

      The 'elites' in Russia didn't advocate communism, it was a workers movement in retaliation for what they believed was an unfair system imposed by the Czars.

      The elites only advocated communism after the communist elites had become dictators. They weren't communists, they were autocratic socialists. That isn't what Marxism was supposed to be. It just turns out that if you rise up and kill the elites and take over the factories and give them to the workers, the leaders that wind up winning that kind of battle tend to be pretty ruthless, and most likely in favor of dictatorship.

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    4. Another Dave8:56 AM

      "the American communist movement of the mid-20th century"

      The American Communists were never well-funded. The core of the American Communist Party back in the day were intellectuals who were solidly upper-middle class but hardly "elite". And if you don't believe me, look at the kinds of people who were investigated by Senator McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the FBI.

      (In the interests of full disclosure, my grandfather was one of those people called in front of HUAC)

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  7. Dammit. You got to your review before I finished mine.

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  8. This is perhaps one of the most mature, good-natured and informative give and takes among any string of comments I have ever seen anywhere.

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    1. Thanks! :-)

      I agree, I have great commenters. The few bad apples that show up get weeded out by Random Comment Deletion. ;-)

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