Friday, 30 June 2017

Some Book Reviews! Economics, Social Science and Helene Hanff.

John Lanchester - Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can afford to pay 

Which is hilarious in a grim sort of way. Especially the theory of the 'greater fool', which is essentially the idea that buying toxic investments is still a good idea because there will be another idiot - or rather, a 'greater fool' who will come along and buy them off you for more money still.
(until suddenly there isn't, and everything crashes. It’s also morally bankrupt of course, because sooner or later someone is going to have to take the fall, but apparently this is not your problem.).

Then there's the dangerously beguiling idea that bundling lots of risky debts up together somehow evens out the risk and makes them safer, which I can see the logic of but which, again, is something that only works until it stops working.

I've read quite a few economics books now and although they all have different views there is one thread running through them all I think I can pull out. It's the sweet naivete of economists and bankers expecting the market to conform to mathematical models.

Of course, you can see why they want to believe this: a) it means they can predict which way the market will jump and make a killing and b) often the models do appear to work until circumstances change (an issue further complicated by the fact that sometimes circumstances change because of the models).

Also no-one wants to be the first to suggest that a bubble is a bubble because that in itself can give the market the jitters.

How you fix all this I’ve no idea. I don’t actually think you can. What perhaps you can do – and there are bodies in place to do this – is moderate the effects.

What you can also do, if you want a clearer idea of the issues written by someone more financially literate than me, is read this book.

Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir 

I borrowed this one from the library and in a way I'm glad I didn't buy it. There are some valid points made but - as with other similar books like 'Nudge', they are made over and over again.

Again it's mostly redeemed by humour and human interest, even if it is sometimes the sort of humour that makes you wince at how lame it is before laughing. 

The authors focus on scarcity of money and scarcity of time, but most of all on scarcity of what they call 'bandwidth', the ability to focus out of the tunnel and make long term plans when immediate wants are constantly with you. Their explanations of how otherwise intelligent people get into debt, and how busy people constantly borrowing from tomorrow ultimately end up getting less done, but can't see it themselves, are well worth looking into.

I got thoroughly sick of the word 'bandwidth' by the end though, and it hasn't made the 'books I enjoyed' list.

Underfoot in Show Business and Apple of My Eye - Helene Hanff

I quite enjoyed both of these, but they're undeniably more lightweight than 84 Charing Cross Rd or Q's Legacy. What lifts them is Hanff's matter-of-factness, her generosity of spirit, and the charming, easy, amusing, way she writes. It seems that finding out painful truths ('If they take you out to lunch they don't want to produce your play' springs to mind) which could make a harder person bitter, has given Hanff a laugh at least, and a laugh she happily shares with the reader.

So I kept reading, through Underfoot and into Apple, kept engaged by facts like New York being technically bankrupt in the 70s, and her trip to the newly opened World Trade Center, the exciting new future now made horribly poignant with hindsight.

Except - I wasn't quite so keen on Apple. It starts well, with her realisation that she's visited very few tourist traps in the city she's lived in for XX years, but then.. somehow I didn't care about the tourist traps. I wanted more of Hanff herself in there than her fear of heights, and more of New York than her famous landmarks.

Luckily I've just had Letter From New York in the post. Fingers crossed.

For people able to listen to it there is also Hanff's interview for Desert Island Discs here. No music, sadly, but I picked out a few on Spotify. I'm less of an opera buff than she was, but the Firebird Suite is lovely.

These are the three I have from the 1980s Futura series. Isn't this fantastic design?

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