May 31, 2013

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, May 2013

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Unexplained Fevers
More fairytales retold, as modern verse. (Previously: 1, 2.)
Jay Lake, Kalimpura
Mind candy; the conclusion of Green's story. The writing continues to be excellent, but I found the ending a bit too easy. (Previously: 1, 2.)
John Scalzi, The Human Division
Mind candy. Fun if you've been enjoying the series, not worthwhile otherwise. (Previously: 1, 2 and 3.)
Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else
High quality popular social science about rising inequality, primarily in the US but also giving a lot of attention to China, Russia and India.
Mary E. Burfisher, Introduction to Computable General Equilibrium Models
Computable general equilibrium models in economics work something like this. There are several types of consumers, who spend their income on different types of goods, with the division across goods depending on their absolute and relative prices. (There is the usual mythology about how this is from utility maximization, but all that's even close to empirical here are the demand functions, which are aggregate demands from vast numbers of consumers, so individual utility is superfluous.) Producers of goods in turn adjust quantities produced in response to prices. (Again, there's mythology about utility.) Generally speaking, prices are adjusted so that demand equals supply and all markets clear, especially all markets for factors of production. (Alternately, if one wants to admit that unemployment happens, one has to hold wages constant "by hand".) The income which goes to goods producers is then divided up similarly among factors of production, and thence to consumers. Everything balances, so that every dollar spent on one side of a transaction is received on the other. (Including taxes and foreign trade complicates things only a little.)
These models are very widely used for policy, with a typical exercise being to "shock" some price or quantity or tax rate, and purport to calculate the effects. This book is an introduction to their use, for an implied reader who mostly remembers a basic microeconomic course but otherwise has little economic sophistication, and less math. (They also need a lot of hand-holding.) Since I am very far from the implied reader, it's hard for me to judge how well it would teach them to plug-and-chug in such models, but I suspect it will work at least OK. It will certainly not teach them how to think critically about the model's output.
It is really quite astonishing that one and the same economics profession can simultaneously proclaim the importance of microfoundations, and elaborate and accept models like these. (Cf.) It is really quite scary to think that important decisions get made using models this crude. It is also scary to think that decision-makers are getting advice from people who understand economic models so little as to find this book useful.
Matt Fraction, David Aja and Javier Pullido, Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon
Comic-book mind candy.
George Polya, How To Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method
The book which started the revival of "heuristics" (I think). I'd never read it before; I see why it's a classic, I'll certainly borrow from it (and recommend it) for teaching purposes. But — and I realize that this is a person of very small accomplishments criticizing a great mathematician — there is a school-room air to the sort problem-solving Polya describes. "Have you used all the data?" and "Have you used all of the condition?" are good pieces of advice for a pedagogical problem which is (as Polya says) "perfectly posed", with no superfluities or missing parts, and a fixed goal. Getting to that point is much of the work of doing original mathematics, let alone empirical science, or even original data analysis. Now, to be fair, Polya realizes this (see his entry on "practical problems"), but it still seems like a huge gap. — I will assign this to the Kids in the research projects course in the spring, but it won't really be what they need.
Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality
Tilly's attempt to sketch out the families of mechanisms which generate and maintain categorical inequalities, as between races, or sexes, or nationalities, or ethnicities. It deserves a full review but I can't give it one.
(That said, I found the discussion of opportunity hoarding much more satisfying than that of exploitation. It's not clear to me how, analytically, we are supposed to recognize exploitation, as opposed to fair-but-unequal rewards. It's also not clear to me that it's really a mechanism, in the sense Tilly (very sensibly) wants to find, i.e., a recurring pattern of causal interaction.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Dismal Science; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Commit a Social Science; Mathematics; Corrupting the Young; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at May 31, 2013 23:59 | permanent link

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