Saturday, March 17, 2012

What I'm Reading Now

Steven Pinker's much heralded new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking 2012), has drawn a fair amount of criticism (see, e.g., here) for its optimistic portrayal of human moral growth through secular institutional development. However, I find Pinker's analysis both brilliant and compelling. In fact, the only thing that bothers me about this book - which is among the more impressive non-fiction works I have read in a very long time - is Pinker's virtually unmatched combination of scholarly acumen (combining big ideas with careful, detailed research), creative analytical insight, and virtuosity as a writer. Simply put, I'm jealous of his scholarly and literary chops.

Agnar Sandmo, Economics Evolving: A History of Economic Thought (Princeton 2010). A clear and  accessible history of economic thought, focusing on the major (and mid-major) thinkers and their contributions. Sandmo celebrates the increasing formalization of economic models as the most valuable source of progress in the discipline, while discounting the extent to which that formalization has separated theoretical economic analysis from the real world and real humans. And his history concludes without any discussion of the behavioralist or new institutional challenges to neoclassical economic theory. One would search in vain to find the names Herbert Simon, Ronald Coase, or Douglass North in the text or bibliography. Such neglect is inexplicable given Sandmo's discussion of several of their contemporaries, including James Buchanan's public choice theory. In this respect, at least, Sandmo's history is seriously incomplete. That said, it is quite useful for anyone who wants to get a basic picture of the rise of classical economics, the marginal revolution, and the growth of neoclassical theory.

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