Saturday, January 22, 2011

Smackdown Saturday

. Saturday, January 22, 2011

A couple of nice beatdowns of books I haven't read. First, UCLA history prof Russell Jacoby goes after Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias:

We are only on page thirteen and already we have utopias that depend on a social science that depends on a theory of justice that breaks down into two parts, social and political, the first of which subdivides in three ways. The second task of Wright’s social science envisions alternatives, which can be evaluated by three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability. Some things can be desired, but not viable, and viable but not achievable. ... So far, Wright’s book might be classified as an Undesirable Nonviable Alternative. ...

By page 150, Wright finally turns, almost, to “real utopias.” More theoretical brush clearing is required. He will look at real utopias with three criteria: desirability, viability, and social empowerment. A hundred and twenty pages earlier he had posited desirability, viability, and achievability as the foundation of an emancipatory social science. Now he has dropped the last term and added another. Who cares? ...

WHAT IS one to make of this morass? Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. ... He says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.

Ouch. But this takedown of Dambisa Moyo's new book might be even harsher:

HERE are two predictions about the world economy. First, the West’s malaise and the rise of emerging economies will yield a mountain of books. Second, few of these are likely to be as bad as “How the West Was Lost”. ...

This is basic stuff. Much else in elementary economics also gets mangled here. Governments usually manipulate exchange rates to make their currencies artificially weak, not strong. In the Keynesian national-income identity, G represents government spending, not the budget surplus. The idea of a special tax on sports stars’ incomes to discourage youngsters from unrealistic aspirations is intriguing, if contentious; suggesting that the two groups might bargain away such effects is absurd.

There are some puzzling omissions. Ms Moyo rightly complains at the exclusion of big emerging economies (except Russia) from the G8. She celebrates the strengthening of their diplomatic muscles. Amazingly, she seems not to have noticed the prime manifestation of this: the rise of the G20, which since 2008 has eclipsed the smaller, rich-country club.

Worse, Ms Moyo commits some jaw-dropping factual errors. General Motors, she writes, was bought by Fiat, “an event unimaginable just a couple [of] years earlier”. Yes, and it still is: the Italian carmaker did not purchase GM, but a 20% stake in Chrysler, recently increased to 25%. France gets “almost 20% of its electricity from nuclear sources”. The OECD says the figure is close to 80%.

Ms Moyo’s editors are as bad as her fact-checkers. If they couldn’t spot the analytical flaws, they might have done something about the stylistic ones that range from curious analogies to long phrases in parentheses. Endnotes are used almost at random.

If, after that, you're still interested in Wright's book, the pre-print of nearly the whole thing is available here. And Wright discusses the theme in the video below, the slides from which are here.

Envisioning Real Utopias from West Coast Poverty Center on Vimeo.

(ht: Josh Miller)


Smackdown Saturday
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