Category Archives: Book Review

Harry Johnson on Staffan Linder

I haven’t seen a book review like this in some time. Harry Johnson didn’t hold back while expressing his opinion of Linder (1961). This is the closing paragraph of his rather blunt five-page review:

In summary, this is at once an ambitious, provocative, and provoking book-ambitious in the breadth and depth of the problems in trade theory it propounds and seeks to solve, provocative in the hypotheses it propounds, and provoking on account both of the perverse misinterpretations of existing theory that the author produces to support his claims to novelty and of the careless botch he makes of the exposition of his own alternative theories. The result is a volume that ought to be read by specialists looking for seminal ideas and interesting research problems,but that cannot be recommended for use by students insufficiently trained to be alert to the substitution of emotive debating points for reasoned argument and of irrelevance for logical analysis. [Economica, 1964]

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy

I just finished The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, an excellent international trade narrative by Pietra Rivoli. Gary Hufbauer summarized the book well:

This book is unlike any text in International Economics 101. It’s totally entertaining and without those dreadful equations. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy tells the drama of globalization through real people and their daily lives. Rivoli recounts the trials of winners and losers on three continents. From a fascinating journey, she distills economic and political lessons that just make good sense.

Many of the topics covered in the book in “Part II: Made in China” and “Part III: Trouble at the Border” will be familiar to Trade Diversion readers (sweatshops, the Multifibre Agreement, Chinese textile quotas), but the text is well-written and compelling. Moreover, I learned a lot about the history of the American cotton industry (such as the shift from the Deep South to Lubbock, Texas, covered in “Part I: King Cotton”) and US dominance of used clothing exports (“Part IV: My T-Shirt Finally Encounters a Free Market”). The latter is perhaps the most interesting part of the book.

It is only at the retail level, and after it is tossed into a Salvation Army bin, that my T-shirt’s life is a story about markets rather than politics. It is political reactions to markets, political protection from markets, and political involvement in markets, rather than competition in markets, that are at the center of my T-shirt’s life story.

While the story of cotton in Texas is about public-private research partnerships and protection, and the story of textile imports is a collection of Beltway lobbyists from the Carolinas, the Tanzanian mitumba market that Rivoli visits is a cut-throat competition amongst hundreds of small entrepreneurs. And it’s fascinating.

William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden

I’m currently reading William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden, which is pretty well-written and reasonably argued. The most surprising content (for me) was Part III, which is an 80 page case against imperialism and nation building. As an economist, Easterly doesn’t wish to comment on the national security implications of “invading the poor,” but he analyzes the implications for the poor countries themselves.

Easterly opens chapter nine with a mockingly acerbic table. Selected entries:

Intervention Negative consequences Silver lining for United States
Vietnam War, 1961-1975 58,000 American dead; Communists still rule Vietnam; one of poorest countries in world; millions of Vietnamese dead Explosion of Vietnamese restaurants in United States
Cambodia, 1970-73; support of pro-American military ruler; American invading and bombing Khmer Rouge genocide; Vietnamese invasion; today one of poorest, most corrupt, most tyrannized nations Cambodian food is good, too
Backing Haile Selassie in Ethiopia against Soviet-backed Somlia Military overthrows Selassie and aligns itself with Soviets; two decades of civil war; Ethiopia still one of poorest countries in world Live Aid concert to help Ethiopia in 1985 gave valuable experience to Live 8 musicians to help Africa twenty years later
Switching to back Somalia against Soviet-backed Ethiopia Devastation of Ethiopia-Somalia with war-famine; collapse of Somali state and descent into chaos; fiasco of American intervention of 1994 Black Hawk Down was great book and movie
Backing Jonas Savimbi against Soviet-backed Angolan government in 195 and again in 1980s Government wins anyway; civil war continues after Soviet and Cubans leave and American aid ends; Savimbi is power-hungry warlord; land mines outnumber people; spectacular misery today despite great mineral wealth Can’t think of any

Paul Krugman – Pop Internationalism

I read Paul Krugman’s Pop Internationalism (1996) over the past two days. It’s well-written and a quick read. Krugman savagely demolishes bad arguments made by those that subscribed to “competitiveness” theories, thought that NAFTA would have massive impacts (good or bad) upon the United States, and made other errors. This short tome should be part of any international economics library. My only complaint is that, due to the book being a collection of previously published articles, some messages are repeated too frequently in the course of 220 pages.

Some may find the discussion of NAFTA, international competitiveness, and the Clinton administration quaintly dated. But one of the most important lessons in international economics (which you can learn from following Jagdish Bhagwati or reading Against the Tide) is that errors rear their heads again and again under guises that historically aware economists will recognize as old hat. For example, the competitiveness bug seems to have bitten Malcolm Gladwell.

There’s still much to learn from this classic collection of essays, and it’s under $8 including shipping.

Douglas Irwin – Against The Tide

I just finished reading my university’s copy of Douglas Irwin – Against The Tide and ordering a copy from Amazon. This stellar text is an intellectual history of the idea of free trade. Irwin masterfully traces the origins of the doctrine back to the ancient Greeks and illustrates its evolution up to the present. In describing how philosophers and economists thought about trade prior to Adam Smith, Irwin highlights numerous fascinating thinkers that many have forgotten. Of particular interest is Henry Martyn, who made an exceptionally advanced analytical case for free trade in 1701. And in tracing the history of free trade since Smith’s breakthrough work, Irwin aptly summarizes the most important debates with the clarity and insight afforded by contemporary analysis.

Paul Krugman found the text “full of new insights and unexpected delights.” I recommend it without hesitation.