Posts Tagged ‘books’

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Peggy M. Hart, The Magic of Coal (1945)

As I have argued many times on this blog, representations of the economy are produced and disseminated in many different spaces (in addition to academic economics departments) and through many different media (in addition to the usual, mostly mainstream economics textbooks).

One example of this proliferation of economic representations is children’s literature. Children are the targets of educators and writers, most of whom (at least these days) are determined to make sure children get the “correct” understanding of key concepts and institutions. And, for the most part, they mirror the kinds of knowledges produced by mainstream economists, albeit with language and illustrations appropriate for children.

Scholastic offers such a list (which features Homer Price by Robert McClosky, through which students learn the “law of demand”). So does Choice Literacy (which includes Tomie dePaola’s Charlie Needs a Cloak, “good for discussing the four factors of production”). And then there’s the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, which groups books by concept (such as Markets and Competition, Opportunity Cost, and so on).

Motoko Rich’s view is that “By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center” (and that may be true of books that teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving) but, at least for the books on the lists provided by economics educators these days, the tendency is much more mainstream, if not purely neoclassical.

That was not always the case, as Kimberley Reynolds [ht: ja] explains, in the Soviet Union but also during the interwar period in the United Kingdom.

The fact that children’s books can have a strongly formative influence upon the young has often attracted the attention of new leaders and regimes. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his followers harnessed the power of children’s books to shape culture. Some of the artistically vibrant work that resulted from co-opting leading writers and artists is currently on exhibit at London’s House of Illustration with the title, A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. In interwar Britain too, a group of socially and aesthetically radical children’s books underpinned the work of making Britain a progressive, egalitarian, and modern society. But unlike their Soviet counterparts, these books have since remained a largely hidden secret, with most scholars of the period overlooking them altogether.

A good example is Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal, which was published as a Puffin picturebook in 1945. It was the British equivalent of the Soviet “production books.”

Production books detailed the production process of economically essential resources such as coal or steel. Emphasis was placed on the difference between the capitalist and communist machinery used to create these resources; where capitalist machinery was shown to feed greed and overproduction, communist machinery provided a helping hand in creating a prosperous future everyone could enjoy. Thus production books clearly directed the child reader’s attention to a wider political narrative beyond the specificities of the text.

Production books were aesthetically modernist, combining ideas from abstract painting with typography to create a visual language strikingly different from what had gone before. Pictures held a machine-like appearance, using straight lines and elementary forms. By championing newness, it was conveyed to the child reader that they had the potential to be aesthetically innovative. Rather than simply encouraging them to learn to copy what was already seen as beautiful, aesthetic modernism puts more at stake for the child; if whatever they create has the potential to be considered beautiful, there is more incentive for them to attempt to create. Similarly, if a transformed communist society is shown to be a plausible alternative to today’s society, there is a greater incentive for the child to become an activist to help bring this society about.

Apparently, the Magic of Coal contained all the features of a production book:

Reference is made to, ‘our gas works’ and ‘our community, implying collective ownership, and all images are aesthetically modernist. Thus it is an example of the attempts of a popular front of left-wing publishers to bring the production book genre and its associated radicalism to Britain in the interwar period.”

As such, it was quite different from what passes today for children’s economics literature:

Taking the child on a journey, it tells not only of the production of coal but also elevates the miner as an important and  respectable member of society. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards a political goal.

The text focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism.

The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ before or after work, challenging class boundaries as it suggests that before he enters the mine, a working-class man looks like, and therefore is like, any other man going about any other business. The text also tells us of the miner’s life outside of work, mentioning societies, theatre visits and higher education, indicating that the miners are not only important members of coal-fueled, modern society, but also respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture.

I don’t know if children’s economics books of this sort—whether about coal mining or Wall Street—are being written and produced today. If they’re not, they need to be. If they are, then they need to be included in the lists that promote the economics education of children.

There is—and there needs to be—a lot more than mainstream economic ideas in representations of the economy, both inside and outside the official discipline of economics.

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the world-historic Easter Rising in Ireland. And, here in the United States, we’re getting quite an education—first, with 1916 The Irish Rebellion, a big, lavishly produced slab of prestige television (with none other than Liam Neeson as the narrator), available on 120 television stations in the United States and on the BBC; then, on Sundance, with Rebellion, a soap-operaish version of the same events; and, finally,  A Full Life: James Connolly the Irish Rebel, a graphic remembrance of socialist agitator, editor, and author Connolly illustrated by artist Tom Keough.*

I’ve only seen the two television series, so I can’t comment on Keough’s book.

In my view, 1916 The Irish Rebellion does an excellent job of providing the necessary background (at least for those of us lacking the basic, Irish secondary-school-book knowledge of the events—although it tends to exaggerate the U.S. connection (highlighted in the trailer) and to downplay the egalitarian and socialist impulses in the Rising’s anti-imperialism (which, I presume, the Connolly book serves to correct). And while Rebellion is more an intimate recreation than a documentary (and does take historical liberties and shortcuts in dramatizing, I would say melodramatizing, the events), it does highlight the role of women among the forces for and against Irish independence.

Still, both television series serve to shine a spotlight on the short-lived and ultimately failed rebellion that showed to the rest of Ireland (beyond Dublin), the British Empire (for which this was the beginning of the end), and the rest of the world (in a wide variety of socialist, communist, and national-liberation movements) that the dream of making and changing history was embodied by and yet could not be contained within the “terrible beauty” of 1916.**

 

*Here’s the appropriate disclaimer: while 1916 The Irish Rebellion was largely financed by the University of Notre Dame and written by Notre Dame professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, I played no role in the creation or dissemination of the documentary.

**It is precisely that terrible beauty that is taken up in Ken Loach’s film, Jimmy’s Hall, which takes place in 1932 and focuses on the post-1916 political tensions among the Catholic church, the state, the landowners, and the republican movement.

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The spectacular crash of 2007-08, once a public spectacle of economists, politicians, and bankers, is increasingly becoming a popular spectacle in art.

Alessandra Stanley reviews some of the recent films, TV series, and novels—from The Big Short through Billions to Opening Belle—that attempt to represent the causes and consequences of the worst crash since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Americans are once again paying for the 2008 financial collapse.

This time, though, it’s willingly.

Entertainment industry executives and publishers say there is a growing audience for movies, plays, television shows and novels that address the misdeeds and systemic failures that brought the economy to the edge of collapse eight years ago.

I wonder what impact these projects will have on the current political campaign in the United States, where both parties are being forced to deal with widespread discontent over the real-world spectacle of growing inequality, Too Bigger to Fail banks, and more instability ahead.

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The public was asked to vote on a list of the top 20 academic books, from a list of 200 titles, selected by a committee of experts invited to take part by the Booksellers Association and The Academic Book of the Future project.

As it turns out, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was the firm favorite, securing 26 percent of the vote. The Communist Manifesto came in second.

But, for some strange reason, Alison Flood [ht: ja] decided to focus instead on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which was fifth:

a choice heralded by the Booksellers Association’s Alan Staton. “We seem to be governed by expediency and doublethink and it’s reassuring to know that Kant’s Categorical Imperative is known and thought important,” he said.

Philosopher Roger Scruton agreed. “I am gratified that the Critique of Pure Reason, which must be surely one of the most difficult works of philosophy ever written, should have been chosen as among the most influential of all academic books,” he said of the 18th-century text.

“Kant set out on an extraordinary task, which was to show the limits of human reasoning, and at the same time to justify the use of our intellectual powers within those limits. The resulting vision, of self-conscious beings enfolded within a one-sided boundary, but always pressing against it, hungry for the inaccessible beyond, has haunted me, as it has haunted many others since Kant first expressed it.”

From my perspective, it is much more interesting that the list included Edward Said’s Orientalism, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

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I don’t know if economics has made any progress. (I don’t know what that would mean, and I certainly don’t know how I would measure it.)

But I do know that my students last semester, in Topics in Political Economy, read five books (The Wealth of Nations, Capital, The Great Transformation, The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century) on the list of the 100 Best Economics Books of All Time [ht: sk], and two more books (Knowledge and Class and The Price of Inequality) by authors on that list. And they watched four classic economics films (Modern Times, Harlan County USA, Roger & Me, and Inside Job).

Not a bad semester’s work, if I do say so myself. . .

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Financial crisis literature

Posted: 11 September 2013 in Uncategorized
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There is, of course, a vast literature on the financial crisis.

Here is a link to the most complete list I have come across—of books, papers, articles, and films about the crash of 2007-08, the conditions leading up to it, and its consequences.