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Book Review: New Ideas from Dead Economists
My first book review
This is my first Substack book review. I’ll be posting about my favorite (nonfiction) books I’ve read in the future.
New Ideas From Dead Economists was not a book I planned on reading. Bored out of my mind writing an essay about The Handmaid’s Tale* in the library, my eye was caught by its bright red spine amidst the grey and muddy green-colored books in my school’s economics section. I flipped through the pages, expecting to find some moderately interesting, but ultimately repetitive ideas and theories about economics that might’ve been discussed in Econ 101. Instead, I was met with a fascinating history of some of economics’ greatest thinkers.
Disclaimer: I read half the book on a lawn chair in the Tuileries while in Paris, which likely contributed to my positivity about the book.
New Ideas From Dead Economists, by Dr Todd Buchholz, covers some of the most famous economists that have contributed to the discipline, including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes, to name a few. Adam Smith is the first economist covered, discussing both his biographical and ideological ventures. I appreciate the recognition Buchholz gives to Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is an under-appreciated book. Smith investigates why people exercise integrity even when no one is watching, concluding that people imagine there is an “impartial spectator” watching and judging our every move. Smith essentially created the concept of a Freudian ‘Super-ego’ over a century before psychoanalysis and the superego were commonly discussed by mainstream thinkers of the day.
Its inclusion in New Ideas efficiently portrays the way in which many of the great economists weren’t simply ‘economists.’ Given Adam Smith was the ‘Father of Economics’ economics was not a field at the time of his writing. Todd Buchholz explains the first economics department wasn’t established until the Cambridge Economics Department in 1903. Thus, thinkers like John Stewart Mill and Adam Smith were thinkers of “Political Economy” which made them less empirical and more philosophically and humanistically oriented than economists of later years (though empirical research also increased due to the ubiquity of computing).
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on David Ricardo, the economist famous for first understanding comparative advantage, and its explanation in the benefits of free trade. Buchholz includes a hilarious satirical work from Frédéric Bastiat, written when the French were considering import tariffs in 1840:
We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light, that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price. This rival is none other than…..
We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s‐eyes, deadlights and blinds; in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures. If you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged? If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep. . . .
New Ideas helpfully lays out how John Maynard Keynes revolutionized economics, and how the context in which he learned the discipline (particularly through the Treaty of Versailles) shaped his later views, similar to the history given in Zach Carter’s 2020 book The Price of Peace.
Some have criticized Buchholz’s book for being too dismissive of Karl Marx through his poor depiction. Buchholz does characterize Marx as an alcoholic, which probably affects a reader’s perception of him, but Buchholz also does an effective job of explaining his skepticism for Marx’s theories, particularly by including Alfred Marshall’s critique of Marx’s “Labor Theory of Value.”
My interest in economics started in seventh grade, from which I have taken numerous online courses, lectures, read many of books, and worked as a research assistant. To learn so many new things about economics after five years of interest in such a short and simple book impressed me, which is why I would recommend it to everyone. Additionally, a lot of easily accessible information about economics and economic history doesn’t take a close look discussing thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Thorstein Veblen, and Thomas Malthus. The book discusses these thinkers and more at a time when, despite the ubiquity of Econ 101 principles easily accessible online, many intro courses are bereft of information about these thinkers. New Ideas from Dead Economists is readable for anyone who has never taken an economics course, and is a book I highly recommend.
*Admittedly, I did not read The Handmaid’s Tale (it was too boring), nor do I even know how it ends, but my efforts were enough to earn a B on the essay.
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