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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, September 11, 2005

Authors Turn Economics into a Fascinating Subject

Economics is the study of how the world works, or to be more precise, it is "the branch of social science that deals with the production and distribution and consumption of goods and services and their management," (from the online lexicon WordNet). Here are some recent popular titles that deal with economic issues.

The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2005).

Friedman, best-selling author and foreign affairs columnist for the "New York Times," is the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who has made "globalization" a household word.

Here he proclaims that not only have trade and cultural barriers between countries fallen, but the 10-year old World Wide Web revolution has made the world "flat." International corporations, as well as small companies and enterprising individuals all over the world, are on the same level playing field. Outsourcing (contracting out one function, such as call centers to India) and offshoring (moving an entire factory to China) are two of the results.

Friedman says that this isn't a bad thing – it's just an inevitable result of the whole world participating in technology and manufacturing. It's the way capitalism and free market economies work. Every American worker needs to take responsibility for upgrading his skills, and every parent needs to make sure his kids study science and engineering. (I'm exaggerating a bit here – but it is true that we are falling woefully behind some other countries in science degrees).

If you prefer a summary rather than a thick tome, pick up the special August 22-29 double issue of "Newsweek" with the cover story, " China & India: What You Need to Know Now." You'll miss a lot of detail, but get the general idea.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, c2004).

This underground expose has been creeping up the charts. Perkins, who from 1971 to 1981 worked as an economist for the international consulting firm of Chas. T. Main, paints a very different picture of globalization from Friedman.

Perkins claims that his job was to target resource-owning countries in the third world, make inflated projections about the value of infrastructure improvements, and justify huge loans that would be paid out to contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel. The countries would typically never realize any profit on these projects and would instead become deeply in debt, with no recourse but to pay the debt with their natural resources.

Perkins says he risked his life by writing this book, and there's been some controversy on the Internet about whether Perkins might be a little off his rocker. On the other hand, televangelist and politician Pat Robertson's recent call for President Hugo Chavez of oil-rich Venezuela to be assassinated makes one pause.

Freakanomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow, 2005).

Levitt is a University of Chicago economist who recently received the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to the best American economist under forty. Dubner is a columnist and author.

Levitt is known for his knack for positing original theories and proving them through statistics. His most controversial contention so far is that legalized abortion is the key reason for the past decade's decrease in crime.

Garbage Land: on the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (Little, Brown, c2005).

In this witty account, a gifted Brooklyn-based writer chronicles her year-long voyage through recycle recovery centers, landfills, waste and sewage treatment plants in an effort to find out what happens to her personal waste.

In the process, Royte discovered that only two percent of the waste in this country is household waste, so reducing one's personal "waste footprint" is somewhat irrelevant. The rest of the waste is industrial and/or is a result of the production and packaging of commercial goods. The latest bugaboos are the huge amounts of non-recyclable electronics and plastics (Satan's resins) going into landfills.

Royte isn't judgmental, just factual. She has some good suggestions for becoming more environmentally conscious. I, for one, promise to pay more attention to the rules for the Curbside Recycling program posted on the Vanderburgh County website. I haven't been separating my newspapers from magazines.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.