Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Superb read

For those who heard nothing but thinly disguised political payback in President Barack Obama's speech yesterday, here is a pleasant antidote. Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Wayne Leighton and Edward Lopez) is pure joy. The authors remind us that it is ideas that matter. But ideas must be transmitted and turned around and then acted on -- often in a political context.  This is a clear enough thought but the authors give readers a guided tour of the work of the important scribblers, from Plato to Kirzner, elaborating many ideas and providing examles of they were implemented (in recent years by the likes of Daniel Moynihan, Alfred Kahn, Steven Spielberg, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others).  It's amazing how many ideas are so well discussed in 190 pages.  The authors like enterpreneurs and "political entrepreneurs," many of whom explain ideas and also have a hand in implementation.

Danny Biasone saved the NBA by inventing the shot clock and Norman Borlaug saved a few billion people by inventing a better grain.  Saving people from starvation was an uphill battle with environmentalists and other status quo partisans, but Borlaug persisted. Leighton and Lopez like the thinkers as well as the doers. There is a very nice discussion in Chapter 5 on how ideas are formed via top-down (scribblers) and bottom-up (the culture) interactions.

Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect has long been the go-to book to learn about the origins of many key ideas in the field.  I would pair it with Leighton and Lopez.