Why does the phenomenon of ‘phishing’ — getting others to act against their self-interest, instead exploiting them (or their gullibility) to further one’s own agenda — emerge with such high degree of reliability wherever ‘free markets’ reign? In their book ‘Phishing for Phools’, economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller argue that phishing strikes at the very heart of economics, by calling into question our capacity to rational decision-making and thereby undermining the very idea of ‘homo oeconomicus’. What explains phishing, Akerlof and Shiller suggest is a fundamental mechanism that connects psychological and informational malfunctions in modern economics: namely, the human tendency to engage in, and fall for, storytelling. Drawing on a wide range of examples — from the economics of slot machines, to health clubs, lobbying, junk bonds and finanical crises — this astonishingly witty book offers insight and diversion for economists and laypersons alike. However, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro concludes, new trends in economics such as evolutionary economics and economic anthropology — neither of which is discussed in ‘Phishing for Phools’ — hold out the promise of making sense of phishing in a potentially more rigorous and unified way.
Most visibly for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, but perhaps more importantly for banks, insurance companies, and major corporations, “Big Data” provides a new paradigm for organizing information, to which the use of algorithms has become ever more central. In his book ‘What are Algorithms Dreaming Of: Our Lives in Times of Big Data’ (‘A quoi rêvent les algorithmes: Nos vies à l’heure des big data’, Seuil, Paris 2015), Dominique Cardon aims to show how these new computing techniques are revolutionizing our society. Through new ways of classifying information, personalized advertising, product recommendation, and the track of consumers’ behaviour and interested, large-scale calculating infrastructures are trying to interfere ever more intimately in individuals’ lives. Yet far from being merely technical tools, algorithms bring with them an emergent political project. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein notes, there is a sinister paradox here. People are by and large suspicious of centralized powers, be it the power of politicians, journalists, or unions; they (profess to) abhor being classified into broad categories, believing instead that their individuality fits into no “box.” Yet, these very same individuals allow themselves to become locked into the bubble of algorithms – partly because this new algorithmic authoritarianism has successfully been camouflaged as non-authoritarianism, partly because they are impressed with the speed and the effects of algorithmic coordination.
‘Who owns Germany?’ What might look like a polemical question, intended to incite envy, is in fact a valid concern that merits attention from social scientists and policy-makers. On average, a German household owns wealth to the tune of more than two-hundred thousand Euros. But wealth is unevenly distributed — which is why half of the population owns barely 1.4 percent of total wealth, whereas two thirds of Germany’s wealth are in the hands of the top 10 percent. In his eponymous book, ‘Who Owns Germany?’ (Westend, Frankfurt 2014), Jens Berger traces the origins and the consequences of uneven wealth distribution, its hidden mechanisms and those profiteer from policies that continue to channel wealth from the bottom to the top. Throughout, writes reviewer Patrick Schreiner, Berger maintains a measured tone and displays a keen attention to detail and an awareness of the social realities — from the casualization of labour to the malfunctions of the international financial markets.
How do we feed an ever growing world population in an environment of increasing scarcity? In their book ‘Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch: From Soup to Nuts’ (London: Routledge 2014), investment bankers Julie Hudson and Paul Donovan liken the current overuse of the environment to the over-borrowing that ultimately led to the credit crunch in the global financial markets in 2008/09. Yet, argues reviewer Heiko Fritz, this perspective is ultimately limiting, and says more about the mindset of those trained to look at the world’s problems through the lens of financial markets, than about the challenges of food policy under conditions of environmental degradation. This is why, ultimately, the authors converge on the misguided conclusion that, as Fritz summarizes their views, “the hunt for technical efficiency is the most pressing problem of global food production”.
In a world that is more and more connected by electronic and other social media, questions of reputation and its management become ever more important, even to individuals who previously would not have thought of themselves as being in the public limelight. A recent volume, ‘La Réputation’ (2013), edited by Gloria Origgi and published by the Centre Edgar-Morin, explores this topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. Composed of twelve articles, ranging from psychology and economics to philosophy and sociology, the volume aims at a ‘disenchantment’ of the elusive notion of reputation. As reviewer Thomas Mollanger notes, though the volume engages little with the extensive body of reputation research in the English-speaking world, it nonetheless succeeds in highlighting and analyzing the centrality of reputation to a range of social phenomena.
The market, we are told, has moods and desires, is ‘jittery’ and ‘sends a message’. We are told to listen and anticipate its every move, preempting adverse ‘verdicts of the market’ through shrewd political decision-making. In his short (81-page) essay, ‘Can the Market Speak?’, Campbell Jones investigates the conceptual assumptions that underlie the idea that the market has intentions, consciousness, and the ability to speak to us. Yet, argues reviewer Mark Bergfeld, by solely focussing on the personification of the markets, Jones reveals a contradiction in capital’s attempt to paint the markets as behaving rationally: The supposed rational actors inside of the markets are themselves guided by “the invisible hand of the market”. In other words, underlying the very rationality of the market one finds irrationality and superstition.
In his book ‘The Antidote’, Oliver Burkeman argues that ‘positive thinking’ and relentless optimism aren’t the solution to the happiness dilemma, but part of the problem, and advocates instead ‘the power of negative thinking’. But, writes reviewer Berit Brogaard, while the book offers a spirited and witty account of some of the best ways to get through periods of distress or sorrow (or sheer annoyance), in the end, what Burkeman proposes isn’t all that different from standard cognitive-behavioural therapeutic practices, which include the positive thinking methods he so strongly criticises.
What drives the recent resurgence of piracy, especially in the Gulf of Aden and along other major trade routes? In a recent book, Peter T. Leeson argues that by examining the piracy that reached its peak between the end of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, and preyed on the major trade routes, one may hope to get a clearer understanding of modern piracy. Leeson, writes reviewer Daniele Archibugi, adopts a thoroughgoingly economic perspective, according to which pirates have historically aimed at obtaining the maximum result with the least effort and above all minimum risk. The prospect of high profits, together with strict rules for social organisation and a striking commitment to principles of equality, made piracy a lucrative and attractive profession in the arly 18th century – with one important downside: when captured, pirates would almost always be hanged.
Is it possible for a human being to act in a truly disinterested manner? Do disinterested actions have a psychological unity or are they the mere product of circumstances? Is disinterestedness an individual or a collective phenomenon? These are the questions that Jon Elster tackles in the first volume of a trilogy dedicated to a thorough critique of classical conceptions of Homo Economicus. But, asks reviewer Gloria Origgi in light of Elster’s taxonomy of forms of disinterestedness, if so many different motivations may underlie the phenomenon of disinterestedness, are we still talking about one and the same thing?