“Hey mom, what do you think of this Varoufakis guy”
“Oh, he’s an idiot.”
So that is the ringing endorsement this particular title received. But I have long held a policy that one is obliged to every now and again pick up a book even if convinced that they will disagree with it. This ‘the truth has nothing to fear’ attitude has made me plow through many books which I ultimately hated. But I also feel that there is always something to learn from even books that you disagree with, even if all you learn is why you disagree with them. And lastly, occasionally a book will change your mind. So with that in mind I dove into Varoufakis’ book on the economy.
I’m not an economist. I have the same passing interest in it that most people do. That is, I know the people on TV talk about the economy and I know that when the economy is bad, my life seems to be as well. But many people who are very close to me work in or studied economics, and thus it has become something that I am (I hope) able to speak about with some sophistication. However, I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I do, and so I seek out books that will help me better understand what in the world I am talking about.
That seems to be the expressed goal of Varoufakis’ book. He wants to break down economics into concepts so simple that even his daughter, a child at the time of his writing, could understand it. I think it is a noble enough goal.
Well maybe. If you are reading his book with an open mind your opinion of it will ultimately boil down to whether or not you agree with the following.
As a teacher of economics, I have always believed that if you are not able to explain the economy in a language young people can understand, then, quite simply, you are clueless yourself. With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there.
Mind you, that is on page one of the book, so Varoufakis is being very forthright about his leanings. I don’t know to what extent this is the case. I have had my own experiences with the social sciences that have led me to believe that oversimplifications can lead people to erroneous beliefs. But on the other hand, I have also seen how academics use jargon and convoluted sentences to hide their charlatanry.
The book is clearly written. The examples are easy to follow. Varoufakis picks resources and examples to look into that are interesting and engaging. Varoufakis is a success when it comes to his goal of explaining this simply. When particular anecdote he goes into is so fascinating that I wish he had written a lot more on it. But there were more than a few moments that made me skeptical as to whether his simplification was accurate, and I am not sure it always was.
There is also something to say about whether he hits his mark with the books subtitle. It did a good job on ‘how capitalism works’, but there is preciously little about “how it fails.” This is strange, particularly when . capitalism seems to be failing us the most.