Chatting about books

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 3, 2021

Yesterday, I handed over the directorship of my institute to a colleague. In the speech two colleagues gave to thank me for my service, they described my role as being that of the ‘middle-manager’, who in the present-day neoliberal universities is crushed between the powers and constraints set by those above them, and the demands and needs of the many below them. I fear that kind of sums it up (although one could also mention the added difficult which is the negligence of the Government that continues to underfund higher education, despite report after report showing that with current levels of funding the only way for Universities to continue their mission is by effectively forcing its workers to produce massive amounts of unpaid overwork). No surprise, it was a role that consumed way too much of my time.

In any case, I turned this page and am now looking ahead to a year in which to concentrate fully on writing a book on limitarianism, the view that no-one should be extremely rich, which recently was discussed in The Washington Post. And I’m also very much looking forward to reading widely and freely, rather than not having time to do that to the degree that I would have wanted to.

My hope to read up on many books that have been staring at me, some for years, waiting to be read, made me think that it might be nice to organise “Book chats” here at Crooked Timber. So what’s the plan?

When Eszter wrote about the books she read in 2020, it was in part painful to me personally since it made me aware of how few I had been able to read (which was/is a frustration), but also in part lovely to read these short comments on the books Eszter had read. So why not turn that into a bit of a format here, in a way that allows for more conversation? The plan is that I’ll open the conversation with some remarks on the book I’ve read, and then it’s open to all. I am not committing to (always) write long book reviews of the type that are also regularly posted here at Crooked Timber. I’ll announce the title of the book that I’ll chat about at least three weeks in advance (is that enough for everyone interested in this to get hold of a copy?).

The first book I’ll discuss is Mariana Mazzucato’s Mission Economy. A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, which was published earlier this year. It is not only a critique on capitalism, but also a manifesto calling for a much more ambitious role for the government to become more visionary in tackling today’s big problems. Mazzucato is hailed as one of the most interesting economists “trying to save capitalism from itself”; there is lots of material to be found on her website. During an online gathering discussing her book, she talks about “creating wealth in a new way, and distributing it in a new way”; so let’s read the book and find out how Mariana Mazzucato proposes to do this. If you’re interested in joining a discussion of this book, mark your agenda for July 24th, when I’ll kick off the discussion.

The next book in line will be Hilary Cottam‘s Radical Help. How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State. This is a book about why the (British) Welfare state no longer works, and what we need to replace it (here’s a short summary). What’s interesting about this book, is that it has been written by someone not just with solid academic training, but especially with on-the-grounds experience in discovering why the existing social welfare institutions no longer deliver what they were meant to deliver, and who learnt from social activism and on-the-grounds innovations what might work better. Date for that book chat to be confirmed.



oldster 07.04.21 at 11:54 am

“… limitarianism, the view that no-one should be extremely rich….”

This seems like a true view, and one whose implementation into law would make the world a better place.

Good luck with your campaign.


Jim Harrrison 07.05.21 at 5:18 pm

A country with billionaires is like a hotel with bedbugs. I look forward to your book on limitarianism.


oldster 07.05.21 at 10:40 pm

Jim, it’s just possible that you’ll want to advocate for limitarianism using rhetoric that has fewer historical echoes of anti-semites.

And Jack Rover is pretty clearly a bot or an ad for a paid essay writing service (or both).


John Quiggin 07.07.21 at 5:26 am

Spambot deleted!

I’m keen to read more of Mazzucato in time for this seminar.

On limitarianism, Jacob Hacker’s distinction between predistribution and redistribution seems critical here. It seems more appealing to design an economy in which becoming a billionaire is impossible than to start with something like the existing economy and try to tax or confiscate the assets and income of the very rich.


J-D 07.07.21 at 7:13 am

It seems more appealing to design an economy … than to start with something like the existing economy …

No matter what, no matter where you want to get to, you have to start from where you are.


oldster 07.07.21 at 11:47 am

“It seems more appealing to design an economy in which becoming a billionaire is impossible than to start with something like the existing economy and try to tax or confiscate the assets and income of the very rich.”

I haven’t thought much about this, but using a famous toy case this seems wrong.
It strikes me as easier to let Wilt Chamberlain collect $5 from an endless supply of fans who want to watch him play, and then tax WC in a confiscatory way at the end of the year (or game), rather than — what? limiting the number of fans who can watch him? Making the first thousand fans pay $5, and making attendance free after that? Pricing every ticket on a descending scale?
From a purely mechanical/administrative perspective, I would have thought that post-earning confiscation would be much easier than any system for preventing the initial accumulation.
But again — you economists must have given this a lot more thought than Nozick ever did, much less someone like me with dim memories of hand-me-down Nozickian nostrums.


MFB 07.08.21 at 10:26 am

Well, good luck with the Hilary Cottam book. I remain curmudgeonly convinced that anyone who calls herself a “social entrepreneur” is probably a huckster at some level; the Guardian piece was clearly written with the aim of discrediting the welfare state per se, and anyone who gets an OBE must have done remarkable service for someone extraordinarily odious to get it.


Harry 07.08.21 at 3:26 pm

“anyone who gets an OBE must have done remarkable service for someone extraordinarily odious to get it.”

That’s a remarkably ignorant thing to say. I’d scrap the Honours system, myself, but I think you’ll find in the ranks of MBEs, OBEs, CBEs, Knights/Dames, whatever, thousands of people whose working lives have been far more admirable than almost anyone who writes for or reads this site, yourself included unless you are really a remarkable outlier. And I don’t mean that as an insult to my fellow CTers or our readers — many of those people are just really exceptional.

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