New and noteworthy – 28 July 2016

Timely titles for consideration take in upright citizens, fly-by-wire ethics, a world of troubling numbers and home round the range

July 28, 2016
Businessperson's hand reaching for carrot on stick
Source: iStock

The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens
Samuel Bowles
Yale University Press

Succinctly and persuasively, a behavioural economist recruits Aristotle, Mandeville, Hume’s constitution for knaves, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the Republic of Ireland’s carrier-bag tax and India’s tax-avoider-shaming charivaris to urge us not only to look beyond that grim old lie, Homo economicus, but to acknowledge what those nudge-y incentives to good behaviour can and can’t do – and what they can cost us. “Good policies and constitutions are those that support socially valued ends not only by harnessing self-interest but also by evoking, cultivating and empowering public-spirited motives,” says Samuel Bowles, adding, “It won’t work as a bumper sticker.”

Drone: Remote Control Warfare
Hugh Gusterson
MIT Press

“Ethical slippage”: now there’s a phrase. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson applies it to the Obama administration, whose advisers wax so withering about “drone essentialism” (in short: stop quailing and go with the tech tide). But surely his subject, those long-distance parcel-deliverers and death-dealers, are exemplars par excellence of our moral slide. Gusterson concludes by positing polar-opposite drone futures, dystopian and benign; alas, you may find the former more persuasive. With luck, their use will be reined in not for humanity’s sake but “because military and intelligence leaders concluded that it does not work”.

The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking
Sally Engle Merry
University of Chicago Press

Who counts? And what is counted and why? Eminent socio-legal scholar Sally Engle Merry lifts the lid on the deeply problematic totting-up of data on human agonies from female genital mutilation to rape. Methodically and lucidly, she reveals the unacknowledged ideologies and theories about social change that underpin the design of studies that are presented as scientifically valid and acted on as such. In a world of “platforms for action” and NGOs, OHCHR and UNSC, the WHO, the World Bank and the US State Department, no number is innocent.

The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850
Sara Pennell

Home is where the hearth is, says Sara Pennell, who believes that kitchens underwent a significant change in the early modern era. Factually well-furnished rather than cosy, this study takes in the servants and masters, mistresses and families and visitors who worked, bickered, scoffed and slurped, scrubbed, slubbed wool and pined in them, and the Dutch ovens, bastibles, Britannia-metal teapots, fireboxes and saltboxes filling these “significant spaces”, “problematic palimpsests” and (in the inevitable formulation) “sites of” sociability, hard labour, godly self-improvement, and mischief ranging from snogs to murder most foul.

Advertising and Consumer Culture in China
Hongmei Li

A US-based strategic communications scholar, Hongmei Li offers valuable detail in this look at a mad, mad, post-1978 world, taking in China’s ad agencies, luxury sportswear brands, shocking billboards, rampant advertorial content, the Xiaomi smartphone’s runaway success and participatory marketing, the unregulated shilling of dubious tonics (“brain platinum”, anyone?) and national audiences ranging from jaded urbanites to unsophisticated rural residents. Chinese are unlikely to resist “conspicuous consumption and American-style consumerism”, she contends, in an era in which its advertising “is becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated as an industry, a profession and a discourse”.

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