Books interview: Jonathan Aldred

The author of Licence to be Bad on his enduring fascination of how things work and how no one understands what money is

June 6, 2019
Jonathan Aldred
Source: Alamy/Getty

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
The first book I remember being gripped by was [Joe Kaufman’s] What Makes It Go? It had wonderful cut-away drawings showing the inner workings of machines ranging from escalators to car engines. It started my interest in what lies beneath, looking beyond surface appearances to the hidden workings below – the same interest I have today with human systems and organisations. 

Your new book, ‘Licence to be Bad’, describes how certain kinds of economic thinking have had a negative impact on our outlook and behaviour. Can you give an example of a particularly influential and dangerous text?
High up the list must be Nobel laureate Gary Becker’s The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, which represents much of what has gone wrong with modern economics. It has had a huge influence on generations of economists and continues to do so. Among other things, Becker explicitly rejects any distinction between life-and-death decisions and everyday trivial economic ones, such as choosing a brand of coffee – or the difference between choosing who to marry [and] buying paint. In so doing, he collapses moral values into mere tastes, neither more nor less than a preference for chocolate over strawberry ice cream. His economics has provided the intellectual cover for silencing much moral and political debate, in turn leading to the presumption that everything is up for grabs, everything is for sale.

Which book best demonstrates how such thinkers have influenced banks, businesses and governments?
I can’t readily think of a good overview, but Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture was a great inspiration. It shows brilliantly how the political turn in the US in the 1970s towards markets required for its long-term success the embedding of new ways of thinking about cooperation, fairness and so on, in popular culture and in ordinary language. 

What book would you recommend for promoting better styles of economic understanding and policy?
Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide is an impressive blend of political ideas and economic theories, along with real-world evidence about when they work and when they don’t. It is always my answer when non-economists ask for an accessible introduction to the key issues and debates. Robert Heilbronner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economics Thinkers remains a classic, stylishly written overview of Smith, Marx, Keynes etc in historical context. Both these books show how contemporary textbooks and most university economics courses cover just one aspect of economic thinking (the neoclassical tradition, more or less) and ignore valuable insights from other schools of thought. 

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. It’s Dilbert meets Marx. I gave it to my father-in-law, whose business work over the years led him to see these kinds of jobs in a variety of contexts. Since I am an economist, it’s unsurprisingly Graeber’s economic analysis that I found underdeveloped, but his book is still an incredibly stimulating and thought-provoking read. 

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World and Robert Skidelsky’s Money and Government: A Challenge to Mainstream Economics. My expertise is more in microeconomics and I’m trying to catch up with new thinking in macroeconomics, particularly concerning money. Non-economists are often shocked when I say that most economists, including myself, don’t understand what money is.

 

Jonathan Aldred is fellow and director of studies in economics at Emmanuel College – and lecturer in the department of land economy – at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Licence to be Bad: How Economics Corrupted Us (Allen Lane).

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