Friday, March 13, 2009

What I've Been Reading

This post relates to the following Keystone Economic Principles:

1. We all make choices.
2. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
3. All choices have consequences.
4. Economic systems influence choices.

5. Incentives produce “predictable” responses.
7. Economic thinking is marginal thinking.

For an intriguing idea for an economics book, I think you'd have to look for a long time to find anything like Castles, Battles, & Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History by Jurgen Brauer and Hubert Van Tuyll. Brauer and Van Tuyll are professors at Augusta State University, Brauer of economics and Van Tuyll of history. And while you may look at the title and think you're in for pages and pages of data on resource use, production levels, prices or even casualty rates, you'd be wrong.

Brauer and Van Tuyll's approach is to demonstrate how economic thinking may have affected the development of military theory over history. They use six basic economic concepts - opportunity cost, marginal cost/benefit, substitution, diminishing marginal returns, asymmetric information and hidden characteristics, and hidden actions and incentive alignments - and use these as tools to analyze basic questions in six periods of military history - the high middle ages, the Renaissance, the age of battle (1618 - 1815), the age of revolution (1789 - 1914), the World Wars, and the Cold War. The idea is to use economic thinking as a lens to examine the problems of each period, and whether doing so can provide any insights to the behavior of participants. And while they use one concept as a primary match for each period, they provide a full matrix integrating all the concepts at the end of each chapter. I found this to be particularly interesting and informative.

While I wasn't sure what to expect, I'm also not sure if I was totally satisfied. This may be because the authors’ style, while not riveting, left me wanting a bit more. I was intrigued by this demonstration of how economic thinking provides a different way of looking at problems.

I believe that those who pick up the book expecting a detailed account of campaigns or wars with some economic justification thrown will be disappointed. Those looking for something to trigger deeper thought and to provide reflection on the power of economic thinking will find the book interesting and a good investment on their time, even if they just read a few chapters and put the book down. At the very least, those of us interested in military history may find some new interesting questions to ponder.

I welcome your thoughts.

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