The idea for a book club started with a student in the second year of the Bachelor Economics. That year, economist Robert Dur was teaching one of the main courses. In the second week, once the course was properly underway, Narmin Bayramova asked him for a book recommendation. She found the supplied course materials ‘somewhat limited’ and wanted to read more widely on the subject. Dur recommended Policy and Choice by William Congdon, Jeffrey Kling and Sendhil Mullainathan, a book on public policy, about how policies change when people are not assumed to be quite so rational, contrary to long-held economic beliefs.

She finished that book within a week. Next, she wanted to read more about the big systems, about big questions. She wanted to know whether we shouldn’t replace the current economic system with something better. “Is Capitalism Obsolete? by Giacomo Corneo came to mind. Talking to the student, we came up with the idea to start a book club and read the book together”, Dur says.

Last book read (nearly finished): We have never been so romantic by philosopher and journalist Hans Kennepohl

Primary motivation: To open up my mind

Number of books per year: Not enough

Favourite genre: Non-fiction

Fifty pages

The study association Aeclipse posted an invitation on Instagram and in its WhatsApp group. The book club started out with fifteen students. They booked a room at the university once a fortnight on Thursdays, from five to seven. Each meeting focused on two chapters, about fifty pages of preparation.

The aim was to collect a few questions for the author at the end of each session, which they could put to the author himself in a video call on the last day of the book club sessions. “I was just one of the participants”, Dur repeated several times. “I took a laid-back attitude and didn’t lecture. Everyone had a chance to speak.”

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To ask the question is to answer it

The book club read the book and discussed the author’s ideas at length. The answer to the question of whether capitalism is obsolete “is very nuanced, I’m afraid”, Dur says. “Sometimes capitalism is burned to the ground. This is unwarranted. If the system works well, the prices of goods and services reflect the value of a particular thing. And those prices, in turn, are a reason for people and companies to produce a thing or not. But, of course, all sorts of things go wrong. Prices are not always a good reflection of value. Environmental damage, for example, isn’t really included in prices.”

The author of Is Capitalism Obsolete? wonders whether there is a viable and desirable alternative to capitalism and discusses the options with a great deal of nuance. What would the world be like if we made companies state owned, for example? Or if all citizens could benefit from corporate returns through dividend payments? “There is no concrete answer, no clear solution. During the book review, everyone could share their views and ideas”, says Dur. The setting also lent itself to that. “When you’re in the pub together having a few drinks, the tone is probably different than on a Thursday afternoon at university.”

All peer reviewers

At the last meeting, there were only ten students left, and they pushed the chairs and tables together so that all members were in view during the video call with author Giacomo Corneo. Many students wondered what effect the economic system has on the norms, values and aspirations of a society. They wanted to know whether capitalism makes people selfish. According to the author, academic knowledge does not provide a clear answer to that question, so he assumes the selfish motive where people mainly look out for themselves, even in the alternative economic systems Corneo suggests in his book.

Whether the book club’s questions changed Corneo’s view of the selfish person in any way is debatable. The book club’s approach, where members were able to ask the writer critical questions after weeks of discussion, debate and analysis, calls to mind the academic peer-review system, in which ideas are tested by others before being published. Dur often misses that peer-review system with books aimed at the general public. “One-sided discussions of what academics have to offer I find totally uninteresting, as writers shop around to make a point.”

Dur would love to find a solution for a new economic system that’s better than capitalism, but as a scholar, he is aware that every system has issues. “The big solution doesn’t exist. If you look at it critically, the alternatives don’t quite add up. There are always trade-offs, there are always people who lose out. It’s up to scholars to shed light on the different sides, even if they contradict each other.” The book club discussed all aspects of the alternatives. In the next series they’re watching documentaries, followed by a review of a new book yet to be announced.

Robert Dur is Professor of Economics at Erasmus University and Research Fellow at the Tinbergen Institute, CESifo Munich and IZA Bonn. He has held visiting professor positions at Bocconi University, the University of Munich and the University of Vienna. His research focuses on behaviour, organisations and economic policy. As president of economists’ association KVS, he organises the economics festival in Rotterdam in late June.