Economic Crises and the Crisis of Economics


January 17, 2017

Economic Crises and the Crisis of Economics: Economists should learn to be humble and accept their own limitations

by Paola Subacchi@www.project-syndicate.org

Paola Subacchi is Research Director of International Economics at Chatham House and Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna. She is the author of The People’s Money: How China is Building an International Currency.

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Is the economics profession “in crisis”? Many policymakers, such as Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, believe that it is. Indeed, a decade ago, economists failed to see a massive storm on the horizon, until it culminated in the most destructive global financial crisis in nearly 80 years. More recently, they misjudged the immediate impact that the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote would have on its economy.

Of course, the post-Brexit forecasts may not be entirely wrong, but only if we look at the long-term impact of the Brexit vote. True, some economists expected the UK economy to collapse during the post-referendum panic, whereas economic activity proved to be rather resilient, with GDP growth reaching some 2.1% in 2016. But now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has implied that she prefers a “hard” Brexit, a gloomy long-term prognosis is probably correct.

Unfortunately, economists’ responsibility for the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent recession extends beyond forecasting mistakes. Many lent intellectual support to the excesses that precipitated it, and to the policy mistakes – particularly insistence on fiscal austerity and disregard for widening inequalities – that followed it.

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Some economists have been led astray by intellectual arrogance: the belief that they can always explain real-world complexity. Others have become entangled in methodological issues – “mistaking beauty for truth,” as Paul Krugman once observed – or have placed too much faith in human rationality and market efficiency.

Despite its aspiration to the certainty of the natural sciences, economics is, and will remain, a social science. Economists systematically study objects that are embedded in wider social and political structures. Their method is based on observations, from which they discern patterns and infer other patterns and behaviors; but they can never attain the predictive success of, say, chemistry or physics.

Human beings respond to new information in different ways, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, economics cannot provide – nor should it claim to provide – definite insights into future trends and patterns. Economists can glimpse the future only by looking backwards, so their predictive power is limited to deducing probabilities on the basis of past events, not timeless laws.

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And because economics is a social science, it can readily be used to serve political and business interests. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, global economic growth and profits were so strong that everyone – from small investors to the largest banks – was blinded by the prospect of bigger gains.

Economists employed by banks, hedge funds, and other businesses were expected to provide a short-term “view” for their employers and clients; and to dispense their “wisdom” to the general public through interviews and media appearances. Meanwhile, the economics profession was adopting more complex mathematical tools and specialized jargon, which effectively widened the gap between economists and other social scientists.

Before the financial crisis, when so many private interests and profitable opportunities were at stake, many economists defended a growth model that was based more on “irrational exuberance” than on sound fundamentals. Similarly, with respect to Brexit, many economists confused the referendum’s long-term impact with its short-term effects, because they were rushing their predictions to fit the political debate.

Owing to these and other mistakes, economists – and economics – have suffered a spectacular fall from grace. Once seen as modern witch doctors with access to exclusive knowledge, economists are now the most despised of all “experts.”

Where do we go from here? While we should appreciate Haldane’s candid admission, apologizing for past mistakes is not enough. Economists, especially those involved in policy debates, need to be held explicitly accountable for their professional behavior. Toward that end, they should bind themselves with a voluntary code of conduct.

Above all, this code should recognize that economics is too complex to be reduced to sound bites and rushed conclusions. Economists should pay closer attention to when and where they offer their views, and to the possible implications of doing so. And they should always disclose their interests, so that proprietary analysis is not mistaken for an independent perspective.

Moreover, economic debates would benefit from more voices. Economics is a vast discipline that comprises researchers and practitioners whose work spans macro and micro perspectives and theoretical and applied approaches. Like any other intellectual discipline, it produces excellent, good, and mediocre output.

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But the bulk of this research does not filter into policymaking and decision-making circles, such as finance ministries, central banks, or international institutions. At the commanding heights, economic-policy debates remain dominated by a relatively small group of white men from American universities and think tanks, nearly all of them well-versed devotees of mainstream economics.

The views held by this coterie are disproportionately represented in the mass media, through commentaries and interviews. But fishing for ideas in such a small and shallow pond leads to a circular and complacent debate, and it may encourage lesser-known economists to tailor their research to fit in.

The public deserves – and needs – a marketplace of ideas in which mainstream and heterodox views are afforded equal attention and balanced discussion. To be sure, this will take courage, imagination, and dynamism – particularly on the part of journalists. But a fairer, more pluralistic discussion of economic ideas may be just what economists need as well.

A piece of advice after BERSIH 5.0


November 24, 2016

A piece of advice after BERSIH 5.0

by Azly Rahman

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Malaysians, we need to come back to our senses. Our strength will still come from diversity and the respect and cultivation of talent. We should rejoice and celebrate the achievements of this nation for that beautiful concept of unity in diversity; not to organise any rally that spews hatred and invoke the horrors of the May 13, 1969 tragedy.

 

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The recent yellow-shirt 60,000 strong-mass rally in Malaysia, urging cleaner elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak ended in both warring parties winning – the protesters got their message across for the fifth time and the government got to test-drive the 2012 Special Offences Act (Sosma), its new anti-terrorist law, for the first time.

The leader of BERSIH (‘Clean’ in Malay), Maria Chin Abdullah, a long-time human rights activist, is now in solitary confinement, detained like a suspected Islamic State (IS) terrorist while investigations on her alleged links with the American intelligence-gathering-legit-government agency, the CIA, are being carried out. Exactly how she is linked will be a puzzle and a mystery, like those of the world-famous money-laundering and high-profile case of the Malaysian 1MDB.

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But the government, as always, is winning. I attribute this perpetual victory to one concept – hegemony. Rousseau and Gramsci have written a lot about this idea of ‘common sense’. The control over Man, machinery, media, and money.

The former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia with an iron glove for 22 years mastered this concept. Today he marches with the BERSIH protesters, outside of the real of hegemony he created, and trying to figure out how to play the game of counter-hegemony and feels what it is like to play with authority.

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Najib learned politics from Mahahtir Mohamed

Ironically, the authority he is trying to bring down was a child of his own creation – his Frankenstein. Or rather, culturally speaking, his Badang. It is a tough and complicating act and one which seemingly has no poetic justice in sight.

Recently, in a US-based publication, I wrote about the representation of the Malays on the eve of the red-shirt-yellow-shirt confrontation:

“ … Aren’t Malaysians tired of seeing the Malays being represented as buffoons, stupid, amok-prone, close-minded, rempits, kris-kissing fools, Ali Baba forty-thieves, rejects, religious fanatics, red-shirts, whatever shirts… it is a clever production and reproduction of the Malay ruling class, both feudal and wannabe-feudal… so that the Jebat aspect of the Malay – the amuck, the wannabe-sultan, the misogynic, the sex-maniac-royal groper and rapist of ancient Malacca, the royal-jet-setting-good-for-nothing-ancient-kings, the hedonistic, the grotesque epicure, the gangster, the absurd – is pushed forward and propagated to strengthen the Tuah aspect – the fool that followed the foolish orders of the foolish and idiotic Malacca sultan, the womaniser-cum-religious leader – the bad hombre of Malay culture – these are the twin representation of the Malays. A laughing stock – the Malays are made to become…” Source here.

So – how now brown cow? What are Malaysians to do after yet another rally? After yet another governmental pounding on the protesters with arrests a la Machiavelli?

The way forward

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Dr. Azly Rahman–An Educator for Peace

As an educator for peace and an advocate of long-haul bloodless revolutions focusing on changing consciousness through education and self-reflection, through living an ethical, morally-compassed, and intelligible life for the collective-good of society, I would suggest the following as a long-term plan for a radical change:

It is better to focus on raising your children well in adjusting to a changing, globalising, and very diversifying Malaysian and global society. We must work harder to improve race relations, be stronger to fight corruption and power abuse, and be more intelligent in designing policies that will benefit the poor, the marginalised and the powerless.

We must teach our children to focus on ways to understand others, improving their English language skills, perfecting their moral compass, encouraging them to think well and good about children of other races and religion, to encourage them to make friends with people of other races, to be grateful that schools offer the great opportunity to love and respect teachers of different races.

Teach them to learn about the dangers of generalising, stereotyping, and projecting hate that would lead to mass deception, to encourage each child to learn about other cultures and religion, and to teach them that all of us in Malaysia are now Malaysians and not this or that group of immigrants.

We all are migrants in time and space and in history and that all of us are human beings with emotions, struggles, challenges, history of joy and despair, memory of pain and pleasure of living, and that all of us are merely of differing skin colour tone and born to speak different languages and to believe in different things about salvation and that we are all travelers in this life.

We cannot allow Malaysia to come to a point in which riots such as those race-based against the police to take root. We cannot allow the Malaysian version of #BlackLivesMatter to be the impetus for urban violence.

We are all these and will not need moments of history where we cultivate hate for the bigger picture of oppression we do not understand. We may all be pawns in this great political game of big-time plunderers and multi-ethnic robber-barons skilled at mass deception and distractions. Today, the level of corruption and the growing cases of mass corruption and power abuse that are going unpunished have made Malaysia a critically ill nation.

We should be grateful that we are still alive and breathe daily and that we must think happily and joyfully like Malaysians in order for each and every one of us to prosper in peace. We cannot travel the path of America in which racism is on the rise and of late especially in places such as Texas, Islamophobia is brewing.

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Malaysians, we need to come back to our senses. Our strength will still come from diversity and the respect and cultivation of talent. We should rejoice and celebrate the achievements of this nation for that beautiful concept of unity in diversity; not to organise any rally that spews hatred and invoke the horrors of the May 13, 1969 tragedy.

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Let us design a safer journey towards a progressive and harmonious Malaysia, beyond for example, the red T-shirt red-river of blood march of some mangled manufactured propaganda of Malay dignity.

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My Thanksgiving wish is to see a saner and more peaceful America as well as Malaysia – two countries I have loved and will continue to love. On that note: Have a blessed Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans!

Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis


November 17, 2016

The Edge logo

Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis

by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

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Malay Nationalism or Tribalism ala Ku Kluk Klan

One thing that shocked me when I first went to Sweden for my studies 35 years ago was how dirty a word “Nationalism” was in Western Europe. This reaction, I realized, was very much a reflection of how the concept was positively implanted in my mind while a schoolboy in Malaysia; but it also demonstrated how greatly human experiences can differ in different parts of the world.

More importantly, it revealed to me how strongly we are intellectually captured by the language use of our times and our location.

But the Swedes are very proud of their country, so how come nationalism is frowned upon so badly? The same thing applied throughout Europe, at least until recently. Excessive immigration over the last two decades, coupled with declining economic fortunes and waning self-confidence has buoyed the ascendance of ultra-rightists groups in all countries throughout the continent.

So why was Nationalism so despised? Europe is after all the home continent of the Nation State.

For starters, Europe was always a place of endless wars often fought ostensibly for religious reasons between feudal powers. The arrival of the Nation state ideology helped to lower the frequencies of these tragedies, but only to replace it soon after with non-religious types of rationale for conflict. The American Revolution and French Republicanism added the new phenomenon of “government by the people”. The French case also brought into the equation the Left-Right Dimension that would define politics and political thinking for the next two centuries.

This conceptual division between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule expressed sharply the rights of common people on the one hand, and the role of the state on the other. Once this gap was articulated, conflating the two poles anew became a necessary task.

The three major articulations in Europe of this mammoth mission to bridge the divide and achieve a functional modern system were Liberal Democracy, Communism and Fascism. While the Anglo-Saxon world championed the first, Stalin’s Soviet Union perfected the second and Adolf Hitler developed the third to its insane conclusion. In Europe, it was basically these three actors who fought the Second World War.

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Malay Tribalism in Action

In Asia, Japan’s brand of state fascism ran riot throughout the region, rhetorically championing nationalism in the lands it took from the European colonialists.

While the National Socialism of the Third Reich died with Hitler, Fascism lived on in Franco’s Spain until 1975 and Nationalist Communism of Stalin continued in Eastern Europe until the early 1990s.

Nationalism in the rest of Europe after 1945 came to be understood with disdain as the longing of the Nation State for purity and autonomy taken to pathological lengths. It is after all always a defensive posture, as is evidenced today in its return in the form of right-wing anti-immigrant groups.

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Maruah Melayu dijual ka-Cina untuk membela masa depan politik Najib Razak–Jualan Aset 1MDB

In Malaysia, nationalism was—and for many, still is—the most highly rated attitude for a citizen to adopt.There are obvious reasons for this, given the historical and socio-political context in which Malaysia came into being. Constructing a new country out of nine sultanates, the three parts of the Straits Settlements, with Sabah and Sarawak on top of that, was a more daunting task than we can imagine today. Furthermore, the contest was also against other powerful “-isms”, especially Communism and Pan-Indonesianism. These threatened to posit what are Malaysia’s states today in a larger framework, and would have diminished these territories’ importance and uniqueness.

Putting a new regime in place of the retreating British required a rallying idea; and what better than the very fashionable image of a new nation to whom all should swear allegiance. Malayan nationalism was thus born.

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For Inclusive, Liberal and Progressive Malaysia–Escaping the Nationalism Trap

It is no coincidence that the path to independence became much easier after Malaysia’s major political party, UMNO, decided under Tunku Abdul Rahman to change its slogan from the provincial “Hidup Melayu” [Long Live the Malays] to the inclusive “Merdeka” [Independence].

But already in that transition, one can see the problem that Malaysia still lives with today. Is Malaysia the political expression of the prescriptive majority called “Melayu” [later stretched to become “Bumiputera”], or is it the arena in which the multi-ethnic nation of “Malaysians” is to evolve?

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Nationalism in essence, and most evidently so in its narrow ethno-centric sense, is defensive and fearful, and understood simplistically and applied arrogantly very quickly show strong fascist tendencies. The issue is therefore a philosophical one.

What Malaysia needs today, is to accept the regional and global context that sustains it, and work out as best it can a suitable balance between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule which is clearly less belaboured and less painful than the cul-de-sac alleyway it has backed itself into.

OOI KEE BENG is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute) and the Editor of the Penang Monthly (Penang Institute). He is the author of the prizewinning The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006).

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”


November 17, 2016

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”

By Ooi Kee Beng

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One of the first things that any undergraduate learns is that when writing a scientific text, he or she must provide references. In fact, without such references, a text is not considered scientific.

This referencing behaviour is meant to show that the student has been reading the correct material; and that he has been digesting the words so thoroughly that he can now include the thoughts in his own writing. Now, what a Malaysian student will end up doing is provide references to books and articles written by professors based in faraway universities and colleges.

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Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, ISEAS (Yusuf Ishak Institute, Singapore

My argument is not with this jarring asymmetry in global knowledge. It has always been the case in human history that in every period of time, knowledge is concentrated and generated at certain centres much more than at others. At the moment, much first appears in the English language and in countries using that language. What’s more, the spread of new knowledge is also strongly overseen by a global network based on that language.

Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese, among others, have played that role before. But none has the global reach and the amazing speed and width of dissemination that English today commands. The soft power that America enjoys today – and no other culture comes close to the reach of its soft power – is not merely of its own doing; it rides on the back of hundreds of years of English imperial strength and colonial mastery, during which the English language and its cultural preconditions penetrated the farthest reaches of the world.

My concern is with a serious side effect of the sharp imbalance in knowledge generation in our times. What happens is that people outside the English-speaking world are left nursing a lack of confidence, not only in themselves but also in those in close proximity to them. Their behaviour where the transfer and generation of knowledge are concerned becomes rather warped.

In writing a scientific text, for example, it is much more probable than not that a Third World person will refer an idea or train of thought to a known person from a distant land even when that idea may have come to him through some other more immediate and personal channel. This is because he had learned to assume that he gains more points among his peers by referring to the politically and academically correct person; and that his own ideas are merely approximations of that bigger idea expressed better by others.

But if we contemplate the matter and observe what actually happens in our daily life, we should realise that inspiration comes most of the time from proximate impulses and from individuals in our surrounding.

Given the habit of referring distantly, the chances of us giving credit to those around us are also diminished, and complimenting things and people in our immediate surrounding – for referencing someone is indeed a high form of compliment – is rendered suspect.

The competition among students and scholars of showing that they know something that their peers have as yet not gotten around to knowing cultivates in them the tendency to be stingy with praise and to be secretive about their immediate sources of inspiration.

This is an impoverishment of the soul and of our culture; where we withhold praise and admiration from those close to us and give generously of the same to distant and often dead persons.

Note that I am merely using academic referencing to initiate a debate on a more general matter. In my experience, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, but if I were to inform people around me of personal epiphanies, I would not get as good a hearing as I would if I referred whatever idea I just had to some distant knowledge authority.

Perhaps this explains why prophets always come from distant lands speaking exotic languages; and sometimes bearing superior arms. Those who dare to be prophets in their homeland are forced to flee into exile or are crucified in one way or another.

Catholic hymns are sung in Latin, Japanese Buddhists chant in Chinese, and Muslim thoughts are preferred in Arabic. In the secular sphere, Coolness wears an American accent. Indeed, we seem tobe talking here about something generically human.

We tend not to join clubs that will accept us as members. Since you know me, you cannot possibly be a significant person. But I am being far too categorical here; I am not being generous. Come to think of it, there are two ideal types of people. There are those who cannot imagine that people they come into contact with can be important; and then there are those who treat all coming into their orbit as meaningful and significant. Most of us are sometimes the one, and sometimes the other.

My basic point is that, epiphanies are always waiting to happen and inspiration can come to us at any time and place. We just have to let this take place by not imagining that profundity dwells far away, and are foreign to us.

We just have to realise instead that inspiration lurks around every corner, and is present at every meeting.

This article is republished in Merdeka for the Mind: Essays  on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century by Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2015). pp 9-11.

 

 

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards


September 24, 2016

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards, says my  Academic Friend, Dr. James Gomez@Bangkok University, Thailand

by Pratch Rujivanarom
The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Universities-face-hard-test-to-lift-standards-30293472.html

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Bangkok University’s Dr. James Gomez
ACADEMICS have highlighted the challenges that higher education institutions within the region face in trying to meet international standards, including syllabus problems, system diversity, a lack of international staff and limited government support.

With the ASEAN Economic Community officially set up this year, improving the quality of education remains one of the community’s main goals.  This topic was the focus of a forum titled “Can Asean be a Global Higher Education Destination?” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand recently.

Prof James Gomez from Bangkok University said many universities in ASEAN were restructuring to become international institutions to improve the quality of education and, more importantly, rebrand themselves to attract more students.

“Many university administrators chose internationalisation for increasing the university brand value, because it ensures the financial viability of the institutions by attracting more students,” Gomez said.

However, he said most universities usually directly translated syllabuses from the national language into English, so the curricula were not truly internationalised. He said another issue was that syllabuses were usually drafted by nationals, which resulted in a focus on issues particular to the home country instead of a truly international emphasis.

“From my experience in the field, most of the international university staff typically work in the language institutions or international colleges of the universities and are not stationed at the main faculties or executive positions that can guide the university’s policy,” he said.

Assoc Prof Nantana Gajaseni, Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network, said there was great diversity and disparity between educational systems in ASEAN states, so it was hard to harmonise a standardised system within the region.

‘Diversity makes credit transfers hard’

“The major challenge of internationalisation of higher education in Asean is the system diversity and quality recognition of the education. This disparity is making student and credit transfers among [ASEAN countries] and beyond the region hard,” Nantana said.

Gomez added that there was a lack of international staff in the region because of low salaries, the lack of research grants and government regulatory barriers. “There is the income gap between the rich countries in the region, such as Singapore and Malaysia, and the rest of the region. This income gap makes fewer international staff choose to work in these [lower-income] countries,” he said.

“Another barrier is the limitation of research grants. For instance, Malaysia limits applicants for its grants to Malaysian citizens only. Furthermore, consideration for research scholarships usually focuses on the national perspective only and it is hard for the researchers to apply for funds to study the international perspectives.”

Wesley Teter, UNESCO senior consultant for the Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, related his experiences teaching in China, where government regulations could be a barrier for international staff. In his case, strict information restrictions imposed by the Chinese government made academic research more difficult, reducing the appeal for international researchers.

Nantana said another big problem for internationalisation was budgetary. She said high-income countries in the region such as Singapore and Brunei had an easier time encouraging the internationalisation of their universities, but for poorer countries the task was difficult.

“There are many problems from shortages of budgets in low-income countries such as the lack of infrastructure. Even in Thailand, the state has just let public universities rely on themselves to find revenue and does not grant governmental support anymore,” she said.

“However in my view, an abundant budget does not ensure quality education and successful internationalisation … I believe that the mindsets of university administrators and professors need to change as well to suit global education.”

In Books on Donald Trump, Consistent Portraits of a High-Decibel Narcissist


August 27, 2017

by Michiko Kakutani

http://www.nytimes.com

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Over the last year, we’ve been plunged into the alternate reality of Trumpland, as though we were caught in the maze of his old board game, “Trump: The Game,” with no exit in sight. It’s a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog, zero-sum world where greed is good, insults are the lingua franca, and winning is everything (or, in tangled Trumpian syntax, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!”).

To read a stack of new and reissued books about Mr. Trump, as well as a bunch of his own works, is to be plunged into a kind of Bizarro World version of Dante’s “Inferno,” where arrogance, acquisitiveness and the sowing of discord are not sins, but attributes of leadership; a place where lies, contradictions and outrageous remarks spring up in such thickets that the sort of moral exhaustion associated with bad soap operas quickly threatens to ensue.

That the subject of these books is not a fictional character but the Republican nominee for president can only remind the reader of Philip Roth’s observation, made more than 50 years ago, that American reality is so stupefying, “so weird and astonishing,” that it poses an embarrassment to the novelist’s “meager imagination.”

Books about Mr. Trump tend to fall into two categories. There are funny ones that focus on Trump the Celebrity of the 1980s and ’90s — a cartoony avatar of greed and wretched excess and what Garry Trudeau (“Yuge! 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump”) calls “big, honking hubris.” And there are serious biographies that try to shed light on Mr. Trump’s life and complex, highly opaque business dealings as a real estate magnate, which are vital to understanding the judgment, decision-making abilities and financial entanglements he would bring to the Oval Office.

Because of Mr. Trump’s lack of transparency surrounding his business interests (he has even declined to disclose his tax returns) and because of his loose handling of facts and love of hyperbole, serious books are obligated to spend a lot of time sifting through business and court documents. (USA Today recently reported that there are “about 3,500 legal actions involving Trump, including 1,900 where he or his companies were a plaintiff and about 1,300 in which he was the defendant.”) And they must also fact-check his assertions (PolitiFact rates 35 percent of his statements False, and 18 percent “Pants on Fire” Lies).

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Perhaps because they were written rapidly as Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy gained traction, the latest of these books rarely step back to analyze in detail the larger implications and repercussions of the Trump phenomenon. Nor do they really map the landscape in which he has risen to popularity and is himself reshaping through his carelessness with facts, polarizing remarks and disregard for political rules.

For that matter, these books shed little new light on controversial stands taken by Mr. Trump which, many legal scholars and historians note, threaten constitutional guarantees and American democratic traditions. Those include his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and the “extreme vetting” of immigrants; his talk of revising libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations over critical coverage; an ethnic-tinged attack on a federal judge that raises questions about his commitment to an independent judiciary; and his incendiary use of nativist and bigoted language that is fueling racial tensions and helping to mainstream far-right views on race.

Some of these books touch fleetingly on Mr. Trump’s use of inflammatory language and emotional appeal to feelings of fear and anger, but they do not delve deeply into the consequences of his nativist rhetoric or his contempt for the rules of civil discourse. They do, however, provide some sense of history, reminding us that while Mr. Trump’s craving for attention and use of controversy as an instrument of publicity have remained the same over the years, the surreal switch of venues — from the New York tabloid universe and the world of reality TV to the real-life arena of national and global politics — has turned formerly “small-potatoes stakes,” as one writer put it, into something profoundly more troubling. From WrestleMania-like insults aimed at fellow celebrities, Mr. Trump now denigrates whole racial and religious groups and questions the legitimacy of the electoral system.

A “semi-harmless buffoon” in Manhattan in the waning decades of the 20th century — as the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, terms the businessman in a foreword to Mark Singer’s book “Trump and Me” — has metamorphosed into a political candidate whom 50 senior Republican national security officials recently said “would be the most reckless president in American history,” putting “at risk our country’s national security and well being.”

Two new books provide useful, vigorously reported overviews of Mr. Trump’s life and career. “Trump Revealed,” by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, draws heavily on work by reporters of The Post and more than 20 hours of interviews with the candidate. Much of its material will be familiar to readers — thanks to newspaper articles and Michael D’Antonio’s 2015 biography (“Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success”) — but “Trump Revealed” deftly charts his single-minded building of his gaudy brand and his often masterful manipulation of the media.

It provides a succinct account of Mr. Trump’s childhood, when he says he punched a teacher, giving him a black eye. It also recounts his apprenticeship to a demanding father, who told him he needed to become a “killer” in anything he did, and how he learned the art of the counterattack from Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s former right-hand man, whom Mr. Trump hired to countersue the federal government after the Justice Department brought a case against the Trump family firm in 1973 for violating the Fair Housing Act.

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Donald is not Ronald Reagan

“The Making of Donald Trump” by David Cay Johnston — a former reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively about Mr. Trump — zeros in on Mr. Trump’s business practices, arguing that while he presents himself as “a modern Midas,” much “of what he touches” has often turned “to dross.” Mr. Johnston, who has followed the real estate impresario for nearly three decades, offers a searing indictment of his business practices and creative accounting. He examines Mr. Trump’s taste for debt, what associates have described as his startling capacity for recklessness, multiple corporate bankruptcies, dealings with reputed mobsters and accusations of fraud.

The portrait of Mr. Trump that emerges from these books, old or new, serious or satirical, is remarkably consistent: a high-decibel narcissist, almost comically self-obsessed; a “hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit,” as Mr. Singer wrote in The New Yorker in 1997.

Mr. Singer also describes Mr. Trump as an “insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as ‘human garbage,’” “a fellow both slippery and naïve, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.”

At the same time, Mr. Singer and other writers discern an emptiness underneath the gold-plated armor. In “Trump and Me,” Mr. Singer describes his subject as a man “who had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” Mr. Kranish and Mr. Fisher likewise suggest that Mr. Trump “had walled off” any pain he experienced growing up and “hid it behind a never-ending show about himself.” When they ask him about friends, they write, he gives them — off the record — the names of three men “he had had business dealings with two or more decades before, men he had only rarely seen in recent years.”

Mr. Trump likes to boast about going it alone — an impulse that helps explain the rapid turnover among advisers in his campaign, and that has raised serious concerns among national security experts and foreign policy observers, who note that his extreme self-reliance and certainty (“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain”) come coupled with a startling ignorance about global affairs and an impatience with policy and details.

Passages in his books help illuminate Mr. Trump’s admiration for the strongman style of autocratic leaders like Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, and his own astonishing “I alone can fix it” moment during his Republican convention speech. In his 2004 book, “Think Like a Billionaire,” Mr. Trump wrote: “You must plan and execute your plan alone.”

He also advised: “Have a short attention span,” adding “quite often, I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll know what they’re going to say before they say it. After the first three words are out of their mouth, I can tell what the next 40 are going to be, so I try to pick up the pace and move it along. You can get more done faster that way.”

In many respects, Mr. Trump’s own quotes and writings provide the most vivid and alarming picture of his values, modus operandi and relentlessly dark outlook focused on revenge. “Be paranoid,” he advises in one book. And in another: “When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.”

The grim, dystopian view of America, articulated in Mr. Trump’s Republican convention speech, is previewed in his 2015 book, “Crippled America” (republished with the cheerier title of “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America”), in which he contends that “everyone is eating” America’s lunch. And a similarly nihilistic vision surfaces in other remarks he’s made over the years: “I always get even”; “For the most part, you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect”; and: “The world is a horrible place. Lions kill for food, but people kill for sport.”

Once upon a time, such remarks made Mr. Trump perfect fodder for comedians. Though some writers noted that he was already a caricature of a caricature — difficult to parody or satirize — Mr. Trudeau recalled that he provided cartoonists with “an embarrassment of follies.” And the businessman, who seems to live by the conviction that any publicity is good publicity, apparently embraced this celebrity, writing: “My cartoon is real. I am the creator of my own comic book.”

In a 1990 cartoon, Doonesbury characters argued over what they disliked more about Mr. Trump: “the boasting, the piggish consumption” or “the hideous décor of his casinos.” Sadly, the stakes today are infinitely so much huger.

A version of this article appears in print on August 26, 2016, on page C19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Tower of Trump Books, at High Volume