In 2002, the law firm for which I worked was involved in the Dollar General debacle, helping clean up the mess after the company restated financial statements due to massive accounting fraud. I didn’t know much about Dollar General at the time. But I do remember that a firm partner told me that one of the company’s directors had succinctly described their business model to him. “We sell shit, to poor people.” Cal Turner, Jr., has written this book to explain that business model and his part in it.
As the ideological tectonic plates shift in America, many apparently settled matters have become unsettled. This creates, at the same time, both conflict and strange bedfellows, though I suspect the latter will become used to each other soon enough. Such once-settled matters include hot-button cultural matters like nationalism, but also dry, technical matters of little apparent general interest that are of profound actual importance. Among these are the place in our society of concentrations of economic (and therefore political) power, the subject of the excellent Tim Wu’s awesome new book, The Curse of Bigness. What Wu is hawking is “Neo-Brandeisianism,” and I am buying what he is selling.
From the cover, I expected this book to be a lightweight documentary version of Crazy Rich Asians, offering painfully amusing stories about the foibles of the super-rich, accompanied by cautions about the negative effects of such behavior upon the rest of America. Plus, the picture of private jets in the driveway attracted me as a vision of my hoped-for future, since I am comfortably in the 0.1%, and much of my time is spent struggling to reach yet higher. Instead, this book is a pretty dense, though rambling, web of analysis, with no funny stories at all. Still, it’s modestly worthwhile in itself, and it has the additional benefit that it sheds light on today.
While pretty much everyone in this book who is rich and powerful comes off looking bad, it is less a tale of typical fraud, like a Ponzi scheme, and more a tale of human foibles. These were expertly played on by Elizabeth Holmes, a very young woman of little productive talent and no particular evident intelligence, but with a natural gift for sales and embodying the icy manipulative abilities of the sociopath. Fascinating stuff, all of it, and worth reading just to make sure that you don’t fall into a similar trap in your life. And, more broadly, the arc of Theranos has much to say about supposedly imminent advances in technology, from artificial intelligence to flying autonomous cars.
I find that my hit percentage on economics books is about 50%. One out of every two books I read is excellent, and the other is awful. Very little seems to be in between. Unfortunately for me, this book is in the latter group. It is supposed to be, I think, an effort to show that a mainstream economist can be less than totally enthused about unlimited free trade and “hyper-globalization,” without being on the side of Trump or “illiberal democracies,” and without giving up his neoliberal ID card. But Straight Talk on Trade is just a mess.
This is not a book about how you can make more money as a plumber than by going to law school. It is, rather, a book of philosophy, revolving around thoughts on alienation, self-reliance, and what we owe to others. I found it to be both a bit rambling and unexpectedly deep—it manages to connect the thoughts of Marx with those of Aristotle, and it combines practical thoughts on how one should earn one’s bread with advice for living a whole life. The net effect is worthwhile, though not earthshattering.
For decades, “free trade” has been the American orthodoxy across the mainstream of both Left and Right. Some recent erosion has occurred, though, with the Bernie Sanders Left dividing from the neoliberal Left on this issue, and with the reactionary and Trumpian segments of the Right dividing from the corporatist Right. However, cogent, clear-eyed intellectual support has been thin for the position that wholly unfettered and unguided free trade is not necessarily a wonderful tonic for every economy. This 2010 book provides such support, and was an early entrant in a field that will, perhaps, become more crowded over time.
Sometimes I think it is a fool’s errand to study economics and hope for enlightenment. Much economics knowledge is too simple for that goal—for example, the relationship of supply and demand to prices. Such facts are easy to grasp through direct personal experience. But beyond that, actual enlightenment never comes, because, as everybody knows, economics is not a science. Economists can’t even analyze the past with any precision or unanimity, much less the future. Because I thought highly of the explanations of monetary policy in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Money, I hoped that by reading this book I would at least move further down the curve toward enlightenment. But even the best writers cannot spin straw into gold.
Imprisoned inside this book is a good book screaming to get out. Buried alive, like the Man in the Iron Mask, this Hidden Book offers worthwhile insights into, and criticism of, the crony capitalism that has choked the free market out of our finance system. But the Hidden Book has disappeared from view under the crushing weight of authorial ignorance and an idol of, or rather an entire marble temple erected to, Elizabeth Warren. So each time the author of Makers and Takers, Rana Foroohar, yet again prostrates herself yet again before her idol, I think I can hear a tinny shriek from the dungeon, as the Hidden Book realizes that its message will never, ever, fly free.
Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us. In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement. Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a three-legged stool, dependent on all of the broader culture, muscular group effort, and heroic individuals. Ayn Rand would not agree, but then, what did she ever actually accomplish?