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Category: Business & Money

Book Review: How We Got To Now (Steven Johnson)

How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare.  It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures.  It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.

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Book Review: Average Is Over
(Tyler Cowen)

Tyler Cowen is a popular economist, known for an influential blog (Marginal Revolution) and a set of books on economics directed at a general audience.  In Average Is Over, a book from 2013, Cowen predicts an American future of increased economic (and thus social) division, as new technology enables those most conversant with it to profit, and forces others to be paid less as they become relatively less productive.  This is a common historical occurrence, of course, where those whose skills are no longer valued by the market, from hand weavers to buggy whip makers to floppy disk craftsmen, must ultimately retire or retool, often never regaining their previous income, though the economy as a whole, and thus average and median income, expand in the long run despite short- and medium-term pain and dislocations.  The difference in Cowen’s analysis is that he forecasts a permanent division, the result of ever-improving radically new technology and the failure of some, or many, to properly orient themselves with respect to that technology.

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Book Review: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Lionel Shriver)

I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction.  Probably, similar to many doom-and-gloom conservatives, deep down I see myself as bestriding the Apocalypse like a colossus, Bible in my left hand and short-barreled AR-15 in my right.  Of course, intellectually I realize that actual apocalypses are very, very bad for everyone involved, so my self-image is buried deep in my id, not a goal I have set for myself.  Moreover, my strong belief is that, while it may not be evident yet, the era of apocalyptic fiction is ending, to be replaced by a new literature of optimism and pursuit of excellence.  A few months ago, I thought that switch would be quick and smooth.  Now, I suspect it will happen slowly over piles of bodies, with the only question being how tall those piles will be.  In the meantime, though, we can enjoy The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver’s excellent, and mostly pessimistic, book about the near future collapse of America.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Robert Gordon)

This book is just not very good.  I was excited to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth; it was extensively and positively reviewed and it promised to illuminate an important topic by giving extended, specific analysis.  In particular, I wanted to learn about changes in productivity over time.  Instead, I first got an interminable, plodding exposition, which repeated commonly known facts ad nauseum for its first 600 pages.  But I soldiered on, knowing that the last 100 pages were analysis of current problems and of future productivity.  I should have cut my losses—those last 100 pages are exemplars of rank illogic and incoherence.  It didn’t end there, either—the book is then, at the last, capped by shrill, unsupported demands that America ingest a massive dose of insufferable and, at best, non-effective, leftist nostrums, considerably more pernicious than the 19th Century patent medicines the author unoriginally decries.  When I finished this book, I had to drink a fifth of cheap whiskey just to dull the pain, but now that the hangover is gone, I am rousing myself to write this review.

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Book Review: The Attention Merchants (Tim Wu)

Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is part history and part social analysis. The history related in The Attention Merchants tells us something we all basically know—that economic forces simultaneously drive businesses to offer us “free” entertainment, while at the same time making our attention to that entertainment a product to be sold to advertisers. Hence the title. And, since everybody likes free stuff, and in a free market, new markets will always be sought and exploited, there is a natural tendency for advertising to intrude into previously private spaces, making the sphere of the truly private ever smaller.

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Colloquy: Not-For-Profits Are Not Inherently Virtuous and “Giving Back” Is A Stupid Term

[This is a colloquy between myself and a  friend of mine.  Italics are her; regular text is me.  She is responding initially to a comment I had made about “evil not-for-profits.”] I don’t understand, but without the rhetoric, I really want to see the world through your eyes regarding your comment about “evil not-for-profit…” How is it that people who sacrifice so much for others are evil? I’m a corporate attorney and admire the heck out of people able to do something I’m too greedy to do. While they walk the walk (of spiritual leaders, etc.), I’m just a coward…

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Book Review: Appetite For America (Stephen Fried)

“Appetite For America” is that rare book that combines the best of a history book and a business book. It’s the story of Fred Harvey, a sickly but iron-willed Englishman who built the first retail empire in America, and the story of the company he founded, also called Fred Harvey (not Fred Harvey, Inc.—just plain Fred Harvey). It’s all fascinating, and offers the reader many accurate business insights as well (although they are not billed as business insights—this is not a navel-gazing self-help “business book”).

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Book Review: Good Profit
(Charles Koch)

Holy crap, this is a bad book. I like the Koch brothers. I agree with them politically, both philosophically and in their desire to actually punch back at liberals and change the status quo, rather than simply feeding money into the rathole of establishment politicians and tasseled-loafer conservative consultants. Their demonization by the Left is emblematic of much that is wrong with America. But this is a business book, not a book on politics. And, holy crap, this is a bad book.

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