When I am dictator, which hopefully will be any day now, I am going to bring back what was once a crucial distinction. Namely, the sharp separation between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Theodore Dalrymple’s book shows both why that distinction is necessary, indeed absolutely essential, and why it has fallen from favor among those who decide society’s rules. Moreover, Life at the Bottom offers a wide range of food for related thoughts, so many that I am afraid, beginning this review, that it is likely to go on for a very long time. But at the end, I will solve all the problems for you. Strap in.
This isn’t a great book, but it’s a starting point for discussions that are worth having. Richard Reeves gently flogs his own class for their sins, an act he thinks is very daring, though he uses a thin, silken cord and doesn’t put any muscle into it. The upper middle class, he says, is pulling up the bridge to the Castle of Success, protecting its own sons and daughters from the dragons outside, at the expense of the peasants milling about on the other side of the moat. He thinks this is bad, although he is confused as to exactly why that should be, since it seems “unfair,” but he can’t say what that is with any precision, and, after all, isn’t personal choice the most important thing of all? So this book mostly goes nowhere, but it can tickle the mind into some genuine thought.
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.
Although no author likes to have his book lumped with another, this book is an excellent complement to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. Both books discuss, from different angles, possible practical reactions to the modern dominance of digital toys and tools. Today, when companies such as Facebook and Google are increasingly under fire from across the political spectrum, David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog reminds us of one possible response—not attack (although I am personally all for attacking such companies), but a return to the active use of pre-digital things. He takes us on a persuasive tour of analog offerings, and makes a compelling case for their continued persistence and growth, even if he seems unaware of some of the less socially beneficial results of that trend.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, a Canadian and grudging dilettante with too much time on his hands.] As I continue to re-evaluate my take on the economics of the 20th century, Coase’s work stands out as well as or better than it ever did. Ronald Coase is probably my favourite economist of all time; his work is arguably as foundational as Smith’s or Ricardo’s and was developed over just a handful of influential and easily-digestible papers. The Firm, the Market, and the Law is more or less a summary of Coase’s most important work, containing his famous The Nature of the Firm and The Problem of Social Cost, but also several other papers, plus ample commentary from Coase himself circa 1990. Coase died in 2013 at the ripe old age of 102.
A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect. This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.” Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds. But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters. And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.
As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.
This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all? The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.” What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century. The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize. The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.
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.