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Category: Political Economy

Book Review: Naked Economics
(Charles Wheelan)

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.

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Book Review: Europe Since 1989: A History (Philipp Ther)

This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains.  I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000.  Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book.  Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day.  But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome.  This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.

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Book Review: Makers and Takers
(Rana Foroohar)

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.

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Book Review: The Idea Factory
(Jon Gertner)

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?

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Book Review: World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech
(Franklin Foer)

Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is an excellent book.  It identifies important problems, ties the problems to their historical precedents, and suggests some reasonable solutions.  The book is not complete, or perfect, but in the emerging literature of why and how to curb the power of giant technology companies, this book is a useful introduction, although there is a long way to go from here to there.

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Book Review: The CEO Pay Machine (Steven Clifford)

I’ve been complaining about the topic of this book for at least fifteen years.  Actually, my basic complaint has been broader—that almost all CEOs are, when not actually idiots, indistinguishable in their abilities and performance from any moderately competent manager.  If this is true (and it is), one necessary consequence is that high pay for CEOs is stupid.  For example, when I entered business school, in 2000, I was dragooned into going to a talk by Jack Welch, then CEO of GE and regarded as a colossus.  I discovered, to my chagrin, that he was a total moron.  A little further research after going home quickly confirmed this impression, as contrarian as it was.  And in my earlier life as a corporate lawyer I knew personally many other such, if less famous, lionized nonentities.  Steven Clifford agrees, and the question he asks, and answers, is essentially “Why do big corporations pay so damn much to morons?”

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Book Review: The Color of Law
(Richard Rothstein)

Some years ago, I lived for a time in Oak Park, Illinois.  Oak Park has for decades been filled with rich white liberals, who live just across the street from a City of Chicago neighborhood, Austin, that is filled with poor black people.  Yet, for some reason the citizens of Oak Park simply can’t fathom, people from Austin almost never move to Oak Park.  Who can say why?  Well, Richard Rothstein can.  His book, The Color of Law, shows all the ways in which the racist government of Oak Park, and innumerable other government functionaries across the nation, have aggressively worked for decades to keep black people in inferior, segregated housing.  Rothstein’s service is to precisely set out why this happened, how it was done, and what exactly the effects today are.

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Book Review: Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
(James C. Scott)

This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.”  The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant.  Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.

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Book Review: Naked Money
(Charles Wheelan)

Naked Money, by Charles Wheelan, has a primary goal and two secondary goals.  The primary goal, admirably accomplished, is to simply, but not simplistically, explain monetary policy.  One secondary goal, also well accomplished, is to defend fiat money against those who call for going back to a currency backed by gold or some other physical asset.  The other secondary goal, less well accomplished, is to justify aggressive government action, in particular by central banks, to shore up the American financial system during the 2008 crisis.

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Book Review: How Civilizations Die (David Goldman)

I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times.  His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read.  But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author.  Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column.  The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such.  David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.

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