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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?”
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.
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.