American Genesis is a cultural history of the grand century of American technology, from 1870 to 1970. Thomas Hughes published his book in 1989, when Americans believed that the grandeur of American technological achievement had matured into something less flashy, yet more durable and equally pregnant with accomplishment. Hughes linked a valedictory history of early inventors with a narrative of those inventions becoming embedded in vastly greater systems, which appeared to offer continued technological progress. But 1989 was a long time ago, and as it has turned out, we have been left with the worst of both worlds. We lack new and beneficial world-changing technologies, and the massive systems, supercharged by the internet, dominate and dehumanize our lives in ways previously unimaginable. It may not be American Terminus, yet, but finding a new path is necessary to recapture the now-cobwebbed spirit of enthusiastic achievement this book chronicles.
Glenn Reynolds, the famous “Instapundit” and a law professor at the University of Tennessee, offers a short book about social media and the problems it brings. He frames his analysis and argument as a parallel to James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, which valorizes Mesopotamian hunter-gatherers. Reynolds’s point is that just as when hunter-gatherers became city dwellers they also became more susceptible to disease, so when we submitted ourselves to living on social media, we also became more susceptible to disease. That is, to diseases of the mind, and he offers some possible cures and vaccines.
Just in time for the first Democratic presidential debates, I have finished candidate Andrew Yang’s manifesto, The War on Normal People. From its title, which subversively suggests there is such a thing as normality, you can tell that Yang is trying to be different. From its subtitle, you can learn of Yang’s core big idea, universal basic income, UBI. I was prepared to be unimpressed, but really, the book is well written, and UBI, as Yang explains it, has a certain attraction, even though it’s utterly unachievable in a democratic system. In the coming less-democratic system, however, maybe there is something here we can use, and at least Yang is offering something new, which may get him traction in the Democratic field.
James Bloodworth, an English sometime Trotskyite, has written a book which combines the television series Undercover Boss and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. He took jobs in a variety of low-wage, low-security occupations to get first-hand knowledge about what it is like today to be a member of the largely invisible British working class. Bloodworth’s resulting argument is that a pernicious marriage of portions of the political Left and Right has destroyed the dignity of the British working class, with fatal consequence for that class, and deleterious consequences for all of society. Hired is a powerful book that has key implications for possible political realignment.
People often ask me, as I stride the halls of power in my custom Zegna suits wove with thread of gold, how I became so rich and successful. Like David Byrne, I too ask myself, how did I get here, with my beautiful house, and my beautiful wife, and large automobile? Such thoughts bounce around my mind, but they have crystallized after reading Daymond John’s Rise and Grind. I picked this book because John is my favorite regular on Shark Tank, a show I watch intermittently, and I was bored in the airport, looking for something to read. I’m not sure I learned anything new, but I was inspired to regularize some of my thinking about my favorite topic, myself, and now I will share it with the world.
The death of the free market at the hands of monopoly has gotten a lot of recent attention. By far the best book about this problem is Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness, which through a “neo-Brandeisian” lens focuses on how monopoly destroys the core frameworks of a free society. This book, The Myth of Capitalism, comes to much the same conclusion from a more visceral starting place—why have wages stagnated even though the labor market is tight and corporate profits are soaring? The answer is corporate concentration, and Jonathan Tepper is, like Wu, offering concrete solutions.
Last year, the giant gaming company Electronic Arts released the latest version of an extremely popular military game, Battlefield V. Each release in the series takes place in a different time period; this one recreates World War II. Such games are very popular; successful titles can take in considerably more than $1 billion for their makers, and the budget for creating Battlefield V was around $250 million. So this is big business: as big as, or bigger than, Hollywood. But all mega-corporations today kowtow first of all to their real masters, the social justice warriors of the Left, not to their owners, and that, in the context of computer gaming, is what we are here to explore today.
I have often complained that human flourishing cannot consist of increases in GDP that permit us all to buy more cheap Chinese crap every year. Oren Cass has arrived to say exactly why that is, and what we should focus on instead. He also adds important related thoughts, including very specific and reality-based policy recommendations. Thus, in many ways, this book completes my circle of thoughts on political economy, providing the basis for an economic program in opposition to the modern verities of both Left and Right.
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. Wu, a Columbia Law professor and sometime (unsuccessful) reformist Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York, writes mostly on the intersection of technology and social organization. His most recent earlier book, The Attention Merchants, focused on the downsides of advertising in the modern world, especially as mediated by the Lords of Tech. That book offered measured, practical ways to address the problems identified, which seems to …