Private equity has made me rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Yet private equity can be, as this book shows, a tool of the devil, a corrosive and destructive force in American life. Still, I do not think the story is as simple as Brian Alexander, the author of Glass House, would have it. The town in which he grew up, and which he profiles here—Lancaster, Ohio—has fallen far from its glory days, as have hundreds of similar towns across America. But the responsibility for that lies not just with the shady private equity companies that looted its largest employer, glass manufacturer Anchor Hocking, or with other elements of our rotten ruling class. It also lies with all of us, who bear more than some responsibility for the degradation of our towns, and of ourselves.
My barn has a split personality. On one side, you may not be surprised to learn, dusty in the gloom, carefully organized and stacked, are defensive implements of war, slumbering until the day of judgment. On the other side are implements of agriculture, for I also aspire, in the now, to be a peaceful gentleman farmer. That is, not a profit-making farmer, or even a farmer who sells anything, but someone who enjoys being outdoors and learning how to grow plants and husband animals (and bees). As I expand from simple garden plots to acre-plus growing, I turned to this book to expand my knowledge. I got what I was looking for, and I also was inspired to think about two closely-related topics: modern farming practices and fat people.
The “why” of entrepreneurship varies by entrepreneur. My core “why” is money. I want, and have always wanted, money, for what money can do. Whether that is avarice, or wisdom, or both, we can discuss another day. No surprise, in the 1980s song by The Nails, “88 Lines About 44 Women,” one of the couplets has always resonated with me: “Kathleen’s point of view was this / Take whatever you can grab.” Along similar lines, when asked what the mission statement of my company is, I like to respond, entirely accurately and completely, “To put sweet cash in the pocket of Charles.” I am consistent, at least.
As befits one who seeks to be a man of wealth and taste (if I have to choose between them, the former), I aspire to live on a vast estate, leading the life of a gentleman farmer. That doesn’t seem to be the immediate future, but we do have enough land to keep some chickens and grow some apples. This year, we are planning to add some honeybees, so I figured I should educate myself before taking the first concrete steps. The Beekeeper’s Lament, a 2010 book by Hannah Nordhaus, which combines talk of bees and beekeeping with modest philosophy about both, seemed like a good place to start. I was not disappointed—I learned a lot, and I also found food for thought about modern agricultural and eating practices.
I have long known in my gut that usual measures of social wealth, most of all GDP, are fraudulent, in that they falsely identify value where there is none. I have intuited we were all being lied to, and that those who assured us that ever more value was being generated by our society by what appear to be objectively valueless activities were, at best, hiding something. This outstanding book, by left-wing economist Mariana Mazzucato, explains what is being hidden, what hard truths are being avoided, and what she thinks we should do about it. And while I don’t agree with all her prescriptions, or with her rosy view of government competency, the first step on the path to self-improvement is admitting you have a problem.
The Great Transformation, published in 1944, is an ambitious book. It attempts two huge tasks. First, to refute the free market ideology, sometimes called market fundamentalism, represented at that time by men such as Ludwig von Mises, and now by the entirety of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Second, to explain the history of the nineteenth century through an economic lens that also purports to explain both World War I and World War II. Mostly, the book is a failure. It overshoots in its criticism of the free market, and falls short on its claims of historical explanation. Karl Polyani’s prescriptions are, moreover, vague and worthless. There is some truth in this book, but it is buried beneath too much dross.
I am trying to understand how human beings create value through their actions, and what that implies for humanity. Although this goal is hardly original, and has occupied much brighter thinkers than me for much of their lives, it is a necessary step in defining Foundationalism, because how we occupy our hands and minds, and what effects that has on us and society, are critical components of human flourishing. And the economic path we have been on for the past several decades has led to the opposite of human flourishing, surface appearances notwithstanding. To guide us to flourishing, we must understand why that is, and what can be done differently.
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.