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?”
This title story of this book tells of Bob Kearns, tinkering inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose patented invention was stolen by Ford and other big automakers. The story was originally a 1993 New Yorker article, but was republished in this book as a tie-in to the 2008 Greg Kinnear movie of the same name. That’s just one story in this fascinating collection, though, which covers topics ranging from Nevada gold mining to the Antikythera Mechanism. The book is quite good—not earthshattering, but interesting, and certainly capable of giving the reader interesting discussion topics so he can avoid politics at the next cocktail party he has to attend.
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.
This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space. The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures. In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before. All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct. But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop. Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus: a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.
This is a fantastic book that well deserves its reputation as a classic. Part history, part sociological study, part economic analysis, and part ecological survey, William Cronon examines the growth of Chicago by studying the city’s 19th Century relationship to the larger “Great West” (more or less the once-sparsely settled regions between the Ohio River Valley and the Pacific). He does this by analyzing, in fascinating detail, the city and its surrounding territory in three areas: transportation (water and rail), physical commodities (grain, lumber, and meat), and capital. For each topic, he focuses both narrowly on how each developed and changed over time, and more broadly on how each affected the city and the larger Great West. I suppose to some this sounds boring—but as far as I’m concerned Cronon nearly magically retains the reader’s interest throughout.
How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare. It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures. It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.
Tyler Cowen is a popular economist, known for an influential blog (Marginal Revolution) and a set of books on economics directed at a general audience. In Average Is Over, a book from 2013, Cowen predicts an American future of increased economic (and thus social) division, as new technology enables those most conversant with it to profit, and forces others to be paid less as they become relatively less productive. This is a common historical occurrence, of course, where those whose skills are no longer valued by the market, from hand weavers to buggy whip makers to floppy disk craftsmen, must ultimately retire or retool, often never regaining their previous income, though the economy as a whole, and thus average and median income, expand in the long run despite short- and medium-term pain and dislocations. The difference in Cowen’s analysis is that he forecasts a permanent division, the result of ever-improving radically new technology and the failure of some, or many, to properly orient themselves with respect to that technology.
I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction. Probably, similar to many doom-and-gloom conservatives, deep down I see myself as bestriding the Apocalypse like a colossus, Bible in my left hand and short-barreled AR-15 in my right. Of course, intellectually I realize that actual apocalypses are very, very bad for everyone involved, so my self-image is buried deep in my id, not a goal I have set for myself. Moreover, my strong belief is that, while it may not be evident yet, the era of apocalyptic fiction is ending, to be replaced by a new literature of optimism and pursuit of excellence. A few months ago, I thought that switch would be quick and smooth. Now, I suspect it will happen slowly over piles of bodies, with the only question being how tall those piles will be. In the meantime, though, we can enjoy The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver’s excellent, and mostly pessimistic, book about the near future collapse of America.
This book is just not very good. I was excited to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth; it was extensively and positively reviewed and it promised to illuminate an important topic by giving extended, specific analysis. In particular, I wanted to learn about changes in productivity over time. Instead, I first got an interminable, plodding exposition, which repeated commonly known facts ad nauseum for its first 600 pages. But I soldiered on, knowing that the last 100 pages were analysis of current problems and of future productivity. I should have cut my losses—those last 100 pages are exemplars of rank illogic and incoherence. It didn’t end there, either—the book is then, at the last, capped by shrill, unsupported demands that America ingest a massive dose of insufferable and, at best, non-effective, leftist nostrums, considerably more pernicious than the 19th Century patent medicines the author unoriginally decries. When I finished this book, I had to drink a fifth of cheap whiskey just to dull the pain, but now that the hangover is gone, I …
Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is part history and part social analysis. The history related in The Attention Merchants tells us something we all basically know—that economic forces simultaneously drive businesses to offer us “free” entertainment, while at the same time making our attention to that entertainment a product to be sold to advertisers. Hence the title. And, since everybody likes free stuff, and in a free market, new markets will always be sought and exploited, there is a natural tendency for advertising to intrude into previously private spaces, making the sphere of the truly private ever smaller.