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.
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.
This is a special review. It is special because it is the last of its kind. I no longer intend to spend my time, and your time, on books that I know to be completely wrong, merely to show they are completely wrong. I am keenly aware of what I call “the closing door,” embodied in the words of John 9:4—“the night cometh, when no man can work,” which Samuel Johnson had engraved on the inside cover of his pocket watch. This does not at all mean that I am stopping writing, only that I will no longer write in the vein of correcting errors of the political Left. For the hour is late, and the Right has better things to do.
Inflation, like most society-wide monetary happenings, is always complex and often incompletely grasped. At least this is true of its causes; of its effects, most of all its social effects, there is now little doubt. We learned much about inflation during the twentieth century, when the advent of permanent fiat money made hyperinflation possible for the first time. But as this book shows, the infamous German hyperinflation of 1923 was poorly understood by those who lived through it. And whatever we understand now, the past several years, and in particular the past few months, have demonstrated that we still often ignore what we know. When Money Dies shows what happens when reality reasserts itself. It’s not pretty.
I am skeptical of those who predict the future by looking at the past. It’s not that history follows a random walk, like the stock market. Quite the contrary—it is easy to show certain patterns in history. But predicting how and when those patterns will yield any particular result in any given society seems like astrology. Peter Turchin, however, offers a very convincing, and very well-supported, tying of patterns to data. I’m still not sure it’s not astrology, but I’m half convinced. And this is a good book to read in January 2020—because right now is when Turchin predicts, in America, the swelling discord of the title.
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.
Last year, I went to the State Fair, and simply sat and watched the people pass by. The vast majority were lower class, and looked it. I tried, for a change, to ignore the externals and imagine myself conversing with individuals with whom, to an outside observer, I have nothing in common. Chris Arnade wrote Dignity to document a similar exercise, though one far more in-depth. He travelled the country, talking to many people from the lower classes, what he calls the “back row.” Then he wrote up what he had learned, and added a great deal by filling the book with pictures, so that the reader can perform the same exercise I did at the State Fair, and ponder respect and the back row in today’s society.
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.