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.
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.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe!, they cried. Hans-Hermann Hoppe! They told me that if I read his books, it would change my life. This is not the first time I have heard that promise; it has been made to me of many books, from Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The promise has always failed me, but each fresh tomorrow brings the possibility that next time, it will not. Thus, I read this book, which aspires to give the history of man in one hundred and fifty pages, as an introduction to Hoppe’s thought. It was interesting enough, but I have gone away sad, for that looked-for tomorrow is not today.
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.
This classic book, by a long-dead and almost-forgotten German economist, is suddenly relevant again. I have had a copy on my bookshelf for thirty years, never read, and I was startled by how timely A Humane Economy is. Today, elements of Left and Right are ganging up to kick neoliberalism when it’s down, aiming to break the long-dominant alliance between the corporatist Left and Right, and thereby to overturn the instrumentalist view of humans as fodder for an economic machine. We are simply awaiting the next crisis to see what will emerge. Wilhelm Röpke foresaw the problems we face today, because he lived through their early days—though I am not sure his solutions are practical, at least until a lot more chaos first sweeps across the land.
From the cover, I expected this book to be a lightweight documentary version of Crazy Rich Asians, offering painfully amusing stories about the foibles of the super-rich, accompanied by cautions about the negative effects of such behavior upon the rest of America. Plus, the picture of private jets in the driveway attracted me as a vision of my hoped-for future, since I am comfortably in the 0.1%, and much of my time is spent struggling to reach yet higher. Instead, this book is a pretty dense, though rambling, web of analysis, with no funny stories at all. Still, it’s modestly worthwhile in itself, and it has the additional benefit that it sheds light on today.
Ship of Fools extends the recent run of books that attack the American ruling class as decayed and awful. However it is characterized, as the professional-management elite, the Front Row Kids, or one of many other labels, all these books argue the ruling class is running our country into the ground, and most argue it is stupid and annoying to boot. I certainly agree, and I also tend to agree with the grim prognostication in the subtitle, that revolution is coming—that is, this will end in blood. What this book fails to offer, though, just like all these books, is any kind of possible other solution. Which, after a while, reinforces the reader’s conclusion that there is no other solution.
This isn’t a great book, but it’s a starting point for discussions that are worth having. Richard Reeves gently flogs his own class for their sins, an act he thinks is very daring, though he uses a thin, silken cord and doesn’t put any muscle into it. The upper middle class, he says, is pulling up the bridge to the Castle of Success, protecting its own sons and daughters from the dragons outside, at the expense of the peasants milling about on the other side of the moat. He thinks this is bad, although he is confused as to exactly why that should be, since it seems “unfair,” but he can’t say what that is with any precision, and, after all, isn’t personal choice the most important thing of all? So this book mostly goes nowhere, but it can tickle the mind into some genuine thought.
I find that my hit percentage on economics books is about 50%. One out of every two books I read is excellent, and the other is awful. Very little seems to be in between. Unfortunately for me, this book is in the latter group. It is supposed to be, I think, an effort to show that a mainstream economist can be less than totally enthused about unlimited free trade and “hyper-globalization,” without being on the side of Trump or “illiberal democracies,” and without giving up his neoliberal ID card. But Straight Talk on Trade is just a mess.