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Review of “Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century” by J. Bradford DeLong

I looked forward to reading this book because the reviews I read said that the author had a unique perspective on the topic. That is certainly true, but the subject of this book is not Economic History; this rather long book (~550 pages) instead discusses societal and political factors influencing the economic history of (mostly) the United States. I believe the title is misleading.

A good part of the text discusses equal rights and pays lip service to their impact on the economics of the U.S. while failing to close the loop on the macroeconomic relationship between the Civil Rights movement and changes in national productivity. In that respect it added nothing to, and even said less, than a previous book I reviewed here. This pattern–focusing on social issues and not showing a cause-and-effect relationship to the economy–was a recurring theme.

The story picked up towards the end, when Neoliberalism was contrasted with the New Deal era. I had always called this socioeconomic program Reaganism. The origin of the Washington Consensus is discussed and I admit that this is a subject that fascinates me; the U.S. imposed the current world order on everyone else (outside the Communist sphere) because it was the only existing superpower in the 1950s. The causes of American isolationism in the interwar era (1920-1940) are discussed in a global context, but it had to be trimmed because of too much social history.

I found the book a teaser and bought a title on Neoliberalism that appears to be more economics and less sociology. I’ll write a review of it when I finish reading it.

This book was made difficult to read by the ridiculously long sentences; strings of phrases are connected with commas when they are better treated as separate ideas. I had to reread large portions of it because I forgot the topic of the sentence. I think the author did too a couple of times. I guess that for some people, the point is to impress the reader with your eruditeness rather than communicate clearly.

I can’t recommend this book even though it contains some good analyses and a different (I wouldn’t go so far as to say unique) perspective on the numerous fundamental changes that occurred. I didn’t feel that I’d learned anything new about the subject when I finished.

Review of “The End of the World is Just the Beginning” by Peter Zeihan

Many knowledgable reviews of this book have been written, and it started a firestorm of debate about the impacts of globalization, and its demise. That is the premise to all 475 pages. It is stated in the Introduction and repeated at least once on almost every subsequent page. The problem is: the author never explains why America would suddenly stop supporting an international convention it helped create. It is treated as an axiom, a given assumption from which all kinds of predictions can be made. There isn’t the slightest attempt to explain, much less justify, this fundamental premise. Because of this glaring deficiency, the scenario described in detail for many countries and industries is no more than an alternate history of a world that hasn’t appeared yet, like if the Axis powers had won World War II.

The details are culled from Zeihan’s experience as an international consultant, and he has plenty of them. They are reasonable, given the axiom of unilateral American withdrawal from the international scene. The strengths and weaknesses of various nations are interesting and will, of course, contribute to the future economic development of those economies. So, the book is worth reading, as a summary of the history and current state of various economic sectors (e.g. mining, petroleum, agriculture), and it is worth having around as a reference, a partial explanation of global trends. No doubt, many of his predictions will come true because they are based on facts, even if not supported with a bibliography.

I have another complaint, however; there are no references, and the footnotes consist of often witty comments rather than details not given in the text. There isn’t even a list of supporting sources. Nothing. I guess we’re supposed to trust the author, as an expert. Nevertheless, if taken in a humorous light (a perspective apparent in the author’s comments), like a conversation on the front porch with a beer in your hand (maybe a rum and coke), it is entertaining.

I enjoyed reading it, but I’m taking his predictions with a grain of salt.

Who is an Anarchist?

This image says it all. The photo was linked to a web site that sucked me into their world. I used a screen shot to escape.

Anarchy: a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.

Wow!

Democracy is fragile whereas autocracy is a time-proven form of government. Anarchy is a theoretical political system, like Communism, that has never been applied. Look at the definition. Nature follows the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that everything seeks the least common denominator.

Given that we are struggling to get along, on our best day, denying outright the results of elections, which have been conducted in as open a manner as possible in what remains an analog world (despite fantasies about digitizing humanity), filled with human error, is paramount to Anarchy. (I hesitate to append that this even applies to Russia.)

“I don’t give a fuck. I want to run the world. I’ve got the guns to prove it.”

I admit that’s a little over the top, but my point is valid. If you don’t trust an elected government which has as much oversight as possible, and follow whatever antiauthoritarian conspiracy dogmas suit your fancy, you are…

Anarchist…

As much as it pains me to say, “If you aren’t willing to die for Democracy in your homeland, you are…”

“Anarchist…”

Review of “A Consumer’s Republic” by Lizabeth Cohen

This is an older nonfiction book that has recently been rediscovered by the media. I heard an interview with the author on NPR and immediately purchased the Kindle version. Overall, I found it very entertaining and informative, despite a few issues. By the way, the subtitle is incorrect; the book is definitely not limited to “Postwar America,” assuming that is a reference to the Second World War. It actually starts at the turn of the twentieth century. It was first published in 2003, so it covers a tempestuous century of changes in how and why we buy stuff.

The grammar and punctuation are good, but the sentences get a little long, sometimes losing their train of thought and morphing into a new sentence before they end. I did a lot of rereading. At its core, this book is the culmination of an in-depth study of economic growth in New Jersey, extrapolated to the entire nation using reasonable assumptions, usually demonstrated to be legitimate. The Garden State is a good prototype because apparently that’s where the suburbs and mass marketing began, a response to the cost of living and lack of space in the New York City metropolitan area.

The author does a good job presenting the lighter side of consumerism while describing the struggle of disenfranchised groups (e.g., women and African Americans) to gain access to the market, which was seen as just as important as political rights. The entanglement of economic and political development is complex but presented pretty well in this book.

The author proves the existence of the “Consumer Republic” using many quotes from social leaders from the era that demonstrate the intentional development of the modern segmented, mass-market political economy called America. I had never heard any of this before, even though I lived through it and was one of the consumers that made it tick.

Everyone should at least be aware of their part in the evolution of identity politics in the segmentation of the mass market, which occurred over the last third of the twentieth century. It is a humorous and frightening story.

Unfortunately, I don’t think very many Americans will read this book (it is 800 pages long); at least, try to find a summary or, better yet, an interview with Lizabeth Cohen.

Review of “Capital and Ideology” by Thomas Piketty.

I am not qualified to review this book but that has never stopped me before. I am not summarizing what the author and dozens, if not hundreds, of historical economists and historians have spent decades studying. This book is more than a thousand pages, which says a lot about the research and intellectual investment of the author and god-knows how many others in their endeavor. I don’t even feel competent to summarize this tome, so I’m going to focus on how the author communicated his message to me personally, just as if this were a piece of fiction, which it is to some extent.

This book was translated from French to English by a professional, even though the author is fluent in both languages. A wise choice because the English translation is very readable. Even the most pedantic segments (there were a lot) were comprehensible, and the figure captions recapitulated the text. This was a professionally written (in the old-school meaning) summary of mind-numbing bureaucratic and polling data being turned into actionable statistical data.

The message interpreted from these data wasn’t as convincing as the author wanted me to believe.

Piketty admits the uncertainty of his data constantly, so I’m not saying that there was any misrepresentation, only what he says himself many times in this iconic book: there are insufficient data to make any definitive recommendations, but we should nevertheless start a serious, multinational dialogue if we are to avoid the fate of…

This is where Piketty’s argument hits a snag. He doesn’t give any examples, not even from antiquity (like complex socioeconomic analyses of ancient societies from about 1100 BCE, a time not unlike our own), to support his conjecture, a term he doesn’t deny outright. He has no evidence of what anyone with the common sense of…

No one has any common sense about these issues, a point admitted by Piketty. He advises economic historians and political scientists to work together to address the issues alluded to above, but fails to demonstrate any understanding of the impact of his claim. Perhaps the author should have spent more time talking to political scientists and economists before unilaterally sharing his historical viewpoint, weighted heavily in favor of his agenda.

To be clear, I agree with the conclusions presented in this book. It’s worth the risk of the incremental changes he proposes to shift the trajectory of global civilization.

I’ve become pretty good at finding punctuation and grammatical errors, despite my lack of formal education, but I was impressed by the translator’s work. I didn’t keep count, but the error rate was a lot better than mine. I read the footnotes, where the error rate went up, but not to the point of even being annoying. This was a very well written and translated book.

I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who thought I was going to summarize the author’s work. However, I do recommend this book based on Piketty’s own suggestion: skip the evidentiary chapters and read his summary if you aren’t willing to read a lot of pedantic European economic history.

The conclusion of the book is made clear throughout: The global socioeconomic system needs a better model than capitalism.

I recommend this book for serious readers. For the rest of you, pick up whatever you can from the internet because Thomas Piketty is not a recluse.

Meanwhile, if a cliff-notes version appears…

Ungovernable

I propose that Homo sapiens are not by nature susceptible to sustainable governance. My purpose isn’t to convince the reader of my thesis but only to demonstrate its plausibility, even if only when considered from a limited perspective. This is going to be short and simple because I am not a historian or a political scientist. My interest in the topic arises from looking at the different forms of government currently forming the global community. None of them are doing a very good job, so I wondered if this was a problem with finding the perfect, or at least best suited, command and control administration or something more fundamental.

It turns out that governing systems are classified according to how they organize power or the source of their power. I presume this is a reference to political power or maybe legitimacy. For example, political power can be organized in several ways: Anarchy has no central state and trusts people to work out their differences amicably (laughable), more often than not serving as a bridge between other power structures (e.g. Afghanistan); Confederations are unions of sovereign states, like the European Union; Unitary States are what they sound like, a strong government controlling pretty much everything (85% of modern nations); and finally we have Federations with hierarchical government structures (think the U.S. and Germany).

I’m going to skip family, tribe, band, and clan organizations based on kinship.

Even the Mongols didn’t use Anarchy as a form of government. The others have been tried repeatedly and failed. The Sumerian Confederation is hard to pin down because it grew organically from people settling in Mesopotamia over thousands of years. Population density was low and they got along just fine, until one of their local rulers became the first recorded monarch in history.

The reconstructed Mask of Sargon, the oldest recorded king in the world (unified the Sumerian states approximately 4300 years ago).

Sargon didn’t do it alone. He obviously found plenty of young men willing to die for his cause, whatever that was. Maybe “Make Akkad great again!” His empire lasted a century after his death. The Athenian Confederation lasted less than fifty years. You do remember the Peloponnesian War? Moving on, Unitary States tend to be absorbed by empires, like the one King Sargon created from the Sumerian Confederation. The Roman Empire was adept at absorbing entire nations under the relentless onslaught of its legions. The Han Dynasty won a war of attrition to rule China for four centuries, constantly interrupted by civil wars. The British Empire lasted from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

I can’t help but wonder what will be the fate of so many Unitary States in the modern world?

The United States is the first recorded Federation in the history of the world. Thus, it’s a rather new invention but one requiring a lot of cooperation–dare I say trust?–to function effectively. None of the Federations have had enough time to fail yet although they have been tested, as in the American Civil War and Germany’s struggle in the twentieth century, i.e., two world wars.

The central theme to the organization of political power is that all forms of governance lead ultimately to war and the dissolution of the state/empire, to be replaced by something similar.

Enough of that. Now I’m going to blow through the Source of Political Power list because it is (laughably) long. This comes down to who has the brute force to impose their will on the people, and how this decision was made. It’s always male Homo sapiens with deadly weapons who decide, their determination expressed through one of the structures I just summarized.

Just for fun, I’ll list the different sources of power, before throwing the entire concept into the trash heap. Here it is: Autocracy; Democracy; Oligarchy; Demarchy (not a real thing but someone thought it was a good idea); Direct Democracy; Electocracy (like Putin being elected); Liberal Democracy; Liquid Democracy (you’ve got to check this out for yourself); Representative Democracy; Social Democracy; Soviet Democracy; and last but not least, Totalitarian Democracy (think Venezuela).

All of these ridiculous “forms” of government aside, the average duration of an empire (the most popular form of government in the historical record) is 250 years.

Why?

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Han Dynasty, the Roman Empire, or even the British Empire; ending these administrative organizations didn’t improve anyone’s life or advance the march of progress. I now come to the central point of this post…

The nearest relative to Modern Man (i.e. Homo sapiens) is the chimpanzee (aka Pan troglodytes), a social and gregarious species of great ape that forms bands as large as 150 members, not so different from Human hunter-gatherer groups. These “monkeys” actually form very complex societies. Nevertheless they have a substantially smaller prefrontal cortex than Homo sapiens. This is where it gets a little weird…

I grew up on Star Trek and really bought into the idea of one world that had survived several catastrophes, humanity having gotten its act together and joined the other sentient species populating the galaxy. Then I learned about time scales longer than a human lifespan–what an eye opener. Everything I’ve summarized in this post occurred within the last ten-thousand years. Homo sapiens branched from Pan troglodytes about 6 million years ago, a long time from a human perspective, on the order of 300K generations, which sounds really big; but here we are, isolated bands of humans behaving like chimpanzees in a few secluded areas of the world, or so we like to think…

There is no difference in the brain of the most “primitive” human’ alive today and mine. I’m going to jump ahead here but I encourage anyone who reads this to prove me wrong…

To summarize a lot of popular psychology books, the human brain is no better than a chimpanzee’s at remembering all the people it comes in contact with on a daily basis. Despite this limitation, our grossly enlarged prefrontal cortex allows us to process and analyze far more environmental data than a chimpanzee. Hmmm…let’s not get carried away; we can process a lot more social information but we don’t know what to do with it, and therein lies the problem.

I’m climbing way out on a sagging limb, maybe just a sprout, when I take a deep breath and finish this post.

Being smarter than chimpanzees doesn’t make us gods; we are no more capable than Pan troglodytes of forming social groups but, unlike our simian cousins, we can fool ourselves into a false sense of empowerment because of the narrative skills our enlarged prefrontal cortex supplies, which explains (to my mind) why…

Mankind is ungovernable and doomed to repeat a pattern of dominant and submissive behavior for the foreseeable future.

We cannot escape who we are…

Review of “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

This book is legit, despite the lack of footnotes and in-line references. There is a detailed bibliography at the end, disguised as “Acknowledgments,” which also explains a lot of behind-the-scenes research that was omitted in the text. I was skeptical of the support for their hypothesis until I read this section in full. The book makes sense, as the summary of ten years of research by the authors, culminating in enough work to justify a book. This work is not fluff, nor is it entirely original, instead being what most scientific publications are: The authors worked for ten years on the subject of comparative economics and finally felt confident to publish their work outside scientific venues.

It was published in 2012 so it doesn’t reference the work of Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, which are not meant for the casual reader. This book, however, is written for a non-political scientist and is very readable and interesting.

The authors have simplified all the factors contributing to the economic success of nations into a simple idea: political and economic inclusiveness or extraction, the latter being typified by colonialism and kleptocracy as in modern Russia under Putin. They do a good job or explaining the importance of chance on the economic development of nations, repeating the mantra that things could have gone in a different direction in Britain in the seventeenth century but for a few lucky breaks.

The hypothesis is somewhat dark in that it doesn’t suggest a recipe for success; chance or, as they put it, contingency is a major factor in the development of political/economic systems (i.e. nations) and so they offer no quick fixes for developing nations. In fact, given the importance of previous conditions and chance, they don’t paint a very happy image of the future. But I’m reading between the lines there.

The bottom line is that, despite the uncertainty and continuous change inherent in democratic institutions, they are the best hope to break the cycles of history; resistance to change by the elites is the primary factor holding nations back, getting rich quick for a few (i.e. wealth inequality) being the curse of death to prosperity. Maybe they’re wrong, but their arguments are persuasive even to a skeptic like me.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn some not-so-well-known history and see the world through a different pair of glasses.

Review of “A Promised Land” by Barrack Obama

The author admits time and again that he tends to be long-winded. It’s true. This is the story of his life up through the killing of Osama bin Laden, although the childhood isn’t so much discussed chronologically as dropped in memories scattered throughout. I like that style, but the political career is in order, reading like a technical report rather than a personal story. He livens it up with regular sidebars about family life. To be honest, he admits that he and his wife worked to keep their family life normal and, as far as I can tell, they succeeded, so well that I got tired of hearing about putting the girls to bed. No family drama or horror stories about unwelcome advances on the family. Boring after the fifth or so time hearing it.

Obama writes well but uses a wordy style; however, to be a lawyer, he seems to have resisted the attempt by the legal establishment to brainwash lawyers into talking in circles. This book is clearly written and enjoyable overall. I guess he felt obliged to mention all the people who worked with him over the years, which added a lot of pages to the text. Between that and history lessons I didn’t need to hear (being older than him and interested in history), the book was at least 30% longer than it needed to be. He wanted to be thorough–no reader left behind.

I don’t read memoirs much (I think I read Bob Gates’ a few years ago), so I wasn’t excited about this but it was okay most of the time. He does a good job communicating his feelings about events and how surprised he was about the course his life took. I believed his sincerity on that point because his rise to stardom was unforeseen to say the least. Of course, any memoir by a politician or other celebrity can’t help but be self-promotional and a justification of their actions. With all the other self-deprecation scattered throughout the book, I was surprised that he didn’t address this natural concern, not even in the preface. There’s a lot of self-justification in these 700 pages, but also more than enough self-doubt and admission of making mistakes (just not on big issues).

Overall, I would recommend this book if you are either a reader of political memoirs or interested in this very interesting and successful politician who was truly an example of the common man, rather than the product of generations of wealth and elitism.

I’ll end this review with a list of the parts he divided the story into:

THE BET

YES WE CAN

RENEGADE

THE GOOD FIGHT

THE WORLD AS IT IS

IN THE BARREL

ON THE HIGH WIRE

Fitting subtitles every one…

The Least Common Denominator

Historians and sociologists avoid a taboo subject they can’t mention, or else their careers would evaporate. There’s a good reason for this tradition. It prevents every stupid idea from becoming widely accepted but guess what, that information dissemination model has failed. With so much disinformation accepted by so many people, it’s time to speak openly.

With so much history to examine, historians have plenty of examples of the rise and fall of nations and empires. The data show that people do stupid things, where stupid can be interpreted to mean self-destructive acts that were not the result of careful contemplation. Just take the…why bother giving examples. You can find plenty of examples. That is the interesting aspect of this problem, the reason for this post.

The least common denominator is “The least common denominator (LCD) is the smallest number that can be a common denominator for a set of fractions.”  

When applied to groups of people, this concept has names like “The squeaky wheel” or the “Vocal minority.”

No matter what name is used, this group of people always wins, creating every form of government imaginable, from the monarchies of antiquity to liberal democracies. Scream loud and you will get your way, especially if you know guys with guns. There’s something about having weapons, the ability to kill other people at will, that causes the LCD (Least Common Denominator) crowd to get excited.

All societies are LCD based. Variations between global areas are nothing more than reflections of what the vocal and connected minority wants, whether its authoritarianism as in China and Russia, liberal democracy as seen in Western Europe and Australia, or anarchy as expressed in the United States. These choices and how they are instantiated are the legacy of millennia of cultural development.

In other words, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Bottom line:racism is the LCD; war is the LCD; paranoia is the LCD; fear and superstition are both LCDs; so get used to it and stop dreaming about a better world. It may come but only when the global LCD has been found and…

I don’t know what that will be…

What Did We Expect?

Who knows what the New Colussus is? I certainly didn’t remember, although I’m certain that I heard about it at some point in my life, maybe high school civics class. Here it is in its entirety:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Emma Lazarus
November 2, 1883

Now I bet you recognize it, especially the last quote from the Colossus: “Give me…the wretched refuse from your teeming shore…the homeless…” This is a very nice sentiment, encapsulating the origins of so many people arriving in North America, beginning with religious zealots persecuted for their beliefs; and uneducated men and women (not needed by the pre-industrial societies of the time) signing contracts to work as indentured servants for years, arriving in the swamps of Virginia.

Naturally, they carried the memory of their previous lives into the new nation they eventually formed. I recommend a recent book called Fantasyland, by Kurt Anderson to better understand these people, the people who formed the character of America.

There’s a reason the Colossus voices her invitation. The colonists and most subsequent immigrants to America were misfits with nothing to lose. Even the wealthiest, who became the Founding Fathers, were antiauthoritarian rabble rousers who resented any power greater than their own, especially the southern slaveholders.

These personality traits became cemented in the character of every colony, later state, and then the United States. I’m not saying that a different group of colonists and immigrants wouldn’t have done the things these people did: murdering Native Americans and stealing their land; enslaving Africans kidnapped from their homes; decimating the environment, leaving scorched earth in their wake; and turning against their own government (the British Crown) over what were actually pretty minor offenses, as government’s behaved back then.

What did we think was going to happen when a national character born from fear, desperation, persecution, and superstition–reinforced by 200 years of “wretched refuse” arriving in droves–faced a challenge? Every crisis, usually of our own doing, is an opportunity to blame someone else, preferably a newer arrival.

In the words of Britney Spears, “Oops!…[we] did it again.”