I read Morris Morley and Chris McGillion's Reagan and Pinochet: The Struggle Over U.S. Policy Toward Chile (2015). I'm finishing up a review for Latin American Politics & Society. The upshot is that I enjoyed the book.
The book makes two main contributions. First, it explains why U.S. policy toward Chile evolved in ways that were not obvious when Reagan first took office, and how that was shaped by internal administration schisms. Second, it explores the difficulties and frustrations U.S. policy makers had influencing events in Chile.
It is based on extensive archival work and interviews, so it's a very nice insider view of the bureaucratic machinations going on. I actually found it more useful than the authors themselves give it (or seem to give it) credit for.
I don’t believe I’ve ever had reason to criticize academic authors for being too modest, yet that’s what I felt as I read. Morley and McGillion don’t situate themselves in any particular scholarly context. It is a bit frustrating that the introduction begins immediately with a chronological account of U.S. policy toward Latin America but does not first lay out the book’s key arguments, contribution and structure. In fact their foreign policy analysis is more useful than they even try to claim.
Stephen Dando-Collins' book Tycoon's War chronicles William Walker's infamous effort to become president of Nicaragua and to colonize the country in the mid-1850s. What a miserable affair: I mean that effort, not the book, which flows well. We see 19th men in all their vainglory and extreme prejudices. Walker wanted glory over "uncivilized" people, Cornelius Vanderbilt (who helped defeat him) wanted unfettered access for his transit company across Nicaragua, soldiers of fortune wanted violent adventure and spoils, the American public wanted accounts of how superior they were to Central Americans, while Central Americans themselves mostly wanted to be left alone.
There's not much good to be said of anyone in the book. The Central American (and I refer to the region because it united briefly to drive Walker out) leaders themselves stabbed each other in the back constantly. It's telling that the end of the book describes all the executions that took place, including Walker's. It seems most of the protagonists soon ended up against a wall. Meanwhile, the bulk of Walker's soldiers ended up joining the Confederacy. Indeed, Walker had ended the ban on slavery in Nicaragua precisely to gain southern support.
Page after page shows the lives lost, sometimes in horrific ways (such as burning) for no real purpose at all. Filbusters came with bloodlust, taking enormous risks and dying (often of disease) for nothing. There was no way Walker would maintain any sort of government long-term. Even though he was self-proclaimed president, he had no government, no policies, no popular support, and no knowledge of governing. He was emphatically uninterested in Nicaraguans themselves.
In the U.S. we've forgotten the sordid story entirely. In Nicaragua, September 14 is San Jacinto Day and a national holiday because it remembers a key Nicaraguan victory against Walker's forces in 1856. The assault on sovereignty Walker represented means nothing to us, which is unfortunate. And all too common. ...more
I read Julie Shayne's edited volume Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (2014). The title is intended to convey both the risks that activists take and the professional risks scholars make when they engage in this type of research. The book centers on story-telling as part of transnational feminist methodologies and is organized in three parts: Texts, stories, and activism; performed stories of social justice; and activist stories from the grassroots. The authors come from all over the hemisphere and the line between activist and academic is blurred.
As someone with little background on the topic, I was particularly interested in the diversity of views. All the authors are committed to social justice, but how they approach it varies considerably. Goals include giving voice to the voiceless, simply helping others, creating an archive by which these stories become permanent, and understanding yourself better and becoming more self-aware, even methodologically. The authors also discuss ways in which their own thinking is challenged and how they deal with that. As a result, the stories of activism and activists are compelling but the self-reflection is perhaps more so.
Interestingly, no author is a political scientist. That's unfortunate because there are scholars doing work in this area (e.g. Christina Ewig, who I went to graduate school with) who seek to bridge the activist/positivist divide that Shayne outlines. Nonetheless, the chapters offer a lot of food for methodological thought....more
Swedish journalist Erik Jennische's book Hay que quitarse la policía de la cabeza (roughly, You Have to Get the Police Out of Your Head) provides a detailed and sometimes personal view of Cuba's opposition and the challenges it faces. As the title suggests, his interviews with members of the opposition show how years of repression end up guiding people's behavior. Gradually activists have been more successful (though of course only within limits) in expressing discontent, but only once they can break free of that mental restraint.
Jennische interviews a wide range of people, from those who write political articles online to punk rockers. In at least one case this included someone who later turned out to be a government spy (which itself looks like a fascinating story). That example is indicative of how the state manages on a daily basis to make people suspicious of each other--you never know who might be listening. Organizing in any effective fashion and getting your message out is thus even harder. Meanwhile, the state keeps shifting to deal with potential "counter-revolutionaries" by shutting down avenues of communication or even music festivals.
Later, Jennische himself feels the effect when he is detained (and even accused of being part of the School of the Americas) and then deported. He didn't return to Cuba for over a decade afterward. This new edition of the book includes an epilogue that includes his return, which is sobering since he refers to a dissident who was imprisoned (for trying to let loose two pigs in the Parque Central with the names Fidel and Raul painted on them). Even though some in the opposite have been working to the get the police out of their heads, as he argues the state still treats them like children, incapable of their own independence.
This is a reminder that even as U.S.-Cuban relations evolve, we shouldn't expect quick results. The repression is still there and even if it eases there is a hangover effect. You can't get the police out of your head quite that fast.
On a side note, I don't think this book has ever been reviewed in English. Hopefully I can convince some others to check it out. Even nicer would be a translation....more
The first part of the book dragged a bit for me, but I got going again with a quicker second half. I liked the first installment of the trilogy (whichThe first part of the book dragged a bit for me, but I got going again with a quicker second half. I liked the first installment of the trilogy (which was mostly WWI) a bit better than this one but it was still a good read. This second book was primarily WWII, bringing in all different sorts of viewpoints--fascists, anti-fascists, communists, anti-communists, socialists, you get the idea. Even more so than the first book, the coincidences get a bit out of hand, with people bumping into each other in ways that started to make my eyes roll....more
I read Carlos Gamerro's novel An Open Secret. It is the story of a man who returns to the small Argentine town where he spent summers a child, and now as an adult he investigates the Dirty War murder of a man. Using a cover story of writing about the case, he starts talking to people. Gradually he unravels the ways in which the town was really collectively responsible and how personal vendettas came together with the Dirty War. There is also a major plot twist that I won't spoil.
I found it a slow read and the long, bouncing, slangy paragraphs of dialogue can be tough to follow, as are the many characters (this must've been a really difficult book to translate). The novel has a powerful message, but I found it a bit blunted by the style. Reading over reviews after I finished the book, I am left with the impression that plenty of others didn't get the same impression so it may well just be a matter of taste.
Part of that message is how even now people harbor countless secrets about what happened during dictatorships, in Argentina and elsewhere. For many reasons, including self-preservation, they're careful about what they say and to whom. There are a lot of answers out there about the disappeared but they're hard to find....more
I read Juan Reinaldo Sanchez's The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years As Personal Bodyguard to El Líder Máximo (2015), which has been translated from the original Spanish (it was published in France). Coming from someone who was very close to Fidel, it provides a look into his personal life. As such, it's an entertaining and informative glimpse into Fidel's inner circle.
I kept thinking "L'état, c'est moi," in the sense that there is no line between his resources and the state treasury. He found a nice island, then ordered a massive amount of work to be done so he could travel there by helicopter, have people direct him to the fish, then help him catch them. He created a cow pasture in a building so he could do experiments to breed the best milk-producer. Is it crazy or extravagant? Either way, he did whatever he wanted, no matter the cost.
It can veer toward the gossipy. I'm not particularly interested in how Fidel juggled various women, for example. At the same time, it is interested to think about why his numerous children were not groomed for politics. Some of the gossip is funny, as when Sánchez walked around a North Korean hotel with a drunken Fidel trying to find him a softer mattress.
Sánchez seems to contradict the idea that the KGB built the Cuban intelligence apparatus. Sánchez talks about all the new exercises and plans he personally made, but did Cuba's security become famous through Cuban efforts alone? He suggests this on p. 104, scoffing at the KGB as low quality and saying Cuba took its model from the U.S., Israel, France, and Great Britain. None of those countries, of course, would've done any training.
Sánchez says he started to feel disillusioned after overhearing a conversation in 1988 confirming that Fidel Castro was directing a cocaine operation in the United States. Not long after, Castro executed several top lieutenants (especially Arnaldo Ochoa) for participation in an operation he claimed to know nothing about. All that has been reported before many times before, but Sánchez provides an insider's view. He also claims that Ochoa's death pushed Raúl Castro to drink so heavily that his wife feared he might be suicidal, and that Sánchez overheard Fidel reassure his brother that he wouldn't suffer Ochoa's fate. Sánchez was imprisoned for two years and tortured when members of his family emigrated, which put him under suspicion. He finally managed to leave Cuba in 2008.
One final point, from a research perspective. According to Sánchez, Fidel Castro saved voluminous files, from his daily calendar to recordings he made in meetings and phone calls. Given how extensive they are, is it likely they will all be destroyed? If not, once there is a transition we'll be reading some more very interesting books. ...more
I read Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them (2014). I like the idea behind the book, because I had never really thought about how former presidents related to the civil war (as in, we need to think more about how John Tyler was a traitor). While entertaining, in my opinion the book falls short for two reasons.
First, there is no framework or main argument to make things hang together. There is no exploration of how ex-presidents function in the United States, or precisely how the civil war shaped that. In the absence of a main argument, we just have a description of presidents and former presidents doing things. Further, as I read I realized there was another theme that DeRose depicts but never acknowledges, which is Abraham Lincoln's genius in ignoring former presidents. Indeed, DeRose periodically mentions how Lincoln assuredly received such and such letter from Fillmore or whomever, but didn't respond.
This is important because the former presidents had all kicked the can of slavery down the road in one way or another, and Lincoln was the first to refuse the same response. Lincoln was so much more farsighted than the others that he knew their advice would likely be bad. Making this the central theme of the book would've provided much greater clarity to the narrative.
Second, the book feels rushed. Major events get skipped over, so the narrative moves from John Tyler not feeling well to a funeral. He died somewhere in there of something but it never actually gets mentioned. Sometimes battlefield description are detailed and sometimes not, without any clear sense of why. Then the book ends very abruptly. I was left with the impression that DeRose had this neat idea and just wanted to get it into print as quickly as possible. This impression was reinforced by the acknowledgments, which indicate DeRose first go the idea in 2012, and the book came out in June 2014.
That said, it's well-written and still fun to read how the ex-presidents dealt with/felt about the civil war. ...more
I read Fred Kaplan's John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and greatly enjoyed it. It's very well written, and my main minor quibble is that he veers too often toward finding lessons for the present day. At the very end, Kaplan admits what is obvious after reading the book:
The opposition that he met, his successes, and his failures are part of the torn fabric of public discourse in early-twenty-first century America (p. 583).
This goes a bit far, especially since the book clearly sees him as a victim in this torn fabric. If anything, we see that U.S. politics have forever been characterized by nastiness so were torn from birth. What we also see is a man who dished it out as well as he took it. He was highly--even amazingly--moral but also incredibly uptight and prone to being thin-skinned. He was very introspective, writing voluminously in his diary (which constitutes the core source for the book) and he spent a lot of time thinking about how to dish it out (e.g. we learn about how much he detested Thomas Jefferson). Even if we agree with his causes, such as abolition, we should not see him as a victim.
Kaplan wants to show JQA as a writer and as a visionary for what the United States should become, particularly in terms of a unified country without slavery. In this he does an excellent job. JQA was widely read and even wrote poetry that was occasionally published. He was eloquent and loved public speaking, sometimes for several hours at a time.
gine someone with more lifelong dedication to public service. John Adams brought him abroad at a young age and he learned multiple languages that soon would serve him in diplomatic posts. Kaplan shows how these positions were often tedious--early 19th century Russia was not a place you wanted to be during winter. But JQA was there for several years. He later served as Secretary of State, President, and then was elected to the House of Representatives. Perhaps appropriately, he literally died in the House....more
The book is good enough to keep reading but fizzles out as it nears the end. The idea of a manufactured war was interesting but a key character is sudThe book is good enough to keep reading but fizzles out as it nears the end. The idea of a manufactured war was interesting but a key character is suddenly introduced in the last pages and then the book stops without any resolution of anything, with the idea being you have to wait and read the next installment. I don't plan on bothering....more
Despite its hyperbolic subtitle, Malcolm Byrne's Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (2014) is a carefully constructed and highly detailed account of the Iran-Contra scandal, using both newly declassified documents (the author is Deputy Director at the National Security Archive) and interviews. It's not a fast read, but it's a very good one. The core contribution is to cement the answer to the classic Watergate question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The answer for Ronald Reagan was "A lot, and early on, then he lied about it."
The overriding factor was Reagan's fervent desire to free the hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon and his utter disinterest in whether the actions--selling arms to the Iranians for their help, then using proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua--aimed at doing so were legal. It becomes clear that he never expressed doubt about legality. He pushed for action and wanted results, so everyone took that as permission, even though they even would write that it was all illegal. Byrne notes concerns about Reagan's mental state, but also shows how Reagan kept up with key details and kept pushing. Basically, if policy was intended to free hostages, then for Reagan by definition it was legal.
Others knew better, but didn't stop anything because the president wanted this done. Once it became clear the illegal activities would become public, they started lying and destroying documents like crazy. As John Poindexter described this destruction, "I decided that it would be politically embarrassing to the President at this point because it would substantiate what was being alleged...and so I decided to destroy it" (p. 269). When asked about his lying under oath to Congress, Oliver North said, "I knew it wasn't right not to tell the truth on those things but I didn't think it was unlawful" (pp. 314-315).
North took Reagan's desires and ran with them, usually amateurishly. Sadly, he was well liked and respected (at the hearings later, one staffer testified and even entered a poem into the record about how he was thankful Ollie North walked the earth!) so had wide latitude. North, meanwhile, was a born liar. As soon as he helped get the entire project off the ground, he lied to anyone and everyone about anything, large and small. He literally lied constantly.
George H.W. Bush (who as VP was present at many of the same meetings as Reagan) lied as well, and initially pretended he didn't have a diary, which had a lot of damaging information. Ironically, in his diary he criticized Secretary of State George Shultz for keeping a diary. Then on Christmas Eve 1992, very soon before he left office, he pardoned six key participants, which also had the convenient effect of preventing any more testimony from emerging that would incriminate him.
A notable point of the book is how little anyone knew about Nicaragua, or Central America generally. And they didn't care. When Costa Rican President Oscar Arias started blocking Contra activity in his country, North wrote that "Boy needs to be straightened out by heavyweights" (p. 232). Iran-Contra is fundamentally about illegal actions in the executive branch, but it's also about U.S.-Latin American relations. The only reason North focused so much on Nicaragua was that Reagan (and all his aides) had a distorted, paternalistic, and simplistic view of what was happening there.
Byrne makes clear that only a small fraction of relevant documents have seen the light of day. This is a topic that will deservedly keep producing new analyses, and don't be surprised if they show even more how deeply President Reagan and many of his officials were aware and supportive of illegal activity. ...more
Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen's Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014) is an angry book, and you'll get annoyed--you'd better get annoyed--reading it. The book's core message can be summed up as follows:
"A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat" (p. 203).
The post-9/11 period, and especially the Iraq War, has destroyed many thousands of lives, greatly damaged the civil liberties of average Americans, all the while making many criminals, snake oil salesmen and shysters rich. It's this last point that Risen probes in particular, using investigative journalism to show how the U.S. government showered billions of dollars with almost no oversight to anyone who could lend support to the Global War on Terror.
He shows how we get "unsmiling men with shaved heads" and a testosterone-pumped sense of self-righteousness who are empowered to push people around in the name of national security. Abroad these same kinds of men torture and kill. Resistance will bring you threats and/or imprisonment. Meanwhile, the government has stripped away rights and spies on everyone without restriction.
He write about how the American Psychological Association abets torture to maintain government contracts; architects focus on security for the same reason; people work for shady private contractors because they're showered in cash from the US government; self-proclaimed terrorist experts go on TV spouting on about threats and thereby get contracting gigs; and we all dutifully do absurd things like meekly take off our shoes in order to get on airplanes. Talk back and you'll get arrested. Spread the truth and you will find, as Risen has, that the government will come after you.
Profiteering is nothing new, but the Bush Administration took it to entirely new criminal heights. Unfortunately, since then it doesn't matter who controls the White House or Congress--it goes on unchecked. And that's the really depressing conclusion of the book.
I read Leogrande and Kornbluh's fantastic book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (2014). It is really well researched and just fascinating to read.
My 10 year old daughter has a hamster, which gets into her little wheel and runs like crazy. Sometimes she even gets on top of the wheel and runs like she's on a treadmill. The poor thing never gets anywhere, but keeps trying, or at least there is the illusion of trying. So goes U.S.-Cuban relations.
Thus, one remarkable point of this book is that many different go-betweens--reporters, business leaders, exiles, diplomats, you name it--have spent countless hours traveling and talking, with very little to show for it. Sure, there are periodic breakthroughs, but the core sticking points remain equally sticky after 50+ years. As Robert Gates once remarked after a meeting, "The initiative had been worthwhile, but had failed utterly" (p. 184). But they keep trying. Each chapter starts to sound amazingly similar even though the names change (for obvious reasons they do so much more frequently on the U.S. side).
Talks have floundered in large part because both sides consider the preconditions too steep. In the 1970s, Cuba would not abandon Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. would not abandon the embargo. More recently, Cuba would not hold elections while the U.S. still would not abandon the embargo. The U.S. wanted compensation for nationalized property, but Cuba would only discuss that if there was compensation for damages wrought by the embargo and exile attacks.
One great feature of the book is its judicious tone. Leogrande and Kornbluh don't often take sides--they just dig deep into the historical record. The book cries out, though, for a framework. For example, I am not convinced about Fidel Castro's commitment to negotiations. Sometimes, as in 1975, he happily blew off months of talks. We need a better grip on his own goals to know when he wanted advancement, when he didn't, and how far he really wanted them to go. The U.S. was committed to negotiations only to the extent that they required concessions solely from Cuba. So at what times was a positive outcome even possible or likely? Conceptually, what should we realistically expect?
And just now, we have a U.S. official saying maybe we can negotiate, but Cuba needs to take more steps first. The more things change......more
You definitely get the feel of the authors' passion in this book, which makes it worthwhile, but I wouldn't call it gripping. It will also be hard toYou definitely get the feel of the authors' passion in this book, which makes it worthwhile, but I wouldn't call it gripping. It will also be hard to follow if you are not already pretty well versed in the history of contemporary African political conflict....more
I read Christopher Read's War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. I've been periodically reading about WWI when I have a chance given the centennial. The book is a synthesis and tries to place the revolution more in the context of WWI.
Funny thing, I really enjoyed it but got hung up a bit on chapter one. Among other things it included an in-text Wikipedia reference and this sentence: "Perhaps if the horror that was about to be unleashed had been more widely understood more would have been done to prevent it" (p. 20). Well, yes.
Get past that, though, and you have a nicely written, concise book that is widely accessible to people like me who do not know the literature. What you see first is the amazing incompetence of the Tsar. I wish Read might have said a little more why he thinks the Tsar believed the war was necessary, considering that the quick Russian mobilization was an important factor in pushing the war along.
Then the Tsar just resigns abruptly and Russia suffers a first period of uncertainty while the Bolsheviks figure out what to do. Reading Vladimir Lenin's writings in that context shows how much his theory was just responding to events, so that his "truths" changed all the time as deemed necessary. Events and necessity drove theory. One thing I hadn't really known was that immediately after the Tsar was deposed, popular support for the war remained high. It took a while for the Bolsheviks to change that view.
Finally, the Bolsheviks begin to consolidate power after the October Revolution and Lenin discards his previous truths, then adopts new ones that center on oppression, repression, and centralism. It's a good read, even though it's a serious downer to think about what came next. ...more
I read Rory Carroll's Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela (2013) and enjoyed it. Carroll is a well-known journalist who reported from Venezuela for the Guardian from 2006-2012, and disliked by the left. Basically, if you think Venezuela is a thriving laboratory of revolution, you will hate the book. If you feel that Venezuela has tremendous promise that Hugo Chávez failed to harness, you will find it well-written and interesting, particularly because of his interviews. If you follow Venezuelan politics, it won't be new but you get a little deeper.
The book consists of vignettes with his interviews, which then serve to frame his larger point of a well-meaning revolution ripped apart by personalization of power, palace intrigue, and old fashioned cronyism. Carroll shows why Chávez was (and is) so beloved, the problems of personalization, and how utterly incompetent the opposition has been. Even the coup mongers screwed up. As one person who supported the 2002 coup put it, describing Pedro Carmona: "We won, or thought we had won. But then we made a terrible mistake. We picked that fucking dwarf" (p. 79). That encapsulates the basic sentiments of the radical opposition--failure to understand why Chávez was popular, or how even to attract support. Angry but clueless.
Carroll denies that Chávez was a dictator, and comes up with a counter-argument, namely that Chávez was so concerned about elections that he neglected details. Aló Presidente gave him a platform for votes but he didn't follow up. Lots of talking, no walking. He needed to win so badly that substance faded out while crime, insecurity, shortages, etc. soared. Those issues become the backdrop to judging the long-term success of the revolution....more
I read Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace (2013) and I was disappointed. As far as I can tell, it does not add to our understanding of why World War I started. Instead, it advances the vague argument that no one thought it would happen, then it happened because people did stuff.
It's a long book, so is filled with anecdotes--to be fair, many of them interesting--about how people didn't think war would happen even though we all know now it was about to erupt. But what annoyed me again and again were the brief and entirely superficial comparisons to the current day. They are so superficial that I assume some editor forced them in.
So when there is discussion of new powers, then she adds a single sentence to say she hopes the U.S. and China will handle things well, or with communication she mentions trying to deal with social media. Or she compares Nicholas II to Saddam Hussein because they both like uniforms (p. 275).
Meanwhile, the Tsar does stuff, the British do stuff, the Kaiser does stuff, etc. Which stuff was more important? We aren't told. Whose decisions were most critical? We aren't told. Which country did the most decisive stuff? We aren't told.
The book ends with "There are so many questions and as many answers again" (p. 645). That's true only if you don't engage the existing literature and think about which answers make more sense than others....more
Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 is both engrossing and frustrating. The setting is the late Stalinist era in the Soviet Union (the fact that he dies during the novel is an important part of the plot) and the main character is Leo, an MGB (State Security) officer. He discovers there is a serial killer but the state is unable to acknowledge such a thing can even happen in the USSR unless it can be easily attritibuted to a deviant.
There is a lot of complex plot building in the first half of the novel, especially as Leo and his wife Raisa try to sort out their complicated relationship, a development that intersects with his self-propelled (and therefore illegal) investigation. Roughly 2/3 of the way through the book you discover what's going on (and I had been guessing before that) but it doesn't ruin the story.
The frustrating part is that you must be willing to accept coincidences, a huge one in particular. For me, at least they were worth the price of admission....more
I read Sam Eastland's Eye of the Red Tsar, a historical mystery set in the USSR in 1929. I picked it up by chance at a used bookstore (Last Word near campus--they deserve a plug!) just for the topic, which is the whereabouts of the Tsar Nicholas II and his wealth.
The story revolves around Pekkala, a highly trained detective who was a close aide to the Tsar. After the Tsar was overthrown, Pekkala fled and eventually became a prisoner. Then in 1929, Stalin releases him because he's the only person who can solve the mystery of the location of the Tsar's treasure. I found the novel to be a fun (and pretty short) read, though I tend to like these sorts of historical novels. I thought he did a nice job of evoking the era. A lot of people complained about a plot twist toward the end that they found unsatisfying--it didn't bother me much.
If you like mysteries and are generally interested in that era of Russian history, my hunch is that you'll like it. ...more
I read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The reviews by economists intrigue me (Tyler Cowen, who wrote his own critical review in Foreign Affairs) links to a lot of them, which is useful). The book seems to have generated a lot of heat within the discipline itself. Most seem really annoyed by him:
"Piketty’s further policy views come in two chapters to which the reader is bound to arrive, after almost five hundred pages, a bit worn out. These reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal."
He does return throughout the book to criticisms of economics as a field, arguing it is so centered on empirical models that content is ignored (the same argument, it must be said, goes on within political science). So the reciprocal antipathy isn't any big surprise.
Others are haughtily dismissive. One example is here:
"The book is aimed at thoughtful non-specialists who don't know about all the cognitive illusions in the public finance literature."
Ah, that is me. I am smart but not as smart as him. Sorry for being reasonably smart but ignorant. Let me offer some ignorant thoughts.
1. This is a powerful argument that touched a big nerve. Critics are too tempted to attach ideology to it as a way to dismiss the argument. But I would say the massively defensive reaction demonstrates why we need such a conversation in this country. It's worthwhile for that alone, really. What he argues that if inherited wealth becomes dominant, then democracy will suffer and violent responses become more likely. When the rate of return on capital is high and growth is low, unrest becomes more likely. At the same time, I agree with reviewers who say he doesn't pursue that correlation enough--he mentions it multiple times but does not go into detail.
2. The debate over data doesn't refute Piketty. It just makes the conversation more interesting. In particular, it's a good thing to argue whether it's a problem to focus so much on labor income when so many people rely on more than that. People may not inherit wealth but they are vested in different types of retirement plans, for example, along with social security. Yet if people's wages are relatively low, they have little to contribute to those plans.
3. All the controversy about his policy prescriptions miss an important point--a core part of his argument is that we have the power to change things, which means we should talk about it. With regard to inequality, "There have been many twists and turns and certainly no irrepressible, regular tendency toward a 'natural' equilibrium'" (p. 274). And, incidentally, there are plenty of responses that are not Marxist! On the other hand, global catastrophe also changes inequality--the rich people who started World War I weren't aware of that at the time.
4. His policy prescriptions, such as the global tax, should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end. He makes it very clear he considers it utopian, as a reference point. Further, he also argues that making government a lot bigger isn't the answer because that creates organizational problems--not exactly a Marxist viewpoint. ...more
I read Heidi Tinsman's Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (2014) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. I don't know when that will come out, but here is a small taste. It analyzes what became a strong connection between the two countries based on grape exports and what I like in particular is that Tinsman consciously avoids easy answers and simplifications, which makes it a worthy contribution to the already large literature on Cold War Chile. There are a lot of contradictions and contrasts:
Academics from the United States are part of the contrasts. The Chilean grape industry grew substantially under the market-driven economy of the military government, but existed in the first place because of the state-driven policies of the Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende administrations. Universities in the United States played important roles in both, as researchers from the University of California at Davis gave extensive agricultural assistance in the 1960s and Chilean economists from the University of Chicago created the policy architecture for the grapes to be exported in the 1970s and beyond.
As Tinsman points out, consumption was central to the historical development of the grape export industry and the long-term responses to it. Depending on your vantage point, eating (or choosing not to eat) grapes could denote support for a government, opposition to a government, general nationalism, protest over a repressive global economic system, support for labor and/or recognition of the human costs of feeding the United States. Those perspectives shift if you are a Chilean or if you are a U.S. citizen, and if you are eating fruit from Chile or from the United States....more
I read David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? which was an impulse buy in a Washington DC used bookstore some months ago.
World War I is mindblowing. You can draw causal lines to such disparate things as women's suffrage, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War, class consciousness, the Soviet Union, and more. Yet it started in such a small way, a minor aristocrat--not even widely known--murdered by a young radical. It was a seemingly isolated incident that did not immediately alarm diplomats.
This book is a nice general history that looks at every country and major players, often coming back to General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff. Like a number of other German elites, he wanted war because he thought Germany would fade in influence without a pre-emptive strike against Russia in particular. He fought as hard as he could against dialogue.
Fromkin says the key to understanding war's outbreak is to see it as two wars. Everyone wonders how a little dispute between Austria and Serbia could suck in the world, but it was only the pretext. Germany wanted to declare war on Russia but needed to make it seem that Russia was attacking first. The archduke's assassination served that purpose. Austria wanted to wipe Serbia off the map, and Germany (especiallu Moltke) wagered that Russia would step in to protect Serbia.
Basically, the Germans wanted a European war and they got it. Be careful what you wish for....more
Jay Sexton's The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (2011) is a good synthesis of the history of the most famous doctrine in U.S.-Latin American relations. It's not exactly new, though I can't think how you would manage to say something genuinely new about it (I wonder, have any hitherto unknown archives yielded any new insights in years?). It's more about what angle to take.
One thing he does that I found interesting was to discuss how policy makers in the U.S. changed their views of the doctrine over time. The nineteenth century version was different from the twentieth because of shifting circumstances. At the time of its formulation, there was fear not only of geopolitical threat but also of the country breaking apart. By Roosevelt's time imperialism was in full force and the United States was well past the civil war.
He emphasizes the contradictory nature of the doctrine, since it was both anti-colonial and fundamentally imperialist. This didn't bother anyone in the United States, because based on our exceptionalism our tutelage was a positive force while the Old World offered outdated and unwanted models.
Reading the book might help understand why it's hard to believe John Kerry when in November 2013 he said the Monroe Doctrine was over.
I'll be including it as a recommended reading for the historical chapter of my U.S.-Latin America textbook. ...more
Stephen Kinzer is no fan of Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles. We already knew that from his previous books, which examine overthrow of one kind or another. His new book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and the Their Secret Cold War looks at the men more specifically to show how they were architects of a style of foreign policy that, though in many ways unsuccessful, became a model for the Cold War and even the post Cold War.
It's a very good read, though I must say I enjoyed the first half much more than the second. The first explores the Duller brothers in depth, whereas the second goes into more detail in specific operations, such as Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Congo. In those the brothers fade a bit from the narrative, though of course they are hovering around. Kinzer relies on secondary sources but the stories themselves are already very well known. The second half also touches quickly on psychological assessment, JFK assassination conspiracies, and other sorts of speculation that detract from the book.
The sad thing is that, though Kinzer explain clearly how so many of the Dulles brothers' interventions were in long run detrimental to the United States, there is little recognition of that now. I wish very much that there was public discussion of how overthrowing Mossadegh, for example, led us to where we are today, and how they thought only in the very short term. But there isn't. Instead, we talk about intervening in Iran again!
The point, then, is that consciously or not, U.S. policy makers have drunk deeply of the Dulles Kool Aid. The U.S. is exceptional (and Christian) and therefore needs to act as policeman; there is no need to understand the country you're attacking/undermining; short-term victory over your "enemy" (however defined) is all that matters. The Dulles brothers have never really gone away....more
Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is a good read only because it was written by Bill Bryson. By this I mean it really has no stated point but that's OK because it's funny and sarcastic. Strangely missing from the lengthy prologue is any explanation about why he wrote it.
Beyond his writing, what made me connect to the book was its unrelenting insistence that the grand, glorious and glamorous 1920s, the heyday of which was 1927, was in so many ways either no better than now or much, much worse. That appealed to me since one of my pet peeves is hearing the pining for the good old days of fake nostalgia. You will not come away feeling nostalgic after reading this book. I have no idea whether this was his intent.
It is roughly chronological, though there is inevitable jumping, chock full of vignettes. That made it perfect for tweeting, which I did in the several days it took for me to read it.
The upshot is that America in 1927 was a place where people followed sensationalistic murder stories with excited interest while ignoring real news about other countries; where athletes were revered despite the fact that many of them were terrible human beings; where racism, anti-Semitism, and gender discrimination were rampant and often celebrated; where mindless desire for profit soon led to disaster; and where corruption was widespread.
There were good things, of course. Charles Lindbergh showed how much aviation could achieve, though he himself was odd, anti-Semitic, and pro-eugenics. Movie and television technology led to all kinds of innovation. So it wasn't all bad.
So don't read it if you want a recreation of F. Scott Fitzgeraldish Jazz Age images (incidentally, in 1927 he was on the decline and practically begging for jobs) but if you want to think about how far we have or haven't come as a country, then it's well worth it....more
Drew Magary's The Postmortal: what a cool, thought provoking, creepy novel. It sounds so great on the surface, yet is a dystopia--imagine that in the near future, someone finds a cure for aging. The novel follows the diary/blog of John Farrell, who got the cure at age 29. You cannot get younger or avoid disease, but you will never get older. Once that happens, the effects are entirely negative. A sampling:
--overcrowding --water scarcity --genocide --war --organ harvesting mafia --young girls given the cure to become eternal underaged prostitutes --violent "pro-death" insurgents --decrease in marriage (because 'til death do us part is too long)
One thing scarier than death is the notion of living forever. I may be in the minority, as ironically while reading the novel I opened my newspaper to read a story (which annoyingly I cannot find now) about how people really want science to keep fighting death, no matter the consequences, then had someone point out this op-ed about our obsession with aging. That's what makes the book feel so real. Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.
What Magary makes you ponder is how much satisfaction in your life is due to aging, to everything having an end. You are always building toward an end, and having no end unmoors you. There is a real problem of moral hazard as well, especially as doctors worked to improve the quality of your unaging life. There is much less holding you back. People began losing their humanity, something out of The Road Warrior.
I strongly recommend the book--it's not what you would call pleasant but you won't soon forget it.
I read Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline, in large part because it intersected with my view of U.S. policy toward Latin America. What Joffe argues, pretty convincingly in my opinion, is that there are waves of declinism--the USSR was going to overtake us, then Japan, then Europe, and now China--but they all concentrate on very short-term, unsustainable signs. People gleefully argued the USSR and Japan would overtake the U.S. precisely as they were falling apart. Overall, it is true that the U.S. does not simply dominate the world, but it is still overwhelmingly the strongest power.
What I find fascinating, and Joffe does not get into it much, is that declinism transcends ideology. Those on the left (such as it is in the United States) applaud it as a sign of international equality while the right deplore it as a sign of weakness. But they agree it is happening--exactly why is never clear, though politicians routinely pick up on it and exploit fear.
With regard to U.S. policy, it relates to my post about the Monroe Doctrine not being dead. Not being dominant is not the same as being in decline. The election of leftists and the creation of a few Venezuelan-funded international organizations is not the same as a new international order. At the very least it is premature to declare it. Which is more likely in ten years: a strong and effective UNASUR or an economically and militarily influential United States?
The book reads very smoothly, chock full of literary and cultural references (even a footnote dedicated to "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"!) though it could've been a lot shorter as there is plenty of repetition. It is also very boosterish about international capitalism (and wary of Barack Obama) without asking any questions about the long-term effects of growing inequality. But he does a nice job of poking at conventional wisdom.
I happened to pick up John Dinges' Our Man in Panama, a 1990 book about Manuel Noriega's rise to power. The invasion itself is mentioned only briefly at the end, which was fine with me. What's more interesting is how the situation developed.
It is a reminder of how weird that invasion was. The U.S. government was split any number of ways about Noriega and only toward the very end did anyone consider him an "enemy." Even then, many still didn't. For the most part, he was the friendly leader who helped the DEA (including, ironically, the arrest and extradition of someone who later testified against him) and helped the Contras. He was a team player. That he was corrupt was no big deal--everyone was corrupt. Omar Torrijos had established the system that Noriega inherited. Noriega's own addition was drug trafficking, which the U.S. had first officially noticed in the early 1970s.
Dinges goes through all the evidence with care, showing how deeply involved Noriega was in the drug trade and how brutal he could be. As he notes, and it's still true now, no one feels sorry for him as he had almost no redeeming qualities. But going straight to invasion essentially for personal reasons is still amazingly disproportionate. Using similar criteria elsewhere, we'd be involved in even more wars than we are now....more