Hamilton was better than Jefferson: there, I said it. This biography can shade into sycophancy at times, but you're almost forced to come away from it...moreHamilton was better than Jefferson: there, I said it. This biography can shade into sycophancy at times, but you're almost forced to come away from it impressed by what a badass Hamilton was, and how fickle the ledgers of history can be to even someone as accomplished as he was, both due to his own failings and to the machinations of his rivals. TJ ranks highly among those, of course, and it's instructive to compare the life stories of the philosophizing plantation aristocrat on one hand, and the self-made immigrant entrepreneur on the other. America owes much to both men, but even though Jefferson's name is more prominent, Hamilton might have had the more lasting influence as one of the finest political economists, statesmen, and administrators of his era. If he hadn't been stupid enough to be into dueling, the country would have benefited greatly.(less)
I read a lot of liberal/progressive books, and this was one of the best I've come across in a while. As you can tell by the title, this is economist B...moreI read a lot of liberal/progressive books, and this was one of the best I've come across in a while. As you can tell by the title, this is economist Baker's attempt to enter the crowded market of attempts to reframe the debate between "free market/growth" conservativism and "let's just hand poor people money" liberalism. It goes without saying that that's a dumb dichotomy and only hopeless Fox News junkies (who aren't exactly this book's target market) think that way, but where this book betters its peers is not only in its clear explanation of just how un-Adam Smithian the modern GOP has become, but also in straightforward policy prescriptions in how to allow more people to take advantage of economic growth and re-level the playing field.(less)
Behavioral economics is "in" right now, partially as a result of the weakness of the economics profession in recent years, and partially because psych...moreBehavioral economics is "in" right now, partially as a result of the weakness of the economics profession in recent years, and partially because psychologists have stopped practicing Freudian incantations and started uncovering amazing details of how human beings actually think and behave. Kahneman's research into the division of consciousness between the fast-acting and unconscious System 1 and the more high-powered but lazy System 2 is recounted in this alternately fascinating and horrifying exploration of the unconscious. After reading this lengthy catalog of flaws, biases, and lacunae in our overworked brains, you'll be amazed that civilization exists at all, given the myriad ways that the snap judgments of System 1 get taken on faith by System 2. You'll also be disturbed that there doesn't seem to be an easy to way to fix the fragility of your everyday processes of judgment. Even the smartest person has the same ramshackle collections of neuron clusters as everyone else, and even this summary of the pioneering research that Kahneman and everyone else has done opens with the frank admission that he's susceptible to the same cognitive limits as everyone else. Knowing may be half the battle, but that still leaves a good bit for future study and action.(less)
Wilson made his name in ants, as a rock star entomologist who made seminal contributions to the understanding of one of the most successful species of...moreWilson made his name in ants, as a rock star entomologist who made seminal contributions to the understanding of one of the most successful species of all time. It must not have been challenging enough for him, because this book is all about the unity of knowledge, where he tries to both explain why past attempts to bridge the divide between the arts and the sciences have failed (his verdict: they were based on "failed models of the brain"), and to chart out a new path for the synthesis of the human and nonhuman studies by basing them in the techniques of the natural sciences, which might be, to borrow from Churchill, "the worst way to study the world, except for all the others". As a science fan, I really enjoyed his clear-eyed appraisal of why science has been successful in doing what it does, but even a more poetically-inclined person will like his appreciation for the arts, his elegant writing, and his graceful and generous demeanor.(less)
The 20th century was famously soaked in blood, but it turns out that it may have been the most peaceful ten decades in human history. Pinker's basic t...moreThe 20th century was famously soaked in blood, but it turns out that it may have been the most peaceful ten decades in human history. Pinker's basic thesis is that over any time span, at any level, human beings have gotten unprecedentedly less violent, to the point where even the worst pockets of violence on the planet today would barely qualify as average in past eras, to say nothing of the the expansion of tolerance and reciprocity to entirely new areas due to the many revolutions in racial/gender/sexual equality. It's a book that has to be read to be believed, both because of the depth of its argument and because of the horrifying details on just how awful to each other people used to be. Unlikely as it may seem, humanity might actually be progressing.(less)
I've never really thought of myself as a Person Who Has Opinions About French Literature, so maybe it was for the best that I didn't have a strong rea...moreI've never really thought of myself as a Person Who Has Opinions About French Literature, so maybe it was for the best that I didn't have a strong reaction to this story about a guy experiencing the first part of the 20th century, which is stereotypically French to the point of sounding like that Existential Star Wars youtube. Still, I was glad I read it, if only for some of the Sartre-lite aphorisms Céline tosses in.(less)
1493, correspondingly, is about the entire world after the Exchange, and how the cataclysmic aftereffects have been toppling empires, generating trade...more1493, correspondingly, is about the entire world after the Exchange, and how the cataclysmic aftereffects have been toppling empires, generating trade, and creating cuisines ever since. There's a huge number of "Did you know...?" facts in each book (one example: Scotland's failure to colonize Nicaragua due to deaths from malaria so bankrupted the country that it was bailed out by and forced to unify with England), and by reading both back-to-back you get both a great scientific synthesis and a hugely entertaining history of the modern world. One interesting corollary of globalization is that diversity in any one place can increase while global diversity can decrease - this subtle idea has major implications for how we judge the performance of our new, interconnected world.(less)
1491 and 1493 are almost a single book, because they have the same subject - the epochal transference of flora, fauna, bacteria, and people known as t...more1491 and 1493 are almost a single book, because they have the same subject - the epochal transference of flora, fauna, bacteria, and people known as the Colombian Exchange. 1491 is about the Americas before the Exchange, outlining the different ways historians have tried to understand the various peoples who lived there and how that understanding has changed. Plenty of great discussion of the ecologies, demographics, and social complexities of the various civilizations, with an eye towards pointing out how fragile historical knowledge really is. There's no noble savage-ism here, just a great summarizing sweep from Tierra del Fuego to Ellesmere Island.(less)
Henry Ford once tried to build an entire new city in the Amazon solely to harvest rubber for tires. He spent zillions of dollars and didn't produce an...moreHenry Ford once tried to build an entire new city in the Amazon solely to harvest rubber for tires. He spent zillions of dollars and didn't produce any rubber at all. This is not only a textbook case of American hubris but also a really fascinating look at Ford and his contemporaries. One of the more interesting "hidden stories" of modern industry.(less)
A fairly quick overview of how many rich, developed cities are starting to strangle themselves with development restrictions and why it's a bad thing....moreA fairly quick overview of how many rich, developed cities are starting to strangle themselves with development restrictions and why it's a bad thing. It's basically a snappier version of Ed Glaeser's awesome Triumph of the City, but, being a Kindle Single, is a good introduction to the more applied side of urban economics. If you live in a big city then it's a good perspective on the neverending conflict between people who wants to change your neighborhood and the people who want it to be the same way forever.(less)
Nuclear terrorism is the dog that didn't bark. Despite warning of how easy it would be for terrorists to make or steal a nuclear weapon, we've never s...moreNuclear terrorism is the dog that didn't bark. Despite warning of how easy it would be for terrorists to make or steal a nuclear weapon, we've never seen a Sum of All Fears-style attack anywhere. The fact that the central worry of a book has never been realized would ordinarily make it a relic, but McPhee's glorious prose and deep journalistic skill make this study of noted physicist Ted Taylor a worthwhile read. I wonder what a post-9/11 attempt to rewrite this book would look like.(less)
Lem has been one of my favorite science fiction authors for a long time. I almost think of him as anti-science fiction, though, because many of the be...moreLem has been one of my favorite science fiction authors for a long time. I almost think of him as anti-science fiction, though, because many of the best of his books are dedicated to undermining the naive dreams of the techno-utopians (i.e. Star Trek writers) and remorselessly showing what happens when humanity's flaws get translated to the stars. As the title shows, this story of first contact doesn't go well, but what makes it so compelling is his trademark way of showing the consequences of our limited rationality and our ultimate smallness in a baffling and possibly unknowable universe.(less)
This is the kind of book that you almost couldn't imagine an American writing, not so much for its subject matter as its unflinching attitude towards...moreThis is the kind of book that you almost couldn't imagine an American writing, not so much for its subject matter as its unflinching attitude towards it. It's about two half-brothers and their relationship with the world around them: one, abused and mistreated as a youth who grows up with an insatiable sex addiction, and the other nerdier one whose work in molecular biology finally makes sex unnecessary for reproduction. The book's title was also translated as Atomised, and Houellebecq's fatalistic view of the modern world's splintering and separating effects on people will stick with you in this alternately bleak and hilarious novel.(less)
Widely acclaimed as the best single-volume history of the Civil War around, this is another entry in the Oxford History of the United States, which I...moreWidely acclaimed as the best single-volume history of the Civil War around, this is another entry in the Oxford History of the United States, which I am enjoying immensely. The preface had an interesting observation: though this book covers the shortest span of all the books in the series (albeit with some significant overlap), it's one of the longest books in the series. The Civil War is the most-written about period in American history simply because there's so much history in it, as it did more to turn a bunch of squabbling states into the United States than anything since 1789. McPherson doesn't even get to recounting the actual war until over a third of the way into the book as the country splits and splinters and tries and fails to resolve a vast number of contradictory pressures and choices about its future, and the Federalists' nightmares about factions turned into reality: Northerners vs. Southerns, those who wanted to settle the West vs. those who wanted to preserve the existing balance of the states, wets vs. dries, immigrants vs. nativists, Catholics vs. Protestants, tariff supporters vs. free traders, developers favoring Hamiltonian projects vs. laissez faire adherents, plantation owners vs. industrialists, rural folk vs. urban dwellers, Democrats vs. Whigs, Democrats vs. Know-Nothings, Democrats vs. Republicans, war hawks vs. doves, but most of all, slavery supporters vs. abolitionists.
It's a truism that in elementary school you learn that the Civil War was about slavery, in high school you learn that it was about states' rights, and that in college you learn that actually it was still really about slavery. McPherson completely demolishes the idea that it could have possibly been about anything other than the South's "peculiar institution" - slavery was the bedrock of the South's economy, the keystone of its social structure, and the altar on which they convinced themselves that they were the highest, most advanced civilization on Earth. McPherson somehow works that discussion smoothly into the book among a million other things, from advanced demographic analysis (like his eye-opening mythbusting of the "rich man's war, poor man's fight" canard), to the background political scheming that Lincoln had to overcome, to the shockingly large tolls that disease and poor sanitation took on each army, to the massive economic chasm opening between the modernizing North and the magnolia-tinged South, and most especially, to the battles. You can't really be interested in this greatest of all American wars if you're not fascinated by the senseless, bloody, magnificent meetings between two of the mightiest armies of the 19th century, and McPherson seemingly covers every cavalry raid and clash of picket lines. It's an impressive feat, well-worthy of its 1988 Pulitzer Prize, and though it's rare to describe a book as being the last word on a subject, surely even rarer is the reader who finishes this masterwork unsatisfied.(less)
Another Oxford History of the US entry, this one covers the Great Depression and World War 2. Those are the decades that fundamentally changed America...moreAnother Oxford History of the US entry, this one covers the Great Depression and World War 2. Those are the decades that fundamentally changed America in a way that will probably never happen again - we have grown too big, too complacent, and though reading through the section on the start of the Depression will have you punching walls in frustration at how little people seem to have learned, it seems like against all odds maybe we have retained a tiny bit about the value of a safety net and the dangers that can result from corruption and poor policy. I wouldn't say that the part about World War 2 is definitive in the same way that McPherson's volume on the Civil War is definitive, but it certainly tries to cover as much as it reasonably can.(less)
I always feel the same way after I finish one of his books: "Man, that makes total sense, how could anyone reasonably disagree that inequality is skyr...moreI always feel the same way after I finish one of his books: "Man, that makes total sense, how could anyone reasonably disagree that inequality is skyrocketing/we need universal health care/China needs to revalue it's currency/the Republican Party is insane/free trade rules?" Even his detractors, like the Wall Street Journal editorial crew, or the legions of bloggers who exist only to find fault with his writing, readily admit that he's been immensely successful as a popularizer of economics and as a partisan for his own views. I like him not only because he shares my views as a liberal of the New Deal/Great Society school of thought, but because he has a way of illustrating complex debates in a way that's not only clear, but that seems to me as the way I would have looked at it all along, if only I could have put it into words, and he gives me a solid framework to say why.
It's very cliche to compliment someone as "objective" because they "criticize both sides" (think of all that fawning praise for South Park back in the day) and take a pox-on-both-your-houses attitude towards big issues. I think that's dumb, not only because it assumes that there are only two sides to a debate, and that it's always somehow possible to take an average of each position and make sense (does it really make much sense to invade half of Iraq, or cut income taxes for people whose last names are A-M?), but because it rewards an unthinking "moderatism", where you don't really have to think about what people are saying, only that you want to somehow triangulate yourself and avoid doing any critical thinking. That's exactly what this book is about - criticizing both right-wing proponents of supply-side and Friedmanist monetary theories as well as left-wing proponents of strategic trade theory in a way that illustrates not only why you can't simply say "let's split the difference between these theories and call it a compromise", but also why it's vital to take the time to think clearly about what people are telling you and whether their numbers add up, and why you can't always trust people on your "side".
Peddling Prosperity is very clearly a book aimed at a popular audience, both because most (but not all) numerical exercises are relegated to the appendix and because it's structured as a narrative, of the near-mortal wounds that Keynesian economics suffered in the 70s after its triumphs in the postwar era, the rise of potential conservative alternatives, and those alternatives' eventual failures and the (seeming) Keynesian resurgence in the early 90s. It was published in 1994, so it's a bit out of date, but it's actually very interesting to see echoes of the then-cutting edge worries about Japan and transpose them 15 years to the present-day, since most of the debates about government activism, the deficit, and international competitiveness haven't aged a day. Press releases and popular discussions of issues certainly haven't gotten any more sophisticated, so it's somehow still a breath of fresh air to read explanations of trade or productivity that are aimed at a wide audience without being dumbed-down to sound bites.
Virtually every section, if you read closely, follows an A-B-C sort of script: someone is claiming A must be true, but here is data B, which actually implies C, so therefore they're wrong. This pattern shows up very frequently in his writing, and this book is no exception. Harsh, but always rigorous discussion of the history and reasoning behind various alternatives to Keynesian economics over the years are backed up by charts, graphs, and most importantly, the models behind these ideas. Part of the reason why stupid notions like endless tax cuts for rich people persist in the world, aside from the obvious self-interested aspect of wealthy donors and lobbyists, is because those notions are sold within a seemingly-plausible framework with a strong narrative: by cutting taxes for rich people, they will be able to create more jobs for people and more prosperity than if that wealth is given to other people; the more taxes you cut, the more jobs you create, and conversely, the more taxes you raise on these wealth-creators, the more jobs you destroy. By walking the reader through these implicit models, showing you the data, and giving you the reasons why they're wrong, Krugman both avoids simply throwing out ad-hominems (though there are some barbs in here) and gives you a way to think about future claims. One of the reasons why he has earned such a reputation as a strong liberal is due to his staunch opposition to the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003; reading the math behind why the Reagan tax cuts failed (and, closer to home, why the recent late-2010 extension of the Bush cuts will fail utterly to bring prosperity), you become... not particularly optimistic, let's say, about people's ability to learn from their mistakes.
The subtitle coins an excellent phrase which I am surprised has not gained wider currency: the Age of Diminished Expectations. While this book was written before the Clinton-era boom had really taken off, I remember growing up in the 90s and thinking of it as a time of seemingly permanent growth. Looking from today at the numbers, though - the steady decrease in productivity growth, the increasing inequality, the growing strength of the truly awful movement conservative wing of the Republican Party - I'm amazed at how satisfied people are with such mediocre growth when compared to the global trente glorieuses after the war. It would be easy to despair at the gradual lowering of the bar, but even during his discussion of massive failures, like the monetarist experiments in Thatcher-era Britain, the emphasis is on the math and logic behind why those policies failed, which prevents the book from sounding too depressing even if the conclusions behind it are plenty depressing.
The ending section about the rise of the strategic traders in the Clinton administration is a model of analytical clarity - the presentation of subtle economic logic about how the budget of a national economy is not like that of a company's balance sheet and all the mischief that that fallacy immediately brings to mind Obama making exactly these mistakes with his Council on Competitiveness, chaired by the CEO of a company that has outsourced thousands of jobs and shuffled around billions in taxable income. So even though the endless recurrence of terrible economic ideas will not end anytime soon, the book offers invaluable perspective on their sources and how to evaluate them. The focus is always on the data, and while Krugman may not always be right (his dismissal of critics of Japan's trade surplus in the 90s sits oddly with his criticism of China's seemingly very similar trade surplus in the 00s, even given the vastly different economic circumstances), he gives you all the tools and ammunition you need to form a coherent counter-argument.(less)