When I first read this over thirty years ago I looked around me and felt confident that capitalism was in pretty good shape, relatively speaking, as mWhen I first read this over thirty years ago I looked around me and felt confident that capitalism was in pretty good shape, relatively speaking, as most people seemed to be able to live fairly decent lives on the incomes they were able to earn. Life certainly wasn’t rosy for everyone, but it appeared that life prospects for the poorest had improved in the prior couple of decades or so and prospects indicated that the trend would continue. A healthy middle class pretty much drove the economy, helped by the entrance into the middle class those people who were once simply working class, those who worked in factories and mines and did other sorts of menial labor. Reading the book (pamphlet, really) again for the first time since, I get a different feeling. The middle class is under siege, and factory workers and other laborers have either been replaced by machines or are no longer earning middle class wages. Wealth and income inequality, which is normal in any society, have risen to unnatural levels. Shockingly, 1.5 million American at any one time are living on less than $2.00 a day. It’s deeply unsettling to read Marx and Engels and feel as if they are writing for our time instead of 1848. ...more
What I learned about the beginnings of capitalism is pretty rudimentary. I got, from some out-of-context quotes from the 18th century Scottish moral pWhat I learned about the beginnings of capitalism is pretty rudimentary. I got, from some out-of-context quotes from the 18th century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith about invisible hands and the self-interest of brewers, butchers, and bakers, the importance of labor being divided into more and more efficient units. In school I learned something about the development of water mills and steam-powered engines that enabled the establishment of large-scale factories that paid people poorly and often employed very young children, and the rapid growth of railroads. I vaguely recall how important the invention of the cotton gin was to increasing and expanding cotton production in the southern United States, although I had no awareness of how that was supposed to be related to capitalism. And wasn’t there something about a group known as the Luddites who went around smashing mechanical looms? I knew a little something about the Marxist account of capitalism emerging out of feudalism and that the next stage of economic development is socialism, an event averted in the United States by the New Deal. I also read about the violent clashes between workers and factory owners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries over the workers’ wages and working conditions. Capitalism, as I understood the story, emerged in the late 18th century as the result of the centralization of production in larger and larger factories with the help of the harnessed power of moving water and its heated vapors, steam. Capitalism as the result of the increasing industrialization of production of goods in Western Europe and northeastern United States seemed to me to be the standard account of capitalism’s story that also included the promotion of capitalism by Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and other widely read thinkers. Reading Sven Beckert’s book showed me how inadequate and how often mistaken was my conception of the history of capitalism. Beckert makes a very persuasive case that the capitalist structure as we experience it today largely arose on the fibers of a single commodity: cotton. He has written a compelling and comprehensive history of cotton that shows that the foundation of capitalism rests on a foundation of slavery, the destruction and removal of indigenous populations from their land, the exploitation of desperate wage earners—including very young children—in textile factories. It’s a long story, and I don’t want to get too caught up in the details, which are very ugly. The account I give here is a only a small part of the story, but it summarizes what is most surprising—perhaps shocking is the better term—about the roots of capitalism. Beckert calls capitalism’s foundation “war capitalism”, a stage of development previously unknown to me. It had large-scale beginnings in the 16th century. The essence of war capitalism is that the merchants and traders centered in Liverpool, on the northwest coast of England, acquired a hunger for raw cotton to feed the textile factories of nearby Manchester, a hunger that the farmers of India, Egypt, and Turkey were unwilling to satisfy by turning their fields into monocultures growing only cotton and eliminating their subsistence crops. Seeking more malleable territories, the merchants and traders turned to Brazil and the islands of the Caribbean where there already was an abundant supply of free labor in the form of slaves and land that could bear cotton, although sugar remained the favored commodity. Meanwhile in Manchester, innovations were constantly introduced into the manufacturing of textiles that helped lower their cost to consumers. An abundant supply of very low cost labor to operate the machines also helped keep costs low. A crucial turn in the plot of the story was the successful slave revolt in Haiti. With the largest and most productive island now out of play and with the invention of the cotton gin, the southern United States became a very attractive locale for the growing of cotton. The problem was that the land was already occupied by Cherokee, Seminole, and other Indian tribes. Through a series of wars and broken treaties, they were forcefully removed from Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. All this land, cheaply acquired by cotton growers and cheaply cultivated by slaves, led to massive annual harvests cheaply transported across the Atlantic to Liverpool, where the global cotton trade was controlled, to other European ports, and of course up the coast to Boston where eventually river boats and trains cheaply hauled the cotton to the mills where cloth was produced very cheaply indeed by people desperate for work. Some of the labor and technical innovations pioneered by the cotton industry eventually found their way into other industries. The process was much more complicated than I suggest here. Beckert, for instance, also describes the constant search for cheaper raw cotton and cheaper labor costs that endures to this day. The textile factories in Bangladesh and other Asian countries allow working conditions as bad or worse than the factories of the 19th century. Beckert’s argument is that capitalism would not have developed the way it has without all the attention and effort given to cotton. The chief ideas to take away from the book, which is deeply researched and largely well-written though sometimes repetitive, is that war capitalism—slavery, removal of indigenous people, exploitation of wage earners, imperialism—was a necessary step on the road to industrial capitalism and the world in which we live today....more
Quiggins writes about economic ideas that held sway through much of the last 40 years that were proven wrong by the 2008 financial disaster they helpeQuiggins writes about economic ideas that held sway through much of the last 40 years that were proven wrong by the 2008 financial disaster they helped spawn. Though these ideas suffered ignoble deaths, like zombies they emerged to walk among us again, stalking many national economies and preventing them from experiencing full recoveries. The failed ideas that he discusses in detail are: the Great Moderation of the 1990s, when many economists foolishly believed that they had economies and recessions under control; the Efficient Market Hypothesis, the idea that financial markets were all knowing; the idea of the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium, which basically shows that prices always reach their natural equilibrium state; trickle down economics, when prosperity somehow oozes down to the rest of us as the top 1% gains every greater proportion of the national wealth; privatization, the idea that corporations can always perform government funcions more cheaply and efficiently than the government can; and expansionary austerity, the notion that cutting government spending, especially for the poor, is the best way to escape a financial crisis.
Quiggin shows how all these ideas are empirically false; they have never come close to fulfilling their promise no matter what country applied them. Quiggin writes well with enough detail to expose these ideas as wrong while mostly staying on a level understood by most educated readers. Interestingly, many of the zombie ideas still create havoc in many countries. Quick! Someone drive stakes through their hearts to put the rest of us out of our misery! (Or does that only work for vampires?)...more
For anyone interested in human behavior, this is an excellent book. Smoller explores how the interplay between genetics and environment produces belieFor anyone interested in human behavior, this is an excellent book. Smoller explores how the interplay between genetics and environment produces beliefs and behaviors that are both "normal" and those that are outside the broad range of what is considered normal. Relying on dozens of research studies as well as results from his own lab at Harvard, Smoller guides the reader into a somewhat esoteric neuroscientific realm that should help us better understand our fears, anxieties, depressions, moods, and the progress made in instituting appropriate therapies and medications to alleviate sometimes crippling emotional and behavioral issues. Enlightening in the best sense....more
Much better than one would think, especially for physics novices. Part One is on mechanics, which I knew a little bit about. Part Two on electricity aMuch better than one would think, especially for physics novices. Part One is on mechanics, which I knew a little bit about. Part Two on electricity and magnetism I found more challenging, mostly because the equations were more unfamiliar to me. Still, if you never took a physics class, this is a good book to get you started. ...more
Still one of my favorite novels. There are many ways to read it, and many layers to uncover. I listened to half of the audio version of the book, andStill one of my favorite novels. There are many ways to read it, and many layers to uncover. I listened to half of the audio version of the book, and finished reading the second half. Listening to the book being read was a different experience that I enjoyed more than I expected. I'm one of the few who actually likes the details about the whaling industry, and those parts became more alive in the listening. Melville's poetic prose never fails to draw me in....more
Listened to these stories on a road trip. The usual mix, some would say macho, of stories involving boxing, bullfighting, fishing and camping, huntingListened to these stories on a road trip. The usual mix, some would say macho, of stories involving boxing, bullfighting, fishing and camping, hunting, and love. Not to everyone's taste. Love his prose: simple, strong, direct. His influence is still felt a hundred years later, and it is good....more
Galbraith divides his book into three parts. In the first part, The Optimists’ Garden, he shows that mainstream economists after World War II thoughtGalbraith divides his book into three parts. In the first part, The Optimists’ Garden, he shows that mainstream economists after World War II thought they that had learned the secrets—high population growth, technological change, and savings—to maintain the American economy in a pattern of high growth with only a tweak necessary here and there to nudge the economy out of recessions. Their confidence was such that the American government undertook the responsibility of managing the economy, assuming that the correct dose of fiscal and monetary policies would continue trends that became regarded as “normal”. Governments were judged as successful or unsuccessful based on the performance of the economy, and the best thing for government to do was to get out of the way and leave the economy alone. This worked so long as costs of natural resources, especially those necessary to produce energy such as oil, remained low and stable. The idea that economic growth could be largely managed by government getting out of the way was severely compromised by subsequent events. One was the Vietnam War, whose costs contributed to increasing inflation and the trade deficit. This crisis was met by President Richard Nixon by cutting the link between the dollar and the price of gold, and imposing wage and price controls which were temporary and insufficient to solve the underlying issues. More damaging was the huge price jump of a crucial natural resource necessary for the efficient operation of the economy: oil. The obvious solution to rising energy costs was conservation and the more efficient use of energy as promoted by President Jimmy Carter. But the preferred solution by President Ronald Reagan was to put “oil on a credit card that would never by paid”, leading to ever-rising trade deficits. So how did the US continue to get oil relatively cheaply? It began when Reagan appointed Paul Volcker chair of the Federal Reserve System. He is ordinarily thought of as the man who halted the rampant inflation of the 1970s by raising the Fed’s interest rates. Ending easy credit that resulted in a serious recession in the early 1980s explains part of the lowering of inflation. But it only begins there. The value of the dollar also rose 60% relative to other currencies, especially those of poorer and indebted nations. Paying back their debt became more expensive, and that took them off the market for many commodities, including oil. Minerals and oil became less expensive for the US as their prices collapsed, further depressing the economies of poor resource-rich nations. What the Fed’s high interest rates accomplished was the lowering price of the natural resources needed to make inexpensive products people in the US wanted to buy. This was really how the Fed’s high interest rates managed to help inflation collapse. Thus began what has become known as the Great Moderation. Inflation was kept in check, unemployment kept low, long-term interest rates fell, and lifestyles maintained, although unions were busted and women had to enter the workforce to maintain middle class incomes. By the 1990s the neoclassical economists took credit for engineering this age of growth. Their policies, including deregulating the economy, had restored equilibrium to the economy. Only policy errors by the Fed could derail continuing growth, and now those mistakes could be avoided so long as the right people were running the Fed. So when the crisis of 2008 hit it was totally unexpected by orthodox economists, though not by many investors who bet on the coming disaster. Galbraith discusses three groups of heterodox economists who got it right. The pragmatic and statistical economists who base their analysis on bubbles (such as Dean Baker, who predicted the 2008 crisis based on the real estate bubble; problem: discovering bubbles is hard, and since it is ad hoc, there exists the possibility that the method will fail.). The Wynne Godley and National Income Identities approach which analyzes accounting relationships that state facts about the world. This is similar to Baker’s approach without the ad hoc element since its choice of variables is based on the total expenditures in the economy—income equals the sum of consumption, investment, government spending, exports minus imports. This is the National Income Identity. The flow of these expenditures is the economy. Economic growth occurs when the flow of expenditures increases. A fact revealed by this formula is that every dollar of the public deficit is matched by a dollar of private saving. This is a bookkeeping fact. Increasing the deficit increases private savings, as does increasing the trade surplus. Increasing savings, conversely, increases the deficit because there is less consumption, less income, and less economic activity to tax. This explains the prosperity of the late ‘90s, and the dot com slump and the 2008 crisis. It becomes a macroeconomic question about whether a particular state of the accounts is sustainable and what would happen if it stopped. Budget deficits are inevitable when the economy goes south because people focus more on saving instead of spending. As private spending declines, budget deficits must increase. It’s simple accounting. The third approach is Hyman Minsky and Nonlinear Financial Dynamics. It shares with Godley’s approach the idea of not prejudging the intrinsic instability of the economic system. Minsky’s core insight is that stability breeds instability. While this is an abstract way of thinking about the economy, this model implies that the role of government is to regulate, to prevent a potentially unstable system from slipping into instability as much as possible. Managing this is difficult and imprecise. Getting too close to the boundaries should be avoided. Once the boundary has been crossed, the rule of thumb is play it safe, stay away from the boundaries, “even when pressured to move to the edge.” Orthodox economists are only concerned with the “safe zone”. They don’t know what to do during a crash, and often inadvertently push the system into a crash, as we’ve experienced in the last several decades. Part two of the book, The Four Horsemen of the End of Growth, explains why the return to “normal growth” is impossible. The first of the horsemen deals with natural resources within the context of a concept from thermodynamics: entropy. As noted earlier, natural resources did not figure into the equations of orthodox economists. Part of the reason for this seemed to be that the costs of oil, coal, copper, bananas, coffee was too low to make much of a difference. Yet much of United States postwar foreign policy was devoted to maintaining access to cheap minerals and food from developing countries. Oil was cheap because the US supplied enough for most of its own needs. Many of the clandestine activities undertaken by the US government was to ensure that governments favorable to supplying American consumers with cheap goods remained in power. One of the effects was that the US consumed a great deal of the world's resources at the expense of those countries producing them. When resources are added to the equation, a different analysis emerges that not even “he Keynesian alternative to mainstream economics—in the traditions of Godley and Minsky—had little to say. This is where the analysis provided by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s book, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, enters the argument. The second law of thermodynamics, entropy, applies as much to economic processes as to physical processes. To oversimplify, the idea in the economic context is that as resources become depleted they cannot be replaced; once a barrel of oil is pumped out of the ground, it can never be pumped out again; when a ton of copper is mined, it cannot be mined again. Eventually there will be no more oil to pump, no more copper to mine. The consequent scarcity either raises the price of the resource and the products it helps produce or another resource replaces it. Galbraith discusses various consequences of this, but the bottom line is that without including the cost of natural resources, especially oil, our account of what brought about the 2008 crisis is incomplete because not only did the cost of oil retard economic growth, it also contributed to the growth and influence of the financial sector. The second horseman is the limits of American power. The low cost of resources for the US has been guaranteed by its immense military power as well as the nation containing many valuable resources within its borders. As a result, the United States managed to impose an order on much of world. Sometimes it has done this by force, sometimes by bringing compliant nations under its protective umbrella. For several reasons the imposition of the US’s will by force has become much harder recently. One reason is the increase in urbanization in most countries in the world. Iraq, for example, is not a nation of small farmers and nomadic herders. If it were, it would have been easier to subdue. Weapons have also evolved so that a relatively small number of dedicated insurgents can do an immense amount of damage with explosives cheaply acquired. Modern communications also play a role in publicizing the brutal acts of war raising question of morality and introducing doubt into the enterprise. Modern occupation is limited in time, and occupying armies are also much more expensive to pay, house, train, and each soldier more precious as a result. The cost of modern warfare is so high it is unlikely that major nations will fight with one another. It also means they will be less likely to forcefully impose their wills on smaller nations. The US is learning that lesson with it wars in the Middle East. The upshot is that the US military might, powerful as it is, can no longer help keep resource costs low. The fourth horseman is the role fraud played in the 2008 crisis, the millions of mortgages that could only be repaid on the assumption on the perennial rise of home prices. Economists rarely bring up the topic of fraud. Institutions function under certain conditions, some of which result in prosperous survival, and different conditions result in the institutions’ failure. Failure need not come as the result of being unable to compete in the marketplace; internal factors within a firm alone can also be involved: mismanagement, corruption, greed, corporate infighting, and looting of corporate assets for personal gain. As resource scarcity increased and it became more difficult for corporations to meet the financial and economic expectations established during the immediate postwar period, regulations on corporations loosened to the extent that fraudulent activities, within corporations and in the way they dealt with their customers, became accepted business practices. It’s no wonder the system collapsed. Galbraith is pessimistic that the collapse can be “cured by the application of Keynesian stimulus. … The institutional, infrastructure, resource basis, and psychological foundation for a Keynesian revival no longer exist”.(168) Part three is entitle No Return to Normal. In chapter twelve, Galbraith debunks myths about Federal budget deficits, trade deficits, and interest rates. Specifically, that the US is in no danger of bankruptcy, which is impossible given that the Fed can always print money to pay the country’s debts. Given the realities of the world’s financial system, trade imbalances and federal deficits are bound to occur. The reason that these imbalances—which appear so large in the US—are necessary for the global economic system can be explained by simple double entry accounting. The view that ongoing and rising budget and trade deficits are unsustainable and will bring our grandchildren to ruin due to the inability to pay off those debts is simply mistaken. Galbraith’s argument is something like this: The US is a wealthy nation and can not only afford deficits, but these deficits are helpful and, in fact, necessary for US economic growth. The reason is simple: When US exports exceed imports, the money from those imports end up in the banks of the oil countries, China, and other net exporters. Now what happens to all that money? If there aren’t enough projects available to invest that money, what can these countries do to keep their money safe and earn a little bit of interest? Why, buy US Treasury bonds. Of course, bonds are debt instruments; buyers of the bonds collect interest that the US government has pay. Why should the US government do these other sometimes morally dubious governments such a favor? The US needs to sell these bonds to finance the annual deficits necessary to pay for all the government goods and services. In a sense, it’s a virtuous feedback loop: the US government needs money for expenses and is willing to issue bonds to raise the extra money; other countries have excess dollars earned from selling goods or resources, and they don’t know what to do with the money so they buy the Treasury bonds; foreign countries could invest in other countries’ bonds or more lucrative investments, but they choose to invest in Treasury bonds because they are the safest investment in the world, and because there is so little financial risk, the interest rates paid by the US are incredibly low. So low that the real interest rate is below the rate of inflation. What this means is that this is a good deal for the US: money is cheap. Making it even a better deal is the dollar is the currency used to grease international trade, so foreigners have to hold dollars either in their hands or in the form of Treasury bonds. So how does this help US economic growth? If Congress were to try to balance the budget by cutting spending and/or increasing taxes paid by the poor and the middle class, this will result in less money spent by Americans on cars, homes, furniture, clothes, electronic equipment, attending football games, pesticide service, gym memberships, eating out, hanging out in bars and coffee shops, college education, etc., etc., etc. Less money circulating in the economy will contract the economy; in other words, a recession. What about the debt in the future? Because real interest rates on the debt is below inflation, it should also be less than the overall growth of the economy over time. Because of that, the ratio of the debt to the economy (GDP) will remain at manageable levels. Meanwhile, the US can pay its bills, and the rest of the world has a safe place to park its money. Where else can they do that? For at least a few more decades, there ain’t no other place. So what do we do in the face of what appear to be permanent structural changes in the economy? Galbraith has tried to show that recreating the conditions that produced the “normal” status of the 1950s and 1960s is impossible. It is also difficult to predict what the New Normal might look like—or even whether anything like normal is possible—but it will be undoubtedly a period of low growth. Given that will be the case, what policies to help mitigate the low growth should the government follow? First of all, we will need a drastic adjustment on our material expectations. People can still live well in a low-growth environment as long as they adopt economic and financial goals that fit within its constraints. As far as government policies, one would be a drastic cut back in military spending. Galbraith isn’t suggesting that the United States should weaken its military as much as re-allocating money in such a way that redundancies and unnecessary or ineffective military systems are eliminated. He also argues that instead of reducing entitlements, they should be expanded. Rather than raising the age when people become eligible for social security, the eligibility age should be lowered to open up more jobs available to young people. The estate tax should be raised not so much for the purpose of increasing government revenues as to decrease the degree of wealth inequality. To ensure that everyone who works is earning a livable wage, the minimum wage should be higher. Taxes on labor should be lower, and taxes on capital, especially on income earned by capitalizing on scarce resources, higher. Galbraith’s arguments favoring these changes are more detailed than space allows me to repeat. His book is persuasive in pointing out some sort of adjustment in our economic thinking is necessary, and also persuasive in showing how mainstream, orthodox economic thinking that got us into this mess will end up getting us mired deeper in the economic muck. ...more
For anyone interested in the mysteries of time, this is the book. Carroll, a theortetical physicist at CalTech, tries to find answers to strange questFor anyone interested in the mysteries of time, this is the book. Carroll, a theortetical physicist at CalTech, tries to find answers to strange questions that seem more philosophical than scientific, such as: Why do we remember the past but not the future? Why when we drop an egg it breaks into pieces, but we can't re-form the broken egg back into a whole egg? Why does the arrow of time only move forward and never backward?
For those unfamiliar with the modern terrain of physics and cosmology, the book can be tough going. But it isn't Carroll's fault. He writes with great clarity and patience, with frequent witty asides. The problem is conceptual. Since I have a superficial acquaintence with general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology. and thermodynamics, discussion of these topics related to time wasn't so daunting thanks to Carroll's clear explanations. But when in later chapters he delves into statistical mechanics, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity, among other notionts, I admit these were over my head. This is a good thing, since I learned much I didn't know before. Finally, when he brings all these strands together to explore the nature of time and uses them to speculate about the condition of the universe before the Big Bang, well, that introduced a whole new mind-exanding perspective not only on time but also on the universe itself.
Challenging, bracing, and stimulating. This book will richly reward readers who will be as patient with Carroll as Carroll is with his readers....more
A good introduction. Originally published in 1947 with a postscript written in 1959, the book still serves as a useful introduction of the developmentA good introduction. Originally published in 1947 with a postscript written in 1959, the book still serves as a useful introduction of the development of quantum theory. Progress in optics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and atomic theory in the 19th and early 20th centuries explain how quantum theory arose. While the material covered is often dense, Hoffman writes with wit and uses easy-to-identify metaphors that make it easier for readers to at least superficially understand the concepts he describes. The Epilogue and Postscript are mainly devoted to the discoveries of new particles such as neutrinos and mesons after quantum theory solidified its validity in the 1930s. Rarely boring....more
A well-written, even breezy, account of the strong support FDR's Four Freedoms--the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religions, Freedom from Want, FreedoA well-written, even breezy, account of the strong support FDR's Four Freedoms--the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religions, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear--enjoyed among those who experienced the Great Depression and World War II. What is striking to me is that I didn't even learn about them until about 4-5 years ago. Somehow these policy prescriptions that were at one point hugely popular were abandoned and forgotten. The sense that we were all part in the shared Great American Experiment of democracy, with everyone playing a vital role, seems to have been lost. Replacing it is a selfish view that my rights trump everyone else's. The corporate and political elite never cottoned to the Four Freedoms, and the result is not only a diminished democracy, but also stunted dreams and aspirations....more
I have found a new favorite author. Chang, an economist at Cambridge University, has written a reader-friendly guide that is sensible and fairly comprI have found a new favorite author. Chang, an economist at Cambridge University, has written a reader-friendly guide that is sensible and fairly comprehensive. He is convinced that anyone who makes some effort can understand the basic principles of economics, and such knowledge is required for anyone who hopes to have some impact on decisions regarding our local, national, and global societies. In other words, all of us. He immediately admits that, contrary to the claims of many orthodox economists, economics is not a science; there are no objective economic facts or laws waiting to be discovered. Outcomes resulting from various economic policies are produced as the consequence of the values—moral, political, and social—expressed in those policies and outcomes by their authors. Values ultimately have greater impact on policy decisions than facts and data since even these are interpreted in the light of the values the interpreters hold.
Another strength of the book is that Chang does something I have never seen done in an economics book written for the general reader. In a long chapter he describes nine different schools of economics and explains the advantages and disadvantages of each. Among these are the classical, neo-classical, Keynesian, Marxist, and Austrian schools. He encourages taking a pragmatic approach and adopting what works in each of these schools and discarding what doesn’t. He is highly critical of any purely ideological approach for the reason that such an approach will lead to certain disaster, as has recently occurred. Although he recognizes its good elements, Chang reserves his greatest criticisms for neo-classical economics because that school has been dominant as orthodox economics for the last forty years, and its unfettered dogma of free markets and hyper-individualism led to the recent Great Recession, current unconscionable levels of income and wealth inequalities, and the crisis in the Eurozone. He argues that had other points of view been in play then perhaps better policies could have been enacted that could have avoided the current mess.
Whether discussing financial markets, economic inequalities, international trade, or the economic development of what used to be known as Third World nations, Chang takes an equally pragmatic and even handed line. He generally avoids jargon and manages to explain some fairly complicated concepts in plain English. To illustrate various points he draws on popular culture, and he is rarely boring and often witty. Although I must admit that by the last chapter on international trade my concentration began to lag. ...more
Fascinating description of what happens when a relatively brief warm period (400 years before the 14th century in this case) is followed by endless raFascinating description of what happens when a relatively brief warm period (400 years before the 14th century in this case) is followed by endless rains, arctic cold, and constant hunger. The climate change was localized to England and Northern Europe and almost nowhere else due to changes in the currents in the Atlantic and North Sea. During the warm period the population of the region tripled, more land had to be devoted to growing grain for the increasing population, and the feudal system flourished. The sudden change in climate caused widespread death of millions by famine as the constant rains swept away not only the peasants' seeds but also the topsoil, making growing grain and other food more difficult even once the rains diminished. Politically, which most of the book focuses on, by the early 14th century the English fought the Scots and the English struggled with the French. The effects of climate change helped to speed the decline of the feudalism and assisted the hapless King Edward II of England fight ineffectively against King Robert Bruce of Scotland and eventually lose his kingdom to his wife, Isabella, the sister of the king of England. Rosen's sometimes gruesome descriptions of how traitors were executed is a useful reminder that Christians were once crueler than even modern day Islamic fundamentalists.
While Rosen has the current trend of global warming as a subtext in the book, he in no way equates the 14th century climate change with our experience today. At most he seems to offer his narrative to caution us about unexpected consequences as human misery may increase and governments will struggle to maintain their legitimacy and cope with billions of people who will not be able to adjust quickly enough to the emerging realities....more
Useful guide that uses different criteria from the typical college rankings done by various magazines. The focus here is on small second- and third-tiUseful guide that uses different criteria from the typical college rankings done by various magazines. The focus here is on small second- and third-tier liberal arts colleges who give students more personal attention in the form of closer interaction with their professors and more intimate intellectual exchanges with other students. These are the sorts of places where questioning and discussion are encouraged along with interdisciplinary inquiry and undergraduates standing along side their professors doing research. Nearly all the colleges listed accept more than 50% of the students who apply. Most accept students who did well in high school but not brilliantly, and scored well on the college boards but not very high. These are not elite schools but colleges that generally do an above average job preparing their students to be citizens of the world as well as competent cogs in the economy....more
I was inspired to read the book after seeing the brilliant 1999 film adaptation and by Thomas Piketty's many references to Jane Austen's novels in hisI was inspired to read the book after seeing the brilliant 1999 film adaptation and by Thomas Piketty's many references to Jane Austen's novels in his recent economics tome. Austen's theme is basically love and marriage among the top 1% of early nineteenth century English society. Her language, for me, was a little difficult to get used to, but the effort was worth it. One affect that Piketty has on my understanding of the novel is to keep in mind the extreme wealth required to support the Bertram family in a fairly indolent lifestyle, wealth that had some of its source from plantations in Antigua where slaves were needed. The contrast with poor relation Fanny Price's family's less happy circumstances is stark and the consequence of Fanny's mother not marrying for wealth and security. There is some irony when Fanny's cousin, Maria, does marry for wealth, and that didn't turn out well with, did it. There is a happy ending, of course. At least for Fanny....more
Unlike some economists who argue that the American economy will be stagnant for decades, Moretti, an economist, is cautiously and refreshingly optimisUnlike some economists who argue that the American economy will be stagnant for decades, Moretti, an economist, is cautiously and refreshingly optimistic. What Americans need to take advantage of are exploiting the innovative brain hubs the country already has, such as Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Raleigh, and add to them. If you aren't living and working in one of these places, your earning potential will be sharply curtailed. These brain hubs attract highly-skilled workers who are well paid. These well-paid workers need services they are willing to pay for: yoga instructors, lawyers, accountants, barbers, real estate agents, etc. These brain hubs are growing and dynamic, creating a virtuous cycle of highly-skilled workers creating innovative products that act as magnets to attract other skilled worker that supports a large service sector. An equally talented lawyer or engineer in Kansas City with the same education from the same schools as a lawyer or engineer in San Jose will earn substantially less because they live and work in the wrong city.
One solution to help dampen the growing income and wealth inequality in America is to create more brain hubs in places like Kansas City and Tallahassee. This is not an easy task, and there are at least three necessary conditions to bring that about: a much less expensive higher education system so that more young people attend college to acquire those skills that are highly desired; a renewal of large government investment in basic research from which innovative processes and products will emerge and keep the United States in front of the global competition; and well-targeted government incentives to support start ups with the potential to employ skilled workers. Once there is a cluster of such companies that achieve a combustible mass, a perpetual virtuous cycle will do the rest.
Moretti's research looks pretty convincing to my untrained eyes. The hard part is to convince reluctant taxpayers that they and society will be better off paying more for higher education, paying more for basic scientific research, and supporting private companies as they are getting off the ground. Good luck with all that....more
Elegantly written meditations on physics, spirituality, and the mysteries of what is known and what cannot be known. The author bridges the artificialElegantly written meditations on physics, spirituality, and the mysteries of what is known and what cannot be known. The author bridges the artificial gap between the sciences and the humanities, as one might expect of a best selling novelist who has taught both physics and creative writing at MIT. Intelligent, learned, and accessible....more
The title and subtitle of the book gives an accurate summary of what it is about. The author served in the Army and taught history at West Point. TheThe title and subtitle of the book gives an accurate summary of what it is about. The author served in the Army and taught history at West Point. The blurbs in the book testify to the widespread praise of his research and the general agreement regarding his conclusions among many of his fellow warriors.
The Vietnam War was not the only event of its time that contributed to the increasing distrust of government, but the war was undoubtedly the most important. This book reminds us why. Dealing with the period just before Kennedy's assassination until about July 1965, the book is stultifyingly repetitive in the sense that President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and their aides repeatedly excluded the Joints Chiefs of Staff from their constitutional duty to advise the president on wisdom of increasing American involvement and how to conduct the war and what troop levels were necessary at various times once the choice was made for increased troops and bombing raids; repeatedly involve the Joint Chiefs in their lies to Congress and the American people, and encouraged the Chiefs to ignore their constitutional duties; repeatedly lied to Congress about the strategy being followed and the goals trying to be attained; and repeatedly lied to the American people about the necessary sacrifices of life and treasure needed to defeat the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. The lies were told in order to protect Johnson's domestic agenda, his top priority.
The hubris of McNamara is astonishing, believing that he could win the war by controlling the data inputs (soldiers, bombing raids, control of territory, gradually increasing the military pressure on the VC and North Vietnamese, the number of dead VC versus the number of dead soldiers and Marines) as if they were inputs into a computer that would lead to a specific output.
By mid 1965 it became impossible for the United States to extricate itself from the war, and largely because of the deceit that Johnson and his advisors had to continue spouting to cover up their earlier lies, it became impossible to win it. The book is a depressing reminder of what might have been had Johnson realized the impossibility of winning in Vietnam, and how the similar kinds of deceitfulness fooled the American people and led to the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003....more
Melville's first book is a narrative of the four months he allegedly spent on one of the islands of the Marquesas in the South Pacific. It turns out hMelville's first book is a narrative of the four months he allegedly spent on one of the islands of the Marquesas in the South Pacific. It turns out he spent only three weeks on the island, so it is as much a novel as it is a memoir.
Unhappy with the way sailors were treated by the tyrannical captain of a whaler he served on, Melville and a shipmate, Toby, sneaked away from the ship, believing whatever dangers they might face from the island natives could not be worse than cruelties they suffered under the whaler captain. The only island tribe they hoped to avoid were the Typee, who had a reputation for cannibalism.
In the process of making their way over rough and mountainous terrain, Melville injured one of his legs severely and was attacked by a feverish illness. This hampered his mobility to slide down the steep hillsides and ford the numerous streams, as well as draining his strength and stamina. Without the assistance of Toby, who pushed and prodded Melville to exertions beyond what he thought he could endure, Melville might not have survived.
After several days, with the meager ration of food they had stolen long gone, Melville and Toby finally encountered some fiercely tattooed natives. As bad luck would have it, they were the Typee. But instead of exhibiting any ferocious intent, as Melville feared, the Typee welcomed them with a great deal of hoopla, parading them, with beautiful maidens and handsome youths leading the way, to the area where the natives lived. Of course, no one understood or spoke a European language, and Melville and Toby were ignorant of the Typee language, thought they did eventually pick a working knowledge of the Typee tongue. The chiefs summoned some sort of shaman to doctor Melville, and he and Toby were fed what passed for a royal feast. They were taken into the household one of the prominent members of the tribe, and one of the young and strong men was given the task of serving as Melville's valet. It took several weeks for Melville's leg to heal, and his valet was his transport and guide around the valley, carrying Melville on his back.
Initially Melville believed that the Typee were feteing him and Toby, stuffing them with food at every meal, in anticipation of serving them as the main course during a tribal celebration. But that was not the case. They were honored guests, though soon it became obvious that the Typee had no intention of every allowing these two foreign ambassadors from ever leaving their valley. After several weeks, Toby managed to slip away, promising to return to rescue Melville. But he did not, and Melville did not learn of Toby's circumstances until after the book was published.
Once his leg was healed, Melville was free to explore the island with some restrictions, the most important that he was not allowed to wander down to the bay. The Typee wanted to discourage any attempt at escape. Partly for the same reason, his valet remained his shadow, though a good-natured and friendly one. He hung out with men at a kind of lodge that was taboo to women, the only privilege women were denied.
The bulk of the book describes the way of life of the Typee: what they ate and how they prepared the food that literally fell from the trees; their tribal festivals featuring dancing and singing; the pair of violent encounters with the enemy tribe in the valley just over the ridge; how they made their body coverings, though they were unashamebly mostly naked; the painful process of tatooing; the joy and the laughter these people experienced all day every day. There was no theft or any other crime. There was no division of labor as such, since there was little labor that needed to be done. Breadfruit needed to be picked and prepared; youths scampered up the 100 foot palm trees to harvest the coconuts at the right moment; once a month fishing nets were cast out into the bay; an occasional pig was slaughtered; logs were hollowed out to make dugout canoes. With no scarcity of food, shelter, or anything else that they needed to live and thrive, Melville's description of the Typee comes very close to exemplifying the Marxist slogan: to each according to his need; from each according to his ability.
Socially the Typee were remarkably egalitarian. While the chiefs and warriors were men, and chiefs were the first among equals (though not in the sense that the pigs are in Orwell's Animal Farm), the women were equals in every other respects. Indeed an unusual feature, for us at least, of Typee culture is that it is the women who have more than one husband, so to speak, and it is the women who generally decide to end a domestic relationship. Melville had a favorite among the young women, and he spent many a languid hour in her company. Whether he was regarded as her husband he is too delicate to say.
Melville was eager to escape the island and make his way back to his family and friends in the United States. He never understood why the Typee held him as a kind of prisoner in paradise. In almost all other respects they treated him honorably and respectfully. In one of the very few times the men barred him from their company, right after the warriors had rebuffed an invasion from the neighboring tribe, Melville discovered evidence that the warriors had eaten one of their enemies. Horrified, Melville plotted his way out the valley. With some persistence and after overcoming great resistance, he of course succeeded. Otherwise we wouldn't have the great Moby Dick, would we.
I would not be surprised if many readers reached the conclusion that the Typee were uncivilized cannibalistic savages. That their lack of culture, technology, artistic prowess, and especially their cannibalism marked them in some ways inferior to Europeans. That is obviously a Eurocentric view that would be objectively difficult to justify. After all, with all our cultured good taste in wine and food and accomplishments in art, mathematics, music, science, and literatura, Europeans managed to enslave millions of Africans while stealing their natural resources, as well as those of Asians and indigenous Americans; several times committed acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing; engage in brutal warfare with 80-100 million dead, depending on how you count, in World War II alone; so-called Christians torturing and murdering heretics; the list can go on. Melville makes similar points in his criticism of Christian missionaries who manage to corrupt the natives of Hawaii and Tahiti. Under the veneer of civilization, the European heart beats as savagely, if not worse, as the heart of the Typee. As monstrous as cannibalism is, is it more monstrous than the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Trail of Tears?...more
When scholars discuss Hume's moral theory, their discussion usually centers on the passions and theory of morality on his earlier work, The Treatise oWhen scholars discuss Hume's moral theory, their discussion usually centers on the passions and theory of morality on his earlier work, The Treatise on Human Nature. Hume, however, in the Advertisement for the Enquiry, states that Enquiry offers a corrective to some mistakes he made as a youth in the Treatise, and that the Enquiry should be regarded as his settled view on morality.
Hume covers quite a bit of ground in a relatively short book: the virtue of benevolence, self-love, justice, and the important distinction between fact and value among other topics. Though I've read snatches of Hume's moral philosophy in the past and a chunk of secondary literature on his views, little of it emphasized the importance of utility to his theory of justice: that a society will be judged as just based on the overall happiness of its people. This looks to me as if Hume is clearly a utilitarian, though he is rarely cited as one. Perhaps I misread him, but that was my biggest takeaway from this book....more
Classic account of British empirical and skeptical thought. Two things surprised me: The amount of space Hume devotes to miracles and natural theologyClassic account of British empirical and skeptical thought. Two things surprised me: The amount of space Hume devotes to miracles and natural theology; and I found no discussion of personal identity....more
Amusing novel about a North London used record store owner circa 1994. Rob Fleming's store remains barely afloat. He's in his mid thirties with the ouAmusing novel about a North London used record store owner circa 1994. Rob Fleming's store remains barely afloat. He's in his mid thirties with the outlook and judgment of a 19 year old, trying to figure out relationships and his place in the world. He judges people by their taste in music (James Brown and the Clash good; Peter Frampton and Tina Turner bad). By the end of the novel, with the help of his girlfriend who briefly abandoned him for the wanker in the upstairs flat, he's on the verge of growing up....more
A dense, often closely argued book. Greene is trained in both philosophy and psychology. While written for the general reader, it is not an easy readA dense, often closely argued book. Greene is trained in both philosophy and psychology. While written for the general reader, it is not an easy read and he expects readers to stretch their intellectual muscles. Greene uses scientific research, often his own, to confirm or dis-confirm philosophical reflection on morality and to show that moral thinking occurs on two different levels, depending on whether we're making moral judgments within the context of the group to which we belong or with regards to behavior of groups other than our own. Moral conundrums arise when moral intuitions or moral principles of different groups collide and appear to be irreconcilable. The solution is to adopt a utilitarian pragmatic approach to deal with controversial issues such as abortion, global warming, the death penalty, taxation, etc. He acknowledges the disadvantages of utilitarianism (there is great deal of discussion on the various permutation of the Trolley Problem), but properly applied, meaning pragmatically,the principle of utility can better serve as a guide to resolve moral conflicts than can Aristotelian virtue ethics (which describes morality within a group) and Kantian ethics (which justifies a group's moral principles).
The book is a perfect complement to Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. Both books cover much of the same research, and though Greene is a great admirer of Haidt's book and Haidt ultimately favors a utilitarian approach to resolving moral conflicts, Greene is critical of Haidt's too easy accommodation with group morality and his discounting of moral reasoning.
Greene's discussion of people appealing to rights as ending any possible movement towards solutions is quite persuasive. With the abortion issue, appealing to the right to choose and the right to life effectively ends the debate as neither side will budge. Using rights language more rarely and seeking to find common ground through determining what will achieve the greatest amount of happiness is a better way to proceed.
There is much richness and depth in the book, and most readers will need to be patient to work through the scientific evidence and moral argumentation. This is the rare book in which the footnotes can make rewarding reading. One long footnote criticizing Rawls's theory of justice I found especially interesting....more
What is the most effective type of corner kick? Is it true that rather than offering disappointing results in international soccer tournaments such asWhat is the most effective type of corner kick? Is it true that rather than offering disappointing results in international soccer tournaments such as the World Cup, the English national team has done much better than the data predict? Is it possible that the Spanish and German national teams are overachievers as well? Why will the United States become a world soccer power?These are kinds of questions this book answers. With Michael Lewis’s Moneyball as inspiration and Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane a frequent commentor, the authors extract some counterintuitive insights concerning many facets of soccer: as a game and as a business. The authors, a soccer journalist and a sports economist, delve deep into the world of data that explores why soccer teams (especially in England) will never make a profit, nor should they; why the presence of foreign players in England’s Premier League improved the quality of English players even though there are far fewer English players in the Premier League; when it is time to let go of players regardless of their recent successes; when to transfer players to get the most money out of the club being transferred to; why western European national and club leagues dominate; how many goals is it worth to the home team for the World Cup; why many beliefs about effective tactics are plain wrong; how more effective tactics spread around the globe; and much more. Slow in spots, entertaining in many others, this book, the second edition released in time for the World Cup, will inform both the serious and casual soccer fan. The book could have used another round of editing to make it more readable in some sections, but even so much of it is fascinating....more
This is a large book. Not in its length as much as in its complexity, thematic ambition, and narrative richness. Grandin uses Herman Melville’s BenitoThis is a large book. Not in its length as much as in its complexity, thematic ambition, and narrative richness. Grandin uses Herman Melville’s Benito Cerreno as his inspiration and North Star to investigate the complicated meaning of slavery, liberty, and race in the New World.
Melvill’s novella is based on the memoirs of a Yankee captain, Amasa Delano. Melville describes an incident in 1804. It occurred in the South Pacific off an island near the coast of Chile involving a slave ship, called the Tryal and owned and captained by Cerreno, that had been taken over by its most valuable cargo, resulting in the death of many of the crew, some of the slaves, and the murder of owner of the slaves. Delano and his ship, the Perseverance, were on their second voyage, this one a failure, to kill and skin seals for the Chinese market when they encounter Cerreno and the Tryal. Melville follows Delano’s account very closely in most places, transforming the narrative into a work of art. The slaves forced Cerreno to pretend he is still in charge of the ship in an effort to trick Delano into believing that the situation on the Tryal was normal. Delano spent the whole day on board the Tryal while his crew collected water and food for slaves and crew of Cerreno’s ship, who were very short of both. The ruse nearly worked. Though Delano was uneasy about the events that he observed on the Tryal, his expectations blinded him to the possibility that Cerreno had become the puppet of the slaves’ leaders, Mori and Babo. While slave rebellions on ships were not uncommon, no one would have thought that the slaves possessed sufficient agency and cleverness to successfully pull off such an elaborate hoax. It was only when Cerreno leaped into Delano’s skiff at the end of the Delano’s visit and told him that he was actually a prisoner on his own ship that Delano recognized that he had been duped. Rallying his own men, the crew of the Perseverance took control of the Tryal.
Another recurring theme of the book is the thwarting by freemen of slaves’ own struggle for freedom. Even slavers admitted that slaves could not be blamed for attempting to escape their bondage, that it was natural to strive for liberty when in the state of unfreedom. The claim by some slavers that blacks were less than human is contradicted by the forced baptism of slaves. This was an explicit admission that West Africans possessed as much of a spiritual life as any European, thus showing that the slaves were as human as their masters.
Grandin spends a great deal of time describing the life and voyages of Delano. Delano spent about 30 years at sea witnessing “many of the most storied episodes that mark the start of modern times.” (81) He was at Saratoga and Yorktown; sailed to Haiti many times before the slave revolution there; visited Canton and Macao just as China was opening up to the West; visited Hawaii just after Captain Cook’s death; was the first to tell the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty; described the Dutch roots of apartheid in South Africa; smoked opium with Moors in Malaysia, and more. He lived the kind of life that Joseph Conrad might have written about. The first Delano came over on the ship that arrived in the New World right after the Mayflower, and branches of this family produced 3 presidents: Grant, Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Amasa came from the sea town of Duxbury, Massachusetts The town’s preachers strayed from the predestination orthodoxy of the Calvinists and endorsed the individual autonomy for people to decide what best for themselves that mirrored the ideals of the American revolution. Individuals are able to check their passions, they are capable of self-mastery, and this belief stretched out to include self-government in the political realm. Delano adopted the revolutionary ideal that all men are created equal, and this belief led him to sympathize with the abolition movement.
Cerreno was a down on his luck Spaniard from a fading aristocratic family who sought his fortune, unsuccessfully, in trans-Atlantic trade. While it is uncertain where most of the slaves on his ship were from, many of them were from Senegal and at least some them were Muslim. One surprise for me was learning that a healthy percentage of West Africans were Muslims who could read Arabic. They were not the wild savages that plantation propaganda and Hollywood pictures portrayed. So what occurred on was a confluence among Yankee Protestantism, Spanish Catholicism, and African Sufism, the Muslim mystical sect most West African Muslims followed.
The story as Melville presents it illustrates one of his main literary themes: that freeman are not totally free because they are tangled up by “their thoughts and uncontrollable passions.” As Grandin put it:
“After the disappointment of Moby-Dick, he [Melville] became preoccupied with philosophy, with larger questions of ethics, withdrawn into himself to the point that he broke down. His disquiets were at once psychic and cosmic but not, apparently, primarily political….Yet it is exactly Melville’s existential digressions that speak directly to the problem of slavery in Western society, that go straight to the heart of what the massive and systemic subordination of millions and millions of human beings over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years meant to the societies that prospered from slavery and to the slaves who suffered creating that prosperity. Melville wrestled with whether life had meaning, and if it had, whether its meaning was rooted in radical individualism, in human interconnectivity, or in larger moral structures; he grappled with the despair of losing one’s self in a godless cosmos, with the conflict between notions of free will and predestination and thus between belief and disbelief, with the idea that the physical world was a mirage, that one needed to punch through the pasteboard mask of surface things and grasp the underlying reality. Slavery, in a way was the concrete manifestation of such metaphysical terrors, for it represented the same threat to real individuals as the possibility of a meaningless universe posed to the idea of the individual: obliteration.” These themes recurred in his novellas and poems, writings that did not attract a very large readership during his lifetime.
What Grandin explores in greater detail the irony that slavery in the New World provided the wealth and prosperity enabling freemen to think of the themselves as deserving and entitled to political freedom. The result was the American Revolution, the Haitian revolution led by slaves, and the Latin American revolutions. This is one of the lessons of the book.
Grandin visited numerous libraries and national archives to piece together what happened before and after the Cerreno incident. He spends chapters on the capture and journey of Cerrenos’s slaves, the capture by a French privateer, what it must have been like when they arrived at Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo and what those cities were like for Africans. He spends chapters describing their journey across the pampas to Mendoza, where earlier generations of Spaniards enslaved the local Indians to act as porters on the dangerous route over the Andes to Santiago, Chile. Those Indians were completely wiped out and eventually replaced by black slaves, many of whom fell off the narrow path to their death, path also taken and described by Charles Darwin.
As hinted in the last paragraph, Grandin’s book resembles Moby-Dick in the sense that he frequently digresses down what appear to be convoluted and inconsequential alleys. Yet, as in Moby-Dick, there is a purpose in expanding the overall context for the reader. For example, he spends pages upon pages describing seal hunting in all its detail. Melville does something similar with regards to whale hunting. The difference is that whale hunting seemed like a noble endeavor compared to seal hunting, a dirty and foul industry that wiped out the seal rookeries in the South Pacific in about a decade. During this discussion, Grandin is able to show how short-sighted greed and ignorance led ships’ masters to destroy the helpless seals and also describe the cruelty that many captains practiced on their crews. On a ship, the captain was the all-powerful master and crewmembers were no better than slaves. They had no rights, even on American ships. With the expansion of liberty, however, some sailors exercised their liberty by escaping, much like slaves, what must have seemed like unrelenting stress when in port or mutinied against perceived injustices while asea
In his notes, Grandin admits to being obsessed with his topic. That is obvious by the deep research and the care he takes in telling the story. The frequent interludes discussing Melville’s beliefs and writings and milieu helped deepen my understanding of Melville and the social, political, and economic underpinnings of the early 19th century. For the general reader like me there is much enlightenment and much to like in this book. ...more