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An entirely adequate book which did not excite me.

The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy - Raj Patel

If you haven't heard it all before, I guess this is worthwhile. Basically the standard complaints about capitalism- which is failing in present day precisely because it is no longer free market capitalism, but rather an increasingly regulated (by international "managed trade" agreements like NAFTA and the now-defunct TTP) crony capitalism. Discussion about Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, the history of "commons" and the Enclosure Acts. The British East India Company. Negative and positive rights. Useful value of an object vs. Transactional value of an object. (i.e. water is useful and necessary for life but also extremely plentiful so has a high useful value and a low transactional value; gemstones are pretty and rich customers may pay top dollar for them, but don't fulfill any dire need so they have a low useful value but a high transactional value.)  The nature of corporations (i.e. as "legal fictions" endowed with rights akin to human beings, but immortal, unsleeping, and dedicated to a single purpose: acquisition of more.)

 

The title refers to corporate cost-avoidance strategies which allow companies to push unseen expenses on to third parties (usually the public), which reaping profits. An example would be taxpayer-funded subsidies for corn, which knocks $500,000/year off the cost of raising cattle to maturity, resulting in lower cost of beef, which allows McDonald's to get beef cheaper than they used to, while keeping the price of their sandwiches the same. End result: McDonald's realizes a large profit selling hamburgers to taxpayers who subsidized the end-product, but do not profit from the subsidy... in fact, they are effectively paying twice for each burger they buy.

 

If you've been interested in these things for more than 5 years, I doubt there is anything new in here to stimulate you. 

A well-told account of a little-known war, by Winston Churchill

The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan - Winston Churchill

My respect for Winston Churchill as a writer continues to grow. This is a well-told account of how British and Egyptian forces reconquered Sudan from a semi-theocratic (semi- because it was nominally Muslim, but an odd branch of it, and really more of a personality cult surrounding the leader) uprising calling itself the "Dervish Empire".

 

The Setup:  The book covers 1893-1899. Britain owns the Suez Canal, which it protects jealously as its main conduit to British India. Egypt supposedly exists as its own country, but is really part of the British "sphere of influence".  The Sudan is regarded as an undeveloped wasteland whose only value is the Nile River running through it. For decades, Sudan is neglected. Stretching back into history, and continuing until 1899, Arab slavers, mostly from present-day Yemen, have raided the area, selling captured Sudanese into slavery throughout the Arab world.

 

The Trigger: In the late 1880's, a Sudanese Muslim cleric becomes politically active, mainly as a result of his failure to advance in the clerical system, making a popular cause out of breaking away from British Egypt, which has offered no protection to locals from the aforementioned slave raids.

 

The Battlespace: Sudan is roughly 1200 x 1600 miles, yet >90% of the population lives within a few miles of the Nile River. Thus, the entire evolution of the war is a continuous push southward by British forces along the banks of the river.  Each battle progresses just a few miles down the river (south) from the last, climaxing with the fall of Karthoom, and concluding with "sweepup" operations south of there.

 

The seasonal quirks of the river completely define the course of the war. Typically the river level drops in winter, as the Kenyan mountains which feed into Lake Victoria freeze up. In the spring, meltwater from those peeks flow again, and the river floods. Low "tide" allows for passage across the river in areas, and prevents passage of all but the shallowest-draft boats, which must either wait for the river to rise again, or which can be deconstructed and portaged upstream to a point which is again deep enough to accommodate them. 

 

Technology: Three relatively new technologies played a large role in British success:

 

1) Gunboats

One would hardly expect gunboats to play a large role in the conquest of such an expansive territory which comprises mostly desert, but this is exactly the case. New heavy artillery gunboats were specifically designed with sufficiently shallow draft for use in the Nile. Perfecting field gun technology from the Crimean and American Civil Wars, the new boats can accurately lay down heavy artillery fire from over 1700 yards, devastating even the most fortified (by mud brick) Sudanese strongholds. The "Dervish" forces have absolutely nothing comparable to answer with. It is one of the decisive factors in British victory. Even in the middle of a desert, British force projection relies on its navy!

 

2) Railway

Churchill lovingly details the construction of a railway from Cairo, running the length of the river, providing a much-needed secure supply chain to the battlefront. It is a heavy investment which pays off handsomely, and the promise of use of the line for commerce, after the war, persuades the Egyptian government to contribute financing. It is on the occasion of the "River War" that the British army creates a Railway Battalion of specially-trained men who can keep the engines running, and make repairs to rail or engine, as needed, on the spot. A small, limited-capacity manufacturing shop in one of the rail cars, reducing dependence on distant factories for parts, etc. 

 

3) Telegraph

Construction of a telegraph parallel to the river, which keeps forces in touch with commanders back in Cairo, and more importantly: allows the frontlines to place orders in realtime for needed material, munitions, and men. (Even though the goods would still take weeks to arrive)

 

The Battle: It gets a little bit monotonous here, with troop movements here and there, etc. I found myself skimming through some parts.

 

The Resolution: Britain wins. The Nile between British Egypt and British Kenya is secure and cleared of radical anti-British forces. 

 

Outside forces: The Italian presence in Abysinnia is mentioned here, and plays a minor role in some early battles, where Italian troops are freed up to assist the British cause. 

 

The "Fashoda Incident" is mentioned, in which France advances an expedition to claim a portion of the Nile in Sudan. It is a purely cynical move to get negotiating power against Britain, as France would have no reasonable chance to actually defend their claim by force. The "incident' ends with a treaty protecting British sovereignty throughout the entire drainage area of the Nile, in exchange for giving France a free hand to develop colonies unmolested in Northern Africa.

 

Overall, this was a decent read. Monotonous in parts, but the best account I could find of this conflict.

Awards are bullshit

The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value - James F. English

That was pretty much my attitude going in, and the author seems to agree.

 

So far so good.

 

The book was an impulse purchase, which looked "interesting" because it promised to validate all my preconceptions. (I love when books do that.)

 

Sadly, the text is dry. Dry as a bone.... in a convection oven... in the Sahara Desert, so I stopped reading after 90 pages. 

 

I guess if I really want confirmation of my biases, it is best to have a meticulous, scientific-sounding, thorough, academic exploration of the subject, to give it weight.

 

But that's no fun. This isn't an important subject to me, so it isn't worth the effort. I would have been perfectly happy with a more animated and engaging, less academic screed taking down the Nobel Prizes, the Oscars, the Pulitzer, and about 100 other awards.

 

The many ways these prizes are disingenuous, inconsistent, subjective, and distorted by a host of corrupting influences are faithfully cataloged herein.

 

I hate giving low reviews to books I agree with, but there it is.

 

Secret handshakes, etc.

Occult Theocrasy: Vol. 1 - Edith Starr Miller

I'm not sure how best to characterize this. It's more elaborate and narrative than a catalog, but less detailed, unified, and coherent than you would expect from a history.

 

This is a reprint from a 1922 text documenting, supposedly, at least fifty secret societies throughout history and around the world. If there is a thesis or overaching theme here, it's that all of these societies are interrelated, have complicated intermixed histories and lineages, that they sometimes fight sometimes cooperate, and that they sometimes serve (wittingly or unwittingly) important political and social/religious functions which have largely gone undocumented in mainstream history. 

 

It starts way back with religious groups... the Vedic origins of Hinduism, the evolution of Brahminism and Jainism acting as a sort of a reforming counterforce/resistance offshoot (like Protestantism to Catholicism).  On to a whole bunch of mystic religions, cults, and deviant variations of better-known religions: Zoroastrism, Cabalistic Judeasm, weird sects of Islam (most famously the Assassins), Druidism, Gnosticism, and a bunch of Egyptian pseudo-religious underground secret societies- which seem to probably have begat Freemasonry. The common thread here is that these cults, etc were not well-received by the mainstream of society, so had to worship underground, establishing a lot of methods of secret communication, ways to identify each other in public, ways of compartmentalizing their organizations so the whole thing would not be compromised if one member went astray or if the group was infiltrated by a spy, etc...

 

Having established all these secret methods, there was a natural evolution for some of these to use their framework of secrecy to enrich the group or its members, or to achieve political ends. The Knights Templar evolved a sort of secret banking protocol which became useful for funding covert operations during the Crusades. The Knights of Malta too. They also seemed to operate a private spy organization (?) Freemasonic lodges have been hotbeds of subversive political activity in Spain, England, Scotland, and the USA. They may also have been a means of funding and otherwise supporting early figures in the Protestant Reformation. It's kind of surprising to me, but the book maintains there was a robust secular resistance to the power of the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, which was only able to evade discovery and destruction through the international web of Freemason lodges throughout Europe. (Freemasonry's cover story, and probably once legitimate function, was as a trade guild for builders and stone cutters... a growth industry in the 11th and 12th century when a surprising amount of European GDP went towards cathedral construction.)

 

The Illuminati have lately made a big splash in popular culture... the originals were in Bavaria, but were discovered and broken up. They resurfaced as the Jacobins (named for Knight Templar Jaques de Molay), whose role in the French Revolution is pretty well documented and accepted. Not only were the Jacobins a supply and information network for anti-monarchical French revolutionaries; they were also a financial network through which British money flowed from sources offical and unofficial, who felt a destabilized and war-torn France was in British best interests.

 

Later in the 19th century, Italian Freemasonic lodges seemed to play a large role in the political maneuvering leading up to Italian unification. There are a large number of political assassinations tied to Masonic groups. I was surprised to learn that the Mafia didn't (doesn't?) have a monopoly on hitmen in Italy.

 

It's interesting stuff, but impossible to verify. I have no idea how much of it is true, beyond the well-known mainstream religion stuff. Of course it is no secret that the Masons still exist, and we at least know of the existence of other secret societies, like the famous "Skull and Bones" club, whose exact purpose isn't clear, but which seems to involve installing its members as Presidents of the United States. 

 

Popular media loves to make fun of stuff like this; to laugh at it in smug self-assured tones, and to mock it as "crazy conspiracy stuff", but there's really no reason to think any of this is implausible. People act in their self interests, and clubs of all sorts thrive. If a person could get a business edge by joining a corny club with funny hats and secret handshakes, hey why not? If disenfranchised people in nations which deny them access to meaningful political participation can effect changes they want by joining a lodge with secret initiation rituals, why wouldn't they?  With money, politics, and secrecy in the mix, who can be surprised if some of these groups go off the rails into criminal activity, violence, and even revolution?

 

Could groups like this shape our world in ways we don't immediately appreciate, or which are kept secret from us?  Why the fuck not? You've heard of the Bilderberg Group, haven't you?

 

Biblical fan fiction

Barabbas - Alan Blair, Pär Lagerkvist

Short (150 pgs) story following the life of the criminal Barabbas pardoned by Pontius Pilate and the crowd in Jesus's stead, for about 30 years following the crucifixion. Non-canonical, obviously. I think the point is to be a springboard for discussion about the nature of being an adherent to an institutionalized faith vs. following a personal philosophy not sanctioned and validated by ritual and mass worship. 

 

I guess Dino de Laurentiis made this into a film in the late 50's/early 60's, which I can't even begin to imagine, as the only work of his I am familiar with is Barbarella, in which Jane Fonda is nearly pecked to death by parakeets. 

 

Japanese mystery novel from 1960

Inspector Imanishi Investigates - Seicho  Matsumoto

Personally, I don't think they gave enough information to solve this crime before the Inspector reveals his solution at the end. Then again, I don't read too many crime novels, and I pretty much never manage to solve them on my own, so "your milage may vary" as they say.

 

The fun/interesting thing about this book was little details unique to Japan, or Japan in 1960. In any American detective story, you can pretty much rely on observance of the 4th Amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizures)... detectives need a search warrant!  Not so much with Inspector Imanishi. On several occasions, he tricks landladies into letting him into a renter's apartment to look around... tricks a maid to letting him into a hotel room... etc. On one single page, he makes mention of getting a search warrant, but it's not clear what circumstances would require getting one. Certainly the requirements were looser in 1960 Japan than what we are used to.

 

Another very Japanese thing:  the Inspector pretends to be from an agency making arranged marriage recommendations to families, as a ruse to get information about one of his suspects.  He just shows up at the home of one of the suspect's employees, and says a family is considering making a marriage proposal of their daughter to his parents, but he just wants to discreetly find out whether the guy is a heavy drinker, whether he frequents bars X, Y, or Z, etc... and the employee is glad to tell him what she knows!  She likes her boss, and wants him to marry the best possible woman!

 

One other good one:  a fairly major plot point is that one person isn't who he seems to be, because he has created a completely new identity. How did he do it?  He knew of a town so completely destroyed in World War 2 bombing run that City Hall had no intact birth/death/real estate/census records.  After the war, when stuff was rebuilt, he showed up at City Hall and said "My house was burned up in the war, but my name is (whatever), and my birthday was (whatever), and if you're rebuilding the census records, you can put down that I've lived here since 1922, etc.."

 

It makes sense that after the war, destruction of records probably allowed a lot of document falsifications like this, for all sorts of reasons. It probably isn't even a spectacularly innovative plot device; readers in Japan 1960 were probably well-familiar with those sorts of bureaucratic snags in their own lives. 

 

The story itself is okay. 

 

Oh, one other thing, not unique to Japan, but to the late 50's/ early 60's: there is an eccentric artist character... kind of an Andy Warhol type, who thinks so far outside the box that he is able to shock and amaze audiences by playing traditional music on some newfangled instrument which generates sounds using electric components like transistors!  Good stuff. 

Good Introduction for the Curious

A History of India - Hermann Kulke, Dietmar Rothermund

We’re covering about 4000 years of history in 350 pages, so you know it will be very superficial and introductory. As it happens, that’s what I needed, because my knowledge of Indian history was pretty much zero.  The book is roughly divided into five Eras:  Prehistory, the Age of the Hindu Princes, the Age of the Mughal Rulers, the Age of British Rule, and the Postcolonial Era.

 

The biggest misconception I had about India was dispelled in the first 50 pages. For some reason, I thought India lie hidden and inaccessible behind the Himalaya Mountains, relatively unknown and isolated throughout ancient times. I knew that Alexander the Great’s armies briefly reached India, but I pictured it as an aberration, and thought maybe they reached some far-off hilltop, from which they might have gazed at India, without actually trespassing. 

 

Wherever that idea came from, it was absurd, and plainly wrong.  Going back thousands of years, Uzbeks, Kurds, Persians, and Afghans all frequently penetrated into India, both as traders, scholars, proselytizers, and military invaders.  The Romans traded frequently with Gujarati merchants on the Northwestern Indian shore- as attested by the discovery of tens of thousands of Roman Empire mint coins there, as well as 1st Century Roman writings which describe the “monsoon passage” across the Arabian Sea, and the spice traders of Gujarat waiting to trade on the other side.

 

Alexander did reach India, and his armies battled the Hindu princes and their fantastical (to Greek eyes) cavalries of war elephants on the flood plains between the Indus and Ganges rivers. Of interest: Alexander did well against the less-organized Hindu princes, and might have had a more lasting presence in India, but was forced to turn back to Greece by his armies, who began to suspect that his higher-than-expected casualties was a ploy to avoid paying them.   

 

The Era of the Hindu princes was a time of small agrarian (mostly rice-based, but some wheat-based in the North) city-states, and Hinduism was a disunified patchwork of different local beliefs.

 

Moving into the period of the European Middle Ages, India thrived. Mongol invaders and traveling Chinese scholars facilitated cultural exchange with the East, while Persian invasion brought Islam and the more elaborate system of bureaucratic rule from the West.  The Era of Mughal princes marks a period of consolidation, social polarization between converts to Islam and Hindus, attendant homogenization of Hindu beliefs, expansion of domestic trade, and divergent evolution of the “Dravidic” character of the South compared to the “Aryan” character of the North.  The South develops extensive trade with Indonesia and Indochina (particularly the Angkor Kingdom in present-day Cambodia). The North gravitates towards Afghan and Persian influences, particularly in the Kashmir and Punjab regions… which persist in modern day as hotspots of territorial and cultural conflict between (Muslim) Pakistan and (predominantly Hindu) India.

 

The chapters about British rule focus mainly on how England got its foothold into India through the British East India Company, which found favor among traders in Bengal and Orissa by introducing a much-needed stable and non-counterfeitable medium of trade: silver.  Using cheap labor paid in silver, the East India Company set up spinning factories to spin cotton (locally grown, and later imported from Egypt and the American South) and later (after the Industrial Revolution) to weave them into textiles. While local princes fought each other and diminished each other, East India Company made itself indispensable to the Bengali economy. As East India Company officials were taken into confidence of the local rulers, they began to assert British principles of jurisprudence into local laws, and established courts based on British law, and largely attended and run by the British. From there, British schools were established, and the East India Company began to exact payment from local leaders for the “services” it was providing.  

 

The history of the British in India seems to be a story of “mission creep”. Even the founders of the East India Company never envisioned it as a vehicle for conquest.  Yet… by the mid-1700’s, Bengali princes who opposed the British were easily removed, and more friendly puppets installed in their places. British “fees” became taxes, and payment to East India Company shareholders as well as to the Crown became institutionalized as tribute paid by a colony. Technological advances such as the railroads, telegraphs, better-developed port facilities, and electricity were all installed, wholly owned and maintained by the British. Eliminating the Dutch and Portuguese  presence in India, and setting up a controlled national government were easily achieved at this point. Offical rule by the British government, as opposed to the British East India Company, was formalized in the mid-1800's after a series of rebellions were put down, which strained the resources of the Company, and exposed the absurdity of a textile and spice trading company ruling a nation of (at the time) 200 million.  

 

As an aside, the municipal history of Calcutta is covered here, which is an unlikely story of a small rice-farming village which just happened to be situated in the right location to become a sprawling metropolis and the epicenter of British government on the subcontinent for 350 years. 

 

Gandhi and the separatist movement is covered, and the part I found most surprising it how long it dragged out. In some ways, the British seemed to know that they could never hold power over so many subjects, located at such a distance from England, without their consent. From the earliest days of the East India Company, the Company sought (by necessity) to rule with minimal application of force, and when such force was needed, it was subcontracted out to hired "muscle" -often from Punjab, whose geography on the frontier to the Persian Empire caused them to develop their martial practice to a much more sophisticated degree than many other regions.

 

Throughout the India and Britain were starting to negotiate separation as early as World War 1, but always with dallying and British excuses. (Personally, I think this is how the European Union plans to stave off the British “Brexit”.)  The modern era is better known to most of us, and the 1982 movie “Gandhi”, starring Ben Kingsley, complements this portion of the book well.

 

Overall this is a good introductory book which assumes very little foreknowledge of Indian history. My one complaint is that it lacks adequate maps to accompany the text, and the maps which are provided have such small text that they are practically unreadable. 

Bird Box - Josh Malerman

I was just trying something new here. Horror isn't really my genre, but a friend really liked this book so I gave it a try. I like aspects of it... the idea of never really being sure what the nature of the monster actually is. I can imagine that if Earth were invaded by aliens, or if monsters were created in some government experiment gone wrong, or if some portal opened up between Earth and (??somewhere??)... we wouldn't necessarily know the whole backstory of the threat, and how it came to be, and what might be done about it... before society completely collapsed, leaving the survivors scratching their heads wondering what the hell just happened.

 

The book captures the claustrophobic mood of people trapped together in close quarters very well. And there is a particular plot point I don't want to spoil, but I am reminded of Nightmare on Elm Street, where the victims can never let themselves fall asleep.  Also, something about this has a vibe of Day of the Triffids, but I can't quite put my finger on it.  

Ground Control to Major Tom...

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond - Gene Kranz

This is a wonderful book, in its way- and by that I mean that it can be a bit dry and technical in areas, but overall it gives you a good feel for the kind of work this author did, over the course of thirty years, for NASA.

 

Gene Kranz was a combat jet pilot in the Korean War, and then a test pilot for a defense contractor. Where do you go from there, if you're starting a family, and looking for somewhat safer work? ("There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots") The answer in 1959 was NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. It was the precursor group to NASA, formed in the Cold War American Sputnick-panic.

 

Kranz brought a lot of technical knowledge about flight to the job, and eventually became a flight director. You know how every NASA-themed movie has all those guys at Mission Control sitting at banks of monitors, talking into headphones to the astronauts? The guys who stand up and cheer when some perilous mission ends in success, against all the odds? Well that's what Gene Kranz did for thitry years.

 

But what do those guys actually DO, you might ask? (I did.)

 

They monitor a ton of real-time telemetry data, keeping tabs on every system needed for a successful space mission... fuel, battery power, vehicle position, velocity, altitude, life support systems, oxygen pressure, ship-board computer functions, radar, all the monitors for the scientific missions (e.g. the photographic mapping of the moon surface, the magnetic sensors, etc) Each system is constantly monitored, and if anything is abnormal, it needs to be addressed immediately. In the earliest days of the program, the Mercury missions, the astronaut didn't even steer the ship; it was done from Ground Control.

 

Turns out, there are a lot of things which can go wrong, and it takes a team of very clear-thinking subject matter experts (mostly engineers) to devise workable corrective measures, to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the missions.

 

In a way, this book reminds me of that great 1970's movie "The Conversation" with Gene Hackman. He plays a security expert hired to record conversations between two "targets". He wiretaps them, follows them around with high-power microphones, etc... It turns out the conversations they are having pertain to a murder they are planning. You never actually find out why they are plotting this murder, and you never even meet the guy they talk about killing. You never even really get much exposure to the conspirators. It's all told through the eyes of some guy who is way off on the periphery of the story, who by most accounts would just be some low-level functionary very incidental to the drama, and played by an extra in most accounts of the murder. But in "The Conversation" it is his story which is front-and-center. Same way with this book. Most re-telling of mankind's early days in space would most naturally be told in an astronaut-centric way.

 

Kranz directed the Mercury missions (named so because Mercury is the first planet), the Gemini missions (named after the zodiac twins because the Gemini capsule had a two-man crew), and finally the Apollo missions to the moon (not sure how they came up with the name for those ones). It is real-life drama, dealing with a lot of life-or-death decisions which the public never learned about at the time.

 

The other cool thing about the book is how it highlights the degree to which early NASA was infused with the sense that everything they did was about national security, and staking a claim for America in the next battlespace between superpower rivals: outer space. NASA was very cognizant of every milestone, and how they measured up to the Russians- who had a head start. Russians put the first man into space, and the first man in orbit. America finally overtook them with a Gemini mission which married up two orbiting space vehicles together. Russia at the time had never managed to get two vehicles closer than three miles apart.

 

The issue: computer power. Traveling 17,000 mph, computers monitoring a constant stream of telemetry data are needed to make minor corrections for both. In 1962, Soviet Russia didn't have the speed or processing power to deal with that amount of data in real-time. The US barely did either, but it's interesting that mundane solid state electronics like most Americans were enjoying with their transistor radios at the beach is what closed the gap, rather than fancy rocket propulsion systems or exotic fuel mixtures.

 

If you're interested in any of the technical stuff, you should enjoy the book. You might think putting the first man on the moon would be the high point of the book, but actually bringing the crew safely home during the problem-ridden Apollo 13 mission is.

Wait... what? Uh oh.

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

I read this when I was about 12 or 13, and now I'm re-reading it, for nostalgia, I guess, and because I was reminded of it a few weeks back, when I saw an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which kind of riffs on Flowers for Algernon.

 

But there's something weird going on here, because I don't remember it being as PG-13 or even R rated as it is. There's a whole mess of scenes in here involving sex (nothing too explicit, but still...), which is a problem, because I sent this book to my 13 year old nephew for Christmas, and now I'm beginning to re-think how appropriate that may have been. I guess I need to get ahold of my sister and tell her she might want to check it out first. 

 

*damn*

 

Anyhow, if you haven't read it, I recommend this book. Superficially it's about a mildly mentally retarded man (is there a more PC way I'm supposed to say it? I feel like there is, but nothing comes to mind...)  who is the subject of an experimental treatment which gives him superhuman intelligence.

 

His expanded brain power is wonderful, exciting and illuminating, but also alienating... none of his old friends understand him any more. He suddenly sees that the authority figures he had placed so much trust in don't really have all the anwers, ect... exactly the sort of stuff you like to think about when you're 12 or 13 and starting to catch on to things.

  

Made my All-Time Top Five History Books list~ !

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty - James A. Robinson, Daron Acemoğlu

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I would place it in my all-time top five history books, along with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Will and Ariel Durant's Rousseau and Revolution, Carroll Quigley's Tragedy & Hope, and Norodom Sihanouk's My War with the CIA.

What it is, is a very simple thesis about what it is that nations require to materially prosper. I'm not sure why the title dwells on nations which fail, as the title could just as easily be "Why Nations Succeed." Simply stated, Robinson expounds that the winning formula for prosperity is merely this: (1) a government sufficiently powerful to enforce private contracts and adjudicate private disputes; (2) a process of political and economic decision making sufficiently inclusive that the productive class (as opposed to the ruling or landowning classes) believe it is in within their power (by means of some combination of hard work, ingenuity, and judicious investment) to improve their lives; (3) institutional respect for the ownership and accumulation of private property. In the terminology of the book, systems which fulfill the above criteria are called Inclusive, and those which do not are called Extractive. You may or may not agree, but the heart of the book isn't much more than this.

What is fantastic is how the authors view selected histories through the lens of this very basic premise. I still haven't bothered to learn the authors' backgrounds, but they are well versed in a wide range of interesting world history. It turns out that contrasting the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Sierra Leone supports the thesis perfectly. Likewise, contrasting a history of the Spanish colonies in South America with the British and French colonies in North America. The history of the Republic of South Africa (Extractive) and Botswana (Inclusive). India, North Korea vs. South Korea, etc... there are ample examples provided.

Are these examples cherry-picked? They may be, but I have not been able to come up with anything to refute the general principles. Delving beyond the simple demonstration of examples, the mid portion of the book examines situation which superficially appear to contradict the thesis, but then shows how in fact they support it. The rapid economic growth of the Soviet Union between 1926-1960, for example. The USSR stands firmly in the camp of Extractive systems, but enjoyed robust growth, and even some innovation (the Soviet space program and Sputnick, for example) during this time. It was a limited run, and an aberration, it turns out... driven by borrowed technologies (efficiencies) from external sources, cannibalization of wealth created from the preceding Extractive-but-slightly-less-Extractive-than-the-USSR political and economic institutions of the Czars, and limited growth which can sometimes be engineered by converting from one Extractive system (feudal agriculture) to another (Soviet collective farming) which enjoys slight benefits of efficiency-of-scale.

The same analysis is applied to the apparent belle epoque of Argentina from 1870-1910, when Argentine economic growth was the envy of the rest of the world, and the phrase "Rich as an Argentine" was used in American and British circles. The growth was self-limited, because it was mostly a reflection of the entrenched dominant landowning families developing previously-undeveloped land, not the sort of "creative destruction" one sees from true innovation and wealth creation in an evolving and progressing economy. This idea of creative destruction comes up again and again.

More relevant to modern day: the author argues convincingly that the impressive economic growth we now see in China is doomed to sputter out, if Chinese political and economic institutions remain Extractive.

The final third deals with case histories of those rare systems which have broken out of the Extractive natures and transcended to Inclusive: England's Glorious Revolution of 1688; the French Revolution (which led to a conversion of many other European systems from Extractive to Inclusive), and the slow evolution of the American (US) South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act.

It's a wonderful book, and I'm not doing it justice here, but please read it.

If you liked "Freakanomics", you'll prob like this

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell

A very quick-reading exploration of the unexpected causes of socioeconomic success in America. The chapters break down into case studies- quirky but true observations, and plausible (but not rigorously proven) explanations.  Why do an abnormally large fraction of top professional hockey players have birthdays in January?  Why did an abnormally large fraction of Wall Street corporate acquisition lawyers in the 1960's come from Jewish immigrant families with parents or grandparents who worked in the garment industry? What common thread explains the exceptional career trajectories of Bill Joy (the computer wiz who wrote the Java programming language, and founded Sun Microsystems) and the Beatles?  (Hint: it isn't raw talent or luck)

 

If you like to think about stuff like this, this book will do for a light read. 

 

Minor complaints: Gladwell (the author) doesn't elaborate much on his methodology, or how he stumbled or otherwise arrived at some of his conclusions. He mentions how some topics came to interest him, but it all sounds like a string of impossible coincidences. There is a looseness here that makes the entire book sound less like a disciplined academic examination of a subject, and more like the off-the-wall random free-associations of a guy who is apparently very well-read and well-informed on a broad array of seemingly-unrelated subjects. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Made my All-Time Top Ten list~!

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

I didn't think anybody could do historical fiction better than James Michener, but Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is just a little more complex, with characters a little more nuanced than any of the Michener I've read. Superficially, it flips back and forth between two stories:  Susan and Oliver Ward, who move out West to work in mining towns of Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and California- spanning the period 1870-1891; and their grandson Lyman Ward, a history professor researching their lives in 1970.  

 

Stegner riddles the narrative with all sorts of juxtapositions, counterpoints, and comparisons between the ages. The elder generation is young and energetic, bold and enthusiastic, diving into the Western territory to forge an extension of the American empire in the wilderness. It is the Wild West in some ways, but a more tempered, historic Wild West, where the daily grind is not gunfights and Indians, but more mundane, bureaucratic fights, like conflicting land claims, crooked lawyers who misfile paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management, and constant pressure to convince the far-off and unseen vested Eastern interests financing their new civilization that it will be profitable. 

 

I'm not an historian, but it all feels very realistic- maybe because it is less glamorous than the Hollywood Western. Every small victory is hard-fought. For every successful venture, there are multiple failures. Even a bountiful silver mine may not be profitable, depending on the cost of labor, or the transport of equipment into the undeveloped interior, or the vicissitudes of the commodity markets. Nobody gets scalped by Indians, or burned at the stake. Bandits never rob any stagecoaches. No fights break out over card games in a saloon, as a player piano hammers out some tune. Yet, everything about the story seems to attest that this is how the West was really won.  

 

Still more satisfying, the historical backdrop is populated by authentic characters. The Wards are adventurers, but also filled with longing for the more civilized world they left behind, and the people they had to leave there, to build this new life. Temptations, frustrations, frailties, uncertainty, fear of failure, actual failure and the imperative to move on from it... all the stuff missing from Frontierland at Disney World; these are the best parts.

 

Then there's Lyman Ward... professor emeritus. Much older in 1970 than the grandparents he's reaching back across ninety years to write about. He's living in the grand beautiful New West that Susan and Oliver held out as an ideal they would likely never see for themselves, but which they dreamed about hopefully for their progeny. But of course it isn't utopia; Professor Lyman is recently retired from U.C. Berkeley; the Vietnam War is going on, and the once-quiet semi-rural town he's moved out to is filled with free-loving, dope-smoking hippies... an unwashed generation that wants to shake the Establishment to its foundations and start again from zero; heirs to the best efforts of forty thousand Susan and Oliver Wards, but with no sense of history, and no appreciation for the sacrifices that built this "land of milk and honey" which they resent so deeply.  

 

As Susan and Oliver face bankruptcy and infant mortality, Lyman Ward conspires to resist the inevitability of his children committing him involuntarily to a retirement home. Before this happens, he is determined to discover the one glaring, unanswered question about his grandparents' lives: what caused them to abandon their property in the Idaho Territories?

 

It is truly one of the ten most satisfying books (fiction) I have ever read.  

When the winners don't write history

Harp of Burma - Michio Takeyama, Howard Hibbett

A short story... based on a true story, I think... about the plight of Japanese soldiers in Burma, after their governments' official surrender. A lot of them refused to give up fighting... either due to failed communiations, or belief that the news of surrender was a ruse to trick them into laying down their arms. Remember: up until just about the very end, official Japanese "news" and internal communications painted an outrageously rosy picture of how they were faring in the war. Many soldiers were absolutely crestfallen when news of the surrender came. To them it was seemingly out of nowhere.

 

The story of the harp deals with one infantry unit in particular, fighting up in the "hill country" of Burma. I won't spoil it. There is also a very interesting account of one soldier so affected by the surrender, he faked his own death and became a (Buddhist) monk at a local temple, rather than return to Japan.

You Know Nothing John Snow

And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina - Paul Blustein

Writing across the historical chasm of 3 years, financial journalist Paul Blaustein looks back from 2005 to explore the slow-motion implosion of the Argentine bond market and peso from 2000-2002.

I won't do it all justice, but the book shines in a few areas:

1) How for one brief, beautiful moment, globalism was the undoing of the IMF

This is kind of funny when you think about it. There is some karmic justice here, because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was conceived after World War 2 by international bankers, for international bankers. The institution is ostensibly an impartial international lender, there to help stabilize underdeveloped nations during periods of crisis. If you cherry-pick your examples, you can argue that it has had some success at this, but more often than not, it has been a sort of weaponized finance aimed by developed nations at underdeveloped nations, during the period of their greatest vulnerability, and used as a vehicle to force borrowers to accept the terms of globalization. As a result, IMF loans have always come with strings attached which obliterated domestic protections for fledgling industries and labor. Lending nations receiving IMF funds have been forced to watch nacent domestic employers go under, displacing labor and making it cheap for predatory multinationals to force their way in and exploit the locals.

Proceeding this way for decades, the IMF has managed to shape the global investing environment to the point that most countries no longer have protections to keep local money from leaving the country to chase better options abroad. Hooray for the efficiencies of globalism, and screw you, citizens of developing nations who can't raise any capital to start businesses or develop infrastructure!

But wait! With money traveling over borders so easily, an entirely new source of capital has been revealed in the international bond market. Failing states like Argentina no longer need to go to the IMF, hat-in-hand when they can't service their debt; they can float bonds at ridiculous rates of interest (since they're so risky) for rubes in New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore to suck up. Normally, investors might be skeptical of such risky investment vehicles, but in 2000, the "Tiger Economies" of East Asia (e.g. South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc) were in a recession, and the US tech bubble had just burst, so Argentina's 15% municipal bonds looked pretty damn good (if you ignore the fact that there was mathematically no way they could actually be paid in full)

Suddenly, Argentina could tell the IMF to go pound salt! That is, until the "Tiger economies" started to make a comeback, and international money began flowing back out of Argentina (oh what a fickle mistress is the international municipal bond market!)

For a while, the success of globalism was the undoing of globalism's weapon-of-choice, the IMF. Not sure what the future holds, but that was entertaining!


2) Moral Hazard

If you've heard this term thrown around a lot, but wondered what it meant, Blaustein gives you as good a lesson as you're likely to hear anywhere.

When the IMF finally did come in to rescue Argentine bonds, there was a good deal of outcry about moral hazard. The bonds paid really high rates, because they were risky. High-level financiers were making 15% or more (on bonds!) because everybody implicitly understood that there was a very real risk (inevitability, actually) that Argentina might default on them. When the IMF entered to rescue these bonds, it was essentially using American (Canadian, British, Australian, etc) taxpayer's money to make these 15%-bearing vehicles into a can't-fail investment for a bunch of Wall Street (Hong Kong, etc) high rollers (as well as a lot of middle class Argentine investors). Not only is that unfair, but it completely fucks with the valuations of every other bond on the market.

and 3) There's no such thing as bankruptcy for nations (but maybe there should be)

In American law, and many other nations, a person whose debt spins out of control can essentially "hit the reset button" and walk away, leaving creditors holding the bag. There are penalties attached to this, to be sure, but on some level there is a "free pass" for mismanaging one's finances. A lot of people bulk at this, and consider it unfair... well, it is, especially if it is abused... but there is also a legitimate economic function for this process. If a person gets buried under a mountain of debt they can never possibly repay, then they can't be the good consumer/spenders that American Capitalism dreams we should all become. Worse still, if an otherwise good-businessman can't make a mistake now and then, the American entrepreneur may develop a much smaller apatite for risk... resulting in fewer business ventures, which employ fewer people, which make few innovations, and enjoy fewer spectacular successes. America's productivity and prosperity has been in large part to our risk/reward investment environment.

Unfortunately, there is not an equivalent pathway to rescue nation states from their own financial mismanagement. Paul Blaustein lays out a case for why there maybe should be, and what he thinks such a process would look like. Interesting reading, if you're into that sort of thing.

The last few chapters deal with the aftermath of the Argentine meltdown, and include a few good excerpts from Bush-era Treasury Secretary John Snow, tying himself up into pretzel-like knots of illogic, as he testifies to Congress about why he thought a country with unmanageable debt would be a good investment, why taxpayers should be happy throwing good money after bad to further prop up the failing Argentine peso, and (best of all) why "such a thing could never happen here [in America]!"

Good stuff.

 

 

You Know Nothing Jon Snow

You Know Nothing, John Snow

And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina - Paul Blustein

Looking back across the historical chasm from 2005, financial journalist Paul Blaustein dissects the 2000-2002 slow collapse of the Argentine bond market, which ended with the devaluation of the Argentine peso, and the resignation of their president.

 

There are a few good angles explored here, which I won't do justice, but I can at least list off-the-cuff:

 

1)  Why it wasn't a good idea for Argentina to peg the peso to the US dollar:

Going back to the 1930's, Argentina has had chronic problems with confidence in their currency, often resulting in hyperinflation. In the early 1990's, linking the peso to the US dollar looked like it would be a good solution. This means that no matter what happened in the Argentine economy, 1 peso would always be redeemable to 1 dollar. This made foreign investors more likely to invest in Argentine bonds, because if the bond earned (say) 6%, it would really be 6% they were getting back.. the Argentine government couldn't just inflate the currency so they could nominally pay 6%, but deliver considerably less buying power.  This worked for a while, and the economy really prospered in the mid to late 1990s (for many assorted reasons). Problems arose when (a) the U.S. economy took off relative to the Argentine economy, and Argentina had a hard time coming up with money to pay its debts in U.S. denominated notes. Also: linking the peso to the dollar essentially abrogated Argentina's ability to control its own money supply, which limited their ability to stimulate or moderate the economy.

 

2)  How globalization carries the seeds of its own undoing:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was conceived at the end of World War II. Ostensibly, it was founded to be an international lender, an underwriter to help weaker currencies weather difficult times, and in general to assist in international debt restructuring (as a preferable option to economic collapse).  In practice, it has become (and may always have been intended to be) a tool of globalist international banks, who have used it in a somewhat predatory way, by lending money contingent on hard-up nations accepting harsh "restructuring" terms which destroy domestic protections of indigenous developing industry, and often displacing labor and rendering it vulnerable to egregious exploitation by multinationals who force their way in under the IMF terms. (All in the name of efficiency, natch.)

 

For decades this worked well for the international banking cartel and a few cherry-picked success stories, and very poorly for everybody else.  But... as globalization has extended its tentacles around the world, and has advanced its agenda more and more forcefully, it has loosened up international investing and money transfers to the point that the international investor class can slush money around the world with virtually no legal or economic restrictions.  It is the realization of the globalists' dream, when they minted the IMF!   However, one consequence of this new Earth investing environment emerged around 2000:  private money became so easily available in the form of bonds sold on the international market, that countries with unstable debt didn't actually need to come hat-in-hand to the IMF for bailout money... they could find enough suckers on the international bond market!  

 

This worked to Argentina's benefit from 1999 into 2001, as Argentina was unable to service its old debt, yet was somehow able to accrue MORE debt to service the old debt. With each round of new bond issues, the interest promised would get higher and higher, reflecting the risk (i.e. the unliklihood that Argentina would ever be able to actually repay the amount borrowed)... and investors loved it!  Who wouldn't want to buy a bond paying 15% interest?? (Hint: somebody who knew they'd never actually see the money promised.)  When economists at the IMF threatened to cut Argentina off from any bailouts, Argentina (figuratively) laughed in their face!  "Who needs ya?  We just sold another round of municipal bonds."

 

Argentina could get away with this for a while, because the "Asian Financial Flu" of 1998 made international investors skittish about putting their money in the "Tiger Economies" of South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.  Argentina was still living off its "rising star" reputation of the early 1990's, so people looking for somewhere to put their money didn't ask enough questions when Argentina started putting bonds on the market.  The gravy train ended when the Asian economies started to come back from their mini-recession, and pronouncements from the IMF started to raise questions about how good a deal these Argentine bonds actually were.

 

3)  Moral Hazard:

This term gets thrown around a lot. It has to do with rewarding investors who take on more risk. If I spend my hard-earned money on a risky investment, it's because I think it might have a spectacular payoff.  Everybody loves to dream about the penny stock which grows to become the next Microsoft, etc. (In the case of this book, the investment vehicle wasn't penny stocks, it was Argentine municipal bonds, but the mechanism is the same.) This relationship between risk and reward can get short-circuited, when some outside force like the IMF comes in and promises to bail out the venture, if things go bad.  Suddenly the penny stock company becomes a venture that can't fail!  (Whereas in reality, failure is statistically the most likely fate of most penny stock companies.)  Now it's a too-good-to be-true investment! ...But why should taxpayers (of member nations of the IMF in this case) money go into making these high-payoff investments a sure-thing for a few investors?  Where's the justice in that?  And not every penny stock company gets bailed out, only some, so how does that get decided (hint: corruption), and how is that fair?  It isn't, and such interference with moral hazard can fuck with the fair valuations of every investment vehicle on the market, if you aren't careful.  Argentina and the IMF ran into some of that, when the IMF finally agreed to help Argentina service some of its debt.

 

4) There is no international equivalent to the American legal device of "declaring bankruptcy".  

 

A lot of people think it's unfair that individuals who get into deep enough financial trouble can essentially "hit the reset button" and walk away from their obligations, leaving lenders with a big loss.  Yet, there is actually a legitimate function to this legal pathway, so long as it isn't abused.  Without it, individuals might be forever trapped under unmanageable debt, unable to ever be the good consumers American-style Capitalism wants us all to be. It would also preclude somebody with otherwise good business acumen from ever overcoming a one-time mistake, to once again become a successful entrepreneur (i.e. employer, taxpayer, innovator, etc).  

 

Unfortunately, no such pathway exists for nations which mismanage their debt. Blaustein lays out a good case for why there probably should be. 

 

 

If you are interested in any of this kind of stuff, this is a decent (but not great) read. There are a lot of nice details sprinkled in, about the different players in this story, and what they are like on a personal level. If you tend to be unsympathetic towards predatory banks like JP Morgan, it is nice to see Blaustein cutting them exactly zero slack for their role in Argentina's undoing.  Likewise for the Treasury Dept under George W. Bush. The final few pages detail then-Treasury Secretary John Snow tying himself into knots of pretzel logic in front of Congress, testifying why he thinks countries with unmanageable debt are a great investment, why he thinks American taxpayers' money should go into saving unrealistically-risky bonds from failing just so a few mega-rich investors won't have to take a loss, and (best of all) why what happened to Argentina "could never happen here" (!!)