Thursday, July 7, 2016


Book Roundup

Here's another batch of forty book blurbs as I try to keep up with what's being published in my main areas of concern: politics, history, economics, occasionally something else. This batch isn't especially up to date: I went to work on this tonight for the first time in several weeks and found that I had already picked out 38 books, so I added two more from my scratch file. Real catch-up research begins after this post, but at this point the scratch file is pretty close to bare, so it may take some time to fill it out.

"Also noted" books are just that. They are more/less relevant and as such notable but for one reason or another I didn't feel like taking the time to write more. No "second notice" paperback reprints this time, mostly because the list is rather short. Maybe next time.


Peter Bergen: United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists (2016, Crown): Interviewed Osama bin Laden beck before he became infamous, turning that into a career as a terrorism expert (i.e., Islamic terrorism -- he doesn't seem to recognize any other kind. His books range from Holy War, Inc to The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader to Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.) He notes that some 300 Americans "have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges" since 9/11, so he thought he'd look into their backgrounds and how they became such fearsome terrorists. Don't know whether he also looks into tactics used by law enforcement to identify these terrorists, since getting indicted by the US government is a pretty low bar.

Howard Brick/Christopher Phelps: Radicals in America: The US Left Since the Second World War (paperback, 2015, Cambridge University Press): Part of a series of history books, so the subject and scope were assigned (and thankfully not by David Horowitz). What follows is organized chronologically, moving from old left to new left to the broad smorgasbord of quasi-left protest and advocacy efforts that followed -- last two chapters are "Over the Rainbow" and "What Democracy Looks Like."

Douglas Brinkley: Rightful Heritage: Franklin D Roosevelt and the Land of America (2016, Harper): Brinkley has written several books about America's national parks and wilderness areas, including an obvious predecessor to this one, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (2009). TR was better known as an outdoorsman, but FDR greatly expanded the national park system, and his public works projects made those parks accessible to millions of Americans.

Gail Lumet Buckley: The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights With One African American Family (2016, Atlantic Monthly Press): A family history going back six generations, starting with Moses Calhoun, a "house slave" who became a successful businessman in post-Civil War Atlanta, following two branches of the family -- one that stayed in the South, the other migrating to Brooklyn. The author is the daughter of Lena Horne, and previously wrote The Hornes: An American Family, and American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military From the Revolution to Desert Storm.

Peter Catapano/Simon Critchley: The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments (2015, Liveright): A broad overview of what academic philosophers are thinking about these days, a big book (816 pp) of essays originally published as "The Stone" by the New York Times. Wide range of pieces, many touching on politics (or at least ethics, not unrelated), only a few going back to the canon (one title I like: "Of Hume and Bondage"). As a former philosophy major I'm intrigued, but maybe not enough. I will say that virtually none of the author names are familiar to me.

Jefferson Cowie: The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (2016, Princeton University Press): As I understand it, Cowie is arguing that it's impossible to construct a leftward shift like the New Deal in current or future America because the actual New Deal appeared in circumstances that cannot be reproduced today. Cowie's argument is that the 1930s were a unique, "a temporary cessation of enduring tensions involving race, immigration, culture, class, and individualism" that occurred in the 1930s. Immigration was curtailed significantly in 1923, while race iniquities were locked in the deep freeze of segregation -- a non-issue only in the sense that the New Deal could largely ignore it (often by not challenging racial discrimination). Arguably, this meant a more homogeneous society, one where people could care more for others because the others weren't that different. Then WWII came along and bound together everyone -- an effect today's wars don't have because they involve so few people. I think it's more likely that the class consciousness that had been brewing since the robber baron era threatened to boil over during the Depression, but faded in the postwar affluence, especially when Cold War ideology took hold and made capitalism seem more like freedom than wage slavery. And as manufacturing gave way to service jobs, it became harder to regain that class consciousness, even as economic situations worsened. In today's environment it's easy to blame the lack of class consciousness on racial and ethnic and cultural divisions, but those differences have always existed. While major obstacles to a new New Deal persist, I think we're growing closer to seeing through the petty differences and distractions of the past.

Lee Drutman: The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate (2015, Oxford University Press): As late as the 1970s most corporations didn't have their own lobbying offices, whereas now many have 100 or more lobbyists on staff. This looks to be a pretty thorough analysis of what happened, why, and how all that lobbying distorts politics and policy.

Richard Engel: And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East (2016, Simon & Schuster): NBC's "chief foreign correspondent," a post which has put him in front of cameras in various Middle Eastern hot spots, including a brief period when he was abducted in Syria. I've never found his reporting especially astute but perhaps this is a better forum for reflection. Has two previous books: A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During, and After the War (2004, which makes the word "after" stand out, as if he bought "Mission Accomplished" hook, line and sinker), and War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (2008).

Tim Flannery: Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis (2015, Atlantic Monthly Press): Australian paleontologist, I first ran into him with his broad sweep The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples (2001) although he had previously written a similar book about his homeland: The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994). His interests then moved to climate change, writing The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change (2007) and Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future (2009), and this follows in that vein, trying to find some hope in geoengineering -- which even if it can compensate for too long denial, is hardly a solution to too much denialism.

Lily Geismer: Don't Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2015, Princeton University Press): Focuses on the high-tech corridor of Route 128 around Boston, but that's just part of a more general movement, as the Democrats have embraced socially liberal professionals, especially in high-tech, to make up for their losses of unionized workers -- indeed, they've aided and abetted the destruction of unions in part because there's more money in professionals and similarly-minded businesses.

Gary Gerstle: Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government From the Founding to the Present (2015, Princeton University Press): A history of America refracted through a pair of concepts about governmental power. Funny thing is that the people who talk the most about liberty are often the same ones most eager to use the power of the state to impose their will on a reluctant citizenry. Gerstle previously wrote the similarly sweeping American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century.

Rebecca Gordon: American Nuremberg: The US Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes (2016, Hot Books): Previously wrote Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States (2014, Oxford University Press) and Cruel and Unusual: How Welfare "Reform" Punishes Poor People (2001), drawing on her Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory. This one, too, seems to focus more on torture than the grosser war crimes that seem so obvious to me.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin: Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (2013, Oxford University Press): The story here is about how the US military has been working ever since the start of the Cold War to figure out how the US can create environmental disasters and use them as strategic weapons: inducing droughts in the Soviet Union is just one example. Not sure if this is covered, but the US military continues to war game global warming -- the idea may be taboo among right-wing politicos, but the realities impinge on global military strategy (ranging from African droughts to submarine cover in the Arctic).

Richard L Hasen: Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections (2016, Yale University Press): The title a play on the Citizens United ruling, where the right-wing Supreme Court concocted a scheme to eliminate limits on campaign spending and in principle turn elections into auctions among the superrich. Hasen, a professor of law and political science, has covered this beat before, notably in The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown (2012).

Joan Hoff: A Faustian Foreign Policy From Woodrow Wilson to George W Bush: Dreams of Perfectability (paperback, 2007, Cambridge University Press): I don't normally list books this old, but when I see a blurb line like this I have to make a note: "Like no book since William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Hoff's study powerfully demonstrates that a better future for America (and the world) lies in coming to terms with the corrupt bargains of the past." Of course, she could have started with William McKinley but that was plain greed -- no one tops the sanctimonious arrogance of Wilson and Bush, plus you get the Dulles Brothers, Henry Kissinger, and Oliver North sandwiched in the middle.

Harold Holzer/Norton Garfinkle: A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity (2015, Basic Books): "Rather than a commitment to eradicating slavery or a defense of the Union, [the authors] argue, Lincoln's guiding principle was the defense of equal economic opportunity." They do figure that the emancipation of slaves was a step toward such opportunity, but also bring up other efforts, casting the first Republican president as "the protector not just of personal freedom but of the American dream itself." In other words, the opposite of the party which seeks to crush that dream today.

Nancy Isenberg: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016, Vintage): A history of the white underclass in America going back to colonial immigrants, many of whom sold themselves as indentured servants, continuing through generation after generation of impoverishment and the various forms of approbation heaped on them by the more affluent -- I rather wish she had used the term "waste people" for the title. Author previously wrote Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and co-authored (with Andrew Burstein) Madison and Jefferson.

Susan Jacoby: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion (2016, Pantheon): Looks into the history of various people converting to one religion of another, with Saul/Paul a prominent early example, and Muhammad Ali and George W Bush among the more recent. Secularism has been a repeated theme in Jacoby's writing, especially Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004).

Greg Jobin-Leeds/AgitArte: When We Fight, We Win: Twenty-First Century Social Movements and the Activits That Are Transforming Our World (paperback, 2016, New Press): I can't say as I consider all of the author's examples as victories, but it is clear that they all resonate with substantial numbers of (mostly) young people, to such point that they've become reference posts for more conventional political campaigns. I suspect a more accurate title might be If We Don't Fight, We Won't Win -- and by "fight" I mean a quaint term from an earlier era: organize.

Fred Kaplan: Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (2016, Simon & Schuster): A lot of grey lines here, especially ethically where propaganda and censorship blend into espionage and subversion, where the lack of blood may make transgressions seem more acceptable, where state and non-state actors cloak themselves in similar obscurity, where one's dirty tricks may be another's terrorism. I can't help but feel disgust over virtually every aspect of the subject. More or less related: Richard A Clarke/Robert Knake: Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It (paperback, 2011, Ecco); PW Singer/Allan Friedman: Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2014, Oxford University Press); Shane Harris: @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex (paperback, 2015, Mariner Books); Marc Goodman: Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It (2015, Doubleday); Richard Stiennon: There Will Be Cyberwar: How the Move to Network-Centric War Fighting Has Set the Stage for Cyberwar (paperback, 2015, IT-Harvest); Adam Segal: The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age (2016, PublicAffairs).

Robert D Kaplan: In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (2016, Random House): Travel journalist and imperialist pundit/apologist (or in his own mind strategist), started out writing propagandistic books on Ethiopia (Surrender or Starve: The Wars Behind the Famine) and Afghanistan (Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, followed by his more substantial Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (1993), remembered today for its background on Yugoslavia just before it was dismembered, but actually the longest section of the book his caustic portrait of Romania. Here he returns in 2013-14 and evidently finds the same hellhole he knew before.

Kevin M Kruse: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (2015, Basic Books): Argues that the idea that the United States "is, was, and always has been a Christian nation" originated in the 1930s when opponents of FDR, including corporations like General Motors and Hilton Hotels, recruited conservative clergymen to attack the "pagan statism" of the New Deal. That line of attack gained more traction after WWII when "godless communism" became a more plausible enemy, and Dwight Eisenhower proved a particularly useful idiot for the meme. This complements the similarly themed Steve K Green: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (2015).

Charles R Lister: The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (2016, Oxford University Press); Middle East/terrorism wonk, has been involved with "a two-year process of face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups," a background which has resulted in a substantial (540 pp) book with a reputable publisher. That certainly doesn't give him equal access to all sides, nor the sort of distance academics will eventually require to chart the history of this tragic war. But he is likely to shed light on the granularity of the opposition groups, and the extent to which they have gravitated towards Jihadism as the war evolved and the situation on the ground deteriorated.

Erik Loomis: Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe (2015, New Press): With the ability to move workplaces to anywhere in the world, you get a "race to the bottom" where economic incentives tend to favor the lowest standards of regulation, including pollution controls and health and safety standards for workers. The result, predictably, is a rash of disasters (the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 is one example cited). Of course, this only gets worse as unions and their political allies are weakened.

Robert W McChesney/John Nichols: People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (2016, Nation Books): A major thrust of business in recent years has been to eliminate the cost of jobs by employing new technology, which (along with shipping jobs overseas) has allowed profits to soar while weakening workers. The authors have separately and together written many books on media control and workers' political struggles, and every year gives them more fodder to write about.

Joy Newton-Small: Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works (2016, Time: 1): Don't know whether this book is serious or not, but either way I couldn't resist noting the title. Blurb says the author is "one of the nation's most deeply respected and sourced journalists" and adds that she gathered "deep, exclusive and behind-closed-doors" interviews with dozens of notable women in politics, including Sarah Palin and Valerie Jarrett. Broad, indeed.

Henry Petroski: The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure (2016, Bloomsbury USA): Author of numerous books on engineering looks primarily at America's highway system, how it was built, how it is falling apart, and how (when and if) we try to repair it. I doubt he gets very deep into the politics and economics of it all, which is the main reason infrastructure is deteriorating so, but the technical understanding is bound to be interesting. Related: Earl Swift: The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (2011; paperback, 2012, Mariner Books)

Wendell Potter/Nick Penniman: Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It (2016, Bloomsbury): Few things are more obvious than the insidious effect money has on American politics: even when it doesn't decide who wins, it determines who runs, on what issues, and after election day it becomes even more influential. No doubt the vast majority of Americans would love to see something done about this corruption, but the issue is promptly forgotten after each election, perhaps because the winners are by definition those most skilled at playing the game. Every books post I do has something on this, and no reason to think this book is exceptional, but it's as good as any to hang the issue on this time. Some others I haven't mentioned yet: Robert E Mutch: Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform (2014, Oxford University Press); Derek Cressman: When Money Talks: The High Price of "Free" Speech and the Selling of Democracy (paperback, 2016, Berrett-Koehler).

Stephen Prothero: Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America From Jefferson's Heresies to Gay Marriage (2016, Harper One): Seems intuitively right, although the extreme vitriol of anti-abortion activists and their hegemonic sway over a party that is only really seriously dedicated to making the rich ever richer seems like some kind of counter-example. Prothero's 19th century examples are bound to seem quaint, but I've long been struck by how much Mormons and Muslims have in common, and today's anti-Muslim backlash is actually rather tame compared to 19th-century anti-Mormonism. More narrowly cultural issues are probably even clearer: I can, for instance, remember how nuts certain Christian clergy went over rock and roll, but odds are you can't.

Jedediah Purdy: After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015, Simon & Schuster): A philosophical digression on life in the era of humans, moving as we have ever further from the systems of nature which preceded us. Author was regarded as some kind of prodigy when he first appeared in 1999; has since become a professor of law and moved from cultural issues to more weighty, which doesn't necessarily mean better, thoughts.

Steven Radelet: The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World (2015, Simon & Schuster): The 2000s, in particular, saw the US ruled by the most slovenly pro-business regime in history, yet they only achieved anemic growth by inflating a bubble of fraud and debt (all wiped out when the bubble burst). On the other hand, during the same decade much of the "developing world" accelerated its development (especially China, India, and Brazil), and virtually everywhere saw remarkable progress against poverty, disease, and so forth. This is their story. I wonder whether the book notes that peace and relatively progressive governments were critical factors.

Lisa Randall: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (2015, Ecco): Physicist, teaches particle physics and cosmology at Harvard, writes popular science books on the side, previously: Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (2005), Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (2011), and Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space (2013). This one develops a theory that dark matter had something to do with a comet which hit earth 65 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs, but that's just one of many fascinating interconnections.

Simon Reid-Henry: The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for Us All (2015, University of Chicago Press): Considers inequality "the defining issue of our time," but takes a longer view historically, going back to the 18th century, and a broader one geographically, spanning the former colonial world. The common denominator is evidently politics: above all else, inequality is the result of rigging the game. Somehow manages to cover this with remarkable brevity (all in 208 pp).

Dani Rodrik: Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science (2015, WW Norton): Economist, specialty is globalization and development -- most important insight I've gained from him is that any nation that adopts more liberal trade policies also needs to expand its safety net to compensate for the victims (something the US did the opposite of). This seems to be a general purpose economics primer, going back to Adam Smith and working up basic models and their math.

Kenneth Scheve/David Stasavage: Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe (2016, Princeton University Press): After studying the ebb and flow of progressive income taxation in twenty countries over two centuries, the authors conclude that "governments don't tax the rich just because inequality is high or rising -- they do it when people believe that such taxes compensate for the state unfairly privileging the wealthy," mostly citing wars requiring mass mobilization as the prime example. No doubt marginal tax rates in the US rose during WWII and further in the early years of the Cold War, but they had previously risen when the Great Depression highlighted the unfairness of a system that had greatly favored the rich and caused great harm to everyone else when it failed.

David Sehat: The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (2015, Simon & Schuster): Sure, politicians of every conceivable stripe have looked to the nation's Founders when they could find (or plausibly invent) a congruence of interests -- a stance where infallibility begats inflexibility. Of course, those Founders were hardly of one mind. Sehal focuses on Thomas Jefferson, who strikes me as the one least likely to regard his own position as eternal, but evidently provides a focal point for a history of constitutional politicizing. Sehat previously wrote The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011).

Rick Shenkman: Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (2016, Basic Books): More of a journalist than anything else, has long been interested in the murky margins of dis-knowledge -- an early book was Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History, but more to the point is Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008). Not sure about the stone age, but one mistake many of us make today is to flock behind the loudest, most self-confident alpha male we can find (the GOP does its best to breed them). Another is that many of us readily buy into easily manipulated identities. I imagine that most of this you could easily figure out on your own, much as it pains us to think about it.

Wen Stephenson: What We're Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015, Beacon Press): A survey of the "new American radicals" who focus on climate and environmental issues, their focus having more to do with their understanding of human rights -- how environmental degradation hurts people -- than conservative (and hubristic) notions of "saving the earth."

David Talbot: The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government (2015, Harper): Big (715 pp) biography of Eisenhower's CIA Director, the brother of Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a pair responsible for some of the most egregious acts of Cold War America, ones that continue to reverberate down to the present day. A more succinct version of this story is Stephen Kinzer: The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013). Oddly enough, Talbot previously wrote a book with pretty much the same title: Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2007; paperback, 2008, Free Press).

L Randall Wray: Why Minsky Matters: An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist (2015, Princeton University Press): Hyman P Minsky (1919-96) matters because of his unique insights into the instability of modern finance, a point he made well before it became obvious in the 2008 financial meltdown. Until that happened, you might recall, much of the economic profession was dedicated to assuring us that such a breakdown couldn't possibly happen -- that we had entered an "age of moderation" where Milton Friedman's minor corrections to the money supply was all the world needed. Keynes, who had much to say about how to fix depressions, has made a similar comeback, but Minsky was always an outlier.


Other recent books also noted:

  • Fergus M Bordewich: The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (2016, Simon & Schuster)

  • Mohamed A El-Erian: The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (2016, Random House)

  • Michael V Hayden: Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror (2016, Penguin Press)

  • Bob Ivry: The Seven Sins of Wall Street: Big Banks, Their Washington Lackeys, and the Next Financial Crisis (2014, Public Affairs)

  • David Kilcullen: Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism (2016, Oxford University Press)

  • Michael Morell: The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism -- From Al Qa'ida to ISIS (2015, Twelve)

  • John Perkins: The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (paperback, 2016, Berrett-Koehler)

  • Bruce Schneier: Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control the World (2015, WW Norton)

  • Elaine Showalter: The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography (2016, Simon & Schuster)

  • James Traub: John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (2016, Basic Books)