Sunday, August 21, 2016


Book Roundup

Time for another collection of 40 short notes on recent books -- my modest attempt to keep track of what's being published primarily in the fields of politics, history, economics, and social science (not that other personal interests don't slip in occasionally). These are mostly gathered by trolling around Amazon, checking my "recommended" lists, following up on cross-references, reading (and occasionally quoting) the hype, blurbs, sometimes even reviews. Few of these books I have any in-depth knowledge of, so they hardly constitute reviews. Last batch of these came out on July 7, before that April 26.


Christopher H Achen/Larry M Bartels: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (2016, Princeton University Press): Political scientists argue against the conventional view that voters make rational political choices by pointing out how their views at least as much shaped by primordial identities, a hint of what's become obvious as the red-blue divide has gone beyond analysis and prescription to selective embrace of facts. Still, title suggests something more, like pointing out how these distortions have opened up opportunities for politicians to do things contrary to the positions they adopt when campaigning. Those things are mostly favors for special interests -- favors that wouldn't stand a chance if "representatives" were actually responsive to voter views.

Mehrsa Baradaran: How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy (2015, Harvard University Press): "The United States has two separate banking systems today -- one serving the well-to-do and another exploiting everyone else." Actually, I doubt the "well-to-do" are served all that well either, but the "payday lenders" and "check cashing services" that people frozen out of the legit banking system deserve a harsher word than "exploiting." Baradaran advocates a "postal banking" system that would provide minimal cost banking services to everyone.

Samuel Bowles: The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (2016, Yale University Press): Lectures -- I imagine this poised against the Thaler/Sunstein notion of nudges which assumes that wise managers can concoct incentives that lead seemingly free economic actors to do good deeds, although he could be countering the older laissez-faire conceit that markets miraculously do good on their own. It was, after all, no coincidence that the new vogue for Friedman, etc., in the 1980s was accompanied by rejection of public interest and a coarsening of civil concern.

Rosa Brooks: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon (2016, Simon & Schuster): Law professor, New America Foundation fellow, married a Green Beret, was a "senior advisor at the U.S. State Department" and "a counselor to the US defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011," but also daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich, one of America's finest lefty journalists: I'm not sure how all that adds up (blurb suggests: "by turns a memoir, a work of journalism, a scholarly exploration into history, anthropology and law, and a rallying cry"), or whether. An excerpt I read pushes a Walmart analogy way beyond ridiculousness, especially in assuming that the military, like Walmart, produces tangible and desirable (albeit shoddy and ethically dubious) goods. The military has, for instance, become the only big government institution beloved by conservatives out to discredit all other big government. Part of this is that, as Brooks points out, it crowds out saner alternatives, yet that's not just successful lobbying from organized interest groups -- an important group of Pentagon boosters simply don't want sane.

Noam Chomsky: Who Rules the World? (2016, Metropolitan Books): Another essay collection, so not wholly devoted to the title question -- probably just as well, as there's no good answer. Still likely to include his usual rigorous accounting of US misbehavior in the world (one chapter is "The US Is a Leading Terrorist State"). Other recent Chomsky titles I haven't noted before: How the World Works (paperback, 2011, Soft Skull Press); On Anarchism (paperback, 2013, New Press); Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books); What d Kind of Creatures Are We? (2015, Columbia University Press); On Palestine (with Ilan Pappé, paperback, 2015, Haymarket Books); Because We Say So (paperback, 2015, City Lights); also several reprints of older books (mostly from Haymarket Books), and the DVD Requiem for the American Dream.

Stephen S Cohen/J Bradford DeLong: Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy (2016, Harvard Business Review Press): An argument that history is key to understanding how the American economy grew, and a compact history of government intervention in the American economy going all the way back to Alexander Hamilton.

David Cole: Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law (2016, Basic Books): Points out a number of cases where Supreme Court rulings merely formalized changes in public opinion brought about by political activism -- sample cases include marriage equality and the individual right to bear arms, but it isn't hard to think of more cases, including the 1930s reversal on New Deal programs.

David Daley: Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy (2016, Liveright): Title evidently a technical term coined by a Nixon operative to boast about some of the "dirty tricks" used to tilt the 1972 presidential election his boss's way, but is generalized here to cover the story of how the recent deluge of GOP-leaning money has helped that party to gain political power way beyond what you'd expect in a representative democracy. Gerrymandering is one not-so-secret aspect of this. Lesser known is the REDMAP project -- especially how the Republicans targeted state legislatures -- that opened up so many opportunities to stack the deck.

Charles Derber/Yale R Magrass: Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016, University Press of Kansas): Not just schoolyard bullying, but we live in a society that increasingly lets the rich and powerful bully the poor and weak, that prizes wealth and power, treats their lack as a personal disgrace. These are all consequences of inequality, but they also correlate with the US stance as the world's superpower, the one nation that is free to tower over and bully all others. This is one book that seems to get all that: "The larger the inequalities of power in society, or among nations, or even across species, the more likely it is that both institutional and personal bullying can become commonplace."

Dan DiMicco: American Made: Why Making Things Will Return Us to Greatness (2015, St. Martin's Press): Former CEO of Nucor, "the largest and most profitable U.S. steel company" although as far as I an tell they mostly melt down and recycle in non-unionized plants far from America's old Rust Belt. Recently DiMicco was named to Trump's economic advisory board, with the strategic word "Greatness" hinting this book might be a blueprint for Trump's agenda. Still, I doubt there's anything new here: there's still a good deal of manufacturing in America, and such companies can be profitable if you can keep the vulture capitalists who dominate Trump's board from bleeding them dry. The bigger problem is how to get more of the profits of business back into the paychecks of workers, and there DiMicco is more problem than solution.

Tamara Draut: Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (2016, Doubleday): Cover features the banner "FIGHT FOR $15 AND A UNION." The new working class isn't the old blue collar one, but "more female and racially diverse" employed in bottom end service jobs that don't pay enough to live on much less secure the old notion of middle class equality. A decade ago Draut wrote Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Something Can't Get Ahead, and they've only fallen further behind, which is why they're (finally) fighting back.

Ben Ehrenreich: The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (2016, Penguin Press): American journalist, son of Barbara Ehrenreich, has also written a pair of novels, details considerable time spent in Israel/Palestine observing the military occupation, and perhaps more importantly the people subject to that occupation.

Rana Foroohar: Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business (2016, Crown Business): If I recall correctly, the title comes from Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign speech where he derided the 47% of Americans who owe no federal income tax as "takers" -- as parasites living off the better off classes (i.e., those without effective tax dodge scams). Still, another reading is possible: some businesses still make things, but others (notably Romney's Bain Capital) just take profits out of the economy through various financial shenanigans. Everyone knows that the latter have grown enormously over recent decades. What this book does is explore the effect of all this financial "taking" on the older practice of making things, which as everyone also knows has declined severely in America. Pretty sure the two are linked. Hope this book helps explain why.

Robert H Frank: Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy (2016, Princeton University): Short book, argues that the rich tend to underestimate the role of luck in their success, or overestimate the role of merit -- flip sides of the same coin.

Steve Fraser: The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (2016, Basic Books): The term dates from the 1969 New York mayoralty election, about the same time the "hard hat" riots against antiwar protesters reinforced Nixon's idea that a conservative "silent majority" had been victimized by "liberal elites" -- a term that ultimately had more traction than "limousine liberal." Fraser recently wrote about how Americans lost their sense of class struggle in The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of Organized Wealth and Power, to which this adds a significant case study.

Chas W Freeman Jr: America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East (paperback, 2016, Just World Books): Former US diplomat, was denied a job in the Obama administration because he was considered unacceptably equivocal about Israel. Shortly after that, he wrote America's Misadventures in the Middle East (paperback, 2010, Just World Books). Presumably this is all new material, succinct even, as it only runs 256 pages.

Michael J Graetz/Linda Greenhouse: The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right (2016, Simon & Schuster): Of course, the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts moved even further to the right, but Nixon's appointment of Warren Burger to replace Earl Warren started the rightward shift. This book explains how and why. I'll add that this represented a reversion to form for the Supreme Court up to the New Deal. Maybe now we should recognize how fortunate we were to have grown up in an era when the Supreme Court took an active interest in expanding individual and civil rights.

Karen J Greenberg: Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (2016, Crown): Having written a book on Guantanamo and edited one called Torture Papers, the author is in a position to sum up the marginal rationalizations used to trample two centuries of legal principle just to facilitate the security state's defense of its own power and secrets. While many of these examples were started by the Bush administration in its initial panic over 9/11, most have been continued under Obama, with some policies -- like extrajudicial killings -- greatly extended.

Seymour M Hersh: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (2016, Verso): Short book on how the US sent a team of Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan to assassinate the nominal leader of Al-Qaida. Hersh casts doubt on many of the stories the Obama administration spread about its exploit.

Elizabeth Hinton: From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016, Harvard University Press): Author starts with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which includes a simultaneous "war on crime," a set of policing policies that Republicans (and Bill Clinton) kept building up while at the same time tearing down the welfare programs. It is probably no accident that Johnson's programs were launched while America was increasingly mired in war in Vietnam, and even less so that police became more militarized during the so-called War on Terror. In between you get the War on Drugs. The idea there was probably that in post-WWII America "war" is the magic word for unity and determination, but after Vietnam most Americans were tired of war, and anti-drug laws criminalized a wide swath of society, which gave increasingly well-financed police a wide license to pick and choose. The result is that "the land of the free" became the world's most pervasive prison state.

David Cay Johnston: The Making of Donald Trump (2016, Melville House): Journalist, previously wrote a couple books on how the political system is rigged to favor the rich -- Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill). Not an in-depth biography (288 pp), but probably as good as any quick primer on the Republican nominee. Other new books on Trump (aside from the jokes I mention under Trump's own book): Michael D'Antonio: The Truth About Trump (paperback, 2016, St Martin's Griffin -- reissue of 2015 book Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success; Michael Kranish/Marc Fisher: Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power (2016, Scribner); Marc Shapiro: Trump This! The Life and Times of Donald Trump, an Unauthorized Biography (paperback, 2016, Riverdale Avenue Books); Mark Singer: Trump and Me (2016, Mark Duggan Books); and, of course, GB Trudeau: Yuge! 30 Years of Doonsebury on Trump (paperback, 2016, Andrews McNeel).

Mark Landler: Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (2016, Random House): Journalist, interviewed over 100 "inside sources" to discover that Clinton was invariably hawkish as Secretary of State, while Obama usually started skeptical but often gave in to the hawks he surrounded himself with -- far be it from to seriously reject any orthodoxy. I doubt Landler further explores how often Obama's policies backfired, as he seems more entranced with his "team of rivals" collaboration story -- the common ground of those alter egos.

Marc Lynch: The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (2016, PublicAffairs): Wrote The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (2012), a more hopeful title but in case after case popular uprisings have given way to civil war, as the ancien regimes have violently clung to power, as jihadists have come to the fore, and as foreign governments (notably the US) have interfered to advance poorly understood interests.

Benjamin Madley: An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (2016, Yale University Press): There is evidence that the population of Native Americans was reduced by as much as 90% from pre-Columbian levels to the end of the 19th century, and it's not much of a stretch to call that genocide. This book deals with just one narrow front, in California where the native population dropped from about 150,000 to 30,000 in the years covered -- roughly the period of California's Gold Rush. On the same subject: Brendan C Lindsay: Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 (paperback, 2015, University of Nebraska Press). Related: John Mack Faragher: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016, WW Norton).

George Monbiot: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature (2016, Verso): British journalist, has written about science (degree in Zoology), climate change, and all sorts of political matters, which gives him a broad view of the "mess" of our times. This one's an essay collection, columns written 2007-15, that illustrate his title rather than exploring it systematically. Still, I did track down the title piece, which indicts neoliberalism traced back to the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947.

Peter Navarro: Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (2015, Prometheus Books): Another Trump "economic adviser," the only one with any academic credentials, which as this book shows means zilch. Trump has a whole range of complaints about China ranging from currency manipulation to short-changing on patent rents. But Navarro sees something different: a mirror image of the US expanding its economic grasp into Asia under a cloak of the threat/promise of military power. The implication is that if the US ever backs down, China will pounce -- certainly not that China's military was built as a defense against intimidation from the world's sole superpower." Navarro previously co-wrote (with Greg Autry): Death by China: Confronting the Dragon -- A Global Call to Action (2011, Pearson Press). Chinese-American conflict has become a staple, both for business writers and empire strategists; e.g.: Thomas J Christensen: The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (2015, WW Norton); Thomas Finger: The New Great Game: China and South and Central Asia in the Era of Reform (paperback, 2016, Stanford University Press); Aaron L Friedberg: A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (paperback, 2012, WW Norton); Lyle J Goldstein: Meeting China Halfway: How to Diffuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (2015, Georgetown University Press); Robert Haddick: Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (2014, Naval Institue Press); Bill Hayton: The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (paperback, 2015, Yale University Press); Anja Manuel: This Brave New World: India, China and the United States (2016, Simon & Schuster); Liu Minglu: The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (2015, CN Times Books); Henry M Paulson Jr: Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower (2015, Twelve); Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (paperback, 2016, St Martin's Griffin); also, one I've mentioned before: Robert D Kaplan: Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014; paperback, 2015, Random House); and one I somehow didn't mention, Henry Kissinger: On China (2011; paperback, 2012, Penguin Books).

Daniel Oppenheimer: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (2016, Simon & Schuster): Profiles that go "deep into the minds of six apostates -- Whitaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens." Reagan seems an odd choice for any book concerned with the mind, but the rest are far from original thinkers, more like notorious cranks, and can only be counted as reshaping the century in the sense that they allowed themselves be used as tools for the right-wing. Some blurb writers I respect liked this book, but it's hard to see why it should matter.

Thomas Piketty: Why Save the Bankers?: And Other Essays on Our Economic and Political Crisis (2016, Houghton Mifflin): Author of the major work on economic inequality Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), picks these scattered essays from a monthly column published in France (2008-15).

Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters: Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics (paperback, 2016, Anchor): Author previously co-wrote (with David Brock) The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine and The Benghazi Hoax: The Truth Behind the Right's Campaign to Politicize an American Tragedy. The PR outfits may have started out just trying to spin the truth, but they quickly found themselves creating whole untruths from scratch, and what worked for tobacco and climate denial was seized upon by the right-wing for their own political machinations.

Yakov M Rabkin: What Is Modern Israel? (paperback, 2016, Pluto Press): Argues that Zionism is rooted not in anything Jewish but in Protestant Christianity's reading of Biblical prophecy, compounded by "Europeean ethnic nationalism, colonial expansion, and geopolitical interests." That doesn't quite explain why the idea came to be embraced by many Jews, both among those who settled in Israel and among those scattered elsewhere.

Andrés Reséndez: The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Slavery in America (2016, Houghton Mifflin): Before Columbus imported slaves from Africa, he tried enslaving the natives he "discovered." The Spanish crown supposedly ended this practice in 1542, but by then slavery had already had a calamatous effect on decimating native populations, and the story didn't end there. Most likely an eye-opening, pathbreaking book.

Jeremy Scahill: The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program (2016, Simon & Schuster): Previously wrote about early US use of drones for extrajudicial assassinations in 2013's Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Since then drones have become ever more central to Obama's continuation of Bush's Global War on Terror, which makes this an important book.

Jean Edward Smith: Bush (2016, Simon & Schuster): Big (832 pp) history of the eight years when GW Bush was pretty clearly the worst president the United States has ever had to suffer through, written to remind us of just that fact, all the more urgent since so many media hacks and even President Obama -- originally elected when the memory was clear in the minds of the electorate -- have let so much of his record slip from their minds.

Jason Stahl: Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (2016, University of North Carolina Press): Surveys the history of right-wing financiers' efforts to stand up a faux academia to propagate their pet theories, and increasingly to fabricate their own facts, in hopes of dressing up their self-interested politics. But academia turned out to be too grand a vision, as they descended ever more into cranking out made-to-order political propaganda. And they've increasingly turned into a jobs program for conservative politicians, a security net for out-of-work ideologues.

Robert Teitelman: Bloodsport: When Ruthless Dealmakers, Shrewd Ideologues, and Brawling Lawyers Toppled the Corporate Establishment (2016, PublicAffairs): During the 1970s there arose a mania for building companies by mergers and acquisitions, a practice which led to the growth of diversified conglomerates as well as big companies snuffing out their competitors. Not clear to me whether Wall Street led the way or jumped on the bandwagon, but this went hand-in-hand with the financialization of the American economy, a process which increased inequality in lots of ways. The ideologues come into play with their justification of the supreme importance of shareholder value, regardless of who gets hurt.

Donald J Trump: Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America (paperback, 2016, Threshold Editions): Cover an orange smudge on an American flag against a not quite uncloudy blue sky, a vast improvement over Trump's scowl on the hardcover that came out last November as Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. Like the title swap, the juxtaposition between crippled and great is so confusing it's hard to tell which is the past and which is the future. Meanwhile, the short (170 pages gets you to "Acknowledgments") campaign prop is full of such simplistic pablum you could use it for a second grade reader -- if, that is, you don't mind turning our children into sociopaths. By the way, if you want more Trumped-up propaganda, check the usual suspects: Ann Coulter: In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome! (2016, Sentinel); Dick Morris/Eileen McGann: Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Hillary (2016, Humanix Books); Wayne Allyn Root: Angry White Male: How the Donald Trump Phenomenon Is Changing America -- and What We Can All Do to Save the Middle Class (2016, Skyhorse Publishing).

Yanis Varoufakis: And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe's Crisis and America's Economic Future (2016, Nation Books): Economist, became Finance Minister when the leftist Syriza party won in Greece, precipitating a crisis within the Eurozone resulting in Greece being forced to suffer punitive austerity and Varoufakis leaving the government in disgust. This appears to aim at something more general, but the author's unique experience offers a distinct starting point. Varoufakis has a similar previous book, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy (3rd ed, paperback, 2015, Zed Books).

Dov Waxman: Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel (2016, Princeton University Press): There have always been segments of the Jewish population in the US that have been critical of Israel, but especially after the 1948 and 1967 wars Israel enjoyed deep support among American Jews. That has begun to shift, mostly along generational lines, as Israel has moved hard to the right politically, as its militarism and human rights abuses have proven ever more difficult to justify on security grounds. This book looks at that, and to do so fairly you have to look at the issues that underly these divisions.

Edward O Wilson: Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life (2016, Liveright): Legendary biologist/entomologist (the study of bugs), has increasingly turned to writing about how much damage people have done to the natural world, and at 86 isn't done yet. He has a case, and his anger is justified. Still, the notion that the earth cares, much less is fighting back, is a fanciful conceit, flattering to the same people who scarcely comprehend what they are doing -- not so much to the earth as to ourselves.

Richard D Wolff: Capitalism's Crisis Deepens: Essays on the Global Economic Meltdown (paperback, 2016, Haymarket): Lefty economist, has been tracking economic crisis since 2009's Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, and for that matter did something about it, being closely associated with the Occupy Movement. Short, topical pieces written over several years.


Other recent books also noted:

  • Walter R Borneman: MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific (2016, Little Brown)

  • Todd G Buchholz: The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them (2016, Harper)

  • James Carville: We're Still Right, They're Still Wrong: The Democrats' Case for 2016 (2016, Blue Rider Press)

  • Diego Gambetta/Steffen Hertog: Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education (2016, Princeton University Press)

  • Fawaz A Gerges: A History of ISIS (2016, Princeton University Press)

  • William N Goetzmann: Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible (2016, Princeton University Press)

  • Max Hastings: The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 (2016, Harper)

  • Marc Lamont Hill: Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (2016, Atria)

  • Sean Jacobs/Jon Sooke, eds: Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy (paperback, 2015, Haymarket Books)

  • Garry Kasparov: Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (2015, Public Affairs)

  • John Kay: Other People's Money: The Real Business of Finance (2015, Public Affairs)

  • Mervyn King: The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy (2016, WW Norton)

  • Robert F Worth: A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:

  • Thomas E Mann/Norman J Ornstein: It's Even Worse Than It Looks Was: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (2012; rev ed, paperback, 2016, Basic Books)

  • David Swanson: War Is a Lie (2010; second edition, paperback, 2016, Just World Books)