Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party
Reviewed May 18, by Jon. Rule and Ruin is a very detailed history of the Republican party from the 1950s to the present. The fundamental thesis is that there used to be a large group of moderate republicans (or those who might be considered liberals by today's standards) exemplified by Nelson Rockefeller who used to dominate the Republican party. Many of them were from the Northeast and Midwest. These moderate Republicans believed in limited government and individual freedom - conservative values, to be sure, but they did believe in government. There was an influential club called the Ripon Society and the National Review and Advance magazines, which were forums for these moderate Republicans. Even Republicans sucha s Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan had moderates in their cabinets and much more moderate views than we see today. The book starts in 1950 and chronicle the gradual erosion of moderate Republicanism by "movement conservatism", evangelical christians, and the Tea Party - aided and abetted by right wing media such as Fox and Rush Limbaugh. We also see the arc of many Republicans start out as moderates and become more radically right. It was interesting to me that one good example of a moderate republican was Chuck Whalen, my congressman in Dayton, Ohio. I remember his as a pretty serious guy. The book shows a fascinating arc of capture of the party by right wing radicalism. It ends just before the Trump election. I really would like to see another chapter on the Trump administration.
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On Leopard Rock: An Adventure in Books
Reviewed May 18, by Jon. This is Wilbur Smith's autobiography. It explains his background and the influence on his very prolific series of novels set in Africa over time. It is pretty lightweight and jumps around in time and place - making it difficult to follow. I wish he had been a bit more linear and structured and tied better to his books to see what influenced them - and how his understanding of Africa evolved over time. Smith is pretty racist and sexist - but he, of course, denies that. Entertaining for those who have read a lot of his books but probably not interesting otherwise.
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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership
Reviewed May 6, by Jon. This is James Comey's memoir written immediately after he was fired as Director of The FBI by Donald Trump. It is short on overall bio (although it was interesting to learn of his early days as a federal prosecutor of NY mafia figures) and long on the days leading up to and after the Trump election. Comey paints himself as an upstanding guy - exactly like you'd expect the FBI Director to be - who puts country above self. He paints Trump as a narcissistic jerk who thinks he is above the law - akin to the Mafia kingpins he prosecuted earlier in his career. Comey has been criticized for painting too good a picture of himself - although not so much for painting a bad picture of Trump. Comey might be a bit self-serving in the book but I tend to believe his depiction of the situation. There was not a lot of terribly new stuff in the book. Much of the events were thoroughly covered in the media. It was nice, however to put all of the pieces together. Comey was trying to do the right thing and got the shaft.
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The Common Good
Reviewed April 27, by Jon. The Common Good is one of Reich’s better books, it covers a simple premise well and in-depth. The premise is that we have lost a sense of “common good”, I.e that we are all in this together, that was part of the fundamentals upon which the country was founded and society functions. He castigated the Ayn Rand set for doing “whatever it takes” to get ahead individually. Reich is sometimes kind of repetitive and preachy, but I liked this book. Not only do I agree with his premise but he wrote more clearly and succinctly than he usually does - on a par with SuperCapitalism. His message is a good one that needs to be heard much more broadly.
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Educated: A Memoir
Reviewed April 24, by Jon. Westover was a young woman in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. Her father ran a scrap metal business and did small-time contracting, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. Westover and her siblings both helped with the businesses and were ostensibly home schooled. Her father is a survivalist who believed the apocalypse is near and that public education and medical care were government intrusions in peoples lives. When she is 17, Westover decides to go to college at Brigham Young University (not a school at the heart of liberalism). She struggles because she actually is quite ignorant of much of the world (biggest example is no knowledge of the holocost) because of her parents’ isolation and inward focus. She taught herself an went on to get a PhD in History from Cambridge and do a fellowship at Harvard. The book is a memoir - thus is it is really about her personal life, coming to grips with a very dysfunctional family, and becoming herself in spite of her background. The book has some similarities to Hillbilly Elegy in that it describes white working class dysfunction and one person’s struggle to escape. It differs in that the Hillbilly Elegy describes a a pretty big group of people in Appalachia and Educated describes what, one would hope, is a small group of extremists in the mountain West. The book was easy to read and hard to put down. It read like a novel, but it is real.
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The New Geography of Jobs
Moretti is a Berkeley economist who has studied, as the book title suggests, how geography affects jobs. He begins with a 1969 story of a young engineer in Menlo Park, CA named David Breedlove who decided to move to Visalia, CA, in the San Joaquin Valley. In 1969 Visalia and Menlo Park were somewhat different but also had a lot of similarities. They had a mix of income levels and similar quality of schools and life as well as income levels. Since 1969, the two communities have diverged dramatically. One variable that Moretti points to is the number of college educated residents. Visalia’s number has plummeted and Menlo Park’s has soared. In parallel, salaries, housing prices, crime, school quality and quality of life have dramatically diverged. Following the urbanist thread from Jane Jacobs through Richard Florida and many others, Moretti talks about how innovation clusters attract talent and, in an increasingly virtuous cycle, attract more innovation and talent. This was true of places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Dayton, Ohio - where I grew up - in the industrial era - where proximity to related businesses, talent, and other resources fed on itself. Now, innovation clusters are increasingly focused on knowledge rather than physical resources - hence Silicon Valley, Seattle, parts of the East Coast. While innovation hubs like this draw talent, they tend to draw talent away from places that do not have good jobs and innovative, growing businesses. These places enter a death spiral and decline. Moretti notes that it is not just software engineers and scientists who gain in an innovation hub, all workers do - because of demand for their services. Conversely, places that lose, decline for similar reasons. The beginning of the book is a well articulated narrative of how place affects innovation with a good discussion of the industrial revolution to the present. The book makes a compelling case for why things work the way they do, a less compelling case for solutions. Moretti talks about supply side solutions - a la Richard Florida - around making places attractive to the creative class and demand side solutions like economic development programs by states and cities. Neither seems adequate. Moretti does point out that innovation clusters often start with a small seed and it is unclear whether they will succeed. One thing is clear - long term success depends on building human capital in the form of education. This is a good book that adds more insight into the causes of inequality and the solutions are sound - but will not satisfy many. There is no silver bullet.
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The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale And the American Tragedy in Vietnam
Reviewed April 19, by Jon. Edward Lansdale was a contemporary of John Paul Vann and an early advisor to the South Vietnamese government. He was a US Air Force and CIA officer who befriended and advised a number of Vietnamese leaders. He was an early proponent of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people and was opposed to using overwhelming military force. In essence, he was an advocate of counterinsurgency approaches, not direct military forceful confrontation. Max Boot, the author of this very comprehensive biography of Landsdale, is a strong believer in counterinsurgency so it is not surprising he wrote about Lansdale. Lansdale started in the Philippines but spent a significant amount of time in Vietnam. He had a couple of tours there with a stint at the Pentagon in between. He was a pariah among the U.S establishment for his unorthodox views and counted people such as Vann and Daniel Ellsworth (of Pentagon papers fame) as his colleagues. Lansdale had a family in the U.S. and a long-term mistress in the Philippines. His personal life interleaved with his military and diplomatic life. This is a pretty long book and adds one more brick in the wall of my understanding of what happened in Vietnam.
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Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic
Reviewed April 9, by Jon. Although a similar genre as Fire and Fury, Trumpocracy is a more serious book about the Trump presidency from the point of view of someone who has been there - in the White House. David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush. The books chronicles the many mistakes and missteps of the Trump administration and shows how the ineptitude and rampant corruption are damaging the country and the presidency. There was not a lot surprising in this book - which is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the White House and the country.
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Charmed in Chengdu
Reviewed March 26, by Jon. I bought this book because I am going to Chengdu and thouught it would provide some insight. What a mistake. This book is about a 60ish divorced teacher who moves to Chengdu for a couple of years to teach English at a vocational school. There was no plot, the cover hinted at stuff that never really happened, and overall it was a pretty lame book. It was mildly interesting as a story of life in contemporary China but mostly a big disappointment.
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The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America
Reviewed March 25, by Jon. Robert Wuthnow is a Princeton sociologist who studied rural America to try to figure out why rural Americans are so alienated. The Left Behind is a compact and readable book which adds a few more pieces to the puzzle, but does not completely explain the disaffection that got Donald Trump elected. His fundamental thesis is that people in small towns identify strongly with their town and are bound together by a moral fabric that defines their lives and binds them to each other - that makes for a cohesive and uncritical (as in unquestioning) view of the world. Wuthnow does describe a kind of hollowing out of small towns as they lose their young population to urban areas. The best and the brightest, after a modicum of education, leave for new opportunities. They may go away to college and never return. This, in turn, spirals down. Youth leave and the towns become more insular. It is difficult to attract new businesses because it is hard to attract people and companies. One feature which Wuthnow documented was a sense of hatred at the federal government. This is hard to understand. Perhaps I am naive or am just in different circumstances, but the federal government just does not figure prominently in my everyday life. Wuthnow described some small town political leaders who struggle to try to improve things, but the citizens thwart them. He described one who applied for a federal grant. A citizen was to do the paperwork and complained to the granting agency about the paperwork. The agency declined to make the grant and indicated that they would not issue grants to the town in the future. Overall, Wuthnow painted a picture of small towns as self-contained, and proud, but insular. Their challenges are part of an inexorable march of urbanization that may be hard to reverse. Wuthnow added to my understanding of the problem, but it was difficult to discern prescriptions from his book.
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A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and The Crisis of the Old Order
Reviewed March 22, by Jon. Dr. Richard Haas, the author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and has had a distinguished career in foreign policy. The book goes through a good explanation of foreign policy and covers, with a reasonable depth, the various challenges over time and by region. It presents an strong, logical explanation of the issues with foreign relations and the institutions and structures we have built to preserve peace and prosperity throughout the world. This book was not exciting or provocative, but it was informative. I came away with a deeper respect for those who practice foreign policy and the tools they have at their disposal and the balance they have to achieve. The last chapter of the book covers the United States. Prior to that chapter, Haass makes it clear that the United States has a special role in creating peace and stability in the world. In the last chapter, Haass ruminates on the challenges of the United States chaotic and amateurish political environment in assuming and perpetuating that role. Haass demonstrates the value and power of competence and expertise. I write this on the eve of John Bolton being named National Security Advisor - which underscores much of the concern that Haass describes. Will 50 years of U.S. foreign policy be undone by ineptitude and ideology at the helm of the U.S government?
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The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality
Reviewed March 11, by Jon. The was written jointly by a liberal and libertarian so it is a balanced, non-partisan view of the economy. The key issue that the authors address is "upward distributive rent-seeking". That sounds kind of technical but is pretty simple. "Rent seeking" is an economic term for the zero-sum contest for excess payments to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital). Upward disribution is just what it sounds like, rents go to the already well-off. Rent-seeking behavior is believed to distort the economy, accumulate wealth among the already wealthy, stall growth, and increase inequality -- but it is clearly rampant in our society. The authors cover four examples of rent-seeking - finance, intellectual property, occupational licensing, and land use laws. The case studies are OK but were a little disappointing. What did get very interesting was the authors' analysis of why rent-seeking is so rampant (and successful for the rent-seekers), and what to do about it. The reasons for rent-seeking behavior are obvious. What the authors describe though, is relative power. Rent-seekers have powerful motivation to both seek rents but also protect rent-seeking. Think of an oil, pharma, or big ag company that has some kind of government subsidy. The rent-seekers are highly motivated and have the resources to invest in lobbying, political donations, and "education" to perpetuate the rents. The power and resources of the rent-seeker are concentrated around perpetuating the rent. Those who are harmed by the rent, i.e. all of us, have diffuse power. While we may be harmed by the rent, it is not a burning issue around which we are organized and fight against. Thus, the rent-seekers usually prevail. Of particular interest was "education". Rent seekers can devote a lot of resources to develop information - which, BTW, is expensive to produce. They provide this information to policy makers. The resources to produce information for the counter-argument may not be as plentiful or concentrated. The authors' prescription is really around public deliberation. The only way to counter rent-seeking is for public discourse and examination of issues. Much rent-seeking happens behind the scenes. Public discourse may explose it to more scrutiny. The authors' also said we need more neutral non-partisan sources of information, such as the Congressional Budget Office, to produce objective analysis of policy discussions. Finally, they urge higher salaries to attract higher quality legislative staffers who have the wherewithal to view policy issues objectively. They maintain that low salaries among, say, congressional aides, leads to young, inexperienced staffers who may not have the perspective to counter the power of rent-seekers. Overall, I found the second half of the book on root causes and prescriptions quite interesting and valuable. The first half merely set the context for the more important discussion.
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All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
Reviewed February 25, by Jon. This is a very comprehesive history of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis - from the subprime mortgage boom to the big banks buying CDOs that they had no idea about. It is very detailed naming names and specific events. What is striking about the book is how clueless many of the "sophisticated investors" are. They are busy taking on risk without understanding their investments and are playing a shell game of transferring risk elsewhere. This reinforced my predudices about the financial community - the don't really know what they are doing and are focused less on serving society and more on enriching themselves through financial engineering. What is frightening after reading this book is that the protections put in place to prevent this from happening again are being unwound by the Trump administration. They should be tightend and some of those responsible should have gone to jail.
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Zone to Win: Organizing to Compete in an Age of Disruption
Reviewed February 18, by Jon. Geoffrey Moore is known for taking management theory and making it accessible and actionable. Zone to Win is no different. In this book, Moore talks about zoning they your business into four zones performance, productivity, Incubation, Transformaton - which map to horizons in horizon planning. Productivity is the only zone which does not and it relates to systemetizing the business. This book is actually a detailed managment playbook for plaing zone offense and defense - built upon a lot of Moore's other ideas. Some of it seems overly simplistic and prescriptive, but it is actionable, nevertheless. As usual, Moore creates a clear framework for his ideas. Worth reading and considering how to apply to your organization.
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We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Reviewed February 16, by Jon. The title is derived from a book on black political leadership right after the slaves were freed post Civil-war, but is actually (as expected) about he Obama years. Coates writes about the black experience and the years under Obama. He talked a lot about he feels about the legacy of slavery. I found I could empathize but it was unclear what action he wanted to take to rectify. He admired Obama but felt that he put too much emphasis on personal responsibility vs. systemic issues. I agree that the systemic issues are there but not sure how to resolve. Personal responsibility at least seems actionable. The book concludes with a discussion of Trump as a white reaction to the first black president. There is a lot of truth to what he says but I think things are more nuanced than that. I’m glad I read this book but it left me wishing for something more substantive or conclusory.
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The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
Reviewed February 16, by Jon. Petroski is one of America’s most lucid writers on engineering. In this book, he covers American infrastructure- how it historically evolved from an engineering, political, and financial viewpoint. He covers lots of gritty details about how roads, drainage, and bridges work and are funded. The writing is fluid and easy to read. He makes a topic which could be boring interesting. I have always felt we underinvested in infrastructure, and came away from this book with a sense of hopelessness. There is much that needs to be done but powerful political forces – ideological, not pragmatic, that will prevent it from getting done. The book is worth the read. It was a bit one-dimensional – focusing mostly on roads and bridges (with a little water a rail thrown in). It would be nice if it covered other forms of infrastructure – including power and digital communications. Perhaps for his next book.
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Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Reviewed Feb 12, by Jon. This is controversial tell-all book about the Trump White House. While it has been regaled as a piece of gossip writing, it still has value. It does give some idea of the tone that is also visible to the outside world. Although the writing is meant to be titillating and provocative, if half of the stuff is true, the country is in the reckless hands of a deeply troubled and unqualified individual and the sycophants who surround him.
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Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else
Reviewed Feb 12, by Jon. Colvin is a Fortune editor who has studied peak performance. His book both amplifies and modifies the assertion that Malcolm Gladwell and others have made that top performance comes from 10,000 hours of practice. Colvin asserts that context matters a lot, too. It is not just blink practice, but purposeful practice. Also support in the form of family, coaches, mentors, teachers, … While Colvin believes that practice is important it is too narrow a view. There are other factors at play as well.
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Wherever You Go, There you Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
Reviewed Feb 12, 2018 by Jon. This is a classic on mindfulness and meditation written by a well-known expert in the field. It is written in very short chapters, which makes it easy to pick up and read sporadically. That is just what I did. I wish I read it in a more continuous setting to better get the lessons. I did find it useful however as an expression of an approach and philosophy. I already know something about the topic so got something out of it. Another style might be better if someone is looking for a “how-to” manual.
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The Economist’s Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping it Off
Reviewed Feb 11, 2018. Payne and Barnett are economists who worked together at Bloomberg. Both were obese and lost and maintained lots of weight by applying economic principles. Their fundamental thesis is that excess weight is caused by abundance – abundance of cheap, high calorie food. Not a surprise. Their view is that the only way to lose weight is to eat less – also no surprise. What is different about their approach is that they do not advocate for or against specific foods or calorie counting. They try to take a behavioral approach. Their core recommendation is to weigh yourself every day and become aware of what works for you and does not. They don’t try to prevent feasting, but say you will need to pay the price by fasting. They claim you cannot lose weight and maintain it without learning to live with going hungry sometimes. Their approach really is about learning how your body responds to food and then making behavioral adjustments. They have some credibility for their approach – they both were obese and lost a lot of weight, each getting into a healthy zone and maintaining it. The book makes a lot of common sense. Although I have not yet become as disciplined as they would advocate, I have tried monitoring my weight on a daily basis (I have on a weekly basis for years) and have seen a correlation. In contrast to various fad diets – this book is very straightforward and common-sensical. I’ll try its advice and see how well it works.
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What's The Future and Why It's Up to Us
Reviewed January 15, by Jon. Tim O'Reilly, like me, is a technological optimist. This book is fundamentally about how artificial intelligence will shape society. Rather than taking a dystopian view, so common now int he press, O'Reilly shows us how this can benefit society - if we take control of it. He views technology as a force to improve productivity but also says we should harness it rather than let it happen to us. There is a lot to like about this book. I found it a complete and cogent manifesto that organizes and gives voice to many of the things I believe. O'Reilly ranges far and wide through a bunch of topics - including the over financialization of our economy, which leads to investing in technology to the exclusion of workers. He shows that the obsession with "shareholder value" to the exclusion of human values is at the root of the dystopian visions and how we can address by valuing and developing people. This is a big book that is well worth reading.
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The Hollow Man: A Novel
Reviewed January 5, by Jon. This is a detective novel about London reprobate detective Nick Belsky. Belsky has absolutely no moral compass. He finds a Russian mobster who was killed and moves into his mansion and assumes his life. The book is about Belsky investigating the murder of the Russian's young assistant who turns out to be a teen hooker in a relationship with another cop. In sort of the Harry Bosch tradition but with no seeming redeeming moral fiber, Belsky lurches from one crisis to another throughout the book. This is an easy, entertaining read and I did find myself identifying with Belksy as he novel progressed - as horrifying as that might seem.
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