Book 60 of 200 – A Murky Business by Honoré de Balzac

I read this book months ago now, probably September or maybe October.  It was a gripping story of intrigue, the saga of an aristocratic family looking to maintain their land and status after the Revolution and the Restoration of Napoleon.

It’s difficult to summarize without giving the whole thing away, suffice it to say that from (nearly) the very beginning we are introduced to characters who are not what they seem and are playing both sides.

I read that Balzac’s belief was that the politician should not be held to the same standards of  morality as in private life, rather that strict ‘good of the state’ realpolitik should be the statesman’s goal.   In light of that this aphorism from late in the novel is worth considering:

Conventional Morality is often more cruel than the law.  It is merely human prejudice, whereas the law is the expression of a nation’s reason.  Yet conventional morality, though unreasonable, prevails over justice. (181.)

This I read as a commentary on the outcome of the intrigue, but given the above characterization of Balzac’s belief of how a statesman should behave, contrary to the citation it seems he must have approved of the unscrupulous actions of his principal characters.

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Book 59 of 100 -There is Power in a Union: the Epic Story of Labor in America by Philip Dray

I’m quite sure I typed something up for this book, there were a couple of choice quotes I’m almost 1000% sure I took down, and this is the medium.

However, when I pulled this up, having finished the book some time ago, I find a blank page.

D’oh.  Thematically it makes sense to have this book appear right here in the list, so I’m going to go ahead and try to remember enough of it to do it justice.

This was a pretty lengthy account that started with the New England textile mills of Lynn and Lee and other Massachusetts towns that employed local young women, who eventually discovered that they couldn’t rely exclusively on the beneficence of their employers for their own upbringing and education, and finished with the attenuated labor movement of recent times, spoiled somewhat by its own success and failure to cultivate class consciousness and a 70 year countermarch by the forces of reaction.

This was a lengthy study, and really revealed the uphill struggle that organized labor had in this country.  Dray focuses a bit on the more radical edges of labor, like the Wobblies, and casts a jaundiced if prescient eye on people like Samuel Gompers and George Meany whose role was more of accommodation with the powers that be and holding onto entrenched privileges of select groups of tradesmen rather than political equality for the working class at large.

I know that the quotations I thought I had saved were from Louis Brandeis and one of the Rockefellers, and both conveyed the basic idea of ‘why do we have democracy and self-determination in the political sphere, but autocracy in the sphere of business?’

Looking back it seems we swung towards the latter for a while, but for most of my lifetime it the sphere of business has been in the process of replacing self-determination and democracy in the interest of the public good with its own interests, which frequently means profit for a narrow segment of society at the expense of everyone else.  Rather than democracy in the world of business, it’s an oligarchy of businessmen in the field of politics.

I would definitely revisit this book once this project is over, and already used it as a jumping-off point for some more specific topics.

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2 Years of 200 books update

Almost a week into February 2019, I wanted to give a ‘state of the union’ (har har) on this book project, just in case this blog happens to be the only shred of human activity that remains for an alien civilization to find (which is a more plausible scenario perhaps than anyone reading or giving a darn about this.)

I’ve actually been pretty satisfied with the amount of books I’ve finished recently.  I did a ton of reading in January, though not quite as much as I’d envisioned I would be able to.  (Anyone sensing a theme here?)  I cracked 100 on the last day of January, and have since finished a couple more, with at least one I would consider ‘almost done,’ and a couple more that are ‘fairly well along.’  Famous last words, but I think I will be able to log a respectable pace by the end of March, and maybe even be ahead of the game.  Fortunately I’ve got a lot of interesting titles floating around, and will have to finish what’s on the boil now before my interlibrary loans come in.

I’ve also managed, over the last few days, to really start cranking out the writeups for each book.  I’m not quite to the point of setting a hard goal for those, it can be harder to find the time to deal with them, and there’s always reading to do, but I should be able to set a realistic ‘end of Q1’ goal for those by the end of this week.   For books completed I plan to be at 125 by the end of March.

Hopefully the mental pressure of the expectations of hypothetical readership will be enough to keep me on task.

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Book 58 of 200 – The Big Con: the True Story of how Washington got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, by Jonathan Chait.

I had to laugh while typing this, because of course this title has the all the characteristics of ‘turn of the millennium’ political book titles.

It’s easy enough though, to see why this one would appeal to me, having just finished Democracy in Chains, which has the same premise, and although it was written after another decade of Republican chicanery, goes deeper into the origins and theoretical basis of the modern conservative movement.

100 pages in, this one seems to focus on ‘supply-siders’ (which in this case is kind of a misnomer; I will elaborate on the writeup for the Paul Craig Roberts book,) and the massive and pervasive lobbyist graft that has come to be the hallmark of the Republican Party.  Hayek, von Mises etc. don’t get a single mention, nevermind Buchanan or Tullock, or even Koch, though their acolytes Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore both show up frequently as examples of the stooges that Republicans pass off as economists.

Having finished the book, it’s as much a discussion of Republican tactics of ideological unity and manipulation of institutions and public opinion as it is a critique of their phony-baloney economic doctrines.  It makes me wonder about that title – was there a different subtitle at first that was changed to economics so as not to offend someone rich and important?  (On the other hand, since ‘tax cuts’ has basically been the Republican answer to every political problem since I was born, maybe ‘economics’ fits after all.)

A couple of typical excerpts:

The anti-tax movement’s triumph does not represent a burbling up of grassroots sentiment within the Republican Party.  It is a top-down takeover by an elite ideological vanguard that has successful defined Republicanism as conservatism, conservatism as Reaganism, and Reaganism as a relentless and uncompromising opposition to taxes, especially those paid by the rich. (102)

Chait stresses this throughout the book, as in Democracy in Chains: the current conservative movement, while it positions itself ideologically as speaking for the ‘silent majority’ of ‘real Americans,’ in fact flies in the face of the 2 party consensus we’ve had since forever (and especially that in place since at least World War II.)

They don’t even truly represent their own base, they just serve them up a way to oppose or ‘get even with’ a caricature of whatever bogeyman does the job – lazy minorities, uppity women, immoral sex fiends who want men to marry other men, grasping ‘tax and spendocrats’ with their fingers in peoples’ wallets, etc.:

But in the context of the world we inhabit, this fear is wildly misplaced.  The notion of punishing the rich is alien to the modern liberal agenda.  The main philosophical basis for progressive taxation has always been that the rich benefited from the stable economic environment provided by the government, a stability for which they could more easily afford to pay than the poor…’We would put in the lockup the law-breaking anarchist and then we would tax the capitalist.  This is no assault upon wealth. ” In the United States, socialism has never penetrated the mainstream left.  Liberalism remains connected to its roots in classical liberalism, and Marxism has always been a foreign creed. (128)

I’d disagree with the last sentence here, though it’s certainly true for the last 20-30 years or so, but that’s not the main point.  Rather, I agree with Chait that Republican hysteria over taxes is largely a tempest in a teapot, ideological cover for the kind of state they want to set up – a kleptocracy where lobbyists pay politicians to write the laws, the right to vote is limited to those with a skin in that game, and the opposition is demonized as ‘radicals’ adhering to a ‘foreign creed’  Part of the reason we are where we are today, in a situation of massive inequality and ‘economic anxiety’ has to do with Democrats since the 1950s turning their backs on the mainstream Left, and (to be fair, with plenty of Republican pressure, as Chait relates) moving the political poles to the extreme right and center right.

Next up in this vein is Invisible Hands, which details that this movement that bore so much fruit for the Republicans in the decades since Reagan’s ascendancy in the 80s, actually has deeper roots.

Most ironic is the theme of the ‘secret socialist conspiracy’ propagated to this day by the right, when their own party has been overtaken by its own extreme wing that’s deemed it necessary to obfuscate their real purpose and intentions from the public, lest they be foiled by an informed electorate before their schemes come to fruition.





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Book 57 of 200 – The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by David Magarshack.

I went through a year or so in school where I was really into Dostoevsky.  I read most of his works, including many short stories and short novels.  (I remember finding the Double infuriating to read, though I no longer remember why, just the impression of that feeling while reading it.)

I was working in bookstores around that time, and I ended up buying copies of most of what I read, including his major novels.  I actually have two different translations of The Brothers Karamazov and the Idiot.  I read Brothers Karamazov for the first time in about a decade back in 2015, and the Idiot earlier this year.  I also own two copies of Demons (though one is called Demons and the other The Possessed,) one I bought years ago and the other I snagged from the library’s giveaway pile.

But in spite of reading and even re-reading most of his catalog, there was one notable lacuna, his least-well-regarded major novel, the Adolescent, which like Demons is also known in translation by another title, the Raw Youth.  For whatever reason, this one gets short shrift, and the main reason I never read it was they didn’t carry it at the bookstores where I worked.  I suppose I could have ordered it in, I didn’t even know about it until I saw it at the library, and with everything else, I never got around to it until now.

I shouldn’t be surprised any more that it was a challenge to find it even using the library request, but it took a while for them to find this and send it in.  They have plenty of copies of the latest pulp crap though (and I don’t blame them, it’s the public, really.)

So, enough of that, now to the book itself.  I will confess that my second go-around with Dostoevsky has not been nearly as profound as the first time, when I was still a raw youth myself and encountering a lot of the concepts for the first time.  So that should be considered when I say that unlike some of his other novels (specifically the Brothers Karamazov and Idiot, ) I didn’t find myself having to frequently put this one down and think about what was going on or being considered.  That said, like all of his other books this one is chock full of fascinating psychological insights and ideas.

I was stuck specifically by the use of Arkady as an unreliable narrator, practically the most extreme example of such I’ve ever encountered.  He’s frequently wrong about other characters, their motives, what’s about to happen etc.  He starts out talking about an idea and a lifestyle that he’s firmly committed to and then by part 2 of the book has abandoned it completely.  In the end his ideals and illusions have disastrous practical consequences for most of the characters, though I suppose it’s something like a happy ending (unlike for instance, the Idiot.)

This is one I will probably read again in a few years.  In the case of Dostoevsky I find different translations are worth pursuing, as they provide different insights into the original meaning.  It wasn’t going to fit into 2018, but now that I’ve ‘re-upped’ for this year, I think that new (to me) translation of the Possessed might be worth checking out, provided I can get ahead of the pace.

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Book 56 of 200 – Why Save the Bankers? by Thomas Piketty

This is a collection of translations of Piketty’s weekly newspaper columns, done after he became famous for Capital in the 21st Century.

In part about the global crisis, his commentaries are also about issues of politics and economy in France as well as the debt crisis of the Eurozone.

Throughout he harps on his conclusion (amply illustrated in Capital…) that the rate of return on capital is always greater than production, which gives greater weight to wealth that was constituted in the past, and drives increasing inequality, incompatible with the (purported) meritocratic basis of our society.

Among his consistent proposals are a global tax on wealth and federal solutions to Europe’s debt problems, both of which strike me as reasonable and sensible, (which probably means they are never likely to be enacted.)  It’s kind of refreshing to read an economist with genuine leftist proposals that he is confident about, I feel like such an animal does not exist in this country (or at least, does not have  a weekly voice in prominent newspapers,) and even if such a thing were to happen here, it would be beaten under by a deluge of right-wing experts and fellow travelers in the ‘free market’ ideology.

Piketty repeatedly claims that Europe’s social model is the best in the world (he’s probably right,) and laments that austerity policies, coupled with the inability of Europe to act as a whole to do anything other than act in a way that will lead to more austerity, now threaten the social model itself.

He takes on other sacred cows of the right, including the idea that tax cuts leading to growth can save the economy (spoiler alert:  they can’t!,) and he has a larf at the idea of the IMF finally coming around to the idea of progressive taxation.

Referring to the Greek Crisis, he writes:

The problem with these household metaphors is that at the level of a country – and for individuals as well – capitalism is not just about merit.  Far from it.  For two reasons that can be summarized simply: the arbitrary nature of the initial inheritance, and the arbitrary nature of certain prices, especially the return on capital (74)

It’s worth noting again Piketty’s disavowal of ‘anti-capitalism’ in the beginning of Capital in the 21st Century.  In spite of the efforts of some on the right to paint him as a modern-day Marx, he is not.  His solutions are based on pragmatism and the professed values of Republican France, and not some revolutionary fervor.

I’m reading this at the same time as There’s Power in a Union, a history of the US labor movement and it’s telling to note that Louis Brandeis made the same observation 100 years ago that Piketty muses on here (in regard to the bottom-line oriented directives of a major shareholder of Libération, the paper which published his columns.)

What alternative forms of governance should we come up with in the twenty-first century to escape the dictatorship of the all-powerful owner and finally allow democratic and participator control of capital and the means of production?  This eternal question, which some thought closed after the fall of the Soviet anti-model, never really went away. (165-6)

It occurred to me reading these essays that what Piketty assumes in his audience is something that is not safe to assume in the USA – a class of engaged citizens with an active interest in realizing the ideals of their founding documents etc.

Unlike many American Democrats, he realizes that the celebrated ‘economic anxiety’ is real:

Why is the working class turning away from mainstream parties more or less everywhere, and especially from the center-left parties that claim to be their defenders?  Quite simply, because the latter have not been defending them for a long time.  Over the last few decades the working class has endured a double hardship, first economic and secondly political.  Economic changes have been unfavorable to the most disadvantaged social groups in the developed countries…By contrast, those groups that are best equipped with financial and cultural capital have been able to benefit fully from globalization…political shifts have made these trends worse.  One might have imagined that public institutions and social welfare systems – policymaking overall – would adapt to the new situation by asking more from its main beneficiaries in order to devote more to the affected groups.  But the opposite has occurred…Deregulating finance and liberalizing capital flows without asking anything in return has only worsened these trends.(197-8)

Finally in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Paris:

How could young people raised in France conflate Baghdad and the Paris banlieue, seeking to import here the conflicts taking place over there?  Nothing can excuse this bloody, macho, pathetic atrocity.  We may simply note that unemployment and job discrimination…can’t be helping.  Europe, which before the recession managed to accommodate a net immigration flow of one million people annually must relaunch its model of job creation and social integration.  Austerity is what led to the rise of national selfishness and tensions around national identity.  Social development with equity is how hatred will be defeated. (207)

The concept of ‘development with equity,’ I couldn’t agree with more.  The problem we have in America is that both major parties (albeit to a far greater and correspondingly lesser degree,) are trying to fool the electorate into believing that equity consists in buying deeper into a system that enriches a small fraction of society at the expense of everyone else.  Hopefully the scale has been tipped far enough in the one direction that the other will be compelled to take some meaningful action, but this has happened before and that was not the case, even during the deepest crisis to capitalism in a century.

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Book 55 of 200 – The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner

The seminal history of classical political economy.  I read this in November 2018 but I’m posting it before several others that I finished earlier precisely due to its foundational character.

I could try to lay out a synopsis of the whole thing, but it’s really just a chronological history of the biggest names in economics, and since I’m already so behind on these writeups, I’ll just note a couple of observations.

First, I found it interesting to note that the original Utopians were mostly members of the upper class:

It may strike us as odd that the idea of gain is a relatively modern one; we are schooled to believe that man is essentially an acquisitive creature and that let to himself he will behave as any self-respecting businessman would.  The profit motive, we are constantly being told, is as old as man himself.

But it is not.  The profit motive as we know it is only as old as “modern man.”  Even today the notion of gain for gain’s sake is foreign to a large portion of the world’s population, and it has been conspicuous by its absence over most of recorded history…As a ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing. (21-22)

I think it’s a good axiom that a book of political economy or theory of economics that doesn’t contain some form of the above is at worst mistaken, and if written anytime in the last 2 and a half centuries, dogmatic propaganda.

The Utopians were reformers of the heart rather than the head.  Their heritage is to be found in the welfare ideals of the New Deal of Britain or Scandinavia rather than the ‘scientific’ conviction of the Russian Soviets…the ‘utopia’ was not merely a matter of idealistic ends; it was also a key to the means.  For, in contradistinction to the Communists, these were reformers who hoped to persuade the members of the upper classes that social change would be for their ultimate benefit…Utopia-builders had existed since Plato but it was not until the French Revolution that they began to react to economic as well as political injustice…the Utopians wanted…a new society in which Love Thy Neighbor could somehow be made to take priority over the mean gouging of each for himself.  (109-110)

Heilbroner seems to have been pretty much a lifelong socialist.  I actually heard of this book reading the comment thread in an article on Reason, the Libertarian website, which talked about Heilbroner’s own struggles reconciling socialism with civil liberties.  I found it interesting to contrast that view (overstated I believe by the libertarian author who cited it,) with the passage below in which he talks about the same issue from another angle:

…there was nothing inevitable in the physical sense about Marx’s vision.  The Marxist prediction of decay was founded on a conception of capitalism in which it was socially impossible for a government to set wrongs aright; intellectually, ideologically, even emotionally impossible.  The cure for capitalism’s failings would require that a government would have to rise above the interests of one class alone – and that, as Marx’s doctrine of historical materialism revealed, was to assume that men could free themselves from the shackles of their immediate economic self-interest. (150-151)

Bastiat, who makes a cameo here, is a darling of the libertarians.  This was the first I’d heard of him, or at least the first summary of his writings I’d encountered.  Heilbroner in this work doesn’t seem to regard him as seriously as some of his other interlocutors

[Bastiat] is a very small figure in the economic constellation…his function, it seems, was to prick the pomposities of his time; but beneath the raillery and the wit lies the more disturbing question: does the system always make sense?  Are there paradoxes where the public and private weals collide?  Can we trust the automatic mechanism of private interest when it is perverted by the far from automatic mechanism of the political structure it erects? (165-166)

The chapter on the American Gilded Age was illuminating, very similar conditions obtain today, on a global scale:

Very few of the heroes of the Golden Age of American had much interest in the solid realities of what underlay their structure of stocks and bonds and credits…US Steel…had real assets of some $682 millions, but against this had been sold $303 millions of bonds, $510 millions of preferred stock and $510 millions of common stock.  The financial company, in other words, was twice as “big” as the real one and nothing more lay behind its common stock than the intangible essence of “good will.”  In the process of creating these intangibles, however, J.P Morgan and Co. had earned a fee of  $12,500,000, and subscription profits to underlying promoters had come to $50,000,000.  Altogether it cost $150,000,000 to float the venture…for thirteen years steel rails were quoted at $28 a ton, whereas it cost less than half of that to make them.  In other words, the whole gain in technological unification was subverted to the end of maintaining a structure of make-believe finance.   (214-215)

plus ça change…

But there is a danger that in our system there will develop a new lower class that will not be lifted up on the general advance.  The tenant farmers…the inhabitants of bypassed areas…the discouraged…families caught in the “culture of poverty” and above all the Negro, victim of decades of oppression that is not yet ended – all these fail to respond to the rise of the economy because they are not in the economy.  Their poverty is social rather than economic. (268)

There are economists that say this today, but it’s not part of the political discussion in any meaningful way.

The question of whether private property is crystallizing into a kind of latter-day feudalism is obviously of prime importance for any appraisal of the future (271)

One of the things that most impressed me about this book (and the other work of Heilbroner that I picked up in response to it,) is its cool-headed and even-handed descriptions of the various schools here, (and considerations of the real problems, as he sees them, of social science in the other work.)

Heilbroner manages to keep his own biases and perspectives held back enough to grant a full and fair picture.  In this day and age in US politics, when a ‘centrist’ is basically defined as ‘Republican, but cool with gays and abortions,’ can we even conceive of a centrist socialist?


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