Category Archives: Economy

My Favorite Books I Read in 2018, Part I

I tweeted out my favorite books of 2018, and I wanted to blog a bit about my selections.


(5) Monica Prasad’s The Land of Too Much: American Abundance and the Paradox of Poverty is what I categorize as an “ideal type.” This book was assigned in a graduate seminar in American Politics and Political Economy. My professor encouraged us to use her first few chapters as a template for any literature reviews we might write. I completely agree. Prasad proves that she has a firm grasp of the alternative arguments that she adds to, takes away from, or directly challenges. This book is one of the most learned, nuanced, and counterintuitive books that I have read on the topic of welfare states, inequality, and historical institutionalism alike.

Prasad brilliantly details that early decisions and putative progressive successes in the late 19th century set American on a path that, paradoxically, entrenched progressive income taxes, and cheap credit which has produced more, not less, inequality. America has a welfare state, like all other advanced welfare states, but it is one that encourages private consumption for goods that are normally more socialized. The reason for the “paradox of poverty” that is seen in the subtitle refers to the fact that this type of welfare state was pushed for by agrarians in the 19th century: progressive successes have produced a welfare state that hurts those worse off and one that benefits the middle class. I won’t do this book justice in this blog post: here is a great piece from the author herself that succinctly displays her thesis, which is that America has plenty of government, it has a welfare state; the problem, if you want a more egalitarian society, is the type of welfare state and what function and outcomes it achieves. Read Prasad on political economy and comparative analysis and you will be rewarded.

(4) Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is an immediate classic, in my opinion. A real piece of political philosophy that, due to Deneen’s environs, milieu, and academic home (University of Notre Dame, a private Catholic institution), might challenge its most likely reader because Deneen (similar to Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs McWorld) argues that both the state and the market have disrupted the traditional lifestyles that conservatives tend to champion. Deneen does a fantastic job of explaining that liberalism, the classic-type (free markets, hyper-individualism) is failing American families because it is succeeding. Liberalism, the left and right varieties, has become the only game in town – which, in his estimation, has largely contributed to what is commonly referred to as our current “crisis of meaning.”

Deneen’s prescriptions – localism, tradition, religion – are the most contentious part: if liberalism is better than fascism and communism, can we guarantee that a post-liberal age that would be more rooted in tradition, small, and local communities, be preferred? I agree with the likes of Tyler Cowen and Ezra Klein that this book is a must read, even if you disagree with the ultimate thesis that liberalism is failing. Personally, I think we need a new “embedded liberalism,” that understands that family, tradition, and local-connections that foster human capital is the way to assure that liberalism can be maintained and strengthened.

(3) In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Northeastern University’s Lisa Feldman Barrett produces cutting-edge synthesis on a field that she is a heavyweight in: the science of emotions. A fascinating, and brilliant read. Malcolm Gladwell remarked that this book “turned [his] understanding upside down.” For me, this book actually aligns with much of what I have come to believe about emotions: they are socially constructed, not determined by the array of neurochemistry produced by an individual emotion, and that we have much control regarding our experience. “When it comes to your experiences and perceptions, you are much more in the driver’s seat than you might think. You are an architect of your experience,” writes Barrett (152).

Barret is not saying, of course, that emotions don’t have a biological foundation; she is saying that we need to understand that “physical states and actions” (X), combine with “the emotion categories that exist in a particular culture” (Y), and “the contents and the workings of the categories as situated conceptualizations that constitute emotions in a particular culture” (C). Barrett backs up her claims with a rigorous review of the data from psychology accumulated over the last few decades. Her work, if true (which I am convinced of), should (in a just world) revolutionize how we think of mental health (she is a fan of mindfulness), criminal justice law, interpersonal relationships, and, yes, how we think of our emotions and the meaning we attribute to the physiological reality of them. There is even a provocative–some science, some speculation–chapter called “Is a Growling Dog Angry?” about whether animals experience emotions (in her opinion: not exactly, though they do experience “affect”).

This book is incredible.

(2) I picked up On Grand Strategy on a hunch. I knew of Gaddis as a Cold War historian, but was not familiar with hardly any of his work. I picked this book up a few weeks before I started my Fall 2018 semester because I was embarking on research on the history of post-Cold War US grand strategy and this book’s title jumped out at me. Little did I know what I was picking up. If I recall correctly, I only used one page or so of this work for my paper. Nonetheless, this book was a superb, erudite read.

On Grand Strategy is a literary fusion of Gaddis’ lifelong accumulation of knowledge and wisdom teaching such classes as “Strategy and Policy,” from 1975-1977 at the US Naval War College, and “Studies in Grand Strategy,” at Yale from 2002 to the present. Gaddis defines “grand strategy” as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations  with necessarily limited capabilities” (21). In chapter after beautiful chapter, Gaddis traces acts of good, effective leadership (Lincoln, who he discusses in a chapter called “The Greatest President.”), and failures of leadership (Xerxes’ failure in 480 BC to invade Greece (for a second time). Lincoln was able to adapt, like Berlin’s foxes; Xerxes acted as a hedgehog – overconfident in his aspirations, failing to match his ends (wanting to conquer all of Europe) to his means (uh….not enough to do THAT). Gaddis brings his reader across continents, ages, books, events, and leaders. Distilling wisdom from the likes of Thucydides, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Berlin, Lincoln, Clausewitz, and Tolstoy (the last two he calls “the grandest of strategists”) this book is a must read for anyone who wants to be a leader, or who wants to develop strong character.

Gaddis teases out leadership qualities that have been successful across space, time, and scale: the ability to manage polarities, which requires psychological maturity; flexibility; proportionality; “seeing simplicities in complexities”; acquiring a “sense of the whole that reveals the significance of  respective parts” (58); and, one that both the Islamic State and Assad’s Syria seem to misunderstand, distilled from Augustine and Machiavelli, that “if you have to use force, don’t destroy what you’re trying to preserve” (111).

These principals, in this blog post, can read abstract; the beauty of this book is the erudite, and literary way that Gaddis brings these principles to life. You really feel like you are watching Xerxes attempt the impossible; you get a sense of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858; and the “a-ha, moment” when one truly grasps that Woodrow Wilson “confused strengths with hopes,” for example, is highly effective. Reading this book was a real treat.

I will write a separate blog post on my favorite book of the year, Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.


To Educate, or Not to Educate? (1/2)

How we should orient education resources and tools in the 21st century. Recently the Boston Review hosted a debate the posed the very question: What is Education for?

Harvard Graduate School professor Danielle Allen, in the lead essay, argues the education should focus on participatory readiness – so a explicit political (lowercase p) mean to create an end where students are properly trained to be civic agents. Allen in a well-argued piece asserts that the current paradigm is vocational training – we equip students to learn skills and in particular technical skills based on hard science; these skills are enough to help ameliorate all sorts of injustices and inequalities in our society and world.

Allen, at her most pointed and simple reminds us that: “We surely need the STEM fields to navigate this new landscape. But if the STEM fields gave us the mass in “mass democracy,” the humanities and social sciences gave us the democracy.” I think is without-a-doubt true. And a brilliant succinct way of tying this dichotomy up with a nice artistic bow. Of course we need STEM but we also need the liberal arts to help us become well-rounded citizens.

Deborah Meier, Senior Scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School, responds to the initial outing writing that she “sympathizes” with the first argument. She goes a bit further saying that our schools and their obsession with “test scores” has made the lack of civic agency even worse. “Our current educational paradigm barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about.”

Debra Satz, Professor of Ethics in Society and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, agrees with Allen on principles but just doesn’t think education can do what Allen is asking it to do. “Egalitarian redistributive justice” is not the “first reason that comes to mind” on why we should teach liberal arts. Satz also argues that vocational training updated for the 21st century would, in fact, do what Allen wants which is more resources to schools. “Vocational education arguably requires not only computer science and coding, but also the ability to write, analyze, and communicate; knowledge of foreign cultures and languages; and a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization,” asserts Satz. Fair point here, I think.

Jeffrey Aaron Synder, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Carleton College, argues that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Preparing students to enter the labor market has always been what the education system is about and with 15% of the country in poverty, this should remain preeminent, according to the professor.

Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, argues in the same vein that Satz did: what Allen calls for is simply “too much for civic education to bear.” Reich says we should start with bringing civic classes back. This is something I’ve been arguing for for awhile now. We don’t need people majoring in politics in droves; we need people to understand civics and this should be incorporated throughout our entire educational journey regardless of the paradigm debate. Also, citing legendary political scientist Robert Putnam, civic organizations outside schools are important. We should probably stop bowling alone, basically, and reengage with our neighbors.

Carlos Fraenkel, author of Teaching Plato in Palestine, pushes for the Brazilian model: In 2008, “the Brazilian parliament affirmed that philosophy is necessary for democratic citizenship. Now, by law, every student studies philosophy in that country’s high schools.” Not a certain philosophical school, argues Fraenkel, but philosophy of practice; “semantic and logical tools that allow us to argue well and dialectical virtues that allow us to focus on truth-finding rather than on winning an argument.” This is also an idea that I really agree with.

Lelac Almagor, a Charter school English teacher, argues that class matters and that low-income students deserve an elite education. There is no stark dichotomy of STEM vs liberal arts. We need it all. So Almagor is in the same ballpark as Satz here.

Lucas Stanczyk, political scientist, argues that we should listen to what C.E.O’s are saying is the problem: creativity. How do we foster creativity? Liberal arts and not STEM. What is education for, according to Stanczyk: “It is to help people escape a life of vapid consumerism by giving them capacities to appreciate richer pursuits and to produce their own complex meanings.” His arguments are way to all over the place to be cohesive enough to analyze. Although his C.E.O. point is his best.

I’ll be back soon with a 1000 word response to all of this myself; I think about this often and there is much here to chew on.

(Two responses I am leaving without comment (except for this one) because their essays, IMO, were only tangentially related to the original essay and I found them (mostly) irrelevant. Read them here: (1), (2).)

Reparations: Unenforced & Ignored Examples

I have been following closely the on-going discussion regarding reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, etc. online between intellectual-historian (this is what I call him) Ta-Nehisi Coates, rapper Killer Mike, and linguist and professor John McWhorter. There are two points I want to mention regarding McWhorter’s examples of prior reparations. McWhorter writes that we have given reparations to Black Americans through legislation such as the 1968 Fair Housing Act of and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. The problem with these examples is that the Reagan administration ignored them. I repeat: these laws were only nominal in many ways.

George Lipsitz in his brilliant The Possessive Investment in Whiteness makes this clear:

Reagan’s appointee as director of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, William Bradford Reynolds, filed only two housing discrimination suits in his first twenty months in office, a distinct drop from the average of thirty-two cases a year filed during the Nixon and Ford presidencies or even the 19 per year during the final 2 years of the Carter administration.”

Regarding the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the devil is in the details. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was, by law, not really allowed to do to much in enforcing the act. Title VIII, according to Lipsitz, “forbade the agency to initiate investigations on its own.” What happened when claims actually resulted in a penalty? “A maximum of $1,000.” I am only providing a couple of examples here but the true historic record is worse. One more quick example to bolster my case that the two examples by McWhorter were ignored and made impotent. “As of 1980, only five victims of discrimination has received damages in excess of $3,500.”

There  are two options happening here with McWhorter. First, he genuinely doesn’t know the often-cited and heavily reported examples cited here; which if this is the case, he should probably read up more. Or, second, McWhorter is willfully ignoring the details to simply wage an attack on Coates because he doesn’t thnk Coates is a strong thinker when it comes to history. Just watch the conservation between McWhorter and economist Glenn Loury to see proof that McWhorter has an obvious revulsion towards Coates.

The truth matters here and the truth is not on the side of McWhorter in this case. Reparations were, effectively, “resist[ed], refus[ed], and renogotiat[ed],” time and time again. Reparations have not truly been given to Black Americans and the proof is in such numbers as how much property Black Americans own and how much savings they have, even those who do make it to a better-than-average tax bracket.

Reparations have only been illusory.

[Edit on 1/25/2016: An excellent overview of reparations was published in the Washington Post on January 21, 2015 that I want to link to. It was written by Professor of Sociology James W. Loewen. HERE it is.]

Trump and Identity Politics

I argue that you can explain Trump’s rise through the lens of white identity politics, for one. It’s not what he is saying or even the individual himself; it’s that his base – white suburban disaffected ‘victims’ of globalization who are struggling – see themselves in him. It is projection against what they see as an elite harvard-educated political class who is waaaay too literate for their own good and who says things with nuance that they don’t understand. They want someone who is an outsider (like them) who isn’t P.C. (like them) and who thinks in black and white categories of good and evil; of up and down; of right and wrong (like they do.)

Imagine if you are a former factory worker employed during a time of rising incomes; pensions; good health care; and seeming security. Now imagine that this in fact was reality for millions upon millions of workers. Starting in the 1980s and continuing through the present day, tens of thousands of factories have been closed. In fact, over 42,000 factories have been closed JUST since 2001. Look at Trump through the lends of globalization.

If you are a laid off employee who is being pushed further and further down the income and skills ladder, who do you blame?

The political class (Yep; and they would be correct here).
Corporations and their need for maximizing profits (Yep).
Minorities and immigrants (Yep; well, ‘yep’ as in many Americans do blame these fellow under-served people; they would be wrong here however and are blaming the symptom and not the cause).

[Now there is truth to the claim that corporations are benefiting from illegal and even legal immigration by capitalizing on unskilled and/or people without franchise or much legal reprieve; this does hurt working class Americans of all color; however, the fault of this goes to the government.]

The perceived and real impacts of globalization are at work here. Basically anyone with ANY government experience at all is considered an “insider” to Trump’ supporters. Any candidate with prestigious degrees from schools they have only tangentially heard of? Too qualified and self-interested and disconnected from the needs of the working class and the shrinking middle class. This is why occasionally war hungry conservatives do in fact accept anti-war arguments. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what the person says; what matters is the answer to the internal question people are asking themselves: is this person like me? Do I see myself in this person? If the answer is yes, then we are open to their opinion even if it is not one we are, theoretically, likely to support. If we consider them the Other; then it doesn’t matter what they say.

Politics are identity politics. I am of the mind that identity politics of all types are disastrous for any future left movement because, to generalize, they are built on a foundation of separateness and focus heavily on the individual. But I can unpack that later. [I want to write a short book on that actually.]

However, the most dangerous type of identity politics is white identity politics. Why? Because white Americans had an investment in this system that, for a long time, worked for them. People who never had wealth or prosperity can sometimes not have that impetus of hope to fight for change. They don’t see a world that works for them because it largely never has. People who had a middle class life but now see it slipping away? Oh, man. These people are dangerous and angry and look for demagogues that border on fascism. They know what its like to have abundant leisure; income and wealth; and self-actualization.

This phenomenon is not going away anytime soon because it is a product of worsening economic inequality. Political Scientist Inglehart, in the recently released Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs makes this point while discussing the lack of support for redistribution:

Globalization and deindustrialization undermined the strength of unions. And the information revolution helped establish a winner-take-all economy. Together these eroded the political base for redistributive policies.” [Link]

What will the Trump of 2020 or 2024 look like if whoever wins the 2016 election doesn’t address worsening inequality?