Tag Archives: books

Top 5 Books of 2019

My favorite week of the year is #listweek. I love reading people’s lists of favorite books, music, articles/essays, and movies. Though I rarely watch movies, so you won’t likely find me making a list of them, I do read a lot. These are my favorite books of the year.

5. Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero (2019),
by Tyler Cowen (St. Martin’s Press)

Readers of Tyler Cowen know that his books tend to be quite different than what the title often suggests. This book, however, is Cowen’s most straight forward. In it, he defends big business and U.S. multinational corporations, which have always been a bain of existence for the left; and which have also come to face scathing criticism of some sectors of the right as of late, including from Senator Marco Rubio and Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson. In this populist age, Cowen found it the right time to take a close look at the largest players in the private sector to really see if in fact, they deserve the scorn they so often receive. Cowen admits in a podcast interview that readers could actually come away with divergent opinions about where to go from here: sure, the intuitive reading could be to leave these Goliaths alone, they are doing what we asked them too – lower prices, increasing quality, and following consumer demand. However, the counterintuitive could be “these companies because they are strong, could actually face greater regulation and still produce what we want.”

I recommend this book as a good introduction to Tyler. I’ve read many of his other works, one changed my life and my self-understanding (The Age of the Infovore), but this book is the easiest to follow; it’s an exciting read since it challenges so much of my priors. Readers of the left should read this. It’s also not a puppy dog love-letter; there are negative findings regarding some sectors of the private sector, including health care, for example. Health care faces “the single greatest market concentration issue in the U.S. today, and I think the critics are on the right track here,” Cowen writes (91). One creepy acknowledgment and a strange one coming from a libertarian-ish thinker is one that comes from the section where he talks about the coming Internet of Things when all our appliances will be connected to the Internet. He writes:

“When that rueful day comes, I’m going to be more careful about what I say, even in the confines of my own home. Perhaps especially in the confines of my own home, where it is going to be fairly clear who the main speaker is” (125). I will never be careful as to what I say in my own home.

Cowen actually sketches out a theory as to why we hate business the way we do: we personalize it; it’s human nature to do so, and we don’t think about comparing it’s successes and promises and achievements against other industries or people in our own lives. He writes that we should be far more worried about our family and friends lying to us and betraying us than these global Goliaths. A provocative (but not gratuitously so) and really fun read, actually.

4. Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age (2019),
by Bear F. Braumueller (Oxford University Press)

Bear F. Braumueller, at The Ohio State University wrote one of my favorite international relations (IR) books I’ve ever read. I’ve dug into the “decline of war” literature and found most of the quantitative works wanting, at best; and disingenuous and alarming at worst. This is a long, arduous and complicated debate but I can give a few sentences on the descriptive consensus. After two devastating world wars, interstate war has been declining; and in particular, interstate war has been declining and rapidly so since the end of the Cold War (1990-onwards). We are still plagued with intrastate war (civil wars) and terrorism, but not interstate war. The three big claims of the “decline of war” literature are that the rate of war initiation, the deadliness of war, and the conditions that are the most likely causes of war have all decreased in a systematic way. However, Professor Braumueller reassesses the data, and models that IR scholars use and his findings and techniques deserve serious attention.

The professor finds these three above claims as largely, though not entirely, baseless. He does so, with a team of researchers, by replicating many “decline of war” quantitative papers from the top journals from the last decade. His three most salient points are as follows. First, there is no “general downward trend in the incidence of the deadliness of warfare.” Much of the decline of the deadliness of war comes from the decision to use the global population as the denominator which is stupendously misleading, as it assumes that every person on earth has an equal chance of dying in any war, regardless of location. This is the formulation that Pinker (2011; 2018) uses, for example. Second, at least until the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Braumoeller shows using technique after technique, model after model, that since 1815 through the end of the Cold War, even if you take out the two world wars, the rate of initiation of war has actually quadrupled, or increased by four. So yes, interstate wars have been declining for maybe 30 years or so. But, we would need another century of no great wars between nation-states for this to actually become a trend. Finally, myriad factors have been discovered as causing war: geographical and land disputes; trade disputes, personality or psychological factors; regime-type; alliance commitments, and so forth. The findings show that some of the potency of some of the variables have declined while others have increased or showed no statistically significant pattern.

I could talk about this book all day long. My above summary only scratches the surface. The author gets into different world orders; finds that the deadliness of war follows a “power law”; and explicates why it’s a fallacy to assume the effect of a given variable is constant over time. This last point for IR students is important. As he notes, “students of international conflict who use statistical methods will probably be horrified by these results. They should be. Nearly all statistical studies of international conflict use methods that assume the effect of a given variable is constant over time. That assumption is so wrong, so often, that it should probably be considered incorrect unless proven otherwise” (174).

This is a must-read for IR students, or for global politics nerds, in general.

3. Ways of War and Peace: Realism, Liberalism, and Socialism (1997),
by Michael W. Doyle (W.W. Norton)

I read this book over the summer leading up to my master’s exams. I can’t quite remember what sparked me to finally read this book but I was absolutely blown away at is comprehensive and learned understanding of international relations. IR textbooks are actually quite good; however, I’ve read no better book that encapsulates that state of the field’s leading theoretical contributions than this book, released over 20 years ago. It also acts as a compendium of resources; it has extensive footnotes and a great bibliography. The next time I have a student come into my office asking for an international relations book recommendation (last time I recommended A World in Disarray (2017) by Richard Haass) it will be this book.

As a professor, I anticipate pulling from this book quite frequently. Textbooks mention classic thinkers like Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and Kant, for example; Doyle actually summarizes quite succinctly and uses passages from the above thinkers in smart ways to expose the context of the arguments.

This book is great and will be an indispensable resource for decades to come.

2. A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, by Adam Gopnik (Basic Books)

Last year I read Why Liberalism Failed (2017) by Patrick Deenen and it became my favorite contemporary work of political philosophy. This year Adam Gopnik’s beautifully written exploration of what exactly liberalism is, easily became my new favorite contemporary work making an explicit argument for liberalism. As readers of The New Yorker know Gopnik is an exquisitely beautiful writer. This book illustrates that.

The style of the book is twofold. It first opens with Gopnik telling the reader that while on a walk with his daughter in the early morning hours after Trump won the US presidency in 2016, he was struck that he wasn’t able to articulate the importance of liberal democracy. He then realized he had a book to write; first to his daughter, Olivia; then to all of us. So throughout the book Gopnik speaks to Olivia. Second, Gopnik directly and earnestly engages in the best arguments against liberalism (ch. 2: Why the Right Hates Liberalism; ch. 3: Why the Left Hates Liberalism). This method allows Gopnik to make his argument in favor of liberalism that much stronger.

What is liberalism? It is “the most singular spiritual episode in all of human history,” Gopnik muses (18). Ok, more on that in a minute. What else is it? “ Liberalism is an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate” (23-24). This is a somewhat dry definition but it is what Gopnik does to bring this idea, value-system, discovery to life that gives this book its beauty and power. Later Gopnik argues that “liberalism isn’t a political theory applied to life. It’s what we know about life applied to a political theory” (238). I find this aphorism true.

For thousands of years, we have tried to understand what makes a human being well…a human being. We are a higher-order mammal with transcendental dreams and experiences. We are an evolved species that has been incredibly successful because we create and spread culture; we are capable of absolute beauty, innovation, and amazing levels of cooperation; yet are also capable of absolute tyranny, destruction, and zero-sum competition. The social-political system that best allows us to keep discovering what we really are, psychologically, artistically, biologically, spiritually, interpersonally and so forth, is a liberal one. “The special virtue of freedom is not that it makes you richer and more powerful but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive,” writes Gopnik (238).

Liberal values include skepticism, constant inquiry, fallibilism, and self-doubt. These values actually produce the space for richer non-material, inner and outer lives. This brings us back to claim that liberalism is a spiritual endeavor. How so? “All of these consequences of these values seem ‘merely’ material, but they are what enable us to live a richer life, accept our mortality, and find the path to unselfish attainment. They allow us to pass on a better world to our children—to spend every day with better music, more poetry, better food, better wine grown in more places. To make love with whom we want instead of with whom we’re ordered. These are positive values. And to those who don’t find them satisfying we say: go, choose your own” (231-232). Beautiful. A commitment to pluralism is the glue here.

This book is a reminder to not take the civilization we have for granted. Like Carl Sagan said about science working so well that it allows us to underappreciate and to take for granted the modern application of science allowing us to live happy, comfortable lives, by way of indoor plumbing, electricity, indoor heating and cooling, 24/7 wifi Internet, and the internal combustion engine; liberalism and liberal political systems allow us to discover who and what we are; it allows us the space necessary to adapt, make mistakes, build families of our choosing (or not). The time is now for these reminders.

Gopnik’s book A Thousand Small Sanities is one of my favorites of the year and of all time.

1. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019), by Daniel Immerwahr (Macmillan)

This book is my favorite of the year; it’s one of those books that you can randomly read a sentence, or paragraph, and think about or discuss in context or out of context for hours.

This is a remarkable history of what Immerwahr calls “the Greater United States,” the parts of the U.S. that are obscured and obfuscated about: the fact that for nearly half of century, the U.S. occupied, controlled, and in its own idiosyncratic way, was a colonial, imperial power over. This is a history of how the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, Wake, the Bikini Atoll, Guam and so many more territories (94 islands in the Caribbean alone, mostly to mine guano), including now states Hawai’i and Alaska (established in 1959). Including occupied countries after World War II (WWII), “the Greater United States included some 135 million people living outside the mainland” (17). More than 12.5% of the Greater U.S. population leading up to WWII was outside the states, which is a larger percentage than black Americans. The historian notes this not to compare lives and repressions, but to illustrate this massive part of the Greater United States that most U.S. citizens know nothing or very little about.

Some of these colonies/territories fought long battles to become independent (Philippines, became independent from the U.S. in 1946; the Panama Canal Zone in 1979). Others, such as Puerto Ricans, U.S. Virgin Islanders, Guamanians, American Samoans are considered citizens but only by statutory; this status can be revoked. These “unincorporated territories” or commonwealths are treated unequally and the people are treated as second-class citizens with partial rights and representation. Peurto Rican “citizens” can vote in primary elections but not in general elections, for example; Medicaid on the island is less generous but facilities must meet the same standards of care as the mainland, for another example (US News 2018).

This book is lively with larger-than-life characters and inventions all used as examples to show just how you hide an empire. Some territories were used as “zones of experimentation” (2019, 158). Take Cornelius P. Rhoads, who made the cover of TIME in 1949. As we know, TIME often features stories on important people, even if they are notorious or despicable figures. Rhoads is not often used as such an illustration. He should be.

Rhoads, trained at Harvard, was a physician who was deeply racist. Through the Rockefeller Anemia Commission, he experimented on Puerto Ricans, without them knowing; giving some treatment for anemia, while letting others suffer, for example. He wrote in a letter that Peurto Ricans were “the most dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere,…they are even lower than Italians.” (TIME actually published this letter but omitted the above part). Rhoads was also the chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, a part of the U.S. Army founded during World War I. He was part of the team that implemented “jungle tests,” experiments with chemical weapons (293). Rhoads was indeed a prominent and leading cancer researcher and his reputation on the mainland was high. To Peurto Ricans, he was a villain. Immerwahr highlights that the American Association for Cancer Research gave a reward for over 20 years named after Rhoads. How so? A hidden empire is an answer. The donor who gave the award had no clue of Rhoads’ history in Peurto Rico until a biologist from the University of Peurto Rico filed a complaint.

There are fascinating chapters on guano and guano mining (ch. 3), the hundreds of military bases the U.S. has around the world (ch. 21), and how the synthetic revolution (in rubber, fertilizer) and globalization (international weights and measurement standards) helped the U.S. liquidate its holdings and to shed overseas territories (chs. 16, 17, 18). Immerwahr explores the spread of English and the red octagon stop sign as forms of U.S. soft power. This book has everything. He explores the origin stories of Gojira/Godzilla, the James Bond movie franchise, the Beatles and so much more – and how so much of popular culture was inspired by and/or constituted directly from the expanding U.S. influence.

How to Hide an Empire (2019) is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Period.


To Make a Virtue of Necessity: A Review of Melting Pot or Civil War?

Reihan Salam, a wonky conservative columnist and all-around interesting person, wrote a bracing, emotional, personal, and far-sighted new book called Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (2018, Sentinel). He admits that just a few years ago he found his views on immigration pedestrian and mostly aligned with the immigration activists. After a few years of research, he says he is more aligned with those, like President Trump, who think America should be more, not less, selective regarding immigration. This book is part-memoir, part economic and sociology literature review, and part-policy prescription; it is well written, nuanced, and generous. We need more books like this about disparate subjects as soon as possible.

Early on in the book, Salam makes the case that we need to forge a new “middle class melting pot,” that minimizes what he calls “between group inequality” (26). Salam is apt to highlight that the current immigration system is “increasing both the number and the share of children being raised in low-income households,” and that “today’s poor immigrants are raising tomorrow’s poor natives” (25), which should worry anyone who cares about the future of a united nation, one that actualizes the “melting mot” mythos of American identity. The data presented by Salam to substantiate his descriptive claims is numerous, and are from sociology, political science, and economics, among other fields.

The question that Salam took on was: How do we make sure we make an integrated America, that precludes racialization and ethnically Balkanized areas of existence? This is where Salam’s idiosyncratic mind comes in, one that is largely conservative but not entirely. In short, he thinks we need to limit low-skill immigration, at least for a time (this is Salam’s hedge); he claims that “a more selective, skills-based immigration system would yield a more egalitarian economy, in which machines do the dirty work and workers enjoy middle-class stability. And a more egalitarian economy would help heal our country’s ethnic divides” (28). But, in the pen-ultimate chapter of the book, he couples this more right-of-center idea with “offering amnesty to the long-resident unauthorized population, and fighting the intergenerational transmission of poverty” (157) sure to satisfy his left-of-center readers. I will get to the details of his package of proposals down below.

In a relatively short book (excluding notes, this book runs a crisp 184 pages), Salam is ambitious, far-reaching and explains complicated ideas simply, yet in a way that respects his reader and that does not engage in simple binary thinking. In chapter two Salam briefly describes the existing immigration systems operative in the world: mongenerational, the Qatari model; multigenerational, the US model; and a hybrid model like those seen in Canada, Australia, and Singapore (60).  By doing so, he really focuses the reader to understand the range of alternatives: utopia doesn’t exist, and, we have to choose something (though the status-quo has largely remained the same because of a lack of choosing; almost no one thinks that the status-quo is sustainable, however). So, what are we going to choose? Salam’s choice is not a limitation on the number of immigrants America takes in, but a shift in which migrants we take in. His proposals assume that a multigenerational model is surely the American model of the future.

He has a chapter focused on the intersection between immigration and group identity, and it he portends a possibly dark future since assimilation is differentiated by groups. He introduces the concepts of amalgamation and racialization here. When immigrants effectively assimilate, they join the “melting-pot mainstream,” and become an example of successful amalgamation, or the process of becoming “mainstream American” where ethnic differences become insignificant. When the opposite occurs, ethnic segregation emerges, producing racialized enclaves or ghettos. Both of these realities exist in America. Salam argues that on our current trajectory, the later path is increasingly likely to become reality for second- and third-generation immigrant families. Why does this matter? Because the type of immigration that makes the ethnic enclave life more likely is the family-based system, the one that Salam thinks we should curtail; and because social science research is pessimistic about what happens when ethnic tribalism rises to the surface and becomes political tribalism.

Offshore caregiving
Salam understands that if America did, in fact, decrease low-skill immigration that the source country could be worse off. Salam proposes ambitious solutions here: allow retiring Americans to access Medicare in Mexico, for example. This would create more low-skill jobs in Mexico, staunching the need for Mexicans to move abroad. Salam points out that we will have to get creative to adequately deal with a population that is getting older, sicker, and who are increasingly without kin (137). Salam proposes we shift some of our counternarcotics and counter-human trafficking budget to help develop poorer regions in Mexico (and Central America). Moreover, we should help subsidize Mexico’s efforts (already underway and successful enough) to “halt migrants long before they reach” the America-Mexico border. I like this idea and have nothing substantial to really say about the idea as a concept. Political contingencies always come to mind, and social security politics deserves a blog post of its own.

Creating Megacities
Salam believes that “our long-term objective should be to help all countries achieve broad-based prosperity,” because there is no way that America, or Europe, or countries such as China or South Korea, will be able to accommodate the hundreds of millions of people coming of age who will need work and fulfilling lives. So what does he propose? This, too, is where his idiosyncratic and curious mind shows off: the creation of new cities out of cloth. Call it “conservatism for those who read The Economist,” if you will. However, this is not a new idea, as Salam acknowledges: the world has already created “charter cities,” such as the successful example in China of Shenzhen, which turned a fishing backwater into a “teeming entrepreneurial metropolis of ten million” in just over three decades (144). Also see Paul Romer’s “charter cities,” TED Talk. The reason this idea is less pie in the sky then it seems is that the alternatives are far worse, and that the need is there. We have no choice argues Salam. We should strive to create “dozens of Shenzhens” (151). This is similar to Paul Romer’s idea to create “100 Hong Kongs.” However, Hong Kong was created after two wars, an imperial reign by the British, and has a symbiotic (deep financial integration) and contentious (remember the Umbrella Movement; this will flare up again) relationship with China to this day.

Another weakness of this “charter city” idea is he does not address how the creation of megacities could happen. If the goal is to create better governance, we must do it where people live right now; how to do this is contested. China carefully turned Shenzhen into what it is now, backed by the heavy hand of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and is home to visionary and successful (and heavily subsidized) companies such as Huawei. Even as a concept, the idea of “charter cities,” is underdeveloped, according to Kee-Cheok Cheong and Kim-Leng Goh, in an article for the international journal of urban policy Citites. I would have loved if Salam got more into this debate since it’s the most interesting part of his proposal. I’ve written an essay on what the future looks like for migrants and it’s mind-blowingly complicated, and requires multilateralism at its finest.

Salam digs into his syncretic proposal in the penultimate chapter. His goal is ambitious: how to reconcile those who are aligned with the Dreamers with those who sympathize more with the so-called “angel moms,” or parents of children who were killed by unauthorized immigrants (and often those who have committed earlier crimes who were not deported, or who were deported but returned). How so? First, “large-scale amnesty followed by resolute enforcement” (164). This entails support for DACA and Dreamers coupled with a verifiable and enforced E-Verify program. Fair enough; this is a popular idea.

Finally, Salam supports increasing the very successful Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a “universal child benefit” (177). He does not go into details of what this would do to already existing child programs such as the Child Tax Credit (CTC) except as to say that his proposal would help the 25% of families who have children who do not receive any tax subsidies or food stamps and hurt the “nearly poor families” (178). Before I endorse such a program, I’d have to see more details.

I would support paring back some mortgage tax reduction programs that the upper-middle class receive, highlighted brilliantly by Derek Thompson and Suzanne Mettler.  Many believe that the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (HMID) benefits the middle class but it mostly benefits the rich: three-quarters of the benefits accrue to the top 20% of households, those who make around $130,000 a year (Brookings 2017). Depending on how we reform the deduction, revenues could increase by as high as $60 billion per year, which could help support Salam’s proposals and also shore up existing programs such as the CTC. A melting pot requires stirring lest it curdles.

This is a burst of a book; a book that makes you think, and that was written in all earnestness. What should America do about immigration? What should America do about global income equality? What is the balance between humanitarian concerns and concern for second-generation immigrants in your own country? What about the lives of ninth-generation natives or immigrants? None of this is binary, Red or Blue.

I applaud Salam for this effort.


My Favorite Books I Read in 2018

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.

(1) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress was my favorite book of the year. Pinker provides nearly 70 graphs, all (with a few exceptions) in a unilinear direction of progress. Humanity has decreased poverty, rates of child neglect/abuse and undernourishment, child labor; increased literacy rates, leisure time, real GDP per capita, and IQ gains, for example. There are lots to chew over in this book; and Pinker is not all sanguine, contrary to many critical book reviews. He notes potential existential threats on the horizon that could jeopardize these positive, and global, trends: he has a chapter dedicated to nuclear weapons, climate change, and cyber/AI threats.

The most interesting and important parts of this book are the subtle, nuanced explanations regarding why our brains are programmed to be pessimistic; fooled by random, and rare events; And in a similar vein, why journalism has an “if it bleeds, it leads” ethic. The people who won’t read this book, need it the most.

EDIT: I decided that my workload this semester is too much to write a longer blog post on what I loved so much about Enlightenment Now. I added the above paragraphs after initially titling this post as “part one,” promising to write a separate blog about Pinker. Maybe sometime I will, but not now. 

2015: My Favorite Books

I read a lot of books this year; most were not released this year. What follows is my favorite books I’ve read that were released this year. I should point out that I almost never read novels; I prefer non-fiction. Though I do read all genres of non-fiction, I didn’t get to many other releases from this year that weren’t political science oriented. [I will include a link to a review of each book that I found insightful even if I don’t agree with ’em.]

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
By Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Simon & Schuster. [Review/NYT]

I defy anyone to read this book and to not come away more confused and conflicted about Syria/Iraq. I write that as a compliment: Weiss and Hassan paint a complex and gray picture that is like reality which is deeply gray. To understand the rise of ISIS you have to understand de-baathification, shia/sunni divide, prison radicalization, occupation, conspiracies, Middle East history, and human frailty and persuasion.  These two illuminate what is going on and it is bleak: ISIS will be with us for awhile; so will the fight against ISIS. I recommend this book to every American who wants to understand the world a little more.

Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy
By Jonathan Rauch. Brookings Institution. [Review/the Wall Street Journal]

I have been looking for a book like this and I didn’t even know it. Astute and objective observers of contemporary politics in America are confronted with an ugly truth: the rise of amateurism and the complete annihilation of trust regarding the establishment. Rauch argues, forcefully and profoundly that this is bad for democracy by highlighting how politics actually work instead of how we, the populace, continue to think they work. I loved this short study.

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone
By Scott Shane. Tim Duggan books. [Review/Lawfare]

This was my favorite read of the year because it is literally 100% exactly what I have been considering and thinking about and wanting to understand for the last couple of years. Dirty Wars came out and it was revelatory about the drone usage of Obama. Shane delineates just how the Obama administration legally considered using a drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who flew to Yemen. This fascinating account of how an all-American boy like Awlaki became, effectively, the number 1 enemy of the state. I can’t imagine a more detailed and considered account of Awlaki, the rise of drones, and the inner workings of the Obama admin then this book.

Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted
By Ian Millhiser. Nation books. [Review/Slate]

I read this one early in the year to compliment my formal class i was taken regarding SCOTUS. This book was deeply depressing; historically focused; and elegantly written. I read this book rather quickly because it was full of information that was so gripping. The main thesis: SCOTUS has consistently and rather blatantly ruled against equality of people; and the worker/labor movement. The Court is deeply partisan, political, and although punctuated by eras of true progressivism, has been handing out constitutional interpretations that have been mostly aligned with the ruling elites of the time. A couple of words doesn’t do this book justice: read it to understand the fight that the American people have always had to engage in regarding everything from the minimum wage to housing and legal and safe abortion.

The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House
By Thomas Schaller. Yale University Press. [Review/PublishersWeekly]

This book was released in January and I read it after listening to a fascinating interview of Schaller by Sam Seder on The Majority Report. Schaller through analyzing electoral histroy, demographics, and interviewing political insiders and operatives, comes to the conclusion that the GOP has basically become a Congressional party, in general, and a House-centric party, in particular. By focus testing candidates to win in more conservative state races, this has crippled the GOPs chances of taking back the White House. The catch here, if you will, is that Schaller now sees this as intentional in some ways. A party that just wants to block and weaken government, doesn’t care if they don’t take back the White House; they want to block legislation and make things run even worse than they do. A revealing insight into, effectively, the only major political party in the world that denies climate change.