20 Books of Summer: Richistan by Robert Frank

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, even though I live in a rural area, I’m blessed by having not one, not two, but three surprisingly good public libraries all within a short drive. Like any good library, they’ve exposed me to books I’d might never have discovered had I not spent many a Saturday morning wandering about their shelves. One such book is Robert Frank’s Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. Every weekend for close to two years I’d see Frank’s 2007 book sitting on the shelf before a few weeks ago I finally decided to borrow it. I leisurely made my way through Richistan and upon finishing it concluded on one hand it’s one of those books that won’t make my year-end best list. But on the other hand, it’s one of those decently written, well researched pieces of investigative nonfiction that delivers the goods by serving up a detailed and intimate look at America’s superrich.

These are are not your grandfather’s superrich. Instead of an endless parade of robber barons and blue blood aristocrats in Richistan introduces us a mulitude of highly wealthy indivuals, most of them newly minted. According to Frank, as the world becomes more globalized it creates new oppportunities for financiers, hedge fund managers and the like to create unprecendented wealth. (Governmant deregulation, for good or for bad, both at home and abroad also helps.) Technologically speaking, those who are clever and lucky enough to build a better mouse trap in the Internet driven, high tech dominated world can profit handsomely through not only their inventions, but also if they’re able to start a company, orchestrate an IPO and then at the end sell out to the highest bidder.  As a result, the world has never seen so many recently created superrich.

And in many ways it’s changing America. Thanks to the exploding population of superrich there’s a huge demand for household staff to not just cook and serve meals but also pay bills, coordinate family outings and oversee support personnel like gardeners, maintenance people and tutors. Demand is so great there’s now a “butler school” in Denver run by a former military officer who spent years as a personal aid to high ranking Army generals. There’s also support groups modeled after the 12 step variety where the anxious wealthy can come together and commiserate about ungrateful children, underperforming finacial ventures and mid-life crises. For the young adults of the superwealthy there’s even seminars to help them handle everything from freeloading “friends” to prenuptial agreements.

Just as I mentioned at the onset, these aren’t your grandfather’s fat cat idle rich. Many are relatively young and not by any stretch politically conservative. Over a decade ago, four of them in Colorado set out to dethrown the state’s ruling Republican party and were ulitmately successful after a cascade of electoral victories.  Many are big Democratic Pary doners and a number are philanthropically active, giving generously in hopes of fighting poverty and disease throughout the world.

Again, this book won’t make my year-end best list. Heck, it probably won’t even earn an honorable mention. But I can say without reservation it’s a decent book. And that my friends is always a good thing.

A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.


The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Ever go in search of particular book and instead end up buying something else? I once went to a bookstore to buy a copy of Hans Zinnser’s 1934 classic Rats, Lice and History and came home with William McNeill’s just as classic Plagues and Peoples. (Since McNeill’s book went on to be one of my favorites of all time I never doubted once I chose the right book). Recently, my book club chose Colin Renfrew’s Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind as our monthly selection. I was all set to read it but after reading the book’s reviews and reader comments on Amazon I was less than excited. What did excite me was the available selection of Kindle format Modern Library Chronicles for only $2.99. While they all looked like great deals one particular title caught my eye. Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin looked quite promising. So for less than the price of a pint of good beer, I bought it. And just like years ago when I choose Plagues and Peoples over Rats, Lice and History I have no regrets.

Published in 2009, Uncivil Society is part of the Modern Library Chronicles. It’s a series of compact but nevertheless informative books, probably crafted for introductory and/or supplementary purposes. Over the years I’ve read at two least books from series, namely Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History and Milton Viorst’s Storm from the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West. Both were decent and left me wanting to read others from the series.

In Uncivil Society, Kotkin (with help from Jan Gross) tries to explain not just why the Communist nations of Eastern Europe collapsed, but why it happened so quickly. (Kotkin uses the term “bank run” to describe this rapid implosion.) By looking at the last few decades leading up to the fall of Communism in Poland, East Germany and Romania, according to Kotkin several factors caused the demise of the old Eastern Block. One was those countries’ inability to economically compete the not only with the capitalist nations of Europe and North America, but also the upstart Asian economies of South Korea and Taiwan. Unable to provide their citizens with consumer goods without borrowing money from the West, they soon found themselves drowning in debt with nothing valuable to export. As things started to spiral out of control Gorbachev refused to prop-up the failing regimes. By then it was over for the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Since I’ve had pretty good luck with three different books from the Modern Library Chronicles, I wouldn’t mind exploring a few others. Michael Sturmer’s The German Empire: A Short History, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution: A History, Richard Bessel’s Nazism and War and Robert S. Wistrich’s Hitler and the Holocaust all look promising. All economically priced and easily available through Amazon, I have a feeling I’ll be reading more from the Modern Library Chronicles.

Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your BrainAfter years, no, make that decades of reading books I finally did it. I joined a book club. You would think with all the reading I do that at some point in my life I would have been in at least one book club, even for the briefest period of time. The truth is, I’ve always wanted to be in one, but I just never got around to doing it. But thanks to the magic of Meet Up, I recently joined the Badass Book Club PDX. And my first book with this group: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. Last month, about eight of us sat down over pints of beer at a local watering hole and talked about Levitt and Dubner’s newest book.

Published in May of this year, Think Like a Freak marks the third collaboration between Levitt and Dubner of Freakonmics fame. (Their second book, SuperFreakonomics I reviewed back in 2011.) Instead presenting a collection of interesting case studies like they did with their previous two books, this time around the authors have written a kind of “how to” book for us lowly mortals on how to solve life’s problems by disregarding long-held assumptions, popular opinions and conventional logic. Instead, we are encouraged to look at these challenges from radically new perspectives: fresh and inquisitive like a child, open and non-judgmental thanks to a suspended personal moral compass and lastly, with the knowledge that all of us respond in some way or another to incentives.  Interestingly enough, in much the same way I felt about SuperFreakonomics, there are things my new book club liked about Think Like a Freak, and things we didn’t.

Let’s start with the things we liked. To varying degrees we found the book interesting and definitely worth talking about. Think Like a Freak is very readable and at times even entertaining. With a business book kind of feel about it, Think Like a Freak should lend itself well for practical application. Generally, we liked the many examples and case studies discussed throughout the book. We also found the footnotes incredibly rich.

As for the negative, more than a few book club participants thought the book was a bit superficial and lacking in hard analysis. Just has many critics have accused Malcolm Gladwell of cherry picking his supporting evidence in order to make his claims, so also did several book club participants accuse the authors of Think Like a Freak of doing much the same. Lastly, two participants felt a bit cheated after buying the book because according to them, a lot of the stuff covered in Think Like a Freak is also available for free via podcasts on the Freakonomics website.

Looking back, I’m glad I joined this book club. It’s fun to talk about a book we’ve all read, not to mention hearing everyone’s opinions. The next book I’ll be reading for this group is Steven Pinker’s 2002 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So look for a review of that much-talked about book in about a month or two. Can’t wait to hear what my new book club friends have to say about this one.

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

We hear all the time about “failed states.” Usually located in somewhere in the developing world, these national basket cases tend to share a common set of attributes: endemic corruption, political instability, widespread poverty, high unemployment, gun violence, population outflow and economic dependence on one particular manufactured product, cash crop or extractive industry (crude oil, copper, rare earth minerals, etc.). But are there also cities that possess these same unenviable qualities? After reading Charlie LeDuff’s 2013 book Detroit: An America Autopsy I can tell you without any doubt that yes, there are. Sadly, the city LeDuff writes about it is not in Somalia, Haiti or Afghanistan. It’s Detroit, located right here in the good old USA.

LeDuff’s book had been on my radar since the end of last year, after several book bloggers mentioned it during the Nonfiction November Project. When I saw a copy on display at my public library I grabbed it, hoping it would live up to my expectations. Holy cow, it sure did – and then some. Detroit: An American Autopsy is an extremely gritty, uncompromising and unforgiving look at America’s biggest failed city. It’s a city where mayors wind up in prison, arson is a spectator sport, police doctor crime stats to hide the true murder rate, 1 in 30 residents are homeless, 40 per cent of the city is vacant and 911 response times can run two hours. For over a century Detroit depended on the American auto industry, but thanks to executive mismanagement, inflexible unions and foreign competition the city’s vibrant economic engine is a shadow of its former self. Instead the new growth industries are drug dealing, graft, public assistance, arson and illegally harvesting scrap metal.

LeDuff, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, is no stranger to the mean streets of Detroit. Not only did he grow up there, but his sister, also a Detroit resident, was heavily involved in drugs and died a violent death. His brother, another city resident, lost his job and then later his home due to foreclosure (sadly fitting because Detroit is also America’s foreclosure capital). Detroit is LeDuff’s city, he knows it well and as a result he throws himself head-first into his book. His mission to show the world the true face of Detroit is passionate, reckless and tenacious. (Kim, from Sophisticated Dorkiness, in her brief but excellent review mentioned LeDuff’s utilizing the “gonzo” style of journalism in writing his book. Considering Detroit is such a train wreck, I’m guessing LeDuff knew what he was doing.)

This is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. Don’t be surprised if it makes my Best Nonfiction List for 2014. Highly recommended.

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore

Sometimes it takes me a long time to review a book. The reasons tend to be as varied as the books I read. Sometimes, I enjoyed the book so much it’s hard for me to articulate all the positive things I wanna say. Other times, I can’t motivate myself to write about a book I that left me disappointed. Then there are times when other writing projects took priority and pushed things aside. Lastly, there are times when I just procrastinate. When it came to writing my little review of Al Gore’s The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, this was a classic case of procrastination. But enough excuses! On to Gore’s book.

This isn’t the first book by Al Gore I’ve featured on this blog. Mere months after I made to move to WordPress, I wrote about Gore’s 2007 book The Assault on Reason. Whereas The Assault on Reason was a modest little manifesto of around 300 pages, The Future is an expansive, content-heavy tome and roughly double the page size of his 2007 book. It’s ambitious, detailed and covers a heck of a lot of ground. It can also be a bit overwhelming. But that’s OK. Considering what the future might hold for all of us, maybe it’s only fitting one could be a bit overwhelmed.

In order to forecast the future, Gore has identified six emerging “drivers” that will shape the our world’s destiny. They are:

  1. A hyper connected global economy
  2. The dominance of robotics, artificial intelligence and nimble, cheap, decentralized forms of production like 3-D printers
  3. A planet-wide power shift from not just West to East, but also from nation-states to nonstate actors
  4. Rising population growth and resource consumption leading to pollution, climate change and ecological destruction
  5. The growing ability to manipulate lifeforms, alter DNA and even create new forms of life
  6. A new understanding of humankind’s ongoing relationship with the global ecosystem

Like I said, this book covers a lot of ground and there’s a ton of information. In places it reads like something from a think tank or policy institute. But that’s OK. If you can make it through this book you’ll have a pretty good handle on where we might be going. And how best to prepare for it.

If I were advising a candidate for public office I’d tell that individual to read this book. (Of course, I’d recommend other books too. Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty-First Century would be the first one. From there I’d suggest The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been….and Where We’re Goingand The Next 100 years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, both by George Friedman. Topping it all off, I’d also recommend Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Let’s face it, with me as your political adviser, you’re going to read a lot of stuff!) While no one’s crystal ball is 100 percent accurate, Gore’s looks quite impressive. And therefore worth the read.

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Last year, as part of the European Reading Challenge I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring since the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s fictional account of a young woman’s encounter with Dutch painter Vermeer is Holland. This time around, for the European Reading Challenge I’ve selected another book in which Holland, and especially Vermeer takes center stage. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is yet another one of those books I kept seeing on the self at the library yet never grabbed. However, last week or so I finally grabbed it. After finishing after a series of fits and starts I asked myself if I liked it. Honestly, I’m really not sure. 

According to Brook, what we now call globalization, began clear back in the seventeenth century. International trade, consumption of foreign goods, sweeping cultural shifts and global conflict began to accelerate at an unprecedented rate during Vermeer’s lifetime.  In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook breaks down several of Vermeer’s paintings, in addition to two other pieces of art not by Vermeer but from that era to illustrate his points. For instance, the officer depicted in the painting Officer and Laughing Girl wears a stylish beaver pelt hat, signifying not only the growing wealth of Holland’s merchant class but also the lucrative beaver trade in North America. To Brook, the young woman in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is quite possibly reading a letter from male relative, spouse or similar loved one who’s off seeking his fortune overseas with an entity like the Dutch East India Company. The globe shown front and center in The Astronomer epitomizes an expansive and rapidly unfolding world, much in the way the anchored ship in View of Delft is evidence of Holland’s growing participation in international trade.

By using examples from the art world to trace the evolution of early globalism, Brook has taken on an ambitious project. While it looks like some readers have compared Vermeer’s Hat to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses to me it reminded me a lot of John E. Wills’s 1688: A Global History and David Fromkin’s The Way of the World. But in the end, I’m not sure this ambitious project completely satisfied me. Sometimes I found Vermeer’s Hat a bit dry for my taste. Who knows, maybe I was just expecting too much. At least I received a nice history lesson. Can’t go wrong with that.

Reading the Renaissance: The Renaissance from Greenhaven Press

Just as Monty Python began each episode of their Flying Circus by proclaiming, “and now for something completely different”, it’s now my turn to bring you something a little different. As a kind of spin-off of my Farewell to the 15th Century series, over the next few months or so I hope to review a series of books on the Renaissance. The first book to featured as part of this new series is simply titled The Renaissance and was published back in 2002 by Greenhaven Press as part of its World History by Era collection. Produced mainly for public libraries as well as for upper-division high school and lower-division college readers, over the years I’ve had pretty good luck with Greenhaven’s books, specifically their Current Controversies and Opposing Viewpoints series. So I guess it’s not too surprising that when I came across Greenhaven’s The Renaissance during one of my library visits I snatched it up. But even as I did, I had a feeling the book would not overwhelm me with greatness. Later, upon finishing it my suspicions would be confirmed.

The Renaissance is one of those books that’s not great, but not lousy either. Like all books from Greenhaven, it’s a collection of pieces taken from other sources and in this particular case most of the selected material originally appeared in other history books. Understanding that original source material is vital to the study of history, editor Jeff Hay elected to include selections from Niccolo Machiavelli, Hernan Cortes, Leonardo da Vinci and Francis Bacon. Looking at all the material presented in this volume, while nothing makes for fascinating reading, on the other hand nothing comes off as being completely awful either.

I think the best thing about this book is its scope. Instead of restricting the book’s focus solely to the Italian Renaissance, there are chapters devoted to developments in India, China, Japan, the Americas and Africa. There’s also material covering the Age of Discovery and the Reformation, in addition to the rise of printing and as well as the trade in slaves and sugar. After reading The Renaissance, one gets the notion that this was a pivotal era when it came to European dominance. It’s centralized nation-states would eventually go on to re-shape the world thanks in no small part to German printing, Italian political theory, Iberian naval prowess and Dutch and English commerce.

Adventures in Economics: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

One of the many giveaways I received at this year’s BEA was a complimentary copy of the New York Review of Books which featured a review by Jared Diamond of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Published in 2012, it’s the latest in a line of what I call “big picture” kind of books: attempts by historians, economists, scientists and the like to explain why the world is the way it is. More specifically, by interpreting history and/or taking a particular scientific approach the authors of such books as Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture and God and Gold have tried to answer the often-asked question:why are some nations rich while some are poor? Therefore, taking all of that into account, I found it very hard to resist grabbing a copy of Why Nations Fail when I stumbled upon it during one of my weekend library visits.

By examining thousands of years of human history, Acemoglu and Robinson have concluded the that most prosperous nations are those able to produce institutions  leading to societies that allow and promote widespread economic participation, rewards for innovation and government accountability. To be successful, it’s vital that nations possess the right degree and quality of governance. Too much (North Korea) or too little (Somalia) or too corrupt (any number of developing nations)  and conditions will not be conducive for widespread and enduring economic success. If such a happy medium isn’t found then what success is achieved is usually just temporary (at one time Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries on earth, alas more) or wealth is concentrated in the coffers of a small group of elites, most frequently in cahoots with the state. The result is not just poverty and severe wealth inequity but also political instability and even civil war.

This is an impressive book both in depth and scope. While anyone attempting to explain why some nations are rich while some are poor will have his or her critics, I thought the book’s two authors did a fine job explaining their positions and supporting their arguments. Plus, I found it readable and engaging. This is arguably one of the best books I’ve read this year. Therefore, I highly recommend it.