March 18, 2013

Books & Reviews

Reflections on Teju Cole’s Open City

February 21, 2013 by

Open City
by Teju ColeAnyone interested in the world, or for that matter, an affection for the greatest of modern cities—New York—will find Teju Cole’s Open City, a feast for both mind and heart. He writes with exquisite discernment about almost everything under the sun, from the details of church architecture to reflections on the lingering impacts of the 9/11 attacks on the urban mood in Manhattan to his childhood memories of Nigeria.

Open City is presented as a work of fiction, a novel, but its real interest is not in the story line, or even in the characters as presented by the narrator, which has an autobiographical feel, although this could be an accomplishment of this writer’s craft and imaginative skill, rather than what it seems to be, a disguised replication of the author’s search for meaning and moorings in the world at large, as well as a rich depository of remarkably astute observations on an extraordinary range of interesting topics. Cole in Open City delivers a master class in everyday awareness continuously transforming the ordinary experience of the non-heroic narrative voice into a quite extraordinary immersion in the lifeworld of the city.

This is a story of what I would call voluntary displacement, somewhat reminiscent of Edward Said’s partial memoir, Out of Place. Both of these gifted and multi-talented men chose to live as expatriates but without losing their attachment to their home country. There are also some dramatic differences, as well. Said became passionate about his Palestinian identity, a badge of honor for him, and the focus of his concerns in the final decades of his life, while Julius the fictionalized ‘I’ of Cole’s narrator is totally preoccupied with his private feelings, perceptions, and experience, noting public concerns, but avoiding engagement by deliberately adopting a modulated apolitical stance. Said as a high profile Palestinian in America in this period almost ensured that he would find himself embattled, which he was, especially as a professor at Columbia University who spoke out in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.


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Reality Economics: Review of the Economists and the Powerful

December 20, 2012 by

Economists and the Powerful
by Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” And if they would destroy economies, they first create a wealthy class on top, and let human nature do the rest. The acquisition of power soon leads to its abuse, to economic and social hubris. By seeking to protect its gains, perpetuate itself and make its wealth hereditary, power elites lock in their position in ways that exclude and injure those below. Turning government into an oligarchy, the wealthy indebt and shift the tax burden onto the less powerful.

It is an ancient tale. The Greeks got matters right in seeing how power leads to hubris, bringing about its own downfall. Hubris is the addiction to wealth and power, an arrogant over-reaching that involves injury to others. By impoverishing economies it destroys the source of profits, interest, capital gains, and even recovery of the original savings and debt principal.

This abusive character of wealth and power is not what mainstream economic models describe. That is why economic theory is broken. The concept of diminishing marginal utility implies that the rich will become more satiated as they become wealthier, and hence less addicted to power. This idea of progressive satiation returns gets the direction of change wrong, denying the basic thrust of the past ten thousand years of human technology and civilization.


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Review of Thomas P.M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map

December 3, 2012 by

The Pentagon’s New Map
by Thomas P.M. Barnett While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to study the theories and strategies involved in post-conflict reconstruction and security stabilization efforts throughout the world. As in all international relations courses, we delved into case studies and analyzed the successes and inadequacies found in the individual scenarios, and, as a student at a military college, the ones centering on America’s response to situations overseas elicited many fascinating, in-depth discussions on the Pentagon’s role in reconstruction efforts.

With topics focusing primarily on how to develop and implement security frameworks to not only end conflicts but also insure they do not arise, again, in the near-term, it seemed to me that the conversations focused primarily on short-term objectives, rather than the long-term dynamics important when implementing post-conflict stabilization efforts. We were not discussing how the US military could become more effectively involved in interagency and intergovernmental operations on the ground that would afford it the ability to assist in producing a viable infrastructure for national renewal.

I agreed with the strategies underpinning the US military’s security initiatives but felt the short-sighted policies failed to seize the opportunity to formally rebuild and, thus, integrate the war-torn nation into the global system. Why does the international community seem unwilling to acknowledge that short-term policies create nothing more than a revolving door for future foreign interventions? What needs to occur within the US military to formulate a new strategy that would assist in reinforcing modernization efforts in failing states, which would eventually lead to a more cohesive world community?


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Review of Theasa Tuohy’s The Five O’Clock Follies

November 24, 2012 by

The Five O’Clock Follies
by Theasa Tuohy Well, come on mothers throughout the land, Pack your boys off to Vietnam.  Come on fathers, don’t hesitate, Send ‘em off before it’s too late.  Be the first one on your block, To have your boy come home in a box.

And it’s one, two, threeWhat are we fighting for?  Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, Next stop is Vietnam.  And it’s five, six, seven, Open up the pearly gates, Well there ain’t no time to wonder why, Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

– I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die, Country Joe and the Fish

This isn’t the only song that sums up the Vietnam War but it’s one of the best sing alongs with its funny, yet despairing lyrics and catchy tune. Country Joe’s “recruiting” song is pitched to big strong young men, students, potential American soldiers, even though he can’t give them a good reason as to why they should be willing to die in Vietnam - in fact, as he says, “don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn.” He names the prime movers of the war and they are not patriots - they’re big defense contractors cranking out profitable weaponry to kill the Vietcong. Patriotism is the final refuge of the scoundrels here - the brute military patriotism that can’t wait to blow all the commies (slants, dinks, pick your crude moniker) to kingdom come. The pearly gates of Heaven are doing excellent business.

So what would a young, attractive, talented American woman be doing in this very male, testosterone ridden erratic terrifyingly violent environment? And in the 1960’s, which was a harbinger of change for women in many professional fields but perhaps less so in journalism. Journalism was relatively slow to welcome women (although one can mention 5 or 6 extraordinary women, predecessors of Five O’clock Follies’ heroine Angela Martinelli, including one woman who was paid the ultimate compliment: she had become one with the grunts). How may we, who can now turn on the tube and see scores of women correspondents, even on the battlefields, understand the magnitude of this barely fictionalized but very real woman’s accomplishments?


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The Social Economics of Thorstein Veblen

October 24, 2012 by

The Social Economics of Thorstein Veblen
by David Reisman Those who wish to understand the many and deep contributions of Thorstein Veblen to economics will find that this offering falls short of the mark. The title promises to treat the social policy content of Veblen’s economic thought. Describing the ways in which markets were being distorted by predatory finance and other special interests, Veblen was read by every socialist leader and most progressives in early and mid-20th century America.

Written in a popular sarcastic style, his books showed how the behavior of wealth and high finance was having perverse effects after World War I.  Instead of funding economic growth, Wall Street was becoming the protector of privilege and engaging in artful deception, distorting economies away from passing on the fruits of technology to populations in the form of rising living standards and falling costs of living and doing business. Mainstream economics was ripe with hypocrisy in saying (and even trying to demonstrate mathematically) that all this was for the best and depicting all wealth and income as being fairly earned.

This new mainstream emerged largely to counter the application of classical political economy by Progressive Era reformers advocating regulation, property taxation and other threats to the vested interests. The ideas of Simon Patten, John Commons and other institutionalists prompted a counter-reaction denying the classical concept of unearned income and wealth. Economics was decoupled from the reform process to justify the status quo – just the opposite policy of socialist regulation and progressive taxation. Given the force of this new mainstream, Veblen was obliged to fight largely a rear-guard battle showing its tunnel vision. It would take the New Deal renew Progressive Era reforms – and even this was done more on a purely pragmatic basis than in conjunction with economic theory.


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Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

August 2, 2012 by

Alexander Cockburn, shown in 1977. Associated Press via Los Angeles Times

“For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine…Follow’d in the bright procession to behold…Creation, and the wonders of his might.”

– Paradise Lost, John Milton

It was fitting that writer and critic Alexander Cockburn’s funeral should include a passage from Milton. For more than 50 years, Cockburn combined polished, erudite writing with fierce political insight in the tradition of the great 17thcentury English polemicist.  Alexander Cockburn died July 20 in Germany at age 71, following a two-year struggle with cancer. He was buried July 28 in his beloved Petrolia, Ca.

It is hard to sum up his career because it was catholic in true meaning of that word: all embracing. He wrote for newspapers in England, New York’s Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, and the Nation, and, along with Jeffery St. Clair, founded the investigative publication, CounterPunch. For more than 50 years, Cockburn was a relentless critic of U.S. foreign policy, opposing the Yugoslav War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the recent war in Libya.


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The Correctionist: Remembering Gore Vidal

August 2, 2012 by

Love it or loathe it, you can never leave it or lose it.

– Gore Vidal on the US, in Duluth (1983)

He was very quick, cerebrally deft. Whatever he wrote – be it on the novel (birth, death exaggerated or otherwise), ancient Rome, Richard Nixon or sexual freedom – he was always channelling his interests in the United States. To be a genuine, heart-felt German, argued Friedrich Nietzsche, a good dose of anti-German sentiment was needed.  Ditto Vidal on the subject of the United States, country he loved to distraction, even if it was a poison-penned distraction.

America’s great scribe was also greatly aggrieved on the pathway the republic had taken – hegemony was a sin that was making the empire fray – rightly so.


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T. E. Lawrence and Foreign Intervention in Syria

July 19, 2012 by

“They were discontented always with what government they had; such being their intellectual pride; but few of them honestly, thought out a working, alternative and fewer still agreed upon one.”

Thus noted T.E. Lawrence, presumptuously, in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which recounts his exploits as part of the Arab uprising against the Turks during the First World War. “They” are the Syrians, and Lawrence provides a vivid description of the land and its people, which he and a Hashemite led Arab Army where about to wrestle from Ottoman control.

The Free Syrian Army recently condemned a meeting of the Syrian National Council and representatives from France, Tunisia and Turkey in Cairo because the delegates are “rejecting the idea of a foreign military intervention to save the people… and ignoring the question of buffer zones protected by the international community, humanitarian corridors, an air embargo and the arming of rebel fighters.”

With growing international pressure for military intervention in Syria, T.E. Lawrence’s analysis, although written by an outsider of an imperialist Western power, and almost a hundred years old, may caution us to think carefully when arguing for Western involvement in the region.


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Brave New Worlds: The Difference Engine and The Murder of the Century

June 8, 2012 by

The Difference Engine
by William Gibson and Bruce SterlingI recently had the good fortune to read two excellent and complementary books in tandem.  One was The Difference Engine, a famous piece of sci-fi alternate history by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

It takes place in Victorian England—a different Victorian England, still driven by steam and innocent of electricity, but one in which Charles Babbage’s machine for mechanical computing has been perfected. New but oddly familiar vistas of technology, pollution, wealth, crime, control, and oppression confront the characters and the reader. Gibson has said that The Difference Engine remains his favorite among his books and the only one he re-reads.

Coming from the author of Neuromancer, that’s no small claim. Unsurprisingly, the book has become something of a touchstone for the steampunk movement, which it anticipated by about a decade.


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Review: I, Putin

June 5, 2012 by

I, Putin: A Novel
by Jennifer Ciotta Russian President Vladimir Putin is difficult to pigeonhole as a world leader. He was successful in guiding Russia out of economic despair following years of mismanagement that characterized the Yeltsin years shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and he has been able to rein in the influence of the oligarchs who amassed such wealth when Russian industries went on the auction block in the 1990s.

At the same time, Russia amassed huge wealth through its oil and natural gas reserves, which has more or less shielded Russia from the same economic turmoil that has ravaged Greece, Italy and many other Western nations.  With Putin at the helm or his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia has cherry-picked when to support the United States and others internationally, while instead focusing on strengthening Russia regardless of how Russia is perceived internationally.

Putin’s presidency has also been shaped by wars and disaster. The Beslan school massacre in 2004, the wars in Chechnya and the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000, shortly before Putin was to celebrate his 100th day as president, have guided Putin’s headstrong decision to rebuild Russia and free it from dependency on the United States and European states.


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Paul Krugman’s Economic Blinders

May 16, 2012 by

End This Depression Now
by Paul Krugman Paul Krugman is widely appreciated for his New York Times columns criticizing Republican demands for fiscal austerity. He rightly argues that cutting back public spending will worsen the economic depression into which we are sinking. And despite his partisan Democratic Party politicking, he warned from the outset in 2009 that President Obama’s modest counter-cyclical spending program was not sufficiently bold to spur recovery.

These are the themes of his new book, End This Depression Now. In old-fashioned Keynesian style he believes that the solution to insufficient market demand is for the government to run larger budget deficits. It should start by giving revenue-sharing grants of $300 billion annually to states and localities whose budgets are being squeezed by the decline in property taxes and the general economic slowdown.

All this is a good idea as far as it goes. But Mr. Krugman stops there – as if that is all that is needed today. So what he has done is basically get into a fight with intellectual pygmies. Thus dumbs down his argument, and actually distracts attention from what is needed to avoid the financial and fiscal depression he is warning about.


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Review: Managing Country Risk

March 18, 2012 by

Managing Country Risk
by Daniel Wagner The world is full of risks. Whether an average citizen on the streets in Cairo or a CEO of a Fortune 500 country, the international system is a dynamic place, which is often defined by risk.  Managing Country Risk, by Daniel Wagner who has had years of experience in cross-border risk management, is a “must have ready” reference and reality guide for any trader, investor, lender or NGO considering any cross-border activity.  Failure to properly prepare for the likelihood of risk, leads to entering at your own peril.

Take the simple example of a business seeking to enter a new market. If that business fails to do the necessary amount of research by identifying possible risks, that business could be at the losing end if the country suddenly experiences a political sea change and a new government assumes control of a natural resource. This has happened in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez.

The overall thrust of Mr. Wagner’s book is that investors and policymakers seek to avoid risks. The international system traditionally enjoys stability and avoids turmoil. The Arab Spring clearly demonstrates that regions and states can be significantly changed. While some applauded the development of the Arab Spring, Daniel Wagner makes the point that the Arab uprisings have not necessarily benefited Arab citizens.


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Vaclav Havel: A Playwright, Revolutionary, President & Prophet

December 25, 2011 by

With the death of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the world has lost a rational humanist and a gentle man who crusaded relentlessly for the establishment of moral values in society and polity. By pursuing these values throughout his life, he eventually became a prophet.

The end of the year witnessed the sad demise of the legendry Czech leader, Vaclav Havel, who died a hero. He crusaded relentlessly throughout his life for the cause of democracy as a means of awakening, Power to the Powerless.

A poet, playwright, political dissident, president, philosopher, and a philanthropist, Havel successfully grasped through his rare intellect ordinary people’s feelings and aspirations and provided ordinary Czech’s an outlet in the form of a bloodless revolution known as Velvet Revolution that unseated the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989.  Vaclav led his country with unique moral guidance as they walked down to the difficult path of democracy.


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Jeffrey Sachs: Tax the Rich! Throw the (Washington) Bums Out! A New Prescription for an Ailing Body Politic

October 5, 2011 by

The Price of Civilization
by Jeffrey D. Sachs Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was named among the 100 most influential leaders in the world by Time Magazine in 2004 and 2005.  Sachs, the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  From 2002 to 2006, he was Director of the UN Millennium Project and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed goals to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by 2015.

Sachs is also President and Co-Founder of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending extreme global poverty.  He is author of many books, including the New York Times bestsellers Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (Penguin 2008) and The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005).

His most recent work, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, has just come out and is already the subject of controversy.  By the time Sachs arrived at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on 82nd and Broadway in New York, the place was packed with intent listeners, many sprawled on the ground. A group of Polish economists stood near me—the chairs were gone; many neighborhood characters had turned out. And with the exception of the blonde economists, the heads of hair tended more towards the gray than black or brown.


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Panel Discussion: Re-Imagining Japan

September 11, 2011 by

Reimagining Japan
by Brian Salsberg, Clay Chandler and Heang Chhor Re-Imagining Japan: the Quest for a Future that Works, a panel discussion on the future of post-quake Japan with panelists, Gerald Curtis, Christopher Graves and David Sanger and moderator, Rik Kirkland, convened at Japan Society on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. 

The speakers sought to address the state of affairs in Tohoku, Japan, and in particular to make recommendations for Japan’s future.  They commented on John Dower’s description of the “myth of change resistant Japan” and recommended that now is the time for bold drastic political, economic and social change, especially at the local level so that those who are really in the middle of the crisis like the mayors of Tohoku can move quickly and effectively.  In so doing, perhaps an effort towards radical entrepreneurship could take place.

In particular, they touched upon the need for addressing immigration and creating incentives to encourage young people to come back to the affected areas, especially the fisheries.  In general, the speakers were not optimistic that their recommendations would be implemented.


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