Week Twelve

The Old Regime and The French Revolution by Alexis De Tocqueville

The central conceit here is that the riotous, momentous, & historic revolution of France in 1789 was completely predictable given the facts of the country’s makeup in the decades and centuries prior—predictable, if not foreseeable. 

Indeed, few saw the event coming, as close as they were to the ingredients which would so soon come to a boil. 

Week Eleven

The New New Deal by Michael Grunwald

I have this vision, after reading Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal, of Obama spending his entire post-presidency going to ribbon-cuttings. In the vision he’s beaming with the same mammoth smile, speaking with the same stilted rhythm, but he’s grayer now, more wrinkled, and his approval numbers are off the charts.

The Recovery Act, sometimes known as the stimulus, was a piece of legislation as mammoth as Obama’s smile. It has accomplished—is accomplishing—more things in more sectors of our economy than the original New Deal. It mainlined cash into the market, threw a bottom under the recession, and installed fresh bulwarks against endangered jobs. It made investments in new tech, styled new reforms, encouraged new industries. It navigated an often complacent bureaucracy without becoming spoiled by fraud.

Ask people to name an investment or program of the Recovery Act, however, and you’re likely to be met with blank faces. Ask if the Recovery Act worked and statistically people are more likely to say no. Republicans scoff—the proof is in the unemployment numbers! But progressives scoff too, arguing the stimulus was too small, that Obama caved to the demands of the opposition. Grunwald is appropriately annoyed with holy scoffers.

Read More

Week Ten

Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words by Douglas L. Wilson

It’s quite rare that a literary genius becomes president. Jefferson was one of these; so was Woodrow Wilson to a lesser extent. Abraham Lincoln was the most unlikely of all. A country boy educated in a class in which most of the students could not read, Lincoln grew to possess such a command of the language that his very best—the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural—echo down centuries to inspire, and, in good measure, to embarrass us.

Douglas Wilson shows us how from Springfield to his assassination Lincoln developed his own style, a succinct, rural, distinctly American style—exactly what Ralph Waldo Emerson was calling for at that time—and how Lincoln used that style not only to explain to his divided constituents what his positions were, but to define the terms in which those positions made sense.

This is the great political genius of Lincoln, in my opinion—a deft politician can use talking points to influence his electorate, but the best politicians, and the best persuasive writers, understand that how we think about something is bound up with the metaphors we use to talk about it, the minute variations in sentence construction, the very punctuation & synonym choice. 

Read More

Week Nine

The Bolsheviks and War by Sam Marcy

This short polemical book has a fierce distaste for socialists of the capitulating variety, namely, those right-wing or centrist socialists who failed the Second International by abandoning the class struggle to fight for their imperialist nation in World War I.

At the Stuttgart and Basel congresses of 1905 and 1912 respectively the Second International (SI) met to discuss what was to be done in the event of large-scale war breaking out between the imperialist nations. It was V.I. Lenin’s prerogative, per his reading of Marx, to lay down a policy which compelled the workers of the world to transform an imperialist war into a class war against the capitalists. Non-violent means were always preferred, but in the case of world war, which the socialists saw as an inevitable outcrop of capitalism, pacifism was to abandoned for the greater cause of class struggle.

Marcy attacks those who suggest that Lenin was taken aback by the capitulation of the SI at the outbreak of the Great War. He argues that Lenin was moved to action the moment the war began, and rallied his supporters to follow the actions prescribed at the aforementioned congresses. Marcy condemns the Mensheviks and other centrists, led by Karl Kautsky, who supported the war in terms of “national defense.”

Read More

Week Eight

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

Christianity began in diversity. And it’s pretty diverse today. But there was a good long millennial stretch in the middle there when Orthodox Catholicism was the only game in town.

Ancient and modern Catholics recognize the Nicene Creed, the New Testament, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the bedrock of their religion. They agree on the following things: Jesus was crucified and three days later rose from the dead. The twelve apostles saw him resurrected, not merely as a ghost or phantom, but in full corporeal form. He chose Peter to carry on his teachings as the first bishop, beginning the institutional church divided into bishops, deacons, priests, and the laity. We are born sinful. Jesus can absolve us. Women are not allowed to be priests. 

But after Jesus and the apostles died, Christianity sprouted in a variety of ways, many of which were heretical to the religion I just described. The Gnostic Gospels, a wealth of texts found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, give an extraordinary glimpse into these other forms of Christianity. Pagels highlights their differences and examines, in turn, why they died out against the tidal wave of Catholicism. 

Read More

Week Seven

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

The central theme in this book is that high levels of economic inequality are bad for everyone in a society, even those at the top. While the Right argues that supply-side economics—also known as trickle-down economics—benefits everyone because it enlarges the whole economic pie, Stiglitz argues that this is not the case. The rich are not creating more wealth, they are simply increasing their own share of wealth at the expense of the middle-class and poor, using a variety of rent-seeking activities.

Many corporations are in effect being subsidized by the government, which is to say, the taxpayers—either by actual subsidies, or by lobbied laws, or provisions in the tax code that give them preferential treatment or absolution from the harm that they cause to others and the environment. The financial sector has, with their enormous influence, altered the law and our conception of how the economy works. The 1% have effectively convinced many of the 99% that their rent-seeking activities are good for all.

Stiglitz argues that inequality has been growing in our country for some 30 years, since the deregulation of the Reagan era and the reversal of a truly progressive tax system. This era has been marked by a stagnation in the wages of the middle class, an extreme increase in the wealth of the richest (the top 20% own 85% of the wealth), and by a series of lesser bubbles that led at last to the Great Recession.

Read More

Week Six

The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith

Galbraith covers the story of the 1929 stock market crash from when it was inconceivable to almost everyone to when it was an absolute nightmare for almost everyone. The really shocking thing about the whole mess is how many people stayed optimistic to the very end. And how many of those people later went to jail.

The speculative bubble that caused the crash was like a great party. Stock prices were soaring. Everyone was making money. Investment trusts, only recently invented, were using 

There’s this great anecdote toward the end of the book. It’s after one of the first large dips in the stock market in the early autumn of ‘29. John D. Rockefeller breaks a 20-year silence to ensure everyone that things are OK, like some kind of prophet in the hills. He buys an enormous amount of common stock as a sign of his confidence, then disappears again. I’m not sure why this struck me so much. It was like something out of a novel.

Week Five

The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin

Conservatives react. They started by reacting to the French Revolution in the late 18th century and have been doing so ever since. They are the old regime reacting to the new. They are the stewards of a hierarchical past, during which certain strata of society ruled over others, and their goal, Corey Robins argues in this book, is to convince the public that this way of life is best.

Week Four

Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Douglas Adams wrote a book about a number of species balancing on the edge of extinction and it’s a fucking laugh-riot.  

Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine travel the world

Week Three

Borrow: The American Way of Debt by Louis Hyman

Used to be debt was moral. Used to be lenders would lecture you on the perils of borrowing before they gave you money. Incurring debt was looked down upon, the province of spendthrifts. Saving was the thing.

Personal debt may be as old as civilization, but it wasn’t until very recently that personal debt became distinctly impersonal. While business and government debt have long institutional histories, widespread consumer debt, according to Louis Hyman, is an invention of the 20th century. 

It was the strong social stigma against borrowing that kept debt out of the lives of individuals—a stigma so strong that for those who did borrow, out of some rotten necessity or desire, failing to repay could mean imprisonment. The infamous “debtors’ prisons,” the thinking went, housed amoral people for something they should not have done in the first place. The fact that debtors’ prisons seem so atrocious to us now reflect the sea-change in our temperament toward personal debt. Borrow is the story of that sea-change.

Read More