In contrast with Coming Apart, which covered the same ground of the growing divide between rich and poor in the US, The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It offers a thankfully less biased analysis of root causes of the problem along with practical solutions.The analysis is far-ranging, as the author does not hesitate to probe education, immigration, the supply of vitamins in food, offshoring for both low-skilled and high-skilled jobs, and many other potential factors. Some of the solutions made sense to me, such as increasing the quality of public services, and in particular education since social mobility is sadly lacking, and reforming the tax system to impose higher levels of taxation on the very rich. But others are more puzzling. Sure, increasing so-called skilled immigrants (those with H-1B visas) would help the technology sector but it’s not clear to me how it would improve the prospects of the poor — or do much to throttle the prodigious growth of the earnings of the super-rich.
Still, a thoughtful book on a thorny topic.
With a similar title, but on a completely different topic than the disappointing Money Well Spent reviewed a few months ago that focused on philanthropy, this book, Money Well Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History explores the outcome of the stimulus. The picture is quite bleak, both because of the abundance of examples of misspent funds and also the very structure of the program, which appears to have spread itself too thin to make a visible impact — and that’s before the author considers the dysfnctions of the early Obama presidency, as described in exhaustive detail in Confidence Men,
Although the author does not go quite that far, it also seems that a major failure was a classic failure of defining metrics and targets ahead of time to decide how to measure success — apart from an unemployment percentage that was incautiously plucked from thin air at the last minute before presenting the package to Congress, and turned out to be a political disaster. Overall it’s very unclear what the government can do to fix economic problems. Perhaps doing nothing at all may be the better course of action…
I found The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion to be a most interesting, learned discussion of how people of different political persuasions have very different ways of thinking about what’s right or wrong. The author has developed (and tested) a theory of how people rely on a small number of values that govern their moral choices at a very primitive level. Different values, different choices, and we know that instantaneous, emotional choices (see Thinking, Fast and Slow) often prevail, and that we will make up logical explanations to match them, after the fact. So if your main value is Care, you will likely vote Democrat, but if you think Loyalty and Authority are more important, you will just as likely vote Republican.
I did have a couple of concerns about the book. One was that the theory seems to be overly focused on the American political system and it’s not clear that it would apply well for other systems. The other is that the author had no recommendations for how to make things better, save the obvious “try to see the other person’s side”. Great advice, but surely if it were that easy some of our politicians may have tried it already?
Great topic, so-so book. Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption describes the current treatment of convicted murderers in California, who after decades in prison can be deemed worthy of release by a professional review board only to be ordered to stay, indefinitely, by a governor who has full power to do so. It seems so wasteful, if not unethical, and redolent of a medievally absolute power, to allow one person to undo the careful evaluation of an entire team, doesn’t it?
In any case, the author brings us five men who committed murders long ago, when they were young and, for some, through peculiar circumstances that seem to be almost by accident, and who are now models of virtue, restrain, and maturity — but don’t seem to be able to get out of prison. Most people would agree that they pose no real danger to society and that they should not be subjected to the unrestrained whim of the governor. Unfortunately because those five are so “perfect” it begs the question of whether they are mere exceptions and few facts are provided to explore the larger picture (although it seems that the few prisoners that are released are remarkably trouble-free, but this may just bolster the claims of those who want the governor to say no almost all the time.) And why subject the poor reader to reams of boring court proceedings? Summaries would suffice.
Political junkies will love Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. I am not a political junkie so I would have much preferred the Cliff Notes version of this fat book, minus the little details of advisor X stepping out of his house on Sunday morning to take a cab to meet with the president. At the same time, I must admire the meticulous research and the fluent writing that describes the end of the ’08 political campaign and the first Obama presidency, as it struggled with the titanic issues of the economy, what to do with a misbehaving Wall Street, and health care reform. It’s terrifying to see how very difficult it is for a new administration to resolve a problem or two while it is trying to find its footing despite infighting, misunderstandings, and an unexpected (to me) frat-house atmosphere that turns women staffers off. Democracy is not easy.
Here’s another book where the premise makes sense but the details less so. The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics starts with the simple observation that in times of economic downturn it becomes difficult to fund every worthwhile social endeavor (maybe the authors of the book I reviewed yesterday should have thought this through). Therefore, abandon all hope for the United States since times are tough and politicians from the two main parties are less and less willing to compromise. O, and race conflicts will increase as older, whiter citizens collect Social Security and Medicare from younger, browner working people.Have a nice day.
I don’t go much for doomsday scenarios. Do problems exist? Yes. I’m not sure that the case has been made that they cannot be fixed.
The Audacity to Win tells the story of the Obama presidential campaign, as told by his campaign manager. I found it compelling in two ways. One, it gives an interesting look at Obama the man, no doubt from someone who is profoundly sympathetic to his side and his persona, but still manages to show Obama’s measured approach to problems and decisions. The book is also a dive into the rather shady world of political consultants, with their silly (if publicly disavowed) attachments to the most obscure polls and their knee-jerk counter-attacks to any move, no matter how small, from the opponent — it’s rather scary to watch how sausage is made!
Plouffe’s writing style is not always fluid (where is the ghost writer when we need one?) and clearly we already know the outcome but the book is an engaging dive into the backrooms of politics.
How come nobody knows about Frances Perkins? The subject of The Woman Behind the New Deal was FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the mastermind behind massive social programs including Social Security and Medicaid — and she came very, very close to pushing through a comprehensive health care insurance program, which only failed because of massive opposition from the AMA. And that’s after she introduced fire codes, limits on working hours, and a national minimum wage. She also tried, at a time when the immigration services reported into the Labor Department (interesting, huh?), to facilitate the immigration of Jewish refugees into the US. That was not a popular idea and immigration was moved over to the Justice Department.
She was a chemistry major (like my older daughter, yeah!), a woman who wanted to work at a time when women of her class did not, a woman who saw that the best way to succeed was to act middle-aged and motherly so as no to threaten the men around her. And on the personal side she was the wife of a bipolar man and the mother of an equally bipolar daughter for whom she expanded boundless care and money — behind the scenes since mental illness was shameful in those days.
The book occasionally lapses into detailed descriptions of very boring politicking, but Frances Perkins’s personality and influence shines through. How different our current travails with health care reform would look if she had succeeded in pushing her entire social program through Congress in the thirties…
The author of The Way We’ll Be sets out to show us our future as a country but alas, his strong roots as a political pollster show and we are treated to the usual two irksome sins of pollsters. One is what statisticians call fishing expeditions: let’s collect umpteen facts, run correlations on all of them without any hint of a working hypothesis, and then blab on and on about the amazing cause-and-effect phenomena we discovered. Sorry, just not valid thinking!
The other annoyance is the assigning of (in this case) American people into finer and finer categories of age, gender, occupations, and much other trivia to invent subgroups that believe in particular causes. I understand how political pollsters may need to function that way to earn their consulting money but I loathe the divisiveness of the process.
All that to said I did not like the book.
A young woman and her husband move to the house next to that of an older woman who’s still married to but no longer living with her philandering husband, the senator. A friendship develops between the women even if the younger one never understands the older one’s tolerance and love for her husband after all he put her through (and frankly we can’t understand it either; surely great sex cannot be enough!) The Senator’s Wife gives us an engaging story but one we can’t quite believe. Disappointing.