Thursday, 17 December 2009

“Ark of the Liberties”, by Ted Widmer (Hill & Wang)

Widmer-ArkOfTheLiberties The roots of American Engagement with the World

From the colonial period through to our current age, Ted Widmer traces the legacy of American ‘liberty’; with all its contradictions, misapplications, and also frequent misappropriation.

The author’s narrative also explains the significance of America’s fall from international popularity in the past decade. Ark of the Liberties illustrates the importance of religion and religious beliefs throughout American history: how a sense of divine destiny has infused images and thoughts about America since the very beginning, informing citizens and politicians since its founding. It is also about the interaction between this idealistic, some might call is messianic nationalism and the hard-headed realism preached by the Founding Fathers. Widmer explains how “the wall of separation” between church and state “was more of a picket fence, with eyeholes to peak through”.

“A fuller appreciation of our divisive origins and the muddle of our early foreign policy is newly desirable at another moment when so many people around the world are divided about what it is, precisely, that the United States stands for.”

In Ark of the Liberties, Widmer has offered his take on how America’s divisive origins have informed the United States’ later interaction with the global community. He starts with the discovery of America, the first waves of immigration and its time as a colony, before progressing through the Great Awakening, the Revolution, and on to the present day – drawing comparisons and lines of continuity between each period, how one could not have happened without the events that preceded it.

Widmer addresses all the major themes and events of American history, bursting bubbles and myths as he goes (all of which are the result of America’s idealistic heritage). For example, when discussing the westward expansion, he says:

“We have so many inaccurate notions about our westward expansion that it is difficult to list them all, but to suggest that our pioneers simply walked into land that was unoccupied, or occupied solely by Native Americans is blatantly wrong” and “We built this country on thousands of tiny invasions”

Widmer holds Abraham Lincoln in particularly high regard. According to the author, Lincoln “brought the ark back to its true course” after the expansionist and adventuresome first half of the Nineteenth Century (Mexican War, acquisition of Texas and California, etc.).

“Lincoln’s greatness lies as much in his restraint as in his capacity for action. In retrospect, he seems almost to have been called into service for the express purpose of calming [America’s] baser instincts and summoning our better angels.”

The above quote, in fact, is a perfect exemplar of the sometimes overly-flowery language Widmer can be prone to. It’s not a bad thing, as it certainly lacks the stuffiness of some histories. Equally, however, it does sometimes come across as over-written, or it can make his passages overly idealistic – just as he says America itself has frequently been. No doubt some will be put off by this, seeing the author as just another American ‘booster’ (to use his word), trumpeting the greatness of the United States. He is, in some ways – it is clear throughout the book that Widmer is a proud American, but one who wants to shine a little light on the truth of America’s approach to the world. He does this, even if sometimes he succumbs to the patriotic fervour he cautions against.

Another section in the book that stood out concerned Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson – how the two of them are frequently paired up as opposites and exemplars of the two strands of the American character (TR as the ‘realist’, Wilson as the ‘idealist’). Both of these presidents had a huge impact on American foreign policy, which is still felt today. For example, about Wilson’s liberal and idealistic approach to international relations:

“We may express distaste for Wilson’s simplistic idea that the world will eventually resemble the United States – but every president since then has voiced a similar aspiration.”

Widmer admires TR, it is clear. As a personal favourite of mine among the US presidents, this section was lively and balanced, as well as originally presented. The author clearly and concisely articulates the importance of TR’s presidency and how he changed US foreign policy (or, at the very least, started the US on its new course). For one, TR expanded America’s approach to foreign policy:

“In effect, he was going past the Monroe Doctrine, and even the Roosevelt Corollary, into a new way of thinking that argued the United States has a responsibility to solve the world’s problems in addition to its own.”

And also,

“Through his skill and his bluster, he had shown that Americas could do far more than occupy the world stage – they could command it.”

The author’s admiration for his country doesn't prevent him from recognizing its faults and, at times, the country's inability to hold true to the ark of liberty set forth in the national narrative. His approach to his subject is balanced and frequently humorous, dealing with his topic at times with a cheekiness that helps lighten the subject, making it more accessible, but not diminishing its impact. Widmer's writing is well nuanced, extrapolating large ideas and themes from the smallest of actions and symbols, painting a grand picture of America’s sense of self and ideals.

“History never sleeps”, Widmer writes. In Ark of the Liberties, he artfully manages to trace continuities and causality throughout America’s history. This review could be almost endless, given the amount of interesting and originally-presented ideas Widmer has managed to cram into this book. However, the longer this review is, the less the reader will actually have to go out and get it for themselves.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in American history and how and why the nation sees itself the way it does. Very enjoyable and engaging.

Also try: Morton Keller, America’s Three Regimes (2007); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2007); David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty (2008); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2009); Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire (2008)

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

“Sarah From Alaska”, by Scott Conroy & Shushannah Walshe (PublicAffairs)

sarah-from-alaska

“The Sudden Rise & Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar”

Sarah Palin’s two-month run for the vice presidency was one of the most bizarre, outrageous, and, in many respects, most-secretive campaigns ever run. Regardless of how you feel about her, it's almost impossible not to want to know more about what actually went on behind-the-scenes when Palin wasn’t out on the campaign trail, backslapping and rallying her fans, and what Republican insiders were and are thinking about her political future and the future of the party.

“She remains so polarising that her very name elicits visceral emotions ranging from adoration to abhorrence, with little room in the middle.”

The book begins with an introduction focussing on election night, and the abundant mis-communications between Palin’s and McCain’s camp, about the possibility of Palin delivering a concession speech (she was persistent in ignoring orders from McCain’s camp, while they couldn’t seem to get their shit together).

“What just happened?” seems to have been a common question that followed Palin on the campaign trail. Indeed, it goes all the way back to when McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate:

“Her ascent to the national stage had been so unexpected that even her own campaign’s communications team was left entirely unprepared to answer questions about her record.”

After this election-night vignette, the authors provide us with some background on Sarah’s upbringing, her school and college days, and also her early political career – her first forays into Republican politics, running for Mayor of Wasilla and then governor of Alaska (including the poo-spirited tactics she sometimes used). The stories of her career show us a side of Palin that we would come to see plenty of during the campaign – an intense sense of always being the underdog. We are introduced to her parents, who actually sound pretty sweet and genuinely folksy. After reading about them, I couldn’t help thinking that Chuck (her father) would have been a better candidate than his daughter.

The “silly mistakes” Palin was good at avoiding during her basketball career (as we are told in an over-long section of the book) were slightly harder to avoid in state-level and national election politics. Her nickname of “Barracuda”, however, seems to have echoes throughout her political career: we are informed of how, “as genuine as her warmth and kindness can be, Palin’s ruthless streak is just as real.” This is illustrated with a couple of examples of her engaging in bullying tactics and also the casual discarding of close or long-term friends and aides if they appear to have crossed her, even if in minor ways. Palin seems to be obsessed with people thinking well of her, but also avoiding confrontation on a one-to-one basis, which meant that long-time aides and employees who ended up being fired were done so seemingly out-of-the-blue, and often after cordial encounters with Palin herself, before being informed of their termination.

“[H]er reluctance to get her hands dirty proved a recurring trait that would deliver increasingly severe consequences.”

The authors are careful to give Palin a fair appraisal: “Palin is neither an unblemished victim of fiendish, unpatriotic forces nor a preposterous dolt worthy only of a smirk.” Conroy and Walshe do a good job of describing a political operative who is adept at campaigning and engaging with crowds and supporters, appealing and pandering to populist demands and hopes. After all,

“anyone who can, in just six years, rise from the mayor’s office in a city of fewer than ten thousand people to become the biggest draw in the Republican Party must be doing something right.”

However, they also paint a damning portrait of someone who is disinterested in actual policy, more in love with political conflict and the pursuit of power, rather than the actual exercise of power.

The authors address Palin’s many detractors, from the campaign and before in Alaska, and how many “maintain to this day that her ethics crusading was a self-serving ploy to boost her reputation as a reformer,” rather than a genuine desire to clean up Alaska. Personally, I don’t see why these two things are mutually exclusive. As a genuine Christian, it’s obvious she does care. Also, as a genuine Christian, she can’t understand what she’s done wrong when she strays into muddy ethical waters. Now that is a generalisation, but I do think it should be pointed out that just because she benefitted politically from a policy doesn’t mean she didn’t believe in it in the first place.

The chapters about Palin’s time in Alaskan politics are difficult to swallow whole. The portrait the authors paint of Palin and her time in Juneau don’t match the Sarah Palin we all saw, heard, and read about in 2008. According to Conroy and Walshe, Palin was a keen bipartisan, frequently reaching across the aisle to gain Democracy support for her policies and proposals – often with the result of working against Republicans. Indeed, her whole approach to politics seems at odds with the divisive and partisan attack-dog we saw in 2008: “it was her success in wooing Democrats and independent, college-educated women that flummoxed her opponents” in Alaska.

There is plenty of meat in Sarah From Alaska to sink your teeth into, so it would be possible to make this review almost endless. Needless to say, Conroy and Walshe do a good job of detailing both Palin’s early career as well as the 2008 campaign – approaching the varied controversies of the election with a lack of bias and even-handedness (the Katie Couric performance, the vast amount spent on Palin’s wardrobe, and so forth). In their attempt to be unbiased, however, their arguments can sometimes seem stretched, as they put more significance on something that is easily overshadowed by her own rhetoric on the stump. The approach to the campaign from Palin’s perspective is a nice alternative (the number of accounts from Obama and McCain’s perspective is getting excessive, frankly).

Well-written, balanced and engaging, Sarah From Alaska is a good biographical account of Palin’s career to date and the 2008 Presidential Election. I can’t say that it will alter your opinion of Sarah Palin, but it might help you understand a little bit more about her, and also go some way to explaining why she thinks the way she does, and also dispel some of the more extreme perspectives of the campaign scandals that surrounded her.

Also Try: Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (2009); Matthew Continetti, The Persecution of Sarah Palin (2009); Richard Kim, Going Rouge (2009)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

“Superfusion”, by Zachary Karabell (Simon & Schuster US)

Karabell-Superfusion

How China & the US became one economy, & why the World’s prosperity depends on it

China’s emergence as an economic superpower is widely recognized. In Superfusion, Zachary Karabell (a long-time China-watcher) argues that this is only one aspect of the China story. Over the past decade, the Chinese and American economies have fused to become one integrated system – for this, he borrows the term coined by Niall Fergusson in The Ascent of Money: “Chimerica”.

How China and the United States manage their intertwined relationship will determine whether the coming decades witness increased global prosperity or instability. Before we look to the future, however, we must understand how Chimerica came to be. Karabell traces the 20-year history that began with the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989. Adopting an aggressive economic reform policy, the CCP courted U.S. companies and expertise in the hope of learning from them and evolving their economy. Karabell spends quite some time detailing China’s economic evolution, particularly Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and the slow merging of capitalism and authoritarian communism into the amalgam it is today. While a well written section, there was nothing particularly new, which was a disappointment for me (as someone who reads a lot about US-China relations), but for someone either new to the subject or not as well informed this opening will certainly do a perfect job of setting the scene.

“Tentatively in the late 1980s and more boldly and aggressively in the 1990s, Western companies started to probe the China market. With stops, starts, and considerable growing pains, they established a foothold and began to see results from their efforts and their investments.”

After this contextual part of the book, Karabell then moves on to show how the American and Chinese economies have moved ever-closer together. The author charts how important some of these American companies were to China’s development, which turned their attention to China before others, frequently investing millions (if not billions) without seeing profits. These include Kentucky Fried Chicken, Avon, Federal Express, and Wal-Mart. Their early investments have been to China’s success, as well as their own, with China now an integral part to their growth and continued prosperity (General Motors China, for example, is the most profitable division of the corporation, keeping GM in moderately good health). This is also where Karabell’s work comes into its own and shows signs of breathing originality into a subject that is crying out for something new to be said or written about it. Taking individual companies and their experiences breaking into the Chinese market, Karabell is able to give the reader all the information one might need, with corresponding analytical depth (as well as a broader view).

Given all that was going on in the 1990s – from the growth and emergence of the internet as a powerful social, economic and political tool; the Dot-Com boom; and President Clinton’s various scandals and impeachment - “few people noticed the radical changes taking place in China” and the US-China relationship, taking note only when some major issue would flare in the media (such as the accident bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade).

Though the (super)fusion accelerated with China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001, it was still met with little (if any) attention or notice from the US population at large. Preoccupied with the Global War on Terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States soon found itself in the difficult position of being deeply in debt to China, but at the same time “there can be no argument that U.S. companies reaped extraordinary profits from the growth of China.”

After pushing for greater opening of Chinese markets, and closer relations as a whole, the two countries find themselves in further difficulty. China, for one, has begun to question the wisdom of the close embrace with America. On the other side of the Pacific, buoyed by China’s loans, the US is experiencing acute anxiety over the high level of dependency it now has with China (indeed, this was a major campaign issue for many of the Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 – particularly Hilly Clinton).

Karabell argues that the fusion has become so great that neither country would be able to extricate itself from the partnership without severe harm (to both countries). The challenge for the United States is to embrace this new world order, even if it means a slight loss of relative power in order to ensure its future prosperity. China’s challenge is to recognize that it is now a major player on the world stage with all the risks and responsibilities that entails – in other words, it needs to take Robert Zoellick’s advice on becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system (it also needs to accept that it is among the global economic heavyweights and should be treated thus).

The balance of the book is good – Karabell gives equal time and space to the US and Chinese perspectives, with plenty of examples and case studies to help illustrate his points and arguments. The book started off slowly, but after the author turns his attention to the use of case studies the book comes into its own and held my attention well. It’s difficult to come up with anything original to write about China and the US, but Karabell has done a good job of both outlining the general consensus arguments and issues involved, and then approaching them in an interesting and original way.

The author never gives in to abstracts or sweeping generalisations, either, which was of particular interest to me – too often authors and academics will refer to “US business” as a monolithic special interest, when (as Karabell shows us) this is not the case. Perhaps the best use of examples I’ve come across in a book about US and China in quite some time, making it a valuable addition to the existing literature.

The book should appeal to anyone interested or invested in the US-China relationship, and Karabell’s accessible style and excellent writing should make this an enjoyable and informative read.

Highly recommended.

Also try: Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2007); Martin Jaques, When China Rules The World (2009); Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money (2008); C. Fred Bergsten, China’s Rise (2009); Richard Rosecrance, Power & Restraint (2009)

Monday, 9 November 2009

“Barack Obama: The Comic Book Biography”, by Jeff Marriotte, et al. (IDW Publishing)

BarackObama-ComicBookBiography

A different approach to Obama’s life, campaign & presidency

This mini-biography of President Obama is certainly different from the standard fare that has clogged up bookstore shelves the world over. Sadly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

The concept of this book is pretty interesting (comic book about a real-live politician), and I admit to having bought it solely because it was something new and different from the multitude of Obama-campaign and –presidency books that are starting to flood out of publishing houses the US over.

In just a few pages, the authors rattle through his childhood and upbringing, his college years, his first campaigns, his presidential campaign, and then his first 100 days in office. A pretty ambitious goal, for sure, but the book really suffers from its brevity – too much is left out, though they do manage to include all of his most important/noteworthy speeches.

Given the numerous quotations taken from Obama’s two books – Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope – one can’t help but wonder why bother with this, if you’ve already read those? The art is interesting, but hardly life-like or even close to resembling some of the people portrayed.

In all there’s not a lot on offer here (nothing new except the approach), if you’ve read any book on Obama or his campaign, and certainly not if you followed the campaign and his early presidency. I think the only people who will get much out of this are younger readers and those people who either a). don’t have the time to read Obama’s book, or b). people who can’t be bothered to read the books.

I think the Spiderman issue that featured Obama would have been a better buy.

An interesting idea, but ultimately quite flawed.

Alternatives: Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father (2004) & The Audacity of Hope (2006); David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (2009); David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win (2009); Richard Wolffe, Renegade (2009); Evan Thomas, A Long Time Coming (2009); Daniel Balz, The Battle for America 2008 (2009)

Friday, 30 October 2009

“SuperFreakonomics”, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (Allen Lane)

Levitt&Dubner-SuperFreakonomicsThe follow-up to mega-selling and revolutionary Freakonomics

Freakonomics took the publishing world by storm in 2005, when it wormed its way onto pretty much every bestsellers’ list, selling over four million copies in thirty-five languages. It was the first book on economics I’d ever read (I’m a slow starter), and I was completely blown away by it. The authors’ approach, to me, was highly original, accessible and interesting. Therefore, when I found out that a second book in the series was coming out, I eagerly prepared myself to be impressed all over again.

SuperFreakonomics, as can be expected, unearths a number of freaky things in the economic realm, and the authors treat us to their opinions and observations on a broad spectrum of subjects. For example, they delve into the economics of prostitution (sometimes it pays to have a pimp); the ‘truth’ about terrorists’ socio-economic origins (it’s not what you think); grading your doctors is unfair (though they were also to blame for a lot of disease and death in the 19th Century); they explain their attraction to the idea of their LoJacked cars being stolen; why scarecrows work on humans, too; and other things. In fact, the chapter titles aren’t entirely indicative of what is contained in any given chapter – the authors sometimes come across as suffering from a mild case of ADHD, as chapters seemingly flit from one topic to another – Dubner and Levitt do, however, manage to tie off pretty much everything by the end of each chapter.

By far the most interesting chapter is the one that covers the economics of prostitution. Once again, as in Freakonomics, the authors have taken a look at what Sudhir Venkatesh has been up to. This rogue sociologist (also of Harvard) and author of Gang Leader for a Day (also published by Penguin) has this time been looking into the economics involved in Chicago’s prostitution sector. “wages are determined in large part by the laws of supply and demand, which are often more powerful than laws made by legislators”, which goes a long way to explaining why prostitutes in 1910 Chicago were able to make so much money: the “butterfly girls” at the Everleigh Club could earn as much as $430,000 annually (in today’s money). Today, however, perhaps due to the evolution of sexual mores, wages have been decreasing (pre-marital sex is now a viable alternative to prostitution for horny young men).

To refer back to the socio-economic origins of terrorists, the authors show how the belief that poverty breeds terrorists is not actually accurate. Through a lot of evidence and observations (always careful to highlight that they are inferring conclusions, not ‘proving’ them), they show that middle class educated men are more likely to become terrorists than poor people (who have more important things to worry about, like getting food). They show, in other words, that

“the kind of person most likely to become a terrorist is similar to the kind of person most likely to… vote. Think of terrorism as civic passion on steroids.”

This brings me to the storm of criticism that has been swirling about the internet concerning Levitt and Dubner’s chapter about climate change. Many experts, economists, and pundits in general have weighed in on the issue (see here, here, here, and heretold you there was a lot), to which any comment from myself would be insufficiently educated. While the chapter is fine and pretty well researched, it doesn’t have quite the impact of previous chapters. If I hadn’t read plenty of other stuff about the content, I probably would have been none-the-wiser; over the course of two books I have come to trust Levitt & Dubner’s instincts and research.

The book’s not perfect, as a couple of the chapters lag a bit, or go on for a little too long; the section about car-seat safety, for example, while interesting, felt a little repetitive, while the chapter about climate change flitted to grand theft auto (the crime, not the game). As mentioned above, too, they aren’t always as diligent as one might hope when it comes to discussing political hot-button issues like climate change.

One could write an almost endless review of this book (and its predecessor), but here are the things that are most important to know, regardless of whether or not you are in a position to agree or disagree with their findings and observations:

1. SuperFreakonomics is an engrossing and highly entertaining book.

2. It will make you rethink some existing biases and common-wisdom you perhaps take for granted, in an open, intelligent and accessible way.

Highly recommended.

Also try: Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics (2005); Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day (2008); Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point (2002) & Outliers (2008)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

“Inventing the Job of President”, by Fred I. Greenstein (Princeton University Press)

Greenstein-InventingTheJobOfPresident

How the First Seven Presidents Approached their Duties and Invented the Job of President

Known for his excellent examination on presidential leadership, The Presidential Difference, which looks at the leadership style and characters of the presidents from FDR to George W. Bush, Fred I. Greenstein has turned his attention to the start of the American Experiment, taking a look at the first seven Chief Executives: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.

Greenstein argues, based on his extensive research into all things presidential, that “the matter of who happens to be president of the United States has sometimes had momentous consequences.” To show this, he evaluates each of these presidents

“in terms of his strengths and weaknesses in public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.”

“This book examines presidential leadership in a period… when the actions of chief executives had a bearing on the fate of the American experiment in popular government.” The first seven presidents also “served in a time when the sketchy description of the presidency in the Constitution gave the chief executives imperfect guidance on their responsibilities, leading their conduct of the presidency to depend heavily on their personal inclinations.” This meant that each of these seven presidents were conscious of the fact that their actions in office could well have lasting and important consequences – this was especially the case for George Washington, who was working in thus-far entirely new territory: even the “many things which appear of little importance in themselves” (in Washington’s words), “may have great and durable consequences” for his successors.

Today, presidents are staffed by the considerable bureaucracy of the Executive Office of the President, while the first seven presidents “had little or no staff assistance”, with the members of the cabinet fulfilling the role presidential advisers. The cabinet itself was a smaller outfit, too: today there are 22 members on Obama’s cabinet, while at the very beginning, Washington had by a Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson), Secretary of War (Henry Knox), Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton), and an Attorney General (Edmund Randolph).

Communication was of particular importance in these times and often relied on “patronage-subsidized administration newspapers that played a central part in early presidential public communication”. For the Federalist faction, this was the Gazette of the United States. What is interesting is to consider the “virulence of political discourse” in the early Republic: “contemporary political rhetoric is bland by the standards of an era when political opposition was not accepted as legitimate, much less constructive.” This was a time when dueling was still commonplace (Andrew Jackson was notorious for his duels, long-suffering from a shoulder wound), and not infrequently did members of Congress come to blows in the House Chamber.

Equally, all seven of these president “paid lip-service to the ideal of transcending politics”, but to varying degrees each one “also did what they deemed politically necessary to respond to the realities of a divided nation in a conflict-ridden world”, not to mention whatever they saw as in their own interests with regards to re-election and improving the lot of their supporters and political faction.

The book is organised into easily-digestible, short chapters, all of which follow a similar format, with clear conclusions under the evaluation-criteria at the end of each chapter. This makes the book an excellent, easily used reference book; however, coupled with the shortness of the volume (a mere 103 pages, not including notes, etc.), it does mean the readability suffers. That the author has gone favoured brevity is certainly a welcome departure from much presidential scholarship, however this has the adverse effect of making his conclusions sometimes come across as only half-supported, or arrived at through cherry-picked facts and/or sources.

That being said, the author does make use of plenty of contemporary sources – including the opinions of these men held by the others of the seven; for example, Jefferson’s opinion of Washington that, while a durable and prudent man, his opinions and policies were “little aided by invention or imagination”.

Some will be disappointed that there aren’t really any surprises in the book – Washington was virtuous and is portrayed like a God among men (of course); Jefferson went downhill in office, as he focussed to much on abstractions; the “anticlimactic” presidency of James Madison; and the two Adamses were ineffective and bumbling presidents, the victims of their temperaments and, for the younger, the circumstances of his election, while the elder is referred to as the “Absentee President”. Monroe comes across very well, which I agree with, and it makes a nice change for this to be recognised. All these presidents were different in their characters and approach to the Executive Office, performing at different levels of efficiency and political aptitude. For someone interested in the presidency, this book was certainly an interesting read and addition to my ever-expanding library.

Greenstein does an excellent job of providing short biographies of each president covered, as well as placing their presidencies into the context of their times, making this book a no-nonsense guide to the characters of these seven presidents, and an examination of the characteristics that the author believes served them well and poorly during their time in office.

An interesting addition to the study of the presidency, I would recommend Inventing the Job of President along with the books listed, below.

Additional Reading: Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference (3rd Edition, 2009); Morton Keller, America’s Three Regimes (2007); Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power (1991); James David Barber, The Presidential Character (2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2006); Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (2000); Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Imperial President (2004)

Saturday, 24 October 2009

“Riches Among The Ruins”, by Robert P. Smith (Amacom)

Smith&Zheutlin-RichesAmongTheRuins

One man’s adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy

Riches Among the Ruins has quite an opening line: “On a single day in 1998, I lost $15 million in the ruins of the Russian economy.”

Described by Forbes magazine as the Indiana Jones of international finance, Robert Smith has lived an incredibly exciting life for a bond trader. In Riches Among the Ruins, he offers his memoir of his international travels and adventures (sometimes, there’s really no other word that can be used for his experiences) in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nigeria, Iraq, and Russia (not approached chronologically in the book). He finishes the book with an objective appraisal of the state of the US economy and also its future promise (which he thinks it has).

He favours Forbes’s nickname as apt because, “Indiana Jones searched for riches among ancient ruins. I search for riches among modern-day economic ruins.” (Rather than this statement coming across like some deluded sense of cool and grandeur, the author makes no attempts to convey this as anything other than someone delighted to be given a cool nickname.)

“For more than thirty years, I have made my living by creating a market for sovereign debts of governments in what are often called, sometimes euphemistically, emerging markets or, sometimes third-world countries.”

Smith has a great, self-deprecating sense of humour, frequently painting his earlier forays into the new and frequently dodgy developing nation sovereign bond market as the actions and posturing of someone clearly in over his head. From his attempts to be threatening and menacing in his first meeting with his money-contact in El Salvador (when, really, the other guy could just have easily had him killed, quietly and efficiently, rather than go into business with Smith). Considering he spends two pages outlining the long history of violence in the small country, his posturing could be seen as suicidal. But, he adds:

“The murder and mayhem went on and on, which is why El Salvador in the mid-1980s was such a perfect place to do business.”

His approach to the business was pretty basic: he went where the big players wouldn’t dream of going. “Your typical banker isn’t keen on to stay in hotels where foreigners are shot, or to work in office buildings that are blown up”, all of which make the risks far too high for larger corporations. But for Smith, “a solo practitioner in a $99 seersucker suit from Filene’s Basement and a bad toupee, the risk of life and limb was lower and the returns, which looked like the five-cent deposits on soda cans to Citibank, looked pretty good.”

“I’ve made and lost tens of millions of dollars by investing in the world’s most derelict and downtrodden economies”, competing with and confronted by war, revolution, rampant inflation, corruption and graft, in “economies battered by bullets and bandits”.

Sometimes the language use can be a bit over-done, or stretched, particularly when it comes to metaphors: Smith says he “surf[s] the perilous tsunamis” of global capitalism,

“and the view of this books is sometimes from the crest of a tsunami. But because I… am human and prone to irrational exuberance from time to time…, sometimes my perspective is from the beach, after the wave has crashed ashore, leaving me bedraggled, alone, and a good deal poorer.”

Smith’s adventures and stories give us a glimpse of a man at the forefront of globalization, chasing money and his dreams of travel (you really get a sense of his wanderlust throughout the book) into regions the big banks would ignore as too risky or worthless. From his experiences (and not a little hindsight), Smith can see how globalization was on the rise in these regions, and he saw first-hand the ways in which people can affect the global economy even without the input or interference from governments.

As for the future, Smith’s prognosis is positive: “the United States, for all its economic problems, is and will remain a stable and relatively predictable place to invest, create a business, and thrive,” cautioning also that the US government must start paying more attention to, and expend more energy addressing, the growing gap between the rich and poor.

“My trading days are over. The globalization of the market and the availability of information rapidly transmitted electronically has made the business much less lucrative than it used to be… But it was a hell of a run, filled with vibrant characters and cochamamy schemes that, even today, seem incredible, even though I thought up some of them myself.”

It does indeed seem to have been quite a ride, and Riches Among the Ruins is a brilliant account of Smith’s travels, with his experiences vividly and engagingly realised on every page, and filled with the knowledge and wisdom he has accumulated over his career. His affection and fascination with different people and civilisations is clear, and you can’t help but be swept up (even a little) by his enthusiasm for his work.

Books about economics are very rarely engaging, entertaining and informative. This manages to be all three and more. It seems bizarre to have got so much enjoyment out of reading it.

Very highly recommended indeed.

Monday, 19 October 2009

“The Murder of Lehman Brothers”, by Joseph Tibman (Brick Tower Press)

Tibman-MurderOfLehmanBros A first-hand, personal account of the demise of Lehman Brothers and what caused it

There are now so many books on the market that discuss the demise of Lehman Brothers (LB). For any new volume to stand out, something special is needed, beyond the quality of research or writing style. According to Tibman, the purpose of his book is “to tell you what it was like within the belly of the beast, during the unimaginable unfolding of events at my office-home that have indisputably impacted the world”, to “tell the tale from an intensely personal perspective”. The author is actually writing under a pseudonym, choosing the name Joe because of the ubiquitous nature of similar names in connection to the 2008 Presidential Elections in the US (Joe-the-Everyman, and of course, Joe-the-Plumber). By writing anonymously, the author was afforded a good deal of freedom to write about events without harming any potential for future employment in finance and banking. His first-person perspective is the ace-in-the-hole for this volume, providing a connection with the events and the firm that is missing from the many other books on LB.

Before he gets to the events of 2007-8, Tibman first lays out a history of the firm. LB has a very long and storied life, not always tarnished by the events of 2008. Tibman says,

“while LB quite often stumbled, and ultimately crashed and burned, the firm did much that was good – not only for the bank accounts of its tabloid defamed rainmakers as well as its clerks (who I pray sold lots of their shares a couple of years ago), but for the development of business and commerce in our country. Of this, I am proud.”

Established in 1850 as a dry-goods business in Alabama, Lehman Brothers quickly morphed into a commodities trader, opening up an office in New York. Until 1969, the firm was always ruled by a member of the Lehman family, but following the death of the last, “dictatorial” Lehman brother, Bobbie Lehman, the firm was left in the hands of “commoners”. The author outlines Bobbie’s tenure as a time of considerable growth, innovative investment in a number of emerging industries, as well as “unparalleled, toxic infighting”.

In the second act of LB’s life, there was no clear dictatorial-style leader to step into Bobbie’s shoes, resulting in some considerable upheaval and a waning in LB’s stature. Pete Peterson, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, would help revive LB during his tenure as CEO (1973-1984), while his manner and demeanour alienated many of his staff, who found him insufferable and a snob. Peterson was succeeded by Lewis Glucksman, another storied employee, after he effectively ousted Peterson (who would go on to found the Blackstone Group). During this time, the infighting between investment bankers and traders continued to grow and fester further (indeed, it would not disappear until after 9/11).

This is also the time during which Dick Fuld, LB CEO upon its death, made a name for himself – as well as illustrating his desire to keep LB independent, voting against its sale to American Express in 1984, a position he would repeat “with Biblical consequences” a couple of decades later. AmEx would later decide that it couldn’t handle the cyclical nature of LB’s industry, and sell it off, with Dick Fuld at the helm. Tibman seems to have a mixed opinion of his former boss, the man sometimes referred to as “the Gorilla” for his tendency to communicate mainly through grunts – “He has puzzled, alienated, and at times impressed me, though I was more impressed by what I heard and read, not what I saw of him first hand.” Fuld was a strong leader in the vein of Bobbie Lehman, ruling with an iron fist and a fearsome reputation: “No one in the firm wanted to deliver bad news to Dick, fearing he would shoot the messenger, perhaps after disembowelling the poor soul.”

Tibman paints an interesting picture of the people he used to work with, as well as those in the same business at large: They are, basically, a bunch of jocks with money. “We became, in our minds, invincible... In hindsight, we were also like a teenager who believes he will live forever.” Each seems to be attempting to out-bravado the next, and this is true between firms, as well as employees. Also, post-9/11, the firm adopted a patriotic need to “deal the terrorists a fuck you”, as the author puts it, putting a patriotic sheen to the driven capitalism that infused the firm and its employees (this is the only time the author submits to schmaltz). However, despite this need to succeed for America, in this “rarefied world” of business, “what matters most is this year’s bonus... at times we capitulated to faulty, flawed judgement.”

“when these lapses occur, we are often found rationalising that the great risk inherent in contemplated business is a trifle. When the lucid point this out, we characterise them as buzz killers. It is this mentality that sometimes leads to disaster.”

And so the seeds for LB’s destruction were sown. Many column inches and pages have been written about the subprime mortgages and “collateralised debt obligations” that brought down the economic system in 2008. While I will freely admit to not entirely understanding it still, Tibman’s account and explanations went a long way to clearing some of the fog for me. At LB, it is clear to the author that only a small number of people among Lehman’s top executives were responsible for the ultimate decision to “accumulate a massive position in real estate assets at the very worst of times.” While there were many experienced voices who cautioned against this move, “in the end, it was the imprudent decision of a very few, deaf to rational internal misgivings, that would ultimately decide Lehman’s fate.”

Fuld, especially, comes across as reckless – on one hand telling guests at the January 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos that he was concerned about the real estate bubble, claiming that LB were reducing their risk and had “taken a bit of money off the table”. This, naturally, impressed his audience, but the truth was the opposite:

“Lehman was not reducing its exposure. Even in early 2007 with visible fissures in the housing market, Lehman was increasing its real estate holdings… in 2007, Lehman added $12 billion of commercial real estate exposure”

This is partly because Fuld had delegated the day-to-day running of the firm to others; particularly to Joe Gregory who “undiscouraged by Dick, did much to insulate, even separate the chief from what was happening at the firm.”

While there are plenty of vigorously researched, intelligent books on the death of Lehman Brothers, Tibman’s tome benefits from first-hand experience of the company since its inception. Another clear benefit of the book is that Tibman highlights the links between politicians in Washington and Wall Street, as well as their part in helping create the environment in which the 2008 crisis could happen. Tibman offers one of the most accessible accounts of the LB debacle, explaining why it was allowed to fold while other firms were bailed out (seems to have been a case of poor timing on LB’s part), and the various reasons the firm collapsed in the first place. Through liberal and frequent use of footnotes to explain important jargon, without ruining the flow of his narrative, Tibman has probably written the most user-friendly account of LB’s demise and guide to the economic collapse of 2008.

There are many who might find some of Tibman’s statements somewhat eyebrow-raising – how, for example, can someone who trumpeted the benefits of free-market capitalism so much, not to mention someone who worked where he did, have a moral makeover? Is it self-serving? Perhaps, but much of what he has written appears sincere and genuine, written with a welcome bluntness and honesty:

“The endgame was always money, and as much of it as possible, but not at any fucking cost. We were not choir boys, but I always thought we were far more scrupulous whores that those who filled the ranks of other investment banks.”

“I cannot pretend that every deal in which I was involved as an investment banker was driven by altruism. Not even close. Such a contention by any investment banker is pure oxymoron.”

The Murder of Lehman Brothers may not be the most objective account of LB’s death – nor does it pretend to be – but it is certainly one of the best available. Tibman’s honesty and writing style make this a refreshing addition to the growing body of literature on the 2008 Economic Crisis, and if you’re looking for something with a first-hand slant, then this is perfect. Accessible and an enjoyable read, I would certainly recommend this book to others.

Other books on Lehman Brothers & Economic Crisis:

Charles Morris, Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown (2009); William Cohen, House of Cards (2009); Lawrence G. McDonald, A Colossal Failure of Common Sense (2009); Vicky Ward, The Great Mistake (2009)

Sunday, 18 October 2009

“Physics for Future Presidents”, by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton)

Muller-PhysicsforPresidentsPbk

The physics behind the news, minus the politics

Richard Muller has done an excellent job of providing a science-for-laymen volume to explain the issues that are currently on the front page and at the forefront of our leaders’ minds. The author quotes Josh Billings to start things off and give some of the reasoning behind the need for a book like his:

“The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance. It’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.”

Separated into well-thought-out sections, Muller methodically goes through some of the key issues facing leaders today: terrorism, energy, nuclear weapons, space, and global warming. Each section has a chapter dealing with each of the main problems that make up the overall issue, in easily digestible chunks and (most importantly) in language that all non-scientists can understand and utilise (up to a point, obviously). Muller doesn’t go into the politics itself behind the issues, instead wishing to provide just the facts minus the opinions and biases of politicians and pundits. His aim was to cover “only the most essential facts and ideas, the key concepts that will help a president make better decisions”. This Muller has more or less done.

I have only a passing aptitude in physics and science (having long-ago succumbed to the pull of the arts and social ‘sciences’), but I found this book engaging and accessible – and, therefore, invaluable. As someone interested in, and writing on, US foreign policy, to know the science behind terrorist attacks, 9/11, nuclear weapons, space programs, and global warming (“a subject in which misinformation is as prevalent as truth”) – from the pen of an actual scientist, rather than a science journalist or politician – is invaluable.

Muller should be praised by all with an interest in the world today, and Physics for Future Presidents should not only be essential reading for future presidents, but all democratically-elected leaders and representatives. He bursts a few cherished ideas and biases, hoping that anyone wanting to be president (or reading the book) will be able to let go of them, accepting that reality is somewhat (if not completely) different from what they have come to accept as truth.

Unlike all of my physics teachers at school, Muller also asks that readers at least try to enjoy the subject matter – because too many people feel physics is stuffy, exclusive knowledge for brainiacs. Fine, some of the finer, more detailed theories will likely (and do) fly way over many people’s heads, but Muller’s book will help shed more light on topics that are relevant to us all, in a manner and style that is inviting and accessible to anyone who might actually pick up the book.

Highly recommended, this is an engaging, interesting and above all illuminating book on the science behind the headlines.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

“Why Not Socialism?”, by Gerald A. Cohen (Princeton University Press)

Cohen-WhyNotSocialism

A short, direct argument for socialism

In this short volume (it’s roughly the size of a passport), Gerald Cohen offers his moral argument for socialism, arguing that any obstacles in the way of socialism’s wider acceptance are exaggerated. Given the deadly nature of the very word “socialism” in America, it would be interesting to see what American politicians thought of this book. Needless to say, we are unlikely to ever find out.

Cohen opens with a theoretical scenario – one of a camping trip – offering a situation where people naturally need to work together, dividing labour and jobs equally. The question that needs to be considered is whether or not socialism is desirable or even possible?

Cohen’s argument is that the chief obstacle to socialism is not intractable human selfishness (as Hobbes, Machiavelli and others might argue). Rather, it is the lack of an obvious means to harness human generosity that is inherent in us all – because we don’t have a way to harness this generosity, society falls back to relying on the market to address pretty much everything.

To be honest, the book is perhaps too short to really convert many people or alter the overarching argument and discussion overly much. However, what this short volume can do is make those who hadn’t thought about it before get involved in the debate (should they want to).

It’s well written, very easy to read, but I felt the length somewhat dissatisfying, despite Cohen’s capturing the argument quite well (he had a lifetime of studying and theorising socialism, so anything less would have been unthinkable).

Worth a try, if you have a spare hour or so.

Monday, 12 October 2009

“The Clinton Tapes”, by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster)

Branch-ClintonTapes

A glimpse into the mind of a sitting President

In The Clinton Tapes, Taylor Branch has produced perhaps the most interesting book on the Clinton presidency (not to mention the man himself) thus far. Through a series of 79 late-night one-on-one interviews, Branch and Clinton recorded hours and hours of candid and honest discussion about issues that were troubling the President or just taking up his time.

Having once shared a flat with the Clintons while working on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, Branch shares some history with Bill, but was nevertheless surprised when the newly elected President approached him to take the post of his personal historian – or the new Arthur Schlesinger (perhaps America’s most famous and successful presidential historian). While the invitation certainly held its positives, Branch felt that their shared history would compromise the project:

“from the start, I would be considered partial to Clinton as his political colleague from long ago, and no ‘court history’ by me could earn much credit for either of us.”

Therefore, in order to avoid this situation, Branch agreed instead to share frequent one-on-one, contemporaneous interviews and conversations with the president, leaving all tapes with the President (who actually stored the tapes in his sock drawer) to do with as he saw fit. The tapes were intended to provide future historians with as honest, candid and unvarnished accounts of Clinton’s thinking as possible, while avoiding all the sticky legal issues that confronted former presidents with a penchant for recording things (Nixon, for example…) or keeping a diary.

Branch didn’t quite manage to avoid the semblance of partiality he was so concerned about when first offered the job. This book is quite clearly pro-Clinton. However, Branch does make no bones about this, accepting this as probably colouring his view and portrayal of his old friend and colleague. Equally, the author accepts that this is not a history per se, nor really a memoir, as it draws almost exclusively from a single perspective. The author believes this book is “a preview in close witness” to whatever might become of the Clinton tapes themselves. Clinton’s “stories enjoy the benefits of privacy, immediacy, and control, but not hindsight. They are revealing but not conclusive.” Despite this, The Clinton Tapes is easily one of the most interesting books on any American president I have ever read (and I’ve read rather a lot).

The range of topics the two friends covered is broad and wide-ranging. From politics to personal topics, Branch and Clinton managed to cover all the most important things in both the President’s life and also his job: the US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo; the troubles of Supreme Court candidates; his difficulties in forming a connection with Jiang Zemin; a single oral history of Clinton’s recollections and feelings on the Whitewater investigation; his affair with Lewinsky (“I think I just cracked”), which was so frustrating for Branch; Boris Yeltsin’s drunken visit to the White House and his embarrassing nighttime quest for pizza; Clinton’s thoughts on the 2000 presidential election and his feelings for Al Gore; Osama bin Laden (a particularly interesting and revealing section); among many others.

As a journalist, it is understandable that Branch broached the subject of the Clintons’ relationship with and opinion of the press – it was notoriously poor, with both Clintons frequently lashing out with hostility towards a press they believed treated them badly, which in turn resulted in poor coverage. The Clinton Branch knew was not the one portrayed in the press, as “most images of Clinton collapsed into formula and hype, however pervasive. They were myths.” Rather, Bill Clinton was far more reflective and intellectually curious than anyone gave him credit for, and far less cynical than accused.

Branch’s prose are fluid and benefit from a journalistic style, making the book both deep and engaging, relatively quick-paced and accessible. While I would perhaps have swapped the order of chapters one and two, the book progresses in a logical and orderly fashion, mirroring somewhat the mindset and conversational style of the author and president’s meetings.

If there is one book on the Clinton Presidency you should own, I think this one just might be it. To compare with a couple of others: John Harris’s The Survivor is great, too, but The Clinton Tapes has great personal input from the subject along with concise context to properly locate events and quotes. Nigel Hamilton’s Mastering the Presidency might be highly detailed, but Branch’s book is far more readable and contains a significant amount of depth and detail while not allowing the reader to drown under the sheer weight of research. The greatest strength of this book is that Clinton’s thoughts were recorded at the time of the events (or near enough), which strips the benefit of much hindsight to colour his recollection.

Branch has retained an eye for accessibility to compliment the considerably ambitious scope of this book. The Clinton Tapes is excellent, and couldn’t come more highly recommended.

Also try: Bill Clinton, My Life (2005); John Harris, The Survivor (2006); David Halberstam, War In a Time of Peace (2003); Joe Klein, The Natural (2003); Sally Bedell Smith, For Love of Politics: The Clintons in the White House (2008); Sidney Blumenthal, The Clinton Wars (2004); George Stephanopolous, All Too Human (2000)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

“The Kennedy Legacy”, by Vincent Bzdek (Palgrave MacMillan)

Bzdek-KennedyLegacy

Through the brothers, an examination of the Kennedy family’s impact on the US and its politics

The Kennedy Legacy is an unusual book, in that it examines this most famous family’s ‘legacy’ primarily from the perspective of the youngest brother, Teddy, rather than predominantly through the tragic figures of his brothers Jack and Bobby. Gary Hart once indelicately wrote,

“The way it worked was the old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass.”

In The Kennedy Legacy, the author shows how Teddy went on to not only avoid falling on his ass, but enjoying a long, successful career in the Senate – some even might say it was, due its longevity, more successful than either Jack’s or Bobby’s. Bzdek’s intention is to show how each brother affected the others, while keeping an eye on Teddy’s place in each ‘era’, how he saw and interacted with his brothers and, ultimately, how he dealt with the heavy burden of carrying the Kennedy torch.

Each part of the book covers the time when a specific brother was the focus or vehicle of family patriarch Joseph Kennedy’s considerable ambitions (he once boasted of wanting to ‘beat’ the Adamses by having more than one son become President). With this approach in mind, the book is separated into the times when first Joe Jr., followed by Jack, Bobby, and finally Teddy bore the Kennedy mantle and family aspirations.

Before this, however, Bzdek offers a portrait of life in the Kennedy household. As someone who has not read that widely on the Kennedy family, I found this introductory chapter (“The Blowtorch”) to be interesting and very informative: Joe Sr and Rosemary Kennedy’s parenting style was quite marshal and very strict, with every family dinner coming across like a catered class or lecture in politics, debate, and history (complete with visiting speakers). These dinners were merely an extension of the aforementioned ambitions of the father.

“The intense pressure Joe Sr. put on his children to succeed was somewhat deflected by the older kids, allowing Ted and the other young ones to fly a little lower under the radar.”

Joe Kennedy Snr. was determined that his children would make a difference in the world and “be somebody”. He certainly got his wish on this account, as Bzdek outlines the achievements of all four of the Kennedy sons. He didn’t get his wish to ‘beat’ the Adamses, but he certainly helped create an enduring Kennedy dominance of Massachusetts and, to an extent, American national politics. (I haven’t gone into details here in the review as the Kennedys are such a highly-publicised family, I thought I’d stick with my opinions on the book itself.)

An interesting new approach to the Kennedy family and its place in US politics, this book compliments Teddy Kennedy’s posthumously-released memoir. Bzdek’s prose are clear and well-constructed, making for an interesting and pleasurable read. His use of extensive interviews with (and exhaustive research into) Kennedy family members and friends brings a good deal of first-hand opinions and memories of the brothers and the rest of the Kennedy clan. Each aspect of the Kennedys’ lives are covered, focusing of course on the political aspects of their careers. Teddy’s role in the family dynamic is well portrayed; the descriptions of his relationship with his brothers and how they interacted illuminating and also explanatory for some of the events and actions they undertook.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe this as ‘revelatory’ as, even though this is actually the first book I’ve read on the Kennedys, most of the content will likely be known already – even if only in passing or through other sources. It is, overall, complimentary and pro-Kennedy, which might disappoint people who would have preferred something a little more balanced. However, Bzdek does not shy away from detailing and discussing the more infamous aspects of Kennedy history, leaving it all on the page for readers to make their own decisions and draw their own conclusions – he reserves his more complimentary passages to Teddy’s senate career and his input and impact on Obama’s election campaign.

As an introduction to the Kennedys, this is a pretty good place to start. Bzdek shows how the brothers ‘passed the torch’ to each other, how their collective efforts have changed and shaped America, and also who might be the Kennedy’s torch-bearer now. It sounds arch, perhaps, and just a little too much like sycophancy, but really Bzdek does an excellent job, and The Kennedy Legacy was a very good read.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in US politics and, of course, the Kennedy family itself.

Also try: Teddy Kennedy, True Compass: A Memoir (2009); Peter Canellos, Last Lion: The Fa'll and Rise of Ted Kennedy (2009); Peter Collier, The Kennedys: An American Drama (2001); Richard D. Mahoney, Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby (2000); Laurie Kennedy, The Importance of Being Kennedy (2008); David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2008)

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

“The Pornography of Power”, by Robert Scheer (Twelve/Hachette)

Scheer-PornographyOfPower

An excellent argument for military- and defence-spending regulation and reform

U.S. defence spending is more than the rest of the world put together. The procurement system us rife with corruption, insider dealing, production of weapons the Pentagon never asked for, and millions (if not billions) of dollars in wasted taxpayer money. In The Pornography of Power, Scheer, a gifted journalist and author, outlines his argument for why defence spending must be cut.

“for the better part of the past century, foreign policy had been directed by Wall Street lawyers, recycled defence executives, and others, like Dick Cheney, who made a bundle while claiming to be primarily interested in the security of their country. But we have long been propagandised into believing that the pecuniary interest of war profiteers is not their driving focus.”

During the Cold War, the Pentagon was beset by an “acquisition fervour” for ever-more complex, expensive and destructive weapons systems, “had at least a somewhat plausible purpose.” Today, however, Scheer shows how procurement requests from Congressmen and Senators have little-to-nothing to do with the War on Terror and combating insurgencies; examples given by Scheer are the C-17 transport plane and the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, to name but two. In the C-17 case, the real reason a $300million request to mothball the fleet became $1.6billion for seven new planes (with plans for more) was clear:

“The pitch to save the plane was all about jobs, jobs, jobs, and rarely was there reference to a national defence need for the transport or to the less savoury matter of Boeing’s profits.”

What Scheer does with his book is expertly outline and describe the twisted web government-corporate connections, and show that the truth is all about jobs, votes, profits for supporters and campaign financiers, and a political fixation with

“the totems of the religion of militarism: sleek and enormously expensive objects to be worshipped for their aura of power rather than their ability to smite one’s enemies, real or imagined.”

Richard Perle, Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (“the senator from Boeing”), Senator Joe Lieberman, Representative Joe Courtney are all fingered as opportunist politicians, interested only in votes and the longevity of their political careers:

“Earmarks for military spending that support jobs and profits back home, not to mention campaign contributions, are particularly attractive because a member of Congress can cloak narrow ambition in the guise of patriotic fervour.”

Two examples stand out. Firstly, Perle, who receives a good deal of space in the book, as Scheer outlines his myriad connections and jobs within both the US government and also the defence industry (sometimes at the same time) – Scheer explains just how profitable Perle’s consulting jobs are (including at Trireme, Vikonics, AEI, Morgan Crucible, and Hollinger). Also, “in the run-up to the Iraq War, no fewer than eight key players with ties to Lockheed [Martin] were connected with the Bush administration.” Lockheed Martin, as well as Boeing and Raytheon are, according to Scheer’s account, so closely linked with the US government and Pentagon, that it makes little sense to describe them as being part of the “private sector”.

Lieberman and Courtney, both of Connecticut, are criticised for their unflagging support of increased spending on ever-more submarines (manufactured in Courtney’s Groton district), while they are totally irrelevant to the War on Terror (even the heavy-spending Bush administration balked at this). When they can’t justify the funds on GWOT-grounds, they usually revert to invoking a more traditional enemy: “the yellow horde of communist-run China.”

This political fixation on the importance of China as an appropriations tool is reference throughout the book, but also receives its own chapter (“The Chinese are Coming!”). Scheer outlines the narrow-sightedness of pointing the finger at a menacing or threatening China, using plentiful evidence and data produced by the Intelligence Community that suggests the US has quite some time before it would have to start worrying about China’s military power. Despite the frequent negative opinion of China,

“The derogatory adjectives are left out these days… in deference to the fact that these same [Chinese]... now are carrying a large part of the U.S. debt incurred in building weapons we don’t need. The joke is on us; we use the China scare to buy weapons to contain the menace of China, and those same Chinese profit from the interest they charge us on loans to pay for the weapons to contain them.”

But, through the influence of some key neoconservatives and defence hawks, China remains a spectre on the horizon. Scheer describes Perle’s input as part of the Project for a New American Century:

“In the post-Cold War PNAC statement [Perle]... is even loath to give up the expectation (or is it hope?) that China, if not a revived Russia, might still be expected to perform as the centre of a revitalised evil empire.”

These are just some of the arguments and themes discussed in The Pornography of Power. Overall, the book is meticulously and comprehensively researched, excellently and engagingly written – it’s not often that one finds a book about the military-industrial complex that is this detailed and, at the same time, this enjoyable a read. I was almost as hooked reading this as I am with some good novels. As a text I am using in my latest PhD chapter, it was surprising to find that I’d stopped taking notes and just sitting back and enjoying reading.

Not all of Scheer’s arguments are totally persuasive, and he sometimes (and far from often) falls into the same trap as pundits like Noam Chomsky – the occasional inability to see something corporate-related as anything other than undesirable and a conspiracy. Take the example of Bruce Jackson (like Perle, someone with his fingers in multiple government and contractor pies), and his input into NATO enlargement:

“The requirement for joining NATO is that new members’ military forces have to be reequipped with modern weapons systems, most of which is supplied by the United States and our allies.”

For Scheer, this illustrates corporate influence over international relations’ processes. While it’s possible to see it this way, it could also show exploitation of something that was popular with many, rather than corporate-created/-controlled foreign policy. There are plenty of benefits from modernising a country’s military, and also the likelihood that it would diminish the need for the US and its allies to do all the fighting, as well as being a sensible policy. If there were explicit clauses that dictated “thou shallt buy from Lockheed Martin”, I might be more inclined to see the military-industrial complex covertly at work, but as the stipulation was just to modernise, it’s unlikely that Jackson was a lobbyist on behalf of all Western defence contractors. On the US domestic scene, however, as I mentioned above, there is clear evidence that defence contractors have disproportionate influence on Congressmen and Senators.

This book contains some surprising and damning information and anecdotes of politicians, from both parties, exploiting the system to a quite frankly irresponsible and disgusting extent (for every example, Scheer provides plenty of evidence). It is no secret, and certainly not a new argument, that American defence spending is out of control; What makes Scheer’s book unique – and consequently so important – is the depth of analysis and the research he has conducted. Thus far, I have not found a book that deals so well with US politicians’ addiction to the aforementioned “totems” religious militarism, or how they manipulate the system in their favour, interested only in creating job and profits for their supporters and financiers.

Excellently researched and written, as well as a very enjoyable read, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American government and its processes.

Also read: Lawrence Davidson, Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest (2009); Tao Xie, US-China Relations: China Policy on Capitol Hill (2009); Jean A. Garrison, Making China Policy: From Nixon to George W. Bush (2005)

Thursday, 17 September 2009

“Washington,” by Fergus M. Bordewich (Amistad/HarperCollins)

Bordewich-Washington The making of the American Capital

The story of Washington D.C., is an amazing tale of high ideals, incompetence, greed and the struggle of the slave-class. The city, Bordewich tells us, “was born from one of the most intense political struggles in American history, one shaped by power politics, big money, the imperatives of slavery, ferocious sectional rivalry, and back-room dealing.” In Washington, Bordewich offers a biography of the great city, touching on the main issues and people involved.

“The establishment of Washington, D.C., was, at least in part, rooted in fictions: that the Potomac was destined to become the high road to the West, that there was no better location for the seat of government, that land speculators could do for the nation what its elected officials would not, that executive privilege could shield Congress and the public from unpleasant truths, and that – the biggest illusion of all – slavery had little or nothing to do with putting the capital on the Potomac in the first place.”

In Washington, Bordewich has managed to convey admirably this amazing story, capturing the sense of the time brilliantly. The city is an amazing feat of accomplishment, especially for a nation that was so backward and insecure as the fledging United States. It is a city of “the sepulchral monuments to past presidents and to wars won and lost... massive government buildings, museums, foreign embassies, and the taut axis of republican power formed by the Capitol and the White House”, which taken together “shape a cityscape that emanates both national self-confidence and imperial grandeur like no other in the world.”

That is now. Towards the end of the 19th Century, however, “few questions agitated the new country’s leaders as much as the site of its permanent capital,” and the story of its creation is a useful tool to illustrate the politics of the time(s). Or, in the author’s words, this struggle is “a kind of national parable, embodying the central contradiction of America, persisting even today, between noble intentions and the sordid realities of power.”

To begin with, Bordewich discusses the choice of the Potomac as the location for the new city, how this was not really a popular choice, as many saw it at the time as a “barbarous wilderness”. The city was seen as a test for the young nation. It had to work, the founding generation believed; otherwise America’s various enemies (the “hungry wolves”) might see it as a sign of, unable to create a seat of power and authority, and ripe for exploitation and conquest.

The city’s location did not just have international implications, as domestic considerations played a considerable, at some times insurmountable, obstacle to a final decision. The politics involved in choosing a location were fraught with Machiavellian manoeuvrings (once again, the skill of James Madison is on display). The story illustrates how timeless politics is, and how nothing is new in the public sphere, as “virtually from the start, the project was hobbled by scandalous financial manipulation, and a degree of incompetence sometimes suggestive of a modern banana republic.”

As well as the city and politics involved, Bordewich introduces us to the broad cast involved in its creation, giving us detailed (sometimes amusing) portrayals of key figures – from the timeless names of Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, to the lesser-known characters like Peter Charles L’Enfant (the city’s flamboyant planner), whose Romanesque, neoclassical designs in New York were described as “vamped up Jimcrackery and Gingerbread” and an insult to Congress. Others include Capitol-designer William Thornton. One of the most interesting portraits is that of the brilliant black mathematician, astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who conducted some of the essential work needed on the first survey of the city. along with various piratical speculators whose greed nearly sank the grand project more than once

Without slaves, D.C. could never have been built, and yet (in another example of a white-washed founding/history myth) “For two centuries, their presence, and their sacrifice, was largely left out of the story of the capital’s creation, as if they had never been there.”

“There would be free white, and a few free black, wage earners who contributed their sweat to the creation of the capital. But much of the work that would make the city a reality would be done by men who were hired out to the [city] commissioners and their agents, and who were rewarded with nothing but bread, sardines, and salt pork. The capital would become, at least in part, a slave labor camp.”

The politics of slavery, therefore, played a huge part in the founding of the capital, and therefore Bordewich has made it a central element to this book. Originally, Philadelphia (the nation’s capital from 1791-1800) was being re-designed to fulfil the greater function of a world-class capital (the Susquehanna River was also considered). However, given the city’s status as virulently abolitionist, not to mention the growing population of free blacks, rendered it politically unfeasible as a capital – the delicate balance between North and South, slave-state and free-, required a compromise.

The task of compromise, and much more was left to the aging and ailing George Washington, as – even though much of the actual politicking was done by others,

“For most of a generation, Washington the man had been the living symbol of a national unity that transcended local jealousies and selfish interests. When he was gone, a new symbol that transcended one man's personal charisma must knit together the disparate people who called themselves Americans: Washington the city.”

Washington peals back the many layers of myth and fable surrounding America’s capital, revealing the hidden and unsavoury side to the nation’s beginnings and how it developed into, in Bordewich’s words, “a massive symbol that would embody the spirit of a nation that barely yet existed.” Beset by myriad financial and political obstacles, it is a story of triumph over adversity, and political courage and skill. Bordewich has an excellent writing style that will engage and inform while also drawing the reader along, and Washington is therefore an excellent addition to the existing literature on America’s capital.

This is easily one of the best written history books of the year.

Also try: Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); David Reynold’s, America, Empire of Liberty (2007); Frederick Gutheim, Worthy of the Nation (2006); Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations (2005); Joseph Passonneau, Washington Through Two Centuries (2004)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

“Foreign Policy, Inc.”, by Lawrence Davidson (University of Kentucky)

Davidson-ForeignPolicyInc The Privatisation of American Foreign Policy?

In one of the few books that discusses the general role of special interests in the American foreign policy-making process (as opposed to specific lobbies, e.g. the Israel Lobby), Lawrence Davidson has written a valuable resource for those who are interested in how the US makes the policies it does, and who is involved in the process. Over the course of the book, Davidson touches upon all the key issues and areas involved in the topic: outlining the rise of lobbying, the constitutional window that allows for lobbyists (First Amendment), the impact on Senators and Congressmen, and the role of the media.

The book is well-structured, with the author first setting the scene, as it were, by providing his explanation as to why non-governmental special interests are able to influence policymakers (“localism”), and why the general population is largely unaware of this influence. Following this, Davidson provides two solid chapters of historical context, explaining the evolution of lobbies (corporate, ethnic, and so forth), followed by two case studies (the Cuba and Israel Lobbies), and a conclusion.

The aim of the book, the author writes, is to

“challenge the notion that the United States is a democracy of individuals... Instead, the United States is, I suggest, a democracy of competing interest groups or lobbies.”

To describe this, Davidson coins the phrase “factocracy”, referring to a democracy taken over by competing, proportionately small factions.

Davidson suggests that the lack of public awareness of government and, especially, foreign affairs is the product of “localism”, whereby people are naturally more interested in issues that directly affect their lives, ignoring issues that appear remote or, well, foreign to their lives:

“if most Americans are disinterested in foreign affairs, it follows that foreign policy has no necessary connection to popular concerns or even preferences. If this is so, whose concerns and preferences does foreign policy reflect?”

Davidson continues, arguing that a

“consequence of naturally occurring localism and its accompanying disinterest in foreign events is that the general population in effect abdicates influence over policy formulation in favour of whatever numerically small subset of the citizenry does care about foreign policy.”

The author spends a short amount of space discussing the role of media corporations in the foreign policy debate, and how they help to shape and frame foreign issues in ways that suit their parent companies; “stylizing” the news, as Davidson puts it. This leads to the situation where local news can be run through personal filters due to actual knowledge,

“The further from home they go in terms of [news/foreign] reporting, the less local citizens are able to judge objectivity and accuracy. Under such circumstances, just how exposed are local citizens to misinformation and media manipulation?”

While Davidson doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, it does help to set the tone for the rest of the book.

When considering Davidson’s thesis, there are some issues with it. Mainly, Davidson takes evidence of special interest activity as proof that American national interest and foreign policy has been usurped by business and/or special interests. In this respect, he follows the theses of Noam Chomsky and Valerio Volpi, who argue (to put it simply) that business is basically in control of every aspect of American politics and society. The author’s arguments do not convince me of this – with the exception of America’s Cuba policy, which has been hijacked by Cuban-American interests, as a congressional pander for votes and campaign finance.

For the main, and in relation to US foreign policy as a whole, it has to be assumed that profit-oriented businesses will always exploit any opportunity to increase profits – if a foreign policy opens up such an opportunity, of course corporate lobbyists will look to their clients’ interests. However, Davidson argues that this is evidence of lobbies directing foreign policy. The furthest I’d be willing to go, based on what he’s presented in this book, is that business and special interests are very adept at taking advantage of governmental policies.

One piece of evidence, for example, is in reference to America’s (admittedly far-from-stellar) actions in South America. The author points to testimony from Chiquita Brands executives admitting to funding right-wing paramilitary groups as evidence that

“U.S. foreign policy in Central America had... been privatised by the economically oriented special interests that represent businesses such as United Fruit/Chiquita Brands. It is their parochial interests that had come to define the U.S. national interest in this part of the world.”

While this may very well be true, the example he presents contains no evidence that this action was done on the government’s behalf – it looks like it was actually done irrespective and counter government policies and aims. Davidson also places responsibility for the Spanish-American War (1898), the Mexican War (1846-48), the annexation of Hawaii (1898) and the subjugation of the Philippines (1898) at the feet of business interests.

While it may read as if I am discounting Davidson’s argument as a whole, I should clarify that I am not. I believe the inference of corporate influence is very strong, however no author or academic can ‘prove’ direct influence over or subordination of policy to special interests – regardless of how ‘obvious’ it might be to us that the media and lobbies ‘greatly influence’ government discourse and decision-making. It is quite probable that policymakers are influenced by what they see, hear and read about any given subject – especially considering lobbies expertise at exploiting the media as their mouthpiece – but this does not mean they will take their cues from outside interests.

The book is well written, and should be accessible to all, though some sentences are a bit clunky, with the occasional malapropism that the editor should have caught (“purposively”). At times, it feels like the author is using the book as his soap-box to outline his grievances with the George W. Bush administration, American business, the Israel Lobby, and so forth. While this is disappointing, it is hardly surprising or new, and Davidson at least doesn’t descend into writing ad hominem, unsubstantiated attacks.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with his arguments, or if you believe the evidence he provides could be considered definitive ‘proof’ for non-governmental influence, Foreign Policy, Inc. will give you plenty of information to help formulate your own opinions, as well as locate the information in an easily-digestible history of special interest activity in the United States. Benefitting from extensive research, Davidson has written an excellent introduction to the role of special interests in the American foreign policy process.

Given the importance and wide-reaching impact of US foreign policy, greater understanding of the process by which it is made is invaluable and essential. This book will set you in the right direction.

Despite its minor shortcomings, I would definitely recommend this book.

Also try: Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke, Silence of the Rational Center (2006); Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent (1988, 2008); Valerio Volpi, The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism (2009); Stephen M. Walt & John J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007); Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2004); John Newhouse, “Diplomacy, Inc.” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2009)