Tuesday, 28 April 2009

“The Age of the Unthinkable”, by Joshua Cooper Ramo (Little, Brown)


Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It

According to the author, the world works much the same way a sand-pile does. If you keep dropping grains of sand onto first a flat surface and then on top of the growing pile, it will eventually experience an avalanche effect. It is inevitable, but also unpredictable. This metaphor is used to help explain everything from power politics to the environment, and also business and stock-markets.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo argues we are entering a world where previously unacknowledged forces are creating considerable instability, resulting in “an avalanche of ceaseless change”. We are, the author proposes,

“at the start of what may become the most dramatic change in the international order in several centuries, the biggest shift since European nations were first shuffled into a sovereign order by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.”

One of the main problems facing us is that “some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking.” This includes the tendency of international relations scholars and political elites to rigidly adhere to the long-held notion that states are the key actors in geopolitics and domestic politics. The world is much more complex than that: large corporations (in a non-conspiracy way) can have great effect on domestic and international politics, and terrorist organisations can throw nations and economics into turmoil (as just two examples). Myriad forces are at work in the world, exerting influence daily on these traditional bulwarks of political and economic life and order. Basically, our leaders “lack the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit our moment demands,” meaning we have effectively left the fate of our future “in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.”

The Age of the Unthinkable is a broad book in scope and ambition, covering a number of issues and topics, using varied examples as far apart as Hizb’allah, global economics, Nintendo, spymasters, Picasso and Cubism, and investors in Silicon Valley; it also draws on examples of creative thinking from music, the Internet, science and medicine. Ramo displays his frustration with international relations theory and its practitioners by calmly and intelligently (and a touch humorously) pointing out the flaws of realism – the dominant IR theory – and Democratic Peace Theory. For the two theories, he provides illuminating, concise histories and summaries. He describes how

“lovely as they were in the classroom, those [theoretical] models were largely useless in reality… Despite their good intentions, most of our foreign policy thinkers today resemble students who arrive to take a test that is composed in a language they do not speak.”

Democratic peace theory, in particular, is frowned upon:

“Believing… that the triumph of democracy and capitalism is inevitable should disqualify you immediately from a serious position in foreign policy.”

Rather than predicting our inevitable doom, as some authors are wont to do, Ramo hopes to offer a guide of how we can save ourselves – through a “heroic act of reimagination” – in this ever-changing, volatile global environment. The first part of the book is his attempt to “destroy, politely, the idea that our current thinking about international affairs is of much use.”

The choice the author presents to us is simple: “imagination or crisis.” The ability to adapt to unpredictable forces, to accept the world as a far more complex entity than we perhaps do at the moment, while also insisting on the importance of empathy and resilience, are all key to Ramo’s prescription.

“laying the foundation for a sensible international order – one that fits 2009, not 1989 – requires moving into areas where traditional thinkers about power are least comfortable, a whole way of thinking where old math rules are discarded.”

It’s very difficult to disagree, in the face of the economic and political crises currently presented to us and the failure of specific theories to predict or explain our current situation. His use of seemingly unrelated examples bears fruit as he clearly explains how creative thinking in one field can be applied to others, with considerable results. The rigidity of our leaders is prohibitive.

Ramo’s writing style is exceptional. It is inviting, accessible, and lucid, formed during his incredibly successful years as a journalist. Working now as Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, it is somewhat surprising that he would take realism to task (Kissinger being perhaps the most famous realist). Some might consider his opinion of IR theorists and scholars overly harsh, but his criticisms bear consideration and do (in certain instances at least) have the ring of truth to them. The benefits of flexibility and new thinking are clearly lacking in today’s international relations fields (both academic and practical). His arguments are balanced and well substantiated, lacking in polemic, and should be taken to heart by all.

This is an essential read, pure and simple.

Also try: Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (2008); Chris Patten, What Next? (2008); Francis Fukuyama, Blindside (2008) it’s actually difficult to make proper recommendations, as this book is wonderfully unique.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

“House of Cards”, by William D. Cohan (Allen Lane)

Cohan-HouseOfCardsHow Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism

On March 16th 2008, 85-year-old Bear Stearns sold itself to JP Morgan for the incredible low price of $2 per share. Brokered behind the scenes by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, it was hoped that the deal would avert a feared financial cataclysm or a par with the Wall Street crash that precipitated the Great Depression. House of Cards focuses on the collapse of Bear Stearns; how a business that had been riding high mere months before unraveling with catastrophic knock-on effects felt around the globe. The process involved a number of events and developments in international finance.

“Nothing seemed amiss at Bear. But some inside the firm were very scared indeed,” Cohan tells us. It was not only some on the inside, though as rumours and insinuations set investors and lenders against Bear Stearns, what really brought Bear down was when analysts and other Wall Street players started to question Bear’s liquidity and the considerable investment in mortgage-backed-securities (specifically sub-prime mortgages). Ignoring the warnings, Bear’s management just kept on doing what they’d always done, playing bridge and borrowing copious amounts of money all while greed grew and grew.

“The holy grail of investment banking became increasing short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health of the firm and its shareholders.” (Less than a year before Bear Stearns was sold, Alan Schwartz, then CEO, was paid in excess of $35million in cash.)

What becomes very clear from reading the book is that those in charge of Bear Stearns clearly were working from a different script, pursuing policies that made no sense to those on the outside:

“if you have all this nuclear waste on your balance sheet, what are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to cut your dividends, you’re supposed to raise equity, and you’re supposed to shrink your balance sheet. And they just did the opposite. They took on more leverage.”

House of Cards is a rare book. Covering the ten disastrous days in March 2008, it is written with considerable narrative flare, not to mention a pace that is reminiscent of a thriller (perhaps like Brad Meltzer’s The Millionaires, given the subject matter). While this is certainly a boon in the currently-choking market for books about the current economic crisis, Cohan’s focus on pace does bring with it a couple of downsides.

Most importantly, and certainly in the first two chapters, the reader is under an almost constant barrage of new names, data, and Wall Street patois that, if you’re not familiar with them already, might leave you a little lost. (It was only thanks to Charles Morris’s Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown that I wasn’t left completely adrift.)

Overall, House Of Cards is an engaging book about corporate greed on a truly epic scale. Showing how what befell Bear Stearns can be seen as a microcosm of what ultimately felled the rest of the financial system, the book is filled with plenty of insider information (and a lot of hind-sight backstabbing), colourful characters and plenty of detail, the book is both engrossing, illuminating and to learn about the antics and methods of those involved is often horrifying and unbelievable. Cohan draws on a great level of access to and interviews with the key players in the crisis (and some on the periphery) to paint a devastating picture of Bear Stearns’s actions and condition. This is especially true of Jimmy Cayne who, along with Cy Lewis and Ace Greenberg, helped shape Bear Stearns over its 85-year history. Cayne is frequently present in the form of long, expletive-peppered quotes.

One of the most readable, riveting books about the economic crisis, and the colourful (in many ways abhorrent) characters involved, House Of Cards is a recommended read for everyone.

Also try: Jeffrey Goldberg, “What Now?” (The Atlantic, May 2009); Henry Blodget, “Why Wall Street Always Blows It” (The Atlantic, December 2008); Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup” (The Atlantic, May 2009); Charles Morris, The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown (2009); George Soros, The Crash of 2008 (2009); Bryan Burrough & John Heylar, Barbarians At The Gate (1990); Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987 – obviously fiction, but it’s an interesting counterpart)

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

“The China Fantasy”, by James Mann (Viking)


“How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression”

This is just a quick review, as this book has been out for a couple of years already.

The China Fantasy is the third book about China written Mann, who is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and current author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H Nitze School of Advance International Studies. The book is not meant as a book about China itself, rather it is about outside impressions of China. In other words, it is about US governmental, academic and media views of the world’s most populous and fastest-growing nation. “It is about the China of the elites, about the views of China that prevail in Washington… and i corporate headquarters around the globe.”

The book came into a good deal of criticism when it was released, ironically from people who – in certain ways – proved Mann’s point about American impressions of China and the US-China relationship. That is one largely based around conciliation and “understanding” of what Chinese leaders have to deal with, and saying/writing/advocating nothing that could jeopardize American investment and business concerns in China.

The author explains that “The Soothing Scenario”, which is the mainstream view of China (shared by business, scholars and presidents of both parties), “holds that China’s economic development will lead inexorably to an opening of China’s political system”, even though there has been little evidence of this being the case so far since the 1980s, when the scenario was widely adopted. Mann proposes a different possibility, and that is of a China that in the future does not democratise in the future. If this is what happens, considering the Soothing Scenario’s utilization for every trade and economic policy change towards China, “the American public will have been deceived”, the author says. He takes particular issue with the perceived softening of the US’s stance on human rights abuses under this scenario.

The picture Mann draws is rather negative. China, the authoritarian giant across the Pacific, tugging America any which way that suits it, comfortable in the knowledge that no noteworthy American official, scholar or journalist will write a truly damning peace on Chinese repression, authoritarianism, or human rights. All in the name of protecting business interests.

Mann takes scholars, government officials and journalists to task over their wholehearted acceptance that engagement will ultimately lead to all of America’s China dreams coming true. He provides plenty of “evidence” to suggest they are wrong and to back-up his position. It’s difficult to disagree. His sweeping statements don’t help his case, as there are plenty of scholars who do criticize China (see “The Mandarins”, by Ken Silverstein, for some repercussions of this).

The author takes particular issue with Nicholas Kristoff’s famous quote: “No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.” Mann refers to this as “The Starbucks Fallacy”, which suggests that because Chinese people now eat at McDonalds, drink Starbucks coffees, and buy clothes from The GAP, then they are becoming more like Americans, and therefore will want a political system more like America’s. It plays into the perception that the whole of China is as it appears in the coastal cities, those areas foreigners actually see, a perception Mann correctly points out is wrong, not to mention assuming the Chinese people have exactly the same desires as Americans (which, obviously, they don’t). This is not to say that the Chinese do not, en masse, want representative government, as Mann convincingly argues, but maybe the CCP is correct when they assert “Yes, but not just yet…”.

Not everyone will agree with Mann’s thesis. In fact, many have already rushed to publish opposition papers. But, regardless of whether or not you accept his argument whole, there are certainly plenty of truths within The China Fantasy. Mann thankfully didn’t give in to the hyper-anti-China rantings of some analysts, who subscribe to the “China Threat Theory”, and the book benefits immensely from this. Mann appears, to me at least, to want to open the Washington elites’ eyes to another possibility for China’s future, to dispel the wishful thinking and self-serving prophesies about China’s future, so the US can start dealing with China properly, with no preconceptions or unrealistic dreams. It is an admirable wish.

A very short book, it would have benefitted from a wider look at the relationship, as well as a little more context within which to locate his argument. Other than that, it is an enjoyable, thought-provoking, quick read. Recommended.

Also try: James Mann, Beijing Jeep (1997) & About Face (2000); David M Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); James Kynge, China Shakes The World (2005); Peter Navarro, The Coming China Wars (2008); Richard Bernstein & Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict With China (1998); Carla Hills & Dennis Blair (eds.), U.S.-China Relations: An Affirmative Agenda, A Responsible Course (2007)

Sunday, 19 April 2009

“Invisible Hands”, by Kim Phillips-Fein (W.W. Norton)

Phillips-Fein-InvisibleHands “The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan”

For much of the period following World War Two, the ideas and policies espoused by the American conservative movement (i.e. the primacy of the free-market and the dangers of powerful labour unions, government activism and regulation) had largely been rejected, and FDR’s New Deal proceeded largely unhindered.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, a handful of prominent businessmen in America, in response to FDR’s New Deal, forged alliances aimed at protecting their profits and (in their eyes at least) rescuing America as a whole, from the encroaching “nanny state” and creeping socialism.

Invisible Hands takes a different approach to the rise of American conservatism than most books on the subject. As Phillips-Fein writes in the introduction to the book,

“This is a book about conservative politics. But it isn’t about the political leaders of the movement, the men like Reagan whose names and faces everyone knows. It is a book about businessmen… who supported and helped build the conservative movement that brought Reagan to power in 1980.”

While Reagan and his like do make minor appearances in the book (especially towards the end), Invisible Hands focuses more on the people behind the scenes of the conservative movement, charting the evolution of the movement through the post-war years, through the turbulent 1970s, Reagan’s administration and then finally bringing it up to date in a brief epilogue. The author outlines the institutions created to help disseminate conservative ideologies, and how they matured as the decades passed.

“Throughout the postwar period, these institutions and the people who created them were engaged in a conscious attempt to mirror and to counter the labor and countercultural political movements that challenged the dominance of business. But as those other social and political movements have been defeated, as the labor movement has dwindled and the left has been pushed back, the idea of a political movement of businessmen, so often referred to and dreamed of by conservative activists, successful in so many ways, has come to seem oddly melodramatic and out of place.”

The characters within are usually interesting and of diverse temperaments. Almost all are largely unknown, larger-than-life and sometimes eccentric personalities.

They include such notables as the Du Pont brothers, who had struck it rich during the World Wars producing weapons, plastics and the like, but were also pillars of their communities (Pierre Du Pont, for example, donated $4million to schools for Black children in the Jim Crow state Delaware). It would appear that the Du Ponts kicked the whole movement off with, in alliance with other businessmen, the creation of the (ill-fated and short-lived) American Liberty League, in 1934.

Other leading members of the cast include Leonard Read, William Clinton Mullendore, J Howard Pew, Any Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged), Jasper Crane, Lemuel Boulware (GE’s strike-buster), William F. Buckley Jr. (National Review founder) and Roger Milliken. All these people and more besides helped set up the think tanks, radio stations, magazine, and intellectual organisations (funded by business interests) that helped form the infrastructure of the conservative movement in the 1950s.

Meticulously researched, and skillfully written: the author’s prose are very clear and make for an accessible and fascinating (if at times rather dry) read. The author shows how a small group of businessmen cemented the opposition to the post-war “liberal consensus”, and engineered a slow-yet-steady turnaround in American politics.

Invisible Hands is an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at the rise of the conservative movement. It is especially valuable as it does not focus on the usual cast of characters – the Reagans, Goldwaters, and so forth – but rather those who helped create, organise and execute a pragmatic, step-by-step campaign that promoted a specific ideology and ultimately propelled these conservative ideas to electoral triumph in 1980. Equally, it is a look at the other side of the Republican party – that not associated with religiosity and intense culture-war tactics (though the adoption of Christian morality, etc., into the conservative tent is discussed in chapter 4). That being said, Phillips-Fein’s greatest contribution is the even-handed neutrality with which she approaches her subject, drawing Invisble Hands away from the bias-prone study of (conservative) US politics.

With plenty of books published in the last couple of years looking to the future of the conservative movement and Republican party (e.g. Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party), it is both refreshing and beneficial to read a book that lays out, in detail, its past and ideological history.

Also try: Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan (2008); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant (2006); H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class (2008); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (2006); Dean Baker, The Conservative Nanny State (2006); Gregory Schneider, Conservatism in America since 1930 (2003)

Thursday, 16 April 2009

“The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown”, by Charles R. Morris (PublicAffairs)


Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash

In Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, Charles Morris walks the reader through the instruments involved in the current economic crisis – how they work, and how they are abused, to provide us with a brief, accessible account of why the economy is in the state it is.

This is easily one of the best books on the current crisis, as it offers – in clear language with minimal jargon – an introduction to the whole problem. The book starts with a description of how New Deal and Keynesian liberalism was replaced by Milton Friedman’s “monetarism”, and what this meant for the American economy, provided through a detailed almost journalistic account of the American economy from LBJ to George W. Bush.

The author’s outlook is understandably bleak:

“as of this writing, the sickening stock market down-drafts continue, and credit markets remain semicatatonic. The gut-freezing comprehension is finally taking hold that this is not really, at the end of the day, just a banking phenomenon. America’s problems, and therefore the world’s, go much deeper than that”

Morris has a great deal to say about the economic system, most notably the self-inflicted nature of its downfall: “It’s impossible to exaggerate the sheer idiocy of the financial machinery of the 2000s… An evil genie would not have designed a structure more prone to disaster.” The book also details the connectedness of the global system, starting with the knock-on effects of Bear Stearns’ trouble in 2007 and what it started (described, at two different occasions, in an scary-domino-effect way).

Based on high consumer spending and insane leverage of assets, the system was built on shaky foundations. With personal consumption reaching a staggering, unprecedented 72% of GDP in 2007, and a trade deficit of 4.8% of GDP, the United States found itself in a dire situation. Like many others, Morris lays the blame for America’s condition (“a debt-fuelled party, marked by a consumer binge on imported goods”) at the feet of the free-market zealotry that has come to embody conservative politics in the United States. Unlike some, however, he knows what he’s talking about, giving proper accounts of the financial “inventions” and evolutions in finance that helped create the credit bubble.

These include: the rise of “shadow banking”; breakthroughs in personal computing (though this is difficult to consider evil); an increase in mathematics PhDs on Wall Street and their ability to “carve up and reassemble old-fashioned asset classes so they were custom-fit to investor needs” (leading to a pretense that all finance can be “mathematized”); new classes of complex, structured investment instruments; an exploding, largely unregulated sub-prime mortgage market; the shift of financial transactions to unregulated markets; the continued interest-rate cuts; securitization (i.e. the packaging of loans as collateralized mortgage obligations); Ralph Cioffi at Bear Stearns; the “tsunami of dollars” in the world system and the US’s foreign debt.

His prescriptions for how to fix the system don’t run on the same lines as President Obama’s bailouts (indeed, published before the new administration rolled out its inflated bailout estimates, it would be interesting to know what Morris thinks of Obama’s policies). “Re-energising consumer borrowing and spending with cheap money is exactly the wrong prescription”; instead, according to Morris, consumption has to fall, while savings and investments need to rise. Equally, the United States has got to start producing more than it is consuming, something that hasn’t been the case for decades. Morris, however, is not too optimistic:

“The sad reality is that there is no easy way out. For about a decade now, we have had a false prosperity based on a huge water-wheel of money, fuelling a debt-financed, import-driven consumer binge. Personal savings rates have dropped to zero, and the world is flooded with dollars. The new dollar lakes from the Paulson/Bernanke rescue efforts just put us deeper underwater.”

The author also asks why the Fed hasn’t stepped in more aggressively, and the simple answer is that it can’t:

“there isn’t much the Fed can do. All the years of working the liquidity pump has sucked out everything but the brine.”

In an updated chapter for this new edition of the book, Morris voices his concern about Bernanke’s actions at the Fed, and the Fed’s questionable asset acquisitions since 2007, which might make Federal balance sheets look increasingly like the banks they are trying to save – which won’t be encouraging to foreign or domestic investors in Fed/Treasury notes or bills.

The book is gloomy, for sure. It will make you angry and frustrated with bankers, hedge-fund managers, and other financial-sector employees. There’s no real way the book could have been anything else. Morris is, however, an authoritative voice on the subject, and as a result his words come across as measured and calm. The book is accessible and short (177 pages, I read it in a day), but there are times when his explanations of economic systems just went over my head (this is more an indictment of my own failure to understand economics than anything else). That being said, his explanations often illuminated parts of the crisis and financial system that I had long considered beyond my ken, and for this he deserves considerable praise.

As an introduction to the crisis lacking in hyperbole, or for anyone who wants to know what caused it without being steamrolled by copious amounts of economics jargon only MBAs will understand, Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown is the brilliant place to start.

Also try: Jeffrey Goldberg, “What Now?” (The Atlantic, May 2009); Henry Blodget, “Why Wall Street Always Blows It” (The Atlantic, December 2008); Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup” (The Atlantic, May 2009); William Cohan, House Of Cards (2009); George Soros, The Crash of 2008 (2009) Reviews of both of these books are currently in the works

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

“Now or Never”, by Jack Cafferty (Wiley)


“Getting Down to the Business of Saving our American Dream”

In Now or Never, CNN reporter and talking head Jack Cafferty takes a look at America as it is today, and offers his opinion on what is amiss and what should be done to save the American Dream.

The book is a bit of a mixed bag, with each chapter covering different issues and facets of life and politics in America. Topics covered include:

- The 2008 election (the “$1 Billion Battle”).

- Bush’s legacy (“executive branch run amok”) in both domestic (especially economics) and foreign policy.

- The foreign policy challenges facing America (“I hope President Obama has brought a big shovel with him to the Oval Office, because it’s going to take him a while to muck out the Bush barn”), including Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and a resurgent Russia.

- Education in America and the results of the Bush administration’s slashing of funding (“The kids who come out of our schools are often dumber than rocks”).

- Immigration.

- The state of parenting in America, and how when it comes to poor manners, “the kids aren’t special, and I don’t have to put up with their behaviour. If you can’t control your obnoxious little brats, leave them at home. They don’t belong out in public…” (A lot of this chapter rings true for the UK.)

- Energy policy and the party nominees’ flip-flopping throughout the campaign season on the best way to address this issue (with the Republican off-shore drilling as potentially disastrous to the environment and tourism in coastal regions).

- The national debt, the state of the economy and what it means for future generations. As well as going after the Bush administration (“Our collective failure to pay our bills and run our economic house responsibly is threatening to take this country down”), Cafferty goes after the rich and clueless bankers, berating them for their greed and causing the “seismic jolts” on Wall Street.

Cafferty also offers a couple of biographical chapters about his family and fatherhood. Filled with factual data and information, but overlaid with Cafferty’s trademark opinions, wit and style, Now or Never is a breath of fresh air in this genre.

The chapter on the primaries and election is amusing, as Cafferty reprimands the Democrats for “their overwhelming lack of success in stopping President Bush from doing anything”. He takes some shots at some of the characters that emerged during the long campaign season, from Rev. Jeremiah Wright (“bigoted old lunatic”), to Sarah Palin, who’s campaign strategy he describes as a “brash, if vacuous, mission to babble her way to victory and sit a heartbeat away from the presidency of the United States.” His appraisal of the GOP’s prospects in 2008 are also blunt: “For all their love of patriotism, small government, fiscal control, and family values, the GOP could have nominated Jesus Christ and still lost in 2008.” No party is spared from criticism.

Of most interest to me was the chapter about China. It is a revealing look at a long list of outstanding issues between the US and China, and the media’s portrayal of them: the dangerous and defective products that have poured into the US markets (lead-painted toys, poisoned pet food, etc.), currency manipulation disputes, and Chinese “dumping” of manufactured products in the American market. The author also discusses China’s human rights record, its military modernisation and increased defence expenditure. It is clear that the author’s opinion of America’s largest creditor is not favourable, and it was exhibited perfectly in a comment he made on CNN’s Situation Room, when he said China was run by “goons and thugs”. Cafferty describes the reaction (alternately “firestorm” and “contretemps”) to his statement with a calm wit, but also taking another clear shot at the Chinese government propagandists – all while never retracting the statement. Good for him, that’s what the First Amendment’s for.

In discussing his topics, Cafferty relies on his CNN broadcasts to provide plenty of quotes of his positions at the time of the events – from the Iraq War, the 2008 elections, to economics and trade issues. While this is very useful, his use of reader comments from his “Cafferty Files” blog is not always advisable. Sometimes, the comments he reproduces in the book add to the debate, or at least are amusing, but oftentimes they can be merely ad hominem attacks on Bush or Cheney, or whoever is in the firing line at the time.

There are a couple of inaccuracies in the book – including Cafferty’s claim that McCain approached Kerry about being his VP pick in 2004, when it was actually the other way around; and also claiming China was sending oil and arms to Darfur, when it’s really a case of China buying oil with arms. These are no doubt the result of typos slipping through the editorial net, rather than a Bush-esque attempt to rewrite history. But, when you’re berating McCain (and especially Palin) for being inaccurate, it pays to be careful yourself.

Overall, this was an entertaining book. Cafferty’s opinions are mostly populist (cautious of free trade, protectionist in some ways), but also equal-opportunities for both Democrats and Republicans when it comes to criticism. It’s not academic, but neither is it supposed to be seen or considered as such, I think. When Cafferty talks about his family and his upbringing, he is surprisingly honest, and isn’t afraid to accept and detail his own failings as a father. It’s a bit of a rant in places, for sure, but there’s plenty of factual content to support his positions (selectively chosen as some of them are). Not being familiar with his TV show, I felt the curmudgeonly approach was a nice change, and certainly made it a more fun read.

That being said, the book isn’t as targeted as it might appear. The subtitle is “Getting Down to the Business of Saving Our American Dream”, but there’s not a whole lot in the way of policy proposals in here. The book, as I’ve said, is interesting, but the arguments and issues aren’t exactly new. His style and approach mean the book’s unlikely to convert anyone already skeptical of liberal/Democratic policies.

If you’re looking for something less stuffy and scholarly, something that is passionate and might at least raise a smile while distracting you a bit from the despair of the economic crisis, then Now or Never would be a very good place to start. Bringing big issues down to earth, in clear and accessible language, Now or Never is a great primer for many of the issues facing the American public today.

Also try: Michael Kinsley, Please Don’t Remain Calm (2008); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2008); Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (2008)

Saturday, 11 April 2009

“Have A Nice Day”, by Justin Webb (Short Books)


A pro-American account of life in the USA, from the BBC’s North American Editor

Anti-Americanism is a fact of European life. It’s inescapable – whether in the form of left-wing pundits (John Pilger, please stand up) or university students who rail against all things American without really knowing what they’re talking about (while wearing Levi’s, drinking Starbucks coffee, and watching Friends). Have a Nice Day is a reaction to this anti-Americanism, and an attempt to convince the reader that there is plenty that’s good about America.

The author first deals with some standard arguments put forward by the anti-American crowds, pointing out their limitations (while also accepting that they’re not always wrong) and also their hypocrisies (of which there are many). Webb then splits the book into chapters based around single issues that usually get attention in Europe – religion, guns-and-violence, politics, and so forth. In each chapter, Webb outlines the criticisms of America and then defends it.

For example, in the chapter about the American affinity for guns, he rightly asks what a Virginian might make of recent violent attacks in the UK, and the rise of knife crime. He also argues that, even with all those guns in the USA, he feels safer over there than he does in any UK city. When discussing religion, Webb is fair by showing the other side of American religion to the Christian right-wing in politics; the examples of Christian men and women giving up their time to help inmates at super-max prisons and at homeless shelters.

Combining politics and religion, Webb asserts that the common European fear of America charging towards theocracy is unfounded. Every time the religious right has overreached, the public (often in the form of voting) has reined them in or, to use George W. Bush’s word for the 2006 midterm elections, give them a “thumpin’”. This was true with the Terry Schiavo case, gay marriage amendments, and attempts to alter the constitution to match laws from the Bible. What’s more, it’s not just the Democrats and atheists who fight back, but also Republicans like Dick Armey, who considered the political religious leaders to be “bullies and thugs” who put off voters, and that “picking fights with scientific facts was a dull-witted way for a political party to behave”.

The best chapter for me was about politics. Webb is a keen observer and supporter of the American political system, even if it is, at times, rather obscure. For example, on the 2008 Texas Democratic primaries (though really about the presidential primaries as a whole), “The result in 2008 was so opaque and long-drawn-out that by the time the final caucus tallies were made, even doctoral students had lost interest.” (This, from personal experience, is true.) The ability of people to be involved in choosing their next leader or party representative (or, in the case of Sarah Palin, rejecting one) is far greater than anywhere else. That its people have the ability to check one group’s excesses, or another group’s over-reaching, is something to be praised.

Despite this praise, Webb isn’t blind to what is wrong with America; though he appears to consider most of these aspects as mere irritants, rather than reasons to generate such extreme hate. For example, the preciousness of Americans when it comes to certain uses of language, such as in the case of no longer being allowed to wish someone “Merry Christmas” in the fear of offending a non-Christian. Webb points out that “wishing someone a happy Christmas cannot be considered an act of aggression, cultural or otherwise”, and therefore this example of political correctness is beyond daft. Equally, Webb argues that the American media plays it far too safe, willing to leave out details that might offend anyone. And they have a peculiar relationship with sex – actual and as a subject.

Overall, Have a Nice Day is a great book. I read it pretty quickly, and whenever I was forced to put it down, I was always eager to return to it. Webb’s tone is light, and even when discussing politics and religion, he is respectful and accessible. There are no cheap shots in here, which is largely the point. The book is essential for everyone who wants to understand why America is the way it is, and also for anyone who can’t get beyond their innate anti-Americanism. Webb has written an entertaining, informative defence of the nation it has always been cool to hate.

Highly recommended.

Also try: Bronwen Maddox, In Defense of America (2008); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2007); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Matt Frei, Only In America (2008); Harmon Leon, The American Dream (2008)

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

“George W. Bush & China”, by Chi Wang (Lexington Books)


The other important foreign policy challenge facing America

With the majority of attention, scholarship and journalism about George W. Bush’s foreign policy focused on his misadventures in the Middle East, it’s easy to forget that even while battling against the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, the US had to maintain the balance of its other bilateral relations and foreign policy goals, and remained engaged in global politics throughout 2001-2008. This is especially true for the Sino-American relationship, as it grows ever closer and China grows ever stronger. The relationship did suffer from some neglect (unless North Korea was involved), but overall relations returned to and remain much as they had towards the end of Clinton’s administration.

After a brief introduction, the author provides a very short background chapter for US-China relations under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, providing a context for the political environment George W. Bush inherited with regards to US-China relations. The chapters that follow are pretty methodical, focusing on pre-9/11 US-China relations followed by 2002-2008 relations; a look at Bush’s various foreign policy advisers and their positions on China. This is followed by the second part of the book, which focuses on the main issues underpinning US-China relations (security in Asia, military-to-military contacts, economic relations, and Taiwan).

As a brief introduction to the topic, this is a good book, but I imagine it might prove unfulfilling for anyone with existing knowledge or interest in the subject. This is because Chi Wang has predominantly gone for a descriptive approach, rather than analytical. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, for such an important subject, one would have preferred something with a little more weight.

While the author has done a good job researching the book (each chapter has a bibliography, making it easy to find and use his sources), he does appear to have relied an awful lot on The Economist, and books published a number of years ago, without too much use of more recent texts. While these are minor quibbles, it has had an impact on the quality of his arguments and also the timeliness of the book, which appears to be inconsistent with its publication date of 2009.

Overall, this is a good, short and light read. It would be perfect for a short introduction, but beyond that I think it has limitations, and didn’t live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. If you’re looking for something a little more involved, I’d recommend the books I’ve listed below.

Also try: Radha Sinha, Sino-American Relations (2003); James Mann, About Face (2000) & The China Fantasy (2007); David Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Jean Garrison, Making China Policy (2005); Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall (1999); Myers, Oksenberg & Shambaugh, Making China Policy (2001); David E. Sanger, The Inheritance (Part V, 2009); Tao Xie, U.S.-China Relations: China Policy on Capitol Hill (2008); Suisheng Zhao, China-US Relations Transformed (2009)

Monday, 6 April 2009

“John Tyler”, by Gary May (Times Books)


An excellent, short biography of America’s 10th President

John Tyler was the first American president to have succeeded to the post following the death of a predecessor. William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died after just 30 days as President. At the time, it was unclear what the Framers had intended for such an occasion.

Perhaps the most accomplished man to reach the presidency (he held more political posts before he ascended to the presidency than any other man to hold the position), Tyler is not considered a success as president, if he is remembered at all. Despite Tyler’s hope to join the ranks of other Virginian presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – he was almost immediately beset by the various warring factions within the Whig party, which seriously limited his ability to govern effectively. Senator Henry Clay, in particular, would prove a thorn in his side for his entire presidency. Tyler was far from a disaster as president; though his principles sometimes got in the way of compromise and effective action. While often forgotten, his presidency proved to experience a number of “firsts” (e.g. first president to be expelled from his own party), and as a result set quite a few precedents for the future.

Gary May has done a brilliant job of bringing Tyler’s story to life. While information on Tyler’s childhood and pre-Presidential life is sketchy (many of his papers were destroyed during the Civil War), May does an admirable job of pulling various nuggets of information together to create an endearing portrait of a man of principle and intelligence (marred only by his support for the institution of slavery in Virginia). The author then proceeds to outline Tyler’s political career, as he served in the Virginia House of Delegates (as member and speaker), the House of Representatives and the US Senate, as well as serving as Governor of Virginia, Vice President and then, of course, President. The various key events of his presidency are explained in detail, including Congress’s considerations of impeachment, his entire cabinet (save Daniel Webster) resigning in one go, his battles with Clay over a national bank and tariffs, signing the resolution to annex Texas (which allowed for Polk’s final success at this), extension of the Monroe Doctrine to include the Hawaiian Islands, opening of Chinese ports to American missionaries and traders, and also the Washington Treaty of 1842, which settled a number of border disputes with Great Britain.

It is not just Tyler’s political life that May focuses on. This is as much a biography of the man as it is of the president. Tyler’s family was precious to him, and May often discusses the wider Tyler clan (with four generations named John, it can occasionally be a tad confusing), including Tyler’s marriage to Julia Gardiner, following the death of his first wife, Letitia, who died in the White House. In total, Tyler fathered 15 children.

This volume in the Times Books’ American Presidents series continues the trend of being most interesting and accessible when focused on the lesser-known presidents. May’s writing is clear and accessible, never confusing, and always engaging. At only 151 pages, this is a very quick read, and a brilliant introduction to the period that ultimately led to the American Civil War.

John Tyler will never be considered a great president, but this biography is a great book, and highly recommended to all.

Suggested further reading (all from same series): Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson; Ted Widmer’s Martin Van Buren; John Seigenthaler’s James K. Polk; Jean H. Baker’s James Buchanan