‘Liberalism And Its Discontents’ By Francis Fukuyama

Ten years ago, if you had told me that I would have read this much Fukuyama, I would have laughed at you. Though, I should hedge that ‘this much’ – most of his recent books have been pretty short.

He suggests he is making an argument for classical liberalism, but I would suggest that he’s really making the argument for liberal democracy. I say that because he is not deeply interested in economic issues.

It’s a short and useful read. While not its purpose, the book makes another argument that the American right is unknowingly carrying the banner for postmodernism and French theory, most recently for mimicking Foucault’s theory of power and science in its arguments again mask mandates and vaccines.

Radical Hamilton

This… was a disappointment. I know Hamilton is having a moment, but this book didn’t quite seize on it.

The unique insight, supposedly, is that Hamilton’s insufficient to recognized Report on Manufactures is the key economic document for understanding the man’s rare genius. Yet despite saying constantly how important that work is, it is not properly discussed until something like 2/3 of the way into the book.

The book feels just sort of… thin. Yes, a connection was made between his biography (especially his service in the Revolutionary War), but I don’t know. I wanted more. I expected more. Hamilton was a prophet of government involvement in the economy and of industrial strategy (if there was an interesting insight, it was the connection between Hamilton’s ideas and the industrial policies of Japan during the Meji era).

Finally, he keeps using the word ‘dirigiste’ to describe Hamilton’s position on virtually everything. I mean, a lot. He uses it all the time. The constant use is like someone who has just discovered a word and decides to keep using it, rather like when my child learned to spell and use the word ‘anxious’ and it was her go to adjective in virtually any context.

Review Of ‘Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, And The Rise Of Contemporary Art’

Boom was a nice counterpoint to Warhol, so I’m glad my library holds arrived in such close succession.

Andy Warhol actually appeared prominently in the book and one of the most interesting insights was how much the largest dealers actively worked to make his work valuable in the years after his death.

But though they are a major part of the book, Boom is about the dealers and gallerists, not the artists. And it provided a nice, reasonably in depth, chronological history of major galleries (mostly American, mostly beginning in New York City), beginning just after World War II and continuing up until very nearly the present day.

Of course, the present day, this time of plague, feels so different, so even 2019 can feel like a different world. But, for at least some perspective, the sections on how major economic downturns affected the art market provides possible the best view on how it will emerge from… whatever this is.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets

Did you know that the free market sometimes producing stomach churning results? Did you know that obeying the free market doesn’t always end with what most people would consider a morally uplifting outcome?

Because I did, even before I read two hundred pages of things illuminating things I already know, without ever providing any sort of prescription for change.

I mean, a lot of things suck. Sport franchises are often run by money grubbing jerks. Wal-Mart buying life insurance on a man in late middle age and then working him to death makes people who aren’t sociopaths feel queasy.

But what’s the answer?

The closest this book comes to an answer is by mentioning mid-century economist who saw economics as creating a situation where markets would produce the right outcomes so that the national supply of Love wouldn’t be wasted on them. Sandel correctly points out that this represents a probable misunderstanding of how love works (Thomas Merton once wrote that love is increased by being given away) and muses how the world might have been different if that economist hadn’t died two years after writing his market/love and said, whoops, I was all wrong, let’s just be nice to each other; which, while it might have been nice, I think puts too much on the shoulders of one dead economist whose name I can’t even remember.

Diary Of A Bookseller

Diary of a Bookseller is, and I mean this in the best possible way, chick lit for guys who watched Black Books (which, the diarist and titular bookseller, Shaun Bythell, did; he even sold a book to Dylan Moran).

The recurring characters (especially his employee, Nicky) become well-realized and you end the book with a much better grasp of the day to day to realities of the business, while still watching it romanticized.

Breezy, uplifting, sometimes, melancholy, and filling without being heavy. Like I said: a sort of chick lit for book people.

Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff

My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

Notes On Virginia

You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.

Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth & David Ricardo

I read this little piece on William Wordsworth’s visit to Ireland and the extent to which he was influenced by what he saw there (both in terms of the political and ecological content of his poems). It also noted his encounter with Maria Edgeworth, the author of Castle Rackrent.

Later, I was re-reading my favorite bit of a beloved book, The Worldly Philosophers. My favorite bit of that book (after the description of Thorstein Veblen washing dishes with a garden hose) is the section on Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In that section, it notes the correspondence (and influence) one Maria Edgeworth had on Ricardo.

When I saw the Edgeworth name on page 85, I wondered, could that be the same one? Flipping over the page, when I saw Castle Rackrent mentioned, I obviously knew it was.

That’s it. Just a fun little thing. But you should definitely read The Worldly Philosophers. I actually had it in my bag because I have been intending, for some time, to loan it to a friend who going to be studying business. My father once semi-famously said that one should never confuse a business degree with an education. I thought that a book about influential economists might split the difference a little bit. So I had it in my bag, in case I should run into him.

Another Bookstore Gone…

cq5dam.resized.270x180!While DC has been good about adding bookstores (like my neighborhood’s recent addition, East City Books), we do seem to be taking two steps back for every step forward (we lost Books for America and the downtown Barnes & Noble over the last year).

This time, it’s the only in DC World Bank Group InfoShop Bookstore.

That’s right. If you didn’t live in DC, you would never know such a thing existed. But it did. And it was super awesome.

In addition to World Bank publications, it had a fantastic array of very specialized books on economics and global development. I bought my copy of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land from that particular bookshop.

And just… what a cool thing to have in your hometown?

Ugh. Another one bits the dust.

‘The Left In Dark Times’ By Bernard-Henri Lévy

9780812974720I bought The Left in Dark Times because I wanted to read something by Bernard-Henri Lévy and I thought that this book, rather than his reportage/current events style books, would be a good introduction to his actual thinking. While sometimes called a philosopher, I’m not really sure it applies, but I wanted something vaguely rigorous by him (which, as it turns, this isn’t, exactly).

You may know Bernard-Henri Lévy (sometimes known as BHL; he’s that famous in France) as that rick looking French guy on TV with the leonine mane of grey/white hair, dark suit, a white shirt that is always unbuttoned two buttons below what is appropriate to the situation, yet always staying above the critical belly button line.

The Left in Dark Times feels terribly dated. It is something from a time that feels very long ago; before the ‘Great Recession,’ before the more recent global economic contractions (Greece, China, etc). Before we were expelled from an economic eden where risky trade and capital entrepreneurship would lift all boats, if we just let it. In this book, economics aren’t a ‘thing’ at all.

The left is in dark times because, he writes, economic democratic-socialism has been, somehow, disproven, by the good times of the early and mid noughties. For him, the true Left (capital L) is in international humanitarian interventionism. Which is not, in itself, bad, but now, things feel so tied to the economy as causing so many humanitarian problems through indirect means. He scoffs at the idea of a malignant economic imperialism and colonialism, but these days, their ill effects feel all too true.

Let’s just say it: his Left feels more like neo-liberalism. The vapours hanging over his exhortations are pre-lapsarian, before Tony Blair and New Labor fell from grace. We can no long say, can we, that humanitarian crises are unrelated to the failures of unregulated, neo-liberal, rentier capitalism.

He writes a lot about the anti-semitism and the ‘Palestinian question.’ I agree with him on a two state solution, but I don’t agree with his positioning on things like BDS and attitudes towards Israel, but as a Jew (BHL, not me), I give him some leeway here, especially since I am not so blind as to understand that anti-semitism is a much more pervasive problem in France and in Europe, in general, than it is in America (or is worse in America than I know? with Trump’s appropriation of anti-semitic imagery, is it an underappreciated issue here, too?).

He ends (not really; there’s a meandering and surprisingly long epilogue) with a passionate defense of the Universal, by which he means universal human values. He does defend Europe, but is careful not to mean merely an extension of an idea of western values to the world. His Universals are, though, the justification for interventionism. Reading just made me sad, coming on the heels of the Brexit and dissolution of trust between northern and southern Europe (really, between southern Europe and Germany). He becomes oddly religious. Or almost religious. He defends (sort of, and then backs away) Jewish concepts of prophecy and the prophetic tradition as linked to the Universal. I like one phrase, near the end: “The Universal works more by influence than incorporation.” I can get behind such a Universal. It feels kindred to King’s moral arc.

Ultimately, he is a Hitchens like figure. Tied to a time and a place and an ideology that makes him more than normally timely and less than normally timeless. And, while it might be the translation, he lacks Hitchens’ genius for scintillating polemics that make him, still, a worthwhile read for students of essayistic style.