Sunday Bookchat

January 6, 2008

If you’re still casting about for a New Year’s resolution, try this one on for size: Take some time this year to learn about economics, particularly the voodoo sort so beloved of the fantasy-based community called American conservatism. Now is a great time to do it.

While the conservative bookshelf groans under the weight of screeds loaded with childish insults (insert title of Ann Coulter book here) and historical “analysis” that would disgrace a middle school student (Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is the current, overripe example), a series of progressive writers appeared last year to take on wingnut dogma about free markets and “supply side” mumbo-jumbo.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is the most commanding of the bunch: Klein demolishes the notion that “free” markets lead to free societies, documenting the ways in which the wingnut religion of privatization, unfettered trade and drastic cuts in social spending have wrought havoc around the world. She also demonstrates the rather sinister penchant of Milton Friedman’s acolytes for treating disasters and upheavals — the flooding of New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq, the collapse of the Soviet Union — as a chance to create laboratories for their cherished beliefs, regardless of the human cost.

Equally compelling is Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, which complements Klein’s book by reminding us that the American middle clas did not arise from the magic of the marketplace, but from New Deal economic policies which helped raise the standard of living for many Americans — a benefit that has been systematically undermined by the corrupt Gilded Age rapacity of the Bush administration.

The list goes on: Robert Kuttner’s The Squandering of America and Jonathan Chait’s The Big Con are also worth your time after you take on the titles described above. The Bush adminstration’s seven misbegotton years of power have done us the service of demonstrating the bankruptcy of conservative ideas as anything other than a tax scam for the wealthy. Our side has better, and more humane, ideas for America’s future. These books will show you how to argue for them.

* * * * *

A man who can write a line like “The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn’t an S.S. storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore” is a man no intelligent adult need ever take seriously again. But Jonah Goldberg, the author of those words, wants his book Liberal Fascism to be taken seriously, and John Holbo gives it a shot at Crooked Timber. Holbo also speaks for many of us when he wonders why David Oshinsky was so gentle with Goldberg in his New York Times Book Review piece on Liberal Fascism. Oshinsky, the author of highly respected books on Joseph McCarthy and the Parchman Farm prison, is a serious person; how strange that he took an above-the-fray tone with this unserious pisher, whose magnum opus (along with Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home) mainly serves to demonstrate the death of conservatism as an intellectual force.

* * * * *

The tale of the frog who tried to kiss the princess, only to get thrown back into the pond, or, How Poddy-N Tried to Move In On Jackie K After Her Husband Was Murdered, as told by Craig Unger in his new book The Fall of the House of Bush.

* * * * *

Maybe you’ve been eyeing that new Criterion seven-disc DVD edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of the celebrated 1929 novel by Alfred Doblin. Ian Buruma’s piece in the New York Review of Books will tell you plenty about the novel, which does for lowlife Berlin what Ulysses did for lowlife Dublin.

* * * * *

Finally, let us note the passing of George MacDonald Fraser, author of the brilliant Flashman series of historical novels. Fraser was charming in person but a nasty old fart Tory in his opinion columns. Nonetheless, the Flashman novels — which take Harry Flashman, the cowardly villain of Tom Brown’s School Days, and land him in the thick of just about everything that happened during the Victorian Age — are superbly readable concotions of black humor, relentless action, in-depth history and satire on the nature of heroism. Start with Royal Flash, in which Flashman’s affair with Lola Montez draws him into a conspiracy plotted by Otto von Bismarck, then move to Flash for Freedom, in which Flashman is gulled into signing on with a slave ship and gets a complete tour of the Atlantic slave trade, complete with stints as a slave himself and a breakneck escape that brings him face to face with a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln. After that, explore at your whim — though you’ll want to avoid Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the worst of the series — and have fun.

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13 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. gator80 Says:

    With all due respect, recommending that people learn economics by reading Naomi Wolf is like recommending people learn paleontology by watching Barney.

    You seem to believe “economics” is a partisan political subject. Ann Coulter and Naomi Wolf are not economists.

    In fact, economics is a discipline which focuses on how decisions are made regarding the allocation of scarce resources. Within the field there is room for disagreement but there are also many beliefs which are widely held. Supply and demand is a “law,” not a guideline. Even Paul Krugman will agree with that!

    Implying that supporters of the free market somehow believe in a voodoo fantasy is just not a serious comment. No economics system known to man has generated as significant an improvement in standards of living – across all segments of society – as has capitalism.

    If you want to engage in partisan bomb-throwing under the heading of “book chat,” well, it’s your blog! But don’t kid yourself into thinking you are leading an intellectually serious discussion.

  2. Scott Stiefel Says:

    Eh, economics is a combination of two things I’ve never managed to comprehend – mathematics and the cutting edge of humanity’s capacity for bullshit. Don’t think I could get into it.

  3. Referee Says:

    Naomi Wolf? Someone needs to work on their reading comprehension.

    And the problem obviously isn’t capitalism itself – the problem is unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism which does not recognize the concept of limits and is therefore an extremist philosophy. It is dishonest to say that criticizing extreme unregulated capitalism equals advocating throwing away capitalism. But it is that dishonest trick that enables free-marketeers to peddle their lies as gator90 has done here.

    But I wouldnt expect such complicated distinctions to be understood except by “intellectually serious” people.

    The corpse of Milton Friedman is rotting in the noonday sun and it’s high time to bury it before it does any more damage. Period.

  4. ctlt Says:

    gator80’s comments might be more credible if he/she demonstrated an ability to differentiate between Naomi Wolf and Naomi Klein.

  5. Jamaal Says:

    While economics is certainly the study of the allocation of resources, it still lends itself to pretty of criticism. For one, economics is tied intimately with politics. To pretend as if it is some staid laboratory science is myopic. Most economic policy countries push is 75% political ideology and 25% actual economic theory. Neoliberalism, the dominant economic theory of today, is explicitly political. The stated goals of economic liberalization and opening up markets are guises for weakening labor organization, creating increasingly unstable situations for workers, and weakening the safety nets that exist within our governmental system.

    While I agree that one cannot get a true understanding of economic theory by reading these books, the many books released by neoliberals and conservatives on economic policy are hardly theoretically rigorous or sound.


  6. I would add two other books that I haven’t read yet, but heard one interview on Fresh Air last week called “Free Lunch” by David Cay Johnston (interview here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17808622 ) and “Gotcha Capitalism” by Bob Sullivan (interview here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17898418 )

    I also think the rotting corpse of Ayn Rand and her businessman as ideal person crap should also go away, or, in blog-speak, STFU.

    Cheers

  7. Sarah Says:

    How dare you insult capitalism, the greatest system known to man since Christianity!

    Oh, I was being sarcastic.

    Naomi Wolf? I thought she wrote a book about beauty myths or something.

  8. President PNACcio Says:

    Best book I have read in years. I would also recommend everything by Robert Parry.

  9. gator80 Says:

    Oops! I got the wrong Naomi, sorry! And I thought the Barney line was such a good one, too.

    One think I do have straight is the superiority of capitalism. Please, someone, identify a non-capitalist system that has generated anything close to the improvements in living standards in capitalist countries. You can call it bullshit, you can sarcastically compare it to the church, but these are not serious comments.

    Referee cites a familiar argument about ‘extreme unregulated capitalism,’ which is an oxymoron. Capitalism means free and unregulated, so long as no one is harmed by voluntary transactions between consenting parties. Referee, you are worried about ‘dishonest tricks,’ yet you say ‘it is dishonest to say that criticizing extreme unregulated capitalism equals advocating throwing away capitalism,’ which is a claim I haven’t seen made. Your ‘dishonest trick’ is known as a ‘straw man.’

    All in all it’s a pretty crabby and ill-mannered bunch here, without a single serious argument.

  10. rolltide Says:

    Again, gator80, you simply don’t get it: no one here is arguing for a non-capitalist system, except on your arbitrary stipulative definition of capitalism such that it always only means free-market capitalism. If that definition is correct, there rarely has ever been any capitalism in the world, and the improvements in standard of living which you so keenly cite are in fact due to some other economic system. So, you can have it one way (capitalism always means free-market capitalism, in which case there has basically never been such a thing and capitalism deserves no credit for high standards of living) or the other (capitalism includes restricted capitalism, in which case no one here is arguing against capitalism), but you can’t have it both ways.

    That’s a serious argument — it’s called a dilemma. Pick a horn.

  11. gator80 Says:

    Rolltide,

    I appreciate your comment…seriously!

    The original post referred to the wingnut religion of privatization, unfettered trade and drastic cuts in social spending [which] have wrought havoc around the world. Perhaps I misinterpreted that as anti-capitalist. Perhaps you can understand why I did, particularly because Naomi Klein, the subject of the original post, argues that her socialist vision should not be regarded as having ‘lost’ to capitalism.

    I agree that we have rarely seen ‘pure’ capitalism. But in the cases where it has existed – the US for most of its first two centuries, Hong Kong, for example – we have seen the most dramatic economic growth.

    I would maintain that the more the free market is able to work its magic the better the results. When the government interferes…’restricted capitalism’…it’s bad news!

    And I don’t want to sound defensive, but I don’t think my definition is ‘arbitrarily stipulative’:

    American Heritage Dictionary
    Capitalism: An economic and political system characterized by a free market for goods and services and private control of production and consumption.

  12. Travis Says:

    Rolltide,

    There are plenty of examples where government intervention has, indeed, resulted in a better outcome. Soviet Russia, for instance, went from a backward agricultural nation to a major industrial power through extreme central planning (killing millions in the process – but that’s one reason I’m not a Communist). It fell apart after a few decades, but that’s what happens when you try to micromanage everything, but in the short term they managed to industrialize in a very short span of time. But there are certainly long-term success stories. All the European countries recovered from WW2 with government guidance. Indeed, De Gaulle’s planning resulted in the Thirty Glorious Years of great growth in France. And in more recent examples, nearly all of the Asian Tigers came to be through government steering of the capitalist economy towards high-tech sectors.

  13. Travis Says:

    oops, meant Gator80 in that post.


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