Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Young Money by Kevin Roose: Not enough data points

From where I’m sitting, this came out a couple of months ago. It was the talked-about book of the early spring, but it was eclipsed by Piketty and Lewis.

It is a quick read, as Roose is a good storyteller about these young people and their experiences on the street.  

My quick take though, is that it suffers a problem of focus.  In less than three hundred pages he covers the fictionalized lives of eight or so people. That breaks down to a little over thirty or so pages a person – less if you want to add in some time for analysis and reflection. The depth sits in this middle ground for me.  I don’t know enough about the characters he’s covering. Thankfully he reminds the reader of a character’s defining trait when he brings them back up (the people’s lives are interwoven in the text, not dealt with serially). But the problem is that there is not enough people to be able to say that this book speaks for all young money. It’s just some young money.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Divide: Taibbi's writing has matured, but the system is still broken

Taibbi’s last book, Griftopia, got to me.  Not like it made me mad, but you could tell the seething rage that was behind his words and it was so heavy that it almost detracted from his argument (The argument that you and I all got sold out).

Here, he’s toned it down.  In the Divide, Taibbi flips back and forth between the malefactors of great wealth that can wreck a planet and a financial system AND then he looks at the people who suffer great injustice at the hands of the law.  It is a class thing, as well as a race thing, and a gender thing.  The concept of the two Americas is alive and well, and Taibbi shows it well.

A couple of notes: if you have followed Taibbi’s reporting in the Rolling Stone, some of these stories will feel familiar, but he does a good job rolling what may be disparate reportage into a coherent argument. The second note I am not sure if it says more about me or Taibbi or the system he covers.  The sections that relate the great crimes the wealthy perpetuate are engagingly told, but they don’t get my lather up.  I did get that lather up when he accounted for individual’s struggles against a racist immigration and justice apparatus. I guess I can relate to those better, since I have been much closer to the bottom in society than I ever will be to the top.  I heartily recommend everyone needs to read this book, but they should check with their doctor beforehand.  

David Harvey: Contradictions have the nasty habit of not being resolved but merely moved around.

By this point, I have read enough David Harvey to know his house style.  Loquacious in person, his prose can feel torturous at times. That’s not a critique per se, but an acknowledgement of Harvy’s desire to be exact in his language.  It also brings about sentences of absolute beauty from time to time.  You just have to be on the alert for them.  I flagged a couple, but I won’t drop them in here without context.  I’ll just point you to pages 91, 125, and 130.

In this new book, Harvey explores 17 different contradictions – not in the sense of opposition, but contradiction where “two seemingly opposed forces are simultaneously present” (1), such as reality and appearance. These contradictions are both points of strengths and weaknesses for Harvey (and others in the Marxian tradition).  He divides up the contradictions he identifies into Foundation, Moving, and Dangerous types.  

Truth be told, I need to reread the book if I really want to get analytical here.  I was just chugging along, and finding Harvey’s points of consonance until I got to the end. My main take-away is that in the face of even 17 contradictions, capital is not going to fall in on itself.  The grave-diggers still need to dig. That is bad news for me because I am normally so passive.  Perhaps I should stop trying to understand the world and maybe go change it. Or Maybe tomorrow.

Commie Girl in the OC: Dated but Funny

Verso – that fine radical imprint – recently had a sale to commemorate the opening of its virtual storefront (I’m sure they had something before).  They had all their titles at fifty percent off.  I scanned thorough the titles and filled my cart.  Then I came to amazon to price compare and pare my cart and price compare.

I didn’t buy it through Verso.  I bought it through Amazon because they had it on clearance.  

Let me tell you, you should have to pay full price for this book.  Every letter is worth it. I mean, unless you start asking about what value really is, and then does value exist at all so either this book is worthless or priceless or both at the same time.  But if you start doing that you’re digressing.


Let me tell you a little secret.  I bought this book because Schoenkopf is my Wonkette, pure and simple. I like here work now. 

I also like her work then.  The publication date here is 2008, and it looks like the books are repurposed essays from her time at an independent weekly covering Orange County and the rest of California from the late 90’s to 2008. So they’re a little dated: you might not have experience with the area: or the people: you might not have watched “The Real Housewives of Orange County”. 

That doesn’t matter. Schoenkopf has an amazingly engaging writing ‘voice’, and in these essays she is able to blend her personal experiences with larger issues with verve and ease that you don’t notice the transition.  The flow quickly – I finished the book in an evening.  Buy it. And read her website.

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History -- Good history, short on the alternatives.

I read Stiglitz and Sen’s “Mismeasuring  Our Lives” a while back, and I bought their arguments that GDP was itself defective and overly reductive and measured some of the wrong things. They proposed a dashboard of stats that would better measure wellbeing than GDP does.

Coyle does not think this is necessary. After going through a history of GDP, she concluded:
GDP does a good job of measuring how fast (or not) the output of “the economy” is growing. And GDP growth is closely linked to social welfare. GDP struggles with measuring innovation, quality and intangibles, but it does a better job than any currently available alternative. (136)

And then she proposes some tweaks to GDP to better work in the information economy.

Overall she does a good job outlining the history.  It is accessible to everyone with some background in national accounting (even if just econ 101).  My only issue is where she looks at possible alternatives to GDP.  I kept waiting for her to really get into the Sen/Stiglitz study, and then she did. For one page (118). Then where she lost me, was her paragraph dismissal of the Bhutaneese metric of “Gross National Happiness”  (112). I am a fan of trying to track flourishing, even if that makes me “Grotesque”  by her words without much justification. These parts are all too short and come across as dismissive, even in a brief, affectionate history.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Quick thought on: A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn

Reading this book can be a chore. It takes some time, and is kind of dense.

The down side is that if you read this book at the right time of your life it can change your worldview. That's not without its problems. You have to take down your 80s posters with pictures of fast cars. You have to throw out your Ayn Rand books. You'll no longer be welcome at the Von Mises institute,

But here's the plus side. There's never a wrong time to read this book.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The rent is too damn high: not as bad as you might think.

My normal position on Matt is that he needs kicked in the teeth.  I know him as the economics blogger at slate.

You know he "only" has a BA in philosophy.  Sure, sure, it's from "Harvard". But that really means it was taught by advanced grad students.  My state degree came from actual "Doctors".

And his Slate stuff was insufferable.  I don;t think it was his fault though. He has to spill a lot of content.

I really thought he was an insufferable writer, but then I read this.

Matt shows how current zoning is bad for both left and right reasons. Maybe we should allow better and smarter zoning so that more dense development is allowed where the market asks for it. If the measure of a book is that is convinces a reader of the writer's position, this book works (in spite of my preconceived notions of Matt's writings).

The only issue, as it remains with all public policy books, is the "What is to be done" section. I have an appreciating piece of land in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. Why would I accommodate what he wants?  Otherwise, go Matt, I might want to learn how to spell "Yglesias".