Thursday, October 27, 2016

Build It Now: For the New Brookfield Library

I pay thousands, every year, for things I will never use. I pay these dollars out of my account every month. Every six months, I see the breakdown: Schools; Parks; the village; community colleges. I’ll never use these. I don’t use the schools. I don’t go to the community colleges. I use the parks but not all of them.

Why do I pay those thousands?

Am I a fool?

Someone is pulling the wool over my eyes as I sleep and mix metaphors in my dreams?

I am making an investment in my community. I am making sure that all our kids are educated. I am making sure that we all have the parks we need when we need to go stretch our legs. I am making sure that the police are there when I need them because someone thought it was smart to dump their trash in my alley.

Each dollar is an investment in the community that I have chosen to call home. I live here and I work here, and it is in my best interest to make this the best place we can make it be. We’re not Oak Park or Naperville, but we have this nice small town vibe in the shadow of the big city and I want to make it the best small town in the shadow of the big city as possible.

That’s why I’m investing my time and energy trying to build a new library. The one we have doesn’t fit our needs, and we need a new one. I get the concern about raising taxes. Paychecks aren’t going up fast enough. But for my family, my home doesn’t end at my fences. My home is all the houses I walk by – the cape cods and the Tudors and the colonials. My home is all the businesses I spend my money at – Galloping Ghost and Burger Antics and Tony’s and Tischlers. My home is the parks and the schools and the libraries even if I never see the inside of the parks and schools and libraries.

The Library. And the roads. And the schools. And the Parks. They are all about more than your individual tax bill. It’s about asking yourself what kind of community you want to live in. I want to live in a community where we all want to invest in the community. I hope you feel the same.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Out of Sight by Erik Loomis: Needs a Hero

During a twitter fight that involved me, a socialist, and a libertarian, I was recommended to buy two separate books - this book by Erik Loomis and William Easterly’s “The Tyranny of Experts”. Because of course the best time to buy books is based on recommendations in twitter fights.

Overall, the information is good here. I am one of those Pro-Free Trade Marxists you hear about all the time because if I had a religion it would be based on the last lines of the Manifesto: Workers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains (depending on the translation, I know). So I have watched nativists with puzzlement because those manufacturing jobs are not coming back. So on one hand it’s good that there are opportunities for employment in the developing world. On the other hand my they’re exploitative and on another or the same hand, my they are dangerous. So what we need is some check to that labor cost arbitrage that international corporations are capable of. There needs to be supranational bodies with some real teeth and trade agreements need to be transparent and enforceable with real consequences to make sure that the labor that we offshore is not the kind that necessitates suicide nets on the factories. Unfortunately the agreements have left a lot of areas wanting and the UN agencies for labor are relatively invisible.

What Loomis does well is catalogue the problems. The strength is showing the danger that we have pushed away from our shores and in how those dangers were once on our shores. Once corporations became larger and more powerful than nations, those labor laws disappeared and OSHA lost its grip. Where the book fails is finding solutions. The proposals compared to the scope of the problem seem like small steps. Not to diminish organizing and consciousness raising, but Loomis is stuck in the paradigm of making capitalism the best possible, not moving to the next economic system. You know, whatever that may be. Where it also goes wrong is that it feels at times just like a litany of bad things. A blurb compares the book to the Jungle, and it feels most like Zinn’s “A People’s History,” but there is no real compelling narrative or characters to draw you through. Zinn used the characters in his book to tell the story he wanted. It worked well in sections on the villainy of Columbus and the heroism of Eugene Debs, both which I remember twenty years after picking it up. There are no heroes here, anti- or regular, and that makes the book a slog. Which is weird because it is less than 200 pages long.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Man Not Boogeyman: "Karl Marx: A Life" by Francis Wheen

About three or four years ago, I went to go on a walk in the woods with my wife. It was early spring and the sun was shining, so we hoped to take the day and make the most of it. Or she did, and I have problems saying no to her when she asks because she’s just so darn persuasive. The walk didn’t last long. No one told the snowpack on the trail that it needed to have melted so that we could walk on the trail.

I’m not sure how I managed it, but there was a mall with an actual physical book store close by the trail we were trying to walk. At one point I had at least a couple hundred dollars worth of books in my hand (hardbacks at bookstore prices). One of them was the new biography of Marx that had recently come out. I almost bought it but put it down because I realized that a life of Marx is one of those things that is hard to be objective about. I didn’t want to spend seven hundred pages with an author who was a staunch Hegelian mad about Marx’s subversion of their hero or some marginalist economist mad that the subject didn’t fully wrestle with the mathematics of their revolution. Or, you know, whatever else you could possibly see the life of Marx and his ideas being politicized somehow.

So instead of buying that unknown book, I went looking for people who had read various lives and what they would recommend to read. The Wheen biography came up a lot. So I bought that book, and then I put it on my shelf as a decoration and then forgot about it for the next several years. And recently, once I finished my MBA program, I found myself with time and inclination to go about reading some of the scores of books I own but haven’t read yet, and a familiar name looked out at me from the shelf.

For any student of the left, the life and career of Marx is knowable in broad strokes - youth in Germany, exile in England, friendship with Engels. Wheen fills all of those blank spots in. What Wheen does more than anything else is to humanize Marx from someone that is a boogeyman of the cold war to a guy with a family trying to make due in Victorian England.

I think Wheen, like myself, had already made his mind up about Marx before he approached this book. If there is any criticism to be had, I offer two. For one, it is only 400 pages. What lacks for me is a deeper engagement with the philosophy and economics of Marx. I’m not sure if that was a choice made to keep the book more accessible or why it was made. But I think it plays into my other criticism. I felt that the author may have been too sympathetic to Marx. He was a human who did make some bad choices (like maybe cheating on Jenny Marx) and I think glossing over that nuance in fear of attacking the subject makes the book less than what it could be. This sympathy is also evident where he addresses some of the more well-known intellectual rivals to Marxism, namely Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and  Mikhail Bakunin, so that these men and their followers are diminished in the book, the casual reader isn’t really let into why Marxian ideas are superior.

Overall, though, if you only know those broad strokes then the Wheen biography is a good entry point for learning about the life of Marx. If you want to get deeper into his ideas, there are other avenues, like the work of David Harvey or Paul D’Amato. Or you can just climb the mountain of Capital itself, something I need to do.

On "Pound Foolish" by Helaine Olen

The writer of the fine Trekonomics, Manu Saadia, pointed me to Olen’s work in a conversation (you can pick up that name, since I dropped it and am done using it). What this book is is a complete and thorough debunking of your favorite personal finance guru. Most are charlatans, it seems that the real question is to what degree are they charlatans.

What I take away is that like some presidential candidates, what is being sold is not success per se, but the idea of success. Wrap yourself in the rich dad poor dad millionaire next door Jim Cramer etc mindset and you too can be rich. Having long been skeptical of people searching for gurus, Olen’s book is a breath of fresh air.  What is missing is a bunking where the debunking went.

Aside from don’t follow these fools, I was at least looking for something that might guide what I should look for - the best advice Olen claims to have found is to short the stocks that Cramer pumps, as well as buying TIPS. Even my well-worn advice of buying index funds comes under some scrutiny here, and I want a guru. Wait, I think I get it now.

On "What Do We Do About Inequality?" by the WPC

The authors in this book approach the problem(s) of inequality in many different ways. One of the strengths of the work is the plurality of voices. This allows you to see the issue from multiple angles and experiences. If you don’t already, the voices here are important to follow across social media, especially twitter.

One weakness is that some of the writing is already available in other places. Tressie Cottom’s essay about the lived experience of being poor and making the wrong choices as perceived by outsiders is the most powerful essay in the book, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read it twice before this book because of people posting it on Twitter.

That said, there are other voices that I had not read in depth yet. There is an essay by Scott Santens, the first part of which is the best, most clear explanation of how a UBI would work - and this is something I’m very interested in as a potential response to inequality and I’m glad that in the last year or so that it has become part of the conversation.

Ultimately though, the book’s strength is also part of its weakness. Since there are a lot of voices, there is no one thing that we can take away as the answer to the titular question. Having this be an issue aired recently and on the tips of the tongues from economists like Deaton and Piketty and Milanovic is good, but it is at the grassroots that hopefully will move the needle. I just worry the robots will rise before we work out an equitable distribution to the gains of the productivity and that in ten years we will be asking the same questions from a scarier baseline.

I received an advance review copy, so I don’t want to talk too much about formatting, but a couple things stuck out. For one, there is no identification of the writers and their educational or professional background. This may have been a deliberate choice, but it diminished it a bit as a reader, since I wasn’t able to place the writer into my hermeneutic circle or whatever. Also, the notes are numbered sequentially and not broken up by the essay, making them a bit harder to get into if I wanted to chase a source.