Archive for the ‘#bookreviews’ Tag

A Great & Frustrating Read   4 comments

December 4, 2017 – Review a book you’ve recently read.
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So, I read a lot, but lately, the only fiction books I’ve been reading are the yet-to-be-published manuscripts of friends who are fellow authors. I don’t want to review their books before they’ve even published.

One of the most exciting, and frustrating, books I’ve read in 2017 is James Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale 2017). In prehistoric times, how did human beings discover how to feed themselves? How did we decide to become settled in one spot rather than move around as hunters and gatherers? Which leads to the biggest question (for me at least), where did the state come and why?

Scott’s fascinating argument is a fundamental challenge to the conventional theory of life on earth circa 15,000 to a half million years ago. Civilization is normally thought to have come into existence with the appearance of agriculture, sedentary living, and stable states. Scott, however, draws attention to the downside of states — taxes, the cruelty of classes, institutionalized castes of elites, merchants, tradesmen and serfs, disease, war, slavery, and so on — and argues that they might have diminished the quality of life as compared to what came before. What if life was better before the coming of what we call “civilization”?

Scott is a borderline left-anarchist and he shows this trait when he argues that there is no real relationship between settled living and “civilization”. Humankind resisted living in one place for many thousands of years precisely to avoid being trapped by states. We just wanted to be free. Scott also suggests that hunter-gatherers had it pretty easy: a good diet, plenty of exercise, and leisure. By comparison, agricultural life was pretty terrible overall and human health declined.

It’s easy to assume that Scott is advancing a Rousseauian fantasy about the blissful state of nature, but he really is trying to come to terms with the evidence as it stands, and assess the impact of state creation on human life. I think he’d find agreement with some Hayek fans — life was better when humans resisted organizing themselves and declined once they permitted themselves to be rounded up and regimented by a ruling class.

Unfortunately, I sense a whiff of primitive socialism in Scott’s premise when he suggests we should be living off the land, moving around a lot, and avoiding property ownership. I could be wrong about my assessment, because in an interview with Vox, Scott asserted that life is much better today than 10,000 years ago. It’s just that he seems to have a problem with the division of labor.

Modern industrial life has forced almost all of us to specialize in something, often in mundane, repetitive tasks. Specialization is good for economic productivity but not so good for individual self-fulfillment. Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing.

Yup, that sounds lot like Karl Marx, who fantasized of a communist society where people would be free to move from task to task, able to sample all sorts of jobs, without concern for feeding themselves or keeping a roof over their heads. Of course, we all should know that actual communism (as opposed to Marx’ theory) didn’t quite work that way.

This is where I got frustrated with reading this otherwise challenging and enjoyable book. Scott does not seem to have a sense practical economic considerations, particularly as they pertain to the greatest invention of all, private property. His oversight here simply cannot be deliberate because it is so pervasive. Scott appears to be uninterested in private property as a technology of production. He actually goes out of his way to almost deny the historical importance of the emergence of private property norms. He seems to overlook a basic fact. Even if there was a time when nature provided enough for our needs without having to create additional wealth, humanity came to a point where it needed to find a way to overcome the scarcity of resources. We had to learn how to add to the store of available wealth to house, feed, and clothe ourselves. Scott omits resource scarcity as significant factor in human evolution.

I found that oversight frustrating because he has such insight into human history. Consider his moving observation on the discovery of fire:

Fire [first controlled by hominids 400,000 years ago] was the key to humankind’s growing sway over the natural world–a species monopoly and trump card worldwide…. Fire powerfully concentrates people in yet another way: cooking. It is virtually impossible to exaggerate the importance of cooking in human evolution. The application of fire to raw food externalizes the digestive process; it gelatinizes starch and denatures protein. The chemical disassembly of raw food, which in a chimpanzee requires a gut roughly three times the size of ours, allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it. The effects are enormous. It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before: plants with thorns, thick skins, and bark could be opened, peeled, and detoxified by cooking; hard seeds and fibrous foods that would not have repaid the caloric costs of digesting them became palatable; the flesh and guts of small birds and rodents could be sterilized.

Who did the fire belong to? How did these early humans divide up the cooked food. What were the rules and who established them? These are all property ownership issues. Without rules governing them, there would be nonstop conflict, which a dictator or tribal leader might resolve with some informal rules, but would be really hard to enforce in a spread-out and mobile tribe.

Because I’m mainly reading books like this to improve my apocalyptic series, I was curious about how private property came into play, but Scott pretty much ignored the question.


He writes with passion and vigor about the 4,000-year gap between the domestication of grains and animals and the eventual settling down of humans into organized and sedentary communities. But nowhere does he discuss what innovations in the rules of property claims made this change possible.

In all honesty, looking at reality, at some point, people had to stop stealing each other’s stuff, get smart, and come to agreement. As people, we have to trade our stuff for their stuff, which gives rise to the division of labor. Economic complexity grew from that. Despite what anarcho-communists might wish, that’s how the real world we live in works. I don’t steal your stuff, you don’t steal my stuff — if we want to get each other’s stuff, we have to trade for it. Welcome to civilization!

I’m going to hazard to guess that Scott’s personal ideology blocked him from consider these issues very seriously, which is too bad, because his book would be great if he’d been willing to look at scarcity and how it might drive a mobile tribe of hunters and gatherers into becoming creative and inventing the norm of mine and yours and applying it to land and the products of production.

Scott’s empirical account does not contradict this thought, but his premise seems to identify statism with ownership, trade, the division of labor and the rise of civilization.

Except for that flaw, I’d love to have Scott for a history professor and to delight in his discussion of all the stuff that matters, but he fumbled the ball by avoiding the problem of scarcity and property. Scott claims to be an anarchist — or at least advocates for looking at history through an anarchist lens, which made this book a delight, but his failure to grasp a fundamental economic principle makes me wonder if he truly understands what anarchism is all about.



Review of “Life As We Knew It”   Leave a comment

James Weatherford

Amazon Reviewer

Front Cover LAWKI no windowHer story is captivating; I could not put it down. It describes one possible scenario in the days leading up to and following a large scale terrorist attack. The characters are well defined and believable, as are the events. With current conditions in the world, such a catastrophic attack is quite plausible. Our enemies are legion and our borders are open to anyone who wants to enter. Life as we knew it, depicts small town America. I grew up in such a place, and find the portrayal quite accurate. I am looking forward to the rest of the story.

Available on Amazon or Createspace.

What They’re Saying About Transformation Project   1 comment

on October 10, 2016
Format: Kindle Edition

I am Facebook friends with Lela Martin, although not through her writings. I had never read any of her books until last night, and I read two of them in one sitting.

Front Cover LAWKI no windowI typically avoid action novels written by women because they tend to devolve into romance novels. This novel is not like that. It is one of the most appealing post-apocalyptic novels I have ever read, and one of the most appealing aspects of it is that it deals with matters of faith. Most novels of this sort are recountings of fighting against nature, against enemies, and against government. They seem to follow a formula where people are survive only by their own wits and skills. I’ve often wondered how realistic these scenarios are, and how people of faith would deal with these situations. This novel delves into that, but isn’t a “Christian” novel per se.

The characters were well developed and were likable for the most part. I appreciated the fact that the women were not stereotypes as we see in most other fictions of this type.

Objects in View Front CoverI was confused at first with the vast cast of characters, and with one of the central characters having several names. There were some minor proof reading and grammar errors, but nothing that distracted from the story. This is the reason for the four star rating.

If you enjoy this type of fiction and you want something a little different, I highly recommend this series.

The Great Stagnation   Leave a comment

Government Caused the “Great Stagnation”

Peter J. Boettke

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tyler Cowen caused quite a stir with his e-book, The Great Stagnation. In properly assessing his work it is important to state explicitly what his argument actually is. Median real income has stagnated since 1980, and the reason is that the rate of technological advance has slowed. Moreover, the technological advances that have taken place with such rapidity in recent history have improved well-being, but not in ways that are easily measured in real income statistics.

Found on FEE:

Critics of Cowen more often than not miss the mark when they focus on the wild improvements in our real income due to quality improvements (e.g., cars that routinely go over 100,000 miles) and lower real prices (e.g., the amount of time required to acquire the inferior version of yesterday’s similar commodities).

Cowen does not deny this. Nor does Cowen deny that millions of people were made better off with the collapse of communism, the relative freeing of the economies in China and India, and the integration into the global economy of the peoples of Africa and Latin America. Readers of The Great Stagnation should be continually reminded that they are reading the author of In Praise of Commercial Culture and Creative Destruction. Cowen is a cultural optimist, a champion of the free trade in ideas, goods, services and all artifacts of mankind. But he is also an economic realist in the age of economic illusion.

What do I mean by the economics of illusion? Government policies since WWII have created an illusion that irresponsible fiscal policy, the manipulation of money and credit, and expansion of the regulation of the economy is consistent with rising standards of living. This was made possible because of the “low hanging” technological fruit that Cowen identifies as being plucked in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the US, and in spite of the policies government pursued.

An accumulated economic surplus was created by the age of innovation, which the age of economic illusion spent down. We are now coming to the end of that accumulated surplus and thus the full weight of government inefficiencies are starting to be felt throughout the economy. Our politicians promised too much, our government spends too much, in an apparent chase after the promises made, and our population has become too accustomed to both government guarantees and government largess.

Adam Smith long ago argued that the power of self-interest expressed in the market was so strong that it could overcome hundreds of impertinent restrictions that government puts in the way. But there is some tipping point at which that ability to overcome will be thwarted, and the power of the market will be overcome by the tyranny of politics. Milton Friedman used that language to talk about the 1970s; we would do well to resurrect that language to talk about today.

Cowen’s work is a subversive track in radical libertarianism because he identifies that government growth (both measured in terms of scale and scope) was possible only because of the rate of technological improvements made in the late 19th and early 20th century.

We realized the gains from trade (Smithian growth), we realized the gains from innovation (Schumpeterian growth), and we fought off (in the West, at least) totalitarian government (Stupidity). As long as Smithian growth and Schumpeterian growth outpace Stupidity, tomorrow’s trough will still be higher than today’s peak. It will appear that we can afford more Stupidity than we can actually can because the power of self-interest expressed through the market offsets its negative consequences.

But if and when Stupidity is allowed to outpace the Smithian gains from trade and the Schumpeterian gains from innovation, then we will first stagnate and then enter a period of economic backwardness — unless we curtail Stupidity, explore new trading opportunities, or discover new and better technologies.

In Cowen’s narrative, the rate of discovery had slowed, all the new trading opportunities had been exploited, and yet government continued to grow both in terms of scale and scope. And when he examines the 3 sectors in the US economy — government services, education, and health care — he finds little improvement since 1980 in the production and distribution of the services. In fact, there is evidence that performance has gotten worse over time, especially as government’s role in health care and education has expanded.

The Great Stagnation is a condemnation of government growth over the 20th century. It was made possible only by the amazing technological progress of the late 19th and early 20th century. But as the rate of technological innovation slowed, the costs of government growth became more evident. The problem, however, is that so many have gotten used to the economics of illusion that they cannot stand the reality staring them in the face.

This is where we stand in our current debt ceiling debate. Government is too big, too bloated. Washington faces a spending problem, not a revenue problem. But too many within the economy depend on the government transfers to live and to work. Yet the economy is not growing at a rate that can afford the illusion. Where are we to go from here?

Cowen’s work makes us think seriously about that question. How can the economic realist confront the economics of illusion? And Cowen has presented the basic dilemma in a way that the central message of economic realism is not only available for libertarians to see (if they would just look, or listen carefully to his podcast at EconTalk), but for anyone who is willing to read and think critically about our current political and economic situation.

The Great Stagnation signals the end of the economics of illusion and — let’s hope — paves the way for a new age of economic realism.

This post first appeared at Coordination Problem.


I have to say that I believe the reduction in taxes and regulation in the 1980s and 90s gave us a couple more decades of the illusion. It looked enough like market solutions that people believed the economy into better place for a few years. I don’t see any way to get around becoming realists in the next few years. Twenty trillion in debt is not going away no matter how much government raises taxes on the “rich”. Our entitlement programs are in the red (Medicaid & Medicare already are, Social Security will be by the end of the decade) and the economy appears to be stuck in the ice. Innovation and growth are nil and will remain so until stupidity is shown the door. Tell kids my children’s age that there will be no more entitlements, that they have to go to work to satisfy their needs and wants and that they will have to provide for their own retirements. Quit taking their money and let them use it as they see fit and, you know what, I think they’ll be fine. In fact, I’m much more comfortable with my son being my retirement plan than I am with Social Security. He’s more reliable at 17 than the government has ever been. Lela

  1 comment

I finally finished it. Whenever a Presidential candidate has written a book, I try to read it. I read both of Obama’s books prior to the 2008 election and Obama’s own words (or his ghost writer’s) were the reason I didn’t vote for him.

So, Hillary Clinton wrote “Hard Choices” about her time as Secretary of State. I had previously (back when Bill was King) read “It Takes a Village”. The statist tyrant I found within those pages was one reason I came out early as a “NeverHillary”. But, despite that, I still read “Hard Choices”.

This primary season has been a great example of historical blindness. I winced during the primaries when Republican candidates promised to “kick ass” in Iraq, make the “sand glow” in Syria, and face down the Russians in Europe. The Democratic aspirants came off as a little more measured, but they generally share the pervasive ideology that America has the right and duty to order the world’s affairs. Without us, the world would go to hell in a hand-basket. Yah! Roar!

Hillary Clinton takes on a certain messianic quality when she routinely quotes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s line about America as “the indispensible nation” whose job is to lead the world. At a rally in Iowa, she said “Senator [Bernie] Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy, and when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he really hasn’t thought things through.”

She was absolutely correct. Sanders considers foreign policy to be an afterthought to his signature issues of economic inequality and a national health care system. Now she’s aiming the same criticism toward Donald Trump, who also considers foreign policy to be secondary to the economy and border security. What I noted was the implication that she has thought things through. Having just finished her book, I don’t think she has. (Note here – my minor in college was political science with a foreign policy emphasis so I read the book from that perspective).

Hard Choices covers Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State and tracks a litany of American foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, and the “Asia pivot” that’s dangerously increased tensions with China. Maybe she didn’t realize that was what she was doing.

At the heart of Hard Choices is a version of “American exceptionalism” that claims the right of the U.S. to intervene in other countries at will. She attempted to construct a coherent rationale for interventionist foreign policy and to justify her decisions as Secretary of State. The evidence she presented was unconvincing, perhaps because it is built on a shaky rationale.

I think Clinton is intelligent. I don’t think she’s an idiot, so I was surprised at how remarkably shallow the book was. It wasn’t thoughtful in any way. She admitted to some regret for her vote to invade Iraq, but then quickly moved on. She failed to examine how the U.S. had the right to invade and overthrow a sovereign government that hadn’t attacked the US. For Clinton, Iraq was only a “mistake” because it came out badly.

The book shows a deep inability to see other people’s point of view. The Russians are portrayed as aggressively attempting to re-establish their old Soviet sphere of influence rather than reacting to the steady march of NATO eastwards. She utterly ignores that the first Bush administration explicitly promised Russia that NATO would not expand eastward if the Soviets withdrew their forces from Eastern Europe.

In this, Clinton is not different from most of the Washington establishment. They fail to understand that Russia has been invaded three times since 1815 and lost tens of millions of people. Of course, they’re a little paranoid about their borders. Yet, in Clinton’s book, there is no mention of the roles U.S. intelligence agencies, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and openly fascist Ukrainian groups played in coordinating the coup against the elected (if corrupt) government of Ukraine.

Clinton takes credit for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot,” which she boasted “sent a message to Asia and the world that America was back in its traditional leadership role in Asia.” While she’s patting herself on the back, she doesn’t consider how this returned emphasis might be interpreted in Beijing.

Truthfully, the United States never left Asia. The Pacific basin has long been home to major U.S. trading partners, and U.S. military presence in Japan, Korea, and the Pacific is huge. To the Chinese, the “pivot” means the U.S. plans to beef up its military presence in the region and construct an anti-China alliance system. The US has done both.

Clinton often characterizes military intervention in the philosophy of “responsibility to protect,” but her application is selective. She takes credit for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but in her campaign speeches, she avoids mentioning the horrendous bombing campaign being waged by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. She cites “responsibility to protect” (identified as R2P in the book) for why the U.S. should overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain against the majority Shiite population’s demands for democracy.

Clinton, Samantha Power (the U.S. ambassador to the UN) and Susan Rice (National Security Advisor) has pushed for muscular interventions without considering the consequences, which have been dire.

Afghanistan: Somewhere around 220,000 Afghans have died since the 2001 U.S. invasion, and millions of others are refugees. The U.S. and its allies have suffered close to 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded. You can’t just blame the Bush administration for this. Obama has had seven years to get us out of the war, but it is far from over. The cost to the US Treasury is around $700 billion, not counting long-term medical bill for disabled veterans that could run as high as $2 trillion.

Libya: Some 30,000 people died and another 50,000 were wounded in the intervention and civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees, who are now invading Europe. The cost to Washington was only $1.1 billion, but the war and subsequent instability created a tsunami of weapons and refugees and, though the media has moved on, the fighting continues. To me, nothing epitomizes Clinton’s lack of morality than her tasteless remark regarding Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” The Libyan leader was executed by having a bayonet rammed up his rectum. Nobody deserves that.

Ukraine: The death toll now exceeds 8,000, some 18,000 have been wounded, and several cities in the eastern part of the country have been heavily damaged. The fighting has tapered off, although tensions remain high. And, yes, the US CIA under Clinton’s watch destabilized the legitimately elected government of Ukraine, which set off the unrest.

Yemen: Over 6,000 Yemenis have been killed and another 27,000 wounded. The UN reports most of the killed and injured are civilians. Ten million Yeminis don’t have enough to eat, and 13 million have no access to clean water. Yemen is highly dependent on imported food, but a U.S.-Saudi blockade has choked off most imports. The war is ongoing.

Iraq: Anywhere from 400,000 to over 1 million people have died from war-related causes since the 2003 invasion. Over 2 million have fled the country and another 2 million are internally displaced. The cost is close to $1 trillion, but it may rise to $4 trillion once all the long-term medical costs are added in. The war grinds on as a bloody turf war with the Islamic State, which emerged from the Sunni insurgency against the U.S.-installed government.

Syria: Over 250,000 have died in the war, and half the country’s population has been displaced. Something like four million Syrian refugees have invaded Europe, destabilizing the EU. The country’s major cities have been ravaged. The war continues.

There are other countries like Somalia we could add to the butcher’s bill, but what concerns me more are the countries that reaped the benefit from the collapse of Libya. Weapons looted after the fall of Gaddafi largely fuel the wars in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic.

We can’t yet calculate the cost of the Asia Pivot for the United States and the allies we’re recruiting to confront China. Since the “Pivot” got underway prior to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, we could start by asking a “which came first” question: Is the current climate of tension in the Pacific basin a result of Chinese aggression or U.S. provocation?

To be fair, Hillary Clinton is hardly the only politician who thinks American exceptionalism gives the U.S. the right to intervene in other countries. That point of view is pretty much bi-partisan. Sanders voted against the Iraq War and has criticized Clinton’s eagerness to intervene elsewhere, but the Vermont senator backed the Yugoslavia and Afghan interventions. The former re-ignited the Cold War and the latter just never ends. At least Sanders seems to recognize what the problem is. He observed, “I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences may be.”

Since she is running for President, it is fair to ask if she would be more aggressive in the Oval Office than other candidates might. The book suggests she would certainly be more aggressive than Obama and Bush. Clinton pushed the Obama White House to intervene more deeply in Syria, and was far more hardline on Iran. On virtually every foreign policy issue, Clinton led the charge inside the administration for a more belligerent U.S. response. As aggressive as the Obama administration was while she was Secretary, it would have been more aggressive had she been in charge.

Clinton has said she’s proud to call Iranians “enemies,” and attacked Sanders for his entirely sensible remark that the U.S. might find common ground with Iran on defeating the Islamic State. Sanders, perhaps intimidated by her “credentials”, backed off and said he didn’t think it was possible to improve relations with Tehran in the near future.

The danger of Clinton’s view of America’s role in the world is that of old-fashioned imperial behavior wrapped in the humanitarian rationale of “responsibility to protect”.  Her rhetoric is more politic than the “make the sands glow” atavism of the Republicans, but it’s still death and destruction in a different packaging.

So, I’m still a member of the Never-Hillary camp because I don’t think we need another warmonger in the White House. The national treasury can’t afford it and increasingly, the government’s muscularity is making things more dangerous here at home. We the people can’t afford Hillary.

I also have no intention of voting for Trump for entirely different reasons. I honestly believe he is not interested in conducting wars around the world because he recognizes that would be bad for trade. That’s not enough reason for me to vote for him, but it’s a plus in his column.

I remain committed to voting for the lesser of available potential tyrants – which remains Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.


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