Sunday, January 22, 2023

Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval (Jon Hilsenrath)

Janet Yellen is the first American to serve as leader of the three main financial agencies in the United States: The White House Council of Economic Advisers, the Federal Reserve, and as Treasury Secretary. Her long career has been filled with advocating a combination of Keynesian thinking about government guidance of the broader economy while pushing for lower budget deficits when economic conditions warrant. Her life’s work is chronicled in Jon Hilsenrath’s biography Yellen: The Trailblazing Economist Who Navigated an Era of Upheaval.

Yellen is not just about Janet. Much of the book covers her family – her husband, George Akerlof, is also an economist, and their son, Robert, followed in the family footsteps too. Their story, in addition to Janet’s, is woven beautifully into the book. Janet has cited her husband as a career mentor, guiding and pushing her thinking on economic matters as the two have complimented each other…and occasionally butted heads on economic philosophy or on how to handle economic issues. At the end, these stories help show how Janet’s thinking would evolve and guide important events that she faced in her career such as the Great Recession and its recovery, as well as the years after the onset of COVID-19.

Hilsenrath, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, provides a balanced and fair perspective of Yellen’s life and career. Yellen points out her mistakes and the author fairly covers her life and how her thinking impacted the broader economy. Regardless of political thinking, it’s fair to note that Yellen’s career is remarkable in being the first to lead all of the major financial offices in the United States. Yellen provides a balanced look at the woman who rose to the top of government finance.


Sunday, January 1, 2023

Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy (Timothy Shenk)

America’s two major political parties have evolved in their core beliefs and voter makeup since the establishment of the Republicans in the 1850’s. Throughout our country’s history, there have been two major factions that have competed for control over government at various levels. While occasional usurpers come along regardless of the strength of the political parties, in the end, Americans often face a choice between one party or another. These parties are made up of coalitions of voters that make up a wide swath of economic, ethnic, or geographic interests and are realigned from one party to another every so often. These realignments happen because of various events (think of the Great Depression and abolitionism as two examples). But often, they feature a prominent person at the forefront of driving a shift in political party alignment. Timothy Shenk covers these in detail in his book Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy.

Shenk discusses these political realignments in a chronological order, starting with James Madison and continuing through the present day with Barack Obama and the populism that is bubbling up on the American right. In addition to Madison and Obama, the reader is introduced to Mark and Ruth Hanna, who helped build the modern organization of a political party on a national level. Mark, the father, was the leading voice of bringing the Republicans back into the White House in the late 1890’s after the nonconsecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. Ruth, his daughter, was one of the leading voices of the women’s suffrage movement and helped to maintain Republican control of the White House through the 1920’s before the Great Depression (a realigning event) created a new coalition of Democratic rule. 

Realigners is at its strongest when it discusses some of the forgotten (to many) names that have helped guide and shape the coalitions, like Charles Sumner, the Hannas, W.E.B. DuBois. While Shenk’s personal politics and worldview can leak through into his writing and cloud some of his arguments, the book is engaging and well-researched and showcases how Republicans and Democrats have shifted over time and how the current system (or mess, depending on your opinion of the two parties) reached its current point.


Friday, December 23, 2022

The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream (Steve Case)

Steve Case made his mark as one of the cofounders of AOL in the 1990’s, eventually becoming a venture capitalist and investor. Over the past decade, Case has spearheaded bus tours of a number of mid-sized cities throughout America to help promote innovation and venture capital for startup companies in parts of the country that typically are not known for technological innovation. He chronicles his journeys over the past decade in The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs In Surprising Places Are Building the New American Dream.

Case breaks his book down into small stories and case studies into areas of America where innovation is taking place outside of the “known” hubs of Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. In each of these examples, Case offers insight into how these communities have supported and cultivated innovation, providing the incubation for startups to grow to scale. Case highlights several examples of companies his group invested in through his bus tours and pitch competitions, highlighting what factors guided the decisions to award them money.

The book spends very little time highlighting the “secret sauce” that cities should strive for in becoming hubs for regional innovation. That sauce, if you’re wondering, is a combination of corporate, government, and community support and money. While Case spends much of the book talking about some of the nation’s successful innovation cities, I think more attention could have been paid to discuss how more national investment to the local level would be useful, along with how larger companies and the federal government could help level up the Pittsburghs and Salt Lake Citys of the world. 


Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Crossroads of Civilization: A History of Vienna (Angus Robertson)

Vienna has held unique importance in European and international affairs for centuries. From rising to prominence with the Habsburg Dynasty, to hosting an international peace conference in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat in 1814-1815, to its present as a home to promote diplomacy and international relations, Vienna is the crossroads of not only Europe but also the world. Angus Robertson, a Scottish politician whose prior media career included a stint reporting on news from Vienna, documents the rich history of Vienna in Crossroads of Civilization: A History of Vienna.

Many of us know that great works of art and music were created in Vienna and many great historical events occurred within the Austrian capital. Robertson’s book documents much of the Habsburg dynasty and its contribution to Europe and prominence in European affairs during the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. He also devotes much of the book to the chaos after the end of Habsburg rule in 1918, the fascism that soon took over, and Nazi occupation during World War II. After the war, Vienna took on its current role as a more neutral international city, hosting several global agencies and acting as a major scene of espionage between Western Europe and the Communist Bloc during the Cold War.

Despite no longer being an imperial capital, Vienna’s adaptability as a cosmopolitan city has served it well in becoming the modern crossroads of political and scientific diplomacy. Crossroads of Civilization effectively captures the important role Vienna played and will continue to play in culture and politics throughout Europe and beyond.


Monday, December 12, 2022

The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War Mind (Martin Sixsmith)

The Cold War between the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, was a long-standing conflict of psychology and tension. While some proxy wars were fought in places like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, the bulk of the Cold War was fought through propaganda and diplomatic channels. In his book, Martin Sixsmith, a journalist with an extensive amount of experience covering Russia and the Soviet Union, talks about The War of Nerves that dominated much of the Cold War.

Between Nixon, Brezhnev, Khruschev, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Gorbachev, and Stalin, the US and Soviet leadership during the Cold War fought each other over the airwaves, through trying to out-muscle and out-science each other, and through the use of propaganda or outright control (in the case of the Warsaw Pact countries) of their citizenry. With the looming threat of atomic warfare hanging over the world, American schoolkids were taught to duck under desks, and Soviets were taught how to evacuate or find a nearby bomb shelter should war break out. Sixsmith points out stories of individuals that still vividly recall the stress and tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and even to this day have nightmares or fears of “the bomb” being unleashed.

I found The War of Nerves an intriguing take on how both the Soviets and Americans viewed each other during this timeframe. Sixsmith plays an arguably neutral role in this book, pointing out flaws in American foreign policy towards the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia, as well as the flaws of the Soviets and Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War. While some Americans may not find Sixsmith’s detailing befitting the view that America “won” the Cold War, his understanding of Russian history and Russian thinking is well worth paying attention to. Sixsmith tellingly points out that today’s decision-makers are no better at understanding psychology than their predecessors, that we still have nuclear missiles pointed at numbers of cities throughout both countries, and that our collective outcomes as nations depend on the personalities and decision-making of those who lead us.


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life (Claire Rydell Arcenas)

John Locke is considered by many historians as one of the leading philosophical voices of The Enlightenment and early thinkers of classical liberalism. His insight and philosophy into politics and social thinking has had strong resonance to Americans throughout the nation’s history, although those ties to the country have occasionally ebbed and have often morphed. Claire Rydell Arcenas discusses America’s relationship to John Locke in America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life.

America’s Philosopher tracks the history of Locke’s influence through American political and philosophical thought. Locke helped shape the first constitution of the Carolina colony in the 17th Century, and his views held sway in print journalism throughout the 18th Century as America gradually developed its independent streak. Locke’s thinking shaped much of 19th and 20th Century academia as well before present day historians looked to the past in a different light based on Locke’s views on colonialism and equality. Despite those views, Lockean thought still runs strong in America’s general appetite for individual liberty, property rights, and limited government. While Locke was often a champion of liberal values based on his time, his views now often are championed by those of the libertarian right.

The author does a good job in the brief pages of this text to highlight Locke’s guiding role in America. Her argument that Locke’s story reveals how Americans have gradually nurtured and maintained a functioning democratic society is important to note in light of today’s attempts by some to paint democracy as being in peril or at risk of doom because of our political enemies. While Locke may not agree with the current state of political heat in America, he would strongly advocate for our elected government to consent to the governed, and not the other way around, no matter the branch of government. This was a point that I felt was left hanging at the end of the book and could have strengthened a pretty strong account of Locke’s relationship to our nation and how his thinking should help us in the years to come, even if the man behind them was rather imperfect.


Monday, November 28, 2022

The Other Passenger (Louise Candlish)

Louise Candlish's books are no stranger to this blog -- I reviewed Our House and Those People a few years ago. While I really enjoyed Our House, Those People started off strong and then petered out. The Other Passenger has the same issue.

Jamie is our narrator -- he lives in an expensive home owned by his girlfriend, Clare. Even though Clare tries to get him career counseling, Jamie is content to work every day as a barista in a coffee shop. After meeting his new neighbors, Kit and Melia, Jamie decides to join Kit in commuting to his job via riverboat. But one day, Kit isn't aboard the boat and goes missing. After Melia reports Kit missing, two detectives interview Jamie since another passenger witnessed them arguing. 

After the "big twist" (which Candlish is known for) was revealed, The Other Passenger took me a long time to finish. Most of the book was exciting, but the ending was predictable. I would put this square in the middle of enjoyment between Our House and Those People