UAA Book Club Reviews

Blowout:  Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth

On January 15, 2020, eighteen members of the UAA Book Club met at the BISTRO 1521 Restaurant in Arlington, VA, for a discussion, led by Jim Fox , Rachel Maddow’s new best-seller Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.  Jim’s summary review is posted in the UAA Book Club Reviews section of the UAA website.  This book is full of detailed observations of the oil industry, people in the industry, its benefits and costs, together with an astute analysis of the goals and pretentions of Vladimir Putin.  It has many strands and vignettes on characters that make up the drama of the oil industry, but three main themes loom through all the detail:  the industry and its operators, the awesome political power it makes possible, and the geopolitical threat posed by Russia under Vladimir Putin. These three do not fit particularly well into something coherent, but they make for a lively and entertaining read.  The bottom line of the book – what we should do about the issues she poses—is disappointingly modest. 

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Climate Casino by William Nordhaus 

On November 20, 2019, Lee Roussel led a discussion with fifteen members of the UAA Book Club, of William Nordhaus’s, Climate Casino, 2013. Lee selected this book because it is a comprehensive approach by an economist to the complex issues confronted in considering climate change. Written for non-economists, it covers all the elements involved in understanding the human role in climate change, both what we now know and what we do not really know. Nordhaus was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2018. In detailing its reasons for giving the prize to Nordhaus, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences specifically recognized his efforts to develop “an integrated assessment model, i.e. a quantitative model that describes the global interplay between the economy and the climate. His model integrates theories and empirical results from physics, chemistry and economics. Nordhaus’ model is now widely spread and is used to simulate how the economy and the climate co-evolve.”  Nordhaus has been sharply criticized by many who objected to important elements not adequately addressed by his model. The book group found urgency in three pages of findings and six specific recommendations issued by over 11,000 scientists on November 6, 2019. These findings especially focused on population policies and the difficult to quantify but important trends impacting agriculture, fishing, and biodiversity.

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How Change Happens by Cass R. Sunstein

On October 23rd, twelve members of the UAA Book Club met to discuss How Change Happens by Cass R. Sunstein. Jim Fox led a discussion of a complex and difficult book, dealing with a wide range of ideas and thoughts about how we think and why we think the way we do. It discusses flaws in rational planning such as availability bias, loss aversion, framing bias, overoptimism, deontology and partyism. It is a multifaceted investigation into how people collectively develop views on important social and legal matters.

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Mario Vargas Llosa’s,  La Ilamada de la Tribu (Call of the Tribe)

At the September 18th meeting of the UAA Book Club, Jim Elliott and Clarence Zuvekas led a discussion of Mario Vargas Llosa’s book, La Ilamada de la Tribu (Call of the Tribe), Alfaguara, 2018. Jim and Clarence prepared a written review and discussion questions in English (the book is published in Spanish.) The discussion focused on the different meanings of the “call of the tribe” and the “spirit of the tribe.”  The siren-song call of the tribe is identifiable with nationalism run amok—as under Kaiser Wilhelm or, even worse, a Hitler. The spirit of the tribe animates political “discussion” on the internet which leads to “no-compromise, double-down” factionalism.  It can open fissures within a country that sets people with near identical languages (e.g., Serbs and Croats) against one another. Copies of the papers on this very interesting scholarly book will soon be posted on the Book Club Reviews section of the UAA website.

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Notes on “Nationalism – What Went Wrong?” by Peter Amato

The title chosen for this discussion, Nationalism – What Went Wrong? reveals this presenter’s bias; namely there is something inherently wrong with nationalism as it is broadly interpreted today.  This approach is vigorously challenged by one of our authors.  Others take a more nuanced position defining “nationalism” as… “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests,”(in extreme cases) “…to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.”  Under this definition, nationalism confers certain benefits to some and costs to others, and how nationalism is viewed¾whether it is on the whole good or bad¾will depend on the political, economic and/or social leanings of the viewer.

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Can American Capitalism Survive?
Why Greed Is Not Good, Opportunity Is Not Equal,
and Fairness Won’t Make Us Poor (2018) – Steven Pearlstein

The central issue in this treatise is ‘how much income and wealth inequality and injustice can capitalism contain in the USA’?  ‘Are present trends somehow inevitable, inherent in fundamental dynamics of our economic and cultural evolution?’ His answers are “Probably not much more inequality will be tolerated;” and “No, the trend was not inevitable and can be reversed.”

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The Future of Capitalism – By Paul Collier

Many of us have been reading Paul Collier for years for his insightful assessment of poor countries, none more than his The Bottom Billion, a provocative study of those countries least able to escape extreme poverty.  Despite his career working in and on poor countries, The Future of Capitalism, has little to do with that.  Rather, it is about the future of the US and the UK in dealing with their own challenges.  In it, he draws on the insights of the great political economists, and shows the breakdown of community in these two countries, the hollowing out of regional areas, the agglomeration of wealth in the metropoles, the sins of the financial community, the sins of the legal industry, the decline of good childrearing practices, and the inappropriateness of much education spending.  (I’ve probably left out one or more of his targets.)  But it is not a diatribe.  Rather, it is a carefully crafted analysis of where we have gone wrong, and somewhat, how to fix it.

Collier is not writing about capitalism in the world.  His references to poor countries are limited to discussion of the moral responsibility of “rescue” in cases of extreme deprivation, and for limiting the extent of immigration into rich countries, in order to maintain confidence in a shared national identity.

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What Would the Great Economists Do? – By Linda Yueh

The author discusses twelve classic economists whose theories she believes changed their world and which still have some relevance for our current economic problems, focused on the rate and quality of economic growth and development. She includes a lot of interesting details about the life and times of each economist discussed and a discussion about recent economic episodes relevant to their theoretical contributions.

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Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future – By Ian Morris

Morris defines social development as “societies’ abilities to get things done – to shape their physical, economic, social and intellectual environments to their own ends.”  Asking why the West rules, Morris argues, involves finding answers to two questions: (1) Why the West is more developed, i.e. more able to get things done that any other region of the world.  And (2) Why Western development rose so high in the last two hundred years that for the first time in history a few countries could dominate the entire planet?

Most Western observers in the 19th and 20th century, according to Morris, took it for granted that social development is a good.  This is a position that many of us in the development community have also taken for granted. But today, as Morris also points out, “many people feel that environmental degradation, wars, inequality, and disillusionment that social development brings in its train far outweighs any benefits it generates.”

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Mellor, John W., Agricultural Development and Economic Transformation:  Promoting Growth with Poverty Reduction

An underlying premise of John Mellor’s new book is that poverty and lack of food security is due to lack of income, and not lack of food supply.  He again notes that traditional agriculture cannot achieve high growth rates without technological modernization. But in traditional agriculture, his new book distinguishes between small commercial farmers and rural non-farm households, with poverty concentrated in the latter.  Research has identified the main engine of economic growth and poverty reduction, where it has successfully occurred, as the dynamic process between increasing the productivity and income of small commercial farmers and their propensity to spend half their incremental income on locally available goods and services produced by rural non-farm households.  But for small commercial farmers to achieve sufficient technological modernization, substantial support from the government is required—for rural infrastructure like roads, education, electrification, agricultural research and extension.  The quantity and quality of foreign aid, and local government expenditures, in this area have declined since the 1980s, as has the rate of poverty reduction. 

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