Category Archives: Book review

To stop endless war, raise taxes

BOOK REVIEW

Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy, Author: Sarah Kreps.

By Sarah Kreps – What explains the American tolerance for such open-ended, seemingly never-ending wars?

One view is that the light footprint of modern warfare — drones, small numbers of special forces, and cyber, as opposed to large deployments of troops — is a chief culprit. This approach to conflict removes a barrier to war because it does not inflict casualties on American troops that would draw attention to and drain support for the enterprise.

This is surely a contributing factor. But I argue that the most crucial difference between these wars and those of the past is how they have been financed.

Contemporary wars are all put on the nation’s credit card, and that eliminates a critical accountability link between the populace and the conduct of war.

But without war taxes, the country is left with mounting debt — and left, too, with wars without accountability. If the public fails to experience the “inconvenience” of taxes, paraphrasing Adam Smith, there is no incentive for voters to push for a course correction.

When no citizen feels a financial pinch during wartime, open-ended wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq are likely to become the norm, not the exception. more>

Source: To stop endless war, raise taxes – Vox

You don’t have a right to believe whatever you want to

BOOK REVIEW

Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know, Author: Daniel DeNicola.

By Daniel DeNicola – Do we have the right to believe whatever we want to believe? This supposed right is often claimed as the last resort of the willfully ignorant, the person who is cornered by evidence and mounting opinion: ‘I believe climate change is a hoax whatever anyone else says, and I have a right to believe it!’ But is there such a right?

We do recognize the right to know certain things. I have a right to know the conditions of my employment, the physician’s diagnosis of my ailments, the grades I achieved at school, the name of my accuser and the nature of the charges, and so on. But belief is not knowledge.

Unfortunately, many people today seem to take great license with the right to believe, flouting their responsibility. The willful ignorance and false knowledge that are commonly defended by the assertion ‘I have a right to my belief’ do not meet William James’s requirements.

Beliefs shape attitudes and motives, guide choices and actions. Believing and knowing are formed within an epistemic community, which also bears their effects. There is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs – and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe.

Some beliefs are false, or morally repugnant, or irresponsible, and some beliefs are also dangerous. And to those, we have no right. more>

How nations come together

By Andreas Wimmer – Why do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well?

Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others?

The current tragedy in Syria illustrates the possibly murderous consequences of failed nation-building.

Some old countries (such as Belgium) haven’t come together as a nation, while other more recently founded states (such as India) have done so.

There are two sides to the nation-building coin: the extension of political alliances across the terrain of a country, and the identification with and loyalty to the institutions of the state, independent of who currently governs. The former is the political-integration aspect, the latter the political-identity aspect of nation-building.

To foster both, political ties between citizens and the state should reach across ethnic divides.

A comparison between Switzerland and Belgium, two countries of similar size, with a similar linguistic composition of the population, and comparable levels of economic development, provides an example.

In Switzerland, civil society organizations – such as shooting clubs, reading circles and choral societies – developed throughout the territory during the late 18th and first half of the 19th century. They spread evenly throughout the country because modern industries emerged across all the major regions, and because Switzerland’s city-states lacked both the capacity and the motivation to suppress them.

In Belgium, by contrast, Napoleon, as well as the Dutch king who succeeded him, recognized the revolutionary potential of such voluntary associations, and suppressed them. more>

How Social Media Became a Pink Collar Job

By Jessi Hempel – One job in the digital economy falls predominantly to women. It’s an oft-overlooked position, drawing on both marketing and editorial skills, that has become increasingly critical both to business success and online discourse. The pay is poor, and the respect can be limited. Take a look at the job posting for any social media manager. You’ll discover the same bias in its language, in reverse: a bias for sourcing female candidates.

The feminized nature of social media employment, Brooke Erin Duffy and Becca Schwartz argue, is connected to its “characteristic invisibility, lower pay, and marginal status” within the tech industry.

The study also suggests companies are seeking out candidates capable of “emotional labor.” This falls into two buckets. Companies advertise for candidates who are “upbeat” and “kind-hearted,” and capable, generally, of the emotional finesse involved in wrangling a brand’s messages into 140-character tweets, managing its employees so that they participate, and interacting with the wider audience of brand loyalists.

But social managers must also withstand the vitriol of the trolls who target Tweeters and posters with an expanding vocabulary of hate speech. more>

How to Save the Human Race

BOOK REVIEW

World Population and Human Values: A New Reality, Authors: Jonas Salk and Jonathan Salk.

By Gabrielle Levy – Until only recently, the whole of human history has been marked by population growth, first gradual and then, in the past two hundred years, a sudden explosion. But in the last decades of the 20th century, population growth began to slow, and eventually, it will plateau or even decline.

The moment at which growth goes from accelerating to decelerating, according to a theory posited by Dr. Salk is called an inflection point – and would be filled with turmoil and conflict, but also opportunity.

Salk characterizes the time before the inflection point as Epoch A, and in that period, people were focused on their own betterment and achievement as necessary to capitalize on the potential for great growth. But going forward, after the inflection point in Epoch B, people will need to be more collaborative and sustainability-oriented. This plays out now in issues like climate change, where the world must work together to combat the issue.

The book has a particular kind of resonance and a particular kind of relevance at this moment in time, because we’re really seeing the pull between two differing value systems, and making decisions as a species about how we’re going to deal with the future. It’s always been a meaningful book, but I think it’s particularly poignant at this moment in time. more>

We Don’t Have Elections

BOOK REVIEW

Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, Autor: Jacob Silverman.

How tech companies merge with the nation-state
By Jacob Silverman – It should shock no one if Facebook emerges from its latest privacy imbroglio with a meager fine and a promise to do better—even as our elected leaders, whose lack of knowledge of Facebook’s workings reflected their advanced age, tut-tutted that this time Facebook has to do better.

The canon of American regulatory practices tends toward the ceremonial, with extreme deference shown toward corporations that may one day hire former regulators. Senator Lindsey Graham even invited Zuckerberg to submit possible regulations—an example of regulatory capture so blatant that “corruption” doesn’t even seem like the proper word.

Playing along, Zuckerberg expressed an openness to regulation, though he asked for a light touch, which, barring another data spillage, he should expect.

Beyond a few mild critiques, Congress’s overriding opinion of Zuck seems to be that he was a classic American success story, and perhaps—in his cunning acquisition of ungodly riches on the backs of others’ labor—he is.

To better understand Silicon Valley’s politics, we might return to the nation-state metaphor and consider technology companies as recently ascendant great powers. Endowed with impressive resources, making themselves known in assorted global capitals, their CEOs are greeted in the manner of heads of state. Their vast offshore cash reserves resemble sovereign wealth funds, whose investments have the power to shape politics. more>

From a nation at risk to a democracy at risk: Educating students for democratic renewal

BOOK REVIEW

How Democracies Die, Authors: Madeleine Albright, Ronald Inglehart, Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

By Fernando Reimers – Public schools were invented to prepare people for self-governance, and to work with others towards the improvement of their communities and for the betterment of society. These were the arguments Horace Mann used, in the 1830s, when he led a successful advocacy campaign to launch public education in Massachusetts. Since then, schools in America have in many ways provided students the capacities necessary to engage civically, to collaborate with others, across lines of difference, in making society better.

As American democracy has evolved, so have the ways in which schools embrace their civic mission. For much of their history, our public schools did not hold women and men to similar expectations, nor did they adequately educate African Americans and other ethnic minorities. It was only when social movements, such as the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, broadened our collective understanding of who should be included in the opportunity to participate in this democratic experiment of self-rule, that schools, in turn, broadened their focus to prepare women and minorities for civic engagement and leadership.

The global democratic setback is the most severe since the end of World War II.

It is time to replace the powerful compact and narrative that A Nation At Risk provided to guide our schools three decades ago, with a more capacious vision for how our schools can help our students stand up for a democracy that is very much at risk. more>

Capitalism Redefined

BOOK REVIEW

Theory of Value, Author: Gerard Debreu.
The Origin of Wealth, Author: Eric Beinhocker.

By Nick Hanauer and Eric Beinhocker – For everyone but the top 1 percent of earners, the American economy is broken.

Since the 1980s, there has been a widening disconnect between the lives lived by ordinary Americans and the statistics that say our prosperity is growing. Despite the setback of the Great Recession, the U.S. economy more than doubled in size during the last three decades while middle-class incomes and buying power have stagnated. Great fortunes were made while many baby boomers lost their retirement savings. Corporate profits reached record highs while social mobility reached record lows, lagging behind other developed countries.

These facts don’t just highlight the issues of inequality and the growing power of a plutocracy. They should also force us to ask a deeper set of questions about how our economy works—and, crucially, about how we assess and measure the very idea of economic progress.

How can it be that great wealth is created on Wall Street with products like credit-default swaps that destroyed the wealth of ordinary Americans—and yet we count this activity as growth?

Likewise, fortunes are made manufacturing food products that make Americans fatter, sicker, and shorter-lived. And yet we count this as growth too—including the massive extra costs of health care.

Global warming creates more frequent hurricanes, which destroy cities and lives. Yet the economic activity to repair the damage ends up getting counted as growth as well.

Great debates rage about whether to raise or lower interest rates, or increase or decrease regulation, and our political system has been paralyzed by a bitter ideological struggle over the budget. But there is too little debate about what it is all for.

Hardly anyone ever asks: What kind of growth do we want? What does “wealth” mean? And what will it do for our lives? more>

America is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

BOOK REVIEW

The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Author: Peter Temin.

By Lynn Parramore – America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations, and fates.

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology, and electronics, the industries which largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success.

They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework, and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies, and count themselves as lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector.

Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all.

Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in.

While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing. more>

Robots at the gate: Humans and technology at work


Barclays – Humans have often had a cautious relationship with new technology, particularly when it causes widespread disruption in the workforce. Yet historically, technological advances have not resulted in fewer jobs available to humans, but rather have led to the creation of new opportunities. Farriers and saddlemakers were hit hard when cars replaced horse carriages, but the petrol stations, mechanics, motels and related industries that sprung up created new, yet different, types of jobs.

More recently, the smartphone is a great example of technological advances creating new forms of work. Twenty years ago, mobile app developer was not a job; today, millions of such developers are at work around the world.

One of the most influential economists of all time, David Ricardo, flip-flopped on the issue. In 1821, he stated that while was a general good, he was now more worried about the substitution effect on labor. And the discussion was not always academic – the Luddite movement was an early example of workers resorting to violence to protest the use of technology in textile factories.

As the decades passed, the Industrial Revolution led to a visible, massive improvement in living standards. But the debate – on how technology affects work and whether it is an unequivocal positive – continued to wax and wane.

Machine learning represents a fundamental change. It is a subset of the much-abused term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and is grounded in statistics and mathematical optimization. The computer is fed vast data sets and a few general parameters to point it in the right direction. Then, the machine executes simulations of how biological neurons behave, uses that to recognize recurring sequences in the data, and writes its own rules.

Suddenly, it is no longer limited to applying algorithms that
a human wrote; the machine is designing its own. more (pdf)>