Monday, April 8, 2024

Book Review: “Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream” by David Leonhardt

The declining belief in the “American dream” is the story presented in New York Times journalist David Leonhardt’s new book, Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream. The book is part political science and part history, and helps explain the current troubling U.S. political situation.

The current rise of the right in the United States and European countries is dismaying to many. In the U.S., those of us not charmed by Donald J. Trump can be mystified about his appeal to many of our compatriots. For one, I am at a loss to understand or explain the attraction or even the entertainment value of his long rants at his rallies.

One aspect of the appeal of the right’s siren call, though, has been glaringly obvious: the failure of liberalism to deliver for the working class. The growing disparity of income over the past decades has generated anger and unpleasant political consequences. This is the theme of Leonhardt’s book.

Leonhardt begins by praising the glory years after World War II, which were marked by government investments in infrastructure (e.g., the interstate highway system) and education (e.g.the GI Bill, the reaction to the Sputnik scare), the increasing power of labor unions, and improvement, albeit slow, on race issues. However, later in the last century and continuing in the current one, things shifted. Republican policies, especially starting with the Reagan Administration, hastened the decline of the labor movement, and generally benefitted the more wealthy. Government investment declined, with the idea that a “rough and tumble” capitalism with less government intervention would best serve the country. On the Democratic side, Leonhardt argues that there was an emphasis on social issues and the professional elites dominating the party paid too little attention to working class concerns such as crime and visible job losses due to immigration. Democrats de-emphasized the useful government role in the economy, with Clinton famously saying that “the era of big government is over.”

I generally agree with many of the points the book makes, but there are some important developments that I think it misses. For example, in tax policy, the book makes no mention of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which was a Reagan Administration initiative but enacted with bipartisan cooperation and enthusiasm among many Democrats in the Congress. This legislation strived to tax various sources of income equally and to make the Internal Revenue Code fairer. It has been mostly undone in subsequent years. For example, the current difference in tax rates for favored investment income, including long-term capital gains and most dividend income, and those for ordinary income is contrary to what the Tax Reform Act was trying to do. An analysis of the initial success and subsequent political failure of this initiative would have been useful.    

In addition, Leonhardt could have provided more discussion concerning Social Security and Medicare. Much of the current public discussion is misleading, with, among other issues, sleight of hand being played regarding confusing government accounting issues. Leonhardt is well qualified to cut through the debates on these issues and to discuss the real motivations of those advocating changes to these programs.

Because the book is U.S. focused, it does not discuss that a growing disparity of income and the rise of the right have also been taking place in European countries. The postwar history of Europe is different from that of the U.S., as have been government policies. This suggests that something more general has been afoot in both continents fueling growing inequality of income and the migration of some of the working class from the left to the right. (In Western Europe, the postwar left had been much further to the left than in the U.S.) Of course, a comparative politics study of the rise of the right would be another book.

It is interesting to note that under President Biden, some of the “third-way” Democratic policies have been effectively jettisoned. Biden is in favor of using tariffs and tax incentives to promote a type of industrial policy favorable to the environment. Also, he is wary of the Chinese and is not averse to using tariffs and other measures. Leonhardt believes that this is warranted. 

As far as whether the right will be successful, it is anyone’s bet about whether it will be in the U.S. for the short-term. Unlike other western countries, the U.S. has political arrangements that are currently helpful to the right, such as the unrepresentative U.S. Senate and the Electoral College. On the other hand, it has a political culture that is wary of the extremes. It is reasonable to think that ultimately the right will fail, but it may take longer than many of us would wish.

Even though, as I have argued, this book does not provide a complete view of how we have arrived at the current state of affairs, I can strongly recommend it for its analysis and the interesting history it presents. Moreover, it is well written and engaging. Whether or not one agrees with the author in general or on particular points, it provides the reader with a better understanding of how we have arrived at our current situation and provides information and analysis that should serve as fodder for thinking about current problems

Monday, January 15, 2024

Book Review: “Material World: The Six Raw Materials that Shape Modern Civilization”by Ed Conway

Ed Conway is a British economics journalist who works for Sky News and writes a column for The Times (London). His book, Material World, focuses on six raw materials: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. The point the book relentlessly drives home is that, for all our attention to the virtual  world, we are all dependent on real, material things. It also points out environmental tradeoffs. For example, making solar panels is an international endeavor requiring mining and a good deal of energy. Another example is electric cars, which require considerably more copper wiring than car with internal combustion engines, and the mining of copper is not without its problems. Moreover, the use of these materials, which involves mining, transportation, processing, and manufacturing of useful products, is not the province of a single country and requires considerable international trade.

While the author tries to be optimistic in his conclusion, the message of the book is the complexity of dealing with the environmental challenges. While the chants on the right of “drill, baby, drill” are nonsense as a solution to our real problems, environmental groups are also often simplistic in their approach in opposing many projects. Environmentalists might want to set up input output models or other analytical techniques to evaluate tradeoffs.

Also, while Conway praises the use of fertilizers to grow the necessary crops to feed the world’s population, he does not discuss that continuing population growth may be part of the problem. Also, deforestation in order to make more land available for farming with the miracle fertilizers has its environmental problems, as does animal agriculture. The benefits from these materials in making possible more food, in other words, create other problems. There are tradeoffs everywhere.

This book also provides some interesting history. For example, during World War I, Britain had a shortage of binoculars and Germany had a shortage of rubber. According to this book, there is evidence that Britain and Germany effectively traded binoculars and rubber in neutral Switzerland during the war. One can also learn why Bolivia is a landlocked country because of a 19th century war during which Chile obtained Bolivia’s coastal regions, which also happen to be mineral-rich.

In addition, one can learn a bit of chemistry in reading about the processing of various materials and their conversions into useful products, such as batteries. Perhaps there is more detail than some readers may want, and it is difficult to recall it all, but it is interesting.

Conway did a great deal of research to judge by his endnotes and bibliography as well as the international travels he recounts to various mining and production sites around the world. While competently written, the book is not exactly a page-turner. Amusingly, he relies, perhaps a bit much, on his inner Kurt Vonnegut in the repeated use of the phrase – “So it goes in the Material World.” Reading the book all at once, as I did, may not be the best approach. There is a lot of information to absorb. 

I recommend the book as a useful contribution to understanding the environmental challenges ahead from a different perspective than is usually offered. It is not the whole story, but an important part of the story.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Book Review: “The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism” by Adam Nagourney

 I have read that many journalists were inspired in part to join the profession after reading Gay Talese’s, The Kingdom and the Power, a book published in 1969 about the New York Times, and the Watergate book, All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. No young person, though, will read Adam Nagourney’s book, The Times, and come away convinced that The New York Times has been a great place to work, whatever they may think about journalism as a career. 

The book dwells on the challenges and the missteps of The New York Times from 1977 to 2016. During this period, there was the challenge to newspapers’ business model relying on advertising by the rise of the internet, and The New York Times committed serious journalistic errors, such as publishing Judith Miller’s articles on Iraq and Jayson Blair’s made-up stories, among others, which damaged the paper’s reputation. 

The story Nagourney tells, though, has a happy ending. While the paper was slow to embrace the internet, it finally bowed to the inevitable and has regained its financial footing. It did not have to do this the way The Washington Post found its financial salvation by selling itself to a billionaire savior, Jeff Bezos. The New York Times has in recent years become more a digital news outlet, with more of its revenue coming from digital rather than print subscriptions. However, missing in Nagourney’s telling is the role of Carlos Slim, a Mexican billionaire, who is barely mentioned. Mr. Slim provided loans and investments which enabled the New York Times to survive difficult financial times. 

The book’s focus is on how the two publishers and seven executive editors during the period covered coped with the challenges. Other employees of the paper appear when they become important to the top people. There is much detail concerning personal rivalries, maneuvers to get promoted, management style, and so on. It makes for an interesting and long story. 

Nagourney, himself, a longtime political journalist who eventually gave up his mostly national politics focused beat when he moved to Los Angeles, nowhere appears in the book. For a while, he was the Los Angeles bureau chief and then a cultural correspondent and now is back to covering national politics, though still based in Los Angeles. For some of us, it had been a bit of a mystery of what he had been up to, but now we know. He was writing this heavily researched and detailed book. 

As a longtime reader of The New York Times, I wish there had been more discussion of its editorial and op-ed pages. For example, while William Safire’s controversial hiring in 1973 took place before this book begins, there might have been some mention of his success at being a mostly conservative columnist who also wrote a brilliant column on language for the paper’s Sunday magazine supplement. (Safire had been a speech writer for Vice President Spiro Agnew and was famous for phrases heavy in alliteration, such as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”) The New York Times has not been as successful in hiring other interesting conservatives as columnists. The book’s discussion of columnists is mostly about their being consulted by others.

In addition, missing is much discussion of how the reporters were impacted by this tumultuous period, except in broad generalities. Also, there is no discussion of the work life at foreign bureaus or U.S. regional bureaus, with the exception of Washington, DC. The tensions between the home office in New York and the Washington, DC bureau does play a significant role in the narrative. 

Nevertheless, this book, while both long and limited in focus, is interesting, especially for devoted readers of The New York Times.  For all its troubles and missteps, the Times is undoubtedly the most important English language newspaper in the world, and its influence is broader than its readership, because it plays a significant role in setting the news agenda for other news outlets in the United States, including for television and cable news. 

It is reassuring that the story Nagourney tells has a mostly happy ending. That was not inevitable; the paper could have disappeared in a bankruptcy proceeding. It is also reassuring that the Washington Post, with a significant assist from Jeff Bezos, is providing serious competition. This makes both papers better. In addition, The Wall Street Journal does provide some competition in its news pages. I wish that other papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, would provide more competition at the national level. 

To an extent, the British newspaper, The Guardian, provides web competition for U.S. papers, especially because it provides significant coverage of U.S. news. During the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I thought The Guardian’s coverage was more reliable than that of U.S. papers, including the Times. It turns out I was right. 

Nagourney ends his book on an optimistic note concerning how The New York Times has reinvented itself and continues to provide much needed journalism. I agree with that and can recommend his book to those interested in journalism in general or The New York Times in particular. The book is well-written and, for all its length, never boring.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Additional Comments on Cryptocurrencies

As I indicated in my review of Ben McKenzie’s book on cryptocurrency, my interest and knowledge of this subject is limited. Given this, here are some additional comments.

One place to get an analytical, though dated, view of cryptocurrencies is Gary Gensler’s 2018 MIT course on the subject. It is free, but you do have to spend the time to watch it and do the readings. (I have not done this.) The crypto enthusiasts were initially pleased by Gary Gensler being appointed to head the SEC, but the crypto press is now harshly critical of him because of SEC enforcement actions.

From what I gather, Gensler now thinks most cryptocurrencies are securities except for bitcoin. He does seem though impressed with blockchain technology, which could be used for other purposes than transferring crypto. However, that is uncertain.

The regulatory dilemma with crypto is that setting up a formal regulatory regime provides legitimacy for crypto. To me, trading in bitcoin and similar “coins” looks like gambling with no benefit for society. In effect you are betting that someone in the future will be willing to pay you more than you paid for your cryptocurrency. In the meantime, it is up to the courts to decide what role the SEC and the CFTC can play in this space. Congress can of course decide to pass legislation on the subject, but that will probably take some time.

Some people putting actual money into crypto may be betting that crypto will become like dollars and euros and become embedded in our financial system, but it is hard to see that happening. It does not inspire trust; it does not have a central bank and a banking system to create it; and it is not embedded in the economy and the legal system as money. Perhaps, bitcoin can be a little like gold as a place to park money and, if there continues to be enough people who believe in it, maintain some fluctuating value, but that is uncertain. That could happen, though, with a few cryptocurrencies playing a small role in financial markets.

Finally, some major players are getting into the crypto game. For example, Fidelity Investments offers a trading platform for bitcoin and ethereum. I think this is a mistake, but, to its credit, Fidelity says that accounts in its crypto affiliate do not have the regulatory protections that its normal brokerage accounts benefit from. Other firms, such as Blackrock, want to offer ETFs in crypto. The SEC has not yet approved this, but it may.

Book Review: Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud by Ben McKenzie with Jacob Silverman

I usually do not pay much attention to cryptocurrencies except when they make a good deal of news. Call me a crypto skeptic: I have never understood the attraction. To begin with, what purpose do they serve?

One of the touted purposes is to eliminate the need for financial intermediaries and all the concomitant regulation. However, holding cryptocurrency without the assistance of some kind of intermediary is more than most people have the time or technical savvy to do. Moreover, the lack of regulation for trading platforms that are unregulated has given rise to investors and traders (probably a better term is “gamblers”) losing money due to scams.

It is hard to determine what crypto really is. Is bitcoin an asset, even if there is nothing underlying it but clever computer code and a network of computers? Stablecoins, by contrast, sometimes do have some underlying assets other than other cryptocurrencies and some sponsoring group or entity, but it is difficult to determine how trustworthy the backing is. We can say, though, that one thing crypto is not, and that is money. As taught in introductory economic classes, money serves three functions: a store of value, a medium of exchange, and a unit of account. Crypto does none of these things. While El Salvador has made bitcoin legal tender in that country; this experiment does not seem to have gone well.

Ben McKenzie, a TV actor in shows I have not watched, decided during the shutdown of television production during the pandemic to research and write a book on cryptocurrency. He had the same skepticism I do about crypto. However, while my inclination is generally not to think about it too much unless someone asks what I think, McKenzie was much more curious and decided to research and write a book about it. For assistance he recruited a journalist from his Brooklyn neighborhood, Jacob Silverman. The book, though, is written in the first person, with the narrator being McKenzie.

I decided to purchase and read this book after I heard McKenzie speak about his book on the public radio program Marketplace. I thought what he had to say was interesting.

The most interesting and readable portions of the book are the descriptions of the various encounters the authors had with various denizens of the crypto world. The interviews with Sam Bankman-Friedman, with whom they talked before and after his financial empire collapsed and indicted for fraud. It amounts to a fascinating portrayal of a very strange man.

Another episode is an encounter at the 2022 South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. This story seems a bit off. Two men, claiming they are CIA agents, take McKenzie and Silverman to dinner and, according to the book, attempt to recruit them as informants on crypto. The description of this makes the recruitment seem extremely amateurish. It also leaves questions. What is the CIA doing operating domestically? Doesn’t the CIA have better ways of learning about crypto than talking to a TV actor and journalist who are just beginning their research on the topic and are not players in this market? What was really going on here? If these guys are not with the CIA, who are they and what do they want? These and similar questions are not answered, probably because the authors do not know what to think about what happened. In any case, they got a nice dinner, and the two supposed CIA agents do not reappear in the book.

The weakest parts of the book are the description of both the 2008 financial crisis and the 2022 debacles in crypto. They seem to have been written quickly, there are some typos, and in one place there appear to be some missing words. This book does not provide a clear account of market developments or exactly how people were taken advantage of. There are probably better accounts of the skullduggery that took place elsewhere.

In other words, read this book for a description of the crypto world and an argument for why one should resist any feeling of “FOMO” (fear of missing out). If you are more interested in the technicalities of crypto than I am, you will probably want to go elsewhere.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Book Review: The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated from the French by Tina Kover

 About a month ago when I was in San Francisco, I found out about a book talk by Anne Berest at Green Apple Books on the Park. The woman who told me about this raved about the book, and given the subject matter, Jews in Europe during the Nazi period in Germany, I decided to attend and was impressed enough by the author that I ended up buying the book.

The Postcard is a novel based on the true story of Anne Berest’s search for the sender of a postcard to her mother’s house on which was written the name of four relatives who had been murdered at Auschwitz. She does eventually discover the origins of the postcard, which is a bit, but only a bit, of a surprise. In truth, the postcard in question is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, a device to keep the plot moving but not in itself terribly important. The real subject matter is a case study of the history of Berest’s family during the Nazi era, in France and other countries in Europe and Palestine, and what it means to be Jewish, even if one has not been brought up in the religion.

Once the story gets going it is fascinating. Much of it is based on the research Anne Berest’s mother had done until the book gets into the subsequent search for information about the postcard. Amusingly enough, at the book talk I attended, Berest said her mother had insisted that the “bad” words in the quotations attributed to her be removed because that is not how she speaks. The author said this was a “lie,” because her mother uses a lot of bad words; nevertheless, in deference to her mother, she cleaned up the language for the novel.

The book has been a bestseller in France, and it has recently been translated into English. It will likely not do as well here, partly because World War II and its accompanying horrors are not felt to be as much a part of U.S. history as it is for France. One of the issues Berest addresses in this novel is current and past antisemitism in France. In her talk in San Francisco, Berest said that France is a complicated country, and this novel shows that some of the French used the German occupation to go after the Jews, while others did what they could to protect them.

Writing the book was a way for Berest to consider her own Jewish background. Berest, who was not brought up religiously, recounts a Seder she went to with her boyfriend where her knowledge of this ceremony is revealed to be paltry compared with her knowledge of the works of leftist intellectuals. This event and the subsequent research into her family’s history forced her to reflect on what it means to her to be Jewish and to reject the criticism of another person at the Seder who questioned her Jewishness.

In her book talk, Berest reflected on the current world situation briefly. She remarked that “the signals” are not good. (Her English is fine but not completely fluent.) I think she had in mind growing antisemitic incidents and the growth of right-wing authoritarian tendencies both in the U.S. and Europe. In her book, some take the threat posed by the Nazis more seriously than others. Not only does she want to remember her relatives who had perished but also to be alert to the warnings of history.

Monday, May 8, 2023

A Few Debt Limit Observations

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was very careful in how she responded to questions from George Stephanopoulos on Sunday about any contingency plans the Administration might have if Congress does not increase the debt limit before the Treasury runs out of cash. She said that there were no good options and that she did “not want to consider emergency options.”

The news media, though, has been highlighting the use of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to allow the Treasury to continue issuing Treasury securities. In that Amendment which was put into the Constitution in the aftermath of the Civil War, there is the following sentence: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” There is some ambiguity here, and the phrase “authorized by law” might be cited by those who do not believe that the 14th Amendment provides a way to avert an economic disaster.

Laurence Tribe, a noted Constitutional expert, used to believe that the 14th Amendment was not a way for the Treasury to ignore the debt limit, but in a recent article in the New York Times, he explains why he has changed his mind.

“The question isn’t whether the president can tear up the debt limit statute to ensure that the Treasury Department can continue paying bills submitted by veterans’ hospitals or military contractors or even pension funds that purchased government bonds.

“The question isn’t whether the president can in effect become a one-person Supreme Court, striking down laws passed by Congress.

“The right question is whether Congress — after passing the spending bills that created these debts in the first place — can invoke an arbitrary dollar limit to force the president and his administration to do its bidding.

“There is only one right answer to that question, and it is no.

“And there is only one person with the power to give Congress that answer: the president of the United States. As a practical matter, what that means is this: Mr. Biden must tell Congress in no uncertain terms — and as soon as possible, before it’s too late to avert a financial crisis — that the United States will pay all its bills as they come due, even if the Treasury Department must borrow more than Congress has said it can.”

There has been speculation about the litigation that might follow if the Administration were to invoke the 14th Amendment. I wonder about that. First, I am not sure who would have standing to sue. I am not sure if the Supreme Court would say that Speaker McCarthy by himself has standing, and I am not sure if he got a vote on the House floor to litigate what the courts would do. In any case, given the financial market turmoil that would likely occur, I doubt that politicians would think that it would be in their benefit to try to call into question debt the Treasury issued above the debt limit.

Also, there are practical difficulties in considering that some of the public debt is invalid. For example, Treasury issues 3-month and 6-month bills every week. The 3-month bills, once issued, are indistinguishable from the 6-month bills already issued which mature on the same date (technically, the bills maturing on the same date have the same CUSIP number). There would be no way to determine which of these bills when issued breached the debt limit if Treasury issued an amount more than what it needed to pay off the maturing bills.

I think the House would try to get at President Biden some other way, perhaps even including commencing impeachment hearings. There is of course no way that there would be enough votes in the Senate to remove him from office even if there were enough votes to impeach him in the House.

There are of course other alternatives to using the 14th Amendment which have been publicly discussed. We can all of course keep speculating what the Administration would do if the Treasury runs out of cash; all the options, including default, look bad. We don’t know, though, and we can all hope that we don’t find out.

What makes the possibility of the debt limit not being increased in time more worrisome than in past episodes is the weakness of the Speaker. In order to pass a debt limit with whatever other language is acceptable to 60 Senators and which the Administration can grudgingly accept, Speaker McCarthy will likely need some votes from House Democrats to offset the loss of votes from some House Republicans. Given that it only takes one member to call for a vote “to vacate the chair,” McCarthy could well lose his position if he chooses to put the debt limit legislation for a vote on the floor.

Of course, in October there could be a government shutdown due to a failure to pass appropriation bills. We’ll get to see how that works out after the debt limit issue is resolved one way or another.