A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism (review: 4.5/5)

A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics
The first book by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that I read was the most excellent Democracy: The God That Failed. In the introduction to that book, Hoppe talks about competing social theories and, in face of conflicting arguments about society or politics or economics, how we can decide between them:

The data of history are logically compatible with… rival interpretations, and historians, insofar as they are just historians, have no way of deciding in favor of one or the other. If one is to make a rational choice among such rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e. once and for all by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things.

In other words, disagreements can’t be solved only by appealing to historical data. In the end “a priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.” A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism: Economics, Politics, Ethics [full text, pdf] takes this deductive approach. Hoppe starts by building a theory of property. We only need property because things are scarce; where there is no scarcity (e.g. ideas) there is no property…

And the rest flows from that. Sorry I don’t remember much more than that off-hand, because I finished the book almost a year ago. This draft has been sitting neglected for months and months. Just wanted to clear out the archives. Highly recommended, though.

Tax rates of the rich and poor:

Lowest quintile: 4.3 percent
Second quintile: 9.9 percent
Middle quintile: 14.2 percent
Fourth quintile: 17.4 percent
Percentiles 81-90: 20.3 percent
Percentiles 91-95: 22.4 percent
Percentiles 96-99: 25.7 percent
Percentiles 99.0-99.5: 29.7 percent
Percentiles 99.5-99.9: 31.2 percent
Percentiles 99.9-99.99: 32.1 percent
Top 0.01 Percentile: 31.5 percent

I wish I could find online Gerald Early’s essay, “Dancing in the Dark: Race, Sex, The South, and Exploitative Cinema”. It was far and away the best thing I read in Best African American Essays: 2009, but it looks like it’s hidden away in Issue 57 of the Oxford American, subscribers only.
In any case, Early talks about self-mythologizing Southern culture, American gothic, blaxploitation and sexual taboo. Case studies include D.W. Griffith films like The Birth of the Nation, His Trust, and His Trust Fulfilled; Gone with the Wind; I Spit on Your Grave; Free, White, and 21; Murder in Missippi; Black Like Me; and To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it if you can find it.

The Bin Ladens (review: 5/5)

The Bin Ladens
Before 9/11, I don’t think I could have named one living person from Saudi Arabia. Afterward, I could name one. So I didn’t know much going into Steve Coll‘s book.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century starts near the turn of the century, with Awadh Bin Laden’s beginnings in Yemen. His sons Mohamed and Abdullah would leave for Saudi Arabia and begin the Bin Laden Construction Company. The close ties that Mohamed managed to develop with the first king of Saudi Arabia helped cement his fortunes, earned with a combination of pluck, overwhelming work ethic, and obsequiousness. He and his kids would become involved in construction projects in Riyadh, Medina, Mecca, and other spots in Saudi Arabia. The Bin Ladens were in on a pretty incredible list of projects: lots royal palaces and getaways, highways, telecommunications, infrastructure, renovations on the Prophet’s Mosque and the Grand Mosque, and some semi-suspicious military-related projects near the Yemeni border. The Bin Laden family relied on the royal family.

Mohamed had at least 54 children. His oldest son Salem became the new family patriarch after Mohamed’s death and continued the ties with the royal family and launched a new wave of international investments. The family businesses and the family itself spread across the globe. Miami, California, D.C., Boston, London, Geneva, Egypt, Syria, everywhere. His brother Bakr rose to leadership when Salem died.

Osama was the 17th son of the family. His story, like the rest of the family, seems to get a pretty fair treatment. It’s easy to paint a one-dimensional villain as we now see him, but the whole story is told. There’s a sense of appreciation for some of the energy and courage of Mohamed, the ineluctable cheer of Salem, the maturation of Bakr. Coll doesn’t hesitate to point out contradictions or hypocritical behavior of anyone in the family. He’s also quick to qualify when his research is incomplete (“the best evidence suggests that…”).

I could have done with fewer anecdotes about shopping sprees for planes and jewelry. Otherwise, a great read and a surprising page-turner for its heft.

Crisis & Leviathan (review: 5/5)

Crisis & Leviathan
I had been meaning to read Robert Higgs‚Äô book for years and I’m very glad I got to it. And I’ve been sitting on my review for a while because I always fear sounding like a shrill, libertarian paranoid.

Crisis & Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government explores the past century of American history, the national response to the nation’s worst crises (whether genuine or contrived), and the aftermath of each. The government’s scope and power exploded in response to World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. And after each, the powers were mostly disassembled.

Mostly. The so-called ratchet effect meant that after each event, the government never fully relinquished all its powers. Some of that was due to bureaucratic inertia or cronyism—some agencies never disappeared, but continued or assumed new roles in the aftermath. And a large part was of course due to changing ideology and public support for the government’s new roles. There were the lingering effects of decades of propaganda and new generations raised in those times. We grew comfortable with the new role, learning that it “wasn’t all that bad”—we could still worship as we pleased, and the news wasn’t yet nationalized. We looked to the progressive examples of the European states. The costs of the larger government were hidden with clever schemes like income tax withholding—you never miss what you never had—and the ever-growing number of people included in the tax base. Mind-blowing trivia: in 1913, the highest income tax bracket was 7% and 98% of the population owed no income tax. Times change.

One of the big assumptions in the book, one that makes me uncomfortable for our present, is that “government has substantial autonomy in its policy-making”. Like we saw recently, even with widespread opposition to the first bailout, we got one anyway. And the strategy seems to change with every day. We probably have even more on the way. Especially in these crisis situations,

Few people outside the government have enough information to identify the precise contours of the emergency or to formulate comprehensive plans for dealing with it. Citizens tend simultaneously to demand (a) more governmental action and (b) less research, public consultation, debate of alternative, and general “due process” in governmental decision-making.

Higgs’ study of each era ranges through the socionomic and political conditions before, during and after; the prevailing ideologies; the leading elites and interest groups; emergency orders and agencies; court challenges and decisions; and the institutional fallout—what society learned. He ranges through statistical analyses, Supreme Court decisions, legislative studies, executive backroom dealing and more. While there is a clear growth trend, Higgs makes the distinction between big government and Big Government. The first is an issue of size, the second has more to do with intrusion in peaceful affairs. We’ve had increase in both. I find it astounding that, during World War II for example, we so easily accepted conscription and price controls—even the courts went along with it. And once you give in to those, what are a few other small sacrifices here and there?

The book was published in the late 1980s, but you can see the same patterns repeated in the wake of 9/11 and our current financial awkwardness. This does not bode well.

By the second week of March 1933 an extraordinary conjuncture had developed: 1) a genuine economic crisis, especially the massive unemployment and the pitifully depressed production and consumption; 2) and artificial economic crisis produced by the nationwide banking shutdown; 3) a widespread sense of crisis and a feeling that only extraordinary measures could prevent an even greater catastrophe, sentiments manifested in the numerous and diverse calls to “do something” even if dictatorial powers were required to do it; and 4) a new administration taking office unencumbered by perceived responsibility for past ill fortunes and unchecked by opposition from a partisan Congress eager to obstruct and embarrass the President.

If, as a westerner, you are going to visit Africa, the earlier in your life you do it, the better. The writer also brings up the paradox of service missions:

I suspect my earnest young woman felt that the only “appropriate” way to interact with Africa was to roll her sleeves up and start hammering a wall into place or digging a latrine. That is certainly what most British politicians do when they go to Africa. The charities that organise student gap years also seem to regard building schools in Vietnam and digging wells in Malawi as the best use of their volunteers’ time. It’s bizarre, when you think about it. The one thing the developing world has a surplus of is physical labour.

The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, via Austin Kleon. That stuff is so good. I remember a couple years ago, at a thrift store, I saw a copy of Poetry Under Oath: From the Testimony of William Jefferson Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky. I wish I’d bought it. This review of Poetry Under Oath has quite a few excerpts and some of them are pure gold. “The Word ‘Is'” is a classic:

It depends on what
the meaning of the word
‘is’ is

If the—
if he—
if ‘is’
means is
and never has been
that is not—

that is one thing

If it means
there is none
that was a


Standard Operating Procedure (review: 4/5)

standard operating procedure

If you fight terror with terror, how do you tell which is which?

By choice, I stayed ignorant of the scandals at Abu Ghraib when the news first broke. Too disgusted. Too disheartened. I didn’t want to see it or hear about it, though it seemed the photos were everywhere. I finally came around.

Philip Gourevitch wrote Standard Operating Procedure by drawing on the hundreds of hours of interviews that Errol Morris used to make his documentary film of the same name. There’s some commentary on the mind-bogglingly poor management and bureaucratic indifference (e.g. “In the course of a month five different versions of the interrogation rules had been put into circulation at Abu Ghraib,” or the topsy-turvy relationship of Military Intelligence and Military Police, or the secrecy of the International Committee of the Red Cross even after its investigation found conditions “tantamount to torture,” or the willingness of people up and down the chain of command to look the other way when they saw the photos, or even saw it in person. This stuff is insane.).

But the photographs are the centerpiece. Most of the book details the incidents around the photos with lots of recollection from the military personnel involved, and talks more broadly about the nature of the photograph. It’s the iconography, how they encourage us to interpret the scene even though we have only that slice of time to judge—I’m glad the photos don’t appear in the book.

Were there a scale for jaded political cynicism, I’d probably rank in the 90th percentile, and I still find these stories really upsetting. But I’m glad I read it.