The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Book Reviews Page 1 of 4

Review of Wolfgang Streeck’s “How Will Capitalism End?”, by Marku52

By Marku52

Streeck’s book “How will Capitalism End” is a collection of essays he wrote for the New Left Review almost a decade ago. It seems very prescient today. Much of his points are shared in the introduction, and first few chapters, and some of the points get repeated. Later chapters involve German politics, and are less useful to us. I find his idea that without corrective dialectics, capitalism will die of its own excesses, persuasive and I will go into more details in this review.

“The fact that capitalism has, until now, managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death, need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; there is no inductive proof here, and we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its rescue may fail to show up.”

For a while now, I’ve come to believe that capitalism must end. How can a system continue with such internal faults as:

  • There being no present economic value in staving off an apocalyptic disaster if it is far in the future.

  • Debt grows faster than income, which means eventually one entity owns everything. In the biblical past, debt “jubilees” reset the debt clock. But to Calvinistic capitalism, that is immoral. So capitalism has financial crises, revolutions, and periodic busts instead

  • Rewarding the search for “externalities”, which means profiting by moving a cost somewhere else-usually the ecosystem or society. An example of this would be the mine-tailings from a mine long closed, profits taken, destroying a fishery. But it also applies to party house AirBnBs that raise the rents for locals and disquiet a neighborhood. Or those Bird scooters that end up piled up all over the sidewalks.

Streeck posits that capitalism and democracy have an oil and water relationship, in that democracy favors a “moral justice” approach (“Everyone should have housing and health care”) and capitalism responds with “economic justice” (“You can have all of that you can afford”). Now that capitalism-and in particular extreme neoliberalism has vanquished all opposition. you would think that capitalism is secure. Instead Streeck proposes that this makes neoliberal capitalism’s status even more precarious.

Streeck’s hypothesis is straightforward. Capitalism requires a dialectic opposing force to save it from its own self destruction. In the past such forces existed -unions, functioning democracy, and public outcry. Now that all these forces are vanquished, it would seem that neoliberal capitalism is here to stay.

“The social world of the post-capitalist interregnum, in the wake of neoliberal capitalism having cleared away states, governments, borders, trade unions and other moderating forces, can at any time be hit by disaster; for example, bubbles imploding or violence penetrating from a collapsing periphery into the centre. With individuals deprived of collective defenses and left to their own devices, what remains of a social order hinges on the motivation of individuals to cooperate with other individuals on an ad hoc basis, driven by fear and greed and by elementary interests in individual survival.”

Streeck says that even without a competing narrative, capitalism will fall simply because its stops working.

In past times excesses of capitalism have been countered by opposing forces, leading to compromises like the New Deal. Capitalism’s destructive tendencies were reined in to some extent, and capitalism was “saved from itself”. However, Streeck points out that this was only possible in an era of high enough growth that both the owners of capital and the moral justice society could be content with their share. Once stagflation hit in the 1970s, there was not enough “pie” to go around, and capital went to war with labor.

Capital won, unquestionably. Unions crushed, regulatory agencies corrupted or co-opted, global capital strode the globe looking for arbitrage opportunities and labor took what abuse it had to.

“Socialism and trade unionism, by putting a brake on commodification, prevented capitalism from destroying its non-capitalist foundations – trust, good faith, altruism, solidarity within families and communities, and the like.”

“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint.”

Why do our “leaders” seem so incompetent and clueless?

“After a certain amount of time, it may no longer be possible to stop the rot: expectations of what politics can do may have eroded too far, and the civic skills and organizational structures needed to develop effective public demand may have atrophied beyond redemption, while the political personnel themselves may have adapted entirely to specializing in the management of appearances rather than the representation of some version, however biased, of the public interest.”

It seems governing has become performative, rather than actual. I’d describe a democratic government as one that implements policies voters have indicated they want. However, I’d argue, once neoliberalism has infested the government, that function changes. The government serves to protect the “Sacred Market” from interference by the desires of the voters. Look at FDR’s Social Security VS Obama’s Affordable Care Act (LOL, what a misnaming!)

Social Security was a simple act of a few pages, implemented by a competent civil service. The ACA was negotiated over a year of wandering farther and farther away from “Affordable” or “Care” (advocates of Single Payer were excluded) and ended up being over 300 pages. Nobody knew what it did, or how it worked. But it created yet another Market and derailed any other reform of health care for decades while insuring the profitability of the entirely parasitic health insurance industry. Responding to the needs of the voters? No. Creating yet another market? Check.

Another damning case was when Jen Psaki, Biden’s spokeshole, was asked why, if people were finding it hard to get Rapid Covid Tests, the government didn’t just give them out. She was speechless. “The government would just Give Them Away?”

The neoliberal rot on full display. That program was one of the few effective Covid policies that Biden implemented.

Look at the government response to Covid in the western countries. Initially, public health measures were taken: quarantines, travel bans, shutdown pay, mandatory masking. This lasted a short while until the neoliberals regained control, and those efforts are unlikely to be seen again. (“Won’t someone think of the Economy!?”)

When neoliberals infest your government, their sole qualification is that they will look good in front of a camera and ensure that the government will never interfere with the operation of the Sacred Market. Hence a typical election will ask you to choose between two neoliberals with different color Culture War coats…..

Streeck posits that capitalism confronts five challenges that it cannot solve by itself.

The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption and international anarchy.

Declining growth has been apparent since the first oil crisis, way back in the 70’s. Capitalism depends on growth to be able to pay back the debt that it creates. But without new fields to plunder, that growth is impossible (Heinberg calls this “Peak Everything”) Much of the alleged “growth” in the past 30 years is just counting fictitious digits in the ever more hypothecated financial economy, completely divorced from real production.

Inequality (oligarchy) is one of the basic productions of capitalism. It can’t and won’t solve this by itself, and all corrective forces, like government redistribution, have been banished.

Starvation of the public sphere is everywhere evident. Particularly in the US, where some municipalities no longer have safe drinking water. Potholes, libraries closing, public heath abandoned. There is no money to be made in the public works, so they either aren’t performed or sold off and performed poorly.

Ah, corruption……Like the entire US political electoral finance system. Or Big Pharma drug testing. But also finance itself.

“Finance is an ‘industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the pay-offs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme;”

Capitalism grows by creating markets where there never was one before. Why can’t I make a market in cocaine, human organs, or children? And since capitalism owns the government, many of these immoral “markets” do get established, or ignored where they do appear.

“Capitalism’s moral decline may have to do with its economic decline, the struggle for the last remaining profit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset-stripping on a truly gigantic scale.”

In the US, Pirate, er, Private, Equity is now buying up veterinary offices and cosmetologists. Just proving that there is almost no interaction left that does not have Wall Street’s corrupt hand in the middle of it.

International anarchy was barely on the horizon when Streeck wrote back around 2014. International capitalism requires a hegemon to provide a stable currency for trade, to police the trade ways for safe transport, and an enforcer (like the IMF) to ensure national debts get paid. You may have noticed that this is all very much up in the air these days. The US’ poorly conceived war in Ukraine has upended all this. The US basically stole $300 billion of Russian assets, and attempted to interfere with all their trade. The world is now dividing into blocks affiliated with one side or the other, and alternative trade regimes are being put into place. The US can no longer be viewed as a safe haven for assets, when one’s asset can be confiscated at the whim of the hegemon.

“Before capitalism will go to hell, then, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.”

So, to bring up Stein’s Law “If a thing can’t continue, it won’t…..”

Reading List

A few years ago someone asked me for a reading list. I recently came across it again when someone else asked, and I thought I’d share it with everyone.

I wouldn’t necessarily read this exactly in order, and what you need to read will will depend on your background, the person asking had very little in the social sciences and humanities.

Writers who had an outsize affect on me compared to how others view them are Randall Collins, Jane Jacobs and Damasio.

“Conflict Sociology” is dense and long and many would be served by skipping it, but it’s also the book I read that no one else has that has done me the greatest service. “Debt” is also long.

“Cities in Civilization” is long, but each chapter is on one city and it can be read in gulps, and it’s excellent.

The List

To start in Philosophy I would read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel, it’s a bit dated so you won’t get a lot of 20th century, but excellent for the rest, just remember he has a point of view.

I would read the two Collins books I reviewed: Max Weber, A Skeleton Key” & An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology.

If you like those find a 1970s copy of Conflict Sociology, and read Interaction Ritual Chains by Collins as well.

I would read Jane Jacobs Economy of Cities & Cities and the Wealth of Nations“. If you like those the next two would be Death and Life of the Great American Cities and Systems of Survival.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of scientific revolutions – short, to the point

Justice by Michael Sandel – reviewed on my site

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity (be careful to see how this applies to more than the USSR.)

Confucius and the Chinese Way by Creel (older book)

I would read some Freud, because you can’t understand the 20th century, especially mid 20th century, without him. Three or four of his early books. They’re short and well written.

Wealth and Democracy by Kevin Phillips

Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells — an understanding of the effects of the agricultural revolution is necessary

The Creation of Inequality by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus (be sure to google the critiques of it, particularly with respect to women’s religion.) Dense, very dense, but fascinating.

Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, in the commons, you can probably find a *.pdf, but it’s long.

Debt, the first 5,000 years by Graeber.

Medieval Cities, their Origins and Revival of Trade — nice short book, .pdfs available

Sun Tzu, The Art of War. (Get one with commentary)

If you have time on your hand Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization will reward you, it’s about much more than cities.


Machiavelli, The Prince and Discourses on Livy. Do not skip Livy, the Prince is all most people read and it gives a skewed vision of Machiavelli’s thought. Discourses is longer and more important.  Remember that Machiavelli gets a lot of history wrong, but it doesn’t really matter.

If you don’t have much background in them, Karen Armstrong’s books on Buddha and Muhammed are decent introductions, bearing in mind that Armstrong clearly doesn’t understand meditative accomplishments, so it’s an outsider look at Buddha.

Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, largest land empire in history, probably good to learn about it, and Genghis Khan was an amazing leader.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner (despite behaviouralism’s issues, it really does describe a lot of human behaviour very well, and you can easily apply it to mental events even if behaviouralists frowned on that.)

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I got a lot out of this back in the day. It’s light in some ways, but still worthwhile)

Descartes Error by Anthony Damasio (I found his other books weak, this one is very important.)

There really should be more on India, and China but the topics I consider most worthwhile there are hard to find good introductions that aren’t misleading to people who don’t have a background. In particular Buddhist/Hindu metaphysics and epistemology is very strong, but also very hard to read and understand.  Pagan religion is missing, Roman history and culture, etc, etc.  Obviously if you haven’t read the New and Old testament’s you should, ideally with a very annotated version to guide you in the meaning where it’s less than obvious.  There’s a fair bit to be said for reading some Plato (especially the early stuff) and Aristotle, as well as Cicero, but I’d read Russel first, to get some background. Philosophy tends to be a pain to read until you learn the lingo of the specific type/period of philosophy; it seems harder than it is.

What are some books that had a huge influence on you?

Nine Lies About Work by Buckingham and Goodall

So, most business book are boring re-assertions of the same advice and most non fiction books are magazine articles extended to book length, without adding any real content.

Nine lies isn’t. During my reading splurge at the big box bookstore I started taking notes. The book with the most notes was this book, and I’m not even all that interested in business management and leadership. This is a data driven book, and it turns out most of how we manage people in firms is just straight wrong.

Let’s go thru the nine lies.

: People care which company they work for

Turns out it’s all down to the team, the people they work most closely to, and the number of teams they are on. You can work for a shitty company, but if the team is good it’s a great job and you can work for a good company and it the team is bad, it’s a shitty job.

The authors found the following questions predict good teams.

  1. I am enthusiastic about the mission.
  2. I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  3. In my team I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths every day.
  5. My teammates have my back
  6. I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
  7. I have great confidence in my companies future.
  8. In my work I am always challenged to grow.

Notice that only one of these questions (7) is about the company, though number three can be effected by it. I bolded #4, “I have the chance to use my strengths every day” because it’s important throughout the book, the authors find that playing to people’s strengths rather than trying to shore up their weaknesses and make them all-round good is important.

Trust of the team leader is extremely important: if people don’t trust the leader, they won’t like the job.

All of the questions are framed to give yes or no answers. People are happy when they’re positive, not when they’re ambivalent.

#2: The best plan wins

Nope. Fast feedback on what works and doesn’t from the front, and fast decision loops win. Leaders are always out of touch with actual conditions and can’t make good plans.

This means:

  1. You should share as much info as possible
  2. See what data people find useful
  3. Trust people to make sense of the data, and;
  4. Let the teams make the decisions, not the top leaders, since they’re who has to deliver

Leaders should check in once a week, and ask “what are your priorities?” and “how can I help?”

#3: The best companies cascade goals

Nope, they do the following.

  1. Express values (write ’em on the walls!)
  2. rituals
  3. stories

In other words, they work on shared values almost entirely, they’re about creating a good culture, shared by the teams who do the actual work, and otherwise their job is almost entirely to support teams, not tell teams what to do.

#4: The best people are well-rounded

A strength is something you’re good at and enjoy. If you’re good and don’t enjoy it, it’s an ability. People look forward to using their strengths, enter flow when doing so and and feel fulfillment afterwards.

The best performers are defined by their strengths, not weaknesses and it is a leader’s job to make sure they use their strengths regularly and avoid their weaknesses. The best use of time isn’t making people all-rounded, if someone’s great at something and bad at something else, play to the strength and have another team member cover the weakness.

People learn from success, not from failure, and leaders should seek outcomes not control. Put your best person on it, tell them what you want, don’t tell them how to do it.

(This is how the best managers I ever had worked, as an aside. I remember one boss telling me that she had me doing audits and someone else running physically around the building because I’d be bored doing that job, and the girl doing that had so much energy she’d go stir crazy sitting down and auditing files.)

#5: People need feedback

Positive feedback is about 30X more effective than negative feedback, and negative feedback is 60 times more effective than no feedback.

Didn’t expect that last bit, but apparently people would rather be criticized than ignored. However concentrating on what people do right is vastly more effective. Again, when possible, focus your workers on what they do well and find someone who enjoys what they do badly (which they will dislike doing) to take that off their shoulders.

Further, because of how growth works, you should concentrate on improving strengths. If someone increases 10% every quarter say, 10% improvement in what they’re best at rather than 10% improvement on what they’re worst at means a lot more growth. A person does need to be competent enough at things they hate but must do that they don’t cause a disaster, but beyond that, hit the strengths.

To give positive feedback:

  1. interrupt them when they’re doing great and tell them (use common sense about interruptions)
  2. make up highlight reels of their best work and show them their own excellence (obviously, this can just be a list you talk to them about in a meeting, you don’t have to become a movie-maker)
  3. when praising say what you saw, how it made you feel or what it made you think or realize
  4. remember that praise increase performance more than performance increases praise.

Excellence is not the opposite of failure, fixing mistakes doesn’t create excellence.

Advice tends not to work because we tend to say what worked for us. To give advice ask them what has worked for them in the past on similiar issues.

#6: People can reliably rate other people

Nope, what you find in statistical studies is that their ratings only correlate to their own personality. We don’t see other people, we see ourselves. Groups don’t make this better; increasing the number of people who are bad at rating others doesn’t, in aggregate, turn the ratings good. Everyone is wrong. (There’s a bunch of other statistical stuff here, but what it comes down to is everyone is that there is NO way to measure the performance of knowledge workers.

Generally the best thing to do, counter-intuitive as it is, is have people rate themselves.  When asking others, the questions are:

  1. Who do you plan to promote?
  2. Who do you go to get X done well?
  3. Who do you go to when you need extraordinary results.

This is still subjective information, but it is reliable.

#7: People have potential

Nope. Ratings create the future. If you tell someone they are good, they do good. If you tell them they are bad, they do badly. (Aside: this is true in school, as well, and gifted programs create gifted students more than predict them.)

#8: Work-life balance matters most

Nope. What matters is “love in work.” People who are doing what they love (that might be playing with your kids) have lives they love. It’s not about balance, it’s about doing what you love. If you want both happy and effective workers figure out what they love and get them to more of it.

#9: Leadership is a thing

A leader is someone with followers. Followers follow someone who

  • Makes us feel part of something bigger
  • Values us for who we are
  • Connects us to a mission we believe in
  • Make sclear what is expected
  • Values us for our strengths
  • Who show us teammates will be there for us
  • Who over and over again celebrate our victories
  • Who give us confidence in the future

In other words, a leader is someone who creates feelings in the followers, that’s the function.

Different leaders have different strengths. One long example in the book is Martin Luther King, whose strength was bringing festering problems to a crisis which forced change.

The best leaders are not well rounded, they are extremely idiosyncratic. (Think Steve Jobs.) People love or hate them, but the people who love them really love them. The more idiosyncratic (Gandhi) the more passionate their followers.

We trust leaders when they give us confidence in return.

Because we follow extreme ability, leaders tend to polarize. MLK was hated by more people than loved him. While Gandhi was loved, those who hated him hated him so much they killed him (MLK too.) Jobs was famous for generating extreme responses. You either really wanted to work with him, or you wanted nothing to do with him and considered him a giant jerk.

The book concludes with Truths.

  1. People care what teams they work with
  2. The best intelligence (not plan) wins
  3. The best companies cascade meaning (not plans)
  4. The best people are spiky (not well rounded)
  5. People need attention (not feedback)
  6. People can reliably rate their own experience (they can’t rate others)
  7. People have momentum (not potential)
  8. Love in work matters most (not work-life balance)
  9. We follow spikes (people who are extreme)

Concluding remarks

As I noted at the beginning, most business books are boring and just say the same thing over and over. This one doesn’t, it says most of what we do in large corporations is moronic, which we all know and somehow don’t break out of. (I especially appreciate the hard takedown of 360 reviews by everyone around you, which always seemed like a complete waste of time.)

But the books message goes far beyond work. There’s a message here about how to live life and how to interact with others. I found the advice on, errr, giving advice particularly useful, since I’ve been giving advice mostly wrong (and I knew I was, but didn’t know how to do it better.)

Likewise the celebration of difference, of the people around you mattering more than the larger organization (or society), and of doing what you’re best at resonate hard.

A good read, and a manual to help you avoid the group-think of standard corporate practices.

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“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” Is An Inapplicable Parable For Our Time

You’re probably familiar with Ursula LeGuin’s short story on Omelas. If you aren’t go read it now, it’s short and profound and you should know it.

Though a great story, Omelas is largely inapplicable to us, which is odd, because surely LeGuin wrote it, at least in part, as commentary on our society.

Omelas is a paradise, of sorts.. Many of us are well off, in some ways the majority of those of us who live in the developed world live in a paradise, with more access to food and pleasures than any society before us.

But Omelas’s prosperity is based on suffering. In Omelas’s case, the suffering of just one person, a tiny minority.

In our case, the number is much more, and our civilization is global. Our prosperity is based on slavery and poverty and degradation in developing and undeveloped countries. Blood minerals, effective slavery in mines and factories, children picking thru garbage dumps for food. It was born in mass genocide in the Americas, and mass conquest everywhere else.

At some point, every self-aware person with a smidgen of intellectual integrity becomes aware of these facts: that the good life is based on the suffering of others.

But we don’t leave, because we can’t.

Where would you go? There is no place left, no place that isn’t Omelas, where any good life is bought by the suffering of others. Even if you do nothing yourself, to participate in our prosperity is to eat of the fruits of the suffering of others, there is no avoiding it, save, perhaps, to become a hermit who takes nothing from our society.

Omelas is a powerful parable, but it isn’t applicable to our society because we are all locked in; there is no decent society to go to, no place to escape to. We cannot leave.

And so, if we are to be ethical, since we cannot leave, we must work to free those whose suffering our prosperity is based on.

Because whether we will it or no, our pleasures are always, to some extent, born from their pain.

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“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith

I picked this book up years ago. This week I finally read it, intending it as a palate cleanser for modern politics in general and Trump in particular.

I’ve read a few books on FDR (the best short one is “That Man” by Robert Jackson (who knew FDR well.))

This one’s thick, but middling length considering how much one could write about FDR.

 The book reads a little dry, but has information I haven’t found in other biographies, or perhaps just a different emphasis. Smith seems very concerned with how FDR became who he was, and how he actually operated, both before the and during the presidency.

More than that, he actually spends a fair bit of time sketching out his parents, grandparents and family in general. His first two names “Franklin Delano,” for example, are actually from his maternal family, the Delanos, not from the Roosevelts. Moreover, it was a break in Roosevelt tradition to name FDR that, which is one of your first hints that Sara Roosevelt, his mother, was a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, while there are a lot of people whom FDR wouldn’t have been president without, Sara’s the most important of the lot, and not just because she was his most important financial backer through much of his life.

Sara’s father, Warren Delano, earned two fortunes in his life, both in China. After he earned his first fortune he returned to America, invested heavily, then lost it all in one of the routine panics of the late 19th century. So he went back to China in his 50s and earned a second fortune selling opium,which he admitted was wrong, but felt was no worse than selling booze. Later in life, FDR was to say that one reason he refused to have good relations with Japan was because of this history; his family felt kindly towards the Chinese and wanted the best for them.

Sara raised FDR with almost absolute approval. He was a mama’s boy, thru and thru, though he spent a lot of time with his father (about 30 years older than his mother) learning the approved skills of the gentleman farmer of his period, and, perhaps most importantly, learning to sail. His father died when he was young, and he was devastated as his father had been his primary play companion, in effect.

As a teen he went to the Groton private school, run by one of those stern progressive clergymen that are so important to the first 250 years of American history. He fit in perfectly, had no problems at all (never a sure thing in boarding school, as I can attest), but as he was short as a teenager, did not do well at the sort of sports which Groton pushed so hard. (A real man, in 19th and early 20th century terms was absolutely an athlete, and Groton particularly liked American football.)

Groton taught noblesse oblige and progressive ideals: one was here on Earth to care for one’s fellow men and women and FDR himself said that Groton set him on the path that lead to him being the sort of President he was: one who tried to look after the American people. Groton’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody swore in FDR in when he became President.

After Groton it was off to Harvard. FDR, like those of his class at the time, lived off campus. He was an indifferent student, but worked assiduously at the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, which he was elected to run in his final year. Smith notes that he avoided all theoretical classes like philosophy and that thru his life had a very practical mind, unsuited to categorical and theoretical thought.

After Harvard FDR bummed around. Oh he worked as a lawyer for a time, went to Europe, and so on (he had been to Europe with his mother in his childhood) and so on, but he seems to have taken none of it seriously. As early as 1907 he had decided to go into politics and had even sketched out to friends at his law firm how he would do it: first get elected to New York’s congress, then become New York’s Governor (New York having the most delegates back then), then the Presidency.

This is exactly how he wound up doing it.

He married Eleanor. The relationship was close at first (though, as usual with Victorian upper class women, Eleanor came to marriage with no idea about either sex or how to raise children), but in its later years the marriage became a functional one only. This was primarily FDR’s fault, when in DC working as assistant naval secretary under Woodrow Wilson, he had an affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford. The Roosevelt marriage at that time was sexless (after six children, Eleanor didn’t want to have more, and FDR had wanted six kids, so that seems to have been the goal) and Lucy was, by all accounts, a very open and lovely young women and far closer to FDR in temperament than Eleanor (FDR’s kids loved her.)

Eleanor found out when FDR returned from Europe sick and had to be carried off his liner. Emptying his trunk at home she found the love letters between Lucy and FDR, and there was a confrontation. FDR’s mother, Sara, said she would cut FDR off if he divorced, and Lucy went away, but biographers seem sure that the love between the two was real.

FDR and Eleanor did not really reconcile. From that point on they supported each other, but were not very affectionate. In the White House Smith reports that Eleanor was only seen with FDR when she wanted something from him for one of her various projects (all good work supporting people who needed that support.) She did her duty as wife, including running the White House (and hired a terrible cook based on loyalty, not skill), but they never pretended to be close after the Lucy affair.

Eleanor would have a big tea party every day, with her progressive friends, while FDR would have cocktails (which he mixed) with his friends in the evening. Eleanor didn’t approve and never joined in (she probably wasn’t invited).

So the marriage, while loving at first, didn’t stay that way, but the partnership did, though it was often troubled.

FDR was a talented politician from the start. He first won office taking on a Republican in a Republican rural district the Democrats hadn’t won in ages by renting a car and criss-crossing the district talking to everyone he could find. Even then people noted that he could talk to anyone: could make almost everyone like him, perhaps because he genuinely enjoyed talking to them.

FDR had, throughout his life, a sort of imperturbable belief in himself. A calmness and sureness. He wasn’t scared of failure (and he did fail sometimes), but felt sure he would eventually succeed. He was utterly calm in crisis, even when someone tried to kill him just before his presidency, and he was able to pass much of that confidence to others.

More than that, it was a warm cheerful confidence. Fundamentally calm and optimistic, FDR would imbue those around him with this confidence. As a result of this, and a great deal of personal loyalty, over the years FDR created a circle of friends who also worked for or with him. He brought them into his family, and some of theme even often lived with him for years, like Louis Howe, his primary political operative.

This isn’t to say FDR was a Saint. He could make cruel jokes about people he didn’t like (General Marshall, of the Marshall plan swore to never laugh at one of these cruel jokes), he drank a great deal and his youth he was definitely a prig, who, while he theoretically believed in helping those poorer than him had no real understanding of them.

He opposed Democratic “Bossism” and Tammany Hall in the early years. Indeed he opposed them when first elected and his opposition was his first leap to fame, but in so doing he ignored things like terrible worker conditions and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Frances Perkins, who was to later become his Labor Secretary, and a very loyal member of his “family” at first despised him because of this.

And it is this which makes Smith’s book interesting to me, more than anything else. Smith spends a lot of time on what made FDR who he was: the man and president who pursued policies meant to help so many.

First there was his mother giving him such self confidence thru her absolute regard and constant attention to him. Then there was Groton. But even so, young adult FDR, though personally charming is rather an ass, politically (also anti-Irish, very common at the time in his class.)

This starts changing mostly after his New York Congressional career. FDR gets an appointment to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy (there is only one at the time, so it’s a very important position, or would be if the navy was important, which it wasn’t before WWI.)

Louie Howe, his political operative goes with him. Louie had actually entirely run FDR’s second New York campaign, because FDR was sick. FDR did essentially nothing and Louie won it for him by sending out early targeted letters to the district, doing things like promising farmers that he’d be in charge of agriculture and standardize apple barrel sizes. Louie knew exactly what each constituency wanted, and he was never a yes man, but told FDR exactly what he thought.

So, back in DC as Navy Secretary, one of the things that Howe insists on is that FDR deal with labor problems himself. When the  unions complain about something, FDR goes to where the problem is, and talks to the people who are upset directly, bypassing everyone in between. FDR, who as we know, just loves talking to people, gets to know the workers and the union bosses and his period at the navy has almost no labor strife.

More importantly, he learns to know and understand a class of workers he would, essentially, have never had anything to do with before.

He also learns how to deal with people in the opposite direction: Congressmen and the other members of Wilson’s administration. Again, after some initial missteps, he becomes extremely savvy. He understands what they want, and he gives it to them. He becomes an expert at the crony politics of the time. If a Senator wants something from the Navy, and he can reasonably be given it, he gets it (this was normal for the time.) He talks to them, and comes to appreciate their concerns and the pressures they are under. He knows what they want and need.

This, as you’d expect, becomes especially important when he’s President, where he’s usually able to get his way thru careful schmoozing.

The thing is FDR loves this sort of politics. He’s not just good at it, it’s fun to him.

But more than that, FDR seems develop a genuine sympathy for almost everyone he meets. He feels for the workers, he feels for the Senators, he likes them. It’s genuine. They feel that in return.

And this is part of the secret of his success: FDR likes people, likes talking to them, cares about them. They have his sympathy.

So the Navy teaches FDR about how DC works and about the lives and cares of workers and unions.

After WWI FDR runs for vice-president in 1920, and loses, which he had expected, but this gives him and Howe experience nationally and allows them to meet important Democratic politicians all around the country (not easy in an America before commercial airlines.)

He makes up with Tammany hall and drops his anti-bossism. The fact is that Murphy, the leader of Tammany Hall, has beaten him multiple times, and without Tammany support, he isn’t going to be President.

We’ll fast forward a bit, but the next really important bit is when he gets polio. FDR had been incredibly robust, with amazing amounts of energy, and very attractive, something both men and women mention repeatedly.

Then he spends months in bed running a fever, his legs not responding, unable to care for himself at all.  It takes years to regain even a limited ability to walk, and to the end of his life, FDR cannot walk and look normal without someone by his side, because he has lost control of his hips. While can maneuver by himself, to do so without someone else as an anchor means a very awkward, hip-swaying movement, politically impossible.

Most biographers put Franklin’s maturation into FDR at this point: his change from essentially selfish to someone who cares for others, especially those who are afflicted in some way. Smith thinks the affair with Lucy was also a turning point, that it gave him depth he had not had before, but she, like others, feels polio was important.

FDR’s never been helpless for long periods before (a few illnesses). He’s never had to rely entirely on other people to do everything. He himself, later, when asked why he is so patient and unruffled said that when you’re a cripple and you ask for a glass of orange juice and someone brings you milk, you drink it.

On top of this, recovery is incredibly painful. The physical therapy hurts, and most patients can’t take it more than a few days a week, but FDR does it every day.

He becomes convinced that hot springs help and sets up a spa called “Warm Springs” in Georgia for those with polio. They charge, but if patients can’t afford to pay, they are helped anyway. At first there is money from donors to pay for the moneyless, but when that runs out FDR has all such bills sent directly to him. Most of his fortune is spent on Warm Springs, and while it’s helpful to him, if it was just about him, none of this is necessary.

FDR sets up a car with manual controls while in Georgia and takes to driving around the state, and, you guessed it, talking to everyone he meets. He becomes so beloved that he wins Georgia every time when President, with margins like 16:1.

Meanwhile, Louis Howe keeps FDR’s presidential dreams alive, and FDR keeps his finger on the pulse of national and New York politics.

He goes back to New York and wins election as New York governor. When the Great Depression hits, FDR is the first governor to take it seriously and start mobilizing widespread relief. He has massive coat-tails and is able to turn New York’s congress Democratic.

This, you’ll note, is all according to the plan set out to friends in 1907: win a seat in New York’s Congress then become governor, then the presidency.

I won’t go into a great deal of detail on the Presidency and that campaign (perhaps another post, if people like this one), but there are a few things I want to note.

First: FDR changes the Democratic party from the party of business to a progressive party. People like Al Smith are mightily offended by this.

Second: FDR is progressive but not radical. The most hard-core progressives don’t like him. (For example, he could have nationalized the banks and chose not to.)

Third: FDR reaches out to Republicans (remember, back then they are the more progressive party), but freezes dead his internal Democratic enemies like Smith. They get nothing from him, often not even a nod. Once the party is his, he is ruthless in keeping it that way. On the other hand, Senators who work with him from across the aisle and are loyal are protected from Democratic challenges to the best of his ability.

Fourth: FDR’s governing philosophy is to try something to fix a problem, and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, try something else. By framing things this way, and by doing it, he gets intense amounts of support and room to operate. A program can fail, and it doesn’t hurt him much at all.

Fifth: FDR uses radio to cut past the gatekeepers. Every week he talks to ordinary Americans on the radio (his fireside chats) and honestly describes the situation, what he’s doing, and why. He speaks simply, but he doesn’t oversimplify. He does not talk down. This also leads to overwhelming support.

At any rate, “FDR” has indeed been a palate cleanser for me. To my mind, though he wasn’t perfect (who is?) FDR was the greatest president in America’s history (only Lincoln competes, but I give it to FDR.) And it’s really interesting how Franklin becomes FDR: the personality, the character, with all its flaws.

Another nice thing about this biography is how Gray makes time for all of the people around FDR, giving them mini bios. Eleanor receives a lot of copy, perhaps half as much as FDR, which is a great deal but there are bios of his secretaries like Missy LeHand (actually incredibly important as the gatekeeper), the main political operatives and even long time bodyguards and so on.

This gives one a feeling for the time, albeit for the privileged part of the time (and FDR was definitely born with a silver spoon in his mouth.)

If you’re interested in FDR, in the time, or in how America changed its politics in another time of crisis, this is a good book.

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“Behave” By Robert Sapolsky

For much of last year my daily routine included sipping a drink and reading a book at a coffee shop in a big box bookstore.

I went thru a lot of books that way. A few standout, and Behave was the foremost among those.

When you’ve read a lot of books, you rarely read much that is new to you, but Behave told me things I didn’t know. Some were because when I learned biology and neuroscience, a lot wasn’t known. Some I’ve caught since then (brain cells do keep growing in adulthood, which the neuroscience of my childhood said was the not the case), but some I didn’t.

Behave is a genuinely comprehensive book. Too many books these days amount to magazine articles padded with another seventy thousand words, but Behave actually requires its length, so I’m going to pull out four piece of knowledge to share, but encourage you to read the book. (I have it on my “read again” list.)

The first is about the prefrontal cortex, and there’s a good chance that you know the prefrontal cortex is the part of the cerebral cortex (the outer skin of the brain which evolved last) we use to override decisions from the lizard and monkey parts of the brains.

The problem with cerebral cortex is general is that it’s slow: the lizard and mammalian parts operate faster. For the prefrontal cortex to override a decision made by the parts of the brain that are closer, as it were to the metal (run! fight! fuck!) you need to slow down. If you act instantly, it isn’t a judgment call, it’s your reflexes and conditioning working. That might be good, it might wind you up in a fight you can’t win or having sex with someone you’re going to hate after you spend two years with them.

The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish growing until you’re 25 or so, which is reflected in automobile actuarial tables, as it happens: younger than 25, more accidents. This doesn’t mean those younger than twenty-five have no self control, no ability override the older parts of the brain, instead younger brains use other regions, such as the ventral striatum to help the under-developed prefrontal cortex.

Still adolescent and childhood impulsiveness and difficulty with self-control is entirely real and based on brain development. It’s not that they (we) don’t want more control, especially more emotional regulation, they just don’t have it.

Anyway, if you want more control, slow down. Also, fairly standard Vipassana and Shamatha meditation will give you more control over time. A couple teachers I know have sped up their perceptions so much that they can decide whether or not react to a flinch reflex.

The first “holy shit” moment in the book, for me, was about testosterone. We have been propagandized to view testosterone as related to violence.


Oh, it can be. But what testosterone appears to actually be related to is status seeking. If violence and bullying is what a society rewards with status, then yup, testosterone is about violence.

But if hugging and caring for people will get you more status, suddenly high-T individuals are the biggest huggers and carers around.

Rather changes the question of what society types are viable, doesn’t it? Makes nonsense of the idea that society has to be nasty because people (high status men) are nasty.

And here’s the thing, in hunter-gatherer bands (note the word bands), the high status individuals are caring, wise and slow to anger. The high status caring men also spread their genes around plenty.

Then there was the simple revelation about Oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, which is supposed to make both men and women more caring and nurturing. (Insert picture of man cradling baby if this was a magazine.)

It does. It does!

Er, but there’s a thorn on this rose. What it actually does is increase tribal behaviour. You act better towards members of your tribe, your people and worse towards others, because it reduces your empathy to outsiders. Oxytocin, one imagines, along with baby hugging, probably has a role in genocides and not that the groups and people who commit violence to outsiders tend to have strong internal cohesion. (This clearly isn’t the only factor, but it is interesting and suggests that ideas involving increasing our Oxytocin won’t work to solve our larger problems.)

Finally, something which younger readers probably know: the effects of many genes are turned on and off by the environment.

This sure isn’t what I was taught in biology. Back then it was “genes are one thing, the environment is another.”

What’s even more lovely, if like me you had to sit thru hours of listening to Lamarck being castigated as a fool for saying that developed characteristics could be passed on to offspring “hahahaha, what a fool, and those Soviets are obviously ideological cretins for believing it, hahahaha!” — well, it turns out that genes being turned on and off can be passed on. And yeah, genes involved in building muscle are among that group, so Arnold Schwarznegger’s kids, if they lift, probably put on muscle easier than you do.

As Sapolsky notes, the question “nurture or nature?” in light of this, is very close to nonsense. The answer is “both”. For a lot of things you need both the genes and the environment. Saprorsky hammers relentlessly on this, one example is a genetic predisposition to less sensitive mothering that occurs only if the mother herself had an adverse childhood; another increases violence only when drunk.

On top of all that, the effects of most genetic determinants of behavior were small, even when activated by the environment.

These four points are only a small part of what Saporsky offers. There may be a more comprehensive, up to date book (if you think so, drop it in the comments), but this one is extraordinary. It’s not a fast read, it’s packed with information, and I think it really will require a re-read to digest properly, but I can recommend it whole-heartedly if the question “why do we behave how we do?” interests you at all.

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Bill Bodri’s “Culture, Country, City, Company, Person, Purpose, Passion, World”

If I were going to advise someone to buy just one book about how societies and economies run, this would be the one.

This isn’t because it has unique or new ideas, rather the opposite. It is the most concise collection of theories about how the world, economies, cities and much more work that I have ever read. Bodri has put together, in one place, what you’d have to read literally dozens of books to learn otherwise.

This doesn’t mean everything is “correct”, though more is than not, and it doesn’t mean I endorse everything (including his commentary), but it’s all in one place.

Let’s take the society chapter as an example.

Bodri starts with Ibn Khaldun’s theory of Asabiya. Khaldun noted that desert tribes would sweep in, conquer, and 4 generations later, they’d lose power to another bunch of desert nomads. His primary principle was Asabiya, a feeling of unity and shared purpose. Tribes lived on the edge and had to cooperate, so they had high Asabiya, but when they conquered a sedentary people and suddenly had access to luxury, they would lose their unity and willingness to sacrifice for each other, along with their toughness; form factions and eventually lose the unity that allowed them to conquer and rule (think Mongols for a very high profile example.) Then a tribe with high Asabiya would sweep in and conquer them.

Bodri then moves to Gaetana Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. The insight here is simple enough: there is always a ruling class and the ruled, and ruling class, because they can easily coordinate are more powerful than the ruled, in most cases, because of this coordination. Societies break down in this model when the ruling classes start using their power to despoil the masses, the masses, losing their economic security become a mob, and try to force redistribution (bread and circuses) and the real economic base of the society decays, while the Asabiya (though neither uses the term) of the society and the elites collapses.

Next comes Glubb Pasha’s theory of empires. He noted that empires tended to last about 250 years or 10 generations, and went thru a sequence of seven stages. Being a Brit he felt Empire was good, but his argument was that each people had its distinctive excellence: they rose, spread it around and fell, then someone else did the same.

His seven stages are:

  1. The Age of Outburst or Pioneers
  2. The Age of Conquest
  3. The Age of Commerce
  4. The Age of Affluence
  5. The Age of Intellect
  6. The Age of Decadence
  7. The Age of Decline and Collapse

A lot of this is fairly obvious, but the Age of Intellect is the “age of skeptics” as it were: it’s when intellectuals pick apart the founding myths. Think Socrates and the Sophists, for example, or German intellectuals like Nietzche.

The next theory is the “Mandate of Heaven” theory of Ancient China: each dynasty starts with a strong virtuous leader (virtue in this case doesn’t mean non-violent, obviously) and a people who have an ethic of mutual aid and community spirit. When the dynasty (which really means much more than just the Emperor and his relatives) starts over-taxing, not keeping up infrastructure, don’t protect the people and so on, the dynasty loses “the mandate of Heaven” and soon falls.

It’s clear that this is essentially the same as Mosca and Pareto’s emphasis on elites despoiling citizens and thus destroying both their own and the larger society’s Asabiya.

Bordri then goes on to use these theories to look at the rise and fall of Spain and to analyze the longevity of Chinese society.

The next chapter is on countries: the preconditions for their rise and fall, what weaker powers do and so forth. Bodri then moves on to cycles: generationa theories, Kondratieff innovation cycles and so on, and down to companies all the way to individuals.

I think I should talk about how Bodri uses the word capitalism, which seems to combine free trade and entrepreneurship. What is important is not capitalism per se (the ownership of the means of production by a few), it is that the more the mass of people are allowed to be free and prosperous and not despoiled by the elites; the more they can choose what economic activities to engage in (this includes what we now call entrepreneurship), the more prosperous the nation tends to be. This creates domestic production that is widespread and not narrow in nature.

But freedom to do what people want isn’t an absolute rule: more freedom isn’t always better. England’s rise comes from saying “no, you can’t sell raw wool overseas.” It is that decision which creates the first real industry in England but it’s not what wool producers want, since they can get more from overseas buyers: their freedom of exchange IS infringed.

Bodri understand this when  he goes on to talk about how real development works (it’s almost always protectionist if you’re larger than a city state), but elides that when he pushes free trade, which is almost always what countries do when they are hegemonic and which, over time, leads to them shipping their productive capacity overseas, and is thus, actually, part of the cycle of decline. Vigorous empires on the rise tend toward mercantalism.

Bodri also usually uses the word socialism as a way of saying that the population is no longer capable of taking care of itself tends to try and vote itself bread and circuses, and thus socialism is always a bad thing, but  taking care of each other is something he praises at various points. The socialism Bodri despises is something that occurs when the elites have despoiled the masses, and the masses have thus lost their virtue.

Bodri’s smart and wide read, and his commentary is worth reading, but the book is most useful for his summaries of theories: sometimes very practical theories like how to trade world markets and so on.

Again, if you were to want to read only one book about how the world works, this is the one I would suggest. It isn’t a book by a genius about one or a few great ideas, it’s a book by someone who is well read about dozens of great ideas, and will serve as an excellent foundation for your own thinking and further reading.

The value of this book  is that it exposes you to so much. If you disagree or agree with some theories, what is useful is to think about WHY and to compare theories to each other: which predicts what, well, when?

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The Cadfael Mystery Novels

Recently, I’ve been reading a fair bit of fiction, generally a book a day, and for the last week and a bit it’s been the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters.

Cadfael’s a monk in southwestern England in the late 12th century. He was a crusader before he made his vows, and as the monastery’s herbalist and healer, he gets out and about a lot more than most monks. Somehow, in the tradition of non-police detective novels, he becomes involved in a murder during every novel. There is also always at least one romance, and often two.

These are definitely what is known in the trade as cozies. Some bad things may happen, but everything will be put to right by the end of the novels; indeed, not just right, but better. Sometimes the murderer, if their murder is one we can sympathize with, is even let go.

Despite being set mostly during a civil war complete with burnings of entire towns, there’s a sunlit feel to these books; Cadfael is a lovely man, his friends are good people we can admire and even feel affection for, and the books have no excessive nastiness. Although they take place in the Middle Ages, they have virtually no misogyny, misandry, or misanthropy.

The actual murder plots vary. Sometimes what’s going on is obvious, a few times I haven’t figured it out before the reveal. The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s better than the norm for these sorts of novels.

Something else I particularly like about these books is that Cadfael is a believer. He’s not a closet atheist or agnostic, he’s not a hypocrite who’s a monk who doesn’t believe. I find that in too many books about religious believers in the past, the author clearly is not a believer and projects that into the character in a rather modern and anachronistic way.

Most people did believe, and a monk who took orders as an adult who didn’t believe would be a sad fellow indeed. (This is irrespective of the fact that I don’t believe.)

At any rate, I’ve enjoyed them a great deal. They are,  indeed, cozy, and a fine way to spend a few hours with fictional friends in a world where you know that even if the big events are bad, the events close to Cadfael will work out.

If that’s your cup of tea, or the medicine you’d like right now, highly recommended.

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