Category Archives: Book Reviews

De Toqueville and the Tyranny of the Majorirty

de toqueville.jpgAlexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America isn’t exactly what I expected when I began it. What I had read of it suggested something of a high-minded travelogue, a paean to the United States, that most democratic of democracies, full of insights and admiration. What I found instead is a straight-out political analysis of a form of government with which Europe was largely unfamiliar, an analysis as clear-eyed as it is dense, and only very carefully complementary. It is no more a travelogue than Rouseau’s Social Contract is a business manual. Though he was here for 9 months in 1831 and traveled extensively during that time, he rarely mentions place-names at all and never descends to a personal anecdote or reveals the name of a single person he spoke with. His one and only concern is the subject in the title: how democracy worked in America.

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Defining Politics from Scratch

aristotleIf Plato’s Republic is a third-grade civics primer of limited value in a democracy, Aristotle’s Politics is fundamental source material for PoliSci 101. About a third of it is dedicated to quietly dismantling most of The Republic with understated common sense, and it’s probably unnecessary for a modern audience to bother with (unless that audience has plowed through Plato’s simple-minded and unworkable ideas and feels it has earned the reward of seeing this philosophical “giant” get a well-deserved drubbing) but the other two thirds are Required Reading for anyone interested in how we got where we are. And maybe where we go from here.

Aristotle, a mathematician and scientist (mostly a biologist), supplants Plato’s childhood wishful thinking with a quasi-scientific examination of the types of governments he saw in the ancient world. Like a scientist, he first defines each of them according to their salient or dominant characteristics, then classifies them by which characteristics they share, and finally, after all that, (sort of) begins the process of comparing them as to which might be better for men to adopt.

Like a scientist, he does his best to be objective. Though in the course of reading this book it isn’t hard to figure out which sort of govt he favors, he bends over backward to keep from defaming those not his favorites, arguing over and over again from the beginning of the book that each of his govt types might be best for some people in some place at some time and that our job as citizens is to decide which form would suit us best. It’s a refreshing change from Plato’s one-size-fits-all autocracy.

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Inside Greenspan’s Fed: The Yesterday Today Came From

greenspanBob Woodward’s Maestro, a history of Alan Greenspan’s regime at the Fed through the turbulent 90’s, was written 10 full years ago, yet reading it today, it is startlingly familiar territory. All the issues, arguments, and solutions which we think are new to the financial market since the collapse were actually rehearsed – over and over again – during various Financial crises while Greenspan was the Fed’s Chair. It’s all there – bailouts, “too big to fail”, threats to the vulnerable global economy, taxpayer rescues – everything except any mention of derivatives.

From the morning in August 1987 when Greenspan chaired his first FOMC meeting (the Fed board’s actual name is, significantly, the Federal Open Market Committee) he seemed to be dealing with one crisis after another. When he took over the economy was in the dumper brought about by the first Bush; when he was finally replaced by Ben Bernanke 3 years ago, he left having watched over the second Bush while he flushed the vibrant Clinton economy down the toilet, an economy that Greenspan – according to himself as reported by Woodward, at least – did a great deal to help create. And in each of those instances – from the savings & loan crisis to the currency crises of Mexico, Asia, and Russia to the LTCM crisis – there was a single cause: exceedingly dangerous financial speculation, not by fly-by-night hucksters and shady traders but by the biggest financial instutions in the world.

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