December 06, 2007

Book Recommendations

• Matt Bai reminds us of Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes, the greatest campaign narrative ever published. I agree. What It Takes is actually the book that launched my political path. The portrayal of Gary Hart impressed me, so I grew interested in the man, searched him at the right time to hear about his abortive 2004 campaign, and volunteered for it. That effort fell apart rather quickly, but it's why Joe Trippi brought me to the Dean campaign, which is where I really got into blogging, and on and on. In conclusion, I owe everything to Cramer.

ª The second best best campaign book, or so I'd argue, is Trail Fever by Michael Lewis.

• Over at The Monkey Cage, Lee Sigelman recommends a core reading list for understanding the media's influence on American politics. I've only read The Atlantic article it's based off of, but I'd add James Fallows' Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines Democracy.

December 6, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (10)

November 27, 2007

Posted Without Comment

From Brookings comes a new, must-read book:

Opportunity 08: Independent Ideas for America’s Next President

New Brookings Book Focuses on Critical Issues Facing the Nation

Opportunity 08: Independent Ideas for America’s Next President offers innovative solutions to the issues facing the 2008 Presidential candidates, presented in 5,000 word essays that provide a concise, yet thoughtful, overview of how to tackle pressing policy challenges. Part One of the book focuses on “Our World” and its topics include the challenge of dealing with Iran, the rise of China, climate change, oil dependence, Middle East peace and the future of Iraq. Part Two, “Our Society,” takes a look at key domestic issues such as housing policy, poverty, inequality, upward economic mobility and voting reform. Part Three, “Our Prosperity,” tackles vexing problems such as the budget deficit, health care access and quality, retirement security, and the challenge of strengthening information technology in the United States.

The editor of Opportunity 08: Independent Ideas for America’s Next President, Michael E. O’Hanlon, is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is a frequent media commentator on national security and is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Defense Strategy for the Post-Saddam Era; Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security; and A War Like No Other: The Truth about China’s Challenge to America.

November 27, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (10)

November 20, 2007

More Kindle Commentary

• So my early enthusiasm is waning. The IP protections seem like a dealbreaker. I can't read pdfs? I have to pay to aggregate blogs? Amazon is fairly clearly trying to follow the iPod model, where your technology gives you such an early lead, that you can lock up all your content and nobody's the wiser. But even the iPod only locks up iTunes content -- it doesn't try to keep me from playing music I already have, or that a friend gave me, or that I downloaded off the net. Kindle does.

• That said, if Amazon really has figured out the technology, someone else will match the product without the locks. Or Amazon will decide to open the Kindle in order to better corner the market. If e-book readers really are the future, just as iPods were, the important thing is that someone kicks off our brave new world. The Kindle may do that, even as its many locks and constraints open the market for a successor.

• If the Kindle does work, it will make much more of a difference for non-fiction readers than fiction lovers. I don't think the advantage is in size -- a book really isn't that big. It's in information delivery. I really want some technology that allows me to clip parts of books, make annotations I can e-ail to myself, and better organize the information I glean from reading. Simply looking over words is a tremendously inefficient way to absorb knowledge, and it's long past time someone came up with a product that helps correct for my brain's sieve-like nature and general failings.

• Isaac Butler makes a fair point here, offering the Hayekian case for print:

Why will it be unsatisfying? Because it's not a book. I don't mean to be conservative here, but the simple fact of the matter is that there's something about books that just works. It's not that explainable, so it's hard to try to phrase it as a counterargument, but here goes...the book is one of humankind's perfect inventions... like bread, or the wheel (or, I'd argue, cheese). You might be able to improve on its design but you can't fundamentally change the thing. It's perfect as is. It's survived as a human invention for a truly shocking amount of time. As sentimental as this sounds, I just don't think that many people really want to cuddle up with their electronic reader and delve into the latest from Henning Mankell.

November 20, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (23)

November 15, 2007

The Best Paragraph I've Read Today

From Chris Hayes' review of Stud Terkel's new memoirs:

You just can't beat people: as a description of Terkel's guiding ethos, you just can't beat that. Through more than a dozen books of oral history on topics ranging from working life to war, race, and the great hereafter, Terkel has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in humanity in all its flaws and triumphs. It's this fascination with the human condition which gives his books their verve and pathos. With a sharp eye and a sympathetic (if no longer particularly sensitive) ear, Terkel has coaxed wisdom and insight from janitor and senator alike. And in an age of reality television, on which ordinary people are given a shred of celebrity for the price of their dignity, Terkel has always offered the opposite, a steadfast insistence on presenting his subjects with dignity, grace, and empathy. You come away from Terkel's books with more faith in humanity than you had before.

Chris isn't quite so positive on the memoir, but everyone in the country should own a copy of Terkel's masterpiece, Working.

November 15, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (10)

October 03, 2007

Terror Dreams

I've been leafing through Susan Faludi's new book on the country's post-9/11 turn to a protective masculinity fantasy, but haven't gotten quite far enough to offer any systematic thoughts. There's a chapter on the presidential candidates and guns which is interesting, but makes too much out of what was really a very small part of the campaign. The chapter on the myths surrounding Jessica Lynch's "rescue," however, is great, if only because it reminds us what a cynical heap of lies we were fed. Faludi recounts the bizarre spectacle of the soldiers storming the hospital where Lynch was being treated, kicking in doors that the staff had given them keys too, ripping open Lynch's sand-filled, anti-bedsore mattress to take sand samples, and triumphantly carrying away the "rescued" Lynch, who was wearing a dress one of the Iraqi nurse's brought from home. All this two days after the hospital's employees had tried to bring Lynch to an American base, but had their ambulance shot at for the trouble.

Here, by the way, is Rebecca Traister's review of Faludi's book.

October 3, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

October 02, 2007

Lords of the Land

I attended a briefing this morning with Akiva Eldar, political columnist for Ha'aretz and coauthor of Lords of the Land, one of the first comprehensive histories of the Israeli settlers movement published in either Hebrew or English. I haven't read the book yet, but it certainly sounds interesting, and the topic is crucially important. I've long been confused, given the settlement's moral indefensibility and their obvious spoiler effect on peace deals, why the government allows for their construction. According to this review of the book, it may not be that simple:

Consider, for example, one incident at the movement's beginning, told in detail in the first section of the book: In the spring of 1968, less than a year after Israel acquired new territories in the lightning victory of the Six-Day War, a group of young men, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, approached the military administration of the occupied territory with a modest request. They asked to celebrate the Passover Seder in Hebron, the newly occupied city of our biblical forefathers and foremothers.

Armed with a military permit signed by commander of the Eastern front General Uzi Narkis, they arrived in the ancient town on the night of April 12, and rented rooms in the Park Hotel. It later turned out that they neglected to keep their promise to leave the city when the holiday was over. The government had already rejected plans, submitted by Minister Igal Alon, hero of the War of Independence, to create a Jewish neighborhood in Hebron. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was not happy with the whole Seder affair, but he failed to grasp the full meaning of this little bridgehead, and he did not put his foot down...His minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, another war hero, came up with a compromise: to move the group temporarily to the military administration's building, until a permanent solution could be found. The settlers took this to be a kind of official recognition. They were already busy creating an improvised school for their children (inside the Park Hotel), followed by a yeshiva.

When the issue was brought up in Cabinet again, rather than deciding on creating a Jewish settlement, the government first decided not to evacuate those already there. By and by, a settlement sprang up. A fact on the ground. The army mobilized to protect it. And since it was there already, by September of the same year, a government that never intended to settle any of the territories approved construction of a Jewish neighborhood in the city. This would become a pattern: Facts on the ground are created, army and bureaucracy follow, and finally the government grants retroactive approval.

Of course, even rogue elements require some sort of government support, less future settlements be left in the cold. And on this, it seems that there were always powerful enough groups within the Israeli government willing to exert pressure on behalf of the settler's. The book explains "how land grabs were disguised as military zone restrictions; how new settlements were disguised at first as "neighborhoods" of existing ones; how legal terms were twisted and devoid of meaning, creating double standards and lax enforcement; how government funds were diverted in clandestine, roundabout ways; how bureaucratic hierarchies grew strange humps to bypass regular procedures, and so forth." And once the settlement was constructed, the government couldn't, politically, leave it undefended. So at the end of the day, "a small group of zealots, a mere 2% of Israel's population, managed to exploit the nation's inability to decide the fate of the territories to an extraordinary extent. With various degrees of sympathy and antipathy from different governments, they were able to drag a whole country into a state it never really debated, let alone decided on." It's like the worst Mircotrend ever.

October 2, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (17)

September 24, 2007

More on The Trap

Read Kevin on Daniel Brook's The Trap. Kevin points out another thing that bugged me abut the book, namely, Brook's apparent belief that anyone in the corporate world trudged there, death march style, after being priced out of working for a rewarding non-profit.

I know lots of people in the for-profit world. They like their jobs pretty well -- just as well as Hill staffers and non-profiteers. And a lot of them like having money! Brook paints for-profit work as a loathed fallback to every young person's natural ambition to work for Amnesty International, but not only does that fail to track with my experience, it's sort of insulting to folks who have chosen a different career path than I have, and thus probably not the way to build political support for a program that will reduce their salaries.

September 24, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (24)

August 27, 2007

The Big Con

I tend to find it very hard to finish books.  So rather than me using a bunch of nice adjectives for it, let me just say that I finished Jon Chait's book, The Big Con, on the rise of crackpot, rightwing, economics in two days.  On the beach.  It's a very, very good piece of work, and contains the clearest, most sustained demolition of supply-siderism I've encountered.  It's also got a lot of very clear, quick writing on economics in general, including this quote-worthy bit on taxes:

You can look at the federal tax code as a kind of layer cake.  At the bottom is the federal payroll tax, used to finance Social Security and Medicare.  This tax is a flat rate and covers wage income only to around $100,000 a year, with all income above that level exempt.  This is the most regressive tax imposed by Washington.  Above the payroll tax sits the income tax.  The income tax is more progressive, exempting low wage workers and making high earners pay a higher rate.  On top of that are taxes on capital gains and dividends.  These taxes are even more concentrated at the top, since they affect only those who receive lots of income from accumulated wealth.  The most progressive tax of all is the estate tax, which is paid by a tiny handful of fabulously wealthy heirs.

Compare that layer cake to President Bush's policies.  The tax at the bottom, the payroll tax, he has not touched at all.  The tax just above that, the income tax, he sliced by about a tenth.  The taxes just above that, the capital gains and dividends, he cut in half.  And the tax at the very top, the estate tax, he abolished altogether (though he has not mustered enough votes to abolish it permanently).  Bush's opposition to any given tax is exactly proportional to the degree that it affects the rich.

The book also has the world's most perfect description of Grover Norquist, about whom it says:

Norquist, like a Bond villain, has an irresistible penchant for spelling out his master plans in their full, nefarious detail.

It's almost impossible to accurately convey how true that is.

August 27, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (14)

The Argument

I haven't read Matt Bai's The Argument, though it seems, from the reviews, that the book's flaw was being conceived in 2004, reported in 2005, obviated in 2006, and released in 2007.  That's not really Bai's fault.  Lakoff really did seem like a big deal, and if you immersed yourself in the Democratic Party's search for messaging gurus, it's understandable that you'd ache for a bit of substance.

But that immersion is the key.  The Democratic Party's reworking of its message was a prime Bai story over the last few years.  His critique of it, by contrast, has been that Democrats need ideas, not gurus.  Notably, that they need a social policy capable of withstanding the 21st century, the "information age," or whatever synonym we're using for The Now (zoom!) that week.  But whatever the worth of the gurus, Bai's critique is myopic -- it's a function of what he's reporting on, rather than what's going on in the Party.

As a reporter, I focus on policy ideas.  And damn it, I'm drowning.  Bai seems to think Democrats need a health care plan, but I could show him no fewer than 20 fully-realized plans and outline the basic areas of consensus -- and they're broad -- that outline the Party's essential orientation on the issue.  Same goes for pension planning, trade adjustment plans, or any and every other element of social policy you can think of.

These plans have a common thread -- a social policy for the 21st century, if you will: Globalization and its attendant economic forces have destabilized the working class and the corporate welfare state they relied on, so the government should step into the breach and guarantee what employers no longer can.  And though Bai may not have been paying attention, Democrats have even settled on certain policy gurus -- notably Jacob Hacker, Joseph Stiglitz, and Elizabeth Warren -- who're uniting previously opposed wings of the party, as in Hacker's involvement with both the traditionally left wing EPI and they're bete noire, Robert Rubin's centrist Hamilton Project.  Bai's book may be a good read, but if you only profile politicians and messaging types, you should have some self-awareness that you're unlikely to trip over much new policy thinking along the way, and an affirmative effort to search some out is required before you critique its absence.

August 27, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

August 26, 2007

ETA and the Roots of Terrorism

By Randy Paul of Beautiful Horizons

There is no country in Europe that interests me more than Spain. There is no ongoing issue in Spain that frustrates me more than ETA, one hopes the last homegrown terrorist organization in Western Europe.

I've been reading Giles Tremlett's excellent book, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Secret Past and recommend it heartily, especially if you have an interest in Spain. His chapter on ETA is especially compelling.

Why does ETA want independence, especially for what appears to be only the Spanish portion of the historic region? Granted, there is no question that much of the region suffered greatly  under the dictatorship of Franco, who referred to the region as the "rebellious provinces" and who banned the language from being spoken, while rewarding the communities of Alava and Navarre for supporting his uprising. Times have certainly changed, however:

Granted that the government of  former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez committed acts that probably spurred younger people into supporting ETA, but that was years ago. So, why the desire for independence that leads to such horrid violence? Why the obsession among some with the fact that the Basque population has a higher percentage of RH- in its population or the claims that the Basques have unusual crania? Why the insistence that a referendum be held for independence when recent polls show only 38% of the population would vote for independence?

I wish I knew.

August 26, 2007 in Books, Europe, Terrorism | Permalink | Comments (16)