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Book Review: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

In the weeks leading up to the 2012 Presidential election it was nearly impossible to not hear the name Nate Silver. His projections of the election came to dominate the news cycle and he himself became the subject of the media zeitgeist. Silver was either lambasted as a charlatan by those who disagreed with his lean towards an Obama win; or he was heralded as a genius by liberals whose fear of a Romney victory he assuaged. This backdrop was the perfect setting to be reading Silver’s first book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t. The narrative in the book described a far different world of projection and probabilistic thinking then what was occurring in the media in the lead up to the election.

The heart of the book lies in a relatively simple proclamation in the Introduction: “It is a study of why some predictions succeed and why some fail.” It is from this starting point where Silver launches an erudite tour of forecasting and predictions. The book outlines successes, such as his own contribution to the sabermetric trends in baseball with his PECOTA system and the advances that have been made in weather forecasting in the age of computers, however, the real meat of the book focuses on the failures of prediction, such as in our economy or in predicting earthquakes. It is here that Silver examines the questions of why we failed in certain predictions but also, more importantly, is it ever possible to predict certain phenomena?

Silver breaks down the failures of prediction (it’s here that I want to note that Silver makes a distinction between prediction and forecast, but for purposes of this review I will use both loosely) into two spheres. First, there’s the human element which acknowledges that “your subjective perceptions of the world are approximations of the truth.” This is what makes it so damn hard to separate the signal from the noise, especially in a world where data grows almost exponentially. As Silver points out, nature’s laws don’t change, yet our ability to filter the data is hindered by our biases. Second, some systems are dynamic and/or irreducibly complex, whereas it may not be random, it may be unpredictable because of complexity. Silver explores this idea in his fifth chapter on earthquakes.

Understanding and acknowledging our limits and failures in forecasting however does not preclude us from trying to improve our forecasts. The eighth chapter of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t is the worth the price of the book, as it breaks down Bayes Theorem and Bayesian thinking into a layman’s terms. Through the backdrop of a professional NBA gambler, Silver takes the reader through a well written explanation of how Bayesian theory is becoming the preferred method in the scientific community for evaluating hypotheses, over taking the Frequentist method. Clearly Silver is an advocate of Bayesian thinking, as he shows its applicability and strengths throughout the remainder of the book.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t is an entertaining and lucid exploration of the world of forecasting and predictions. There’s a fine line between humility and confidence in when facing uncertainty, one must have faith in his prediction and methodology but understand that many have failed greatly by being overconfident. That being said, I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet that at least 68% of the readers of PoliticalBooks.org will enjoy this book and ought to give it a read.

Book Review: Entrepreneurial Nation by Ro Khanna

Four days before the 2012 Presidential election one enduring mantra from both candidates has been “jobs, jobs, jobs.” With unemployment in the U.S. hovering around 8%, the big question is how to get people back to work. Ro Khanna, a former Deputy Assistant to the U.S. Department of Commerce under the Obama administration, argues that U.S. manufacturing is integral to putting Americans to work and for the general welfare of the nation. His new book, Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future, delves into the state of manufacturing in the U.S. today, why manufacturing is crucial to the U.S. future, and what policies the country should aim for to strengthen the manufacturing sector. Khanna elucidates his points by using real world manufacturing case examples from his time as a Deputy Assistant.

It’s no secret that manufacturing in the U.S. as a percentage of our GDP has been in a steady decline. Khanna underlines this general sentiment with some hard numbers and facts, including this statement:

“Manufacturing is no longer as significant a share of our economy as it once was, declining from nearly 28 percent of our GDP in the late 1940s after World War II to about 11 percent. We now devote less of our GDP to manufacturing than every other industrial nation except France.”

Clearly manufacturing is not as large part of the American economy as it once was, however, the real question is should it be? It’s worth remembering that the U.S. has undergone structural changes to the economy before. At one time Agriculture dominated our economy, yet now is quite diminished as a percentage of GDP. On that note Khanna introduces two prominent economists, namely Robert Reich and Jagdish Bhagwati, who claim that U.S. should focus on the service sector and downplay manufacturing which has become passé and strictly political feel good fodder. Khanna disagrees and frames his argument for the necessity of manufacturing through the following contentions:

  • Manufacturing is necessary to relieve the U.S. large trade deficit. Exporting more and importing less is the key, and therefore, we have to make more products in the U.S.
  • Manufacturing creates a demand for good paying jobs that required skilled workers and the U.S. cannot cede these positions to other countries.
  • Manufacturing is an essential part of protecting our national security. A strong military with cutting edge technology can only be had with a strong industrial base.
  • Manufacturing in the U.S. is inherently of a higher quality and higher value with specialized customer service. The U.S. needs to maintain and protect this global edge.

Khanna makes a compelling argument for the importance of manufacturing. Although that argument underpins the entire book, he quickly shifts to more concrete policy proposals to maintain and grow U.S. manufacturing.

The majority of Entrepreneurial Nation is an exploration of the current landscape of manufacturing in the U.S. with Khanna as a tour guide. The reader is taken to places like Wichita, Kansas, the Air Capital of the World, to see an example of bottom-up clusters of manufacturing. Through this tour of manufacturing the reader is allowed to see how specific companies have succeeded in the global marketplace and their fears for the future of manufacturing. Each chapter also highlights a policy recommendation that Khanna believes would support manufacturing in the U.S. The policy agenda in Entrepreneurial Nation is wide ranging and extensive. Khanna addresses everything from fair trade (with China as main culprit) to tax reform to closing the perceived skills gap of the U.S. worker. So many policy issues are offered that it’s impossible to not quibble with some specific planks, whether it’s the premise or the solution. However, don’t get caught up in the minutiae, Entrepreneurial Nation is a bold and sweeping vision for the future of American manufacturing and it’s place in the U.S. economy. Khanna does an excellent job of laying out the challenges that manufacturers face and the successes that they have achieved. Any person that’s interested in the state of manufacturing and the policies that underlie manufacturing would be wise to start with Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future.

Book Review: The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

The rhetoric of free markets and smaller government is at the forefront of American political debate and has sunk deeply into the consciousness of most American citizens, this even after the 2008 financial crisis which could be argued as the greatest failure of markets since the Great Depression. In his new book, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Joseph Stiglitz addresses the interplay of market failure, an ambivalent government, and how they interact, to create an ever worsening state of Inequality in the U.S. The Price of Inequality is a forceful exposition that exposes the existence of widening inequality, the causes of the inequality, the consequences of inequality, and, finally, how we can attempt to correct harmful inequality.

The last 25 years or so have given rise to an immense increase in income and wealth inequality in the U.S. Stiglitz presents numerous statistics which portray exactly how much inequality has increased and how it compares in relation to other countries with similar economies and norms as the U.S. Among the highlights:

  • By 2007, the year before the crisis, the top 0.1 percent of America’s households had an income that was 220 times larger than the average of the bottom 90 percent.
  • The top 1 percent get in one week 40 percent more than the bottom fifth receive in a year;
  • the six heirs to the Wal-Mart empire command wealth of $ 69.7 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society.
  • In 1980 our Gini coefficient was just touching .4; today it’s .47.98 According to UN data, we are slightly more unequal than Iran and Turkey, 99 and much less equal than any country in the European Union.

The figures and anecdotes also show a decline in living standards and a rise in poverty for most as inequality increases. Everything from security, housing, healthcare, and education is being adversely affected for nearly every citizen not in the top echelons of the wealthy.

Where The Price of Inequality really excels is when Stiglitz delves into the causes of the widening inequality of the last quarter of a century. The Nobel Prize winner speaks authoritatively on the economic issues of rent seeking and market failures. A major theme of Stiglitz’s is that inequality is as much due to political forces as economic forces and that these political forces are designed to benefit the few over the societal good. Rent seeking is a large issue in American economics and politics, and also a large cause of the widening inequality crisis. Rent seeking can be thought of as extracting gifts from the public or as income received not by creating wealth but by seizing it. Stiglitz explains quite clearly that rent seeking takes several forms, some not as visible as others. Yet, whether it be monopoly rents, the redistribution of public goods to those at the top, or quotas, the problem persists and creates an almost impenetrable hold on our political processes that birthed them.

In addition to rent seeking, Stiglitz identifies market failures and the government’s shaping of the market as the other primary source of rising inequality. Stiglitz contends that other countries with similar economies (technology and per capita income) to the U.S. differ greatly in the inequality trends of the recent past. This, he argues, would not be the case if the market were the sole determining force. Instead the market is shaped by our political process which creates the laws, regulations and institutions; which in turn all have distributive consequences. Stiglitz has an extremely enlightening take on globalization and also addresses the issues of opportunity, discrimination, and corporate governance. It’s at this point that Stiglitz makes another crucial point in his book: the rising inequality creates a vicious circle which gives rise to even more inequality. As a consequence of inequality, more opportunities and education are lost, making it harder and harder to climb out of the lower rungs. The Horatio Alger tale is now quickly becoming an illusion if it hasn’t already. Also, higher inequality has macroeconomic effects as well, creating a less productive and efficient economy as a whole. Stiglitz goes as far as to say that our national identity and sense of fair play is being eroded as a consequence of inequality.

The evisceration of our political process and system is perhaps the most damning consequence of rising inequality. The political institutions set the “rules of the game” and as such if they are failing they should be voted out in a democracy. Why is this not occurring? Stiglitz explains that the political playing field is slanted towards the 1% and that public perception has been warped to believe that their interests are the same as the 1%. The power of big money to influence our government and our political institutions is no secret and gives rise to disillusioned citizens who feel powerless to affect change. Stiglitz’s chapter “1984 is Upon Us” is a must read for any person curious as to how people’s perceptions are so easily molded by framing and persuasions. Primary to the heart of the chapter is this passage:

The powerful try to frame the discussion in a way that benefits their interests, realizing that, in a democracy, they cannot simply impose their rule on others. In one way or another, they have to “co-opt” the rest of society to advance their agenda.

In all major economic issues of today there is an ideological war being waged to shape people’s beliefs and perceptions on the world out there. Individual’s interests can easily be subverted with proper ideological tactics.

Stiglitz ends The Price of Inequality with an upbeat chapter full of prescriptions on how to correct the devastating rise of inequality in the U.S. He includes both an economic reform agenda as well as a political one. However, for real change to occur there must be a realization among the wealthiest of society “that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.” As a society these issues matter going forward and are crucial in determining what type of world we want to live in. Stiglitz appeals to the historical and moral claim that the U.S. is:

where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness, where the words “liberty and justice for all” actually mean what they seem to mean, where we take seriously the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which emphasizes the importance not just of civil rights but of economic rights, and not just the rights of property but the economic rights of ordinary citizens. In this vision, we have an increasingly vibrant political system far different from the one in which 80 percent of the young are so alienated that they don’t even bother to vote.

Part of the great appeal of Stiglitz and “The Price of Inequality” is the rejection of economics as abstracted from our politics and societal norms, and his willingness to make the normative judgments that are warranted. The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future is dense with information and economic analysis, but the appeal to an optimistic America and a more progressive society is never lost. Stiglitz’s most important claim is that it does not have to be this way. There are no fundamental economic laws to the universe that prescribe this type of inequality, and it’s is by design that we have the immense inequality. However, we can strive for a more equitable society which benefits more than just 1% of the nation and doing so should be our imperative.

Book Review: The Rude Guide to Mitt by Alex Pareene

It struck me only after finishing the eBook and skimming it for notes that The Rude Guide To Mitt was dedicated to Seamus. Oblivious to the allusion during my initial read, the irony of the dedication seemed fitting in retrospect. You see, Seamus was the one time dog of Mitt Romney, that is, until Seamus wisely ran away after Mitt strapped Seamus to the roof for a 12 hour nonstop car ride which literally scared the shit out of Seamus. Alex Pareene effectively uses the anecdote in the introduction to highlight the basic premise of his eBook, that Mitt Romney is one helluva strange guy.

The Rude Guide To Mitt is another edition to a relatively new medium called the eBook that affords publication of material much longer than a magazine length but shorter and less dense than a typical book. The strength of eBooks is that they can address transitory topics that are currently relevant in a timely manner that full books cannot, in this case it’s Romney’s bid to be President. The Rude Guide To Mitt functions quite well in that respect, and is basically what the title purports, a guidebook to who Mitt Romney is, or more apt, his shocking emptiness of being.

Pareene splits the book into eight chapters with each detailing an aspect of Mitt’s life and experiences, from his childhood, to his family’s Mormon roots, and on through his business and political careers. Throughout the book, and Mitt’s life, Pareene highlights Romney’s awkward wooden personality through several hilarious anecdotes. In fact, The Rude Guide to Mitt would probably serve well as a full season’s worth of Saturday Night Live skits, except it’s all real! Here’s Mitt in 2008 on Martin Luther King Day:

As he squeezes in to the otherwise all-black group, he says, apropos of nothing, “Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof!” He seems to have been told that “small talk” is mostly made up of cheerfully delivered non sequiturs.

On a more serious note, The Rude Guide To Mitt also highlights Romney’s political “beliefs” and how they’ve been shaped. To put it bluntly, they’ve all been shaped to fit some preconceived notion of what a modern day social conservative Presidential nominee should be, despite those beliefs not reflecting Mitt’s tenure as Governor or being anywhere close to his father’s political philosophy. Pareene mentions how this unprincipled, focus group driven assemblage of positions “seems to inspire more hatred from Republicans than…liberals.” Indeed, it is hard to see any personal aspect of Mitt’s motivations outside of a seemingly invisible hand pushing him to run and win the Presidency for winning’s sake. The only aspect or trait that seems ingrained in Mitt is his penchant for “succeeding”, which is not necessarily a bad thing except that his wins mostly seem empty or phony. Obviously I have no ear to Mitt’s inner voice so I qualify by using “seem”, however, I have no doubt that if asked about his successes Romney would not answer in a sincere fashion but in what Pareene characterizes as a Disney-esque corporatized filled lingo meant to bathe him in a warm glow of positivity.

The Rude Guide To Mitt serves as a very good primer on the man running for the most important position in the world. At around 60 pages it can be read in one sitting and the author’s snarky humor helps propel it along nicely despite being overbearing at times. The book will no doubt be characterized as leftist, or a hit piece on the GOP candidate; however, I would caution readers to give it a chance no matter one’s ideology. The “alien weirdness” of Mitt Romney transcends ideological bounds and should be witnessed by all.

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is worth reading if only for the utterly surrealistic Chapter 42, “Hermann’s Toys”, which recounts a Sunday afternoon at Carinhall. Hermann Goring entertains a reluctant group of diplomats at his vast estate by trying to mate two bison on command and flaunting the mausoleum that he had erected to house his exhumed dead wife. All the while making several different changes of uniform and showing off like a “‘big, fat, spoilt child.’”

Scenes like the above would be laughable except Larson’s book is quick to remind the reader that far from being just a childish buffoon, this man was a bloodthirsty thug. In the Garden of Beasts, through exhaustive research, paints a picture of the early Nazi Germany that feels more like a vivid novel or movie than a non-fiction historical account. Also clearly present is an impending sense of darkness and fear as the Nazi party continues to brutalize Jews and anyone that they perceive as a threat. Larson focuses in on the plight of the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family, in particular his daughter Martha. Dodd was an unlikely candidate to become an Ambassador and many in the State Department considered him ill suited to serve in Berlin, in fact they actively worked to discredit him. Meanwhile, his daughter Martha was a free spirit who had trysts with several men in Germany including the head of the Gestapo and a Russian spy.

The Dodd’s story, while integral to the book and interesting, is really just a backdrop to the thrust of the book, the rise of the Nazi party around 1933-1934. Appeasement runs deep throughout the book. Whether by ignoring events and warnings or by minimizing them, nobody recognized the true threat. Dodd’s and other US officials’ warnings were set aside by a State Department and cabinet that was concerned more with German debt and not straying from the foreign policy of isolationism. It’s also clear that there was an anti-semitic element in the WASPish upper government at the time. Whereas in Germany many were concerned with the tactics that Hitler and the Nazis were using but assured themselves that it would not last long and that the Nazis would be quickly deposed. Perhaps the only real check against Hitler was President Hindenburg who commanded the loyalty of the army (Reichswehr) yet was unmoved to stop Hitler.

The Nazis and Hitler remain today as a symbol of evil and the example of a totalitarian state, yet symbols are often empty because the reality that derived them is abstracted. It’s hard to see Nazis without the cartoonish evilness attached to them or the pop culture portrayal. Whether it be in Indiana Jones movies or YouTube videos of Adolf Hitler raging, their is a distance between the symbol and the real evil it represents. Erik Larson’s biggest achievement in In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is to bring the evilness back to life and to see it in full display. The reader is able to witness the capricious cruelty and the brutish political intrigue where power is acquired by eliminating enemies. Most importantly, Larson describes a world where people like Goring may one evening be entertaining a large dining party and the next evening be ordering the death of many innocent men. In essence, he shows that these are not just symbols of evil but also humans and with that Larson brings to life the darkness of human capability in a way that is atypical of most historical books.

Book Review: The Rent is Too Damn High by Matt Yglesias

Generally, our living situation plays a very large role in life. Location, rent, transportation, and probably most important, with whom we share our space with are all personal factors that drive our housing decisions and circumstances.  Yet, along with the personal factors above that play a part, there is also a broad swath of social policy and economics that help determine where we live and what prices we pay. In his new e-book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, Matt Yglesias delves into the policies of housing, density, and regulation to argue that the free market is being restricted by regulation and is creating an artificial housing scarcity in desirable areas.

Yglesias’s main assertion is that there are two ways to lower prices of housing, either lower demand or increase supply. Lowering demand would entail making an area less desirable, so it’s preferable to increase the supply in order to lower prices without harming the value of the land. Since there is little to no technological barrier holding us from increasing density by building up, then the supply is not being increased due to some other reason or reasons. According to Yglesias, the major reason is burdensome regulations imposed by the new rentiers and the thrust of the e-book is that this is harming everyone in American society.

Yglesias takes care to explain the difference in the value of housing and land, going even further to explain that the real value of land is derived from the “permission to build.” However, the density restrictions, such as height or parking mandates, drive up prices and drive people out to the suburbs and even exurbs in search of affordable housing.  After describing the price paid by suburban sprawl and examining the exodus to the Sun Belt, Yglesias then moves on to claim that there is a new rent seeker in the form of incumbent land owners who restrict in their own self interest but harm potential future residents. Also discussed in the chapter titled, “The Politics of Urbanism,” is the problem of political identity which unfortunately tends to keep both Republicans and Democrats on the same side, that is, against urban development. In the case of Republicans, it’s ignoring free markets in favor of “conformism-minded suburbanites.” For Democrats identity politics entails demonizing the developers and ignoring that scarcity is “inherently anti-egalitarian.”

Yglesias brings the same tight logical construct to The Rent Is Too Damn High as he does on his blogs which makes the book a quick but insightful read. He posts a lot of ideas in a rather short space, and that’s fortunate in this case. The format of the e-book is well suited for policy topics such as urban density. This is mainly because the time investment is not very high which allows the ideas to be more prescient and reach a wider audience. Anyone that is the least bit interested in public policy, economics, or city planning should definitely take the opportunity to read The Rent Is Too Damn High.

That being said, despite the book being a great discussion starter in this topic, I fail to find the Yglesias’s case for urban density overwhelmingly compelling. This is primarily due to three reasons:

1) The housing costs in the desirable locales may be higher, indicating there is demand. Yet, they’re nowhere close to a breaking point, like Yglesias would portray. Manhattan restaurants are not having a crisis because waiters can’t find a place to live and work near enough to the restaurant. Sure, there may be some burden placed on Manhattan waiters that is undesirable and, maybe, even fixable (!) but that doesn’t make it a compelling priority. Optimal takes a back seat to practical in many cases. So after reading this, it’s not as if I’m going to so wildly inspired as to run down and knock on the office of my City Manager and start complaining about burdensome regulations.

2) Related to the above point, is that Yglesias never addresses any of the negative aspects of increased density and why many may not find it as appealing. Now, Yglesias does cross his t’s and dot his i’s by noting that many will still prefer the suburbs and will have the option to live there, but that rings hollow after continuously extolling the merits of higher density in the chapter, “The Virtues of Density.” One example is crime. One could make the argument that crime stats would stay the same per population, or even decrease with higher density, but it would be impossible to claim that people’s proximity to crime wouldn’t be increased. Let’s face it, a lot of the flight to the suburbs is to escape, or be far away, from those types of things that density by nature brings with closer proximity (crime, trash, noise, etc.), whether it’s economically rational or not.

3) Finally, it seems to me that the distinction between value and desirability is tenuous in the case of land for urban use. Incumbent owners want to maintain high prices and either use existing regulations or form covenants to protect that price by creating scarcity. This exclusivity is what drives the desirability, and once the exclusivity is gone so is the desirability. That creates the whack-a-mole scenario where hot-spots of desirability are going in and out all over the city, which is what Yglesias wants to allow by letting developers build wherever the market dictates. Yet people don’t want to do that dance every year or so when their neighborhood changes identity at the whim of the free market. Most people that are not young, single, mobile, and well-off want to stabilize and to protect the neighborhood’s desirability from the free market for price reasons and quality of life reasons. If people cannot, it’s then that they head out to the suburban oasis to do so. This desire for stability shouldn’t be ignored.

Again, I’m a big fan of most of Matt Yglesias’s blog writing and I believe this book is a solid entry into the discussion of urban policy; but there were definitely areas I would have liked to have seen addressed, mainly a more thorough comparison of the virtues of density versus the disadvantages of density. The bottom line is, despite the fact that I agree with many of his assertions and his ideas are insightful, there’s a certain sense that you’d be forcing policy changes on a large segment of people that don’t want it and have valid reasons for being against higher density policies and there’s little recognition of that in the book.

** Since I link to Amazon in order to find the book, I feel obligated to mention that many of the reviews on there are purposefully denigrating the book without having read it. This is more of an attack on the author’s political bent than the merits of the book.

Book Review: How The End Begins by Ron Rosenbaum

The title, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, could not be more ominous or, depending on your perspective on nuclear weapons, alarmist. Author Ron Rosenbaum has a definitive point of view about the danger of nuclear weapons as he waxes throughout the book about holocausts and the immorality of mass retaliation. Rosenbaum does not, however, ignore the side of the nuclear believers who state that nuclear weapons, through deterrence, have actually made the world safer and saved millions of lives. Rather than a driven point of view, Rosenbaum instead takes the reader on a meandering path pondering the history, danger, role, and, most importantly, morality of nuclear weapons.

Rosenbaum takes on a rather passive role as an observer and questioner throughout the book. The heart of the book is really posed in the question of mass retaliation. That is, if a nation has been destroyed or nearly destroyed, is it moral to retaliate for no other reason than vengeance which may likely end the human race? Rosenbaum asks various powerful or influential people including the US commander of nuclear weapons this question and to Rosenbaum’s apparent dismay, none would or could responsibly give a valid answer. But of course, to answer that “forbidden” question is to undermine what’s been the status quo since the Cold War and what we now rely upon: deterrence.

Deterrence is the theory that mass nuclear retaliation is an inevitability for any nation that launches a first strike nuclear attack. In other words, if you unleash nuclear weapons, you too will be destroyed by a retaliatory attack. Proponents of deterrence say that not only has it prevented nuclear war, but it has also saved millions of lives by preventing non nuclear wars from either occurring or escalating. Yet there is a very real and discouraging paradox that underlies deterrence as it relates to the morality of retaliation. Any mention that a retaliation is not inevitable intensifies the probability that a party attempt a first strike against the nation. So there’s this Faustian deal that is implicit with nuclear weapons, in that there is no middle ground and retaliation must be guaranteed. The safety provided by deterrence is guaranteed by the promise of mutually-assured destruction.

Mutually-assured destruction (MAD) was a very real possibility in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the US always at a “hair trigger” notice. In fact, Rosenbaum goes through in the beginning of the book a series of near misses that the world has already witnessed. However, in the Cold War there was some level of stability between the two superpowers and deterrence worked as well as could be expected. Post Cold War is a period of nuclear instability as countries like North Korea gain nuclear weapons. We see a tense Pakistan and India situation with the added concern of terrorists accessing Pakistan’s nuclear stock. Also, the problem of the Middle East as a whole being a tinderbox for igniting a global nuclear holocaust seems all too real. Rosenbaum does an excellent job at highlighting both Cold War and post Cold War areas of concern, some of which like the “hair trigger” alert levels still haven’t changed despite the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Rosenbaum also highlights the Israel attack on Syria in 2007 that, again, could have possibly started a World War III with nuclear weapons involved. The end of the Cold War has not given any relief to the notion that nuclear holocaust seems probable, whether by accident or by malice if history stays on course.

Ultimately, that’s where Rosenbaum’s book comes through strongest: nuclear weapons being unleashed are only a matter of time and scale. If changes are not made to the status quo, it’s quite likely (even statistically quantifiable) that we will see the engagement of nuclear weapons. At that point, the “forbidden question” will require an answer and that answer will shape the future of mankind. In his final chapter, “Endgame,” Rosenbaum does lay out some proposals to mitigate the risk. Rosenbaum also delves into the deep, inherent problems of “Zero” or eradicating nuclear weapons all together. The “Zero” policies, while idyllic, are pragmatically impossible as the knowledge will always be available which creates too many problems for any nation to give up nukes 100%. Rosenbaum instead settles on the notion of minimal deterrence, the least amount of deterrence needed to prevent a nuclear war but not risk mass destruction of humanity.

The threat of nuclear destruction is one of the most pressing concerns of humanity and one that most of us probably feel utterly powerless about. Even the knowledge of the threat provided in How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III begins serves more to scare than to provoke into action. Nuclear policy is not like other political issues, like say tax policy or even Iraq War policy, where in a democratic nation one can have their voice heard and their vote accounted for. Nuclear policy and decision making will be made by likely a few people, maybe not even elected and it will be made in the course of minutes not election cycles, and that is a scary thought. As Rosenbaum pointed out, a possibly unbalanced Richard Nixon made the point very succinctly when he stated, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes 70 million people would be dead.”

Review: Push Has Come to Shove by Dr. Steve Perry

The sad truth is that American students perform worse the longer they stay in our public schools…

That the American educational system has fallen behind globally is not debatable. Children are simply not learning to the level that they need to in order to compete in a global market and to maximize their own self worth and value. The problem is recognizable by all, yet the causes and solutions are entrenched in the status quo and endlessly mired in debate and politics. In his new book, Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve–Even If It Means Picking a Fight, Dr. Steve Perry nobly attempts to bring this dysfunctional educational system out of the shadows of the status quo and illuminate all the flaws that prevent children from learning effectively.

As the title suggests, Dr. Perry takes a very confrontational and in your face tone throughout the book. Perry colors his language with war terms like “front line” and also uses colloquialisms freely which gives the text the tone of a passionate speaker rather than an academic treatise. It’s apparent that Perry is trying to reach out and hook a very broad audience of parents and concerned educators rather than aim for the formal educational crowd. In fact, several times in the book Dr. Perry expresses his frustration with academics like Jonathan Kozol and Dianne Ravitch whom he believes had their time to reform and failed.

The meat of the book, and where it succeeds, is Dr. Perry’s attack on the failure of our society to hold teachers, schools, and everyone else involved with the education of our nation’s children accountable. Dr. Perry deftly describes how even the language and attitudes have been shifted to the point we accept ineptitude in our public school systems when we wouldn’t accept it in any other business or area of our life.  Perry writes:

No other group in the economy, from professionals to blue-collar workers, stays employed with failure rates as high as America’s educators.

Educators get away with failing to teach our kids to state and local standards by falling back on the same old defense: I tried. As long as we can say – not prove – that we tried, we can hand out diplomas to kids who can’t even read them and keep on shouting that it’s not our fault.

The strongest chapter in the book, and the reason why we accept this incompetence, is the titled “Gatekeepers” and describes the power of the teachers’ union. Simply, any attempt at educational reform is countered by the union which carries immense political weight. Reforms from school choice, certification, and the school calendar are thought by many to be beneficial to the education of students but may obviously negatively impact the entrenched position that teachers have dug in for themselves. So the fight for the status quo remains the top priority for the unions, not improving the education of children. Dr. Perry illustrates this point by documenting how difficult it is to remove even clearly incompetent teachers that cannot stay awake during class. If nothing else, the price of the book is justified by that chapter alone.

Though Dr. Perry’s screed on the problems of our educational system is both powerful and effective, his solutions are less so. Dr. Perry is first a Principal and administrator and, it appears, a very effective one. He lays out an effective outline in Part Three about how to find great teachers, enact engaging lesson plans, and he aptly describes the role of the Principal and parents. In Part Seven he lists several proposals to better the overall system, such as lengthening the calendar and modernizing the curriculum. However, the biggest criticism that can be levied against the book is that while Dr. Perry gives a great game plan on how to run an accomplished school, he fails to show how it can be scalable throughout the nation. The fact is that the reason there are so many incompetent teachers is not only because the union protects them, but also because good teachers are in shortage. Dealing with the problems that Dr. Perry illuminates require a lot of data, detail, research, and pragmatism and unfortunately Push Has Come to Shove come up short on the nitty gritty aspects of solving the problems. The solutions are presented but not much effort is put forward to justifying them with any data, everything is anecdotal or assumed to be true.

Despite the lack of research and data presented, which Dr. Perry seems to disavow anyway as someone on the front lines, the book is very effective at bringing attention to the failing of the public educational system and the sense of urgency that we must acknowledge it. Dr. Perry’s book should be a must read for any parent, if for no other reason than to change the expectations that a parent should hold. As a taxpaying citizen, one should demand that public schools fulfill their obligations and refute the language that anyone other than the educational institution is at fault for the failure to educate children. The status quo is not working and for reformation or transformation to occur on a nationwide basis people have to be aware of the problems.  Push Has Come to Shove effectively introduces the reader to the quagmire of today’s educational battles and is an excellent first step in striving for change.

Review: Confidence Men by Ron Suskind

Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind’s most recent work, Confidence Men, tears down the walls of the White House to readers to give an inside glimpse of President Obama’s handling of the domestic and economic policies in the first years of his term. The book paints a picture of an inexperienced President encountering an economic crisis unrivaled since the Great Depression. Along with the crisis comes an opportunity to change the system and culture of Wall Street, a very Roosevelt moment in time, and Suskind deftly explains why and how that campaign promise of change was never able to come to fruition.

Suskind’s strength is to take the heavily researched material and compact it into a riveting narrative tale. Throughout the book, the paragraphs can quickly shift from wonkish policy to high Shakespearean drama within the administration. This style lends a lot to the readability of the text but opens up Suskind to the charge of coloring the story with his own brush rather than reporting a drier set of facts. This occurs throughout the book when he inserts into the text lines such as “in a stage whisper”  which work, in this case, to elevate the drama. In addition to coloring the text with the choice of language, Suskind also clearly frames the heroes and villains in a blunt manner. There’s no doubt in Suskind’s text that Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Rahm Emmanuel are the confidence men referred to in the title, those who “gain the trust without earning it.” It’s just as clear that the heroes in the book are the few that were shut out of policy making or governing but that were champions for change, like Paul Volcker and Elizabeth Warren.

It’s President Obama, though, that the book is really about. Suskind uses all of Part I to describe the campaign while in the midst of the impending economic crisis, and those are the times when Obama shined brightest. Unfortunately, he was not able implement the rhetoric of the campaign into real change, despite having immense political capital. Confidence Men is primarily an examination of why President Obama failed in his first years as President. The following reasons all contributed greatly:

1)      President Obama lacked experience, especially in management. The knock on President Obama throughout his campaign with McCain was the lack of experience. Obama was only a little more than four years removed from serving as a State Senator in Illinois and had never led any type of large sized organization or business. This lack of experience showed up frequently in the next two years as the administration consistently failed to either take advantage of timely opportunities or failed to execute the desires of the President.

2)      President Obama surrounded himself with the wrong people. This is partly due to his lack of experience that he came to depend on Washington insiders and former Clintonites rather than the people he surrounded himself during the campaign. Suskind frequently refers to a Team A of Volcker, Austan Goolsbee, Bob Reich, Robert Wolf, and Paul O’Neill; and a Team B comprised of Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and the Bob Rubin acolytes. Obama chose the Team B, most of who were behind the deregulation that had in fact caused the economic crisis and had no interest in altering the status quo. Using their philosophy “first, do no harm,” they were able to avoid any real punitive measures for the finance industry and any real reform.

3)      President Obama attempted to tackle too much. Obama was dealing with the economic crisis, financial reform and health care all at the same time. Suskind writes “no one had the temerity to say, ‘Mr. President, any one of those three would be more than enough to challenge a new president with so little executive experience.’” Remember, also, that this was all on the domestic front and that President Obama was also fighting two Middle Eastern wars. See here.

4)      President Obama’s style was to try to build consensus. Suskind describes the President as extremely intelligent, impressing many that met him. However, he tended to try to bring opposing opinions together in a campaign like effort, rather than using his power to coerce. There were several opportunities in both financial reform and health care that the President needed to use the spear. His inability or lack of desire to do so cost the administration dearly and may have lost them the opportunity to enact real change. Also, his technocratic way of thinking led to an administration that would constantly relitigate issues over and over leading to a paralyzed executive branch.

In Confidence Men Suskind is a much harsher judge of the advisers who often whipsawed Obama around and even, in the Treasury Department’s case, slow walked direct policy orders. Suskind seems willing to give a benefit of the doubt to the President as he replaces most of his initial senior staff and old hand Pete Rouse begins to take charge. Yet, despite Suskind’s somewhat sympathetic tone towards Obama, it’s shocking how the President could allow so much insubordination and lack of accountability in the White House. It points to a weakness in the ability to not only create policy but also make sure it gets executed. In short, Confidence Men is an indictment on the executive ability of President Obama.

Review: The History of the Second Seminole War by John Mahon

The whites…dealt unjustly by me. I came to them, they deceived me; the land I was upon I loved, my body is made of its sands; the Great Spirit gave me legs to walk over it; hands to aid myself; eyes to see its ponds, rivers forests, and game; then a head with which I think. The sun, which is warm and bright as my feelings are now, shines to warm us and bring forth our crops, and the moon brings back the spirits of our warriors, our fathers, wives, and children. The white man comes; he grows pale and sick, why cannot we live here in peace? I have said I am the enemy to the white man. I could live in peace with him, but they steal our cattle and horses, cheat us, and take our lands. The white men are as thick as the leaves in the hammock ; they come upon us thicker every year. They may shoot us, drive our women and children night and day; they may chain our hands and feet, but the red man’s heart will always be free.

History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842 by John K. Mahon is the source for the above quote by the brave Seminole warrior, Coacoochee. Mahon’s work is one of the few books to illuminate an oft forgotten about American War, one that had lasting implications and a dramatic story. The Seminole War involved a colorful cast of characters, extremely harsh environs, treachery and bravery, and a war of insurgency that teaches us lessons to this day. The Seminole Wars are but just one chapter in the long story of the Indian Wars and John K. Mahon gives a very clear and concise account of those wars of Florida.

Mahon structures the book chronologically, starting with the background of the First Seminole War and the series of treaties that followed it. Even from the beginning, coexisting with the Seminoles was not in the plans of the settlers of Florida, nor strongly supported by the U.S. government. Horribly debilitating treaties essentially took the land out of the Seminoles hands for nothing. The plan was to move them west of the Mississippi along with the Indians of Georgia. Skirmishes continued throughout the years of 1818-1835, as many Seminoles refused to yield. Finally, under the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, General Winfield Scott was given command in 1836 which marks the beginning of the Second Seminole War. Mahon then takes us through the rest of the war in chapters split up by the six commanding officers, describing events under each officer’s command.

Most attribute the Indian Wars as a natural consequence of Manifest Destiny and in the case of Florida and the Seminoles, it played a part. However, the most important factor may have very well been the slavery issue. Southern states were infuriated by the fact that slaves would escape to Florida and find sanctuary with the Indians. Reclamation of property was a leading reason why the Department of War and the state militias felt compelled to remove the Seminoles from Florida. How to treat the Black Seminoles became one of the most divisive issues to every commanding officer in Florida. Along those lines, the commanding officers also recognized that the “crackers” were also to blame for much of the violence between themselves and the Indians, and that too represented a major problem for the officers. Had it not been for the runaway slave issue, Florida may have been ignored for quite some time.

Anyone that has lived in Florida or spent a fair amount of time in Florida can attest to the brutal environment of Florida in the summer, even now with the advent of AC. War in the unforgiving swamps of Florida tested the hardiest of soldiers and often broke them. Disease, humidity, sawgrass, never ending rain and moisture, snakes, and alligators all posed just as much as threat to the Army as the Seminoles. In fact, disease killed many more soldiers than the Seminoles. A telling anecdote is that Colonel John F. Lane, deranged by fever and fatigue, ran his sword through his right eye. The fact that most soldiers considered Florida the poorest land ever fought over exemplifies the runaway slave factor. The conditions were brutal and the pay miserable, yet many future officers of the US Army gained considerable experience in Florida and would use that knowledge in future Indian Wars and the Civil War.

History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842 is a dense history and definitely does not fit under the breezy category. At times it can as trudging of a read as the Seminole War was a long, brutal trudge for both sides. However, Mahon provides an endlessly fascinating account of the Seminole War and the politics of the Seminole War. History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842 is a must read for anyone interested in Florida history and/or in general US history during the mid 19th century.