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Carl J. Schramm
President, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
A contemporary consideration of the American situation prompts me to think of seven books which prompt a wide range of thoughts on what we might do to improve our nation's chances of striking the right balance of leadership abroad and reform at home. Barbara W. Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam is the most sobering reflection on human nature as it operates in politics. Examining four episodes where the pursuit of policy was seen by vocal contemporaries for the follies that they proved to be (the Trojan War, the Pope's provocations that lead to the Reformation, England's loss of the American Colonies, and America's disasterous engagement in Vietnam) forces one to contemplate how it is that ideology appears to overcome the clearest of history's lessons. This is nowhere more clear than in the area of economics whose lessons are seemingly purposefully obscured in the interest of advancing ideologically motivated policy solutions.
Amity Shales's The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression certainly calls one's attention to historic events that are not unlike the contemporary situation. She makes a convincing case that the second depression of 1936-37 was entirely unnecessary (comparative international evidence is persuasive) and brought on by government policy that was driven by class-focused ideology. The phrase "regime uncertainty" later coined by analysts suggests that when the President Roosevelt announced that he intended to subordinate commerce to his will, investment collapsed in the face of what was understandably read as executive caprice replacing the rule of law and the normal expectations that flow from it.
While we don't know the causes of economic growth very well, we do know with certainty how to slow growth and the admixture of accumulating debt, expanding government dependence, and punitive regulations will do it every time. Witness the record in Japan and Europe. Great Britian presents the case with the most immediate interest to the U.S. Martin J. Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980, tells a story of government policy helping to preserve class distinctions in large part by wringing individual initiative out of the cultural values of the society.
Yes, democracy is manipulable, just as Mancur Olson wrote in his unbeatable Logic of Collective Action, and forces driving for private ends seem to be overtaking those driving for public ends. Joseph A. Schumpeter's Can Capitalism Survive?: Creative Destruction and the Future of the Global Economy, a newly excerpted coda to his classic Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, is a meditation on the deeper forces that are at constant play between the urge to redistribution and the protection of individual dignity and initiative and the apparent and ironic tendency to tilt to larger government dependence as societies gain wealth.
The examination of the ultimate antique reference point is worthily provided in a very interesting treatment, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy. His chapter of conclusions, followed by an epilogue, present fresh insights regarding how we train young citizens to invest in utopian visions that can be managed into being by government. Management becomes an equal ideology to utopia, as defined, of course by modern democratic processes. No surprise that the managers are all non-politician bureaucrats working in a mileau gradually moving from meritocracy to a political courtierocracy.
To bring one full circle and reexamine Tuckman's study of Vietnam, one that touches on growing government and the inepitude that comes with scientific management of the state's business including the making of war, Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam is well worth the read. Our capacity, really inclination, to be "wooden headed", to use Tuckman's phrase, when engaged in governance causes one to wonder if the fruit of reading history is, as Coleridge suggested, merely to hang a "lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us." Or, do we somehow purposefully avert out eyes from the evidence—we seem destined to sail against all our hopes that the world is round continuously setting our course to see if we can't make the ocean's edge.
Michael M. Uhlmann
Visiting Professor of Political Science, Claremont Graduate University
Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters will nudge the neurons and tickle the toenails of avid younger readers. Here they will discover the town of Ratbridge, where (quel surpris!) skullduggery lurks around (and even under) every corner. Our young hero, Arthur, runs afoul of the aptly named and fiendish Snatcher and in the course of trying to free himself from dastardly designs has Many Fantastical Adventures. As you read along, you'll meet Willbury Nibble, Q.C., assorted cabbageheads and friendly boxtrolls, and diverse denizens of the Ratbridge Nautical Laundry. And did I mention Madame Froufrou, the Man in the Iron Socks, and the Rabbit Women? Your inner ten-year-old, as well as actual ten-year-olds, will be doubly delighted by Snow's pen and ink illustrations which decorate nearly every page.
For the word player in your life—especially one who dawdles over dictionaries when no one's looking—Ammon Shea will prove to be charming company. His Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages is a logophile's romp through all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. When he's not earning his rent as a street musician and furniture mover, Shea collects and reads dictionaries for enlightenment and fun. Reading the OED is Snow's tour d'horizon of the greatest of them all, with short chapters containing a dozen or so entries for each letter of the alphabet accompanied by the author's droll commentaries. Betcha didn't know the very last word in the OED, which happens to be the second-person singular indicative present form of the verb "to see." I won't tell you what it is, but you'll find it on page 215 of Snow's book. As the late distinguished lexicographer, Casey Stengel, used to say, "You could look it up."
In 1747, Frederick the Great, then 35 and ascending to worldly glory, summoned the aging Johann Sebastian Bach to his palace at Potsdam. Frederick, a passing fair amateur musician and composer, first touted his collection of pianofortes (then a new contrivance), each housed in a separate room of the palace. Accompanied by the Emperor, Bach was invited to try them out, which he did. Then Frederick sprung his trap: he presented Bach with a long melodic line of his own composition, interspersed with complicated chromatic scales. Thinking the task impossible, Frederick challenged Bach, known for his extraordinary improvisational skills, to convert the passage into a fugue. Much to the Emperor's astonishment, the great master proceeded on the spot to contrive and play a three-part fugue. Not to be outdone, the fiendish Frederick then said, in so many words, "Well, that's easy. Can you do it in six parts?" This proved too much even for Bach's extraordinary spontaneous talents. But he took his revenge two days later by submitting his six-part solution to the Emperor in the form of A Musical Offering, which we know as one of Bach's most charming and convoluted constructions, a work of dazzling mathematical and musical genius. Frederick won the initial skirmish; Bach won the battle.
James R. Gaines reconstructs this little episode in Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of the Enlightenment, wringing from it a tale of deeper significance—in effect, a musical setting of the war between the ancients and the moderns. Frederick thought the polyphony favored by the old order, and exemplified in Bach's achievements, was passé, the musical counterpart to dogmatic superstition. By besting Bach in a musical challenge, he hoped not only to humiliate Bach, but to demonstrate the superiority of the new Enlightenment preference for simple melodic lines. Gaines, the former editor-in-chief of Time and Life, writes with clarity, charm, and extraordinary command of musical history and composition. While his philosophical understanding is not quite up to his musical knowledge, he's opened a new chapter in the art of secret writing. Bach's offering to the Emperor, on the surface flattering if not obsequious, is filled with musical symbolism and double-entendres in praise of the old order. For the details, you'll have to read the book. In the meantime, treat yourself to a CD of A Musical Offering, sit back, and listen to the music of the spheres.
Author, Churchill's Military Histories
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, by Goethe
This is the supreme Bildungsroman, which joins the fateful enchantment of chivalric romance to the rough and tumble of the novel, just then emerging. Wilhelm is an ordinary young man invested with an extraordinary destiny thanks to the assistance of a secret brotherhood of the wise. The tale is thrilling in its hope for great things to come of democratic types.
Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy, by Randall Jarrell
A manic-depressive and a suicide, Jarrell in his sunlit spells got more pleasure from living and writing than most anyone else I can think of, and this skewering of progressive idiocy at a women's college ca. 1952 is not only the great academic novel but one of the finest American novels of manners plain and simple.
The Dream Songs, by John Berryman
An alcoholic, a manic-depressive, and a suicide, Berryman held himself together sufficiently to write the American epic poem, comprising 385 lyrics of 18 lines each, mourning, questioning, praising, and ending, if not with redemption exactly, at least with a respite from suffering that feels like the descent of grace.
Thomas G. West
Professor of Politics, University of Dallas
My suggestions are all books that I have listened to as audiobooks during the past year or so. I highly recommend audiobooks as a replacement for music or talk radio in the car.
The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
Listening to all 85 papers back-to-back gives the impression of relentless logic, deployed unanswerably, but often going on much longer than necessary. The case for a national constitution like the one proposed is powerfully presented, with many insightful reflections along the way. On the other hand, the "book" betrays its journalistic provenance by being uneven. Plenty of time is given to some topics (taxation) and hardly any to others (regulation of commerce). May I be permitted the heresy of wondering whether The Federalist might be overrated? Some of the most important topics in the founding, such as government's role in formation of character, promotion of religion, and securing property rights, and the main features of the civil and criminal law, are of necessity barely addressed, because the state governments were expected to take care of these matters. For this reason, readers of The Federalist sometimes get a very incomplete impression, which we professors too often conscientiously pass on to our unsuspecting students, of what American government was originally supposed to do and how it was supposed to do it.
March of the Ten Thousand (Anabasis), by Xenophon
This was entertaining and enlightening. Assuming he isn't embellishing too much, Xenophon comes across as an amazingly resourceful and prudent man. He has to defend himself constantly against false accusations (there are several "Apology of Xenophon" speeches), and he does so a lot more effectively than his teacher Socrates did. The story is a kind of case study of the rule of a philosopher-king, and that means of course also of its limits.
Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
This is an "Austrian" account of the 2008 financial "meltdown." In the course of his argument, Woods explains the current recession along with previous ones. He argues that all are caused by the same thing: the issuing of excessive amounts of paper money, followed by its contraction. This process first leads to a bubble and an expansion of production, but later to a crash as people realize that there is not enough money around to sustain the price level (in 2008 it was housing and stocks). I found the book very convincing. It was my first real introduction to Austrian economics. I had previously neglected the "Austrians" because of some of their adherents' oddball anarchism and hatred of national defense. But on the topic of the relation between money and production, they are very good. Incidentally, if the Austrians are right, conservatives will have to re-evaluate their view of the 1790s. In the Austrian analysis, Hamilton was right to favor the development of manufacturing but wrong to think that the best means were the national bank and government subsidies of targeted industries. Jefferson and Madison were right to favor complete market freedom and to oppose quasi-monopoly banks and subsidies, but they were wrong to believe that large-scale manufacturing is incompatible with republican government. Jeffersonian free-market policies eventually led to Hamiltonian major-industrialization results.
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded: Volume I, by Samuel Richardson
A 1740 novel consisting of letters of a beautiful, intelligent serving maid who refuses to sleep with her domineering aristocratic master. He eventually gives up his plan to imprison and rape her, and decides instead to marry her. The novel perhaps runs on too long, but it is easy to listen to, and I find it psychologically acute. Richardson is one of the great English "Lockean" novelists of the 18th and early 19th centuries (Defoe and Austen are two others). The Lockean novel, as I call it, debunks the "fancy and covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious," the aristocratic order that puts too much power and temptation into the hands of the arrogant wealthy. It also elevates the "rational and industrious," the hard-working, clever, and ultimately decent members of the lower and middle classes. The really interesting question in Pamela is provoked by the subtitle: what "virtue" is rewarded here? Pamela proves to have many virtues besides her chastity. The story is in part about how her prudence, diligence, wit, civility, humanity, generosity, industry, and frugality, along with her spectacular beauty, bring her into a successful marriage. But we also see how she acquires additional virtues in the School of Necessity, such as cleverness, deviousness, insight, enterprise, vigilance against oppression, and resourcefulness. It was one of the most popular books of the 18th century. Librivox only has Volume I of Pamela. The rarely-read second volume is about Pamela after her marriage. I have only glanced at it. It contains long passages discussing how to educate children, with extensive quotations from and discussion of Locke's book on education.
In Praise of Folly, by Desiderius Erasmus
An entertaining, thoughtful disparagement of both intellectual and theological pretensions. On the surface, the appeal is to the "original intent" of Christianity, although one wonders to what extent Erasmus himself accepted even that position. I was delighted to learn how much Erasmus, writing in 1512, anticipates the approach of my favorite 17th century theologians: Chillingworth, Hobbes, and Locke.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
You have to be willing to grant the premise, which I found ridiculous: total destruction of almost all life, nothing grows anywhere, and the human race has almost completely died out from fire or starvation. You also have to accept the procedure of the protagonists, which seemed to me very imprudent. Father and son walk down "the road" day after day in broad daylight, making them vulnerable to the first predators who come along. When they finally find a big stash of food, they quickly leave the place and move on, even though they are practically dying of starvation. If you are willing to swallow all of this, the story is engaging and oddly hopeful and invigorating. It is a celebration of the human possibility of placing honor and nobility over everything, even life itself. Although for most people in extremity "existence determines consciousness," as Marx's dictum has it, in rare cases consciousness (fidelity to the flame of conscience within us) determines existence.