Grouchy Book Reviews
By Arnold Kling
In general, I lean toward, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it.” But several books that I was sent to review made me grouchy, because of what they did not include. Note: I could not finish any of these books, and if I could have found what I was looking for by doing more than just flip through, then I owe the authors apologies.
David Rothkopf’s Power, Inc. said that since corporations have gotten bigger, government needs to get bigger. He does not explain why he thinks more government power is the solution rather than the problem with big corporations. Nor does he explain why he is marketing the book to ordinary individuals. It is clear that he thinks that the world is run by the sort of people who go to Davos, and no one else matters. It is not clear why he bothers trying to converse outside of that crowd. The book carries a laudatory blurb from Larry Summers, who says that “Power and money make the world go round.”
Summers plays a starring role in Noam Scheiber’s Escape Artists, which tries to solve the mystery of why the Obama Administration did not enact a larger stimulus. Scheiber devotes several pages to giving us psychoanalysis of Summers from his high school chums, but no pages to describing how the stimulus dollars worked their way into the economy. I looked at the index for an entry for John Taylor, whose 2010 paper with John Cogan addresses that issue, but to no avail. The only reference to Taylor implies that Taylor in 2008 favored a trillion dollar stimulus. (Is that even true?)
I would have figured that it would be pretty hard to write a book about meetings to discuss economic policy that could hold a reader’s interest. This book confirms those priors. [Update: David Warsh seemed to enjoy the book, but his tastes are unusual.]
When it comes to blurbs for unreadable books, you can’t beat the ones on John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness,
due out in April, now available. Tyler Cowen leads the parade of endorsers, which includes a veritable who’s who of libertarian-leaning scholars.
I had two problems with the book. A minor one is that Tomasi refers to John Rawls early and often. As far as I am concerned, Rawls is the Regis Philbin of political philosophy. He is famous for being famous. Yes, there is substance in Rawls, but it is pedestrian substance. It struck me as pedestrian when it came out (to more fanfare than any other academic work in my lifetime), and it still strikes me that way. To say that my view of Rawls is not widely shared is an understatement, which is why I regard this quibble with Tomasi as minor.
The major problem I have with Tomasi is that if you want to lay some political philosophy on me, you have to draw a clear distinction between “society” and “the state.” (Rawls fails to do this, also.) Consider:
a) I want to live in a society were people donate generously to charities that are supposed to help the disadvantaged.
b) I want to live in a state that taxes people heavily to support programs that are supposed to help the disadvantaged.
I see those as separate statements. You are welcome to argue that (a) is impossible and (b) is the only realistic way to live in a compassionate society. But if you don’t even bother to make the distinction in order to make the argument, and instead you conflate society with the state, you have a non-starter as far as I’m concerned.