2009 Review of Books
Well, it’s time for my annual look back thru the books I read this year. (Previously: 2006, 2007, 2008.) I’ve included links to reviews, where I have them, and italicized the titles of the books I recommend without reservation.
- The Liberal Hour (my review: 3 stars)
- Depression Economics (4)
- The Great Derangement (4)
- Politics the Wellstone Way (4)
- Who Really Rules? (5)
- Fat Cats and Democrats (3)
- For Common Things
- Who Governs?
- Supreme: The Story of the Year (2)
- Changing the Powers that Be (4)
- New Kings of Nonficton
On Writing Well (3)
This book is really dreadful, mostly because the author actually cannot write well.
I cannot possibly say enough good things about this book. Go read it. Right now. Yes, I know it’s long, but trust me, you’ll wish it was longer. I think it may be simply the best nonfiction book.
- What Are Intellectuals Good For?
- Priorities in Health (4)
- Invisible Hands
- The Option of Urbanism
- Getting There
On Directing Film (4)
Not just a great book about directing, but a great book about writing.
- The High Cost of Free Parking (4)
- The Leftmost City
- The Hearts of Men (4)
- The Power Elite and the State (3)
- Southern California Country
- Seeing Like a State (4)
- Fast Food Nation
- Building Rules (2)
- Urban Fortunes (4)
- Falling Behind
Not an easy book, but Michael Mann continues to amaze.
- Divided Highways
- Prisoner’s Dilemma
- Running After Antelope
- Cities of Tomorrow
- Suburb (4)
If Feynman was a sociologist, this is probably the book he’d write. A delightful little thing.
- Radical Innocent
- Suburban Nation
- Zoned Out
This book is criminally under-publicized. Everyone has their own crazy theories about why it is that blacks are disadvantaged in our society. Massey and Denton show it’s much more obvious than any of that: they’re victims of extreme segregation, with all the negative effects that entails. An absolutely brilliant book.
- Crabgrass Frontier
- Human Consequences of Urbanism
- The Essential William H. Whyte
- Gridlock Economy
- Barbed Wire: A Political History
- Market Rebels
- Blockbusting in Baltimore
- Chicago: A Biography of the City and Its Region
- The Zoning Game
- Zoned American
- Bourgeois Nightmares
- The Zoning of America
- The Sun Also Rises
- Bourgeois Utopias
- Planned Sprawl
- Block By Block
- Opus 300
After you finish The Power Broker, if you want more, read this.
- Means of Ascent
- Death at an Early Age
- A City Transformed
- Master of the Senate
- City of Quartz
This book is like a little miracle. I’m not even sure how to describe it, except to say that it turns one’s understanding of history completely upside-down.
If you’re interested in inequality, this little overview is the place to start.
- Side Effects
- The Threat to Reason
- Plunder and Blunder
- The Waxman Report
- Who Rules America? (6th ed.)
Great introduction to how to use “the bureaucracy” and Cheney’s utter deviousness.
- Chief of Staff
Best book I’ve found on how positive bills actually get passed.
- So Much Damn Money
- Return of the L Word
- The Way We Live Now
- American Project
- Streetcar Suburbs
- Creating the Second Ghetto
- Strangers in a Strange Land
- Economic Growth and Neighborhood Discontent
- The Federal Bulldozer
- The Life You Can Save
- Justice (Sandel)
- Acme 18
- The World We Have Lost
- Two Memoirs (Keynes)
Bat Boy: The Musical
If you ever get a chance, go see it. It’s the greatest musical ever.
- John Maynard Keynes (Skidelsky)
- Facing Unpleasant Facts
The best introduction to the real issues of globalization and international development.
- Reclaiming Development
- Kicking Away the Ladder
- Democracy and Disobedience
- Infinite Jest
- Elegant Complexity
- Inequality and Industrial Change (4)
- Network Power
- The General Theory of Employment, Money, and Interest
- Created Unequal
- The Roseto Story
- Political Economy of Industrial Policy
- Deception and Abuse at the Fed
- Balancing Acts
- The Global Class War
- Untitled New Deal Manuscript (Domhoff)
- Acme 17
- Secrets of the Temple
- Political Control of the Economy
- Freshman Orientation
- Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process
- The Political Economy of Trust
- The Audacity to Win
- Fantastic Mr. Fox
- Dismantling Utopia
- Rub Three Times
- The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story
- Adventures in Cartooning
- The Composer is Dead
- Keynes: Return of the Master
- Chris Ware (Raeburn)
Poundstone’s really become an amazing writer. While this isn’t as good as Fortune’s Formula it really is quite fun. Poundstone takes a rather novel tack in making the argument for voting system reform. Instead of saying that it will allow for third-parties to get a fair hearing, he argues it will protect the major parties from the insidious effect of spoilers.
Furthermore, instead of IRV, Approval, or even Condorcet voting, he endorses Range Voting as the best voting system, arguing against Condorcet on some weird grounds about determinant ballots that just doesn’t make sense to me (p. 226).
Both of these seem reasonable when Poundstone lays them out, but are totally insane upon further inspection. Voting reform may protect against spoilers in the short-term, but in the long term it’ll likely doom us to some kind of fractured multiparty system. (That’s not to say it’s a bad thing.) And range voting, like its proponents, is totally batshit insane. (He even passes on their ridiculous claims about it being better than democracy with a straight face.)
Let’s think about this for a second. Strategic voting with a range ballot (which even range voting’s proponents say they’ll do) is simply approval voting (plus maybe some meaningless nursery effect — if you want that, just have a nonbinding approval box or something). So for the system to work, it depends on people voting astrategically. But obviously those people’s votes will count less than strategic votes. So range voting’s only advantage over approval voting is that it counts the votes of naive voters less. How is that fair?
I think the Range Voting comparison with Condorcet is rigged; you’ll notice they never provide any explanation for why their supposedly strategic Condorcet behavior is actually strategic. And the only strategic Condorcet behavior Poundstone provides is trying to create a tie to force it into sequential dropping, which seems wildly implausible in a real-life scenario. So it still seems Condorcet outperforms them all.
I really enjoyed this book. It starts with a simple thought experiment: imagine you had a long-lost identical twin who grew up in a conservative home and became a conservative. You, by contrast, grew up in a liberal home and became a liberal. Wouldn’t meeting him make you question your beliefs? And thus, shouldn’t the possibility that you could meet him make you question your beliefs? (I’m not totally convinced by this; my beliefs are much more shaken by converts — people who were strong believers in X but converted to believing in Y.)
From this, Cohen heads to a reminiscence of his own upbringing, which I found especially touching, perhaps because he has the identity I wish I had: a Canadian communist in an antireligious Yiddish-speaking home. In the middle there’s a good bit on Hegel, Marx, and why not to heighten the contradictions, and he concludes by refuting Rawls with the same argument Matt Yglesias used on Kent Conrad: Rawls says that in a just society, everyone would embrace the Difference Principle, but the Difference Principle allows for differences because some people will work harder if they get more, but if those people embrace the principle then why wouldn’t they give their money to the poor and embrace egalitarianism? He ends by addressing the title question and accepting a sort of Yglesian approach to politics: an overriding concern with the structure of political institutions, but also a strong sense of moral demands for people to achieve they best they can within existing structures.
Finally, it got me wondering: a lot of Marx (and, I would add, Keynes) thinks about the future as some sort of society where industrial products give us abundance and economic laws loosen their hold on us. The industrial revolution didn’t do that, but perhaps the post-scarcity technological future might?
And my first book of the new year is Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets, which I’m already loving.
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January 3, 2010