Monday, October 30, 2006

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The good, the bad, and the ugly books I have read recently

Longtime readers of have made their displeasure known to me about my lack of monthly book recommendations. When we last left off, I had posted my summer book recommendations -- and let's face it, we're pretty much past indian summer as well as the real thing. For this, I offer my profuse apologies and no good explanation, beyond the fact that I've been traveling a lot.

However, sitting around in airports waiting for planes has allowed me to read a fair number of books in recent weeks. So, without further ado, here are the good, the bad, and the ugly books I have read over the past six weeks:


1) The Elephant In The Room, by Ryan Sager. A dissection of the growing regional and intellectual fissures within the GOP. If Ryan is lucky, his book will be to the 2006 election what Tom Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? was to the 2004 election.

2) America Against The World, by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes. Polling guru Andrew Kohut and National Journal columnist Bruce Stokes compare and contrast American attitudes with those of twenty other countries that are polled in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Their book is not only about questions of foreign policy – they want to know if Americans hold views on God and man that put them out of step with the rest of the world. The most intersting findings are the issues in which it is Europe, rather than the United States, that holds truly distinctive beliefs.

3) The Foreign Policy Disconnect, by Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton. A great companion piece to the Kohut and Stokes book, this one examines the gaps between the foreign policy beliefs of ordinary Americans and those of its policymaking elites. Compared to America Against The World, this book is both more scholarly and more ideological -- tucked inside one of this book's footnotes is an almost random suggestion for a "worldwide workers movement" as a way to close the foreign policy disconnect.

4) Blessed Among Nations, by Eric Rauchway. If Open University has done nothing else, it encouraged me to read this great short book by my co-blogger about how the United States was influenced by the globalization of the 19th century -- most obviously, it sustained the maket-friendly approach to economic policymaking. The empirical chapters are fascinating, and marred only by a truly bizarre conclusion where Rauchway bemoans the Federal Reserve's failure to keep around a World War One committee that had to approve major bank loans to the private sector!!

5) What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts? by Michael Bérubé. I'll have more to say about this book in the near future, but for now I'd just say that what's good about this book is Bérubé’s attempt to explain the actual craft of teaching American literature. The book shows that university teaching is a profession, with a set of rules, norms and practices that are not connected to one political ideology or another. Even if the academy is overwhelmingly populated by liberals, the professional norms evinced by Bérubé serve as the most important bulwark against political corruption.


1) Making Globalization Work, by Joseph Stiglitz. Think of nice thing to say, think of nice thing to say.... OK, this book is a marked improvement over Globalization and Its Discontents. It offers a much fuller articulation of how Stiglitz would like to see the global economy organized. The only problems are that there's very little treatment of the economic objections to his advice, and that the set of proposed recommendations creates so many political contradictions that the whole thing is a nonstarter. Beyond that, this book confirms the best short assessment of Stiglitz I've read, which comes on p. 193 of Sebastian Mallaby's The World's Banker:

Stiglitz had helped to create a branch of economics that explained the failure of standard market assumptions; he was like a boy who discovers a hole in the floor of an exquisite house and keeps shouting and pointing at it. Never mind that the rest of the house is beautiful--that in nine out of ten cases, the laws of suply and demand do work; Stiglitz had found a hole, a real hole, and he had built his career on it. Naturally, this had consequences for the way he viewed the world.
Making Globalization Work does a great job of explaining how to fix the hole, but doesn't ever address the question of whether fixing that hole would collapse the rest of the house.

2) Public Intellectuals: An Endangered Species?, Amitai Etzioni, ed. A cut-and-paste job of essays -- many of which are badly dated -- about public intellectuals going the way of the allosaurus.


1) Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This is a great book, but I felt dirty reading it. The idea of highlighting Lincoln's greatness by examining how he treated both his political rivals (William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Edward Bates) and his generals (McClellan, Grant, Meade) is ingenious. Goodwin suggests that two sources of Lincoln's greatness: his ego, which allowed him to tolerate with grace the machinations of his cabinet, and his political acumen, which allowed him to move on the slavery issue in such a way that he led the country without overreaching and antagonizing public opinion in the Union. This latter, populist skill is usually looked at askance in political commentary, so it was facinating to see a great man use it to good purposes.

And yet, after Goodwin's plagiarism scandals, I can't say I felt good after reading this book. There was always a part of me that was detached during my read, wondering who had written the page I was reading -- Goodwin, her RAs, or someone else entirely. Perhaps this book is a good example of Richard Posner's argument that plagiarism is an overrated sin. As a member of the academic guild, however, I fear I will never be able to embrace Posner's argument completely.

That should tide you all over for the month.

posted by Dan on 10.30.06 at 08:40 AM


Do you really think Sager wants to see his book to be thought of like Frank's? I tend to see Sager's book as possibly prescient and a good warning.

I see Frank's book as "why can't these stupid people think like me?" I could be wrong, but I am not aware of any major predictions that Frank has made.

posted by: Klug on 10.30.06 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

The smackdown of Stiglitz that you quote from Mallaby is really priceless. I love it!

Your comment about the Goodwin book is very intriguing to me as a non-academic. Having read the Posner comment you linked, I think it's fair to draw a clear distinction between using RAs to develop content (and not attributing the content to them) and using someone else's ideas and content without their consent. In the first case, nobody is really being shortchanged - the RAs presumably consent to having their work used in this fashion - and the ideas in the book can rise and fall on their own merits.

I can't be as detached in the case of nonconsensual idea / content usage for the same reason that I wouldn't be impressed with a philanthropist who gives away money that he steals for a good cause - the content isn't the author's to distribute, even if the content is excellent.

I wonder if my perspective is different because I am in management in the consulting industry where it's pretty much common practice to have relatively nameless people developing content that we deliver to clients. This feels a lot like the RA writing approach - senior people shape [and deliver] the content which is produced by junior people. This is pretty much the way of the world in business and while academics may be naturally uncomfortable with it, it doesn't seem too bad to me.

posted by: Howard on 10.30.06 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

...this great short book by my co-blogger...

You have a co-blogger?

posted by: rosignol on 10.30.06 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

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