Saturday, 27 May 2017

Good books - May 2017

Leading off with economics, George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen's The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream (with its dedication "To the rebel in each of us") argues that America has become more static and less risk-taking, pointing  for example (on p177) to "lower residential mobility, less building in America's most productive cities, more segregation by income and status, a much greater concern with safety and risk, the coddling of our children, and fewer start-ups and slower growth in living standards, among others", including a reduced willingness and increased inability to undertake grand projects like those of the past (a moon landing, the interstate highway system). He also reckons the current zeitgeist of complacency will have nasty geopolitical results - along Minsky lines, a long period of stability encourages increasing risk-taking, culminating in the GFC in the economic sphere and who knows what in international politics.

I'm not sure what I think about his ideas, though if he's right people should be deeply concerned, in particular, about higher economic and social immobility: for us economic liberals (why, yes I am) high equality of opportunity is one of the bedrocks of a fair - and efficient - society. Could we be going the same way in New Zealand? It's possible: you look at deeply regressive ideas like ever more prevalent, and tighter, school zoning in Auckland, for example, or our inability to progress infrastructure build-out to any defensible timeframe, and you can see aspects of the same issues. In any event, it's very well written and well worth a read.

Not every economist, to put it mildly, writes so well. If you want to improve your own writing style (and want to understand why you should), or you're teaching economics students, who may get little (and possibly no) formal in-faculty communications training, try Deirdre McCloskey's Economical Writing. It's short (only 98 pages including the index), geared to economics examples, spot on in its advice, and (if you've got cash-strapped students), cheap. My copy arrived from The Book Depository for $27.24, delivery included.

In politics, the definitive account to date of the Brexit campaign is Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman's All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class. It's a big book, and there's a cast of thousands at the beginning to get your head around, but stick with it. It's enormously well informed, and persuasive. One thing I learned is that David Cameron didn't fight the Remain side as hard as he might have, because (a) he thought he was going to win anyway and (b) he was thinking strategically about the embittered and disunited Conservative party he'd have to manage later if everyone had earlier put the boot in hard. Another was that I'd been inclined to blame the European Union for their short-sighted churlishness in not giving Cameron a renegotiation 'win' to wave in front of the UK voters. They're not blameless, but as it happens Cameron never asked for as much as he might have. And finally Cameron himself comes as a decent human being - one of the very few to keep their cool through the dramas of the campaign, even on election night as the shock vote came through - which is more than can be said for practically everyone else involved.

Which leads me to now freelance journalist (and previously with the Daily Mirror and Daily Telegraph) Rosa Prince and her Comrade Corbyn A Very Unlikely Coup: How Jeremy Corbyn stormed to the Labour leadership. Talk about unintended consequences: a Labour electoral system specifically designed to produce a short list of candidates acceptable to the parliamentary Labour party, before going to the wider electorate of unions and members, was subverted to produce the exact opposite. Oddly, at one level, I came away with a somewhat better opinion of Corbyn himself: he's loyal, honest, a hardworking and locally respected constituency MP, and (for the most part) straight up about what he believes in, unlike the trimmers and hedgers he faced in the run-off for leader. But a lot of what he believes in is either misguided or obnoxious: in particular, he strongly believes in "my enemy's enemy is my friend", leading to his support for the likes of the IRA and Hamas.

He's also got one asset that none of the other contenders had, and none of his plausible future rivals have, either: he's paid his dues over decades and decades. No demo was too small, no fund-raiser too insignificant, no campaign too tiny: he turned up for all of them. He's consequently built a devoted, well left of centre, activist supporter base that eats out of his hand, and which got a further big boost from the "three pound vote" feature of the leadership election. My guess is that there's little chance he'll resign if (as seems likely) he loses next month's general election: why would he? His 'Momentum' group has finally succeeded in grabbing control of Labour, where earlier 'entryist' conspiracies had failed. They won't be going away.

We were tweeting each other about something else, and Westpac's acting chief economist Michael Gordon reminded me that I'd never got round to reading Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger. It does what it says on the tin: it's a devastatingly hard-hitting, and accurate, critique. It perhaps underplays the role of joining the euro, which for already red-hot Ireland meant getting the monetary policy of slow growing Germany (and which helped do for Greece for similar reasons), but is otherwise bang on the mark.

My father used to tell the story of how one Irish MP would find out when constituents were due to receive the old age pension, and would write to them saying, "I've been in touch with the Department, and I'm pleased to be able to tell you that as a result of my inquiry you will get a pension of...". Shabby stuff - but the really shabby thing is that constituents expected MPs to deliver goodies by using 'influence' within the system. In one example in Ship of Fools, a building developer got a biddable politician to change the postal district of his development, so it would be reclassified into a more upmarket area. There are very good reasons for keeping MPs away from micromanagement of personal cases.

In fiction, we've sadly reached the end of the road for Peter Corris's epic Hardy series of Australian private eye stories, with the 42nd and last, Win, Lose or Draw, where Hardy is on the very cold trail of the abducted daughter of a wealthy businessman: she may or may not have been sighted, in very bad company, in Norfolk Island. Corris is flagging it away, after diabetes induced blindness has got too much for him. It's a real shame: the series is one of the classics of the private eye genre.

Joseph Knox's Sirens is a debut novel about police detective Aidan Waits in Manchester, who is called in to help rescue the runaway daughter of an important politician and goes undercover in her drug-running circle. She eventually dies from adulterated heroin as do seven middle class kids at a party (they turn blue). There's vivid detail about drug use and gang wars: one minder is force fed black and white paint, for reasons I'll leave you to discover for yourself. It's a complex plot, maybe almost over complex at the start, but otherwise it's very well written.

Another debut is L S Hilton's Maestra, where a  low on the totem pole woman at a posh art auction house rumbles a crooked art deal, gets fired, but ends up getting her revenge: it  involves a sting on Mafia art dealers (plus a lot else). Violent, with remarkably explicit sex from a female point of view: it ends 'To be continued'. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

Finally I broke one of my own best rules - don't read private eye books where the private eye has a silly name - but I'm glad I did. George Galbraith, aka J K Rowling, is now up to three in her series about ex-military London private eye Cormoran Strike. Galbraith/Rowling is excellent at characterisation and tension-building: I loved the first, The Cuckoo's Calling; was okay with the second, The Silkworm (which may have elements of a roman à clef in the publishing world), though my wife thinks it's just as good as the first one, so what do I know; but in any event Rowling is back on song in the latest, Career of Evil. I gather there's a fourth on the way. Recommended.

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