Category Archives: Books

Public Service: Why Nations Fail Crib Notes

By James Kwak

I’m reviewing Why Nations Fail for a print publication, so I’m out of basic courtesy I’m not going to preempt my review here. But if you’re like me and not an expert in the history of every part of the world, sometime around page 250 you probably got confused about where Acemoglu and Robinson discussed the Kingdom of Aksum as opposed to early modern Ethiopia or the Kuba Kingdom as opposed to the Kingdom of Kongo. After a while I created my own crib sheet, which I reproduce here for those who may find it helpful.

1. So Close and Yet So Different: Spanish Conquest, Jamestown, Mexico (19th century)

2. Theories That Don’t Work

3. The Making of Prosperity and Poverty: Korea, Kingdom of Kongo

4. Small Differences and Critical Junctures: The Weight of History: Black Death (14th century), early modern Western Europe

5. “I’ve Seen the Future and It Works”: Growth Under Extractive Institutions: USSR, Kuba Kingdom, Neolithic Revolution, Mayas

6. Drifting Apart: Venice, ancient Rome, Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia)

7. The Turning Point: England (17th-18th centuries)

8. Not on Our Turf: Barriers to Development: Spain, Austria-Hungary and Russia, China, Ethiopia, Somalia

9. Reversing Development: Dutch East Indies, Central Africa

10. The Diffusion of Prosperity: Australia, French Revolution, Japan

11. The Virtuous Circle: Great Britain, United States (Progressive movement and 1930s), Argentina

12. The Vicious Circle: Sierra Leone, Guatemala, American South, Ethiopia

13. Why Nations Fail Today: Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Clombia, Argentina, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Egypt

14. Breaking the Mold: Botswana, American South, China

15. Understanding Prosperity and Poverty: China, Brazil

White House Burning Open Thread

By James Kwak

Now that the book has been available for a week, I imagine at least two or three people have started reading it. This post is for people to discuss the book if they are so inclined.

If you want to hear Simon discussing the book, the book website has a page of links to past media appearances. Several are the five-minute cable news variety, but for in-depth interviews there are Fresh Air and Leonard Lopate, among others.

Why White House Burning Is Wrong, Liberal Edition

By James Kwak

Dean Baker, a leading economic commentator and author of the Beat the Press blog, has written a review of White House Burning for the Huffington Post. Baker manages the admirable feat of being gracious and complimentary while delivering several serious criticisms of the book.

I’ll skip over the nice things he said and get to Baker’s main objections, of which I think there are three. The first is that long-term fiscal sustainability is the wrong problem to be focused on:

 “While the solutions do not especially upset me, I do very much disagree with the diagnosis of the problem. The most immediate issue is that we have a fire at the moment in the form of too little demand leading to too much unemployment. This is wrecking the lives of millions of workers and their families.

“Johnson and Kwak understand this and certainly do not argue for deficit reduction in the short-term, but their focus on a longer-term deficit problem can be distracting from the more urgent problem.”

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What Is This White House Burning?

By James Kwak

Loyal blog readers have surely noticed the new left-hand sidebar of the blog and may be wondering what this “White House Burning” thing is about. I wanted to give you a bit more background than the jacket flap copy you can read elsewhere.

You don’t have to know a lot of American history to know that the War of 1812 began two hundred years ago. Yet I doubt there will be much celebration, since it’s not a war we’re particularly proud of, like World War II, nor is it one that is particularly controversial, like Vietnam. Its most famous moment is perhaps the burning of Washington in August 1814, although it also gave us the phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours” (Commander Perry, Battle of Lake Erie), the words to the national anthem, and the political career of Andrew Jackson, victor at the Battle of New Orleans.

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State of Nature

By James Kwak

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, some of which I’ve mentioned here: The Submerged State by Suzanne Mettler, Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (finally) by David Landes, Exorbitant Privilege by Barry Eichengreen, and a pile of books on the national debt and deficit politics. (Despite moonlighting as a blogger, I find books more satisfying than the constant stream of newspapers, magazines, and blogs.) But my favorite book I’ve read in a while is Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by the historian Richard White.*

For some people, most notably Rick Perry but also much of the conservative base, the late nineteenth century was the golden age: of the gold standard, no income tax, senators elected by state legislatures, and, most importantly, little to no government “regulation” of business. White shows what that world was really like.

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What Government Aid?

By James Kwak

Earlier this year I wrote about a paper by Suzanne Mettler that included a survey showing that a large proportion of beneficiaries of government programs insist that they have never been beneficiaries of any “government social programs”—60 percent for the mortgage interest deduction and 44 percent for Social Security retirement benefits, for example. This provides ample evidence that “keep your government hands off my Medicare” is not a fringe opinion.

Recently, I read Mettler’s book, and there’s more to the story. One of her arguments is that hiding government programs in the tax code undermines the democratic system because it obscures the role that government plays in society. There were two quantitative examples I thought were particularly revealing.

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The Smugness of Unintended Consequences

By James Kwak

After my post on Corey Robin’s new book, a friend recommended Albert O. Hirschman’s Rhetoric of Reaction. As the title suggests, the book is about the rhetorical style of conservative thought dating back to Burke. Hirschman identifies three common tropes: perversity (that great-sounding progressive idea you have will have the opposite of its intended effect), futility (that great-sounding progressive idea won’t change anything, because you don’t understand the fundamental laws of the world), and jeopardy (that great-sounding progressive idea will destroy some other thing that we all agree is valuable, making everyone worse off in the end). Hirschman doesn’t dwell on this specific point, but it’s obvious that, similar to the argument Robin makes, these rhetorical devices can only exist in opposition to some progressive reform movement.

I thought the description of the contemporary form of the perversity thesis (e.g., welfare programs create poverty) was especially good. “Here the failure of foresight of ordinary human actors is well-nigh total as their actions are shown to produce precisely the opposite of what was intended; the social scientists analyzing the perverse effect, on the other hand, experience a great feeling of superiority—and revel in it” (Belknap Press, 1991, p. 36). This seems to me an accurate description of why the Economics 101 ideology is so powerful. People get a sense of superiority from owning counter-intuitive theoretical insights—even if those insights are wrong.

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