Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail, The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. ©2012 The authors start in Nogales. North of the border there is an array of public services and general prosperity. South of the border it’s just the opposite. The question is why? When we look at the world we are tempted by all sorts of cultural hypotheses to explain why some regions are prosperous and others are not. Africans are lazy; South Americans have a mañana culture; the Chinese are still all tied up in Confucianism perhaps reinforced by the legacy of Maoism. Then there’s Jared Diamond, who proposes a geographical and climactic explanation for differences in development. And there are the economists who always get it wrong, because they assume political problems have been solved and look only at the economic side. The authors propose a different idea. In general, they say, political and economic institutions can be divided into “inclusive” and “extractive.” The meaning of inclusive is clear for both political and economic institutions. A very large percentage of a population participates in the political process and on the economic side there are no great inequities in the distribution of wealth. What extractive means on the political side is that few individuals have all the power and can direct all benefits to themselves. This means, of course, that on the economic side, the people with the political power can arrange to extract the bulk of the benefits from the economy for themselves. This leaves much of the population to languish near subsistence level as the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful. Then the authors race through history and all over the world to make the case that when both political and economic institutions are inclusive, countries experience sustained growth. When institutions on either the political side or the economic side are not inclusive, growth falters -- China right now is one of their examples. Their favorite case study seems to be the England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, which led to inclusive political and economic institutions and sustained growth from then until now. In another chapter they explain why Venice became a museum. It was a great economic power until it changed the rules for membership in its Great Council in 1297 to say that once a man was appointed he could stay there. By 1315 Venice had developed a hereditary aristocracy, which then changed the rules governing trade to favor themselves, i.e., the economy shifted from inclusive to extractive. The most surprising success story in the book is Botswana. They had neither gold nor diamonds so the colonial powers more or less ignored them. Their traditional society had always been inclusive on the political side, and in the absence of outside interference they were able to maintain that as they developed a modern and inclusive economy. It all came as a surprise to me, but apparently Botswana is doing just fine. The scope of the book is incredible, and in the end their thesis that both political and economic institutions must be inclusive seems obvious. I’m not happy with my effort to summarize the authors’ ideas, so all I can do is recommend the book. As a final note I can say that all through the book I was thinking of the Koch brothers, the Supremes’ decision that money is speech, our do nothing Congress, and the bottom line mentality of Wall Street. April 2014
Jon Meacham. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power. ©2012 This is an excellent biography. Meacham is very thorough in covering both Jefferson’s private life and his public life. The whole history is well known and there is no point in my trying to cover it here, but there were several points in the book that particularly interested me. Apparently there are no longer any doubts about Jefferson being the father of Sally Hemings’s children, but we may never know how they related to each other. In 1775 Jefferson had to deal with the threat of Lord Dunsmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, to destroy the plantations and free all the slaves to fight for the Brits. Already in 1774 Benjamin Rush and other politicos had advised John Adams to let Virginia take the lead and this seems to be the reason Adams insisted Jefferson draft the “Declaration of Independence.” Jefferson had lots of excellent editors for his work. It was Franklyn who supplied the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” In 1789 Jefferson advised Lafayette on the wording of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” For some time, Merriweather Lewis lived in the White House with Jefferson. Perhaps Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase. Although he had never been west, he seems to have had a vision of the United States stretching coast to coast. Jefferson and John Quincy Adams worked on development of the Monroe Doctrine. April 2014
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers. Zoobiquity, What Animals Can Teach Us About Health And The Science of Healing. ©2012 I only read a couple of chapters, but this was enough to get the idea that scientists are finding correlations between animal and human diseases that may lead to advances in treatment possibilities for both. April 2014
Note: I am about halfway through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, and I can say that it is the best work of history I have ever read. The book is long, but I wish it could go on indefinitely. Perhaps my main conclusion when I do finish will be that what this country needs are S.S. McClure and his magazine and Ida Tarbell and her journalist colleagues.