Saturday, September 22, 2012

Serious Reading for Serious Times

Earlier this month I recommended some good “beach reads,” engrossing literary fiction that kept me entertained from cover to cover.  But my reading this summer also had its serious side.  Here are a few recent titles that led from one to the next.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism
by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
Political scientists Mann and Ornstein are an unusual team: Mann is with the (liberal) Brookings Institution, Ornstein the (conservative) American Enterprise Institute.  Known for their even-handed analysis of the workings of the United States Congress (or not-workings - they co-authored the The Broken Branch in 2005), they are now dismayed enough at the increasing inability of Congress to govern that they have abandoned any pretence of what they call “false equivalence” and put the blame squarely in the lap of the Republican party, which they claim has adopted the parliamentary practice of obstructionism.  Unfortunately, parliamentary -style politics don’t work in a government defined by its separation of powers, as was evident in last fall’s debt-ceiling crisis.  Mann and Ornstein trace the development of this paralyzing partisanship, explain how its practitioners obstruct legislation by exploiting arcane rules, and prescribe changes to expand the electorate and return to a functional system of government.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt
Haidt, who was a professor of moral psychology at University of Virginia until his recent move to New York University, explores the evolutionary roots of our moral judgements. Our moral values, Haidt says, arise from practices and institutions that ensured the survival of the group, and they revolve around six fundamental ideas: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Our political beliefs stem from these as well, and are stubbornly resistant to rational discussion because of their deeply ingrained nature.  Understanding the subconscious basis of moral and political values, Haidt suggests, might enable us to overcome our instincts and find common ground. Haidt and fellow social psychologists have a website,, where they collect data for their ongoing research. What is your “morality profile”?  

The Social Conquest of Earth
by E. O. WIlson
If the idea of moral instincts evolving to ensure group survival intrigues you, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson’s new book explains the controversial theory of group selection.  Wilson, with Bert Holldobler, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for The Ants, in which which they described the social organization of that most successful collection of species, which, along with termites, bees and wasps, account for almost half of the earth’s biomass. Eusociality, in which some members of a group sacrifice themselves or their reproductive capacity for the good of the greater group, is rare. In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson argues that it is man’s advanced eusociality that has resulted in our rapid dominance of the planet (a fact that he is somewhat rueful about.)  Groups, not just individuals, compete with one another for survival; groups with altruistic members who cooperate outperform groups made up of selfish individualists. Many scientists dispute this theory of how altruism and other group behavior evolved, but Wilson’s plausible explanation for our “groupiness” seems particularly compelling in these partisan times.

The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It
by Timothy Noah
Following the Great Depression, the income of the middle three quintiles of the population steadily rose as the “middle class” reaped the benefits of a burgeoning peacetime economy, improved educational opportunity, and a progressive tax structure. In 1979, when the middle 60%’s share of the nation’s income peaked at 48.5%, that trend (dubbed the “Great Compression” by historians) reversed.  By 2007, those three quintiles earned only 37.5%; those in the top 1% had seen their share double; and those in the top .01% had quadrupled their share. (The trend has been even worse since the recession of 2008-2009.) What happened? Noah looks in turn at what he sees as the principal influences: technological change, the failure of American education to keep pace with those changes, immigration, globalization, the decline of labor, and government policies and regulations that favor the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor. Charts and statistics abound, presented clearly and convincingly: although the increasing gap between our nation’s rich and everyone else cannot be explained by a single cause, it is real and getting worse, here and in the rest of the developed world.  Noah dedicates a few chapters to how this is harmful to society and makes some suggestions as to how it can be remedied, but the book’s strength is its clear and readable presentation of current economic research and analysis to explain how we got here.

The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future
by Joseph Stiglitz
Joseph Stiglitz won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work demonstrating the effect of asymmetric information on markets. It seems fitting that his passionate new book is about the effect of asymmetric economic and political power on society. Thomas Edsall, professor of journalism at Columbia University and New York TImes columnist, calls this book “the single most comprehensive counter­argument to both Democratic neoliberalism and Republican laissez-faire theories.”  Stiglitz acknowledges the global market influences cited by Noah, but claims that they could be mitigated if it were not for the political power wielded by the wealthy, who have used it to enact favorable tax policy, restrict competition, and undermine regulation, while all the while extolling the virtues of a “free market” economy.  Stiglitz also eloquently describes how the resulting inequality is not only morally wrong, but is inefficient and wasteful as well, stifling growth and creating dangerous volatility. Although he outlines a lengthy laundry list of necessary changes, he suggests that it is perhaps too late for America to exert the political will to make them. Let's hope not. Vote.

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