On Inequality

k10536Harry G. Frankfurt
2015

On Inequality is a curious book. For one thing, it’s based on material previously published. That’s not unusual in itself, but in this case the earlier work dates from 1987 and 1997. It’s not often that a new book in the social sciences, never mind the hard sciences, relies so comfortably on such ancient sources.

Frankfurt’s book appears to have been prompted primarily by the unexpected popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which makes an argument against income inequality with which Frankfurt strenuously — and repetitively — disagrees.

I’m not unsympathetic with Frankfurt’s quite narrow central thesis: “From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” You don’t have to distribute ten jackets equally among eight people to give everyone a jacket. Point made.

Seems obvious enough, yet Frankfurt spends all of his short book making and remaking this simple point. Weren’t the original journal articles sufficient? Why go to this trouble now, unless to attempt to remedy the lack of attention paid to the point then by cashing in on the current interest piqued by Piketty?

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Shameless is as shameless does

Good news, Canadians! Our federal government, better known as “The Harper Government,” has sent you some of your own money!

We know that it’s “The Harper Government” (THG) because the federal Employment Minister made the announcement in a snappy, blue Conservative Party of Canada tee shirt. I hear that this shirt will replace the Maple Leaf as Canada’s official symbol if the Conservatives win again in October.

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Wages of Rebellion

Wages of RebellionWages of Rebellion may be Chris Hedges’ best book.

I’ve read a lot of Hedges, too often with mixed feelings. I’ve always liked his politics, but I’ve been put off by his left-evangelical tone. He can be pretty shrill, which lessens his power to convince.

In this book, in a remarkable mixing of scholarship and observation, Hedges submerges much of the personal pain so evident in books like The World As It Is.

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Thieves of State

thieves-of-state-coverSarah Chayes
December 29, 2014

Sarah Chayes knows Afghanistan.

Her work there as an NPR journalist, an adviser to American government and military leaders striving to “liberate” and “democratize” the country, and as an NGO activist has been profoundly informed by her deep knowledge of the historical “rules” for princes written by sources as diverse as Machiavelli and the medieval Islamic scholar Nizam al-Mulk.

Her conclusion, consistent with the advice of these classic books, is that no state is secure if its people are oppressed by corrupt leaders and local officials.

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The New Prophets of Capital

cover57380-mediumNicole Aschoff
Verso Books
2015

We live in a capitalist and free market world, and many of us struggle to keep our heads above the globalization waters. So when some-one, especially someone wildly successful, comes along to tell us how to stop clinging to the wreckage and swim safely to shore, we listen. After all, they made it, and now they’re telling us how to do it.

There’s just one problem. All of the solutions uncritically assume that the current economic and political system is a given: if not inevitable, it’s not going to change anytime soon. And that assumption condemns most of us to an unequal and inequitable existence. In a free-for-all market system of course there will be winners, but they always will be vastly outnumbered by the losers and the left behind.

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Fighting Over the Founders

cover53134-mediumAndrew M. Schocket
January 2015

In Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket examines how much of contemporary American political discourse is expressed through the two fundamentally different ways that Americans portray the American Revolution.

Schocket writes that “anything written or spoken about the American Revolution inherently holds political and cultural implications.” This divide hinges on the answers one gives to two fundamental questions:

Is the United States a nation in decline from a golden past, a founding moment of perfection that we can only strive to emulate but are fated to miss the mark? Or did the flawed founders set a standard that they failed but that we are continuing to struggle to approach?

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Pay Any Price

James Risen
James Risen

2014

Pay Any Price, the title of James Risen’s new book documenting the excesses of the security state that the U.S. has become, has a number of significances, from the ironic to the outrageous.

The irony comes from the title’s origin. JFK’s inaugural address in 1961 is best known for his “ask not” challenge to America, but the speech also contained this passage: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

In Pay Any Price, Risen shows with disheartening detail that much of the price of securing the U.S. against the enemies who brought down the “twin towers” and ended the nation’s illusions of invulnerability has been “the survival and success of liberty.” In the years since 9/11, the U.S. has become a country where security trumps liberty.

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Fields of Blood

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Karen Armstrong
2014

What is religion? Has it been the same thing in all times and all cultures? Can we of today understand, much less appreciate, how premodern peoples lived in a world that merged the real and the spiritual?

And even if we can all answer these questions cogently, can we also say with legitimacy that religion is the cause of group violence, from the pursuit of heretics to the waging of war?

Former nun Karen Armstrong tackles these issues in a book that argues, simply, that we can’t blame violence on religion. Her core thesis is that while religious doctrines and motivations are associated with much mayhem, there is no fundamental, causal relationship between religion and violence. Not all religions are violent. Not all violence is religious. Not even all religious violence is religious — it just appears that way.

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The New Censorship

cover51555-smallJoel Simon
November 2014

In 1787,  the new U. S. Constitution was immediately amended, thanks to anti-federalist opposition to the creation of a too-powerful national state. The very first of these amendments guaranteed — along with freedom of speech, assembly, and religion — freedom of the press.

Press freedom was central to the informed oligarchy that the racially and economically privileged framers were actually trying to institute. And it’s even more important to the creation and maintenance of a true democracy. As Jefferson observed, only a well-informed citizenry can be trusted with its own government.

(I struggled to resist the temptation to make reference at this point to the results of the U.S. midterm elections, which can be understood by the rational mind only as a failure to heed Jefferson’s prescription. As you can see, I couldn’t resist.)

The New Censorship: Inside the Battle for Media Freedom centres its richly-detailed depiction of the state of world journalism on a belief in the need for a free press, and the report card it presents on the vitality, and the viability, of press freedom is not encouraging.

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Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution

downloadPeter Ackroyd
2014

This, the third volume in Ackroyd’s planned six-book history of England, is the first of the series that I have read. Why read an amateur historian’s version of the already well-documented events of the English 17th century? The main reason was that I had enjoyed Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2000) so much.

London was a rare work — almost 800 pages, and each one of them engrossing. Ackroyd told the story of England’s great city through the writings and historical records of the times, accomplishing a portrait both vast and intimate. It remains one of my favourite works of history.

I wish that I could praise the present book so unequivocally.

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