May. 24th, 2011

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6) Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

First in what should be a spurt to get me to 10. I've been slowly making progress in three big books over the past month and am within 50 pages of the end in all three.

Lords of Finance won the Pulitzer Prize last year and it deserved it. In terms of critical evaluation, I really needn't say much more than that. It's an analysis of the events leading up to the Great Depression and the fall of the gold standard from a macroeconomic point of view, focusing on the central bank officials in Europe and America whom Ahamed maintains had the power to have prevented the Depression if they'd had a better understanding of their situation.

The descriptions of the bankers are personal and intimate. Ahamed seeks to understanding not merely their decisions but what drove them to make those decisions. The descriptions of financial maneuevers are clear, simple, and do not require a Ph.D in economics to follow. Ahamed takes massive, complicated financial systems and expresses them in terms that make sense. While I'm always going to be mistrustful of this process, I felt much less mistrustful than I usually do with popularizations of complicated mathematical ideas. By leaving the mathematics entirely out and focusing on the processes, Ahamed was able to explain what happened without showing his work, and his clarity and precision served as adequate substitute for the actual equations.

Needless to say, the book was so acclaimed because it professes to teach lessons about our present economic difficulties. There are unquestionable parallels, and Bernanke and the European Central bankers have carefully studied the history of the Great Depression in order to learn how to approach this crisis. If I had a criticism about the book, though, it's that in the epilogue where Ahamed tries to draw these parallels, he avoids specifics and does not probe as deeply into the issues as the rest of the book does.

The book is also avowedly Keynesian and does not give much time to rival economic theories. Not necessarily a bad thing, just a bias to take into account. But I loved his affectionate portrayals of Keynes, Norman, Strong, Moreau, Schacht, and the rest of his characters. If anybody knows Keynes RPF, it would satisfy an itch.

tags: a: ahamed liaquat, economics, nonfiction
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A fascinating, easily readable history of cancer, how people conceived of it, how they tried to cure it, and how all that changed society and science. Mukherjee is an oncologist, and salts the text with anecdotes about his own patients. (Those were great and I would have liked more of them.)

If you like pop science at all, this is a great example of it: educational, clearly written, both explaining things you always wondered about (why is there so much cancer nowadays?) and delving into issues it never occurred to you wonder about (how did we get from a time when the New York Times refused to print the words “breast” and “cancer” to marathons for a cure?) Mukherjee takes us from bone tumors found in ancient mummies, to the Persian queen Atossa who had a slave perform a mastectomy on her, to the genesis of “wars on diseases” and campaigning for funds and cures, to the beginnings of chemotherapy, to cutting edge genetic research. He brings all the personalities of the scientists, the politicians, the patients, and the (evil! evil!) tobacco company executives to vivid life.

I probably don’t need to mention that this book can be gross, upsetting, and disturbing, given the subject matter. (The section on radical mastectomies was especially nightmarish.) But if you can either deal with that or skim a bit, I highly recommend this.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
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2.30 Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006)

I've been doing a lot of reading about Hurricane Katrina recently. I was inspired by the second Spike Lee documentary to revisit this issue - because it was a genuine puzzle to me. I could not believe that the response to a disaster could be so incompetent in the first world.

I made a donation to the American Red Cross and as I did so I remember being astounded that I was sending disaster relief to the richest and most powerful country in the world because they just could not get their act together to help their own citizens.

So I've read several books and they list a whole lot of factors. The National Guard was depleted because of Iraq; Bush was focussed on terrorism and had subsumed FEMA into the Homeland Security Department; FEMA was headed by an incompetent who reported to a moron; the White House had poor relations with Louisiana because it was held by a Democrat; Mayor Nagin didn't use his buses before the storm and after it they were flooded; FEMA kept telling active lies about sending buses so no one else organised any; FEMA would not let people in to help. But the elephant in the room is, of course, why these factors were allowed to sway the relief efforts.

Apparently FEMA had very competently organised relief the year before in Florida (in an area where there were Republican voters to woo). But the entire rescue effort in New Orleans was stunningly bad, bad beyond belief.

Dyson just goes all out and says yes, this difference is because the people who were stuck in New Orleans were, largely, poor and black. Some of his information is just astonishing - such as the fact that people leaving the fancy hotels were allowed to jump the queue for the buses. That is to say, people wealthy enough to stay at nice hotels, people who had gone through the hurricane without wading through fetid storm water and who had had access to food and water for the days of waiting for help, those are the folks who were put at the head of the queue to get the buses out of town.

It is a relief to find someone willing to put an overarching narrative together rather than getting bogged in the details of when Heckofajob Brownie sent this email or that, and how many New Orleans school buses were working. His overarching story is that people got treated badly because they were mostly poor and mostly black.

That's certainly how it appeared to my outsider's eyes. Though, again from my uninformed outsider's perspective, the American belief in limited Government seemed to make things work. The evacuation order given for New Orleans basically said ' Get out if you can; if you can't abandon all hope because we're doing bugger all for you'.

Dyson quotes the head of the 9/11 fund who said that a similar fund need not be set up for those displaced by Katrina. The interviewer asked if 'the underlying philosophy here.. [is] that I'm responsible for my own life and if something bad happens, too bad.' He affirmed his - 'It's the United States after all. Our heritage is limited government. The government is not a guarantor of life's misfortunes.'

I guess I find this concept of citizenship odd. I imagine the State's role is to protect its citizens but this isn't an argument that Dyson spends a lot of time on. (I guess this is a fish doesn't see the water thing, where Dyson also accepts this heritage of hands off Government and rugged individualism.)

In short, this is the least factually informative of the books I've read on Hurricane Katrina, but it is the most emotionally satisfying as it does argue an overall story rather than a collection of snippets about what happened.
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2.29 Larissa Behrendt, Home: A Novel (2004)

Here's another from Anita Heiss' list of her top 100 (or rather 99) Indigenous books -

I really really liked this novel. It begins in 1995 with a young, Indigenous lawyer visiting the lands from which her grandmother was taken. It then flashes back in time to 1918 when she was taken as part of the Stolen Generation and has different chapters on the lives of her descendants.

Not only is it an interesting conceit but it is very well written. There's a great line about her relationship with her white, French boyfriend - there is 'nothing between us but skin'.

It's the winner of the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous writers.


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