Books

Karl Polanyi Explains It All

Tim Bower
I n November 1933, less than a year after Hitler assumed power in Berlin, a 47-year-old socialist writer on Vienna’s leading economics weekly was advised by his publisher that it was too risky to keep him on the staff. It would be best both for the Österreichische Volkswirt and his own safety if Karl Polanyi left the magazine. Thus began a circuitous odyssey via London, Oxford, and Bennington, Vermont, that led to the publication in 1944 of what many consider the 20th century’s most prophetic work of political economy, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time . Polanyi, with no academic base, was already a blend of journalist and public intellectual, a major critic of the Austrian School of free-market economics and its cultish leaders, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Polanyi and Hayek would cross swords for four decades—Hayek becoming more influential as an icon of the free-market right but history increasingly vindicating Polanyi. Reluctantly,...

How John Paul Stevens Would Amend the Constitution

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
What made John Paul Stevens's contributions in his 35 years on the Supreme Court so invaluable was not just the votes he cast but his fiercely intelligent idiosyncrasies. On issues ranging from the fundamental incoherence of trying to use different categories of scrutiny to apply the equal protection clause to the Establishment Clause, to problems presented by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to racial discrimination in the War on Drugs, Stevens carved out unique positions that have generally aged much better than the alternatives. So it's gratifying that Stevens has not retired in silence, instead providing valuable commentary on constitutional controversies including the right to vote and the American criminal justice system . Stevens's new book , Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution , represents another valuable and accessible contribution to the country's constitutional discourse. The premise of the book is accurately captured by the title, which...

Why Reading Globally Matters

The case for breaking our parochial American reading habits.

AP Images/Anthony Devlin
When it was announced in March that Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo had won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for her mesmerizing debut novel We Need New Names , it wasn’t difficult to share in her victory. Honors such as these further prove that literature from all parts of the world merits our collective attention. Bulawayo, who writes in English, shows the beaming promise of a young Junot Diaz. With a style all her own—one steeped in wit and striking imagination—she movingly details the complexities of the immigrant experience. Not only is Bulawayo talented, she is also necessary. Discovering her and her work, whether we know it or not, is necessary. Although I’d read a ton of poetry—from Frost to Dickinson and Whitman—I’ll submit I wasn’t all that bookish a teen. Not until the summer after my senior year of high school, in fact, did I realize my reading habits were a bit too insular, lacked variation. This needed to be remedied. So I sought out some familiar titles, made a...

Francois Mitterrand, the Man with a Plan

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I f you can imagine Richard Nixon without his pathological unease—that is, a Nixon who was all dispassionate sang-froid and opportunistic mastery, the way he so desperately wanted to be seen—then you have a fair picture of Francois Mitterrand. I don't recall that the parallels between these two near contemporaries got much attention from the U.S. commentariat during their lifetimes, partly because we're not in the habit of comparing our own chief executives—however benighted—to foreign ones. But for American readers of Philip Short's A Taste For Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand (Henry Holt, $40), the doppelganger effect of Mitterrand's setbacks, gambles, pragmatic self-reinventions and survivalist ploys is a bit eerie. His 14 sphinxlike years as president of France (1981-1995) outdid any French ruler since Napoleon III in longevity. Despite its somewhat trashy title, Short's richly detailed, never dull bio is a spellbinder for anyone interested in 20th-century...

Piketty's Triumph

Three expert takes on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty's data-driven magnum opus on inequality.

Courtesy of Fondation Jean Jaurès
In the 1990s, two young French economists then affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, began the first rigorous effort to gather facts on income inequality in developed countries going back decades. In the wake of the 2007 financial crash, fundamental questions about the economy that had long been ignored again garnered attention. Piketty and Saez’s research stood ready with data showing that elites in developed countries had, in recent years, grown far wealthier relative to the general population than most economists had suspected. By the past decade, according to Piketty and Saez, inequality had returned to levels nearing those of the early 20th century. Last fall, Piketty published his magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century , in France. The book seeks to model the history, recent trends, and back-to-the-19th-century future of capitalism. The American Prospect asked experts and scholars in the field of inequality to...

The Decline of Conservative Publishing

Available for pre-order now!
As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let's just say "modest" and leave it at that, I've always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You'd go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention. It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray,...

No Exit: The Digital Edition

AP Images/Weng Lei
AP Images/Weng Lei P rivacy advocates say we should care about privacy because its erosion threatens liberty. "A human being who lives in a world in which he thinks he is always being watched is a human being who makes choices not as a free individual but as someone who is trying to conform to what is expected and demanded of them," Glenn Greenwald said in an interview. His statement echoes staunch privacy defenders of yore, like Justice Louis Brandeis, who described privacy as “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” The public outrage that followed revelations about mass surveillance of citizens by the National Security Agency suggests many Americans agree. But appealing only to the ethical justifications for privacy won’t be enough to spur the rescue of this right. For one, it’s not clear how the visceral want for privacy translates into actual rules and policies in the digital age, especially when surrendering personal data just seems like its...

The Ink-Stained Wretches of Wall Street

AP Images/Richard Drew
L ast year, upon the 10 th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, newspapers and magazines filled with soul-searching essays from journalists rethinking their advocacy of the invasion, documenting lessons learned and errors made. But a few months later, on the 5 th anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers, the unofficial beginning of the financial crisis, virtually nobody wrestled with their failure to anticipate the Wall Street wrecking ball. Indeed, to date, no major news organization has apologized for missing the biggest economic story of the decade, and most business journalists defend their profession, arguing that they sounded the alarm about financial industry greed and the makings of a catastrophe. “The government, the financial industry and the American consumer—if they had only paid attention—would have gotten ample warning about the crisis from us,” said Diana Henriques of The New York Times in 2008. Neither she nor her colleagues have really looked back since. As...

The Moment of Creation

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AP Images O n May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.” Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict , shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has...

In Search of Gatsby's People

Careless People takes us into the cultural hurly-burly—tabloid affairs and murders—that were likely on F. Scott Fitzgerald's mind while writing The Great Gatsby

"Sometimes history appears to have been so inebriated that it blacked out completely, and we have no idea what a mysterious trace means at all." That's one of the more enjoyable observations in a book that doesn't stint on phrasemaking: Careless People (Penguin, $29.95), Sarah Churchwell's lavish excavation of the real-life milieu whose scandals, frolics and gaudy personalities gave F. Scott Fitzgerald the raw material for The Great Gatsby. Even when she gets most carried away by her connect-the-dots enthusiasms—or gimmickry, if you prefer—her literary "Where's Waldo?" game is the liveliest contribution to Fitzgeraldiana to come my way in years. Since I once wrote a cranky novel called Daisy Buchanan's Daughter— and its octogenarian narrator hooted at the notion of seeing Jay Gatsby's quest as anything more than the odyssey of a lunatic would-be homewrecker whose monomania and narcissism destroyed her childhood—you may gather that my own relationship to Gatsby has its nettled side. I...

Rebecca Mead Gets Lost in "Middlemarch"

A new literary memoir is proof that sometimes, you really can love George Eliot too much.

I n an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago , the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch , much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.” Rebecca Mead is clearly that “certain kind” of woman. Growing up in coastal England, Mead, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, encountered Middlemarch in her teens and was smitten. “I loved Middlemarch , and I loved being the kind of person who loved it,” she writes in her new work of literary memoir, My Life in Middlemarch . “It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have to read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written.” Little bubbles of excitement about Mead’s book began floating around the Internet last fall, when the advance copies were sent...

Stevie Sings for Martin Luther King

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
I f we ignore 1979’s soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants (though it featured “Send One Your Love,” 28 on the Billboard R&B chart), when Hotter Than July came out in 1980 it marked Stevie Wonder’s first album of newly recorded music since Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. It was his longest break between albums since he started cutting LPs at age 12. Critics don’t hold Hotter Than July in as high a regard as the classic Songs , though it does include an oddly charming imitation of a country singer (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”) and a reggae number inspired by Bob Marley (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”). The album is more important for its historical significance: It marked the beginning of Wonder’s three-year campaign to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The single “Happy Birthday,” which hit No.2 in the UK, states Wonder’s position: “There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration,” he sings before the chorus,...

The Man Who Knew Too Little

A CIA memoir whose emptiness is something to contemplate

R eaders seeking a vicarious adrenaline kick may be disappointed by former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s memoir of his three decades at the agency. In thrillers, the CIA is swashbuckling and sinister, replete with cloaks, daggers, and Technicolor deeds of derring-do. But Rizzo was the agency’s top lawyer, not its top spy, and Company Man —his meandering account of a life in the bureaucratic trenches—portrays not a glamorous world of espionage but a grayish realm of meetings and memos, committee reports and congressional hearings, presidential findings and memoranda of notification. Yet if Rizzo’s memoir falls short of thrilling, it’s often distinctly chilling. As the book’s title proudly proclaims, John Rizzo is the quintessential company man. For 34 years, he provides the agency with the legal assistance he feels its patriotic employees deserve, and he refrains from judgment when confronted with “vexing” issues such as CIA support for Guatemalan death squads or, more...

LBJ and Dallas's Mink Coat Mob

November 4, 1960, four days before the presidential election, LBJ travels to Dallas in a last-ditch effort to carry his home state. He is greeted at his hotel on Commerce Street by a group of angry protesters brought together by Republican Congressman Bruce Alger. The crowd, mostly women, is largely made up of Dallas high society—city leaders’ wives and daughters, former debutantes, and members of the Junior League. Several are wearing fur coats purchased at Nieman Marcus, just down the street. Onlookers joke that the unlikely gathering looks like a mink coat mob. A s the Johnson motorcade speeds into Downtown Dallas, escorted by motorcycle-riding policemen, one of the cops signals to LBJ’s driver. “They’re having a little disturbance at the Baker Hotel,” the policeman says coolly. The convoy decides to avoid the Baker’s front entrance and instead pulls to a side street. Out in front of the hotel, Bruce Alger is whipping up the crowd: If Khrushchev could vote, he’d choose Kennedy-...

"Double Down" Was Written for Morning Joe—Not Posterity

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
T he week Game Change was published in early 2010 coincided with my own version of journalistic martyrdom —watching my brain cells peel off like dandruff from enduring 60 hours of cable TV news in a week. From Morning Joe to Hardball to commercials for LifeLock, the authors of Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, were inescapable. Every time I switched channels, Halperin and Heilemann materialized peddling another nugget about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton from their book on the 2008 campaign. The Game Change publicity machine so dominated cable TV news during that first week of selling in 2010 that I could have read the book in the time I spent hearing about it. It was not until I read all 473 pages of Double Down , the 2012 sequel to Game Change , that I realized I inadvertently had it right in the first place. The campaign books of Halperin and Heilemann are not designed to be read. They are instead written as fodder for cable TV news. Since both authors, whom I’ve...

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