Books

Why "Knowing How the Economy Works" Is Not Enough

George W. Bush has the answers.

This week will see the release of The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs, a collection of essays from the George W. Bush Institute with a forward by the former president himself. It's true that annual GDP growth never actually reached 4 percent during Bush's two terms in office and averaged only 2.4 percent even if we generously exclude the disastrous year of 2008. But look at it this way: Who knows more about what the president ought to do about the economy than Dubya does? After all, there's only one living American (Bill Clinton) with as much experience being president, so Bush must have the answers we need.

A ridiculous argument? Of course. That's because experience only gets you so far. It's obviously a good thing, all else being equal, for the president to know a lot about the economy, just as it's a good thing for him to know a lot about foreign affairs or domestic policy. But the truth is that although the government has to solve many practical problems and it's important to have smart, knowledgeable people in government to work on them, the presidency is not a technocratic position.

Bill Clinton, Book Critic

In 1991, in the early days of his presidential run, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton would occasionally cite and paraphrase from what was clearly his favorite new book: E.J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics. The book excoriated any number of politicos, but chiefly Republicans, for posing “false choices” to the American people—as in, you’re either pro-family or pro-government (as if there weren’t a raft of government programs to help families). Clinton wove these ideas into his stump speech, now and then taking care to attribute some of them to E.J.’s book. (E.J. is a close friend, so in this blog, he gets first-name treatment).

Friday Fiction Break

As a kid I consumed fiction like a ravenous beast. I swallowed whole whatever came my way, from Tolstoy to Heinlein, Michener to Eugene O'Neill. My fiction addiction kept up for years, dragging me through Trollope, Muriel Spark, Colson Whitehead, Dickens, Murakami, Russell Banks, Christina Stead, Alice Munro, W.G. Sebald, Chang-Rae Lee, and hundreds of others.  I have always profoundly wanted to see the world through everyone else's eyes: What does it feel like to be someone else, in another part of the world, facing the unimaginable? Since most people have trouble articulating their deepest experiences, even reporters don't necessarily get to hear what others feel. Great fiction has always seemed the best way to peer into others' joys and horrors. 

Giving Local Food the Raspberry

The Locavore's Dilemma takes aim at the sustainability movement, ignoring the broader problems plaguing our food system.

(Flickr / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

The sustainable-food movement has finally been around long enough to face its first cold front. Pickled okra, critics want the world to know, is not as desirable as sales at the Prospect Park farmers market might indicate. The most recent round of attacks has focused on local food and locavorism: In April, Tyler Cowen took a few glancing blows at local food in An Economist Gets Lunch, and last month, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu—two Canadians trained as economic-policy analysts—released The Locavore’s Dilemma, an all-out assault on local food in which they seek to “slaughter as many sacred cows in the food activists’ intellectual herd as [they] could.” But by focusing on local food, they end up arguing against problems that barely exist or that never will, while ignoring the real environmental costs of our food systems.

Faith in Action

A review of Mark Shriver's new book about the life of his father, progressive hero Sargent Shriver.

Tributes to politicos written by their children don’t have a special place in literary hell, but they probably deserve one.  Most are warm and fuzzy reminisces from kids who seem to know little more about their fathers—and it almost always is fathers—than their dads’ press secretaries. And, like the handiwork of a press secretary, their books often present a version of events so thin and sanitized that they make the History Channel look like PBS. Not so with Mark Shriver’s A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.

Where to Draw the Line on Hate Speech?

Jeremy Waldron's new book tries to uncover the best way to tackle hate speech on the legal and policy front.

Discussions of free speech in the United States often call upon the adage—misattributed to Voltaire—that “while I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The quote in fact comes from Evelyn Hall, who wrote a biography of the French philosopher.) It’s a succinct summary of a the cherished American idea that speech should not be abridged because we find its content objectionable.

But according to New York University Law Professor Jeremy Waldron, it’s severely flawed.

The Mother of All Girls' Books

The secret subversiveness of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” This is how Louisa May Alcott begins Little Women. She wrote it in 1868, when she was 35, after months of urging by Thomas Niles, a Boston publisher who wanted a story for girls. She had not had much luck with a serious novel, she needed money, and it was part of a deal that her father, Bronson Alcott, had proposed. If Louisa said yes, Niles would agree to publish Bronson’s philosophical treatise, Tablets. A dutiful daughter, she couldn’t say no.

How the Gay-Rights Movement Won

(AP Photo/ Ron Lewis )

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution—How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone  By Linda Hirshman, Harper Collins, 464 pages, $27.99

Fifty years ago, being gay put you beyond the social pale. You could be savagely beaten, kicked out of public spaces and private clubs, arrested, fired, expelled from your family, and scorned as a pariah. Today, lesbians and gay men are all but equal, with full marriage rights in view—supported by President Barack Obama in action and words. How did we win so much so fast?

Mad Men's Shark Week

This season hasn't lived up to our reviewer's high expectations.

(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

Maybe an excess of cultishness will just always disgruntle me. It's not like I've read every last online analysis of last week's episode of Mad Men—of course not, because I'd still be at it at age 90. But I got irked anyway when I couldn't turn up any heretics willing to opine that the big shock of Christina Hendricks's Joan consenting to be pimped out by her bosses at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for the sake of landing the Jaguar account was kind of, how you say, jiveass. 

Mr. Caro's Opus

Some observations on the fourth installment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson

(Courtesy of Vintage Press)

You've got no secrets from me this week. Unless you were one of the early birds who devoured the thing in vast, debilitating insomniac gobs after clawing the Amazon.com box open on publication day, you are now somewhere between page 300 and 500 of Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. (Spoiler alert: JFK doesn't make it.) And you're so engrossed that you're ignoring your significant other's timid semaphore signals—ah, can't beds can be as wide as the Atlantic sometimes?—to the general effect that he or she misses sex. 

Meals, too, and dammit, Joey. Isn't it your turn to walk Bowser? 

Too Big to Imagine

Steve Coll's Private Empire tells you every last thing about ExxonMobil—except what to do about it.

(Flikr and AP Images)

Even granting that testifying to congressional committees is not on the list of an oil CEO’s favorite things to do, when ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, known to his employees as “Iron Ass,” arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office building one morning in November 2005, he was in an especially reticent mood. Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee wanted to know about the corporation’s role in formulating policy with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Raymond—who was chummy with Cheney and seven weeks away from his retirement, after 12 spectacularly profitable years at the helm first of Exxon and then Exxon-Mobil—did not think the committee needed to know.

The Good Lyndon

Finally, Robert Caro lightens up on LBJ.

Courtesy AP Images

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

by Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 736 pages, $35.00

 

Our Battle Scars

The Cause tells how liberals gave America the best of the 20th century. So why is it so hard to be one?

Google Images

It’s taken me almost my entire life to come out of the closet as a liberal. In college at the end of the 1970s, I was no revolutionary, but I thought of myself as a radical. Working at “the independent socialist newspaper” In These Times in the 1980s, I tried on actual socialism, with some relief at having a name for what I thought I believed. Later I became a progressive, when that term came to stand for the Paul Wellstone-Howard Dean “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

What the F@%& Is Up With Stephen King?

 

When I was a kid, I was plagued by nightmares. One scary TV show, and boom, I'd wake up paralyzed with terror after a night in which animal-headed people tried to kill me all night, or Nazis pursued me through the streets of New York. After awhile, my little brothers knew to protectively chase me away from the television if something even faintly Hitchcockian came on; while they'd watch, I'd hunker down in my bedroom with Anne of Green Gables or, later, Tolstoy. My basic aversion to, or caution about, horror movies and scary books lasted well into my adulthood, until I learned how to tune down the fear and sleep through the night. But horror is a taste that I've never fully developed. 

Vive la Mère

Is breastfeeding the new patriarchy? Elisabeth Badinter overstates her case—and overlooks what the French can really teach us about raising children.

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women  By Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $25.00

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting  By Pamela Druckerman, Penguin Press, 304 pages, $25.95

 

Don’t smoke or drink while pregnant. Breast-feed for a year, if possible (it almost never is). Buy organic. Read to your little one every day. Don’t work full time unless you have to, line up the right schools, and if you can’t manage everything on this list, try not to wreck your kids’ fragile psyches with the guilt unleashed by your failure.

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