Book review: The Establishment by Owen Jones

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with ItThe Establishment: And How They Get Away with It by Owen Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*Puffs on cigar* The Establishment, hey, this sounds like a book for me.
*Pulls out monocule to read sub-heading* This book is trash!

Owen Jones’ The Establishment is an attempt to lift the veil on how power and the powerful have seized increasing levels of control and wealth from society at the expense of everyone else. It covers several facets, from the creators of the intellectual frameworks, through the enforcers of control, to the self-entitled people treating the economy like a casino safe in the knowledge the plebs will bail them out.

This was an excellent read and filled in a lot of the details for events and social changes we’ve heard covered numerous times. Instead of hearing these details discussed by the usual apologists of the status quo, Owen makes it clear what is happening and weaves it together as a solid narrative and argument for change.

Needless to say, I’m sure that plenty of the dismissals of this book did so by spotting a misplaced percentage symbol or by the tried and trusted baseless accusations of inaccuracy or confusion.

As an Aussie, I saw a lot of parallels between what Jones discussed for the UK and what the experience has been in Australia. The effective lack of difference between the two major parties (nominally right and left, but realistically described as shit and slightly less shit), the dominance of conservative (Murdoch owned) media, and the close ties of the powerful, all very familiar. This book could have been written about Australia, not the UK.

In some respects, the book, A Game of Mates, tried to cover much of the same ground. That book failed to be convincing as it lacked some of the scholarship and well thought out solutions you’d want. Jones’ The Establishment is the opposite, as it is compelling, and thus I take his arguments and solutions far more seriously.

Some of the solutions are no-brainers, like instead of taxpayer bailouts being socialism for the rich they could instead be the taxpayers buying the banks, utilities, etc. But some ideas, like stopping the revolving door, are more difficult and not fleshed out enough. This was also a solution proposed in A Game of Mates, and as I said in that review, it’s not well thought out. Are we just going to say that people can’t take on a different job in their field of expertise? Are we trapping them? Would it not be better to look at examples of where there isn’t/wasn’t a revolving door, and create those conditions (which I imagine would relate to a robust sense of community and contribution rather than thinking about how to game the system).

The Establishment is worth reading and then discussing widely.

Edit: Listening to an interview with Stacey Abrams reminded me of something that Jones said throughout the book that was quite important. There is this idea that the “two sides” of politics differ greatly and are hugely divided. Abrams stated that “conservatives want to conserve, which means protecting inequalities and suffering that occurs now from getting better” (approximate quote).

But something that I’ve noticed, and a point that Jones made throughout with reference to polling and surveys, is that there is a lot more common ground than people think. Jones argued that in many respects, the people who want the most progressive measures taken also happen to be voting for the most regressive and conservative parties and politicians. This is generally because supposed left or progressive politics doesn’t capture the attention, while those ultra-conservative voices are able to rally populism and easy messages to address complex issues (the classic being to blame the job stealing, dole bludging Schrodinger’s immigrant for whatever real issue).

So it is a trap people are falling into when assuming that the populous are somehow not looking to make society better. The real problem is actually selling the message of being able to make society better rather than just putting a fresh coat of paint on the status quo.

Comments while reading:
The main thrust, as outlined in the Introduction and part of the first chapter, reminds me of A Game of Mates and the TV mini series (based on a book) A Very British Coup. The former was a somewhat disappointing book that I felt lacked some evidence and cohesive thought to the arguments, which I get the early impression Jones isn’t replicating (i.e. he’s making a solid case).

The argument is similar to what we see in A Very British Coup where the power sphere is inherently conservative and the general populous is complicit in that continuing because the system was designed to keep democracy from eroding the power of the powerful. In that series (and the book), the powerful literally seek to undermine the democracy of their nation using any and all means. Obviously, completely fiction and no parallels to real life events can be drawn… (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Very_…)

The “good old days” that many people talk about were also the times of social democracy (at least partly). That annoyed the neo-liberals and free marketeers. Yet many of the reactionaries today would still point a hazy finger to those years as “great” (less for the economic social democracy and more for the bigotry). So it could be argued that many of the economic policies post-WW2 are what we need. It had more equal economic policies and it was a stark contrast to the pre-war policies that produced significant inequality in society.

Found myself nodding so much, but none more so than with the conclusion. I’d pull out some quotes, but the entire thing is a great summary of what needs to be done and why.

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The status quo may be treated as common sense now, but future generations will surely look back with a mixture of astonishment and contempt at how British society is currently organized: the richest 1,000 individuals worth £520 billion,1 while hundreds of thousands of people have to queue to eat in food banks; a thriving financial elite that helped plunge Britain into a vortex of economic collapse, which was rescued by over £1 trillion of public money but continues to operate much as before; a reigning dogma that treats the state as an obstacle to be eradicated and shunned, even as the state serves as the backbone for private interests; a corporate elite, dependent as it is on state largesse, that refuses to contribute money to the state; a media that does not exist to inform, educate, as well as challenge all those with power, but which serves as a platform for the ambitions, prejudices and naked self-interest of a small number of wealthy moguls. More startling to our descendants will be how this was passed off as normal, as entirely rational and defensible, and how institutions run by the elite attempted, with considerable success, to redirect people’s anger to those at the very bottom of society.

Book review: Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Humankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People: Look at this nice thing we did.
Media: Boring!
Sociopath: Look at this terrible thing I did.
Media: Can you do that more? Maybe with a chainsaw this time? See how nasty people are!

With Human Kind, Rutger Bregman attempts to debunk an idea that underpins our social and economic systems. At the core of our society is this assumption that everyone is selfish, nasty, and would quite happily murder you, drink your flesh in a protein smoothie, and play with your entrails if it wasn’t for threats of state violence or eternal torment. Bregman addresses what he calls the Rousseau vs Hobbs debate over human nature with the intention of showing Russo was correct and we’re not so bad after all. And since we’re not so bad, maybe we need to rethink all the things we do based on this assumption.

Since I started reading philosophy I’ve slowly been coming to the realisation that society has been built upon what was good for the powerful. These ideas are often in opposition to evidence, morals, and the principle of not being a dick to others.* How can the Hobbsian view of human nature have won? People generally get along just fine. Most of the bad things we experience are from the outliers (sociopaths) or Hanlon’s Razor. Well, the simple answer is that the powerful can use the Hobbsian view to justify their position in society and to perpetuate it.**

Bregman does a pretty good job of tackling some of the common examples and studies used to “prove” how bad people are. One by one, they fall apart as scrutiny is applied to them. While the real-life Lord of the Flies story was the sort of thing that should be the stuff of legend, I found the debunking of the Kitty Genovese murder the most satisfying. They both illustrate how good news and bad news will be highlighted completely differently. This influences our view of the world. We should be careful in that regard.

As an argument, I think Bregman proves his point.

But… There is a bit too much glossing over important points. There are also some contentious assertions, like the idea that Homo-puppy (humans) domesticated itself by selecting for kindness. That isn’t to say these points are wrong, but they are taking quite a few short cuts and artistic flourishes (and Homo-puppy is a pretty cool flourish). One example, the selection for hairless apes as part of domestication is probably not true, or at least more complicated than implied.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I think if we all took these arguments seriously (and did the lateral reading to see how much support it has) then we could make a better world for everyone.

Or we could let the handful of nasty people continue to ruin it for everyone.

* That’s a direct quote from Jesus.
** Or as I put it in my review of Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality: inequality is a way for the rich and powerful to build a moat and castle.

Comments while reading:
Love the bit about the Easter Island insult roughly translating to: the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.

There are some interesting points made in pursuit of the argument but they do gloss over a large amount of research. It would be very easy to dismiss the argument if you were so inclined. One example is in his criticisms of Steven Pinker. If I hadn’t already read several papers and articles that dive into how wrong Pinker’s claims have been, then it would be easy to see Bregman as cherry-picking. But then again, you could spend a long time just discussing prehistoric violence studies, which isn’t that exciting for the average reader.

How do you get people to bad things? Well, you need to bully and coerce. But you can’t just give people an order or force them, as they tend to resist. You have to appeal to their good side. They have to believe they are helping, that they are doing it for “the greater good” or because they trust the person asking for their help.
“In fact, people go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good. People got caught up in trying to be good.” (Don Mixon, psychologist who replicated the Milgram experiment.)
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed, capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t’ live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort do draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

The Bystander Effect isn’t what we think. “…you can see that in 90 per cent of cases, people help each other out.”
But of course, that doesn’t sell papers or drive outrage media. Good news stories blip, bad news you can fill entire days of coverage with. So they’ll spin a story, or they’ll focus on the exceptions, or they’ll do both.

The comments about education and bullying are interesting. Institutions that utilise hierarchical structures and introduce competitiveness essentially manufacture nastiness and bullying as a result. The book also skipped over something very briefly that is going to start being more important in education circles, and that is how bad testing is (particularly standardised testing). Teaching people to be able to pass a test is not the same thing as education.

The rich and powerful don’t blush. Rising to power essentially turns off your shame (thus you don’t blush) or you rise to power because you’re more likely to be shameless (sociopaths, narcissist, etc). This is why one of the tactics of keeping the powerful inline doesn’t really work. Shaming people with satire, mockery, humour, etc, would work on the average person, but that isn’t the case with the sort of people who feel they are better than us plebs.

Quibble: there is a lot of talk in this book about humans being 99% the same as whatever chimp. I’m a little sick of seeing this misunderstanding. We aren’t really X% similar in the way that implies. A lot of genetic code isn’t for making humans or chimps, it is for making cells, or biological functions, or transcribing proteins. So it fails to understand what DNA does.

Enlightenment I have issues with. There’s this assertion that the enlightenment was awesome because it gave us science, capitalism, modern democracy, etc. While Bregman does a good job of highlighting that it also gave us modern racism, it underplays just about every other criticism of enlightenment. You have to remember that it didn’t give us democracy, that had to be fought for by everyone other than the landed gentry. You have to remember that the invisible hand and selfishness weren’t good ideas, they were ideas that allowed the rich merchants to be in charge. You have to remember that Reason™ has been used to justify the status quo, hold down social progress, further marginalise the disadvantaged, create massive inequality. You have to remember that the enlightenment happened just after and during the scientific revolution.

In other words, there is a lot of cheerleading around Enlightenment without adequate acknowledgement of the problems and consequences, and discussion of how many things were converging at the same time (there is an argument to be made that a certain level of population density and people with spare time occurred, thus driving forward a large number of things, rather than it being down to a couple of big-name thinky people with invisible hands and justifications for landed gentry merchants being in charge). I mean, most of these ideas were come up with by Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob 50-100 years earlier, so there’s that too.

There are a couple of points made about punching Nazis and extremism that showed a want to either distance Bregman’s comments from those “radical lefties” or an attempt to appeal to the “enlightened centrists”. I’m not sure what the thinking was here, but it did show through a few blind spots. For example, Mark Bray’s book on Antifa outlines how punching Nazis is hardly the only thing Antifa do and there is solid reasoning used when it is done (and the march Bregman talked about being used to fundraise efforts at getting people out of the Nazis groups would classify as anti-fascist action, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were under the banner of Antifa). It also showed a lack of understanding of political and social change. Yes, that much cited study on violence concluded that non-violent movements were more successful… Except that would have to ignore all the violent efforts that made the non-violent efforts possible (because everyone knows that ending Apartheid was all non-violent protest – e.g. rebuttal here).

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Sketch summarising Russo’s argument for the start of the world’s problems.

Other reviews:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7470881/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/12/humankind-a-hopeful-history-by-rutger-bregman-review
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/humankind-by-rutger-bregman-review-a-hopeful-history-of-our-nature (This one is a somewhat critical review that I feel makes a couple of good points – like the parking over the bike lane – but also either skimmed the book or really loves to be black and white about things in a way Bregman wasn’t)

Book Review: Debt The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invent money so you can take it off of people… Ingenious?

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a comprehensive dive into the history of money, credit, and society/economy. It acts as a direct refutation of the commonly taught economic ideas about money and exchange systems that make up our economies (past and present). In doing so, Graeber draws on countless examples, historical evidence, and anthropological research to outline the major flaws with our current economic system.

This book was a very important read. It doesn’t just overturn many assumptions, it shows how those assumptions are taught as fact to perpetuate our current system. But probably the most important point Debt makes is that our current system doesn’t fully account for the human economy which means it will ultimately fail and we need to replace it with a system that does account for everything.

That said, at about halfway through Debt I found myself starting to wave my hand for Graeber to move it along a bit. At two-thirds, I was signalling for him to wrap it up already. Having read several of Graeber’s books and essays now, I feel Debt was his most important but also most meandering. In some ways, it reminded me of Das Kapital in this respect.

I fully expect this book will be ignored by economists, with fists firmly shoved into ears. You should probably read it though.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard the barter (myth) explanation so many times. But now that I’ve read some examples of where that isn’t used, or is used quite differently from what we conventionally are told happened in the past, you realise that its pretty much a whole-cloth nonsense. I mean, who’d have thunk that sharing would have been common among our ancestors? It’s still common today when things go pear-shaped. So bloody obvious.

MMT explainer on the creation of money. Having read about MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in Stephanie Kelton’s book, seeing it used here only reinforces both texts. Someone needs to create a market, hand out credit and demand a proportion be repaid. Goods are exchanged. Eventually, money turns up as an accounting measure.

Interesting side note about the Hindu philosophy of Nyaya that rivals pre-Socratic philosophy. It has an interesting idea about how logic shouldn’t be doing a content-independent “formal language” but instead incorporating logic with content in the language of the philosophy. They also independently came up with atomism. Funny how we don’t hear Nyaya discussed but we are hammered with “western philosophy”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyaya

Two-thirds through and I’m signalling for Graeber to wrap it up. I understand that when overthrowing orthodoxy you’re going to have to show your work… but I kinda feel like the point could have been made in a few hundred pages less.

Summary: the orthodox view of money and the economy is wrong. It doesn’t correctly understand nor value the entirety of our human economy, which is more correctly a credit system. The credit system is actually how our society works, thus we have to move our economic system to one that utilises this. Essentially, mutual aid and trade. The evidence for this is seen in every community, every time there is a disaster, and throughout history. /end.

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Book review: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human BeingClear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humans: Okay, no killing people.
AI: Slavery is cool though, right?
Humans: No, no killing, no slavery!
AI: But you do it all the time. No fair!

Clear Bright Future is Paul Mason’s attempt to address the “value alignment problem” with regard to our society and the potential of AI. He sets out how we largely don’t have a set of values, thanks to things like neo-liberalism, post-modernism, and scientism, and how we desperately need to define our values. Those values, he argues, should be clearly defined, humanist, and done before the capitalists, authoritarians, or other ne’er-do-wells ruin the future.

I first became interested in reading Mason’s books when I saw his Google Talk about Post-Capitalism. He was one of the first people I’d heard make a clear argument for something that is lurking in every digital age IP lawsuit. Clear Bright Future jumped up my reading list thanks to my local library and an interview where Mason discussed the need for society/humans to decide what we value and to start making it a priority.

The overall point made in this book is valid and Mason does a reasonable job of making a convincing argument. Even if he is completely wrong about humanism, he is completely right about needing to define our values. Our values. Not someone looking to make a buck. Not someone looking to become dictator for life. Everyone.

And here comes the but. But, I think Clear Bright Future falls down as some points made are attacks on strawpeople or gross simplifications. He’ll swing between exacting explanations and diverse insights and then make quick leaps via these lazy tactics.

Take for example his comments about science moving from claims of hard objectivism to (a more realistic) subjectivism. Mason essentially engages in a confusing blend of scientism and anti-scientism. He talks as if science is simple hard facts (when it is within X% error, contingent on assumptions, within certain frames of reference, etc.) and then rejects the science that shows things are more complicated than that.

Another example is his criticism of postmodernism as anti-humanist and the foundation of a lot of today’s problems. Somewhere there is a philosophy professor shaking their head and chuckling at the idea that postmodernism texts have resulted in anything other than incomprehensible books and an industry of metanarrative loving critics blaming it for everything. At best, Mason is mistaking a part of the field for the whole. Sure, the rejection of the simplistic and metanarrative claims of earlier humanism is certainly a po-mo thing, but hardly the whole thing (e.g. see this)

These flaws do detract a bit from what is a very interesting book with a compelling message. Definitely worth reading and thinking about what our values are.

Other reviews worth reading:
Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – a manifesto against the machine
Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Comments while reading:
You can sustain an economy on life support, but not an ideology. People were starting to ask when things would get better for them rather than for yacht owners. (Paraphrased)

Having seen some of Mason’s work before I’ve been interested in his take on things. He offers insights and ideas you haven’t considered. I also find I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. In one part he was outlining the idea of material realism (materialism) which was a pretty decent lay explanation. But then he sort of created a strawman to suggest that modern tech economies claim to create value out of nothing (computers create their own data, thus value, without work). I’m not sure that the people who say that actually believe it, rather they are using a heuristic.

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Book review: Future War by Robert H Latiff

Future War: Preparing for the New Global BattlefieldFuture War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert H. Latiff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

USA: Hello Mr Scientist, can you make me an even more horrifying way to kill people?
Scientist: Sure. But it might not be a good idea.
USA: We’ll worry about that later. Here’s some money.
Scientist: I’ll get started.

Retired Major General Dr Robert Latiff spent much of his career looking at the cutting edge of military technology. As both a scientist and an officer, he knows what is already being developed to wage war, and is well placed to speculate about the future of war. He doesn’t just want to let us in on what war will look like, he wants us all to help ethically shape the future of war.

This book was both fascinating and deeply annoying to read. I think my biggest problem with Future War was that, for someone wanting to talk about war ethics, Latiff selectively presents the military, political leaders, and history so as to feel deliberately obfuscatory. Now, this is probably about Latiff being a retired Airforce Major General and thus his bias is showing. But maybe that is the problem. Maybe the people who get to talk about war ethics and new tools of war, are ultimately going to be too biased. At least Latiff is aware of this bias since he raises the issue of the conservative and “yay war” bubble many of his colleagues work in and calls for the general public to be involved.

I wrote down a lot of comments as I was reading (see below) because of my frustration. One of my first comments was the “America: Fuck Yeah!” sentiment that was present. I don’t think that is entirely fair to Latiff. He does express a reasonable level of awareness, but when someone talks about “keeping America safe” you really feel like forcing them to include a list of war crimes, atrocities, and coups that the USA has been involved in.

The insights into technology are extremely interesting. If you follow tech at all you’ll love what is discussed. It is the ethical considerations where I think the book falls flat. The examples of what ethical considerations are interesting but also feel ultimately hollow.

If someone is planning how to kill others, particularly lots of others, then that is unethical.

The arguments around Just War Theory and the ethics of war strike me as hand-waving bullshit dreamt up by status quo warriors. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background in moral and ethical philosophy to really dig into how it is wrong. No doubt there is a lot of material justifying war because that’s what very serious status quo academics do as part of their contribution to the war effort so that no one ever asks them to actually fight and die in one.

Ironically, by the definitions of Just War Theory, I think you’d battle to find an example of a Just War. Which makes the entire idea of ethical warfare a comfort blanket to pull over your face as you invade a country to secure their resources freedom.

Some people are scared of the technology and potential of future war portrayed here. I’m more scared of how Latiff’s calls for a discussion of the ethics involved aren’t going to happen in any meaningful way.

Comments as I read:
Only two chapters in, but already there is this overwhelming “America: Fuck Yeah!” attitude present. Threats could get hold of the weapons we’re developing… is said unironically. USA aren’t working on this (anymore after a feasibility analysis) but China doesn’t have any such ethical compunctions…

Considering this book proposed to cover the technology and ethics of future wars in the opening, I’m already sensing that Latiff is probably going to pretend that the USA has never committed acts of genocide, war crimes, invasion, etc. whilst insisting they need new cool gadgets to do more of that stuff with.

Halfway in the new technologies are being discussed as inevitable. But it is then asserted that new tech will be used for war. That doesn’t have to be so. Kinda feels like no-one ever stops and makes the argument that massive military research budgets could instead be civilian research budgets. Can’t really weaponise something when you’re not starting out building it as a weapon and pouring billions into doing so.

Three quarters in and the ethical discussion is taking shape. Just War and the like are being utilised. Some really good points are made but then are undermined by selective presentation of realities. E.g. Latiff makes a really good point about requiring strong ethical and moral frameworks (Warrior Code, etc) in the development of weapons, use of weapons, and the accepted practices of troops (when politicians justify or promote the use of torture, the command structure will follow, and thus the troops will utilise it). But he then skirts around how the military have been indoctrinating soldiers with increased efficiency to be killers, how they have researched making their soldiers more able to kill people, how they train them to think of “the enemy” as “inhuman” to make them able to justify killing to themselves.

I’m really having trouble with the supposed ethics of all this. Ultimately, all this tech is being developed to kill people. That’s premeditated murder. Ergo, that is unethical. There isn’t really a justification for that. A lot of handwaving is done based upon the idea that “the other side” will behave unethically, so we have to be prepared to “defend ourselves” (i.e. to also act unethically). The worst part is that this self-perpetuating cycle is often leveraged to gain power, resources, and profit (the latter is mentioned briefly in the third section by Latiff).

Philosophically, a lot has been written about Just War Theory, particularly against criticisms of it. I’m somewhat surprised that there isn’t a solid argument against it. Take for example Jus ad bellum. Let’s find a war that fits that definition. Particularly from the losing or instigating side. Ever. Just War Theorists certainly seem to try and pretend this occurs. People trying to kick wars off certainly try to make the argument of just cause (etc.). But most of those arguments are hollow, revisionist, and often straight-up lies (WMDs in Iraq anyone?).

Almost feels like a lot of money gets thrown at people to justify war.

Last chapter has some interesting points about echo chambers, ideological divides, society involvement, and American exceptionalism. All very good points. But again I find myself spotting what Latiff doesn’t discuss and what he skips over.

E.g. He says that the average American is removed from war and largely uninformed/ignorant of it. But that is by design and moreover, the military is actively involved in keeping people ignorant. He made a point about no war critical films having been made whilst skipping over the fact that if a production studio wants to make a military film they need to have everything ticked off on by the military (it’s why US military is awesome, bad elements are rogues who meet justice, they never commit war crimes, etc, etc.). Military intelligence was actively involved in the lies that took the US to war in (insert massive list here). The military routinely covers up atrocities, war crimes, abuse, rape, etc.

https://www.law.upenn.edu/institutes/cerl/conferences/targetedkilling/papers/KammFailuresofJustWarTheory.pdf

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_war_theory

https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-just-war/

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Book review: The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of BureaucracyThe Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Profitable paperwork? This world makes no sense.

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of David Graeber’s essays around bureaucracy. He dives into where bureaucracy came from, how it was changed by the rise of large private companies, how this is impacting society, and how we secretly love all this stupid stuff just a bit too much. Graeber combines history, illustrative anecdotes, anthropology, and insights that you realise have been staring you in the face for years. He also argues that we’ve largely accepted bureaucracies as they now stand, but because of the implications for power relations, we should try to change or remove them.

With the recent passing of David Graeber, I thought I should read some more of his work. I’ve previously read the excellent Bullshit Jobs and wanted to dive into some of his other work. That lead me to his essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit which in turn lead me to The Utopia of Rules. That essay is incorporated and expanded in this book to bring it into the main thesis. Other sections similarly come from essays published elsewhere, so if you’ve already read many of Graeber’s essays and articles, you’ll recognise a lot of the material here.

I think one of the most interesting insights from Utopia of Rules was how bureaucracy has morphed from the civil service that ran society (and was a great place to park stray aristocrats and military officers) into the bureaucracy of big business. Some will bristle at this insight until they realise that “cost recovery”, “KPIs”, and “performance reviews” are in all big organisations, regardless of them being public or private. This builds on Graeber’s insights from Bullshit Jobs, that showed the private sector was often more guilty of waste, mismanagement, paperwork, etc. to the point of creating entire useless jobs to do them.

How this bureaucratic system is then used to exploit the public, uses implicit and explicit violence, and obfuscates accountability is also interesting. Graeber’s example of trying to apply for health insurance for his mother is how companies profit. They effectively keep money for the company/government that is due to the public they are meant to be servicing.

This is also where I disagree slightly with Graeber. In a complex society, there is a need for some level of organisation (bureaucracy). Is it a good idea to have a senior research scientist spend a large part of their time filling out paperwork, applying for funding, and reporting to the funders rather than doing research? Well, no. But is it a good idea for that researcher to just get money and do whatever they feel like without any reporting? Well, no. As much as no researcher is just going to blow their grant money on a sports car and Columbian Marching Powder, the paperwork is meant to create a solid research plan, figure out what underlings they’ll need, and get the creative work solidified (hypotheses, designs, etc). That the paperwork doesn’t really achieve this is something that needs to be criticised, especially as the reason it fails and is needlessly time-consuming and complex is because of that private company influence Graeber outlined.

And Graeber argues that bureaucracies are no longer analyzed or satirized. This is a large part of the problem. We experience them every day, but those with power effectively stifle any input we have to reforming them. Satire and social critique are a useful tool in this regard, which I assume is why Graeber’s review of The Dark Knight Rises was included. He uses it as an example of institutional power using popular media to control the narrative and condemn social critique and movements.

Overall, I enjoyed The Utopia of Rules and look forward to reading more from Graeber, particularly Debt.

“I asked him why everyone was still waiting for even one bank official to be brought to trial for any act of fraud leading up to the crash of 2008.
OFFICIAL: Well, you have to understand the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors to financial fraud is always to negotiate a settlement. They don’t want to have to go to trial. The upshot is always that the financial institution has to pay a fine, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, but they don’t actually admit to any criminal liability. Their lawyers simply say they are not going to contest the charge, but if they pay, they haven’t technically been found guilty of anything.
ME: So you’re saying if the government discovers that Goldman Sachs, for instance, or Bank of America, has committed fraud, they effectively just charge them a penalty fee.
OFFICIAL: That’s right.
ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?
OFFICIAL: Oh no, not to my knowledge. Usually it’s substantially less.
ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent?
OFFICIAL: I’d say more like 20 to 30 percent on average. But it varies considerably case by case.
ME: Which means … correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that effectively mean the government is saying, “you can commit all the fraud you like, but if we catch you, you’re going to have to give us our cut”?
OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I can’t put it that way myself as long as I have this job …”

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Book review: The Divide by Jason Hickel

The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its SolutionsThe Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions by Jason Hickel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How good is stealing from the poor?

The Divide attempts to help everyone understand that inequality has been made and entrenched by us in rich nations (global North). We created the systems, stole the wealth, marginalised the peoples, and dropped a whole lot of freedom bombs when anyone tried to get out from under our thumbs. Hickel covers how this happened, how it continues, and outlines paths forward that don’t involve growing the global GDP (consumption) by 175 times.

This was a fascinating book. It skewered many of the “good news” narratives that (sometimes) well-meaning intellectuals broadcast about progress and inequality. Too many of the “facts” often lack the context that Hickel brings into play in The Divide.

I first became interested in Hickel’s writing after seeing Steven Pinker’s “Everything is Fine” arguments being challenged by Taleb, Hickel, Giridharadas, and Lent. As much as I’m not a fan of the bloviating Nassim Taleb, his points were the first to make me reassess just accepting the merchants of the status quo’s narrative. That was when I came across some posts from Jason and Jeremy Lent. Before long it became semi-fashionable to dunk on Pinker, even Oxfam got in on the act.*

If there is an area where The Divide falls down it is in the same areas that many progressive books do. I’ve mentioned this before in my review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In fact, the problems here are the exact same misunderstandings of agriculture as with Klein’s book. To Hickel’s credit, he does appear to have a firmer grasp of agriculture and doesn’t make as many missteps on other issues.

One of the points that Hickel makes throughout his book has started to gain prominence in addressing environmental issues (like climate change). You can’t just tinker with a growth system and not still end up with many of the same problems. We need a different way to run our economy, particularly so that environmental destruction doesn’t continue to be rewarded as it currently is.

The Divide is a must-read. If people were willing to acknowledge inequality’s causes and how our current systems don’t address it, we might actually start making some progress in not ruining people’s lives.

* Probably why Pinker is complaining about SJWs and chatting with IDW nutbags these days.

Comments while reading…. by comments I mean quotes I liked:
Great quote about how the “good news on progress” narrative is nothing more than an “Everything is Fine” justification of the status quo. You see this a lot and superficially it is correct. Just don’t look too hard.

“This is what I call the ‘good-news narrative’ about poverty. It is a comforting story, a welcome contrast to the depressing tales that often fill the daily news cycle. After all, it feels good to take a step back and realise that things are not as bad as they seem – that in the broad scheme of things, the world is gradually getting better. It is a story that vindicates our civilisation and affirms our deepest and most powerful ideas about progress.

It also serves as a potent political tool. The good-news narrative enjoins us to believe that the global economic system is on the right track. It implies that if we want to eradicate suffering, we should stick with the status quo and refrain from making drastic changes. For anyone who has an interest in maintaining the present order of distribution – the global 1 per cent, for instance – the good-news narrative is a useful story indeed.”

“To eradicate poverty at $5 a day, global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size.”

“Right now, the main strategy for eliminating poverty is to increase global GDP growth. The idea is that the yields of growth will gradually trickle down to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. But all the data we have shows quite clearly that GDP growth doesn’t really benefit the poor. While global GDP per capita has grown by 65 per cent since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 370 million. Why does growth not help reduce poverty? Because the yields of growth are very unevenly distributed. The poorest 60 per cent of humanity receive only 5 per cent of all new income generated by global growth. The other 95 per cent of the new income goes to the richest 40 per cent of people. And that’s under best-case-scenario conditions. Given this distribution ratio, Woodward calculates that it will take more than 100 years to eradicate absolute poverty at $1.25 a day. At the more accurate level of $5 a day, eradicating poverty will take 207 years. This is the best we can expect from the business-as-usual trajectory of the development industry. And keep in mind that Woodward’s methodology is not able to capture the poorest 1 per cent of the world’s population, who will still remain in poverty even at the end of this period. That’s 90 million people who will remain in poverty for ever.”

“It is tempting to see this as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets of history hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority. By the early part of the 20th century, this new order was complete, designed so that the core of the system – Europe and the United States – could siphon cheap raw materials from the periphery and then sell manufactured products back to them while protecting themselves from competition by erecting disproportionately high tariffs.”

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Book review: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

The Mismeasure of ManThe Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

IQ tests are very good predictors of how well you will do on IQ tests.

This revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man tackles the field of hereditarianism and its related attempts at justifying hierarchical social structures. Or put another way, it explores the stinking swamp of race science with hopes of getting people to notice the stench.

I’ve not previously delved into the history of race science and hereditarianism. I was aware that it was a thing, that it keeps raising its ugly head every few years (Human Biodiversity – HBD – is a recent version you may have heard of), and that it pollutes an entire corner of psychology. As such, this book was enlightening and also disheartening. It reinforced just how a priori the entire field is and why it will continue to be popular.

The first time I became aware that IQ testing wasn’t actually doing what the marketing claims would have you believe was in high school. My brother was very intent on “raising his IQ” by studying for IQ tests. Well you might ask, how can you improve your test score on something that is meant to measure something innate? Over the years I’ve read several papers discussing factors that impact test scores (stress, hunger, nutrition levels, tiredness, sleep deprivation, etc) and realised that these intelligence tests aren’t measuring what some would claim. And worse, often the results are interpreted in almost exactly the opposite way to what they should be (i.e. a poor test result is probably more an indicator of some discriminatory factor, like attending an underfunded school, than of being stupid).

So it is well worth reading this book to understand how fraught this field is with literal white supremacists and eugenicists (see my comments below). It isn’t an easy read but is relatively accessible to most people who give it the time required.

Some related papers:
What IQ Tests Test
Does IQ Really Predict Job Performance?

Lay articles:
Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ: Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.
Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the allure of race science: This is not “forbidden knowledge.” It is America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.

Thoughts during reading:

Have just gotten to the bit about G and Factor Analysis. I’m passingly familiar with principal components analysis, a technique similar in some ways to Factor Analysis, and largely agree with what Gould is saying. It is very easy to not understand what the principal components are actually showing you, let alone what that correlation means. The first thing you learn in statistics is that correlation doesn’t equal causation and something about storks bringing babies.

But this rabbit hole goes deeper still.

I decided to do a quick bit of lateral reading to find some more on G and Factor Analysis. I didn’t get past the former’s Wikipedia page. Just about every reference was from a known white supremacist (Jensen* being particularly prominent as a primary source). Makes it a tad hard to take the field seriously, and hard to find decent research when a jumping-off point like Wikipedia is swamped in BS.

Of course, the rabbit hole goes deeper again.

Another of the people referenced is Richard Lynn (a white supremacist). He and his protege, Emil Kirkegaard (a eugenicist and all-round nasty POS), run a bunch of pseudojournals and a fake research group (Ulster Institute for Social Research) that is all basically a front for white supremacist money to generate pseudoscience. Fun fact: Kirkegaard’s most cited paper has pretty much only been cited by him, fifty-nine times. Thankfully the mainstream doesn’t take these guys seriously anymore, but they have tendrils, as can be seen by Lynn (and other white supremacists) being referenced on the Wikipedia pages.

* Quick note on Arthur Jensen, his Wikipedia bio is much like the G Factor page. It is deliberately misleading and rubbish. You would be forgiven for thinking that Jensen was something other than a white nationalist, avid racist, and in the employ of said same. His funding was barely mentioned in the bio, and he has a whole page on the Southern Poverty Law Centre that doesn’t even get a mention.

Arthur Jensen was arguably the father of modern academic racism. For over 40 years, Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, provided a patina of academic respectability to pseudoscientific theories of black inferiority and segregationist public policies. Jensen was responsible for resurrecting the idea that the black population is inherently and immutably less intelligent than the white population, an ideology that immediately became known as “jensenism.”

 

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Book Review: Antisocial by Andrew Marantz

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American ConversationAntisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Techno-Utopians: Free speech for everyone!
Crazy Uncles: Let me tell you about the JQ!

Antisocial is an expansion of a series of articles Andrew Marantz wrote for the New Yorker covering the rise of social media as a news source and the right-wing extremists who used it to shift the Overton window. Marantz attempts to discuss some of the history, science, and psychology related to the way we process our news, and how that feeds into the social media experience. This, in turn, is used to show how the extremists have been able to successfully leverage social media to change the social landscape.

As I write this review, there are protests occurring across the USA in response to police violence against minorities. The police, in turn, have become violent in response to the protests, with footage of rampant assaults, documented lies, and targeting of anyone (particular the media) filming them in action. In response to this, some of the people mentioned in the book have organised their extremists to try and make the protesters look bad, with looting, provocation, and violence.

So this was a timely read. Much of the content wasn’t necessarily new to me, as I’ve read around this subject for a while now, but there were still plenty of insights to be had. This was much more in-the-trenches than other books and articles on the right-wing extremists (alt-lite, alt-right, etc), as such you see much more of the central figures. When you see videos from McInnes or Cernovich or the like, they are performing for their audience/followers, you get a much better idea of who they are when the camera is off. This makes some of the players seem reasonably relatable if still “deplorable”, like Cernovich, while others you see them as even worse than first thought, like Spencer.

There was something I noticed about everyone covered in this book. They reminded me of 14-year-olds. The guys were engaged in what amounted to oafish attention-seeking with all the intellectual sophistication of hammers. The women were doing the less macho version of attention-seeking. Yet these were predominantly people in their 30s. The behaviour they should have grown out of, particularly the trolling/bullying, had become amplified by their uniformed and racist politics.

I think the worst part of this isn’t that these people have managed to infiltrate the mainstream with their lazy politics and anti-intellectualism,* but that the social media platforms were quite happy to make money promoting them. The social media giants are presented in the book as naive and heavily pro-free speech, but I think that is too kind. To use an example, Facebook would censor any depiction of female nudity without prompting, but wouldn’t censor blatant bigotry (racism, sexism, etc) even with piles of complaints. As long as threats were veiled enough, they were fine as well. And the outrage would drive engagement and traffic, which made Facebook money, so they didn’t address the ten-tonne elephant in the room.

As I finished Antisocial, I listened to an interesting podcast called It Could Happen Here. The series is from 2019 and looks at how (primarily right-wing) extremists could set off a second civil war in the USA. Many of the points raised in the book were also mentioned in the podcast, so I recommend giving it a listen. And as I mentioned above, it’s rather timely given the protests happening at the time I’m writing this.

Worth reading if you want to know more about why you can’t have a civil conversation anymore.

* A point I should make here is that I’ve noticed some of these people have some very good points. They are anti-establishment for good reason, the establishment is for the rich and powerful, not them. Of course, they take this insight in the wrong direction. One quote really stuck out from Cernovich when he criticised the warmongering that the various politicians push for and establishment media debate, both safe in the comfort of knowing them and their families won’t be the ones dying in combat. But again, they take that insight in the wrong direction, with political positions that are essentially pro-conflict and war.

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https://www.iheart.com/podcast/1119-it-could-happen-here-30717896/?embed=true

Book Review: Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the SpectrumFunny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The age-old question: is it really praise if it is unintentionally patronising?

Michael McCreary may still be young but he has done a lot in his life already. This memoir seeks to offer his journey from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis as a 5-year-old, through to becoming a touring comedian in his teens and early twenties. He offers insights into what it is like navigating school and his desire to perform from the perspective of someone on the spectrum.

This was a fun and breezy read. McCreary managed to discuss the way his brain works and help us normies (or neurotypicals) understand the challenges he has, and will continue to, face. There were a lot of insights, most I was already familiar with, that help debunk a lot of the stereotypes. An example is the “idiot savant” idea of autistics, particularly around maths. This stereotype isn’t just insulting and inaccurate, it fails to treat people as people.

One of the highlights for me was the theme of support. McCreary has gotten help and support throughout his life, from his diagnosis, his parents, teachers, comedian mentors, and employers. It is clear that not everyone gets that support and we all need to understand how to meet people where they are at.

The only thing that let this book down was that for a book by a comedian, it was a bit light on for jokes. McCreary certainly kept the tone light and whimsical, but this was memoir first, comedic second. When he has another 20 years worth of material, I expect his memoir to be jokes first!

A short and insightful memoir that acts as a good introduction to autism with #OwnVoices.

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Book review: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The ClimateThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought that systemic problems require systemic changes?

This Changes Everything is an attempt to step people through how the existential crisis of our times, climate change, is a failure of our system of economics (and politics). Thus, despite all the handwaving from the well, and not so well, meaning business celebrities, we can’t rely upon this system to fix the crisis. Klein then attempts to offer up solutions and ideas that could work instead.

I should start this review by saying that, overall I think Klein’s argument and points are correct and well made. The bit about the free trade agreements being written at the same time as the international emission reductions agreements is a great example of the argument. Funny how those two deals were being made yet they didn’t bother to acknowledge that both needed to be aiming at the same goals. This Changes Everything covers a lot of ground, has a lot of detail, and joins a lot of dots that many people have probably not seen let alone joined together.

Obviously there is a “but” coming.

The issue I have with this book extends to a number of points raised throughout the text that seems to be all too common amongst the progressive authors. I think they can be summarised as well-intentioned arguments that are wrong on the details but correct in the broader scheme of things. The easiest way to explain what I mean is with an example.

Repeated references are made to agriculture and how bad modern versions are for the environment.* One example used multiple times is the idea of farmers no longer being allowed to retain seeds and having to buy new seed from (insert evil company name here) each season. This is at best a misunderstanding. Farmers aren’t really plant breeders anymore, they get professional plant breeders to do that. Most seeds are developed by companies or organisations who charge a fee or royalty for use of the seed. Some seeds can be retained, but you pay an IP license of sorts (for where I live, this is called End Point Royalties, paid when the grain is sold). Some seeds, particularly hybrid crops (like the super scary GMOs**), don’t retain traits in successive generations or have sex drift (male:female ratio not optimal for pollination), as two examples. So a farmer could breed their own seed and retain it, they could even retain commercial seed, except those which aren’t suited to doing so.

But that doesn’t mean the point is wholly wrong. Why are most crops bred by private companies or organisations who charge for their use? Why aren’t these companies owned by farmer groups?*** Why have so many public breeding companies been privatised? It could be argued that Klein’s overall point about capitalism and seeds in agriculture is valid, just not in the way it is presented.

These frustrations lead me to do a lot of fact-checking on the rest of the book’s point that I was less familiar with. It makes for disjointed reading despite Klein being mostly correct.

Which leads me to another point. I was reading this book around the time of Earth Day 2020. Another progressive, Michael Moore, released a doco he produced called Planet of the Humans at this time, which was bad in many, many ways. My friend Ketan has a good debunking of it.

One of the points that Moore tries to make in his polemic (all of his docos are polemics) is around how green groups are often part of the problem. Klein also makes this point in This Changes Everything. The main difference between the two is that Moore tries for some cheap shots at the wrong targets, whereas Klein goes into some detail and gives concrete examples of groups being in bed with “the enemy”, highlights unproductive trade-offs and concessions, and rampant hypocrisy (particularly around having funds invested in fossil fuel companies). But worse still, Planet of the Humans is a lazy superficial mess. It holds up outdated denier talking points rather than digging into genuine criticisms. It just acts as a distraction and fuel**** for the denier movement. You have to wonder why they’d release the doco at all.

In conclusion, This Changes Everything is a fascinating book and well worth a read. But do remember to lateral read and lobby to stop the use of fossil fuels.

* This is true but not necessarily for the reasons stated. I’d summarise the problems of agriculture being that it is currently run as an open system and done to make money. Open systems mean that the nutrient cycle doesn’t run in a loop, essentially your poop should come back to the farm. And that farming is a business, so you are rewarded for growing as much as you can on as much land as you can, rather than conserving land that isn’t needed and ensuring what is grown makes it to who needs it.
** They aren’t super scary. Honestly, I think much of the fear comes down to scientific illiteracy, otherwise, people would want better regulation over all new crops, not just GMOs.
*** I’m simplifying, as some are.
**** Do you like puns? Because I’ve got puns.

Some comments I had as I read the book:

I do want to quibble with the bit about exporting industrial agriculture. Sure, the vastly improved technological advancements to agriculture have been shared. That’s a good thing. More food, fewer impacts, less land needed for the same production, etc. But Klein’s overall point still holds, since the improved agriculture hasn’t been used to make more with less, rather it has followed the money and decided to make more with more.

Further on and a similar point comes up. The decentralised and bottom-up approach to fixing major problems is a good idea (with her caveat of needing national/international co-ordination). But it makes a lot of assumptions about how well it would work. This flows into another bit about agriculture and agroecology that is both wrong and right. It’s frustrating because I know where the misinformed aspects come from (I’ve read some of the research from one of the cited experts and it has limited scope outside of his particular location and situation). At the same time, there are still good points being made, like needing to cut the emissions from fertiliser production. It’s just that the answer is renewables being used to make the fertiliser, not pretend we can grow food without fertiliser (unless you have some sort of global bio-waste processing and redistribution happening).

It can be frustrating to read progressive texts. The right idea and goals in mind, just not always able to weed out the nonsense. I get it, seeds and GMOs are bred by companies now… It’s big business… Doesn’t make it evil, nor something that farmers would be able to do themselves.

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Book review: Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate PoliticsFeminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.”

Feminism is for Everybody is bell hooks’ attempt to have a text that acts as a summary of feminism in an easy to read format for everyone. She had always wanted a book she could hand to people that did away with the exclusionary academic language of feminism. So she caved and wrote one.

This was an interesting book. As much as it is a book about feminism, it also gives a fairly good argument and overview of intersectionality. Its strengths certainly lay in covering the goals of feminism and why it is important, despite the supposed rights gained since the feminist movement started.

Feminism is for Everybody isn’t without flaws. Aside from her inability to use the word “the”,* hooks doesn’t achieve her stated aim of a book free of academic language. While she does keep it to a minimum, I still noted an academic tone to the writing. So while this is accessible, it does fall short of its stated aim.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to everybody.

* Seriously, it was so distracting. Obviously, this was a style choice but I’m not quite sure why it was made.

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Book review: Buddhism is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen

Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond BeliefsBuddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs by Steve Hagen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enlightenment or your money back!

How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is?
How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds?
How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality?
And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?

Steve Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What You Think is pretty straight forward. He sets out to answer the above four questions whilst addressing the title of the book. And he does this in the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much just examples to drive the main point home.

There aren’t too many books that wrap their entire argument/premise up quite this quickly. But that probably comes back to the message Hagen is trying to get across about Buddhism and truth. Essentially, we already know truth, but we are too caught up in everything else in life to see it. Thus, Zen practice and Buddhism are about helping get past the distractions.

This was a fairly solid book for advice around Zen practice. But the philosophy aspects I was after were a bit light on.

We often think we know things when in fact it’s only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we’re caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings. But if you’re here – truly present – you realize there’s nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm…Just be with this moment and see what’s going on.

 

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Book review: Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary ArmyBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s privatise the military. How could that possibly go wrong?

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army outlines the political landscape of Blackwater’s founding, the personal history of several key players – particularly Erik Prince – and the actions and intentions that made the company so infamous. It attempts to explain and document how mercenaries went through a rebranding to become the operators of choice in conflict zones around the world.

Okay, so I thought I had read enough news articles and the like to have some idea of what Blackwater was about. Mercenaries and the name Blackwater became something of a shorthand for “loose cannons”, becoming the villains in movies and TV shows. But as Scahill outlines, the reality and totality are so much worse than I’d thought. Blackwater and several other companies are discussed, along with the players who made this all possible. You’ll recognise many of the politician’s names, but maybe less so the “contractors”. This was disturbing reading.

They couldn’t get a coalition of the willing, so they turned to a coalition of the billing.

There were a few very important points that were made. The first was how senior political figures decided they wanted to privatise the military and associated intelligence work. This is such a terrible idea that you have to be pretty ideologically bent-out-of-shape to think it is good. The most troubling reason for this being terrible is the lack of accountability this gives these newly privatised people with guns, bombs, and shady contacts. As numerous leaks have shown over the years, the military is already far too unaccountable.*

Which brings me to the second point, that once they are privatised, the companies lobby hard to remain unaccountable, saying they don’t fall under military rules because they are private citizens, and that they don’t fall under civilian rules because they are acting as part of a military force. In essence, they can literally commit murder and they have been positioned by their lobbyists and key politicians to never be even investigated for the crime.

Those points should disturb everyone. You may not see a problem with war profiteering, or religious fundamentalists pushing for war and creating conflict (or at least involving themselves in them), or free marketeers wanting to privatise everything, or private companies hiring “shoot-first-never-answer/ask-questions” mercenaries to guard their kitchen supplies. But I think we can all agree that you have to be accountable for your actions, and Blackwater (et al.) has not been.

After reading this book you’d think Erik Prince would suffer some consequences…. Nope. He’s still going.

The only complaint I have about Scahill’s book is that it was somewhat repetitive. Several points were raised repeatedly, not to highlight them, but because the surrounding issues or players were being discussed again.

After reading this I can only hope that the various players involved aren’t allowed to have positions of power and influence ever again.**

* Because schools, hospitals, cafes, etc are totally legit military targets and not war crimes.
** My hopes will remain unfulfilled, I’m afraid.

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Book review: The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector MythsThe Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Government: We invented this.
Private company: Can we have it?
G: Sure. Just remember to pay you taxes.
P: Lol, our what?

The Entrepreneurial State is Mariana Mazzucato’s detailed effort to debunk some of the often claimed myths about government’s role in innovation. Her argument is that it is the public sector, not the private sector, that is often the innovators, risk-takers, and entrepreneurs in the economy. And because ideology has pushed for the state/government’s role to be smaller, we run the risk of not having the next generation of innovations/technologies.

I recently read Mariana’s The Value of Everything and wanted to read this earlier work. Similar to her arguments about how we measure the economy, Mariana’s arguments about innovation are well made, have plenty of references, piles of evidence, some great examples, and leave you with the head-scratching amazement that we need this book.

I’m sure that anyone who has worked in the public or private sector would read some of the examples in this book and be immediately reminded of some from their own field. Whether it be the government contract their company was gifted, or the publicly funded research that is commercialised, or the public infrastructure support given for that new project, we can probably all think of examples where entire industries or technologies wouldn’t have happened without governments taking the first step.

So how is it that myths (listed below) about the economy and who the entrepreneurs are persist?

Myths about Drivers of Innovation and Ineffective Innovation Policy
Myth 1: Innovation is about (private) R&D
Myth 2: Small (government) is beautiful
Myth 3: Venture capital is risk-loving
Myth 4: We live in a knowledge economy—just look at all the patents!
Myth 5: Europe’s problem is all about commercialization
Myth 6: Business investment requires ‘less tax and red tape’

There is only so much ideology that can stand in the way of reality. Unfortunately, I suspect that there is plenty of ideology floating around like an iceberg during a maiden voyage.*

An excellent book that is well worth reading.

We live in an era in which the State is being cut back. Public services are being outsourced, State budgets are being slashed and fear rather than courage is determining many national strategies. Much of this change is being done in the name of rendering markets more competitive, more dynamic. This book is an open call to change the way we talk about the State, its role in the economy and the images and ideas we use to describe that role. Only then can we begin to build the kind of society we want to live in, and want our children to live in, in a manner that pushes aside false myths about the State and recognizes how it can, when mission-driven and organized in a dynamic way, solve problems as complex as putting a man on the moon and solving climate change. And we need the courage to insist—through both vision and specific policy instruments—that the growth that ensues from the underlying investments be not only ‘smart’, but also ‘inclusive’.

* You only have to read some of the 1-star reviews for this book to find evidence of this ideology in action.

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Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Fake it ’till you make it” should probably only be allowed for artists, not scientists, engineers, and medical companies.

Bad Blood is the full expose John Carreyrou started with his Wall Street Journal articles in 2015 on Theranos. For a decade, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes had managed to attract huge amounts of investment, respected board members, and media attention. But in that decade the company had been putting the cart before the horse, promising big whilst still being in the early development phases. The CEO and president (also COO) kept this all under wraps by keeping its own staff in the dark, often resorting to bullying and intimidation.

I first heard about Theranos via a couple of friends who work in medical research. Obviously, I surround myself with other science nerds, so they were dubious of the claims the company and the media were making about their tech. To be honest, I didn’t really pay much attention, nor remember my friends’ pronouncements until I picked up this book from the library.

In many ways, this tale is worse than the “Biggest Corporate Fraud Since Enron” would have you believe. And that tale isn’t necessarily on the page. The author and many of this book’s readers will be shaking their heads at how terrible Theranos was with all its lying, fraud, and bullying of staff. Amazing. Hard to believe. But the thing is that a lot of what was described was just close enough to normal, within standard business practices*, that the fraud managed to run for so long. Using the example of the frequent firings of staff who raised concerns, that would seem just normal enough to not raise a red flag. It doesn’t appear like a CEO and COO trying to cover anything up.

Just close enough to a normal business.

The other thing I noted was the lack of accountability. Sure, the closing chapters cover the lawsuits being brought against Elizabeth Holmes and “Sunny” Balwani, and since Bad Blood was written 9 counts of wire fraud and 2 counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud have been brought against them. But that is just two of the culpable players in this tale. David Boies and his team of lawyers** spring to mind as having some responsibility here. No charges. Of course.

And wire fraud??? What about the danger patients were put in? What about all the underhanded tactics used against staff and former staff? Why isn’t this behaviour being held accountable in this instance so as to set some sort of precedent across the corporate world?***

There needs to be way more accountability for all involved. Not just for those who lost people money.

If it isn’t clear by now, this is an interesting read and one that will fascinate and annoy you. Carreyrou does a great job expanding on his reporting with an engaging book.

* As other reviewers have pointed out, this story isn’t really that different from a lot of Silicon Valley business tales. Wrapping staff up in non-disclosure agreements, working them for long hours, spying on them, firing them at the drop of a hat (in a country that ties health insurance to employment, and doesn’t believe in a social safety net), that’s all standard practice. Had Theranos been operating in tech rather than medicine, they’d have probably gotten away with it, as medicine has some regulations, unlike a lot of other fields.

** Same lawyers who covered up and intimidated Harvey Weinstein’s victims. They are well known for their nastiness, as mentioned in the book.

*** Not much was made of it in the book, but Holmes was mentored by Silicon Valley’s “best,” including Larry Ellison, who is a textbook example of the amoral, at-all-cost “entrepreneur” the area is so famous for. Which is why I don’t see this as exceptional.

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Book review: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global EconomyThe Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if I told you that we don’t measure most of the things we value in our economy?

Mariana Mazzucato sets out to show that when we talk about the economy we are only talking about certain parts of it (and of our society). She shows how the parts that are included is determined primarily by the history of economic thinking, ideology, and what’s currently making people rich. Mariana then argues that this is flawed and fails to account for several very important aspects of the economy to our current and future detriment.

I’ve read several economics books over the past year that have addressed the failures of the neo-liberal economic ideology. The solid argumentation, countless references, piles of evidence, and rather obviousness of the problems leave me scratching my head as to why these books need to exist. Why isn’t this obvious to the various “experts” who are running our economy?

The Value of Everything is a very solid argument for rethinking the way we diminish the role of government in our economy. The current “get out of the way while we’re making money, but bail us out when we mess up”* approach is clearly wrong. I’ve heard the very charismatic arguments from the likes of Friedman on why free markets are the way to go, and I thought Mariana’s rebuttals to those arguments were good if a bit too charitable.** But it is clear that governments have a long history of being the innovators, investing early, creating the value that business then exploits, and without that, we’re going to see things fall in a heap.

Well worth a read so we can all start to take off our neo-liberal ideological goggles.

* Privatise profits, socialise losses.
** Worth reading this piece on the Virginian School, a more extreme version of Friedman’s Chicago School for some context as to how the “Free Market” is a con to turn the masses into slaves.

See also:
Curing Affluenza – this has a similar upbeat “fixing” approach to our current system.
Utopia for Realists – takes a different approach and suggests a different system may be needed.
Austerity: History of a dangerous idea – similarly documents some of the failures of neo-liberalism and how it is ideologically driven.

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Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

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