What I’ve been reading

by on May 6, 2017 at 12:39 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Michael J. Klarman, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution.  Excellent author, the chapters on the time period before the Constitution are good enough to make the “best books of the year list,” the rest is a much above-average summary and distillation, but of more familiar material.  At 880 pp. of clear, limpid, and instructive prose, it is a winner in any case.

2. W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland.  More of a mutual travelogue, with alternating contributions, than a series of letters, one learns that even in 1936: “There is little stigma attached to illegitimacy.  Bastards are brought up on an equal footing with legitimate children of the family.”  Furthermore, “All chocolate or sweets should be bought in London.”  During the trip they run into Goering, yes the Goering.

3. Richard A. Posner, The Federal Judiciary: Strengths and Weaknesses.  This is a grumpy book, but I don’t mean that in a grumpy kind of way, as I like many grumpy books: “The dominant theme of this book has been judicial standpattism — more precisely, the stubborn refusal of the judiciary to adapt to modernity.”  By the end, Posner gives the federal judiciary a grade between B and B+, I was surprised it was so high.

4. Duff McDonald, The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite. “In the early 1920s, HBS was still without its own buildings at Harvard, faculty were crammed together in cramped offices, and classrooms were scattered around Harvard Yard.”  This is a remarkably clear and engaging survey of its subject matter, the main drawback being it never explains the rise of HBS in terms of…management, as HBS itself might do so.  There is thus an odd cipher at the book’s core, plus from the discussion of Michael Jensen onward, the book descends increasingly into ad hominem attacks and unfair moralizing.  This volume is an odd mix, but still worth reading for its contributions.

Stephen Ellis, This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime, is one of the better books on that country: “…there are even private colleges in Lagos offering courses in credit card fraud and advance-fee fraud.”

Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, is a series of essays on society and theology from one of the Mormon “grandmasters.”

After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum, collects many essays on the Piketty book and also on the topic more generally.

Shahab Ahmed, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses of Early Islam, “…the early Muslim community believed almost universally that the Satanic verses incident was a true historical fact.”  Ahmed, a brilliant scholar at Harvard, passed away in 2015, here is a short appreciation.  If they wrote books for me, someone would be working on “Islam and Strauss” right now.

1 dan1111 May 6, 2017 at 1:17 am

“By the end, Posner gives the federal judiciary a grade between B and B+”

Spoiler alert!

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2 Parmenides May 6, 2017 at 1:39 am

Does seemingly uncritical enthuisiasm for other’s ideas lead to wisdom?
Which ideas do we hold dear and why?

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3 Lex May 6, 2017 at 1:49 am

#3.
Yeah, that’s not being grumpy: It’s being an asshole — one who, oddly, didn’t consider that then-Judge Gorsuch might have been carrying a cell phone. Go away, Dick, the time when anyone in the judiciary cared what you think is long gone.

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4 Art Deco May 6, 2017 at 10:37 am

Indubitably steamed for 30 years that Scalia got the nod he thought should have been his.

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5 Amigo May 6, 2017 at 2:20 am

“limpid” – new word of the day
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/limpid

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6 polyglot May 6, 2017 at 2:33 am

‘Islam & Strauss’- I see a good phd thesis here- https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/33199889.pdf.
Andalusian ‘falsafiya’ and rationalist jurisprudence was rejected for good reason- they cashed out as ‘maslaha’, the notion that the ‘public interest’ required every sort of injustice- e.g. the Sultan killing or blinding his brothers so as to avoid ‘fitna’.
Devotional piety and ego-abnegating regard for Justice and Mercy, provided the only refuge for decency and humanity in a corrupt and arbitrary world.
In the Sixties, the crazy actions of Military Dictators and Monarchs (like the Shah of Iran) created a demand for the rule of the Islamic jurist- ‘vilayet e faqih’- e.g. Ayatollah Khomeini. However- partly because of the Iran-Iraq War and the Revolutionary nature of the new regime- the same problem of arbitrary action and use of torture and killing reappeared. Still, one has to reluctantly admit that many Islamic ‘mujtahids’ are scholarly gentlemen, whose daughters tend to have PhDs in Science subjects, so Islamic Law enjoys more prestige than either the arbitrary rule of some General or even the ‘neo-liberal’ lawyers/MBAs.
Mossadegh was a Swiss trained lawyer. He actually endeared himself to the New York Press by his valetudinarian quixoticism. Still, he was going down the road of arbitrary power before he was toppled by the more ruthless yet.

Any other suggestions for a books on ‘Leo Strauss and Islam’?

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7 So Much For Subtlety May 6, 2017 at 3:06 am

n the Sixties, the crazy actions of Military Dictators and Monarchs (like the Shah of Iran) created a demand for the rule of the Islamic jurist- ‘vilayet e faqih’- e.g. Ayatollah Khomeini. However- partly because of the Iran-Iraq War and the Revolutionary nature of the new regime- the same problem of arbitrary action and use of torture and killing reappeared.

However? Why pick that word? Khomeini came to power proclaiming that the Religious government had the power to pass whatever laws it liked. That the vilayet-e-faqih could even suspend or abolish the central pillars of Islam. There was never a time when Khomeini and his followers did not see themselves as free to be as arbitrary as they wanted.

Also, of course, torture was and is central to Islamic law. They have no jury and a system of swearing. So if both sides swear they are innocent, as they always do, torture is the only option. Khomeini was never intending to get rid of it.

Crazy actions? You mean raising the age of consent to 16? Those whacky Shahs!

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8 polyglot May 6, 2017 at 8:23 am

I conceive vilayet-e-faqih as a way to maximise profits for practitioners of fiqh. The moment you resort to torture, you get a rent to the torturer- a blue collar ‘pehelwan’ of the sort Trump says he loves. It is up to the properly qualified Religious jurists to mentally torture all and sundry till they have beggared themselves running here and there to procure fatwas. That’s how any legal system works. After they have been beggared there is no need to spend money on torturing or shooting them. Just hand them over to someone who will pay for the privilege.
The problem with the Iranian Revolution is that a declasse blue collar ‘Basiji’ element was able to extract a rent by intermediating the paternal solicitude of the Religious Jurists for the well being of their victim’s souls.
The Shah’s crazy actions had good American precedents
1) the White Revolution- Land Reform, that panacea of Nineteen Fifties US AID and Ford and Rockerfeller Foundations. Iranian peasants flooded into the Cities while the landlords and clerics got pissed off.
2) Imitating Nixon’s wage and price controls but in true Iranian style. ‘Imprisoning the baker for high bread prices’ is the epitome of Sultanic despotism and caused the bazaari middle class to flock to the Mullahs.

I may mention, velayet-e-faqih had the usual meaning ‘holding property in trust for a minor or mentally challenged person’ so, initially, it sounded all sweetness and light. Initially a lot of Shias felt that the Great Imam was being held hostage by the Satanic Leftists. Indeed some Leftists also believed they had influence. To add to the comedy, Paris and Washington were pulling in different directions while the BBC Persian Service was pulling down the whole house of cards.

One thing you have to say for the Iranian Revolution- dog did not eat dog. Clerics did not slaughter each other. There was always some way for the relatives of a disgraced cleric to get their business done through the man who had brought him down. Furthermore, a lot of blue collar types have risen up into the ‘technocracy’. All in all, things could have been a lot worse- indeed were and and are worse in Iraq and Syria and perhaps, one day soon, in the peninsula.

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9 Art Deco May 6, 2017 at 12:06 pm

n the Sixties, the crazy actions of Military Dictators and Monarchs (like the Shah of Iran) created a demand for the rule of the Islamic jurist- ‘vilayet e faqih’- e.g. Ayatollah Khomeini.

Other than the Shah, not one military or monarchic autocrat of that era ever confronted an islamist movement with the vigor to seize the state. The closest example would be Algeria ca. 1990 (which was led by the non-crazy incremental liberalizer, Chadli Benjedid).

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10 polyglot May 6, 2017 at 12:32 pm

What I meant was that the Generals were undermining the Rule of Law and pursuing stupid economic policies. So, the Clerics looked good by comparison.

Nasser was a military leader. His involvement in Yemen against the Zaidi Imams was utterly crazy. His relationship with Iraq and Syria was bonkers. I recall, in ’68 an unprecedented situation where a General in Iraq captured the Radio Station and announced a coup d’etat. Nothing unusual about that, you might say but wait for the kicker. The guy was already Head of Government! He had toppled himself. Everybody in Baghdad thought that Nasser had ordered the General to carry out a coup forgetting that he had already done so. So the poor chap had to topple himself. Anyway, he soon ran off to Cairo and claimed assylum- not lunatic but political.
Traditional Islam wasn’t a big problem in the Fifties and Sixties- there were no more Mad Mullahs or Mahdis. Indeed, the infamous Grand Mufti was a modernist without much Religious education. Still it is notable that Pakistan’s Ayub Khan failed to get the upper hand with the village Mullahs and his favourite ‘Public Intellectual’ had to return to McGill.

In Algeria, as you say, the Islamists were actually less bonkers than the regime. However, soon enough you get a guy who says not blowing up anybody who hasn’t yet blown you up is apostasy.

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11 Art Deco May 6, 2017 at 12:46 pm

In Algeria, as you say, the Islamists were actually less bonkers than the regime.

I said nothing of the kind and you’re dead wrong.

12 polyglot May 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm

You said Benjedid was a non-crazy incremental liberalizer. In that case he was right to move towards the moderate Islamists and it was crazy to topple him.
I assumed you had transitive preferences and were rational. Clearly, I was dead wrong on both counts. Good of you to clarify this.

13 Todd K May 6, 2017 at 4:40 am

On the back of the Piketty book:

“Piketty’s work did what decades of rising disparities couldn’t do: it reminded macroeconomists that inequality matters…” (Justin Wolfers, University of Michigan)

Is Wolfers kidding?

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14 dearieme May 6, 2017 at 7:24 am

Kidding? More likely he’s arse-licking.

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15 Todd K May 6, 2017 at 9:25 am

I meant that does he really think the issue of inequality suddenly ‘reminded’ macroeconomists that the rising inequality they somehow hadn’t noticed for 30 years suddenly began to be discussed only in 2014 thanks to a political economy book by a French guy?

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16 Ricardo May 6, 2017 at 2:07 pm

Read the passage again: it mentions Piketty’s “work,” not just his 2014 book. Piketty has an extensive record of publications in academic journals (in English, not sure of the relevance of his being a “French guy”) stretching back over 20 years.

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17 Ryan May 6, 2017 at 4:35 pm

Macroeconomists have been studying inequality for decades. Wolfers is either misinformed or intentionally misleading readers.

18 Todd K May 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm

“French guy” = the outsider narrative that was packaged with the book. That is, outside of typical American or British macroeconomics.

And, what Ryan said.

19 Rich Berger May 6, 2017 at 6:11 am

Still putting off reading Art of the Deal?

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20 prior_test2 May 6, 2017 at 7:20 am

It would be difficult to put that one on an GMU econ dept. or Mercatus Center reimbursement form. What, do you think he spends any of his own money on these books (at a minimum, the Amazon affiliate links alone are likely more than enough to make a profit from mentioning a book even if it is bought with revenue from this website)?

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21 rayward May 6, 2017 at 6:33 am

1. Of course, to suggest that our Constitution wasn’t handed down from God is tantamount to treason in the eyes on many if not most Americans. Many biographers of the founders have alluded to the compromises that are embedded in the Constitution, but Klarman appears to combine them into one book. Not since Bruce Ackerman’s The Failure of the Founding Fathers has so honest an assessment been made of the American Bible. I’ve red Ackerman’s book but not Klarman’s. I will read Klarman’s: if nothing else good comes of the Trump election, an honest assessment of the Constitution and its flaws surely must. I have two comments about the subject. One, the founders understood the flaws but expected the Constitution would be amended often and wisely, a belief belied by actual events that followed. Two, Klarman makes the point that the Constitution was a departure from the more democratic state constitutions. It’s true that amendments did make the document more democratic, but actual events might lead one to conclude that doing so did not improve the document.

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22 dearieme May 6, 2017 at 7:33 am

“Of course, to suggest that our Constitution wasn’t handed down from God is tantamount to treason in the eyes on many if not most Americans.” Well said. I think it’s a fascinating document but it’s effectively beyond discussion with people who view it as inerrant holy writ.

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23 Roy LC May 6, 2017 at 1:41 pm

People proclaim it inerrant and holy because it is very likely that an astonishingly diverse group of people are completely certain that any replacement will be worse. Thus declaring it divine is a very good way to stop assorted sophmoric idiots from trying to change it.

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24 dearieme May 6, 2017 at 7:20 pm

It’s because it’s too hard to amend that The Constitution plays an ever smaller role in the constitution.

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25 john byrne May 6, 2017 at 5:07 pm

including certain SCOTUS originalists, living and dead, I presume , as well as the Federalist Society.

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26 Thiago Ribeiro May 6, 2017 at 6:49 am

“Furthermore, ‘All chocolate or sweets should be bought in London.” During the trip they run into Goering, yes the Goering’.”
Was Goering buying chocolate? I can imagine that.

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27 dearieme May 6, 2017 at 7:29 am

There’s a golf club near us whose members, at its annual dinner, drink a glass of Kümmel. I asked why: apparently the habit was introduced by Goering, who was a member (before The War, naturally).

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28 Thiago Ribeiro May 6, 2017 at 7:38 am

Congratulations to British for not dropping their Nazi (or then-future Nazi) down the memory hole and rewriting the History. It is the difference between Europeans, even English, and Asians. The Japanese I know keep asking “Tojo, which Tojo”? and “Nanking, which Nanking?”.

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29 Ex-banker May 6, 2017 at 10:43 am

Kümmel is commonly drunk at Scotland’s most elite golf clubs, including The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield), Prestwick and the R&A. Seriously doubt Goering was the source of such tradition.

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30 dearieme May 6, 2017 at 11:30 am

Our local club is a more modest affair and far south of the border. There are other facts in the case that suggest that the Goering yarn might be true.

When we arrived hereabouts nobody but those golfers seemed to have heard of Kümmel. Very odd. I’ve always liked the stuff, following the paternal example. I can assure you that my father’s love of Kümmel was Goering-independent.

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31 rayward May 6, 2017 at 7:09 am

Picking on Piketty. That Piketty would drive the discussion of inequality is confounding. No, not because inequality doesn’t deserve the attention, but because Piketty’s thesis (r > g) is equivalent to blaming the self-righteous Comey for the ignoramus Trump; surely, Comey doesn’t deserve all the blame/credit. Cowen is not a contributor to this collection of essays on inequality. That’s unfortunate, for he has written a prescient book on the subject. Prescient because in his book Cowen observes (accurately in my view) the consequences of such a high level of inequality and predicts (accurately in my view) what we can expect as a result of such a high level of inequality. Meanwhile, the contributors to this collection pick on Piketty with explanations for inequality ranging from too much technology, to too much globalization, to too many women in the workplace, to too many rapacious bankers.

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32 rayward May 6, 2017 at 7:52 am

4. The rise of the moneymen (the MBAs) converted corporate America from leadership by tinkerers to leadership by bean counters, the consequence being the almost destruction of one industry (the automotive industry) to the almost destruction of a great technology company (GE). The moneymen have now set their sights on larger game, the global economy. God help us.

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33 Ted Craig May 6, 2017 at 9:18 am

A better example is GM. Mary Barra is the first engineer to run the company in 25 years and only the fourth one in the company’s history. The infamous Roger Smith is more typical of the company’s leadership in the post-war era. Another one, Tom Murphy, once said, “General Motors is not in the business of making cars. It is in the business of making money.”

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34 dearieme May 6, 2017 at 11:31 am

And then it got into the business of taking money.

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35 john byrne May 6, 2017 at 5:11 pm

McDonald’s book THE FIRM, about McKinsey has an interesting chapter on its involvement with GM.

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36 Potato May 6, 2017 at 10:26 am

Yes it was the MBAs. Not the sclerotic unions and the idiotic work rule contracts forced on the companies. The management that wanted to turn profits, yep.

That’s why automobile manufacturing is so strong again in the Midwest, and why the south hasn’t had any rise in the auto industry.

You nailed it.

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37 john byrne May 6, 2017 at 5:17 pm

yup, absolutely nothing to do with rising oil/gas prices, Japanese competition, management philosophy to ignore quality/defect issues in production process–it was the unions, just as they brought down the US steel industry, drag passengers off airplanes, cause the common cold. Curse those infernal union!! Without them, there would be no need to make America great again!!

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38 zztop May 6, 2017 at 9:23 pm

Boom!

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39 chuck martel May 6, 2017 at 8:55 am

“There is little stigma attached to illegitimacy. Bastards are brought up on an equal footing with legitimate children of the family.”

How humane and liberal. But in defiance of religious and social norms. The abandonment of social approbation for illegitimacy is one more step in the decent to Hades. Bastards must be punished to discourage the production of more bastards.

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40 Thiago Ribeiro May 6, 2017 at 9:14 am

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whipping_boy

Actually, the idea is analagous to the Vulcan concept of “krenath”, the “shamed ones”. I read Star Trek book when I was ten years old.

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41 Slugger May 6, 2017 at 11:56 am

I don’t think that reading a novel gives total understanding of something as complex as a society of even a few thousand people, but reading Halldòr Laxness’ trilogy Iceland Bell gave me the impression that illegitimacy and extramarital affairs were harshly punished in 18th century Iceland (life in general was harsh).
The population of Iceland is small and can be traced to a few founders. They are probably so closely related to one another that concerns about legitimacy are not biologically relevant.
BTW, I found Iceland very charming when I visited ten years ago.

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42 ricardo May 6, 2017 at 8:24 pm

Great book.

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43 Todd May 6, 2017 at 9:12 am

3. Posner’s takedowns, both at oral arguments and in written opinions, of luddites and reactionaries has been the best reading/listening from the federal bench for decades.

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44 Ted Craig May 6, 2017 at 9:20 am

I’m curious if your an attorney, because most of the ones I know who have to deal with Posner have a much lower opinion of his work. It might be entertaining, but they say it’s not really that useful.

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45 Todd May 6, 2017 at 9:53 am

I can’t imagine what is meant by “useful”. He may or may not be popular with lawyers who have to stand before him, but his track record in terms of influence is impressive and long-standing. He is the rare legal scholar who has been enormously influential both in the academics of law and from the bench.

His devotion to his own ideas of pragmatism is always going to be pissing off somebody somewhere, and he currently is in crosshairs of the conservative establishment (after being in the crosshairs of much of the Left for decades).

And despite his overall B/B+ grade for the federal judiciary, he would have no trouble telling anyone within earshot of his very low opinion of the current level of jurisprudence on the Supreme Court, which he describes as “awful”.

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46 Art Deco May 6, 2017 at 10:30 am

which he describes as “awful

He didn’t get the promotion he wanted. The usual rap on him is that he arrogant and sloppy (and now senile).

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47 Ted Craig May 6, 2017 at 10:39 am

You never answered my question about being an attorney, but you did give the classic Posner apologist line: “They just can’t stand up to his genius.”

This line from a review of one of his books by law professor Paul Horwitz that says it reads like “several books not one, sometimes conflicting in diagnosis and prescription, and too often wandering into fun but unfocused irrelevancies” pretty much captures the criticism I hear.

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48 Art Deco May 6, 2017 at 11:51 am

Sounds like the line editors at his publishers find him so exasperating that they just send it to the printer so they don’t actually have to communicate with him about anything.

49 Steve Sailer May 7, 2017 at 2:23 am

“If they wrote books for me, someone would be working on “Islam and Strauss” right now.”

Leo Strauss would make a good character in a Jorge Luis Borges short story.

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50 Art Deco May 7, 2017 at 8:00 am

You mean Borges wrote about unworldly academics subject posthumously to the fantasies of others?

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51 Strauss / Islam May 7, 2017 at 1:57 pm

Joshua Parens – Leo Strauss and the Recovery of Medieval Political Philosophy focuses in part on Islam.

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52 Dwight G May 8, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Thanks for the note on Klarman’s book. I’ve been waffling on tackling it, but I think I’ll give it a go.

By the way, many thanks for your book notes. I got a copy of Erica Benner’s “Be Like the Fox” after your notes on it. Despite not fulling agreeing with her fully, it was an engaging and informative read. Thanks again.

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