Best non-fiction books of 2017

by on December 2, 2017 at 1:02 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is my list, more or less in the order I read them, and the links typically bring you to my lengthier comments:

Neil M. Maher, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius.

Daniel W. Drezner, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.

Mary Gaitskill, Somebody with a Little Hammer, Essays.

Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World.

David Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.

James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

David Der-Wei Wang, editor. A New Literary History of Modern China.

Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — And Us.

David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.

Ken Gormley, editor,  The Presidents and the Constitution.

Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.

Brian Merchant, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.

Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia.  Technically this doesn’t come out until January, but I read it smack in the middle of 2017 to blurb it.  It is my pick for “best of the year,” if I am allowed to count it.  It is one book that has changed how I frame 2017 and beyond.

Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy.

Tim Harford, Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy.

Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought.

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.

William Taubmann, Gorbachev: His Life and Times.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste.

Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won.

Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.

Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

Douglas Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.

Here is my shortened list for Bloomberg.  Here is my fiction list.

1 So Much For Subtlety December 2, 2017 at 3:56 am

The best review of Pfaff’s book is still Jason Bayz:

https://jasonbayz.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/locked-in/

Otherwise what is TC interested in? I assume that for economists the world of Adam Smith still forms a North Star about which the profession’s intellectual life rotates. So that there should be books of interest on the period and other thinkers in that period is not a surprise. I assume TC is still young and has a techno-optimism caused by SF reading as a child. Hence the very popular section on new technologies and their effects on people. The years of his youth seems to be a period of interest as well.

India is an interesting introduction. I don’t remember two books in previous years. Does this mean a rising India? A new restaurant near his home? Or a comely colleague that might cause Mrs TC concern? Perhaps the first sign of the China boom coming to an end? I guess we will have to stay tuned in to find out.

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2 Anonymous December 2, 2017 at 8:41 am

On a more positive note although not published this year I am finding “Gandhi before India” extraodinarily well-written.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/books/review/gandhi-before-india-by-ramachandra-guha.html

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3 shrikanthk December 2, 2017 at 9:16 am

Bibek Debroy, the economist with the Indian Planning Commission (Niti Aayog), published the unabridged translation of both Mahabharata and Ramayana in 10 volumes and 3 volumes respectively.

A remarkable achievement in modern Indology, particularly Mahabharata which has been translated unabridged just 2-3 times prior to Debroy’s effort.

However the Hindu-phobic foreign press prefers to eulogize books like that of Gidla and Coffey while not even bothering to mention, let alone review, veritable works of Indian scholarship.

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4 shrikanthk December 2, 2017 at 9:23 am

Among other great works on India in recent years I rank the great works of Edwin Bryant, the Rutgers Indologist, who has authored the seminal work on Patanjali Yoga Sutra (translation + commentary), a translation of Bhagavad Purana, as well as a more recent 2017 book on Bhakti Yoga.

Diana Eck, the professor in the Harvard school of Divinity, wrote a somewhat less intense, but a very educative work on Indian pilgrimage places titled “India – A Sacred Geography”. Again, very little mention of that in the western press.

Denigrating India and Indians is hot fashion as it sells like hot cakes in the abrahamic world. And the western press caters to the western aversion towards India.

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5 A Truth Seeker December 2, 2017 at 10:01 am

“Denigrating India and Indians is hot fashion as it sells like hot cakes in the abrahamic world.”
May Indians should stop being savages.

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6 Vishwas December 2, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Thank you, Shrikanth! I did not know about Bibek Debroy’s effort.

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7 Roadrunner December 2, 2017 at 1:17 pm

We’re getting tired of Indian sjw’s telling us how racist we are, seeking minority privilege. Clean up your own house first.

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8 shrikanthk December 2, 2017 at 1:46 pm

Haha…I am anything but an SJW.

I rooted for Trump in 2016 (though I am not a fan) for the lack of a better conservative choice . My intellectual heroes include Thomas Sowell and Harvey Mansfield.

Tyler Cowen is the SJW who has taken it upon himself to encourage negative press on India. His lionization of Gidla is a classic example of social justice warriorship.

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9 Tyler Cowen December 2, 2017 at 2:37 pm

It’s worth noting that the Mahabharata was one of my top picks for 2015.

10 shrikanthk December 2, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Tyler – Thanks! Checked it out. I notice it was a blank verse rendering by Carole Satyamurty. I think it is a highly abridged version.

The Debroy version is an unabridged translation.

11 anonymous December 2, 2017 at 10:58 pm

shrikanthk – India is a complicated place, as is the rest of the world! Where were you back in the day when I threw a party where we would, among other things, listen to ” Evening Ragas from Benares”? No you did not show up.

12 uair01 December 2, 2017 at 4:47 am

Let me add two books to the discussion. Of all the Brexit books I’ve read this is the best one: https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/how-to-lose-a-referendum It goes back to the 1950’s and describes all the major events up to 2017.

Of all the “what happened” books I’ve read this is the best one: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/12/the-rise-of-the-outsiders-steve-richards-review It is a comprehensive review of the cultural changes that led to Brexit and Trump.

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13 momama December 2, 2017 at 5:19 am

Three out of twenty-seven books on this list have a female author. That’s much lower than than the share of non-fiction written by women (at just under 30 % in 2014, in itself an interesting number).

What can we infer from this? That men are better non-fiction authors? Or something about Tyler’s reading habits?

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14 clamence December 2, 2017 at 5:49 am

If I may translate, u sayin’ Tyler be havin’ his self a sausage partay!

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15 momama December 2, 2017 at 8:01 am

Well, yeah, but that may be justified. Maybe the sausages are just better than the pirogis this year. But also maybe TC is generally more interested in sausages and their concerns. It’d be interesting to hear his thoughts on it, given the skewness.

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16 momama December 2, 2017 at 9:24 am

Actually, looking at these lists from previous years they’re the same. About 30 books, 2-3 female authors.

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17 Trump Fan December 2, 2017 at 10:12 am

I counted four having female authors or co-authors,(Diane Coffey, Sujatha Gidla, Mary Gaitskill, Jean M. Twenge) still it is quite male. The subjects are stereotypically male, economics, evolution, WWII, history. Several come at them from what could be called a “revisionist” angle.(Caplan, Pfaff, Scott)

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18 Lanigram December 2, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Women are too smart to bother with these nerdy topics. Having a vastly superior understanding of human nature, relatively unchanged from the end of the speciation phase of human evolution +- 100,000 years ago, women focus on writing best-selling bodice-rippers. Women bank the money while men spank the monkey.

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19 So Much For Subtlety December 2, 2017 at 8:20 pm

That is quite funny. It is also largely true. It is remarkable how often female historians end up writing up market bodice rippers. I assume that economics is not much different. Which may be why most of the best female economics writers are actually men. Well, in fairness it is a sample of one.

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20 shrikanthk December 2, 2017 at 5:30 am

How about “The Cost of Good Intentions”?

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21 shrikanthk December 2, 2017 at 5:33 am

“The High Cost of Good Intentions – A History of US Federal Entitlement Programs”

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22 Mulp December 2, 2017 at 12:57 pm

No entitlements in Afghanistan, no public education, no public policy building railroads, no universal health care. No gun control.

Clearly Afghanistan is the libertarian ideal.

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23 A Truth Seeker December 2, 2017 at 7:59 am

“Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.”

So that is what America has become: Democratic Kampuchea, where education is wrong and educated people must be killed as if they were rabid dogs!!

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24 Lanigram December 2, 2017 at 12:31 pm

Yes, Brazil is much better. A tiny minority of Brazilians, the wealthy and politically connected, get an average education – the really bright ones get scholarships to US universities – while the rest of Brazil, mostly descendents of Brazil’s huge slave population, six times the size of the US slave population, is illiterate, toothless, and unemployed. Thank the Orishais for the “salario minimo”.

Oh, and finally, STFU.

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25 A Truth Seeker December 2, 2017 at 1:24 pm

You lie, boy!! Most Brazilians are perfectly literate and gainfully employed. Adhrence to African cults is small and decreasing fast.

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26 Mulp December 2, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Afghanistan, Somalia, et al clearly prove Kaplan correct…

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27 A Truth Seeker December 2, 2017 at 1:25 pm

So that is the blueprint for America: Somalia…

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28 Anon Scholar December 3, 2017 at 10:26 am

The book ok to provoke discussion but overall, it’s quite weak. The basic argument is along the line of “90% of the math (chemistry/english/grammar/physics…) we learn in K-12 will not be used by the student in his future’s real job”. The implication is that there is only signaling value.

Seems to dismiss that we want to teach an array of subjects because as kids we still don’t know if we are good at math/physics/literature/etc… Also, signaling value is not such a bad thing under incomplete info. Asking whether it’s best to specialize after age 22 (as in the US) or 15 (germany) is a good question, but he does not ask that question, nor looks at it in the only real meaningful way (empirically).

I would not recommend to read unless interested in wacky arguments with comedic undertones.

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29 rayward December 2, 2017 at 8:18 am

I just bought the kindle edition of the Presidents and the Constitution. The price of the kindle edition is actually higher than the hard cover price – I wonder if this will become the norm. I increasingly rely on kindle editions for the font. In any case, the authors are a varied group, and include Kenneth Starr on Reagan. That almost, but only almost, turned me against buying the book. But what more can I learn about Reagan, having lived through the Reagan years and read several books on the subject. Not on Cowen’s list, but a book on the constitution that taught me what I didn’t know is Michael Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup. I suppose it’s not for everybody, since it provides a very different perspective on the Founders’ motivations than what’s typically taught and believed.

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30 Mulp December 2, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Haven’t read any of the books on Reagan, but reading his signing ceremony statements for his tax hikes, I find all those who cite Reagan as their justification for cutting taxes makes me question what is in books about Reagan. I lived through the Reagan job killing tax cuts that would have made him a one term president, and then his job creating tax hike and spend more that got employment back to where it was when he was elected so he could be reelected for creating jobs for two years after killing jobs for two years.

(Only people like Sumner see falling monetary velocity as proof money supply is too tight, not as a sign that people with lots of money are too tight with money and not paying workers. Tax and spend forces people with money to either pay taxes so government pays workers, or dodge taxes by paying workers, the biggest business tax dodge loophole. Note, Ryan, Trump, et al, are frustrated by the fact the majority of the rest of the world taxes paying workers to raise revenue to pay workers in education, health care, etc [VAT].)

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31 Pshrnk December 2, 2017 at 9:14 am

From your earlier review of:*The Ideas Industry*:

The ongoing polarization and exaggeration of discussion is hard to stop, for instance one of the most famous and highest status public intellectuals covered by Dan — Paul Krugman — only a few days ago on Twitter called Trump a “corrupt Russian puppet.” Krugman is not even one of the figures Dan criticizes.

called Trump a “corrupt Russian puppet. How dare Krugman state truth.

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32 A Truth Seeker December 2, 2017 at 9:36 am

So that is what America has become: Finland with a worse educational system!!

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33 Art Deco December 2, 2017 at 12:05 pm

How dare Krugman state truth.

Robin Welles (a.k.a ‘Paul Krugman’) is a nut sectary. Not a rare type among people interested in public affairs, as you’re demonstrating for us.

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34 Lanigram December 2, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Krugman has a new “do nothing” job. Though still alive, but well past his “sell by” date, his mind is out to pasture. He once had some interesting ideas about trajectories. Clearly, the dynamical system that is his life trajectory has bifurcated. Like some crass caller for a strip club, he is now a cheap hustler for the left.

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35 Art Deco December 2, 2017 at 2:54 pm

I think his teaching schedule at the Graduate Center of CUNY is one course per term. Not sure if he’s supervising any dissertations. As a researcher, he seems to have retired about 10 years ago. His papers in that time have consisted of literature reviews, surveys of data (Brookings Papers on…), after-dinner remarks, collaborative work where others are lead authors, and at least one paper he threw in a drawer 20-odd years ago that he dusted off and sent to some journal.

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36 rayward December 2, 2017 at 10:24 am

Bryan Caplan is often described as a “contrarian economist”, a moniker that seems to appeal to Cowen these days. Besides believing education (i.e., public education) is a waste, Caplan believes people should have more children (https://www.amazon.com/Selfish-Reasons-Have-More-Kids/dp/0465028616/ref=sr_1_2). Actually, these two beliefs have much in common: It’s “public” education that Caplan opposes and having more kids is the alternative to “public” social programs for seniors (i.e., social security). Caplan’s goal is the dismantling of government social programs, including schools and social security, dressed up as a high minded critique of schools and a supporter of the family. Libertarians like Caplan have gotten much more clever in making their arguments. Very little is as it seems these days. One need only observe the Republican Congress and the Republican president. The irony is that it wasn’t long ago that the right was warning Americans of the threat of propaganda delivered by the left. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

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37 Mulp December 2, 2017 at 12:17 pm

He obviously sees Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, et al as having far superior economies where development has occurred more rapidly because resoirces have not been wasted on education, or postal service, transportation like railroads, as was the case with the United States, especially after big government leftist Lincoln and Republican Party rule. Post Office, railroads, land grant colleges.

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38 Lanigram December 2, 2017 at 12:44 pm

The “public education system” is a retirement fund that punishes boys while proslytizing the prisoners with leftist ideology. Only girls and girly-boys thrivd in that system, which is why girls dominate from k-Phd.

Free online ed will eventually kill public schools and overpriced second tier universities.

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39 Art Deco December 2, 2017 at 3:19 pm

which is why girls dominate from k-Phd.

You need to do some shaving. The propensity men and women to enroll in college in 1978 was about the same. What’s happened is that the propensity of women to enroll has grown faster than that of men in the intervening years.

When you look at the degrees they are earning, you’ll notice that programs in which the women’s share of degree recipients exceeds their share of the workforce consist of (1) occupational degrees in fields historically dominated by women (e.g.elementary teaching, nursing, social work, nutrition and dietetics, &c), (2) academic and arts degrees in the following: performing and studio arts, the humanities, sociology and anthropology, psychology, and biology. Men retain an advantages to varying degrees in business programs; computer science, information science and technology; engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, the more quantitative social sciences, and history. The share of computer science degrees awarded to women was at it’s peak in 1984; the ratio of women-to-men among degree recipients has fallen by half since.

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40 rayward December 2, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Of course, promoting fertility runs counter to the dire warnings that those people are having so many babies real Americans will soon be in the minority. The tax bill in the Senate increases the child tax credit but provides only a nominal benefit for poor people. Senators Rubio and Lee tried to extend the benefit to poor people, but their amendment failed. I suppose poor people are having so many babies already they don’t need to be encouraged to have more.

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41 Art Deco December 2, 2017 at 2:49 pm

One need only observe the Republican Congress and the Republican president.

Very few of whom would wish to be associated with any of Caplan’s signature remarks.

Very little of Caplan’s published oeuvre (< 3%) consists of papers developing theoretical models in economics, empirical investigations in economics, or economic history. For the most part, the papers which do so consist were published more than 15 years ago.

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42 Tanturn December 2, 2017 at 7:13 pm

It’s quite an achievement to make yourself appear more unreasonable than Bryan Caplan.

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43 Art Deco December 2, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama captivatingly describes Barack Obama’s tumultuous upbringing as a young black man attending an almost-all-white, elite private school in Honolulu while being raised almost exclusively by his white grandparents.

Obama’s association with the domestic black population prior to his 21st year was close to nil. And it’s Honolulu, where the principal ethnic antagonisms (such as they are) run between haolies and Japanese.

A private school with an enrollment of 2,000 in a county with 136,000 schoolchildren may have some advantages over a public high school in a business-and-professional-class suburb, but it’s likely to be more expensive than academically elite.

His upbringing was odd – five years in Indonesia and subcontracted to his grandparents – but if anything less tumultuous than would have been experienced by his contemporaries who’d lived through a parental divorce.

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44 Brian Donohue December 2, 2017 at 1:11 pm

Scott Alexander has a review of a book Yudkowsky just wrote:

http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/30/book-review-inadequate-equilibria/

Very good sentences:

“In fact, there are enough people screaming that there’s an inexploitable market in indignation.”

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45 uair01 December 3, 2017 at 5:59 am

Thanks for the link. It looks interesting. Do you know his previous book?
https://intelligence.org/rationality-ai-zombies/

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46 dave December 2, 2017 at 1:22 pm

I read the Coffey and Spears (Where India Goes) based on the recommendation of this blog. Interesting and compelling hypothesis and convincing data. But the book was repetitive and not well done. Should have been an article. I was disappointed after (Alex’s) glowing review (something like the best social science book in many years—surely not!!!)

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47 Boonton December 2, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Hmmm,

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West

I know you can’t cover every good book but doesn’t it merit a mention?

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48 Ali Choudhury December 3, 2017 at 9:07 am

On Eurasia, below are an extract and links from two Fred Reed articles at unz.com on the subject. These hopefully get to the point a lot quicker than the Macales book.

“America has nowhere to go. It is a fully developed economy that cannot grow rapidly if it grows at all. America is also a country of only medium size with a white and Asian population of a bit more than two hundred million who do all the brain work. By contrast China has a billion Han Chinese, intelligent government, a great deal of room to grow and high rates of doing so. The combined land mass, population, and economic potential of Asia are staggering. In differing degrees, Asian nations are growing.

Further, Eurasia is one continent, and China has land connections to all of it–“interior lines of communication,” as soldiers say. America does not. Beijing’s stated intention is to use this to unite Eurasia into one enormous commercial unit—which will not include guess who. Beijing can do this. It has the cash. China is the world’s leader in high-speed rail. As a competent dictatorship, it can decide to do things and then do them, while America often seems unable to do either.

Some time has passed since Beijing made its first rail shipment from Wuli on the Pacific coast through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belorusa, Poland, to Germany and then left to Madrid. It was clunky and a bit of a stunt. Now there are scheduled trains connecting many Chinese cities to the rest of Asia, including Europe. This will not rival sea transport in volume, but will give a lot of places in Asia access to each other. Influence will follow. Watch.

This is bad news for Washington. Greater trade between Europe and the eastern part of the continent means less influence for Washington. It means potentially very much less influence. European nations have much to gain by trading with the incomprehensibly large markets, current and arriving, between Poland and the Pacific. They have nothing to gain by remaining as sepoy states under American control. Their businessmen know it.

This dismal reality looks to be behind the orchestrated billingsgate against Russia, the war drums being pounded about the South China Sea, and the obvious desire for war with Iran. These three counties are key to an economic union that, if not stopped, will dwarf the United States. While some hope that China will collapse because of internal problems, this is a thin reed upon which to bet the Empire. Washington knows it. The Empire can not afford to lose control of Europe’s governments, which will happen if heavy trade is allowed to develop with the Three Bugbears. Thus Washington’s hostility to all three—a hostility whose chief effect, note, has been to drive them together against America. Not good. The first rule of empires is Don’t let your enemies unite.”

“The Chinese are not warm and fuzzy. They are, however, smart. It is much cheaper and safer to expand commercially than militarily, and wiser to sidestep martial confrontation—in a word, to ignore America. More correctly it is sidestepping the Pentagon.

Military and diplomatic power spring from economic power, and China is proving successful economically. Using commercial clout, she is expanding her influence, but in ways not easily bombed. She is pushing the BRICS alliance, from which the US is excluded. She is enlarging the SCO, from which America is excluded. Perhaps most importantly, she has set up the AIIB, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, which does not include the US but includes Washington’s European allies. These organizations will probably trade mostly not in dollars, a serious threat to Washington’s economic hegemony.

What is the relevance of the Pentagon? How do you bomb a trade agreement?”

https://www.unz.com/freed/sidestepping-the-military-leviathan/

https://www.unz.com/freed/an-obsolescent-military/

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49 Ryan T December 3, 2017 at 4:02 pm

This non-fiction list is longer than the fiction list. Mine is too. Why?

I’m increasingly settling on this explanation. I only want to read great books — like 4 stars out of 5 on my personal star rating system. Most novels are a 3 for me (good). It’s hard to find a 4 (great) or 5 star novel, as I don’t (perhaps rightfully shouldn’t) generally trust the judgement of others, but it’s easy to find (and select) non-fiction that I’ll rank 4 stars. Non-fiction is shorter and I’ll therefore take a gamble on it more readily, perhaps because a non-fiction work’s most powerful moment is given in the introduction, whereas a novel’s most powerful moment comes at the end of hundreds of pages of work and may ultimately upend everything of quality up to that moment.

I’ve also come to conclude that writing a great novel is impressive whereas writing a great work of non-fiction is often merely admirable, perhaps because the form of so much non-fiction has become very predictable. (In fairness, a novel’s structure can be predictable, too.)

5 star works of non-fiction and fiction are both amazing accomplishments.

Regardless, I am grateful for these best lists.

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