What I’ve been reading

1. Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism.  A very smart, well-written, well-argued book, and an argued book indeed it is.  As the title suggests, Kenworthy tries to persuade the reader to embrace social democratic capitalism, but with an emphasis on what government can do, not the market.  One rebuttal: responding to the Swiss experience requires far more than the two short paragraphs on pp.105-106, and furthermore Switzerland has done very well in many sectors above and beyond being a financial safe haven (which in some regards hurts those other sectors through exchange rate effects).

Laurence Louër, Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History of Discord.  Captures the complexities, and in fact pulls the reader away from the usual tired dichotomy.

Neil Price, A History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm.  I have only browsed this book, yet it appears to have much more information about the Vikings than other books I know, yet without getting squirrelly.  That said, I find it difficult to connect books on the Vikings with the broader conceptual narratives I know, and thus I do not retain their content very well.  So I am never sure if I should read another book on the Vikings.

John Took’s Dante is the book to read on Dante after you’ve read all the other books (an interesting designation, by the way, I wonder how many areas have such books?  In most cases, if you’ve read all the other books you shouldn’t bother with the next one!).

Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, is not a secret history, but it is a good general overall introduction to its chosen topic.

Dietrich Vollrath, Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success is now out, my previous review is at that link, an excellent book on economic growth and it will make my best of the year list.


The author may be trying to get Americans to embrace social democratic capitalism, but that is mainly because the U.S. is such an outlier. It would be interesting to see whether the author draws a distinction - or doesn't - between social democratic capitalism and what the Germans call a "soziale Marktwirtschaft," which is supported by considerably more people in Germany than German SPD voters.

How do you bring socialism to a wealthy and happy country? Call it Social Democratic capitalism.

Sure worked in Germany - where social democracy as a political movement dates back a century and a half.

Except in the DDR - there, the real socialists jailed any of those social democratic scum who pointed out how miserable the worker and farmer state really was, and how much it would be improved by allowing social democracy to flourish - like in West Germany.

Abstract of Kenworthy's book:

Abstract: To this point in history, the most successful societies have been those that feature capitalism, a democratic political system, good elementary and secondary (K–12) schooling, a big welfare state, public services that are conducive to employment, and moderate regulation of product and labor markets. I call this set of policies and institutions “social democratic capitalism.” Social democratic capitalism improves living standards for the least well-off, enhances economic security, and very likely boosts equality of opportunity. It does so without sacrificing the many other things we want in a good society, from liberty to economic growth to health to happiness and much more.

By this definition, the US is already social democratic. In fact even Singapore could be said to fit that definition. The author is really arguing that we should want more of things we already have, which is more ambiguous and probably less convincing. Arguing for publicly funded education is one thing; arguing that US doesn’t fund education enough? That’s a harder argument to make, and that’s what an American social democrat would be arguing.

What Dante books would you recommend reading before the John Took one?

> "Switzerland has done very well in many sectors above and beyond being a financial safe haven"

But being a successful financial safe haven is really really hard. It was easy at some point: just have very low taxes and don't ask questions about where the money came from (see Switzerland during Nazi occupation for a particularly shameful form of such behaviour).

Most people still think this is enough; but, nowadays, there is a lot of competition in that market; so if that's your only advantage, you won't get that far (you might get something, but what's the GPD per capita of Panama?).

The quality of regulation and administration of successful low tax havens is what sets them apart (talk about "State Capacity Libertarianism").

The Nazis never occupied Switzerland.

He refers to the fact that during the occupation of the rest of europe, many nazi officers or the reich itself sent to switzerland valuables and money looted or taken from jews and other prisoners. Part was hidden in the banks, part was sold in switzerland in exchange of foreign currency. However, the swiss did not have much choice but collaborate, given that they were surrounded by axis territory and depended on imports for their food. More controversial is that many banks continued to keep looted valuables and money after the end of the war.

I met a famous Swiss-American whistleblower a couple times, a friend of a friend.

It was instructive. The guy was basically troubled in his youth, and that was what made/allowed him to break from the pack, and disclose dark secrets.

From that day forward I've worried about the implications. That is, if doing the right thing is not considered normal, in a group identity sense.

There is a claim that the amount the banks kept was exaggerated.


Sunni and Shia: For perspective, over 85% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni, which likely contributes to the feeling of Shiites that they are an oppressed minority. [Iran is overwhelmingly Shia, while its nemesis, Saudi Arabia, is overwhelmingly Sunni (the divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also cultural, as Iranians are Persian, not Arab). To add a little confusion, Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni (or was before the revolution), but Assad is Shia (Alawite).] To Christians, the sectarian divide in Islam may seem odd, but that's only because most Christians don't appreciate just how sectarian Christianity has always been. Read the Letters of John. When the author writes, "love one another", the writer means love correct-thinking Christians (in the early days, that meant having the correct Christology). Of course, sectarian conflict often is at bottom a class conflict. For example, the early uprising in Syria by Sunnis against the Assad government was largely a protest about the economic conditions of Sunni Syrians (as opposed to the Shia, who were perceived as receiving favorable treatment by the Shia led government). The conflict between Catholics and Protestants likewise is at bottom a class conflict (which will once again come to the fore in Northern Ireland as the result of Brexit, but with Protestants being torn between continued alliance with GB or unification with all those Catholics in the Republic of Ireland). An aside, before the debacle in Iraq, few Americans knew anything about the Sunni-Shia divide, and that includes the decider himself, GWB.

The Sunni-Shia divide was already known to anyone who followed global affairs during the abortive Shia uprising in the first Gulf War, the long many-sided Lebanese civil war, or even the Iranian revolution. Whatever fresh awareness the Iraq war brought is already fading.

Who comes onto a blog site and provides a full length paragraph stating what most visitors here already know?

You are making an assumption, an assumption that is wrong, an assumption that proved disastrous with the invasion of Iraq - if the president and his advisors didn't know depth of the divide in deciding to go to war, it's doubtful that many readers of this blog knew then or know now. Ask Trump if Iran supports al Qaeda or ISIS. His sychophants often state that Iran backs al Qaeda, even the numbskull that is his Sec. of State.

It's a bit simple to think Iran and alQaeda would not work together because they are from different sects. An enemy of my enemy is my friend.
These people too to think there is:

PDF: https://www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com/sites/default/files/Al-Qaeda-Alliance-Against-the-US.pdf

I think at different times I've heard Middle East experts on NPR explain that the Alawites rose to power on the strength of French support, the French making use of this despised minority (not recognized by other Muslims as People of the Book) in the face of rebellious Sunni nationalism, or alternatively, that the Sunni majority itself found Alawite rule an attractive compromise to forestall any particular Sunni clan from achieving pre-eminence.

On either read, if there's any validity to them, "class conflict" would be a slightly misleading explanation, although it demonstrates how access to and control of government jobs can harden into an undeserving elite in a short time, I guess.

The biggest brazenly unapologetic jerk/bully/blowhard I've ever met in my life is a Syrian guy who lives in the neighborhood and goes around ruining people's day almost like it's a sitcom. But I'm pretty sure he comes from a Christian background.

The Kaplan book (item #5) was touted on NPR (or was it BYU Radio?) last week by Fred Kaplan himself. It sounded quite interesting for a few minutes until he 'unexpectedly' veered into anti-Trumpism. The Amazon reviewers recognized the same unfortunate animus and consequently downgraded the book. That's too bad, it coulda been a contender.

The Bomb: Until Trump, presidents didn't casually threaten to use nuclear weapons. Trump has threatened both Iran and North Korea. As Kaplan points out, the threatened take such threats seriously, and respond to them by developing nuclear weapons of their own. Moreover, by casually threatening the use of nuclear weapons, Trump makes them seem like any other weapons in the arsenal, our enemies' as well as our own. Trump is a bombastic ignoramus, a bully who threatens not only our enemies but our allies.

The worst is happening. He's using lack of conviction as "total exoneration" and cranking everything up x2, x3, x5.

As I say, it's too bad it takes oddballs to speak the truth, and that there was just one Mitt Romney.

Ah well, let's read some books, and refine our moral senses in a purely abstract and non-binding way.

"As Kaplan points out, the threatened take such threats seriously, and respond to them by developing nuclear weapons of their own."

Neither Kaplan nor you, not unexpectedly, seem to be aware that both North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs are decades older than Trump's presidency.

In 1953, President Eisenhower threatened to use the atom bomb against North Korea (and implicitly China) if they refused to negotiate.

I will check out “Fully Grown.” It does seem to me that slower growth or even de-growth in rich countries would benefit the people there if it stemmed from a decline in working hours, as most people are more pressed for time than they are for money. After all, didn’t Keynes promise us 15-hour-work-weeks, not just ever greater consumption? Time is the great equalizer, even though we can extend life expectancy in the margins, there’s no exponential growth and ultimately it is the scarcest and thus most valuable resource. Why not move to a social norm of working 4 days a week instead of 5 and earning 80% of the income? I’d bet most people would be happier under such a system—I certainly would. There would also be significant environmental benefits, and benefits in terms of reducing government revenues and therefore power.

For reference, 80% of US GDP per capita would be about equal to Canada and still a decent amount higher than the UK, France, or Japan, all countries where people are quite comfortable. Wouldn’t it be good to have 4-day workweeks and still Canadian levels of material standard of living?

+1 I haven't missed working, even making six figures. Work is hard, if done right. I would even say if you're enjoying your work (and I did enjoy mine) too much, you're probably either underpaid or not working hard enough. Of course it my case early retirement was helped by having family in the 1% that gave me a small allowance and some money I inherited from some childless relatives.

There's a reason they call it work, sure. But nothing wrong with liking one's job. And for sure if you hate your job or if it routinely consumes so much time and energy you don't have a life outside work you have a problem.

And the political fetishization of growth can lead to bad policies. It seems unhealthy for a society to need 3% (or for China 6%) growth to feel like it’s not on the brink of collapse.

You want to consume less so others can consume as much as you do?

Growth is the solution to poverty unless your plan is to be forced to consume less, maybe producing less.

Growth is measured in work units, eg, the production by workers, to satisfy the consumption and payment of work.

Government "spending" is added to GDP controversially because civilization is a product of human labor, even when it comes to caring for the needy. Conservatives argue that GDP would be higher if the needy were eliminated from the economy because production does not need consumption, essentially rejecting a core argument of Adam Smith, and especially Keynes. Even Friedman who opposed growth understood that consumption was so important that government had to prop up consumption by putting tax cuts in the pockets of the needy, providing the basis for Yang's "freedom dividend".

Note the recent inclusion of asset price inflation in GDP under certain cases is an attempt to juice growth statistics when actual production has gone down. What value does asset churn to drive up asset prices have to anyone but the economic rents plus small labor income of paper pushers that are now added to GDP. Lehman added to GDP while creating "wealth" in debt far in excess of the labor cost value of the underlying assets. When the ponzi scheme collapsed, the bankruptcy wealth redistribution from people who lent money to people who borrowed but couldn't repay also added to GDP from economic rents plus poorly done disorganized labor of paper pushing and losing.

Thus the easy way to cut US GDP growth statistics would be to remove much of the FIRE "contribution" to GDP.

1. "responding to the Swiss experience requires far more than the two short paragraphs ..."

Yeah, it would take pages to detail the disastrous total government takeover of health care resulting from the 1994 national referendum that took away all liberty, especially religious liberty, which was the stolen by Mitt Romney to do a total government takeover of Massachusetts health care and totally destroying religious liberty, but Romney is obviously not a real Christian, which was then stolen by Obama with the help of others to do an Obama total takeover of the entire US health care system, taking away religious liberty by taxing those who don't buy health insurance, just like in Switzerland.

What amuses me today is how the right always pick only parts of the political economy of other nations, just as they take only the "supply" side of supply-demand because including demand in their economic theory means they must pay to crushing costs of putting money in consumer pockets: wages, welfare/taxes, debt never repaid.

Now I know the right believes only in free lunch economics. Benefits with zero costs. Money from nothing. Money for nothing. Trumponomics. Who says you can't spend more money that you earn, just get a government bailout like Trump does.

"is not a secret history, but it is a good general overall introduction to its chosen topic."

Just like the Wikileaks et al revelations of "secret" US government spying that has been debated in Congress and the courts for at least a century.

The Trump administration attacks on Apple failing to support US government spying are the same attacks on the computer/telecom sector of Reagan era when I first became involved in building computer security into products. I and many thought the issue had been resolved in the 90s after the persecution of Zimmerman ended over his writing PGP. But clearly that history is "secret" because I listened to an hour of debate on the Apple versus decrypting the Iranian mind controlled Saudi military terrorist messages in Florida in Trump's really secure military he built from scratch because Obama single handedly destroyed the US military.

But hey, the big secret is Elon Musk's plan to control the work with his nuclear arsenal: the only use for rockets is to deliver nukes, because rockets have no peaceful uses. Trump, et al tell us that every time Kim or Iran launch rockets.

Tyler's paragraph on "Social Democratic Capitalism" jogged my memory. There was an article in the New York Times towards the end of last year that piqued my interest in Swiss economics and policy called "The Happy, Healthy Capitalists of Switzerland."

Off the top of your heads, does anybody have any other articles, or better yet books, on Swiss public policy and/or economics they'd recommend?

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