This is likely to be very dangerous territory, as how one looks at current events inevitably exposes all manner of beliefs and biases. In the past I did not read so much about current events, other than in newspapers and magazines. But the 21st century has had such an extraordinary beginning that I have inevitably added books about it to my piles of things to read. I’ll comment here on what I find interesting, and why.
Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. New York: Crown, 2017.
This is an early, but likely far from the last, attempt at trying to explain what happened in the 2016 election. The authors of this volume covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign throughout the primaries and the ensuing general election. They describe in great detail what they perceived to be the many dysfunctional problems with the Clinton campaign organization — the disagreements among key figures, the incomplete communication and awareness, and the difficulties of combating Bernie Sanders in the primaries and Donald Trump in the general election. Both turned out to be formidable opponents, and the Clinton campaign never figured out how to reach the sectors of the population that both Sanders and Trump appealed to. Ironically, these were sectors that Clinton played to very effectively in her attempt earlier to run against Barrack Obama in 2008. Both Sanders and Trump had simple messages, while Hillary’s was much more complex, sophisticated, and nuanced, but difficult to convey to voters. Many voters had great distrust of Hillary based on her past actions. And of course the campaign was plagued by the ongoing suspicions about her use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State, including the very negative behavior of FBI Director Comey, the emerging Russian influence on the campaign, and her health issues that played into the accusation that she did not have the stamina to be President. While she clearly won all three of the televised debates with Trump, this was not sufficient to overcome the many problems that, as the authors claimed, doomed her campaign. This is an especially negative account of the 2016 election, and we’ll see how it plays out as more analyses are published. But it is a detailed accounting of many things that went wrong.
Katherine Blunt. California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric — and What It Means for America’s Power Grid. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2022.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), one of three major utilities in California, has been implicated in literally hundreds of wildfires in central and northern California, with vast destruction and much loss of life. The worst of these was the Camp Fire of 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 84 people. PG&E has extensive power lines criss-crossing their vast territories, many of them built as early as the 1920s, and poorly maintained. They could not stand up to the seasonal Diablo winds, that would blow tree branches onto old lines that would fall onto dry woodlands dessicated by long draughts. They had not spent money to upgrade old infrastructures or to clear away trees that could fall on the lines, focussing instead on profits to keep their investors happy with dividends on their stocks. Even their aging natural gas lines were a source of disasters, the worst of which was a huge explosion in a residential area of the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. Blunt, who originally covered these stories for the Wall Street Journal, describes on shocking detail the history of all these matters, which led to two rounds of bankruptcies for PG&E and lawsuits that led to enormous claims by those affected by all these disasters. She calls into question how corporations like PG&E and others across the western United States can survive the ravages of climate change and the poor conditions of their essential infrastructures. It’s a very sobering read.
Arup K. Chakraborty & Andrey S. Shaw. Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2020.
This is one of MIT Press’s concise little books (~200 pages) on topics of general interest. Of course, in the year of COVID-19, this is of huge interest. It is an excellent summary of the nature of viruses, especially the coronaviruses, how they can morph into a global pandemic, and how they can be ended with enough immunity, either herd or via vaccines. Their explanations are aided by generally useful drawings done by Philip J.S. Stork. I read it one day, while I was hospitalized for surgery. It is technical, but explained very clearly.
Dolly Chugh. The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. New York: Harper, 2018.
This superbly insightful book was called to our attention by our daughter, Meredith. It deals with a very close-to-the-heart issue for me, namely, how a person with good intentions can actually work toward becoming a better person. The book draws heavily on relevant behavioral science research, yet illustrates the points made in that research by apt stories that make the points much more vividly. Then these insights are translated into suggested actions, many of them based on Chugh’s own experiences. While bias has its individual elements, in what we feel and how we act, there is also the biases built into our social systems. Failing to be aware of the latter is itself a serious matter, and can lead us to all manner of inappropriate behavior. Chugh talks about the headwinds and tailwinds that we experience because of these socially embedded biases, and its easy to be oblivious to the headwinds that others face. But the strength of the book is the practical steps that she suggests for dealing with concrete situations. It’s an altogether mind opening read.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a stunning letter to his adolescent son about what it’s like to be a black man in the US. It’s a remarkable encapsulation of the history of race in America, and all of its current troubling implications. He develops this narrative through his experiences at Howard University, Civil War battlefields, the South side of Chicago, and Paris. At the center is Coates’ awareness of the threats against his body, in a society where police frequently kill unarmed black men and never suffer any consequences of it. Indeed, a friend of his from Howard University meets exactly this fate. In a moving section he visits the mother of his murdered friend. She is a highly successful physician, living in a suburban gated community, yet she too lives in a world that is shaped in many ways by the color of her skin. And like Coates, she also understands the threats against the bodies of young black men in America. It’s all-in-all a moving account of the greatest tragedy of American history, and the resulting situation in the present. I cannot help but agree with Toni Morrison’s comment on the cover, “This is required reading.”
James Fallows & Deborah Fallows. Our Towns: A 100,000-Mle Journey Into the Heart of America. New York: Vintage, 2019.
James Fallows, a pilot and author, and his wife and collaborator Deborah Fallows, took a four=year tour of medium- and small-sized cities all across America in their single-engine airplane. Their goal was to take the pulse of the nation by visiting places less well known. Many of the places have been through terrible times, economic disruption, factory closings, opioid epidemics, and a host of other modern maladies. Yet over and over they find hopeful signs. Downtowns being refreshed and energized. Citizens embarking on cultural and social reforms, creating new institutions, giving citizens hope and encouragement. They meet a broad range of people, citizens who care and act on their feelings. It is a hopeful narrative. There are of course troubles and setbacks, but on the whole people are striving to make things better. It’s a set of stories that run counter to many bleak narratives about what’s happening in our country.
Bill Gates. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
Bill Gates is a technology guru, and a philanthropist. But he is also a careful study, and he invested several years in trying to understand what is happening with the climate crisis and what are some things we could do about it. He is quite blunt: he says we have to get to zero carbon emissions no later than 2050. Anything short of that will not solve the problem. He then reviews all kinds of ways we could do this, and does not neglect any source of carbon that we know about today. For instance, one large source is cement. The making of cement releases a lot of carbon. So does the manufacture of steel. Agriculture is another. He systematically goes through all of these different sources of carbon, and either points out things we already know how to do (but often haven’t developed the political will to do them, alas) or points to areas where we’ll need to come up with breakthroughs. But he never loses sight of the urgency of these matters. On the question of how we get the political will to do these things, he is not as helpful. There are enormous political forces out there that resist any attempt to curtail carbon output. I came away with a sense that the scale and complexity of the problem is understood, but I continue to wonder how we’ll get anything effective done.
Elizabeth Kolbert. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. New York: Crown, 2021.
We humans are nothing if not arrogant. We repeatedly feel we can control nature. But often our attempts at control backfire. The status of southern Louisiana and New Orleans are testimony to this complicated story. The more we try to control the Mississippi River the more we seem to plant the seeds of other disasters. This book if filled with attempts to control nature to our ends. It has a series of stories that are a mix of promise and peril. Attempts to control the Chicago River intersect with the invasion of Asian carp, which trenton native species and the very well-being of the river. The land in southern Louisiana loses a football field of area every hour-and-a-half, since the 1930s more than two thousand square miles. A seemingly fruitless struggle goes on to slow this down, or even reverse it. In a cavern known as Devils Hole, an attempt to preserve the pupfish contained in a pool inside Is an effort fraught with many challenges. Desperate efforts are underway to try to save the coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Cane toads that have spread on costal lands in Australia are the target of efforts to reduce their spread through genetic engineering. A series of efforts to combat climate change are described. All-on-all, Kolbert describes a dizzyingly large array of efforts to intervene in nature, a kind of casebook on the struggles to shape our future, against the background of repeated failed attempts to avoid surprising side effects.
Christopher Leonard. Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.
This is, fundamentally, a frightening book. It shows how a determined and highly intelligent entrepreneur can amass a gigantic fortune while keeping the details of their activities relatively secret. Koch Industries, lead by the Koch family, but primarily Charles Koch, have over time amassed a sprawling corporate entity that in many ways touches almost every corner of our lives. They have done it through strategies developed by Charles Koch and implemented by highly talented people devoted to the mission of amassing enormous wealth. By remaining a private, family-owned company, they are not beholden to shareholders or the legal requirements of such publicly owned enterprises. In the process they have garnered enormous political power, all used to help them meet their goals. They opposed regulations, and in their history have repeatedly been in trouble for violating many of them. Their political machine has been assembled with the same intelligence and organizational savvy that had made Koch Industries so successful. Though Charles Koch is no fan of Donald Trump, he likes what the Trump administration has been doing to end environmental and other regulations that have put limits on what Koch can do. What makes the book frightening is that it shows what dedicated, highly intelligent people can do within the American system. And of course the wealth so accrued is the currency of great power within our political and social system. It’s a really incredible story, told in great detail in this fascinating business history.
Lawrence Lessig. Republic Lost: The Corruption of Equality and the Steps to End It. Rev. Ed. New York: Twelve, 2015.
This is an extremely important book. Everyone should read it, no matter your political stripe. It’s about how we have lost our government to the rich, and how this is opposed to the intentions of our founders, who wanted the government to represent the people, all people. That’s what Lessig means by the corruption of equality. It’s not that individuals in our government are corrupt, at least most of them. It’s that the system by which we select those who will govern has been corrupted by the role that money plays in even being qualified to run for office. Lessig traces the origins of this, the details of how it works, and why it is corrupting in the sense of denying the equality of representation that the founders intended. The details are striking and the arguments that Lessig lays out about the origins and effects are convincing. As he is at great pains to point out, this is neither a Democrat or Republican failing, it is a failing of the system that has evolved, and it works to the disadvantage of both parties. One outcome is the vetocracy that we currently endure, a Congress that can no longer get much of anything done. In the later chapters he lays out his ideas of what we can do about it, stressing all along the urgency of actually doing something. As he points out, the real victims of this situation are our children, who will inherit the results of the mess we have created. But he argues that even we older, well-taken-care-of citizens need to help to energize the young to act. He is optimistic. I wonder what he’s thinking today in the era of Trump.
David E. McCraw. Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts. New York: All Points Books, 2019.
David McCraw is the Deputy General Counsel at The New York Times. This volume recounts his adventures during the first years of the Trump administration. Along the way he provides historical context to the issues of a free press and attacks on it. He joined the Times in 2002, so he had to deal with these issues under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and both of those administrations presented major challenges to freedom of the press. But of course matters ratcheted up into the stratosphere with the emergence of Trump, first as a candidate and then as President. Leaders don’t like to have unpleasant facts bandied about in the press. Further, in the emergence of widespread government secrecy in the wake of 9/11 made matters even more complex. But the Times, with the support of McCraw and others, did everything they could to keep citizens informed as to what their government was doing. Trump’s bashing of the press with phrases like “fake news,” “enemies of the people,” and the like, eroded faith in citizen’s confidence in the press. The emergence of such uncontrolled media like Twitter made things even more complicated. One especially interesting chapter was how the “fake news” manta in the US had the effect of empowering autocratic leaders all over the world, seriously endangering the lives of reporters trying to cover international events. The Times had several of its international reporters captured, with stressful attempts to free them that often spanned many months. I hope he brings this wide ranging story of the fight for press freedom up to date with the ending of the Trump administration and the ongoing sequelae of Trumpism.
Suzanne Mettler & Robert C. Lieberman. Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.
As anyone knows who has a reasonable amount of historical perspective, democracies are a fragile form of government. They can be difficult to achieve, and can be easily lost. I first learned of the analysis contained in this book when Suzanne Mettler gave an on-line symposium on this via UCI’s political science department. I immediately ordered this book, and read it with much interest. The reason I’ve put it in the category of Current Events is that while the authors give the topic an important historical perspective, the bottom line of their analysis is that for the first time in American history all four threats are in play, making this probably the most frightening time in our history. The four threats are (1) political polarization, (2) who belongs, (3) economical inequality, and (4) executive aggrandizement. The first and third are quite clear from their brief titles. The second involved who gets to participate, and of course racial, gender, and economic factors have constrained who gets to vote or hold office from the very beginning of our country, and continues to this day. The fourth is the enormous shift in power to the executive branch of government, beginning most notably with Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and Second World Wars, and exploited most dangerously by Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. The historical periods they explore in more detail are the 1790s, when the nation had barely gotten its feet on the ground, the 1850s. when the crises participated the worst war in our history, the 1890s, when there were a series of major backlashes against Black participation in our democracy, the 1930s during the Depression, and the 1970s with Watergate. They review how we got to the present, with all four threats active, and discuss a range of things to do about it. It’s an eye-opening analysis.
While the present age is definitely not the first time that “fake news” has circulated, as the authors point out with an amusing initial story about the vegetable lamb, it has gained considerable prominence in our current era of undisciplined social media and other sketchy information sources. It certainly plagued the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump administration. But as the authors show, there is a long history of such matters, and they develop some interesting conceptual tools for understanding how it can happen. Their first three chapters focus mostly on examples from science, including the ozone hole that led to the banishment of fluorocarbons, the linking of tobacco to lung cancer, and global warming. In all of these cases, there were active campaigns to denigrate the mostly sound scientific findings. These various stories are described in detail, and their conceptual schemas brought to bear in trying to understand them. The fourth and final chapter focuses on the “fake news” phenomena of the very recent past, again using their conceptual tools to try to make sense of how these things can happen. Overall, it’s a compelling analysis, and they make an effort to make it widely understandable, even if their style is closer to academic than mainstream media. But it’s well worth the read.
Heather Cox Richardson. How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
The title of this book at first sounds crazy: we know the outcome of the Civil War, don’t we? But Richardson presents a compelling analysis of what happened subsequently. She characterizes the South of the Civil War era as an oligarchy, with power vested in a small minority of wealthy white plantation owners, widespread exclusion of women and minorities, and an economy based on extraction (cotton farming in this case). She traces the development of the American West in subsequent years as having much the same characteristics: it was wealthy white male ranch owners who came to have power, discrimination in this case against Native Americans and Asians, and an extractive economy (cattle and mining primarily). The argument continues that this characteristic of the West came to dominate politics of the second half of the twentieth century and onward. Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush are emblems of this trend, which of course peaked in the Presidency of Donald Trump. Anti-immigration sentiment runs very high during this latter period, and of course discrimination against Blacks, Asians, and others is as strong as ever. Power is in the hands of an oligarchy of mostly wealthy white men, tipped ever more strongly in our current era of gigantic spending on political campaigns. It is far to early to know whether the Biden Presidency is a reaction against these trends that will stick, as many of the characteristics that Richardson highlights are still strong in US culture. It’s a sobering analysis.
Vaclav Smil. Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Vaclav Smil, with his typical erudition and common sense, explores where the world might go by the year 2050. As he makes very clear throughout, he cannot commit to any specific predictions. But he explores the probabilities of various catastrophes and other trends, informed by an analysis of historical patterns, scale of the various events, and details about the mechanisms behind the events. It’s quite a journey, going all the way from how likely it is that a large asteroid will hit us to the prospects of nuclear war. He states that a global pandemic is essentially 100% likely, and of course we’re currently (2020) living in the midst of one. The book was written a dozen years ago, and I think in many cases we know more about many of the topics he discusses. For instance, I think he’s a bit conservative about the threat of global climate change. But his thorough analysis gives a framework for thinking about these issues. I hope he considers an update to his stories in the near future.
Daniel Susskind. A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020.
The premise of this book is that the contemporary “pragmatist” revolution in artificial intelligence (AI) will ultimately replace humans for many kinds of work. As Susskind describes it, the first wave of AI tried to build intelligent systems by using rules extracted from humans who do a particular kind of task. While it had some level of success, it never got as far as the visions about what could be accomplished. But the second, current wave, which he dubs “pragmatist”, is based on massively parallel machine intelligence systems that figure out on their own how to do whatever task. This has led to such systems as Deep Blue, which was able to defeat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, or AlphaGo, that beat the best Go player, Lee Sedol. Even more impressive was AlphaGo Zero, which unlike Deep Blue or AlphaGo, had no human extracted knowledge. It was simply given the rules of Go, and on its own played millions of games and figured out how to win entirely on its own, and then thrashed the original AlphaGo. But these game playing examples are merely the tip of the iceberg. These “pragmatic” strategies have been used to build programs that do some kinds of medical diagnosis as well as or better than expert humans, and many other examples reviewed by Susskind. The promise is that this kind of machinery could be applied to any reasonably well-defined human task, and over time, could replace many kinds of work that humans currently do. As he says, it won’t happen suddenly, but rather eventually. Given that work is how most of us support ourselves, what will happen when there is not enough work for all? He reviews many options and issues. It’s a sobering prospect, but one that is important to think about now. Some of the political or social issues surrounding his solutions will be major obstacles, but by reviewing them now we have the chance to make some progress. He also considers the matter that for many their work provides a kind of meaning to their lives that will have to be provided by other means. It’s a thoughtful discussion that all of us should engage.
David Wallace-Wells. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.
This is about as grim a book as you could imagine about the prospects for the earth. It reviews across twelve amazing chapters all the kinds of things that will happen if we fail to take action to defuse the steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The paradox is that it’s been the fossil fuels of coal and oil that have driven the enormous economic expansion brought about by industrialization and capitalism. But the wealth that has been created comes at a huge cost, and in the coming decades, the bill will come due. Wallace-Wells reviews the evidence in sober detail. As he points out, climate scientists have not found glee in what they have uncovered through their extensive analyses. Yet in the US in particular, climate deniers and greedy fossil fuel barons have held back even a shred of progress toward mitigating the incredible range of future disasters. And the clock is ticking, and it’s not long before nothing can be done. The ultimate sadness is those of us in the wealthy West fail to think about those who will be most impacted by all of this: our future descendants, and the poor of the world. The developing world will pay the highest price for our carbon-based wealth. In later chapters he reviews how at least some people are reacting. The mega wealthy are looking into escape. The spiritual are looking at painful acceptance. And the Silicon Valley idealists are looking for some kind of techno miracle. But as he points out, all the elements of a solution are known and here. All that is lacking is the political will to do what’s necessary. And he is not optimistic about how the politics will play out.