These books explain a lot of things

A while ago I read a book titled This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World WorksEdited by John Brockman, it was a collection of responses from a range of thinkers on their favourite theories or ideas, that had significant explanatory power.

In a related way, I wanted to try and start a list here of books that I’ve read that I thought had interesting or important ideas, in understanding different aspects of people / society / the universe. I think explaining everything is a tall order, so this is just a list of books that I found interesting on a range of topics. In a way it’s also a useful list for me, of keeping track of books that I think cover or explain useful or interesting theories. Obviously, a mention here isn’t an endorsement of the book or the author, etc.

I’ll try to keep it updated as I come across other interesting pieces. But in the meantime, tell me what you think: What are the books that explain essential, profound or important ideas? What have I missed on this list?


It’s been years since I read it (and please be aware this isn’t an endorsement of the author), but reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was a useful introduction to evolutionary theory. Interestingly enough, evolutionary theory is one of the ideas that cropped up quite frequently in This Explains Everything as a powerful idea.

James Gleick’s books on information theory (The information: A history, a theory, a flood) and chaos theory (Chaos: Making a new science) are fascinating, approachable introductions to very important branches of mathematics.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I found a book on Popperian hypothesis testing and falsifiability useful (unfortunately I can’t remember the title).

Philosophy and ethics

There are a few books that I found interesting here – but it’s a complex area, and not one that I have a deep understanding of.

  • The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett was an interesting read; I think particularly in how to think about people and intentionality from a materialistic viewpoint. If I can paraphrase, Dennett essentially argues that intentionality is a model that we have of behaviour in the world, so that we conceptualise other people as agents, with goals and mental models.
  • Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett was also an interesting set of ideas, in how to reconcile a materialist viewpoint with questions about free will and ethical responsibility. Essentially, (if I can paraphrase many years after reading it), Dennett is arguing that traditional debates about free will and determinism define things in the wrong way; that if we think meaningfully about what free will means, we can have a useful form of free will, in a deterministic universe. Having said that, I think there is something to this webcomic sending up his approach – that it may feel a little too much like a glib redefinition.
  • Reason and Morality by Alan Gewirth was a difficult book. It took me several months to wade through, when I had the time to read in-depth. But I think meta-ethics is an interesting and important philosophical topic, and this is one of the more satisfying reads I’ve found. To very loosely paraphrase, Gewirth argued that for any agent that acts towards desired goals, there are implicit assumptions that, if logically carried to their conclusion, necessitate valuing the agency of others.
  • Beautiful souls by Eyal Press isn’t a particularly deep theoretical book. But I think it’s valuable to think about the factors that lead us to make courageous decisions, and for that reason this is well worth a read, as Press examines four ordinary people making courageous choices.



Perhaps because I read a bit of fiction, story-telling is one of those things that fascinates me. What makes a good story? Why do we find some stories gripping, and others dull?

  • Story by Robert McKee is an interesting read. It’s not foolproof, but it works to break down the key components of what McKee thinks makes for a good story: difficult choices and unexpected consequences.


There are a lot in this category – perhaps because I’ve been reading quite a few since the blog started, where as other categories I read more of before I was taking notes.

  • The Dance of Legislation by Eric Redman is a fascinating first-hand account of a set of power struggles involved in the passage of legislation. It’s useful as an insightful account of the role chance and relationships can play in day-to-day political outcomes.
  • Collapse by Jared Diamond and The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter both deal with how a society collapses. Diamond’s thesis rests on five key factors:  environmental damage, natural climate change, war, weakened allies, and the ways societies choose to respond to these pressures. It’s a compellingly detailed historical account that societies can collapse because of poor responses to external pressures. Tainter’s thesis centres around diminishing marginal returns to complexity.
  • The Master Switch by Tim Wu is an excellent account of how media empires rise and fall. It’s particularly valuable because it identifies cycles over time, rather than analysing a static moment. He argues that as new technologies emerge, the field is fragmented between many contenders, before it gradually merges into a smaller number of firms. Given that media can influence political outcomes, these cycles are important.
  • The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge is an excellent outline of something that’s so ubiquitous it’s almost invisible – when did companies emerge? They make the compelling case that the legal structure of a company has a significant influence in our society.
  • Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels is an important read. They argue that our ideas of how democracies work are wrong, and set out a strong evidence base of how a range of voter behaviour theories are contradicted by particular pieces of evidence. It raises interesting and important questions.
  • The rise and decline of nations by Mancur Olson an analyses of why some nations succeed, and why others fail. He sheds powerful light by focussing on the relationships within a society, and how particular groups can have an incentive to take action that is detrimental to the society overall. Interestingly, it seems that since publication, his thesis has held up reasonably well.
  • Manufacturing consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky is an interesting read, and one of the few pieces I’ve read that focuses on the structural relationships between media entities and government. Have you come across any other good ones?
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful reflection on race in America.
  • The origins of political order by Francis Fukuyama is an impressive attempt to tell a unified, theoretically grounded story of how political frameworks emerge. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I wish there were more books tackling questions like this on this scale. He writes about the historical emergence of the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability.
  • Economic Justice by Stephen Nathanson sets out, very simply, a set of ideas about how resources should be distributed in society. For all that it’s very simple, it’s actually quite useful: there’s real value in a clear, simple exposition of basic ideas.
  • While not explaining deep theories, I wanted to quickly mention both Neil Chenoweth’s Murdoch’s Pirates, and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, because they’re both well researched pieces that set out in some detail the mechanics of how particular entities interact with the political / media system, in ways that aren’t always obvious.


Paper promises by Philip Coggan isn’t an excellent book, but it is a starting point on an interesting question – what is money? How does it function? Essentially, it’s a store of value, a unit of exchange, and a unit of measurement. But fundamentally, money works because we expect that we can trade it with other people for something. This is, on some level, obvious, but occasionally easy to forget.


The logic of politics

I read an interesting article recently (German Lopez in Vox, on ‘How the NRA resurrected the Second Amendment‘). It’s interesting in that it tracks how work in the intellectual sphere flows downstream into the public sphere (a la Lopez and Leighton in Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers). But what I found particularly interesting was its discussion of the relative incentives and capacity for smaller and larger groups. Lopez sets out the argument as to why a small, highly motivated group has a larger impact than a large, less motivated group, an argument that I think would have been very familiar to Mancur Olson:

This goes hand in hand with another problem: Although the majority of Americans, based on public polling, support various kinds of tougher regulations on guns (from universal background checks to a federal database for sales), the reality is that most people are not voting on this issue, with the economy and traditional national security concerns taking much more attention.

Those who are single-issue gun voters, meanwhile, tend to be on the right. There aren’t that many of these voters, but they tend to outnumber the people on the left who would be swayed to vote for candidates just because they back more gun control.

Criticisms and growth

I’ve been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for several years. I’ve enjoyed the blog, and his books (The Beautiful StruggleBetween the world and me, and We were eight years in power). They’re all well worth reading.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about TNC is the way he approaches writing on line. I haven’t seen any hot-takes of his that I can remember, and I think he is genuinely engaged in intellectual give-and-take – in learning more, and in particular acknowledging the gaps in his own knowledge, and being willing to learn visibly, to be seen to be learning, which takes some humility to really do.

I saw the piece that Cornel West wrote in The Guardian, which subsequently blew up online. My two cents on that debate aren’t really worth two cents, for a range of reasons. So these are just my own notes, part of my own thinking it through; in the spirit of TNC, I suppose – thinking it through, but acknowledging there’s a lot I don’t know in this area. You should read other people on this, who are better informed and better placed to speak on the issue. There’s a lot out there – I found this tweet string an interesting place to start.

One of the things I’ve found, in reading part of TNC’s work, is that he acknowledges explicitly that there are areas he doesn’t tend to write on, because it’s not his turf. International relations. Broader politics. Which is refreshingly honest, but at times a part of me has wanted him to make that leap – to apply the gift he has of researching, synthesising, and writing beautifully, to bring it all together in writing about power, gender, race and economics.

I’ve read a few critiques of Coates’ writing since the furore occasioned by West’s piece, and the one that stuck out at me was a piece by Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think I agree that there is an ‘analytical lacuna’ in Coates’ writing (although I wouldn’t describe it as ‘conspicuous’).

Part of the beauty of Coates’ writing, is that he is committed to the idea of writing, of ‘art’ as a radically honest vision of the real world around us, as he says in We were eight years in power:

It [art] had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.

Mishra writes that ‘… Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy …’ (he writes it in a larger sentence, but I don’t think I misrepresent it by quoting that fragment). I don’t know that I would agree that Coates is indifferent. I would imagine that he is deeply moved, and having read some of his writing, I would argue that you can see a shift over time in his thinking on gender, as his understanding becomes more nuanced (to pick only one power relationship of many). But I would say that if Coates wanted to write about it, I would love reading something by him about how gender, race, and economic disparities of power interlock and are inter-structured.

As Mishra acknowledges, Coates sees himself as someone learning, growing in understanding, and concludes:

Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.

I would agree, that I think I would love to see Coates write about broader economic processes, and how they link to other power dynamics – to give us his version of a people’s history. Having said that, I don’t think he’s under any obligation to do so – if he wants to write solely about racial politics in America, I think he’s entitled to do so.

I also think it’s fair to say that there’s a set of connected issues, that relate to questions about justice, power and truth, that are at the heart of Coates’ writing project. I think it’s also true that if he doesn’t address them, he isn’t giving the full picture to some of his own questions. But, it’s his writing – he’s the one with the MacArther grant. He can write about whatever he wants to write about.

Will Smith in ‘Bright’

Something interesting is happening as media distribution channels change, and Will Smith stars in the kind of movie that has a $90m budget, but will only ever be streamed on Netflix. That’s not what these notes are about, but it’s an interesting backdrop to Bright, which is a cop movie set in a semi-fantasy land (but like, really gritty).

Will Smith stars as a cop struggling to pay the bills and care for his family. Joel Edgerton plays his orc partner; the first orc in the police force, and encountering all the hostility and xenophobia you’d expect.

Bright does well in building a world where fantasy creatures (orcs, dwarves, elves, dragons and spells) exist in a future that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s driven through LA, featuring inequality, failing infrastructure and lots of grey, concrete buildings. It doesn’t get bogged down in telling the detailed backstory of the Dark Lord. It takes half the movie for us to uncover that a group of evil elves is trying to bring him back, and another group (elves, humans, and others) are fighting them, while also being seen by the society they exist in as terrorists (maybe they are – the film doesn’t dive into the detail).

What it does do is follow Smith and Edgerton as their characters struggle – first with each other, and the pressures from others in the police force. They respond to a distress call, and stumble into a disastrous scenario where they’re protecting a weapon of great power from everyone who wants to get their hands on it.

I won’t spoil it (it’s fun, and worth watching), but in the course of their adventures Smith’s character will face a huge moral choice, and make a decision that carves out a new narrative brilliantly, and Edgerton’s orc will reconcile the chasm he’s fallen into between orcish and human societies. They’ll struggle to decide whether they’re in a heroic fantasy movie, or a gritty cop procedural, there are some excellent action scenes, and they’ll fight for their own lives, and impact the bigger picture.

The ending felt a little forced for me, a little rushed in bringing together some of the strands, but overall, well worth it.

Rugby league: Tips and odds

The efficient market hypothesis suggests, depending on the form and definition, that the current price reflects publicly available information.

As it happens, I’ve been dabbling in a work ruby league tipping competition. Full disclosure: I know less than nothing about rugby league. Someone had to explain scoring to me.

However, I thought that while betting odds are not publicly traded, they were likely to reflect publicly available information. As it happens, using the betting odds as a guide has worked out reasonably well for me.

I was curious, though, as to what historical data suggested; and fortunately, there’s a website that’s aggregated betting odds and game outcomes since 2009!

I haven’t gone to the trouble of doing any statistical testing, but I thought it would be fun to play with some of the data. In particular, I calculated an odds ratio (the underdog vs. the favourite; a ratio of 0 means very long odds, a ratio of ~1 means they’re even odds).

So it turns out, that just eyeballing the data, the odds already incorporate the home team advantage. The win percentages track closely between all games and where the favourite team is playing at home; if there was a disparity, it’d suggest that the home team had an advantage.

Home team

This is particularly interesting given that there’s a decent amount of data going back to 2009; over a thousand games. On average, the odds favourite wins about 65% of the time; as the odds get longer (or shorter), the win ratio (as per the chart above) gets higher.

Someone suggested that the odds weren’t a good guide in weeks that Origin games were on, or playoff games. The samples are much smaller here; but they seem broadly right, although I haven’t done any tests on them.

But this is something I don’t know much about. Tell me – what have I missed?

The Dictator’s Handbook

The Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, is the more accessible version of their 2003 book, The Logic of Political Survival. I’ve noted before how disappointing it is that the Logic of Political Survival was published with a significant flaw in their entire statistical approach, which even the authors acknowledge. Given that, I give less weight to the credibility of The Dictator’s Handbook as a summary of their theory.

So. It’s an interesting read, in that it sets out to analyse self-interested politics with a very descriptive (rather than normative) approach. Their ideas centre around the relationship between leaders and the followers that keep them in power: broken down by the authors into the nominal selectorate (those who, in theory, influence the selection of the leader), the real selectorate (those who actually play a role), and the winning coalition (the minimum group necessary for a leader to gain / remain in power). From there, they use some game theory (not spelt out in detail here), to derive a set of conclusions about how leaders operate.

There are a few broad problems in their approach, however. One was the assumption of rationality built into much of what they discuss. As spelt out in Democracy for Realists, there are a number of ways in which people act irrationally, or vote against their own self interest.

You could, I think, make the case that there is an almost Darwinian mechanism, whereby leaders who are not ruthless will be replaced by others who are – but the authors don’t make this argument, and are simply content to rest on the (I suspect false) assumption of individual rationality.

Their model also doesn’t really address the role of intermediaries that are essential in a democracy. The media impacts voting outcomes, and people who lead organisations (unions, corporations, and others) can have a role as well. But that intermediary role isn’t really unpacked, beyond a brief discussion of bloc-voting.

Bloc voting takes seemingly democratic institutions and makes appear like publicly traded companies. Every voter or share has a nominal right to vote, but effectively all the power lies with a few key actors who can control the votes of large numbers of shares or deliver many votes from their village. Bloc voting makes nominally democratic systems with large coalitions function as if they are autocratic by making the number of influentials-that is, people whose choices actually matter-much smaller than the nominal selectorate of the rest of the voters …

The real decisions are made by the group leaders who deliver blocs of votes.

Another gap, unfortunately, is that it feels as though they dance around the question of what might be called the rule of law, or the balance of power within a society. Why is it, for example, that functioning democracies aren’t always repatrimonialized? What keeps the multiple centres of power in balance, enabling a strong state to provide for its citizens, while held in check by the rule of law, and / or being democratically accountable? What is it that stops the leader in a democracy, from consolidating all power? The frame is one that Fukuyama might use, but I think the underlying question (why doesn’t all power collapse to the centre in a mature democracy) is an important one, and one that is elided in this analysis.

They also over-simplify their analysis of economic life; arguing that essential political freedoms such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and so-forth, can be essential to economic growth, and will therefore be introduced as a necessity when economic growth slows. That felt … flimsy on a number of levels to me.

Those were some of the major ones, but other questions felt as though they were unanswered:

  • What exactly determines the size of the coalition that’s necessary?
  • What prevents or enables coups in consolidating democracies?

Their oversimplifications, particularly around democracy and voter behaviour, leave them making statements like:

Democratic politics is a battle for good policy ideas.

Rather than, for example, a battle of social identities, or other aspect. Again, drawing on a model of rational voters, they argue:

… they [voters] are likely to vote for people who adopt policies that benefit them.


People support leaders who deliver policies that specifically benefit them.

The authors draw a distinction between the normative and the descriptive. Which is an important distinction, but their approach is calloused when they come to describing real-life individuals who have suffered for pursuing positive outcomes:

Mr. Ossebi’s error was to cooperate with Transparency International in its lawsuit to recover wealth allegedly stolen by Congo’s president. Mr. Ossebi died as the result of a suspicious fire in his home.

The closest the authors come to a measure of hopeful analysis is their estimation of the mechanisms that are most likely to lead to distribute power.

Coalition members like small selectorates. Their welfare is enhanced if there are relatively few replacements for them. The incumbent cannot use the implicit threat of replacing them with a cheaper backer as a way to keep more benefits for himself rather than paying his essentials their due. This creates tension between a leader and his coalition. The leader would like to establish a Leninist style, corrupt, rigged electoral system that guarantees him an eager supply of replacement supporters. The coalition prefers monarchical, theocratic, or junta style institutional arrangements that restrict those who can be brought into coalition to a select group of aristocrats, clerics, or military elites.

Leaders and their essential share a preference for dependence upon a small coalition, at least so long as the coalition is very small. However, as the coalition continues to expand, a wedge is eventually driven between what a king wants and what his court needs. When that wedge gets big enough we have an explanation for the emergence of a mature democracy that is so stable it will almost certainly remain democratic and not backslide into autocratic rule.

Their model (visualised below), relies on the assumption that expanding the selectorate increases economic growth, so that there is greater wealth to be distributed.

Screenshot 2018-04-29_16-33-45

So, there are two times when the coalition is most receptive to the urge to improve life for the many, whether these are the people or shareholders: when a leader has just come to power, or when a leader is so old or decrepit that he won’t last much longer. In these circumstances coalition members cannot count on being retained … Effective reform means expanding the coalition and that means everyone, including the current essentials, has a good chance of being needed by tomorrow’s new leader.


… even if politics is nothing more than a game that leaders play, if only we can learn the rules, it becomes a game we can win …

First, politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of “We, the people.” Second, political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain office … Third, when the small group of cronies knows that there is a large pool of people waiting on the sidelines, hoping to replace them … then the top leadership has great discretion over how revenue is spent and how much to tax … Fourth, dependence on a small coalition liberates leaders to tax at higher rates …

Questions of philosophical values and metaphorical abstractions-these simply don’t apply to the view of politics that we’ll present in the pages ahead …

… we believe that the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why …

The prime mover of interests in any state (or corporation for that matter) is the person at the top-the leader. So we started from this single point: the self-interested calculations and actions of rules are the driving force of all politics.

… The answer to how best to govern: however is necessary first to come to power, then to stay in power, and to control as much national (or corporate) revenue as possible all along the way.

For leaders, the political landscape can be broken down into three groups of people: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition. The nominal selectorate includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader …

The second stratum of politics consists of the real selectorate. This is the group that actually chooses the leader.

The most important of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that makes up a winning coalition. These are the people whose support is essential if a leader is to survive in office.

Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art and science of governing.

… small coalitions encourage stable, corrupt, private-goods-oriented regimes.

Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. 

Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. 

Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue.

Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. 

To come to power a challenger need only do three things. First, he must remove the incumbent. Second, he needs to seize the apparatus of government. Third, he needs to form a coalition of supporters sufficient to sustain him as the new incumbent.

There are three ways to remove an incumbent leader. The first, and easiest, is for the leader to die. If that convenience does not offer itself, a challenger can make an offer to the essential members of the incumbent’s coalition that is sufficiently attractive that they defect to the challenger’s cause. Third, the current political system can be overwhelmed from the outside, whether by military defeat by a foreign power, or through revolution and rebellion, in which the masses rise up, depose the current leader, and destroy existing institutions.

Waiting is risky business. There is no prize for coming second.

The sad truth is that if you want to come to power in an autocracy you are better of stealing medical records than you are devising fixes for your nation’s ills.

Anyone who thinks leaders do what they ought to do – that is, do what is best for their nation of subjects – ought to become an academic rather than enter political life.

Kerensky’s revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1971 because the army did not stop them. And the army did not bother to stop them because the czar did not pay them enough. The czar could not pay them enough because he foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I.

In a democracy it is less difficult, for instance, to detach supporters from the dominant coalition because democrats need such a large number of supporters. Leaders rely heavily on public goods to reward their backers, but precisely because so many of the rewards are public goods that benefit everyone, those in the coalition are not much better off than those outside the coalition.

He [Abraham Lincoln] introduced absentee ballots so that soldiers could vote, with an especially important impact in New York. It is widely believed that the vote of soldiers carried the state for Lincoln in his 1864 race against General George B. McClellan.

What we can begin to appreciate is that no matter how well a tyrant builds his coalition, it is important to keep the coalition itself off-balance.

The practice of gerrymandering has made it such that the odds of being voted out of a US congressional seat are not that different from the odds of defeat faced by members of the Supreme Soviet under the Soviet Union’s one-party communist regime.

Democrats, in contrast, are constantly engaged in a battle for the best policy ideas to keep their large constituencies happy.

If a leader cannot find a reliable source of income, it is only a matter of time until someone else will offer his supporter greater rewards than he can.

The general rule is that the larger the group of essentials, the lower the tax rate.

In autocracies, it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich. And if this is the case, it is important to be loyal beyond all else.

A company that acts responsibly [by sharing resource benefits with local communities] will necessarily have less money to deliver to the government and that will be enough for them to be replaced by another company that is willing to be more “cooperative”.

Who makes revolution? It is the great in-between; those who are neither immiserated nor coddled.

They [economists] treat politics as just so much friction, to be written off instead of dealt with.

From a leader’s point of view, the most important function of the people is to pay taxes. All regimes need money. As a result, certain basic public goods must be made available even by the meanest autocrat, unless he has access to significant revenue from sources, like oil or foreign aid, that are not based on taxing workers.

The problem is that doing what is best for the people can be awfully bad for staying in power. The logic of political survival teaches us that leaders, whether they rule countries, or committees, first and foremost want to get and keep power.

When fifty-eight votes guarantee victory, and the IOC president can handpick IOC members, politics and control will always revolve around corruption and bribery. As long as the IOC’s institutions remain as they are, vote buying and graft will persist because it is the “right” strategy for any IOC president who wants to survive.

When a system is structured around corruption, everyone who matters, leaders and backers alike, are tarred by that corruption … Increasing sentences simply provides leaders with an additional tool with which to enforce discipline.

Aid is decidedly not given primarily to alleviate poverty or misery; it is given to make the constituents in donor states better off.

Dictators are cheap to buy. They deliver policies that democratic leaders and their constituents want, and being beholden to relatively few essential backers, autocrats can be brought cheaply.

Why, having suffered long and hard, might they suddenly and often in multitudes rise up against their government? The answer resides in finding a crucial moment, a tipping point, at which life in the future under the existing government is expected to be sufficiently bad that it is worth their while to risk the undoubted costs of rebellion. They must believe that some few who have come forward first in rebellion have a decent chance of success and a decent chance of making the lives of ordinary people better.

Many other crucial events in modern political history, from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, also owe their occurrence to the failure of core supporters to suppress the people at critical moments.

Revolutionary moments often arise, as we saw in the cases of Ghana, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, when an economy is near collapse-so near, in fact, that the leadership can no longer buy the military’s loyalty. Such circumstances are practically inevitable in the vast majority of autocracies. Their rent-seeking, corrupt, inefficient economic ways assure it.

Democrats more often that autocrats fight when all other means of gaining policy concessions from foreign foes fail. In contrast, autocrats are more likely to fight casually, in the pursuit of land, slaves, and treasure.

If a democratic leader wants a foreign leader to follow his prescribed policies then he needs to insulate his puppet from domestic pressures. This means reducing coalition size in vanquished states. This makes it easier to sustain puppets and buy policy. US foreign policy is awash with examples where the United States overtly or covertly undermines the development of democracy because it promoted the policies counter to US interests. Queen Liliuokolani of Hawii in 1893, Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973, Mohammed Mosaddegh of Iran in 1953, and Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 all suffered such fates.

It is an understatement to say that making the world better is a difficult task. If it were not, then it would already have been improved.

However, the inherent problem with change is that improving life for one group generally means making at least one other person worse off, and that other person is likely to be a leader if change really will solve the people’s problems.

Slavery has been outlawed for about 150 years and yet the electoral college persists, and the primary reason, even if rarely spoken out loud, for its survival is that it allows politicians to construct a coalition of essential supporters that is substantially smaller than would be the case under direct election.

When economic circumstances dictate that a despot’s flow of cash depends on allowing the people to converse, the dictator is truly between a rock and a hard place.

Kate Evan’s Red Rosa

I stumbled across Red Rosa at a bookstore, and thought it was worth a read, given that it probably wasn’t available on Amazon (although as it turns out, there is a Kindle version).

Overall, it’s a good introduction to a historical figure I didn’t know much about. Luxembourg was an impressive woman. She overcame multiple barriers, including (but not limited to) gender, to make an important intellectual contribution, and play a key role in major social shifts at the start of the twentieth century.

The story starts with her childhood, and her struggle to learn. She moves from Poland to Germany (not unlike Alexander Parvus), and becomes involved with the Social Democratic Party. She completes a PhD on Polish industrialisation, and lectures in an SPD institute for future SPD leaders.

In a patriarchal society where women had very little freedom, she managed to have several relationships (as far as I can tell from the comic book, in a quite caring, mature way), and to make important contributions to complex debates about political economy.

She died brutally in the Sparticist uprising, which I understand (although I’m not an expert on the era) was a conflict between the centrist elements in the SDP, and more radical elements.

One of the things I found interesting was that in a life centred on a hope and plan for a better society, but filled with the bitterness of defeats as well, the comic book quotes a particular paragraph by Luxembourg that relates to hope:

 … in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, I find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that secret is nothing other than life itself …

The art work is not amazing, and the story could be better, but this is worth it if you want a gentle introduction to a fascinating life.


Suffrajitsu is a portmanteau, describing those suffragettes who took up ju-jitsu. It’s also a rather fun comic book, based on the concept, but set in a slightly different universe. It doesn’t delve deep into the history, and the story-line is a little bit hackneyed (venture deep to the German mountains, assisted by the British secret service, to recover … something something evil experiments). It doesn’t have any real stab at the question of systemic oppression. For all that though, it’s a fun read – well worth it.