Joel Bakan’s ‘The Corporation’

I’ve written before about how interesting I find the intersection between the legal structures that create a company, and the social impacts that those structures have. The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge was valuable in providing a historical context for the creation of companies, but it didn’t really go beyond that.

The Corporation: The pathological pursuit of profit and power by Joel Bakan doesn’t focus on the history, but tries to go a little beyond that, to questions of how companies (or corporations*) influence society.

For the most part though, it focuses on the central thesis – that companies (or corporations*) are a specific structure that leads directly to imposing costs on society. The quotes below are indicative of the broad sweep of his argument. It’s a fascinating read.

Joel Bakan, as a legal academic, has some credibility when he writes in this area. The book itself feels like it could have more depth, and there’s certainly room to extent more into questions of how corporations are structured internally, and how they interact with societies, beyond the basic question of imposing costs (or externalities).

But it’s an interesting read. A particularly fascinating point for me was reading about the ‘cocktail putsch‘: an abortive plot to undertake a coup against the New Deal, which may never have gotten very far, but is interesting even as a fanciful discussion.

Bakan concludes with a set of recommendations. He dithers between being idealistic and recommending marginal tweaks, and ultimately ends up being anemic, with the kind of recommendations that are so vague as to be able to encompass a thousand possibilities.

Overall, this one could have been better with more depth and theory, but it’s worth it, simply as an interesting discussion of what to my mind is an under-analysed area.

*Yes, there may be some technical legal differences between a company and a corporation that I’ve missed; they’re not important for the purposes of either of these books.

Quotes

Businessmen and politicians had been suspicious of the corporation from the time it first emerged in the late sixteenth century. Unlike the prevailing partnership form, in which relatively small groups of men, bonded together by personal loyalties and mutual trust, pooled their resources to set up businesses they ran as well as owned, the corporation separated ownership from management- one group of people, directors and managers, ran the firm, while another group, shareholders, owned it. That unique design was believed by many to be a recipe for corruption and scandal. Adam Smith warned in The Wealth of Nations that because managers could not be trusted to steward “other people’s money,” “negligence and profusion” would inevitably result when businesses organized as corporations …

Stockholding could not become a truly attractive option for the general public until that risk [personal liability] was removed, which it soon was …

1,800 corporations were consolidated into 157 between 1898 and 1904. In less than a decade the U.S. economy had been transformed from one in which individually owned enterprises competed freely among themselves into one dominated by a relatively few huge corporations, each owned by many shareholders …

By the end of the nineteenth century, through a bizarre legal alchemy, courts had fully transformed the corporation into a “person”, with its own identity, separate from the flesh-and-blood people who were its owners and managers … The corporate person had taken the place, at least in law, of the real people who owned corporations … Gone was the centuries-old “grant theory”, which had conceived of corporations as instruments of government policy and as dependent upon government bodies to create them and enable them to function …

The “best interests of the corporation” principle, now a fixture in the corporate law of most countries, addresses Smith’s concern by compelling corporate decisions always to act in the best interests of the corporation, and hence its owners. The law forbids any other motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money … As corporate officials … stewards of other people’s money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves-only as means to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximize the wealth of its shareholders. Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal-at least when it is genuine …

“The structure,” says Kernaghan, “the whole system, just drags everybody with it.” At the heart of that structure is a simple dynamic: a corporation “tends to be more profitable to the extent it can make other people pay the bills for its impact on society,” as businessman Robert Monks describes it. “There’s a terrible word that economists use for this called ‘externalities.'”

The corporation’s unique structure is largely to blame for the fact that illegalities are endemic in the corporate world. By design, the corporate form generally protects the human beings who own and run corporations from legal liability, leaving the corporation, a “person” with a psychopathic contempt for legal constraints, the main target of criminal prosecution …

There is little democracy in a system that relies on market forces and nongovernmental organizations to promote socially responsible behavior from corporations …

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The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

For many years, Monopoly’s history was simple. Charles Darrow invented the game during the Great Depression, and the game was popularised by the Parker Brothers. It was a simple story that Horatio Alger might have loved.

Then, in the 1970s, Ralph Anspach invented Anti-Monopoly. Parker Brothers came after him. In the course of a long copyright battle that would threaten his health, his marriage, and his livelihood, the truth about the origins of Monopoly came tumbling out.

It starts with Lizzie Maggie, a remarkable writer, teacher, feminist and engineer. In 1903 she applied for a patent on The Landlord’s Game, a board game in which players moved around a board, acquiring property. Fascinatingly, it was a demonstration of Henry George’s ‘Georgism‘, a framework on taxation and control of resources, intended to show how without the right tax framework, a single player comes to bankrupt other players and control the resources.

She patented it, but doesn’t appear to have enforced her patent. From there, the game trickled out to other parts of the country. Until, in a moment so striking that it’s hard to resist the temptation to see it as a metaphor or synecdoche, Charles Darrow claimed that he had invented Monopoly, and cashed in on the lucrative wealth that flowed his way.

This is, essentially, the guts of the story that Mary Pilon tells in The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board GameBut even though you know the story, this is a book that’s still very worth reading.

Pilon tells the story well, and it’s a complex story. Lizzie Maggie is a fascinating and inspiring character, someone who believed passionately in justice throughout her life, and did so flamboyantly. Pilon tells the twists and turns of how the board game evolved through different iterations, trickling from one community to another.

She’s slightly less deft in telling the legal battles; at times it feels a little as though the material is being dragged out, rather than cutting to the chase. But it’s a testament to the research that she’s done, in digging through all the material, that she can tell the story so exhaustively and so well.

Where she struggles is where the trail goes cold, the points past which she can’t venture, travelling into the bowels of the patent office, or the corporate archives now held by Hasbro. It would be an even more compelling story if that information was available, but Pilon does well with what she has.

In some ways, it has interesting parallels to another story about claiming ownership of an invention, that features a twist at Harvard (Pilon tells how Dan Layman, another character in the story, sold a game called Finance based on a game he played at Harvard).

A final, fascinating set of twists is that after the courtcase that won Ralph Anspach the right to publish his Anti-Monopoly, there was a hurried set of legal changes pushed through Congress. I haven’t been able to find another reference online, but Pilon assures us that a specific exemption was included in the legislation to ensure that Anti-Monopoly wasn’t caught:

… Person ensured that Ralph’s right to sell Anti-Monopoly would still be protected under the new act in what became known as “the Anti-Monopoly amendment.”

The final, delightful twist is that now Ralph’s two sons run the company, and they’ve patented a particular set of mathematically calculated prices that equalise their game.

Quotes

The object of the game was to bankrupt all opponents and be the last person standing by acquiring real estate and charging rent.

 

John Wanamaker was credited with having popularized the price tag–a Quaker concept that had originally taken hold in England. Both the Quakers and Wanamaker believed that haggling over prices with self-interested storekeepers did not lead to equal shopping opportunities, so fixed prices made everyone equal in the eyes of God.

 

It’s still unclear how Parker Brothers received approval for the Monopoly patent, given the two Landlord’s Game patents that had come before it. It’s also unclear how the patent was issued in an astonishingly fast four months. Typically, the U.S. Patent Office rejected applications that had strong similarities to ones that were already on file. And even when an application was approved, it took many months or even years to process.

 

Lizzie and George signed a deal. She received five hundred dollars. And no residuals.

 

The vast majority of Monopoly players had no clue that the game was a protest against capitalism, not an endorsement of it.

 

The Geneva Conventions allowed POWs to receive some letters and goods, including games, to help them pass the time. But relief groups such as the Red Cross did not want to risk their integrity as aid organizations by participating in smuggling activities, so the Allies set up fictitious relief agencies, such as the British Local Ladies Comfort Society and the Lancashire Penny Fund. The addresses of blitzed buildings were sometimes used as well …

It would be virtually impossible to know the scope of the Allies’ use of Monopoly boards or how many POWs were helped by the hidden maps and goods-if any at all. No sets explicitly used for this purpose have ever been found, a fact that gives some game historians pause.

 

Trademark lawyers use the term “genericide” to refer to product names that become so successful that they lose their trademark and become generic words adopted into the common language.

 

In some ways, the actions of Layman and Darrow had not been all that different. Both men had seen a popular game, played it, and marketed it. But Layman had never filed for a patent, and had never claimed to have invented the game. Darrow had.

 

When Hasbro purchased Parker Brothers in 1991, it’s likely that it also purchased a trove of George Parker’s diaries and neatly organized game library, which it has declined to make available to researchers for decades, as it declined my request to access them.

 

They say that writers suffers so that their readers don’t have to, but so do those dear souls who are close to writers, who empower, encourage, and rip apart story structures in the name of friendship and generosity.

 

It’s easy to assume in this age of research that if information doesn’t surface via Google search, then it must not exist at all … the reporting of this book was a humbling reminder of the infinite amount of knowledge still tucked away on dusty bookshelves, in attics, or in brains, yet to be documented and only woven together through sweat, obsession, and love of story, even regarding something as seemingly simple as board games. The Internet has yet to do its best work.

 

 

A people’s history of the United States

It’s hard to know where to start in describing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United StatesIt’s a long read; a history of the United States, told with a focus on the lives of everyday people, and of the movements and communities that resisted the centres of power.

Zinn does an excellent job of pulling out how particular power balances shifted and changed, often opportunistically rather than on principle:

George Washington had turned down the requests of blacks, seeking freedom, to fight in the Revolutionary army. So when the British military commander in Virginia, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom to Virginia slaves who joined his forces, this created consternation.

As part of his analysis, he also captures the inherent contradictions that can emerge:

In short, as Francis Jennings puts it, the white Americans were fighting against British imperial control in the East, and for their own imperialism in the West.

And the ways a kyriarchy can intersect with popular movements:

In 1840, a World Anti-Slavery Society Convention met in London. After a fierce argument, it was voted to exclude women, but it was agreed they could attend meetings in a curtained enclosure. The women sat in silent protest in the gallery, and William Lloyd Garrison, one abolitionist who had fought for the rights of women, sat with them.

Or later, in the 20th century:

In the summer of 1964 , in McComb , Mississippi , at a Freedom House ( a civil rights headquarters where people worked and lived together ) the women went on strike against the men who wanted them to cook and make beds while the men went around in cars organizing.

Throughout, there are fascinating historical points, that I hadn’t come across before. Apparently the expression ‘pie in the sky’ comes from an old protest song, before or around World War I. There was a time when children, working sixty hours a week, went on strike, carrying signs that said “We want to go to school!” The Lusitania actually may have been carrying weaponry, the Allies intervened in the Russian Civil WarAmerican servicemen were killed in the bombing of Hiroshima, and the term ‘fragging‘ has its origins in rebellion in the Vietnam war. This was all news to me.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. At times, it seems like it’s easy for Zinn to idealise cultures outside white, capitalist America. Making the case that they are more egalitarian requires more than simply going on a few secondary sources. At times that can feel particularly shortsighted, for example when he writes:

In January 1949 , Chinese Communist forces moved into Peking , the civil war was over , and China was in the hands of a revolutionary movement , the closest
thing , in the long history of that ancient country , to a people’s government , independent of outside control .
It would be nice, at least, to acknowledge some of the subsequent history that follows that sentence.

It also feels at times that although Zinn tells interesting stories in isolation, of how particular groups used, exploited, or controlled other groups, he doesn’t go to the next level of causality, in explaining how or why particular groups were able to achieve control – was it technology, or media, or history? Without that underlying story, at times it feels as though he is simply telling history as one thing after another. In particular, it feels that although his story is continually one of suffering and hope, there’s no clear underlying story of whether, why or how things may change. Zinn concludes:

… the world … is still in the hands of the elites, that people’s movements, although they show an infinite capacity for recurrence, have so far been either defeated or absorbed or perverted, that “socialist” revolutionists have betrayed socialism, that nationalist revolutions have led to new dictatorships.

This is a bleak point to end on, and Zinn doesn’t offer much beyond that viewpoint. The closest he comes is to speculate:

Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all.

The society’s levers of power would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state – the giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need – by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country – to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most … The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires …

A final weakness is that in his material, covering from about the 60’s onwards, Zinn’s focus seems to shift away from the movements and overarching groups that make his earlier writing so interesting, and to zoom much more closely in to the horse-race politics of Presidential decisions and appearances, where his contribution isn’t as strong.

For all that, though, this is a powerful and thought provoking book. It’s powerful because, as Zinn writes of his approach:

To uncover such history is to find a powerful human impulse to assert one’s humanity. It is to hold out, even in times of deep pessimism, the possibility of surprise.

Well worth a read.

Quotes and notes

The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

 

… the historian has been trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races, nations.

 

Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes eroding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.

 

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperately tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

 

We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.

 

It was a complex chain of oppression in Virginia. The Indians were plundered by white frontiersmen, who were taxed and controlled by the Jamestown elite. And the whole colony was being exploited by England, which bought the colonist’s tobacco at prices it dictated and made 100,000 pounds a year for the King.

 

Blacks ran away to Indian villages, and the Creeks and Cherokees harbored runaway slaves by the hundreds.

In describing how leaders in America came to direct resentment against Britain, Zinn concludes:

It was not a conscious conspiracy, but an accumulation of tactical responses.

 

Locke himself regretted that the labor or poor children “is generally lost to the public till they are twelve or fourteen years old” and suggested that all children over three, of families on relief, should attend “working schools” so they would be “from infancy … inured to work”.

 

In America, too, the reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence (issued in the same year as Adam Smith’s capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations) was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history. Indeed, 69 per cent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England.

 

It seemed that the majority of white colonists, who had a bit of land, or no property at all, were still better off than slaves or indentured servants or Indians, and could be wooed into the coalition of the Revolution. But when the sacrifices of water became more bitter, the privileges and safety of the rich became harder to accept.

 

Indeed, this became a characteristic of the new nation: finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, it could create the richest ruling class in history, and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed.

 

Thus, Beard found that most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.

 

The problem of democracy in the post-Revolutionary society was not, however, the Constitutional limitations on voting. It lay deeper, beyond the Constitution, in the division of society into rich and poor. For if some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system – how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?

 

When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.

 

Through the war, as Schroeder says, “the politically sensitive Whig minority could only harry the administration with a barrage of verbiage while voting for every appropriation which the military campaign required.”

 

It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite, each side exhorting, using, killing its own population as well as the other.

 

… Frederick Douglass spoke in 1857: … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will …

 

It was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared in 1857 that the slave Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property. Such a national government would never accept an end to slavery by rebellion. It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North.

 

In 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing discrimination against Negroes using public facilities, was nullified by the Supreme Court, which said: “Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the amendment.”

 

It was the year 1877 that spelled out clearly and dramatically what was happening. When the year opened, the presidential election of the past November was in bitter dispute. The Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, had 184 votes and needed one more to be elected … The Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, had 166 electoral votes. Three states not yet counted had a total of 19 electoral votes; if Hayes could get all of those, he would 185 and be President. This is what his managers proceeded to arrange. They made concessions to the Democratic party and the white South, including an agreement to remove Union troops from the South, the last military obstacle to the reestablishment of white supremacy there.

 

The farmers had fought, had been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history.

 

State legislatures gave charters to corporations giving them legal rights to conduct business, raise money – at first special charters, then general chraters, so that any business meeting certain requirements could incorporate. Between 1790 and 1860, 2,300 corporations were chartered.

 

In Exeter , New Hampshire , women mill workers went on strike ( “ turned out , ” in the language of that day ) because the overseer was setting the clocks back to get more time from them . Their strike succeeded in exacting a promise from the company that the overseers would set their watches right .

 

In 1835 , twenty mills went on strike to reduce the workday from thirteen and a half hours to eleven hours , to get cash wages instead of company scrip , and to end fines for lateness .

 

They lived in slum tenements owned by the company, were paid in scrip, which they could use only at company stores, and were evicted if their work was unsatisfactory.

 

In premodern times , the maldistribution of wealth was accomplished by simple force . In modern times , exploitation is disguised — it is accomplished by law , which has the look of neutrality and fairness .

 

A study of the origins of 303 textile , railroad , and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle – or upper – class families . The Horatio Alger stories of “ rags to riches ” were true for a few men , but mostly a myth , and a useful myth for control .

 

But the purpose of the state was to settle upper – class disputes peacefully , control lower – class rebellion , and adopt policies that would further the long – range stability of the system .

 

There were eruptions against the convict labor system in the South , in which prisoners were leased in slave labor to corporations, used thus to depress the general level of wages and also to break strikes. In the year 1891 , miners of the Tennessee Coal Mine Company were asked to sign an “ iron – clad contract ” : pledging no strikes , agreeing to get paid in scrip , and giving up the right to check the weight of the coal they mined ( they were paid by the weight ) .
A quote from the New York World, describing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire:
From opposite windows spectators saw again and again pitiable companionship formed in the instant of death-girls who placed their arms around each other as they leaped.
… vigilantes in Montana seized IWW organizer Frank Little , tortured him , and hanged him , leaving his body dangling from a railroad trestle .
Labor struggles could make things better , but the country’s resources remained in the hands of powerful corporations whose motive was profit , whose power commanded the government of the United States .
When the New Deal was over , capitalism remained intact . The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth , as well as its laws , courts , police , newspapers , churches , colleges .
Racism , always a national fact , not just a southern one , emerged in northern cities , as the federal government made concessions to poor blacks in a way that pitted them against poor whites for resources made scarce by the system .
The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted ; the laws were on their side . But when the rich did commit crimes , they often were not prosecuted , and if they were they could get out on bail , hire clever lawyers , get better treatment from judges .
The United States government had signed more than four hundred treaties with Indians and violated every single one .
That makes it a biased account , one that leans in a certain direction . I am not troubled by that , because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction — so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful , by inattention, to people’s movements – that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen.
There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards … These are white workers, neither nor poor, but angry over economic insecurity, unhappy with their work, worried about their neighborhoods, hostile to government – combining elements of racism with elements of class consciousness, contempt for the lower classes along with distrust for the elite, and thus open to solutions from any direction, right or left.
We may, in the coming years, be in a race for the mobilization of middle-class discontent.
Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from the world, from their work, from themselves.
A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness, and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble.
The use of government for class purposes, to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful, has continued throughout American history, down to the present day.

Let’s wait a little longer for ‘The Winds of Winter’

I’m a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. I enjoyed re-reading all the books a little while ago, when I needed some less academic reading. I pre-ordered the hardback of A Dance with Dragons, when it came out.

So I’m really looking forward to reading the next book. But it’s been a long wait. The last book came out in 2011. And sure, there are the (correct) pieces of commentary about why GRRM doesn’t owe the fans anything; as Neil Gaiman (correctly) points out, GRRM is not anyone’s bitch.

Having said that, fans don’t owe GRRM anything either. Sure, I’d like to read the next book, but at this point, I’ve waited eight years. When (if ever) GRRM does get around to finishing the next book, he’ll have a vast number of fans who’ve already waited eight years (or longer), and will have already seen one conclusion in the TV show.

Even if most readers decide to wait and buy the book second-hand, there’ll still be plenty of copies to go around. And readers will be doing the same thing to GRRM that he did to them – exercising patience that’s well within their rights. What’s a few extra months, when you’ve already waited eight (or more) years?

So that’s why I’m planning not to buy the book, and to just wait till it shows up in the second hand book stores. Someone else can pay the full price for a first printing. I’ll get a second hand copy at a discount. I’ll have already waited eight years – I can wait a little longer.

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?

Science

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.

Psychology

Story-telling

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.

Politics

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.

Economics

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.

Books: The Betrothed, Monsignor Quixote and Talon of the Silver Hawk

The Betrothed

I can’t quite find the article now, but I first came across The Betrothed in an interview with Park Chan-wook, where he described it as a reflection on power in a very unequal Italian society (that’s not a direct quote). That’s quite an interesting description, and a reasonably accurate one.

The Betrothed is the story of a young couple in Italy (post-medieval, but not significantly – it’s hard to say), who are excited to marry. Their joy is foiled, however, when the local noble takes an interest in the young bride, and forbids the local clergy from marrying the two.

From there, the story follows their attempts to wed. They’re helped by a local friar, and struggle because of the powerful connections around them (one noble relies on others in multiple instances). They’re also swept up in larger events – bread riots in Milan, a plague that sweeps across the city, and an invasion.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it feels reasonably well-earned. What felt less justified was the conversion, midway through, of a (second) villainous noble, from heartless thug to noble protector, all on the basis of his rumblings of guilt. It’s interesting to read books from that era, that place so much more weight on belief in something larger, rather than on self-interest. It feels harder to find narratives like that today – I’m not sure why.

An interesting read, but not a gripping one. Worth it if you’re interested in how power is represented in narrative, but not otherwise. The characters aren’t quite gripping enough to make it worth while.

Quotes

When I gave you good advice this morning, I had judgement for you and me; but believe me, this is no jesting matter, no question of right or wrong, but superior power.

… if those who commit injustice were always obliged to give a reason for it, things would not be as they are!

… as to justice, I defy it; it does not exist; and if it did, I should equally defy it.

Although the presence, the aspect, and the language of the cardinal embarrassed him, and impressed him with a degree of apprehension, it was, however, an embarrassment and an apprehension which did not subjugate his thoughts, nor prevent him from reflecting that, after all, the cardinal employed neither arms nor bravoes.

Monsignor Quixote

I love reading Graham Greene (Loser takes allBattlefieldThe Ministry of Fear; May we borrow your husband? And other comedies of the sexual life, and others I’ve read but not made notes on).

Monsignor Quixote is an interesting one. It’s the story of a Spanish priest in a post-Franco era, who’s elevated by happenstance to the post of Monsignor, to the fury of his bishop. He sets out on a holiday with his friend the Mayor, who happens to be a staunch communist. From there, they wander across Spain, having random adventures and avoiding the Guardia.

It’s a hat-tip to the original Don Quixote, referenced here as the Monsignor’s ancestor. It’s not gripping, not his best work, but perhaps worth it if you’re a big Greene fan.

Talon of the Silver Hawk

One of the key ideas in Robert McKee’s Story is that part of what makes a story interesting is characters having to overcome challenges, and to make difficult choices – that is, choosing between competing values.

On the first count, Raymond Feist’s Talon of the Silver Hawk only partially succeeds, and it fails completely on the second. The premise is promising enough; a young man on his journey to becoming a man (by being secluded for several days in the mountains) sees his village attacked. He survives, and is taken in by a mysterious stranger. From there he has … adventures, I suppose you’d call them. He goes to interesting places, and does interesting things.

Despite that, neither the protagonist, nor the book, is interesting. I think partially that rests in the writing – Feist fails to create a world that feels real, that feels lived in. It feels a little like walking around a set for a second-rate fantasy movie; you know that if you look too closely at anything, you’ll see the glued seams and scotch tape holding it together. Similarly, the characters are all mysterious, brooding strangers with unique quirks, but still somehow utterly forgettable.

Or if we think of fiction as rhetoric, Feist fails as a likeable and interesting narrator. It feels more like a teenager describing their first B-grade fantasy movie to a friend.

Crucially, and frustratingly for me, it felt as though Feist’s protagonist didn’t have to make any real choices. He chooses to join a shadowy ‘Conclave’, but that was always going to be the case – Feist had never really set up any alternatives, so even though it’s life and death, it feels like a costless decision.

And especially disappointingly, his characterisation of women is of one-dimensional objects, sexual conquests falling before the young protagonist.

If you love fantasy and need to kill time, this isn’t the worst option. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Quotes

Evil has an advantage, for it is served by chaos and confusion. It can destroy and ravage, while we must preserve and build. Ours is the more difficult task.

 

 

We were eight years in power

I’ve enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for a long while. But I was reticent to spring for a copy of We were eight years in power if it was only going to be reprints of essays that are already available on The Atlantic.

Fortunately, it turned out to be worth it, because TNC’s writing is electrifying, even in the short snippets he writes ahead of each essay, which are worth reading in themselves, and interesting insights into his writing experience. I would recommend this for anyone who enjoys TNC’s writing; but if you’re on the fence, start with Between the world and me.

Quotes (from the essays and his introductions to them)

Symbols don’t just represent reality but can become tools to change it. The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency — that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle– assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries.

I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past, that as sure as the black nationalist dreams of a sublime Africa before the white man’s corruption, so did Thomas Jefferson dream of an idyllic Britain before the Normans, so do all of us dream .of some other time when things were so simple. I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.

What people anywhere on this earth has ever, out of a strong moral feeling, ceded power?

His advice is beautiful, which is to say it is grounded in the concrete fact of slavery. That was how I wanted to write – with weight and clarity, without sanctimony and homily … Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. Art was not sentimental. It 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.

Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it. What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world. There is no evidence that the score is ever evened in this life or any after … The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.

Ideas like cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption had no meaning for me. The truth was in the everything that came after atheism, after the amorality of the universe is taken not as a problem but as a given. It was then that I was freed from considering my own morality away from the cosmic and the abstract. Life was short, and death undefeated. So I loved hard, since I would not love for long. So I loved directly  and fixed myself to solid things — my wife, my child, my family, health, work, friends.

It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

… slavery was but the initial crime in a long tradition of crimes, of plunder even, that could be traced into the present day.

For Americans, the hardest part of paying reparations would not be the outlay of money. It would be acknowledging that their most cherished myth was not real.

… all around us there was a machinery meant to verify the myth and validate the illusion. Some black people believed but most of us would look out at the illusion, on a particular day, at a particular angle, in a particular light, and the strings and mirrors would be, if only for an instant, revealed. What I wanted most was to shine an unblinking light on the entire stage, to tell my people with all the authority I could muster that they were right, that they were not crazy, that it really was all a trick.

I don’t ever want to lose sight of how short my time is here. And I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the life span of the resistors, almost always fails. I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. If focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one — not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods — is coming to save us.

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.