Book Review: Why Nations Fail

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Moderate, you’ll need some basic familiarity with economics, politics, and history; Long (462 pages before acknowledgements, notes, etc.) overly repetitious and a bit tedious.

As I start to write the review, it dawns on me that perhaps the title is a bit misleading. It isn’t so much about why they fail, as to why the never even get off the ground. Some nations seem doomed from the start, however, other become wildly successful. Ultimately, I think, the point of the book is who are the ones that are successful and how does that happen? Acemoglu and Robinson pin it two factors, which taken with their opposites form something like a matrix or quadrant, and you need to overlap with the positive of both. These are whether or not you nation is politically inclusive and, and perhaps more importantly, the whether or not you have extractive institutions.

The politic aspect is fairly straight forward, are you in a dictatorship (or other controlling, top down government) or in a democracy (or other form of responsive government)? If you have no say in politics, and government is controlled by a few or just one person, it is fairly easy to see why that wouldn’t work. The more complicated and impactful side is the extractive institutions. These can take many forms, such as contract law or heavy taxation, but a good example is property rights. If you know you have solid and secure property rights, you are more likely to invest and build up your business. If you fear that an institution may step in at any moment and take your land or business from you, why bother?

The book itself is broken into 15 chapters, with an interesting preface about Mubarak and Egypt. The first chapter compares Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora; the two cities have similar culture and geography, so why is one rich and the other poor? The chapter serves as the intro to the book and leads into the second chapter where the debunk the reasons for poverty being related to genetics or weather, among others. Chapters 3 through 12 are basically case studies where the authors look a different political situation throughout history through the lenses of responsiveness and extractiveness. In 13 and 14, the authors discuss nations that fail today those that have become successful. The final chapter looks at our attempts to help impoverished nations and how understanding the causes, as the have proposed, will help us to better understand why those attempts have failed and how we can do better going forward.

My Thoughts
First, about the book itself – the authors are both academics, and the book certainly reads that way to an extent. The book could have been much more concise, dropping at least 100 pages without missing any case studies are points. I think part of the issue may come from the publisher/editor, in that instead of setting up most of the chapters as case studies that then looked at their points each time, it might have been better to make their points, and then touch on case studies as proof. Instead, each chapter could almost be read independently, meaning there is too much repetition of their point.

To the content of the book – it was fascinating, anyone with interest in economics, history, or politics, this book is a must read. One of the the more interesting points of history to me, was the impact of the Plague on serfdom in Europe. Eastern Europe reacted one way, England another, which would then impact America (as it was founded with this change as part of history), which ultimately effects me today. Had the reaction in England been the same as the Austria-Hungary reaction, who knows how different the Western World would look, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this review right now.

Another point the spend some time on that is worth considering is looking beyond just economics. The point to growth of the economy under Stalin, but that the nation still failed. It is also helpful to see and understand how the impacts of colonialism, which was not inclusive but very extractive, still effects those countries and peoples today. The point was driven home a little more for me because I live in the South, which they actually spend some time on. The impacts of slavery on the economics of white people is still being felt today, though less so than a few decades ago. The discussion centers on the fact that obviously slavery is extractive and was horrible for black people, but it also never would have worked politically because it included so few people in the institutions. Most white people were shut out of the economy and wages and this impact lasted a long time. They point out the that median income in the South was about 40% of the median income through the rest of the nation as recently as 1950.

All of this works back to a reminder that part of why life is good for me today is pure luck. From serfdom in England, to the Civil War, on through today. If Lincoln had let the South succeed and be it’s own country, it clearly would have failed, based on the theories of the authors. Meaning, I could be living in a failed state right now, instead of America. They call it ‘small differences and critical juncture’ in history, but it is basically an accident of history; it is somewhat sobering to consider.

Overall, and interesting and challenging book. It could certainly be a bit shorter and cleaner, which is why I didn’t rate it higher, but a book that is well worth the read and one to put on your list.

Book Review: Hyperion


My Rating: Must Read

Level: Fairly easy read, long (almost 500 pages) but reads quickly

This is the first book the the Hyperion Cantos series and centers around the stories of seven ‘pilgrims’ as the travel to the distant world Hyperion and a voyage to meet the Shrike. The story take place 700 years in the future, where we have left Earth after it’s accidental destruction and colonized multiple planets throughout the galaxy.  On the ship, each pilgrim – the priest, the soldier, the poet, the scholar, the starship captain, the detective, and the consul – tales their story.

Each mini-story is incredible and interesting in it’s own right. But it is nothing less than impressive they way Simmons weaves the stories together with histories, biologies, geographies, ecologies, and political back stories of a dozens worlds and scores of peoples. It is an amazing, sprawling, interwoven, epic fantasy.

My Thoughts
I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, but I was impressed with this book and honestly shocked that it ins’t more famous. The shear volume and intricacies of the stories and back stories are impressive. I actually found myself staying up late to read and being excited to come back to the book to see what would happen next. I ordered the next book in the series as soon as I was wrapping this one up.

I don’t know how much I should concern myself with spoilers for a nearly 30 year old book, but I’ll just say the pilgrim stories for the priest and scholar were so fascinating to me, that they are worth the price of the book alone. Either one could be it’s own novel, and the concepts Simmons put are great thought experiments.

Of course, the book being so old, there are interesting parts that are oddly anachronistic now, which make them especially funny being projected in the future. For instance, one of the top technologies is the personal fax machine. But his concept of the ‘all-thing’ is basically our modern internet with smart phones, so that was interesting to see. Overall, a great, fun book that is a must read for anyone who likes sci-fi or fantasy, but also for anyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.

2018 Reading Challenge

I sightly exceeded my goal of 25 books last year, by reading 29 books. Now, the prior year, I had a goal of 30, but pretty well passed that, reading 52. I lowered my goal last year as I took some Counseling courses, but as I am not doing that this year, I am raising the goal back to 30. I’d love to set the goal at 48 or 52, to match my 2016, but Sprout doesn’t sleep as much as she used to (bedtime moved back and naps went from 3/4 to zero), so I don’t think that is reasonable, but in the back of my mind, I am kind of hopeful.

So, what am I reading? I have 13 books specifically planned (check out my Goodreads 2018 Shelf for a quick list). I’ll probably tack on another 12 (or less, mostly likely, as I ratchet down the number of review books I request) and then leave myself a little room for randomness in the other five. Of those five, two or three will probably be novels, and at least one will be another counseling book. The 13 I have set out already include:

Devotional – I’ve typically read a whole year devotional, such as My Utmost for His Highest (my review), but this year I’m doing something a little different. I have one, Shalom in Psalms, that goes through, well, the Psalms. This won’t take a whole year, so I have a Lenten one, From the Grave, and an Advent one, The Dawning of Indestructible Joy“, lined up. That should finish out the year, but I may have to find a 30-40 day one in addition and toss it in there. So, kind of sneaky with the numbers, typically the devotional gets me one book, this year it might net me three or four.

Biography/autobiographyA Full Life: Reflections at Ninety was on my list last year, but I didn’t make it to it, so I’ll stick it back on this list.

Non-fictionGödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, at 822 pages, this is the second biggest book on my list for this year and one of my top five life goal, big book, non-fiction books to pick up. Unless this takes me all year, I’ll probably have another, shorter, non-fiction in this list.

FictionThe Fall of Hyperion, the sequel to one of my favorite books last year, Hyperion, and the only book I’ve already started reading. At 864 pages, Anna Karenina, will be my biggest book this year and the second longest single volume fiction book I’ve ever read. If that wasn’t enough Russian Literature, I’d also like to work through the two stories (which come packaged in one book, so I’m counting it as one) Notes from the Underground and The Grand Inquisitor. Hopefully, I’ll get to a few more in this category.

Christian-y type books – because two 800 page books won’t take me long enough, I’m also picking up two more 500+ page books. First, I want to get back into finishing Bavnick so I have Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, on the list with the ridiculous hope that I will actually make it to the even longer (912 pages) Volume Four. Second is what I’ve heard is the best in Christian history – Church History in Plain Language. Outside of the big ones, I had Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy on my list from 2017, but also didn’t get to it, so I’ve move it to this year; Work and Our Labor in the Lord, which is also technically a review book; and finally, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. This general category will be the biggest, as I fill it out with review books and commentaries.

That is the plan for 2018, a few less books than I think I could probably handle, but a few of them probably to large. Feel free to share your goals in the comments.

2017 Reading Challenge Update

For 2017 I challenged myself to read 24 books, with 19 books called out specifically. I was successful in the number of book, with 29, but didn’t hit many of my specific books. I think this is mostly due to having less time to read, so I didn’t hit the big books (like Capital in the 21st Century) and because I ended up reading mostly review books that were sent to me by Baker Books.

This year I will likely read less review books. Originally, I would request every book they offered, because at first I wouldn’t receive many, if any, of them. Then as I did more and more reviews, they started sending every single one I requested. I had planned to read five or six, and ended up reviewing 12.

I ended up knocking out two of the three novels I had planned, reading Brave New World  (my review) and Hyperion, but not Lolita.

I read all of the required books for school, but haven’t reviewed a single one. I think I also over estimated the amount of time I’d have left to read after finishing schoolwork as well as the impact of a new job that tripled/quadrupled my commute. Throw in Sprout sleeping even less and somehow becoming even more rambunctious, I ended up with far less time than I anticipated. Just in writing this post and reviewing my reading from 2017, I’ve already downgraded my goal for 2018 from 36 to 30 books, realizing that I likely will not have time.

I’ll have that goal up in a post sometime next week. Hopefully, I’ll finish reviewing a few more books from last year and have a rundown on the ESV M’Chenney Reading Bible.

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
My Rating: Put it on your list
Level: Quick and easy read, fairly short.
Away in the dark near future, there is a still a profession called ‘fireman’, but they don’t save houses from burning (houses are fireproof now), but now they start fires. Not for houses, but for books. The book follows the story of one of these firemen as he starts to question why they are doing what they do, and instead starts saving and hiding books. After he is found out, he becomes the victim of the system he used to be a part of.
My Thoughts
This is a classic of dystopian fiction. The scary thing is, though some elements are over the top, much is too accurate. Bradburry rightly predicts (originally published in 1951) that books won’t be banned by the government or people in the majority for challenging the status quo, but instead, books will be questioned or banned for offending some group or another. We see this happening today, especially with elements of history that people do not like. He also predicted the heavy use of what are basically headphones. I went for a walk this morning and noticed every one of the dozen or so people I saw had headphones in.
As a big book-reader and someone who isn’t paranoid about the government, I see Bradburry’s vision as much more accurate than something like 1984. He was even wrong that the government would actively burn books by the will/request of the people. We don’t have to worry about that now, people just stopped reading them. Hell, people buy digital books, so you can’t even burn them anyway. But it doesn’t matter, in the most recent Pew study (2014) 23% of people hadn’t read a book in the past year. That’s up from 8% in 1978, the first year they asked. The median number of books read a year by American adults is 4. We don’t need to burn book, and the government doesn’t need to ban them. We are doing this to ourselves. We have 100 of channel showing pointless shit on TV and endless ways to stalk people we don’t even like on facebook and twitter, who needs books?
Maybe his most accurate portrayal was related to this. One of the characters in the book, whom the police watch due to being ‘peculiar’, lives in the only house that doesn’t glow blue at night. The family has their lights on and can be seen through the window sitting around talking, everyone else has their lights off and is watching TV, so that only a low, flickering blue color can be seen from the street. Where he is wrong is that no one thinks it odd now, but most people likely never think about it. I know I never did, but now if I walk around at night, I notice all the windows from the back of the houses and some of the bedrooms are dark and flickering blue. It becomes kind of eerie if you look or think about it too much.
 Anyway, over all, the book is a bit over-dramatic at times, well not being dramatic enough in others, due to un-imagined technological change. The concepts are great and the portrayal of why life could be like in this dystopian future is frighteningly accurate at times. I as I said above, it is a classic in the genre, and a book to put on your reading list.

Book Review: Misbehaving

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

My Rating: Put it on your list

Level: Moderate to difficult, depending on your base knowledge of Economics and Psychology. Moderate in length, but reads quickly

Part Thaler autobiography, part time line of the development of the field, with plenty of humorous anecdotes and academic ‘anomalies’, this book does not read like a history of an academic discipline. The book is broken into eight broad chapter based around years in which Thaler worked through differing parts of the development of the field. The chronology starts with him as a graduate student, where he is just starting to look into ideas that would become the discipline, and proceeds up to the present, where he seems poised to hand over the reins to the next generation. Along the way are his stories of getting the discipline recognized by academic journals, struggles with the establishment, and gaining allies (across other disciplines, as well) and students that will become the next generation.

My Thoughts
This book, like the somewhat related book (Thinking, Fast & Slow) by his fellow collaborator, Daniel Kahneman, kind of annoyed me in how well it is written. Thaler has had a nearly five decade career as researcher and writer, so he should write well, but that is not what I mean. His book is funny and reads quickly like a narrative. As I said above, it it part autobiography, and lends itself tremendously to humorous narrative that leaves you interested in reading more. As a pretend internet researcher and writer, I am envious that someone with actual credentials writes so well.

All that being said, I think I missed the subtitle of this book when I first heard about it a few years ago. I heard Thaler on a interview, and knew he was related to behavioral economics, but didn’t quite realize this was book he was promoting. I must have searched his name on amazon and bought the first book I saw, without noticing the reference to ‘Nudge’ on the cover. Nudge was really the book I was looking for, which is more about the research out of Behavioral Economics as it relates to topics like money and health. ‘The Making of Behavioral Economics’ should have clued me in to this book being more of a history. Luckily, I enjoy history and biographies, and as I said above, he is a very talented writer.

One of the first things that stuck out to me was how long he as been in the field. His book starts in 1970, with him as a grad student. I wouldn’t be born for another decade and a half, and I don’t consider myself very young. I’ve heard that Millennials will have between seven and 17 careers over their lifetimes, so it amazes me to read of someone’s history in a field that is longer than my lifetime.

Reading history is always fascinating, because you, with the addition of hindsight, can read and say, ‘how did these people miss this?’ I couldn’t believe some of the resistance he and others would face as the argued against the efficient market hypothesis. I was in high school during (look it up kids) and the tech bubble and finished grad school a few months before the housing bubble popped, so I struggle to believe in any way the the market is efficient and that people are well informed. Thinking back to my undergrad economics courses, I believe I was taught the distinction between theory of economics (people who Thaler calls Econs) and actual behavior (called Humans). In grad school, the distinction was called that of theory and practice. So, it is interesting to see that a few decades before, saying things like this, which to me are clearly true, would get you laughed out of conferences and barred from academic journals.

This history was interesting, and the debates with other academics were amusing and insightful, but the book really shines with the anecdotes. I won’t go through all of them here, but the include an economist who refuses to sell his wine (for a gain) at the market price while also stating he would never buy it at the price and companies whose stock prices are lower than their subsidiaries (even when purchasing the larger company stock means getting the smaller companies stock included; this means the larger company is valued in negative dollars relative to market cap).

These types of stories are what I enjoy reading. They are amusing on their own, but also challenge your assumptions about certain areas, but even more, make you really question whether you actually know what you are doing. You may think you do everything rationally, but you probably don’t, and that is illustrated time and again in this book. If you are looking for just stories and research results, you are probably better off with Nudge or Thinking, Fast and Slow. However, if you are interesting in Behavioral Economics in general, this is definitely a book to put on your list.

Book Review: Martin Luther in His Own Words

Martin Luther in His Own Words: Essential Writings of the Reformation

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – Short, but moderately difficult read. This isn’t an intro for the Reformation, some knowledge of church history and theology will be needed.

The title could be a bit misleading to some, i.e., one may think it is a sort of autobiography. However, the book is a collect of Martin Luther’s writings. Twelve selections, to be precise, broken into five broad topics (cleverly) modeled after the five solas – fida, gratia, scriptura, Christus, and gloria.

If you are unfamiliar, the five ‘solae’ (alone or only in Latin, think of the modern words sole and solo) was the cry of the Reformation. So the chapters are laid out in the Latin words mentioned above that correspond to faith, grace, Scripture, Christ, glory (to God). Delving into these is beyond the scope of a book review, but as this year (2017) is the 500 anniversary of the Reformation and Martin Luther was the initiator, it was a pretty interesting way to divide the book.

There is an into by Kilcrease before each selection that helps with context and there are a few footnotes within the selections that are helpful for understanding particular, archaic, and/or theological/ecclesiastical terms.

My Thoughts
There is a difficultly in trying to review a sample pack of a book. My main critique would be that Luther’s most famous writings are probably ‘The Bondage of the Will’ and his Larger & Short Catechisms, and if you know much about him, his commentary on Galatians, and of the 12 selections, only four come from sources other than these. Granted, this may have been their reason for the selections, but I would have preferred a more diverse grouping.

I wanted to like this book more, but maybe because I am fairly familiar with Luther, it just didn’t quite do it for me. However, if you do not know much about Luther’s writings or the beginnings of the Reformation, this may be a great place to start. Kilcrease’s introductions are great and very informative. Or, if you are curious about Luther’s writings and don’t know where to begin, this would be a great place to start. If you haven’t read much, the translation footnotes are incredibly helpful and will make it an easier read the just pulling some of the freely available online versions of many of his writings.

There is renewed interest in Luther and the Reformation in general this year as we approach the 500th anniversary and this book is one to read, if you are looking for something.

If you were looking for a biography then check out Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. I haven’t read it yet, but the general consensus seems to be that it is the best.

If you think this book sounds a little to introductory, or you’ve read it and want more of Luther, then this collection (which I have read) seems to be the best next step (there is some overlap) – The Martin Luther Collection: 15 Classic Works

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together

My Rate – Must Read

Level – Fairly easy, short to moderate length.

A book about how to be a disciple written by someone who apparently isn’t very good at it. As usual, I don’t have a very good summary of what this book is about. The best summary of the books is right there as the subtitle – grace for people who can’t get their act together. I don’t know how to add to that. There are 10 chapters (20ish pages each) with a short introduction and even shorter conclusion.

My Thoughts
This is what a book about discipleship should be. This might be the best book I’ve read this year, certainly the best ‘Christian’ book of the year, probably the best in a while. I was given a copy of this book to review, but I may actually go buy a few more to hand out. So, what makes it so good? Was there anything revolutionary in this book for me? Honestly, no. There was almost nothing new and different for me, other than a growing jealously of his writing style.

Why would I want more copies of this book then? Because it is the best book to give out to people who ‘try’ hard to be ‘good’. I resonated deeply with his background, in the fundamentalist/moralistic sects of the baptist world. It probably took me until my 20’s to really understand Grace and the Gospel. To his subtitle, I already know I don’t have together and never will, and understand that this is the need for grace. However, there are so many people who don’t yet know this. Wilson is a master at saying what needs to be said in a way that will be heard by those who need to hear. He writes with the obliviously well worn heart of a pastor who has seen people burn themselves out or tear themselves down.

Buy this book for a new believer. Buy this book for the old believer you know who is always trying to ‘be’ better and is confused as to why they can’t. Buy this book if you disciple anyone, or lead any small group. Buy this book if you work with youth or college students. Buy this book for anyone new to the Biblical concept of Grace. Finally, go ahead and get if for yourself. It is a fun, enlightening read. I just pulled up amazon and it is less than $9. Admit it to yourself, that is less than you spent last time you went to one of those weight your ice cream places.

I rarely ever hold pages, or underline/make notes in non-academic books (things other than commentaries or systematics), but I just flipped back through this and found 15 dogeared pages. Maybe the most surprising is how broad they are, everything from what it means to be a disciple with examples from Isaiah, to issues with American Christianity and consumerism, to depression and struggling with your faith, and coincidentally to me as I am studying this right now – some good teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

This book really is a go to book for what it means to be a disciple and a must read for anyone interested in the topic of being a follower of Jesus. The depth of the theology and pastoral messaging was incredible, while at the same time the book was funny and honest. He writes the way a non-pretend theologian blogger would write if he were to write a book.

* I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Christian Life

The Christian LIfe: A Doctrinal Introduction

Rating – Must Read

Level – Quick, easy read

The subtitle of this book is really illustrative of what this book is about. It is an introduction to doctrine for Christians, more specifically reformed theology. This is probably the best intro book I’ve ever read. You won’t get the full intro that you’d need to tackle Systematic Theology, there is no doctrine of church, sacrament, eschatology, etc., but his chapters on man, sin, grace, election/adoption, justification, and christian living are possibly unmatched in their accessibility to the average Christian.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone looking to understand more about doctrine, to go above a Sunday School level, and it may even work as a gateway book into deeper study of theology. Ferguson was a theologian and professor, but this book is written by a pastor first and foremost and can easily be read by any Christian at any level of education and knowledge.

My Thoughts
If I’ve somehow been unclear, I’m really high on this book. Clocking in under 200 pages but with 18 chapters, anyone can hope in and out of the different doctrinal chapters with ease. As I mentioned above, this is a great intro for anyone looking to expand their knowledge. It is also a great reminder to pastor and theologians of the basics of doctrine. A way to bring those who greater knowledge back down to a simpler level, a more concise study of what others need to know.

This is written almost as a series of sermons and could be a great book for a Bible study or community group looking for something to read. For pastors and elders in the church, this should be the go to suggested reading for anyone inquiring about doctrine. Overall, it is a must read for every Christian.

Book Review: Katharine and Martin Luther

Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk

Rating –  If you have time

Level – Easy read, short to medium length

For the most part the book is about the marriage of Katharina and Marin Luther. The first few chapters look at the two of them individually, then their life together, culminating in the death of Martin. The book is at its best, not necessarily discussion their marriage, but when getting into the minutia of life in the early modern period. The book is at it’s worst when the author seems surprised by the fact that life was hard for women 500 years ago.

If you are looking for an interesting book about the marriage between a former monk and former nun, this is probably not it. There are interesting insights, but it is far from a good history, there is a good bit of editorializing and comparing them to marriages of today. There is a little bit about the famous Table Talks and their life together mentoring and growing the next generation of reformers, but not nearly enough. In my view, this should be the centerpiece of a book about their marriage. It truly was revolutionary, but the author instead focuses her surprise on the fact that Martin loved and respected Katharina despite believing the Bible to the the Work of God.

My Thoughts
It should be pretty clear from above that I was a little disappointed in this book. The author goes in and out of interesting historical facts to discussing her shock that someone could read the Bible, believe it, especially as it pertains to the so-called ‘roles of marriage’ and then still love their wife. She starts with a good history of the issues women face, and they are shocking and substantial, but she doesn’t seem to be able to separate them from their place in history and our current time. She anachronistically puts modern views into the history of the early modern period.

Katharina and Martin hosted dignitaries, students, pastors, and leading intellectuals of the time from across Germany and other parts of Europe. She really misses out in this book by not getting into more of those conversations and how they related to each other. She also comes off a bit patronizing, unintentionally, to Katharina. She takes minor quips and solid comebacks and conflates them into great iconoclastic events.

Overall the book seems a bit jumbled, shifting focus too often. There is far too many uses of phrases like, ‘one wonders’ and ‘it’s not hard to guess’ for my liking. To be fair, in her defense, she never claims to be a historian or that this book is a definitive biography of historical discussion on their marriage. Her near unending shock that there are many letters retained from possibly the most famous and impactful European in church history greatly outnumber his wife’s letters in a time when most women (or people for that matter) could not even read, gets old quickly.  I guess if you happen across this book at a good price it could be worth while, but over all, it is probably not worth your time.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. See more here.