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: The American President

The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton

Rating –  Put it on your list

Level –  Moderate to difficult read, 800+ pages

This book is kind of unique. I thought I was buying a big book that essentially be a volume of shortish biographies for all the presidents of the 20th century. In a since that is what it is, the presidency from Teddy to Bill. The major difference it is really is focused on each man’s presidency more than it is the man himself. There is short biographical into, so to speak, but it really is more a chronicle of their years in office.

It is more than just history that Leuchtenburg write on, the uniqueness comes from his approach of how the presidency changed under each man and overtime. In a way, the book is more a biography/history of the presidency in the 19th century; certainly much more so than a collection of biographies.

My Thoughts
It really is an interesting book. The presidency changed so dramatically from Teddy to Bill, covering those changes and diving into the intricacies of how and when they happened really is a fascinating take on history. For his part, Leuchtenburg is a master historian, but if I had one criticism of him, it is that often it seemed he was going out of his way to find a long, rare word. I fire threw about 50 books a year and write reviews for most of them, so I feel I have a pretty decent vocabulary, but I felt like I had to look up words every few pages or so.

In that sense, the book was a bit academic, but for the most part, his writing is much more of story telling. You can breeze through a surprising amount of pages as he tells the tale of the major shifts in the way the most powerful office in the country has been handled. When you are ready to tackle this book, you better well know, it is not small. Not only is it well over 800 pages, but they are large pages, and densely packed with writing.

All that said, anyone interested in politics or history needs to pick up this book. Hopefully, there are come college classes out there requiring it. The book is a wealth of information and is exceedingly important to see how we got to where we are today with regard to presidential power.

Book Review: Sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Harari

My Rating – Put it on your list

Level – His style makes it moderate, but the book covers topics like biology, physics, philosophy, anthropology, economics, and of course, history. So, not everyone will be able to jump right into this book. Fairly long at almost 500 pages.

Harari splits the book into four parts (total of 20 chapters), The Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution, The Unification of History, and The Scientific Revolution. You could also see this book as two books. The first two parts deal with the developmental historic and biological evolution of humans. The last two parts, deals more with philosophy, religion, end economics.

The first two parts are exactly what they sound like. Who were the Sapiens, and how many species were there? Why did we, homo, become dominant? Our cognition, broadly speaking, is the answer. He gets a little philosophical on wondering whether the agricultural revolution was  good thing. He is fairly critical, wondering if we would have been better off as hunter-gatherers.

The third, was the most fascinating. In ‘unification’ he means how cultural forces tied as together as a species. He points to money, empires, and religion as the greatest reasons. For pure learning/knowledge of society the two chapters on money and religion are probably the greatest in the book.

The final section is party what it seems, what has changed since the scientific revolutions, but Harari also offers great insight into science replacing religion, economics (especially capitalism), the industrial revolution and an interesting look into the future. Parts of this section were difficult to read, especially as he discusses human actions (like genocide) through the lenses of biology and evolution. He wraps up with a look at the future and the advancement of medicine. The implications of current advancements and the possibility of true immortality leads to great points on the philosophical issues of no death, and whom could attain it.

My Thoughts
I’m a pretty big history nerd and find pre-recorded history especially fascinating. What happened to spark the cognitive revolution 50,000 years ago or the agricultural one 10,000 years ago is extremely intriguing from a historical, religious, and biological standpoint. If you are in any way like this, this book is a must read for you.

As for the last two parts, if you are an economics or recent history nerd, this is also a must read. Particularly of interest is his definitions of money and religion. It’s a great over view of the basic economics of money. Even looking at the physical aspects of not having to carry wheat to pay for things, or having to know the value in weight of all commodities. Some people will probably not agree with his definitions of religion, but they are quite good from a sociological standpoint.

The last half of the book should bother a number of people. For the more conservative groups who may read it for the history and economics insights, his discussions of the problems of capitalism and the industrial revolutions may anger them. Likewise, liberals who cheer on those parts will likely disagree with the assessment that liberalism is, in fact, a religion. They may find it especially repulsive that he as he describes the world through purely secular and biological reasoning, he inevitably concludes that there is no universal truth.

With no universal truth, he argues, we can’t state for a fact that things like the Holocaust are wrong. He points out that there is no right and wrong in biology. Our goal is to perpetuate the species, whether or not it is better for us. He discusses evolutionary examples that are not the best winning out. Natural selection is misunderstood as the propagation of the best attributes, but this is simply not true. I’ve heard this type of thinking, especially the Holocaust example, from Christians before. Typically, I dismiss it as something taught in academically weak fundamentalist apologetic schools. It was startling to read it so blatantly stated, and even proved to be correct.

His writing is great and though the material could be a text book, it is written in a wonderful, almost narrative fashion. If either of the two broader section of the book are things that interest you, this is a must read. However, due to the depth and breadth of this book, I’ll put it as something to put on your list, if the topic are of interest to you, or if you are interesting in learning. The amount you will learn from this book is fairly astounding. For that reason alone, it would be helpful for many people to read.

Book Review: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

I had Tom Standage’s book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, of books to get to this year. A finally bought it about a month ago and it did not disappoint.

First of all, it isn’t a history of each individual beverage, though there is plenty of that, but a history of the world (as the title indicates) viewed through the lens of what (and why) people were drinking at the time. The drinks and the times they represent are:

Beer – probably the oldest known drink, popular in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Likely made/discovered by accident, at some unknown time far in the distant past. One of the main benefits it had on society was that you must boil water to make it. This had the affect of water purification and a decrease in waterborne illness. Interesting notes about how it was used as currency and given as rations to soldiers and slaves.

Wine – Our next step in history (Western, at least) is to move north to Greece and then Rome. Wine was viewed as the sophisticated drink and being a wine civilized, educated and wealthy (the more things change…). The sections about the drinking parties are fascinating, with all the ritual and impact on democracy they had. Tangentially related, I grew up in a church that served grape juice for the Lord’s Supper. People would argue that we should have wine, as Jesus turned water into wine, etc. but the common retort was well, wine was weaker then. Turns out, this is actually kind of true. It was made the same as today, but watered down. It was considered crass to drink wine straight. Who knew? I assumed they were just pulling something out of their asses, on the other hand, they could have just watered it down, but I digress.

Spirits- specifically whisky and rum, my personal favorites, though there is also gin and brandy that play a major role. This is the era of exploration and colonization. Beer & wine were expensive to ship and didn’t always keep on the voyage across the Atlantic. Distilled spirits would, and quickly replaced beer as the rations for soldiers. Incidentally, to flavor the harsh drinks, they’d add lime juice, which would help prevent scurvy. He also goes into detail about the triangle of slave trade where slaves would be taken to the islands where they’d be traded for sugar, sugar was then taken to Boston to produce rum, the rum was then traded to Africans for more slaves. And of course, the Whisky Rebellion – the first major attempt to raises taxes in America and one of the first violent threat from within, all due to homemade whisky.

Coffee – The age of reason and the enlightenment. This was definitely my favorite chapter. If you are not familiar with the impact that coffee had on the move to the industrial revolution, the book is worth the cost for this chapter alone. Basically, we’d all walk around half drunk all day. People often had beer (weak, but still) for breakfast because it was safer than water. Your precision in operating machinery or your output at a factory is greatly diminished when you’ve been drinking. Once you are caffeinated, however, then you are alert, focused, and ready to go. Also, the interesting impact on enlightenment and revolutions, as discussion moved from pubs and taverns to coffee houses.

Tea – Mostly focused on the British empire, there is still a cool history behind tea in the East that he dives in to. Some of the more interesting things to come out of this history is the impact of people working out of Tea Shops. People would often use the place for meetings and have mail sent there. Because the shops were located near places of work, there would often be a certain industry focus. Proprietors would put shipping information or stock prices on boards. Manuscripts were circulated and critiqued. Lloyd’s of London and the London Stock Exchange both started as or at tea shops. Twining’s, The Wife’s favorite, started almost 400 years ago and may be the oldest official logo still in use. Speaking of women, unlike coffee shops, they were allowed in tea shops which had some interesting impacts, such as the little boxes, sometimes with locks, that teas are still kept in today.

Coco-Cola – or Coke here in the South. This chapter follows the rise of America and The American Century; also ‘Murica, to a lesser extent. The history is kind of crazy, to think about the number of people running around selling random drinks that are dangerous for you, even though they make wild health benefit claims. Then again, this is still happening, and is completely unregulated,(so, again, the more things change…). Overall fairly interesting, but probably more known by most people (at least Americans) but some great and funny anecdotes. Such as the Russian general who couldn’t been seen drinking Coke, even though he loved it, because it was associated with capitalism. So, Coke hooks him up and make clear Coke, puts it in a different bottle to look like vodka and sends it to him. Interesting stuff about Coke embodying capitalist ideals to many communist countries.

Overall, definitely worth picking up somewhere. Very well written and interesting book, especially if you are a big history nerd.