PS Commentators' Best Reads in 2021
By Project Syndicate
Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
This is an important book for our times. Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel highlights the corrosive effects of our excessive emphasis on “meritocracy,” which has come to justify a very hierarchical society. It is making those at the top work harder and harder just to stay there, and it is devaluing and demoralizing everyone else whom society has come to view as insufficiently meritorious. Most importantly, Sandel challenges the prevailing view in economics (and in much of philosophy) that justice is about distributive fairness. He thinks we should pay more attention to “contributive justice,” where the key requirement is that all individuals are meaningfully contributing – and seen to be contributing – to society.
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Tony Saich, From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, Harvard University Press, 2021.
If you were to travel back in time to 1921 and predict that the Communist Party of China would rule over the world’s second-largest economy 100 years later, no one would believe you. In this definitive primer, Tony Saich of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government explains how the impossible came true. Tracing the long, tortured path by which a small group of rebels “rose to power against incredible odds,” he concludes that the party “owes its endurance to its flexibility.” This raises the big question: Will China remain adaptive under President Xi Jinping?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill, W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.
While biographies of Winston Churchill tend to be adulatory, Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s new book does justice to the revisionist nature of the genre. From the Gallipoli campaign and his misunderstanding of modern warfare to his unbridled imperialism, racism, and mishandling of the Irish question, Wheatcroft’s Churchill is a noxious man prone to serial tactical and strategic blunders. His many character flaws – greedy tax evader, careless father, and narcissist cultivator of his own myth – are also duly exposed. But such imperfections are not unusual in storied leaders. Think of Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Franklin Roosevelt, or Charles de Gaulle. Thomas Carlyle would say that the great men who move history need not be good people. Wheatcroft’s book is a sobering reminder of how imperfect they can be.
Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Doubleday, 2021.
The New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe debunks various myths to explain where the opioid crisis in the United States is really coming from. Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, and even today, many have promoted the notion that opioid overdose deaths are provoked by fentanyl coming from Mexico. Empire of Pain shows the true origins of the epidemic.
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Amartya Sen, Home in the World: A Memoir, Liveright, 2022.
The Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen’s wonderful new memoir covers his childhood and adolescence in India and his early years as a young student and academic in Cambridge (United Kingdom) and the US. It provides a wonderful insight into the intellectual formation of one of our greatest thinkers. Its many insights are as humane and profound as you would expect, with obvious relevance to a time of fracture and fragmentation.
James K. Galbraith
Isabella M. Weber, How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform Debate, Routledge, 2021.
Isabella M. Weber is a rara avis among young economists: a field researcher in a far-off place who is fluent in the language and relentless in tracking down sources and texts. With Mao gone, China in the 1980s faced a crossroads. It could take the big-bang approach urged by free-market reformers like Milton Friedman and, most aggressively, economists from Eastern Europe. Or, it could adapt the classical practices of Chinese economic management to the industrial age, giving priority to stable prices and social harmony, notably taking for guidance the experience of the US Office of Price Administration during World War II.
The gradualists prevailed, and China did not follow Russia and the other post-Soviet states into hyper-inflation and industrial collapse. Ironically, those who set China’s successful course did not claim or receive credit for it, and their story remained largely hidden until Weber’s magnificent – and marvelously lucid – success in revealing it.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Vintage Classics, 1867.
Tolstoy’s observation that “kings are the slaves of history” is more apt today than ever. History’s great protagonists – those who drive and shape it – are ordinary people, and his masterful novel chronicling Russia during the Napoleonic Wars is a plea for historians to take seriously their agency. It is also a call to eschew explanations that reduce the struggle of people everywhere to the facile but false notion of ancient hatreds, tribalism, sectarianism, or the actions of kings, emirs, and strongmen.
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Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik, Capital and Imperialism: Theory, History, and the Present, Monthly Review Books, 2021.
If you think you can understand the world economy without understanding the central role of imperialism, think again. This profoundly important book details the mechanics of how imperialism worked in the past and today, and how it is inextricably linked with the functioning of capitalism, especially through the hegemony of global finance. That hegemony, in turn, explains today’s global inequality and economic insecurity, not to mention the reactionary rise of exclusionary nationalism, which stands in the way of sorely needed international cooperation. Any solutions to humanity’s current existential challenges must be based on a clear-eyed recognition of their origins, which makes this book essential reading for our perilous times.
William D. Nordhaus, The Spirit of Green: The Economics of Collisions and Contagions in a Crowded World, Princeton University Press, 2021.
Avoiding the pitfalls of much “visionary” thinking, Nobel laureate economist William D. Nordhaus offers a powerful – and exceptionally stimulating – survey of the “radical ideas, new and old” needed to help humanity through, but also beyond, the climate emergency. His treatment of the “tragedy of the commons” made me think that the antidote should be a “comedy of the knowledge commons,” because knowledge, in contrast to the physical environment that humanity risks making unfit for itself (and much other life), is cumulative and inexhaustible. Nordhaus’s achievement is to have laid down a foundation on which many others will build.
Ronald J. Daniels (with Grant Shreve and Phillip Spector), What Universities Owe Democracy, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.
Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, makes a compelling case that American universities are failing to meet their civic duty. They should be persuaded to do much more to prepare their students to be responsible citizens in an era in which democracy, in the United States and elsewhere, is coming under increasing threat.
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Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.
With the growing animosity between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, and between the United States and China over Taiwan, Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s new book sounds a prescient alarm about possible, and very dangerous, miscalculations. Revisiting the most serious confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, Plokhy aims to educate a new generation for a “second nuclear age.” The world is “sliding back into the nuclear brinkmanship characteristic of the 1950s and early 1960s,” he warns. “Today there are world leaders prepared to take a more cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and nuclear war than Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1962.”
Howard W. French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, Liveright, 2021.
Many attempts to recognize Africa’s true contribution to world history have met with skepticism or, worse, dismissiveness. This tour de force by Howard W. French, a former New York Times bureau chief in the Caribbean and Central America, West and Central Africa, Tokyo, and Shanghai, will make such attitudes harder to sustain. Based on a convincing reinterpretation of critical historical events and forces, it brings the reader to a fuller understanding of modernity, one that acknowledges the role that Africa and Africans have played in making it all possible.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun: A Novel, Knopf, 2021.
Everyone is talking about – and to – artificial intelligence, but Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel laureate in literature, deftly imagines how humans would look from the point of view of a thinking machine designed to be a companion to a young girl in a future world. Sometimes, the AI machine brilliantly passes the Turing test of performing at a human level; and sometimes, it is naively literal and makes simple mistakes about context. Through imaginative and compelling fiction, Ishiguro illuminates one of the major challenges that humanity faces today, and will continue to face in the future.
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Mark Carney, Values: Building a Better World for All, Signal, 2021.
This is a highly readable and accurate portrayal of the modern dilemmas of capitalism. Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of England, laments that values too often lose out to value. Most financial-market participants typically assign a higher rank to the value of deals than to broader societal values relating to health, climate, or justice. Carney’s view fits very well with my own advocacy of “profit with purpose.” One hopes that his book will help drive a change in the system, so that the promise of capitalism can be directed toward dealing with the many global challenges we face.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future: A Novel, Orbit Books, 2020.
Two years of living with a pandemic has challenged our notions of possibility, enabling achievements that we could not have accomplished, until suddenly we could. Many characters in Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future work of climate fiction experience something similar. Starting from the fact that our current global system is not fit for purpose in an age of climate change, Robinson dares us to imagine new kinds of institutions and arrangements. But he does not shy away from describing the radical trade-offs and forms of solidarity that would be needed to create a world that balances human flourishing and ecological health. We cannot avert the next crisis with the same logic and systems that got us to this point, and Robinson’s book serves as a valuable reminder that a safer world, if it can be created, must first be imagined.
Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, Viking, 2021.
Listening to the news, it seems that humanity is going mad – that the world is hurtling toward the abyss. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker insists that we need to reduce our reliance on headlines, conspiracy theories, and catastrophic predictions that so cleverly play on our cognitive biases. In fact, humanity has achieved tremendous success. We know much more today than we ever did, and we live much longer lives, on average. Humans have set the boundaries for rationality itself. Over time, we have improved our capacity for critical thinking and our understanding of causal relationships. Rationality leads to better choices in our lives and the public sphere. It is the ultimate driving force of social justice and moral progress.
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Desmond Shum, Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China, Scribner, 2021.
This is truly a revealing book about the rot inside the Chinese regime. Coming from a successful Chinese developer and philanthropist, these stories of corruption and repression are as credible as they are disturbing. One need to look no further to find the “China Model” that China’s authorities would prefer to keep hidden.
Jonathan Levy, Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States, Random House, 2021.
In this deep dive into the forces that have shaped America, historian Jonathan Levy of the University of Chicago reminds us that the country was first capitalist, and then democratic. The strength of the book lies in its weaving of economic, legal, political, social, and cultural histories. The result is a colorful tapestry, but with finance and white male breadwinners standing out as the dominant threads. The state appears mostly in the background as broker of these interests, and only occasionally as a trustee for the broader public.
Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, University of California Press, 2013.
Food historian Rachel Laudan describes how the foods we eat today emerged from millennia of people exchanging goods and ideas. At a time when it is tempting to view other ethnic, racial, or national groups with hostility and suspicion, and when people are deeply divided by abstract ideologies, this book provides a refreshing reminder that meeting the most basic human need – feeding ourselves – is possible because of the ingenuity and innovation of other people.
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Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
We are living in an age that often rewards a single “right” answer. Amia Srinivasan’s crisp and engagingly collection of essays refuses to concede to simplification on demand. Instead, she explores how the contradictions and complexities of sex and desire reflect the inequality and prejudices that riddle Western society. On one level, Srinivasan considers the practical realities of what it is to be desired or to desire – with the title drawn from an essay on the sometimes-violent incel subculture, a movement made up of (mostly) men who want but cannot find sexual partners. She shows how sex pervades and shapes all aspects of modern societies, from racism and discrimination to incarceration, and demonstrates how the politics of desire underpin some of society’s most urgent questions. On nearly every page, she forces the reader to reconsider and rethink their own expectations and biases, while recognizing that there may be no right answer to be found.
Stephen S. Roach
Henry A. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher, The Age of AI: And Our Human Future, Little, Brown and Company, 2021.
This book goes beyond countless other breathless descriptions of AI-enabled breakthroughs – past, present, and future. The authors compel one to think about the ethical and moral problems of global governance as the powerful network effects of Big Data seep across national borders and pose enormous challenges to personal security and military and defense strategies. What is our role as mere mortals in an era of ever-expanding machine learning? Gulp!
Zachary D. Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, Random House, 2021.
I am recommending only the first half of journalist Zachary D. Carter’s book, which covers John Maynard Keynes. It is written with elegance, depth, nuance, and originality. The second half, which lionizes John Kenneth Galbraith, is considerably less interesting. Abandoning depth and nuance, it turns into a strident progressive take on post-war economic history and the figures that animate it.
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Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Harper, 2021.
Even though I’ve read thousands of pages about how terrible the tech giants are, this book left me gobsmacked. With forensic detail, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang of the New York Times show how Facebook repeatedly refused to act after being alerted to the dangers of the mis/disinformation and incitement being promoted on its platform. In Myanmar, Facebook had been told years ahead of time that videos being posted and promoted by fanatical monks could lead to massacres of the Rohingya minority. Similarly, the company saw plenty of activity online ahead of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
While Facebook’s leaders ignored what was unfolding on the platform, they remained proactive in another area: surveilling their own employees so that they would not speak to journalists. The fact that some did do so anyway, and that Frenkel and Kang produced such a compelling, detailed, and chilling account, shows us once again how important journalism has been in exposing the dangers and the greed of the tech giants.
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Knopf, 2005.
This biography of the “father of the atomic bomb” opens the door to a fascinating life, full of intellectual achievement, substance, and contradictions. What struck me most about the book is that it also captures the contradictions of our own times. Oppenheimer personified the paradoxical nature of scientific discovery – its utopian ethos coupled with its potential for catastrophe. As today’s societies come to grips with rapid innovation in artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge fields, we are now like Oppenheimer, increasingly aware of a new technology’s double-edged nature.
Little did Oppenheimer know when he was testing the new bomb, intended as a weapon to be used against Nazi Germany, that it would come to define the second half of the twentieth century. He condemned the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and, in a life defined by the intersection of science, politics, and ethics, went on to become a vocal non-proliferation advocate, paying the price for his “un-American” activism at the hands of Senator Joe McCarthy and his fellow inquisitors.
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Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis, Vintage, 2021.
We are living in what may be the most consequential decade in human history. We face a choice between breakdown and breakthrough. Faced with complex, systemic, and compounding global risks, it is tempting to succumb to cynicism and despair. In The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, the co-founders of the climate group Global Optimism, provide the case for stubborn hopefulness. They offer a powerful roadmap for resolving the climate crisis and building a more sustainable, prosperous future.
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021.
To reveal one monstrous misconception about a central aspect of humanity’s development is the mark of a genius. But to reveal two is mindboggling. Having debunked the conventional story of how money emerged to replace barter (in Debt: The First 5,000 Years), the late anthropologist David Graeber, ably assisted by the archaeologist David Wengrow, is determined to liberate us from our misconceptions about the social organization of prehistoric societies. With this book, pre-history suddenly becomes historical, not to mention a fascinating source of insights about our own time.