PanThe Open Letters ReviewTrump’s attempt at introspection aside, this can, in fact, be a difficult book to rage at. On the one hand, at this late date, rage at Trump’s behavior is often akin to being thrown into a conniption over the conduct of a clown, and on the other, Rage itself is an unbearably stale read. Now, sure, nobody is buying Woodward’s books to enjoy literary playfulness or peppery prose on a free Sunday afternoon. And because of his earned reputation (have you deposed a president?), his access (seventeen interviews!), and meticulous (usually recorded and on the record) approach, he cannot be dismissed, and we can be certain that just about everything in the book is true - so it is practically self-recommending. But how on earth do you hand such a book to an educated member of the electorate when they must flog themselves to even reach the chapters on the COVID pandemic? ... that Woodward lacks graceful and stylish prose is but one problem. There is, most notably, a jarring dissonance in what Woodward is trying to do, with what he is used to dealing with, and who his subject actually is. That is, Woodward is used to interviewing men who are stewards of an office. That is what they are. The men of his books alter the shape of that office, they bring their own management styles, and their own varied domestic and foreign policy ends. That is who they are. And what Woodward does is build a narrative about the interaction between the two based on extensive insider accounts. What we have in Trump is a man who is utterly one dimensional and who cares for himself above and to the exclusion of everything else, including that office ... in this job [Woodward] has never been all that good at stringing together that narrative. His analysis is typically thin. His bias is a kind of Washington establishmentarianism. And his approach has always been more transactional than he would prefer to admit ... the most interesting thing about the book, unfortunately for Woodard, is that the dissonance, the mismatch between Woodward and Trump, accentuates all these problems with his writing ... What Woodward doesn’t seem to understand is that Trump isn’t capable of being who or what he wants him to be and he insists on trying to sit him up straight ... reliable and will likely be useful for research. But for the general reader, the tradeoff between slugging through slapdash, lackadaisical writing and obtaining dependable information is probably too severe. Now, as an example of Woodward’s limitations? Most certainly.
MixedThe Open Letters ReviewHeavy as it is, the first half of the book is when they’re at their best, and highlights their two main successes: first, they balance factors we indicated as making this kind of conversation so difficult. That is, they get the reader to see and understand the data but never lose the human component behind that data, they are never lugubrious and maintain the seriousness the subject deserves, and they combine academic rigor with moral force, which at times catches the reader off-guard. These aren’t eruptions of outrage at injustice, there’s something more adult about them, even when they border on anger. They impress you as stern reminders of obvious truths or the willingness to describe cruelty and injury with the strong language they deserve. Their second success, which flows out of the first, is that for the first half you feel like you are reading an important and necessary book ... Despite clearly seeing market distortions they arrive at terribly interventionist conclusions, many sections are either remarkably underwhelming and unpersuasive, or downright bad, and much of this is done in a self-contradictory way ... Anne Case and Angus Deaton treat their subject with the seriousness it deserves, but they don’t provide the solutions it demands ... Those looking for a principled defense of capitalism and the radical changes the American system requires will find this a deeply unsatisfying book and ought to oppose such muddle with vigor.
MixedOpen Letters ReviewJustin Farrell, associate professor of sociology at Yale University, has managed to write a book interesting from acknowledgements to footnotes, but not without significant blemishes ... It is true that the agreeable tax environment of Wyoming is appealing to any billionaire, and Farrell is careful about his sampling methods, but certainly there is some self-selection going on here. When you study an idiosyncratic group of people who have chosen to live in such a unique place, it is not surprising in the least that they also tend to be those experiencing some disquietude about their extreme wealth ... One recurring frustration is that his otherwise commendable academic approach prevents him from making obvious moral assertions, but somehow doesn’t prevent him from walking the reader to the threshold of value judgements and allowing them to take the obvious next step ... Even with these problems, the subject matter here is inherently interesting, and Farrell is an effective writer (other than his obnoxious, pretentious over-use of italics and the word \'veneer\') ... Much of the book, moreover, is obviously of value to social science ... Value-free social science probably isn’t possible. But in falling so short of it, in cheaply incorporating an anti-capitalist dimension based on the wealthy’s inauthenticity, all the while maintaining its pretense (we won’t say veneer), Billionaire Wilderness leaves behind a residue that could easily have been avoided.
PositiveThe Open Letters ReviewEverything considered, Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society is an excellent book that is convincing and interesting. It leaves room for disagreement as well as arguments that explain those specific narratives and phenomena by different means.
MixedOpen Letters ReviewThe most succinct description of Wilsons’ message is that the entire point of the Democratic Party in 2020 is to defeat Donald Trump. Unfortunately, it isn’t until page 77 we are actually told, \'Your mission is tough but simple. Defeat Donald Trump.\' This highlights an issue carried over from Everything Trump Touches Dies. Namely, both books are about 300 pages, neither of them need to be, and their structures are choppy and unbalanced ... Rick Wilson is a strategist and ad-maker who fancies himself negotiating political swamps with a knife in his teeth. This is his specialty (if you don’t believe it, just ask him). But Running Against The Devil subverts expectations Wilson himself sets up and often offers advice any amateur could extend. That being said, while sharing many of its vices, this book also shares the virtues of Everything Trump Touches Dies: Wilson can still throw you into stitches while making incisive and experienced observations, plus he is right on the main points.
Thomas Piketty, Trans. by Arthur Goldhammer
MixedOpen Letters ReviewBecause Piketty believes, first of all, that inequality is manufactured, disruptive, and requiring justification, he never satisfyingly rationalizes egalitarianism. The nearest he gets is a very contestable demonstration that \'what made economic development and human progress possible was the struggle for equality,\' with an emphasis on progressive taxation, \'and education\'—hardly the working out of a world view ... So is he right about inequality? Obviously not ... Something like just over half of the book seems to be reasonably well done, if somewhat warped, history; parts one and two are genuinely interesting and many readers will find them useful. After this the subject matter becomes more partisan and technical ... the prose is rather ordinary and repetitive making short sections feel like long sections ... Despite an interesting start, Capital and Ideology is a thousand-page book with flaws that make its arguments feel remarkably emaciated.
PositiveOpen Letters ReviewThat the Republican Party has been more affected by polarization...might be what explains Ezra Klein’s neglect of economic factors and his bias against the structure of some American institutions in favor of changes that would result in more proactive governance. His neglect of economic factors is a major weakness of the book. Incomplete or unpersuasive institutional arguments should be a weakness, but given that his views here are either objectionable and lack force, or just lack force, we have a weak chapter instead of a distracting chapter in an otherwise excellent book. Why We’re Polarized is already set up to be one of the most cutting and intelligent books on American politics this year.
PanThe Open Letters ReviewPeople earn incomes on the market for participating in production meant for consumption. Susskind’s argument is that there will no longer be a place for large portions of the population. But if there is not a place for these individuals, and they no longer earn a wage, they will not be consuming goods and services, defeating the rationale for investment in the first place. So, in Susskind’s world, producers would myopically produce goods for an ever-decreasing base of consumers, and the unemployed would have nowhere to go because technology would be better placed to produce everything. But this could only be true if there are no new industries in our horizon (not to mention the literal horizon and space), and that the decrease in prices and necessary labor from innovation do not translate into higher real wages, work in service, niche, or luxury industries, or the allowance for outright increased leisure time ... Susskind will never be refuted because he can always claim, as he does, that of course there might be \'a burst of worker displacement here, a surge in demand for workers there\' as we evade A World Without Work.
PanOpen Letters ReviewBefore diving into the book’s arguments, we need to look at Boushey’s tendency to either strawman other points of view, or at least judge them by unfair standards. It is difficult to know where to start here because she manages to do it so often, on large and small matters ... So much writing on inequality involves citing an array of statistics with frustrated incredulity. We are too seldom offered a standard by which to evaluate what exactly is too much inequality (a term, which taken on its own, is quite nebulous). Boushey’s book is an attempt to grapple with this, which we should welcome, but its issues start to overshadow any merit in the arguments ... not only does Boushey’s book...suffer from straw-manning other points of view, the individual \'not embedded in the economics community\' would walk away with a distorted view of the economics profession (past and present) and thinking the point was entirely settled. In other words, the defining feature of this gimmick is that the author takes the reader on a journey to solve a problem, a journey that was only ever going to go in one direction and end one way.
PanThe Open Letters Review... a new book based on a false but popular premise, buttressed often (but not entirely) by examples that do not support his thesis, and is oversaturated with fanciful anecdotes, often at the expense of analysis ... really a new screed in a long line of literature railing against what is referred to as ‘the neoliberal consensus\' ... Appelbaum clearly read a great deal of secondary literature and amassed a litany of anecdotes and biographical details, both scholarly and personal. This is often entertaining to those already familiar with the personalities, and sometimes informative to those who aren’t ... Unfortunately, even early on some of these details reveal Appelbaum’s own ignorance. This undermines his credibility as an author criticizing what he characterizes a homogenous field ... we can’t say that there isn’t a conversation to be had here. Appelbaum simply exchanges it for an attack on the market and some of its major proponents. The role of economists in government is well worth exploring, and often has not been for the betterment of society. It is also true that the field needs to look inward with greater skepticism than it has since World War Two. But the problem with Binyamin Appelbaum’s new book The Economists’ Hour is that his primary concern doesn’t appear to be that the government is staffed with economists, but that it isn’t pursuing the policies and ends he would prefer.
MixedThe Open Letters Review... opens with the simultaneously delicious and disturbing accounts of the excesses and corruption of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates as well as Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced former president of Ukraine. ... exposing absconding kleptocrats is practically an inherent good. Unfortunately, the book is tinged with a bizarre political context that confuses our author’s analysis and distracts from its mission of illumination ... tells us nothing about what the aims or functions of government ought to be! ... when Bullough continuously laments about capital flows without borders (oddly explained by analogies to children’s puzzles and oil tankers) it sounds a lot like a desire to insulate governments from consequences such as capital flight ... his political context also causes him to place too much faith in the ability of money to solve, or lack thereof to cause, political problems ... Oliver Bullough’s book to some extent fulfills its purpose of giving ‘The inside story of the crooks and kleptocrats who rule the world’ but is too muddled by an unnecessary political context that misplaces criticism, neglects moral ambiguities, and places more explanatory power on Moneyland than it can bear.
Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer
PositiveThe Open Letters Review... has two great virtues. The first is that our authors are neither imposing nor entirely absent. That is, they let the facts and (political) figures speak for themselves when those are sufficient. Yet, the idiosyncratic interactions of personalities with each other and their effect on our institutions seldom pass without comment ... The second virtue of the book comes out of the first: the authors don’t lie to you. That is, although they don’t color the book red or blue with their point of view, they also don’t tell you Donald Trump had the largest inauguration and they don’t tell you he is a great deal maker skillfully negotiating behind the scenes ... there are aspects to the book that might leave some readers nonplussed and others relieved ... despite a generally feckless and obsequious Congress, even the cynical reader can take from this book the sense that those with the greatest power in Congress still have a coherent set of values ... another book about the final two years of Donald Trump’s first term will be a welcome follow up to this effective and even-handed text.