Must-read books from 2009

Every year I keep track of what I read.  It’s a bit nerdy, for sure, but it helps to keep me motivated.  This year’s reading was so interesting that I decided to put off writing this post until the year was, for all intents and purposes, over.  Last year I managed to get the list out in time for Christmas shopping.  This time you’ll have to refer to this compilation for birthdays or something.

In the past twelve months, I’ve managed to start and finish thirty three books, which I actually consider to be modest.  I’d far rather be averaging one per week.  Of these, I’ve chosen ten to discuss, which is a rather high proportion; nevertheless there was no difficulty in coming up with books that were deserving of singular mention.  There is no rhyme or reason to the order of this list, and most of them should appeal to a broad range of people.

Henry Hazlitt:  Economics in One Lesson

How I found it: This book is constantly referenced in literature put out by the Mises Institute.

In a relatively short volume, using concise, easy-to-understand language, Hazlitt discusses some of the most basic concepts of economics.  The backdrop for this book is the wave of Keynesianism and Socialism that swept the West in the early-mid 20th century.  One of Hazlitt’s most beautiful insights concerns the unseen effects of policy decisions.  One example would be artificially high wage rates as demanded by labor unions.  On the surface this appears to benefit the workers, but the effects of this man-made price floor ripple through the economy, until they come to damage the interests even of the labor unions themselves.  This is an excellent beginner’s book on economics; no prior reading is necessary.

Oliver Sacks:  Musicophilia

How I found it: Stumbled upon it while Christmas shopping in 2008

Expectans, expectavi Domine…..This book makes me think of a piece of Gregorian chant, an offertory melody whose text is, “I have waited, waited on the Lord…..and he put a New Song into my mouth.”  Sacks fills this book with heaps of fascinating information and incredible stories.  If you can read it with a dry eye, you’re a better man than I am.  One account early in the book relates the story of a man who had never been involved in any way with music in his entire life; then one day he was struck by lightning, and began composing and playing the piano.  A surgeon friend of mine tells me that neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks tend to have more of an appreciation for the spiritual, and one does indeed get this impression from Sacks, who seems to be steeped in just as much wonder and amazement at these things as his readers.  Moreover, musicians will find the reading of this book to be an experience of renewal, a re-awakening to the truth that music is indeed a gift to be cherished.

Naomi Klein:  The Shock Doctrine

How I found it: After a lively lunchtime discussion about politics with a musician friend, he escorted me to the bookstore and bought it for me.

“But this isn’t capitalism!”  I found myself saying this over and over again as I read through this incredibly revealing book. Klein passionately and thoroughly exposes the work of the merchants of death in the U.S. government, from CIA operatives and psychologists (who perfected torture techniques already in the 1950’s) to the infamous economist Milton Friedman.  Under the name of capitalism, the United States effected coups, killed people, and established fascistic economic systems (I’m using this term literally, not pejoratively) in faraway lands, like wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  The book is hardly sympathetic to the free market, but proponents of capitalism need to read this book and reckon with what some jackasses have done over the years while falsely claiming to be friends of the free market.  For me, it lead to a more precise definition of capitalism:  The system of voluntary exchange which results from the ethic of non-aggression and private property rights.  As one will find out from this book, the U.S. government respects neither the principle of non-aggression nor private property rights.

Ludwig von Mises:  Human Action

How I found it: You can’t get through two articles from an Austrian economist without seeing this book cited.

At nearly 900 pages, Human Action is Mises’ grand discourse.  The profound and most basic difference that Mises’ approach has with others is that it bases the study of economics on—well, human action.  It is the gentle and humble opposite of the arrogance of Rand’s Objectivism and Friedman’s mathematical equations.  Most refreshing is Mises’ allowance of subjectivity in the field of economics.  If I were to recommend one tiny section of this book over all others, though, it would be Mises’ criticism of the holistic view of society, a section that soundly rejects the sanctimony of many do-gooders, while at the same time showing that Austrian economics, rather than being atomistic, actually considers the good of the culture at large and posits that voluntary exchange on the free market is the way to achieve it.

J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

How I found it: A friend lent it to me.

I am absolutely horrible about reading enough fiction, so I rely largely on friends to bring such things my way—actually, one friend in particular, who’s taste has proven to be quite sturdy.  One of the strengths of fiction is that general principles can be taught without tempting readers to quibble over minutiae the way certain kinds of non-fiction do.  Carr is British, and this is a short story about an artist that leaves London to spend a month in the countryside restoring the apse painting of a church.  While he’s there he sleeps in the bell tower and kibitzes with a lunatic archaeologist who’s charged with finding someone’s remains in the church yard.  A delightful little read that can be done in one afternoon on your front porch with a cold glass of iced tea.  (Perhaps save this one for Spring, then…)

Haruki Murakami:  What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

How I found it: Browsing the book store looking for ways to throw money away

This title jumped right out at me, given that I’m a runner.  This is not a systematic “how-to” book or anything; it’s just a flow of conscious account of one man’s affair with the greatest sport in the world.  Murakami, a jazz bar owner-turned novelist, relates his journal entries to the reader.  This includes an account of his run along the original route that ends in Marathon, Greece, from which we get the name and distance for running events.  The title, he tells us, is based on someone else’s work which is called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Love,” and this is apposite.  The runner will find this book to be a source of new energy; non-runners will finish it perhaps a bit more curious about what it is that they’re missing.

John Robinson:  Dungeon, Fire and Sword

How I found it: Borrowed from a friend

This is the story of the Knights Templar during the Crusades.  In it you will find all manner of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and hiding behind religion for the sake of a political agenda.  The original mission of the Knights Templar was to guard the Temple Mount in Jerusalem when it was under Christian control.  Job creep set in, and, among other things, they came to guard the road to Compostella, a popular pilgrimage site, and to be some of the world’s first bankers.  They participated fervently in the mindless orgies that were the Crusades, proving that Islam is not the only religion to commit barbaric acts of war under the guise obedience to God and faith.  Ultimately, the success of the Templars was their undoing.  King Philip IV of France, who owed them enormous sums of money, manipulated an unholy alliance with the papacy to have the Knights tortured, tried, and killed on trumped up charges.  In a dramatic conclusion, Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of this order, was marched into the cathedral square in Paris to confess the “official version of events,” and in one last moment of courage, told the crowd the truth of what had been done to this order.  For this, he was rewarded with summary execution, but one cannot escape the impression that he was ultimately victorious over the lust for power which gripped the monarchs and the papacy at that time.

Murray N. Rothbard:  The Anatomy of the State

How I found it: On mises.org

At only fifty-plus pages, this book makes for good introductory reading to the anarcho-capitalist political philosophy.  In the short chapters contained in this volume, Rothbard contends with the superstitions that make people believe that the State is necessary.  The reading is not difficult; yet, the writer leaves out nothing of importance.  This would be a good companion alongside Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, with the added blessing that Rothbard does not suffer from Nock’s sometimes tiresome fatalism.

Louis Cheslock, ed.:  H.L. Mencken on Music

How I found it: Roaming around Bookhaven, a used book store in Philadelphia.

I have already reviewed this book here.

Richard M. Weaver:  The Ethics of Rhetoric

How I found it: Brought to my attention by Br. Stephen, of course

What would a year be without at least one Weaver book?  Like most of his work, I’m not sure how much of this volume I’ve absorbed; it may be worth a re-reading sooner rather than later.  Unlike the other volumes I’ve discussed here, I’ve actually had to pull this one off the shelf and thumb through it to jog my memory about what the writer discusses.  Among other things, some of which went over my head completely, Weaver discusses Edmund Burke’s use of the Argument from Circumstance and Lincoln’s use of the Argument from Definition.  The writer seems to have a surprising amount of admiration for Lincoln, given his dyed-in-the-wool Southern ways of thinking.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this book is Weaver’s exploration of grammar as it relates to rhetoric:  avoid the adjective, he says; it only begs the question.  Good advice which I have yet to follow.  Another chapter worth a great deal of study deals with the use of what Weaver calls ultimate terms:  “God words” and “devil words.”  This discussion is still timely.  Think of how people try to shut one another up by hurling accusations of “intolerance” or “Godlessness.”  (Well, maybe I remembered some of this book, after all.)  If you haven’t read any Weaver yet, I’d start with Ideas Have Consequences, or maybe Language is Sermonic.  The Ethics of Rhetoric is a bit heady, and the reader will benefit from some built-up familiarity with the writer’s ways of thinking.

————

The great football coach Lou Holtz, the last one to win a national championship at Notre Dame, once said that the difference between where you are now and where you’ll be five years from now comes from the people you meet and the books you read.  In my experience, this is an understatement.  Books are among my favorite things; I would take them first, God forbid, in the event of a fire.  Many of the works I’ve discussed above were given, lent, or recommended to me by friends, and I would like to thank them.  They know who they are.  From personal experience I can say that few things feel as rewarding as having given a book to someone who not only gets it but also appreciates it.  The ideas in books can be so exciting, along with taking them apart and putting them back together again.  I’m not even sure that Belgian beer can compare to this.

“But I’m not a reader.  I just don’t get into books,” you might say.  To that I can only reply that you haven’t found the right books.  Reading is a tool, not an object in itself.  Find something that piques your curiosity, fires your imagination, or soothes the deepest longings of your soul.  I guarantee you that a book has been written about it.  Tolle, lese.

Happy New Year.

A Monk of Ideas Makes His Profession

A few years ago, I was paying a visit to S. Clement’s Church here in Philadelphia for the Feast of the Ascension when a friend approached me to say that one of my readers (this was in the days when I was contributing to another blog) was across the street and wanted to meet me.  “He’s about to go into the monastery,” he added.

And so that night I met the man who would one day become Br. Stephen, O. Cist.  In the course of our gathering, politics was bound to come up, and along with that subject we got around to the economists and philosophers who gravitated around the University of Chicago in the mid 20th century.  “Richard Weaver is a good one to start with,” said the future Br. Stephen.  “Read his book Ideas Have Consequences.”   I did, and it changed the way I look at the world—and, as I explain in the Raison d’Etre, Weaver’s thoughts are responsible for the name of this blog, although I probably don’t revisit Weaver’s themes often enough.

Br. Stephen and I have stayed in touch, and have enjoyed a productive give and take via email, deep philosophical conversations, and brutally honest dialogue about the search for wisdom, God, and a whole host of other goods that are presently out of fashion.  He is responsible for much of the improvement in the way I think—but all of my regression is my fault, I assure you.

Yesterday, on his birth-name day, Br. Stephen made his simple profession at the Monastery of Our Lady of Springbank.   Congratulations to you, Br. Stephen.

Fragmented Christmas Obsessions

The snow is very deep here, thanks to a monstrous storm that hit last weekend, in addition to abnormally low temperatures since the Nor’easter moved through.  Nevertheless, I did manage to get out for one jog/skate on the ice on Tuesday, and I had some time then to think about Christmas.

The War on Christmas:

If you’ve ever gone through a Fox News faze (mea culpa!) you know all about the War on Christmas.  You know the shtick:  Leftist Commies, eager to establish the Second Coming of Vladimir Lenin, are trying to take away all your constitutional rights to celebrate Christmas.  I’m having a hard time taking this seriously at this point.  People still celebrate Christmas and still decorate for Christmas.  And you should see how the masses pour in off the streets of Philadelphia to see the Christmas light show at Macy’s.  The demand is so great that these are held once an hour.

A few years ago I accidentally wished a Muslim friend of mine a Merry Christmas.  On the inside I was panicking, but before I could jumble together an apology he replied, “Thank you; same to you.”  Moreover, tonight I’m attending Midnight Mass at S. Clement’s with one of my Jewish friends.

The moral of the story is that Christmas continues to be popular, even with non-Christians, and the super serious people who run the public schools and cities and decide what can go on a town square, while being scrooges, cannot thwart the celebration of this holiday.  So let them make their dumb rules, and ignore the right wing wack-jobs that are bitching about this and conveniently making money on it at the same time.  Christmas is here to stay for the foreseeable future; don’t ruin it by giving undue credit to these quacks.

Consumerism:

Tip to the clergy:  Preach about something else this year.  The condemnation of the commercialism of Christmas is just a tired old bromide at this point; no one is going to listen, and if they do, the messenger could be in deep trouble.  Perhaps we’ve become too cynical to remember the real reason that people shop for gifts at Christmas time:  they want to do something nice for the people they care about.  Who says to himself, “Oh gee, I better go do some Christmas shopping or Wal-Mart might go bankrupt”?  Rubbish.  Why, then, obliquely insult people by telling them that their shopping is mere “consumerism”?

Yes, there’s usually a stampede of fools somewhere early in the morning on Black Friday that ends up injuring someone—or worse.  And there are greedy, selfish, materialistic people.  But what human endeavor is not stained by some form of jackassery?  Maybe the clergy could take a more constructive angle on this today:  “Remember how much inconvenience you put yourself through while Christmas shopping this year, just because you wanted to do something special for someone.  Now if you who are merely human can do such good, imagine what God has done and will do for you.”  (Cf. the scorpion and the egg)  Wouldn’t that be a nice change of pace?  Not every good message needs to be sealed with a condemnation.

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis:

I just said it a few paragraphs up:  maybe we’re too cynical.  We modern men are mired in empiricism, objectivism, and skepticism.  But are we as bad as we think?  So many other holidays seem to have become just a note on the calendar.  Some still maintain their integrity, such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  But Christmas might be the only religious holiday left that enjoys the additional honor of a secular celebration—an honor that many religious holidays once had.

Why?  Is it because of the gifts?  If that were true, wouldn’t we be tempted to co-opt Hanukkah?  I really don’t think it’s materialism.  I think that it’s because, even in the spirit of modern mankind, crushed by contemporary demands, there is still sentiment and a longing for the dawn of redeeming grace.  In all our complication, we have chosen the holiday with the greatest simplicity, the most innocence, and some of the best music—including the angelic choirs singing of peace on earth.  We who think we know better than everyone else are celebrating a baby, born to a young maiden in a stable in which they found themselves thanks to their government’s tax policy.  What is more, while we’re celebrating, the typical modern grumpiness seems to lighten, even if it doesn’t disappear.  We get a glimpse of what we could be like if only we would open our hearts to the possibilities.

The long and short of it seems to be this:  In spite of what people like Robert Bork, or even Al Gore, say, we still value the right things when we get down to it:  love, joy, peace, etc.  Is society in chaos?  Absolutely.  But perhaps the first step to getting back on track is realizing that the necessary instinct still lies within us to right the ship, even if it only makes itself apparent once a year in these the shortest days on the calendar.

But I’m only thinking out loud, so feel free to disregard anything I’ve said that doesn’t make sense.

We don’t know much about that first Christmas.  Some say that Jesus was actually born in March, but what difference does it make?  We do know, however, that it was during the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, and the whole world was at peace.  Perhaps it would be appropriate, given the situation in which we find ourselves today, to pray that Christmas becomes fully present once again, and that the whole world will be at peace.

A review of Thomas Woods’ “Meltdown”

One of the marks of great writing is that, no matter how abstract a subject might be, the author’s text remains lucid and understandable.  It is not crowded with irrelevant information, unduly antiquated language, or a dense texture.  H.L. Mencken, Joseph Ratzinger, and Murray Rothbard all have this gift.  So does Tom Woods, whose recent book Meltdown I finished earlier this week.

The grand larceny that the government commits is probably aided in no small part by the abstract and difficult nature of the subject of economics.  Add to this factor the reality that most schools of economics, such as Keynes’ and Friedman’s, in addition to being absurdly objectivist, are also about as exciting as the first four and a half hours of Dances with Wolves.  The information that does get to the public is usually watered-down lies:  the GDP, which only measures the consumption of final products and not of raw materials, and the unemployment numbers, which are, at present writing, grossly underestimated, are but two examples.  Little mystery is left as to why there is so much misunderstanding, confusion, and downright indifference in the general public.

Enter into this lamentable situation the work of Tom Woods, whose latest book has descended into the hellish American political debates like dew from heaven.   Woods strikes at the root of the philosophical errors which have our economy trapped in a kind of samsara cycle of booms and busts, and he does so in a way that people whose eyes rightfully gloss over during the business reports on TV can understand and appreciate the nature of the problems that the United States now faces.  I have read many books on economics, but this one cleared up so many issues for me, including certain details on which I was foggy with respect to fractional reserve banking and the operations of the Federal Reserve.  But as understandable as his writing is, Woods does not gloss over anything, drawing carefully-written lines in just the right places.  Qui distinguit, bene docet.

In the center of this book, Woods takes on the myths surrounding the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt.  The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the Great Depression was worse than it needed to be because Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire president and did nothing, and that FDR arrived on the scene, fully armed with public works projects and other chimeras which, along with a major war, allegedly saved us from further economic disasters.  Woods systematically dismantles this version of history, and in the process of showing that it was precisely the government intervention that made things worse, he brings to light the interventionist policies of the Hoover administration and a journal entry from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau which admitted that none of the government programs were actually working, amongst a whole host of other fascinating information.  And yet again, he takes on the false notion that World War II ended the Great Depression.  As a matter of fact, the numbers did not improve until 1946, after the soldiers returned home and re-entered the work force.  In the midst of all this, Woods glances at something most wouldn’t think to consider:  the inexperience of the women and children who replaced the soldiers in their jobs while they were off at war.  What impact did their inexperience have on productivity?

Woods’ engagement of the Civic Religion surrounding New Deal politics is the great keystone of his book, for these myths are, for many people, the assumed truth that they bring to any conversation about economic issues, and if there is any progress to be made in re-establishing a market that is actually free, then these prejudices must be confronted.  In addition to his theoretical arguments, Woods examines a number of economic downturns in American history, many of which are cited by economists in an attempt to discredit the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle which Woods promotes.  Time and again, the author brings facts to light that only buttress the work of Mises and Hayek, who were pioneering members of the school of thought in which Woods works.   Two of the most important examples used are the crashes of 1819 and 1920, the latter of which was worse than the crash of 1929 but which lasted only a year because the government did precisely nothing.

Back to contemporary issues.  Woods discusses the government’s role in creating the housing bubble which burst in 2008.  First there is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose careless policies encouraged banks to give out risky loans.  (This is made all the easier when everyone knows that the Fed will act as a “lender of last resort” in the event that the risky loans end up in default.)  Then there is the Community Reinvestment Act and affirmative action lending, which the government promoted by practically harassing banks to make loans which they knew to be ill-advised.  And in addition to discussing the various kinds of wreckless speculation which were taking place, such as “house flipping,” Woods also takes on the dishonest debate between the Republicrats and Democans about how much regulation there should be in the market.  The status quo has made this discussion fundamentally pointless, since neither party really supports the idea of a free market, however much one of those parties likes to bandy that term about.

Central to Woods’ thesis is the aforementioned Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle.  This system of thought, first developed by Ludwig von Mises, holds that business cycles are not intrinsic to free markets, but that they are rather a result of government tampering with the marketplace through the creation of central banks, manipulation of the currency, playing with interest rates, fractional reserve banking, and the like.  In support of the Austrian view, Woods offers up the dot-com bust and the crash in Japan in the 1990’s.  He explains how artificially low interest rates encourage mal-investment and send business leaders the wrong signals, encouraging them to embark on projects that are doomed, since an inflationary bubble does treacherous work on the factors of production involved in long term projects.

Woods devotes an entire chapter to money:  its origins (neither from government nor greed), its history, and the way it creates wealth by making trade more feasible.  He not only covers the hot topic of inflation but also ventures into the more obscure but no less important matter of deflation, the latter being considered by the voodoo economists as a bad thing.  This was the mistake that FDR made in the Great Depression, and his subsequent decision to enact price floors was disastrous for the American economy.  Woods’ discussion of commodity monies such as gold and silver is followed up by a reckoning with the usual bromides offered by the monetarists who are opposed to a hard money solution.  The author’s arguments are thorough, and though he seems not to deal with one issue—the contention that more gold could be mined to create more money and thereby destabilize the money system—he does address it obliquely in that he mentions the fact that gold takes a long time to produce and bring into the market, unlike paper, and especially unlike the electronic computer transactions which the Fed does in modern times.

Professor Woods is not content, however, only to tell us what’s wrong with our present situation, and he develops a final chapter on where we should go from here.  At the beginning of this argument he offers the useful distinction, first elucidated by Adam Smith, between productive consumption and non-productive consumption.  Woods uses the example of wearing out an air conditioner over a number of years to show what non-productive consumption is:  A good is exhausted without creating other materials to provide for its replacement.  A machine, on the other hand, is an example of productive consumption:  While it will eventually wear out, it will have performed sufficient work to provide more resources for the future.  Woods puts it pithily:  “Consumptive expenditure uses up, exhausts, and destroys; productive expenditure provides for its own replacement in the form of an increased supply of goods in the future.”  The diminishment of capital which takes place in the wake of the recent government stimulus packages is a form of non-productive consumption, Woods argues.  It is yet another aspect to the civic superstition that we can spend our way to a prosperous paradise.

From here (and I can only hope that I’ve explained the above distinction adequately) Woods goes on to suggest some concrete moves, including letting the companies who fail go bankrupt.  Their assets will be bought up by others, and certainly if they served a useful function in the market someone else will step in and fill the need.  Woods advocates the abolishment of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as ending the Federal Reserve, which is really the sinister force behind most of our economic problems, not least because this bank is so difficult to understand.

It has been said that knowledge precedes love.  To love someone, you must know him first.  The same is perhaps true for ideas.  Libertarian economists—usually men of the Austrian School—have taken a beating over the years, having been accused of possessing an irrational hatred for the government and its programs.  Only one who is unfamiliar with the work of these men, however, would level such a charge, for the fruit of their elucidations is the insight that liberty and mutuality, not theft and coercion, are what create our prosperity.  Lying at the heart of the libertarian argument is a deep concern for the welfare of mankind.  Understanding the libertarian mindset is, of course, a prerequisite to seeing the truth in this, and I can think of no better way to start in this process than by reading this offering by Tom Woods.  Because of this, his greatest service is not that he has debunked the quacks, but that he has shown us the way to liberty and prosperity.  Will we have the courage to follow him?

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