Book Bits | 11 August 2018

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America
By Beth Macy
Review via The Seattle Times
The numbers are overwhelming: 63,632 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost two-thirds of those deaths were from a prescription or illicit opioid, and the government report was unusually blunt: “America’s overdose epidemic is spreading geographically and increasing across demographic groups.” Drug overdose, Macy writes, “is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of fifty, killing more people than guns or car accidents, at a rate higher than the HIV epidemic at its peak.”

The Art of Strategy: Sun Tzu, Michael Porter, and Beyond
By Hwy-Chang Moon
Summary via publisher (Cambridge University Press)
When it comes to strategy, how should we define victory? For centuries, Eastern and Western thinkers have grappled with this question, offering different answers. What can we learn from this difference? In The Art of Strategy, Moon provides a novel and systematic integration of the two dominant frameworks of the East and West: Sun Tzu’s military strategy and Michael Porter’s business strategy. This unlikely combination of thinking suggests an innovative extension of our understanding and practice of strategy, which will appeal to scholars, students, practitioners and general readers with an interest in strategy. By aligning the perspectives of these two great thinkers, Moon argues that true winning is about maximizing and optimizing overall value for all engaged stakeholders, and this requires a more efficient approach to strategy.

The Community of Advantage: A Behavioural Economist’s Defence of the Market
By Robert Sugden
Review via The Enlightened Economist
I very much enjoyed reading Robert Sugden’s The Community of Advantage: A Behavioural Economist’s Defence of the Market. It tackles the aspect of behavioural economics that has always troubled me: the presumption that there’s a wise policy-maker who somehow knows better than I do what’s good for me and will act like a government version of Mad Men to non-coercively get me to choose accordingly. In other words, libertarian paternalism is a contradiction in terms, and in reality. In fact, I’m torn because – like many other “experts” – I do think economists (or doctors, or engineers, or farmers, or nuclear physicists etc) often do know better than most of us what makes for a better outcome. Even in less expert domains, such as the provision of news, it is surely better not to give people exactly what they want, if that’s bias-confirming news rather than impartial and accurate news.

Borrowed Time: Two Centuries of Booms, Busts, and Bailouts at Citi
By James Freeman and Vern McKinley
Summary via publisher (Harper)
The alarming, untold story of Citigroup—one of the largest financial institutions in the world—from its founding in 1812 to its role in the 2008 financial crisis, and the many near-death experiences in between. During the 2008 financial crisis, we were told that Citi was a victim of events beyond its control—the larger financial panic, unforeseen economic disruptions and a perfect storm of credit expansion and private greed. To save the economy and keep the bank afloat, the government provided huge infusions of cash through multiple bailouts that frustrated and angered the American public. But, as Wall Street Journal writer James Freeman and financial expert Vern McKinley reveal, the 2008 crisis was just one of many disasters Citi has experienced since its founding more than two hundred years ago. In Borrowed Time they reveal Citi’s disturbing history of instability and government support. It’s a story that neither Citi nor Washington wants told.

The Cost-Benefit Revolution
By Cass R. Sunstein
Summary via publisher (MIT Press)
Opinions on government policies vary widely. Some people feel passionately about the child obesity epidemic and support government regulation of sugary drinks. Others argue that people should be able to eat and drink whatever they like. Some people are alarmed about climate change and favor aggressive government intervention. Others don’t feel the need for any sort of climate regulation. In The Cost-Benefit Revolution, Cass Sunstein argues our major disagreements really involve facts, not values. It follows that government policy should not be based on public opinion, intuitions, or pressure from interest groups, but on numbers—meaning careful consideration of costs and benefits. Will a policy save one life, or one thousand lives? Will it impose costs on consumers, and if so, will the costs be high or negligible? Will it hurt workers and small businesses, and, if so, precisely how much?

Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt
By Gregory May
Review via Townhall
In Gregory May’s new book, released on Tuesday, Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt, May asserted that Alexander Hamilton pulled the nation into debt by instituting similar tariffs and fiscal policies during his six-year tenure from 1789 to 1795 as Secretary of the Treasury.
“Hamilton was convinced that the government could finance itself on import duties. There was no income tax at the time. An income tax, was not seen as regressive burden on poor as it is today. Most were people farmers…only well to do were buying imported goods,” May told Townhall, when asked if other similarities can be seen between President Trump and Secretary Hamilton.
By this logic it would be easy to try and draw a comparison between the import duties of the day and what is now the movement calling for the taxing of the rich and the 1%. However, May says that it is not comparable to taxing the rich and the 1%, “you can’t draw such easy analogies because of difference in the times.”

The Mind Is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain
By Nick Chater
Review via The Guardian
You probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths. The book could equally have been called “The Mind Is Shallow”, though potential readers might have found that more off-puttingly rude.

Trade Battles: Activism and the Politicization of International Trade Policy
By Tamara Kay and R.L. Evans
Summary via publisher (Oxford University Press)
How did activists create a dynamic broad-based movement during NAFTA negotiations that politicized trade, making it a contentious issue for the first time in history? And how did their NAFTA mobilization influence trade policy and set the stage for future battles over trade? Trade Battles draws on hundreds of in-depth interviews with Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. trade negotiators, labor and environmental activists, and government officials, and an extensive analysis of archival materials to understand the role of civil society in shaping state policy.

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization
By Vince Beiser
Review via Publishers Weekly
What does sand—the humble stuff of beaches and dunes—have to do with the making of the contemporary world? Quite a lot, actually, says journalist Beiser. He argues that sand, with its extraordinary range of properties, including durability and pliancy, is “the most important solid substance on earth… that makes modern life possible.” Sand is the key ingredient in concrete buildings and highways; in the form of glass, it is “the thing that lets us see everything” through windows, microscope lenses, eyeglasses, and smartphone screens. But due to the explosion in its uses and the increasing number and size of cities, sand is running out: the book is at its urgent best in chapters on the black market in sand and the sand mafias that brutally exercise control over resources in places like Raipur Khadar, a farming village south of New Delhi, whose ecosystem has been plundered by the demand for sand.