Book Bits: 19 August 2023

The Problem of Twelve: When a Few Financial Institutions Control Everything
John Coates
Summary via publisher (Columbia Global Reports)
A “problem of twelve” arises when a small number of institutions acquire the means to exert outsized influence over the politics and economy of a nation. The Big Four index funds of Vanguard, State Street, Fidelity, and BlackRock control more than twenty percent of the votes of S&P 500 companies—a concentration of power that’s unprecedented in America. Then there’s the rise of private equity funds, such as the Big Four of Apollo, Blackstone, Carlyle, and KKR, which have amassed $2.7 trillion of assets, and are eroding the legitimacy and accountability of American capitalism—not by controlling public companies, but by taking them over entirely, and removing them from public disclosure and scrutiny. This quiet accumulation in the last few decades represents a dramatic transformation in how the American economy operates—a sea change that few of us have noticed and all of us need to consider. Harvard law professor John Coates forcefully calls our attention to what is sure to be one of the major political and economic issues of our time.

The AI Dilemma: 7 Principles for Responsible Technology
Juliette Powell and Art Kleiner
Summary via publisher (Penguin Random House)
The misuse of AI has led to wrongful arrests, denial of medical care, even genocide—this book offers 7 powerful principles that business can use now to end the harm. AI holds incredible promise to improve virtually every aspect of our lives, but we can’t ignore its risks, mishaps and misuses. Juliette Powell and Art Kleiner offer seven principles for ensuring that machine learning supports human flourishing. They draw on Powell’s research at Columbia University and use a wealth of real-world examples.

Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty–and What to Do About It
Sohrab Ahmari
Review via Front Porch Republic
Ahmari’s book is written in such a way that it gently nudges right- and left-wing readers toward a platform of economic reform that they can both embrace. The neoliberal abuses he spotlights are those most likely to offend both the freedom-loving sensibility of mainstream conservatives and the communitarian ethos of the left. His examples include the use of bankruptcy filings to halt class action lawsuits, “just-in-time” scheduling that leaves workers at the mercy of last-minute disruptions to their plans, and asset-stripping by predatory investors. Each injury is presented not only as a social harm, but as a form of tyranny. Writing of the corporate raid on Sears by Eddie Lampert, which destroyed the company in order to return capital to investors, Ahmari insists, “None of what Lampert and his Wall Street colleagues do is ‘natural’ . . . It’s an especially naked form of private coercion of the many by a very few.”

Tyranny of the Gene: Personalized Medicine and Its Threat to Public Health
James Tabery
Review via @THEU
The idea of “personalized medicine,” health care tailored to individuals’ genetics, has been oversold at the expense of less costly, yet more effective strategies for boosting health outcomes, according to a new book by University of Utah philosophy professor James Tabery. The book… offers a scathing critique of the ongoing “revolution” in health care, which Tabery argues has added to the nation’s spiraling health care costs while failing to deliver on many of its promises. In recent decades, biomedical research has been increasingly reoriented around DNA, with the aim of developing the right drug for the right patient at the right time guided by a person’s genetic profile. Citing the experience of his own father, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2012, Tabery demonstrates how this approach is extremely costly, more likely to generate corporate profits than improving patient outcomes while diverting scarce resources from preventive measures.

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