Book Review:  Concrete Economics, by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong

This isn’t a normal book review, because I’m not going to plug this book.  More the opposite, actually.

Concrete Economics is in most respects a traditional work in that field.  For openers it is literally a cure for insomnia.  I read at night before bed – in bed – a practice most sleep experts say is likely to ruin your nocturnal regimen, and I have had more than a few nights “ruined” by the likes of Michael Lewis and Oliver Sachs.  After a few pages of Cohen and DeLong I was usually more than ready to turn out the light.  At 170 pages, this tome that should have been a one-sitting read for me took nearly a month to finish.  Even by the standards of the Drear Science, this book was a slog.

The authors’ style is heavy with one paragraph sentences, multi-syllable words and overly formal vernacular.  For example: “The East Asian Economies were eager to build up their manufacturing capacity and capability, and our ideologically motivated redesign of the American economy told us that we didn’t really care, because we didn’t really want those sectors.”  Did I mention the mixed metaphors?  “Alexander Hamilton: the only individual who may have been more than the tip of the spearhead of the heavy shaft of an already-thrown, near-consensus view on pragmatic economic policy.”  I nearly fell asleep typing that.

The book came highly touted by Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and oracle of Progressive economics, so I expected to disagree with much if not all of the content.  I was (mostly) wrong.

Lost style points aside, the authors make a fair case that some economic planning by the Federal government is essential to the success of the Republic (italics mine, certainly not Krugman’s).  Early on they discuss the formative post-Revolutionary policies of Hamilton, who pushed the fledgling US government to assume the colonies’ war debt, establish a central bank and, most crucially, pass a series of tariffs designed to protect America’s emerging manufacturing sector.  The only way the country could gain real economic independence, argued Hamilton, was to industrialize. The plan worked well.  US makers were soon thriving and the tariffs protecting them were the government’s main source of revenue until the advent of the income tax.

Hamilton’s protective tariff model was adopted by Japan and, later, China as those countries struggled to join the Industrial Revolution.  Contemporary fans include our current president, who would also appreciate the authors’ use of words like “huger.”  I think they meant, “more bigly.” Continue reading

“Let’s Kill All the Psychiatrists!”

anatomy-of-an-epidemicL. Ron Hubbard was one of the most prolific writers in history, authoring more than 1100 books. He was also the founder of the Church of Scientology, arguably one of history’s most controversial quasi-religious organizations. Many of the tenets upon which Hubbard based his church are inarguably crackpot, but after reading Robert Whitaker’s latest offering one could easily conclude that at least one of Hubbard’s paranoid beliefs, that psychiatric drugs and the doctors who prescribe them are the tools of the Devil, may contain a grain of truth.

Whitaker’s book, Anatomy of an Epidemic:  Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, examines two related issues.  The first is the astronomical increase over the last 60 years in the number of Americans who have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia.  These conditions, now being diagnosed in as many as 850 adults and 250 children per day, often are so debilitating that sufferers are unable to hold a job and so become dependent on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to survive.  The exploding number of mentally disabled being granted SSDI is threatening to bust the agency’s budget as early as 2016.

In 1955, around the time that the first psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were discovered, there were 355,000 people in the US under diagnosis for psychiatric conditions.  Almost all were housed in state or county hospitals as was then standard practice.  This number represented one in 468 Americans.  By 1987, with the closing of most mental hospitals and the treatment of affective disorders well into the age of Lithium and Prozac, one in 186 Americans was on the mental patient rolls. Since then, in spite of the promises made by the psychiatric profession and Big Pharma that Selective Serotonen Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) drugs were the cure for America’s mental ills, the numbers are still going up.  Continue reading

Global Warming Commentary by Guest

Ponderer and I have posted “dueling” commentaries on global warming. A reader sent a paper to join the discussion. It is longer than commentaries usually posted on this site, but it has so much information that deserves consideration that I’ve decided to post it in its entirety with a few minor edits.

The so-called ‘greenhouse effect’ comes about by short wave radiation impinging on the earth from the sun.  Some fraction of this short wave radiation is reflected back into space with little effect.  Another fraction is absorbed by the earth.  Essentially blackbody long wave radiation is emitted from the earth’s surface as a result.  Carbon dioxide (and a few other gases that we will get to) absorbs and reemits this longer wave radiation.  It emits the longer wave radiation in all directions, so some fraction comes back to be reabsorbed by the earth’s surface (either soil or water).  On balance under these conditions there is more heat (in the form of both long and short wave radiation) entering the system than leaving it, so overall heating occurs. Continue reading

Did Jesus Exist?

Reviewed by Kathy London

Bart D. Ehrman is a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, and the subtitle of his book is “The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”

He is up-front about his personal beliefs as an ex-Christian and agnostic.  Whether Jesus really existed would not change his beliefs or make him happier or sadder.  This book is a historical work, not religious.  He just thinks “evidence matters.” Continue reading

The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible

Reviewed by Kathy London

aleppo-codexThis book by Matti Friedman is a fascinating and unexpected tale.  Friedman says “I expected to write a heartening story about the rescue of this book… [instead] its story is a tragedy of human weakness.”

To read this book, it is important to understand why the Codex is important.  Jews dispersed across the world have no central institution to maintain their religion.  They have only their Bible.  Reading the text with the utmost precision is imperative; even the tune to which the text is chanted is important.  There may be knowledge in the Bible’s exact words not understood today, that will be understood in the future.  But the Hebrew Bible was originally written without vowels or punctuation.  Key knowledge on how to read the Bible had been handed down orally for centuries, but that teaching was lost in the Diaspora.

Ancient scholars set out to compile authoritative Bibles which included symbols for vowels, punctuation, and emphasis.  As scholarly works, they were sewn together into books – called codices – rather than written on scrolls as required for ritual use.  A thousand years ago, after centuries of effort, the final text of the Bible was accepted.  All other Bibles were to be based on this one text, which became known as the Aleppo Codex or The Crown. Continue reading