Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

Peter Van Buren – We Meant Well

We Meant Well

Peter Van BurenWe Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books 2011)


The United States invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003.  Then, “resonstruction” began under the U.S. occupation that followed.  Supposedly.  Peter Van Buren was a long-time U.S. State Department bureaucrat gently coerced into a year-long sting on a State Dept. reconstruction team in 2009-2010.  He wrote this memoir about the experience — doing so, naturally, caused the U.S. government to initiate legal proceedings and various other forms of harassment against him to suppress what he had to say and intimidate others who might also try, but with the intervention of civil rights group that merely his departure from the State Dept. with retirement benefits intact.  That puts him somewhere on the spectrum of contemporary whistleblowers that includes the likes of Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Scudder, and others (see The United States of Secrets on PBS’s Frontline for an excellent overview of the war on whistleblowers).  But the book is out, and it’s a refreshingly independent-minded view of the war, the reconstruction, and what it meant to be a foreigner on the ground in Iraq in 2009-2010.  Van Buren has taken cues from Vietnam War-era reporter Michael Herr‘s book Dispatches.

Van Buren clearly takes the view that the highest levels of political leaders during the Iraq occupation and reconstruction were at best incompetent fools, and at worst malevolent fiends, mostly interested in fabrication illusions of “great accomplishments” with absolutely no regard for reality or collateral damage.  Just below them, the upper crust of military and State Dept. leadership are portrayed as largely gutless hacks most interested in self-promotion and careerist advancement up the chain of command.  Then there are the lower levels.  The civilian grunt workers are mostly a ragtag batch of borderline con artists and unqualified imbeciles gathered up for the job in a rush who often mean well but in a vacuum of real leadership lack any mechanism to accomplish anything truly “good” for the people of Iraq.  Lower level managers like Van Buren are stuck between appeasing the upper echelons of the government staff (some trying to move up that ladder) and genuinely trying to do good work alongside the grunts (what Van Buren sees himself doing).

Towards the end of the book he sums up the situation — accurately and astutely it would seem.  The government apparatus lumbered onward based on a childish set of metrics built around effort alone (as in “an ‘A’ for effort”), with no regard for objective assessments of results.  Throughout the book, his tone is bitingly sarcastic.  He knows real success from the false projection of it.  He has a talent for analogies.  He explains all the jargon and acronyms.  And he admirably explains all the esoteric cultural norms that are the hidden focus of the book.  The Iraq reconstruction was officially about rebuilding the civilian infrastructure destroyed by the war and giving the country “democracy.”  Without preaching about it, Van Buren chronicles how the reconstruction effort was really about the U.S. government’s attempt to displace corrupt, traditional Iraqi tribalism with corrupt, Western “free-market” tribalism.  Like a covert amateur anthropologist, he describes the many way that the cultures clash.  A recurring theme is to profile the depressingly misguided attempts by the State Dept. to promote “small businesses.”  Perhaps genuinely oblivious to how the Western emphasis on “small businesses” is basically a wedge-issue sort of distraction promoted by politicians and mass media, the State Dept. just kept trying to graft it on to an Iraqi economy that lacked foundational infrastructure (reliable electricity, water and sewage treatment, etc.) that was a prerequisite for a host of things that business (small or otherwise) require.  Those foundational issues were simply too long-term for the State Dept. and military careerists driving the bus on reconstruction, and upper leadership seemed to not really care so long as a supply of other photo ops were available.  Of course, not every project was a bust.  He does explain how a few small-scale projects that worked with rather than against local customs worked out — with no support from State Dept. leadership.

This little memoir may not paint any sort of comprehensive view of the Iraq war or its aftermath, but it does provide a trove of honest descriptions of the daily realities surrounding the United States’ Iraq reconstruction project.  For that, it should prove a valuable resource to everyone except those in power, who will continue to ignore this sort of wisdom and continue to try to suppress it and punish those who speak it.

Having been forced out of the State Dept., Van Buren continues to write (his next book was a novel inspired by John Steinbeck and Occupy Wall Street) and maintains a blog.

Tyler Cowen – The Great Stagnation

The Great Stagnation

Tyler CowenThe Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better (Dutton Adult 2011)


Terrible. That’s about all I can say. Cowen is often described as “apolitical” because he doesn’t explicitly endorses Republican or Democratic policies, but that misses the point entirely. His view — more or less shared by all Republicans and Democrats — is that neoliberal growth-focus is basically “correct” but he breaks bipartisan rank to say that proponents of neoliberalism have made some tactical errors. Anyway, this slim volume is plagued by shoddy research and continual logical flaws. I came to this initially because Cowen discusses patent activity being greatest in the early 20th Century, and I wanted to investigate his research. It would be overly generous to credit Cowen with any “research” in this area, however. He essentially did none. His support was a single (!) article by a person seemingly unfamiliar with patents, who did a cursory electronic search of patent office records that would have taken no more than a few minutes and drew wildly unsupported conclusions (the basic premise of the cited article has been refuted by Robert Post’s “‘Liberalizers’ vs. ‘Scientific Men'” article, among others). And the rest of this book proceeds in a similar fashion. Much like Morris Berman‘s books, he’s clearly backfilling flimsy citations for ideas he’s already formulated and has no intention of rigorously testing — like pawning off the research to an assistant who doesn’t understand the arguments and whose research is correspondingly poor. As to the logical flaws, Cowen’s main thesis seems to be Marx‘s idea that profits tend to decline over time, but Cowen resists that theory…for indiscernible reasons — it isn’t even brought up explicitly. So, we’re back to him being a neoliberal apologist with no interesting arguments whatsoever to counter alternative theories. A great big “pass” on this book.

Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been published in English.  It has become something of a sensation.  My copy from the library can’t possibly be read before it must be returned, so take the following with strong caveat that I haven’t read it cover to cover!  There have been many reviews, and the following is only a selection. What does emerge in many is nothing more than a conclusory and self-serving complaint that Piketty has followed a different set of theories and policy recommendations than the particular ones the reviewer endorses. But the better ones actually provide a substantive analysis of where Piketty’s theory fails, and why. Against that backdrop, it seemed worthwhile to post links to some of the most intriguing comments and reviews, which generally come to the conclusion that the book is most valuable putting forward observational facts, and is less successful in terms of offering theory and policy advice:

Alan Nasser “Apolitical Economy: Democracy and Dynasty (Thomas Piketty and His Discontents)”

Nasser finds Piketty’s overall analysis flawed and muddled, because it is politically naive and neglects such factors as the role of worker and citizen militancy in promoting equality.  The thrust of the critique is that Piketty is in an awkward position where he fails (or refuses) to grasp the implications of his data, and rules out alternative political solutions for reasons he does not justify.  He labels Piketty essentially a neoliberal, yet still commends him for avoiding its “essentially apologetic assertions, the big ones that count[.]” Nasser comes at this from a perspective reminiscent of sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail).  It’s an analysis that Nasser fortunately backs up with a substantial number of historical references and well-documented countervailing theories.  Can’t wait for Nasser’s new book to arrive. 

James K. Galbraith, Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?”

Galbraith’s critique of Piketty’s book for Dissent Magazine is the one that has perhaps received the most attention.  “It is a book mainly about the valuation placed on tangible and financial assets, the distribution of those assets through time, and the inheritance of wealth from one generation to the next.”  He is most critical in concluding that Piketty “does not provide a very sound guide to policy. And despite its great ambitions, his book is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length, and reception (so far) suggest.”  To back up those statements, Galbraith makes the point that Piketty “conflates physical capital equipment with all forms of money-valued wealth, including land and housing, whether that wealth is in productive use or not.”  Galbraith ties this to the so-called “Cambridge Controversies”, implying that Piketty takes a basically neoliberal approach and has no meaningful response to the English side of the argument (from Joan Robsinson et al.).  He also questions some of Piketty’s claims about his data, noting that payroll data can be used instead of income tax data, but also that “income tax data are . . . only as accurate as tax systems are effective.”

Thomas I. Palley, “The Accidental Controversialist:
Deeper Reflections on Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital'”

Palley discusses the surprising popular success of Piketty’s book in English translation.  “The book’s timing is near-perfect because of awakened political interest in inequality, but its empirical findings are not revolutionary and rising income and wealth inequality have been documented for years, albeit less comprehensively.”  The tone of Palley’s review revolves around Piketty’s insistence that he “discovered” recent trends in inequality, when in fact many others have documented that phenomenon before–albeit less extensively.   In this regard, Piketty made such a “discovery” no more than Christopher Columbus “discovered” an inhabited continent.  Palley provides a useful compendium of sources that pre-date Piketty’s work and which tend to emphasize economic and political power (institutional factors) over the “growth” approach of neoclassical economics.

Michael Hudson, “The 1% and Piketty” and “Piketty’s Wealth Gap Wake Up” and “Piketty vs. the Classical Economic Reformers”

Hudson did interviews on The Real News Network and Renegade Economists both touching on Piketty’s book.  He says, “basically, he’s described the symptoms of what’s wrong. And people are very glad that at least he’s described the symptoms that everybody knew but nobody had spent the three or four years that it took to make all of the charts charts that he’s made.” In one interview Hudson says Piketty statistically “shows that wealth inequality is actually much wider than income inequality . . . .”  But in the other he says “The problem with Piketty’s statistics are that it vastly understates how unequal the world really is . . . .”  “He’s started the discussion by showing the fact of vast inequality. What needs to be done now is to explain how did this inequality come about and what do you do about it?”  He references the excellent Gustavus Myers’ book(s) History of the Great American Fortunes.  Hudson is critical of Piketty’s policy prescriptions.  “[T]he neoliberals love Piketty. That’s why Krugman loves Piketty. You can’t implement it. So he’s produced a book without any solution, and the free enterprise boys like that. The 1 percent don’t mind being criticized as long as there’s no solution to their problem. And that’s what the critics have come out saying . . . .”  “One of the things that Piketty does not discuss when it comes to making fortunes is the role of debt, that most of these fortunes that have taken off since 1980 have taken off because of the increased debt leverage. *** And what to me really has been accelerating wealth at the very top is the financial sector, is the ability of the 1% to get the other 99% in debt to them . . . .” 

EconoSpeak, “Inequality and Sabotage: Piketty, Veblen and Kalecki (for anne at Economist’s View)”

Points out that Piketty’s key arguments have been made by others like Thorstein Veblen long before.  Like Alan Nasser, this article also suggests Piketty is ignoring the role of unions and militant activism in relation to economic inequality.  The curious may also want to read Eric Zencey’s New York Times Op-Ed from April 11, 2009, “Mr. Soddy’s Econological Economy,” which made essentially the same points based on the work of Frederick Soddy.

Seth Ackerman, “Piketty’s Fair-Weather Friends”

Endorses Piketty’s efforts and data collection, but faults him for his confused neoclassical theories.  Goes so far as to say Robinson and Sraffa won the Cambridge Capital Controversies debates (this is in Jacobin Magazine), but actually provides a substantive analysis in support of that conclusion and how it applies to Piketty’s work.  The most significant conclusion here is that Piketty’s data does support the idea that “r” (rate of return on capital) does seem to remain relatively unchanged over time, but “g” (rate of economic growth) does change and the data shows a tendency for it to be lower relative to mid Twentieth Century levels.  The result is that large income inequalities, and ultimately large wealth inequalities, are the norm not an exception.  Ackerman then returns to the idea that a neoclassical, marginalist r > g focus basically misses the real drivers on a theoretical level.  When this review turns to alternative theories and data, rather than pure critique of Piketty’s book, the analysis is curt and less clearly explained.

Philip Pilkington, “Piketty’s Regressive Views on Public Debt and the Potential Impact of His Book”

Calls the book readable, though not well written.  Agrees with Galbraith’s critiques, saying “in some ways, the book is a mess owing to a lack of a solid macroeconomic framework.”  Also, “the history presented in Piketty’s book is selective and . . . ultimately untrustworthy.” 

John McDermott, “Piketty Is No Piketty: Of Capital and Wealth”

He notes that Piketty’s analysis is confused, because, “for Piketty . . . , people and institutions play an almost non-existent role. Only five social ‘phenomena’ escape this erasure; two world wars, the great depression, today’s fabulously rewarded ‘supermanagers’, and a middle class newly able to pass mini-riches to its heirs. For the rest, there are no people and, most notably, no institutions.”  This is a complaint that Piketty follows neoclassical dogma despite its obvious flaws.  To that end, he complains that Piketty’s equation of capital with wealth ignores necessary distinctions between wage-salary income and property income.  He also finds Piketty’s distinction between capital and human capital to be fundamentally incoherent.  Analogizing to Henry George, McDermott notes that Piketty’s proposed solution to the problem of gains from capital exceeding the growth of the rest of the economy is that “One must intervene from outside this process, not to correct it but to correct for it.”  He nonetheless praises Piketty for forcing “the needed discussion about the compatibility of hyper-hyper wealth with the sort of world most of us want to live in.”

Various Authors, Real-World Economics Review, Issue No. 69

An entire issue of this journal was devoted to a critique of Piketty’s book. 

Potemkin Review, “Piketty Interview”

An interview with Piketty in which he acknowledges some of the points raised in the reviews above.

And, to round out this listing, here are some other, sometimes good but sometimes less interesting (if not downright stupid) reviews: Adam David Morton, “Questioning Piketty,” Patrick Bond, “Can World’s Worst Case of Inequality be Fixed by Pikettian Posturing?,” Martin Wolf, “‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, by Thomas Piketty,” Rob Urie, “Off With Their Heads, Thomas Piketty Edition,” Jack Rasmus, “Economists Discover Inequality” (it’s too bad Rasmus doesn’t mention Michael Hudson as someone who has tried to explain what is identified as needing explanation), Slavoj Žižek, “Slavoj Žižek comments on Thomas Piketty’s ‘Le Capital au XXIe siècle’” (“my claim is that if you imagine a world organization where the measure proposed by Piketty can effectively be enacted, then the problems are already solved. Then already you have a total political reorganization, you have a global power which effectively can control capital, we already won. So I think in this sense he cheats, the true problem is to create the conditions for his apparently modest measure to be actualized.”), Roberto Savio, “Inequality and Democracy,” Moisés Naím, “The Problem With Piketty’s Inequality Formula” (argues that Piketty ignores corruption as a factor in inequality), James Howard Kunstler, “Piketty Dikitty Rikitty,” Paul Krugman, “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age,” Paul Street, “Avoiding the Capitalist Apocalypse,” Dean Baker, “Economic Policy in a Post-Piketty World,” Anthony DiMaggio, “On the Cowardice & Irrelevance of Social Science Scholars: Education in Crisis,” Eric Zuess, “The Economics of Inequality: The Wealth Chasm,” David Harvey, “Afterthoughts on Piketty’s Capital,” The Economist, “All Men Are Created Unequal: Revisiting an Old Argument About the Impact of Capitalism,” Larry Elliott, “Thomas Piketty: The French Economist Bringing Capitalism to Book,” Kyle Smith, “Six Ways Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ Isn’t Holding Up to Scrutiny” (perhaps the stupidest review in this list!), John Cassidy, “Forces of Divergence: Is surging inequality Endemic to Capitalism?,” Robert M. Solow, “Thomas Piketty Is Right: Everything You Need to Know About ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’,” Charles Andrews, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Its Uses and Limits,” Daniel Shuchman, “Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century,” John Palmer, “Book Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty,” Stephen Colbert, “Thomas Piketty Interview,” Paul Mattick, “Much Ado About Something,” Doug Henwood, “The Top of the World,” Paul Street, “Saying Goodbye to the Piketty Summer: Labor Day Reflections” (a frequently self-contradictory critique), Bill Gates, “Why Inequality Matters,” Joe Firestone, “Piketty’s Neoliberal Capital”