September 07, 2006

National Book Month - recommended reading

October is National Book Month, here's some recommended progressive reading:

All Together Now

Crashing the Gate

Active Liberty

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August 04, 2006

Book: All Together Now, Common Sense for a Fair Economy

Bernstein: All Together Now, Common Sense for a Fair Economy Bernstein: All Together Now, Common Sense for a Fair Economy

In “All Together Now, Common Sense for a Fair Economy”, Jared Bernstein lays out a comprehensive economic philosophy to direct progressive economic policy making ... and shows how to apply it in key areas, of globalizatoin, pensions, healthcare, macro-economic policy, etc.  He provides a comprehensive contrast between conservative “You’re On Your Own” (YOYO) free-market fundamentalism and progressive “We’re In This Together” (WITT) models, as he calls them (and which extend beyond economics, but the economic world is what he focuses on). 

An engaging read, he avoids the progressive tendency to get so caught up in the litany of anecdotal horrors of the conservative economy as to forget to offer a complete alternative.

Instead, he shows at each step of the way how the core conservative philosophy is itself responsible for the problems -- the rapidly growing economic insecurity, failures to provide healthcare for much of the population, declining real disposable income for the middle class, etc. -- isn’t “incompetence” or an accident or fate but the inevitable, predictable  result of the conservative philosophy of an extreme Socail Darwinism that harkens back to the hard-hearted Dickensian Victorian England era of exploitation and to the Robber Baron era of rapious greed and inequality in America.

At the same time, he shows the progressive approach: founded on working together in our common interest (as I put it), and of returning to America’s roots of using government to tackle new challeges to ensuring broad-based prosperity. 

One of the key philosophical differences is in how progressives and conservatives see the role of government.  He eloquenty makes the point that when the cause of economic challenges is systemic (such as globalization commoditizing work, lack of healthare for 40 million Americans, etc.), we need a systemic, national response and not the conservative approach of leaving each of us to take it on ourselves to try and struggle against the tide and bear the burden of the consequences.

Highly recommended.

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April 09, 2006

Book: Crashing the Gate

Armstrong & Moulitsas: Crashing the Gate Armstrong & Moulitsas: Crashing the Gate

An energizing book that puts the cultural and strategic shift of progressives and the Democratic party into nice perspective: as a group that is moving in the right directions to act like an out-of-power group hungry to recapture its voice and political power by renewing itself.

One key to this is the transition (well underway) from a political-majority party consisting of a coalition of single-issue groups to a more coherent multi-issue philosophy.  As they point out, almost all new progressive organizations in the last decade were multi-issue organizations, not special-interest -- Center for American Progress, Progressive Majority, Democracy for America, American’s Coming Together, MoveOn, etc.

The give good coverage to the changing landscape:

  • things that have changed: new donors, new organizations, the building of a (multi-issue) progressive movement outside the Democratic Party
  • things that need more change: accountability from the Washington-based consultancy culture, beltway demos, renewed thinking about reaching all America not just segments, of understanding and reaching people at their belief level not just their demographics

They also did a good job encapsulting some of the big transitions for the right, which one could summarize as:

  • 1964 - Goldwater, fueling the right-wing anger at Republicans that were “Democrat-lite” and motivating action to build thinktanks, leadership institutes, etc.
  • 1980 - Reagan, an appealing message vehicle for core principles, leading to a right-wing hunger for and hope to also capture the congress and courts
  • 1994 - Gingrich, the first “affirmative vision” of what could be done, by selecting from a huge menu of actions from the right-wing thinktanks
  • 2000 - Bush (this is my own), pathological extreme of the party leading to overreach

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February 22, 2006

Book: the Next Deal

John C. Bogle: The Battle for the Soul of CapitalismAndrei Cherny: the Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age

A thoughtful and action-oriented book with good historical perspective, Cherny draws an analogy between today's circumstances and those that launched previous great eras of change in society and the way we use government to address those changes.  His premise is, roughly, that the information age and globalization is producing the “choice generation” that recreates (in a less agrarian way) the kind of individual, rather than industrial, focus of life and politics that dominated during the founding of America.  We can each have impact on politics again (blogs, internet, ...) and we need to rethink government in a way that corresponds.  This kind of great shift is like that from agrarian to industrial leading to great upheavals, the creation of robber baron industries but then the creation of labor unions and the New Deal.

Conservative solutions to eras of great change don't work because they resist the change; a new progressive era is required to successfully transition through as a great, world power.

Thoughtful and thought-proving, this is a great read by one of the creative progressive thinkers.

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Book: Get This Party Started

John C. Bogle: The Battle for the Soul of CapitalismEdited by Matthew R. Kerbel: Get This Party Started

A recently released compendium of some of the best writers and articles on “how progressives can fight back and win”, updated so they fit and flow together.  The book covers most areas of interest -- values, polling, language, policy directions, leadership, characteristics of both the left and right, internet, campaign financing, organization.

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February 19, 2006

Book: Promises to Keep

Thom Hartmann: What Would Jefferson Do? A Return to DemocracyRichard N. Goodwin: Promises to Keep

Goodwin starts from the premise that (emphases mine),

“Democracy and capitalism are the twin pillars of American society.  Together they support the structure that guards and advances the traditional purpose of American life: national growth in the service of democratic values; increasing opportunity for every individual to sustain and enhance his life; economic justice for every citizen; and the protective strengthening of those ties that have traditionally bound us to our fellow citizens and to the heritage and destiny of the nation.”

While capitalism is “the engine” for “the creation and distribution of wealth”, it is “democracy alone [that] can ensure freedom of the marketplace, justice in the distribution of wealth, equality of opportunity ... protecting the people against abuses of private economic power, ... and for ensuring that capitalism serves the interest of the entire American community.”

For this reason he calls our system Democratic Capitalism, not free market capitalism.

While written in 1992, he makes a compelling argument that applies to our current situation (how  dreadful each post-Republican economy is!) that has let the capital system use the power of its money to corrupt the democratic system to the detriment of larger society and we need to exert more forcefully the “restraining powers of representative democracy” if we are to be able to face the changing world.

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December 19, 2005

Book: What Would Jefferson Do? A Return to Democracy

Thom Hartmann: What Would Jefferson Do? A Return to DemocracyThom Hartmann: What Would Jefferson Do? A Return to Democracy

This is a remarkably useful read.  In Thom Hartmann’s usual lucid style and well-documented research, he quite successfully takes on two main tasks:

(1) addressing numerous core right-wing-promulgeted myths about democracy in America, and shows that they are false assertions by referencing the actual writing of multiple founders and the context of the times, and

(2) providing a set of straightforward Jeffersonian prescriptions we can all work on for recapturing the kind of democracy intended by the founders, especially the leading light, Thomas Jefferson.

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November 14, 2005

Book: The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism

John C. Bogle: The Battle for the Soul of CapitalismJohn C. Bogle: The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism (Bogle is the founder of the Vanguard mutual funds.)

A commited capitalist and Republican, Bogle’s premise is that the current financial system is in need of an overhaul in approach and new regulation.  The problem he sees is that stock ownership, which provides governance oversight of management, has become both so diffuse (lots of little owners) and so remote (via mutual funds, etc.) that owners don’t have the ability or interest in ownership duties.  Because they don’t, “ownership capitalism” has been replaced with “management capitalism” and the executive suites are robbing owners by diverting unreasonably large amounts of owner returns to managements' own compensation.  This is bad because the people taking the risk (owners investment $) aren’t getting appropriate returns and eventually the system will implode from manager greed.

Bogle presents a variety of recommended principles, including regulations requiring mutual fund companies to take a fudiciary trustee responsibility to maxmize investors return, just as a pension fund trustee has the same responsibility, as well as several recommendations for changes to give the investor owners real say in board composition and proxies for things directly affecting their ownership rights (as opposed to ordinary-course-of-business), such as executive compensation, etc.

An extensive section on how executives are not paid for performance and how the current compensation system is rigged to ramp up executive compensation regardless of results.  He makes several proposals for compensation being based on out-performing peers or market results (so doing better than others even in a declining market is rewarded), indexed over time rather than fixed-price options.

I would like to have seen more specifics on how damaging excessive pay is to shareholder value, as opposed to generalities.  He argues from the corrupting influence extraordinary returns have, plucked from the many headlines, and how they have devestated shareholder value.  But even without near-total implosions ala Enron, I would have added things like:

  • every $1M paid is 10 fully-loaded people, so paying an exec $10M extra is like killing a 100-person R&D team that would otherwise have been designing the next generation products; or that
  • $10M, post tax is $7M which means (1) in less than a year they earned more then their typical employee will in their entire life and (2) they could retire immeditately and still live in the top 1% of the world for the rest of their life: on $350,000 a year!

October 09, 2005

Book: Active Liberty by Justice Stephen Breyer

Stephen Breyer: Active Liberty Justice Stephen Breyer: Active Liberty

Justice Stephen Breyer articulates a coherent framework for interpreting the constitution as a Supreme Court Justice, responding to the neo-conservative "originalist" and "textualist" approaches. In it, Justice Breyer shows how he approaches his job by identifying the core principles the constitution embodies without being stuck in the 1700s nor moving from their grand intent.

Breyer's approach is founded on the idea that the constitution was often intended to provide grand, aspirational principles. He notes, the overlooked but obvious, issue that most of the "interesting" cases that arrive in the Supreme Court are questions that turn on the relative weights of different parts of the Constitution, not simply in understanding one part ... and thus is the hard part of interpretation. Active Liberty provides guidelines for that interpretation.

December 06, 2004

Book: Wealth and Our Commonwealth

William H. Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins: Wealth and Our Commonwealth William H. Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins: Wealth and Our Commonwealth

This book elogquently argues for reversing the trend of thinking that tax cuts are universally good and for the importance of looking out for the common good if we are to sustain our democracy and prosperity.

"There was a time in America when everybody understood that taxes are  the price of admission to a civil society. And we called "freeloaders" those  people who tried to avoid paying taxes, but still wanted to make use  of public facilities from roads to bridges to fire and police protection.  "Restoring a strong middle class and the vibrant democracy it makes  possible will only happen if we wake up enough Americans to the conservative  war against democracy and the middle class.  Reading and sharing "Wealth and Our Commonwealth " is one of the most important first-steps you  can take in helping bring about this awakening."

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