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Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.89
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479 of 548 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A big mixed bag of insights and misconceptions, November 8, 2012
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This book has a really cool innovative style. The first appendix is "a graphical tour of the book" where Taleb graphically explains all the main concepts. It renders the nearly incomprehensible visually explicitly clear. I wish nonfiction writers would use such a graphical appendix. The second appendix focuses on really technical concepts for the quants. That's so Taleb can write the body of the book for the layperson. But, for the mathematicians he is willing to drill down in technical details.

The main point of the book is that the World is really complex and genuinely unpredictable. Black Swans (rare) events will always be Black Swans. Any efforts to forecast such events are counterproductive. But, even though we can't forecast Black Swan events we can manage our exposure to them so they don't hurt us or so we can even benefit from them (antifragility). If we simply remain long the underlying risk by attempting to model Black Swan infested variables, we will be exposed to volatility and fail (fragility).

The main underlying concepts are that the majority of causal relationships are nonlinear. They typically have both a convex section where the curve rises exponentially upward and is associated with a positive effect (antifragile) and a concave section that declines exponentially downward and has a negative effect (fragile). Think of the dose of a prescription drug. At first, as you increase the dose the health benefits improve (convexity). But, beyond a certain dose side effects and toxicity cause harm (concavity). This is shown on the first page of the "graphical tour." The trick is to reduce one's exposure to the concave part of the curve (reduce toxicity, reduce fragility) and increase exposure the the convex part (increase benefit, increase antifragility). And, this is true across all domains. The way to do that is use a barbell strategy that positively captures the optionality of the variable (being long in the convex area and short in the concave area).

Sometimes, this (convex vs concave) metaphor is reversed because a beneficial rising section of a variable's curve can be concave and a declining hurtful section can be convex. And, Taleb does use contradicting examples like that. From a geometric standpoint convexity and concavity do not tell you whether a curve is rising or declining and whether they are associated with positive or negative effect. So, you have to pay attention on a case-by-case basis.

Within this book Taleb offers interesting data insights. The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you get. Assume that you are looking at data with a yearly frequency and that your ratio of noise to signal is 50%/50%. If you look at the same data on a daily basis, the noise to signal ratio will change to 95%/5%. If you look at it on an hourly basis it becomes 99.5% to 0.5%. I don't know how he comes up with those figures (pg. 126). But, they are directionally interesting. Thus, Taleb thinks it is a waste of time to watch the stock market on an hourly or even daily basis. Taleb debunks the merit of Big Data. The more variables you look at the exponentially more spurious correlations you will get (pg. 419). This is a case of a rising convex curve with negative effect. "Modernity provides too many variables... and the spurious relationships grow much, much faster than real information, as noise is convex and information is concave" (pg. 420). Taleb does not vest much in 95% confidence intervals. What matters for him is the consequence when you fall outside the confidence interval. If a plane takes off 95% of the time on time. That's pretty good. If the plane does not crash 99% of the time, that feels like a suicidal mission (1 time out of a 100 you'll be dead). So, the probabilities in absence of their consequences are meaningless (pg 260).

Just as in The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" Taleb rejects the entire body of modern finance. In "The Black Swan" he did it by stating that the Normal distribution generates inadequately thin tails and understates the probability of rare events. Now, he adds additional arguments. And, that is that Harry Markowitz comes up with the prerequisite parameters of the Normal distribution namely the standard deviation and the mean. But, ignores an error term in each. "If these parameters need to be estimated, with an error, then the derivations need to be written differently and... we would have no Markowitz paper, no blowups, no modern finance" (pg. 447). Taleb further attacks Markowitz portfolio theory because of its reliance on static correlations between investments. Correlations change all the time, and typically go way up during downturns which eliminates Markowitz diversification benefit just when you need it. Per Taleb, Markowitz portfolio theory causes investors to overallocate to risky asset classes. He further advances that Markowitz does not use his own portfolio theory to manage his own investments. Instead, he uses a simpler but more sophisticated method similar to the one recommended by Mandelbrot and himself (Taleb) (pg. 397). On page 220 and 221, Taleb criticizes Myron Scholes and Robert Merton for getting Nobel prizes for their option formula that others discovered in more sophisticated form before them (but he does not mention who they are). On the same pages, he criticizes Mark Rubinstein for attributing techniques to professors in the 1990s that "we as practicioners used in more sophisticated forms in the 1980s".

Taleb attacks a lot more people than just Markowitz and company. Often his attacks are well grounded; sometimes they are less so. He attacks Thomas Friedman because his influential columns helped cause the Iraq war. He also criticizes his book "The World is flat" for promoting globalization without realizing that globalization increases worldwide systemic risks (pg. 386). Taleb has much intellectual contempt for Paul Krugman because he does not understand the weaknesses in the argument of "comparative advantage" that causes countries to become excessively reliant on the exports of a few commodities (pg. 449). He similarly attacks David Ricardo who came up with this original theory (pg. 212). Taleb roasts Joseph Stiglitz for stating in 2008 that Fannie Mae's probability of failure was effectively zero (Fannie Mae was taken over by the government months shortly after) and for the same Stiglitz to write in 2010 on how he had predicted the 2007-2008 financial crisis (pg. 389). Taleb defines the "Joseph Stiglitz problem"... "Mental cherry-picking, leading to contributing to the cause of a crisis while being convinced of the opposite-and thinking he predicted it" (pg. 432). That's actually Taleb's most convincing attack (the Stiglitz problem).

So, who does Taleb like? Steve Jobs. He is the one person that Taleb adulates. He refers to him at length four times throughout the book always in anthological fashion. He likes Job because he was anti-establishment, without academic credentials, autodidact, visionary, aesthete and artisan in temperament. It is easy to agree with Taleb on those counts.

Taleb is at his best when criticizing modern medicine (chapters 21 and 22). Somehow his convex-concave framework allows him to analyze well where medicine overtreats and overdiagnozes. As mentioned earlier, treatment benefits are nonlinear. It is all in the dosage. Medicine has an intervention bias. Doing something (vs nothing) is almost a requirement for defensive purposes (preventing malpractice suits). Medical interventions are also a response to powerful lucrative economic incentives. This medical mindset has created the medicalization of many normal conditions. For instance, the threshold for hypertension and high cholesterol levels have been chronically reduced so a rising portion of the population can be counted as prospective patients for related prescription drugs. Yet, the benefits of those drugs are convex to the severity of those conditions. This means that patients with near normal conditions will not be helped by those drugs and may be hurt by their long term side effects. It is only for patients with more severe conditions that such drugs may be beneficial. Although, Taleb mentions that reducing markers metrics (cholesterol, high blood pressure) does not always correspond

Taleb has much scorn for any monetary and fiscal policy interventions. Even though Taleb starts from the same place as John Maynard Keynes that the future is unpredictable. They tackle this uncertainty completely differently. Keynes propose expansive government policies (both fiscal and monetary) to shore up economies during downturns. Taleb recommends the government to do very little and for individuals and companies to deal with uncertainty by managing their exposure to it (convex vs concave framework). Taleb acknowledge he has an obsessive stance against any government debt at all (pg. 53) and wishes governments never borrowed and always balanced their Budget (pg. 286). On page 101, he lauds George Cooper's The Origin of Financial Crises who damned the Fed for all the wrong reasons and did not understand that its role is to manage inflation and unemployment rate levels. Taleb also criticizes Bernanke for his "Great Moderation" statement less than a year before the onset of the financial crisis. But, he does not give credit to Bernanke for very quickly changing course and coming up with creative expansive monetary policies to prevent the Great Recession from turning into the Great Depression II. On page 303, Taleb indicates that government interventions almost always end in disaster. He got his timing wrong. Disastrous economic shocks occur first, and government interventions to mitigate those disasters kick in second. Additionally, if governments truly never borrowed and central banks never conducted expansive monetary policies the world's capital creation over the past couple of centuries would be a small fraction of what it is today. Economic growth for centuries prior to this recent modern era was minimal (<0.5% per year). With the advent of modern government policies economies have grown far faster.

Many of Taleb's other arguments are weak.

His entire section on city-states being stronger than larger countries is less than convincing. On page 87, he lauds Switzerland for having a decentralized government with much power vested in its Cantons. But, this government model is not that different from Spain's regional governments set up that has currently turned into a fiscal disaster. The Swiss successes has to do with a lot more than its Canton governments. Later, he advances that Switzerland has been very successful with a very low level of formal education. That's wrong. Switzerland has a high level of formal education with 31.3% of its population having an associate college degree or higher. That is much higher than the OECD average of 27.5%, the European Union average of 24.5%, Germany's 24.3%, and Italy's 13.6% (source OECD 2009).

Along the same line, (pg. 90) he states "thankfully, the European Union is legally protected from overcentralization." That makes little sense since the European Union is a uniquely centralized supranational government by definition. On page 97, Taleb somewhat contradicts himself by stating "until recent history, the central state represented about 5% of the economy compared to about 10 times that share in Modern Europe."

As an example of fiscal austerity, he mentions Sweden (pg. 131) "which responded admirably with a policy of fiscal toughness" in response to a severe recession in the early 1990s. But that is the opposite of what occurred. Sweden undertook unprecedented expansive fiscal policies associated with huge Budget deficits (12% of GDP in 1993, 9% in 1994). And, it has been praised as a model of drastic fiscal intervention to fend off major economic downturns and avoid the nearly three decade long Japanese malaise. Granted, Sweden shored up its fiscal position later much after it had mitigated its recession.

When it comes to investment strategy Taleb struggles to make an implementable recommendation. He recommends investing 90% in very safe assets such as Treasuries and 10% in highly risky assets with massive upside (convex antifragile) (pg. 161). Here, I understand he is talking of Puts on stock indices that are way out of the money. Those would become very lucrative in a market crash. However, he recognizes that such financial options are now very expensive (pg. 175). He reiterates that such options are very expensive like insurance contracts (pg. 183). Therefore, it does seem more like an insurance strategy than a viable long term investment strategy to create wealth. That's because your portfolio will lose purchasing power every single year until a market crash. Let's say if you live in California, it may be good to buy earthquake insurance to protect your home from a related disaster. But, this is not an attractive investment strategy.

This is an interesting but very uneven book. It does make you think. But, it has few pragmatic advice. If you are interested in such subjects, Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't is a far more coherent book. I also strongly recommend Richard Bookstaber's A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation. The latter describes in precise details why our financial system is so "fragile." It is a prescient book written before the financial crisis that anticipated many of the reasons why the system would crash (leverage, liquidity, regulatory, and complexity issues). Another good book that articulates why Taleb's position that all models are bad is misguided is The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable.
Comment Comments (60) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 22, 2013 10:14 AM PDT


The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't
by Nate Silver
Edition: Hardcover
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The beauty of Bayes applied to many domains, October 24, 2012
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This book is similar to Steven Levitt's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.), Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility", and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. All four books explore the intersection of data, human behavior, and outcomes. They explain how to quantify outcomes within the financial markets, professional sports or elections.

This book is especially interesting because Nate Silver has honed firsthand his statistical skills onto numerous domains including professional poker, baseball performance forecasting (he developed one of the best software program to do that), political elections (his "fivethirtyeight" blog). And, when he is not a firsthand practitioner he is a first class investigator.

The first seven chapters cover the errors and successes people have had in forecasting in various disciplines. Chapter eight is the most pedagogical, as the author explains the basics of Bayes Theorem that he considers as an overall solution to many of the errors we make in forecasting. The last five chapters focus on Bayesian thinking within various disciplines.

Nate Silver's coverage of the credit rating agencies "Catastrophic failure of prediction" (first chapter title) is excellent. In a single sentence on page 13, he captures the cause of the financial crisis: "In advance of the financial crisis, the system was so highly leveraged that a single lax assumption in the credit rating agencies played a huge role in bringing down the whole global financial system." Silver states that the AAA rated CDOs were deemed to have a default rate of only 0.12%. The actual default rate was 28% or over 200 times greater! This was because the rating agencies missed out the correlation between mortgage default rates at different locations when a nationwide home price downturn hit (see figure 1.2 on page 28. Watch out that he mislabeled column 3 and 4 from the right). Silver assesses that overall leverage was too high during the housing bubble. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had a debt-to-equity leverage of 70-to-1. Lehman Brothers and other investment banks were leveraged over 30-to-1. Borrowers had often loan-to-value ratios of 100% on their homes. The volume of credit default swaps, MBS, CDOs represented 30 to 60 times the volume of home sales during the bubble years (fig. 1.5 page 35). Nate Silver summarizes the errors made. Investors trusted the rating agencies. The rating agencies assumed home prices would never decline on a nationwide basis because they never had since the Great Depression. Lenders and borrowers believed rising home prices would bail them out through refinancing. Policymakers believed the financial system had enough capital and was self-disciplined. And, economists completely missed the ensuing severe recession.

Nate Silver focuses next on political predictions. This field of experts was so bad at predicting it motivated him to enter it by starting his fivethirtyeight blog. He documents their failings extensively. Within this chapter he refers to the theory of Philip Tetlock, professor of psychology and political science at Berkeley. Tetlock had surveyed predictions of experts in various fields. And, he categorized them within two archetypes: the hedgehogs and the foxes. The hedgehogs are dogmatic, rarely change their minds, and are very confident of their forecast. The foxes are just the opposite. They update their forecasts as often as new information warrants it. As a result, they make better forecasts.

The chapter on baseball is one of the best because of Silver's extensive firsthand experience. He uncovers many concepts applicable to many sports such as the age-curve of baseball performance (pg. 81). All sports have a predetermined age-curve. Actually, every single aspects of life including life itself have predetermined age-curves. His description of what it takes to be a successful professional baseball player (pg. 97) has also surprisingly broad applications. The conclusion of the chapter is also fascinating. It describes baseball management as a competitive arms race of intelligence gathering to extract small competitive edges. And, that those competitive edges are short-lived. That's a very interesting application of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

The chapter on economists documents how inaccurate their forecasts are. The majority can't forecast a recession that has already started as they missed out on the three most recent ones (1990, 2001, 2007). In November 2007, the average economic forecast was 2.4% real GDP growth in 2008. Instead, real GDP shrank by -3.3%. Economists assigned only a 1-in-2000 chance of the economy shrinking that much. Yet, home prices were already declining. Foreclosures had picked up. Bear Stearns had gone belly up six months ago. Those were powerful signals the housing and financial markets were on the edge of a cliff. Also, economists are way too confident. The few times you can extract confidence intervals from the economic profession they are invariably way too narrow because they underestimate the error level within their forecasts (pg. 182). Nate Silver states that: "this property of overconfident prediction has been observed also in medical research, political science, finance, and psychology" (pg. 183). Despite our having so much more data and computer power at our hands, economic forecasting has not improved since 1968. This is because our underlying understanding of cause and effects has not changed much since.

Chapter 8 introduces Bayes's Theorem. Here Nate Silver often refers to a very good book on the subject: The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne.

Chapter 9 and 10 about chess and poker are excellent. Kasparov was ultimately beaten by a computer bug. IBM Big Blue made a move late in the last game that did not make any sense (the team who programmed it confirmed it was due to a small programming bug). Kasparov who was in a vulnerable position could not figure out that move and in despair resigned the game and lost the series. The Pareto principle of prediction on page 312 and 314 and the ensuing economics of poker are really interesting. Poker winning are heavily dependent on the one worst player at a table. If he leaves, the winnings are a lot harder to reap.

Chapter 11 on the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) is excellent. Nate Silver states that the stock market is efficient most of the time, although it is never perfectly efficient (that would preclude a market). But, it can be wildly inefficient on few occasions associated with bubbles and crashes. Nate Silver demonstrates how both technical analysis and fundamental analysis do not beat the market over the long run. Fig 11.3 on page 340 shows no correlation between the performance of mutual funds over the 2002 to 2006 period vs over the 2007 to 2011 period. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Next, Silver refers to Robert Shiller in showing the market is not as efficient as the EMH entails. Shiller looked at the P/E ratio of the S&P 500 over a trailing 10 year period and looked at prospective returns. And, the longer the period contemplated the greater the negative correlation between trailing P/E levels and future average yearly returns. This suggests that the market can get overvalued. But, the return correction is not apparent until looking at average return over a 10 to 20 year period. Next, Nate Silver refers to the works of Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman in behavioral economics to outline how market traders are not perfectly rational. They suffer from herd mentality, overconfidence, and being overly emotional rendering their trading pro-cyclical.

So, if the market is not so efficient, can you beat it? Probably not. On page 345, Nate Silver demonstrates how a hypothetical investor with perfect timing over a decade (1976-1986) would get killed by very small transaction costs. Even though this investor would handily beat the stock market before transaction costs, he would wipe out most of his capital after transaction costs. Silver next tests a prudent investment strategy over the 1970 to 2009 period. He assumes an investor is prudent and sells his position in the S&P 500 index whenever it had declined 25% from its peak and reinvests whenever it recovered 90% of its value. Such an investor would have earned only 2.6% per year vs close to 10% for a simple buy-and-hold strategy. Nate Silver does believe several hedge funds can beat the market. But, they have intellectual and technological resources that no retail investor and few mutual funds can match.

Chapter 12 on climate change is really interesting. He differentiates between where scientists agree and disagree. They all agree that the greenhouse effect exists and keeps the Earth warmer than it would otherwise be; that temperatures have risen over the past century; that greenhouse gases have contributed to that trend; and that water vapor is by far the most potent greenhouse gas (not CO2 as the Media conveys). The majority of scientists agree that rising CO2 concentration does contribute to rising temperature. But, there is a debate regarding how much. Where the scientific community is more divergent is regarding climate models and projections. They acknowledge that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth deterministic apocalyptic message was way off base.

Nate Silver explains why there is much uncertainty regarding climate models' projections. One uncertainty is figuring out CO2 levels 100 years down the road. Another uncertainty is getting the causal relationships right (there is a lot more than CO2 at play). Another uncertainty concerns whether those models are programmed correctly. Within the vast quantities of computer codes, are there a few bugs that contribute to generating erroneous forecasts? Nate Silver reviews the prediction of the IPCC's 1990 model and observes that temperatures have not risen as fast as the model predicted. Current temperatures are below the model's 95% confidence interval. This lead the IPCC to reduce their baseline temperature increase from 3 degree Celsius per century in 1990 to 1.8 degree in 1995. On page 407, Silver comes up with an interesting application of Bayes theorem applied to rising temperature predictions.

The last chapter on terrorism is intriguing. Terrorist attacks follow a similar Power Law as earthquakes. The frequency of events declines exponentially with increase in intensity. More violent events are much rarer than lesser ones. But, the few major events dominate the data in human casualties. For instance, 9/11 represented more than half of the total fatalities from terror attacks in NATO countries since 1979. Thus, it is worth exploring means of mitigating the impact of such events.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 5, 2012 8:20 AM PST


Paying the Price: Ending the Great Recession and Beginning a New American Century
Paying the Price: Ending the Great Recession and Beginning a New American Century
by Mark M. Zandi
Edition: Hardcover
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique insights packed in a great short book, October 4, 2012
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Mark Zandi is not your usual economist. He is the founder of the best macroeconomics modeling and consulting business (Moody's Analytics). He is able to simulate the behavior of the overall economy as well as anyone else. Zandi has contributed to the formulating and testing of many of the Government policies undertaken during this recent financial crisis. He has sat across the table from many key policymakers. Given his unique background Zandi gives us an insider look at the recent financial crisis and its aftermath.

In summary, Zandi indicates that the US went through a historically wrenching economic shock. And, if not for a very successful combination of expansive fiscal and monetary policies the Great Recession would have turned into the Great Depression II. Also, he indicates that currently the US is rebuilding a very strong economic foundation. The severe deleveraging has nearly run its course. American companies are as financially strong and competitive as ever. Commercial banks are now very well capitalized.

The Great Recession was a historical event given its magnitude and worldwide impact. As Zandi outlines on page 151, financial losses related to the housing and financial crisis totaled $2.6 trillion in the US alone. Half that amount was suffered by banks. And, half of those overall losses were caused by drop in homes values related to defaults on residential mortgages. But, the financial system also incurred huge losses in consumer credit, commercial real estate, and corporate credits. Those accounted for the other half of the $2.6 trillion in losses.

By the Fall of 2008, the housing market was cratering and taking down the financial system and the economy.

Zandi mentions that at first Government policy responses were poor. In September 2008 the Government took over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae which immediately wiped out shareholders. By now, investors are fleeing for the exit which in turn caused Lehman Brothers to suffer a liquidity squeeze as no one wanted to roll over its short term debt. The Federal Reserve refused to extend credit to Lehman. And, the latter had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. In doing so, both stockholders and bondholders were wiped out. By now, the credit markets were frozen. The spread between LIBOR and US Treasuries jumped by 400 basis points as banks did not even trust lending to each other overnight let alone lend to anyone else. That's a death knell for the economy at large. Zandi states that the Government takeover of Fannie and Freddie (F & F) was the trigger for this chain of event. The Government instead should have temporarily guaranteed F & F debt and injected a minority equity position so they remained solvent. The Fed should have extended credit to Lehman to maintain liquidity throughout the capital markets.

To their credit, policymakers self-corrected and responded well to the ensuing crisis. They learned from the Lehman debacle. Within just a few weeks in late 2008 the FDIC merged Merrill Lynch into Bank of America, Washington Mutual into JP Morgan, and Wachovia into Wells Fargo at no cost to the taxpayer. On the second try Congress passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), as the stock market tanked when they failed to pass it the first time. And, TARP will turn out to be the most successful fiscal bail out of all time. As Zandi itemizes it on pg. 38, the $700 billion TARP ultimately cost taxpayers only $57 billion, only 8% of its original commitment. This is in good part due to earning a $27 billion profit on the $250 billion stake the Government temporarily invested in the banks. The banks repaid the $250 billion within months. And, the Government made the $27 billion profit on the resale of warrants they acquired as part of their investment in the banks. Also, the combination of TARP and the new Stress Testing regulation for banks successfully shored up the banking system. Europe in 2010 tried to follow similar policies but failed. The European bank stress tests were not credible as banks readily failed right after being certified by the stress tests. Also, those tests were opaque and not disclosed contrary to the far greater transparency of the US ones. At the same time, the Federal Reserve and the FDIC temporarily pretty much guaranteed the debt from all banks, financial institutions, money market funds, and commercial paper. The Federal Reserve also brought the Fed Funds rate down to close to 0% and purchased large quantities of Treasuries to bring down long term interest rates and mortgage backed securities (MBS) to replace the securitization market for MBS that had shut down and shore up housing finance to put a floor on the housing market.

In just a few months in late 2008 to early 2009, US policymakers achieved more than their European counterparts over the past four years. This is due to two reasons:

The first one is competence. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is the number one contemporary expert on the Great Depression and all the related policy failures that pretty much caused it, including tight fiscal and monetary policies to shore up the US trade balance to maintain the Gold Standard in place at the time. Thus, Zandi states the US could not have had a better leader to guide us through the crisis. Meanwhile, Europe is lead by German's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is imposing fiscal austerity on the countries within the Euro Zone that are already experiencing Great Depressions of their own with unemployment rates above 20% (Greece, Spain).

The second one is sovereignty. The US has full control of its own fiscal and monetary policies. Meanwhile, the member countries of the Euro Zone do not. And, their economic fate is more often in the hands of Mrs. Merkel.

The large $1.4 trillion fiscal stimuli implemented over several years were successful. About 57% of it came from Government spending and 43% from tax cuts. Zandi (pg. 103 & 104) assessed that the economic multipliers associated with the spending initiatives (ranging from 1.3 to 1.7) were far higher than for the permanent tax cuts (0.3 to 0.5) and also higher than for temporary tax cuts (0.8 to 1.4). Thus, it was a good thing the fiscal package was more tilted towards Government spending. Zandi leaning on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office states that the unemployment rate would be several percentage points higher and GDP growth very likely chronically negative if not for those fiscal interventions (pg. 110).

The Federal Reserve expansion of its balance sheet is routinely criticized. People fear it will ignite inflation. They are concerned about its "monetizing the debt" by purchasing Treasuries from the US Government. However, Zandi explains that monetizing the debt is no concern when the economy is experiencing high unemployment and excess industrial capacity. Also, the Federal Reserve balance sheet is only replacing the securitization market that has nearly evaporated since the onset of the crisis in 2008. Eventually, when the securitization market recovers the Fed will shrink back its balance sheet with no impact on overall liquidity throughout the financial system. Also, the Fed's balance sheet relative to GDP is actually far smaller than its counterparts in Japan and Europe (pg 61).

In the last chapter, Zandi shares why the US is in far better shape than we think. First, households have markedly reduced their debt service burden since 2008 (figure 9.4 pg. 204). Meanwhile, commercial banks capital cushion is stronger than ever at nearly 10% of assets (fig. 9.5 pg. 205). Additionally, US corporations are in very strong financial shape as they have markedly reduced their leverage, improved their cash flow, and reduced their exposure to short term debt (fig. 9.6 pg. 207). Also, US productivity has accelerated since 2008. US unit labor costs have decreased since 2000 (fig 10.4 pg 237). As a result, US companies are increasingly competitive in the international arena. Over the same period, European unit labor costs have skyrocketed upward. The US trend in this regard is even far superior than Germany, the European export powerhouse (fig 8.8 pg. 191). Zandi even indicates that if the US sticks with current laws, it could well regain control of its fiscal house as he anticipates the US Debt/GDP ratio would decline from 75% currently to under 60% by 2025 (fig. 10.2 pg 226).


Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind
Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind
by Richard Whitmire
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding prequel to "The End of Men", September 20, 2012
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I recently read Hanna Rosin excellent book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. She uncovers how young women are thriving in college and grad schools as they account for nearly 60% of college students and earn an equal share of college and graduate degrees in most disciplines. This 60%/40% ratio in earning university degrees is causing young women to dominate the ranks of young professionals and managers everywhere.

Times have changed. Unionized blue collar middle class manufacturing jobs for the uneducated have been replaced by information based service jobs requiring a much higher level of education and people skill. College has become the new high school as a path to the middle class. Far more women are following that path than men.

While Rosin focused on the divergence between men and women's fate starting with the 60%/40% in college, Whitmire explains how that radical divergence emerged over time due to strong causal gender differences since day 1 of kindergarten.

Girls have more developed linguistic skills than boys at an earlier age. Young girls have 11% more neurons devoted to language. Brain scans show girls language areas at three and a half year old being as developed as boys' five year old. Until recently this huge development gap did not matter. This is because the early grades learning curve was slow enough that everybody over time would catch up. It also did not matter because one could do just fine with just a high school degree. But, those days are long gone.

In 1989 the k-12 educational environment accelerated the learning curve. Schools curricula were upgraded to follow a rigorous college preparation track. The demand on linguistic skills have become far more stressful at an early age. In this more demanding environment, girls with earlier linguistic capacity have fared just fine. Meanwhile, boys have been lost with no way to catch up. Yet, Joseph Torgensen, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research, has calculated that any child who is just five months behind at the end of first grade has only a 20% probability of ever catching up to grade level. And, the majority of these laggards are boys for the mentioned neurological reasons. When the school curriculum was overhauled, the education establishment gave no thought to the huge gender gap in early linguistic skill. Now, this gender gap has translated into the 60%/40% ratio through all levels of academia and professions.

Boys experience a crisis in 9th grade as they come out of k-8 unprepared for high school. They fail in their freshman year and are not ready to take the national standard tests in 10th grade. So, schools hold them back in 9th grade. This is called the "9th grade bulge." And, the second time around demoralized they don't fare any better. In most States, they have also reached the age limit of mandatory schooling. And, they drop out of high school. Judith Kleinfeld from the University of Alaska, studying national data, has figured out that students entering 9th grade reading significantly below grade level are 20 times more likely to drop out. This 9th grade bulge explains not only boys higher high school drop out rate but everything else that follows including lower college attendance, lower college graduation rate, and lesser participation in the professions.

Whitmire has conducted extensive research for years interviewing tens if not hundreds of social scientists, education experts, school principals, and teachers. He has traveled to Canada, Europe, Australia to study this gender gap worldwide (apparently young girls and boys brains are neurologically wired pretty much the same everywhere). And, among all those experts one stands out: Judith Kleinfeld, a social scientist at the University of Alaska who has studied this problem for decades. Whitmire information dense appendix titled "The Facts about Boys" is entirely sourced from one of Kleinfeld's excellent paper "The State of American Boyhood" that looks at the 60/40 phenomenon from every angle through k-12 and beyond. Kleinfeld wrote another relevant paper titled: "No Map to Manhood." This paper indicates that young men are far more immature, unrealistic, and genuinely clueless about the realities of our information intensive labor markets. Meanwhile, young women know very much what they want, plan for it, and get it. Both papers make for excellent supplemental reading to this book.

Whitmire's analysis of the problem is so crystal clear and concrete (the early linguistic gap leading to lifelong gender gap everywhere). Many countries are fully aware of it and have acted upon developing solutions at the national levels. Those countries include the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand among others. Some of those countries have researched this issue for over a decade. Many schools overseas and a few in the US have found how to remedy this gap. It consists in far more rigorous training in phonics at an early age, continuous coaching in linguistic skills through the later grades, and uncompromising discipline regarding homework submission.

The US is way behind on this issue as it has completely ignored it at the federal level. Why is that? It is in part due to political correctness gone mad. Somehow, it is perfectly OK to study and recognize that minorities and low income populations need assistance to achieve adequate literacy. But, it is not to figure out the same on a gender basis and realize that boys need assistance too. Whitmire indicates that the gender gap is getting as big as the racial one. A few social scientists using national grants and backing from the Department of Education have tried researching this issue only to see their project torpedoed in midstream as deemed too controversial. Any research has been privately funded by foundations, universities, and think tanks. And, so far they have had no influence whatsoever on federal government policy. Whenever the gender gap issue is raised at the national level, the Government readily bifurcates it into a race and income issue or a sense that we should do something for girls too.

Whitmire has demonstrated abundantly that the gender gap is not a race and income issue. The gender gap is nearly as pronounced in all white high-income neighborhoods. It is as pronounced throughout Scandinavia and many countries with homogenous populations.

The US Government's mindset is stuck fighting the last war. Back in the 1980s, the concern was how girls were far behind boys in math and science. However, so much progress has been made that this math/science gap has pretty much disappeared. Meanwhile, the huge and rising literacy skills gap is completely ignored. The Government is focused on the wrong gap that is twenty years out-of-date. Whitmire indicates the gap will take decades to fix. But, that's assuming we recognize it.

The way universities have dealt with this crisis has been by conducting a stealthy affirmative action favoring boys. Whitmire has documented that several schools (that took the risk of divulging this information) accept boys 12 or more percentiles higher than girls in an effort to get closer to a 50/50 ratio. Let's say a selective school overall acceptance rate is 40%. Then, the corresponding acceptance rate for girls would be 34% (34th percentile) and for boys it would be 46% (46th percentile or 12 percentiles above the girls). That is a huge difference! This probably corresponds to boys being accepted with average GPAs a quarter to half a point lower and SAT scores potentially a 100 points or more lower than girls. Whitmire, out of near despair, in an Op-Ed piece recommended that this stealthy affirmative action be continued until our k-12 education system is upgraded to reduce this gender gap. His two daughters, two successful college students, assertively took the other side on the Op-Ed page. I am sure the Whitmire family has had pretty animated dinner conversations on the subject as one can see both sides of the argument. One thing for sure is that this stealthy affirmative action is no more than a band-aid solution. Whitmire knows it and makes numerous more serious solutions (the usual stuff done by the few successful schools mentioned earlier).


John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes
by Hyman P. Minsky
Edition: Paperback
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Really cryptic and confusing, August 30, 2012
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This review is from: John Maynard Keynes (Paperback)
Minsky covers a couple of disjointed topics in the most confusing way. The first one is how everyone so far got Keynes wrong. He covers that in the first couple of chapters. In doing so, Minsky criticizes a bunch of neo Keynesian models developed by eminent economists that invariably miss out on one or more of Keynes' key concepts. Some of those include: 1) the concept of uncertainty associated with any complex economic systems that renders quantitative models futile; 2) the volatility of capital investments that by its nature leads to unstable and less than full employment; 3) wage rigidity is not the sole problem underlying excessive unemployment. If wages were elastic, it would eventually exacerbate unemployment levels even more; and 4) a capitalist economy within an uncertain time vector left to its own resort is by its nature unstable and transits in unpredictable ways from one state to another (expantion, boom, crisis, depression, stagnation, recovery etc...).

The second topic covered through most of the remainder of the book consists in the correct interpretation of Keynes according to Minsky and the integration of Minsky's own theory of crisis within Keynes' framework. Minsky attempts to do both simultaneously. And, he generates a rather awkward narrative. Minsky acknowledges numerous times that Keynes did not advance a logical model of bubbles and crises. He also adds that Keynes ignored the dynamics of the debt side of the balance sheet of households, companies, banks, and governments. And, that's where Minsky's own brilliant theory comes in. And, that is why he is one of the most praised economists in this post-housing crisis era.

However, Minsky contradicts himself. If Keynes ignored the dynamics of debt and its impact on bubble and crisis, how could Keynes be interpreted so as to include those concepts he so explicitly missed? Yet, that is what Minsky is attempting to persuade the reader off. In other words, he suggests that Keynes and him are essentially one. If you had correctly interpreted Keynes you would have also deducted Minsky's crisis theory as part of the original Keynes foundation. That's a very bizarre leap.

It remains unclear what Minsky truly added to Irving Fisher's The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions written three decades before Minsky's first work on the topic. Minsky is a brilliant economist on certain counts. But, I find him a very ineffective writer (if this book is representative) especially relative to Irving Fisher.

If you want to understand Minsky, instead of reading his own writings, I recommend the far clearer book written by Charles Kindleberger Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises (Wiley Investment Classics). Minsky's basic concept is that the credit cycle exacerbates the business cycle because lenders lend excessively when collateral values go up and don't lend enough when they go down. Lending and asset values (collateral) create a positive feedback loop causing both asset bubbles and crashes. Although, this is a pretty straighforward concept (and a brilliant insight) Minsky is hardly able to articulate it clearly. Fortunately, Kindleberger does an excellent job of it on his behalf. It is almost like Minsky is a brilliant scientist who writes in a foreign language, he only knows. And, Kindleberger is the brilliant translator who can make sense of it all and clearly explain it to the rest of us.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2014 10:09 AM PST


The End of Men: And the Rise of Women
The End of Men: And the Rise of Women
by Hanna Rosin
Edition: Hardcover
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8 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Combining 'Womenomics' with 'Coming Apart', August 14, 2012
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This great book connects two other great books: by Claire Shipman, Katty Kay: Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success and Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. `Womenomics' explains how women have more economic power within labor markets. Thus, women are reshaping work force practices (much more flexibility). `Coming Apart' is about the underlying cause of the rising inequality within our society: the job marketplace becoming increasingly selective. Murray contrasts the fate of the college educated successful citizens who live in `Belmont' vs the blue collar ones who live in `Fishtown.' The social outcomes within the two hypothetical towns are divergent. Belmont is increasingly educated, wealthier, competent, gainfully employed, happily married, and engaged in society. Meanwhile, the citizens of Fishtown are increasingly marginalized, unemployed, divorced, jailed, and dependent on government hand outs.

Within "The End of Men," if you replace Murray's Fishtown vs Belmont by Men vs Women you get the picture (men are in nearly as dire a situation as Fishtown; meanwhile, women are increasingly thriving as the citizens of Belmont). And, the driver is the rise of Womenomics (increasingly educated and competent women).

The underlying causes of women thriving and men receding are the same ones Murray uncovered in `Coming Apart.' It started with the slow demise of middle class unionized male blue collar manufacturing jobs since the 1960s. The males who were earmarked for those (not college bound) have lost their footing in our modern service driven economy. You have a slice of the former blue collar middle class that has fallen into a near permanent under class. The shift from manufacturing to services has coincided with the rise in women's labor participation and wages. Meanwhile, men's labor participation has declined and their wages have stagnated. Additionally, the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution have given women control over their bodies (contraception) and more opportunities in college, grad schools, and the job marketplace.

Rosin shares an abundance of data to capture the relevant trends. I did confirm her data findings firsthand (I share them within the comment section of this review). If you focus on the young (age 34 or younger) women dominate academia at all levels. The gender mix at public colleges is now approaching 60%/40% in favor of women. Their percentage of college graduates now far surpasses men. Between 1970 and 2008, the % of white men 25 - 34 year olds with college degrees rose from 20% to 26%. But, women's percentage rose from 12% to 34%. Women now earn 60% of the Master's degrees, including half of the JD and MD degrees. And, they now also earn the majority of PhDs. In the vast majority of urban centers young women now earn more than men.

The disparity between men and women economic gains will widen. Out of the 15 job sectors that will generate the most jobs over the next decade, women dominate 12 of them (all within the service sectors, including health care and education).

The "End of Men" is an international phenomenon. The rise and emerging economic dominance of women in academia and the job market is as prevalent in a good part of Europe and Asia. Globally, at least in the OECD countries women have had increasing access to education and jobs at all levels.

The rise of women's economic power has had destabilizing social effects. Within the US former blue collar middle class, it has translated into high divorce rate, low marriage rate, as women have gained training and education at community colleges while men have not. As a result, women are less inclined to marry as they do not want to feed an extra mouth (young unemployed men). Among the college educated, trends are more positive. Marriage rates are holding up. But, many women now marry equals or often marry down. In Asian countries, this trend has translated into a progressive drop in marriage rate and birth rate as women do not want to jeopardize their career opportunities for traditional household wives roles. This is contributing to their societies aging with the associated severe fiscal implications (a declining number of workers to support a rising number of elders).

Rosin refers to many interesting studies demonstrating how women are good for corporate performance. One study confirmed that women made for better investors and risk managers because they are less overconfident, more deliberate and cautious. Other studies demonstrated that corporations with greater women representation among senior managers had better operating performance and stock returns. I did read some of those studies, and they were very interesting.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 14, 2012 10:44 PM PDT


Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects to Start Blogging Like a Pro (2nd Edition)
Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects to Start Blogging Like a Pro (2nd Edition)
by Tris Hussey
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.15
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great guide, August 1, 2012
This is among the few manuals I have read through nearly page to page. And, I don't even plan to write a blog. That's even though people have asked me through the years to write a blog for various reasons. After studying this issue in much detail, I decided that starting my own blog was not a productive use of my time or that helpful for my readers. Yet, writing a blog can be an incredibly fun, productive, and lucrative endeavors for many people. I know off people who have succeeded doing exactly that (the author is certainly one of them). And, I know many who have tremendously strengthen their business marketing and professional credibility by maintaining a blog or a website.

I found Hussey's book hooky because I wanted to better understand the world of blogging. The first chapter on the history of blogging gives you a great chronological overview of this rapidly changing field. Previously, I was not perfectly clear on the difference between a blog and a website. Now I know a blog's main purpose is for one to make daily posts; a website is a store of information about a specific subject or company etc... By the way, Hussey teaches you both how to develop a blog and a website using Wordpress. And, it appears for the most part between extremely simple to readily doable. I also thought Google Blogger was the best blogging engine (it is not. Wordpress is). I also had no idea about web hosting, domain, and other technical aspects. I also was unclear on the economics of blogging including its costs, and its potential income. I was unaware of all the related information gathering tools that bloggers use that seems very useful whether you are a blogger or not (Evernote, Instapaper, Delicious, etc...). Hussey's book educated me a whole lot on all the above.

I strongly recommend this book whether you are considering starting a blog, you are already blogging, or like me if you just want to better understand what the world of blogging is about.

Hussey is eminently qualified to write this book. He is a true techie with much expertise in science, technology, and computers. He learned HTML and developed websites going back to 1995. He started blogging in 2004, and quickly became a very successful professional blogger. Hussey writes in clear plain English that all of us can understand without a degree in computer programming.

The book is very well organized with a coherent table of content, detailed index, and many text boxes highlighting key concepts and tricks to facilitate your blogging experience. Hussey offers an abundance of technical tricks to get you started blogging. He also shares plenty of qualitative advice regarding writing effectively within the blogging world. This is a different style of writing for most of us.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 6, 2012 12:14 PM PST


Maynard's Revenge: The Collapse of Free Market Macroeconomics
Maynard's Revenge: The Collapse of Free Market Macroeconomics
by Lance Taylor
Edition: Hardcover
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Maynard's Phyrric Revenge, July 19, 2012
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Be warned this book is challenging. If you do not have a graduate degree in economics, you will probably not enjoy it. Lance Taylor covers tens of different macroeconomics models unknown outside of professional circles. The differences between some of those models are often obtuse.

Lance Taylor's main arguments are that Keynes is enjoying a revival during our post financial crisis because his theories were right all along on several counts. Those include that the future is truly uncertain and you can't forecast it using historical data. This renders the valuation of stocks, derivatives, CDOs, and CDS and most everything else a dangerous and mindless exercise. Keynes also advanced that asset prices are totally different and can diverge widely from the prices of goods and services. Also, he refuted Say's Law by advancing that Output is determined by aggregate demand instead of aggregate supply. Because of that an economy's equilibrium can converge towards a level of low employment. This calls for Keynes government intervention on both the fiscal and monetary front to shore up an economy undergoing a recession. Thus, according to Lance Taylor had we listened more closely to Keynes we would have avoided the most recent financial crisis.

Yet, one can take issue with Taylor's position on several counts.

First, Keynes is in no need for revenge. Philosophically, he has dominated government policies nearly ever since the Great Depression. Indeed, the US Government among others has steadily implemented a pretty proactive Keynesian fiscal policy. Similarly, the Federal Reserve has (post Great Depression) for the most part conducted a rather expansive monetary policy as Keynes recommended (this is except for the Volcker years from 1979 - 1986, when he was fighting off double digit inflation). It is only in the halls of the University of Chicago that Milton Friedman and his followers were screaming against Keynes policies. But, the US Government never took monetarists seriously.

Second, Keynes was an active proponent of very expansive monetary policies associated with very low interest rates to support investment and aggregate demand. Yet, Lance Taylor in a contradictory fashion argues that Greenspan caused both the dot.com and the housing bubbles by maintaining excessively low rates. If this was the case it would have been a very Keynesian monetary style. A closer look at Greenspan's monetary policy rate setting suggests this was not the case. During the second half of the 90s when hi-tech stocks bubbled, the Fed Funds rate was steadily at 5% or above. Greenspan lowered the Fed Funds rate only after repeated shocks at the turn of the Millennium including Y2K, 9/11, a wrenching three year stock market crash (dot.com bubble burst), and an ongoing stagnant to recessionary economy. The economy was barely out of a slump when in early 2004, Greenspan increased FF from 1% to 5% in just two years to deflate the housing bubble. If Keynes had managed the Federal Reserve during the same years as Greenspan it is likely his monetary policy would have been more expansive than Greenspan's.

Leveraging Keynes wisdom Taylor states that all of modern theory is nothing but a castle of cards. It is all bunk including the Efficient Market Hypothesis, Black Scholes, and CAPM. This is due to several reasons. The main one is that per Keynes the future is truly uncertain and can't be modeled using any historical time series. Additionally, all those models rely on the Normal distribution that underestimates the frequencies of rare events. And, those models do not conform to the empirical data.

However, Taylor's case is not ironclad. First, it is unclear whether Keynes truly stated that the future was so uncertain. Michael Emmett Brady, a PhD in economics, states in his review that Lance Taylor did not read Keynes A Treatise On Probability - Unabridged and instead relied on Paul Davidson's erroneous interpretation of this book where he defines Keynes uncertainty as truly unknowable (not captured by any statistical distribution). But, Brady who studied "A Treatise" states that Keynes did not think uncertainty was unknowable (nonergodic). And, instead he argued certain macroeconomic variables could be captured by statistical distributions (ergodic) other than the Normal distribution not to underestimate the frequency of rare events. Paul Samuelson takes the same position as Brady. So, there are very smart people on either side of this issue. Is Keynes uncertainty ergodic or not? Related to this issue, Keynes developed his concept of uncertainty in the 1920s and 1930s at the time when little data existed. He actually created much of the intellectual architecture of modern macroeconomics data (Flow of Funds, NIPA table, chart of accounts). So, things looked very uncertain when Keynes did not have any reliable historical time series to work with. Today, the abundance of historical data may very well have motivated Keynes to redefine his concept of uncertainty in less ambiguous and more ergodic ways.

When Taylor dismantles the whole body of modern finance, reality is more nuanced than he conveys. Traders still rely extensively on Black Scholes or Cox-Ross-Rubinstein models to value options. They simply increase the standard deviation when valuing options in the tail. Others fatten the tail by layering Jump Diffusion models or Extreme Value Theory models. In other words, modern finance theory established a foundation that is still useful and is getting refined with means to more fully capture the intrinsic risk of complex financial instruments. Throwing the entire body of finance theory is a bit like stating Newton's law of gravity is obsolete because of Einstein's theory of relativity.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 30, 2012 9:58 AM PDT


The Crisis of the European Union: A Response
The Crisis of the European Union: A Response
by Jurgen Habermans
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.56
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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Philosophizing about the Euro crisis will not resolve it, July 4, 2012
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Jurgen Habermas is a professor of philosophy with little understanding of economics, fiscal crisis, and currency crisis. He can write 30 pages about human dignity and human rights that have little to do with the Euro Debt crisis or the Euro crisis in general. In a recent visit to America (disclosed on page 105), his perception appears more dated than Tocqueville: "The privatization of social security and health care, of public transport, of large sectors in school and university education..." Those comments are completely out of touch. Almost four years into the Obama Administration, the US has veered far away from any such privatization concepts. If he is so off on the US, can his judgment be trusted on any other matters such as Europe and German politics.

If you are seeking an understanding of the current Euro Debt Crisis or the Euro crisis in general, you will not get much from this book.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 5, 2012 8:29 PM PDT


The new iPad Portable Genius
The new iPad Portable Genius
by Paul McFedries
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.87
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5.0 out of 5 stars A very practical reference, July 4, 2012
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This is a well written reference manual for getting the most out of your new IPad. The book is very well structured with a thorough table of content, a detailed index, and a good trouble shooting section. The information is conveyed in a visual format. So, when you undertake special operations on your IPad the book shows you exactly how the screen is supposed to look like. This makes following the book's instruction really easy.


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