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The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
by Atul Gawande
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.35
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The case for the checklist, January 9, 2010
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What makes this little book persuasive is that Atul Gawande remains a skeptic for his manifesto: "I know it sounds silly. I've been there," he seems to say; "but I saw this applied and I tried it myself and it works." This is for the best - otherwise, the book would have been preachy and likely a flop. Instead, it comes across as a powerful case for the checklist, a practice whose adoption, while slow and often troubled, seems to bring extraordinary results.

Mr. Gawande's point of departure is medicine - he is a surgeon - but his cases and examples come from aviation, construction, and finance. Combined, they show checklists, which ensure basic questions are asked before or during a task, yield a significant improvement in outcomes: Flights stay in the air or land safely, buildings stay erect, investments are sounder, and patients live.

The case for the checklist ultimately comes from its results, but Mr. Gawande makes more than an "it works" argument for it. Tasks are increasingly complex while professionals are fallible - it is no shame to admit that in tough situations, people can cut corners or get so overwhelmed they forget to perform basic tasks or ask basic questions. Professionalism without discipline is no good, Mr. Gawande, seems to say - or at, can be much better with discipline. This short book makes a powerful case why this is so.

This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
by Kenneth S. Rogoff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.00
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crises, Past, Present, Future, December 26, 2009
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It is hard to over-praise "This Time is Different" by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. Sweeping, factual and accessible, this book will complement, if not replace, Kindleberger's "Manias, Panics, and Crashes" as the first stop to understanding financial crises. You have to like reading tables and charts to appreciate this book, although its ability to say so much with simple descriptive statistics is enormously appealing.

"This Time is Different" explores many themes: the pervasiveness of financial crises, including among countries which we do not normally associate with crisis. Development and crisis have never been as closely linked as in this reading. Banking crises are omnipresent in advanced and emerging economies alike and have been so for years. There are striking similarities in the build-up to a crisis, whether in emerging or advanced economies: increased public and private debt and asset bubbles in equity or real estate. And the clean-up costs are universally high, not only in direct costs but also in increased assumed liabilities by the state.

The book will have an ever greater impact in at least three ways. First, it is pregnant with ideas. One can see dozens of doctoral theses emerging to complete or revise the data in the book, to test and re-test its hypotheses, and to provide answers to the many puzzles raised therein. From personal finance to sovereign risk rating, from economics to political economy and international relations, this book is full of threads to pull and nuggets to mull over.

Second, the book's direct and continuous assault on the paucity of data on several vital economic indicators is refreshing to those who have spent any time tracking data that is impossible to find. If any effort to get better data springs from this book, driven by governments or intentional organizations, the debts we will owe the authors will be enormous.

Finally, there is the "This Time is Different" lens. At first, I thought it a clever attempt to give the book an angle, which it does. But as you read the book, you sense something more: it is an argument that when things look like they are out of control, they usually are - even when there is no one on earth who can say when the bust will come or what will trigger it. If during the next run-up to a crisis, there are policymakers who say we need to act even though things looks good, this book of 460-odd pages may save us all billions if not trillions of dollars. And how can you beat that?

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth
The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth
by Benjamin M. Friedman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.46
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Growth is more than just growth, December 20, 2009
Reading Benjamin Friedman's "Moral Consequences of Economic Growth" brings up a sense of unease, the unease of reading a thesis that is at once original and commonplace. The thesis is this: "Economic growth - meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens - more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy." This is hardly surprising to a reader of economic history - and it is a thesis that sits well with experience: bad times can bring the bad in people while good times can bring out the good (very bad times, it should be noted, may bring out the good too). Even so, there is something about how Mr. Friedman, an economics professor at Harvard, brings it all together which keeps the thesis original and makes the book particularly interesting and insightful by showing that economic growth makes a society more moral.

The book comes in three parts, each building a separate part of the thesis (a fourth section makes recommendations for American economic policy). First comes an intellectual history of economic growth and the ambivalence with which Western thinking has treated it. There is no particular novelty here, but the synthesis of thought is thorough and interesting and does justice to the variety and complexity of Western thinking regarding growth. Then comes an economic history of the United States, Britain, France and Germany, which shows that when economies grow, politics become more liberal, and that conversely, when economies stagnate, politics become illiberal and xenophobic. Mr. Friedman's readiness to accept that certain historical incidents do not fit the thesis only adds to the overall argument. Alone, this section - heavily weighted towards American history - can justify the purchase of the book. It is hard to find a politico-economic history of these countries covered in such detail in such short space.

The third part is an attempt to extend the thesis to the developing world. Here, Mr. Friedman surveys the link between economic growth and political freedom, touching on issues such as growth and political development, growth and the environment, and growth and equality. Those well read in the economics of globalization will have come across these points before, although Mr. Friedman's synthesis is sufficient to engage the knowledgeable reader. If there is one weakness, it is the overlooking of both the disruptiveness that economic development can have on political development (an issue that Mr. Friedman acknowledges but does not develop) as well as the complex linkages between economic development and political freedom. Two graphs linking freedom to per capita income and economic growth reveal a lot except an obvious link between the two, and having spent more time on these issues could have done plenty to strengthen the argument.

Fixing Global Finance (Forum on Constructive Capitalism)
Fixing Global Finance (Forum on Constructive Capitalism)
by Martin Wolf
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.12
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The `global imbalances' theory of the crisis, January 18, 2009
There are three views on how the global economy got into its current mess, and Martin Wolf is a passionate advocate of one of them. One theory is that the crisis was made in New York, born of arrogant efforts to eliminate risk, of reckless lending practices, and of regulators who thought nothing of curbing excess. A second crowd blames the crisis on Washington: the Fed's monetary policy was loose, cash was plentiful, and credit was cheap. Either inflation or an asset bubble was inevitable, and the subsequent correction was bound to come and be painful.

The third view - the one Mr. Wolf subscribes to - puts the onus on global imbalances: credit was plentiful not because the Fed made it so, but because savings in Asia, the oil exporting countries and some European states outstripped investment, pushing down global interest rates. These countries ran persistent trade surpluses to accumulate foreign reserves and insulate themselves against financial crises, which were recurrent and costly in the 1980s and 1990s. Surpluses were also the corollary of "export-led" growth, relying on exports rather than domestic demand as the path to development.

In that system, the United States emerged as the borrower and spender of last resort, absorbing the world's excess savings. To have done otherwise would have requires either an adjustment in policies abroad (including more domestic spending) or a recession at home: "in this world, the tail wags the dog of US macroeconomic policy" Mr. Wolf says; "The United States is at least as much the victim of decisions made by others as the author of its own misfortunes."

Mr. Wolf, whose book on globalization is one of the most readable and eloquent on the topic, is at his best when weaving together the latest thinking on his subject. His book, after all, builds on the "savings glut" argument by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. But Mr. Wolf's can create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. His language is often technical and his thoroughness in dealing with alternative views can dissuade the general reader. But he never loses sight of the broader argument, and his usage of simple numbers makes the argument easy to follow. Once again, Mr. Wolf has written a book against which others will be measured and tested.

Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia
Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia
by Rachel Bronson
Edition: Hardcover
51 used & new from $0.26

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The non-oil connection, June 4, 2006
Reducing bilateral relations between America and Saudi Arabia to oil alone is a mistake, argues Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East and Gulf Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, in this provocative book. Contrasted with recent titles on US-Saudi relations, her target is not the malevolence of the House of Saud or the supposed infesting character of America's alliance with the sentry of the Muslim faith; instead, Ms. Bronson asks: how could two countries as different as America and Saudi Arabia forge such a close alliance for so long?

Two parts form the answer: the first is that the alliance has not been airtight, much less free from squabble. Over the years, America and Saudi Arabia have clashed repeatedly, not least over America's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms. Bronson's thorough research elucidates the ups and downs of America's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, clarifying times when America's leaders have wanted closer ties with the kingdom and others when distance was warranted. Dispelling the myth that America and Saudi Arabia have always been close, Ms. Bronson pulls together the different strands of the story and highlights the conditions under which the two states have been attracted to one another.

From the close examination of history comes the second part to the answer: that the alliance was always about more than oil. Anti-communism and real-estate were equally important factors that brought the two countries together. America's anti-Soviet agenda found an natural partner in a devout country that was awash with money; time and again, America would turn to Saudi Arabia to finance anti-communist struggles the world over. The Saudis often obliged, for their own anti-communist reasons. Saudi Arabia's attractive location also led policy makers as early as World War II to pronounce the fruits of partnership with the kingdom.

From this tripod--"oil, gold and real estate"--a strong alliance emerged, one that went awry after September 11. For many Americans, this is not an alliance worth saving; Ms. Bronson disagrees. By bringing to light the history of bilateral ties, she illuminates both why this alliance could prove conducive to American interests and how it can be made so today. A book worth reading, especially given the poor scholarship of many of its competitors.

The Asian Energy Factor: Myths and Dilemmas of Energy, Security and the Pacific Future
The Asian Energy Factor: Myths and Dilemmas of Energy, Security and the Pacific Future
by Robert A. Manning
Edition: Hardcover
24 used & new from $0.77

5.0 out of 5 stars How to think about energy in Asia, January 28, 2006
It is China's burgeoning energy demand which has nurtured an increased interest into the energy reality in Asia; and yet we still lack the conceptual lens through which to analyze the way that energy markets, and by extension geopolitics, are affected by the profound asymmetry between the demand for energy and the supply of resources in Asia (and East Asia in particular). It is this gap that Robert Manning bridges with the "Asian Energy Factor."

Mr. Manning's angle is captured in these words: "Whether they [Asia-Pacific nations] gravitate--as some have already begun to do--towards market-based solutions and realize the myriad commercial possibilities of foreign investment, regional integration and privatization, and deregulation or older dirigiste models may be the difference between increased conflict or increased cooperation in Asia." Alone, this sentence offers a useful conceptual take on the energy challenge which confronts us: how to push the world to geoeconomics rather than geopolitics in the scramble for energy. Exposing this broad dilemma is the book's prime contribution.

Mr. Manning is also useful in showing how one should approach the analysis of energy questions. Although some of his information is dated (the book came out in 2000), he demonstrates that energy is intricately linked to politics, economics, and geography; any analysis which fails to take so inclusive a view is bound to fail. (His section on Central Asia, in particular, is very good at this integrationist approach.) Mr. Manning's argument that Asia's energy situation can produce sufficient interdependence for cooperation is also very interesting.

To be honest, I diverge with Robert Manning on two counts: he confuses a country's domestic energy realities with its foreign policy. It is possible for a country to combine a commitment to markets with an aggressive foreign policy (there are various times when America and Britain would fit this profile). By referring to many countries' market friendliness he logically concludes that the prospects for conflict are diminished; but in assuming an identity between foreign and domestic policy, I believe that he errs.

(In a later article he exposes the dilemma in these terms: "It is unclear how Asian policy-makers will view the global politics of Asian energy markets. Will they view it through the lens of traditional geopolitics of real estate and sea-lane security? Or will they view it through the lens of geo-economics, where international investment, joint ventures and global cooperation rather than competition for resources and conflict is the prevalent means to satisfy energy security requirements?" But he resorts, again, to looking at domestic politics.)

My other disagreement is with Mr. Manning's unwillingness to explore the ways in which energy can lead to conflict; although I agree with his assessment that energy is often a mere manifestation of underlying geopolitical rivalry, it is still important to uncover the mechanics which can link energy to conflict. By choosing not to explore this idea in detail, I believe that is evades a very important subject.

These disagreements aside, the "Asian Energy Factor" is one of the most important contributions on the subject; by debunking some of the most important fallacies, Mr. Manning allows for the debate to focus on the significant topics. This is even more useful today than it was when the book was first published.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
by George Packer
Edition: Hardcover
291 used & new from $0.01

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chronicle of an ambivalent war, January 28, 2006
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Whatever else, and whatever the outcome, the Iraq War will most likely go down in history as one of America's most ambivalent wars. Those who in the 1990s regretted America's attention to nation-building assumed the task themselves, and those who complained about the country's courtship of dictatorship in the Middle East opposed the greatest possible infusion of liberty in the region. In the political campaign which preceded the war, the world's greatest superpower (and for many the greatest force for freedom in the world) lost a public relations battle to one of the world's most brutal and homicidal dictators.

It is difficult to capture the subtlety and variety of the intellectual and political background which culminated in the Iraq war. It involves debates about America's power, about international law, and about the state of affairs in the Middle East; it is also a discussion about what war can accomplish and whether democracy has be imposed from abroad.

It takes a gifted writer to navigate through this complexity without falling back on partisan attacks and superficial arguments. And it takes an honest narrator to strike a balance between the arguments of the war's proponents and opponents-to balance between the apparent incompetence of the Republican administration in managing Iraq's postwar transition with the inadequacy of the Democrats either to offer an alternative path or to oppose the war in a convincing and coherent way that would reassure the American public as well as win the war.

George Packer, of the New Yorker, accomplishes this task, in part because he is writing about his own feelings (he calls himself a pro-war liberal), and in part because he speaks to a great number of people who felt inspired by the war but who also became progressively disillusioned by it. The "Assassins' Gate" is told through various people, Americans and Iraqis, who capture the range of the story unfolding there (ether Iraqi exiles, American administrators or military, Iraqi Sunnis, Shia or Kurds, etc.). If journalism is the first draft of history, the "Assassins' Gate" is both a very good draft and one that future writers will read to gain a great insight into the war, its genesis and its immediate aftermath.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power
by Daniel Yergin
Edition: Paperback
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you read only one book on oil, January 28, 2006
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Reading "The Prize" is no easy feat, and it is certainly not your typical Sunday afternoon engagement. But the book's volume is testament both the complexity of the subject with which it is preoccupied as it is to the author's willingness to approach it with sufficient detail to do it justice (and the book's references are a great guide for further reading). After all, the story of oil begins in America almost a century and a half ago, and, in the meantime, fascinates entrepreneurs, politicians, strategists, economists, and, increasingly, consumers who care about the price on the pump and of the heating oil to keep the house warm. To put all this in a single narrative is no small task; and yet Daniel Yergin succeeds admirably, and it is no wonder that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his effort.

What makes "The Prize" a great book is that it is a great read; it is sufficiently attuned to the broader history that it gives the reader a sense of perspective and purpose--it offers a continuous idea of how the part fits in the whole. But Mr. Yergin's talents extend beyond his ability to make sense out of a complicated story; it is refreshing to read his book combine politics and economics in a coherent and understandable fashion; to read him navigate through various historical and political settings, whether that is turn-of-the-century America, conservative Saudi Arabia or revolutionary Iran. And yet the richness of the story is to be found in anecdotes--the brief glimpses which reveal so much in so little space, whether that is insight into a personality or a window into a historical moment.

If making sense of a disparate story is the book's chief goal, the need to do so is the book's real significance. Our current preoccupations--whether regarding the price of oil, or the search for alternative energy sources, or the instability of the regions which produce oil--are rather old, about as old as oil itself. In a way, this offers comfort--it is always good to read that previous alarms have proven largely false. But it is also a warning to avoid simplistic ways out--if nothing else, "The Prize" offers a wealth of information which can put oil in a historic context. Reading it will prove not only educational, but it will also help a reader distinguish between the serious and the silly in the public debates on the future of energy in general and oil in particular.

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy
Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy
by Matthew R. Simmons
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.95
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Trying to bring light to a mystery, November 25, 2005
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"Twilight in the desert" comes at an opportune moment: oil demand has finally matched oil supply, and moderate prices will continue only with substantial increases in oil supply (or reductions in demand). Matthew Simmons, an investment banker turned geologist, has written this book to question the torrent of assumptions that the oil industry makes about Saudi Arabia, and argue that there is plenty reason to be skeptical about Saudi Arabia's geological capacity to increase production to 16.3 or 18.2 mbd, which is what the EIA and IEA project for the years 2025 and 2030 respectively.

The book offers the requisite background for the layman to understand the history, context and structure of the Saudi oil industry (his technical notes on oil production are welcoming too). Mr. Simmons weaves together a case from the mystery that surrounds oil in Saudi Arabia-mystery about the quantity of reserves, about production levels, about the true geological condition of the wells. Mr. Simmons scanned over 200 papers published under the Society of Petroleum Engineers that chronicle the problems engineers have faced in Saudi wells-problems that are due to the fields' old age and which prelude a future decline in productivity.

There is little chance that any reader will walk away from this book with more answers than questions. But Mr. Simmons deserves credit for shedding light into a mystery-and the debate that has followed the publication bears testament both to the quality of the work as well as to its necessity. Whether there will come an oil shock made in Saudi Arabia is impossible to forecast; but if it does, the reason will have been well explained in "Twilight in the desert."

Energy and Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Strategy (Woodrow Wilson Center Press)
Energy and Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Strategy (Woodrow Wilson Center Press)
by Jan H. Kalicki
Edition: Paperback
46 used & new from $0.01

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensible and comprehensive, November 14, 2005
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It is the fate of any topic that as its importance rises in the public domain, the quality of the debate on it decreases almost proportionally. Energy security has not escaped this rule. As the intuitive grasp on energy security becomes more complicated, the prescriptions to solve it become simpler and sillier. The purpose of this volume is to navigate through the complicated subject of energy security with solemnity and seriousness.

In doing so, it begins, sensibly, from refuting the more obscene and far-fetched ideas out there on how to deal with America's energy security. It then outlines the various features of economy, technology, and geopolitics that make up America's energy security map and proceeds to explain how they can be integrated in a larger foreign and domestic policy framework.

What emerges from this volume is a double sense: the first is that a topic as complex as energy security can be reasonably broken down to its individual components (in fact, it is obvious in the text why it is necessary to do so). The second is that enhancing America's energy security involves serious tradeoffs in domestic and foreign policy-tradeoffs that politicians seem unwilling to accept as necessary much less adopt as policy.

To contrast the hoopla out there on energy security, this tome offers both a good start and a reasonable advancement on the field. Anyone who wants to think about energy security in a sensible, systematic and comprehensive sense has to become acquainted with this book.

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