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ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism
ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism
by Yves Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.38
73 used & new from $0.01

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tour de Force, September 24, 2010
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By A. Wright (Monoblet, France) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Damaged Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism (Hardcover)
Impossible to praise this book too highly.

For the millions of working tax payers stuck with levels of debt, public and private, it seems impossible to understand how so many of the smartest brains in the western world could have come together to produce a financial crash the like of which the world has never seen and which continues to roll inexorably onwards.

There are now several published accounts, written at both the personal and the technical level, of the ingenuity and greed with which bankers both in Wall Street and in London devised ever more complicated debt instruments from which enormous levels of apparent profit could be taken. Econned is different. Smith focuses not simply on the king's non-existent new clothes, but on the courtiers. How could so many people have persuaded themselves and each other that financial risk had been eliminated and endless wealth within reach?

The book traces the evolution of the origins of the crash from the end of the second world war to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and on to the completion of financial de-regulation under Clinton. It examines with wit and erudition how Adam Smith's ideas in The Wealth of Nations were cherry-picked and evolved into an ideology which came to dominate university economics departments all over the western world. It turns a baleful eye on the so-called science of economics itself, showing how, as ever more computing power became available, it came to be dominated by models which could never take full account of life as it really happens, and how increasingly it has taken over and is smothering political debate.
Smith does not shrink from detailed, expert descriptions either of economic theory or of ever more complicated debt instruments. I can only urge non-technicians like myself to have faith, perhaps skate over ideas, sometimes difficult to grasp at first and go on to enjoy and be profoundly educated by her book. One is constantly astonished and entertained by the sort of nuggets of information and insight which clear and change one's thinking. Did you know, for example, that the Wall Street rating agencies whose AAA AA BBB ratings are locked, by US law into the sort of frantic securities trading which broke the banks have successfully contested litigation over their ratings by claiming their grades are `mere journalistic opinions'? Or enjoy and ponder the Wall Street joke about `trading sardines.' And there's more.

This is a book which should be on the desks of bankers, politicians, journalists, university teachers, students and every angry, confused or even curious citizen with a will to find out how we came to be in the present mess and what the prospects might be for emerging from it. Only if we can come to understand the extent to which `free market' propaganda has corrupted our understanding can we begin to correct it and find a new way ahead. With Econned Yves Smith has made a major contribution to that.
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Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War
Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War
by Mark Danner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.77
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important perspective on the post cold war world, March 16, 2010
I too became aware of Stripping Bare the Body by way of an hour-long discussion devoted to it on the excellent Bill Moyers' Journal -podcast from USA PBS. So I was prevented from being put off either by the somewhat obscure title or the sheer size of the book: 563 pages of real journalism for various heavyweight New York magazines from Mr Danner's reports from trouhle zones around the world. Readers will note that sections of the book, published in 2009, have also been published previously under their own cover.

Beginning in 1989 with an account of his first visit to Haiti when he was just 31, the book falls into four - not three - separate sections covering events in Haiti, Bosnia Herzegovina and finally, Iraq. The third section, called Marooned in the Cold War which in my view would alone be worth the price of the book, contains his reflections on the faltering steps being taken by Western - specifically American - diplomatic minds to try finally to come to some sort of accommodation with the world after the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall. Danner traces the determination of America to remain the world's preponderant power from 1945 and the creation of NATO in 1949, to its decision in the late nineties to march east. `We have chosen to do for Europe's east, what NATO did for Europe's west,' declared the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1997, `to integrate new democracies, eliminate old hatreds, provide confidence in economic recovery and deter conflict.....' Danner is aghast at the degree of hubris and ignorance on display. He goes on to reflect on how and when the USA first became `the indispensable nation.' Throughout the 19th century, he points out, while the US was busying itself in its own continent, it was Britain's Royal Navy, pursuing its own preoccupations; protection of worldwide trade routes and the balance of power in Europe,which maintained the order that now the US struggles to maintain.

Danner has no time for President Wilson. He illuminatingly describes Wilson's first encounter with the Old World at Versailles in 1918 as `one of great set pieces of history' `While we were dealing with momentous questions of land and sea,' said Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, `He was soaring in clouds of serene rhetoric.'

And it was rhetoric which trapped Clinton as the Yugoslav war unfolded. Danners's chapters are a marvellously detailed tutorial on the action, reaction and inaction, hopelessly confusing to people like me at the time, as we watched just a little of the human misery and suffering rolling out day by day from our television screens. Now I realise we didn't know the half of it. His chapters on Iraq cover ground made more familiar by reporters like Bob Woodward, George Packer and Anthony Shadid on whom he draws freely. However he has the benefit of a great deal of published reporting, both official and unofficial, on the subject of the US treatment of prisoners and torture which he pulls together in an unflinching condemnation of an Administration which allowed itself to be driven to such lengths in pursuit of a victory which still eludes its successor.

Danners's writing is detailed, urgent and well researched. But it isn't perfect. He has a penchant for long sentences which sometimes defeat eye and mind. One such, which there is no space to quote, runs to 12 lines - 83 words.

But Stripping Bare the Body is a valuable work which should have a place in sixth form and University libraries everywhere. Oh - and the title? It comes, we read, from Haiti. `Political violence strips bare the social body, the better to place the stethoscope and track the life beneath the skin'. That comes from the President of Haiti in 1987 - and he should know. Worth bearing in mind as the mills of 24 hour news spin on day after day and the post cold war world slouches menacingly ever closer.


American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror
American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror
by Con Coughlin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.63
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Another Dodgy Dossier, November 24, 2006
As future historians begin to ask how it was that the Britain inherited by Tony Blair, internally secure, economically strong and confident abroad, but yearning for reform at home; turned into the Britain Blair leaves behind - disaffected, facing defeat abroad, with growing inflation and internally insecure, with creeping erosion of civil liberties - they could do worse than turn to this book. Unfortunately, as an account of the Blair premiership it's neither particularly engrossing nor entertaining. Described as `vivid' on the jacket, it reveals little that isn't already in print. Since it relies for its insights largely, as Coughlin himself admits, on high-placed sources insisting on anonymity, we are forced to accept them on a `trust me' basis.

There are minor errors in points of detail which don't inspire confidence. For instance, the UK City of Durham never was a coal-mining city: and it becomes clear that the book is full of apparent statements of fact which actually are assertions: how does he know for instance, that Colin Powell's abortive visit to Israel/Palestine in 2002 failed because `Ariel Sharon had influential allies in the White House who made it their business to ensure that Powell's mission was a failure?'

The book is disappointingly short of authentic personal witness and observation: something one might have expected from what purports to be a definitive account of a personal relationship between two powerful individuals. For instance, it's interesting to compare Coughlin's account of the 2002 dinner at the presidential ranch at Crawford Texas at which, according to Coughlin, Blair `wore a black suit out of respect for the recent death of the Queen Mother' with Sir Christopher Meyer's vivid and much more entertaining personal witness - much rubbished by Downing Street - that on arrival at the dinner Blair had to dash away and quickly change since mistakenly he'd arrived wearing jeans.

Nevertheless, 'American Ally' may offer some clues about the causes of Britain's decay under Blair, offering as it does an exclusively Blair-centric account of his relationship, first with President Clinton, then with President Bush. Beginning with the moment when he declares, " We are a leader of nations or we are nothing", this neo-con Utopian masquerading as a socialist ('...With my class background I could and- lets be blunt about this - would have joined another party....')came to Downing Street possessed as none of his predecessors - save one - of the power of his own belief. The well known high mutual regard between Blair and Margaret Thatcher is once again rehearsed here. The memory of Thatcher's success in the Falklands made a big impression on Blair, reinforcing his will when, early in New Labour's term the Kosovo crisis catapulted him to a platform from which he was able eventually to orchestrate the defeat of Milosevich, dragging the US under Clinton along with him only at the cost of public and Parliamentary opposition leaving him personally at times dangerously exposed. But Milosevich fell and if today Kosovo remains unstable, the adventure brought peace of a kind leaving Blair with a sense of the correctness of his own judgment powerfully re-inforced. Kosovo and the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement were Blair's finest hour.

From the moment of Clinton's defeat, Blair made it his mission to forge an equally strong relationship with George Bush. The first so-called `Colgate summit ` is once again recounted.. From their first meeting, it is clear that Blair's well-known talent for appearing to agree with each person he meets - whatever their opinion - played a large part in persuading George Bush that here was someone he could work with. For his part, Blair seems to have been progressively deluded into believing that the things he had to say were in fact carrying weight with the President and his team. In fact, not even his much-promoted insistence on the problem of Israel/Palestine seems to have had much effect on the course of events there. Its interesting to read that Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza and pull out of certain settlements was actually negotiated by Elliot Abrams- a leading neo-conservative brought into the White House to work on the `road map'- in Blair's complete ignorance; while in the Rose Garden Bush continued to insist on Blair as `America's staunchest friend.'

As chaos and killing in Iraq grew and spread following the fall of Baghdad, Blair's dismay at the trap into which his personal determination had lead the UK and its military forces grew. The Abu Ghraib scandal, says Coughlin, compounded Blair's deep sense of betrayal at the way the Bush administration handled Iraq. A `Downing Street aide' is quoted; `....we all came to the view that we would never embark on another venture like this with the Bush administration.' So that's all right, then.

With so much instant history already available on the tragic partnership of Bush and Blair its hard to recommend this one, comprehensive though it is. Readers seeking a more balanced and insightful account would do better to turn to `The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency - James Naughtie's recent masterly account of these crucial years. Those with a taste for something more anecdotal and racy will enjoy DC Confidential, the account by Sir Christopher Meyer of his years as British Ambassador in Washington.

With its portrait of a firm-jawed leader of principle standing shoulder to shoulder with his principal ally, and then, in spite of personal suffering, bravely resisting public and Parliamentary disapproval as he struggles to `complete the job', 'American Ally' reads like a dossier to accompany the job application which Blair is presumably already making to the lucrative American lecture and foundation circuit against his coming exit from Downing Street. And for Con Coughlin? To paraphrase a well-authenticated proposal from Blair himself to the British satirist Rory Bremner: "How does Sir Con Coughlin sound?"


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