December 18, 2016

Reviews 12.18.2016

The Best American Poetry 2016

To be frank, this masquerades as the “best” but it is the result of multiple editorial decisions that put this here: first the magazines and then the anthologizers. I can’t say myself that this is the best, or by what criteria I would use if I were trying to determine the best.
No matter. There are a bunch of good poems here, with their own structures and voices. My favorite is a trivial one, “32 Fantasy Football Teams” by Chapman and Engel, blending humor and poetic awareness. There are poems from greats who have passed like Tate and Levine, and poems by people who (Had to check twice) are younger than I am.
One note on the structure. There is biographical material at the end for the reader to peruse after the poems have been read. I’d prefer if that were closer in the book to the poem itself. That’s just reflective of how much my experience of reading had been shaped by the doorstops of the Norton Anthologies with tissue thin paper.
One other thing I noticed: a lot of the writer’s work at least part time at a low-res type of MFA. None of the ones list those schools as where they graduated from. I found that odd.

Weapons of Math Destruction

This book shows us how an overreliance on big data and algorithms can have the opposite effect than intended. Trying to use data to be more fair to students and teacher and prisoners can reinforce our biases and cement them because they now are objective facts that have some sort of quantized justification. O’Neil goes a long way to show that we can’t just let these algos run our lives, but there needs to be a human at the wheel.

Ultimately while I still believe in the promise of “Big Data,” I think we’re at that early part of the adoption of a technology where we over-promise what we can do without fully examining the philosophical ramifications of it. As Jeff Goldblum says as Ian Malcolm in the movie Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Right now, we’re at that point where we’re exploring what we can do, hopefully O’Neil’s book will help us explore what we should do.

The Curse of Cash

Rogoff argues that we should eliminate big bills like US $100 and its big economy equivalents. Doing so will have two benefits.
The first benefit is that most people do not use large bill. These are in the financial system in the gray and black economy where having dense stores of value that are also a medium of exchange facilitates crime like drug dealing and human trafficking. There is profit to the issuing countries of these bills, a seignorage income that would be lost if these bills were pulled from the economy, but the ills caused and made easier by their presence are worse than the loss.
The other benefit is that by not having cash around, it gives the central banks more space to move interest rates if necessary. Right now, there is an effective floor at zero percent that the Federal Reserve and its sister institutions can’t go much lower because once you impose significant costs to keeping money in reserves, then the option is to hold cash. There is some cost to holding large quantities of cash so Japan and some European banks have gone a bit below zero, but not that far. This space is important because even conservative Taylor rules of setting the interest rates would have been significantly negative in the aftermath of 2008. The zero-bound kept the Fed from going lower and it may have significantly increased the duration of the downturn in the aftermath of the crisis (especially since in the US and Europe where there was little help from fiscal policy because austerian parties bought into the fallacious idea of the family analogy for governments).

I’m on Rogoff’s side here, especially since it isn’t new to me as I have seen the idea at length in the work of Miles Kimball (ex-Michigan, now at CU) as he has made the argument on his blog. I’m more a supporter because of the second reason, which I am sure is the more controversial part of his argument – many people are suspicious of central bank activity, and they feel that giving the banks more leeway would encourage the activist central banks. I am of the opinion that independent monetary policy needs all possible weapons in its quiver as we have seen inaction at the exchequer cause real damage in the real economy.

The Games People Play: Tetris    

I picked this one up because for a long time my favorite game was Tetris. It was the one game I went back to all the time when I was a kid and the Gameboy version was the only one I had. I did play around with it on windows machines at school, but that Gameboy version with the Russified music was something else.
I did not know the game had such an interesting history in getting out there in the world, and its aftermath. I just knew it as a Russian game but with universal appeal – it is a great trainer for spatial reasoning and is instantly learnable but infinitely challenging.

Building the Commune

Most of the stories that we get about Venezuela from the mainstream media are ones about the decline of the Venezuelan state – ones that show just how alien to the world the socialism of Chavez and his heirs are to the global world order. The money is inflated into valuelessness and there are no goods so that people are streaming over the border to go buy what they can in Colombia.

In “Building the Commune,” George Ciccariello-Maher shows that there is another side to the coin. From the top-down Chavezimo that we see in the news, there are other ignored stories of collaboration and group strength through local organizing that has promise of creating that other world that is possible. It is the focus on these stories and the struggles in both rural and urban communes that show that there is no one-sized-fits-all answer to making the world work (and that at times the communes have had to fight against the nominally socialist Venezuelan state). But what it does is show the promise of organizing in real life examples. I know not how the next world will be made, but it will arise like a phoenix from the ashes of the one we live in now. This book is a light in a path forward.


When I saw that Ariely had another book coming out on social media, I immediately bought it since I am a fan of his work. When I got it, and saw how small it was and that it was branded a TED book, I was a little worried. I feel that the TED talk infrastructure trades on the novelty effect – show something that makes someone say gee-whiz and ignore the complicated understratum that makes up the bulk of a subject. Which is something that happens a bit here, but a 100-page book is better for depth than an 18-minute speech but only just a bit. Overall this is a good introduction to behavioral economics without a lot of overlap with the author’s other works. The framing for looking at “Motivations” works to create a narrative in the book that helps show what we know about what makes people tick. But I would still point people to the author’s other works.

Chicago is Not Broke:

In this book, Tresser et al look at the different ways that Chicago is spending money and leaving money on the table, giving lie to the idea that there is no money for the schools and transit and other things that make the city work for all the people of the city. The authors make a persuasive case that the reforms listed in the book would make the city more solvent. This matters not just for the residents of the city, but also for people like myself in the metro region. Chicago is so big it has a gravity all its own. Chicago problems become problems here in Brookfield too.
What was most interesting was the look at the TIF districts. These were originally created to help development where there would be no development, but instead have morphed into a way to enrich developers at the expense of residents throughout the city. This TIF money is like a slush fund and oddly there’s not a great accounting of where it all is. This is not just a Chicago problem, but they do it well there. Ultimately, it is civic activists like Tresser who make the needed changes happen. Maybe not all the hoped-for changes will happen, but this is a good starting point for a larger conversation about civic budgeting.


On one level, I’m glad that Baker makes his work freely available. Anyone can download his last three books that I know of off the CPER website. I bought the hard copy because I hate trees so much. But on another level, the fact that he doesn’t push his work out through a traditional publisher makes it so that there’s no publicity push for his work and potential readers aren’t made aware of his work.
And the thing is that Baker needs to be read. What makes Baker unique is his look at globalization and trade, where what we call free trade has really been a method to endanger the jobs at people at the bottom but the people at the top have job protections. You see manufacturing going out, but we’re not importing new doctors to drive the price of medicine down. It’s the flip side to the coin that people think of more when they speak of the ill effects of globalization and free trade. Not only are some left behind, we pay more.  And it’s all here, with nice charts and graphs. We’re entering an era of protectionist rhetoric in part because the gains from globalization have been oversold to so many people. There is a way to do it right, but we’re losing that opportunity from an electoral perspective.

Success and Luck:

In this book, Robert Frank is doing to things in my opinion.
The first is that success in life is due in large part to luck. Your economic outcomes are dependent on lots of things that can be assigned to random chance outside of the old canard of hard working men pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. I think the case is made in the book for that hypothesis to viewed as mostly true.
The second part is that there should be a progressive consumption tax. This is dropped in the last third of the book, and I had all sorts of questions about how it would be applied. Most of them were answered in an appendix but I’m still not sure how businesses are taxed (if at all in his paradigm).

The problem for me was that these two separate ideas felt very loosely connected. The idea is that since success is random, then we need to prevent the thing where people strive to keep up with the Joneses and spend beyond their means or at the top limit of their means. It seems weird to me because it is designed to discourage spending and growing consumer spending is one of the things that makes capitalism grow – and degrowth in a capitalist economy is recession and people thrown out of jobs and deflation. There seem to be a lot of knock-on effects that are unaddressed here.
For me, though, this seems to be one of those things where it is a solution looking for a problem, and as a reader I wasn’t sold on the solution as much as I was sold on the problem and still wonder about the link between the two.