Gregory S. Alexander & Eduardo M. Peñalver, An Introduction to Property Theory: Slim book that nonetheless comprehensively does what it says on the tin, with introductions to utilitarian, Lockean, Hegelian, and Aristotlean/flourishing-based theories of property rights, then chapters addressing several major issues from each perspective, including takings and intellectual property. The criticisms of Nozick et al. are particularly compelling (from my perspective), but they also make some good points about the property-as-exclusion-right theorists and Henry Smith’s “property isn’t a bundle of sticks” account that says that property rights simplify understanding of one’s rights with respect to objects. As they point out, with respect to property that the owner has opened to the general public, “it is far from clear that unfettered exclusion rights make the world an easier place to navigate for nonowners… In the pre-civil-rights-era South, that message might have been: If you are white, come in and browse, shop, sit down, and eat; if you are African American, come in, shop, order food at our lunch counter, but do not sit down to eat or interact with white customers. In the modern shopping center, the message might be: Come in, browse, walk around, sit down, eat, perhaps even participate in an aerobics class or watch school children put on a show, but do not engage in political speech, no matter how orderly.” If you wanted an intro to the big debates in property theory, this would be a good one.
Steven Poole, Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas: Free early reviewer book. Malcolm Gladwell, you have many sins to answer for, including the “big idea” book. Here, the overarching idea is supposedly that many ideas aren’t new, but are actually renewals of old ideas, or variants, or old ideas that wouldn’t work in the past whose time has finally come. It’s really, it seems to me, an excuse for the author to write about trends in physics and philosophy that he finds particularly interesting, but I don’t. I did find this line interesting: “the disease model of alcoholism can help a person with alcoholism even if it is not factually accurate: it is a placebo idea.” He ties this to Nietzche’s statement that “the falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it,” a rather more fraught claim when stated that broadly. Tidbits: “hard-core programmers,” which is to say, men, mocked Grace Hopper’s computer language because it was too easy to understand. Also, a statement from the author of The Joy of Sex, articulating something I feel deeply: “I would think that it is more true to say that whether people have the right to produce children depends on the circumstances. What I am sure of is that no other persons have the right to prevent them, which is a different matter.”
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: The history of mass killings in the lands between Soviet Russia and Germany in the run-up to and during World War II, where Stalin and Hitler oversaw the slaughter of millions of people, mostly Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians, often by the thousands at once. Snyder emphasizes the length of the devastation as well as the scale, given that the Germans regularly swept through places that had just seen a Soviet purge. Stalin was trying to get rid of useless classes—peasants—while Hitler was trying to get rid of useless races; the effect was much the same.
Serena Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York: New York in the decades before the American Revolution was a wild place, where reputation could get a man (and sometimes a woman) far, where extending credit was both necessary to succeed and a serious risk. Zabin examines the roles that race, class, and gender played in letting some people succeed commercially, sometimes to the detriment of others; there was some freedom in the joints even as coverture and slavery made white maleness systematically more successful.
Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold, and War: The history of what became South Africa, from the beginnings of colonial consolidation in the late 19th century to the founding of the apartheid state. It’s a story of colonial greed and betrayal of native populations again and again, as well as a fascinating account of how Boers etc. managed to see themselves as deserving natives compared to the whites back in Europe. Also, the repeated assumption of British and Boer planners that military conflicts would be quick and easily won, and the resulting brutal, extended, devastating wars that followed make me think that very few people learn much from history.
Sady Doyle, Trainwreck: Doyle has rewritten the Joanna Russ classic How To Suppress Women’s Writing for an age of celebrity. Though she covers Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Jacobs, Sylvia Plath, and a few others before recent decades, she’s really writing about how celebrity female trainwrecks are used by the people who comment on them to define the appropriate boundaries of womanhood. It was both enraging and invigorating to read during this election season, where the desire for Hillary Clinton to be a trainwreck, and her refusal, has been such an important theme.
Henry Petroski, The Road Taken: I want a book about American infrastructure to be compelling. Sadly, this one isn’t it; it’s pretty much a straight-up account of how we’ve built bridges, roads, tunnels, etc. over the past century, and how we mostly stopped funding their maintenance, which is a very bad thing. Petroski isn’t a fan of privatization, but public-private partnerships—where the government sets the rules but gives the contractor flexibility in achieving the key goals—come off a bit better.
Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: We no longer live in an age in which an educated person can basically understand the issues facing us across the range of issues, according to the best available science/learning in each area. Also, things like the tax code are fractal in their complexity; each rule usually has a decent enough reason behind it, but together they make a system that is almost unworkably difficult to navigate. That’s bad enough for the tax code, but when that same thing happens to the electrical grid, we become extremely vulnerable. And we can’t just throw out the installed base and start again, because that’s not just expensive but would require us to be without power for as long as it took to build the new, simpler system, which would eventually get complexified too. What to do? Arbesman has some suggestions about how to think about complexity by way of computer science, but no easy solutions.
Brands, Competition Law and IP, ed. Deven R. Desai, Ionnis Lianos, and Spencer Weber Waller: Aside from a few pro-expansion of trademark rights essays about how store brands that copy national brands shouldn’t exist, most of this collection grapples with the role of trademarks—or really, brands, a broader concept going to the overall image associated with the trademark’s source—in facilitating monopolistic competition: a series of products with no perfect substitutes, but a variety of imperfect substitutes. Thinking of brands as helping to create that type of uniqueness makes clear that it’s impossible to say in the abstract “trademarks promote competition” or “trademarks interfere with competition”—you need to know a lot more about the market.
Sander L. Gilman & James M. Thomas, Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity: Free early reviewer copy. Misleading title, which only covers about 2/5 of the book. This is an intellectual history of the interaction between mental illness and concepts of race in modern Western thought. Initially scientists of various stripes insisted that there were racial differences in mental vulnerabilities—neurotic Jews, unable-to-handle-modernity African-Americans, etc.—and then more liberal (and often Jewish) scientists/sociologists/psychologists fought them on that topic. Ultimately medicalized language shifted towards identifying racism, rather than race, as an individual characteristic that interacted with mental illness. The related concept of a “sick society” was, the authors conclude, less pervasive than the individualizing force of seeing racists as suffering from mental illness rather than articulating widely shared beliefs. Inmates in the California state prison system have been administered antipsychotic drugs to combat the “delusional disorters” of racism and homophobia!
The authors say, in what seems like accidental commentary on this election season, that “individuals suffering from acute mental illnesses fixate on images such as race as a symptom of their illness,” but this is, they argue, “culturally defined, rather than springing from an autonomous mental illness.” I also appreciated their point that Milgram’s experiments were really not so much about human behavioral universals but about why Nazi prison camp guards did what they did; Milgram wrote: “any other thing we may understand about obedience is pretty much of a windfall, an accidental bonus.” Another bit: these authors, unlike most I read, focus on Frederic Wertham’s attack on comic books for promoting anti-black racism, not his other criticisms.