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Thu, Jan. 26th, 2017, 10:19 am
Nonfiction, we're all gonna die edition

Alastair Smith & Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics: This disturbing and provocative book synthesizes a lot of political science research and starts from the proposition that leaders are always out for themselves and for their own political survival. It follows that they must first satisfy their indispensable supporters to survive, whether literally or merely in office. Leaders ideally want few indispensables, a limited number of influential supporters, and a broad pool of interchangeables from which new members of the influential class can be picked at will—being easily replaceable makes influentials more loyal to the current ruler. Dictators and democrats differ only in that democrats must satisfy a much larger number of people in order to survive in office, but that leads to big differences in behavior: democrats have to hand out goodies to large numbers of people, which is to say follow policies that are good for many people (at least within the polity). Dictators tax the poor and hand out private benefits instead.

A number of important implications follow: (1) Foreign development aid to nondemocracies usually backfires, propping up dictators and ending up mostly in the pockets of the elites; at best it substitutes for the minimal expenditures on basic health and education the dictator might well have made anyway in order to keep the population just productive enough to pay its taxes. (2) Dictatorships are at most risk early (when the dictator has just taken over) and late (when the dictator is dying), when the influentials and essentials fear they might be replaced. (3) Dictators fight wars when it makes sense in light of the private rewards for key constituencies; democrats fight wars only when they’re really sure they can win, and invest a lot in protecting soldiers. (4) Democrats are perfectly willing to fund dictators abroad if that buys policies their own publics like. Provocative and highly recommended.

Eric Rauchway, The Money Makers: How Roosevelt (and Keynes) took the US off the gold standard, allowing the US to avoid continued deflationary spirals, and set up the postwar international financial order, including the IMF and World Bank. It was interesting to learn about the history of gold standard hardliners in the 20th century; perhaps unsurprisingly, the big bankers didn’t know what was good for them, insisting that deflation should continue (and they should get their loans paid back in more-valuable dollars) until growth returned. But in a demand crisis, continued deflation feeds on itself. This book doesn’t bother to lay out the basics of fiscal and monetary policy, so it probably shouldn’t be the first book you read about global finance.

Bronwyn Dickey, Pit Bull: Hey, did you know that race has infected every issue in America? Dickey’s almost-aside on the history of discrimination and defamation against slaves’ dogs comes late in the book, but race appears throughout. (She says “race” was actually a term borrowed from animal breeding.) People make claims about pit bulls and other breeds based on supposed genetic predispositions to certain behaviors, including viciousness; Dickey points out that racism infects both defenders and detractors of the breeds, who both use stereotypes of (bad) pit bull owners who are urban, poor, “pimps” and “thugs”—all code for black and lower-class. Dickey suggests that the real problem is poverty; that most dogs’ owners love them even when they don’t have the resources and knowledge to treat them in the best way; that many more dogs of all breeds survive terrible conditions without turning vicious; and that individual variation among dogs is the key source of potential danger. Genetic identification of “pit bulls” is actually impossible, and that many dogs that are called “pit bulls” aren’t purebred and even sometimes aren’t even mixes of the technical categories dog breeders use to define them. Dog bite statistics also suggest that whatever breed of dog becomes popularly known as a guard dog type will get more than its share of media attention whenever one dog who kind of looks like it belongs to that breed bites someone; it’s self-reinforcing, in that people who want vicious dogs will gravitate to whatever dog is known as vicious.

James Oakes, The Scorpion’s Sting: Really interesting book of essays on antebellum anti- and pro-slavery theory. Oakes takes his title from a popular metaphor: free states could surround slave states with a cordon of freedom—by banning slavery in D.C., banning slavery in the territories, protecting freedom of speech so that abolitionist tracts could reach the South, and providing stringent due process protections against abuse of the Fugitive Slave Act—which would ultimately lead the slave states to abolition, deprived of the territorial expansion necessary for slavery’s success. Like a scorpion surrounded by a ring of fire, which stung itself to death to avoid the fire, the slave states would destroy slavery without direct intervention into their governance by the northern states or by the federal government. Thus, when pro-slavery politicians protested these policies, they were fighting for the survival of slavery even though anti-slavery politicians largely disavowed any intention to intervene directly in the internal governance of the slave states.  The argument fleshes out the implications of Lincoln's claim that a nation can't survive half slave and half free, which today we don't often think through in combination with the abolitionist claims to leave slavery alone in the slave states; it made me think about current cultural clashes and whether we can survive as a nation half of which guarantees equality to its citizens and half of which doesn't.

Other big themes include the debate over whether the natural right to freedom trumped the natural right to property, which affected questions such as what should happen when an enslaved person travelled to a state with no positive law about slavery, and the Framers’ debates about international law—when the Revolution ended, everyone accepted the idea of emancipation as part of a military strategy and that ex-slaves no longer on the territory in which they were emancipated would stay free, but the British and Americans fought bitterly about the reenslavement of those still in the territory. Also, military emancipation during the Civil War was a legal issue—Oakes contends that, until the Confederacy began claiming otherwise, no one had disputed that it was a perfectly legitimate military tactic for a combatant to emancipate the other side’s slaves on land under the combatant’s control, in order to get more help fighting. During the Civil War, the North did somewhat expand that idea by emancipating all slaves, even those not considered able to fight, but Oakes suggests that pre-war, one of the biggest reasons the slaveholding South could rationally have had not to leave the Union is that they could absolutely expect military emancipation if they were reconquered.

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: A history of the FDR era, focusing on the big threats Americans perceived—unemployment and the Axis, mainly—and the compromises FDR made with Southern Democrats to fight them—accepting discrimination against African-Americans. As he puts it near the end, in the fight against radical evil (the Nazis), many compromises with lesser evils may have been justified, but the compromises with white supremacists on internal social policy can reasonably be described as wicked. These compromises included devolving control over relief programs to the states, which could then exclude African-Americans; excluding farm workers and domestic servants from the scope of pro-unionization federal law; and later in the Taft-Hartley Act, barring secondary boycotts so the Teamsters couldn’t encourage farmworker unionization by refusing to haul non-union-picked produce. Ultimately, these compromises—designed to protect the low-wage South from unionization and racial equality—may have brought down the New Deal entirely.

Dear Images: Art, Copyright and Culture, ed. Daniel McClean & Karsten Schubert. Collecting contributions on European/a bit of American copyright law as applied to “high art,” mostly visual art; a bit of a time capsule, and a number of essays that just summarize the law, but some good tidbits. Anne Barron’s work is always worth reading; she discusses the historical lack of any particular theory in adding protected classes of works to the list of copyright subject matter. This led to difficulty in maintaining aesthetic neutrality along with anti-monopoly principles: once sculpture became more than casting and forming, ordinary industrially-made articles also seemed like “sculpture” and thus protected by copyright. But this conflicted with competition policy. Courts retreated to an undefined requirement that the creator be an “artist” with an artistic intent. The resulting contradictions, she suggests, are internal both to Modernism and to copyright: the avoidance of subjective artistic preference in copyright law leads to technical, materialist terms to define subject matter, but that in turn leads copyright to include “ordinary items which have little claim to creativity (which contradicts copyright’s actual purpose of facilitating fair competition in markets for goods incorporating intellectual creations by defining limited property rights in those creations)” but excludes some art from protection entirely “(which contradicts the rhetorical claim that copyright’s purpose is to encourage the progress of the arts).” I also enjoyed Anthony Julius’ closing discussion of various kinds of “art crimes,” especially the way that “Authors both need, and are mistrustful, of their audiences. The relationship between authors and audiences is thus one of unhappy mutual dependence. Intellectual property law intervenes to institutionalise that unhappiness.”

Brian D Hoefling, Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions: Entertaining science-lite book about the chemistry and biology of the production, bottling, and consumption of alcohol, with equal attention given to how alcohol is created and how it works in the body.

Heather K. Way, Lucille Wood, & Tanya Marsh, Real Property for the Real World: Selection of exercises with supporting materials designed to give students case study-like experiences with property law issues, including title searches, inheritance issues, homeowners’ associations, landlord/tenant, and zoning. I’m not sure that it would be a good idea to do all of them—that’s a lot of class time—but there are some well-thought-out scenarios that could offer a practice-like experience with lower stakes.

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