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Books I Didn’t Review

Book Reviews Collection cover image

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately–an near-obnoxious amount, really. Quite a few of the books have just not been that interesting, but there have been a few exceptions. Here are reviews of three of the more notable books I’ve read. Each of these titles is currently on the New York Times list of bestsellers.

End the Fed

Love him or hate him, you probably have an opinion about Ron Paul. He’s a guy on the fringe, a guy who does not quite seem to fit into any camp but his own. And a time when the economy is undergoing a severe test, he is one of the few politicians who actually sounds like he knows what he is talking about when it comes to economics. Firmly rooted in the Austrian school of economics, Paul advocates pretty much the opposite of all America has done in the past few years: Where Washington has continually bailed out those corporations it deems too big to fail, he advocates allowing them to go bankrupt; where Washington remains firmly committed to fiat currency, he is eager to return to the gold standard; where Washington looks increasingly to socialize health care (and those companies that would fall apart but for federal aid) he has implicit confidence in the free market and its consequences; and where Washington continues to grant far-reaching power to the Fed, Paul advocates eliminating it altogether.

Few people understand macro-scale economics (heck, judging by the debt loads of most Americans I’d suggest that few people can wrap their minds around household economics) and fewer still understand the role of the Federal Reserve in economics and politics and the sometimes-fine line between them. Among the immensely important organizations in Washington, the Fed has one power that is unique: the ability to create money out of thin air. You do not need a graduate degree in economics to understand the magnitude, the potential ramifications, of this kind of power. When you consider that the Fed operates without any real congressional oversight, that it is protected from audits and that its leaders are appointed rather than elected, it becomes more shocking still. Ultimately, if you want to understand money in America, you need to understand the Fed. As Paul says, “It is irresponsible, ineffective, and ultimately useless to have a serious economic debate without considering fundamental issues about money and its quality, as well as the Fed’s massive role in manipulating money to our economic ruin.” Paul has spoken endlessly about the Fed for decades now and in this book he advocates his solution: get rid of it.

Paul minces few words. He says, “We need to take away the government’s money power. The banking industry needs its welfare check ended. The dollar’s soundness depends on its being untied from the machine that can make an infinite number of copies of dollars and reduce their value to zero.” Later he says, “The Federal Reserve System must be challenged. Ultimately, it needs to be eliminated. The government cannot and should not be entrusted with a monopoly on money. No single institution in society should have power this immense. In fact, I believe that freedom itself is at stake in this struggle.”

While clearly targeted at a general audience, End the Fed is stock full of “economese”–the lexicon of economics–and this may make for difficult reading for those not well-versed in such matters. I often found myself confused, reading back a few lines or pages and, on occasion, just giving up and moving on. In several areas Paul assumes just a little bit more knowledge than I’ve got. Inflation is a relatively simple concept to understand from my perspective, but when it comes to understanding its causes and effects on a national or international level, my head begins to spin. Nevertheless, I read on and largely enjoyed his arguments. He argues from three perspectives: the philosophical, the constitutional and the economic. In each case he makes a compelling case that the Fed is harming America far more than it is helping and that its very existence is contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Of course the book is inherently one-sided and one must assume that the Fed’s supporters can make arguments of their own as to why it can and should remain; they will undoubtedly also argue for increasing rather than decreasing its mandate. I must have Libertarian leanings (or perhaps just common sense leanings) because I tend to agree with Paul. There has to be a better way and one that is more consistent with American ideals. “The Federal Reserve should be abolished because it is immoral, unconstitutional, impractical, promotes bad economics, and undermines liberty. Its destructive nature makes it a tool of tyrannical government. Nothing good can come from the Federal Reserve.” At least he does not leave us wondering what he really believes.

Created in time of crisis, it is ironic that the Fed is responsible for many of the nation’s subsequent economic crises, at least according to Paul. Constantly manipulating the markets, responsible for bubbles created and bubbles burst, and forever cranking out more real and virtual greenbacks, the Fed is at the center of American economics and politics. Its power is immense, its accountability near non-existent. Should not this, alone, call for abolition or, at the very least, radical modification?

Where Men Win Glory

In 2002 Pat Tillman walked away from a multi-million dollar NFL contract to join the U.S. Army. Just coming into his own after a career year as safety for the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman had all the opportunity in the world. Young, ridiculously good-looking, sporting the squarest chin in all of human history and with all sorts of people waving millions of dollars in his face, he could have taken any number of offers and set himself up for a long and comfortable life. Instead, he walked away from it all to became a soldier and, in so doing, an icon of post-9/11 patriotism. He was a reluctant hero who lost his life in a tragic friendly-fire in the mountains of Afghanistan. The events surrounding his death were quickly covered up and seemingly uncovered almost as quickly, bringing with them both horror and scandal. Already the subject of several books, Tillman appears again in Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory.

Tillman is a fascinating, multi-faceted character and one who is very difficult to pin down. Though he was no supporter of President Bush, he still felt that it was his duty as an American to answer the call to arms. Though an extraordinary athlete, he was a deep thinker and far from the stereotypical football jock. The excerpts from his journals show a man who drank hard and played hard, yet was fiercely loyal to his girlfriend (who became his wife shortly before his death) and reluctant to be the center of media attention. He read widely, thought deeply and wrestled constantly with the moral implications of what he was called on to do as a soldier. Eager to fight in Afghanistan, he was perturbed, disgusted even, by much of what he witnessed in Iraq. An atheist, Tillman’s last words mocked a comrade who, with Tillman, was pinned down with fire from their own men. This soldier, terrified and facing an imminent death, cried out to God. Tillman asked why he was acting this way and what possible good it could do him. Seconds later he died when three American bullets tore into his head. The most famous man in the Army lay dead at the hands of his friends.

His superiors reacted swiftly, muzzling the men who knew the circumstances of Tillman’s death. A friendly-fire accident would be a media catastrophe and this at a time when the war was not going well and when support for it was falling fast. Soon, however, the truth began to leak out and Tillman’s family reacted with outrage. He was again on the front pages. Subsequent investigations proved that poor leadership, poor organization and inadequate fire control had led to Tillman’s death, though some conspiracy theorists have tried to show that he was, in fact, deliberately murdered. The consequences for those involved were minor, shockingly minor, really, with most simply being removed from the Special Forces and busted back to the regular Army.

Krakauer cannot contain his utter disregard for President Bush and jumps on every opportunity to take swipes at him and at his administration. In the end there is almost nowhere he will not go, short of having George Bush light a fuse at the base of the Twin Towers. He almost makes it sound as if from the very moment of Tillman’s death that a massive conspiracy was instantly put in place, from President on down the chain of command to Tillman’s direct superior. Krakauer goes so far as to tacitly suggest that a member of the military should have told Tillman’s parents at the funeral that he had been killed in a friendly fire incident. As horrible as it is that Tillman died in a friendly-fire incident, such things are known to happen and happen today far more often than they did in the past. It is a tragic and unavoidable consequence of the fog of war. Krakauer’s outrage stems more from the cover-up, the deception and the lack of consequences for those involved.

Where Men Win Glory raises important issues about the nature of modern warfare, though it does so only between the lines and not as a core objective. Krakauer is outraged that the U.S. government covered up Tillman’s death. But are we to be surprised that the government relies on propaganda in times of war? This is as it has always been (and always will be!). The expectation today seems to be that reporters will travel with troops and provide moment-by-moment Twitter updates as to the whereabouts of troops. Deception is viewed as evil. But since when has war ever been fought under the same kind of rules that govern court rooms? The propaganda efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing when compared to the all-out campaigns during the First and Second World Wars. But that was an era of total war. War today is meant to be surgical, touching only the most guilty military targets and avoiding altogether any peripheral damage. It is a near-impossible mandate. Every time a soldier touches a trigger he must have court martials in mind. Of course there must be some kind of oversight and some kind of consequences for those who go beyond the bounds of morality. It leads me to wonder: if you cannot fight a war in which you believe in so much that you are willing to regard peripheral damage as an unfortunate, tragic even, necessity of war, is it a war worth fighting? More than ever it seems that wars are won and lost on the home front far more than in the trenches. None of this is meant to defend what happened; rather, I simply suggest that the issues are deeper than they may appear and really ought to be less surprising than they seem.

Read for its portrayal of its protagonist, Where Men Win Glory is very interesting. Tillman truly is a fascinating subject and one who is very difficult to categorize, to solve. But read as history, I would urge caution. The author seems unable to separate his outrage toward Bush from his account of what happened. There appears to be little emphasis on objectivity here. Thus the facts appear tainted by a thinly-veiled agenda that comes perilously close to the propaganda that so disgusted the author.

Arguing with Idiots

I can’t deny it–I kind of like Glenn Beck. Sure you can argue that he’s just another outrageous radio windbag who will do nearly anything to fight his way to the top of the charts. That’s probably true. Yes he is annoying and occasionally obnoxious and, for all appearances, ridiculously self-assured. All true. But this does not necessarily mean that he is not correct about a lot of things. Through all the bluster I hear a lot that sounds to me like just plain common sense–the kind of sense that seems a rare commodity today. Maybe it is a sign of the times that common sense can sound radical and can be labeled as such.

In Arguing with Idiots Beck takes on small minds and big governments. In a question and answer format he answers the objections of “idiots” on a series of hot-button issues: capitalism, the second amendment, education, energy, unions, illegal immigration, the nanny state, home ownership, and economics. He also looks to the long history of progressive Presidents (focusing on Wilson and Roosevelt and showing how contemporary Presidents are little different) and offers a refresher course on the U.S. Constitution. You probably know exactly the kinds of things he stands for and the kinds of things he hates, so I will not recount them all for you. If you don’t know, just imagine what Rush Limbaugh would say and you’re on the right track.

The book is assembled in a kind of scrapbook format that features endless sidebars and callouts and cartoons and other visual distractions. There are even bits of colored text labeled “ADD Moments” woven almost right into the main body of the book. It makes for a rather distracting read and perhaps adds just a bit too much levity to what is really a series of very serious topics. Or maybe I just prefer the straight dope. Regardless, Beck does a very good job of taking a wrecking ball to countless idiotic objections to common sense solutions. From beginning to end he relies on his trademark sarcastic humor and offers plenty of moments when the reader will laugh or roll his eyes or, more likely, both.

Strangely, the book has a very, very abrupt ending. One moment you’re reading through the flow of text. The next moment you flip the page and are surprised to see that the book is over and that you are into the end notes. Just like that. Call this one of my pet peeves. Couldn’t Beck have tacked on at least a couple of pages just to wrap things up? You and I both know that he certainly didn’t run out of words.

Despite an abrupt ending and despite all the distraction, Arguing with Idiots does its job in standing up for common sense against the relentless, idiotic attacks against it. It’s quite an enjoyable read.

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