Here are reviews of random books, movies, and other media. I certainly don't agree with everything in the media below, but if they encourage me to think new thoughts, they are interesting to me. The ones I find really interesting and recommend reading/seeing I've marked with "!!!!".
I've certainly read many more books, and seen many more movies, than what's listed below. I just don't have time to comment on all of it, and I've only just started to put this page together. But perhaps you'll find pointers to interesting media here, even though this is quite incomplete.
Oh, I've included links so you can immediately go to Amazon.com and buy them in some cases. If you buy it by following the link, I get a small cut - which I then use to buy more books. So if you do follow a link and buy it, my thanks in advance!
History presented as a "list of facts" is worthless. But analysis of history to explain what happened (examining cause and effect), sufficient that it can help us understand the present, predict the future, or tell us what we should do next, is deeply interesting. If a book has a theory that explains (parts of) the past and predicts the future (think psychohistory), then it's an especially interesting book to me.
"To a Western observer, schooled in the theory and practice of Western freedom, it is precisely the lack of freedom - freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny - that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world. But the road to democracy, as the Western experience amply demonstrates, is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles. If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination... For the time being, the choice is their own." !!!!!
There's a very interesting National Geographic series based on it (your local library may have a copy, and certainly Netflix does) - but of course the book presents much more material. You can buy your own copies of the Guns, Germs, and Steel DVDs as well. !!!!!
In chapter 1, he shows that in countries where the annual per capita income is $2700 or greater, a democracy tends to less political violence than an autocracy. But where the per capita income is less, democracies (defined merely as "had an election") tend to have more violence, for a variety of reasons. Personally, I think his definition of "democracy" is too weak (it does not include "rule of law" or "protection of the rights of minorities") but I see his point. It also shows why, for many of these leaders, miscounting the vote (often combined with other dirty tricks) is so tempting.
In chapter 3 he examines ethnic politics. Discussions on policy choices get crowded out by identity politics, and identity politics also leads to polarized results. Many studies have found that ethnic diversity causes systemically worse public services (it's causal, not just correlated). The basic problem is that people are more willing to trust people from their own ethnic group, and trust is necessary for public services. Interestingly, diversity causes an advantage in private economic activity in higher-income nations; diversity raises team productivity (presumably because of its increase in the range of skills, perspectives, and so on). On page 60, he makes an intriguing claim: "This is clearly consistent with the contrast between America and Europe; the as yet more homogenous societies of Europe have a larger public sector". Unfortunately, the "beneficial effects of diversity only set in at higher levels of income".
His analysis of civil war (in chapter 5) is interesting; rather than focusing on the causes, he presumes that there will always be someone in a country that has a grievance, and then primarily focuses on how prone that country is to having a civil war based on its circumstances. A country is at a greater risk for civil war if it is poor with a low growth rate, unsurprisingly. Another risk is being dependent on natural resources (e.g., Angola diamonds); they provide a ready source of rebel financing, provide something to fight over, and enable the government to function without taxing citizen income (gradually detaching the government from what citizens want). Ethnic diversity, religious diversity, a large proportion of men aged 15-25, and a history with previous civil wars all increase the risk of civil war. The presence of forests didn't matter, but the presence of mountains did: Mountains greatly increased the risk of civil war (as they provide ready-made hideouts for rebels). Surprisingly, its colonial experience tends to have little to do with the risk of civil war.
"Conventionally, the governments of the bottom billion are regarded as internationally powerless... they see themselves as still entrapped by the bullying of more powerful nations. I think that this victim-bully imagery has been hugely disfunctional. It has masked a radically different reality: individually, the governments of the bottom billion have too much sovereignty, not too little... they have seldom formed forged strong national identities to compete with their ancient social identifiers of ethnicity and religion. As a result, thought too small for security, they are too large for the social cohesion that is hugely helpful for the provision of public goods." (page 198-199). He thne makes a very controverial claim that the emphasis on "national sovereignty" is often a smokescreen in these countries: "the most enduring legacy of the colonial experience is the excessive respect given... to the notion of national sovereignty. In reality, the typical society of the bottom billion does not have national sovereignty. It has yet to become a nation as opposed to a state: so it lacks the cohesion needed to produce effective restraints upon either the the conduct of the electrions or the subsequent power of the winner. As a result, it [merely] has presidential sovereignty. No wonder presidents are jealous of national sovereignty: they are jealous of their own power." (page 200).
Perhaps most interesting, but most controversial, is where he tries to use these analysis to prescribe solutions. These nations are often too small to provide many services, but merging or effective multinational cooperation are simply impractical in most cases for them. His "proposal 1" (page 202) would be for providing a "powerful carrot" for such governments that sign up for a voluntary international standard for fair elections, and that "powerful carrot" would for the international community to commit itself to reinstate (by force) that elected government should a coup d'etat occur. I think this would have to be done case-by-case, where done. While it's all well and good to say "rich countries should help poor ones", that's the same as saying "your children should die for foreigners without benefit to your country", and that is correctly a harder argument. Also, I think there would need to be other conditions; at the very least, the "opposition" party members would need to be guaranteed safe (else the "winners" are likely to kill off their opposition, a sad and repetitive tale). He has two other proposals: "Enforcing probity in public spending" (ensuring that money is well spent) and "international supply of security". Earlier in the book, he also notes approvingly of something else that works: Building a sense of national identity. On page 66-68, he discusses Indonesia and Tanzania, where they focused on standardizing on one national language, inserted pan-country history into school curricula, hammered home the rhetoric of national identity, forbid ethnic platforms, and so on.
This is a sequel to his book The Bottom Billion. I haven't read Bottom Billion yet, but it's definitely on my to-read list.
Yet the authors do a good job arguing that companies have actually become (on average) more ethical, more humane, more socially responsible than in the past; they also argue that the concept of the company has been one of the West's great competitive advantages. Indeed, they strongly make the point (page 186) that "the modern company still needs a franchise from society, and the terms of that franchise still matter enormously. From the company's point of view, two clouds have gathered... corporate scandals and... social responsibility." Companies now often do good works, in part because they fear what will happen if they do not. And perhaps the best thing about companies is that they have developed ways to create products and services that are far more affordable than they were before, giving wealth to us all.
Ronald Coase's 1937 article "The Nature of the Firm" argues that the main reason why a company exists is because it minimizes the transaction costs of coordinating a particular economic activity; bring all the people in-house, and you reduce the costs of "negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction." But these gains must be balanced against "hierarchy costs" - the costs of central managers ignoring dispersed information. This is interesting to consider when examining open source software projects, which also enable coordination of economic activity, and tend to use wide-open mailing lists to counter hierarchy costs.
In case you're curious, I get a "cut" through the Amazon Associates program. It's not a way to get rich, but it's a nice little extra. Thanks to everyone who buys a book through this page and adds to my tip jar. In the future I might add hReview or some similar format.
Feel free to see my home page at https://dwheeler.com.