Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Recent Reading: Where Next?

The New York Review of Books has had interesting comments on the literary personae of Barack Obama. Colm Toibin compares his autobiographical writings to those of James Baldwin.
It seemed important, as both men set about making their marks on the world, for them to establish before anything else that their stories began when their fathers died and that they set out alone without a father's shadow or a father's permission. James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, published in 1951, begins: "On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died." Baldwin was almost nineteen at the time. Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, begins also with the death of his father: "A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news."

While Zadie Smith in their most recent podcast claims this comparison is obvious and contributes many further interesting comments.

Michael Tomasky reviews one item on Obama's reading list "Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age" by Larry M. Bartels.

But the importance of these and some other findings in the book—for example, the aggressively negative impact on equality of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts—is that they use scholarly methods to provide political explanations for economic problems. Social scientists don't usually see things this way. To most economists, income levels, like periods of expansion and contraction, must have explanations rooted in the business cycle.

But Bartels now joins Paul Krugman and others—Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson come notably to mind[7] —in the growing number of liberal social scientists who acknowledge the power of the conservative political apparatus aimed at achieving ideological goals such as minimally regulated markets and low taxes for the well-to-do. That such goals could not be justified as socially fair or economically effective did not matter. In his book The Conscience of a Liberal,[8] Krugman announced his conversion to the view that political decisions by Republicans, not the vagaries of the economic cycle, were the cause of inequality, and he pressed the need for a major political challenge to the conservative forces responsible. Now, writes Bartels, "the most important lesson of this book is a very simple one: politics matters."

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