Saturday, December 29, 2012

The 5 Best Nonfiction Books of 2012

Not too fond of End-Of-Year-Lists, but was asked today what I thought best books of 2012 were.  Since 95% of my reading is nonfiction, I'll limit it to this category. 

This list is onely those books published in 2012....not one published in earlier years which I just got around to reading the past twelve months. That list would include  Postwar, Tony Judt's magnificent history of Europe from 1945-1989; Mario Morino's thought provoking look at the challenge to nonprofits Leap Of Reason, as well as Marshall Goldman's exposition about what leaders must do to become more successful What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

With that said, here are the five books which most impacted my thinking: 

The Orwellian restrictions on speech and thought on American college campuses is an extraordinarily dangerous but frequently overlooked development over the past three decades. “Unlearning Liberty” is generating renewed interest in the subject of campus censorship and the drift away from classical liberal ideals. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Free Speech advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is more effective than most in making the case that liberty matters. He rightfully calls college administrators on the carpet for no small offense: a total disregard to the principles inherent in the First Amendment.

The book is liberally sprinkled with examples from the past 15 years of horrendous (and yet typical) violations of university students’free speech rights: a student in Indiana punished for reading a book, a student in Georgia expelled for a pro-environment collage he posted on Facebook, students at Yale banned from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on a T shirt, and students across the country corralled into tiny “free speech zones.” Lukianoff further demonstrates how our universities’ cultures of censorship are bleeding into the larger society and stunting our ability as a nation to engage in rational discussion.

Great quote: "The idea that if you just let people talk, it will be this pit of racist pandemonium is sort of childish and it oversimplifies. But it is a great justification for having a lot of power over speech,"  

Murray first came onto the scene in 1984 with his now classic book Losing Ground, which detailed how America’s social policy was inhibiting economic mobility and creating a permanent dependent underclass.   He followed that with his hugely controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve using data correlating IQ and class.  Because he included statistical subsets by race, many interpreted the book as arguing some kind of link between race and IQ.

In Coming Apart, Murray wisely avoid racial sensitivities by focusing solely upon whites from differing economic strata, and how the cultural standards of each strata is essence locking in people to the class in which they are born.

He correctly identifies the huge differences between the people from "Belmont" (a fictional place where white people have jobs, a stable home life, go to good schools, stay married, don't watch much TV and never smoke) and "Fishtown" (another fictional place where they smoke, watch lots of TV, and are likely to wear a jacket with a Budweiser logo on it when they go to a smoky bar with friends).  Living, as I do, in a university town on the fringes of Appalachia, it was extremely revealing to have a framework for understanding just how different my "Baby Belmont" neighbors differ from my Fishtown neighbors. Murray nails it  when he suggests that the people in Belmont are capturing all of the good jobs, and maintaining a lifestyle of privilege and stability that is gone from the Fishtown world. He rural regions of Pennsylvania when business owners "can't find the right people" for open jobs, while there exists plenty of underemployed people who wish they could get a job paying 1/2 of what that employer is offering. But the people from Fishtown have neither the basic literacy/numeracy skills nor the cultural work ethic to compete for such jobs.

The Real Crash by Peter Schiff

The ‘recovery’ is bull droppings.   You know it.   Pundits constantly try to convince us everything’s okay: the stock market is on the rise, jobs are growing, and the worst of it is over. But in your gut you know they’re wrong.

Peter Schiff is probably best known for starting Euro-Pacific Capital as well as being an early angel investor in a number of highly successful tech companies.  He’s also one of the few who predicted the financial crisis long before 2008….rightly diagnosing the emergence of a housing bubble which was going to destroy the banking system.   In The Real Crash, Schiff argues the worst is yet to come.  In the pages he discusses the severe problems we face in the current economic and political landscape and uses the historical path that led us here to show how far off track we have veered from basic macro-economic sanity. Schiff also provides several solutions as to how we could restructure the federal, state, and local government and expenditures in ways that would lessen the coming economic disaster.  Unfortunately, he also admits that most of these ideas are politically unfeasible today and thus a traumatic crash is probably unavoidable. What makes the book particularly worthwhile is that everything he says about the current fiscal situation and where we are heading makes perfect sense.


It’s almost criminal that Greenwald’s book did not generate greater discussion during the 2012 election season.  A insightful and blistering critique of how the US government has come to provide legal cover for a growing array of elites in this country…starting with the current occupant of the White House. 

A columnist at the UK Guardian (and with at the time this was published), Greenwald divides this book into five sections. The first covers the origin of elite immunity and talks about how the problem of inequality first developed in the public sector. The second covers the spread of elite immunity to the private sector including Wall Street. The third section entitled Too Big to Jail deals with how many on Wall Street and in the banks have escaped prosecution. The fourth entitled Immunity by Presidential Decree deals with presidential pardons; and the final section on the American justice system's second tier deals with how the system works for non-elites.

Greenwald is a tight and powerful writer. The pages are filled with a controlled fury at what the US government has become.  With Liberty and Justice For Some is a great systemic look at how our government is morphing into a giant protection racket.

The subtitle is The Origins of the Digital Universe, and covers the origins of computing systems, the connections between early computers and war and the intriguing role of the great mathematician  John von Neumann.

Alan Turing had the original concept of a ‘computing machine’, but it was von Neumann which brought it to life.  This book recounts the path breaking efforts needed to build a novel computer in the late 1940s. Today it is it is easy to take the essential idea of a computer for granted. That idea was not the transistor or the integrated circuit or even the programming language but the groundbreaking notion that you could have a machine where both data AND the instructions for manipulating that data could be stored in the same place by being encoded in a common binary language. The resulting concept of a stored program is at the foundation of every single computer in the world. By present standards the first computer they built was microscopically small, but the technological future it unleashed has been limitless.

Best part of the book is the description where during the Second World War, eighteen mathematicians and statisticians — including Jacob Wolfowitz, Harold Hotelling, George Stigler, Abraham Wald, and the future economist Milton Friedman — came together to decide whether it would be better to outfit fighter planes with four 50 millimeter guns or eight 20 millimeter ones.  This section alone is worth the price of the book as it’s a fascinating look at how great minds approach a problem (and in this case a whole cluster of great minds)




Lisa Schuman said...

Great list. I don't read nearly as much nonfiction as I should.

Anonymous said...

Comparing lists over at largeheartedboy, you were one of the few who had Greenwald's book on their list. I agree it's almost criminal there was not more discussion about this during the election. I'm an Obama voter, but no one forced him to defend Kill Lists or his absolute unwillingness to have the Justice Department go after big banks. The book was both an infuriating as well as depressing read.

fitzpatrick said...

Murray gets overlooked because of the mau-mauing over Bell Curve. Seems no one in media believes its OK to take him seriously despite decades of scholarly work

Anonymous said...

peter shiff also has a daily podcast that is an absolute bookmark

Anonymous said...

I'm 2 yrs late to this party, but this is a great list of books Thx for mentioning Greenwald before he became big with Snowdan