Memoirs – Brian Mulroney

“What would be said of a generation that sought the stars but permitted its lakes and streams to languish and die?” – Mulroney

Mulroney was the second-ever Conservative Canadian Prime Minister to be re-elected for a second term (the first was John A, Canada’s first PM). He was also deeply unpopular at several points during his time in office, and remains very controversial. He did, however, orchestrate a number of policies with lasting impact: the Free Trade Agreement with the US, introducing the GST, fighting South African Apartheid, encouraging Quebec to join La Francophonie, moderating spending after the large increase in national debt from Pierre Trudeau, and signing an acid rain agreement with the US.

His memoirs are not a post-politics, statesman’s view of his time in office, so if you’re looking for objectivity look elsewhere. He clearly still has strong feelings on some of the events that occurred, particularly what he sees as a betrayal by Pierre Trudeau when Trudeau violently opposed Mulroney’s attempt to get Quebec to agree to the Canadian constitution at Meech Lake – Trudeau brought in the Canadian constitution in 1982 without the approval of Quebec, and Mulroney believed that without a deal that brought Quebec in from the cold, separatism was a real threat. Whether that’s true or not remains disputed, and Trudeau argued that Mulroney was simply pandering to Quebec.

At some points it feels like he’s trying to rewrite history by putting his own views forward. He is also charmingly frank on some points, however, and comes across as a phenomenally gifted negotiator and master of interpersonal relations. Almost all his major successes were about negotiation, from international treaties and fighting apartheid in South Africa, to negotiating constitutional agreements with unanimous support from the provinces, something even Pierre Trudeau couldn’t manage. His relationships with others served Canada well at a number of junctures, including when the UK attempted to stop the expansion of the G-5 to include Canada, an attempt that almost succeeded until Reagan, who got along famously with Mulroney, stood up and refused to be part of a club that didn’t have Canada as a member. I would guess that’s why he is still angry about Trudeau: he took a perceived betrayal hard.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy, interestingly, has been the environment. In 2006 he was honoured as the Greenest PM in history: beyond signing the acid rain treaty, he created eight new national parks and brought in the environmental protection act, and remains vocal about global warming. Quite a contrast to more modern Conservative party positions.

Napoleon Quotes (Napoleon the Great)

Having reviewed Napoleon the Great earlier this week (here), I thought I’d share some Napoleon quotes, drawn from his letters.

“read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolfus, Prince Eugene and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great captain.”

“‘Do you know how I managed?’ Napoleon later recalled of this period of his life. ‘By never entering a café or going into society; by eating dry bread, and brushing my own clothes so that they might last the longer. I lived like a bear, in a little room, with books for my only friends … These were the joys and debaucheries of my youth.’”

“Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death, all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.”

“If you make war, wage it with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.”

“Nothing is lost while courage remains.”

“The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished…Torture produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind that the interrogator wishes to hear.”

“Law must do nothing but impose a general principle. It would be vain if one were to try to foresee every possible situation; experience would prove that much has been omitted.”

“If you want to dine well, dine with Cambacérès; if you want to dine badly, dine with Lebrun; if you want to dine quickly, dine with me.” (He would generally spend less than ten minutes at table)

Napoleon the Great – Andrew Roberts

“Vaunting ambition can be a terrible thing, but if allied to great ability – a protean energy, grand purpose, the gift of oratory, near-perfect recall, superb timing, inspiring leadership – it can bring about extraordinary outcomes.”

Since 2004, the Fondation Napoléon has been editing and publishing Napoleon’s 33,000 extant letters, many of which had not been previously published. A man’s whose life has been picked over in extraordinary detail–a fifteen page treatise has been written about the time he stopped for a cup of coffee at a blacksmith’s house on July 19th, 1804–has suddenly been further illuminated, and in his own words. Napoleon is not an easy subject, often intentionally trying to shape the impression he left for the future, but his words still provide an invaluable source of insight. Roberts does an excellent job using those letters to create a compelling and fascinating biography.

Roberts feels Napoleon has been the target of a rewriting of history by the victors, in this case the English. His goal is to show why the epithet ‘the Great’ is well-deserved, and to a large extent he succeeds. Love him or not, Napoleon had quite the CV: came to power only six years after entering the country as a penniless refugee; defeated six different Austrian armies before his 28th birthday; represented the ideals of progress, meritocracy, and a rational future to much of Europe; acted as a law-giver, civil engineer, and nation-builder for France; and inspired such loyalty in his people that more volunteered to accompany him to exile than could be accommodated. Today, he is often castigated as a warmonger, but in several cases, it was the British who provoked war with him. The British also used equally ruthless tactics, particularly Wellington’s scorched earth tactics in Portugal.

Napoleon shaped the history of Europe and probably of the world itself, and if he had many failings, he was at least often aware of them. Roberts argues that his greatest may have been his love and trust in family: promoting his siblings to king and queens of Europe, they almost always let him down or failed him. In Russia, in contrast, Roberts argues that Napoleon suffered less from hubris than usually believed: Napoleon expected a brief border war, and failed to anticipate the Russian retreat into their heartland. It was a mistake, a disastrous one, but not initially overconfidence: he never planned to fight in Russia itself.

Napoleon is a fascinating guy, the good with the bad, and if this biography is a little more focused on the good than the bad, that is perhaps understandable. It skims over a few things, such as his marriage to Josephine, but by and large does a good job adding nuance to his character, often by drawing on his own words. The one question that isn’t answered is the world he visualized if he had succeeded. Did he truly believe France could control all of Europe, including Britain? It could never have controlled Russia. This endgame is something he does not describe in letters, and so we are left to wonder.

Inside the Nudge Unit – David Halpern

The UK Nudge Unit is the most trendy thing in behavioural economics these days, and quite possibly one of the most exciting things in government. To my mind, their basic message is twofold. First, that people should pay a little more attention to the details of how policies and programs are implemented; little things, like how a notice of overdue taxes is phrased, can make a big difference to how effective it is. Second, that we should be testing our policies: that experiments and randomized control trials can play a key role in making sure we know what works and how governments can best serve their citizens.

The idea behind behavioural insights is that small, even superficial changes to things can make a big difference. If you tell people that everyone else pays their taxes, they’re more likely to do so; if you offer to clean people’s lofts if they agree to insulate it, even if you charge them for the cleaning, they’re more likely to insulate their lofts (which reduces carbon emissions); texting people that they still owed fines to the UK Court service increased payment rates, saving money on bailiffs and courts’ time. Small changes, but a few percentage points increase in taxes paid can save millions of dollars.

The team started with an admirable focus: if they didn’t manage to transform at least two major areas of policy, spread understanding of behavioural approaches across the UK government, and achieve a tenfold return on the cost of the unit, it would be shut down on its second anniversary. More government programs could do with such a motivator. The fact that they’re still around testifies to the enormous impact they’ve had.

David Halpern, as head of the Nudge Unit, is clearly a true believer, and he glosses over some things that I suspect his critics would not. He doesn’t mention, for example, one of the Nudge Unit’s most controversial policies, attempting to convince immigrants to leave the UK: while he discusses some potential ethical objections to nudging generally, he rapidly concludes that none of them hold water and that nudging is perfectly acceptable, which I’m not sure all readers will agree with. He also spends a lot of time explaining behavioural economics more generally, but to be honest if you want a general primer I’d start with Nudge or Thinking Fast and Slow – the value added of this book is the actual story of the Nudge Unit, and it is unfortunate he doesn’t spend more time on that. Still, if you’re interested in behavioural economics, well worth the read, though I wouldn’t start with it.

One Man’s View of the World – Lee Kuan Yew

“I am in favour of sending students on scholarships to Britain instead [of the USA], because I am sure they will come back. In the UK, you do not stay behind because you are not welcome.” – Lee Kuan Yew

Whether you think Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator or a saviour, it’s hard not to agree that he was hugely influential. Singapore went from a city that was actually thrown out of the Malaysia union, with rather bleak prospects, to an economic powerhouse that remains what is probably the most developed country in Asia. With a ruthless focus on human capital, eliminating corruption, and meritocracy, it is rich, successful, and – to some – overly sanitized.

One Man’s View of the World is Lee’s views on trends in the wider world, taken region by region. It is interesting because he is scathingly blunt, as the quote above suggests. He dismisses Europe as doomed to decline and discord because they wouldn’t accept political unification along with their economic union, and without it the countries are all too small to compete; he believes the Middle East is in trouble as long as most people’s first loyalty is to tribe, not country, which means they fail to acknowledge the equality of all citizens and so neglect much of their human capital, particularly women; he respects American dynamism, but worries their educational system is phenomenal at the top but fails everyone else, weakening the middle class; and he believes China will continue to flourish, but because of its emphasis on a strong center, will evolve very different institutions that the Western world, sometimes to its cost, as for example its failure to have an independent judiciary.

Some of the book is a bit fluffy, particularly some interviews he gives to the Singapore press, but the parts where he gives his frank opinion on the medium-term prospects of various regions are definitely worth the read. Much like his record, whether you agree or disagree, and opinions are heated on both sides, his ideas are worth thinking about.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics – Richard Thaler

“My only advice for reading the book is stop reading when it is no longer fun.” – Thaler, Misbehaving

Economics is tremendously influential today, perhaps with some justification. Unlike many social sciences, it works from a single unified body of theory, based on the idea that people optimize. Paired with the mathematical tools of constrained optimization and equilibrium, that cohesiveness has given it significant strength. It isn’t correct, of course, but it’s a useful model, and empirical research doesn’t depend on it anyway. Thaler, however, has championed the push to expand theoretical models to include other factors, enriching the models and leading to behavioural economics.

Dick Thaler is a past president of the American Economics Association, a professor of behavioural economics at the University of Chicago, and an all-around swell guy (really – I’ve seen him speak, and he seemed great). Nudge, a previous book of his, has been a huge bestseller and tremendously influential in governments around the world. Misbehaving is less directly applicable, but just as well written and, for me at least, just as interesting.

Misbehaving tells the story of the history of behavioural economics, which conveniently for Thaler is also basically a biography of him. The book provides a solid introduction to behavioural econ, though perhaps not as thorough as Thinking Fast and Slow, but has the added advantage of also providing a great summary of the history of economics more generally, since at each stage it contrasts behavioural and typical economics.

Whether you’re wondering why people don’t sell wine that has appreciated in value, even if they wouldn’t buy such expensive wine, why people pay more for beer when it’s sold at a resort, or even if you have questions that don’t involve alcohol, Misbehaving is a great book. It will be more entertaining if you know a bit of economics already, but even if you don’t, I think it’s a great introduction to the field and to how the field has evolved in the past 40 years. Plus, behavioural economics is awesome!

Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View – Bob Plecas

Bill Bennett was premier of BC (governor, for American readers) for eleven years with a majority government each time, and he managed the rare trick of retiring while he was still on top. His successor, Bill Vander Zalm, won the subsequent election, unlike Kim Campbell when she took over for Mulroney at the federal level, for example.

Bill Bennett oversaw Expo 86, which included a massive redevelopment of False Creek in Vancouver and the Skytrain; the construction of the Coquihalla Highway; chaired the premiers council while Pierre Trudeau was working on constitutional repatriation; and, most controversially, implemented a massive program of spending restraint, gutting a number of social services and labour laws in an effort to strengthen the BC economy, which was struggling in response to a crash in commodity prices.

He remains a controversial figure, but I suspect even his critics would admit that he truly believed in the policies he promoted, to the extent that he intentionally bore the blame for them so that his successor would not be tainted. He also implemented a number of lower-key reforms in an effort to achieve good financial management, and several of those have since become standard procedure among Canadian governments, including changing the role of the Treasury Board to oversee financial accountability, and using an external auditor to review provincial finances.

Whether you agree with his policies (and respect his legacy) depends on which side of the ideological divide you’re on – he is loathed by the left in BC, and respected by the right. His focus on financial accountability, however, is something that both sides of the aisle could learn from. Government spending, as Plecas rightly points out, is at the margin: politicians care about new programs and ideas, because that’s what gets votes. In order to afford new programs, though, you have to manage your current programs carefully. A lessons all governments could take to heart.

Economist Best Books of 2015

The Economist Best Books for 2015 has come out. The full list is here, but a few that leaped out at me:

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. By Robert Putnam. Simon & Schuster; 386 pages; $28 and £18.99

The most important divide in America today is class, not race, and the place where it matters most is in the home. In a thoughtful and persuasive book, the former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government analyses the growing gulf between how the rich and the poor raise their children, adding a liberal voice to long-standing conservative complaints about family breakdown

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. By Bernard Cornwell. Harper Collins; 352 pages; $35. William Collins; £25

A great and terrible story of a battle that was fought 200 years ago, told with energy and clarity by a writer who has a deep understanding of men in combat and why they do what they do. “Waterloo” proves that Bernard Cornwell’s non-fiction is as fine as his novels, if not finer.

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. By Eugene Rogan. Basic Books; 512 pages; $32. Allen Lane; £25

How a multinational Muslim empire was destroyed by the first world war, by a historian of the 20th century who is director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. By Mary Beard. Liveright; 608 pages; $35. Profile; 606 pages; £25

A masterly new chronicle, by Britain’s most engaging historian of the ancient world, about Rome from its myth-shrouded origins to the early third century. She shows that the key to its dominance was granting citizenship to so many people.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. By Andrea Wulf. Knopf; 496 pages; $30. John Murray; £25

Explorer, polymath, friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolívar, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. His ideas are as relevant today as they ever were.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics. By Richard Thaler. Norton; 432 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £20

Why people don’t behave the way economic models predict lies at the heart of this brilliant intellectual history by the founder of this once-obscure blend of psychology and economics.

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. By Anne-Marie Slaughter. Random House; 352 pages; $28. Oneworld; 352 pages; £16.99

Why organisations will have to change radically to make work-life balance a reality, by a respected foreign-policy expert who left her high-octane government job to spend more time with her two teenage sons. A rational, well-argued call to arms. Move over Sheryl Sandberg.

The Fishermen. By Chigozie Obioma. Little, Brown; 304 pages; $26. One; £14.99

A lyrical retelling of the Cain-and-Abel story in which four Nigerian brothers play truant from school, go fishing and meet a soothsayer who predicts that one brother will kill another. Not yet 30, Chigozie Obioma is a writer to watch.

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

“The high-energy fuels, sugars or whatever they are, are coaxed into releasing their energy in stages, down through a cascade of chemical reactions, each one feeding into the next, like a stream tumbling down a series of small waterfalls, turning one small water wheel after another. Whatever the details, all the water wheels and cogs and drive shafts of life are ultimately powered by the sun.”

There are some amazing things in nature, things we typically take for granted: rainbows, the seasons, earthquakes, matter itself. Dawkins doesn’t take them for granted, and in his new book, he aims to explain them in as simple a manner as possible, taking joy in the wonder of nature.

That joy in nature comes through clearly, as it often does in Dawkins’ writings. Though The Magic of Reality isn’t labeled as such, it’s mostly a science primer: if you have any science background, you’ll know much of what he says already. That said, it spans enough of areas of science almost any reader will still learn some things, and it could make a great gift for a precocious child interested in science.

From why we have rainbows and earthquakes to how we evolved and why there are so many different kinds of animals, Dawkins takes on a whole range of questions. His older works glory in nature, and invite the reader to share in his passion for it: his love of science illuminates his writings. His more recent work, however, has tended towards the bitter – I would speculate that his love for the natural world calcified into a hatred for religion. The Magic of Reality is an attempt to return to his earlier method, with some success. His joy in science is back, but he still can’t resist the occasional jab at religion: the final section, considering why bad things happen, is better left to philosophers and he doesn’t have much to say. Still, it’s much better.

Not a must read, and I’d probably rather read his early books first, but still well worth it, and The Magic of Reality could also make a good Christmas gift.

The Ramayana – Valmiki

“Whoe’er this noble poem reads
That tells the tale of Ráma’s deeds,
Good as the Scriptures, he shall be
From every sin and blemish free.”

From the Royal Palace of Thailand to the temples of Bagan in Malaysia and Ankor Wat in Cambodia, some of the most common scenes you will see traveling in Southeast Asia are those drawn from the Ramayana, a Hindu holy book and the story of the perfect man, Rama. In order to kill a demon (possibly the king of Sri Lanka) who can only be killed by a mortal, Vishnu takes human form, and is born as a prince, Rama. When his wife is abducted by the same demon (somewhat reminiscent of the Iliad), Rama goes on a quest to recover her, gathering allies along the way. In doing so, he models the virtues he represents: care for the people, respect for the caste system, love for family, self-discipline, duty, and filial loyalty.

It’s a good story, and interesting to modern eyes also for the traditional values it represents. The motivating theme, the theft of a wife, is similar to the Iliad, but the cultural values that are embedded in it are very different. Rama uses no cunning or trickery to defeat the demon, for example: unlike Odysseus, he simply confronts them directly at the head of a vast army, and fights until the enemy is defeated, which takes some time – the poem is 24,000 verses long, over seven books. Considerably more emphasis is placed on the importance of hermits and saints, too, instead of just heroes and kings.

Unfortunately, I ended up with a poor translation of the Ramayana, by the Indologist Ralph Griffith. To say he is opinionated is to understate the issue: he cuts sections based on prudishness about subject or language, because he thinks they were added later, or just because he decides they are repetitive. In some ways, the translation is best read as a separate work, rather than a true translation. In part, this is because he chose to maintain the verse structure of the poem, translating it into iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. Though clearly imposing considerable sacrifices of language, this does retain the original rhythmic feeling of what is after all an epic poem, which I appreciate. One can’t have everything, I suppose, but it does make choosing a translation difficult.