Under Another Sky – Charlotte Higgins

“I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape — not just through the sublime contours of the Northumberland hills, but in humbler urban and suburban tracts of territory.”

If you pull a pound coin out of your wallet (assuming you’re in the UK, or like carrying the currencies of many countries around with you), you’ll see the phrase Decus et Tutamen written on the edge of the coin. It’s from Virgil: Aeneas bestows some armour on one of his soldiers as prize for valour, and describes the cuirass as ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – Decus Et Tutamen. Slightly more recently, Charles II put in on English coins. Why? The goal was to prevent milling: if thieves attempted to shave off bits of precious metal from the coins, they would destroy the phrase. Hence: ornament and safeguard. No longer quite so relevant with a modern coin, but kept for history’s sake.

The Romans have played what is in some ways an astonishingly pivotal role in much of history: long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, children were taught Latin in school while their elders studied and argued over Cannae, the Gracchi, and the reasons for the fall. Higgins has written a book devoted to the Romans in Britain, or rather, how their presence has influenced and continues to influence the British.

The book ends up part travelogue, part history text, and part repository of interesting facts. It works because Higgins has a focus on beautiful imagery; as she discusses her trips to the extant sites of Roman Britain, she summons them up for the reader, before discussing how they affected later British generations. Despite being on the fringes of empire, England also has a lot to say: Constantine the Great, who turned the Roman Empire Christian, was crowned in York, and other emperors made repeated trips, both to visit and to build walls.

If you have no interest in Romans, I’m not sure this book will sell you on them: if you’re already a believer, this is a nice way to learn more about Roman Britain.

How Much is Enough – Robert & Edward Skidelsky

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” – Epicurus

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that in the generations to come, the increasing prosperity of the world would mean people would work steadily less: where once it took 50 hours of week to feed the family, it would only take 15, leaving more time for fruitful leisure time. That’s not exactly how it has worked out.

Why not presents an interesting problem. Three broad theses suggest themselves: because people enjoy work, because they feel pressured to, or because they want the things money can buy. The first is almost certainly true for some of the wealthy, and may explain why we see investment bankers working so hard they don’t even have time to spend the money they earn. The second has some appeal, but can’t really explain why the poor work fewer hours than the rich. The Skidelskys find the third the most compelling, however; people today might well make enough to meet their basic needs on 15 hours a week, but to afford the status goods we crave – big houses, iphones, etc. – we must work much more.

That argument, though, hinges on a distinction between what we need and what we want. That’s a tricky line to draw: humans can survive without internet access, obviously, but are they full participants in society without it? And does that make it a need or a want? Where you draw the line is going to depend a lot on your values.

The Skidelskys raise this important question, but don’t really answer it. Indeed, judging by how the first 2/3 of the book is spent, the core component of their good life is criticizing economists. Only at the very end do they outline what they see as the ‘needs’ for a good life: Health, Security, Respect, Personality, Harmony with Nature, Friendship, and Leisure.

Robert Skidelsky is the author of one of the seminal biographies of Keynes, and though I haven’t read it I’ve heard nothing but good things. In How Much is Enough, though, I find him a bit too much of an armchair philosopher: it’s clear they’ve thought a lot about this issue, but it’s not clear they know much about it. They cite Easterlin’s findings on happiness, for example, without mentioning the fact his results have been profoundly questioned: they criticize GDP without discussing the many valuable criticisms other people have made. The book asks important and interesting questions, but as a reader looking for answers and not complaints about economics, I’m not sure it was what I was looking for.

The Uses of Pessimism – Roger Scruton

“The knowledge we need in the unforeseeable circumstances of human life is neither derived from nor contained in the experience of a single person, nor can it be deduced a priori from universal laws. This knowledge is bequeathed to us by customs, institutions, and habits of thought that have shaped themselves over generations, through the trials and errors of people many of whom have perished in the course of acquiring it.”

Envision your perfect world, of justice tempered with mercy, of wealth and compassion for all. Is it obtainable? And if so, to what lengths would you be willing to go to achieve it? This, argues Scruton, is the key danger of unconstrained optimism: if all we do is focus on the best possible outcome, then almost any action is justified in achieving it, whether muzzling the media or violating civil rights. Better, instead, to be pessimistic: to worry about what happens if things go wrong, as well as if they go right.

Regular readers will know I like to complain about the appropriation of words like liberal and conservative to parties that have very little to do with their traditional roots. Scruton is an exception: he is a classic small-c conservative, so much so that had The Uses of Pessimism been written by Burke, it would likely say very similar things. He argues that conservatism is about understanding that the world is difficult and complicated, and that sometimes our best hopes are not always what is realized: that instead, we must be scrupulous optimists, carefully weighing out costs and benefits using history as a guide.

The book is an insightful one, if not particularly revolutionary (shockingly). As a thoughtful look at conservatism, however, it does very well. Perhaps most surprising is how poorly it correlates to modern political parties: the conservatism Scruton paints is neither Democrat nor Republican, not even Tory or Liberal. It worries about global warming, but believes radical solutions can bring their own dangers: dislikes inequality, but doesn’t believe centralizing power in the government can solve it. Readers will vary in how appealing they find these arguments, of course: they very clearly represent only one side of a discourse. They are, however, a sometimes underrepresented side, due to a modern right that often seems as focused on optimism as anyone else.

Increase Your Financial IQ – Robert T. Kiyosaki

“Ultimately, it is not gold, stocks, real estate, hard work, or money that makes you rich – it is what you know about gold, stocks, real estate, hard work, and money that makes you rich.”

I don’t really know if entrepreneurship can be taught. Critics of traditional education argue that if anything, schools teach the opposite: stay safe, give the accepted answer, and you get an A. Do something different, try something new, and you risk failure – even if you succeed, you may still be marked wrong, and at best you do no better than your peers who took the safe path. It’s not clear that’s what life is like.

Of course, I’m also not sure the point of school is to teach entrepreneurship: there are many things I’d like children to learn, and though risk-taking is one of them, citizenship, confidence, and a solid knowledge base on a range of topics that allows them to participate and contribute to modern society – not to mention reading and math – also score highly. Perhaps schools are better trying to teach knowledge, and leave spiritual growth and personal development to other fora, or perhaps there’s a way to fold in learning such things without formally trying to teach them, by including useful experiences and activities.

Either way, I wish people were more financially literate: as regular blog readers will know, for me it’s one of those things that if you don’t grow up with it, it can be hard to catch up later in life, and yet it seems to play a key role in determining financial security and stability.

The Rich Dad Poor Dad series is a titan among financial literacy books, selling millions upon millions of copies. Given my own interest in financial literacy, regular readers will know I often find reading such books interesting. For me though, Financial IQ is not a success, neither entertaining nor particularly informative. It is mostly fairly tired advice that is unlikely to surprise anyone, as well as some odd tangents on the value of the gold standard, which isn’t well linked to the content of the book. Not recommended.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back – Tim Harford

“Microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macroeconomics concerns things economists are wrong about generally. Or to be more technical, microeconomics is about money you don’t have, and macroeconomics is about money the government is out of.” – P.J. O’Rourke

How, you might wonder, should governments fight recessions? Keynesians suggest that recessions happen because there is too little demand: the answer is to stimulate demand, using government spending and monetary policy. More classical economists suggest it may be because there is insufficient supply: the economy just isn’t producing enough stuff, or has endured a serious shock like a spike in oil prices. To that line, we should stimulate production: reform the economy, increase efficiency.

Undercover Economist Strikes Back is Harford’s attempt to explain macroeconomics, in contrast to his other, microeconomics-focused, books. There’s a lot of solid common sense in it, such as the point that despite Krugman’s bombast, Keynesianism vs classical is almost certainly a false dilemma: in the short run, you should do one, and in the long run, the other.

He also responds well to the concern (often raised by physicists) that the economy simply can’t keep growing because there are finite limits to energy we can use. The second half of that is true, of course, but as Harford rightly points out the first half doesn’t follow. Physicists think about physical processes, and those do require increasing amounts of energy. Economic growth though doesn’t equal energy growth: in the last 30 years in the US, for example, the economy has grown by 2.5% a year, and energy use has actually fallen.

For more wonkish readers, I also learned something amusing: the oft-quoted story about the babysitter group in D.C. usually doesn’t include the ending. They did indeed double the number of scrips as a Keynesian policy, but they then ended up with too many scrips, and the market collapsed again. Not something the proponents of such policies seem to remember when they tell the story.

The book struggles a bit at some points: Harford isn’t a macroeconomist, and it shows. I’m also not sure whether a macroeconomist would be particularly pleased with some of his analysis. Still, if you’re looking for a jovial tour through macroeconomics, Harford is, as always, entertaining, amusing, and enlightening.

The Face of Battle – John Keegan

“Battle, therefore…is essentially a moral conflict. It requires, if it is to take place, a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties and, if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them.”

Much of military history has typically focused on battles, particularly the decisions of the generals or kings and their strategic goals. Keegan doesn’t mind the focus on battle: battle, after all, is to some extent what a military is for. What he objects to is the focus on leaders. As he points out, in a battle a general and a soldier may have very different, even hostile, goals.

The Face of Battle is therefore a study of the psychology of warfare, from the perspective of the individual combatant. What drives a soldier to risk death? A general might think of soldiers as members of their army, but it turns out most soldiers think of themselves as equals within a small group of 6 or 7 fellows: they fight for personal survival and out of fear of incurring the contempt of the rest of the group. Indeed, in the last century, modern armies have been reorganized around just that principle.

At its heart, The Face of Battle argues that battle is a psychological conflict. Until modern wars, most casualties were incurred when an army broke and ran; that was when truly horrific losses could be inflicted. As long as an army kept fighting, however, there limits to the damage weapons could do. Indeed, when a story describes one army as colliding with another, that almost never happens: one will almost inevitably flinch, even flee, the psychological impact rather than the physical one determining the outcome of a battle. Rarely was an army that had not yet fled truly unable to keep fighting – rather, once it had broken psychologically, so much damage could be done it lost its ability to fight.

The question of battle psychology is clearly an interesting one. Killing others, and risking death yourself, puts enormous psychological strain on most people, with effects we still don’t entirely understand. As usual with Keegan, I find his style a bit dense, but the book’s focus on three major battles – Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme – helps make it clearer by imposing more of a narrative structure on much of the book. An interesting and insightful reflection on the nature of war.

A History of Warfare – John Keegan

“Future peacekeepers and peacemakers have much to learn from alternative military cultures, not only that of the Orient but of the primitive world also. There is a wisdom in the principles of intellectual restrain and even of symbolic ritual that needs to be rediscovered.”

Perhaps the best known dictum on military affairs is Clausewitz’s ‘War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.’ This, Keegan argues in History of Warfare, is nonsense. War is fundamentally shaped by many factors, most notably culture, and to ascribe its entire existence as an extension of policy is to confuse modern war with war itself.

To illustrate his point, Keegan surveys much of the history of warfare, from the Yanomamö in South America, who resolved minor disputes with a chest pounding duel (each participant took turns hitting the other on the chest until one surrendered) to Aztec flower wars (yearly wars intended to capture the highest possible rank of captive, who was then tortured to death) to medieval conflicts in which the two sides would agree beforehand how long a siege should last before the other side gave up and was permitted to leave.

Only modern wars, Keegan argues, have truly become about victory at all costs. The problem is that this is a very dangerous way to fight. Restraint, whether the influence of Buddhism on the Samurai or a cultural ethic among a group of tribes, can help limit the harm warriors can do to each other and war can do to the society that hosts it. Humanity needs warriors, he argues, because we all have the potentiality for violence, but we need armies that are disciplined, law-abiding, and moderate.

Military history has lost some of its shine in recent years, for what are probably good reasons. Keegan is one of the top modern military historians, however, known both for his broad, sweeping arguments and his command of the detail of military history. This book accomplishes exactly that: it provides both a great overview of military history in a number of contexts, and uses it to make a broader argument. My only criticism would be that he is not always easy to read: his sentences tend towards the complicated and the multi-clausal. If this is something you’re interested in, though, History of Warfare is the place to start.

 

Controlling the Message – Victoria A. Farrer-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn

“In a system in which any person can share his or her viewpoint given the low entry cost into the social media marketplace of ideas, [can] too much information be detrimental to the American form of democracy?”

The top five most viewed YouTube videos relating to the 2012 American election were all music videos: Obama’s words assembled into Call Me Maybe, an Obama vs. Romney Rap, Obama’s words into Sexy and I Know It, “Mitt Romney Style”, and Obama’s words into Born this Way. Is this boosting political outreach to non-traditional constituencies, or reflective of a broad disinterest and apathy by the electorate? What does it mean that a picture of Obama hugging his wife after the election was the most liked Facebook post ever, or the most re-tweeted photo of all time? Are social networks advancing democratic discourse and citizen engagement, or making us effectively voiceless?

These are the questions Controlling the Message engages with in a series of essays by different authors looking at the effect of technology on America’s 2012 presidential election. The essays vary in quality: some advance interesting ideas or studies, such as one that looks at comment forums and finds the number of negative comments is no more than in normal political conversation. Another explains that in 2012, Obama’s campaign messaged their supporters asking them to urge a particular friend of theirs to vote, register, or volunteer; a carefully organized and minutely targeted campaign to reach the most valuable voters, using social networks.

Others are weaker. Some advance non-falsifiable hypotheses, meaning their findings are basically just circular reasoning: one seemed to treat social networks as a foreign land, making me wonder whether an author who has clearly never used Facebook has a lot to give in terms of understanding its effect on politics.

The general finding is that social media does not fundamentally change either political campaigns or reporting. It does, however, make a difference in reaching 5-10% of voters. Since those are the voters that decide elections, that means it is important, but perhaps not revolutionary.

The bottom line: Controlling the Message asks great questions, and for that alone it’s worth considering. Unfortunately, it may be just too early to come up with clear answers to them.

Disclosure: I read this as an Advance Reader Copy: it is released April 14th. You can see details on Controlling the Message on Amazon.

Rome: An Empire’s Story – Greg Woolf

What, you might wonder, is the future fate of America? Americans, of course, consider their country different from any other, and with some justification. It was explicitly founded, however, in the shadow of an earlier empire: Rome. To understand the fate and evolution of empires, it pays to try to understand those that occurred in the past.

Rome: An Empire’s Story asks just that. How did the Roman empire survive so long, and do so well, and what lessons does it hold for other empires?

A few key lessons: hybridization is essential. Ideally, empires arise on the margins of another civilization, able to draw lessons from many places while forced to survive. Macedonia was on the edge of Greece: Rome at the margins of Etruscan land. Even the New World was on the fringes of the old. Rome’s key early advantage, though, was institutional: the novelty of imposing obligations on defeated enemies, and then expanding citizenship, helped consolidate their power. Citizens of Rome genuinely identified with Rome, in a way that our nationalist modern world struggles to understand – even after the fall of the West, societies we don’t typically identify with the Romans identified as such and sought to recreate the empire.

Woolf, though, doesn’t believe empires can still work. Constantine, he argued, adopted Christianity in an effort to hold the empire together: as ties to being Roman weakened, he thought adopting a single religion could provide an alternative. Unfortunately, it divided the empire even further, particularly given the incessant squabbling within Christianity. He thus points to the rise of universal religions as the end of the age of empire: it may not have destroyed Rome directly, but it made empires less feasible by creating a new tie to individual loyalty. IS, take note.

The story is not a new one: Gibbon would have agreed. It’s also almost certainly a vast oversimplification – Empires are complicated things, and trying to draw lessons from one for all empires is suspiciously close to anecdotal evidence. Religion and other ethnic, nationalist, and group loyalties do matter, though, and certainly play a role in events today, whether in the Middle East or Russia.

Empire’s Story alternates chapters about the history of Rome with thematic ones on things like slavery and empire, imperical ecology, and other topics. For that reason, it can be tough going unless you already have a background in Roman history: trying to cover so much content means he is necessarily brief on many issues. The issue of what led to the success and stability of the Roman Empire qua empire is an interesting one, but the book doesn’t always deliver on its promise.

The Wealth Chef – Ann Wilson

“Each and every day wasted on not investing will cost you dearly. Not only will it cost you in terms of the lost impact of compounding, but you’ll also lose the most important thing of all: the opportunity to learn from experience…The sooner you start gaining your 10,000 hours of investor experience, the sooner you’ll have this investing business figured out.”

Financial literacy is hugely important in the modern world, but unless you grew up in a family that talked about money, it can feel overwhelming. I frequently speak to friends who are interested in money and want to get out of debt/invest/save, but simply have no idea where to start. It’s an interesting challenge.

Ann Wilson introduces money through an extended conceit: cooking. There are four wealth flavours (assets, liabilities, income, expenditures) which you need to develop your palate to distinguish, two spices (time and interest rates), and a number of useful kitchen implements (your motivation as a a wealth obsession magnet, income statement as scales). Yeast, of course, is compound interest. The goal is to be a Wealth Chef, not just a cook!

Some first steps: use your last 3 months of bank statements to estimate your expenses, then write up a balance sheet listing all your income generating assets (sadly, your home would not count, and if you’re hoping to retire your job might not either). You are financially free when your generated income is enough to cover all your expenses.

It’s a fun way of introducing financial concepts, and judging by her own successful wealth-counselling business, an effective one. Her markets particularly to housewives and other women, which is reasonable – as she points out, at least historically men were frequently the one who managed the money, but in a world of increased equality and divorce, this is nonsense.

I have a few complaints at the margin: Wealth Chef uses 8-10% as a conservative interest rate on savings, for example, which is reflective of the historical return on the stock market but not of most people’s portfolios, which are a balance between equity and bonds. Italso emphasizes the credit score more than I would, though I agree that for people working their way out of debt, it is a useful way of tracking progress. For my tastes, the book also has a few too many exclamation marks, but it adds to the non-confrontational style.

Overall, definitely recommended if you’re intimidated by money and like cooking. If you’re an investment banker, probably not: consider reading guides on how baking cupcakes is like investing instead.

Disclosure: I read it as an advance reader copy. You can read more reviews of The Wealth Chef on Amazon.