May 9, 2018

In a prelude to the Holocaust, the Kishinev pogrom shocked the world

A Pogrom book review: about Steven J. Zipperstein's book on the notorious Kishinev pogrom.Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (2018) 288 pages

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It was the event that introduced the word “pogrom” to the world outside Russia.

It’s name is little known elsewhere today, but among generations of Israelis and in the homes of many older Jews around the world, the murderous rampage that took place in the Eastern European city of Kishinev on April 19 and 20, 1903, is a household word. Four decades before the worst days of the Holocaust, the pogrom in the city now known as Chișinău epitomized the violence directed at the Jewish people in the Russian Empire. Forty-nine Jews were savagely murdered during those two days and at least forty Jewish women raped. While those numbers seem insignificant when compared to the millions who died under Nazi terror, the Kishinev pogrom shocked the world at the time and for years afterward.

Kishinev was the subject of sensational news stories worldwide; several widely read books about the event were written, along with an epic poem taught in Israeli schools for decades. Stanford University history professor Steven J. Zipperstein recalls this tragic event and its historic consequences in his splendid new book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. “No Jewish event of the time,” he writes, “would be as extensively documented. None in Russian Jewish life would leave a comparable imprint” despite the fact that the Kishinev pogrom was “by no means worse than many others at more or less the same time.” In fact, the 1903 massacre remained a symbol of the plight of the Jewish people even after the ferocity of the Russian Revolution more than a decade later. For example, Zipperstein notes, ” it seems clear that no fewer than one hundred thousand Jews were murdered . . . and at least that many girls and women raped and countless maimed between 1918 and 1920″ in the White Terror that followed the Bolshevik coup. Yet Kishinev endured as the epitome of anti-Semitism.

Today, Chișinău houses a population of nearly 700,000. It’s the capital of the Republic of Moldova, a country of some three million people tucked between Ukraine and Romania in southeastern Europe. In 1903, the town was on the southwestern fringe of the Russian Empire.The city was the fifth most populous urban center in the Russian Empire at the time, even larger than Kiev. It held a population of nearly 110,000, of which well over one-third were Jews. (Some polls placed the proportion as high as forty-seven percent, according to Zipperstein.) “Jewish stores lined its streets, their stalls filled its marketplaces, and they were spread throughout the city in neighborhoods both poor and rich,” the author notes.

The Kishinev pogrom, and the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion that followed it closely, were long thought to have been the work of the secret service of the Russian imperial government. Zipperstein’s research reveals that this was almost certainly not the case. “Sufficient evidence exists,” he writes, “to point to a clutch of local activists—not the imperial government—closely linked to [a rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper]; it was they who, with the help of right-wing student radicals, likely managed to stir up the riot’s start . . .” The man Zipperstein identifies as “the key inspiration” behind the pogrom was a Russian newspaper publisher named Pavel Krushevan. This man “would become, soon after Kishinev’s pogrom, the publisher—and almost certainly among the authors—of the first version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. None of the effects of the Kishinev massacre would prove nearly so consequential as this bizarre and spectacularly influential forgery.” As Zipperstein explains, “nearly the entire document was lifted [verbatim] from a book [written in French] that had nothing at all to do with Jews.” Henry Ford famously paid for the printing of 500,000 copies of a later version that was circulated throughout the United States.

Zipperstein largely centers his book on four individuals. Krushevan was one of them, of course, but two outsiders also played pivotal roles through their written accounts based on extensive research conducted in the wake of the event. An Irish nationalist named Michael Davitt, working as a journalist, wrote a series of sensational articles for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American that Zipperstein finds remarkably accurate; a book followed under the title Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecution in Russia. A Hebrew poet named Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s epic, “In the City of Killing,” is “widely considered the most influential poetic work written in a Jewish language since the Middle Ages.” (Bialik spent five weeks in Kishinev, most of it interviewing victims.) And a local Jewish community leader named Jacob Bernstein-Kogan was responsible for contacting newspapers throughout the world. Immediately after the pogrom, he rushed around town collecting money to pay for the telegrams that brought Davitt and Bialik to the city and brought the massacre to the attention of readers all around the globe.

One of the most consequential after-effects of the Kishinev pogrom was the role it played in the founding of the NAACP (originally the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The outrage caused in the United States by the news of the massacre triggered widespread discussion comparing the murder of Jews in Russia to the lynching of African-Americans. A public campaign to highlight the similarity was promoted by “a remarkable now-little-known couple, William English Walling and [Russian-born and Yiddish-speaking] Anna Strunsky . . . The Wallings were the first to champion the cause of treating black lynching no less seriously than Russia’s anti-Jewish pogroms. The founding meeting for what soon would emerge as the NAACP took place in 1909 in their New York City apartment.” Walling became the first chairman of the organization.

This Pogrom book review represents an enduring interest of mine. I’ve reviewed a number of books, both nonfiction and fiction, about the Holocaust and related topics. If you’re interested, type the word “Holocaust” in the search box in the upper left-hand corner of the home page. You might also be interested in my posts, 19 good nonfiction books about World War II (plus 10 novels) or 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here.

May 1, 2018

Today’s artificial intelligence is transforming our lives, an expert insists

The Sentient Machine by Amir Husain explains how todays artificial intelligence transforms our lives.The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence by Amir Husain (2017) 225 pages

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Artificial intelligence researchers draw a clear distinction between Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) or Weak AI, and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) or Strong AI. Weak AI is the stuff of today’s Siri, self-driving cars, those annoying systems that answer you when you phone just about any company nowadays, or other familiar devices that focus on a single task and possess no self-awareness. By contrast, as of today, Strong AI is essentially the stuff of science fiction. It’s sentient intelligence that equals or surpasses human intellectual abilities, setting goals and planning independently of prior programming. This sharp dividing line is at the core of the arguments advanced by Amir Husain in his fascinating new book, The Sentient Machine.

Husain’s argument is straightforward: Artificial Narrow Intelligence has already had great impact on our lives in multiple ways—and that’s mostly a good thing. Yes, he agrees, AI will increasingly take on jobs that human beings have always previously done—and some we’ve never done. There are jobs, Husain argues, that humans are simply incapable of doing in our increasingly complex society—in cyber security, for example. Husain cites a report from the international software security group Kaspersky Lab that “its products identified around 323,000 new malware files each day as opposed to 70,000 files per day in 2011.” Against this merciless onslaught of malware, it is simply impossible for human programmers to update and revise computer security systems quickly enough—if in fact that were ever possible. We need AI. “We will soon find,” Husain writes, “that it is only AI that can protect us from AI.”

However, there is a much broader question in play here. He notes that “we are not human because we know how to load boxes onto a truck or because we can drive a car down a freeway. AI will likely be doing these and many other things for us in the near future. When it does, we will still have purpose because we will be creators in the universe.” In effect, todays artificial intelligence is barely hinting at its potential to free us up to create.

But what are we humans going to do when the machines have taken away practically all our jobs (or at least the repetitive ones)? What’s left? Husain argues that what’s left is what’s most important: the pursuit of knowledge. To my mind, this cavalier response glosses over the harsh realities of human existence. For one thing, many of us (if not most) have neither the inclination nor the skills to “pursue knowledge.” How will people who might be better suited to manual occupations find ways to feel useful? Through arts and crafts? Perhaps, but I suspect that’s wishful thinking, too. And it would be foolish in the extreme to ignore the fact that the human race has a bottomless capacity to cause problems for itself. Conflict of all sorts will not go away simply because machines have taken the drudgery out of our lives and are solving our most complex technological problems. Is it realistic to expect, for example, that machines will be able to prevent murder—or suicide?

Jeremy Rifkin had a more thoughtful answer to this problem. In his 2011 book, The Third Industrial Revolution, Rifkin argued that the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence will result in “freeing up much of the human race to create social capital in the not-for-profit civil society, making it the dominant sector in the second half of the century.” This assertion derives from an earlier book Rifkin wrote, The End of Work. (My review of The Third Industrial Revolution is at Afraid the end of the world is nigh? Here’s a hopeful message.)

Despite his too-quick dismissal of the massive unemployment machines will inevitably create, Husain makes a major contribution to the ongoing debate about artificial intelligence by explaining, in detail, “how anti-AI movements could be a threat to developing much-needed technology to solve this century’s most complex problems.” No matter how smart they might become, machines won’t think like humans. They think in ways that are different. What we call “out-of-the-box” thinking is second nature to an intelligent machine, which can simply sift through all possible solutions to a problem and find an approach that any human observer would think unlikely. In other words, what todays artificial intelligence can do for us is already transformative, but in the long run AI will eliminate the need for us to “earn a living” by meeting our material needs and allowing us to pursue our dreams. However, Husain doesn’t tell us how to cope when we’re dying of boredom.

Based in Austin, Texas, Amir Husain has built a worldwide reputation as an inventor and serial entrepreneur. He is widely recognized as a leading authority on artificial intelligence.

For other perspectives on what artificial intelligence can do, see 19 books about artificial intelligence reviewed here. This book is included.

April 25, 2018

A lucid and thoroughly researched account of what’s wrong on Wall Street

In A First-Class Catastrophe, Diana B. Henriques explains whats wrong on Wall Street.

A First-Class Catastrophe: The Road to Black Monday, the Worst Day in Wall Street History by Diana B. Henriques (2017) 394 pages

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Fifty-five years ago I became a speculator on Wall Street. I was suffering through graduate school at Columbia University at the time and found it much more enjoyable to watch the ticker tape in a broker’s office rather than hang out in a library on the Columbia campus. Within a short time I graduated from the tame world of gambling on common stocks to more lucrative convertible bonds, silver bullion, and silver futures. All the latter were more highly leveraged than stocks, which meant that I could advance much less of my own money and gamble with more of other people’s. Within a few years, my net worth rose from $2,000, which I’d earned when I sold the coin collection I’d amassed as a teenager, to the equivalent in 2018 of $1.2 million. All that experience initiated me into the arcane world of high finance.

(For the record, just in case you have any fantasy about asking me for some of it: all the money I made in the 1960s was gone by 1973, most of it to finance a short-lived nonprofit organization.)

Wall Street, from the 1960s to today

Wall Street today bears little resemblance to the financial world of the 60s. When I began trading stocks in 1963, the trading volume at the New York Stock Exchange on a typical day was around four million shares. Today, in 2018, more than one billion shares change hands on pretty much every day at the NYSE—over 250 times as much activity. Half a century ago, common stock and bonds dominated the financial markets. Of course, there were several different types of bonds, and the more discriminating speculator might make use of futures contracts known as “puts” and “calls.” (Today, calls are more familiar as stock options of the sort now frequently granted to corporate executives.) Nowadays, there is a bewildering array of financial instruments including index funds, exchange-traded funds, “collateralized debt obligations,” and a large variety of other derivatives that are difficult to understand without a specialized background in finance. Even if you’re unfamiliar with financial history, you may recognize the word derivative, since the widespread use of such devices has been identified (along with subprime lending) as one of the central causes of the Great Recession beginning in 2008.

The commodities markets have similarly mushroomed over time. The commodities markets of the 1960s thrived on futures contracts, but trading was typically limited to a few agricultural products (such as hog bellies or soybeans), petroleum, and metals, including copper, silver, and steel. Today the commodities exchanges offer a wider variety of futures contracts in physical products. But, most notably (and irrationally), they feature financial futures, such as currency futures, interest rate futures and stock market index futures. All these instruments are known collectively as derivatives.

These and other changes that began to accumulate in the financial markets in the 1980s would prove to have disastrous consequences in the years ahead, as we know all too well from recent experience. But proof of the danger would come far earlier, in October 1987.

“The worst day in stock market history”

Immediately below is a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, year by year, from 1928 to 2018. If you look very, very closely, you may find somewhere along the gently upward-sloping curve of the 1980s what looks like a modest decline in the average. See it? You’ll have to squint. Even then, maybe not. It looks like a tiny inverted “V” about two-thirds of the way from left to right. I’ve chosen a small version of the chart to emphasize just how small that drop in the market seems over the long haul.

You can't see whats wrong on Wall Street on this chart of the DJIA, 1928-2018.However, that seemingly modest decline encompassed what Diana B. Henriques calls “the worst day in Wall Street history” in her history of the period, A First-Class Catastrophe. On Black Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow collapsed, falling a record 508 points. By 21st-century standards, that number is indeed modest. From 1998 to 2018, at least twenty days have seen larger point declines. However, in October 1987, 508 points represented the largest percentage decline in the history of the average. On that single day, the most widely-watched financial indicator in the world dropped a staggering 22.6%. And the loss for the week was even greater: “the worst one-week decline in Wall Street history.” Panic spread around the world, with other closely-followed stock market indices down even more sharply in the UK, Hong Kong, Australia, Spain, and New Zealand. It was, indeed, a first-class catastrophe. For months afterward, as government officials and financial executives everywhere scrambled to make sense of what went wrong, fear was widespread that a deep recession might not be far behind. In fact, two years went by before the Dow recovered its pre-Black Monday level.

The most lucid financial history in many years

Thirty years after the event, it’s easy to question why anyone would write a nearly 400-page book about that day, “the worst day ever” notwithstanding. However, Henriques explains in vivid terms just how important it is to understand what went awry in October 1987, since the problems that caused Black Monday are essentially the same as those at the root of the Great Recession triggered by the stock market crash of 2008. In some ways, those problems have gotten worse—and for the most part they have not been corrected by any legislation, any self-regulation in the financial industry, or any White House action since 2008. (Some modest reforms were incorporated into the legislation known as Dodd-Frank, but even those are now under fire and may well be eliminated by the current US Congress.)

A First-Class Catastrophe should be essential reading for anyone who is serious about investing in the financial markets. It’s the most lucid and easily understood example of financial history that I’ve read in many years. It is, simply, masterful. Another author might have told the story in terms of numbers and jargon. Henriques’ account focuses on people. The book begins with a lengthy cast of characters that seems daunting at first but proves to be simply useful. The principal characters on that list emerge as living, breathing human beings on the pages of this superb book: regulators like Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, top financial industry executives, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, the chief investment officers at giant pension funds, and two professors in the business school at the University of California, Berkeley.

The root causes of the stock market crash of 1987

The proliferation of derivatives was unquestionably a root cause of Black Monday. Many of these new financial devices were either entirely unregulated or encouraged by regulators who were captive to the industries they oversaw. (Remember that Ronald Reagan was in the White House in 1987 and had been for six years at that point, affording him ample time to reshape the government’s response to the financial markets to suit his antipathy to regulation.) In 1987, the principal culprits were computer-assisted trading, “academic theories that led giant herds of investors to pursue the same strategies at the same time with vast amounts of money,” and futures contracts pegged to the Dow and the Standard & Poor’s 500. These and other “financial futures had fundamentally changed the way the traditional stock market worked” in less than five years.

What Black Monday also brought to light was “a regulatory community that was poorly equipped, ridiculously fragmented, technologically naïve, and fatally focused on protecting turf rather than safeguarding the overall market’s internal machinery,” Henriques explains. Quite simply, there were (and are) far too many official regulators that oversee the financial industry: the Federal Reserve Bank, Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Office of Thrift Supervision, Securities and Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, state bank regulators, and state insurance regulators. Small wonder that they didn’t (and don’t) act in concert, even during the most spectacular crises. A disaster on the order of the Great Recession was averted in October 1987 only through “a makeshift web of trust, pluck, and improvisation—and perhaps a few bits of inspired subterfuge here and there.”

A government task force assembled by the Reagan Administration concluded “that technology and financial innovation had welded once-separate markets [primarily the stock and commodities markets] into a single marketplace, but government, the financial industry, and academia had failed to see what had happened and adapt to it.” Henriques notes in her epilogue that “Unfortunately, we cannot simply turn the page on the crash of 1987, because we are still living in the world revealed to us on Black Monday.” If anything, conditions have deteriorated since then. The crash of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession make that point all too emphatically.

Diana B. Henriques has reported and written for the New York Times since 1989, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the aftermath of 9/11. A First-Class Catastrophe is her fourth book. A popular, earlier effort, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and The Death of Trust, was published in 2011.

Other reviews on this site that might interest you include Greed, jealousy, and betrayal at the heart of Wall Street’s collapse, Who’s to blame for the financial crisis? and Hedge funds, insider trading, and the most wanted man on Wall Street.

April 18, 2018

Every manager should read this book about the use and misuse of metrics

The misuse of metrics is the theme of The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. MullerThe Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller (2018) 227 pages

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I was not surprised by historian Jerry Z. Muller‘s comments about “metric fixation” in his illuminating new book, The Tyranny of Metrics.

Some years ago the chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company remarked to me that nobody, not even Jack Welch, the then-idolized leader of General Electric, could possibly turn in solid revenue and profit increases steadily, quarter-after-quarter, year-after-year, through ups and downs in the market. It was clear to him that somebody was cooking the books at GE. I had been in business long enough then to understand how easy it is to shift sales and revenue from one quarter or year to the next and how other steps could be taken to fudge the numbers. (I was also aware of Welch’s reputation as “Neutron Jack” for his ruthless practice of “downsizing” to increase profits, a practice that can also be timed to give the appearance of steadily increasing profits.) It had been clear to me for many years that numbers can lie.

In his new book, Muller tackles our society’s obsession with metrics and accountability. However, “[t]his book is not about the evils of measuring,” he writes. “It is about the unintended consequences of trying to substitute standardized measures of performance for personal judgment based on experience. The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics but metric fixation.” In just 200 pages, Muller assesses the use and misuse of metrics through case studies drawn from a wide range of fields: colleges and universities, K-12 education, medicine, policing, the military, business and finance, and philanthropy and foreign aid. The research he cites, and the examples he chooses, are compelling.

I’ve had my own intimate experience with the misuse of metrics in both philanthropy and foreign aid. More than thirty years ago, when I was running a consulting agency that raised money for nonprofit organizations, I wrote and spoke to whoever would listen about the absurdity of measuring nonprofit performance on the basis of its fundraising costs. (You can find a condensed version of my thinking on that question at my post, Why financial ratios aren’t the way to evaluate nonprofit organizations.) Years later, when I became involved in consulting with NGOs in developing countries, I saw for myself the folly of the metrics obsession that had seized hold of the international development community after Bill Gates began proselytizing on the subject. That fixation on the numbers forced far too many charities and government agencies to funnel money toward easily measured but trivial or even irrelevant programs while ignoring others that might actually have some positive impact in the field.

Muller sums up the problem nicely. “There are things that can be measured. There are things that are worth measuring. But what can be measured is not always what is worth measuring; what gets measured may have no relationship to what we really want to know. The costs of measuring may be greater than the benefits. The things that get measured may draw effort away from the things we really care about. And measurement may provide us with distorted knowledge—knowledge that seems solid but is actually deceptive.” Amen.

Some of the examples Muller cites are familiar to the public at large. “Teaching to the test,” for example. The tendency of some surgeons to decline to operate in difficult cases because failure would lower their success ratios. And the tendency of police under pressure from politicians to make the numbers look better by classifying felonies as misdemeanors or altogether refusing to write up crimes. These are just a few of the many sad ways that our obsession with accountability distorts our understanding of the world around us.

Among the many unintended consequences of the misuse of metrics that Muller cites are the following:

  • Inducing people whose performance is measured to divert their efforts to what gets measured;
  • Promoting short-termism (as in Wall Street’s obsessive preoccupation with quarterly earnings reports at the expense of companies’ long-term health);
  • Discouraging innovation and risk-taking;
  • Sidetracking nonprofit staff members (or corporate employees, for that matter) from focusing on the mission that motivates them; and
  • Forcing employees to spend time logging data instead of doing their jobs (a requirement that was a major factor in convincing my brother to close his psychiatric practice many years ago).

Muller concludes The Tyranny of Metrics with a useful checklist of ten questions that any manager should ask when considering the application of metrics at work.

For related views, check out my reviews of two books about statistics: Charles Whelan’s Naked Statistics (How Netflix, Wall Street, and economists use and misuse statistics) and Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise (How experts make sense of the world (or don’t) with statistics). You might also enjoy what I wrote about Michael Lewis’ bestseller, The Undoing Project (Michael Lewis on the science of decision-making). And if Muller’s skepticism about the use of metrics in foreign aid raises any questions in your mind, read The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly (Why economic development happens (or doesn’t)).

April 11, 2018

Robert Reich diagnoses what ails American society

What ails American society: The Common Good by Robert B. ReichThe Common Good by Robert B. Reich (2018) 208 pages

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Robert B. Reich examines the American body politic with a critical eye in his new book, The Common Good, and finds it dangerously diseased. The former Secretary of Labor, now a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, laments the loss of a commitment to public morality that for decades enabled Democrats and Republicans to unite in common purpose for the good of the country. What ails American society, he insists, is the absence of the shared values that drew so many millions of immigrants to our shores—the “ideas about what we owe one another.”

What ails American society

“What we have lost, I think,” writes Reich, “is a sense of our connectedness to each other and to our ideals—the America that John F. Kennedy asked that we contribute to. Starting in the late 1970s, Americans began talking less about the common good and more about self-aggrandizement. The shift is the hallmark of our era: from the ‘Greatest Generation’ to the ‘Me Generation,’ from ‘we’re all in it together’ to ‘you’re on your own.'” Sad as it is, this analysis helps put in perspective the events of the past fifty years that set the stage for Donald Trump’s election. “Trump is not the cause” of all this, Reich insists. “He is a consequence—the logical outcome of what has unfolded over many years.”

What ails American society: polarizationA litany of errors

Although Reich is a professed liberal, and far from shy about it, his analysis is by no means one-sided. In the litany of wrong turns US society has taken over the past half-century, he includes a number of those that must be laid at the feet of the Democratic Party. Liberals like so many of us in Berkeley are quick to single out the sins of the Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump Administrations. We too infrequently cite those steps taken by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but Reich does not. Of course, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the invasion of Iraq appear on his list. But so do the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Robert Bork’s rejection, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the failure to prosecute the bankers responsible for the Great Recession.

The blame extends far beyond Washington

However, Reich doesn’t limit himself to condemning the sins of politicians. His list of the events that explain why Americans now place little trust in institutions includes just as prominently the actions of media, business, and financial leaders. The standouts among them are the 1971 Lewis Powell memo that ignited Big Business’ war against the liberal consensus, the Savings & Loan scandal, the Arthur Andersen scandal, Goldman Sachs’ double-dealing with derivatives, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and over-the-top misbehavior by Travis Kalanick and Martin Shkreli. (I would have added the advent of Fox News and right-wing talk radio to this list.) Viewing all these events in a single list that goes on, page after page, is an uncomfortable reminder of just how far we’ve traveled from a commitment to the common good.

Can this drift toward division and distrust be reversed?

Reich’s diagnosis is irrefutable. The ills of American society are there for all to see. But his prognosis is sadly overoptimistic. In The Common Good, he uses the word “must” 68 times, “should” 71 times, and “need” in the sense of “need to” two dozen times. Reich concedes that the changes he advocates might require half a century or more. However, I wonder when that half-century might start. I see no signs on the horizon that the last half-century of steady drift toward inequality and division will be addressed in any meaningful way. Even if Democrats retake both houses of Congress in 2018 . . . even if Donald Trump is compelled to answer for his crimes and is forced out of office before his term ends . . . even if Democrats also retake the White House in 2020 . . . can Professor Reich, or anyone else for that matter, seriously contend that a deeply divided Democratic Party will come together around the radical reforms essential to begin moving the pendulum in a decisively different direction?

Not long ago I reviewed an earlier book by Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. My review is at How to make capitalism work for the middle class. You might also be interested in 59 revealing nonfiction books about politics and Understanding American history through 72 nonfiction books.

April 4, 2018

“Survival is sweet revenge”: The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor

The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor: From Krakow to Berkeley by Anna Rabkin

From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin (2018) 309 pages

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She was born Haneczka Rose in 1935 in Kraków, the youngest of three children of a well-to-do Polish-Jewish family. She became Anna Rozak at the age of six, when her parents sent her into hiding with a Catholic family to evade capture by the Gestapo. In England at the end of the Second World War, she took on the name Anna Rose. At the age of eighteen, she was adopted by an Austrian-American family in New York and became Anna Wellman. Finally, upon her marriage to New York businessman Marty Rabkin when she was twenty-four, Anna took on the name that appears on the cover of her magnificent new memoir, From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding. This is the odyssey of a Holocaust survivor whose experience parallels in some ways what so many refugees today are facing.

The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor

“I have lived in Berkeley, California, for many decades,” Anna writes in her preface, “but my life story spans continents. While it is common to describe life as a journey, mine has been a literal one: from my family’s frantic flight across Poland; my escape from the ghetto and then from Lwów; to being shipped off to England; to my quota-defying immigration to New York and subsequent migration to California. I have traveled across oceans and through waves of cultural and political change. Each place on my journey and each period left its mark on me.” Anna describes that journey with consummate skill, bringing up from her prodigious memory for sensory detail the remarkable story of her evolution from a shy young Polish girl who didn’t start school until the age of ten to the supremely accomplished woman who holds master’s degrees in city & regional planning and history, served for fifteen years as Berkeley’s elected City Auditor, and spearheaded the Berkeley Public Library’s first, $4 million fundraising campaign.

A troubled search for identity

Unsurprisingly, the most moving stories in the book concern Anna’s childhood in Kraków, Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine), and England. Her desperate longing for her parents, who had simply disappeared, and her troubled search for identity (after her Polish guardian had her baptized in a Catholic church) are especially poignant. As she reflected much later, “Jewish, Catholic, Polish, British, American—who was I?” Anna’s experience as a refugee shuttled from one country to another is similar to that of the unwilling migrants who are flooding across national borders in the 21st century.

Life in an ideally diverse community

Anna was twenty-seven when she and Marty arrived in Berkeley. At this remove, it seems she might not have found a more welcoming community anywhere. “My block,” she writes about the street where she has been living since 1964, “was unusually active and diverse. It was home to several immigrant families, five of whom were Holocaust survivors.” While that block is by no means typical of the city, its diversity certainly is.

Following her election as Berkeley City Auditor in 1979, Anna reflected, “survival is sweet revenge. I had not only survived the war, created a family and developed relationships with people of all backgrounds, but during the campaign I had overcome the fears and feelings of worthlessness that a hateful ideology had instilled in me. I had proved to myself that neither my gender, religious or immigrant background were insurmountable obstacles. I could participate in public life and even be elected to office. My community’s acceptance would transform my life.” It’s difficult to imagine a more inspiring and life-affirming statement than that.

A foreshortened timescale

From Kraków to Berkeley is structured around a foreshortened timescale. The twenty-seven-year period encompassed in parts one, two, and three (covering Poland, England, and New York in succession) occupies two-thirds of the book. Part four deals with Anna’s time in California since 1962. The final forty years are compressed into about forty pages. Having tried myself on several occasions to write a memoir, I understand. I found it damnably difficult to write with complete candor about people who are alive with whom I may have had complicated relationships.

Full disclosure

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m proud to state that Anna and I have been friends for many years. In addition to our connections through Berkeley politics since the 1970s, we have met almost monthly for more than thirty years in a dinner group she mentions in her book, and her late husband Marty was a member of my company’s board of directors for twenty-five years. However, I must make it clear that this review of Anna’s memoir is not one whit more positive than it fully deserves. Our friendship aside, I found the book endlessly fascinating.

Until July 21st, 2018, you can obtain a 20% discount on this excellent memoir at https://www.vmbooksusa.com/collections/biographies/products/9781910383698. Just use the code RABKIN18.

Previously, I reviewed the insightful memoir of another Berkeley resident, Elizabeth Rosner: Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory. My review is at The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics. I’ve also reviewed other excellent memoirs, including Bill Browder’s Red Notice (A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia) and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (A brilliant analysis of racism today).

March 28, 2018

200 Russian hackers, Vladimir Putin and the 2016 election

Vladimir Putin and the 2016 election: Russian Roulette by Michael Isikoff and David CornRussian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump by Michael Isikoff and David Corn (2018) 353 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Unless you’ve experienced sensory deprivation for the last year and a half, you know that Russians influenced the 2016 election. Overwhelming evidence has come to light and dribbled out through hundreds of news stories and books. Not to mention the indictments that have already come down through Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s multiple links to the Kremlin. Much less well known outside the confines of the American intelligence establishment are the facts about exactly what steps the Russian government took to destabilize US society and help Donald Trump win the White House. Now come veteran investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn with Russian Roulette. The book’s subtitle is the key: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. 

If you’ve closely followed the unfolding story about the multiple connections between Donald Trump’s associates and top Kremlin officials, the so-called oligarchs, and the Russian mafia, you’re unlikely to find much in Russian Roulette that will surprise you. The book contains abundant detail, fleshing out the often-sketchy stories that have surfaced in the press; seemingly, every individual name that has come to light over the past eighteen months in the reporting of this unfolding scandal figures in the authors’ account. There are few startling revelations in this story, which has been extensively covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, The New Yorker, and other American news outlets.

The true value in Russian Roulette lies elsewhere. Isikoff and Corn’s book excels in its detailed description of the massive effort mounted by Russian intelligence to deepen the divisions and distrust within American society, destroy Hillary Clinton’s reputation, and help Donald Trump win the presidency. In Russian Roulette, you’ll meet the players central to the massive Russian campaign, including the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency and the two large hacker groups dubbed Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear by US intelligence. At a minimum, two hundred Russians were engaged in the Kremlin-driven effort over at least two years. Only in recent months has the full extent of this campaign come to the attention of the US public.

Vladimir Putin and the 2016 election

Despite the repeated denials from the White House and Trump loyalists in Congress and on Fox News, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the Russian influence campaign was real. Early in January 2017, two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration as President, the heads of the four top US intelligence agencies issued a joint statement. “With ‘high confidence,’ the assessment stated, ‘Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Hillary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.'” The statement was signed by James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence), John Brennan (CIA), Michael Rogers (NSA), and James Comey (FBI), the four most senior intelligence officials in the US government under President Barack Obama. Given the rivalry within the intelligence community—and the time it took them to reach agreement on the wording—this assessment is remarkable.

Did the Russians help Donald Trump win?

More than 130 million votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election. Innumerable factors contributed to Trump’s victory, including strategic errors by Hillary Clinton and her staff, Trump’s demagogic skills, successful years-long Republican efforts to suppress minority voting, the failure of the Obama White House to highlight and respond to the Russian influence campaign, and James Comey’s misleading announcement eleven days before the election that the FBI was investigating a fresh collection of Hillary Clinton emails. If a mere 70,000 votes had changed hands in the three swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, Clinton would have won the Electoral College as well as the popular vote.

Given these facts, it’s impossible to determine whether the Russian campaign was decisive. And the joint statement by the intelligence community insisted that “‘We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.'” Yet, reading between the lines, it appears the the authors have drawn their own conclusion—that Putin’s gambit did in fact play a significant role in Trump’s election. Isikoff and Corn drive this point home with a colorful detail: “the Russian Duma burst into applause when informed Trump was the victor. Putin’s operation—which had fueled divisions within the United States and influenced an American presidential election—had succeeded.”

About the authors

Michael Isikoff is currently the Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo! News. He previously served in senior roles at Newsweek and NBC News. Russian Roulette is his third book.

David Corn is chief of the Washington bureau for Mother Jones. Previously, he was The Nation‘s Washington correspondent. He won the prestigious George Polk Award for his reporting in 2013. Corn has written six books, including one novel and four other nonfiction works as well as Russian Roulette.

Previously I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump’s Russian connections, including Fire and Fury review: Exposing the chaos in the Trump White House and Collusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?, my review of Collusion by Guardian reporter Luke Harding.

March 15, 2018

From the moon and Mars to the multiverse

The Future of Humanity by MIchio Kaku

The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth by Michio Kaku (2018) 368 pages

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Climate change. The threat of thermonuclear war. Bioterrorism. Overpopulation. Is it any wonder that most Americans today are pessimistic about the future of the human race? In the face of all these (and so many other) existential threats to the survival of our civilization, who can blame us for wondering whether our grandchildren will live to see the 22nd century? Yet there are those who sail against the prevailing currents of thought and see a future that is endlessly bright. To this brave cadre of optimists we can now add physicist Michio Kaku, who peers hundreds of thousands of years into the future, envisioning human civilization spread throughout the galaxy in his dazzling new book, The Future of Humanity. Read this book, and he will take you on a journey from the moon and Mars to the multiverse.

“Either we must leave the Earth or we will perish.”

Professor Kaku’s prescription is unambiguous: “Either we must leave the Earth or we will perish. There is no other way.” In this judgment, he has a lot of company. The late Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, for example, not to mention many other prominent scientists and technologists (and a handful of politicians) who see humanity’s future in the stars. Yet none of these individuals view the future through the rose-colored glasses of faith alone or science fantasy. Their conviction is grounded in solid scientific research. Kaku makes that overwhelmingly clear in his considered, step-by-step presentation of the steady progression of the human race, first back to the moon, Mars, and the asteroids; then to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; and finally onward to the nearest stars, with stopovers on the comets that swarm by the millions in the vast Oort Cloud that surrounds the solar system. This is truly a journey from the moon and Mars to the multiverse.

From the moon and Mars to the multiverse

The Future of Humanity is divided into four parts. In the first, Kaku takes us along to witness the establishment of a permanent base on the moon and the settlement and terraforming of Mars. In part two, we accompany him as humanity moves beyond the solar system to explore the nearby stars. Part three concerns the settlement of extrasolar planets, dwelling on the genetic changes that will be required for humans to adapt to the daunting conditions so likely to be found there.

The author’s argument is easy to follow throughout most of his book. His explanations of scientific phenomena are remarkably clear, using an abundance of pithy similes and metaphors. Only in the final chapters when he attempts to explain string theory (his specialization) and the more fanciful imaginings of cosmologists does Professor Kaku’s language become opaque. String theory “contains an infinite number of parallel universes, called the multiverse, each one as valid as the next.” In ten dimensions.

Ideas from the greats of science fiction

Science fiction fans will encounter a wealth of familiar concepts, from the most mundane (mining the asteroids) to the most spectacular (uploading human consciousness and projecting it with lasers or gravity beams throughout the galaxy). In fact, Kaku makes frequent references to the work of such science fiction luminaries as Olaf Stapledon, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Yet, in this book alone, the author floats enough fascinating ideas to put a whole roomful of science fiction writers to shame. And there is no doubting his optimism: “Transhumanism, instead of being a branch of science fiction or a fringe movement, may become an essential part of our very existence.”

About the author

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who teaches at the City University of New York. He has made numerous appearances on television and in film, hosted a popular science program on radio, and written fifteen books, including several New York Times bestsellers.

If you want to explore imaginative ideas in a fictional context, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels and 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. You might also be interested in Science history and science explained in 37 excellent popular books.

March 7, 2018

The great female detective who captivated WWI America

The great female detective: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad RiccaMrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca (2017) 452 pages

@@@ (3 out of 5)

As a child, she was known as Mary Grace Winterton, one of three daughters of a wealthy New York family. After gaining a law degree from NYU and being admitted to the bar in 1904, she set up the People’s Law Firm to offer affordable legal services to low-income New Yorkers, especially immigrants. The firm soon had several branches throughout New York City. She was known then as Mrs. Mary Grace Quackenbos, although she and her husband had separated when she entered law school. A decade later, when she intervened in the high-profile investigation of a missing 18-year-old girl, she was known as Mrs. Grace Humiston, having remarried in 1911. Under that name, she achieved nationwide fame as a detective, only to meet disgrace a short while later.

Grace Humiston’s fame arose from her work with the Hungarian-born detective Julius J. Kron in solving the disappearance of Ruth Kruger in 1915. The case had gained worldwide attention because young Ruth photographed well and her well-connected father raised hell over the failure of the police to find his daughter. Humiston and Kron’s success despite the efforts of the police to undermine them led to a series of indictments of men in the NYPD for incompetence, dereliction of duty, and corruption. But the issue that had drawn Humiston into the case was never addressed to her satisfaction. It was called “white slavery” then. We refer to it as human trafficking today. Humiston, however, was obsessed with a single aspect of the issue: the seduction of high-school girls by prostitution rings. She became so consumed with concern over this issue that she closed her law practice to launch a public education campaign and set up a home for girls rescued from their captors.

Despite the fame that the great female detective gained for her work on the Ruth Cruger case, her most significant contribution by far had come much earlier in her career. Not long after establishing the People’s Law Firm, she spent seven weeks traveling through the South to investigate the disappearance of Italian immigrants from their families in New York. They had been lured southward on the promise of well-paying jobs. Instead, the men (sometimes with their whole families) were put to work at exhausting jobs on turpentine camps as virtual slaves, housed in run-down shacks, and forced to buy food and other necessities from company stores. The issue then was called peonage. The practice was widespread in the American South, and not just at turpentine camps. It was a national disgrace.

Using a variety of disguises to enter the camps and interview workers, Humiston succeeded in revealing an extensive network of exploitation that involved recruiters in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere who had brought thousands of immigrants to the United States on false pretenses. Her work gained the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called her to the White House to report her findings.

Unfortunately, the president called off government intervention in the issue after an old friend of his wrote him a letter discrediting Humiston and denying all the charges. The man had been Humiston’s chief target in her investigation—and he had just been elected to the United States Senate. However, the issue had been exposed through the press, and gradually the practice of peonage declined. In the process, Humiston’s skill and tenacity gained her an appointment as Special Assistant United States District Attorney, the first woman to gain such a high-ranking position in the Department of Justice.

This is a fascinating story, and an important one. The accounts of Humiston’s work at the People’s Law Firm, the Ruth Cruger case, and the peonage investigation occupy about the first half of Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. (Humiston was called by that name in the press for a time following the Cruger investigation.) Regrettably, the book weakens markedly after that point. The story wanders back and forth through time, relating the progress of the prosecution of the police officers whose incompetence was revealed by Humiston and Kron and briefly describing a number of additional cases in which Humiston became involved as either a detective or an attorney. (Only one of those police officers was ultimately convicted, and after his release from prison he was rehired by the NYPD!)

Ricca’s account of the events that led to the disgrace and fall of the great female detective from public favor is choppy and difficult to understand. Apparently, she departed from her customary caution and reliance on facts to publicly announce as proven fact a number of salacious rumors. Unwisely, she spoke publicly and bragged to the press that she had proof about the mistreatment and even murder of young women at an army base on Long Island where troops were being mustered before shipment to France in the closing year of World War I. Humiston repeatedly insisted she had affidavits and other proof in hand, and at one point that she had even delivered this information to the authorities. But never did any such information surface. Obviously, she had chosen the wrong target—an army base in the midst of a popular foreign war. Although Humiston continued to speak out on white slavery for many years afterward, and she did meet success from time to time in defending accused murderers, her role as “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” was clearly over.

Brad Ricca has written two nonfiction books and a volume of poetry. He teaches creative writing at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he was born, raised, and still lives. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is a nominee for a 2018 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.

For my review of a more accomplished nonfiction book about another headline-grabbing case that garnered nationwide attention in the same era, see The case that helped put the FBI on the map. It’s about David Grann’s excellent book, Killers of the Flower Moon. However, if you prefer to read about crime in fictional form, go to 53 excellent mystery and thriller series and 18 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers.

February 28, 2018

Two government professors ask, is American democracy dying?

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel ZiblattHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) 299 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here.” But can they? Is American democracy dying? This is the question that Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to answer in How Democracies Die. Drawing on decades of research in comparative politics around in Europe and Latin America, they review the conditions of today’s fractured American polity with Donald Trump in the White House.

Four Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior

The principal contribution Levitsky and Ziblatt bring to their topic are the “Four Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior” that they use to analyze the conduct of any democratic regime. It’s useful to cite them here:

  1. Rejecting (or weakly committing to) democratic rules
  2. Denying the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Tolerating or encouraging violence
  4. Demonstrating readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the news media.

Unfortunately, “Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures on our litmus test for autocrats. . . With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.” So, if you’re worried whether American democracy is dying, you have reason to be.

“The most likely, post-Trump future”

Levitsky and Ziblatt’s conclusions are equivocal but sobering. “[W]e see three possible futures for a post-Trump America,” they write. “The first, and most optimistic, is a swift democratic recovery. . . A second, much darker future is one in which President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalist appeal . . . The third, and in our view, the most likely, post-Trump future is one marked by [increased] polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions [i.e., customs and procedures], and increasing institutional warfare—in other words democracy without guardrails.”

“Democracy without guardrails”

Guardrails is the metaphor the two professors employ throughout their book. The word refers to the unwritten laws that have almost always restrained Trump’s predecessors in the Oval Office, following a pattern consciously laid down by George Washington at the outset of the republic. Of course, there have been departures from the norm: Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt attempting to pack the Supreme Court and running for third and fourth terms, and Richard Nixon’s illegal wiretapping. However, with these and a few other notable exceptions, presidents have generally restrained themselves from using the full powers available to them against those they perceive as enemies. Similarly, until recently, Congress had shown similar restraint.

Is American democracy dying?

Not until the closing days of the 2oth century have we witnessed a dramatic increase in what can only be termed abuse of historical norms. The pattern is far and away most egregious because of the actions of the Trump White House. But, as the authors make clear, there have been precedents aplenty, especially beginning with the scorched-earth tactics Newt Gingrich engineered to achieve a Republican majority in the House in 1994, continuing with the explosion of right-wing media that constantly urges Republican politicians to take the gloves off, the brinksmanship over the debt limit and the budget, the increasingly frequent use of the filibuster by both Republicans and Democrats to frustrate presidents of the opposing party, and the blatant use of voter suppression and gerrymandering in red states. Donald Trump’s attacks on the press, tolerance of white nationalism, and almost daily lies simply represent the fullest expression of these trends. Is American democracy dying? Has the trend been underway for three decades? You be the judge.

What is to be done?

To forestall the grim scenarios they foresee for America’s future, Levitsky and Ziblatt recommend that centrist and liberal forces enter into coalition with their political enemies. “A political movement that brings together–even if temporarily–Bernie Sanders supporters and businesspeople, evangelicals and secular feminists, and small-town Republicans and urban Black Lives Matter supporters, will open channels of communication across the vast chasm that has emerged between our country’s two main partisan camps.” They point to successful efforts along these lines in such countries as Austria and Colombia. Can you imagine such a thing in today’s overheated, deeply polarized political environment in the United States? I can’t. Apparently, the two professors have had little if any practical political experience. Attractive as such an approach might appear in theory, it’s a non-starter. To my mind, the only possible remedy for the current Republican shift to the far right is a sharp swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction.

For further reading on the Trump phenomenon

I’ve posted reviews about a number of other books on Donald Trump, including the following:

In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy. You might also be interested in my post, 59 revealing nonfiction books about politics.

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