Saturday, February 16, 2008

Two books that could be read hand-in-hand are The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics by Jonathan Chait, and The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity by Robert Kuttner (one of the founding editors of the American Prospect).

For those who want a useful explanation of what caused the current economic dilemmas in America, Kuttner's book is the more masterful. A former staffer for the Senate Banking Committee, his is the weighter analysis of how both parties have failed to address the causes of virtually every major economic crisis of the past few decades -- financial deregulation.

Chait's book struck me as an attempt to mix the serious with the satirical. As if he were trying to be the next Thomas Frank. It's a good take on the ludicrous triumph of right-wing economists -- despite the ability of their policies to fail, time and again. (Remember AEI's James Glassmann -- the guy who wrote Dow 36,000? Now he's the guy the Bush league chose to replace Karen Hughes as the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. And there's talk that McCain would want to nominate Phil Gramm -- the former Senator from Texas who pushed through the repeal of Glass-Stegall before moving on to join HSBC).

Chait gets a few things right. He points out that when it comes to economic policy the Republican Party cannot be understood solely as an ideological phenomenon: "One of the paradoxes of the Bush years is that, while the president and his allies are staunch conservatives, their economics is not pure conservatism. The policy mix is nothing that a Friedrich Hayek or a Milton Friedman would recognize as his own. Nor is it the kind of moderate Republicanism of an Eisenhower or a Nixon. The new brand of conservatism reflects not just the advent of the supply-siders but also the rise and ideological transformation of the business lobby. Over the last thirty-five years -- the same period of time that has seen the ascent of the supply-siders -- American business has grown both vastly more politically powerful and vastly more rapacious in the way it wields that power. The rise of the business lobby has distorted -- and, finally, corrupted -- the Republican Party and the conservative movement."


(to be cont.)
Recently finished: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. First time I finished one of his novels. Motivated by a friend -- Matt -- whose tastes are admirable.

McCarthy has a deft pen. His spare precision with language made me go slow, soak up the richness of his prose, enhancing the apocalyptic atmosophere.
"Road trips are a very happy monument to the ego."

The as-ever prolific William Vollmann has a new book out about riding the rails, hobo-style. The book, Riding Towards Everywhere, is his "attempt to fall in love with America again."

He came to Politics and Prose this week. My friend Steve (an obsessed reader and good poet) and I decided to check it out. I, of course, brought most of my Vollmann books to get them signed. (I didn't feel so bad, being in line behind THE Patch Adams, who had some 20 Vollmann books in a big bag ready to get signed).

Riding the rails also provided a "constant reminder of my own ridiculousness."

It's interesting to imagine someone riding the rails post-9/11 -- with all the paranoia and railroad security. He mentioned at one point that while working on a new book (about the Mexico/California border) he was stopped and detained by border security for 7 hours, and told "You Travel Too Much" by a guard after reviewing his passport.

Besides the border book, Vollmann is also starting to research/write a book about perceptions of feminine beauty -- interviewing Japanese Kabukis and San Francisco trannies. Should be interesting. (He always had a fascination with females on the edge -- particularly prostitutes -- hence the early "Butterfly Stories," and "Whores for Gloria.").

He started his talk by announcing that his publisher wanted him to make it clear that he does not endorse rail-hopping or any other illegal activities.

At some point he mentioned the fact that both of his grandfathers were machinists. That in their day, the tools were solid, durable. Not like today's electronic, plasticized versions. He talked about the "beauty of a welding flame" in the book. I think of the parallels to his writing. He writes on the road (I learned by asking) -- like a journeyman writer?

"I think it's important as a writer to try new things -- and fail. Discomfort is a great teacher. It's a very, very good feeling... Obviously if you fail too much you're dead. I try to be cautious when I fail."

I asked him (in reference to Poor People -- his last book) if he could describe how Americans are poor. Instead of answering as I sort of led him to -- by explaining how we are poor spiritually and in community bonds compared to other people -- he said, "Americans explain their own reason for being poor by blaming themselves." An astute observation.

I also asked him if he got much academic or other reaction from his masterpiece on the legitimate (or not) uses of violence -- Rising Up, Rising Down. (I have the "short" version -- some 500 pages -- a guy in front of me in the signing line had all ten volumes, which are hard to find.) He said he did get an opportunity to teach it at Athens (Emory?).

The new book --