Sunday, July 23, 2023

Seventh 10 Books I Read in 2023

Reading Period: July 21 - August 17

1. Tai-Pan (A), by James Clavell


    James Clavell has made the past year of my life wonderful. Crazy enough, I think this may be his best work. His book are all so, I really can't think of a better word, dynamic. The level of complexity James is dealing with is unreal: dozens of intricate and noteworthy characters and side plot after side plot. Sure, some of his characters have no depth to them, and there are cartoony villains, but the stories are so satisfying that I do not care in the least. However, I've read a pretty fair criticism that some of his endings rely too heavily on natural disasters. That may be true, but I sort of see this as a reflection of how real life works. Maybe you are stressed at work, constantly arguing with your boss over an assignment. For a month you can barely sleep, half the office on your side, half against you. This battle becomes the central focus of yours, until a few months later when you die from an unexpected heart attack. All the drama, all control humans think they have over their domain, all of it is insignificant. Nature and death rule us all, at least according to James.

    It is really hard to compare this novel to Shogun and Noble House. All three books are incredible reading experiences and should be required reading. Overall, I want to say Tai-Pan might be my favorite, just because of how memorable the characters are. Aristotle, Orlov, Skinner, and Gordon Chen are so unique and magnificent. May-may is hilarious, I found myself laughing out loud constantly to her outbursts. I credit the audiobook narrator with bringing to life a lot of these personalities, but it is still obvious that James captured lightning in a bottle. I know the rest of The Asia Saga isn't as well regarded, but at this point I owe it to James to finish.

2. Stories of Your Life and Others (P), by Ted Chaing


    Ted is the most thought provoking writer I have yet encountered. If I had written a single one of these stories, I would consider my life an extreme success. Had I penned "Understand" or "Hell is the Absence of God," I would spend a lifetime wandering the streets, wondering what possessed me to write such brilliance. "Story of Your Life" was made into Arrival, and that was nominated for an Oscar and wasn't half as good as the story despite being one of the best movies of the past decade. I am once again extremely jealous of Ted, because I feel that these stories are so on the nose with how my brain works that he must be just a more intelligent clone of me that learned to put pen to paper. My fiction writing overlaps so heavily with his themes that it will make it hard to write in the future, knowing such talent will never flow through my fingers.

3. The Fire Next Time (A), by James Baldwin


    It takes an incredible amount of talent to convey in a hundred words an incredibly informative and nuanced view of race. James Baldwin will rightfully assume that the childlike and underdeveloped thoughts of the typical American can be shaken to their core when compared to such depth. This is really just a superb stream of thoughts from James, requiring a insane level of both introspection and writing ability. This may actually be required reading, I will have to see first what I think of his other books.

4. A Book of Five Rings (P), by Miyamoto Musashi


    A four hundred year old book by the world's greatest samurai. This is sort of a useless book about dueling, since there are no real descriptions. Miyamtoto will says something like "And then, of course, there is the falling dragon strike. This is where you raise your sword up and cut down your enemy from the center. The method cannot be expressed in writing. You must train." Repeat this a hundred times and you write this book. He gives some interesting advice, like you should not have a favorite weapon, the spirit of defeating one man is the same as defeating ten million, when fighting and in life you must maintain a balance of calmness and aggression. Some good quotes:

"One man can beat ten, so a thousand men can beat ten thousand."

"The true Way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing other than this."

"This is a truth: when you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn."

5. King Rat (A), by James Clavell


    Missing the magic of his later novels, but I still quite enjoyed it. Given that this was based on James's real life experience as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, the subject matter was quite straightforward and bleak. The commentary on the human condition is interesting, but I think that the overall story of this book was a bit weird. It probably wouldn't work if you didn't know that James was writing from experience. Still, the ending was very solid, as it was fascinating to watch the characters grapple with the idea that the war had ended. The side plots were actually the most gripping parts of the story for me, and I found myself full of hatred for a few of the characters that James spent barely a page on. You can definitely tell that he a master at creating characters.

6. Blackshirts and Reds (A), by Michael Parenti


    If this was a satire, it would be a 10/10. Unfortunately it is not. 0/10. Michael is a staunch Marxist, soviet apologist, and very intellectually weak individual. I enjoy reading the work of people that I disagree staunchly with, as long as they have interesting arguments. At one point in the book, Michael criticizes capitalists for attacking communism and class structure with strawmen arguments. If only capitalists understood real communism, they wouldn't be so antagonistic. Then, literally on the next page, he said that capitalists think that rich people are superior, which according to him is obviously not true because rich people need so many protections (monopolies, government corruption, etc.) to stay in power. Maybe the delusional internet tankie will like this sort of baffling incoherence, but I did not. Michael spends a lot of time defending the soviet union, saying that, well, some of the people sent the gulag were bad people, a lot of them died of starvation and not synchronized murder so it's not as bad, the soviet leaders didn't have as large of houses as the White House and that matters, etc. His handwaving over major atrocities was quite disgusting. Given the hindsight of another 25 years of international development, his takes probably could not have aged worse. With extreme human rights abuses in China and Russia, including the invasion of Ukraine and takeover of Hong Kong, Michael's pro-police state position should hopefully fall on deaf ears.

    Michael will say things akin to "the worst part of China is that they are capitalist" with a straight face. I think he is simply missing the entire authoritarian/libertarian aspect of the political compass, but he doesn't own up to being a tankie in a cognitively consistent way. He brings up that crime has risen in the soviet bloc since the police state has lost its grip, which, well, it was a police state? He blames the current poverty in Russia and the soviet bloc on capitalism, as if in a counterfactual world continued communism would have been able to compete with global specialization and trade. His evidence consists solely of quotes and cherry picked anecdotes. Some worker in Poland will say ~"I miss communism because now under my current boss they get mad if I am tardy" and then Michael will treat this as a slam dunk. And then later he will admit that central planning has historically been terrible at motivating workers and growing the economy. Probably the best part of the book is when Michael went through a list of everything that usually goes wrong with communism, and then decides not to refute it but rather talk about how Marxism isn't a science but a "social science."

    Well, terrible book. Still, it sparked some thoughts of my own. I think we should recognize more that: (efficient economic system) <does not equal> (good moral system). Also, democracy and capitalism aren't totally compatible. You have to fight for both, and often they compete. With democracy you let voters vote in communists and despots (which a lot of times they do), and with capitalism you pave the way for anti-democracy where the rich have outsized control. I love democracy, and I like capitalism. There are plenty of trade-offs in each, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for both.

7. The Doors of Perception (P), by Aldous Huxley


   Aldous seems to be quite a brilliant guy. This short book details his experience after taking the psychedelic peyote. Aldous discusses beauty, morality, religion, and various other topics as he reflects on his experience. He states that “half at least of all morality is negative and consists in keeping out of mischief.” Mischief, in the human world, often involves drugs and alcohol. Aldous mentions that as a society we spend more on alcohol and tobacco than we do on education, which to him is not surprising. Despite vast evidence of lung cancer and the dangers of alcoholism and drunk driving, “a firm conviction of the material reality of Hell never prevented medieval Christians from doing what their ambition, lust or covetousness suggested. Lung cancer, traffic accidents and the millions of miserable and misery-creating alcoholics are facts even more certain than was, in Dante's day, the fact of the Inferno. But all such facts are remote and unsubstantial compared with the near, felt fact of a craving, here and now, for release or sedation, for a drink or a smoke.” 

Aldous believes that we need to turn to a different drug, likely one of the psychedelic variety. He says every 'Angel' should try it, and “if it terrified him, it would be unfortunate but probably salutary. If it brought him a brief but timeless illumination, so much the better. In either case the Angel might lose a little of the confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning and the consciousness of having read all the books.” Based on my limited knowledge of the subject matter, I find myself actually agreeing with him.

8. The Communist Manifesto (P), by Karl Marx


    I probably shouldn’t have watched the movie First They Killed My Father right before reading this book. This movie chronicles the real story of a young girl’s experience during the Cambodian genocide, one of the worst events in human history. Karl argues in this Manifesto for violent revolution, as he says Communist aims "can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing conditions." Karl's aims for “the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries of the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production.” Communist ideologues in Cambodia took Marx to heart, enacted a revolution of the same grand vision, and murdered two million innocent people.

It is clear in my mind that the past century has shown that the road to serfdom is well paved by Marxist ideas. Communist countries around the world are beacons for starvation, genocide, and other forms of immense human suffering. Violent revolutions create violence, and the leftover socialist state powers aren’t keen to uphold basic human rights. Centralized economic planning is clearly inferior to capitalistic competition, and the only successful communist countries lean heavily towards capitalistic markets. I see two forms of modern of communism: economic communism and governmental communism. Capitalism is the opposite of the first, democracy the opposite of the second. You can clearly have capitalistic markets without the democracy (China), and countries that rely on economic communism/central planning fail (Soviet Union, countries in South America). My fear is that capitalism is natural, but democracy is really an outlier in human history. A government by the people is a beautiful, yet flawed, weak link that only survives if we relentlessly fight for it. Runaway capitalism can actually drastically weaken democracy, something many liberals correctly point out. Now, let’s discuss Marx’s actual writings. 

    Karl believes capitalism will result in overproduction and crises, and he sees the state as a highly intellectual and empathetic organization capable of keeping the public's interest at heart. Both of these views are clearly incorrect. What is Communism, really? “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.” Communism also consists of: heavy progressive taxes, abolition of right to inheritance, confiscation of property of emigrants and rebels, monopolized banking by the state, centralization of communication and transport, ownership of production by the state, abolition of distinction between town and country, and free education for children. The problem I have is that "workers own the means of production" is substituted for "the state owns the means of production," and Marx assumes these to be equivalent. Discarding the obvious impracticality, communism is theoretically not a bad idea. A utopian world where everyone is equal is hard to argue against, even if it completely lacks incentives and economic freedom. A utopian version of libertarian ideas still may result in suffering for the weak and lazy. Once practicality is considered, and we start thinking of real-world applications for Marxist ideas, I clearly fall on the side of economic freedom. I think capitalism is truly better for society in aggregate (even for the weak and lazy). Three reasons: the world is built on incentives, governments and militaries tend to be power-hungry, inefficient monsters who wage unjust wars and tread on individual rights, and Marx provides lofty ideas that lack any practical implementation.

    Still, I will credit this book on actually making good points about social class. I do often view the world through the Marxist lens of proletariat and bourgeoisie, and this lens is immensely useful. Throughout history this divide has been persistent, a divide that is obviously not deserved. Karl says "In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past." Due to inheritance and luck, a few people are born ungodly rich (or in great circumstances to become rich) and the majority are born poor (with no potential to change). Marx points out that the poor don't really have private property or economic freedom anyway, so doing away with such concepts only really hurts the rich. The world is immensely unfair. It is a bit ridiculous that while millions of children starve to death every year, there are billionaires who sink hundreds of millions of dollars into abstract art. We can obviously do better, and we should. I just really don't think Communism is the best way to go about it. In fact, I believe it is one of the worst.

    On a humorous note, Karl makes some interesting claims about the family structure. He claims that Christianity is against marriage since it advocates for celibacy, which is a ridiculous claim about the "go forth and multiply" religion that preached for thousands of years that adulterers should be stoned. Communists believe that women should be communal and not shackled to one individual man. While this reeks of teenage-boy-fantasy-land mentality, Karl's justification is even crazier. He says "bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common, and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women." Karl is convinced "bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common," as he believes the upper class is full of seducers and swingers who spend all their time targeting each others wives. Even if this was true, what a crazy argument! A bit of the "you can get heroin anywhere so just make it legal" line heard at a middle school where no kids have ever tried heroin. The last thing we need is to look at the actions of a fictional and slandered bourgeois class as a model for how to live.

    Even though I fundamentally disagree with basically every single one of Marx's beliefs, I understand why his theories changed the world. Social class can be a pervasive and even evil means of oppression. The caste system in India is not a model for how we should live, it is a cautionary tale. To the extent capitalism feeds into massive power divides between individuals, we need to turn to a democratic government to create positive incentives that level the playing field. Communist revolutions are not the solution to this divide, as the past hundred years makes abundantly clear. My paradoxical take is that economic freedom and individuality is required to achieve the aims of communism (a freer and fairer society). Maybe I am wrong, but erring on the side of protecting human freedom is the one strategy Communist revolutionaries never seem to try. How has that worked out?

9. Bright Lights, Big City (P), by Jay McInerney


    "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning." This is a certified classic. This book is basically all about grief and about trying to moving through life despite trauma. "You keep thinking that with practice you will eventually get the knack of enjoying superficial encounters, that you will stop looking for the universal solvent, stop grieving. You will learn to compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure." I liked the second-person perspective that Jay uses, especially since I was so able to identify with the character. I wonder if people without such an overlap in their early 20's experience in a major city will like the book, and honestly I don't really know. Jay is a good writer, but the story isn't particularly intriguing and the ending is a bit flat. I sort of wish he picked a side and chose either redemption or depression, but I guess the middle-ground he took is a bit more realistic. Loved the book, despite its many flaws.

10. The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (P), by Ludwig von Mises


    I think Ludwig has some really good takes, but this book is sort of a rant, which detracts from a lot of the otherwise good material. Ludwig is fiery, and needless to say he could certainly tone down some of his remarks. He believes that capitalism is the only defense against authoritarianism and that communists and socialists are stupid, power-hungry liars who tread on human freedom. Luwig denounces Marx and Lenin as "professional revolutionaries" who never learned anything about the market economy. I think he pretty much misses the fact that runaway capitalism can lead to similar level power-imbalances, something we have essentially seen with massively widening income inequality.

    Ludwig believes that it is liberty and human freedom (especially economic freedom) that has brought about the massive success of the West and has led to stagnation and waste in the East (the Soviet Union and China in 1956). He says "what separates East and West is first of all the fact that the people of the East never conceived the idea of liberty." I fundamentally disagree with his simplification of two related ideas. First, Ludwig essentially says that the people in the East are backwards and brought poverty on themselves by not caring about liberty or using new technology. This is grossly misleading and discounts the guns/germs/steel/luck/natural resources aspects that probably played a larger role in the capital dominance of Western powers. Second, he is staunchly of the opinion that luck and circumstance don't play a major role in the outcome of an individual. Another seventy years of sociological research and the strong role of nature/nurture make this much harder to believe than he lets on. Ludwig also claims that in terms of global poverty and suffering, people "fail to realize that the shocking circumstances they describe are the outcome of the absence of capitalism, the remnants of the precapitalistic past of the effects of policies sabotaging the operation of capitalism." However, another seventy years of data shows that despite massive GDP growth in the United States, we have seen wage stagnation in the lowest class and pretty similar aggregate poverty levels.

    Still, I think it is actually a good take that what people decry as problems due to capitalism are actually just class conflicts and disparity that existed far before, during the feudal societies the authoritarian governments that until recently fell out of power. Capitalism hasn't really been around for very long. Also, Ludwig says that the greatest flaw of socialists is that they assume that the "unprecedented technological improvements of the last two hundred years were not caused or furthered by the economic policies of the age. They were not an achievement of classical liberalism, free trade, laissez faire and capitalism. They will therefore go on under any other system of society's economic organization." Ludwig further states that the fundamental socialist idea is that "the economic interests of the masses are hurt by the operation of capitalism for the sole benefit of the 'exploiters' and that socialism will improve the common man's standard of living." I see this as sort of a killing blow to central planning. Is socialism a good substitute for capitalism, one that creates higher levels of productivity that will improve people's standard of living? Well, historically speaking, no.

    Ludwig asks an important question. Should we surrender our freedom to an omnipotent state, where our lives will function as "cogs in a vast machine designed and operated by an almighty planmaker? Should the mentality of the arrested civilizations sweep the ideals for the ascendancy of which thousands and thousands have sacrificed their lives?" I guess, no? Well, given that central planning has never worked, why are anti-capitalists fighting so strongly for it? "No intelligent man could fail to recognize that what the socialists, communists and planners were aiming at was the most radical abolition of the individuals' freedom and the establishment of government omnipotence. Yet the immense majority of the socialist intellectuals were convinced that in fighting for socialism they were fighting for freedom." The socialist message is that we should give the state the power over individuals so that the government can split up the means of production and make things fair. However, every time this happens, the state oppresses the people and takes away their freedoms. Cue the totalitarian regime with no checks and balances. Ludwig says we used to fall for this sort of ruse, but now with all the real-world examples, people realize that freedom cannot be preserved under a socialist regime. I'm not entirely convinced.

    Ludwig claims that under capitalism, the upper class is much less safe. "The feudal lord does not serve consumers and is immune to the displeasure of the populace." If you are the son of a railroad CEO, you still have to worry about the up and coming airplane industry. You still have to serve the needs of the masses or invest in products that will, or you lose your shirt. I think this is an important distinction. Also, you can't make a living as an artist, but should you? Ludwig says that capitalism is simple: "those who satisfy the wants of a smaller number of people only collect fewer votes - dollars - than those who satisfy the wants of more people. In moneymaking the movie stat outstrips the philosopher; the manufacturers of Pinkapinka outstrip the composer of symphonies." You probably can't do what you love (painting all day), and still earn a living, unless it is useful for someone else. I hate this as much as anyone, but it is a reality, and I doubt any useful economic system could make this so. As Ludwig says, the system of capitalism is really good at achieving immense economic progress. The idea that the centralized planning required in socialism and communism can in any way compete is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Ludwig says modern socialists play word games and advocate for some flavor of "untotalitarian totalitarianism." I pretty much agree with Ludwig here that there is no compromise. Either you hand your freedoms over to the government and pray they will be omnipotent planners who have your best interests at heart and won't oppress you, or you don't. There's a lot less in-between than the revolutionaries would like to suggest.

    Overall, I see why Mises was such an influential Austrian economist. His takes are somewhat bland and incorrect in some areas, but I found others pretty insightful. Regardless, it has been pretty useful to read both sides of the capitalist/communist debate and form my own opinions.