Reading in parallel: Future of Power, Great Stagnation, Thinking in Time

A couple weeks ago I got a Kindle Touch. The result has been a massive uptick in my book reading, especially when I’m travelling. I’m making some serious headway into the backlog of book recommendations that have piled up over the past few years. If you’ve been thinking about making the switch to an e-reader, I highly recommend you do.

So far I’ve finished three of the books on my list. I usually don’t read multiple books at a time, but these three go well together. Here’s a mini-review on each.

The Future of Power — by Joseph Nye (2011)

This one came highly recommended from the foreign policy crowd. It’s the kind of book that never really surprises you and never leads you to controversial conclusions. You start to wonder what the big deal is.

Then you realize that Nye has systematically sorted all the major global trends into a careful framework of what it means to have or exercise power. I don’t think I learned new facts from this book, but now I have a much better understanding of the things I already knew. That’s worth a lot. For example, he makes a big point about the difference between power transition among states, and a power diffusion away from all states to nonstate actors. These are two different phenomenon that interact with one another but must not be confused. Nye gives clear-headed assessments of major actors (both state and nonstate) in terms of their power resources, especially as they compare to the United States.

One takeaway for the aid/development crowd: Nye’s framework suggests a different way of thinking about the militarization of aid. After finding the limits of their hard power in Afghanistan and Iraq, US policymakers have tried to supplement it with the soft power of aid. The results have been mixed, at best. But the militarization of aid is just a subset of a broader trend, what we might call the “power-ization” of aid: significant domestic political pressure is forcing Congress and others in DC to marshal whatever resources they can in the face of a major power transition (i.e. the rise of China), and aid is one of those resources. They’re looking for “value-for-money” — but with different expected returns than the development wonks would like.

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better — by Tyler Cowen (2011)

This was easily one of the most talked-about books of the year — at least if you read economics blogs, like say, this one. Cowen packs a lot into this tiny book (it was originally released only as an e-book but its popularity induced a hard-cover edition, which clocks in at 128 pages).

The book’s subtitle sums up its argument pretty well. Much of America’s economic growth over the past century has come from low-hanging fruit, such as free land (well, stolen land — but the economic impact is the same), major technological breakthroughs, and expanding public education. We “got sick” thinking that this would go on forever. His one sentence explanation of the financial crisis: “We thought we were richer than we were.” Cowen goes head-on with the idea that we live in a highly innovative time, arguing that most Americans have seen little practical advance in basic lifestyle in the past half century. With regard to the major exception — internet and communications technology — Cowen points to the small impact the internet has actually had on America’s GDP and employment. Though he ends on some hopeful notes about positive trends and the need to reinvest in science, the overall effect of the book is sobering.

The Great Stagnation pairs well with The Future of Power because they both bring careful analysis to the challenges facing the US in coming years. Cowen’s less-than-rosy view of our economic condition supplements Nye’s description of the “power resources” that the country can convert into actual power. With a major election this year, we can expect increasing public discourse around these questions (even while candidates themselves dance around the issues, as is their custom).

Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers — by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (1986)

This book stands out a bit from the other two, if only because it’s older than some of this blog’s followers. That means some of the examples used are not as familiar today. Sure, I know a bit about the Bay of Pigs fiasco — but the Skybolt affair? The social security reforms of 1983? Thankfully, the authors provide the context needed to follow along.

The real strength of this book is the basic framework: decision makers use historical analogies to understand new situations, and how they do so matters a great deal. Neustadt and May delve into the records on various majors events to elaborate on how historical memory influenced decision makers. They provide some tips for asking better questions, illustrated through the historical examples and suggestions for how they might have been better handled. For example, the authors suggest a practice called historical “placement”: systematically investigating the background of both individuals and organizations, so you can understand how they might respond to current events.

What I took away from this book is a greater sensitivity to how we use historical analogy in development thinking and advocacy. Think about references to a “Marshall Plan for Africa“, or the argument about whether the Arab Spring was more like the Iranian revolution in 1979 or the end of communism in 1989. I googled the term “another Rwanda” and the first page of results showed references to Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Somalia. Such framing has great rhetorical impact, while carrying questionable analytical value. Reading Thinking in Time, and studying history in general, can make one a better user and consumer of such analogies.

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I should apologize that these are very American-centric books. Want more? I’ve got a whole page of books you may find interesting.

On a different topic, I highly recommend Cowen’s TED talk on why he’s suspicious of stories:

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(Full disclosure: Links above use the Amazon Associates program. I get a tiny percentage of revenues. So far I’ve earned $1.71 through this.)