The Ascent of Money

by Niall Ferguson

 

My attempt to grapple with economics and finance is a recurring theme of this blog (alongside my love/hate relationship with fantasy). This post falls right into that category.

Ferguson’s main argument with The Ascent of Money is that financial innovation leads to an increase in economic activity and, in the long run, individual prosperity, even if there are some bumps along the road. That this argument seems a bit defensive, in the wake of the recent market crash, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. Ferguson writes as if he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle: convincing us, the unwashed masses, that banks and hedge funds aren’t responsible for our current predicament. In my opinion, he partially responds to this by dumbing down his explanations, presenting simplified histories, and essentially ignoring examples that don’t fit in neatly with his argument.

For me, this isn’t a problem most of the time. Ferguson’s histories of everything from credit to insurance are enlightening to a layman such as myself. I do have a problem, however, when I finally feel comfortable enough to have questions of my own, questions that Ferguson doesn’t really want to answer. The Ascent of MoneyOf course, it’s a book; perhaps it’s unreasonable of me to expect that the author is only presenting information exactly on the level of my understanding. That book would be impractical, and it probably wouldn’t sell a lot of copies. On the other hand, unanswered questions feed into this feeling I get, the feeling that when it comes down to it, financial experts don’t really want us to understand how the system operates. It might make us question the status quo.

But let’s turn from cynicism back to the book itself. I do feel like Ascent helps put into context the new financial techniques that are partially responsible for the most recent financial crisis. To hear Ferguson tell it, finance has always been an arms race between, on the one hand, whatever geniuses have the newest ideas on how to make money, and, on the other, industry regulators. From the invention of bonds to the first stock market to the derivatives of the last couple decades, people who handle money for a living are always looking for new ways to take the money they have and use it to create more money. Whether because these new schemes are initially too complicated to effectively oversee, or because those meant to oversee the schemes have a stake in seeing them succeed, or perhaps because there’s no regulation at all, the latest financial ideas often succeed wildly in the short term, only to do lasting damage to existing markets in the long term.

I’m guessing that’s not the message that Ferguson wants us to get from his book. As I said before, his thesis is that financial institutions, while often willing to use other people’s money for what turn out to be risky endeavors, actually help people by providing financial stability. For example, though the first insurance companies definitely made money, they also provided a needed safety net for widows; a service that the government couldn’t really provide. On this broad point, I agree: developments in the field of finance have generally made people better-off. But the connections between credit, debt, and wealth creation can’t be ignored. Even when the system is at its most efficient, there will be winners and losers, and when the system becomes unbalanced, there may all of a sudden be many, many more losers.

Again, I’m grateful that Ferguson acknowledges this truth; it makes his argument for the necessity of financial institutions that much stronger. Michael Lewis, in Boomerang, muses that people are justifiably angry about the way their financial futures were disappeared in the Great Recession, despite the lack of a natural vent for that anger. Ferguson, while willing to accept that people aren’t really sold on the glorious benefits of finance right now, essentially wrote Ascent to argue the opposite case. Rather than bemoaning a lack of easy targets for our ire, he readily identifies the responsible parties, and then proceeds to make a solid case in their defense.

As much as I complained about it, I didn’t actually hate The Ascent of Money. Ferguson clearly sees his role as defending the financial world from the wrath of the hoi polloi- but that’s fine, because he’s even-handed, and he never implies that finance has the ability to create a perfect world. Ascent can be pretty dry, but if you’re interested in the subject matter, go for it.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman

 

I don’t really know what Gaiman meant to say with this book. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve got some ideas. But keep in mind that I know literally nothing.

I think that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about the connections between who we are as children and who we grow up to be. The book starts with a man- our narrator- coming back to his childhood home, and then visiting his friend Lettie Hempstock’s house down the street, though she has long since moved away. From there, he starts reminiscing about his life at age seven, when his family had just moved into the neighborhood.

As in the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, American Gods, there are fantasy elements, but Gaiman’s gift is his ability to construct two discrete worlds, one real and one fantastic, and then blur the lines between them. In the case of Ocean, our narrator remembers many things that could not have been real, namely a monster that comes into his life first as a worm in his foot and subsequently in the form of his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton. Housekeepers are real, but they’re not foot-worms. The Ocean at the End of the LaneSo I’m guessing there’s something else going on here. Gaiman heavily implies that the narrator’s memory is compensating for something in his past, filling in gaps or erasing unwanted events. He leaves open the question, though, of whether the magic was made up in a seven-year-old’s imagination to make life seem less horrible, or whether the magic was real, only to be forgotten by a more world-weary adult.

Beyond questioning the narrator’s memory, Gaiman invites us to compare his childhood and adulthood personalities. Throughout each, he’s a stoic; taking bad news well, not expecting too much, and describing the events of his life with little or no emotion. Kid or adult, he seems unable to relate to most people, and has a hard time making friends. But the narrator’s childhood shows another side of his personality, perhaps one that he still retains; he is capable of strong feeling. This is shown both in his love for his new friend, Lettie, and his utter hatred for Ursula Monkton. As a child, he sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him, often exposing him to potential dangers. It makes one wonder whether he consciously chose, as he grew up, to shed his emotion and become a person who couldn’t be hurt by others. We never delve too deeply into the narrator’s adult life, so it’s kind of up in the air.

I think when it comes down to it, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells us that childhood is more important- and more real- than we’d often like to believe. Whether or not we interpret the magical events as real, the narrator’s memories of Lettie Hempstock and Ursula Monkton had a real impact on his life, helping to create the person he grew up to be. He may have concocted a make-believe back story for straightforward events, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand or doesn’t remember what ‘actually’ happened. The events of the novel could be chalked up to a child’s imagination, but Gaiman indicates that just because something is imaginary, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Ocean benefits from Gaiman’s simple and straightforward writing, and I mean that in a good way. Whether describing his disappointing seventh birthday party, or the appearance of a huge monster in the sky, the narrative never gets derailed. Gaiman really doesn’t need or want to distract you from the story in the narrator’s head; this story stands on its own. Frilly language or elaborate subplots would blunt the sharp focus that makes the book so powerful.

I started this blog partially thinking that my ‘reviews’ would reflect what I would tell someone who was asking me about a book. When it comes to Ocean, I was somewhat at a loss as to what I would say. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I want to give you a sense of what the book is like and what it’s about. I think that the easiest advice would be to just read the book; it’s short and simple, not a huge commitment. So yeah, as long as you’re not completely allergic to fantasy, I’d just say go for it.

Gaiman’s written a really good novel here. Simpler than American Gods, and possibly better. Check it out for yourself.

Duty

by Robert M. Gates

 

Yes, the title reminds you of poo. Moving on.

Duty is Gates’ memoir about his time serving as Secretary of Defense, under Presidents Bush (fils) and Obama. Appointed by the former to fix the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was asked to stay on by the latter, presumably to add a bipartisan flavor to Obama’s cabinet and Department of Defense. Duty describes Gates’ time at the Pentagon and provides his perspective on each administration.

If you’ve read about the book, you’ve probably heard the gossipy accounts of the successive administrations: who got along with whom, etc. I think one question everyone wanted answered was, “Who do you think made better decisions as President?” DutyWell, Gates knows enough to steer clear of that one, though he’s less comfortable with the Obama team than he is around Republicans or the military. On the other hand, he shit-talks Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden about equally, thinking that both were too political and too vocal in foreign policy meetings, while just about professing his undying love for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So he at least keeps an open mind.

But most of what Gates talks about is actually bureaucratic intransigence within Defense. His biggest problem at the Pentagon was that most of the top brass were focused on potential future wars, to the point of obsession. While this focus on upcoming problems and conflicts isn’t necessarily a bad thing- I’m glad that they think about tomorrow- Gates found that this attention came at the expense of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he felt he was brought in to fix. His mandate, as he saw it, was to realign the massive bureaucracy with the goal of winning our current wars. I find it hard to believe that the military paid as little attention to the wars it was fighting as Gates indicates, but he’s quite proud of his accomplishments in this area, especially the accelerated procurement of the life-saving MRAP, which I’ll get into in just a minute.

Though his book was interesting, by and large, I would get kind of annoyed when I felt that Gates was using his bipartisan label to elevate himself above decisions he didn’t like. In addition to disagreeing with and arguing against these decisions on their merits- which, to his credit, he does- he tends to adopt the posture of a neutral observer. The implication of this is that if you disagree with him, you’re behaving like a partisan hack. Gates consistently tells us that everything he did, by contrast, was for our country and our troops on the front line. While I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth, I can see how it would get frustrating dealing with a man who believes his motives to be purer than anyone else’s in the room.

A couple months ago, while I was reading DutyNew York magazine came out with a cover story about race in the Obama era. In case you missed it, Jonathon Chait basically said, “Sure, Republican policies and politics can be racist, but Democrats are just as bad when they call Republicans racist. Everyone’s at fault.” What bothered me about this line of reasoning was best articulated by Elias Isquith on Salon as “the view from nowhere.” Essentially, Chait needs to retain his credibility as a neutral journalist, meaning that he can neither fully endorse either side’s actions or fully impugn either side’s motives. If he did so, he would immediately cease to be ‘neutral.’ The result? A piece pretty much devoid of actual content, all in the name of fairness.

I don’t think it would be fair to put Gates on the same level as Chait, but his tone sometimes bothered me. There are a few people in government that he would respect, even when he disagreed with them, but there were many whom he would often accuse of being hacks. The Obama White House, and particularly Joe Biden, are singled out as making foreign policy decisions based almost purely on politics. This is an especially strange charge given that during the Bush Administration, by Gates’ own account, national politics had a very strong influence on war policy in Iraq. Motives are not called into question in this case, but because Gates has taken the stance of an impartial observer, we’re supposed to trust that he knows the difference between a ‘political decision’ and an ‘informed’ decision.

Similarly, Gates likes to claim that he’s not a politician, and moreover that he has weak political instincts. A closer look reveals that the opposite is the case. In the aforementioned example of Iraq, Secretary Gates, the civilian team at the Pentagon, the military, and the White House were very adept at setting timetables for the surge, knowing how far away a deadline would have to be to avoid immediate accountability, while dodging a situation in which they could be criticized for setting a ridiculously distant (and therefore nearly irrelevant) date. This is not me calling them out for trying to outmaneuver Congress and the nation without us noticing. Go read the book. Gates is pretty open about politics driving aspects of decision-making in his time at Defense before the 2008 election.

A more subtle example of Gates’ political instincts is the MRAP program, which is credited with saving many, many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates writes that he had to fight the Pentagon for the procurement of these vehicles, which were better-suited than any other to withstand IEDs, and therefore protected soldiers on patrol. If his account is accurate, this means that a) top officials at the Pentagon didn’t place the highest priority on protecting their soldiers, at least not to the extent that they would go around the normal procurement process to do so, and b) the Pentagon and the White House failed to recognize that American casualties were driving opposition to the war in Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that American opposition to wars largely develops when we see our fellow Americans fighting and dying for reasons we don’t understand. A good way to keep opposition from spiraling out of control, therefore, would be to place the highest priority on protecting American lives. Hence, the MRAP. If Gates was as integral to the MRAP procurement as he tells us, either the Bush Administration and the military were incredibly obtuse about the impact of casualties on American war fatigue, or Gates is much more politically savvy than he lets on.

I feel a little bit bad, because it must seem like I’m criticizing a high-level government official for acting like a politician. I often find myself in the position of defending politicians, even those that I disagree with, when people write them off as self-interested blowhards. I think it’s rare that anyone gets into public service, politics included, without a real desire to see people’s lives improve. From Bob Gates to George Bush to Barack Obama to Stanley McChrystal, I don’t think there’s anyone in Duty that I wouldn’t assume to be a patriot, and it saddens me that Gates is so adamant about certain individuals not always having the public interest at heart. But of course, it’s his book, and he’s entitled to his opinions. It’s likely that Gates is just trying to be honest about his experiences, and I can’t fault him for that.

I’ve kind of gotten bogged down in the political crap, which I really tried not to do, but it is simply amazing to me how openly Gates disdains political theater while just as openly engaging in it. Regardless, most of the book isn’t really about that. Gates talks about the Defense budget, our relationships with Russia and China, changes in military culture (including the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and other challenges that we’re facing or that we will face in the near future. He makes his opinions known, and tells it like he sees it. I’m guessing that Gates’ tenure at the Pentagon will turn out to be an important one, and it’s pretty interesting watching the changes at the Pentagon from the perspective of a man who clearly wasn’t always comfortable with the way things went down.

Duty is a fascinating memoir for what Gates says- the great anecdotes from his relationship with Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc- as well as what he doesn’t say. There’s probably no better vantage point on the foreign policy pivot between the Bush and Obama Administrations.

Daughter of the Forest

by Juliet Marillier

 

The eponymous daughter, Sorcha, lives in the middle of the eponymous Irish forest with her six brothers. Their father, Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, constantly fights off English invaders, and generally leaves his kids to themselves, so long as the boys learn to fight. So the seven children grow up together, looking out for each other, even as they seek to develop their individual talents and interests. Daughter of the ForestAll in all, Sorcha is pretty happy with her life, and she can’t imagine ever leaving her home and the protection of her brothers. She’s content.

Daughter of the Forest is the story of a bunch of bad shit happening to her. It’s unusual to read a book, especially a fantasy, that gets so deep into such depressing territory so early. I mean, we know Rowling wasn’t afraid to turn Harry Potter 7 into a bloodbath, but that was the point; she felt like raising the stakes from what had been a children’s fantasy would be a powerful statement, and she was right. But the evil in the Potter universe never felt real. Despite going into Voldemort’s backstory, he was not a real character, merely a caricature of evil. By contrast, the ‘evil’ in Daughter of the Forest feels very real, indeed. I think this is partially because the fantasy elements were so low-key, compared to the constantly in-your-face fantasy of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings (wizards, dragons, dark lords- all that jazz).

Sorcha, on the other hand, witnesses or experiences very real and very ordinary acts of evil- betrayal, torture, rape, murder. Things that have been happening every day since the dawn of humanity. What’s extraordinary is that, due to a spell, Sorcha must endure all of this without speaking; if she speaks before she finishes sewing six shirts, one for each of her brothers, they’ll be doomed to live out the rest of their lives as swans.

Sorcha’s silence is intense. While I’m sure that Marillier isn’t the first author to create an interesting and believable silent character (Speak comes to mind, though I never read it), her characterization of Sorcha is a testament to her skills as a writer. I’d be reading for half an hour on the bus, get off at my stop, and wonder why I felt so out of it; Marillier had gotten into my head, letting me feel Sorcha’s disconnection from the rest of the world. It’s a pretty fine line to walk, but the character totally works. She’s mesmerizing.

I don’t want to get much further into the plot, on account of potential spoilers, so I’ll cut this short. I would like to reiterate that this a fantasy, albeit an unorthodox one. Several times, people asked me if I was reading a romance novel, based entirely on the cover of the book. My guess is that it played out like this:

Swans count as females when judging a book by its cover

Swans count as females when judging a book by its cover

Having a female protagonist doesn’t turn your book into a romance novel. Maybe that was too obvious to mention, but I felt I had to say it.

(I do agree that most fantasy covers are stupid. I like fantasy, as you can probably tell by how many of them I’ve read in the last couple years. Daughter of the Forest, in fact, was recommended to me by a friend who knows I get down with fantasy.  But oh so many fantasy tropes are stupid. Titles, character names, illustrations, whatever. I think fantasy would be taken way more seriously if it didn’t look like it was marketed to teenagers. This is by the way.)

So I felt like Daughter of the Forest delivered, with a unique character and an interesting story; Marillier clearly loves and knows folklore. There are two more books in the series, and I haven’t decided on whether to read them yet. But if/when I do, you know I’ll be bloggin’ it up.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume I and Volume II

by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

 

Side note/confession session: I love graphic novels. I always feel a little embarrassed when I check out graphic novels at the library. I mean, thank God for self-checkout, right? But really, I think graphic novels and comic books are awesome. Sure, there aren’t as many words to the page, but they provide something special that other books just can’t achieve. Graphic novels provide the reader with context without being boring, emotion without being overly sentimental, and entertainment without losing depth. Plus they’re fun.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, set in 1898, is a steampunk comic about a group of misfits that come together to aid the British government in top-secret missions. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IThis is the coolest thing: these “misfits” are all characters from famous works of fiction. The main character is Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (that’s Miss Murray to you thankyouverymuch), an uptight divorcée who refuses to remove the red scarf that she wears around her neck. I won’t give away who she is if you don’t know already, but you could probably figure it out. She is introduced by British Intelligence agent Campion Bond (any guesses as to who his grandson is?) to Captain Nemo, an Indian ex-pat who captains a large submarine known as the Nautilis. They are sent on a mission to assemble this team of misfits — first to Cairo to recruit Allan Quatermain despite his opium addiction, then to Paris to find a scrawny Dr. Jekyll, and finally back to London to extract Hawley Griffin from an all-girl’s boarding school where he wreaks havoc as the Invisible Man.

Once assembled, this League of Extraordinary Gentlepersons goes on to track down a villain on behalf of Mr. Bond’s unnamed employer. They find themselves caught in a rivalry between two famed villains: Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Putting their lives at risk, they have to make their strange group work together to save London. And that’s all just volume I.

Volume II takes a completely different turn. Now that the League is established and the British Intelligence organization restored, they have to win what seems like an impossible war: the War of the Worlds. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IILoosely based on the novel by H. G. Wells, this Volume begins on Mars and takes the reader through an alien invasion of the London suburbs. Pretty dope if you’re into some serious science fiction. There’s also some heavy material in this volume, from violent rape scenes to animal hybridization to martyrdom, so make sure you’re ready for that.

I have yet to read The Black Dossier, which from my understanding is more of a framing reference-book for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than a third volume. It is set in 1958 after the fall of Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m not sure how the chronology works out, but I’ll find out because I am definitely going to check out The Black Dossier when I get the chance. I’ll keep you updated.

If you are heavy into science fiction or steampunk and appreciate comics, you must read this series. It is especially fun to read if you are familiar with famous british fictional characters and story lines. For the sake of my feminist street-cred, I have to mention that it is absolutely awesome to read a graphic novel with a strong, smart, powerful (though somewhat sexualized) female protagonist. She even talks about how they treat her poorly and make judgements about her intelligence because she’s a woman! Groundbreaking. Read it.