by Gary Alexander
December 20, 2022
For several decades, I’ve read at least 100 good books a year, since I know that the Internet and Cable TV keep trying to trivialize our minds with meaningless chatter. Of the 115 books I’ve read in 2022, these were my favorites touching on business trends that influence investing strategies, in order of publication:
Peter Schweitzer’s “Red-Handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win” (published on January 25, 2022) is an important beginning, because we need to stop compromising business values in order to import cheap “made in China” products as our primary cost-cutting metric. What good will it do to save a few pennies in labor costs to lose it all to choking trade delays, compromised national security, stolen trade secrets, lost domestic jobs, and a host of other ills? Unfortunately, the “elite” here go far beyond widget-makers to include Silicon Valley royalty, diplomats, retired military, NBA superstars, and even Presidential families and Cabinet members. It’s time for these elite to declare what team they’re on.
Arthur Brooks’ “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life” (February 15) is a warmer bath after that severe workout of outrage in January. I remember first hearing from Brooks when he gave up a secure post in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra playing French horn. Like me, he grew up in Seattle with a first love in music. He landed a plum post in Europe, the closest thing to lifetime job security you will ever find. A horn player literally can’t be fired, even if a split lip keeps him from blowing his horn, but he gave it up to study economics and went on to head the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He writes here with the same warmth with which he once played his horn. This book covers his switch from head of that think tank to his final chapter of life, but more than that; it’s about how anyone can discover bliss (amidst the inevitable pain) in our Third Act.
Steve Forbes, Nathan Lewis, and Elizabeth Ames wrote “Inflation: What it Is, Why It’s Bad, and How to Fix It” (published April 19, shortly before the inflation rate supposedly “peaked,” at least for now.) The principles they write about here are so familiar (to me) that I wondered why they bothered writing a book so elementary, but then I realized that the 400 PhD economists at the Federal Reserve don’t “get it” yet. Neither does the Secretary of the Treasury, the President, nor his leading economic advisory team, so it’s good that this Forbes’ team is on the barricades reminding us that the Fed’s emperor “has no clothes.” The Fed’s clueless behavior of fueling a falsely “transitory” hyper-inflation for two years, then suddenly choking it off and rapidly raising rates while talking up recession makes me pine for Maestro Greenspan.
Vaclav SMIL’s “How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going” (May 10) focuses on our energy-centered economy. He argues (like the next book) that it will be a long time before we move away from fossil fuels. Smil, a Canadian environmental scientist, explains how fossil fuels deliver far more than gas to our cars, by producing core materials, such as cement, ammonia-based fertilizer, plastics, and steel – which are essential to feeding us and building our world. He admits we will eventually move away from these fuels, but that requires far more than the 10 or 12 years, or even two or three decades, demanded by the Green zealots. (These books also validate Louis Navellier’s big bet on the energy sector this year and the next few years.)
Alex EPSTEIN’s “Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas – Not Less” (May 24) takes the same position as Vaclav Smil, but from a philosophical posture, in harmony with his 2014 book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” Epstein believes that prosperity provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and that a sensible approach toward the cleaner use of fossil fuels would provide the necessary platform of prosperity we need to discover new solutions. Any effort to ban such fuels is not just anti-prosperity but anti-human in that it destroys, eventually kills, millions of lives while ending any dreams of a better life for billions. He does not deny climate change but weighs the impact of such change against the impact of criminalizing energy.
“The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate,” by economist and former Senator Phil Gramm, along with economists Robert Ekelund and John Early (September 15) is the most important economics book of the year, in my view, well worth reading by anyone under the illusion that “the income gap is growing.” This book was largely ignored by the mainstream press, although The Wall Street Journal would publish excerpts of the trio’s research. Basically, the Census Bureau does not include most of the transfer payments received and spent by low-income Americans, including Medicaid, food stamps, jobless claims, temporary assistance, and literally 100 other programs. Once you include these programs, the income gap shrinks, as does the poverty level.
Vivek RAMASWAMY’s “A Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence” (September 13) is written by a man whose experience and nationality certainly entitles him to the roll call of victim categories. He cites the example of fellow Indian Americans who had perfect SAT scores and admirable community service credentials but were denied admission to every one of the top 15 universities, while minorities with weaker scores and no particular community service were readily accepted. But Ramaswamy is a championship tennis player, a virtuoso pianist, a charming speaker, a handsome devil, and a gifted entrepreneur, so he was accepted at Harvard and Yale. Despite the presence of bias, he counsels against playing the victim card, no matter your circumstances. We’ve all seen victims succeed without playing the victim card in our personal lives.
Richard REEVES’ “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do About it” (September 27) recites an astounding array of counter-intuitive statistics – which took even the author by surprise – that women and girls have surpassed boys in nearly EVERY academic and economic category, including math scores, over the last 50 years since Title IX took effect. “Most scientists are now women,” he says. Every one of the 16 major university law journals is edited by women, he says. “Very few men teach” in K-12, he says, “and that number is shrinking.” Women receive 60% more college degrees than men. Men are not only “on strike” in the labor force (see my September 7 review of “Men Without Work”) but they are also bypassing college. The mining and forestry jobs are disappearing, so men often settle for being waiters, retail clerks, truck drivers, or taxi drivers.
Steve CASE’s “The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream” (September 27) chronicles the adventures of AOL’s founder traveling the middle of America in a bus since 2014, looking in on hundreds of American success stories outside the familiar centers of venture capitalism. About 75% of all start-up capital is concentrated in three states, he says – California, New York, and Massachusetts – yet so many great ideas emerge in the other 47 states, and those smart business minds don’t want to move to the coast to raise the necessary capital, so Case is taking the VCs to middle America – a great idea for him and them; so great that he intends to keep on the road in his Opportunity Bus for the foreseeable future. Case shares great tales from eastern Kentucky, Nashville, Tulsa/Oklahoma City, and points north – proving that the American Dream still lives.
“The Titanium Economy: How Industrial Technology Can Create a Better, Faster, Stronger America” by Asutosh Padhi, Gaurav Batra, and Nick Santhanam (October 25, 2022) is a parallel book to Steve Case and his bus tour of unknown small businesses in America. The “titanium economy” is the title the authors give to lesser-known and largely unfollowed manufacturing businesses that remains strong in America. Silicon Valley dominates the headlines, but these smaller start-ups are making aerospace parts or recycled plastic lumber substitutes. These three McKinsey analysts cover this healthy industrial sector that few of us likely follow. In the process, they deliver some fascinating stories, and some potential stocks to follow.
You have about a week to order some of these books for yourself, or as Christmas gifts for others.
Enjoy and profit.