by Gary Alexander
December 7, 2021
Last week, I profiled six books published in the second quarter of 2021. Here are six more, five of which debuted August through October, but I want to arrange them in three pairs to make a point about reading both (or all) sides of a subject to become fully informed. I certainly have my own point of view, which comes through in my writing; but I consult a balanced diet of sources, unlike most Americans, who seem trapped in an “echo chamber” of writers or speakers with similar belief systems, in one’s “comfort zone.”
For instance, I subscribe to about 10 magazines that have some sort of political slant on the markets or the economy (or book reviews), about half from the traditional right and half from the left. What you’ll find here are dissonant pairings arranged by subject matter in a way that will help discern how to find truth.
First Pair: The Latest in a Valuable Series
Here are a pair of books that represent the latest in a series covering economics and markets, respectively. The first book is the second in a series that pits right vs. left in economics, with the scales slightly tilted to the left, while the second is the sixth in a series on investing by a more market-friendly economist.
Samuelson / Friedman: The Battle over the Free Market, by Nicholas Wapshott (published August 3, 2021, 384 pages) is a logical sequel to his 2012 book pitting John Maynard Keynes against Friedrich Hayek. Wapshott is a British journalist who previously profiled a more compatible political couple, “Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage” (2007). All of his books are delightfully written in narrative (story) form rather than in statistical format or in deep philosophical debates.
Milton Friedman (1912-2006) and Paul Samuelson (1915-2009) were more compatible than Hayek and Keynes. Both were sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Both lived to age 93 and were friends for over 60 years. Most importantly, they agreed to debate in public, in the popular press (Newsweek) in alternating regular columns for 18 years (1966 to 1984), allowing the general public to decide who made more sense. Much of this book is built on ideas raised in those Newsweek debates rather than their books.
Friedman is now out of favor (President Biden recently said, “Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore”), so it’s no surprise that Wapshott puts his thumb slightly on the scales in favor of Samuelson’s centralized (Keynesian) solutions while dismissing Friedman’s signature “monetarist” theories at the very time we’re seeing post-COVID “fiat” (unbacked) paper money creating a major new round of inflation.
It was a particularly low blow to read the author’s speculation that Friedman was partly to blame for the January 6 insurrection. I interviewed Friedman three times for over an hour each time from 1985 to 2002, and he was far more thoughtful, careful, and respectful than ever to encourage or abet any such acts. I would counter that Samuelson abetted the socialism rampant in America by praising the Soviet system.
In Praise of Profits, by Edward Yardeni (October 25, 2021, 226 pages) is the sixth in his series of books for investors which began in 2019 with “The Yield Curve: What is it Really Predicting?” and then “Stock Buybacks: The True Story.” These e-books are short enough to read in one or two sittings, and then you can use them as reference works. They each contain surprising results, fully supported by the research. For instance, the “stock buyback” story isn’t about a diminishing supply of shares, since buy-backs most often replace the company’s supply of shares to parcel out to employees in profit-sharing plans.
“In Praise of Profits” also goes down several unexpected alleys, including the debunking of myths about “stagnating wages” or “the expanding income inequality gap,” since we must take into account income mobility, while also accounting for post-tax and benefit income, and shrinking household sizes. To top it off, you can buy these books for less than a cup of designer coffee – just $1.99 at most electronic outlets.
Second Book Pairing: How to Discern Statistical Misuses and Logical Fallacies
The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics by Tim Harford (February 2, 2021, 324 pages) is the latest in a long series of books (I think I’ve read them all) in the spirit of Darrell Huff’s classic 1954 words-and-picture classic, “How to Lie with Statistics,” which I bought in high school and still own. Huff’s book got me interested in dissecting the journalistic misuse of numbers so much that I was designated “the elder stats-man” in our magazine staff at age 25. (Authors hated my numerical edits.)
In this book, Harford (who hosts a British TV series on statistics!) believes in the well-tended statistic, which he defines as “human behavior seen through the prism of numbers,” representing “the only way of grasping much of what is going on.” His 10 rules seem obvious, on the surface, but they can be hard to put into practice, since the deceivers are so many and so clever. Some samples are embedded in Rule #3: “Make sure you understand what is being counted” (definitions vary on what is a bean, or what is a crime, etc.); Rule #6: “Ask who or what is missing from the data” or Rule #9: “Overlook the beauty of the chart” to see what the X and Y axis truly represent. It’s a lifelong battle, but it’s certainly worth the effort.
Rationality: What It Is. Why It Seems Scarce. Why it Matters, by Steven Pinker (September 28, 2021, 432 pages) goes deeper than just statistics into the details of logical inferences and the vital “evidence from silence,” which is very valuable in the next “Case Study” I’ve prepared. Pinker is one of my favorite authors for debunking the Doomsday cro wd, especially his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Not many seem to believe that the world has become extremely better off in nearly every metric in the last 50 years, but Pinker has the proof. I recommend this for his easy style and self-effacing manner, unlike any professor you may recall from logic classes in college days.
A Final Case Study: How to Understand the 2020 Election
Now I’ll move into a practical case study. Left and right disagree violently over the last (2020) election – over the candidates and whether it was fair or not. How do we find a semblance of truth without all the ideological blinders? As difficult as it seems, we must listen to the best voices from both sides, as in a courtroom, defense vs. prosecutor, or as a well-run college debate would present both sides fairly.
PERIL, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa (September 21, 2021, 506 pages) interviewed participants in a “first draft of history,” woven into a readable story, but there should have been some push-back from the reporters. Why would they suspect that the only President in the last 40 years not to invade a foreign country suddenly wanted to invade China or Iran? Why would U.S. generals fall for this overreaction of enemy leaders? And why only interview the enemies of Trump? And why paint candidates Biden and Harris as angels, and Trump as constantly deranged? For instance, they paint Biden as being tireless in digging into the “granularity” of policy details in endless meetings, and Kamala Harris is “confident and athletic, with an easy laugh.” Does any of this ring true? In my opinion, this is not reporting, it is cheerleading.
RIGGED: How the Media, Big Tech and Democrats Seized Our Elections, by Mollie Hemingway (October 12, 2021, 333 pages) covers the whole four years preceding November 3, 2020. For those who denigrate Trump and his team questioning the election results, she cites the Democrats challenging 2000, 2004, and especially 2016 results, with 86% of Democratic voters believing Trump had colluded with the Russian government to gain his victory. The media gave great credence to fabricated opposition research in the Steele Dossier, now discredited. Social media and nearly all TV outlets spiked any anti-Biden or pro-Trump news until after the election, so Hemingway is not saying the ballot boxes were stuffed as much as she claims that a consortium of elite power players rigged the outcome.
After the election, TIME confirmed that “a well-funded cabal of powerful people” funded the results. The most shocking allegation in the book is that Jeff Zuckerberg spent nearly half a billion “Zuck bucks” to “get out the vote,” targeted about 5-to-1 in key precincts in swing states to swing the tide toward Biden.
This wraps up my top 12 books of 2021. Please note that four of the six books this week (all but Yardeni and Hemingway) are written by authors with a left-of-center bias, so there’s no “echo chamber” here.