Capitalism in America: A History book review

I came across this book as I was browsing through the new releases section on Amazon. Normally I do not venture into new releases but the authorship of this book along with the potential scope of the book made me want to read it asap. And yes the scope of the book is indeed magnificent. This isn’t a book about a particular successful business. It is instead about all the businesses (or at least the types) that were successful in America. It is about how the USA was formed and shaped economically, right from the earliest passengers on the Mayflower to the current workforce, still reeling under the policies of Donald Trump. It is about how USA came to be rightfully known as the land of opportunity, as it provided the brave and the lucky ones the correct set of conditions for them to grow – both their own wealth, and the collective wealth of the country ahead.
The journey of America is indeed fascinating. As the author mentions in the introduction, at the time of of the 17th century, the continent of America was but an unknown on the global stage. “The region is nothing more than an empty space on the map—a vast wilderness sitting above Latin America, with its precious metals, and between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, with their trading routes and treasure troves of fish. The wilderness is populated by aboriginal peoples who have had no contact with the Davos crowd. There are a few Europeans in New England and Virginia—but they report that the life is hard and civilization nonexistent. The entire North American continent produces less wealth than the smallest German principality.”
From that point in history to today, where “the United States is the world’s biggest economy: a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, it produces a quarter of its GDP expressed in U.S. dollars,” the journey of a continent is instructive to study. The authors has divided the growth of America into various stages of its life. America was a child of the British Empire and fortunate in this regard, according to the author. “America was lucky in its paternity: it was far better to be the child of the country that produced the first Industrial Revolution and the first parliamentary government than, say, the child of Spain or Belgium.” Also having been born in the age of the Enlightenment, America was fortunate that the old institutions were being questioned and new and better ways of thought were been adopted. As a result it could grow economically faster than anytime before in history (the average of which was 11% per century!) Not only that but the fact that the Founding Fathers of the nation wrote a Constitution that guaranteed their citizens a set of rights (including their property rights) created a fertile ground for risk takers and entrepreneurs to try their luck out in an unknown and hostile frontier.
“Americans were instinctive supporters of Joseph Schumpeter’s idea that the real motors of historical change were not workers, as Marx had argued, nor abstract economic forces, as his fellow economists tended to imply, but people who build something out of nothing, inventors like Thomas Edison, who had 1,093 patents, and company builders like Henry Ford, Thomas Watson, and Bill Gates.” Combine the risk seeking entrepreneurs with the vast amount of land available to the risk takers, it ensured that the risk takers were suitably rewarded as well.
According to the author, one thing that worked very well for America in its growth was that its businessmen were not afraid of change. They say that change is the only constant in this world. What is here today may not be there tomorrow. And the process of growth is similarly accompanied by change, however painful it may be. The process of creative destruction where new inventions and discoveries completely changed the way people ate, moved, or lived, has been America’s constant companion and its lady luck for its innovators. Let’s take the example of transport.  For many centuries, people used to depend on animals for taking them from one place to another. Horses were domesticated and then bred selectively to help in this endeavour. It was only in the early 20th century that Henry Ford mass produced his famous Model T that the entire business of moving people around from one place to another changed. This brought with it a lot of destruction – of old ways, but it made transport easier, and cheaper. The same was the case with the invention of electrical lighting by Thomas Edison. Successive innovations have changed the way people live completely, and with the decease of old way of doing things, came a seed of creation.
The author also mentions that the country’s politicians – right from its founding fathers to the current crop of politicians had a very important role in bringing America to where it is right now. Indeed the policies that they set affected to a very great extent the position that America occupies in the world stage. And last but not the least, where would America be without its bankers, its entrepreneurs, and its managers? There are enough examples given in this book whose biographies would be entertaining and fulfilling to read. JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Edison, Roosevelt, Reagan, Jack Welch and countless others have contributed in no small part to the rapid growth of business and industry in America.
America also had luck on its side. Blessed with an isolated landmass with acres of fertile land above, and huge reserves of resources underneath the ground, America could utilize these to become a net exporter in world trade. With huge tracts of land to populate, it was cheaper for the government to attract settlements with the promise of enough land. America was also unaffected to the same extent as Europe during the two World Wars, due to the vast Atlantic Ocean that provided a natural shield for any would-be invaders. This allowed America to grow in seeming isolation and quiet.
Of course America’s growth wasn’t a straight line or in a single direction. There were many times when the mettle of the new country was tested – the Great Depression, the world wars, the 70s oil crisis, and the two recessions of the 21st century. Except during the Great Depression, which was one of the earliest and the biggest economic downturns that the country has seen, on most of the other occasions it has managed to bounce back quickly to reach the pre-crisis economic output.
Even today, America is facing a crisis of sorts, at the political and economic level. The surprising win of Donald Trump over a more experience political rival and the upheaval in the stock market since his win has had every one worried. Not to mention his oft-surprising trade policies that is making people scratch their heads. Over the last few decades, America, according to the authors has become complacent. A combination of over-confident managers and companies, a rise in the social entitlements, a worsening demographic equation and increasing bureaucratic tangles for businesses will make it more difficult for America to come out of its current quagmire.
But the authors are confident that this is not something that America is facing for the first time in its history. Earlier too, the country has experienced signs of stagflation, and earlier, America has come out of it successfully and more powerful. If only it uses the forces of creative destruction and its collective intellectual capital that is still the envy of the world, it will still find a place among the top influential countries in the world for years to come.
This book is indeed epic in the eras that it covers. I liked the logical separation of the various decades and the most important development that took place in each of these eras. The authors have themed each era into what shaped that particular era. For example, there was a clear age where different sections of people were at their most powerful. Bankers, owners, managers each have dedicated chapters where they were most powerful. There is a semi-awkward clarification that is given when the authors are defending the low interest rate policies that the Fed pursued to jumpstart the economy after the dotcom crisis. What made it awkward was one of the authors of the book, Alan Greenspan, was the Chairman of the Fed during that time and many accounts point to this persistent low interest rate regime that sowed the seeds for the next crisis – the humbling sub-prime recession that struck America a few years later.
Although it is a long read, the chapterization of the various eras makes it easier to comprehend and complete. Pick this book up if you want to understand the forces that made America a global superpower in the world economy.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

Why oh why did I watch the Netflix show before reading the book? Yes, Netflix has come out with a ten-part TV series of the same name, and ostensibly based on the book. And Netflix being Netflix, they have created a cracker of the show. But clearly, after having read the book, the TV version is nothing like the book. Except for the names of some of the characters and that of the damned house, everything else is different.

But this review is not about the Netflix show, which seems to have gathered a fan following of its own. This review is of the book, written by Shirley Jackson and first published in 1959. As the title reveals, the story is about a mansion that is believed to be haunted by the residents of the nearest town, Hillsdale. Originally built by Hugh Crain for his family, the house was particularly ill-omened and brought about many misfortunes on the family.

There have been many controversial stories about it so much so that the residents avoid the place as well as deride any one who wishes to go to Hill House. No one visits their anymore except for the Dudley couple who act as caretakers to the mansion. But even they maintain a strict rule not to be near the house after dark.

Dr Montague, a paranormal investigator, wishes to spend some time in Hill House to conduct experiments that would prove or disprove the presence of supernatural phenomena. And thus he enlists the help of a few volunteers to assist him in this endeavor. Two volunteers show up, and along with Luke, the heir to Hill House, the doctor reach Hill House in order to conduct his experiment. At first the place seems normal enough, although spooky and definitely unlivable. Doors don’t stay open, the walls and floors of the house seem constructed in a manner to induce nausea and disorientation, and an utterly mysterious housekeeper keeps flitting in and out of the house at meal times. Her obsession with punctuality and order is the comic relief to the sombreness of Hill House.

In every page, it is clear that Hill House is the central character of the story. Almost each and every scene involves the house prominently or in the background, but never out of sight. The prose by Shirley Jackson ensures that neither the characters nor the reader ever forgets that the house is all around them, maybe watching silently.

“When they were silent for a moment the quiet weight of the house pressed down from all around them.”

As the team conduct their experiments, they discover inexplicable phenomena that their instruments fail to register. This frustrates Dr Montague as he expects that he may not be able to prove his theories scientifically. Gradually, the house seems to be leaving messages for one of the members of the group, beckoning the character to return home. In order to further complicate things, the doctor’s wife arrives one night to communicate with the spirits directly, using the planchette.

The final night (atleast as part of the book) describes the terrifying incident where the house finally gets to one of the characters much to the horror of the others.

Having watched the Netflix show before reading this book, I was initially tempted to compare and check back if a particular part of the book was present in the show. But that would be doing injustice both to the book and to the show. So instead I read the book on its own merits, without any comparison to the show, and realized that it was a well-written and frightening book in its own stead. Both the opening and the closing lines of the book are already my favourite lines of 2018 and they effectively cement in place the evil nature of the house.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

“This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.”

In order to truly enjoy this book, I suggest you do not watch the Netflix show before you complete the book. If you have already watched the show, treat the books as a different story and you will enjoy it all the more. Else, you would come out disappointed at one or the other depending on which version gets to you the most. I, for one, enjoyed both the book and the show and loved the use of language to create an unsettling and terrifying environment in prose.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”


How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life – Scott Adams

Scott Adams has created a brilliant and enduring comic strip that hits the right chord with everyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment. Through thousands and thousands of daily comic strips, he has portrayed the frustrations, foibles, the pettiness, and sometimes downright imbecility that one would encounter in their workplace. His earlier books such as the Dilbert Principle were downright hilarious in their own way.

So it was with this legacy that I picked up this “self-help” book by Scott Adams. And also I hoped that the book would be an in-depth memoir of the cartoonist. The book started out a bit slow. The first couple of chapters seemed incoherent. But as I read on, I came across a few very good points in how Scott Adams maintains his creativity and energy level. He talks about preferring systems to goals. He talks about having a positive attitude. He talks about being a simplifier instead of an optimizer. And so on. But as I read on, I wondered where was this going. I couldn’t make a clear head or tail of the book. Some chapters start and finish quickly, while others went on and on without seeming to make a point.

By the time I reached the book half-way I simply lost my patience. I didn’t find any substantial take-aways from the book. And so I’m abandoning this book. Never realized that a book from the writers of one of the funniest comic strips could be so boring. Maybe this book is yet one more thing that the author has failed at (and he will still win big).


The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is a very well-known name in the field of investigative journalism in the world of finance. His previous books have been incisive and in-depth looks at different subjects, right from the stock markets (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, Flashboys) to sports (Moneyball).

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis attempts to investigate a different area, politics. The book deals with a specific aspect of the Trump Presidency, and the hidden risks evolving from his mismanagement. The author starts off by saying that the various departments of the US government maintain an ongoing portfolio of critical projects that impact the American public, and to some extent, the world at large. These projects fall under various umbrellas – the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the DoD, etc. Most of these projects are unknown to the citizens who are thus not aware of the risks that are inherent in these projects not getting managed properly. That is the meaning of the Fifth Risk, the risk of Project Management, or the lack thereof.

Whenever there is a change in the Presidency, the new administration is supposed to take over the reins of various positions in these departments and further ensure that the knowledge transfer happens sufficiently so that the critical projects are carried on smoothly. The author claims that during the beginning of the Trump Presidency, no such thing happened. Due to the uncertainty and the lack of confidence of even Trump in his probability of actually getting elected, he had not planned for any such endeavour at such a scale. “Why study for a test you’ll never need to take?” Even the transition team that every candidate is required to set up by law was mismanaged by Trump, after reluctantly appointing Chris Christie to manage the team, and then firing him and putting a coterie of family members to continue the manage the possible transition.

At first the outgoing team in the departments awaited the arrival of the new team. At most of the places, none showed up. Eventually whenever someone did, they were some ex-corporates that Trump hand-picked out of his business contacts. And slowly many of them systematically over-turned the work done by these departments in various important areas such as nuclear waste disposal, weather monitoring, etc. It was as if the entire focus of the new teams sent by Trump was to find out and crack down on people who vouched for climate change.

The purpose of the book is to establish the important work done by the US government and its massive number of employees in areas that affect the country in many important ways. However, most of the time, the public are not aware of the roles that the government plays in the background. Maybe as a result even Trump thinks that these “projects” are not worth his attention and government budget, and that is a reason why many of these programs face an imminent threat of being de-prioritized or shut down in the worst case scenario. The most brazen of these attempts is the case of Barry Myers, the CEO of Accuweather, who was nominated by Trump to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among other things, the NOAA monitors weather conditions across the country and provides warnings about extreme climactic conditions to the general public through public broadcasters. Barry Myers supported a bill that sought to prevent the NOAA to disseminate forecasts and weather information to the general public! What is more incredulous is that in preparing their own weather forecasts, private weather forecasting companies also rely on the data collected by NOAA. And it is only their paid customers who get weather forecasts well in advance of the event. The conflict of interest in this case was too plain to be ignored. The author predicts a dire scenario when weather information reaches you depending on how much you have paid for it.

“The dystopic endgame is not difficult to predict: the day you get only the weather forecast you pay for. A private company will become better than the Weather Service at knowing where a hurricane will make landfall: What will it do with that information? Tell the public or trade it inside a hedge fund? You know what Hurricane Harvey is going to do to Houston before Houston knows: Do you help Houston? Or do you find clever ways to make money off Houston’s destruction?”

The Fifth Risk is critical to understand and manage because the costs of removing the focus from such programs will be borne by future generations, when Trump is no more President. Judging from the nominees that Trump sought to place in the various departments, it is almost a mirror of the highest seat of the US government. Someone who was clearly not ready for a role as important as this was suddenly thrust into the limelight and had to take the oath of becoming the President of the United States. Similar to that, the nominees in the various departments also were individuals from the private sector who were either incompetent at worst, or had a major conflict of interest at best.

Although politics and cronyism embedded in the US government long before Trump, the kind of brazenness that has been shown in recent times is beyond equal. The author rues that the relationship that the public plays with the government is changing, for the worse.

“The sense of identity as Citizen has been replaced by Consumer. The idea that government should serve the citizens like a waiter or concierge, rather than in a‘collective good’ sense.”

The author makes very good points about long term project risks, the most striking two examples being the weather forecasts, and the nuclear waste disposal project at Hanford. If Trump has his way, many such projects face a danger of being discontinued or at worst mismanaged. However, it is difficult to believe that a single person would be able to entirely derail the good work that the government has done till now. There is no need for the American public to panic yet. Instead the citizens can use these stories as an important exhibit the next time they head for the elections.

Pick up this book if you’re interested in understanding how important it becomes to elect the right candidate especially in view of all the hidden risks that gestate out of everyone’s radar until they become too big to manage. In the meantime, do carry an umbrella always. Under the leadership of Barry Myers, the weather forecast may not reach you in time.


The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell

“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

The first thought that came to my mind while reading this book is that although this book is generally classified as philosophy, I find it equally suitable to be clubbed under self-help. Well, in a way, all philosophy is a form of self-help. And this book veers more into that territory than other philosophy literature. Now depending on where you stand with regard to the self-help genre, you may like or hate this book. But what I liked is that most of the concepts proposed in this book are clear, succinct and as relevant today as they were during the author’s time. And this book can be a good introduction to some of Bertrand Russell’s other works as well.

The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the various causes of unhappiness. It follows that the second part then talks about the various causes of happiness, with the end goal of the author being able to devise a framework to conquer happiness.

Every chapter deals with a particular area that contributes to the unhappiness or happiness in a human being. The author proceeds to dissect that cause and provide his approach of dealing with that cause. For example, the causes on unhappiness include Competition, Boredom, Persecution Mania, and a fear of public opinion. These are emotions that every human faces to some degree or the other. In the more grounded of us, these emotions are in control, whereas others still face a much more uphill battle in dealing with these emotions in daily life.

The causes of happiness, in the view of the author, include zest, family, work, and effort. Again, looking at this list, one would not be mistaken to imagine himself reading a self-help book. Yet, I would still recommend reading this book in its entirety due to its timeless ideas. Of course, some of the content is not politically correct in today’s day and age. But you have to forgive the author for using terms and meaning that were more relevant and acceptable at the time that this book was written.

At the end of the book, the author presents his overview of what constitutes a happy man. In short, what I gleaned from the book were the following steps to ensure that unhappiness does not take over your life:-

  1. Focus on outward pursuits not inward. Unhappy people often focus on the wrongs that happen to them. Instead of focusing on the outward world, they interpret the events in their life negatively because of their unhappiness. The author says that one must focus outward in order to reduce the events that affect you negatively.
  2. Cultivate more number of interests in varied fields – According to the author, having a narrow focus or having only one thing (other than work) to focus on can also be overwhelming sometimes. Instead by cultivating a varied set of hobbies can help one fight the devilish habit of boredom, and help one spend time more happily.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to others
  4. Give happiness to others instead of asking it. Paradoxically, this gives you back much more happiness.

“The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others. To be the recipient of affection is a potent cause of happiness, but the man who demands affection is not the man upon whom it is bestowed. The man who receives affection is, speaking broadly, the man who gives it.”

This book is a very good introduction to Bertrand Russell’s other famous works and can be considered as a starting point in your journey. The overly obvious self-help tones may be jarring to some, but the advice is still relevant and quite helpful.

Verdict: Recommended if you’re planning to start out to read more about Western Philosophy. 3.75 out of 5.