Thursday, May 24, 2007

The L.A. Times Book Review Review

The thing I like most about the Los Angeles Times is its even-handedness---if a book is liberal, it gets reviewed by a liberal. If a book is conservative, it's reviewed by a liberal.

First up is Al Gore's latest assault on reason, The Assault on Reason. True to form, it's reviewed by ubiquitous southpaw Joe Conason (the Nation, Salon, HuffPo, truthdig, the Prospect). Conason's latest polemic, It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush, was already obsolete when it hit the presses this year, unless Dubya gets his keister in gear. So many constitutional protections to dismantle, so little time.

The only surprise, then, is learning that if there's one thing even better than Al Gore's book, it's the "always unusually smart and farsighted" Al Gore himself, who speaks with "the moral authority of a man who many believe was wrongly barred from the presidency." The moral authority of a mook who lost an unlosable election, then lost every bit of national sympathy by trying to get votes from the military disqualified, I reckon.

Gore's book is about Bush and global warming and news media concentration and the vacuousness of television and stuff. Gore prefers "facts to metaphysics," we're told, so that's a relief. But when Conason tells us that Gore's "insistence on detail and thoroughness...is rooted in his conviction that most Americans have little understanding of the world in which they live," the educated consumer of Times-ese unearths the review part at last: Gore thinks we're all ignorant and Conason admits the book is boring.


For a review of the new Reagan Diaries, it's over to that renowned expert on political philosophy and history, the Times' Fox News-denigrating media writer Tim Rutten. He allows that Reagan was a nice guy and not ego-driven in the least, and doesn't drag in Iran-Contra until the ninth paragraph! This is the only mention Rutten makes of the Cold War except for Reagan's affinity for the refuseniks. Reykjavik, John Paul, Solidarity? The Sandinista government slipping Cuban arms into El Salvador? Nah. (Rutten does like the bit about Nancy Reagan throwing out the first ball at the World Series, though.)

"Reagan's conservatism runs through his observations less as an ideology than as a deeply felt emotion," writes Rutten, Reagan apparently preferring metaphysics to facts. "He believed communism was evil..."

As if Reagan didn't know his Hayek. It is questionable whether Rutten does, though, which makes one think Al Gore might have a point about people who don't understand the world in which they live. Especially those who are paid to write about it for us.

Fortunately, here's a nice batch of excerpts from The Reagan Diaries. It's a pity that because of the concentration of the news media in so few (and hostile) hands, the readers of the LA Times will have little idea of what's actually in them. We pajama folk will have to point the way.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Demise of the USSR

Yegor Gaidar, lately an advisor to the late President Yeltsin in Russia, gave a very interesting talk recently at the American Enterprise Institute on the collapse of the USSR. Short version: the Soviet economic system was fundamentally screwed up and by the 1980s was unable to feed the country. When oil prices dropped in the mid-1980s, it was a hit the system couldn't handle. Now, I'm not all that convinced by the economic determinism of the piece, but I'm more than ready to think not being able to feed your people has a negative impact on political legitimacy.

But here's what interested me: according to Gaidar, when Saudi Arabia began producing more oil in 1985, the USSR lost $20 billion in oil revenues from the resulting drop in oil prices. And that's what started the whole ball rolling. Get that? $20 billion. If I've done the calculations right, that's $38 billion in today's prices. Can you imagine our whole system folding on account of a $38 billion hit? With a federal budget somewhere north of $2 trillion, that's chump-change. A rounding error, right?

The USSR was done in by a rounding error. Talk about ignonimous endings...