Category Archives: Book review

A New Class is Born

Here’s my latest article on Impakter. A must read for anyone concerned with what is happening to the middle class in America! It’s changing, and changing fast and in unexpected ways…

Book Review: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, published by Princeton University Press (May 2017)

Have you ever wondered why in an America replete with 13,000 Starbucks stores, small bars serving totally unknown, unbranded coffees can survive, and even thrive though the coffee they sell may be more expensive?

These are “single origin specialty coffees”, like the ones served by the Intelligentsia coffee company that practices “direct trade”, working with farmers in Guatemala and elsewhere, removing the middleman:

IN THE PHOTO: DIRECT TRADE PRACTICE, LOCAL FARMERS BECOME PARTNERS. SOURCE: INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE.COM

As explained on their website, the company adheres to sustainable farming and environmental practices and, at the same time, is committed to “paying above FairTrade prices for truly outstanding coffee”. The point is “responsible stewardship of the land and a sustainable business model” for the farmers whom they view as “partners”.

Also, to deliver quality coffee, special rapid roasting machines are used, including some of the last highly prized Gothot Ideal machines that date back to the 1940s and 1950s – they were produced by a German manufacturing firm founded in 1880.

Intelligentsia started off with a coffee shop in Chicago in 1995, and now they are present in four more cities, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. (In the photo: Logan Square Coffee Bar, in Chicago, one of Intelligentsia’s locations. Source: IntelligentsiaCoffee.com)

It is one of the many fascinating cases reported in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s latest book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Do read it this summer, it will change forever the way you view the American middle class. And it will give you a glimpse of what is ahead.

This is not the work of a neophyte. She is a Columbia University graduate and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where she holds the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and is professor of public policy at the Price School. Most recently she has contributed to a paper co-curated by USC and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on consumption patterns of the rising global middle class – more on this later.

The Sum of Small Things is her third major book after a couple of well-received works focused on art, high fashion and celebrities, and it is remarkable on two scores: the importance of the theme addressed – the rise of a new elite class in America – and the ground-breaking methodology used. The academic community was quick to take note, notably Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class and Richard A. Easterlin, of Easterlin paradox fame (the idea that there is a disconnect between economic growth and happiness).

This is a book that manages to pull together a huge amount of data, for the first time mining American consumption data (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey) that is usually ignored by researchers because of its complexity. The book draws conclusions that are both insightful and yet highly readable. The trick was to separate the “boring stuff” – all those statistical analyses that occupy a huge part of the book – from the chapters presenting the findings. Those chapters are given pride of place upfront; they are written in elegant English and filled with interesting anecdotes and observations that enliven the discourse and brings it home.

Many people will recognize themselves in this portrait of a new elite in America, that the author has aptly named “the aspirational class”.

In fact, among Amazon customers reviewing this book, several have said exactly that. One reader who defined herself as a “doctor and Mom” noted with surprise: “Our obsession with what our kids eat, their education and music lessons and the breastfeeding felt like a complete insight into my life! I live in Manhattan and we are dealing with the same issues and pressures as the moms in California.” Another wryly remarked, “As a reluctant member of the very class the author describes, I’ve been conscious of the quirky spending characteristics of my hipster cohort in all the places where I’ve lived as an adult (Brooklyn, Washington DC, and LA naturally) but never had an organizing theory for what I was witnessing. The author articulates these principles beautifully, and backs them up with interesting data. Despite its scientific rigor, this is a quick, fun and accessible read.”

It is indeed fun and accessible, which, considering the hefty subject matter, is a feat in itself. The last time a similar effort was made to analyze a rising new class in America was over hundred years ago: It was a stiff treatise written in wooden English yet it was replete with arresting descriptions of the habits of the new rich. And that is what salvaged it from oblivion. Today, it is best remembered for coining a couple of unforgettable terms, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”.

I am speaking of course of the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the magnum opus of social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. His book defined the Gilded Age, and gave a theoretical framework to those lampooning the “robber barons”.

 IN THE PHOTO: “THE BOSSES OF THE SENATE”, 1889 LITHOGRAPH FIRST PUBLISHED IN PUCK. CARTOONIST JOSEPH KEPPLER DEPICTS THEM AS GIANT MONEYBAGS REPRESENTING THE NATION’S FINANCIAL TRUSTS AND MONOPOLIES, THE COPPER TRUST, STANDARD OIL ETC. SOURCE WIKIMEDIA

Likewise, Currid-Halkett’s book aims to define our age, as the title of the first chapter suggests: “The Twenty-first Century ‘Leisure’ Class”. She uses Veblen’s concepts as her starting point and makes some illuminating comments, for example, pointing out that with industrialization and mass production, conspicuous consumption “goes mainstream” and became a defining feature of the middle class in its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.


To find out more, read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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The Soft Power of American Philanthropy

Impakter magazine just published another one of my articles and I’m happy to share it with you – it’s a book review, great read, highly recommended! Here’s the start of my review:

THE REAL ROLE OF THE NEW MEGA-DONORS: SHAPING THE SOCIAL AGENDA

BOOK REVIEW: THE GIVERS BY DAVID CALLAHAN, PUBLISHED BY KNOPF (APRIL 2017) 352 PAGES

Is philanthropy good or bad for society?

With the global explosion of philanthropy, the new forms of giving and volunteering, and the rise of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, the issue is more pressing than ever. Nowadays, the soft power of mega-donors has grown so much that in many areas it has displaced governments – even very large ones like the Federal government.

Philanthropists address critical social problems, they move in where public funds have failed (or are weak). Ultimately, they set the social agenda, not only in the United States but around the world.

Yet, unlike democratic governments and politicians that must face voters, mega-donors are accountable to no one. Their own private views, beliefs and ideologies end up shaping society. They decide what diseases to battle, what kind of schools are needed, what social policies to promote, what research and what artistic trends should be supported.

Is this a fair system in a democracy where all citizens should have a say?

That question is increasingly asked, including in David Callahan’s latest book I am reviewing here. Yet this is not the first time philanthropy arouses suspicion in America. When Rockefeller launched his foundation a hundred years ago, many politicians doubted his good will. As it turned out, the Rockefeller Foundation had a profound impact on the human condition when breakthroughs in the agricultural research programs it had financed in Mexico and India, initiated respectively in 1941 and 1956, laid the foundation for the “green revolution”, so-called because it changed food production for the better, particularly in Asia, helping to solve the recurrent horror of devastating famines.

IN THE PHOTO: FARMER STANDING IN HIS CORN FIELD IN ANDHRA PRADESH, INDIA IN 1957 AFTER SCIENTISTS SUCCESSFULLY DEVELOPED HYBRID GRAINS THAT COULD RESIST DISEASE AND INSECTS. PHOTO CREDIT: THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION

Nevertheless, in spite of the successes, countless books and articles continue raising questions, particularly over the past ten years, starting with Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, the work of the Economist’s Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. Published in 2008, based on interviews with mega-donors like Bill Gates, it was perhaps the first modern compilation of what philanthropists living today are really up to. Another milestone was reached last year with Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, edited by Stanford political scientist Rob Reich who sees charitable foundations as an “institutional oddity” in a democracy and is concerned that foundations, in spite of their usefulness in supporting innovation – what Warren Buffett famously termed “society’s risk capital” –  may be the “voice of plutocracy”.

Among the notable essays in that book, a theory of “disruptive philanthropy” developed by Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell, two Stanford sociologists, stood out. Based on the observation that philanthropy often competes with government instead of collaborating with it, it raises deep ethical questions. As Horvath and Powell explained to The Atlantic: “Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand.”

A classic (and controversial) example that often comes up in this connection is charter schools promoted, inter alia, by the Broad and Gates Foundations. Not everyone agrees that they are an improvement over the existing public education system.

David Callahan’s new book The Givers – Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age is the latest arrival on the scene and adds to the debate – philanthropy vs. democracy – carrying it forward with considerable new and updated material. Callahan has done his research for years, he has met many people in the industry, he has uncovered hard-to-find facts about the “opaque” world of philanthropy and the website he has been running, Inside Philanthropy, has been a major source of information ever since it was launched in 2014.

With all this data in hand, Callahan takes us for a roller-coaster ride through the current philanthropy landscape, showing us how living mega-donors wield more power than ever before. And, he warns us, their influence is likely to grow unimpeded as a result of growing income inequality, a trend first magisterially documented by Thomas Piketty in his now famous Capital in the 21st Century.

In short, and to use Callahan’s words, “in many ways, today’s new philanthropy is exciting and inspiring. In other ways, it’s scary and feels profoundly undemocratic.”

WHY TODAY’S NEW PHILANTHROPY IS EXCITING

The book starts off by bringing home two stunning truths about our time that, Callahan argues, amount to a paradigm shift:

The rest on Impakter, click here.

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How to Stop Climate Change and Reverse Global Warming

My latest article on Impakter, hope you enjoy it. I tackle here what I consider the key issue of our time and these are great books, a must read, the authors make a truly convincing case: Thanks to people like them and their work, we should not despair, all is not lost in the fight against climate change….

BOOK REVIEWS:  CLIMATE OF HOPE: HOW CITIES, BUSINESSES, AND CITIZENS CAN SAVE THE PLANET BY MICHAEL BLOOMBERG  (AUTHOR), CARL POPE  (AUTHOR) PUBLISHED BY ST MARTIN’S PRESS (APRIL 2017) 272 PAGES;

DRAWDOWN: THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE PLAN EVER PROPOSED TO REVERSE GLOBAL WARMING BY PAUL HAWKEN  (AUTHOR, EDITOR), TOM STEYER (FOREWORD) PENGUIN BOOKS (APRIL 2017) 240 PAGES; ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON PROJECT DRAWDOWN’S WEBSITE

Two books published this year on the same day (April 18) and on the same subject, climate change. Two books that could change our lives, our children’s lives and how we view the challenge of climate change.

Two books that make reversing global warming look like it’s within reach. At last.

So far, we’ve heard too much doom and gloom. And we still do, as attested by a recent Op-Ed from environmental activist Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org.  Published on the New York Times last month, it has a scary title: The Planet Can’t Stand This Presidency, with a subtitle that doubles down on the message: “Trump is in charge at a critical moment for keeping climate change in check. We may never recover.” And the opening sentence is a scary reminder that coal pollution kills.

But it’s time to try a different approach. Let’s be positive: Global warming can be arrested, and better still, we may be able to reverse it. It will require a lot of effort and goodwill, but it can be done. And it won’t be costly, on the contrary, it will jump start a new age of prosperity and well being.

Both books tell us how to do it and their starting point is the same: The evidence is in, it really can be done. Thanks to them, we can start to entertain a rosy vision of our future, and that’s amazing. Furthermore, the two books are complementary and re-enforce each other, even though they are radically different in structure and the stories they tell.

A Hopeful Message on the Climate, from Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The way forward suggested in Climate of Hope, co-written by  Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, may surprise a lot of people. It certainly surprised me, I hadn’t realized the extent to which cities play a major role in the climate change drama.

The other surprise is to see two completely different persons working as co-authors, an endeavor that requires deep understanding and mutual respect. Bloomberg is a billionaire, Carl Pope an environmentalist.

To read the rest and find out about Paul Hawken’s work and the role of Patricia Scotland, click here.

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Filed under Book review, climate change, non-fiction, politics

Platform Capitalism: The New Economy of the Future?

My latest article, just published on Impakter Magazine:

BOOK REVIEW: PLATFORM CAPITALISM BY NICK SRNICEK, PUBLISHED BY POLITY (DECEMBER 2016) 120 PAGES

Platform Capitalism

Platform capitalism is the latest buzzword, replacing what used to be called “eco-systems”. It is also sometimes confused with the “gig economy” or the “sharing economy”, enthusiastically embraced by politicians as the answer to the Great Recession.

Uber, AirBnB, TaskRabbit and the like are viewed as saviors, providing jobs to those who wouldn’t have any or rounding off the pay of those who make too little. Their apps create a digital space where service providers and users meet; the needs of the latter are satisfied by the former while the app owners take a fair percentage off every transaction.

THE BLESSED AGE OF POST-CAPITALISM?

Technology enthusiasts see platform capitalism, created by the digital revolution, as a benign form of capitalism ushering in a new blessed age where people come into their own, workers find instant demand for their services and consumers get what they want at the tap of a button on their smartphone.

Before we go on, let’s get one piece of semantics out of the way: Platform capitalism should not be confused with the “sharing economy” (insofar as it exists at all). Platform capitalism has nothing to do with “sharing” in the sense of an exchange of goods or services at no cost to those engaged in the exchange. Platform capitalism is capitalism pure and simple: You pay for the goods and services you get, nothing is free – even if transaction costs tend to be lower online. Lower but still substantial: Uber, for example, creams off 25 percent of every taxi ride. The difference is that it’s not done through an exchange of cash in the real world, it is done digitally.

And, according to the proponents of platform capitalism, there is an added advantage: The middleman is cut out, costs to users are thus automatically reduced. This is the capitalism of the future, they enthuse. Thanks to the digital revolution, we are into the age of “post-capitalism”.

Not true, argue the critics: The basic exploitative nature of capitalism has not changed. Middlemen are replaced by new gatekeepers. “Many of the old middlemen and retailers disappear but only to be replaced by much more powerful gatekeepers,” complained one disgruntled German blogger.

Is platform capitalism heralding a bright new future or is it just the latest form of exploitative capitalism?

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Digital Revolution, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Startups, Tech

American Leadership at Risk – How to Win it Back

Another one of my articles just published on Impakter magazine:

AMERICAN LEADERSHIP AT RISK – AND HOW TO WIN IT BACK

BOOK REVIEW “BUILDING THE NEW AMERICAN ECONOMY: SMART, FAIR, AND SUSTAINABLE” BY JEFFREY D. SACHS (AUTHOR), BERNIE SANDERS (FOREWORD) COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, FEBRUARY 7, 2017

When Professor Sachs, one of the world’s most influential economists, wrote the book I’m reviewing here, we lived in a simpler, more innocent world, full of hope for a better future, particularly after the success of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, in large part a result of President Obama’s efforts.

America was firmly seated in the global leadership role it had occupied since World War II and as recently as last summer, it looked like nothing could upend it. The most recent “soft power” wins included the opening with Cuba and the deal with Iran to neuter its nuclear power – soft power wins that came on top of a long series of similar victories since 1945, starting with the generous Marshall Plan that resuscitated Europe from the ashes of war.

It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but it is this soft power, much more than its military power, that has ensured American leadership, turning it into a global moral compass, effectively the “land of dreams”.

Incidentally, the American military is well aware of this soft power, as evidenced in a recent letter signed by over 120 retired generals and admirals calling on Congress not to slash funds for diplomacy and foreign aid (as called for in Trump’s proposed budget), noting that “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Sachs’ book, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable, was intended as a roadmap for America to continue to lead the world. He had worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and clearly meant this book to guide a new Sanders administration – for Professor Sachs, as he insisted in a recent interview discussing his book, sees himself as a “progressive”. And barring Sanders, no doubt he expected to see Clinton in the White House.

But that was not to be. Some sixty million Americans, many without a college degree and who felt by-passed by “globalization” and betrayed by a “blinkered elite”, voted in a man that is likely to upend America’s global leadership by systematically cutting everything that sustained America’s soft power: foreign aid and diplomacy; the environment and clean energy; support to science, health and the arts;  immigrants and trade.

As soon as Trump signed his “Energy Independence” executive order on March 28 rolling back Obama’s Clean Energy Plan, China stepped forward, claiming the climate leadership role. And this came on top of the Davos meeting earlier this year, where, as Sachs put it, “Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a stirring defense of globalization and international responsibility.” Indeed, Chinese leadership is the biggest story that came out of Davos this year.

Is there anything that can be done to win back the moral high ground and global leadership for America? Professor Sachs’ book shows us how.

WHY WE SHOULD LISTEN TO PROFESSOR SACHS

Jeffrey D. Sachs, born in 1954 and raised in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, is today Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University as well as Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Sachs started early accumulating firsts. He was one of the youngest ever to achieve tenure at Harvard University, becoming a full professor of economics in 1983 when he was just 28.

Over the next two decades, he was one of the few economists willing to leave the safety of Academia’s white tower and step out in the real world, with the risk of getting burned.

IN THIS PHOTO: JEFFREY SACHS AT THE UN (2009) –  PHOTO CREDIT: JAVAMAN200

To read the rest, click here. This is a book I really enjoyed and it was also extremely interesting to dig into Professor Sachs’ life for this review. A highly recommended read

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Unchain America

Here’s my latest book review, just published on Impakter. This book is brilliant, a must read!

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BOOK REVIEW: “CAPTURED: THE CORPORATE INFILTRATION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY” BY SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (AUTHOR) AND MELANIE WACHTELL STINNETT (CONTRIBUTOR) PUBLISHED 21 FEBRUARY 2017, NEW PRESS, 272 PAGES

Captured Sheldon Whitehouse

American democracy is in deep trouble, chained down by corporate power. This, in a nutshell, is the argument made by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in his just published book, Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy. He wrote the book, he says, in the hope of waking up his fellow American citizens to the risk they are running. To free themselves from the shackles of Big Business, they need to know exactly who they are fighting.

As I watched Trump give his “America First” inaugural speech, I knew something was deeply wrong with America. His speech signaled America’s abandonment of world leadership and rejection of globalization, a stunning paradigm shift. Since World War II, no American President had ever said anything like this. It chilled me and in fact, it sent a chill around the world among those who counted on America, particularly NATO countries, while it opened an unexpected door of opportunity for the competing powers of China and Russia. Would the 21st century belong to them? Suddenly, it looks like it.

How did we get here? This is the book that provides the key to understanding how we got there and why.

To read the rest, click here.

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SILICON VALLEY: WHAT IT TAKES TO DO STARTUPS – Book Review

Here’s another one of my articles published today on Impakter:



SILICON VALLEY: WHAT IT TAKES TO DO STARTUPS

Book Review: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcìa Martinez (HarperCollins, 2016, 528 pages)

Chaos Monkeys Book Cover

Silicon Valley continues to be hot news in the age of Trump and anti-globalization and it should come as no surprise that a clever book about it by someone in the know, loaded with revelatory insights on how it really works, was going to be a sure-fire hit. And that is exactly what happened when Antonio García Martinez’s half memoir-half prescriptive tech guidebook came out last year on 28 June 2016, becoming an instant “New York Times bestseller”. Considered an “irreverent exposé of life inside the tech bubble”, all the major book reviewers rushed in with praise, from the New York Times’ Jonathan E. Knee (“an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment”) to Bloomberg’s Ellen Huet (“dives into the unburnished, day-to-day realities: the frantic pivots, the enthusiastic ass-kissing, the excruciating internal politics”).

In short, in just six months, “Chaos Monkeys” has become the most popular and widely read book about Silicon Valley. I was curious to find out whether it merited its sudden glory. I uploaded it to my Kindle (disclosure: living far from bookstores, I am a fan of e-books) and I spent a couple of pleasant days enjoying the read. And I soon discovered that the best passages, literally pearls in the text, had been highlighted hundreds of time by enthusiastic fans. In fact, Amazon in its “about the book” section informs you that (at the time of my reading) 3,769 passages had been highlighted 122,000 times (ah, the joys of Big Data).

It is a clever book with a clever title, and a great read. In case you’re wondering about the title, it comes from the name given to the software procedure used to test the stability and resilience of online services/websites – and this neatly expresses the main message of the book: That tech entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, out to disrupt the way we live, from photo-sharing (Instagram), dating (Tinder) and movie viewing (Netflix) to transport (Uber), lodging (AirBnB) and space travel (SpaceX).

Unquestionably, the author’s persona was as much part of the excitement as his bracing writing style. Described as an “industry provocateur” on his Amazon book description page, he has lived up to his reputation and become something of an industry guru: today, whenever big news or scandals roil Silicon Valley, journalists rush to ask him his opinion.

 

Garcìa Martinez started his working life as a strategist for Goldman Sachs, survived three years and surprised everyone by abandoning New York for the West Coast. After learning the ropes at an IT advertising outfit called Adchemy, he launched his own start-up AdGrok with a couple of engineering pals (called “the boys” in his book). Ten months later, after raising some venture capital and before even making AdGrok operational, he sold it to Twitter for $5 million. However, it was not an unmitigated success; his team broke up, “the boys” went to work for Twitter to develop AdGrok while he accepted a more lucrative position at Facebook as product manager. Tasked with leveraging Facebook’s user data to make its advertising more effective and fix its monetization problem, he was outcompeted by a colleague and fired – the circumstances of his firing make for fascinating reading.

The description of what Facebook is like, what happened there and why he eventually left and landed an advisory position at Twitter is certainly one of the more interesting parts of the book – anyone thinking of joining Facebook should read it very carefully, drawing lessons from it.

The rest on Impakter, to read it, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Digital Revolution, Publishing, Startups, Tech, Uncategorized