Review – God Is in the Crowd

One of the fundamental concepts I’ve long found important to my personal connection to Judaism is the Jewish propensity for self-criticism and -reflection — the tendency to look deeply inward, guided by long-held values and religious precepts. The desire to look critically upon oneself and one’s own community and leaders (quite literally one’s “tribe”) is an essential aspect of Judaism in my mind.

With no established global Jewish leader, Rabbis, prominent Jewish thinkers, and “ordinary” Jews take it upon themselves to diagnose and seek to improve Judaism, to help sustain it as a religion and tribe of people, and to keep it relevant and grounded in its core principles. In a global society that’s growing increasing areligious, the need to reaffirm the meaning and importance of Judaism is an important job, and a mantle that has been taken up by Jews around the world.

god_is_in_the_crowdGod Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First-Century Judaism, by Tal Keinan (Spigel & Grau 2018)

Tal Keinan is one of those individuals. Keinan is a US-born Israeli emigre who rose up the ranks of the Israeli Air Force (an extremely rare accomplishment for an ordinary Israeli, let alone a Jewish-American “outsider”), before transitioning to the private sector via a Harvard MBA, eventually becoming the founder of a global asset management firm (Clarity Capital), with offices in New York and Tel Aviv.

Given Keinan’s background as a Jew who has lived and participated in Jewish communities and non-profit leadership organizations in both Israel and the major center of Jewish diaspora today, the US, Keinan takes it upon himself to diagnose the various internecine conflicts currently taking place within 21st century Judaism, including:

  • Between diaspora Jews and Israelis over Israeli culpability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • Growing intermarriage and dissociation with Jewish life and traditions in the US, Israel, and around the world
  • The widening divide in Israel between three distinct camps:
    • The territorialists fighting to expand Israeli borders via the active expansion of its legally ordained land rights
    • The secularists, the generally moneyed, educated, and English-speaking population that is based in Tel Aviv and the surrounding suburbs
    • The theocrats, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who prioritize study and a maintenance of “traditional” values above all else

Keinan deftly demonstrates that these conflicts are unsustainable and represent a real threat to not only Judaism as it is currently recognized, but also the future of the state of Israel and its sustenance and sustainability as an autonomous global home for Jews.

Keinan’s ambition in this book is impressive, as the book itself manages to not only survey the varied and diverse issues stated above with a remarkable amount of clarity (sorry) and firsthand insights, but also offers some non-traditional solutions that would serve to improve these issues. Ideas include anointing a Israeli President voted on by Jews around the world to represent the interests of global Jewry (in concert with the Israeli-focused, parliamentary-elected Israeli Prime Minister), as well as an endowment fund paid for by Jews put towards the funding of summer camp experiences, post-high school service projects, and tuition for college education for all eligible Jewish children.

These solutions are ingeniously designed to provide “skin in the game” for Israeli and diaspora Jews alike by providing participation in the democratic process, as well as monetary commitment to the Jewish cause for participating parents, while simultaneously exposing young, impressionable Jews to their counterparts from different countries and levels of observance. Both of these initiatives would create crucial crosscultural connections, while binding them together via their common identity as Jews.

While the book relies a bit too much on concepts from his personal trade, financial markets (including a century-long “moving average” of Jewish thought), and at times delves too deeply into memoir and autobiography, losing the thread and not always additive to the broader book, it is a worthwhile and important read for Jews seeking solutions and ownership over our current state of affairs.

Review – The Fifth Risk

Like Giridharadas’ Winners Take All, Michael Lewis latest book points its lens towards the government. However, as opposed to the vague monolithic concept of “government” that Giridharadas offers as solutions to our current solution, Michael Lewis argues that the functional and effective government that we need already exists, and merely needs to be left alone and kept out of politics so that they can actually do their jobs.

the_fifth_riskThe Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis (Norton 2018)

Lewis dives deep into some of the most unfamiliar (yet costly) corners of the US Federal Budget, including the United States Departments of Agriculture ($151 billion annual budget!), Energy ($28B), and Commerce ($10B).

True to Lewis’ masterful skill at drawing meaning and incredible stories out of seemingly obscure topics, an ability that makes him peerless in popular non-fiction, he profiles career government bureaucrats with decades of experience and untold devotion to their jobs. Through these chapters, Lewis elucidates the pivotal positions held by these individuals, and their participation behind the scenes of some of most crucial innovations and consequential (and potentially looming) crises that have, and will continue to define the United States as a country.

Lewis’ reporting is focused mostly in the present day, seeking to stoke rage at the sheer apathy and incompetence of the Trump transition and ongoing administration, and the scores of non-qualified loyalists brought in to administer the aforementioned tens of billions of US taxpayer funds.

That said, the book is far from Lewis’ best work, as it lacks cohesion and a straightforward structure to guide its broader thesis. Those curious would be well-served by reading excerpts published in Vanity Fair, which capture the book’s verve but function much better as standalone pieces:

Review – Winners Take All

After initially reviewing Winners in my last reading wrap-up, I picked up the book again and finished it — a decision that I feel very much rewarded for making.

winnersWinners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas (Knopf 2018)

On its face, Winners is a familiar screed of late against shareholder-first capitalism, growing concentration and power of monopolistic corporations, and the increasing inequality that’s resulted from the aforementioned changes, as shareholder- or private equity-driven cost-cutting and concurrent globalization of labor have kept workingclass wages low, while simultaneously reducing the number of stable, well-paying middle class jobs and associated pension plans and other fringe benefits that have helped families build wealth and traverse socioeconomic classes.

If the book simply ended there, it would be mostly forgettable. However, Giridharadas chooses to take his critique much further by indicating an unfamiliar cast of villains traditionally cast as the “good guys:” the impact investors, socially-conscious capitalists, glad-handing philantropists, inspirational thought leaders, and well-meaning, if not sheltered and misguided “elite.”

Through a series of chapters, Giridharadas develops his concept “Marketworld,” another name for the capitalist-first worldview driven by the continued rise of the United States its collection of private industries and industrialists as superior and oftentimes sole drivers of solutions to “public” problems, traditionally tackled by the public sector.

Marketworld is driven by “win-win” solutions, or suboptimal outcomes designed to retain the supremacy (power/wealth) in the hands of the elite, who have anointed themselves the necessary saviors to seek out and implement these initiatives, given their relevant private sector experience in the elite proving grounds of consulting, banking, and private equity before oftentimes transitioning into Non-profit Consulting (e.g., Bridgespan, Redstone) and philanthropic foundations (e.g., Ford Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Soros’ Open Society Foundations).

As I see it, the crux of Giridharadas’ solution is driven by higher taxation, a “win-lose” for the upper-earners and wealthy accustomed to apportioning their income as they see fit, as opposed to surrendering it to the government. Underpinning this solution is the need for a rapprochement between private individuals (especially the wealthy) and government, the reestablishment of a trust in the concept and execution of government as a voice and advocate for all of its citizens.

Giridharadas’ assessment as government as a “dirty word” is a correct one, I believe, though not a baseless one, supported by countless examples of graft, nepotism, and inefficiencies across all levels of government, as well as wasteful spending and poor execution of high profile projects like Any increase in overall government revenue through the form of increased taxation of the wealthy should come with a reappraisal and refresh of popular attitudes towards government-led programs, a herculean task, but a well-intentioned and extremely important one.

Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

You’ll have to forgive Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century for its title. In our age of listicles and countdowns vying for our attention across the internet, there’s a reasonable amount of skepticism that any reader should take into reading a book that professes to offer answers to societal and global ailments, let alone in our current attention-deprived and answer-seeking culture. However, after an ambitious (and wildly successful) examination of the past million-odd years of human history (Sapiens), as well as a reasonable perspective on the possibilities of next 100 years (Homo Deus), it makes sense that Harari would shift his focus to the present day. By pulling liberally from the central theses of his previous books and drawing on the research and reporting of others, 21 Lessons is a very convincing call to action (and inaction) for the globe, states, corporations, and individuals. However, my fear is that it will almost certainly fall on deaf ears in all of the aforementioned groups, for the very reasons outlined in the book itself.

21 lessons

While the book is neatly organized across 21 chapters spread across 5 parts, the book is principally an exploration of several key ideas, and an application of those core beliefs to subjects of global relevance. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century draws liberally from its two predecessors in these ideas: from Sapiens (the importance of stories / fictions in creating widespread cooperation), and Homo Deus (the looming potential of biological inequality and castes), to try and draw attention to how we find ourselves at an extreme pivot point – faced with global existential challenges yet polarized, factionalized, and looking to build walls and close doors. As Harari explains, the three major stories of early 20th century (liberalism, fascism, and communism) contracted into two with the fall of Hitler, and one following the fall of the Soviet Union leaving us with the Fukuyaman End of History and the triumph of liberalism. However, growing resentment across the world has poked holes in the inevitability of liberalism, and now we’re left with no story. This is the principal context of 21 Lessons.

The first fifth or the book, entitled “The Technological Challenge,” makes a compelling and thought provoking case for the looming confluence between biotech (the ability of computers to assist us in understand our own bodies and biologies) and infotech (the ability of computers to process, interpret, and learn from massive data sets, including algorithms, AÍ machine learning), and how this technological revolution will fundamentally revolutionize society as we know it. As artificial intelligence continues to improve, most jobs will become obsolete, as even so-called “creative” fields like music composition can become the domain of machines. Even more imaginatively, merging the history of music with intimate knowledge of indicators within our own bodies and emotions will create a uber-intelligent DJ tailored to your needs: providing songs and playlists conditioned to your personality and current mood.

While this narrative follows much of the recent discussions on automation and the need for retraining and redistribution, Harari manages to advance the discussion significantly by framing the debate in both political and global terms. As Harari explains, advances in industry beckoned the rise of democracy and communism, creating more equal societies and supplanting monarchies and feudalism, as humans (in masses) were needed to fulfill the demand for labor. However, in the “technology” era, the need for human labor will be significantly diminished, and computers will be able to make the “best” decisions for a given society or state, removing the impetus and need for a decentralized decision-making structure (e.g., democracy).

Solutions like universal basic income, while potentially useful in select states, will no reasonably travel across borders, especially not to places with high levels on unskilled labor and little-to-no natural resources, such as Bangalore or Bangladesh. Tax revenue from corporations at the vanguard of industrial intelligence, such as Google, will have limited taxation in places like this, and there is little reason to expect any sort of generosity on the parts of the tax-levying countries. It will fall to the governments of these states to deal with the fallout of automation, to protect workers rather than trying to impede technological progress by protecting bygone industries and jobs. Even more pressing, Harari is concerned about the human capacity to manage this constant change and need for constant retraining and reimagination, declaring humans as having insufficient “mental stamina.”

Interestingly, Harari sees the Orthodox Jewish sections of Israel as example of a successful ‘post-work’ society. Per Harari, over 50% of Orthodox men never work, and the majority of the population is subsidized by the Israeli state. Despite this abject poverty, Orthodox Israelis are consistently polled as being more satisfied than Israelis with significantly more means, amounting to their purpose (studying biblical texts) and close-knit communities. In recent discussions with Israeli friends, they negate Harari’s ideal of the Orthodox in Israel, who are seen as living in squalor.

Even more bleak, Harari sees the unification of bio- and info-tech as not only leading to an elimination of political power, but also a shift from economic equality to biological inequality. As science continues to advance, the privileged will be able to augment their minds and bodies, and even extend their lives, leading to the Homo Deus moniker employed in Hararis’ second book. While gaps already exist in the health and wellbeing of rich and poor around the world, Harari’s Homo Deus concept would drastically exacerbate these indicators.

As seen in recent debates in Europe and the United States and explained by Harari, humans still have the power to control their destinies, in the form of their personal data. As infotech and biotech expand and improve, the importance of data will increasingly grow. Like human labor before it, the power of data lies in its breadth, as the data of a select few hundred (or even thousand) people is far insufficient to create reasonably successful algorithms. While humans  still maintain the power to control their data, Harari laments that “domesticated” humans are willingly ceding that power to corporations for minimal gains (e.g., Google Maps). Per Harari, this question who owns and is able to regulate data may be the most important question of our era.

The second fifth (“The Political Challenge”) frames the modern history of the world as a battle between competing ideologies and ideas: feudalism, communism, fascism, democracy, capitalism, all vying for supremacy against their respective foes. Harari contends that the world is dramatically more uniform than it has ever been, from a broad agreement on basic assumptions such as currency systems, medicine, and science, and even diplomatic norms, including regarding statehood and participation in international institutions like the United Nations. Even a state like North Korea, considered to be as foreign of a actor as we currently have, engages in bilateral trade with other nations, and even participates in international organizations like the Olympics and submits to nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, despite our growing uniformity, we are far from unified, as Harari lays out in chapters on nationalism, religion, and immigration. These three concepts are principally ones of identity, manufactured fictions by one’s religion or state leadership to drive mass cooperation and consolidate power. Along these lines, Harari contends that without these often-abhorred devices, it is more likely that we would descend into tribal chaos that achieve world peace.

Amid fomenting nationalism and religious fervor, Harari paints a picture of the three principal challenges of the near-term: the nuclear risk of existential elimination, the ecological challenge borne of climate change, and the aforementioned technological challenge. In all three cases, nationalism either prevents or runs counter to productive action, which require solutions on a global scale and widespread cooperation. In this way, nationalists around the world are clutching to an outdated and insufficient mode of thinking that moves us further away from answers to these massive problems.

The third fifth (“Despair and Hope”) continues along the lines of the second (I’d contend that the chapter on ‘Immigration’ actually belongs in this section), touching on war and terrorism, God, and ultimately, our need for humility. The book drags a bit in this section, and reads more so as one-off philosophical proofs or debate club arguments seeking to further outline Harari’s worldview rather than advance the aforementioned discussions. Each chapter reads as a short essay on a specific topic: why terrorism is massively effective in its impact, but mostly under control, why wars fought over land and power are mostly of the past, why claims in the name of “God” are biased towards the behavior of its devotees, and finally, why secularism’s key tenets of minimizing pain and doubt are compatible with other ideologies, push the reader to change their minds, or at least their conception of these concept. However, they are all arguments that are convincingly made elsewhere, and do not substantively add to the book’s central premises.

Where the does succeed is in its last two fifths, entitled “Truth” and “Resilience,” which seek to provide answers to some of the presented problems, or at least the tools to pursue them head-first. Harari offers scant, but useful solutions that should be heeded, including paying money for the information you consume (otherwise you are submitting yourself to data collection and manipulation), engaging with the scientific literature behind the issues that are important to you, and most captivatingly, encouraging scientists to write science fiction (to be adapted into popular films) that contend with the aforementioned questions of AÍ, bioengineering, and climate change in order to raise popular awareness of these looming crises.

However, Harari doesn’t portend to have the answers for what’s to come, and explains the need for humility and ignorance in talking the challenges to come. Harari’s ignorance is worn like a badge of honor: as he mentions regarding his conception of the near future: “if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction it is certainly false: change itself is the only certainty.”

For a book this massive in scope and intention, it does feel like Harari’s inclination is to shrug in the face of it all: humans are creatures programmed by their emotions that naturally cling to their communities and identities to preserve meaning, and are unlikely to change their behavior if faced with facts. As mentioned throughout, Harari doubts our capacity as humans trapped in the matrixes of our own minds as capable of contending with this world of “discontinuity,” and recommends that we seek out pharmaceutical and psychological innovations, as well as more timeworn solutions (more on that below) to contend with these changes. In discussing “meaning,” he rejects any notion that the universe has any design or plans for us as individuals, rather emphasizing the need for us as individuals to construct our own meaning from the universe itself.

21 Lessons is a much more personal book than relatively straightforward histories of Sapiens and Homo Deus, touching on his identity to illustrate his points. For example, the chapter on humility (again, I’m choosing to include this in the Truth section – maybe the book could’ve used a better division?) on “Humility” deals with his Jewish identity to illustrate the false superiority and overstated importance that we place on our “tribe’s” importance in human history, and our to ascribe our own individual superiority by association. In the case of the Jews, despite his formative education otherwise, Harari capably explains that the so-called “Jewish Enlightenment” and the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes won by Jews were the result of the groundwork laid by “Gentile thinkers” laying the groundwork, and more broadly engagement with secular ideals. It’s an effective case study that I believe is even more credible by bringing his experience into the picture, though then again, maybe as a Jew myself, I’m just identifying with the specific line of argument due to my knowledge of the subject.

In addition, there’s an expectation on Harari’s part maybe that the book is meant for open minds, the types of people who are overly likely to be among the last to succumb to these massive societal shifts. Harari himself acknowledges himself “checking his privilege” and attempting to widen his scope to address the issues of the most needy and first impacted. However, many of his solutions seem directed at this privileged class: the business, civic, and societal leaders. In this way, 21 Lessons almost be interpreted as an exercise in empathy, sympathy, and (maybe) action in the face of massive change.

Harari ends the book with a personal essay on his experiences with meditation, which he initially began as a 24-year-old graduate student frustrated by the narrow focuses of the University and a lack of answers for questions of mortality. As Harari explains, he has become a devotee of meditation in the years since, committing to two hours of meditation daily and one-to-two months of retreat a year. Reading this chapter last, it’s clear that his worldview, of focus on the infinitesimal, the individual, and the calm presented in the face of these imminent and longer-term catastrophes, as well as his solutions for these issues (“de-domesticating” as humans, developing mental fortitude) is informed by his study of meditation. However, I don’t see this as discrediting whatsoever, and in fact just a further endorsement of the powerful of mindfulness to those who commit themselves to a lifelong practice void of expectations.

It’s not a book that was necessarily asked for (in fact, in the acknowledgements Harari admits that his Penguin Random House UK editor “first came up with the idea for this book”), but amid our current age of identity-based politics and internecine conflicts – between religions, nations, races, classes, ages, etc – it’s a worthy call for unity and a call collective embrace of the futility of many of these fights,

Capsule Reviews: July – October 2018

For whatever reason, I’ve worked my way mid-way through a ton of books recently, without the urge to finish them, let alone write about them.

Below I’m going to attempt to share some thoughts and capsule-reviews of some of those books:

Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience


I initially started this book over the summer while on vacation in the American West (along with the more readable Fourth of July Creek). After making a significant dent in it from Montana to Colorado, I’ve plodded through it since. I still have a bit left to go in Walden before embarking on Civil Disobedience (reading the Penguin Classics compilation of the two).

My primary impression of reading Walden was Thoreau’s attempts at rationalization, followed by a personal sense of recognition.

The first third of Walden almost reads as a letter written by a runaway to their loved ones: Thoreau explaining his decision to “leave it all behind,” foregoing the busybody grind of 19th century Massachusetts by selling his possessions and squatting on Walden Pond, where he constructed his own home and created a new way of life for himself. Thoreau seems almost too self-assured, convincing himself as much as the reader of the rightness of his decisions.

Early in my reading of Walden, I felt compelled to research a very specific fact about Thoreau. Reading Walden felt very familiar: his disillusionment with the ‘real’ world, his desire to find meaning in the day-to-day, and his fatigue with keeping up with the news. Sure enough, Thoreau was 28 when he embarked on his journey (though Walden wasn’t actually published until 1854, 10 years [and 10 drafts] later.) Being 28 myself, I couldn’t help but feel kindred in Thoreau’s desire to take stock of his post-schooling life, evaluate the social contract of American adulthood, extract meaning from the mundane, and set out on a path of intention, observation, and discipline.

We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin


Ruffin’s debut novel is a satire on race in America in the vein of Paul Beatty. My girlfriend, an astute observer of my reading habits, sent me a copy of the galley in advance of the January publishing date (for One World!)

The book has a lot going for it: it creates a cutting postmodern New Orleans / Louisiana dystopia, stratified and segregated in a way recognizable all too reminiscent its past (both historic and more recent), even present. In addition, the protagonist is a credible picture of a striving careerist enduring daily humiliation and a slow degradation of his identity and past as a Black Man.

However, my struggles with the book fall under the fine line(s) between satire, humor, and fiction: a delicate balance between incisive commentary and humor while still advancing the story and creating well-rounded and multi-dimensional characters. The book is enjoyable, but I find the balance a bit overdone on the former at the expense of the latter.

Diary of the Fall, by Michael Laub



I’m trying to make a meaningful effort to read more Brazilian / Latin American fiction while in Brazil, a habit that I’m sure will only be realized when I eventually return from the region. This effort is complicated by the fact that a large majority of Brazilian fiction isn’t translated into English, with the exception of a few modern authors (Daniel Galera, Chico Buarque), and the classics (Lispector, Amado, de Assis, etc.) I haven’t taken the brave leap to try and read in Portuguese, which will only open up my world to the vast universe of Brazilian literature.

Michael Laub’s Diary of the Fall is a slim book translated by Vintage in the UK based in incredibly familiar territory: it is an autobiographical novel written by the grandchild of Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors that touches on the protagonist’s experience growing up among Jews and non-Jews: first in a private Jewish school, and then at public Middle and High Schools. Replace Brazil with the United States, and the book’s set pieces could be my own.

The book is ingeniously weaves together the divide between subsequent generations, beginning with the Grandfather’s immigration to Porto Alegre (Southern Brazil) following the War, his father’s experience witnessing his father’s retreat into his memories, and the protagonist’s experience as a grandchild of survivors. The book mirrors the journals kept by the protagonist’s grandfather, both early in life via his documentation of his new home in an attempt to learn Portuguese and adapt to his new surroundings, and later in life as a cataloging of his Holocaust experiences. Both experiences were kept in journals that were discovered by subsequent generations to inherit and attempt to understand.

The book is a beautiful depiction of families across generations, and questions our inherited identity over time. One of the beautiful things about reading non-American fiction is the ability to draw parallels to other’s experiences around this world. It was especially rewarding to read an experience so close to my own, one that truly could have been my own if not for the fates of our grandfathers, choosing new homes and building new lives in foreign places.

Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul, by Shawn Askinosie


As covered in a previous post, I continue to seek out opportunities to learn more about coffee in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer. While my enthusiasm remains unabated, I was kindly reminded by one of Brazil’s foremost coffee entrepreneurs that the coffee industry involves many different individual stages: cultivation, production, exporting, etc. One of my goals for the coming months is to build my understanding of the coffee trade, especially the commercial ties between the US and Brazil, and try and seek out opportunities to get involved to jumpstart my learning further.

Meaningful Work is an attempt to better understand how the practice of ‘direct’ trade works – the process of sourcing inputs directly from the producers themselves. In his book, Shawn Askinosie tells the story of waking up as a mid-40s criminal defense attorney to discover his inherent dissatisfaction with his job, and his desire for a true mission, a ‘vocation.’ Over the next few years, Shawn created Askinosie Chocolate, a speciality chocolate manufacturer that sources its chocolate from Tanzanian, Filipino, and Ecuadorian cocoa. Askinoise Chocolate grew from Shawn’s experience at a monastery, where he leaned into his sorrow following the death of his father, and his commitment to improving the lives of others for the second half of his career.

What makes Askinosie special is its committment to its communities, both in the local Missouri area where his operations reside, and the international communities where he sources his raw materials, and his work in tying those far-flung locales together. Through local investment and more specific, human-focused efforts (fellowships, planned trips, etc.), Askinosie tries to convince readers of the need to find fulfillment in one’s work, and how to seek out opportunities to improve one’s workplace and communities in any company.

The book is a convincing management book as well as a useful resource for those interested in getting involved in direct trade, or starting any business. It’s a useful reminder to emphasis our connection as humans above all, and not lose sight of our motivation and mission in pursuit of our ‘vocation.’

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas


I initially came across this book from the Author’s podcast episode with Ezra Klein, as it covers a favorite topic of mine: exposing hypocrisies and illuminating the inner-workings of the powerful and much derided ‘elite.’

The book begins with a profile of a well-meaning recent college graduate pitted with the familiar challenge of trying to make the difficult decision between making a direct impact or succumbing to the argument increasingly made by the firms that recruit thousands of elite students across the world: gain the skills needed to ‘change the world’ in the finance or consulting industries, and figure the rest out down the line. The author points to the anxieties felt by the indebted millennial generation, and how these firms are seeking to blunt the transition into the ‘real world’ via ‘hiring classes,’ cohort trainings, and an established recruiting process. While this topic was blown into a full-length book by Kevin Roose (the underrated Young Money), the book’s strength is its ability to delve deeper into the underlying structures and systems that create this reality, versus Roose’s reportage.

The book targets its aim at a familiar punching bag: the so-called Davos ‘elite’ and the well-meaning but ultimately misguided or insufficient extra-governmental solutions for solving global issues. The author attends these multi-thousand-dollar conferences attended by the capitalist elite and rails against their use of language such as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘disruption,’ while serving as the source of much of the disruption in the first place.

However, as Klein gets at in his worthwhile interview with the author, aside from common prescriptions of more robust taxation of the rich and increased trust in government administration to solve problems, the book lacks many answers to match the increasingly common railings against inequality brought on by the tech industry and global capitalism. Then again, I enjoyed the incredibly relevant conversation and longer-form book.

Dream Big by Cristiane Correa


For someone working in Brazil and keeping track of the players at the top of the private sector, the book serves as a useful guidebook, names like 3G Capital, BTG Pactual, ABInBev, Jorge Paulo Lemann, and Marcel Telles. The latter two, along with their partner, Carlos Sicupira, exploded onto the national stage with their purchase of Heinz (along with Warren Buffet), and subsequent purchase of Burger King. Few were aware that these titans were already the owners of the Belgian-Brazilian-American brewers Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Both purchases have gone on to even greater success via scale-building mergers (creating KraftHeinz and Restaurant Brands International [BK-Tim Hortons]), and have become well-known for their brutally efficient zero-based budgeting cost cutting, and the massive incentives paid out to successful managers to incentivize and retain top talent.

In the vein of Buffett’s classic biography The Snowball, the book is a hindsight-laden chronological look at early risks, mid-career failures, and corporate / boardroom dramas. The book does a reasonable job of demonstrating the source of their management philosophies, and the individuals characters that collectively equal 3G’s collective success. The book definitely drags a bit at points (as any book about corporate turnarounds is likely to do), but it’s a useful history for those interested in learning more about the Brazilian entrepreneurs in Buffet’s orbit.

Grant, by Ron Chernow



Meanwhile, I’m also 14 hours into the 48-hour audiobook of Chernow’s Grant biography.

One takeaway that constantly fascinates me is Grant’s relatively late success in life. After a last-minute acceptance to West Point, where he was incorrectly recommended as Ulysses Grant and excelled alongside many future Civil War generals, and early heroics in the Mexican-American war, Grant spent much of his thirties poor and indebted, eventually working for his father’s leather goods store as a clerk.

It wasn’t until the Civil War that Grant’s skills as a military operator and strategic became highly relevant, and he rose within the ranks of the Union Army to become one of its foremost generals.

Chernow addresses Grant’s drinking from the book’s introduction onwards as a complicated, nuanced subject. Grant’s struggles with drinking are a recurring theme throughout the book, and the author contends with correspondence from Grant and those close to him chronicling his struggles with alcoholism.

While I have yet to make it through the Civil War and into his Presidency, I am enjoying the audio experience of the history genre, a sentiment shared by author Andre Dubus III in this week’s NYTimes Book Review By the Book

Review – There, There, by Tommy Orange

Throughout my reading There, There, the critically-acclaimed debut novel from Tommy Orange, I innately sensed the vast number of stories, perspectives, and histories rattling around in his brain to share with the world, and the challenge he must have felt channeling them into a single novel. Each of these stories take the form of characters in the book, more than 20 all-told by the end of the novel, who share their own personal histories via chapters christened with their own names.

The sheer quantity of characters and voices should feel overwhelming, but in Orange’s steady hands, they each feel worth of their own consideration, and could be appreciated as short stories or excerpts in their own right. That these stories all tie together, each character with an intricately designed role in the novel’s broader narrative, speaks to Orange’s capacity as a storyteller.


The stories Orange tells, of Native Americans from Oakland, the West Coast, and across the United States converging on a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, all feel familiar, as if pulled from a lifetime of Orange’s family, friends, and acquaintances. Through the chapter-vignettes, each character bares their own histories,  hopes, and fears. Their shared Native identities notwithstanding, each character feels separate and unique, requiring their own consideration and judgement.

Like Orange’s fictional documentary filmmaker Dene Oxendene (one of the earliest characters to appear in There, There) who receives a grant from the California Arts Council to document the stories and of the Native American community of Oakland and the meaning they assign to their Native identities, each of Orange’s characters have their own perspective on being Native, informed by childhoods, encounters, estrangements, and relationships. Over the course of the novel, the characters impart these feelings in all of their complexity, all to the benefit of the fortunate reader.

Far from “showing promise” or giving readers a bright future to look forward to, There, There hits it out of the park. The book stands on its own, and defies the labels and comparisons that readers and reviewers have already begun to bestow on it (and Orange.) It is a book that has the power to open up the minds and hearts of those who read it, and most importantly, accomplishes the objective set out by Orange in the book’s powerful prologue: to reintroduce Native Americans to the broader American public as they are today: beautiful, diverse, and proud.

Review – Tuff, by Paul Beatty

Over the past week, I ripped through Paul Beatty’s 2000 novel Tuff.

Tuff is my second work of Beatty’s after reading his Man Booker Award-winning novel The Sellout last year.

Whereas The Sellout’s fast-paced, reference laden satire hit my unsuspecting self like a whiff of nitrious-oxide, I came to Tuff more prepared, and ready to contend with Beatty’s combination of comedy, satire, and political/social commentary.


The book, written more than 15 years before The Sellout, feels a bit more optimistic, and a bit less cynical (with plenty reason), but otherwise Beatty’s strengths as an author, humorist, and cultural critic shine just as bright in Tuff as they do in The Sellout.

The book’s strengths are in its characters – Beatty creates caricatures that seem so outlandish and pulled from the pages of comic books, that you’re shocked when you begin to identify with these characters, relate to them, and begin to understand them. Each of his characters comes armed with their own worldview, experiences, and opinions, and the book is at its best when these characters are arguing with one another – the book is interspersed with bullshit sessions on stoops across East Harlem and the broader District 8 of the New York City Council.

To revel in Beatty’s whip-sharp jokes and turns of phrase alone, which themselves alone make his books’ worthy of a read, would be to miss out on some of the broader meanings behind his books. In a satirical but no-less-impactful way, Tuff asks very important questions about living in cities (especially New York), and the way these cities create a woven patchwork of coexistence and common experience, with lessons on every city block.

Tuff makes you laugh, think, and miss New York City at once – an incredibly worthy 250-odd pages.

Review – Lincoln in the Bardo

Being a part-time fiction reader, my favorite fiction books most often do away with the conventions of linear plotlines, uniform structures, and straight-forward presentations: not simply a beginning, middle, and end. One of my true joys as a reader is experiencing the vast diversity that is the reading experience: a book can be a long slog and only rewarding upon completion, a quick assault on the senses and emotions, or a book can be like reading an unknown foreign language, requiring such full concentration and comprehension that only a few pages can be read at a time. Regardless of the deviation itself, I love books that expand my appreciation for the written word, and are far beyond anything I could ever personally conceive of or compose. These works give me faith in noth only the power of literature and the many ways it can take hold of you, but also the triumph of human imagination, and the ability of humanity’s most talented to push forward the medium, evoke compassion, and expand one’s mind towards unconsidered possibility.

While this may read as a lofty opening, and run the risk of anointing an author whose work I’m not intimately familiarly, I can safely say that Lincoln in the Bardo, written by the American George Saunders, faithfully fits this criteria, and is as worthy of work of fiction as I’ve read in a while. Amid a landscape of questions surrounding the vigor and viability of the novel, as well as the turn of many popular contemporary authors towards writing books that double as political or social commentaries, Saunders’ book is a breath of fresh air, and an unexpected exploration of form, topic, and execution.

lincoln in the bardo                       Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (Random House 2017)

Note: In writing this review, I’ve deliberately removed myself from exposure to any in-depth reviews or analyses of the book to focus on my own initial impressions. I remember being perplexed and frustrated by David Foster Wallace’s acknowledgement of the “fractal” structure of his book Infinite Jest in an interview with the KCRW’s Bookworm show host Michael Silverblatt.

Saunders uses the jumping off point of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, and the backdrop of the Civil War to create a story that’s unique, entertaining, funny (at times), and heartbreaking (at others). Rather than resorting to the imagined inner thoughts and dialogue of Lincoln and create a straightforward work of historical fiction on the weight and depth of Lincoln’s heart and heartbreak in the midst of a country in crisis and the death of his third-eldest son, Saunders combines historical scholarship, fiction, and elements of the fantastic and supernature to create a full picture of Lincoln the father, person, and President amid the bloodiest war fought on American soil. The book presents a credible and well-researched depiction of the time period, and the types of characters that would inhabit it.

The book’s narrative is centrally carried forward by two principal characters: Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, as well as the occasional inclusion of their friend and sometimes-accomplice, the Reverend Everly Thomas. That these characters each seem to have some strange physical deformities seems to be besides the point, if nothing else than to emphasize their personal imperfections and the broader, even-stranger circumstances that they find themselves in. The structure brings to mind Kurosawa’s film Hidden Fortress, or George Lucas’ infinitely more popular adaptation, Star Wars, which uses two peripheral, comedic characters as the central vehicle to drive the story forward.

The ongoing dialogue of these two principal characters is interspersed with the entrance of other, minor characters with their own grievances and stories to tell, serve to provide further background on the religious and racial realities of the time, or simply comic relief. At select points in the story, Saunders cites real (or possibly imagined) “official” accounts of the real-life events surrounding the book’s setting – pulled from biographies, memoirs, and collections of letters written by various dignitaries and others within Lincoln’s orbit. Common among these accounts is the mystique surrounding Lincoln — the authors were entranced by Lincoln’s massive physical presence, his sad, yet straight-faced and serious demeanor, and his palpable depression following the death of his son. The mixed recollections and interpretations of the histories serve to remind the reader that even history is inherently subjecting, and Saunders’ fictionalized Lincoln is just as believable and deserve of consideration as his contemporaries’ accounts.

Incidentally, I initially tried “reading” this book via its audiobook production, which boasted a record-setting production cost and over 160 voice actors (enlisting Nick Offerman and David Sedaris as the Vollman and Bevins, with no shortage of star-power supporting cast: Don Cheadle, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, etc.), even enlisting some of my Penguin Random House co-workers as bit-playing participants. I did a particular second-take hearing the distinctive voice of a woman I work with regularly and i did not know was a participant, similar to the sensation of seeing a less-known celebrity in the “wild” – a where do I know this person from quality. However, I found the audio version to be difficult to follow and personally felt it inferior to the physical book. While I still consider myself to be an audiobook novice, I definitely think that books like this, which explore some experimental forms and are hardly straight-forward, are best left to the page, where sections can be more easily re-read and revisited.

Regardless, I really enjoyed my first entree into Saunders’ work and believe it to be a timeless work of American fiction, in the vein of Mark Twain, an especially worthy comparison considering the vast research and effort that Saunders underwent to faithfully recreate the diction and composition of the era, imbuing the book with language and misspellings characteristic of early American English. I look forward to working through his other major works, including Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Tenth of December, in the near future.

Review – Skin in the Game

There’s a specific type of intellectual energy that I get from sitting down with a book of Nassim Taleb’s. His ability to tie together the seemingly disparate fields of mathematics, philosophy, finance, and local, national, and international relations, as well as his ability to thoroughly and clearly debunk much of the popular psychologic and economic thinking of the moment, sets him apart from most contemporary thinkers in my view (who oftentimes relegate themselves to a single line of inquiry), and make him one of a select group of people that I admire most.

An aside: Meeting Nassim Taleb in a chance encounter on the streets of New York late last year (no doubt on his way to, or coming from squid ink pasta lunch), I was completely starstruck, and stopped him in the middle of a busy Manhattan intersection to express my admiration and thanks. He was incredibly gracious and accepted my handshake, though he helpfully asked to continue our conversation on the sidewalk and out of the street.

Taleb’s writing, and writing style (he famously refuses to accept any but the lightest edits of his manuscripts), is so foreign and different from anything being written today across commercial economics / business / philosophy writing, that I struggle to come up with any immediate contemporaries of his. After reading one of his books oftentimes find myself at a loss to figure out what to read next (other than another one of his books.) He has a tendency to cut through the over-explained or over-academic bullshit, and offer straightforward, no-nonsense prose, as well as no shortage of data and source material to back up his claims. Nassim will drop casual asides, or aphorisms mid-way through chapters that are so resonant that other business books could be (or are) based entirely off them.

Skin in the Game is the latest entry in Taleb’s ‘Incerto’ series. Having just finished the book, I think Skin in the Game is Taleb’s most immediately practical and “useful” book, and a worthy addition to the series. While Fooled by Randomness offered a way of thinking about the world, Black Swan dealt with the impact of seismic events (that while have been since proven to be true, aren’t the types of things that most healthy people think about in their day-to-day lives), and Antifragile provided a fascinating way of evaluating systems and ideas, (again, a role that most of us don’t find ourselves in on a regular basis), Skin in the Game provides a straightforward approach for guiding our personal inquiries, choices, and evaluations.

skin in the game.jpg

Skin / Soul in the Game

As with all of Taleb’s books, the primary thesis of Skin in the Game is derived from a simple concept – the bifurcation of people with and without “skin in the game” (which he defines as exposure to downside risk), and the harmful effects of listening those without skin in the game. These “experts,” which he coins “Intellectuals-Yet-Idiots” (IYIs, or simply idiots), include economists, foreign policy experts, academics, politicians, etc., groups whose ideas should be appraised with a healthy amount of skepticism.

He explains that all of these groups share a common “asymmetry” of risk, whereby their prognosticating, or advocating (say, for the invasion of Iraq) subjects these practitioners to little-to-no downside in the event they are wrong: at the end of the day, they will still return home to their suburban home or urban apartment and continue to receive their monthly stipend, with limited exposure to the potential downside risks associated with a full-scale military invasion, a change of monetary policy, new government legislation, etc.

He illustrates this concept through what he calls the “Bob Rubin trade,” based on the former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who was prominently involved in the loosening of banking regulations with the Clinton administration, and was able to parlay that experience into a multi-million dollar position at Citigroup. Citi was famously most flagrantly overleveraged financial institution leading up to the 2008 Crisis, and was subsequently bailed out to the tune of nearly ~$300 billion by US taxpayers. Despite Rubin’s prominent role in all stages of this saga, at no point was there any palpable penalty or downside risk felt by Rubin – he remained a salaried employee of Citibank, and no doubt benefited greatly from the massive 2010 bonuses paid out with taxpayer funds.

To counteract or avoid the class of risk-free advocates, consultants, and experts, Taleb’s solution is to “avoid taking advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless there is a penalty for their advice.” In Talebian fashion, he neatly summarizes this concept by the aphorism: “if you do not take risks for your opinion, you are nothing.” Committing yourself fully to your opinions / work / output, at the expense of not only your own reputation, but also potentially that of others, is what he calls “soul in the game,” a level further than skin in the game (which only factors in personal downside and reputational risk).

He helpfully offers a table summarizing these asymmetries, from which I’ve pulled out a few choice examples that particularly resonated with me:

No Skin in the Game: Skin in the Game: Soul in the Game:
Politicians Activists Dissidents / Revolutionaries
Bureaucrats, policy wonks Citizens Saints, knights, soldiers
Centralized government Government of city-states Municipal government


Learning with Skin in the Game

Early on in the book, Taleb elucidates a point, and a feeling, that I’ve struggled to put into words up to this point:

People have two brains, one when there is skin in the game, one when there is none. Skin in the game can make boring things less boring. When you have skin in the game, dull things like checking the safety of the aircraft because you may be forced to be a passenger in it cease to be boring. If you an investor in a company, doing ultra-boring things like reading the footnotes of a financial statement (where the real information is to be found) becomes, well, almost not boring.)

He continues:

A confession. When I don’t have skin in the game, I am usually dumb. My knowledge of technical matters, such as risk and probability, did not initially come from books. It did not come from lofty philosophizing and scientific hunger. It did not even come from curiosity. It came from the thrills and hormonal flush one gets while taking risks in the markets.

When there was risk on the line, suddenly a second brain in me manifested itself, and the probabilities of intricate sequences became suddenly effortless to analyze and map.

… what you learn from the intensity and the focus you had when under the influence of risk stays with you. You may lose the sharpness, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned.

For someone as intelligent, well-read, and informed as Taleb, this strikes me as not only a remarkable bit of humility, but also a codex of sorts for developing an intellect like Taleb. As he recounts to his readers throughout the Incerto series, his formative time as a trader, placing options and derivatives trades with quantifiable downside and unlimited upside (‘fat tail’ risks), have informed much of his academic output and commercial writing in the decades since. Beyond formative, these experiences provided him with a lens and worldview to carry forward his inquiries, borne of the “real,” or applicable world.

In finance circles, one oftentimes comes across eager investors, oftentimes riding the high of a recent stock market wager, looking for a ‘curriculum’ or book that will set themselves down the path towards unimpeded stock market success. While the casual, and oftentimes first answer is Benjamin Graham’s Intelligent Investor, lauded by Warren Buffett on the front cover as “by far the best book on investing ever written” (despite the fact that Graham himself broke his book’s value investing rules in his biggest investment success, Geico.) However, an increasingly popular choice is called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, written by former CBOE trader Jim Paul (Taleb himself generously called it “One of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance.”) The book deals with Paul’s heyday as a commodities trader, and the success (and related hubris) he developed early in his career. However, as the book continues Paul himself explains how this hubris led to his downfall – the eponymous loss of $1.6 million (of his own) dollars. While investment novices may be puzzled by the near-consensus recommendation, Paul’s explanation behind his losses is probably the most clearheaded account in print on the highs-and-lows of true “skin in the game,” and the lessons these experiences engendered.

In my own personal life, I’ve witnessed this play out in a number of ways. Despite countless iterations of economics and finance class, the day-to-day intricacies of inflation and monetary policy have mostly alluded me. It is only now, that I am living in a developing country and am personally subjected to inflation risk (with significant potential downside), have I begun to seek out, and fully grasp, these concepts. Similarly, despite the multi-billion dollar language training industry, and three College semesters of Brazilian Portuguese under my belt, it wasn’t until I actually showed up in Brazil for the first time that I actually recognized my inadequacy in the language, which subconsciously activated this “second brain” as I sought to get up to speed. Since then, little of my continued advancement in the language has come from books or lessons. Rather, being among other Portuguese speakers, and being at the risk of looking stupid or saying the wrong thing, has continued to propelled my language study further.


Loss Aversion, or Downside risk

Taleb’s application of skin in the game extends to one’s personal life and career through the concept of “loss aversion.”

He explains that “what matters isn’t what a person has or doesn’t have; it is what he or she is afraid of losing.”

Taleb uses the concept of loss aversion to explain the attraction and danger of corporate employment, which he casually considers a form of slave ownership. As Taleb explains, when a corporation hires a full-time employee, as opposed to a freelancer or contractor, they are purchasing their time and autonomy in exchange for an annual salary and related perks (including healthcare in the United States, which I’d be remiss to call a “perk.”) In the process, the employee is slowly conditioned to the comfort of a steady paycheck and associated inflationary lifestyle changes. Somewhat uncomfortably, Taleb points to the expatriate (a role which I currently happen to inhabit) as a particularly pernicious extension of this “slavery,” whereby the related perks and inflated lifestyle induce even further reliance on their company.

Over time, the employee, in his/her desire to remain employed, incurs the feeling of “loss aversion,” leading to an overemphasis on corporate reputation, internal politics, and more subconscious changes to one’s behavior and activity. And rather than limiting this concept to the semi-outdated concept of the “company” or salaryman, Taleb argues that this extends even further, creating the “companies” man:

For people are no longer owned by a company by by something worse: the idea that they need to be employable. The employable person is embedded in an industry, with fear of upsetting not just their employer, but other potential employers.

Never without a solution, Taleb closes this section by recounting his experience working alongside a series of eccentric, sometimes crude, and oftentimes primitive (in dress, speak, etc.) traders and salespeople, who, unlike their counterparts concerned with generic qualitative job assessments and the whims of their bosses, were so assured of their value that they seemed to flaunt their status as “freepeople.” Similarly, with his own back against the wall in the form of a lackluster trading period, Taleb’s “skin in the game” forced him to develop arbitrage trading concepts (no doubt borne of the aforementioned “second mind), resulting in a temporary recovery of job status, though at no point void of his own personal “job security.”


The Lindy Effect

As with his previous book, Antifragile, Taleb does not rest on his laurels in pursuit of new ideas and solutions that help to counteract the impact of IYIs and our contemporary religious, (geo)political, and economic ailments. In pursuit of these solutions, each of Taleb’s books is chock-full of wisdom and references to religious thinkers and philosophers throughout history. As I continue to re-discover, the importance of a strong filter to combat the noise and increasing deluge of information is essential, and Taleb introduces a useful heuristic to assist to those ends, which he coins the “Lindy effect,” named after the NYC restaurant/institution Lindy’s.

Despite Lindy’s 2-star Yelp rating, and Taleb’s admission that Lindy’s famed cheesecake is nothing to write home about, Lindy’s has been in operation since 1921. Taleb cites Lindy’s as an example of the “reverse” aging effect: places, things, or ideas (“nonperishables”) that become more robust, or antifragile over time, and thereby more likely to survive. Over the long-term, time is the only true judge of worthiness and importance. This concept of the Lindy Effect is used to create Nassim Taleb’s definition of rationality: that which survives over time is rational, by nature of its continued existence.

Unlike other public intellectuals, who may be more hesitant to invoke the names of their inspirations or source material, Taleb has no qualms standing on the shoulders of his intellectual forebearers, both ancient and more recent. Throughout the book, Taleb demonstrates the power of time-tested concepts that have oftentimes converged across different religions, cultures, and centuries, employing the Lindy effect as proof of their continued relevance and importance. Taleb calls these concepts “grandparents’ wisdom,” demonstrating the historical origins of much of the “folksy” advice and proverbs we’re accustomed to hearing from our own elders. One of Taleb’s foremost skills is returning to these previously-held and well trodden ideas, as if providing a mentor’s compendium of the seemingly endless array of avenues to discover more and inquire further.

As I continue to mull through how to take more active control of my daily reading and media consumption in the face of near-constant distraction and an ever-increasing collection of to-reads and the latest ideas of the day, the Lindy effect is a heuristic that I need to return to (and not wait to implement): foregoing keeping up with the news or having opinions about the latest trends in favor of seeking out the robust, antifragile ideas that have endured (without intermediaries or explanations).


How to apply my own skin (or soul) in the game

While reading this book, I continually returned to thinking about how to put some of these concepts in action, how to create more incidence of “skin in the game” in my own life.

One of my immediate reactions was the creation of this blog, which, as opposed to its predecessor, very clearly highlights my own name and identity. By writing here, in my name, I am exposing myself to the potential risks associated with publicizing my own opinions and writing, and holding myself accountable to every word being written.

While many on the internet use the guise of anonymity to promote their (oftentimes hateful) agenda, or restrict their online identities to a curated collection of apolitical facts and innocuous musings, the decision to leave myself exposed to the potential “risk” of my name and these ideas (however noncontroversial they may be) attached to my name creates a level of skin in the game. On the other hand, this also creates the beneficial impact of forcing me to develop my ideas and their robustness before hitting publish: by restricting myself to the longform blog medium, as opposed to 140/280 characters or the Facebook status update, I have to structure, compose, and revise these ideas with an elevated level of care and attention to detail.

More broadly, Nassim Taleb concludes Skin in the Game with a helpful collection of advice for his readers, which all center around the time-tested concept of “living honorably,” and taking risk:

  1. Never engage in virtue signaling;
  2. Never engage in rent-seeking;
  3. You must start a business. Put yourself on the line, start a business.

While all three amount to a formula for living without guilt and in the continued pursuit of justice and truth, it is the third that I find especially compelling. As Taleb romantically evokes throughout his work, his approach towards labor, and any money that results as a byproduct, continues to be in pursuit of his own intellectual curiosities, rather than that of an employer (I can unequivocally say that Taleb would be among the worst employees imaginable). More broadly, there is no disconnect between Taleb’s output and his work – as the book sums up, his skin is thoroughly in the game, and as a result, he leaves himself accountable to no one but himself.

These aspects of starting your own business especially resonate with me, and as I continue to contribute to this site over the coming months, I hope to explore further, and begin putting into practice.

Review – Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power

While on vacation this past week, I finished up Michael Reid’s Brazil: Troubled Rise of a Global Power, which, along with Alex Cuadros’ Brazilionaries, have served as an introduction to life in Brazil. Like Cuadros (and myself), Reid provides an outsider’s perspective on the country, having served as the Americas editor of The Economist from 1999-2013.


Michael Reid’s Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power

Reid’s Brazil is a companion volume to his previous book, Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, which provided a history of Spanish Latin America and an assessment of the current state of the region. Brazil serves as a useful introduction to the country’s vast complexity and interesting history. The book was published in 2014 in the run-up to the World Cup and 2014 elections, though I read an updated, 2016 paperback version, which included a necessary postscript touching on Dilma’s re-election, the 2014 World Cup, and the (very) early stages of the Lavo Jato scandal.

The book is split into three separate parts:

  1. A general history of Brazil, its rise from a colony to a republic and leading up to the military dictatorship (1500 – 1964)
  2. A modern history of Brazil, including the return to democracy, and the incredibly important presidencies and legacies of Cardoso and Lula (1964 – 2014)
  3. A survey of Brazil’s future, including coverage of its key industries, global competitiveness, and outlook  

Of course, fitting all of this information into a compact 300 pages is an accomplishment in itself, and anyone hoping for a deeper dive into any one of these topics is likely to be disappointed. However, I appreciated the brisk pace of the book leading up to the Cardoso/Lula years, which in total help to paint Brazil as a country that has underwent a tumultuous (yet mostly peaceful) path towards its current status as a dynamic modern democracy, albeit one with innumerable quirks and vestiges of its colonial and corporatist past. Reid this sums this up in the book’s conclusion:

“From colonial times until the dictatorship, an abiding preoccupation of Brazil’s leaders was to hold together a vast territory of difficult geography, where establishing communicators and the conditions for prosperous and healthy human life was enormously difficult. As a result, in Brazil it was the state that created the nation, rather than the nation creating the government, as it happened in the United States. It also meant that unlike in Spanish America, the rulers of the state were ever conscious of the need to consult local notables in order to conserve national unity and prevent succession. Slavery — and the fear of slave revolt — was another reason for the need for a united front. It also distorted the priorities of the state in ways that set back Brazil’s development for centuries, and condemned it to the status of the country of the eternal future. The tragic consequence of a society of masters and slaves was that the state, even as it set about developing the economy, failed to invest in the education, health, and safety of the great mass of poorer Brazilians.”

The book provides an interesting backdrop to better understand Brazil’s history of state-led industrialization, and more broadly the vast role that the state played in Brazil’s historic development, and continues to play to this day. Brazil’s most successful and popular leaders, Getúlio Vargas and Lula, both vastly expanded the role of the state in their tenures, looking ‘inward’ to improve the lives of the average Brazilians citizen. Underlining the tenuous unity within the country, both leaders, despite being massive popular and democratically elected, continued to appease Brazil’s all-important “coronels,” or regional power brokers that have played an outsized role in Brazil’s development since they were apportioned land by the Portuguese monarchy.

The book does a good job of providing a reasoned assessment of Lula’s presidency given its publication in 2014, when Lula was still regarded as the most popular leaders on Earth. Reid points out that Lula’s tenure capitalized in some areas from Cardoso’s monetary stability and the influx of foreign capital and strong commodity prices, while falling to address some of Brazil’s broader ailments. These include longstanding inefficiencies, lack of productivity, and a bloated system of spending that places a focus on advanced concepts (public universities, military spending, massive capital investments) at the expense of more basic investments (preschool and secondary education, healthcare and medical services, basic infrastructure). The juxtaposition of Brazil’s global competitiveness indicators have led many to colloquially label Brazil a “Belinda” –  Belgium for the Rich, and India for the poor.

I especially enjoyed a section that covered Brazil’s approach to foreign policy, including its capable and accomplished diplomatic core, its interesting and counterintuitive laissez faire stance towards its regional neighbors (no Brazilian leader visited another South American country until 1900, and until 1985, no Brazilian president stepped foot in Colombia and Venezuela), and Lula’s attempts to capitalize on Brazil’s size and success to transform Brazil into a regional power and into global prominence.

Riding a wave of popularity and economic strength, Lula muscled his way to a position of leadership in Latin America and the Caribbean, painting himself as the intermediary and a bridging voice between right-wing caudillos (Colombia’s Uribe / Santos) and leftist populists (Venezuela’s Chavez, Bolivia’s Morales), especially to global leaders mostly confused by the region. Lula’s efforts to broker nuclear and far-reaching trade deals, as well as his seeking out multilateral recognition through the UN (including a bid for permanent security council status) did not survive beyond his presidency, as his predecessor Dilma’s less charismatic presence and domestic concerns resulted in Brazil shrinking away from the global stage.

The book captures the almost-awkward position of Brazil towards the rest of the world – neither a natural member of Spanish Latin America, nor a steadfast partner of the United States as leaders of the Western Hemisphere, and an awkward fit with the rest of the BRICs, especially given Russian authoritarian and nationalist turn and continued Chinese expansion. Brazil’s strongest allies outside of the United States mostly date back to its Lusophone colonial origins, as well as a smattering of  neighbors: Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, South Africa, Angola, and Portugal. Famously, in 1970 US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said to his diplomatic counterpart Antonio Silveira of Brazil’s newly designed diplomatic home in Brasilia: “it’s a magnificent building, Antonio, now all you need is a foreign policy to go with it.”

Brazil’s antipathy to the rest of the world has carried itself forward to today, as Brazil continues to exhibit an inconsistent and uneven approach towards global diplomacy – one more concerned with gaining attention (non-interventionist UN votes on Iraq and Syria, leading a peacekeeping mission in Haiti) than effect (Brazil has remained silent throughout Venezuela’s descent into failed state status, a failure given its status as a beacon of democracy and freedom in Latin America.) A diplomat quoted in the book summed it up well: “China is concerned with being, not with appearing. Brazil is obsessed with appearing, not being.”

In all, I found the book to be enjoying and worthwhile for anyone interested in better understanding the complexity that is modern Brazil. The author’s employer comes off a little too strong in sections: some of the latter sections focusing on specific industries or assessments of Brazil’s economic or political shortcomings read a bit too much like expanded Economist articles, and the author’s politics (mostly mirroring The Economist’s neoliberal take on things) come through too clearly in others, but these are minor quibbles. In all, I found it to be useful companion, and an excellent primer ahead of the 2018 elections here in Brazil.