Category Archives: Book Reviews

Brief synopses of books I read and feel like reviewing, whatever their subject.

Book Review: “Is Voting for Young People?” (2E) by Martin Wattenberg

Watternberg, Martin. Is Voting for Young People? With a Postscript on Citizen Engagement, 2nd edition. Harlow: Longman, 2007.

In this concise work of political science, Professor Wattenberg of UC Irvine sketches the outline of a potentially serious problem facing modern democracies: the ever-declining political awareness and participation among youth.

Wattenberg analyzes election surveys and public opinion polls in order to ascertain the following points: Newspaper readership among youth is declining, political news consumption via television among youth is declining, and political participation among youth is declining.

Interestingly, these trends are apparent across almost all Western democracies, making explanations that emphasize single-country events (Watergate, etc.) insufficient. The explanation proffered by this book is that this is a generational issue: As the newer generations (about 1980 onward) have been socialized in the “TV Age,” with its emphasis on entertainment above all else, they have naturally been exposed to less political information, and thus have exhibited less knowledge and interest in politics.

The only limitation I could find with Wattenberg’s analysis is the failure to consider certain online alternatives of political information. For example, the only mention of the word “Internet” in the entire book is in reference to online newspaper websites, such as those of prestigious newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and local newspaper websites (p. 28). Unsurprisingly, youth avoid such websites just as they avoid newspapers in general. However, such polls fail to take into consideration “unofficial” sources. Online resources like BBC’s “One-Minute World News” and blogs that youth may frequent aren’t considered at all.

In any case, this does not defeat the primary argument of the book, since political knowledge and participation continues to decline regardless. In short: “unofficial” sources don’t appear to be stymieing the flow of people away from civic participation either way.

Wattenberg asserts that lest modern democracies become governments “of the old people, by the old people, and for the old people,” something needs to be done. After (too) briefly examining alternatives, Wattenberg advocates for mandatory voting along the lines of Australia’s system. Wattenberg uses the analogy of banning smoking in public places: Sometimes it is best to force people to do what is good for them, even if it is construed as a violation of individual rights (p. 173). While I personally disagree, and in any case the proposition has very little popular or political support, it does get the reader thinking about the issue in a provocative way.

Finally, this edition features a brief postscript on unofficial methods of political participation. While activities like protesting and contacting elected officials are more common than ever, most of the increase can be accounted for in age groups excluding young people. Thus, the increasing prevalence of unconventional participation does not refute Wattenberg’s argument.

In short, this little book, which can be consumed in a single evening, is a worthwhile contribution to voting behavior, and should be of interest to political scientists, informed citizens, and those teaching voting behavior at the undergraduate level.


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Book Review: “The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877-1900” by Richard Bensel

Bensel, Richard Franklin. The Political Economy of American Industrialization,   1877-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In this monumental work of political economy, Richard Franklin Bensel seeks to explain how the United States rapidly industrialized from 1877-1900 while simultaneously preserving its democratic processes and institutions.

Bensel’s main hypothesis is as follows: Industrialization was carefully orchestrated by the Republican party through its pursuit of the “developmental tripod”: a series of economic policies that redistributed wealth from the West and South (the “peripheral” zones) to the North (the “core” zone) while masterfully deflecting popular opposition. These policies included the tariff, the gold standard, and the creation of a national market.

According to Bensel, the tariff helped take wealth from the mainly agrarian peripheral zones and funnel it into the core by protecting industrial interests. Most importantly, however, it served as the “glue” that held together the Republican party coalition, enabling it to pursue the other, more important legs of the tripod. To this effect, the tariff was allowed to operate in the Congress.

Adherence to the gold standard, meanwhile, was important because it served to stabilize American exchange rates, thus attracting foreign investment into the core. Because adherence required daily administration, this leg of the tripod was placed in the hands of the executive branch, which also served to keep it one step removed from public opinion.

Finally, the creation of the national market was absolutely essential for industrialization, leading to the creation of the modern business firm and a huge comparative advantage for the United States in the world economy. As such, it was placed in the hands of the Supreme Court, whose members were carefully vetted by the Republican party to ensure the policy would be supported. This also served to protect the policy from popular opposition, since the S.C. is the most insulated of the three branches.

Thus, the argument goes, the Republican party relied on careful central state planning to ensure the necessary build-up of capital in the core zone that unlocked industrialization, while avoiding the use of brutal, authoritarian measures to ram through reform (epitomized by Russian industrialization under Stalin), thus preserving democratic processes.

You will learn A LOT about the industrialization of the United States by reading this book, and especially about the extremely uneven regional development that occurred. Still, the underlying contention that it was largely political power that shaped this development seems questionable. Besides necessitating a nigh-omniscient Republican party, it seems more likely that economic change was primarily what shaped the political landscape, rather than vice versa (an example: was the drain on Southern wealth really the result of intentional policy, or was it mostly the result of the collapse of slavery and the destruction of the Southern banking system after the Civil War?). In any case, the link between politics and economics is clearly bidirectional. Bensel just chooses to emphasize the political side more than most.

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Book Review: “Intellectuals and Society” by Thomas Sowell

Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Dr. Sowell’s book “Intellectuals and Society” claims to be a critical evaluation of intellectuals — those whose work begins and ends with ideas — on a wide range of subjects, from economics and law to war and society. In actuality, this book is a critique of a specific sort of intellectual: the member of the liberal intelligentsia.

This means that a wide swathe of conservative thinkers are exempted from Dr. Sowell’s analysis: thus, when media bias is the subject of discussion, Fox News receives no mention. This is the sort of one-sided analysis the reader should expect for the duration of the book’s length.

Further, Dr. Sowell gets stuck in a most ironic dilemma when he claims that intellectuals are those who have exceptional knowledge in one narrow subject but who extend their analyses beyond their range of competence (p. 155): this critique applies to Dr. Sowell himself! Either intellectuals can speak with some authority on subjects in which they did not get their PhD, or otherwise this book is itself a waste of time (Dr. Sowell has a PhD in economics).

But, if intellectuals can in fact speak on subjects besides their narrow band of expertise, then many of the leftist thinkers Dr. Sowell writes off are ostensibly speaking with authority, which Dr. Sowell explicitly denies. Rather than address the points of many of these scholars, the fact that they are speaking on subjects outside of their professional expertise gives carte blanche to Dr. Sowell to ignore their actual arguments.

For example, Noam Chomsky is mentioned several times throughout the book (pgs. 11, 284, 287), and in each case is written off as someone speaking beyond his realm of expertise, without any of Chomsky’s actual arguments being addressed. This is most ironic because at one point in the book, Dr. Sowell provides a taxonomy of “arguments without arguments” used by leftist intellectuals to dismiss opposing viewpoints without actually addressing their points. It seems as if Dr. Sowell needs to add an entry to the list for the strategy he himself uses.

If one can accept these limitations, there are interesting points to be gleaned from “Intellectuals and Society.” For example, the section on economics probably has the most insightful arguments, since it is after all Dr. Sowell’s realm of expertise. One example: the obsession of many intellectuals over the ‘plight of the poor,’ who treat the bottom quintile in income distribution (a statistical category) as if it is a static group of actual human beings. To the contrary, from 1975 to 1991, only 5% of those who started in the bottom quintile remained there, and some 29% of people who started there ended up in the top quintile (p. 38). In other words, rather than being an unmoving group of people which are languishing at the bottom of the American economy, the statistical category in question is a place where many people start out when they begin a relatively low-paying job, eventually working their way out as they develop more skills and experience in their chosen profession.

In another instance Dr. Sowell encourages the reader to ask a simple question: what have intellectuals contributed to society? In opposition to scientists, engineers, and the like, it is not as readily apparent what intellectuals have contributed to society or the world. This question should serve as an important check against the self-importance of intellectuals who simply presume what they are doing is of value to anyone besides fellow intellectuals.

In short, “Intellectuals and Society” is a skewed attempt to analyze left-leaning academics in Western culture. The author fails to address the majority of their arguments, simply writing them off as ‘beyond their realm of expertise.’ Further, conservative intellectuals bear no mention — despite the fact that they are surely subject to many of the same fallacies as leftists. Despite these limitations, the reader will likely glean several insights from this book that will make them ponder the role of the intellectual, even if the overall argument of the book is logically inadequate.

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