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Local Book Notes: Biden Was Right

1. Blowing The Great Recession.

"December 16, 2008, Chicago, Illinois: On a dark, snowy Chicago afternoon in mid-December, it was my immense privilege to have a seat at an historic table," Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, writes in his new The Reconnection Agenda.

"A few seats away from me sat the president-elect of the United States, the first African American to hold that title, Barack Obama. Next to him sat my new boss, the vice president-elect: Joe Biden. Scattered around the rectangle were some of the top economic and financial policy thinkers in the land: Christy Romer, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner.

"If the privilege was immense, so was the anguish. We knew the economy was in deep trouble. But we could not have known precisely how deep. As we sat there in December planning our economic counterattack against what would become known as the Great Recession, employers were cutting 700,000 jobs from their payrolls. The next month, as the new president took office, that number would jump to 800,000 - job losses of a magnitude that none of us had ever seen. Real gross domestic product (GDP), the broadest measure of the value of all the goods and services in the economy, was contracting at an 8 percent rate, which, if you follow these sorts of things, is technically termed a 'nightmare.'

"I vividly recall the president-elect distinctly not emoting the attitude of the dog that caught the car it had been chasing ('OK . . . now what are you gonna do with it?'). Like the rest of us, he viewed this in no small part as a technical problem."



Earlier . . .

"[Biden] wanted to know what it would take to reconnect economic growth and the prosperity of the middle class.

"My response - thinking ahead to the Chicago meeting - was that the first thing it's going to take is economic growth. The last few decades had confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that growth was not sufficient for middle-class prosperity, but it was obviously necessary. And like I said, we were in the midst of a raging downturn.

"But Biden pushed me to think beyond the downturn. With considerable foresight, he pointed out that if the past few recoveries hadn't much reached the middle class, why should we expect the next one to do so?

One of the things we discussed - the topic of Chapter 3 - was the importance of full employment and what it would take to get there. Seeing the Recovery Act coming, we also talked about using crisis to foment opportunity, particularly as regards building up the nation's deteriorating stock of public goods, aka, infrastructure investment.

Today, I sit well on the other side of those tumultuous days. The Great Recession is far behind us. The measures we took, along with those of the Fed, worked pretty well - in fact, much as we thought they would. I recall a discussion with Larry Summers, an economist who's been through enough of these sorts of crises to take the long view, during the early days of our work together, wherein he pointed out the differences between our much deeper interventions than those of the Europeans, suggesting that a bit of a natural experiment was underway. As I write today in April 2015, they're struggling with anemic growth rates and high unemployment while our macroeconomy is relatively strong.

I'm not saying we got everything right by a longshot. We didn't. Our interventions ended too soon and we pivoted to deficit reduction years before we should have. But let me assure you that this book is not going to re-litigate this question; we have other big fish to fry.

Instead, my point is this. Present company excluded, that Chicago meeting room was filled with some of the best economists we've got, men and women with the clearest understanding of the economic system. The measures we started crafting that day, ones that Axelrod, Phil Schiliro, and others helped to somehow cram through an awfully tough Congress, had their expected impact.

And yet, Biden was right. The ensuing recovery has once again largely failed to reach the middle class. What growth we've seen has been concentrated at the top of the economic scale. We are now (in early 2015) more than five years into an economic expansion that began in mid-2009, much to the relief of the folks in that Chicago meeting room. But income and wealth inequality are growing strongly again; corporate profitability has never been higher; the financial markets are again on a tear. Real median household income, on the other hand, is still lower than it was when the recovery began.

I'd say, then, they got the most important part wrong, which has been heavily reported by now but little understood.

2. The History Of Bed Bugs Is Long And Disgusting.

"[Brooke] Borel's new book, Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, chronicles the 250,000 year history of the creepy crawlies. It's a story of industries (tourism, extermination services), and resilience (bed bugs are constantly adapting to outwit the chemicals we spray on them).

"Why are we so unnerved by these bugs? 'Out of all the people I interviewed for the book - bed bug sufferers, entomologists, psychologists, and more - the answer is almost always this: The bugs attack in your bed while you sleep. Our bedrooms are our sanctuaries.'"

"There's something deeply unsettling about the vision of little insects parading across your skin, gnawing on you while you're at your most vulnerable. 'Interestingly, bed bugs aren't known to spread disease to humans, but it seems we're more frightened of them than, say a mosquito, which could carry deadly pathogens,' adds Borel."


From the New York Times:

"Brooke Borel deftly takes us through this arthropod microcosm of the universe, as she traces the culture and biology of a resurgent scourge."


From the University of Chicago Press:

"Bed bugs. Few words strike such fear in the minds of travelers. In cities around the world, lurking beneath the plush blankets of otherwise pristine-looking hotel beds are tiny bloodthirsty beasts just waiting for weary wanderers to surrender to a vulnerable slumber. Though bed bugs today have infested the globe, the common bed bug is not a new pest at all. Indeed, as Brooke Borel reveals in this unusual history, this most-reviled species may date back over 250,000 years, wreaking havoc on our collective psyche while even inspiring art, literature, and music - in addition to vexatious red welts.

"In Infested, Borel introduces readers to the biological and cultural histories of these amazingly adaptive insects, and the myriad ways in which humans have responded to them. She travels to meet with scientists who are rearing bed bug colonies - even by feeding them with their own blood (ouch!) - and to the stages of musicals performed in honor of the pests. She explores the history of bed bugs and their apparent disappearance in the 1950s after the introduction of DDT, charting how current infestations have flourished in direct response to human chemical use as well as the ease of global travel. She also introduces us to the economics of bed bug infestations, from hotels to homes to office buildings, and the expansive industry that has arisen to combat them.

"Hiding during the day in the nooks and seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, wallpaper, or any clutter around a bed, bed bugs are thriving and eager for their next victim. By providing fascinating details on bed bug science and behavior as well as a captivating look into the lives of those devoted to researching or eradicating them, Infested is sure to inspire at least a nibble of respect for these tenacious creatures - while also ensuring that you will peek beneath the sheets with prickly apprehension."

3. The Politics Of A Pachyderm Posse.

"Meet Greg. He's a stocky guy with an outsized swagger. He's been the intimidating yet sociable don of his posse of friends - including Abe, Keith, Mike, Kevin, Torn Trunk, and Willie. But one arid summer the tide begins to shift and the third-ranking Kevin starts to get ambitious, seeking a higher position within this social club. But this is no ordinary tale of gangland betrayal - Greg and his entourage are bull elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia, where, for the last twenty-three years, Caitlin O'Connell has been a keen observer of their complicated friendships.

"In Elephant Don, O'Connell, one of the leading experts on elephant communication and social behavior, offers a rare inside look at the social world of African male elephants. Elephant Don tracks Greg and his group of bulls as O'Connell tries to understand the vicissitudes of male friendship, power struggles, and play. A frequently heart-wrenching portrayal of commitment, loyalty, and affection between individuals yearning for companionship, it vividly captures an incredible repertoire of elephant behavior and communication. Greg, O'Connell shows, is sometimes a tyrant and other times a benevolent dictator as he attempts to hold onto his position at the top. Though Elephant Don is Greg's story, it is also the story of O'Connell and the challenges and triumphs of field research in environs more hospitable to lions and snakes than scientists."

Not sure I like comparing gang members to elephants, though, even in reverse.


Comments welcome.


Posted on April 29, 2015

MUSIC - Chicago Music Poster History.
TV - Hollywood Still Can't Get Abortion Right.
POLITICS - The Dark Side Of Kirin Beer.
SPORTS - The Four Horsemen Of Halas Hall.

BOOKS - Why Chimps Don't Hold Elections.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Recall! Sriracha Chicken Ravioli.

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