What I’ve Been Reading

Published on September 28, 2022

Thoughts on the books I read in Q3 2022

The Last Warrior

Authors: Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts
Year of publication: 2015
Length: 264 pages

When it comes to name recognition, I doubt that more than a few percent of Americans could identify Andrew Marshall despite the key role that he played as the Director of the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon for over four decades. Mr. Marshall’s skills were so important for national security that he served every President from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama before retiring in 2015 at the age of 93. 

Mr. Marshall established the Office of Net Assessment to serve as an internal think tank at the Pentagon charged with assessing the posture of the United States military against its adversaries. Initially, the main focus of his work was the Cold War.

One of Mr. Marshall’s key insights was that the CIA estimates of the burden of military spending on the Soviet Union’s economy were chronically understated. In the early 1970s, the CIA thought that the Soviets were spending 6-7% of economic output on the military, but the real figure was far higher. CIA analysts underestimated the cost of Soviet armaments as well as the size of the economy. By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was spending around one-third of its economic output on the military, and this eventually bankrupted the country and led to the end of the Cold War.

After the Cold War, Mr. Marshall identified key risks the United States faced as the world’s sole superpower including, but not limited to, the rise of China. Mr. Marshall died in 2019 at the age of 97. Those who are interested in Cold War history and the future of U.S. military power should consider reading this book.

The Deficit Myth

Author: Stephanie Kelton
Year of publication: 2020
Length: 267 pages

According to Stephanie Kelton, the United States has yet to adjust government policies to reflect the flexibility that being a “monetary sovereign” in a fiat currency world provides. Kelton is an advocate of modern monetary theory which calls for a dramatic shift in how we should think about monetary and fiscal policies. To say that Kelton’s ideas are unconventional would be an understatement. However, MMT has gained enough prominence in the policy debate to deserve attention. 

The core of MMT is the belief that viewing government spending through the prism of budget surpluses and deficits is wrongheaded. Instead, government supposedly faces no constraints when it comes to spending as long as inflation remains under control. Kelton acknowledges that there are real constraints on what government can do, but those constraints are real economic resources, not the ability to spend more dollars, since the United States is the sole issuer of dollars and cannot default on obligations which are denominated in dollars.

MMT seems to be more about advocating an expansive government sector as a percentage of the economy rather than a monetary theory. We have seen rapid inflation take hold following a sharp increase in government spending due to the pandemic, with the Federal Reserve monetizing debt. The scope of spending called for by Kelton, including a guaranteed jobs program and implementation of the “Green New Deal”, makes the pandemic response seem small in comparison. I am skeptical that her ideas can be implemented without spiking inflation even further.

The Storm Before the Storm

Author: Mike Duncan
Year of publication: 2017
Length: 268 pages

This book covers a period of history that is often neglected. While the events surrounding the fall of the Roman Republic have been covered in numerous books, the tumultuous period prior to the final fall has received less attention. This book covers the period from 146 BC to 78 BC, a period of tumultuous wars, political intrigue, and a steady erosion of the culture and traditions of the early republic.

The Roman Republic is sometimes idealized, but it was very far from a system of equal enfranchisement. As was the case in most ancient societies, slavery was an endemic part of the fabric of the Roman system. This resulted in periodic slave revolts known as the Servile Wars. Additionally, the Italian allies of Rome were not satisfied with their second-class status and wanted full Roman citizenship. The Social War was fought over the rights of the Italian allies. 

Cults of personality and the tendency of military men to take political power were also common features of the period covered by the book. The cultural and political norms of earlier eras of the Republic were slowly but surely weakened through exceptions and breaches of precedent. By 78 BC, the institutions of Rome were weakened to the point where the collapse of the Republic was perhaps inevitable.

I’ve read books on the fall of the Roman Republic as well as Gibbon’s massive history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I must admit that the sheer length of time covered by the history of Rome is daunting and I am not certain how much I have retained from all of this reading. One lesson that I have taken from this reading in its totality is that institutions of government are much more fragile than they might appear. There are obvious parallels between the Roman Republic and the United States, and it is important to be aware of history to avoid repeating it.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Author: Daniel Silva
Year of publication: 2022
Length: 448 pages

I am not sure how Daniel Silva cranks out a new Gabriel Allon novel every year. His latest installment is the twenty-second in the series, and I have read all of them. These books are always fun reads which is probably whey they come out in summer.

An aging Gabriel Allon has retired as the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and has taken up residence in Venice to practice his craft of art restoration. Married to a much younger woman and with two children, Allon’s life settled into a fairly normal domestic pattern, but adventure called when his London art dealer friend needed assistance with a potential case of forged art.

Silva takes the reader through the world of London’s art society, New York hedge funds trading in masterpieces, and related adventures in the French countryside. Allon is very much left to his own resources and the help of his friends in this story, only using his connections at Mossad in minor ways. While some aspects of the story were predictable, the final outcome had a few surprises.

Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt

Author: Arthur Vanderbilt
Year of publication: 2001
Length: 544 pages

“If a man makes money, no matter how much, he finds a certain happiness in its possession, for in the desire to increase his business, he has a constant use for it. But the man who inherits it has none of this. The first satisfaction, and the greatest, that of building the foundation of a fortune, is denied him. He must labor, if he does labor, simply to add to an over-sufficiency.”

— William K. Vanderbilt, (1849-1920), p. 357

It is not often that a book changes my outlook on core beliefs. I still believe that leaving family members an inheritance is the right of every American and often can be an intelligent thing to do. However, I have more doubts about the wisdom of leaving family members large sums of money without equipping them to property handle the responsibility of such a legacy. 

When one tries to help future generations with material wealth, it is easy to create a stumbling block instead. Leaving money is not enough without also leaving the proper mindset. Everyone with assets to bequeath their heirs should read this book.

I wrote a longer review of Fortune’s Children in the August 6, 2022 Weekly Digest.

Dividend on Death

Author: Brett Halliday
Year of publication: 1939
Length: 210 pages

A few years ago, I was browsing a used bookstore and ran across old pulp fiction novels by Brett Halliday about an old school private detective named Michael Shayne. To say that these novels are politically incorrect doesn’t quite do justice to how Shayne did business during the 1930s through the 1960s. I’m not even sure how he functioned at all given the non-stop drinking from morning until late at night!

Dividend on Death is set in depression-era Miami and is the first novel in the series. Unfortunately, I do not have this book in pulp fiction paperback and read it on Kindle. If you can get one of the paperback originals, usually with a 20 or 25 cent cover price, I’d recommend buying it since reading the book in that format adds to its authenticity. Check your local used bookstore where they probably run about $3 each.

I imagine that these pulp fiction mysteries represented simple entertainment you could pick up at a newsstand on the way to catch a train. Cheap and simple entertainment in the pre-television era.

The Pioneers

Author: David McCullough
Year of Publication: 2019
Length: 352 pages

I ordered this book when it came out three years ago, but it sat on my shelf until David McCullough passed away in August. McCullough specialized in writing accounts of history for a general audience. Although derided by some in academia as a “popularizer” of history, isn’t the entire point of such books to enlighten ordinary citizens regarding the history of their country? That seems like a good thing to me.

Pioneers covers a series of events surrounding the settling of what was known as the “Northwest Territory” during the late eighteenth century. This was not the Pacific Northwest but the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Ohio River Valley was a wilderness in the 1780s, unknown to European settlers. McCullough tells the story of how the river was explored, settled, and developed over the subsequent half century. 

This story was unfamiliar to me prior to reading the book even though I have read many books covering other events that took place during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I thought that McCullough did a good job describing the conflict with Native Americans that was a major part of western expansion and sometimes is glossed over. We often think of pioneers as those who settled the “Wild West” later in the nineteenth century. But, if anything, the pioneers who settled the Ohio River Valley in the aftermath of the Revolution were made of even hardier stuff.


Author: Howard Green
Year of publication: 2018
Pages: 336

Last week, I wrote a book review of Railroader, a biography of railroad industry legend Hunter Harrison. Here is a link to the full review:

Review of Railroader by Howard Green

What I’ve Been Reading
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