Is American leadership ‘Adrift’?

The United States remains the central leader in one of the most economically dynamic periods the world has ever known. We lack an organizing principle and shared vision.

That’s the overall argument from Scott Galloway, the business-school professor and pundit, in Adrift, his 2022 book centered around 100 charts on economics, culture and life. It’s a thoughtful, fun and breezy read for heavy material. It reads a bit like a textbook for the digital age.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Where are the 5+ million prime age men missing from the workforce?

A small segment of men out earn everyone else, but that’s not the dominant story of the American economy of the last 50 years: Men are falling out of the economy.

Overall: Higher rates of education, a sprawling prison population and antisocial-like behavior (despair) seem to account for at least five million missing prime-age men from the workforce.

% of Prime Age Men Without Work

The unemployment rate as an indicator entirely misses the crisis of labor-force participation among prime age men — because waves of men aren’t even trying to get formal work anymore. It’s ignored for many reasons, one of which may be that it doesn’t fit a progressive priorities, so it’s largely been voiced by conservatives — with a few exceptions. This is not happening in any other rich country save for Italy; This needs to be an issue of national and bipartisan interest.

That’s the main theme of Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, a book by demographer Nicholas Eberstadt. The book was first published in 2016, though I read an updated pandemic version published in 2022 amid dramatic economic shifts.

I’ve backed into this sort of trend-reporting when I covered how tenure rates have changed over time, and I’ve come across Eberstadt’s work elsewhere. I took his new pandemic release asa reason to read his full work. It’s urgent and nuanced and interesting and important.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Limitless: the history and future of the Federal Reserve Bank

The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States has gone from a 30-year run as quiet and boring to one of the highest profile institutions in the world.

Its unique structure (its a central bank, but don’t call it that) and influential leadership (appointed leaders shaping the economy) bring it scrutiny, especially in a new era of “limitless” resources. Its history and future is the focus of Limitless: The Federal Reserve Takes on a New Age of Crisis, a 2023 book written by New York Times fed reporter (and Pittsburgh native) Jeanna Smialek.

The book’s final quarter features quite a bit of detail into the pandemic era machinations of fiscal policy, which will interest some but was too much for my interests. Still the overarching history and connective argument make it worth the read. Last year, I got but could not will myself through former Fed chair Ben Bernanke’s book on 21st Century Monetary Policy. In contrast, Smialek kept me engaged. The author is a regular on Marketplace, the popular public media business and economics radio show and podcast that I follow. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

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Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Irene Vallejo sought to learn more about the women who were erased from so much of history.

The result became a far wider history, her 2022 book Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World. Her pursuit became an allegory of books themselves: so powerful they make ideas last which means they can be co opted to shape history. As she put it, books resulted in “a fantastical increase in the life expectancy of ideas”

In some sense, they are the original “Google effect,” in which “we tend to remember better where information is kept than the information itself. The book, written in Italian and then translated by Charlotte Whittle, is beautiful and thorough. It’s full of quirks of history and a broad understanding of the project that is our modern set of knowledge.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Road to Serfdom

American style, lightly regulated democratic-capitalism so dominated the late 20th century that it’s easy to forget it was not destined to be. The form’s critics (and fans) can benefit from unwinding the tape.

Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) was among the chief architects of an ideology that resulted in that system, which gave us unprecedented growth and predictable inequality. With John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), Hayek outlined much of today’s economic thought, in part by inspiring economist Milton Friedman who influenced the so-called Reagan Revolution. That’s not to say the system is necessarily the best option, but it is worth remembering Hayek viewed himself in opposition to fascists.

Whatever your stance on it, Hayek’s book Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, is an influential of classic liberalism and modern American and western light-touch capitalism. That’s why he still catches the ire of those defending greater state intervention. Since it is so often referenced, I finally read the thing myself.

I share my notes for future reference below.

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Blue Ocean Strategy

Business case studies focus on companies. That’s all wrong. The more effective unit of assessment is the “strategic decision.” Companies change because people and external factors shift. Better to take specific moments to assess who, why and how did leadership get it right.

That’s the foundation of what most interests me about popular business book and concept Blue Ocean Strategy, written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The original 2005 book’s origins are with a 1997 article on “value innovation” in Harvard Business Review. I read the updated version published in 2015.

It’s easy to criticize the careerism of business books like these. Smart management researchers uncover some findings, group case studies and give it cute branding to sell books and lead to a career of consulting and public speaking. It all has a very packaged feel. Yet I have gotten genuine value from many such books once they’re put in the proper concept: Pick from them what helps you and don’t feel required to follow it all.

The big headline of the book is that too often when facing a strategic decision, leaders follow the pack because it feels safe. Their assessment says this is all wrong. Rather than a crowded “red ocean;” Distinguish yourself by turning to open “blue ocean.” In some sense, many other business metaphors — such as Jim Collins’s “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) and the “Queen Bee Role” and “making the donuts” — give similarly productive advice: Fall in love with the problem not the solution, and, rather than following everyone else, uncover what you’re the best in the world at.

The advice is good enough, though, that it can help. A friend advised me it was return to Blue Ocean Strategy. I read it, translated it into a mini-workshop my leadership team, and it helped push us forward at an important juncture.

You might rightly benefit too. Pick up a copy. For my future reference, I’ve shared my notes below.

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The End of The World is Just The Beginning: Peter Zeihan

The American-led global system has led to remarkable peace and prosperity — and it is ending.

After World War II, unwilling or unable to maintain a truly global empire of old, the Americans built up Allies, not colonies — which would have been the historic norm. This worked, allowing a truly low cost and safe international trading regime which was subsidized by the US Navy. Supply anywhere could meet demand anywhere — a truly impossible utopian dream. This made sense for the US until the end of the Cold War, and it was continued in the 1990s unipolar world but it isn’t necessary. The threat of a rising China, which is aging rapidly and is heavily reliant on the American led global system too, is overblown. Globalization is over, and it’s time to understand what’s next.

That’s the bulk of geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan, colorful, crisp and chilling book of realpolitik from last year: The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (He has cool maps and visuals here). Zeihan’s speciality is in geopolitics and demography but he writes with clarity and humor while still retaining a sense of authority. He has his critics but I appreciated his voice. I’ve enjoyed his lectures online.

He’s all about “Geography of Success,” how much where you live determines your outcomes. His view of “deglobization” means the end of large-scale farming and return of widespread famine, he argues, but he bets that North America will do well in the coming decades. Central to this premise is US disinterest. Rather than active US involvement that many found “distasteful,” we’ll move to US disinterest that many around the world will find “terrifying,” he argues.

“Recent decades have been the best time in human history, and we are never going back.”

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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935 Lies: what journalism learned from the War in Iraq

The Bush administration made 935 lies to extend the specious connection between the attacks of Sept. 11 and the American invasion of Iraq. So says longtime investigative journalist and journalism champion Charles Lewis in his reporting and 2014 book entitled “935 Lies.”

Lewis uses the book to champion the importance of investigative journalism, the role of journalists more generally and an engaged citizenry. Lewis is part of a class of journalists whose careers spanned the golden age of American journalism, when the business models worked and audience reach was an essential monopoly. That has all changed, yet his perspective is still welcome. The book is drier than I expected, but the mix professional memoir and treatise on journalism was full of insight.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Thomas Piketty’s Time for Socialism

Inequality is endemic to any capitalistic system. Unchecked over time, wealth will accrue to a set of financial winners. One of government’s chief responsibilities is to balance fairness with efficiency. Redistribution is thorny but it is a necessary component of the system.

The rich world debate on wealth and income inequality has been largely powered by Thomas Piketty, a leftist French economist that rose to global prominence with his surprise 2014 global bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He gave rise to the 1% vs. 99% framing. Since, he’s argued for more aggressive governmental intervention.

That case includes Time for Socialism, a collection published last year of his columns from 2016-2021. The collection read more like day-old bagels than I expected; It felt very much like an effort to capture the attention of Piketty’s .Still, there were points I found compelling. I’ve shared my notes from the collection below.

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The Emotional Life of a Toddler

Once my second kid started sleeping through the night, the most challenging part of raising two young kids became navigating my older kid’s emotional toddler stage.

For nearly two years after crossing six months old, I found our first kid to be a great listener. Then the tantrums and outbursts began. We know why. That toddler and pre-schooler stage is the height of emotional and social development. It’s tricky.

I find many parent social posters and expert books to be genuinely helpful. One of the classics of the genre is The Emotional Life of a Toddler, first published in 1993 by child psychologist and researcher Dr. Alicia Lieberman. I read the 2017 edition.

My notes below for future reference.

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