Saturday, September 12, 2009

What I've Been Reading

1. Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Road Trip
This is the sequel to Investment Biker where Jim Rogers went around the world in 1990 on his motorcycle, but this time in a custom built Mercedes towing a trailer. I remember being amused when it leaks out partway through the book that a camera crew follows him this time.

The book is really light on investing ideas and heavy on travelogue minutia: how many triple-green stamps it took to cross such-and-such border. I can't think of a single investing idea I got from this book, and I can usually find them in the most unlikely sources.

Also, there is a boring deus ex machina element because he is so rich. No need for an explorer to plan ahead and husband his resources if he's a centimillionaire. He talks a good game about the dangers of traveling around the world in a flashy yellow Mercedes, but I'll bet he had a helicopter gunship of Blackwater mercenaries on speed dial.

Another problem with Rogers is that he has no concept of a nation, meaning a group of people sharing a common culture and ethnic origin. Unemployment in Greece means the next generation can't afford to have kids? Just make up the difference with hard-working Somalis. It's what you would expect from a person who could go three years at a time away from family and friends: rootless.

One interesting theme in common with the next two books on this week's list: corruption.

2. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
One reason (of many) that the Soviet Union failed was endemic dishonesty, even within the government. One atomic scientist was afraid to tell people, even his wife, about the danger from fallout and the precautions that needed to be taken. When he summoned the courage to call people, eavesdropping thugs would disconnect his conversations.

Also sad is the damage this accident did to nuclear power, which has the potential to be extremely safe and clean. This is not discussed in the book, but coal plants, which we use instead of nuclear, release a ferocious amount of mercury into the air. Coal also contains uranium and decay products such as radon, and ironically, coal plants release more radiation into the environment than nuclear plants.

3. The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War
All the people who say that the U.S. government would never conspire to organize a false flag attack, or publish deliberately false economic data, or that they couldn't keep it secret, should read this book.

There were 18 unfortunate people who went to the wrong hospitals at the wrong times in the 1940s were injected with plutonium by doctors. 829 expectant mothers were given drinks containing radioactive isotopes of iron at the Vanderbilt University Hospital. (A class action lawsuit was settled in 1998 with Vanderbilt and the Rockefeller Foundation paying $10 million.) 74 boys were fed radioactive iron and calcium mixed into milk and oatmeal between 1946 and 1953. 131 men in the Oregon and Washington state prison systems had their testicles exposed to as much as 600 rads of radiation between 1963 and 1971.

Fifty years before Chernobyl, engineers at the federal Hanford Nuclear Reservation refused to reveal dangerous levels of radiation discovered in the Columbia River "until reasonable solutions to these problems are available."

All of this was kept secret for decades, long enough to ensure that no one was ever prosecuted for these assaults.

4. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction
Schumpeter is famous for the phrase "creative destruction," the process whereby invincible companies are eventually undone by entrepreneurs with new methods and technologies.

One thing you can say - not favorably - about Bush/Obama economic policy is the general prohibition on any kind of creative destruction. Your business failed (GM, Chrysler)? How many votes do you have? Your business was a scam (AIG)? Do you owe money to anyone important?

Creative destruction parallels the broken window fallacy - the tragedy of the unseen - what companies would spring up if these wrecks weren't being propped up. And what we could invest the money in besides propping them up.

Schumpeter is marginalized as an economist. I think this is partly because of his modesty and partly because his ideas are not convenient for crooked politicians à la Keynesian-ism. You can't use his economics to justify building a bridge to nowhere.

All the same at almost 600 pages, it was more than I really cared to know about Schumpeter. I recommend soaking up Austrian economic ideas at Lew Rockwell.

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