Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2017

by Steven Brill (Random House 2015)

Did you think I had given up books because I had not posted in a while? Actually, I was slogging through this 455-page look at the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare–how it came into being, the fight to pass the bill, the disastrous launch, and all the pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy read by any means, but I came away with a better understanding of some basic truths.

First, America got off on the wrong foot with healthcare  in the 1940s, when the National War Labor Board’s ruling that benefits (including health insurance) were not subject to wage controls encouraged employers to offer workers health insurance, letting the government off the hook for either insuring or providing healthcare to its citizens. The fact that health benefits were not taxed exacerbated the effect of this ruling, which “would forever change the course of healthcare in the United States.”

Second, the ACA became law only because people made a lot of compromises that included giving up some of the most crucial aspects of the original plan, like including a public option. Some of these sacrificed items constituted broken promises to people, companies and industries that gave their support to reform.

Third, random events like Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s vacation, which ostensibly cost her the election (for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat), jeopardized the passage of the bill and necessitated still more compromises to appease reluctant Members of Congress and induce them to vote for it. Much of what transpired was due to pure chance.

Fourth, the ACA was designed to expand coverage to the uninsured, not to improve coverage for the majority who already had it. The framers of the ACA made a conscious decision not to tackle the obscene cost of healthcare in the United States compared with other developed countries. Their bill purported only to solve the problem of the millions of Americans who had no health insurance; it did not address the related problem of soaring costs. In this (increasing coverage) it has been fairly successful, but because costs continue to skyrocket, premiums are bound to reflect that. Provisions within the ACA ensured that billions of dollars in new business would accrue to the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical devices industry. Meanwhile, doctors and insurance companies (yes! because they, like the patients, have to pay the bills) were squeezed.

Fifth, the disastrous launch of the ACA, following years of delay writing the regulations needed to implement the law, could have been averted if the administration had managed the website build better, by making one person responsible for its success, by hiring more competent professionals to build it, and by thoroughly testing it prior to the actual launch (duh)–as the state of Kentucky did with its kynect exchange, which worked as expected because the extensive testing had uncovered the glitches before the launch, leaving time to fix them. As it was, when a group of Silicon Valley stars was brought in to rescue the federal exchange, they had to correct almost every detail of the website. It was embarrassing to read about how incompetent everyone else was.

In the final chapter, Brill proposes a way to fix the mess we are in by encouraging giant hospital chains to become insurers (or giant insurers to buy hospital chains). He points out that what at first glance seems like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse would actually work better because doctors and hospitals would be motivated to keep patients healthy, and not to over-treat them or order needless expensive tests. In fact, this was exactly why I loved Kaiser Permanente so much when I was a member. I trusted them to do the right thing because it was in their interest to do the right thing. This was especially true when I was pregnant, at a time when C-sections were becoming almost routine. I didn’t want a C-section, and I felt confident that my Kaiser doctor wouldn’t advise me to have one unless there was really no good alternative. Kaiser didn’t have its own hospital in the Washington, D.C. region (as it does in northern California, and as  does the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC], which insures its own patients–this was the example Brill provides of how his suggestion might play out), but as everyone probably knows, Kaiser doctors and nurse practitioners provide the vast majority of care that its members receive outside of a true hospital setting, in Kaiser centers around the region.

I think Brill’s view of the ACA is pretty balanced. He describes the good, the bad, and the ugly (and there is a lot of bad and ugly) objectively and fairly. The reader who makes it through to the end will come away with a much better understanding of how we got into this mess in the first place and why the ACA has met with such resistance. It’s a pretty depressing read, but it’s an important topic that we should all understand better.


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Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America

Posted by nliakos on September 1, 2017

by George Mahood (2016)

George Mahood publishes his own work, apparently; I can’t find any mention of a publisher anywhere. This may explain why this book cost only $2.99 (Kindle edition), and it was well worth it. It’s a travelogue by a young Britisher traveling around the United States (first with a boyhood friend, then with his girlfriend) in an old rattletrap of a Dodge Caravan (the eponymous Josephine). which breaks down frequently, requiring regular infusions of cash. It’s the usual compendium of encounters with surprisingly friendly folks, with the slight twist that it was written for a British audience, including little explanations like, “There was no real equivalent to the UK’s MOT test. . . .” Also, the subtitle implies that Mahood spent most of his time in small American towns; however, he actually visited quite a lot of tourist sights and national parks, which is not a bad thing; they just aren’t what I would call small-town America. But that’s not really a criticism, just an observation. I enjoyed reading about the national parks.

Mahood is very funny and I enjoyed his humorous descriptions of the many odd situations he and his friends found themselves in. And I liked the fact that he liked the U.S.A. He writes, “My travels across America had exceeded all of my expectations. Its cities were bigger, its mountains higher, roads straighter, rivers wider, lowlands sparser, buildings taller, lakes greater, winters colder, gas cheaper, portions larger, canyons grander, badlands badder, deserts desertier, desserts dessertier, taxis yellowier, Halloweens scarier, bears grizzlier, corn palaces cornier, ski slopes snowier, Brians greasier, prairie dogs dafter, walks hikier, bacon crispier, green salads beefier, park rangers speedier, mechanics wackier (and sometimes grease-you-up-and-screwier), crazy golf crazier, drive-thrus noisier, and its people friendlier than I could have ever possibly imagined.” (You just have to read the book to understand some of those references.)

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Posted by nliakos on August 11, 2017

by Margot Lee Shetterly (HarperCollins 2016, in various editions)

Like many others, I suppose, I was inspired to read this story of the women of color who worked for NASA , formerly NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), as human computers, beginning during World War II and continuing though the era of space flight until NASA’s mission and budget were curtailed by shifting priorities  and goals in the 1970s.  The film of the same name, which also dates from 2016, focused on the stories of three of these women: Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book also follows these women (although their close camaraderie may have been an invention of the film’s director), but it provides details about many others as well: Dorothy Hoover, Christine Darden, and others too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, no photographs were included, leading me to try to imagine the women as the actors who portrayed them in the film. Photographs surely exist (If I remember correctly, some were shown at the end of the film.) and would have been helpful in keeping the many characters straight in my mind.

But the book is so much more than the stories of the women of West Computing, the segregated pool where most of them began their careers as human calculators. It is also a history of NACA/NASA, a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent a history of the women’s rights movement. Shetterly also weaves in events from general American history to help us situate the events in the book in time.

The book helped me to learn about the extensive black middle class–the doctors, teachers, and other professionals who earned college and graduate degrees but who were shut out of professional careers around the country because of their race. They took the jobs that were available to them, staffing the nation’s segregated black colleges with some of the finest minds of the 20th century. Reading about this in an era when historically black colleges are struggling to survive, I am reminded of the double-edged sword of inclusion that has dealt a death blow to our women’s colleges, too. Plenty of leadership opportunities and other paths to academic and professional excellence were available to students of color in historically black colleges and to women in historically female ones. When they found themselves in integrated or co-ed settings, however, forced to compete with white males for those same opportunities, women sometimes found themselves taking a back seat to the men,  while black students sometimes found themselves criticized as trying to act white if they prioritized studying over sports or social life (which can happen to white students too, but that is another story.).  Once the rock stars of black academia (such as William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, the brilliant math professor who mentored Katherine Johnson when she was in college)  began to be wooed by traditionally white institutions, the black colleges could not compete, and they suffered a brain drain that impacted the quality of the instruction they could offer, making them less attractive to students of any color. Integration: a good thing, but with some negative consequences too. (Think also: the now-defunct Negro baseball league.)

I liked the book (though it was not as satisfying as the film, being about real life and historical facts and not designed to keep a reader on the edge of her seat), but I found some of the writing kind of overdone and pretentious.

Agonizingly typed and retyped on my Samsung tablet.  This keyboard drives me bonkers! I think I might be able to fix some of its problems in settings, but am not sure how. I type a word (say, ‘not’) and it auto-corrects to some non-existent word (e.g., ”nother”). Or it inserts spaces or letters willy-nilly, sentences into gobbledy-gook. Example in the previous sentence: I wrote “turning sentences…”. Why did it make up some crazy email address???

One thing I really miss about home is my laptop. Can’t wait to return to normal typing!

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Soul of the First Amendment

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

By Floyd Abrams (Yale University Press, 2017)

The complete text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But Floyd Abrams focuses his little book on the second part only–“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This, to Abrams, is the “soul” of the amendment.

Reading the book definitely helped me to understand what the first amendment does and does not do. It concerns what the government, specifically the Congress,  can and cannot do. It does not prevent private companies or citizens from repressing speech.

Abrams gives the reader some history–which framer advocated for what, and why. Some of them did not think it was necessary to explicitly prevent the government from infringing on free speech. Others disagreed. In the end, the reference to free speech and a free press were included; they might just as easily have been left out, and we would be a different country today. Yet for the first couple of hundred years of the republic, nobody paid much attention to the amendment, and freedom of expression was routinely curtailed and censored. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that case law began to develop based on the rights set down in this amendment. I had no idea that that was so, and I think probably few people do. (N.B., The history part was pretty dense and tough going for me; it isn’t written in legalese, but it’s challenging.)

Then there is a lengthy comparison of how freedom of expression and a free press are viewed by Americans and according to American law, as opposed to how they are viewed in Europe and in other democratic societies (very different). In other societies, other rights may take precedence over free speech, such as Europe’s right to be forgotten, which allows people to request that articles written about them be suppressed if they are no longer relevant, whatever that means, and the control over hate speech. It’s instructive to consider what happens when two or more essential human rights are in conflict with each other.

He nearly lost me in the final chapter, which deals with the infamous Citizens United decision, the one that opened the door to treating corporations as people who have the right to express themselves politically by donating enormous sums of money to political causes and candidates. Liberals such as I am have a kind of knee-jerk negative reaction to this Supreme Court decision, but Abrams argues the case that prevailed (he was actually one of the attorneys who argued it before the Supreme Court), and I admit that at times he was very convincing. It’s useful to consider the arguments on both sides.

(Painfully typed on my tablet in Karpenisi,  Evrytania, Greece)

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Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles Across America, One Story at a Time

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury USA 2017)

For some reason, I love reading first-person accounts of very long walks (very long bike rides appeal, too)–perhaps because I will never do one of these marathon walks (across the US, across France, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska…). This book fits right into this genre. Andrew Forsthoefel yearned to know how to become a true adult, and so he decided to set out walking from his home in eastern Pennsylvania with a sign that said “Walking to Listen”, hoping to meet people who could guide him on his journey to adulthood. He ended up in Los Angeles eleven months later, having understood that maturation is an ongoing thing, not one which we complete in any kind of recognizable way. The various men and women he encountered on his trek shared their stories with him (85 hours’ worth of recorded interviews), and he shares some of them with us. Partial transcripts from some of the interviews are shared between chapters, and other stories and guidance that he received are summarized.

Much of the book is devoted to the author’s experiences, his emotional ups and downs, his fears of the people he was about to meet (in every single case, until he met them and they turned out to be harmless/friendly/helpful/generous, and some of them became real friends), and the very real physical dangers he faced, such as the crossing of Death Valley.

He took three books along with him (Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman; The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran; and Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke). He quotes extensively from them, for they had many important lessons for him in their pages. He must have known these books very intimately after living with them for almost a year. After reading his book, I felt I knew those three books better too.

I enjoyed the book, like others of its genre.

(Excruciatingly created using the touchscreen of my Samsung tablet, while I am on vacation in Greece. I can’t figure out how to tag the post or categorize it; I guess I will have to do those things when I’m back home with my laptop. I’ve read reviews of the WordPress app for tablets and smartphones,  and they do not make me want to get it! Perhaps I should mention that I read the book on the tablet too, using my kindle app.)




Posted in Memoir, Travel | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Precious Bane

Posted by nliakos on July 12, 2017

by Mary Webb

I acquired a tablet recently, and the best thing about it is that I was able to install apps for both Nook and Kindle.  My Nook died a while back and I decided not to replace it, and although my second-hand, second-generation Kindle still works, the battery is weak and it doesn’t support a lot of the newer features e-readers have these days. With the tablet, I get access to the books I had on both of these devices, including this novel published in the 1930’s about a young woman living in rural England around 1812 (She refers to the Napoleonic Wars). Prudence Sarn lives with her parents and her older brother Gideon on a farm. She is “cursed” with a harelip, so everyone assumes that she will never be attractive to a young man or marry and raise a family, which makes her very sad. Some people go further and believe that she turns into a hare at night, or that she is a witch. But Prue is a good person, and she goes about her business, working hard to do her part in the household, until the day when Gideon stands up to their abusive father, which results in the father’s death from the fall, or a stroke. From that time on, Gideon becomes obsessed with becoming rich. He works his mother and sister as if they were slaves. He gets Prue to agree to this treatment and promises her that she will someday be a lady, living in a fine house in town, and that he will give her money to fix the harelip. Partly from sisterly obedience and partly from a desire to look prettier, Prue promises to work even harder than she already does, taking on many jobs that normally would be done by a man. In addition, Gideon decides that she should learn to read and write from a local “wizard” so that she can keep the books for the farm–a decision which will change everything.

But Prue has her own dreams. She falls hard for Kester Woodseaves, a traveling tailor, but she is too shy and mortified by her disfigurement to even let him see her. However, when the woman Gideon loves leaves the area to work as a dairymaid, Prue and Kester are assigned the task of writing the love letters between those two. Writing for her friend Jancis, Prue can say what she really feels to Kester, thinking he won’t realize it is she who is doing the writing. But Kester is cleverer than she thinks, and he is also capable of looking past her disfigured face to the character beneath. It’s a very satisfying love story. Love does conquer all!

The book is filled with interesting details about the culture of that time and place: a love-spinning, a bull-baiting, a funeral, a fair and a hiring fair are among the customs described by Prue, all in the dialect she would have spoken. Despite many words not found in a standard English dictionary today, a reader can generally figure out what she says (although I am still curious about ‘seestas’). The first time I read the book I listened to it on tape, which was a marvelous experience; I really wish I had it on CD! But reading it is also a great pleasure, even if it was the third time I read it.

Will Prue and Gideon each get in life what they truly deserve? You can bet on it! But the twists and turns of the story held my attention even though I knew how it turns out–a characteristic of a classic that pleases the reader over and over again. Yet most of my reading friends have never heard of the book. It is worth seeking out (and inexpensive to purchase, due to its age).

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I Am No One

Posted by nliakos on June 28, 2017

by Patrick Flanery (Tim Duggan Books 2016)

I have never read a novel quite like this one. It is written in the first person; the narrator, Professor of 20th century German history Jeremy O’Keefe, is ostensibly telling the story of how he got to now (in longhand), including his belief that he is the object of (probably U.S.) surveillance (or is he losing his mind, as his daughter and son-in-law seem to think?). Someone (is it the young man he keeps bumping into, Michael Ramsey, who claims to have been his student more than a decade before, but whom he cannot remember?) has been sending him boxes of documents about himself: his web browsing history, past emails, bank records, etc. Why? Is it some kind of psychological torture, or is someone trying to warn him that he is under surveillance? He suspects that his affair with a former student during a ten-year period when he taught at Oxford University in England, which resulted in a child, is the reason he is being watched: his lover’s brother has ties to the Islamic State, and money he is sending her for his son’s support could be ending up in the hands of the brother (and the terrorist organization). But he insists that he is no one of interest to the government; he is only trying to do the right thing by the child he fathered, something he is both ashamed of and thrilled by. The specter of madness pursues him throughout the novel: is the man who is watching his apartment Michael Ramsey or someone else? Did he cancel that appointment with his student and then forget he had canceled it, or did someone else somehow send the email canceling the appointment from his account? How can he get his daughter and her husband (whom he does not trust) to believe his version of the strange events that keep happening to him?  Does Michael Ramsey wish him well or ill? The reader is kept in suspense, along with Jeremy himself, right up to the final pages of the novel. In fact, the ending was somewhat of a letdown for this reader (but I won’t spoil the story any more than I already have by revealing how it ends).

Flanery’s writing is elegant and skillful, but he has some real doozies of long sentences, like this one on pgs. 120-121: What is crazy is to imagine we are living private lives, or that a private life is a possibility any longer, and this is not just true for those of us who are living out our sentence in the developed world, but anyone anywhere, except perhaps those hidden underground, for the satellites we have launched into space and the aircraft, manned and unmanned, patrolling the air above the earth, gaze down upon us, producing finely detailed images of all our lives, watching us, or perhaps you could say we are merely watching ourselves, or at least the governments we allow to remain in power are watching us on our own behalf, as well as the corporations who do so only for their own behalf, even as they insist on the public service they claim to provide, and which we use, often for free, spending nothing to look at satellite images of our neighbors’ own backyards and roof terraces or street views of their front windows and doors, trading this free access to all knowledge of the world for the recording by such corporations of the habits of our activity and making ourselves susceptible not only to the collecting of this data and its potential monetization, that is to say its sale to other entities collecting their own kinds of data about us, but also to be bombarded with advertising that, however much we may struggle against it, inserts its messages deep into our thoughts, influencing us one way or another, even though I insist I am not receptive to advertisements for fast food establishments where I haven’t set foot since I was in my teens but nonetheless, and despite the fact I no longer eat meat, I look at those burgers and have to struggle against the desire their images produce.

Reading this 301-word sentence made me slightly queasy. I felt as though I were tottering on a tightrope, almost falling off at times as I attempted to follow the logic of the many  (uncounted) clauses. This one sentence contains a paragraph’s worth of thoughts about our loss of privacy and our apparent acceptance of this loss. Copying it down here, I realize that it does somehow hold together logically, describing as it does “the post-Snowden culture of surveillance” (Teddy Wayne, in a blurb on the back cover). I confess that I, too, have traded my privacy for the right to explore the Internet for free. I have justified my willingness to expose myself in emails (knowing that an email is no more private than a postcard) and on social media for the pleasure of feeling connected with friends, family, and others around the world by reassuring myself that no one would be interested in anything I write or post. I have an ordinary, even a boring (to other people anyway), life. As Jeremy O’Keefe puts it: I am no one. Why should anyone bother with surveilling me? This novel forces me to realize that interesting or not, my life is (or could be) an open book to someone with the capacity and the interest in reading it.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2017

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014)

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. I practically inhaled it over several days. I was completely caught up in the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, the gifted German boy, set before, during, and after the Second World War. All of the characters, including Marie-Laure’s father and her great-uncle Etienne, who suffered from extreme anxiety or agoraphobia; Madame Manec, who worked for Etienne and cared for Marie-Laure as long as she could; Werner’s sister Jutta, who always knew what was right; Frau Elena, the kind and courageous director of the orphanage where Werner and Jutta grew up; Frank Volkheimer, the giant boy-man from the Hitler Youth School who served with Werner; even Von Rumpel, the German officer desperately seeking the legendary diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which he believes will save him from the cancer that has riddled his body–all of them are memorable and believable.

The chapters, arranged in fourteen sections, are extremely short, some as short as a page, few longer than three. They alternate among the characters, primarily Marie-Laure and Werner, but some of the others as well, from time to time. The time frame lurches back and forth: August 7, 1944; 1934;  November 1939; August 8, 1944; June 1940; back to August 8, 1944; and so on, ending in 1974 and then 2014 as we learn what happened to these characters whom we have bonded with. With Werner and Marie-Laure, we suffer through the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Sometimes you have to destroy something to liberate it.

Through it all, the cursed diamond holds the story of all these diverse characters, times, and places together, like a character in and of itself. A terrific read!


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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on June 2, 2017

by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books 2014)

This is the companion book to the PBS/BBC collaborative series of the same name. I missed that back in 2014, but I’m inspired to watch it now, because the book was really interesting. It shows, for example, how the discovery of the special properties of silicon dioxide led to the invention of window glass, eyeglasses, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, fiberglass, even the World Wide Web. Johnson writes that when we snap a selfie and upload it to the Internet, we usually don’t think of “the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures with glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.”

And that’s just Chapter 1! In addition to Glass, Johnson has chapters dedicated to Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light.  In each chapter, he follows the development of concepts and technologies related to the theme. He explains how most new technologies are invented by several people working at similar times (“in clusters of simultaneous discovery”), and that inventions are developed on the backs of previous ones.  He discusses the concept of the adjacent possible, a kind of discovery zone of possibilities that is normally present when an innovation is being incubated; without it, the innovation would be unthinkable. And he connects the dots to show us how each innovation clears the way for further innovations, like how solving the problems of waste disposal and clean water made possible the existence of mega-cities (which are not necessarily a good thing, but that’s another issue).

In the final chapter, “The Time Travelers”, Johnson introduces us to some exceptions to the ideas of simultaneous inventions and the adjacent possible: Charles Babbage, who essentially invented the computer in the 19th century, and his younger friend Ada Lovelace, who saw in Babbage’s invention the possibility of its uses beyond mathematics. Johnson writes in awe, “To have this imaginative leap in the middle of the nineteenth century is almost beyond comprehension. It was hard enough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of programmable computers–almost all of Babbage’s contemporaries failed to grasp what he had invented–but somehow, Ada was able to take the concept one step further, to the idea that this machine might also conjure up language and art. That one footnote opened up a conceptual space that would eventually be occupied by so much of early twenty-first-century culture: Google queries, electronic music, iTunes, hypertext. The computer would not just be an unusually flexible calculator; it would be an expressive, representational, even aesthetic machine.” Then he points out that when the time was finally ripe for this to actually happen, no one would remember either Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Lovelace’s vision of how it might be used, and they had to be re-invented by others.

A fascinating book for both science and history buffs! I am looking forward to watching the series.

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GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History

Posted by nliakos on May 14, 2017

by Diane Coyle (Princeton University Press 2014)

I have never studied economics, if you don’t count a MOOC I did a couple of years back with Dan Ariely (but behavioral economics seems more like psychology than economics). So I am one of those people clueless about the difference between GNP and GDP. I had never heard of things like FISIM (financial intermediation services indirectly measured), the ISEW (Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare), an IBSC (imputed bank service charge), the SEEA (System of Environmental Economic Accounting), or the SNA (System of National Accounts). In fact, I had never even heard of “national accounts”. I didn’t know what the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) was, for heavens’ sake.  So although this little book was written for non-economists, I still found it slow going, and at the end I can’t say that I understood very much or very well.

But my takeaway is this: GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a way of calculating the amount of production of tangible items (like steel or cars or rice or TV sets) that was invented (or revised) during the Second World War. Economists do not all agree on how to calculate it. In any case, its accuracy depends on the completeness and accuracy of the data used to calculate it, and often, especially in the developing world, complete and accurate data are just not available, so the resulting GDP figures are suspect. (In a section entitled “Is Africa Poor?”, Coyle gives the example of Ghana, which was suddenly transformed from a low-income nation into a low-middle-income nation in November 2010, simply because Ghana’s statistical agency had updated its calculation of the price index, increasing GDP by 60 percent [but changing nothing about the economic reality of the country].)  So we should take GDP figures with a large grain of salt.

Another reason to consider GDP with suspicion is that it is concerned only with material output (i.e., “goods”), and not at all with services. In today’s developed economies, the service sector is huge. Yet there is simply no good way to measure the productivity of government or other office workers, artists, teachers, doctors, scientists, restaurant servers, X-ray techs or hotel clerks. Moreover, GDP does not take into account sustainability, innovation, variety, global production chains, or “intangibles” (such as the volunteer efforts which create and constantly improve Wikipedia or Linux), and it does not take variations in quality into account.

And perhaps we shouldn’t give so much importance to GDP anyway, as opposed to measures of well-being (“welfare”). Think of the catastrophe that was the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when poor Chinese peasants stopped farming in order to produce steel, and millions starved. And the steel wasn’t even usable. Isn’t our satisfaction with our lives more important than the number of widgets we produce?

But Coyle stops short of suggesting we get rid of GDP. She points out that there is no viable alternative to it for measuring economic growth. In addition, GDP growth appears to be linked to increased social welfare, even though they are separate concepts. She thinks we should supplement GDP with other indicators (she particularly feels that we need to develop a way to measure sustainability), find a way to measure unpaid household work and “the informal economy”, and modernize the way we collect the statistics used in calculating GDP, among other recommendations. As many nations tilt away from physical output to service economies, the very concept of “economy” is changing and needs a new definition. Until that happens, GDP will continue to be a significant part of how people evaluate the economies of the world.

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