Tag Archives: current-events

A thriller that delivers both excitement and insight about the war in Afghanistan

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A review of The Shadow Patrol, by Alex Berenson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

 The cottage industry in spy thrillers encompasses a wide range of quality, from those that offer up cheap thrills with one-dimensional characters facing off in unreal circumstances to those, many fewer, that rise into the realm of literature, illuminating the human condition. The finest of the lot, such as Graham Greene and John Le Carre at their best, stand with other exemplars of modern fiction. Alex Berenson’s writing doesn’t quite measure up to them, but it comes close. His most recent novel about the adventures of soldier-spy John Wells, The Shadow Patrol, explores the tragic dimensions of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, from which no one leaves ennobled.

John Wells has left the CIA and his long-time love, his agency handler, Jennifer Exley, and is living in rural New Hampshire with Anne, a local cop. When his old CIA boss, Ellis Shafer, asks him to return to action in Afghanistan, where he spent so many years undercover inside Al Qaeda, Wells leaps at the chance. The agency’s Kabul station is in crisis. A Jordanian physician, having established a credible cover as an ally, has murdered the CIA’s top brass in the country by setting off a suicide vest. Now, in addition to the chaos that results when replacements for the top officials prove unequal to the task, reports have surfaced that the station has been penetrated by a Taliban mole. Wells’ assignment, to learn the identity of the mole, brings him and the CIA into conflict with the hierarchy of the Special Forces and eventually into a one-on-one test of wills with a Delta sniper who holds the key to the mole’s identity.

Returning years after his last visit to Afghanistan, Wells finds the country, the war, and the agency, all profoundly changed by the billions of U.S. dollars spread about the countryside and the years of unrelenting killing. Cynicism and greed have spread throughout the country like a virus.

When Wells checks into the CIA station in the capital, a senior officer tells him, “First off, understand the strategic situation’s a mess. We’re playing Whac-a-Mole here. First we had our guys in the east, and the south went to hell. Now we’ve moved everybody south, and the east is going to hell. And by the way, the south isn’t great either. This quote-unquote-government we’re working with, it’s beyond corrupt. Everything’s for sale. You want to be a cop? That’s a bribe. Five to ten grand, depending on the district. . . to become a patrolman. You want to be a district-level police chief? Twenty, thirty thousand. At the national level, the cabinet jobs are a quarter million and up.”

While there’s nothing in this monologue that we haven’t learned from news reports and the numerous nonfiction books about the war, this matter-of-fact informality drives home the point more clearly than any “objective” report could do. In fact, Alex Berenson was a New York Times reporter before he turned to full-time writing. As a reporter, he covered the occupation of Iraq, among other big stories, and he brings a reporter’s instinct for news and the value of obscure details to make a story come to light. In The Shadow Patrol, the intimate conversation and inner dialogue of American troops highlights the mind-numbing reality of war much more clearly than any nonfiction account could possibly do.

One of the most revealing passages in the book comes in the course of Wells’ conversation with the same CIA official who spoke of the corruption caused by the influx of U.S. dollars. Wells has asked “So how many officers do you have?”

“We’re close to full strength now. Six hundred in country.”

“Six hundred?”

“But you have to remember, only a few are case officers. More than two hundred handle security. Then we have the coms and IT guys, logistics and administrative . . . and the guys at the airfields, handling the drones. Fewer than forty ever get outside the wire to talk to the locals. Of those, most are working with Afghan security and intelligence forces. If you’re looking at guys recruiting sources on the ground, it’s maybe a dozen. . . . The security situation is impossible. Only the very best officers can work outside the wire without getting popped, and even then only for short stretches.”

This is today’s CIA.

Berenson has devoted significant effort to researching the agency, the reality of the war in Afghanistan, the heroin trade, the art of the sniper, and other elements in this clever and compelling story. The Shadow Patrol — the sixth in Berenson’s John Wells series — is a superb contemporary thriller that delivers both an exciting tale and down-to-earth reporting on the Afghanistan war.

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Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

A new biography serves up Jerry Brown, once over lightly

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A review of Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown, by Chuck McFadden

@@@ (3 out of 5)

If you wrote a novel about a guy like this, who was the son of a popular and successful governor; dated a rock star; married for the first time at age 67; twice served as governor of the country’s largest state, four decades apart; talked the voters of a notoriously anti-tax state into raising taxes substantially; ran for president three times; spent three years in a Catholic seminary, studied with Zen masters in Japan, and worked with Mother Teresa; and . . . well, you get the point. Would anyone believe this? No doubt they’d think you’d gone, as my British friends say, barking mad.

If, instead, you wrote a biography of this curious phenomenon, you’d need it to be a lot longer than a couple of hundred pages, right? And, of course, you’d need to spend days in face-to-face interviews with the guy, if only to get a solid sense of whether he’s for real. How could anyone possibly do justice to him otherwise? Well, Trailblazer is 248 pages long, one-third of them taken up with notes and other backmatter, and the author never managed to interview his subject. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Trailblazer, Chuck McFadden’s new biography from Berkeley’s University of California Press of the impossibly self-contradictory  Governor Moonbeam.

Don’t get me wrong: Trailblazer is a well-informed portrait of our Governor, written by a man who reported on his ups and downs for many years as a Sacramento political reporter for the Associated Press. As an introduction to Jerry Brown for anyone who doesn’t remember his early days in politics or is too young to do so, Trailblazer works. McFadden, now retired, retains numerous contacts among the working press in California, whom he quotes extensively in the pages of this book, adding considerable insight. His writing is clear, his understanding of the extraordinarily complex politics of this nation-state is impressive, and he brings the story of Jerry Brown up to the present moment. It’s just that a reader would have wished for something more — something new and fresh that a truly in-depth study of the man’s life and work might have brought to light.

If you know little or nothing about our second Governor Brown, you’ll learn that he has long been accustomed to being “the smartest guy in the room”; that, as a politician, the fundamental contradiction in his life is the give-and-take between idealism and pragmatism; that the women in his adult life, Linda Ronstadt in the 70s and his wife Anne Gust for the past two decades, have smoothed over the rough edges in his personality and brought a considerable measure of balance and stick-to-it-iveness to his conduct; and that he may well be one of the most skillful politicians this state has ever seen. Is this enough? You be the judge.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new strategy of the CIA

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A review of The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When Chou En-Lai, then #2 to Mao Tse-Tung, was asked for his perspective on the historical meaning of the French Revolution, he is said to have replied, “It’s too early to tell.”

As we’re beginning to understand now, George W. Bush engineered a revolution of a different sort in the misguided steps he took to “end terrorism” in the years following 9/11. The country’s military establishment gained trillions of dollars in new spending within a decade, and our intelligence agencies (16 of them at last count) mushroomed in size. Even more important, the White House profoundly changed the rules under which both the Pentagon and the CIA operated, layering onto an already bloated military-industrial complex additional hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to private companies, enabling the Pentagon to operate virtually at will, even in countries where the U.S. was not at war, and shifting the CIA’s strategy from gathering intelligence to “enhanced interrogation” to killing suspected terrorists — all without making changes in the Pentagon’s procurement policies to reflect the passing of the Cold War more than two decades ago.

In The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti sums up the situation as follows: “Prior to the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon did very little human spying, and the CIA was not officially permitted to kill. In the years since, each has done a great deal of both, and a military-intelligence complex has emerged to carry out the new American way of war.”

As Chou En-Lai would clearly agree, the long-term impact of these dramatic policy changes is impossible to see. Unmistakably, though, the values embodied in our Federal government changed under George W. Bush — and Barack Obama has continued on the same course into his second term, even stepping up the use of drones for targeted murder. This doesn’t bode well for a U.S. foreign and military policy supposedly grounded in humanistic assumptions.

Mark Mazzetti makes an important contribution to exploring the near-term consequences of one of these phenomena in The Way of the Knife, which dissects the massive shift in CIA priorities from the Clinton era to the Obama Administration. The “secret army” of the book’s subtitle is the CIA’s paramilitary capability that sends Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or, increasingly, mercenaries on secret missions around the world and uses drones to murder terrorist suspects. Mazzetti focuses much of his attention on the dysfunctional American relationship with Pakistan and to a lesser degree on the secret wars in Yemen and Somalia. However, he makes it clear that the U.S. is now conducting undeclared wars in a great many more countries — and hiding that information from the American public. “The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it,” Mazzetti writes. “But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations . . . “

In touching on the highlights of the CIA’s history from its founding after World War II to the present, Mazzetti reveals the agency’s schizophrenic attitude toward the use of calculated murder in its operations.

For many years, especially under the directorship of Allen Dulles in the 1950s, the CIA was little more than a reincarnation of its predecessor (where Dulles got his start), the OSS of “Wild Bill” Donovan. As we now know, the CIA was involved in overthrowing governments (Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, probably among others) and in frequent attempts to assassinate heads of state, including Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Nho Dinh Diem (South Vietnam), and Salvador Allende (Chile). When all this nefarious activity came to light in the 1970s in the landmark Senate hearings headed by Senator Frank Church, then-President Gerald Ford outlawed assassination and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which included most of the agency’s bad boys, was shackled by unsympathetic new directors named to clean up the mess.

By 2001, the OSS-inspired use of paramilitary operations and targeted killing that had dominated the CIA in its early years was ancient history to the new generation who had already advanced into positions of leadership. The radical course-shift demanded by the Bush White House turned the agency upside down again. And the dramatic expansion of the drone war by CIA director Leon Panetta (“the most influential CIA director since William Casey during the Reagan administration”) completed the transition of the agency into a paramilitary force.

The Way of the Knife is thoroughly researched and skillfully written by a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times. The book’s highlights include the protracted tales of several colorful figures caught up in the unfolding of the secret wars, including former top CIA official Dewey Clarridge, a Virginia horsewoman named Michele Ballarin, and several senior Pakistani intelligence operatives. If you’re interested in the ups and downs of the U.S. intelligence establishment, you’ll find this book just not essential reading but entertaining as well.

I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of other books on closely related topics in recent years. Among these are Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller here, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin here, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker here, and The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen hereTop Secret America is the most dramatic and most important of this lot.

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

The definitive study of Scientology, by a Pulitzer-winning journalist

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A review of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Introducing his controversial subject, Lawrence Wright reports that the Church of Scientology claims membership of 12 million, an assertion that has to be regarded as flimflammery. By contrast, “[a] survey of American religious affiliations compiled in the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. That’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”

Why, then, is Scientology such an object of fascination, not only to the American public but across much of Europe as well?

Obviously, the public’s unending worship of celebrity is a partial explanation, and Wright goes to the heart of this matter by devoting a large portion of Going Clear to the stories of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and others who pass as luminaries in Hollywood today. Throughout its 60-year history, the Church of Scientology has focused laser-like on public personalities that would help it gain wider public attention and recruit new members. Wright’s intensive treatment of the Oscar-winning scriptwriter and director Paul Haggis — a member of the church for 35 years — clearly illuminates this fixation on stars and stardom.

But celebrity alone can’t explain the enduring interest in what is, at best, a minor fringe religion, and a particularly kooky one at that. The church apparently possesses a multi-billion-dollar real estate portfolio, with properties scattered across the globe, and the organization generates annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. David Miscavige, who has been the undisputed leader of Scientology for a quarter-century and calls the shots at every turn, is thus for all intents and purposes a billionaire. Judging from what it costs the church to feed him and his wife, he lives like one, too.

Even so, what fascinates many of us about Scientology are not the halo of celebrity or the Church’s wealth. To me, at any rate, it’s the profound mystery how the Church could have survived so long despite the massive human rights abuses committed by its leaders for more than half a century. Among these are the frequent resort to physical abuse; involuntary confinement, sometimes for years on end; blackmail based on information revealed in Scientology’s equivalent of confession; child labor; and forced abortions when members of the Church’s equivalent of the priesthood, the Sea Org, become pregnant against Church policy. Though widely reported and documented in innumerable interviews and articles, these abuses are routinely denied by the Church — which tends to respond not with simple statements but, typically, with lawsuits. Scientology’s litigiousness is legendary.

The religion’s theology is equally mysterious. Leaked documents and reports by former Scientologists have revealed a litany of incomprehensible and preposterous tales that form the core of the church’s beliefs. The Founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was one of the most prolific writers of all time — Wright reports he is credited with having written more than 1,000 books — and was best known for his science fiction novels and stories. The theology of Scientology revolves around Hubbard’s claim that the universe is trillions of years old (not 13 billion, as scientists assert), and that the roots of humanity’s unhappiness lie in an incident 75 million years ago in the Galactic Federation. There, the evil overlord Xenu and his co-conspirators (mainly psychiatrists) “fed false information to the population to draw them into centers where Xenu’s troops could destroy them. ‘One of the mechanisms they used was to tell them to come in for an income-tax investigation,’ Hubbard related. ‘So in they went, and the troops started slaughtering them.'”

How nutty is that?

The simple truth is that L. Ron Hubbard was what I can only regard as a raving lunatic. A man who worked for years as his medical officer noted his “‘Paranoid personality. Delusions of grandeur. Pathological lying.'” All these traits are easy to see in Wright’s narrative, which reveals other disagreeable aspects of Hubbard’s behavior as well. He spent the last five years of his life in seclusion. “Fleeing subpoenas from three grand juries, and pursued by forty-eight lawsuits, all naming the founder, Hubbard slipped away from public view on Valentine’s Day, 1980.” And Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, though a very different person, clearly shares the Founder’s paranoia as well as his tendency to strike out violently at those around him. Hubbard was known to batter his first two wives, and Miscavige, a bodybuilder, has been frequently reported as beating his followers when displeased — hundreds of them, all told. For example, “Gale Irwin says she confronted him, and Miscavige knocked her to the ground with a flying tackle.” Later, Wright reports,  a Scientology executive “spoke up about the violence [and] was beaten by two of Miscavige’s assistants and made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue.”

This leads to the greatest mystery of all: why does no one complain? Oh, there are many former Scientologists who talk freely about all these matters, but literally thousands of others who continue to participate in the Church (by enrolling in courses that cost them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years). Wright finds the explanation in a simple core belief: “Scientologists are trained to believe that whatever happens to them is somehow their fault . . . The possibility that the leader of the church might be irrational or even insane was so taboo that no one could even think it, much less voice it aloud.” Wright elaborates: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.” This is what Wright terms “the prison of belief.” It’s a terrifying concept that conjures up memories of the self-deluding Germans who followed Hitler.

One of the most publicized incidents in the history of Scientology was the announcement by the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that it had restored the church’s tax-exemption (which had been removed in 1967). The reason for this IRS action, though undisclosed, was that Miscavige’s church had filed a total of some 2,500 lawsuits against the IRS and assigned private detectives to dig up embarrassing information about the private lives of many top IRS officials. In the face of this assault, which went on for years, consuming inordinate amounts of the government’s limited resources, the IRS caved when Miscavige agreed to drop all the lawsuits and remove the private investigators.

Wright makes it clear that the popular understanding of the IRS case — that the Church of Scientology wasn’t really a church — is in error. IRS staff had never been able to fashion a definition of religion that would exclude Scientology. After all, many, perhaps all other religions also make claims that non-believers find preposterous. I’m certain you and I could name at least a few.

Going Clear seals Lawrence Wright’s place as one of the preeminent nonfiction writers of our time. Just seven years ago his masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of Scientology. (I reviewed Inside Scientology not long ago.) Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

Iraq war heroes, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and Hollywood all meet in this funny new anti-war novel

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A review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Tending to squeamishness as I do, I don’t often read novels about war unless they’re written with a generous dose of humor. Oh, I’ll admit to having read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and a few other classics I remember less vividly, but that was all long ago. More recently, I’ve read and reviewed only Kill Anything That Moves, by Nick Turse, and The Outpost, by Jake Tapper. The war novels I truly cherish and have even been known to re-read are . . . well, anti-war novels, not to put too fine an edge on it. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richard Hooker’s MASH, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 are all dead serious, of course, but they’re also hilarious from time to time (and Catch-22 nearly nonstop so). I generally find it difficult to deal with the grim side of war without a little help.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fits very neatly into this latter category. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face to face with insurgents. It was no surprise to me when I learned after finishing the book that it had won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. It’s that good.

Billy Lynn is a certified, true-blue, red-blooded American hero, one of eight surviving soldiers in a ten-man squad that engaged a large band of Iraqi insurgents in a deadly firefight. One of the two lifers in the squad, a sergeant Billy idolized, was shot, then grabbed and dragged away by two insurgents. Witnessing this terrible scene, Billy instantly, unthinkingly, leapt into the line of fire, shot and killed the sergeant’s two captors while dodging a barrage of bullets, and then proceeded to kill many of the other enemy fighters with one hand while he tended to the gravely wounded man with his other, finally cradling him in his lap as he died.

Clearly, events like this, though uncommon, were not unheard-of in the Iraq war — but this show of heroism was unique: it was captured on video by a Fox News camera team embedded with a neighboring squad and quickly found its way onto every TV, computer, tablet, and smartphone in America. Suddenly, Billy and his squad — erroneously dubbed “Bravo Squad” by reporters — are national heroes. Two, including Billy, received Silver Stars (though Billy’s commanding officer had recommended him for the Medal of Honor). Donald Rumsfeld’s Army, never slow to notice the possibility of a PR coup, yanks the squad out of Iraq and puts them on a multi-city “Victory Tour” all across the United States. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk tells the tale of the last couple of days of the Bravos’ tour, as they rush through a series of grueling appearances on Thanksgiving Day — prior to returning to Iraq to complete the eleven months left on their tours of duty.

Much of the story revolves around Billy’s interaction with the folks at home, and here’s where Ben Fountain shows his stuff and lays bare his feelings: “All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms. Billy himself never noticed how fake it all is until he’d done time in a combat zone.”

Billy is nineteen years old, a native of small-town Stovall, Texas, and the rest of the Bravos hail from other towns throughout the broad sweep of the American South, from North Carolina to Arizona. They’re white, black, and brown. They’re real.

Ben Fountain has written one previous novel and a slew of short stories and nonfiction pieces for a long list of prestigious publications. He has won an arm’s length of awards for his literary work.

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Filed under Humor, Trade Fiction

If you own stock, invest in companies, or are starting a new business, read this book!

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A review of The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public, by Lynn Stout

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you so much as skim the business pages in a newspaper, there’s little doubt you’ve heard it said or seen it written that corporate officers and directors are required by law to maximize shareholder value and that they’re subject to lawsuits if their decisions favor any other stakeholder such as employees, customers, or suppliers over profit. The well-entrenched view that shareholders are paramount is widely regarded as the cornerstone of contemporary business law — and it’s flatly untrue.

In The Shareholder Value Myth, business law professor Lynn Stout proves this point, citing chapter and verse in court decisions going back more than a century. “So long as a board can claim its members honestly believe that what they’re doing is best for ‘the corporation in the long run,’ courts will not interfere with a disinterested board’s decisions — even decisions that reduce share price today.” Having laid the legal groundwork, Stout then proceeds to explain how this mistaken view of shareholder primacy is bad for business.

“Put bluntly,” she writes, “conventional shareholder value thinking is a mistake for most firms — and a big mistake at that. Shareholder value thinking causes corporate managers to focus myopically on short-term earnings reports at the expense of  long-term performance; discourages investment and innovation; harms employees, customers, and communities; and causes companies to indulge in reckless, sociopathic, and socially irresponsible behaviors.” Among the examples Stout cites is the Gulf oil spill, caused by excessive cost-cutting on the part of BP. “In trying to save $1 million a day by skimping on safety procedures at the Macondo well, BP cost its shareholders alone a hundred thousand times more, nearly $100 billion.” Q.E.D.

Stout deftly demonstrates that this irrational focus on shareholder value has been harmful in other ways as well. For example, “[b]etween 1997 and 2008, the number of companies listed on U.S. exchanges declined from 8,823 to only 5,401.” Of several factors that help explain this trend, shareholder primacy clearly stands out. Smart people know that there’s more to success in business than a rising stock price.

The origin of this misguided notion lies in the thinking of the so-called Chicago School of free-market economists best known through the work of the late Nobel Prize-winner Milton Friedman. Friedman had written a book in the 1960s that highlighted the idea, but it was his essay in 1970 in the New York Times Magazine that gained wide attention. There, he “argued that because shareholders ‘own’ the corporation, the only ‘social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.'” Stout argues that “shareholders do not, and cannot, own corporations . . . Corporations are independent legal entities that own themselves, just as human beings own themselves.” Shareholders merely own shares of stock that constitute a contract with the corporation to receive certain financial benefits.

They’re not in charge of the show, either. Some lawyers and economists writing after Friedman contended that  shareholders appoint the directors as their agents. This too, Stout contends, is mistaken. She devotes two chapters to prove that this description of shareholders as principals “mischaracterizes the actual legal and economic relationships among shareholders, directors, and executives in public companies . . . Moreover,” Stout writes, this assumes “that shareholders’ interests [are] purely financial,” when in fact shareholders may have any one of a great many different reasons for buying and holding shares in a company.

A fair portion of The Shareholder Value Myth is focused on analyzing the impact of several popular measures promoted by shareholder advocates, the SEC, and Congress over the past two decades: “de-staggering” boards, so that all directors may be removed at once; giving shareholders the right to circulate proxies to all other shareholders on issues of interest; and equity-based compensation. Ask yourself: How often have shareholders removed the entire membership of a corporate board with a single vote? And how often have shareholders of a public company — other than corporate raiders or hedge funds — successfully obtained proxies to overturn a corporate board policy? You can guess the answer to those questions. But the very worst impact of these efforts to strengthen the shareholders’ hand has come from the popularity of equity-based compensation. “In 1991, just before Congress amended the tax code to encourage stock performance-based pay, the average CEO of a large public company received compensation approximately 140 times that of the average employee. By 2003, the ratio was approximately 500 times.” That policy isn’t the only factor to account for this dramatic rise in the ratio, but it’s certainly a major one. And it only seems to work on the upside. How many times have you read about board decisions to lower a CEO’s pay in proportion to the decline in its stock price the past year? You probably know the answer to that one, too. 

The Shareholder Value Myth is an important contribution to a growing body of thought that seeks to re-conceive the role of the corporation in a more expansive manner commensurate with its growing importance in contemporary society.

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Filed under Business, Nonfiction

Top 10 trends shaping the future of publishing

By Johanna Vondeling   

1. Everyone’s a publisher

Now that digital content is popular and relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, millions of individuals and thousands of non-book-publishing media companies have leapt into the business of creating and distributing digital content (often coupled with print-on-demand options).[i] [ii] The near-elimination of barriers to entry into the publishing marketplace has produced an ever-increasing flood of information and entertainment options for consumers.[iii]

Moreover, publishers’ primary competition today isn’t other books, but rather other forms of media, such as social media platforms, games, and streaming media. As the presence and relevance of physical retail for books continues to decline, so too will the necessity for other entities — including authors and other content producers — to work with established legacy publishers to bring books to market.[iv]

2. Content comes first

All content producers now need to approach format as a secondary consideration. The innovators are designing work-flows that prioritize the development and (pre-publication) tagging of content irrespective of format, knowing that the eventual outputs could be infinite: Print book? E-book? Online course? Webinar? App? Blog? Tweet? Tagging must be “semantic” (tagged for meaning, not just coincidence of terms), to facilitate discoverability. Content producers must make it as easy as possible for content to be re-purposed by its curators and leveraged and shared by its marketers and distribution partners.

3. Content marketing is king

Content is still king. And content marketing (defined as “marketing without marketing, or building soft power and social gravity for a brand through shared values and interests”) is edging out traditional push-marketing practices. By disseminating great quality and immersive content through social platforms, content producers can market themselves without interrupting consumers with more explicit advertising.[v]

Content marketing facilitates reader engagement. Engagement, in turn, produces strong brand ties, leading to increased purchasing, product loyalty, and customer advocacy. But there is no standard definition or metric for engagement, nor do most organizations fully understand the migration from engagement to revenue. The challenges are 1) understanding what’s happening within the dynamic ecosystem of content and social media and 2) being able to make tactical changes to increase conversion and revenue.

4. Big data rules

The amount of data in our world has been exploding. Analyzing large data sets—so-called big data—has become a key basis of competition, driving growth and innovation. The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, and the rise of multimedia and social media, have all been fueling exponential growth in data.[vi] As a result, businesses now have broad and deep visibility into their stakeholders’ behaviors and values. But which information matters most? Big data offers promise in making sense of this complexity.

The few businesses that have successful migrated from print-first to digital-first models have invested significantly in building in-house data and analytics teams.[vii] While the growing importance of data analysts should not be under-estimated, the need for creative thinking in the changing world of marketing has never been greater. Note the rise in recruitment of ‘data scientists,’ who are savvy in computer science but – crucially – also able to apply creative thinking to data-driven challenges.

5. Mobile matters

The number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population in 2013.[viii] In 2012, mobile subscriptions in China surpassed 1 billion and mobile Web users overtook PC access to the web.[ix] Millions of people in developing countries may never own a book or a computer, but they do own a mobile phone.

To move forward in “mobile optimization” means content must be conceived of and designed explicitly for mobile devices. Every experience offered through digital channels – every web page, shopping cart and piece of rich content – must work well on any device in any location. Customers generally understand that concessions need to be made for the smaller screen, touchscreen input, and slower speed, but they won’t accept unnecessary hassle or delay. Apps are a part of today’s approach to mobile, but they are not a cure-all to this challenge, as use of the mobile web increases daily.[x]

6. The Internet is the classroom

The education industry is experiencing dramatic disruption. Profits and enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities in the United States are growing at a staggering rate.[xi] We’re witnessing the proliferation of “massive open online courses (“MOOCs”).[xii] Education start-ups are creating and offering online study groups, flashcards, lecture notes, and a wealth of other tools for free. Investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year.[xiii] And while digital textbooks have been slow to gain adoption, many education providers are turning away from print textbooks in favor of digital devices in classrooms and lecture halls. In response, some publishers are diving head-first into the growing business of online education.[xiv]

The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for containing the soaring costs that are driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It is also a potential boon to those displaced workers under pressure to become “life-long learners.” But this disruptive power also poses a potential existential threat to many physical universities and traditional textbook publishers.[xv]

7. Get used to strange bedfellows

Legacy industries, like book publishing, are realizing that they can’t go it alone if they hope to survive and thrive. Many are forming unlikely alliances or funding start-ups to help them adapt amid the present flux and strategize for the future. In 2012, Pearson bought Author Solutions, one of the leading providers of self-publishing services. In 2013, Pearson and Kaplan have both launched incubator programs to help vet and mentor education-tech start-ups. Macmillan has been aggressively investing a fund of over $100 million in ed-tech start-ups.[xvi] Other publishers are leveraging ties with other branded media platforms and content providers. Hyperion is selling its backlist and will focus exclusively on content tied to its sister companies Disney and ABC.[xvii] Wiley is distributing material from (former competitor) OpenStax College, an open-source platform that makes introductory college textbooks available as free downloads.[xviii]

8. Set up high-value networks

Platforms like Craigslist and eBay engage in “commons-creation” by establishing virtual spaces in which strangers can pool their ideas, sell products or services, and make social connections. The platforms that can provide real value gain users (and often revenue) quickly. We’re also witnessing a dramatic rise in the use digital personal assistants networks like Task Rabbit.

And Amazon successfully launched Audiobook Creation Exchange, a platform that connects freelance narrators of audio books with the owners of content who are looking to publish audio books. As workers experience less job security and turn increasingly to independent and task-based employment options, such platforms provide value by leveraging the sponsor’s “right of way” to create credible networks that connect people seeking products and services with those eager to provide them.

9. Crowdfunding has come of age

Digital crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Unbound, and Pubslush are proliferating, gaining both users and donors at a remarkable pace. Now, content curators can use these platforms to locate content that readers are attracted to and willing to pay for – before it is produced and distributed. Combined with the boom in self-publishing, this trend means more opportunities for cultural producers to identify content with proven market demand, and more ways to identify the hardcore fan base for a particular set of content, before making the decision to invest.[xix]

10. The means of production is going hyper-local

Paradoxically, globalization is both making it easier to purchase a product on the other side of the planet and moving the production of goods closer to the site of purchase. The emergence of “additive manufacturing” and 3-D printing holds the promise that individual creators and users can “make” anything in their own homes. Book and magazine publishers are printing closer to their customers through globally dispersed printing operations and print-on-demand programs. Espresso machines facilitate the printing of out-of-stock and self-published books in physical bookstores.[xx]

All these developments offer the opportunity to bring production closer to the customer, facilitating just-in-time sales and providing more sustainable alternatives to current distribution practices.

Johanna Vondeling is Vice President for Business Development at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 

Notes

i.         “Shatzkin: Soon, Most People Working in Publishing Won’t Be Working at Publishing Companies.” Digital Book World. March 19, 2013.

ii.         “Ecco, MLB Team Up for E-book Series.” Publishers Weekly. March 20, 2013.

iii.         “The Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing.” Steve Piersanti. March 6, 2012.

iv.         “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future.” Wired. March 19, 2013.

v.         Adobe/Econsultancy Quarterly 2013 Digital Intelligence Briefing. January, 2013.

vi.         “Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.” McKinsey Global Institute. March, 2011.

vii.         “The FT has ‘crossed over’ to become a digital business—but can anyone else replicate that feat?” paidContent. March 18, 2013.

viii.         Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017. February 6, 2013.

ix.         “2013: The year nothing but mobile matters for any business selling in China.” MobiThinking. December 20, 2012.

x.         Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017. February 6, 2013.

xi.         “The Rise of For-Profit Universities and Colleges.” University World News. July 15, 2012.

xii.         “Massive open online courses: Time and a little money are a worthy investment.” Financial Times. March 11, 2013.

xiii.         “The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

 xiv.         “Wiley Launches Digital Classroom, Video and Ebook E-Learning Site.” Digital Book World. March 19, 2013.

xv.         “The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

xvi.         Publishers Lunch. March 7, 2013.

xvii.        Publishers Lunch. March 7. 2013

xviii.        “Wiley, OpenStax Team on College Biology Textbook.” InformationWeek.com. March 11, 2013.

xix.         “Veronica Mars Lives again: Lessons from a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign.” paidContent. March 17, 2013.

xx.         “Just Press Print.” The Economist. February 12, 2010.

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My most-visited reviews

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than week or two, you’ve seen the pattern — that I typically post twice a week, including one nonfiction book and one novel. All told, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve produced a total of more than 250 book reviews out of 308 posts. Below, I’m listing the 10 most popular reviews in descending order of the number of visits. Six are nonfiction books and four are novels (including, uncharacteristically, one collection of short stories, which I tend to shun). 

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1. A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back. Written by the founder and former executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, who made a study of this topic for many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement came to the fore.

2. A review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. In telling the story of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and of the anti-semitic officials who headed the State Department, makes clear why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitler.

3. A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. A collection of five stories that span the time from Swedish detective Kurt Wallender’s rookie year on the police force to his retirement decades later. The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his many, complex psychological problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.

4. A review of The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Explores the racism rampant in America, and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, that dominated U.S. imperial policy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Focuses on the cruise of a U.S. battleship in 1905 carrying Secretary of War and Roosevelt’s “assistant president” William Howard Taft and a passel of Congressmen and Senators to extend the U.S. empire beyond the Philippines and onto the Asian mainland. 

5. A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham. If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.

6. A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books in English published so far in the 21st Century. Lays bare the ugly reality of the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration it brought about, exploring both how they came about and how deeply they wound communities of color in the United States.

7. A review of The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A timely and brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy. Dissects the mythology that lies at the heart of Right-Wing economic ideology in America today, making it unmistakably clear that the so-called “job creators” lionized by Republicans achieved their success not through rugged individualism but within a society in which government lent them support in dozens of crucial ways.

8. A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, the U.S., and Afghanistan. The compelling conclusion of a trilogy that tells the story of Leo Demidov, a member of Stalin’s secret police as a young man. Involves a central character who closely resembles the legendary African-American Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson.

9. A review of Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, & Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn. In this delightful and illuminating memoir, the celebrated singer-organizer provides the reader with a front-row seat on history from the vantage-point of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle) to the UMWA (the Mineworkers Union) to the recent nationwide campaign to end immigrant family detention.

10. A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. The latest installment in the running saga of hereditary earl and Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, picking up the tale after a long hiatus following the murder of his wife.

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Two wrenching views of the U.S. military at war, Part 2: Afghanistan

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A review of The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, by Jake Tapper

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

This is the second of two reviews of recent books that deal with the U.S. military at war. In a previous post, I reviewed Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse, which presents a dramatically different perspective on the subject by documenting the widespread atrocities committed by American troops four decades earlier.  

Christians are urged to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Difficult as that may be to believe in many circumstances, the distinction between action and actor seems to be the only way to reconcile honor and support for American troops at war with the horrific acts they so often commit overseas. One recent book, award-winning journalist Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, fastens our attention on the numberless atrocities carried out by the U.S. military in Vietnam directly as a result of policies handed down from the top (the White House and Joint Chiefs of Staff). Turse shows how the military’s racist emphasis on the “body count” led directly and inevitably to the routine and indiscriminate murder of civilians throughout Vietnam. Rank-and-file soldiers (“grunts,” non-coms, lieutenants, captains, majors, light colonels) had little choice but to either participate in the slaughter or stand silently by. Doubtless, some enjoyed the opportunities for cruelty, but the overwhelming majority assuredly did not. Because for all intents and purposes the atrocities weren’t their “fault,” we could still honor and support them no matter how much we despised their heedless leaders.

Writing from a totally different perspective — from the ground up rather than top down — Jake Tapper relates the story in The Outpost of the men (and very occasionally, the women) who cycled in and out of an isolated combat installation in northeastern Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. As in Kill Anything That Moves, we find soldiers in the field up to the rank of lieutenant colonel captives of policies set at much higher levels. They frequently display outstanding courage and suffer the deprivations of life in a harsh and hostile environment largely in silence, victims of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate decision to under-resource American forces in Afghanistan from the moment they invaded the country. However, the fatal decisions that sealed the fate of so many of the troops on the ground at what came to be named Combat Outpost Keating were a colonel’s decision to site the installation at what one visiting officer called the worst base location he’d ever seen and Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s insistence that the post not be closed until after he was reelected.

The story told in The Outpost relates the history of the Afghanistan war writ small. At its creation, Combat Outpost Keating was the northernmost U.S. installation in the country’s northeast, the first in the province of Nuristan, a historically and linguistically distinct enclave with a reputation for fierce hostility toward all outsiders. It was placed in an exceedingly vulnerable location in a valley, surrounded on three sides by steep mountains, against the advice of virtually every officer who viewed the site from the air. The colonel in command of U.S. forces in that region insisted on placing it there anyway, since it had easy access to a road that could be used to supply it, saving precious airborne resources. However, in short order it became clear that the road was both indefensible, because every convoy was ambushed by insurgents, and impassable by any vehicles with a wide wheelbase (such as Humvees). Only when one heroic officer was killed trying to prove to his superiors just how treacherous the road really was did the Army stop attempting to supply the outpost by truck. Nonetheless, the outpost itself remained where it was instead of being moved high up into the mountains (as the troops on the ground kept requesting), because no commanding officer wanted to cede territory on his watch. And the number of troops assigned there, which was inadequate to begin with, was gradually reduced because of the scarcity of military resources. Eventually, when a new unit came onto the base, a brilliant junior officer implemented the counterinsurgency policy associated with General Petraeus, managing to bring attacks on his troops to a halt for more than half a year. Then he was replaced by a soldier who was critical of the policy, reversed course, and saw his hostility to the local people returned in spades. Finally, orders came down to abandon the outpost, but spies among the Afghan soldiers living there reported the preparations to the Taliban. In short order, days before the planned evacuation date, several hundred mujahideen surrounded the 53 Americans, fought their way into the outpost, and succeeded in killing seven of them and wounding eleven. Only one of the Afghan soldiers chose to fight; all the others either fled or hid. The Taliban was only driven back by the heroism of the defenders — and the extravagant use of airpower, including Apache attack helicopters, A-10 warthogs, F-15 fighter jets, and even a B-1 bomber dropping 2,000-pound bombs. After a decent interval, the outpost was abandoned and bombed to smithereens by American planes.

Think about the broad strokes in that picture. Doesn’t it resemble the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a whole?

Clearly, Jake Tapper wrote The Outpost to honor the brave soldiers who were assigned there. He cites the name and rank of virtually every soldier whose actions are part of the four-year story — and there appear to be hundreds of them. For the major actors on the ground, chiefly sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, with a smattering of low-ranking non-coms, Tapper features extensive biographical information, sometimes including interviews with spouses. These soldiers rise fully formed from the pages of the book — real people, with self-doubts and passions and convictions all their own.

Tapper’s effort to convey a fully three-dimensional portrait of the soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Reading this book seems to convey about as accurate a picture of what life is like on the front line of the Afghanistan war as words might convey. The weakness lies in the use of so many individual names. In the course of the four years the outpost existed, four different units cycled in and out, each bringing its own cast of dozens of characters. It becomes tedious to follow all the individual stories because there is so much coming and going. To some degree, it’s easier to follow a few of the Afghan leaders in the nearby villages, because they generally stay where they are.

Tapper is a former White House correspondent for ABC News and is now an anchor and chief Washington correspondent for CNN.

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Is Jo Nesbo the world’s best crime novelist?

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A review of The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If Jo Nesbo isn’t the world’s best crime novelist, he’s certainly making a play for the top of the list. For what it’s worth, anyway, I haven’t read anyone better at the game. The Leopard, one of the later entries among the ten detective novels in Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, portrays the conflicted Norwegian homicide cop in the depth of his complexity, pursuing a fiendish serial killer from Norway to the Congo.

The Leopard opens in Hong Kong, where Harry has fled to drown himself in alcohol and heroin following his resignation from the Norwegian police. A serial killer he captured too late had upended his life by separating Harry from the woman he loves. However, a clever young detective from Oslo manages to track him down and persuade him to return with her because he is urgently needed to take on a new high-profile case, the murder of a member of the Norwegian Parliament. Harry consents only because the young detective tells him that his father is seriously ill and confined to a hospital.

The novel functions well on three levels: a suspenseful story of how Harry and his colleagues pursue a brilliant serial killer, uncovering surprises all along the way; an insightful character study of a man wrestling with more than his share of demons as he suffers through the illness and eventual death of his father; and a highly perceptive tale of internal politics within the Norwegian police, focusing on the high-stakes rivalry between two police units that the Ministry of Justice threatens to merge, effectively eliminating Harry’s department and ending his career. Somehow, Nesbo packs all this into a novel of moderate length, managing as well to dip into the Congolese civil wars that center on the trade in coltan (used in cellphones) and touch on the brutal colonial history of the Congo. The Leopard is extraordinarily rich in fascinating detail.

For all that he writes such superb detective novels, Jo Nesbo is also a prominent rock musician and an author of children’s books. (To date, he has written a total of 17 books.) Oh, and he earned a degree from the Norwegian School of Economics, worked as a stockbroker, and was also a top-notch soccer player until he broke his ankle.

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