Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, spent the last decade establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent antitrust thinkers. In the Master Switch and The Attention Merchants, Wu used a wide-angle lens to examine the implications of the rising information cartels on American business and society. In The Curse of Bigness, Wu takes a magnifying glass to industrial concentration and the economic and political dangers it creates. The book succinctly distills a generation of research into one easily digestible volume. In this The Curse of Bigness Review, I summarize the main argument that Tim Wu’s central arguments
The Fall of Wisconsin, a 2018 book by New Yorker’s Dan Kaufman, analyzes how conservatives utilized Dark Money, Gerrymandering, and Weak Democratic opposition to enact a radical and dangerous conservative agenda in Wisconsin. “(Their) devastating success has allowed for the transformation of Wisconsin into a laboratory for corporate interests and conservative activists,” Kaufman writes. Act 10 (rightly) receives the majority of the press, but it’s really one of many extreme changes the Republican Party brought to Wisconsin. In the last two years, the Republican-controlled Senate supported a bill to remove all of the state’s air-pollution regulations. This book review will outline Kaufman’s core thesis and help explain how three forces, Dark Money, Gerrymandering, and weak Democratic Opposition created a nightmare scenario.
Dark Money fueled the Fall of Wisconsin
The Citizen’s United decision effectively allowed corporations to launder political spending through non-profits. According to Issue One, a non-partisan campaign finance reform organization, just 15 groups have spent more than $600 million “in secret money” influencing our elections. In Wisconsin, no organization has been more potent than the Bradley Foundation. Initially established by a Milwaukee industrialist looking to avoid inheritance taxes, it initially focuses on area hospitals and universities. In the 1980s it transitioned into a weaponized conservative outlet—focusing on school vouchers, destroying unions, and promoting white supremacy masked in academic jargon. The foundation’s assets have ballooned to nearly $850 million.
The Bradley Foundation’s most significant success has been Act 10—legislation that stripped collective bargaining rights from the state’s public workers (except police and firefighters—two groups who were neutral or supported Walker’s initial election). The legislation kick-started massive teacher protests, which Walker later compared to ISIS. The effects have been devastating for the state’s educational system. According to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Act 10 resulted in a 30% drop in state granted education degrees resulting in 25 percent of school districts reporting an “extreme shortage” of qualified applicants. “Teaching,” current Governor-elect Tony Evers remarked at the time, “no longer considered an attractive career path.”
Perhaps the most insidious effect was villainizing teachers. The last thirty years left many Wisconsinites behind. Instead of asking “Why they no longer had health insurance,” people started asking “Why did teachers have it?” “A Wisconsin labor leader once told me that Act 10 succeeded,” said Kauffman. The leader’s answer is both telling and depressing. “Because Walker transformed the person who spent the day in a classroom teaching his child from “teacher” to “union member.”
Once in control over Wisconsin’s government, the Republican party launched a full-throated assault on voting rights in the state. They passed restrictive voter identification laws to suppress minority and student votes and cemented control by gerrymandering election boundaries. In the first election after the rigged voting maps, Republican received 175,000 fewer votes but ended the day with a 60-39 majority. This was a fundamental part of the Republican strategy. Restrict the rights of non-Republican voters, while reducing the impact of non-Republican votes. In 2018, after Governor Walker was surprisingly beaten by State Superintendent Tony Evers, Republicans began their second assault on Democracy and voting rights.
Weak democratic opposition
A portion of Republican success in the state is due to the Democratic party. Modern democrats had no interest in defending the average working person against the Republican onslaught. President Obama declined to even campaign in Wisconsin during the passage of the bill—creating a boom for Scott Walker. The book doesn’t dive into this, but in the mid-1990s, centrist Democrats began to move away from unions as a source of natural support. The transition started with Jimmy Carter but solidified itself after NAFTA. The logic was that for every union vote they lost, they’d make it up with the professional suburbs. Led by Bill Clinton, liberals began to abandon New Deal policies and adopt market “friendly” positions. The result was market deregulation and globalization—at the same time, Democrats reduced the welfare state. The result was two parties working against working people. This directly led to Donald Trump.
Should you read The Fall of Wisconsin?
The point of every review is basically, should I read this book? After I finished The Fall of Wisconsin, I would have said no. I didn’t really learn anything during it. However, I also live in Wisconsin and am active in Wisconsin politics. As I began writing my review, I realized that Kauffman did a solid job of distilling the state’s political revolution. If you don’t live here, you should absolutely read this book. The current state of Wisconsin is the nation’s fate if Progressives don’t start winning office and exterting political power.
In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson tries to explain why some ideas become popular and others fade away. It’s an important question and one facing every content creator in today’s hyper-competitive media landscape. Technology platforms like Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter have transformed media into a winner take’s all market. How does a new band break through on Spotify—when the top one percent of acts capture 80 percent of recorded music revenue? How can a television show break through hundreds of channels and streaming options? How can an unknown writer catch-on? Hit Makers claims to answer these questions. Unfortunately, Thompson fails to offer new insights to this question. Instead, Hit Makers is a book on how cultural hits are created, published in 2017, with arguments from 2010.
In July 1944, a little over a year before the end of WW2, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked tired and sick. Publicly, he was taking month-long rests under the guise of war planning. Privately, he was diagnosed with severe hypertension, heart disease, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis.
The stress of leading a nation at war, rehabilitating a depressed economy and a two pack a day cigarette habit had turned his heart into a time bomb. It wasn’t a question of “if”, but “when” FDR would succumb to a major stroke. Most insiders knew in the upcoming election, a Democratic vote for President was really a vote for the Vice President. It was under these conditions that FDR made a decision that transformed the next fifty years of American history. He removed Vice President Henry Wallace from the Presidential ticket.
Prior to the rise of Bernie Sanders, Henry Wallace was the last true Progressive leader to wield national power. A scientist farmer, and capable administrator, Wallace revolutionized American farming as the Secretary of Agriculture. He spearheaded the New Deal’s most revolutionary and innovative programs, fought concentrations of power, and transformed the Federal Government into a leading incubator of scientific research. He spoke openly about the need to end racial segregation, the benefits of international cooperation, and the importance of economic development. When Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing disease-resistant wheat–it’s estimated that the hybrid grain saved over 1 billion lives—he credited Wallace as his inspiration. He was also popular. At the time of FDR’s decision, a Gallop poll showed Wallace was overwhelming backed by Democratic voters. “Nationwide,” wrote biographers, John Culver and John Hyde, “Wallace’s support equaled the next three (Vice-Presidential) candidates’ combined.” The man who ultimately replaced him, Harry Truman, a generic Democratic Party loyalist, earned 2 percent.
The question is, why? Why did FDR drop Henry Wallace from the 1944 Presidential ticket? Why did FDR want Henry Wallace, the consummate New Dealer, with vast popularity, and support among key voting-blocs removed? It’s one of the greatest “what-ifs” in American history. Critics argue that Wallace’s sympathetic view towards the Soviet Union would have weakened American interests. Supporters argue he would have ended the Cold War before it started. I don’t think there will ever be a clear answer to this question, but I wanted to illuminate 8 key drivers.
With a scope wide as it is personal, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns paints a historical picture of one of the largest, but least reported events in the 21st century: the mass northern migration of African Americans.
Despite losing the Civil War, an open caste system remained in the South. Blacks were restricted in both their opportunities and possibilities. Most were relegated to sharecropping—in practice a form of pseudo-slavery. Voting was technically legal but practically unheard of. Lynchings were common. At the turn of the 20th century, 90% of African Americans lived in the south. By the end of the 1960s, roughly half called the North home.
In the thirty-some years since it fell, American analysis of the Soviet Union has been reduced to one sentiment: communism failed because capitalism is superior. Professional people—especially ones employed by media companies—spend an awful lot of time and energy attempting to rationalize its downfall through clichéd ideological arguments. They bring up the work of Hayek, stories about full grocery aisles, or simply argue that people are too self-interested for mass collectivism to work.
And yes, I understand and even agree with many of these arguments, but it’s also lazy. It’s like analyzing the most recent Super Bowl and concluding that the New England Patriots won because they wanted it more. In How Not To Network a Nation Benjamin Peters provides an exhaustive look at one of the functional problems that plagued the Soviet experiment: information.
I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen’s book about the invention of the steam engine, for two reasons, one of which was Bill Gates’ glowing recommendation. In his review, he raved about how Rosen was one of the first people to successfully argue that patent law had a large impact on innovation.
Since I am working on a project that looks at the impact of legal systems on innovation it only seemed natural. But I had a reservation. Not about the time period, I’d read a few books about the industrial revolution this year. It’s the simple fact that most books on innovation suck. They’re filled with bland platitudes and offer generic advice that is obvious to anyone with five years of business experience and a subscription to Harvard Business Review.
The New Deal, a seminal era in American history, saw government take an active role in promoting the welfare of the citizens. In The New Deal, journalist Michael Hiltzik, tells the story of the people, policies, and actions that shaped the nation.
Like many great companies, today the Falk Corporation is forgotten. At its height, it perfected the silicon chips of the industrial era. Falk designed and manufactured fat gears and thin gears, cheap gears and expensive gears, gears that could open the Panama Canal, and gears that fit on a small desk. It made gears for engines, dams, trains, conveyor belts, subway systems—any industry that needed to transfer power probably used Falk Gears.
There’s a good argument to be made that after a century of dominating the industrial era, it fell victim to the innovator’s dilemma. Falk’s corpse was sold for $295 million in 2005. Today it doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia page.
I began researching the Falk Corporation because I wanted to learn more about the innovation network of Silicon Valley. It may seem odd to research a defunct Milwaukee-based gear manufacturer for this, but it makes sense when you ponder the history. By every conceivable measure Silicon Valley is the epic center of modern innovation. The bulk of the software and algorithms that power the world are designed inside the 20 mile region. Its evolution is also fairly straightforward: government subsidies, elite education system, solid business support and infrastructure, etc. In the early 1900s, as crazy as it sounds, that innovation epic center may have been Milwaukee. The industry was industrial metal fabrication, and in a span of about twenty years 10-15 companies that would dominate the mid 1900s sprouted within few miles. Six came from a 3-4 block radius in what is now known as Walker’s Point: Pawling & Harnischfeger (cranes), Kearney & Trecker (milling), A.O. Smith (car frames), Allis Chambers (everything), Nordberg and Chain Belt (mining equipment).
That’s what set me down the Falk Corporation’s path. I was trying to discover why it came to be, and what it means for today’s world–specifically building an innovation based economy. Here’s a super annotated version of my notes on the early history of the Falk Corporation. They’re primarily derived from the Milwaukee Public Library’s vast resources and the work of Milwaukee historian John Gurda.
In 1946, over a decade before he became the architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara was hired to rehaul the Ford Motor Company. It was in desperate need of help. The iconic corporation was hemorrhaging about $9 million a month. McNamara, an accountant by training who rose to prominence by applying statistical methods to warfare planning, immediately transformed the culture.
Decisions were no longer made from the eye of a designer, or the experience of the line-worker. He immediately developed complex financial metrics to measure a product’s viability. Every penny spent in manufacturing, marketing, design, and engineering had to be justified and rationalized through this analysis. It shifted power from engineers to MBAs. Within three years he doubled the company’s profits. In Makers and Takers, Rana Foroohar argues that this was the end of American global automobile leadership. As crazy as it sounds, the question needs to be asked: Did modern finance destroy innovation?