Christmas Reading
Some recommendations for the holiday season.


Thomas Sowell

One way to reduce the wear and tear of Christmas shopping at the mall is to give books as presents. Books can be bought on the Internet, and they can be matched to the person who receives them without having to know that person’s measurements.

Dick Morris’s new book, Catastrophe, is an education in itself, on politics, on economics, and on foreign policy. It is a strong antidote to the pious rhetoric and spin that come out of Washington and the media. Partly this is because Morris was once a Beltway insider — an adviser to Pres. Bill Clinton — who knows firsthand the ugly realities behind the pretty words that politicians use and that much of the media repeat.

Morris’s argument in Catastrophe – whose title tells us where he sees us headed — is backed up by numerous hard facts and supported by an understanding of history and economics. Most of all, it is supported by an understanding of politics as it is, rather than the way it is depicted by politicians and the media.

Morris can also cut through a blizzard of political spin with a few plain words. In describing Barack Obama’s economic policies, Morris says simply: “Curing the recession was not his end; it was his means to the end. The end was bigger government.” Obama’s actions often make no sense if you believe Obama’s words, but they do make sense if you follow Morris’s analysis.

A revised edition of Angelo Codevilla’s classic book The Character of Nations has been published this year, and it too is an education in itself. The Character of Nations is less focused on immediate domestic political issues — though it does analyze the contrasting responses of the intelligentsia to Sarah Palin and Barack Obama — and more focused on the underlying cultural developments that affect how nations work — or don’t work.

The very title of The Character of Nations is a challenge to the prevailing ideology that denies or downplays underlying differences among individuals, groups, and nations. There are many examples of these differences. For example, Professor Codevilla says: “While it is unimaginable to do business in China without paying bribes, to offer one in Japan is the greatest faux pas.”

He sees the things that are valued differently in different cultures as the key to everything from economic progress to personal freedom. But these values are not set in stone — which means countries that currently benefit from a given set of values can lose those benefits when they lose those values.

Codevilla says: “The reason why inhabitants of the First World should keep the Third World in mind is that habits prevalent in the countries that became known as the Third World are a set of human possibilities that any people anywhere can adopt at any time. As Argentina showed in the Twentieth Century, falling from the First World to the Third can be easy and quick.”

Another revised and very valuable book is Choosing the Right College, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. This latest edition is once again by far the best college guide in America. Like many of us, it has put on weight over the years — it is now 1,084 pages long — but its weight is all muscle.

First of all, Choosing the Right College asks the right question: What is the right college for you, not what is the “best” college by some formula for ranking colleges and universities. In addition to a very thorough examination of the academic realities at these institutions, it goes into the social atmosphere, which can make or break the whole college experience in terms of what is right for a particular student.

College is, after all, not just a school but a home, for four long years — usually for people who are living away from home for the first time in their lives. Being in the wrong place, in terms of neighbors and atmosphere, can ruin the academic advantages of even the best institution. This book helps match particular students with particular places, which is what is crucial.

My own books published this year include The Housing Boom and Bust, which made the New York Times bestseller list.

Another book of mine this year was the revised and enlarged edition of Applied Economics, which has a long chapter on the economics of medical care, including the experience of other countries that have gone down the road to government control of medicine. Their experience should be a warning to us all.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2009 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


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