The Monopolists

The Book of the Week is “The Monopolists, Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game” by Mary Pilon, published in 2015.

A passionate believer in Henry George’s philosophy– a Georgist– invented a board game called “The Landlord’s Game” which she patented in January 1904. The game had two versions, one whose object was to win by generating a monopoly; the other, to win by generating wealth through free-market competition. The latter was accompanied by the philosophy (Georgism) that land belongs to everyone, so only real-property ownership should be taxed, not income from other sources. In those days, ownership of land was a major source of income, but there was only so much land to go around.

Another incarnation of the aforementioned game– the monopoly-creating version only– was played by hundreds of Quakers and university students across the country. They made modifications to the names on the board spaces and the various rules on property purchases, monetary distribution, jail, etc. People fashioned their own boards, pieces, cards and money.

Somehow, Atlantic City streets became a theme for the property names of the game version eventually sold by Parker Brothers. In Atlantic City, the streets physically represented the division of rich and poor people, while the game indicated which was which by their purchase prices.

Read the book to learn the details of how Parker Brothers came to own the intellectual-property rights to Monopoly (by fittingly using tactics of monopolists), and how those rights were contested in prolonged, grueling litigation.

Jim Henson, The Biography

The Book of the Week is “Jim Henson, the Biography” by Brian Jay Jones, published in 2013. This large volume describes the life of a super-successful puppeteer who brought innovation to the genre of puppetry.

Born in September 1936, Henson grew up alternately Mississippi and Maryland. He was best known for creating “Muppets”– a cross between puppets and marionettes. Henson took his time about finishing college at the University of Maryland studying set design. Initially, he thought he wanted to develop a behind-the-scenes career in theater. But he was an early adopter of the new medium of television and wanted to do puppet shows on it. In 1955, he made his Muppets TV debut with Jane, the woman who would later become his wife and bear his five children. He fell into a brilliant puppetry career instead.

Henson’s performances extended to the talk-show circuit, during which the early Muppet characters he created, lip-synched to songs and mimed comedic storylines. The skits would usually end with an explosion or one character’s eating another. Very quickly, he became a highly paid entertainer. In the summer of 1958, he went on a research expedition to Europe, where puppetry was much more popular than in the United States. Americans thought of puppet shows as appropriate mostly for children.

Despite Henson’s desire to become known as a respected puppeteer for audiences of all ages, he became famous for creating some major characters that appeared on a groundbreaking children’s TV show– Sesame Street. Nevertheless, the Muppets appeared in some forgettable skits for Saturday Night Live (SNL) in its first season. True story. Union rules required that SNL writers rather than Henson’s, compose said skits. The SNL people didn’t know the Muppets like Henson’s did. After several false starts and many rejections, Henson finally achieved one of his goals. In autumn 1976, a CBS affiliate in England finally gave the Muppets their first weekly TV series.

Read the book to learn of Henson’s cinematic successes and failures, his management style (or lack thereof), the key people in his organization, other major highlights of his career, his marital infidelity, and what transpired just as he was in the thick of difficult negotiations to sell his company to Disney. The reason for the difficulty was that “In show business in particular, where so much depends on the ruthless art of the deal, Jim’s generosity and genuine respect for talent… made for an unconventional way of doing business.”

Against the Grain

The Book of the Week is “Against the Grain” by Boris Yeltsin, published in 1990. This is the career memoir of the Soviet politician.

Born in 1931, Yeltsin always had a keen sense of justice that got him into trouble.  For, his country’s leadership ruled by fear, force and deferment to the head of state for ultimate authority on all matters, rather than (like in the U.S.) open discussion, checks and balances, and consensus more or less.

After graduating from university, he learned all twelve building trades– carpenter, plasterer, glazier, painter, etc. He then decided to put his management skills to work for the Soviet government in the 1970’s.

Yeltsin was First Party Secretary in Sverdlovsk for nineteen years. He started a chess club after Anatoly Karpov complained that there was none in his district. He also organized a local volleyball team, as that was his favorite sport. He built a road and improved the housing of the worst-off citizens there.

By the early 1980’s, the government of the U.S.S.R. had fallen into stagnation under a lack of strong leadership from Leonid Brezhnev.

Crooked backroom deals were the norm, as top government officials were resistant to sacrifice their lavish perks in order to serve their nation’s citizens. Such perks included use of a luxury dacha, a car and driver available 24/7, the highest level of medical expertise the country had to offer, and a variety of expensive foods that were unavailable to the general population. Even so, because all of these were actually State-owned, the top government official (Gorbachev) could confiscate any of them on a whim. Furthermore, Yeltsin wrote, “It had been drummed into everyone from kindergarten onward that we were supposed to thank the Party [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] for all our achievements.”

Gorbachev’s attempts to reform his nation’s government resulted in two linguistic terms that were tossed around for a decade or so:  glasnost and perestroika. Yeltsin had a strong desire to implement the policies they were supposed to represent. A sign that the former was working, was the unprecedented Moscow newspaper coverage of stories on vice and corruption among local politicians. However, it took some years for the author and others to engender the power struggle required to get the country moving again.

In June of 1988, the author delivered a government-conference speech that contained the following: “Clearly, we all need to master the rules of political discussion, to tolerate dissenting opinions as Lenin did; not to hang labels on people and not to regard them as heretics.”

Read the book to learn how the author came to hold different Moscow political positions while numerous government officials and organizations tried to discredit him and ruin his reputation; and of his proposals to improve the governance of the then-Soviet Union.

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue

The Book of the Week is “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” by Robert Klein, published in 1991. This is a compilation of the moments most memorable to the author during the first 25 years of his existence.

The author grew up in the Bronx in the 1940’s and 50’s. He attended P.S. 94 and DeWitt Clinton High School. His first college year was spent trying to fulfill his parents’ dream of having a doctor for a son. However, he possessed much greater talent in the performing arts.

In 1967, after he had been “discovered,” Klein, doing standup comedy, was mentored by Rodney Dangerfield at the Improvisation Club in Manhattan.

Read the book to learn of the author’s career success, of his many sexual encounters, and one during which “She wanted it from every conceivable position, and with such passion and ferocity that I feared the occupants of the adjacent room would call the police or an ambulance.”

Living History

The Book of the Week is “Living History” by Chaim Herzog, published in 1996. This autobiography describes the life of a Jew who participated in Palestine’s military and political life before, during and after its birth as the state of Israel.

Herzog’s father was named chief rabbi of Ireland in mid-1919.  As a teenager, the author chose to leave Ireland to attend school in Palestine. At that time, there were three competing, underground intelligence services in Palestine: the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Group.  The author joined the Haganah. His father was named chief rabbi of Palestine in 1937.

In 1938, the author started his undergraduate years in London, then studied law at Cambridge University. Upon graduating in 1941, he immediately volunteered for the British Army. As an intelligence officer, he interrogated German prisoners of war.

After the war, Herzog’s father helped orphaned children who had previously had a Jewish identity to move to Palestine, fighting against their conversions by the Catholic Church, which had hidden and taken care of them during the war. Herzog himself helped promote the settling of Jews in Palestine.

The author married Aura Eban, daughter of Abba. Originally from Egypt, she completed a special program that enabled her to join the Israeli diplomatic corps, then in its infancy. Herzog and his wife worked in the most dangerous areas of Jerusalem. During Israel’s war for independence, the enemies’ (Arabs’) terrorist car bombs were all the rage.

In 1949, truces were signed with Israel and its neighbors– Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria. The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization meant that “Any Arab politician who was visibly friendly toward Israel faced serious, often fatal, repercussions” from retaliatory terrorist attacks.

David Ben Gurion watched television in Oxford and “…decided it was the ruin of mankind.” That was why Israel’s people were unable to have a television in their homes until 1968.

In autumn 1984, after a new government was formed in the country, (according to the author) Prime Minister Shimon Peres performed an economic miracle.  He had reduced the inflation rate from 450% in July to 20% in October, via an agreement among the government, the trade unions and industrialists. The resulting 30% compensation decrease of the unions curbed unemployment and saved the economy. However, he still failed to achieve world peace. And cure cancer.

Read the book to learn of what transpired when the French were looking to withdraw troops from Algeria, of the Israeli government’s internal power struggles in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, of the political positions held by the author, and what he accomplished in each of them through the decades.

The Age of Turbulence

The Book of the Week is “The Age of Turbulence” by Alan Greenspan, published in 2007. This is a career memoir / global macroeconomics overview in one tome. Perhaps it should have been split into two books so as to be more comprehensive, as the author, in describing the recent economic affairs of India, Russia and China, failed to mention major factors in connection therewith; such as the caste system, Jeffrey Sachs’ advice to Boris Yeltsin, and a detailed description of China’s one-child policy.

Born in 1926, Greenspan studied business and finance at New York University after WWII. While there, he spent two months on freelance work doing economics research. It involved pencil, paper and a slide rule. These days, it would take minutes and involve software.

In August 1974, the author was appointed chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He cited President Nixon’s price and wage controls as an example of government action that leads to resistance from the market. The first quarter of 1976 saw the U.S. economy grow at 9.3% and the second quarter, at less than 2%. Greenspan was not alarmed by this kind of extreme swing; however, the slowing economy caused voters to choose Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford for president in 1976. During Carter’s term, economists learned that the way for a country to achieve long-term prosperity is to control inflation. The reason Carter caused financial havoc was that his economic goals contradicted each other.

In summer 1987, Greenspan became chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. In 1993, Bill Clinton chose to reduce the federal deficit rather than keep his campaign promises that necessitated increasing spending on various items. He could not afford to do both. The result was a budget surplus by 1998.

In late 1994, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve had to take action to prevent Mexico’s financial collapse. Otherwise, the southwestern states would be adversely affected, and immigrants coming into the U.S. would double.

In 1996, more and more households were exposing themselves to equity risks. Even so, introduction of the World Wide Web appears to have been an innovation that temporarily increased the economy’s ability to expand on an unusually grand scale. Approximately during the Web’s first decade, the economy wasn’t in a normal business cycle. The Web’s ability to make information available instantaneously, thus reducing uncertainty, provided a major boost to corporate America. The Fed, therefore, raised interest rates to curb inflation only in autumn 1998, what with the dire financial straits of the Russians, and hedge fund Long Term Capital Management’s bailout.

In the autumn of 2002, the Republicans turned a deaf ear to the author when he tried to tell them why it was important to rein in spending and renew the Budget Enforcement Act. He already had a difficult job, as he explained, “But too often we have to deal with incomplete and faulty data, unreasoning human fear, and inadequate legal clarity.” Nevertheless, Greenspan is optimistic about the future because the level of worldwide commerce and living standards can continue to rise indefinitely. He believes the presence of wholly competitive free markets and ever-improving technology are what drive them.

Read the book to learn about the two major elements required for a market economy and two others that are essential for growth and prosperity; the factors involved in predicting the health of the U.S. economy in 2030; three important influences on global growth; about the nature of economic populism, and much more.

Why Not Me?

The Book of the Week is “Why Not Me?” by Al Franken, published in 1999. This is a funny, imaginary account of what a presidential run and administration of Democrat Al Franken might look like.

The author created a composite parody of the sinful actions and behaviors in which presidential candidates and other politicians have engaged in recent decades. His (mock) diary revealed all. Warning:  there were some toilet jokes.

The very illegal activities included manufacture of drugs, assault, fraud, theft, prostitution, obstruction of justice, “dine-and-dash” from restaurants, defaulting on hotel bills, and interstate flight from New Hampshire and Iowa after committing some of said crimes.

Lesser wrongdoing included failure of the campaign to file timely or accurate financial disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission; the laundering of donations from insurance companies (campaign donors) via “royalty payments” for a book the candidate had authored;  influence peddling; patronage; lying in speeches; and “Dishonest conduct toward your wife and numerous girlfriends.”

Franken also failed to read his campaign manager’s memos in a timely manner. On a military issue, he wrote, “Gay military. All gay military (??). No…” One serious consideration he had was “goal [:] no wars during my administration.”

Read the book to learn of the candidate’s major hot-button issue, and the other, lesser issues he seized upon (which would be Republican proposals); of the trouble he had controlling his drunk brother; the underhanded, gay-related scheme he executed against his main opponent (Al Gore), and the aftermath of his election victory.

Caribbean Time Bomb

The Book of the Week is “Caribbean Time Bomb” by Robert Coram, published in 1993. This is a book on Antigua describing the Bird family’s dictatorship in the second half of the twentieth century.

Antigua’s history is largely similar to that of Haiti– an eastern Caribbean island with sugar plantations, dictators and generous financial aid from the United States to ward off overtures from nearby Communist Cuba.

In 1674, Antigua became a colony of Great Britain, whose military kept slave uprisings at bay. Abolitionism in 1834 saw the slaves freed but they had no where else to go, and needed jobs. Therefore, plantation owners got away with paying them slave wages, and didn’t have to feed, house and clothe them.

In 1951, the unions extracted major concessions from management, thanks to V.C. Bird. However, in 1968, he had his law enforcement team spray tear gas at protesting workers. Tim Hector, a journalist/activist/newspaper publisher educated the workers on what to do.

In the 1970’s, Antigua’s economy switched from one based on sugar plantations to that on tourism. The nation achieved independence in 1981, but there was still plenty of black-on-black violence and racial tension with wealthy white tourists.

In the next few decades, the country became a source of huge scandals perpetrated by the government, some of which were clandestinely aided and abetted by the CIA. It also harbored foreign-national white-collar criminals on the run. There was excessive money to be made in infrastructure projects whose planners (corrupt government workers) lined their own pockets with public funds and fed their own egos.  There was no shortage of greed, incompetence, criminality, cost overruns and delays.

Read the book to learn of the Sovereign Order of New Aragon, the would-be aristocracy of Antigua’s sister island of Redonda, the environmental destruction of it and its other sister island, Barbuda, plus the reasons the Birds were able to maintain their stranglehold on power in Antigua for so long, despite its unbelievably bad financial condition.