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Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

Entries in economics (9)

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed / Turning Points in Ancient History - Eric H. Cline (2014)

1177 BC : The Year Civilization Collpsed - Eric Cline

Ancient history has been affecting something of a revival of interest in the last 30 years, not only because of it's rich heritage of story which is often converted to popular media (via Hollywood), but because of the amazing strides and discoveries made in history, archeology, anthropology, and even ancient climates. So much new and clarifying information is coming to light in the technical and scientific communities that there is a need for experts with broad experience to retell the narratives of the ancient civilizations to modern audiences.

Into this space has stepped Eric Cline and his spectacular book, "1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed."  For most of us, we didn't even know there was another "Dark Ages" in history- other than the one we learned about in high school or college that equated the European middle ages a period of intellectual and economic regression caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire. But, in fact, the ancient era called the "Bronze Age" came to a dramatic close in the late 2nd millennium BC, with the sweeping collapse of nearly all prominent civilizations in the ancient world.

It is this ancient, and first, "world wide" collapse of societies that is examined and expounded by Professor Eric H Cline in "1177 BC." What stands out immediately to the reader is the astonishing deluge of interesting history presented in a powerful narrative style. Cline is not just an archaeologist, he is a a genuinely gifted communicator. Thoughtful and witty, he writes as much for the palpable sense of the societies he is studying as he does for the cold hard facts of the major milestones in the narrative. And this makes the book itself a genuine work of art.

But thankfully, we aren't just left with that. Cline backs up his narrative with profound science and a balanced hand both at antiquity and a look to the possibility that future discoveries may turn the narrative a different direction as the history is clarified. Without the pompous self-assuredness that seems to often rest in the tone of modern authors of books on historical topics, Cline avoids condescending to the reader and frankly (but seriously) admits what facts are sure and which are not.  This doesn't weaken his arguments, however, and the entire book becomes much more plausible because of the care and contrition that the author has taken in its presenting.

The topic itself sweeps from ancient Egypt (during the "New Kings" era), to Mesopotamia, to Anatolia and the Hittite empire, to the Cretan (Minoan) and Aegean (Mycenaean) kingdoms and even down through much of the Levant- touching on all the crucial components that came together in the collapse of a truly interconnected world in the Bronze Age. "1177 BC" is as much about economics and politics as it is about war and migrations of mysterious "Sea Peoples". The book unleashes several new concepts about language, texts and lost civilizations. One such civilization, found by archaeology in the last century, is the story of the newly discovered kingdom of Ugarit. That, alone, is a brilliant segment of the book and is a perfect example of what Cline does best- combines his technical eye with a story-teller's prose to paint for us great historical landscapes.

History, especially ancient history, contains some of the most fascinating narratives available. And in the hands of a scholar and writer like Eric Cline, those narratives launch off the page and into our imaginations. The book is repleat with science, but gracious as art. The best ancient history book I have yet to read. Easily qualifies for our Editor's Choice Award. If you have any interest in history, civilizations, grand narratives and even where our own society may be headed-- get this book! You will absolutely love it!


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


The Road To Serfdom - F. A. Hayek (1944)

Of the thousands of pages of text among the dozens of now iconic books written on economics, there is no more succinct and penetrating exploration of the ties of economic capitalism with political liberalism than the relatively short work of "The Road To Serfdom" by Friedrich A. von Hayek. Having read several of these voluminous texts myself, I can say unequivocally that "The Road To Serfdom" is the singular text that simultaneously explains the simplicity and benefits of the free market system while profoundly destroying the notion that personal liberty could be found within the socialist economic framework. Hayek, as he admits of himself, is an academic and technical economist who felt compelled to write a defense of the basics of liberalism (in the 19th century classical definition) as the unique and necessary combination of economic freedom and personal liberty only after it was clear that many of his influential political contemporaries in WWII Europe had vastly misunderstood the workings of socialism, and that it's ultimate outcome would always be totalitarianism- either in the form of Communism, as in Russia, or in the form of Fascism, as in Nazi Germany.

In fact, this book outlines the progression of what exactly happened in Germany to produce the society and opportunity for Hitler's regime to become the tyrannical monster of the modern world. Hayek clearly and convincingly explores how the fears of individuals based in economic instability of a free market system can lead people to eventually surrender their individual liberties in hopes of economic and nationalistic security. This surrendering becomes a downward spiral of personal liberties as the willing (at least initially) cost of an ever-expanding socialist economic state. A state in which the individual hopes of security and sustenance become permission for an eventual autocracy that maintains all decisions for all peoples at all times.

The observations of Hayek are not meant merely as a history lesson, but were a clear warning to England and America of the dangers of socialist economic thinking (and socialism in general), because Hayek believed that the rise of socialism in those countries would eventually set the stage for a totalitarian regime to be possible. In fact, Hayek's thesis and warnings are so cutting, and so well defended that he almost single-handedly inspired a renaissance of 20th century liberalism (though it more often went by the label of conservatism by its adherents such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan).

"The Road To Serfdom" is not just about the political and economic threads that led to Nazi Germany, it is about the true balance of power between personal liberties and state control. If you have never read an economics book in your life, you MUST read this one. It is by far the most powerfully written, yet simply understood, philosophical explanation of liberalism and the free market system- and why the combination of free market economy is the central component to ensure the other freedoms that accompany modern liberty (emancipation, universal suffrage, free speech and more). The ability to make self-determined decisions about work and economic exchange imbues in itself the power to allow both individuals and entities to pursue success. The natural balance of the free market is not only clearly articulated, Hayek contrasts it with the inherent weaknesses of the planned economic socialist state.

This is a political book, but whatever your politics are- you cannot afford to ignore this book. Whatever your political understanding or persuasion, this book is an absolute "must read" text. While books like Mises' "Human Action" and Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" provide more technical details and examples on how the free market system works, neither of those books provide so clear and convincing a treatise on the benefits and perpetual health of a economic liberalism, as "The Road to Serfdom".

Once beginning to read this book 4 days ago, I could not put it down. I am now on my third time through and continue to find it as enthralling and engaging each time through. A truly brilliant articulation of economics, freedom, free market, and the dark path of socialism that eventually leads to totalitarianism. If you believe you understand economics and have never read this book, you have missed one of the greatest texts in this field, in history.

Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes

Human Action: A Treatise On Economics [Scholar's Edition] - Ludwig von Mises (1949)

Economics is often a much maligned area of study. Say the word "economics" to a bunch of bankers and you will doubtless get endless theories of investment vehicles, interest rate charts and inflation debates. Say the same word to government officials and you will get long monologues on monetary policy, interventionism vs social responsibility and unemployment numbers. Say "economics" to a person balancing their checkbook or a small business owner and you will get responses about debt, taxes, capital expenditures and return on investment. However, each of these responses are centered around a manifestation of economic ideas- but they are not truly what economics is. In the massive volume "Human Action: A Treatise on Economics", Austrian professor Ludwig von Mises explains economics as the meaning and conduct of people towards a specific end. It is, above all else, action and its meaning. To quote von Mises:

Economics is not about things and tangible material objects; it is about men, their meanings and actions.1

To grasp von Mises entire thesis, you must understand his perspective for which economics is primarily aiming. Specifically, von Mises believes that action is taken to achieve a goal. He says:

Strickly speaking the end, goal, or aim of any action is always the relief from a felt uneasiness.2

For von Mises, the study of economics is the study of human actions meant at achieving relief from uneasiness (or "want satisfaction"). Based on that premise, "Human Action" became the seminal text of what is commonly called the Austrian School of economics. The book is long (about 1150 pages) and delves as much into the nature of human decision making as it does in its results. It is for this reason that the book is rife with long and detailed arguments in support of laissez-faire economics and the free enterprise system as the only way in which successful "want satisfaction" can be achieved for the broadest benefit of the society. Most succinctly, von Mises ties the ideological superstructure of liberalism, constitutions, bills of rights, and laws- all forms of social, religious and political freedoms- to their counterpart in economic freedom that is instantiated in free market system of modern capitalism. Ludwig von Mises spares no words on his socialist, interventionist and Marxist counterparts, and provides extensive and clear explanations on the errors of such economic thought.

The author provides deft guidance to his book's approach in these introductory sentences:

What is commonly called the "industrial revolution" was an offspring of the ideological revolution brought about by the doctrines of the economists. The economists exploded the old tenets: that it is unfair and unjust to outdo a competitor by producing better and cheaper goods; that it is iniquitous to deviate from the traditional methods of production; that machines are an evil because they bring about unemployment; that it is one of the tasks of civil government to prevent efficient businessmen from getting rich and to protect the less efficient against the competition of the more efficient; that to restrict the freedom of entrepreneurs by government compulsion or by coercion on the part of other social powers is an appropriate means to promote a nation's well-being. British political economy and French Physiocracy were the pacemakers of modern capitalism. It is they that made possible the progress of the natural sciences that has heaped benefits upon the masses. What is wrong with our age is precisely the widespread ignorance of the role which these policies of economic freedom played in the technical evolution of the last two hundred years. People fell prey to the fallacy that the improvement of the methods of production was contemporaneous with the policy of laissez faire only by accident.3

"Human Action" is not a book for casual reading, and requires you to learn and maintain a new subset of vocabulary which will be needed for interpreting this book. The terms "praxeology" (which means, actions) and "catallactics" (meaning- exchanges) are used hundreds of times and become self-evident within the text, but von Mises layers on this dozens of words which have limited meaning outside of scholars and university studies. Still, the book is deeply enthralling. If you are a logician, you will find his arguments and structured presentation to be euphoric.

Above everything else, Ludwig von Mises is a champion of freedom. Certainly, this thesis aims at the freedom of economics, but he attacks, and defeats with logic, dozens of misguided theorems which come from the the impulse of people to control others. It seems he doesn't believe in capitalism because of its benefits only, but because it is an expression of freedom, as much as speech, political liberalism, freedom of religion and any other form. In that vein, he confronts the manifestations of doctrines which oppose freedom up to and including war-mongering. His summary sentences on aggression are poignant and brilliant:

How far we are today from the rules of international law developed in the age of limited warfare! Modern war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors lived for centuries. Nobody can foretell what will happen in the next chapter of this endless struggle. This has nothing to do with the atomic bomb. The root of the evil is not the construction of new, more dreadful weapons. It is the spirit of conquest. It is probable that scientists will discover some methods of defense against the atomic bomb. But this will not alter things, it will merely prolong for a short time the process of the complete destruction of civilization. Modern civilization is a product of the philosophy of laissez faire. It cannot be preserved under the ideology of government omnipotence. Statolatry owes much to the doctrines of Hegel. However, one may pass over many of Hegel's inexcusable faults, for Hegel also coined the phrase “the futility of victory” (die Ohnmacht des Sieges). To defeat the aggressors is not enough to make peace durable. The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war.4

This is just one example of von Mises broad but systematic approach to understanding human action and its good and bad forms of expression.  This example highlights his broadness of vision, his highly developed understanding of philosophical underpinnings of humanity, and above all, his ability to clearly distinguish the ideas of human intention from the realities of human action.

Of course, there are the long and extensive descriptions of dozens of items such as monetary, inflationary, and governmental policies, interest rates, free trade, taxation, theory of value and much more.

What you gain from reading the book is an exploration of the ideas and motivations that lead to decisions, that produce specific results, and that assist or hamper the actual perpetuation of a free market system. This is a scholarly book and delves deeply into its subject of praxeology and catallactics. The minor errors with this book are centered mostly around the attempt it makes to be progressive relative to the time of writing- by including relevant "current" examples, the subject and examples are dated to the era in which the original and revisioned versions were printed. None of us can escape our time period of existence, but Mises exposes some of his own prejudices and angst by doing so. The book could have done without those. At times as well, his deriding of socialist and interventionist motivations run far deeper than probably most people's intentions who take opposing views. It is understandable that Mises is trying to hold serve against the prevailing Keynsians and New Deal advocates of his era, but at times Mises rhetoric becomes so sarcastic as to be vitriolic.

However, we can forgive both these misteps partly because it would take such a strong and detailed opposing voice (which von Mises provides therein) to successfully dismantle the vices and embedded character of government planning, control, and what Mises would consider socialist economic agendas. We can further forgive von Mises because, in the end, he wins. The fall of almost every communist and social planning state in the world (most of which collapsed or revolted during the 20th century) was the ultimate proof that the free market system is its own validation. As is proven by many other texts and studies, capitalism is the resulting manifestation of liberalism being played out in the realm of economic reality- and that reality, however cyclical and unpredictable, has proven for the last 300 years to the be the only system which could produce vast increases in the production, standard of living and per capita income of its entire population. We can forgive Mises bluntness for the simple fact that he has been proven right. 

The book "Human Action" has became the bedrock of Austrian School economics and the cited source that grounded much further work from champion economists who took up the banner of free market thinkers such as Milton Friedman and others. One need not agree with all the sharp criticisms of von Mises towards his opponents, but we are shocked to find out how much of his sharp criticism (that might have sounded preposterous at the time of writing) now seems all too obvious in its results in reality. If you are studying economics, this will doubtless be one of the main works you must read to be thoroughly informed. While it is exceptionally articulate and filled with specifics, it remained unfettered by meaningless side notes (which is often common in economics texts).

An iconic and foundational book on the study of economics from the view of classic liberalism. A landmark.


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes



1. Mises, Ludwig von (2009-03-30). Human Action: Scholar's Edition (LvMI) (Kindle Location 2413). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.

2. Ibid., (Kindle Location 2406)

3. Ibid., (Kindle Location 856-865)

4. Ibid., (Kindle Locations 16189-16199)


Debt: The First 5,000 Years - David Graeber (2011)

In the last four years I have read many thousands of pages of materials in researching an understanding of economics, history and culture. In that time I have read little that was as well-written and insightful as David Graeber's "Debt: the First 5,000 Years".

What initially holds Graeber's work above others is his contrarianism related to the foundations of Adam Smith's capitalism, especially the historical telling of barter as the nascent form of exchange that led eventually to our current modern version of free market capitalism. The author makes the point that debt, rather than barter and money, was the foundational language and system of exchange and has remained so for 5,000 years.  The book claims that Smith's story related to the origins of markets, as found within "The Wealth of Nations", is a contrived fiction in which barter is used as the seed explanation for how currency/money/economy developed.

The grander plot of the book is that reciprocation can expose itself in two primary ways - owing a favor, or owing a debt. As he says poignantly-

the difference between owing someone a favor, and owing someone a debt, is that the amount of a debt can be precisely calculated.1

The book starts off with a modern day controversy about global (specifically, third world) debt. The question is raised about whether paying back debt is a moral question. From this launching point, the author traces back, through his anthropological background, five millennia of understanding human societies and how their systems of debt have become the framework for our understanding and conversations about virtually every aspect of life, especially (and including) morality. Graeber states-

If one looks at the history of debt, then, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion. Its most obvious manifestation is that most everywhere, one finds that the majority of human beings hold simultaneously that (1) paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality, and (2) anyone in the habit of lending money is evil.2

Part of the reason that morality and debt are so closely and importantly linked for the author is that he goes to great lengths to connect the idea that the moral failure surrounding debt is not with the debtor (as current culture suggests) but the with creditor. Graeber makes this important distinction not purely on the present circumstance (in which one person places themselves in debt to another as part of an exchange), but uses historical and anthropological examples (and theory) to expose the fact that for thousands of years debt has been enforced by the most heinous means- from debt peonage, slavery, prostitution, imprisonment, war, violence and more. At the root of the human ability to harm and debase one another over a debt is the fact that debts devalue not just the items exchange, but the very people themselves.

From this perspective, the crucial factor, and a topic that will be explored at length in these pages, is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene...3

...The way violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics will crop up again and again over the course of this book.4

The book develops a long and complicated understanding of various ages of exchange in which society went from credit based exchange to coin/currency exchange and back and forth for various reasons. Graeber's work is compelling if not confusing. While he is obviously a brilliant researcher and thinker, he languishes several times in the book to keep himself on task to his earlier promises. Many points that look to be big items drift off aimlessly into side issues and what seems like favorite quotes from the authors research work rather than essential points to the thesis. One of Graeber's important points about exchange/market systems is that they are integrated tightly with government constructs of debt and war.

modern money is based on government debt, and that governments borrow money in order to finance wars.5

All of this actually does matter in his final thinking, but he mars the straight lines of thought by randomly attacking capitalist thinkers like Milton Friedman and Adam Smith because he doesn't like that they said things built on utopian models (though he admits that what they said ended up being true and actually working in the real world).  Graeber is right in one sense- it matters why society thinks the way they do, and how ideas that changed history came into being. But while he is proving his points he meanders unsuccessfully through some issues by pretending that his ability to invert the predicate logic of a phrase (i.e. "what does society owe us?" into "What do we owe society") is appropriately addressing the real issue.  But in the end, his book is much better than the faults he makes in crafting his narrative- because he asks some great questions.

The biggest of these is about the nature of exchange and the nature of value. At the core failure of humanity in relationship to debt is a devaluing not of goods, but of the human person itself. Graeber is at his best when he challenges us to recognize that our history and our current practices have run rampant not because we use one economic system or another (capitalism or such), but because we allow the exchange system to carry us too far -- we allow it to exchange human life for goods. In essence, our systems of debt exchange place a value on human life as a way of equating what can be paid back when the currency is not. This happens in slavery, debt peonage, debtors prisons, and even wage labor.  It is ultimately a very compelling point, since he basis it on solid history and plenty of modern examples.

Some may decry this book as anti-capitalist, but I think Graeber is reaching for a higher ideal than that. I think he is looking for valuing human life right on forward to the present. That we provide protection for wage laborers, abolish debt peonage systems (that still exist in some countries today), even human slavery and worse.  He is also advocating the questioning of some systems that were built on these premise and have become unchallenged (such as new NGO loan systems, World Bank and the IMF), leaving whole nations in essentially debt servitude to multi-national corporations and countries such as the US.

Though he says these things, Graeber is not a raving anti-capitalist. His book is well worth reading. It sparks of brilliance in places and requires serious thought.  The corruption of the value of human life has been enmeshed into the exchange of the marketplace, and for Graeber this must be untangled if we are to make better decisions for the future. For this, he deserves huge praise and an honest reading of the material. 

Amazon Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


1. Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Location 8120). Random House Inc Clients. Kindle Edition. 

2. Ibid., Kindle Locations 202-204

3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 310-312

4. Ibid., Kindle Locations 320-321

5. Ibid., Kindle Locations 7694-7695

50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know - Edmund Conway (2009)

If you are trying to learn about economics there are a few different approaches you can take. First, you can study the classic documents, such as "The Wealth of Nations" (Adam Smith), "The General Theory" (J M Keynes), "The Road to Serfdom" (Hayek), "the Communist Manifesto" (Marx) and a few other seminal texts to gain an understanding of how the modern economic stream of study progressed in the last 3 centuries perhaps right up to current works from Friedman and even Laffer. But that approach is arduous and frankly too technical for most people to care to enage with. The second route is to take a college series of courses, which may run through these same ideas in summary by using texts such as survey books like "The Making of Modern Economics" (Mark Skousen) or other general survey books. But this second route maybe not provide a balanced outlook of the differing perspectives, since professors and writers of individual texts are prone to present support for their own beliefs rather than give a neutral view.  The last route left for those of us who aren't trained economists is to read simpler books, written for the public.

In that vein, one of the best books I've come across is simply titled "50 Economic Ideas You Really Need To Know". Author Edmund Conway has written a cogent and actually cohesive book that is less disjointed than the title might imply. Beginning with Adam Smith's "invisible hand" doctrine, exploring supply and demand, the Malthusian trap and opportunity cost, Conway guides the reader quickly and clearly through fifty (yes 50!) of the key concepts in economics. After having read several other books (from many of the 3 different approaches I mention above) on economics I found this layman's guide to not only be remarkably accurate and well written but well organized.  Economics is often said to be a study of people and their uses of resources, including the decisions they make regarding those resources. Conway starts this book with a more pointed view saying -

Economics examines what drives human beings to do what they do, and looks at how they react when faced with difficulties or success.1

This turns out to be an excellent primer to understand how this book is approached and presented. Starting with the basic core of Smith's economic theory, the author moves from basic numerical balances (such as supply/demand) through philosophical ideas (such as communism, keynesianism, individualism) to measurements of economies (such as money, taxes, debt, unemployments) to finances and markets (such as stocks, bonds, credit markets etc) and finally to modern issues (such as creative destruction, global deficits, protectionism, technological revolutions).  Each of these are readable as separate items (great if you need to learn about money markets or pensions without wading through an entire book), but Conway has blended the topics so well that the text is built into an excellent progression if you have the time to sit down and read the short 200 page book in a sitting or two.

For now, this is the best layman's summary book on economics that I have found. If you want a crash course- this is it. It's clear, concise, and takes great many pains not to be a partisan supporter of whatever school the author might have an affinity for. In fact, most economics books bleed their prejudices so clearly it is often obvious whether the writer is a proponent of Keynesian, Austrian, Friedman or any of the other streams of economic theory. Here, the theories are all presented and none derided. The pros and cons are pointed out for each. For this alone, I consider this short layman's guide to be solid gold, and far better than 90% of the detailed economic survey books available (which almost always take philosophical sides).

If you are looking for a one-book-fits-all, short summary of economics to get through in a day or so-- look no further than "50 Economic Ideas..." I can't give this book any higher praise than my unequivocal recommendation!


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


1. Conway, Edmund (2009-09-03). 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know (50 Ideas) (p. 3). Quercus. Kindle Edition.