A disturbing and enlightening first-person account of the principles and strategies of American corporatocracy from 1971-2004. The book is a tonic to cut misleading election-year rhetoric about American principles of democracy and contributions to peace and international prosperity. The book sheds new light on conflicts in Panama, Ecuador, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere, and on the nature of the traffic through the revolving door between the US administration and corporate board rooms. An excellent complement to Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes.
I enjoyed the structure: a series of well told 1st-person narratives of OSS personnel, well joined by the author's explanation of how OSS was formed, organized, staffed, equipped, and tasked.
A good narrator, like a good actor, makes the characters real without the audience realizing how hard that is. Lane does that.
An outstanding, thorough, apparently well-supported and fairly balanced overview of the history of the CIA, this book also sheds light on antidemocratic policies and illegal strategies of several US presidents who used and abused the agency. Using recently declassified internal CIA documents and Congressional testimony, the author argues that CIA officials have long exaggerated the agency's accomplishments. In the aftermath of its catastrophes they have asserted that only its few failures are made public, but that supposedly numerous successes can never be known. The author offers convincing evidence that this is a myth--that the agency has had few successes worthy of pride, and that the overwhelming body of its work has been so counterproductive that the reader ends up feeling the US would have been better off had the CIA never been formed. The reasons are partly structural--the nature of the agency, how it is funded and overseen--and partly driven by the personalities and capabilities of its leadership. The book is well complemented by John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which tells a related story about disturbing contributions of the private sector to American foreign policy.
In some ways Taleb's style is that of an angry overconfident doctoral student: arrogant, full of cutesy headings and overly broad contemputuous attacks on perceived fools, but often thin on defense of his thesis. It can be hard to see beyond the stylistic limitations to his argument's merits.
Scholars familiar with the concept of epistemic uncertainty (the possible discrepancy between nature and our concept of it) may perceive that the black swan broadly overlaps the idea. Taleb's contribution, and what I like about the phrase "black swan" as opposed to epistemic uncertainty, may be his argument that in many domains of life the black swan swamps the mathematically familiar uncertainties which we sometimes call aleatoric.
One chapter may make the frequently painful slog worthwhile: in the middle of the book Taleb introduces the ludic fallacy, by which he means the false idea that uncertainties in life are like uncertainties in casino games. In a casino, the rules are well established and the uncertainties readily quantified. Taleb convincingly argues that in many aspects of real life (even as he engagingly shows in the real financial life of a casino) the uncertainties that drive history are not the ones of which we are aware and plan for.
It is for the phrase "black swan" and the idea of the ludic fallacy that I am glad to have read the book. Had Taleb had a better editor, or perhaps that he had listened to the editor he did have, I would have given the book another star.
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