The Curse of Cash

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The Curse of Cash
By Kenneth S. Rogoff
Princeton University Press – £22.95

Has the time come for advanced-country governments to start phasing out paper currency (cash), except perhaps for small denomination notes, coins, or both? A huge number of economic, financial, philosophical, and even moral issues are buried in this relatively simple question. In this book, I argue that, on balance,, the answer is ‘yes.” First, in making it more difficult to engage in recurrent, large, and anonymous payments would likely have a significant impact on discouraging tax evasion and crime; even a relatively modest impact could potentially justify getting rid of most paper currency.

Try telling that to the countless old ladies around the (predominantly western) world, who stash cash under the mattress; AWAY from the countless greed riddled, money obsessed bankers, who’d sooner sell their own family members down the river than lose out on a lucrative deal.

There again, the author of The Curse of Cash, Kenneth S. Rogoff, is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, and unsurprisingly, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. So it could be argued that he is bound to want to do away with the filthy odour of cash – as his continuation makes clear: ”Second, as I have argued for some time, phasing out paper currency is arguably the simplest and most elegant approach to clearing the path for central banks to invoke unfettered negative interest rate policies should they bump up against the ”zero lower bound” on interest rates. Treasury bill rates cannot fall much below zero, precisely because people always have the option of holding paper currency, which at least pays zero interest.”

Divided into three parts (‘The Dark side of Paper Currency: Tax and Regulatory Evasion, Crime, and Security Issues, ‘Negative Interest Rates’ and ‘International Dimensions and Digital Currencies’), it does need to be said that most of this book’s fourteen chapters are clearly and concisely written. They also come replete with a viable under-current, wherein Rogoff is perhaps, more than prepared to listen to the flip-side of arguments that are counter to that of his own.

This may explain why Linda Yueh, who is the author of China’s Growth: The Making of an Economic Superpower has herself felt compelled to ask: ”Should we become a largely cashless society? Kenneth Rogoff makes a strong case that we should in this wide-ranging book, which touches on history, crime, technology, and monetary policy.”

The Curse of Cash does indeed touch on these varying robust, important issues:
”There is little question that cash plays a starring role in a broad range of criminal activities, including drug trafficking, racketeering, extortion, corruption of public officials, human trafficking, and, of course, money laundering. The fact that large notes are used far more for illegal services than legal ones long ago penetrated television, movies, and popular culture. Policymakers, however, have been far slower to acknowledge this reality.

Cash also plays a central role in the illegal immigration problem that bedevils countries like the United States. It is incredible that some politicians talk seriously about building huge border fences, yet no one seems to realise that a far more humane and effective approach would be to make it difficult for US employers to use cash to pay ineligible workers off the books and often below the minimum wage. Jobs are the big magnet that drives the whole process. More generally, cash is an enabler for employers who would skirt employment regulations and avoid making Social Security contributions.”

Hmm, the above two paragraphs alone, warrant an abundance of examination.

Surely the biggest illegal behaviour to have happened in recent years, took place within the actual financial world itself, who not only siphoned off trillions and trillions of dollars, but were ultimately responsible for the credit crunch crisis of 2008. So were it not for a few pathetic dollars hidden in cupboards and under beds, an array of overtly corrupt banker scum, could well have made life even more miserable for millions of people, the whole world over.

So personally, I’m not buying it.

Yes, there is a lot of wrong with cash; just like there is a lot wrong with religion. And a lot wrong with politics. But what are you going to do? Totally get rid of them too?

To be sure, there’s a lot to be said for getting rid of the odious likes of Donald Trump, not to mention the even more odious, fundamentalist organisation that calls itself ISIS – but at the end of the day, it’s all down to people.

People are ultimately responsible for fucking things up – especially when it comes to power, greed, corruption and money.

As Bob Dylan once said: ”Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

David Marx

The Unravelling

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The Unravelling –
High Hopes ad Missed Opportunities in Iraq
By Emma Sky
Atlantic Books – £9.99

The fourteenth chapter of this overtly credible book opens with a line from Thucidides: ”The strong do as they can – and the weak suffer as they must” (‘Melian Dialogue’). A frank and somewhat discerning line, which, if you really think about it, depicts the whole valiant Iraqi debacle rather well.

But what instinctively separates The Unravelling – High Hopes ad Missed Opportunities in Iraq from a plethora of its contenders, is how intuitively insightful its 363 pages have been put together by its author.

Emma Sky was working for the British Council during the invasion of Iraq, when the ad went around calling for volunteers. Appalled at what she saw as a wrongful war, she signed up, expecting to be gone for a month. Instead, her time in Iraq spanned a decade, and evolved into a personal odyssey so unlikely that it could be a work of fiction. The literary result of which are these twenty-eight chapters (excluding a List of Abbreviations, Preface, Maps, Prologue: The Iraqi Enquiry, a Glossary: Political Parties and Militias, Acknowledgements and Index), many of which radiate with a propensity that suggests: having been there, I’d really like to share my experience with the rest of the world.

Or at least, those who may actually care.

It’s a war-torn memoir of sorts, that has been concisely conveyed and written with a certain panache, not often found amid publications of this persuasion.

As The Guardian has since pointed out: ”The Unravelling reads almost like a novel: a detailed and darkly humorous account that tries to understand everyone involved, Iraqis and Americans, on their own terms… Sky’s argumentative, chirpy and intelligent personality is thoroughly engaging.”

Indeed it is, which accounts for just one of the many reasons why this book – which was nominated for The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2015 – is so very readable.

David Marx

The Independent Director

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The Independent Director:
The Non-Executive Director’s Guide to Effective Board Presence
By Gerry Brown
Palgrave Macmillan – £29.99

 

The list of attributes required of the non-executive director is so long, precise and contradictory that there cannot be a single board member in the world that fully fits the bill. They need to be supportive, intelligent, interesting, well-rounded and funny, entrepreneurial, objective yet passionate, independent, curious, challenging, and fit. They also need to have a financial background and real business experience, strong moral compass, and be first-class all-rounders with specific industry skills.

                                                                                      The Financial Times

In chapter four (‘Themes’), under the ‘Boards’ sub-section of this book, the author quotes Charles Darwin: ”It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” While in the same chapter, under ‘Strategy,’ he further quotes none other than Lewis Carroll: ”One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire Cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”’

Both quotations, in the mighty big scheme of all things independent director ”(and, by extension, the independent chairman)” related, are of clear, fundamental substance/profound strategic value. BUT, does not all such variant consideration, wholeheartedly depend on where one is coming from to begin with? Not to mention why one has ventured into being an independent director to begin with? Even if just by proxy?

The Independent Director – The Non-Executive Director’s Guide to Effective Board Presence ticks many (of these) boxes and a whole lot more besides, which is already made evident in the book’s Introduction – where Gerry Brown writes: ”The purpose of this book is to explain what independent directors do, how they do it, and why. It begins by showing, through a series of case studies, the variety and complexity of issues faced by independent directors. It goes on to explore key themes that are critical issues for boards. The book is aimed at people who are interested in becoming independent directors themselves one day, or who simply want to know more about the role and what it entails. It is my hope also that some serving independent directors will also find it useful.”

Thing is, what is, and what actually constitutes an independent director?
Furthermore, how would you know when you’ve actually crossed the line from being non-independent to erm, (completely) independent?

Isn’t there a certain degree of much ado about nothing at play here?
Or, does such lateral/preposterous thinking, clearly raise the stakes to far too high a degree of complicit bollocks?

When for instance, is a rocket scientist an independent rocket scientist? An open-heart surgeon an independent open-heart surgeon? A burly bin-man an independent burly bin-man?

Lest it be asked, who, in their most right of minds, actually gives a fuck?

On the one hand, these six chapters and 269 pages (not including List of Figures, Acknowledgements, About the Author, Notes and Index) could be construed as investigating a relatively complex canvas, beset with a menagerie of insightful idioms; many of which are self-reflective and in a way, self-perpetuating.

As Sir Isaac Newton once said (and as quoted herein): ”I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of men.”

On that note, the language throughout isn’t particularly technical, nor hi-faluting, jargon induced junk; which, it has to be said, accounts for this book being far more readable than I’d initially anticipated.

To be sure, as Hugh Lenon, the Chairman of Phoenix Equity Partners has been quoted as saying: ”A fascinating and honest account of the opportunities and pitfalls of life as an independent director, Gerry Brown has a unique blend of executive and non-executive experience and his book brims with authority and useful tips. For those of us on boards, The Independent Director is a must-read.”

David Marx

From The First World War To The Arab Spring

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From The First World War To The Arab Spring –
What’s Really Going On In The Middle East?
By M. E. McMillan
Palgrave Macmillan – £21.00

One of the aspects of this book I found profoundly interesting, was its author’s propensity to tell it as it is; in a style of language and delivery that isn’t beset amid a horrible hybrid of opinionated-gunk-speak and mild assassination of where it’s fundamentally at.

Well that’s how it reads to a relative laymen in terms of the intrinsically complex, reactionary and loaded subject matter.

The second part of the title of this book – which in parts, could be considered an inflammatory traipse through deeply entrenched turmoil – ought to have perhaps been the actual title, period. As the question it asks is something a whole lot of people would really like to know. Myself included. Although From The First World War To The Arab Spring – What’s Really Going On In The Middle East?, suggests a premise that is both historical and overtly well considered.

But, is it?
Lucid and extremely informative it most definitely is.
Absolutely no argument there . According to Hamid Dabashi, the author of Being a Muslim in the World, has said: ”more critical informed studies like McMillan’s are much needed.” Again, no argument there.

In the twelfth chapter, ‘Where to Begin?’ for instance, M. E. McMillan clearly writes: ”In a region beset by wars, one war in the Middle East has lasted longer than any other: the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But when it comes to setting this long-running conflict in its historical context, where should one begin?”

Once again, like the title of the book itself, the sentence ends with another question mark. This suggests that we as readers or students of politics, are asked to find the answer(s) for ourselves amid an array of dense deliberation.

That said, it really is the crystal-clear approach of this book’s writing, that assertively controls the argument and accounts for these twenty-two chapters (excluding Notes on Conventions, Introduction – Lost in the Labyrinth: What’s Really Going On in the Middle East?, Epilogue – Untangling the Web: What Now?, Notes, Select Biography and Index), being an altogether comprehensive and up-to-date examination of the ”complex web of wars and proxy wars, revolution and counter-revolutions that are ripping the Middle East apart.”

Said examination is further brought to bear with a continuation of the aforementioned quote: ”Where you begin is important for a number of reasons, not least because your choice of starting point can be interpreted as endorsing one side’s position over the other. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is one of the most contentious issues in the world today. It is so contentious that it has become almost impossible to write about it without offending someone or without your comments being misinterpreted. Now that social media has made it so effortlessly easy to heap anonymous abuse on anyone who endorses one view over another; some historians and writers choose to save themselves the hassle and ignore the subject altogether. As for teaching the subject, that in itself has become so much of a challenge, how the subject is taught has become an object of study.”

This is hardly surprising. The mere thought of trying to teach those who’ll even take the time to actually listen, doesn’t even bear worth thinking about. Let alone undertaking.

All the more reason to read this important and rather exemplary book. From The First World War To The Arab Spring – What’s Really Going On In The Middle East?, does actually answer a few questions.

And in so doing, it manages to shed new and informative light.

David Marx

Tanks

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Tanks – 100 Years of Armoured Warfare
By Robin Cross and David Willy
Foreword by Dan Snow
Andre Deutsch – £40.00

On the outside of the box of this exemplary collection, Dan Snow writes: ”The word ‘tank’ is almost synonymous with military strength, the outline has become its symbol. Few weapon systems have had as big an impact as the tank in the first 100 years of its life.”

In more ways than one, it would be pretty argue with such an assessment – dour and somewhat depressing as it is. There again, for tank enthusiasts – and I’m sure the world must be riddled with quite a few – Andre Deutsch’s Tanks – 100 Years of Armoured Warfare  is a comprehensive collection that is sure to please anyone who subscribes to the killing capability of such a frightening invention.

It also sheds an abundance of facts and light on many a tank related issue that I really didn’t know (but then would I?).

For instance, did you know that the largest tank museum in the world is in Dorset, England?

To be sure, Tanks showcases dramatic images from the archives of the Tank Museum in Dorset and includes an assortment of painstakingly researched, removable documents such as: the first message ever sent from infantry to a tank on September 15th 1916, a blueprint of the British Mark V, pages from a British tank booklet from the first Gulf War, American tank identification cards from the Cold War, and last but by no nationalistic means least, extracts from the German Tiger manual and the French Somua handbook.

But it is surely the thirty-six chapters of the altogether magnificently packaged book itself, which accounts for its 129 pages of impressive investigation.

From such early chapters as ‘The Origins of the Tank’ and ‘The Battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai,’ through to ‘The Eve of the Second World War,’ ‘El Alamein,’ ‘Enter The Tiger’ and ‘Hobart’s Funnies,’ each and every one is riddled with (predominantly) black and white photographs – many of which actually bequeath the reader with a subliminal feeling of dread: ”The First World War had seen an acceptance that technology could be applied to the solution of pressing military problems. The war in the air emphasized the importance of reconnaissance, which in turn accelerated the development of fighter aircraft, and ultimately the bomber.”

It is just such pointless perpetuation that brought the entire technological advancement and reasoning behind the tank to bear -to begin with. Much of which, I have to say, is mightily well captured herein: ”There is an apocryphal story that Adolf Hitler, while watching an exercise involving Mark I tanks at Kummersdorf, declared, ”That’s what I need. That’s what I want to have!” It is aptly symbolic of the Fuhrer’s achievements after he gained power in 1933, which came at the expense of exacerbating a deep rift within the German Army.”

His nigh obsession with tanks may well have exacerbated ”a deep rift within the Germany Army,” but it did very little to stop them murdering millions of people throughout mainland Europe.”

From a historical perspective alone, Tanks – 100 Years of Armoured Warfare is a more than impressive visual account of what was (unfortunately) the tank’s first century. From the early attempts at developing an all-terrain armoured vehicle to the lethal killing machines of the twenty-first century, this superlative collection covers almost every aspect.

As such, a terrific addition to any World War II enthusiast’s library.

David Marx

An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy

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An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy
By Bruce McRae
Cawing Crow Press LLC – £8.50/$13.00

A pawn shop loaning out midnight
and the musty quiet of tombs.
Where all that’s unwanted goes.
Where dreams die and rainbows end.
And something else, too, you can’t pit your finger on.
                                                                                                                                                                        ‘Lost Ticket’

And something else, too, you can’t put your finger on,” shivers amid the sublime possibility that it could just as well have been penned by the ever great, Ingmar Bergman. As its literary, life-like propensity for silence, along with an abundance of beauty and foregone conclusion, ensures it is a (life)line; far more capable of merely detonating the inner sanctum of long-forgotten bile, belief and betrayal.

Not to mention, faith.
Faith, as in the tiniest, of tiniest, humanistic umbilical cords which, ‘Unashamed in his nakedness,’ substantiates that poet and all round sage-like-being of profound, philosophical persuasion, Bruce McRae, still happens to believe in the human condition.

And all things that continue to sparkle amid the tableau of truth.

That’s right. And thank fucking fuck.
For where else within this increasingly dire and dishonest world of redundant humanity, this ‘swastika of smoking ashes,’ would one even have the audacity to reflect upon the ‘soul’s sweetened annihilation’? Facebook? The X-Factor? The (unfortunate) world according to that utter, out-and-out of very large cunts, Robert Mugabe?

From a mere absinthe induced acceptance of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and perhaps Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy traverses every appalling, yet beautifully lit abyss that ever was:

The actual second you said something
so profound it was impossible to comprehend.
Or I couldn’t understand because I hadn’t heard.
Or I’d heard, but I did not listen.

‘This Too Passes’

Like smoke, I mow down a hallway.
Like fog, I embrace the chill measure
of a life lived after death-in-life.
An ether, I am wholly spiritual in nature.

One of the lost. One of the living.

‘Haunted House’

Undeniably inherent throughout each of these eighty-two, rather magisterial poems (of which ‘It Is Our Nature,’ ‘Sonnet Despairing’ and ‘Lost Ticket’ are simply out-standing), is their all-round, uncompromising, regal resonance. They can and could after all, only have been written from a life lived. A heart pierced. A dream dashed. A tsunami of books read.

A soul drenched beneath a cornucopia of life’s sorrows.

As Charles Simic once said: ”Poetry is an orphan of silence,” and McRae knows this all    t-o-o well; which, for all intents and idiosyncratically inspired purposes, is something we need to be eternally grateful for.

So buy this book.
Read it.
Embrace it.
Totally devour it.
Absolutely love it.

David Marx.

The Butchers Of Berlin

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The Butchers Of Berlin
By Chris Petit
Simon & Schuster – £12.99

The last entry, in a shaking hand, was barely legible. ‘I would rest my head on her bosom and die content. Other than that there is nothing to live for, ‘Ten years of terror and we are dust already, waiting only for our bones to be ground, flesh reduced to the thinnest parchment, the spirit long departed. They have kicked the shit out of us.

Concise yet colourful, tough yet tightly written,Chris Petit’s The Butchers Of Berlin is a cornucopia of varying qualities, almost all of which insist on transporting the reader unto another place. A place that is intrinsically fascinating whilst simultaneously fraught with the psychological devastation of war (and everything that that entails).

That place is a war-torn Berlin in 1943, where one of the most quizzical of questions invariably needs to be asked: ”In the middle of a war, why should one more murder matter?”

Indeed.

The book’s prime protagonist, August Schlegel, is a reticent dog with a bone, who, if nothing else, intends (by default) to get to the bottom of a murder and a suicide that opens the book nigh immediately: ”The pistol was an old Mauser C96. He appreciated the aesthetics of its distinctive box magazine in front of the trigger, the long elegant barrel and comfort of the wooden handle. His last companion of choice. His hands were cold but he would not wear gloves. He passed through the apartment, careful not to disturb the others because he wished to leave unobserved. He closed the door softly behind him, stood at the top of the stairs and stared into the descending gloom.”

Such a rich mixture of introduction and explanation might well be all one needs – in order to head off into the literary litany of the unknown.

Other than the fact that a murder has taken place and it’s Berlin during the middle of the Second World War, the reader is essentially left to his or her own imaginative devices. An inner sanctum, which, it has to be said, is more than augmented by fine, novelistic writing:

”[…] the arrangement of the letters tight and sinister, as though the man had allowed the angriness in his brain to spill directly onto the page. Doodles filled the margins, black scribbles, angry crossing-out, strange fractures, skulls. They were a mess, yet strangely professional and abstracted, making them hard to read. Like the handwriting, they contrived to be both meticulous and explosive.

[…]

‘I have long ceased to exist, except as a husk, pausing only to note with heavy heart that suffering makes beasts of us all. Otherwise my days are filled with idle infatuation; the pathetic fantasies of an old man. Such beauty condemned. The nape of the neck. The turn of the hip. The delicate furrow between nose and lip (is there a name for that?).”’

”Such beauty condemned” might well have made for a far more inviting, interesting title for this these 482 pages. But, as Alan Moore has made perfectly clear since The Butchers Of Berlin’s publication: ”Conjuring a wartime Berlin where atrocities get lost against a ground of escalating Holocaust, Chris Petit’s nerve-wracking SS procedural nurses a dread that penetrates right to the marrow. An appalling, beautifully lit abyss.”

An appalling, beautifully lit abyss; what more could you ask for?

David Marx