3 Very Short Books on 3 Very Big Ideas4 min read

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This content was originally published by DANIEL W. DREZNER on 19 April 2017 | 8:05 pm.
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Of course, just as I was pondering whether “On Tyranny” exaggerates, Trump tweeted that the press is the enemy of the American people. That sounds awfully pre-fascist to me. So approach this short book the same way you would a medical pamphlet warning about an infectious disease. Read it carefully and be on the lookout for symptoms.

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THE SOUL OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT
By Floyd Abrams
145 pp. Yale University, $26.

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Claims of American exceptionalism can be exaggerated. But the First Amendment really does make America unique, even within the industrialized democracies. No other country has such stringent protections against government restrictions of free speech and a free press.

Abrams, a constitutional litigator, celebrates that fact in “The Soul of the First Amendment.” The best part of this short primer is his history of free speech jurisprudence in the United States. Abrams reminds us that federal protections of free speech rights are of recent provenance. A century ago, obscenity laws and community standards provided ample reason to justify government censorship. States, localities and courts restricted the freedom of the press without much constraint for the country’s first 150 years. The First Amendment was not applied to state censorship laws until 1925.

Abrams traces the legal history of the First Amendment all the way through to Citizens United, a case in which he represented the plaintiffs. Liberals who despise that ruling would be well served to read this book. Whatever the policy merits of letting corporations spend unlimited amounts on political advertising, Abrams ably defends its legal reasoning.

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He is on shakier ground, however, when he compares the First Amendment with laws regulating speech in other established democracies. Abrams acknowledges, for example, that Germany’s Nazi past makes it “understandable” to restrict hateful speech in that country. He then blithely notes that “the United States has been fortunate not to have suffered such horrific events.” I suspect that some Native Americans and African-Americans would take issue with Abrams on this point.

Abrams recognizes but offers no answers to the policy ramifications of Citizens United. He also seems willing to live with the social costs of actors like WikiLeaks publishing documents with no redaction: “What to print? The First Amendment provides no answer to this question. It never does.”

WHY WALL STREET MATTERS
By William D. Cohan
154 pp. Random House, $25.

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Economic populism has produced a bear market for attitudes about Wall Street. Public trust in banks dropped precipitously after 2008 and has not recovered. During his campaign, Donald Trump complained that “Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us.” As president, however, Trump has appointed several well-connected financiers. How should Americans feel about that?

The moment is ripe for a short book that explains the merits and demerits of America’s financial sector. Alas, Cohan’s “Why Wall Street Matters” is not that book. To be fair, he tries hard. Cohan repeatedly states that Wall Street is a marvelous contraption for allocating capital to the productive parts of the economy. The problem is that he offers no evidence for this claim beyond assertion. The closest he comes is when he stresses the success of Apple’s initial public offering. On the questions of share buybacks or Libor manipulation or the financial sector being responsible for an increasing fraction of the American economy, he is silent.

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Cohan is correct on some important matters regarding regulation, as when he argues that the revocation of Glass-Steagall was not responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. Unfortunately, elsewhere he offers mere bromides. On Dodd-Frank he quotes a Wall Street executive: “Keep the regulations that work and make sense and eliminate the rest.” Good to know.

Part of the confusion lies in what Cohan means by “Wall Street.” He has an introduction entitled “What Is Wall Street?” that manages never to answer his own question. In the introduction he says Wall Street is not some “strange form of alchemy”; but in the next chapter, he writes that “it’s a remarkable bit of alchemy.” This kind of confusion persists throughout the book.

The biggest problem with “Why Wall Street Matters” is its black-and-white framing. Cohan asks at the beginning whether Wall Street should be thought of as a force for good or evil. The obvious answer is “neither.” Wall Street should be thought of as an amoral collection of profit-seekers. Alas, Cohan remains a prisoner of that dichotomy for the length of this small book.

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