Biotech Billions: Money Driving Innovation

For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug is a 2023 non-fiction book that will make your head spin. Told like a thriller, the work covers the development of a some new drugs, tracing their movement from academic laboratories to Wall Street. It shines a light on the intersection of biotech and finance in wild world of healthcare. The book is chock full of larger-than-life characters, innovative science, creativity and simply oodles upon oodles of money. Along the way, too, peoples’ lives are saved. Unless you are familiar with the intricacies of drug development in modern global health care (and I am not), this is an eye opening book and a terrific read.

Nathan Vardi, an investigative journalist, wrote For Blood and Money. Formerly with Forbes and now with Market Watch, Vardi has a reporter’s instinct for following the money. He knows, too, the power of character and conflict in crafting an engaging narrative. The foundation of the book are Vardi’s first-person interviews with many of the players.

The chronology is complicated, yet not all that unusual when it comes to drug development. Access to lots of money, unsurprisingly, is often more important in terms of decision-making and timing than the science..

Robert W. Duggan, an investor, venture capitalist, and businessman is the first major source of funds. Duggan made his initial money in consumer goods, then bakeries, followed by tech. Following the death of his adult son from an aggressive cancer, Duggan, a Scientologist, looked to biotech for investment and direction. He bought into a small company called Pharmacyclics, whose stock prices was low and whose inventory of new drugs was small. Even though Duggan had no scientific training, he was a hard-driving and brilliant manager, and he took over the company. The interest was spurred by Pharmacyclics’s work on tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitors showed the possibility of helping with arthritis treatment through strengthening B cells without causing auto-immune problems. Another company, Celera, had developed molecules for synthetic BTK inhibitors and sold it to Pharmacyclics. The team at the company, after much work, decided that the drug could be effective in treating adult leukemia (CLI). Duggan invested his own money and leaned hard on two new hires, Ahmed Hamdy, the new CEO, and later Raquel Izumi, to clear the hurdles and bring the drug to market. A doctor, Olympic level athlete with a PhD in experimental pathology, Hamdy played a critical role in getting the drug developed and to trials. Izumi, who left academia for biotech, has a PhD in microbiology and knows how to get things done. Vardi tracks the trials, the ups and downs, and above all the conflicts as the company tried to develop the drug. Early efforts were promising and additional financial support came through and experienced Wall Street investor and trader, Wayne Rothbaum. None of it, though, was at all guaranteed.

As the drug showed more and more promise, within the company there were ongoing struggles over what kinds of trials, what sort of processes, and how best to situate the drug in the market. Duggan fired Hamdy and Izumi, found a new players, and sought greater funding. The drug was eventually named ibrutinib. Rothbaum cashed out too early to gain real benefits from the eventual deal Duggan made with AbbiVie, a major pharmaceutical company. Ibrunitib has been very profitable and successful. Pharmacyclics grew into a billion-dollar company and Duggan, for his efforts and investments, earned upwards of $3.5 billion dollars. The early scientific talent, Hamdy and Izumi, pocketed next to nothing. The drug’s expensive cost, approximately $130,000 per year per patient in 2015, has been an extraordinary money-maker.

The story, though, is far from over, for Hamdy and Izumi remained in touch. They found a different company, a different drug – based on similar biochemical research – and tapped into financial support from Rothbaum. They partnered with some Dutch biotech innovators, were able to secure intellectual property at low rates, and began focusing on bringing a different BTK inhibitor to market. The finances and deals were complex and shifting. Would this be a better partner? What does the financing truly cost? Vardi’s steady hand, happily, gives it all a sense of clarity. The ongoing challenges are having enough resources for the massive investment in drug trials, the networks within the health care and research systems to find candidates, work the system, and above all the team of lawyers and financial experts to keep it all in play. There is great risk in drug development. Many never make it to market. The drugs in For Blood and Money made it in great part because of their effectiveness in treating an incurable cancer and the various ways that companies could profit.

The former Pharmacyclics team’s new company, Acerta, found great success in trials for its new drug. Internal stresses and conflicts remained. Rothbaum pushed Hamdy hard and then demoted him, giving a new CEO a shot at running the company. Manufacturing problems complicated development, as did financial challenges. Acerta eventually found a partner in AstraZenica, a much larger pharmaceutical, after tense and complicated negotiations. That sale, broken up into two parts, was again for billions of dollars. The leukemia drug was branded as Calquence and is now a major treatment worldwide. More lawsuits, of course, followed. Early workers in the firm, like Hamdy and Izumi, profited in the tens of millions of dollars. There was great internal conflict, however, for Rothbaum pocketed more than $3 billion.

One way to make sense of the amazing developments in biotechnology is to focus on the science. For Blood and Money makes crystal clear that it is but one part of the story. Equal, if not greater attention, must be given to the astronomical amounts of money that drug development can generate. Biotech and finance are linked at the hip. While this book does not explore any ethical questions, they hover around the story. So many questions remain to be asked. Nathan Vardi’s book is an outstanding introduction to the reality of current drug development.

David Potash

Tune-up or Rebuild the Machinery of Government

A few years into the Trump presidency, two Harvard University professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote How Democracies Die. The book was a best-seller, calling out the decline in tolerance and respect across political party divides. The pair followed that effort in 2023 with Tyranny of the Minority. Equally popular, this volume highlights historical crises to make arguments for deep structural reform in the American machinery of government.

The authors frame current political conditions through a particular lens. They believe that as the US has been moving to a multiracial democracy, whites have led a retreat from democracy and embraced an authoritarian alternative. They stress that the US’s embrace of extremism stands apart from other countries and that America’s backsliding from democracy is unique. The US Constitution, the book argues, is a key reason. Institutions do not save democracy, the authors stress. Instead, they claim that it is people and action.

Tyranny of the Minority draws on historical examples from countries other than the US. Levitsky is a comparative political scientist and Ziblatt has studied conservative parties in Europe. They note that in healthy democracies, the peaceful transfer of power in paramount. Looking at American history, they stress the difficulties the Federalists faced in 1800. They believe that the peaceful transfer of power is easier when the losing party believes that it stands a chance of winning in the future and that losing will not lead to catastrophe. These are not rules but instead observations drawn from historical examples at the national level.

The authors also draw comparative examples from France in 1934. At the time, a period of significant economic hardship across many countries, there were widespread politically motivated riots and little accountability afterwards. Levitsky and Ziblatt identify semi-loyal democrats, leaders whose commitment to democracy wavers in the face of opportunity, as one of the greatest threats in times of conflict. Weak democrats (small “d”) provide the environment for authoritarianism to grow. Authoritarianism, they believe, is “banal” and tolerated to a dangerous degree.

From that point, the authors pivot to ways that authoritarians and weak democrats can erode democracy: exploit gaps in rules, excessive use of the law, selective use of law enforcement, and “lawfare,” the creation of laws that go after political opponents. They draw on US history to demonstrate that this has happened in America, in the failures of Reconstruction and especially through the riots/coup in Wilmington, NC, in the 1890s.

The book then jumps to contemporary American politics, noting that the current Republican party has changed dramatically. The authors believe that the source of the shift stems from America’s growth of a multiracial democracy. Issues of class do not figure in the argument. Rather, white fear, exacerbated by the Obama presidency, is identified as the culprit. Radicalization of the GOP took place through primaries, moving the party farther and farther to the right with each campaign. Trump accelerated the process. As a consequence, the authors affirm, the Republican party today is not in alignment with key democratic principles: accept the results of fair elections, reject the use of violence to gain power, and have no ties with antidemocratic extremists.

And what of majorities? Tyranny of the Minority highlights the many ways in America that majority impulses are constrained by the courts, the constitution, as well as laws and practice. The authors admit that majorities do need limits in healthy democracies, especially when it comes to civil liberties and in the rules of democracy itself. For example, a law that facilitates someone staying in power indefinitely is not acceptable. Going deeper into the scholarship, the book references Melissa Schwartzberg, who has studies how supermajority rules can advance the rights of specific minorities. As an example, think about white slaveholders in the 1800s or wealthy farmers securing water rights.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the book underscores the many provisions in the constitution that limit the power of majorities. Known to everyone who has studied basic government in high school, they include the formation of states, the bicameral US Congress and Senate, the Electoral College and much more. With the oldest form of government on the planet, America has not addressed these deep anti-majority provisions, the authors argue. What remains, or has remained in the United States, is minority rule. Two examples put forward include abortion/reproductive rights and gun control, issues where the majority of Americans have opinions that are in conflict with law and policy. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt are not concerned about this tension. Instead, they worry that the minority will subvert laws to become permanently entrenched.

Other countries have navigated these changes. The US has not and the stumbling block, the authors assert, is the difficulty of amending the Constitution. Their call, accordingly, is to change and become a multiracial democracy or not be a democracy at all. The authors push for expanding and insuring the right to vote, making sure that majorities who win elections do get to rule, and a number of other changes, from ending the Senate filibuster to judicial terms limits.

Tyranny of the Minority is written clearly in a matter-of-fact tone. Its description of America’s current problems is well-reasoned and the book’s call for attention and reform of the nation’s machinery of government is timely. Moreover, the author’s contextualization of the US within global and historical examples is commendable. Far too often implicit American exceptionalism clouds analysis.

On the other side of the ledger, I have concerns with the book’s use of historical examples and the authors’ diagnosis of America’s current political landscape. The term “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. That was not accidental. Understanding and appreciation of democratic norms have varied tremendously over the years. Implicit in the book is an assumption of wide understanding and appreciation of democracy, perhaps as hoped for during the Obama presidency. Instead, history illustrates, again and again, that democratic processes and assumptions are always being tested. Whether it is voting rights for people of color or women, or when and how certain decisions are made (referendum, judicial decision, initiative), democratic concepts are more fluid than the authors acknowledge.

Further complicating the book’s argument is the absence of appreciation of republican conceptions of government. The Constitution guarantees a “republican” form of government. Tyranny of the Minority would have been significantly stronger if the authors has given attention to an analysis of representative democracy as exercised through a republic. Likewise missing from the book’s big-picture argument are economics and financial concerns. The authors regularly write of multiracial democracy. They do not write about an inclusive democracy that affords rights to the poor. Many scholars believe that economic inequality is of equal if not greater importance to diagnosing America’s current political conflict.

Tyranny of the Minority rightly raises vital historical, political and policy issues that are central to keeping America’s democratic traditions alive and vibrant. Levitsky and Ziblatt deserve praise for making these issues accessible for public debate. However, the book is far from the definitive or last word on the issue.

David Potash

Tall Fences, Happy Neighbors and Unhappy Communities

Richard H. Kahlenberg is an idea machine, a writer on public policy who offers new and challenging takes on difficult problems. He has written on higher education, schools, affirmative action, teachers unions and more through books, journals and articles. A graduate of Harvard, college and law, his curiosity and desire for a fairer, more just America, drives his work. Kahlenberg’s latest effort, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimybism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See is provocative examination of one of the country’s most intractable issues: fair housing. Overflowing with observations, ranging from history to policy to economics to anecdote, the book makes a compelling argument that the problems surrounding housing are much deeper, and influential, than most realize. It had me thinking about housing in America in different ways.

How might one think about and explain housing in the US? Focus on a city, a neighborhood, or region? Some scholars do comparison analyses while others look to explore policy, framing high-level issues and contrasting that with what happens locally, in a particular city or neighborhood. Complicating the question, there are many different housing policies and practices, as well as local histories of housing, throughout the country. The topic is so large that definitions and boundaries inherently complicate the work and potential understanding. In Excluded, Kahlenberg’s focus is on exclusionary zoning and its impact. He argues that exclusionary zoning is discriminatory and causes great harm, possibly even more than sexism and racism. Zoning determines who lives where. That has tremendous consequences, shaping opportunities, jobs, education, health care, quality of life and even length of life. We all know that poverty, a seemingly intractable problem, is concentrated in geographic areas. Kahlenberg stresses in this book that those concentrations are the result of political policy choices, often expressed through zoning policy.

Excluded, though, is not just a policy study. It shares the stories of people, families, and the effects of housing on their lives. It may sound basic, yet it is vital to underscore this point. Where one lives dictates so much, shaping and framing the boundaries of a life.

The book is not only interested in those that are excluded. On the flip side, those that have been able to secure housing have seen tremendous economic benefit, particularly in the past fifty years. The book underscores how zoning, tax policy and other imposed limitations on housing have driven up prices and will continue to do so. Kahlenberg reminds up that it was not always so in the United States. Decades ago affordable housing facilitated internal migration and greater opportunities. Current policy framed through exclusionary zoning works in the other direction. Its negative impact is mostly felt by those of color and without wealth.

Exclusionary zoning can take many forms. Excluded would have been stronger with a more systematic exploration of it. These include banning multiple family dwellings to increased lot size to landlords refusing to rent to those with housing assistance, and many other policy decisions. “Economic zoning is perfectly legal,” Kahlenberg repeatedly emphasizes. The book’s chapters do not make distinct arguments so much as reinforce each other. Class bias, the smugness and self-interest of those that have (be their on the left or the right), and the unwillingness of political leaders to address these core vehicles of inequality are likewise recurring themes. Moreover, most attempts at zoning reform fail.

The history is not all dire. Excluded does a fine job highlighting innovative efforts in Minneapolis and Portland. Kahlenberg stresses, though, that change at the federal level is essential. The latter part of the book is an overview and plea for the Economic Fair Housing Act, proposed legislation that never became law during the early years of the Biden administration. In fact, a shorter rewritten version of Excluded would serve as a powerful argument for the act.

Excluded is very interesting. It is informative, without being particularly systematic nor wonkish. More than anything else, it will raise your awareness and make you ask questions about housing policies, be they local or larger. How we think about the question of who lives where needs new life. Towards that end, Richard Kahlenberg has done important service.

David Potash

Cabot and TR: Friendship For the Ages (and History Books)

One is hard-pressed to think of a more durable and historically important friendship between politicians than that between long-time Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and President Theodore Roosevelt. For more than forty years the two helped each other personally and professionally, and socialized, individually and with their friends and families. Of great value to the historian, they also wrote to each other all the time. The pair had an outsize impact on American politics and policy. Yet until Laurence Jurdem’s The Rough Rider and the Professor, there has never been a systematic study of their relationship. This work of popular history is a welcome and valuable contribution.

Jurdem is an adjunct professor of history at two institutions and a writer of articles and books. He knows his way around the scholarship and how to craft accessible and rigorous prose. While much has been written about Roosevelt and Lodge, the heart of The Rough Rider and the Professor is a close study of the Lodge-Roosevelt correspondence at the Massachusetts Historical Society. An indefatigable correspondent, Roosevelt’s letters crackle with energy and are well known to many scholars. He did not edit his correspondence after the fact. Lodge, trained as an historian and a professor at Harvard, was cut from a different cloth. He scrupulously edited and when he published a two volume set of his correspondence with Roosevelt, judicious trimming to present their relationship in a particular light. Accordingly, not many scholars have spent the time in Boston studying Lodge’s unedited correspondence. Happily, Jurdem put in the effort. The book highlights the deep personal connection between the two men.

Lodge, born in 1850 to a patrician New England family, was one of the first Americans to receive a PhD in history (after his law degree). Well known as a historian with many published works, Lodge surprised his family and friends by pursuing a career in electoral politics. He was in Congress for six years and represented Massachusetts in the US Senate for 31 years. Early in Lodge’s career he led an unsuccessful effort to improve voting rights for Black Americans in the south. Later in his career he led the resistance to keeping the United States out of the League of Nations. Lodge first met Roosevelt in 1884 as both men were involved in Republican politics and the potential nomination of James Blaine as presidential candidate. The hit it off immediately.

Roosevelt also came from a family known for public service. Born in 1858, Roosevelt’s biography is well-known, from his pursuit of the strenuous life after fighting childhood asthma, to the tragic death of his first wife and mother, to his time in the Dakotas and service in the US Army. He truly was a larger than life figure. Roosevelt attended Harvard years after Lodge and while they were both active in politics and public life, their paths did not cross until Lodge wrote to TR. Once they met in person, they bonded through interest in party reform, US history and politics, and a shared sense of commitment to service. Immensely talented and driven men, they forged a connection that lasted throughout the years, through agreement and disagreement, triumph and tragedy.

Jurem’s book is strongest on the early years of the friendship and the powerful ways in which party loyalty and structure shaped the arc of careers. Lodge’s age and influence were of great value to Roosevelt, whose early political aspirations were often thwarted. He was, after all, far too much of a force of nature to fit neatly into organizational strictures. Lodge knew how to play the game, how to work friendships and barter. Roosevelt was much more direct and his greatest source of agency came from the amazing ways in which he connected with people of all stripes and backgrounds. For both, and really all politically ambitious Americans at the time, knowing how best to navigate the ways and mores of party were essential. The GOP, as a big tent major party, frequently struggled with factionalism, regionalism and the pressure of this or that internal group. Being able to disagree, drive change, and yet still come together and act collectively is a skill that party membership demanded and developed.

As Lodge became more secure in the Senate and Roosevelt ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Present McKinley, their friendship remained but it was marked by understandable professional distance. Here, Jurem’s book is on less secure ground, especially as the swirl of national politics forced frequent realignments re-realignments. What stands out, however, is that the men and their families consistently found time to connect with each other.

The Rough Rider and the Professor is a well-researched and well-written joint biography of a very important friendship. Perhaps best read and appreciated by those with an interest in some background in late 1800s and early 1900s American politics, the book offers a valuable contribution to understanding American political history. It is also interesting in and of itself on the subject of friendship – what was possible then, and for the curious, what might be possible today.

David Potash

The Genetic Brilliance In and Of the Gene

History of science can make for difficult sledding, easily derailed by detail or lost in the woods of explanation. Without knowledge and care, scholars can skip by the hard work, the starts and stops, and the fascinating processes that make for discoveries. When done well, history of science steers through these challenges and leaves one energized about the potential of human knowledge.

One of the best examples of the history of science done exceptionally well is Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. It is an extraordinarily good book, a comprehensive volume that does not overwhelm if digested in small bites. Mukherjee tells a tale of science, of discovery, and of family history in an accessible manner, laced with beauty and grace throughout. The questions Mukherjee raises are all the more important, too, for the book goes well beyond a chronological explanation of science. The issues surrounding genes, genetics and biotech speak to fundamental concerns of identity and meaning. Who are we as people? As individuals? As a species? And of ever greater importance, what are the ethical boundaries to this amazing science of genetics? The things that we now know and are able to do today simply were unimaginable a few decades ago, and the pace of innovation is accelerating.

The Gene succeeds on several levels. Perhaps its greatest strength is its systematic pursuit of how scientists came to understand genomes, genes, DNA and the possibilities of biotechnology. Mukherjee does this as he patiently maps out terminology, concepts and the myriad of problems and solutions that emerge over the decades. The book likewise succeeds as an ethical primer. Scientific and technical advances carry with them questions of morality and of choice. How those topics are raised, debated, and resolved (or not) is a theme that Mukherjee handles elegantly. Further, he examines the very real consequences of genes and their variations in the stories of his family and others. These are not abstract scientific topics. They can and do directly affect lives. Mukherjee is a doctor, not just a scholar, and his thinking and writing are profoundly affected by a physician’s priority to heal.

The Gene stresses the essential distinctions between genotypes, what the genes alone tell us, and phenotypes, how the genes develop and manifest themselves in life. It is a distinction that carries with it significant consequences about how we think and understand genetics. It means that we have to appreciate that genetic variation is neither good nor bad. Variation is just that: variation. Some variations provide advantages in certain environments and others do not. Mukherjee is superb in reminding us of the many different ways that normative thinking can cloud or distort understanding. It was a factor in the nineteenth century, throughout the succeeding decades, and remains so today.

While explanation drives the book’s structure, finishing The Gene in no ways gives one a sense of completion. On the contrary – one can imagine many additional chapters on the innovations of the past few years and innumerable future volumes to continue to story.

Lastly, Mukherjee’s writing deserves fulsome praise. He is an extremely talented author, above and beyond his brilliance as a genetic researcher and physician. Mukherjee’s mastery of the science, his ability offer helpful framing framing of big picture issues and questions, and his skill at weaving the individual and anecdotal make this book a joy to read. It is worthy of its many awards and prizes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Mukherjee’s books. A physician, teacher, researcher, writer – the big question remaining: When and where does he find the time?

David Potash

Fighting Fascists on the Homefront

Rachel Maddow is a fine writer. Known for her award-winning show on MSNBC, Maddow has authored several books. Her latest, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, is a well-researched and engaging work of popular history. It is an important book, too, for it shines a light on a often-overlooked episode in America’s past. Prequel offers a look at many of the key fascist activists and spies in the U.S. leading up to World War II. Long on personalities, the book brings the story to life through peppery prose and close attention to individuals and conflict. It is no accident that the book opens with a “Cast of Characters.”

Drawing on a wealth of traditional scholarship that Maddow graciously acknowledges, Prequel is strongest when demonstrating how some American fascists gained influence and how they failed or were stopped. We know many of their names. The architect Philip Johnson was an earlier Nazi supporter, and while Louisiana Senator Huey Long was murdered before Hitler gained power, Maddow rightly attends to his anti-democratic tendencies. So, too, does the enormously popular radio host, Father Charles Coughlin, who made antisemitism a key component of his message.

Prequel hits its stride when Maddow writes about the anti-fascists. A courageous young Minnesota journalist, Arnold Eric Sevareid, investigated the “Silver Shirts,” a local fascist organization. Leon Lewis, a California lawyer, created an anti-fascist spy organization to gather information. He and his team did daring work yet government officials were reluctant to act. It is a recurring theme that Maddow underscores: consistent unwillingness to take the fascist threat seriously. Nonetheless, it was a significant concern, particularly as she recounts the theft of weapons and ammunition and accompanying training by the “Country Gentlemen” in New York State. Public statements supporting Nazi Germany, Nazi anti-Jewish pogroms, and explicit antisemitism were rampant. Yet few were censured and when the law was broken, convictions were equally rare.

Other lesser known heroes include FBI agent Leon Turrou, whose story infiltrating a Nazi spy ring was made into a popular movie. Justice Department prosecutor O. John Rogge sought cases against fascists and Nazi sympathizers. And most surprising, a direct mail advertiser, Henry Hoke, led a person campaign that uncovered the free franking of anti-Jewish mailers by federal elected officials sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Germany at the time was working to stoke divisions in American politics. The fight against the Nazis in the 1930s was not an organized coordinated effort. Instead, it was led by the heroics of people in different roles and places, people who took it upon themselves to defend democracy.

Maddox does not talk about current affairs in Prequel but the present is never too far from the book. It is for good reason, too. Democratic rights are not a given. Instead, they require ongoing protection and action. This was true in the years leading up to World War II, just as it is today.

David Potash

Righteous Rage at the Hollywood Machine

It often seems that every few days a new story emerges about bad behavior in Hollywood. It’s a feature of the tabloids. It is in mainstream media, too, be it an alleged sexual assault, a lawsuit regarding discrimination, or straightforward awful behavior. From the rapes committed by Bill Cosby to the despicable behavior of Harvey Weinstein to the firing or resignation of this executive or that, it often feel like a recurring theme in the entertainment industry. It is not new news, either. Was Howard Hughes all that different from many other powerful men (it is almost always men) who used and abused? Assessing conditions over time is difficult but one wonders, as society works to provide more protection to people in their places of work, whether conditions have improved.

Reading Maureen Ryan’s Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood offers a damning picture to address that question. A journalist with decades of experience in the entertainment field, Ryan is well situated to catalog, reveal, and explain a long-standing culture and practice of bad behavior. Her book is fueled by rage at injustice. She knows many in the industry and as she recounts tales of exploitation and injustice, one can feel the heat of anger on the page. Burn It Down, though, offers more than anger. Ryan is explicit about ways that things could change for the better.

There is an immediacy to the text that engages, akin to long form journalism. That kind of writing brings with it a sense that we are insiders. We learn about this or that TV show, the people involved, and the culture and practice. One can imagine industry professionals talking in a similar way. We learn about the informal structures that go into making a production. I had not realized the extent to which many productions are created through extraordinarily hierarchic structures. Ryan’s descriptions remind one of stories of ships centuries ago, when a captain was a god with little or no accountability. A TV show run the same way? It was news to me that so much of Hollywood’s work, from the studio heads to the producers to the movies and shows, were organized and managed along those lines. The very organizational structures seem to facilitate the possibility of bad behavior.

Ryan’s book is full of examples, from underpaid and exploited lower level employees, to suicides and breakdowns. She has tales of bullying, toxic actions, sexual assaults, intimidation, blackmail, and out and out criminal activity. Reading Burn it Down makes one wonder whether the fame and money for those in the industry are worth the massive costs. More than a few supremely talented people have walked away. Or were paid to leave, thanks to negotiated settlements, NDAs, or less ethical means.

The heart of the book comes from many interviews Ryan had with actors and entertainment industry employees, mostly in 2021 and 2022. Many names and shows are kept anonymous. Ryan supplements the first-person accounts with lawsuits, depositions, arrests and old-fashioned journalism. She goes deep into the problems with several popular shows. Lost, Sleepy Hollow, and SNL loom large.

A short-coming of the book’s immediacy, however, is that it can be difficult to know the players, structures and stories around the many shows and movies and productions. Burn It Down is probably best read and understood by those that have first-person experience in the entertainment industry. Ryan does not offer much big-picture structure or data to help frame the industry or the scope of the problem. The book contains data and facts, to be sure, but without the structure, it is difficult to keep the timelines and players clear. I found myself searching for information about shows, actors, producers and the like to better contextualize Ryan’s histories.

The author is a fan, committed to the creation of good stories and entertainment. Ryan cares and her enthusiasm gives momentum to her writing. She wants us to realize, as she has come to understand, that there are important distinctions between the quality of a show and the quality of the conditions that informed the creation of that show.

Ryan’s recommendations range from the common sense to bigger shifts in how the entertainment business is organized. The absence of professional development for those in leadership position is striking, as are the guidelines that exist in so many other areas of the economy. Lawsuits and egregious behavior, which make the press, are not reliable guideposts to what is and is not acceptable. Ryan’s suggestions for ongoing and structured training, coupled with a deep commitment to diversity, make good sense. But how might they be implemented?

Another deeper question remains: would those who have been enjoying the wealth, power and influence for so many decades be willing to change? Ryan knows that it will take much more than exposes, law suits and well-written books to facilitate improvements. Burn It Down is a welcome step in the right direction.

David Potash

Seeing Through Myths and Stories

Nesrine Malik is a London-based journalist who writes for The Guardian and presents on the BBC. Born in the Sudan, Malik spent most of her early years in the mid-east before moving to the UK. She writes about contemporary politics, especially in the U.S. and England, Islam, and identity politics. Malik is very smart and unapologetic in her critiques. She provides a vital perspective, informed by her personal history.

Right before the pandemic, Malik’s book, We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom, was published. It is a short, accessible and thoughtful presentation of six “myths: that frame US/UK political culture. Do not think of Joseph Campbell. Instead, conjure up what everyone knows to be true but turns out is not, actually, true. Malik efficiently assesses and critiques these myths, or commonly accepted “truths”, as most definitely creative fictions. They are lies or misunderstandings with a purpose and impact. She effectively argues in the book that the myths stand in the way of human freedom.

Malik’s focus, accordingly, is not on just on using data to demonstrate what is and is not accurate. She is after something slightly different, the effect of mindset when it comes to how important big picture political issues are framed. The six myths Malik calls out are the myth of the reliable narrator, political correctness, a free speech crisis, harmful identity politics, national exceptionalism and gender equality. The terrain is all contemporary. Each chapter, though, provides some reference as each of these have lengthy and complicated historical roots. Woven throughout the exposition are examples and observations drawn from Malik’s personal history as an Islamic woman growing up in the Sudan. She sees things that many of us who have lived in the culture might not recognize.

For each of the myths, Malik presents data, resources and examples to illustrate the fundamental unsoundness of the commonly accepted story. The reliable narrators in the past two decades, for example, reliably get many things wrong and rarely apologize. She examines here the “wise leaders” who preach a particular course of action and the preeminent example is the invasion of Iraq. Untold numbers died, billions were expended, and accountability never really happened. In fact, the same leaders and leadership structures remain as influential today. Our narrators, in other words, need to be questioned. Malik’s argument is compelling. When it comes to political correctness and a crisis of free speech, Malik emphasizes that what is different today is that those with power and influence are peddling these issues for gain. Are we truly in a crisis where many are afraid to speak honestly because of the heavy weight of political correctness? Malik underscores the recurring strategy of creating a sense of victimhood to motivate identity and political action. Exactly who is being harmed and how when people celebrate their identities? Or interrogate stories of national exceptionalism?

The book is interesting, well-paced and solid. Malik delivers her claims effectively. Missing are discussions of why these myths are so prevalent and exist across countries, cultures and histories. She does not give much energy into exploring why these myths are so successful. In the marketplace of ideas and arguments, why does an imagined fear of political correctness have legs while other fears and issues do not? Malik hints at reasons, but does not travel that path. It is unfortunate, for many of her exploded myths tightly align with decades of provocative scholarship on nationalism. Stories of injustice and victim hood are effective tools at mobilizing political support and agency in some circumstances. It is key to remember, too, that victims are rarely asked to think of anything or anything other than themselves. Perhaps in another book.

I am looking forward to reading more from Nesrine Malik. We need her insights and perspective.

David Potash

Is the Meritocracy Fair of Foul?

How do you define a “meritocracy”? Editor and prolific author Adrian Wooldridge has an excellent answer. First, it is about people getting ahead because of their natural talents. Second, it is grounded in a society that provides education for all so that there is equality of opportunity. Third, it does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or similar traits. Lastly, it provides jobs through fair processes, as opposed to nepotism or patronage. Most people approve of these basic characteristics, yet the term “meritocracy” has been losing favor for decades. In a lengthy exposition, The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, Wooldridge provides a history of meritocracy and proposes a rehabilitation of the term.

An academic with strong credentials who moved into journalism as an editor and writer, Wooldridge has the background and interests to tackle this ambitious task. Aristocracy of Talent is encyclopedic, drawing heavily upon history, philosophy and politics for centuries. Wooldridge’s comfort in bringing extensive sources into mix, as well as forging broad arguments, drives the narrative smartly. He bypasses questions and concerns. It is a book brimming with assertions and confidence, moving from Plato to the Hapsburgs, from the French Revolution to the creation and implementation of IQ tests. Wooldridge draws upon a wide swath of references. For example, his use of the the history of the development of the Chinese state bureaucracy, the mandarins, is very strong. It reminded me of Max Weber’s work on the same topic. Wooldridge’s ability to use these kinds of references in this global context makes for a very provocative read. The book is at its best when it is the most historical, threading together different culture. As it moves closer to contemporary times, the assertions in Aristocracy of Talent are less effective.

Wooldridge’s big picture lens is consistently focused on politics and political philosophy. It is with this priority that the example of the leadership of the Chinese emperors rings as so relevant. Absent from the book, though, is adequate examination the massive changes in western life from the late 1800s on: the development of the professions, the rise of science, and accompanying massive economic shifts. Societies may or may not seek the best trained when it comes to positions of political influence. The consequences of that may or may not be significant. However, indifference to education and talent is not possible when it comes to technological innovation, to research, or to the complexities of managing a modern business or corporation. Meritocratic paths of advancement became essential to economic effectiveness by the start of the twentieth century. That entire thread of change, the rise of professions and paths to professionalism, does not feature prominently in this book.

As many historians have studied, opportunities for wealth and career became significantly more tightly connected with education with professionalization, a process that began in the late 1800s and accelerated throughout the twentieth century. Political elites did not drive these tectonic changes. Instead, it was the demands of a new economy that sped the growth of the meritocratic ideal. Along like lines, the G.I. Bill after World War II, which Wooldridge examines in detail, did not have a profound impact simply because it put servicemen in college. College education after the war increasingly aligned itself with economic needs. College-educated veterans were able to find higher paying jobs and build long-lasting careers in fields that simply were not present decades earlier.

Challenges to points of access after WWII also impacted meritocratic practices. Advances for women and people of color was far from secure. It remains a challenging topic, particularly when supposedly “meritocractic” processes can serves as hurdles or gates to entry. Are we truly providing education for all in a society free of prejudice based on race, gender or other characteristics?

Wooldridge does not spend much time with these complaints. Instead, he asserts that more recent criticisms of meritocracy are driven by those who want society to have equality of outcomes. While that may be true for some, is it true for all? Wooldridge lumps together criticisms of meritocracy from those on the left with those coming from populists. Again, is that really the case?

Wooldridge is correct in attributing much of society’s growth to the rise of the intelligent. What are the alternatives? That said, he does not put his intellectual talents towards considerations of the distribution of wealth today and the factors that have reshaped economic equity in the past few decades. Can we confidently claim that rise in the number of billionaires and the persistence of poverty is due to intelligence and talent? Or are there other factors at play? Considering the growing inequality and the extraordinary gains of those at the top one percent of the wealthy, I would suggest looking beyond meritocracy. Unfortunately, that thread is not part of Aristocracy of Talent. Criticisms of wealth begetting privilege and data about who has and who does not are not in Wooldridge’s oeuvre.

The absence is frustrating, for Wooldridge most certainly has the skills, tools and context to appreciate arguments against meritocratic assertions that are neither grounded in idealistic liberalism nor resentful populism. Many complaints about the meritocracy, as currently practiced, are not ideological, but rather are empirical. What does the data show about access to high quality education and key jobs? Were Wooldridge to challenge himself, perhaps spending time at a public university, he might appreciate alternative viewpoints. All one has to do is listen to the millions of students who seek a fair shake at getting an excellent education and the opportunity to be hired at a top company to understand that many do not see meritocratic possibilities. They perceive unfairness. This is not about scandals or cheating, either, points that Wooldridge raises. Instead, it is about the over-representation of the wealthy in what many had hoped would be real opportunities. Declines in social mobility are not imaginary, and they are very much felt by those whose who know that there chances are slim when it comes to getting a strong education and a well-paying job.

I very much agree with Wooldridge’s initial argument regarding the value of meritocracy, especially when it comes to realizing the definition he sets out. Moreover, I agree, too, that meritocratic thinking and practice has been essential in building the modern world. Where I differ from The Aristocracy of Talent is that I do not see the evidence that we are currently living those meritocratic ideals that Wooldridge so eloquently provided. His bar is high. Let us see if it is possible for us to live it.

The comprehensive Aristocracy of Talent is a provocative book, a work that engages and requires the thoughtful reader to question assumptions and assertions. And while I believe that the book misses the mark on several key arguments, it is and will remain an important work in the field. The question of how we see more of those meritocratic ideals in our lives is the necessary next question.

David Potash

Navigating Sprawl with Pop Culture

One of the iconic figures from Paris in the 1800s is the flaneur, a man of leisure who wanders through the city, observing and writing. Flaneurs have been linked to modernism, in particular a sense of simultaneous engagement and alienation, and above all, with the city. They are our historical experts in describing the day-to-day as well as the profound, making sense of the complexities of urban life in the nineteenth century.

What does one do today with the American suburbs? Who can explain these strange spaces?

Those questions circled around my reading of Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering The Weird American Suburbs. Diamond, now a denizen of Brooklyn, is a product of the Chicago suburbs. He is a journalist, critic, writer and modern day flaneur. The Sprawl is a thoroughly researched yet idiosyncratic wander through America’s suburbs, a road trip across the country as well as down memory lane. Neither history nor social science, the book is a very interesting meditation on sprawl through the eyes of a very well-informed critic.

There’s history and some facts in The Sprawl, but Diamond’s primary vehicle of understanding is popular culture. Want to understand the Chicago suburbs? He would give us the movies of John Hughes, as well as reference indie rock and Wayne’s World. While I’m reasonably up on many of his references, Diamond’s knowledge is encyclopedic and deep. He spins a network of popular culture to map the burbs. Woven throughout the book are Diamond’s personal recollections, his personal history, and his predilections. He comes across as a very interesting person, a pleasant and curious guy who writes very well.

Are American suburbs all that strange? Sprawl – America’s suburbs and exurbs – are by definition spaces defined by what they are not. They are neither rural nor urban. They are not small towns. Sprawl is the space around and in between, the plazas, roads, highways and byways between shopping plazas and housing developments. It is easy to get lost, physically and in terms of meaning, when the only available markers are negatives. Diamond’s challenge is that what he is looking at is everywhere and nowhere.

Despite the constraints, Diamond tells a good story. The Sprawl rightly received several awards. It is not a map, but this book is most certainly an entertaining and informative guide.

David Potash