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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 200 pages short, 17 Jan 2014
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This review is from: The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy (Hardcover)
I've followed Philip Coggan for at least fifteen years. Probably more. He is very clearly a genius. As far as I know, only two people in history have been able to produce a masterpiece every week, 52 weeks a year. One's Johann Sebastian Bach. Readers of "The Short View" know that the other one is Philip Coggan. For a long time I kept an article of his under my pillow, like Alexander kept the Iliad.

But this book's a dud.

Don't get me wrong, Philip Coggan's genius has not gone AWOL. It's fully on display. Page 87, for example, has a one-line description of the Great Depression: "..in 1929 ... an American economic slowdown caused the supply of credit to Germany to slow up. Banks collapsed, along with consumer and business confidence.." For those of us not paying attention he follows up with "The ensuing Great Depression was a huge challenge, both to governments of the day and to prevailing economic theory. Industrial production fell 25% in Britain and France and more than 40% in the US and Germany. Unemployment rose to 25% in the US and more than 50% elsewhere."

So the man is brilliant. But when I read a book I expect three things. I want to learn. I want to be challenged. And I hope to be entertained. "The Last Vote" fails on all three fronts. I read the whole thing and I can say I have learned absolutely nothing. And (with one exception I promise I'll get to) I have found nary a sentence, word or exclamation mark to disagree with. So I was not entertained, then, either.

Only two conclusions can follow from the above observation. Either Philip Coggan and myself find ourselves at a nirvana from where we can clearly see all the answers, or this book fails to ask enough questions. I'm afraid it's the latter.

What we have here is one of those big maps with a dot that says "you are here" preceded by some 200 (out of 266) pages on "how you got here." If you have a friend who has been in a coma for a long time and has never read Samuel Huntington (or similar) I can thoroughly recommend "The Last Vote" as a way for your friend to catch up with the evolution of American and European democracy, the coming demise of the European Project etc. Example: the US Constitution was written by landed white men whose main beef was they did not want to pay UK tax (and still very much reflects their values). Example two: people get the vote after risking all in a war or alternatively after keeping the economy going while their husbands and brothers are risking all in a war. Switzerland (no wars) did not give women the vote till the seventies. Example three: European elites made a mockery of democracy when they forced the Danish and the Irish to keep running referendums until they elicited the "right" answer. Example four: in both Greece and Italy elected politicians ceded day-to-day management (the position of prime minster!) to unelected bankers rather than enact unpopular measures themselves.

But for those of us who have read all of "The Short View" and have kept up with world affairs, have noticed the world is moving away from one-man-one vote toward one-dollar-one-vote and have heard of Marine LePen and Golden Dawn this cannot be one of the 500 books we're going to read in our lifetime. 65 pages of not very deeply probing forward looking ideas on an unfocused range of topics did not warrant the time invested.

Last I'll leave my views about the one and only sort of "big idea" in this book. Coggan laments that our elected politicians often defer to bureaucrats when it comes to policy, effectively making you and me twice removed from the decisions we'd like to vote on, which makes us voters even more annoyed and even less likely to participate in the democratic process. I'm from Greece, so I'm familiar with the alternative. After every election EVERYBODY gets replaced everywhere. The CEOs of theoretically private, exchange-listed banks change on a four-year cycle, for example, as does the management of the theoretically private, exchange-listed power corporation etc. To say nothing of the directors of all ministries, quangos and many non-directors too. I'm not sure it's better than having the same, less accountable professionals throughout. I was brought up to believe it was worse.

Enough complaining about what is fundamentally a good book. I can't get myself to give it any fewer than three stars, because I happen to agree with pretty much everything it says and because Coggan lays it out so clearly. I just wish I'd read something else.

I remain a fan. But from now on I'll just read what he has to say about finance.

Tell you what. If he adds 200 pages to this book that look forward rather than back, I might consider breaking that rule. But not before.
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