Saturday, 28 April 2007

Overdue book reviews

The Elephant in the Room by Ryan Sager is an interesting examination of the issues facing the Republican “big tent” coalition in the run up to the 2008 election. The book is well-organized and the writing is clear and concise, advancing a logical argument that the social conservative right and what I might call George W. Bush’s “Christian Democratic conservatism” have alienated the libertarian west, placing the GOP back in jeopardy of returning to permanent minority status in Washington. Definitely a must-read book for anyone wanting to understand the contemporary Republican party—although one would be interested in Sager’s explanation for the continuing popularity of Rudy Giuliani, even with the GOP base.

Boeing Versus Airbus by John Newhouse ought to be a more interesting book than it is, but falls short in a number of irritating ways. Newhouse is an incredibly repetitive writer, and the narrative structure is frustratingly almost-but-not-quite linear. Newhouse introduces one key Boeing executive by thoroughly trashing him, but then spends the next 200 pages apparently forgetting he ever said anything bad about him. As one Amazon review points out, Newhouse never clearly explains why Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas outright instead of just waiting for it to go bankrupt and getting the parts it actually wanted; nor does he address other baffling decisions, like Boeing canning the Boeing 717 (the last iteration of the DC-9) just as it was proving to be a success with Airtran, as most of its competitors were commercial non-starters, and as major carriers were looking to replace their aging DC-9s with more modern aircraft. Newhouse also includes bizarre segues to complain about the Iraq war that don’t seem to have anything to do with Boeing, Airbus, the aviation industry, or anything else on-topic. The occasional insight—for example, that Airbus’ decision to go ahead with the A380 was based largely on the misunderstanding that Boeing made more money from the 747 than other aircraft—is lost in the narrative. Nor does Newhouse spend any time talking about the emergence of competition from below by up-and-coming entrants like Brazil’s Embraer and Canada’s Bombardier, who are successfully attacking Boeing and Airbus’ real cash cows, the narrow-body 737 and A320; instead, he devotes a whole chapter fretting about the potential rise of East Asian manufacturers, who have yet to become a factor. There’s an interesting book about the contemporary aviation industry to be written, but Boeing Versus Airbus isn’t it.

Congress at the Grassroots by Richard F. Fenno, Jr. is one of the books I assigned in my Congress class this semester. If you want to understand how the nature of congressional representation has changed in the past 40 years, this is as good a place to start as any. From a social scientist’s perspective, I’d have liked to have seen more evidence that these two representatives were typical of their time and place, and thus we can arrive at generalizable knowledge from these two cases, rather than simply an assertion in the concluding chapter to that effect. But overall I think it was a very good book… and if I didn’t already have a bazillion readings in my southern politics course, I’d add it there too.