The Books That Explain 2023

This is another end-of-the-year books list, but with a twist. These are the best books I read about 2023. They are, for the most part, voices from other years helping me make sense of our own. In a world where information keeps speeding up and thinning out, books slow time down, thickening the moment in which we live.

I spent much of the year reporting on artificial intelligence. And my thoughts returned, again and again, to “God, Human, Animal, Machine,” by Meghan O’Gieblyn.

“Today artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality,” O’Gieblyn writes. “These are old problems, and although they now appear in different guises and go by different names, they persist in conversations about digital technologies much like those dead metaphors that still lurk in the syntax of contemporary speech. All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.”

O’Gieblyn’s key warning is that metaphors are “two-way streets.” When we believe God made us in his image, we begin to remake God in ours. When we describe our minds using terms borrowed from computers, we begin to see our minds mirrored in computers, and we cease to value the parts of our minds that differ from computers.

Of course, A.I. does not just run on metaphors. It runs on hardware. This is where Chris Miller’s “Chip War” is essential. The chips that power our iPhones and allow A.I. systems to carry out their calculations are magnificently intricate. “Unlike oil, which can be bought from many countries,” Miller writes, “our production of computing power depends fundamentally on a series of choke points: tools, chemicals, and software that often are produced by a handful of companies — and sometimes only by one. No other facet of the economy is so dependent on so few firms.”

The iPhone 12 runs on a chip with 11.8 billion transistors etched into its silicon. Only one company in the world can make that chip. That company relies, in turn, on machines and materials that are also made only by singular firms. Those machines and materials rely on similarly complex and fragile supply chains. If any node in this supply chain breaks, so too will much of the global economy break. If a country or alliance of countries can control these advanced supply chains, locking others out, they will have a powerful advantage in both war and commerce.

“Chip War” is a reminder of the physical artifacts that underlie what we so wrongly describe as the cloud. It illuminates why the United States and China are at such loggerheads over chips, the reasons our interests in Taiwan go beyond the defense of a fellow democracy, and how hard it will be for any country or firm to compete in the future if it does not have secure access to these minuscule miracles. The title of Miller’s book is, for now, rhetorical, but I found myself wondering how long that would remain the case. When will we see the first true war over chips? (I discussed some of these questions with Miller on my podcast.)

China has loomed large in my thinking this year. The three signal legislative achievements of the Biden administration — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act — were largely or partially about competing with, or strategically decoupling from, China. Outmaneuvering China is one of the few bipartisan paths left for legislation in Congress, which has led to way too many bills being framed and written as anti-China bills. Hawkishness toward China is the clearest through line from the Trump to Biden administrations. Biden kept Trump’s tariffs and began limiting China’s access to key technologies. The rhetoric cooled but the policy heated.

That’s the background for why I keep thinking about Gary Gerstle’s “The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order.” Gerstle’s key concept is the idea of a “political order,” which he defines as “a constellation of ideologies, policies, and constituencies that shape American politics in ways that endure beyond the two-, four-, and six-year election cycles.” Gerstle sees only two in the past 100 years: the New Deal order, which lasted roughly from the 1930s to the 1970s, and the neoliberal order, which spanned the 1970s to the 2010s. There are more histories of this era of American politics than any bookshelf can hold. What sets Gerstle’s book apart is his attention to the way domestic politics were shaped by fear of, and competition with, the Soviet Union:

Countless progressive movements, it has been argued, trimmed their political sails rather than risk being tagged with the kiss-of-death label, “soft on communism.” But the threat of communism, I argue, actually worked in a quite different direction: It inclined capitalist elites to compromise so as to avert the worst. American labor was strongest when the threat of communism was greatest. The apogee of America’s welfare state, with all its limitations, was coterminous with the height of the Cold War. The dismantling of the welfare state and the labor movement, meanwhile, marched in tandem with communism’s collapse.

Gerstle got me thinking about the way that envy of China’s manufacturing prowess, and fear of being economically outpaced, has permeated American politics, driving everything from the return of industrial policy to a renewed focus on infrastructure and supply chains and the speed with which public projects get built. Gerstle does not speculate on the political order that we are in now. But I believe a new one has already begun, and it is being shaped more by China than by any American politician, including Trump or Biden.

Why doesn’t America build the way China does? In part, because it doesn’t want to build the way China does. William Fischel’s “Zoning Rules!” — yes, the exclamation point is in the title — makes that clear.

Fischel is an economist who studies zoning, the rules that govern what can be built where. It’s easy to assume such rules have always been with us, but they have not. In 1910, no American city had zoning rules. By the 1930s, most of the U.S. population lived under them. Those rules were, initially, crude. They did not stay that way. “The text of the original New York City zoning resolution of 1916 is 12 pages long, a length now exceeded by more than a factor of ten by ordinances of small towns such as Hanover, New Hampshire,“ Fischel writes.

Those more complex rules reflects a form of zoning that took off in the 1970s: what Fischel calls “growth control” zoning. The zoning rules of the 1910s and 1920s were motivated, Fischel argues, by new transportation technologies that made it possible to build anything anywhere, and so cities had to decide what got built where. You didn’t want smelting factories next to apartment buildings, after all. But the 1970s see something new: Housing is becoming the core of American wealth, and so homeowners begin using zoning rules to protect the worth of their homes by deciding what kinds of homes can be built near them, which is, of course, a way of deciding which kinds of people can move near them.

Fischel sees this as a change driven first and foremost by economic self-interest. I somewhat disagree. I think he understates the role of politics, values and racial and ethnic resentments. Ease the inflationary pressure of the 70s and you still get the backlash to the Civil Rights Act and the rise of the environmental movement. Still, Fischel’s core argument — that zoning was something that the public demanded, not something that elites simply imposed — is crucial. And in focusing on where and when these rules took off, he does for the housing debate what zoning once did for cities: brings order and coherence to what’s otherwise a mess.

There are times when governments slows things down because that is what the public wants. But there are times when the government moves slowly because it does not know how to move quickly. Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a top digital adviser in the Obama White House, has spent years trying to build the fast, agile, responsive government many of us dream of seeing. In “Recoding America,” she is shockingly frank about why it has not been possible. No policymaker should be given power before making his or her way through this book. (Pahlka and I talked through the lessons she’s learned here.)

But this was not a great year for the technological alternatives to government, either. In 2022, crypto seemed to be minting billionaires every other day, and we were told it would revolutionize everything from money to government to the very form of the nation-state. A year later, most of those currencies have collapsed, the grander dreams seem dashed, countless ordinary investors have lost their shirts and Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the massive FTX exchange, is in jail awaiting sentencing.

Michael Lewis was following Bankman-Fried when it all went wrong. This seemed thrilling at the time, but the book he produced, “Going Infinite,” falls short. Many have criticized it for being too soft on Bankman-Fried, but that’s actually it’s best feature. If you want to understand Bankman-Fried, rather than just loathe him, Lewis’s friendly account will bring you closer than anything else. The chapters on Bankman-Fried’s time as a Jane Street trader are particularly excellent.

For me, the problem of Lewis’s book was that Lewis isn’t really interested in crypto itself. He is explicit on this point, writing that “so many writers have taken a crack at explaining to a lay audience what a Bitcoin is that it’s hard to see the point of doing it all over again.” I found this particularly frustrating as he then goes on to say, “What is curious is how elusive Bitcoin is, as a thing to understand. Bitcoin often gets explained but somehow never stays explained.” Perhaps Lewis, arguably the greatest financial journalist alive, might be able to do better?

The problem goes deeper than disinterest. You cannot evaluate what Bankman-Fried was doing without thinking through the business he was in. Here was a guy spending millions of dollars to pay celebrities to persuade people who didn’t know anything about cryptocurrency to invest what little savings they had in his company. This was the literal pitch he was paying Larry David — to David’s shame and discredit — to make: Invest even though you don’t understand what you’re investing in. Bankman-Fried fancied himself an altruist. Was that an altruistic thing to do?

This is where Zeke Faux’s “Number Go Up” shines. Faux is Bloomberg’s crypto reporter, and like Lewis, he had plenty of access to Bankman-Fried. But unlike Lewis, he is telling a broader story. That’s in part because he spends much of the book chasing the wrong story: Tether, the opaque stable coin underpinning a large fraction of the crypto markets. Chasing that story takes Faux into unexpected places, including the slave compounds where gangsters force prisoners to send those scam texts that populate our phones these days. (After reading Faux, you will never respond cruelly to one of those missives again.)

Faux wanders through the crazed Bored Ape parties and drinks with the idealists and meets up with all manner of shady financiers. The things he sees would seem a little too-on-the-nose if written into fiction.

The book finds its title, for instance, in a speech given by Dan Held, a crypto executive, at the Bitcoin 2021 conference. “Number go up technology is a very powerful piece of technology,” Held says. “It’s the price. As the price goes higher, more people become aware of it, and buy it in anticipation of the price continuing to climb.” As Faux dryly comments, “I am not a computer scientist, but I don’t think you can just call the concept of prices going up forever, for no reason, a ‘technology.’”

And yet that’s what much of crypto was, or is. Old scams given new life by the sheen of code and technology. I found this maddening at the time. I kept wondering if there was something I was missing in the technology, some reason I could not see what was making so many smart people believe these bits of code to be not just valuable, but socially transformational. The truth was precisely the opposite: The technology was keeping them from seeing their own creations clearly. The elegance of the cryptography tricked people into thinking of trust as a problem of code rather than of human beings. And so they had no defense when human beings started manipulating the code.

All of this is easy enough to say. But Faux takes you where it can be seen. And so when FTX finally collapses, and Faux finds himself at Bankman-Fried’s compound, the conversation they have really lands, and you understand Bankman-Fried as he really was: Not an exception to the broader crypto culture, but a perfect illustration of it.

I read the Lewis and Faux books on a plane ride to Tokyo. The day after I landed, Hamas launched its attack on Israel. Virtually all of my reading since has been inside the histories and literature of Israelis and Palestinians. And one book particularly astonished me.

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” is a deeply reported, deeply personal history of Zionism and Israel that does something few books even attempt: It balances the strength and weakness, the idealism and the brutality, the hope and the horror, that has always been at Zionism’s heart. Shavit’s book made me feel the history of Israel in a way nothing else has. He refuse to try to resolve its contradictions. He just holds them, and when you’re done reading, you hold them, too.

I’ll close with a vision of the near future, not in the grim present. I found Ruthanna Emrys’s “A Half-Built Garden” inspiring. It’s a first contact story of sorts, though the aliens feel more familiar than the humans. Emrys has imagined a world in which A.I. and augmented reality come together not to replace human deliberation, but to enable it.

“It didn’t seem right to make decisions of this magnitude in analog,” the main character muses at one point. “It wasn’t even just that we were leaving out millions — billions if we stretched to other watersheds — of people with a stake in our decisions. Trying to keep all our ideas organized without real threading, without the algorithms constantly picking out key ideas and sorting possible approaches and marking the valence and weight of our responses, felt like analyzing river chemistry by drinking a glass of water.”

It’s rare to read a book that is truly thrilling in its vision of how human beings might communicateand cooperate; this one is.

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