Book Review: "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

I've recently read the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. It weaves together the true stories of a few particular mathematicians, who happened to be black women (among a larger group of such female black mathematicians), who made extremely important contributions to the development of American warplanes in WWII and then spacecrafts during the 1950s and 1960s, including the crafts that took John Glenn to space and then the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. It highlights the skills of these women and their own personal lives, in conjunction with the broader social issues of that time.

The book is moderately long, but it is very well-written and engaging. I liked seeing the descriptions of these towns that flourished during the wartime years and the space race as bustling with life and energy, because with the trends of deindustrialization starting from a few decades ago, I haven't really been able to see descriptions such towns as much beyond shells of their former selves. This also ties in with the discussions of the military-industrial complex and how the formation of these towns during the wartime was a symptom of that phenomenon, which in turn meant that as wartime research facilities and organizations were often temporary, even if they hired black people, allowing them to economically advance to the middle class, those economic advancements became tenuous due to the temporary nature of such jobs, such that when the goal was met (whether it was winning the war or landing on the moon), those facilities would be closed and the employees there would be displaced with few, if any, alternatives available to them. Of course, pervading the book were descriptions of the explicit and implicit forms of institutionalized racism and sexism, whether at work in the form of barriers to career advancement or collegiality/free exchange of ideas, or in the context of daily life with respect to the civil rights movement, sit-ins, et cetera. Not only were those issues discussed in a broader context, but their impact on the specific protagonists of the book was detailed, showing how these women had to deal with so many struggles just to stay afloat while still trying to achieve the same goals to which any other family of any ethnicity would strive, namely, caring for spouses and children, putting food on the table, balancing work and family, and being able to raise children in a safe environment and educate them well; it really helped that the author so masterfully portrayed the mundanity of daily daily life for these women to show how stupid obstacles, like legalized segregation and institutionalized barriers to career advancement, could get in the way of the passion that these women had for STEM. It was also interesting to see that black communities like those in this book were acutely aware of how much more advanced the USSR and other communist countries were in terms of race and gender relations, and actively called out the US on its own failings in that regard (in the context of the US trying to ally with African and Asian countries that used to be European colonies), while these black women, despite being in the middle of such institutional bigotry, kept their heads held high and persevered in pursuit of their goals to contribute to STEM R&D. Related to that, it was also chilling to see how de facto segregation has persisted in education in many places through the US resulting in school facilities that in many poor places are no better than they were several decades ago, and also to see how many of the arguments for white parents sending their kids to private schools at that time were more explicitly about preserving racial segregation in education. Overall, I enjoyed this book thoroughly and would strongly recommend it to people for a clear and engaging account of how NASA and the social issues of the middle of the 20th century became intertwined.


Book Review: "Narconomics" by Tom Wainwright

I've recently read the book Narconomics by Tom Wainwright. It's an exposition into the economics of Latin American drug cartels, looking at them as businesses rather than mysterious criminal entities. In particular, it considers the competition versus monopolistic/monopsonistic behavior on the demand- & supply-sides, issues of global operations and outsourcing, diversification in products, cartel hierarchies versus franchising, public relations versus employee incompetence, and so on. Of course, as the drugs discussed in this book are illegal for the most part, there are other issues of dealing with the police and the government, whether through hiding, bribery, or warfare, and with enforcing things like non-compete agreements and franchise territories through violent means in the absence of legal recognition (where a court system could otherwise peacefully mediate such disputes). The aim of this book is to step back from the emotionally charged rhetoric of the "war on drugs" by seeing them in terms similar to legitimate businesses, and in doing so defeat the scourges of the illegal drug trade in the long-run through economically-minded legislation rather than ineffective brute force.

The book is not too long, quite accessible, well-written, and engaging to anyone with a high school-level understanding of microeconomics and an interest in issues surrounding illegal drugs. There are a few issues I have with the book though. One is that while the focus is clearly on Latin America, I would have liked to see at least some parallel discussion about the flow of drugs from Central/South Asia (particularly Afghanistan) to Europe and the economics therein, as that is mentioned a few times without further details. Another is that the last numbered chapter discusses legalization exclusively in the context of marijuana/cannabis, even though there is a discussion about the much narrower margin between safe and fatal doses for other drugs (especially heroin) compared to cannabis, which then raises questions about whether the legalization of marijuana is really meant to be a model for legalization/regulation of other currently illegal harder drugs; the epilogue addresses this point adequately with more nuance, but the structure of the final chapter still seems subpar for that reason. Finally, my biggest issue regards the discussions of how the operations of drug cartels in Latin America are influenced by how they can compete with the governmental "monopoly" on force due to unresponsive, complicit, corrupt, or ineffectual governments, and how cartels can compete with other economic opportunities through wages, protection, and other benefits. In particular, my concern is that the book acknowledges how legalization of drugs often economically incentivizes supply-side consolidation (as being outlawed necessarily limits how large drug operations can grow before attracting government attention), but in conjunction with other trends like offshoring of drug production too, it isn't clear how people in poorer Central American countries will further benefit; while the reduction in violence that would almost surely accompany restricted legalization of drugs is certainly a laudable goal, it is unclear whether the resulting economic opportunities, given the continuing poor governance and paucity of other good economic opportunities there, will really work to better the lives of those people, or whether the situation will devolve into large drug companies bullying small countries as in the banana republics of several decades ago (as discussed in the book) or tobacco or fast food companies doing the same to such countries today. In light of that, while the suggestions made in the book for improving outcomes of drug policy do seem like they would certainly help to some extent, I can't help but feel that the title of the epilogue, that economists make the best police officers, smacks of hubris. Apart from those issues, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the subject.