Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Notes On A Foreign Country

I don’t very often publish book reviews but in this case I believe this book to be of great value to anyone trying to make sense of where our country is going.

Review – Notes On A Foreign Country

The sub-title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes On A Foreign Country” is “An American Abroad in a Post-American World” and that is the story in a nut-shell. Having worked abroad myself for several years I was eager to read what someone else had to say about the experience. What I encountered forced me to look back on my time working in Eastern Europe and I didn’t like what I saw. Ms Hansen is unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth and the clarity of her demeanor and expectations. In short, both she and I and no doubt many others, prima fascia, take American superiority in all matters for granted except perhaps cuisine.

Hansen moved herself to Turkey to experience living full-time in a foreign country following the September 11th attacks. She was then writing for the New York Times Magazine and decided to move to a Muslim populated country to better understand the culture of the Middle East, that country was Turkey. While residing in Turkey she traveled extensively to other countries in that part of the world – Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She came, by virtue of her travels and unrelenting introspection, to a better understanding of herself and the United States. What she saw clearly were the assumptions many of us make as Americans working and living abroad.

The first challenge that came to mind for this reader is the belief that the United States leads the world in technology, education, military strength, social equity, and in other respects. It came as a great revelation to Ms Hansen that others do not perceive us that way. What she learned is that the influence and reputation of this country is in decline if not bottomed out. One has only to consider the ongoing futility of our military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate that assessment. And, not only futility but the mind-boggling waste of American lives and national treasure in ventures that have no realistic purpose or definable conclusion. How, for example, can we consider ourselves superior as a society when ours is virtually the only industrialized free market country in the world that does not provide universal free health care?

Hansen’s descriptions of place and people are vivid and intelligent as are her reflections on herself as an actor in a world different from how she was raised and educated. She discovers the disillusionment with the United States of people in the places she visits. She sees how Americans are generally fully convinced of theirs and their country’s superiority as they fail to understand and respect other countries, their people, and their customs. This attitude engenders resentment and a closing down which stands in the way of meeting as equals. We are international missionaries for our life style, our mores, and our technology. We take our values to those whose own values and methodologies are presumed to be inferior to ours.

All of this brought to mind a Polish aphorism, “Koniec nie vidac!” The end is not seen, cannot be seen. We must wonder if perhaps that is the idea, the ultimate purpose, that there be no end to the pursuit of wars around the globe, they are just too profitable to end. And, as we wonder, you may rest assured that others in other countries are thinking the same thoughts.

This is a personal book well written and valuable. This is also an important book with which to disabuse yourself of U.S. Power, popularity, and influence in a world now made crazy and unstable in the “Time of Trump” who himself probably could not find a majority of the involved countries on a map.  I recommend it highly if, for no other reason, than for perspective on this country. My hat is off to Ms Hansen who now makes her home in Turkey.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY

An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Farrar, Straus  and Giroux

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again because, in fact, it is happening here. This essay will use excerpts from that review to illustrate and make what I believe are important points regarding recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States and then went on to propose drastic cuts to federal programs so depended upon by people across the United States. Here is a list published by the New York Times and other entities:

  • $5 billion in cuts to public education.
  • $73 billion in cuts to Social Security.
  • $191 billion in cuts to food stamps.
  • $610 billion in cuts to Medicaid (and that’s in addition to the $880 billion the
  • House Republicans are slashing with their Stealth ”health care” bill).
  • $72 billion in cuts to disability benefits.
  • $53 billion in cuts to unemployment benefits.
  • $22 billion cut from low-income family support.
  • $6 billion cut from the National Institutes of Health.
  • $1.2 billion cut to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  • $1 billion cut to National Cancer Institute.
  • $838 million cut to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
  • $776 million cut to National Science Foundation.
  • $575 million cut to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

(Sources: White House, Washington Post, New York Times)

Of course the President isn’t alone in this savaging of the social contract he is being assisted by Congressional Republicans who are exhibiting  a serious case of sociopathy themselves. The Democratic party contributed its share to the debacle when they conducted what amounted to a rigged convention to nominate a candidate who was not the choice of rank and file Democrats.

We must also include in this the constant undermining of the news media by the president with his mantra of “fake news”. This constant false characterization of the news media is a blatant effort to cause people to not trust what they read in newspapers or watch on television if it contradicts what the Presidential is trying to spin. This is all about social control, this is about being able to lie and to deceive the public. When the public doesn’t have access to the truth, when they are led to believe they cannot trust sources of news even to the extent that crowd sizes at rallies are constantly inflated to cast greater approval than really exists. For example he is touting today that 15 thousand people attended his rally yesterday when, in fact, by official count 4 thousand did.  It is childish propaganda but effective propaganda at that. When the truth cannot be known the effect is devastating and we have a dangerous situation on our hands.

 

In my earlier essay I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, that opening sentence was prescient and I felt it more than I thought it. There were other reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States, for the future of what is left of democracy. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem even if they don’t know the words and can’t follow the music? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? What happened? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism for patriotism?

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

It is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is always, I believe, a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election and its outcome. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people seem to be revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, fire departments, and a standing military; all of this for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of uncivilized jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches? Good luck!

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here” but it did.

pres sealI wrote this essay last November following the election. I was disheartening to say the least and I am republishing here as a reflection on current developments and how prescient Lewis was. It seems that the new administration has unleashed, if not encouraged, a lot of anger and resentment that I worry will get out of control. There is an ancient curse that states: “May you live in interesting times.” Here they come.

Thoughts on “It Can’t Happen Here”

Some time back I wrote a review of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”. I picked the book up again yesterday because, in fact, it did happen here. I believe there are are important points made in that novel related to recent political events in which a clearly unqualified and unsuitable individual won the 2016 race for President of the United States. In that review I wrote:

Yes, it can happen here, and some would say it’s already happening. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ prescient novel, “It Can’t Happen Here” tells what happens to a country when people are complacent and compliant while others feel their time has come. The novel is an allegory, a morality tale, a story depicting the unquenchable quest for renown, power, and oftentimes wealth in a “go along to get along” complacent society. This is also what is referred to as Big Man theory and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The Big Man, often inflicted with NPD, dispenses favors, employment, and material gain to sycophants in return for loyalty and support.

Sad to say, my opening sentence was also prescient and I felt it wasting to happen more than I thought it. There were many reasons of course, including what many of us thought was a dishonest primary with high party officials, including the party chairwoman, colluding to favor one candidate over another a fact later confirmed by ballot counts. Complacency in the form of a great many eligible people simply not voting either in the primary or in the general election added to the debacle. The lack of voter interest and participation is, in and of itself, a terrible commentary on and worrisome omen for the future of politics in the United States. Think for just a moment of those who sacrificed, either with lengthy commitment of time out of their lives or by making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to preserve this so-called Democracy. The depth of tragedy is unavoidably clear.

Where were all those “Freedom Loving” Americans who stand for the national anthem, with their hand over their hearts, but won’t go out of their way to vote? Do they not know, have they not been taught, do they not understand the importance of voting, of informing themselves of what is at stake? Did those who heap heated criticism on an athlete who doesn’t stand for the national anthem vote? What happened that caused a record low voter turn-out? Where did the American socialization process go off the tracks, substituting consumerism and posturing for patriotism? 

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation …  from local politics to labor unions. It’s a two way street. The “leader” generally requires obsequious feedback and loyalty and the followers require favors in return for their affirmation and adoration. Everyone in the game has a handful of “gimme” and a mouthful of “much obliged”. It often doesn’t matter what the actors receive so long as they get “something” – a vote, a ride in a limo, a free meal, or simply an “atta boy” pat on the back. Such “leaders” possess an innate primal instinct to identify and exploit weaknesses crucial to their success.

And, it is a pathology, a disintegration of a social contract that requires responsibility for the conduct of a society and the outcomes of its governance. It’s a pathology that can become fatal. I have witnessed instances of these kinds of “leaders” asserting control over organizations and social scenes and the pattern is always the same. Favors are given, loyalty replaces thoughtful engagement, “goodies” flow, and promises predicting even more “goodies” or “free” munchies for the faithful. It is, on evidence, an “innate primal instinct”. It is a matter of ambition over integrity, of emotion over reason.

… consider the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as described by the DSM-5 diagnostic text and … ask yourself if you recognize any of these in the current political milieu.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  4. Needing constant admiration from others
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs

These specifications describe our 2016 Presidential election. The specifications apply to both sides, some elements applying more to one candidate than the other. To these I would add two more. There is a certain kind of ruthlessness that specifically negates civility and exploits weakness in others. If you add together the elements of anomic personality disorder you can come up with a fair and accurate description of the actors in this modern-day drama especially the over-weaning necessity to dominate and to receive submission. Last but not least, in connection with the former, include the need for revenge as punishment for failure of obsequiousness and obedience. 

The obvious parallels are manifested in Windrip’s startling resemblance to two of the current candidates running for President of the US and Jessup’s avuncular resemblance to a sidelined populist former candidate for President.  Yes, history does indeed repeat itself. I vividly remember the turmoil of 1968 and the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read … I believe you’ll find yourself wondering if things ever actually change and what is our fate as a society if we cannot do better than this? Think of “It Can’t Happen Here” as an early warning call to action.

As much as some people are revolted by the notion, our social contract is underwritten by socialistic policies such as Social Security, Health Care, highways and by ways maintained by governments, police departments, and a standing military; for the benefit and good of all, even if more for some than others. Will all of this be dismantled in a sociopathic jihad that posits everyone should be on their own in some kind of jungle ethos? Are we just going to give this a whirl and see where it ends while the rest of the world watches?

11/19/16

This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein

The One Book

If you are planning to read a book this year I strongly suggest Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Climate change and global warming are real, tangible, and undeniable, the evidence is concrete, and it is planet wide. The only serious question remaining is whether or not something can be done to slow or otherwise mitigate it in the face of powerful political opposition. This book reminds me of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed. The sounding of an alarm reflexively resisted by vested interests but of vital interest and value to everyone else.

The international climate goal for some time now had been to hold warming to a 2°C rise in temperature. This number was developed and agreed upon as far back as 2009 by several international environmental organizations and scientists. Alarmingly 2°C is no longer deemed sufficient and 1.5°C is now believed to be the critical limit. This new limit was agreed on by a UN climate group in 2014 as being necessary to avoid melting most of the Arctic ice to keep sea level rise below 2 feet. Rise is a measurement across time of movement from a lower position to a higher one. In the case of climate change and global warming this means that globally the overall temperature of the earth and its atmosphere cannot become more than 1.5° to 2°C than it is presently and sustain life as we know it. Controlling temperature in a dynamical system as complex as this planet is naturally, with no help from humans, is in and of itself an awesome challenge on many levels.

The book deftly takes you through the history and politics of climate change, the awareness of its extent and effects, and the well organized, well financed denial of its reality. Klein also details the hare-brained schemes to cool things down such as a plan called Solar Radiation Management which sounds innocuous enough but is a scheme to spray chemicals into the upper atmosphere to dim the sun.

If you like numbers, concrete examples, and statistics This Changes Everything will satisfy. The writing is clear, concise, and non-technical, the arguments are well documented. Beyond the numbers the narrative is conversational, insightful, and oftentimes witty as well as startling. Good guys and bad guys (and some in between) are identified and numerous specious proposals for remediation called out. Klein’s skilled writing makes the complex issues readable and, more important, understandable in non-technical language. Her thesis is, I think, best summed up thus: “… our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth.” Klein deftly demonstrates how everything is connected to everything else from ecosystems to economic systems and the dangers of ignoring this fundamental principle.

Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott made himself into a world class laughing stock forbidding Florida state employees to use the term climate change or global warming. Scott is now followed by Louisianna’s Jindal and Wisconsin’s Walker, two leading lights of contemporary right-wing political leadership. One has to wonder and be concerned when politicians dissemble and deny, and ask who is paying them to perform. Denial seems to be as contagious as it is profitable. When the phrase “money is the root of all evil” was coined they hadn’t yet heard of PACs, ALEC, or the Koch boys numerous political organizations to funnel money into politics. Climate change has, until recently, been below the general public’s awareness and now, for good measure, it is being denied, suppressed, and politicized. This Changes Everything carefully details the players and the plays.

Nowadays it is extremely difficult to avoid being cynical as we witness the political, and not in the least, moral compromises, and betrayal of public trust even with matters of such universal import as climate change. Both for the amusement and the ensuing disbelief I suggest you direct your web browser to the following URL: <http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/florida-official-climate-change-video>. The right-wing response to the difficult issues at hand seems to be, don’t talk about it and it will go away. Well, it won’t. Denial of the obvious seldom gets very far though it is, nevertheless, a favorite ploy of politicians of every stripe as long as they have an audience wanting to hear only what they want to hear. Politicizing science as Klein well illustrates is a dangerous road to travel and she has provided an eloquent and thoroughly documented counter argument with This Changes Everything.

   

This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein

Simon & Schuster

2014

Animal Spirits

Animal Spirits -reviewed

George A. Akerlof

Robert J. Shiller

Princeton University Press (2009)

I turned the last page of this book and, as is my habit with books just finished, put it on the arm of my rocking chair, and considered what I had just read. The consideration found me puzzled as do most books on or about economics. I am NOT an economist you understand (and so do I)  but a mathematician by training and education. My sense of what makes sense is, I realize, vastly different from that of economists. Mathematicians do what they do to understand the “why” of things and, it seems to me, economists do their magic to describe the obvious. What economists prove, in my opinion, is generally not profound except to each other perhaps nor is it immutable. What is true this year about the influence of quantitative easing will most assuredly not be true next year making it not much of a help but rather a palliative with an out-date for some given moment; a patch applied but never a cure. Moreover, you can be assured the next economic crisis will caused by the same factors that have caused previous crises. It is forever and always the same deja vu over and over again.

Economists like Akerlof and Schiller, both Nobel Prize laureates, write profoundly but with no real effect on economic behavior or even public policy for that matter. People continue to do the same stupid things over and over again. The economy plunges from one new height to the bottom of the next trough, up and down, calm and crisis. Is it because, like other economic pundits, something is missing from their equations? When I saw the title, Animal Spirits, I thought, “Ahaaa, these guys are going to nail it.” But, in the end, they didn’t. Every manifestation of animal spirit was mention and detailed except the one that causes and has caused most if not all economic crises.  I wholeheartedly agree with their assessment, “Failing to incorporate animal spirits into the model can blind us to the real sources of trouble.” The authors go on to enumerate the animal spirits as: confidence, fairness, corruption, money illusion, and stories. The “big one”, the biggest in fact, has gone missing in this taxonomy. In fact the “big one” is gone missing from nearly every discussion of economics I have read. However I have to give Alan (Mr. Irrational Exuberance) Greenspan credit for taking a swing at it. In a November 4, 2013, TIME magazine fluff piece he mentions, “… what we now call animal spirits”, promoting “fear” as being, “far more potent” than euphoria or greed. Close but no kewpie doll for Alan ever the apologist for the world as he knows it.

So how is it that economists can’t get to first base with this issue? One has to wonder what planet these folks occupy when they can make such a statement as: “Since wages are determined largely by considerations of fairness, …”. Apparently they haven’t heard about the McDonalds’ McPay scale and how their employees have to apply for public assistance to feed their families. That is not, in my estimation, “fairness”. In fact, it doesn’t even approach “fairness”. And McDonalds is not an isolated instance by any means or measure. It is as though Akerlof, Shiller, Greenspan and other notables have some conception of “workers” as being from another planet – extraterrestrials seldom encountered.

I would also point out that in spite of the authors’ assessment, Harvard is NOT the pinnacle of world universities. Sorry boys that just doesn’t work. Another point of amusing contention is their evaluation of Larry Summers “excellence” as an economic thinker for his observation that: “… when workers move from industries with high pay to industries with low pay, they tend to take a wage cut; when they go in the opposite direction they tend to get a raise.” No, I’m not making that up – it appears on page 103 and the kudos on page 188. Really!

The bottom line (this is, after all, about economics so bottom lines are appropriate fashion statements) is that the book provides clear explanations and definitions of the terms used by economists such as money illusion, lending at the discount window, and so forth. In that sense it is a good book and one I am glad to have read for the information it provides as much as for the insight it gives into the thinking of two world-class, Nobel laureate economists. What you will not get from Akerlof and Schiller is a discussion of the number one cause of irrational exuberance, property and stock “flipping”, political ambition, ad nauseum – the dominant animal spirit with credentials reaching to the dawn of civilization, greed.


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