Monthly Archives: December 2014

Book Review — Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System

Confronting Capitalism by Philip Kotler, Ph.D.

Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System by Philip Kotler is a contemporary look at American Capitalism. Kotler studied at DePaul, earned his Masters from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in economics from MIT. He studied under three Nobel laureates: Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow. Kotler is currently the S. C. Johnson Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

In earning my Masters in International Relations, I was required to take economics at the graduate level as well as going back to take the undergraduate courses to complete my degree. In my experience economics was dry and focused on theory rather than the effects — the supply and demand curve rather than the real world effects of capitalism. In political science capitalism was just accepted as the only working system because we won the cold war. Communism was dead, even though it never really existed. Capitalism is the same. Ayn Rand called capitalism the unknown ideal believing that it was never truly tested. It was always interfered with by government. The result was two systems that never existed, in fact, but one claimed to be the winner.

The second problem with economics is that it is indeed very complex in the real world. However, many people’s understanding of it comes from sound bites on the news or political commentators. A few might even aspire to read Ayn Rand’s fiction, but almost no one has read Adam Smith all the way through or for that matter Marx. We live in a country, which in the world view, sees very little difference between our political parties, yet people call the two major parties socialist and capitalist/fascist. Our economic viewpoints wax and wane on how well the economy is doing at the moment.

Confronting Capitalism does something I have not seen before. It takes economics and puts it on a practical human scale. It discusses the things that the victor of the Cold War would rather not mention, the very real flaws of the system. Kotler brings to the table fourteen of these problems. They include the boom-bust cycles, damage to the environment and limited natural resources, persistent poverty, personal debt burden, unemployment caused by automation, the influence of wealth on government, and the growing concentration of wealth into the hands of the few. These are all real aspects of economics that affect the common person.

Kotler in plain words and clarity explains what is ailing our system. It is not an attack on capitalism but something more like a doctor’s visit. Much like a doctor examining an overweight smoker, Kotler does not condemn the system but rather points out the problems and offers serious solutions — quit smoking, eat healthier, exercise so you can become stronger and live longer. Kotler keeps his attention on practical matters. Instead of awarding CEO’s bonus for yearly gains, focus on long term growth. Short term growth creates an unstable system that works on cutting workers, quality, and what ever else that can increase short term profit. He gives examples of other companies that focus on the long term and still make profits.

Confronting Capitalism also looks to balance. Unrestricted capitalism is much like Rand’s Unknown Ideal, unknown. What we fail to recognize is that the government has been involved in the economy since the beginning of the country. One of the first major issues with our new country was the Whisky Rebellion — taxes. We like to think the West was settled solely with rugged individualism, but it was the government that granted tracts of land to the railroads which opened the West. Eisenhower used the federal government to create the interstate highway system. Between the two of those systems most of our industry and consumer goods flow. The government has always been involved in the economy.

Kotler gives a centrist view on capitalism. He presents what is right and what is wrong with the current system. What separatesConfronting Capitalism from other economics books is the author’s style and method. Kotler is very clear and concise in his writing and writes so that he is understood by the general public. It is economics for the masses, but without any dumbing down. What Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawkings did and do for science Kotler does for economics. It is this type of clear thinking that is needed to get American’s to understand economics as a system and not an isolated issue. An outstanding read.

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Book Review: The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement

The Occupiers by Michael A Gould-Wartofsky

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement by Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky is a first-hand account of the Occupy Movements across the country. Gould-Wartofsky has a BA from Harvard College and is a Ph.D. Candidate in sociology at New York University. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Monthly Review, Mother Jones, and other publications.

Living in Dallas, TX, much of what I heard about the Occupy Movement was through Twitter and a handful of New Yorkers who posted about it. Dallas did have a small Occupy Movement that did not bring much media attention. New York and Oakland received some attention and I even heard of my home Cleveland in the mix. But, it seems, just as fast as Occupy rose to headlines it disappeared. Bits of scattered news pieces remained until Occupy Oakland was cleared from Ogawa Plaza with violence and an army of law enforcement.

Pieces of the organization lived on in occupying foreclosed houses and returning the issue of student loan debt the forefront. Student loan debt now stands at $1 trillion. Many graduates even in a good economy would have trouble paying back their loans. The idea of getting an education and a good job, as a result, is disappearing. The housing bust, bad loans, and variable interest rates have left many on the streets. I am not an alarmist, but a shrinking middle class is not healthy to any economy. Consumer goods for the large part are bought by the middle class and a large middle class is essential in capitalism.

Gould-Wartofsky embedded himself in the Occupy Movement and reported what he saw. Inside the group, he had more access to the day to day activities and planning. While other reporters were moved by the police to certain cleared areas, Gould-Wartofsky was in the thick of it. Police behavior to mainstream journalists received national attention as journalists were prevented from covering events and in some cases beaten and arrested.

Some interesting points in general are brought up by the author. The legal status of Zuccotti Park and its classification as private-public property was new knowledge for me. The camp was also used by the police to dump the homeless and others they did not want to deal with. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the 99% is why the movement died out. There was a common enemy to bring the groups together, but inside that group were many factions who held to the idea of equality, but differed vastly in their methods. There was everything from moderates wanting to work with the system to anarchists who want to destroy the system entirely.

The Occupy Movement is still around in splintered groups. It played a role, some will say an important role, in reminding people of what is happening. Massive bailouts for banks and huge debts for students. Bonuses for bankers and foreclosures for others. In recent news something that has become a subject of conversation again, the behavior of police and protesters. Gould-Wartofsky first-hand accounts are backed up with scholarly documentation. Nearly one-third of the book is cited material. This is more than a first-hand account, it is a very detailed study of the group. The Occupiers is an excellent look into the group that made headlines and whose voice is still faintly echoing through society waiting for a “mic check.”

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Book Review — Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life

Water and What We Know by Karen Babine

Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life by Karen Babine is a collection of essays that look at life, water, geology, and community in an unique perspective. Babine earned her BA from Concordia College, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently an assistant professor of English at Concordia College.

Babine begins her collection of essays from her grandparents cabin in the Minnesota wilderness looking out the window at a summer scene with a mug of tea reflecting on where she is and the nature around her. The cabin is too far out to get cable internet and in order to get dish internet it would mean cutting down a tree, and that is too high a cost. Her focus drifts in the book, but the drifting is with purpose and everything comes full circle. There are several levels to the author’s thinking. She loves nature. She protects saplings and ponders on why people build summerhouses to get away from everything, but bring everything with them… and then complain about supporting the community they are now part of. It is like people who camp out in the wilderness and coexist with nature and others come in Winnebagos and call it camping. Babine’s connection goes deeper than the stereotypical “tree hugger.” She understands geology, hydrology, and can read the history of the land. The ripples in the farmland and giant boulders in open fields. There are stories to be told about how they got there and why they are there.

North is more than a cardinal direction for Babine. It is an attitude and a life for those who dare. She quotes Nietzsche, more than once on “true climate” the exact geographical location that corresponds to the climate of the thinker. The culture of the north as experienced a person with roots and a family history Northern Minnesota. The north can be harsh with air temperatures dropping to sixty below zero. The harshness creates tight-knit communities that even though you could tell a farmers religion from the color of his tractor, people all pulled together when needed. She compares the landscape and people to other places she has been. She tries but cannot adopt to the prairie. The people there also lack that northern community feeling. She discovers the power of nature in Eastern Washington. Forces and quantities that are almost too great to imagine. She compares the 1980 Mount St. Helen’s eruption and the devastation it left to other much larger eruptions across the world.

Babine also includes some history of her family. There is a humorous and for many typical story of the relationship with her grandmother over the best type of apples, the proper way of making a pie, “That’s not how I taught you to do that.”, to being saved by having a good apple peeler. Babine has a special connection with the natural world around her and it’s community. Her writing displays a mingling of Thoreau’s views on nature and the folksiness of Paul Harvey. A delightful book to read.

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Book Review – A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare

A Higher Form of Killing by Diana Preston

A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare by Diane Preston is an account of the changes in traditions of warfare that took place between April and May 1915. Preston is an Oxford educated historian whose career was in print journalism in the UK and the US. She also was a broadcaster for the BBC and CBC. Nearly a decade ago Preston began writing popular history, covering subjects that are compelling, but also relate to the human experience. Her topics include The Lusitania, the Taj Mahal, Britain in Afghanistan, and pirates.

If I were asked to name three things that changed warfare in World War I, I would come up with three different answers. My choices would be: the machine gun which killed more men than any other weapon in the war; the tank which helped break the stalemate of trench warfare; and the airplane, which brought a whole new dimension to warfare. My opinions are of someone that served in the military and looks at World War I from a practical warfighting point of view. Preston takes a different look at the war and bases her choices of a civilian perspective.

On April 22, 1915, near Ypres, Belgium, Germany released chlorine gas from near their trenches and allowed the wind to move it the mostly French defended Allied trenches. The heavy gas settled quickly in the trenches forcing soldiers to either asphyxiate in the trench or climb out into heavy German fire. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (13th Battalion) held the line with improvised masks. It was a day of heavy loss for both the Axis and the Allies. Panic and unforeseen success combined as multipliers adding to the death toll. Preston looks at the history of gas warfare before Ypres and after. It did not take the allies long to develop their own chemical corps. Chemical weapons had a terror effect when used in World War I, however their effectiveness was minimal. The German first use of the weapons added fuel to the propaganda machine vilifying the Germans. It did not take long for the British to counter with Livens Projector. The Livens projector, rather than relying on the wind, lobbed canister of gas at the enemy trenches. The use of canister was a loophole in the treaty that banned poison gas artillery shells. Although it had a shocking effect, and certainly the ability to make headlines, chemical warfare turned out to be more of a hindrance than a vital weapon. It was marginally effective until the troops were protected, then it became only a hindrance. Stockpiles of chemical weapon were available in WWII and never used.

On May 7, 1915 the Lusitania was sunk by the German submarine U-20. The sinking was carried out without warning as the ship approached the Irish coast. The loss of life is listed at nearly 1,200 people. The sinking was of great use to the allies in bringing the US into the war as one hundred twenty-eight of the dead were Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania is surrounded by stories, claims, and counterclaims. The Germans did provide warning to travelers, it was a British-flagged ship, traveling in waters patrolled by a country Britain was at war with. Britain had used tricks like raising an American flag on one of its ships as it entered British waters (a tribute to the American passengers was the official claim). Britain also instructed ship’s captains to turn to and ram submarines if stopped. There was also the Q-Boat program where the British deployed cargo ships to draw out submarines. These ships however were armed and when a submarine attempted to stop and board the ship searching for contraband, the submarine was fired upon. There was a definite escalation to the violence. The Germany attempted to blockade England with submarines in the same way England had blockaded Germany with surface ships.

There is also the British investigation of the sinking of the Lusitania. The German submarine fired only one torpedo, but there were two explosions. The British government in the process of their investigation said the German sub fired two torpedoes. Any surviving passenger that said only one torpedo was fired was left out of the investigation. The cause of the second explosion has remained a topic for discussion ever since. In the tragedy of the sinking the German government made made the following truthful claims: The sinking occurred in a declared war zone; the Lusitania carried 4.2 million rounds of rifle ammunition, empty artillery shells, and fuses (all listed in her manifest); the Lusitania was officially listed by the British government as an auxiliary cruiser. Germany claimed it was in it’s right to sink the Lusitania without warning. Allied media and propaganda said otherwise.

The third event was the bombing of London from the air. Germany tried unsuccessfully to bomb England from zeppelins several times in the spring of 1915. Germans attempted to hit military targets, but conditions, gun sites, and practical matters made precision bombing impossible. The raids caused damage and killed 557 people in England in the course of fifty-one missions and 5,000 bombs. The raids, more than anything else, created a feeling of terror. London and other cities blacked-out at night. The British planes were nearly useless against the zeppelins, either they were incapable of reaching the altitude or by the time they did the zeppelins were gone. Fear helped the recruitment effort and caused violence for some unfortunate immigrants with “German sounding” accents. What the bombing raids did accomplish was opening military targets in cities to attack. In World War II bombing of cities became commonplace.

Preston does not limit herself the six weeks in 1915 for her information. She goes back and covers the arms limitation treaties before the war and puts each of her three events into historical context. While perhaps not the three biggest military events or innovations of World War I, her choices fit well with public concerns during the war. Chemical warfare is still something the modern military prepares for as evidenced in the two Gulf Wars. It is now relegated as a hindrance to a modern army rather than a source of massive casualties. Bombing of cities and military targets in and around them is now commonplace. One has to look no farther than the “Shock and Awe” of the Gulf War. Guidance systems and technology make the bombing much more accurate, but there are still civilian casualties. The submarine perhaps has changed the most. It is primarily used as a weapons platform for ICBMs rather than an anti-shipping weapon. In the second half of the twentieth century, only one ship has been sunk by a submarine — HMS Conqueror sank the General Belgrano in the 1982 Falkland Island War. These choices made a change in how warfare is fought from the eyes of those watching. These three events probably had the biggest effect on the civilian populations during the course of the war. Machine guns and tanks had little effect on the general population of England, while the thought of a zeppelin dropping poison gas on London not only created fear, it was now a possibility. Preston gives World War I a look from a different perspective. Instead of the battlefield view many historians write, Preston seems to capture on what civilians would have read and learned of the war through the media. A very interesting perspective and well worth the read.

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Book Review: The Communist Hypothesis

The Communist Hypothesis by Alain Badiou is a work of political philosophy (even though the author denies it). Badiou is the former chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure.

Communism failed and that is a given, but what is failure? There is a saying that goes “Failure is not falling down. It is refusing to get back up.” I was expecting to read a detailed account of how the left and the working class will rise again. As a Marine in the Cold War, I was committed to defending America and its allies from the communists. Since that time, I have gotten older, more read, more educated, and more aware.

Badiou spends a great deal of time discussing the Chinese and Soviets. I have a problem with that. Marx and Engles explained what was needed for communism to start. Communism needed to rise from industrialized societies, not underdeveloped and agrarian societies. Both examples, China and Russia, occurred in undeveloped countries. In fact, every example of a communist revolution has happened in an undeveloped country. The Soviet Union and China were, and in China’s case still is, a totalitarian state. There no doubt that a class system exists or existed in both systems. Both systems are failures even without competition from the West. China has even joined the west in limited capitalism and foreign investment. Communism in theory is very different than how it has been practiced.

Badiou seems to want to defend the failed system. He looks down at the successful democratic socialist governments in Europe as being polluted. It would seem that system has done more to bring equality to a society than the “communist” systems. When you fail, you want to learn from your mistakes, not repeat them. By defending the Maoist and Soviet systems, Badiou is just repeating the same failures over again. I understand his passion, but not his direction.

I am glad Badiou mentions Hegel. Hegel dialectic is known to every political science student. It works like a pendulum. On one extreme is a thesis* and the other its anti-thesis* and eventually the pendulum stops in the center where the forces of both sides equal out and a stable state is maintained — Synthesis*. If this exercise is run with communism as the thesis, capitalism as its antithesis, democratic socialism is the result. That is the position of most of the successful and content countries of the world.

There may be a reason revolution does not happen in industrial societies. These members of those societies regardless of class know they are pretty well off in a world view of their situation. Also, the producers in these societies depend on the workers to make their products as well as consume them. No workers mean no consumers which mean no profits. Many people realize that unregulated capitalism is a bad thing, but few are willing to take up arms. We vote, we make our voices heard, but little else. The Occupy movement started quickly but lost steam as people realized that they were not threatened by the system enough to make an effort to change it. Industrialized countries have become complacent in their consumer culture. If they can buy, things are well.

Communism failed more from its method than its message.

*Kant’s terms often attributed to Hegel.

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Book Review: Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner is a novel that takes place during the interwar era in German. Haffner was a social worker and this was his only book. Published in 1932, it was banned by the Nazi’s one month later. There is no record of Haffner after the war.

Haffner’s book details the lives of street gangs and the kids who make them up. The Versailles Treaty was tough on Germany and it was the average citizen who suffered the most. Gangs of kids from young teens to young adults group together in tight knit clubs. The clubs like street gangs today have a code of honor and a chain of command. There is a military like discipline among the members and a life of petty crime. Some fit into the lifestyle and others are leery of the criminal life. For some, it is their only choice if they want to survive on the streets.

Blood Brothers took me back to the first time I read The Outsiders back in my preteen years. It is rough, gritty, and goes deeper than the The Outsiders. Life on the street is rough whether you depend on crime or a more honest means to survive. Blood Brothers shows the reader that it’s not only the NYC underground where gritty lifelike street stories are born. A well written and excellent work of historical fiction.

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Book Review: The Dover Anthology of American Literature, Volume II

The Dover Anthology of American Literature, Volume II edited by Bob Blaisdell covers American Literature for 1865 through 1922. This anthology covers a great deal of writing, but it is not all encompassing. There are several things that make this collection standout. First it is the inclusion of authors I have not read before. I appreciate anthologies that lead me to discover new writers. Charles W. Chesnutt was a writer from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and Mary E Wilkins Freeman are two of the writers I first read here.

The political and social voices of the period are also presented. There are excerpts for Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, and the voices from the oppressed are presented with words of Sitting Bull and Native American chants. Booker T. Washington is represented with an excerpt from his Up from Slavery. Theodore Roosevelt describes the majesty of the Grand Canyon.

The expected the writers are also represented: Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Robert Frost to name a few. There is a Gertrude Stein poem, although complex, is much easy to read and comprehend than her works in Tender Buttons. There is also a reminder of who some American authors were. Ezra Pound was an American but mostly known for his time in England. T.S. Eliot was an Ameican from St. Louis, but he is so entwined in English Literature many forget his nationality. So much so, that long ago, in my college course English Literature II, I reviewed “The Waste Land.” I had forgotten he was American too, I know of his association with the Bloomsbury group and the Woolfs who printed the UK edition of “The Waste Land.” My initial thoughts were why is a British author in this book. It’s nice to learn something when you least expect it.

The Dover Anthology of American Literature, Volume II is a well compiled study of American Literature that not only covers the writers, but also political and social influences of the period. The Dover Anthology presents a well thought out collection of American writers. In e-book format, it’s perfect to carry around and explore new and favorites writers.

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