Monthly Archives: November 2017

Book Review — Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason

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Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason by David Harvey is a modern critique of Marx’s three volumes of Capital. Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he graduated from University of Cambridge with a Ph.D. in Geography in 1961.

Madness seems to be the description of modern capitalism.  It’s destroying the planet.  It is built like a Ponzi scheme were continual growth is required to keep it alive.  It’s nearing its limits as an economic system.  Wages have remained stagnant in the US while the standard of living is propped up by cheap imports and rising personal debt (not to mention worldwide debt).  More and more people around the world are buying cars only to sit in them for hours in traffic.  Climate change is real and brought on by mankind by the burning of hydrocarbons and the stripping of the land.  We have planned obsolescence of consumer goods.  We are hit at every turn with fees; look at a cell phone bill, for example.  Companies charge convenience fees to pay online over mailing a check.  As a whole, we are not living as well as our parents did.  We, as a whole, also, don’t have the jobs that gave us affordable comprehensive health care.  Skilled labor is disappearing as industries deskill the labor force and create a surplus of workers to keep jobs scarce.  We are living in times much like those Marx and Engles had witnessed in their lifetimes.

Harvey covers all three volumes of Capital with real-world explanations and where Marx got things wrong.  Marx many times forget to take into account expanding technology.  Machines were seen and are things not to make the worker’s job easier but as something to increase profits.  Today machines take many old jobs away as well as the expansion of globalization.  In early industrial England, wages were set to the price of bread.  Workers had to eat to remain productive.  To increase profits, industrial leaders pushed for laws allowing the importation of cheap grain.  Workers backed this idea; cheaper bread meant better living.  Industrialists supported it because they could keep wages lower if bread was cheaper maximizing their profits.   Today this exists in the big box stores keeping prices down so workers do not realize their wages are stagnating and subsidized processed food keeps prices down so we think we are well fed.

One particular case in the book concerns China.  It is 200 years of capitalism rolled up into a handful of decades.  When thinking of New York City, Los Angeles, the highway systems, and the concrete sprawl of America consider that in the 100 years between 1900-1999 the United States used 4,500 million tons of concrete to build all of that.  Between 2011 -2013 China used 6,500 million tons of concrete. In a two year period, China used more concrete than the US did in 100 years.  The banking crisis that started in the US in 2007-2008 could have been a worldwide disaster.  When US and western markets crashed, imports went down.  China found itself in a crisis.  A totalitarian state does not want labor unrest and with millions now out of work China began a massive public works project.  Roads, dams, and even ghost cities were built with borrowed money.  The government told the banks to loan money and loans pour out of the banks.  China prevented its collapse by temporarily diverting labor to other projects until the crisis passed.  The command economy of China is not Marxist; it is a totalitarian system that mimicked a century of capitalism in a handful of years.  China, like the US, now sits under a mountain of debt.

Harvey writes an interesting study of Capitalism as seen by Marx and sometimes as revised for the modern world.  The ideas are the same.  Capitalism exists not to make a better life for everyone, but to maximize profits.  Totalitarian regimes paid lip service to Marx in the past but none really came close to following his theories, hence, Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism where Marx was merely a wrapper covering atrocities.  Today, in America, socialism is misunderstood and feared.  People hate socialism except for public roads, public parks, public schools, subsidized food…  Some of that has changed after the bank collapse and the recognition that hard work and a good education will still leave many poor and deeper in debt.  The 1% has changed from being a symbol of outlaw motorcycle gangs to bankers, vulture capitalist, and CEOs.

No one is saying that we need a revolution or the Marx was 100% correct.  We have seen what capitalism can and will do when its free to operate on its own or even forced as the case of China.  Instead of condemning Marx to the dustbin of history we need to take look at it without the lens of the Cold War.  Marxism did have a positive effect on Europe in the mid to late1800s.  Workers organized work weeks were shortened.  Leisure and vacations became more common for workers.  Labor is an important part of any economy but rarely gets the respect it deserves.

 

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Book Review — Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks is a report on the use of technology in determining government assistance programs. Eubanks is the co-founder of Our Knowledge, Our Power (OKOP), a grassroots anti-poverty and welfare rights organization, and is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Public assistance programs are seen as a drag on the economy to many people.  People work hard for their money don’t want to see their tax dollars abused.  Reagan exaggerated stories of welfare queens.  The 1970s were filled with images of Caddilac’s parked in front of welfare offices.  Public assistance is typically seen as an abused system.  The good that it does is under-reported when compared to the abuse.

Over seventy percent of full-time workers say they live paycheck to paycheck.  The average American also has nearly $16,000 in credit card debt.  For those seeking an education, student loan debt piles up faster than job opportunities.  Many Americans are balancing on the edge of homelessness and bankruptcy.

Eubanks looks at three separate areas in three different parts of the country and examines what automation has done in determining benefits and the problems it causes. Poverty in America is real and a growing problem.  We see it every day and do our best to block it out.  Americans also have a history of moving away from poverty — out of the cities and into the suburbs and back again.

The first area Eubanks describes is automation and privatization of public services to save money and limit fraud (which is very small).  Applications are done over the phone to a call center (which was problematic for the deaf) or online.  In poor areas, libraries and librarians are overrun trying to provide internet service to patrons filing for benefits.  In one case (years ago, I imagine) a woman added the food stamps phone number to her family and friends list because she spent so much time on the phone with them over benefits.  When Indiana automated it was a disaster.  Call centers and document centers did not follow through on paperwork many lost benefits for failure to cooperate when paperwork was lost.  This was life-threatening to many on medication.  Fixing problems was met with resistance, paperwork, and delays.

Skid Row in Los Angeles became the defacto homeless area.  Keeping a defined area homelessness helped insulate the public from the homeless.  Gentrification, however, pushed the homeless out of their “home.”  Arrests for sitting or laying on the sidewalk, confiscation of property, and basically criminalizing homelessness became the government’s solution.  In Pennsylvania, Child Services uses an algorithm to predict future behavior.  Vendetta calls remain in the parent’s/child’s records.  In both cases, algorithms have taken over for human interaction and understanding.  Computers take certain answers but most of the time no matter what is being filled out “Other” is filled out especially when something as important as physical and mental health.  Computers are poor interpreters of “other.”

Automating Inequality demonstrates the problems of algorithms and automation and what it does identify the poor and many cases work to keep the poor poor.  The system was intended to provide assistance for the short term and help people out of poverty has become a system to perpetuate poverty.  An interesting report based on real-life examples and real-life workers.

 

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Book Review — 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution

1917: War, Peace, and Revolution by David Stevenson is the history of a single year of World War I.  Stevenson studied for his undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge, before receiving a Ph.D. from the same university. He became a Lecturer at the London School of Economics in 1982. In 1998, he was appointed Professor of International History. Between 2004 and 2005, he also received a Leverhulme Research Fellowship “for research on supply and logistics in 1914-1918”

The war had been fought to a stalemate for the last two and a half years.  Its toll was growing on the population of Europe.  England was near bankruptcy and running low on food.  It required a great deal of imported food as well as oil to fuel its fleet.  Germany was going through its turnip winter.  The Russian population was suffering more than ever — food shortages, loss of life on the front, and a vodka ban.  France was mostly self-sufficient in foodstuff, but it was being bled white.  Germany remained effectively blockaded.  It, in turn, tried to blockade England with unrestricted submarine warfare.

1917 was a year of risks and taking chances hoping for a breakthrough that would finally turn the tide of the war.  England had turned to the United States supported convoys.  Germany stepped up its submarine warfare knowing that it would bring the United States into the war.  Germany underestimated US strength and overestimated its advantages of Russia leaving the war and its own submarines.  Germany’s main ally the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was falling apart quickly and proving to be ineffective.  England’s large navy remained essentially out of the war and its army was still small.  France was bearing the burden of being the main ally army although the British commonwealths were fighting bravely.

Peace advances from the Vatican and Wilson were rejected by each side neither wanting to back down.  There was the hope and belief that each side was nearing its breaking point and it was just a matter of time and lives before victory would be claimed.   Russia’s exit from the war created a race to bring the US into the war before the German’s could transfer resources.  In a further overestimation, Russia left the war giving Germany favorable terms because Russia thought the rest of Europe would fall into revolution shortly and differences from the hasty peace would be corrected with a communist Germany and Europe.

What makes this book on World War I special is that Steveson does not only concentrate on the Western Front.   Germany’s invasion of Italy and Japan’s attack on German colonies and ships are covered.  England’s request to Japan was accepted and German assets in China were attacked and Japan began to set itself up as a colonizing power in China.  India is discussed as well as the British plan for a Jewish Homeland.   It was during this year that Latin American countries joined the allies, mostly in word over deeds.  Greece, Siam, and China would also join the allies in 1917.  The European war became a world war.

1917 is a well-written history that goes deeper into World War I than most histories since it concentrates on a single year, although a pivotal year.  1917 set the stage for the war’s end and the uneasy peace to follow.  It examines the many misconceptions that the warring countries held to and the belief that a decisive victory could be won.

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Book Review — Selected Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy

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Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy better known in the United States as Leo Tolstoy was a master storyteller. Perhaps best know for long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  His longer works turned many a student off by the sheer size of the book.  Once started, however, the books seem to flow and grow on the reader.  The bulk of the book itself is lightened by the storytelling.  Tolstoy is also known for his shorter works.  My introduction to Tolstoy’s short stories was “The Cossacks”.  Years later a friend in Minnesota got me to  “Master and Man” as a reminder of the real cold I was missing in Texas.  Recently another friend got me to read Anna Karenina and still the ice skating scene burned into my memory — Book 1 Chapter 9.

This collection by Dover Thrift Editions brings stories that reflect the nature of Russia herself.   War, winter, and of course bears take center stage in this collection of nine stories.  These are lesser known writings, in fact, “The Forged Coupon” is the only one I read before.  Although holding the rank of count, Tolstoy captures the not only the nobility but also the peasant class in his writing.  A serf in his stories is as important as a nobleman. This gives the reader a feeling of what it was like to be part of Imperial Russia’s 99%.  Tolstoy had an empathy that reaches deep into common Russian Culture.

In this collection “Alyosha the Pot” shows the life of a majority of Russians.  This is my favorite story in the collection.  It is very different the others because it deals with domestic issues of a common man.  Alyosha’s life is controlled for him. His every move seems to serve the interest of others.  His one wish for himself is lost in the service of others.  He becomes happy with his life much likes Camus’ Sisyphus embracing the absurd.  Where many would see defeat, Alyosha seems to feel a victory.

An excellent collection of Russian Short stories.  They capture the spirit if not the reality of life in Czarist Russia.  Tolstoy’s writing (and the translation) presents clear and flowing stories with easy to identify characters and storylines.  His writing remains timeless and fable-like easily holding the reader’s attention.  A great collection of stories to read over a cup of coffee and being Dover Thrift Edition it won’t set the reader back more than a cup of coffee at the neighborhood coffee shop.

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Book Review — American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee is the history of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone.  Blakeslee is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly. His first book, Tulia, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Texas Institute of Letters non-fiction prize, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2005. The Washington Post called it one of the most important books about wrongful convictions ever written.

The America used to be home to half a million of wolves.  Eradication programs were so successful that by 1960 there was only a handful left in Northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.  Removing the wolves, originally, seemed to be a way to protect the herbivore populations.  People came to the park to see the elk and surrounding areas counted on elk to supplement their meat intake and an economy grew around lodges and supporting businesses that relied on elk hunters from outside the areas.   Ranches, too, had pushed for the eradication wolves to protect their cattle.  Yellowstone, however, was having a problem.  Overpopulation of elk stripped vegetation forcing out other species.

The wolves were brought in from Canada and corralled in the park to help build a sense of home and territory.  They took to their new home, reproduced, and formed packs. The wolf population spiked and the elk population dropped; soon a natural equilibrium was established.  Rick McIntyre was the park ranger who took to the wolf program.  He went on to watch and compile data on all the packs and some of the individual wolves.  To say he was dedicated is an understatement; he reported every single day over a ten year period. Much of what is known about the wolves in Yellowstone is because of McIntyre.

Wolf O-Six is the star of the book.  She is an alpha female and part of the third generation born at Yellowstone.  Her name O-Six was an identifier of the year of her birth 2006.  She became a favorite of wolf watchers and also became a social media favorite.  Perhaps half the book is dedicated to her and her interactions in with other wolves.  The repopulating wolves changed the park.  The elk population stabilized and other species returned.  Beavers returned and other native species worked their way back in and others grew smaller once the natural balance returned.

The other half of the book concerns politics, ranchers, and local hunting businesses.  Wolves are seen as a threat to ranchers and their herds although wolves played a very minor role in the loss of any livestock —.02% of cattle loss.  Local hunting businesses did suffer since shooting elk required some effort.  It was no longer as easy as picking one out of a catalog.  The politics ranged from a local level to national level and q wolf hunting rider even made its way into a national budget.  Wolves were seen as the enemy in areas surrounding the park.  The few and impact were irrational and not based on facts.  Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming worked to legalize wolf hunting to ease fears of the locals and it became a long battle between states and the federal government.

Blakeslee writes an interesting story that is hard to put down.  It is written in narrative fiction style but it does come with a fairly detailed bibliography and broken down by chapters.  The writing appears to be factual and based on first-person experiences and observations.  The author does not insert his opinions as facts in the book.  A fast-moving piece of nonfiction that reads like a novel. Very well done.

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Poetry Review — Sea of Strangers

Sea of Strangers by Lang Leav is the poet’s fourth publish collection.  Leav is an international bestselling author and social media sensation. She is the winner of a Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and coveted Churchill Fellowship.

This my second review of one of Leav’s books.  I was introduced to her work by another review that of her partner, Michael Faudet.  Both write short poems and pieces of prose which is a growing trend in the reading of younger adults and hip kids today.  One doesn’t have to look too hard to find the writing of Leav, Faudet, r.h. Sin, Samantha King, and many others who write in this style.

I do like the writing better in this collection than her previous work.  Although the writing and poems are short and in simple terms, there seems to be more body to this collection.  It is not classical poetry or even modern poetry of say, Ginsberg, O’Hara, or Billy Collins.  A more cynical person would see it as the younger generations need for bite-size messages with a single and simple message.  It is, however, the minimalist version of poetry.  Where poets in the past used language to paint a picture of emotion, Leav uses as few words as possible to present a simple but heartfelt thought.  Some of it is very good and some of it presents an oversimplified picture with that comfortable rhythm of a nursery rhyme:

For All Time

You talk to me in riddles,
   I will answer you in rhyme
   I loved you for a little —
   I will love you for all time.

The book is printed on every other page so when open the reader will be able to concentrate only one the one short thought at a time and gives the book some heft.  I will admit that it is nice to focus on a few words that can be absorbed in almost a glance and then have the blank space to pause and absorb what I have just read.  There is no sense of urgency to the next page.  The reader will linger thinking about what was just read.

Although I prefer the deeper thoughts of understanding and appreciating older poetry,  Leav and others are creating a convenience type poetry that is popular with the younger crowd who would rather have the kernel of literature and ponder it than discover it themselves.  However, if it helps popularize poetry, it can’t be all bad.

Available January 9, 2018

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Book Review — The Rainbow

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence is perhaps one of his finest works.  Lawrence was born in 1885 the fourth son of a coal miner.  He was a sickly child and graduated teacher’s training in Nottingham.  His writing created controversy and lead to some of his books and stories being banned.  Lawrence’s most popular themes were the sexual and physiological life and the implications of class difference.

The Rainbow, published in 1915, covers the life of the Brangwen family from the 1840s through 1905.  The opening chapters set the theme.  The Brangwen farm was in a very rural setting and the building facing back into the land.  The main house looks out on the road.   It is a separation of the world inward looking and outward looking.  Industrialization of England brings change to the rather isolated family.  First, a canal is built across the farmland and although the family is compensated for the intrusion it divides the farm.  Next comes the railway not only crossing the farm but also bringing the noise smoke and whistles of a modern world to their simple life.  Tom the youngest son also discovers sex, with a pub prostitute, which defines a different role in his mind for women outside of mothers and sisters and later women he would meet.  He will eventually marry a widowed Polish refugee, Lydia.

The second section of the book deals with Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage and Will, the son of one of Tom’s brothers.  The happy marriage turns to one based on sex and fertility.  The oldest daughter, Ursula, is the main character in the third and final part of the book. Ursula provides the most famous part of the novel not only her life and lovers but also those who she meets.  Society still strict rules create a culture that manufactures appearances to hide desires.  Social restrictions, morality, industrialization, and colonialism all play a role in the book although it is primarily known for its sexual themes.  The book was prosecuted for obscenity in 1915 and was unavailable in England for eleven years.

This Dover edition contains only a brief note of the author and of the story.  For a classic book, however, little is needed in an introduction.  Lawrence, although a modernist, writes in a clear way.  The setting descriptions may be filled with small details and the characters filled with complex thoughts but the reading is easy to understand and the themes are nearly impossible to mix.  The Dover editions, as always, bring quality works and quality printing at a very fair cost.

 

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