Archive for November, 2008

Supercapitalism by Robert Reich

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

Because economics is my second favorite subject, after English, I read many articles and books written by economists. One of the best I have read lately is the work of the highly respected Robert Reich,a professor at Brandeis University and President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. In his book, Supercapitalism, which came out shortly ahead of the current economic crisis, Reich explains some of the reasons for the current meltdown. The subtitle of the book, “The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life” says much about its content.

According to Reich, the aftermath of WWII led to a new American middle class with new opportunities and new expectations. Thanks to the GI Bill and later to generous grant programs, Americans attended college in unprecedented numbers, and as result of this educated workforce, possibilities became boundless. Families watched as their younger members rose to positions once unimagined, and with these advances their achievement goals rose as well. Although their grandparents and parents had lived through a Depression and were once happy to survive, this new generation had more lofty aspirations. The security of money in the bank became a desire to make that money grow, and eventually that desire became almost obsessive.

The stock market, once the preserve of the rich, became the playing field for anyone with a few dollars to invest and a willingness to gamble. But, as the markets opened up to new investers, the rules began to change. Profits became so all-important to shareholders in the new economy, that it ceased to matter how those profits were achieved. Workers, once a vital part of industry, were often seen as impediments to profits, and when the demands of these workers to share in the prosperity became too cumbersome, their jobs were sent to places where there were no such demands. The social compact that once linked labor and management was broken.

Need and greed became virtually indistinguishable, as companies cut corners to reduce costs and jobs were eliminated. Manufacturing, once the centerpiece of the American economy, became almost non-existent, and service jobs took their place. The most easily available jobs were those as clerks in discount department or dollar stores. Mom and Pop shops gave way to vast megastores where cashiers rang up sales and accepted money (or more likely credit cards). The personal service offered by staff who at one time were also owners was replaced by indifference and ignorance of the merchandise.

Whereas their grandparents were willing to do without or at least wait until they could pay for what they needed, young people had an entitlement mentality that gave them license to have what they wanted when they wanted it. Because it could be bought today and paid for tomorrow, there was no reason to miss out on the latest and greatest.

Reich’s book provides some insight into the milieu that made it possible for corporations to overlook their mission to participate in a democratic society and to bring about the result of actions (or inaction) that created our present situation. Individuals are not let off the hook and many readers may be uncomfortable with the premise that we are partially at fault for the problems that face us.

I heartily recommend this book to openminded readers willing to invest not money but time and objective thought to a work that might bring insight if not necessarily entertainment.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Why we need a green revolution-and how it can renew America

Thomas Friedman of The World is Flat fame acknowledges the contributions of many.  The book describes today’s problems and identifies the need to empower people to live locally and act globally to create change. 

K.R. Sridhar, the Indian-born cofounder and CEO of Bloom Energy sums it up this way in the text, “For the first time in the history of the world we have the opportunity to achieve a balance between localization and globalization at scale.  And when you can get localization and globalization into balance, what you end up with is humanization – an age of humanization.  You can realize your full human potential.  But that can only happen if IT and ET, information technology and energy technology, flat and green, are working together, because on then can everyone and everything be both distributed and connected.”  If we can get that, said Sridhar, “the world will have a new operating system.”

The author shares stories of individuals who are poised to change the status quo.  He claims the title of “sober optimist” for himself.  “If you are not sober about the scale of the challenge, then you are not paying attention.  But if you are not an optimist, you have no change of generating the kind of mass movement needed to achieve the needed scale.”

My favorite story is nested in a eulogy concluding the book.  “A CEO had to babysit for his young daughter.  He was trying to read the paper but was totally frustrated by the constant interruptions.  When he came across a full page of the NASA photo of the Earth from space, he got a brilliant idea.  He ripped it up into small pieces and told his child to try to put it back together.  He then settled in for what he expected to be a good half-hour of peace and quiet.  But only a few minutes had gone by before the child appeared at his side with a big grin on her face.  “You’ve finished already?” he asked.  “Yep,” she replied.  “So how did you do it?”  “Well, I saw there was a picture of a person on the other side, so when I put the person together, the Earth got put together too…”

“The future is our choice, not our fate.  We have exactly enough time-starting now,” declares the author.  

I enjoyed reading Thomas Friedman’s overview of our troubled time.  I cannot say the book held my attention continually.  The World is Flat provided fresher insights into global shifts from my vantage point.  My lack of exuberance may be symptomatic of the November 2009 malady, election platform overload.  The work does not suggest easy solutions to today’s problems. 

The Acknowledgement Index highlights contributions of many luminaries and researchers.  I commend Tom Friedman on the breadth of his research and question the short and somewhat vague analysis of solutions. 

Today’s global citizens understand the world is hot, flat and crowded.  The question is “what do we do about it?” 

Much thanks to Rita, WDFPL friend and avid library user, for sharing her signed copy.   The book talk she attended must have been hot and crowded given the author’s popularity.

Check out Mr. Friedman in action:

Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult

Friday, November 14th, 2008

The dictionary defines the word “plain” as “clearly understood; unmistakable; straightforward; candid,” and so a novel with the title Plain Truth would lead readers to expect a straightforward, candid, easily understood story. But, in her novel of that name, the adjective in Jodi Picoult’s title refers to the description of a body of people, the Amish, who live in the 21st century while choosing not to participate in many of the trappings of modernism. Without the advanced technology available to other farmers, they utilize their own labor to produce remarkable crops, and they rely on their families and their neighbors to help them through whatever travails and tragedies they encounter along lif’e's journey. They have a stong, unbending faith in their God and know that He will not send more burdens than they can endure.

Even the “plain truth” is never so plain that it is unmistakable, and all of us have seen instances wherein what clearly appears to be so is not so at all. The plot of Plain Truth is one which lawyers can argue is a simpe case of neonaticide, or killing of a newborn child. In recent years, many such cases have made headlines and ultimately the legal results have been based on intent to kill more than on amy other factor. In this book, the case of a teenager who gives birth to a child in her father’s barn, cuts the umbilical cord and then returns to her own bed, later to discover that a dead baby is found lying under a pile of blankets, seems to be a clear-cut case of murder.

The attorney who agrees to argue fo the defense is a distant relative of the young girl and is herself undergoing a crisis of identity. She accepts the case reluctantly and also accepts the responsibility of monitoring her client’s activities as a condition of keeping her out of jail while the case proceeds. This means that she must move into the farm for an undetermined period, leaving behind all the trappings of civilization as she knows it: no telephone, no electricity and thus no computer, FAX or even air conditioning during the hot summer months. She feels that she is the one who has drawn a sentence.

As the plot unfolds, the reader becomes familiar with the ways of the Plain People and cannot help but admire their adherence to a moral code far too rigid for most of us to observe. Their fierce loyalty to one another and the depth of their willingness to forgive even the unforgiveable is astounding to those outside their circle.
What makes the book a page-turner is its ability to convince the reader that he or she has solved the mystery of what happened in the barn, only to make the plain truth less plain in the following chapter. Just as there are many truths even when there are no lies, it becomes clear that nothing is clear. The reader hurries along from chapter to chapter, discovering new information at every turn. Not until the penultimate page does the author allow the reader to look into the heart of the mystery and learn what has previously remained hidden. Even then, the “plain truth” is clouded by individual perceptions of right vs wrong.

I recommend this book to a reader looking for a mystery unlike the ordinary “whodunit” in which one murder leads to another and corpses clutter the landscape. This one has a spiritual aspect seldom found in books under the mystery genre. Check it out!

Ann Dow