Category Archives: Book Review – Nonfiction

the decline and fall of the U.S. empire

Okay, it is not falling quite yet, but The Intercept has a review of two books that make a persuasive case we are witnessing its decline.

Wright sees the system under threat from a combination of newly emerging powers and recent American missteps. McCoy, for his part, sees the unraveling of the U.S. empire as analogous to the series of events that led to the decline of the British and French empires before it. The first step is the loss of support from local elites in territories under imperial influence, a process that McCoy says is clearly underway for the U.S. in many critical regions of the world. In recent years, America has seen its ties strained with military partners such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, while major U.S. allies like Germany and South Korea have increasingly come to question America’s capacity to continue leading the imperial system that it created.

It is the Arab Spring uprisings against mostly pro-U.S. dictators, however, that McCoy says marked the slow beginning of the end of American imperium. While the revolts are widely judged to have failed in bringing about liberal democracy, they did succeed in unseating longtime American allies in Tunisia and Egypt, while straining U.S. ties with Gulf Arab countries and even Iraq. As McCoy writes, “All modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control.” He adds, “For most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and assert their own agendas was also the moment when you knew that imperial collapse was in the cards.” The British empire famously became a “self-liquidating concern” when local elites across the empire began demanding self-rule, as did France’s far-flung rule when it was forced to wage a grinding war of attrition to keep control over Algeria. The Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed, which have reduced U.S. influence while exhausting its resources to deal with terrorism and migration, “may well contribute, in the fullness of time, to the eclipse of American global power…”

Partly as a consequence of so many self-inflicted losses, China, Russia, and Iran have all mounted growing challenges to American hegemony in recent years, contesting the tenets of the U.S.-enforced order in the South China Sea, eastern Europe and the Middle East, respectively. Russia has successfully annexed territory and asserted its influence along its periphery, in places like Ukraine, while China has moved ahead with plans to put the economically-vital South China Sea region under its control. Instead of a world in which a hegemonic U.S. enforces the political and economic rules of engagement in these regions, its now possible to see a future in which the world is carved up into a “spheres of influence” system that gives regional powers wide latitude to set the agenda in their immediate neighborhood.

Love the republic, hate the empire. Or at least let the empire go and maybe breathe a sigh of relief to let some of the self-imposed responsibility go with it. But if we are going to do that, we need to support and strengthen international institutions that promote peace, trade, and human rights. Instead we seem to be abandoning those institutions at the same time we are abdicating responsibility.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is an Australian scientist and author who wrote a popular 2007 book on global warming called The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth. He has a new book out called Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World, which appears to be about, among other things, growing kelp on a massive scale to absorb carbon.

By the way, I don’t sell anything on this site. I’m not against selling things necessarily, but when I signed up as an Amazon affiliate nobody ever bought anything. So I’m just embedding the book covers below for convenience and because I kind of like book cover art.

why buddhism is true

I learned about Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment through a Fresh Air podcast (embedded below). The interesting thesis is that mindfulness meditation is the antidote for a lot of what is wrong with the human condition, such as always wanting more than we have, and then not being happy when we get it. You argue that a modern meditation practice could achieve these goals without the religious angle, but the author’s thesis is that the Buddhists correctly diagnosed the human condition thousands of years ago (however old Buddhism is, I was a little too lazy to look it up).

The only thing that makes me wary of Buddhism, but this applies to almost all religions, is that a social elite can use it to encourage people to accept things the way they are rather than envision a better future and be willing to fight for it. Then again, maybe part of the human condition is a fundamental conflict between being happy in the moment and being unsatisfied with the way things are and willing to fight for a better future. Perhaps the middle ground is to take some time each day to reflect on all the things that are good about the moment we find ourselves in. I personally like to also take a little time to nurture that deep down flame of anger about the way certain things are, because it motivates me to want to change them. If everyone just exists peacefully in the moment all the time, nothing will ever change.

Richard Florida: The New Urban Crisis

Richard Florida has a new(ish) book out called The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It. You can also get the general idea from this article he wrote in City Lab. He offers five policy prescriptions, which I summarize below.

  • land value tax – Tax the value of land rather than the value of the developed property on it, so that land owners have a disincentive to sit on property and an incentive to develop it to the most economically valuable use a particular neighborhood will support. (My take – I like this idea. I wouldn’t get rid of zoning and building codes, but these can focus on the “look and feel” of the neighborhood rather than restricting height or density, requiring or prohibiting a certain amount of parking, etc. There also needs to be a strategy to preserve a certain amount of public open space under a system like this, whether it is public or held by some sort of land trust.)
  • invest heavily in public transportation – This decreases commute times, allowing people to live in more affordable locations and work in higher wage ones. (My take: makes sense, although we should rethink whether the same old 20th or even 19th-century ideas of public transportation and transportation agencies are going to serve us well in the 21st. I think we need flexible routes, flexible vehicles, and flexible modes that can adapt to changes in the economy, landscape and technology as they come.)
  • end the mortgage interest deduction so single-family homes are not unfairly subsidized relative to multi-family rental housing. (My take: makes perfect economic sense, but this would need to be phased in over a long period of time to not be a slap in the face to today’s middle class and working class homeowners who have made their decisions under the current system.)
  • Set minimum wage at 50% of median wage on a city-by-city basis – his argument is that this is essentially how the high-wage manufacturing jobs of the U.S. postwar period were created. He brings up Henry Ford and the idea that even if prices go up somewhat, a newly broadened middle class is able to afford them. (My take – I’ve always been a little skeptical of minimum wage as a policy prescription because it only redivides the pie rather than growing the pie, at least in the short term.)
  • Better fund public education, including early childhood development programs. What is there really left to say about this, except it is shameful we haven’t been doing it all along?
  • Guaranteed minimum income, or negative income tax. The idea is to replace the hodgepodge of housing, food and other assistance programs we have now with cash outlays to the poor, which they can then decide how to spend on market price goods. (My take – it could be done in a revenue neutral way, and should appeal to rational, logical parties of all political stripes. Of course, politics and human nature are not particularly rational or logical, especially lately.)

Naomi Klein

In The Intercept, Naomi Klein warns that the Trump administration could be waiting for a crisis to advance the worst of its agenda, including extreme income redistribution (from the poor to corporations and the rich, of course).

Large-scale shocks are frequently harnessed to ram through despised pro-corporate and anti-democratic policies that would never have been feasible in normal times. It’s a phenomenon I have previously called the “Shock Doctrine,” and we have seen it happen again and again over the decades, from Chile in the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s coup to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

And we have seen it happen recently, well before Trump, in U.S. cities including Detroit and Flint, where looming municipal bankruptcy became the pretext for dissolving local democracy and appointing “emergency managers” who waged war on public services and public education. It is unfolding right now in Puerto Rico, where the ongoing debt crisis has been used to install the unaccountable “Financial Oversight and Management Board,” an enforcement mechanism for harsh austerity measures, including cuts to pensions and waves of school closures. This tactic is being deployed in Brazil, where the highly questionable impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was followed by the installation of an unelected, zealously pro-business regime that has frozen public spending for the next 20 years, imposed punishing austerity, and begun selling off airports, power stations, and other public assets in a frenzy of privatization.

As Milton Friedman wrote long ago, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Survivalists stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; these guys stockpile spectacularly anti-democratic ideas.

Her list of potential shocks includes terror shock, war shock, economic shocks, and weather shocks. I would put any amount of money on at least one of these happening in the next four years.

Naomi Klein has a new book coming out called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

The Allure of Battle

This is a new book arguing that winning battles is not enough to win a war. From Amazon:

History has tended to measure war’s winners and losers in terms of its major engagements, battles in which the result was so clear-cut that they could be considered “decisive.” Cannae, Konigsberg, Austerlitz, Midway, Agincourt-all resonate in the literature of war and in our imaginations as tide-turning. But these legendary battles may or may not have determined the final outcome of the wars in which they were fought. Nor has the “genius” of the so-called Great Captains – from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great and Napoleon – play a major role. Wars are decided in other ways.

Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle systematically and engrossingly examines the great battles, tracing what he calls “short-war thinking,” the hope that victory might be swift and wars brief. As he proves persuasively, however, such has almost never been the case. Even the major engagements have mainly contributed to victory or defeat by accelerating the erosion of the other side’s defences. Massive conflicts, the so-called “people’s wars,” beginning with Napoleon and continuing until 1945, have consisted of and been determined by prolonged stalemate and attrition, industrial wars in which the determining factor has been not military but matériel.

Nolan’s masterful book places battles squarely and mercilessly within the context of the wider conflict in which they took place. In the process it help corrects a distorted view of battle’s role in war, replacing popular images of the “battles of annihilation” with somber appreciation of the commitments and human sacrifices made throughout centuries of war particularly among the Great Powers. Accessible, provocative, exhaustive, and illuminating, The Allure of Battle will spark fresh debate about the history and conduct of warfare.

The Plot to Kill King

William Pepper, a lawyer who has investigated the King and RFK assassinations in detail, has a new(ish) book called The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper represented the King family in a civil suit. From Wikipedia:

Following Ray’s death, Pepper represented the King family in a wrongful deathlawsuit, “King family vs. Loyd Jowers and other unknown co-conspirators”. During a trial that lasted four weeks, Pepper produced over seventy witnesses. Jowers, testifying by deposition, stated that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat and not involved in the assassination. Jowers testified that Memphis police officer Earl Clark fired the fatal shots. On December 8, 1999, the Memphis jury found Jowers responsible, and also found that the assassination plot included “governmental agencies.” The jury took less than an hour to find in favor of the King family for the requested sum of $100.

Perhaps the most disturbing claim in Pepper’s book is this (from an interview he gave to globalresearch.ca):

The hospital story was told to Pepper by a man named Johnton Shelby, whose mother, Lula Mae Shelby, had been a surgical aide at St. Joseph’s that night. Shelby told Pepper the story of how his mother came home the morning after the shooting (she hadn’t been allowed to go home the night before) and gathered the family together. He remembers her saying to them, “I can’t believe they took his life.”

She described chief of surgery Dr. Breen Bland entering the emergency room with two men in suits. Seeing doctors working on King, Bland commanded, “Stop working on the nigger and let him die! Now, all of you get out of here, right now. Everybody get out.”

Johnton Shelby says his mother described hearing the sound of the three men sucking up saliva into their mouths and then spitting. Lula Mae described to her family that she looked over her shoulder as she was leaving the room and saw that the breathing tube had been removed from King and that Bland was holding a pillow over his head. (The book contains the entire deposition given by Johnton Shelby to Pepper, so readers can judge for themselves whether they think Shelby is credible – as Pepper believes he is.)

Amsterdam

Here is a book for children as young as 4 about the bicycling revolution in Amsterdam. Here’s the Amazon description:

Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World

Cycling rules the road in Amsterdam today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970’s, Amsterdam was so crowded with vehicles that bicyclists could hardly move, but moms and kids relied on their bicycles to get around the city. PEDAL POWER is the story of the people who led protests against the unsafe streets and took over a vehicles-only tunnel on their bikes, showing what a little pedal power could do! Author and illustrator Allan Drummond returns with the story of the people that paved the way for safe biking around the world.

I love Amsterdam, It’s not just the idea of bicycling as a major form of transportation, it’s the whole package of getting around by bicycle and on foot, the old world layout, and the active public places and street scenes it leads to. It’s a winning formula that cities around the world could aspire to, and yet almost none are.

sovereignty

Here is a long, long post from Lawfare covering three books about the state of national sovereignty.

In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.

The books—Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle—could be shelved in the subgenre of international relations literature dedicated to predictions of imminent crisis.

Like I said, it’s long and it covers each of the three books. I’m going to skip to a paragraph on climate change at the end.

Even with stable but rights-abusing regimes in power, undergoverned spaces are likely to grow. This will be exacerbated by increased competition for scarce resources as climate change and demographic shifts strain water and food sources; there is a compelling argument that this already contributed to the conditions for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Even where conflict does not occur, people will be displaced by climate change. Rising sea levels are already creating “climate refugees” emigrating from the Marshall Islands. Indeed, the flows of refugees and migrants pushed out of their homes by climate change and conflict could pose as great a challenge to sovereignty as Responsibility to Protect and U.S. counterterrorism policy. For all its merits, saving sovereignty as it has been classically understood will not turn back the clock on the diffusion of power that has weakened central governments over the past half-century, it will not end the civil wars that have expanded political vacuums, and it will not halt the creeping effects of climate change.

I probably have a somewhat naive and simplistic view of the world, but a worled baded on simple and easy-to-understand principles might be a more stable world than the one we find ourselves in now. Between the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and at least the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia (1999), it seemed like we had an international consensus that borders were going to be important and enforced by the international community, led by the UN security council. US- but not UN-led wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and the various drone strikes around the world seem to have seriously eroded that. Now Russia has crossed the borders of Georgia and Ukraine, and China is challenging Japan and other Asian nations in ares they have clearly claimed for awhile. The U.S. can act outraged but it is kind of hard to take the moral high ground.

So in my simple world, the UN Security Council would be reformed so that it represents a true consensus among the great powers, and military action violating borders would be undertaken only to punish an aggressor who has already violated a border, and only when all the great powers (minus any that is the aggressor in question). In my simplistic world, this solves the problem of balance of power because there are no alliances between great powers, only an alliance of all the great powers against whatever one has chosen to be out of line. And even the U.S. with our current economic and military might (which could arguably be at a peak or even on the wane) should think twice before standing up to the entire rest of the world.

Yes, this does leave the question of how to deal with severe human rights violations within borders. I don’t claim to have all the answers on that, but I just think it has been far too easy for great powers to claim they are attacking their neighbors for so-called “humanitarian” reasons. I would question whether military violence has ever caused less human suffering than it avoided. Certainly not in the short term.

The Argument Culture

In 1998, Deborah Tannen wrote a book called The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Basically what it describes is a culture where the objective of every discussion is to win, not to seek consensus or at least come to understand the reasons for other people’s positions.

Our society has become overwhelmingly adversarial, with consequences not only in our ability to solve problems but also in our personal relationships.  The war on drugs, the battle of the sexes, politicians’ turf battles—war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking, urging us to approach anything we need to accomplish as a fight between two opposing sides.

Tannen traces this tendency to the history of our educational system, and shows its roots among boys at play.  Exploring how other cultures approach opposition, and discussing the influence of electronic communication in ratcheting up the level of aggression, Tannen shows how we can move toward more constructive dialogue in our public as well our private lives.  This book will change forever how you see forces that powerfully shape our lives, and suggests new ways of reaching our goals.