Archive for the 'Books of Interest' Category

review: Truth in Our Times

Review: Truth in Our Times

  It must be must be quite interesting to be the New York Times’ lawyer in this age of constant whining about “fake news” and daily threats of litigation whenever some inconvenient truth is published . And which litigious threats are routinely whacked down by various courts around the country. “Truth in Our Times” was written by David E. McCraw, Deputy General Counsel of the New York Times, a newspaper that has somewhat routinely criticized the current administration of Donald Trump and thus earned itself routine and sundry threats. The first thing I learned reading the book is that Mr. McCraw is indeed a very busy guy as the Times seems to be sued by someone every other day.

The question McCraw posits is, what is the responsibility of news organizations local, national, and international to truthfully keep the public informed? To be sure news organizations are slanted every which way and you can choose for yourself which version(s) you prefer. We must always keep in mind a news outlet regardless of slant should present the truth and responsibly distinguish facts from opinions. Opinion must always be presented as such and clearly labeled. Of course in the world at large it isn’t always.

My own bias: I have been reading the New York Times since I began learning to read. My father bought the Times every Sunday to skim the news and retire with the crossword puzzle which, in his estimation, was the only such puzzle worth his efforts. I managed to stay with the newspaper through my college library, and when I was in the Air Force I read the Sunday edition paid for in advance, which arrived by Greyhound in Salina, Kansas, where I was stationed. Everywhere I have lived, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, to Kansas, California, and New Mexico, I have arranged to get my Sunday Times. So, yes, you could say that I have a bias towards the Times. No matter what you think about the Times or another newspaper, we all have our biases for whatever source of news we favor. That’s a given. I don’t always agree with the opinions expressed in the Times but I trust the reporting. McCraw’s book gives us an important insight into the Times’ commitment to telling the truth especially today in the face of reflexive threats and public name-calling that rarely rises above a grade school playground level. 

Currently the running feud against the Times exercised by the litigious Donald Trump has been keeping the author busy, particularly with respect to the Mueller Report. Regardless of how you are biased towards the Mueller investigation into the shenanigans of the past national election, everyone should be concerned with the revealed facts derived from the discovery process. We are told by aggrieved parties that there are “alternative” facts. There are no such things as “alternative” facts. Facts are findings indisputably the case. An “alternative fact” is not, in fact, a fact but a perverted truism that is useful in distracting attention away from the “actual” fact. Only facts are facts, and that fact is the end of the story. McCraw carefully illustrates the routine diligence and care taken by Times reporters and editors to get the facts straight.

Of course facts can be presented in a biased manner. Lawyers make their careers successfully presenting “facts” in a manner biased towards a favorable outcome for their clients. To them facts become malleable arrangements of words carefully crafted to emphasize or obfuscate truth to suit their purposes. You might say lawyering can be a very creative activity. One would have to be utterly naive to believe otherwise. An example based on personal experience: “Yes, we concede he was hit in the head with the falling object, but he wouldn’t have been hit in the head had he not been standing there.” Of course there is no rational reason to contend he shouldn’t have been standing there except for the purpose of obfuscation. 

 McCraw’s job is to defend not just the Times’ responsibility to present the truth regardless of who likes it and, at the same time, anyone and everyone committed to truth-telling. The New York Times has a long and distinguished history of presenting the truth and the facts that support those truths. McCraw describes in detail the careful process of vetting facts. Threats of jail, financial ruin, and who knows what else – a plague of locusts perhaps – are the weapons used by those whose interests are not well served by truth. All of this keeps the Times’ legal staff busy and their work interesting. Because truth in these times has become a precious commodity I urge you to take the time to read Mr. McCraw’s book, to understand the difficulties of telling the truth and, above all, the absolute necessity and responsibility for all of us to be truthfully informed. Actual facts do not equate with alternate facts any more than honest and responsibly reported news equates with “fake” news. Facts do not “belong” to anyone – they live on their own.

It Can’t Happen Here

Book Review – “It Can’t Happen Here” – Sinclair Lewis

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. 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. The story accords both with 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. Maintaining the requisite plots and sub-plots requires a great deal of coercion and effort.

Lewis describes the pathology that infects both sides of the current Democrat/Republican equation as well as other organizations 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 that is crucial to their success.

As the antagonist, Berzelius Windrip, climbs his way to absolute power the protagonist, Doremus   Jessup, whittles his life down to as low a profile as he can manage to avoid attention. Windrip, an ambition driven politician, eventually becomes the “President” surrounded by Yes Men and a vigilante posse, the CORPOs, who kill or jail anyone who opposes his and their rule. Jessup, a small town newspaper editor eventually loses his paper and thus his soapbox. Life in the small Vermont town in which most of the action takes place is slowly but surely reduced to imprisonment or sniveling obeisance. Dissenters are jailed or outright murdered by the newly ascendant former underclass CORPOs. Eventually the tide envelops Jessup — he is arrested and finds himself trying to escape into Canada.

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

  1. 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

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 as I vividly recall the turmoil of 1968 and the populist candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. As you read this valuable prescient book 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.

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: <>. 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


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.

Spying on Democracy – reviewed

Spying on Democracy Heidi Boghosian City Lights Books – 2013 I haven’t reviewed any books for quite a while. This one, however, compels me to recommend it to anyone who is concerned about or isn’t aware of our government’s prolific domestic spying and its consequences. In the name of keeping us safe from terrorists the NSA, FBI, CIA, and the entire host of organizations, governmental and private, from the municipal to the national level are destroying the meaning and value of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. In short, in their minds they must destroy our open democratic society in order to “save” us. Tragically, the question has now become, who is going to save us from them? The New York City Police Department  gets special attention from the author for their despicable treatment of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. The NYPD created situations that forced protesters into circumstances for which they would then be arrested. That’s called entrapment. Not to be forgotten either is the $4.6 million “donation” to the NYPD by Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, conveniently made during the Occupy protests making sure his interests were protected. The transaction made clear the NYP’s priorities and loyalties. The combination of class warfare and militarized police suppression of lawful protest across the US is a clear indication of the direction in which we are being steered and by whom. As to the global scope of surveillance read today’s (10/25/13) headlines exposing the US for tapping the phones of the heads of state of our allies; Brazil, France, and Germany among them. Our government is monitoring the phone calls of 35 world leaders. It isn’t just us Americans who are being surveilled  it’s also people who are supposed to be our allies. As detailed by Ms Boghosian, it isn’t just the government gathering and storing information about us either. Each and every purchase you make using a credit card in a store or on the internet is noted, aggregated, and sold. The information gathered is sold to corporations wishing to peddle their wares to you and, of course, the data is shared with the government. Spying of Democracy is a scary book. It details and explains how every aspect of your life is being constantly examined regardless of any acts on your part that would indicate you have terroristic tendencies or affiliations. Your phone calls, your credit card transactions, the books you buy, your waist size, your friends — all of this data and metadata is under a microscope and stored away for future use. The heads of government spy operations lie about these activities even when called before congress and testifying under oath. Heidi Boghosian is a brave and patriotic individual in the same manner as Edward Snowden. If the efforts of these patriots go unheeded we are in for a sorry ride to the end of freedom of speech and expression. Buy the book. Inform yourself. And remember, everyone is always watching you.

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